Category Archives: Theatre

The Road Gets Bumpy, but Theatre Charlotte’s “Christmas Carol” Prevails at CP

Review: A Christmas Carol at Halton Theater

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Almost a year ago, fire struck the Theatre Charlotte building on Queens Road, gouging a sizable trench in its auditorium and destroying its electrical equipment. Repairs and renovations will hopefully be completed in time for the launch of the company’s 95th season next fall, but meanwhile, actors, directors, designers, and technicians are soldiering on at various venues for 2021-22, their year of exile cheerfully branded as “The Road Trip Season Tour.” Ironically enough, Theatre Charlotte’s Season 94 began in September with a downsized musical, The Fantasticks, at the Palmer Building, a facility that once served as a training ground for firefighters. For their 14th production of A Christmas Carol, Theatre Charlotte has moved along to Halton Theater, the permanent home of Central Piedmont Theatre.

Timing is a bit awkward on the campus of Central Piedmont Community College, where a new theater that will be friendlier to dramatic productions – replacing the demolished Pease Auditorium – is slated to open in April with The Diary of Anne Frank. Graced with a generous orchestra pit, the Halton is more hospitable to big splashy musicals (when its sound system responds favorably to our crossed fingers). In fact, this transplanted production of A Christmas Carol, in Julius Arthur Leonard’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ iconic novella, reminds us how well-suited the old “Queens Road barn” was for such spooky and creepy fare. Not only were the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future at home there, but so were such confections as Arsenic and Old Lace, Assassins, Blithe Spirit, and To Kill a Mockingbird. The Halton occasionally seemed oversized when You Can’t Take It With You took up residence there at the beginning of Central Piedmont’s current season, and you can imagine how their spectacular 2015 Phantom of the Opera emphasized the grandness of Andy Lloyd Webber’s grand guignol.

Encountering the vastness of the Halton in transplanting Theatre Charlotte’s cozy Christmas Carol, director Jill Bloede has been characteristically resourceful in executing its many daunting scene changes. At times, we could see cast members whisking set pieces off to the wings in a smooth out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new routine. But there were occasions when changes of scenery necessitated a complete closing and reopening of the stage curtains. Veiling the tediousness of that maneuver, Bloede has summoned repeated parades of a small band of merry carolers, coached by Jim Eddings, to cross the stage while the curtains are closed – so you would probably be right in thinking there are more carols sung this year than in Christmases past on Queens Road. My welcome for the carolers on opening night veered toward the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge’s grumpy attitude as the evening progressed, yet opening night is destined to be enshrined in Theatre Charlotte lore as the night of the infamous doorknocker scene fiasco.

One of the first indications that Scrooge’s house will be haunted, after a ghostly “Ebenezer Scrooge!” exclamation blows in on the Halton’s sound system, is the brief scene at the threshold to Ebenezer’s home. Here is where Scrooge sees a fleeting glimpse of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, bringing his doorknocker to life. The precision needed to carry off such a simple scene only became apparent when it went awry. Either the Halton curtains were tardy in arriving at their centerstage spots, where they would fully frame Scrooge’s front door, or the actor who was to lurk unseen behind that door arrived early – and was very clearly seen, garishly aglow. Portraying Scrooge, Hank West seemed sufficiently poised to extemporize while the stage curtains and the lurking Marley came into proper alignment. But the carolers took their cue and entered before West could properly proceed, and the panicked actor behind the door fled. West finished out the brief scene as well he could without any eerie lights beaming through the doorknocker, but the special effect was lost – the only real reason for that scene.

Legions of Theatre Charlotte veterans – and new initiates in years to come – will no doubt keep the memory of this snafu alive for generations, heartily laughing all the more at the incident because it didn’t typify the production. Scenic design by Chris Timmons and lighting by Gordon Olson didn’t expand quite enough to comfortably acclimate at the Halton, nor did the company splurge on smoke or fog effects during its financial woes, which might have deepened the spell of the spookier Marley and graveyard scenes. Don’t expect any snow to flutter down on the vast Halton acreage, either. With balmy temperatures likely to prevail throughout the opening weekend, it’s Beth Killion’s set of period costumes that most successfully instill a chill into the air.IMG_8525

We’ve seen some of this cast before, notably West as Scrooge, Chip Bradley as Christmas Present, and Mary Lynn Bain doubling as Fred’s wife Elizabeth in the present and Belle, Scrooge’s old flame, in the flashbacks. All of these enlarge on their past performances to some extent, maybe West most of all. His meanness is more startling in person than it was in last year’s video version, streamed online, and his sorrow and penitence are also magnified. The graceful arc of Scrooge’s redemption is only slightly bumpier this year with West’s adjustments to the new space, Bloede’s script edits for this intermission-free edition, and a body mic. Projected into a larger hall, Scrooge’s newly minted intentions needed to sound more like settled resolves and less like agonized pleas. Bradley enlarges to a similar degree upon Present’s outsized cheer, the more the merrier in his case – until he issues his climactic admonitions, now sharper in their contrast. Bain seems most content to let her mic do her amplification, but she is stronger this year in the climactic flashback scene when she returns Ebenezer’s engagement ring.IMG_8694_dcoston

All the newcomers to TC’s Carol are quite fine, a testament to Bloede’s ability to attract talent when she holds auditions. In contrast with the veiled youthful mystery of Anna McCarty last year, Suzanne Newsom brought a nostalgic melancholy to the Ghost of Christmas Past that was quite affecting in its serenity, while Mike Corrigan appeared for the first time as Bob Cratchit – very different with his more muted brand of meekness from Andrea King last year but no less kindly or comical. For richer or poorer, Josh Logsdon and Rebecca Kirby were a fine pairing for the Fezziwigs, Aedan Coughlin doubled well as Young Ebenezer and Ghost of Christmas Future, and Riley Smith brought all the optimism needed for the sanctity of Tiny Tim. With Mitzi Corrigan and Emma Corrigan on board as Mrs. Cratchit and daughter Belinda, there’s plenty of family authenticity around the humble Cratchit hearth – or there will be when Mitzi returns from personal leave due to a death in her real family. Vanessa Davis spelled ably for Corrigan as Mrs. Cratchit at the premiere performance, augmenting her regular role as Mrs. Dilbur.

Assuming that Thom Tonetti was already in character as Jacob Marley during the notorious doorknocker scene, I’ll say his opening night adventures most typified the Theatre Charlotte crew’s tribulations in acclimating to a new space. Marley’s entrance into Scrooge’s home wasn’t dramatized with smoke and lights, and Tonetti didn’t enjoy the benefit of having his prophecies and imprecations magnified with thunderous jolts from the soundboard. During the flashbacks, the actor certainly earned some sort of sportsmanship award, appearing as the younger Jacob opposite the truly younger Coughlin.IMG_8645_dcoston

Steadying this production and assuring that its professional polish never deteriorated into community theatre chaos for long, West ultimately triumphed over all missteps and obstacles, bringing us the compelling Scrooge we expect in all his goodness. It’s still a strong story, and 24 of its most ardent Theatre Charlotte believers are moonlighting at Central Piedmont, giving this 87-minute production the old college try. A drama within a drama, to be sure, both ending happily.

Originally published on 12/18 at CVNC.org

New Techni-Colorful “Velveteen Rabbit” Struggles to Retain Its Aching Soul

Review: The Velveteen Rabbit at ImaginOn

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Beginning with a musical version in 1992, I’ve now seen at least eight productions of The Velveteen Rabbit at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, four at their former location on Morehead Street and four at their pioneering ImaginOn facility near Seventh Street Station. Scott Davidson’s dramatic adaptation of Margery Williams’ classic 1922 book, long a mainstay at Children’s Theatre after the musical version was discreetly discarded, was actually the first show staged in the smaller theater, now named the Wells Fargo Playhouse, when ImaginOn opened in 2005.

The company’s 2021 edition of the story, arguably more relevant for children in the midst of a pandemic, takes us in new directions – with a new stage adaptation by Michelle Hoppe-Long, CTC’s director of education. Hoppe-Long’s Rabbit hopped from page to screen last December with a different cast, a worldwide debut that was still viewable online back in March. Now it’s in its premiere live run.

Over the years, CTC’s Rabbit is likely the company’s most widely-known piece, since it has often travelled across the state in pint-sized portable productions with its travelling troupe, known once upon a time as the Tarradiddle Players. So perhaps the biggest shift between the former Rabbit and the new one is only becoming obvious now, as the ImaginOn staging leaps from the Wells Fargo to the larger McColl Family Theatre. Logically enough, Andrew Gibbon’s scenic design concept has discarded the simple, drab, intimate, and pastel look of the vagabond Rabbit in favor of a sweeping, eye-popping, and technically dazzling spectacle, abetted by Robyn Warfield’s bold lighting design. These flamboyant Disney fantasy elements are offset by Magda Guichard’s earthbound costume and puppet designs.

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That same tension between imaginative extravagance and minimalist simplicity is evident in Hoppe-Long’s script and Melissa Ohlman-Roberge’s stage direction. These discordant elements may be viewed as indecision, but it seemed to me that this new hourlong Velveteen Rabbit was consistently plagued with wrong, illogical, and perverse decisions. Most incomprehensible and disastrous was the transformation of the title character from a woman in an outsized bunny suit into a puppet, visibly wielded by an actress bravely striving to deflect attention away from herself.

Why reduce the size, expressiveness, personality, and lovability of your lead character in transit from a small venue to a larger one? Portraying the Rabbit by proxy, Margaret Dalton never gets the chance to equal the exploits of Claire Whitworth-Helm, Lesley Giles, and Nikki Adkins, past greats in the role. And Dalton must also moonlight, without changing her costume, as the household Nana! Occasionally, Dalton’s double duties became awkward and confusing, if not cringeworthy.

