Category Archives: Theatre

Actor’s Theatre Makes “American Idiot” an Immersive Face-Melting Experience

Review: American Idiot

By Perry Tannenbaum

Young love and the ills of the world are so frequently the focus of rock musicals that we sometimes feel little need to decipher the words that jangle together with the actions and emotions we’re seeing onstage. This week is a particularly rockin’ and raucous week in Charlotte, with the 20-year revival tour of Rent and the new Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of American Idiot opening on consecutive nights.

The original premiere of the Jonathan Larson musical and the 2004 Green Day album were separated by a mere eight years. While the young adult angst lived on, the world had completely changed: the old preoccupations with AIDS and AZT were supplanted by post-9/11 disillusionment and a scattershot scorn for suburbia, corporate America, the war-mongering George W, and the powerlessness of teens to change any of it.

Actor’s Theatre certainly knows powerlessness. Scheduled to open their new location on Freedom Drive last October, they had to be content to offer tours of their production-ready facility. Governmental regulations, foot-dragging and red tape have pushed back the opening to a still undetermined date in 2018. For a second consecutive show, Actor’s Theatre is relying on the kindness of Queens University and their Hadley Theatre, a facility they share with Myers Park Traditional School. Once you get past the decorous entrance and the antiseptic hallway, the black box venue actually possesses much of the off-Broadway feel we’ve come to expect from this company.

At the core of this production are a stage director, music director, choreographer, and a couple of lead actors who have figured prominently in past Actor’s Theatre productions at their demolished former home on Stonewall Street. They may be taking their exile from a permanent home personally, now that it’s prolonged to nearly 18 months, with an understandable urge to scream. Producing artistic director Chip Decker didn’t appear to be worried about reining any of them in, especially music director Ryan Stamey and choreographer Tod A. Kubo.

Stamey stands behind a keyboard at the edge of the stage, looking up at a six-piece band perched above the middle of the stage, occasionally leaning into a microphone and joining the vocalists. There’s a cellist embedded in the sextet whom I never heard. Likewise, the tropical strains of steel guitar, so clearly soothing in the background of the Broadway cast album on “Give Me Novacaine,” has been almost completely sandpapered away by Stamey’s heavy-metal approach.

The storyline, not exactly robust on the Grammy Award-winning concept album, has been somewhat bolstered by lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and stage director Michael Mayer in their book. Instead of a single Jesus of Suburbia, the musical has three. We have the original Johnny, who escapes the burbs only to encounter his hipster, heroin-shooting alter ego, St. Jimmy, and the possible love of his life, Whatsername.

At a neighborhood 7-Eleven, Johnny meets two other chums who have been crucified by suburbia – and turned into American Idiots – Will and Tunny. Only one of those two will use the bus tickets Johnny has purchased for the trio’s glorious breakaway. Will’s girlfriend, Heather, shows up and places his hand on her belly, obviating the need of saying to him that she’s pregnant. Apparently, punk rockers aren’t very articulate, for Tunny doesn’t do much of anything in the big city, mostly lying face down on a bed until lured by a US Army commercial to go off and fight in an unspecified foreign war.

With two more self-pitying saviors and two additional girlfriends worked into the story – Tunny eventually finds The Extraordinary Girl – Armstrong added more Green Day music to his score, conveniently taken from 21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up album to American Idiot. Their decibel level tamped down to barely bearable, the band is so face-meltingly loud that you have to admire the singers’ will to prevail. Decker doles out the most expressive and outré action to Johnny and St. Jimmy, keying electrifying performances from Matt Carlson and Jeremy DeCarlos respectively.

From his defiant and rebellious posturing in suburbia, Carlson became pure decadence in the city, simulating casual sex, shooting dope, and reeling around in a stupor as he sang. To contrast with this charismatic dissipation, DeCarlos had to take extreme measures to strike us as Johnny’s inner Beelzebub. There has always been a physical resemblance between DeCarlos and Jimi Hendrix, and I had to suspect that St. Jimmy would be the role to set it loose. Costume designer Carrie Cranford audaciously joined in the conspiracy, supplying a flamboyant jacket that evokes the Hussar military jacket Hendrix sported back in the late ‘60s. There wasn’t a headband or a Mexican bandit’s sombrero in the outfit, but the outrageous hairdo more than compensated, so puffed and straightened that I didn’t notice the thin dangling braids at first.

Coupled with this look were spell-casting gesticulations that went beyond the Wicked Witch of the West and World Wide Wrestling in their shamelessness, and I’ve never heard DeCarlos sing with such ferocity before, though there are also seductive and manic moments for St. Jimmy. Where exactly in this charismatic performance the ministrations of Kubo’s choreography began was difficult for me to divine, but the choreographer should definitely get a large proportion of the credit for making this American Idiot such an immersive, visceral experience. Like Actor’s Theatre general manager Martin Kettling told us in his curtain speech, the ensemble frequently used the platform looming above the stage as a jungle gym, often joining the musicians at the top. Over and over, I saw daring dance moves that must have come after Kubo hopefully asked, “Can you try this?” in rehearsals.

Some of the most arresting action came from the women, differentiating the Charlotte American Idiot from the Broadway edition, where hard rock seemed to be the exclusive playpen of macho sexist louts. Nonye Obichere was particularly stunning as Whatsername, all Johnny could handle and more, singing and dancing with a dominatrix edge. As Heather, Lizzie Medlin was more bitchy and Gothic, upstaging Steven Buchanan, who was mostly confined to the vicinity of a sofa once Will grudgingly chose domesticity as his direction in life.

Grant Zavitkovsky was underpowered, undermiked, and largely unintelligible as Tunny in the early going, but those problems thankfully vanished by the time he enlisted. While the budgetary concessions Decker made in his set design worked well, the technical economies he adopted meant that Tunny’s wartime travails were far less catastrophic. No matter how well Grant Zavitkovskyperformed the role, The Extraordinary Girl couldn’t be nearly as extraordinary in her devotion.

There’s a self-critical bent in Armstrong’s leading men that is totally at odds with the striving, sentimental nobility and martyrdom of the Rent heroes and heroines. Lyrical and melodic takeaways from American Idiot aren’t as vivid or memorable as those you might find in the sassy “Out Tonight” or the anthemic “What You Own” that Larson crafted for his glorified squatters. I didn’t find myself nearly as much on the side of Armstrong’s troubled American Idiots, but I did feel they should be listened to. Even if I hadn’t known how passionately Carlson and DeCarlos felt about this music, I would have heard it in their voices and seen it in their actions.

