Tag Archives: Ann Roth

Thomas Goes Off, Atticus Told Off in Sorkin’s Bold New Mockingbird

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird at Blumenthal PAC

By Perry Tannenbaum

a Porch Scene A

In light of what I truly experienced at Belk Theater on opening night of Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, watching Atticus Finch valiantly defend Tom Robinson for at least the eighth time onstage, it’s simply inadequate for me to say that Richard Thomas was stunning as the iconic Alabama defense attorney. Staggering is more like it, easily the most powerful work I’ve seen from Thomas in my 59+ years of watching his most memorable performances live on Broadway, in Charlotte, and on TV.

Much of the credit should go to director Bartlett Sher and his design team for prodding Thomas toward reimagining Atticus so radically. The unexpectedly drab and humble scenery by Miriam Buether is particularly effective, draining nearly all of the Southern charm and elegance from Harper Lee’s Maycomb County – and doing it on a spectacularly large scale.

d Porch Scene Atticus and Scout

Yet it’s Sorkin who really lights the fires, scandalizing the stodgy protectors of Lee’s legacy with the first Mockingbird adaptation to reach Broadway. Now he’s doubling and tripling down with subsequent revisions that enable his West Wing political points to hit home more and more sharply. The Broadway script took on Bob Ewell, the low-life Klansman who beat and raped his daughter Mayella before accusing Robinson of the crimes, and added to his foulness by layering on a couples of doses of antisemitism as he berates Atticus. Mayella spews far more venom than we remember after Atticus gives her a harder time, and prosecutor Horace Gilmer goes after Robinson with a new viciousness, all the more shocking in the finely tailored suit that costumer Ann Roth dresses him in.

j Calpurnia at homeLike me, audiences are so used to seeing this story of grim understanding and growth through the eyes of a little girl, Finch’s tomboy daughter Scout. They will likely be shocked to discover that Sorkin is far more interested in the lessons Atticus learns – and the lessons we still haven’t learned as a society. In the wake of 2020 and the bitter fruit of #BlackLivesMatter, Sorkin’s Mockingbird 2.0 offered some fortified pushback from the Finches’ housemaid Calpurnia, scolding Atticus for his oft-expressed bromides that we should respect everyone since everyone has some good inside of them.

So the post-pandemic script returned to Broadway with some new wallop, but I won’t divulge how the formidable Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia silences Atticus with a single sentence. Not yet. Both Sher and Thomas do know how to wield a silence, that’s for sure. We’ve waited our entire lives to see the Atticuses of our Dear Old Southland told off like this.

Maybe Sorkin should have left well alone after delivering this fresh blow. But he started delivering haymakers on Broadway in 1989 with A Few Good Men, a good ten years before establishing his more colossal bully pulpit with The West Wing. So restraint and soft-spokenness are way back in his rearview mirror.

Very likely, Sorkin and Sher have continued to tune up their production, maybe even after it started touring in March. For Mockingbird 2.1 or 3.0, whatever you choose to call it, now has a political dimension that savvy Broadway reviewers could never have overlooked.

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Most probably as a nod to Rep. Liz Cheney – if not to Republican Trump flouters who preceded her – Sorkin now lets it drop in his narrative (split up here between Scout, older brother Jem, and their chum Dill) that Atticus holds an elective office at the state level, so popular and entrenched that he usually runs unopposed for re-election. Ah, so in addition to getting told off, we will also learn that Atticus suffers political consequences for all his integrity, linking him to Cheney’s apparent martyrdom-in-progress.

Receding into the background, as Mockingbird becomes Atticus’s story more than Scout’s, is all the midnight cooing over the mystery of Boo Radley that cluttered the beginning of our narrative. Now Scout and Jem and Dill all obsess over how Bob Ewell could have possibly fallen on his knife, flipping the narrative almost entirely upside-down, since even Tom’s rape trial is a series of flashbacks.

All of this will be easy enough for first-timers to follow, with far more dramatic intensity for those of us used to the clunky old Christopher Sergel adaptation. On the other hand, Sorkin has jettisoned a few key moments that both the Oscar-winning 1962 movie, starring Gregory Peck, and the theatrical version – staged every May at the courthouse of Monroeville, Lee’s hometown – have effectively memorialized and graven in our minds.

