Tag Archives: Carrie Cranford

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.

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“Lizzie” Whacks the Bordens in a Creepy, Hard-Rock Witches’ Brew

Review:  Lizzie

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s amazing what murdering your mom and dad can do for your outlook, for your self-esteem, and especially for your fashion sense. Back in a radically revisionist 1892, Lizzie Borden took an axe and, in a vigorous aerobic workout totaling 81 whacks, achieved all of these wholesome objectives. Or so Lizzie, a rock musical playing at Queens University in a devoutly raucous Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production, insists on telling us, piling onto the lurid Lizzie urban legend and her bloody skip-rope rhyme. Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Tim Maner began work on this musical a couple of years before the centennial of the infamous axe murders, and between 1990 and 2013, the enterprise grew from four songs to a smallish full-sized rock melodrama, taking in Alan Stevens Hewitt along the way to add in new music, lyrics, and orchestrations.

Victims Andrew and Abby Borden do not appear in this rock retelling. Concepts of calibrated punishment, let alone penance, are righteously bludgeoned here. The stage belongs to Lizzie, her elder sister Emma, the Bordens’ housemaid Bridget Sullivan, and Lizzie’s neighbor friend, Alice Russell. Emma also emerges as homicidally inclined, her animus mostly directed at her stepmom because Abby may be scheming to rob the sibs of their inheritance. That threat layers onto Lizzie’s resentment against her dad: there’s no doubt anymore that he molested Lizzie repeatedly. Similarly, suspicions that Alice was deeply in love with Lizzie are confirmed. Perhaps the most startling character makeover here is Bridget, who takes on Miss Danvers-like malevolence, goading Lizzie to the breaking point and slyly pocketing payoffs along the way.

If all this sounds like the lyricist/composers are leaning towards feminism, anarchy, and decadence, then you should also know that director Joanna Gerdy hasn’t pushed back. The writers haven’t mandated that musicians, directors, and designers all be women. That’s Gerdy’s idea, apparanetly. With the possible exception of set construction personnel, she has kept this production cordoned off as an exclusively Women-at-Work zone. Yet it would be a mistake to suggest that the earmarks of testosterone have been banished. Emily Hunter’s choreography, unmistakably suggesting the Weird Sisters of Macbeth when the time comes to burn Lizzie’s bloodstained dress, at other times evokes the strut of heavy metal rockers. Carrie Cranford’s costume designs, prim and Victorian for the principals throughout Act 1, takes on a definite S&M edge after intermission. From the outset, the musicians’ costumes, hairdos, and makeup telegraphed where we were heading. Nor was there anything lacy or dainty about Kaylin Gess’s tabloid set design and how it synergized with Hallie Gray’s creepy, diabolical lighting.

Gerdy and musical director Jessica Borgnis have skillfully interwoven their respective primary goals, creeping us out and rocking our faces off. The thrust of the creepshow began before Actor’s Theatre executive director Chip Decker welcomed us to the company’s 30th season. Added on to the specified core group of players, Gerdy had Emma Lippiner darting around the mysteriously lit Hadley Theater as Young Lizzie, disappearing into the wings and then returning with a skip-rope. We also watched her ascend to the upper level of the Borden home where, flanked by Mom and Dad’s rooms, she ominously swung on a swing. Lippiner had not been instructed to portray a happy child, that was certain. Turn of the Screw or Stephen King were more likely what Gerdy was going for.

There’s certainly an affinity between Lizzie and the repressed teens of Spring Awakening in terms of the period and the style of the Actor’s Theatre production, which stakes its claim to freewheeling anachronisms with Young Lizzie’s plastic skiprope and continues with microphone stands and hand mikes for the ladies. What separates Lizzie from achieving similar greatness is the writers’ failure, despite all the juicy historical sources and suppositions available to them, to fully embrace the concept of a script – and their resolute insistence on developing only their title character.

