Tag Archives: Chip Decker

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.

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A Labor of Rockin’ Love and Face-Melting Fury

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Preview:  American Idiot

By Perry Tannenbaum

Anger, alienation, disillusionment, and frustration were all part of the high-octane fuel that powered Green Day’s punk rock opera, American Idiot, in 2004. The group’s first post-9/11 CD struck a chord, winning awards on both sides of the Atlantic, including Best Rock Album at the Grammys. The targets of the group’s wrath – media, suburbia, Bush Era militarism, and ubiquitous TV – remained fresh enough for Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and stage director Michael Mayer to transform the celebrated album into a Broadway musical in 201o.

Starting their second consecutive season in exile from their planned-and-purchased permanent home on Freedom Drive, still tangled up in a red tape mess of zoning, safety, and building regulations – on an existing building, mind you – Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has a bit of pent-up anger, frustration, and disillusionment of their own. They may be wrapping all of that into their incoming American Idiot grenade.

The Charlotte premiere opens in previews this week on the campus of Queens University, the second consecutive show that Actor’s Theatre has brought to Hadley Theater. Official opening night will happen next Wednesday.

ATC artistic director Chip Decker not only empathizes with the angst of American Idiot, he gets the band.

“I have loved Green Day’s music since the [1991] album Kerplunk,” Decker boasts. “American Idiot dropped in 2004, and I could not listen to it enough. I think we were all reeling still from 9/11, the wars, etc., and this album gave a release valve to many who were angry, scared, lost, disillusioned and looking for hope in a difficult time.”

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The leading men feel at least as deeply about the music as their director. In fact, you can gauge their respective ages by when they climbed aboard the Green Day bandwagon. Matt Carlson, who plays Johnny, the Jesus of Suburbia hero from the album, says he latched onto American Idiot when he was about 14, and that it was the first album he learned to play on guitar from beginning to end.

Jeremy DeCarlos, a mainstay in the finest Actor’s Theatre productions since 2004 –onstage or thrashing his guitar – plays Johnny’s alter ego, St. Jimmy, leading the suburban Jesus into citified debaucheries. He says he got the Green Day bug during the summer of 1994, when “Basket Case” was a hit single off the Dookie album.

“I felt like Billie Joe wasn’t just singing to me, but as me in a way,” DeCarlos recalls. “I ran out and bought the album and wore a hole into it. When my mother presented me with my first guitar, I told myself that if I ever learned how to play one song on it, it would be Green Day’s ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).’ It took me roughly a month, but the first song I ever learned on guitar was a Green Day song!”

So how does a punk rock opera with three characters become a musical that can fill a Broadway stage? Well, Armstrong and Mayer added new characters, and Green Day chipped in with more music, conveniently ripped off from 21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up album to American Idiot.

Now instead of one disgruntled Jesus itching to escape suburbia, there are three – Johnny, Will, and Tunny – along with three women. Johnny and Tunny do escape, respectively to the wicked city and the US Army, but Will won’t, dutifully staying behind when he learns that Heather (the only woman in the show with a name) is pregnant with his child. So yes, we get three depressing outcomes to wail over.

“The book is wafer thin, single ply generic toilet paper thin,” Decker admits, “but I feel like that was a very intentional choice. I was able to find my own voice and feelings in the album, and I think that is what the story lines do in this. They present a thought and feeling, but do not try and insist that the viewer (or listener) accept that view as the truth.”

And just because he reveres the music doesn’t mean that Carlson worships the suburban Jesus he’s delivering to us as the leading man. Johnny actually comes off as something of a jerk when Carlson describes him, and he isn’t sure we’ll like him: “He is the edgy, cocky punk guy you knew in high school who never did anything with his life.”

But the music! That draws a different reaction from the young rocker. Like many of Green Day’s faithful, Carlson was a bit leery and disappointed when he first heard that the punk band was taking their act to Broadway. Had to be an artistic sellout, right?

When he eventually encountered to final product, Carlson was pleasantly surprised. “The American Idiot album is so different versus the stage score,” he opines. “I love the simple punk rock sound of the album, but maybe because I’m into musical theatre, I like the stage version even better. On stage, the concept album is made more complete with the play script and music.”

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There’s more music in the musical, but all of it remains guitar-and-drum driven. Instead of muscling up with strings, winds, and brass, Broadway orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt beefed up the sound with more voices and harmonies. You’ll hear a pronounced difference, to take just one example, if you listen to the Broadway cast album version of “Give Me Novacaine.”

The lyrics come through just a tad more clearly, as if we’re in a theater rather than concert hall. The sound of the steel guitar is noticeably richer, with a more relaxed Hawaiian flavor. With the onset of the thrashing section, the crescendo is more dramatic, louder drums and added male voices yield an anthemic thrust. Reaching the soothing outro, we hear – can it be true? – a group of female backups caressing our ears.

But hold on a second. The prospect of seeing ATC musical director Ryan Stamey lead a Broadway-sized band into Hadley Theater isn’t any more likely than the possibility we’ll see over three dozen flat-screen TV monitors stuck up on the back wall. One violin and one cello are promised, but the instrumental congregation will be trimmed from eight to five, a definite U-turn toward true punk rock intimacy.

