EMF Finales Deliver a Double Dose of Strauss and Fun

Review: Eastern Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Head over to Greensboro for the Eastern Music Festival and you’ll find multiple orchestras and multiple concert series sprinkled across the annual five-week celebration. Peep in on the last nights of EMF and you can expect multiple symphonic finales, the Young Artists Orchestras offering their valedictories followed by the professionals of the Festival Orchestra on closing night. Of course, among the primary reasons for making the journey, both for students who populate the youth orchestras and for audiences who come to see them, are the bold programming choices by EMF music director Gerard Schwarz, who marked his 15th year with the festival in 2019.

Led by José-Luis Novo and Grant Cooper, the Young Artists performed Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) and Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé Suites, not the longest concert that I’ve heard on the bosky Guilford College campus at Dana Auditorium. Schwarz took over the Dana stage the following night last Saturday, conducting a program that was epic in length, culminating in a memorable performance of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Before reaching that summit, Schwarz premiered his own orchestration of Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz (or Adagio) and guest artist Horacio Gutiérrez played the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2.

Cue up a recording of either of the Strauss tone poems presented at the EMF finales and you’ll quickly hear why it’s essential to hear them in live performance. Even with headphones, you hardly hear anything, let alone the rich low textures that Strauss swaddles us in so softly before he builds. Nor is either one of these pieces heard even infrequently in the concert hall, so the jolt of discovery doesn’t stop at the lip of the stage when a performance is offered, especially when played by an orchestra with musicians aged 13-23. Cooper and his ensemble admirably brought out all the instrumental voices and textures in the introductory section of Death and Transfiguration, where Strauss depicts his protagonist on the verge of death. The tingle of revelation onstage and in the hall was nearly palpable.

Almost two minutes passed before a faint oboe and a glimmering flute emerged over the strings with a pair of harps, just before the clarinet asserted itself. In bolder relief, the principal oboe and flute shone before we heard the concertmaster’s eloquence. At the first tumultuous life-death struggle – where I hurriedly turn the volume knob back from 2 o’clock to 10:30 on the acclaimed Karajan recording – the violins vied stirringly with the mean trombones. Through the quiescent respite granted to the dying man and into the fourth and final section where the heavens open up to him, sounds of glowing nostalgia and immanent death gave way to exquisite sunlit violins and waves of serene luminescence, the stately linearity of the winds and brass contrasting effectively with the gilded haze of the strings.

Intermission saw a mass exodus of musicians, instruments, and instrument cases as Cooper’s orchestra – likely 80 or more strong – gave way to Novo’s equally large ensemble. Some of the same thrill of discovery for the Strauss carried over to the Suite No. 1 from Daphnis and Chloé, so rarely performed live and far less captured on recordings than Suite No. 2. Where that ballet originally sets a nocturnal pastoral scene with Nymphs dancing and Daphnis competing against a rival for Chloé’s kiss, the music was as delicate and impressionistic as we expect from this composer, so the “Danse Guerrière” – the onset of pirates – was likely doubly startling for listeners who haven’t delved deeply into Ravel. Sometimes, it’s more accurate to link Ravel with Saint-Saëns than with Debussy. Suite No. 2 delivered the same kind of duality, its “Lever du jour” dappled with birdlike flutes and the concluding “Danse Générale,” heralded by harps and swirling flutes, unleashing a powerful Bacchante fury, with Novo’s orchestra undaunted by the invigorating 5/4 metre.

With the world premiere of Adagio, Schwarz was revisiting a Webern piece that he had already orchestrated in the early 1980s, some 20 years after its rediscovery. Then he had retained its original title, keeping and enlarging on the parts written for string quartet while adding a bass part. Modestly modified though it was, Schwarz’s version, released on his 1994 recording with the Seattle Symphony, was at least three minutes longer than any string quartet version that I’ve tracked down, an expansion of more than 30 percent. In a sense, that was chiefly what Schwarz was aiming for, according to the helpful notes in EMF’s program book, for the maestro felt that a full orchestral version was necessary to bring out its Mahler-esque poignancy – and to play the piece as slowly as needed for maximum impact.

The new orchestration builds handsomely and colorfully upon Schwarz’s previous enhancements, adding significant parts for wind and percussion along with notable highlights for flute, clarinet, piccolos, and timpani. No less audaciously, Schwarz modified his string writing, giving the principal violist, cellist and the concertmaster moments to shine. The result was noticeably livelier and more dramatic with a far wider dynamic range, delivering a larger dose of Mahler majesty. Even the cymbals’ clash during the final swell meshed seamlessly with the overall concept.

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My first exposure to Horacio Gutiérrez was 20 years ago, when he performed the Prokofiev No. 2 with the Charlotte Symphony under Peter McCoppin, emphatically demonstrating that his artistry and power were tough to follow. At Dana with the EMF Festival Orchestra, Gutiérrez somewhat upstaged Schwarz even before he appeared. Or at least his piano did, awaiting his arrival. Inside the auditorium’s acoustic shell, the musicians filled the stage beyond the proscenium, so bringing a piano in from the wings would have required an intermission rather than a discreet break.

Gutiérrez’ musical entrance came quickly enough in the opening Allegro non troppo, charming us in the little exchanges with the French horn before spasms of febrile keyboard eruptions summoned the full orchestra. While the acoustic shell at Dana kept the sound moving out toward us instead of partially evaporating into the wings and backstage, the effect on Brahms’s more linear sound wasn’t as flattering as it was for Strauss’s tone poem or Ravel’s impressionistic blends. Bass and treble weren’t as separated coming from the piano as I have experienced in other halls, but the lack of definition had a more telling effect on the orchestral parts. It was gratifying to hear more crispness from Gutiérrez and the ensemble as the movement climaxed.

The ensuing Allegro appassionato was more receptive to the natural pedal effect of the Dana acoustics on the piano, and Gutiérrez’ virility contrasted effectively with the Festival Orchestra’s delicacy. Against a finely becalmed backdrop, the soloist became livelier and more rhythmic, yet together orchestra and soloist crested in grandeur as the movement ended. The slow Andante movement was even more ideally suited to the hall as a skein of cellos, settling over a mist of violins, added introductory magic. Before we heard from the pianist here, violins and winds deliciously ratcheted our anticipation upwards. Gutiérrez did not disappoint, surpassing himself with his lyrical outpourings, two dreamy perorations sandwiched around a reminder of his thunder. In the concluding Allegretto grazioso, he played with a geniality that suggested all difficulties had already been overcome. Rhythmic aspects of Gutiérrez’ keyboard work were more merrily emphasized than before, with a treble that truly gleamed.

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Never having seen a live performance of Eine Alpensinfonie before, I’ll have to admit that a glance at the program booklet filled me with dread. There are no fewer than 22 parts to this mountain journey with no pauses, and apart from unmistakable signposts, how could I be sure where we were? Maybe that disorientation explains why this epic symphony is so rarely given a live hearing! Well, I needn’t have worried. Supertitles to the rescue! After the nearly self-explanatory “Night” to “Sunrise” sequence, with a starburst nearly as glorious as the famed Also Sprach Zarathustra opening, navigation was effortless across forest, stream, waterfall, and meadow as titles projected over the proscenium marked the beginning of each new stage of our Alpine tour.

Offstage horns were now contextualized as we began “The Ascent,” and we could be surer that the lonely oboe or English horn signaled our arrival at “The Alpine Pasture,” speckled soon afterwards with birdlike twitterings of a flute. Reaching the “Summit,” “Sunset,” and the final onset of “Night” were predictable glories lying ahead, but a large aluminum sheet hanging down over the percussion section upstage was a sure forecast of stormy weather. Looking at the adult musicians playing during the “Thunder and Storm” section of Alpine Symphony, I felt like they were having as much fun as the students had the night before as they revealed the mysteries of Death and Transfiguration.

I found over 80 faculty artist biographies for members of the Festival Orchestra – most of them printed in the rear of the festival’s 156-page program book and most of them without photos. So it was pretty much by accident that, thumbing through the book and surveying previous concerts, I was able to match principal percussionist John Shaw with his picture. Shaw had been the featured soloist on the previous Friday, a week before the Youth Orchestra Finale, playing Joseph Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra with Cooper and his youngsters. Now in the heat of “Thunder and Storm,” he may have been exerting himself even more strenuously, cranking a wind machine that vied in volume with the clamor of that large thundering aluminum sheet. Shaw hadn’t bothered to take off his formal white jacket to execute his mighty cranking labors, yet there was a big wide smile all across his face. He was the kid this time.

