Tag Archives: Biff Edge

Hitting the (Monroe) Road With a Slightly Toned-Down Rock of Ages

Review: Rock of Ages at The Barn @ MoRA

 By Perry Tannenbaum

Actors_Theatre_headshot_fenixfoto_Charlotte__-2

As the exit ramp from the pandemic keeps getting longer, summertime urges to break out of isolation, let loose, and rock out aren’t likely to back up now. In this confused and anxious moment, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has taken a nicely calculated route to satisfying these urges, moving from their established HQ at Queens University to the outdoors and presenting a three-show “Rock the Barn” mini-season of three rock musicals out on Monroe Road. The first of these, Rock of Ages, has begun a run that will play to fans of ‘80s heavy metal and power ballads through August 21.

Days are still long enough so that shows begin before dark, but when night falls, Biff Edge’s lighting design gradually becomes gaudier, smoke effects play better, and we’re immersed in a true arena rock vibe. Musicians and actors are covered by a massive pavilion while ticketholders bring lawn chairs and experience the musical on a gently sloping lawn. ATC executive director Chip Decker assured us that the grounds at The Barn at MoRA (Monroe Road Area or Monroe Road Advocates, take your pick) had been sprayed for bugs, and indeed, although one of the critters crashed into my face during the full-length show, none bit.

Decker had directed an indoor production of Rock of Ages back in 2015, finding far more humor in Chris D’Arienzo’s book than the touring production of 2011 had brought to us and adding far more energy with Tod Kubo’s raunchy choreography. This time around, Decker wanted to play to a younger crowd, sidestepping some of the previous sleaze that might affright locals on the east side of town. A portion of that R-rated content had been achieved with scanty costuming and zesty pole dancing, but only one of these can be readily exported to the great outdoors. Taking over for Kubo, Renee Welsh Noel is not at all timid with her choreography, lavishing plenty of bumps and grinds for our delectation when the action moves from the rockin’ Bourbon Room to the salacious Venus Club, and costume designer Carrie Cranford’s working gear for Sherrie Christian, our heroine, credibly delivers what her customers would desire.

Actors_Theatre_headshot_fenixfoto_Charlotte__1180

Sherrie and our hero, Drew Boley, converge in LA sometime in 1987 and are briefly co-workers at the Bourbon Room. Since D’Arienzo’s book is tasked with connecting about 30 songs filled with teen passion and suffering, Drew and Sherrie’s romance is predictably rocky, filled with misunderstandings, bitterness, regret, and compromising situations before we come anywhere near a first kiss. At times, the couple fades into the background because the main plot and its complications concern the imperiled Bourbon Room, owned and managed by beloved goofball Dennis Dupree with the assistance of Lonny Barnett, his soundman and our narrator.

This cherished Sunset Strip landmark is targeted by the greedy German real estate developer Hertz Klinemann and his submissive son Franz for liquidation. Funky neighborhood and cultural treasures yielding to real estate profiteers and gentrification? That only happens in real life – not in feel-good movies and musicals. City planner Regina Koontz, do-gooder and rabble-rouser, pushes back against the Klinemanns, hatching a couple of nifty plot twists and song assignments before the blissful finale.

As Decker foretold in his welcoming remarks, performing on the grounds of The Barn at MoRA is a bit of a leap into the unknown, and he hoped the top of the pavilion would hold fast after being blown away during rehearsals. A plucky last-minute soundcheck by Cranford, doubling as our production manager, provided further reason for us to keep our fingers crossed when the show began. Thankfully, she concentrated on Elizabeth Medlin and Grant Zavitkovsky, who play the temperamental Sherrie and Drew. Cliched as they may be as lovebirds, they needed to have the best mics for their songs.

When things were going badly, when Drew was hoodwinked by record producer Ja’Keith Gill into fronting a boy band while Sherrie had been recruited by Justice Charlier into the degradations of the Venus Club, their anguished duet on Damn Yankees’ “High Enough” came across like the climactic highlight it was intended to be. By that time, we could chuckle a bit as we noticed that Decker had placed Zavitkovsky and Medlin at opposite sides of the stage to belt out their harmonies. Close contact between even the best mics onstage almost invariably led to lethal feedback blasting through the loudspeakers. Mercifully, these blasts were on the low end of the audio spectrum rather than high squeals.

