Tag Archives: Chip Decker

Dancing in the Aisles for 36 Years

Interview: Billy Ensley

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Call him Mister Versatility. To find anyone else in the Charlotte theatre scene who has been celebrated for excellence in so many different areas as Billy Ensley, you would have to summon up the memory of Alan Poindexter, the wunderkind who came out of the UNC Charlotte theatre program and won accolades as an actor, director, and sound designer. Ensley’s awards, a total of 16 from Creative Loafing and the Metrolina Theatre Association, have been for his work as an actor, director – in musicals, comedies, and dramas – and as a choreographer.

Song and dance were Ensley’s calling cards from the beginning, and they remain handy skills as he directs the upcoming Matthews Playhouse production of Mamma Mia! – the fifth musical that he has directed there. We interviewed Ensley about his evolution as an artist, the enduring popularity of Mamma Mia! and the vital importance of our community theatres.

QC Nerve: Take us back to the early days. Outside of school productions, what was your first appearance on a Charlotte stage? Can you tell us how you felt about theatre at that time and the part it would play in your life?

My first appearance on a Charlotte stage after school was in Seesaw (1983) at Theatre Charlotte [then known as Little Theatre of Charlotte]. At that time, I was moving into theatre as a result of having dance training throughout my youth. Male dancers were in demand, and therefore I was able to make that transition and learn acting and singing as well. While performing on Charlotte stages in my 20’s, I regularly got work in professional theatres, some of which include The Blowing Rock Stage Company, Opera Carolina, Busch Gardens, and Cook/Loughlin productions at Spirit Square.

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I wanted to dedicate my life to the theatre arts, but I also had a strong desire to own a home and be self-sufficient. I worked for over a decade as the director of office operations for the Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson law firm. After a couple of years in the travel industry, I went to work for Rexus Corporation, a national background screening company, where I am their chief operations officer for 15+ years.

By the time I first saw you back in the late 80s, in House of Blue Leaves and The 1940s Radio Hour, you were well on your way to establishing yourself as Charlotte’s pre-eminent triple threat. How committed were you at that time to accomplishing that goal, and how did you hone your acting, singing, and dancing skills?

At the time, I was not aware that I was establishing myself in any way actually. I was merely doing what I loved and what I was driven to do. Of course, it helped that I was receiving good reviews in the local press and support from the theatre community. That was positive reinforcement to keep working basically two full time jobs.

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Through the support and training of many people in Charlotte – including Tom Vance, Tom Hollis, Ron Chisholm, Terry Loughlin, Steve Umberger, to name a few – I was fortunate enough to work in the theatre almost constantly. I received a lot of my acting and singing training by being in productions, but I also continued to take dance classes, study voice with Joyce Marshall and study acting privately.

What role did our community theatre play in launching your career in theatre? How do see Theatre Charlotte and Matthews Playhouse figuring in the local scene today?

Theatre Charlotte often had the best directors and performers in the region. I was surrounded by some of the best and, as a result, I almost always got a paying gig from that exposure in community theatre. In addition, I was getting excellent hands-on training from them.

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Theatre Charlotte and Matthews Playhouse figure prominently in the local scene today, attracting good directors and seasoned performers as well as exciting new talent. In addition to cultivating new talent, they both are providing a venue for professional performers to have the opportunity to perform roles that may not be possible otherwise, due to the fact that Charlotte still struggles with sustaining many theatre companies.

You’ve made a couple of dramatic changes to reignite your career. First, you stopped doing musical after musical and took on a major role in a straight play, You Should Be So Lucky, in 1997. Then in 2003-04, we suddenly found you directing local productions of Evita, Bat Boy, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. What motivated you in each of these instances to break out of your previous mold – were there practical considerations involved, or was it all about self-fulfillment?

For me, it was a combination of both. As a dancer, you learn pretty early in life that the thing you have been training for, performing and loving, must eventually come to an end, or at least morph considerably. The same applies to playing the young male leads in musical theatre. I knew that I wanted the theatre to remain in my life, and I wanted to continue growing in other ways so that I could facilitate that.

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As a youngster, I marveled at performers that were always reinventing themselves – David Bowie comes to mind, actually – and I thought that was a great way to remain relevant. I also did not want to be pigeonholed in musical theatre, which I felt I clearly was. I wanted the challenges of dramatic acting like McDonagh’s The Pillowman (2007), in which I was lucky enough to play the lead, Katurian, in the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

As for directing, that was a slow and methodical process, and not an easy career to break in to. I started choreographing and directing in theatres outside of Charlotte like Belmont Abbey College and Wingate University. Eventually, the executive director at Theatre Charlotte, Candace Sorensen, offered me my first directing job in Charlotte with Sweet Charity (2002). After a few Charlotte shows, I got a great deal of support from Dan Shoemaker and Chip Decker at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.

Tell us about your history with Matthews Playhouse and what you have experienced there in terms of the quality of their facilities, staff, and talent pool.

I have directed Shrek, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Bonnie & Clyde and Grey Gardens for Matthews Playhouse. Matthews Playhouse is an excellent example of a successful and vibrant community theatre. Under the leadership of June Bayless, they have an excellent staff, a remarkable youth training program, combined with a very nice auditorium and excellent technical staff.

Who are the familiar audience favorites and the hot new discoveries that are going to make your Mamma Mia! a smashing success? Who are the scenic design, costume design, and choreographer aces on the case?

IMG_6570Lucia Stetson and Lisa Blanton are audience favorites. Lucia having played Maria in The Sound of Music and Lisa Blanton having played Little Edie in Grey Gardens. Our two young romantic leads both qualify as hot new discoveries. They are Alexa Thomas and Spencer Ellis as Sophie and Sky. Lisa Blanton agreed to pull double duty for this show by both choregraphing and playing the role of Tanya. Lisa Altieri is handling costumes and Emmy Award-winning John Bayless is the scenic designer. His work is amazing and his talents run very, very deep.

What do you continue to find in Mamma Mia! that keeps us from getting tired of it?

Well, ABBA of course! The music is familiar and well loved; bringing back lots of memories of love and romance for us middle-aged folk. The women characters in the show are strong and independent, the male characters are sensitive and compassionate. Like other jukebox musicals, it is fun to watch a scene that evolves into a song that most of us know at least some of the lyrics to. It is a show where the audience should come in with their hair down, their troubles stowed away, and perhaps their inhibitions stowed away as well – in favor of singing along or dancing in the aisles!

 

Janeta Bounces from Poppins to Billie

Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Forget the famous nickname for a second. Like only a handful of jazz artists – instrumentalists Miles Davis and John Coltrane come to mind – Billie Holiday’s vocal career had a distinctive arc, leaving the diva’s fans with a blithe and sunny early period of recordings, a forceful and dramatic middle period, and a worldly wise and poignant late period. The meteoric 25-year Lady Day career has stages as identifiable as Beethoven’s groundbreaking music or Shakespeare’s awesome procession of plays.

The legend of Billie Holiday took off almost instantly after her early death in 1959. That legend is easier to capture on film if you want to deliver the full breadth – and the full tragedy – of the story. But Lady Sings the Blues (1972) was a wasted opportunity, totally worthless as a biography, notwithstanding Diana Ross’s Oscar-nominated portrayal. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill by playwright Lanie Robertson was a more serious attempt, though the 1986 drama didn’t gain real traction in the theatre world until 2014, when Audra McDonald brought it to Broadway – and subsequently to HBO.

Now it’s here at Queens University, where Hadley Theatre has been transformed into Emerson’s in an Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by Jeremy DeCarlos. Janeta Jackson not only sings Billie’s songs and wears her signature gardenia, she mingles with the paying customers and engages them as they sit in casual cabaret style at cocktail tables. Chip Decker’s scenic setup also provides for extra stadium seating behind the many cocktail tables plus a bar at the rear of the hall.

