Noel Freidline and Jon Metzger Deftly Distill the Essence of MJQ

Review: Noel Freidline Jazz Quartet @ St. Alban’s

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celtic, classic, folk, and jazz – the Music @ St. Alban’s concert series at the acoustically splendid Episcopal church in Davidson has embraced a wide variety of music over the years. So it was interesting to observe their welcoming approach to resuming live performances after an abbreviated season of online events. For their first concert of 2021-22, the Noel Freidline Quartet’s tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, St. Alban’s requested that all audience members be fully vaccinated and wear masks throughout the performance. No vaccination cards were checked at the entrance, while the series website invited anyone who wasn’t vaccinated to enjoy the live-stream of the concert – a trusting, responsible, and inclusive approach.

Any exploration of the Modern Jazz Quartet must begin with the special MJQ instrumentation and sound. Formed in 1952, MJQ always centered around its pianist-composer-arranger John Lewis and vibraphonist Milt Jackson, whose interplay and musical rapport were legendary. By 1955, the formula and sound congealed as percussionist Connie Kay and bassist Percy Heath replaced their flashier, starrier predecessors, Kenny Clarke and Ray Brown. The Freidline combo featured Jon Metzger playing the vibraphone, Rick Dior on drums, Zack Page on bass, and the leader at the keyboard. Clearly, it was Freidline and Metzger who cooked up the program between them, since Dior replaced the drummer originally announced on our events calendar. As for Page, Freidline exposed his unfamiliarity with the bassist when he presumed that none of the other musicians onstage was familiar with “Rose Room”: Page not only knew the tune, he had played it with his twin brother, guitarist Andy Page, in a “Gypsy Jazz” tribute to Django Reinhardt less than two years ago at Charlotte’s Stage Door Theater.

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Freidline and Metzger were savvier in their sampling of the MJQ legacy, which stretched over 40 years and 50 recordings. They played compositions that are musts for anyone coming to this music for the first time, including Lewis’s classically sophisticated “Django” and “Vendôme,” offset by Jackson’s funkier “Bluesology” and “Bags’ Groove.” There were also discriminating choices like “Concorde,” perhaps Lewis’s most challenging composition, and standards such as “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” “All the Things You Are” and “Summertime,” that crystallized the pianist’s arranging genius. The rest of the selections were less expected, almost equally fresh for longtime MJQ fans as they were for neophytes, including “Afternoon in Paris,” “Autumn in New York,” “Delauney’s Dilemma,” and “Blues in C Minor.”

One of the characteristics that made MJQ so unique was their pioneering conservatism. They preferred outdoor festivals and concert halls to seedy clubs, dressed up for their performances in matching tuxedos like orchestra musicians, and insisted on being listened to rather than being taken for granted as dance or background music. For a long while, these practices, not terribly outré nowadays, were viewed as outlandish and pretentious. Less notorious, but no less innovative, was their practice of offering spoken intros to each of their pieces as they performed. Freidline, without self-consciously noting MJQ’s influence, adopted this practice himself.

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Beginning with “Afternoon in Paris,” probably Lewis’s earliest jazz standard, the Freidline Quartet made it evident that there would be some give-and-take in terms of their replication of the MJQ sound and style. If you had ever heard the quartet live – or spent hours and hours of quality time with their most revered albums – the sound of Metzger playing his Musser vibraphone repeatedly seemed to bring the playing of Milt “Bags” Jackson back to life. Metzger’s tremolo may not have been as slow, and his sustains may not have been quite as long or rich, but the Jackson swing and flow kept on coming – chiming – wave after luscious wave.

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As a leader, Freidline doled out far more spotlight to his supporting players than Lewis, trading four-bar improvisations with Dior toward the end of the opening piece and giving Page a solo on the ensuing “Bluesology,” where Metzger sounded even more like Jackson in playing on the legendary vibes master’s famed composition. Freidline, on the other hand, was nowhere near as trim or spare in his soloing as Lewis, sounding more like Dave Brubeck at the keyboard, full chords showering down at times from both hands rather than single note phrases. It wasn’t until we reached “Summertime,” whose silences Freidline extolled in his charming intro, that the pianist came near to echoing Lewis’s single-note soloing style, which always contrasted so beautifully with Jackson’s deluges.

