Category Archives: Theatre

“Waitress” Frequently Betrays Its Southern Heart With Loudness and Silliness

Review:  Waitress

Waitress the Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

Like the gentle raindrop patter of its opening song, “Sugar… butter…water,” the musical adaptation of Waitress promises a delicious, delicate, and transient chemistry that sensitively parallels the formation and breakup of romantic relationships. As the motif repeats in the music and lyrics of Sara Bareilles’s score, we get some extras from its troubled protagonist. Jenna not only waits tables at Joe’s Pie Shop, she also bakes the pies. And she not only falls in and out of love, she also experiences personal growth through the alchemy of motherhood.

Unfortunately, delicacy and sensitivity pretty much run dry in Jessie Nelson’s adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s screenplay after they’ve been lavishly applied to Jenna. Earl, Jenna’s husband, is about as toxic a redneck as you could imagine, a brutal grungy sponge who gets one song to match his one dimension. Jenna’s two waitress cronies are sunnier, to be sure, but hardly more rounded: Dawn is kooky, mousy, and shy, contrasting with the swaggering and smart-ass Becky.

Waitress the Musical

All three waitresses have man problems, and all three will wind up with new men. Along the way, Jenna and Becky can commiserate on the folly of having sex with your husband while Dawn is hooking up with Ogie, who is even weirder than she is, presumably because she has cured his shyness in five minutes or less. As Ogie, Jeremy Morse draws the liveliest song of the evening, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.” But as if to punish Morse for this goofball showstopper, Bareilles later saddles him with “I Love You Like a Table,” which is every bit as silly as its title.

The folly of having sex with her husband sends a ready-to-puke Jenny to the ladies’ room, where she and her co-workers await the results of a store-bought pregnancy test. Gloomy with the news that she’s having Earl’s child, Jenna soon appears at her gynecologist’s office bearing one of her most special pies as a gift – only to learn that the woman has retired, replaced by Dr. Pomatter, an agreeably awkward new man in town. We know what will happen between the two of them before they do, and Maiesha McQueen, in a comical cameo as his Nurse Norma, gets to swipe a couple of Jenna’s subsequent gift pies.

Waitress the Musical

Although Earl berates her pie-making, Jenna schemes to escape him and his bullying, tucking away some of her tip money so she can take the train to a statewide baking contest where her pies could win her a $20,000 prize and a new life. Dr. P and Nurse Norma seem to be the biggest fans of Jenna’s daily specials, yet she also gets encouragement from her best customer back at the shop, Joe himself. But the backbone she needs to finally stand up to Earl must come from within.

Desi Oakley manages to keep Waitress grounded even when Bareilles’s songs and Nelson’s outré characters take us away from the story’s countrified Southern heart. After extended absences, an irresistible country twang enriches Oakley’s voice and we’re back home. Maybe she’s a tad too beautiful for this pie-making savant, but when Oakley sings “She Used to Be Mine” deep in Act 2, Jenna’s journey is laid bare and she sounds genuinely fed up with her recurring mistakes.

Among the other characters, only Joe sounds capable of comparable introspection, and Larry Marshall makes the pie fancier’s “Take It from an Old Man” another highlight. Dr. Pomatter reaches maximum depth when he urges Jenna to teach him the rudiments of making pies. More often, Bryan Fenkart is called upon to emphasize the furtive and fun-filled regions of romance, light on the comedy because he’s a physician and light on the intimacy because he’s married.

Bryan Fenkart and Desi Oakley in the National Tour of WAITRESS 1 Credit Joan Marcus 0054r.jpg

The first of Fenkart’s three duets with Oakley, “It Only Takes a Taste,” is undoubtedly the best, but none of them match the country flavor of the three waitresses when they harmonize. “Opening Up” is the yummiest of these trios, but Lenne Klingaman as Dawn and Charity Angel Dawson as Becky each gets a chance to shine alone. Nervous before first date – in approximately forever – Klingaman has a better vehicle in Dawn’s “When He Sees Me” than Dawson’s defiant “I Didn’t Plan It” when she slips into an extramarital romance.

Of the two brutes in the story, Ryan G. Dunkin was by far the most benign as Cal, the pie shop manager. After fuming about his crew’s tardiness and threatening to fire Becky, the biker beast turns out to have a soft side. Though Earl begs Jenna not to leave him at one point, it’s an inexplicable lapse in his customary physical intimidation and verbal abuse, so I quickly found myself dreading every scene where Nick Bailey showed up as Jenna’s noxious husband.

The heavy-handedness of this touring production doesn’t altogether vanish when Bailey exits, for the soundbooth, more often not, overmikes the singers onstage, especially the women. When there was actual exposition involved, as when Jenna reminisced about her upbringing in “What Baking Can Do,” I couldn’t get the gist live and needed to catch up at home with Spotify. On the other hand, the six-piece band led onstage by John Miller was very tight, and while the lighting by Ken Billington could have benefitted from more variety, set designs by Scott Pask whisked us smartly from one smalltown location to another.

Before curtain-rise, a huge cherry pie with crisscrossed dough on top filled the stage at Belk Theater all the way up to the proscenium, and the near-capacity crowd on opening night was inclined to eat it all up. Waitress will hit your tastebuds with down-home delight if you downsize your expectations.


Lucia Stetson Brings a Regal, Enigmatic “Evita” to CP

Review: Evita

By Perry Tannenbaum

There isn’t a superabundance of melody in Evita, but when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s supply begins to run low, he deftly puts his few song lines, riffs, and strands of recitative into a spin cycle, zigzagging through Spanish, Latin, and jazz idioms. Or he might shift tempos for a reprise, shift the context for a song’s reprise that gives it new meaning, or simply drop in a replay.

More conspicuous is the lack of action complementing Tim Rice’s lyrics for a musical purporting to bring us the life and legend of Eva Perón, Argentina’s first lady during the presidency of Juan Perón. Much of this story is told through the cynical-yet-captivated eyes of fellow Argentinian Ché Guevara, beginning his narrative at Evita’s phenomenal state funeral. What Ché attempts to explain is how an obscure commoner from the boonies could become so beloved and venerated in the space of 33 years.

Less dramatic muscle, bone, and spectacle were baked into this 1976 opus than the sturdier Phantom of the Opera, which would be minted 10 years later. In previous Charlotte productions by Queen City Theatre Company (2010) and Theatre Charlotte (2003), small-scale design concepts reminded us that Evita is closer in Sir Andrew’s chronological development to the episodic Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat than his signature guignol. After all, only four major characters create the whole Argentine tapestry.