Credit Gerdy and her cast with finding ways to close the gap. Even with her hair up and confined by a full-length dress, Katy Shepherd remained volatile and spellbinding throughout Act 1, a seething cauldron of sexual and homicidal impulses. The pathologically buttoned-down Kristin Jann-Fischer seemed even more likely to snap in the early going as Emma, but Shepherd suddenly leapfrogged her when Emma left Lizzie alone with her parents. Previous productions of Lizzie have established splatter zones in the theaters where they have played – and a patch of comic relief as melons or pumpkins were hacked. Gerdy doesn’t go for that kind of gore, but when we saw Shepherd’s face smeared and spattered red, a radical change had come over her. It was impossible to say whether that change had led to the violence or whether taking in the spectacle of what she had done had triggered that change. Shepherd seemed equally stunned and liberated by the crime.

By the time we returned from the break, Lizzie had let down her hair and totally changed her look, lounging lasciviously on the only stick of furniture that Gerdy allowed on the floor of the set. With the Weird Sisters episode, we realized that bacchanalian delight and wicked diablerie could reach maximum depth. The shaken demeanor that Shepherd switched on toward the end of Act 1 morphed into evil leers and insane eyerolls in Act 2. While some might find Shepherd’s vocal exploits on par with her acting, I’d say they come fairly close, which is high praise.

My reference to Miss Danvers will be clear enough to anybody who has read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or seen the Oscar-winning Hitchcock film. Yes, there was a Judith Anderson dimension to Shea’s performance as Bridget Sullivan as she prodded Lizzie toward catastrophe, and Shea seemed to haunt the Borden house far more than take care of it. She may have the best voice onstage, even if it doesn’t reach Shepherd’s stratospheric heights. Though she doesn’t evolve, she occasionally dominates. My suspicion about Alice Russell is that the writers didn’t consider changing her with the times. CiCi Kromah’s sweet, sweet performance might have seemed more satisfying back in 1990 – or certainly 1892 – when simply being an open lesbian could stamp you as a kind of small town outlaw. Today, Alice’s sincere love for Lizzie just struck me as a sentimental strain in the story, necessary as part of the sequence that triggered Lizzie’s homicidal rage but discarded afterwards during the crime investigation and Lizzie’s court trial.

Piloting from an electric keyboard, Borgnis drew searing vocals from the true lady outlaws onstage and the requisite smashing and slaying from her tight instrumental quintet, which unexpectedly includes a cello for those unexpected mellow moments. Best of the raucous vocal quartets was “Somebody Will Do Something” bringing us to intermission, but there were three or four of nearly equal power after we returned, including “Burn the Old Thing Up” and “Thirteen Days in Taunton.” Yes, it was noisy when everybody onstage was wailing and rocking, but Actor’s Theatre has always been savvy in measuring the difference between loud and deafening. Once again, they have it dialed in just right.

Time’s Up for Heavy Drama in “The Mermaid Hour,” but the Lyricism Lingers On

Review: The Mermaid Hour

By Perry Tannenbaum

Two years ago, when The Mermaid Hour first came to town as a reading stage production at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, the David Valdes Greenwood script seemed fresh, urgent, and dramatic. In the binary world of 2016, the 12-year-old child at the heart of this story, Vi, née Victor, was pressuring her parents to let her start taking hormone blockers, the first step in transitioning to womanhood. Coping with a transgender child felt like heavy stuff for Vi’s parents, Bird and Pilar, working-class Bostonians. Freaking out seemed a reasonable reaction when your child, dressed as a mermaid, launches a YouTube video that gets 20,000 views.

Today, it’s a world where binary and non-binary gender concepts coexist, and while there’s a good chance that you haven’t quite gotten the new terminologies down, you’ve probably gotten a helpful memo or two – and very likely gotten the drift. Sexual freedom doesn’t merely imply a wider latitude of accepted actions, it also signifies identifying as each of us sees fit.

So in a beautifully designed full production by Actor’s Theatre of Greenwood’s drama, it’s not surprising to discover that the 9th grader playing Vi, Toni Reali, is a non-binary actor who prefers they as their pronoun of choice. That will be a lot for many who are seeing The Mermaid Hour for the first time to wrap their heads around. But for those like me who have already accomplished that, I’m not sure that the expiration dates for the story’s peak freshness, urgency, and drama haven’t already passed.

