BNS Productions’ “Two Trains Running” Runs at Full Steam With a Deep Cast

Review: Two Trains Running

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Like all of the other plays I’ve seen in August Wilson’s epic Pittsburgh Cycle ­ and I’ve now seen nine of the 10 – Two Trains Running is about community struggle and personal redemption. Each of the dramas digs into one of decades of the 20th century, and after Brand New Sheriff began its Wilson explorations with Jitney and the 1950s, their sophomore effort at Spirit Square takes us into the turbulent 1960s.

With so much memorable social and civil rights upheaval in that decade, not to mention the horrifying Birmingham church bombing and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and MLK, it’s no surprise that community struggles are more at the forefront of this Wilson work than the others. As it was in the ‘50s, when we looked on the city through Jitney, Pittsburgh is continuing its predatory campaign to demolish the predominantly black Hill District in the name of urban renewal. After Becker’s gypsy cab depot in Jitney, the city is moving in on Memphis Lee’s Restaurant.

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Another young man is returning from incarceration and trying start a new life – but not quietly this time. Sterling is handing out leaflets for an upcoming Black Power rally and befriending Hambone, a mentally handicapped person who was cheated years ago by the white grocer across the street. At the same time, Sterling is seeking out a job or at least a lead from everyone else he speaks to at the restaurant. Standing up for other black people cheated by a white system – and for himself – Sterling is clearly a powder keg that will soon go off.

Memphis estimates that he’ll be back in prison in three weeks. As the days pass and he sees more of Sterling, who grabs whatever he can, Memphis will revise that estimate downwards.

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Sterling teaches Hambone a Black Power slogan, but Memphis isn’t so easily swayed. It’s the central issue for black people of that time, especially here in 1969 after the MLK murder. Do they wait patiently and peacefully for what is rightfully theirs, marching and petitioning to make their wishes known – or do they resort to the same kind of violence that kept their people down? Memphis insists on doing things the right way, holding out for a fair price from the city for his property, firing the craven lawyer who advises him to cave.

Looking at Memphis’s regular customers, you’ll find additional evidence that MLK’s ideas didn’t die with him. Nobody intends to join the rally. A more popular road to self-fulfillment is winning the daily numbers game at odds of 600-1, and it’s Wolf who haunts the place, taking all bets, often through unauthorized use of the restaurant’s phone. The sagely and cynical Holloway will play a number as readily as Memphis or Sterling, but to change your life, Holloway recommends a visit to Aunt Ester, the 322-year-old soothsayer who lurks behind a faithfully guarded red door in an alley down the block.

Risa, the troubled waitress who has scarred herself, disparages the men who throw their money away on the numbers. To her mind, they’d get a better return from their quarters if they just dropped them in the jukebox. Until recently, she’s been a follower of the Prophet Samuel, but currently her rock and redeemer is lying in state across the street at West’s Funeral Home. She has no desire to see the man in a casket, but Sterling goes through the long lines waiting to see the Prophet and snatches flowers from the site and presents them to Risa, whose head he’s trying to turn.

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It’s another illustrative instance of Sterling flouting decorum and convention. Why should her qualms get in the way of enjoying a few beautiful flowers that would die and be trashed in the next couple of days if she weren’t caring for them? West certainly doesn’t notice or mind, Sterling maintains. It’s true. When West comes by every day, he’s looking for Risa to serve him another cup of coffee and Memphis to accept his latest lowball offer for the restaurant.

The parallel rituals are significant, two of the sparkplugs that keep Wilson’s drama humming. The grocer fends off Hambone’s daily demand for the ham that was promised to him, and Memphis refuses to allow West to steal his property away for a bargain price.

BNS and director Corlis Hayes, in their second Wilson outing at Duke Energy Theater, are getting really good at this. Although smaller than the design the playwright describes, James Duke’s set captures the spirit of the time beautifully, perfectly calibrating the restaurant’s waning appeal so that we see it as a warm, welcoming place. Or at least we can imagine it that way, for Tim Bradley as Memphis is not at all the deferential restauranteur, arguing with customers, barking at Wolf for running numbers on his phone, bragging about duping West, bossing Risa unnecessarily, and expressing general disdain for his lazy people.

That’s all very much on the page, so Bradley finds ways to keep us empathizing with Memphis. Hayes and LeShea Stukes have far more latitude with Risa as we watch the waitress going about her job and reacting to various advances. Stukes plays her as sullen and cynical, allowing Risa’s resentment of her boss’s scolding tone to occasionally surface. Seeing her smile late in Act 2 is like seeing the sun come out after fives days of stormy weather. By the time that happens, we may suspect that the jukebox being out of order is troubling Risa as much as Prophet Samuel’s death and her boss’s bossiness.

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Devin Clark struts around as Wolf like an arrogant sleazeball, but there are more depths, contours, and vulnerabilities to him than the iconic Sportin’ Life as he talks about himself and strikes out with Risa. Ramsey Lyric’s costume designs certainly help Clark strut his stuff, but they also help us to chart Jonavan Adams’s progress in his portrayal of Sterling, fresh out of prison. Hayes and Adams have worked together before on Wilson’s plays, so they both know the strength, the brashness, and the seething frustrations of these strapping young men. Trust me, Adams’ work as Sterling is even more powerful and nuanced than his 2017 outing as Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

BNS continues to have admirable depth in their Wilson lineups. You can understand why Jermaine A. Gamble would gravitate to a role as salty as Holloway, whose sharp observations are mixed with a strong belief in the supernatural, expressed in an unwavering advocacy of Aunt Ester’s powers. Gamble makes Holloway a reasonable man, good reason for having this kind of restaurant around. He’s the neighborhood. But the disruptive Hambone, restricted to little more than one repeated line, wouldn’t jump out at you as a plum role to audition for. Dominic Weaver makes it one in a performance of astonishing intensity and authenticity.

It was probably a group effort to make Weaver look so frightfully grubby as Hambone, but Lyric and Hayes draw my kudos for the sensation West makes each time he enters. Wilson prescribes that the undertaker is always dressed in an all-black outfit, including black gloves that he wears indoors, but designers only add a black hat in about half the productions I’ve tracked on YouTube – and none of them are as imposing as the formal chapeau Lyric chooses for Sultan Omar El-Amin. Hayes layers onto this formality, decreeing that El-Amin must meticulously spread a napkin across his lap at each sitting.

With such outré ammo, El-Amin steals each of his scenes without raising his voice to a level that might lead you to seriously suspect that he doubts his own power. By the manner he holds his cup and saucer, you’d think he was at high tea! From a man who has specialized in portrayals of angry, resentful, and mixed-up young men, El-Amin’s confidently restrained performance as an established 60-year-old widower is a stunner.

Two Trains Running at Spirit Square is a good place to climb aboard the complete Pittsburgh Cycle that BNS is planning to present in coming seasons. You won’t miss a thing because BNS is planning to reprise its previous production of Jitney in May. Then they plan to present Radio Golf, the final drama in the Cycle – and Wilson’s last completed play – next season. Two Trains is not the last stop, but you’ll need to catch it this week before it closes.

