Tag Archives: Chip Decker

Escape… to the East Side

Preview: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte Rock the Barn

By Perry Tannenbaum

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After more than a year of lockdowns and social distancing, meat shortages and toilet paper shortages, wildfires and hurricanes, astonishing protests and insurrection – along with more Zoomed meetings and celebrations and religious services than anyone could ever have imagined – are we ready to ROCK? Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and its intrepid executive director, Chip Decker, definitely think so.

They aren’t merely serving up one liberating escape to rock-and-roll heaven. They’re coming at us with a whole Rock the Barn outdoor mini-season. Three shows, hosted by Levine Properties and MoRA, at The Barn – beginning this week.

Head on out with your favorite lawn chair to 8300 Monroe Road, where Decker will direct a nine-person cast in Rock of Ages. Keyboardist Willis Hickerson, Jr., leads the five-man band that will help this motley crew of singers, dancers, slackers, and meanies to deliver more than 30 hits of the ‘80s, many of them calculated to melt our faces off with heavy metal intensity.

That shredding, mind-scrambling mix plays Wednesday through Sunday evenings for four weekends until it closes on August 21. Then the Charlotte premiere of Head Over Heels sashays over to The Barn before Labor Day weekend, an unlikely gender-bending mix of hit music by The Go-Go’s and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, running from September 1-25.

Ever unconventional, the Actor’s Theatre version of a summer season extends until Halloween, with the Queen City’s dearest cult favorite, The Rocky Horror Show, dropping its special creepshow merriment on The Barn at MoRA’s greensward with an October 6-31 run. Hint: Rocky is like Scarowinds, except it’s for people who might enjoy content, righteously rockin’ music, and not sitting in an endless car caravan on I-77 South.

Glancing at his bottom line, Decker has a bit of an oldies bent himself, bringing back two hits that grossed well for ATC in the past decade, Rocky Horror in 2011 and Rock of Ages in 2015.

“We want to help folks rediscover a sense of normality, of fun, of camaraderie and friendship,” Decker stresses. “This summer, post-COVID, I felt like we all needed a break from everything, and a chance to mentally check out and leave a horrific year behind. Finances are always a concern for a non-profit, but it is almost immeasurable the devastation the pandemic has wreaked on the performing arts organizations around the country. Hundreds of companies have closed, some short-timers, some surprisingly long-established companies that could not, for whatever reason, weather the COVID storm. I am extremely proud of ATC and the fact that we are still here to offer three ‘oldies.’”

The third oldie, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, marks the transition between Act 1 of the company’s 33rd season to an Act 2 indoor season they’re calling An American Tale. The January 2022 production will be the company’s fifth Hedwig since 2003 and their first at Queens University, where ATC is a resident company. It’s been a long time away from Hadley Theater, where the lights last went down on Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill when it closed in February 2020. The beautiful new Sarah Belk Gambrell Center, an added jewel on the Queens campus, will likely wedge its way into ATC’s future plans.

For those who vividly remember ATC’s raunchy 2015 take on Rock of Ages, a burning question might be whether they can reprise the pole-dance choreography outdoors – and how that kind of edginess might play out there on the East Side. In neighboring Matthews, Bonnie & Clyde and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are as outré and daring as it gets.

So it’s telling that Renee Welsh Noel takes over for Tod A. Kubo, the original Rock choreographer. Kubo slides gracefully over to the director’s slot in Head Over Heels, which is more of a fairy tale in style.

While heaping praise on the support ATC has received from MoRA and businesses along the Monroe Road corridor, Decker freely acknowledges that the reprised Rock won’t be as hard.

“Our aim is to allow a slightly younger teenage crowd, 13+, to enjoy the music their parents loved and see a little naughty shenanigans to boot,” Decker explains, “an experience that both theatregoers will love and have fun at and, at the same time, an event the Summer Rock Concert attendees would get into as well. A sort of Woodstock/Theatre-in-the-Park extravaganza. The shows are silly fun but with great music, and our singers are excellent and the band is kick-ass!”

Fronting the flimsy plot and driving the action are two longtime ATC vets, Ryan Stamey as Lonny Barnett and – one of two holdovers from the 2015 production – Jeremy DeCarlos as Dennis Dupree. Owner of a sleazy, rundown club in ‘80s LA, Dennis is facing financial ruin as greedy German developers are poised to take over, not above bribing the mayor to have their way.

