Tag Archives: Anne Lambert

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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High-Grade, Homegrown and Professional

Preview:  Three Days of Rain

By Perry Tannenbaum

Maybe you’ve noticed: since the beginning of September, there has been an abundance of high-quality, homegrown and professionally crafted theatre productions around town – from new or returning companies as well as the usual suspects. Brand New Sheriff ignited the upswell with Jitney, the best drama of the year, and the drive continued with scintillating efforts by donna scott productions, OnQ Performing Arts, and The Playworks Group.

And that was just during the first three weeks!

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Within the next two weeks, Actor’s Theatre unveiled a fiery American Idiot, PaperHouse Theatre trailblazed at the Goodyear Arts Center with The Revolutionists, and Children’s Theatre outdid themselves at ImaginOn with a high-flying Mary Poppins. Three Bone Theatre has sustained the seasonal glow with Fahrenheit 451 and the Actor’s Theatre encore, Hand to God, was merely better than the Broadway production.

You have several more chances to experience professional-grade excellence in local theaters before the winter solstice, including reprises by Chickspeare, OnQ, Children’s, and Actor’s of holiday faves. But if you’re itching to get a taste of the grassroots fervor that has gripped the Queen City throughout the fall theatre season – and escape the oncoming blizzard of Christmas repeats – your only choice is to check out Charlotte’s Off-Broadway.

Gestating at the Warehouse PAC up in Cornelius for the past five years in storefront productions, Charlotte’s Off-Broadway is staging an Uptown rebirth with the Metrolina premiere of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain. For founding producer Anne Lambert and her company, it’s their first presentation at Spirit Square since 2005 – and their first Actors’ Equity production ever.

Lambert isn’t coy about what she hopes will begin sprouting from all the recent professional grassroots action around Charlotte this season – a professional company with the same regional status and prestige that Charlotte Repertory Theatre had before it folded in 2005.

“Yes,” says Lambert, “I do see Three Days of Rain as a project that represents the beginning of a concerted effort to lift Charlotte’s Off-Broadway to a new level, to impact the city’s theatre scene and, yes, to move Charlotte closer to re-establishing ourselves as a logical home for a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) company.”

It begins by consistently producing high-quality shows that the community will continue to come out and see – and continue to hit their wallets and support. Butts and bucks. Part of the push on Lambert’s side is signing Equity contracts with her actors so that they are all treated and paid according to union standards. Two of the three Equity players, Caroline Bower and Brian Lafontaine, are longtime Charlotte favorites.

Lafontaine is also co-producing. He and Lambert last collaborated in 2003 when he acted in The Hotel Project, a pair of one-acts produced by Lambert and Matt Olin while they were, respectively, director of development and managing director at Charlotte Rep during its sunset years. More recently, Lambert and Lafontaine have been attending Creative Mornings, a monthly happening for Charlotte creatives organized by Olin and Tim Miner.

The old mojo began to work again during the supercharged meet-ups. Three Days of Rain was among the scripts that Lafontaine had brought with him from New York when he moved back to Charlotte. He was at a point in his career where he was thinking about producing a show that he wanted to do – at a professional level.

“Anne had told me if I ever wanted to get a show produced, she could get it done for me after we had worked together on The Hotel Project,” Lafontaine remembers. “I know how passionate she is, and how capable she is. She loves theater. She loves actors, and she loves contributing in any way that she can to the artistic community in Charlotte. She’s an incredible partner. There’s no way this would be happening without her.”

There was a notorious Broadway run of Three Days of Rain back in 2006 starring Julia Roberts, so Lambert had heard of the script when Lafontaine brought it to her. But she hadn’t read it. Months of discussions culminated in opting for the Greenberg play.

“It’s a well-written, Pulitzer Prize-nominated script,” Lambert stresses. “It’s sophisticated, it’s funny, it’s compelling, and it’s mysterious, full of Easter Eggs that reward the attentive audience member. It has six completely beguiling characters. I’m excited by the device of the dual roles, where the actors we see portraying Walker, Nan and Pip in Act 1 turn around in Act 2 and play their parents. These three talented actors in our show are so adept, so good at what they’re doing, they really are two different characters for me.”