It’s fortunate, then, that the Actor’s Theatre reprise directed by Laley Lippard layers on so much visual lyricism, a magical mix of set and sound design by Chip Decker, costumes by Carrie Cranford, and lighting by Hallie Gray. Adults and even Vi’s best friend Jacob look comparatively humdrum, and so do their surroundings. But when we ascend to Vi’s bedroom, the aqua colors glow and the mermaid couture glitters – worn by both Vi and her hermaphroditic online inspiration, Merperson/Crux.

 

Merperson seems to float in a rainbow ether as they declaim the “Mermaid Hour” podcasts that enflame Vi’s ambitions, taking up the space of what ordinarily would be the child’s window onto the outside world. Of course, Vi’s bedroom is also the studio where she records her YouTube manifesto, her mermaid outfit more basic and makeshift than the splendor that Alex Aguilar gets to model as Merperson.

Part of the impression the podcast star and their prodigy make is a shared aspiration to transcend everyday life. The exotic, the outrageous, the risqué, and the enchanting are in exquisite balance in these scenes, but the consternation caused by the 20,000 views garnered by Vi’s video now strikes us as an overreaction. When YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and crowdfunding sensations regularly make the Nightly News, Vi’s surprise that her video would elicit such a massive response seems just as yesterday as her parents’ shock.

Though Decker could probably pot down his microphone a couple of notches, Aguilar strikes an important balance of his own, clearly connecting with Vi over the web with his urgings and yearnings yet adult and archly artificial in ways she couldn’t understand. Reali heightens this dimension of the mermaids’ chemistry with a wonderful lack of artifice, so spontaneous and unaffected that Crux’s protectiveness toward them late in the show seems perfectly natural, even though the mermaid reemerges on a city street dressed in leather.

Two of my fave Charlotte performers disappointed me a little as Vi’s confounded folks. Adyana de la Torre-Brucker had to shoulder the burden of being the most stubborn obstacle to Vi’s urges, but her take on Pilar’s irritation at discovering that maybe she didn’t quite rock being a mother struck me as too energetic. A little more heart and a little less stressing would work wonders. Meanwhile, Jeremy DeCarlos, who has previously demonstrated the ability to be cast as anything, was flunking working class cluelessness as Bird – sorry, the man radiates too much savvy – until he fairly nailed a lengthy monologue toward the end, earning a respectable grade.

As Jacob’s mom, Mika, Amy Wada had a clearer, more interesting path to credibility. What alarms Mika is that her Asian relatives across the Pacific now know about Vi’s video – and that their grandson is adored by a pink-haired boy who identifies as a mermaid. Laughing off your elders isn’t so easily done in ancient civilizations, and Wada carries off her globalized dilemma well.

With a cast this diverse, I doubt anyone will mind that nobody has a New England accent, despite the fact that Bird’s monologue makes it clear they’ve resided in Beantown for quite a while. At the calm center of all this specious uproar is Alec Celis as Jacob, the gay object of Vi’s adulation. He firmly tells Vi that they can be friends, nothing more, but doesn’t give her grief over the video. The fact that he and Vi have exposed themselves to each other in his bedroom hardly earns a shrug when Mama Mika freaks. What ticks him off – mildly – is when Mika tells him that he and Vi can’t associate.

By default, Jacob may be the best role model we see onstage, because he rolls with the post-binary gender tide rather than pushing either way. Anyone expecting high excitement from The Mermaid Hour might do well to follow his example. Although Greenwood’s script doesn’t sizzle with drama, it provides powerful affirmation for trans and non-binary people in the audience who don’t often see themselves portrayed onstage. It also injects some remedial education into theatergoers who have slept on their trans neighbors’ existence or their worth until now. With some fabulous color and lighting.

 

Actor’s Theatre Stages a Superior “Hand to God” – In Hilarious Spurts

Review:  Hand to God

By Perry Tannenbaum

There are certainly instances when a touring version of a Broadway hit comes to Charlotte – or when a local company tackles a Broadway or off-Broadway show I’ve previously reviewed – that I’m tempted to tell people that they missed out by not catching this show up in New York. On the other hand, there are stellar productions like the Actor’s Theatre take on Robert Askins’ Hand to God, currently at the Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus, that make me wish to tell all who saw the Broadway version, “You wuz robbed!”

