Tag Archives: Dominique Atwater

The Nerd Who Terrorized New Jersey

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Theater Reviews:  The Toxic Avenger and Pride and Prejudice

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jews, Blacks, and JFK Converge at Concertized Kushner

Theatre Review: Caroline, or Change

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L-R: Brittany Currie, Tracie Frank, and Veda Covington

By Perry Tannenbaum

The relationship between African Americans and Jews has been a fascinating convergence of parallel histories and unavoidable class conflict. We’ve had a couple of dramas here before that dramatized the relationship, beginning with Alfred Uhry’s famed Driving Miss Daisy, which reached the Charlotte stage in 1991, just two years after the Oscar-winning movie. The 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner took us back to Atlanta after World War 2, when the curmudgeonly Daisy was in denial about her physical deterioration, her racist attitudes, and the prevalence of anti-Semitism in her city.

Just over three years ago, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte brought us Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Boy, transporting us to the first days of Reconstruction after the Civil War, when two emancipated slaves returned to their former owner’s home for Passover. Between Uhry’s drama and Lopez’s auspicious 2011 debut, Tony Kushner collaborated with composer Jeanine Tesori on a musical – a chamber opera, really – that looks at yet another Jewish household where an African American was employed.

Until last February 26, when Theatre Charlotte brought Caroline, or Change to its lobby for one night only, the widely-hailed 2003 piece had never been performed in the Queen City. It’s unquestionably the most ambitious Grand Night for Singing event held at the 501 Queens Road barn. The format has been in a cabaret spirit, songs selected from a rarely performed musical taking up half of the program, more rarities by the same composers after intermission. With Caroline, music director Zachary Tarlton staged a concert-style production of the full show – and so many people bought tickets that Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law nearly had to move the performance out of the lobby and into the auditorium.

Caroline Thibodeaux works in the bowels of a home owned by Stuart Gellman and his second wife, Rose, but the core of Kushner’s story – an autobiographical one according to the playwright’s intro to the printed edition – is the relationship between Caroline and Noah, Stuart’s 8-year-old son from a previous marriage. Although Caroline takes place in 1963, closer in time to Daisy than Whipping Boy, its resemblances to Lopez’s script are strong enough that it could have served as the younger playwright’s model. During the Passover holiday celebrated by Caleb DeLeon in Whipping Boy, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. In the November-December timeline of Caroline, John F. Kennedy is assassinated before the Gellmans’ Chanukah celebration.

If Kushner had a model, the likeliest candidate would be another autobiographical play, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold, in which the title character also behaves unforgivably toward a black person working for his dad. In her dignity, in the way Caroline absorbs Noah’s abuse in apartheid Lake Charles, Louisiana, she very much resembles Sam’s forbearance toward Hally in apartheid Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950. The big difference is that Kushner looks at Caroline as critically as he looked at Noah.

She’s a divorced, conspicuously joyless mother of three, staunchly resistant to change. The entire cast was outstanding, but we were especially fortunate to have Tracie Frank in the title role. We had a brief sampling of Frank’s gospel fire last spring in Theatre Charlotte’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but even her Whitney Houston bravura singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” hardly cushioned the surprise of this sustained excellence, her silent reactions nearly as taut as her vocals.

Stuart and Rose realize they’re not paying Caroline enough to comfortably take care of her three children, but they do what they can. In order to teach her stepson a lesson – and to slip the Thibodeauxs some extra cash – Rose decrees that Caroline can have whatever loose change Noah carelessly leaves in his pockets when she puts his clothes in the washing machine. Noah is more softhearted than Rose, so he starts leaving loose change in his pockets on purpose – until Chanukah rolls around.

Grandpa Stocknick, Rose’s dad, gives Noah a $20 bill in Chanukah gelt. Some days later, Noah is back in school and realizes that he has left the 20 in a pair of pants earmarked for the laundry. His piddling charity is in serious jeopardy of becoming lavish generosity, and he rushes home to retrieve his gift. Too late. It’s nearly Christmas, her three kids expect something under the tree, so do you think Caroline is going to put that $20 bill back in the bleach cup for Noah?