Robertson focused on the most notorious part of Billie’s life, the final days when her deteriorating health and appalling finances sent her on a trajectory toward police custody on her deathbed. When she died of cardiac arrest and liver disease at the age of 44, handcuffed to her hospital bed, there was $7,500 in cash taped to her body and 70 cents in her bank account. It’s already 1959 when we see her at Emerson’s, and costume designer Carrie Cranford has outfitted Jackson in the same sort of satin dress that you’ll find on Billie’s valedictory Columbia album, Lady in Satin, and on the Verve memorial LP set, The Unforgettable Lady Day.

Not a total surprise, since Willis Hickerson, Jr., leading his trio at the keyboard in the role of Jimmy Power, plays Billie on with “Satin Doll.” When Jackson arrives, she mostly sings songs that are actually associated with Billie – but not necessarily with her latter days. With his choice of songs and with the rambling patter of his script, Robertson contrives to have latter-day Lady Day present an informal retrospective of her life and career, musically emphasizing the early and middle years, leaving space for songs that inspired her and, of course, the songs she wrote and championed.

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Among the early songs sprinkled on the Lady Day songlist are “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Foolin’ Myself,” and “Easy Living” from Billie’s swinging early period, recorded in 1935-38 with the likes of Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, and Lester Young. Robertson does something interesting “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” not only programming it early in Billie’s set but making it emblematic of her heroin habit as she staggers backstage midway through her show. Jackson arrives onstage slurping a drink, so Billie’s substance abuse is never a secret. It’s the main reason she’s performing in this Philadelphia dive, we quickly learn, for she had lost her license to perform in New York City cabarets a few arrests earlier.

Although we never hear any of the mighty heartbreakers on Billie’s final album, like “I’m a Fool to Want You” or “You’ve Changed,” the mood definitely darkens toward the end. Although lighting designer Evan Kinsley repeatedly flouts the words of the script, which should prompt him to keep the piano player in semi-darkness, he does turn down the houselights and shine a spot on Jackson for the climactic “Strange Fruit,” a searing depiction of a Southern-style lynching that became a Lady Day hallmark.

Or as she puts it, one of the songs we came to hear. She doesn’t say it quite that politely.

There are no “I’ve seen the mountaintop” moments in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, so the ending is more pathetic than tragic. Embedding an autobiography into a cabaret performance wasn’t the easiest assignment for Robertson, but his best line, “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married: he was 18, she was 16, and I was three,” flows naturally out of the opening of Billie’s Lady Sings the Blues autobio.

He did his research, you will find, and so have DeCarlos and Jackson. DeCarlos has chosen his musicians well – bassist Peter de Klerk and drummer Tim Scott fill out the trio – and he gets an alert and spontaneous performance from Hickerson where Powers has to speak a few lines here and there, coping with Billie’s spaced-out eccentricities. And who what DeCarlos saw from Jackson at auditions, where she arrived with calling cards that included the doo-wop group in Beehive and the lead in Mary Poppins? Bet it wasn’t nearly the same Billie as we’re seeing now.

For there can be no doubting that, if she wasn’t a Lady Day fan when she showed up auditioned for DeCarlos, Jackson has certainly immersed herself in the recordings since landing the role. To a Billiephile, it’s obvious that Jackson concentrated most heavily on the Verve recordings of 1948-57, which have snippets of Billie’s spoken introductions, a nice compromise between the juicy early recordings and the raspy final releases. Jackson seems to have avoided or rejected the Emerson’s Bar recording by McDonald – a very wise choice, for Audra not only leans a bit on Billie’s raspiness, she occasionally exaggerates the mannerisms of her last years.

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Jackson echoes those mannerisms rather than imitating or caricaturing them, and she is almost as uncanny as McDonald in capturing the timbre of the speaking voice, though she eschews the telltale rasp. On other aspects of the speaking voice, Jackson might move closer to the six-time Tony Award winner, who won her sixth as Lady Day. Slowing down would help Jackson make Lady Day’s aging and physical deterioration more real, and slurring her speech a little more would couple nicely with the effects of the liquor and the junk.

The Jackson vocals are consistently wonderful in her chosen Verve groove, most Billie-like near the end of the evening in “Don’t Explain,” where she almost equals “Strange Fruit” as the highlight. If she puts a little too much mannered mustard on the bridge and at the end of “God Bless the Child,” Holiday’s most-admired original composition, it’s still outstanding – and she has none of the difficulties with the metre that plague the recorded covers by McDonald and Ross.

While the setting at Hadley isn’t as intimate as the HBO Special, it’s cozier than the Broadway production was and DeCarlos gives Jackson freedom to mingle with the clientele and roam away from the little stage – which she does with admirable poise. Ladylike, we can say. If you love Lady Day, there’s no need at all to hesitate, and if you’re looking to find out more, look no further.

Trailer Trash Goes to College

Review: The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

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To say that Betsy Kelso and David Nehls’ Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical is a sequel – or a prequel – would be an outrageously pretentious way of looking at this crass Yuletide concoction. Pure dirty fun, they would likely proclaim, citing as proof their most memorable song, “Fuck It, It’s Christmas.” Whether they’re targeting their own musicals or their trashy Armadillo Acres avatar for American trailer parks, the Kelso-Nehl is clearly tossing the “Great” label around with Madison Avenue nonchalance. Face it, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, its Christmas mutant, and Armadillo Acres are not so great.

Yet they have definitely struck a chord with the mischief makers at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and their loyal audience. We first toured Armadillo Acres in 2007, seven years before Kelso and Nehls uploaded Christmas onto their fictional Northern Florida property. That first production, so much in tune with ATC’s freewheeling Off-Broadway irreverence, was popular enough for a 2010 revival – and to order up the fresh inventory one Yule after the Christmas edition was first unveiled in late 2013. I suspect that ATC’s loss of their stranglehold on local productions of The Santaland Diaries also factored in.

The move has proven to be shrewd in terms of box office and retaining exclusivity. Though the road for the company has been bumpy after they departed from their Stonewall Street location, with a regrettable stop at the McBride-Bonnefoux Dance Center in 2016 – and a two-year hiatus since that Uptown gaffe – Trailer Park Christmas has remained ATC’s baby.GATPCM 9

After remaking their production to fit their current HQ at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus, the company seems poised to keep it that way.

Evan Kinsley’s scenic design is yet another eye-popping assertion that ATC has only begun exploring the Hadley’s full capabilities, once again capitalizing on the height and flexibility of the hall. God bless LED’s for keeping electrical costs down in Kinsley’s tacky-topia of beer-can wreaths and plastic lawn flamingoes. Kinsley also gets credit for the technical derring-do of the tall Christmas tree that straddles the borderline between the properties of Rufus Jeter and Armadillo’s resident Scrooge, Darlene Seward. Trailer park manager Betty makes repeated assertions that a Yuletide curse hangs over Armadillo Acres, and a late Vesuvius outbreak from the tree spectacularly confirms that dubious intuition.

Now it’s true that Darlene’s salacious boyfriend, restauranteur Jackson Boudreaux, undercuts all pretenses that Betty can be a trailer park manager – or that Rufus and Darlene can claim any property – by declaring that they are all squatters on land that they do not own. Such details, in the Kelso-Niehls worldview, are no doubt only for i-dotting Scrooges or Cratchits.

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By the time Jackson slithers onto the scene, Darlene has become an amnesia victim in the heat of her property dispute with Rufus. Suddenly electroshocked into loving Christmas, Darlene is now open to overtures from both men. Once this soapy love triangle is established, you might conclude that Betty has little to do. Well, she can fret over the possibility that Darlene’s amnesia might wear off – along with her holiday spirit – before Armadillo can win the annual Christmas decorations prize awarded by Mobile Homes & Gardens.

