Tag Archives: Allison Snow Rhinehart

Homespun “Barbecue Apocalypse” Improves With Age

Reviews: Barbecue Apocalypse, The Sherlock Project, Life Is a Dream, and Madagascar

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In a year that included Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society and Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale among the top contenders, I could only give Matt Lyle’s Barbecue Apocalypse a lukewarm endorsement for best new play of 2015, ranking it #13 among 27 eligibles that I read for that year’s Steinberg Awards. Nor did colleagues from the American Theatre Critics Association strongly disagree with my verdict, since Lyle’s dystopian comedy didn’t make the cut for the second ballot, when we considered our consensus top 10.

But before Charlotte’s Off-Broadway decided to stage this show at The Warehouse PAC up in Cornelius, they did some reading and balloting of their own. From January through March, the company offered monthly “Page to Stage” readings presenting two different plays on each occasion. Then they asked ticketholders to vote on which of the six plays they would like to see in a fully staged production. Less than two months after the votes were counted, Barbecue is back for my reconsideration as the audience favorite.

And on further consideration, I must credit director Anne Lambert and her professional cast for convincing me that Barbecue Apocalypse is even better than I thought it would be – far more to my liking than real barbecue.

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Lyle would probably concur, since his patio hosts, Deb and Mike, are only grilling and basting because they want to avoid the embarrassment of having their friends – who are more trendy, stylish, and successful – see the interior of their home, decorated with lame movie posters. Deb succinctly describes her strategy as lowering expectations for the cuisine and the ambiance. Outdoors, she can point with pride to the fact that Mike has built the rear deck himself. Yet the barbecue event has obligated Mike to buy a propane grill off Craig’s List, and he’s afraid to light it.

He would also like Deb not to mention that he’s a professional writer, for his career earnings, after one published short story, now total 50 bucks.

All four of the guests feed the hosts’ sense of inadequacy. Deb is a decorator, foodie, and gourmet cook who makes sure to bring her own organic meat, and her husband Ash is a gadget freak, armed with the best new smartphone equipped with the most awesome apps. Win pretty much embodies his name, a former high school QB, now a successful businessman with Republican views. He lives to put Mike down and can seemingly get any woman he wants. Even his bimbo of choice, Glory with her Astrodome boobs, can claim formidable accomplishments, arriving late to the barbecue after nailing her Rockette audition.

What ultimately happens to this insulated suburban group reminds me of The Admirable Crichton, the excellent James M. Barrie tragicomedy I came across a couple of times during TV’s golden age, when colleges had core curriculums. A perfect butler to the Earl of Loam in Mayfair, London, Crichton and his betters were shipwrecked on a desert island in the Pacific, where his natural superiority emerged.

There are two basic differences between Barrie’s back-to-nature tale and Lyle’s. The shipwreck situation was reversible with rescue. Apocalypse isn’t. More to the point, Barrie was clearly targeting the blind rigidity of class distinctions. Here if we consider the implications of Barbecue Apocalypse, Lyle seems to have modernity in his crosshairs – how our world warps our aspirations and our self-worth, how it channels us into modes of living that are far from our authentic selves.

In the cramped storefront confines of the Warehouse, Lambert doesn’t attempt to design a deck that lives up to Mike’s pretensions, and Donavynn Sandusky’s costume designs are similarly déclassé, especially for the nerdy Ash. This robs Lyle’s concept of much of its slickness, which for me turned out to be a good thing. Aside from the Craig’s List mention, Lambert also dropped in a couple of local references that added to the overall homespun flavor.IMG_6440

Becca Worthington and Conrad Harvey were nearly ideal as our hosts, keenly aware of each other’s limitations and their own, yet visibly crazy for one another. Worthington with her status-conscious rigidity and stressing was clearly the closest actor onstage to Lyle’s vision, beautifully flipping her “We suck” persona after intermission and the apocalypse, when a full year of roughing it has elapsed. Harvey was more than sufficiently cuddly and self-deprecating – but credulity is stretched when a man of such size and stature is repeatedly dominated by his adversaries.

If you can accept that Greg Paroff was ever on a football field, let alone as a QB, you’ll be quite pleased with how he handles Win’s asshole antics. He is confident, he is arrogant, and if he’s possibly past 40, that only increases the disconnect between Win and his limber Rockette. Julia Benfield is absolutely adorable as Glory, and I absolutely adore how she’s still mincing around in high heels when she makes her disheveled entrance in Act 2. We totally believe that her familiarity with Tom Wopat doesn’t extend to The Dukes of Hazard in the ‘80s.

