Review: Dear Evan Hansen
By Perry Tannenbaum
Playing to a Broadway house that barely packs in a thousand patrons, using no more than eight actors and eight musicians each night, with scant choreography and no glitz, Dear Evan Hansen isn’t going to fit most theatergoing definitions of a big Broadway musical, six Tony Awards or not. Yet big it is, for Steven Levenson’s book traverses multiple issues that absorb us these days, including bullying, the effects of social media, teen suicide, and single-mom parenting. Just as rare, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul frequently rise to the level of the emotions roiling inside Levenson’s characters, actually enhancing the drama on a couple of occasions.
Evan is a mess when we first meet him at Belk Theater, where seating capacity for the touring production is extended beyond the usual 2100-seat capacity with the musicians perched up above the action. Mothered by an anxious single mom who holds down a day job and goes to school at night, Evan is an even tighter tangle of anxiety. He dreads returning for his senior year in high school, afraid of the daily interaction with other people, tongue-tied with nearly everybody – especially Zoe Murphy, the girl of his dreams.
Zoe’s big stoned brother, Connor, bullies Evan on at least two occasions. On their first day back at school, Connor knocks Evan to the ground when he thinks our hero is laughing at him. That paranoia carries over to their next encounter at the computer lab, where Connor retrieves the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter that Evan has written as an assignment from his therapist, supposedly a daily pep-talk to himself. Thinking this is more mockery from Evan, Connor refuses to return the letter, which contains suicidal thoughts and Evan’s desperate yearnings toward Zoe. In a further act of aggression, when Evan awkwardly asks him to sign the cast on his healing broken arm, Connor takes a Sharpie and scrawls his first name – in big capital letters – across the full length of the cast.
So a whole host of ironies and misconceptions will explode when Connor commits suicide, and his parents, finding Evan’s letter in one of his pockets, mistake it for their son’s suicide note – addressed to his best friend. The big black letters that Connor had signed onto Evan’s cast, originally a nasty symptom of bullying, become a testament to their friendship, writ large. Tongue-tied as usual, Evan can’t shoot down the Murphys’ delusion that he can provide them with insights into the son they never really knew. In yielding, he finds that he can provide some therapy to others.
If he can keep a steady flow of palliating information to the Murphys, Evan feels that he can help them in their grieving process. And establish a closer connection with Zoe, whose memories of Connor are even more unsavory than his.
In varying ways, then, the Murphys have unwittingly conspired in giving Evan an imaginary friend. With the help of Jared, who keeps reminding him that he’s more a relative than a friend, Evan can spin a backdated email correspondence with Connor filled with new feelings and faux memories. With the help – and intrusion – of Alana, a pesky busybody who seems attracted to him, Evan can establish a “Connor Project” tribute, a memorial website, and after he surprises himself by addressing a school assembly, a viral #YouWillBeFound hashtag when video of the speech lands on YouTube.
Taking the old imaginary friend concept to a whole new cyber level, Evan and Alana, co-presidents of The Connor Project, launch a GoFundMe initiative to restore the apple orchard where Evan and Connor fictitiously met. Adding new dimensions to the idea of an imaginary friend piles on new challenges and stresses for Evan. Some of these, of course, help him to mature and develop self-confidence. He’s speaking to an entire student body after starting out the year cowering in fear of interacting with just one of them.
Alone in his room at moments of highest stress, Evan turns to… an imaginary friend. Ironically, it’s Connor, who did nothing but torment him in real life. Connor’s posthumous transformation is now complete – in his family’s eyes, for Evan, and for thousands of followers at school and online.
Chiefly, Evan is stressed over all the lies he’s been telling Zoe and her parents, but he’s also been deceiving his mom – while coping with the sudden celebrity the whole #YouWillBeFound phenomenon has brought him.
Here is where the chamber size of the Dear Evan Hansen fails the potential magnitude of Levenson’s vision. Where are all the high school peers that Evan feels himself lost in, fears talking to – peers who might adoringly add to Zoe’s unattainable aura and desirability? Where are the admiring classmates who ratify Evan’s newfound relevance and fortify Zoe’s inclinations to give him a serious second look?
Basically, they’re projected onto the scrims and screens of David Korins’ high-tech set design, perpetually scrolling as social media feeds behind Evan’s bedroom, multiple rooms at the Murphy home, and various locations at school. It’s a cool alternative to populating the stage with energetic dancing teens but sometimes a cold one, especially in a space as large as the Belk.
What sweeps us past these limitations is how intently we become involved with both the Hansens and the Murphys. Anxiety, social inadequacy, and teen suicide are big things to cope with up close, and Dear Evan Hansen brings us there. Ben Levi Ross captures all the awkwardness, insecurity, and fearful caution that Levenson has written into Evan’s outward self, and he has the star-quality voice for the Pasek/Paul songs that reveal the inner self wishing to break free.
Marrick Smith doesn’t play up the suicidal kindred spirit of Connor as much as the sullen, domineering loner. In his imaginary friend afterlife, he becomes the tough-love antithesis of the “Dear Evan” pep talks endorsed by Evan’s therapist, a longhaired renegade forever. By contrast, Connor’s parents are wholesomely flawed. Aaron Lazar as the dad appears to have detached from Connor’s upbringing and to have given up on him, but when Evan encounters him in his workshop – and afterward at a powwow between Hansen and Murphy families – we realize that he had plenty he wanted to give.
As “Anybody Have a Map?” her opening crosstown duet with Evan’s mom makes clear, Christine Noll as Cynthia Murphy is as clueless about how to cope with a teenage boy as Heidi Hansen is. But as a full-time suburban housewife, she has more free time to flit from one New Age fad to another, salving if nor solving her problem. Cynthia has the deepest need – and gratitude – for Evan’s cyber fables and projects.
Comes with the territory, Levenson tells us. Mom’s credulity and stubborn belief in Connor has strained her relationship with Zoe when we first see them coping together. Maggie McKenna struggled to untangle the enigma of Zoe on opening night, more so because her vocal on “Requiem” was the least intelligible in her family. There was a nicely calibrated combo of empathy, skepticism, and need as her familiarity with Evan grew, and the climactic “Only Us” love duet had an honest and intimate sizzle.
Ultimately, Jessica Phillips as Evan’s overextended, trying-so-hard mom stole the show from everybody except Ross. There’s a wonderful one-two punch before things reach a final resting point, with a wrenching “Words Fail” confessional from Evan following shortly after the unexpectedly turbulent meeting between the Hansens and the Murphys. Heidi had already stirred things up at the Murphys, but it was in her “So Big/So Small” testimonial that Phillips was absolutely devastating – at first narrative, then apologetic, before finally arriving at a stunning affirmation.
As an actor, there are moments when you might dread having to weep onstage, on cue, night after night. With “So Big/So Small,” I’d imagine that the performer has the opposite worry: getting too deep into this mom in this song could lead you to an emotional corner where you’re sobbing uncontrollably. When she finishes, we’re fairly convinced that a chunk of this show has been about her.
For all its intense intimacy, the Pasek/Paul score also boasts some concentrated magnitude, since the musical tandem packages two anthems that get reprised. Climaxing Act 1, “You Will Be Found” seizes our attention, with the whole company joining Evan as his assembly speech goes viral, augmented by pointedly anonymous prerecorded spoken blather as the YouTube sensation takes hold. Even the relentlessly scrolling background projections suddenly crystallize into relevancy.