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In a story about a boy’s toy aspiring to become real, all of this wrongheaded simplification makes it more difficult for toddlers to see that the Velveteen Rabbit is real – and for them to empathize with its aspirations. A whole franchise of Toy Story films is descended from Williams’ story, but Hoppe-Long and Ohlman-Roberge not only change the Old Skin Horse to a less cuddly Rocking Horse, they eliminate or downgrade all the toys and real rabbits that torment our protagonist. These abridgements of the Velveteen Rabbit’s world seemed to compound the audience’s struggle to empathize with her – it certainly compounded mine – because we never felt her pain keenly. And when the family Doctor was also removed from the cast, the Boy’s tribulations were also muted at the dramatic climax when he fell sick. Yes, even the size of the cast was smaller at this bigger venue.

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Ironically, simplifying and purifying the Boy also diverts our attention away from the Rabbit. More human stupidity and callousness from Lexie Wolfe as the Boy would have reminded us that the Rabbit should be our primary concern, though she does underscore those moments when the Boy disregards his cherished toy. Surrounded by such Technicolor splendor, it’s hard for Wolfe to break through and impress upon us that the Boy is not completely wholesome – and that his life before he falls ill is not totally idyllic. Instead, Wolfe diverts us with her charm as the Boy roams about with the Rabbit, pretending to be a warrior and pirate while immersing his cuddly toy in his fantasies.

This is the most vivid magic we get, yet Hoppe-Long has contrived to add a little more magic to the Williams yarn, expanding the role of the nursery magic Fairy. The sudden blooming of her presence in the midst of the Velveteen Rabbit’s most extreme desolation is beautifully conceived and splendidly staged, with Reneé Welsh-Noel’s lithe dancing skills adding to the wonder. Yet this new adaptation drops the Fairy into the beginning and middle of the story, where she has never appeared before, somewhat blunting the surprise of her climactic deus ex machina appearance at the end.

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Welsh-Noel also moonlights as the Rocking Horse and the Boy’s distant but understanding Mom. There’s a delightful surprise cameo at the end of the show, buried in the playbill credits, when stunt rabbit Brambles replaces the puppet protagonist. Parents and toddlers can decide for themselves whether a live rabbit that must be protectively caged at odd intervals – to prevent it from romping around forever in the audience – enhances or diminishes the nursery magic. For me, it was cute at first, but the benefits didn’t last.

Originally published on 12/6 at CVNC.org

Sensory-Friendly Theatre, or “How can I help you be you?”

Preview: Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Tyler made a surprising and daring decision at ImaginOn before attending the Sunday matinee of My Wonderful Birthday Suit. His mom, Ilana, had been sure that Tyler would want to wear noise-cancelling headphones at the performance, so I had to assure her that Children’s Theatre would be offering them prior to the show. Otherwise, she would need to pack his set of phones before they flew in from El Paso and make sure he had them when they left their hotel.

But Tyler refused the headphones that were available – in a really cool variety of colors, it should be mentioned – at the entrance of McColl Family Theatre. Instead, he chose a day-glo green worm, about eight inches long, from a wide array of fidgets and weighted cuddles on display. His younger sister, Brynn, chose a spotted little Dalmatian doggie that weighed five pounds. More surprises.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-01

Tyler had to live with his choice. Now when Oobladee and Oobladah, best friends on this side of Moonbeam, started blowing up balloons for the surprise birthday party they were planning for Shebopshebe, Oobladee’s bestie from the other side of Moonbeam… Tyler covered his ears with both hands, dreading the moment when a balloon would suddenly explode.

Yet he didn’t cower or turn away. He didn’t run for cover. His beautiful blue eyes remained glued to the stage.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-12

I was sure that none of the balloons would explode. Even if I hadn’t seen this show before, I could see that, sitting in front of the stage, “Tree” (resident teaching artist Kaitlin Gentry) hadn’t raised her two green glow sticks, the signal that “sensory rich” moments were around the corner. Anybody who had downloaded the Parent’s Guide from the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte website would also know that the balloons were “being blown up and let go, but they do not pop or make much sound.”

Tyler’s attention never wavered after the balloon scare, but he didn’t remain completely quiet. Gloria Bond Clunie’s script becomes heavier and more emotional. When Shebopshebe shows up from the other side of the rainbow, Oobladah is shocked to discover that Oobladee’s other best friend is brown. From the start, when he points at Shebopshebe and says, “You’re brown!” it doesn’t sound at all like a description – and she hears that clearly.

The pointing and the tone get meaner, more hateful, overtly racist. “People say that brown skin is…,” Oobladah stammers, leaning over a ledge and pointing an accusing finger down at Shebopshebe. He’s heard whispers that “you know…” and finally he blurts out: “Together – we should not play!”2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-03

You might think the two girls would be furious. Instead, they’re both rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically.

“On the Other Side of Moonbeam – we play all the time!” Shebopshebe will respond, once she and Oobladee have caught their breaths.

And this is where Tyler breaks his silence. In a voice loud enough for Mom sitting next to him to hear. It’s also loud enough for me – his grandpa – to hear, sitting two seats away, next to his sister.

“That’s NOT funny!” Tyler calls out.

Nobody turns around to shush him. Nobody glares. At all of Children’s Theatre’s Sensory-Friendly Performances, autistic nine-year-olds like Tyler are free to call out, fidget, roam around the theater, cower in a corner, or find refuge in a quiet room, where they can still watch and hear all the comedy and drama with their mom or dad.

That’s really the point: they’re free to be themselves without being judged.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-17

Julie Higginbotham of Precious Developments has been overseeing the Sensory-Friendly Performances at Children’s Theatre since 2016, when ImaginOn’s new project was still a pioneering rarity. Now every run of every mainstage production gets a Sensory-Friendly Performance at its closing Sunday matinee. That includes the upcoming Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, opening this Saturday and running through November 14.

“It’s a big deal!” Higginbotham often says – because it’s so true in so many ways.

She’s preparing actors, directors, designers, technicians, and ushers for the special performance – as well as carefully preparing printed and online guides for protective parents and surprise-averse children. This involves meeting face-to-face with the stage manager, the stage director, the musical director, and the actors. Higginbotham also attends the designers’ run-through, dress rehearsals, and performances during the run of the show, where she scribbles over the Children’s Theatre director of production Steven Levine’s script, containing all the light and sound cues.

Where should the volume on the mics be turned down? Where should a scream be changed into a loud exclamation? Where should a live gunshot effect be changed into a muffled recording? Where must a scene with strobe effects – almost automatically a two-light-cue alert – be redesigned so that triggers that would be hazardous to seizure-prone kids are gone?

Amid the final tweaks to lights and sounds happening during the run of the show, Higginbotham takes hundreds of photos – because the Parent’s Guide and the Child’s Guide are also illustrated full-color scenarios that prepare audiences for what they will see. That’s helpful when a stage adaptation or a set design significantly departs from an original book that kids and their parents are already familiar with.

She also annotates the script for “Tree” so that she can closely follow and precisely time her one-light and two-light cues. Higginbotham remained involved in the last 90 minutes before the Sensory-Friendly Performance and even while “Tree” was upfront waving her traffic-control glow sticks.

Grandpa had to rise and shine a couple of hours earlier than Ilana and the grandkids to witness Higginbotham’s final preps for My Wonderful Birthday Suit – after getting buzzed in at the ImaginOn loading dock.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-24

First came the final powwow with the actors, lighting crew, and “Tree.” Actors portraying Oobladee, Oobladah, and Shebopshebe all received Higginbotham’s final notes and reinforcements, with opportunities to air last-minute questions and concerns. Then the reconfigured “REWIND” scene – Shebopshebe’s brilliant and zany answer to the contrite Oobladah’s wish to “begin again” – was rehearsed and rerun without the strobes.

As the three actors exited and changed into their costumes, makeup, and matching masks (since ImaginOn is a public building, masks are worn by actors during performances), Higginbotham ascended the long lobby ramp to the top level of McColl Family Theatre. Time to prep the ushering staff, a mix of vets and newbies overseen by volunteer coordinator Louise Lawson.

Some ushering basics are turned on their head at Sensory-Friendlies. Ushers don’t simply show you to your seat, retreat to anonymity, and maybe sit back and enjoy the show themselves. They’re actively engaged in helping to ensure this special audience will enjoy their experience before the show and during the show.

Audience members don’t have a seat. With open, socially distanced seating, they have any seat. If say, they run up to the front of the house and find out that the sensory onslaught is too intense there, they can move back as far as they wish to any empty seat.

What ushers pay closest attention to is the kids’ needs. So my Tyler actually had extra backup during the little balloon scare that his mom may not have been aware of. Ushers were armed with the same fidgets, cuddly dogs, sunglasses, and headphones that Tyler was offered when he came in, standing at-the-ready, spread throughout the theater, instructed to come to his aid if they noticed he was constantly putting his hands over his ears and flinching.

“The biggest thing,” Higginbotham emphasizes to the volunteers, “is this: a lot of these families are overlooked, or they get stares. Our job is to actually see these folks, make eye contact, engage with everyone. If their communication style is one you don’t understand, that’s OK. Say, ‘Hello. We are really, really glad that you are here. What can we do for you? Can we show you to your seats? This is an amazing production, and we want to make sure you guys have a good time.’”

Any questions? Higginbotham is there to answer ushers’ concerns before and during the show, supervising the operation over a headset from the rear of the hall. Like a second stage manager.

Higginbotham’s meeting with Laura Beth Lee, the actual stage manager for Tropical Secrets, gave me a close-up view of how the Sensory-Friendly process begins – and a rewarding overview of the Precious Developments methodology.