Yes, we’ll see two guitars, just like on Broadway.

Decker has been known to strap on a bass guitar himself, and he often lurks in the wings as a sound designer when he isn’t acting or directing. One of the most admirable Actor’s Theatre achievements over the years has been their ability to deliver the youthful energy of such high voltage musicals as Hedwig and Rock of Ages without repulsing their graying subscribers who prefer decibel levels below triple digits.

“You know, this is always a tough balancing act,” Decker says, “because our bands are legit power musicians who want everything to go to 11! But there is so much story in the lyrics of musicals, that if you can’t hear the words, you don’t know the story. So yeah, keeping it balanced and rocking is the challenge. Our cast is doing a great job telling their story, and I think people will dig it. Or you can just go and rock the fuck out. Either way, your face will be melted.”

“Stupid F@#%ing Bird” Mashes Chekhov With Giddy Modernism

Review: Stupid F@#%ing Bird

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’re looking for clear outspoken themes and messages onstage, there are better places to look than the aching comedies of Anton Chekhov. Among his contemporaries, Count Leo Tolstoy found the best works of Chekhov difficult to grasp yet full of insights into “the inner workings of the human soul.” Chekhov’s mix of clinical objectivity and soul-searching empathy would become touchstones of modern drama and modern acting technique.

So it’s no surprise that Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, irreverently retitled Stupid F@#%ing Bird, is so willfully modernistic. Conrad Arkadina, nee Konstantine Gavrolovich Trepleff in the original, doesn’t merely write the bad script we see performed early in Act 1. He’s also the author of this play that we’re watching and will pause to tell us about it from time to time. But that doesn’t mean his mom, film producer Emma Arkadina, or his Uncle Eugene – a dying doctor – won’t also address us and lay bare their ostensibly fictional souls.

We can almost go around the complete cast in this Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production simply by cataloguing their unrequited loves. Mash, who is madly in love with Conrad, is desperately beloved by Dev. But Conrad burns for the beautiful Nina, who offers body and soul to the famous writer Trigorin, who is in a committed relationship with Emma – until he isn’t. Passion for other people or for art is the essence of futility among this crowd, often leading to self-loathing. Even Trigorin, slightly weary with his own fame, has restless longings that go unfulfilled.

If you already know The Seagull well, the idea of Conrad being our author is more than slightly absurd, for in the denouement, his spiraling depression begins with his ripping up all his manuscripts when he realizes he can never have Nina. Compounding the absurdity, Conrad frankly tells us of the catastrophe to come.

Assuming that you can find the Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus near Myers Park Traditional School, you’ll find that director Chip Decker – with his own fantastical set design and Hallie Gray’s lighting – has grasped the zany bittersweetness of this script remarkably well. The mixture of wholesomeness, naïveté, candor, and earnestness that Chester Shepherd brings to Conrad further ensures success. Somehow, in this blizzard of fiction and reality, where Conrad is both the playwright and his protagonist, Shepherd can come to his audience for advice and handle our spontaneous feedback.

He realizes that Nina, a rather bad actress who sustains a career, is not particularly worthy of his love. Hell, Mariana Bracciale as Nina is well aware of her shortcomings as an actress, with a slight Julia Louis-Dreyfus charm wrapped into her maddening flightiness. Scott A. Miller as Trigorin realizes Nina’s shallowness as well as anyone, his mind at odds with his loins in his struggle to decide what to do about her, yet he also grasps that his rascality is as much of his charm as his talent.

Emma suffers in her relationship with Trigorin and in her lack of aptitude for parenting Conrad, yet Becca Worthington is most disarming in her acknowledgement to us that she’s the meanie in this story, unlikely to redeem herself. Every one else lurks on the periphery, adding to the impression that our main characters are living in a teeming world. I was fairly smitten with the comedy of Carmen A. Lawrence as Mash, for she mopes so hopelessly – and needlessly, since the loving, patient, and wise Dev is crazy about her.

Peripheral or not, Jeremy DeCarlos as Dev combines with Lawrence to give their scenes a Midsummer Night’s Dream giddiness, for neither of them is among our gifted characters. Yet DeCarlos, more goofball here than I’ve ever seen him before, seems to have the knowledge that his waiting game – and his faith that Mash will come to her senses – will be rewarded. It’s a part of his calm wisdom, which occasionally reminds Conrad (and us) what an unbalanced, disturbingly normal hysteric he is.

Sizzling Satire and Seething Inner Turmoil

Review:  Bootycandy

By Perry Tannenbaum

Weird black mothers roam the Mint Museum stage at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s latest migratory production. One mamma refers to her son’s genitalia as bootycandy, while another mamma actually names her daughter Genitalia. The weirdness of Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy only begins there, for I don’t think either of these mothers – or their children – ever meet, though the bootycandy boy emerges as our antihero, Sutter. Presumably, this mildly sadistic gay man was messed up by his mom.

Perhaps all of the above have fallen under the influence under the flamboyant influence of Reverend Benson who strides to his pulpit in priestly black robes and exits in a flaming red formal dress and white high-heeled shoes. Or perhaps none of the others knows him, because Rev. Benson preaches directly to us, not at all happy about the intolerance and homophobia we’re spreading around the neighborhood.