But don’t overlook Evan’s “For Forever” fantasy as you settle in to the story. This dreamy “two friends on a perfect day” idyll gradually ascends and soars, prefiguring the apple orchard fable Evan will devise to placate the Murphys – and echoing the lie he’s been telling about how he broke his arm. We don’t hear the backup voices for this anthem until it reprises briefly in the “Finale,” when all Evan’s hidden truths have been revealed. You may not immediately see all the reasons why the final scene is set where it is, but there’s a little bit of technical derring-do to announce that we’ve arrived.
There’s as much craftsmanship in Dear Evan Hansen as there is honesty, and that’s saying a lot.
Previews: The Great Beyond and The Ghost of Splinter Cove
By Perry Tannenbaum
An old living room card table shaking uncontrollably during a candlelit séance… an unidentified ghost – or two – lurking in the dark basement, where kids are at play… and an 8-year-old child who has been missing for nearly 40 years.
These are some of the chilling elements in two new nail-biting plays hitting the QC. Upstairs with the adults at the séance, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of The Great Beyond begins previews this Thursday on the Queens University campus, officially premiering next Wednesday. Next Friday at ImaginOn, The Ghost of Splinter Cove takes us downstairs into the basement with three imperiled kids in a world premiere Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.
Both spooktaculars are by renowned playwright Steven Dietz, who splits most of his time between Seattle and Austin, where he teaches his craft at the U of Texas. Dietz has written and adapted more than 40 plays, and a slew of them have been performed in various theaters across town, including God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Yankee Tavern, and Becky’s New Car (a “Show of the Year” winner in 2010).
But these two newbies would never have been written if Dietz hadn’t gotten on a plane and met with Adam Burke and Chip Decker here in Charlotte.
Burke, the artistic director at Children’s Theatre, and Decker, his counterpart at Actor’s Theatre, had cooked up their concept during a 2015 meetup. Cooperating was feasible between their two companies, but what kind of project would bring audiences together to see the kinship between Decker’s adult theatre and TYA – Burke’s theatre for young audiences?
Decker and Burke both have considerable experience in bringing new plays to their theaters, so it was obvious that their joint project would be a new script. But what if they commissioned two scripts, each one designed to funnel audience from their theater to the other theater while both shows were in production?!
Somehow the two plays and their stories would have to interlock. Yet to encourage rather than force audiences at one company’s theater to also see the other company’s play, each of the two plays would have to stand independently on its own. The concept that would be named The Second Story Project was born – in excited brainstorming interspersed with copious cups of coffee.
When Burke and Decker decided to move forward, there were no funds earmarked for the project, no playwright commissioned to create the scripts, and no parameters detailing how the two stories would interconnect. There was just one dynamite concept that had never been tried before.
“It’s always a leap of faith to do anything, especially something new,” Decker observes. “We just both hit on it, felt it was a good solid idea, and when you feel that way, you have to jump in with both feet and hope there’s a safety net at the bottom.”
Looking back on it, Dietz was a super-obvious choice. Multiple productions of his plays had been presented at Actor’s and Children’s, but Decker and Burke were thinking about advertising in trade publications or soliciting proposals – until the successful run of Dietz’s adaptation of Jackie and Me at ImaginOn turned on the lightbulb in Decker’s skull.
He sums up his realization: “We’re looking for a playwright who has a great voice for theatre for younger audiences and a playwright who has an experienced track record with adult audiences, we’ve both produced Steven Dietz plays, why should we look any further – especially the first time out?”
Burke had sort of blocked out the idea of looking to an established adult playwright, calculating that the TYA piece would be the higher hurdle.
“I am more confident that someone who can write a great play for young people can write a great play for adults than I am of the reverse,” Burke explains. “So when Chip suggested Steven, I’m like, ‘Ah, yes, of course!’ There are only a handful of people that are moving between the two worlds successfully.”
Dietz was a little wary, wanting to make sure that there wasn’t some special issue or theme that his scripts were expected to address. Getting reassurances of his complete freedom, he warmed to the prospect of such an unprecedented challenge.
“What was so beautiful about the idea was that it was so simple,” Dietz recalls. “The core of the pitch to me was something shared. A shared story, a shared theme – something shared. And in one theater piece, we see it through young people’s eyes, and in the other, we see it through grownups’ eyes. That’s just like Post-it Note simple!”
The playwright was also on Burke’s wavelength with respect to the primacy of the TYA piece. It would be the more difficult piece to write and take more time. So it needed to be written first. Unlike other commissions that Dietz has fulfilled, neither The Ghost of Splinter Cove nor The Great Beyond turned out to be a play he would have written anyway. No barely-started scripts or scribbled scenarios were on his studio shelves waiting for these unique commissions.
Dietz suspected that he would make many false starts on his youth play – and he did. The upstairs/downstairs idea didn’t occur to him immediately, but when it did, it seemed like an elegantly simple way to make his plays interlock. But what kind of full-length play can be staged in a basement?
“I had this little tiny notion,” Dietz reveals. “I had a friend who had his kids try out his camping equipment in their basement once. And of course, that is what’s beautiful about writing for young people: where they go on that camping trip in their imagination is much more dynamic than getting out even on the San Juan Islands, which is near my house. Because it’s in their imaginations, so it can be anywhere.”
Especially when your brand-new camping gear is a birthday gift, you’re in a strange haunted house for the first time in your life… and there’s a smartphone app your dad bought you that makes your whole camping adventure come alive!
So that’s the downstairs core of the Second Story Project. From time to time, Dad calls down from upstairs, making sure the kids are settled in and sending down snacks. The two plays interconnect with those conversations – we only see Dad in The Great Beyond – and there are key props that will be common to both of Dietz’s eerie dramas.
Upstairs, where the séance happens, the parents are having a dinner reunion after a great family loss, and we learn why the kids have never visited this house before. For Dietz, there was a unique benefit in crafting his two new plays as a matched set.
“Writing [Splinter Cove] taught me about those kids’ parents,” Dietz remarks. “In any other play I’ve ever written, they would just be offstage characters. This process doesn’t have offstage characters, really. They have characters onstage at the other theater.”
And they’re not necessarily alive. Bwa-ha-ha!
Review: Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds
By Perry Tannenbaum
Reggae lovers and mavens are flocking – I repeat, flocking! – to Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an eye-popping, shoulder-dipping new musical at ImaginOn. Studded with golden favorites from the Marley songbook and adapted by Michael J. Bobbitt from a story by the reggae king’s daughter, Cedella Marley, this Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production is all about spreading joy and living life zestfully.
Or it is when Bobbitt can squeeze story elements into the crevices of the 15-number reggaethon – some of which are medleys. Cedella turns up as a character in this story, but action revolves around her son Ziggy, an 11-year-old who spends his days huddled at the TV because he’s scared of hurricanes and an encounter with Duppy, a mischievous, malevolent spirit who preys on children’s hair.
Mixing sternness with genuine concern, Cedella shoos her pouting Ziggy out of the house and attempts to pair him with their next-door neighbor, Nansi, who obviously adores him. She urges him to enjoy life! On an errand to bring back water from the town, Ziggy discovers that there really isn’t a hurricane threat when the sun is shining brightly (or sticking its tongue out), that a kiss from Nansi ain’t so bad, and that he has the necessary courage and cunning to face up to his fears, Duppy in particular.