 

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Bach Akademie Charlotte’s Epiphany Concert Includes Schütz and Amon Appetizers in a Cantata Feast

Review: Bach Akademie Charlotte’s Epiphany Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Word has spread quickly about Bach Akademie Charlotte, their professional choir, and their polyphonic excellence. After their biggest splash last spring, the first annual Charlotte Bach Festival with its Oregon Bach aspirations, Akademie reconnected with their audience in the fall with “Priceless Treasure: Bach and the Motet Tradition” at Christ Church Charlotte. They rekindled the flame in a midwinter program, “Epiphany Cantatas,” last Saturday night at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in front of a robust turnout. It wasn’t all Bach or all cantatas, with motets by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) and Blasius Amon (ca. 1560-1590) sprinkled in between, and while it’s always so apt to hear Bach’s sacred cantatas in a church, these were sung and played nearly four Sundays after this year’s Feast of Epiphany.

Programmed and conducted by artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett, rest assured that the concert was aptly themed on the Epiphany celebration. While the BA Cantata Choir was reduced in size to 12, about half the maximum number that performed the B Minor Mass last June, there was nothing off-season about its membership, including choristers and soloists who flew in from as far north as New York and as far west as California. The 18-member North Carolina Baroque Orchestra also sported ace guests who had traveled from afar.

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The opening piece of the evening, “Fallt mit Danken, Fallt mit Leben” (“prostrate yourselves with thanks and praise”), was easily the most extended work of the evening – but not exactly a cantata. Actually, it was the fourth part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and, celebrating the circumcision of Jesus, performed on New Year’s Day. Do the math, recall the Jewish custom, and you’ll know why. There’s a pretty little orchestral prelude before the chorus enters that gave hornists Chris Caudill and Rachel Niketopoulus a chance to shine, and once the Cantata Choir broke in, there were appealing spaces provided for oboists Geoffrey Burgess and Sung Lee. Burgess surpassed himself later on with his charming obbligato in the “Flösst, mein Feiland, Flösst dein Namen” (“does your name, my savior, instill”) aria where Molly Quinn floated her echoes, soprano to soprano, from upstage to Arwen Myers’s lead vocal up front.

As the Evangelist, tenor Bryon Grohman underscored the deeper significance of the circumcision, reminding us in “Und da Acht Tage” recitative that Jesus was given his name during that eighth-day ritual. Most impressive of the solo vocalists, starting with the length of his contribution, was bass baritone Jason Steigerwalt, who drew two recitatives during this piece. The first of these, “Immanuel, o Süsses Wort!” (“Emmanuel, oh sweet word!”), not only showed off Steigerwelt’s gorgeous lower range to better advantage, it pleasantly surprised us when three sopranos stood up to accompany him midway through.

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Instrumentally, some of the accompaniment for the soloists was spare, and while organist Nick Haigh played ably, a sweeter more robust instrument would have especially elevated the thinner recitatives. The Choir bolstered Steigerwalt’s second recitative, “Wohlan, dein Name Soll Allein” (“well then, your name alone”), effectively following the echo aria. Two violinists, Martha Perry and Janelle Davis, joined tenor Gene Stenger in his genial “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben” (“I will live only to honor you”) aria, with additional backup from Haigh, Simon Martyn-Ellis’s theorbo, and Susan Yelanjian’s violone. The two horns returned with the orchestra and Choir for the closing Chorale, raising the devotional level to exuberance and joy while repeatedly reminding us – with six mentions of the name Jesus – of the meaning of the day.

Schutz’s Das ist je gewisslich wahr, based on the testimonial recorded in the opening chapter of 1 Timothy, immediately impressed with the awesome layered entrance of the Choir in verse 15 (New RSV): “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.” Radically contrasting the slow opening bars of this motet with the speed-up that followed, Jarrett and his Cantata Choir dramatized the swiftness of Christ’s coming more emphatically than I’ve heard on any recording, with a light sense of liberation emanating from the women’s voices.

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Briefly showcased as the Evangelist in BWV 248.IV, Grohman made more indelible impressions in the tenor recitative and aria of Bach’s BWV 124 Cantata for January 7, Meinem Jesum, lass ich nicht (“I will not let go of my Jesus”). With Burgess excelling again in a lovely obbligato, Grohman was especially smooth in the aria, “Und wenn der herte Todesschlag” (“and when the cruel stroke of death”), notwithstanding its wide intervals. Burgess also sweetened the opening chorus, but they were all soon to be upstaged by the soprano-alto duet sung by Margaret Carpenter Haigh and countertenor Jay Carter, “Entziehe dich eilends, mein Herze, die Welt” (“withdraw swiftly, my heart, from the world”).

Jarrett boldly speculated that Amon’s three-minute motet, “Magi videntes stellam” (“the Magi, seeing the star”), was likely the composer’s Charlotte debut. Finding that the piece represents one-third of Amon’s output available on Spotify, I won’t dispute that assertion. “Rorat Coeli de super,” mixing solo and choral vocals, would be my choice as the best of the three Amon titles I’ve heard, but the Cantata Choir advocated beautifully for this moment of biblical revelation, and it was certainly a fitting bridge to Bach’s Epiphany Cantata, BWV 65, with its mentions of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

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No surprise, then, that Jarrett drew our attention to the gloss on the iconic gifts that Stenger would sing in his tenor recitative, equating gold with faith, frankincense with prayer, and myrrh with patience. Jarrett also welcomed back the horn players in his introductory remarks, pointing out the extra tubing that Caudill and Niketopoulus would be adding to their valveless instruments, allowing them to play lower than before. Burgess and Lee were also asked to stand and display their curved oboes da caccia, the third different kind of oboe they would play during the evening, having slipped a pair of oboe d’amores past us earlier.

First performed on Epiphany Sunday in 1724 and one of Bach’s earliest Leipzig compositions, Sie warden aus Saba alle kommen is framed by the chorus as the fulfillment of Isiah’s prophecy in 60:6, “all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” Steigerwelt returned to give the baritone’s recitative explicating the fulfillment of the prophecy. Then he sang a very lovely aria, “Gold aus Ophir ist zu schlecht” (“gold from Ophir is too base”), exhorting Christians to offer their hearts instead of mere gold as their gifts to the newborn. With its own orchestral intro, the climactic tenor aria, “Nimm mich dir zu eigen hin” (‘take me to you as your own”), offered Stenger the chance to match Steigerwalt’s exploits, and he responded with his heartiest, most heartfelt singing of the evening.

The orchestral postlude to Stenger’s aria, peppered with pulsing horns and exchanges between a pair of recorders, was actually livelier than the closing chorale, which brought the concert to a calm, anthemic close. Altogether, this Epiphany concert was a memorable enough feast to leave us looking forward to the 2019 Charlotte Bach Festival, already scheduled for June 7-16, culminating with performances of the St. Matthew Passion on the final two nights.