Notwithstanding all that Roberts hoopla, Walker and Ned, the son and father Lafontaine will play, have always been the core characters at the heart of Three Days. Both are startlingly eccentric – and brilliant. After his dad’s funeral, Walker had vanished so completely that his sister Nan, the sensible branch of the Janeway family, had given him up for dead while he was holed up in Italy for a year. The siblings now meet at an unoccupied loft where, 35 years earlier, Walker’s dad had designed his masterwork, Janeway House.

But wait a second. When they finally read Daddy’s will, the sibs discover that, instead of going to them, the Janeway House has been inherited by their longtime friend Pip, the son of Theo Wexler, who was Ned’s partner at their architectural firm. It’s a mystery. To get to the bottom of it, Walker obsessively pores through his dad’s terse diary, which he discovered soon after he returned to the loft.

Friction, mystery, and brilliant minds are all in the mix.

“The dialogue is fantastic,” Lafontaine enthuses. “It has an almost Aaron Sorkin feel to it. Sure, I think it’s funny in a lot of places. Thank God. Otherwise, I think we’d be driving audience members to therapy after. And the mystery adds another interesting element to the play. But for me, it really is more of [a dramatic] study about the relationship between children and parents.”

Bower, who plays Nan and her mom Lina, burst onto the Charlotte scene in 2007 with starring roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Wizard of Oz. By the time she dropped out in 2014, Bower had drawn acting paychecks from every company in town that cuts them – Actor’s, Children’s, and CPCC Summer Theatre. She became the most persuasive poster child we had for the notion that stage acting could be a viable profession in Charlotte.

Then she took a position as teacher and director at Providence Day School to expand the theatre program there and carry herself from car payment to car payment. She came out of “hiding” this past summer, choreographing Cry Baby at Theatre Charlotte, and now she is acting under her second Actor’s Equity Association contract within the space of two months.

“I am so lucky to have been a part of The Revolutionists and Three Days of Rain. Being a part of two projects that care enough about their actors to jump through the AEA hoops is humbling. Not only do the production teams care about their actors, but both of these scripts are the best of the best.”

Paige Johnston Thomas, who directs, brings an additional chunk of Charlotte Rep DNA to the Lambert-Lafontaine production team. Her first acting gig in the Queen City was in another three-person cast, playing C in Rep’s 1995 production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Thomas’s most recent paying gigs in theatre have been directing at Theatre Charlotte and Davidson Community Players.

But her most important role on the local scene is as an “anti-relocation advocate,” having founded C&J Casting with Mitzi Corrigan to help local theatre pros get steady work in commercials and film.

Thomas saw Bower’s outing at Goodyear Arts, where she portrayed a vain, charismatic, and bubble-headed Marie Antoinette.

“I texted her this after the show: ‘I couldn’t keep my eyes off you,’” Thomas relates. “Which in real life sounds kinda creepy, but in the acting world, it’s a huge compliment. She has an innocence that is constantly being belied by her quick intellect and emotional depth. It makes for great conflict, which makes great drama.”

Head for Duke Energy Theatre if you want to see it. Then consider hitting your hip if you like what you’ve seen.

Less Bard and More Beer

Theater Reviews: Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) and The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Four centuries after William Shakespeare’s death, Charlotte’s own Chickspeare inhabits a parallel universe. Or maybe it’s retribution: while all of the Bard’s works were performed by all-male theatre troupes, all of Chickspeare’s productions since 1998 have been “All women! All the time!” as originally promised. The “All Shakespeare” in the middle of that slogan was gradually blurred and dropped as the Chix added Reduced Shakespeare Company lampoons to their rep and then ventured father afield.

Written by Michael Carleton, James FitzGerald, and John K. Alvarez, Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) is very much in the spirit of Reduced Shakespeare’s original assault on the Elizabethan titan’s complete works. The parentheses in the title, the quickie romp through multiple classics by three actors playing multiple roles, and the devotion of all of Act 2 to a single extravagant lampoon all follow the Reduced template.