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Davidson Takes Astonishing Flight on “Neverland” Tour

Review:  Finding Neverland

By Perry Tannenbaum

So wait a second: John Davidson – the Hollywood Squares host and the incurably wholesome crooner on too many variety shows to completely avoid – is far better now as an actor than he ever was as a TV personality or a singer??!? Capable of savagery and raw power? Watching the Charlotte premiere of Finding Neverland at Belk Theater earlier this week turned my long-held convictions upside-down.

Davidson takes on the role of Peter Pan playwright James M. Barrie’s implacable theatre producer, Charles Frohman, becoming the inspiration for Barrie’s most famous villain, Captain James Hook. While Billy Harrington Tighe stars as Barrie alongside Christine Dwyer as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the mother of four adorable boys who help liberate the playwright’s inner child, it’s Davidson who dominates. Since the current Charlotte engagement is the first of a 24-city tour through April 2018, theatergoers across the US from Rhode Island to Arizona should be on the lookout for Davidson’s bravura.

Maybe “dominates” isn’t the right word for what Davidson accomplishes, for he rescues a show that flounders rather pitifully through nearly the entire first act, despite the sometimes strained efforts of Tighe and Dwyer, the hyperactivity of the purportedly inspirational kiddies, and assorted meaningless outbursts of spectacle that end up pointing up what they’re intended to hide – a total absence of imagination, magic, and enchantment. Adding to this strain to entertain, amid a moribund book by James Graham paired with tepid music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, sound designer Jonathan Deans seems to have potted volume levels some 15-20 decibels above those I experienced at the 2015 Broadway production.

Deans’ ministrations, however, prove to support a key strategic aim of director Diane Paulus as we sail into intermission. The final two songs prior to the break, “Hook” and “Stronger,” almost literally explode, undergirded by thunderous volleys of percussion that seem to shake the walls of the theater. Here is where Frohman, after throwing a portentous shadow of a hook onto the upstage wall, transforms into Captain Hook and Scott Pask’s mix of Victorian and Kensington Garden settings suddenly turns dark, swarming with pirates.

It’s a thrusting nautical moment that echoes the thrill of Douglas Sills singing “Into the Fire,” when the foppish Sir Percy Blakeney, exhorting his marauding band of revolutionaries, showed his true heroic self for the first time in The Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s Tighe latching onto Davidson’s lurid coattails to become stronger. But Hook doesn’t materialize out of thin air – or that comical silhouette. He explains that he is actually a part of Barrie that the playwright has kept repressed.

The Davies siblings have liberated Barrie’s inner child, but it’s Hook who unleashes the beast. After intermission, he even prods the unhappily married Barrie to give the widowed Mrs. Davies a kiss.

So it’s almost accurate to say that Davidson co-stars with Tighe as Barrie, for there are times when he’s clearly sharing the role. Yet even when Davidson is aboard with all of Frohman’s orneriness, all is not well. Confronted with Barrie’s script for Peter Pan, the first rehearsal scene that Frohman presides over is fairly lame; and when the conceited, over-refined acting troupe adjourns to a pub, where Barrie and Sylvia encourage them to “Play” more like children, the regression humor falls even flatter. Graham would like us to believe that legitimate actors are familiar with King Lear and not A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and that Barrie’s previous masterwork, The Admirable Crichton, was a clichéd drawing room comedy.

Graham’s book improves slightly when the four boys prepare to entertain their mom and Barrie with Peter Davies’ new play. But if the boys’ “We’re All Made of Stars” nearly rises to that festive backyard occasion, we must endure the lackluster “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” when Barrie and Peter (Connor Jameson Casey on the night I attended) have their most dramatic father-son exchange. With more touching emotional power, the musical ascends from there as Peter Pan premieres and triumphs while Elizabeth expires.

Somehow it doesn’t matter that Dwyer hasn’t given us any indication of Elizabeth’s frailty until moments before she exits to her deathbed. Graham finally mixes some magic into the personal transformations of Barrie and Peter, Daniel Wurtzel sprinkles in some enchanting air sculpture from Fairyland, and a little glint of that fairy dust begins to gleam in Frohman’s child-hating soul.

Maybe when Kelsey Grammer growled as Hook and softened as Frohman in the original Broadway cast, the ending had more emotional power than this. I seriously doubt it. I can only say that the leaden ending I experienced when an understudy took over the role at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre did not begin to compare with the climax that brought a nearly full house to its feet at Belk Theater on opening night. Barlow and Kennedy never seem to even search for Neverland, let alone succeed in finding it, but Davidson certainly does with his astonishing Phoenix-like rebirth.

Candle Burns More Brightly in “Rent” After 20 Years

Review:  Rent

By Perry Tannenbaum

Twenty years – or as Jonathan Larson would have phrased it, 10,519,200 minutes – is a long time to expect a trend-setting, very much of-the-moment musical to retain its currency. Rent actually did quite well, lasting over 12 years and 5,000 performances on Broadway during its singularly funky run. During those first hot box office years, I remember deploying my daughter to the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street in hopes of snagging a couple of rush tickets while I kept my place on a long Times Square TKTS line in case the Rent raid didn’t pan out.

It didn’t. Rent fans were a multitudinous rabid cult, so we went to Plan B for that evening’s discount tickets.

Like AIDS, AZT breaks, answering machine beeps, and young lives structured around demonstrating and protesting, rush tickets to Rent was a rite of passage that slowly faded away. Since Rent premiered in 1996, the 20-year tour presumably began last year – before it seemed like demonstrating and protesting just might be coming back full force.

The current tour at Belk Theater does occasionally look like a period piece. Mark Cohen, our narrator, walks around with a film camera taking movies, and he shows them on a contraption called a projector. Cordless phones haven’t become ubiquitous, settling in an abandoned building hasn’t become an outré idea, a power outage brings city life to a standstill, and young people seem capable of surviving without TV’s and video screens glowing in their faces (by contrast, take a peep at the TV saturation in the current Actor’s Theatre production of American Idiot at Queens University).

What turned me off to the first tours I saw was the rock ‘n’ roll arrogance of the lead players, who seemed to take the adulation of their audiences as a license to strut and preen instead of actually doing their jobs. Ironically, it was the “Farewell Tour” that brought the original Roger and Mark to town, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, and showed me what actors could do with the roles that wannabe rockstars couldn’t. With a bit of commitment from the players, I also saw the gay romance between Tom and Angel come to life as more than a comical sideshow.

But although the drug-addicted, AIDS-afflicted Mimi on that tour could rock an ultra-tight pair of glittery turquoise pants, she didn’t bring enough romantic fire to her “Light My Candle” duet with Pascal to set it ablaze. Even more icy and moribund were slumlord Benny and lawyer/community organizer Joanne. There was plenty of room for improvement.