New Sheriff Greenlights a Complete Cycle

Preview: Two Trains Running

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Rory Sheriff, the founder and producer at Brand New Sheriff Productions – and the author of two works staged at Spirit Square, Be a Lion and Boys to Baghdad – has a special affinity with the work of August Wilson. After presenting Wilson’s Jitney at Duke Energy Theater in 2017, BNS is back this Thursday with Two Trains Running, another drama from Wilson’s acclaimed 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle.

The special appeal of America’s pre-eminent black playwright for Sheriff is twofold – as a writer and as a Pennsylvanian.

“As a playwright myself,” Sheriff explains, “I am fascinated with August Wilson’s style of writing, more so the characters he writes about. Growing up in Reading PA, I can relate to every last character, situation and location he speaks about in Two Trains Running. The beautiful thing is I can now see and understand these people from an adult point of view. They are my dad, his friends, my uncles, my neighbors. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m reliving my childhood through the works of Mr. Wilson.”

Each of the plays in Wilson’s Cycle is set in a different decade of the 20th century, and all of them are set Pittsburgh’s Hill District, except for one Chicago excursion representing the 1920s, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The only play that predates Ma Rainey was the one Sheriff first plunged into, Jitney, which premiered in 1982 and represents the 1940s. By the time Two Trains, representing the 1960s, premiered in 1990, Wilson had already finished six of the plays in his Cycle.

So Sheriff has honed in on decades that his dad and uncles would recognize, but as he takes us back to the days of Malcolm X and the rise of the Black Panthers, Sheriff is promising that Two Trains won’t be his last stop.

“Yes,” he proclaims, “BNS Productions is committed to producing all ten of Mr. Wilson’s works. We will produce at least one of his works every season. Here’s an exclusive: We will be ending this season with Jitney, and next season we will be doing Radio Golf.”

This extraordinary announcement comes during an extraordinary launch of Black History Month, with three theatrical productions featuring black performers opening in the same week – making some unprecedented Charlotte history. While Theatre Charlotte is waiting until the first of the month on Friday to open Ain’t Misbehavin’, Actor’s Theatre is jumping the gun, officially opening Nina Simone: Four Women on Wednesday.

None of these productions is miniscule, testifying to the depth of black acting and musical talent across the Queen City. So the time is ripe for Brand New Sheriff to be making bolder, more confident and ambitious plans.

Sheriff is definitely packing some high-powered ammunition onstage for Two Trains.

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“All of the actors in Two Trains Running have been in at least one Wilson play,” says Corlis Hayes, who will direct. Hayes is no slouch herself. Combined with the four she has directed at CPCC, where she teaches in the drama program, Hayes has now directed six of the 10 Pittsburgh plays, including the two Pulitzer Prize winners, Fences and The Piano Lesson.

Like Jitney, the action in Two Trains Running takes place in a building slated for acquisition and demolition by City of Pittsburgh. The wrongheaded concept of urban renewal evidently had a cancerous grip on black community life for a long time. Here it’s a restaurant rather than a gypsy cab company facing its doom, and the restaurant owner, Memphis, is our protagonist. He’s holding out for a fair price on his property – against the lowball bids of both the city and the ghoulish, rapacious West, who owns West’s Funeral Parlor across the street.

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Memphis also has some unfinished business back in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, where he was driven off his land many years earlier and not paid a dime. He’s typical of the black men in Wilson’s plays, struggling against a system that white society has rigged against them. Echoing that reality – or responding to it – men in both Jitney and Two Trains Running play the numbers, hoping that luck will supply the boost that honest work doesn’t.

Recently discharged from prison, another recurring Wilson motif, Sterling is trying to interest Memphis and his male customers in attending an upcoming Black Power rally. Jonovan Adams, who has performed in all the Wilson plays that Hayes staged at CP, will portray the restless, volatile Sterling. Activism isn’t his only pursuit: he asks everybody he speaks with for a job or at least a lead, and he’s persistently trying to make headway with Risa, Memphis’s troubled waitress.

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Estranged from his wife, Memphis seems to have a blind spot when it comes to women. Debating with Holloway, one of his older customers, about why Risa has mutilated herself, Memphis labels her dangerous while Holloway sees her as searching for someone who will love her true inner self.

“I feel both of these men hit on some truths about Risa,” says actress LeShea Nicole, whose previous venture into Wilson’s world was as Vera in the On Q Performing Arts production of Seven Guitars in 2015.

“Dangerous is definitely not a word I would use to describe Risa, because she never resorts to violence or threats, but I believe she feels ruined from some form or forms of abuse that she encountered in her past that has caused her to shut down socially/emotionally and even distort her appearance. Risa may feel ruined, but not beyond repair. She seeks guidance and solace from Prophet Samuel, which, in my eyes, equals hope.”

Working on her second Wilson drama, Nicole is switching companies and directors. The legendary Lou Bellamy, founder of Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minnesota, worked directly with Wilson on multiple occasions. Bellamy not only directed Nicole for On Q, he also directed her as an understudy for the Blumenthal Performing Arts production of The Mountaintop that played at Booth Playhouse in 2014.

In their first-ever collaboration, Nicole says that Hayes measures up.

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“I am extremely pleased and energized with her process of directing,” Nicole says. “She’s well versed and makes it her mission to stay true to Wilson’s vision. Dr. Hayes allows actors to explore, find depth in our characters and tap into our creative freedom without jeopardizing the integrity of the production. It is a tricky balancing act that she masters effortlessly. Hayes’ extensive acting career truly makes her an ‘actor’s director’ which is wonderful.”

Whether it’s Prophet Samuel, who lies in state at West’s funeral parlor, or it’s hitting the numbers; whether it’s promoting a Black Power rally or gleaning wisdom from the mysterious Aunt Ester, a 322-year-old soothsayer; the people of Two Trains Running are seekers. The emphasis on ritual especially sets this play apart from other plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle, according to Hayes, but there’s still a common thread.

“Always with Wilson,” Hayes observes, “reunion and reconciliation with the past heals the wounds of the present, bridges gaps between loved ones, and clears the path for a promising future.”

UNC Doctors Do No Harm in Charlotte Ballet’s “Shakespeare Reinvented”

Review:  Innovative Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When Shakespeare wrote his plays four centuries ago, he knew the word “ballet” – but not as we do. Back then, he used the word interchangeably with “ballad.” So yes, the man of so many words knew about dance, spoke about it over a hundred times in his works, but he was far more preoccupied with music and song. Collaborating with a couple of theatre heavyweights from UNC Charlotte, distinguished Shakespeare professor Andrew Hartley and department chair Lynne Conner, Charlotte Ballet is bridging the gap in their latest Innovative Works program at the Patricia McBride & Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance.

With Unsex Me Here, choreographed by Stephanie Martinez, and Let Be by Peter Chu, Shakespeare Reinvented seeks to wed ballet with the Bard. It’s not an unheard-of idea, but it is an unusual one.

Truly reinventing Shakespeare sets the bar higher than merely blending, of course, and it’s Martinez and Connor who take on that challenge most aggressively. Their core idea is that Shakespeare’s universe is male-dominated, as evidenced in such titles as Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, or Antony and Cleopatra. What would it be like to see that script flipped?

