Category Archives: Theatre

A Disfigured War Vet Struggles to Find – and See – Herself

Review: Ugly Lies the Bone

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When Jess returns to her Florida hometown from her third deployment in Afghanistan, there are multiple obstacles littering her path to reintegrating into family and community life. Mentally, she’s suffering from PTSD. Physically, she’s tormented by the aftereffects of injuries inflicted by an exploding IED: she gets around – slowly – with help from a walker, her face is disfigured by burns and skin grafts, and she’s constantly in excruciating pain from burns and grafts all over her body.

That’s just the beginning in Lindsey Ferrentino’s Ugly Lies the Bone, now at Spirit Square in a Three Bone Theatre production. There’s a certain amount of friction between Jess and her sunny sister, Kacie, that reads like ingratitude for all the help and care Kacie is trying to give her. Jess also reflexively despises Kacie’s vulgar, tactless, and boisterous boyfriend, Kelvin, and she doesn’t express that feeling daintily. Nor does it help that Jess’s former boyfriend, Stevie, didn’t religiously wait for her to come back home. Instead, he went on with his life and got married.

Located near Cape Kennedy, Jess’s hometown of Titusville offers additional challenges. Not only do the sands on the nearby beaches trigger Jess’s PTSD, so will the earthshaking tremors from rocket launches at the Kennedy Space Center. True, NASA’s space shuttle program is about to end, minimizing the obstacles posed by future launch events. But layoffs have already struck the Space Center, reducing job opportunities in the citywide. Stevie was one of the impacted NASA workers, and Jess finds him behind the counter at a local gas station, making change, selling lottery cards, and wearing a dopey space beanie.

But wait a second. Jess had to run and conquer obstacle courses just to earn the dubious privilege of being deployed to Afghanistan in the first place, right? This nasty, bitter, and disfigured woman has grit. We also get hints from both Kacie and Stevie that, once upon a time, Jess had vitality and appeal. And notwithstanding all her current pain, disability, and orneriness, Ugly Jess gets meaningful help.

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The most intriguing – and theatrical – form of help is a form of VR therapy that Ferrentino tells us, in a program note, was actually the inspiration for her play. You can google “Snow World” therapy and find that its use with severely injured soldiers dates back to 2008, though it seemed pretty cutting-edge to me. Each time Andrea King as Jess puts on her VR goggles and immerses herself in a fabricated 3D snow-world, the Duke Energy Theater fills with dreamy projection designs by Ryan Maloney – so we’re fairly immersed as well.

Since the theory of the therapy is as much sensory bombardment as fantastical escape, the second ingredient of the treatments is music. Jess gets to choose between patriotic soldiering music and Paul Simon. The treatment is curiously impersonal: we never see Jess’s therapist; we only hear her voice. Amid the sensory overload, Jess’s sufferings subside sufficiently for the therapist to prompt her to move her legs through the snowdrifts and lift her arms – movements that would normally exacerbate her terrible pain by stretching her newly grafted skin.

For us as well as for Jess, these dreamy cinematic episodes are oases of calm that punctuate the stresses and occasional comedy of her readjustment to civilian life. She momentarily abandons her walker as she grabs the videogame controls, almost straightens up, and we find ourselves relaxing with her in the dimmed light.

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Perverse as it was, I enjoyed the oafishness of Peter Finnegan as Kelvin and the nerdiness of Scott Tynes-Miller as Stevie. Anyone who saw Finnegan last summer as he feasted on the role of Bottom in the outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Queens University will need no further incentive to behold his Kelvin, which is nearly that far south of normal. And who better for director Dee Abdullah to turn to than Tynes-Miller for the wishy-washy, conflicted, and adorably humbled Stevie? We’ve watched his auditions for years.

Abdullah can allow both Finnegan and Tynes-Miller to go slightly overboard in making asses out of Kelvin and Stevie because Ferrentino eventually brings them back to conscience and virtue. Becky Schultz as Jess’s sister Kacie may seem too wholesome at first to go the distance with Kelvin. With only a trace of trashiness from Schultz, Finnegan’s loutishness startles us all the more, so we tend to empathize with Jess a little bit when she explodes on him early – and later on when she harbors darker suspicions.

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Before singing King’s praises as Jess, I’d be remiss if I didn’t insert some prefatory kudos to makeup designer Gregory Hewett and makeup artist Natasha Kay, unsparing in showing us what Jess is dealing with. You don’t need to imagine much of the pain when King slowly makes her first entrance with her walker. The pain really does seem to permeate every inch of her as she struggles to move and the endure the ocean of ache. When King declares that three operations were necessary to restore one eyelid, you believe it. Vulnerability, bitterness, anger, need, and an all-powerful doggedness course through her, slackened only when Jess dons those transporting goggles, or when she joins Stevie – again in relative darkness – for their climactic rooftop rendezvous.

We get to know Debbie Swanson as the voice of the therapist strictly from her performance up in the Duke’s soundbooth, so it’s gratifying to see her at last when she doubles as Jess and Kacie’s mom as the drama concludes. Swanson’s disembodied voice isn’t tough love so much as clinical care for Jess at the VR sessions. Sometimes soothingly, she patiently counsels Jess to move forward instead of looking back, following procedures with firm military precision.

Eventually, the voice from the booth warms up to Jess just enough to bend the rules. All this time, even before she appears, mom is adding to Jess’s stress and our suspense. Suffering from dementia, Mom may not recognize her own daughter anymore, another devastating blow for Jess. Or she might recognize Jess and freak out, which would hurt them both.

For Jess, avoidance of that confrontation brings little relief. Looking into the mirror, Jess is struggling to recognize herself.

Sher Tinkers With “My Fair Lady,” Recalibrating Its Perfections

Review: Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Ah, perfection! It’s what so many of us unthinkingly strive for. Yet achieving perfection, the pedestal Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady perches upon in the eyes of so many, invites a whole set of calamities, chiefly complacency and inertia. Worshipers at the altar of perfection would understandably strive to replicate the voice of Julie Andrews and the grace of Audrey Hepburn in presenting Eliza Doolittle – or the sublimely calibrated gruffness of Rex Harrison in reviving Professor Henry Higgins.

Their perfection has seemed to add layers of tamper-proof portrayals to Frederick Loewe’s cavalcade of memorable melodies, Alan Jay Lerner’s concise and pungent lyrics, and the duo’s deft adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Over the decades since it premiered on Broadway in 1959, our concepts of the ideal Fair Lady have become the sound of the original cast album (a #1 best seller) and the lavish look of the Hollywood film (Oscar for Best Picture).

But what about the stage show? There we tend to be rather vague. If you’ve been following theatre in Charlotte for the past 30 years or so, seeing as many as half-a-dozen local revivals as I have, you dimly remember one or two of them. Last national Fair Lady tour to stop in Charlotte? Never happened before the current tour now playing at Ovens Auditorium.

Launched this past December, five months after it closed on Broadway, the acclaimed Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Bartlett Sher dares to mess with the perfect musical. You’ll most readily notice Sher’s ministrations in the final scene, where Eliza’s response to Higgins’ peremptory “Fetch me my slippers!” seems to draw a “did-that-really-happen?” reaction from the Professor. But Sher also makes a sumptuous meal of “The Servant’s Chorus,” a song that I could not remember hearing live before, an 84-second relic from the film soundtrack that was apparently shoehorned into the 1993 revival.

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The insertion of this interlude, between “Just You Wait” – with its gawky vowels and dropped aitches – and Liza’s breakthrough “Rain in Spain,” makes delicious dramatic sense, giving us some idea of the flower girl’s arduous toil to master proper English pronunciation and Higgins’ merciless prodding. A gaggle of servants scurries through a mammoth two-story house that Sher has tasked set designer Michael Yeargen to build in such grand fashion that it revolves, showing us three different rooms in Higgins’ home.