CP’s Gentleman’s Guide Sports a Solid Cast but Overthinks Our Scruples

Review:  A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

By Perry Tannenbaum

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It’s been 70 years since Kind Hearts and Coronet, based on Roy Horniman’s Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, became a delightfully wicked vehicle for Alec Guinness, who was murdered multiple times during the film as he portrayed various members of the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family – one of them female. Jefferson Mays drew similar kudos in 2013 when Horniman’s novel was the source of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, with all of Guiness’s D’Ascoynes discreetly converted into more singable D’Ysqiths – and featuring an additional lady among the slain. Lauded by the press, Gentleman’s Guide didn’t click at the box office until the Tony Award nominations were announced in the spring of 2014. When the show and its book by Robert L. Freedman won the Tonys, the victory bump carried into early 2015. But the run barely lasted into 2016, a full three months short of reaching the 1000-performance mark when it closed.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Final Dress Rehearsal; July 18th, 2019

The touring version of Gentleman’s Guide was all the more fresh when it opened at Knight Theater that same November, and the Charlotte audience welcomed it heartily. Directed by Tom Hollis, the current CPCC Summer Theatre version reminded me of the charms and shortcomings I saw in the original Broadway production while setting in bold relief a couple of the technical difficulties it overcame. Even though I had seen the show twice before, I was struck afresh by the artificiality of Freedman’s concept, which decrees that our hero Monty D’Ysquith Navarro’s recollections are staged under a proscenium within the Halton Theater proscenium at CP. Puzzling over why critics so adored this artificiality, I hadn’t pondered why Freedman had insisted on it.

 

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Final Dress Rehearsal; July 18th, 2019My best guess is that Freedman wished to double-underline the idea that we were watching a comedy as Monty murderously ploughed through most of the eight D’Ysquiths who stood in his path to becoming the next Earl of Highhurst. Before we even see Monty at his desk in prison, writing the confessional memoirs that will flash us back to the story of his crime spree, an ensemble dressed in funereal black advises us to depart immediately if we don’t have the stomach for the carnage to come. Whether intentionally or not, Hollis further shields us from the notion that Monty is a heartless murderer, aided chiefly by Kevin Roberge playing all the D’Ysquiths that Monty knocks off.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Final Dress Rehearsal; July 18th, 2019

Roberge made them less eccentric, less broadly comical, maybe a tad meaner, and worthier of extermination. Touches of the original comedy remained when he was Henry D’Ysquith, the beekeeping squire, and in the denouement where Lord Adelbert, the present Earl of Highhurst, was poisoned. But there was less marital shtick between Asquith and his wife, Lady Eugenia, at that climactic banquet, and Roberge got less comedy mileage out of the women he portrayed, the crusading Lady Hyacinth and actress Lady Salome. Maybe the blame should be spread to costume designer Robert Croghan and wig designer Barbi Van Schaick for failing to outfit Roberge with more outré femininity, though I’d be lying if I said there was abundant treble or prissiness in Hyancinth or Salome’s voices. The fakey whiskers and mustaches that Roberge wore and discarded further damaged the aura of his versatility.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Final Dress Rehearsal; July 18th, 2019

Audience members unfamiliar with the exploits of Guinness and Mays were likely to come away with a better impression of Roberge’s work than mine, but no such concessions were necessary on the love side of the action. In his third substantial role of the 2019 CP Summer season, Ashton Guthrie proved that he could ease us from Monty’s initial innocence to his ultimate roguishness while sustaining his appeal. Without those horrid mustaches, Roberge might have been more winsome in Adelbert’s “I Don’t Understand the Poor” than Monty was singing “Poison in My Pocket,” but Guthrie flipped my previous preference.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Final Dress Rehearsal; July 18th, 2019

When Monty’s eyes are opened to his noble pedigree, his innocence is more than slightly eclipsed by his rapacious and romantic instincts. During this transition, two contrasting women whet Monty’s ambitions while humanizing him. Emily Witte as Sibella Hallward is the stylish social-climber who appeals to Monty’s eyes and loins, while Karley Kornegay as Phoebe D’Ysquith appeals to his heart, mind, and bank balance. Apart from a woefully floppy wig when she first appears, Croghan and Van Schaick were consistently inspired by Witte, but compared with the regalia they whipped up for her in Jekyll & Hyde four weeks earlier, they consistently let Kornegay down.

No such disparity is evident when Witte and Kornegay ply their respective charms or sing their songs, and Guthrie’s reactions beguile us into believing that Sibella and Phoebe are exquisitely balanced in Monty’s eyes. All three collaborate brilliantly in the farcical “I’ve Decided to Marry You” scene when Monty entertains both of his ladies simultaneously at his bachelor pad in two rooms that face the same foyer. The synchronicity of this trio, obviously well-rehearsed, was quite delectable, though Croghan’s mini-set seemed shaky in surviving the door-slamming abuse.

What really took its toll on Witte’s and Kornegay’s performances was the sound system. Perhaps because of the effect that the proscenium-within-the-proscenium set had on the Halton’s acoustics, sound designer Stephen Lancaster couldn’t deliver the admirable clarity we had heard there earlier this season. Ensembles were consistently garbled, and so were the higher voices. The swifter and cleverer the women’s lyrics became, the more apt they were to succumb to distortion, penalizing Witte slightly more since Sibella has a bit more Gilbert and Sullivan flowing in her veins.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Final Dress Rehearsal; July 18th, 2019

Hollis manages to stage all this artificial mayhem with a cast of 10, two fewer than performed on Broadway. Only two that haven’t been mentioned get to sing outside their ensemble assignments, and both have shining cameos. Among multiple roles, Allison Rhinehardt was eccentricity personified as Miss Shingle, the mysterious family acquaintance who divulges Monty’s lineage after his mother’s death in “You’re a D’Ysquith.” Lucianne Hamilton was more briefly in the spotlight as Miss Barley, Asquith Jr.’s mistress until their unfortunate skating accident.

Of course, the Halton audience lapped up each of the artful murders. Yet the script and the production struck me as overly worried about whether we would properly digest the D’Ysquiths’ brutally unjust fates. Justice is too often miscarried in fiction and in life to have such scruples. Frankly, Horniman’s storyline fortifies the ambivalence that Americans already have toward the wealthy and the well-born. We blithely allow them to get away with rape and murder while hating them to the bone.

Hello, Betty!

Review:  Hello, Dolly!

By Perry Tannenbaum

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You don’t win many friends among theatre fanatics if you fault any of the divas who have portrayed Dolly Gallagher Levi onstage on the Great White Way. You’ll never catch me saying a word against how Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Pearl Bailey, Ginger Rogers, Bette Midler, Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters, or Ruth Gordon played the role on Broadway. Yes, that Ruth Gordon. She was the original Dolly in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker before the “Farce in Four Acts,” set to music by Jerry Herman with a two-act book by Michael Stewart, blossomed into the pure box office gold of Hello, Dolly!

Obviously, David Merrick knew a hot property when he saw it. Merrick produced the 1955 farce and the 1964 musical, installing Channing in the star turn that ensured her place in the theatre firmament. Notwithstanding the merits of all the other greats who have done Dolly afterwards, Channing stands apart, reviving her triumph in 1978 and 1995.

Superiority is a different question, as you might decide after seeing Betty Buckley, her name flying proudly above the title in your playbill, in the current touring version at Belk Theater. With four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks directing and four-time winner Santo Loquasto helming sets and costumes, this is one roadshow with unmistakable Broadway polish and sparkle. On such a wondrous platform – with a notably strong supporting cast – Buckley confidently takes her place in the Dolly pantheon.

5_Betty Buckley and Lewis J. Stadlen in Hello, Dolly! National Tour - 2018, Julieta Cervantes.jpgGiven free rein by Zaks, Buckley may well be the most multi-faceted of them all. Aiming her soliloquies to the uppermost balcony, Dolly’s pleadings to her dearly departed Ephraim, asking him to release her before it’s too late so that she can make one last match for herself – so she candiscard her eternal hustling and meddling and for once, dammit, enjoy life – are as poignant as you’ll ever see them. Yet her moments of comedy, shamelessly hambone, are invariably on-target, whether she’s working the audience or leading Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder on a merry chase into her own arms.

