Nobody has quite opened their doors for business as the 2020-21 theatre season begins, but a couple of companies were inching in that direction last week. Theatre Charlotte staged their season opener for a limited, socially-distanced audience out on Queens Road in their parking lot. The broader public and citizens of the world will be able to stream What I Did Last Summer after they bring the show indoors and record a better-lit, better-miked version on their stage.
Meanwhile, CPCC Theatre used our computer and TV monitors as their stage with A Virtual Whodunnit by Flip Kobler and Cindy Marcus, a lighthearted made-for-ZOOM romp that deployed nine digitally-distanced actors on a layout that, decades ago, would have been identified as Hollywood Squares. Very much attuned to this COVID-19 moment, the storyline of this murder mystery manages to keep the murder victim, seven suspects, and a retro hat-sporting shamus homebound – or office-bound – throughout a fast-paced sequence of scenes.
Kobler and Marcus package an antagonistic meeting of the victim and our suspects, an onscreen killing, an investigation that includes interviews with all possible culprits, and – after viewers message their votes on who is guilty – the final reveal. All in about one hour, a proper chunk of time for a family entertainment.
James Duke picks up the reins as director in the first CP show since the retirement of Tom Hollis as department chair. Duke’s imprint is also evident on the lighting, sound design, and virtual scenery of this production. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Duke’s work is his matchless cast: not one of their names matches a search of my voluminous computer files over the past 27 years.
I’m not quite sure any of Duke’s choices is that old – Tony Cudic as Detective Rockford Sloan seems to be – or if all of them have reached legal voting age. This cradle raid proves curiously apt for a layout that is so miniaturized and claustrophobic, where the hand-to-hand violence of conventional police procedurals would be frowned upon by the CDC and the Governor’s office.
Hard-bitten realism is not the artistic aim here, though it figures as the satirical target when Detective Sloan is on the prowl. We convene at the bidding of software mogul Augustus Sterling, whose overbearing bluster and over-the-top cruelty occasionally reminds us of our Orange Incumbent. It’s really a bravura debut for Brennan Sawyer, who loudly fills his screen and seems destined to eat it. Nobody comes close to rivaling Sawyer’s scenery chewing, but we find numerous tasty clichés to savor in his circle.
The frustrated brain of the family is Sterling’s son, Bullion, a perpetually seething Daniel Keith, whom Dukes places nearly as close to his screen as his dad. Keeping poor Bullion at a near boil is the family princess, Juniper, as spoiled and pampered as her brother is oppressed and ignored. Corina Childs doesn’t quite play Her Highness’s cluelessness to the hilt, but she has a firm enough grasp on her patrician privilege. The third sib, Macy, is the anti-capitalist tree-hugging wildcard of the family, providing Dukes an opportunity to play with colorful lighting and giving costumer Ramsey Lyric a go at hippy garb.
Florina is the interloping stepmother, stymied by a pre-nup and resented by all her stepchildren. Jeanine Diaz plays this brazen opportunist in fine dragon-lady style – you may detect a wisp of Melania foreignness in her accent – blatantly bidding for audience votes. Can she wriggle out of her legal bind with the help of Barry Schwartz, the corporate attorney who is redrafting her husband’s will? Played close-to-the-vest by Jacob Feldpausch, Schwartz could have company secrets to leverage and his own fish to fry. He’s also the only suspect who must know the reason for his boss’s meeting.
Encountering the VP of technology, Haley Hawkins, we find that the Sterlings’ corporate intrigue goes deeper. A software developer who has been instrumental to her company’s success, the underappreciated Haley is sympathetic toward Bullion’s vision of the firm’s potential. Of course, the Haley-Bullion alliance may be more than cerebral after office hours, but Shelby Armstrong mostly plays the overlooked VP as wide-eyed and principled, without nearly the same level of resentment as her confidante.
Amid these raging and suppressed malcontents, Andrew Blackwell stands apart as Eugene Everton, the downtrodden CFO at Sterling Software and the imperious Juniper’s puppy-dog husband. I was so tempted to vote for this soft-spoken nerd as the culprit. Blackwell makes him so quietly forgotten at work and so uncomplainingly hen-pecked at home, each of his tantalizingly brief statements barely above a whisper, that I longed to see Blackwell break loose and become unhinged. Or simply move with a trace of energy.
With his wide-brimmed hat, Cudic presides over this mystery and infuses it with its noire flavor. Heaven knows why he doesn’t go all the way and pile on a Bogart lisp for the old-timers in the audience, but Cudic’s head is always turned maybe 15 degrees askance of his camera, assuring us that he isn’t corporate, hippy, dictatorial, or sexually brash. Everyone on this cheesy tic-tac-toe layout stays in his or her lane.
If you’ve never experienced the difference before, there’s a certain campy quality that comes with a ZOOM theatrical – beyond the compartmentalized miniaturization – when pitted against our nostalgic memories of live, in-person productions. Every person has his or her name inscribed in the corner of their cubicle, and the frames of these cubicles will light up for each person as she or he speaks. When characters leave the scene, Duke keeps their places reserved, their names inscribed over humble icons, as if they were inert apps on your iPad.
What makes Sawyer’s cameo so treasurable for me is that he rages against his confinement and the dopey simplicity of the format. August not only fills the screen in his final moments of life, he dies into his webcam when he is killed, claiming a good chunk of his wee screen with the top of his head. On the other hand, Blackwell remains precious because he succumbs so totally to his belittling plight, sometimes scrunching up as if he isn’t sufficiently confined.
Priced at five bucks, this webcast is clearly worth it, especially if you’re spreading the suspense, the plot twists, and the laughs among multiple generations in your household. Every cellphone, computer, and tablet can have a vote on the outcome. Hopefully, you emerge after this merry hourlong escape remembering how important it is to vote in real life.
The QC’s Arts Groups Face Up to Adversity and Diversity
By Perry Tannenbaum
Performing arts in Charlotte have been hit hard, halted, and placed on hold by a COVID-19 invasion that’s still going strong. Chip Decker, longtime artistic director at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, has taken this sort of punch before. Twice in the past five years, he has seen new venues for his company swept out from under his feet.
And now this.
“Seeing the thing you have sacrificed so much for be on the brink of disappearing, despite all of your best efforts, really quite sucks,” Decker observes. “Our business is dependent on lots of people gathering in small spaces. Not the best operating model during a pandemic.”
Nor is gathering lots of people in big spaces. Charlotte Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty at Knight Theater and a three-day Women in Jazz fest at the Stage Door were among the first events to be cancelled in March. Charlotte Symphony’s concert at Belk Theater and the Jewish Playwriting Contest at Shalom Park quickly followed.
Audiences have never seen the sets for Theatre Charlotte’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Children’s Theatre’s Dragons Love Tacos. They were deserted onstage at their Queens Road and ImaginOn locations. CPCC Summer Theatre never got off its feet this year, and when we checked in with Blumenthal Performing Arts last month, president Tom Gabbard told us that over 300 events had already been cancelled.
Even the teeny Warehouse Performing Arts Center up in Cornelius has seen its storefront operation come to a halt.
“A good portion of our mission and aesthetic was bound up in the intimacy of the venue, the ability for small audiences to engage very closely with the dramatic world immediately before them,” says WPAC prez Marla Brown. “We can’t do that. Social distancing at WPAC would mean one audience member watching a monologue.”
Unlike Brown, who suspended efforts to stage live performances, Decker has raged against the dying of the spotlights. Actor’s Theatre lost three productions from its 31st season and now expects to lose all of Season 32. They’ve had to postpone their nuVoices new play festival and the follow-up to last summer’s Midsummer Nights @ Queens, presumably a Shakespearean comedy.
An outdoor revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fell through, compounding Decker’s woes, along with outdoor events planned at Freedom Park and a nearby Dilworth vacant lot at the intersection of Scott Avenue and East Boulevard. Charlotte Symphony was no less elaborate in its planning, seeing a three-week festival of concerts scheduled this month at Queens University, Knight Theater, Belk Theater, and Triple C Brewing Company dribble down the drain.
“It takes months of planning to get a show up, and one 30-second COVID announcement to derail it,” says Decker, “and to the layperson, that can come off as nothing has been done.”
Without any income from tickets and subscriptions to nourish them, hibernation is a more viable strategy at WPAC.
“The ironic ‘good news’ is that no artists made their living at WPAC, so the company is not seriously damaged economically,” Brown reports. “We have always been poor, relying on MacGyver Theatre tactics and the wonderful talent pool of Metrolina to make solid shows on a dime. We will be back.”
One size does not fit all when it comes to financial impact. The image of poor ragtag artists doesn’t fit Blumenthal Performing Arts operations, nor do Charlotte Symphony, Opera Carolina, Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre, Charlotte Ballet, or Actor’s Theatre fit the same WPAC storefront template.
All of these companies have salaried employees. All applied – and received – PPP funding from the Small Business Administration, totaling upwards of $3 million.
“We received a PPP loan from SBA which covered staff salaries through June,” says Ron Law, who was slated to retire on June 30, but has signed on for another season as Theatre Charlotte’s executive director at the request of the board. “We have used up our cash reserves, but we have been able to generate revenue from an online web-a-thon and other asks. Many of those holding tickets for the two canceled main stage productions made their ticket purchases a donation to TC.”
Under COVID conditions, Theatre Charlotte has been able to achieve the improbable. Weather permitting, they’ve presented Grand Nights for Singing: The Parking Lot Performances on Friday Nights. Their audiences, capped at 25, are socially distanced – and so are their singers.
You bring your own snacks, beverages, and chairs – no reservations – and the suggested donation is $10. Each of the two vocalists gets his or her own mic, and there are no duets.
So far, thanks to lucrative TV contracts, professional sports leagues have returned with their superstar athletes to empty stadiums and coliseums. Unfortunately, that business model hasn’t worked for Blumenthal Performing Arts’ big three venues – Belk, Ovens, and the Knight. We can expect them to be shut down until at least December.
In the meantime, performing arts around the globe have migrated online. Charlotte Ballet was among the first to adapt. Within two weeks of cancelling the March 13 premiere of their “fairy-tailored” Sleeping Beauty – at the last minute – Ballet had dipped into their digital vaults and streamed Dispersal, their first free digital event.