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Sheriff Tate won’t be scampering onto the Finches’ front porch begging Atticus to put down a rabid dog that is terrorizing the town, a calm display of marksmanship that will amaze Scout and Jem, both of whom view their dad as effete and ineffectual. Sorkin also dispenses with the dignified episode where Atticus slowly, with exquisite self-control, extracts a handkerchief from his pocket and mops his face after Ewell has rudely spit in it. Instead, Atticus demonstrates his manhood by executing a neat jujitsu move on Ewell when the abusive boor confronts him after being publicly humiliated at the trial.

Nor will Atticus get the customary reverential treatment from the black folk when he makes his final exit from the courtroom, a further diminution of the icon – and perhaps the oddest of Sorkin’s juxtapositions of how we see Atticus today and how he would have been seen in 1934 Alabama. Goodbye, Rev. Sykes, your services aren’t needed in this version. Equally strange, yet far more delightful, Tom Robinson’s defense witness and former employer, Link Deas, is now played by deaf Canadian actor Anthony Natale, infusing the character with a totally fresh back story. Link now speaks ASL when he takes the witness stand, mostly translated for us by the children. It’s not the last of the personal secrets he will share with them exclusively.

The universally acknowledged town drunk injects some welcome comedy into this Deep South segregation tragedy, giving it more contour. Yet we find it hard to forget the phenomenon of Atticus Finch going off on Mayella Ewell, the overworked big sister that even Tom Robinson has the audacity to feel sorry for. The kid gloves are also tossed aside – along with his prepared written remarks – when Atticus rises to give his closing remarks.

e Courtroom Atticus and Tom

You could see how inspired Thomas was by the words Sorkin gave him, first berating himself for not schooling Robinson effectively enough to prevent his voicing pity for a white person, then heaping scorn on the city, the society, the nation and himself for insisting on such toxic racist niceties. But Thomas looked out on us more often on opening night than on the jury box as he mixed self-flagellation with earnest pleas and white-hot anger in his volcanic eruption, making it possible that he was also drawing inspiration from a Belk Theater crowd that filled the highest row in the highest balcony, hanging on every word, a rarity for a non-musical production.

The usual rituals and ceremonies relied upon in presenting Mockingbird had been shunted aside for new ones. With thundering success.

Thanks to the Blumenthal Performing Arts sound crew, all that thunder sounded quite natural and human. While Thomas can’t be accused of holding back when called upon to lose control, he is poise and grace as Atticus aside from his three notable eruptions. His antagonists, Joey Collins and Arianna Gayle Stuky as the Ewells and Luke Smith as prosecutor Gilmer, are no less fired up. It’s as if Sher told them that Mockingbird had been accused of being a children’s book – and to take that as a personal insult.

Here on the road and back on Broadway, Sher has consistently opted to use adult actors to portray the kids in this story. After about five seconds of uneasiness as Melanie Moore seemed to struggle with Scout’s Southern drawl, my discomfort disappeared. Kids would have worked as well or better than Justin Mark as Jem, Steven Lee Johnson as Dill, and Moore tagging along as Scout if their main charge was to sneak out at night and snoop on Boo or playact the painting scene from Tom Sawyer. But Sorkin mainly has them haunting the trial as our narrators, where less gee-whiz wonder and more spontaneous energy is better.

If Williams enjoys the enviable luxury of acting like she’s been imported intact to this story from a fully woke 2022, Yaegel T. Welch must finely calibrate his Jim Crow subjugation as Tom Robinson. Despite all the attitudes and traits Welch may have told Sher he would not do – or all the stereotypes Sher may have tried to avoid – this Robinson seems to have just the right amounts of fear, courage, and resoluteness that fit how his fate plays out. The new ingredients that Sorkin and Sher give him, from the moment Atticus first visits him in jail, is a healthy realistic cynicism.

Can a court-appointed attorney really help him? Can there be any other verdict than guilty for a black man in Alabama accused of raping a white woman? Both Welch and Williams in their roles seem to know the world better than Thomas does in his. These are two persistent tugs against Atticus’s education and elitism, insidiously allied with Tom Ewell. Neither of them acts as if this were a tender bedtime story. Whether you’re Tom standing trial or Calpurnia, making sure the children see it, this is all dead serious.