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The situation was somewhat surreal for this reviewer, since Higginbotham had not yet read the L M Feldman stage adaptation of Margarita Engle’s young adult verse novel. I’d covered the original webcast premiere back in March, but there were never live performances of the show and no Sensory-Friendly edition. The same cast, starring Adrian Thornburg as the Jewish boy Daniel and Isabel Gonzalez as Cuban native Paloma, are back with director David Winitsky. But Lee will be new to Cuba behind the scenes.

New wrinkles will confront everyone involved, however, since the production is moving from the McColl Theatre at the east side of ImaginOn to Wells Fargo Playhouse on the west, with a shrunken, more abstract set design customized for the new venue. Before Higginbotham and Lee powwowed in the “Lizard Room” on October 20, the returning cast had already rehearsed on the new set, likely because there hadn’t been a live show at the Wells since January 2020.

As the title indicates, Tropical Secrets is very much about this world – historical racism rather than the Moonbeam brand. With the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht falling on November 9, during the run of the show, Engle’s story will be very much in season. We really begin with that cataclysmic 1938 event in Nazi Germany, which prompts Daniel’s family to rush the 11-year-old onto an ocean liner bound for New York, where they all plan to reunite and live happily ever after.

Except that the USA turns the ship away from its ports – all of them – because there are Jews on board. Canada does the same. Hello, Havana! How in this wide world will Daniel’s family find their boy now?

Miracles aren’t likely here, and you can rule out rewinds. Meanwhile, with little more than an overcoat and a flute, little Daniel must find ways to survive and fit in. Paloma and Daniel bridge the gap between languages and cultures far more easily than their elders, but Daniel finds a link to his heritage in crusty old David, played by Tom Scott, a Yiddish-speaking ice cream vendor who sports a gaudy yarmulke.

“It’s also a very emotional show,” Lee tells Higginbotham, “a Holocaust show, so you’ve got police officers who are bursting in and yelling, there’s scary emotional outburst moments, so I can definitely see that there are these big impactful things.”2021~Tropical Secrets-32

Together with our dip into Yiddish and repeated Judaic references, Paloma has her own story – and considerable depths. She is our gateway into Cuban culture and the Afro-Cuban beat. Daniel will discard his flute for a drum and jam with percussionist Raphael Torn, who will also play the vibraphone. Topping that outbreak of rhythm and dance, there’s a full-fledged carnival scene.

Yes, there is sensory richness aplenty in Tropical Secrets – and the kid protagonists are sharp. Explaining to Paloma what living Jewish was like back in Munich, Daniel says, “In Germany, you have to wear a star on your shirt, so everyone can know what you are and hate you for it.”

Paloma’s dad is El Gordo, played by Frank Dominguez, the notorious decider when it comes to which ships are allowed to dock in Havana and which are turned away. Defending his wartime profiteering, El Gordo schools his daughter: “The world runs on business!” With no less conviction, Paloma looks her dad straight in the eye and fires back, “The world runs on kindness!

Emotional.

Impactful as Tropical Secrets will be, part of Higginbotham’s job will be to prep the able actors onstage for what to expect from their ultra-sensitive, surprise-averse audience – especially when volume has been trimmed to 75% or less and houselights turned down to half. They will see their audience more clearly than they did at previous performances. There will be fewer kids out there, socially distanced and maybe moving around or fidgeting. It may be jarring to look out into the audience and see kids talking back to the actors or wearing headphones. Or holding their hands over their ears. Or not making eye contact.

They might not even clap.

Parents will need to show proof of vaccination to enter the Wells for Tropical Secrets, but they won’t need to bring doctor’s notes or medical records for the Sensory-Friendly finale. Nor will this be an entirely special-needs crowd.

“Some folks prefer the softer presentation,” Higginbotham explains. “Some parents feel it gives their kids more freedom, and some folks can only get tickets for the Sunday matinee!”

If all goes according to plan, Higginbotham’s guides for parents and children will go out to all ticketholders on November 8, giving families six days to prepare.

Ilana was impressed by both Birthday Suit guides, but she didn’t see them as particularly useful for her Tyler, whom she describes as falling in the mild-to-moderate range of the autistic spectrum. Medication also helps him in tolerating sensory irritants.2021~Ilana Visits-22

“I don’t think Brynn or Tyler would’ve benefited,” Ilana says of the illustrated guide, “and it may actually have detracted from their experience. In children’s theatre, anything that dampens the surprise and wonder of a performance wouldn’t be optimal for my kids. And the show itself didn’t have anything too jarring (sensory-wise) that we would’ve needed to warn him about.”

On the other hand, My Wonderful Birthday Suit was far more palatable to Tyler than his previous theatre experience at Sesame Street Live! in 2019.

“Brynn loved it, but it was too loud and glitzy for Tyler,” Mom recalls. “Crazy loud, confetti storm, etc. We had to buy him off with a snow cone to get him through it.”

Higginbotham points out that the guides aren’t merely handy in preparing kids for Sensory-Friendly Performances, they also help in revisiting and remembering what they’ve seen. That can happen soon after the theatre experience is over or before the next theatre experience, when parents want to pique their children’s interest and anticipation.

“I showed Tyler the Child’s Guide,” Ilana wrote me, “and he was very excited and asked if you had sent pictures of the stage. Then he asked if I could send him screenshots of his 3 favorite pictures. Why? ‘Because they’re beautiful!’”

Unforeseen as that reaction might be, it’s what Higginbotham aims for.

“People need the freedom to be exactly who they need to be,” she says, “and to be able to feel like they’re supported. And man, we can’t predict everything, but we try. They need a non-judgment zone that I defend to the death. How can I help you be you? That’s my job.”

“My Dinner With Andrea” Takes Feminism to the Limit

Review: My Dinner With Andrea from Charlotte’s Off-Broadway

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Thanks largely to Anne Lambert and Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, the Queen City’s fiercest proponent of homegrown professional theatre and her spunky little company, we have now seen two provocative new plays by her sister, Susan Lambert Hatem. Not surprisingly, since Lambert is also a founding member of Chickspeare – “all female, all Shakespeare, all the time” was their catchphrase – both of the Hatem plays we’ve seen have been spiritedly feminist.

Lambert directed Confidence (And the Speech) at Spirit Square in 2018 and now takes on the title role in My Dinner With Andrea. Charlotte’s Off- Broadway has moved off-Tryon to The Arts Factory, the stand-in of choice so far for resident theatre companies at Spirit Square while that facility is reconfigured. In Confidence, we had a former presidential aide who was willing to recount her role in crafting Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence speech, but only on the condition that she and her questioner playact the narrative – with her playing the President and the questioner portraying the aide, a role and gender reversal.

Like Confidence, Hatem’s new play is a reaction to the 2016 election. You might presume that an initial reaction would be angry and visceral, leading subsequently to a more reasoned and pragmatic response. This playwright is flipping that order. She’s angrier, more irrational and visceral now than she was three years ago.

Then her heroine was an academic who helped Hatem juxtapose Jimmy Carter’s reasoned, cautious, calculated, and inclusive methods of policy- and decision-making with the infamous 45’s. Furthermore, she showed us how naturally a woman (could the playwright have had Hillary in mind?) would fit into that more intelligent, deliberate, and statesman-like mold.

The anger and impulsiveness of My Dinner With Andrea indicate that there’s more than a little 2020 in Hatem’s fuel tank, firing up her engine. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that Andrea, portrayed by the playwright’s sister, is a female Donald. Or an amalgam of the two 2016 candidates? A devious entrepreneurial maniac who is more ambitious than 45, more pragmatic and intelligent, and less likely to run off the rails and flame out.

After tasting the bitter fruit of whistleblowing, Julia Grace Brandt is a research scientist who can use a job that utilizes her talents without compromising her integrity. She agrees to meet with an old, somewhat estranged friend, Andrea Ranger, who has become a renowned A-lister, on a first-name basis with Serena Williams, multitudes of glitterati, and key influencers. Divorced twice, if I counted correctly, with no kids – and no-thank-you on the subject of motherhood.

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Andrea’s next great entrepreneurial target, one that Julia is supremely equipped to spearhead, is the development of a wondrous vaccine, distributed globally, that will wipe cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s from the face of the earth. Lurking behind those wonders will be a genetic side-effect of ridding mankind of men – or at least skewing the female-to-male birthrate ratio from 50-50 to a more comfortable 70-30, if not north of that.

“The future is female,” Andrea says, not kidding at all, though the phrase is familiar. As happens occasionally in dystopian sci-fi epics, she wishes to speed the process.

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Certainly, there are sufficient urgent crises facing humanity – and more than sufficient patriarchy screwups – to justify Andrea’s design and haste. Likewise, there are reasons why the highly principled Julia will sit there, hear Andrea out, and negotiate rather than simply walking away. For one, the fabulously wealthy Andrea will very likely make a fabulous salary offer to her old friend. More immediately – and temptingly – they are meeting at Miesha, the most chichi restaurant in all of Atlanta, and Andrea is having their waiter, William, bring out every single delicacy on the menu, from the appetizers to the desserts.

The meal of a lifetime for an unemployed lesbian.

So yes, the resemblance between My Dinner With Andrea and the 1981 movie, My Dinner With André (written by and starring André Gregory and Wallace Shawn), isn’t accidental. Hatem’s script is more purposeful, confrontational, and sexual, a pretty explosive combo in a space as small and intimate as The Arts Factory.

Utilizing the ubiquitous cellphone of 2021, Hatem can brief us on the upcoming action by simply having Julia confide in her partner by phone as she waits for Andrea to make a fashionably late entrance. Back in 1981, we needed Shawn’s voiceover, as he walked toward the restaurant, to clue us in.