Nor was it merely a rehash of the choreographies presented at Innovative Works 2019, when Charlotte Ballet collaborated with the Mint Museum, the Studio Drift duo, and choreographer Christopher Stuart. Intercut with the Innovative performance videos was behind-the-scenes footage that transformed the evening into a documentary, reaching an audience of more than 13,000.
Enter Zoom for a brand-new collaboration. Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir couldn’t help noticing that the web was becoming supersaturated with dance.
“We took a step back to regroup and to explore other means of engagement,” Muir reveals, “and I worked with choreographer Helen Pickett to discuss our options and resulted in an opportunity for five of our dancers. Charlotte Ballet joins artists from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem for Part III of a trilogy Helen developed titled Home Studies, which is entirely choreographed and rehearsed via Zoom.” (Airing on September 3 on Charlotte Ballet’s Facebook page.)
No less audacious, Muir has sidelined Nutcracker, Ballet’s traditional Yuletide cash cow, for the 2020-21 season. Fingers crossed, she’s replacing the beloved Russian ballet at Belk Theater this December with another Tchaikovsky masterwork, the previously abandoned Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-Tailored Classic.
The reawakened Sleeping Beauty is the first live event to be planted on the 2020-21 calendar, but Theatre Charlotte has hatched – or is it hedged? – some hybrids. After purchasing video equipment, the Queens Road barn can now pivot to streaming.
Twelve Angry Men, originally scheduled for October, has been ditched because Theatre Charlotte couldn’t obtain streaming rights. Instead, the company will showcase A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer for three nights in September and Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer for three dates in October. Both productions will feature socially distanced casts – performing on the same Cat on a Hot Tin Roof set that has been waiting for action on Theatre Charlotte’s stage since March.
These shows will be ticketed, streamed behind a paywall. Law hopes that audiences will be able to attend the traditional holiday production of A Christmas Carol on Queens Road. But he isn’t taking chances. He had Chris Timmons shorten his own adaptation to 90 minutes so that it can be performed without intermission, utilizing a small cast and a narrator.
“If we can perform it live in TC by that time, we will,” Law declares. “We will also put it on video and stream it for those who don’t feel safe coming to the theatre or can’t be accommodated due to limited seating capacity.”
Three Bone Theatre has a four-person leadership team, the same number as Theatre Charlotte’s full-time staff – except that Three Bone executive director Becky Schultz serves on a volunteer basis. Because of their non-traditional staffing, the company wasn’t eligible to apply for PPP funding. Because they don’t control their own space, they can’t rehearse or perform as freely as Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre, and Charlotte Ballet.
“When we do go back into production,” Schultz confides, “we are facing smaller house sizes and artists and patrons who are concerned about safety. We will need to prioritize shows with smaller casts and production costs, limiting the stories we can tell. It’s impossible to say when audiences will return to pre-COVID levels but we expect it will take a long time. We have lost the forward momentum that we’ve spent the last eight years developing, and dipping into our reserves delays our ability to finally add staff.”
It’s been over six months since Three Bone’s last production shut down. Revenue from their last two shows, Dada Woof Papa Hot scheduled for May and This Is Modern Art for July, was largely lost, representing 40 percent of their 2019-20 season. During the shutdown, Three Bone staffers have dealt with loss of jobs, taking on the rigors of homeschooling, experiencing the stresses of quarantine, and watching family members battle the virus.
Like other performing arts companies across Charlotte – we sent out questionnaires to 17 of them – Schultz and her Three Bone team are heeding the crosswinds of social unrest sweeping across the country. The Black Lives Matter reckoning is spilling onto our streets amid the pandemic, troubling consciences and challenging longstanding norms. Planning how to come back from COVID, arts leaders agree that it’s not just about making the smart business decisions necessary to cope with new realities. It’s about being better.
Schultz admits that Three Bone is re-evaluating 2020-21 programming.
“We believe that Black Lives Matter and Black theatre matters,” Schultz states, “and we have a responsibility to ensure that we are deliberately supporting that with our programming, both on stage and behind the scenes. We are taking this opportunity to further educate ourselves as individuals and as an organization. We are listening to BIPOC artists, engaging in difficult conversations and reflecting on how we can do more to be an anti-racist company.”
Black theatre has been part of Actor’s Theatre programming for every season since 2008-09, most recently with Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill – with Crowns on tap for their upcoming season – yet Decker is among the arts leaders of Charlotte unanimously proclaiming that they are rededicating themselves to BLM.
“ATC is working hard on recognizing and dismantling our own systemic racist culture,” Decker responds, “and we are in full support of the Black Lives Matter movement and having room at the table for BIPOC.”
Nor is Actor’s Theatre an exception. Inclusive programming is admirably pervasive across the spectrum of Charlotte’s performing arts scene. Opera Carolina was close to presenting I Dream for a second time – in a newly revised version – when the pandemic hit. Charlotte Ballet has a long history of showcasing African American dancers onstage and forging sturdy relationships with Black choreographers behind the scenes.
Up in Cornelius, WPAC was in mid-rehearsal of Lynn Nottage’s award-winning Sweat when COVID shut things down. Ron McClelland was directing a diverse cast that included Shar Marlin, Brian Daye, and Dominic Weaver. That show might pivot to a streaming format when the production team meets to decide.
Theatre Charlotte, with Ain’t Misbehavin’ in February 2019 and Dreamgirls missing-in-action back in May, certainly hasn’t been caught off-guard by pleas for Black programming. CPCC Theatre has presented multiple dramas by August Wilson, their Summer Theatre offered Beehive in 2019, and the college recently announced the onboarding of a new chief diversity officer.
Aside from the Johnson C. Smith theatre department and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, there are two Black theatre companies based in Charlotte, On Q Performing Arts and Brand New Sheriff. We have hosted – and won – the National Poetry Slam, we have an annual jazz festival closely aligned with Jazz @ Lincoln Center, and we were the first American city to host Breakin’ Convention, with admirable outreach to urban youth.
Up in Winston-Salem, the National Black Theatre Festival has convened for a week in odd-numbered years since 1989, most recently in 2019 when they hosted more than 40 African American celebs, 30-odd Black theatre productions from across the nation, and the American Theatre Critics Association. So Charlotte and North Carolina have nothing to hang their heads about if you’re making comparisons about Black culture and programming.
Dig beneath Charlotte’s shiny surfaces and you do notice the structural, systemic problems that are drawing fire. Sixteen of the 17 questionnaires we sent out – to companies who had already found a spot on our 2020 calendars before COVID – were earmarked for Caucasians.
No arts organization in the Metrolina region presents a more diverse array of educational and onstage programming – or serves a more diverse audience – than Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. When they halted the hip-hop run of Grimmz Fairy Tales and shelved Dragons Love Tacos, staff at ImaginOn did not leave students enrolled in their 20-week School of Theatre Training program in the lurch.
Adroitly, they pivoted, so that two OnStage plays and two musicals were moved to virtual format. Summer camps began online, not skipping a beat, morphing to a hybrid program – your choice of online or in-person – when CDC, state, and federal guidelines could be met. Collaborating with 37 children’s theatres across the country, Children’s posted a new adaptation of A Kids Book About Racism as a virtual performance early this month, and they’re continuing work on their commission of Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba as part of The Kindness Project.
Yet executive director Adam Burke is among the good guys who are still doing some soul-searching.
“This is an incredibly important moment in the world, but also here in Charlotte, both socially and culturally,” Burke asserts. “Black Lives Matter is at the center of this moment. It is our responsibility to be checking to ensure that we are doing this in a way that is equitable and inclusive. What I, and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, can do is work to acknowledge and eliminate unconscious bias through active education as well as examination of current practices and policies, and that is what we are doing.”
Systemically, the most obvious places to be on the lookout for change is on the roster of performing arts vacancies around town. Burke reports that his director of advancement position has been vacant since November and that managing director Linda Reynolds is retiring at the end of this month. Law isn’t the only leader who needs to be replaced once he’s allowed to retire – CP’s Tom Hollis ended his long tenure as department chair on August 1.
Our performing arts companies can address adversity and diversity at the same time, but we can also help with our interest, encouragement, and support. We can also look at ourselves and check our citizenship.
Decker probably says it best: “Tell your crazy uncle to put on his damn mask!”
The COVID collapse happened quickly on March 13. “We were hours away from the curtain rising on our all-new Fairy-Tailored Sleeping Beauty when we had to postpone the season,” says Hope Muir, Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director. On the morning before that, Charlotte Symphony’s new director of communications, Deirdre Roddin, met with me to discuss future concert coverage at this publication. But the upcoming Saint-Saëns Organ Concerto concert would soon be postponed, among the first performing arts dominoes to fall to the pandemic in the week that followed – along with an annual Women in Jazz fest at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the annual Charlotte Jewish Playwriting Contest at the Levine JCC, a chamber music concert at the Bechtler Museum, and Theatre Charlotte’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Tom Gabbard, president and CEO at Blumenthal Performing Arts, last attended a live show on March 11 – in the UK, before he and his wife Vickie returned home and tested positive for COVID-19. The Gabbards quarantined and recovered, but by the day after Ballet’s postponement, Gabbard had announced that all events at all Blumenthal venues were suspended through April 12. Complying with NC Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order suspending all public gatherings of 100 or more people, the Blumenthal directive took all decision making on the Saint-Saëns concert, scheduled for March 20, out of Symphony’s hands. Both of CSO’s primary venues, Belk Theater and Knight Theater, are managed by Blumenthal.
So far, Symphony has had to cancel 49 concerts. “That’s obviously a huge blow to the organization, both artistically and financially,” says Michelle Hamilton, CSO’s interim president and CEO. “The estimated financial impact of these concerts alone is in excess of $1.5 million. This does not include the impact of the pandemic on future concerts and attendance.”
On the revenue side, Opera Carolina wasn’t as seriously damaged as Symphony, losing just one event, an extensively revised version of Douglas Tappin’s I Dream. “The company received support through the Payroll Protection Plan [PPP],” says Opera artistic director, James Meena. “That has allowed us to maintain our staff and redirect funds to our new online series iStream, which has provided employment to our resident company.”
PPP funding has flowed to the most established arts organizations in Charlotte, including Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, Blumenthal Performing Arts, and Charlotte Symphony. “However,” Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke points out, “the PPP was designed to help organizations through what Congress thought was going to be a short-term, 8-week issue.”
