Tag Archives: Belk Theater

Hello, Betty!

Review:  Hello, Dolly!

By Perry Tannenbaum

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You don’t win many friends among theatre fanatics if you fault any of the divas who have portrayed Dolly Gallagher Levi onstage on the Great White Way. You’ll never catch me saying a word against how Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Pearl Bailey, Ginger Rogers, Bette Midler, Donna Murphy, Bernadette Peters, or Ruth Gordon played the role on Broadway. Yes, that Ruth Gordon. She was the original Dolly in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker before the “Farce in Four Acts,” set to music by Jerry Herman with a two-act book by Michael Stewart, blossomed into the pure box office gold of Hello, Dolly!

Obviously, David Merrick knew a hot property when he saw it. Merrick produced the 1955 farce and the 1964 musical, installing Channing in the star turn that ensured her place in the theatre firmament. Notwithstanding the merits of all the other greats who have done Dolly afterwards, Channing stands apart, reviving her triumph in 1978 and 1995.

Superiority is a different question, as you might decide after seeing Betty Buckley, her name flying proudly above the title in your playbill, in the current touring version at Belk Theater. With four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks directing and four-time winner Santo Loquasto helming sets and costumes, this is one roadshow with unmistakable Broadway polish and sparkle. On such a wondrous platform – with a notably strong supporting cast – Buckley confidently takes her place in the Dolly pantheon.

5_Betty Buckley and Lewis J. Stadlen in Hello, Dolly! National Tour - 2018, Julieta Cervantes.jpgGiven free rein by Zaks, Buckley may well be the most multi-faceted of them all. Aiming her soliloquies to the uppermost balcony, Dolly’s pleadings to her dearly departed Ephraim, asking him to release her before it’s too late so that she can make one last match for herself – so she candiscard her eternal hustling and meddling and for once, dammit, enjoy life – are as poignant as you’ll ever see them. Yet her moments of comedy, shamelessly hambone, are invariably on-target, whether she’s working the audience or leading Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder on a merry chase into her own arms.

She literally makes a meal out of Dolly’s long, epicurean insouciance before deigning to participate in the climactic courtroom trial of the Harmonia Gardens revelers – and we enjoy every bite.

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Yet while she’s confounding and dazzling Horace, Buckley somehow remains regally apart from the repressed underlings at Vandergelder’s Hay and Feed Store, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, who are also bamboozling Horace, AWOL from their Yonkers clerking jobs. They are doubly freed from humdrum Yonkers, for space is cleared away for their farce to shine when they all converge at Mrs. Molloy’s Hat Shop on Water Street in Manhattan.

It’s a fizzy whirl when Cornelius and Barnaby, smitten by Molloy and her clerk, are cornered as Dolly and then Horace arrive – for the widowed Irene Molloy is the specious match that Dolly has hand-picked for her esteemed Yonkers client. On one level, Dolly is helping Cornelius and Barnaby to prevent their boss from discovering their truancy. On the other, she’s helping to sustain the humble lackeys’ chances with the women by not blowing their respectable well-to-do covers.

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Portents of farce are strewn among earlier scenes, beginning with Dolly’s having a business card for every human need under the sun. When Horace explains why he has decided to marry again in “It Takes a Woman,” the entire male population of Yonkers materializes at his store (the “Instant Glee Club” according to your playbill) for the refrains and vanishes just as instantaneously for the widower’s verses. In the ensuing scene at the Yonkers railway depot, when Horace and Dolly set off for their big city adventures, the bustle of the townsfolk smacks us with costume colors as pastel-bright as the most tempting bakery marshmallows.

The victim of multiple deceptions, Lewis J. Stadlen feasts most heartily on the farce as Horace, a whirlwind of frustration and confusion. The little speech before “It Takes a Woman,” lifted intact from Wilder, gives us a rare glimpse into why Horace is actually worthy of Dolly’s love, but unlike Charles LaBorde, who played the role at Halton Theater the last time CPCC presented Dolly, Stadlen doesn’t bother embedding that latent homebody goodness in his portrayal. Horace’s proposal, after countless peremptory refusals of Dolly’s hints, struck me totally out of left field this time around.

Hard to explain, but Stadlen’s approach works beautifully, nearly as touching as Buckley’s confabs with her dear Ephraim. Extra bonus: Stadlen starts off Act 2 with “Penny in My Pocket,” a song that was axed from Herman’s original score before the 1964 Broadway premiere and finally restored in the 2017 revival.

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Horace’s solo spotlight only detains us momentarily from the comedy of his penniless Yonkers clerks and the fashionable Manhattan milliners who have captivated them. Yet this second-tier story is hardly a detour, for the contrast between timid penny-pinching Barney and the driven adventuresome Cornelius echoes the clash between Horace’s provincial prudence and Dolly’s cosmopolitan joie de vivre. You can also spy a similar disparity between Minnie Fay and her boss Irene, both of whom are courted by kindred spirits.

