Tag Archives: Alex Aguilar

Time’s Up for Heavy Drama in “The Mermaid Hour,” but the Lyricism Lingers On

Review: The Mermaid Hour

By Perry Tannenbaum

Two years ago, when The Mermaid Hour first came to town as a reading stage production at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, the David Valdes Greenwood script seemed fresh, urgent, and dramatic. In the binary world of 2016, the 12-year-old child at the heart of this story, Vi, née Victor, was pressuring her parents to let her start taking hormone blockers, the first step in transitioning to womanhood. Coping with a transgender child felt like heavy stuff for Vi’s parents, Bird and Pilar, working-class Bostonians. Freaking out seemed a reasonable reaction when your child, dressed as a mermaid, launches a YouTube video that gets 20,000 views.

Today, it’s a world where binary and non-binary gender concepts coexist, and while there’s a good chance that you haven’t quite gotten the new terminologies down, you’ve probably gotten a helpful memo or two – and very likely gotten the drift. Sexual freedom doesn’t merely imply a wider latitude of accepted actions, it also signifies identifying as each of us sees fit.

So in a beautifully designed full production by Actor’s Theatre of Greenwood’s drama, it’s not surprising to discover that the 9th grader playing Vi, Toni Reali, is a non-binary actor who prefers they as their pronoun of choice. That will be a lot for many who are seeing The Mermaid Hour for the first time to wrap their heads around. But for those like me who have already accomplished that, I’m not sure that the expiration dates for the story’s peak freshness, urgency, and drama haven’t already passed.

It’s fortunate, then, that the Actor’s Theatre reprise directed by Laley Lippard layers on so much visual lyricism, a magical mix of set and sound design by Chip Decker, costumes by Carrie Cranford, and lighting by Hallie Gray. Adults and even Vi’s best friend Jacob look comparatively humdrum, and so do their surroundings. But when we ascend to Vi’s bedroom, the aqua colors glow and the mermaid couture glitters – worn by both Vi and her hermaphroditic online inspiration, Merperson/Crux.

 

Merperson seems to float in a rainbow ether as they declaim the “Mermaid Hour” podcasts that enflame Vi’s ambitions, taking up the space of what ordinarily would be the child’s window onto the outside world. Of course, Vi’s bedroom is also the studio where she records her YouTube manifesto, her mermaid outfit more basic and makeshift than the splendor that Alex Aguilar gets to model as Merperson.

Part of the impression the podcast star and their prodigy make is a shared aspiration to transcend everyday life. The exotic, the outrageous, the risqué, and the enchanting are in exquisite balance in these scenes, but the consternation caused by the 20,000 views garnered by Vi’s video now strikes us as an overreaction. When YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and crowdfunding sensations regularly make the Nightly News, Vi’s surprise that her video would elicit such a massive response seems just as yesterday as her parents’ shock.

Though Decker could probably pot down his microphone a couple of notches, Aguilar strikes an important balance of his own, clearly connecting with Vi over the web with his urgings and yearnings yet adult and archly artificial in ways she couldn’t understand. Reali heightens this dimension of the mermaids’ chemistry with a wonderful lack of artifice, so spontaneous and unaffected that Crux’s protectiveness toward them late in the show seems perfectly natural, even though the mermaid reemerges on a city street dressed in leather.

Two of my fave Charlotte performers disappointed me a little as Vi’s confounded folks. Adyana de la Torre-Brucker had to shoulder the burden of being the most stubborn obstacle to Vi’s urges, but her take on Pilar’s irritation at discovering that maybe she didn’t quite rock being a mother struck me as too energetic. A little more heart and a little less stressing would work wonders. Meanwhile, Jeremy DeCarlos, who has previously demonstrated the ability to be cast as anything, was flunking working class cluelessness as Bird – sorry, the man radiates too much savvy – until he fairly nailed a lengthy monologue toward the end, earning a respectable grade.