Probably not the best moment for Lambert when she cast Cole Pedigo and Jenn Grabenstetter as Ash and Lulu. They should remember the ‘80s, but I needed to stifle my doubts. Wardrobe and just the way he’s absorbed in his iPhone might help Pedigo out – and make him less wholesome, winsome, and juvenile before the apocalypse. Grabenstetter overcomes all objections when free-range Lulu gets snockered on generic canned beer, and both Pedigo and his scene partner truly click when adversity brings Ash and Lulu to a new lease on life in Act 2. I believe that’s an antler dance.

I won’t disclose what happens when Maxwell Greger walks on for his cameo deep in Act 2, but I do respect how Lyle makes him earn his paycheck with a sizable monologue. Greger does the denouement with a slight manic edge, and the technical aspects of his departure are impressively handled.

So it’s fair to say that apologies are in order for rating Barbecue Apocalypse in the middle of the pack when I first read it. Or excuses, since a rational man resided at the White House in 2015, and apocalypse seemed so fantastical.

But hold on. Charlotte’s Off-Broadway has already programmed two other plays from their “Page to Stage” readings for two fully-staged productions in the near future, Susan Lambert Hatem’s Confidence (and The Speech) for September and Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear for next February. Maybe when these runner-ups get fleshed out, supporters of Lyle’s winning script might reconsider their votes!

A Catch-All Catch-Up

Our recent travels to Greece, Israel, and Jordan compelled us to miss a bunch of high-profile openings after we reviewed the reinvented Rite of Spring at Knight Theatre on April 6 and CP’s On Golden Pond the following evening. Even before we left, we had to pass on the Charlotte Dance Festival and CP’s Elixir of Love so we could adequately prepare for our trip. To see the birthplace of theatre, the Holy Land, and Petra, we had to miss out on the BOOM Festival, the reprise of Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, and the opportunity to host a pre-show preview of The Marriage of Figaro for Opera Carolina.

New openings when we returned were a must, so we hit the ground running with Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works and Symphony’s Brahms-and-Bartok program. But our need to catch up with Carolina Shakespeare’s Life Is a Dream made us put off seeing PaperHouse Theatre’s Sherlock Project until it second week. It gets complicated. But I’ve tried to get up to speed while working on more reviews and features. File these under gone but not forgotten:

The Sherlock Project So a dozen actors and writers collaborated on PaperHouse Theatre’s mash-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story gems, producing a script that follows three guiding principles: keep it funny, keep it moving, and don’t, don’t, don’t ever explain how the great Sherlock Holmes arrives at his incredible deductions. Going back to their roots at the Frock Shop on Central Avenue, PaperHouse and director Nicia Carla found a frilly complement to the Victorian chronicles of Dr. John Watson.

But the frame of the story was wholly new, telling us that the deadeye detective in the deerstalker cap is a woman. Watson protects the woman who should be credited with all the purported exploits of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade because he knows that Sherlock is right: The general public is even less prepared to believe a female is capable of such brilliancies than Watson is.

Besides all of the Sherlockian brilliance and nonchalant arrogance, Andrea King reveled in all of the detective’s eccentricities, whether it was shooting up a 7% solution of cocaine, tuning up a violin, or lighting up a calabash pipe. Opposite King’s insouciant self-confidence, Chaz Pofahl wrung maximum comedy from Watson’s wonder and timidity – a phenomenon compounded by the gender factor as Pofahl switched from paternal protectiveness to awe or terror while King wryly twinkled and smiled.

The two main supporting players slipped into multiple roles, Angie C as a cavalcade of damsels in distress and Berry Newkirk in the plumiest cameos, ranging from the dull-witted Lestrade to the razor-sharp Professor Moriarty, mythically uncatchable. Apart from directing behind the scenes, Carla conspired in the action as Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’s discreet housemaid. Carla not only ushered in Sherlock’s distraught clientele or evil adversaries, she also presided over scene changes, when audience members had to exit the Frock Shop’s parlor to a murder scene in the adjoining room or out on the porch when Sherlock was pursuing… something. Had to do with fire.

Or when it was intermission, time for little cucumber sandwiches.