Extending Liza’s struggles into epic spectacle makes her sudden latenight “Rain in Spain” triumph that much more rewarding. The crowning point of the sequence, Liza’s exuberant “I Could Have Danced All Night” after Higgins and servants have wearily trudged off to sleep, had never moved me so much before, a true revelation.

But improving on perfection ran into technical difficulties on opening night. To clear the upstage wall for its subsequent rotations – and likely to ensure its stability – the two-story set must come forward a few feet toward the audience before it’s properly secured and ready to roll. Instead, there was a slight lurch before the mighty edifice stalled. True to the hallowed show-must-go-on spirit, Laird Mackintosh as Higgins launched into the scene with one of his butlers, only to be shut down by the crew. Houselights came up as the curtain came down, and we heard the dreaded announcement on the PA, which confirmed a problem rather than describing it.

The third stop on the new My Fair Lady tour had come to a dead stop. After a half-hour delay, I felt thankful that the snafu had occurred at the top of the scene so that the whole revelatory sequence was eventually delivered without interruption. Mackintosh as Professor Higgins and Shereen Ahmed as Eliza make a wonderful pair. Ahmed doesn’t have the #MeToo energy and cleverness attributed to Lauren Ambrose when she brought this production to Lincoln Center in 2018. She almost doesn’t need to with all the abrasiveness, conceit, and disregard that Mackintosh brings to Higgins’ misogynistic treatment of Eliza.

We feel like Eliza is being abused long before the Professor’s aborted physical attack on her, and Mackintosh never surrenders all the cruel edge of Lerner’s lyrics in “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him” to their comedy. Nor is there more potent testimony to Eliza’s triumph than Mackintosh’s chastened, broken rendition of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Sher manages to remind us in his nuanced staging that women are still mobilizing behind the cause of suffrage at the time the action is set in 1912. We can cut some slack, then, if Ahmed seems a little deferential towards Higgins’ erudition, wealth, and gender – and, in turn, we can cut Mackintosh some slack for his troglodyte arrogance.

Sher also judges keenly in giving us a more youthful Higgins, for Mackintosh can react to Ahmed emotionally as she wins his admiration, almost sweeping away thoughts of her desirability as a maidservant or private secretary. That youthful casting gives Ahmed more to be giddy about when Higgins shows her his first glimmer of approval and pride. In “I Could Have Danced All Night,” Ahmed’s whole body seems to awaken to undreamed-of possibilities that surpass the prospect of becoming a private secretary or a flower shop owner.

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Ahmed does sing superbly, showing steel and vitality in her bellicose songs, “Just You Wait,” “Show Me,” and “Without You.” Helped along by Catherine Zuber’s smashing costumes, Ahmed also transforms magnificently from the grubby Cockney we meet in the opening scene into a vision of regal elegance that credibly explodes Higgins’ wildest expectations of success for his phonetic experimentations – and his gentlemen’s bet with Colonel Pickering.

Pickering and Higgins’ patrician mom, whom you might expect to oppose Eliza, turn out to be her staunchest supporters. Sher doesn’t tamper with their traditional essences, bespeaking the good-heartedness of upper-crust Brits, getting zesty and stylish performances from Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins and Kevin Pariseau as the Colonel.

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Yet when it comes to the young gentleman smitten by Eliza, Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Sher calls upon Sam Simahk to augment the chap’s dopiness and devotion. That allows for a broader comical take on Eliza’s gaucheries at the Ascot races in her society debut. And it equips Liza with a lovestruck, puppy dog valet throughout most of Act 2, reaffirming her new sheen. Simahk only slightly trims back the rhapsodic splendor of “On the Street Where You Live” in pulling off this alteration.

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Drunken, vulgar, and rascally, Adam Grupper as the irrepressible Alfred P. Doolittle now seems heaven-sent, purposed to make Higgins seem enlightened and evolved by comparison. Holding his hat respectfully in Higgins’ study as he sells his daughter’s virtue for five pounds sterling, or dancing the night away with barroom sluts the night before his wedding, Grupper is a quintessential scoundrel, lit up with earthy, peasant merriment. His “Get Me to the Church on Time” production number is even more extravagant than the pivotal “Servant’s Chorus,” with climactic funeral imagery in Christopher Gattelli’s choreography on loan from the Scrooge movie musical.

As Higgins proceeded afterwards to toy with thoughts of reconciliation and matrimony, I could see more clearly than ever before that he and Doolittle are kindred spirits. I could also appreciate more keenly the delicious irony that Higgins’ benevolent sponsorship of Doolittle’s welfare, which has a sequel beyond that five-pound note, is what lands Alfred P. in his matrimonial pickle.

But if you don’t like the ambiguous ending of My Fair Lady, you can take comfort in the fact that George Bernard Shaw didn’t write it. Unlike the 1938 screen version, the true source of Lerner’s adaptation, the GBS play ends with Higgins exclaiming, “Marry Freddy, ha!” A 14-page postscript incorporates Shaw’s prognostications about his vibrant protagonists’ futures.

Jilted Women at a Wine Bar Thirsting for Blood

Review: The Norwegians

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Bundle up! If you head north on I-77 to the Warehouse PAC later this week, playwright C. Denby Swanson will carry you off to the wilds of Minnesota, where she learned the frigid core lesson that inspired her dark arctic comedy, The Norwegians: “You gotta find a lover before the first freeze, or else it’s too late.” Two unescorted women, already bundled up in igloo mode, meet in a ladies’ room at a wine bar, get sloshed together, and bitterly commiserate over recently lost boyfriends.

But Betty, a devious plotter from Kentucky, and Olive, more recently arrived from Texas, aren’t passively drowning their sorrows.

No, no, no. Our first glimpse Olive is a far weirder scene. She’s hiring two hitmen, Tor and Gus, to knock off her asshole boyfriend. It just doesn’t look that way. Tor and Gus are questioning Olive as if she were the one who was trying to get hired for a job – making her sweat sometimes like cops grilling a criminal suspect.

Less askew, but with a definitely mean edge, are the barbs that the women aim at Minnesota and Texas. The Norwegians, Tor and Gus, pretty much demolish their own nationality by describing themselves and their Lutheran ways. These aren’t Lake Wobegon bachelor Norwegians, we should remember, that Garrison Keillor described so whimsically on the Prairie Home Companion comedy franchise. These are killers – and businessmen in competition with other area hitmen, most notably the Swedish outfit.

IMG_1170 (1)They are also pathologically serious, intense, and straightforward. Late in the action, Betty will take great satisfaction in bursting Tor’s “irony cherry.” Nor is there homespun solidarity between the carnivores that Betty has recommended to Olive. Every now and then, Tor will throw the fact that Gus is only half-Norwegian in his face.

Confronted by the strangely hostile and aggressive personalities of the Norwegians, Olive begins to have second thoughts and Tor begins to question Gus’s marketing expertise. We still haven’t heard anything concrete about her ex’s atrocities, or a solid reason for this radical payback, when Olive also has qualms about Gus’s weapon of choice, a baseball bat.

More complications, plot twists, and ironies ensue – and more second thoughts. After berating Gus for mixing business with pleasure, Tor realizes that he has feelings for Olive, who is resolving not to have the warmth of a lover during the oncoming winter. Or beyond. And Betty? She’s seriously considering contacting the Swedes and canceling the hit she ordered.

Well, everybody is serious here. Swanson has a knack for spicing up her dramatic tensions with wicked barbs and comedy. Meanwhile the oddity of her situations is enhanced by her odd structuring, which keeps us glued to Olive as she shuttles back and forth – in time as well as place – from the fateful wine bar meetup to the assassins’ lair.

