Tag Archives: Caroline Bower

Theatre Charlotte’s “The Producers Is More Politically Incorrect Than Ever

Review:  The Producers

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When I first saw Mel Brooks’ The Producers on Broadway in 2001, my disappointment in not seeing Nathan Lane in the role of Max Bialystock was assuaged by the realization that the show was still so damn good with last-minute replacement Brad Oscar filling the megastar’s shoes. Each of the successive versions I’ve seen in Charlotte – the national tour at Ovens Auditorium in 2004 and the CPCC Summer Theatre production at Halton Theater in 2009 – has only strengthened my conviction that Lane was not an essential ingredient in the show’s success.

But isn’t it too much to expect a smashing Producers at Theatre Charlotte, where they don’t have a Broadway-sized budget – or even a spacious orchestra pit like the Halton’s? Make a couple of allowances and then prepare to be astonished.

Scenic design by Chris Timmons is cheesy, even by community theatre standards, and there are no live musicians in sight – or out of sight – at the Queens Road barn. Once you get past those visible and audible austerities, you can revel in the costume designs by Rachel Engstrom, so crucial to the big “Springtime for Hitler” climax, and in the deep cast, so necessary in putting over Brooks’ comedy and his schlocky score.

Benefitting from the embarrassment of riches that showed up at auditions, director Caroline Bower hasn’t squandered her good fortune. In David Catenazzo as Max, she has found a leading man who is as seedy as Timmons’ scenery. Mostly a secret kept in recent years by JStage at the Levine Jewish Community Center, where he has starred in A Year With Frog and Toad and Fiddler on the Roof, Catenazzo proves to have a strong singing voice to go along with his comedic gifts. He absolutely oozes corruption, eager to enlist humdrum accountant Leo Bloom to cook his books, eager to bilk show investors in a surefire flop, and rabid to shtup Ulla, the voluptuous Swedish actress who turns up early for auditions.

A second solid gold debut comes from Landon Sutton as the diffident Leo, more than nerdy enough for a numbers crusher who discovers how to pocket a shady profit from a Broadway flop. There’s pallid innocence to Sutton’s manner as Leo, plus a little endearing pudginess, that works well when he’s too timid to plunge into the crooked scheme he has inspired. But there’s a surprisingly strong and smooth singing voice when Leo jumps aboard on the reprise of “We Can Do It,” and hormonal heat in “That Face,” his serenade to Ulla.

Brooks’ book and lyrics are so politically incorrect that they still seem to draw a pass from the audience – apparently willing to overlook the sexist attitude toward Ulla and the mockery directed at Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-keeping diehard Nazi who has penned the worst musical script that Max has ever read, Springtime for Hitler. Bower makes the right choices in casting the very un-Swedish Hailey Thomas as Ulla, draping her curves with a modicum of modesty, and limiting her flirtatiousness in comparison with Max’s leering. The Sveedish accent is ba-a-a-d, which is paradoxically good, and she’s positively smashing in her Nazi eagle outfit.

Neo-Nazis are less of a laughing matter than they were 18 years ago, so it’s also wise to have Chip Bradley tone down Franz’s achtung authoritarian qualities and pile on some extra daffiness. The result is the best performance I’ve seen from Bradley, particularly when he shows us all how Hitler should be sung at Springtime auditions. Bradley’s eccentric excellence is sustained when we encounter the Greenwich Village artistes who will direct Franz’s stinker, Roger De Bris and his loyal assistant Carmen Ghia, handpicked for their inabilities.

Here we are blessed with the gay flamboyance of Matt Kenyon as Carmen and the Ethel Merman regality of Paul Reeves Leopard as Roger. It takes a professional-grade queen to pull off Carmen’s arrogant servility and Roger’s ornate Chrysler Building party dress. Kenyon and Leopard have the goods. Leopard is certainly a different kind of Hitler than Bradley when Roger must sub for Franz on opening night.