Late in Act 1, we get a delightfully specious explanation for all this disconnection. The only white person in the cast seats himself on a chair upstage, seemingly prepared to lead a group therapy session. No, he is actually moderating a symposium where three of the four black cast members have gathered – excluding Sutter. After their previous trashy or swishy turns, they are now the three different playwrights who have written all the action we’ve seen so far. Sophisticated, intellectual, and artsy, they give the Moderator a really hard time.

That veiled hostility toward white people is the underbelly of what mostly seems to be a sharply satirical look at black folk. Mostly we’re looking at hilarious set pieces. Friends try to dissuade Genitalia’s expectant mom from committing her folly while gossiping lustily about it. Or years later, we see Sutter’s mom absolutely putting her foot down on his participation in a sissy high school musical, insisting that he take up a sport while his disengaged stepdad mostly buries himself behind a newspaper.

And of course, the remedy for somebody repeatedly stalking Sutter on the way home from the library isn’t to call the cops – it’s to stop reading those damn Jackie Collins books. The Michael Jackson Thriller jacket continues to fly under Mom’s radar.

More bizarre and surreal is the grownup Genitalia, in a white bridal gown, un- or dis-marrying Intifada in a formal ceremony, complete with increasingly antagonistic vows, ending with bitch slaps from both lesbians. So when Sutter and his boyfriend Larry agree on an assignation with a lonely white guy, what could go wrong?

Kevin Aoussou, who has played a variety of dark roles for Shakespeare Carolina, including Dorian Gray a couple of years ago, mixes it up a little bit more for us here as Sutter. He’s in much lighter scenes now as the younger Sutter, subjected to the bootycandy and compulsory sports indignities inflicted upon him by his mom, more vulnerable and less arrogant. He’s also capable of insight and regret here, delivering a more fully rounded portrayal here than we’ve seen from him before.

Yet the show largely belongs to Jeremy DeCarlos from the moment he tosses off Reverend Benson’s black robes and applies his lipstick. Equally satisfying after his low-key and sympathetic episodes as Step Dad and Larry (the boyfriend), he reappears as Old Granny at an old age home, where she serves up solace to Sutter (and flashbacks for us) when he visits her. All this wisdom and warm reminiscence are bartered for contraband edible eats.

Lydia Williamson and Ericka Ross sinuously intertwine throughout the two-hour evening as mothers, daughters, and playwrights. As the immature mom insisting on naming her daughter Genitalia and later as the more butch daughter Intifada, Williamson certainly lays down a credible case for being the more incorrigible of the two. But while Ross is purposely overmatched as Genitalia, her insensitivity and homophobia as Sutter’s mom are as chilling as they are hilarious.

Directing the show, Martin Damien Wilkins gives all his black performers license to take it far enough over-the-top to remind us occasionally of The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s hilarious 1986 subversion of honored black theatre traditions. Relying primarily on projections, set designer Chip Decker comes fairly close to convincing us that The Mint is Actor’s Theatre’s permanent home. Certainly the acoustics here are far more hospitable than the disastrous holiday sojourn at Charlotte Ballet’s McBride-Bonnefoux studio for The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical.

Maybe the niftiest touch from Wilkins, restoring some of the distance between Colored Museum and this 2011 satire, is the consistently natural work he calls forth from Chaz Pofahl in five different roles. Except as the fulsome officiator at the Genitalia-Intifada breakup, Pofahl is consistently life-sized and somewhat pitiful as our white guy – even when he turns up as the pervert stalking the teen-aged Sutter from the library. Instead of shocking me as Sutter and Larry’s victim later on, when he came out to the hallway outside his hotel room completely naked, he broke my heart a little bit.

Arguably, he’s the only player who bares body or soul all evening long.

Wild as it is, Bootycandy is an autobiographical piece by a black gay playwright with an incongruously Irish name. A portion of O’Hara’s animus is directed intellectually toward his own black community, and another more visceral portion is directed reflexively toward white people. Most poignant of all is the remaining scrutiny that O’Hara directs toward himself and his own shortcomings.

Less Bard and More Beer

Theater Reviews: Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) and The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Four centuries after William Shakespeare’s death, Charlotte’s own Chickspeare inhabits a parallel universe. Or maybe it’s retribution: while all of the Bard’s works were performed by all-male theatre troupes, all of Chickspeare’s productions since 1998 have been “All women! All the time!” as originally promised. The “All Shakespeare” in the middle of that slogan was gradually blurred and dropped as the Chix added Reduced Shakespeare Company lampoons to their rep and then ventured father afield.

Written by Michael Carleton, James FitzGerald, and John K. Alvarez, Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) is very much in the spirit of Reduced Shakespeare’s original assault on the Elizabethan titan’s complete works. The parentheses in the title, the quickie romp through multiple classics by three actors playing multiple roles, and the devotion of all of Act 2 to a single extravagant lampoon all follow the Reduced template.

But gender only begins to describe the difference between Chickspeare’s version and the 2010 Actor’s Theatre Every Christmas. The new model is as much an event as it is a theatre production, an experience that begins and ends at the newer NoDa Brewery on N. Tryon Street. In between, there are a couple of shuttle bus rides back and forth from the original Brewery location on N. Davidson Street. You’ll find more brew choices on tap at North Tryon, but the enticement of lifting a mug and participating in the many “To beer!” toasts during the Chix performance at North Davidson is hard to resist.

