Tag Archives: Billy Ensley

Remembering in September – While Building Back Better

Review: The Fantasticks at the Palmer Building + Theatre Charlotte Update

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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You don’t need to try very hard to remember why Theatre Charlotte is beginning its 94th season at the Palmer Building. Built on East 7th Street in the late 1930s as part of FDR’s signature Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, the place itself gives you a hint. It was built and landscaped by firefighters to be the best training academy in the country and served that purpose for firemen who came after them for over 30 years.

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Late last December, on a slow news night, fire struck Theatre Charlotte’s beloved HQ, nicknamed “the Queens Road barn.” Ignited by the facility’s wayward HVAC system, the fire gouged a sizable trench into the right side of the auditorium. Slammed by COVID lockdowns, scrambling to reconfigure a full season without live performances and sustain their bond with actors and subscribers, Theatre Charlotte had the ground literally taken out from under them by the late-night fire.

One last indignity at the end of a grim 2020 that would already live on in infamy.

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When January dawned, it was clear that the initial damage estimates of $50,000 by fire officials – not trained at the Palmer Building – were far off the mark. Although the exterior at 501 Queens Road looks relatively unscathed from the street, a brief peep inside shows the full toll of the devastation.

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Walls that marked off the box office and administrative quarters from the lobby have been punched away, with only their wooden framework remaining. Looking across the lobby, into the auditorium, and backstage, you won’t find any ceilings, just more woodwork, metalwork and lighting fixtures that the fire’s flames and smoke failed to fry or destroy.

Cleanup took between three and four months, acting executive director Chris Timmons tells me. Not only was the HVAC toast, but so were all the theater’s precious electronics. That $50,000 estimate didn’t come close.

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“Our entire sound and lighting systems were lost, and those items alone total well over six figures,” Timmons reckons. “The latest number we tracked for complete restoration to the building ‘as it was pre-fire’ was in excess of $1 million. Because of some likely unknowns, such as damage not visible and county code requirements, we expect those numbers to change.”

So in recalibrating their 2021-22 season, Theatre Charlotte’s board and staff not only knew that they would need to take their productions on the road, they knew they had none of their old sound and lighting gear to bring with them.

That turns out to be okay when we see The Fantasticks, directed by the venerable Billy Ensley, at the Palmer Building. It’s a well-known title, famously the longest running show in American history. Perhaps more importantly, the show travels light.

Scenery has always been minimal since the musical, written by Tom Jones and composed by Harvey Schmidt, opened off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in May 1960. Instrumentation of the original score was positively gossamer, just a piano and a harp. Not the sort of thing that would work at Belk or Ovens.

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As Theatre Charlotte’s admirable digital playbill points out, startlingly more informative and colorful than their printed programs from past seasons, The Fantasticks started out with nine players, but the cast was winnowed to eight – when a Handyman was no longer needed to come onstage during intermission to fix the lights. Ensley restores the original count by doubling the role The Mute.

Two are arguably better than one when it’s time for The Mute to act as the wall between the homes of lovebirds Matt and Luisa (built by their wily, matchmaking dads, Hucklebee and Bellomy). It also doubles the number of women Ensley can present onstage.

Although I haven’t reviewed a show at the Palmer since 2007, when the now-extinct Pi Productions presented The Guys there, Ensley is likely familiar with the space, since Theatre Charlotte has staged numerous soirees and fundraisers there in the intervening years. What struck me most was the strength of the voices in Ensley’s cast – exactly what is needed if you’re presenting a musical at the Palmer without microphones. Despite the sparse orchestration, there were moments that sounded like we were at the opera.

So you think that’s outlandish? Opera Carolina produced The Fantasticks during the summer of 1994, and Queens University Opera Theatre followed suit in 2004.

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The score is front-loaded with its best music, two of its most familiar songs, “Try to Remember” and “Much More,” starting us off. It doesn’t take long for us to discover how fine and robust all these voices are. Matthew Howie and Jocelyn Cabaniss are the lovestruck teens, open and credulous, while Kevin Roberge and Phil Fowler handle the comedy as their manipulative dads, pretending to feud so that their kids will be all the more drawn together.

Ah, but how shall Hucklebee and Bellomy reconcile so that the two feuding households may live happily ever after? This is where that swashbuckling rogue, El Gallo, comes in. He will abduct Luisa and allow Matt, against all odds and reason, to rescue her. Actually, Mitchell Dudas as El Gallo has been there from the beginning, presiding over the action as our narrator, preening like a latter-day Fabio with flicks of his long hair when the dads hire him, and reminding us – almost exactly 19 years since CPCC brought The Fantasticks to Pease Auditorium – how perfectly suited to the season it is.

It’s El Gallo, after all, who repeatedly sings, “Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow…” And it’s all the other players who chime in, “Then follow, follow, follow, follow, follow.”

Howie is likely the most familiar youngblood here, having proven his acting skills up in Davidson as the lead in The Curious Incident after an eye-opening turn at Theatre Charlotte as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. When Matt boasts of all his heroism in rescuing Luisa from the clutches of El Gallo and his bumbling henchmen, it isn’t nearly as irritating as Hucklebee finds it – so Howie has gauged it perfectly.

Dudas and Cabaniss have lurked more on the periphery in recent years, but Ensley directed Spring Awakening at the Queens Road barn in 2018, so he’s well aware of Cabaniss’s powers. They show out most memorably when she passionately sings “Much More.” Granted, there isn’t much special in watching a guy kiss a girl on the eyes. The magic that Jones tapped into when he wrote this song was Luisa’s aspiration to be that girl. Cabaniss also shines in her climactic duets with Howie, especially the beguiling “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” before intermission.

If Howie and Cabaniss aren’t always as carefully paced, audible, and intelligible when they speak as they are when they sing, rest assured that their elders always are. Roberge and Fowler make a nicely balanced comedy team as the dads – perfect if you conclude that a prime aim of Jones and Schmidt was to juxtapose flamboyance and bluster with simplicity and sincerity. This little stage seems far too small for Roberge and his leonine energy, yet Fowler, more physically imposing, seems perpetually inclined to shrink out of sight.

Reserve and restraint, on the other hand, seem totally alien to Geof Knight and Tim Huffman, both of whom are bluster personified as Henry and Mortimer, El Gallo’s Shakespearean thugs. Watching Huffman perform his multiple dyings, you will likely realize how much, along with Jones’s wall antics, this book leans on the mechanicals and the closing scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Yet there’s also Act 2, where all the fairytale “Happy Ending” that’s frozen at intermission is exploded – when lies, fantasies, and perfect bliss collide with the real world. Here we can see that The Fantasticks was not merely derivative but also, very likely, a prime inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

After the rousing opening performance, Ensley consented to an email exchange where he shared his on-the-road experiences and views. Auditions and early rehearsals for The Fantasticks, he disclosed, had to be transplanted from Queens Road to Dilworth United Methodist Church. An empty Pier One store in Ballantyne subsequently became Theatre Charlotte’s “permanent” rehearsal space for the current season – which will see stops at Dilworth United, The Halton Theater at Central Piedmont, and The Great Aunt Stella Center before Love, Loss, and What I Wore hopscotches between four locations, including the Palmer, next spring.