Along the way, three not-so-little birds offer friendship, guidance, and song to Ziggy – and additional solace to Cedella, since one of these creatures has been haunting Ziggy’s window sill and giving extra meaning to the phrase “dropping by.” Between the hiking, the singing, and the chattering, there are mangoes falling occasionally from a tree that overarches Tim Parati’s fantastical set, reminding us that Duppy and his conjuring powers are on the scene, eyeing Ziggy’s beautiful dreadlocks.
I’d be able to go in somewhat greater detail were it not for the dad sitting next to me, singing along to nearly all the Marley golden oldies and answering all his adorable anklebiter’s questions, whether she asked them or not. Formality is not the vibe at McColl Family Theater at this show. Opening up interaction between the actors and the audience, director Shondrika Moss-Bouldin has closed off both entrances to the theater at the lobby level, obliging us to enter through the mezzanine.
Avenues between the stage are now so direct and level that a toddler can easily cross over to this Jamaican fantasyland without a challenging climb. One of the ensemble members, in fact, came out and plucked a toddler from the crowd and invited her to join in on the dancing onstage. Other kids in the audience were swept into the dancing spirit, and the thrust configuration of the stage turned a few who were grooving in the front rows into instant dancing-with-the-stars celebs.
Everybody was friendly to the crowd, even Jeremy DeCarlos, our scheming and stealthy Duppy. Considering his haggard bedraggled look – think the old crone in Disney’s Snow White – and his multitudinous dreads, ingratiating himself with the tots was no small feat. The Duppy rig conjured up for DeCarlos was barely the beginning of costume designer Jason Kyle Estrada’s exploits. Lead fowl Doctor Bird’s get-up features an upturned fluorescent green jacket and a complementary hipster cap.
Oh yeah, Doctor Bird also drops some knowledge. B’s erudition includes a narration of Jamaica’s colonial history, obliging all other birds on deck, DeCarlos, and Ericka Ross as Cedella to slip into varied frilly and conquistador outfits. Ross’s role nearly matches Duppy’s for pluminess. We find out as much about Cedella as we do about Ziggy, for she’s supporting the family by selling her tasty Jamaican jerk chicken to tourists – and she’s wise to the charm that can disarm Duppy of his power. Delivering all that flavor and lore, Ross also speaks with the heaviest accent.
Rahsheem Shabazz absolutely slays as Doctor Bird, and his accent is also competitive. While there are many studio and concert recordings of the Marley tunes on the Three Birds playlist, none that I’ve heard so far really match what I heard from Shabazz. Or DeCarlos. Or Ross. Led by music director Charlene Miranda Thomas at the keyboard, the Children’s Theatre versions are livelier and more colorful to my ears. By comparison, Bob’s tempos plod.
Take that sacrilegious assessment as my assurance that you will not be disappointed with any of the Thomas-led covers. Musically, Garrick Vaughan as Ziggy is a late arrival to the party – demonstrating that, if you’re a central character who quails at the prospect of living, Bob Marley wasn’t the man to write your songs. Vaughan’s mopey role also means that he draws the short straw among Estrada’s splendiferous costumes.
These constraints on Vaughan aren’t because he is really 11 years old. When Bobbitt finally decrees that Ziggy sings, watch out. Vaughan may have the strongest voice in the cast. A lighter, folksier touch would land him more squarely in the reggae groove. As the would-be girlfriend Nansi, Kayla Simone Ferguson is kept busy enough, teasing Ziggy and moonlighting in other guises, but so far, I’m most impressed by her rapport with the kiddies.
Janeta Jackson is an established commodity at Children’s Theatre, having starred – and flown – in last season’s stunning Mary Poppins. She doesn’t get to go full throttle or reach such heights as Tacoomah, our second bird and British colonial, but she reinforces how deep and professional this dazzling production is. Apparently, word has spread swiftly among the Marley faithful. Boogie on!
Review: By the Water
By Perry Tannenbaum
Compared with Cape Hatteras, Wilmington, or Charleston here in the Carolinas, the borough of Staten Island up in New York City hasn’t historically been known as a punching bag for hurricanes. Until late 2012, when Hurricane Sandy battered three NYC boroughs, Staten Island was hardly in the conversation when compared even with nearby Long Island. Zeroing in on the impact of Sandy on a Staten Island family and community, Sharyn Rothstein’s By the Water not only changes the conversation, it also fiddles with history.
Taking in Ryan Maloney’s storm-ravaged set design at Duke Power Theater, with its waist-high waterline, you would likely expect Rothstein’s drama to be about the folly of resettling near a hurricane-prone shore. Or we might assume we’ll encounter the innocent victims of unscrupulous real estate developers, or come face-to-face with the new New York calculus of climate change. None of the working-class folk in this Three Bone Theatre production, smartly directed by Ron Law, seems capable – or sufficiently woke – to address any of these subjects.
As a result, the topicality of By the Water becomes rather shrouded in a mist of Murphy family grudges and disputes, further distanced from pressing issues that might concern us by the neighboring Carter family’s involvement. The Murphys seem as broken, fallible, and struggling as the Lomans were in Death of a Salesman, and the heads of this devastated household, Marty and Mary, have a fairly similar relationship.
For Marty, it’s axiomatic that he should rebuild and restart. To his eldest son, Sal, it’s obvious that his dad should move to higher, safer ground – and way past time that his mom stop blindly supporting whatever Dad says, especially after all his past misjudgments and misdeeds. Philip and Andrea Carter, the Murphys’ longtime friends and neighbors, have decided that they wish to accept a government buyout and move to Montclair, New Jersey.
But this isn’t a laissez-faire situation, where the Murphys and the Carters are free to do whatever they wish, no harm done. The government’s offer to the Carters and other survivors in the neighborhood will be withdrawn unless 80% of the community decides to sign on. Marty is fervid enough about his cause to go out picketing against the buyout.
A stretch at a hotel and returning to a home that boasts a few sticks of furniture, a hardy fridge, and the better part of one wall is starting to fray Mary’s unquestioning loyalty to her husband. The younger son, Brian, is returning home after a stretch of own – in prison as a result of his past drug addiction. He sides with his dad, seemingly to keep his favor, but his endorsement is tainted by his rap sheet, and he’s actually more intent on regaining the affections of the Carters’ daughter, Emily. Her parents, of course, know all about him, so they don’t approve.
Could work in Brian’s favor, right? He and Emily are both City kids. Minds of their own.
A corner of the stage is set aside for the wee wharf where Brian and Emily rendezvous, providing a respite from the family quarreling and the neighborhood politics, which grew a little repetitious during the 91-minute performance on opening night. More substance in the debate would have dispelled the tedium. It might have been worth pondering what government should and shouldn’t subsidize on these fragile wetlands. And a more eloquent Marty might voice the notion that, given the historical infrequency of tropical storms and hurricanes hitting Staten Island, it’s not such a stupid plan to live out the 20-30 remaining years of your life in the house your father built rather than transplanting to Montclair.
While Rothstein does disappoint me on topicality, and in giving us any sense that she’s intensively researched the Tri-State housing market or Marty’s prospects for homeowner’s insurance, there are times when she brings us vividly into the moment. Despite skirting the basic survivalist questions of home life without a roof, the playwright etches her characters with finely judged individuality and gives us a nuanced feel for the Murphys’ family dynamics.
