Tag Archives: Chip Decker

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.

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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.

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.

“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.

40 Whacks and Some Heavy-Metal Slaying

Preview: Lizzie

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

When we first learn about Lizzie Borden, it’s through an antique schoolyard rhyme, and there’s no doubt. Miss Borden was an axe murderer – and not a dainty one. Forty whacks for Mom, a pause for reflection… then 41 for Dad. But in the real world back in 1892, Borden was acquitted of the gory double murders that had happened at her home in Fall River, Massachusetts. And the actual number of whacks, for Lizzie’s dad and stepmother combined, was less than 30.

Notwithstanding the uncertainty of her guilt – and the poetic license taken in her song – Lizzie remains legendary and the prime suspect. But the action hero of a hard rock musical? Writer/director Tim Maner and songwriter Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer sorta had that idea in 1990. Putting together four songs and staging their experimental rock theatre production in SoHo, the duo originally called their confection Lizzie Borden: An American Musical.

Over the next 13 years, the work was reworked, fitfully revived, and workshopped. New songs were tacked on, the skeletal storyline was fleshed out, and Alan Stevens Hewitt joined the writing team. As the work grew to a full-fledged two-act musical – or at least a rock concert musical – the title continued to become leaner. Long story short, Lizzie is now rockin’ on the Queens U campus, transitioning from previews to its official Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte opening this week.

From its Borden beginnings, Lizzie has always featured four women in the singing roles. Aside from the legendary slayer, there’s Lizzie’s elder sister Emma, next door neighbor Alice Russell, and housemaid Bridget Sullivan. Actor’s Theatre is taking it way further – presenting an all-woman edition. The sextet of instrumental slayers joining the cast onstage at Hadley Theater will all be women. Ditto the design team, the choreographer, the music director, the stage manager, and the stage director.

Cue Joanna Gerdy. Despite her lofty reputation as an actress, co-founder of Chickspeare, and eminent teaching doyenne, Gerdy has strayed into crass and bloody musicals before, directing Little Shop of Horrors and Bonnie and Clyde. You might think that an actress lauded for her dramatic performances in The Miracle Worker, Macbeth and Our Town would be more powerfully drawn to Joan Baez than Joan Jett.

You’d be right. But the slashing score of Lizzie still grabs Gerdy.

“I love the music in this show,” she gushes. “And what’s not to love? Think Heart, Joan Jett, The Runaways, Stevie Nicks…you get the idea! Lizzie runs the gamut from catchy melodic storytelling, to outrageous punk rock anthems, to evocative ballads. There are head-banging moments juxtaposed with gut-wrenching stillness. There are lyrics straight out of Macbeth, and in fact, a Weird Sister vibe throughout.”

The skip-rope song was all that had ever grabbed Gerdy about Borden when Actor’s Theatre artistic director Chip Decker asked her to take the reins. She was happy to find that the familiar rhyme starts off the evening, setting the creepy tone. But it still wouldn’t be worth the effort for Gerdy if things didn’t get serious before they got gory.

Lizzie unlocks the doors in the House of Borden, shows us what may have been going on behind them, and we can’t help but feel for this trapped, desperate, powerless girl,” Gerdy explains. “Women were living under a harsh Victorian moral code, and Lizzie Borden was likely trapped inside a house hiding even more heinous goings-on. For me, this play gives powerful voice to women in a time when they were often voiceless and powerless.”

So the biggest mystery that Lizzie will explore, with ever-increasing decibels, isn’t the question of if this New Englander committed these horrific crimes but why. What could have brought so much stress and pressure on poor Lizzie that there was only this path forward? Obviously, it will be an accumulation of actions and events.

“From the moment the audience walks in,” says Gerdy, “they should feel totally creeped out, unsettled, off-balance…that feeling that something bad is already happening, and it’s going to get worse. And when it does, it will rock your face off! As the story intensifies and the Patriarchy is smashed, the women are empowered to literally shed the trappings of their Victorian entrapment…and they become rock stars!”

Shedding a walking cane to play the role, Katy Shepherd can closely identify with Lizzie’s feelings of powerlessness. After splashing down sensationally in Charlotte, romping around ImaginOn in the title role of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse for Children’s Theatre, following that up with more grownup triumphs in A Woman of No Importance and Rock of Ages (her Actor’s Theatre debut), Shepherd’s sensational 2015 was followed by a nightmarish 2016. Stricken by celiac disease coupled with severe anemia, Shepherd underwent surgery five times, the last on December 29. The surgery before that had left her bedridden for a month – not even allowed to sit. Now that’s trapped.

