Tag Archives: Chris Timmons

Remembering in September – While Building Back Better

Review: The Fantasticks at the Palmer Building + Theatre Charlotte Update

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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You don’t need to try very hard to remember why Theatre Charlotte is beginning its 94th season at the Palmer Building. Built on East 7th Street in the late 1930s as part of FDR’s signature Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, the place itself gives you a hint. It was built and landscaped by firefighters to be the best training academy in the country and served that purpose for firemen who came after them for over 30 years.

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Late last December, on a slow news night, fire struck Theatre Charlotte’s beloved HQ, nicknamed “the Queens Road barn.” Ignited by the facility’s wayward HVAC system, the fire gouged a sizable trench into the right side of the auditorium. Slammed by COVID lockdowns, scrambling to reconfigure a full season without live performances and sustain their bond with actors and subscribers, Theatre Charlotte had the ground literally taken out from under them by the late-night fire.

One last indignity at the end of a grim 2020 that would already live on in infamy.

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When January dawned, it was clear that the initial damage estimates of $50,000 by fire officials – not trained at the Palmer Building – were far off the mark. Although the exterior at 501 Queens Road looks relatively unscathed from the street, a brief peep inside shows the full toll of the devastation.

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Walls that marked off the box office and administrative quarters from the lobby have been punched away, with only their wooden framework remaining. Looking across the lobby, into the auditorium, and backstage, you won’t find any ceilings, just more woodwork, metalwork and lighting fixtures that the fire’s flames and smoke failed to fry or destroy.

Cleanup took between three and four months, acting executive director Chris Timmons tells me. Not only was the HVAC toast, but so were all the theater’s precious electronics. That $50,000 estimate didn’t come close.

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“Our entire sound and lighting systems were lost, and those items alone total well over six figures,” Timmons reckons. “The latest number we tracked for complete restoration to the building ‘as it was pre-fire’ was in excess of $1 million. Because of some likely unknowns, such as damage not visible and county code requirements, we expect those numbers to change.”

So in recalibrating their 2021-22 season, Theatre Charlotte’s board and staff not only knew that they would need to take their productions on the road, they knew they had none of their old sound and lighting gear to bring with them.

That turns out to be okay when we see The Fantasticks, directed by the venerable Billy Ensley, at the Palmer Building. It’s a well-known title, famously the longest running show in American history. Perhaps more importantly, the show travels light.

Scenery has always been minimal since the musical, written by Tom Jones and composed by Harvey Schmidt, opened off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in May 1960. Instrumentation of the original score was positively gossamer, just a piano and a harp. Not the sort of thing that would work at Belk or Ovens.

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As Theatre Charlotte’s admirable digital playbill points out, startlingly more informative and colorful than their printed programs from past seasons, The Fantasticks started out with nine players, but the cast was winnowed to eight – when a Handyman was no longer needed to come onstage during intermission to fix the lights. Ensley restores the original count by doubling the role The Mute.

Two are arguably better than one when it’s time for The Mute to act as the wall between the homes of lovebirds Matt and Luisa (built by their wily, matchmaking dads, Hucklebee and Bellomy). It also doubles the number of women Ensley can present onstage.

Although I haven’t reviewed a show at the Palmer since 2007, when the now-extinct Pi Productions presented The Guys there, Ensley is likely familiar with the space, since Theatre Charlotte has staged numerous soirees and fundraisers there in the intervening years. What struck me most was the strength of the voices in Ensley’s cast – exactly what is needed if you’re presenting a musical at the Palmer without microphones. Despite the sparse orchestration, there were moments that sounded like we were at the opera.

So you think that’s outlandish? Opera Carolina produced The Fantasticks during the summer of 1994, and Queens University Opera Theatre followed suit in 2004.

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The score is front-loaded with its best music, two of its most familiar songs, “Try to Remember” and “Much More,” starting us off. It doesn’t take long for us to discover how fine and robust all these voices are. Matthew Howie and Jocelyn Cabaniss are the lovestruck teens, open and credulous, while Kevin Roberge and Phil Fowler handle the comedy as their manipulative dads, pretending to feud so that their kids will be all the more drawn together.

Ah, but how shall Hucklebee and Bellomy reconcile so that the two feuding households may live happily ever after? This is where that swashbuckling rogue, El Gallo, comes in. He will abduct Luisa and allow Matt, against all odds and reason, to rescue her. Actually, Mitchell Dudas as El Gallo has been there from the beginning, presiding over the action as our narrator, preening like a latter-day Fabio with flicks of his long hair when the dads hire him, and reminding us – almost exactly 19 years since CPCC brought The Fantasticks to Pease Auditorium – how perfectly suited to the season it is.

It’s El Gallo, after all, who repeatedly sings, “Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow…” And it’s all the other players who chime in, “Then follow, follow, follow, follow, follow.”

Howie is likely the most familiar youngblood here, having proven his acting skills up in Davidson as the lead in The Curious Incident after an eye-opening turn at Theatre Charlotte as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. When Matt boasts of all his heroism in rescuing Luisa from the clutches of El Gallo and his bumbling henchmen, it isn’t nearly as irritating as Hucklebee finds it – so Howie has gauged it perfectly.

Dudas and Cabaniss have lurked more on the periphery in recent years, but Ensley directed Spring Awakening at the Queens Road barn in 2018, so he’s well aware of Cabaniss’s powers. They show out most memorably when she passionately sings “Much More.” Granted, there isn’t much special in watching a guy kiss a girl on the eyes. The magic that Jones tapped into when he wrote this song was Luisa’s aspiration to be that girl. Cabaniss also shines in her climactic duets with Howie, especially the beguiling “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” before intermission.

If Howie and Cabaniss aren’t always as carefully paced, audible, and intelligible when they speak as they are when they sing, rest assured that their elders always are. Roberge and Fowler make a nicely balanced comedy team as the dads – perfect if you conclude that a prime aim of Jones and Schmidt was to juxtapose flamboyance and bluster with simplicity and sincerity. This little stage seems far too small for Roberge and his leonine energy, yet Fowler, more physically imposing, seems perpetually inclined to shrink out of sight.

Reserve and restraint, on the other hand, seem totally alien to Geof Knight and Tim Huffman, both of whom are bluster personified as Henry and Mortimer, El Gallo’s Shakespearean thugs. Watching Huffman perform his multiple dyings, you will likely realize how much, along with Jones’s wall antics, this book leans on the mechanicals and the closing scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Yet there’s also Act 2, where all the fairytale “Happy Ending” that’s frozen at intermission is exploded – when lies, fantasies, and perfect bliss collide with the real world. Here we can see that The Fantasticks was not merely derivative but also, very likely, a prime inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

After the rousing opening performance, Ensley consented to an email exchange where he shared his on-the-road experiences and views. Auditions and early rehearsals for The Fantasticks, he disclosed, had to be transplanted from Queens Road to Dilworth United Methodist Church. An empty Pier One store in Ballantyne subsequently became Theatre Charlotte’s “permanent” rehearsal space for the current season – which will see stops at Dilworth United, The Halton Theater at Central Piedmont, and The Great Aunt Stella Center before Love, Loss, and What I Wore hopscotches between four locations, including the Palmer, next spring.