As Jacob’s mom, Mika, Amy Wada had a clearer, more interesting path to credibility. What alarms Mika is that her Asian relatives across the Pacific now know about Vi’s video – and that their grandson is adored by a pink-haired boy who identifies as a mermaid. Laughing off your elders isn’t so easily done in ancient civilizations, and Wada carries off her globalized dilemma well.

With a cast this diverse, I doubt anyone will mind that nobody has a New England accent, despite the fact that Bird’s monologue makes it clear they’ve resided in Beantown for quite a while. At the calm center of all this specious uproar is Alec Celis as Jacob, the gay object of Vi’s adulation. He firmly tells Vi that they can be friends, nothing more, but doesn’t give her grief over the video. The fact that he and Vi have exposed themselves to each other in his bedroom hardly earns a shrug when Mama Mika freaks. What ticks him off – mildly – is when Mika tells him that he and Vi can’t associate.

By default, Jacob may be the best role model we see onstage, because he rolls with the post-binary gender tide rather than pushing either way. Anyone expecting high excitement from The Mermaid Hour might do well to follow his example. Although Greenwood’s script doesn’t sizzle with drama, it provides powerful affirmation for trans and non-binary people in the audience who don’t often see themselves portrayed onstage. It also injects some remedial education into theatergoers who have slept on their trans neighbors’ existence or their worth until now. With some fabulous color and lighting.

 

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Can’t Get Enough of Your Nun, Babe

Reviews of Sister Act and Killing Women

By Perry Tannenbaum

Maybe Ophelia should have followed Hamlet’s advice. Julie Andrews — or was that Carrie Underwood? — checked into a nunnery in The Sound of Music and, in spite of some serious compatibility issues, wound up with a husband and a singing group. The same thing happened to Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act when she hid from a Las Vegas gangster at a San Francisco convent and wound up leading a choir of nuns in a command performance for the Pope.

Sister Act runs through July 23 at CPCC’s Halton Theater. (Photo by Chris Record)

(Photo by Chris Record)

The musical version, transplanted to Philly and currently completing a very successful summer season at CPCC, makes it a little clearer that lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier gets her man. Some might say that Sweaty Eddie, the shy and timid police desk sergeant who whisks Deloris into hiding, mans up at just the right moment and gets his woman. No matter, there’s plenty of righteous jubilation at the end.

Relationships with Deloris tend to be turbulent. She disdains the timid Eddie even though she knows he has a crush on her. Yet she submits to the indignity of being gangster Curtis Jackson’s piece-on-the-side, because he might soften up and get her a record deal. That relationship sours when Curtis gives Deloris one of his wife’s hand-me-down coats for Christmas — a rather noxious blue number — but before we can see whether she’ll follow through on her resolve to walk out on him, she witnesses Curtis killing off one of his henchmen.

So that relationship is also on the rocks.

It’s only when Eddie puts her in the witness protection program at Queen of Angels Cathedral that we arrive at the relationship that gives Sister Act its true spark. Eddie and Curtis merely represent the diverging paths Deloris might take in life. Mother Superior is her polar opposite, disciplined, dignified, god-fearing, ascetic, and tradition-bound. Comical shockwaves fly in both directions when they meet — as soon as Mother Superior espies Deloris’s glittery scanty attire, and as soon as Deloris whips out a cig.

What elevates this script, adapted by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner from Joseph Howard’s screenplay, is the attention it gives to the Mother Superior’s spiritual crisis as Deloris’s leadership of the choir brings crass commercial success to the struggling Cathedral. The stinging line she nails Deloris with, “God sent you here for a purpose — take the hint,” gets flung right back in Mother Superior’s face.