As a foursome, the younger generation serves up more frenetic comedy at the Hat Shop and Harmonia Gardens. You won’t have any problem taking to Analisa Leaming’s elegance as Irene or Kirsten Hahn’s adorable shyness as Minnie, and Sean Burn’s high anxieties are often throwback treats comparable to Stadlen’s. What really made me sit up and take notice as I watched the younger lovebirds in their mating dances was Nic Rouleau, who demonstrated what a star quality voice can do for the role of Cornelius.

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Any sailor from the 1920’s onward – and many, many teens today – would snicker at Cornelius’ notion of taking a train down to New York and not returning to Yonkers until he had been kissed by a woman. But corny Cornelius isn’t a sailor or a hip teen. He’s a Yonkers clerk in the early 1880’s who has seriously languished for a long, long time in Vandergelder’s cellar instead of living it up. When Rouleau sings “It Only Takes a Moment,” it doesn’t obscure the objective fact that Herman’s lyrics are pure twaddle, but the undeniable authenticity of Cornelius’ first-time reaction ransoms it from hyperbole.

Similarly, you might notice that Buckley adds a little contemplative weight to the opening section of “Before the Parade Passes By,” registering the sadness of squandering years in facilitating and manipulating that could have held more satisfaction if they had simply been enjoyed. Yes, we get the usual evocations of trombones, brass bands, and batons before the curtain falls for intermission. But the ascent to that moment gets steeper after Buckley’s rueful recognition of how precious every moment of life is.

It’s a performance and a production that occasionally take us back to the Our Town essence of Thornton Wilder.

Plenty of Broadway DNA on Belmont Avenue

Review: A Bronx Tale

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Gotta love the production concept of A Bronx Tale in its touring version. Show producers, along with directors Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, have clearly attempted to keep as much of the original Broadway design as possible intact, and they’ve taken as many of the Broadway cast as possible on the road. Opening night at Belk Theater, the show looked very much like what I saw at the Longacre Theatre two years ago. The show ran almost as smoothly as it did in New York, and the sound was nearly as sharp. When hit shows are booked here for longer runs, critics are often kept away until at least the second night. Tweaking the sound and other niggling details is part of the reason.

The story is very personal to the guy who wrote the book, Chazz Palminteri, who based his one-man show on his own youthful adventures on Belmont and Webster Avenue, directed by Zaks. De Niro bought into turning the project into a 1993 movie in which he co-starred with Palminteri. In a couple of neat switcheroos, De Niro directed and played Chazz’s dad, Lorenzo, instead of the charismatic mobster who imperils – and saves – our hero’s young life. Palminteri took on that plum role of Sonny, the fearsome mobster kingpin who stands watch over Belmont Avenue, leaving the role of Calogero – Chazz’s original first name – to a greener actor.

So there’s a rich family feel that lingers in the musical version of this autobiographical 1960s tale – and I mean family with Godfather connotations. Calogero’s dad is a straight-arrow bus driver, but he understands the Italian-style street realities of his shambling neighborhood. When Sonny calmly guns down a less polished thug in cold blood, just a few yards away from Calogero’s front stoop, Lorenzo tries to shield his son from being dragged down by the police to identify the killer in a lineup.

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The scene is tense when Sonny and Calogero come eye-to-eye at the police station. But seemingly by osmosis, the nine-year-old kid knows the score: there is nothing lower on the streets of the Bronx than a snitch. Cool, stolid, and terrifying as he is, Sonny will not forget a favor, generous in his gratitude beyond Calogero’s dreams – and way beyond Lorenzo’s comfort level. The one scene where Sonny and Lorenzo confront one another absolutely sizzles.c Young C and Lorenzo

Both of these men have strength and wisdom, and each of them has a lasting influence on Calogero. Or C, as the imperious Sonny prefers to call him. “You done a good thing for a bad man,” Lorenzo tells his son after they return from the life-changing lineup scene. Yet it isn’t until deep in Act 2, when justice is meted out by the street instead of the police, that some in the audience will realize that Dad has a deeper wisdom and a deeper understanding of how Bronx justice works.

Sonny will teach us how power works in the “Nicky Machiavelli” showstopper, aided by his colorful henchmen, Rudy the Voice, Eddie Mush, Frankie Coffeecake, Tony 10 to 2, and JoJo the Whale. Very subtly, Sonny also lets us infer the secret of his sangfroid when a true answer from the nine-year-old C at the police lineup might have ended in a long, long stretch in jail. Sonny tells C that he had read his Machiavelli while doing some prison time in the past. If you want to get ahead in life, you take advantage of such opportunities. And if you take up crime as a career, you look at prison as a business expense.

The only time Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design malfunctioned was when a scrim was supposed to rise as Calogero was asking pretty black coed Jane out on a date, knowing that he was bridging the racial divide between Belmont and Webster. Here we will get a neat twist when Dad opposes his son’s dating Jane, who is showing some moxie of her own in encouraging Calogero. The worldlier Sonny not only condones C’s initiative, he gives his protégé some clever advice on testing a woman’s mettle – then tosses him the keys to his swank car. For couples watching this show on a date night, this “One of the Great Ones” scene, with its cool Sinatra swagger, will be Sonny’s most memorable showstopper.