DeCarlos triumphed over the schlocky Chris D’Arienzo script in 2015, “zigzagging between fine hash mellow and bad trip freak-out” as Dennis, according to this reviewer. With as much range and versatility as any performer we’ve seen at ATC, does DeCarlos mess with success?

Yes…and no. He thought he had a fresh brilliant motivation for Dennis…

“Until we got to the read-thru and I realized ‘Wait, this was the idea I had LAST time…!’” DeCarlos recalls. “Part of my process as a performer compels me to find new things and new discoveries in playing a familiar character. So, I’m hoping those that know Dennis will still see familiar shades of my previous version a few years back, but layered into something a little different. I like to think of ‘Old’ Dennis as a mixture of David Lee Roth and Shaggy from Scooby Doo. I’ve been having a lot of fun finding ‘New’ Dennis’s mixture while keeping true to some shades of the ‘Old.’”

If cooped-up audiences are eager to cut loose, DeCarlos reminds us that performers feel very much the same. The ace actor and singer also plays guitar, so – counting in ATC productions that had to scrapped or delayed during the pandemic – DeCarlos estimates that four or five gigs disappeared from his docket. The effect was visceral for him. Yet with all that has happened politically, racially, and pandemically over the past 16 months, DeCarlos feels that Dennis is the right way for him to roll, rather than with heavier fare.

“I do think coming back with something fun,” he says, “definitely works a little better to release any pent-up frustrations from the pandemic. The first few nights of coming back to rehearsals made it pretty clear that this cast was ready to cut-up and fool around. After such a serious year, it’s been amazing having an opportunity to let loose and make each other laugh!”

Stamey is also one of the most versatile guys in the ATC stable, sometimes toiling behind the scenes as a music director. Since 2007, however, when he introduced the role of the volatile, Sharpie-sniffing Duke in The Great American Trailer Park Musical, singing the showstopping “Road Kill,” Stamey is best known for his trashy wildman antics. Your basic ex-boyfriend-from-hell roles.

Yet he was too young to experience the highest decibels of the ‘80s as a teen.

“The 80s were actually my elementary school years,” Stamey confesses. “Funny enough, I went to a very strict Free Will Baptist Christian school back then. In 3rd grade, our teacher thought we were old enough to teach us about the evils of heavy-metal music. He explained to a bunch of 9-year-olds about pentagrams, and upside-down crosses, and deals with the devil, and backmasking, and heads of doves being bitten off by rock singers. I remember some kids crying as he played music backwards and told us the Satanic messages he thought he heard in the music, all while having a Satanic Bible at his lectern. Needless to say, I was pretty terrified of rock music, particularly heavy-metal music, at that age.”

Until the revelations of Napster during his college years, Stamey didn’t begin to appreciate, download, or catch up on all he had missed. Now he’s catching up with Rock of Ages as Lonny, the man with the plan, the story, and the persuasive powers. Working at the Bourbon Room as Dennis’s soundman, a side-hustle since he’s our narrator, Lonny persuades his boss to hire young rocker Drew, a hunk who aspires to superstardom but is currently content to sweep the floors. More importantly, he advises Dennis on a can-miss scheme to call in old favors and save the club.

If that isn’t enough, Lonny tells us what’s still missing from the story. Romance!

With masterworks by Bon Jovi, Pat Banatar, and REO Speedwagon in the abundant songlist of this jukeboxer, Stamey has a surprising favorite.

“One of my favorite songs was ‘High Enough’ by Damn Yankees,” he reveals. “It was just so epic and dramatic, and the harmonies you could sing with it! It’s one of the moments when the whole cast is getting a chance to just stand and sing their faces off, and it gives me chills every time.”

Kubo’s defection from Rock of Ages won’t rob ATC loyalists of seeing his choreography, for on top of his directing chores, he will be furnishing the dance moves in Head Over Heels. Like Hedwig and the 2022 premiere of Ghosts of Bogotá, this Go-Go’s/Sir Philip mashup was originally envisioned as part of the company’s lost Season 32. In terms of topicality, this James Magruder adaptation, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 and greatly altered for its 2018 Broadway run, is noticeably edgier – and newer – than ATC’s other outdoor shows.