She literally makes a meal out of Dolly’s long, epicurean insouciance before deigning to participate in the climactic courtroom trial of the Harmonia Gardens revelers – and we enjoy every bite.

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Yet while she’s confounding and dazzling Horace, Buckley somehow remains regally apart from the repressed underlings at Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed Store, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, who are also bamboozling Horace, AWOL from their Yonkers clerking jobs. They are doubly freed from humdrum Yonkers, for space is cleared away for their farce to shine when they all converge at Mrs. Molloy’s Hat Shop on Water Street in Manhattan.

It’s a fizzy whirl when Cornelius and Barnaby, smitten by Molloy and her clerk, are cornered as Dolly and then Horace arrive – for the widowed Irene Molloy is the specious match that Dolly has hand-picked for her esteemed Yonkers client. On one level, Dolly is helping Cornelius and Barnaby to prevent their boss from discovering their truancy. On the other, she’s helping to sustain the humble lackeys’ chances with the women by not blowing their respectable well-to-do covers.

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Portents of farce are strewn among earlier scenes, beginning with Dolly’s having a business card for every human need under the sun. When Horace explains why he has decided to marry again in “It Takes a Woman,” the entire male population of Yonkers materializes at his store (the “Instant Glee Club” according to your playbill) for the refrains and vanishes just as instantaneously for the widower’s verses. In the ensuing scene at the Yonkers railway depot, when Horace and Dolly set off for their big city adventures, the bustle of the townsfolk smacks us with costume colors as pastel-bright as the most tempting bakery marshmallows.

The victim of multiple deceptions, Lewis J. Stadlen feasts most heartily on the farce as Horace, a whirlwind of frustration and confusion. The little speech before “It Takes a Woman,” lifted intact from Wilder, gives us a rare glimpse into why Horace is actually worthy of Dolly’s love, but unlike Charles LaBorde, who played the role at Halton Theater the last time CPCC presented Dolly, Stadlen doesn’t bother embedding that latent homebody goodness in his portrayal. Horace’s proposal, after countless peremptory refusals of Dolly’s hints, struck me totally out of left field this time around.

Hard to explain, but Stadlen’s approach works beautifully, nearly as touching as Buckley’s confabs with her dear Ephraim. Extra bonus: Stadlen starts off Act 2 with “Penny in My Pocket,” a song that was axed from Herman’s original score before the 1964 Broadway premiere and finally restored in the 2017 revival.

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Horace’s solo spotlight only detains us momentarily from the comedy of his penniless Yonkers clerks and the fashionable Manhattan milliners who have captivated them. Yet this second-tier story is hardly a detour, for the contrast between timid penny-pinching Barney and the driven adventuresome Cornelius echoes the clash between Horace’s provincial prudence and Dolly’s cosmopolitan joie de vivre. You can also spy a similar disparity between Minnie Fay and her boss Irene, both of whom are courted by kindred spirits.

As a foursome, the younger generation serves up more frenetic comedy at the Hat Shop and Harmonia Gardens. You won’t have any problem taking to Analisa Leaming’s elegance as Irene or Kirsten Hahn’s adorable shyness as Minnie, and Sean Burn’s high anxieties are often throwback treats comparable to Stadlen’s. What really made me sit up and take notice as I watched the younger lovebirds in their mating dances was Nic Rouleau, who demonstrated what a star quality voice can do for the role of Cornelius.

Hello, Dolly!

Any sailor from the 1920’s onward – and many, many teens today – would snicker at Cornelius’ notion of taking a train down to New York and not returning to Yonkers until he had been kissed by a woman. But corny Cornelius isn’t a sailor or a hip teen. He’s a Yonkers clerk in the early 1880’s who has seriously languished for a long, long time in Vandergelder’s cellar instead of living it up. When Rouleau sings “It Only Takes a Moment,” it doesn’t obscure the objective fact that Herman’s lyrics are pure twaddle, but the undeniable authenticity of Cornelius’ first-time reaction ransoms it from hyperbole.

Similarly, you might notice that Buckley adds a little contemplative weight to the opening section of “Before the Parade Passes By,” registering the sadness of squandering years in facilitating and manipulating that could have held more satisfaction if they had simply been enjoyed. Yes, we get the usual evocations of trombones, brass bands, and batons before the curtain falls for intermission. But the ascent to that moment gets steeper after Buckley’s rueful recognition of how precious every moment of life is.

It’s a performance and a production that occasionally take us back to the Our Town essence of Thornton Wilder.

nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL Bucks the Patriarchy

Review: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte staged their nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

BWW Review: nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL Bucks the Patriarchy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s been over three years since Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte actually staged their previous nuVOICES NEW PLAY FESTIVAL, but it may not seem like that long to fans of the company and fans of the festival. For one thing ATC commits to presenting the winner of the festival – as selected by audiences and/or a panel of judges who attend staged readings of the plays – in a full-length production the following season. ATC was unusually generous toward the four playwrights whose plays were read in 2016, for two of their works were presented two years later at Queens University in 2018, Meridith Friedman’s The Luckiest People in January and David Valdes Greenwood’s The Mermaid Hour last May.

Although nuVOICES languished for the next two seasons, ATC remained productive, managing to stage four shows during the 2016-17 season while landlords, landowners, and city inspectors screwed over them. Queens University opened their arms to the wanderers in the spring of 2017 as they searched for a new home, and by the start of 2017-18, the 30-year-old ATC became the university’s resident theatre company. Stability! For ATC’s fans, seeing the resumption of nuVOICES has taken a backseat to the satisfaction of their survival.

Well, in one respect, nuVOICES was not only back but better than ever, for the fifth edition of the festival won a sizable grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The influx of NEA support seemed to raise the technical polish of the staged readings somewhat, for the handiwork of sound designer Kathryn Harding and lighting designer Evan Kinsley occasionally came into play.

Although seven of the 13 festival script readers were men, all four of the chosen scripts at nuVOICES 5 were by women. Yet there was plentiful ethnic diversity among the characters the playwrights presented onstage – and among the playwrights themselves.

First up was Nora Leahy’s Girl with Gun, a one-woman show starring Caroline Renfro as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. We caught up with Squeaky on Christmas Eve 1987 shortly after her escape from a prison in West Virginia. When apprehended, she had been on her way to rendezvous with Charles Manson, imprisoned (and seriously ailing) across the country in the California State Pen. Now as she speaks, occasionally to an unseen guard but usually to nobody in particular, she’s being detained at a ranger station, awaiting transport to Fort Worth.

We learned a few things about Squeaky that I hadn’t known, including her appearance as a kid on the Lawrence Welk Show, how she got her weird nickname, and that her bad behavior in prison also included bludgeoning a fellow inmate with a hammer. In the talkback after the show, conducted as a video call with a big-screen monitor, the playwright revealed that her play had been commissioned as a historical portrait and that she is thinking about adding 20 minutes to its current 55-minute length.

In their staged reading of Themba by Amy da Luz with Kamilah Bush, nuVoices broke with precedent by not having any talkback at all. Both the playwright and dramaturg were in town, making themselves available for a pre-show interchange with festival director Martin Kettling. A bad idea for numerous reasons. People who hadn’t already seen Girl with Gun at 6pm would not have gotten word that the customary playwright powwow was happening before the 9pm performance of Themba and not after. This likely deprived them of actually seeing the pre-show before Themba and definitely robbed them of their chance to have their questions answered afterwards. Or simply voicing their reactions.

Of course, the Bush-da Luz team also missed out on getting feedback from this Thursday night performance, though they would get a second opportunity at the twilight performance on Saturday. Really, the process should be uniform for everyone involved – audience, performers, and playwrights. If you’ve written a play that gets a nuVOICES reading, you should be able to commit to appearing in person at talkbacks.

Da Luz changed the title of her play after ATC announced their final four, so her team clearly viewed their time in Charlotte as part of a developmental process. Like Leahy’s study, Themba was a docudrama, oozing with personal stories and intensive research. At the unseen vortex of the story was Lola, a young African girl who is the beneficiary – and/or victim – of a missionary adoption in war-torn Uganda, which may not have been legal. That question comes up in a roundabout way after the adoptive father has died and his two sisters, evangelical Mary and theatre director Sarah, wrangle over who should get custody.