“Every day I can walk, let alone perform, is such a gift!” Shepherd declares. “American Idiot [with Actor’s Theatre last season] was my first show back with a healthy body, and our wonderful choreographer Tod Kubo even remarked on how my dancing had even improved since our last show together. I feel so present and grateful being healthy, and any role that I play now will have a touch of that.”

Gerdy hadn’t met Shepherd before auditions and had no knowledge of her backstory. Knowing where Katy had come from to get there had nothing to do with why Gerdy was impressed. Seeing her in the moment was enough.

“Katy’s vocal power blew me away!” Gerdy remembers. “At the auditions, I found myself spending a lot of time watching what people were doing when they weren’t singing or performing. And that’s what tipped the scales for me: She was ALWAYS compelling, even, or perhaps especially, in the moments when she was listening and just being. She made me care about Lizzie and want to watch her, listen to her, and root for her. And those eyes! She can shift from vulnerable to vixen in the blink of an eye – literally.”

The spark for Shepherd comes from how different this supposed murderess is from her, the range of emotions she is called upon to project – and some pretty insane vocals.

“Every song is one to brace yourself for,” Shepherd warns. “This music delivers in a way I have never experienced before. From abuse, to murder, to seduction, to betrayal – it’s all there. And it all ROCKS.”

Nor is Shepherd through battering down obstacles that lie in her path. Taking on Lizzie, she had only three off days in July, and before rehearsing seven days a week until 10 or 11pm at night, she’s holding down a full-time day job teaching at Children’s Theatre’s summer camp. Gerdy has been keeping track, imagining the extra time Shepherd devotes to learning lines, absorbing the music, and refining her portrait of a legend.

“And she has done all of this during her first pregnancy!” Gerdy marvels. “She’s a force; I’m in awe of her, honestly, and am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity to work with and get to know her.”

So we finally arrive at the question no journalist can shirk when confronting an esteemed actor who has penetrated into the deepest recesses of Lizzie Borden’s soul and lived there for over a month. To put it rather coarsely: Was Lizzie a lezzie?!?

“Considering that there are only women in this show,” Shepherd shoots back, “and you’ve always got to have a love story, I’ll let you do the math!”

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.

 

People Messing With Other People Keep “The Luckiest People” Lively

Review: The Luckiest People

By Perry Tannenbaum

“Grow old along with me, The best is yet to be,” Rabbi Ben Ezra famously says in a Robert Browning poem, but tragic heroes King Lear and Willy Loman would probably have sided with my mom. She keeps telling me: “Young is better.” At Hadley Theatre, tucked away on the Queens University campus, playwright Meridith Friedman significantly compounds the controversy in The Luckiest People. In this Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by Sidney Horton, Friedman’s charming comedy-drama revolves around Oscar Hoffman, who is stranded by the death of his beloved wife, Dorothy, in a California assisted-living community, deeply lonely with myriad aches, pains, and complaints.

Most of these complaints, some fairly hilarious, are poured into his son Richard’s ears – plus the insinuation that he was responsible for letting his mom die. Oscar’s other child, Laura, has managed to distance herself from the fray, living in Shanghai and delaying her arrival until the funeral because she couldn’t stand to face her mom during her final hours.

So yes, Friedman sometimes seems to hint that caring for your parents as they journey toward their final transition might be at least as agonizing as experiencing it. That impression, however, is undercut by another perspective.

Layered onto all the love-hate friction between Oscar and his children is Richard’s relationship with his partner David. Richard and David are close to adopting a son when Oscar, ignorant of these plans, decides that the time has come for him to leave his place and move in with his son.

One transitioning child is enough for Richard and David to handle in their household, but David watches as Richard uses his father’s needs – and the possibility of his moving in – as excuses to drag his feet on the adoption. Although he himself becomes the target of Oscar’s testiness, David also sees that Richard is more than a little hypertense in dealing with Dad’s needs, complaints, and accusations. Oscar and Richard were born and raised as New York Jews while David is a comparatively mellow California Christian, apparently unacquainted with weaponized guilt.

Because Laura must return to Shanghai, Friedman compresses the bulk of her action into just a few days. That’s long enough for David – and us – to get the notion that Richard and Laura aren’t suffering so much because their dad is really tormenting them. They’re suffering because neither of them is really a grownup. Maybe Richard isn’t ready for parenthood after all.

Leaning over to that point of view can happen if we forget what a handful Oscar can be. Or we can catch ourselves laying the blame on Oscar for his children’s stunted growth. It’s complicated. Fully drawn dramatic families usually are.