CPCC Theatre shoves Evita toward grandiosity at spacious Halton Theater, largely through the design wizardry of Robert Croghan. There is classic splendor to the iconic balcony scene at the Casa Rosada, and when Peronistas demonstrate in the streets for a “New Argentina,” Croghan drapes his set design with massive flags and banners scribbled with slogans that drop down from the Halton’s high flyloft.

Plenty of Croghan’s costume designs are of the peasant variety, but when it comes time for Evita to be dressed to the nines – or for the strongman Perón to luxuriate in the opulence of his bedroom – we can see what South American excess and corruption look like. Actors and audiences love this musical beyond its deserts, so director Tom Hollis could be expected to find a fine Evita to glitter in this excellent Halton setting. In Lucia Stetson, he has struck gold.

Or should we say silver, since that’s what Argentina is known and named for?

Along with her wardrobe, Stetson becomes more and more refined as she exploits one man after another in her climb to the top. The sassy arriviste of “Buenos Aires – Big Apple” turns imperious as Evita supplants Perón’s previous mistress, but we don’t see the first rays of sublimity until after intermission when she appears on the balcony of the presidential palace – aglow in Jeff Child’ lighting design – and sings the iconic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” Stetson does majestic even better than she does sass.

From that moment on, it’s up for grabs whether Evita is a saintly benefactor of the poor, Argentina’s beauteous ambassador to the world, or a corrupt, self-indulgent template for Imelda Marcos. Not only is there a tension between Che’s cynical jabs and the Peróns’ official line, there’s also an inscrutable quality to Stetson’s performance that blossoms naturally out of her majesty. Crowning that regality is Stetson’s star-quality singing, which makes everything believable – Evita’s vanity, her savvy, her belief in her own beneficence, and her physical frailty.

Sadly, Stetson was the only singer onstage at the Halton last Saturday night who was consistently intelligible. Whether it was their diction, their mics, or settings at the Halton’s notorious soundboard, Ron T. Diaz as Che and Robert Nipper as Perón struggled to be understood. Diaz started off well enough in the opening funeral scene, but when the orchestra grew loud behind him, the words and the narrative thread got lost, though Diaz’s voice and Che’s gadfly intensity still pierced through. He restores the rock intonations that Ricky Martin rejected in the most recent Broadway revival of 2012, and I recognized them like an old frenemy in all their original gusto.

Thuggish, conceited, and physically imposing, Nipper helps the “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” duet to sizzle with restrained sensuality and menace, as good a Perón as I’ve ever seen, with a robusto voice. If they’d fix the audio, his performance would likely join Stetson’s in the not-to-be-missed stratosphere.

Joel King as the crooner Magaldi, Evita’s small-town ticket to Buenos Aires, and Leana Guzman as Perón’s Mistress both satisfy in their respectively comical and pathetic cameos, and music director Drina Keen leads a fine 13-piece band in the pit. We don’t quite hear the volcanic eruption at the end of the symphonic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” that would give us the lift of a true coronation, but the ensemble is sleek in the Latin-flavored sections of the score, and drummer Kyle Merck makes the military interludes a delight.

At the café where Evita enchants Magaldi and when Evita begins to move to the same music with Perón, choreographer Ron Chisholm makes the company and his principals look good. When the choruses of aristocrats and army soldiers join in berating “Perón’s Latest Flame,” one of numerous spots where we might perceive a disconnect between the music and the intended mood, Chisholm goes with the comical flow. So Argentina’s military struts like a regimented bunch of banana republic bumpkins.

Hardly a minute later, Perón considers running away from these buffoons to Paraguay. Guess he didn’t see them the same way. In that crucial moment, Evita becomes Lady Macbeth to keep him on track.

Landing the Next LeBron Is Just Step One in “King Liz”

Review: King Liz

By Perry Tannenbaum

Wheeling and dealing, trading on her feminine wiles, sports agent Liz Rico is a dynamic dynamo in Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz. To keep her edge, Liz has to lie and cheat, sweet-talk and scold, soothing some mighty male egos while knowing her shit better than any of them. She must fight tooth-and-claw for every client and every dollar while keeping her calculating cool.

In the heat of an NBA draft session, Liz hopes to land her hotshot high school point guard, Freddie Luna, with the New York Knicks. Playing all the contingencies, Liz makes promises to the New York Nets that she doesn’t intend keep, works the phone further to keep the Knicks interested, and fervently prays that some other team doesn’t mess up her schemes by snatching up her player – and ruining her cred with everybody she’s been dealing with.

Including her boss, Mr. Candy, who has been dangling the prospect of letting Liz take over the company when he retires.

After the draft, Liz’s trials have barely begun. Coach Jones isn’t on the same page as the Knicks’ GM on Freddie’s readiness for the NBA, so the rookie’s place in the starting lineup and his actual playing time are both unknowns. Further threatening Freddie’s marketability are the kid’s impoverished, violent past, his hair-trigger temper, his déclassé friends, and his inexperience in the media spotlight.

The current Three Bone Theatre production at Spirit Square has a couple of extra déclassé elements that don’t chime well with Coppel’s script. The first is Three Bone’s budget, which doesn’t allow set designer Ryan Maloney to come anywhere close to simulating the office at a high-powered sports agency that boasts such big-name clients as James Harden, Kevin Love, and Carmelo Anthony.

Though she undoubtedly has the power and charisma for the full range of King Liz, I sometimes felt that Shar Marlin needed to be more of a smooth operator to completely define her. Having directed Marlin’s stunning performance last year in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director Corlis Hayes had to be supremely confident that this force of nature was equal to tackling Liz. But Hayes doesn’t altogether curb Marlin’s inclination to carry elements of the blues divas she has played – Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey – over to a more modern powerhouse who has the finesse to wow a boardroom.

I’m not sure that a big wheel like Liz needs to do quite so much yelling working the phones and bossing her assistant. Less would have counted more.

Granted, the streets and the projects loom large in Liz’s background, allowing her to empathize with Freddie, but if Marlin were finding them in Liz rather than Rainey, her manner would be more consistently elegant. Yet we need to acknowledge that Marlin nearly makes Liz a cohesive person despite the fact that Coppel makes her excessively chameleonic. Coppel does have that tendency. If you think Liz flits from persona to persona in the blink of an eye, wait to till you hear about her board of directors’ flipflops in the final scenes.

The script only takes us back to 2015, when Phil Jackson was GM at the Knicks, but Hayes manages to accent the #MeToo elements of the story, encouraging Tim Huffman to remain a blowhard as Mr. Candy while adding a sprinkling of Harvey Weinstein sleaziness. Costume designer Ramsey Lyric puts an exclamation point on Mariana Bracciale’s transformation as Gabby Fuentes, Liz’s ambitious assistant, making sure we see how much more willing she is to play ball with Candy.