Few did last Friday night. Besides the brewskis, we had Anne Lambert lubricating the experience with a steady feed of Christmas trivia challenges on the bus ride to the show and the conviviality of the Chix banditas – Sheila Snow Proctor, Lane Morris, and Tanya McClellan – during their performance. But mainly, it was the beer that induced the party atmosphere.

Directing the show, Joanna Gerdy and Andrea King had a healthy disregard for the script. The playwrights labored under a handicap that never afflicted the Reduced Shakespeare collaborators when they chose ancient targets like Hamlet, the Bible, and American history for their merry desecrations. Unlike your seasonal carols, most of our familiar Christmas stories aren’t free-range prey. Copyright law prevents satiric assaults upon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Charlie Brown Christmas, and the Yuletide yarns of Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas, and Jean Sheperd.

When Carleton, FitzGerald, and Alvarez lashed out at these restrictions, the result was “Gustav, the Green-Nosed Rain-Goat,” not the funniest sketch you’ll ever see. Morris never plays the mutated venison as if it were comedy gold, so there’s never any deadly straining to make it funnier than it is. We’ll raise a glass, and then we’ll move on.

The premise of the show is that Proctor wishes to proceed traditionally with a presentation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but Morris and McClellan are sick and tired of the same old stuff. Before they’ll allow Snow to read her Dickens and play her Scrooge, she must join them in a medley of other Christmas faves, including Frosty the Snowman, Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the Grinch, O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” and – maybe if there’s enough time – the inevitable It’s a Wonderful Life.

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There isn’t enough time, but that doesn’t deter Morris. While Proctor is on-task as Scrooge, with McClellan visiting her as all three ghosts, Morris keeps insisting that Proctor is George Bailey, inflicting on us a bevy of characters from New Bedford Falls, including George’s guardian angel, his brother, his banker nemesis, and his adoring wife. By the time Lane reaches the wife, it comes off oddly like a female impersonation.

Fortunately, Proctor is the ideal Scrooge in the face of these torments. There’s a bit of Oliver Hardy and Bud Abbott in her forbearance, but we somehow remain on her side throughout her ordeal. At the climax of Christmas Carol, Morris is still bedeviling her, so she finally submits to becoming George Bailey – in a schizophrenic frenzy that finds her shuttling between Scrooge and Bailey as both McClellan and Morris assail her.

In her surrender, Proctor produces a Jimmy Stewart impersonation that’s barely good enough to let you know what she’s doing. It will probably improve during the next couple of weekends as the run continues, but I’m not sure it should. Likewise, Proctor can be a mite slow changing costumes, but McClellan’s patience with her cast mate is so priceless, it would hardly pay for Proctor to hurry.

It’s been a rocky road for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte since developers forced them out of their longtime home on Stonewall Street last summer. We thought they would resurface on Louise Avenue, but negotiations there collapsed, and the company tacked toward Freedom Drive. City and county paperwork delayed the opening, so their Toxic Avenger was redirected to a nearby church, and the current Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical has been rerouted to the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, Charlotte Ballet’s HQ on N. Tryon Street.

I was curious to see how director Chip Decker and his design team would adapt to studios with so much space and such a high ceiling. With two fair-sized ramshackle trailers, topped by two jumbo projection screens, height isn’t a problem, and the design team fills out the stage with a fence, some Florida flamingo kitsch, an incongruous array of Star Wars memorabilia and, dead center of the stage between the two trailers, a half-decorated Christmas tree.

That odd tree, straddling the borderline between Rufus and Darleen’s properties, triggers Betsy Kelso’s plotline. Rufus loves Christmas and adores Darleen, but mean Darleen snarls “Bah” and “Humbug” to both. She will not decorate her trailer or even allow Rufus onto her property to decorate her side of the tree. That’s a source of huge consternation to Betty, the manager of Armadillo Acres, who has always wanted – but failed – to win the big prize awarded to the best-decorated trailer park. A vague curse plagues Armadillo Acres, and it too will to be exorcised before we reach a happy ending.

There’s a certain amount of respectability in Betty, so we’re fortunate that it is more than counterbalanced by the trashiness of her other tenants, Pickles and Lin (short for Linoleum). They also come in handy when ghosts are needed to populate Darleen’s Dickensian dream sequence. Rufus’s romantic fantasies and Betty’s hopes of nabbing top kitsch honors are revived when Darleen, in an effort to pull the plug on the park’s Christmas lights, gets electrocuted by Rufus’s déclassé cable-splitter and wakens with amnesia. That enables her to forget what a Scrooge she is and the fact that she belongs to Jackie, owner of a slutty pancake joint.

If you missed the first and second comings of this trashy romp, it’s good for you to know all the basics I’ve detailed. Although Actor’s Theatre has done well with the Charlotte Ballet space, they have thoroughly failed to conquer its acoustics. So the songs and lyrics by David Nehls are more crucial to your enjoyment than usual – but often unintelligible over the four-piece band led by music director Brad Fugate.