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Cast and crew arrived at the Palmer for final tech and rehearsals on Sunday, just four days before The Fantasticks opened. Ensley had indeed accounted for the special challenges of the site.

“The Palmer Building only affected casting in that we cast the strongest singers possible, which we would do as a matter of course anyway,” Ensley observes. “The primary thing was to project and enunciate. Also, to adhere to their blocking very closely for lighting purposes as we had limited equipment and flexibility. I feel our lighting designer J.P. Woodey did a great job in a very short amount of time with limited equipment.”

Kudos should likewise go out to Christine VanArsdale at the harp and musical director John Smith at the keyboard. To my great relief, we found staff and audience to be pandemic-diligent. Proof of vaccination or recent COVID testing was required outside the site before we were admitted, touchless electronic ticketing was in place, and your program is a single piece of paper with a QR Code you scan with your smartphone to access the digital playbill. Everyone in the hall (except the performers, of course) wore masks from beginning to end.

“We impressed upon the cast from the very beginning how important the success of this show was and how much Theatre Charlotte valued their talent and their personal commitment to bringing the community live theatre,” Ensley says. “Chris has been wearing a lot of hats and I have been impressed with how well he and the TC staff have been keeping everything going and in a positive and determined way.”

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Topping the company’s priorities are returning to Queens Road for the 2022-23 season and, ultimately building back better. The timetable is only beginning to narrow, for Timmons estimates that, once the reconstruction actually commences, it will take 6-8 months. While Timmons and his wife Jackie Timmons, who serves as director of marketing and development for Theatre Charlotte, are hoping that insurance will cover everything, donations have spontaneously poured in from across the country and through a special Save My Seat Theatre Relief Fund.

Many of the contributors who checked in from far and wide had formative, life-changing experiences at the Queens Road barn.

“Knowing how so many people in the industry were struggling because of the pandemic and receiving support from them at the time of the fire was humbling,” Chris says. Yet the disaster struck at a time when the arts were not only reeling from COVID but also undergoing a Black Lives Matter, We-See-You-White-American-Theatre reckoning.

Timmons doesn’t plan for Theatre Charlotte to be behind the curve in reacting.

“We are taking time to plan for the long-term future of the building,” he says, “how it operates and can better serve our community, and we are looking at enhanced safety and accessibility improvements that may be phased in over the next several years. We don’t want to simply put a fresh coat of paint on the walls and new carpet on the floor and call it a day. We want our facility to be better suited for community partnerships and engagement opportunities that we haven’t been able to accommodate in the past, and we want to showcase more of the creatives who need a voice in our community.”

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Standing about a yard from a partially broken window at 501 Queens Road, a pane framed by countless layers of cracked and gouged paint, Jackie focuses on the near-term, striking a more urgent tone. When I ask about a possible second season on the road beginning next September, she doesn’t hesitate.

“We have to open here next year,” she says. “Finding other venues is too exhausting!”

 

Matthews Mamma Mia! Mixes Summer Romance and Autumn Regret

Review: Mamma Mia! is playing this ABBA hit parade

By Perry Tannenbaum

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There’s typical teenybopper inanity – and melodrama – in the lyrics of ABBA tunes that infiltrated the pop charts during the glam rock supergroup’s heyday, 1974-82. It’s all about desire, baby, followed by intense workouts on the hormonal treadmill of adolescence. Prospecting for ABBA gold, you’re rewarded with the age-old cycle of blissful acceptance or bitter ejection, romantic pleasure and conflict, burnout and breakup, cynicism and regret, all rendered in the elegantly engineered shorthand of a Top-40 hit.

Something interesting happened in 2001, after even the youngest member of ABBA had turned 50 and the quartet’s jukebox faves were cunningly transformed into a hit Broadway musical. You can feel it at Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts, where Mamma Mia! is playing through February 9. Writing the book for this ABBA hit parade, Catherine Johnson gave most of the songs to characters we could presume were nearly her own age, almost 44 on opening night. Old enough to have teenybopper kids of their own.

When a teenybopper pout is transformed into a midlife lament, regret takes on a whole new coloration in the title song as Donna Sheridan sings:

Yes, I’ve been brokenhearted,

Blue since the day we parted.

Why, why did I ever let you go?

The “day we parted” isn’t two melodramatic weeks ago. Not anymore. It’s over two decades ago, long enough for Donna to be experiencing the autumnal chill of lost youth. But hold on, Donna! You’re on a colorful Greek Isle, with lively cabana studs serving your taverna’s drinks, bikini-clad nymphs frolicking everywhere, dazzling eternal sunshine – and your darling daughter Sophie is getting married tomorrow!

It was easier to see Mamma Mia! from Sophie’s point of view in its Broadway days, pre-Meryl Streep, for Sophie really kickstarts the plot by prying into Mom’s secret diary and inviting all three of her possible dads to her wedding. Imagine if your three exes showed up unexpectedly for your daughter’s wedding. Sophie might as well have hired a skywriter to spell it all out: MOM, I READ YOUR SECRET DIARY AND INVITED ALL THREE OF MY POSSIBLE DADS TO MY WEDDING. Donna probably wouldn’t have looked up and noticed.

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Presumably, Mamma is preoccupied with wedding preparations, but Donna compounds her distractions by inviting two of her old chums, Tanya and Rosie, to the festivities. Plenty of catching up to do, but conveniently, the three women were a glam rock vocal trio back in their salad days, Donna and the Dynamos, so they can provide the party entertainment. With this makeshift guest list and its ‘90s setting, the prevailing outlook of the story shifts emphatically toward the baby boomers, ABBA’s perennial demographic.

Directing the show, Billy Ensley clearly gets the boomer drift, and more than a couple of seasoned Charlotte musical stars ride the wave with him to the Matthews Playhouse stage. With a richly detailed scenic design by John Bayless and a sumptuous array of costumes by Lisa Altieri – including a surprise set of glam rock duds for the dads – it’s likely that all of these vets appreciated the warmth of their welcome.

We don’t need to wait around for all these elders to gather in the Mediterranean sun before the excitement begins, for Ensley has found newcomer Alexis Thomas to ignite the action as the nubile Sophie. Thomas quickly proves she’s a precocious belter, bookending Act 1 with lead vocals on “Honey, Honey” and “The Name of the Game.”

Having deceptively invited her three possible dads – Sam, Bill, and Harry – using Mom’s letterhead, Sophie must also subject each of the candidates to an impromptu paternity test, inviting all three to give her away at tomorrow’s wedding. The hurried brevity of these scenes would make any self-respecting playwright blush, but Thomas carries them off as if they were hallowed Broadway formalities, codified as cliché. Which they are. Spencer Ellis doesn’t get nearly as much opportunity to shine as Sky, Sophie’s fiancé, but he makes his big moment in Act 2 count, letting Sophie know that he feels her quest for her true dad is a bigger thing to her than their wedding.