On my fourth go-round with The Producers, I wasn’t laughing out loud until the Springtime for Hitler auditions, where I found myself enjoying the outrageousness as much as the newbies in the audience. I suspect their expectations were surpassed as much as mine were 18 years ago when Lane’s absence was announced as I stood in line outside the St. James Theatre. Enthusiasm for the Little Old Ladies and their tap-dancing walkers crackled like I remembered it even if the shtick has gone a little stale for me.

Iesha Nyree as Lick-me Bite-me and Layla Sutton as Hold-me Touch-me rounded out the named characters in the cast, which lists another 14 ensemble members who make choreographer Lauren “Loz” Gibbs look good. So what ever happened to the biddie named Kiss-me Feel-me? A victim of downsizing, we must presume.

High-Grade, Homegrown and Professional

Preview:  Three Days of Rain

By Perry Tannenbaum

Maybe you’ve noticed: since the beginning of September, there has been an abundance of high-quality, homegrown and professionally crafted theatre productions around town – from new or returning companies as well as the usual suspects. Brand New Sheriff ignited the upswell with Jitney, the best drama of the year, and the drive continued with scintillating efforts by donna scott productions, OnQ Performing Arts, and The Playworks Group.

And that was just during the first three weeks!

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Within the next two weeks, Actor’s Theatre unveiled a fiery American Idiot, PaperHouse Theatre trailblazed at the Goodyear Arts Center with The Revolutionists, and Children’s Theatre outdid themselves at ImaginOn with a high-flying Mary Poppins. Three Bone Theatre has sustained the seasonal glow with Fahrenheit 451 and the Actor’s Theatre encore, Hand to God, was merely better than the Broadway production.

You have several more chances to experience professional-grade excellence in local theaters before the winter solstice, including reprises by Chickspeare, OnQ, Children’s, and Actor’s of holiday faves. But if you’re itching to get a taste of the grassroots fervor that has gripped the Queen City throughout the fall theatre season – and escape the oncoming blizzard of Christmas repeats – your only choice is to check out Charlotte’s Off-Broadway.

Gestating at the Warehouse PAC up in Cornelius for the past five years in storefront productions, Charlotte’s Off-Broadway is staging an Uptown rebirth with the Metrolina premiere of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain. For founding producer Anne Lambert and her company, it’s their first presentation at Spirit Square since 2005 – and their first Actors’ Equity production ever.

Lambert isn’t coy about what she hopes will begin sprouting from all the recent professional grassroots action around Charlotte this season – a professional company with the same regional status and prestige that Charlotte Repertory Theatre had before it folded in 2005.

“Yes,” says Lambert, “I do see Three Days of Rain as a project that represents the beginning of a concerted effort to lift Charlotte’s Off-Broadway to a new level, to impact the city’s theatre scene and, yes, to move Charlotte closer to re-establishing ourselves as a logical home for a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) company.”

It begins by consistently producing high-quality shows that the community will continue to come out and see – and continue to hit their wallets and support. Butts and bucks. Part of the push on Lambert’s side is signing Equity contracts with her actors so that they are all treated and paid according to union standards. Two of the three Equity players, Caroline Bower and Brian Lafontaine, are longtime Charlotte favorites.

Lafontaine is also co-producing. He and Lambert last collaborated in 2003 when he acted in The Hotel Project, a pair of one-acts produced by Lambert and Matt Olin while they were, respectively, director of development and managing director at Charlotte Rep during its sunset years. More recently, Lambert and Lafontaine have been attending Creative Mornings, a monthly happening for Charlotte creatives organized by Olin and Tim Miner.

The old mojo began to work again during the supercharged meet-ups. Three Days of Rain was among the scripts that Lafontaine had brought with him from New York when he moved back to Charlotte. He was at a point in his career where he was thinking about producing a show that he wanted to do – at a professional level.

“Anne had told me if I ever wanted to get a show produced, she could get it done for me after we had worked together on The Hotel Project,” Lafontaine remembers. “I know how passionate she is, and how capable she is. She loves theater. She loves actors, and she loves contributing in any way that she can to the artistic community in Charlotte. She’s an incredible partner. There’s no way this would be happening without her.”

There was a notorious Broadway run of Three Days of Rain back in 2006 starring Julia Roberts, so Lambert had heard of the script when Lafontaine brought it to her. But she hadn’t read it. Months of discussions culminated in opting for the Greenberg play.