Lewis was not at all discarded otherwise, for Freidline delighted in playing the pianist’s arrangements framing the MJQ’s interpretations of the standards, and when it came to “Concorde” and “Vendôme,” presenting Lewis’s own compositions as written. Perhaps the most eloquent moment in Freidline’s intro to “Concorde” was when he held out its nine pages of sheet music and allowed it to unfold down to the floor. So we heard the Bach-like layering that opens “Concorde,” the contrapuntal prelude that gives way to “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” and the solemn chiming that leads us in and out of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” The most outrageous heresy of the concert, when Dior brandished sticks and played a full-out solo on “La Ronde,” wasn’t a heresy at all, for the group wasn’t referencing the hallowed European Concert version of 1960, featuring bassist Heath. They were hearkening back instead to the first MJQ recording, when Kenny Clarke was behind the drum kit wailing away in “La Ronde” from beginning to end – and soloing – on December 22, 1952.

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The tribute within the tribute, Lewis’s “Django,” was the highlight of the concert for me, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member who was moved by the composer’s hushed and sacred framing of the solos. Metzger was perfection in handling the transition between the bittersweet melody and the accelerated improvisations lavished upon it, turning the lament into a quiet celebration and making the lament all the more poignant as the Romani guitarist’s signature swing was wistfully evoked. Page had his best moments of the afternoon as he eloquently soloed, and Freidline was no less perfect than Metzger in his soloing and decelerating back to the mournful melody. Every note of this fine concert is preserved on YouTube.

“Open” Needs More Space and Time

Review: Open from Three Bone Theatre @ The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

None of us could say for sure.

Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Is Luxuriously Long and Varied, Culminating in a Sizzling “Rite of Spring”

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Sitting next to an audience member I’d never met before and conversing with her, thanks to the COVID vaccines and to our vaccination cards that had been scrupulously checked in the Belk Theater lobby, I could share her excitement in being back to see the Charlotte Ballet, out in public without pods or social distancing, and enjoying live performance in a real audience for the first time in nearly 19 months. Even though we were all masked – discarding social distancing seems to increase our tendency to take this precaution seriously – my wife Sue and I felt a distinct residue of wariness.

Yet my trepidations must be an infinitesimal fraction of the wariness anti-vaxxers maintain toward getting vaccinated and an infinitesimal fraction of the daily risks they’re willing to take. Trusting that the people sitting next to you and the people checking them are trustworthy was a calculated leap of faith, my first occasion of sitting next to a stranger since March 2020, so I could understand why the upper tiers at Belk Theater were empty for Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, and why the orchestra and Grand Tiers weren’t teeming to capacity.

Gathering us together for their big celebration after two postponements, Ballet didn’t shrink from keeping us together, offering us a longer and more varied program than we’ve seen in many a season. More than that, they welcomed Christopher Warren-Green and the Charlotte Symphony to the pit (have we ever seen him down there before?) to perform a Philip Glass piece and brought four masked Symphony principals onstage to fuel a performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quintet. With the exception of Salvatore Aiello’s electrifying setting for Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the program didn’t find Charlotte Ballet in a retrospective mood.

Christopher Stuart, the new Charlotte Ballet II program director, jumped into the fray first with a new piece, “Then, Now, Forever,” set to the live Glass. Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, whose work has been featured at Spoleto Festival USA on a couple of occasions dating back to 2009, made an edgier Charlotte debut with “A Picture of You Falling,” paired with the Stuart piece before the first of two intermissions. Framed by the two intervals, Val Caniparoli appeared in Charlotte for the first time with Ibsen’s House, interestingly set to the Dvořák. All of these choreographers were present for the celebration – except for Aiello, the former North Carolina Dance Theatre artistic director who died in 1995 at the age of 51.

