Tag Archives: Adam Burke

Hope in the Time of COVID Sees Sleeping Beauty Reawakening in December

Review:  The Arts in the Time of COVID

By Perry Tannenbaum

The COVID collapse happened quickly on March 13. “We were hours away from the curtain rising on our all-new Fairy-Tailored Sleeping Beauty when we had to postpone the season,” says Hope Muir, Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director. On the morning before that, Charlotte Symphony’s new director of communications, Deirdre Roddin, met with me to discuss future concert coverage at this publication. But the upcoming Saint-Saëns Organ Concerto concert would soon be postponed, among the first performing arts dominoes to fall to the pandemic in the week that followed – along with an annual Women in Jazz fest at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the annual Charlotte Jewish Playwriting Contest at the Levine JCC, a chamber music concert at the Bechtler Museum, and Theatre Charlotte’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Tom Gabbard, president and CEO at Blumenthal Performing Arts, last attended a live show on March 11 – in the UK, before he and his wife Vickie returned home and tested positive for COVID-19. The Gabbards quarantined and recovered, but by the day after Ballet’s postponement, Gabbard had announced that all events at all Blumenthal venues were suspended through April 12. Complying with NC Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order suspending all public gatherings of 100 or more people, the Blumenthal directive took all decision making on the Saint-Saëns concert, scheduled for March 20, out of Symphony’s hands. Both of CSO’s primary venues, Belk Theater and Knight Theater, are managed by Blumenthal.

So far, Symphony has had to cancel 49 concerts. “That’s obviously a huge blow to the organization, both artistically and financially,” says Michelle Hamilton, CSO’s interim president and CEO. “The estimated financial impact of these concerts alone is in excess of $1.5 million. This does not include the impact of the pandemic on future concerts and attendance.”

On the revenue side, Opera Carolina wasn’t as seriously damaged as Symphony, losing just one event, an extensively revised version of Douglas Tappin’s I Dream. “The company received support through the Payroll Protection Plan [PPP],” says Opera artistic director, James Meena. “That has allowed us to maintain our staff and redirect funds to our new online series iStream, which has provided employment to our resident company.”

PPP funding has flowed to the most established arts organizations in Charlotte, including Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, Blumenthal Performing Arts, and Charlotte Symphony. “However,” Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke points out, “the PPP was designed to help organizations through what Congress thought was going to be a short-term, 8-week issue.”

Blumenthal drew the largest PPP allotment, $1.7 million, that helped with payroll in May and June. “We avoided furloughs until July 5,” says Gabbard, “when three full-time and 114 part-time team members were furloughed – 105 full-time remain, mostly working from home, with some working in the venues on various maintenance projects. PPP made a big difference.”

What lies ahead for all Charlotte performing arts groups is very murky, subject to weekly health directives from city or state government officials loosening or tightening restrictions. “Opera is dealing with a multitude of challenges,” says Meena, “caused by COVID-19 and now the 43% reduction in ASC [Arts & Science Council] support for the 2020-2021 season. We are evaluating audience concerns for attending performances, and perhaps more dauntingly, health and safety concerns for our performing company.

“Singing is one of the most effective ways to spread the coronavirus. Many church choirs are rehearsing remotely, so imagine a 50-voice opera chorus, principal artists, extras and the more than 30 technicians who normally work on an opera production. Additionally, health and safety concerns for the orchestra musicians (imagine being confined – maybe consigned is a better word – to the orchestra pit where social distancing is all but impossible) are challenges to performing Grand Opera that we have never experienced before.”

All of the companies we’ve mentioned have pivoted to online programming, but all weren’t equally prepared to make the switch. Charlotte Ballet, the first company impacted by the COVID ban on public assembly, was quickest to steer a fresh course. “I had implemented a much more robust structure for archiving and curating digital content over the past three years,” says Muir, “not just performance footage but interviews with artists, designers, collaborators and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage as well as the documentation of the Choreographic Lab. That commitment, I think, is why we were able to get out of the gate so quickly.”

Raiding their digitized vaults, Ballet was able to present Dispersal online, repackaging the company’s Innovative Works 2019 program with behind-the-scenes footage for a new kind of digital experience on March 27, just two weeks after Sleeping Beauty had been scheduled to premiere. Opera Carolina’s iStream series began in April and is archived on its YouTube channel, while Charlotte Symphony has logged an assortment of live Zoom and pre-recorded material online. For six straight Wednesday evenings, ending on July 29, they streamed a series of Al Fresco chamber music concerts recorded on video in the backyard of principal cellist Alan Black. It’s an avenue that will likely be revisited. Meanwhile, CSO has extensive recorded inventory to call upon, but unlike Charlotte Ballet’s, it is entirely audio, so their outlet of choice has been WDAV 89.9, where past concerts are aired on Friday evenings.

