Chang and Yang Offer a Rousing Ladies’ Night Before Mother’s Day

Review: Celebration of Amy Beach and Florence Price

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Surely there couldn’t be a more natural concept than having two women instrumentalists sharing a concert stage and playing works by two female composers on Mother’s Day weekend. Or we can certainly hope that view will continue to prevail when we are past COVID-19, now that #MeToo has swept the nation, now that Black Lives Matter is opening the way to reconsidering African-American composers, and now that Trumpism is on the wane. Right now, I think we must admit, this oh-so-natural concept, brought to life on the UNC Department of Music’s YouTube channel by pianist Clara Yang and violinist Sunmi Chang, still felt rather refreshing and innovative. The duo showcased two pieces by Amy Beach, one of them excerpted from her epic Violin Sonata, plus a welcome reclamation from Florence Price, the African-American composer’s Fantasie No. 1 in G Minor.

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The 30-minute stream was impeccably recorded at two locations with an imaginative video mix layered on in post-production. Just to disabuse us of the notion that all this wizardry was happening live – and maybe to add some glam – the ladies changed costumes between each of the pieces. Nor was there much of a letup before the evening’s encore, William Bolcom’s “Graceful Ghost Rag.” It was rather charming, in fact, to see Chang going casual and sporting a tee shirt, ponytail, and jeans to underscore the bluesy informality of this segment, while the video mixers had some fun of their own, tossing in some funky effects, including a foray into artsy black-and-white.

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Compared with traditional chamber music programs staged in concert halls – or even those convened in the parlors of wealthy patrons – this offering had the claustrophobic TikTok feel we have grown familiar with during the pandemic. No view of Yang included all of her piano, and as the more mobile Chang moved from an austere bare wall for the Sonata to a furnished room for the Romance, her visible stage was barely as wide as her mantelpiece, slightly expanded after Chang introduced us to Price. Viewers will be able to see the earbuds sprouting from the ladies’ ears as they performed, but whether they were in any proximity with each other for their “remote collaborations” remains cloaked in mystery. Both of the Beach pieces began with piano intros, so synchronization was relatively easy to achieve. Price’s Fantasie, however, required instant alignment between the musicians, visually cued, which may be why there was a wee tablet (or a very large cellphone) perched next to Yang’s score on her piano.

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Introducing Beach and her works, Yang readily admitted that the logistics of these collaborations had been challenging, but there was no strain evident as she played the lyrical intro to the Allegro moderato opening movement. Although the distributor of these UNC webcasts is YouTube and not Sony, the sonic quality when Chang layered on in the treble was on a par with any of the half dozen studio recordings you can readily hunt down on Spotify, possibly eclipsed only by the Chandos recording with Tasmin Little teaming with pianist John Lenehan. The challenges facing UNC’s duo inhibited the kind of fluid synergy captured by Chandos, but Yang triggered plenty turbulence and drama from Chang, and the video editing underscores the dialogue between the two musicians in the refrain that partitions Beach’s structure.

Actually, there was marvelous ebb and flow as the repeated refrains dominated by Yang gave way to more and more turbulence each time the focus switched back to Chang’s violin. Perhaps the more obvious choice for sampling the grandeur of Beach’s Violin Sonata would have been the concluding Allegro con fuoco with its rousing final rush, but the opening movement is lengthier, and the women ably advocated the ethereal virtue of the Allegro moderato’s serene final bars. I’d gladly listen to this duo in a performance of the full Sonata, especially if it were boosted by the electricity of a live concert with all of us in the same hall.

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While the changes in attire and location for Chang chimed well with the more luxuriant lyricism of Beach’s Romance, this piece also plunged into turbulence in response to Yang’s eloquence at the keyboard. Beautiful ebb-and-flow was evident once again in the duo’s sculpting of this piece, both Chang and Yang tethering their crescendos and decrescendos to the intensity or tenderness of the moment, ending with a more soaring sublimity than we had heard in the Sonata. Apparently, multiple takes went into this segment of the video. How else can we explain a fade-dissolve from pianist Yang to… pianist Yang? Yet the audio seemed to flow seamlessly, a feat not quite replicated at the outset of Price’s Fantasie, after Chang gave us an impressive spoken intro and an even more impressive cadenza.

Was that merely an awkward fade after the duo veered into an outburst of folksy merriment – or was that an edit? While the web reliably confirms Price’s 1933 crowd-pleaser and the cover page of the sheet music, there is no confirmation that this piece has ever had a studio recording. All three of the YouTube listings have been logged in since last March, the majority by masked musicians, so when Chang told us in her intro that the piece was new to the duo, she was speaking for the rest of us. Total number of views has yet to reach four thousand, and only Dawn Posey’s recording with pianist Jack Kurutz (618 views) is truly a worthy rival to the new Chang-Yang offering in sound quality and artistry. As Chang rightly observed, Fantasy No. 1 in G Minor is a beautiful mix of classical tradition and African-American folk heritage, and we can see that the criminal neglect of this composer is only now beginning to be rectified. There’s obviously a long way to go as the piddling YouTube roster of videos attests, for a black violinist or pianist has yet to check in with this piece.

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That would also be a natural concept. In the meanwhile, kudos to the ladies for their inclusiveness in holding a place open for Bolcom’s piece in signing off, a courtesy that I’ve never seen extended by male performers to a female composer. “Graceful Ghost” appears in numerous forms, including for solo piano, four-hands piano, and string quartet. Chang’s genial performance, wresting dominance from the piano, hasn’t been equaled yet by any that I’ve auditioned on Spotify. There are 35, so I’m not done. I’d resist the lure of Gil Shaham’s star quality if you’re interested in samples of this work, for he perversely ignores Bolcom’s injunction against letting the moderate tempo drag, giving us a singularly lugubrious and listless “Ghost.” Chang’s bouncy take was far more preferable, a very enjoyable way to end a concert that left me wishing for much, much more.

Despite Benched Clarinets, Charlotte Symphony Shines in Mozart and Handel

Review: Mozart’s Great G Minor Symphony at Belk Theater

By Perry Tannenbaum

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April 24, 2021, Charlotte, NC – Exactly one year after I last saw the Charlotte Symphony in live performance at Belk Theater, the Orchestra returned to that same stage with music director Christopher Warren-Green at the podium. Much had changed. String players were all masked in the midst of the ongoing pandemic – and socially distanced, reducing their number to 22. Performing with the Symphony strings for the first time in a year, seven wind players were spread out across the upstage, socially distanced from one another, even more distanced from the strings, and slightly elevated above them.

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Apparently, the spread left no room for the two clarinets that Mozart added to his revised version of Symphony No. 40, so originalism was forced to prevail. The most heartbreaking austerity, however, was the continued absence of an audience, myself included. Keeping Mozart under wraps for seven Saturdays, along with Handel’s “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba,” Symphony did not stream their March 6 concert until this past weekend.

That seemed more than ample time to perfect the audio and engineering for prime time, but when I screened the concert on Saturday on my desktop computer, feeding the audio to my estimable home theater setup, my audiophile sensibilities were appalled by the missing clarity, definition, transparency, and stereo imaging that emerged from my loudspeakers. Hoping for an enhanced experience, I switched to the YouTube version and streamed the concert through the same sound system on Chromecast.

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The difference was decisive. All the sounds blossomed and fell into place. It was emotional for me just to see principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and principal English hornist Terry Maskin returning to action on Saturday night after their long absence, playing prominent roles almost from the opening measures as they personified the Queen of Sheba while the strings represented King Solomon and his court. But I needed the YouTube version to discern Maskin layering onto Ulaky with a second oboe and to fully savor the beauty of their duets.

“Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” might seem to demand a solemn, stately tempo to evoke the arrival of a monarch bearing gifts and questions, but Warren-Green took the music from Act 3 of Solomon – a biblical oratorio that should be performed more often in full, like Handel’s Saul, Joshua, and Deborah – at a brisk pace that infused the occasion with merriment and excitement. I’ve heard performances that were even swifter, but the pace that Warren-Green chose allowed the interpolations of the twin winds to sound relatively reposeful. Any worry that the Queen would become unduly effeminate was silenced by the presence of flutist Erinn Frechette, who remained stolidly masked as she sat beside the oboists. The bustle of the strings, answering the oboes, was beautifully blithe and textured, the first violins securely on the left side of the YouTube sound image.