Of course, the ABBA songs, stirred by island breezes and mixed with the celebratory vibe of the oncoming nuptials, become a cocktail that takes all six of the mid-lifers sip by sip from the tipsiness of nostalgia to the full inebriation of regression and reawakening. The women are the most intoxicated here, each arriving at her own pace. Burdened with a mother’s cares and saddled with the bitterness of a jilted sweetheart, Lucia Stetson as Donna travels the longest path – though the magic is there from the moment she sees Sam.

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Stetson staunchly deals with the fact that Donna is prone to some truly stupid-ass choices, flexing the same regal star-quality insouciance that carried her through the title role of Evita a couple of summers back. Notwithstanding the baggy overalls she wears early on, we’re not surprised that she’ll soon emerge as a “Dancing Queen” and a “Super Trouper” – singing lead vocals, of course. You wonder a bit at first about Lisa Smith-Bradley, sporting a pair of mousy eyeglasses as Rosie, a far cry from the charismatic Mama Rose she brought to Theatre Charlotte seven years ago.

Never fear, Ensley and Smith-Bradley are cooking up a startling mouse-to-tigress rejuvenation as Rosie sets her sights on Bill, sinking her slinky claws into him in their “Take a Chance on Me” duet. Lisa Blanton talks like the bawdiest woman onstage as Tanya, but is it all talk? No, it is definitely not as we watch Blanton’s cougar rampage on “Does Your Mother Know?” Blanton pulls double duty at Matthews, doubling as the production’s choreographer, captaining her own carnivorous showcase with obvious gusto.

Aside from Thomas, a young talent to watch, the most promising of the young Greeks is Adrian White as Pepper, prime target for Tanya’s predations in “Does Your Mother Know?” – agile and slightly bewildered. He’s the dancing king here, for none of his elders, aside from Blanton, was chosen for hoofing prowess.

We’ve seen all the middle-aged guys before in Charlotte, Bob Mauney most recently starring in The Music Man at Theatre Charlotte, Steven B. Martin in Evita and Bridges of Madison County, and Patrick Ratchford in anything he has ever auditioned for over the last 25+ years, most recently 1776, Ragtime, and Charlotte Squawks! The Ratchford voice is still in peak condition, mostly held in reserve until Sam’s “S.O.S.” duet with Donna in Act 2, an all-out cri de Coeur in the top-40 world. Those smooth baritone tonsils also wrap themselves around two other hit singles, “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and – spoiler alert – the climactic “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” duet.

Sam isn’t the most comical of Donna’s exes, just the most interesting: the last he heard from her before Sophie’s faux invite was that she didn’t want to see him again. Understandably, he’s a bit uncomfortable and ambivalent when Sophie admits the subterfuge, but like the other guys who are also residually fond of Donna in various degrees, the possibility of being Sophie’s father keeps him hanging around in hopes of closure – and maybe making amends.

Martin as Harry and Mauny as Bill follow parallel tracks, not called upon to do much singing. Neither squanders his opportunity, Martin in a nostalgic “Our Last Summer” duet in Donna’s bedroom (here we go again?) and Mauny as Rosie’s willing prey in their “Take a Chance on Me” tête-à-tête. Bill claims to be an adventurer, so a tigress should be just right up his Aussie alley.

Dancing in the Aisles for 36 Years

Interview: Billy Ensley

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Call him Mister Versatility. To find anyone else in the Charlotte theatre scene who has been celebrated for excellence in so many different areas as Billy Ensley, you would have to summon up the memory of Alan Poindexter, the wunderkind who came out of the UNC Charlotte theatre program and won accolades as an actor, director, and sound designer. Ensley’s awards, a total of 16 from Creative Loafing and the Metrolina Theatre Association, have been for his work as an actor, director – in musicals, comedies, and dramas – and as a choreographer.

Song and dance were Ensley’s calling cards from the beginning, and they remain handy skills as he directs the upcoming Matthews Playhouse production of Mamma Mia! – the fifth musical that he has directed there. We interviewed Ensley about his evolution as an artist, the enduring popularity of Mamma Mia! and the vital importance of our community theatres.

QC Nerve: Take us back to the early days. Outside of school productions, what was your first appearance on a Charlotte stage? Can you tell us how you felt about theatre at that time and the part it would play in your life?

My first appearance on a Charlotte stage after school was in Seesaw (1983) at Theatre Charlotte [then known as Little Theatre of Charlotte]. At that time, I was moving into theatre as a result of having dance training throughout my youth. Male dancers were in demand, and therefore I was able to make that transition and learn acting and singing as well. While performing on Charlotte stages in my 20’s, I regularly got work in professional theatres, some of which include The Blowing Rock Stage Company, Opera Carolina, Busch Gardens, and Cook/Loughlin productions at Spirit Square.

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I wanted to dedicate my life to the theatre arts, but I also had a strong desire to own a home and be self-sufficient. I worked for over a decade as the director of office operations for the Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson law firm. After a couple of years in the travel industry, I went to work for Rexus Corporation, a national background screening company, where I am their chief operations officer for 15+ years.

By the time I first saw you back in the late 80s, in House of Blue Leaves and The 1940s Radio Hour, you were well on your way to establishing yourself as Charlotte’s pre-eminent triple threat. How committed were you at that time to accomplishing that goal, and how did you hone your acting, singing, and dancing skills?

At the time, I was not aware that I was establishing myself in any way actually. I was merely doing what I loved and what I was driven to do. Of course, it helped that I was receiving good reviews in the local press and support from the theatre community. That was positive reinforcement to keep working basically two full time jobs.

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Through the support and training of many people in Charlotte – including Tom Vance, Tom Hollis, Ron Chisholm, Terry Loughlin, Steve Umberger, to name a few – I was fortunate enough to work in the theatre almost constantly. I received a lot of my acting and singing training by being in productions, but I also continued to take dance classes, study voice with Joyce Marshall and study acting privately.

What role did our community theatre play in launching your career in theatre? How do see Theatre Charlotte and Matthews Playhouse figuring in the local scene today?

Theatre Charlotte often had the best directors and performers in the region. I was surrounded by some of the best and, as a result, I almost always got a paying gig from that exposure in community theatre. In addition, I was getting excellent hands-on training from them.

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Theatre Charlotte and Matthews Playhouse figure prominently in the local scene today, attracting good directors and seasoned performers as well as exciting new talent. In addition to cultivating new talent, they both are providing a venue for professional performers to have the opportunity to perform roles that may not be possible otherwise, due to the fact that Charlotte still struggles with sustaining many theatre companies.