“It’s a well-written, Pulitzer Prize-nominated script,” Lambert stresses. “It’s sophisticated, it’s funny, it’s compelling, and it’s mysterious, full of Easter Eggs that reward the attentive audience member. It has six completely beguiling characters. I’m excited by the device of the dual roles, where the actors we see portraying Walker, Nan and Pip in Act 1 turn around in Act 2 and play their parents. These three talented actors in our show are so adept, so good at what they’re doing, they really are two different characters for me.”

Notwithstanding all that Roberts hoopla, Walker and Ned, the son and father Lafontaine will play, have always been the core characters at the heart of Three Days. Both are startlingly eccentric – and brilliant. After his dad’s funeral, Walker had vanished so completely that his sister Nan, the sensible branch of the Janeway family, had given him up for dead while he was holed up in Italy for a year. The siblings now meet at an unoccupied loft where, 35 years earlier, Walker’s dad had designed his masterwork, Janeway House.

But wait a second. When they finally read Daddy’s will, the sibs discover that, instead of going to them, the Janeway House has been inherited by their longtime friend Pip, the son of Theo Wexler, who was Ned’s partner at their architectural firm. It’s a mystery. To get to the bottom of it, Walker obsessively pores through his dad’s terse diary, which he discovered soon after he returned to the loft.

Friction, mystery, and brilliant minds are all in the mix.

“The dialogue is fantastic,” Lafontaine enthuses. “It has an almost Aaron Sorkin feel to it. Sure, I think it’s funny in a lot of places. Thank God. Otherwise, I think we’d be driving audience members to therapy after. And the mystery adds another interesting element to the play. But for me, it really is more of [a dramatic] study about the relationship between children and parents.”

Bower, who plays Nan and her mom Lina, burst onto the Charlotte scene in 2007 with starring roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Wizard of Oz. By the time she dropped out in 2014, Bower had drawn acting paychecks from every company in town that cuts them – Actor’s, Children’s, and CPCC Summer Theatre. She became the most persuasive poster child we had for the notion that stage acting could be a viable profession in Charlotte.

Then she took a position as teacher and director at Providence Day School to expand the theatre program there and carry herself from car payment to car payment. She came out of “hiding” this past summer, choreographing Cry Baby at Theatre Charlotte, and now she is acting under her second Actor’s Equity Association contract within the space of two months.

“I am so lucky to have been a part of The Revolutionists and Three Days of Rain. Being a part of two projects that care enough about their actors to jump through the AEA hoops is humbling. Not only do the production teams care about their actors, but both of these scripts are the best of the best.”

Paige Johnston Thomas, who directs, brings an additional chunk of Charlotte Rep DNA to the Lambert-Lafontaine production team. Her first acting gig in the Queen City was in another three-person cast, playing C in Rep’s 1995 production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Thomas’s most recent paying gigs in theatre have been directing at Theatre Charlotte and Davidson Community Players.

But her most important role on the local scene is as an “anti-relocation advocate,” having founded C&J Casting with Mitzi Corrigan to help local theatre pros get steady work in commercials and film.

Thomas saw Bower’s outing at Goodyear Arts, where she portrayed a vain, charismatic, and bubble-headed Marie Antoinette.

“I texted her this after the show: ‘I couldn’t keep my eyes off you,’” Thomas relates. “Which in real life sounds kinda creepy, but in the acting world, it’s a huge compliment. She has an innocence that is constantly being belied by her quick intellect and emotional depth. It makes for great conflict, which makes great drama.”

Head for Duke Energy Theatre if you want to see it. Then consider hitting your hip if you like what you’ve seen.

Charlotte’s Off-Broadway Poignantly Pieces “Three Days of Rain” Together

Review:  Three Days of Rain

By Perry Tannenbaum

At a pivotal moment in the opening act of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain, Walker Janeway pounces on a sentence in his dead father’s journal that only becomes visible in a certain slant of light – a stain that turns out to be words. Written by celebrated architect Ned Janeway shortly after the untimely death of his business partner, Theo Wexler, the phrase leads Walker to believe he has found the answer to why his father’s will divided his estate so shockingly.