The mass exodus to streaming platforms has been global, creating a glut of available online events that don’t quite measure up to live performances. Charlotte Ballet has responded to this oversaturation by thinking outside the box. “I worked with choreographer Helen Pickett to discuss our options and this resulted in an opportunity for five of our dancers,” says Muir. “Charlotte Ballet joins artists from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem for part III of a trilogy Helen developed titled Home Studies, which is entirely choreographed and rehearsed via Zoom.”

Other companies are pushing the envelope by reimagining live performance under COVID restrictions. Rehearsing with masks and performing unmasked live at their dance studio, Caroline Calouche & Co. presented two online showings of A Love Show on July 25, charging admission for a ticket link. Theatre Charlotte is trying a more audacious outdoor model, presenting Grand Nights for Singing: The Parking Lot Performances on Friday nights outside their building, limiting audience size to 25, and charging $10 per ticket. Each of two performing singers wields a separate mic, there are no duets, and the audience is expected to provide their own chairs, snacks, and beverages.

“We are most likely not going to be able to perform for an audience in TC until at least December and maybe beyond,” says Ron Law, who was scheduled to retire June 30 but has extended for another season as Theatre Charlotte artistic director – and as President of the Board of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. “We have purchased appropriate video equipment so we can livestream productions. At this time, we are planning on doing performances of What I Did Last Summer by A.R. Gurney that will be livestreamed, with a per household ticket charge, on three dates in September.’

Waiting until June 11 to announce their 2020-21 season, Theatre Charlotte has prudently delayed their musical productions, The Sound of Music and Pippin, until spring 2021 – with understandable contingency plans. For their fall plays, they are tentatively offering their audience the options of live performances or streaming. Children’s Theatre have allowed themselves less wiggle room for 2020-21, eliminating musicals entirely from their slate. Yet their company, with video production a longtime component of their educational offerings, is probably the most adept we have in Charlotte when it comes to hybrid, live-or-streamed presentation skills.

While closing down all public performances at their two ImaginOn theaters, Children’s Theatre was at the tail-end of a 20-week School of Theatre Training programs, which culminates in four fully-produced OnStage presentations, two plays and two musicals. “We decided to move all four productions to a virtual format,” says Burke. “We’ve made other adjustments as well. We started some online educational programming and shifted our June summer camps to virtual experiences. In July we offered students the choice of virtual or in-person camps. We’ve kept close watch on all CDC, state and federal guidelines and have invested in some technologies that help us to maintain safety.”

Like Charlotte Ballet, Children’s has plenty of past performance video on file. They’ve edited these multi-camera shoots and served them up on a series of “Watch Party” webcasts. The new work keeps coming, further underscoring CTC’s technical prowess. “We’ve continued to move forward, as best we can, with the works that are in development including a collaboration with 37 children’s theatres across the country to adapt, as a virtual performance, the book A Kids Book About Racism.” That new piece launched into cyberspace on August 1. Other projects in the pipeline are Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, and a stage adaptation of the award-winning The Night Diary.

On March 12, the day before performing arts in Charlotte abruptly shut down, the town was abuzz in anticipation of Mecklenburg County announcing its first case of COVID-19. A surreal five months later – without any improvement, to be sure – announcements for the 2020-21 season, sensibly stalled in March, are beginning to flow amid a chaotic atmosphere in anticipation of the fall. Once again, Charlotte Ballet is at the vanguard, announcing that the long-delayed premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-Tailored Classic will open at Belk Theater on December 10 – replacing the traditional Yuletide presentation of Nutcracker. Makes sense: the trimmed-down Tchaikovsky ballet remains family-friendly with a helpful narrator to keep us abreast of the storyline. Unlike Nutcracker, the Tailored Sleeping Beauty doesn’t consign the Charlotte Symphony to the orchestra pit, and it doesn’t recruit 150 sacrificial lambs for children’s roles, including the ever-lovable Clara.

Iffier but on the schedule is Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, scheduled for April 22-24. Muir is “holding onto a beacon of hope” that CSO will be able to collaborate with Symphony on that auspicious event, booked at Belk Theater. Opera Carolina maestro Meena has seen his own commitments scuttled in Italy, where he had planned to conduct Andrea Chenier, Manon Lescaut and Turandot. He doesn’t expect opera to resume in Italy until December, so he isn’t counting on Opera Carolina collaborating with CSO before 2021. Meanwhile, expect the unexpected as OpCarolina fires up a new chamber music series, reviving their iStream Online concerts the week of September 11, returning every two weeks through November 16.