Blumenthal drew the largest PPP allotment, $1.7 million, that helped with payroll in May and June. “We avoided furloughs until July 5,” says Gabbard, “when three full-time and 114 part-time team members were furloughed – 105 full-time remain, mostly working from home, with some working in the venues on various maintenance projects. PPP made a big difference.”
What lies ahead for all Charlotte performing arts groups is very murky, subject to weekly health directives from city or state government officials loosening or tightening restrictions. “Opera is dealing with a multitude of challenges,” says Meena, “caused by COVID-19 and now the 43% reduction in ASC [Arts & Science Council] support for the 2020-2021 season. We are evaluating audience concerns for attending performances, and perhaps more dauntingly, health and safety concerns for our performing company.
“Singing is one of the most effective ways to spread the coronavirus. Many church choirs are rehearsing remotely, so imagine a 50-voice opera chorus, principal artists, extras and the more than 30 technicians who normally work on an opera production. Additionally, health and safety concerns for the orchestra musicians (imagine being confined – maybe consigned is a better word – to the orchestra pit where social distancing is all but impossible) are challenges to performing Grand Opera that we have never experienced before.”
All of the companies we’ve mentioned have pivoted to online programming, but all weren’t equally prepared to make the switch. Charlotte Ballet, the first company impacted by the COVID ban on public assembly, was quickest to steer a fresh course. “I had implemented a much more robust structure for archiving and curating digital content over the past three years,” says Muir, “not just performance footage but interviews with artists, designers, collaborators and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage as well as the documentation of the Choreographic Lab. That commitment, I think, is why we were able to get out of the gate so quickly.”
Raiding their digitized vaults, Ballet was able to present Dispersal online, repackaging the company’s Innovative Works 2019 program with behind-the-scenes footage for a new kind of digital experience on March 27, just two weeks after Sleeping Beauty had been scheduled to premiere. Opera Carolina’s iStream series began in April and is archived on its YouTube channel, while Charlotte Symphony has logged an assortment of live Zoom and pre-recorded material online. For six straight Wednesday evenings, ending on July 29, they streamed a series of Al Fresco chamber music concerts recorded on video in the backyard of principal cellist Alan Black. It’s an avenue that will likely be revisited. Meanwhile, CSO has extensive recorded inventory to call upon, but unlike Charlotte Ballet’s, it is entirely audio, so their outlet of choice has been WDAV 89.9, where past concerts are aired on Friday evenings.
The mass exodus to streaming platforms has been global, creating a glut of available online events that don’t quite measure up to live performances. Charlotte Ballet has responded to this oversaturation by thinking outside the box. “I worked with choreographer Helen Pickett to discuss our options and this resulted in an opportunity for five of our dancers,” says Muir. “Charlotte Ballet joins artists from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem for part III of a trilogy Helen developed titled Home Studies, which is entirely choreographed and rehearsed via Zoom.”
Other companies are pushing the envelope by reimagining live performance under COVID restrictions. Rehearsing with masks and performing unmasked live at their dance studio, Caroline Calouche & Co. presented two online showings of A Love Show on July 25, charging admission for a ticket link. Theatre Charlotte is trying a more audacious outdoor model, presenting Grand Nights for Singing: The Parking Lot Performances on Friday nights outside their building, limiting audience size to 25, and charging $10 per ticket. Each of two performing singers wields a separate mic, there are no duets, and the audience is expected to provide their own chairs, snacks, and beverages.
“We are most likely not going to be able to perform for an audience in TC until at least December and maybe beyond,” says Ron Law, who was scheduled to retire June 30 but has extended for another season as Theatre Charlotte artistic director – and as President of the Board of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. “We have purchased appropriate video equipment so we can livestream productions. At this time, we are planning on doing performances of What I Did Last Summer by A.R. Gurney that will be livestreamed, with a per household ticket charge, on three dates in September.’
Waiting until June 11 to announce their 2020-21 season, Theatre Charlotte has prudently delayed their musical productions, The Sound of Music and Pippin, until spring 2021 – with understandable contingency plans. For their fall plays, they are tentatively offering their audience the options of live performances or streaming. Children’s Theatre have allowed themselves less wiggle room for 2020-21, eliminating musicals entirely from their slate. Yet their company, with video production a longtime component of their educational offerings, is probably the most adept we have in Charlotte when it comes to hybrid, live-or-streamed presentation skills.
While closing down all public performances at their two ImaginOn theaters, Children’s Theatre was at the tail-end of a 20-week School of Theatre Training programs, which culminates in four fully-produced OnStage presentations, two plays and two musicals. “We decided to move all four productions to a virtual format,” says Burke. “We’ve made other adjustments as well. We started some online educational programming and shifted our June summer camps to virtual experiences. In July we offered students the choice of virtual or in-person camps. We’ve kept close watch on all CDC, state and federal guidelines and have invested in some technologies that help us to maintain safety.”
Like Charlotte Ballet, Children’s has plenty of past performance video on file. They’ve edited these multi-camera shoots and served them up on a series of “Watch Party” webcasts. The new work keeps coming, further underscoring CTC’s technical prowess. “We’ve continued to move forward, as best we can, with the works that are in development including a collaboration with 37 children’s theatres across the country to adapt, as a virtual performance, the book A Kids Book About Racism.” That new piece launched into cyberspace on August 1. Other projects in the pipeline are Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, and a stage adaptation of the award-winning The Night Diary.
On March 12, the day before performing arts in Charlotte abruptly shut down, the town was abuzz in anticipation of Mecklenburg County announcing its first case of COVID-19. A surreal five months later – without any improvement, to be sure – announcements for the 2020-21 season, sensibly stalled in March, are beginning to flow amid a chaotic atmosphere in anticipation of the fall. Once again, Charlotte Ballet is at the vanguard, announcing that the long-delayed premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-Tailored Classic will open at Belk Theater on December 10 – replacing the traditional Yuletide presentation of Nutcracker. Makes sense: the trimmed-down Tchaikovsky ballet remains family-friendly with a helpful narrator to keep us abreast of the storyline. Unlike Nutcracker, the Tailored Sleeping Beauty doesn’t consign the Charlotte Symphony to the orchestra pit, and it doesn’t recruit 150 sacrificial lambs for children’s roles, including the ever-lovable Clara.
Iffier but on the schedule is Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, scheduled for April 22-24. Muir is “holding onto a beacon of hope” that CSO will be able to collaborate with Symphony on that auspicious event, booked at Belk Theater. Opera Carolina maestro Meena has seen his own commitments scuttled in Italy, where he had planned to conduct Andrea Chenier, Manon Lescaut and Turandot. He doesn’t expect opera to resume in Italy until December, so he isn’t counting on Opera Carolina collaborating with CSO before 2021. Meanwhile, expect the unexpected as OpCarolina fires up a new chamber music series, reviving their iStream Online concerts the week of September 11, returning every two weeks through November 16.
Keeping his eyes open for online options and live opportunities, Actor’s Theatre artistic director Chip Decker isn’t counting on returning to live performance at Queens University before July 2021. Tom Hollis, theatre program director at Central Piedmont Community College, retired on August 1. But he didn’t go out directing a final season of CPCC Summer Theatre as he had planned, so he’s expecting to reprise the complete 2020 slate in the spring or summer of 2021. Sense and Sensibility, originally set for this past April, may also figure in the mix.
Gabbard, the first to respond to our questionnaire on July 14, said that over 300 performances had already been cancelled at Blumenthal’s multiple facilities and wasn’t expecting national tours – their bread and butter – to resume “until at least late fall, and perhaps early 2021.” Even outdoor stopgaps that Gabbard might stage in Charlotte’s Uptown must remain on the back burner until public gatherings of 100 or more are approved.
On the lookout for best practices and inspiration, Gabbard is looking globally, “including Seoul, Korea, where big musicals like Phantom have played throughout the pandemic. I was asked to join the COVID-19 Theater Think Tank in New York, where we are speaking with academics and thought leaders in a search not only for short-term solutions, but also ways to improve our venues and hygiene practices long-term.”
Bach Akademie Charlotte artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett slowly realized last spring that there was no way to mobilize the musicians, patrons, and audience that would be necessary to make the third annual Charlotte Bach Festival happen last June. Hurriedly, he pulled together a four-day virtual festival that streamed on Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom. Much like Actor’s Theatre and CPCC Summer Theatre, Jarrett is hoping that the June 2020 event will happen in June 2021.
The experience shook him. “The recognition that I hadn’t made music with another human being in a month hit me hard on Easter Sunday morning,” Jarrett recalls, “and I grieved deeply for several weeks. Gradually, the shared recognition of all that we were losing with one another affirmed a shared value for communal music making. Those conversations continue to sustain me.”
Jarrett is busy, busy, busy these days up in Boston, working as artistic director with the Back Bay Chorale on their new Zoom curriculum and as director of music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel – and expecting to stay healthy. BU has taken the plunge, plowing millions of dollars into testing in an attempt to bring their student body back to campus, aiming to test all faculty weekly and all students twice weekly. Plans for the 2021 Charlotte Bach Festival are on hold, says Jarrett, until a proven vaccine delivers true COVID immunity.
Yet he’s clearly upbeat, even if he’s forced to deliver the 2021 Bach Experience via Zoom. Describing her own company’s trials, Charlotte Ballet’s Muir offers the best explanation for this paradox: “Once we realized this virus was not going anywhere quickly, we had to pivot and focus on new ways to keep the team motivated and creative. And this is where artists thrive! At our core, we are shape-shifters and it’s exhilarating to think of new ways to communicate and engage with one another.”
She tells me that she has only met one other Mabel in her lifetime. Multitudes of people have told me that there is no one like her. Yes, my mom is unique. One in a billion. And in just a few hours, Mom will be 100. One century.
My dad, who died at a mere 97 years of age, was a fine man – and a devastating loss for Mom, who has now persevered without her soulmate since November 2012. At his funeral service up in Queens, New York, a dear friend of the family, calling upon his rabbinic wisdom, memorialized Harry Tannenbaum as a man who was “samé’ach b’chelko” – a man who was happy with his lot.
Mom was his happiness. His joy.