Marlin fares better outside the office, strategically captivating Coach Jones without giving in or quashing his desires. Hooking Freddie and keeping him in line requires even more virtuosic hairpin turns from Liz, so Marlin gets to show the agent’s wiliness until Freddie breaks loose from her control, exposing her doubts and insecurities. He can’t control himself, so how can she?

Although Sultan Omar El-Amin doesn’t boast the physicality of a point guard sporting the stats of a latter-day LeBron James, he has proven himself to be a master of youthful roles that require resentfulness and volatility. Once we get past his lack of size, muscles, and tattoos, El-Amin grows on us, sparking empathy and frustration with equal force. Jermaine A. Gamble has played his share of brooding youths recently, so it’s gratifying to see how convincingly he ages here as Coach Jones, adding a hint of a limp to give his mellow pursuit of Liz extra poignancy. His put-downs of Freddie hardly qualify as tough love – kindness is an unaffordable luxury when your job with a perennial losing team is on the line.

The wildcard in Coppel’s scenario is Barbara Flowers, a TV host that Liz is counting on to help her repair Freddie’s damaged image after he goes off the rails at a postgame interview. Disdaining the obvious prompt to do a Barbara Walters imitation, Susan Ballard initially does give us the impression that Flowers will toss Freddie one softball question after another on her show as Liz and Coach Jones sit beside him, holding his hand. But when Flowers discards Liz’s playbook and goes rogue, Ballard makes her a hard-nosed journalist asking tough hardball questions, way beyond Walters cordiality and a fair distance beyond civility.

It’s in these interview scenes that Coppel’s penchant for abrupt surprises works best. Freddie has definite rough edges, but the media can grow cruel fangs when they smell blood. In a stressful stew of crisis and tantalizing ambitions, Liz must reassess the consequences of her goals and who she wants to be.

A Black Female Jerry Maguire Shows Up at a Perfect Moment

Preview: King Liz

By Perry Tannenbaum

Every couple of years, we flip our TV’s to the Olympics and bask in the illusion that women are vital, equal members of the sports world, ascending to the medals podiums and brightening our winters with their exploits in skiing, luge, and figure skating. Then the bubble bursts, the clock strikes midnight, and we exit Fantasyland into the drabness of real life where sports is a man’s world – until the summer games briefly rekindle the torch two years later.

Between Olympiads, women athletes are regarded as unmarketable, except for tennis players, soccer stars, figure skaters, and the elite basketballers of the marginalized WNBA. Couldn’t support a WNBA team here, could we? There are women broadcasting and reporting local sports all around the country, along with the occasional sideline TV reporter on national feeds, but no woman has ever sat behind the desk with the jocks and coaches for a halftime or postgame NFL broadcast – and networks broadcasting NBA games are also exclusive man caves when a game is in progress.

So triple bravas to Three Bone Theatre for opening Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz at precisely the right moment, during the Winter Games when a battery of TV networks is reminding us what women really can do in sports.

Coppel takes us off the NBA court, away from the broadcast booths and studios, behind the scenes and into the sphere of high-powered sports agents vying to represent topnotch b-ball prospects and squeeze team owners for top-dollar contracts. It’s an arena that requires smarts, guile, charisma, quick thinking, and bargaining grit if you want to reach the top.

This is where Liz Rico is making her mark. Coppel, a lesbian Latina, has said that Liz can be portrayed by either a black or Latina actor. After reading the script several times, director Corlis Hayes saw definite similarities between Liz and the strong women at the heart of August Wilson’s cycle of ten dramas chronicling African American life in the 20th century.

“Both playwrights’ women are very complex and independent,” says Hayes. “Liz Rico has a similar feminine power, like Bernice in The Piano Lesson, Rose in Fences, and Molly in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. These women know what they want and get it. All of them are willing to pay a price.”

Only one of them knows hoops.

“Being a NBA fan for years really paid off for [Coppel] because the language and dialogue through the script are realistic and well researched,” Hayes reveals. “When she was a little girl, she was obsessed with the Bulls.”

Although she says that the jury is still out on whether King Liz is a lesbian, Hayes tells us there is no doubt that she’s a feminist and a former athlete – one who had a mean crossover dribble during her playing days at Yale. Liz competes in the Jerry Maguire stratosphere of kingpin agents like Scott Boras and Tom Condon. Her superstar client list puts her in that rarefied air.

“Just as these kings know how to make deals lying, cheating and stealing for their clients so does Liz Rico……. Maybe more??” Hayes says. “She can hold her own against any man in the business and has the tenacity to go toe to toe with her toughest male counterpart to get the NBA deal signed.”

In this drama, Liz has her sights set on Freddie Luna, a high school point guard touted as the next LeBron, with all the stats that make such a claim credible. He’s got the skillset that would make perennial losers like the New York Knicks salivate at the chance of signing him to a multi-year zillion dollar contract. But Freddie has a downside. Keeping him marketable will be as challenging for Liz as landing him.

“He is a young hothead from the Bronx projects with a criminal record,” Hayes says. “Freddie lacks the maturity to handle his quick fame and wealth. Still, in Freddie she sees herself… a young ambitious novice looking for a break in a world that has rarely forgiven those with a tragic past coming out of the projects of urban communities.”

So there’s a bit of a soft spot marinating in there with Liz’s toughness, just not enough to give Hayes any doubts about who she saw in the role. We were as impressed by Shar Marlin as Hayes was when the diva took her latest star turn in an August Wilson play last spring. That performance – directed by Hayes – drew our Best Actress accolades in our Best of Charlotte awards for 2017.

“After directing Shar in Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Hayes confides, “I could not think of anyone else that could bring the passion, power and sensuality that I needed for Liz. Shar is a powerhouse, and she gets the character. She is not afraid of a challenge and willing to put in the work. And who else can deliver those juicy and nasty zingers throughout the play than Shar?”

Marlin has played two blues empresses in recent years, Bessie Smith for OnQ Productions in For the Love of Harlem and Ma Rainey at CPCC Theatre. Playing those roles enabled Marlin to see beyond their bold and brassy fronts – down to the vulnerabilities that afflicted and weakened all African Americans nearly a century ago.

“It’s a wide leap for me,” Marlin maintains. “Being a boss in a more modern day piece makes me feel empowered and stronger than my characters in past performances.”

But that bluesy toughness definitely comes in handy. And so does her sports-savvy family.

“The essence of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith has been carried over into this piece, especially when it comes to being respected for their gift and craft,” Marlin admits. “Their tough exterior and courage, to me, has been the true foundation for Liz Rico. Learning the ins and outs of basketball is definitely out of my comfort zone. I’m a girlie girl. Having a son and husband who know the sport truly has helped me connect to the industry as a whole.”