Keeping his eyes open for online options and live opportunities, Actor’s Theatre artistic director Chip Decker isn’t counting on returning to live performance at Queens University before July 2021. Tom Hollis, theatre program director at Central Piedmont Community College, retired on August 1. But he didn’t go out directing a final season of CPCC Summer Theatre as he had planned, so he’s expecting to reprise the complete 2020 slate in the spring or summer of 2021. Sense and Sensibility, originally set for this past April, may also figure in the mix.

Gabbard, the first to respond to our questionnaire on July 14, said that over 300 performances had already been cancelled at Blumenthal’s multiple facilities and wasn’t expecting national tours – their bread and butter – to resume “until at least late fall, and perhaps early 2021.” Even outdoor stopgaps that Gabbard might stage in Charlotte’s Uptown must remain on the back burner until public gatherings of 100 or more are approved.

On the lookout for best practices and inspiration, Gabbard is looking globally, “including Seoul, Korea, where big musicals like Phantom have played throughout the pandemic. I was asked to join the COVID-19 Theater Think Tank in New York, where we are speaking with academics and thought leaders in a search not only for short-term solutions, but also ways to improve our venues and hygiene practices long-term.”

Bach Akademie Charlotte artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett slowly realized last spring that there was no way to mobilize the musicians, patrons, and audience that would be necessary to make the third annual Charlotte Bach Festival happen last June. Hurriedly, he pulled together a four-day virtual festival that streamed on Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom. Much like Actor’s Theatre and CPCC Summer Theatre, Jarrett is hoping that the June 2020 event will happen in June 2021.

The experience shook him. “The recognition that I hadn’t made music with another human being in a month hit me hard on Easter Sunday morning,” Jarrett recalls, “and I grieved deeply for several weeks. Gradually, the shared recognition of all that we were losing with one another affirmed a shared value for communal music making. Those conversations continue to sustain me.”

Jarrett is busy, busy, busy these days up in Boston, working as artistic director with the Back Bay Chorale on their new Zoom curriculum and as director of music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel – and expecting to stay healthy. BU has taken the plunge, plowing millions of dollars into testing in an attempt to bring their student body back to campus, aiming to test all faculty weekly and all students twice weekly. Plans for the 2021 Charlotte Bach Festival are on hold, says Jarrett, until a proven vaccine delivers true COVID immunity.

Yet he’s clearly upbeat, even if he’s forced to deliver the 2021 Bach Experience via Zoom. Describing her own company’s trials, Charlotte Ballet’s Muir offers the best explanation for this paradox: “Once we realized this virus was not going anywhere quickly, we had to pivot and focus on new ways to keep the team motivated and creative. And this is where artists thrive! At our core, we are shape-shifters and it’s exhilarating to think of new ways to communicate and engage with one another.”

Upstairs/Downstairs in a Haunted House

Previews: The Great Beyond and The Ghost of Splinter Cove

By Perry Tannenbaum

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An old living room card table shaking uncontrollably during a candlelit séance… an unidentified ghost – or two – lurking in the dark basement, where kids are at play… and an 8-year-old child who has been missing for nearly 40 years.

These are some of the chilling elements in two new nail-biting plays hitting the QC. Upstairs with the adults at the séance, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of The Great Beyond begins previews this Thursday on the Queens University campus, officially premiering next Wednesday. Next Friday at ImaginOn, The Ghost of Splinter Cove takes us downstairs into the basement with three imperiled kids in a world premiere Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

Both spooktaculars are by renowned playwright Steven Dietz, who splits most of his time between Seattle and Austin, where he teaches his craft at the U of Texas. Dietz has written and adapted more than 40 plays, and a slew of them have been performed in various theaters across town, including God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Yankee Tavern, and Becky’s New Car (a “Show of the Year” winner in 2010).

But these two newbies would never have been written if Dietz hadn’t gotten on a plane and met with Adam Burke and Chip Decker here in Charlotte.

Burke, the artistic director at Children’s Theatre, and Decker, his counterpart at Actor’s Theatre, had cooked up their concept during a 2015 meetup. Cooperating was feasible between their two companies, but what kind of project would bring audiences together to see the kinship between Decker’s adult theatre and TYA – Burke’s theatre for young audiences?

Decker and Burke both have considerable experience in bringing new plays to their theaters, so it was obvious that their joint project would be a new script. But what if they commissioned two scripts, each one designed to funnel audience from their theater to the other theater while both shows were in production?!

Somehow the two plays and their stories would have to interlock. Yet to encourage rather than force audiences at one company’s theater to also see the other company’s play, each of the two plays would have to stand independently on its own. The concept that would be named The Second Story Project was born – in excited brainstorming interspersed with copious cups of coffee.