Ah, but the story doesn’t remain centered solely on the white adoptive family. To fortify her claim, Sarah brings her partner Fran, a Black playwright, into the fray. Fran sees that she’s being used, wonders how the father was approved, and begins to probe into the process, asking the Black adoption official Jelani some pointed questions. The probe widens, becomes a formal government investigation, and the four young women who have been lurking in the wings – until now detached from the main action but intermittently interrupting it to tell their stories – suddenly become factors in the main plot.

The four are certainly not a homogeneous group. Recognizing that they were likely rescued from poverty, slaughter, or disease, they are not universally comfortable with Christianity or the USA. Some of them are as antagonistic towards Jelani as Fran was – and the young women vented considerable animus toward each other. We had a lot to think about after Themba. In the nine-person cast directed by Heidi Breeden, Stephanie Gardner as Sarah, Lisa Hatt as Mary, Valerie Thames as Fran, and Angela Shannon as Jelani drew the juiciest roles. Nonye Obichere as an adoptee and Dennis Delamar as the sibs’ preacher dad delivered the tastiest cameos.

Friday night’s schedule went off without any further rule-breaking, beginning with Mingus, a two-hander by Tyler English-Beckwith. The basic structure reminded me fairly quickly of David Mamet’s Oleanna, with newcomer Amberlin McCormick portraying B Coleman, a college student who comes to the office of Harrison Jones, a distinguished professor of black studies portrayed by Ron McClelland. B hopes to get a letter of recommendation from Harrison and an assessment of an essay she’s planning to submit for a prestigious award.

Harrison’s acceptance is conditional. He’ll write the letter if, with his help, she sufficiently improves her essay. Thanks to Rory Sheriff’s crafty direction, we had to go very deep into this play trying to figure out who was exploiting whom, maybe misreading signals about who’s in love with whom and how that will ultimately affect their relationship. In Mingus, Harrison’s past is referenced in the title, for he aspired to play the bass like his jazz idol, Charlie Mingus, before joining the Black Panthers and being forced to alter his dreams. It may also serve as a marker for the spot where he allows his professional relationship to become personal. As in Oleanna, the student takes formal action against her mentor, but for most of us, I suspect the reason was a surprise. Final score: #MeToo 1, Patriarchy 0.

Last up was the most bizarre and comical of the nuVOICES 5 plays, Diana Burbano’s Ghosts of Bogota. Reunion plays are certainly not a rarity, and the friction between the two sisters, Lola and Sandy, was very much in the cosmopolitan-vs.-judgmental vein we had seen the night before from Sarah and Mary – with a generous sprinkling of Latinx spice. Only here the reunion is transcontinental, the Spanish-speaking sisters returning to their parents’ hometown in Colombia with their younger nightlife-loving, sleep-averse brother, who knows very little Spanish at all.

Ancient history bubbles up in Bogota as they prepare for the funeral of their grandfather. The old man, Lucho, was not beloved by any of the siblings, and he repeatedly abused Sandy. She needs to see the predator buried physically and spiritually, facing off with his ghost. Meanwhile Lola is upset because she feels she should have known what was going on and should have protected her younger sister. The ghost she needs to exorcise is her grandmother Teresa, the knowing enabler. Lucho may not be a nuanced pervert, mostly snarling when he appears, but Teresa, a product of her upbringing, is a different story.

Aside from the petty squabbles between drama queen Lola and prissy resentful Sandy, what tips this drama toward comedy is the living-the-dream insouciance of Bruno, who registers such hardships as Internet deprivation, and the scene-stealing exploits of a very lifelike head in a jar. Nothing can go terribly wrong with Creepy Jesus on the case. Kudos to Adyana De La Torre-Brucker as Lola, Glynnis O’Donoghue as Sandy, and newcomers Neifert Enrique as Bruno and Grant Cunningham as Jesus. Director Adrian Calabrese also made an auspicious debut.

nuVOICES 5 was presented at Queens University as a pay-what-you-can event, and by Friday Evening, Hadley Theatre was teeming with festival enthusiasts. An outdoor Midsummer Night’s Dream will run on the campus quad beginning on August 12, and ATC’s 31st season will begin with Silence! The Musical on August 15. The talent onstage at Hadley last week and the technical artistry behind the readings served as compelling inducements to check out those upcoming productions.

Waiting for Tina, Janis, and Aretha

Review:  Beehive The 60’s Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

Beehive Dress Rehearsal; July 4th, 2019

Lovers of The Chiffons, The Ronettes, Donna Loren, and Lesley Gore, rejoice! Or if you’ve never heard of The Chiffons and The Ronettes – or you’ve simply despised Lesley Gore for the past 50 years – have a little patience. Beehive The 60’s Musical, Larry Gallagher’s jukebox revue, has wended its way at long last to Halton Theater. The show has kicked around for over three decades since its New York debut at the Village Gate nightclub in 1986 (the show never ran on Broadway) and my Google searches of past productions – and the original cat album on Spotify – testify to a songlist that has been frequently in flux.

Like a jukebox.

I’ve found accounts of the show that report a full two hours of music, compared to the current CPCC Summer Theatre production that clocked in at a shade over 79 minutes plus a 16-minute intermission. Other reports indicate reprises of hits by the Shangri-Las, Shirley Bassey, Petula Clark, Janis Ian, Sonny & Cher, and Brenda Lee. Most of them opt for a different selection of hits by Janis Joplin.

Beehive Dress Rehearsal; July 4th, 2019

But the good news is that while we endure the Beach Blanket Bingo dross of Loren, Gore & Co. throughout Act 1, there are gems we remember from The Shirelles and The Supremes – and the kooky fun of Shirley Ellis’s “The Name Game” – mixed in with the insufferable pap that prevails. And the 40 minutes after intermission are much improved over the 39 before. We reach a Promised Land of singles originated by Dusty Springfield, Mama Cass, and Jefferson Airplane. We sojourn with the likes of Tina Turner, Janis, and Aretha.

Under the lively direction of Tod Kubo, who also choreographs, Beehive sustains the same high level of artistry and polish that lifted Jekyll & Hyde earlier in the CP Summer season. With wig designs from Barbi Van Schaick, hair reached heights you have to expect from Beehive. Costume designers Bob Croghan and Jennifer O’Kelly, held oddly in check at the outset, break free flamboyantly after intermission, especially when Tina and Janis strut the stage.

Beehive Dress Rehearsal; July 4th, 2019

Defying the Halton’s spacious stage, O’Neill’s scenic design strives to simulate a nightclub feel. Conspiring in the scheme, music director Amy Boger Morris and her band camp upstage, often in plain view and often under a funky “Beehive” logo that helps to fill in the vast expanse of drapery above them.

My apologies if you have not realized that Beehive is an all-woman show, sort of the partner to the all-male Forever Plaid, another jukebox revue that never made it to Broadway. The basic difference between the two, besides gender, is that Beehive has lost all pretenses of sporting a plot. Iris DeWitt as Wanda serves intermittently as our emcee, and the only discernable reason why the other women have character names is so they don’t have to look beyond the script when they introduce themselves in “The Name Game” as Pattie, Alison, Laura, Jasmine, and Gina.

They also go out into the audience and pick out more people to play. Got me on Saturday night! Sorry, no photos or recordings were allowed.

DeWitt, who was quite the authority figure in a 2016 production of Pride and Prejudice at CP, turns out to be a powerful vocalist as well, particularly in “Natural Woman,” her segment in the Aretha trilogy. Caryn Crye is no less revelatory as Laura, since I’ve only seen her in dramas before, most memorably at Theatre Charlotte as Mina Harker in Dracula and as Goody Proctor in The Crucible at CP. She’s stretched a little too far in her Janis Joplin trilogy in “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” but her “Me and Bobby McGee” – when she sheds her Pearl fur coat and lounges in her Woodstock gladrags – is a definite highlight.