Head Over Heels celebrates the LGBTQIAPK+ community unlike any Broadway musical of our time and puts a non-binary character at the center of our story!” says Kubo. “This old Elizabethan story of Arcadia, mixed with the high energy musical catalog of the Go Go’s, is very relatable to today’s audience and is easy to follow.”

So don’t be intimidated by the 1300-word synopsis of the action in Wikipedia.

“While our story will be told through a funky Elizabethanesque lens, with costumes [by Carrie Cranford] that will reflect elements of that era, the scenery [by Decker] provides an industrial, rock concert backdrop – with surprises of its own.”

Aside from the title tune, expect the newly formed 14-member ensemble to exhume “We Got the Beat,” “Mad About You,” “Our Lips are Sealed,” and “Turn to You” from the all-female Go-Go’s golden vaults. Henri Freeman has won the coveted non-binary role of Pythio. After achieving fame in 2017 on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Peppermint became the first openly trans woman to play a principal role on Broadway as Pythio.

“There are many twists, turns and surprises we have in store and can’t wait to share Head Over Heels with the Queen City,” Kubo says. Rehearsals begin next month.

We haven’t seen yet how Decker & Co. are adapting The Barn at MoRA to outdoor theatre, but it sounds like plenty of cover will be provided for the musicians’ electronics and the actors’ mics, for Chip is telling us that shows will go on under most weather conditions. You can also expect that your tickets will provide you with a clearly delineated, socially-distanced spot on the well-maintained MoRA field.

“Everyone should bring a folding chair,” says Decker, “so while the ground may be wet, your chair won’t be. Be prepared for rain, heat, wind, snow, frost warnings, tornadoes, typhoons and other weather anomalies. Unless there are high winds, thunder and or lighting, all shows will go on.”

Comedy and sexiness were the ingredients that made ATC’s 2015 version of Rock of Ages, directed by Decker, so much better than the comparatively staid and respectful touring version that came to the Queen City in 2011. Eagerness and glee seem to be carryovers in the upcoming revival – largely because everyone involved feels the jubilation of emerging from our national hibernation and getting back to work.

“We’ve all been isolated for so long,” DeCarlos asserts, “that I think we’re dying to let loose the energy that’s been building up in us over the pandemic, and that’s making us try lots of stuff to generate some really silly stuff!”

Stamey is definitely getting a kick from the special circumstances as he conspires with his co-star.

“After years of doing shows at Actors Theatre, it’s like working with family now,” he says. “My favorite part of this experience has been getting to be the Lonny to Jeremy’s Dennis, and Chip just letting us be completely stupid and just play around and try new things, new gags, new ideas. There have been many moments where I can barely contain my laughter when we are working through a scene as I’m watching Jeremy’s Dennis do something completely ridiculous.”

Part of this escape – for us all – is remembering how to have fun.

Hitting the (Monroe) Road With a Slightly Toned-Down Rock of Ages

Review: Rock of Ages at The Barn @ MoRA

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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As the exit ramp from the pandemic keeps getting longer, summertime urges to break out of isolation, let loose, and rock out aren’t likely to back up now. In this confused and anxious moment, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has taken a nicely calculated route to satisfying these urges, moving from their established HQ at Queens University to the outdoors and presenting a three-show “Rock the Barn” mini-season of three rock musicals out on Monroe Road. The first of these, Rock of Ages, has begun a run that will play to fans of ‘80s heavy metal and power ballads through August 21.

Days are still long enough so that shows begin before dark, but when night falls, Biff Edge’s lighting design gradually becomes gaudier, smoke effects play better, and we’re immersed in a true arena rock vibe. Musicians and actors are covered by a massive pavilion while ticketholders bring lawn chairs and experience the musical on a gently sloping lawn. ATC executive director Chip Decker assured us that the grounds at The Barn at MoRA (Monroe Road Area or Monroe Road Advocates, take your pick) had been sprayed for bugs, and indeed, although one of the critters crashed into my face during the full-length show, none bit.

