Category Archives: Theatre

Chicklet Is Back – All Five of Her!!

Preview: Psycho Beach Party @ The Warehouse PAC

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Odd juxtapositions like ketchup and cantaloupe don’t always work on your taste buds. But in comedy, the results can be spectacular. Ranging far beyond the incongruities of The Odd Couple, actor/playwright Charles Busch created a sea of contrasts and hairpin turns for himself, bridging the gap between Gidget and Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho Beach Party.

Combining the sunny surfboard innocence of Gidget with the multiple personalities that marked Marnie, the title character of a Hitchcock thriller, Busch became Chicklet in 1987, tossing flamboyant cross-dressing into the mix. Four years later, Alan Poindexter brought the role to Charlotte at the Pterodactyl Club under the direction of George Brown, a prime reason why the future artistic director of Children’s Theatre took CL’s Actor of the Year honors for 1991.

Fast-forward to 2017 as The Warehouse brings Psycho Beach to Cornelius for a three-week run starting on Friday. The most recent sighting of a Busch lampoon in Charlotte was The Divine Sister in 2013, preceded by Queen City Theatre Company’s Die Mommie Die in 2008. Psycho Beach hasn’t washed ashore anywhere in the Metrolina region since BareBones Theatre Group produced it – for a second consecutive season – in 2005.

Busch pretty much surrendered his enfant terrible status when he crafted a Broadway hit, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, in 2002. In an age when importance is gauged by what’s on people’s tongues and in their tweets, Busch’s trusty Hollywood targets – Gidget, Hitchcock, Psycho, Joan Crawford – have also lost traction.

You have to explain a lot of the once-familiar references to today’s audiences. Same goes for today’s actors. Jesse Pritchard, who takes on the role of Chicklet, admits to a learning curve.

“I was not familiar at all with the play,” he says. “It seemed funny, and so I wanted to try it out. I did have a bit of a brain blast looking into all of the different cultural references that the play portrays, but other than that, it all came over pretty well.”

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Chicklet is your basic beachcombing ingénue, innocent and wholesome, hoping to capture the eye of ace surfboarder Kanaka. Embedded within the demure Chicklet is the personality of dominatrix Ann Bowman, whose desires go far beyond The Great Kanaka, all the way to world dominance.

And there’s far more lurking inside of Chicklet, expanding the diva role.

“I don’t even think I know all her personalities yet,” Pritchard confides. “Tylene is a bit of a stretch, a strong black woman in a loving relationship. She may be the biggest stretch because it’s hard for me to embody her truthfully. Doctor Rose Mayer is like the mom of the group. The accent is a bit much, but I feel like I’ve made headway with her. Steve is also fun, the male model.”

Behind all this pathology? That’s where Joan Crawford gets layered on, channeled into Chicklet’s harpy mother, Mrs. Forrest. Two divas will dominate Warehouse’s diminutive storefront stage, with Mara Rosenberg taking on the Mommie Dearest allusions.

Presiding over the auditions, director Vito Abate liked Pritchard’s stage presence and his ability to capture Chicklet’s girlish innocence. But of course, the comedy needs to go nuclear.

“I was fortunate enough to have Mara and Jesse audition together,” Abate reveals, “and there were instant fireworks and a connection between them. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mara before, as an actor and director. I knew she would be good fit for the role. She captured the passive-aggressive nature of Mrs. Forrest, and I knew she’d enjoy taking on the different ages and aspects of the character.”

A mainstay at Theatre Charlotte, where he originated the Just Do It series, Abate’s most recent wallow in trashiness came when he directed Sordid Lives at Spirit Square last fall. That production featured Ann Walker as LaVonda, reprising the role she played onscreen and in the TV series.

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Both of those stages dwarf the storefront in Cornelius where Abate will be bringing his Beach. That suits him fine.

“The intimacy of the Warehouse really lends itself to the fluid nature of this show,” Abate insists. “Every time I see a production in this space, I have a sense of being part of something quite special happening between the actors and the audience, and it’s a unique theatre experience. The title of the play strongly suggests a party and that’s exactly what we plan on delivering!”

Abate got a taste of that intimacy as a performer when he appeared in Fuddy Meers three years ago. In the eight-year history of Warehouse Performing Arts Center, Fuddy Meers, along with Wonder of the World and Mr. Marmalade, has been as edgy as it gets. Red, Sylvia, Road to Mecca, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf are the more customary style of wares at 9216-A Westmoreland Road.

Boomer nostalgia and the silly summer season may prove that the time – and the tide – are right for bringing the smuttiness and perversion of Psycho Beach to Cornelius. America has evolved so much in the 30 years since Busch introduced Chicklet & Co. that’s it’s likely politically incorrect to call anything in Psycho Beach smutty or perverted anymore.

“The first group sale [of tickets] was several weeks ago and it was from a senior community in Davidson!” says Abate. “It’s summertime and in my opinion it’s always time to laugh, and this is a perfect show for both. I’m sure many who come will be fans of the movie, some of Charles Busch, and others just out to see a comedy.”

Pritchard’s Charlotte debut back in February, as the Clybourne Park emissary in A Raisin in the Sun, didn’t exactly give him the chance to show off his comedic talents. But he feels like Chicklet is nearer to his wheelhouse than Karl Lindner. Down at Winthrop University, where he earned his Performing Arts degree, Pritchard did some cross-dressing as the sidekick in Leading Ladies, and he logged additional comic turns at Rock Hill Community Theatre, including Hillbilly Hankerin’.

He takes direction well, according to Abate. But there’s a reason for that: “Vito definitely has a vision and a keen eye to detail,” says Pritchard, “and so I’m working to make it just as he sees it.”

Abate has been very satisfied with his cast as opening night approaches, and he’s confident that his dueling divas will shine brighter afterwards. “I expect their chemistry to grow during the course of the run, with a mix of typical teenage mother-daughter relationship stuff with some severe psychological and behavioral problems thrown in.”

More Empathy for a Barbaric Monarch in the Touring “King and I”

Review: The King and I

Laura Michelle Kelly, Baylen Thomas and Graham Montgomery in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By: Perry Tannenbaum

When I saw The King and I presented on a thrust stage at the Stratford Festival of Canada in the summer of 2003, I struggled for superlatives, convinced that this was the best production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic that I’d ever see. While the Asian spectacle and the beloved R&H hit parade were given their due, both were subordinated under Susan Schulman’s direction to the conviction that this is a theatre classic, presented on a thrust stage at Stratford’s marvelous Festival Theatre.

Though I heard wonderful things about the recent Lincoln Center production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre – another thrust stage – I was reluctant to risk disappointment in comparing Bartlett Sher’s direction to Schulman’s. Well, the touring version that has just touched down in Charlotte dispels my doubts. Leaning more toward spectacle and theatricality, unafraid of a cliché or two, Sher’s King and I took me by surprise with its emotional power.