Martinez and Connor select four Shakespearean couples and give it a go. Some of the segments pair the couples as you would expect, Juliet with Romeo, Titania with Bottom, Lady Macbeth with Macbeth, and Kate with Petruchio. But each of the women, starting with a devastating Alessandra Ball James as Lady M in a devilish jumpsuit designed by Aimee J. Coleman, gets a solo spot – and so do the demoted heroes. At regular intervals, the men dance as a group, yet it seemed that more time was devoted to the women and their sorority.

Coleman’s costumes, along with a few props, served to differentiate between the characters. Twin panels with studio mirrors were the only scenery on the bare Center for Dance stage, most effective when the guys rolled them apart and, aided by JP Woodey’s lighting, the ladies made a dramatic upstage entrance.

Projected on the flipside of the mirrors – or prerecorded and delivered through the loudspeakers – text from the plays helped to orient us, and the soundtrack composed and constructed by Johnny Nevin and Peter de Klerk was heavily freighted with music by Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi to complete our time travels.

With so much sound and design necessary to orient us in the worlds of four Shakespearean couples, you may be dubious about how much a choreographer and her dancers can do to reinvent them. Other quibbles arise when men and women gather – presumably from different eras and countries – with no observable upshot or takeaway. Are we really contemplating gender when we watch a fairy queen cavorting with a donkey, or are we simply revisiting A Midsummer Night’s Dream and having some fun?

Martinez and Coleman definitely set the women free from their traditional moorings, particularly James as Lady M and Amelia Sturt-Dilley as Kate. If you’ve seen or studied Macbeth, you’re likely aware that the “unsex me here” quote comes from a Lady M soliloquy where she is steeling herself to commit regicide with her husband and seize the throne of Scotland. Perhaps less familiar is the quote gleaned from The Taming of the Shrew, “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” It comes from early in the first dialogue that Katherine has with Petruchio, shortly after he has obtained her father’s consent to take her hand in marriage – with a sizable dowry to go along with the prize.

Belying her customary wildness – downright frowziness in some productions I’ve seen – Sturt-Dilly is rather dazzlingly dressed, intimidating in a whole new way. Nothing comical or witty remains here to remind us of the male-female sparring that often enlivens Shakespeare’s comedies. Instead, Martinez channels all of the comedy into the Titania-Bottom encounter, as Sarah Lapointe vamps Peter Mazuroski to the tunes of a medley sung by Judy Garland from her iconic Judy at Carnegie Hall album. We can assume that we’re not seriously contemplating gender when Garland is crooning “For Me and My Gal.”

Clad in a simple summer dress, I mistook Sarah Hayes Harkins for Kate at first, but the rose she carries, referencing Juliet’s signature “that which we call a rose would smell as sweet,” should be a giveaway. Harkins gets to do some rather audacious stuff that we would not expect of a demure young teen, most notably when she brushes the flower across Ball’s hand and produces the large bloody spot that Lady M obsesses over so famously.

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Clocking in at an expansive 44+ minutes, Unsex Me Here was richly enjoyable and never struck me as an academic or PC rehab of these familiar men and women. Yes, it’s true that the guys – even Bottom – were deemphasized, but there was no detectable condemnation or belittlement. Aside from Mazurowki, who got to wear the donkey ears, the most characterful men were Ben Ingel as a soulful Romeo and Drew Grant as a somewhat malevolent Macbeth. No longer tasked to tame Kate and not visibly intimidated by her, it was hard to discern what was driving James Kopecky in his portrayal of Petruchio.

The Chu approach in Let Be, following the development of Hamlet’s character rather than his story, promised to be intriguing when I read the program notes. As the piece unfolded, I found it hard to connect anything I saw from Juwan Alston as the royal Dane with any developmental scheme whatsoever. Costume designs by Chu were a dreary gray and Woodey’s lighting wasn’t intended to dispel the gloom. Nor was the New Age musical score typified by Ólafur Arnalds’ “Nyepi.” Amorphous pods or globs were scattered across the stage when the lights came up, coalescing into a monkish Oriental style when dancers bloomed from them.

Instead of Ophelia, Horatio, the usurping King Claudius, or even Hamlet’s spectral father, these were the shades that surrounded our troubled prince. When the ensemble sprouted pomegranate-colored fans, they snapped them open and shut in unison. Only by reciting lines from the most recognizable soliloquies could we know that Alston was Hamlet. Pitted against performances of these greatest hits that you may have seen onstage or on film by great Shakespearean immortals – or your 11th grade English teacher – Alston fares as you might expect. Wisely, nobody is asking him to ascend into those heavenly spheres of eloquence, so there’s a vulnerable student simplicity to his speeches.

If no amazing synthesis or revelation emerges in Shakespeare Reinvented, there are no pretentious or stupid faux pas either, probably because these two talented choreographers didn’t allow their academic partners to get inside their heads – or their art. The dancers embrace the project with an enthusiasm that matches their talents, so the result constantly bristles with excitement and electricity.

Greek Gods Rock a Comeback

Review: The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Take it from a very hairy satyr – or a prancing centaur: “The gods are real!” That’s the emphatic message Rick Riordan delivered to Percy Jackson, the hero of his young adult novel, The Lightning Thief, in 2005. Five years later, the best-selling saga became a blockbuster movie, and now – after a modest off-Broadway run in 2017 – Riordan’s demigod is on tour in The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, and Knight Theater is one of his first stops.

Joe Tracz’ adaptation of Riordan’s story leans more towards the book than the movie, and Rob Rokicki’s songs add a rocking dimension to Lightning, pushing Percy’s youthful voltage decisively into defiant adolescence – and away from the 12-year-olds who were the original protagonists. But that boost doesn’t compare with the jumpstart this new musical delivers for the Greek gods.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

You need to remember that these mighty Olympians were already fairly passé in the days of the Roman Empire when Zeus’s name was changed to Jove and Odysseus became Ulysses. Revivals of the Greek gods by 20th century novelists and poets were about the potency of myth rather than the truth of religion – and Homer’s heroes were more likely to be the focus than the immortals on Olympus.

We hear some definite rumblings from Olympus before the action begins at Knight Theater. Before we learn that Zeus’s lightning has been stolen and that Percy is a prime suspect, the lad’s field trip to the Metropolitan Museum – yes, in New York – is punctuated by attacks from a harpy and a minotaur.

Yeah, a very mighty somebody is angry with Percy, and the kid really has a lot to learn. After he gets expelled from school, the long-overdue lessons begin. Mom breaks the news that Dad, if not a great parent, was and is unquestionably great. But before Sally can specify Percy’s divine lineage, his implacable pursuers strike again. Now in hindsight, I could second-guess Zeus and politely assert that it would have been more sensible for him to send a more articulate messenger than a minotaur to ask Percy where he’d hidden the damn lightning.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

So be advised, action comic book logic often prevails here – which is not very much out of step with the illogic of Greek mythology. When Percy awakens from a coma three days later, he finds himself motherless and enrolled at Camp Half-Blood up in Long Island, together with other kids whose divine parents are equally neglectful. Needless to say, the animus bred among these teenage demigods by their absentee parents chimes well with the Rokicki rock score.