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Cast and crew arrived at the Palmer for final tech and rehearsals on Sunday, just four days before The Fantasticks opened. Ensley had indeed accounted for the special challenges of the site.

“The Palmer Building only affected casting in that we cast the strongest singers possible, which we would do as a matter of course anyway,” Ensley observes. “The primary thing was to project and enunciate. Also, to adhere to their blocking very closely for lighting purposes as we had limited equipment and flexibility. I feel our lighting designer J.P. Woodey did a great job in a very short amount of time with limited equipment.”

Kudos should likewise go out to Christine VanArsdale at the harp and musical director John Smith at the keyboard. To my great relief, we found staff and audience to be pandemic-diligent. Proof of vaccination or recent COVID testing was required outside the site before we were admitted, touchless electronic ticketing was in place, and your program is a single piece of paper with a QR Code you scan with your smartphone to access the digital playbill. Everyone in the hall (except the performers, of course) wore masks from beginning to end.

“We impressed upon the cast from the very beginning how important the success of this show was and how much Theatre Charlotte valued their talent and their personal commitment to bringing the community live theatre,” Ensley says. “Chris has been wearing a lot of hats and I have been impressed with how well he and the TC staff have been keeping everything going and in a positive and determined way.”

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Topping the company’s priorities are returning to Queens Road for the 2022-23 season and, ultimately building back better. The timetable is only beginning to narrow, for Timmons estimates that, once the reconstruction actually commences, it will take 6-8 months. While Timmons and his wife Jackie Timmons, who serves as director of marketing and development for Theatre Charlotte, are hoping that insurance will cover everything, donations have spontaneously poured in from across the country and through a special Save My Seat Theatre Relief Fund.

Many of the contributors who checked in from far and wide had formative, life-changing experiences at the Queens Road barn.

“Knowing how so many people in the industry were struggling because of the pandemic and receiving support from them at the time of the fire was humbling,” Chris says. Yet the disaster struck at a time when the arts were not only reeling from COVID but also undergoing a Black Lives Matter, We-See-You-White-American-Theatre reckoning.

Timmons doesn’t plan for Theatre Charlotte to be behind the curve in reacting.

“We are taking time to plan for the long-term future of the building,” he says, “how it operates and can better serve our community, and we are looking at enhanced safety and accessibility improvements that may be phased in over the next several years. We don’t want to simply put a fresh coat of paint on the walls and new carpet on the floor and call it a day. We want our facility to be better suited for community partnerships and engagement opportunities that we haven’t been able to accommodate in the past, and we want to showcase more of the creatives who need a voice in our community.”

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Standing about a yard from a partially broken window at 501 Queens Road, a pane framed by countless layers of cracked and gouged paint, Jackie focuses on the near-term, striking a more urgent tone. When I ask about a possible second season on the road beginning next September, she doesn’t hesitate.

“We have to open here next year,” she says. “Finding other venues is too exhausting!”

 

2020 or Not 2020

Review: A Half-Masked Christmas Carol at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Luckily, the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, so friendly and jolly with his glowing torch, was more than 175 years removed from 2020 when he made his first oxymoronic appearance in print. Christmas of 1843 may not have been the best ever as it greeted Dickens’ original readers, but it had to be more festive than 2020, the gloomiest in centuries.

While it’s possible to retreat into the nostalgia of numerous movie and TV adaptations of the Yuletide classic, Charlotte is one of hundreds of cities where watching live theatrical adaptations has become a holiday tradition. So it’s fascinating, even revelatory to see how Theatre Charlotte is adapting to the unprecedented circumstances of 2020 in presenting its 14th annual production of A Christmas Carol.

It’s a remarkable chameleon, adapted by Julius Arthur Leonard and co-directed by Stuart Spencer and Chris Timmons. This is truly a to-be-or-not-to-be effort: Live and virtual, at Theatre Charlotte on Queens Road and not, set in Dickens’ London in the 19th century and unmistakably invaded by COVID-19 and the constraints of the pandemic. 2020 or not 2020.

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Watching the virtual version recorded at the Queens Road barn, I was surprised to find how Dickens’ characters, in period costumes designed by Chelsea Retalic, replicated daily life today. While Marley and the three famous Christmas Ghosts wore masks, others – including Scrooge, his nephew, and the Cratchits – did not. No wonder poor Tiny Tim is dying!

Live outdoor performances of Theatre Charlotte’s pandemic edition of Dickens premiered at Christ South’s Old Dairy Farm in Waxhaw on Reid Dairy Road, which may account for some of the anomalies we see when we tune in to the indoor version. Outdoors, winter is upon us, so Spencer and Timmons may not have wished their Scrooge to change into his jammies. Besides that, an outdoor shift in scene from the Scrooge & Marley counting house to Ebenezer’s bedroom may have been unwieldy out on the farm.

So all of the action, aside from the Ghosts’ travels, is confined to Scrooge’s office until he sallies forth on Christmas day. To achieve this economy and consistency, Spencer and Timmons alter the plot just a little, sending Scrooge outdoors for dinner and having him realize that he has forgotten his pocket watch at his office. That’s where Marley and the Ghosts will now do their haunting. Nor do our directors forget about Ebenezer’s watch or his watch chain, elegantly transforming it into a fresh plot point without changing any of the dialogue.

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The uncredited set design, likely by Timmons, is very spare, silhouettes of city and government buildings in the background, connected to the Scrooge & Marley firm by a stunted staircase and a front door. No walls or windows obscure our view of the sidewalk outside the office or the silhouetted figures that traverse it. Inside, we never need more at Scrooge’s HQ than desks for Ebenezer and his oppressed drone Bob Cratchit. Bedtime is never observed, so there’s no longer any need for a bed. When we visit the Cratchits or Scrooge’s nephew Fred, as much as a cushioned chair and a wee table are necessary, so that Fred’s wife may have a glass of wine and a decanter nearby, but that is all.

Sound design by Timmons and Vito Abate only blunders with the opening and closing of Scrooge’s front door. Opening it lets in a hullabaloo of street sounds and closing it silences the noise – except we can clearly hear the footsteps of whoever departs on the sidewalk. Grander and more successful are the sounds heralding the supernatural entrances of Marley and the three Christmas Ghosts, while lighting by Rick Wiggins brashly suggests that all three of Scrooge’s guides have celestial origins.