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As the posh dinner and job offer unfold, Julia faces a couple of moral dilemmas informed by Hatem’s astute reading of 2020 and the Trump Era. Most obvious is the quandary that many who signed on to 45’s heinous administration ultimately faced. Should I risk soiling my reputation by joining this malignant organization, compartmentalize my work into the good that it might accomplish, and try to curb or sabotage its leader’s megalomaniacal schemes? Or should I distance myself from this creep as far as possible?

If Julia actually takes home Andrea’s prospectus and considers her devil’s bargain, she will probably be gauging her chances of subverting her vaccine development enterprise so that only good comes out of it. Or she may be simply fortifying her powers of self-delusion, finding excuses for allowing herself to be bought off, and placing herself in danger of being outfoxed by Andrea and other members of her brain trust, making her a duped accomplice in their diabolical scheme.

Adding some West Wing gravity to this tête-à-tête, Andrea has Julia ink a non-disclosure agreement before revealing how she plans to change the world. Enhancing the intrigue and giving us a little foreshadowing, William assists in preserving confidentiality by ceremoniously relieving Julia of her cellphone – and her smartwatch. We may think Andrea’s security concerns are frivolous and overblown, but then Julia suddenly comes face-to-face with her second moral dilemma, a climactic #MeToo moment that hatches more confrontation and dispute.

Echoes of that moment reverberated with me during the drive home, for I kept thinking how the incident would sit with Julia on her drive home and when she talked things over with her partner. Does what just happened potentially give her extra leverage down the road if she accepts Andrea’s job offer?

Tracie Frank plays Julia with such elegant cool that I could easily imagine her factoring this possible leverage into her ultimate calculus, for if the world isn’t in such dire straits that Andrea’s remedies are truly necessary, it could be if the psychopath makes headway. Maybe director Marla Brown could have called upon Frank to devour the culinary delights arrayed before her with more gusto to point up her susceptibility to temptation, but we see more than enough Epicurean enthusiasm to suspect there might be chinks in her armor. Frank’s is a nicely calibrated performance when you weigh it accurately, with the simmering rage of an unrepentant whistleblower often lurking beneath the surface.

Lambert has the juicier role as Andrea, seemingly with a green light to go all the way to a “Hillarump” Hillary+Trump if she pleases. Yes, we see her regally dangling all sorts of perks in front of her prey, flexing her wealth, but she also has a shrewd respect for Julia’s scruples, sees that bribery needs to be supplemented with down-to-earth charm and statistical persuasion to have her way. Brown doesn’t rein Lambert in to the extent that her confidence in emerging victorious – now at the restaurant and ultimately in the future – ever seems to wane, but she definitely credits Julia with being a formidable and admirable antagonist.

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Matt Howie rounds out the cast as William, nicely complementing his elders. His youth and suave servility give a nice edge to Andrea’s cougar tendencies while cloaking her true motives, and his smiling condescension subtly puts Julia in her place – maybe steeling her spine.

While My Dinner With Andrea compares favorably with My Dinner With André – and with her earlier Confidence – I do wish Hatem had been more thorough in her research, which would have made this Dinner richer in its logistics. Male birthrates actually outpace female birthrates in today’s world, particularly in Asian countries where cultural influences and social engineering are in play, skewing the numbers. You can compound the steepness of that climb with other hills, including the FDA, the CDC, and anti-vaxxers.

How would Andrea outmaneuver and circumvent all those obstacles? Concrete answers would certainly bring this archvillain’s fiendishness to a loftier level. Asking those questions would also sharpen Julia’s acumen.

Fully embracing those considerations, a Dinner 2.0 could be a provocative knockout. Meanwhile, without fully sweating the details, Hatem’s lively play certainly begins offers us a different path to discarding democracy for the sake of a better tomorrow. Sadly, it also makes more sense than the path pursued by 45’s insurrectionists.

“Open” Needs More Space and Time

Review: Open from Three Bone Theatre @ The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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We’ve had two new presidents and three elections since the last time I saw a show at The Arts Factory in September 2012. One of those presidents and one of those elections lit the spark that became Crystal Skillman’s Open in 2019. Now that Spirit Square is shuttered for redevelopment, Open is the first of what figures to be a steady migration of local theatre productions from Uptown at 7th Street to the nifty black box on the other side of I-77 at 1545 West Trade.

Directed for Three Bone Theatre by Sarah Provencal, Open is a one-woman show featuring Danielle Banks in her Charlotte debut.

We can actually trace the hour when Open began germinating on the surreal “morning after” of November 9, 2016.

“Once He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named was elected,” Skillman said in a subsequent interview, “the intolerant times in which we lived have increased. The day after he was elected at six AM, two men in a car driving past me shouted ‘Hilary lost, bitch!’” Out of her anger and pain came a need to escape the world of intolerance and hate she suddenly found herself in.

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Skillman decided that she needed magic, and her script propounds the idea that we all need magic – and we all can believe in it if we choose. The woman who addresses us, Kristen, is a magician. The Magician.

Except that she isn’t. Kristen is actually a freelance writer, a soon-to-be electronically published author of her first young adult novel, who has extensively researched magic. She will rely on us, her audience, to believe in her magic and to imagine the balls she isn’t juggling, the metal rings she isn’t interlocking and pulling apart, the rope she isn’t cutting and magically restoring, and the deck of playing cards she isn’t shuffling or spreading or offering to an audience member to pick from.

Circuitously, we learn why Kristen needs this magic as she spins her love story. Each of three acts is delineated: first love, commitment, and sacrifice. Yeah, you’ll need to head to the other side of town for The Rocky Horror Show if you’re looking for something silly or frivolous.

While telling us how she has been coaxed out of the closet into a deepening relationship with Jenny, a Kinko’s worker who has helped her with her manuscript, Kristen clues us into why she resists coming out and commitment. Before leaving home for good, Kristen’s dad had encouraged her to be who she truly was – but never to tell Mom because it would kill her.

Kristen’s fondness for misdirection may explain her drift into magic, and her fear of commitment leads to Jenny’s horrendous misfortune, which is much worse than being taunted by a couple of MAGA maniacs. The assault on Jenny by a gang of homophobes has left her in the hospital with a tenuous grip on life. Compounding Kristen’s shock and guilt, Jenny’s parents don’t want her anywhere near their precious daughter.

Now Kristen must not only believe in magic. She must start believing in herself.

Watching my first live Three Bone production in over 20 months, I couldn’t help thinking every so often how ideal Open could have been as an online webcast during the long pandemic lockdown. Scenery, casting, costuming, and playing time are more limited than Prisoner 34042, the distinguished new two-hander that Three Bone premiered in 2019 and reprised online back in April. Already condensed.

The colorful lighting design by Christy Lancaster and Gordon Olson helps Banks in delineating the various segments of her narrative within her three acts and in framing her magic, but Provencal’s sound design is more noticeable and necessary, helping us get our bearings – and adding charm to the magic. Otherwise, the hurried and constricted presentation of Kristen’s story occasionally robbed it of sticking power.

Open lacked the tension of dialogue that frequently punctuated the narrative of 34042, when one of the actresses played multiple roles opposite our heroine. In an online presentation, the absence of additional actors in Open would merely be one more frill we were giving up for COVID-19, starting with not being in a real theater with a real audience in front of artfully fabricated scenery.

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Seeing Open in an actual theater space obliges Banks to be more active and dramatic than if she were confined to a TV or computer monitor. And she really is wonderful as Kristen and The Magician, engaging with the audience with a youthful, bubbly vivacity that is only faintly tinged with shyness and hesitance. Banks is genuine in these roles, seemingly herself. We feel ourselves empathetically reaching out to her.

Unfortunately, Banks stays true to those two roles when she’s replicating key dialogues she has had with her beloved Jenny. Here, presumably with Provencal’s approval, the amateur magician becomes an amateur ventriloquist. Banks makes Jenny sound more timorous and shyer instead of the more mature and assertive human who urged Kristen to come out and pushed for lasting commitment.

Having issued so many indulgences and suspended so much disbelief, couldn’t we be asked to go a little further and accept the premise that the bubbly, slightly shy and awkward novelist/magician could miraculously, on cue, become an accomplished actress who can believably channel the Jenny she is so attached to and guilt-ridden about? Sign me up.

 

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Without a substantial Jenny and without the two sets of parents present before us, elements of Kristen’s story begin to deflate and impact less forcefully. It’s not like Skillman didn’t have plenty of time and space to fill in these absences and give Open more heft.

Symptomatic of her crippling haste, Skillman tacks on an unnamed fourth act or epilogue that could be titled “Reconciliation.” Within the space of a single phone call, Kristen’s grief is dispelled – along with maybe her horror, guilt, and regret. On our drive home, I asked my wife Sue and our friend Carol whether this had all happened before or after Kristen had left the hospital for the last time.

None of us could say for sure.

“My Wonderful Birthday Suit” Is a Rainbow-Bright Celebration of Diversity With Impressive Depth

Review: My Wonderful Birthday Suit @ ImaginOn

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Racism and xenophobia: pretty heavy subjects for a children’s play aimed at ages four-and-up, you might say. Yet if you recall “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” the racist’s confession from South Pacific sung by a U.S. Army lieutenant, the haters don’t wait to school their children in bigotry until they’re six, seven, or eight. In that grim light, Gloria Bond Clunie’s My Wonderful Birthday Suit, now in live performances at ImaginOn in an eye-popping Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production, comes right on time in teaching love and acceptance. Clunie’s play, directed by the playwright herself, is a rainbow-bright celebration of diversity.