Under the direction of Evan Ensign, the 20th anniversary edition has become off-limits for self-absorbed posturing and strutting – and nobody is s-o-o-o cool that he or she threatens to freeze before our eyes. The chief heat source is Skyler Volpe as Mimi Marquez, not only scorching her “Out Tonight” showpiece but also igniting the whole evening with her suggestive “Light My Candle” seduction.

With Marcus John restoring life and force to Benny, there’s suddenly a reason why Mimi would forsake Roger for him besides money and a warm place to crash, and with Jasmine Easler as Joanne, we begin to see why she’s even in the show. Kaleb Wells and Sammy Ferber, if not the equals of Pascal and Rapp, play to their castmates and us without ever basking in their own I’m-starring-in-Rent awesomeness.

Aside from the dynamic Volpe, the biggest improvements here are Aaron Harrington as the woebegone Tom Collins and Aaron Alcaraz as the frail and flamboyant Angel, the quirky transvestite who briefly lights up Tom’s life like a meteor. The warmth between them is there almost from the moment they meet. Instead of a flash of comic relief that suddenly turns serious – and sentimental – at the end, the denouement of the Tom-Angel romance can now legitimately substitute for the tragedy that doesn’t happen between Roger and Mimi.

Notwithstanding the candle scene and the electric reprises of “Musetta’s Waltz” on Roger’s guitar, the shadow of Puccini’s La Boheme doesn’t seem to hover over Rent so heavily after 20 years. Nor is it quite as agonizing to hear the jejune repeats of “525,600 minutes” throughout Act 2. We are now more likely to look back and see that the two theatre pieces that best captured “living in America at the end of the millennium” were Angels in America and Rent. Both seem more worthy of their Pulitzers than ever.

 

Family and Romance Tug at an Iowa Housewife in “Madison County”

Review:  The Bridges of Madison County

By Perry Tannenbaum

When the touring production of The Bridges of Madison County came to Knight Theater in the spring of 2016, I can easily imagine CPCC Theatre set designer James Duke watching the rusticated wooden bridge as it descended from the fly loft. “We can do that!” he would be thinking to himself. And nearly 17 months later at Halton Theater, he has done it, in a spare, taciturn design style that works well with the Midwest – in this case, Iowa – ably complemented by Jeff Childs’ lighting design.

One additional inverted V goes a long way to simulating the lonely Johnson homestead where roaming National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid falls in love with Francesca, a stoically transplanted Italian housewife marooned on the prairie after raising a wholesome 4H family. Scenery pieces at ground level aren’t quite as mistakable for the touring version, largely because crew and cast shuffle them in and out of the wings with conspicuously less professional polish.

Once everything is set in place, the sound of the current CPCC Theatre production consistently overachieves. I can also imagine Rebecca Cook-Carter, CPCC Opera Theatre’s artistic director, looking at the touring version of Madison County and saying, “We can do that!!” Look down in the orchestra pit at the Halton and you won’t find brass, woodwinds, and batteries of electric guitars and keyboards. Musicians are overwhelmingly classical string players, and their conductor, Craig Estep, has made valuable contributions to both theatrical and operatic productions at CP in the past.

In adapting the wildly popular bestseller by Robert James Waller, James Robert Brown’s score does occasionally soar toward opera in its ambitions when we listen to his melodies and orchestrations, both of which won Tony Awards. But there’s a very relaxed vibe to the roving photographer that contrasts with Francesca’s operatic frustrations, swooping toward chamber and country music. When the storyline detours toward the nosy neighbors and the raucous State Fair, velvety classical violins are likely to mutate into bluegrass fiddles.

If she hadn’t been on my radar in 2011, playing a supporting role in the CPCC Summer Theatre production of Hello, Dolly! I would have thought that Sarah Henkel was a genuine Italian neophyte as Francesca. Hand movements were shy, awkward, and clichéd at first when we looked at the opening wartime scene that tied Francesca’s fate to the uniformed Bud, who pales to humdrum farmer by the time we see him again in Iowa.

With Robert’s arrival, the shy awkwardness begins to work for Henkel, and as the couple’s intimacy increases, the fumbling and tentativeness dissolve, so there’s no longer a disconnect between Henkel’s actions and her soaring mezzo-soprano voice. I still missed a lot of the lyrics she was singing, but as passion took the place of preliminary exposition, that difficulty mattered much less. Compared with the virtually indecipherable Elizabeth Stanley on the national tour, Henkel was clarity itself.

Since I raved about Andrew Samonsky as the lanky dreamboat who captivated Francesca on tour, its no small compliment to say that Ryan Deal is nearly as fine as Robert. Deal may even be better at getting into the vagabond country lean of the music. As passionately as many local theatergoers might feel that he will never surpass his previous autumn exploits in Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz at the Halton, Deal delivers here, seemingly more comfortable in this music.

While Deal is not likely to be mistaken for a lean, rugged Marlboro man, the gap between him and Samonsky might have been bridged at least partially if Deal, along with director Cary Kugler and costume designer Rachel Engstrom, had seriously considered what a hippie looked like in 1965. To get instantly labeled as a hippie by a provincial Iowan, more hair and looser, more casual clothes are required. An untucked sport shirt just won’t do.

Politeness and consideration, mixed with a heavy sprinkling of artistic intensity, are also part of Robert’s appeal, and Deal conspires very nicely with Henkel on the chemistry of the mutual seduction. Looking at how Kugler directs and how Engstrom dresses the townsfolk, you will likely think that Marsha Norman borrowed heavily from Meredith Willson’s Music Man in crafting the Iowans in her script.

Next door neighbors, Taffy Allen as Marge and Jeff Powell as Charlie, are exactly as you would expect. She’s unsatisfied unless she’s ferretted out every spec of scandalous gossip while, even when she’s most annoying, he can be mollified with a fresh slice of pie. Closer to the vortex of the central romance, Francesca’s family is humdrum rather than silly. Steven Martin as Bud, the husband, is a solid and confident blockhead, but we get the hint from Martin that some of his cocksureness comes from Francesca’s support.

Yet Bud is the primary reason that the kids need Mom. Gabe Saienni as Michael needs Mom to help him convince Dad that there is an alternative future for him that doesn’t include taking over the farm. Sharing the role with Olivia Aldridge from night to night, Leigh Ann Hrischenko convinces us that Carolyn’s needs are even more acute and poignant. Mom stands as buffer between Carolyn and her father’s brusqueness, and despite the fact that she may have raised a prize-winning steer, it’s Mom who must bolster the younger sib’s determination and self-confidence.