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Hank West, mostly prized around town for his comedy exploits, is not a complete stranger to mean roles, having portrayed the Marquis de Sade in 2003. There’s nothing missing of Scrooge’s flinty cantankerousness in the opening scene. West’s rebuffs of a charitable solicitor (just one this year instead of two) and his nephew Fred are even more repellent than his tyranny and resentment toward Cratchit. It’s when we approach West’s comedic wheelhouse where we find him woefully hamstrung. Deprived of Scrooge’s bedclothes and his dopey nightcap – the lone accessories that make Ebenezer vulnerable or adorable through five-sixths of the story – West must accompany the Ghosts in business attire.

Worse than that, West must give us a Scrooge who dances with glee, realizing that he hasn’t missed Christmas morning, dressed up like an adult going to work rather than as a child waking from – and to – a fabulous holiday dream. Missing this parcel of Dickens’ visual genius, we can appreciate it more, for the nightcap and bedclothes are also as indispensable to the distinctive flavor of Scrooge’s supernatural journeys as the Ghosts’ personalities.

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West’s comedy isn’t totally eclipsed, peeping out in his retorts to Cratchit and the Solicitor, in his timing of remarks after visitors exit, and in his sunny sallies around town making his many amends. Of course, the final prank on Cratchit when he comes in late on the 26th is handsomely done, though I was a little surprised by West’s decision to underplay Scrooge’s mischievousness and glee as he did Ebenezer’s playacting.

More women than men are seen onstage here, with Andrea King tipping the balance as Bob Cratchit. At work, she is purely deferential toward Scrooge, and King’s entrance on the 26th has a stealth worthy of Chaplin or Lucille Ball. We probably notice that at home, King’s Cratchit as a husband and a father comes off as less of a patriarch than we’re accustomed to. Can’t say that I minded much – am I becoming too evolved?

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Seeing both Allen Andrews as Christmas Yet to Come and Josh Logsdon as Marley’s Ghost wearing masks hardly detracted from their portrayals. Logsdon’s mask had an orifice that seemed rimmed with teeth, he was bundled up with enough rags under his chains to look like a leper, and a huge gray wig affixed to his head with a shroud-like kerchief made him even more loathsome. Notwithstanding Scrooge’s doubts, when Logsdon bemoaned his fate and issued Marley’s warnings, there was far more grave than gravy in this ghost.

More noticeable were the alterations that masks imposed on the women Ghosts. Reprising her role as Christmas Past, Anna McCarty had a veiled look in her gleaming white gown, Arabian or ecclesiastical in its modesty. Yet when she needed to be strong and authoritative, McCarty didn’t disappoint, even though she seemed more socially-distanced than her castmates. Lechetze Lewis as Christmas Present was free to mingle more in her garrulous London tour. Her lively interaction with Fred and his wife, Andrews and Mary Lynn Bain, offered the most spectacular display of Retalic’s costume designs this side of Marley.

Andrews’ entreaties that Uncle Scrooge come dine with Fred were nearly as foundational in establishing the Christmas spirit on Queens Road as Cratchit’s sufferings and goodwill. Bain was also more impactful when she doubled as Belle, Scrooge’s sweetheart in the flashback, particularly when she returns her engagement ring, releases Ebenezer from his obligations, and decries his worship of Mammon.

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Little moments like this, Cratchit applauding Fred’s advocacy of Christmas, and the perfect view we get of Cratchit sneaking in late after the holiday are among the many testaments we get to the work of Megan Shiflett and Nick Allison behind the cameras – delivering the best angles from the best distances. Theatre Charlotte may not have the resources that CPCC can boast in video gear, but they’re outstripping every live video I’ve seen from the college, because Spencer and Timmons are so deftly cuing their cameras where to be and when.

Amid the special hardships of 2020, local theatre companies are substantially sharpening their video techniques and their cinema savvy, good tidings that will pay dividends when COVID-19 is conquered.

With Jill Bloede executing the Narrator’s role in such a ceremonious British style, and with the likes of Tom Ollis and Rebecca Kirby as the Fezziwigs, quality runs deep in this cast – as deep as you’d expect with productions running twice the five performances this one is getting. There’s plenty of mileage left in the virtual version, which continues its on-demand run through January 2.

It’s Hard to Shout “Humbug!” at Theatre Charlotte’s Latest Dickens

Review: A Christmas Carol

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In his 15th and final season as executive director at Theatre Charlotte, Ron Law has been doing double Dickens duty in the artistic realm. Back in September, he stage-directed Oliver! to open the 2019-20 season, and now he has stepped into the formidable role of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. There’s a satisfying finality to seeing Law onstage, reminding us of the varied roles he and his family have played in reshaping Charlotte’s community theatre, which includes establishing the Dickens classic as a Yuletide fixture on Queens Road. For subscribers whose memories extend back to 2007, when Law introduced the first annual Christmas Carol, there was also an element of nostalgia: Oliver! was the season opener that year as well.

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Law brings different strengths to the role of Scrooge than his predecessors, Kevin Campbell and Christian Casper. He was frequently the loudest of the three as the unredeemed Scrooge when I saw him on Saturday night, so his explosions of meanness could be startling, though he was not as mean-to-the-bone as Campbell was in the latter years of his tenure – nor as greedily calculating as Casper. The joy and giddiness that Scrooge radiates are really the highest hurdles for an actor, and Campbell was one of the few anywhere who have ever fully convinced me of the miser’s miraculous transformation, one of the few to really create a convincing character arc.

Of course, the capability of an actor to deliver the full range of Scrooge partly hinges upon the adaptation chosen by the company or the director – and the amount of butchery inflicted by the director upon the script. Over 100 adaptations have been created for stage, TV, and film over the years, and Theatre Charlotte has done at least three of them. The current one, directed by Aaron Mize, was adapted by Arthur Julius Leonard. Unlike some others that I’ve seen, it shows us Scrooge and future partner Jacob Marley conspiring to take over the business run by Fezziwig, Scrooge’s great benefactor. And courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Present, we peep in on Ebenezer’s former fiancée Belle, happily married with two kids, bemoaning all that has befallen Marley and Scrooge. But the Ghost of Christmas Past only revealed Ebenezer’s first encounter with Belle at a holiday soiree hosted by Fezziwig, skipping over Young Scrooge’s marriage proposal. Thus the first conversation between Leonard’s version of Belle and her fiancé occurred when she dropped by Ebenezer’s office and returned her engagement ring. Any sense of Ebenezer having been on the path toward happiness until he took a wrong turn has basically been destroyed for anybody new to the story.