Or perhaps a magical mystery tour, since the friends we first encounter in this magical place called Moonbeam are Oobladee and Oobladah. Clunie likes to keep things vague, so kids can decide for themselves whether Moonbeam is a city, country, hemisphere, or a lavishly developed rainbow. Oobladee is our hostess, greeting us before her best friend Oobladah arrives. Dee, like Clunie, relishes surprises – and maybe confounding expectations along the way. Rising above the balcony level, where Oobladee has her front door, there’s an 18-foot-tall Thinking Tree, a great place for contemplation and attitude adjustment that will summon you with a deep hum, decorated with lights and inhabited by a huge yellow bird named Bobo. Logically enough, Bobo will most often peep out of his knothole to dispense… bows.

With gift-wrapped presents strewn all across the McColl Family Theatre stage, bows are a handy commodity for Oobladee, for as she explains to us – and Oobladah when he arrives – she is planning a surprise birthday party for her best friend on the other side of the rainbow, city, country, or solar system. Her longtime friend Shebopshebe will be visiting Oobladee for the first time on this side, and there will be lights, music, presents, more presents, and cake!! A big cake. The wary, less upbeat Oobladah is not a big fan of surprises or waiting or sharing. He is uncomfortable with all of this.

Oobladah has never had a surprise party nor anywhere near this number of gifts for his birthday. He has never heard of Shebopshebe, and he cannot wrap his head around the idea that somebody else can be Oobladee’s best friend when he is. He wants to eat the cake and see what the presents are now. The monochromatic giftwraps in a wide spectrum of shiny hues are actually upstaged by the rainbow colors of Sydney Lynne Thomas’s set design and Kahei Shum McRae’s rainbow-crazed costumes for both Ooblas. Yet when Clunie wishes to rivet our attention on the gifts, she knows the way, for the smallest gift of all is the heaviest – and Oobladah actually groans when the director has him carry it over to stage right. Further confounding expectations, the biggest of the presents by far, gleaming in sparkly blue, is the lightest, and Clunie conspires with lighting designer Robyn Warfield and sound designer G. Clausen to make this huge cube (topped by a Bobo bow) an irresistible object of wonder for Oobladee and Oobladah. This teasing no doubt also enflamed the curiosities of the kiddies in the theater.

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To divert Oobladah – and educate both him and the anklebiters in the audience on what a surprise party actually is – Oobladee oversees a rehearsal of the triggering and greeting routine, cuing her lights with handclaps. Lights are dimmed as Shebopshebe appears silhouetted behind the rainbow doorway, and the surprise comes off perfectly as she enters and leans over the balcony. But the path toward opening the presents and sharing the humongous cake isn’t smooth. Shebopshebe was dressed in a coordinated outfit of light and dark purples, Oobladah’s favorite color, rather than the rainbow splendor of both Ooblas. No, that wasn’t the big problem, and it was heartwarming that the kids and parents in the house were as surprised as I was.

It went further – and deeper – than the two-besties thing. “You’re brown!” Oobladah said, pointing at Shebopshebe. Each time he repeated it, the simple description became meaner, nastier, angrier, and uglier. Really cringeworthy, as kids can be when they’re candid, and unmistakably hurtful. Obviously, the previous “respect” lesson up in the Thinking Tree hasn’t stuck with Oobladah, and one or two more climbs up its limbs would be necessary before we were done. As Clunie reached the didactic section of her hour-long drama, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the playwright found a way to teach lessons to all three players – and to briefly explore the roots of Oobladah’s racism – all with admirable tact.

You see, Oobladah has been told that brown people, people from there, people like Shebopshebe are… The sentence is never completed. Children and their parents can fill in the blanks with their imaginations, but Clunie refuses to poison the air with misinformation. We’re simply reminded that the haters, knowingly or unknowingly, really do start teaching hate to kids at a very tender age. Somewhat predictably, after the hurt he has inflicted, Oobladah must learn that he was wrong, and he must learn to apologize. Nor does Clunie gloss over the need for Shebopshebe to learn how to forgive.

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That is no small challenge for Renee Welsh-Noel as Shebopshebe after Will Burton-Edwards has been so forceful in delivering Oobladah’s odious mix of racism and xenophobia. Last to arrive on the scene, Welsh-Noel emerged as the strongest character onstage, for she also gave the sunshiney, conciliating Oobladee an earful. No, Shebopshebe isn’t a great fan of the blithe “I don’t see color” crowd. She not only knows she’s brown, she revels in being brown. She wants people to see her color, and she rejects the misguided charity of those who are willing to ignore it. If you have found Courtney Reasoner just a little spacey and peace-loving as Oobladee, you will find your qualms and her intentions validated when she draws Shebopshebe’s rebuke. Or you might see yourself fingered as an antique Flower Power peacenik and go “Ouch!”

Yet as Clunie begins to wrap up, we realize that she isn’t merely about how we shouldn’t act and feel. Turns out that it’s not at all accidental that each of the giftwraps is a single distinct color as she fancifully ties her positive message together. My Wonderful Birthday Suit is more than a title. It’s part and parcel of Clunie’s meaningful and rewarding outlook.

Spacious Setting at Halton Theater Creates Fresh Perspective for “You Can’t Take It With You”

Review: You Can’t Take It With You

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Picking up our tickets for You Can’t Take It With You in the Overcash lobby outside Halton Theater, I was asked how many times I had seen this comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart before. Reflexively, I answered four or five times – discovering, to my surprise, that I was replying without a groan. My later researches proved my estimate to be correct, for I have now seen local productions on at least five occasions dating back to 1990, including presentations by Charlotte Shakespeare, Old Courthouse Theatre (1991), and two at Theatre Charlotte (2001 and 2016), along with the current Central Piedmont Theatre effort. Over the years, I’ve gradually warmed to the script, perhaps because it’s better-respected now than when the 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner was turned into a star-studded screwball extravaganza in the 1938 Oscar-winning film.

Each time I’ve beaten back my resistance to reviewing You Can’t Take It on recent occasions, I’ve found myself taking away something new. The last time I saw the comedy, just days after the 2016 election, I found myself imagining how in tune with public sentiment the Kaufman-Hart concoction must have seemed when it first premiered – after the 1936 election. Hardly shocked or even surprised anymore by the cavalcade of eccentricity in the Sycamore family and their outré circle, I found myself newly fascinated by patriarch Martin Vanderhof’s anti-government stance and the playwrights’ decidedly anti-Wall Street sentiments. Of course, I had no idea at that time how much I could come to loathe a President who boasted about not paying his income taxes.

Nearly five years later, the similarities – and dissimilarities – between Martin and The Donald have popped into sharper focus, creating a provocative tension. What struck me most forcefully this time around was how much You Can’t Take It With You is about the classic clash of New York values, the free-thinking Bohemian chaos at the Vanderhof home, around the corner from Columbia University, and the stuffy, moneyed callousness of Wall Street, the planet’s financial capital, still wobbling after the crash. Maybe the other thing that struck me with new force was also a result of the Trump Effect. This play is absolutely crawling with Russian influences: emigres, ballet, socialism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, and blintzes. No wonder at all why the place gets raided by G-Men.

Kaufman and Hart would have no doubt delighted in Jennifer O’Kelly’s vast set design, for they described this expanse as an “every-man-for-himself room,” where every member of the household has the freedom – and space – to do whatever he or she pleases. “For here,” they added, “meals are eaten, plays are written, snakes collected, ballet steps practiced, xylophones played, printing presses operated – if there were room enough there would probably be ice skating.” With admirable restraint, there is no Zamboni in sight under Paula Baldwin’s deft direction, and the wide vista of the O’Kelly’s set encourages players to move quickly to answer the front door at stage left, to step lively in reaching centerstage, and to speak loudly so that all might hear. Baldwin was also spied at the back of Halton Theater on a couple of occasions, perhaps after hovering near the soundboard, for the sound from body mics onstage was exceptionally problem-free. Sound design by Ismail Out, including cuts of Johnny Mercer’s “Goody Goody” from 1936, was also on-target.

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The plot revolves around the possible nuptials between Alice Sycamore, Martin’s granddaughter, and her Wall Street boss, Tony Kirby. As Alice sees it, the multitudinous eccentricities of the Vanderhof household are an insuperable barrier between her and the ultra-respectable Kirbys. Obviously, Alice is conflicted about her family, loving them all while seeing them with the clarity of the only household member in daily contact with the outside world. Tony, as it turns out, is no less attuned to the shortcomings of his own family, so he pushes for a meeting with Alice’s family and then for the inevitably explosive rendezvous between his folks and hers. Did we mention that Alice’s dad, Paul, fashions fireworks with his faithful assistant, Mr. De Pinna? No, because all of those chemical reactions happen down in the cellar, out of view.

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Having to move so quickly across O’Kelly’s arena seems to endow all the residents of the Vanderhof home with an enthusiastic complacency, so engrossed are they all in their eccentricities. Pam Coble Newcomer is the restless artist of the family as Martin’s daughter, Penny Sycamore, working on a couple of her 11 unfinished playscripts as we watch, until she decides it’s time to resume work on painting a portrait of Mr. De Pinna posing in a Grecian tunic that she abandoned years ago. Abigail Adams is Penny’s eldest daughter, Essie, the perennial ballet student who also makes candies, and Braden Asbury is her husband, who mostly splits his time between the xylophone and the printing press in his nook. He also likes to make masks and serves as Essie’s candy seller and the family pamphleteer. Busy fella. So you’ll notice that Kaufman and Hart enjoy piling multiple enthusiasms on their characters.

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Contrasts can be extreme, sometimes with a zany logic. As Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s ballet teacher, John Sexton can beat a taskmaster’s cane on the floor in perpetual frustration, since Essie shows no promise whatsoever, and then, at the most inopportune moment, reveal his zest for wrestling. It’s a lot for the Kirbys to digest all at once, but other weirdos like Mr. De Pinna are likely to show up on the Vanderhof doorstep and never leave. Weirdest of these may be Corlis Hayes as Gay Wellington, a flamboyant actress who would steal every scene if she weren’t spending so much time passed out on the settee from excess drink. Of course, cameos from those government raiders and an overnight stay in jail didn’t improve the Kirbys’ first impressions of Alice’s family. Nor do the fireworks down in the cellar remain inert. As the elder Kirbys, Rick Taylor and Pamela Thorson were as starchy as can be, but Thorson was especially regal in taking affront.