Beehive Dress Rehearsal; July 4th, 2019

Making her Charlotte debut as Alison, Grace Bell doesn’t get much of a taste of Act 2, but she’s definitely a highlight in the early action, singing The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” and bringing more to Kubo’s choreography than anyone. Bell’s one spotlight after intermission is a dazzler as she shares the stage with Ava Smith on Jeff Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” If you’ve seen Smith’s high-energy performances at CP as Frenchy in Grease or at Theatre Charlotte as Annette in Saturday Night Fever, expect more of the same now in Beehive, complementing Bell’s Rockstar moves, aggressively engaging with a guy in the front row, and doing a Pattie solo on Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” Sadly, she also draws two Lesley Gore clunkers, but that’s showbiz.

After playing second fiddle to Tyler Smith in Ragtime and Show Boat, Brittany Harrington Currie reminds us here that she also appeared in an Andrew Lloyd Webber revue at CP and is quite comfortable in that format. Currie reveals some truly awesome wheels in “Proud Mary” with her Tina Turner vocal and her frenetic moves. Her vocal on The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is a bright spot before we descend into Connie Francis, and her “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” keeps the Aretha heat smoldering.

Beehive Dress Rehearsal; July 4th, 2019

Coming over to CP after a series of scintillating outings at Children’s Theatre, including Mary Poppins and Three Little Birds, Janeta Jackson flies under the radar for most of the evening, drawing nothing better than The Chiffons’ “One Fine Day” before intermission. We get a better sampling afterwards, when Jackson leads off the Aretha set with “Chain of Fools,” but it wasn’t enough for me.

I could have said the same about the show if it were possible to restore some of the hits that are no longer available with the rights to perform Beehive. Aretha’s “Respect” and “Do Right Woman” from the cast album would top my list of restorations, making it worthwhile to linger longer at Halton Theater, along with Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and her “Ball and Chain.” Unerring with their tempos, Morris and her band squeeze more than 30 tunes into the evening. Sometimes that mitigates the irritants, and sometimes that abbreviates the pleasures.

Bringing Back the Bedside Bar Mitzvah

Review: Falsettos

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Amazing how edgy and new an old-hat musical can seem these days. At intermission during opening night of William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos, I ran into a collegial culture vulture in the Knight Theater lobby who asked, “Do you think Charlotte is ready for this?” Not very different from the local director who said, “Charlotte is a hard market for this kind of thing, you know?”

Except that director was Steve Umberger, talking about Falsettos a few weeks before Charlotte Rep first presented it at Booth Playhouse in the autumn of 1993 – a year after Finn and Lapine won Tony Awards for their work. An alternative newsweekly named Creative Loafing sponsored that production, I recall, and Queen City Theatre Company revived the musical briefly in a concert edition at Duke Energy Theater in 2012.

So not withstanding some grumbling inside Knight Theater and a few walkouts, Charlotte has been ready for Falsettos for over 25 years.

Upscaled from the Duke and the Booth, the current touring version directed by Lapine is glitzier and brasher than previous productions staged here, overmiked and maybe a little overacted. What started out as “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” repeatedly became one Broadway diva on a stage belting.

While Finn and Lapine never envisioned the new frontiers beyond the boundaries of the binary sexual template, they tilted toward an inclusiveness that was fresh and daring. When we reach the bedside bar mitzvah scene, a climax that brought me to tears even though I knew it was coming, the six adults celebrating Jason’s Jewish coming of age are neatly divided into homosexual, heterosexual, and lesbian couples.

Back at Booth Playhouse in 1993, this stage tableau was Charlotte’s foretaste of what was heading our way with Tony Kushner’s Millennium Approaches, still in its first run on Broadway and already taking us to a new chapter in America’s ongoing culture wars – a first step toward the diversity we now take for granted on TV sitcoms a quarter of a century later.

Of course, a certain amount of crafty contrivance helps in forging the neat division of sexual orientations in Falsettos. Even before the four Jews dance in from the wings, taking their place in front of a Rubik’s cube-like construct that will become the set, Marvin has deconstructed his marriage – and come out of the closet – to move in with Whizzer, a debonair cruiser with a designer wardrobe. Trina, Jason’s mom, isn’t taking Marvin’s exit or his sexual realignment very well. Angry? Jealous? Overwhelmed? Yes.

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The family shrink, Mendel, is there to help Trina pick up the pieces – which jibes well with the psychiatrist’s own intentions of picking up Trina. So the remainder of the first act, originally presented separately Off-Broadway as The March of the Falsettos in 1979, is an orgy of jealousies, self-doubts, and couples conflicts. Marvin, not at all a model of maturity, is uncomfortable with Trina’s budding relationship with Mendel and beginning to wonder whether he truly loves Whizzer.

Meanwhile Mendel is weighing the freedom and loneliness of continued bachelorhood against the intimacy and responsibilities of matrimony and step-fatherhood. Whizzer? Doesn’t think he loves his man, although Marvin is an excellent provider, and isn’t at all sure about this monogamy deal. No, overmiking doesn’t help all this stressing, bickering, and childishness.

“Bitch, bitch, funny, funny,” the four Jews sing at the beginning, and Act I is every bit of that – but not especially Jewish after that opening song. Then comes Falsettoland, which is what the second act was called when it premiered separately Off-Broadway in 1990. In the 11-year interval between these two one-acts, Finn and Lapine advanced the action a mere two years, from 1979 to 1981, which you’ll see referenced in an effigy of Nancy Reagan if you haven’t scrutinized your playbill.

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Now it’s time for Jason to study for his bar mitzvah, for Marvin and Trina to bicker over whom to invite to the reception – and to decide the utmost practicality, the caterer! Just so happens that one of the two lesbians who have newly moved in next door, Cordelia, is a caterer. The other, Charlotte, is a doctor of internal medicine, which comes in very handy when there’s another new arrival in the neighborhood: AIDS.

Finn and Lapine vividly recapture the early days of the fearful epidemic when Dr. Charlotte leads a quartet in singing “Something Bad Is Happening” – before the disease even had a name. Before evangelicals had the audacity to declare AIDS a curse from God aimed at homosexuals. Compared to the Rep cast of ’93 who all lived through those days, the touring cast now at Knight Theater comes in with a disadvantage, compounded by the fact that so many in the audience weren’t even born during those turbulent times – and hadn’t had the luxury of studying up before Falsettos turned from “funny, funny” to deadly serious.

a - Marvin and Whizzer - 0457rAudio had been dialed down a little from the soundbooth when we crossed over to Falsettoland, so I felt more comfortable with the Knight Theater cast after intermission when the frenetic action calmed down and our adults became more adult and self-aware, with the sort of insight Sondheim brings to the post-fairytale of married life. Max Von Essen improved the most in the transition as Marvin. Yes, it’s true that Marvin is a self-centered jerk when he emerges from the closet, and we should, on balance, despise him. But a wisp of nebbishy Woody Allen bewilderment and insecurity would have brought so much to Marvin’s character and Finn’s lyrics. When Marvin begins to get a grip and reconciles with Whizzer, it was very gratifying to see Von Essen find him.

Maybe Nick Adams’ somewhat laid-back approach to Whizzer had Von Essen believing that he was the stud in this relationship. I never lost sight of Adams’ understated self-confidence and vanity, but Whizzer has the only Broadway-sized ego in this gallery. Adams seemed to be a comedy bombshell kept in check, and I found it disappointing that Lapine in his direction let someone else loose. Yet when his moment came to sing “You Gotta Die Sometime,” Adams rose to the drama.

On the other hand, Von Essen may have judged that the Woody Allen bewilderment domain had been sufficiently occupied by Nick Blaemire as Mendel, lovable no matter how agnostic and indecisive the psychiatrist may be. Eden Espinoza certainly makes Trina a formidable leap for Mendel from bachelorhood and therapeutic detachment. We can also admit that, in adding her showpiece, “I’m Breaking Down,” to the songs they had already written for March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, Finn and Lapine had always intended to enhance the Broadway heft of their score.

Trouble is, Espinoza spreads its one Mama Rose dramatic moment over the whole song, which should play more like a frazzled Lucille Ball. As with Von Essen, I started liking Espinoza more after intermission as she relaxed a little watching Jason’s misadventures in baseball – and she hit stride in her big second act song, “Holding to the Ground,” which was more in her wheelhouse.

Although he splits the role with Thatcher Jacobs in alternating performances, it’s obvious that Jonah Mussolino as Jason has all the grit and talent necessary to hold up his end of the quartets that begin each act. Even if his bar mitzvah Hebrew was garbled and unrecognizable, it was gratifying to see Mussolino, so integral to this show, finally get his solo spots after intermission, especially in his climactic “Another Miracle in Judaism.”