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Mize and lighting designer Chris Timmons continue to make the visit from Marley’s ghost a highlight of the show, aided by Sabrina Blanks’s costuming and accessorizing. Rick Taylor startled me more than once as Marley when sound board operator implemented Vito Abate’s original sound design and smoke seeped through Scrooge’s threshold. Taylor was sufficiently fierce, aggressive and urgent to make Law quail credibly in terror, and he was able to texturize Old Joe later on in one of the Christmas Future scenes. Costuming and atmosphere contributed decisively to making an impression this year on Queens Road. Maxwell Greger was surprisingly generic as Scrooge’s oppressed and underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit, and Keyes Miller was only marginally more satisfying as Fred, Ebenezer’s shunned nephew. Yet the garish largesse of Chip Bradley’s getup as the Ghost of Christmas Present – especially when a grubby Ignorance and Want crawled out of it – keyed his hearty success.

Only a handful of others in the 29-member cast had sufficient opportunities to leave an imprint during this production, which ran 110 minutes with an intermission. These included promising turns by Anna McCarty as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Olivia Lott as Belle, despite McCarty’s underpowered voice and Lott’s outrageous white wig, which did nothing for her romantic appeal. Mize utilized his large corps effectively toward the end of the evening when he had the bulk of them parading down the center aisle toward the stage – singing a Christmas carol, of course. But at other times, Mize seemed tone-deaf to the heart of Dickens’ appeal and how much kids should contribute to his Yule-flavored sentimentality. When the miraculously transformed Scrooge shouted down to the street to get a child’s attention, Mize had his Turkey Boy (Vann-Dutch Marek) standing up onstage near him instead of down below among the audience. Awkward. Worse was the deployment of Pearce Stinson as Tiny Tim. Perhaps misguided political correctness prevented Mize and Pearce from making much of Tim’s limp, but Mize never really allowed Pearce to shine, glow, or stand apart – even when he delivered his most famous line.

All these criticisms will likely sound as if I were shouting “humbug!” to this entire enterprise, for there was no grumbling heard as the audience filed out onto Queens Road on Saturday night, greeted warmly by cast members in the lobby. Nor were there many empty seats at Theatre Charlotte, where robust Christmas Carol sales can be expected to continue.

“And Then There Were None” Keeps Us Guessing as the Body Count Mounts

Review: Dame Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Theatre audiences love mysteries. Action, intrigue, plot twists, murder, and maybe a jolt of romance – they deliver an intoxicating brew and demand your heightened attention. Yet there aren’t nearly enough theatre mysteries to satisfy audience demand. The big names in the field are Christie and the Holmeses – Sherlock and Rupert. Either purloined from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories or cynically refashioned and rebranded for commercial consumption, Sherlock is the mystery detective personified. Rupert Holmes has had the chutzpah to craft two mystery musicals, Drood and Curtains, as well as two mystery dramas that premiered here in Charlotte, Accomplice and Thumbs.

Whether onstage or in bookstores, Dame Agatha Christie is the unchallenged queen of mysteries. A trio of Christie titles are constantly making the rounds: The Mousetrap, renowned as the longest-running stage production of all time since 1952; Witness for the Prosecution, especially after Billy Wilder’s Oscar-nominated film in 1957; and, first presented as Ten Little N-Words back in 1943, And Then There Were None.

Christie’s zero-sum mystery is based on the most beloved of her 72 novels and one of the six best-selling novels of all time. There’s absolutely no problem with name recognition at Theatre Charlotte, where few seats were left on opening night. Nor was there any sign that director Dave Blamy had any difficulty attracting sufficient local talent to fill his cast of 10 suspects/victims who arrive on Soldier Island, all claiming to have been invited by the same person they’ve never met. An eleventh cast member ferries the guests, the butler, and the maid from the mainland and then departs.

Or does he?

Whoever sent out the invitations was selective, choosing only people who were responsible for other people’s deaths. They will all be victims, in the killer’s mind, who deserve to die. A recording that the butler has been instructed to play calls out each of the guests’ names and tells the group whose death he or she is responsible for. Justice is to be meted out to them all, for there is no escaping to the mainland.IMG_1674

That only begins to describe the fiendishness and arrogance of the killer who is on the loose, probably hiding in plain sight. Hanging over the mantle – and printed as an insert in our programs – is a poem, “Ten Little Soldier Boys,” chronicling how the group dwindled until “there were none.” As the dwindling survivors of the murderous rampage soon figure out, the poem has become a template for how the killer will snuff out each of them, following the order of the poem. The first “choked his little self,” the second “overslept himself,” the third “got left behind,” and so on.

Each time one of the guests is murdered, a soldier boy figurine sitting on the mantle disappears or falls to the floor.

It’s an elegant touch, an impressive sleight-of-hand, another affirmation that the killer is in control and always one or two steps ahead of his victims – another way he or she is toying with the ineffectual survivors who remain, mocking their efforts. And ours.

Chris Timmons’ set design, one of the best and most beautiful he has built during his 13-year tenure at the Queens Road barn, has four exits on its two levels, allowing a certain amount of bustle and confusion as we track the whereabouts of our chief suspects. We’re also rubbernecking where the next victim is, for we never know who that will be until late in the game – this is a diabolical game, right? – and only vaguely how the next murder will be done.IMG_1668

Blamy keeps the action flowing masterfully, varying his pacing, and getting Christie’s suspects to engage with each other intensively. Once the game is afoot, we must believe that each one’s demeanor – suave, artless, judgmental, analytical, scientific, or dignified – hides the heart of a maniacal murderer.

The Theatre Charlotte veterans are as reliable as we expect them to be. Caryn Crye drips piety and primness as spinster Emily Brent, saving her most severely moralizing barbs for young Vera Claythorne, whom she views as scandalously immodest. Johnny Hohenstein, not always on his best form on opening night, was sleazy and obnoxious as retired policeman William Blore when he hit his stride, both deceitful and maybe a little stupid. Timothy Huffman was actually a little less commanding than we’ve seen him before as retired General Mackenzie, perhaps too overcome by guilt and senility to be a serious threat.

On the other hand, Philip Robertson emerges as a natural leader and investigator as Sir Lawrence Wargrave, a retired judge who gets all the guests to respond to the crimes they’re accused of, rousing suspicions and animosities among the group. Thanks to him, we see the rogues’ gallery we’re dealing with fairly clearly.

Among the Queens Road newcomers, Peter Finnegan takes top-of-the-class honors as adventurer Philip Lombard. After a startling local debut as Bottom in Actor’s Theatre’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in August, Finnegan turns the pistol-toting Lombard from a semi-romantic hero into an Indiana Jones rascal, absorbing multiple rejections and altering the chemistry between him and Vera. Jonathan Stevens’ breakout performance at CPCC came even more recently as Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love. Some of that same aristocratic conceit and bearing transfers well to Rogers the butler, and his toxic superiority to Mrs. Rogers also has a familiar ring.