Wonders begin early, with the prow of a large ship sailing onto the stage, surely astonishing when it docked at the Vivian Beaumont in New York and no less amazing as part of the touring production now at Belk Theater. A few minutes later, when Anna Leonowens and her young son Louis debark in Bangkok for their adventures in the royal palace of Siam, we realize that getting the ship off the stage gracefully is a feat that easily equals bringing it on. Doing it while simulating the bustle of Bangkok adds to the delight.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

One of the enduring hallmarks of Hammerstein’s book is the culture clash between the starchy propriety of the British teacher, Anna, and the silky sensuality of the Siamese. Catherine Zuber resplendently represents the clash in her costume designs – whether it’s the eye-popping colors worn by the King’s wives and children or the frilly hoop skirts that give Anna her aura. Yet there’s a political undercurrent that widens the gulf: Anna hails from an empire ruled by a woman, Queen Victoria, while the King claims superiority over all his subjects and expects absolute submission from all his wives.

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Constantly reminding him of his promise to house her outside the palace while she teaches his wives and children, Anna astounds the King with her uppity-ness and tenacity. Were it not for the efforts of the King’s chief wife, Lady Thiang, to hold things together, this doomed relationship would quickly disintegrate. Sher deftly underscores Thiang’s subterranean feminism, so Joan Almedilla’s “Something Wonderful,” usually sung as a desperate supplication, emphasizes Thiang’s nobility – easily the most emotionally shattering moment of the show.

Raw realism is at the heart of this appeal. You can guide him to self-fulfillment. I cannot.

The most dramatic moment occurs where the three main plotlines converge. Early on, Tuptim is presented to the King as a gift wife from the ruler of Burma – by Lun Tha, the Burmese emissary whom Tuptim actually loves. The third storyline, the King’s attempt to impress British officials and debunk reports that he is a barbarian, propels much of the action, elevating Anna’s usefulness to the King and hatching the famed “Small House of Uncle Thomas” play-within-the-play.

After this triumphant presentation, Tuptim is caught trying to run away with Lun Tha, and we get the most forceful denouement I’ve ever seen in any production of this musical. When chief minister Kralahome (a wonderfully stolid Brian Rivera) tells Anna, “You have destroyed the King,” we can believe it.

Jose Llana is stern and imperious enough as the King of Siam when he needs to be, but he infuses more hearty mischief into navigating his difficulties with Anna, adding to the notion that, yes, she could be a little more indulgent and understanding. Complementing that portrayal, Laura Michelle Kelly never stints on Anna’s primness, firmly distancing herself from intimacy and sexuality until the moments when the charming rapprochement between the schoolmarm and the King reach peak temperature in “Shall We Dance?”

Kelly’s “Hello, Young Lovers” reads as a matronly approval of love from someone who has renounced it for herself, so it’s delicious to discover that old friend Sir Edward Ramsey – a veddy British Baylen Thomas – perceives this renunciation so much more readily than the King. Deflecting the question of whether the King is a blindly driven barbarian in his lusts, Hammerstein skirted the tender issue of whether the Siamese monarch ever took advantage of Tuptim.

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy_edited-1That opens a path for Manna Nichols to sing her solos and duets as Tuptim with liberated strength, expanding upon the intelligence that was always hers when she presided over the “Uncle Thomas” ballet. Kavin Panmeechao adjusts beautifully as Lun Tha in the duets, not quite as regal as his lover but admirable in his steadfastness.

All the silky cutesiness of the small fry is retained in “The March of Siamese Children,” but the two prime youths both count as the story unfolds. Each in his own fashion, Graham Montgomery as Louis Leonowens and Anthony Chan as Prince Chulalongkorn, the heir to the throne, is modeling the aristocratic discipline we expect of a first-born. More than Montgomery, Chan gets to model the realization that our parents aren’t perfect – and that we must move on from there.

The lessons are more meaningful for the Prince, who is the last of Anna’s students to show his appreciation for the very best in her, her maternal love. It’s a key reason why this edition of The King and I ends up feeling so warm and satisfying when all the fundamental disagreements between the title characters have played out and the Prince sets forth on a new path.

 

CPCC’s Comedy of Tenors Has Plenty of Doors and Plenty of Farce

Review: Comedy of Tenors

By: Perry Tannenbaum

Ken Ludwig has written over 20 plays and musicals over the past quarter of a century, nine of which have now been presented in Charlotte. While the books for his two Gershwin musicals, Crazy for You and An American in Paris, display his craftsmanship, Ludwig’s most enduring comedy is undoubtedly his first Broadway hit, Lend Me a Tenor. First produced in 1989, Tenor was converted to a London musical in 2011, after a Broadway revival the previous season. So why shouldn’t the playwright entertain the notion of recycling his Tenor characters into a sequel? The idea evidently seems so natural to Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre, an organization that rarely produces a musical or a comedy that isn’t at least a decade old, that it has brought A Comedy of Tenors to Pease Auditorium less than two years after it premiered in Cleveland.

Ludwig brings back the arrogant and flamboyant Italian tenor Tito Merelli and his wife Maria, both highly passionate and usually squabbling. Impresario Henry Saunders, formerly the GM of the Cleveland Grand Opera, is now bringing the greatest concert in the history of opera to Paris, still as nervous, domineering, and hot-tempered as before. Saunders is provoked, but it isn’t by his son-in-law and former assistant Max, whose singing prowess was discovered in Cleveland a farce ago. Max is now on the bill as one of the four tenors who will wow Paris, but his father-in-law feels free to yank him out of rehearsals anyway to deal with the crisis du jour.

Fresh blood stirs up the fresh complications and misunderstandings. Back in Cleveland, it was Saunders’ daughter who was the victim of mistaken identities. Now she’s back in Cleveland, married to Max, and on the verge of delivering his first child. Instead, it’s Tito’s daughter Mimi who is our ingénue, embarking on a similar path of confusion. She’s in love with the third tenor on the bill, Carlo, but they haven’t yet summoned the nerve to divulge their marriage plans to her parents. In the hurly-burly of evading discovery by the Merellis, Carlo tells Maria of his plans to marry her daughter, but the eavesdropping Tito gets a vivid impression that his wife has become Carlo’s sex slave. On the flipside of this specious reason for jealousy, a real one happens to be in town, Russian soprano Tatiana Racon, Tito’s old flame. Almost forgot: on the day of the performance, the fourth tenor, Jussi Björling, cancels to attend his mother’s funeral. They will need to replace him.

Besides the repeating characters, the hotel suite setting, performer dropouts, and the last-minute frenzy of preparing to go onstage, there are other holdover motifs that link Ludwig’s Tenor farces. Both of them have pesky bellhops, both have fast-forward mashups of the entire show before the final bows, and whether your access route is Shakespeare or Verdi, there are comical uses of Othello to watch out for in both pieces – more subtly done in this newer farce. Under the direction of Carey Kugler, that’s about all the subtlety you will find, for the script offers an abundance of physical comedy. Slapping, frantic hiding, broad suggestions of sexual activity, and a plateful of tongue are all on the menu. There is scurrying galore during the countdown to the concert, and Biff Edge’s scenic design provides four doors plus a patio looking out on the outdoors for farcical entrances and exits.

This is 1936, so Ludwig could easily be forgiven for making his operatic saga all about the men. Yet the women aren’t altogether objectified, and they certainly aren’t marginalized. The Russian temptress Racon can carry herself like an established diva, and we sense that Mimi isn’t destined to be a hausfrau either, since she is embarking on a movie career – a happenstance that enables costume designer Rachel Hines to expand the fashion gallery beyond eveningwear, formalwear, and lingerie. Nor is Maria, Ludwig’s Desdemona, the same pure and worshipful seraph we find in Shakespeare. In addition to the vamping, it’s the women who have the lionesses’ share of the slapping and straddling.