Freddie turns out to be quite a handful for even the ever-resourceful Liz. She has found how good it is to be the king after she has lied, cheated, gabbed, and called upon her sex appeal to reach that pinnacle. But in discovering a connection with Freddie, Liz reaches a turning point, realizing that she may not be as fulfilled as she thought.

“Her growth is very evident in this piece because you see in the beginning that she is solely about money, power and position,” says Marlin, careful about revealing too much. “Her goal in life is to be on top, but that top position will come with an ultimate price. In the end, a huge wake up call will turn her ideas of success into an unexpected revelation.”

Whatever that revelation is, you can expect Marlin to deliver it powerfully.

Celebrity Pistol-Packing Rogues Deliver Guilty Pleasures in “Bonnie & Clyde”

Review: Bonnie & Clyde

By Perry Tannenbaum

Since the days of his greatest successes, with Jekyll & Hyde (1997-2001) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1997-2000), most of Frank Wildhorn’s Broadway musicals haven’t run more than a month. That includes a revival of Jekyll, Wildhorn’s longest-running show, in 2013 and Bonnie & Clyde, which somehow couldn’t make it through the end of December – the highest grossing month of the year – in 2011. Hearing that the short-lived Bonnie & Clyde was coming to Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts roused a morbid curiosity for me: how could a notorious story that won six Oscars in 1968, including Best Picture, flame out so spectacularly in a musical adaptation? Knowing that Billy Ensley, one of Charlotte’s best, would be directing sealed my resolve to investigate.

With the appearance Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow as children at the top of the show, it quickly became apparent that Ivan Menchell’s book was not an adaptation of the sensational film. Unlike the Bonnie portrayed by Faye Dunaway, Menchell’s is a ravishing redhead rather than a blond. There’s never really a Barrow Gang, and though this Clyde aspires to fancy clothes, his dream didn’t come true in Matthews. Most puzzling of all, we don’t see Bonnie and Clyde snapping photos of each other – their most modern trait! – although the authentic period projections go way beyond mugshots. So it’s plausible to me now that the Broadway version of this musical didn’t strictly flop on its merits. Boomers expecting to see the style and gore of the iconic film were disappointed, while it’s very likely that younger theatergoers had never even heard of Bonnie and Clyde.

Armed with a reported $6 million budget, there were presumably more costume changes up in New York than Matthews designer Lisa Altieri provides for Bonnie, but with 20 people in the cast, four of them in multiple roles, Altieri is far from idle and contributes some very fine work. What really made this community theatre effort look like a million bucks was the scenic team of designer John Bayless and scenic change artist Beth Aderhold. Weathered wooden slats span the Fullwood Theatre stage, trisected by two sturdy vertical beams. The columns of slats can be raised like window shades, keeping the flow of action going cinematically as the slats rise to reveal new scenes – or slide back downwards to serve as rustic screens for the old-timey projections, mostly of newspaper headlines, mugshots, and snapshots of our celebrity public enemies. At critical moments, a two-seat jalopy showed up in the middle of it all, no less realistic than the photos I’ve seen of the Broadway roadster.

Not only did Ensley brilliantly contrive to keep the action moving, he brought ace talent to the lead roles and beyond. Joe McCourt, who plays Clyde’s vacillating older brother, Buck Barrow, has starred in numerous musicals at Theatre Charlotte in recent years, including Memphis and Avenue Q. Embittering Buck’s every breath, Emily Witte is his very Christian wife Blanche, after playing a similar spoiler role as Amneris in the Disney Aïda at Theatre Charlotte last fall. This bickering pair would have upstaged the title players if Ensley hadn’t found such strong protagonists as Steven Buchanan and Lindsey Schroeder.

Buchanan was definitely in his comfort zone performing edgier fare, for he played prominent roles in Queen City Theatre Company’s The Pride and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s American Idiot last year. Here he sported a hairdo that was halfway between Hitler and punk, looking lean, Brando mean – in a tank top undershirt – and dangerous. Scene work with Bonnie is a tasty mix of tender and raw, but Buchanan is somewhat monochromatic under arrest or during his larcenous, murderous rampage, barking his commands and forsaking the Warren Beatty charm offensive of the film. Ensley should have occasionally reined him in a bit and reminded him that he’s wearing a microphone as well as a pistol.

Opening in the ensemble of Evita at CPCC Theatre the weekend after her last performance as Bonnie Parker, Lindsey Schroeder is the one new find among the principals. She takes to every aspect of Parker, most especially to her thrill-seeking, her narcissism, and her lust for Hollywood and pinup fame. Schroeder can belt too, so watch out for “How ‘Bout a Dance” and “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.” Overall, Wildhorn’s score wasn’t nearly as bothersome as you’d expect from an epic Broadway flop, but there are noticeable stretch marks on its beauty. Witte does a fine job on behalf of homebodies with “That’s What You Call a Dream,” but Blanche’s Christianity opens up a whole new sector of Gospelized expression that I didn’t recall from the movie. Church scenes are essentially extraneous to the main storyline, but it gave Wildhorn an excuse to widen the variety of his score. Off my radar since 2009, Phil Fowler came to the rescue for a couple of doses of “God’s Arms Are Always Open.” Even if it was a narrative detour, it was a rousing showstopper in the positive sense of the word.

Holiday Grow and Donavan Abeshaus were both excellent in introducing us to the young Bonnie and Clyde. Carol Kelly and Scott C. Reynolds were winsome as Clyde’s rusticated parents, and Carol Weiner was prim yet warm as Bonnie’s mom, quietly urging her daughter to come to her senses – and choose the hometown sheriff who clearly adores her. Andrew Tarek plays that role beautifully, with seething jealous fury toward Clyde and tender hat-holding deference toward Bonnie. I found myself hating this Sheriff Hinton without a good reason why, and I surprised myself once again by rooting for Bonnie and Clyde here almost as fervently as I did in the 1967 film, despite the trail of crime and bloodshed they insouciantly left in their wake. Celebrity pistol-packing rogues are likely unique to America, more to our shame than our glory.

“The Greatest” Grows Up

Preview: And in This Corner: Cassius Clay

By Perry Tannenbaum

Adam Burke came to Charlotte because of his passion for youth theatre and education. After a stint as founding artistic director of Chicago Theatre for Young Audiences, Burke took a five-year detour into academia at a San Antonio university. When the artistic director position at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte came open, the ImaginOn theater facilities and the strong link with the CharMeck Library system became irresistible lures.

He took over at ImaginOn at the start of the 2013-14 season, concentrating his stage directing efforts on new works. Big new works like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical and Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella – and richly entertaining extravaganzas like The Reluctant Dragon and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

Now in his fifth season of overseeing Children’s Theatre’s programming, Burke knows better than ever that he’s speaking to the community as well as its children, a community that is visibly changing. Or maybe waking up to its true image in the mirror after years of blind complacency.

