Tag Archives: Dan Brunson

CP Gets Its Act Together for Summer 2017

Preview: CPCC Summer Theatre 2017

Fiddler on the Roof Promos

By Perry Tannenbaum

Entering its 44th season, Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre would be hard-pressed to surpass the lineup of shows they presented last year – Annie, Chicago, Sleuth, and Sister Act. But there are good reasons for the folks on Elizabeth Avenue to be super-confident that 2017 will be even more successful at the box office.

Yes, the family-friendly mix of popular Broadway musicals, adult comedy, and an AM kiddie show will provide the perfect refuge from a slapstick presidency that hasn’t managed to derail our strong economy (yet). And yes, after 10 years of random screeches, thumps, and bumps in the night, technicians were able to exorcise the demons that had previously haunted the Halton Theater sound system. Throughout the 2016 season, CP had its act completely together and gremlin-free.

Three beloved Broadway hits are coming to the Halton to keep the good thing going, beginning with Fiddler on the Roof (June 2-10) and followed by A Chorus Line (June 16-24) before CPCC Summer Theatre makes its exit with the pop ABBA jukeboxer, Mamma Mia! (July 14-22). In between the last two Broadway extravaganzas, the summer’s kiddie musical, James and the Giant Peach (June 28-July 8) takes over the Halton by day while the nighttime action scoots across Elizabeth Avenue to Pease Auditorium with A Comedy of Tenors (June 30-July 9).

Oh yeah, one more reliable predictor of success: “We have had record season ticket sales so far,” says Tom Hollis, the CP Theatre Department chair who runs the show and will direct Fiddler and Mamma Mia!

The process of selecting CP’s summer lineup, says Hollis, is ongoing throughout the year with suggestions from audience, from members of the creative team, and consultation with other theater companies. CP wants the lowdown on what others are programming and how well tickets are selling. Radar is also aimed at what Broadway producers are making freshly available from their inventory.

“There used to be a rule of thumb that said you should wait four or five years before you do a show that had toured through,” Hollis recalls. “But that no longer seems to hold true. Our experience with Les Miz and Phantom showed that proximity to the tours actually increased sales.”

It might be assumed that tours of these perennials and Mamma Mia! – which has touched down in Charlotte no less than six times since 2002 – would spark interest in enthusiasts to see them again. Yet Hollis cites trade publication data indicating that audiences across the country who attend Broadway Lights series like those offered here by Blumenthal Performing Arts don’t ordinarily attend local theatre.

“Maybe they have spent all their money on those tickets and can’t afford to attend more,” Hollis speculates. “What we are seeing is that the combination of our more competitive pricing in comparison with the touring houses and the quality of our product makes it possible for people who love theatre but can’t afford the tour prices to see the show in our theater and bring the entire family when they do it.”

Fiddler on the Roof Promos

On the other hand, CP allows absence to make their subscribers’ hearts grow fonder of shows they’ve previously presented. Both Fiddler and Chorus Line have been done before on campus but never at the Halton, which became the home for CP’s big musicals in the fall of 2005. Budgetary considerations also go into the lineup formula, so comparatively barebones productions like Chorus Line and Chicago help to rein in the bottom line.

Additional economies are available through casting, when an actor can take on multiple roles, navigating a labyrinth of rehearsals and performances to appear in as many as four of the five shows that CP Summer mounts in an eight-week span. It takes eagerness, enthusiasm, and plenty of stamina to go through such a demanding grind, which is why the Summer acting company always skews so young.

In seasons when CP is planning shows like Annie or Oliver, they’ll hold separate auditions in February for kids on top of the cattle calls for local actors and aspiring high school interns. Then in early March, directors will trek to the Southeastern Theatre Conference for regional auditions, where collegians and recent grads come in search of summer work. CP signed up six budding pros at this year’s auditions in Lexington, KY. Look for some of this new blood in A Chorus Line, where young triple threats belong.

Perhaps the optics of overly youthful casts have grown stale for Hollis and his colleagues as the years roll by, or maybe budgetary purse strings are loosening, but we’re recognizing more veteran locals who are returning annually to the Halton and to Pease for CP’s summer rites.