The whole show was a wonderful diversion. PaperHouse had to add another performance to their run, which we caught last Wednesday, and the remaining nights were already sold out. Like the PaperHouse faithful, I couldn’t get enough of The Sherlock Project. I wanted lots more – beginning with how did Sherlock deduce that Watson had just come from Afghanistan when they first met?

Life Is a Dream – Convinced it was a comedy rather than a political melodrama, Shakespeare Carolina and director S. Wilson Lee kidnapped Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s classic, written during Spain’s Golden Age, and transported it more than three centuries forward from a mythical Poland to a mythical Las Vegas. There in a seedy club on the strip, the two factions with their eyes on the throne were Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Marlon Brando’s Wild Bunch.

Lee’s wild conceit didn’t do nearly as much harm as I thought it would, mainly because ShakesCar didn’t have the budget to carry it too far at Duke Energy Theatre, and the strong cast mostly played their roles as the text, sensibly adapted by Jo Clifford, said they should. So much depended on the broad shoulders of David Hayes as Segismundo. Heir to the throne of Poland, Segismundo has been locked away Prometheus-like in a mountain dungeon for his whole life by his father, King Basilio, who is foolishly trying to ward off the dire destiny predicted by an astrologer.

A boiling rage seethes inside of Segismundo, and a less mightily built actor than Hayes might need to strain himself to encompass it. Hayes projected the mighty rage rather naturally, which made it easier for him to flow convincingly into Segismundo’s softer emotions when – before he has even suspected his royal lineage – he is handed the Polish throne and the power to act on his newly awakened sexual urges as he sees fit.

Called upon to give a far more nuanced performance as Basilio, Russell Rowe delivered. Yes, he was cruel, but also conflicted, with a lifelong dread deftly mixed into his forcefulness. Though I feared the convoluted plot might be abridged or simplified, the intrigue, the complexity, and the epic monologues were almost entirely intact. As the vengeful Rosaura, Teresa Abernethy brought forth the masculine-feminine blend that the transgendered Clifford was aiming for in her translation, and James Cartee, an actor who often keeps nothing in reserve, showed unusual probity and maturity as Clotaldo, even as he tried to figure out his long-lost child’s gender.

Nobody was more suavely dressed by costume designer Mandy Kendall than James Lee Walker II as Astolfo, the successor that Basilio wanted if the true heir didn’t pass his test. But if anybody was victimized by Lee’s Rat Pack concept, it was Walker. I have no idea why he persisted in speaking so rapidly and unintelligibly, unlike any work I’d seen from him before. Was he attempting a Sammy Davis Jr. imitation? Couldn’t figure out what accounted for this curious outing.

Betrothed to this strange hipster, Maggie Monahan beautifully brought out the agonies of queen-to-be Estrella. Maybe the most Shakespearean role in this ShakesCar production was Ted Patterson as Clarin, who tags after the disguised Rosaura from the opening scene, as either her companion or servant – but definitely our clown.

On the strength of this effort, theatergoers can be excited about ShakesCar’s next invasion of Spirit Square, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus at Duke Energy from June 28 to July 7.

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Madagascar – Okay, so I’ll grant that the musical adaptation of the 2005 Dreamworks film didn’t have the gravitas of the greatest Children’s Theatre of Charlotte extravaganzas of the past like their Boundless Grace and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – or the bite of Ramona Quimby and Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing. But this confection was nearly perfection. Under the direction of Michelle Long, Madagascar hit a family-friendly sweet spot, straddling the realms of cartoon silliness, cinematic adventure, and theatrical slapstick and dance. I just didn’t like the deejay, everybody-get-up-and-act-stupid thing.

Scenic design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec never lost its freshness thanks to a slick stage crew and the eye-popping lighting by Gordon W. Olson, while the animal costumes by Magda Guichard probably made the strongest case for live theatre against multiplex animation. Choreography by Tod A. Kubo chimed well with Long’s direction, which used areas of McColl Family Theatre that rarely come into play.

Centering around four animals that break out of Central Park Zoo, Madagascar introduced us to Marty the zebra and his wanderlust. We moved swiftly from there. Following the lead of four penguins bound for Antarctica, Marty escaped the zoo, seeking a weekend in Connecticut. Not only are police, animal control, and TV bulletins on his trail, so were his pals Gloria the hippo, Alex the lion, and Melman the giraffe. Embarking underground in the Manhattan subway, Marty hardly stretched credulity much further by winding up off Africa.