With the shifting emphases of Sorkin’s adaptation, Travis Johns gets to be as effective as Mr. Cunningham, the impoverished KKK father of one Scout’s classmates, as he is later in the more crucial role of Boo Radley. While Sorkin lets us know that each member of the Maycomb jury has blood on his hands, he allows Richard Poe as Judge Taylor and David Christopher Wells as Sheriff Tate to escape the kind of scrutiny he aims at Atticus. They are the most solid links between this Mockingbird and those that have come before, though I’d say both men are warmer and more prominent as the town’s good citizens.

After all, with all the other hooded white folk and the dozen unseen jurors filling out Maycomb’s voting rolls, who’s left in Maycomb to say something good about? Just Tom, Calpurnia, Atticus, the kids, and the upright black folk who attend the trial and bear witness.

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No, Sorkin does not forget about the Finches’ haughty neighbor, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, and her precious camellia bushes. The racist’s belligerence is elevated to Broadway dimensions, justifying Jem’s attack on her garden more than ever. Played on tour by Mary Badham, a new link is forged with the 1962 film, for the Birmingham native made her auspicious screen debut as Scout. When she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, she became the youngest nominee who had ever received such Oscar recognition.

Nor is Dubose a token throwaway role. Badham plays her with iron rectitude and fiery malice, clearly as bad an influence on the kids she berates as Atticus is good – and she berates Atticus with gusto as well, which proves fatal to those precious camellias. This altercation, not devoid of comedy, tumbles around enough to become a fairly central teaching moment. Sorkin flips it beautifully, for now when Atticus makes Jem make restitution for his misdeed – and apologize – he not only gets pushback from his son.

Later on, Calpurnia forgets her place a little and goes off on him. By bending over backwards that far to show Mrs. Dubose respect, Calpurnia says flatly, Atticus is disrespecting her – and all other people that nasty racist is hurling hatred at.

Thomas sits there downstage, doesn’t answer, gets the point. We all do.

“Book of Mormon” Remains Spectacularly Hilarious

Review: The Book of Mormon

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s been quite a run for Mormons over the past 25+ years, beginning with the Pitt family in Angels in America in the early ‘90s and continuing with the Mitt run for the presidency in 2012. Queen City theatergoers had a front row seat for the upswell of Mormon topicality when Charlotte Rep brought Wendy Hammond’s cathartic Ghostman to town about the same time that Tony Kushner’s masterwork was wending its way from LA to London and then to Broadway.

Yet ironically, the most informative emanation from Salt Lake City – the one most fully unfurling the spiritual lineage of Mormon the prophet, the Angel Moroni, Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young – is the most mocking, irreverent, and satirical. Right on schedule for the Romney candidacy, The Book of Mormon hit Broadway in the spring of 2011, instantly affirming that South Park and Avenue Q, the previous successes of its writing team, hadn’t been flukes.

Still running strong at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York, The Book of Mormon is now visiting Belk Theater for the third time in the last five years – and its freshness and outrageousness have hardly faded at all. True, the opening bell-ringing shtick of “Hello!” is starting to lose some of its original sharpness, and the sublime conceit and missionary confidence of Elder Price’s “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” has become less priceless as Romney’s run recedes into memory. On the third time around, the chief pleasure of the “Hasa Diga Eebowai” shtick and the running “maggots” gag is watching them work their vulgar magic on first-timers to the show.

Ah, but that leaves a profusion of vulgarity that still hit me hard on press night. What I see more clearly than ever is that the book of The Book of Mormon was an exuberant explosion of creativity in a writers’ room, when longtime partners in South Park crime, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, teamed up with Avenue Q whiz Robert Lopez for their first mega-collaboration, taking aim at a wondrously vulnerable target. Such a barrage of hilarity doesn’t seem possible from one man alone. This is a trio of jokesters feeding off one another while crafting a storyline that revolves around three fairly rounded characters. A mischievous “what else can we do?” mantra underlies everything.

The Mormon repressions of “Turn It Off” echo the juvenile Avenue Q simplicities of “Hello!” with extra bite, and the first act closer, “Man Up,” conjures up all the signature raunchiness – and bold tastelessness – of South Park. But here’s the thing: the three collaborators layer on a level of pretentiousness that is new to all of them. “Man Up” grows into an operatic trio before the curtain comes down for intermission. Singing over each other, the buffoonish Elder Cunningham primes himself to avoid screwing up for once, Elder Price wrestles with his first failure, and African ingenue Nabulungi longs for freedom, redemption, and Salt Lake.