Directing this exotic Slurpee of intrigue, Jessica Zingher doesn’t go overboard in finessing these transitions as Becca Worthington traverses the Warehouse. Together, Zingher and Worthington make a convincing case that a low-budget production at a storefront theater is an ideal way to present the shivery eccentricity of The Norwegians. The down-market wine bar is virtually built in!

Swanson’s quirky storytelling allows Worthington to shed her victim and protagonist roles, becoming a bystander like us. Her reactions are often more fun than her spoken responses. What she sees, when Tor and Gus regularly forget about her and engage with each other, is that they are not running a good-cop, bad-cop con. There’s real friction there, personality differences that go bone-deep. Bryce Mac as Gus is seething, suspicious, and volatile. Bill Reilly as Tor is comparatively stolid, stoical, trusting, and calm. He might erupt, and there are moments when we sense that there are limits to Tor’s patience for both Olive and Gus to be wary of.

Yet both of the Norwegians are rather tight-lipped and purposeful, which keeps their interrogation and negotiation scenes with Olive taut and quick-paced. Will Olive freak out or will Gus? Worthington and Mac keep us guessing.

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Over bottles of wine at a cocktail table, Olive’s conversations with Betty are noticeably less hostile, more leisurely paced, even if they’re mulling over similar homicidal subjects. Although Olive is clearly – visibly – the glue that binds the plot together, not to mention the two halves of the Warehouse stage, it’s Kerstin VanHuss as Betty who is the most loquacious of Swanson’s characters. VanHuss feasts on Swanson’s lengthiest and most outré monologues, giving Olive the lowdown on Minnesota life and persuading her that murder is the way to go.

Watching VanHuss cajoling her newfound chum and shakily delivering her pontifications, you begin to get the skewed idea that the Norwegians are more scrupulous than Betty. Another calibration might also happen as Worthington shuttles across the stage after each of her wine bar flashbacks: you may be thinking that the grilling Gus and Tor are giving her is helping Olive snap out of a hangover and back to sobriety.

The plot thickens after Betty makes her entrance for her first scene with the guys – and the action comically intensifies. Here we ultimately find the most intricate ensemble coordination, with Zingher’s most precisely timed direction, as Betty performs an epic ransacking of her supersized handbag that seems to extend at least five minutes and spill across a quarter of the stage. Others onstage while VanHuss performs this frantic, sloppy meltdown, searching for the Swedes’ business card, are largely unconcerned with Betty’s distress, digesting other news.

But as Betty’s junk pours out, and VanHuss feverishly rummages everywhere – inside the bag and out, on the table or under it – or on the floor – her epic search syncs with maximum comical impact on the dramatic conversation proceeding on a totally different topic. Amid an avalanche of trivial debris, pauses occur and certain items emerge on cue. Maybe we can compare this unique climax to a jazz improvisation, seemingly chaotic but precisely timed.

It’s funny and memorable, that’s for sure. If not altogether happily, everything falls satisfyingly into place as Swanson’s zany, treacherous comedy concludes.

Farewell, America

Review: Come from Away

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Traveling to Europe by air, you may recall the animated maps that flash onto the seatback screens facing you, orienting passengers during the flight as your pilot follows the great circle route over the Atlantic. At the very eastern edge of North America, you’re likely to notice the name of Gander, a Newfoundland outpost oddly mixed among the names of larger, more familiar cities.

So when all of North America’s airspace was shut down during the emergency of September 11, 2001, and 38 commercial and 4 military flights were diverted to the Gander International Airport, it was the next-worst thing to forcing more than 6,600 civilians and soldiers to wait it out on the ocean. Passengers almost had to bid America farewell. It was no picnic for the citizens of nearby Gander, either, who suddenly discovered that their airport had been transformed into a major immigration hub – while the population of their sleepy town mushroomed by over 66%.

Yet somehow, the hubbub sorted itself out beyond all expectations. At the time when news hit of the warm-hearted welcome strangers were experiencing in the wilds of Newfoundland, it was the feel-good story to break through a tsunami of anger, grieving, finger-pointing, and Islamophobia. A little island of hospitality in an ocean of hostility.

Sixteen years later, when Canadian husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein retold the story in a Broadway musical, Come from Away, the time was ripe for the Gander love-in to strike a nerve once again. When the show opened for previews in mid-February 2017, less than a month after Inauguration Day, an infamous Muslim ban had recently gone into effect, a thousand-mile Southern border wall was still a political imperative – most intensely among small town rustics, it seemed – and a wave of anti-immigration sentiment was sweeping Europe.

In that climate, Come from Away must have seemed like a rallying cry, hearkening back to a time when Christian values hadn’t devolved into round-the-clock xenophobia. This week, as the touring version of the Broadway hit rolls through Belk Theater, there hasn’t been a politically-charged photo op from an internment camp in recent memory. Iran, Ukraine, Russia, or our pathetic Panthers are more likely to inflame our passions than any imminent threat from Guatemala.

We’ve turned the page, right? I wondered if the warmth of the quirky Canadians and their spontaneous connection with a global hoard of uninvited guests would still resonate, especially when the storytelling turned out to be so objective, bland, and non-confrontational.

As studiously as Sankoff and Hein avoid controversy, analysis, or agonized post-mortems, they do go into admirable detail about the logistical challenges of accommodating thousands of detainees in the middle of nowhere. Pandemonium may have broken loose near Ground Zero, but airspace across the continent was in virtual lockdown, security precautions around aircraft especially tight. Our first peeps inside a passenger cabin, as planes languish on the ground until proper processing can be set up, show us people going stir crazy during the 28 hours they must wait before deplaning – separated from their checked luggage in an information blackout.

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Raiding their supply cabinets and freely handing out booze is one remedy a crew might try to ease the tedium, even if it doesn’t altogether restore quiet and calm – or appease the claustrophobic crone in the back row. Twelve actors draw the task of simulating all the global passengers and all the Newfoundlanders involved in this massive coping drill, so there’s an electric bustle as the actors switch from their traveler roles to townspeople.

While the passengers hovering over airstrips are disoriented, experiencing the surreal, on the ground in Gander, the impact is very much like a benign invasion has suddenly hit. An ordinary day that begins with the mayor ordering up his customary cuppa joe at Tim Horton’s is no longer pre-programmed. Instead of meeting with the leader of the school bus drivers to negotiate an end to their strike, he’ll be soliciting cooperation from this foe in transporting over 6,000 aliens from the airport to town.

Elsewhere, a school teacher will need to take charge of opening an emergency shelter and breaking the news of the attack to the passengers. Feeding, washing, and bedding all these travel-weary people must also be managed. The newcomers speak a host of languages and have a host of unforeseen needs – including kosher meals – and helping so many to simply check in with friends and relatives, by phone or by email, is a formidable challenge. It is almost comical when a local SPCA worker pops up, concerned about the plight of the cats, dogs, and monkeys stowed in the belly of the planes with the cargo.

In short, there’s a multitude of practicalities in the hurly-burly of this 100-minute musical that largely distract us from the two main things: the massive kindness that the Newfies showered on the newbies, and the massive changes to our world that came with the events in Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and aboard Flight 93. A few of the passengers remind us of the big picture. Beverley, a pilot, and Hannah, a mom, worry that loved ones may have perished, and there are multiple hints that the seeds of Islamophobia have already started germinating.

Otherwise, life goes on. Kevin T and Kevin J, a gay couple with personality differences, may or may not break up. A Texas woman and a British guy may get together, overcoming wariness, shyness, and the brevity of their acquaintance.