Otherwise, she and Pickles and Linoleum, all holdovers from The Great American Trailer Park Musical, are relegated to slinging flapjacks at Jackson’s lewd pancake house, singing backup vocals, and making flamboyant cameos in Darlene’s dream fantasia, an unmistakable takeoff on Scrooge and his Christmas ghosts. Carrie Cranford’s props and costumes help to sugar this Christmas Carol lagniappe – and don’t presume that the guys are left out of the fun. Or the live band.

Director/sound designer Chip Decker lavishes all the déclassé vulgarity you would expect from such a seedy romp, with a few extra crotch grabs and phallic sight gags tossed in for good measure. If the sound were only sharper, all the raunchy shtick might make up for the fact that this new Hadley Theater extravaganza lacks the seedy look and vibe of the Stonewall Street version.

Pirating cable TV, tossing tinsel on a tree, longing for the miraculously changed Darlene, and sulking off to his crappy trailer, Rufus seems to fit Nick Culp like a glove – or an old beat-up pair of sweatpants. If your last glimpse of Ashton Guthrie was as a romantic lead in Show Boat or A Gentleman’s Guide, his sleaziness here as Jackson might be revelatory. I must confess that I barely recognized him in his lounge-lizard wig, but when he had the chance to vocalize on “Baby, I’ll Be Your Santa Claus,” Guthrie delivered the goods to his “breastaurant” waitresses with #MeToo gusto.

I’m more ambivalent than I expected to be about Katy Shepherd, so strong and hard-rockin’ in the title role of Lizzie last year and so strong and hard-rockin’ now as Darlene. Shepherd just may be overthinking Darlene, for she could be artificially sweeter as the amnesiac Darlene and more comical as the park Scrooge. Yes, there’s an empathetic backstory behind Darlene’s surly Scroogyness, but do we really want realism here?

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After Renee Welsh-Noel’s semi-divine outing as Peter Pan just two months ago at Children’s Theatre, it was distressing to see her so underutilized, badly miked, and seemingly dispirited as Linoleum here. Lizzie Medlin was more in touch with the true trashiness of Pickles, but not better served by her electronics. Most at home at Armadillo Acres was Karen Christensen, transferring to Betty after a stint as Lin in previous years. Although both Welsh-Noel and Medlin have striking and skilled entrances in the Dickensian dream sequence, Christensen gets the best of them all.

 

Taking Down a Classic Thriller, Lateral Lisp and All

Review: Silence! The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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From God of Carnage to Hand to God to The Toxic Avenger and beyond, I’ve seen many of the original Broadway and Off-Broadway shows that Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has gone on to present in their Queen City premieres. What is singular about Silence! The Musical, perhaps unprecedented, is the fact that the original New York production at PS122 was unquestionably smaller, shabbier and more low-budget than the one currently playing at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus.

This Charlotte debut is seven years more distant from Silence of the Lambs, the Academy Award winning thriller that Hunter Bell and his musical cronies, Jon and Al Kaplan, targeted with their satiric mischief and malice. Back in 2012, I was already bemoaning my failure to refresh my memories of the 1991 film with a full viewing before I went to see this nasty sendup.

Oops! I neglected my own warning last week, allowing my aging VHS tape to gather seven more years of dust before heading out to see what director Chip Decker and his cast would do in their assaults on Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. I must confess that my perspective was more than a little skewed, for by August 2019, I found myself remembering the Bell/Kaplans musical at least as well as the Jonathan Demme film.

What I remember most about the PS122 show, besides its fundamental crassness and cheapness, was its dimly-lit, wicked cult ritual ambiance. Reasonably enough, Decker and his design team are going for something different: a musical! Evan Kinsley’s set design spans the Hadley stage and so does Emily Hunter’s choreography, with a gamboling chorus of Lambs in a matched set of wooly white ears by Carrie Cranford.

Where Actor’s Theatre, Off-Broadway, and Demme intersect best are in the takeoffs on Foster and Hopkins. Leslie Giles has a veritable feasht exaggerating FBI trainee Clarice Starling’s lateral lishp, surely enough to convulse audiences seeing this Foster takedown for the first time, but not as mean and relentless as the mockery Jenn Harris dished out in New York. What will further delight Charlotte audiences, however, is the sweet bless-her-heart drawl that Giles lavishes on Clarice’s entreaties and interrogations – and her expletive explosion when her sexist boss slights her is a comedy shocker.

There was plenty of seediness in the original Lambs for the Kaplans and Bell to build on. Clarice’s confrontation with Hannibal the Cannibal results from her boss’s unsavory idea of sending Starling down into the bowels of a criminal madhouse to pick Lecter’s brain – hoping that the psychiatric insights of one serial killer can help the FBI catch another. Maybe some kind of natural attraction will coax Dr. Lecter into opening up. Clarice’s descent into the Baltimore loony bin confirms that a rare visit from a woman will indeed rouse the snakes in the pit as the trainee walks the gauntlet of cells leading to Lecter.

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A couple of the arousals fuel the most memorable moments of ejaculation and rapture. After the best spurt of physical comedy, we reach the innermost sanctum where the Cannibal is caged, and the shoddy cheapness of his protective enclosure becomes one of the show’s numerous running gags. At the climax of the first Lecter-Starling tête-a-tête, Rob Addison gets to deliver Hannibal’s deathless love ballad, “If I Could Smell Her Cunt.”

Addison’s rhapsody mushrooms into a ballet fantasia centering around Ashton Guthrie and Lizzie Medlin’s pas-de-deux as Dream Lecter and Dream Clarice. While Hunter’s choreography is more than sufficiently purple and passionate, we fall short on crotch crudity from Giles, and Cranford’s costuming muffs the opportunity for the Lambs to deliver a labial flowering. Yet it’s here that Addison is surpassingly effective, for his creepy drone as Lecter not only replicates the familiar Hopkins bouquet, but his singing voice is robust and raspy. We stay firmly in an Off-Broadway joint during Addison’s rhapsodizing instead of detouring, as PS122 did, into Broadway spectacular.

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Other than the equine Mr. Ed, I couldn’t fathom what Jeremy DeCarlos was going for in his portrayal of the at-large crossdressing serial killer Jame Gumb, alias Buffalo Bill. To make things worse, production values reach their zenith when DeCarlos sings his showstopper, “Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket,” to his latest captive, Senator Martin’s suitably plump (“Are You About a Size 14”) daughter Catherine. If Kinsley hadn’t troubled to elevate his sadistic serial killer to such a commanding height on his impressive set, flimsier security arrangements similar to the Cannibal’s would have played funnier.

Rest assured that verisimilitude isn’t a top priority elsewhere in Decker’s scheme. Kacy Connon excels as both Senator Martin and her daughter Catherine while Ryan Dunn shapeshifts from Clarice’s dad to agent-in-charge Jack Crawford, all without discarding their Lambketeer ears. Dunn’s eyeglasses shtick worked every time with the opening night crowd, and in welcoming Clarice to the institutional home of Hannibal, Nick Culp sleazily Clarice set the tone for the unfettered lechery to come.

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Clarice lucks out when Crawford cruelly reassigns her, but she shows up unawares and unprepared at Buffalo Bill’s lair. That disadvantage results in the last of the three scenes we remember best from the screen thriller, the duel to the death on Bill’s home turf in pitch darkness, Clarice armed with her automatic pistol and the psychopath wearing night vision glasses. Peppered with song (“In the Dark With a Maniac”), this parody comes off as winningly as the great prison sequence where we first encountered Lecter – and better than the previous climax when the Cannibal escapes.