THEA2021-DLV-0923-4325In the face of such humiliating catastrophe, Alice wished to exile herself to the Adirondacks, but Charlie Grass managed even here not to be overly annoying in her shame and mortification as the one “normal” member of her family. Love and practicality are nicely mixed in this Alice. Serene and optimistic as ever, Martin, Penny, and Paul are able to laugh off the misadventures of the previous night. Newcomer as Penny, Jeremy Cartee as Paul, and Dennis Delamar as Martin became especially endearing from this moment forward, maintaining their equanimity after this buffeting of adversity. Galumphing and awkward in the early going, in and out of his mad scientist coveralls, Cartee showed some touching solicitude toward the wife and daughter when crisis struck. Delamar, in his second go-round as Martin, has thoroughly mastered his dignity and glow, aided by Emily McCurdy’s costume design and James Duke’s lighting.

Whether or not Baldwin was looking for a James Stewart type in replicating the onscreen chemistry between Alice and Tony (judge for yourself when you see Grass’s hair), Timothy Hager brings some of the same height and charming gawkiness to the role. Although O’Kelly does her best to clutter up her set, there is never the sense that Tony is slumming because the space is so expansive. That spaciousness also tends to dilute whatever humble, homespun quality you might have associated with Vanderhof and his clan in past viewings.

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With Baldwin’s staging, you’ll likely find that the wide-open space enhances Delamar’s eloquence when he delivers Martin’s signature monologue in the final act. If you can tear your eyes away from Delamar, you’ll notice that Newcomer has been deployed far to stage right, leaning forward on the sofa in rapt attention, beaming and proud of her daddy. Most other family members have been spread out around a stage that has more than a couple of times been teeming with tumult. All eyes are Grandpa, all the family are respectfully still, radiating pride and content. It gives a special moment an extra aura.

Reboot of “I Dream” Reminds Us How True Heroes Fight for the Right

Review: I Dream from Opera Carolina

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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After repeated efforts to capture the essence of Martin Luther King in his twice-revised I Dream, opera composer and librettist Douglas Tappin must keenly appreciate the biblical frustration of Moses on Mount Nebo – and of MLK behind a Memphis lectern on his final night. He has seen the Promised Land, but he cannot get there. For the life of this civil rights hero/icon/martyr is inextricably intertwined with his words, unforgettably spoken in Washington, in Memphis, from his Atlanta pulpit, and written from a Birmingham jail, yet hardly a trace of them can be found in Tappin’s script.

Opera Carolina’s latest remount of I Dream, which premiered in 2010 in Atlanta and reappeared in Toledo and Charlotte in 2018, newly revised for the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination, is a more strategically refined and focused dance around the rhetoric with new stage direction – and considerable dramaturgical input – by Tom Diamond. James Meena, now entering his twentieth season as Opera Carolina’s artistic director, once again directed the orchestra, arguably with more ardor than ever for Tappin’s score.

If the music brings Porgy and Bess to mind, your concept likely chimes with Meena’s, for two of his principals, Alyson Cambridge as Coretta Scott King and Victor Ryan Robertson as Hosea, figured prominently in the storied revival of George Gershwin’s opera at Spoleto Festival USA in 2016. Kenneth Overton as Ralph Abernathy and Lucia Bradford as MLK’s Grandma are also steeped in that Gershwin masterwork. Yet it’s equally apt to note the influence of Broadway-style musicals on Tappin, whether it’s the revolutionary fervor of Les Miz or Andrew Lloyd Weber’s notion of opera in his Phantom. Certainly, Tappin’s music disarms any fear of being assaulted by discordant recitative and parched in a desert where no melody or aria is to be heard. On the contrary, ticket holders should brace themselves for a superabundance of power ballads.

The musical climax of the show, in the Birmingham jail, is a duel of power ballads. Robertson challenges the whole non-violent ethos of King’s movement with a spirited, militant “No Victory by Love,” and Derrick Davis as MLK answers – still triumphantly, if audience reaction was any indication – with the anthemic title song. Davis and Tappin are at their best in showing us the visionary MLK and the staunch courage of his non-violent philosophy, but the libretto needlessly attempts to deepen our impression of King as a prophet. Repeatedly, Davis must dwell on a foreboding dream in which he sees the balcony of the Memphis motel where he will be shot.

We must assume that Tappin believes this device cements King’s credentials as a prophet, though it actually undercuts them, for Davis must keep puzzling about the meaning of this dream – which is emphatically not the dream we associate with King – and Overton as Abernathy, instead of all the substantial issues and concerns he might be discussing, must waste his time (and ours) by counseling his leader to confide Tappin’s invention to his dear wife Coretta.

One might quibble over whether MLK really dedicated his career to his Grandma, but Bradford’s rendition of “Sunday Is the Day” was certainly powerful enough to inspire dedication. If Coretta is also a formative presence in MLK’s career, there’s a place for Cambridge to be singing “I Have Love to Give,” since it dovetails with her husband’s story and core beliefs, but “Midnight Moon” merely detains us in generic romance. While repeating a song with new meaning is a traditional Broadway device, it’s a bit problematical in Tappin’s hands. Late in the show when Cambridge sings “Queen Without a King,” she memorably expresses a steely determination to continue her martyred Martin’s work and assume a leadership role, a wisp of Evita that should take firmer root in Tappin’s score. Earlier, the song simply types Coretta as a weepy wife wishing her husband would stay home with family instead of pursuing a noble cause.

Sounding like a swaggering song that Crown might sing in Porgy, “No One’s Gonna Keep Us Down” took us deepest into Gershwin’s bluesy groove, and “Count to 10” worked surprisingly well in espousing MLK’s turn-the-other-cheek credo. “Top of the World,” a song of risqué celebration like “Masquerade” in Phantom, hinted at the danger of celebrity for King that could have made him vulnerable to the scheming of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who gets a sadly superficial airing that is also symptomatic of Broadway. He’s not an implacable Javert, that’s for sure.

If Martin’s womanizing or Hoover’s scandal mongering could have been shown as jeopardizing MLK’s greatest enterprises – the March on Washington, the march on Selma, or the Voting Rights Act – they would have rewarded deeper exploration. But in circling King’s greatest speeches, Tappin barely grazes what Memphis meant and almost completely ignores the March on Washington. That’s nothing short of astonishing vis-à-vis the expectations of an audience coming to see I Dream – until we consider that Tappin is skirting the actual quote, “I have a dream.” Gaping hole there as well.

To be fair, Tappin’s last two revisions were pre-pandemic, when the freshest take on King’s legacy was the Oscar-nominated Selma. No doubt about it, the march on Selma and its aftermath, in a presidential address by Lyndon B. Johnson, are the dramatic high points in Tappin’s revision, in Diamond’s staging, and Michael Baumgarten’s lighting and video design, climbing majestically on the shoulders of the Birmingham sequence. Meena was strong throughout the evening, all through the two hours and 18 minutes that Tappin’s music flowed through him, perhaps strongest when he was needed most, after Davis climbed the ramp to the Memphis motel balcony for the last time.

Before the pandemic, George Floyd, the 2020 landslide election, and January 6, I Dream was more on target than it is today. If he had rewritten his opera after last November, Tappin would likely have sharpened his libretto’s emphasis on the importance of voting rights. A revision after January 6 might have further prompted a reawakening to the significance of the August 28, 1963, March on Washington. For we do need reminding now what peaceful protest really is, how powerful and transformative non-violence can be, and how much more civil “I have a dream” and “We shall overcome” are as rallying cries than “fight like hell or you won’t have a country anymore.”

Sadly, we also need to be reminded that Martin Luther King hoped to move us toward “that day when all God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing.” The “you” that Donald J. Trump was addressing on January 6, 2021, belonged to only one of those groups, preferably those willing to march into the Capitol with a Confederate flag.

Remembering in September – While Building Back Better

Review: The Fantasticks at the Palmer Building + Theatre Charlotte Update

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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You don’t need to try very hard to remember why Theatre Charlotte is beginning its 94th season at the Palmer Building. Built on East 7th Street in the late 1930s as part of FDR’s signature Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, the place itself gives you a hint. It was built and landscaped by firefighters to be the best training academy in the country and served that purpose for firemen who came after them for over 30 years.

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Late last December, on a slow news night, fire struck Theatre Charlotte’s beloved HQ, nicknamed “the Queens Road barn.” Ignited by the facility’s wayward HVAC system, the fire gouged a sizable trench into the right side of the auditorium. Slammed by COVID lockdowns, scrambling to reconfigure a full season without live performances and sustain their bond with actors and subscribers, Theatre Charlotte had the ground literally taken out from under them by the late-night fire.

One last indignity at the end of a grim 2020 that would already live on in infamy.

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When January dawned, it was clear that the initial damage estimates of $50,000 by fire officials – not trained at the Palmer Building – were far off the mark. Although the exterior at 501 Queens Road looks relatively unscathed from the street, a brief peep inside shows the full toll of the devastation.

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Walls that marked off the box office and administrative quarters from the lobby have been punched away, with only their wooden framework remaining. Looking across the lobby, into the auditorium, and backstage, you won’t find any ceilings, just more woodwork, metalwork and lighting fixtures that the fire’s flames and smoke failed to fry or destroy.

Cleanup took between three and four months, acting executive director Chris Timmons tells me. Not only was the HVAC toast, but so were all the theater’s precious electronics. That $50,000 estimate didn’t come close.