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Perhaps emblematic of Lorenzo’s more durable lunch-pail values, Richard H. Blake is one of the original cast members that I saw at the Longacre in 2017. He makes a finer impression than ever in the “Look in Your Heart” episode, even if the Alan Menken-Glenn Slater song is interchangeable with at least 30 other Broadway tunes, and his bravery in the “Giving Back the Money” scene is obviously enhanced by his understanding of the risk he’s taking for the sake of keeping his son straight.

Joey Barbeiro as Calogero and Brianna-Marie Bell as Jane haven’t dialed up their chemistry as much as they could, nor does Palminteri underscore the larger significance of their association from their perspective. Is it enough that his book shows the two teens resisting pressures from family and friends? Maybe not in a show that runs 100 minutes and could easily have jettisoned its intermission.

Bell, a replacement cast member on Broadway, does her best acting work dealing with her schoolmates and her brother, a gang member who gets roughed-up on Calogero’s turf. But if Slater’s namby-pamby lyrics don’t give her much of a chance to distinguish herself on “Out of Your Head” or “Webster Avenue,” Menken’s music certainly lets us sample the firepower in Bell’s voice. Of course, Barbeiro’s dramatic chops are more extensively featured in multiple heavy scenes with Sonny, Lorenzo, his mom Rosina, and his own gang – Handsome Nick, Crazy Mario, and Sally Slick. Barbeiro is definitely comfortable with his ongoing narrative chores, and his voice is also conspicuously at a high Broadway level.

d Lorenzo Young C and RosinaShane Pry, the kid who alternated with Brigg Liberman as Young Calogero on opening night, was ill-served at the soundboard, particularly when he sang. Pry proved far more intelligible when he spoke, had very appealing energy, and was a great match physically for Barbeiro, the Calogero he would grow up to be. I was also pleased with Michelle Aravena as Rosina, another Broadway replacement who has hit the road. She reminded me of Bronx matrons I encountered in my early years, frazzled, prematurely old, and forever attached to a dish towel.

Maybe the most impressive of the Broadway originals is Joe Barbara as Sonny. Barbara has actually moved up the gangland pecking order on tour, having opened as Carmine, a Police Officer, and a Gang Leader on Broadway while understudying Nick Cordero, the original Sonny. Not quite as imposing or intimidating as Cordero was on Broadway, Barbara is every bit as calm and confident on tour, making up for his slight meanness and cynicism deficits on his “Machiavelli” showpiece with more musicality and savoir faire on ““One of the Great Ones.” Barbara and Chazz himself were the only Broadway replacements for Cordero onstage during the 700-performance run of A Bronx Tale, a heavy family endorsement that our Sonny makes good on.

Mozart Requiem Clashes With Sunny Salieri Symphony

Review: Charlotte Symphony “Mozart and Salieri”

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s been 40 years since Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus vilified, ridiculed, defamed, and demonized Mozart’s less-gifted contemporary, Antonio Salieri, presenting the prolific composer and conductor as Wolfgang’s fiendish murderer. Shaffer wasn’t the first to riff on this unfounded smear, for the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin peddled it in Mozart and Salieri, his 1830 verse play.

Although he omitted his villain’s name from his title, Shaffer has proven equally bountiful to both composers, humanizing Mozart and bringing fresh life to Salieri’s name. Ian McKellan won a Tony Award as Salieri in the 1980 Broadway production and F. Murray Abraham repeated the triumph in the 1984 Miloš Forman film, winning the Oscar over Tom Hulce, who was a runner-up playing the title role.

So it’s altogether fitting that Salieri’s 1775 Symphony in D “Il giorno onamstico,” likely marking the Italian’s Belk Theater and Charlotte Symphony debuts, should be in the shadow of Mozart’s Requiem. During the composition of this work, which remained unfinished at his death, it was Mozart who first voiced the suspicion that he was being poisoned and that his mysteriously commissioned Requiem was diabolically planned for his own funeral.

Mozart later scoffed at his own poisoning paranoia, and the Requiem wasn’t premiered until late 1793, two years after his death, completed by his student, Franz Xaver Süssmyer. But the baseless murder accusation affixed itself to Salieri. And why not take advantage of Shaffer’s preposterous mythologizing if it draws more people to the music? Symphony was only too glad to borrow the indelible Amadeus poster art for this concert’s prepublicity. “Poor Salieri!” said Charlotte Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green, upon picking up a hand mic to introduce Antonio’s piece.

That was after a reprise of Nkeiru Okoye’s “Charlotte Mecklenburg,” which received its world premiere last September, kicking off the current season. The encore was triply justified: the piece was originally performed one night only at a special opening night gala and not part of the season’s subscription, we’re still celebrating the 250th anniversary of the city’s incorporation, and the piece – commissioned by Symphony – is non-threatening to traditionalists and worth a second hearing.