We aren’t deluged with one-on-one kindness from the friendly natives, but there are choice examples. The teacher, Julie Johnson as Beulah, bonds with Danielle K. Thomas as Hannah because her son is also a firefighter. Two Kevins walk into a Gander bar and find that their fears of Laramie homophobia are groundless – they’re accepted warmly and instantly. A nearby mayor invites the wary Bob to his home, opens up his liquor cabinet to the stranger, and helps him overcome his fear that he’ll wake up tomorrow without his wallet. Or how about the local store clerk? After thanking a first-time customer for shopping at Walmart, she invites her home to take a shower.

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Beginning with “Welcome to the Rock,” most of the songs in the score are sung by the entire ensemble, choreographed with the right kind of vivacity by Kelly Devine, so we often get a sense that we are watching an energetic community response after all. With a script that doesn’t have the Twin Towers, al-Qaeda, radical Islam, Osama, or even terrorism prominently in its vocabulary, that communal energy seemed to be the most potent reason why Come from Away connected so viscerally with the near-capacity crowd at Belk Theater on opening night.

While there are plenty of feel-good experiences to be found on our current media landscape, including synthetic fantasies of communities bonding together and accepting one another, Come from Away comes to us at a time when we seem hopelessly fractious and divided, digging in against each other instead of helping each other out. And the comity of Come from Away strikes us as very real, very possible – and as a rebuke that isn’t saddled with a party label.

After the opening ensemble, there isn’t much in the Sankoff and Hein score to keep us airborne until we reach “Me and the Sky,” a showcase for Beverley, who turns out to be first female airline pilot at American Airlines. Marika Aubrey ably takes the controls here, counterbalancing the levity of the barroom scene that precedes. In that episode, we get the most genuinely communal spectacle of the evening, presided over by Kevin Carolan as the mayor.

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While visitors get the opportunity to be initiated as honorary Newfies, Andrew Samonsky as Kevin T and Nick Duckart as Kevin J get to define their differences, while Chamblee Ferguson as the Brit and Christine Toy Johnson as the Texan get to share their first sloppy kiss. A local liquor, “Screech,” lubricates the zany ritual, along with a freshly-caught codfish.

Others in the cast who make an impression come across as the youngest – and maybe as surrogates or prompters for us as we watch. James Earl Jones II as the skeptical Bob registers his wonder at Northern hospitality most tellingly and holds our attention after he and his fellow passengers have returned home. When she isn’t clerking at Walmart, Julia Knitel is most notably a cub reporter on the local TV station, faced with the ginormous cataclysm of 9/11 on her first day in the field. Lanky, gawky, and adorable.

Sharone Sayegh may just be even more adorable as the SPCA zealot so mindful of the animals when all of humanity’s minds are elsewhere. No doubt about it, Come from Away comes to us with plenty of heart. Question is, will we come to Belk Theater to escape what we have become 18+ years later, or will we come to experience a reckoning? No matter which, audience reception on opening night seemed to hint that they had felt an unexpectedly positive vibe – an affirmation that, in the face of so much division and adversity assailing us, we can be better.

Still Tripping After All These Years

Review: Calouche & Co.’s Clara’s Trip

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Although Caroline Calouche’s Clara’s Trip has become a Yuletide fixture at Booth Playhouse since 2012, often playing while Charlotte Ballet’s more traditional Nutcracker runs down below at Belk Theater, the cirque and aerial variant on Tchaikovsky’s actually began a year earlier at Halton Theater. Conceived as an anti-Nutcracker or an antidote for Nut haters, the Calouche & Co. has always figured to be a better fit at the contemporary Booth than at the neo-classical Halton.

Yet a curious thing has happened between Clara’s first trip at the Booth and now her eighth. While Calouche’s brainchild has become more balanced, more polished, and less Bohemian, Booth Playhouse has become seedier and more déclassé. With all its former floor-level seating stripped away, replaced by drab moveable chairs on pitilessly exposed flooring, the Booth doesn’t boast enough style to be called Bohemian. These days, it’s the colorful Calouche costumes, scenery, and aerial apparatuses onstage that push back against a powerful suspicion that you’re in a musty old union hall.

Did I miss all the wrongheaded demolition when I last entered the Booth to hear Matthew Bourne give a pre-Cinderella interview last January – or has all this foolhardiness transpired since then? Do not know what they are thinking, and I could not google any info about current plans for the Booth.

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Turn up some stage lights on the Booth’s crimson curtain and you do get a certain cirque vibe as Calouche makes her introductory remarks and plucks a couple of volunteer performers from the audience. That audience participation may be a new wrinkle, and I noticed upgrades in Jennifer O’Kelly’s sets and projections, photos by Peter Zay, and costumes by Betsey Blackmore, Kriss Yavalek, and Calouche.

Calouche’s storyline remains pretty much as I remembered, with an accident-prone mid-20s Clara breaking her ankle at a holiday party. Rushed to an emergency room in the middle of Christmas Eve, Clara nods off into a snowy dreamworld very much like Charlotte Ballet’s pre-teen Clara does downstairs at the Belk. Only at the more adult Booth, we can ascribe Clara’s fantasy to inducements such as drugs, booze and anesthesia.

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With all the assurance she could possibly need, Carol Quirós Otárola is in her first year as Clara, probably no longer in her mid-20s and definitely not accustomed to seeming awkward or accident-prone on stage. Early on, Otárola is gracefully paired with Joseph Nguyen as Beau, Clara’s white-clad cavalier. The party scene, now more upscale than I remember it, is livened by an acrobatic Mr.-and-Mrs.-Canes duet featuring Kaila Dockal and the ever-reliable Javier Gonzalez, now in his fifth season with the company.

Once Clara is booted in her post-op cast, we get a nice outbreak of imagery. Party guests become a somewhat bizarre nightmare throng, with a couple of the mob on stilts until we’re whisked into the eye-popping snow episodes. Otárola can now be all grace paired Nguyen before the curtain comes down on all the leading dancers enjoying a snow shower.

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Act 2 is more recognizably cirque with rings, silks, and trapeze. At the same time, it is more recognizably Nutcracker with Candy Canes, Gingerbreads, Flowers, and – slithering to Tchaikovsky’s Arabian dance – Fish. Accenting the talents of Susannah Burke and Sarah Small on the rings as those slithery Fish, the mesmerizing Calouche choreography is obviously “in collaboration with the Dancers” as the program booklet states. The rapport between Conner Hall and Alan Malpass on trapeze as Mr. and Mrs. Flowers has an unmistakable circus glitter, yet we might also detect Calouche’s influence in how superbly their moves align with the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Same story when Otárola and Nguyen ascend, descend, or circle around each other on the suspended silks, so snowy and ethereal.

It’s at moments like this, however, when I still wish Clara’s Trip were more anti-Nutcracker than it is. When we’re hearing canned music in a trashed venue, the high-grade heroics of Calouche’s cirque artists don’t fully dispel the feeling that we’re watching a down-market version of the Charlotte Ballet extravaganza going on below with its million-dollar designs and its live Charlotte Symphony musicians. That’s where the prime Gingerbread and Candy Cane still reside.

So I suggest it again: shake up the customary Tchaikovsky soundtrack, even if it’s just with the Duke Ellington big-band arrangements of the score or the much-lauded piano adaptation by Stewart Goodyear released four years ago. As for all the Nutcracker score that precedes the breakout of its greatest hits, I’d suggest tossing away most of the party music altogether. Either break away from the ballet score with music you might actually hear at a contemporary Christmas party or slyly transfer some of the hits that have been axed from Act 2.

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Calouche & Co. succeed with their audience involvement and in those ensemble moments where the party and Clara’s nightmare become truly wild. The aerial and cirque flights that take Nutcracker to new frontiers will also remain welcome. Certainly the wonders of Cirque du Soleil should play a leading role in Clara’s Trip, and when Zoe Flowers, Angela Kollmer,and Charley Weaver make their splash as Monkeys on their triple-wide trapeze, we’re reminded that there’s a place for Disney preciousness on this snowy frontier.