Under normal circumstances, we would have presumably seen the two clarinets onstage that Mozart added with his afterthoughts, but I wonder how many more Charlotte Symphony string players would have been deployed. The balance between the winds and the strings was noticeably tilted toward the upstage winds, particularly in the slow Andante movement that follows the familiar Molto allegro that engraves this masterwork in our memories. Throbbing just a little more prominently in the background, the bassoons and French horns supplied the forlorn music with its pulse. In the Menuetto, where martial urgency battled against leisurely elegance in triple meter, Frechette joined with the oboes for the final bars in delivering the unexpected victory to elegance. Far from distressing me, these new emphases consistently brought delight.

Again, I needed the YouTube stream in the finely judged Molto allegro to fully perceive the separation between the sections and fully appreciate the silkiness of the strings where they needed to glide – and their crispness each time they needed to make a point. Midway through this opening movement, the orchestra masterfully executed the intricate quasi-fugal layering of Mozart’s main theme as various sections juggled it and took turns seizing our attention. Frechette and Ulaky were the most eloquent voices in the beguiling dialogue between strings and winds in the Andante, where Warren-Green built the lurking turbulence to the brink of an outcry, granting it the power of insistence before the delicacy and transparency of the strings reclaimed dominance.

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In his personable introductory remarks, resident conductor Christopher James Lees earmarked the Menuetto rather than the outer movements as the spot where Mozart anticipated the glories of Beethoven, still a teenager when the “Great G Minor Symphony” was written in 1788 – but it didn’t sound as if Warren-Green and his ensemble had gotten the memo. Maybe more strings would have helped Lees’ words to ring more true, for the battle waged in this movement for rhythmic supremacy remained effective without bursting Mozart’s parlor.

The concluding Allegro assai was where restraint was most emphatically tossed aside, clearing the path for turbulence to occasionally prevail. While principals from the violin and cello sections weren’t in their customary chairs, musicians who moved up in rank to replace them and their absent peers breezed through the busiest passages of this symphony with the same poise as they had shown in less finger-busting episodes. Tempos charged ahead with thrilling momentum. Here the flute was more consonant with the strings, allowing the oboes and bassoons playing against the grain to stand out prominently.

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Camera work from four different locations was as capable as the sound engineering, especially perceptive when the French horns, principal Byron Johns and Andrew Fierova, drew the spotlight. This 45-minute concert continues streaming through May 1, a tantalizing foretaste of that delicious moment when a real audience will reward Symphony with the real applause it so richly deserves. Mark your calendar for May 14 if you wish to be in the room where it happens, when Branford Marsalis will join the orchestra to play Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera.

Women’s Theatre Festival’s “Othello” Is Femme-tastic

Review: Women’s Theatre Festival production of Othello

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In so many ways, the new Women’s Theatre Festival production of Othello is radically different than any we’ve seen before. For starters, take the text, a modern verse translation by Mfoniso Udofiacommissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and flying off to Raleigh for its world premiere, streaming on a dedicated YouTube channel. As a longtime advocate of translating Shakespeare’s works into a form that would be as readily accessible to English-speaking audiences as plays by Moliere or Chekhov, I can attest that such an eminently sensible undertaking is widely viewed as sacrilege – among scholars, academics, and the theatre community. Less heretical is what director JaMeeka Holloway does with the 16th century settings of the tragedy, transporting the Moor of Venice to a fictional Venice College of today, where cellphones and laptops and Zoom meetings are all part of student life.

Utilizing an all-Black femme creative team and a diverse all-female cast, Holloway is boldly at odds with the Udofia translation, setting up many fascinating tensions between the modernized Shakespearean text and her production. Othello is now a debate champion of international stature and no longer a military general. Cassio is appointed as Othello’s second in Venice’s glorified debate society, slighting our honest Iago. Perhaps most bewilderingly, genders are blurred. Or fluid? Holloway often jumps off the binary confines of the Udofia translation and onto frontiers of non-binary gender or gender neutrality.Screen Shot 2021-04-09 at 12.28.45 PM

Contradicting the helpful captions projected at the bottom of our screens, Brabantio remains Desdemona’s father – and a Senator. Othello is still described as Desdemona’s husband and far older than Nubia Monks appears to be. Attending an all-women’s college, Othello is still spoken of as a general and, more puzzlingly, within the space of a few words, “She is a great man.” The disgraced Cassio gets a similarly straddling description, “She is a ladies’ man,” when Iago denigrates her, plotting her murder with Roderigo. And as you might suspect, Emilia continues to extenuate any duplicities she may be contemplating with the dastardly examples of men showing her the way.

Trespasses upon Udofia’s text remain slight, strictly confined to gender, because Holloway wordlessly transports Othello to America with a cinematic prologue that fully sets up the Moor’s champion status and the undercurrent of Venice College political rivalry, scored with eerie electronic music, hip-hop beats, and a sleek R&B groove. The feel of this WTF effort abruptly shifts from cinema to video when the actors begin to speak, establishing a useful borderline. Where Holloway wishes to underscore racism and white supremacy in Othello’s downfall, Udofia is already on board for her.

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Most of the references to Othello as a Moor have disappeared in translation. The mighty general is far more often called Black, an animal, an ape, or a monkey, lending a more racist tang to Shakespeare’s many casual mentions – left intact – of Othello as a devil. We also see pretty quickly that Udofia is willing to expand upon Shakespeare’s verse and insert her own wit. After she translates Iago’s scornful opening description of rival Cassio as an “arithmetician” with “a mathematician,” she layers on “This adder – and subtractor – this bipedal calculator.” A slithering new laugh for Othello!

All 36 playwrights recruited for OSF’s Play On! Project, charged with translating all of Shakespeare’s theatrical works, must wrestle with the question of what to modernize and what to leave untouched and antique. When the film version of The Wizard of Oz was an annual rite on network TV, we all knew the narcotic sleep-inducing effects of poppies readily enough. Yet Udofia comes upon Iago’s mesmerizing “Not poppy, nor mandragora,// Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,// Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep// Which thou ow’dst yesterday,” and begins with “Not heroin,” stripping the horrid beauty away from Iago’s incantation. On the other hand, Udofia disdains a feminist touch that Holloway might have relished, changing “put money in thy purse” to “put money in your pocket” as Iago palliates and advises Roderigo. Wearing a masculine sport jacket, Roderigo is addressed here as a man, another spot where Udofia’s translation is unaltered.

Holloway is intentional and color-conscious in her casting and has chosen to keep Othello’s, Iago’s, and Roderigo’s races consistent with the demands of Shakespeare’s original text while the rest of the cast displays a more varied spectrum from Shakespeare’s concept, most notably Cassio, Brabantio, and Emilia. Although the gender and racial inconsistencies may vitiate Holloway’s salvos against institutionalized racism, they don’t loosen the grip of Shakespeare’s drama in the slightest. I would also venture to say that WTF’s all-female presentation shines a grimmer spotlight on the virulent misogyny that heats up Shakespeare’s rhetoric, from both Iago and Othello, two of the playwright’s largest roles. We are particularly fortunate in the prime antagonists Holloway has chosen, Monks as Othello and Zandi Carlson as Iago, who deliver this pervasive misogyny with cringeworthy gusto.Screen Shot 2021-04-09 at 12.22.38 PM

We expect no less from The Moor. What sets Monks truly apart as Othello, from the four Othellos whom I’ve seen live in four Charlotte productions since the turn of the century – and others on stage and screen before then – is the youthfulness of her portrayal, occasionally scented with her femininity. That youthful energy is most recognizable in the first bloom of the tragic couple’s love, when Othello tells of marrying Desdemona and later when she’s impatient to consummate their marriage. A similar energy overflows when Othello returns triumphantly from Cyprus, brandishing her trophy with all the glee and swagger of an NFL or WNBA champion who has just captured the title. A distinctively feminine flavor also surfaces in the little chuckles and sighs that come from Othello as she recalls her courtship for the Senate. As wholesome and appealing as Monks is to me for all of these qualities, we should also be aware of how Othello’s strength, poise, and confidence are viewed by Iago and Brabantio, the white establishment. Brabantio sees his prerogative to oppress Blacks – and dictate his daughter’s future – upended by Othello’s value to the state (or here, the College) while Iago sees her as usurping his supremacy. The furious hatred that Iago conceives for Othello is made more monstrous by the touches of youth, openness, and femininity that Monks has added.