It was easier for me to ascertain on my second go-round that the opening theme, very much in the Aaron Copland manner of evoking Appalachia and the American heartland, was something that Okoye would circle back to near the end of her historical portrait. What came in between statements of her “Queen City Hymn” was more daring and original. There was urban bustle and cacophony mixed with a mountain lilt, snatches of a Scottish fiddle tune and a post-Civil War protest song, and an unexpected glance southward.

A brief marimba concerto popped up, then a muted trumpet and a cool samba beat. Okoye’s objective of portraying the city’s multiethnicity was more successfully reached than her objective of depicting our racial tensions. The codetta, beautifully played by harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, expressed hopes for the future residing in the innocence of our children. Or that was Okoye’s stated intent. For an affirmation, it was notably faint.

Not at all saturnine like Salieri’s stage and screen image, his Symphony in D was sunny and cheerful from the outset, the opening Allegro launched with a lively flourish of horns and winds. Both of the middle movements offered opportunities for principal bassoonist Olivia Oh. The charming Larghetto remained summery in spite of its weepy violins, and the Minuet alternated attractively between mellow and anthemic themes. Warren-Green vigorously pushed the pace of the closing Allegretto, lightly carried forward by the strings when the winds weren’t adding body and zest.

When the entire orchestra joined together toward the end of “The Name Day,” the music briefly grew joyous and grand. It was almost as if Salieri was apologizing for this outburst when the strings alone crept around stealthily in staccato phrases, but the whole orchestra came back for a crisp, good-humored finish.

Warren-Green’s programming effectively flipped the Hulce-Abraham characters we remember from Hollywood’s Amadeus, assigning all the frivolity to Salieri, but he didn’t mess with the awesome impression of Mozart’s Requiem that lingers after we have seen the film. Unlike some of the Mozart performances we’ve seen before from Warren-Green and his predecessor, Christof Perick, a robust assembly of musicians, guest soloists, and the Charlotte Symphony Chorus filled the Belk stage.

If the occasionally fierce reading that emerged from this formidable congress didn’t totally accord with Mozart’s accepting intentions, there was no doubting its power. The “Dies irae” rang out impressively, taut with terror, and the “Tuba mirum” was a fine spotlight for all four guest vocalists, particularly bass Adam Lau, smoothly accompanied by principal trombonist John Bartlett before giving way to tenor Isaiah Bell. Having already distinguished herself in the soprano section of the opening “Requiem aeternum” segment with the Chorus, Margot Rood floated in gracefully over mezzo Sofia Selowsky toward the end of the “Tuba.”

Overshadowed here somewhat, Selowsky had better opportunities further along in the mass, leading off the “Recordare” and “Benedictus” sections when all the solo vocalists stood up again. Still it was Rood who shone brightest, drawing the opening moments of the concluding “Lux aeterna” and sprinkling her loveliness all over before the music grew grander and fugal with the full ensemble joining in.

The orchestra made its presence known most emphatically when the brass and timpani underscored the most dramatic choral moments. Aside from the whiplash “Dies irae,” there was ringing majesty at the start of the “Rex tremendae” that contrasted affectingly with the hushed women when we reached the “salve me” pleas. Symphony Chorus showed more finesse in the “Lacrimosa,” beginning softly over the orchestra’s keening strings, with some satisfying crescendos preceding the satisfying “Amen.”

Warren-Green and chorus director Kenney Potter may have been thinking more of Buckingham Palace than a church when they prepared Symphony Chorus for the climactic “Sanctus.” Both the orchestra and the choir suffused the repeated holies with a pomp and fervor of “God Save the Queen” proportions. Or maybe they had Westminster Abbey in mind. Warren-Green has played that joint as well.

Imaginary Cyber Friends

Review: Dear Evan Hansen

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Playing to a Broadway house that barely packs in a thousand patrons, using no more than eight actors and eight musicians each night, with scant choreography and no glitz, Dear Evan Hansen isn’t going to fit most theatergoing definitions of a big Broadway musical, six Tony Awards or not. Yet big it is, for Steven Levenson’s book traverses multiple issues that absorb us these days, including bullying, the effects of social media, teen suicide, and single-mom parenting. Just as rare, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul frequently rise to the level of the emotions roiling inside Levenson’s characters, actually enhancing the drama on a couple of occasions.

Evan is a mess when we first meet him at Belk Theater, where seating capacity for the touring production is extended beyond the usual 2100-seat capacity with the musicians perched up above the action. Mothered by an anxious single mom who holds down a day job and goes to school at night, Evan is an even tighter tangle of anxiety. He dreads returning for his senior year in high school, afraid of the daily interaction with other people, tongue-tied with nearly everybody – especially Zoe Murphy, the girl of his dreams.