The chief roadblock to romantic bliss between Sherrie and Drew is the awesome rock icon, Stacee Jaxx, coerced by Dennis to help raise funds for the Bourbon Room and prevent the Klinemanns from taking over. We quickly see the rowdiness and lawlessness that has alienated Stacee from Arsenal, the hit band that made Jaxx a star. Decker has sprung a surprise here, for the role played onscreen by Tom Cruise switched genders and Stacee was now sung by Shea – not with the best of the mics – adding new twists to Sherrie’s sexuality and Drew’s jealousy.

Medlin didn’t get a shot at the pole dance Decker staged in 2015, nor can we pity her any longer as a rape victim, but she definitely turned up the heat on the lap dance she performed for Stacee at a less provocative Venus Club. Less obvious are the benefits of Decker’s rethinking of Drew, for Zavitkovsky has the steely larynx needed to wail this rockstar wannabe, but his looks, while wholesome enough, allow more readily for failure – and the direction where this plot is actually headed.

Actors_Theatre_headshot_fenixfoto_Charlotte__1196

Jeremy DeCarlos as Dennis got his mic working intermittently, a definite improvement after his inaudible soundchecks, partnering well with Ryan Stamey as Lonny, who wrestled ebulliently with similar variables in his signature wild-man style. Nevertheless, dialogue and plot grew as foggy as the two flawless fog machines facing the stage when Katy Shepherd stepped forward in rather butch fashion as Regina and we needed to rely on Ryan Stinnett’s mic as Hertz and Jamaas Britton’s as Franz to keep track of the plot. Yet the three of them collaborated more than effectively enough, aided by a couple of tearaway costumes, to deliver the high comedy voltage of Pat Banatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”

With a more colorful costume, better lighting, and a better mic, Tony Mullins as Ja’Keith fared better on opening night than Shaniya Simmons as Justice. While lights and sound seemed to let Shea down and tamp down Stacee’s villainy – if a heavy-metal villain isn’t a sort of oxymoron – the setup for the five-piece band, including two guitars and led by Jessica Borgnis on keys, held rock-steady throughout the evening.

That was often bad news for the audience when we needed to hear the singers and discern the lyrics they sung over their relatively underpowered mics. As a result, the show remained more compelling for the older generation lounging on their lawn chairs, those spry folk already familiar with the oeuvre of Banatar, Yankees, Poison, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, REO Speedwagon, Quiet Riot, Bon Jovi, and David Lee Roth. As for me, “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “I Want to Know What Love Is” had me thinking that the collected works of Foreigner might be worth looking into.

CPCC’s Comedy of Tenors Has Plenty of Doors and Plenty of Farce

Review: Comedy of Tenors

By: Perry Tannenbaum

Ken Ludwig has written over 20 plays and musicals over the past quarter of a century, nine of which have now been presented in Charlotte. While the books for his two Gershwin musicals, Crazy for You and An American in Paris, display his craftsmanship, Ludwig’s most enduring comedy is undoubtedly his first Broadway hit, Lend Me a Tenor. First produced in 1989, Tenor was converted to a London musical in 2011, after a Broadway revival the previous season. So why shouldn’t the playwright entertain the notion of recycling his Tenor characters into a sequel? The idea evidently seems so natural to Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre, an organization that rarely produces a musical or a comedy that isn’t at least a decade old, that it has brought A Comedy of Tenors to Pease Auditorium less than two years after it premiered in Cleveland.

Ludwig brings back the arrogant and flamboyant Italian tenor Tito Merelli and his wife Maria, both highly passionate and usually squabbling. Impresario Henry Saunders, formerly the GM of the Cleveland Grand Opera, is now bringing the greatest concert in the history of opera to Paris, still as nervous, domineering, and hot-tempered as before. Saunders is provoked, but it isn’t by his son-in-law and former assistant Max, whose singing prowess was discovered in Cleveland a farce ago. Max is now on the bill as one of the four tenors who will wow Paris, but his father-in-law feels free to yank him out of rehearsals anyway to deal with the crisis du jour.

Fresh blood stirs up the fresh complications and misunderstandings. Back in Cleveland, it was Saunders’ daughter who was the victim of mistaken identities. Now she’s back in Cleveland, married to Max, and on the verge of delivering his first child. Instead, it’s Tito’s daughter Mimi who is our ingénue, embarking on a similar path of confusion. She’s in love with the third tenor on the bill, Carlo, but they haven’t yet summoned the nerve to divulge their marriage plans to her parents. In the hurly-burly of evading discovery by the Merellis, Carlo tells Maria of his plans to marry her daughter, but the eavesdropping Tito gets a vivid impression that his wife has become Carlo’s sex slave. On the flipside of this specious reason for jealousy, a real one happens to be in town, Russian soprano Tatiana Racon, Tito’s old flame. Almost forgot: on the day of the performance, the fourth tenor, Jussi Björling, cancels to attend his mother’s funeral. They will need to replace him.