Tommy Foster isn’t as rednecky as Ryan Stamey was as Rufus, but he’s a tad more pathetic and lovable. Karen Christensen is more than sufficiently bitchy as Darleen, and we often forget that Matt Kenyon is in drag as Lin. (So does he, I suspect.) But Jon Parker Douglas nearly steals the show as Jackie when he is possessed during the climactic exorcism. It’s an epileptic farting fantasia that isn’t quickly forgotten – and the kind of broad physical comedy this acoustically-challenged show desperately needs.

 

The Nerd Who Terrorized New Jersey

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Theater Reviews:  The Toxic Avenger and Pride and Prejudice

By Perry Tannenbaum

I’m not sure how or when such epithets as “Armpit of the East” or “Scrotum of the Nation” rained down on New Jersey, but they were certainly commonplace before the onset of The Sopranos or Chris Christie. It’s also clear that when Lloyd Kaufman and Joe Ritter cooked up their 1984 screenplay for The Toxic Avenger, they weren’t intending to prettify the Garden State’s battered image. About the only love they showed for Jersey was shooting the film there.

A mere 24 years elapsed before Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, following their successful collaboration on Memphis, hooked up on a Toxic musical adaptation. The record-breaking reception of the show in New Brunswick, before its off-Broadway transfer in 2009, only underscored how highly Jerseyites cherish their notoriety.

DiPietro liberally refashions Kaufman’s original plot, but political corruption, organized crime, unconscionable pollution, and unchecked violence are still among its hallmarks. Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, newly resurrected on Freedom Drive after its recent homelessness, embraces all of these horrors with the merry glee it applied to Evil Dead The Musical seven years ago. Billy Ensley directed that 2009 gorefest on Stonewall Street, but ATC artistic director Chip Decker takes the reins here, reminding us that crass sci-fi musical parodies are at the core of this company’s DNA.

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Journeying from screen to stage, Melvin Ferd the Third has lost his signature janitorial mop, but he’s still a hopeless nerd and still smitten by the blind Sarah, who is now a librarian. The new Melvin is an environmental crusader from the get-go, and his plunge into an oozing drum of green toxic goo is far more malignant, ordered by corrupt Tromaville mayor Babs Belgoody. Where does Melvin find the goods on Mayor Belgoody’s polluting schemes? At the library, of course, cleverly filed away by Sarah where they are least likely to be found: among the important policy speeches of Michele Bachmann.

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Something underhanded seems to have occurred here, since Bachmann didn’t achieve her peak infamy until the 2012 election cycle. Suspicion falls on the prankish Decker, who compounds his violations of DiPietro’s script by introducing the image of Donald Trump later in the evening. Hopefully, that glorified groper will be forgotten by the time the Avenger concludes his rampages on November 12.

Yes, if you didn’t already know, what doesn’t kill Melvin makes him Toxie, the avenging mutant monster. This is exactly where Actor’s Theatre upstages the off-Broadway production once again. In 2009, Ensley simply had the luxury of a better pool of actors to choose from for Evil Dead. This year, Decker enjoys no luxuries whatsoever. ATC and City Hall couldn’t dot all the i’s on permits for the new location at 2219 Freedom Drive in time for opening night last Wednesday, so Decker & Co. were obliged to move next door to Center City Church & The Movement Center at 2225 Freedom.

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On very short notice. So the set designer is listed as Dire Circumstance in the playbill while other members of the design team have vanished altogether. Whether by accident or design, then, Decker doesn’t make the mistake that plagued the off-Broadway show: overproduction. In the New York version, when Melvin emerged from the chemical dumpsite as Toxie, the green carbuncled mask that covered his head was not only horrific, it robbed actor Nick Cordero of all further facial expression.

Jeremy DeCarlos doesn’t have to combat that handicap. As cool, graceful, and intelligent as DeCarlos has always seemed onstage, I expected both the nerdy Melvin and the homicidal Toxie to be difficult stretches for him. Clearly, I had no idea how well DeCarlos could channel the dopey sound and body language of Jerry Lewis as the socially inept earth scientist. When he emerged from the flimsy façade of chemical drums as Toxie, there were some wrappings on his arms to offer a semblance of might, but it was Decker at the soundboard who offered the more telling boost, amping up DeCarlos’ voice and synthesizing his monster roar.

No, the wrappings and the roars don’t close the gap between DeCarlos and fearsomeness – but that’s another reason why his Toxie is so much more hilarious than the more technically polished off-Broadway version, which often forgot it was a spoof. Leslie Giles certainly isn’t forgetting her spoofery as Sarah, helpless ingénue or aggressive vamp as the occasion demands – and her blind stick shtick with the hapless Melvin is a corny gift that keeps on giving. Sarah’s big number, “My Big French Boyfriend,” struck me as the best in the show.

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Lisa Hugo, who was so precisely calibrated in the complex leading role of Stage Kiss earlier this year, the last ATC production at Stonewall Street, gets to loosen up in multiple roles. When she isn’t the melodramatic, megalomaniacal Mayor, she’s usually Melvin’s disapproving Mom. These two nasty women turn out to be old enemies from their school days, so their “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” confrontation deep in Act 2 was a manic reminder of a similar duet in the Jekyll & Hyde musical. Ma Ferd also gets an effective “All Men Are Freaks” duet with Sarah.