Law and his cast are definitely on Rothstein’s wavelength, and the only major mistake they make is in overestimating the Duke’s acoustics. As the inimitable Tania Kelly demonstrated last year in Three Bone’s Every Brilliant Thing, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re being heard up in the balcony when people are actually having problems in the second row.
While you might not catch the ends of all of Marty’s sentences, Thom Tonetti delivers all of the outsized personality and bossiness that fosters Mary’s adoration and submission. We are definitely dealing with a force that can sway community sentiment when we encounter Tonetti, and we are not surprised to learn that Marty is capable of taking audacious and catastrophic risks. Physically, Susan Stein projects the frailty that perfectly fits Mary but with a salty New York accent that constantly reminds us of the street savvy and toughness that lurk within. There’s a tenseness and pallor to Stein as well, hinting that Mary has reached the end of her tether.
Law would have been safer casting an older actor to get the right look for Sal, the elder son, but there’s no doubt that Tommy Prudenti captures his straight-arrow essence in his Charlotte debut. Sal is a living white-collar rebuke of his father’s values, yet at key moments, Prudenti convinces us that he still craves Dad’s love. Tim Hager’s portrait of Brian adds another black sheep to his gallery, and if you saw his Franz in Three Bone’s Appropriate last summer, you won’t be surprised that he’s as lovable a reprobate up in the New York City wetlands as he was down on the bayou.
The accent is different, but this bad boy remains a magnet for one unattached lady who may be ready to rekindle an old pre-prison flame. I think you’ll like the sassy flavor that Sonia J. Rosales brings to Emily in her Charlotte debut. She’s certainly more liberated than the two moms we see here.
It’s slightly surprising to see Law pairing Lillie Oden with Joe Copley as the Carters, but they work beautifully together. Opposed to the Murphys’ plans, there’s a clear gender difference in how their oppositions play out. Like Mary, Oden as Andrea is more apt to be conciliatory, and like Marty, Copley as Philip inevitably becomes enraged and bellicose. You get the idea that Rothstein believes that the world would be so much more peaceful and sensible if women were in charge. But where would her drama be without all her guys?
Review: Miss Saigon
By Perry Tannenbaum
“Un bel di,” Cio-Cio-San famously warbled at the 1904 premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, yearning for the return of American Lieutenant Pinkerton from across the Pacific to honor their marriage vows and his responsibilities toward their son. Four score and seven years later, the scene shifted from Japan to Vietnam for Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s Miss Saigon, where Kim sang, “I Still Believe,” yearning for the return of American Staff Sgt. Chris – for exactly the same reasons.
We haven’t seen a touring production of Miss Saigon at Belk Theater in over 15 years. In the meantime, a new production directed by Laurence Connor came to Broadway in the spring of 2017 and folded in less than 10 months. The two key players in the recent remount both had Charlotte connections. Eva Noblezada, who snagged a Tony Award nomination as Kim, won the 2013 Blumey Award at Belk Theater as the best actress in a high school musical. And playing The Engineer, the most electrifying of Boublil’s new characterizations, Jon Jon Briones reprised the role he had played in the low-budget, copter-less production that landed at the Belk in November 2003.
I had to wonder whether the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon had been so short-lived because of the changes Connor had made to the 1991 original or because of changes the show still needed.
In the heat of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, both Kim and Chris had noticeably evolved compared with their operatic ancestors. Chris tried to take Kim with him as the Vietcong overran the capital. He sought to locate Kim after he returned safely to Atlanta, and he seemed honestly conflicted between his true love and his wife, Ellen. Kim had also evolved, no longer the shy, passive, pitiful flower Puccini immortalized. There was steel and ferocity in her: she’d murder the Commie who threatened the life of her son.
Yet in some ways, the 1991 Broadway musical was more primitive and insensitive than the 1904 opera.
Schönberg and Boublil were less respectful toward the culture of the Vietnamese than Puccini was toward the culture of Japan in Butterfly or China in Turandot. Except for the costumes and a brief wedding ceremony, there was hardly any indigenous culture in Saigon – and not a whiff of Asian music. Even the piety that Puccini dramatized in his Asian operas has vanished. Bar Girls that we notice in Saigon are scantily clad whores, usually spreading their legs when they aren’t face to face with a GI’s crotch.
Love as a romantic concept is strictly confined to Kim, and the two Asian men who want her don’t seem to be familiar with the word. Thuy, who returns to Ho Chi Minh City as a conqueror after defecting to the Vietcong, views Kim as his rightful possession – and her son as a repugnant atrocity. Her protector is The Engineer, a slimy pimp who initially installs Kim in his sex stable as a virgin delicacy and subsequently views her and Tam, Chris’s American citizen son, as his passport to the USA.
The most nuanced aspect of Boublil’s book was the opposition he set up between Thuy and The Engineer. Clad in his military uniform, Commissar Thuy was the embodiment of the Communism we were battling to keep at bay. Devoid of warmth, tenderness and humanity, he was a totalitarian gargoyle. The Engineer, on the other hand, was pure venal enterprise, emblematic of the insidious corruption that American capitalism always leaves in its wake.
It was horrifying – and strangely exhilarating – to see how totally The Engineer had absorbed our perverted values in his climactic showstopper, “The American Dream.” Part of the reason that Americans came home feeling that the Vietnamese hadn’t been worth fighting and dying for, after all, stemmed from the unsavory effects of our being there and spreading our influence.
Well, the new Miss Saigon didn’t show me any more empathy toward the Vietnamese than before, nor any more of their indigenous culture. If anything, The Engineer and his Bar Girls seemed raunchier, more mercenary, and more degraded than I had remembered. Downsized to more realistic proportions, Red Concepción’s portrayal of The Engineer is more quietly servile and less flamboyant than Joseph Anthony Foronda’s was in 1997, the first time a prop copter landed at the Belk. So when Concepción suddenly breaks into his “American Dream,” the fantasy isn’t just what The Engineer’s life will be on richer USA soil, it’s also a fantasy about who he will become.
Yes, the copter is back on the Belk stage during the fall of Saigon for the first time in over 21 years, and so is the shiny Cadillac where The Engineer, humping the hood, has an orgasm during his fantasy. The years haven’t been as kind to Kim. We expect more of our female heroes nowadays, so killing a Commie no longer earns Kim an exclamation mark.
Working within the traditional Cio-Cio-San constraints, Emily Bautista is more assertive and less decorous as Kim, getting two duets with the “other woman,” outshining Stacie Bono as Ellen on both occasions. A generic belter, Bono makes Bautista look better than Andreane Neofitou’s bland costumes do. Sprucing up his script, Boublil has added a Trump slogan to The Engineer’s spiel and a Mormon to the rascal’s clientele. Maybe the latter is the inspiration for Adrian Vaux’s design concept, which brings a Third World squalor to Saigon and to Bangkok that reminds me of the Africa where the missionaries of The Book of Mormon were deployed.
Bautista brings the most beauty to Kim when she sings her lovely “The Last Night of the World” duet with Anthony Festa as Chris. Festa gives Chris more texture than I would have thought possible, making me wish that Boublil hadn’t taken Pinkerton’s rehab quite so far. Kim begins as a $50 gift from his best bud John, Chris’s PTSD is all about Kim rather than battle fatigue or horrific warfare. The bravest action Festa gets to perform is filling Ellen in on all he has hidden from her about that last night before he climbed onto the US Marines helicopter – and all the news he has just learned about his son.