Spend a few minutes with Mom and you quickly see why. Mabel has a flair. Last week, she fell and cracked her head open on the edge of her night table, so she was rushed from the Brookdale Carriage Club on Old Providence to a nearby urgent care. Donning my trusty COVID mask after 1:00am in the morning, I sped up to the Atrium facility on Fairview Road to pick her up. The gushing wound had been neatly patched up with Super Glue, the nurse told me, obviously sad to see her go.
Before I could even fold up Mom’s walker and stow it in my trunk, the nurse felt compelled to pull me aside and tell me how special this woman is.
That’s nothing compared to one of Mom’s hospital exploits before she moved down here. This one happened a few years ago at the end of a solo visit from Mom at Passover. Most people would have a coughing fit in the privacy of their guest bedroom or, at worst, among friends and family at the seder table. Not Mabel Tannenbaum. She had her coughing fit inside an airplane cabin on the runway of Charlotte-Douglas Airport as her flight was readying for takeoff.
She stopped that show, sure enough, as they whisked her – sirens blaring, no doubt – to the Carolinas Medical Center in the heart of town. I was reviewing a premiere at Theatre Charlotte that night, so we didn’t hear about the calamity until after the show was over. Guilt-ridden and concerned, I rushed over to the hospital with my wife Sue and our friend Carol, worrying whether our precious drama queen was still alive.
You know she was. What might normally be a bustling, brightly-lit consultation area with desperate, clamoring patients and harried nurses rushing around them was now mostly vacant and dark. At one end of the room, haloed in bright backlight, was a crowd of excited staffers. As we drew closer, we could hear the laughter, and as we finally saw past the silhouetted heads or nurses and orderlies, we could see Mom – perched over the edge of a gurney, about 40 minutes into a 45-minute set of quips, anecdotes, travel misadventures, and bubba mysehs.
Mom with her makeshift nightclub audience.
Just a few weeks ago, I donned my mask and delivered our first CARE package of groceries and bagels to the front gate of the Carriage Club. The senior facility was already in lockdown and only employees were admitted into residents’ apartments. I went to the trouble of writing out Mom’s full name – and her apartment number – on labels that I stapled to each of the grocery bags.
The gatekeeper lady looked at me slightly askance.
“Oh, Mabel!” she burst out. “Everybody knows Mabel!”
Well, maybe not everybody. A few outliers might remain at Carriage Club who haven’t witnessed her holding court in the huge dining room with her late great friend Susan Cernyak-Spatz. If they haven’t sampled Mom’s ready wit, don’t you worry: Mom has no problem dipping into her catalog of greatest hits and immodestly retelling barbs she has levelled at a complete stranger on Broadway, a French waiter at a chichi Parisian restaurant, a hapless school administrator and numerous other accounts she has painstakingly perfected over the years.
People who speak to me about her needn’t profess their affection. I can hear it instantly in their voices when they say “Your mom,” “Aunt Mabel,” “Grandma,” or even “How is Mabel?” Other folks’ personalities can be described as acquired tastes. Not my mom’s. She always connects quickly.
Many of Mom’s enthusiasms have lit up my life. She was a music major and a theatre minor – or vice versa? – at Hunter College, and after seeing me off to grad school and married life, she reinvented herself as a math teacher and union activist at a public school far off on the rough side of Queens. Dad, the English major of the fam at Brooklyn College, met Mom at The Met more than 75 years ago. It’s a long evening when you stand in line for The Met’s precious few standing room tickets and then stand together for all three acts of La Traviata.
If I had turned out to be a latter-day Mozart or Milton, Mom and Dad would have been ecstatic. You can bet that I heard plenty of opera from Texaco’s Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and on LPs spun on an enthusiast’s turntable submerged in a hi-fi cabinet that Dad custom-built himself. Broadway scores like South Pacific or My Fair Lady occasionally invaded the opera rotation, along with cantorial gems from Yossele Rosenblatt or folksongs from Moshe Nathanson, Theodore Bikel, and Sharona Aron.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Mom also pushed me toward the piano that also dwelled in our living room and hooked me up with lessons – from multiple teachers long after I’d demonstrated my lack of talent or interest. When my own low-fi record player took up residence in my room, Mom and Dad put up a nice façade of tolerance for the rock 45s and, not too long afterwards, the jazz LPs that blared forth.
Mom also encouraged my literary bent, no matter how silly or self-indulgent my efforts might be. At an early age, she egged me on to write a lengthy letter on a fairly formal writing pad to my Aunt Evelyn. Why or what I wrote in my anklebiter years is way beyond recall. All I remember is that my words were deemed golden. Decades afterwards, I learned that Mom was not particularly fond of Aunt Evelyn.
Then came my mighty sixth-grade masterwork, The Terrible Times. Subversively written between lessons or under the lid of my desk on large construction paper, folded in half and carefully ruled with newspaper columns and handwritten lines, The Terrible Times was my heroic attempt to bring Mad Magazine culture to the Yeshiva of Central Queens.
Miraculously, this magnum opus, with its frontpage scoop on the Jack & Jill tragedy and its heart-wrenching ad for Allied Kidney Disorders, was never confiscated or ripped to shreds. At a recent Zoom reunion, a classmate actually remembered looking over my shoulder more than 60 years ago as I worked on the front page – its bold masthead lovingly traced in Gothic type.
Mom treasured every word of this deathless juvenilia, preserving it in my room for decades until the paper itself had begun to disintegrate. Dust mites may have also entered the equation.
Unlike my Mad newspaper, Mom gets better with age. She’s a better grandma than was a mother – and a superb great grandmother. They call her GG-Ma out west in El Paso, where my grandkids are in lockdown. Teaching was only half of Mom’s reinvention after the nest was emptied. Travel was the other.
I can’t remember roaming further from Queens Village than Rockport or Gloucester, Mass., before I lit out for the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City. As my schools and vocation took me westward to Bellingham, WA, and Eugene, OR, before I swooped down to the Carolinas – first Columbia and then Charlotte – Mom and Dad built their summers around trips to Europe or Asia, with a Morocco or Machu Picchu trip thrown in for variety. Once or twice, they headed west, once to Alaska and once – when I was at Western Washington U – to Vancouver and Victoria.
Israel was their favorite, inexhaustible destination. They went there 13 times.
Sure, they did the tourist thing to some extent, but every trip was a treasure hunt for artworks and artifacts – and an epic photo-taking safari. Mom was the photographer.
Luckily, she caught the bug when I was 11 or 12, buying a Ricoh twin-lens reflex. Picking out my bar mitzvah present was a no-brainer after that: the first Kodak Retina Reflex. On the Mostofsky side of my family, photography is in our veins. My zaydee’s Zeiss Ikon Ikonta, taped bellows and all, sits on one of my bookcases to this day, a few inches from Mom’s Ricoh Diacord, and my Uncle David ably wielded a Leica overseas during WW2. I’d love to get my hands on that baby.
Traveling widely and shooting as a tourist, a communications pro, and a journalist – with the prodigious ease and convenience of digital photography – I’m sure that I’ve taken thousands more photos than Mom ever did. She doesn’t narrate epic slideshows these days any more than she caters her legendary Seders up in Queens that rocked with laughter and hearty belches until well after midnight. Mom’s color slides, 25 boxes of them, and her Kodak Carousel projector are at my house now, along with a legacy of 19 thick photo albums filled to the brim with prints and memorabilia.
Yet you can bet that Mom still relives her triumphs and her travels. With her salty, humorous anecdotes, she hopscotches the world and the years. A post-show talkback after a premiere at Duke Energy Theater can evolve into an audience with Mabel after patrons adjourn to the lobby of Spirit Square. Up in her apartment, she might turn the relics, the ceramics, the souvenirs and the Judaica that fill the glass shelves of her three mighty breakfronts into an hourlong tour.
And you might be one of those who hears about Mom’s living room travelogue – or recommends that others come and take the tour.
Ah, but all those delights of getting to know my mom are paused. So is the birthday bash Sue and I had been planning at the new Chabad Center on Sardis Road. Last I heard, the clock hasn’t paused, and my urge to celebrate – even without music, streamers, wine, audiovisual extravaganzas, and resounding mazel tovs shouted by guests from near and far – hasn’t been dampened one little bit.
So: Happy birthday, Mommie! Mazel tov on hitting 100.
Your life, your energy, your brave endurance, your wide-ranging passions, and your uniquely vibrant personality are all worth celebrating. Especially now!
Paige Johnston Thomas – Dynamic actor, director, casting agent, board member, and fundraiser
By Perry Tannenbaum
When Paige Johnston made her Charlotte Rep debut in 1995, she was 26 years old, exactly the same age as the character she portrayed in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Can you imagine the thrill? The other two tall ladies were Lucille Patton, reprising the role I’d seen her play on Broadway the previous November, and Mary Lucy Bivins, at the start of her two-year reign as Creative Loafing Actress of the Year.
Paige held her own – and went on to carve a special place in Charlotte’s theatre scene as an actor, director, casting agent, and as a board member. CAST’s most successful fundraiser, from what I heard. After marrying ace videographer Jay Thomas 13 years ago, Paige Johnston Thomas almost made it to the same age Bivins was supposed to be, dying early last week of a rare form of cancer, compounded by liver disease, at the age 0f 51.
It wasn’t a one-sided battle. Less than a year ago, Thomas was being hailed for conquering cancer as she directed the local premiere of J.T. Rogers’ Oslo, winner of the 2017 Tony Award for Best New Play. Deploying a large cast on a key episode in the endless conflicts in the Middle East – when peace blazed as a real possibility – in Norway, of all places! – the poignancy and hope of Oslo certainly wasn’t a low-energy project. Directing it wasn’t for beginners.
The career highlights on the road to Oslo with Three Bone Theatre included her devastating turn as Elvira in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit (2003) at Theatre Charlotte. As a director at CAST, Thomas is most fondly remembered for dark play (2008) and No Exit (2009). Steel Magnolias (2010), the female Odd Couple (2012), and The Miracle Worker (2016) were probably her most resounding Theatre Charlotte hits. The local premiere of Three Days of Rain (2017) with Charlotte’s Off-Broadway was a handsome calling card prior to Thomas’s Oslo gig.