You’ve made a couple of dramatic changes to reignite your career. First, you stopped doing musical after musical and took on a major role in a straight play, You Should Be So Lucky, in 1997. Then in 2003-04, we suddenly found you directing local productions of Evita, Bat Boy, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. What motivated you in each of these instances to break out of your previous mold – were there practical considerations involved, or was it all about self-fulfillment?

For me, it was a combination of both. As a dancer, you learn pretty early in life that the thing you have been training for, performing and loving, must eventually come to an end, or at least morph considerably. The same applies to playing the young male leads in musical theatre. I knew that I wanted the theatre to remain in my life, and I wanted to continue growing in other ways so that I could facilitate that.

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As a youngster, I marveled at performers that were always reinventing themselves – David Bowie comes to mind, actually – and I thought that was a great way to remain relevant. I also did not want to be pigeonholed in musical theatre, which I felt I clearly was. I wanted the challenges of dramatic acting like McDonagh’s The Pillowman (2007), in which I was lucky enough to play the lead, Katurian, in the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

As for directing, that was a slow and methodical process, and not an easy career to break in to. I started choreographing and directing in theatres outside of Charlotte like Belmont Abbey College and Wingate University. Eventually, the executive director at Theatre Charlotte, Candace Sorensen, offered me my first directing job in Charlotte with Sweet Charity (2002). After a few Charlotte shows, I got a great deal of support from Dan Shoemaker and Chip Decker at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.

Tell us about your history with Matthews Playhouse and what you have experienced there in terms of the quality of their facilities, staff, and talent pool.

I have directed Shrek, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Bonnie & Clyde and Grey Gardens for Matthews Playhouse. Matthews Playhouse is an excellent example of a successful and vibrant community theatre. Under the leadership of June Bayless, they have an excellent staff, a remarkable youth training program, combined with a very nice auditorium and excellent technical staff.

Who are the familiar audience favorites and the hot new discoveries that are going to make your Mamma Mia! a smashing success? Who are the scenic design, costume design, and choreographer aces on the case?

IMG_6570Lucia Stetson and Lisa Blanton are audience favorites. Lucia having played Maria in The Sound of Music and Lisa Blanton having played Little Edie in Grey Gardens. Our two young romantic leads both qualify as hot new discoveries. They are Alexa Thomas and Spencer Ellis as Sophie and Sky. Lisa Blanton agreed to pull double duty for this show by both choregraphing and playing the role of Tanya. Lisa Altieri is handling costumes and Emmy Award-winning John Bayless is the scenic designer. His work is amazing and his talents run very, very deep.

What do you continue to find in Mamma Mia! that keeps us from getting tired of it?

Well, ABBA of course! The music is familiar and well loved; bringing back lots of memories of love and romance for us middle-aged folk. The women characters in the show are strong and independent, the male characters are sensitive and compassionate. Like other jukebox musicals, it is fun to watch a scene that evolves into a song that most of us know at least some of the lyrics to. It is a show where the audience should come in with their hair down, their troubles stowed away, and perhaps their inhibitions stowed away as well – in favor of singing along or dancing in the aisles!

 

Sometimes Predictable, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” Is a Raunchy, Rockin’ Delight

Review:  The Legend of Georgia McBride

By Perry Tannenbaum

While there may be “Good Rockin’ Tonight” when Elvis impersonator Casey steps up to the microphone at Cleo’s Club down in the Florida Panhandle, there isn’t a big hunk o’ love emanating from the audience. On some nights, there isn’t even an audience, except for Eddie, the super low-key club owner. As we begin Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride with a bumbling, subdued curtain speech from Eddie, we’re keenly aware that both Casey and his boss are in sore need of makeovers. Our sympathies are mostly invested in Casey in this lip-syncing comedy presented by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. He’s younger, and the odds are against him, especially when Casey’s wife Jo informs him that his paycheck from Cleo’s has bounced once again, and they’re behind on the rent. No big surprises on the next complications that Lopez serves up to Jo and Casey’s dismay: Casey has just shelled out considerable dough on a new Elvis jumpsuit, Jo’s home pregnancy kit has just tested positive, and Eddie has been trying to work up the nerve to fire his headliner.

Seedy comedy and outré musicals have become the irreverent essence of the Actor’s Theatre brand. With Lizzie in August revisiting the sensational Lizzie Borden murders to a live heavy metal groove and now with this Georgia McBride jukeboxer, ATC has launched its 30th season – and their first full season as resident company at Queens University – by playing solidly to their strengths. Chip Decker’s set design is hardly wider than those we routinely saw at Actor’s in its old Stonewall Street location, with three distinct spaces side by side. Jo and Casey’s living room and kitchen flanks the Cleo’s proscenium on one side with the club’s dressing room on the other. What the Hadley Theater at Queens also allows is a nice thrust stage performing space where the entire cast can eventually perform Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” for their curtain calls.

Yes, as Lopez’s title telegraphs, that’s where we’re heading. Obeying what his ledger is telling him rather than his own personal inclinations, Eddie brings in a pair of drag queens to strut his stage. Casey can stay on if he’ll tend bar, take it or leave it. Symptomatic of his sunny passivity, Casey takes it rather than daring to blaze his own trail. The new gals, Tracy Mills and Anorexia Nervosa are both more diva-like in standing up for themselves. From the moment they enter the dressing room, you expect that at least one of them will go Bette Davis on us and proclaim, “What a dump!” Rexy is the more temperamental and imperious of the two – when he isn’t so drunk that he can’t stand up. One night, when Rexy cannot be revived – let alone hoisted upon his roller skates – Casey is called on to fill in. Either he dresses up as Edith Piaf, or Eddie really will fire him.

This setup for The Legend offers more than merely the bawdiness of drag. We get to enjoy bad drag and bad lip-syncing as Casey wrestles with a bra, pantyhose, and the French language for the first time in his life. Prodded to forge his own identity in dragdom, Casey swivels his new Georgia McBride persona away from the drag trinity of Judy Garland, Piaf, and Liza Minelli. Cutting up his Elvis jumpsuit to fit his newly bolstered tush, the freshly inspired Casey adds female rockers to the customary Broadway-cabaret drag spectrum, including Connie Francis, Madonna, and numerous others beyond my ken. But even when Cleo’s begins to prosper, the sunny go-with-the-flow Casey still doesn’t have the guts to tell Jo about the transformation that has changed his fortunes. Warning: some very predictable scenes ensue between Casey and Jo.

Under the astute direction of Billy Ensley, Georgia McBride transcends this hackneyed marital turmoil with a cavalcade of winsome and hilarious performances on the Cleo’s stage. They are the springboard for tacky, butch, and saccharine creations from costume designer Carrie Cranford ranging from Nazi leather to Busby Berkeley chiffon. The inspired choreographer goes inexplicably uncredited – but I suspect some needless modesty from Ensley himself, a preeminent triple threat back in his acting days.