Ryan Stamey and Dominique Atwater divvy up nearly all the remaining roles, more than I could keep track of, with Matthew Blake Johnson subbing for Atwater on opening night. Somebody needs to terrorize Sarah, toss Melvin into the toxic goo, get their asses kicked by Toxie, scurry around with missing limbs, and represent the hordes of Tromavillians who idolize the grotesque mutant. Stamey and Johnson performed every one of these worthy missions, and more, with the suave sophistication you would expect.

Yes, the middle school auditorium atmospherics of the Movement Center hall are somewhat against the grain of the gorey Toxic Avenger irreverence, but it served better than expected for what turns out to be a unique guerilla theatre project. If you arrive early for one of the remaining performances, you might get a brief tour of the new ATC space next door. What’s going on now on Freedom Drive bodes well for the company and the resourceful artists who make it go.

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Jon Jory is best known as the artistic director who brought renown to the Humana Festival and the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville – and widely believed to have penned Keely and Du, Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, and Anton in Show Business under the penname of Jane Martin. When it comes to adapting Jane Austen, whose Pride and Prejudice is currently on view at Pease Auditorium in a CPCC Theatre production, Jory is no dilettante. He has also adapted Sense and Sensibility and Emma.

Even if all the subtleties aren’t always pointed under Heather Wilson-Bowlby’s poised direction, it becomes obvious that Jory’s adaptation preserves the style and thrust of Austen’s liveliest masterwork. Most of the credit goes to Moriah Thomason as Austen’s prejudging heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, though it’s hard to deny she is amply counterbalanced by the hauteur of Brian Logsdon as Fitzwilliam Darcy. Thomason unveiled her elegance in the ATC production of Stick Fly back in February. Here she adds vivacity and wit, so I couldn’t get enough of her.

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We see where Elizabeth gets her wit from in Tony Wright’s slightly jaundiced portrait of her father, and Anne Lambert’s rendition of Mrs. Bennet has more than enough vanity, giddiness, and silliness to distribute among the younger Bennet sibs. My chief disappointment was the hoarseness that afflicted Lexie Simerly as Liz’s elder sister Jane. If only she could have borrowed some extra decibels from Iris DeWitt, whose towering presence made the imperious Lady Catherine De Bourgh a perfect victim of Elizabeth’s punctiliously polite sass.

Making and Faking Love

Theater reviews: Stage Kiss and Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens

Returning from intermission at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production of Stage Kiss, I was strangely disoriented when I saw the set for Act 2 of Sarah Ruhl’s comedy. For most of Act 1, our protagonists were the leading players in a revival of a sentimental drama, The Last Kiss. “She” had been Ada Wilcox, a happily married woman given one month to live, and “He” was Johnny Lowell, the love of her life, reunited with his long-lost love through the generosity of Ada’s husband.

Robert Lee Simmons as “He” and Lisa Hugo as “She” in Stage Kiss. (Photo by George Hendricks Photography)

  • Robert Lee Simmons as “He” and Lisa Hugo as “She” in Stage Kiss. (Photo by George Hendricks Photography)

He and She had also had a youthful romance earlier in their acting careers, before director Adrian Schwalbach had unwittingly united them by casting them as the leads in this sudsy revival. By the end of the play’s brief run, He and She have fallen back in love for real, despite the fact that She now has a for-real husband and teenage daughter. So they skip the closing night cast party, the better to consummate their rekindled romance.

Somehow when I saw the rundown Greenwich Village apartment where the lovers adjourned, I momentarily forgot that He was not Johnny Lowell, the celebrated sculptor who flew in from Sweden to be at Ada’s bedside. No, He’s merely one of the legions of fine actors strewn around Manhattan who have sacrificed the niceties of middle class comfort to pursue their art.

Of course, what Ruhl very much wishes to demonstrate is that, while kissing nine times at each performance eight times a week for four weeks – after additional weeks of rehearsal — She and He have also let themselves forget that they are not Ada and Johnny. Or at least they have allowed themselves to become confused about it.

If you’ve ever immersed yourself in a major stage role for a couple of months, you already know how easy it is to slip away from the role you’re playing in life to the one you play onstage. Shuttling back and forth is an occupational hazard for actors — or a welcome escape.

Watching the rehearsals for The Last Kiss, plus a Schwalbach opus that occupies us in Act 2, we discover additional layers that Ruhl has woven into her comedy. For one, He has richly earned the squalor he lives in, for He is a wretched actor in both of these wretched plays-within-the-play. In The Last Kiss, He is understudied by Kevin, a gay actor who is even more wretched, noticeably uncomfortable with all that hetero kissing.

We can also see that She is not being ensnared by a web of glamor as she endures Kevin’s awkwardness, an injury to her co-star, and eventually an injury of her own. In the final Actor’s Theatre production at their Stonewall Street location, we see the artifice that goes into theatre on a stage that is almost stripped bare of scenery.

But there must be artistry if we’re to believe we’re really watching an incompetent director directing wretched actors in wretched plays and that an able actress, after a long hiatus, can return to the stage and be so seduced by the experience. Our director, Ann Marie Costa, helps us to navigate, deftly calibrating the inadequacy we see from Robert Lee Simmons as He/Johnny and the wild incompetence we see from Chip Decker as Kevin.