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“Our entire sound and lighting systems were lost, and those items alone total well over six figures,” Timmons reckons. “The latest number we tracked for complete restoration to the building ‘as it was pre-fire’ was in excess of $1 million. Because of some likely unknowns, such as damage not visible and county code requirements, we expect those numbers to change.”

So in recalibrating their 2021-22 season, Theatre Charlotte’s board and staff not only knew that they would need to take their productions on the road, they knew they had none of their old sound and lighting gear to bring with them.

That turns out to be okay when we see The Fantasticks, directed by the venerable Billy Ensley, at the Palmer Building. It’s a well-known title, famously the longest running show in American history. Perhaps more importantly, the show travels light.

Scenery has always been minimal since the musical, written by Tom Jones and composed by Harvey Schmidt, opened off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in May 1960. Instrumentation of the original score was positively gossamer, just a piano and a harp. Not the sort of thing that would work at Belk or Ovens.

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As Theatre Charlotte’s admirable digital playbill points out, startlingly more informative and colorful than their printed programs from past seasons, The Fantasticks started out with nine players, but the cast was winnowed to eight – when a Handyman was no longer needed to come onstage during intermission to fix the lights. Ensley restores the original count by doubling the role The Mute.

Two are arguably better than one when it’s time for The Mute to act as the wall between the homes of lovebirds Matt and Luisa (built by their wily, matchmaking dads, Hucklebee and Bellomy). It also doubles the number of women Ensley can present onstage.

Although I haven’t reviewed a show at the Palmer since 2007, when the now-extinct Pi Productions presented The Guys there, Ensley is likely familiar with the space, since Theatre Charlotte has staged numerous soirees and fundraisers there in the intervening years. What struck me most was the strength of the voices in Ensley’s cast – exactly what is needed if you’re presenting a musical at the Palmer without microphones. Despite the sparse orchestration, there were moments that sounded like we were at the opera.

So you think that’s outlandish? Opera Carolina produced The Fantasticks during the summer of 1994, and Queens University Opera Theatre followed suit in 2004.

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The score is front-loaded with its best music, two of its most familiar songs, “Try to Remember” and “Much More,” starting us off. It doesn’t take long for us to discover how fine and robust all these voices are. Matthew Howie and Jocelyn Cabaniss are the lovestruck teens, open and credulous, while Kevin Roberge and Phil Fowler handle the comedy as their manipulative dads, pretending to feud so that their kids will be all the more drawn together.

Ah, but how shall Hucklebee and Bellomy reconcile so that the two feuding households may live happily ever after? This is where that swashbuckling rogue, El Gallo, comes in. He will abduct Luisa and allow Matt, against all odds and reason, to rescue her. Actually, Mitchell Dudas as El Gallo has been there from the beginning, presiding over the action as our narrator, preening like a latter-day Fabio with flicks of his long hair when the dads hire him, and reminding us – almost exactly 19 years since CPCC brought The Fantasticks to Pease Auditorium – how perfectly suited to the season it is.

It’s El Gallo, after all, who repeatedly sings, “Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow…” And it’s all the other players who chime in, “Then follow, follow, follow, follow, follow.”

Howie is likely the most familiar youngblood here, having proven his acting skills up in Davidson as the lead in The Curious Incident after an eye-opening turn at Theatre Charlotte as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. When Matt boasts of all his heroism in rescuing Luisa from the clutches of El Gallo and his bumbling henchmen, it isn’t nearly as irritating as Hucklebee finds it – so Howie has gauged it perfectly.

Dudas and Cabaniss have lurked more on the periphery in recent years, but Ensley directed Spring Awakening at the Queens Road barn in 2018, so he’s well aware of Cabaniss’s powers. They show out most memorably when she passionately sings “Much More.” Granted, there isn’t much special in watching a guy kiss a girl on the eyes. The magic that Jones tapped into when he wrote this song was Luisa’s aspiration to be that girl. Cabaniss also shines in her climactic duets with Howie, especially the beguiling “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” before intermission.

If Howie and Cabaniss aren’t always as carefully paced, audible, and intelligible when they speak as they are when they sing, rest assured that their elders always are. Roberge and Fowler make a nicely balanced comedy team as the dads – perfect if you conclude that a prime aim of Jones and Schmidt was to juxtapose flamboyance and bluster with simplicity and sincerity. This little stage seems far too small for Roberge and his leonine energy, yet Fowler, more physically imposing, seems perpetually inclined to shrink out of sight.

Reserve and restraint, on the other hand, seem totally alien to Geof Knight and Tim Huffman, both of whom are bluster personified as Henry and Mortimer, El Gallo’s Shakespearean thugs. Watching Huffman perform his multiple dyings, you will likely realize how much, along with Jones’s wall antics, this book leans on the mechanicals and the closing scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Yet there’s also Act 2, where all the fairytale “Happy Ending” that’s frozen at intermission is exploded – when lies, fantasies, and perfect bliss collide with the real world. Here we can see that The Fantasticks was not merely derivative but also, very likely, a prime inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

After the rousing opening performance, Ensley consented to an email exchange where he shared his on-the-road experiences and views. Auditions and early rehearsals for The Fantasticks, he disclosed, had to be transplanted from Queens Road to Dilworth United Methodist Church. An empty Pier One store in Ballantyne subsequently became Theatre Charlotte’s “permanent” rehearsal space for the current season – which will see stops at Dilworth United, The Halton Theater at Central Piedmont, and The Great Aunt Stella Center before Love, Loss, and What I Wore hopscotches between four locations, including the Palmer, next spring.

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Cast and crew arrived at the Palmer for final tech and rehearsals on Sunday, just four days before The Fantasticks opened. Ensley had indeed accounted for the special challenges of the site.

“The Palmer Building only affected casting in that we cast the strongest singers possible, which we would do as a matter of course anyway,” Ensley observes. “The primary thing was to project and enunciate. Also, to adhere to their blocking very closely for lighting purposes as we had limited equipment and flexibility. I feel our lighting designer J.P. Woodey did a great job in a very short amount of time with limited equipment.”

Kudos should likewise go out to Christine VanArsdale at the harp and musical director John Smith at the keyboard. To my great relief, we found staff and audience to be pandemic-diligent. Proof of vaccination or recent COVID testing was required outside the site before we were admitted, touchless electronic ticketing was in place, and your program is a single piece of paper with a QR Code you scan with your smartphone to access the digital playbill. Everyone in the hall (except the performers, of course) wore masks from beginning to end.

“We impressed upon the cast from the very beginning how important the success of this show was and how much Theatre Charlotte valued their talent and their personal commitment to bringing the community live theatre,” Ensley says. “Chris has been wearing a lot of hats and I have been impressed with how well he and the TC staff have been keeping everything going and in a positive and determined way.”

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Topping the company’s priorities are returning to Queens Road for the 2022-23 season and, ultimately building back better. The timetable is only beginning to narrow, for Timmons estimates that, once the reconstruction actually commences, it will take 6-8 months. While Timmons and his wife Jackie Timmons, who serves as director of marketing and development for Theatre Charlotte, are hoping that insurance will cover everything, donations have spontaneously poured in from across the country and through a special Save My Seat Theatre Relief Fund.

Many of the contributors who checked in from far and wide had formative, life-changing experiences at the Queens Road barn.

“Knowing how so many people in the industry were struggling because of the pandemic and receiving support from them at the time of the fire was humbling,” Chris says. Yet the disaster struck at a time when the arts were not only reeling from COVID but also undergoing a Black Lives Matter, We-See-You-White-American-Theatre reckoning.

Timmons doesn’t plan for Theatre Charlotte to be behind the curve in reacting.

“We are taking time to plan for the long-term future of the building,” he says, “how it operates and can better serve our community, and we are looking at enhanced safety and accessibility improvements that may be phased in over the next several years. We don’t want to simply put a fresh coat of paint on the walls and new carpet on the floor and call it a day. We want our facility to be better suited for community partnerships and engagement opportunities that we haven’t been able to accommodate in the past, and we want to showcase more of the creatives who need a voice in our community.”

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Standing about a yard from a partially broken window at 501 Queens Road, a pane framed by countless layers of cracked and gouged paint, Jackie focuses on the near-term, striking a more urgent tone. When I ask about a possible second season on the road beginning next September, she doesn’t hesitate.

“We have to open here next year,” she says. “Finding other venues is too exhausting!”

 

Escape… to the East Side

Preview: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte Rock the Barn

By Perry Tannenbaum

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After more than a year of lockdowns and social distancing, meat shortages and toilet paper shortages, wildfires and hurricanes, astonishing protests and insurrection – along with more Zoomed meetings and celebrations and religious services than anyone could ever have imagined – are we ready to ROCK? Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and its intrepid executive director, Chip Decker, definitely think so.

They aren’t merely serving up one liberating escape to rock-and-roll heaven. They’re coming at us with a whole Rock the Barn outdoor mini-season. Three shows, hosted by Levine Properties and MoRA, at The Barn – beginning this week.

Head on out with your favorite lawn chair to 8300 Monroe Road, where Decker will direct a nine-person cast in Rock of Ages. Keyboardist Willis Hickerson, Jr., leads the five-man band that will help this motley crew of singers, dancers, slackers, and meanies to deliver more than 30 hits of the ‘80s, many of them calculated to melt our faces off with heavy metal intensity.

That shredding, mind-scrambling mix plays Wednesday through Sunday evenings for four weekends until it closes on August 21. Then the Charlotte premiere of Head Over Heels sashays over to The Barn before Labor Day weekend, an unlikely gender-bending mix of hit music by The Go-Go’s and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, running from September 1-25.