Yeah, the sun was shining a year ago – seemingly on an unclouded future – as Johnston was in rehearsals for Oslo. Here is the interview we did, along with excerpts from Q&A’s that I did with a few cast members.
🎭 🎭 🎭 🎭 🎭
Queen City Nerve: How did you become involved in directing Oslo for Three Bone Theatre? Were you familiar with the script before you were asked to come aboard?
Paige Johnston Thomas: About a year and a half ago, I received a call from Robin [Tynes-Miller] about helming this project. I had been very aware of Three Bone and the success that Robin and Becky [Schultz] had been enjoying. I also loved that they teamed up with a community partner for each show, which I found made their company really unique in the world of theatre. Also, the fact that their tag line was “To succeed in life you need three things – a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone” – always cracked me up, yet resonated strongly with me! I was familiar with Oslo and its successful run on Broadway, but I had not read the script or seen the play when they reached out to me.
Not ignoring the logistical problems of coordinating rehearsals for a cast of 15, what are the special challenges of directing Oslo?
Thomas: Yes, the rehearsal schedule for 15 cast members was quite the challenge. But so was planning rehearsals for 15 people for 65 scenes! As they say in the theatre, “I was told there’d be no math!” Many of the scenes are short, moving the story along briskly, but working on the rehearsal schedule was intense. Even before undertaking the schedule, one of my first challenges was the subject matter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seemed such an onerous undertaking, and I had two main concerns: I worried if my knowledge and comprehension of the conflict were up to the task, and was this process going to be arduous and depressing because of the subject matter.
But both those concerns quickly dissipated once I delved in to the script. Yes, as a director I was going to need to know the details of the conflict, and by starting my research early, I felt confident I could arrive to rehearsals prepared. But the beauty of the script is that it naturally reveals the necessary history and details needed to follow the story. One doesn’t need to know much, if anything, about the dissension between the two parties. And my concern about it being arduous and depressing were quelled once I realized that this is a story of hope, a story of success, and a story of the human spirit persevering through adversity. And thankfully, playwright J.T. Rogers has weaved in humor and witty badinage to keep the audience entertained and connected.
Are you thinking that the tortuous path to conflict resolution that happened in Oslo is in any way analogous/applicable to the polarization in American politics today – can we carry away any optimism after watching Oslo, or will seeing it deepen our sense of urgency and despair?
Thomas: Oslo is ultimately an optimistic play. It is filled with moments of solidarity, connection, and understanding; all the while underscored with the backdrop of hatred and distrust. Even more than when it opened on Broadway, I feel this play is extremely relevant and crucial in today’s political climate. How did two warring factions come together to forge an understanding? The play deals specifically with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which is still rearing its ugly head daily, but it is also dealing with the idea of peace, with the possibility of peace, and the hope for peace. Those themes are broader and relate to our American political parties, our foreign policies, and even to our smaller, but not less important, personal interactions. I hope our audience members leave the theatre with a sense of action and insight and see, like the characters in the play, that there is the possibility of peace and understanding even in the face of formidable obstacles.
🎭 🎭 🎭 🎭 🎭
QC Nerve: How do you see Mona as a person? She seems both exciting and enigmatic on the page to me, frustratingly cautious one minute, brilliantly resourceful the next, with no obvious partialities either way in the Middle East conflict. Did you need to research her to see what made her tick, or did you simply rely on the script and/or Kat Martin’s dramaturgy instead?
Tonya Bludsworth (Mona Juul in Oslo): Mona is certainly all those things and she has been so much fun to figure out as a character. I did some research about her on my own, but Kat Martin was definitely an invaluable resource. Kat is a rock star in my book. Her dramaturgy packet was so detailed and chock full of information on the history of the conflict and the people involved. That information gave all of us a solid foundation on which to build our characters and the show. That said, I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t just imitating Mona and our director, Paige Thomas, has been so great to work with in that regard. We wanted to make sure that Mona was not just a narrator or stern politician. She carries a lot of emotional weight and even though she is adamant about neutrality she also feels the importance of the situation and the opportunity, and she genuinely hopes that this “process” will make a difference for all sides.
🎭 🎭 🎭 🎭 🎭
QC Nerve: What impacts have the J.T. Rogers script, Paige Johnston Thomas’ directing, and Kat Martin’s dramaturgy had in developing your performance?
Victor Sayegh (Ahmed Qurie in Oslo): Rogers’ script is a beautiful tapestry of conflict, personal relationships, mistrust and humor. It is important to remember that, although the people portrayed in this play are real people, the words they speak are entirely the playwright’s. And he has done a beautiful job of portraying their roles in the story and their humanity without watering down their resolve. Qurie in particular is almost poetic in his language and there are lines he/I speak that touch my heart as the words leave my lips. Working under Paige’s direction also played into my interest in this project, and it has been a wonderful experience. She provides the perfect balance of direction and the freedom to make our own choices for our characters. Like the peace process itself, it has been an intense collaboration. Kat’s dramaturgy has allowed all of us to be immersed in the history of this conflict. She consistently reminds us all of the historical background that shaped each of our characters.
Going through the rehearsal process and Ahmed’s character arc night after night, does it get increasingly difficult each night to start out with the same degree of hatred and distrust every night towards characters/actors you’ve become accustomed to? What’s the secret to keeping your edge fresh?
Sayegh: This has been a challenge for me. Not only because of the many emotional ups and downs of the script, but also because Qurie often has an ulterior motive behind his words. He is very calculated. Like a poker player, he never lets his face give away his hand. Paige’s rehearsal process is very specific and organized. She has broken down the entire play into 67 scenes. Each night we know what scene or scenes we will be rehearsing. Therefore, I prepare myself each night by reliving what happened prior to that scene (the cards in my hand) as well as what I want to portray (my poker face).
🎭 🎭 🎭 🎭 🎭
QC Nerve: Are you tackling the singular Israeli accent in your portrayals, or is the cast steering clear of such minefields?
Dennis Delamar (Shimon Peres and Yair Hirschfield in Oslo): I enjoy trying to fine-tune an accent, and I was up for the Peres/Hirschfeld challenge, but Paige made the directorial decision for us not to use accents, to “steer clear of such minefields,” which I understand and respect. There are a few times accents are used because they are necessary for the humor in a scene (usually Norwegian), but for the most part, we are all using straightforward standard English dialect. However, there are places in the script where the playwright has us actually speaking a line or two in Arabic, Hebrew or Norwegian for a desired effect, which I find enjoyable. I am very proud of my one line of Hebrew I hopefully mastered, which I speak to Anne Lambert as Toril, the Norwegian chef who serves all us men her specialty, waffles from her mother’s recipe. Paige was able to get dialectician Fiona Jones to provide us with translations and pronunciations of names and cities, quite a help.
In a diverse cast working on a taut, dramatic script, were there any outbreaks of arguments or hostilities between members of the cast during the heat of rehearsals – or were these subsumed by politeness and professionalism?
Delamar: I have not observed any outbreaks of hostility between members of the cast during rehearsals. Professional, polite, committed to finding the truth in the scene and the point of view of the character we were each playing have seemed to be our standards and primary goals. I’ve really appreciated the way Paige approached each scene from the outset with reinforcement from Kat the dramaturg at the table with the facts and the reminder to us, only speak for yourself, not anyone else’s character. We were encouraged to respect and try to understand other characters’ differences, as we analyzed how our characters were feeling and why. The honesty we have developed in our dramatic scenes have been informed intelligently by dialogue at the table before we have put each scene on its feet. There was a delicate and respectful dance preceding the often-explosive interchanges, helping with the ease and success of these scenes.
How much work was it to see how incredible the Oslo process was from an Israeli point of view? How did the J.T. Rogers script, Paige’s direction, and Kat Martin’s dramaturgy contribute to properly shaping your mindset?
Delamar: I knew I was in for something special when this large cast of talent, many new faces to the Charlotte scene, showed up for the first read-through. My task, to find and appreciate the Israeli point of view was helped considerably by Paige’s guidance and the in-depth research provided by Kat Martin, our dramaturg. First, she provided articles and history on each of our characters, also the history of this part of the world, the Palestinians, the Israelis and the sequence of events before and after the Peace Accord. All helpful in understanding the Israeli point of view.
Links to documentaries and footage of interviews were also beneficial, although I got to a point I couldn’t watch them all. As I mentioned earlier, the playwright’s text also took me to that “point of view” awareness with some thoughtful analysis and good table discussion with the team. I found myself reading everything I could on Hirschfeld and Peres, of course, the two Israeli officials I am entrusted with playing. Such respect developed for their lifetime commitment to their cause and the State of Israel. When you play real human beings, there is a responsibility to bring life to their portrayals. Not a “spot on” impersonation, but achieving some sort of essence and dignity in their words and actions have been my goals.
Photos by Jay Thomas and courtesy of Theatre Charlotte
Launched in 1997 with an eerie multi-layered, multimedia production of Dracula in the crumbling ruins of the Carolina Theatre, Moving Poets has always been eclectic in its use of artforms and – devoutly edgy and occasionally inscrutable – unafraid of posing challenges to its audiences. Fueled by dancer-choreographer Till Schmidt-Rimpler and visual artist MyLoan Dinh, the company has always been international in scope, more likely to bring us Moulin Rouge, Salomé, Swan Lake, 1001 Arabian Nights or Johannesburg Stories than You Can’t Take It With You. Though Schmidt-Rimpler hailed from Germany and Dinh was a refugee of the Vietnam War, the issues of immigration and treatment of refugees were nowhere near the core of Moving Poets’ works – until long after the couple moved their company to Berlin in 2007.
The Syrian refugee crisis, reconnecting with Charlotte and the US, our great border wall scares, and caged refugee children brought those issues to the forefront. Heaven, the fifth stage of an ongoing We See Heaven Upside Down project launched by Dinh in 2015, has evolved from a visual arts project to a typically rich Moving Poets hybrid at Booth Playhouse. Original music was written by more than a half dozen composers. Dancers were deployed from the Movement Migration company and the Charlotte Ballet Academy. Native American and Mexican dance performances were also patched into a quilt woven by three different choreographers. With overlays of film, theater, video projection mapping, song, suitcase puppetry, and kinetic sculpture, Moving Poets fans and followers can expect the customary sensory onslaught with a few new twists.