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As Mrs. Rogers, Cadie Pittman comes closer to a breakout role, giving the overworked maidservant a nice resentful edge. We keep guessing about Vera and her past because newcomer Quincy Stanford keeps her so unpredictable as she establishes bumpy relationships with both Lombard and Emily. It’s hard to surpass Finnegan for reckless swagger, but newcomer Carson Edwards gives it a try as inconsiderate daredevil Anthony Marston. He’s somewhat thwarted by the playboy outfit designed for him by costumer Chelsea Retalic, more apt to drink champagne than bourbon, and too carefree to carry a gun.

Rounding out our primary suspects, Will Lampe makes an interesting study as Dr. Armstrong. He might be a truly timorous, harmless, and useful physician, but Lampe’s fearfulness could be a façade if he’s furtively dealing out death with his medicinal syringes. Then he disappears! Dead? Lurking? The tension ratchets up suspensefully as we puzzle out whether he’s the “red herring” in the “Ten Little Soldier Boys” poem or the latest addition to the body count.

 

Theatre Charlotte’s “The Producers” Is More Politically Incorrect Than Ever

Review:  The Producers

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When I first saw Mel Brooks’ The Producers on Broadway in 2001, my disappointment in not seeing Nathan Lane in the role of Max Bialystock was assuaged by the realization that the show was still so damn good with last-minute replacement Brad Oscar filling the megastar’s shoes. Each of the successive versions I’ve seen in Charlotte – the national tour at Ovens Auditorium in 2004 and the CPCC Summer Theatre production at Halton Theater in 2009 – has only strengthened my conviction that Lane was not an essential ingredient in the show’s success.

But isn’t it too much to expect a smashing Producers at Theatre Charlotte, where they don’t have a Broadway-sized budget – or even a spacious orchestra pit like the Halton’s? Make a couple of allowances and then prepare to be astonished.

Scenic design by Chris Timmons is cheesy, even by community theatre standards, and there are no live musicians in sight – or out of sight – at the Queens Road barn. Once you get past those visible and audible austerities, you can revel in the costume designs by Rachel Engstrom, so crucial to the big “Springtime for Hitler” climax, and in the deep cast, so necessary in putting over Brooks’ comedy and his schlocky score.

Benefitting from the embarrassment of riches that showed up at auditions, director Caroline Bower hasn’t squandered her good fortune. In David Catenazzo as Max, she has found a leading man who is as seedy as Timmons’ scenery. Mostly a secret kept in recent years by JStage at the Levine Jewish Community Center, where he has starred in A Year With Frog and Toad and Fiddler on the Roof, Catenazzo proves to have a strong singing voice to go along with his comedic gifts. He absolutely oozes corruption, eager to enlist humdrum accountant Leo Bloom to cook his books, eager to bilk show investors in a surefire flop, and rabid to shtup Ulla, the voluptuous Swedish actress who turns up early for auditions.

A second solid gold debut comes from Landon Sutton as the diffident Leo, more than nerdy enough for a numbers crusher who discovers how to pocket a shady profit from a Broadway flop. There’s pallid innocence to Sutton’s manner as Leo, plus a little endearing pudginess, that works well when he’s too timid to plunge into the crooked scheme he has inspired. But there’s a surprisingly strong and smooth singing voice when Leo jumps aboard on the reprise of “We Can Do It,” and hormonal heat in “That Face,” his serenade to Ulla.

Brooks’ book and lyrics are so politically incorrect that they still seem to draw a pass from the audience – apparently willing to overlook the sexist attitude toward Ulla and the mockery directed at Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-keeping diehard Nazi who has penned the worst musical script that Max has ever read, Springtime for Hitler. Bower makes the right choices in casting the very un-Swedish Hailey Thomas as Ulla, draping her curves with a modicum of modesty, and limiting her flirtatiousness in comparison with Max’s leering. The Sveedish accent is ba-a-a-d, which is paradoxically good, and she’s positively smashing in her Nazi eagle outfit.

Neo-Nazis are less of a laughing matter than they were 18 years ago, so it’s also wise to have Chip Bradley tone down Franz’s achtung authoritarian qualities and pile on some extra daffiness. The result is the best performance I’ve seen from Bradley, particularly when he shows us all how Hitler should be sung at Springtime auditions. Bradley’s eccentric excellence is sustained when we encounter the Greenwich Village artistes who will direct Franz’s stinker, Roger De Bris and his loyal assistant Carmen Ghia, handpicked for their inabilities.

Here we are blessed with the gay flamboyance of Matt Kenyon as Carmen and the Ethel Merman regality of Paul Reeves Leopard as Roger. It takes a professional-grade queen to pull off Carmen’s arrogant servility and Roger’s ornate Chrysler Building party dress. Kenyon and Leopard have the goods. Leopard is certainly a different kind of Hitler than Bradley when Roger must sub for Franz on opening night.

On my fourth go-round with The Producers, I wasn’t laughing out loud until the Springtime for Hitler auditions, where I found myself enjoying the outrageousness as much as the newbies in the audience. I suspect their expectations were surpassed as much as mine were 18 years ago when Lane’s absence was announced as I stood in line outside the St. James Theatre. Enthusiasm for the Little Old Ladies and their tap-dancing walkers crackled like I remembered it even if the shtick has gone a little stale for me.

Iesha Nyree as Lick-me Bite-me and Layla Sutton as Hold-me Touch-me rounded out the named characters in the cast, which lists another 14 ensemble members who make choreographer Lauren “Loz” Gibbs look good. So what ever happened to the biddie named Kiss-me Feel-me? A victim of downsizing, we must presume.

Butchering a Tearjerker

Review: Terms of Endearment

By Perry Tannenbaum 

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In spite of its Academy Awards and critical acclaim, I’ve never much wanted to see Terms of Endearment. Reading the old Roger Ebert review of the film does a far better job of changing my mind than the current stage adaptation at Theatre Charlotte, I can say that. My working theory on tearjerkers is that I already know it’s sad when good people die young, sad that people allow petty differences to stand in the way of enjoying one another, and that sorrows and pointless conflicts are redeemed by moments – too few moments – of sweetness and laughter. Watching the 129-minute Hollywood version of these self-evident truths still doesn’t entice me.

The stage adaptation by Dan Gordon trims James L. Brooks’ 1983 screenplay, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, to a mere 108 minutes at the Queens Road barn. No doubt some butchery was involved, for I can’t find serious fault with Chris Timmons’ cheery and versatile scenic design, Mitzi Corrigan’s direction, or the efforts of her cast. Can’t find the characters played by John Lithgow or Danny DeVito, either. Maybe McMurtry and Brooks were better judges of their worth.