Judging from reviews of past productions, I’m confident that Lopez left plenty of latitude in his script for characterizations and song selections. If history is a judge, Elvis can drag either country or rock into drag, and both Eddie and Jo can be more loud, nasty and assertive than they were here. I cannot remember when James K. Flynn was funnier than he was on opening night, inconspicuously evolving from a terse mumbling rube to a glittering ebullient emcee – and beyond. Nor did Juanita B. Green rub me wrong as Jo, improbably remaining slightly adorable even when she threw her husband out. I got the idea that only a preternaturally compliant soul like Casey’s would comply.

Ensley’s casting choices for his drag queens are just as brilliant, especially since two of the three are making their debuts with the company. Over the years, Ryan Stamey has conspired on many of ATC’s wildest musicals as an actor, music director, and instrumentalist, so it wasn’t at all surprising to see him making a grand entrance as Rexy in full diva mode, on heels high enough to require a dismount. Stamey actually did multiple dismounts from those heels, doubling as Casey’s put-upon landlord, Jason, and executing bodacious changes in makeup and costumes. As Rexy, he strengthened the impact of Casey’s climactic crisis with his confessional monologue on what he has suffered to pursue his art form, a topic that Lopez should have explored more deeply. I also suspect that Stamey had a hand in formulating the eclectic playlist. I just wished that Rexy had performed more of those drag numbers.

With his elegant serenity and his razor-sharp zingers, Paul Reeves Leopard’s performance as Tracy reminded me of Coco Peru and Charles Busch, two supreme queens I’ve been fortunate enough to see live. In the midst of Casey’s crisis, he also gets a nice moment of truth at Tracy’s front door, answering Casey’s pathetic apologies and entreaties with makeup, dress, and wig discarded for the night – bathrobe-and-hairnet deglamorized, with all his steely maturity on display. Everybody seemed stronger and more mature than Casey, thanks to the sunny optimism and gentle humility Sean Riehm brought to the role. Anybody, man or woman, would let him be his or her teddy bear! Physically, Riehm is well-sculpted but not intimidating, with legs that can inspire a woman’s jealousy. Riehm’s lithe movements underscore the logic of the Elvis-to-Georgia transition: in and out of the jumpsuit, those swiveling hips are very much a part of his job description. Another warning: if you sit in the front row at the Hadley, you are a prime target for a lap dance from a drag queen. Mine was a first for me, the most memorable moment of a fun evening. You won’t be able to experience that when Jim Parsons plays Tracy in the upcoming Fox 2000 film.

Confused and Abused Teens – With Unmistakable Talent

Preview:  Spring Awakening

By Perry Tannenbaum

For over a century, playwright Frank Wedekind was best remembered as the creator of Lulu, the libertine protagonist in two of his erotically charged dramas, Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904). Alban Berg combined the two works into one Lulu (1937), an opera that stands as one of the sexiest of the 20th century.

Then came 2006.

Wedekind’s notoriety was refueled for a new millennium when Steven Sater adapted the German’s first script, Spring Awakening, for an off-Broadway production. If Lulu was risqué and amoral, Spring Awakening was angry, raw, and a bit shocking – teen chaos rather than salon decadence. The score, composed and orchestrated by Duncan Sheik, certainly wasn’t opera. It was a wicked mix of sensuous, anguished ballads like “Touch Me” and “The Word of Your Body” juxtaposed with raging frenetic rockers like “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk,” and “Totally Fucked.”

Schoolkids standing up rebelliously on their desks, dancing and stomping catatonically. Vilifying parents and teachers. Ecstatically screwing just before intermission. Even liberal newspapers had to tiptoe around the song titles, lyrics, and actions.

The Atlantic Theatre Company production was an instant sensation, picking up an armful of awards before transferring to Broadway that same year. Eleven Tony nominations and eight Tony Awards were added to the haul, including Best Musical. Somehow the Victorian repression, the withholding of sex education, and the perils of unprotected sex, backstreet abortions, and teen suicide of Wedekind’s 1891 script had leapfrogged into the 21st century in a theatrical triumph – with no mealy-mouthed concessions whatsoever to the older generation.

Underscoring the generic, unsympathetic nature of Wedekind’s adults, all 14 of them were portrayed by one male and one female actor. This was not merely a tragedy of star-crossed lovers. It was an explosively presented nightmare scenario of what can go wrong when adults refuse to discuss sex with their children.

And now this scorching musical hits Charlotte this Friday, barreling into our community theatre for a three-week run – including three Sunday matinees and two Saturday performances on June 1 at 8:00 and 11:30pm. Somebody at the Queens Road barn believes they’re going to sell a whole bunch of tickets. Nobody seems worried that we’ll experience a repeat of the Angels in America uproar that rocked the city in 1996, with aftershocks that ultimately capsized Charlotte Repertory Theatre in 2003.

“We have no trepidation about Spring Awakening being a bridge too far,” says executive director Ron Law. “Many young performers and audience members have lobbied for it, and it has always performed strongly in our show selection survey.”

Touring versions of the show came here in 2010 and 2011, but of course, these weren’t shows with local artists funded by local dollars. The feeling was, even then, that the city had changed and audiences had matured since the Angels debacle. But there is likely another factor at work. Theatre Charlotte has better prepped its audience than Rep.

Oleanna, Falsettos, and Miss Evers’ Boys were as far as Rep pushed the envelope before fielding Tony Kushner’s gay fantasia. At 501 Queens Road they’ve pushed further with its more diverse audience, bringing us The Full Monty, Rent, Hair, and La Cage aux Folles in recent years. One way or another, the unholy trinity – nudity, foul language, and homosexuality – have all been addressed.

“All those shows were huge box office successes for Theatre Charlotte, with little pushback,” Law reports. “For this show, we even offered season ticket buyers the opportunity to buy a package that did not include Spring Awakening. A very small number took us up on this.”

Caution was not altogether thrown to the winds in scheduling this potential powder keg. Some niceties were also observed on the production end, beginning with auditions for the roles of the kids crossing the threshold of puberty. Nobody was allowed to audition unless he or she would be 18 on opening night.

“There were many disappointed 15 and 16 year olds who love the show and couldn’t audition,” Law confirms.

Most of the teens who did audition were savvy theatre students, according to Law. Some have participated in Theatre Charlotte’s youth-oriented summer stock productions, and others have been groomed in the robust theatre programs of our local high schools.

Nominated for the prestigious Blumey Awards for high school musicals across metro Charlotte, three of the major players in Spring Awakening are so accomplished that they put a major crimp in director Billy Ensley’s rehearsal schedule.

Seniors at NW School of the Arts, Renée Rapp (Best Actress), Liam Pearce (Best Actor), and Maya Sistruck (Best Supporting Actress) all earned Blumey Award nominations for their work in the school’s presentation of Big Fish, which is nominated for Best Musical honors. As finalists, all three were spirited away to Belk Theater, rehearsing for multiple segments of last Sunday night’s award ceremonies, where they performed individually and together.Rapp first landed a role at Theatre Charlotte when she was 10 and transferred to Northwest in her junior year. “They are both truly such talented and good-hearted human beings,” she says of Pearce and Sistruck. “Working amongst them all these years has helped me grow as a performer watching the dedication they put into what they do. We have so much love amongst the three of us that even in this especially stressful time with the Blumeys, Spring Awakening and graduation, they make every day and every rehearsal feel like a celebration for me.”