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There’s a vein of White privilege in Carlson’s portrayal of Iago that many will see as female cattiness when she conspires with Roderigo. Goading Cassio into drunkenness or inflating his ego on his past and present romantic conquests, Carlson serves up a cocktail that mixes gossipy confidences with barroom or locker-room badinage. Okay, so I do suspect Carlson may have stolen some glances at the text while delivering a couple of Iago’s longer monologues, but she is clearly a consummate master at the webcam, taking us into her diabolical musings and schemes. Would cheating truly compromise Iago’s villainy – or would such sneakiness compound it? Whole new vistas have been opened by the webcam and the Zoom format, breathing fresh life into theatrical monologues and Shakespearean soliloquy. Carlson’s work here is a prime exhibit.

The backgrounds that production designer Keyanna Alexander has selected for her scenic design, whether elegant or cheesy, were beautifully curated. Daylight splashes all around the scene where Othello returns triumphantly from her overseas adventure, reunited with Desdemona, who was separated from her during the voyage; and the actual laptop computer framing the Moor’s arraignment at the Senate is a hoot, a very polished touch to boot. Or how about Danyelle Monson as Bianca, introducing herself on a webcast shown to us on a cellphone, with emojis and chat cascading down the screen? But however grungy and cool the video concept was, I wish WTF had used better webcams and mics to execute it. Chiefly victimized was Jazmyn Boone as Iago’s wife Emilia, a marvelously frail and fallible portrait that was often muffled or not heard at all.

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Unless you had visions of a blonde, straight-haired Desdemona who was cloyingly chaste and submissive, Alicia Piemme Nelson‘s performance was easily the most conventional Shakespeare in sight, offering the best proof that a modernized text really does work – a courtesy to the Bard that is long overdue. Adoring yet sassy, far more dignified than coquettish, Nelson gave us a slight update on Dez, one that meshed well with Monks’ soulful charisma. She also inspired one of Holloway’s most resourceful camera placements, an overhead shot of her in the famed deathbed scene.

All of the supporting players are excellent, down to Mieko Gavia as a fulminating, browbeating Brabantio and Elaine Wang as a cool preoccupied Duke. Special delights come from the comical turns by Danyel Geddie and Marissa Garcia as Iago’s tools. Geddie brings us a Cassio who fancies himself a bon vivant, though we see her brown-bagging her wine; susceptible enough to drink that we can seriously question Othello’s choices in subordinates; and a party person who seems perfectly matched with Monson’s buxom, fun-loving Bianca. Garcia as Roderigo was so sincerely besotted with Desdemona that I hated to see such a pure soul so wickedly betrayed by Iago.

The new lens that Holloway had us seeing through was somewhat distorted when it focused on Roderigo, normally a depraved older man who thinks he can buy a beautiful daughter’s love from her mercenary father. Such creeps are longtime theatre staples. When a company decrees all-female casting on a Shakespeare tragedy, when a director’s concept further circumscribes the playwright’s creations to college age on a college campus, and a pandemic further constricts the space, action, and interaction allowed to the actors… stuff gets lost. Here, it was Roderigo’s corruption and depravity. He never had a single ducat in his hand, let alone his pocket.

Holloway has added a cinematic epilogue to silently complete the framing of her Venice College concept, one that dispels its complexities and contradictions. Along the way, if we’ve allowed this WTF production to lead us where it will, I’d say Holloway and her exemplary cast have revealed more than they’ve sacrificed. Far more.

Cernyak-Spatz’s Memoir Gets Better, More Urgent, With Age – and Video

Review: Protective Custody: PRISONER 34042

By Perry Tannenbaum

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If you missed the 2018 staged reading of Protective Custody: PRISONER 34042, Charles LaBorde’s adaptation of Holocaust survivor Susan Cernyak-Spatz’s memoir – or Three Bone Theatre’s world premiere production in 2019 – fate has been kind to you in 2021 with another reprise. Cernyak-Spatz, freed from the Birkenau and Auschwitz concentration camps at the age of 22 in 1945, lived long enough to see her story dramatized onstage. Already ailing, she lived only two weeks after attending the performance at Spirit Square on the opening weekend of the run.

Half whimsically and half seriously, she told the stage director Dennis Delamar to take the show on the road before she died at age 97. Founder of the UNC-Charlotte’s Holocaust Studies program and a professor of German language and literature, Dr. Cernyak-Spatz had seen plenty in her long life, but she couldn’t foresee the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on theatre and the arts around the globe, particularly how streaming would become de rigueur. Instead of on the road, Protective Custody is now online, free for the asking on your computer monitor or on your television screen.2021~Prisoner 34042-15

Of course, Cernyak-Spatz’s deathbed wishes weren’t about vanity, for the UNCC professor had lectured widely on the Holocaust and her personal survival, holding a passionate belief that we forget this horrific history at our own peril. What you may find disarming about Susan’s staged account, once again performed by Leslie Giles with the aid of Paula Baldwin as her dresser-mother-dancing beau-Nazi guard-fellow prisoner-rapist-Nazi accordionist-American rescuer, is how dispassionate her tone often is, punctuated by eruptions of bitter irony, cynicism, and rage. She tells us she lost her modesty long ago in the concentration camps, how animalistic she needed to become to survive them, implicitly conceding that the Nazis were at least partially victorious in dehumanizing her.

They surely hardened her, maybe the greatest irony of all. “I was strangely detached from the incredibility of what I heard,” she tells us after a Nazi guard has welcomed her to Birkenau by explaining – and describing – the extermination that is happening to newcomers who aren’t as lucky as she. Those younger than 16 and older than 35 rode immediately to “the gas.” We have all heard about the fiendish efficiency of the Nazis’ extermination systems and apparatus, but Susan repeatedly calls our attention to how the Nazis systematically humiliated and dehumanized their prisoners, squeezing as much work out of them as possible with the smallest expenditure. Cruelty is constant, even as the Third Reich faces defeat. Ordering the death march out of the camps as the avenging Russian Red Army approaches, the guard barks, “A bullet in the head for those who cannot walk!”

2021~Prisoner 34042-10Detachment and inhumanity are inevitable results of the plum jobs Susan is able to land at Auschwitz. The cushiest requires nothing more of her than drawing a line through the names of fellow prisoners, thousands of them, who have passed through “the gas” and the crematoriums. Another requires her to sort through the clothes and possessions of those who haven’t been as lucky as she has been – she can even scavenge some choice articles of clothing. No doubt this aspect of the story fascinated LaBorde as he adapted Cernyak-Spatz’s sprawling memoir for the stage. Thinking of changes in wardrobe as the organizing principle of Susan’s narrative is his idea, not hers. Magda Guichard’s wide range of costume designs help LaBorde depict Susan’s precipitous fall from her upper middle-class status in Vienna to her total degradation at the Birkenau death camp. Delamar spares Giles from the fullest indignities that the script allows, letting his star wear a flesh-colored leotard when Susan is ordered to strip for a delousing shower and allowing her to retain her own disheveled hair when she is shaven bald. A sleekly coiffed wig is removed to suggest the transition.

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PRISONER 34042 remains a potent brew in spite of these discreet alterations, with language, lurid descriptions, and a vaguely simulated rape scene that might give today’s helicopter parents some pause. Perhaps the sponsorship of this filming by Culture Blocks, which partners with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system, was the inspiration for addressing such qualms with a more benign Student Edition of the film. (Unabridged, as far as I could determine.) Filmed at McGlohon Theatre by SimplisticPhobia Productions, the three-person camera crew helmed by Will Jenkins helps to dramatize the action with angled close-ups, from stage right or stage left, that nearly fill our screens with the two players. These give way to centered long shots that remind us that we’re in a theatre, especially when Giles perches over the lip of the McGlohon stage and, after the Nazi accordionist plays the verse, sings the first eight bars of “Stardust.”

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Somehow all of the spot-on lighting changes by production designer Ryan Maloney stand out in better relief now than they did at Duke Energy Theatre 17 months ago, and photographs of Susan and her parents are far better showcased when shown in split-screen. Maloney also shines in sound design, whether bringing us that charming accordion, the sound of the cattle cars rumbling to the deathcamps with their human cargo, or the air-raid sirens when liberation is near. Decking his actors out in body mics that offer very crisp reproduction on the video, Maloney also provided pragmatic reasons for Giles to keep her hair and don a leotard.

