Tag Archives: Bobby Tyson

Hey, Hey, We’re the Herdmans!

Theater Review: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

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So the holidays are here, and we know the live entertainment drill: inevitable revivals of A Christmas Carol, Nutcracker, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever plus a few fresh novelties to liven the mix. This year, one of the novelties is also one of the inevitables. For while it’s possible to see the customary stage adaptation of Barbara Robinson’s Yuletide favorite at Matthews Playhouse starting on Thursday, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte unveiled the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical on Black Friday.

Robinson adapted her 1971 novel for the Seattle Children’s Theatre in 1982, and the proliferation of productions across America has arguably made the playscript more beloved than the book. So the team of Johanna Beecham and Malcolm Hilgartner, adding their lyrics and musical score, did the prudent thing in adapting Robinson’s stage version.

Nearly 34 years to the day since the story succeeded in Seattle, a whole generation of parents who saw Best Christmas Pageant onstage as children are bringing their offspring to ImaginOn to see The Musical. Our Children’s Theatre, which has grown to national renown during those intervening years, had to add five performances to the run before opening night – a tribute to their prestige as well as the bankable title.

Turns out that the Robinsons, the playwright (who died in 2013) and her daughters, were pretty prudent themselves in choosing Beecham and Hiltgartner. They seem to know what can be enlarged to musical proportions and how to get the job done. I’d also say that Best Christmas Pageant is easier to swallow than A Christmas Carol was when it morphed into Scrooge.

Big crowd scenes can be magnified most easily from stage to musical dimensions, but A Christmas Carol doesn’t really abound with them. Scrooge’s workplace and Cratchit’s home aren’t bustling places, and London is a cold, lonely, and forbidding city until Ebenezer’s reformation. So a couple of parties and a funeral were supersized, effervesced, and choreographed for Scrooge. We’re also more familiar with the older, more entrenched Dickens tale, so tampering is riskier, more jarring.

 

Recognizing that they’re primarily dealing with schoolkids, normal ones in fear of the notorious Herdmans, they make sure to create their biggest scenes when kids congregate, at church for Sunday school, at school during lunchtime, and at their rehearsal hall near the fateful church kitchen. The catastrophic rehearsal scene, causing Rev. Hopkins to cancel the pageant after the Herdman herd has stampeded it, is rockin’ pandemonium.

Beecham and Hiltgartner are more artful even before that in their depiction of the adult antagonists. What I labeled as the four Old Biddies, when Jill Bloede directed the play for Children’s Theatre in 1995, are now three parents of Beth and Charlie Bradley’s classmates. Luanne, Connie, and Betty start us off singing “Perfect Little Town,” as beautifully harmonized and sugary as the overdubbing Connie Francis cooing “My Happiness.” They are natural allies of the dictatorial Helen Armstrong, the rigid director who is usually in charge of the unchanging Christmas pageant year after year.

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But Armstrong is hospitalized this year, so the vocal trio mobilizes with Helen to convince Grace Bradley, Beth and Charlie’s mom, to take over just before auditions. In the play version, all four women wielded old-fashioned phones in cajoling Grace. A musical allows for more fanciful, comical liberties. By the end of another pop rocker, “Counting on You,” the ladies have circled to the opposite side of McColl Family Theatre from Helen’s bedside to resume their vocal trio assault on Grace at the Bradley home, with the siblings and their father joining in on the hubbub.

If the ladies can be more ridiculous now – a big if, since Bloede had Alan Poindexter and Sidney Horton crossdressing as two of the hags in ’95 – then the Herdmans can be more fearsome and ferocious to counterbalance them. Augmenting their chaotic energy is the fiendish work of choreographer Ron Chisholm, who keeps the six Herdmans and their terrified victims spread across the stage in frenetic action. Even Rev. Hopkins must be convinced of their true menace.

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We are far closer here to believing Beth’s famed opening pronouncement: “The Herdmans were the worst kids in the whole history of the world.” Where Bloede capitalized a bit on the fact that rather entertaining performances could come from kids who might be visibly reluctant to immerse themselves in the full barbarity of a Herdman, current Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke will have no such laxity.