As the romance heats up, Francesca must choose between her inner drive to break free and globetrot with Robert or the tug of her loyalty, calling upon her to remain in Iowa with a family that needs her. After two hours and 18 minutes, plus a 20-minute intermission, you wouldn’t want the choice to be easy, would you?

 

“The Christians” Has Much to Say About America Under The Donald

Review: The Christians

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Pastor Paul picks up his microphone at an unspecified megachurch to begin his sermon in Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, he tells his congregants – thousands of them, flocking to the Sunday service – that there is a crack in their church. Describing this crack in a four-part sermon, Paul weaves together a 20-year history of the astonishing growth of his church with two epiphanies, both involving conversations with God.

One of these epiphanies results in Paul’s marriage to the beautiful Elizabeth, who sits proudly next to her husband on the mainstage. The other leads to a new perception of God’s goodness and justice, one that rejects the idea of eternal damnation for all people, no matter how virtuous, who have not accepted Jesus as their savior.

So on the same Sunday that Paul can announce that the vast church property has finally been fully paid for, including its “parking lot that you can get lost in,” he also proclaims that his church no longer believes in hell.

Ironically, the crack that Paul described in his sermon was abstract, not previously perceived by anyone else in the assembly, but by the end of the Sunday service, Paul has created a real, tangible crack. Unable to accept the new doctrine, Associate Pastor Joshua walks out after some spirited disputation from the pulpit. The very visible rifts won’t end there.

As a native New Yorker and someone who takes his Bible seriously – at least the Old Testament – this opening scene combines two of the irritating qualities that I discovered in Christians when I emigrated from Gotham. So many of them converse so regularly with God, a most exclusive privilege in the Bible that I was raised on, that they must believe that their God is handling as many simultaneous personal conversations as Ma Bell.

More irritating is the whole spectacle of Christians who “wrestle” with their faith and feel like other people should care. So when I saw the world premiere at the Humana Festival of New Plays in 2014, I often found the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville production tedious and bland. Later that year, adjudicating the 2015 Steinberg Award as a member of the American Theatre Critics Association panel, Hnath’s script appeared in my Inbox.

Although the panel kept Hnath’s drama among the elite scripts into the final voting, for me, it was definitely middle of the pack among the 27 works we considered. Did I miss something when I read the script? Or perhaps did Actor’s Theatre of Louisville miss something when they brought it to life?

I was hoping so when I entered Booth Playhouse, for Steve Umberger and his Playworks Group were bringing The Christians to town in its local premiere with a cast that evoked Umberger’s years as artistic director of Charlotte Repertory Theatre. In his return to Charlotte, Umberger was also backed by a design team associated with his greatest directorial triumph, the 1995 production of Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2.

From the outset, Umberger’s answer to both of my questions was a resounding yes. The Playworks church choir – “the bigger the better,” Hnath urges in his playscript – is far more energetic and spirited in Charlotte than it was in Louisville, led by Dareion Malone from an electric keyboard and populated with singers who can rock the house when they solo. Set design by Joe Gardner is slicker, more dynamic than the Humana production, with twin projection screens above the action cuing the congregation on the lyrics of the songs and the key points of Pastor Paul’s sermon.

Brian Robinson decisively exorcises blandness from this production as soon as he launches into Pastor Paul’s sermon, slick and confident with the mic and moderately charismatic so that he never becomes a Joel Osteen caricature. There is enough self-confidence and self-absorption to qualify as hubris, yet Pastor Paul’s geniality and approachability keep him far short of Oedipal arrogance. Paul tells Joshua he can leave his church, not that he must. Big difference, and Robinson gets it.

But it’s Chandler McIntyre’s performance as Sister Elizabeth, arguably McIntyre’s best ever, that crystallizes what the Louisville version missed. Embedded in Paul’s narrative about how he met his future wife on an airplane is a theme that is more relevant to us all today than whether hell exists. Here he passes along a note via a helpful stewardess, quoted from an NYU English prof that serves as the play’s epigraph: “I feel an uncontrollable urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance barrier insurmountable.”

It’s a pretty classy pickup line – until it becomes something totally unexpected in a bedroom scene unlike any that you’ve ever seen before. All through this drama, everybody speaks into a microphone, and there are no scenery shifts. Those conditions are only mildly incongruous when we see Elder Jay, representing the church’s governing board, coming into Paul’s office, picking up a microphone, and discussing the repercussions of Joshua’s defection.

Husband and wife picking up mics in the privacy of their bedroom takes the incongruity into comical territory. Sister Elizabeth starts off this climactic scene much as she has seemed before, a loyal, decorous, and diffident pastor’s wife. As Paul airs his suspicions and she reviews his breaches in respect and trust, we watch the quiet pulpit ornament grow into a whirlwind that could intimidate Job, let alone Paul.

Soon afterwards the question scribbled more than 20 years earlier on an airplane is reprised, but we see a different slant from Hnath on the insurmountable distance Paul has spoken of. In a way that hadn’t jumped at me off the pages of the playwright’s script nor the Louisville production, I can now see that Hnath is asking this: Can we work, pray, or even live together anymore after we’ve recognized that we fundamentally disagree?

It’s a very American question, transcending theology. Our nation rests on two very contradictory pillars – the narrow “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” dogmatism of the first Puritan settlers and the “liberty and justice for all” openness of the Deists who framed our Constitution. We probably thought the insurmountable distance between these outlooks had been permanently bridged long ago. What Humana and I didn’t see in 2014 was the election of 2016. A serious crack in our society has re-emerged.

We get fine performances from the rest of the cast that further humanize and texturize their disagreements. As Joshua, Jonavan Adams fumbles a bit in his disputation with his mentor – as he should, since the new doctrine has caught him off-guard and he’s explicitly “wrestling” with his mentor’s sermon. But Adams helps us focus on how much he would like to believe there isn’t a hell, for he vividly envisions his mom there.

April C. Turner emerges from the choir as Jenny, a troubled congregant whose questioning of Pastor Paul is even more powerful than Joshua’s – because she’s had the time to write down her thoughts and gather reactions from around the community in the wake of the schism. To a lesser extent than Sister Elizabeth, Turner grows more formidable right before our eyes as Jenny becomes more comfortable behind the microphone in the spotlight. There’s also a gentle hint that she becomes progressively more irritated and emboldened when Pastor Paul seems to be patronizing the seriousness of her concerns.

Before and during this huge turning point, Graham Smith makes his presence felt as Elder Jay. This isn’t the most towering performance we’ve seen from Smith – he was, after all, Roy Cohn, in Angels back in ’95 – but it ranks among his most rusticated. And the man can still make an exit. His private conversation with Pastor Paul, which had been most notable for me in getting across Jay’s practical business anxieties, registered more deeply this time around, for they also discuss Associate Pastor Joshua and bring out more about him than we knew.