Calmly helping Giles through all her costume changes and repeatedly partnering with her at key moments, Baldwin’s surrogate work seemed far more awesome as I re-watched her alternately stony and empathetic portrayals. Fearsome and melting like an iceberg, how much scurrying was Baldwin doing behind the scene, transforming from Mom to debonair boyfriend or from prisoner to Nazi oppressor, and how much of stage manager Callie Richards’ work was devoted to making Baldwin’s metamorphoses look effortless? She will likely be undervalued by many who see her because she has so few lines, but Delamar and LaBorde have given Baldwin a new epilogue to deliver after Giles is gone, and her perfection continues. A final elegant touch happened when she hung up one last article of clothing, surely the only costume Guichard didn’t design, for we see it on film immediately afterwards – with the real Dr. Cernyak-Spatz wearing it.

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Giles’ performance would be cleaner and bobble-free if cuts had been decreed during the filming rather than entirely in post-production. Yet after all the immaculate multi-take perfection that I’ve seen for months in screening films and TV series at home, it was wonderful to experience the arc and energy and stamina of a true live performance, warts and nerves – with lapses in Austrian accent – and all. Giles’true professionalism emerges in adversity, and like the performance at Spirit Square that I attended in 2019, accent and performance grew stronger as her story progressed, as we witnessed Susan’s perils and desperate hopes gripping her more and more.

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The little coda that LaBorde added to Cernyak-Spatz’s 2005 memoir, taking aim at emboldened White Supremacists and Anti-Semites as well as hate-spewing demagogues in the halls of Congress and the White House, sounded more potent and relevant on Easter Sunday than they did in late 2019 when Donald Trump was still our President. Maybe Delamar and Giles were simply more insistent on emphasizing LaBorde’s message. Or maybe the impact was greater for me now because, as these Holocaust echoes recede into the past, it’s more important than ever to remember them, remember how they recently grew more virulent and threatened our republic – and to call them out where they are still lurking.

“Tropical Secrets” Presents a Bittersweet Wartime Escape from Genocide

Review: Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Havana has never been the homeland of the Jewish people. Yet as we quickly learn in Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, now streaming from Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, it was often more hospitable to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression, terror and genocide than most other nations – including the USA. If that surprises you, imagine how 11-year-old Daniel felt when he made this discovery in 1940.

In the wake of the infamous Kristallnacht terror across Germany, Daniel’s parents rush him onto an ocean liner bound for New York, promising to meet him there. The ship isn’t allowed into the harbor. They sail north. Knowing there are Jews on board, the Canadians also turn them away. Young Daniel, who was holding his grandfather’s hand when rioters shot him down on Kristallnacht in the middle of the street, is learning some of the cruelest lessons of the world on his own, cast adrift from his family.

Interestingly enough, Margarita Engle’s story, adapted for the stage by L M Feldman, is almost equally about the 10-year-old Paloma, nee Maria Dolorosa. From the outset, her problems are paralleled with Daniel’s. Paloma’s mom abruptly decides to leave Cuba for Europe. Needing to become closer to her dad in the wake of Mom’s abandonment, Paloma finds herself turned away. Seems like an unfair comparison at first, but Engle constantly asks us throughout this new 75-minute drama to re-examine our perspectives and our sense of proportion.

Moral certitudes are questioned during the turmoil of World War II as we watch Daniel acclimate to Cuba while still holding out hope that his parents will find him – or that he will find a way to New York. A huge flip in sentiment and loyalty happens across Havana when news reaches the island that Pearl Harbor has been bombed. Instead of marking him as fodder for the horrific Nazi deathcamps, the Yellow Star that Daniel had been forced to pin on his shirt back in Munich now becomes the badge that prevents him from being arrested as a German spy.2021~Tropical Secrets-37

As with many children’s classics, kids perceive basic truths more readily than their elders. Paloma’s father, known across the island as El Gordo, is the decider when it comes to which ships are allowed to dock in Havana and which are turned away. He tries to explain to little Paloma that he makes his decisions pragmatically rather than on principle. “The world runs on business!” he proclaims with conviction. Paloma looks her dad straight in the eye and tells him, “The world runs on kindness!” Engle’s kids also have depth, as when Daniel informs Paloma, “In Germany, you have to wear a star on your shirt, so everyone can know what you are and hate you for it.”2021~Tropical Secrets-65

Adults here aren’t perfect role models chiefly because of their practical struggles to survive and thrive. With most of the world turning the Jews away, El Gordo naturally feels pressure not to open the floodgates. Yup, immigration issues! And though Daniel’s mentor, David, staunchly wears a brightly embroidered yarmulke with pride, he also bends to practicality, peddling his ice cream in his little pushcart on the Sabbath. When Jews are suddenly perceived as friends and Germans suddenly become loathsome, suspicious, and targeted for arrest, David abruptly veers to the other end of the spectrum, opposed to allowing any foreign ship to dock in Havana until the war is over – even if Daniel’s parents happen to be on board. El Gordo, on the other hand, stands fairly firm – except for raising the price of entry.

In the shifting mists of these patriarchs’ outlooks, blown by the winds of war, Engle’s Havana takes on some of the ambiguities of Casablanca. We aren’t on the same exalted levels of politics, decadence, or romance, but you may find yourself identifying more deeply with the everyday humanity of her people. You may also experience more keenly the anguish of survivors who are left in suspense for months and years about whether those dearest to them are still alive – and empathize more keenly with those who are wracked with memories of those who have died.

Most poignant, the kids rise to heroism in acting out their natural beliefs when, after the universe flips with Pearl Harbor, they encounter a Jewish mother on the run. Why would Miriam, a German Jew, be so terrified now? Because her only living relative, daughter-in-law Marta, is a Christian. For Daniel and Paloma, it is axiomatic that both are equally entitled to live in peace. Marta and Miriam, on the other hand, wrestle with the question of how fully they should describe to their rescuers the full details of the horrors they have left behind.

Thankfully for parents wondering whether Tropical Secrets might become to heavy for their youngest, Engle takes us to precipice without jumping over. There’s plenty for her to show us about kids conquering the language barrier and bonding, and there’s plenty for the kids and their elders to teach us about Judaism, Yiddish, and carnival. Helping Feldman transform Engle’s poetry into engrossing drama, stage director David Winitsky has made a welcome return to Charlotte after a year’s absence, having hosted the Charlotte Jewish Playwriting Contest at Shalom Park for the previous three seasons.2021~Tropical Secrets-28

Two dramaturges, Carmen Pelaez and Wendy Bable, helped him and his cast get the history and the cultures across accurately. Anita J. Tripathi’s scenic design radiates hacienda elegance, but it was Robyn Warfield’s lighting that filled out the atmosphere and took us beyond the city when the story needed to travel, while Magda Guichard’s costumes deftly differentiated between the nationalities and the social classes.

Most gratifying after so many months of deprivation, isolation, and lockdown was watching such a professional all-adult cast captured so well in immaculately recorded audio and video. Because this world premiere was immediately headed for film, where kids are always kids, Adrian Thornburg and Isabel Gonzalez had the steepest obstacles to overcome as Daniel and Paloma. Thornburg’s path was to shrivel himself inwards with Daniel’s sullenness when we first see him, though Winitsky might have eased off a little on all our hero’s resentful turning away. Gonzalez’ regression moved in the opposite direction, outwards with an excess of energy and often with open arms. In less than a minute, I found myself returning to a familiar theatre world, where adults can pass as kids and be as tall – or taller than – their parents.

In Europe, on the ocean liner, and in Cuba, four other actors played multiple roles, at least one of them memorable for each player. Tom Scott as David had the dignity, tenacity, and flexibility of a time-tested Jewish survivalist, stretching himself more than usual to immerse himself in the ice cream peddler, while Frank Dominguez was stubbornly set in his ways as El Gordo, professionally urbane, gradually realizing how off-putting his pomposity has become. Paula Baldwin and Margaret Dalton complemented each other nicely as two different tandems, first as border guards who stole Daniel’s boots and broke his flute, later as the fugitives, Miriam and Marta. Baldwin as the suffering Miriam could be the most fearful, grieving, and overprotective, but Dalton as Marta delivered the best retort: “When things are ugly, you cannot help but speak it ugly.”2021~Tropical Secrets-79

Maybe the best secret in Feldman’s adaptation is the time taken to breath in the tropical air. Percussionist Raphael Torn and pianist Charlene Thomas bring the tang of rhythm and music to the street a couple of times. When Paloma takes Daniel to the festival, when she takes him to the beach at night, and when she brings him back to music again and again, fresh air infuses our hero’s life as he accepts the kindness of a friend. He tacitly acknowledges that after the bombs of world war and Kristallnacht, there is balm in Cuba – in the oranges, the coconuts, the drums, the Afro-Cuban beat, and in carnival.