Getting the word from J. Daughtry as John certainly doesn’t boost the drama. Another generic belter, Daughtry sings his “Bui-Doi” (“dust of life”) appeal for the stigmatized mixed-race children of Saigon’s streets as if he were a competitor on The Voice rather than a contrite vet in a poignant Broadway show. True, Daughtry came to life nicely later in Act 2, showing what he was capable of dramatically when John, Chris, and Ellen tracked down Kim and The Engineer, now refugees in Bangkok. Before receding into the ensemble (perhaps not as inconspicuously as he should), Jinwoo Jung was a malign force to be reckoned with as Commissar Thuy, especially when Chris wasn’t around in Saigon to protect Kim.
In fairness to the cast, conditions at the Performing Arts Center weren’t ideal for performing – or reviewing – a big-budget Broadway musical. Because of travel and load-in delays, the curtain time was rescheduled from 7:30 pm to 8:00. But the first notes of the overture weren’t played until 8:37, long after we had finally been seated. Intermission lasted over 32 minutes, so when Act 2 started, it was nearly 10:25, past the time when the show would normally end . Maybe that’s why the production fell short of my hopes when the curtain fell an hour later.
Or maybe, just maybe, the clock has struck midnight on a sob story that first opened on Broadway in 1900 as a one-act play by David Belasco. Instead of Belasco, or Puccini’s librettists, or Boublil looking into the heart of a Japanese geisha or a Vietnamese bar girl, maybe it’s time that this story was retold from an Asian viewpoint by an Asian writer.
Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear
By Perry Tannenbaum
It’s been 28 years since I saw a murderous woman binding a man to a chair onstage, and I haven’t forgotten the spectacle of that near rape-victim turning the tables – and a spool of duct tape – on her would-be rapist. Maybe there were other instances after that stunning UNC Charlotte production of Extremities in 1991, one of the top five dramas I critiqued that year. If so, those action she-roes haven’t seared themselves in my memory the way that William Mastrosimone’s did.
A trail of empty honey bottles greeted us outside the Warehouse Performing Arts Center storefront in Cornelius as we entered upon a similar scene in Exit, Pursued by a Bear, the new Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production directed by Anne Lambert. Once again, three people are deliberating what to do with the captive – Kyle Carter, who has abused his wife Nan for the umpteenth time. Lauren Gunderson’s 2012 play, subtitled “A Southern-Fried Revenge Comedy,” isn’t quite as intent on ratcheting up the tension.
Like Gunderson’s title, derived from Shakespeare, it’s complicated. Often cited as the Bard’s most outré – or hilarious – or expensive – stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear” occurs in Act 3, Scene 3, of The Winter’s Tale. The fleeing nobleman is the otherwise forgettable Antigonus, whose mauling is vividly reported a moment later by the curiously named Clown, a shepherd’s son, while the bear is still devouring its kill offstage.
Nan isn’t intending to give her husband even that sporting chance at survival. She plans to abandon her secluded cabin in the Georgia woods and leave the doors open for any bear in the vicinity to enter. To hurry the process, Nan and her friends Simon and Sweetheart are adding inducements to make Kyle more aromatic and inviting. Some honey, of course, but here’s some luck: Kyle just killed a deer, so they can cut up some fresh meat and strew that around, too. Cool condiments!
Since Conrad Harvey as Kyle is already bound and gagged as we walk by with our tickets and drinks – hey, go ahead and take selfies with Conrad if you like – Gunderson is taking on two conflicting objectives when the lights come up. She’s painstakingly justifying what Nan is doing to her husband, and she’s striving to preserve the murderous unraveling of the Carters’ marriage in a comedy mold. Nan’s accomplices come in handy for both of these objectives.
Sweetheart is a stripper at a local bar who aspires to be an actress – or at least a movie star – and Kyle is Nan’s lifelong best friend. Since he is a bit of a queen in his Georgia Bulldogs cheerleading outfit, the stripper-transvestite combo is inherently comical as soon as it forms, if you’re not going to be offended by stereotyped affronts to political correctness and feminism. Part of the action, you must remember, is Nan overcoming her submissiveness and moving towards feminism. It’s a liberating leap.
With Kyle as her literally captive audience, Nan will express the anger, frustration, and humiliation she has kept bottled up inside by playing out the key scenes that have pushed her to this drastic homicidal response. Since Kyle is indisposed – and hasn’t learned his lines – Julia Benfield as Sweetheart will step into the role of Nan’s husband in these flashbacks. Lambert has made a cagey casting choice here. Benfield is not only dwarfed by Harvey, you’ll see that Julie Janorschke Gawle towers over her as well. More built-in comedy.
Benfield is trashy in her cinched flannel shirt impersonating Kyle, and a fair amount of that trashiness appears to come naturally, but the more we get to know her, the more clearly we see that she isn’t a slut or a bimbo. With all the two-handed scenes in the flashbacks, you might worry that Simon is simply superfluous. But he’s more than a cheerleader. When Nan wavers, Simon is there to help shore up her resolve.
Not always the subtlest of performers, Ryan Stamey calibrates and balances his bloodthirsty zeal, his genuine affection for Nan, and his flaming outrageousness in such a precise way that he emerges as genuinely human rather than as a cartoon provocateur. With this kind of quirky support, Gawle can explore the serious depths that Gunderson explores in the Carters’ abusive marriage. Nan’s waverings are based in a pathological dependency that develops between an abused spouse and her abuser, ground into the rubble of crushed self-esteem.
Gunderson also wants us to be ambivalent about the payback Nan is meting out, no matter how many Hollywood revenge flicks we’ve seen. As if he were on trial rather than passively listening to his sentence, Kyle gets his chances to speak and defend himself. More than that, he gets Nan to allow him a temporary reprieve from his bondage, so that he can re-enact the good times they had together before things went sour.
Harvey doesn’t mitigate the fact that Kyle is a boorish hayseed, but he also doesn’t hold back on the sincerity of “getting it” and his intent to be a better man. We’re apt to be a little torn, as Nan is, on the option of giving Kyle a second chance. Gawle is visibly affected by Harvey’s pleas, his evocations of past Kyles, and perhaps his newfound respect for the doormat who has risen up against him. So with the prospect of Kyle suddenly reverting to violence, there’s not only dramatic tension in the air but also multiple layers of give-and-take between Nan and Kyle, Nan and Simon, between the men and inside Nan’s heart.
Feminists will appreciate how this deadlock is broken.
Gawle does everything right interacting with the other performers. She even gives herself moments when she ponders the enormity of what she’s planning – and to question whether she’s sufficiently calm to proceed after the suddenness and the adrenaline rush of what she has done and how it has changed her. One thing you might question is whether Gawle is as Southern or as trashy as Gunderson imagined her. Hang in there until Nan’s final scene, and you’ll likely see the rationale for the choice Gawle and Lambert have made in crafting her character.
Along with the cast’s work onstage, costume design by Ramsey Lyric, lighting by Sean Kimbro, and Jarvis Garvin’s fight choreography are all indicative of Charlotte Broadway’s professionalism. The only dodgy aspect of this production are the projections flashed on the upstage wall delivering stage directions when we reach Gunderson’s play-within-a-play segments. The lettering doesn’t exactly pop, and efforts to read them can draw attention away from the action. Maybe freezing the action might help solve the problem. Worth a try.