Joshua not only harbors that “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” viewpoint, he’s been aggressively talking up hellfire on the streets of town. So Paul may actually have had Joshua in mind when he perceived a crack in his church, and his defection may not have been as sudden and unanticipated as it first appeared. Pastor P may be as cunning and calculating as Jenny suspects.

Needless to say, I found The Christians to be a far more substantial piece the third time around – and it’s not surprising to learn that Umberger first encountered it in the aftermath of the 2016 election. The revitalized impact of a production like this reminds us how important a professional theatre company can be in the cultural life of a city. Response from the audience during the post-performance talkback confirmed that a satisfying cross-section of people at Booth Playhouse can instantly get what The Christians is saying to us now.

We had that extra intellectual jolt in our community far more often during the years that Charlotte Rep became a prominent member League of Regional Theatres (LORT) under Umberger’s leadership. Umberger could possibly build his current Playworks enterprise to similar prominence, if The Christians draws the support it deserves.

A Labor of Rockin’ Love and Face-Melting Fury

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Preview:  American Idiot

By Perry Tannenbaum

Anger, alienation, disillusionment, and frustration were all part of the high-octane fuel that powered Green Day’s punk rock opera, American Idiot, in 2004. The group’s first post-9/11 CD struck a chord, winning awards on both sides of the Atlantic, including Best Rock Album at the Grammys. The targets of the group’s wrath – media, suburbia, Bush Era militarism, and ubiquitous TV – remained fresh enough for Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and stage director Michael Mayer to transform the celebrated album into a Broadway musical in 201o.

Starting their second consecutive season in exile from their planned-and-purchased permanent home on Freedom Drive, still tangled up in a red tape mess of zoning, safety, and building regulations – on an existing building, mind you – Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has a bit of pent-up anger, frustration, and disillusionment of their own. They may be wrapping all of that into their incoming American Idiot grenade.

The Charlotte premiere opens in previews this week on the campus of Queens University, the second consecutive show that Actor’s Theatre has brought to Hadley Theater. Official opening night will happen next Wednesday.

ATC artistic director Chip Decker not only empathizes with the angst of American Idiot, he gets the band.

“I have loved Green Day’s music since the [1991] album Kerplunk,” Decker boasts. “American Idiot dropped in 2004, and I could not listen to it enough. I think we were all reeling still from 9/11, the wars, etc., and this album gave a release valve to many who were angry, scared, lost, disillusioned and looking for hope in a difficult time.”

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The leading men feel at least as deeply about the music as their director. In fact, you can gauge their respective ages by when they climbed aboard the Green Day bandwagon. Matt Carlson, who plays Johnny, the Jesus of Suburbia hero from the album, says he latched onto American Idiot when he was about 14, and that it was the first album he learned to play on guitar from beginning to end.

Jeremy DeCarlos, a mainstay in the finest Actor’s Theatre productions since 2004 –onstage or thrashing his guitar – plays Johnny’s alter ego, St. Jimmy, leading the suburban Jesus into citified debaucheries. He says he got the Green Day bug during the summer of 1994, when “Basket Case” was a hit single off the Dookie album.

“I felt like Billie Joe wasn’t just singing to me, but as me in a way,” DeCarlos recalls. “I ran out and bought the album and wore a hole into it. When my mother presented me with my first guitar, I told myself that if I ever learned how to play one song on it, it would be Green Day’s ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).’ It took me roughly a month, but the first song I ever learned on guitar was a Green Day song!”

So how does a punk rock opera with three characters become a musical that can fill a Broadway stage? Well, Armstrong and Mayer added new characters, and Green Day chipped in with more music, conveniently ripped off from 21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up album to American Idiot.

Now instead of one disgruntled Jesus itching to escape suburbia, there are three – Johnny, Will, and Tunny – along with three women. Johnny and Tunny do escape, respectively to the wicked city and the US Army, but Will won’t, dutifully staying behind when he learns that Heather (the only woman in the show with a name) is pregnant with his child. So yes, we get three depressing outcomes to wail over.

“The book is wafer thin, single ply generic toilet paper thin,” Decker admits, “but I feel like that was a very intentional choice. I was able to find my own voice and feelings in the album, and I think that is what the story lines do in this. They present a thought and feeling, but do not try and insist that the viewer (or listener) accept that view as the truth.”

And just because he reveres the music doesn’t mean that Carlson worships the suburban Jesus he’s delivering to us as the leading man. Johnny actually comes off as something of a jerk when Carlson describes him, and he isn’t sure we’ll like him: “He is the edgy, cocky punk guy you knew in high school who never did anything with his life.”

But the music! That draws a different reaction from the young rocker. Like many of Green Day’s faithful, Carlson was a bit leery and disappointed when he first heard that the punk band was taking their act to Broadway. Had to be an artistic sellout, right?

When he eventually encountered to final product, Carlson was pleasantly surprised. “The American Idiot album is so different versus the stage score,” he opines. “I love the simple punk rock sound of the album, but maybe because I’m into musical theatre, I like the stage version even better. On stage, the concept album is made more complete with the play script and music.”

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There’s more music in the musical, but all of it remains guitar-and-drum driven. Instead of muscling up with strings, winds, and brass, Broadway orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt beefed up the sound with more voices and harmonies. You’ll hear a pronounced difference, to take just one example, if you listen to the Broadway cast album version of “Give Me Novacaine.”

The lyrics come through just a tad more clearly, as if we’re in a theater rather than concert hall. The sound of the steel guitar is noticeably richer, with a more relaxed Hawaiian flavor. With the onset of the thrashing section, the crescendo is more dramatic, louder drums and added male voices yield an anthemic thrust. Reaching the soothing outro, we hear – can it be true? – a group of female backups caressing our ears.

But hold on a second. The prospect of seeing ATC musical director Ryan Stamey lead a Broadway-sized band into Hadley Theater isn’t any more likely than the possibility we’ll see over three dozen flat-screen TV monitors stuck up on the back wall. One violin and one cello are promised, but the instrumental congregation will be trimmed from eight to five, a definite U-turn toward true punk rock intimacy.

Yes, we’ll see two guitars, just like on Broadway.

Decker has been known to strap on a bass guitar himself, and he often lurks in the wings as a sound designer when he isn’t acting or directing. One of the most admirable Actor’s Theatre achievements over the years has been their ability to deliver the youthful energy of such high voltage musicals as Hedwig and Rock of Ages without repulsing their graying subscribers who prefer decibel levels below triple digits.