Chiefly concerned with two child protagonists caged by border control hysteria, the storyline has a fairytale texture we haven’t seen from Moving Poets before. Danielle Lieberman and Nina Bischoff, sharing the role of Maria Helena, are separated from parents danced by Kim Jones and E.E. Balcos. Common sense, empathy, and human decency aren’t on Maria’s roadmap to freedom here. The key to liberation will only be theirs if they obtain the “lamp beside the golden door” from a narcissistic Pinocchio. This pointy-nosed puppet is greedily keeping the lamp among his hoarded treasures, unaware that giving up the lamp and helping Maria will enable him to become human. Without a traditional playbill and printed scenario, grasping the storyline proves uncommonly difficult, even for a Moving Poets mélange. If you scan the QR code with your smartphone, you can access a Moving Poets webpage that fills in many of the blanks – and you can find links, in wee small print, to biographical sketches and Chuck Sullivan’s “Fallen Moon Fallen Stars,” the foundational poem written for this project.
Arriving early enough with the proper scanning app, you can adequately prep for the show, or you can catch up during intermission. It’s clear, nevertheless, that more theatrical writing and acting added to this show – or a far fuller visual representation of Maria’s fantasy world in phantasmagorical scenic design, film, and projections – would make this developing Moving Poets production more comprehensible and moving. We shouldn’t have to be putting it all together after we get home and take the time to summon up a webpage. A more cohesive and coherent Heaven would certainly add impact to Lieberman and Bischoff’s performances and to Ballet Academy classmate Alex Griffith’s gangly Pinocchio. Lacking the supplementary program material or exposure to any prepublicity, people in the audience on opening night couldn’t have had any idea of what would set Maria free and, even after the charming lamp reveal, any clue that this story connected with Emma Lazarus or the Statue of Liberty.
The speaking and singing were only tied obliquely to Maria’s story, beginning with Alyce Cristina Vallejo, who started us off as a peppy Walk for Life exercise coach before she gave way to a world of migrant and refugee shadows projected on a scrim. The silhouetted lighting design by Eric Winkenwerder on the yet-unseen dancers was in satiric contrast to the aerobic self-help peppiness of Vallejo: this was our first glimpse of an immigrant wave in flight toward freedom and self-preservation. Early in Act 2, Katherine Goforth popped out of the audience as Mother Mary Katherine, recounted a phone conversation she’d had with a border wall apostle, and departed without making a connection with anyone else onstage.
Less vaudevillian than the cameos by Vallejo and Goforth, the singing performances of Cynthia Farbman Harris as Mother Mary were enhanced by their integration with the dancers’. Farbman actually visited the imprisoned children, bestowed upon them a gift too small to see, and soon revealed herself to be a Ukrainian immigrant as she sang nostalgically and zestfully of her old Jewish shtetl, “Belz,” surrounded by most of the troupe. Mother Mary returned near the end, startlingly altered (or converted?) as she sang “Ave Maria.” Equally unexpected, Rosalia Torres-Weiner peeped in with her suitcase puppetry for a prison visit as Mother Mary, her little shtick delightfully projected by video designer Shawn Gillis onto an upstage screen.
Much of Schmidt-Rimpler’s choreography still asks plenty of floor work from his dancers, which makes it a bad fit for the reconfigured Booth Playhouse. While they’ve lifted the orchestra section closer to stage level during their renovation process, they’ve also leveled the floor near the stage, so the rows of seats closest to the stage don’t immediately slope upwards. Sitting in the fourth row – in an uncomfortable chair – I had to play peekaboo between the heads of nearer patrons to track the action as it moved across the stage floor. Overall, however, I found the fortified choreographic mix to be delightful as the Poets’ music seemed to reach a higher plateau. As composer and percussionist, David Crowe continues to be a prime mover among the live musicians perched in the Booth balcony, with rock hall-of-famer Tom Constanten at the keyboard. Saxophonist Joe Wilson adds new fire to the ensemble with his European wailings, and there is more electronic music emanating from the soundbooth than I remember at previous Moving Poets productions. The founders’ son, Kalvin Schmidt-Rimpler Dinh, is likely the digital culprit, another auspicious sign.
Whatever indignities have been heaped on the floor and the audience seating, lights and sound are wonderful at the Booth. Aside from additional spoken and scenic context, Dinh and Schmidt-Rimpler ought to consider discreetly outfitting their performers with body mikes. Back in the olden days when Poets first shocked Charlotte, they went with two Draculas, actor Graham Smith speaking the role and Schmidt-Rimpler reprising the vampire he had portrayed with NC Dance of Theatre. Neither of the Marias in Heaven is an actress, and Poets has laudably decided to stretch their young artists’ capabilities. In the meanwhile, some amplification would be beneficial to us all.
Review: Cold-War, USA-vs.-the-Soviets overlay of intrigue to the actual chessboard drama
By Perry Tannenbaum
So who wins the world championship match between Frederick Trumper and Anatoly Sergievsky in Tim Rice’s Chess, with music by the bodacious ABBA duo, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus? Depends on whether you’re watching the original concept album of 1984, the touring concert version that followed, several British productions that expand the original further for the stage, or the American version with a book by Richard Nelson that arrived on Broadway in 1988. Based very loosely on the premiere event in chess history, when Bobby Fischer challenged Boris Spassky for the world title in 1972, Rice reveled in applying a Cold-War, USA-vs.-the-Soviets overlay of intrigue to the actual chessboard drama.
Good instincts there. The game of chess is even more antithetical to performing arts presentations than golf or curling. Yet Rice’s elaborate behind-the-scenes chess games were equally ill-suited to a concert or album format.
Glenn Griffin said as much before directing and starring in Queen City Theatre Company’s presentation of a reworked Broadway version in 2011. “This makes me feel old, but I have the records,” he said of the concept album and the concert album, nearly four hours in length combined. “I have the two records, and I just remember loving this music even before I knew what it was really about.”
Right now, CPCC Theatre is doing what director Tom Hollis, giving his curtain speech, called a new United Kingdom version that has only recently become available. Don’t expect to see Nelson’s name in your playbill, and don’t count on much dialogue in this bookless throwback – and don’t expect historical accuracy in the outcome of the match. If you saw the QC Theatre production in 2011, that outcome has flipflopped.
What CPCC and a very able cast offer is mostly an improvement on getting the storyline from the original albums, for you can see what is going on between Freddie, Anatoly, and Florence Vassy, the woman torn between them. You can track the political and romantic defections, compounded by the machinations of KGB operative Alexander Molokov, which are countered by the CIA’s Walter de Courcey. Production designer Bob Croghan’s slick set and costumes – with Freddie in leather! – make it all so easy on the eye, and James Duke’s projections usefully show or tell us where we are.
What I heard last Saturday night, however, was a sound technician’s nightmare. An unintelligible chorus of 18 voices disorients us from the outset, obviously the opposite of what they’re intended to do, and the solo voices of the principals are only intermittently an upgrade. Just about two weeks earlier, sitting farther from the stage at Matthews Playhouse, my wife Sue and I were able to hear another ABBA opus, Mamma Mia, far more clearly.
No doubt about it, CP lost the ABBA showdown with Matthews because of their wayward sound system and microphones. Oddly enough, we were consistently able to hear the Russians, Anatoly and Alexander, more clearly than the Americans, Freddie and (Hungarian refugee) Florence. Unless CP can clear up its technical difficulties, the best thing they can do would be to send Duke back to his computer, where he could whip up a set of supertitles.
Otherwise, some of the projections and scene titles that Duke throws on the upstage screen or over the Halton Theater proscenium might confuse first-timers. For example, why are we seeing a grainy old photo of Budapest in 1956? Because those fiendish Russians are using the possibility that Florence’s dad might be alive behind the Iron Curtain as a pawn in their game, a potent bargaining chip that might persuade Freddie’s aide to help them conquer Trumper.
Double-crooked, those nasty Russians also dangle the wife Anatoly left behind when he defected, so he’ll return to the motherland after successfully defending his title – or throw a second title match to a new Russian challenger. CP also produced Chess in a revamped Broadway version back in 1991, and it’s interesting to see how Svetlana, Anatoly’s wife, has kept changing. Back then, she had a frumpy peasant personality, but Griffin transformed Svetlana into an alluring black temptress who was every bit as queenly as her white Hungarian counterpart. Now she’s stolid, conventional, and underutilized when she appears in Act 2.
The Broadway denouement happened in Budapest, a more telling place for pressuring Florence. “One Night in Bangkok” is the marquee song in Chess, so you know part of the action will stay there no matter what. But with a return to a British version, action starts out in Merano, Italy, as the match begins. That means “Merano” and up to 12 other songs that were axed from the original British stage version – and the Chess in Concert album – are being heard in Charlotte for the first time.
After the first act, all of it in Merano, my wife Sue sat there bewildered at intermission, wondering how she could have forgotten Chess so totally. Simple answer: we hadn’t seen it here in Charlotte before. The Bangkok setting that we remembered had been moved to Act 2, and Budapest was discarded.
If it weren’t for the execrable sound, CP’s Chess might have been a pleasant discovery. In or out of his leather, Patrick Stepp brought a great punkish look to Freddie and a piercing heavy-metal tenor, but when he wasn’t singing “Pity the Child,” I rarely understood a word. The score was kinder to J. Michael Beech as Anatoly, doling out more power ballads to his mellower voice, since the brooding Soviet, like Spassky, really is the mellower, more humane chess player. Why else would two women adore him?
Totally obscured in her previous role at CP as the bodacious voice of Audrey 2 in Little Shop of Horrors, Iris DeWitt emerges as merely slightly bigger than life as Florence, easily the most frustrating performance in the show. The pure voice is as delightful to hear as Beech’s, but the most conflicted character onstage during Act 1 wasn’t intelligible for more than a few words at a time – even in her beautiful “Heaven Help My Heart” – and DeWitt’s mic only marginally defogged after the break.
Wearing a painfully symmetrical dress, Kristin Sakamoto earned future CP payback in the thankless role of Svetlana. No longer worthy in this UK version of a “You and I” duet with her husband Anatoly, Sakamoto’s highlight is the comparatively tepid “I Know Him So Well” duet with DeWitt. The Arbiter, who explains the championship rules and adjudicates protests from the rival camps, turns out to be a juicier role for Rick Hammond in his local debut. Hammond’s mic was no more reliable than DeWitt’s, but his gaudy costume gave him an aura like The Engineer’s in Miss Saigon or a villain in a Batman movie.