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The company itself, launching season 51, looked no less fresh and new, especially with etoile Sarah Hayes Harkins happily sidelined on maternity leave. No less than five dancers were taking their first steps as new members of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II, including two Isabellas, Franco and Bertellotti, who are time-sharing a role in the three performances of Ibsen’s House through Saturday. Meanwhile, a trio of seven-year veterans of the troupe; Sarah Lapointe, Raven Barkley, and Amelia Sturt-Dilley; are striding more to the forefront. Lapointe and Barkley struck me as the most arresting presences in Section 1 of the “Then, Now, Forever” suite. Tempo quickened noticeably for Section 2, with newcomers Franco and Emerson Dayton paired with Ben Ingel and Davis Preciado. Easing back to a languid midtempo Section 3, Lapointe poured out her newfound imperious confidence opposite Rees Launer, which made the fast pace of Section 4 that much celebratory, teeming with 10 dancers. Stuart’s choreographic style didn’t startlingly depart from classical models, so his costume design collaboration with Katherine Zywczyk, as well as the dancers, somewhat upstaged him. Backlighting and dramatically silhouetting the famously inert Belk Theater organ pipes, lighting designer Jeff Emory made them useful for the first time in their ignominious history.

Standing spotlights were the scenery for Pite’s “A Picture of You Falling,” surrounding Sturt-Dilley and Andrés Trezevant in a semi-circular formation as the tenuously connected couple performed to Owen Belton’s original 2008 music and Pite’s cold, emotion-free text. We are perhaps invited, without any cordiality, to identify with this brief deconstructed romance, first from Trezevant’s point of view as he faced himself and the repetitive emptiness of his life. Eventually, we escape from this spiral as Pite takes us to the moment where he literally bumps into Sturt-Dilley.

Flirtation and courtship do not figure on this island of light in Pite’s pitch-black universe, so when Trezevant is shown falling, the effect is from gravity rather than love – “This is you falling,” “This is you collapsing” – and his heart literally hits the floor rather than filling with passion. Sturt-Dilley seemed to take over the lead, drawing our empathy for a while, as the little chronicle climaxed at “The Place,” with a light hint that what’s happening, as the two are engaged in their pas de deux, isn’t happening to him. “This is how it happens” transitioned swiftly, without the luxury of regret, “to this is how it ends” after repeated, obsessive descriptions of the room, something like a Last Year in Marienbad video loop or some classically gloomy Ingmar Bergman. Repeated collapses followed, and the falling featured some slo-mo and freeze-frame touches reminiscent of The Matrix.

We haven’t seen any Ibsen from our local theatre companies in Charlotte since a lackluster production of A Doll’s House in 1999, so Caniparoli’s Ibsen’s House figured to be a bad mismatch with the Queen City’s theatre tastes, theatre history, and local theatre professionals outside UNC Charlotte, where they presumably remember that the Norwegian is revered as the father of modern drama. Caniparoli showcased five oppressed Victorian women, including the heroines from Ghosts, Lady from the Sea, Rosmersholm, and the title character of Hedda Gabler. Yet it would be irresponsible for me to recommend catching up with these scripts, for there was little from Dayton and Ingel that reminded me of feminist icon Nora Helmer, insensitive ingrate husband Torvald, and A Doll’s House – or anything at all from Lapointe as Hedda, Josh Hall as George Tesman, Sturt-Dilley as Mrs Alving, and Peter Mazuroski as her son Oswald that awakened memories of Gabler or Ghosts, the other Ibsen staples in Caniparoli’s gallery that I’ve seen. Dayton captured Nora’s early timidity beautifully and Lapointe had a steely resoluteness that was almost intimidating, yet we never found ourselves in the vicinity of the notorious endings of their dramas. Scenic and costume designer Sandra Woodall is best in evoking this strait-laced and corseted era, and Caniparoli excels brilliantly in choreographing the Dvořák, whose 1887 quintet was completed between the times that Ghosts and Hedda Gabler premiered.

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Having already previewed The Rite of Spring, we need not dwell on the fire and fury of Lapointe as The Chosen One – other than to say that Lapointe didn’t disappoint and completely owned the sacrificial maiden’s every move (Sturt-Dilley dances the role on Friday and Lapointe returns Saturday). Lapointe upstaged and literally towered over everyone else in sight, but the clash between Ingel as the Old Chieftain and James Kopecky as the Young Warrior was primal, intensely physical, and thrilling. Presiding over everything with a shamanistic presence as the curtain went up was Nadine Barton as the Earth Figure, a grand coming out for her in her third year. About the only clear reminder we had all evening of concessions we’re still making to COVID was the absence of live winds, brass, and percussion blaring forth and flailing away at Stravinsky’s score in the orchestra pit. Representing the Salvatore Aiello Trust, curator Jerri Kumery brought the spirit of the choreographer into the hall, and the 17 dancers onstage kept the temperature of his work white-hot.