Decker gives us more excess than Simmons, who gives plenty, so it’s quite clear that Costa has them both shunning restraint. When it comes to Schwalbach, a director who devoutly avoids prescribing how his actors should act, Costa no doubt found that Ruhl was taunting her into decisiveness. What we get from Dennis Delamar, then, is just a slight winking acknowledgement that directors’ sanctimonious abdication of their directing responsibilities is absolutely absurd, particularly when a script is bad — or you’re also the playwright.

When we first see her, She doesn’t give the best audition for Ada. In fact, She arrives so late that auditions are actually over. From the outset, Schwalbach’s laxity is working in her favor, so Lisa Hugo must constantly be deciding how much or how little of She’s fallibility should be added to all the shoddiness and incompetence surrounding her. I can almost hear Costa telling Hugo, “go with your instincts,” echoing Schwalbach. Otherwise, how would Hugo’s performance come off so naturally without ever seeming to be calculated?

It’s easy enough to track Mark Sutch in this cast, playing both Ada’s and She’s husband, but Emily Ramirez and Katy Shepherd conspire on a flipflop. Ramirez plays Ada’s daughter before returning as He’s bong-puffing girlfriend after the break, while Shepherd goes from Ada’s maid to She’s daughter. Sutch gets to be the first grownup in the room, catching up with the wayward actress, a welcome infusion of sanity. Yet even more welcome, in an undeniably cerebral comedy, is the real emotion that Shepherd brings us as the abandoned child.

Ultimately, those family moments aren’t intended to stick with us. That’s why Ada and Johnny have names but the actors who play them have none at all. What Ruhl has written, masquerading as a comedy, is a meditation on the nature of theatre and playacting.

The anger of Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens can be difficult to perceive at times. Surveying the foibles of our city, state and nation since last year’s 11th Glower, producer Mike Collins and writer Brian Kahn came up with craft beer, airline bonus miles, Rocket Mortgages, Johnny Manziel and food chains as fresh new objects of satire. Win or lose, the Panthers and the Hornets always get a song parody apiece at Booth Playhouse, so that segment was a black hole in this year’s satirical cavalcade. In the ongoing lampooning of Morris Jenkins and Bobby, their latenight vigils have now blossomed into bromance.

Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens runs through June 26 at Booth Playhouse. (Photo by LunahZon Photography)

  • Charlotte Squawks: 12 Angry Hens runs through June 26 at Booth Playhouse. (Photo by LunahZon Photography)

So a backhanded thanks must go to the angry hens in Raleigh who hurriedly passed HB2 and to our lame-brained governor who hurriedly signed it. The bathroom hysteria and the nationwide backlash were the sparks that Kahn sorely needed to make Squawks squawk. Patrick Ratchford, who responds to Mr. Jenkins’ overtures so repellently as Bobby, reprises his Governor McCrory impersonation in “This Is So Unfair, Man.” This parody of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” the second of the night, allows McCrory to catalogue the businesses that have voiced disapproval of HB2 and scrapped plans to move here. And “Let ‘Em Pee,” parodying the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” underscores the stupidity of it all.

If anyone stole the show from Ratchford, it was Robbie Jaeger, who took flight as Mr. Jenkins in a weird Dirty Dancing mashup. Weirder yet was his stint as a crazed Charlotte trolley car driver in “Helter Streetcar,” a parody of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.”

It’s a political year, but I can’t say that the pokes at survivors Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are as pointed as those aimed at the dearly departed Ted Cruz. I had to wonder whether the annual filmed appearances by Pat McCrory could possibly continue.

The answer came early as McCrory began his customary video on the five screens spread around the Booth – and was emphatically stopped almost as soon as he started, with a classy simulation of Gov Pat being flushed down a toilet. One of the best moments ever for Squawks.

Written in the Stars

Theater Review: Fly by Night

Jerry Colbert as Narrator and Lisa Smith Bradley as Miriam in Fly by Night. (Photo by George Hendricks Photography)

By Perry Tannenbaum

Is everything pre-ordained by a higher power? Or might everything that happens simply be the inevitable outcome when the algorithms of time and space work upon the star stuff that materialized in the wake of the Big Bang? If not, might a lucky ring or a soothsayer’s gaze into a crystal ball shift the gears of an oncoming fate? These are a few of the notions that Kim Rosenstock was playing with when she conceived Fly by Night, the last musical Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte will ever stage at 650 E. Stonewall Street.

Will Connolly and composer Michael Mitnick joined Rosenstock’s writing team, producing a storyline that revolves around two South Dakota sisters who fall in love with the same New York slacker, Harold McClam, a full-time sandwich maker and songwriter. Daphne and Miriam are as radically different as sisters can be. Daphne is impatient to leave Hill City behind and become a Broadway star, while Miriam is perfectly content to stick around home and pour coffee for the townsfolk at her waitressing job.

But Miriam already is a star in the sense that, listening to her dearly departed dad, she has absorbed the notion, during fondly remembered stargazing sessions, that we all come from that star stuff they were counting in the nighttime sky. Aspirationally, there is a link between Harold and Daphne, who meet first at the clothing shop where she clerks and again across his sandwich counter. Vocationally and temperamentally, Harold has a kinship with Miriam. They spark more instantaneously, more intensely, and more lastingly. Trouble is, they meet at the Brooklyn diner where Miriam works when Harold is already engaged to marry Daphne.