When Burke and Decker decided to move forward, there were no funds earmarked for the project, no playwright commissioned to create the scripts, and no parameters detailing how the two stories would interconnect. There was just one dynamite concept that had never been tried before.

“It’s always a leap of faith to do anything, especially something new,” Decker observes. “We just both hit on it, felt it was a good solid idea, and when you feel that way, you have to jump in with both feet and hope there’s a safety net at the bottom.”

Looking back on it, Dietz was a super-obvious choice. Multiple productions of his plays had been presented at Actor’s and Children’s, but Decker and Burke were thinking about advertising in trade publications or soliciting proposals – until the successful run of Dietz’s adaptation of Jackie and Me at ImaginOn turned on the lightbulb in Decker’s skull.

He sums up his realization: “We’re looking for a playwright who has a great voice for theatre for younger audiences and a playwright who has an experienced track record with adult audiences, we’ve both produced Steven Dietz plays, why should we look any further – especially the first time out?”

2019~Splinter Cove Rehearsal-8

Burke had sort of blocked out the idea of looking to an established adult playwright, calculating that the TYA piece would be the higher hurdle.

“I am more confident that someone who can write a great play for young people can write a great play for adults than I am of the reverse,” Burke explains. “So when Chip suggested Steven, I’m like, ‘Ah, yes, of course!’ There are only a handful of people that are moving between the two worlds successfully.”

Dietz was a little wary, wanting to make sure that there wasn’t some special issue or theme that his scripts were expected to address. Getting reassurances of his complete freedom, he warmed to the prospect of such an unprecedented challenge.

“What was so beautiful about the idea was that it was so simple,” Dietz recalls. “The core of the pitch to me was something shared. A shared story, a shared theme – something shared. And in one theater piece, we see it through young people’s eyes, and in the other, we see it through grownups’ eyes. That’s just like Post-it Note simple!”

The playwright was also on Burke’s wavelength with respect to the primacy of the TYA piece. It would be the more difficult piece to write and take more time. So it needed to be written first. Unlike other commissions that Dietz has fulfilled, neither The Ghost of Splinter Cove nor The Great Beyond turned out to be a play he would have written anyway. No barely-started scripts or scribbled scenarios were on his studio shelves waiting for these unique commissions.

Dietz suspected that he would make many false starts on his youth play – and he did. The upstairs/downstairs idea didn’t occur to him immediately, but when it did, it seemed like an elegantly simple way to make his plays interlock. But what kind of full-length play can be staged in a basement?

“I had this little tiny notion,” Dietz reveals. “I had a friend who had his kids try out his camping equipment in their basement once. And of course, that is what’s beautiful about writing for young people: where they go on that camping trip in their imagination is much more dynamic than getting out even on the San Juan Islands, which is near my house. Because it’s in their imaginations, so it can be anywhere.”

Especially when your brand-new camping gear is a birthday gift, you’re in a strange haunted house for the first time in your life… and there’s a smartphone app your dad bought you that makes your whole camping adventure come alive!

So that’s the downstairs core of the Second Story Project. From time to time, Dad calls down from upstairs, making sure the kids are settled in and sending down snacks. The two plays interconnect with those conversations – we only see Dad in The Great Beyond – and there are key props that will be common to both of Dietz’s eerie dramas.

Upstairs, where the séance happens, the parents are having a dinner reunion after a great family loss, and we learn why the kids have never visited this house before. For Dietz, there was a unique benefit in crafting his two new plays as a matched set.

“Writing [Splinter Cove] taught me about those kids’ parents,” Dietz remarks. “In any other play I’ve ever written, they would just be offstage characters. This process doesn’t have offstage characters, really. They have characters onstage at the other theater.”

And they’re not necessarily alive. Bwa-ha-ha!

“Matilda” Is Less Sweet and More Abrasive at ImaginOn

Review:  Matilda The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

The time lag between what opens on Broadway and what tours at Belk Theater has narrowed in recent years. Likewise, the gap between when the tour comes through town and when local companies get their hands on Broadway properties has also shrunk. With the arrival of Matilda The Musical at ImaginOn last weekend just two years after it played Belk Theater, it became apparent that CPCC Summer Theatre, Theatre Charlotte, or Children’s Theatre can expect to mount Broadway hits that are just as fresh from their New York runs as the off-Broadway sensations that Actor’s Theatre brings us.

Even with this slimmer interval, I fear that Roald Dahl‘s Matilda isn’t aging gracefully as a children’s story at McColl Family Theatre. It returns a bit awkwardly in a year when children are cruelly and inhumanely seized as pawns to discourage asylum seekers from Latin America. You might feel more comfortable with this story than I did just two days after I’d watched a Supreme Court nominee opt for yelling and indignation as his go-to defenses against credible accusations of sexual assault in sworn testimony on Capitol Hill.