Deon Releford-Lee was a spectacular triple-threat as Marty, but what dazzled most was the multitude of gems in this supporting cast, beginning with an intimidating Alex from leonine Traven Harrington and – on stilts, of course – a timorous Melman from Caleb Sigmon. Dominique Atwater disappointed me as Gloria, but only because we didn’t get enough of our hippo after her first big splash. Olivia Edge, Allison Snow-Rhinehart, and Rahsheem Shabazz fared better, drawing multiple roles.

While the book by Kevin Del Aguila shone more brightly than the musical score by George Noriega and Joel Someillan, I was amazed that so much story and song could be squeezed into barely more than 60 minutes. Combined with last October’s Mary Poppins, the exploits of Madagascar prove that musical production is an enduring strength at Children’s Theatre. I can’t think of a season at ImaginOn that had sturdier bookends than these musicals that began and concluded 2017-18. The crowd that turned out for the final performance affirmed that the 7th Street fantasy palace has perfected the craft of producing family fare.

Not only that, it showed me that Charlotte families have spread the word.

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Best of Charlotte, 2017

Best of Charlotte, 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

                                           Best ActorJeremy DeCarlos

 

Among local performers, there are strong candidacies from Brian Logsdon (Pride and Prejudice and Ragtime), Jonavan Adams (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Christians), Scott A. Miller (Stupid F@#%ing Bird and The Submission), Jermaine Gamble (A Raisin in the Sun and Jitney) and Tyler Smith (Ragtime and Memphis). All of them sparkled on multiple occasions. But the runaway victory goes to Jeremy DeCarlos, who laps the field – in range and productivity – with four scintillating outings. Draped in a braided Hussar jacket, DeCarlos just finished channeling his inner Jimi Hendrix as the devilish St. Jimmy in American Idiot. That was the last of his Actor’s Theatre gems over the past year, including some cross-dressing preaching in Bootycandy, his insouciant devotion in Stupid F@#%ing Bird, and his amazing transformation – from Jerry Lewis nerd to Incredible Hulk-ish monster – in The Toxic Avenger.

Best Actress – Shar Marlin

The field of contenders is larger among the ladies, but the roles were more thinly distributed, eliminating productivity as a decisive criterion. But which other benchmark should override all others? If it’s flesh-crawling menace, Sarah Woldum gets the edge, bringing Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla to life in She Who Watches. Leslie Giles was the funniest as the blind librarian in The Toxic Avenger, Lucia Stetson the most revelatory as Mother in Ragtime, and Allison Snow Rhinehart was better than her Broadway counterpart as Mama in Memphis. And how can I forget the sizzling dominatrix arrogance of Nonye Obichere as Whatsername in American Idiot? I’m turning instead to Shar Marlin for her sheer power and imperial dominance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a dramatic stunner that also showed Shar’s blues singing chops. Dignity in the face of exploitation and discrimination. Diva!

Best Comedy – Women Playing Hamlet

 

Theatre Charlotte’s You Can’t Take It With You and the Citizens of the Universe farewell, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, were arguably the zaniest productions of the 2016-17, while the Chekhov knockoff from Actor’s Theatre, Stupid F@#%ing Bird, was surely the most poignant. And what about OnQ Productions’ A Brown Tale from James T. Alfred, maybe the funniest one-man show I’ve ever seen? All were worthy candidates, but I’m going to let Chickspeare split this prize with Donna Scott Productions for their joint production of Women Playing Hamlet. Glynnis O’Donoghue starred as the soap queen saddled with the lead role in the Mona Lisa of tragedies, and the galaxy of comediennes – all in multiple roles – offering her questionable advice included Tania Kelly, Andrea King, Vivian T Howell, and Sheila Snow Proctor.

Best Musical – Ragtime

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Folks who confine their diet of musicals in Charlotte to touring productions at the PAC are missing out bigtime on the locally-produced blockbusters playing out at smaller venues around town. Actor’s Theatre scrambled to produce a marvelous Toxic Avenger at a storefront church because this city doesn’t have the vision to see the arts flourish on Freedom Drive without a needless morass of red tape. Still in exile, they just brought the noise of American Idiot to Queens University for a face-melting month. After reminding us how finely they can produce A Year With Frog and Toad, Children’s Theatre astonished with the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical. With more than one Broadway-level performance, Theatre showed us their mettle with Memphis, and CPCC re-emphasized that their musical excellence isn’t confined to summer anymore. Maybe it was sheer luck, but CP’s wintertime production of Ragtime was the most timely of the year, underscoring the sad fact that institutional racism, police brutality, and prejudice against immigrants aren’t quaint relics of the Jazz Age. As the martyred Coalhouse Walker, Tyler Smith’s impassioned “We are all Coalhouse!” reverberated through a city in turmoil.

