Tag Archives: Debbie Scheu

Downsizing “Sister Act” Pays Big Dividends at Matthews Playhouse

Review: Sister Act at Matthews Playhouse

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Sister Act-11

A full flowering of onstage success has somehow scurried away from Iris DeWitt in recent years. Just last April, pandemic restrictions and a wretched recording rig trapped her inside a masked, malodorous production of Sense and Sensibility at Central Piedmont Community College. Patchy intelligibility also wrecked DeWitt’s previous outing in the badly-miked production of Chess in 2020. Until 2022 rolled in, you’d have to go back to 2019 if you wanted to claim to have seen DeWitt anywhere near her imposing potential, when she played prominent roles in Beehive and Little Shop of Horrors.

Neither of those CPCC Summer Theatre productions obliged DeWitt to show us much of her acting or dancing skills. Beehive was totally bereft of plot, and while Iris’s undeniable vocal power was manifest in Little Shop, no full flowering was evident there, either. We had to settle for the most memorable who-did-she-play performance in recent Charlotte history, for DeWitt was a flower in that musical, hidden in the cavernous depths of Audrey 2 in Little Shop.

This year, the script is flipping and momentum building as DeWitt has figured prominently in Ghosts of Bogota, when Actor’s Theatre returned to Queens University, and Love, Loss and What I Wore in the recent Theatre Charlotte production at Camp North End. Paula Baldwin, who directed that sloppily streamed S&S adaptation of Jane Austen last year, clearly retained enough confidence in DeWitt to see her as Deloris Van Cartier, the lead role in Sister Act. Ron Chisholm, choreographer for this Matthews Playhouse extravaganza at The Fullwood Theatre, probably also saw some potential waiting to blossom in DeWitt’s previously untested dancing feet.2022~Sister Act-10

We’re not so sure when we first see Deloris and her backup singers onstage. The vocals are sufficiently electric but not full voltage, while the doo-wop moves are nowhere near Supreme. I’m guessing that Baldwin and Chisholm have asked DeWitt to cool her jets on “Take Me to Heaven” because Deloris is nervous about auditioning for her paramour, Curtis, an intimidating mobster, at his club. But why on earth should Curtis, a man of highly questionable character, be even a little justified in thinking that Deloris and her crew aren’t ready for a recording contract and the bright lights?

Apparently, writers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner thought that their protagonist needed a crisis of confidence in the early stages of her spiritual journey, one that Paul Rudnick found unnecessary in his original screenplay for the 1982 movie starring Whoopi Goldberg. There, Deloris and crew had all the polish of the Supremes from the start, singing a doo-wop medley in the bowels of a Las Vegas casino owned by her mobster boyfriend, drawing two claps and a stare from a late-night audience of gamblers.

Now they’re in some undisclosed Philadelphia dive, where the only audience is Curtis, his three henchmen, and us. Curiously enough, the transfer from the glitz of Vegas to the dumps of Philly makes Sister Act more at home in a community theatre setting than on the big stages of London’s West End, Broadway, or at Ovens Auditorium – not to forget Halton Theater, where it was staged in yet another CP production back in January 2013.

As soon as Deloris and her crew began to regroup in “Fabulous, Baby!” we had our first glimpses of all that DeWitt can be onstage. My own realizations, beyond her trusty vocal powers, were split between her ability to dance – gliding disco or righteous gospel – around the stage she commanded and the thoroughly professional depth of her acting. Watch DeWitt’s reactions for a while and you eventually find it difficult to take your eyes off her until she makes an exit.

And don’t fret about any missed opportunity with “Take Me to Heaven”: DeWitt and most of the ensemble get a grand do-over at the end of Act 1.

After the additional indignity of being gifted with a garish hand-me-down fur coat previously owned by Curtis’s wife, Deloris has the misfortune of witnessing the club owner brutally gunning down a snitching henchman in cold blood. On the run from her ex, Deloris leaves Curtis in the lurch for the better part of the night as the saloon singer is placed in a witness protection program and sequestered in a midtown convent. That calls for a new counterweight for Deloris to provide the plot with some fresh friction, a call sternly answered by the convent’s Mother Superior, the role played by Maggie Smith opposite Goldberg in the film.2022~Sister Act-04

Oh, and by the way, Baldwin herself played that Maggie Smith role at CP in 2013, so she’s directing a show that she knows intimately from the inside. Maybe she already envisioned what I had yet to perceive in a smaller venue, that what the Steinkellners sought most earnestly in their adaptation of the movie was to make the story more character-driven and less of an action comedy. Building upon Mother Superior’s most familiar film epigram, “God sent you here for a reason – take the hint,” the Steinkellners, along with songwriter Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, team up to give greater voice to her spiritual crisis.