I’m not sure which aspect of the Saturday afternoon performance disturbed me more. Was it director Adam Burke and his star, Tommy Foster, conniving to make the evil Miss Trunchbull more realistic than she had been in 2016; or was it the parents in the audience, bringing their anklebiters to the show and ignoring recommendations that it was suitable for 6-and-up? I was surprised – and slightly reassured – when so many stayed after intermission but not at all shocked when the adults sitting next to us fled.

Foster had some comical tricks up his beefy sleeves as the hammer-throwing harridan, turning a couple of unexpected cartwheels and almost executing a split. But Trunchbull’s implacable cruelty sometimes verged on rabid, when she unveiled all the “chokey” dungeons reserved for misbehaving and disobedient students at her school or when she pulled the ears of one cowering student about a foot away from his head. Neat technical effects, but perhaps too realistic for comfort.

Dahl wrote his Matilda in 1988, a decade before Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events took off – and before some of the edgier “anti” musicals like Urinetown began to invade Broadway. So his macabre sensibility here became more and more in tune with the times. With all its demonic cogs and gears, HannaH Crowell’s set design (fiendishly augmented by Kelly Colburn’s projections) brought home to me how Dahl’s sensibility had morphed during the quarter of a century following Willy Wonka and his iconic chocolate factory. Nothing particularly sweet here.

Matilda Wormwood certainly had more natural talents and gifts than Charlie Bucket, who snagged the lucky ticket to meet Wonka and taste his chocolate wonders. She is a precocious reader, which disgusts her dimwit parents and astounds Miss Honey, her timorous first grade teacher. As a storyteller, she holds the local librarian spellbound. Pitted against the fearsome, sadistic Trunchbull, Matilda turns out to have a combination of psychic and telekinetic powers that bring her victory – wielded with a sly naughtiness.

You need more than Orphan Annie pluck to play this role, and Allie Joseph has it. She nails Matilda’s signature solos, “Naughty” and “When I Grow Up,” and she sparkles in the spotlight – Colburn’s projections going wild behind – telling her four part “Acrobat Story” to Mrs. Phelps, the librarian. There’s a touch a grim determination in Joseph’s naughtiness that nicely counterbalances the added malignity that Foster brings to Trunchbull. Without too much suspension of disbelief, Joseph also passes for a first grader.

Also supplying counterweight to Trunchbull’s regimentation and brutality are Matilda’s other tormentors, her nutball parents. Caleb Sigmon gets to do the heavier comedy lifting as Mr. Wormwood, loudly dressed by costume designer Magda Guichard, victimized by Matilda’s vicious pranks, and cuckolded by his wife. A crooked used car salesman way beyond his depth in attempting to hoodwink Russian mobsters, Matilda’s dad deserves every indignity that comes his way, especially when he tears up his daughter’s library book. Yet Sigmon retains a wonderful energy amid all Dad’s atrocities, vicissitudes and cluelessness.

Wrapped up in her competitive ballroom dancing – and her sleazy partner Rudolpho (the lithe Paul Montagnese) – Matilda’s mom doesn’t realize she’s nine months pregnant with an unwanted second child when Matilda is born. That’s a high level of stupidity to sustain, but Lucianne Hamilton is more than equal to the task as Mrs. Wormwood, particularly when she schools Miss Honey on her philosophy of education.

Absorbing this lecture as well as Miss Trunchbull’s tirade, Miss Honey earns the right to sing “Pathetic” as her signature song, yet Bailey Rose builds Honey’s strength on stoical acceptance and self-awareness, her warmth toward Matilda counting for far more than her passivity. More comical appreciation comes from Janeta Jackson as Mrs. Phelps, the librarian who listens so raptly to Matilda’s acrobat saga.

Dennis Kelly‘s adaptation of Dahl’s novel is admirably intricate and well-crafted, but I find myself less impressed with Tim Minchin‘s music and lyrics, which might be more palatable with the vitality of Annie or the wit of Avenue Q. You still need to listen – carefully – to the cast album to decipher what the kids’ choruses are singing. Whether the older kids are rattling their cages in welcoming the first-graders on their first day or Matilda’s class is celebrating victory over Trunchbull, the music sounds a bit savage, as if Annie and her fellow orphans were on a bad acid trip. The transition from Belk Theater to the smaller McColl seemed to augment the abrasiveness.