Drugged and suicidal in the previous Lend Me a Tenor, Tito emerges as our hero in the sequel, supplanting Max. Surely this is Craig Estep’s finest hour in straight comedy as Tito and his lookalike, the pathologically talkative bellhop, though a couple of provisos might be added. First, he does sing here, since the three tenors are destined to rehearse the “Libiamo!” from La Traviata, and Estep’s previous hookup with James K. Flynn in Monty Python’s Spamalot was certainly a CPCC Summer Theatre gem in 2013. Flynn could have been eyeing the Tito role for himself, yet he’s perfectly cast as Saunders, just sympathetic enough in panic mode to prevent us from finding him loathsome in his overbearing moments. Winston Smith doesn’t have as much to do as Max as he would have had in Lend Me, but when it came time to sing the trio, he proved capable of holding his own with Estep. As it turned out, Max wasn’t in total eclipse. Eventually, he’s the one who untangled all the twists that Ludwig had put in the plot. Gabe Saienni got far more of a workout as Carlo, hiding from his future in-laws and fleeing from Tito’s deluded jealousy, so he had to sustain his terror of Tito while remaining worthy of Mimi’s love. The only real problem in Saienni’s performance was in the trio, where he was vocally a weak link.

If I could have heard them better, I would probably find myself saying that Taffy Allen as Maria and Amanda Becker as Mimi were marvelous. Loudness wasn’t the issue. I’m leaning toward my wife Sue’s theory on Allen: the thickness of her Italian accent was probably the main barrier between Maria and me. Allen has crossed over into midlife just enough to make her credible as Tito’s wife, and her aggressive attempts to reconcile with her husband were even funnier than her previous fawning on Carlo. Deep into Act 2, when sexual activity runs rampant, Allen got a chance to be jealous that she definitely didn’t waste. Becker’s audibility problems seemed to stem from a rush to adhere to Kugler’s snappy pacing. But I found her attitude delectable, both as a daughter and future bride, and her jealousy, punctuated by right-handed and left-handed slaps, could hardly have been better when Mimi suspected Carlo of carrying on with her mom.

Caroline Renfro didn’t enter the fray as Racon until Act 2, but it was pretty funny when she did, since the glamorous diva instantly devoured the incredulous bellhop with her pent-up passion, mistaking him for Tito. Old flame or not, Renfro had the moves and the looks to make that old flame new. Still in a generous mood, Racon agrees to add her soprano voice to the concert, presumably because the bellhop will be a new-made star after it’s over. I’m not sure that this extra episode was as savvy as the rest of Ludwig’s script, since it required a pair of hurried scene changes. At Pease Auditorium, this final segment literally hit a snag when the curtain that had been drawn over the hotel suite to simulate the backstage scene at the opera house got stuck before we reverted to the hotel for the fast-forward rehash of the entire play. When frantic actors and stagehands finally freed to curtain so it could slide back into the wings, the audience burst into applause. More laughter ensued as Kugler’s recap, even faster than the pace that had previously prevailed, was tossed off with an overacted style truly befitting a silent film.

“Fun Home” Strikes a New Balance on Tour

Fun Home

Review:  Fun Home

By Perry Tannenbaum

Every show that wins a Tony Award for Best Play or Best Musical doesn’t necessarily bowl me over when I head to New York to critique it. Fun Home was one winner that proved itself worthy of all its accolades – five Tonys – and more. The biggest differences between that Broadway production and the current touring version in Charlotte are Knight Theater and Charlotte native Abby Corrigan.

Tightly adapted by Lisa Kron from Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, with an exceptionally varied and emotional score by Kroon and Jeanine Tesori, Fun Home revolves around two complex characters: Alison and her troubled, multi-faceted dad. Bruce is a charismatic English teacher, a visual artist, a restorer of dilapidated houses, a connoisseur of antiques, and owner of the family business, the Bechdels’ funeral home. On the other side of the ledger, Alison’s dad is a neatness-and-control freak.

He’s also a closeted homosexual who preys on underage boys, not above taking advantage of his own students.

So while Alison, played by a succession of three actors, is on a path to discovering her own gay sexuality and becoming a cartoonist, she’s also on a collision course with the truth about her father. Bruce, the meticulous and domineering dad, is on a more fearsome path – to isolation, self-loathing, and suicide.Fun Home

Mostly used for symphony and dance, Knight Theater is probably the best place in town for replicating the Broadway musical experience, markedly better than Belk Theater. But Fun Home wasn’t at a typical Broadway theater for its New York run. At Circle in the Square, the audience surrounded the stage, and when Alison and her two brothers sang “Come to the Fun Home,” a singing advertisement for the funeral home that is the antithesis of solemnity, the three siblings seemed to explode out towards us.

At the Knight, all the action is flattened, and the Bechdel kids merely circle around each other. David Zinn’s scenic pieces seem disappointingly unchanged at first, two-dimensional and cramped on the Knight stage, but during the latter half of the show (there’s no intermission), Zinn exploits the resources of a proscenium stage. Medium Allison’s homecoming becomes more of an event when we see the funeral parlor again.

Corrigan plays the pivotal Middle Allison, flanked by tomboyish Carly Gold as Small Alison and Kate Shindle as the mature, emphatically butch Alison who narrates, often with sketchpad in hand. Gold is every bit as exuberant and appealing as her Broadway counterpart, but it’s Shindle who brings new life – and heartache – to our narrator with a more powerful, penetrating voice.

While both Small Allison and mature Allison are recognizably in the same Broadway mold that won director Sam Gold his Tony Award, Corrigan strikes me as a notably different transitional figure between her younger and older selves. On Broadway, Emily Skeggs leaned more toward the sunny exuberance of Small Allison grown to college age. Corrigan is more of an awkward foreshadowing of the comparatively subdued and serious elder Allison.09FunHomeTour0126r.jpg

As a result, when Medium Allison quickly succumbs to the attractions of Joan and liberates her lesbian leanings, Corrigan gets the same comedy mileage from her anthemic “I’m changing my major to Joan,” but with less raucous exuberance in her delivery. There’s more in-the-moment pragmatism to Corrigan’s take, as if she’s afraid of waking the object of her adoration as she lies sleeping on her bed – or just afraid of breaking an unbelievable magic spell. It’s very effective, and theatergoers seeing Fun Home for the first time will find it hard to imagine “Changing My Major” sung any other way.

With the three touring Allisons more than holding their own versus the original Broadway cast, there’s a further gravitational shift when Robert Petkoff as Bruce doesn’t match the bigger-than-life dimensions of Tony winner Michael Carveris. Amplitude is the difference with Petkoff, not detail, for he expertly navigates all the twists and turns of Bruce’s complexity. In a way, this is beneficial, for the importance of his character and Allison’s development are more evenly balanced on tour.