Hallie Gray’s lighting design is a valuable asset when tensions intensify, and Kinsley’s tall scenery isn’t a total waste. At times, it adds to the absurdity of the Lamb chorus, but it pays off most handsomely at the end in Hannibal’s demonic farewell, adding a dimension that even Hollywood couldn’t boast.

 

ATC’s Outdoor “Midsummer” Is Electrifying Fun

Review: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Aside from sporadic Chickspeare ventures in the NoDa Brewing parking lot and a tentative CPCC Shakespeare on the Green production up at their Cato campus two summers ago, we haven’t seen anybody commit to an annual series of outdoor Bard since the Queen City’s second Charlotte Shakespeare bit the dust in 2014. If you’ve been hankering for some good Shakespearean comedy under the moon, with a refreshing beverage in your beach chair’s cup holder and a trusty cooler at your side, the long drought is over.

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has made good on their promise, announced at the dawn of their new residency relationship with Queens University, that they would launch an annual Midsummer Nights @ Queens series, starting with the most logical choice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now Shakespeare hasn’t exactly been in Actor’s Theatre’s wheelhouse during its first 30 years. Nor has any classic playwright dating further back than Edward Albee. Perhaps for that reason, ATC executive director Chip Decker tamped down expectations when he first unveiled his plans, saying this would likely be a cooperative effort featuring students in the Queens U theatre program.

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He lied. Directed by Chester Shepherd, this Midsummer is as professional as any homegrown Shakespeare production we’ve seen in the Metrolina area since the first Charlotte Shakespeare folded in the early ‘90s. Even though admission is free, production values are not at all cheap. Costume designs and props by Carrie Cranford are literally electrifying in a few instances and, while there isn’t any scenic design, Shepherd leads his players up and down, up and down, taking advantage of a bush here and a tree there, borrowing the stone stairway and entrance to campus building for the Athens scenes and kidnapping a toddler from the audience when we adjourn to the forest and the fairies.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some serious economies, but they don’t include forswearing playbills, which are handed out to audience members by wingèd ushers. Although the roles of Athens royals Theseus and Hippolita are often doubled with those of Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, here we’re confronted with an orgy of doubling – nine actors in 18 roles. Except for Peter Finnegan as Bottom, all the mechanicals are moonlighting as Athenian nobles.

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So the looney lovers who are confounded and enchanted in the woods by the fairies cannot mock the mechanicals when they present their “Tragical History of Pyramus and Thisbe” – they’re performing it, you see. Their lines disappear with them, part of a shrinking process that yields a playing time of less than 100 minutes. That’s another economy. Anybody who has memorized the lines uttered by Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed will notice that these fairies have also been vaporized – or compressed into the generic Fairy played by Kerstin VanHuss.

Steven Levine is certainly manly and commanding as Theseus and Oberon, but he is upstaged by the antics of Sarah Molloy as Puck and the misplaced amorousness of Nonye Obichere as Titania – not to mention their outré costumes. Obichere has only to swish her illuminated blue cape to dazzle us, and Molloy’s outfit is even wilder than Bottom’s. Of course, Finnegan’s hambone bravura must begin before Puck mischievously transforms Bottom into an ass, and we benefit from the minimalist design decision not to obscure the actor’s face when Titania plies her charms.

Finnegan really takes over when he stars as Pyramus for Theseus and Hippolita. More than one actor has made the death of Pyramus into a full meal. Finnegan aims for a banquet.

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Among the befuddled lovers, the women get the most comical opportunities. Iesha Nyree as Hermia and Anna Royal as Helena both make good on their mightily distressed episodes, and Shepherd hasn’t erred in stressing the height differential between them in his casting. With so much thunder stolen from their benighted partners, it’s actually fortunate that Adam Griffin and Jonathan Ford, Demetrius and Lysander respectively, get to moonlight as mechanicals, Griffin as Snout and Ford as Flute.

The caution that free insect repellent was available at the theater site proved to be unnecessary on Saturday night, but in the early part of the evening, I found it welcome to have some cold liquid at hand. Microphones consistently operated well, so you can expect audibility to be less of a challenge than Elizabethan English. The plenitude of physical comedy supplies ample translation.

A couple of real concerns: handicapped access begins on Selwyn Avenue, to the left of the Queens U traffic circle, not in the traffic circle itself. And counterintuitively, the worst seating is in the middle of the greensward facing the stage. The further you sit toward either side, the more easily you’ll see past obstacles in the center, namely a table, a slatted bench, a soundboard, and the technician standing over them.

Get there early, select a good sightline, and your Midsummer Night @ Queens should be quite dreamy.

Actor’s Theatre Shines New Light on Bechdel’s “Family Tragicomic”

Review: Fun Home at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home grabs – and sustains – our attention in large measure because the title is a misnomer, the nickname given by Alison and her siblings to the family business, the Bechdel Funeral Home. Yet as the story unfolds, with its cargo of closeted homosexuality, sexual molestation, and suicide, we realize that Alison is stressing – and cherishing – the fun times she had with her siblings and her troubled dad. Sweetened by Lisa Kron’s stage adaptation and juiced by Jeanine Tesori’s music, the fun in Fun Home gains further momentum.

It keeps rolling in the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production at Queens University with lively stage directing, choreography, and preteen actors playing the young Bechdel pranksters. Aiming in that enlightened direction, set designer Dee Blackburn starts with the thrust stage configuration I saw at Circle in the Square for the Broadway, but she departs from the funereal darkness that characterized the New York run and the national tour. Abetted by Hallie Gray’s lighting design, Blackburn gives us the kind of bright home that Alison’s neat freak dad might fuss over.

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Or not. We also get darkness when Bruce, Alison’s dad, summons her to assist him in prepping a cadaver – and on numerous occasions when we leave the Bechdel house. Bruce’s nocturnal rambles, creepy and predatory, might occur far away on a family trip or in his car cruising the neighborhood for prey. If you’ve seen Fun Home before, you might find Bruce’s rambles more chilling, since his household isn’t an Addams Family lookalike. Bechdel’s original subtitle, “a family tragicomic,” wickedly sets the tone.

The most fun is when the three Bechdel kids do the big “Come to the Fun Home” song, pretending to cut a TV commercial for the funeral parlor, with choreography by Tod Kubo that captures all the goofy giddiness of the previous productions I’ve seen. Both Allie Joseph and Ryan Campos distinguished themselves at the start of this season in Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s admirable Matilda, while Donavan Abeshaus has flown a little more under the radar, appearing as the young anti-hero in Bonnie and Clyde at Matthews Playhouse in February 2018. They make a fine set of Bechdel sibs now, though Joseph once again draws the plumiest role.

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Joseph is so brash and brilliant as Small Alison that she steals a little of the thunder from Amanda Ortega’s somewhat understated Medium Alison, the collegian who discovers her true sexuality at Oberlin and comes out as a lesbian. Ortega’s “Changing My Major” (to Joan, her first lover) was still an uproarious showstopper for those at opening night encountering it for the first time, though it brought nothing fresh that I hadn’t seen, but Lisa Hatt as our narrating Alison did offer something new, besting even the Tony-nominated Beth Malone as our storyteller.

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Maybe director Chip Decker believed she could be more than what she was on Broadway and on tour, for liberating Hatt – just by freeing her from the nerdy sketchpad she perpetually carried – is likely the foundation for all the Hatt achieves. Even when focus is elsewhere, on Bruce or one of the other Alisons, Hatt’s reactions matter, and her delivery of the climactic “Telephone Lines” is star quality. Yet there’s less of a feeling that this Alison has it all worked out after coming to terms with her sexuality and the fact that, as a graphic novelist, she isn’t going to join Faulkner and Hemingway in her English teacher dad’s pantheon. Hatt strikes me as a less confident Alison, still searching.