As Wendla Bergmann, Rapp launches the horrific scenario of Spring Awakening when she asks her mom how babies are made and gets a bogus answer. The only teen around who seems to have the lowdown is Melchior Gabor, a voracious reader who quietly shares the news with his shy neurotic bestie, Moritz Steifel – with explicit illustrations and written descriptions. But the atheistic, amoral Melchior does not share the facts of life with Wendla before he deflowers and impregnates her.

Dire consequences all around.

“Melchior has many layers to him,” says Pearce of this charismatic troublemaker. “He clearly wants to experience all of these activities he has read about but may not necessarily be ready to deal with the aftermath of what they may lead to. While he is extremely intelligent, he is still a teenager who has not completely grasped all of the knowledge he needs to be a functioning adult in society.”

Pearce isn’t altogether sure why he landed this plum role, but he has worked with Ensley – and choreographer Lisa Blanton – before at Theatre Charlotte in Jesus Christ Superstar. Ensley saw Pearce as a clear choice at his auditions, both as a singer and as an actor.

“Melchior needed to be a double threat actor singer,” Ensley says, “who could understand the commanding ‘big man on campus’ ego and the broken-hearted lover.”

In love with the misfit Moritz and abused by her father, Martha Bessell takes us to other dark regions of Wedekind’s story. “I always thought that her character arc was one of the strongest and most complex of the girls in the show, and I thought it’d be a wonderful challenge for me to take on,” Suskind says of Martha. “As for being nominated for Blumeys, it was quite nice to be able to link up our busy schedules and have a little ‘buddy’ looking out for any missed rehearsals or information. We were always on the same page.”

All three are also on the same page about delving into their troubled teen characters. They all give props to Ensley. Rapp offers the most detailed insights.

“I have heard countless people tell me how amazing working with Billy is,” she begins, “but it wasn’t until I had a one-on-one with him that I truly understood the depth of what they meant. He puts his heart into this production 100%, and that is so evident and inspiring for me. We sat and talked about myself and my character, and he really helped me break down what this show will mean. His direction is unmatchable. He works and tweaks things with such a specific eye, and I absolutely love it.”

Update: Renée Rapp took honors for Best Actress at the Blumey Awards on Sunday night, winning a trip to Broadway with Ethan Holtzman from Charlotte Latin School for a chance the national Jimmy Award on June 25. So who else won? Check it out here. Ceremonies will be rebroadcast on WTVI on May 29 at 8:00pm.

 

 

 

 

Celebrity Pistol-Packing Rogues Deliver Guilty Pleasures in “Bonnie & Clyde”

Review: Bonnie & Clyde

By Perry Tannenbaum

Since the days of his greatest successes, with Jekyll & Hyde (1997-2001) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1997-2000), most of Frank Wildhorn’s Broadway musicals haven’t run more than a month. That includes a revival of Jekyll, Wildhorn’s longest-running show, in 2013 and Bonnie & Clyde, which somehow couldn’t make it through the end of December – the highest grossing month of the year – in 2011. Hearing that the short-lived Bonnie & Clyde was coming to Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts roused a morbid curiosity for me: how could a notorious story that won six Oscars in 1968, including Best Picture, flame out so spectacularly in a musical adaptation? Knowing that Billy Ensley, one of Charlotte’s best, would be directing sealed my resolve to investigate.

With the appearance Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow as children at the top of the show, it quickly became apparent that Ivan Menchell’s book was not an adaptation of the sensational film. Unlike the Bonnie portrayed by Faye Dunaway, Menchell’s is a ravishing redhead rather than a blond. There’s never really a Barrow Gang, and though this Clyde aspires to fancy clothes, his dream didn’t come true in Matthews. Most puzzling of all, we don’t see Bonnie and Clyde snapping photos of each other – their most modern trait! – although the authentic period projections go way beyond mugshots. So it’s plausible to me now that the Broadway version of this musical didn’t strictly flop on its merits. Boomers expecting to see the style and gore of the iconic film were disappointed, while it’s very likely that younger theatergoers had never even heard of Bonnie and Clyde.

Armed with a reported $6 million budget, there were presumably more costume changes up in New York than Matthews designer Lisa Altieri provides for Bonnie, but with 20 people in the cast, four of them in multiple roles, Altieri is far from idle and contributes some very fine work. What really made this community theatre effort look like a million bucks was the scenic team of designer John Bayless and scenic change artist Beth Aderhold. Weathered wooden slats span the Fullwood Theatre stage, trisected by two sturdy vertical beams. The columns of slats can be raised like window shades, keeping the flow of action going cinematically as the slats rise to reveal new scenes – or slide back downwards to serve as rustic screens for the old-timey projections, mostly of newspaper headlines, mugshots, and snapshots of our celebrity public enemies. At critical moments, a two-seat jalopy showed up in the middle of it all, no less realistic than the photos I’ve seen of the Broadway roadster.

Not only did Ensley brilliantly contrive to keep the action moving, he brought ace talent to the lead roles and beyond. Joe McCourt, who plays Clyde’s vacillating older brother, Buck Barrow, has starred in numerous musicals at Theatre Charlotte in recent years, including Memphis and Avenue Q. Embittering Buck’s every breath, Emily Witte is his very Christian wife Blanche, after playing a similar spoiler role as Amneris in the Disney Aïda at Theatre Charlotte last fall. This bickering pair would have upstaged the title players if Ensley hadn’t found such strong protagonists as Steven Buchanan and Lindsey Schroeder.

Buchanan was definitely in his comfort zone performing edgier fare, for he played prominent roles in Queen City Theatre Company’s The Pride and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s American Idiot last year. Here he sported a hairdo that was halfway between Hitler and punk, looking lean, Brando mean – in a tank top undershirt – and dangerous. Scene work with Bonnie is a tasty mix of tender and raw, but Buchanan is somewhat monochromatic under arrest or during his larcenous, murderous rampage, barking his commands and forsaking the Warren Beatty charm offensive of the film. Ensley should have occasionally reined him in a bit and reminded him that he’s wearing a microphone as well as a pistol.