CP and director Corey Mitchell are so fortunate to have Paula Baldwin for their top nun. While Baldwin gets great comedy mileage out of Mother Superior’s discomfiture, she also delves deeply enough into the Mother’s spiritual anguish for us to empathize, even if we can’t climb aboard. It would be an overstatement to say that Baldwin can’t sing a note, but there are some notes Mitchell and music director Drina Keen should have advised her not to sing. Speaking some of “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” would have helped, but it remains one of the evening’s highlights.

Conversely, singing rather than acting is Jessica Rebecca’s strong suit as Deloris. She’s a fair substitute for the infallible Whoopi in the comical moments, but she’s an absolute force of nature when she breaks into song. I’m not sure that Rebecca even needs a mic when she’s belting at Halton Theater, but she was certainly overmiked for most of opening night.

I only began to feel raw emotion from Rebecca at Eddie’s apartment when she sang “Fabulous, Baby!” her second pass at proclaiming her aspirations. So it was especially devastating when she suddenly grew soft segueing into the title song, where she realizes the love, sisterhood, responsibility, and growth she has experienced at Queen of Angels. A goose-bump moment, for sure.

Rebecca towers over Christian Deon Williams, making it all the easier for him to simulate Eddie’s timidity, but the richness in his lower range as he sings his aspirational “I Could Be That Guy” tips us off to his manliness too soon. Big as he is, Stephen Stamps could stand to be raunchier — and older — as Curtis to get the full comical menace out of “When I Find My Baby,” a doo-wop love song with murderous intent, but his Barry White shtick later on is workin’, Babe.

Curtis’s backup thugs have a nice ethnic diversity, Justin Miller as Joey, Alex Aguilar as Pablo, and Justin Rivers as TJ, all of them getting prime spots in “Lady in a Long Black Dress.” More individuality is lavished upon Monsignor O’Hara and three of the nuns. It’s Beau Stroupe as O’Hara who prevails upon Mother Superior to offer refuge to Deloris and is then surprised — and surprisingly enthused — about the rock and gospel Deloris infuses into Sunday services.

Megan Postle is preternaturally welcoming and upbeat as Sister Mary Patrick, exactly the quality needed to maximize the comedy of “It’s Good to Be a Nun.” Caroline Chisholm is the conflicted postulant, Mary Robert, instantly drawn to Deloris’s worldliness. She has some prodigious high notes lurking within her, but Chisholm maintains her innocence even after Deloris helps set them free. As the usurped choir director, Sister Mary Lazarus, Kathryn Stamas is the most surprising of the nuns. Not only can she kick aside a piano stool with a flair that would make Jerry Lee Lewis proud, she can kick her left foot as high as her ear, kicking sideways.

Unless you truly expected the Halton’s stage to be transformed into a cathedral worthy of a Pope’s visit, you’ll be impressed by Jennifer O’Kelly’s set designs — and by how slickly one scene melts into another. Except for the glittery getups worn by Deloris and her backup duo, costume designer Theresa Bush reins it in, but the papal finale is pretty fab.

Alan Menken’s “Here Within These Walls” echoes his own “Beauty and the Beast,” a letdown where there should be uplift. But his “Sunday Morning Fever” — and a couple of his other songs here — will waken disco memories of Travolta, the Bee Gees, and their Saturday Night Fever, a trashy touch that somehow adds to the fun.

A shot from Killing Women. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Seay)

(Photo courtesy of Stephen Seay)

A similar vein of humor runs through Killing Women, a black comedy presented by Stephen Seay Productions at UpStage. Gwen is involuntarily recruited into a ring of hired killers, a profession totally inimical to motherhood. Forget about spiritual uplift as two other pistol packers, vulgar Abby and elegant Lucy, pitch in with the childcare.

Gwen earns one of the most hilarious character descriptions I’ve ever heard, rightly labeled a “do-it-yourself widow” by Abby. The action really revolves around Abby, for after Lucy splatters her hitman husband’s brains on their living room wall, Abby’s callous boss, Ramone, decrees that she must knock the mother off. What passes for Abby’s heart shines through here, for she sells Ramone on the notion of grooming Lucy to replace her dead husband at the firm — but only gets one week to deliver.