As Imogene, the Herdman who takes the role of Virgin Mary by the throat, Carlyn Head is an absolute she-wolf in her howling vocals, and there is only the slightest glint of cuteness in Charli Head as Gladys, the little sister who pounces on the role of Herald Angel. With all of this vocal artillery hurled at her from young and old, Ashley Goodson can be sweet and caring as Grace, but when those moments arrive for reasserting control and conviction, she also unveils a voice of steel.

So when the Herdmans come around to the spirit of the Nativity, Grace is a little more amazing than she was in the play version, but I’m more thankful for the fulminating comic relief from Allison Snow Rhinehart, thwarted each time she issues a demand or insists that the Herdmans must be thrown out of the pageant. As phlegmatic as Rhinehart is, Tiffany Bear as Connie, Olivia Edge as Luanne, and Tracie Frank as Luanne are purest plastic, aging Supremes wannabes.

Arella Flur is more than satisfying as Beth, but she’s usually upstaged by Bennett Harris as the bullied younger brother or Ryann Losee, the tattletale Alice who lets Imogene snatch the role of Mary from her without a struggle. Bobby Tyson’s comic timing is so sharp in the minor role of Mr. Bradley that it’s reassuring to see him get a duet with wife Grace late in the show, and Dan Brusnson is the kindliest, most Christian Rev. Hopkins that I can recall. Among the male Herdmans, Colin Samole as Ralph and Rixey Terry as Leroy impressed me the most, but I don’t think either is written fully enough.

At least not yet. Estimates of the running time that I’ve seen in the Children’s Theatre press releases and in their program booklet have ranged from 60 minutes, approximately the length of their 1995 production, to 80 minutes in the current playbill. My clocking of the Sunday matinee at under 67 minutes suggests that the piece I saw underwent feverish modifications in its final weeks of rehearsal.

I point that out for a couple of reasons. It illustrates that Burke and Children’s Theatre, who commissioned this world premiere, have taken significant ownership in intensively shaping the product. It also suggests to me that the process isn’t finished, that the 80-minute target that seems more sensible to me might be what we see the next time The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical opens at ImaginOn. Or even by the time it closes on December 23.

Maybe then I’ll be able to say that this is the best Best Christmas Pageant Ever ever. It’s pretty damn close right now – and a very gratifying achievement at Charlotte’s fantasy palace.

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Ebony and Odyssey at the Civil War

Theatre Review: Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3)

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By  Perry Tannenbaum

Sometimes it’s the winner who adds prestige to the prize. Despite its princely $100,000 payout from Columbia University, you probably never heard of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. The importance of the prize is likely to grow now that Lin-Manuel Miranda has snagged the fourth annual award for his megahit musical, Hamilton.

Last Monday’s announcement came just a wee bit too late for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte to bask in the newborn Kennedy afterglow in their pre-publicity for Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3), which opened last Wednesday. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks won the 100 grand for Father last year, before the Kennedy Prize was important enough to be noticed by The New York Times.

As the first African American woman to take the Pulitzer Prize (for Topdog/Underdog), Parks isn’t exactly vaulting from obscurity with her latest win. Nor is she exactly rising from poverty with the cash, though the 2002 Pulitzer chipped in $10,000, also from Columbia. After Parks won the $300,000 Gish Prize last October, the LA Times reported that Parks had banked over $1,000,000 in arts awards during her career, including the genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

So what did Parks bring our way during the waning days of Black History Month? Notwithstanding the trilogy connotations of the title, amply fulfilled by the three-hour running time (including two 10-minute intermissions), Father Comes Home is actually the first installment in a longer nine-part project. Until subsequent installments are unveiled, Wars remains a misnomer, for the only war anyone goes off to — or returns from — is the Civil War.

Although our protagonist, Hero, appears in all three parts, it wasn’t until he returned in Part 3 that I began to feel we were watching something greater than the sum of three one-act plays. It also became clearer that Parks has her own take on deconstructing history.

On the one hand, she formalizes it much in the same way Aeschylus did when he added to the Homeric legends of the Trojan War in the Oresteia 2500 years ago, inaugurating the art of theatre on the Greek stage. Three slaves who work alongside Hero in the opening act of Father Comes Home, as he weighs the pros and cons of squiring his master in the Confederate Army, will disappear by the time he returns a year-and-a-half later. They’re replaced by three Runaways, hiding by day at the slave cabin until they can further their escape under the cover of darkness.