Opening in the ensemble of Evita at CPCC Theatre the weekend after her last performance as Bonnie Parker, Lindsey Schroeder is the one new find among the principals. She takes to every aspect of Parker, most especially to her thrill-seeking, her narcissism, and her lust for Hollywood and pinup fame. Schroeder can belt too, so watch out for “How ‘Bout a Dance” and “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.” Overall, Wildhorn’s score wasn’t nearly as bothersome as you’d expect from an epic Broadway flop, but there are noticeable stretch marks on its beauty. Witte does a fine job on behalf of homebodies with “That’s What You Call a Dream,” but Blanche’s Christianity opens up a whole new sector of Gospelized expression that I didn’t recall from the movie. Church scenes are essentially extraneous to the main storyline, but it gave Wildhorn an excuse to widen the variety of his score. Off my radar since 2009, Phil Fowler came to the rescue for a couple of doses of “God’s Arms Are Always Open.” Even if it was a narrative detour, it was a rousing showstopper in the positive sense of the word.

Holiday Grow and Donavan Abeshaus were both excellent in introducing us to the young Bonnie and Clyde. Carol Kelly and Scott C. Reynolds were winsome as Clyde’s rusticated parents, and Carol Weiner was prim yet warm as Bonnie’s mom, quietly urging her daughter to come to her senses – and choose the hometown sheriff who clearly adores her. Andrew Tarek plays that role beautifully, with seething jealous fury toward Clyde and tender hat-holding deference toward Bonnie. I found myself hating this Sheriff Hinton without a good reason why, and I surprised myself once again by rooting for Bonnie and Clyde here almost as fervently as I did in the 1967 film, despite the trail of crime and bloodshed they insouciantly left in their wake. Celebrity pistol-packing rogues are likely unique to America, more to our shame than our glory.

Strong CP Cast Unleashes Newfound Power of “Ragtime”

Ragtime Promo Photos

Review: Ragtime The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

Like Fiddler on the Roof, another musical with wide vistas, Ragtime The Musical begins its voyage back to 1906 by introducing us to groups of people. The stage begins to fill with comfortable, well-mannered white folk. Oppressed black folk, struggling for dignity and survival, form a crowd at the opposite side of the stage. Immigrants, disoriented and bewildered in the Promised Land, fill in the divide. Social activists Booker T. Washington and Emma Goldman flank the groups, along with the celebrities who tower above them all, including Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, and Evelyn Nesbit.

But while shtetl life in Czarist Russia remains quaint, picturesque, and old-fashioned with each new revival of Fiddler, the issues revisited in Ragtime – racial prejudice, women’s second-class citizenship, and intolerance toward immigrants – have bounced back in our faces with frightful new life. The superiority we could feel toward the injustice suffered by Coalhouse Walker Jr. has evaporated since the days when Ragtime was published by novelist E.L. Doctorow in 1975 and adapted by Terrence McNally for the 1998 musical. Trayvon Martin, Ferguson… the list goes on.

Women’s rights and the welcoming attitude symbolized by Lady Liberty are also threatened by the reactionary sentiments unleashed by the 2016 election, the odious barrage of anti-Muslim rhetoric, and the post-inauguration travel ban. So the current CPCC Theatre production of Ragtime is not only timely, but thanks to one of the best casts ever assembled on the Halton Theater stage, it’s also newly powerful.

Tyler Smith delivers the most scorching performance as Coalhouse, particularly in the ragtime pianist’s valedictory solo, “Make Them Hear You,” when he’s on the brink of martyrdom. It’s as devastating a Coalhouse as I’ve ever seen, including the original Broadway production and the first national tour. But the taunting and race-baiting that come at Coalhouse from Josh Logsdon as New Rochelle fire chief Will Conklin no longer seem to be clichéd. Where Brian Stokes Mitchell on Broadway might have asked himself “how would I have felt 90 years ago?” Smith is merely tapping into how he feels – and it’s very fierce and raw.

The voice and delivery are Broadway-worthy, so it’s not at all a slight when I say that Smith’s partner, Brittany Harrington, nearly reaches the same lofty level as Sarah. When they reconcile and introduce “Wheels of a Dream,” seated in front of their Model T roadster, Harrington reminds us that this dream belongs to them both. It’s a tribute to their combined power that director Tom Hollis nearly empties the stage of the entire ensemble when the song is reprised at the end as an anthem. Together, as the happy-ending segment of the cast strolls into the horizon, Smith and Harrington sing them off.

What struck me by surprise was how much more forcefully the peaceful Mother’s story resonates. It’s quite natural to think of Mother as one of the handy junctions in this artfully interlaced tale. She welcomes Sarah and her newborn baby into her New Rochelle home, drawing the abandoned Coalhouse in pursuit – before he even realizes that he is the father of her child. Younger Brother, a member of the same well-to-do household, has a string of idols, including Nesbit and Goldman, before joining Coalhouse after the bold seeker of justice has taken over J.P. Morgan’s Manhattan library.

Ragtime Promo PhotosWhile all this spectacle rages around her, Mother has begun to evolve, almost from the moment that Father sails off with Admiral Peary on his expedition to the North Pole. After welcoming Sarah and the newborn into the household, her empathy widens to Coalhouse. Smith exudes a Nat “King” Cole kind of savoir-faire at the keyboard, so we’re not surprised. Yet Grandfather (Brian Holloway) is horrified and, after he returns from his explorations, so is Father.

But in the intervening year after her audacious decision to open her doors to Sarah, Mother has discovered that she has a voice. Not a small revelation when it comes more than three presidential elections before she will get the vote.

So while Andy Faulkenberry has a fine revolutionary zeal as Younger Brother, while Megan Postle breathes Mosaic fire as Emma Goldman, and Patrick Ratchford is extraordinarily patrician and privileged as Father – one of his best-ever outings – it was Lucia Stetson as Mother who truly bowled me over. The arc of Stetson’s journey, from “What Kind of Woman” when she first meets Sarah to “Back to Before” when she realizes she cannot continue under Father’s restrictions, is stunning and inspiring. This is how much a person can evolve. To his credit, Ratchford lets us know that Father has also budged slightly from his bigotry when his brave stint as a hostage is done.

In a way, Billy Ensley personifies all immigrants as Tateh, who arrives at Ellis Island at precisely the moment when Father is embarking on his polar adventure. J.P. Morgan, Goldman, and Houdini are all wrapped into Tatah’s dreams of “Success” and disillusionment, but neither Doctorow nor McNally soft-pedal his Jewish heritage. Right before his wide-ranging fantasia, Ensley sings “A Shtetl Iz Amereke” in his first song, faring better with the Yiddish than the chorus of immigrants behind him.

Houdini, a circus-like attraction in Tim Eldred’s portrayal, likens achieving success to escaping from a cage, but it’s Goldman, a fellow Jew, who speaks home truths. When Tateh wraps his daughter (Annabel Lamm) in a prayer shawl to combat the cruel cold, Emma says his rabbi would approve. Tateh is indeed a role of Houdini tricksiness as he begins by cutting out silhouettes of celebrities, later toils and goes on strike at a Massachusetts textile mill, and finally becomes the quintessential American success story when he reinvents himself as an Atlantic City filmmaker, Baron Ashkenazy.