Yet some of Matilda’s classmates do distinguish themselves. Calvin Jia-Hao Mar is consistently adorable as Nigel, who spends much of his time cowering or fainting whether or not Trunchbull is persecuting him. Ryan Campos is a more formidable martyr as the heroic Bruce, a young glutton who steals a piece of Trunchbull’s chocolate cake and is forced to eat the whole thing as his punishment. And though I can’t tell you why we’re bothered with Matilda’s best friend Lavender, Jeannie Ware made her charmingly self-important when we returned from intermission.

“The Greatest” Grows Up

Preview: And in This Corner: Cassius Clay

By Perry Tannenbaum

Adam Burke came to Charlotte because of his passion for youth theatre and education. After a stint as founding artistic director of Chicago Theatre for Young Audiences, Burke took a five-year detour into academia at a San Antonio university. When the artistic director position at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte came open, the ImaginOn theater facilities and the strong link with the CharMeck Library system became irresistible lures.

He took over at ImaginOn at the start of the 2013-14 season, concentrating his stage directing efforts on new works. Big new works like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical and Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella – and richly entertaining extravaganzas like The Reluctant Dragon and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

Now in his fifth season of overseeing Children’s Theatre’s programming, Burke knows better than ever that he’s speaking to the community as well as its children, a community that is visibly changing. Or maybe waking up to its true image in the mirror after years of blind complacency.

Opening this week, And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, directed by Aaron Cabell, is the second biographical study of its kind to play at ImaginOn in the past three years. Jackie & Me, about baseball great Jackie Robinson, opened in February 2015. Burke reflected on the challenges of presenting meaningful, impactful plays in our current climate.

Creative Loafing: Children’s Theatre presented Jackie & Me almost exactly three years ago, not long after And in This Corner: Cassius Clay premiered in Louisville, Muhammad Ali’s hometown. So was there discussion at that time about following up Jackie with Cassius, or is this series of Children’s Theatre productions about pioneering black athletes more accidental than intentional?

Adam Burke: We did not specifically intend to follow Jackie & Me with another piece about a pioneering black athlete. I was aware of this play being developed in Louisville when it was happening and was hoping that it would end up being a strong script that we could eventually produce. And in This Corner: Cassius Clay asks some big questions about the world that Cassius Clay lived in during the 1950’s and 1960’s – and equally about the world that we live in today.

In the current local climate, how are you hoping parents and children will process this story? How confident are you that the community will pass the test of hearing the N-word spoken at Cassius Clay?

We live in a very different world today than we did when we produced Jackie & Me three years ago. Both plays, Jackie & Me as well as And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, contain the N-word as written by the playwrights. Three years ago we proactively informed every school that intended to bring students that the playwright had included the word in the script. We did the same this season with And in This Corner: Cassius Clay.

Three years ago, we didn’t have any schools withdraw from coming to see the show due to the use of the N-word by the playwright. To date this season we’ve had several. We as parents, as teachers, and as a community, can’t be afraid to bring students to a play that deals with civil rights issues because of the use of the N-word. It’s a painful word to hear, and we abhor its use in everyday life, but pretending it doesn’t exist won’t help make anything better.

Cassius Clay, before and after he became Muhammad Ali, was brash, boastful and divisive before validating himself as “The Greatest.” How much does Idris Goodwin’s script filter out Clay’s not-so-role-model youthful traits?

In this play, Cassius Clay absolutely is a role model. This is a play about a young African-American boy who is learning some truths about the racism that exists in this community. He speaks his mind openly and confidently and asks big questions. I hope this play inspires all of our young audience members to live with their eyes wide open and to question everything.

Casting Cassius, how locked in were you to Clay/Ali’s signature physical traits? Were you able to find such an actor in Charlotte’s talent pool, or were you forced to reach out regionally or nationwide?

Ideally we wanted someone who looked a lot like Cassius Clay and had the ability to capture the spirit of the man. The director found an actor, Deon Releford-Lee, at our season auditions who he strongly felt could play the role. The directors at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte cast their own shows whenever possible.

Considering how important Children’s Theatre’s voice is in this town, do you feel a certain obligation to continue this series of historical dramas?

It is important that Children’s Theatre continues to support our community and tell stories that reflect our social, cultural and political climate. We have a lot of “irons in the fire” so to speak that we believe speak to our young audience and the world in which they live. We are currently deeply invested in The Kindness Project where we’ve committed to commission, create and produce three new plays based on books that all speak to themes of kindness. They each, in their own way, discuss the difference between feeling sympathy or empathy and committing an act of kindness. You can’t feel kind…you have to actually do something in order to be kind.

Hey, Hey, We’re the Herdmans!