But gender only begins to describe the difference between Chickspeare’s version and the 2010 Actor’s Theatre Every Christmas. The new model is as much an event as it is a theatre production, an experience that begins and ends at the newer NoDa Brewery on N. Tryon Street. In between, there are a couple of shuttle bus rides back and forth from the original Brewery location on N. Davidson Street. You’ll find more brew choices on tap at North Tryon, but the enticement of lifting a mug and participating in the many “To beer!” toasts during the Chix performance at North Davidson is hard to resist.

Few did last Friday night. Besides the brewskis, we had Anne Lambert lubricating the experience with a steady feed of Christmas trivia challenges on the bus ride to the show and the conviviality of the Chix banditas – Sheila Snow Proctor, Lane Morris, and Tanya McClellan – during their performance. But mainly, it was the beer that induced the party atmosphere.

Directing the show, Joanna Gerdy and Andrea King had a healthy disregard for the script. The playwrights labored under a handicap that never afflicted the Reduced Shakespeare collaborators when they chose ancient targets like Hamlet, the Bible, and American history for their merry desecrations. Unlike your seasonal carols, most of our familiar Christmas stories aren’t free-range prey. Copyright law prevents satiric assaults upon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Charlie Brown Christmas, and the Yuletide yarns of Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas, and Jean Sheperd.

When Carleton, FitzGerald, and Alvarez lashed out at these restrictions, the result was “Gustav, the Green-Nosed Rain-Goat,” not the funniest sketch you’ll ever see. Morris never plays the mutated venison as if it were comedy gold, so there’s never any deadly straining to make it funnier than it is. We’ll raise a glass, and then we’ll move on.

The premise of the show is that Proctor wishes to proceed traditionally with a presentation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but Morris and McClellan are sick and tired of the same old stuff. Before they’ll allow Snow to read her Dickens and play her Scrooge, she must join them in a medley of other Christmas faves, including Frosty the Snowman, Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the Grinch, O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” and – maybe if there’s enough time – the inevitable It’s a Wonderful Life.

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There isn’t enough time, but that doesn’t deter Morris. While Proctor is on-task as Scrooge, with McClellan visiting her as all three ghosts, Morris keeps insisting that Proctor is George Bailey, inflicting on us a bevy of characters from New Bedford Falls, including George’s guardian angel, his brother, his banker nemesis, and his adoring wife. By the time Lane reaches the wife, it comes off oddly like a female impersonation.

Fortunately, Proctor is the ideal Scrooge in the face of these torments. There’s a bit of Oliver Hardy and Bud Abbott in her forbearance, but we somehow remain on her side throughout her ordeal. At the climax of Christmas Carol, Morris is still bedeviling her, so she finally submits to becoming George Bailey – in a schizophrenic frenzy that finds her shuttling between Scrooge and Bailey as both McClellan and Morris assail her.

In her surrender, Proctor produces a Jimmy Stewart impersonation that’s barely good enough to let you know what she’s doing. It will probably improve during the next couple of weekends as the run continues, but I’m not sure it should. Likewise, Proctor can be a mite slow changing costumes, but McClellan’s patience with her cast mate is so priceless, it would hardly pay for Proctor to hurry.

It’s been a rocky road for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte since developers forced them out of their longtime home on Stonewall Street last summer. We thought they would resurface on Louise Avenue, but negotiations there collapsed, and the company tacked toward Freedom Drive. City and county paperwork delayed the opening, so their Toxic Avenger was redirected to a nearby church, and the current Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical has been rerouted to the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, Charlotte Ballet’s HQ on N. Tryon Street.

I was curious to see how director Chip Decker and his design team would adapt to studios with so much space and such a high ceiling. With two fair-sized ramshackle trailers, topped by two jumbo projection screens, height isn’t a problem, and the design team fills out the stage with a fence, some Florida flamingo kitsch, an incongruous array of Star Wars memorabilia and, dead center of the stage between the two trailers, a half-decorated Christmas tree.

That odd tree, straddling the borderline between Rufus and Darleen’s properties, triggers Betsy Kelso’s plotline. Rufus loves Christmas and adores Darleen, but mean Darleen snarls “Bah” and “Humbug” to both. She will not decorate her trailer or even allow Rufus onto her property to decorate her side of the tree. That’s a source of huge consternation to Betty, the manager of Armadillo Acres, who has always wanted – but failed – to win the big prize awarded to the best-decorated trailer park. A vague curse plagues Armadillo Acres, and it too will to be exorcised before we reach a happy ending.