Clearly reveling in the height of the Hadley, where Actor’s Theatre has recently inked a deal to be Queens U’s resident theatre for the next five years, executive director Chip Decker has put on his scenic designer hat and built two adjoining rooms at different levels. One of them is Oscar’s modest living room and the other, tellingly larger, is Robert’s kitchen. Of course there’s room for everybody!

Horton has a great sense for how Friedman’s comedy and drama should mix and how the Hoffman family’s humor and anger should suddenly erupt – and there’s a pretty wonderful cast at his command. In this rolling world premiere, Dennis Delamar gets the chance to reprise and further develop his Oscar, a role he originated in staged readings at the NuVoices Festival of 2016. Stooped over, stubborn, selfish, whip smart, and half blind, he is a thorny person to deal with. He’s still holding a grudge over transplanting from Great Neck, New York, to sunny California; yet late in life, Delamar shows us very naturally that Oscar still has possibilities for personal growth.

On the other hand, we might resist the notion that the perpetually tentative or exasperated Richard will ever loosen up, for until the final scene, in a nuanced performance seething with hidden fire, Tim Ross keeps him looking stressed or depressed. Some of that anger even carries over from his scenes with his father and his lover to his scattered tête-à-têtes with his wayward sister. Huddled with little Laura, Ross makes sure we also see an older, wiser brother, with glints of maturity, responsibility, and an aptitude for parenting.

Eventually, both Oscar and Richard emerge as our protagonists. When that happens, we’re likely to realize that Laura and David have both been part of the alchemy. Susan Stein makes an auspicious Charlotte debut as Laura, obviously the loosey-goosey sib from the moment she first enters. Laura is the one who has taken all the leaps into matrimony, motherhood, and now infidelity that Richard is wary of, and Stein makes her self-justifying zingers nearly as memorable as those Oscar aims at his caregivers and over-the-hill neighbors.

All of Friedman’s illuminating edifice probably wouldn’t have collapsed if she had made David a little less perfect, but Scott A. Miller, one of our best, finds a way to texturize him. Mostly, we empathize with David because we see how hurt he is by Oscar’s slights and Richard’s failures to commit, smiling weakly yet persevering with firm resolve. He also has a tête-à-tête or two with Laura, but you can count on Miller to make these more relaxed, conspiratorial, and gossipy.

My only disappointment on opening night was the size of the crowd. The place on Radcliffe Avenue can be a little difficult to find the first time out, but a show this warm and rich is definitely worth the trouble. These are, as the relevant song says, “people who need people,” and you’ll likely never see Delamar or Ross in better form than at the Hadley in The Luckiest People.

New Plays, New Place, and New Hope at Actor’s Theatre

Preview of The Luckiest People

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Trashy musicals, irreverent spoofs, and trendy new works by black and feminist playwrights aren’t the only things Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has done well over the past 29 years. Around the country, when their artistic and administrative staff attend national conferences with their colleagues, they find that a big part of the company’s reputation rests on their commitment to nurturing new plays.

After two years of instability and uncertainty – and two full seasons without reviving their NuVoices Festival – Actor’s Theatre is getting back to that. This week, they’re opening Meridith Friedman’s The Luckiest People, part of a rolling world premiere that began in Denver. In May, the company will be part of another rolling world premiere, presenting David Valdes Greenwood’s The Mermaid Hour.

Both of these new plays were previously presented in reading stage productions at NuVoices 4 in January 2016, with all of the actors performing script-in-hand. No scenery, no costumes, and limited rehearsal.

NuVoices 4 was one of the last events at 615 E. Stonewall Street, ATC’s last permanent home before developers’ wrecking balls demolished the site. After a misadventure in the Belmont neighborhood near Plaza-Midwood, the company was supposed to reopen at 2219 Freedom Drive late in October 2016.

Instead, they had to move Toxic Avenger a block away to the City Center Church, of all places, the first of four unforeseen sites where ATC’s 2016-17 season was staged. Until last fall, when Actor’s Theatre launched their current season with American Idiot, subscribers never knew where the next production would crop up.

That’s when ATC announced that Freedom Drive was still on hold and that their next two productions would remain at Hadley Theatre on the Queens University campus. But after that?

Now we know. Luckiest People, Mermaid Hour, and The Mountaintop will all be at the Hadley. More importantly, ATC artistic director Chip Decker and John Sisko, dean of Queens U’s College of Arts & Sciences, have just inked a deal that will keep ATC on campus as the U’s resident theatre company for the next five years.