Decker had directed an indoor production of Rock of Ages back in 2015, finding far more humor in Chris D’Arienzo’s book than the touring production of 2011 had brought to us and adding far more energy with Tod Kubo’s raunchy choreography. This time around, Decker wanted to play to a younger crowd, sidestepping some of the previous sleaze that might affright locals on the east side of town. A portion of that R-rated content had been achieved with scanty costuming and zesty pole dancing, but only one of these can be readily exported to the great outdoors. Taking over for Kubo, Renee Welsh Noel is not at all timid with her choreography, lavishing plenty of bumps and grinds for our delectation when the action moves from the rockin’ Bourbon Room to the salacious Venus Club, and costume designer Carrie Cranford’s working gear for Sherrie Christian, our heroine, credibly delivers what her customers would desire.

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Sherrie and our hero, Drew Boley, converge in LA sometime in 1987 and are briefly co-workers at the Bourbon Room. Since D’Arienzo’s book is tasked with connecting about 30 songs filled with teen passion and suffering, Drew and Sherrie’s romance is predictably rocky, filled with misunderstandings, bitterness, regret, and compromising situations before we come anywhere near a first kiss. At times, the couple fades into the background because the main plot and its complications concern the imperiled Bourbon Room, owned and managed by beloved goofball Dennis Dupree with the assistance of Lonny Barnett, his soundman and our narrator.

This cherished Sunset Strip landmark is targeted by the greedy German real estate developer Hertz Klinemann and his submissive son Franz for liquidation. Funky neighborhood and cultural treasures yielding to real estate profiteers and gentrification? That only happens in real life – not in feel-good movies and musicals. City planner Regina Koontz, do-gooder and rabble-rouser, pushes back against the Klinemanns, hatching a couple of nifty plot twists and song assignments before the blissful finale.

As Decker foretold in his welcoming remarks, performing on the grounds of The Barn at MoRA is a bit of a leap into the unknown, and he hoped the top of the pavilion would hold fast after being blown away during rehearsals. A plucky last-minute soundcheck by Cranford, doubling as our production manager, provided further reason for us to keep our fingers crossed when the show began. Thankfully, she concentrated on Elizabeth Medlin and Grant Zavitkovsky, who play the temperamental Sherrie and Drew. Cliched as they may be as lovebirds, they needed to have the best mics for their songs.

When things were going badly, when Drew was hoodwinked by record producer Ja’Keith Gill into fronting a boy band while Sherrie had been recruited by Justice Charlier into the degradations of the Venus Club, their anguished duet on Damn Yankees’ “High Enough” came across like the climactic highlight it was intended to be. By that time, we could chuckle a bit as we noticed that Decker had placed Zavitkovsky and Medlin at opposite sides of the stage to belt out their harmonies. Close contact between even the best mics onstage almost invariably led to lethal feedback blasting through the loudspeakers. Mercifully, these blasts were on the low end of the audio spectrum rather than high squeals.

The chief roadblock to romantic bliss between Sherrie and Drew is the awesome rock icon, Stacee Jaxx, coerced by Dennis to help raise funds for the Bourbon Room and prevent the Klinemanns from taking over. We quickly see the rowdiness and lawlessness that has alienated Stacee from Arsenal, the hit band that made Jaxx a star. Decker has sprung a surprise here, for the role played onscreen by Tom Cruise switched genders and Stacee was now sung by Shea – not with the best of the mics – adding new twists to Sherrie’s sexuality and Drew’s jealousy.

Medlin didn’t get a shot at the pole dance Decker staged in 2015, nor can we pity her any longer as a rape victim, but she definitely turned up the heat on the lap dance she performed for Stacee at a less provocative Venus Club. Less obvious are the benefits of Decker’s rethinking of Drew, for Zavitkovsky has the steely larynx needed to wail this rockstar wannabe, but his looks, while wholesome enough, allow more readily for failure – and the direction where this plot is actually headed.

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Jeremy DeCarlos as Dennis got his mic working intermittently, a definite improvement after his inaudible soundchecks, partnering well with Ryan Stamey as Lonny, who wrestled ebulliently with similar variables in his signature wild-man style. Nevertheless, dialogue and plot grew as foggy as the two flawless fog machines facing the stage when Katy Shepherd stepped forward in rather butch fashion as Regina and we needed to rely on Ryan Stinnett’s mic as Hertz and Jamaas Britton’s as Franz to keep track of the plot. Yet the three of them collaborated more than effectively enough, aided by a couple of tearaway costumes, to deliver the high comedy voltage of Pat Banatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”

With a more colorful costume, better lighting, and a better mic, Tony Mullins as Ja’Keith fared better on opening night than Shaniya Simmons as Justice. While lights and sound seemed to let Shea down and tamp down Stacee’s villainy – if a heavy-metal villain isn’t a sort of oxymoron – the setup for the five-piece band, including two guitars and led by Jessica Borgnis on keys, held rock-steady throughout the evening.