Too Much Will Be Plenty in Charlotte Ballet’s “Rite of Spring” Revival

Preview: Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Nothing about North Carolina Dance Theatre’s 50th anniversary was predictable when the company was founded in 1970 at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1970. Economics transplanted the headquarters of the troupe to Charlotte in 1990, and their marketing department changed the name to Charlotte Ballet in 2014. Due to COVID, even the year of the jubilee celebration had to be reset to 2021 – and then, because the pandemic lingered, that celebration, scheduled for April, had to be pushed back again to October.

So why should the celebration itself be predictable – all champagne, fluff, fizz, and thanksgiving? This week’s program will be capped with a reprise of Salvatore Aiello’s The Rite of Spring, a savage, primal spectacle set to Igor Stravinsky’s notorious groundbreaking score. Appropriate for April, no doubt, but bold and pagan now that we’ve endured into October.

“We are not easing back into it,” says Kati Hanlon Mayo, who danced the part of The Chosen One – the one who is sacrificed – when The Rite premiered in 1993. “We are not daintily coming back to the theater and doing something light and fluffy. We are back, and we are powerful.”

Known as Kati Hanlon back in those NCDT days, Mayo had only recently joined the company when Aiello chose her to be The Chosen One. Now an associate director at the Charlotte Ballet Academy, Mayo is coaching her successors, Amelia Sturt-Dilley and Sarah Lapointe, both of whom are beginning their seventh seasons with the company.

Asserting the power of dance was as much on Aiello’s mind in 1993 as reminding the community is now. Famously, the premiere Stavinsky’s incendiary score with Vaslav Nijinsky’s outré choreography provoked a sensation at its 1913 Paris premiere, nearly a riot. So the Aiello premiere 80 years later in Charlotte was not presented with some trepidation.

“We were fairly new to Charlotte,” Mayo recalls, “and we were doing some really wonderful rep, but I think he really wanted to show the limits of what he could do, like test the waters with the audiences here in Charlotte and see how that would pan out. I remember being a little bit anxious, nervous about the audience reaction even when we premiered it in Asheville. I didn’t know if it would be just too much – you know, too different from what they would expect, like a ballet with tutus.”

To create music and choreography that will consume audiences with their power, it is almost axiomatic that both the composer and the choreographer themselves must be consumed. Then it’s the dancers’ turn.

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“We all knew that Sal really wanted to do his version of The Rite of Spring,” Mayo says. “He had spoken to us about it. He was almost obsessive about the score and his research and the work that he was doing. Sometimes you would see him on lunch breaks, just working out choreography, working on counts. So when it came to us, for me personally, I was not used to contemporary work like that, and such tribal – like bombastic – music and dance, but for some reason, between Sal and myself and the rest of the company, it just clicked.”

Jerri Kumery, currently the ballet master at Richmond Ballet, was Aiello’s associate artistic director when his masterwork was in development, taking every choreographic note, passing along every correction, and giving out “The Bible” – notations on Stravinsky’s entire score – to all the dancers. Curator of The Salvatore Aiello Trust, it is Kumery who now brings the spirit of choreographer to rehearsals at the Patricia McBride & Jean Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, while Mayo brings the authentic essence of The Chosen One.

Along with “The Bible.”

“Very thick,” says Lapointe, describing this holy writ. “All counts of every single section. And it’s very helpful, very detailed. It’s amazing.”

Amazing enough that it was performed again and again in Charlotte in 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000, and lastly in 2003, more than seven years after Aiello’s untimely death in 1995 at the age of 51. If the success of NCDT’s Rite of Spring paved the way for the audacity of Angels in America in 1996, the resulting furor of the Angels controversy sent shockwaves back to the dancers: Mayo vividly remembers “being very frightened that we would be asked not to perform” in 1997.

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The spectacle has a visceral impact. Taken back to pagan ritual, tribal warring, intoxicating dance, and human sacrifice – while witnessing the combustible power of the dances and the rituals – we may ruefully note how little humanity has changed over the eons. Although Lapointe assures us that the dancers will not be attired like the infamous rioters in DC on January 6, the point will resonate.

As we experience the incantatory derangement of Stravinsky’s music and watch an entire tribe go haywire, both Mayo and Lapointe hint that there’s more than a little voodoo magic in being out there, centerstage, and knowing that you have been chosen to bring the sensational role of The Chosen One to life – and death.

