Tag Archives: Central Piedmont Community College

“Les Noces” Challenges and Delights a Near-Capacity Crowd at Halton Theater

Review: Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces

By Perry Tannenbaum

Uniquely combining performing arts, visual arts, film, literary, culinary and even cosmetology events, all promoted with endearing academic diffidence by Central Piedmont Community College, Sensoria is an annual arts and literature festival that just might be achieving traction in Charlotte. Two campus parking garages were teeming with stalled traffic on the night my wife Sue and I attended a modernistic program of music and dance at Halton Theater, headlined by a staging of Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces. For multiple reasons, this was a student/faculty showcase like none I had ever attended before.

CPCC’s Dance Theatre had reached out to UNC Charlotte, bringing the UNCC Percussion Ensemble and the UNCC Dance Ensemble into their production and staging it on both campuses. Attendance for this edgy event at CP was phenomenal, filling the Halton’s balcony more fully than any CPCC Summer Theatre show I’ve attended in recent memory. Little slips of paper were being handed out as we exited, tipping off the probability that academic credit was being offered for attending. Student admission was free with ID.

Even before their contributions to Les Noces, members of the Percussion Ensemble were involved in three of the four preliminary pieces. UNCC lecturer Rick Dior composed, conducted, and introduced two of these, “Equinox for Percussion Ensemble and Theremin” and “Flesh and Bone.” Serving as co-emcee was Clay Daniel, who created new choreography for Les Noces. Visiting UNCC artist Janet Schroeder worked with the Dance Ensemble to create “7(each her own) = !” Composer Ivan Trevino was the only major creative force who was not affiliated with either of the two schools, but his “2300 Degrees” got the evening off to a promising start, performed by Raven Pfeiffer and Chris Merida facing each other on two shared marimbas separated by an island of crotales, little cymbal-like instruments that were pinged with sticks.

Merida launched the piece with some delicate work on the crotales before the spirited marimba duetting began in earnest. The title refers to the temperature at which glass becomes semi-liquid and malleable, and the tensions of the piece, premiered in 2016, are intended to evoke the dangers and the beauties of this hot medium. Both Pfeiffer and Merida wielded two mallets in each hand, and when the music intensified, they both played their five-octave marimbas and the crotales array at the same time. When the composition climaxed, both of the players were reaching across to the other’s marimba. Really a fun beginning.

With Pfeiffer moving to play the theremin and Merida sitting himself behind a drum kit, all of the UNCC Percussion Ensemble joined in the auspicious world premiere of “Equinox.” Most of Dior’s introductory remarks were devoted to explaining the theremin, an electronic instrument invented by Leon Theremin in 1928 and probably best recognized as the melodic voice of the familiar Star Trek theme. Dior described Pfeiffer as a quick-study prodigy on the gizmo, which is the antithesis of any percussion instrument she had played before. Touching the looped left antenna of the theremin actually silences it, and moving your hand away from that antenna raises the volume while the right hand, working with the upright right antenna, controls the pitch.

As this intriguing piece unfolded, Pfeiffer appeared to be playing what I’d call “air trombone.” Precise jerks of her right hand could produce recognizable runs and scales, but smoother movements yielded slide whistle glissandos. Of course, no breath was required for Pfeiffer to sustain tones while eight percussionists worked busily behind her, four on drums pitted against four on malleted instruments. Shifting and crossing motifs of the percussion were intended by Dior to mimic the hemispheric action of the equinox, but I’ll freely admit that it was hard for me to unfasten my attention from the spectacle of Pfeiffer’s fine performance.

It was far easier for me to wrap my eyes around the oddity of Schroeder’s “7(each her own) = !” The seven dancers, all costumed in similar aqua-colored tops and cheery white leggings with hexagonal graphics, brought out a variety of surfaces to which they would apply their tap shoes. There were individual entrances and exits before all seven of the women were there to stay, establishing the individuality of the dancers and their common link to a steady beat. No other instruments were onstage making music; and if you listened closely to the walking, tapping, and stomping; you would notice a variety of pitches that the portable circular, square, and triangular dance surfaces brought to the sound palette. For a good while, Schoeder and her dancers disdained actual tap dancing, and I began to wonder just how far the UNCC Dance Ensemble had gotten in their lessons. Relief, expression, and true individuality emerged when the tap dancing finally began – along with the beginnings of bonds and community among the dancers. Perhaps that was the message.