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Bryonia Marie Parham and Audrey Cardwell balance each other nicely as the lesbians next door, Cardwell slightly ditzy and hugely self-doubting as the caterer and Parham dignified, unsettled, and empathetic as Dr. Charlotte amid a shifting medical landscape that shook people’s confidence everywhere. They really do become a part of Jason’s extended family, Doc Charlotte with her bedside manner, Cordelia with her gefilte fish.

David Rockwell’s set design becomes slicker and more metropolitan between acts, but I loved how Lapine had his company join in reassembling the original Rubik’s cube. Then with lighting designer Jeff Croiter artfully dimming the closing scene, a single piece was removed to become a touching marker. A little more of that artful simplicity – and a little less loudness and glitz – would bring this Falsettos closer to perfection. At its heart, it’s a show that hasn’t aged one day since 1993.

Debased Jekyll and Monstrous Hyde Still Have Admirers at CP

Review:  Jekyll & Hyde

By Perry Tannenbaum

CPCC "Jekyll & Hyde" Final Dress Rehearsal, June 20th, 2019 

Like other famed works of literature that have been turned into films, plays, and musicals, the story and characters of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have long ago ceased to belong exclusively to their creator, Robert Louis Stevenson. The most obvious measure to thicken the plot – my paperback copy is a scant 68 pages – is to supply Jekyll with a fiancé to agonize over when he can’t control his nightmarish transformations into Mr. Hyde. After that initial blandishment for the stage, Hollywood added a second woman for Hyde to prey upon.

CPCC "Jekyll & Hyde" Final Dress Rehearsal, June 20th, 2019

In rewriting the story for Frank Wildhorn’s musical Jekyll & Hyde, Leslie Bricusse layered on additional refinements. Bolstering Jekyll/Hyde’s motivations, Bricusse added a board of governors at a hospital that turns down the Dr.’s highly risky experimental research. Though the board’s decision looks better and better as Jekyll’s experimentation on himself becomes more and more catastrophic, we can see why Hyde is targeting Bishop Basingstoke, Lady Beaconsville and others for his brutality.

Before Jekyll’s wedding day is over, Hyde has collected the complete set of governors with the exception of his prospective father-in-law, who abstained with his vote. So much for the board’s cautious medical judgment. After all, distilling the essence of man’s evil nature was a fabulous idea, was it not?

Presenting the Wildhorn musical for the first time at CPCC Summer Theatre in 17 seasons, director Tom Hollis goes with a version of the show that’s closer to the 2013 Broadway revival of J&H than the original 1997 adaptation. Wading through the alternatives of how to present the climactic “Confrontation” solo duet – Jekyll and Hyde switching repeatedly back and forth – Hollis and his star, Tommy Foster, go retro with some major electronic enhancements. You’ll see Foster’s face when he’s Jekyll, demanding that Hyde set him free, and when Hyde retorts, “you are me,” his long mane of black hair covers all.

No pre-recorded Hyde for Foster, who doesn’t chew his locks too many times during his Hyde hair flips. Scenic designer Robert Edge, leaning heavily on video for many of the scene changes, projects a spinning vortex behind Hyde a la Hitchcock’s Vertigo as the murderer gets the upper hand, but sound designer Stephen Lancaster has more dramatic impact. From the time Hyde first emerges, Foster differentiates his voice from Jekyll’s, but during Act II, as Hyde becomes more monstrous, Lancaster dials in more huffy echo-laden feedback.

Remembering that the sound system at Halton Theater has been treading water at best since the hall was first opened in late 2005, we have to acknowledge that Lancaster, moving beyond adequacy to creativity, has achieved a breakthrough. Notwithstanding those electronic embellishments, Foster’s performance sizzles and electrifies on its own. Forget the power ballads that he torches – I’d actually like to forget a few of those American Idol abortions that clutter the score – and just see what Foster does, as Hyde alone, with the demonic energy of “Alive!” as Act I ends. Riveting.

Yet the most daring and brilliant choice that Hollis and Foster make is with Jekyll, making him more of a hothead than I’ve ever seen before, doctor or not. This guy is on the brink of losing his grip while he’s being questioned by the governors and even more so when he is turned down. That garish fluid Jekyll injects into himself still isn’t a placebo, but the thought crossed my mind.

CPCC "Jekyll & Hyde" Final Dress Rehearsal, June 20th, 2019

While all that Foster, Hollis, and his design team do with the dual leads make Jekyll and Hyde more exciting and cohesive, they sure don’t enhance my regard for his way overindulgent leading ladies. When Lucy, the loose saloon girl fatally attracted to Hyde, is told that she needs to leave London immediately to escape the deranged murderer, she sings, “A New Life” and goes to bed. Even as she pours out her heart into her fourth or fifth power ballad, you know she’s staying.

Emma, the pure-hearted fiancée, is another piece of work. At the climactic wedding scene, she watches Jekyll turn into Hyde, watches him murder the last of his enemies in cold blood, and does she turn away in horror or disgust when he perishes? Not exactly. The final tableau, with Emma huddled over the fallen Jekyll, is more like a Pietà. Utterly loathsome.

Times have changed since Linda Eder, who would become Wildhorn’s wife, originated the role of Lucy on Broadway in 1997. Grown lurid and rancid, the storylines of Lucy and Emma both sorely need a refresh.While Hollis made both of the ladies’ final scenes a bit cringeworthy, he certainly didn’t err in his casting. No daring or brilliance was necessary here. Karley Kornegay was the devilish leading man’s “Angel of Music” when Hollis directed Phantom of the Opera in 2015, and now she’s Jekyll’s angelic Emma. More recently, Lindsey Schroeder was the coarse lady outlaw in Wildhorn’s Bonnie and Clyde at Matthews Playhouse, and now she’s his wanton Lucy. Any questions about whether they’re right for their roles is answered long before they sing their wondrously unwoke duet, “In His Eyes,” idolizing both halves of our hero’s split personality simultaneously.

In a grotesque way, “In His Eyes” and “The Confrontation” are a matched set.

CPCC "Jekyll & Hyde" Final Dress Rehearsal, June 20th, 2019

Nobody else gets an American Idol moment in this belt-a-thon, but choreographer Tod Kubo and costume designer Robert Croghan turn up the heat colorfully at The Red Rat Club in “Bring on the Men,” where Lucy makes her first splash, setting herself apart from the other risqué saloon girls. There are also Phantom-like moments (if you recall “Masquerade”) each time the ensemble sings and numbingly reprises “Façade.”

Notwithstanding the elementary psychological truths that Briscusse rehashes about human pretense and deceit, he doesn’t offer many other performers an opportunity to craft two-dimensional portraits, let alone transcend them. Hollis has an embarrassment of riches to deploy on these thin characters. After proving himself up to the challenge of Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat, Ashton Guthrie as hospital colleague Simon Stride gets only a precious few seconds to reveal himself as Jekyll’s rival – or at least a jealous aspirant to Emma’s affections.

CPCC "Jekyll & Hyde" Final Dress Rehearsal, June 20th, 2019As the only other surviving character from Stevenson’s 1886 novella, Jekyll confidant John Utterson really gets short shrift in the Bricusse book. Tyler Smith ranges very far from his humble “Ol’ Man River” role in Show Boat, giving Utterson true elegance and distinction. Making his first appearance at CP in 2019, where he has performed mostly leading roles over the last 35 years – Camelot and Grand Hotel are among my faves – Jerry Colbert cuts a venerable figure as Danvers Carew, Emma’s ambivalent dad.

Protective toward his daughter, appreciative of Jekyll’s potential, wary of his colleague’s volatile temperament, but abstaining when the governors vote, Danvers sets the tone in crucial ways. Colbert’s “Letting Go” duet with Kornegay finely balances his fatherly affections and trepidations. Trouble is, with Foster giving us a Hyde that is such a natural outgrowth of his Jekyll, it shouldn’t be a close call for Danvers. Or for his daughter.