We get a foretaste of the pretension to come in the illuminated proscenium evoking the stagecraft of Phantom and Wicked, but it doesn’t reach full flower until Elder Price’s “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” fantasia after intermission, topped off with its caffeinated Starbucks symbolism. It’s funny even if you didn’t know that Mormons must abstain from coffee. So much of Act 2 click because of its generous infusion of Mel Brooks incongruity, which ultimately plunges over the edge of political incorrectness when we reach the anthemic “I Am Africa.” The whole bunch of youthful Mormon missionaries declare their identification with the squalor and barbarity of their new Uganda homeland.

Unable to stick to his missionary script with Elder Price’s verve and fidelity, Elder Cunningham, who hasn’t read any Bible, leans on the mythology of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings to imaginatively make over scripture and convert the heathen. But perhaps the most irreverent desecration of hallowed culture is the takedown of R&H’s The King and I. Instead of darling Thai tykes performing an adorably distorted Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we’re treated to deluded Ugandans disfiguring holy writ in a playlet doused with lewd acts and ailments not readily associated with either Moses or Joseph Smith. We can see disaster looming as the Missionary President sits down to watch this spectacle, and we can’t wait.

Connor Peirson is as shambling, slovenly, and clingy as any Elder Cunningham we’ve seen before. What sets this pudgy wonder apart are his lightning-fast dance moves, limber feats that disdain gracefulness. His unabashed nerdiness marks him as emphatically as his untucked, wrinkled shirt. His initial puppydog worship of Price and his suggestive shyness toward Nabulungi in the modestly veiled baptism scene would both be so precious and adorable were it not for Pierson’s intractable disorderliness. In the end, it really does take a giant leap of faith to believe in him as a religious leader.

And in the end, with the onset of humility, Kevin Clay as Elder Price turns out to be almost as good as he thinks he is. He’s a bit blander at times than the Romney and Rubio types we’ve seen previously, but he is also the best dancer we’ve seen in this role. Breaking through to individuality in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” Clay’s moves were the key to keeping the ornate nightmare absolutely fresh.

Although I found Kayla Pecchioni’s syllabification of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” to be a work-in-progress that muted Nabulungi’s warm comedy, she came through nicely in both the mock tender Act 2 “Baptize Me” duet and the more broadly comical “Joseph Smith American Moses.” Other characters are cartoon thin, but there’s often enough there for an actor to excel. Andy Huntington Jones certainly capitalized on his chances as the semi-closeted district leader, Elder McKinley; Jacques C. Smith as Mafala radiated a sunny geniality leading the “Hasa Diga Eebowai” before lowering the boom on its profane meaning, and Corey Jones brought fearsome credibility to warlord General Butt-Fucking Naked.

Wielding the golden tablets handed down to mortals by the Heavenly Father, Ron Bohmer looks appropriately Mosaic as Smith in a costume designed by Ann Roth. If you’ve seen Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, you’ll recognize the wig that Bohmer gets to work with. Scenic designer Scott Pask achieves an Emerald City aura at Latter Day’s HQ in Salt Lake before targeting The Lion King for a vicious takedown with his squalid African village.

My most enthusiastic behind-the-scenes kudos are reserved for Casey Nicholaw, who co-directs with Parker and consecrates the spectacle with his zany choreography. Just when I began to find a nick or two in the comedy chassis of The Book of Mormon, the ensemble’s dance exploits helped me discover the polished chrome in the grillwork.

 

“Book of Mormon” Returns With Missionary Zeal

Book of Mormon

By Perry Tannenbaum

When the creators of South Park and Avenue Q detonated The Book of Mormon on Broadway in the spring of 2011, some people down here in Charlotte still had the 1996 Angels in America debacle in their rearview mirrors. Blumenthal Performing Arts would never have the nerve to bring such an audacious musical to Belk Theater, the Charlotte Observer taunted, because the city couldn’t handle such irreverence and foul language.

My conversations with Blumenthal brass had already indicated the opposite: they were eager to bring the show here. And they did. On the day after Christmas in 2013, Charlotte was one of the first stops for the touring version of the show. It not only came here, it stayed here for two weeks. Audiences were not at all horrified by the potty-mouthed blasphemies of the book and lyrics by Robert Lopez, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. They reveled in them, and Blumenthal staffers were soon crowing that Charlotte had been one of the most successful stops on the Mormon tour.