“We have to come up to the music,” Mayo says, “and we have to go beyond what the music is delivering to the audience. And that’s the challenge. And that’s what I think we find so beautiful in his choreography is that it’s not hard to get there with the movement he’s given us. It’s easy to match that music, which is a tall order.”

You will have to wait for this climax, of course. Lapointe and Sturt-Dilley won’t be appearing until about halfway into Aiello’s 40-minute ballet, entering with a bevy of young maidens. Then there’s the drama of being chosen for the ultimate sacrifice before we go hurtling into it. And yes, The Chosen One gets swept away as surely as the audience does.

“There’s parts where I feel like a wild animal,” Lapointe exclaims, “and I just feel so rambunctious, so wild, so free and natural. It’s a feeling like no other, really. Yeah, the music, the costumes, everyone around you banging on the floor, it all comes together – just how it’s supposed to. It’s kind of surreal. I don’t think I’ve ever done a piece that just makes it come out of you like that.”

The Rite of Spring will be the longest piece in Charlotte Ballet’s 50th anniversary celebration, its obvious pièce de resistance, and the rousing finale. Lapointe dances The Chosen One at the Thursday and Saturday night performances and Sturt-Dilley takes over the lead on Friday. Both are appearing in the other three pieces as well. First in the running order will be a premiere choreographed by Charlotte Ballet II program director Christopher Stuart, set to a Philip Glass score to be played by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. A longer piece, Crystal Pite’s A Picture of You, comes next, followed by Val Caniparoli’s even longer Ibsen’s House.

The human sacrifice at the end of the evening shouldn’t be dismaying. More than a couple of religions celebrate the mysteries of death and rebirth, and The One Who Dies is at the heart their power. You can be sure the ancient mojo of Aiello’s Rite hasn’t been lost on the women who have danced in its vortex. The Chosen One’s nobility and her awesome dignity come through her acceptance of her fate.

In our ZOOM interview, Mayo and Lapointe intertwined to describe the experience.

“There are many points within the choreography,” Mayo began, “where you’ve found that you’re the Chosen One… It’s a conflict, but you feel this…”

“…power,” Lapointe interjected.

“…power,” Mayo continued. “If you can think of it as something you’ve been reaching towards, you’re honored by it. But yet… It’s part of the ritual, and you’re not going to end in the best manner… However, it’s an honor to be chosen! It’s an honor to be that force.”

“And to be that,” added Lapointe, “for the tribe and for everyone else.”

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

Review: My Wonderful Birthday Suit @ ImaginOn

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: You Can’t Take It With You

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lupanu and Friends Feed off Audience Energy in Return to Live Performance

Review: Connor Chamber Series at Tate Hall

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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While orchestral performances have sadly languished during the COVID pandemic, recently reviving in Charlotte and elsewhere in prudent baby steps, chamber music has flourished in online productions. Back on Memorial Day weekend, while the youth choir and orchestra remained sidelined for a second consecutive season at Spoleto Festival USA, chamber music restarted at Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, running a full slate of programming and replaying edited versions on YouTube. Not surprisingly, it has been principals of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, cellist Alan Black and concertmaster Calin Lupanu, who have most dramatically stepped forward to fill the void, each of them spearheading a series of chamber music concerts while the larger ensemble remained mute or muted. More encouraging, then, for those of us who love the intimacy and verve of chamber music, is that neither of these initiatives is in retreat now that audiences are vaccinated.

Thanks to the Connor Chamber Series, Lupanu could be seen at Tate Hall on the Central Piedmont Community campus while Symphony is returning to full strength, its mainstage classics series slated to launch at Knight Theater on October 15. Lupanu hosted the concert of works by Brahms and Anton Arensky, starting off together with Phillip Bush at the piano playing the Brahms Scherzo movement from the F-A-E Sonata, which was originally premiered by pianist Clara Schumann and violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom the piece was written in 1853. After this lively opening, Lupanu yielded the violin part for the Arensky Piano Trio No. 1, replaced by fellow Symphony musicians Monica Boboc and cellist Marlene Ballena. Lupanu returned after intermission – inserted to give Bush a rest, he jested – for the finale, the Brahms Piano Trio No. 1, written just a year after his Scherzo.