Elements of what director Chip Decker and his Actor’s Theatre cast deliver just make me wish to exclaim “Wow!” because they’re done so well, while others make me think “Of course!” because the Broadway production missed them. The wows begin with Decker’s set, proving once and for all that the Hadley is more than a make-do location until Actor’s settles into its new facility on Freedom Drive. Next year, we hope.

Seating capacity is in the off-Broadway category, but the height and width of the drab Texas church basement, where we meet Jason and his widowed mom, belies any cramped expectations. It’s high enough so that an unexpected entrance from street level can be fairly epic – and risky. When we adjourn to a nearby playground, a pair of swings can smoothly descend from the fly loft so that Jason’s tentative overtures to Jessica, his puppet class classmate, can go freakily awry.

The chief reason why things go wrong all through this dark 80-minute comedy is Jason’s puppet, whom he calls Tyrone. If what I read about Hand to God productions around the country is indicative, props designer Carrie Cranford has created four Tyrones. And maybe some spares. Each one is bigger, more ornate, and demonic than his predecessor. From what I remember – and what I can pull down on YouTube – Cranford’s latter creations are more fearsome than those that terrorized Broadway.

We see a relatively benign incarnation of Tyrone before the action begins, recounting the story of humanity leading up to the invention of the Devil as a convenient excuse for the evil that we do. But couldn’t this disclaimer be a diversionary tactic from the Devil? Bwa-ha-ha!

Askins, of course, wants to have it both ways. There are numerous reasons for us to conclude that Tyrone’s lewd spewings stem from his troubled past, most notably the death of his father, and his mom Margery’s outré way of coping with her grief. She’s still not a great mom, doesn’t have much control over her sexual cravings, and she’s forcing Jason into this whole church-and-puppetry scene.

Pressured by Pastor Greg to present a puppet show at an upcoming Sunday service, Margery is deaf to her son’s desperate pleas to give up puppeteering. So is Tyrone, who has developed a life – and a voice – of his own.

After similar bullied roles at Actor’s Theatre in Bad Jews and Stupid Fucking Bird, we can rely upon Chester Shepherd to be a frailer Jason than the more imposing Steven Boyer was on Broadway in 2015. But the softer Jason is paired in Shepherd with a more vehement, rabid, and guttural Tyrone than Boyer was at the Booth Theatre – a voice that leaves Cookie Monster in the dust, fully worthy of Cranford’s latter puppets. Shepherd’s manipulation of these puppets is as uncanny as the abrupt and violent shifts in his voice when Jason and Tyrone engage in their fiercest showdowns.

I read that one Jason/Tyrone in a regional production steamed his vocal cords after every performance. Not sure if that would be enough to repair the abuse I saw Shepherd inflict on his larynx. At certain points, I had to worry whether Shepherd had gotten carried away – OK, possessed – by his Tyrone. It’s an extraordinary performance, that’s for sure, but never a slick one: though Jason flaps Tyrone’s toothy yap, Askins doesn’t want the lad to attempt ventriloquism.

Nicely aligned with the diminutive Shepherd, Decker has deglamorized the older generation, offering us better assurance that Margery truly is at loose ends, that Pastor Greg might be desperate for her companionship, and that we’re truly in Cypress, Texas, and not Hollywood. Longtime leading man Mark Kudisch and Geneva Carr were less reassuring on Broadway than Brett Gentile and Marla Brown are at the Hadley.

Brown is more than sufficiently attractive to believably draw the attentions of Pastor Greg and Timothy, the resentful delinquent in her puppet class. But she comes at us frumpier, more frazzled and humdrum domesticated. That works so well for the nasty surprises she has in store for us and for the two teenage boys.