Noah is even less likable than Caroline in the fight that ensues, so it’s to Rixey Terry’s credit that he made the transition from adulating schoolboy to beneficent master to sore and abrasive loser so convincingly over the course of the night – and no fewer than 15 songs. Terry didn’t try to emulate an eight-year-old, so he didn’t sound at all like Harrison Chad on the cast album, a prudent choice for this reading-stage style presentation, adroitly stage directed by Corey Mitchell. He and the other younger members – the three Thibodeaux siblings and The Radio – had their music down pat, thanks to some good hard work and, I suspect, that cast album.

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Yes, the dramatis personae included some inanimate objects that brought Caroline’s basement domain quirkily to life, often with a gospel flavor. Dani Burke was Caroline’s Washing Machine while Maya Sistruck, Dominique Atwater, and Kayla Ferguson were The Radio, even more amazing when they harmonized than when they soloed. Among these kitchen accouterments, Tyler Smith was the king of appliances as The Dryer in an electrifying performance, Tesori’s score starting him off with a mix of street shout, yelped with Porgy and Bess gusto, and R&B that he crushed into the depths of his velvety bass baritone – with The Radio providing backup.

More of Kushner’s fanciful universe turned up outside of Caroline’s basement. Much to our delight, Smith returned to the row of lecterns at centerstage as The Bus taking Caroline and her friend Dotty home from work, but Brittany Currie often lurked on the side as The Moon, emblematic of change. The change that Noah leaves in his pants isn’t the only change Caroline struggles with. Although $30 a week isn’t enough to get by, it’s Dotty who is resolved to do something about it, going to night school in an effort to better herself.

So it’s both Dotty’s energy and initiative at the end of a long workday that irritates Caroline. Watching Veda Covington as Dotty, bragging that her daytime employer is actually proud of what she’s doing, I found myself a little irritated with both women, Dotty for needling her friend and Caroline for her unremitting sullenness. Currie as The Moon was a somewhat soothing presence crooning about change, but there was also a wisp of sultry sensuality in her vocals, very effective in this cabaret setting.

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L-R: Yabi Gedewan, Ibrahim Web, and TyNia Brandon as Caroline’s children

Mitchell had the races sitting at opposite sides of the stage when they weren’t at the lecterns, accentuating how little they actually interact during this musical. It’s mostly Noah and stepmama Rose who show an active interest in Caroline. Although she badly flubbed the Yiddish word for navel, Allison Snow Rhinehardt was an otherwise credible balaboosteh: a little unsure of her footing with both the new stepson and the help, somewhat sensitive to their feelings, yet definitely reveling in her mission to run the household and to command.

Upstairs-downstairs decorum was broken momentarily at the Chanukah party in one of Kushner’s most insightful scenes. Asked to help with the extra party housework, Caroline’s eldest daughter Emmie gets into an argument with Rose’s father about the efficacy of Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement. Caroline is outraged by her daughter’s presumption, Emmie is angered by her mother’s inbred meekness, and Mr. Stopnick thinks this is the first real conversation he has had since coming South to visit his daughter. Excellent work here from Frank, TyNia Brandon, and Vito Abate.

I would have been quite content just to witness some local theatre company putting Caroline on its feet after all these years. The fortunate few who attended the February 26 performance saw something far finer. With a minimum of rehearsal, the 17 singers and Tarlton performed nearly flawlessly, all the more astonishing when you consider that the musical director was never in the line of sight of any of the performers even once as they performed this challenging two-hour Tesori score.

Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait another 13 years before Caroline, or Change is produced here again – and that, when Kushner’s lone musical returns, it will be fully staged in a larger hall for a larger audience in a longer run. As it deserves.

Photos by Perry Tannenbaum