Best Drama – Jitney

Early last season, PaperHouse Theatre proved that The Frock Shop on Central Avenue was the perfect site for a creepshow with a dazzling She Who Watches, and early this season, a legend made a comeback when Steve Umberger and his Playworks Group brought a sterling production of The Christians to Booth Playhouse. In between, as Charlotte was fully wakening to how badly we have neglected and mistreated our underclass, theatergoers may have finally been zonked by the realization that our city is exceptionally rife with African American acting and directing talent. Kim Parati made an auspicious directorial debut at Theatre Charlotte with a freshened-up Raisin in the Sun, but this was a vintage year for August Wilson – in two dramas directed by Corlis Hayes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at CPCC and Brand New Sheriff’s Jitney at Spirit Square. Hayes brought out the best in John W. Price and Jermaine Gamble as the father-son antagonists in Jitney, with Gerard Hazelton adding a mix of comedy and poignancy as the gypsy cab company’s resident lush. Move over OnQ Productions, there really is a brand new black company in town – our second! – producing professional-grade work.

Best Night @ Symphony – Mahler’s “Resurrection”

While a well-played Beethoven symphony, a Rossini overture, a Strauss tone poem, or a Mozart concerto might be the secret sauce to get newcomers to become Charlotte Symphony subscribers, longtime concertgoers like me wish to dismount the warhorses and hear something off the beaten trail. There’s plenty out there that will please both camps: big, unfamiliar orchestral works that will instantly grab you by the lapels even if Symphony hasn’t reprised them within the last decade. Armed with an audacious orchestra and choir, plus two soloists who have sung with Opera Carolina, Davidson College showed the way with a rousing performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, set to poetry by Walt Whitman. That’s the sort of daring we hope for from Charlotte Symphony’s British maestro, Christopher Warren-Green. We did get a British Isles-themed evening when pieces by Edward Elgar and Peter Maxwell Davies, spiced up with a bagpiper, were served with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish.” Utilizing the Symphony Chorus and distinguished guest vocalists, Warren-Green turned up the power with a pair of Bruckner chorales last November and Mendelssohn’s Elijah last March. If you wanted to sample the full capabilities of Symphony, their chorus, and the guest vocalists Warren-Green can summon to Belk Theater, you had to hear them introducing the wonders of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 to an astounded audience.

Best Night @ the Opera – The Girl of the West

Under maestro James Meena, Opera Carolina does the oldies better than ever, as their uproarious Barber of Seville and their vivacious, ultimately anguished La Traviata amply proved. There was even some audacity in the 2016-17 programming as OpCar partnered with Warehouse Performing Arts Center and the D9 Brewing Company to produce an evening of three short operas – including the world premiere of Scott Joiner’s “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)” – at the brewery in Cornelius. Yes, a world premiere on Treynorth Drive! But most exciting was the Charlotte premiere of Puccini’s The Girl of the West, as Meena collaborated with six other international companies, including New York City Opera and Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown. Singing was exemplary, persuading me that this second-tier Puccini opera was actually a first-rate work, and staging was anything but stodgy or conservative: much of the scenery was animated and bold, with authentic relics evoking the Wild West supplied by our own dearly beloved Wells Fargo. An appreciable, if infinitesimal, atonement for all the bank’s Wild West chicanery.

 

Bravura Aplenty in Theatre Charlotte’s “Memphis”

Review:  Memphis

By Perry Tannenbaum

As you may have found out, ignorant buffoons can make it big in America. So why not ignorant eccentrics? If Huey Calhoun didn’t make it big as a ‘50s deejay in Memphis, the musical by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, then his fall from celebrity wouldn’t be nearly as reckless or spectacular. When he has lost his local TV show, tossed away his shot at national fame, and blown his romantic chances with the R&B queen he has catapulted to stardom, Huey defiantly delivers the anthem he has earned, “Memphis Lives in Me.”

“One more drink and you’ll see God everywhere,” sings Huey in tribute to his chief consolation: a bluesy Beale Street honky-tonk bar. It’s the culmination of a Broadway- caliber performance that Joe McCourt is currently giving at Theatre Charlotte in the lead role that DiPietro patterned after legendary rock pioneer Dewey Phillips.