There’s a certain amount of respectability in Betty, so we’re fortunate that it is more than counterbalanced by the trashiness of her other tenants, Pickles and Lin (short for Linoleum). They also come in handy when ghosts are needed to populate Darleen’s Dickensian dream sequence. Rufus’s romantic fantasies and Betty’s hopes of nabbing top kitsch honors are revived when Darleen, in an effort to pull the plug on the park’s Christmas lights, gets electrocuted by Rufus’s déclassé cable-splitter and wakens with amnesia. That enables her to forget what a Scrooge she is and the fact that she belongs to Jackie, owner of a slutty pancake joint.

If you missed the first and second comings of this trashy romp, it’s good for you to know all the basics I’ve detailed. Although Actor’s Theatre has done well with the Charlotte Ballet space, they have thoroughly failed to conquer its acoustics. So the songs and lyrics by David Nehls are more crucial to your enjoyment than usual – but often unintelligible over the four-piece band led by music director Brad Fugate.

Tommy Foster isn’t as rednecky as Ryan Stamey was as Rufus, but he’s a tad more pathetic and lovable. Karen Christensen is more than sufficiently bitchy as Darleen, and we often forget that Matt Kenyon is in drag as Lin. (So does he, I suspect.) But Jon Parker Douglas nearly steals the show as Jackie when he is possessed during the climactic exorcism. It’s an epileptic farting fantasia that isn’t quickly forgotten – and the kind of broad physical comedy this acoustically-challenged show desperately needs.

 

The Nerd Who Terrorized New Jersey

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Theater Reviews:  The Toxic Avenger and Pride and Prejudice

By Perry Tannenbaum

I’m not sure how or when such epithets as “Armpit of the East” or “Scrotum of the Nation” rained down on New Jersey, but they were certainly commonplace before the onset of The Sopranos or Chris Christie. It’s also clear that when Lloyd Kaufman and Joe Ritter cooked up their 1984 screenplay for The Toxic Avenger, they weren’t intending to prettify the Garden State’s battered image. About the only love they showed for Jersey was shooting the film there.

A mere 24 years elapsed before Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, following their successful collaboration on Memphis, hooked up on a Toxic musical adaptation. The record-breaking reception of the show in New Brunswick, before its off-Broadway transfer in 2009, only underscored how highly Jerseyites cherish their notoriety.

DiPietro liberally refashions Kaufman’s original plot, but political corruption, organized crime, unconscionable pollution, and unchecked violence are still among its hallmarks. Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, newly resurrected on Freedom Drive after its recent homelessness, embraces all of these horrors with the merry glee it applied to Evil Dead The Musical seven years ago. Billy Ensley directed that 2009 gorefest on Stonewall Street, but ATC artistic director Chip Decker takes the reins here, reminding us that crass sci-fi musical parodies are at the core of this company’s DNA.

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Journeying from screen to stage, Melvin Ferd the Third has lost his signature janitorial mop, but he’s still a hopeless nerd and still smitten by the blind Sarah, who is now a librarian. The new Melvin is an environmental crusader from the get-go, and his plunge into an oozing drum of green toxic goo is far more malignant, ordered by corrupt Tromaville mayor Babs Belgoody. Where does Melvin find the goods on Mayor Belgoody’s polluting schemes? At the library, of course, cleverly filed away by Sarah where they are least likely to be found: among the important policy speeches of Michele Bachmann.

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Something underhanded seems to have occurred here, since Bachmann didn’t achieve her peak infamy until the 2012 election cycle. Suspicion falls on the prankish Decker, who compounds his violations of DiPietro’s script by introducing the image of Donald Trump later in the evening. Hopefully, that glorified groper will be forgotten by the time the Avenger concludes his rampages on November 12.