Ehnes and Weiss Deliver a Full-Length, High-Energy Concert – and a Memorable World Premiere

Review: Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Broadway has been closed down for nearly a year, opera remains in hibernation, while symphony and chamber concerts have slimmed down and gone virtual. Local theatre works, when they aren’t masked or outdoors, have diminished to Zoom or Skype proportions, modest in length and ambition. The preeminent pre-pandemic buzzwords, premiere and debut, when they’re used at all, are now applied by publicists to hurriedly-produced series of webcasts rather to performers or works.

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How refreshing, then, to come upon the latest installment in Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series, which sported the Duke debut of two-time Grammy Award-winning violinist James Ehnes and the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Sonatine for Violin and Piano. After acknowledging in his opening remarks that Duke Performances was “trying to celebrate its 75th anniversary,” Chamber Arts Society of Durham director George Copen proclaimed that the Kernis piece would formally premiere “this very hour.” That’s about as precise as you can be on a webcast that remains continuously accessible to ticket holders for three days.

Fleshed out with additional sonatas by Schubert, Prokofiev, and Saint-Saëns, the video stretched out for over 90 minutes, almost epic for a webcast. There was no intermission, of course, and the estimable Orion Weiss, no stranger to Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium, was at the keyboard. Weiss remained in the background during Ehnes’s intros, but as soon as the duo launched into Schubert’s Sonata in G Minor, it was clear that he was a full partner in the musical collaboration. There were extended passages in the opening Allegro giusto when Ehnes was quietly sawing away while Weiss merrily carried the main load. Conversely, when Ehnes had the lead, Weiss was churning away behind him, probably more challenged in his backup chores. A syncopated three-note phrase that the men played together at the outset was the only turbulence on the otherwise placid flow of the movement, recurring intermittently along the way and reprised emphatically to crisply close out.

An early work written at the age of 19 but only published after Schubert’s death, when the composer had left us far mightier works, this sonata and two others written even earlier were called Sonatinas when they were originally published – and Jascha Heifetz hasn’t been alone in retaining that title in recordings. But Schubert comes through in the Andante as the imaginative melodicist we associate with his maturity, and it was pleasurable watching Ehnes and Weiss as they took turns embracing the enchanting lyricism. The ensuing Menuetto: Allegro vivace proved to be the shortest and swiftest movement. Yet this little movement, despite its sonatina scale, developed a pair of themes and delivered some of the most rugged moments overall. Three thumping chords introduced the final Allegro moderato, like an invitation to dance, and the celebration slowed down for romantic episodes a couple of times, swept aside by the prevailing party spirit.

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Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D was originally written for flute and piano in 1943, but violinist David Oistrakh was so enamored with the piece that he had the composer adapt it for violin, with extra trimmings (double bowing and harmonics), by the following year when he premiered it. Having already recorded the piece twice with different pianists, Ehnes probably didn’t need to say that he preferred the violin version, but the declaration certainly raised my expectations, since I’ve loved the piece ever since the vinyl recording by Jean-Pierre Rampal with Alfred Holeček became one of that great flutist’s first albums to grace my collection. In recent years, I’ve acquired two Oistrakh recordings of the piece as well. Ehnes didn’t fall short of any of those recordings, so I can only envy those who might hear this piece for the first time in his performance. On violin, the opening Moderato is more tender with more pent-up passion in the agitated passages; on flute, the music is more soaring, soulful, and serene.

Thrilling, exuberant, and frantic as it was, Ehnes’s bravura on the ensuing Presto did not bear out the violinist’s claim that Oistrakh had called for a brisker tempo than you would hear on flute. Some of the recordings I’ve tracked down on Spotify present this Scherzo as an Allegretto, to be sure, but the label on Rampal’s vinyl has said Presto for upwards of a half century. It wasn’t just a madcap romp in Ehnes’s hands, for there are tender moments amid the frenzy with wicked interjections, and Weiss was also very impressive here, responding assertively right up to the movement’s abrupt conclusion. Ehnes showcased the extra tenderness of this violin version most emphatically in the lovely Andante, dramatically tamping down the pulse of the piece and finding sensuous allure in the sinuous melody. The concluding Allegro con brio was brimful of triumphal zest, bursting with energy and virtuosity. Even the contemplative second theme built to a proud passion.

The diminutive suffix for Kernis’s Sonatine, Ehnes revealed, came from the composer’s mischievous determination to rhyme his title with his daughter’s name, Delphine. As the kaleidoscopic markings of the opening movement prove – including Oracle, Larkspur, and Delphinium – the composer was keenly aware of the geographic, mythic, and botanical associations with that name. Additional markings in that movement, Cetacea and Dolphinic Syncopation, hint at the probability that the girl has acquired an aquatic nickname at home or in the schoolyard. Although there is a Delicato embedded among the tempo markings, “Oracle” is anything but delicate – or feminine – at the outset, moving from fury to foreboding with enough energy to fray the horsehair on Ehnes’s bow. An ominous, somewhat uncomfortable lullaby followed a complete stop. Eventually, we circled back to tempestuous drama, capped with a vicious pizzicato.

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The middle movement, “Shaded Blue,” was intimate, personal, and once again allusive. Taking his cue from Delphine’s tendency to dye her hair blue, Kernis gave this slow movement a sad opening, lightly textured with the blues. Some of the slower, quieter passages were downright eerie and despondent, building to anguished shrieks before descending to another depression that distilled into a long, sustained harmonic note – almost as memorable an ending as the pizzicato had been. Once again, the concluding movement’s title had personal and musical connotations. “Catch That Train!” recalls the composer’s anxiety the first time he and his wife allowed Delphine and her twin brother to ride the New York subway by themselves – using the kind of train rhythms common to bluegrass and boogie-woogie. Of course, it was Weiss at the keyboard who was most propulsive in taking the musical train from a standstill to full steam. But if Weiss was the rhythm of the rails, then Ehnes was surely the train whistle, with wailing double bowing and fadeaway glissandos. Ehnes also drew a hefty share of the rhythm, fiddling furiously at times in bluegrass mode and even strumming for a while and producing a hollow banjo sound. No, Kernis’s “Train” wasn’t the most New York in spirit, but it was definitely rousing and entertaining.

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For their closer, Ehnes and Weiss presented the most often recorded piece on their program, Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, ruefully nicknamed “The Hippogriff Sonata” by the composer when a mere human violinist couldn’t cope with its technical challenges at the 1885 premiere. A special alertness is necessary to review the piece, for two of the three divisions between movements occur without a pause. Ehnes and Heifetz are among the heavyweights who have tackled the “Hippogriff” in the recording studio, a roster that also includes Sarah Chang, Gil Shaham, Pinchas Zukerman, and Salvatore Accardo. Listening to the Ehnes recording with Wendy Chen in the wake of this explosive performance, I found that Weiss was an edgier partner, drawing more snap and ferocity from Ehnes, making for more excitement in the majestic Allegro agitato. After that opening, Weiss subordinated himself more than Chen did in the Adagio, mixing more of an accompanist’s role into his reading, where Chen maintained more autonomy.

Chen’s approach yielded sweeter, happier results in the pivotal Allegretto moderato, whereas Weiss was more impish, moody, and modern. Rounding into the beehive buzz of the Allegro molto finale, Weiss offered more puckish punctuation amid Ehnes’s awesome cascade, working into a more feverish mode when the violin began floating above in more of a legato. There was more intricacy to the interplay in the middle of this movement as Weiss and Ehnes handed over dominance to each other. Then the ending built and built and built, each flurry from Ehnes delivered with more fire and fury than the last, Weiss prodding him on with more intensity, quicker pace, to a final explosion.

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To be sure, the audio engineering by Christopher Scully-Thurston captured the sound of this concert with studio-level clarity; and filming by John Laww and Saleem Rehsamwala, edited by Rehsamwala, was beautifully conceived, varied but never gimmicky. What was perhaps most memorable and encouraging, however, was that Kernis proved he belonged in this company of titans as much as Ehnes and Weiss. Another Grammy nomination likely awaits the Kernis-Ehnes team when a recording is released.