Hatt’s take on Alison allows Rob Addison as Bruce to be a little less formidable – more lifesize – than Michael Cerveris was on Broadway. A little more nuance helps because the ground has shifted somewhat since 2015, when Fun Home premiered, under the issues that Alison’s dad straddles. Though nothing excuses Bruce’s sexual predatoriness, fears of exposure and disgrace as a homosexual may be prime reasons why Dad is so rigid, regardful of others’ impressions, and so virulently bossy. You can believe it when Addison lets down his guard and plays with Young Alison at the start of Fun Home, and you can eventually see why this might be so atypical of Dad that our narrator would cherish the memory.

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Of course, the tortured and torturing Bruce can have more empathy with Alison – and be more grimly protective of her – than Helen Bechdel, her mom, and Lisa Schacher delivers a nicely nuanced portrait. Submissive, disapproving, and beneath it all, the caretaker, with a self-loathing to match her husband’s. Maybe a little more nuance from Sebastian Sowell as Joan to go along with her invincible cool would help me see why everyone, especially Medium, is so impressed with her. You can see, however, that a medium-energy Medium Alison is attractive to her.

Rounding out the cast as a couple of Bruce’s trespasses, Patrick Stepp shows enough self-awareness as Roy, the yard boy that Bruce plies with drinks – while Mom is elsewhere in the house! – to let us suppose that all this isn’t as surprising to Roy as it might be to us. Or unprecedented. In a scene that Alison isn’t narrating from her own experience, giving Dad a small benefit of the doubt is probably the perfect path to take. A little more sugar – and a soaring flight of fancy – will help Alison bring an uneasy but upbeat closure to her engaging memoir

A Séance With 200% Certainty

Review: The Great Beyond

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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When you walk into Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus for the world premiere of Steven Dietz’s The Great Beyond, you’ll be treated to a rare “don’t-think-about-elephants” experience. Even if you haven’t read the prepublicity around town, seen the spots on local TV and the web, or thoroughly perused your playbill, your emissary from Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, artistic director Chip Decker, will call your attention to the elephant in the hall. While Dietz’s spooky new drama can stand on its own, it was written with an interconnected companion piece, The Ghost of Splinter Cove, that is now premiering at ImaginOn in a taut 53-minute Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

So once you’ve heard that, can you really be satisfied seeing The Great Beyond without going to see Dietz’s companion piece? Probably not.

If you’ve somehow failed to pay attention to the prepublicity, the playbill, and the curtain speech, all of them telling you that the action of Splinter Cove is happening downstairs in the basement of the same house at the same time in the same family as the action we’re seeing upstairs, the parents upstairs will remind you frequently enough of the strange adventure their kids are having below.

More than that, thanks to Evan Kinsley’s scenic design, which offers us a smidge of the home’s exterior, we get glimpses of the basement action through translucent windows that peep above ground. So it isn’t just a matter of Rex, the dad, opening the door to the basement and checking up on how his kids are doing – with prerecorded replies. No, no, no. Beginning with camping gear that he bought for his son Nate’s birthday, Rex has sent them on a wilderness adventure, with a smartphone app hooked up to the home’s electronics simulating the sounds, the natural lights, and the weather of the great outdoors.

At unexpected moments, then, the handiwork of lighting designer Hallie Gray and sound designer Rob Witmer captures our attention – and whets the curiosity of the three women who have gathered with Rex for an adventure of their own. The historic collaboration between two theatre companies is called “The Second Story Project,” but it’s at Queens U that we see why.

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Dietz has said that The Great Beyond is a reunion play, and it certainly follows a template we’ve seen before, bringing far-flung and estranged kinfolk together, comically or dramatically uncomfortable with each other, after a death in the family. Here Rex has brought his two kids to the home of his former father-in-law, where his distraught ex, Monica, served as caretaker during Tobias’ last difficult days. Relations between Rex and Monica seem cordial enough, though she isn’t a big fan of his elaborate camping scheme for their children – since it brings unpleasant family history to mind.

It’s also obvious that Rex retains a genuine affection for Tobias, whom he calls The Captain like everybody else in the family. The real family strife will rev up when Monica’s wayward younger sister Emily arrives. Or actually, it begins before, because the rigid and judgmental Monica has labelled Emily as a chronic latecomer – on the basis of one past incident – so hostilities can begin as soon as Emily arrives. On time, of course.

Not that Emily is flawless. A recovering alcoholic who now limits herself to one full glass of wine at the same time every day, Emily has made Dad’s home the last stop on an epic apology tour, launched five years ago when she achieved sobriety, spanning 23 states and two foreign countries. A straight arrow and a black sheep, the bread-and-butter combatants of countless theatre clashes are poised to have it out! But unlike Sordid Lives or Appropriate, two of the funeral-triggered plays we’ve seen before in Charlotte, the dead Tobias will also be invited to the reunion.

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You see, Emily is bringing her bisexual partner Rene to this sad reunion, hoping to summon up the spirit of Tobias at a séance later in the evening. It’s Tobias, not Monica, that Emily has really earmarked for receiving her last apology, and she thinks that Rene, a spiritual medium, can make contact and make it happen.

As if the friction between Monica and Emily weren’t torrid enough already! Now they need the scornful, skeptical, and sarcastic Monica to complete the circle around the séance table. Outnumbered three to one in this tussle – and somewhat pre-empted by Dietz’s two play titles – you can guess how Monica’s opposition to the séance turns out. As for whether Tobias shows up, I can safely defer to Dietz himself, who was present at the post-performance powwow on opening night. He told us that one of chief pleasures he found in telling this story came in conveying his 100% positive conviction that the supernatural visitations at séances are absolutely bogus and his 100% certainty that those visitations are absolutely real.

Whatever you may think of the action around the table, you can’t deny that Dietz has made intensive efforts to sustain our ambivalence, giving us numerous reasons to believe that the house Tobias built with his own hands is in the grip of the supernatural – countered by an equal number of escape routes to disbelief. But to his credit, Dietz leaves us with a giddy sense of confusion rather than a rational set of alternatives as we attempt to arrive at the truth now – and the truth about the tragedy that has haunted the family for nearly 40 years – teasing us out of thought.

That giddy confusion will be compounded when you factor the climax of Splinter Cove into your calculations. If you go to Hadley with somebody – whether an adult or a child – you can expect that conversation on your way home will be peppered with lively clarifications and disputes.

Decker certainly holds up his end of Actor’s Theatre’s historic collaboration with Children’s Theatre. Rather than missing core elements of the script that I’d seen when I read it (a fundamental reason I customarily avoid reading scripts I’m scheduled to review unless I’m planning to interview a playwright before seeing the production), Decker and his superb cast managed to bring Dietz’s drama more intensely to life and reveal the power – and comedy – of a couple of moments that I’d overlooked. Didn’t hurt that Dietz was here in Charlotte, tweaking both of his scripts during the process.

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All of these roles are beautifully rounded, so it wasn’t surprising to see the keen relish that the players took in them. It would be hard to overpraise Tonya Bludsworth’s work as Monica, the meanie who has worked so devotedly and so selfishly to be The Captain’s favorite. Bludsworth brings out the humor and the sharpness of Monica’s mocking sarcasm, turns it off when she realizes she’s wrong, has moments of self-awareness, and is delightful in so many different ways during the séance she has so grudgingly agreed to. There’s a bit of swagger to her, for all of her starchiness.

Robin Tynes-Miller mixes Emily’s feelings of resentment and remorse to perfection and turns them up high. Her wrenching efforts toward reformation make Bludsworth’s cynicism and rejection all the meaner. Tynes also hones in on just how thin-skinned and childish Emily remains as the younger sib, allowing Bludsworth the delight of intentionally provoking her, elevating Monica’s wickedness at times to villainy. For all her weakness, it is Emily who powers the story forward when her determination is steeled, yet Tynes makes her lapses likable, so we’re still rooting for her when Rene and Rex must rally behind her cause.