Here Comes the Blood

Review: ShakesCar’s Titus

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Like a trip to a fish camp on the evening after you’ve savored French cuisine, or a night out watching mud wrestling after an evening of ballet, Titus Andronicus is down-market fare for lovers of Shakespeare, even when compared with the gougings of Lear and the body count of Hamlet. The last time we had a Titus in Charlotte in the summer of 2013, Citizens of the Universe thoughtfully designated a “splash zone” at Snug Harbor, a clear warning that bloodletting would not be genteel, with axes joining the butchery alongside polite poignards. Pointy instruments just don’t cut it when you want to lop a limb.

There’s a clear kinship between the banquet of blood that COTU served up in Snug Harbor’s outdoor patio – above the title on the playbill was “MENU” in large caps – and the current Shakespeare Carolina Titus, adapted by Benjamin Henson, now finishing its second and final week at Spirit Square. COTU founder James R. Cartee had asked Jenn Quigley to be his “Head Chef” and direct orgy of carnage, and this time, Cartee is dishing out the gore himself for ShakesCar in the title role – and on the tech side as lighting and set designer.

ShakesCar’s production at Duke Energy Theater modernizes the setting, and director Chris O’Neill, doubling as costume designer, has his men looking like they are refugees from a motorcycle gang. Tamora, the captured Queen of the Goths who will be Titus’s chief tormentor after unexpectedly becoming Empress of Rome, gets a whole bunch of leather herself: the full tight-fitting S&M kit, removeable corset included. Titus’s daughter Lavinia, betrothed to newly crowned Emperor Saturnius until the Andronici are double-crossed, is the colorful opposite of the monochromatic Tamora.

After failing to watch her tongue when addressing her victorious rival, Lavinia gets handed over to Tamora’s barbaric sons, Chiron and Demetrius. What happens next explains how Teresa Abernethy, playing Lavinia, became the poster girl for this gore-fest.

Like Evil Dead the Musical, the show that invented the Splatter Zone, COTU’s Titus winked at the comical aspects of hacksaw horrors, especially since they are more convincingly rendered on film. When the tongueless, handless Lavinia identified her assailants at Snug Harbor, it was a bit like watching a trick pony counting out how old she was. Many laughed out loud.

O’Neill is taking a grimmer view, though it’s hard not to laugh at times. Trusting the text, he and Henson leave the pentameters in place, but they don’t seem to trust the audience’s endurance. Among those missing in action are Titus’s loyal brother, one of Tamora’s sons, and various Andronicus kinfolk. Further cramping the flow, O’Neill divvies out the remaining roles to seven actors, half the number that appeared up in Plaza Midwood.

Probably the most confusing assignment is the double-casting of James Lee Walker II as Bassanius, Saturnius’s brother, and Aaron, Tamora’s Moorish lover, the first instance of half-colorblind casting I’ve ever encountered. I’m not sure anybody in the audience realized that the new emperor had a brother. Then again, Jack Shanahan as Demetrius deflowers and mutilates Lavinia before resurfacing as her avenging brother Lucius at the final bloody dinner. Demetrius, at that point, is dinner.

More confusion was added by the actors. Because this was passionate SHAKESPEARE, they felt compelled to bark, bellow, and bluster instead of merely speaking intelligibly. The Teddy Roosevelt maxim, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” would have been helpful to O’Neill and his players. We had few words, let alone coherent sentences, to work with in helping us to flesh out what was going on.

Kelly Kirk, in her cool seductive take on Tamora, showed the guys how it’s done, slinking around the stage with lubricious malignity, much closer to a purr than a bark when she spoke. Waiting for her comeuppance is a prime pleasure of watching this bloodbath to the end. Abernethy, with her flaming hair and colorful garb, had the look of a rebellious punk teen before her cheekiness backfired. Yes, she looked crushed by her beastly disfigurations, but you may find yourself shocked by her father’s remedy.

At times, there’s a mighty performance buried in the thicket of Cartee’s mangled verbiage as Titus, particularly when his over-the-top inclinations jibe with the warrior’s Lear-like madness. Walker improved toward the end in the Aaron half of his doubling, delivering his most indomitably evil speech with uncharacteristic clarity – though it was curiously transported from the end of the tragedy to a scene or two earlier. Henson and/or O’Neill may not have wished us to keep track of this villain. We do hear of how Tamora is to be dealt with in its rightful place in the final speech.

Amid their fogs of butchered verse, Daniel Brown as Saturnius, Maxwell Greger as Chiron, and Shanahan as Demetrius vividly give us the flavor of these detestable carnivores. Collaborating with Cartee, Greger and Shanahan bleed brilliantly in their final moments as brothers. After those beautifully triggered spurts, we can thank Shanahan as Lucius for dispatching Saturnius. That vile emperor was the last living pustule at the banquet. After his picturesque demise, we’re merrily sent home.

Sorry, I exaggerated that last sentence. It’s hard not to be caught up in the excess.

A Well-Proportioned “Passion” Caps the Charlotte Bach Fest

Review: St. Matthew Passion at the Charlotte Bach Festival

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By Perry Tannenbaum

The most dramatic moment at the second annual Charlotte Bach Festival may have been a moment of silence – at the climax of the St. Matthew Passion, after Bach’s Evangelist had declared that Jesus had died. Festival conductor and artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett maintained that silence longer than any I could remember on a recording or at a live performance, including Jarrett’s own with the Charlotte Symphony in November 2013.

After this loaded interlude at Myers Park Presbyterian Church, like the world itself coming to a halt, the BA|Charlotte Cantata Choir was exquisitely empathetic and hushed singing, “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden, So scheide nicht von me” (When I depart one day, do not depart from me). The chilling desolation of this reaction was all the more poignant because of the power that the 25 singers in the Cantata Choir had poured forth just minutes earlier in mocking and taunting the crucified Jesus as he was dying on the cross.

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There had also been power aplenty from the soloists, as we were quickly reminded after the prayerful choral lament, when tenor Stephen Soph as the Evangelist continued Matthew’s narrative – with the rending of the Holy Temple, the earthquake, the opening of graves, and the rising of the dead upon Jesus’ death. No less powerful as Jesus, baritone Jason Steigerwalt’s most memorable singing had come in his Part I recitatives, at the Last Supper and during the subsequent episodes leading up to his arrest on the first day of Passover. Of course, his last words, “Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?” had a special plaintiveness.

With Jarrett’s past and present connections to the Oregon Bach Festival, the Handel and Haydn Society, Seraphic Fire, and Charlotte Symphony, the high quality of the Cantata Choir – and the instrumental and vocal soloists he can lure to Charlotte – is not at all surprising, even if their power and dynamic range can sometimes come as a shock. All 22 of the core members were accorded extended bios in the rear of the festival program booklet. Additional space was carved out for the four Vocal Fellows who fortified the Choir during the Passion and figured prominently in the midweek, midday Bach Experience performances of two Michaelmas cantatas, Nos. 19 and 149.

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Since both the core singers and fellows were chosen by Jarrett from nationwide talent pools, it wasn’t surprising that soloists singing the Passion arias were on the same level as those who had sung for Jarrett in 2013. What astonished me more was what soloists from a reduced core Choir had achieved the previous Saturday night when they performed Bach’s Magnificat at the festival’s Opening Celebration. Overall, performances at the more intimate Christ Church by sopranos Sarah Yanovitch and MaryRuth Lown, mezzos Elizabeth Eschen and Kim Leeds, tenors Patrick Muehleise and Gene Stenger, and baritone Steigerwalt had equaled or surpassed those I’ve heard on recordings conducted by Helmuth Rilling, John Eliot Gardiner, and Masaaki Suzuki.

There were additional soloists awaiting their turns at the Celebration when another Michaelmas cantata, No. 130, followed the Orchestral Suite No. 2. These included the sweet-voiced tenor David Kurtenbach, who would sing the recitative and aria at the Matthew Passion during the High Priests’ interrogation of Jesus, and – more impressive yet – bass-baritone Charles Wesley Evans, who would take the stage at the Passion in the wake of Judas’ remorse and suicide, transforming after the touching “Gebt mir meinem Jesum weider!” (Give me my Jesus back!) into the role of Pontius Pilate.