That was often bad news for the audience when we needed to hear the singers and discern the lyrics they sung over their relatively underpowered mics. As a result, the show remained more compelling for the older generation lounging on their lawn chairs, those spry folk already familiar with the oeuvre of Banatar, Yankees, Poison, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, REO Speedwagon, Quiet Riot, Bon Jovi, and David Lee Roth. As for me, “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “I Want to Know What Love Is” had me thinking that the collected works of Foreigner might be worth looking into.

Hope in the Time of COVID Sees Sleeping Beauty Reawakening in December

Review:  The Arts in the Time of COVID

By Perry Tannenbaum

The COVID collapse happened quickly on March 13. “We were hours away from the curtain rising on our all-new Fairy-Tailored Sleeping Beauty when we had to postpone the season,” says Hope Muir, Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director. On the morning before that, Charlotte Symphony’s new director of communications, Deirdre Roddin, met with me to discuss future concert coverage at this publication. But the upcoming Saint-Saëns Organ Concerto concert would soon be postponed, among the first performing arts dominoes to fall to the pandemic in the week that followed – along with an annual Women in Jazz fest at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the annual Charlotte Jewish Playwriting Contest at the Levine JCC, a chamber music concert at the Bechtler Museum, and Theatre Charlotte’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Tom Gabbard, president and CEO at Blumenthal Performing Arts, last attended a live show on March 11 – in the UK, before he and his wife Vickie returned home and tested positive for COVID-19. The Gabbards quarantined and recovered, but by the day after Ballet’s postponement, Gabbard had announced that all events at all Blumenthal venues were suspended through April 12. Complying with NC Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order suspending all public gatherings of 100 or more people, the Blumenthal directive took all decision making on the Saint-Saëns concert, scheduled for March 20, out of Symphony’s hands. Both of CSO’s primary venues, Belk Theater and Knight Theater, are managed by Blumenthal.

So far, Symphony has had to cancel 49 concerts. “That’s obviously a huge blow to the organization, both artistically and financially,” says Michelle Hamilton, CSO’s interim president and CEO. “The estimated financial impact of these concerts alone is in excess of $1.5 million. This does not include the impact of the pandemic on future concerts and attendance.”

On the revenue side, Opera Carolina wasn’t as seriously damaged as Symphony, losing just one event, an extensively revised version of Douglas Tappin’s I Dream. “The company received support through the Payroll Protection Plan [PPP],” says Opera artistic director, James Meena. “That has allowed us to maintain our staff and redirect funds to our new online series iStream, which has provided employment to our resident company.”

PPP funding has flowed to the most established arts organizations in Charlotte, including Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, Blumenthal Performing Arts, and Charlotte Symphony. “However,” Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke points out, “the PPP was designed to help organizations through what Congress thought was going to be a short-term, 8-week issue.”

Blumenthal drew the largest PPP allotment, $1.7 million, that helped with payroll in May and June. “We avoided furloughs until July 5,” says Gabbard, “when three full-time and 114 part-time team members were furloughed – 105 full-time remain, mostly working from home, with some working in the venues on various maintenance projects. PPP made a big difference.”

What lies ahead for all Charlotte performing arts groups is very murky, subject to weekly health directives from city or state government officials loosening or tightening restrictions. “Opera is dealing with a multitude of challenges,” says Meena, “caused by COVID-19 and now the 43% reduction in ASC [Arts & Science Council] support for the 2020-2021 season. We are evaluating audience concerns for attending performances, and perhaps more dauntingly, health and safety concerns for our performing company.

“Singing is one of the most effective ways to spread the coronavirus. Many church choirs are rehearsing remotely, so imagine a 50-voice opera chorus, principal artists, extras and the more than 30 technicians who normally work on an opera production. Additionally, health and safety concerns for the orchestra musicians (imagine being confined – maybe consigned is a better word – to the orchestra pit where social distancing is all but impossible) are challenges to performing Grand Opera that we have never experienced before.”