Opening this week, And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, directed by Aaron Cabell, is the second biographical study of its kind to play at ImaginOn in the past three years. Jackie & Me, about baseball great Jackie Robinson, opened in February 2015. Burke reflected on the challenges of presenting meaningful, impactful plays in our current climate.

Creative Loafing: Children’s Theatre presented Jackie & Me almost exactly three years ago, not long after And in This Corner: Cassius Clay premiered in Louisville, Muhammad Ali’s hometown. So was there discussion at that time about following up Jackie with Cassius, or is this series of Children’s Theatre productions about pioneering black athletes more accidental than intentional?

Adam Burke: We did not specifically intend to follow Jackie & Me with another piece about a pioneering black athlete. I was aware of this play being developed in Louisville when it was happening and was hoping that it would end up being a strong script that we could eventually produce. And in This Corner: Cassius Clay asks some big questions about the world that Cassius Clay lived in during the 1950’s and 1960’s – and equally about the world that we live in today.

In the current local climate, how are you hoping parents and children will process this story? How confident are you that the community will pass the test of hearing the N-word spoken at Cassius Clay?

We live in a very different world today than we did when we produced Jackie & Me three years ago. Both plays, Jackie & Me as well as And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, contain the N-word as written by the playwrights. Three years ago we proactively informed every school that intended to bring students that the playwright had included the word in the script. We did the same this season with And in This Corner: Cassius Clay.

Three years ago, we didn’t have any schools withdraw from coming to see the show due to the use of the N-word by the playwright. To date this season we’ve had several. We as parents, as teachers, and as a community, can’t be afraid to bring students to a play that deals with civil rights issues because of the use of the N-word. It’s a painful word to hear, and we abhor its use in everyday life, but pretending it doesn’t exist won’t help make anything better.

Cassius Clay, before and after he became Muhammad Ali, was brash, boastful and divisive before validating himself as “The Greatest.” How much does Idris Goodwin’s script filter out Clay’s not-so-role-model youthful traits?

In this play, Cassius Clay absolutely is a role model. This is a play about a young African-American boy who is learning some truths about the racism that exists in this community. He speaks his mind openly and confidently and asks big questions. I hope this play inspires all of our young audience members to live with their eyes wide open and to question everything.

Casting Cassius, how locked in were you to Clay/Ali’s signature physical traits? Were you able to find such an actor in Charlotte’s talent pool, or were you forced to reach out regionally or nationwide?

Ideally we wanted someone who looked a lot like Cassius Clay and had the ability to capture the spirit of the man. The director found an actor, Deon Releford-Lee, at our season auditions who he strongly felt could play the role. The directors at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte cast their own shows whenever possible.

Considering how important Children’s Theatre’s voice is in this town, do you feel a certain obligation to continue this series of historical dramas?

It is important that Children’s Theatre continues to support our community and tell stories that reflect our social, cultural and political climate. We have a lot of “irons in the fire” so to speak that we believe speak to our young audience and the world in which they live. We are currently deeply invested in The Kindness Project where we’ve committed to commission, create and produce three new plays based on books that all speak to themes of kindness. They each, in their own way, discuss the difference between feeling sympathy or empathy and committing an act of kindness. You can’t feel kind…you have to actually do something in order to be kind.

People Messing With Other People Keep “The Luckiest People” Lively

Review: The Luckiest People

By Perry Tannenbaum

“Grow old along with me, The best is yet to be,” Rabbi Ben Ezra famously says in a Robert Browning poem, but tragic heroes King Lear and Willy Loman would probably have sided with my mom. She keeps telling me: “Young is better.” At Hadley Theatre, tucked away on the Queens University campus, playwright Meridith Friedman significantly compounds the controversy in The Luckiest People. In this Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by Sidney Horton, Friedman’s charming comedy-drama revolves around Oscar Hoffman, who is stranded by the death of his beloved wife, Dorothy, in a California assisted-living community, deeply lonely with myriad aches, pains, and complaints.

Most of these complaints, some fairly hilarious, are poured into his son Richard’s ears – plus the insinuation that he was responsible for letting his mom die. Oscar’s other child, Laura, has managed to distance herself from the fray, living in Shanghai and delaying her arrival until the funeral because she couldn’t stand to face her mom during her final hours.

So yes, Friedman sometimes seems to hint that caring for your parents as they journey toward their final transition might be at least as agonizing as experiencing it. That impression, however, is undercut by another perspective.

Layered onto all the love-hate friction between Oscar and his children is Richard’s relationship with his partner David. Richard and David are close to adopting a son when Oscar, ignorant of these plans, decides that the time has come for him to leave his place and move in with his son.

One transitioning child is enough for Richard and David to handle in their household, but David watches as Richard uses his father’s needs – and the possibility of his moving in – as excuses to drag his feet on the adoption. Although he himself becomes the target of Oscar’s testiness, David also sees that Richard is more than a little hypertense in dealing with Dad’s needs, complaints, and accusations. Oscar and Richard were born and raised as New York Jews while David is a comparatively mellow California Christian, apparently unacquainted with weaponized guilt.

Because Laura must return to Shanghai, Friedman compresses the bulk of her action into just a few days. That’s long enough for David – and us – to get the notion that Richard and Laura aren’t suffering so much because their dad is really tormenting them. They’re suffering because neither of them is really a grownup. Maybe Richard isn’t ready for parenthood after all.

Leaning over to that point of view can happen if we forget what a handful Oscar can be. Or we can catch ourselves laying the blame on Oscar for his children’s stunted growth. It’s complicated. Fully drawn dramatic families usually are.

Clearly reveling in the height of the Hadley, where Actor’s Theatre has recently inked a deal to be Queens U’s resident theatre for the next five years, executive director Chip Decker has put on his scenic designer hat and built two adjoining rooms at different levels. One of them is Oscar’s modest living room and the other, tellingly larger, is Robert’s kitchen. Of course there’s room for everybody!

Horton has a great sense for how Friedman’s comedy and drama should mix and how the Hoffman family’s humor and anger should suddenly erupt – and there’s a pretty wonderful cast at his command. In this rolling world premiere, Dennis Delamar gets the chance to reprise and further develop his Oscar, a role he originated in staged readings at the NuVoices Festival of 2016. Stooped over, stubborn, selfish, whip smart, and half blind, he is a thorny person to deal with. He’s still holding a grudge over transplanting from Great Neck, New York, to sunny California; yet late in life, Delamar shows us very naturally that Oscar still has possibilities for personal growth.