Turns out that Gwen has considerable aptitude: she’s a crack shot and more than one hitman is smitten by her, though her body disposal skills need work. Luci Wilson carries the show as Gwen, no less rough-around-the-edges now than when I first saw her in 2008 with the Robot Johnson sketch comedy group. That’s a good thing, and when we finally see all her tattoos, we’re not even slightly surprised.

A less confident, more wired performer, Elizabeth Simpson seems to know Gwen from the inside, and Seay casts two blue-chippers, Lesley Ann Giles and Christopher Jones, to fill out his front-liners as Lucy and Ramone. Cameos are quirky as everything else in Marisa Wegrzyn’s script, Matthew Schantz and Field Cantey handling them quite well.

Roxie gets the Pippin treatment

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Theater reviews: Chicago and Manifest Pussy

By Perry Tannenbaum

When I saw Annie at Halton Theater earlier this month, I had a theory about why the first show in CPCC Summer’s 43rd season boasted such opulent production values. Surely they had chosen to follow up with Kander and Ebb’s Chicago because this decadent vaudeville could be produced so cheaply, freeing funds for the other musicals on CP’s summer slate.

Thanks to the set and costume designs by Robert Croghan, I could discard that theory almost as soon as I settled into my seat. The onstage band, led by musical director Drina Keen, is mostly concealed by an art deco façade with wooden frames and chrome bars. An overarching bridge that crests in the middle covers the band, with a backlit outline of Chicago’s skyline stretching up into the fly loft.

When Roxie Hart dreams of the vaudeville stardom that will come with her killer celebrity, a huge luridly lit marquee drops down from the fly loft, and when Roxie and fellow murderess Velma Kelly achieve that dream together, another fresh marquee drops down. The entire proscenium has been redone to chime in with the art deco style. Its stripes don’t seem to be electrified, but at the denouement, reflections from a row of red footlights set them aglow. The lurid footlights are the cherry on the bottom of Gary Sivak’s outstanding lighting design.

Croghan’s costumes are even bolder. Prison bars descend from the flies when we arrive at the Chicago jail, and Croghan doesn’t let us forget that the women inmates are celebs. The black stripes on their prison uniforms are far wider than normal, twinkling with glitter. I can’t remember any version of “Cell Block Tango,” either locally produced or in a national tour, that oozed so much sinful glamor.

The wildest wrinkle comes later when we reach Billy Flynn’s incomparably corrupt pretrial “Razzle Dazzle” peptalk. Very much like the recent Broadway revival of Pippin, the stage is transformed into a circus with colorful costumes, a flashier onset of glitter and an outbreak of acrobatics. Much of this Pippin-effect lingers through Roxie’s travesty of a trial.

Of course, choreographer Tod Kubo and stage director Ron Chisholm are involved in this circus conspiracy, for every woman in the cellblock seems able to do a split. Both Roxie and Velma can also turn cartwheels. Chisholm is also a splendid choreographer, so casting demands must have been precise and rigorous with Kubo’s work very much on his mind.

Aside from the inevitable orphans, the excellence of Annie under Tom Hollis’s direction mostly emanated from seasoned performers, Beau Stroupe as Daddy Warbucks, Susan Gundersheim as Grace Farrell, and Allison Rhinehart as Miss Hannigan. Even where Chisholm might have looked for more fully aged talents; in less athletic roles such as Amos Hart, lawyer Flynn, and corrupt prison matron Mama Morton; he opts for youth.

For the most part, we can overlook the profusion of college students and recent grads onstage at the Halton, but overall, Chicago needs a bit more swagger and arrogance than I was seeing, and the superabundance of youth is to blame. Justin Miller doesn’t always seem to grasp the full magnitude of Flynn’s slickness and hypocrisy, and as Velma, Caroline Chisholm occasionally loses the edge of the baddest broad in the cellblock and starts worrying whether she’s executing her dance routines correctly.