Both of Menken’s ballads for Mother Superior, “Here Within These Walls” and “I Haven’t Got a Prayer,” sit nicely in Carol Weiner’s vocal range and sternness is Weiner’s prime onstage métier, so she eclipses anything we’ve seen from her before, including her starchy turns in Big River, Bonnie and Clyde, and Oliver! There’s more than a hint of Menken’s “Beauty and the Beast” lurking inside of “Within These Walls,” and Weiner allows its warmth to radiate through Mother Superior’s gradual softening toward Deloris.2022~Sister Act-09

More personal crises are layered over the thinner movie scenario. Young apprentice nun Sister Marie Robert, beguiled in the film by the bar where Deloris finds refuge from the convent’s cheerless monotony, now questions whether she should be leaving the real world for a convent – netting Melissa Lozada two cracks at the novice’s power ballad, “The Life I Never Led.” The dreamboat cop who whisked Deloris out of town in the movie, not even letting his colleagues know where she was, is now the hesitant, self-doubting Sweaty Eddie, relegated to a desk job when he wouldn’t fire his gun out on the beat.Photo1 @ Tom Henderson Photography

Saddled with a lingering crush on Deloris that goes back to high school, Eddie draws “I Could Be That Guy” to cry out his anguish, slightly more comical than Lozada’s plaints but hardly less of a showstopper for Griffin Digsby, who swoops down into Barry White territory in voicing his romantic aspirations. Also going there, surprisingly enough, is Mike Carroll as Monsignor O’Hara, who presides over Sunday services and surprisingly turns out to be a Deloris groupie when she revamps the convent’s choir.

Baldwin and Chisholm not only draw strong players down in Matthews, but they also get strong design and technical backup. Debbie Scheu’s designs for the nuns’ habits grow more spangled and outré as the convent choir grows in prestige and popularity. The glossy, reflective dress Deloris wears in her Van Cartier persona complements the stained-glass backdrop that scenic designer Marty Wolff has provided for the church. Four sets of translucent arches that inch closer together as we move upstage change colors during the glitzier scenes climaxing the action, as Jeffrey Childs’ lighting design adds excitement to Chisholm’s choreography.

Amazingly, the only scene where downsizing doesn’t work at Fullwood Theatre is the squalid bar scene. The room is simply too small for Curtis’s henchmen not to notice three nuns when they enter – or for Deloris to overlook these motley thugs for more than five seconds. Then again, Menken had worked at least three Disney musicals before attempting SISTER ACT in 2011, so he hadn’t yet mastered the Harvey Keitel gravitas we might expect from real dons and heavies (A Bronx Tale would come more than five years later).Photo2 @ Tom Henderson Photography

Jamaas Britton, Ra’Saun Elliott, and Neifert Enrique play these street urchins with all the menace of the Lion King hyenas. They get a spotlight – or a lava lamp – shortly after intermission, when they spar over the best way to romance a Sister in “Lady With the Long Black Dress,” Elliott explicitly espousing the Barry White approach. Edgier than his goons, Kristopher Loretz as Curtis gets to riff sardonically, in “When I Find My Baby,” on the penitent reconciliation serenades that scamps have been wooing women with for ages, replacing the customary promises of hugs and kisses with vows of knives and guns.

All of these bottom feeders are portrayed with the same assurance as the principals, to the delight of the Sunday matinee audience, who loudly gave them all a standing O. It was likely exciting for the energized crowd to be back at Matthews Playhouse watching a musical – and maybe amazing for them to see production values as high, or perhaps higher, than ever.

Excellent CPCC Cast Isn’t Weary of “Show Boat”

Review: Show Boat

By Perry Tannenbaum

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

A theatrical breakthrough when it first opened in 1927 but so politically incorrect today, is it finally time to declare that Show Boat has sunk? At the current CPCC revival, kicking off Summer Theatre’s 2019 season, Tyler Smith as Joe seems to avoid the 92 years of “Ol’ Man River” revisions, its Oscar Hammerstein lyric migrating from N-word to “darkies” to “colored folk” and beyond, by making the Cotton Blossom’s stevedore sound like he jes’ step off de boat from Jamaica.

Yet we’re still back in 1887 Natchez, Misssissippi, where the local Sheriff, enforcing Jim Crow laws that forbid Julie LaVern from performing because she is one-sixteenth African, probably hasn’t gotten any memos that he should clean up his speech when referring to his oppressed brethren. It’s sad, but Julie can take solace in the fact that she has made her white chum Magnolia’s singing career – and comeback! – possible by vacating her gigs on the Cotton Blossom and later at the Trocadero Nightclub in Chicago.

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

Julie’s voluntary departure from her Trocadero dressing room enables us to realize how noble she is even if Julie remains blissfully unaware. Insidiously, it also justifies the suffering we burden black folk with – because they’re so much better than us and so much more equipped to bear it.