Gordon starts with a scene so cinematically short that I couldn’t see its connection with the rest of the story. It’s useful for you to notice that the newborn Aurora Greenway is screaming at in the cradle is Emma. The next time we see Emma onstage, she’s being played by Gabriela Celecia and she’s at least 20 years older. Cynthia Farbman Harris as Aurora cannot age so radically so quickly, helping me to miss the passage of two decades. What Harris can do very well is retain Aurora’s imperious prissiness, her total self-absorption, and her industrial-strength vanity.

These are wonderful traits for Celecia to play against as the normal wife and mother of three who hopscotches from one Midwestern locale to another with Flap, her college teaching husband. Suffering the slings and arrows of Aurora’s patrician superiority, Maxwell Greger makes good on his scant chances to fire back. He’s also an effective Middle America edition of Don Juan. If James Dean ever became so humdrum that his utmost rebellion against propriety were sneaking kisses with one of his students, that Dean would look very much like Greger’s Flap.

But the juiciest pushback against Aurora’s dominion comes from Garrett Breedlove, a former astronaut whose ego outstrips his fading celebrity. He’s as open about his profligate ways as Flap is furtive and delights in offending Aurora’s elegance with his vulgarity. Why not? He still has the goods in the sack. Kicking, screaming, and sputtering, Aurora is putty in his hands.

In an auspicious Theatre Charlotte debut, Vince Raye mixes charisma and conceit into this aging moonwalker – with a chunk of tenderness that took me by surprise. At his most impressive, Raye took up Garrett’s revelation that he still boasted friends in high places. If not, he certainly showed he could bluff a weak poker hand at a championship level.

By the time this happened, the drama had seemingly dragged on for seven hours, Emma had been diagnosed with Stage 7 cancer, and the only chance she had at survival was to be admitted to a special clinical trial that was already closed to new applicants. Only Dr. Maise, the head of the hospital could make that happen, and Maise had no intention of being cowed by a mere astronaut with VIP connections.

To guard the gates against Emma’s last chance, Corrigan chose the formidable Tim Huffman, who has chewed and spit out scenery as Capt. Slank in Peter and the Starcatcher and as the thunderous Deputy Governor Danforth in The Crucible. This was quite a heavyweight confrontation, Raye’s celebrity cool as Breedlove pitted against Huffman’s towering dignity as Maise. I’m not sure which delighted me more, watching Raye coolly assailing Dr. Maise with Breedlove’s vicious threats or Huffman’s trembling capitulation.

Ah, but after that clash, the very sweet and likable Celecia had miles to go before Emma slept. Farbman had to absorb additional rebuffs and regrets as Aurora and learn additional lessons before she grieved. Let it be noted that costume designer Chelsea Retalic dresses Farbman beautifully during all her changes. When Breedlove leers at her, it is not for naught. There are also lighter moments between Aurora and Emma that allow Farbman respites from her hauteur and Celecia respites from her wholesome bland forbearance. Maybe three of them.

Two Iconic Singer-Songwriters Collide

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

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fleet Buffoonery Conquers Enchantment in “Peter and the Starcatcher”

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher

By Perry Tannenbaum

As a fairly frequent reader of Dave Barry’s newspaper work, still recycling in Miami Herald newsletters a full 13 years after he left, I’ve developed a healthy skepticism about whether the humorist is capable of being serious about anything. I was optimistic that I might witness a breakthrough back in 2012 when I realized – as I was preparing to review the original Broadway production – that Rick Elice’s Tony Award-nominated Peter and the Starcatcher was adapted from a novel by Barry and Ridley Pearson.

Surely a prequel to Peter Pan, the most adulated and beloved story of the 20th century, would give Barry the incentive to see beyond his next one-liner, especially with a collaborator on board to keep him from jumping the rails. The giddy acclaim buzzing around the show and its five Tony wins for acting and design further fueled my optimism. On a July evening, I entered the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with the wild expectation of seeing a play that artfully, joyfully, and humorously dovetailed with James M. Barrie’s indelible fantasy.

My expectations were badly misaligned with the clever deconstruct of storytelling that I saw. Elice and Barry were equally tone-deaf to the sense of enchantment that Barrie brought to Peter Pan and to the Englishman’s flavorful zest for the primitive. In its belated rush to chime with the story so many of us grew up with, Starcatcher plopped Neverland in the middle of the ocean rather than up in the stars, Peter remained far from the heartless arrogant joy we all remember, and we were left to figure out that Barry’s Molly was Barrie’s Mary, Wendy’s elegant mom.

Unhindered by my former expectations, I found the touring version of Starcatcher far more enjoyable than the Broadway version when it came to Charlotte in 2014. A lot of credit went to the players. There was more chemistry at Knight Theater between Peter and Molly than I saw on Broadway, therefore more heart emerging from Elice’s script, and unlike the fellow who tried so hard to please as Tony Award winner Christian Borle’s replacement, John Sanders seemed to be having a great time as Black Stache, alias Captain Hook.

Yet I must have still been searching for Barry-Barrie links that I might have missed two years earlier, because I found myself even more pleased last week when Theatre Charlotte opened their 91st season with Jill Bloede directing a strong cast in Peter and the Starcatcher. Adept at zany comedy and slapstick, Bloede knows what this piece is – and what it isn’t. She has prodded Dave Blamy to the top of his game as Stache, no less funny here than in his award-winning turns at Actor’s Theatre in The 39 Steps and The Scene, eight years ago and more. How far can Blamy go over-the-top? The climactic amputation scene will be your delightful answer. Part-time foil and part-time torment, Jeff Powell as Smee outbumbles his master, perpetually aflutter and the perfect complement for Blamy,

Prime yourself for buffoonish villainy rather than hapless wicked cunning to get the full effect of Blamy Stache. The other wicked captain onstage, Tim Huffman as Captain Slank, takes up some of the slack on wickedness and menace – not a surprise if you saw Huffman in his Queens Road debut in The Crucible. Two piratical seamen have gotten wind of the treasure that Lord Leonard Aster is transporting to India. Getting both vessels to sea obliges us to accept that Lord Aster would want her Molly to sail separately from her father with one of the two treasure chests.

With Troy Feay making his Theatre Charlotte debut as milord, there was plenty starchy British propriety on board one of the ships, and with Johnny Hohenstein crossdressing as Mrs. Bumbrake, there was plenty of bawdy bustle aboard the other. Bowen Abbey woos her with intermittent success as Alf, allowing Hohenstein some comical vacillations – and partially explaining her slack supervision of Molly. Hey, they’re all kidnapped anyway, so Mrs. B has some cover for her negligence.