Choreographed by CP dance faculty member Tracie Foster Chan, “Flesh and Bone” was the first collaborative piece of the night, bringing the UNCC Percussion Ensemble back on stage to play for four members of CPCC Dance Theatre. As Dior explained prior to conducting his piece, Chan and her dancers had taken on a challenge, since most of the time signatures in the piece weren’t easily counted or danceable meters in three or four. When the two soloists did release into a stretch of 4/4, the difference was quite noticeable and refreshing. Utilizing one male dancer and three women clad in abstract black-and-white costumes, Chan’s choreography nicely captured the restless asymmetry of Dior’s score. As for dancers – Angela Cook, Kataryna Flowers, Amber Johnson, and Byron McDaniel – moving away from ballet and into the modern idiom seems to have brought more comfort and confidence to this troupe. The title of the piece was Dior’s reference to how the two drum soloists played, Merida with his hands and Daniel Ferreira with drumsticks.

With six more CP dancers, four vocal soloists, an eight-person mini-chorus, seven Percussion Ensemble musicians, and four pianos, Les Noces (The Wedding) took some time to set up, almost justifying an intermission. Once all the people and pieces were in place, with Dior wielding the baton, there was sensory bombardment and overload that I’ve rarely experienced before. Printed lyrics would have helped in understanding the action, but how could we have read them while watching the dance? The dancing helped us, after all, in delineating the four scenes of the continuous score: The Blessing of the Bride, The Blessing of the Bridegroom, The Bride’s Departure from Her Parents’ House, and The Wedding Feast. For some perverse reason, however, Daniel didn’t want his choreography to reveal who the bride and bridegroom were until the very end – so obviously the actions of blessing and departure were also blurred.

Amid all the sensory bombardment and conceptual confusion, I didn’t notice Alan Yamamoto, the conductor listed in the program, making the usual formal entrance we expect at symphonic and operatic performances. But I’ve gotten multiple assurances that he was indeed on the podium, and I had nothing but admiration for his spirited work. Daniel’s scenario began effectively in silence, with dancers ceremoniously bringing a long flowering vine in from an exit at the side of the hall. That effect contrasted with the sudden onslaught of the percussion and the female vocalist who sang The Bride’s role. Besides including the lyrics, the program would have been more useful if it had designated who sang the roles of the bride’s mother and father, the groom, the groom’s father, etc. For all of the confusion that hovered over this presentation, the primitive savagery of the singing and percussion were absolutely riveting. The title might have sounded like a sentimental Hallmark greeting card, but the experience was more like the most raucous moments of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, absolutely thrilling.

Classics Collide!!

Preview:  The Grapes of Wrath and The Crucible

By Perry Tannenbaum

We can’t explain this curious phenomenon, but the Queen City’s performing arts companies seem to have outgrown their customary October fixations with vampires and spooks. Instead, this coming Halloween weekend, if not entirely witch-free, will be more haunted by a swarm of classics.

After gorging on the full score of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone last weekend, Charlotte Symphony returns to Belk Theater on a strict diet of Mozart & Beethoven. As a spectacular Mary Poppins finishes its run on the east side of ImaginOn, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte slips Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day and Other Stories into the west.

Saturnalia Central will be located at Central Piedmont Community College, where CPCC Theatre presents The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s weaponizing of the Salem Witch Trials to take aim at the infamous anti-Communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Counting the Robert Ward adaptation produced by Opera Carolina, we’ve had at least five opportunities to view this classic in the Metrolina area since 1998.

Another Tony Award winner has had to wait longer than that for its first run here. Frank Galati adapted and directed John Steinbeck’s epic Depression Era novel, The Grapes of Wrath, winning the 1990 Tony less than three months after its Broadway opening. To all those theatre lovers wondering over the past 27+ years when this classic would finally reach us, Theatre Charlotte is answering: now’s the time.

Steinbeck’s biblical exodus begins in the Dust Bowl during the Depression Era, focusing on one family of dispossessed Oklahoma farmers, the Joads, as they journey to California in search of jobs – and their lost dignity. What the Okies find at the end of their journey isn’t a Promised Land at all. Joining a severely overpopulated workforce, they’re plunged into a sun-kissed cesspool of migrant worker exploitation.

The sheer size of the story, in geography and humanity, is a prime reason why it took so long before the 1939 Pulitzer Prize winner was adapted for the stage – and for the additional delay before a local theatre company brought it here. Galati’s Broadway edition had a cast of 31 playing 45 roles, and that’s not counting the seven musicians on hand to play Mike Smith’s original incidental music.

Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law, taking over the creative reins for this production, is taking a simplifying approach, reducing his cast to a mere 23. Running the first local company to pick up the gauntlet on producing this behemoth, he can empathize with those that haven’t.

“The cast is large, which means a bigger costume budget,” Law points out. “If you are paying actors, that makes for a big salary line. There are also some very violent scenes in the play that really require a certified fight choreographer. The play calls for a river, campfires, a grave and a truck. Our space is very limited – virtually no wing space, no traps, no fly system. I truly favor minimalism in theatre, focusing on narrative and characters. But sometimes minimalism is not really all that simple.”

With so many roles, Charlotte’s community also had to worry about who would sign up. Decreasing the cast creates more multiple roles to keep the volunteers busy, and Law was pleased to be able to fill nearly half of his cast list with local theatre vets, including Vic Sayegh, Annette Gill and Paula Baldwin.

Gill and Baldwin have similar pedigrees at the Queens Road barn, playing Linda Loman in the two most recent revivals of Death of a Salesman in 1998 and 2009. Baldwin, the more recent Linda, has also aced auditions at a variety of local companies for prominent – and powerful – roles in Three Tall Women, August: Osage County, The Actress, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Baldwin chafes against the notion that Ma Joad, her role in The Grapes, is a softie by comparison.

“She fulfills her role as the Mother who nurtures, cooks and cleans,” she admits, “but Pa comes to her for her opinion and follows it even when he, at first, doesn’t agree with her. She is truly the backbone of the family. When the men start to falter and give up, she continues to be positive and strong. Ma has several wonderful monologues, and one of my favorites is when Pa has all but given up and she tells him that life for a woman is ‘all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on.’”

Vilified by bankers and landowners for his workingman sympathies, scorned by literary critics who preferred the apolitical beauties of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, the sun began to set on Steinbeck’s reputation and continued to decline after he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. The socialist label, not a problem in Europe, hampered him here.

So let’s look around and see the political reasons why the time may be ripe for The Grapes. An avowed socialist nearly captured the presidential nomination of one of our major parties, and the shadows of fascism and demagoguery hang over our land as heavily as they did when Steinbeck published his masterwork.

Baldwin and Law both cite the sowing of divisions and the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots as reasons why the Joads’ odyssey still resonates today.

“The question then seems to be the same as today,” says Baldwin. “What price are we willing to pay to affect change? Is America truly a land of opportunity for all?”

In the 2007 production of The Crucible at Theatre Charlotte, director Matt Cosper dipped into the screenplay that Miller had written for the 1996 film, freshening the version that had previously run on Queens Road in 1988. Tom Hollis, chairman of the CPCC Drama Department, has settled on an even more daring way to give the old classic a new look.

Directing at Pease Auditorium, Hollis is transposing the 1692 Salem Witch Trials to 1952, when the Miller script was released, while preserving the antique Puritan dialect that the playwright invented for his historical characters. From what we’re told about the impact Hollis hopes to achieve in juxtaposing Salem’s infamous trials and Sen. McCarthy’s infamous Senate hearings, we could possibly see a trace of Sen. Joe or his nemesis, Joseph Welch. Maybe some video cameos?

“The naming of names and the accuser being somehow sacrosanct has been an age-old issue in human affairs,” Hollis observes. “The hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials and the 50’s Communist hunts all echo with the proliferation of ‘fake news’ today. Did not Orwell predict that the shouting of a lie loud enough and long enough will make it true? The inability of many to separate belief from objective reality is more disturbing today than ever.”

After a couple of memorable performances in 1776 and Ragtime last season, Josh Logsdon gets an even meatier role as Miller’s martyr, John Proctor, in his first non-musical foray at CP. He is tempted and traduced by the adulterous Abigail Williams while further tortured and frustrated by his unforgiving wife, Elizabeth – tasked with finding his authentic self while living in a sexist world.

“The text does paint him as domineering and harsh at times when arguing with Elizabeth,” Logsdon says. “But I try to draw on more of his softness with both Abi and Elizabeth. His relationship with Elizabeth transitions from one of resentment and more pain to a reclaimed love and a final peace. He has a softness to Abigail as much as he denies it, but he eventually sees that she’s willing to destroy everything and everyone to have what she wants, and he’s definitely horrified by it.”

Not quite a vampire, but chillingly close – and certainly in season.