It gets irritating for me. Each time Julie appears, it’s so she can benevolently disappear! And doesn’t the rugged, hard-bitten Stoicism of Joe’s “Ol’ Man River” make the innate nobility of his people even greater?

Yes, it does.

Watching Show Boat last weekend, I couldn’t help thinking how much more interesting this Jerome Kern musical would be if it were about Julie, Joe, and their respective spouses. Instead the Hammerstein book, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, concentrates on Magnolia Hawks, her outgoing dad Captain Andy, her small-minded mom Parthy, and her dashing man, riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Hammerstein’s book doles out crumbs to the people I care about when they should be seeing at least half the loaf.

Ah, but the best of Kern’s score is still heartland wonderful, and director Tom Hollis has assembled an outstanding cast to bring it to life. Set designer Jennifer O’Kelly creates a riverboat with a fair amount of Mark Twain flair, twin staircases joining at the deck and two smokestacks above, and there are impressive drop pieces descending from the fly loft when we arrive at the Trocadero for a genuine scene change. Debbie Scheu’s costume designs have exactly the right frilly-silky-grubby mix to sharply define the racial and class divides.

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

It’s important that the evening starts off with the big-hearted garrulousness of Tom Ollis as Captain Andy, because other than the salty bitchiness of Paula Baldwin as his wife Parthy, longstanding conflict is in short supply. As the rakish Gaylord, Ashton Guthrie gets the best of the music written for the men who matter here, and he’s singing better than ever before on “Where’s the Mate for Me” and “Make Believe,” adding a touch of old-timey crooning to remind us what this show would have sounded like way back in the Roaring Twenties.

Lindsey Schroeder as Julie and Sarah Henkel as Magnolia share the “Fish gotta swim” resignation of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” long before their paths cross in Chicago and each gets a song of her own. Schroeder’s farewell is a similarly resigned “Bill” before she cedes the Trocadero stage to Magnolia. You would think that Henkel could simply take it from there, but it’s only 1899, women are decades away from getting the vote, so Daddy needs to drop by in the nick of time – coincidence, huh? – to buoy sweet Magnolia’s confidence in “After the Ball.” Hooray for Captain Andy! He saved the day.

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

The sexual politics here are fairly dismal, Edna Ferber story or not. Men can abruptly leave both Magnolia and Julie without accounting for themselves, and they can expect a hearty welcome if they have second thoughts. The layabout Joe lays it out best in his “I Still Suits Me” duet with his long-suffering wife Queenie (Brittany Harrington): “I may be lifeless, But with one wife less, My life would be more strifeless, yes sirree, No matter what you say, I still suits me!”

That’s the brutal, sexist side of Joe, and you can bet that Tyler Smith brings plenty of bite to his complacent boasting. Yet Smith, singing every bit as beautifully as Guthrie in his reprises of “Ol’ Man River,” is especially golden at the end of each bridge, when he sings those two dark low notes each time “you land in jail.” Are there two bluer notes in the American songbook?

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

Paul Robeson, the megastar this role was originally written for, must be looking down kindly from his heavenly sphere, for Smith is the best reason at Halton Theater not to get weary of Show Boat.

Selling Elegance, Spirit, and History for Just a Song

Theatre Reviews: I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin and The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

CPCCILoveAPiano6[7]

After its most lavish and extravagant production ever, last November’s The Phantom of the Opera, what was CPCC Theatre going to do to follow up? Well, since the laws of mathematics and the logic of budgets still apply on Elizabeth Avenue, the answer was simple: economize! Rolling into the parking garage, where the second story was unusually unoccupied, I was worried the audience for I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin would be as drastically reduced as CP’s expenditures.

Not to worry, I didn’t find that many more empty seats at Halton Theater last Saturday night than I saw at last February’s How to Succeed. More importantly, considering the relative merits of Berlin and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show attracted a competitive enough turnout at auditions to yield a cast that is worthy of the music — including holdover Ryan Deal, who you may recall in the title role of The Phantom.

Like the audience, the orchestra isn’t reduced quite as much as the funding, a quintet led by music director Ellen Robison from the keyboard. They’re a busy bunch, accompanying the cast — all six of them triple threats to various degrees — through a songbook that includes 53 different titles. A few of these songs are reprised, and at one point, when Andy Faulkenberry’s “The Girl That I Marry” is juxtaposed with Corinne Littlefield’s “Old Fashioned Wedding” — while J. Michael Beech and Megan Postle are teaming up on the counterpoint of “You’re Just in Love” — there are four different vocalists onstage singing four different melodies simultaneously.

Conceived by Ray Roderick and arranger Michael Berkeley, Love a Piano never says Berlin’s name out loud. But the 11 scenes, beginning with Tin Pan Alley in 1910 and ending in a summer stock revival of Annie Get Your Gun in the late 1950’s, take us chronologically through the composer’s career. Or roughly so: “Old Fashioned Wedding” was written for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and you can bet the anachronisms don’t stop there.