Also kidnapped – sold into slavery, if you want to get picky – are three orphan boys whom Molly befriends. By the process of elimination, we can figure out that the urchin with no name, played with a soft chip on his shoulder by Patrick Stepp, will eventually emerge as Peter. In the spirit of adventure, Molly seeks them out in the bowels of the pirate ship, and in the spirit of Barrie’s Wendy, she takes on the burden of educating the Lost Boys. Fifteen-year-old Ailey Finn is more than sufficiently precocious to portray both the tomboy and maternal dimensions of Molly. Why not? She was Rose of Sharon nearly a year ago in Theatre Charlotte’s Grapes of Wrath!

Stepp and Finn both render their roles like they’re on the cusp of puberty, so their mutual awakening comes moments before they must part forever. With Bloede at the helm, this is the most poignant ending I’ve seen in any Starcatcher production.

We seem to get there at warp speed, even though Bloede manages to sharpen Captain Slank and Mrs. Bumbrake more than I’ve previously experienced. Yet the sensory bombardment is so constant that I can admit without shame that, while I can tell you that Jesse Pritchard and A.J. White played the orphans creditably, I can’t say for sure whether Prentiss was the ornery one or Ted. Likewise, a peep into Wikipedia was necessary to nail down which character wooed Mrs. B.

Somebody remarked to me in the lobby at intermission that Peter and the Starcatcher is like children’s theatre for adults. If you’ve seen ensembles in children’s productions who break away from their characters and directly narrate to the audience, you’ll see the truth of that comment hand-in-hand with Elice’s deconstructing mischief. We are taking in a lot of information here. Listening to the players is often a more reliable indicator of where we are than following the changes in Chris Timmons’ spare set design, nicely coordinated with Gordon Olson’s lighting.

Keeping pace with all that happens is hard enough without worrying how Elice’s play connects with Barrie’s. So don’t. It was only on my third go-round that I realized how important the sound designer’s contributions are to making Starcatcher work. No sound designer is listed in the Theatre Charlotte playbill, so I’ll cite Ben Sparenberg and Rick Wiggins, listed jointly as light and sound board operators. Bloede and her cast certainly keep them busy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that both of them might be cuing sounds together when tensions intensify.

You won’t find much enchantment in this 91st season launch, but there’s some magic aboard one of the ships when we land in Neverland. The journey is roaring good fun at its best, and it’s running with professional polish and precision.

Soot of Sodom Chases the Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath”

Review: The Grapes of Wrath @ Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’ve ever read John Steinbeck’s sprawling masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath, you know that it’s framed with a seething anger as a picture of America’s unfulfilled promises, the cruel exploitation of the poor, and the undiminished aspirations of the Joad family. These dispossessed and determined Oklahoma sharecroppers believe in the dream.

But the Okies are tested before they reach the Promised Land of California and once they’ve arrived. Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, they must cross burning desert. Clutching onto the printed handbills promising work and honest wages, they must resist the report of a broken, disillusioned man who found California to be nothing like the handbills’ hype. They must endure attacks from anti-labor thugs who fear the latent strength of worker groups.

Perhaps most difficult of all, they must strive to hold together despite forces of attrition from within – disagreements, defections, and death. Manna doesn’t shower down upon them from heaven to ease the journey.

We easily presume, with their consuming hope of a Promised Land, that the Joads’ journey is an exodus, a liberation from the landowners who have burdened them with sufferings. Another biblical parallel suggests itself on Queens Road, where Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel is making its local debut at Theatre Charlotte – a mere 37 years in the wilderness after winning the 1980 Tony Award for Best Play.

Since vile bankers and beancounters cannot loom as large on the stage as they do on the vast canvas of Steinbeck’s pages, another biblical parallel emerges clearly. Under Ron Law’s direction, with severely weathered scenery by Chris Timmons, and stark, pitiful costume designs by Chelsea Retalic – Okie clothing and faces equally sooty – I couldn’t help sensing echoes of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in this depiction of Dust Bowl devastation.

One faint echo is the drugging of Grampa Joad when he resists leaving, a parallel to how Lot’s daughters bamboozled their dad. The loudest echo came from Ma Joad, proving that she’s the antithesis of Lot’s Wife. You’ll recall that when Lot’s family was commanded not to look back while God was raining fire and brimstone on the sinful cities, Lot’s wife disobeyed and paid a famous price.

As the Joads embark, one of Ma’s kinfolk asks if she is going to take one last look back. Her no in response, with the aid of modest embroidery, is so emphatic that we take it as a philosophy. Ma Joad looks forward and moves forward. She lives by doing what needs to be done.

It’s an outlook that she successfully hands down to her daughter, Rose of Sharon, in the poignantly perverse pieta that ends the epic story.

With a performance like Paula Baldwin’s as Ma, we readily grasp that Steinbeck wished us to see her as the steadying bedrock of the family. The jut of Baldwin’s jaw and the tightened sinews of her neck were unlike anything I’d seen from her in her numerous leading roles. She’s unrelentingly purposeful, sternly nurturing, with all the patience and endurance of the ground she stands on.

Standing firm isn’t all that simple on the raked stage that Timmons has built. His pared-down design must accommodate campfires, a riverbank, and a ramshackle jalopy able to accommodate the whole clan. The skin-and-bones truck is altogether worthy of the ridicule it draws. Inspiration taken from the Little Engine That Could? You decide.

Vying with Ma for the right to be called the backbone of the family is the second-eldest son, Tom Joad, a volatile straight-shooter who is coming home from prison after serving his time for murder. It is so telling – about Tom and his fellow Okies – that everyone seems disappointed that Tom didn’t break out of jail. Easy to rile when he or his family is threatened, Tom is a seeker of truth, curious to learn how the system works.

Max Greger subordinates Tom’s volatility to his heartland wholesomeness in a promising Charlotte debut, holding his own when he shares the spotlight with Baldwin or the wild-eyed Andrew Tarek, who shambles brilliantly about as Jim Casy, a former preacher who feels like he has lost the calling. Yet in the same way that Tom is branded as an outlaw after killing in self-defense, Casy is branded as a holy man despite his renunciation – with Steinbeck’s approval, we presume, since four gospels were written about a man with the same initials.

Amid a dust cloud of bleakness and hopelessness, these running gags slightly lift the gloom.

And though there are strong unionist sympathies in the framework of Steinbeck’s yarn, you will also find an all-American emphasis on teamwork, which Law’s cast underplays enough to keep us from smelling Hollywood. Chris Melton has an adolescent randiness as Al Joad that augurs trouble and a shotgun marriage, but he also has a way with cars, performing the marvel of getting the Joads’ jalopy going. Between bouts of guilt, discouragement, and drinking sprees, Victor Sayegh as Uncle John often struck me as the most fatherly in the clan with a generous spirit.

With a cast of 23 trafficking back and forth on the sloped stage, Law needed to shape a deep ensemble that bonded together while divvying up two hours and 15 minutes of running time. Nor could he rely on the top tier of players to deliver all the little crevasses of comedy and poignancy that lurk in the wide tapestry.