There’s a bit of a cosmic joke that Walker is playing on himself here, but we don’t get to see it until deep into Act 2, which takes us back 35 years to 1960. In the same loft where Walker pored over Dad’s journal, we encounter Ned, Theo, and Lina, the woman who is torn between them. These are the parents of the people we’ve met at the start – Walker, his best friend Pip, and his sister Nan. And they’re the same actors, so you’ll catch the resemblance.

What Walker gets wrong is the true object of that wee stain of a sentence. He presumes it refers to all the world-famous buildings and homes conceived by the Wexler-Janeway architectural firm with their genius designs. Turns out that Lina, Nan, and Walker himself were more likely at the heart of what Ned was getting at.

“Everything,” you see, can mean a lot of different things.

Probably because all eyes were on Julia Roberts when Three Days of Rain made its Broadway debut in 2006 (nine years after its original run at Manhattan Theatre Club), more than a couple of critics were as off-target as Walker in their suppositions when they sleuthed out the point of it all. Restoring the original balance of the script, which centers its concern on the relationship between Walker and Ned, the current Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production at Spirit Square enables us to see more clearly.

Sure, it might be tempting conclude that Three Days of Rain demonstrates how narrowly children know their parents, flipping the plot of King Lear. Yet this production at Duke Energy Theater, so meticulously directed by Paige Johnston Thomas, reveals all of the pains Greenberg went to in making sure that Walker and Nan are exceptionally ignorant of their parents’ relationship and inner lives. So is Pip, vis-à-vis his dad.

We hear early on from Walker that his dad was nearly mute throughout his childhood, though we don’t learn why until we meet Ned after intermission. As for Lina, she has been strung out on drugs and/or insane since Walker was eight years old. Perhaps Walker could have gained some additional insights if he had attended Dad’s big A-list funeral and listened to the eulogies, but he skipped that, preferring to brood artistically in Italy for a year. Add to those deprivations the usual distance between fabulously wealthy parents and their kids – both of whom are free to globetrot when the impulse hits – and you can see why the journal that Walker discovers at the fateful loft is like a precious canteen filled with water that surfaces in the vast Sahara.

Ryan Maloney’s set design has a loosely precise look, like a blueprint drawn free-hand. Even in its abstractness, the design doesn’t destroy the workshop vibe of the loft. From the moment he appears on these hand-drawn quadrangles, Brian Lafontaine delivers a beautifully calibrated performance as Walker. You might look back, when it becomes obvious that he’s a snooty, shiftless, and irresponsible underachiever – with sprinklings of self-pity and hypochondria– and think that Lafontaine was a little too genial and yielding at the start.

Yet he’s not only speaking to us for the first time, he’s also meeting up with Nan for the first time since he disappeared without telling anyone where he was going. During his yearlong absence, Nan had come to terms with the probability, after hired detectives came up empty, that her brother was dead. So a bit a caution and contrition must be stirred into Walker’s Bohemian mix. Especially since he has forgotten that he was supposed to rendezvous with Nan at the airport. Ooops.

The meanness and arrogance of the man, peppered with resentment and delivered with some nasty sarcasm, come out after the disposition of the estate, when Walker comes back to the loft. Now the brunt of his attention is directed at Pip, who has drawn the one property that Walker cherished most. Pip actually offers a more plausible reason why this has happened: he had actually established a normal speaking relationship with Ned. But watch the seething, stony way that Lafontaine absorbs this and other revelations from his friend. He’s not much of a listener.

As for Lafontaine’s work on Ned, it may stand as the best he has given us in over 25 years on Charlotte stages, surprisingly effortless and touching at the end. Who saw this all winding up like a bittersweet romantic comedy after the fire that brought us to intermission? Restoring Lina to lifesize, Caroline Bower is a huge reason why the Act 2 denouement is so poignant and satisfying. In the opening act as Nan, Bower is far more subtly nuanced, demonstrating how the role can bloom with a real stage actress.