Percy is doubly different from the rest. Until deep into Act 1, he doesn’t know whose son he is. On a dark night, the revelation from Dad will be truly spectacular as Percy and his fellow campers look up in the sky and – amid the obligatory earthshaking tremors – see the god’s signature trident blazoned among the stars. Heavenly signs are the stuff you hear heroes speak about in plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, a dramatic effect that Shakespeare shrewdly revived.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The other distinction that separates Percy is his getting selected to go on the quest to somehow retrieve the stolen lightning and prevent all-out warfare from breaking out among the gods. It’s here that Riordan takes us all the way back to the heroes of Homer’s epics. Just as there was tension and moodiness on the fields of Troy where Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, Hector, and Paris trod, there are rivalries and animosities among the half-blood campers. Annabeth, neglected by Mama Athena, wants to join Percy and prove herself. Others channel their jealousy, resentment, and antagonism into undermining him.

Up above, the unseen gods are supporting their neglected children, using them as instruments against one another, very much like Homer described them behind the scenes of the Trojan War. Mars and Mercury, the gods with Roman names, are sponsoring kids at camp who are going to make it tough on the offspring of Zeus and Poseidon. Singing rock songs with amped-up intensity and sincerity amid flashing lights and minimal scenery, these relentlessly energetic teens do occasionally seem like avatars in a video game.

I guess that’s because so much of the energy is channeled into the music.

Kristen Stokes as Annabeth sported the best vocal chops among our protagonists, but the role of Athena’s daughter isn’t nearly as meaty as the lead. Chris McCarrell is your fairly generic rock ‘n’ roll lead, not quite as iconoclastic as the Footloose outsider at his core, but he’s marvelously awed and illuminated by his magic sword and his mission. Somehow his determined edge never grows stale.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

 

But as often happens with pure heroes and superheroes, Percy and Annabeth are often upstaged by the more outré characters they pal around with or confront. Three of the five supporting players have multiple roles to feast on, and I still find myself torn about which scene stealer I liked most. Perhaps because he rocked the most costumes, I’m giving the nod to Ryan Knowles as Chiron, Hades, and Poseidon. Knowles starts out as Percy’s teacher and principal before he reveals himself as a centaur – not an unreasonable stretch, since the original Chiron tutored such adventurers as Achilles and Jason.

Likewise, Percy’s classmate Grover reveals himself as a satyr when our hero comes out of his coma, the pagan equivalent of a guardian angel. Yet somehow, he moonlights as Mr. D, the godly camp director who presides over admissions in a manner that suggests a Hawaiian bartender. Jalynn Steele spends the largest chunk of her stage time as Percy’s mom, warmly nurturing and humdrum, but she gets the most startling cameo as Mrs. Dodd, the substitute teacher who turns into a very shrill harpy. Given a couple of chances to sing, Steele proves to have ample reserves of voltage and sizzle.

Okay, so maybe the gods aren’t real. At Knight Theater, in The Lightning Thief, they’re still a lot of fun.

Enormously Powerful “Mother Jones in Heaven” Could Use More Breathing Space

Review: Mother Jones in Heaven

By Perry Tannenbaum

mother jones photo credit brian kasher

Anybody who has walked by a well-stocked newsstand in the past 40 years has heard of Mother Jones, but fewer people can tell you anything about the real-life woman who inspired the magazine. You can now be handsomely schooled at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center by Vivian Nesbitt, who portrays the rabble-rousing labor activist in a fast-moving production of Si Kahn’s musical narrative, Mother Jones in Heaven. A treasured Charlotte resident until he grows restless and sets out for the West Coast, Kahn himself has been a community and labor organizer for over a half century while composing an imposing catalog of songs in a traditional folk style. He is supremely qualified to empathize with the tribulations of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones’s life and to give her pugnacious personality musical expression. In Nesbitt, he has found an actress who is ideally suited to bring us a Mother Jones who is beautifully devoid of acting or singing self-regard.

Unfortunately, the natural instincts of these artists were subjected to the whims of director Alice Jankell, who presented the show, winner of a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award in 2014, as if it were a work-in-progress sorely in need of workshopping. At the post-performance talkback on opening night, Jankell asked the audience the right questions, namely what worked well and what left us confused – the polite way of asking what didn’t work. But the feedback process was doubly perverted. We were answering these questions about a script that had been severely edited. A production in Canada reportedly ran 90 minutes as recently as a couple of months ago, but the Warehouse version clocked in at under 70. Jankell confided that it had been necessary to abridge Kahn’s script to 60 minutes in order to bring this version to a fringe festival in Asheville, but she was dismissive toward those portions that hadn’t been restored, labelling them as research findings that would be interesting to the playwright and not to us. Further compromising the process, the person who most needed to judge what was working and what was not, Kahn himself, was not in the audience.

It’s hard to say what the missing 20 minutes of playing time would have fleshed out. Perhaps we would have learned the names of all four of Mother’s biological children who died from yellow fever during an epidemic in Memphis. Or we may have sampled some of the rhetoric in Mother’s speeches that inspired her figurative children, most notably the oppressed coalminers of West Virginia. Or maybe, Mother Jones in heaven was emboldened to tell some of the self-mythologizing lies she told on earth in her autobiography, only to come clean in the presence of the angels who make up her audience. Maybe all the factoids we missed might have bored us, just as Jankell feared. Maybe not.

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Aside from the additional texturing that the full script would have provided, it would also have supplied much-needed breathing space between songs. The effect of a couple of them – there are at least 10 songs – was stifled by how soon they followed on the heels of their predecessors, with little substance to feed upon. And more of Nesbitt as Mother Jones would axiomatically be a plus. Confounding the radical working-class preconceptions we might have had about “the most dangerous woman in America,” Jones arrives in heaven rather primly dressed. Yet as much as she is gratified to see us, her fellow angels in heaven, what makes her feel most at home is the old Irish pub that is set up for her, where she picks out a favorite bottle and pours out the libations that will lubricate her tongue. It reminds her of the place where she was fired from one of her prestigious union positions.

The formative events in Mother Jones’s life, the yellow fever epidemic of 1867 and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, happened earlier than I would have thought, but the celebrated – and somewhat catastrophic – Children’s March on the residence of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 took us into the 20th century where I had always placed her. There are subsequent references to Warren G. Harding and the likely apocryphal telegram he sent to her in 1921, so the old firebrand was very much in the thick of the labor movement well into her final decade. Her ascent to the storefront Warehouse stage presumably occurs upon her death in 1930 at the age of 93.