Jerry Colbert, whose CP credits date back to 1974 and took the Laurence Olivier role in last summer’s Sleuth, returns as one of the over-the-hill candidates who might be the father of the bride-to-be in Mamma Mia! Alongside Colbert, Dan Brunson and Kathryn Stamas will be familiar to more recent subscribers. James K. Flynn, fatherly enough to play Tevye when CP last presented Fiddler, moves into A Comedy of Tenors along with two other familiars, Craig Estep and Caroline Renfro.

For the second successive summer, Susan Cherin Gundersheim is teamed with Beau Stroupe. Last year, she was Daddy Warbucks factotum Grace Farrell in Annie. Now in Fiddler, she gets to variously torment Tevye – or emote to his fake dream – as Golde, the mother of his five daughters.

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Stroupe has walked a rocky road to Anatevka and the iconic role of the Scripture-fracturing dairyman. Photos of Stroupe as Daddy Warbucks show him with scarcely less hair than he had when he was finishing chemotherapy in late 2013 – more than a year after a grapefruit-sized malignancy was found in his intestine. A rather hostile divorce compounded his woes, so his role as the predatory Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel during the next summer seemed to chime with his embattled temperament.

The road from chemo to Anatevka led through Cherry Tree Lane, where Stroupe was George Banks, the starchy and clueless father who was transformed – along with his unruly children – in Mary Poppins through the magical nanny. A role he neither knew nor cared about until he began rehearsing, Banks awakened in Stroupe a new affection for father roles.

Warbucks pointed him in the same direction. “Again, the journey of a seemingly rigid and even detached businessman to one of tender-hearted father figure,” says Stroupe.

“I certainly relate to the journey of a father with my own four children through the difficulty of divorce and the slow healing process. It’s easy to understand the juggling act of breadwinner, patriarch, husband, father and visible member of the community. When Tevye is saying goodbye to Hodel at the train station, it takes very little effort for me to feel what any true father feels when letting his child go to live a life of their own choosing.”

New directions will be running amok when CP opens A Comedy of Tenors, Ken Ludwig’s sequel to Lend Me a Tenor, a CP Summer hit way back in 1996. No matter what its pedigree is, Ludwig’s operatic farce – think three tenors misbehaving in Paris – is the newest show CP has ever done, from farm to fork after its New Jersey world premiere in less than two years. Unheard of, as Tevye would say.

And Renfro, CP’s go-to action heroine in Dial M for Murder and Wait Until Dark, tackles a comedy – with a Russian accent! As sexy diva Tatiana Racon, Renfro will have her sights set on a very married tenor, but her seduction will farcically misfire.

“There will definitely be some good old-fashioned vamping,” Renfro promises. “I am so psyched about doing the accent. And so freaked out about it. At this point in my career, the thing that appeals to me most about a role is doing something I’ve never done before, especially if it scares me.”

Technical Difficulties Nearly Capsize “Singin’ in the Rain”

singin

By Perry Tannenbaum

Few musicals are more spectacular on stage than Singin’ in the Rain, adapted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green from their celebrated screenplay. People remember the title tune and Gene Kelly’s carefree rain-drenched spin around a lamppost, but there are other notable songs in the score by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, including “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” “All I Do Is Dream of You,” “Make’Em Laugh,” and “Good Mornin’.” While there’s little that’s unpredictable in the storyline, Comden and Green add plenty of comedy to the abundant tapping and hoofing.

Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre had a marvelous hit with the show in 2001, but there are understandable reasons why it hasn’t been reprised in the Metrolina area for the past 15 years. To make a splash with Singin’ in the Rain, a company needs to find three triple threats to play the three leads and an accomplished comedienne to play squeaky-voiced villainess Lina Lamont. Above all, you have to make it rain at the end of Act I and restart with a dry stage after intermission, Herculean plumbing and drainage challenges. You have to applaud Davidson Community Players for tackling these difficulties at Duke Family Performance Hall, but in the proud history of this company, Singin’ in the Rain is destined to become legendary for its technical shortcomings.

Lina is the beauteous co-star of the dashing Don Lockwood in numerous silent screen romances, not at all shy about feeding the Hollywood gossip mill with rumors that she and Don are soon to be wed, reigning happily afterwards as king and queen of Tinseltown. Just two things wrong with Lina’s reveries: Don despises Lina and Warner Brothers is about to release The Jazz Singer. While “The Royal Rascal” is a box office hit for Lockwood and Lamont, movie producer R.F. Simpson realizes that footage already shot for “The Dueling Cavalier” is likely to be stillborn because talkies have triumphed so suddenly and decisively. Lina’s voice is so unromantic that Simpson already contrives to make sure she does not speak in public at Hollywood openings.

