Tag Archives: Booth Playhouse

Still Tripping After All These Years

Review: Calouche & Co.’s Clara’s Trip

By Perry Tannenbaum


Although Caroline Calouche’s Clara’s Trip has become a Yuletide fixture at Booth Playhouse since 2012, often playing while Charlotte Ballet’s more traditional Nutcracker runs down below at Belk Theater, the cirque and aerial variant on Tchaikovsky’s actually began a year earlier at Halton Theater. Conceived as an anti-Nutcracker or an antidote for Nut haters, the Calouche & Co. has always figured to be a better fit at the contemporary Booth than at the neo-classical Halton.

Yet a curious thing has happened between Clara’s first trip at the Booth and now her eighth. While Calouche’s brainchild has become more balanced, more polished, and less Bohemian, Booth Playhouse has become seedier and more déclassé. With all its former floor-level seating stripped away, replaced by drab moveable chairs on pitilessly exposed flooring, the Booth doesn’t boast enough style to be called Bohemian. These days, it’s the colorful Calouche costumes, scenery, and aerial apparatuses onstage that push back against a powerful suspicion that you’re in a musty old union hall.

Did I miss all the wrongheaded demolition when I last entered the Booth to hear Matthew Bourne give a pre-Cinderella interview last January – or has all this foolhardiness transpired since then? Do not know what they are thinking, and I could not google any info about current plans for the Booth.


Turn up some stage lights on the Booth’s crimson curtain and you do get a certain cirque vibe as Calouche makes her introductory remarks and plucks a couple of volunteer performers from the audience. That audience participation may be a new wrinkle, and I noticed upgrades in Jennifer O’Kelly’s sets and projections, photos by Peter Zay, and costumes by Betsey Blackmore, Kriss Yavalek, and Calouche.

Calouche’s storyline remains pretty much as I remembered, with an accident-prone mid-20s Clara breaking her ankle at a holiday party. Rushed to an emergency room in the middle of Christmas Eve, Clara nods off into a snowy dreamworld very much like Charlotte Ballet’s pre-teen Clara does downstairs at the Belk. Only at the more adult Booth, we can ascribe Clara’s fantasy to inducements such as drugs, booze and anesthesia.


With all the assurance she could possibly need, Carol Quirós Otárola is in her first year as Clara, probably no longer in her mid-20s and definitely not accustomed to seeming awkward or accident-prone on stage. Early on, Otárola is gracefully paired with Joseph Nguyen as Beau, Clara’s white-clad cavalier. The party scene, now more upscale than I remember it, is livened by an acrobatic Mr.-and-Mrs.-Canes duet featuring Kaila Dockal and the ever-reliable Javier Gonzalez, now in his fifth season with the company.

Once Clara is booted in her post-op cast, we get a nice outbreak of imagery. Party guests become a somewhat bizarre nightmare throng, with a couple of the mob on stilts until we’re whisked into the eye-popping snow episodes. Otárola can now be all grace paired Nguyen before the curtain comes down on all the leading dancers enjoying a snow shower.


Act 2 is more recognizably cirque with rings, silks, and trapeze. At the same time, it is more recognizably Nutcracker with Candy Canes, Gingerbreads, Flowers, and – slithering to Tchaikovsky’s Arabian dance – Fish. Accenting the talents of Susannah Burke and Sarah Small on the rings as those slithery Fish, the mesmerizing Calouche choreography is obviously “in collaboration with the Dancers” as the program booklet states. The rapport between Conner Hall and Alan Malpass on trapeze as Mr. and Mrs. Flowers has an unmistakable circus glitter, yet we might also detect Calouche’s influence in how superbly their moves align with the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Same story when Otárola and Nguyen ascend, descend, or circle around each other on the suspended silks, so snowy and ethereal.

It’s at moments like this, however, when I still wish Clara’s Trip were more anti-Nutcracker than it is. When we’re hearing canned music in a trashed venue, the high-grade heroics of Calouche’s cirque artists don’t fully dispel the feeling that we’re watching a down-market version of the Charlotte Ballet extravaganza going on below with its million-dollar designs and its live Charlotte Symphony musicians. That’s where the prime Gingerbread and Candy Cane still reside.

So I suggest it again: shake up the customary Tchaikovsky soundtrack, even if it’s just with the Duke Ellington big-band arrangements of the score or the much-lauded piano adaptation by Stewart Goodyear released four years ago. As for all the Nutcracker score that precedes the breakout of its greatest hits, I’d suggest tossing away most of the party music altogether. Either break away from the ballet score with music you might actually hear at a contemporary Christmas party or slyly transfer some of the hits that have been axed from Act 2.

monkeys straddle

Calouche & Co. succeed with their audience involvement and in those ensemble moments where the party and Clara’s nightmare become truly wild. The aerial and cirque flights that take Nutcracker to new frontiers will also remain welcome. Certainly the wonders of Cirque du Soleil should play a leading role in Clara’s Trip, and when Zoe Flowers, Angela Kollmer,and Charley Weaver make their splash as Monkeys on their triple-wide trapeze, we’re reminded that there’s a place for Disney preciousness on this snowy frontier.