“You know, this is always a tough balancing act,” Decker says, “because our bands are legit power musicians who want everything to go to 11! But there is so much story in the lyrics of musicals, that if you can’t hear the words, you don’t know the story. So yeah, keeping it balanced and rocking is the challenge. Our cast is doing a great job telling their story, and I think people will dig it. Or you can just go and rock the fuck out. Either way, your face will be melted.”

One-Two Punch of Surprises Powers “Eat the Runt”

Review: Eat the Runt

By Perry Tannenbaum

Even before you set out for the Charlotte Art League, the quest for parking, and the unique Eat the Runt from Donna Scott Productions, you need to remember one key preparation: bring your smartphone. Yes, you’ll be asked to turn off or silence the device when the action is set to begin, but before that, you’ll be asked to join the remainder of the audience in choosing the cast for that evening’s performance.

Eight actors vie for the seven roles listed in your program. The audience goes through the cast list one by one, voting their choice for each role on a group texting setup by punching the number assigned to each actor. Playwright Avery Crozier gives each of the characters at his (or her) second-tier art museum a unisex name, so any member of the ensemble directed by Tonya Bludsworth might play any of the roles on a given night.

To execute all of the possible 40,320 casting permutations, each actor must be prepared to play all of the roles, wear all of the costumes, and pounce on cues from all his or her castmates. That not only multiplies what each character has to memorize and the number of costumes designer Luci Wilson has to create, it also multiplies the amount of time that the ensemble must devote to rehearsal – even though they can’t begin to cover all the possible scene partners they will have during the actual run of Runt performances.

On the Saturday night that I attended, I voted with the audience on four of our choices: Ericka Ross as grantwriter Chris, Stephen Seay as human resources coordinator Jean, Tracie Frank as curator of modern art Hollis, and Kevin Shimko as museum director Pinky. Andrea King won the juiciest – and most demanding – role as Merritt, interviewing for a vacant position at the museum. Kevin Aoussou as director of development Royce and Jenn Grabenstetter as museum trustee Sidney rounded out the cast.

Somehow Stephen West-Rogers’ previous exploits in theatrical versions of Fight Club and Trainspotting had escaped the notice of Donna Scott fans. Nor did his new clean-shaven look bring fresh evocations of his ruggedness. As a result, West-Rogers was the odd man out, sent away to take the night off when Shimko snagged the last remaining role.

After this poignant moment, presided over by Scott, we were asked to give the cast a few minutes to sort things out, a reasonable enough request, I thought. When they returned, it was virtually impossible to find any indication that this wasn’t the fixed cast that had rehearsed Eat the Runt every night. King especially was a delight as Merritt, deftly bringing out the applicant’s uncanny ability to take the ideal approach for each museum official who interviewed her.

Merritt’s chameleonic shifts bespoke either a dangerously unstable personality or a cunning Machiavel – one perhaps gifted with psychic powers. Whether it’s the hemorrhoidal HR coordinator, the horny development director, the coke-addicted curator, or the defensive trustee, Merritt always seems to pounce on the perfect approach without any need for probing. It’s only when she’s spouting Ayn Rand to the museum director that Merritt drops hints of a supernatural gift.

Forget about the gimmickry at the top of the evening, it’s very rare for any playwright to be able to detonate a walloping surprise at the end of Act 1 and at the end of Act 2. Crozier not only achieved that, but the surprise at the end of the evening slickly explains away much of the puzzlement we may experience as the series of job interviews metastasizes and explodes.

A few days later, some of the deception that had been played on me became clearer. By then, I couldn’t regret the fun ride that Eat the Runt had taken me on. It may be radically different for you if your casting choices turn out to be more incongruous, risqué, or preposterous. That may increase the already plentiful comedy.

Alfred’s “Brown Tale” Is Very Chicago and Very Funny

Review: A Brown Tale

By Perry Tannenbaum

Notwithstanding the lingering leeriness I feel about going to see them, one-person shows can be memorable and truly special. Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, Frank Gorshin’s Say Goodnight, Gracie and Colin Quinn’s Long Story Short stand out as the best that I’ve seen by men, while I’d point to Julie Harris’s Belle of Amherst, Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, and Tova Feldshuh’s Golda’s Balcony as the best by women – plus two more at Spoleto this year, Avital Lvova’s Angel and Ayodele Casel’s While I Have the Floor.

Well, all of those stellar performers need to make some room for James T. Alfred, who has written and is currently performing A Brown Tale at Spirit Square. The OnQ Performing Arts production, directed by Lou Bellamy, runs through September 23, and you need to catch it or miss perhaps the funniest one-person show I’ve ever seen.

Quinn’s tour-de-force is the only show I can remember that was as howlingly hilarious as Brown Tale, but Alfred may deserve the edge because Quinn took all of human history for his subject while Alfred confines himself to his own life. Unless you saw Alfred starring as Martin Luther King in a touring production of The Mountaintop at Booth Playhouse in 2014, you might not even recognize his name.

I had interviewed Alfred for a Mountaintop preview feature three years ago, but while it was clear that the actor was closely acquainted with the playwright who penned that Olivier Award-winning script, there was never a hint that he himself was a writer. Alfred’s admiration for Bellamy certainly came through, and the esteem must be mutual, since Alfred is a permanent member of the Penumbra Theatre, the great African American theatre company founded by Bellamy in 1976 in St. Paul.

So aside from MLK, the Penumbra connection ensures that Alfred’s past credits include a swath of August Wilson plays, not exactly a harbinger of the rich array of broad physical comedy that A Brown Tale offers. Speaking to Alfred a few years ago, I got the word that he was currently based in Chicago. His performance at Duke Energy Theater shows that he and Chicago go back a long way, most memorably during years living with his grandma in the projects.

We get to hear about how déclassé the high-rise projects were compared to the equally humble squat dwellings that surrounded them. But the most amusing comparisons began at the top of the show when Alfred introduced us to his very rightfully estranged parents. Mom was a devout churchgoing Christian, while Dad was a spawn of Satan and emulator of James Brown – plus a hypochondriacal DJ forever questing after VA compensation for his PTSD.

What must have united them, for the short time it took to conceive James, were their foul mouths. Mom was the rare phenomenon of a cursing Christian, and Dad couldn’t finish a sentence with punctuating it with an expletive.

More daring comparisons occurred later after Alfred went to college, where we get the inside scoop on the difference between getting over on black women and picking up whites. A parallel episode, with greater scope for mimicry and physical comedy, subsequently compares the service we can expect at a black-staffed McDonald’s and what we routinely encounter in a “pink” neighborhood McD’s. Probably not material a white performer could get away with, which adds to the zest.