Further diluting Bruce’s dominance is the steely performance of Susan Moniz as his stoical wife, Helen. It was Moniz who opened my eyes to the Chekhovian dimensions of Kron’s book, for her silences were the first that spoke loudly to me on opening night, and her “Days and Days” had a martyred nobility. Moments later in the show, silence is very much the point when Alison is alone with Bruce in their climactic confrontation, where Shindle suddenly shifts from narrator to actor in the devastating “Telephone Wire” drive.

As Joan, Kally Duling seduces with a self-confident swagger, and Zinn’s costume design underlines her casual sophistication. But Duling never gets a solo, either to comment on Alison or the Bechdels. That’s symptomatic of the only problem I have with the show. Clocking in at 92 minutes on Tuesday, Kron’s script is too tight. It needs to breathe more, maybe as far as – danger ahead! – examining Alison’s feelings about her dad more closely. Yet there’s no denying that Fun Home is truly fun while it lasts, with plenty to mull over afterwards.

 

 

 

Music to a Mother’s Ears

Preview: Abby Corrigan Comes Home in Fun Home

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 

There’s an unforgettably wanton, lascivious, and joyful song nearly halfway through Fun Home, the Tony Award-winning musical that rolls into town next week. Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, Lisa Kron’s script splits our hero in three, the middle-aged Alison who tells us the story and the two younger Alisons, Small and Medium, who live it out.

Small Alison absorbs the first, often misleading impressions of her parents, Bruce and Helen. It’s Medium Alison who discovers the revelatory truths – about her own lesbian leanings and about her dad’s sexual pathology – after she goes off to college. The bold, beautiful, and seductive Joan sets Alison straight about herself, so it’s Medium Alison who gets to jubilantly proclaim, “I’m changing my major to Joan!” as her first and most important college lesson.

Charlotte native Abby Corrigan gets to sing this showstopping song beginning on Tuesday at Knight Theater in what figures to be a triumphant homecoming.

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It’s certainly a sudden change in fortune for the young actress, who turned 19 in February – but not a surprise to those of us who have seen Corrigan perform. She leapt onto the local scene in 2008, while she was still a 10-year-old, as the incorrigible Gladys Herdman in the Children’s Theatre production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

Corrigan remained on our radar, playing prominent roles in 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee down in Rock Hill, Next to Normal at Queen City Theatre Company, and delivering a riveting epileptic seizure to climax The Effect of Gamma Rays at CPCC. As the daughter of Mike and Mitzi Corrigan, both of whom acted in Charlotte Repertory Theatre productions, Abby figured to have acting talent.

But Mom, a talent agent and casting director who has a professional’s detachment, saw vivid signs of Abby’s gifts long before she became the Herald Angel shouting “Shazzam!” as Gladys.

“The first time I knew that she had something really special to offer,” says Mitzi, “was when she was 6 years old and we did a backyard production of The Lion King. She was Nala, and when she sang ‘Shadowland,’ I was bowled over by how she became that character and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, where did that come from?!’”

Knowing full well that you need intense passion and inner drive to survive in showbiz, Mitzi never pushed. Abby did plenty of that. At the age of 12, Abby and friend Matt Mitchell started their own theatre company, Treehouse Acting Company, mounting their first production at CAST in NoDa. The following year, Abby, Matt, and two other collaborators staged an original musical, Cybersoul, tackling a range of issues that included drug addiction, bullying, suicide, and homophobia.

You hear about precocious actors – many have paraded in and out of the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte spotlight over the years. But have you heard of anyone else who started a theatre company and co-wrote a mature musical before the age of 15?

“It really was off the charts,” Mitzi agrees. “I became good friends with Matt’s mom and we wanted to help them find ways to pursue their dreams. Because producing backyard plays had become such a regular occurrence in our existence, it seemed like a natural step to encourage them to produce their own plays.”

Of course, Abby didn’t think about measuring her ambitions against any norms. According to her mom, acting must be something you have to do in order to breathe if you wish to succeed. That’s how it has always been with Abby. She remembers loving to imitate animals when she was very young, convincing herself that she was truly what she pretended to be. Mom and Dad tried to deflect her into sports, but tee-ball never took.

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“I wanted to show people that I could become anything,” Abby recalls. “As a kid, I would’ve played all the parts if I could have, and I wanted other kids to want to play along with me. I also think Matt and I wanted to play parts that we were too young to play. We would design sets and cast shows we wanted to do for fun, but we wanted to really do the work and make it happen.”

Inevitably, Abby’s talents and drive took her to Northwest School of the Arts, where her theatre exploits – starring in Cabaret, Shrek, and Peter Pan – took her on a rollercoaster ride. At her peaks, Abby was a finalist for Best Actress honors two years in a row at the Blumey Awards, winning a trip to New York for her Princess Fiona in Shrek and a chance to compete against winners from across the country at the national Jimmy Awards, the holy grail of high school theatre prizes.

Just as that brass ring was within sight, the opportunity to perform in front of top Broadway professionals vanished. Initially misdiagnosed in ER, Abby’s appendix ruptured, sending her back into the hospital, and she had to give us her spot at the Jimmys to the Blumey runner-up. Opportunity lost, but Abby was happy just to be alive. She returned to Belk Theater the following season, once again performing onstage as one of the Blumey finalists, but she didn’t win.

“I didn’t want to win that year,” Abby says. “I just wanted to do ‘Ugg-a-Wugg’ with my cast because it was so much fun to scream and bang the ground with sticks onstage as Peter Pan. I mean, come on. That’s what should matter. Not an award.”

Peter_TigerLilyAbby wasn’t totally exiled from New York because of her misfortune and subsequent defeat. For a couple of summers, she participated in a Destination Broadway theatre camp where the musical director was conductor Michael Rafter. So happens that Rafter is the ex-husband of Jeanine Tesori, who wrote music for the “Changing My Major” song – and the entire Fun Home score. When Mitzi invited Rafter to be the keynote speaker at a NW School of the Arts fundraiser, he informed her about Fun Home auditions.

Opportunity was knocking again, but how ready was Abby for it? Medium Alison doesn’t merely participate in this touring version of Fun Home, she drives the action.

“Yes, I about peed myself walking in the audition room those three times,” Abby confesses. The last two of those auditions were in front of three Tony Award winners – Kron, Tesori, and stage director Sam Gold. “I’d never wanted anything more in my life. After my first audition, the casting director gave me tickets to see it on Broadway, and I knew I had to do the show. I just wanted to eat the script/score whole.”

There are easier people to reach than Gold, especially during this year’s Tony Awards weekend, when he was up for a second Best Director trophy for his work on A Doll’s House, Part 2. Busy as he is, he had no trouble remembering Abby’s audition from a year ago, when she was still 18.

“Abby’s audition was one of the best and most memorable of my career,” Gold tells me. “It was like seeing the character of Medium Alison in front of me. She had worked very hard on the material and it was deeply felt, full of detail and comic timing, and she exuded confidence. When we spoke after, she said she was about to graduate, and I said, ‘What college do you go to?’ She said, ‘from high school!’ I couldn’t believe the poise and professionalism I saw was coming from an actor who would barely be of age for the tour.”

Both the poise and the professionalism are somewhat paradoxical in an actor who says she’s constantly striving to maintain the curiosity, fearlessness, and joy of a kid when she works – but her mom finds that onstage poise is just as genuine offstage. Time and again, Mitzi has come across the rejection, the ugly desperation, the deformed egos, and the over-swelled sense of entitlement that stalk theatre people – and she has seen the beauty and happiness it brings to Abby.