Theater Review: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

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So the holidays are here, and we know the live entertainment drill: inevitable revivals of A Christmas Carol, Nutcracker, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever plus a few fresh novelties to liven the mix. This year, one of the novelties is also one of the inevitables. For while it’s possible to see the customary stage adaptation of Barbara Robinson’s Yuletide favorite at Matthews Playhouse starting on Thursday, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte unveiled the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical on Black Friday.

Robinson adapted her 1971 novel for the Seattle Children’s Theatre in 1982, and the proliferation of productions across America has arguably made the playscript more beloved than the book. So the team of Johanna Beecham and Malcolm Hilgartner, adding their lyrics and musical score, did the prudent thing in adapting Robinson’s stage version.

Nearly 34 years to the day since the story succeeded in Seattle, a whole generation of parents who saw Best Christmas Pageant onstage as children are bringing their offspring to ImaginOn to see The Musical. Our Children’s Theatre, which has grown to national renown during those intervening years, had to add five performances to the run before opening night – a tribute to their prestige as well as the bankable title.

Turns out that the Robinsons, the playwright (who died in 2013) and her daughters, were pretty prudent themselves in choosing Beecham and Hiltgartner. They seem to know what can be enlarged to musical proportions and how to get the job done. I’d also say that Best Christmas Pageant is easier to swallow than A Christmas Carol was when it morphed into Scrooge.

Big crowd scenes can be magnified most easily from stage to musical dimensions, but A Christmas Carol doesn’t really abound with them. Scrooge’s workplace and Cratchit’s home aren’t bustling places, and London is a cold, lonely, and forbidding city until Ebenezer’s reformation. So a couple of parties and a funeral were supersized, effervesced, and choreographed for Scrooge. We’re also more familiar with the older, more entrenched Dickens tale, so tampering is riskier, more jarring.

 

Recognizing that they’re primarily dealing with schoolkids, normal ones in fear of the notorious Herdmans, they make sure to create their biggest scenes when kids congregate, at church for Sunday school, at school during lunchtime, and at their rehearsal hall near the fateful church kitchen. The catastrophic rehearsal scene, causing Rev. Hopkins to cancel the pageant after the Herdman herd has stampeded it, is rockin’ pandemonium.

Beecham and Hiltgartner are more artful even before that in their depiction of the adult antagonists. What I labeled as the four Old Biddies, when Jill Bloede directed the play for Children’s Theatre in 1995, are now three parents of Beth and Charlie Bradley’s classmates. Luanne, Connie, and Betty start us off singing “Perfect Little Town,” as beautifully harmonized and sugary as the overdubbing Connie Francis cooing “My Happiness.” They are natural allies of the dictatorial Helen Armstrong, the rigid director who is usually in charge of the unchanging Christmas pageant year after year.

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But Armstrong is hospitalized this year, so the vocal trio mobilizes with Helen to convince Grace Bradley, Beth and Charlie’s mom, to take over just before auditions. In the play version, all four women wielded old-fashioned phones in cajoling Grace. A musical allows for more fanciful, comical liberties. By the end of another pop rocker, “Counting on You,” the ladies have circled to the opposite side of McColl Family Theatre from Helen’s bedside to resume their vocal trio assault on Grace at the Bradley home, with the siblings and their father joining in on the hubbub.

If the ladies can be more ridiculous now – a big if, since Bloede had Alan Poindexter and Sidney Horton crossdressing as two of the hags in ’95 – then the Herdmans can be more fearsome and ferocious to counterbalance them. Augmenting their chaotic energy is the fiendish work of choreographer Ron Chisholm, who keeps the six Herdmans and their terrified victims spread across the stage in frenetic action. Even Rev. Hopkins must be convinced of their true menace.

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We are far closer here to believing Beth’s famed opening pronouncement: “The Herdmans were the worst kids in the whole history of the world.” Where Bloede capitalized a bit on the fact that rather entertaining performances could come from kids who might be visibly reluctant to immerse themselves in the full barbarity of a Herdman, current Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke will have no such laxity.

As Imogene, the Herdman who takes the role of Virgin Mary by the throat, Carlyn Head is an absolute she-wolf in her howling vocals, and there is only the slightest glint of cuteness in Charli Head as Gladys, the little sister who pounces on the role of Herald Angel. With all of this vocal artillery hurled at her from young and old, Ashley Goodson can be sweet and caring as Grace, but when those moments arrive for reasserting control and conviction, she also unveils a voice of steel.

So when the Herdmans come around to the spirit of the Nativity, Grace is a little more amazing than she was in the play version, but I’m more thankful for the fulminating comic relief from Allison Snow Rhinehart, thwarted each time she issues a demand or insists that the Herdmans must be thrown out of the pageant. As phlegmatic as Rhinehart is, Tiffany Bear as Connie, Olivia Edge as Luanne, and Tracie Frank as Luanne are purest plastic, aging Supremes wannabes.