On the other hand, we might resist the notion that the perpetually tentative or exasperated Richard will ever loosen up, for until the final scene, in a nuanced performance seething with hidden fire, Tim Ross keeps him looking stressed or depressed. Some of that anger even carries over from his scenes with his father and his lover to his scattered tête-à-têtes with his wayward sister. Huddled with little Laura, Ross makes sure we also see an older, wiser brother, with glints of maturity, responsibility, and an aptitude for parenting.

Eventually, both Oscar and Richard emerge as our protagonists. When that happens, we’re likely to realize that Laura and David have both been part of the alchemy. Susan Stein makes an auspicious Charlotte debut as Laura, obviously the loosey-goosey sib from the moment she first enters. Laura is the one who has taken all the leaps into matrimony, motherhood, and now infidelity that Richard is wary of, and Stein makes her self-justifying zingers nearly as memorable as those Oscar aims at his caregivers and over-the-hill neighbors.

All of Friedman’s illuminating edifice probably wouldn’t have collapsed if she had made David a little less perfect, but Scott A. Miller, one of our best, finds a way to texturize him. Mostly, we empathize with David because we see how hurt he is by Oscar’s slights and Richard’s failures to commit, smiling weakly yet persevering with firm resolve. He also has a tête-à-tête or two with Laura, but you can count on Miller to make these more relaxed, conspiratorial, and gossipy.

My only disappointment on opening night was the size of the crowd. The place on Radcliffe Avenue can be a little difficult to find the first time out, but a show this warm and rich is definitely worth the trouble. These are, as the relevant song says, “people who need people,” and you’ll likely never see Delamar or Ross in better form than at the Hadley in The Luckiest People.

The Other Shue Drops at Theatre Charlotte With “The Nerd”

Review: The Nerd

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s only infrequently that playwright Larry Shue’s name crops up on the Charlotte theatre scene. The New Orleans native, whose comedies were all premiered at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, died in an airplane crash at the age of 39, while his most familiar work, The Foreigner, was still playing off-Broadway. Charlotte Repertory Theatre staged that backwoods farce during the same year that Shue died, 1985, and it was a huge hit, so huge that when Rep marked its 25th anniversary in 2001, a revival of The Foreigner was part of their celebration.

Yet Shue’s “other” comedy, The Nerd, also figured significantly in Rep’s history, for when the company went from a summertime schedule to year-round status in 1988, The Nerd was the company’s first non-summer production. Thirty years later, the current Theatre Charlotte presentation of The Nerd is actually its Charlotte premiere, for Rep staged this wacky comedy at Davidson College.

Wacky might be considered a gracious description of The Nerd, which premiered in Milwaukee two years before The Foreigner and arrived on Broadway two years after its worthier sibling. Silly, over-the-top, and unfocused might be better ways to describe this belated coming-of-age story of young architect Willum Cubbert. We first encounter the low-key Willum as he’s insufficiently surprised by his 28th birthday party. The surprises have hardly begun, for the party is wildly impacted by the unexpected arrival of the title character, Rick Steadman, who retains Willum’s undying gratitude for saving his life in Vietnam.

Thanks to other guests, excesses abound before Rick’s bodacious entrance. Not only is Willum’s current client, Warnock Waldgrave, insensitive to the niceties of Willum’s architectural drawings, he comes to the party with a neurotic wife and a fiercely obnoxious daughter. The little brat has thrown two or three tantrums, assaulted her dad and other adults, and locked herself stubbornly in the bathroom on multiple occasions a sedate warmup compared to the action after Rick arrives. As you might presume, the extremely starchy Warnock and the preternaturally eccentric and irritating Rick are not destined to get along.

Aside from Willum, whose gratitude toward Rick and dependence on Warnock prevent him from taking a hard line, two of Willum’s friends, Axel Hammond and Tansy McGinnis, try to mediate as the party spirals further out of control. Tansy is particularly sympathetic toward Willum. She’s his girlfriend now but will soon be breaking his heart when she moves from Terre Haute, Indiana, to DC, where she has a job waiting for her as a TV weathergirl. Axel is a drama critic, so he’s more inclined to crack wise than be helpful.

Just when it seems that Willum’s evening can’t get any worse, Rick makes his second entrance, suitcases in hand, intent on moving in. It’s here that Shue begins to misdirect us or lose focus, for everyone onstage except Rick becomes intently preoccupied with expelling Willum’s noxious visitor. We’re likely to forget that Tansy has really set the agenda early on in a conversation with Axel.

With set and lighting by John P. Woodey, this Theatre Charlotte production has a very sharp and detailed look to it, augmented by Sabrina Blanks’ splendid costume designs. Mom Clelia and daughter Thoralee clash like crazy in their party outfits, and Rick, dogged in insisting that this is a Halloween party, is positively unearthly when he arrives. Directing this mayhem, Jill Bloede takes a sensible approach, drawing outré performances from her three most noisome players, Trulyn Rhinehardt as the incorrigible Thoralee, Simon Donaghue as a perpetually outraged Warnock, and Jonathan Slaughter as The Nerd.

Rhinehardt misbehaves with such savage zest that you’ll want to take a stick to her. I don’t mind saying that I most delighted in Thoralee when she fainted from fright. Even if Bloede hadn’t changed Thoralee’s gender – Shue originally saddled Warnock with a Thor – I don’t think that a fainting spell by a bratty boy would have been any more satisfying. Donoghue’s powerful take on Warnock seemed to be the only misguided aspect of Bloede’s approach: why didn’t he take a stick or a belt – or a machine gun – to his unruly daughter, and why didn’t he simply fire Willum on the spot for ruining his day? Whatever softness accounted for Warnock’s forbearance wasn’t visible.

Slaughter’s way with Rick, not far distant in its absurdity from the sound and awkwardness of the Nutty Professor minted by Jerry Lewis, always bordered precariously on the unbelievable. There were times when Rick seemed to be trying to irritate everyone in sight, exactly the impression that Shue would have approved of. A tad too young to be playing Willum, perhaps, Cole Pedigo was a near-perfect foil for Rick’s nuttiness once he conquered his opening-night jitters. Shue wanted us to see a talented desirable man who is kind, grateful, and accommodating to a fault. That was exactly how we saw Pedigo.

Shue’s women weren’t as well drawn here as they would be in The Foreigner, but Bloede probably could have pushed Allison Kranz as Tansy and Audrey Wells as Clelia further toward farce. They also suffer at the epic birthday party from hell, Tansy especially after she slaves over a custom-made dinner and Clelia most memorably when she quizzes Rick about his love life. Perhaps if Shue had made her more decisive, Tansy would have seemed less vanilla as the would-be weathergirl, so Kranz definitely needed to pick her spots to show us that she was worthy of Willum’s adoration. Mostly, Shue and I forgot about her. Of course, Clelia was as much generic comedy material as her child, but Shue gave her some bravura business to perform in her reactions. Bloede should have lit the fire that would have made these diva moments for Wells. We weren’t as close to Carol Burnett as we should have been.