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The Tate immediately proved hospitable to Lupanu’s violin in the Brahms Scherzo, which also drew movements by Robert Schumann and his pupil, Albert Dietrich. On the other hand, the treble breathed more freely from the Steinway than the bass end of its keyboard, perhaps because of its nearness to the upstage wall. The music, Lupanu’s placement downstage, and the excitement of playing chamber music for a live audience after 18 months of performing for mics and cameras (if at all) were all good reasons for the violinist to excel more than usual. Coming out and masking up, seeing the masked musicians onstage taking up their share of the pandemic risk and responsibility, the audience was also primed to be exceptionally receptive. Lupanu may have seen the enthusiasm in the audience’s eyes as he looked out on us, but he couldn’t help feeling the free, propulsive spirit of Bush behind him, very much inside the music, spurring him on to be better and better.

Arensky’s trio has been on my radar ever since pianist Yefim Bronfman headlined a Sony recording of the piece over 25 years ago (paired with an even more electrifying Tchaikovsky trio), so it was not surprising to see Bush assert more leadership. Yet both of the string players acquitted themselves admirably in each of the D minor’s four movements. A beautiful violin melody from Boboc at the top of the opening Allegro moderato was echoed in more abbreviated form by Ballena’s cello, yet it was likely that hearing Ballena’s cello so much more clearly in live performance put me in mind of Dvorak’s chamber pieces. Boboc captured the lightness of the ensuing Scherzo, but it was Ballena who became the prime advocate when that movement slowed to its more luxuriant Meno mosso tempo.

 

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Bush’s sound, at times downright impressionistic, was the most distinctive element in the elegiac Adagio. Yet Boboc was also disarming, playing low enough on her violin to be mistaken for a cello if you weren’t watching. Not to be outdone, Ballena played even lower when we arrived at her spot. It was in the Allegro finale that Arensky finally matched the turbulence we had heard from Brahms. Bush assaulted the Steinway with a barrage of three-chord phrases while the strings stirred up the heat. Then he turned down the volume and the tempo in a poignant passage of four-note phases. Now it was the strings’ turn to dominate, Boboc and Ballena vying in eloquence as they demonstrated how lyrical and affecting those same phrases could be that Bush had played so feverishly.

Looking at the attentiveness of Bush and Ballena throughout the Brahms B Major trio, we could assume that Lupanu held the reins, yet there was admirable parity between the parts. Ballena’s cello sang out introducing the theme of the opening Allegro brio, and she had a transporting spot in the penultimate Adagio. Bush was pre-eminent in setting the tone, restless amid the shifting tempos of the opening movement, dreamy in his intro to the Adagio before the strings interceded with their sacramental harmonies, but most mischievous in the even-numbered movements. The second-movement Scherzo suddenly pivoted from a beguiling waltz tempo to a manic chromatic outburst that presaged Shostakovich, up in the treble where the Steinway fared best, and the grandeur he imparted to the Allegro con brio finale was star-spangled American. For Lupanu to dominate amid these exploits from his partners, projecting the joy of the Scherzo and the triumph of the Finale, was quite impressive.

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

Review: I Dream from Opera Carolina

 By Perry Tannenbaum

I Dream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maria Howell Torches the Triumphant Return of Jazz at the Bechtler

Review: Maria Howell and the Ziad Jazz Quartet

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Among music presenters in Charlotte, tenor saxophonist Ziad Rabie and his Jazz at the Bechtler series were among the first to swing back into action and move their concerts online, “virtually” intact, after the onset of the pandemic last March. Others, including Charlotte Symphony and JazzArts, have returned sooner to live performance, but the Bechtler has insouciantly kept chugging along, finishing its 2020-21 season of first Friday events back in May as they normally would – just before Symphony returned indoors and, like JazzArts, summered in the open air. Retaining his poise, Rabie has brought his quartet, along with popular guest artist Maria Howell, back to the Bechtler right on time for a new season. Ticketing was paperless, proofs of vaccination demanded outdoors before we entered the museum, and masks required unless you were eating or drinking. Lines to the bar, where assorted hors d’oeuvres were also offered, seemed longer than usual, clearly hinting that the audience knew an escape clause when they saw one.