From the first time he performed at Actor’s Theatre in 2004 as a domineering cop in Lobby Hero, Gentile has shown the ability to be the tough guy, capable of truly bodacious bellowing if you set him loose. Yet he can turn around and be meek and pastoral, visibly wounded by Margery’s rejection. Unlike Kudisch, with his John Wayne bulk, when Gentile confronts Timothy or the rabid Tyrone, you can wonder what the outcome will be. These were probably the chief “Of course!” moments for me at the Hadley.

Grant Zavitkovsky isn’t as wiry or urban as his Broadway counterpart, so he doesn’t come across at first with quite the same nastiness and menace as Timothy, but his better looks and substantial size are better reasons for Jason to fear him and envy his success with women. There’s also a slight patina of complacency to Zavitkovsky that works very nicely before those instants when Margery and later Tyrone shock him.

Behind the multiple layers of her costume, Lizzie Medlin remains somewhat inscrutable as Jessica throughout Act 1. She recoils from Tyrone’s first breakouts with an utter spontaneity that compounds Jason’s embarrassment. Yet her later actions partially vindicate Tyrone’s contention that his lewd frankness was the best way to go. Nothing she does prepares us for her action heroics in Act 2.

All I’ve got say about that is to congratulate Medlin, Shepherd, Decker, and Cranford on the most hilarious puppet sex I’ve ever seen – and probably the best puppet therapy. Way better than Broadway, though perhaps the elderly ladies in the front row should have been warned that they were sitting in a splash zone.

Amid this unique brew of the bawdy, the violent, and the diabolical, Askins would have us contemplate the ontology of evil, the devil, and saviors. I could see where you might wish to skip that assignment.

 

Actor’s Theatre Makes “American Idiot” an Immersive Face-Melting Experience

Review: American Idiot

By Perry Tannenbaum

Young love and the ills of the world are so frequently the focus of rock musicals that we sometimes feel little need to decipher the words that jangle together with the actions and emotions we’re seeing onstage. This week is a particularly rockin’ and raucous week in Charlotte, with the 20-year revival tour of Rent and the new Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of American Idiot opening on consecutive nights.

The original premiere of the Jonathan Larson musical and the 2004 Green Day album were separated by a mere eight years. While the young adult angst lived on, the world had completely changed: the old preoccupations with AIDS and AZT were supplanted by post-9/11 disillusionment and a scattershot scorn for suburbia, corporate America, the war-mongering George W, and the powerlessness of teens to change any of it.

Actor’s Theatre certainly knows powerlessness. Scheduled to open their new location on Freedom Drive last October, they had to be content to offer tours of their production-ready facility. Governmental regulations, foot-dragging and red tape have pushed back the opening to a still undetermined date in 2018. For a second consecutive show, Actor’s Theatre is relying on the kindness of Queens University and their Hadley Theatre, a facility they share with Myers Park Traditional School. Once you get past the decorous entrance and the antiseptic hallway, the black box venue actually possesses much of the off-Broadway feel we’ve come to expect from this company.

At the core of this production are a stage director, music director, choreographer, and a couple of lead actors who have figured prominently in past Actor’s Theatre productions at their demolished former home on Stonewall Street. They may be taking their exile from a permanent home personally, now that it’s prolonged to nearly 18 months, with an understandable urge to scream. Producing artistic director Chip Decker didn’t appear to be worried about reining any of them in, especially music director Ryan Stamey and choreographer Tod A. Kubo.

Stamey stands behind a keyboard at the edge of the stage, looking up at a six-piece band perched above the middle of the stage, occasionally leaning into a microphone and joining the vocalists. There’s a cellist embedded in the sextet whom I never heard. Likewise, the tropical strains of steel guitar, so clearly soothing in the background of the Broadway cast album on “Give Me Novacaine,” has been almost completely sandpapered away by Stamey’s heavy-metal approach.

The storyline, not exactly robust on the Grammy Award-winning concept album, has been somewhat bolstered by lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and stage director Michael Mayer in their book. Instead of a single Jesus of Suburbia, the musical has three. We have the original Johnny, who escapes the burbs only to encounter his hipster, heroin-shooting alter ego, St. Jimmy, and the possible love of his life, Whatsername.