From necessity to desperation to near-relief, it’s been quite a rollercoaster for Decker, his board members, and ATC’s loyal fans. “We’re off life support but still in ER,” Decker quips. “In a better hospital.”

Sisko arrived at Queens in the summer of 2016, when all seemed to be going smoothly with ATC’s relocation. After the abortive opening in October and a subsequent revival of The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical at the McBride-Bonnefoux Dance Center – a horrid acoustic mismatch for a live musical – Sisko wasn’t hearing any signs of life, so he reached out.

Down at Freedom Drive, one hurdle was following another. Parking had to be upgraded to satisfy the City, architects’ drawings kept getting sent back for tiny inaccuracies. Think about this one the next time you walk through the metal canyons of a parking lot to find your car: Decker and his company had to shell out thousands of dollars to get an engineer to certify that the concrete slab – one that had held up a mechanic’s shop and the building itself for 50 years – could support an audience.

“We were slowly bleeding money to death.”

After Bootycandy ran at Mint Museum, Stupid Fucking Bird was staged at the Hadley last spring, a clear signal that Sisko and Queens U brass were unfazed by ATC’s edgy fare. Decker quickly recognized that this would be the finest venue his company had ever performed in. By far.

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The lightbulb came on, and Decker invited Sisko out to grab some coffee and chat about the future.

“It took me a long time to quit beating my head against the wall to make Freedom Drive happen,” Decker recalls. “Having the passion for something and wanting it so bad, I kind of started being blind to the writing on the wall. We were at the point, Perry, and I shared this with John, and I said, ‘We’re do or die. We’re either going to close, or something different is going to work.’”

When Sisko saw how well Stupid Bird went, concern about ATC’s struggle gave way to recognizing the opportunities that bringing the company on board could open. ATC could offer technical support for Theatre Department productions during the academic year, they could offer internships to graduating students, they could oversee a summer theatre festival with performances on the quad under the stars, and they could teach courses about theatre production and administration.

“ATC is the backbone of the Queens theatre program, and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship,” Sisko says. “We have parents who are a little worried about their children being an arts major. But when they’re an arts major and they have 30 credits on the business side of the arts as well, then they are in better position when they face post-graduation.”

Talks are already under way on prospects of reviving the NuVoices Festival as early as this summer, and Decker is already salivating at the prospects. At previous festivals, the four playwrights, four directors, and their casts had to rehearse and perform on a single space at Stonewall. On the Queens campus, there will be multitudes of classrooms at ATC’s disposal, playwrights will be able to interact and talk shop, or simply do rewrites – on the quad, in some greenspace, or in a classroom instead of a hotel.

“They can all come together and talk about the process of playwriting, what it takes to get it produced,” says Decker. “Queens can bring in their MFA creative writing students for master classes with the playwrights on how do you get seen, how do you get published, how do you get your word out there, what it literally takes to become a professional writer on the scene.”

With the opening of The Luckiest People this week, ignition for whole process gets revved up again, because NuVoices is one of very few festivals across the country that promises a full production for every winning entry.

Dennis Delamar, a longtime actor and director at ATC, is doubly excited: he’s reprising the central role of Oscar Hoffman two years closer to the irascible old SOB’s actual age, and he’s performing for the first time at the Hadley knowing that the company has their feet back under them.

Under cross-examination, Delamar can catalog why Oscar is so difficult as he seeks to impose himself on his son’s household – just when he and his male partner are adopting a son. There’s the culture shock of moving from Great Neck, NY, to California; the many physical torments of Paget’s disease; the recent death of his devoted wife; and the pure cussedness of a Jewish trial lawyer who revels in disputation. Even his sharp sense of humor is thorny.

NuVoices gives this role an extra charge. “Being on the ground floor of a new piece of theatre is pretty thrilling,” says Delamar, “a professional collaboration that offers one an opportunity to offer one’s own unique interpretation while the playwright is still in the ‘making it better’ stages.”

Participating in NuVoices gave Delamar the opportunity to meet the playwright and learn first-hand how she drew his character from her own Great Neck grandfather. Thanks to Facebook, Delamar stayed in touch, conferring with Friedman when she made further revisions.

“I felt quite comfortable to write to her about a significant moment for Oscar I noticed had been changed,” he confides. “Taking time to explain to me the history and logic of the change, Meridith reminded me how much I appreciate working with this gifted and open minded writer. She listens. She is wise. I agreed with the change and loved that we could confer so openly about it.”

Yes, the thrill is back at ATC – with new plays and new hope.

“All the signs from this last year together suggest that it’s going to work out extremely well,” says Sisko.

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.