Joining Nesbitt onstage is her husband, John Dillon, on guitar, providing a quiet relaxedpresence. The songs he played; including “Mother Jones’ Farewell to Ireland,” “Silk and Satin,” “The Whiskey Ring and the Railroad Trust,” and the anthemic valedictory, “I Was There”; date back to at least 2004 on CD. Another title, “Tarpaper Shacks,” has been out since at least 2007, so the legacy of Mother Jones and her crusading themes have been aging and maturing in Kahn’s mind for a long time. In the choicest passages of Kahn’s dialogue, Nesbitt gets to describe the injustices, the horrors, and the deformities that enflame Mother Jones’s righteous rage. Even in this capsulized form, Nesbitt’s performance is quite a sight to behold, enormously powerful when she reaches full throttle.

 

 

Bourne Again in the London Blitz

Review: Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Enemy aircraft buzzes across the London skies at all hours, bomb blasts shake the earth and light up the night, and tall buildings you have known your whole life are in flames or rubble. So who are the people you hate most in life? If you’re the protagonist in Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, it isn’t Hitler or Nazi Germany. No, you’re likely still bedeviled by that nasty stepmom of yours and those dang stepsisters who are constantly lording over you. Sir Matthew – who has brought us Sleeping Beauty, The Red Shoes and Edward Scissorhands during the new millennium – has transported dear Cindy into the frenetic heart of the London Blitz. With projection design by Duncan McLean, lighting by Neil Austin, and surround sound by Paul Groothuis, he has plenty of brilliant accomplices in the heist.

Setting his scenario to Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet score, the famed choreographer only seems to be going off the rails in adapting mankind’s most universal tale to his own purposes. So many variants of Cinderella have been told around the world that Children’s Theatre of Charlotte had no hesitation about staging their own little anthology, Cinderellas of the World, in 1995 – or presenting no less than three more Cinderellas since, a commedia, a salsa, and most recently, a Jazz Age Cinderella riff in 2015.

Bourne’s is different enough – and of course, non-verbal enough – to present some difficulties for youngsters and oldsters expecting the usual castle, fairy godmother, and pumpkin coach. Or a dashing eligible prince at an elegant evening ball. After flashing the title on a scrim, specifying the time and place, and running a quaint British newsreel on what to do during an aerial assault, this production leaves you on your own to figure things out. It’s helpful to peep into your playbill before the lights go down.

Keeping his New Adventures troupe busy, Bourne adds a trio of stepbrothers to Cindy’s domestic tormentors – and an invalid father, the only family member truly worthy of our heroine’s suffering toil. Stepmom Sybil and stepsisters Irene and Vivian are marginally less cruel than you might remember them, substantially more urban and well-to-do. Costumer and designer Lez Brotherston is not to be constrained by the presence of working-class drones, that’s for sure.

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Dressed in a matching hat and dress long before it’s time to depart, Mom is more likely to take a swig of her favorite alcoholic beverage than worry about her daughters’ matrimonial prospects or fawn over a young prince. There are Blanche DuBois elements for Madelaine Brennan ((alternating with Anjali Mehra in this double-cast production) to offer us in this role, but she might also bob her like a duck leading her gaggle of children. Or she might wink at a budding homosexual relationship between two young military men. She’s full or surprises, our most rounded character.

Invitations do arrive for a posh social event. None of them, of course, gets handed out by the evil Stepmom to Cinderella, who is chiefly beset by a stepbrother who is hyperactive, another who fetishizes her beloved sparkly shoes, and her father’s frailty. Cherishing those dazzling shoes already in her possession does not preclude an outbreak of magic, though you shouldn’t expect mice or gourds. A sleek silvery vision, Paris Fitzpatrick descends on the family drawing room long before Mom, the sibs, and their escorts vacate the stage.

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The Angel begins his ministrations by bringing Cinderella her true love through the front door. He is not a prince. Instead, he is Harry, The Pilot – literally heaven-sent if you take the notion that, staggering into the hall in a bomber’s jacket, he has been shot out of the sky during an aerial battle. Whether shot out of a plane or injured on the ground by an exploding bomb, Harry’s head bandage – and his dance moves – clearly announce that he’s been seriously wounded. With Cindy’s true love already in view, there must be a major adjustment to the family’s antagonism. They throw the unwanted visitor out onto the street before gaily departing for their soiree.

There is a bit of sleepy fantasy before Cinderella follows his sibs, enough for Bourne to skip over The Angel’s more magical exploits. No spells or fairy dust are cast before we have adjourned to the Café de Paris. Yet all can admire her there as she makes her climactic entrance midway during Act 2 to the music Prokofiev composed for this breathtaking moment, descending a winding staircase against the backdrop of the Club’s midnight-blue curtains. Not only have Cinderella’s gray cardigan and drab skirt been tossed aside, her hair is so newly gilded that we can readily forgive Harry for not recognizing her. Later, when she reverts to mousiness, the split-up pair of slippers credibly affirms her identity.

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Ashley Shaw is every bit as luminous now as Cinderella as she was when we first saw her in 2013 as Sleeping Beauty – and a little more poignant. The scenario is darker here in some ways, for this heroine isn’t assailed at the very awakening of her womanhood. Amid the cinders of a grimy London under attack, time is beginning to pass Cinderella by. Bourne feels that the gravity of wartime infuses Prokofiev’s score, which premiered in 1946, and it certainly suffuses the chemistry that the choreographer/director creates between Cindy and Harry.

Here there is a romantic postlude after the soiree scene and, unlike elegant princes who have courted Cinderella before, Andrew Monoghan bares his chest as Harry on their first night. Amusingly enough, Prokofiev’s music demands unmistakably, insistently and loudly that midnight has arrived, even if Bourne’s storyline hasn’t imposed any previous restrictions or curfews. It’s during Cinderella’s frantic return through the streets of London, as a relentless bombardment crescendos, that Brotherston reminds us most spectacularly of his presence.

This is where we can say that Bourne really does improve upon the chaste fairytale we all know. Both the separation and the reunion of his lovebirds prove to be freshly emotional and moving.

Turning “Nutcracker” on Its Head

Review: The Hip Hop Nutcracker

By Perry Tannenbaum

Hip Hop Nutcracker - Dolby Theatre - November 17, 2017

When Mike Fitelson’s holiday riff on ballet and Tchaikovsky, The Hip Hop Nutcracker, first invaded Charlotte three years ago, it wasn’t quite where it needed to be artistically. The brash pre-show at Booth Playhouse presented by DJ Boo somewhat upstaged the pallid pre-recorded Peter Ilyich score that backed Fitelson’s updated scenario and Jennifer Weber’s choreography. Nocturnal settings by video designer Moe Shahrooz recalled the Washington Heights portrayed in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights – moody and occasionally surreal but drained of the Miranda musical’s inner-city vitality and color.

The Fitelson scenario definitely perks up the traditionally moribund Act 2. Instead of sitting his Clara and her Nutcracker down for the better part of an hour to watch a series of decorative dances, Fitelson sends his Maria-Clara voyaging back 30 years where, in Back to the Future style, she encounters her perennially bickering parents back on the night when they first met at the Land of Sweets nightclub – getting to see them freshly at the moment romantic love first sparked between them.

Very promising, but the show needed some extra spark itself.