On Your Toes for a Lively Mix of Mozart, Meyer, and Wirén

Review: Burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Unless a fourth wave of COVID-19 takes us by surprise and the 2020-21 season has to be “reimagined” yet again, Charlotte Symphony seems to be moving slowly, cautiously back towards full-sized concerts with their entire orchestra. Later this month, principal harpist Andrea Mumm will be reunited with the string players, taking a lead role in Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane, and next month, we can look forward to Mozart’s beloved Symphony No. 40, presumably with a full complement of woodwinds. As I sit down to write, Haydn’s Symphony No. 64 has been announced for May, bringing us oboes and horns. Meanwhile a fresh series of five outdoor concerts has been scheduled this spring at the NoDa Brewing Company, all on Tuesdays, with a discreet 7:00pm starting time, improving our chances of keeping warm.

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Another harbinger of spring and burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert. Back in February at the Holst + Elgar concert, only Holst’s St. Paul Suite was lively and sunny enough to get musical director Christopher Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium. Check out the webcast of the Mozart + Wirén program, still replaying online, and you’ll find that both of these composers had the same effect, Mozart with his Divertimento for Strings in D major and Swedish composer Dag Wirén with his Serenade for Strings. In between these two, Warren-Green offered the Charlotte premiere of Jessica Meyer’s Slow Burn, a piece originally devised two years ago to accompany a burlesque dancer in Saratoga. Jumping was probably not the proper response.

Mozart wrote no fewer than five Divertmenti in D Major, so it’s necessary to add that this was the earliest, K. 136, written at the age of 16 – or that it’s the one Divertimento that Yehudi Menuhin recorded in his Mozart collection for Virgin Classics, leading the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. The youthful energy of the piece burst immediately upon us in the opening Allegro, with churning propulsion from the lower strings and lithe buoyancy from the violins and violas. Dynamics undulated with the floating grace of a glider as the steady churning continued below in rhythmic waves. The sound of the Knight Theater space added the faintest echo, and the airiness of the sound recording was close to the standard set for this piece by the Seiji Ozawa recording of 1994.

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Coming after this sunny effervescence, the middle Andante was so sweet and nostalgic, reminding me of one of the first Mozart pieces I was able to master on the piano more than 60 years ago. Lovely as it is, it was the only one of the three movements that could be imagined as royal background music, which is how a divertimento is normally regarded – and what resident conductor Christopher James Lees warned us against expecting in his introductory remarks. Attcked by the strings with at least as much zest as the Allegro, the closing Presto commanded attention, six staccato notes followed by the kind of explosive ignition we associate with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which Symphony performed just a month ago. Along with the exciting flux of dynamics, there were also zigs and zags of tempo navigated by Warren-Green, layers of repetition from the three main string sections overlapping one another. The ensemble surpassed themselves with their legerity and clarity in long, swift sweeps of melody.

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Slow or not, Meyer’s dancer evidently preferred to ply her trade in a steady 4/4 time as the piece began, with suggestive gestures from principal violist Benjamin Geller, principal second violin Oliver Kot, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu. Action halted before these solo voices – and after slaps on the double basses that sounded like whip cracks. Resuming the Burn, the music slid into swooning glissandos that allowed the dancer to surrender as much as her audience. Urgency and fury crept in as the tempo accelerated with frequent slaps on the basses, alternating with jazzy pizzicatos. The next halt gave way to a longer statement from Geller on viola that triggered a more frantic acceleration from the orchestra than before, this final gallop prodded by a constant cracking on the necks and sides of the two basses. What a dancer would do at this climax was enticing to imagine. Certainly it would be more like a flamenco flowering than a bump and grind.

Wirén had never crossed my radar before this Charlotte Symphony debut. He merits only a brief paragraph in my two music cyclopedias and only three entries in my last copy of the Penguin Guide, which did declare Wirén’s Serenade of 1937 to have been his greatest international hit. Apple Music is a better place than Spotify to hunt for it, but Symphony’s account was as exemplary as its previous two performances. Lees peeped in for another intro, describing the piece as a blend Mozart lightness and 1930s Paris, where Wirén studied composition. With long sweeping melodic phrases from the violins conveying Mozartian lightness, the opening Preludium had the urban bustle of Gershwin’s Paris – or the Londons evoked by Eric Coates and Noël Coward – and Symphony was not at all tentative about zooming into the cityscape. The cellos and double basses actually injected a heavy, foreboding undertow at times, as if a spot of rain were on the way or the specter of a traffic jam.

The rustic quality presaged by Lees in his intro was further delayed by the Andante espressivo, which began softly with pizzicatos spanning the Knight stage followed by an outbreak of melancholy from the second violins. First violins only intensified the poignancy when they layered on with their bowing, taking us further into solemnity and coloring it faintly with regret. A second round of pizzicatos from the lower strings led into deeper keening from the violas, intensified by another onset of the violins. Cellos blended with violins before a concluding pizzicato hush. The ensuing Scherzo was where Wirén finally fulfilled Lees’ rustic description, though I’d have to guess that the composer had Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony closer to heart than anything Mozart wrote, and a few notes struck up by the second violins had a kinship with “Willow Weep for Me,” written five years earlier by Ann Ronell and dedicated to Gershwin. Amid the hairpin turns of this impetuous movement, interspersed with the laughter of the violins, the cellos took over briefly with their sobriety.

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With violas, cellos, and basses beating their bows on their strings, the beat of the final grand march began, reminding me most vividly of Coates’s British pomp. But here we swerved dramatically, slowing down for our first genuine B section of the evening before circling back to the forceful main theme. This Marcía is the movement that is most excerpted from this most popular Wirén work, and there’s nothing subtle about its appeal. Little strums from the basses thicken its pulse and there are moments when the beat is so strong that you could suspect a drum or two lurking somewhere offstage. Its giddy spirit had Warren-Green on his toes, waving his arms with the sweep of it all, and ultimately jumping. For joy, no doubt.

“Hadleyburg High” Takes Streaming to School

Review: Hadleyburg High at Little Theatre of Winston-Salem

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 We’ve only had a year, at most, to acclimate to the restraints imposed upon theatre and performing artists by the pandemic – and to wrestle with the sensible precautions imposed on audiences. Even that slim amount of time becomes constricted when you consider the amount of time it takes for an artist to come to grips with COVID conditions and navigate what he or she can feasibly create.

Adjustments have been further constricted by the time required for a presenter to navigate the practicalities of production, schedule an event, shoot and edit and upload a livestream, and reconnect with an audience whose attention may have drifted away to Play Station and Roku. Still when something like Hadleyburg High from the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem comes along, getting so many things so right and making all of its answers to problems that have stumped so many other theatre companies seem so simple and obvious, I found myself wondering why it had taken so long.

Up until Hadleyburg High, streamed theatre productions I had reviewed existed in a binary universe. Companies either recorded their actors onstage wearing masks or they squeezed their actors onto a ZOOM grid, as many as eight wee rectangles cramped into one larger screen designed to hold 12 participants. The only escape from masking and ZOOMing has been a one-person monologue. But as Chad Edwards’ adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” amply proves, masking and ZOOMing aren’t the only paradigms available to a resourceful theatre artist.

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From the outset, Edwards expands the possibilities, presenting his vengeful mischief-making narrator, The Stranger, as a podcaster who can quite naturally fill our screens – and proceed as soon as we key in the proper passcode. Instead of her planned episode, “New York’s Five Most Haunted Places,” on her Stranger Than Fiction blogspot, The Stranger plans to tell us of an exploit that she herself is somewhat surprised at pulling off, the hoodwinking of Hadleyburg High.

Sadly enough, The Stranger had not been able to fit in during her sojourn at the perfect school, where perfect students got perfect grades, lived perfect lives, and won every state championship worth winning. Everybody had known everybody else at Hadleyburg, but nobody troubled to welcome her or get to know her during the semester she spent there. She couldn’t wait to leave Hadleyburg when the semester ended, and she couldn’t wait to devise her vengeance – by exposing the pretense and corruption beneath the perfect students’ perfect veneer.

