Tag Archives: Caroline Renfro

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

Review: Comedy of Tenors

By: Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CP Gets Its Act Together for Summer 2017

Preview: CPCC Summer Theatre 2017

Fiddler on the Roof Promos

By Perry Tannenbaum

Entering its 44th season, Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre would be hard-pressed to surpass the lineup of shows they presented last year – Annie, Chicago, Sleuth, and Sister Act. But there are good reasons for the folks on Elizabeth Avenue to be super-confident that 2017 will be even more successful at the box office.

Yes, the family-friendly mix of popular Broadway musicals, adult comedy, and an AM kiddie show will provide the perfect refuge from a slapstick presidency that hasn’t managed to derail our strong economy (yet). And yes, after 10 years of random screeches, thumps, and bumps in the night, technicians were able to exorcise the demons that had previously haunted the Halton Theater sound system. Throughout the 2016 season, CP had its act completely together and gremlin-free.

Three beloved Broadway hits are coming to the Halton to keep the good thing going, beginning with Fiddler on the Roof (June 2-10) and followed by A Chorus Line (June 16-24) before CPCC Summer Theatre makes its exit with the pop ABBA jukeboxer, Mamma Mia! (July 14-22). In between the last two Broadway extravaganzas, the summer’s kiddie musical, James and the Giant Peach (June 28-July 8) takes over the Halton by day while the nighttime action scoots across Elizabeth Avenue to Pease Auditorium with A Comedy of Tenors (June 30-July 9).

Oh yeah, one more reliable predictor of success: “We have had record season ticket sales so far,” says Tom Hollis, the CP Theatre Department chair who runs the show and will direct Fiddler and Mamma Mia!

The process of selecting CP’s summer lineup, says Hollis, is ongoing throughout the year with suggestions from audience, from members of the creative team, and consultation with other theater companies. CP wants the lowdown on what others are programming and how well tickets are selling. Radar is also aimed at what Broadway producers are making freshly available from their inventory.

“There used to be a rule of thumb that said you should wait four or five years before you do a show that had toured through,” Hollis recalls. “But that no longer seems to hold true. Our experience with Les Miz and Phantom showed that proximity to the tours actually increased sales.”

It might be assumed that tours of these perennials and Mamma Mia! – which has touched down in Charlotte no less than six times since 2002 – would spark interest in enthusiasts to see them again. Yet Hollis cites trade publication data indicating that audiences across the country who attend Broadway Lights series like those offered here by Blumenthal Performing Arts don’t ordinarily attend local theatre.

“Maybe they have spent all their money on those tickets and can’t afford to attend more,” Hollis speculates. “What we are seeing is that the combination of our more competitive pricing in comparison with the touring houses and the quality of our product makes it possible for people who love theatre but can’t afford the tour prices to see the show in our theater and bring the entire family when they do it.”

Fiddler on the Roof Promos

On the other hand, CP allows absence to make their subscribers’ hearts grow fonder of shows they’ve previously presented. Both Fiddler and Chorus Line have been done before on campus but never at the Halton, which became the home for CP’s big musicals in the fall of 2005. Budgetary considerations also go into the lineup formula, so comparatively barebones productions like Chorus Line and Chicago help to rein in the bottom line.

Additional economies are available through casting, when an actor can take on multiple roles, navigating a labyrinth of rehearsals and performances to appear in as many as four of the five shows that CP Summer mounts in an eight-week span. It takes eagerness, enthusiasm, and plenty of stamina to go through such a demanding grind, which is why the Summer acting company always skews so young.

In seasons when CP is planning shows like Annie or Oliver, they’ll hold separate auditions in February for kids on top of the cattle calls for local actors and aspiring high school interns. Then in early March, directors will trek to the Southeastern Theatre Conference for regional auditions, where collegians and recent grads come in search of summer work. CP signed up six budding pros at this year’s auditions in Lexington, KY. Look for some of this new blood in A Chorus Line, where young triple threats belong.

Perhaps the optics of overly youthful casts have grown stale for Hollis and his colleagues as the years roll by, or maybe budgetary purse strings are loosening, but we’re recognizing more veteran locals who are returning annually to the Halton and to Pease for CP’s summer rites.

Jerry Colbert, whose CP credits date back to 1974 and took the Laurence Olivier role in last summer’s Sleuth, returns as one of the over-the-hill candidates who might be the father of the bride-to-be in Mamma Mia! Alongside Colbert, Dan Brunson and Kathryn Stamas will be familiar to more recent subscribers. James K. Flynn, fatherly enough to play Tevye when CP last presented Fiddler, moves into A Comedy of Tenors along with two other familiars, Craig Estep and Caroline Renfro.