Enthusiasm for all this shrewdly crafted sacrilege has only waned slightly two seasons later. Once again, Belk Theater was sold out on press night, and it seemed like Cody Jamison Strand as Elder Cunningham and Ryan Bondy as Elder Price were offering a broader, more energized version of the Mormon missionaries’ A-team. Price is the model Mormon among the new initiates at the Salt Lake City HQ, convinced that he will draw the plumiest assignment, a mission to Orlando, Florida.

Instead, Price not only draws the least appealing destination, a Ugandan village tyrannized by a barbaric warlord, he also draws the worst possible companion, Cunningham. A pathological screw-up, Cunningham hasn’t memorized the prescribed doorbell spiel that opens the show. Actually, he hasn’t bothered to read the holy Book of Mormon, either. Worst of all, Cunningham has a tendency to panic a little under pressure, so instead of clamming up when he doesn’t know the drill, he’ll go off-script and invent stuff.

It’s at these suspenseful moments that Cunningham’s imagination will wander off into the realms of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings. So if you thought a gospel where Jesus resurfaces after the crucifixion in Rochester, New York, was bizarre enough, it only gets better in Cunningham’s version. Aiming at an African congregation, Cunningham adjusts his message to address the scourges of AIDS and rape, ignoring only the repeated cris de cœur from a gentleman with maggots in his scrotum.

In contrast with Mark Evans, whose stiffness in 2013 as Elder Price reminded me of Mitt Romney, Bondy’s wholesomeness seemed more like an animated Ken Doll or the robotic Marco Rubio. An almost-inhuman dimension comes into play when he sings the delightfully conceited “You And Me (But Mostly Me).” On the other hand, Strand has magnified the slovenly boorishness of Cunningham compared to the slob next door that Christopher John O’Neill brought us in 2013.

Cunningham’s pronouncements now seem occasionally to originate from the cavern of Strand’s large intestine, yet he’s vulnerable enough to be convincingly shy in the climactic “Baptize Me” duet with his adorable convert, Candace Quarrels as Nabulungi. What really marred Strand’s performance was his microphone, which often muddied his words, provoking a couple of overheard complaints at intermission from people half my age.

Sound problems also imposed a curious time delay when we reached the comedy climax where the African villagers present their skit of the Cunningham-infused holy book to the utter horror of the Mission President. What the group was saying was often garbled by the sound system, but by the second time they mimed them, we could divine the digestive problems plaguing the disciples of Brigham Young on their westward trek.

Scott Pask’s scenic design makes the contrast between Salt Lake City and Uganda as radical as the gulf between Emerald City and the hottest region of Hell, replacing Cunningham’s visions of Lion King natural splendor with extreme urban squalor when we adjourn to Africa. The dead alligator that is dragged across the stage looks like it was dredged from a sewer before the sun dried it out.

Book of Mormon

David Aron Damane is ultra-fearsome as General Butt-Fucking Naked. Only a missionary as insanely self-confident as Elder Price could fail to see the consequences of waving the holy book in this warlord’s face. But it’s the geniality of Sterling Jarvas as Mafala, Nabulungi’s dad, that draws the biggest laughs as he welcomes our heroes to his village with the anthemic “Hasa Diga Eebowai.”

Other missionaries are floundering in Uganda, but the most outstanding Mormons play dual roles in the narrative. We see Edward Watts as Joseph Smith – in Mosaic hair worthy of Charlton Heston – before he returns in more buttoned-down stints as Elder Price’s proud dad and the even prouder Mission President. After a dazzling entrance as Moroni, Jesus’ angelic emissary to Smith, Daxton Bloomquist heads up the Uganda mission – and a wild tap-dancing ensemble – as Elder McKinley.

As the big “Turn It Off” production number cranks into high gear, it appears that Elder McKinley just might be a closeted homosexual who turns off his natural impulses “like a light switch.” With characteristic South Park subtlety, costume designer Ann Roth has the boys suddenly break out in sparkly pink vests at the height of their synchronized dance. This is just the assistance Bloomquist needs to keep the secret of McKinley’s sexual orientation secure – from children three-and-under.

Photos by Joan Marcus