Nan is the offended normal sib who has the right to be absolutely disgusted with her brother’s inconsiderate flights, but if you closely watch her reaction to his blather, you’ll see that she momentarily drops her front of stern reproach, charmed and loving in spite of herself. There’s a parallel ambivalence in her attitude toward Pip, hints thrown our way when he appears in the second scene, fireworks ready to explode when the reason is disclosed in the Act 1 climax.

If Lafontaine and Bower embody one of the chief satisfactions of a vibrant local theatre scene, watching familiar professional performers radically transforming themselves into new roles, Chris Speed personifies the excitement a newcomer brings. After his richly textured accounts of both Pip and Theo, I can hardly wait to see what he does next. Pip realizes that, making his living as a soap opera stud, he is little more than a thin shadow of what his great father was. But he’s cool with that, though he seethes at Walker’s perpetual hypochondria and condescension, helping to bring the 1995 action so nicely to a boil.

Less open to the charge of superficiality – because he has loftier ambitions – Theo is like his son in his charismatic ability to navigate his career path. Yet he’s as undervalued when we see him in 1960 by Ned and Lina as Pip will be by their children 35 years later. We need to piece it together, connecting Theo’s final exit with the story Pip has told about him in Act 1, to realize that he’s really the best person we see, more than worthy of the barely legible tribute that Ned has written to him in his journal.

While Ned was reticent as a father after his disloyalty to his best friend, Theo was devoutly secretive with his wife and son, keeping hurts hidden that only Ned and Lina could have suspected. Speed does an excellent job of making the virtues of both Wexlers mesh together as a family trait. I found that Theo’s last walk into the wings, huddled in a trench coat on the last of Greenberg’s three days of rain, lingered long in my memory.

One other little signpost to catch in Act 2 – one that Greenberg himself pointed to in a 1998 interview with American Theatre magazine – when measuring Ned’s actual attitude toward his son against Walker’s perception. Ned expatiates at length on his desire to abandon architecture and become a flaneur, a loafer who strolls idly around town. “I find it moving,” said Greenberg, “that the father would name him after what he loved.”

And I find it ironic that, in the upshot of Walker’s life until we get our last glimpse of him, a father’s blessing has become a curse.

No, the point isn’t just that we narrowly know our parents. That’s taking Greenberg’s drama rather obtusely, for Pip lost his father at the age of three! Time after time, these young people who are so familiar with each other prove to utterly misjudge one another. They know each other narrowly and, on top of that, know themselves narrowly in different ways. So eventually, Three Days of Rain and old King Lear actually intersect.

Gunderson’s “Revolutionists” Reminds Us That 1793 Wasn’t a Very Good Year

Review : The Revolutionists

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s easier to enjoy Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, a finely polished comedy gem from PaperHouse Theatre, than it is to find it. My GPS app resisted the 1776 Statesville Avenue address that was on my smartphone calendar, forcing me to choose between a Camp North End and a Goodyear Arts destination nearly 100 address numbers apart. Choosing the 1824 Statesville address got me to the Camp North End gate well enough after dark, and there was a PaperHouse emissary at the gate to tell us how to proceed. But as we navigated through a desolate concrete-and-asphalt landscape of vast warehouses, it was definitely an uh-oh episode for Milady GPS, who spun around from “Recalculating” to “Turn Right” in her instructions like a dog chasing its tail.

Following traffic wasn’t a reliable remedy, and I apologize to anyone who followed our lead on opening night and wound up parking a wilderness away from the PaperHouse performing space. Within sight of what looked like the building entrance – and another PaperHouse emissary – I still probably walked nearly a quarter of a mile after thinking I had sufficiently improved my parking spot. You walk through that building to another one.

Fortunately, PaperHouse is much better at producing plays than at getting you to them. (They will deploy more guides for future performances, I was assured.) Once you do arrive a the site of the action, with scenery by Jordan Ellis that strikes us as much with its simulated blood-spattered walls upstage as it does with the ascending scaffold in front of them, you can start to believe you’ve really reached the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror. You’re a bit of a pioneering revolutionary yourself if you’ve persevered and reached this secluded spot.