Arella Flur is more than satisfying as Beth, but she’s usually upstaged by Bennett Harris as the bullied younger brother or Ryann Losee, the tattletale Alice who lets Imogene snatch the role of Mary from her without a struggle. Bobby Tyson’s comic timing is so sharp in the minor role of Mr. Bradley that it’s reassuring to see him get a duet with wife Grace late in the show, and Dan Brusnson is the kindliest, most Christian Rev. Hopkins that I can recall. Among the male Herdmans, Colin Samole as Ralph and Rixey Terry as Leroy impressed me the most, but I don’t think either is written fully enough.

At least not yet. Estimates of the running time that I’ve seen in the Children’s Theatre press releases and in their program booklet have ranged from 60 minutes, approximately the length of their 1995 production, to 80 minutes in the current playbill. My clocking of the Sunday matinee at under 67 minutes suggests that the piece I saw underwent feverish modifications in its final weeks of rehearsal.

I point that out for a couple of reasons. It illustrates that Burke and Children’s Theatre, who commissioned this world premiere, have taken significant ownership in intensively shaping the product. It also suggests to me that the process isn’t finished, that the 80-minute target that seems more sensible to me might be what we see the next time The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical opens at ImaginOn. Or even by the time it closes on December 23.

Maybe then I’ll be able to say that this is the best Best Christmas Pageant Ever ever. It’s pretty damn close right now – and a very gratifying achievement at Charlotte’s fantasy palace.

Up, Up and Away After a Poignant Deportation

Theater Review: The Magic Kite

 

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Papa Roberto dabbles in magic, to the delight of his kids, Tito and Milagro. His most treasured father-and-son moments are spent building and flying kites – until Papa goes off to work and never returns. How Tito reacts to his dad’s sudden deportation to Mexico is the heart of The Magic Kite, now in its world premiere production at ImaginOn. Children’s Theatre of Charlotte commissioned the new work by José Cruz González because artistic director Adam Burke was moved by artist-activist Rosalia Torres-Weiner’s paintings and her Papalote Project here in town.

At the same time that this project gives children of deported parents the opportunity to vent some of their anguish through artistic expression, classmates, teachers and parents become more aware that families fractured by deportation are living right here in Charlotte. Staging this new play at the Wells Fargo Playhouse is a great way to extend that worthy mission to an even wider audience.

González, whose adaptation of Tomás and the Library Lady was staged at the same venue five years ago, seems a bit rushed here when establishing the kite and magic strands of his plot at the beginning and when he ties them together at the end. There’s plenty going on in just over 45 minutes as Burke directs the four members of the Children’s Theatre Resident Touring Company, since each of the performers communicates with us through at least one puppet – and a few sprinklings of Spanish.

Although Mark Sutton’s puppet designs have a nice folksy quality to them, narrowing our attention is a bit challenging with Torres-Weiner’s paintings flanking the stage while we jump back and forth from the magic scenes to the kite scenes. Scott Miller presides over these early scenes warmly and authoritatively as Papa with officious, worried support from Veda Covington as Mama Esperanza. It turns out that it’s really important for Roberto to get his taillight fixed.

When Papa gets picked up and deported, the weight of the story falls upon Tito, and Rahsheem Shabazz moved me in making Tito’s transition from awestruck child to the little man of the house. Leslie Ann Giles seems shortchanged at first, drawing the role of littler Milagro, but she soon gets her hands on a couple of other puppets. The most significant of these is Tito’s school chum Jamal, aggrieved by the loss of his mother, but Giles also gets the choicest cameo as the pet cat.

As often happens in children’s literature, wounds and losses that two kids have in common help in bridging their differences and cementing their friendship. González poignantly employs magical realism when Tito takes his family skyward on his kite, journeying to Mexico where they can be reunited with Papa. But an invisible barrier prevents them from crossing the border, so Tito and his family can see his beloved Papa, but they cannot join him.

At such fantastical moments, puppets can facilitate wonders. It’s just the aftermath that González bungles, loosening his grip on the tiller as we sail toward a consoling affirmation. I’m reminded of my teaching days, when I’d notice the class bell sneaking up on me. I’d rush through – or even skip over – the crucial ending of my lesson to assign the homework before the students rushed out.

Pretty much the same thing happens here as González tells us that more kites fly upwards after Tito’s sadly lands. We just don’t get a satisfying account of how that happens or what it means. The Magic Kite could easily unfold all its potential magic if González could add 10-15 minutes to it. Meanwhile, it was very useful to have Torres-Weiner hanging around after last Sunday’s matinee to answer kids’ questions in the talkback. They asked some really good ones.