With a serviceable Russian accent and an ominous gruffness, Matthew Corbett as Molokov was conspicuously successful in making himself understood – and justifying everybody’s hatred. He’s the one cast member who appeared in the Queen City production of 2011, and after crossing the pond from the American version to the UK edition, he’s likely keeping his preference between the two Top Secret. It sure was useful to have his malignant clarity spread out over seven songs during an evening that left many in the audience completely nonplussed.
Maybe while they’re tearing down and replacing Pease Auditorium across Elizabeth Avenue, CP could be correcting the chronic sound woes at the Halton.
Sports fans quickly get a feel for what time of year it is in August Wilson’s Fences, set in 1957 Pittsburgh. Baseball seems to be supreme as you walk in to Brand New Sheriff’s production at Spirit Square. James Duke’s impressive set design doles out the left side of the Duke Energy Theater stage to a ramshackle two-story house. But a shabby yard dominates the right side, where a baseball dangles on a rope from an old gray tree. Pick up a bat, this is Troy Maxson’s place.
Maxson, an ex-baseball great, talks about the icons of the game, past and present, mostly contemptuous toward the white men who dominate the scene, while his friend Jim Bono rates Troy only below Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson as the best who have ever played. Since Gibson played in the Negro Leagues for the Homestead Grays, based in a mill town adjacent to Pittsburgh, it’s likely that he’s seen Josh far more often on the field than the Babe – especially since he introduced Troy to the sport during a prison stretch.
By the time Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947, Troy was already 43, just missing the boat to national fame and power-hitting glory. Instead, he’s a garbage collector when we first see him on a Friday Night, as he and Jim observe their weekly ritual of getting drunk in Troy’s yard. We’ll hear mentions of Pittsburgh Pirates players, Dick Scofield and the under-utilized Roberto Clemente, who seems promising to Troy’s keen eye, so baseball is always in the air.
We begin to zero in on the time of year it is when Troy’s son Cory first appears, trying to get dad’s permission for a visit from a college scout wanting to offer the kid a football scholarship. Troy doesn’t want Cory to give up his job to start his final season with his high school team, and in subsequent scenes, we’ll see his football jersey and shoulder pads, further assuring us that we’ve reached that point in the year when baseball and football seasons overlap. We hear about the Milwaukee Braves leading the National League pennant race, their wicked pitching duo of Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, and their young slugger, Henry Aaron.
Hank, we hear, has hit 43 homers in a year he finished with 44, so it must be late September. Within a few weeks, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants will play their last home games in New York City before moving out to California, and Aaron – destined to surpass the Babe on the all-time home run list – will lead the Braves to victory over the Yankees in the World Series.
As Troy’s pal Bono and his wife Rose keep telling him, times are changing. A Goliath among ballplayers, accustomed to idol worship, Troy doesn’t easily change his thinking, so it’s interesting to watch how Bono and Rose make headway on those rare occasions when they do. Cory really doesn’t stand a chance against Troy’s tyrannical whims unless Rose intercedes on his behalf. Maybe he should have chosen baseball over football?
The father-son relationship is complicated by jealousy and resentment on both sides. Troy is ambivalent about seeing his son succeed in a way that he couldn’t, and Cory is wary of comparisons with his legendary dad, perhaps seeking to sidestep his shadow by turning to a different sport.
Wilson doesn’t downplay the Troy legend. On the contrary, he delightfully magnifies his mythic dimensions. Troy tells us how he has stared down the Devil, tells us how he wrestled with Death for three days, and he shouts his defiance toward the Grim Reaper before our eyes. So Troy’s practical advice toward his son clashes with his own swollen self-regard – and with his disregard for social norms. On the job, his strength and pugnacity will enable him to become the first black garbage truck driver in town, but at home, his unchecked infidelity will cost him.
Part baseball legend, part Greek epic hero, and – as Bono observes – part “Uncle Remus,” Troy is the powerhouse that makes Fences among the most produced and anthologized of Wilson’s plays. Of the four productions I’ve seen in Charlotte, beginning in 1991 when Charlotte Repertory Theatre presented the local premiere, Brand New Sheriff’s best demonstrates how a strong overall cast elevates the script to the stratosphere of a classic.
And we’re seeing the best Troy we’ve had here in Jonavan Adams, who combines Ed Bernard’s physical presence from the Rep production of 1991 with the corrosive meanness and fiery defiance of Wayne DeHart at Theatre Charlotte in 1996. Snarling, cajoling, roaring, and willing us to see his distorted vision of the world, Adams is more outsized and supernatural than we’ve seen him before.
It likely helps that he and director Corlis Hayes are on their second go-round with Fences. The 2013 version at CPCC, where Adams played Lyons, Troy’s jazzy musician son, wasn’t the best of the previous versions, to be honest. But the current BNS production sure does demonstrate the benefits of taking a second shot at a work you revere. Cumulative experience with the playwright helps, too, for Adams builds upon what he learned in other parts of Wilson’s century-spanning Pittsburgh Cycle, with roles in The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
With BNS committed to presenting all of Wilson’s Cycle, others who have appeared with the company and in plays by this playwright are also shining lights here, most conspicuously Tim Bradley as Bono and LeShea Nicole as Rose. Audience members who hopped aboard the Pittsburgh train in 2017 with Jitney are certainly enjoying the ride the most. Bradley has been onstage at Duke Energy at every stop so far, and his Bono is a worthy – and compatible – longtime companion for Troy, not quite as righteous and upstanding as Memphis from Two Trains but strong and honorable when Troy could use a reality check.
Nicole was paired with Adams last year in Two Trains, so their rich and nuanced chemistry as Rose and Troy shouldn’t be a surprise. Rose is a stronger woman here, so when she holds out her hand on Friday nights, she isn’t merely asking for Troy’s pay envelope. Rose is Troy’s equal, and then some – the family nucleus. Everybody but Troy seems to get that until her climactic utterances deep in Act 2.
Still a junior at UNC Charlotte, Dylan Ireland is no stranger to BNS, having starred as Huey in Rory Sheriff’s Boys to Baghdad. As Cory, Ireland stands up to his dad without strapping on his shoulder pads. Eventually, he even disrespects Troy when he’s drunk and blocking the front door.
It’s a complex role for Ireland, who must forcefully declare that he doesn’t fear his father while imperfectly hiding that he does. He’s the reluctant, resentful free labor that Troy enlists to help build a fence around his property. So Ireland’s confrontations with Adams – along with Troy’s run-ins with Death – will come to mind when you contemplate the meaning of Wilson’s title.
Graham Williams, lately the Tin Man in BNS’s Be A Lion, has the cool-cat swagger you expect to see from Lyons. Though he does scrupulously pay Dad back on his loans, Lyons does not prosper as a musician, and Williams gives us a poignant picture of his decline. Seven-year-old Raynell appears late in the show, a bit of a consolation for the misfortunes that befall the other Maxsons, and Lauren Vinson plays her sweetly, only slightly difficult to manage.
Seven years younger than his brother Troy, Gabriel is a World War 2 vet who came back from the battlefield delusional, with a metal plate in his head. Troy may have seen Death and the Devil, but Gabriel believes that he has seen St. Peter and that he is the archangel Gabriel, destined the blow his junky trumpet on Judgment Day. James Lee Walker II plays this extravagant simpleton, the only cast member from the 2013 CPCC production to return in the same role.
More than ever, I must lament that I missed Walker when I reviewed the Sunday matinee of the 2013 production, when he was replaced by an understudy. Walker’s crazed, sunshiney energy this time around is a constant joy, and the ending, botched by the understudy or Hayes’ stage direction back then, was absolute perfection when I saw it on Saturday night. The glow of that ending may convince many that Fences is Wilson’s finest drama, and there’s plenty of firepower from the rest of the cast to fuel that feeling.
Review: A highly animated Odd Couple revival with a professional-grade cast
By Perry Tannenbaum
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see more clearly that Neil Simon and his esteemed stablemates – Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, and Mel Brooks – who all wrote for Sid Caesar during the early days of television, didn’t simply disperse into the realms of stand-up, movies, and theatre for the obvious practical reasons. Autonomy, fame, and fortune were surely enticing, but so was the satisfaction of working in longer forms than TV sketch comedy or a star comedian’s monologues.
Come back to The Odd Couple– or revisit Bananas and Zelig, A Funny Thing Happened and Tootsie, The Producers and Blazing Saddles – and we see a mature writer working beyond the limitations of zany characters and snappy one-liners. Simon develops his Oscar and Felix, tells a full-length story about them, and keeps the hilarity going. Entering Theatre Charlotte, where Jill Bloede is directing a highly animated Odd Couple revival with a professional-grade cast, I wasn’t thinking that I’d be seeing this old cash cow so freshly.
Somehow the difference between this 1965 comedy and TV sitcoms of the same era – including the spinoff Odd Couple sitcom that came to ABC in 1970 – suddenly seemed rather radical. The cardinal rule for most 22-minute sitcom writers back then was to hit the reset button at the end of each episode, so that next week’s episode would start out as if this week’s had never happened. On Broadway, you could expect the uptight, neurotic, neat freak Felix to wear out his slovenly pal Oscar’s patience by the time the curtain came down. On TV? No way. Felix made himself at home in Oscar’s Manhattan apartment for nearly five seasons.
Many in the sold-out house at the Queens Road barn on opening night were struck even more freshly by Felix, Oscar, their poker-night buddies, and the neighboring Pigeon Sisters. Unless the younger people in the house had been hooked on the Matthew Perry reincarnation of the sitcom during 2015-2017 on CBS, they likely hadn’t run into much Simon or Oscar in their lifetimes. I was a little taken aback when I came home, double-checked, and found that I’d only seen Odd Couple once in Charlotte during the last 30+ years, back in 2007 at CPCC.
On the other hand, this comedy staple had been quasi road-tested at Theatre Charlotte when the Female Version – with Florence, Olive and a klatch of Trivial Pursuit-playing women replacing the poker buddies – dropped by in the summer of 2012. Bloede also directed then, an overachievement that certainly warranted her current return engagement.