Produced by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the show has returned to the Queen City every year since its forgettable 2015 debut. Yeah, when I booked this year’s reprise at Knight Theater, I’d actually forgotten that we had seen it before. Thankfully, I review stuff. And thankfully, the Knight is exactly where this Nut needs to be.

Memories did not come rushing back when the show began. Kurtis Blow, a founding father of hip hop, hadn’t been part of the Booth Playhouse production, but at the Knight, he rules the pre-show for just over 18 minutes. He’s not the first performer I’ve ever seen who has asked an audience to get up on their feet or to raise their arms and sway back and forth nonsensically, but I’m sure he’s the first who has ever asked me and the rest of the crowd to SCREAM. Over and over.

So audience participation at the Knight has increased exponentially over what I experienced at the Booth. The Knight also has more than twice the Booth’s seating capacity. And since word-of-mouth and repetition have solidified Hip Hop Nutcracker as a holiday tradition, the Knight was sold-out on opening night and enthusiasm stretched to the back row of the balcony.

There is even a subtle tie-in between Blow’s aggressive patter and the dance that follows. Signed in 1979 as the first rapper to land a major-label recording contract, Blow presents his music as unabashedly “old school” and invites his audience to immerse itself in his original vibe, prefiguring the time traveling that Maria-Clara will do before she mends her parents’ dysfunctional relationship.

Things started looking familiar when violinist Jarvis L. Benson took his spot under the neighborhood lamppost and began playing Tchaikovsky’s antique melody line over Boo’s contemporary backbeat and platter scratching. You might say that, as the melody wafts upwards, it infuses the pair of red sneakers slung over the lamppost with magical powers. Our hero, The Nutcracker, sells his namesake merchandise from a ramshackle cart. He’s obviously attracted to Maria-Clara but painfully shy, and when he gallantly steps forward to save her from the unwanted attentions of a local gang, Nutcracker gets his ass kicked.

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Big difference when those sneakers improbably fall to the ground and Nutcracker puts them on. What vanquishes the gang is even more improbable: Josue “Beastmode” Figueroa as Nutcracker executes a bodacious spin on his head that lasts longer than you might think humanly possible. Literally turning The Nutcracker on its head during its climactic Act 1 battle.

While there are some dolorous and becalmed moments elsewhere in Act 1 in the ensemble choreography, the Knight Theater sound system is noticeably superior, punchier. So as the Nutcracker soundtrack plays, we never get the sense that the Jerseyites are dancing to elevator music. Although Ann-Sylvia Clark is a holdover from the 2015 edition as Maria-Clara, everyone else besides Boo was new to me and eager to strut their stuff. Weber’s choreography leaves plenty of room for exuberant freestyling.

Beastmode, with his appealing rough edges, was the most impressive newcomer for me, but I also like the pixie exuberance and stealth of Lisa “LBoogie” Bauford as Drosselmeyer. Forget the “Herr.” The Hip Hop Drosselmeyer has been a woman each time I’ve seen Fitelson’s version, symptomatic of the diversity in Weber’s casting. Yes, she choreographs and directs.

Sad to say, Nubian Nene is less seductive and more proper as Mom, draining all the comedy from her strife with Dad, though Micah “Just Jamz” Abbrey is every bit as crotchety as his predecessor. New charm and whimsy are injected into the evening by Dustin Payne, whose solo as Flute deservedly received the most audience approval among the Act 2 set pieces on opening night.

Shahrooz’s animations become livelier after intermission, responding to Drosselmeyer’s conjurations and transporting us back to 1988. The backwards time traveling is done like a subway ride, the years spelt out in the tiling on walls surrounding the track – with an increased amount of graffiti as we reach our destination. Perhaps a nod to Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his unparalleled success in “cleaning up” New York? The trip back to the present day takes us skyward as an elevated train reels in the years across the nighttime cityscape.

Wondering whether Kurtis returns? You can bet on it. Loquaciousness undimmed, he presides over the most elaborate curtain calls you will ever behold at a ballet. Many people left before it became apparent that we would have a full-fledged post-show over eight minutes long. Many more stayed – and obliged the special guest MC by screaming on cue. Not quite 60 years old, Blow even busted some moves.

Seasonal Cheer Prevails Over Weather Woes at Belmont Abbey’s Holiday Concert

Review:  Belmont Abbey’s Holiday Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The Abbey Basilica, a signature building on the Belmont Abbey College campus, is an admirable place for a community gathering during the Yuletide season, so it was a little disappointing that dire forecasts of foul winter weather kept so many locals away from this year’s Arts at the Abbey Holiday Concert. Rain wasn’t expected to turn to snow and sleet for another five hours, so I had no qualms about hitting the highway for the 25-mile trip – after making sure the show would go on. Beginning with Abbey organist, chorus leader and voice class instructor 2018~Belmont Abbey Holiday_0001

Karen Hite Jacob’s inaudible welcome over an underpowered PA system, the concert didn’t launch with the celebratory spirit I had expected. After witnessing the debut of the 86-member Charlotte Master Chorale the previous evening, I presumed that the Abbey Chorus would be smaller but at least the size of Chanticleer, a 12-man outfit when I last reviewed them a decade ago.

Abbey Chorus had nine members, not all of them students. Also on hand were a quintet from the Voice Class and three young instrumentalists. Grouped on the steps leading up towards the altar, the Abbey Chorus began in a manner was studious and a bit nervous. It would be unfair to say they were informally dressed, but they were neither gaily attired in holiday fashion nor uniformly dressed as you might find when Chanticleer or the Charlotte Symphony Chorus perform in town or when Westminster Choir annually visits Spoleto Festival USA. When they began singing “Bright the Holly Berries” and then “Angel’s Lullaby,” it was evident that the rudiments of performing weren’t a part of their curriculum. Year after year, when the Westminster Choir travels to Charleston from their classes at Rider University, it’s obvious that every member of that ensemble has been schooled in the importance of smiling, relaxing, and enjoying yourself if you’re expecting to deliver joy to your audience.

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Justifications for the Abbey Chorus’s nervousness began to fade when they reached “Bring a Torch,” where the singers, three women and six men, began to harmonize more smoothly and veer toward confidence. “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” was even better, and I detected a smile on one of the ladies’ faces. Interspersed with appearances by the Voice Class and the instrumentalists, the Chorus sang two more sets before joining with the Voice Class – and the audience – for a parting bouquet of songs. Each new Chorus set was better than the last. The unfamiliar songs, John Rutter’s “Donkey Song” and his setting for Shakespeare’s “Blow, Thou Winter Wind” (As You Like It) outshone Loonis McGlohon’s arrangement of the traditional “Silent Night” by Franz Xaver Gruber. While the song brought little cheer to the singers’ faces, I’m sure the act of singing to a donkey carrying Mary, watching over the newborn Jesus, and sleeping in his manger stall before encouraging him to skip for joy as he went on his way brought many a smile throughout the hall.