Hovering over the action, as a kind of providential presence with avuncular Our Town overtones, the Narrator frequently shape-shifts into some of the orbiting characters in his tale, including both of the sisters’ parents and the eccentric soothsayer. We actually begin the main story on November 9, 1964, with the funeral of Harold’s mother – exactly one year before his dad’s abortive suicide attempt.

There will be a certain providence in Mr. McClam’s survival, to be sure, but until then, his morose appearances can be somewhat trying and tedious. Each of the three central characters is being tormented by a livelier, more interesting nemesis. Daphne has Joey, a commercially successful playwright who’s getting serious about his craft by writing a play just for her. With plenty of revisions, stretching out the rehearsal process. Harold is bedeviled by the sandwich shop owner, Crabble, a quintessentially cranky New Yorker. The only inkling we get that Crabble has a heart is his chronic hesitation to fire Harold for all his delinquencies and screw-ups.

Miriam has the most important tormentor, that kooky soothsayer who gives her the most improbable set of omens for determining her destined true love, wrapped into a prophecy that promises bliss and catastrophe. All of them begin to recur when Harold walks into her life, sending Miriam scurrying back to South Dakota when the two are on the verge of connecting.

Fleeing fate is no less futile for Miriam than it was for Macbeth or Oedipus. She holds out the hope that her doom isn’t settled until time stands still. That will happen on November 9, 1965 – twice.
Three significant events will happen on that date, only one of them anticipated: the postponed opening of Daphne’s play. Ironically, the only stars shining on Broadway that night will be those that twinkle mockingly in the sky.

With Chip Decker directing and Jerry Colbert narrating, Fly by Night moves along briskly with plenty of verve and heart. Colbert has aged gracefully into the paternal wisdom that the Narrator and Miriam’s dad deliver, yet there is comical extravagance each time he becomes the Brooklyn soothsayer or the South Dakota mom. This Narrator seems to become most personable when he stops the action to guide us into a prefatory flashback, so we appreciate Colbert more and more as these time loops proliferate.

Colbert himself loops back to his heydays, flying by night to some fairly high notes and singing with an ease we haven’t heard from him since, oh, maybe 1997 in the 1940’s Radio Hour. Perhaps he’s inspired or rejuvenated by his co-stars. The sisters, Cassandra Howley Wood as Daphne and Lisa Smith Bradley as Miriam, are aptly cast, already ablaze in their early pair of star songs. Wood repeatedly chants “I’m a star!” with Broadway conviction belting out her anthemic “Daphne’s Dream” as she begins navigating the New York rat race, and there’s a cute Avenue Q silliness to her “More Than Just a Friend” duet with Harold.

Bradley simply torches her calling card, “Stars I Trust,” creating a wider gulf between the sisters than you’ll find on the original cast album, and there’s a greater maturity to her lighter “Breakfast All Day” sequel as she settles into Brooklyn, with less of a shuffling rock beat from the three-piece band directed by Ellen Robison. So easily grooved into a humdrum rut, it’s surprising how unnerved Miriam becomes when the soothsayer sings his “Prophecy” – in two parts – and when her eyes first meet Harold’s. Bradley, Colbert, and Christopher Ryan Stamey make it all work.

Stamey cut his teeth at Actor’s Theatre as their go-to wild man in trashy treasures like Slut and The Great American Trailer Park Musical, so to watch him mellowed into the relatively colorless Harold could be jarring to those who have witnessed his vintage exploits. But he actually nails it as both the nerdy Romeo and the mistake-prone sandwich drone. Best of all, he’s the adult in the room in his ultimate showdown with Miriam, “Me With You,” tapping into who he is and what we all believe must be right in the face of implacable destiny.

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Supporting roles all draw superb performances. Stephen Seay is wonderfully hyper as Joey when he first pursues his muse Daphne in “What You Do to Me” – and still spoiled rotten, revision after revision. James K. Flynn captures the working class vulgarity of Crabble with a poifect accent, combining with Stamey in “The Rut,” a paean to workplace hopelessness and drudgery. Perpetually toting a wee record player and a vinyl recording of La Traviata in his pathological grief, Rob Addison eventually gets to break out of his stonefaced depression as Mr. McClam. Toward the end, he decides to actually go see that opera and later, when someone finally has the time to listen, he pours out his sad, sad love story, “Cecily Smith.” Which just happens to rhyme with one of the best lines of the night: “Who cares what you are listening to? It’s who you’re listening with.”

The design team, Dee Blackburn for the set and Carley Walker for the lights, give us a nice off-Broadway sense of the various locations, efficiently transporting us to Miriam’s yard and front porch in South Dakota, the seedy nightclub where Harold tries out his song, Crabble’s misspelled sandwich shop, and McClam’s bathtub.

When we get to Penn Station and Times Square, however, an SOS goes out to our imaginations. After “At Least I’ll Know I Tried,” a tasty quintet ushering in the eventful denouement, I prophesy you’ll answer that SOS willingly.