Annette Gill and Rick Taylor are largely responsible for getting us off to a rousing start as the ever-bickering oldsters, Granma and Grampa Joad, portraying them as loud and slightly doddering. We get an interesting take on Pa Joad from Ryan Dunn, who doesn’t seem broken by his family’s rude displacement but rather gladly retired from the responsibility of it all, a bit dazed by the turn of events.

Zach Radhuber goes light on the simplemindedness of Noah Joad, yielding a touching moment when he sets off on his own, and Cole Pedigo gives a nerdy edge to the befuddlement of Connie Rivers, Rose of Sharon’s husband. In some ways, Ailey Finn represents the best of the new generation as “Rosasharn,” but it’s suffering that strengthens and ennobles her, and the mysterious smile that ends the novel can’t be incorporated into a stage adaptation.

Law keeps the concept of incidental music from the Broadway version but discards the content, switching from a Tin Pin Alley songlist to a folksy Woody Guthrie flavor. “California, Here I Come” steps aside for “This Land Is Your Land.” Strumming an appropriate guitar, Tom Schrachta attacks the material a bit harshly with his robust voice, but I grew fond of that discord. Schrachta also drew the acting chore of donning a rumpled trench coat (a hint of the spy parallel in the biblical exodus story) and delivering the bad news about California to the Joads.

That same harshness remained in Schrachta’s voice. Yet now it was mixing grief, discouragement, futility, and rage – very much what Steinbeck felt about the ruinous actions of America’s bankers when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath.

Bravura Aplenty in Theatre Charlotte’s “Memphis”

Review:  Memphis

By Perry Tannenbaum

As you may have found out, ignorant buffoons can make it big in America. So why not ignorant eccentrics? If Huey Calhoun didn’t make it big as a ‘50s deejay in Memphis, the musical by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, then his fall from celebrity wouldn’t be nearly as reckless or spectacular. When he has lost his local TV show, tossed away his shot at national fame, and blown his romantic chances with the R&B queen he has catapulted to stardom, Huey defiantly delivers the anthem he has earned, “Memphis Lives in Me.”

“One more drink and you’ll see God everywhere,” sings Huey in tribute to his chief consolation: a bluesy Beale Street honky-tonk bar. It’s the culmination of a Broadway- caliber performance that Joe McCourt is currently giving at Theatre Charlotte in the lead role that DiPietro patterned after legendary rock pioneer Dewey Phillips.

Contrary to the preproduction signals that McCourt and director Corey Mitchell were sending, McCourt hasn’t muted Huey’s nasal drawl or portrayed him as much less of a rube than Chad Kimball did on Broadway. That’s a good thing. “Sounds just like him!” my wife Sue concurred at intermission.

Whether it’s the pork-pie hat and costume by designer Rachel Engstrom, or Huey’s sidling walk – seemingly unable to unbend his knees, straighten his back, or take two consecutive steps in the same direction – McCourt also looks a lot like Kimball’s Tony-nominated portrait. Perhaps rehearsals with Dani Burke as hot young singer Felicia Farrell revealed that, if McCourt were to tone down Huey’s goofball attributes, he would come off as more of a creepy stalker.

Ultimately, McCourt has arrived at a very likable blend of naïveté, chutzpah, neediness, awkwardness, and hipness – not the easiest elements to combine – and as usual, he torches every song he touches. For her part, Burke hasn’t lost any of the voltage she first brought to the Queens Road barn when she electrified audiences with “Aquarius” in the 2014 production of Hair.

 

Felicia isn’t nearly the plum role Huey is, but Burke proves to be fairly formidable in her first full-fledged lead. A few of Engstrom’s creations glam her up, and I liked Burke’s regality at the “WRNB” studio, where Huey has the nerve to ask Felicia to perform live. We’ve only seen Felicia in a seedy honky-tonk before, and the top radio station in Memphis also looks pretty shabby, but Burke demands, “Where are my backup singers?” as if she’s already a star.

What’s happening here in Memphis doubly crosses racial lines as Huey brings black music to the middle of the AM radio dial and presumes to romance Felicia while promoting her talent. Both of these audacities bring powerful characters into the flow of the action. Station owner Mr. Simmons is easily the most comical of these, and Mike Carroll beautifully brings out the businessman’s starchy pomposity – and astonishment – each time a new Huey atrocity increases his listening audience, his sponsor’s satisfaction, and finally his own teenage son’s admiration.

I hardly even remembered the role of Huey’s mom from the original Broadway production, so I was fairly blown away by the heart – and the pipes – that Allison Snow Rhinehart brings to Mama. Of course, she’s as déclassé as Huey, so his outsized dreams and successes are a total shock to her, not to mention coming home one day to find his black girlfriend in her kitchen. But Mama’s prejudices occupy the same space as her love and loyalty, so Rhinehart has a couple of gratifying surprises in store for us after intermission.

Least surprising, after his triumph as Coalhouse Walker in last winter’s CPCC production of Ragtime, is Tyler Smith’s powerful portrayal of Delray, Felicia’s fiercely protective brother and owner of the dive where Huey discovers her. It doesn’t take long to catch on to Smith’s power, since he’s toe-to-toe with Burke in the opening “Underground” ensemble, and he’ll prove equally capable of facing off with McCourt on “She’s My Sister” when Delray flares up about Felicia’s interracial affair. In fact, when the catastrophe strikes that ends Act 1, I suspect that Mitchell may have imposed some unnecessary restraint on Delray’s ferocity.

But there was more than enough power from all the frontliners to justify the “Why didn’t you tell me about this place?” comments I was overhearing during the break. Apparently these newbies were undeterred by the lackluster scenic design by Chris Timmons or the generic choreography by Ashlyn Summer, which never reminded me of what my teen elders were dancing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand or Alan Freed’s The Big Beat. Victoria Fisher’s lighting design goes a long way to redeeming the drab sets, and music director Zachary Tarlton makes sure there is always a lively jump to Bryan’s score when needed.

Maybe the best reason to be wowed by Theatre Charlotte’s Memphis is how deep the excellence goes in this cast. After AJ White literally glows in a lemon yellow outfit as Wailin’ Joe on the first R&B track that Huey spins, there are two marvelous rebirths among the black folk that Huey’s musical mission reaches. First there’s Traven Harrington as Bobby, the radio station janitor, who will pile one shocker upon another before he’s done. Then there’s Clayton Stephenson, whose transformation as Gator may leave you weeping as Act 1 climaxes.

It ain’t perfect, but Mitchell has directed one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen on Queens Road in 30+ years of covering Theatre Charlotte. Chances are better than even that Memphis will live in you if you’re in the house when this company comes out for their final bows.