Deep in the weave of Shue’s plot is Axel, whose scheme to exorcise Rick in Act 2 is approximately as disastrous as the birthday party was before intermission. Chip Bradley is sufficiently urbane and snarky as this theatre critic, but I sometimes got the impression that he was a late addition to the cast. Along with a few instances of slow cue pickup, Bradley fumbled a few lines before getting them right. I’ve seen him do better in productions just as fast-paced as this one, so I’m expecting better performances in the nights ahead.

Coping with so many moving parts and quirks, Charlotte Rep also had some rough edges in its opening night performance of The Nerd 30 years ago. You wouldn’t want to tame all of this volatile ball of energy, but a little more energy here and a little sharpening there would help Theatre Charlotte’s production to snap into better shape.


New Plays, New Place, and New Hope at Actor’s Theatre

Preview of The Luckiest People


By Perry Tannenbaum

Trashy musicals, irreverent spoofs, and trendy new works by black and feminist playwrights aren’t the only things Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has done well over the past 29 years. Around the country, when their artistic and administrative staff attend national conferences with their colleagues, they find that a big part of the company’s reputation rests on their commitment to nurturing new plays.

After two years of instability and uncertainty – and two full seasons without reviving their NuVoices Festival – Actor’s Theatre is getting back to that. This week, they’re opening Meridith Friedman’s The Luckiest People, part of a rolling world premiere that began in Denver. In May, the company will be part of another rolling world premiere, presenting David Valdes Greenwood’s The Mermaid Hour.

Both of these new plays were previously presented in reading stage productions at NuVoices 4 in January 2016, with all of the actors performing script-in-hand. No scenery, no costumes, and limited rehearsal.

NuVoices 4 was one of the last events at 615 E. Stonewall Street, ATC’s last permanent home before developers’ wrecking balls demolished the site. After a misadventure in the Belmont neighborhood near Plaza-Midwood, the company was supposed to reopen at 2219 Freedom Drive late in October 2016.

Instead, they had to move Toxic Avenger a block away to the City Center Church, of all places, the first of four unforeseen sites where ATC’s 2016-17 season was staged. Until last fall, when Actor’s Theatre launched their current season with American Idiot, subscribers never knew where the next production would crop up.

That’s when ATC announced that Freedom Drive was still on hold and that their next two productions would remain at Hadley Theatre on the Queens University campus. But after that?

Now we know. Luckiest People, Mermaid Hour, and The Mountaintop will all be at the Hadley. More importantly, ATC artistic director Chip Decker and John Sisko, dean of Queens U’s College of Arts & Sciences, have just inked a deal that will keep ATC on campus as the U’s resident theatre company for the next five years.

From necessity to desperation to near-relief, it’s been quite a rollercoaster for Decker, his board members, and ATC’s loyal fans. “We’re off life support but still in ER,” Decker quips. “In a better hospital.”

Sisko arrived at Queens in the summer of 2016, when all seemed to be going smoothly with ATC’s relocation. After the abortive opening in October and a subsequent revival of The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical at the McBride-Bonnefoux Dance Center – a horrid acoustic mismatch for a live musical – Sisko wasn’t hearing any signs of life, so he reached out.

Down at Freedom Drive, one hurdle was following another. Parking had to be upgraded to satisfy the City, architects’ drawings kept getting sent back for tiny inaccuracies. Think about this one the next time you walk through the metal canyons of a parking lot to find your car: Decker and his company had to shell out thousands of dollars to get an engineer to certify that the concrete slab – one that had held up a mechanic’s shop and the building itself for 50 years – could support an audience.

“We were slowly bleeding money to death.”

After Bootycandy ran at Mint Museum, Stupid Fucking Bird was staged at the Hadley last spring, a clear signal that Sisko and Queens U brass were unfazed by ATC’s edgy fare. Decker quickly recognized that this would be the finest venue his company had ever performed in. By far.


The lightbulb came on, and Decker invited Sisko out to grab some coffee and chat about the future.

“It took me a long time to quit beating my head against the wall to make Freedom Drive happen,” Decker recalls. “Having the passion for something and wanting it so bad, I kind of started being blind to the writing on the wall. We were at the point, Perry, and I shared this with John, and I said, ‘We’re do or die. We’re either going to close, or something different is going to work.’”

When Sisko saw how well Stupid Bird went, concern about ATC’s struggle gave way to recognizing the opportunities that bringing the company on board could open. ATC could offer technical support for Theatre Department productions during the academic year, they could offer internships to graduating students, they could oversee a summer theatre festival with performances on the quad under the stars, and they could teach courses about theatre production and administration.

“ATC is the backbone of the Queens theatre program, and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” Sisko says. “We have parents who are a little worried about their children being an arts major. But when they’re an arts major and they have 30 credits on the business side of the arts as well, then they are in better position when they face post-graduation.”

Talks are already under way on prospects of reviving the NuVoices Festival as early as this summer, and Decker is already salivating at the prospects. At previous festivals, the four playwrights, four directors, and their casts had to rehearse and perform on a single space at Stonewall. On the Queens campus, there will be multitudes of classrooms at ATC’s disposal, playwrights will be able to interact and talk shop, or simply do rewrites – on the quad, in some greenspace, or in a classroom instead of a hotel.

“They can all come together and talk about the process of playwriting, what it takes to get it produced,” says Decker. “Queens can bring in their MFA creative writing students for master classes with the playwrights on how do you get seen, how do you get published, how do you get your word out there, what it literally takes to become a professional writer on the scene.”

With the opening of The Luckiest People this week, ignition for whole process gets revved up again, because NuVoices is one of very few festivals across the country that promises a full production for every winning entry.

Dennis Delamar, a longtime actor and director at ATC, is doubly excited: he’s reprising the central role of Oscar Hoffman two years closer to the irascible old SOB’s actual age, and he’s performing for the first time at the Hadley knowing that the company has their feet back under them.

Under cross-examination, Delamar can catalog why Oscar is so difficult as he seeks to impose himself on his son’s household – just when he and his male partner are adopting a son. There’s the culture shock of moving from Great Neck, NY, to California; the many physical torments of Paget’s disease; the recent death of his devoted wife; and the pure cussedness of a Jewish trial lawyer who revels in disputation. Even his sharp sense of humor is thorny.

NuVoices gives this role an extra charge. “Being on the ground floor of a new piece of theatre is pretty thrilling,” says Delamar, “a professional collaboration that offers one an opportunity to offer one’s own unique interpretation while the playwright is still in the ‘making it better’ stages.”