Yes, if you didn’t already know, what doesn’t kill Melvin makes him Toxie, the avenging mutant monster. This is exactly where Actor’s Theatre upstages the off-Broadway production once again. In 2009, Ensley simply had the luxury of a better pool of actors to choose from for Evil Dead. This year, Decker enjoys no luxuries whatsoever. ATC and City Hall couldn’t dot all the i’s on permits for the new location at 2219 Freedom Drive in time for opening night last Wednesday, so Decker & Co. were obliged to move next door to Center City Church & The Movement Center at 2225 Freedom.

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On very short notice. So the set designer is listed as Dire Circumstance in the playbill while other members of the design team have vanished altogether. Whether by accident or design, then, Decker doesn’t make the mistake that plagued the off-Broadway show: overproduction. In the New York version, when Melvin emerged from the chemical dumpsite as Toxie, the green carbuncled mask that covered his head was not only horrific, it robbed actor Nick Cordero of all further facial expression.

Jeremy DeCarlos doesn’t have to combat that handicap. As cool, graceful, and intelligent as DeCarlos has always seemed onstage, I expected both the nerdy Melvin and the homicidal Toxie to be difficult stretches for him. Clearly, I had no idea how well DeCarlos could channel the dopey sound and body language of Jerry Lewis as the socially inept earth scientist. When he emerged from the flimsy façade of chemical drums as Toxie, there were some wrappings on his arms to offer a semblance of might, but it was Decker at the soundboard who offered the more telling boost, amping up DeCarlos’ voice and synthesizing his monster roar.

No, the wrappings and the roars don’t close the gap between DeCarlos and fearsomeness – but that’s another reason why his Toxie is so much more hilarious than the more technically polished off-Broadway version, which often forgot it was a spoof. Leslie Giles certainly isn’t forgetting her spoofery as Sarah, helpless ingénue or aggressive vamp as the occasion demands – and her blind stick shtick with the hapless Melvin is a corny gift that keeps on giving. Sarah’s big number, “My Big French Boyfriend,” struck me as the best in the show.

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Lisa Hugo, who was so precisely calibrated in the complex leading role of Stage Kiss earlier this year, the last ATC production at Stonewall Street, gets to loosen up in multiple roles. When she isn’t the melodramatic, megalomaniacal Mayor, she’s usually Melvin’s disapproving Mom. These two nasty women turn out to be old enemies from their school days, so their “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” confrontation deep in Act 2 was a manic reminder of a similar duet in the Jekyll & Hyde musical. Ma Ferd also gets an effective “All Men Are Freaks” duet with Sarah.

Ryan Stamey and Dominique Atwater divvy up nearly all the remaining roles, more than I could keep track of, with Matthew Blake Johnson subbing for Atwater on opening night. Somebody needs to terrorize Sarah, toss Melvin into the toxic goo, get their asses kicked by Toxie, scurry around with missing limbs, and represent the hordes of Tromavillians who idolize the grotesque mutant. Stamey and Johnson performed every one of these worthy missions, and more, with the suave sophistication you would expect.

Yes, the middle school auditorium atmospherics of the Movement Center hall are somewhat against the grain of the gorey Toxic Avenger irreverence, but it served better than expected for what turns out to be a unique guerilla theatre project. If you arrive early for one of the remaining performances, you might get a brief tour of the new ATC space next door. What’s going on now on Freedom Drive bodes well for the company and the resourceful artists who make it go.

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Jon Jory is best known as the artistic director who brought renown to the Humana Festival and the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville – and widely believed to have penned Keely and Du, Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, and Anton in Show Business under the penname of Jane Martin. When it comes to adapting Jane Austen, whose Pride and Prejudice is currently on view at Pease Auditorium in a CPCC Theatre production, Jory is no dilettante. He has also adapted Sense and Sensibility and Emma.

Even if all the subtleties aren’t always pointed under Heather Wilson-Bowlby’s poised direction, it becomes obvious that Jory’s adaptation preserves the style and thrust of Austen’s liveliest masterwork. Most of the credit goes to Moriah Thomason as Austen’s prejudging heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, though it’s hard to deny she is amply counterbalanced by the hauteur of Brian Logsdon as Fitzwilliam Darcy. Thomason unveiled her elegance in the ATC production of Stick Fly back in February. Here she adds vivacity and wit, so I couldn’t get enough of her.