Don and his old vaudeville sidekick Cosmo Brown cook up a technical stratagem. They will overdub Lina’s toxic voice with a pleasant one. What’s more, Cosmo, a skilled composer, will help turn the whole shebang into a musical, “The Dancing Cavalier.” After the “Royal Rascal” premiere, Don has met and fallen madly in love with aspiring actress Kathy Selden, a triple threat who can supply all the dubbing and body doubling the studio needs. All they have to do is keep the wildly jealous Lina from finding out before the movie is released.

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Though they aren’t exactly youngsters, Dan Brunson and Matt Merrell make an admirable vaudeville team as Don and Cosmo. Brunson’s fortes are singing and acting, so Don’s songs and his romancing and his comedy all come off well, but he’s only passable as a dancer. It’s almost fortunate that so much went awry on opening night to draw my attention away from Brunson’s mediocre dancing. While Brunson was unquestionably wet by the end of his grand “Singin’ in the Rain” solo, there had been no detectable waterworks or rain. The iconic lamppost was so unstable that I was actually relieved that he didn’t attempt to take a spin on it. Brunson actually took a spill during his epic solo – or did he? He was so professional covering up, executing a couple of comical swimming strokes while he was splayed out on the floor.

Disaster seemed even more imminent in the preceding “Good Mornin'” trio with Cosmo and Kathy. Choreographer Kathy Mullis has them doing a complex routine with a pair of adjoining stairs in the background and a sofa, which the trio is supposed to flop over and/or topple at the end. None of these pieces of furniture was securely braked after they had been rolled onstage. It was something of a victory when Brunson, Merrell, and Emily Klingman, playing Kathy, didn’t break a limb during this hazardous scene. The comedy of technical errors actually beset Brunson earlier, when the tear in Lockwood’s tear-away tux sleeve became prematurely visible during “You Stepped out of a Dream.”

Merrell has performed almost exclusively in DCP comedies over the years, so it was surprising to find how adept – and athletic – he is as a dancer. His slapstick athleticism on his solo showcase, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” drew roars from the audience, and his tap duo with Brunson on the “Moses Supposes” novelty was also a sensation, though both men appeared winded (and out of sync) as their routine was ending. As the comical sidekick, Merrell could afford to show this weariness without really breaking character. Less experienced than the leading men, Della Knowles as Lina could have used more feedback from director Sylvia Schnople while Emily Klingman as Kathy could have benefited from more encouragement. Knowles altered her voice so radically as Lina that she was mostly unintelligible until deep into Act II, but Klingman’s low-energy performance was perhaps more puzzling. She never seemed to grasp the elemental idea that Kathy was worthier of stardom than Lina.

Technical difficulties that plagued the opening performance certainly disfigured some of the choreography that Mullis brought to this production, but the merits of her work are inescapable, especially in the big ensembles – which have become a tapping DCP trademark. Costumes by John David Brown III, Andy Lominac, and David Townsend surround Brunson and Merrell with a rainbow of color in their final “Broadway Melody” duet, and with Anne Lambert as gossip empress Dora Bailey and Jim Esposito as studio chieftain Simpson, non-singing support is unexpectedly strong.

Ultimately, the sloppiness of this opening night effort nearly sank it. Most of that sloppiness is fixable if tech director Tim Beany, stage manager Lydia Taylor, and the stage crew will start sweating the small details – and Schnople demands more excellence. Knowles struggled to put on her peignoir because it wasn’t laid out properly on her divan, drawing unintended hoots from the audience that could have been prevented. Clips of silent films projected over the stage were clearly videos converted into black and white. Software exists that will distress and vignette video to look like film, but even that wouldn’t help the moribund silent film acting. It must be grand opera, not bland soap opera!

Wizards of Winging It

Theatre Review: Journey to Oz

By Perry Tannenbaum

DONNA BISE

I’m not sure what the guidelines are on picture-taking at the new Children’s Theatre production of Journey to Oz, written and directed by Christopher Parks. Three or four kids in the audience read the pre-show announcements, and I must confess that I was so focused on how well they managed to talk into the microphones planted on the ears of various adult cast members that I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying.