Zoe’s big stoned brother, Connor, bullies Evan on at least two occasions. On their first day back at school, Connor knocks Evan to the ground when he thinks our hero is laughing at him. That paranoia carries over to their next encounter at the computer lab, where Connor retrieves the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter that Evan has written as an assignment from his therapist, supposedly a daily pep-talk to himself. Thinking this is more mockery from Evan, Connor refuses to return the letter, which contains suicidal thoughts and Evan’s desperate yearnings toward Zoe. In a further act of aggression, when Evan awkwardly asks him to sign the cast on his healing broken arm, Connor takes a Sharpie and scrawls his first name – in big capital letters – across the full length of the cast.

So a whole host of ironies and misconceptions will explode when Connor commits suicide, and his parents, finding Evan’s letter in one of his pockets, mistake it for their son’s suicide note – addressed to his best friend. The big black letters that Connor had signed onto Evan’s cast, originally a nasty symptom of bullying, become a testament to their friendship, writ large. Tongue-tied as usual, Evan can’t shoot down the Murphys’ delusion that he can provide them with insights into the son they never really knew. In yielding, he finds that he can provide some therapy to others.

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If he can keep a steady flow of palliating information to the Murphys, Evan feels that he can help them in their grieving process. And establish a closer connection with Zoe, whose memories of Connor are even more unsavory than his.

In varying ways, then, the Murphys have unwittingly conspired in giving Evan an imaginary friend. With the help of Jared, who keeps reminding him that he’s more a relative than a friend, Evan can spin a backdated email correspondence with Connor filled with new feelings and faux memories. With the help – and intrusion – of Alana, a pesky busybody who seems attracted to him, Evan can establish a “Connor Project” tribute, a memorial website, and after he surprises himself by addressing a school assembly, a viral #YouWillBeFound hashtag when video of the speech lands on YouTube.

Taking the old imaginary friend concept to a whole new cyber level, Evan and Alana, co-presidents of The Connor Project, launch a GoFundMe initiative to restore the apple orchard where Evan and Connor fictitiously met. Adding new dimensions to the idea of an imaginary friend piles on new challenges and stresses for Evan. Some of these, of course, help him to mature and develop self-confidence. He’s speaking to an entire student body after starting out the year cowering in fear of interacting with just one of them.

Alone in his room at moments of highest stress, Evan turns to… an imaginary friend. Ironically, it’s Connor, who did nothing but torment him in real life. Connor’s posthumous transformation is now complete – in his family’s eyes, for Evan, and for thousands of followers at school and online.

Chiefly, Evan is stressed over all the lies he’s been telling Zoe and her parents, but he’s also been deceiving his mom – while coping with the sudden celebrity the whole #YouWillBeFound phenomenon has brought him.

Here is where the chamber size of the Dear Evan Hansen fails the potential magnitude of Levenson’s vision. Where are all the high school peers that Evan feels himself lost in, fears talking to – peers who might adoringly add to Zoe’s unattainable aura and desirability? Where are the admiring classmates who ratify Evan’s newfound relevance and fortify Zoe’s inclinations to give him a serious second look?

Basically, they’re projected onto the scrims and screens of David Korins’ high-tech set design, perpetually scrolling as social media feeds behind Evan’s bedroom, multiple rooms at the Murphy home, and various locations at school. It’s a cool alternative to populating the stage with energetic dancing teens but sometimes a cold one, especially in a space as large as the Belk.

What sweeps us past these limitations is how intently we become involved with both the Hansens and the Murphys. Anxiety, social inadequacy, and teen suicide are big things to cope with up close, and Dear Evan Hansen brings us there. Ben Levi Ross captures all the awkwardness, insecurity, and fearful caution that Levenson has written into Evan’s outward self, and he has the star-quality voice for the Pasek/Paul songs that reveal the inner self wishing to break free.

Marrick Smith doesn’t play up the suicidal kindred spirit of Connor as much as the sullen, domineering loner. In his imaginary friend afterlife, he becomes the tough-love antithesis of the “Dear Evan” pep talks endorsed by Evan’s therapist, a longhaired renegade forever. By contrast, Connor’s parents are wholesomely flawed. Aaron Lazar as the dad appears to have detached from Connor’s upbringing and to have given up on him, but when Evan encounters him in his workshop – and afterward at a powwow between Hansen and Murphy families – we realize that he had plenty he wanted to give.

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As “Anybody Have a Map?” her opening crosstown duet with Evan’s mom makes clear, Christine Noll as Cynthia Murphy is as clueless about how to cope with a teenage boy as Heidi Hansen is. But as a full-time suburban housewife, she has more free time to flit from one New Age fad to another, salving if nor solving her problem. Cynthia has the deepest need – and gratitude – for Evan’s cyber fables and projects.

Comes with the territory, Levenson tells us. Mom’s credulity and stubborn belief in Connor has strained her relationship with Zoe when we first see them coping together. Maggie McKenna struggled to untangle the enigma of Zoe on opening night, more so because her vocal on “Requiem” was the least intelligible in her family. There was a nicely calibrated combo of empathy, skepticism, and need as her familiarity with Evan grew, and the climactic “Only Us” love duet had an honest and intimate sizzle.