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We see where Elizabeth gets her wit from in Tony Wright’s slightly jaundiced portrait of her father, and Anne Lambert’s rendition of Mrs. Bennet has more than enough vanity, giddiness, and silliness to distribute among the younger Bennet sibs. My chief disappointment was the hoarseness that afflicted Lexie Simerly as Liz’s elder sister Jane. If only she could have borrowed some extra decibels from Iris DeWitt, whose towering presence made the imperious Lady Catherine De Bourgh a perfect victim of Elizabeth’s punctiliously polite sass.

Technical Difficulties Nearly Capsize “Singin’ in the Rain”

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Few musicals are more spectacular on stage than Singin’ in the Rain, adapted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green from their celebrated screenplay. People remember the title tune and Gene Kelly’s carefree rain-drenched spin around a lamppost, but there are other notable songs in the score by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, including “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” “All I Do Is Dream of You,” “Make’Em Laugh,” and “Good Mornin’.” While there’s little that’s unpredictable in the storyline, Comden and Green add plenty of comedy to the abundant tapping and hoofing.

Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre had a marvelous hit with the show in 2001, but there are understandable reasons why it hasn’t been reprised in the Metrolina area for the past 15 years. To make a splash with Singin’ in the Rain, a company needs to find three triple threats to play the three leads and an accomplished comedienne to play squeaky-voiced villainess Lina Lamont. Above all, you have to make it rain at the end of Act I and restart with a dry stage after intermission, Herculean plumbing and drainage challenges. You have to applaud Davidson Community Players for tackling these difficulties at Duke Family Performance Hall, but in the proud history of this company, Singin’ in the Rain is destined to become legendary for its technical shortcomings.

Lina is the beauteous co-star of the dashing Don Lockwood in numerous silent screen romances, not at all shy about feeding the Hollywood gossip mill with rumors that she and Don are soon to be wed, reigning happily afterwards as king and queen of Tinseltown. Just two things wrong with Lina’s reveries: Don despises Lina and Warner Brothers is about to release The Jazz Singer. While “The Royal Rascal” is a box office hit for Lockwood and Lamont, movie producer R.F. Simpson realizes that footage already shot for “The Dueling Cavalier” is likely to be stillborn because talkies have triumphed so suddenly and decisively. Lina’s voice is so unromantic that Simpson already contrives to make sure she does not speak in public at Hollywood openings.

Don and his old vaudeville sidekick Cosmo Brown cook up a technical stratagem. They will overdub Lina’s toxic voice with a pleasant one. What’s more, Cosmo, a skilled composer, will help turn the whole shebang into a musical, “The Dancing Cavalier.” After the “Royal Rascal” premiere, Don has met and fallen madly in love with aspiring actress Kathy Selden, a triple threat who can supply all the dubbing and body doubling the studio needs. All they have to do is keep the wildly jealous Lina from finding out before the movie is released.

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Though they aren’t exactly youngsters, Dan Brunson and Matt Merrell make an admirable vaudeville team as Don and Cosmo. Brunson’s fortes are singing and acting, so Don’s songs and his romancing and his comedy all come off well, but he’s only passable as a dancer. It’s almost fortunate that so much went awry on opening night to draw my attention away from Brunson’s mediocre dancing. While Brunson was unquestionably wet by the end of his grand “Singin’ in the Rain” solo, there had been no detectable waterworks or rain. The iconic lamppost was so unstable that I was actually relieved that he didn’t attempt to take a spin on it. Brunson actually took a spill during his epic solo – or did he? He was so professional covering up, executing a couple of comical swimming strokes while he was splayed out on the floor.

Disaster seemed even more imminent in the preceding “Good Mornin'” trio with Cosmo and Kathy. Choreographer Kathy Mullis has them doing a complex routine with a pair of adjoining stairs in the background and a sofa, which the trio is supposed to flop over and/or topple at the end. None of these pieces of furniture was securely braked after they had been rolled onstage. It was something of a victory when Brunson, Merrell, and Emily Klingman, playing Kathy, didn’t break a limb during this hazardous scene. The comedy of technical errors actually beset Brunson earlier, when the tear in Lockwood’s tear-away tux sleeve became prematurely visible during “You Stepped out of a Dream.”