As for the shambles that is now Booth Playhouse, stoned Baby Boomers might call that a trip. What a “trip” became back in the ‘60s could still add a worthwhile dimension to Clara’s adventures, loosening up Calouche’s characters here and there while making them more at home.

Happily, Calouche doesn’t simply vanish into the wings after her introductory emceeing. After primping for the party, she’ll pop up again at various points in the show, most prominently at the end of Act 1 in the snow sequence and in Act 2 in the role of Ballerina Ornament. She still blends in quite well with the newer talent, still can light up a stage, and she still inspires students and the statewide dance community. Quite a powerhouse, all in all.

Trailer Trash Goes to College

Review: The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

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To say that Betsy Kelso and David Nehls’ Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical is a sequel – or a prequel – would be an outrageously pretentious way of looking at this crass Yuletide concoction. Pure dirty fun, they would likely proclaim, citing as proof their most memorable song, “Fuck It, It’s Christmas.” Whether they’re targeting their own musicals or their trashy Armadillo Acres avatar for American trailer parks, the Kelso-Nehl is clearly tossing the “Great” label around with Madison Avenue nonchalance. Face it, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, its Christmas mutant, and Armadillo Acres are not so great.

Yet they have definitely struck a chord with the mischief makers at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and their loyal audience. We first toured Armadillo Acres in 2007, seven years before Kelso and Nehls uploaded Christmas onto their fictional Northern Florida property. That first production, so much in tune with ATC’s freewheeling Off-Broadway irreverence, was popular enough for a 2010 revival – and to order up the fresh inventory one Yule after the Christmas edition was first unveiled in late 2013. I suspect that ATC’s loss of their stranglehold on local productions of The Santaland Diaries also factored in.

The move has proven to be shrewd in terms of box office and retaining exclusivity. Though the road for the company has been bumpy after they departed from their Stonewall Street location, with a regrettable stop at the McBride-Bonnefoux Dance Center in 2016 – and a two-year hiatus since that Uptown gaffe – Trailer Park Christmas has remained ATC’s baby.GATPCM 9

After remaking their production to fit their current HQ at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus, the company seems poised to keep it that way.

Evan Kinsley’s scenic design is yet another eye-popping assertion that ATC has only begun exploring the Hadley’s full capabilities, once again capitalizing on the height and flexibility of the hall. God bless LED’s for keeping electrical costs down in Kinsley’s tacky-topia of beer-can wreaths and plastic lawn flamingoes. Kinsley also gets credit for the technical derring-do of the tall Christmas tree that straddles the borderline between the properties of Rufus Jeter and Armadillo’s resident Scrooge, Darlene Seward. Trailer park manager Betty makes repeated assertions that a Yuletide curse hangs over Armadillo Acres, and a late Vesuvius outbreak from the tree spectacularly confirms that dubious intuition.

Now it’s true that Darlene’s salacious boyfriend, restauranteur Jackson Boudreaux, undercuts all pretenses that Betty can be a trailer park manager – or that Rufus and Darlene can claim any property – by declaring that they are all squatters on land that they do not own. Such details, in the Kelso-Niehls worldview, are no doubt only for i-dotting Scrooges or Cratchits.

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By the time Jackson slithers onto the scene, Darlene has become an amnesia victim in the heat of her property dispute with Rufus. Suddenly electroshocked into loving Christmas, Darlene is now open to overtures from both men. Once this soapy love triangle is established, you might conclude that Betty has little to do. Well, she can fret over the possibility that Darlene’s amnesia might wear off – along with her holiday spirit – before Armadillo can win the annual Christmas decorations prize awarded by Mobile Homes & Gardens.

Otherwise, she and Pickles and Linoleum, all holdovers from The Great American Trailer Park Musical, are relegated to slinging flapjacks at Jackson’s lewd pancake house, singing backup vocals, and making flamboyant cameos in Darlene’s dream fantasia, an unmistakable takeoff on Scrooge and his Christmas ghosts. Carrie Cranford’s props and costumes help to sugar this Christmas Carol lagniappe – and don’t presume that the guys are left out of the fun. Or the live band.

Director/sound designer Chip Decker lavishes all the déclassé vulgarity you would expect from such a seedy romp, with a few extra crotch grabs and phallic sight gags tossed in for good measure. If the sound were only sharper, all the raunchy shtick might make up for the fact that this new Hadley Theater extravaganza lacks the seedy look and vibe of the Stonewall Street version.

Pirating cable TV, tossing tinsel on a tree, longing for the miraculously changed Darlene, and sulking off to his crappy trailer, Rufus seems to fit Nick Culp like a glove – or an old beat-up pair of sweatpants. If your last glimpse of Ashton Guthrie was as a romantic lead in Show Boat or A Gentleman’s Guide, his sleaziness here as Jackson might be revelatory. I must confess that I barely recognized him in his lounge-lizard wig, but when he had the chance to vocalize on “Baby, I’ll Be Your Santa Claus,” Guthrie delivered the goods to his “breastaurant” waitresses with #MeToo gusto.

I’m more ambivalent than I expected to be about Katy Shepherd, so strong and hard-rockin’ in the title role of Lizzie last year and so strong and hard-rockin’ now as Darlene. Shepherd just may be overthinking Darlene, for she could be artificially sweeter as the amnesiac Darlene and more comical as the park Scrooge. Yes, there’s an empathetic backstory behind Darlene’s surly Scroogyness, but do we really want realism here?

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After Renee Welsh-Noel’s semi-divine outing as Peter Pan just two months ago at Children’s Theatre, it was distressing to see her so underutilized, badly miked, and seemingly dispirited as Linoleum here. Lizzie Medlin was more in touch with the true trashiness of Pickles, but not better served by her electronics. Most at home at Armadillo Acres was Karen Christensen, transferring to Betty after a stint as Lin in previous years. Although both Welsh-Noel and Medlin have striking and skilled entrances in the Dickensian dream sequence, Christensen gets the best of them all.

 

BNS “Lion” Keeps Roaring and Romancing

Review: Be A Lion

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Without much fanfare or marketing knowhow, Rory Sheriff and his Be A Lion arrived on the local scene in 2014. The musical sequel to The Wiz has been produced here five more times since then, has drawn 12 nominations for excellence from the Metrolina Theatre Association at their recently revived annual awards, and was successfully produced at the 2019 Atlanta Black Theatre Festival, where Sheriff was honored with the Best Director prize. So the time was ripe for me to catch up with this triumphant production. Something must have clicked for Brand New Sheriff Productions for Be a Lion to have been reprised so frequently and lauded so widely.

Sure enough, I found plenty to enthusiastically recommend at Spirit Square last Friday Night. Music and lyrics by Sheriff and five others are clearly ready for prime time, costume design by Dee Abdullah and Shacana Kimble is an absolute joy, and choreography by Toi Phoenix Reynolds consistently hits the sweet spot. Perhaps most exceptional among the show’s technical and design attractions is Gbale Allen’s makeup creations, a category that isn’t adjudicated in Metrolina or Atlanta – or even on Broadway. Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Damneesha – the hellspawn of wicked witch Evilline – are merely highlights in the gallery of Allen’s splendid handiwork.

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Yet overall, I was underwhelmed. Aspects of Lion were surprisingly rudimentary for a company staple that has been so extensively developed and presumably rethought, particularly Jennifer O’Kelly’s scenic design and Sheriff’s book.