For the second successive summer, Susan Cherin Gundersheim is teamed with Beau Stroupe. Last year, she was Daddy Warbucks factotum Grace Farrell in Annie. Now in Fiddler, she gets to variously torment Tevye – or emote to his fake dream – as Golde, the mother of his five daughters.

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Stroupe has walked a rocky road to Anatevka and the iconic role of the Scripture-fracturing dairyman. Photos of Stroupe as Daddy Warbucks show him with scarcely less hair than he had when he was finishing chemotherapy in late 2013 – more than a year after a grapefruit-sized malignancy was found in his intestine. A rather hostile divorce compounded his woes, so his role as the predatory Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel during the next summer seemed to chime with his embattled temperament.

The road from chemo to Anatevka led through Cherry Tree Lane, where Stroupe was George Banks, the starchy and clueless father who was transformed – along with his unruly children – in Mary Poppins through the magical nanny. A role he neither knew nor cared about until he began rehearsing, Banks awakened in Stroupe a new affection for father roles.

Warbucks pointed him in the same direction. “Again, the journey of a seemingly rigid and even detached businessman to one of tender-hearted father figure,” says Stroupe.

“I certainly relate to the journey of a father with my own four children through the difficulty of divorce and the slow healing process. It’s easy to understand the juggling act of breadwinner, patriarch, husband, father and visible member of the community. When Tevye is saying goodbye to Hodel at the train station, it takes very little effort for me to feel what any true father feels when letting his child go to live a life of their own choosing.”

New directions will be running amok when CP opens A Comedy of Tenors, Ken Ludwig’s sequel to Lend Me a Tenor, a CP Summer hit way back in 1996. No matter what its pedigree is, Ludwig’s operatic farce – think three tenors misbehaving in Paris – is the newest show CP has ever done, from farm to fork after its New Jersey world premiere in less than two years. Unheard of, as Tevye would say.

And Renfro, CP’s go-to action heroine in Dial M for Murder and Wait Until Dark, tackles a comedy – with a Russian accent! As sexy diva Tatiana Racon, Renfro will have her sights set on a very married tenor, but her seduction will farcically misfire.

“There will definitely be some good old-fashioned vamping,” Renfro promises. “I am so psyched about doing the accent. And so freaked out about it. At this point in my career, the thing that appeals to me most about a role is doing something I’ve never done before, especially if it scares me.”

Shakespeare Pens a Sitcom

Theater Review: The Comedy of Errors

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Up on North Tryon Street at NoDa Brewing Company, Chickspeare is flipping the script again.

Founded upon the principle that Shakespeare’s works, originally performed by all-male companies in Merrie Olde England, can also be performed by all-female companies in Modern America, Chickspeare now propounds a new heresy. Although the Bard’s first great work, The Comedy of Errors, has its roots in Ancient Rome, why can’t we equate this trusty old farce with our own dopey TV sitcoms?

Executing this audacious concept, Chickspeare director Andrea King decrees a modicum of pruning and reshaping upon the script, along with hefty helpings of mugging, styling, and profiling from her hambone cast. If that weren’t enough to win us over — and it definitely was last Saturday night — then there’s the prepaid cupful of NoDa Brewing’s draft beer to further lubricate our receptivity. Four different brews were flowing from the kegs.

As the old story unfolds in modern dress, linkage to American sitcoms comes largely through familiar theme songs. When the luckless Egeon tells how his twin sons, both named Antipholus, were separated during infancy along with their parents, the fateful sea voyage is evoked by the familiar shipwreck of The Minnow immortalized in the ballad of Gilligan’s Island — plus an extremely cheesy scene change. Later when Antipholus of Syracuse marvels at the fact that everyone recognizes him in Ephesus, where he has never been before, his astonishment is punctuated by the theme song from Cheers, that Boston pub where everybody knows your name.

Action comes fast and quick in this Shakespeare in the Park(ing Lot) production, so I didn’t keep track of all the sitcom and game-show themes that zoomed by, or whether references to The Jeffersons, Mission Impossible, Laverne and Shirley, and The Beverly Hillbillies were linked quite as cunningly to the text. These “Chicksbeer” shows are all outdoors, with a nearby food truck supplementing the brewery offerings, but the evening performances beginning at 7 p.m. make some extra buffoonery possible as the Ephesian nitwits take multiple stabs at pointing to the setting sun.