Merrell has performed almost exclusively in DCP comedies over the years, so it was surprising to find how adept – and athletic – he is as a dancer. His slapstick athleticism on his solo showcase, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” drew roars from the audience, and his tap duo with Brunson on the “Moses Supposes” novelty was also a sensation, though both men appeared winded (and out of sync) as their routine was ending. As the comical sidekick, Merrell could afford to show this weariness without really breaking character. Less experienced than the leading men, Della Knowles as Lina could have used more feedback from director Sylvia Schnople while Emily Klingman as Kathy could have benefited from more encouragement. Knowles altered her voice so radically as Lina that she was mostly unintelligible until deep into Act II, but Klingman’s low-energy performance was perhaps more puzzling. She never seemed to grasp the elemental idea that Kathy was worthier of stardom than Lina.

Technical difficulties that plagued the opening performance certainly disfigured some of the choreography that Mullis brought to this production, but the merits of her work are inescapable, especially in the big ensembles – which have become a tapping DCP trademark. Costumes by John David Brown III, Andy Lominac, and David Townsend surround Brunson and Merrell with a rainbow of color in their final “Broadway Melody” duet, and with Anne Lambert as gossip empress Dora Bailey and Jim Esposito as studio chieftain Simpson, non-singing support is unexpectedly strong.

Ultimately, the sloppiness of this opening night effort nearly sank it. Most of that sloppiness is fixable if tech director Tim Beany, stage manager Lydia Taylor, and the stage crew will start sweating the small details – and Schnople demands more excellence. Knowles struggled to put on her peignoir because it wasn’t laid out properly on her divan, drawing unintended hoots from the audience that could have been prevented. Clips of silent films projected over the stage were clearly videos converted into black and white. Software exists that will distress and vignette video to look like film, but even that wouldn’t help the moribund silent film acting. It must be grand opera, not bland soap opera!

Keller Keeps Tugging at Our Emotions

Theatre Reviews: The Miracle Worker and I’ll Eat You LastMiracle Worker

By Perry Tannenbaum

With most dramas, I find that successive productions I review tend to exert less of a powerful tug on my emotions each time I see the same drama again. Yet I’ve found quite the opposite to be true of The Miracle Worker, William Gibson’s 1960 Tony Award winner for Best Play, the chronicle of young Annie Sullivan’s diligent efforts – on her first paying job and her first plunge into the Deep South – to reach the deaf-and-blind Helen Keller and teach her the concept of language.

Last time I covered The Miracle Worker at CPCC in 2008, I found myself choking back sobs when I merely saw the furshlugginer water pump at the start of Act 2. So I was grateful, in a way, to see the pump already in place downstage when I ambled toward my seat for the current production at Theatre Charlotte. Gillian Albinski’s set design, a rather bland thing compared to some of the artistry I’ve seen at the Queens Road barn, seemed to be building up my immunity.

I was mistaken, for it isn’t until intermission that they set up the little guesthouse where Annie is allowed to have exclusive care of Helen for two weeks, during which time she must repair their relationship, tame the child’s wildness, and give her the keys to communication. Just seeing the contours of that secluded place brought on a surge of emotions that I fought to hold in check.

When you think of it, The Miracle Worker is rather unique in establishing powerful associations with each of its different locales at the Kellers’. There’s the upstairs bedroom where Annie must be rescued by ladder because she allows Helen to outsmart her and lock her in during their first encounter. Nor do we forget the dining room, scene of two epic battles between Helen and Annie – and the place where James finally stands up to his imperious father, Captain Keller.

Okay, so the production levels don’t rival the notorious 2003 Charlotte Rep production that was envisioned as a launching pad for Hilary Swank’s Broadway debut. (Never happened, the producers’ verdict on what we saw.) But the gulf between those Broadway-bound costumes and those by Luci Wilson isn’t ridiculously wide at all, and while Theatre Charlotte’s Helen wasn’t victorious in any nationwide search, I think you’ll find Emily Bowers quite extraordinary.