Alfred isn’t always going for the funny bone. There are segments about the neighborhood candy store, the local Boys & Girls Club, local schools, and the annual rite of shopping for new school clothes for the new school year. You get a hint of warmth in these vignettes, particularly when Alfred recalls how neighbors in the projects kept an eye out for the welfare of each other’s kids, and he spills over into anger recalling the politics that killed family life in the projects.

Three extended scenes are at the heart of A Brown Tale and why you’ll enjoy it. The first is a colorful travelogue taking you room-by-room through a project apartment, beginning with the daily conversion of the kitchen into a hair salon. Our end point is Alfred’s initiation into the world of substitute teaching – taking over a special education class that’s off in an annex separated from the main building of an elementary school.

But the greatest crowdpleaser last Friday night was clearly the evocation of a Sunday church service, with cameos from the preacher, the choir director, and a church elder, plus a coda on Christian dating. The highlight here was the elder’s testimony, beginning in subdued awkwardness and ramping up to a frenzied climax of shouting, high-stepping righteousness, sprinkled with some babbling in tongues.

It can’t be easy to walk the tightrope between crude mockery and hilarious gusto when you’re onstage evoking an impoverished special needs child or an ecstatic churchgoer bathed in the Blood of the Lamb. You need to be able to trust an objective pair of eyes watching you perform and sculpting a scene. Clearly, Alfred and Bellamy are a very special team that’s able to hit exactly the right tone, and we’re very lucky that OnQ brought them here so we can cherish their masterful teamwork.

Angels Provocateur Returns as Conciliator

Preview: The Christians

By Perry Tannenbaum

There’s plenty of history between Steve Umberger and the Queen City, stretching back to 1976 when he founded the Actor’s Contemporary Ensemble. That company became Charlotte Repertory Theatre, which gave us an epic production of Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2, in 1996. On the wings of Umberger’s supreme achievement as Rep’s artistic director came a firestorm of local homophobia and negative national publicity that strafed the cultural landscape of this city like nothing before or since.

Reverberations from that controversy kept rumbling for years afterward, resulting in the eventual ouster of Umberger in 2002, and the self-immolation of the company he founded by a rogue board of directors in 2005. In an acrimonious parting shot in the announcement closing Rep down, board chairman William Parmelee charged that Charlotte had little interest in supporting professional theatre.

Well, Umberger is back, and he isn’t here to stir up any new controversies or settle old scores. He is here to remind us that differences of opinion don’t need to be acrimonious – and maybe, just maybe to prove that Parmelee was dead wrong.

Picking a drama that can achieve those aims wasn’t simple, but Umberger and his PlayWorks Group chose Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, a work that premiered in 2014 at the prestigious Humana Festival in Louisville and went on to win acclaim in Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, and off-Broadway. Hnath made a bigger New York splash earlier this year on Broadway when A Doll’s House, Part 2, his sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s famed feminist drama, picked up eight Tony Award nominations.

Umberger honed in on Hnath before the playwright’s Broadway triumph – at exactly the right moment.

“I first read it right after the election,” Umberger recalls, “when everyone was starting to find everyone else’s viewpoint contemptible. I wondered if there was a play out there that would truly represent everyone fairly and let them tell their side of it in a way that would be heard. Then I found The Christians.”

Set in a megachurch, The Christians fits Charlotte like a glove. After building up his church from a storefront acorn to a mighty oak, Pastor Paul delivers a progressive sermon that proposes to take his church and all who belong to it on a spiritual hairpin turn. Because in a recent conversation with God, God told Paul that there is no hell.

Quite a bombshell for the associate pastor whom Paul has mentored, for church elders who have backed and supported Paul for 20 years, and for his wife Elizabeth, who was blindsided by her husband’s bold new doctrine. So are many members of the congregation, which now numbers in the thousands. They have believed strongly in Pastor Paul, but everyone isn’t ready to be redirected like sheep into strange new beliefs.

It’s as if a Republican were elected President and told his party that they were mean.

Only there’s a bond between these people as they wrestle with their faith amid the fallout from Paul’s sermon. Spiritually, how far is Associate Pastor Joshua willing to bend and still serve his mentor’s church in good conscience? Administratively, how can Elder Jay keep supporting his church’s founder if there are massive defections from the flock? And personally, how can Elizabeth forgive Paul for not consulting her on a move that could have such a dramatic impact on his livelihood and their family?

Yes, there is mutual love and respect between all of these Christians. Yet the issues are substantial, and Paul, the visionary leader, may be the most selfish and inconsiderate in the group.

Umberger gets to reunite with some of the same suspects who worked with him decades ago on Angels – set designer Joe Gardner, lighting guru Eric Windbreaker, and actor Graham Smith, who made Roy Cohen such a demonic firebrand. Two other Rep vets are in the cast, playing the lead couple. Chandler McIntyre last hooked up Umberger and Rep in Wit (2001), and Brian Robinson, playing Pastor Paul, is a two-time CL Actor of the Year who played key roles in three CL Shows of the Year: Malice Aforethought (1992) and Falsettos (1993) for Rep, and Take Me Out (2004) with Actor’s Theatre.

More recently – and more to the point – Robinson gave a fine account of Father Flynn in another religious cliffhanger, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, playing opposite Umberger’s wife, actress Rebecca Koon. That North Carolina Stage Company actually toured Charlotte with that production in 2008 after Robinson had moved to Atlanta.

“When I lived and worked as an actor here from 1988 until 2008, the city was teeming with homegrown theatre. It’s certainly not all gone, but it is certainly greatly diminished,” says Robinson. “Rebecca and I had done Doubt together, and our friendship became quite close. In August 2016, I was exploring the idea of creating some theatre. Steve was the one of the first people I thought of when considering with whom I would want to partner. I asked Rebecca what he was up to. Her response was, ‘I think he’s in a similar place. You should call him.’ And now here we are, one year later, about to unveil the fruits of this first collaboration.”

Burnt by the lackluster support from the CharMeck Arts & Science Council after the Angels flap when he led the Rep, Umberger is relying on a more conservative, self-sufficient financial model with PlayWorks Group.

“Even though [The Christians] is a single production, it’s set up so that it could actually pay for itself, if enough people come,” Umberger explains. “That could also conceivably be expanded to multiple plays in some sort of season that looks like a company. It doesn’t require massive corporate sponsorship or grant funding or big giving. It only takes enough people buying a ticket.”

Umberger is also tapping into homegrown talent he hasn’t worked with before in mounting his new venture. He saw Jonavan Adams in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom this past spring and has tapped him to play the schismatic Pastor Joshua. Strangely enough, Umberger had never met playwright/actress/director April C. Turner until Christians auditions, though her C.O.T.O.: Chocolate on the Outside drew a Loaf nomination for Best Drama back in 1997.