In the meta-world of her own – and history’s – making, The Revolutionists is Gunderson’s play, and it isn’t. We seem to be watching French feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges battling an onset of writer’s block as she ponders her next response to the rampaging Reign of Terror in the seclusion of her study. She is much in demand, for while Olympe is thrashing around, trying to settle on her message and her medium – shall it be another play? or perhaps a pamphlet? or a manifesto? – in walks Charlotte Corday, pressing the writer to compose a memorable line she can declaim when she assassinates the rabid revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub.

Olympe isn’t in advertising, so one-liners and slogans aren’t her forte. She hopes to come up with the right zinger during the course of composing a longer work, a plan that doesn’t jibe well with Charlotte’s mad impatience. Just when you think that the comedy will crest with the standoff between Charlotte’s insane homicidal urgency and Olympe’s many artistic hesitancies, in walks Marie Antoinette, dressed to the 17’s by costume designer Barbi Van Schaick. Her Highness wants a rewrite, a play by Olympe that will rebrand her tarnished reputation.

Everything seems to become absurd and almost surreal at this point – and likely stays that way with Marie’s queenly vanities and Olympe’s nervous vacillations. But if you go home and Google, you find that Olympe de Gouges really did embark on writing a play to rehab Marie Antoinette’s reputation, and that the playwright really did put herself in that work as an enlightened agent who reconciles the queen with the revolutionaries. If that weren’t enough, it’s also true that de Gouges wrote the courageously feminist Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, thereby punching her ticket to the guillotine.

In the play, Olympe writes her manifesto in response to some principled prodding from Marianne Angelle, a Haitian revolutionary seeking independence from France, the one fictitious character in Gunderson’s script. In the real world, de Gouges seems to have had no problem standing up for herself – and against the Revolution’s bloodthirsty zealots.

So you might take the layered-on comedy a couple of ways. Gunderson may be telling us that she prefers her feminist heroes to be more fallible and true-to-life rather than impossibly glorified. Or she might be substituting herself for Olympe and showing us how far short of the French revolutionary’s greatness she falls.

Gunderson nudges us to that second, self-effacing hypothesis with little anachronisms that she occasionally drops into the dialogue, like Marie’s rebranding and rewrite ideas. PaperHouse artistic director Nicia Carla takes the anachronisms beyond what Gunderson specifies in her stage directions, and she doesn’t waste any time about it. Lydia Williamson makes her first entrance as Marianne carrying a garish, polka-dotted plastic suitcase, and when Shawna Pledger as Olympe begins writing at her escritoire, she quickly switches from a quill to a BIC ballpoint.

So Pledger is only superficially presiding over a play that Olympe has written for her queen with a plum role for herself. She is actually channeling Gunderson writing a dark comedy about herself, and if you saw Pledger last season as the fretful Sister Shelley who runs the soup kitchen in Grand Concourse, you already know that she excels at stressed-out indecisive women who are so eager to please. Surrounded by this madhouse, Williamson as Marianne doesn’t get as many comedy opportunities as the true historical figures, but she does loosen up from time to time, on temporary leave from her hectoring. Cumulatively, she leaves us with the impression that the French, whatever their politics, have no special call for commanding an empire.

Au contraire.

Sarah Woldum has now haunted PaperHouse productions for two consecutive Octobers, last year as Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire Carmilla and this year as the notorious Corday. This time, she can milk a laugh or two from the assassin’s irrational zeal and her PR impulses, but she’s unmistakably insane. I’m not sure she ever blinked.

As for Caroline Bower, she does enter as an overdressed Barbi doll with some truly vain, insensitive, and bubbleheaded lines to delight us with. But Marie Antoinette’s grand gown, the ribbons she loves so frivolously, and the ridiculous piled-high wig and feathers all do come off as the Reign of Terror sweeps its scythe through our women, and its Bower’s humbling – still cohering with the incredibly spoiled brat we first saw – that brings home how monstrous the French Revolution turned out to be.

In the end, we might realize that our man’s world of today is hardly less bloody than it was in the fatal year of 1793 – and that Gunderson isn’t entirely playful or self-critical when hinting that she trembles in the face of such brutality.