There is never a sense that director Paige Johnston Thomas is trying to replicate the iconic 1962 film, which brought fresh awards to Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, the original Broadway stars. Quite the contrary: Thomas makes it easier for Sarah Woldum in her Charlotte debut as Annie Sullivan by allowing her to drop the Irish accent that plagued Swank, and Alex Duckworth – notwithstanding his syrupy drawl – may be the least youthful James that I’ve seen.

Throughout the evening, beginning when Kate Keller discovers her daughter’s disabilities upstairs in the nursery, lighting designer Chris Timmons and music composer Grover Smith make telling contributions. Caylyn Temple as Kate and Philip Robertson as Captain Keller do a beautiful job of setting up the dignified family tone. While it’s customary for the Captain to show a lack of love for his daughter – he’s taken aback when Annie calls him on it – Robertson seems to want to love Helen more than any father I’ve seen. Besides the crippling excess of motherly indulgence, Temple partners well with Duckworth in the somewhat awkward relationship between Kate and her stepson.

Woldum is certainly a more youthful Annie than Swank was, more youthful than Joanna Gerdy was when Theatre Charlotte last presented Miracle Worker in 1997. That is the dimension I most love about this production. Sullivan’s age – she’s merely 20 – is arguably what makes her most unfit for the challenge she’s undertaking. Not only can we see Annie’s youth peeping through here, we can perceive how it becomes a double asset when the challenge is engaged.

It’s a matter of sheer physical vitality when Annie confronts Helen’s unruliness in the dinner table scenes and at the guesthouse, but it’s also a matter of empathy. I’m not a big fan of the flashback interludes, when Annie recalls her younger brother’s death, but I’m more reconciled to them in this production, and Timmons delineates them well with his lighting.

Charles Holmes gets credit for the fine fight choreography when the action heats up and the spoons begin to fly, but it’s Bowers’ lack of inhibition that makes it all work. There’s always enough luminosity in her blankest expressions for us to believe in her openness, and when she’s finally sitting quietly and eating at the guesthouse, I found a tinge of pride amid Helen’s exhausted submission.

Maybe the reason I find The Miracle Worker so compelling after all these years is the fact that it becomes less dated with the passage of time. The more I’ve learned about child development and the acquisition of language, the more spot-on Annie’s observations on these subjects have become. One time, the water pump gets to me; the next time, the guest cottage floors me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m fighting back tears the next time I see Sullivan lifting the stupid egg. I can only envy those of you who may be just beginning your journeys with this rich drama. It has surprising, rewarding depths.

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An elaborate sofa and its many pillows becomes a luxuriant throne when the star of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers appears to graciously grant us an audience at UpStage in NoDa. Born into a Jewish family in Hamburg, Mengers tells us how her family fled Nazi Germany in 1938 and wound up in Utica, New York – not the most likely beginnings for a woman who would become a Hollywood superagent, whose clientele included Faye Dunaway, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, and – preeminently – Barbra Streisand.

John Logan’s one-woman script memorialized Mengers on Broadway, in a production starring Bette Midler, less than two years after her death in 2011. Anne Lambert is the leading lady here in a performance that was shaped in a three-weekend run up in Cornelius before settling into NoDa last weekend and continuing through Sunday. It’s obvious that Mengers considers herself royalty, for she favors us with her rules on throwing a party and succeeding as an agent.

There’s a phone by her right arm that she hopes will ring so that she might heal a troublesome rift with La Barbra. Meanwhile, before we arrive at those circumstances, Mengers dishes on her struggles with Sissy Spacek, Ali McGraw, and Steve McQueen. Landing the Oscar-winning role of Popeye Doyle for Gene Hackman in The French Connection is clearly her ultimate triumph, and Lambert can tell it in spellbinding detail.

Problems only creep into this performance with the chronic buzzing of the electronics – the lights, I’m guessing – compounded by Lambert’s tendency to swallow the ends of punch lines she’s tossing off. Otherwise, she bridges the moments of tension and relaxation well, calling upon an audience member to fetch her a jewelry box stocked with joints and a refill from the bar. There are moments when she could stand to be meaner and more arrogant while she’s getting high, but that’s showbiz.