Ultimately, Jessica Phillips as Evan’s overextended, trying-so-hard mom stole the show from everybody except Ross. There’s a wonderful one-two punch before things reach a final resting point, with a wrenching “Words Fail” confessional from Evan following shortly after the unexpectedly turbulent meeting between the Hansens and the Murphys. Heidi had already stirred things up at the Murphys, but it was in her “So Big/So Small” testimonial that Phillips was absolutely devastating – at first narrative, then apologetic, before finally arriving at a stunning affirmation.

As an actor, there are moments when you might dread having to weep onstage, on cue, night after night. With “So Big/So Small,” I’d imagine that the performer has the opposite worry: getting too deep into this mom in this song could lead you to an emotional corner where you’re sobbing uncontrollably. When she finishes, we’re fairly convinced that a chunk of this show has been about her.

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For all its intense intimacy, the Pasek/Paul score also boasts some concentrated magnitude, since the musical tandem packages two anthems that get reprised. Climaxing Act 1, “You Will Be Found” seizes our attention, with the whole company joining Evan as his assembly speech goes viral, augmented by pointedly anonymous prerecorded spoken blather as the YouTube sensation takes hold. Even the relentlessly scrolling background projections suddenly crystallize into relevancy.

But don’t overlook Evan’s “For Forever” fantasy as you settle in to the story. This dreamy “two friends on a perfect day” idyll gradually ascends and soars, prefiguring the apple orchard fable Evan will devise to placate the Murphys – and echoing the lie he’s been telling about how he broke his arm. We don’t hear the backup voices for this anthem until it reprises briefly in the “Finale,” when all Evan’s hidden truths have been revealed. You may not immediately see all the reasons why the final scene is set where it is, but there’s a little bit of technical derring-do to announce that we’ve arrived.

There’s as much craftsmanship in Dear Evan Hansen as there is honesty, and that’s saying a lot.

Christopher Warren-Green Expands Symphony’s “Titan” Concert to Rousing Effect

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Mahler 1

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Charlotte Symphony’s season announcements and brochures were issued last July, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 “The Titan” stood alone on the program for their concert coinciding with semifinals of the ACC basketball tournament at the nearby Spectrum Center. Whether there were second thoughts on the length of that program or worries about automobile traffic inconveniencing concertgoers, two additional works – and an intermission – were added to the evening. Mahler’s Symphonic Movement: Blumine seemed a natural add-on, since it was part of an earlier draft of the symphony, which premiered in 1889 as a five-movement piece titled “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts.”

Adding a piece by Strauss wouldn’t appear much less apt – if it were Richard Strauss, not quite four years younger than Mahler and very much his contemporary. But Johann Strauss, Jr., the renowned “Waltz King”? Picking up a microphone as soon as he appeared onstage at Belk Theater, music director Christopher Warren-Green immediately cleared things up. Far from a grotesque contrast, parts of Strauss II’s Emperor Waltzes were actually echoed in the second movement of “The Titan.” And since Blumine was the second movement in the original “Symphonic Poem” before Mahler excised it, the whole grouping had an elegant logic to it.

Implicit in Warren-Green’s intro were dual assignments – with dual effects. We were subtly being asked to catalogue the musical and melodic content of the Emperor Waltzes and retain our findings until after intermission. Then we were to identify an undisclosed fragment of what we had heard when it was echoed in “The Titan.” Listeners were thus encouraged to take Strauss’s work a little more seriously in searching for enduring substance and to realize that Mahler’s music, with its fun-loving Viennese influences, wasn’t as ponderous and forbidding as they might have believed. Whether such attitude adjustments actually factored into the audience’s enthusiasm for the performances, they certainly sounded like fruitful approaches for the musicians to take as they played.

Unburdened of the worry that they were tossing off light fare, the orchestra played the Emperor Waltzes with infectious zest. Principal percussionist Brice Burton’s snare drum caught my attention first, before the woodwinds announced the idiomatic Strauss sound. Principal cellist Alan Black and principal timpanist Ariel Zaviezo kindled our anticipation as the most familiar of the melodies drew near. Weighted toward the trombones, the brass episode was impressive, and as the piece climaxed, four percussionists were on their feet, as cymbals and a bass drum joined the fray.

Logical choice or not, Blumine was a fairly odd piece to send us off to intermission with, for it conformed to the relative quietude we expect of second movements in large orchestral works. Surprisingly, this andante sounded nothing like the sort of derivative apprentice work you might expect a major composer to discard upon mature reflection. As performed by Warren-Green and his players, Blumine had some of the ethereal flavor we might associate with Mahler’s middle symphonies, especially at the end of the piece, where the playing of the strings, lightly tinged with Andrea Mumm Trammell’s harp, was quite exquisite. Yet it was principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn who made the deepest imprint on the performance, playing his serenading episodes with a mellow and magnificent softness. Principals Victor Wang on flute and Taylor Marino on clarinet had gleaming moments of their own, but principal Hollis Ulaky drew the best solo wind passages and played them flawlessly on her oboe.