Dietz has Rene doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to coaxing Monica to the table – and an even greater share of the calming and reassuring that Emily needs when her frustrations with her recalcitrant sister get the better of her. Tania Kelly does it all with a confident authority, belying Monica’s presumptions of what a medium should be. Not a dreamcatcher earring in sight, and no Whoopi Goldberg kookiness.

As patient and sure as she is at the séance table, unruffled by Monica’s taunts, Rene also takes it upon herself – without any desperate urgency – to rectify Monica’s obsolete assessment of Emily’s character. Rene is the mother of Sydney, the third child downstairs at play with Nate and Cora, and Kelly dials in the right amount of parental concern and trust in Rex. Most of all, when the doors and windows are unlocked, the candles lit, and the incantations begin, Kelly makes us believe that Rene is in earnest and something amazing could happen.

Rex is the glue that binds Dietz’s plays most firmly together, and Scott Tynes-Miller beautifully captures his strength, his self-deprecation, and his insouciance. For the most part, Rex’s role is as a peacemaker in the siblings’ brawls, the steadying force that Monica realizes she was foolish to discard. Miller not only gets the last of the play’s four monologues, addressed directly to us, he also demonstrates to closest bond to Tobias, briefly recalling how The Captain taught him to be a man. Turns out to be a surprisingly important plot point. There’s a nice through-line that Miller finds in Rex, for he has a firm and quiet purposefulness, and like Emily, arrives with a mission. That turns out to be yet another way that he binds Dietz’s magical plays together.

There’s much more to the story of The Great Beyond than I’ve disclosed here – with surprises stirred in that are calculated to startle and astound. Much of this story is expanded upon and illuminated in The Ghost of Splinter Cove. So your intuition to see the companion piece will not lead you astray.

Upstairs/Downstairs in a Haunted House

Previews: The Great Beyond and The Ghost of Splinter Cove

By Perry Tannenbaum

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An old living room card table shaking uncontrollably during a candlelit séance… an unidentified ghost – or two – lurking in the dark basement, where kids are at play… and an 8-year-old child who has been missing for nearly 40 years.

These are some of the chilling elements in two new nail-biting plays hitting the QC. Upstairs with the adults at the séance, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of The Great Beyond begins previews this Thursday on the Queens University campus, officially premiering next Wednesday. Next Friday at ImaginOn, The Ghost of Splinter Cove takes us downstairs into the basement with three imperiled kids in a world premiere Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

Both spooktaculars are by renowned playwright Steven Dietz, who splits most of his time between Seattle and Austin, where he teaches his craft at the U of Texas. Dietz has written and adapted more than 40 plays, and a slew of them have been performed in various theaters across town, including God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Yankee Tavern, and Becky’s New Car (a “Show of the Year” winner in 2010).

But these two newbies would never have been written if Dietz hadn’t gotten on a plane and met with Adam Burke and Chip Decker here in Charlotte.

Burke, the artistic director at Children’s Theatre, and Decker, his counterpart at Actor’s Theatre, had cooked up their concept during a 2015 meetup. Cooperating was feasible between their two companies, but what kind of project would bring audiences together to see the kinship between Decker’s adult theatre and TYA – Burke’s theatre for young audiences?

Decker and Burke both have considerable experience in bringing new plays to their theaters, so it was obvious that their joint project would be a new script. But what if they commissioned two scripts, each one designed to funnel audience from their theater to the other theater while both shows were in production?!

Somehow the two plays and their stories would have to interlock. Yet to encourage rather than force audiences at one company’s theater to also see the other company’s play, each of the two plays would have to stand independently on its own. The concept that would be named The Second Story Project was born – in excited brainstorming interspersed with copious cups of coffee.

When Burke and Decker decided to move forward, there were no funds earmarked for the project, no playwright commissioned to create the scripts, and no parameters detailing how the two stories would interconnect. There was just one dynamite concept that had never been tried before.

“It’s always a leap of faith to do anything, especially something new,” Decker observes. “We just both hit on it, felt it was a good solid idea, and when you feel that way, you have to jump in with both feet and hope there’s a safety net at the bottom.”

Looking back on it, Dietz was a super-obvious choice. Multiple productions of his plays had been presented at Actor’s and Children’s, but Decker and Burke were thinking about advertising in trade publications or soliciting proposals – until the successful run of Dietz’s adaptation of Jackie and Me at ImaginOn turned on the lightbulb in Decker’s skull.

He sums up his realization: “We’re looking for a playwright who has a great voice for theatre for younger audiences and a playwright who has an experienced track record with adult audiences, we’ve both produced Steven Dietz plays, why should we look any further – especially the first time out?”

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Burke had sort of blocked out the idea of looking to an established adult playwright, calculating that the TYA piece would be the higher hurdle.

“I am more confident that someone who can write a great play for young people can write a great play for adults than I am of the reverse,” Burke explains. “So when Chip suggested Steven, I’m like, ‘Ah, yes, of course!’ There are only a handful of people that are moving between the two worlds successfully.”

Dietz was a little wary, wanting to make sure that there wasn’t some special issue or theme that his scripts were expected to address. Getting reassurances of his complete freedom, he warmed to the prospect of such an unprecedented challenge.

“What was so beautiful about the idea was that it was so simple,” Dietz recalls. “The core of the pitch to me was something shared. A shared story, a shared theme – something shared. And in one theater piece, we see it through young people’s eyes, and in the other, we see it through grownups’ eyes. That’s just like Post-it Note simple!”

The playwright was also on Burke’s wavelength with respect to the primacy of the TYA piece. It would be the more difficult piece to write and take more time. So it needed to be written first. Unlike other commissions that Dietz has fulfilled, neither The Ghost of Splinter Cove nor The Great Beyond turned out to be a play he would have written anyway. No barely-started scripts or scribbled scenarios were on his studio shelves waiting for these unique commissions.

Dietz suspected that he would make many false starts on his youth play – and he did. The upstairs/downstairs idea didn’t occur to him immediately, but when it did, it seemed like an elegantly simple way to make his plays interlock. But what kind of full-length play can be staged in a basement?

“I had this little tiny notion,” Dietz reveals. “I had a friend who had his kids try out his camping equipment in their basement once. And of course, that is what’s beautiful about writing for young people: where they go on that camping trip in their imagination is much more dynamic than getting out even on the San Juan Islands, which is near my house. Because it’s in their imaginations, so it can be anywhere.”

Especially when your brand-new camping gear is a birthday gift, you’re in a strange haunted house for the first time in your life… and there’s a smartphone app your dad bought you that makes your whole camping adventure come alive!

So that’s the downstairs core of the Second Story Project. From time to time, Dad calls down from upstairs, making sure the kids are settled in and sending down snacks. The two plays interconnect with those conversations – we only see Dad in The Great Beyond – and there are key props that will be common to both of Dietz’s eerie dramas.

Upstairs, where the séance happens, the parents are having a dinner reunion after a great family loss, and we learn why the kids have never visited this house before. For Dietz, there was a unique benefit in crafting his two new plays as a matched set.

“Writing [Splinter Cove] taught me about those kids’ parents,” Dietz remarks. “In any other play I’ve ever written, they would just be offstage characters. This process doesn’t have offstage characters, really. They have characters onstage at the other theater.”

And they’re not necessarily alive. Bwa-ha-ha!

Two Iconic Singer-Songwriters Collide

Reviews: Nina Simone: Four Women and Ain’t Misbehavin’

By Perry Tannenbaum

With three new theater productions opening last week from Actor’s Theatre, Brand New Sheriff, and Theatre Charlotte – all sporting all-black casts – we have entered a Black History Month in Charlotte that is more about black history than ever before. Some of the African Americans who might be expected to show up for those auditions will be shining in the spotlight somewhere else this weekend as Children’s Theatre of Charlotte opens Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds at ImaginOn.