The Runaways talk to the only holdovers at the Confederate Colonel’s plantation, Hero’s wife Penny and Homer, but they also begin talking to us more and more, like members of a Greek chorus. It’s when Hero’s long-lost dog returns from the war that we begin to see the modernistic aspect of Parks’ treatment. When we learn that Hero has changed his name to Ulysses, we realize that Penny is his Penelope — and that the Greek hero is serving as a thin mythic template over Parks’s story, much as he did in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

But Parks also tosses a light sprinkling of absurdist anachronisms into the spectacle. A couple of these appear before intermission as one slave nurses a drink in a Starbuck’s cup and Hero takes off a set of headphones as he makes his decision. Relatively subtle touches that one theatergoer sitting with us in the front row could decry as a mistake.

These time-warp incongruities multiply when we return to Texas. One Runaway sports a doo-rag and twirls a yoyo, another wears a Blank Panther beret and reads Ebony, and the third wears a vinyl vest and totes a peacenik handbag. I’m guessing this is Parks reminding us that when we journey back to yesteryear, we bring today’s eyes to watch what happened.

No fewer than four slaves kick off the evening, speculating on whether Hero will go to war, evidently unaware of the title of the show. Two other slaves, Homer and the Oldest Man, are noncommittal in the general wagering, but both are generous with their input. We might equate Hero’s vacillation with the preening of undecided voters, loving the attention of the media who inflate their importance. But perhaps the thing to perceive here is the fact that any big choice given to a lifelong slave is a breath of freedom.

Homer’s reluctance to counsel Hero is linked to an ancient grudge. When Homer made his run for freedom years ago, it was Hero who ratted him out and delivered the master’s harsh punishment. Such episodes of Uncle-Tom loyalty are a big part of the reason that the Colonel is offering Hero the opportunity to accompany him onto the battlefield — and promising Hero his freedom if he survives.

But what are the chances that Hero will survive or that the Captain will keep his promise? Fear piles upon fear when Hero realizes that he will undoubtedly face the lash if he disappoints his master and refuses to go. Another layer is heaped on when the slaves realize that only a serious injury will serve as a sufficient excuse for Hero’s dereliction, for Hero must now suffer the same indignity he inflicted on Homer.

Father 5[11]It’s at this point in Part 1, when hero has made up his mind in Penny’s favor, where Sidney Horton’s otherwise flawless direction falters. The knife hovers so long and threateningly over Hero that the tension breaks before the episode is really over. My surprise over this lapse only increased during Part 2, in the heat of battle, when the Colonel parleys with a wounded Union soldier that he has captured and locked in a wooden cage. Action here made me wince, leaving no doubt of the Captain’s cruelty.

In a meticulously crafted performance, Jonavan Adams brilliantly fuses the three parts together as Hero. As robust and broad-shouldered as he is, Adams is supremely wishy-washy, so his Ulysses-like cunning and soulfulness can change to arrogance or cravenness in the blink of an eye. Looking up to him with love and yearning in her eyes — and maybe a sliver of seduction — April Jones is aptly coupled with Hero in Part 1. But the worm turns dramatically in Part 3, where it’s Penny’s turn to make a suspenseful choice, and the grit that Jones plants within her comes to the fore.

After making so much of so many mellow and insouciant roles before, it’s refreshing to see how deeply Jeremy DeCarlos sinks his teeth into the waspish resentfulness of Homer, who turns out to be the truest Penelope in the drama after limping around so long. If you’ve had your fill of American courtesy and courtliness between Civil War combatants on stage and screen, you’ll love the fierce in-your-face animosity between Craig Spradley as the Colonel and Stephen Seay as his captive, Smith.

Among the other slaves, Bobby Tyson distinguishes himself when he transforms into Hero’s long-lost dog Odyssey in Part 3, silencing Homer himself as he chronicles Ulysses’ battlefield adventures. The pooch’s life story had only 38 lines in the Homeric epic, but here Parks gives him two lengthy monologues, and Tyson makes a comical meal out of each one. The wooly jacket designed for him by costumer Carrie Cranford clinches his eclat.

Photos Courtesy of George Hendricks Photography