Otherwise, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is all-pro all the way. Consider yourself lucky if you can pursue and snag a ticket.
Reviews: Nina Simone: Four Women and Ain’t Misbehavin’
By Perry Tannenbaum
With three new theater productions opening last week from Actor’s Theatre, Brand New Sheriff, and Theatre Charlotte – all sporting all-black casts – we have entered a Black History Month in Charlotte that is more about black history than ever before. Some of the African Americans who might be expected to show up for those auditions will be shining in the spotlight somewhere else this weekend as Children’s Theatre of Charlotte opens Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds at ImaginOn.
Unless you count university productions, we haven’t had more than one truly black theater production here in Charlotte during any Black History Month in the past 10 years.
So our Black History Month upgrade – and the stunning amount of local black talent necessary to make it happen – was definitely on my mind as I took in all of these shows. But a couple of times, in Actor’s Theatre’s tribute to Nina Simone and Theatre Charlotte’s Fat Waller revue, I found myself flashing back to January 2003.
That’s when a bi-racial Charlotte Rep production of Let Me Sing featured two black Broadway veterans, Gretha Boston and André de Shields, who boasted five Tony Award nominations and two wins between them.
Nina Simone: Four Women from Actor’s Theatre threw a new perspective on what are usually regarded as Rep’s declining years. The title role, calling for a passionate Black Power advocate and a charismatic singer-songwriter, would obviously benefit from the Broadway star power that Michael Bush, with his Manhattan Theatre Club connections, was able to lure down to our Booth Playhouse during Rep’s latter days.
De Shields was actually one of the original stars of Ain’t Misbehavin’ when it opened at Manhattan Theatre Club and took the Tony for Best Musical in 1978. So my thoughts naturally returned to De Shields, Rep, and Let Me Sing when Theatre Charlotte opened the Fats Waller musical revue two days after Actor’s opened their Simone musical. On this night at least, I had the satisfaction of recalling the Broadway star and feeling that our fair Queen City was getting along just fine without him.
A lot of the credit goes to Charlotte’s own Tony winner, educator extraordinaire Corey Mitchell, who directs this sassy 94-minute show at the Queens Road barn. The cast he culled from auditions is consistently spectacular, whether they’re singing or dancing, but we also need to slice off some accolades to the seven-piece jazz band led by trombonist Tyrone Jefferson, featuring Neal Davenport at the piano. Kudos to choreographer Ashlyn Sumner: with some formidable talents to work with, she has stretched them.
Conceived by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., Misbehavin’ goes about capturing Waller’s essence by culling the gems from his imposing oeuvre and preserving the pianist’s penchant for interpolating sly comments and wisecracks between his lyrics. Comical gems like “The Viper’s Drag,” “Find Out What They Like (and How They Like It),” and “Your Feet’s Too Big,” all score big. Adapting and orchestrating, Luther Handerson and Jeffrey Gutcheon usually go with the grain of Waller’s merry, mischievous recordings, but occasionally they go against it, slowing down “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Mean to Me” so they sound brand new.
Yet Waller also composed one solemn anthem that belongs in the same elite pantheon as Simone’s “Four Women” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The introductory chords from the piano were all I needed to tell me that “Black and Blue” was on its way with lyricist Andy Razaf’s indelible refrain: What did I do to be so black and blue?
After delivering more than an hour of pure ebullient joy, it was a powerful question to ask. Lighting designer Chris Timmons dimmed his gels over Tim Parati’s funky nightclub set, Jefferson hushed the band, and Mitchell huddled his entire cast downstage where all five could look us coldly in the eye.
Never afflicted with obliquity. Waller and Razaf answered their own question: My only sin is in my skin.
Keston Steele has the most amazing voice in this cast, and it’s not just her range and volume. Steele may look small, but as “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” proves, this lady can g-g-growl! Best dancer is more of a toss-up. Look no further than Nonye Obichere kicking “How Ya Baby” if you’re looking for somebody startling and athletic. Tyler Smith is your man if your quest is for someone smooth and sensual.
Smith was the comedy showstopper – and the chief reason why De Shields can stay right where he is – delighting us with his stealth and style in “The Viper’s Drag,” but Marvin King was just as hilarious in the outright insulting “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Danielle Burke’s breakout moments were her mellow “Squeeze Me” solo and her bawdy “Find Out What They Like” duet with Steele.
The songlist is loaded with Fats faves that will get your toes tapping, including “Handful of Keys,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Fat and Greasy,” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Or you might get into the sway of “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Lounging at the Waldorf.” All in all, another insane overachievement for Charlotte’s community theater. Pass the reefer and the champagne!
Production values at Hadley Theater looked like they would be up to the usual high Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte standard when we took our seats on opening night of Nina Simone: Four Women. Chip Decker’s set design for the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is colorful and impressive. And shifty: when Decker detonates his sound design, simulating the bomb blast that killed four black girls on September 15, 1963, the walls twist acutely to register the racist atrocity.
But after Lizzie and American Idiot, two arrestingly loud shows at ATC’s new Queens University home, this Christina Ham drama was often too soft-spoken to be clearly heard – even though I spotted the actors wearing head mics late in the 86-minute performance. That was a major element that can improve as the run continues.
Shortcomings in Ham’s script and Chanel Blanchett’s stage direction are not so easily remedied. I’m sure the playwright didn’t intend to be insulting, but her scenario basically tells us that Simone went down to the 16th Street church, stationed herself defiantly behind the sanctuary keyboard with the intention of completing her livid protest song, “Mississippi Goddam.” While completing her response to the murder of Medgar Evers three months earlier in Mississippi, three of the women who would be immortalized in “Four Women” walked in off the street to take refuge from the violence still raging out on the streets of Birmingham.
Fate basically hands the songwriter one of her most revered compositions, if you take Ham literally.
I’m not sure that Blanchett wants us to take the story that way. Played with stormy intensity by Destiny Stone, Simone is already hostile and militant when she arrives in Birmingham. Nina’s urgent need to get her song finished only begins to catalog the reasons why she antagonizes each of the three women who walk in on her. Sarah is a humdrum housemaid who would rather pursue MLK non-violence than take Malcolm X action. Sephronia is a yellow-skinned socialite who doesn’t struggle at all financially like Sarah, drawing class hatred from the housekeeper for her money and scorn from Simone for her political aloofness.
Further stirring the pot is Sweet Thing, seething because she can’t have Sephronia’s fiancé though she can have his baby. This liquor-swigging streetwalker draws hatred and scorn from all quarters, for how she lives and for entering a holy place. Beware, though, she’s brandishing a knife.
Although the arguments are passionate, Blanchett blunts their sharpness, preferring to space her players rather than getting them in each other’s faces – until Arlethia Friday arrives as Sweet Thing. Stone, Erica Ja-Ki Truesdale as Sarah and Krystal Gardner as Sephronia often face us instead of the person they’re arguing with. Maybe Blanchett doesn’t really believe that Simone and the “intruders” are really there at the Baptist Church. Having these actors appear like they’re reliving the first play they ever performed in grade-school doesn’t solve the problem.