None of the recordings of “The Titan” that I looked up reach the length of a full hour except for that of Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony, who just ekes past the 60-minute mark after restoring Blumine as his second movement. So I heartily endorse Warren-Green’s decision to fortify and vary the originally-announced program with judiciously selected appetizers, but you just needed to look at the Belk Theater stage to see that “The Titan” was the evening’s main dish. At the outset of the “Langsam” (Slow) portion of the opening movement, a phalanx of eight French hornists was seated in front of the battery of percussion, which included two sets of timpani drums.

More brass lurked offstage. After softly churning strings, reminiscent of Wagner’s famed evocation of the Rhine River, played under mournful woodwinds – with just a glint of piccolo – a trio of distant trumpets was heard, triggering a response from the horns. Then as the trumpeters entered from offstage, the cellos steered us toward echoes of Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” bringing us the springtime awakening of nature promised in Mahler’s 1893 program notes. When the winds reached their bright, full-throated twittering, the season burst into blossom. But with solo spots from Wang’s flute, Marino’s clarinet, a soft tattoo on the bass drum, and more fine section work from the French horns, there was ample space for reflection afterwards.

Echoes of Strauss II were readily apparent in the “Kräftig bewegt” (Forceful animated) movement that followed, not subtle at all once we had been alerted to them; and in the trio section that followed, the waltzing spirit of the orchestra became more contagious. After timpani and percussion had engaged, there was a nice simple spotlight for Byron Johns and his French horn. The other middle movement, “Feirlich und gemessen” (Solemn and measured), lost its power to intimidate as soon as the listener realized that the fugal figure was a slowed-down, macabre mutation of the familiar “Frère Jacques” nursery song. Initiating the round, principal Kurt Riecken had the rare opportunity to offer us a sampling of his solo handiwork on the double bass, with oboe and clarinet taking us to higher frequencies. Cellos and violas initiated another round before the clarinets lightened the gloom with a klezmer-like interlude.

Aside from the cresting of the opening movement, there was nothing titanic about “The Titan” until we reached the “Stürmisch bewegt” (Stormy animated) finale. Here is where the double-duty barrage of timpani was detonated, though there also was some finesse from the lyrical violins in the early stages. With the entrance of the trombones, the horns, the woodwinds, and the trumpets, the strings throbbed with more urgency. Increasing the final drama, Mahler circled back to the calm, the distant heraldry, and even some of the vernal twittering of the opening movement, and Warren-Green obviously reveled in quietly setting up his final explosion. The entire phalanx of eight French horns stood up, punctuating the majesty and the showmanship of the climax. Programming Mahler yielded some vacant patches down in the orchestra seats – and a totally empty upper balcony – but the Belk Theater audience responded to “The Titan” with a lusty standing ovation that was as enthusiastic as any I’ve seen there. Ultimately, they bought into the whole “Mahler Lite” concept as completely as the musicians.

 

Messing Up Asia, American Style

Review: Miss Saigon

By Perry Tannenbaum

06.MISS_SAIGON_TOUR_9_21_18_5953 r photo by Matthew Murphy“Un bel di,” Cio-Cio-San famously warbled at the 1904 premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, yearning for the return of American Lieutenant Pinkerton from across the Pacific to honor their marriage vows and his responsibilities toward their son. Four score and seven years later, the scene shifted from Japan to Vietnam for Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s Miss Saigon, where Kim sang, “I Still Believe,” yearning for the return of American Staff Sgt. Chris – for exactly the same reasons.

We haven’t seen a touring production of Miss Saigon at Belk Theater in over 15 years. In the meantime, a new production directed by Laurence Connor came to Broadway in the spring of 2017 and folded in less than 10 months. The two key players in the recent remount both had Charlotte connections. Eva Noblezada, who snagged a Tony Award nomination as Kim, won the 2013 Blumey Award at Belk Theater as the best actress in a high school musical. And playing The Engineer, the most electrifying of Boublil’s new characterizations, Jon Jon Briones reprised the role he had played in the low-budget, copter-less production that landed at the Belk in November 2003.

I had to wonder whether the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon had been so short-lived because of the changes Connor had made to the 1991 original or because of changes the show still needed.

08.MISS_SAIGON_TOUR_Thuy's death crop

In the heat of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, both Kim and Chris had noticeably evolved compared with their operatic ancestors. Chris tried to take Kim with him as the Vietcong overran the capital. He sought to locate Kim after he returned safely to Atlanta, and he seemed honestly conflicted between his true love and his wife, Ellen. Kim had also evolved, no longer the shy, passive, pitiful flower Puccini immortalized. There was steel and ferocity in her: she’d murder the Commie who threatened the life of her son.

Yet in some ways, the 1991 Broadway musical was more primitive and insensitive than the 1904 opera.