Unless you count university productions, we haven’t had more than one truly black theater production here in Charlotte during any Black History Month in the past 10 years.

So our Black History Month upgrade – and the stunning amount of local black talent necessary to make it happen – was definitely on my mind as I took in all of these shows. But a couple of times, in Actor’s Theatre’s tribute to Nina Simone and Theatre Charlotte’s Fat Waller revue, I found myself flashing back to January 2003.

That’s when a bi-racial Charlotte Rep production of Let Me Sing featured two black Broadway veterans, Gretha Boston and André de Shields, who boasted five Tony Award nominations and two wins between them.

Nina Simone: Four Women from Actor’s Theatre threw a new perspective on what are usually regarded as Rep’s declining years. The title role, calling for a passionate Black Power advocate and a charismatic singer-songwriter, would obviously benefit from the Broadway star power that Michael Bush, with his Manhattan Theatre Club connections, was able to lure down to our Booth Playhouse during Rep’s latter days.

De Shields was actually one of the original stars of Ain’t Misbehavin’ when it opened at Manhattan Theatre Club and took the Tony for Best Musical in 1978. So my thoughts naturally returned to De Shields, Rep, and Let Me Sing when Theatre Charlotte opened the Fats Waller musical revue two days after Actor’s opened their Simone musical. On this night at least, I had the satisfaction of recalling the Broadway star and feeling that our fair Queen City was getting along just fine without him.

A lot of the credit goes to Charlotte’s own Tony winner, educator extraordinaire Corey Mitchell, who directs this sassy 94-minute show at the Queens Road barn. The cast he culled from auditions is consistently spectacular, whether they’re singing or dancing, but we also need to slice off some accolades to the seven-piece jazz band led by trombonist Tyrone Jefferson, featuring Neal Davenport at the piano. Kudos to choreographer Ashlyn Sumner: with some formidable talents to work with, she has stretched them.

Conceived by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., Misbehavin’ goes about capturing Waller’s essence by culling the gems from his imposing oeuvre and preserving the pianist’s penchant for interpolating sly comments and wisecracks between his lyrics. Comical gems like “The Viper’s Drag,” “Find Out What They Like (and How They Like It),” and “Your Feet’s Too Big,” all score big. Adapting and orchestrating, Luther Handerson and Jeffrey Gutcheon usually go with the grain of Waller’s merry, mischievous recordings, but occasionally they go against it, slowing down “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Mean to Me” so they sound brand new.

Yet Waller also composed one solemn anthem that belongs in the same elite pantheon as Simone’s “Four Women” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The introductory chords from the piano were all I needed to tell me that “Black and Blue” was on its way with lyricist Andy Razaf’s indelible refrain: What did I do to be so black and blue?

After delivering more than an hour of pure ebullient joy, it was a powerful question to ask. Lighting designer Chris Timmons dimmed his gels over Tim Parati’s funky nightclub set, Jefferson hushed the band, and Mitchell huddled his entire cast downstage where all five could look us coldly in the eye.

Never afflicted with obliquity. Waller and Razaf answered their own question: My only sin is in my skin.

Keston Steele has the most amazing voice in this cast, and it’s not just her range and volume. Steele may look small, but as “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” proves, this lady can g-g-growl! Best dancer is more of a toss-up. Look no further than Nonye Obichere kicking “How Ya Baby” if you’re looking for somebody startling and athletic. Tyler Smith is your man if your quest is for someone smooth and sensual.

Smith was the comedy showstopper – and the chief reason why De Shields can stay right where he is – delighting us with his stealth and style in “The Viper’s Drag,” but Marvin King was just as hilarious in the outright insulting “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Danielle Burke’s breakout moments were her mellow “Squeeze Me” solo and her bawdy “Find Out What They Like” duet with Steele.

The songlist is loaded with Fats faves that will get your toes tapping, including “Handful of Keys,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Fat and Greasy,” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Or you might get into the sway of “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Lounging at the Waldorf.” All in all, another insane overachievement for Charlotte’s community theater. Pass the reefer and the champagne!

Production values at Hadley Theater looked like they would be up to the usual high Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte standard when we took our seats on opening night of Nina Simone: Four Women. Chip Decker’s set design for the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is colorful and impressive. And shifty: when Decker detonates his sound design, simulating the bomb blast that killed four black girls on September 15, 1963, the walls twist acutely to register the racist atrocity.

But after Lizzie and American Idiot, two arrestingly loud shows at ATC’s new Queens University home, this Christina Ham drama was often too soft-spoken to be clearly heard – even though I spotted the actors wearing head mics late in the 86-minute performance. That was a major element that can improve as the run continues.

Shortcomings in Ham’s script and Chanel Blanchett’s stage direction are not so easily remedied. I’m sure the playwright didn’t intend to be insulting, but her scenario basically tells us that Simone went down to the 16th Street church, stationed herself defiantly behind the sanctuary keyboard with the intention of completing her livid protest song, “Mississippi Goddam.” While completing her response to the murder of Medgar Evers three months earlier in Mississippi, three of the women who would be immortalized in “Four Women” walked in off the street to take refuge from the violence still raging out on the streets of Birmingham.

Fate basically hands the songwriter one of her most revered compositions, if you take Ham literally.

I’m not sure that Blanchett wants us to take the story that way. Played with stormy intensity by Destiny Stone, Simone is already hostile and militant when she arrives in Birmingham. Nina’s urgent need to get her song finished only begins to catalog the reasons why she antagonizes each of the three women who walk in on her. Sarah is a humdrum housemaid who would rather pursue MLK non-violence than take Malcolm X action. Sephronia is a yellow-skinned socialite who doesn’t struggle at all financially like Sarah, drawing class hatred from the housekeeper for her money and scorn from Simone for her political aloofness.

Further stirring the pot is Sweet Thing, seething because she can’t have Sephronia’s fiancé though she can have his baby. This liquor-swigging streetwalker draws hatred and scorn from all quarters, for how she lives and for entering a holy place. Beware, though, she’s brandishing a knife.

Although the arguments are passionate, Blanchett blunts their sharpness, preferring to space her players rather than getting them in each other’s faces – until Arlethia Friday arrives as Sweet Thing. Stone, Erica Ja-Ki Truesdale as Sarah and Krystal Gardner as Sephronia often face us instead of the person they’re arguing with. Maybe Blanchett doesn’t really believe that Simone and the “intruders” are really there at the Baptist Church. Having these actors appear like they’re reliving the first play they ever performed in grade-school doesn’t solve the problem.

After all the verbal and physical combat, the title song breaks out. It’s surreal: all three women miraculously know their lyric and their order in the song. I’m guessing this dramatic flouting of logic will help distract us from the fundamental flip she burdens Stone with in portraying Simone. For 80 minutes, she has heaped hatred, anger, and scorn upon these women who are interfering with her creative process. Now she’s deeply empathetic toward them all, turning them into emblems of scarred, heroic black womanhood.

With 11 other songs along the way, there are sudden lurches as we move forward, cutting abruptly from argument to song. Stone’s singing, with pianist Judith Porter leading a driving quartet, is the show’s most human element as she channels Simone’s fire into “Sinnerman,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and the last of the “Four Women.” Stripped of the backup singers that sugarcoat Simone’s recordings of “Young, Gifted, and Black,” I liked the crispness of Stone’s even better.