Now in Twain’s 1899 short story, telling a fable that happened “many years ago,” a whole proud and pretentious town, not a mere high school, was exposed by an offended stranger who had passed among the townspeople. Twain’s story was served up from an omniscient narrator rather than from a snarky, disaffected teenage girl. When Edwards, who also directed, plunges into his narrative, The Stranger disappears until we’re deep into the denouement. Without our narrator’s voice guiding us, point of view regained its original omniscient form, as Edwards adopted a split-screen format for the dialogues that ensued, simulating a series of video calls on the Hadleyburg High students’ laptops. A huge leap of the imagination wasn’t necessary as we switched gears from The Stranger’s first-person account.

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The Stranger’s locked box with a note attached – the famed “temptation” of Twain’s tale – is delivered to Casey, the Student Council president. Conferring with Tammy, her bestie, Casey makes it clear that she hopes to keep the locked box and the riches it contains a secret from the rest of the school, which would thwart The Stranger’s scheme. Tammy, however, is a relatively straight arrow, not the greedy politician that Casey is, so she’s leery of conspiring with her friend, though she prides herself on having the computer skills necessary to break the code that will unlock the box.

Denied by Tammy, Casey turns to Brent for help in getting out the word of The Stranger’s quest to discover the student who had offered the advice that had helped create the fortune contained in the locked box, a tempting $100,000. Each student who believed he or she had given this advice was to submit a form to Mrs. Calloway, the teacher that The Stranger trusted most, stating word-for-word what the exact advice was. Keyed into box, the exact words would unlock the cash prize.

Edwards isn’t shy about injecting some fresh comedy into his retelling, along with altering a plot twist or two. When Tammy changes her mind, getting a bit greedy, Brent turns out to be a bit of a screw-up when Casey tells him not to send out the announcement after all. And The Stranger’s affinity with Mrs. Calloway turns out to be justified by the teacher’s deep flaws. Another nice touch is Frances, reporting for “Hadleyburg Student News” about the amazing giveaway, as Edwards reverts to his podcast format.

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Reactions from various students to the bulletin, intercut with Frances’ report, helps to widen the roster of imposter Samaritans who will submit their entry forms and set the stage for the catastrophic reveal. All of the students at Hadleyburg know that they didn’t donate the $20 that seeded The Stranger’s fortune, but an email sent out by The Stranger explains why each of them deserves the prize. Edwards was able to preserve most of Twain’s original design in baiting this trap. Like Twain’s letter writer, Edwards’ email correspondent has just returned from Mexico.

The famous advice is also replicated – exactly. Edwards finally goes to ZOOM format when the trap is sprung. He added Calloway to preside over the reading of the students’ entries, a Mr. Banks to be caretaker for the digital lockbox, and a Mr. Caldwell as the school principal. What Edwards couldn’t do in a ZOOM format was to underscore the shame of the tempted hypocrites to a whole town, or even to a full high school student body and faculty. Only eight students, eventually including The Stranger, are crowded onto the ZOOM grid with the adults. After the podcasts and the video calls, this climactic scene did seem populated by a throng. Nor did Edwards disappoint me in dealing with the fallout from the public disgrace, resourcefully adjusting his plot.

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Performances weren’t professionally polished down to the smallest cameo, but you’ll find that Edwards’ design bends to such imperfections, particularly when Hadleyburg High students are reacting for a newscast. It was also interesting to watch how emphasis shifted from Casey as Council president to the morally ambivalent Tammy as the action proceeded. Playing the typical stuck-up high school queen bee that we know so well from teen comedy flicks, Adair Addison had most of the zingers in the early action as Casey, reveling in her smugness and sense of privilege. It’s a fun role to play. Tammy’s trials, however, more closely echoed the struggles that Twain’s most upstanding citizens had in his Hadleyburg, and as the webcast proceeded, I appreciated Sabrina Layman’s ambivalence and vacillation more and more, particularly after the ZOOM meeting took an unexpected turn.

Ella Kiser framed the production nicely as The Stranger, assuming an outsider’s sense of resentment from the moment she addressed her podcast audience as “deviants.” Unlike Olivia Samuels, who was so polished as Frances in her newscasts that she could pass for a TV anchor, Kiser retained a nerdy vibe and we could easily imagine her sitting alone, in front of her laptop, with her teen angst and defiance. Screw-up or not, Noah Goldstein was the coolest and most relaxed of the Hadleyburg students, squinting and bending toward us each time he was messaged or emailed, so we really did think of him as lounging in front of his laptop in his tacky bedroom. Addison was such a diva as Casey that we delighted when Goldstein and Layman pushed back in bargaining for their share of the undeserved cash.

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All of the adults were very fine, though only Bethany Schultz as Calloway ever garnered a substantial share of our screens. Schultz was a fascinating study, never surrendering her dignity to Tammy no matter how much Calloway was compromised, yet layering on a nervous, impulsive edge. Ken Ashford as Principal Caldwell and Mickey Hyland as Banks did most of the heavy lifting in reacting to the mass humiliation of Hadleyburg’s perfect students. As the principal, Ashford registered the steep descent from pride to shame – with plenty of surprise and outrage in between. Hyland remained the respectable adult in the room, mostly concerned with damage control as the school’s disgrace metastasized.

We could sense that Casey hadn’t received the comeuppance she truly deserved when the ZOOM meeting adjourned. This and other loose ends were neatly tied together with late-breaking podcasts from Tammy and Frances before The Stranger returned with a final update on her Stranger Than Fiction blogspot. While Edwards decided to detour around Hadleyburg’s memorable temptation motto, the path he chose otherwise was almost perfect.

All-English Symphony Program Moves from Wintry Dreariness to Triumphant Jollity

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Holst + Elgar

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Assailed by the ongoing pandemic, the postponement of vaccinations, and a midwinter cold snap, we must be contented when we receive short rations of Edward Elgar without pomp or percussion and William Walton’s Henry V without winds or brass. In fact, since Charlotte Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green often shuttles back and forth across the Atlantic to lead our Queen City orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra, we’re rather fortunate just to have him on the podium at Knight Theater conducting an all-English program. Traveling by air between the UK and the US has become uncertain in recent months, due to the mutating coronavirus, and restrictions pushed Symphony’s Holst + Elgar offering from January 23 into February. Electricity can also be capricious when the Arctic is riled: Texas is merely the most notorious state plagued by power outages this month, not the only one.

We’ve heard more than a couple of Serenades since Symphony returned, string players only, reconfiguring its 2020-21 season and fine tuning on-the-fly. Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor was certainly not the peppiest or the most sweeping of the breed, but Warren-Green, stressing the harmonic blend of the piece instead of its rhythmic flow, gave us a drearier reading than I would have hoped for, particularly in the first two movements, a tranquil and dreamy Allegro piacevole followed by a sleepier Larghetto. Only in the concluding Allegretto did Warren-Green abandon extreme delicacy and pick up his baton. Only now did the orchestra’s energy compare with the more light-hearted Sir Roger Norrington recording of the piece. Here there was more melodic dialogue between the upper and lower strings, more satisfying swells in the sway of the dynamics.

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Although Walton’s Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V have been paired on commercial recordings, they are hardly a representative foretaste of the full musical score written for the 1945 film starring – and directed by – Laurence Olivier. Elsewhere in the score, in places such as the “Charge and Battle” and the “Agincourt Song” collected in more extensive suites, Warren-Green could parade Symphony’s winds, brass, and percussion. Mightily. “Death of Falstaff” and “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part” are soft, brief, and fragile flowers compared to those sturdy oaks, yet they were more affecting than the Elgar pieces. The Passacaglia for Sir John was quiet and grave, almost but not quite a dirge, and the “Soft Lips” was tenderly suffused with pure and chaste ardor, tinged with the sorrow of soldiers’ farewells. Count me as enthusiastically supportive if Warren-Green opts to program a fuller representation of this Henry V score when he can bring the full Symphony to the task.

If we longed for music that quietly reflected our mood during these cold, gray, homebound winter days and nights, then these Elgar and Walton works more than fulfilled their mission, but if it was uplift that we sought, then Gustav Holst’s St Paul’s Suite in C Major was a perfect tonic. Warren-Green’s anecdote about meeting Olivier and Walton after a performance of the Henry pieces was by far the most appealing of his intros. Warren-Green had been onstage as the concertmaster that night, and the actor and the composer had vied ridiculously with each other at the post-performance reception to be more modest about his contribution to that celebrated film. Yet the insight into Holst, when Warren-Green visited the St. Paul’s Girls School in London, was also fascinating. Holst taught at the school, eventually becoming its music director, and a soundproof room was built specially for him at the school where he composed his most famous work, The Planets, as well as this more modest suite.