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Other superb choristers stepped forth at Myers Park Presbyterian who had not soloed during the Opening Celebration. Most conspicuous was countertenor Jay Carter, whose recitatives and arias suffused the most intense episodes of Part II with sublimity and pathos, during the scourging of Jesus and at Golgatha, the site of the crucifixion. Edmund Milly, who hadn’t sung at the Celebration, didn’t get his first solos until Simon of Cyrene carried the holy cross, lavishing his rich bass-baritone on “Komm, sübes Kreuz” (Come, sweet Cross), with a viola da gamba obbligato from Gail Schroeder. We had no sampling of soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh’s silvery lyricism until Jesus was brought before Pilate and she sang her recitative and the “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (Out of love my Savior wants to die) aria, with traverso flutist Colin St. Martin playing the intro and obbligato. St. Martin’s work at the Celebration in the Orchestral Suite No. 2 had been even more substantial and impressive.

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Five other members of the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra played obbligatos with Cantata vocalists, none more ballyhooed than concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, who made gorgeous music together with Leeds in the mezzo’s “Erbarme dich” (Have mercy) aria. Following in the footsteps of cellist Guy Fishman, Nosky had been the second Handel and Haydn Society principal in successive years to perform at Charlotte Bach’s Visiting Artist Recital Series. In partnership with the American Guild of Organists, the festival presented Isabelle Demers as their other recitalist. The big improvement here was a change from the Uptown location at St. Peter’s Episcopal, where Bálint Karosi had performed, to Myers Park United Methodist. Not only did the chocolatey organ sound marvelous, it was at the front of the sanctuary, where we could actually see Demers play without having to turn around awkwardly in our seats.

Keeping with the precedent set by last year’s recitalists, both Demers and Nosky expanded the scope of the festival beyond all-Bach. Demers branched out into organ works by Alkan and Widor, and Nosky brought us a Fantaisie for Solo Violin by Telemann as well as two sections from Stand Still, a piece written for her by Michael Oesterle. Funkier by far, Charlotte Symphony trombonist Tom Burge inaugurated a new Bach at the Brauhaus event in the back room of Free Range Brewing on a wee stage that seemed, with its string of carnival bulbs and crimson curtains, best suited for magic acts or stand-up comics. Between sips of the pub’s brew – and banter from the audience – Burge played a Bach transcription, selections from Bone Kill by Michael Davis, and after slyly fishing out a euphonium from behind the curtain, Paganini’s most famous Caprice.

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Nosky’s appearance was another kind of departure from last year, extended so that she could linger and gently whip the NC Baroque’s strings into sharper shape for the Passion – and to help in spreading the festival to Chapel Hill, where the masterwork was given at University United Methodist before its closing night performance in Charlotte. The were fewer hired guns brought in from afar to fortify NC Baroque than came to sing with the Cantata Choir, and the Passion ensemble was a lean-and-mean 32, including Nosky and organist Nicolas Haigh.

The anemic organ Haigh contended with was the only fault I found with the Baroque Orchestra, not their SlimFast number. Playing on period instruments, the company places a greater premium on authenticity – and precision – than on raw power, which is fine with me. When added muscle was needed, Steven Marquardt and Josh Cohen shared leadership of a corps of valveless baroque trumpets that bloomed gloriously in the Magnificat to launch the festival and in three Michaelmas cantatas afterwards. And just before the halfway mark at the Passion, a 10-voice children’s choir from Charlotte Latin School briefly appeared.

Never too big, and never too small. When the Cantata Choir and the Orchestra reached the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen neider” (We sit down with tears) of the Passion, there was soothing lullaby aspect to the music that overshadowed the usual community lamentation we hear from larger groups. Tuning in to the “rest gently” motif later in this chorus, Jarrett likely had that restful aim in mind when he hushed his forces once again. That was also fine with me. Very fine.

Actor’s Theatre Shines New Light on Bechdel’s “Family Tragicomic”

Review: Fun Home at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home grabs – and sustains – our attention in large measure because the title is a misnomer, the nickname given by Alison and her siblings to the family business, the Bechdel Funeral Home. Yet as the story unfolds, with its cargo of closeted homosexuality, sexual molestation, and suicide, we realize that Alison is stressing – and cherishing – the fun times she had with her siblings and her troubled dad. Sweetened by Lisa Kron’s stage adaptation and juiced by Jeanine Tesori’s music, the fun in Fun Home gains further momentum.

It keeps rolling in the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production at Queens University with lively stage directing, choreography, and preteen actors playing the young Bechdel pranksters. Aiming in that enlightened direction, set designer Dee Blackburn starts with the thrust stage configuration I saw at Circle in the Square for the Broadway, but she departs from the funereal darkness that characterized the New York run and the national tour. Abetted by Hallie Gray’s lighting design, Blackburn gives us the kind of bright home that Alison’s neat freak dad might fuss over.

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Or not. We also get darkness when Bruce, Alison’s dad, summons her to assist him in prepping a cadaver – and on numerous occasions when we leave the Bechdel house. Bruce’s nocturnal rambles, creepy and predatory, might occur far away on a family trip or in his car cruising the neighborhood for prey. If you’ve seen Fun Home before, you might find Bruce’s rambles more chilling, since his household isn’t an Addams Family lookalike. Bechdel’s original subtitle, “a family tragicomic,” wickedly sets the tone.

The most fun is when the three Bechdel kids do the big “Come to the Fun Home” song, pretending to cut a TV commercial for the funeral parlor, with choreography by Tod Kubo that captures all the goofy giddiness of the previous productions I’ve seen. Both Allie Joseph and Ryan Campos distinguished themselves at the start of this season in Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s admirable Matilda, while Donavan Abeshaus has flown a little more under the radar, appearing as the young anti-hero in Bonnie and Clyde at Matthews Playhouse in February 2018. They make a fine set of Bechdel sibs now, though Joseph once again draws the plumiest role.

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Joseph is so brash and brilliant as Small Alison that she steals a little of the thunder from Amanda Ortega’s somewhat understated Medium Alison, the collegian who discovers her true sexuality at Oberlin and comes out as a lesbian. Ortega’s “Changing My Major” (to Joan, her first lover) was still an uproarious showstopper for those at opening night encountering it for the first time, though it brought nothing fresh that I hadn’t seen, but Lisa Hatt as our narrating Alison did offer something new, besting even the Tony-nominated Beth Malone as our storyteller.

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Maybe director Chip Decker believed she could be more than what she was on Broadway and on tour, for liberating Hatt – just by freeing her from the nerdy sketchpad she perpetually carried – is likely the foundation for all the Hatt achieves. Even when focus is elsewhere, on Bruce or one of the other Alisons, Hatt’s reactions matter, and her delivery of the climactic “Telephone Lines” is star quality. Yet there’s less of a feeling that this Alison has it all worked out after coming to terms with her sexuality and the fact that, as a graphic novelist, she isn’t going to join Faulkner and Hemingway in her English teacher dad’s pantheon. Hatt strikes me as a less confident Alison, still searching.

Hatt’s take on Alison allows Rob Addison as Bruce to be a little less formidable – more lifesize – than Michael Cerveris was on Broadway. A little more nuance helps because the ground has shifted somewhat since 2015, when Fun Home premiered, under the issues that Alison’s dad straddles. Though nothing excuses Bruce’s sexual predatoriness, fears of exposure and disgrace as a homosexual may be prime reasons why Dad is so rigid, regardful of others’ impressions, and so virulently bossy. You can believe it when Addison lets down his guard and plays with Young Alison at the start of Fun Home, and you can eventually see why this might be so atypical of Dad that our narrator would cherish the memory.

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Of course, the tortured and torturing Bruce can have more empathy with Alison – and be more grimly protective of her – than Helen Bechdel, her mom, and Lisa Schacher delivers a nicely nuanced portrait. Submissive, disapproving, and beneath it all, the caretaker, with a self-loathing to match her husband’s. Maybe a little more nuance from Sebastian Sowell as Joan to go along with her invincible cool would help me see why everyone, especially Medium, is so impressed with her. You can see, however, that a medium-energy Medium Alison is attractive to her.

Rounding out the cast as a couple of Bruce’s trespasses, Patrick Stepp shows enough self-awareness as Roy, the yard boy that Bruce plies with drinks – while Mom is elsewhere in the house! – to let us suppose that all this isn’t as surprising to Roy as it might be to us. Or unprecedented. In a scene that Alison isn’t narrating from her own experience, giving Dad a small benefit of the doubt is probably the perfect path to take. A little more sugar – and a soaring flight of fancy – will help Alison bring an uneasy but upbeat closure to her engaging memoir