Contrary to the preproduction signals that McCourt and director Corey Mitchell were sending, McCourt hasn’t muted Huey’s nasal drawl or portrayed him as much less of a rube than Chad Kimball did on Broadway. That’s a good thing. “Sounds just like him!” my wife Sue concurred at intermission.

Whether it’s the pork-pie hat and costume by designer Rachel Engstrom, or Huey’s sidling walk – seemingly unable to unbend his knees, straighten his back, or take two consecutive steps in the same direction – McCourt also looks a lot like Kimball’s Tony-nominated portrait. Perhaps rehearsals with Dani Burke as hot young singer Felicia Farrell revealed that, if McCourt were to tone down Huey’s goofball attributes, he would come off as more of a creepy stalker.

Ultimately, McCourt has arrived at a very likable blend of naïveté, chutzpah, neediness, awkwardness, and hipness – not the easiest elements to combine – and as usual, he torches every song he touches. For her part, Burke hasn’t lost any of the voltage she first brought to the Queens Road barn when she electrified audiences with “Aquarius” in the 2014 production of Hair.

 

Felicia isn’t nearly the plum role Huey is, but Burke proves to be fairly formidable in her first full-fledged lead. A few of Engstrom’s creations glam her up, and I liked Burke’s regality at the “WRNB” studio, where Huey has the nerve to ask Felicia to perform live. We’ve only seen Felicia in a seedy honky-tonk before, and the top radio station in Memphis also looks pretty shabby, but Burke demands, “Where are my backup singers?” as if she’s already a star.

What’s happening here in Memphis doubly crosses racial lines as Huey brings black music to the middle of the AM radio dial and presumes to romance Felicia while promoting her talent. Both of these audacities bring powerful characters into the flow of the action. Station owner Mr. Simmons is easily the most comical of these, and Mike Carroll beautifully brings out the businessman’s starchy pomposity – and astonishment – each time a new Huey atrocity increases his listening audience, his sponsor’s satisfaction, and finally his own teenage son’s admiration.

I hardly even remembered the role of Huey’s mom from the original Broadway production, so I was fairly blown away by the heart – and the pipes – that Allison Snow Rhinehart brings to Mama. Of course, she’s as déclassé as Huey, so his outsized dreams and successes are a total shock to her, not to mention coming home one day to find his black girlfriend in her kitchen. But Mama’s prejudices occupy the same space as her love and loyalty, so Rhinehart has a couple of gratifying surprises in store for us after intermission.

Least surprising, after his triumph as Coalhouse Walker in last winter’s CPCC production of Ragtime, is Tyler Smith’s powerful portrayal of Delray, Felicia’s fiercely protective brother and owner of the dive where Huey discovers her. It doesn’t take long to catch on to Smith’s power, since he’s toe-to-toe with Burke in the opening “Underground” ensemble, and he’ll prove equally capable of facing off with McCourt on “She’s My Sister” when Delray flares up about Felicia’s interracial affair. In fact, when the catastrophe strikes that ends Act 1, I suspect that Mitchell may have imposed some unnecessary restraint on Delray’s ferocity.

But there was more than enough power from all the frontliners to justify the “Why didn’t you tell me about this place?” comments I was overhearing during the break. Apparently these newbies were undeterred by the lackluster scenic design by Chris Timmons or the generic choreography by Ashlyn Summer, which never reminded me of what my teen elders were dancing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand or Alan Freed’s The Big Beat. Victoria Fisher’s lighting design goes a long way to redeeming the drab sets, and music director Zachary Tarlton makes sure there is always a lively jump to Bryan’s score when needed.

Maybe the best reason to be wowed by Theatre Charlotte’s Memphis is how deep the excellence goes in this cast. After AJ White literally glows in a lemon yellow outfit as Wailin’ Joe on the first R&B track that Huey spins, there are two marvelous rebirths among the black folk that Huey’s musical mission reaches. First there’s Traven Harrington as Bobby, the radio station janitor, who will pile one shocker upon another before he’s done. Then there’s Clayton Stephenson, whose transformation as Gator may leave you weeping as Act 1 climaxes.

It ain’t perfect, but Mitchell has directed one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen on Queens Road in 30+ years of covering Theatre Charlotte. Chances are better than even that Memphis will live in you if you’re in the house when this company comes out for their final bows.

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.