Without the blandishments of fade-dissolves, the scenery is a series of projections on a massive sheet that doesn’t stay still. Nor am I awed by the graphics, which never come close to matching Sheriff’s Broadway aspirations. When you can count the bricks on the famed Yellow Brick Road – and it twists more than a couple of times before terminating at approximately shoulder level – you aren’t seeing much of a road.

More disheartening are the lingering weaknesses in Sheriff’s script, which testify to a lack of tough, honest criticism more than to a lack of talent. Action throughout Act 1 simply drags, relieved only by the splashy costumes and the bravura singing. Really, it’s like nobody has suggested a rewrite in five years across the six-plus BNS productions here and elsewhere. As Lion rounds up the old gang with drop-ins on Tin Man and Scarecrow, encouraged by Miss One (formerly Glinda) to travel to Emerald City and claim his rightful kingdom, Sheriff fails to establish any dramatic urgency for his mission.efd8703eb37b1c8e19b483746e1d6515.jpeg[8]

The hybrid offspring of Evilline and a Flying Monkey, Damneesha knocks off her daddy and summons an army of Flying Crabs to muster behind her evil intent. The upshot of this fiendish mobilization? Who knows. We dally instead at a carnival where Tin Man presides, henpecked by wife Teenie, and at a school established by Scarecrow, where she teaches. These are the respective humdrum outcomes of being granted a heart and a brain. Not exactly dramatic substitutes for cutaways to Emerald City, where citizens could be cowering under Damneesha’s tyrannical rule and Gotham City-like chaos could break out as the oppressed masses cry out for a hero.

Not only isn’t there urgency to Lion’s quest, there’s too little drama for Sheriff to build to a big finish and emphatically announce the break. Instead, a prerecorded PA announcement tells us it’s intermission. Axiomatically, that means trouble.1c0906c97b0deab102cd3ec5f253f8c4.jpeg[8]

Somehow, Sheriff mostly finds himself in Act 2 – and we find that the writer-director-producer can also sprinkle plenty of comedy and wit in his script while revving up the drama. Damneesha and her Flying Crabs finally do get aggressive, good ole Dorothy is transported – from Harlem in a cute yellow taxi – to Oz and becomes one of the witch’s kidnap victims, and Lion comes up with a clever stratagem to save the day. Oh yeah, there’s definite evidence that Act 2 has been manicured. The Emerald City masses remain out of the picture, and Dorothy doesn’t have much to contribute, but there’s hope here that Be a Lion could evolve into a truly marketable property.

Although I can trace complete turnover in the cast since the last time Queen City Nerve editor Ryan Pitkin covered BNS in a previous life, the talent onstage now at Duke Energy Theater is exemplary, beginning with Melody Williams as the ultra-wicked Damneesha and Frank “Facheaux” Crawford as Cheetah, her hapless dad. Nikki Dunn could pass for a female impersonator as Miss One, she’s so over-the-top and outrageously dressed; and Danius Jones as Miles, Lion’s obsequious mouse servant, has a bit of weasel mixed into has DNA – and a newfound worship of Michele Obama.DSC05462[4]

At the center of Sheriff’s story, for better or worse, are Tim Bradley as Lion and K. Alana Jones as Ladawn, with the producer (and choreographer) dipping perilously deep into The Lion King in crafting their romance. Lion and Ladawn are a mushy, overlong detour from the cataclysm shaking the Oz kingdom, but the chemistry between Bradley and Jones, fueled by how well she sings and how lithely she moves, keeps them watchable. Bradley never reverts to the big cowardly clown we remember before his audience with The Wizard, but every so often, slight lapses in courage and fortitude add to his texture.

Yet I’m so glad when Lion and Ladawn quarrel and break up, allowing the Oz story to breathe.3c5332bf0b172f337626fc5c9d4f4064.jpeg

While they aren’t as cleverly integrated into Sheriff’s denouement as they were in the classic 1939 Wizard film, you will still enjoy Tin Man and Scarecrow heartily. Graham Williams as Tin Man and Jessika Johnson as Scarecrow not only get the benefits of smashing costumes and makeup, they’re both accessorized with new characters they associate with. For Williams, it’s Shar Marlin playing the termagant ball-and-chain wife Teenie to the hilt. Even better, Johnson gets two Crows to teach, Trinity Muse as Leroy Crow and Cecilia Mitchell as Walter Crow, detonating the Act 2 comedy.

Muse and Mitchell moonlight as minions of the evil Damneesha, Flying Crab #1 and Flying Crab #2. Together, they are her whole army!

 

 

It’s Hard to Shout “Humbug!” at Theatre Charlotte’s Latest Dickens

Review: A Christmas Carol

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In his 15th and final season as executive director at Theatre Charlotte, Ron Law has been doing double Dickens duty in the artistic realm. Back in September, he stage-directed Oliver! to open the 2019-20 season, and now he has stepped into the formidable role of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. There’s a satisfying finality to seeing Law onstage, reminding us of the varied roles he and his family have played in reshaping Charlotte’s community theatre, which includes establishing the Dickens classic as a Yuletide fixture on Queens Road. For subscribers whose memories extend back to 2007, when Law introduced the first annual Christmas Carol, there was also an element of nostalgia: Oliver! was the season opener that year as well.

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Law brings different strengths to the role of Scrooge than his predecessors, Kevin Campbell and Christian Casper. He was frequently the loudest of the three as the unredeemed Scrooge when I saw him on Saturday night, so his explosions of meanness could be startling, though he was not as mean-to-the-bone as Campbell was in the latter years of his tenure – nor as greedily calculating as Casper. The joy and giddiness that Scrooge radiates are really the highest hurdles for an actor, and Campbell was one of the few anywhere who have ever fully convinced me of the miser’s miraculous transformation, one of the few to really create a convincing character arc.

Of course, the capability of an actor to deliver the full range of Scrooge partly hinges upon the adaptation chosen by the company or the director – and the amount of butchery inflicted by the director upon the script. Over 100 adaptations have been created for stage, TV, and film over the years, and Theatre Charlotte has done at least three of them. The current one, directed by Aaron Mize, was adapted by Arthur Julius Leonard. Unlike some others that I’ve seen, it shows us Scrooge and future partner Jacob Marley conspiring to take over the business run by Fezziwig, Scrooge’s great benefactor. And courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Present, we peep in on Ebenezer’s former fiancée Belle, happily married with two kids, bemoaning all that has befallen Marley and Scrooge. But the Ghost of Christmas Past only revealed Ebenezer’s first encounter with Belle at a holiday soiree hosted by Fezziwig, skipping over Young Scrooge’s marriage proposal. Thus the first conversation between Leonard’s version of Belle and her fiancé occurred when she dropped by Ebenezer’s office and returned her engagement ring. Any sense of Ebenezer having been on the path toward happiness until he took a wrong turn has basically been destroyed for anybody new to the story.

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Mize and lighting designer Chris Timmons continue to make the visit from Marley’s ghost a highlight of the show, aided by Sabrina Blanks’s costuming and accessorizing. Rick Taylor startled me more than once as Marley when sound board operator implemented Vito Abate’s original sound design and smoke seeped through Scrooge’s threshold. Taylor was sufficiently fierce, aggressive and urgent to make Law quail credibly in terror, and he was able to texturize Old Joe later on in one of the Christmas Future scenes. Costuming and atmosphere contributed decisively to making an impression this year on Queens Road. Maxwell Greger was surprisingly generic as Scrooge’s oppressed and underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit, and Keyes Miller was only marginally more satisfying as Fred, Ebenezer’s shunned nephew. Yet the garish largesse of Chip Bradley’s getup as the Ghost of Christmas Present – especially when a grubby Ignorance and Want crawled out of it – keyed his hearty success.