Intensity was never Stone’s problem. What I was looking for was more arrogant self-assurance lifting her rage to a higher plane – a serene majesty that earns you the title of High Priestess of Soul. A few more leading roles, not to mention turning 30, will likely do the trick someday. Probably because she comes in toting a flask and a knife, getting the liberty to stagger around the stage rather than finding a mark and facing front, Friday’s Sweet Thing is the best acting we see. She isn’t Simone’s Sweet Thing until she sings her, but she’s closer to what Nina had in mind than Ham’s housemaid. Darting between the worlds of rock, jazz, blues, folk, and soul, Simone has eluded many who would find excitement and enjoyment in her music. Ham’s writing marshals key facts in this North Carolina native’s life into the dialogue but never really captures her soul. The songs in Four Women and Stone’s singing could be a gateway to that treasure trove.

Actor’s Theatre Brings More Than Sufficient Wattage to “The Curious Incident”

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Perry Tannenbaum

For all of its bells and whistles, Simon Stephens’ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time evolves into something quite simple – a mother, a father, and their autistic son who are all trying to be better. I’ve seen the show three times in less than three years, first on Broadway, then on in its national tour, and now in its current incarnation at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus. Each time, I’ve found new details to unpack, new facets of character to consider. Of course, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte version breaks the mold set by Marianne Elliott, who directed this adaptation of Mark Hadden’s novel on Broadway and on tour. In his stage direction and scenic design, Chip Decker takes his cues from Elliott and her scenic designer, Bunny Christie, but it’s obvious the Decker and the three actors he has cast as the Boone family have their own ideas.

Christopher Boone is the inward 15-year-old with autism who savors his solitude and freaks if anyone touches him, including Mum and Dad. He’s fairly oblivious, inexperienced, and clueless about human relationships, so the marital dynamics between his parents are totally unexplored territory. Yet Christopher functions on such a high mental level, an Asperger savant syndrome level, that he regards his special ed classmates as stupid and is highly confident that he can pass his A-level math tests years before “normal” schoolkids are allowed to take them. With Chester Shepherd taking on this role in his own clenched, volatile and vulnerable way, I saw more clearly why the prospect of postponing these tests was such an unthinkable catastrophe for him. Not only does Christopher notice everything that well-adjusted people allow to slip past them, he can also recall details with the same precision, like every item he extracted from his pockets on the night he was arrested and questioned at the Swindon police station. So it figures that Christopher would plan his future with the same persnicketiness, and that a single displaced detail – like postponing the date when he would pass his maths – would throw him into a spasmodic fit of panic.

Or so it seems with Shepherd emphasizing Christopher’s hair-trigger sensitivities. We see him at the beginning of his epic journey, huddled over his neighbor Mrs. Shears’ dog, Wellington, who lies there lifeless, skewered by a pitchfork. Christopher is obviously a prime suspect for Mrs. Shears, so she calls the police. Uncomfortable around other humans, Christopher doesn’t react well when a policeman arrives to interrogate him. Dad must come down to the station, after Christopher is arrested for assaulting the cop, to explain his son’s condition – a not-so-subtle indictment of police enlightenment. Twice shaken by the evening’s experiences, Christopher resolves to solve the mystery of who killed Wellington. That beastly affair doesn’t seem to concern the police, perhaps the second count in Hadden’s indictment.

As Christopher well understands, solving the Wellington mystery will force him to engage with other people, especially neighbors whom he has previously shunned. This aversion isn’t readily quashed, cramping the investigation when Christopher decides to question the warm and eccentric Mrs. Alexander. When the hospitable lady invites him into her apartment, Christopher refuses, and when Mrs. Alexander offers to bring him orangeade and cookies – after a somewhat protracted negotiation – he flees before she can return with the goodies, fearing that she is calling the police on him, the way neighbor ladies seem to do. Christopher seems most at ease with the person who understands him best – his teacher, Siobhan. She encourages him to pursue this project and to chronicle the investigation in a book. But she has the good sense to yield to Dad when he forbids Christopher to continue with his investigation and his narrative. With some adorable hair-splitting, Christopher thinks he’s circumventing Dad’s directive as he persists in his probe, getting key info when he meets up with Mrs. Alexander for a second time.

Maybe the niftiest turn of the plot is how Dad ironically entraps himself. By confiscating Christopher’s handwritten book-in-progress, Ed Boone ultimately ensures that his son will not only discover the truth about Wellington but also the truth he’s been hiding about Christopher’s mom, Judy. This section of the plot is bookended by two prodigious meltdowns from Shepherd, the second one stunning enough to remind me of Othello’s fit. Shepherd delivers Christopher’s comical difficulties as vividly as his poignant ones in a performance that rivals his leading role in Hand to God a year ago, but Decker and his design team magnify this performance by working to help us see the action from the perspective of an autistic teen. At the beginning, Decker’s sound design assaults us with loud noises, simulating the sensory overload that is the everyday norm for Christopher. There are similar assaults in Hallie Gray’s lighting design glaring in our faces – and flashing red alarms across the upstage walls when Christopher is tensing up or melting down. We often hear a doglike whimper from Shepherd when he is stressed.

About the only shortfall in Decker’s scenic concept, which opens up Christie’s more enclosed design, is the erosion it inflicts on Jon Ecklund’s projection designs. They just don’t pop as wondrously as they did at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York or at Belk Theater when the tour stopped here in February 2017. We don’t get quite the same amplification when poor Christopher navigates the London Underground or cityscape as he searches for Mum’s flat, and the wow factor when Christopher rhapsodizes on our vast universe is muted. But there was plenty of wattage from Shepherd to compensate, and Becca Worthington gave us more energy on opening night as Judy Boone than I saw on Broadway or at the Belk describing the good times and the bad times before she abandoned her family. By the time she recalled the meltdown at a shopping mall that precipitated her departure, I didn’t require a replay. Afterwards, Worthington gave more of an emphasis on doing better as a mother so it was never overshadowed by her outrage at Ed’s deceptions and misdeeds.

Rob Addison was less wiry and more avuncular than previous Eds that I’d seen, which struck me as good things before and after he was found out. I think first-timers will see Dad’s prohibition of Christopher’s probe as less strict and arbitrary than my first and second impressions were on Broadway and on tour – and that his pleas for forgiveness are sincere and heartfelt. A less cuddly approach to the role is certainly defensible, but I was deeply pleased with Addison’s take. Decker brought Megan Montgomery downstage as Siobhan more often than I remembered, giving Christopher’s teacher slightly more texture than I had seen previously. The brambles in her accent also demonstrated that Montgomery’s years at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland hadn’t been wasted.

An ensemble of six flutters around the four core characters, moving spare scenery pieces around, unobtrusively setting up an electric train set, acting as street and subway crowds, levitating Christopher, and filling multiple minor roles. Tracie Frank and Jeremy DeCarlos stood out as the long-separated Shearses, each abrasive to Christopher in his or her own way. With her nervous gestures and blue-tinted pigtails, Shawnna Pledger’s fussy account of Mrs. Alexander safely transcended that of a generic eccentric. A similar children’s book simplicity hovered over Donovan Harper’s rendition of the arresting Policeman in the opening scene, yet Tom Scott was able to sprinkle some comical discomfort on Reverend Peters when confronted with the question of where heaven is.

Only Lisa Hatt was deprived of a name, portraying a Punk Girl, and a Lady in Street among her various cameos. Decker may have felt sorry for all of Hatt’s unnamed contributions, perhaps allowing her to choose her own number. She was listed in the Actor’s Theatre playbill as No. 40, a radical break from the Broadway and touring company playbills, which listed that role as No. 37. This production certainly paid attention to details! We even had the delight of Stephens’ Pythagorean postscript, which Shepherd dispatched with a full two minutes remaining on the projected digital clock. It was part of a comical meta layer that the playwright sprinkled across Christopher’s dialogues with Siobhan, reminding us that he had adapted Hadden’s novel for the stage. Very successfully, I should add.