With a generous portion of poetic license, the show sketches a musical portrait of a composer who was consistently able to mirror his times. The title tune, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” take us back to a sepia-tinted era when rags roamed alongside sentimentality. As we cut from band shell to speakeasy, “Pack Up Your Sings and Go to the Devil” and “Everybody’s Doing It” evoke the wicked carefree spirit of the Roaring ’20s during Prohibition.

Two scenes are devoted to the ’30s, “Blue Skies” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” offering consolation during the onset of the Great Depression. Then a suite of dance tunes, including “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek,” evokes the elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Thanks to Mel Brooks, the audience failed to take “Puttin’ on the Ritz” altogether seriously.

For some reason, Roderick — or perhaps CP’s director and choreographer, Ron Chisholm — bounced the heyday of dance marathons from the 1930s to the 1940s, sketching that lugubrious phenomenon with “Say It Isn’t So” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” When we authentically reached the World War II era, it was quite obvious that Berlin more than reflected the hopes, the pride, and the humor of the times. He simply was these things, with a flowering of songs that included “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “This Is the Army,” “Any Bonds Today,” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Even those left plenty of room to bring down the first-act curtain with two of Berlin’s most enduring songs, “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.” A more judicious dividing line would have been the beginning of WW2 toward the end of the ’30s. As it stands, Roderick drops a bunch of CARE packages on the 1950s, including “Easter Parade” from 1933 and everything attached to Berlin’s sharpshooting homage to Annie Oakley, which premiered in 1946.

I Love A Piano

Photos by Chris Record

James Duke’s scenic and lighting design, relying heavily on period slides and Berlin show posters projected onto three screens, move us gracefully from era to era. But it’s Debbie Scheu who most colorfully clinches the deal with her cavalcade of costume designs. Chisholm’s choreographic demands certainly tax his cast, with Littlefield and Faulkenberry negotiating their steps with the most apparent ease. On the other hand, while Postle and Beech looked like they might not be up to their challenges, both of them surprised me with their hoofing.

Deal and Kayla Ferguson were the remaining couple, most memorable in their “Blue Skies” duet. All six of the singers proved to be quite capable, not at all fazed by the spotlight, but Deal and Littlefield were my favorite soloists. The ensembles were often very lively and charming, but a special pinch of conflict was added in the summer stock tableau when Ferguson, Littlefield, and Postle all auditioned to be Annie opposite Faulkenberry’s Frank Butler.

“Anything You Can Do,” usually a comical face-off between Frank and Annie, is set up as an audition piece. So the comedy is reborn — as a rollicking showdown between three aspiring Annies.

Eliza and Watson 3

Time and reality bend in curious ways in The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, now at UpStage in NoDa through February 21. But so does playwright Madeleine George’s title, so what else would you expect?

Three rather curious Watsons that we’ve already heard of are trotted out and shuffled in Three Bone Theatre’s production, directed by Robin Tynes. The first of these is a relative, shall we say, of the Watson computer that defeated its human opponents on Jeopardy in 2011. Eliza, who collaborated with IBM on the victorious Watson, is now in her living room, working independently on a new android that sports a far more human body.

We travel back to the 19th century for the other two Watsons that we know. The first of these is the Watson summoned to Alexander Graham Bell’s side when Pa Bell invented the telephone, his assistant Thomas A. Watson. But we don’t really see him, either, on that historic day in 1876. Instead, it’s Alex repeatedly calling for him in brief blackout vignettes between other scenes. No, we must wait until 1931, when Watson goes on record at Bell Labs, insisting that what his boss really said was, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want you.”

The third or fourth Watson, depending on how you tally the computer chips, is more in control of his narrative, for this is the Dr. John H. Watson who ostensibly chronicles nearly all of the Conan Doyle adventures of Sherlock Holmes. You’ll find that Watson Intelligence is all about connections Ð personal and electrical — and vague connections between the android and Sherlock’s sidekick are established by a fifth Watson, a tech dweeb hired by Eliza’s ex-husband to spy on her.

Compounding the absurdities, Tynes has chosen a black actor, Devin Clark, to play the whitest sidekick in the history of literature. What’s more, Clark is perfection as all the Watsons, human and robotic, plus a special set of scenes where he dons Sherlock’s deerstalker cap. Chesson Kusterer-Seagroves crystallizes Watson’s role as the archetypal listener, pouring out her heart to the robot and the tech dweeb in modern times and bringing an intriguing mystery to Watson at Baker Street in Sherlock’s absence.

Ken Mitten rounds out the cast as Bell and the two Merricks who cause their Elizas so much distress. He’s a powerful stage presence, but I’m sure he’ll be even better when he’s more secure with his lines and cues.