“Letting her go has been the hardest thing in the world for me,” Mitzi admits, “but she continually reassures me by saying, ‘Don’t worry mom. I’ve got this!’ Those words are like music to a mother’s ears.”

 

“A Chorus Line” @ CP Remains as Fresh as Ever – in Spots

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Review:  A Chorus Line

By Perry Tannenbaum

Simple and realistic – while obeying the classic theatre unities of ancient Greece – Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line, with music by Marvin Hamlisch, was the coolest Broadway musical around, keeping its cachet for years after it opened in 1975. Part of the “singular sensation” was that it dispensed with the fripperies of musical theatre and humanized the quixotic kids auditioning for a precious few slots in the dancing chorus of a new Broadway show.

With the director, Zach, stepping out into the audience as he fires interview questions at the 17 finalists for the eight slots, the “singular sensation” dissolves the make-believe world of musicals – if we’ll only believe that each finalist is speaking directly to us as he or she responds to Zach. A whole new generation immersed itself in Bennett’s choreography, Hamlisch’s music, and the book by James Kirkwood and Nicolas Dante. Keeping step with Edward Kleban’s lyrics for the iconic “One” became a rite of passage.

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As the show sidles into Halton Theater for the first time, we can see the many spots in the simple fabric that are showing their wear in this briskly-paced CPCC Summer Theatre production directed by choreographer Tod A. Kubo. Much of the wear possibly comes from the success of Chorus Line. If the show didn’t exactly invent audition jitters and drama, it certainly helped open the floodgates for the more frequent depictions we see nowadays.

While simple candor may have been an edgy concept 40+ years ago, we can see easily enough that Kirkwood and Dante didn’t go overboard in their script. “I Can Do That,” “Sing,” and “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” all seem to fit comfortably into the twinkling heyday of Neil Simon, rather cutesy and glib for many who are plunging into the Glee world of today. The format simulates candor, but the content takes a while arriving at depth.CENTRAL_THEA_AChorusLine(Cyrus_Performance)_090

So despite the effervescence that Kubo infuses into this production with his direction and choreography, I found myself only lightly engaged until we had skated through most of the narratives about the dancers’ past. When we arrive at the present drama between Zach and his former love, Cassie – drama happening right before our eyes – even first-timers may experience that jolt reminding them how mundane an audition is compared to real conflict and drama.

Or maybe not: I’ve heard that American Idol and America’s Got Talent, glorified auditions both, are fairly popular.

While the three previous productions that I’ve seen during this century alone have eroded my susceptibility, I did find Tony Wright – the one performer who doesn’t sing – freshly compelling as Zach. Doubling as the production’s dance captain, Meredith Fox has more than enough dancing individuality as Cassie to match the arc of her character, and the embers of past flames spark as she and Zach struggle to arrive at some kind of romantic closure while she reboots her aspirations and career.

CENTRAL_THEA_AChorusLine(Cyrus_Performance)_135Paul, another role that doesn’t draw a solo vocal, is the other finalist who brings the action forcefully into the present – thanks to Tyler Dema’s affecting vulnerability as he uncovers the reasons why Paul finds it impossible to open up in front of his fellow dancers. Zach’s private huddle with Paul is another highlight in Wright’s performance as well. Eleni Demos, new this season to CP, deserves a shout-out as Diana. Answering Zach’s most disturbing question, she ably leads “What I Did for Love” – the enduring anthem of A Chorus Line.

So many newcomers play out their auditions on the Halton stage, an encouraging omen for the future. Even more heartening, the house was filled, up to and including the top row in the balcony. Best reminders of the stalwarts who have matriculated at CP Summer in previous seasons were Susannah Upchurch as the tone-deaf Kristine and Lexie Wolfe as the pint-sized Val, saddled with all those “tits and ass” refrains.

There were murmurs in my row that the fit of the iconic Chorus Line uniforms wasn’t as tack-sharp as it should be. Too bulky or wrinkly? Perhaps, but Barbi Van Schaick’s costumes certainly had sufficient dazzle teamed with Biff Edge’s scene design and Gary Sivak’s lighting. More concerning was the relapse in the Halton sound system. Levels never seemed to be right for long, too loud for the singing, too soft for the speaking, and often unclear for both. More equipment and more sound techs might have helped.

 

 

“Squawks” Hasn’t Sharpened Its Claws

Review:  Charlotte Squawks 13

Charlotte Squawks

By Perry Tannenbaum

The time seemed so ripe for a Charlotte Squawks makeover. Since last year’s Squawks 12: Twelve Angry Hens, Charlotte has been rocked by the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, the riots Uptown, the shame of national headlines, and the awkward agonies of our mayor and police chief. Rescinding the liberalized treatment for our LGBTQ community that led to the notorious HB2 law from Raleigh lawmakers, Charlotte received zilch for its concession, another Queen City humiliation.

So when the word came out that Squawks 13, riffing on the Apollo space drama, would be subtitled Charlotte, We Have a Problem, I held out the hope that Squawks might transcend its ducky cartoon logo and address substantial issues. Sharpen its feeble claws into angry talons.

Instead, the familiar formulas and musical parody format established over the years by producer-director Mike Collins and writer Brian Kahn remained intact. New wine was poured into the old bottles, presented by a slightly altered cast of admirable performers, with customary sensory overload provided by three big screen monitors – streaming memes, produced by John Merrick, that ran simultaneously with Kahn’s parodies.

Charlotte Squawks

Lightweight eggs laid by Kahn rolled in one after another, foredoomed by their safe, jejune subjects: parodies targeting rampant Charlotte construction, pussyhats, the craft brewery craze, airport delays, Carolina Panther concussion injuries. Subjects that didn’t figure to deliver hilarity consistently fulfilled their dismal potential. While it certainly was a brave public service for somebody to tell Mayor Jennifer Roberts to do something about her hair, the assault wasn’t the thunderbolt I’d hoped for.

Keith Scott, the Uptown riots, and Police Chief Kerr Putney? Never mentioned.

Not surprisingly, Kahn fares better when he abandons Squawks 13’s implied purpose of taking on Charlotte and its foibles. He finds more fertile soil ranging into more open, less threatening frontiers where the deer, the antelope, and latenight TV comedians roam. Modeled after B.B. King’s raging blues, “The Bill Is Gone” is a lusty attack on the homophobic HB2, and “Give Us Our Way, We’re Republicans” after intermission is a delicious second helping.

Our tweeter-in-chief also draws fire early and late, “Tweet Commotion” before the break eclipsed by “I Deny This Scheme” – with its Donald-Putin innuendo – after intermission. Lest you think Act 2 is pure gold compared to what precedes, beware: successive takedowns of memes, former guv McCrory, Bill Reilly, and Starbucks are all lyrically toothless (though three of the parodied songs are catchy). Collins and his cast make a nice point about the inane predictability of Charlotte 5, but the mockery of Luke Kuechly’s local CPI ad doesn’t even achieve the mediocrity it aspires to.