After all the verbal and physical combat, the title song breaks out. It’s surreal: all three women miraculously know their lyric and their order in the song. I’m guessing this dramatic flouting of logic will help distract us from the fundamental flip she burdens Stone with in portraying Simone. For 80 minutes, she has heaped hatred, anger, and scorn upon these women who are interfering with her creative process. Now she’s deeply empathetic toward them all, turning them into emblems of scarred, heroic black womanhood.
With 11 other songs along the way, there are sudden lurches as we move forward, cutting abruptly from argument to song. Stone’s singing, with pianist Judith Porter leading a driving quartet, is the show’s most human element as she channels Simone’s fire into “Sinnerman,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and the last of the “Four Women.” Stripped of the backup singers that sugarcoat Simone’s recordings of “Young, Gifted, and Black,” I liked the crispness of Stone’s even better.
Intensity was never Stone’s problem. What I was looking for was more arrogant self-assurance lifting her rage to a higher plane – a serene majesty that earns you the title of High Priestess of Soul. A few more leading roles, not to mention turning 30, will likely do the trick someday. Probably because she comes in toting a flask and a knife, getting the liberty to stagger around the stage rather than finding a mark and facing front, Friday’s Sweet Thing is the best acting we see. She isn’t Simone’s Sweet Thing until she sings her, but she’s closer to what Nina had in mind than Ham’s housemaid. Darting between the worlds of rock, jazz, blues, folk, and soul, Simone has eluded many who would find excitement and enjoyment in her music. Ham’s writing marshals key facts in this North Carolina native’s life into the dialogue but never really captures her soul. The songs in Four Women and Stone’s singing could be a gateway to that treasure trove.
Review: Two Trains Running
By Perry Tannenbaum
Like all of the other plays I’ve seen in August Wilson’s epic Pittsburgh Cycle and I’ve now seen nine of the 10 – Two Trains Running is about community struggle and personal redemption. Each of the dramas digs into one of decades of the 20th century, and after Brand New Sheriff began its Wilson explorations with Jitney and the 1950s, their sophomore effort at Spirit Square takes us into the turbulent 1960s.
With so much memorable social and civil rights upheaval in that decade, not to mention the horrifying Birmingham church bombing and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and MLK, it’s no surprise that community struggles are more at the forefront of this Wilson work than the others. As it was in the ‘50s, when we looked on the city through Jitney, Pittsburgh is continuing its predatory campaign to demolish the predominantly black Hill District in the name of urban renewal. After Becker’s gypsy cab depot in Jitney, the city is moving in on Memphis Lee’s Restaurant.
Another young man is returning from incarceration and trying start a new life – but not quietly this time. Sterling is handing out leaflets for an upcoming Black Power rally and befriending Hambone, a mentally handicapped person who was cheated years ago by the white grocer across the street. At the same time, Sterling is seeking out a job or at least a lead from everyone else he speaks to at the restaurant. Standing up for other black people cheated by a white system – and for himself – Sterling is clearly a powder keg that will soon go off.
Memphis estimates that he’ll be back in prison in three weeks. As the days pass and he sees more of Sterling, who grabs whatever he can, Memphis will revise that estimate downwards.
Sterling teaches Hambone a Black Power slogan, but Memphis isn’t so easily swayed. It’s the central issue for black people of that time, especially here in 1969 after the MLK murder. Do they wait patiently and peacefully for what is rightfully theirs, marching and petitioning to make their wishes known – or do they resort to the same kind of violence that kept their people down? Memphis insists on doing things the right way, holding out for a fair price from the city for his property, firing the craven lawyer who advises him to cave.
Looking at Memphis’s regular customers, you’ll find additional evidence that MLK’s ideas didn’t die with him. Nobody intends to join the rally. A more popular road to self-fulfillment is winning the daily numbers game at odds of 600-1, and it’s Wolf who haunts the place, taking all bets, often through unauthorized use of the restaurant’s phone. The sagely and cynical Holloway will play a number as readily as Memphis or Sterling, but to change your life, Holloway recommends a visit to Aunt Ester, the 322-year-old soothsayer who lurks behind a faithfully guarded red door in an alley down the block.
Risa, the troubled waitress who has scarred herself, disparages the men who throw their money away on the numbers. To her mind, they’d get a better return from their quarters if they just dropped them in the jukebox. Until recently, she’s been a follower of the Prophet Samuel, but currently her rock and redeemer is lying in state across the street at West’s Funeral Home. She has no desire to see the man in a casket, but Sterling goes through the long lines waiting to see the Prophet and snatches flowers from the site and presents them to Risa, whose head he’s trying to turn.
It’s another illustrative instance of Sterling flouting decorum and convention. Why should her qualms get in the way of enjoying a few beautiful flowers that would die and be trashed in the next couple of days if she weren’t caring for them? West certainly doesn’t notice or mind, Sterling maintains. It’s true. When West comes by every day, he’s looking for Risa to serve him another cup of coffee and Memphis to accept his latest lowball offer for the restaurant.
The parallel rituals are significant, two of the sparkplugs that keep Wilson’s drama humming. The grocer fends off Hambone’s daily demand for the ham that was promised to him, and Memphis refuses to allow West to steal his property away for a bargain price.
BNS and director Corlis Hayes, in their second Wilson outing at Duke Energy Theater, are getting really good at this. Although smaller than the design the playwright describes, James Duke’s set captures the spirit of the time beautifully, perfectly calibrating the restaurant’s waning appeal so that we see it as a warm, welcoming place. Or at least we can imagine it that way, for Tim Bradley as Memphis is not at all the deferential restauranteur, arguing with customers, barking at Wolf for running numbers on his phone, bragging about duping West, bossing Risa unnecessarily, and expressing general disdain for his lazy people.
That’s all very much on the page, so Bradley finds ways to keep us empathizing with Memphis. Hayes and LeShea Stukes have far more latitude with Risa as we watch the waitress going about her job and reacting to various advances. Stukes plays her as sullen and cynical, allowing Risa’s resentment of her boss’s scolding tone to occasionally surface. Seeing her smile late in Act 2 is like seeing the sun come out after fives days of stormy weather. By the time that happens, we may suspect that the jukebox being out of order is troubling Risa as much as Prophet Samuel’s death and her boss’s bossiness.
Devin Clark struts around as Wolf like an arrogant sleazeball, but there are more depths, contours, and vulnerabilities to him than the iconic Sportin’ Life as he talks about himself and strikes out with Risa. Ramsey Lyric’s costume designs certainly help Clark strut his stuff, but they also help us to chart Jonavan Adams’s progress in his portrayal of Sterling, fresh out of prison. Hayes and Adams have worked together before on Wilson’s plays, so they both know the strength, the brashness, and the seething frustrations of these strapping young men. Trust me, Adams’ work as Sterling is even more powerful and nuanced than his 2017 outing as Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
BNS continues to have admirable depth in their Wilson lineups. You can understand why Jermaine A. Gamble would gravitate to a role as salty as Holloway, whose sharp observations are mixed with a strong belief in the supernatural, expressed in an unwavering advocacy of Aunt Ester’s powers. Gamble makes Holloway a reasonable man, good reason for having this kind of restaurant around. He’s the neighborhood. But the disruptive Hambone, restricted to little more than one repeated line, wouldn’t jump out at you as a plum role to audition for. Dominic Weaver makes it one in a performance of astonishing intensity and authenticity.