Only a handful of others in the 29-member cast had sufficient opportunities to leave an imprint during this production, which ran 110 minutes with an intermission. These included promising turns by Anna McCarty as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Olivia Lott as Belle, despite McCarty’s underpowered voice and Lott’s outrageous white wig, which did nothing for her romantic appeal. Mize utilized his large corps effectively toward the end of the evening when he had the bulk of them parading down the center aisle toward the stage – singing a Christmas carol, of course. But at other times, Mize seemed tone-deaf to the heart of Dickens’ appeal and how much kids should contribute to his Yule-flavored sentimentality. When the miraculously transformed Scrooge shouted down to the street to get a child’s attention, Mize had his Turkey Boy (Vann-Dutch Marek) standing up onstage near him instead of down below among the audience. Awkward. Worse was the deployment of Pearce Stinson as Tiny Tim. Perhaps misguided political correctness prevented Mize and Pearce from making much of Tim’s limp, but Mize never really allowed Pearce to shine, glow, or stand apart – even when he delivered his most famous line.

All these criticisms will likely sound as if I were shouting “humbug!” to this entire enterprise, for there was no grumbling heard as the audience filed out onto Queens Road on Saturday night, greeted warmly by cast members in the lobby. Nor were there many empty seats at Theatre Charlotte, where robust Christmas Carol sales can be expected to continue.

A Masterfully Engineered Comedy Machine

Review: The Play That Goes Wrong

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Bloopers! TV audiences, theatre audiences, and film buffs love them, for bloopers have been successfully audience-tested in TV series like America’s Home Videos, comedies like Noises Off, and countless gleanings of movie out-takes – some of them nowadays appended to the director’s cut after the credits roll. So SPOILER ALERT: you will see many bloopers at Knight Theater – really a whole evening of bloopers – when you go to see The Play That Goes Wrong.

The barrage of bloopers by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields – who have also colluded on Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Nativity Goes Wrong – often had me in stitches and left me slightly weak with laughter when I exited on opening night. It was almost merciful that I found some of the shtick repetitious or predictable, allowing me to catch my breath. Others leaving the theater were giddier than I about the madcap performances, pratfalls, and hambone hijinks.

But I also noted traces of stone-faced disgruntlement from folks here and there in the crowd, redoubled perhaps by not being able to share in the euphoria surrounding them. Bloopers just may not be so damn funny to everyone, I immediately concluded. Upon further reflection, I hedged my diagnosis: maybe bloopers are so ubiquitous that people need a respite from all those we succumb to daily as click bait on Facebook and Twitter besides all those readily available on TV and in movie houses.

Blooper burnout isn’t pervasive, that’s for sure. Hell, it’s obvious that the Lewis-Sayer-Shields team has made a franchise out of them!

So let me pause to observe how artfully crafted – and expertly engineered – the bloopers we enjoy in The Play That Goes Wrong really are. Which may be a gentle way to remind folks, giddy and disgruntled alike, that they are not really bloopers at all.

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As the other plays created on this same template imply, namely Pan and The Nativity, the Broadway hit making its touring stop at the Knight also has a storyline, a play called “The Murder at Haversham Manor” – in a “Cornley University Drama Society” production. Even before this epic fiasco began, warning signals were firing off onstage and in the hall. One stagehand scurried somewhat frantically up and down the aisles, another – helped by an actor and a recruited audience member – unsuccessfully attempted a last-minute fix of the scenery, and a third issued a warning for audience members to watch out for a chandelier, affixed somewhere with duct tape, that might fall.

Inauspicious, to say the least.

Formality briefly takes over and the curtain goes down as the University emcee makes his sometimes informative, sometimes apologetic opening remarks. Regrets are proffered for budget constraints that resulted in such economies as Two Sisters and Cat. Then the curtain goes up, ending the brief spell of semi-competence. Our murder victim, Charles Haversham, hasn’t quite finished draping himself over the settee.

A parade of characters – suspects all – enters the scene, including Haversham’s fiancée, Haversham’s brother, Haversham’s butler, the fiancée’s brother, and Inspector Carter. Consulting your faux “Haversham Manor” program, a feature I fondly remember from Noises Off, you can see that the cool and composed Chris Bean is portraying the Inspector and directing the show. Not coincidentally, Bean has previously starred at Cornley as Hamlet in Hamlet, Macbeth in Macbeth, and Othello in Othello.

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Sadly, the polished actor has rashly ventured beyond his skills behind the scenes, most disastrously in designing the scenery and making the props. A steady blizzard of technical screwups whips through and inundates the production from the moment an actor makes his first entrance. The front door, which a stagehand and actor struggled to close throughout the pre-show, now will not open. The mantel that couldn’t be affixed over the fireplace needs to be used. The stretcher to gracefully remove the corpse shreds in two.

Sometimes the clumsiness of the actors compounds the flimsiness and unreliability of the set. When a door suddenly does swing open, one of the co-stars is knocked unconscious. The beam holding up the second-story study keeps colliding with another clumsy actor, and the Bean-constructed elevator to the study proves ill-designed for repeated use – and much, much more.

By the time we reach intermission at Cornley, an insurance adjuster would not be amiss. And by the time “Habersham Manor” concludes, a delegation from FEMA ought to be dispatched.

Obviously, the real scenic designer who engineered everything that so reliably “goes wrong” in Goes Wrong – an apocalyptic demolition that must be swept up, propped up, and rebuilt for every new performance – has created an awesome and supremely frivolous masterwork. Of course, Nigel Hook took home the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for scenic design in 2017. Slam-dunk decisions as far as I’m concerned.

As casualties and destruction mount, expect those black-clad stagehands to jump into the breach, further escalating the mayhem – and the acting incompetence. Remedies can often be as zany as the catastrophes that prompt them. What can go wrong usually does.

Comparisons are inevitably made between Goes Wrong and Noises Off, a Michael Frayn concoction that must be custom-built on a revolving stage. That mammoth turntable must show us backstage mishaps, misunderstandings, and antagonisms that unfold in a touring production of a bad farce. Sandwiched around the incompetence and venom that flow freely in the middle act backstage are frontal views of the two-story set where the farce unfolds. Act 1 of Noises Off shows us a belated and ominous dress rehearsal, and in Act 3, we watch the string of disasters that result at a performance months later when the troupe’s flaws and hostilities have fully fermented.

A simpler parallel can be drawn between the Goes Wrong franchise and the chain of “abridged” comedies begun with The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare (abridged). The writers who formed Mischief Theatre, the company that produces Goes Wrong, wrote the travesty for themselves to star in – just like founding trio of the Reduced Shakespeare Company who wrote their medleys of shticks for themselves to ham up.

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Lewis, Sayer, and Shields made it far harder on themselves when they wowed London and then starred in their own show on Broadway, as you’ll readily see when you watch their touring replacements. Skirting – or succumbing to – the disasters that befall The Play That Goes Wrong requires quick reflexes and considerable physical prowess, especially when segments of Habersham Manor begin to resemble the sinking Titanic.

Standouts include Adam Petherbridge as Cecil Haversham, the victim’s brother and the fiancée’s secret lover, perpetually genial, clumsy, theatrically amateurish, and incurably hambone. Nor could I help but admire the ruffled suavity of Chris Lanceley as the beleaguered Bean, the relatively calm eye of the storm as the Inspector, trying simultaneously to get his investigation and his production on track.

The women draw some of the most challenging physical demands. Jacqueline Jarrold as Florence Colleymore, Habersham’s two-timing fiancée, must literally fight for her role when Bianca Horn, as stage-struck stage manager Annie, steals her costume and takes over. We get some wild World Wide Wrestling action when these two tigresses tangle, not a mere catfight.