Both Miller and Chisholm often bring fresh juice to Billy and Velma, but it’s Meredith Zahn as Roxie who demonstrates what happens when you add swagger and arrogance to the package — or you simply inhabit Roxie’s clever wickedness every moment. Zahn isn’t the best singer or dancer on the stage, but her “Funny Honey” solo elevates the show before “Cell Block Tango” sustains that plateau. Most importantly, in the climactic courtroom scene, when Flynn becomes the ventriloquist behind Roxie’s every word on the witness stand, Zahn’s floppy antics as the lip-syncing ragdoll sitting on Billy’s lap are by far the best I’ve seen.

Stephen Stamps isn’t quite as innocuous as a true “Mister Cellophane” should be, but that number remained a uniquely quiet showstopper — and the scenes with Roxie had the right combination of intensity and cluelessness as Amos processed the fact that his wife had been screwing around with the furniture guy and expected him to take the blame for killing him. Alex Aguilar doesn’t quite have the high notes for Mary Sunshine’s bleeding heart vocal, but her unmasking is a hoot.

A little bit more nastiness and downright vulgarity wouldn’t have hurt Jessica Rebecca as Mama Morton, but she’s a very formidable stage presence. What was so jaw-droppingly good about the “Class” duet with Chisholm wasn’t how crass it was on the eighth time I’d seen it but how beautifully harmonized it is when the two sing together.

So I’ve revised my theory. The significant anniversary that has happened on Elizabeth Avenue isn’t CPCC Summer’s 43rd. No, it’s the Halton’s tenth anniversary that has sparked the continuing turnaround, which began with the landmark production of The Phantom of the Opera last fall. Now if I had presented that show, I might have resolved, “Enough of these ‘Nice try, kid’ productions!” and maybe that’s how Hollis, CPCC’s Theatre Department chair, looked at it.

Or maybe Hollis and CPCC’s administration got on board with the idea that theatre at the Halton should always strive for the same level of excellence. Whatever is going on behind the scenes, the CPCC Summer product is more polished at the Halton than ever before, not only because the sound system problems have been exorcised but because they’re beginning to utilize the full capabilities of the stage.

If that’s the new reality, the Halton may now be the best place in Charlotte to see a live musical. Maybe CPCC will need to start selling their balcony seats again once the word gets around.

As I climbed the stairs to UpStage last Wednesday to see the Charlotte stop on Shakina Nayfack’s Manifest Pussy tour, three worries concerned me: that it would be too preachy, too raunchy and too loud. Nayfack was bringing her one-woman show to North Carolina in response to HB2, and she’d been photographed with panties down, sitting on a urinal (see cover of our June 9 issue).

The bandstand set-up for four pieces, including a guitar, a keyboard, a drum set and an electric bass, seemed to confirm my fear that I’d be rocked to uncomfortable decibel levels.

What I witnessed turned out to be two autobiographical rock musicals artfully woven together to form a narrative that reminded me a lot of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and a little of The Vagina Monologues. Instead of cooing over and affirming the glory of having a vagina as Monologues does, Pussy dwelt on worries, misgivings and anxieties Nayfack went through in getting her vagina via a complex surgery in Thailand. And unlike Hedwig, which tells about the heartaches experienced by a rock singer after a botched sex-change operation, Pussy stays focused on what it feels like to go through the procedure — also partially botched — and waking up to find a railroad of 640 stitches framing a fragile canal where your penis once was.

Bottomline, I liked Pussy better than either Vagina or Hedwig. Nayfack isn’t as cute or coy as the Vagina monologists nor as offputting as Hedwig. Some of Nayfack’s songs are jangly and metallic, but others are quite beautiful. Above all, I learned more about the inner trials that transgender people go through — physically and mentally — than I ever thought I could know.