All of the companies we’ve mentioned have pivoted to online programming, but all weren’t equally prepared to make the switch. Charlotte Ballet, the first company impacted by the COVID ban on public assembly, was quickest to steer a fresh course. “I had implemented a much more robust structure for archiving and curating digital content over the past three years,” says Muir, “not just performance footage but interviews with artists, designers, collaborators and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage as well as the documentation of the Choreographic Lab. That commitment, I think, is why we were able to get out of the gate so quickly.”

Raiding their digitized vaults, Ballet was able to present Dispersal online, repackaging the company’s Innovative Works 2019 program with behind-the-scenes footage for a new kind of digital experience on March 27, just two weeks after Sleeping Beauty had been scheduled to premiere. Opera Carolina’s iStream series began in April and is archived on its YouTube channel, while Charlotte Symphony has logged an assortment of live Zoom and pre-recorded material online. For six straight Wednesday evenings, ending on July 29, they streamed a series of Al Fresco chamber music concerts recorded on video in the backyard of principal cellist Alan Black. It’s an avenue that will likely be revisited. Meanwhile, CSO has extensive recorded inventory to call upon, but unlike Charlotte Ballet’s, it is entirely audio, so their outlet of choice has been WDAV 89.9, where past concerts are aired on Friday evenings.

The mass exodus to streaming platforms has been global, creating a glut of available online events that don’t quite measure up to live performances. Charlotte Ballet has responded to this oversaturation by thinking outside the box. “I worked with choreographer Helen Pickett to discuss our options and this resulted in an opportunity for five of our dancers,” says Muir. “Charlotte Ballet joins artists from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem for part III of a trilogy Helen developed titled Home Studies, which is entirely choreographed and rehearsed via Zoom.”

Other companies are pushing the envelope by reimagining live performance under COVID restrictions. Rehearsing with masks and performing unmasked live at their dance studio, Caroline Calouche & Co. presented two online showings of A Love Show on July 25, charging admission for a ticket link. Theatre Charlotte is trying a more audacious outdoor model, presenting Grand Nights for Singing: The Parking Lot Performances on Friday nights outside their building, limiting audience size to 25, and charging $10 per ticket. Each of two performing singers wields a separate mic, there are no duets, and the audience is expected to provide their own chairs, snacks, and beverages.

“We are most likely not going to be able to perform for an audience in TC until at least December and maybe beyond,” says Ron Law, who was scheduled to retire June 30 but has extended for another season as Theatre Charlotte artistic director – and as President of the Board of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. “We have purchased appropriate video equipment so we can livestream productions. At this time, we are planning on doing performances of What I Did Last Summer by A.R. Gurney that will be livestreamed, with a per household ticket charge, on three dates in September.’

Waiting until June 11 to announce their 2020-21 season, Theatre Charlotte has prudently delayed their musical productions, The Sound of Music and Pippin, until spring 2021 – with understandable contingency plans. For their fall plays, they are tentatively offering their audience the options of live performances or streaming. Children’s Theatre have allowed themselves less wiggle room for 2020-21, eliminating musicals entirely from their slate. Yet their company, with video production a longtime component of their educational offerings, is probably the most adept we have in Charlotte when it comes to hybrid, live-or-streamed presentation skills.

While closing down all public performances at their two ImaginOn theaters, Children’s Theatre was at the tail-end of a 20-week School of Theatre Training programs, which culminates in four fully-produced OnStage presentations, two plays and two musicals. “We decided to move all four productions to a virtual format,” says Burke. “We’ve made other adjustments as well. We started some online educational programming and shifted our June summer camps to virtual experiences. In July we offered students the choice of virtual or in-person camps. We’ve kept close watch on all CDC, state and federal guidelines and have invested in some technologies that help us to maintain safety.”

Like Charlotte Ballet, Children’s has plenty of past performance video on file. They’ve edited these multi-camera shoots and served them up on a series of “Watch Party” webcasts. The new work keeps coming, further underscoring CTC’s technical prowess. “We’ve continued to move forward, as best we can, with the works that are in development including a collaboration with 37 children’s theatres across the country to adapt, as a virtual performance, the book A Kids Book About Racism.” That new piece launched into cyberspace on August 1. Other projects in the pipeline are Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, and a stage adaptation of the award-winning The Night Diary.