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Collins’ opening monologue and his stints behind the Squawks newsdesk with Johanna Jowett are still punchy, and the new parodies poured into “Bad Day” are worth keeping the annual reprise of Daniel Powter’s song alive. But CMPD’s blunders throughout the Keith Scott debacle merited a spot on the roster of shame.

There’s always an element of schadenfreude watching Collins and his cohorts trying to deal with Linda Booth’s glitzy choreography. Aside from Jowett’s sassy irony, I’m addicted to the annual shots of brassy phoniness that Robbie Jaeger delivers. A new sensation is added to the brash Squawks bird this year, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, who was last on my radar in 2014 as a Blumey Award nominee. That was three years after she represented Central Academy of Technology and Arts Performing Arts Academy from Monroe at the North Carolina Theatre Conference State Play Festival – and took home Outstanding Achievement in Acting honors.

Pairing Obi-Melekwe with Jaeger in the two “Thrill Is Gone” segments is a masterstroke, giving Jaeger a chance to blaze through his half of the blues shouts with white-boy chutzpah and Obi-Melekwe a chance to torch hers with the authentic flame. These showdown performances, half hilarious and half thrilling, upstage the parodies. So I’m hoping something equally loathsome will be gone over the next 12 months, just so I can see Robbie and Nkeki doin’ it again.

“Waiting for Godot” Tops Spoleto’s Edgy Theatre Lineup

Reviews: Waiting for Godot, Ramona, Murmurs, Angel, and While I Have the Floor at Spoleto Festival USA31624608012_e7866a37c7_kBy Perry Tannenbaum

Programming at Spoleto Festival USA runs in cycles as it evolves. Now in its 41st season in Charleston, SC, there is a breadth of performing arts at the 17-day event that is unparalleled this side of the annual Edinburgh Festival in the UK. Opera, dance, symphony, chamber music, jazz, and theatre flit around at nine or 10 venues daily from 11:00 AM until late in the evening. Some category-defying hybrids are also hatched during the revels.

Ever since Gian Carlo Menotti founded the American branch of his Italian festival, capitalizing on his prestige as an opera composer who briefly conquered Broadway in the early ‘50s, Spoleto has been unapologetically international in its flavor and fiercely challenging in its thrust. Last year marked a welcoming celebration of the festival’s 40th season with a long-overdue production of Porgy and Bess in its native Charleston setting – at the gloriously renovated and reopened Gaillard Center, the grandest hall in town.

Complementing the homecoming vibe signaled by the lavish Porgy and Bess, jazz programming returned homewards from its distinctively European bent to a noticeably more American groove, with René Marie, Randy Weston, Freddy Cole, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Arturo O’Farrill topping the lineup. Three large dance troupes invaded Charleston, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and LA Dance Project the most recognizable of these. Theatre was also noticeably less edgy and foreign, with Gate Theatre’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Jonny Donahue’s off-Broadway charmer, Every Brilliant Thing, among the imports.

34427821263_6eb650f394_oFor 2017, Spoleto Festival has largely shuttled back to its edgier, more challenging, and more cryptic self. The Charles Lloyd Quartet took some jazz lovers beyond their comfort zones, singer Sofia Rei came from Argentina backed by a free jazz trio, and Dee Dee Bridgewater frankly declared that she was forsaking jazz this year for Memphis blues and soul. Only one dance troupe, the Marís Pagés Company, was large enough to command the Gaillard stage, the balance shifting to smaller groups and more outré choreography.

Led by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the 2017 theatre lineup is similarly trim, challenging, and audacious. Under the direction of Garry Hynes, this Druid Theatre production made it clearer to me that Vladimir and Estagon, awaiting the mysterious Godot and his nebulous benefits, are unsure of where they are, what day it is, and when they last met. Hynes, who won the 1998 Tony Award for directing The Beauty Queen of Leenane, also makes the friendship and mutual loyalty between our protagonists more open to question than previous productions I’ve seen. Instead of shying away from the script’s absurdism, Hynes embraces it.

30962035363_a1fd65f0fc_kMaybe other directors feel that too much absurdism might risk audience confusion and vertigo. Turns out that amping up the absurdity made the show more comical for the audience at Dock Street Theatre. Strangely enough, Aaron Monoghan as the more ignorant Estragon, isn’t as funny as his cohort. While Monoghan is a purer, less salty fool as Estragon, willowy Marty Rae turns Vladimir into a comical joy, his inquiries into his friend’s mind and his reactions to those revelation drawing equal mirth.

Although Hynes acquiesced, in a public interview at the Charleston Library Society with Martha Teichner, to the notion that Pozzo and Lucky are mere distractions in the tedium of our protagonists’ lives, her staging says otherwise. Compounding the vaudevillian exaggeration that Beckett lavishes upon Pozzo the oppressor and Lucky the oppressed, Rory Nolan as Pozzo and Garrett Lombard as Lucky upsize them, exaggerations in the flesh – and in Lombard’s case, in the hair – augmented by Doreen McKenna’s shabby and surreal costumes.

Juxtaposed with our lonely and futile heroes, Druid’s Pozzo and Lucky both seem gargantuan and powerful, though Lucky’s is a sleeping strength that Vladimir and Estragon fear to waken. At some level, they look like invaders from a real world that our lovable protagonists have skirted. Downtrodden as he is, Lucky seems to be lucky to be employed, even if humiliating subservience is the price.

So what if his boss is an overbearing boor? So is the President who won our Electoral College.31397965210_5e7f347a4a_kWhile Godot plays at Dock Street from the beginning to the end of Spoleto, there are four other presentations categorized as theatre by the festival that peep in for more limited engagements, five or six performances apiece at smaller venues. The most charming so far has been Ramona, Gabriadze Theatre’s first production at Spoleto – and at Emmett Robinson Theatre – since their doleful and stultifying Battle of Stalingrad in 2003. This time, Rezo Gabriadze’s fanciful script for marionettes and puppeteers is about a shuttling engine whose travel vistas are no more than 300 meters and the mighty love of her life, Ermon, a Trans-Siberia locomotive who spans Mother Russia in his wanderings.

As this true Penelope waits patiently for her Ulysses, a militaristic railroad official tyrannizes over her and a friend. Like any other sensible woman in these circumstances, Ramona and her pal decide to run away to the circus! Scandalous rumors reach Ermon up on tundra, but he remains steadfast in his trust. The ending is very tragic because Ramona is less adept as a tightrope walker than she was as a train. Absurd comedy doesn’t prevent the poignancy of these star-crossed lovers from shining through.

Though both had considerable strengths, Victoria Thierrée Chaplin’s Murmurs and Henry Naylor’s Angel didn’t satisfy as fully. I gradually caught up with what was happening in Avital Lvova’s portrayal of Rahana, the Angel of Kobani, but I needed my wife’s help in grasping the full details after Angel was over. Based on a true story, our narrator becomes a latter-day Joan of Arc champion of the Kurds, amassing 100 kills as a sharpshooter battling ISIS for control of her hometown.