Schönberg and Boublil were less respectful toward the culture of the Vietnamese than Puccini was toward the culture of Japan in Butterfly or China in Turandot. Except for the costumes and a brief wedding ceremony, there was hardly any indigenous culture in Saigon – and not a whiff of Asian music. Even the piety that Puccini dramatized in his Asian operas has vanished. Bar Girls that we notice in Saigon are scantily clad whores, usually spreading their legs when they aren’t face to face with a GI’s crotch.02.MISS_SAIGON_TOUR_2549

 

Love as a romantic concept is strictly confined to Kim, and the two Asian men who want her don’t seem to be familiar with the word. Thuy, who returns to Ho Chi Minh City as a conqueror after defecting to the Vietcong, views Kim as his rightful possession – and her son as a repugnant atrocity. Her protector is The Engineer, a slimy pimp who initially installs Kim in his sex stable as a virgin delicacy and subsequently views her and Tam, Chris’s American citizen son, as his passport to the USA.

The most nuanced aspect of Boublil’s book was the opposition he set up between Thuy and The Engineer. Clad in his military uniform, Commissar Thuy was the embodiment of the Communism we were battling to keep at bay. Devoid of warmth, tenderness and humanity, he was a totalitarian gargoyle. The Engineer, on the other hand, was pure venal enterprise, emblematic of the insidious corruption that American capitalism always leaves in its wake.

It was horrifying – and strangely exhilarating – to see how totally The Engineer had absorbed our perverted values in his climactic showstopper, “The American Dream.” Part of the reason that Americans came home feeling that the Vietnamese hadn’t been worth fighting and dying for, after all, stemmed from the unsavory effects of our being there and spreading our influence.

Well, the new Miss Saigon didn’t show me any more empathy toward the Vietnamese than before, nor any more of their indigenous culture. If anything, The Engineer and his Bar Girls seemed raunchier, more mercenary, and more degraded than I had remembered. Downsized to more realistic proportions, Red Concepción’s portrayal of The Engineer is more quietly servile and less flamboyant than Joseph Anthony Foronda’s was in 1997, the first time a prop copter landed at the Belk. So when Concepción suddenly breaks into his “American Dream,” the fantasy isn’t just what The Engineer’s life will be on richer USA soil, it’s also a fantasy about who he will become.

05.MISS SAIGON. Company. Photo Matthew Murphy and Johan Persson (2)

Yes, the copter is back on the Belk stage during the fall of Saigon for the first time in over 21 years, and so is the shiny Cadillac where The Engineer, humping the hood, has an orgasm during his fantasy. The years haven’t been as kind to Kim. We expect more of our female heroes nowadays, so killing a Commie no longer earns Kim an exclamation mark.

Working within the traditional Cio-Cio-San constraints, Emily Bautista is more assertive and less decorous as Kim, getting two duets with the “other woman,” outshining Stacie Bono as Ellen on both occasions. A generic belter, Bono makes Bautista look better than Andreane Neofitou’s bland costumes do. Sprucing up his script, Boublil has added a Trump slogan to The Engineer’s spiel and a Mormon to the rascal’s clientele. Maybe the latter is the inspiration for Adrian Vaux’s design concept, which brings a Third World squalor to Saigon and to Bangkok that reminds me of the Africa where the missionaries of The Book of Mormon were deployed.

Bautista brings the most beauty to Kim when she sings her lovely “The Last Night of the World” duet with Anthony Festa as Chris. Festa gives Chris more texture than I would have thought possible, making me wish that Boublil hadn’t taken Pinkerton’s rehab quite so far. Kim begins as a $50 gift from his best bud John, Chris’s PTSD is all about Kim rather than battle fatigue or horrific warfare. The bravest action Festa gets to perform is filling Ellen in on all he has hidden from her about that last night before he climbed onto the US Marines helicopter – and all the news he has just learned about his son.

Getting the word from J. Daughtry as John certainly doesn’t boost the drama. Another generic belter, Daughtry sings his “Bui-Doi” (“dust of life”) appeal for the stigmatized mixed-race children of Saigon’s streets as if he were a competitor on The Voice rather than a contrite vet in a poignant Broadway show. True, Daughtry came to life nicely later in Act 2, showing what he was capable of dramatically when John, Chris, and Ellen tracked down Kim and The Engineer, now refugees in Bangkok. Before receding into the ensemble (perhaps not as inconspicuously as he should), Jinwoo Jung was a malign force to be reckoned with as Commissar Thuy, especially when Chris wasn’t around in Saigon to protect Kim.

In fairness to the cast, conditions at the Performing Arts Center weren’t ideal for performing – or reviewing – a big-budget Broadway musical. Because of travel and load-in delays, the curtain time was rescheduled from 7:30 pm to 8:00. But the first notes of the overture weren’t played until 8:37, long after we had finally been seated. Intermission lasted over 32 minutes, so when Act 2 started, it was nearly 10:25, past the time when the show would normally end . Maybe that’s why the production fell short of my hopes when the curtain fell an hour later.

Or maybe, just maybe, the clock has struck midnight on a sob story that first opened on Broadway in 1900 as a one-act play by David Belasco. Instead of Belasco, or Puccini’s librettists, or Boublil looking into the heart of a Japanese geisha or a Vietnamese bar girl, maybe it’s time that this story was retold from an Asian viewpoint by an Asian writer.