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Starting off with a hot blues, with pianist Noel Freidline and bassist Ron Brendle soloing zestfully after him, Rabie hardly needed to tell us how happy he was to be performing for a live audience again after 18 months. Ripping aside a flame-red mask studded with glitter or rhinestones as she stepped onstage to join the quartet, Howell seemed simpatico with the quartet’s blazing opener, launching into Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” over Rabie’s obbligato. Turning up the wickedness a couple of notches from the Kinsey Report referenced in Porter’s lyric, Howell and the Ziad Quartet went for the jugular with “Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah),” a crowdpleaser since 1924, with Friedline and Rabie soloing between Howell’s ornery vocals.

After such a raunchy romp, the band must have figured that this was the best moment to ease down to a ballad tempo, and “My Ship” was the most luscious in the set, its wondrous Kurt Weill melody nearly matched by Ira Gershwin’s lyric. Friedline switched to a more precious electronic cocktail-hour sound at the keyboard, and Rabie contributed an eloquent half-chorus after Howell’s vocal, ferrying her back to the bridge. None of the songs that followed would be quite so slow, but Howell modulated deftly between mid and uptempo selections, increasing the pace for Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” to a genial lope and leaving plenty of space for Freidline and Rabie to frolic. The pianist pranced around on the keys in a manner that recalled Erroll Garner in his intro and solo, and Rabie seemed to catch the same vibe as I had, slipping a few notes from “Misty” into his solo.

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With fair warning that we would need to be alert to keep up with the blur of lyrics (by Johnny Mercer, it turned out), Howell and the quartet went willfully against the grain by red-lining Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned,” speeding through two choruses in quick order. Freidline and Rabie took two choruses apiece before Howell’s reprise, the pianist more mischievously by tossing in a snatch of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” to cement his old-fashioned credentials. Ably lurking behind and propelling the combo until this point, drummer Al Sergel asserted himself emphatically here, slowing the tempo for Howell’s winsome climax.

If you keep up with Howell’s discography, you know that Freidline is as much her collaborator as the Ziad Quartet’s, so it wasn’t shocking to see Rabie handing over the stage to Howell and the rhythm section for two or three songs. The first of these was customized by Freidline for Howell, a mashup of The Shirelles hit (by Carole King), “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and Chicago’s considerably less-distinguished “Love Me Tomorrow,” which the singer mercifully devoted less time to. Freidline himself seemed to be more inspired by Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” after Brendle triggered the groove on bass, and Howell did full justice to the Truman Capote lyric. The wit of Freidline’s quote from “Teach Me Tonight” was only faintly apropos four songs after Howell had referenced Nancy Wilson, but the connection between his snippet from “Honeysuckle Rose” and Howell’s “Bee” was plain enough.

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Rabie’s return coincided with the most orgiastic arrangement so far, a mashup of two Bill Withers hits, “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us.” Here the balance was quite exquisite, for Howell clearly relished “Lovely Day,” which framed the medley, while Rabie had far more to say on “Just the Two of Us,” with two fiery rants. From here, the concert moved to higher and highest ground for Howell’s final two selections. With Freidline switching to a more organ-like sound behind his Yamaha, Howells dug into “Unchain My Heart” as a tribute to Ray Charles, adding a little gospel tang to its rhythm-and-blues. Eager to take wing, Rabie and Freidline both played fills under Howell’s vocal, the saxophonist taking the first solo before the keyboardist sermonized. After Howell revisited the lyric, her entire congregation joined in a rousing concluding riff.

Famous as a James Bond theme song popularized by Carly Simon, Marvin Hamlisch’s “Nobody Does It Better” is so closely identified with Simon’s 1977 single that the power ballad, with lyric by Carol Bayer Sager, has scarcely spawned any jazz covers. Just by being markedly different from the chart-topping hit, Howell’s version was something of a revelation as she positively torched what is usually an aching anthem. Rabie’s solo also revealed the ripeness of this melody for jazz improvisation, and the incantatory ending tacked on by Howell, her quartet jamming behind her, brought her audience spontaneously to their feet. It was an auspicious evening at the Bechtler, a triumph we could joyously cheer.

Remembering in September – While Building Back Better

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

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2021-09-19 at 21-02-41 Fantasticks Playbill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2021-09-19 at 21-01-43 Fantasticks Playbill

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

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

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

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

2021~Burnt Theatre Charlotte-21

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

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

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

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

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

2021~Burnt Theatre Charlotte-17

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

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