Participating in NuVoices gave Delamar the opportunity to meet the playwright and learn first-hand how she drew his character from her own Great Neck grandfather. Thanks to Facebook, Delamar stayed in touch, conferring with Friedman when she made further revisions.

“I felt quite comfortable to write to her about a significant moment for Oscar I noticed had been changed,” he confides. “Taking time to explain to me the history and logic of the change, Meridith reminded me how much I appreciate working with this gifted and open minded writer. She listens. She is wise. I agreed with the change and loved that we could confer so openly about it.”

Yes, the thrill is back at ATC – with new plays and new hope.

“All the signs from this last year together suggest that it’s going to work out extremely well,” says Sisko.

“School of Rock” Sports Heavy-Metal Vulgarity

Review:  School of Rock

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dewey Finn is not your model citizen. A wayward adherent to the religion of hard rock and heavy metal, Dewey is vastly self-absorbed. When he gets booted out of his No Vacancy band, presumably for stealing focus from the shirtless lead singer, Dewey sponges contentedly and thanklessly off former bandmate Ned Schneebly. Worse, when an opportunity opens for Ned as a substitute teacher at a prestigious private school, Dewey steals it.

Masquerading as Ned, Dewey remains true to his slovenly egocentric creed, arriving to his first day at work late and hung over. More alert on Day Two, he discards the normal schedule and curriculum, ditching math and social studies in favor of turning his students into a rock band. Dewey remains steadfast in his ambition to qualify for, compete in, and emerge victorious in the upcoming Battle of the Bands.

After heroes and antiheroes that included the biblical Joseph and Jesus, the Phantom of the Opera and Grizabella, Evita Peron and Norma Desmond, you could say that Dewey Finn shattered the mold for Andrew Lloyd Webber protagonists when School of Rock opened on Broadway in December 2015. Although it never became anything like the moneymaker Phantom still is after 30 years, Rock is still running – while subsequent revivals of Cats and Sunset Boulevard are not.

From what I could see at Ovens Auditorium on opening night, word-of-mouth in Charlotte will concur with the Broadway verdict.

What makes Dewey appealing is his sheer vulgarity, which nearly reaches full John Belushi proportions. But there’s more, mainly the unsavoriness of all the other adults onstage, beginning with the No Vancancies who let Dewey go. Ned is preternaturally wimpy, more dependent on his inhaler than a meth addict, and his girlfriend Patty is dominatrix-grade hostile.

At school, Dewey’s colleagues are suburban bland. At home, the students’ parents are variously unloving and/or unsupportive. The principal, Rosalie Mullins, is the essence of by-the-book rigor, believing that this is what those wealthy parents are paying for. Winning Rosalie over is the key to realizing Dewey’s hard rockin’ aspirations, and he hits upon the perfect scheme, asking her out to a local dive and plying her with cheap beer and Stevie Nicks.

Scenic and costume designs by Anna Louizos have the same look on tour as they had on Broadway – as far as Ovens will allow. When the School of Rock band finally gets their shot at the Battle of the Bands showdown, there’s no visible spot for the skeptical parent to sit – like, say, the box seats at Belk Theater? – while the kids prove themselves.

The size of cavernous Ovens, seating over 60% more than the Winter Garden on Broadway, makes it more difficult to hear Dewey’s fifth graders clearly – and more difficult for most ticketholders to see the mutually beneficial relationship developing between them. Really, I couldn’t find any distance between Rob Colletti’s disheveled charm on tour and Alex Brightman’s on Broadway, nor were the kids’ talents any less precocious than those I witnessed at the Winter Garden.

But the mojo that starts happening in the classroom with “You’re in the Band,” as Dewey matches students with their instruments (no, I don’t know how he snuck in a complete drum kit), seems comparatively muted and diluted in the vast Ovens space. Here’s where the kids get their first fix of that you’re-really-good intoxicant their sub is dishing out while Dewey gets his first inkling of how fulfilling it can be to do something for somebody else. On Broadway, this is where I knew that Lloyd Webber was onto something when he decided to adapt the 2003 film starring Jack Black. At Ovens, we’re still unsure.

We never tap in quite as intimately to Dewey’s growth and transformation. It hits us more at big moments that are outsized signposts along the way. Fortunately, there are enough of these broad advances in Julian Fellowes’ adaptation of Mike White’s screenplay to add up to a satisfying jolt when the big crises hit midway through Act 2. The essence of these advances is the beneficial effect he has on the kids, on Rosalie, and even Ned – a medical miracle, since the wimp suddenly tosses away his inhaler and become a mean rockin’ machine – along with new outbreaks of generosity, tact and caring.

Colletti carries the show on his broad sloping shoulders, his big belly, and purest chutzpah, but it’s the kids who give the show its impish, wholesome Monkees energy. Dynamic Phoenix Schuman on guitar, nerdy Theo Mitchell-Penner on keyboard, grumpy Theodora Silverman on bass, and hipster Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton on drums are a cornucopia of musical precocity. The mini character roles have the same Broadway excellence, bossy little Ava Briglia emerging as company manager, effeminate John Mitchell Pitera finding his passion in costume design, and withdrawn Gianna Harris breaking out of her cocoon with a smashing a cappella “Amazing Grace.”

There’s a latent sexiness to Lexie Dorsett Sharp as Rosalie that peeps through early on when she exits Dewey’s classroom after a precise and military left-face. Our principal also displays a formidable soprano in “Queen of the Night” excerpts, though the highest note in the Magic Flute aria is always scaled with the aid of a student tapping a triangle. There’s a certain British delicacy in the way Sharp eventually melts, removing her glasses but never letting her hair down.

Director Laurence Connor allows more latitude to Dewey’s put-upon hosts with only middling results. Patti is a fairly standard-issue shrew, and Emily Borromeo does little to transcend her, pitch-perfectly annoying in her yammering. Matt Bittner, so hopelessly asthmatic early on, does deliver a shocking metamorphosis when he grows a pair. Maybe he could survive in a classroom!

There are no memorable power ballads from Lloyd Webber this time around, but he’s clearly having fun, stealing from Mozart and Deep Purple in the same score – and proving, in case you’ve forgotten, that he really can rock. “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock” cooks at medium heat to start things off, and later, “Stick It to the Man” and “You’re in the Band” actually achieve a slight metallic edge.

Implausibly, the climactic title tune misfires. Lloyd Weber’s melody, perhaps to satisfy demands of the plot that don’t need satisfying, doesn’t reach the anthemic stature we’d expect from a revelatory rock band’s signature tune. Glenn Slater’s lyrics, reliable throughout the evening, are dreadful here, incoherent and not at all believably from a fifth grader’s imagination.

Not to worry, Weber hasn’t lost it at the end. Order is restored when he reprises the crowd’s favorite, “Stick It to the Man.”