Whether it’s Lady Bracknell or Lucy Ricardo, Bloede knows her comedy, and she has prospected long enough in Charlotte to be able to mine its finest talent. Doesn’t look like she had to twist any arms, either. For her Oscar, she landed the most experienced Simon exponent in town, Brian Lafontaine. Breaking in to Charlotte theatre in 1992-1994, Lafontaine played leads in three of Simon’s comedies, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues on Queens Road – and Lost in Yonkers at Charlotte Rep.
Bloede goes edgier and high-energy for her Felix with Mark Scarboro, who first carved out his eccentric niche in 2001-02 with standout performances in Thumbs, The Pitchfork Disney, and Fuddy Meers. Yet Bloede has Lafontaine playing the 43-year-old Oscar with more energy than I’ve ever seen from this slovenly New York Post sportswriter. If she’s going to turn Scarboro loose to be as anal, neurotic, outré, and irritating as he can imagine Felix to be, then she’s returning the favor to Lafontaine and turning him loose to be as irritated, provoked, and out-of-control as he can imagine a devout 44-year-old slob can be.
No less pleasurable is the build-up to Felix’s first entrance. That’s because Bloede has a deep bench sitting around Oscar’s dining room poker table, supporting her stars. If we’re returning to Odd Couple, we’re likely surprised to find that Felix isn’t going to show up until we’re 17 pages into the script. Even Oscar isn’t onstage at the outset in his own apartment! Simon’s poker preamble steadily stokes concern for fragile Felix’s welfare in the wake of his breakup with his wife, but there’s already hostility and comedy shtick at the table before the two marquee combatants show up.
Just watch Michael Corrigan and Patrick Keenan at work, sparring as Murray and Speed, and you’ll see that Bloede has selected a second comedy team for us to revel in, very much in the same Felix-Oscar, Laurel-Hardy template. Decades ago, when Corrigan was younger and slimmer, he tended to remind you of Tim Conway. So the particular quirks of Murray the policeman come to readily to Corrigan, his exasperating slowness in shuffling cards and his alarmist reactions to any new news about Felix. Keenan is the master of the slow burn and the bellowing explosion, repeatedly supplying perfect exclamation points to punctuate the comedy.
Tall and lanky Matt Olin is the perfect choice for the spineless Vinnie, the guy Murray and Speed can both agree to pick on, the dutiful husband who submits to his wife’s curfew, and the man who deeply appreciates Felix’s sissy sandwiches. Meanwhile, Lee Thomas continues to ply his teddy bear charm as Oscar’s diffident, occasionally witty accountant, Roy.
If you’re worried that Bloede might be taking PC pains to update the Pigeon Sisters and present them as more evolved, rest easy. Vanessa Davis as Gwendolyn and Johanna Jowett as Cecily stay true to their origins, Davis the flirtier sister and Jowett the more empathetic bleeding heart. Set designer Rick Moll, costumer Yvette Moten, and sound designer Rick Wiggins have all climbed aboard Theatre Charlotte’s retro train. With a soundtrack that includes James Brown, Petula Clark, Jack Jones, Herb Alpert, and The Shirelles, Bloede and her all-pro cast are bent on taking you back to the ‘60s, like it or not. I’m betting you’ll like it.
Review: Mamma Mia! is playing this ABBA hit parade
By Perry Tannenbaum
There’s typical teenybopper inanity – and melodrama – in the lyrics of ABBA tunes that infiltrated the pop charts during the glam rock supergroup’s heyday, 1974-82. It’s all about desire, baby, followed by intense workouts on the hormonal treadmill of adolescence. Prospecting for ABBA gold, you’re rewarded with the age-old cycle of blissful acceptance or bitter ejection, romantic pleasure and conflict, burnout and breakup, cynicism and regret, all rendered in the elegantly engineered shorthand of a Top-40 hit.
Something interesting happened in 2001, after even the youngest member of ABBA had turned 50 and the quartet’s jukebox faves were cunningly transformed into a hit Broadway musical. You can feel it at Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts, where Mamma Mia! is playing through February 9. Writing the book for this ABBA hit parade, Catherine Johnson gave most of the songs to characters we could presume were nearly her own age, almost 44 on opening night. Old enough to have teenybopper kids of their own.
When a teenybopper pout is transformed into a midlife lament, regret takes on a whole new coloration in the title song as Donna Sheridan sings:
Yes, I’ve been brokenhearted,
Blue since the day we parted.
Why, why did I ever let you go?
The “day we parted” isn’t two melodramatic weeks ago. Not anymore. It’s over two decades ago, long enough for Donna to be experiencing the autumnal chill of lost youth. But hold on, Donna! You’re on a colorful Greek Isle, with lively cabana studs serving your taverna’s drinks, bikini-clad nymphs frolicking everywhere, dazzling eternal sunshine – and your darling daughter Sophie is getting married tomorrow!
It was easier to see Mamma Mia! from Sophie’s point of view in its Broadway days, pre-Meryl Streep, for Sophie really kickstarts the plot by prying into Mom’s secret diary and inviting all three of her possible dads to her wedding. Imagine if your three exes showed up unexpectedly for your daughter’s wedding. Sophie might as well have hired a skywriter to spell it all out: MOM, I READ YOUR SECRET DIARY AND INVITED ALL THREE OF MY POSSIBLE DADS TO MY WEDDING. Donna probably wouldn’t have looked up and noticed.
Presumably, Mamma is preoccupied with wedding preparations, but Donna compounds her distractions by inviting two of her old chums, Tanya and Rosie, to the festivities. Plenty of catching up to do, but conveniently, the three women were a glam rock vocal trio back in their salad days, Donna and the Dynamos, so they can provide the party entertainment. With this makeshift guest list and its ‘90s setting, the prevailing outlook of the story shifts emphatically toward the baby boomers, ABBA’s perennial demographic.
Directing the show, Billy Ensley clearly gets the boomer drift, and more than a couple of seasoned Charlotte musical stars ride the wave with him to the Matthews Playhouse stage. With a richly detailed scenic design by John Bayless and a sumptuous array of costumes by Lisa Altieri – including a surprise set of glam rock duds for the dads – it’s likely that all of these vets appreciated the warmth of their welcome.
We don’t need to wait around for all these elders to gather in the Mediterranean sun before the excitement begins, for Ensley has found newcomer Alexis Thomas to ignite the action as the nubile Sophie. Thomas quickly proves she’s a precocious belter, bookending Act 1 with lead vocals on “Honey, Honey” and “The Name of the Game.”
Having deceptively invited her three possible dads – Sam, Bill, and Harry – using Mom’s letterhead, Sophie must also subject each of the candidates to an impromptu paternity test, inviting all three to give her away at tomorrow’s wedding. The hurried brevity of these scenes would make any self-respecting playwright blush, but Thomas carries them off as if they were hallowed Broadway formalities, codified as cliché. Which they are. Spencer Ellis doesn’t get nearly as much opportunity to shine as Sky, Sophie’s fiancé, but he makes his big moment in Act 2 count, letting Sophie know that he feels her quest for her true dad is a bigger thing to her than their wedding.
Of course, the ABBA songs, stirred by island breezes and mixed with the celebratory vibe of the oncoming nuptials, become a cocktail that takes all six of the mid-lifers sip by sip from the tipsiness of nostalgia to the full inebriation of regression and reawakening. The women are the most intoxicated here, each arriving at her own pace. Burdened with a mother’s cares and saddled with the bitterness of a jilted sweetheart, Lucia Stetson as Donna travels the longest path – though the magic is there from the moment she sees Sam.
Stetson staunchly deals with the fact that Donna is prone to some truly stupid-ass choices, flexing the same regal star-quality insouciance that carried her through the title role of Evita a couple of summers back. Notwithstanding the baggy overalls she wears early on, we’re not surprised that she’ll soon emerge as a “Dancing Queen” and a “Super Trouper” – singing lead vocals, of course. You wonder a bit at first about Lisa Smith-Bradley, sporting a pair of mousy eyeglasses as Rosie, a far cry from the charismatic Mama Rose she brought to Theatre Charlotte seven years ago.
Never fear, Ensley and Smith-Bradley are cooking up a startling mouse-to-tigress rejuvenation as Rosie sets her sights on Bill, sinking her slinky claws into him in their “Take a Chance on Me” duet. Lisa Blanton talks like the bawdiest woman onstage as Tanya, but is it all talk? No, it is definitely not as we watch Blanton’s cougar rampage on “Does Your Mother Know?” Blanton pulls double duty at Matthews, doubling as the production’s choreographer, captaining her own carnivorous showcase with obvious gusto.
Aside from Thomas, a young talent to watch, the most promising of the young Greeks is Adrian White as Pepper, prime target for Tanya’s predations in “Does Your Mother Know?” – agile and slightly bewildered. He’s the dancing king here, for none of his elders, aside from Blanton, was chosen for hoofing prowess.
We’ve seen all the middle-aged guys before in Charlotte, Bob Mauney most recently starring in The Music Man at Theatre Charlotte, Steven B. Martin in Evita and Bridges of Madison County, and Patrick Ratchford in anything he has ever auditioned for over the last 25+ years, most recently 1776, Ragtime, and Charlotte Squawks! The Ratchford voice is still in peak condition, mostly held in reserve until Sam’s “S.O.S.” duet with Donna in Act 2, an all-out cri de Coeur in the top-40 world. Those smooth baritone tonsils also wrap themselves around two other hit singles, “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and – spoiler alert – the climactic “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” duet.
Sam isn’t the most comical of Donna’s exes, just the most interesting: the last he heard from her before Sophie’s faux invite was that she didn’t want to see him again. Understandably, he’s a bit uncomfortable and ambivalent when Sophie admits the subterfuge, but like the other guys who are also residually fond of Donna in various degrees, the possibility of being Sophie’s father keeps him hanging around in hopes of closure – and maybe making amends.
Martin as Harry and Mauny as Bill follow parallel tracks, not called upon to do much singing. Neither squanders his opportunity, Martin in a nostalgic “Our Last Summer” duet in Donna’s bedroom (here we go again?) and Mauny as Rosie’s willing prey in their “Take a Chance on Me” tête-à-tête. Bill claims to be an adventurer, so a tigress should be just right up his Aussie alley.