At a neighborhood 7-Eleven, Johnny meets two other chums who have been crucified by suburbia – and turned into American Idiots – Will and Tunny. Only one of those two will use the bus tickets Johnny has purchased for the trio’s glorious breakaway. Will’s girlfriend, Heather, shows up and places his hand on her belly, obviating the need of saying to him that she’s pregnant. Apparently, punk rockers aren’t very articulate, for Tunny doesn’t do much of anything in the big city, mostly lying face down on a bed until lured by a US Army commercial to go off and fight in an unspecified foreign war.

With two more self-pitying saviors and two additional girlfriends worked into the story – Tunny eventually finds The Extraordinary Girl – Armstrong added more Green Day music to his score, conveniently taken from 21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up album to American Idiot. Their decibel level tamped down to barely bearable, the band is so face-meltingly loud that you have to admire the singers’ will to prevail. Decker doles out the most expressive and outré action to Johnny and St. Jimmy, keying electrifying performances from Matt Carlson and Jeremy DeCarlos respectively.

From his defiant and rebellious posturing in suburbia, Carlson became pure decadence in the city, simulating casual sex, shooting dope, and reeling around in a stupor as he sang. To contrast with this charismatic dissipation, DeCarlos had to take extreme measures to strike us as Johnny’s inner Beelzebub. There has always been a physical resemblance between DeCarlos and Jimi Hendrix, and I had to suspect that St. Jimmy would be the role to set it loose. Costume designer Carrie Cranford audaciously joined in the conspiracy, supplying a flamboyant jacket that evokes the Hussar military jacket Hendrix sported back in the late ‘60s. There wasn’t a headband or a Mexican bandit’s sombrero in the outfit, but the outrageous hairdo more than compensated, so puffed and straightened that I didn’t notice the thin dangling braids at first.

Coupled with this look were spell-casting gesticulations that went beyond the Wicked Witch of the West and World Wide Wrestling in their shamelessness, and I’ve never heard DeCarlos sing with such ferocity before, though there are also seductive and manic moments for St. Jimmy. Where exactly in this charismatic performance the ministrations of Kubo’s choreography began was difficult for me to divine, but the choreographer should definitely get a large proportion of the credit for making this American Idiot such an immersive, visceral experience. Like Actor’s Theatre general manager Martin Kettling told us in his curtain speech, the ensemble frequently used the platform looming above the stage as a jungle gym, often joining the musicians at the top. Over and over, I saw daring dance moves that must have come after Kubo hopefully asked, “Can you try this?” in rehearsals.

Some of the most arresting action came from the women, differentiating the Charlotte American Idiot from the Broadway edition, where hard rock seemed to be the exclusive playpen of macho sexist louts. Nonye Obichere was particularly stunning as Whatsername, all Johnny could handle and more, singing and dancing with a dominatrix edge. As Heather, Lizzie Medlin was more bitchy and Gothic, upstaging Steven Buchanan, who was mostly confined to the vicinity of a sofa once Will grudgingly chose domesticity as his direction in life.

Grant Zavitkovsky was underpowered, undermiked, and largely unintelligible as Tunny in the early going, but those problems thankfully vanished by the time he enlisted. While the budgetary concessions Decker made in his set design worked well, the technical economies he adopted meant that Tunny’s wartime travails were far less catastrophic. No matter how well Grant Zavitkovskyperformed the role, The Extraordinary Girl couldn’t be nearly as extraordinary in her devotion.

There’s a self-critical bent in Armstrong’s leading men that is totally at odds with the striving, sentimental nobility and martyrdom of the Rent heroes and heroines. Lyrical and melodic takeaways from American Idiot aren’t as vivid or memorable as those you might find in the sassy “Out Tonight” or the anthemic “What You Own” that Larson crafted for his glorified squatters. I didn’t find myself nearly as much on the side of Armstrong’s troubled American Idiots, but I did feel they should be listened to. Even if I hadn’t known how passionately Carlson and DeCarlos felt about this music, I would have heard it in their voices and seen it in their actions.

Ebony and Odyssey at the Civil War

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

Father 4[1]

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