Two sets of identical twins scurry about during this carnival of confusion, for the two Antipholuses are served by two Dromios who were also separated during infancy. Their befuddlement can only be sustained if they don’t meet, so it isn’t until deep in act five that all four of our protagonists must appear simultaneously before us. Historically, directors have relied upon actors’ height, costumes, and grooming to bridge the inevitable gap in physical appearances. Only recently have I seen or heard of directors who explore the comic possibilities of radically mismatching the identical twins.

King adopts yet another strategy. Perhaps inspired by her own recent experience in PaperHouse Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing, where she was briefly Dogberry and Leonato simultaneously, King has cast Caroline Renfro as both Antipholuses and Tania Kelly as both Dromios. Talk about flipping the script! In most productions of Comedy of Errors, we’re challenged to perceive the twins as identical in spite of their obvious physical differences. At the NoDa Brewing Company parking lot, we’re challenged to keep track of which identical twin is which.

A couple of visual aids are helpful. When Kelly is the Dromio who dwells in Ephesus, she dons a dopey floppy hat, and when Renfro appears as the Syracusan Antipholus, she flips out a Clark Kent set of eyeglass frames. As you’ll see in the zany staging of her nativity, this Antipholus was actually born with eyeglasses. Additionally, the philandering Antipholus of Ephesus seems to be tipsy for nearly the whole evening.

Chickspeare (Photo by Weldon Weaver)

That extra degree of differentiation for Renfro seems justified. With all the thankless errands, unjust castigations, and slapstick beatings that Kelly absorbs as the two Dromios, it eventually ceases to matter which whipping boy is drawing the belly laughs. Except when Dromio of Syracuse is pursued by the amply padded Carmen Bartlett as Nell, Antipholus of Ephesus’ kitchen maid — and his manservant’s massive wife.

Kelly works up a delightful lather as she gets most of the shtick, but Renfro generates her share of zaniness, perhaps most memorably when she picks up a mic-like prop and hosts an impromptu segment of … let’s call it The Dating Game. Antipholus of Syracuse is less hotly pursued by his twin’s wife, but the scantily clad Alexandria White definitively stamps herself as the hottie of the house as Adriana, spurned though she might be by the look-alike Antipholus while her real husband is cheating on her.

Theme music from Bewitched may have been cued up when the alluring Adriana invited her Syracuse brother-in-law to her home for dinner. Not only can’t Antipholus believe his good fortune, he is smitten by Adriana’s sister, Luciana. Some of the juice seems to be drained from this faux love triangle to trim this production to its desired running time, so we miss some of the sisters’ consternation when the Syracusan obeys his instincts and speaks his heart. Likewise, Dromio of Syracuse’s eventual relief seemed to overshadow his master’s delight in the denouement.

So Kacy Southerland didn’t get the fullest opportunity to explore the virtues of Luciana — or their ultimate reward. But she moonlights as Amelia, the local abbess, so she can lavish additional virtue on Egeon’s long-lost wife and gush forth the bliss of her reunion with her children and her husband.

Arrested in the opening scene for being a Syracusan on Ephesian soil, Amanda Liles isn’t seen much as Egeon after narrating the hilarious sea saga that sets up the plot. Not to fear, she resurfaces as the frustrated goldsmith, Angelo, who can’t get paid for the necklace he fashions for the philandering Antipholus — and as the courtesan he’s two-timing with. Of course, Egeon must be there for the sentimental reunions, so Liles has her schizoid moment, splitting into Angelo as all is settled.

Cara Wood is the Duke of Ephesus, who — mercifully? — grants Egeon 24 hours to raise the ransom money that will enable him to avoid execution for his trespass. We need more Duke at the end when the terrified Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio take refuge at the Abbey and the implacable Adriana wants her husband back. Wood tosses off the Duke — and an arresting officer in the necklace affair — with far more distinction than we usually see, never detracting from the merry mood.

Chickspeare has a knack for broadly entertaining while duly honoring the Bard, making the texts accessible to common folk four centuries after they played to the groundlings.

Symptomatic of the troupe’s sure touch here is how they treat the often intimidating soliloquies. Instead of making them occasions for declamatory orations, they’re prerecorded and presented as interior monologues, brought down to the level of cartoonish thought bubbles that pop with crass and delicious effervescence.

Yeah, the Chix banditas understand what contemporary audiences crave, and their Chicksbeer series deftly taps in.