Besides the repeating characters, the hotel suite setting, performer dropouts, and the last-minute frenzy of preparing to go onstage, there are other holdover motifs that link Ludwig’s Tenor farces. Both of them have pesky bellhops, both have fast-forward mashups of the entire show before the final bows, and whether your access route is Shakespeare or Verdi, there are comical uses of Othello to watch out for in both pieces – more subtly done in this newer farce. Under the direction of Carey Kugler, that’s about all the subtlety you will find, for the script offers an abundance of physical comedy. Slapping, frantic hiding, broad suggestions of sexual activity, and a plateful of tongue are all on the menu. There is scurrying galore during the countdown to the concert, and Biff Edge’s scenic design provides four doors plus a patio looking out on the outdoors for farcical entrances and exits.

This is 1936, so Ludwig could easily be forgiven for making his operatic saga all about the men. Yet the women aren’t altogether objectified, and they certainly aren’t marginalized. The Russian temptress Racon can carry herself like an established diva, and we sense that Mimi isn’t destined to be a hausfrau either, since she is embarking on a movie career – a happenstance that enables costume designer Rachel Hines to expand the fashion gallery beyond eveningwear, formalwear, and lingerie. Nor is Maria, Ludwig’s Desdemona, the same pure and worshipful seraph we find in Shakespeare. In addition to the vamping, it’s the women who have the lionesses’ share of the slapping and straddling.

Drugged and suicidal in the previous Lend Me a Tenor, Tito emerges as our hero in the sequel, supplanting Max. Surely this is Craig Estep’s finest hour in straight comedy as Tito and his lookalike, the pathologically talkative bellhop, though a couple of provisos might be added. First, he does sing here, since the three tenors are destined to rehearse the “Libiamo!” from La Traviata, and Estep’s previous hookup with James K. Flynn in Monty Python’s Spamalot was certainly a CPCC Summer Theatre gem in 2013. Flynn could have been eyeing the Tito role for himself, yet he’s perfectly cast as Saunders, just sympathetic enough in panic mode to prevent us from finding him loathsome in his overbearing moments. Winston Smith doesn’t have as much to do as Max as he would have had in Lend Me, but when it came time to sing the trio, he proved capable of holding his own with Estep. As it turned out, Max wasn’t in total eclipse. Eventually, he’s the one who untangled all the twists that Ludwig had put in the plot. Gabe Saienni got far more of a workout as Carlo, hiding from his future in-laws and fleeing from Tito’s deluded jealousy, so he had to sustain his terror of Tito while remaining worthy of Mimi’s love. The only real problem in Saienni’s performance was in the trio, where he was vocally a weak link.

If I could have heard them better, I would probably find myself saying that Taffy Allen as Maria and Amanda Becker as Mimi were marvelous. Loudness wasn’t the issue. I’m leaning toward my wife Sue’s theory on Allen: the thickness of her Italian accent was probably the main barrier between Maria and me. Allen has crossed over into midlife just enough to make her credible as Tito’s wife, and her aggressive attempts to reconcile with her husband were even funnier than her previous fawning on Carlo. Deep into Act 2, when sexual activity runs rampant, Allen got a chance to be jealous that she definitely didn’t waste. Becker’s audibility problems seemed to stem from a rush to adhere to Kugler’s snappy pacing. But I found her attitude delectable, both as a daughter and future bride, and her jealousy, punctuated by right-handed and left-handed slaps, could hardly have been better when Mimi suspected Carlo of carrying on with her mom.

Caroline Renfro didn’t enter the fray as Racon until Act 2, but it was pretty funny when she did, since the glamorous diva instantly devoured the incredulous bellhop with her pent-up passion, mistaking him for Tito. Old flame or not, Renfro had the moves and the looks to make that old flame new. Still in a generous mood, Racon agrees to add her soprano voice to the concert, presumably because the bellhop will be a new-made star after it’s over. I’m not sure that this extra episode was as savvy as the rest of Ludwig’s script, since it required a pair of hurried scene changes. At Pease Auditorium, this final segment literally hit a snag when the curtain that had been drawn over the hotel suite to simulate the backstage scene at the opera house got stuck before we reverted to the hotel for the fast-forward rehash of the entire play. When frantic actors and stagehands finally freed to curtain so it could slide back into the wings, the audience burst into applause. More laughter ensued as Kugler’s recap, even faster than the pace that had previously prevailed, was tossed off with an overacted style truly befitting a silent film.