Others you’re likely to savor are Jason Bowen as the lackadaisical lighting and sound operator, Trevor, who seems to care more about his boxed set of Duran Duran than Habersham Manor, and Todd Buonopane as the sorry thespian who portrays Perkins, the dignified butler. On multiple occasions, Perkins’ mispronunciations stop the show, and in one deadly instance, Buonopane’s memory lapse throws “Habersham Manor” spinning into an endless tape loop. He’s almost as bad as Petherbridge, which is very good.

Enjoy the silly, juvenile comedy – and the marvelously sophisticated stagecraft. A couple of things do magically go right in The Play That Goes Wrong, adding some delightful wrinkles.

Viking Queen “Lear” Remains True to the Bard

Review: Lear by Free Reign Theatre Company

By Perry Tannenbaum

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We’ve had more than a couple of productions of King Lear in the Metrolina area during the new millennium – plus a couple of offshoots like Lear ReLoaded and Lear Unplugged in Boiling Springs and Davidson. So it would be natural for you to suspect that Lear, from the young Free Reign Theatre Company, is some sort of mashup, modernization, or abridgement of William Shakespeare’s towering tragedy.

Not so. The title has been shortened for a different reason: old Lear is now a woman. The production at Spirit Square clocks in at about three hours and 15 minutes, including intermission, fairly consonant with the lengths of King Lear presentations by the Charlotte Shakespeare Festival in 2011 at McGlohon Theatre and the NC Shakespeare Lear of 2008 up in High Point, both starring Graham Smith. Free Reign’s edit actually provides more Lear than the 2006 Classic Theatre of Charlotte production in NoDa, when director Tony Wright performed deft surgery on the script.

You don’t have to twist or contort your expectations to enjoy this Lear. Directed by Heather Bucsh, the Free Reign take on Shakespearean production is conspicuously low-budget, with respect to scenery, compared to the others I’ve mentioned. Yet Bucsh has also designed the Viking costumes – as pointedly as she directs – so we accustom ourselves to watching palace scenes, royal inhospitality, and eye gougings played out with little more than picnic tables.

The play and the players are the thing, beginning with Lisa Essex as Lear. Hitting the right note with this monarch in the Bard’s opening scene is a supreme test, both for a director and an actor tackling the title role for the first time. Questions already lurk in the playscript for them to grapple with. What kind of relationships has Lear established with his daughters? Why is he dividing his kingdom? And perhaps most puzzling of all, after calling upon his daughters to compete for their inherited portions on the basis of how much they love daddy, why does he decide the results of the competition while the daughters are still competing?

Maybe it’s useful, then, that Essex struggles to project the age, the command, and the explosive presence of the eccentric king. It doesn’t help that she is neither big nor tall – nor guarded by the 100, 50, or even 25 riotous knights that Shakespeare tells us are serving His Highness. We can gloss over questions of plausibility quite easily as we try getting used to the concept that this woman is truly master of all the lands she is divvying up.

As Lear diminishes in her worldly power, becomes more isolated and disrespected, finally losing her sanity, Essex steadily grows in dramatic power. By the time Lear is raving mad on the stormy heath, challenging winds and hurricanoes to do their worst, Essex is near her peak. But it’s when the storm is over that we see this Lear’s madness most vividly. Essex and Bucsh don’t pick up on every nuanced life lesson that the humbled queen is learning about “elemental man” from her Fool and Edgar (disguised as a crazed beggar), but I’ve never seen a Lear that’s more out of his mind than Essex looks out of hers.

There is a breathtaking depth to her downfall and disintegration, so when we move from the sin-and-punishment portion of her story to her grace-and-forgiveness reunion with Cordelia, the good daughter he has wronged, it’s as profoundly moving as any Lear I’ve seen.

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Even in the grand opening, Bucsh and her cast impress me when we look away from the throne. For one thing, we don’t have to look far. Goneril and Regan, along with their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, are scrunched together at that picnic table. So we quickly get a sense of their evil conspiratorial kinship – with a hint of the mutual enmity and jealousy that will kill them both. It’s there when they speak and when they listen. Kristin Varnell looks mean and barbaric as Goneril, even as she sits closest to her dad at the table, and Rebecca Gossage is the essence of wantonness as Regan, more slyly concealed near the far end of the group.

There’s a more substantial contrast between Albany and Cornwall, where the good-natured cluelessness of Nathan Hall as Albany is markedly different from Mathew Schantz’s scowling distemper as Cornwall. But what impresses me most about Busch’s work is what she does in the parallel plot, where the Earl of Gloucester is as deceived in his valuation of his sons, Edgar and Edmund, as Lear is with her daughters. Here Free Reign’s gender switch actually improves Shakespeare’s fearful symmetry.

Robert Brafford beautifully handles the slimy cunning of the bastard Edmund, a villain who addresses us directly more than any other Shakespeare schemer this side of Iago. He gets a warrior look to his beard’s coiffure that sets him apart from all but Schantz as Cornwall, relishing the competing attentions of Goneril and Regan as much as cozening his father and brother. Russell Rowe mutes the foolishness of Gloucester, not making a banquet out of the Earl’s reliance on astrological portents. That only slightly abbreviates his learning curve when he’s blinded – while his pitifulness remains intact.

What will stand out most for me when I recall this Lear is the beautifully reimagined performance of Katie Bearden as Edgar – the best Edgar that I have seen. Anywhere. Her role unfolds in three stages: hoodwinked Edgar, the fugitive Tom of Bedlam beggar, and champion warrior Edgar. The first stage is unremarkable enough, with Bearden choosing to be naïve and credulous instead of bookish and trusting, the way we see him most often. Magic begins when Bearden transforms into the Bedlam beggar, a howling combination of ‘60s icons Janis Joplin and Tiny Tim that somehow combines savagery with vulnerability.

I won’t begin to describe the look of Bearden as the disguised Edgar who emerges from hiding to challenge brother Edmund to mortal combat, but I’ll say this: revenge in a Shakespearean production has never tasted sweeter to me. As a result, my focus shifted slightly as the multiple denouements played out in Lear. I found myself as invested in Edgar’s revenge upon his brother as I usually am in the vicious Edmund-Goneril-Regan love triangle – notwithstanding Charles Holmes’s mediocre fight choreography when the brother gladiators clashed.

Sadly, Essex’s real-life daughter, Madeleine Essex, didn’t rise to even that level on opening night. Bucsh had her looking sweet and pure compared to her sibs, and the younger Essex took her portrayal in a fine direction, toward modesty and shyness, with perhaps a pinch of trepidation.

If only Lear’s dying description of Cordelia’s voice as “soft, gentle, and low” hadn’t pushed her to the verge of whispering in the opening scene. And perhaps a livelier, more spontaneous “No cause, no cause” would have made my tears flow more freely in the luminous reunion. Yet there were moments – startling moments – when Essex showed us just how loud and emotional Cordelia can be.

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No such inconsistencies dogged of Courtney Harris’s bluster as Kent, the loyal knight that Lear banishes with Cordelia, though she could register more chastening and enlightenment at the end of her journey. And I’ve been seeing excellent portrayals by women of Lear’s saucy, prickly Fool for so long that Amy Schiede Cheek’s winsome élan in the role comes as no shock, even with her ram’s horns and lyre. The suspense nowadays is whether productions will deal with the Bard’s failure to tell us the Fool’s ultimate fate. Bucsh and Cheek do tackle that matter decisively.

The best portent of the evening happened when I first walked into Duke Energy Theater and found the place nearly sold-out on opening night. Evidently, word-of-mouth about Free Reign has spread, unfazed by Lear in any form. The quality of this work ought to keep them coming, even if the actors come out for their bows at 11:15pm.

Just one point of order: since you’ve changed the gender of all her personal pronouns, could you please stop calling this queen “Sir”? I don’t think either Queen Elizabeth was addressed that way.