Ever unconventional, the Actor’s Theatre version of a summer season extends until Halloween, with the Queen City’s dearest cult favorite, The Rocky Horror Show, dropping its special creepshow merriment on The Barn at MoRA’s greensward with an October 6-31 run. Hint: Rocky is like Scarowinds, except it’s for people who might enjoy content, righteously rockin’ music, and not sitting in an endless car caravan on I-77 South.

Glancing at his bottom line, Decker has a bit of an oldies bent himself, bringing back two hits that grossed well for ATC in the past decade, Rocky Horror in 2011 and Rock of Ages in 2015.

“We want to help folks rediscover a sense of normality, of fun, of camaraderie and friendship,” Decker stresses. “This summer, post-COVID, I felt like we all needed a break from everything, and a chance to mentally check out and leave a horrific year behind. Finances are always a concern for a non-profit, but it is almost immeasurable the devastation the pandemic has wreaked on the performing arts organizations around the country. Hundreds of companies have closed, some short-timers, some surprisingly long-established companies that could not, for whatever reason, weather the COVID storm. I am extremely proud of ATC and the fact that we are still here to offer three ‘oldies.’”

The third oldie, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, marks the transition between Act 1 of the company’s 33rd season to an Act 2 indoor season they’re calling An American Tale. The January 2022 production will be the company’s fifth Hedwig since 2003 and their first at Queens University, where ATC is a resident company. It’s been a long time away from Hadley Theater, where the lights last went down on Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill when it closed in February 2020. The beautiful new Sarah Belk Gambrell Center, an added jewel on the Queens campus, will likely wedge its way into ATC’s future plans.

For those who vividly remember ATC’s raunchy 2015 take on Rock of Ages, a burning question might be whether they can reprise the pole-dance choreography outdoors – and how that kind of edginess might play out there on the East Side. In neighboring Matthews, Bonnie & Clyde and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are as outré and daring as it gets.

So it’s telling that Renee Welsh Noel takes over for Tod A. Kubo, the original Rock choreographer. Kubo slides gracefully over to the director’s slot in Head Over Heels, which is more of a fairy tale in style.

While heaping praise on the support ATC has received from MoRA and businesses along the Monroe Road corridor, Decker freely acknowledges that the reprised Rock won’t be as hard.

“Our aim is to allow a slightly younger teenage crowd, 13+, to enjoy the music their parents loved and see a little naughty shenanigans to boot,” Decker explains, “an experience that both theatregoers will love and have fun at and, at the same time, an event the Summer Rock Concert attendees would get into as well. A sort of Woodstock/Theatre-in-the-Park extravaganza. The shows are silly fun but with great music, and our singers are excellent and the band is kick-ass!”

Fronting the flimsy plot and driving the action are two longtime ATC vets, Ryan Stamey as Lonny Barnett and – one of two holdovers from the 2015 production – Jeremy DeCarlos as Dennis Dupree. Owner of a sleazy, rundown club in ‘80s LA, Dennis is facing financial ruin as greedy German developers are poised to take over, not above bribing the mayor to have their way.

DeCarlos triumphed over the schlocky Chris D’Arienzo script in 2015, “zigzagging between fine hash mellow and bad trip freak-out” as Dennis, according to this reviewer. With as much range and versatility as any performer we’ve seen at ATC, does DeCarlos mess with success?

Yes…and no. He thought he had a fresh brilliant motivation for Dennis…

“Until we got to the read-thru and I realized ‘Wait, this was the idea I had LAST time…!’” DeCarlos recalls. “Part of my process as a performer compels me to find new things and new discoveries in playing a familiar character. So, I’m hoping those that know Dennis will still see familiar shades of my previous version a few years back, but layered into something a little different. I like to think of ‘Old’ Dennis as a mixture of David Lee Roth and Shaggy from Scooby Doo. I’ve been having a lot of fun finding ‘New’ Dennis’s mixture while keeping true to some shades of the ‘Old.’”

If cooped-up audiences are eager to cut loose, DeCarlos reminds us that performers feel very much the same. The ace actor and singer also plays guitar, so – counting in ATC productions that had to scrapped or delayed during the pandemic – DeCarlos estimates that four or five gigs disappeared from his docket. The effect was visceral for him. Yet with all that has happened politically, racially, and pandemically over the past 16 months, DeCarlos feels that Dennis is the right way for him to roll, rather than with heavier fare.

“I do think coming back with something fun,” he says, “definitely works a little better to release any pent-up frustrations from the pandemic. The first few nights of coming back to rehearsals made it pretty clear that this cast was ready to cut-up and fool around. After such a serious year, it’s been amazing having an opportunity to let loose and make each other laugh!”

Stamey is also one of the most versatile guys in the ATC stable, sometimes toiling behind the scenes as a music director. Since 2007, however, when he introduced the role of the volatile, Sharpie-sniffing Duke in The Great American Trailer Park Musical, singing the showstopping “Road Kill,” Stamey is best known for his trashy wildman antics. Your basic ex-boyfriend-from-hell roles.

Yet he was too young to experience the highest decibels of the ‘80s as a teen.

“The 80s were actually my elementary school years,” Stamey confesses. “Funny enough, I went to a very strict Free Will Baptist Christian school back then. In 3rd grade, our teacher thought we were old enough to teach us about the evils of heavy-metal music. He explained to a bunch of 9-year-olds about pentagrams, and upside-down crosses, and deals with the devil, and backmasking, and heads of doves being bitten off by rock singers. I remember some kids crying as he played music backwards and told us the Satanic messages he thought he heard in the music, all while having a Satanic Bible at his lectern. Needless to say, I was pretty terrified of rock music, particularly heavy-metal music, at that age.”

Until the revelations of Napster during his college years, Stamey didn’t begin to appreciate, download, or catch up on all he had missed. Now he’s catching up with Rock of Ages as Lonny, the man with the plan, the story, and the persuasive powers. Working at the Bourbon Room as Dennis’s soundman, a side-hustle since he’s our narrator, Lonny persuades his boss to hire young rocker Drew, a hunk who aspires to superstardom but is currently content to sweep the floors. More importantly, he advises Dennis on a can-miss scheme to call in old favors and save the club.

If that isn’t enough, Lonny tells us what’s still missing from the story. Romance!

With masterworks by Bon Jovi, Pat Banatar, and REO Speedwagon in the abundant songlist of this jukeboxer, Stamey has a surprising favorite.

“One of my favorite songs was ‘High Enough’ by Damn Yankees,” he reveals. “It was just so epic and dramatic, and the harmonies you could sing with it! It’s one of the moments when the whole cast is getting a chance to just stand and sing their faces off, and it gives me chills every time.”

Kubo’s defection from Rock of Ages won’t rob ATC loyalists of seeing his choreography, for on top of his directing chores, he will be furnishing the dance moves in Head Over Heels. Like Hedwig and the 2022 premiere of Ghosts of Bogotá, this Go-Go’s/Sir Philip mashup was originally envisioned as part of the company’s lost Season 32. In terms of topicality, this James Magruder adaptation, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 and greatly altered for its 2018 Broadway run, is noticeably edgier – and newer – than ATC’s other outdoor shows.

Head Over Heels celebrates the LGBTQIAPK+ community unlike any Broadway musical of our time and puts a non-binary character at the center of our story!” says Kubo. “This old Elizabethan story of Arcadia, mixed with the high energy musical catalog of the Go Go’s, is very relatable to today’s audience and is easy to follow.”

So don’t be intimidated by the 1300-word synopsis of the action in Wikipedia.

“While our story will be told through a funky Elizabethanesque lens, with costumes [by Carrie Cranford] that will reflect elements of that era, the scenery [by Decker] provides an industrial, rock concert backdrop – with surprises of its own.”

Aside from the title tune, expect the newly formed 14-member ensemble to exhume “We Got the Beat,” “Mad About You,” “Our Lips are Sealed,” and “Turn to You” from the all-female Go-Go’s golden vaults. Henri Freeman has won the coveted non-binary role of Pythio. After achieving fame in 2017 on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Peppermint became the first openly trans woman to play a principal role on Broadway as Pythio.

“There are many twists, turns and surprises we have in store and can’t wait to share Head Over Heels with the Queen City,” Kubo says. Rehearsals begin next month.

We haven’t seen yet how Decker & Co. are adapting The Barn at MoRA to outdoor theatre, but it sounds like plenty of cover will be provided for the musicians’ electronics and the actors’ mics, for Chip is telling us that shows will go on under most weather conditions. You can also expect that your tickets will provide you with a clearly delineated, socially-distanced spot on the well-maintained MoRA field.

“Everyone should bring a folding chair,” says Decker, “so while the ground may be wet, your chair won’t be. Be prepared for rain, heat, wind, snow, frost warnings, tornadoes, typhoons and other weather anomalies. Unless there are high winds, thunder and or lighting, all shows will go on.”

Comedy and sexiness were the ingredients that made ATC’s 2015 version of Rock of Ages, directed by Decker, so much better than the comparatively staid and respectful touring version that came to the Queen City in 2011. Eagerness and glee seem to be carryovers in the upcoming revival – largely because everyone involved feels the jubilation of emerging from our national hibernation and getting back to work.

“We’ve all been isolated for so long,” DeCarlos asserts, “that I think we’re dying to let loose the energy that’s been building up in us over the pandemic, and that’s making us try lots of stuff to generate some really silly stuff!”

Stamey is definitely getting a kick from the special circumstances as he conspires with his co-star.

“After years of doing shows at Actors Theatre, it’s like working with family now,” he says. “My favorite part of this experience has been getting to be the Lonny to Jeremy’s Dennis, and Chip just letting us be completely stupid and just play around and try new things, new gags, new ideas. There have been many moments where I can barely contain my laughter when we are working through a scene as I’m watching Jeremy’s Dennis do something completely ridiculous.”

Part of this escape – for us all – is remembering how to have fun.