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To be honest, St. Paul’s sounds more like it was written in the middle of the girls’ playground on a bright sunny spring morning with the children running and squealing in all directions around the composer, especially in the effervescent outer movements. Amid the lively opening Vivace, ebulliently labeled as a Jig, it was inspiring to see Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium again, excitedly gesticulating after maintaining his British dignity for these many months. The liveliness spread across the Knight stage, and I strongly suspect that the masked faces of the Symphony musicians were smiling. Even the middle movements had a youthful élan. The second movement was a quiet Ostinato at a Presto pace, with concertmaster Calin Lupanu floating a melody over the subdued churning of the upper strings and pizzicatos from the cellos. Lupanu’s soloing resumed in the Intermezzo, where we slowed to Andante con moto and principal violist Benjamin Geller took a couple of turns in the solo spotlight. Here again, a Vivace interlude abruptly shed its orchestral sunlight before we reverted to a slower tempo, ending with a sedate string quartet led by Lupanu.

Jollity reigned when we arrived at Holst’s Finale, an Allegro that riffs on an English folk tune, “The Dargason,” sounding even merrier than the opening Jig, and certainly more familiar. Holst further enhanced the merriment and complexity of his composition by giving the cellos the undercover assignment of introducing the ancient melody of “Greensleeves” under the main theme. No problem if you missed “Greensleeves” while it was part of the cellos’ stealth operation, because it became gloriously dominant when it was reprised. The infectious “Dargason” was not to be suppressed for long, interweaving so well with “Greensleeves,” and Lupanu had one more tasty little cadenza before the full string orchestra pounced on the final fortissimo chords.

Wilde Gets a Manicure, Not a Makeover

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest in a Pandemic at CPCC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Oscar Wilde fell on tough times after writing his comic masterwork, The Importance of Being Earnest, in 1895 – but whatever else he succumbed to, including humiliation and imprisonment that very same year, Wilde never faced the Spanish Flu, let alone COVID-19. Our supply of pandemic epigrams would have been unquestionably enriched if history had played out otherwise. So I did have hopes, when I signed up for CPCC Theatre’s webcast of The Importance of Being Earnest in a Pandemic, that history would be redeemed.

Compounding pandemic and winter woes, a ransomware attack on CP plagued this production, delaying its opening by a full week and ratcheting up my eagerness. Subtitling his three-act romp “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” Wilde could have had a field day opening a Pandora’s box of pandemic paradoxes. The new script by Don Zolidis, sad to say, performs little more than a manicure on Wilde’s popular script – nothing like the refresh or update a more ambitious and talented playwright might have attempted.

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Masks and social distancing are occasionally acknowledged during the CP webcast, ably directed and designed by James Duke. Since our comedy comes to us on the Zoom format, the formalities of signing in and out of the grid are observed – often with an odd doorbell ring that gets its own mini-screen among the human characters’. Pandemic or not, no other technology aside from those martialed by Zoom advances us past 1895.

Nobody specific seems to have died during the pandemic in London, where we meet at Algernon Moncrieff’s flat for Act 1. None of the proper folk he and his lazy manservant Lane receive – including the duplicitous “Jack” Worthing, his lady fair Gwendolyn Fairfax, and the imperious Lady Bracknell – seems to have suffered any grave losses. Bucolic serenity also seems to prevail when we adjourn to Jack’s country manor for Act 2, where we meet Worthing’s lovely ward, Cicely Cardew, who is pursued there by Algernon, posing as Jack’s invented brother.

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That’s odd, because Jack’s butler Merriman has disappeared during Zolidis’s tidying of the script. Couldn’t he have been in a susceptible age group or have been afflicted by a pre-existing condition before he was taken away from us so cruelly? As it is, we must skip over an accounting of Algy’s luggage when he arrives for his surprise visit – and poor Jack is left without a surrogate to quickly order a cab for the sly mischief maker.

Tidying is never really what happens here, for doling out a comedy onto an orderly Zoom grid messes it up irreparably. Two marriage proposals happen across multiple locations on paired screens, which oddly show Algy and Gwen and then Jack and Cicely facing us when they would normally be gazing exclusively and adoringly at each other. The screen kissing is an cute touch, I’ll admit. Pure pandemic. Later on, the simultaneous withholding of permission to marry from the ladies’ guardians crisscrosses our monitors on four separate mini-screens as seven of the eight cast members get involved in the climactic melee.

Anybody yearning for reruns of Hollywood Squares will be ecstatic during this flashy denouement.

It helps that Wilde provided us with two women who had already settled on the men they would marry before they proposed – in Cicely’s case, incontestably documented in her diary, before she had even met her Ernest. More than that, we are lucky to have both Algernon and Lady Bracknell on hand. Tatters in time and space mean nothing to these perfectly insouciant personalities. They each see the world around them with uniquely absurd viewpoints. Both are uniquely acclimated to absurdity.

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Andrew Blackwell is especially satisfying as Algernon, conducting himself with an equipoise that suggests that all is well with the world. Until it isn’t, when fretting and fussing must be immediately rejected as ways of fixing things. A cucumber sandwich or a good muffin seem as capable of bringing bliss to Blackwell as the hand of Miss Cardew. Sensible fellow.

At the other end of the spectrum, with even more certitude, is Lady Bracknell. Nothing is right with the world unless it has received her certification. Milady is one of the most celebrated creations of the British stage, a plum that leading actresses and actors have salivated over for more than a century. Brionna Knight isn’t merely confronting this heritage in tackling Lady Bracknell, she’s taking on the constraints of a cruelly decimated screen.

A small restricted screen, it turns out, is fully adequate for conveying the bliss of devouring a cucumber sandwich. Lick your fingers afterwards and nothing is lost. But ruling as a stern monarch over an empire? Lady B needs a stage, a big stage, and a larger-than-life portrayal. Crowding her computer monitor in front of a tastefully decorated green screen, Knight is rarely visible below her collarbones. A diva needs more, so we never find out whether Knight can be one.

Among the other players, only Miyoni Heard is comparably disadvantaged as Miss Prism, Cicely’s incompetent governess. Heard must content herself with a dull gray background each time she appears, along with a microphone that screams out for an upgrade. Nor does Duke illuminate his governess in a way that would prompt him to take credit for lighting design, settling for a dim silhouetted look that would suggest Miss Prism was in a witness protection program. Ironically, Prism becomes the key witness at the end of Act 3 as we unravel the mystery of Jack’s origins.

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Knight is at her best in launching Prism’s reckoning, but Jacob Feldpausch as Jack swoops in nicely at this point to help Heard prolong our suspense. Wilde himself contributes superb contrivance to sustaining the tension, one of those craftsy things that can emerge the seventh time you’ve enjoyed a great comedy. More than Jack’s exit to fetch an old handbag is involved as Wilde deftly pumps the brakes. Lady B must forget the name of a lost family member after 28 years, she must also have a clue, and Jack must own a copy of the Army Lists spanning the last 40 years to finally track it down.

Brilliant.

The remaining glitter in this production comes from the ladies who portray Wilde’s eccentric, cocksure bachelorettes. As befits a relation of Lady B, Mia Venuto as Gwendolyn can nonchalantly claim the adoration of all male Londoners as her birthright, never doubting her allure or her marriageability. On the other hand, Jeanine Diaz as Cecily is as adrift and insecure in her condition as Jack is on their country manor, equally given to doing the adoring.

Wilde finely calculates his romantic relationships, to be sure, but what elevates his comedy above the epigrams of Algy and Lady B, above how fate serves Jack up to Gwen on a silver platter, is how his complications set Gwen and Cicely against each other as mortal enemies, dueling with their diaries. When these betrothed ladies are most deceived and most misunderstanding of each other, Venuto and Diaz offer up their best work, carving a perfect circle out of their confusion and caprice.

Of course, this spitfire confrontation would be even more delectable if the women were face-to-face at CP’s Halton Theater and we were all sitting there, laughing at their raging befuddlement even as we understood it so well. On Zoom, it’s so easy for them to mind their manners and resist clawing each other’s eyes out! But what can we do? We’re all in this pandemic together.