Whether or not photos are actually banned, I can report that, at last Saturday afternoon’s performance, there was a photo- and movie-taking orgy as the 75-minute fantasy unfolded. And I can’t say that I heard even one discouraging word from the staffers who were ushering. Children and parents were invited onstage to play a wide assortment of characters from L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz: the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and even the Mayor of Munchkinland.

And of course, multiple adorable Dorothys paraded down the aisles of the McColl Family Theatre. Considering that the contours of Tom Burch’s scenic design are the book stacks we might find at a public library – not Baum’s Kansas plains or his rainbow realm of Oz – I’d say that the iPhones gleefully chronicling the misadventures of children, husbands, and moms onstage added to the giddy mix of make-believe.

Oz erudition isn’t what it once was when Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow” every year on TV without ever aging. So the kids and parents fetched from the audience are far more likely to wander off script than they would have a couple of decades ago. Cast members eschew the subtle discrimination of asking for volunteers, so shyness and stage fright can also come into play.

Parks has his five-member cast primed for the unexpected, that’s for sure. A kid in the first row was called on to emulate Toto, but he repeatedly emitted a bark that was no louder than a purr. The dad chosen as Mayor couldn’t bother to try a high Munchkin voice or to offer any testimony at Dorothy’s criminal trial at the Witch’s castle. Cast members didn’t skip over these difficulties, persisted in efforts to get things right, but they never mocked the amateurs. We moved right along at just the right moment.

Opportunities for us to participate helped to sustain our goodwill. When the cyclone touched down in Kansas, we were the wind. When Dorothy landed in Oz, we were the Munchkins who welcomed her. And when the hapless Scarecrow was besieged by crows, we were rallied to be their caws. Perhaps the most magical participatory moment was when we arrived in the Emerald City and a mini-battalion of kids converged upon them from the wings, surreptitiously recruited to portray the Ozians.

Journey to Oz isn’t myopically focused on the foundational Wizard narrative. Over and over, the players insert little vignettes about Baum, newspaper reactions to his books, personal anecdotes, and tidbits on his times. It’s a little like an annotated edition. We also get a sense of the breadth of Baum’s Oz series, which Parks deftly keeps unobtrusive. Our only lengthy digression into the greater Oz opus comes when the players point out to us that the adventures invariably begin with a dramatic act-of-God cataclysm. The cyclone of The Wizard gave way to an earthquake to trigger one of the many Oz sequels, then an avalanche, and – weirdest of all – a “hurricane drizzle.”

When we got down to business, the upstage library shelves parted to simulate the prairie and subsequently, our arrivals in Muchkinland and the Emerald City. The bookshelves lining the wings never disappeared, forming the backdrop for the first encounter with the Scarecrow and the witness box for the trial. The Wicked Witch of the West actually entered through a bookcase, framed in appropriately spooky light and smoke, and a few paper-cut props – a beard, a lion’s mane, and Toto – fancifully originated from a large book spread out on a lectern.

The magic is resolutely low–tech here, and the classy costumes by Jennifer Matthews aim in a totally different direction from the last Wizard of Oz produced by Children’s Theatre, when the late Alan Poindexter directed and portrayed a singularly frightful Wicked Witch. This time, the hat worn by Nicia Carla in the same role looks like it was snatched from the Cat in the Hat’s closet.

Carla is spared from extensive emceeing chores, but she does confront a Dorothy or two during the drama, proving quite adept at modulating her menace. Tiffany Bear is vaguely dressed like Dorothy and wields the Toto wicker basket and puppet, but she’s more explicitly Glinda when she’s chaperoning the anklebiter Dorothys onto the stage, a very engaging emcee.

Of the three guys in the cast, Tommy Foster and Dan Brunson pitch in most often on the hosting chores. Chaz Pofahl aligns himself with Carla at the beginning and end of the show, starting out as Uncle Henry opposite her Auntie Em, and ending as her servile Flying Monkey Lawyer at Dorothy’s trial. In between, Pofahl has a nice stint as Scarecrow.

Foster is the most gregarious of the three guys, doing more of the audience interaction and morphing into the Cowardly Lion. Brunson’s fine physical work as the Tin Woodsman steals far more of the show than you usually see. His robotic shtick before and during his therapeutic lube job vies in hilarity with Carla’s melting – under a barrage of confetti water.