Against the sunniness that Ensley brings to this epic musical, Keith Logan as Booker T. Washington and John DeMicco as J.P. Morgan help to shape the dark tragedy at the Morgan Library. It seems so much more inevitable to me now than it did when I first saw the denouement in 1998. If we can’t trust policemen to hold fire in 2017 when a black man surrenders with his hands up, how could we expect that they’d behave otherwise before World War I?

“We are all Coalhouse,” the ensemble sings in the somber aftermath – with a fresh sting. These words now ring as true as yesterday’s headlines. Much more in this CP revival of Ragtime may strike you that way.

 

American Reset Brings New Relevance to “Ragtime”

Ragtime Promo Photos

Preview: Ragtime

By Perry Tannenbaum

Things were so different in 1906, when E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime begins. Theodore Roosevelt, a conservationist Republican, was in his second term at the White House. The wave of immigrant Jewish refugees, fleeing pogroms in Russia, was at its peak.

American women would have to wait three more presidential elections before they could vote, but the charismatic Emma Goldman was one of the strong voices agitating on the streets. Jazz had yet to be born in New Orleans, and the African-American superstars who sparked its popularity were still children, but Scott Joplin had already codified the architecture of ragtime.

When Terrence McNally adapted Doctorow’s 1975 novel for the musical that opened on Broadway in 1998, costumes worn by Goldman, by Tateh the Jewish immigrant, and by ragtime piano player Coalhouse Walker added to my impression that Ragtime was so yesterday. Women had already ascended to high elective offices and had figured prominently in presidential politics. Jewish immigrants and their descendants had crafted the very framework of Hollywood’s studios and Broadway’s musical theatre. Satchmo and the Duke were far in the rearview mirror of American cultural history, and Michael Jackson was deep into his reign as the King of Pop.

Surely we had matured as a nation since those primitive days Doctorow and McNally chronicled. Each time I saw Ragtime again, in 2001, 2005, and especially in 2011 – when Barack Obama was President, and Hillary Clinton, his most formidable opponent in the 2008 election, was Secretary of State – my sense of our superiority and progress as a nation continued to grow.

Then came 2016. The shocking election result. The inauguration. The women’s demonstrations across America and across the ocean. The opening assault on immigration.

Or how about Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, and the cavalcade of atrocities posted to social media since early 2012? When Ragtime arrives this weekend at Halton Theater in a new production by CPCC Theatre, it won’t seem as quaint and primitive as it did five years ago. In so many ways, we’ve punched the reset button.

When I saw Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse, the rousing song he introduced, “Wheels of a Dream,” seemed to be dreaming of today – or 1999, when I saw Mitchell at the Ford Theatre on 42nd Street, and the whole ensemble transformed “Wheels of a Dream” into an anthem at the end of the show. This week, when Charlotte powerhouse Tyler Smith takes on Coalhouse, I’ll have to humbly concede that his anthem is still envisioning a better tomorrow that hasn’t come.

Ragtime Promo Photos

Smith was never under any illusions. “This country was founded on principles that were never all-inclusive,” he says. “Our recent presidential results showed the world how much racial hatred still looms here.”

After a couple of lightweight roles at CP in last winter’s Irving Berlin revue and last summer’s Sister Act, Megan Postle is eager to show some range – and depth – as Goldman. “I have a personal attachment to Ragtime,” Postle reveals. “It was my first Broadway show. My aunt took me to see the original cast.”

One of the fascinating things about Ragtime is its mix of historical and fictional characters. Doctorow also gives cameos of varying lengths to J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Admiral Peary, and Evelyn Nesbit.

But none of the historical characters is altered more in trafficking with Doctorow’s fictional characters than Emma, who sheds her anarchist and assassin tendencies. “Goldman is the Greek chorus for Ragtime,” says Postle. “She speaks for all members of the human race who feel there is inequality.”

Emma also helps to stitch the various strands of the plot together. Coalhouse and Tateh head two of the three families that anchor this story. They are the outsiders while the third family, prosperous inhabitants of New Rochelle, complete the New York triangle of the story. Sailing off to join Admiral Peary’s polar expedition as we begin, the Father waves to Tateh, who is on a raggedy ship that has nearly completed its voyage across the Atlantic to Ellis Island.

From that point, the story forms an epic arc that resolves gracefully as the full company delivers its epilogue. Along the way, we glide past a labor strike by exploited millworkers in Massachusetts, Goldman’s galvanizing oratory, horrid police brutality, and audacious, explosive, vengeful responses from Coalhouse.

Smith admits that racial issues have heated up since the most recent 2009 revival of Ragtime on Broadway and the end of the Obama presidency.

“Today’s Coalhouse is every father, husband, brother and son killed without proper justice being served,” he said. “Every wife, sister, mother and daughter who have to feel the grief and bear the weight of losing a lost one while nobody seems to care. People like Eric Gardner, Trayvon Martin, Keith Lamont Scott, the mothers of all those murdered in Chicago. There is a line sung in the show saying ‘we’re all Coalhouse.’ It hits home because it is true.”

Tom Hollis, CP’s drama chair, chose Ragtime for the 2016-17 season back in the spring of 2015, around the time when the announcement of Donald Trump’s candidacy was greeted with more laughter than alarm. Hollis considered it then in the vein of 1776, the musical that was already set to run last September, just before the first presidential debate.

He still does. “When we were doing 1776 in the fall of 2016, we were constantly being struck by the parallels to life today,” Hollis says. “Each generation of Americans has had to face coming up with an answer to these issues because they are woven into the fabric of our country. That we haven’t been able to find a permanent solution is the sad irony of our history.”

A hard, tragic compromise on slavery clouded the happy ending of 1776, and what happens to Coalhouse clouds the ending of Ragtime. A member of the New Rochelle family who was inspired by Goldman ultimately vows to keep Coalhouse’s story alive, while Tateh achieves the American dream.

Billy Ensley, a mainstay of the CPCC Theatre for decades, will play Tateh at the Halton. It’s just the latest in a series of Jewish roles that he has played over the course of his acting career, including Eugene in Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound and two ill-fated historical figures, San Francisco activist Harvey Milk and Atlanta’s Leo Frank. Wrongly convicted of the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan in Atlanta – and subsequently lynched – Frank was the tragic hero of Alfred Uhry’s Parade, presented at the Halton in 2006.

So for Ensley, it’s a journey back to the same period with a similar rueful takeaway, even if Tateh does end happily.

“Current events regarding immigration have only strengthened the way I have always felt about those that are marginalized, forgotten, discriminated against,” Ensley says. “We all deserve a chance to live fulfilling, safe and happy lives, and those of us that have that already should do what we can to see to it that others less fortunate can as well. Our country was built by immigrants.”

Ensley offers advice for immigration opponents: “For those today in favor of a closed-off America, I suggest a trip to Ellis Island and a little research on where the people came from that made this country the wonderful and rich country that it is.”

Travel advisory: Ellis Island is just a short boat ride away from the Statue of Liberty, depicted on the cover of numerous editions and translations of Ragtime.