“A Chorus Line” @ CP Remains as Fresh as Ever – in Spots

CENTRAL_THEA_AChorusLine(Cyrus_Performance)_005

Review:  A Chorus Line

By Perry Tannenbaum

Simple and realistic – while obeying the classic theatre unities of ancient Greece – Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line, with music by Marvin Hamlisch, was the coolest Broadway musical around, keeping its cachet for years after it opened in 1975. Part of the “singular sensation” was that it dispensed with the fripperies of musical theatre and humanized the quixotic kids auditioning for a precious few slots in the dancing chorus of a new Broadway show.

With the director, Zach, stepping out into the audience as he fires interview questions at the 17 finalists for the eight slots, the “singular sensation” dissolves the make-believe world of musicals – if we’ll only believe that each finalist is speaking directly to us as he or she responds to Zach. A whole new generation immersed itself in Bennett’s choreography, Hamlisch’s music, and the book by James Kirkwood and Nicolas Dante. Keeping step with Edward Kleban’s lyrics for the iconic “One” became a rite of passage.

CENTRAL_THEA_AChorusLine(Cyrus_Performance)_145

As the show sidles into Halton Theater for the first time, we can see the many spots in the simple fabric that are showing their wear in this briskly-paced CPCC Summer Theatre production directed by choreographer Tod A. Kubo. Much of the wear possibly comes from the success of Chorus Line. If the show didn’t exactly invent audition jitters and drama, it certainly helped open the floodgates for the more frequent depictions we see nowadays.

While simple candor may have been an edgy concept 40+ years ago, we can see easily enough that Kirkwood and Dante didn’t go overboard in their script. “I Can Do That,” “Sing,” and “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” all seem to fit comfortably into the twinkling heyday of Neil Simon, rather cutesy and glib for many who are plunging into the Glee world of today. The format simulates candor, but the content takes a while arriving at depth.CENTRAL_THEA_AChorusLine(Cyrus_Performance)_090

So despite the effervescence that Kubo infuses into this production with his direction and choreography, I found myself only lightly engaged until we had skated through most of the narratives about the dancers’ past. When we arrive at the present drama between Zach and his former love, Cassie – drama happening right before our eyes – even first-timers may experience that jolt reminding them how mundane an audition is compared to real conflict and drama.

Or maybe not: I’ve heard that American Idol and America’s Got Talent, glorified auditions both, are fairly popular.

While the three previous productions that I’ve seen during this century alone have eroded my susceptibility, I did find Tony Wright – the one performer who doesn’t sing – freshly compelling as Zach. Doubling as the production’s dance captain, Meredith Fox has more than enough dancing individuality as Cassie to match the arc of her character, and the embers of past flames spark as she and Zach struggle to arrive at some kind of romantic closure while she reboots her aspirations and career.

CENTRAL_THEA_AChorusLine(Cyrus_Performance)_135Paul, another role that doesn’t draw a solo vocal, is the other finalist who brings the action forcefully into the present – thanks to Tyler Dema’s affecting vulnerability as he uncovers the reasons why Paul finds it impossible to open up in front of his fellow dancers. Zach’s private huddle with Paul is another highlight in Wright’s performance as well. Eleni Demos, new this season to CP, deserves a shout-out as Diana. Answering Zach’s most disturbing question, she ably leads “What I Did for Love” – the enduring anthem of A Chorus Line.

So many newcomers play out their auditions on the Halton stage, an encouraging omen for the future. Even more heartening, the house was filled, up to and including the top row in the balcony. Best reminders of the stalwarts who have matriculated at CP Summer in previous seasons were Susannah Upchurch as the tone-deaf Kristine and Lexie Wolfe as the pint-sized Val, saddled with all those “tits and ass” refrains.

There were murmurs in my row that the fit of the iconic Chorus Line uniforms wasn’t as tack-sharp as it should be. Too bulky or wrinkly? Perhaps, but Barbi Van Schaick’s costumes certainly had sufficient dazzle teamed with Biff Edge’s scene design and Gary Sivak’s lighting. More concerning was the relapse in the Halton sound system. Levels never seemed to be right for long, too loud for the singing, too soft for the speaking, and often unclear for both. More equipment and more sound techs might have helped.