Turner turns up as Jenn, the truth-seeking congregant whose questions wreak havoc among Paul’s flock. Just as convinced as Hnath must have been in 2014 that Hitler was synonymous with evil, Jenn asks if Der Fuhrer is earmarked for hell.

“Steve is a pro,” says Turner of her first Umberger experience. “He is passionate about his work, and he owns his voice as a director. He’s a gentle director, yet firm in his vision. We spend a lot of time asking and answering questions about ‘what’s really going on’ and digging into the details of the needs of each character.”

Adams, who came to understand who Umberger was only after he was cast as Joshua, also chimes in with a glowing review.

“It’s surpassed my expectations in every way,” says Adams of the rehearsal process. “This play calls for a uniquely gifted director to be able to explore its nuanced complexity.”

But we still need to wonder whether Parmelee was right more than 12 years ago – whether Charlotte really is fertile ground for professional-grade homegrown theatre. Since Rep died in 2005, Charlotte hasn’t had an Actor’s Equity company that was part of LORT, the top-tier League of Regional Theatres.

It’s sad, says Robinson: “The citizens of Charlotte deserve and need a thriving professional theatre scene that is locally produced.”

Will we turn out to help make it happen? This may be our last best chance.

Triumphant “Aïda” Cast Slogs Through Tedious Sir Elton Score

Review: Aïda

By Perry Tannenbaum

Strip away the triumphal march, the trumpets, and the whole processional parade – complete with elephants, if you’re lucky enough to see the famed outdoor productions in Verona – and we discover that Verdi’s Aïda is a rather compact story. The captured Ethiopian princess is at one corner of the love triangle, opposite her slavemistress, Princess Amneris. Both of them love Radamès, the dynamic Egyptian general who is ordained by the goddess Isis to lead the Pharaoh’s army against the forces led by King Amonasro, Aïda’s father.

Pulling against the strong Aïda-Radamès chemistry are their loyalties to their warring countries, the jealousy of Amneris, and the obedience that Aïda owes to her father. Sealing their fates, Pharoah rewards Radamès for capturing Amonasro in battle by promising his daughter’s hand in marriage to the victorious chieftain.

It’s fascinating to watch how Linda Woolverton modernizes the 1871 libretto in her book for the Disney version currently running at Theatre Charlotte – with a couple of deft feminist touches layered on.

Raised on soaps and romcoms, modern audiences could never abide a torrid relationship between romantic leads already established before the curtain rises. So Woolverton efficiently wedges a mini-courtship into her storyline, with Radamès giving Aïda to Amneris as a gift to lighten his beloved’s sufferings in captivity.

Verdi and librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni were perfectly content to portray Amneris as a cunning, vicious shrew from beginning to end. Not Woolverton. She gives the beautiful princess a slick character arc in a thorough makeover, starting her off as a vain and pampered clothes horse on loan from Legally Blonde. Amneris evolves into a peace-loving reformer who not only empathizes with the martyred lovers but also narrates their story, three or more millennia later, returning in mummified form, a shining presence in a gooey stew of museum mystery and reincarnation.

If composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice had done their jobs as well as Woolverton, Aïda would be a masterwork. It’s often amusing to see what John, Rice, and Theatre Charlotte do to compensate for the absence of Verdian spectacle – but it’s never thrilling, despite the collection of talent that director Corey Mitchell has assembled at the Queens Road barn. John’s parade of power ballads grows tedious as the evening wears on, and the longueurs are compounded by unnecessary outbreaks of dance that, notwithstanding choreographer Ashlyn Summer’s exertions, display little precision and less sensuality.

Mitchell previously directed this show for Northwest School of the Arts with a little more sparkle, orchestra, and budget – a production that ran briefly at Booth Playhouse in 2009. Maybe Sir Elton’s Aïda works better in the hands of high schoolers. The one holdover from the NWSA edition, Emily Witte as Amneris, is even more stunning this time around, most notably when she hits us with the full force of her arrogance in her “My Strongest Suit” showcase. It’s the kind of superficial villainy that will deeply satisfy fans of Wicked, Glee, and Kristin Chenoweth.

There is a slight country twang to Witte’s singing that would have added a bit of unique abrasiveness to Amneris, but music director Zachary Tarlton encourages the same style from Ron T. Diaz as Radamès, so that twang becomes an Egyptian trait – as if, in Disneyworld, everybody who hails from Memphis, whether it’s Egypt or Tennessee, sounds alike.

Further detracting from the gravitas Diaz should be aiming for is Radamès’ bizarre confrontation with his father, the evil priest Zoser. You wonder just how seriously we can take either adversary when costume designer Hali Hutchison seems to be mimicking Disney’s Aladdin in designing the mighty general’s costume and Zoser’s ministers brandish glowing fuchsia staves.

Diaz never gets a shot at a passionate solo, so he shines brightest in “Elaborate Lives,” sharing the best of the power ballads with his darling Aïda. They sing it full out, face-to-face, no frills, near the end of Act 1, Victoria Fisher’s lighting dimming around them to augment the drama. Maya Sistruck does nearly the whole evening as Aïda with a simple resolute dignity, allowing herself the luxury of discernable facial expressions only at peak moments when she is romantically consumed or royally pissed.

Other than taking radical precautions not to reveal her royal origins, I’m not sure what justifies Hutchison’s humble sackcloth design for a captive princess. We do upgrade to red in the palace, but why Amneris would tolerate such a plainly dressed servant is still baffling. Yet the illogic does pay off in an enduring dramatic contrast, first in the climactic tête-à-tête duet before intermission and shortly afterwards in the “Step Too Far” trio, the most self-consciously operatic moment in the John-Rice score.

Aïda is simply better and purer than these Egyptians are – not Memphis or Nashville at all! – and just knowing her ultimately makes them better and purer.

While Josh Webb’s set design is no more impressive than the costumes or the choreography, budgetary constraints may have been holding him back. The cut-rate budget and the lackluster score might obscure the fact that the excellence of the cast runs deep. Aside from most of the dancers, Howl Cooper makes the only inauspicious debut as Amonasro, though he definitely has a warrior’s demeanor.

Jason Hickerson makes a wonderfully scruffy Pharaoh, a Charlotte debut only slightly eclipsed by Carlos Jimenez’s usefully cheerful depiction of Mereb, the perfect Disney servant. Implausibly, Mereb draws more solo spotlight than Radamès, yet Jimenez is decisively upstaged among the supporting players by the steely-voiced Paul Leopard, fulminating melodramatically as the murderous, conniving Zoser.

Thank heaven for vampires, witches, and pagans. Otherwise, there would be no class of people left for all of us to wholeheartedly hate.