On March 12, the day before performing arts in Charlotte abruptly shut down, the town was abuzz in anticipation of Mecklenburg County announcing its first case of COVID-19. A surreal five months later – without any improvement, to be sure – announcements for the 2020-21 season, sensibly stalled in March, are beginning to flow amid a chaotic atmosphere in anticipation of the fall. Once again, Charlotte Ballet is at the vanguard, announcing that the long-delayed premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-Tailored Classic will open at Belk Theater on December 10 – replacing the traditional Yuletide presentation of Nutcracker. Makes sense: the trimmed-down Tchaikovsky ballet remains family-friendly with a helpful narrator to keep us abreast of the storyline. Unlike Nutcracker, the Tailored Sleeping Beauty doesn’t consign the Charlotte Symphony to the orchestra pit, and it doesn’t recruit 150 sacrificial lambs for children’s roles, including the ever-lovable Clara.

Iffier but on the schedule is Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, scheduled for April 22-24. Muir is “holding onto a beacon of hope” that CSO will be able to collaborate with Symphony on that auspicious event, booked at Belk Theater. Opera Carolina maestro Meena has seen his own commitments scuttled in Italy, where he had planned to conduct Andrea Chenier, Manon Lescaut and Turandot. He doesn’t expect opera to resume in Italy until December, so he isn’t counting on Opera Carolina collaborating with CSO before 2021. Meanwhile, expect the unexpected as OpCarolina fires up a new chamber music series, reviving their iStream Online concerts the week of September 11, returning every two weeks through November 16.

Keeping his eyes open for online options and live opportunities, Actor’s Theatre artistic director Chip Decker isn’t counting on returning to live performance at Queens University before July 2021. Tom Hollis, theatre program director at Central Piedmont Community College, retired on August 1. But he didn’t go out directing a final season of CPCC Summer Theatre as he had planned, so he’s expecting to reprise the complete 2020 slate in the spring or summer of 2021. Sense and Sensibility, originally set for this past April, may also figure in the mix.

Gabbard, the first to respond to our questionnaire on July 14, said that over 300 performances had already been cancelled at Blumenthal’s multiple facilities and wasn’t expecting national tours – their bread and butter – to resume “until at least late fall, and perhaps early 2021.” Even outdoor stopgaps that Gabbard might stage in Charlotte’s Uptown must remain on the back burner until public gatherings of 100 or more are approved.

On the lookout for best practices and inspiration, Gabbard is looking globally, “including Seoul, Korea, where big musicals like Phantom have played throughout the pandemic. I was asked to join the COVID-19 Theater Think Tank in New York, where we are speaking with academics and thought leaders in a search not only for short-term solutions, but also ways to improve our venues and hygiene practices long-term.”

Bach Akademie Charlotte artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett slowly realized last spring that there was no way to mobilize the musicians, patrons, and audience that would be necessary to make the third annual Charlotte Bach Festival happen last June. Hurriedly, he pulled together a four-day virtual festival that streamed on Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom. Much like Actor’s Theatre and CPCC Summer Theatre, Jarrett is hoping that the June 2020 event will happen in June 2021.

The experience shook him. “The recognition that I hadn’t made music with another human being in a month hit me hard on Easter Sunday morning,” Jarrett recalls, “and I grieved deeply for several weeks. Gradually, the shared recognition of all that we were losing with one another affirmed a shared value for communal music making. Those conversations continue to sustain me.”

Jarrett is busy, busy, busy these days up in Boston, working as artistic director with the Back Bay Chorale on their new Zoom curriculum and as director of music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel – and expecting to stay healthy. BU has taken the plunge, plowing millions of dollars into testing in an attempt to bring their student body back to campus, aiming to test all faculty weekly and all students twice weekly. Plans for the 2021 Charlotte Bach Festival are on hold, says Jarrett, until a proven vaccine delivers true COVID immunity.

Yet he’s clearly upbeat, even if he’s forced to deliver the 2021 Bach Experience via Zoom. Describing her own company’s trials, Charlotte Ballet’s Muir offers the best explanation for this paradox: “Once we realized this virus was not going anywhere quickly, we had to pivot and focus on new ways to keep the team motivated and creative. And this is where artists thrive! At our core, we are shape-shifters and it’s exhilarating to think of new ways to communicate and engage with one another.”

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.