Lvova is well-cast as an action hero, but in the rat-tat-tat battle scenes where she throws herself around on the floor, I found her to be largely unintelligible. Another woman in our row at Woolfe Theatre moved closer to the stage soon after the topsy-turvy opening, and a few minutes later, I slunk into an empty seat that was even closer to the action. I was still missing some of what Lvova was saying at close distance. Part of the excitement was how Angel broke a fundamental rule of one-person shows at the very end. I wished that I could press a rewind button to more fully enjoy it from the beginning.30928658544_4f681df730_k

A visual stunner, Murmurs had virtually no dialogue and not too much more coherence or character development. The subtitle, Aurélia and Her Ghosts, seems to have been dropped between the time that the festival brochure was printed and when the official program book – 152 pages – was codified. But it remains a useful description of the action. Aurélia Thierrée portrayed the heroine who, when we first met her, was on the verge being evicted – or rescued – from her crumbling tenement.

The crisis throws Aurélia into a strange state, for she experiences flashbacks, hallucinations, and things that go bump in the night. Instead of dialogue, Chaplin and Armando Santin provided choreography, but not enough of it to keep me consistently engaged, and Chaplin’s costume designs – with a team of three other designers – outstayed their novelty. More choreography and an infusion of music, maniacal or otherwise, would make this striking piece more impactful.

While Murmurs may be yearning to be a full-fledged dance, Ayodele Casel’s While I Have the Floor, categorized by Spoleto as dance, has an unmistakable hankering to be regarded as theatre. Like Murmurs, Casel’s world premiere morphed after the season brochures were sent out: her “virtuosic piece exploring language, communication, identity and legacy” coalesced into a tap dancer’s autobiography as the piece crystalized into a one-woman show with a title.34335386953_50bae8da23_kCasel not only explores her own artistic evolution, she connects us with heritage of tapping, tracing its development from the mid-19th century through such mainstays as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Jimmy Slyde, Gregory Hines, and Savion Glover. She doesn’t hide her childhood infatuation with Fred & Ginger and engagingly recounts her first confrontation – as a collegian – with a true proponent of the art.

As YouTube can presumably verify, Casel’s demos of tapping are intricately rhythmic and visually dazzling. But the big surprise here is Casel’s acting chops. She can turn on the tears at a moment’s notice, and as a writer, she finds a compelling reason to display that talent. Toward the end, which threatens the dump us off at today and Casel’s well-earned fame, our narrator sprouts a mission and a cause: to revive the memory of female tappers before her and to make sure their names aren’t forgotten again.

Until you’ve witnessed While I Have the Floor, you probably haven’t seen a tap-dance show that reaches an emotional peak. Now it’s here, and Spoleto can be very proud of hosting its world premiere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Physical Comedy Reigns Supreme in “The Actress”

Review: The Actress

By Perry Tannenbaum

You can certainly find subtler, more poetic titles than The Actress, a bittersweet comedy by Peter Quilter – with judicious snatches of Chekhov – now at Spirit Square. We follow storied actress Lydia Martin into her dressing room as she gives her farewell performance in The Cherry Orchard, electing to retire from the stage while makeup can still mask her flaws and she can still remember her lines.

With two dips into Lydia’s onstage performance and an intermission sandwiched in between, all framed by her arrival at the theater and an impromptu post-performance celebration in her dressing room, we have a neatly symmetrical five-part structure. Quilter adds a nice little wrinkle at the end as Lydia and her ex-husband adjourn to the darkened stage for a final communion. In Ryan Maloney’s set design, about a third of the Duke Energy Theatre is set aside for the Chekhov action, but I could easily imagine how beautifully this last scene would flow on a revolving set. Maloney’s lighting design recovers some of that magic.

Until that point, I found a curious lack of theatre magic and specificity. Although the Three Bone Theatre playbill specifies 1933 as the time of the action, the script doesn’t seem to help director Charles LaBorde to establish a time or a place for Lydia’s farewell. Oddly, the backstage action isn’t theatrical enough to convince me that this is a particularly momentous show. There are no acting colleagues or mentors slipping in to send her off, no reporters or photographers, not even Cherry Orchard castmates before or after the performance.

The only other person involved in the production is the director’s sedulous emissary, Margaret, who relays the unseen director’s notes to Lydia – a patently needless exercise, since it’s doubly impossible that the star will ever make use of them. Yes, there are congratulatory flowers all over the place, some from colleagues and others from admirers, but her dresser, Katherine, still finds it necessary to mist the room with perfume before Lydia enters. Amy Wada digs into Katherine’s uncertainty about whether she means anything to Lydia after a long, long business relationship, but Corlis Hayes seems to accept Margaret as a royal waste of time, mostly motivated by the prospect of leaving with a collectible memento.

Everyone else is a visitor, except perhaps for Harriet, Lydia’s agent. With Lydia retiring, Harriet doesn’t have any business with her client but she does have something to say. When Harriet is persistently shushed and ignored at the little afterparty – while drinking more and more of Lydia’s best brandy, not the swill that she presented as a token gift – whatever she had intended to say is horribly twisted, one of the most dramatic spots in this production. Zendyn Duellman, consistently irritating with her high sycophantic energy as Harriet, becomes even more memorable here.

The rest of the backstage story is largely comedy. Lugging an industrial-strength decrepitude up the stairs to Lydia’s door, Hank West is able to unleash a mighty volley of coughs and wheezes when he gets there as Lydia’s rich fiancé, Charles. Whisking Lydia off to his native Switzerland seems laughably ambitious for someone so old and easily winded, but amid his bodacious wheezing, West endows Charles with a forbearance and determination that ultimately make him a bit endearing.

Ex-husband Paul has considerably more energy behind his persistence, and neither verbal rebuffs nor physical slaps from Lydia discourage his overtures. Bob Paolino definitely tunes into the love-hate relationship between these former intimates, and despite his conspicuous lack of appreciation for the theatre and Lydia’s artistry, brings us a redeeming softness and fatherliness when her career officially ends.

I wasn’t convinced that Paula Baldwin could wholeheartedly throw herself into Lydia’s ambivalent reaction to Paul’s forcible advances. When he called for a 1933 setting, LaBorde may have had those Hollywood films in mind where a leading man might respond, “you can hit harder than that,” to a slap in the face and manfully take it as a woman’s encouragement. That’s definitely the drift here as both Lydia and Paul get mussed up in a physical comedy interlude while the actress keeps her audience waiting.

Trouble is, when Lydia’s daughter Nicole walks through the door, Lydia has an aversion to her smoking – and a guilt about sneaking a cig for herself – that are 60 years ahead of their time. So the demands on Baldwin go beyond ambivalence. She’s actually best in Act 2, when her past faults as a wife, mother, and person come into clearer focus and a warmer, more down-to-earth side of her surfaces. She also manages to convince us that it’s not all about money with Charles.

Nicole isn’t severely messed up or resentful in Robin Tynes’ perky portrayal. We get the idea from Tynes that Nicole is a gentle reminder of Lydia’s past lapses as a wife and parent – also a counterweight against those plans to flit off to Switzerland. But once he puts her before us, Quilter doesn’t invest nearly enough into Nicole. I didn’t detect the English accent that might make her objections to Mom’s proposed move to Switzerland seem petulant and selfish. Sounding totally American, Tynes gave me the impression that Mom’s displacement would be transoceanic. Sure, she seems unsettled, but not enough to be profoundly unhappy.