As for the shambles that is now Booth Playhouse, stoned Baby Boomers might call that a trip. What a “trip” became back in the ‘60s could still add a worthwhile dimension to Clara’s adventures, loosening up Calouche’s characters here and there while making them more at home.

Happily, Calouche doesn’t simply vanish into the wings after her introductory emceeing. After primping for the party, she’ll pop up again at various points in the show, most prominently at the end of Act 1 in the snow sequence and in Act 2 in the role of Ballerina Ornament. She still blends in quite well with the newer talent, still can light up a stage, and she still inspires students and the statewide dance community. Quite a powerhouse, all in all.

“The Realish Housewives of Charlotte” Serves Up Skits, Improv, and Spoofery

By Perry Tannenbaum

Bravo, Charlotte! After missing the boat on Bravo’s cable TV franchise of Real Housewives reality TV shows – now spinning out Real Housewives of Orange County, Atlanta, New York City, Jersey, Beverly Hill and others – the Queen City has hopped aboard a theatrical Real-ish franchise on a whirlwind tour. Detroit, San Diego, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Des Moines have already sampled the satiric backlash. When the six-member cast of The Realish Housewives of Charlotte barreled into Booth Playhouse, it was sufficiently armed with the lowdown on the metro area to dish out plenty of gasps and belly laughs.

The whole scene surprised me. With hardly a scrap of publicity, nearly every seat in the orchestra and balcony was sold out, filled mostly with avid women who had this set-up figured out before I could begin to get the hang of it. When Jackson Evans comes out as our host, Randy Bowen, it looks like Realish is a talkshow. The couches flanking him and the logotype behind him practically scream it out.

But the studio where we’re ostensibly filming the upcoming season actually serves as a substitute for those scenes on the Real series where we see the regulars profiled – or commenting cattily on action we’ve just seen. So the opening scene introduces us to the ladies – only one of whom seems to be a housewife. Ravonka claims to be married to “the baron,” but there hasn’t been a sighting of this queen bee’s globetrotting husband in years. So when Lori McClain ladles on her Russian accent, she’s apparently not evoking a Trump wife.

A rich wife, yes, for Ravonka dangles the possibility of an exotic getaway to all the others, including the tall and slim newcomer, Brooke. She’s apparently a business barracuda, quick to resent Ravonka’s superior attitude and become her adversary – even to the extent of rejecting the idea of the free vacation at Ravonka’s expense. More than one of the scenes to come will stop dead in its tracks so that Lindsey Pearlman as Brooke and McClain can have a lethal stare-down. The pushy entrepreneur makes a living out of alterations to women’s jeans that make her the butt of Ravonka’s slights.

Opposites in their way, Gwen and Desiree aren’t part of the drama. Desiree is a neck model and a fro-yo addict, and Emjoy Gavino gives her all the squeaky kookiness you’d expect from such a airhead. It’s neat that the other gals take Desiree’s addiction so seriously that they stage an intervention. Gwen, a City Councilwoman who served time for her misdeeds as a Mayor Cannon advisor, takes herself more seriously than all the others combined. All of the women seem to host at least one of the scenes, with nothing more than a lighting change to take us there in flashback.

Desiree’s event is a neck photo shoot, of course – and Gwen’s, inevitably, is a fundraiser for a worthy cause, and Katie Caussin gives her such a starchy rectitude that, for a while, you might actually believe it’s real. Played by Katy Carolina Collins with a Myers Park girl-next-door wholesomeness, C.L. is the only housewife in the bunch. She found her husband out in the audience on opening night, an unsuspecting Andy who played along enthusiastically as soon as C.L. drew in range.

While the script by Kate James and Tim Sniffen is more often about filling in the blanks with deftly researched local dirt – notorious local scandal here, nearby backwater worthy of ridicule there – space is left open for improv when the audience is engaged. All of the cast members are Chicagoans, and a couple of them have toured with The Second City, a wellspring of American sketch and improv comedy for over 50 years. When Randy revealed that Ravonka’s secret daughter, Prosecco, was sitting out in the audience, McClain’s shtick was very much in her Second City vein, clever and quick, when Prosecco spat out what she had been caught stealing at school.

Elaborately phony air-kisses are dispensed by the dozen, triggering the overall kiss-and-tell formula of Realish Housewives , but it wouldn’t be the same – or last entire seasons, if you think about it – if there weren’t epic reconciliations after the epic feuds. Or punctuating those feuds, which come back in coming episodes and seasons like fleas. Here the climactic confrontation between Ravonka and Brooke ends in mutual understanding and the customary post-mortems. It’s all so deliciously catty, trivial, insincere, and emotional that the audience couldn’t get enough of it.

I even peeped in on Bravo the following night. Yeah, this trash can be habit-forming.