I thought the Abbey Chorus were at their best when they were most challenged in their final set, particularly in Antonio Lotti’s setting of “Regina Coeli,” where the ensemble’s harmonizing rose to the stratospheric level the composer invokes. With “While Shepherds Watched,” it was good to see that Nahum Tate had survived the ancient drubbing he took from Alexander Pope in The Dunciad with this fine setting by Lowell Mason. “All Is Calm. All Is Bright” was the most fascinating selection of the evening, redeeming the earlier inclusion of “Silent Night” with a new musical setting of the same Joseph Mohr lyric by John Michael Trotta.

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Of the three movements that Margaret Mauney played on viola from Bach’s Suite 1 in G, I most enjoyed the lilt of her playing on the Courante. Paired with harpist Ashleigh Jones on “Greensleeves” and this time playing her violin, Mauney was more relaxed with comparable results. Jones ranked for me as the revelation of the evening, for the sound of her beautiful harp filled the hall more fully than I would have imagined as she opened with Marilyn Marzuki’s arrangement of “As Lately We Watched.” Even when I was accustomed to the opulent sound, the effect was still beatific when Jones concluded her soloing with Marzuki’s arrangement of Adolphe Adam’s “O Holy Night.” Part of the wonder of the sound emanating from Jones’s harp was that it immediately followed – and measured up to – Caleb Kualii’s performance at the Abbey’s baby grand. Kualii was no slouch, either, playing Charles Grobe’s “Adeste Fidelis With Variations.” At least one of the movements was in 3/4 time, and Kualii didn’t shrink from the infectious sway of it.

Jacob remained busy at three different keyboards during the evening, starting out at a cunning little portable when she led and accompanied the Abbey Chorus, moving over to the piano for Voice Class’s selections, and concluding at the house organ, where she startled me a little, suddenly bringing the mighty pipes at the rear of the hall to life. There was a quaint family feeling as the five members of the Vocal Class, two men and three women, huddled up behind Jacob at the keyboard for their segment and sang “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” followed by “Winter Wonderland.” From this wee sampler, I preferred the students’ style in the sacred piece to their seasonal effort.

With hymnals nestled conveniently in the backs of the benches in front of us, it was easy for the audience to stand and join the combined Abbey Chorus and Vocal Class in a community singing of “Angels from the Realms” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The sudden blast from the organ loft added to this special moment. If you knew the tunes or could readily sight read, there was no difficulty at all in keeping up with the performers through multiple stanzas, and a celebratory vibe finally swept the hall. Between these lovely hymns, there was a satisfying union of the Chorus and Vocal Class on “Alleluia, Gelobet sei Gott.” Aside from Francis Browne’s translation of Erdmann Neumeister’s original lyric, Jacob’s handy program notes pointed out that this song, taken from Bach’s Cantata 142 for Christmas Day is now widely considered to be by Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.

Newly-Minted Charlotte Master Chorale Couples with NC Baroque for Wonderful “Messiah”

Review: Handel’s Messiah

By Perry Tannenbaum

Backed by the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, formerly the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, performances of Handel’s Messiah by the Symphony have been a fairly consistent holiday staple over the years. Since 2002, the only gaps on my calendar have occurred in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2016. Until this year, when Symphony passed on performing the Handel masterwork, Symphony Chorus would also sit out. But with the new Charlotte Bach Festival spreading its wings here, in Gastonia, and in Winston-Salem over a full week in June, piloted by former Oratorio Singers music director Scott Allen Jarrett, there’s a new Baroque fervor in the air – and evidently new connections for the Charlotte Symphony Chorus and current Symphony director of choruses Kenney Potter to explore. As a result, Symphony Chorus, newly rebranded for the holidays as the Charlotte Master Chorale (with a PO box in Matthews, so stay tuned), is giving three Messiah performances under Potter’s direction. Joining them for two of the performances at First United Methodist Church – and the third in Gastonia – is the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, which certainly enhanced its stature at the June festival.

The concerts mark the return of the Chorale to First United, performing Messiah there for the first time since they were still the Oratorio Singers in 2004, but it obviously represents a departure as well, for the 24-member NC Baroque performs on authentic period instruments, including two valveless trumpets and a double-necked theorbo, and its musicians adhere to Baroque performance practices. Though originally presented in a concert hall, I couldn’t help feeling that the church, the authentic instruments, and the reduced orchestra brought us closer to the Messiah that Handel originally imagined – and what amazed Dubliners actually heard in 1742. Compared to Belk Theater, which flings the sound of the Chorus at us, First United seemed to cuddle, warm, and slightly mute Master Chorale’s sound before it wafted over the musicians’ heads. From beginning to end, they were ideal, exactly what you would hope for in a city known for its churches.

Perhaps the best example of the Baroque Orchestra’s mettle was in its effortlessly fleet introduction to Master Chorale’s “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” and in the gritty churning of the strings that underpinned the climaxes at “Wonderful! Counselor!” The ensemble’s jubilation was thrilling and infectious, but they also showed their affinity for sacred music when they dug into the intro and accompaniment for “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” Individually, I would single out the work of first trumpeter Doug Wilson in the triumphant “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”

Of course, the biggest variables at annual iterations of Messiah are the solo vocalists. How would Potter fare on recruitment? Here we had the best news of all, for all four of the guest performers were eager, strong, confident, and at ease. Soprano Awet Andemichael and countertenor Timothy Parsons were seated on the audience left side of the stage, with tenor David Vanderwal and bass baritone Jesse Blumberg at our right. Evaluating their performances is largely a matter of cataloguing what each of them sang and lauding the pure tone, genuine feeling, and impeccable breath control they brought to each piece, with the possible exception of Vanderwal, who only had one extended chance to shine and hit his home run on “Thou Shalt Break Them” late in the evening, making his mark with the rigor of his attack on the verbs, break and dash.

Andemichael was the most facially expressive and theatrical of the soloists, showcasing her soothing declamatory capabilities in the “I bring you good tidings” recitative and the suppleness of her coloratura in “Rejoice, Greatly.” Listening to Parsons on “Thou That Tellest Good Tidings,” I admired his ability to reach the low note of “Judah” without scooping, as many contraltos do, but I worried whether he would be able to attack the “He Was Despised and Rejected” air with the necessary forcefulness. Not only did he render “He gave His back to the smiters” with true grit, he also managed to negotiate “spitting” without sounding pompous or silly.

Here it should probably be mentioned that the vocalists were refreshingly uncommitted to authenticity, adding the extra syllable at the end of past-tense verbs only when the melody compelled it. Blumberg especially gratified me when he didn’t add the extra syllable to “The People That Walked in Darkness” every time he repeated the verb. A relaxed, America manner is not amiss here. From the moment we began to hear Blumberg’s well-rounded low notes, I knew that he could rank among the best basses I’ve heard live in Messiah since I first became enamored of it in the late ‘60s up in New York at Queens College. While I might have liked to hear the conspiratorial decrescendos some more theatrical singers employ to add a little twinkle to “all nations” – after a mighty “shake the heavens” – the range, authority, and sheer beauty of Blumberg’s singing were nonpareil. Coupled with Wilson’s virtuosity, Blumberg’s was the best “Trumpet Shall Sound” I’ve heard anytime, anywhere.