It was probably a group effort to make Weaver look so frightfully grubby as Hambone, but Lyric and Hayes draw my kudos for the sensation West makes each time he enters. Wilson prescribes that the undertaker is always dressed in an all-black outfit, including black gloves that he wears indoors, but designers only add a black hat in about half the productions I’ve tracked on YouTube – and none of them are as imposing as the formal chapeau Lyric chooses for Sultan Omar El-Amin. Hayes layers onto this formality, decreeing that El-Amin must meticulously spread a napkin across his lap at each sitting.
With such outré ammo, El-Amin steals each of his scenes without raising his voice to a level that might lead you to seriously suspect that he doubts his own power. By the manner he holds his cup and saucer, you’d think he was at high tea! From a man who has specialized in portrayals of angry, resentful, and mixed-up young men, El-Amin’s confidently restrained performance as an established 60-year-old widower is a stunner.
Two Trains Running at Spirit Square is a good place to climb aboard the complete Pittsburgh Cycle that BNS is planning to present in coming seasons. You won’t miss a thing because BNS is planning to reprise its previous production of Jitney in May. Then they plan to present Radio Golf, the final drama in the Cycle – and Wilson’s last completed play – next season. Two Trains is not the last stop, but you’ll need to catch it this week before it closes.
Preview: Two Trains Running
By Perry Tannenbaum
Rory Sheriff, the founder and producer at Brand New Sheriff Productions – and the author of two works staged at Spirit Square, Be a Lion and Boys to Baghdad – has a special affinity with the work of August Wilson. After presenting Wilson’s Jitney at Duke Energy Theater in 2017, BNS is back this Thursday with Two Trains Running, another drama from Wilson’s acclaimed 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle.
The special appeal of America’s pre-eminent black playwright for Sheriff is twofold – as a writer and as a Pennsylvanian.
“As a playwright myself,” Sheriff explains, “I am fascinated with August Wilson’s style of writing, more so the characters he writes about. Growing up in Reading PA, I can relate to every last character, situation and location he speaks about in Two Trains Running. The beautiful thing is I can now see and understand these people from an adult point of view. They are my dad, his friends, my uncles, my neighbors. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m reliving my childhood through the works of Mr. Wilson.”
Each of the plays in Wilson’s Cycle is set in a different decade of the 20th century, and all of them are set Pittsburgh’s Hill District, except for one Chicago excursion representing the 1920s, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The only play that predates Ma Rainey was the one Sheriff first plunged into, Jitney, which premiered in 1982 and represents the 1940s. By the time Two Trains, representing the 1960s, premiered in 1990, Wilson had already finished six of the plays in his Cycle.
So Sheriff has honed in on decades that his dad and uncles would recognize, but as he takes us back to the days of Malcolm X and the rise of the Black Panthers, Sheriff is promising that Two Trains won’t be his last stop.
“Yes,” he proclaims, “BNS Productions is committed to producing all ten of Mr. Wilson’s works. We will produce at least one of his works every season. Here’s an exclusive: We will be ending this season with Jitney, and next season we will be doing Radio Golf.”
This extraordinary announcement comes during an extraordinary launch of Black History Month, with three theatrical productions featuring black performers opening in the same week – making some unprecedented Charlotte history. While Theatre Charlotte is waiting until the first of the month on Friday to open Ain’t Misbehavin’, Actor’s Theatre is jumping the gun, officially opening Nina Simone: Four Women on Wednesday.
None of these productions is miniscule, testifying to the depth of black acting and musical talent across the Queen City. So the time is ripe for Brand New Sheriff to be making bolder, more confident and ambitious plans.
Sheriff is definitely packing some high-powered ammunition onstage for Two Trains.
“All of the actors in Two Trains Running have been in at least one Wilson play,” says Corlis Hayes, who will direct. Hayes is no slouch herself. Combined with the four she has directed at CPCC, where she teaches in the drama program, Hayes has now directed six of the 10 Pittsburgh plays, including the two Pulitzer Prize winners, Fences and The Piano Lesson.
Like Jitney, the action in Two Trains Running takes place in a building slated for acquisition and demolition by City of Pittsburgh. The wrongheaded concept of urban renewal evidently had a cancerous grip on black community life for a long time. Here it’s a restaurant rather than a gypsy cab company facing its doom, and the restaurant owner, Memphis, is our protagonist. He’s holding out for a fair price on his property – against the lowball bids of both the city and the ghoulish, rapacious West, who owns West’s Funeral Parlor across the street.
Memphis also has some unfinished business back in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, where he was driven off his land many years earlier and not paid a dime. He’s typical of the black men in Wilson’s plays, struggling against a system that white society has rigged against them. Echoing that reality – or responding to it – men in both Jitney and Two Trains Running play the numbers, hoping that luck will supply the boost that honest work doesn’t.
Recently discharged from prison, another recurring Wilson motif, Sterling is trying to interest Memphis and his male customers in attending an upcoming Black Power rally. Jonovan Adams, who has performed in all the Wilson plays that Hayes staged at CP, will portray the restless, volatile Sterling. Activism isn’t his only pursuit: he asks everybody he speaks with for a job or at least a lead, and he’s persistently trying to make headway with Risa, Memphis’s troubled waitress.
Estranged from his wife, Memphis seems to have a blind spot when it comes to women. Debating with Holloway, one of his older customers, about why Risa has mutilated herself, Memphis labels her dangerous while Holloway sees her as searching for someone who will love her true inner self.
“I feel both of these men hit on some truths about Risa,” says actress LeShea Nicole, whose previous venture into Wilson’s world was as Vera in the On Q Performing Arts production of Seven Guitars in 2015.
“Dangerous is definitely not a word I would use to describe Risa, because she never resorts to violence or threats, but I believe she feels ruined from some form or forms of abuse that she encountered in her past that has caused her to shut down socially/emotionally and even distort her appearance. Risa may feel ruined, but not beyond repair. She seeks guidance and solace from Prophet Samuel, which, in my eyes, equals hope.”
Working on her second Wilson drama, Nicole is switching companies and directors. The legendary Lou Bellamy, founder of Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minnesota, worked directly with Wilson on multiple occasions. Bellamy not only directed Nicole for On Q, he also directed her as an understudy for the Blumenthal Performing Arts production of The Mountaintop that played at Booth Playhouse in 2014.
In their first-ever collaboration, Nicole says that Hayes measures up.
“I am extremely pleased and energized with her process of directing,” Nicole says. “She’s well versed and makes it her mission to stay true to Wilson’s vision. Dr. Hayes allows actors to explore, find depth in our characters and tap into our creative freedom without jeopardizing the integrity of the production. It is a tricky balancing act that she masters effortlessly. Hayes’ extensive acting career truly makes her an ‘actor’s director’ which is wonderful.”
Whether it’s Prophet Samuel, who lies in state at West’s funeral parlor, or it’s hitting the numbers; whether it’s promoting a Black Power rally or gleaning wisdom from the mysterious Aunt Ester, a 322-year-old soothsayer; the people of Two Trains Running are seekers. The emphasis on ritual especially sets this play apart from other plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle, according to Hayes, but there’s still a common thread.
“Always with Wilson,” Hayes observes, “reunion and reconciliation with the past heals the wounds of the present, bridges gaps between loved ones, and clears the path for a promising future.”