More substance to Nicole would add more definition to her ambivalence – and Quilter’s serpentine script does wind up being very much about ambivalence. Ultimately, Lydia finds herself choosing between career and domestic comforts, between love and sex, and between familiar family and a new kind of life. So Quilter’s title is subtler than he probably intended. Notwithstanding its setting and the sterling Three Bone Theatre performances that make it come alive, The Actress is hardly about theatre at all.

CP Gets Its Act Together for Summer 2017

Preview: CPCC Summer Theatre 2017

Fiddler on the Roof Promos

By Perry Tannenbaum

Entering its 44th season, Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre would be hard-pressed to surpass the lineup of shows they presented last year – Annie, Chicago, Sleuth, and Sister Act. But there are good reasons for the folks on Elizabeth Avenue to be super-confident that 2017 will be even more successful at the box office.

Yes, the family-friendly mix of popular Broadway musicals, adult comedy, and an AM kiddie show will provide the perfect refuge from a slapstick presidency that hasn’t managed to derail our strong economy (yet). And yes, after 10 years of random screeches, thumps, and bumps in the night, technicians were able to exorcise the demons that had previously haunted the Halton Theater sound system. Throughout the 2016 season, CP had its act completely together and gremlin-free.

Three beloved Broadway hits are coming to the Halton to keep the good thing going, beginning with Fiddler on the Roof (June 2-10) and followed by A Chorus Line (June 16-24) before CPCC Summer Theatre makes its exit with the pop ABBA jukeboxer, Mamma Mia! (July 14-22). In between the last two Broadway extravaganzas, the summer’s kiddie musical, James and the Giant Peach (June 28-July 8) takes over the Halton by day while the nighttime action scoots across Elizabeth Avenue to Pease Auditorium with A Comedy of Tenors (June 30-July 9).

Oh yeah, one more reliable predictor of success: “We have had record season ticket sales so far,” says Tom Hollis, the CP Theatre Department chair who runs the show and will direct Fiddler and Mamma Mia!

The process of selecting CP’s summer lineup, says Hollis, is ongoing throughout the year with suggestions from audience, from members of the creative team, and consultation with other theater companies. CP wants the lowdown on what others are programming and how well tickets are selling. Radar is also aimed at what Broadway producers are making freshly available from their inventory.

“There used to be a rule of thumb that said you should wait four or five years before you do a show that had toured through,” Hollis recalls. “But that no longer seems to hold true. Our experience with Les Miz and Phantom showed that proximity to the tours actually increased sales.”

It might be assumed that tours of these perennials and Mamma Mia! – which has touched down in Charlotte no less than six times since 2002 – would spark interest in enthusiasts to see them again. Yet Hollis cites trade publication data indicating that audiences across the country who attend Broadway Lights series like those offered here by Blumenthal Performing Arts don’t ordinarily attend local theatre.

“Maybe they have spent all their money on those tickets and can’t afford to attend more,” Hollis speculates. “What we are seeing is that the combination of our more competitive pricing in comparison with the touring houses and the quality of our product makes it possible for people who love theatre but can’t afford the tour prices to see the show in our theater and bring the entire family when they do it.”

Fiddler on the Roof Promos

On the other hand, CP allows absence to make their subscribers’ hearts grow fonder of shows they’ve previously presented. Both Fiddler and Chorus Line have been done before on campus but never at the Halton, which became the home for CP’s big musicals in the fall of 2005. Budgetary considerations also go into the lineup formula, so comparatively barebones productions like Chorus Line and Chicago help to rein in the bottom line.

Additional economies are available through casting, when an actor can take on multiple roles, navigating a labyrinth of rehearsals and performances to appear in as many as four of the five shows that CP Summer mounts in an eight-week span. It takes eagerness, enthusiasm, and plenty of stamina to go through such a demanding grind, which is why the Summer acting company always skews so young.

In seasons when CP is planning shows like Annie or Oliver, they’ll hold separate auditions in February for kids on top of the cattle calls for local actors and aspiring high school interns. Then in early March, directors will trek to the Southeastern Theatre Conference for regional auditions, where collegians and recent grads come in search of summer work. CP signed up six budding pros at this year’s auditions in Lexington, KY. Look for some of this new blood in A Chorus Line, where young triple threats belong.

Perhaps the optics of overly youthful casts have grown stale for Hollis and his colleagues as the years roll by, or maybe budgetary purse strings are loosening, but we’re recognizing more veteran locals who are returning annually to the Halton and to Pease for CP’s summer rites.

Jerry Colbert, whose CP credits date back to 1974 and took the Laurence Olivier role in last summer’s Sleuth, returns as one of the over-the-hill candidates who might be the father of the bride-to-be in Mamma Mia! Alongside Colbert, Dan Brunson and Kathryn Stamas will be familiar to more recent subscribers. James K. Flynn, fatherly enough to play Tevye when CP last presented Fiddler, moves into A Comedy of Tenors along with two other familiars, Craig Estep and Caroline Renfro.

For the second successive summer, Susan Cherin Gundersheim is teamed with Beau Stroupe. Last year, she was Daddy Warbucks factotum Grace Farrell in Annie. Now in Fiddler, she gets to variously torment Tevye – or emote to his fake dream – as Golde, the mother of his five daughters.

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Stroupe has walked a rocky road to Anatevka and the iconic role of the Scripture-fracturing dairyman. Photos of Stroupe as Daddy Warbucks show him with scarcely less hair than he had when he was finishing chemotherapy in late 2013 – more than a year after a grapefruit-sized malignancy was found in his intestine. A rather hostile divorce compounded his woes, so his role as the predatory Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel during the next summer seemed to chime with his embattled temperament.

The road from chemo to Anatevka led through Cherry Tree Lane, where Stroupe was George Banks, the starchy and clueless father who was transformed – along with his unruly children – in Mary Poppins through the magical nanny. A role he neither knew nor cared about until he began rehearsing, Banks awakened in Stroupe a new affection for father roles.

Warbucks pointed him in the same direction. “Again, the journey of a seemingly rigid and even detached businessman to one of tender-hearted father figure,” says Stroupe.

“I certainly relate to the journey of a father with my own four children through the difficulty of divorce and the slow healing process. It’s easy to understand the juggling act of breadwinner, patriarch, husband, father and visible member of the community. When Tevye is saying goodbye to Hodel at the train station, it takes very little effort for me to feel what any true father feels when letting his child go to live a life of their own choosing.”

New directions will be running amok when CP opens A Comedy of Tenors, Ken Ludwig’s sequel to Lend Me a Tenor, a CP Summer hit way back in 1996. No matter what its pedigree is, Ludwig’s operatic farce – think three tenors misbehaving in Paris – is the newest show CP has ever done, from farm to fork after its New Jersey world premiere in less than two years. Unheard of, as Tevye would say.

And Renfro, CP’s go-to action heroine in Dial M for Murder and Wait Until Dark, tackles a comedy – with a Russian accent! As sexy diva Tatiana Racon, Renfro will have her sights set on a very married tenor, but her seduction will farcically misfire.

“There will definitely be some good old-fashioned vamping,” Renfro promises. “I am so psyched about doing the accent. And so freaked out about it. At this point in my career, the thing that appeals to me most about a role is doing something I’ve never done before, especially if it scares me.”