Tag Archives: Emily Klingman

Wacky Magrath Sisters Still Deliver Southern-Fried Hilarity

Theater Review: Charlotte’s Theatre Crimes of the Heart

By Perry Tannenbaum

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It’s been a long time – nearly 15 years as far as I can tell – since I’ve spent an evening with Beth Henley’s lovable Mississippi Magrath Sisters. Looking in on them at Theatre Charlotte’s revival of CRIMES OF THE HEART affirms how vividly these deftly differentiated sibs stick in a theatergoer’s memory. First and foremost, you’ll remember kooky Babe, who doubts her own sanity after shooting her husband. Carefree temptress Meg seems to be the enviable paragon, looking down on her sibs as she waltzes back to the home sod with her Left Coast cool, but she’s beginning to doubt her own specialness now that her stab at stardom has come up empty. Lastly, that dear and dutiful doormat, Lenny, with her shriveled ovary and low self-esteem.

If the 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner is beginning to show its age, I couldn’t tell it by the audience reaction at the Queens Road barn. The quirkiness and the comedy still work, but at a distance of 35 years, we can begin to appreciate what made CRIMES OF THE HEART so unique when it burst upon the scene.

Prize-winning plays and novels set in Dixie had invariably been about elegant, decayed, and tragic folk, following the Southern archetypes embraced by William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Harper Lee. Henley showed us once and for all that the eccentricities celebrated in You Can’t Take It With You could play just as well down in Mississippi – even when peppered with dark Arsenic and Old Lace humor.

Yet Henley’s comedy is notably more realistic than Kaufman’s crowdpleaser and both lighter and saner than Arsenic. That’s because the Magrath sisters are quirky rather than balmy – and because no significant antagonist appears onstage. When Cousin Chick drops by to chide or alarm the sisters, she is more of an irritant than an antagonist, her exits usually comical hasty retreats. She’s more like the recurring meanie from a TV sitcom than a force to reckoned with. The only real threat is State Senator Zachery Bottrelle, convalescing offstage somewhere with the bullet hole in his gut that Babe put there.

The Magrath Sisters came equipped with leavening agents that had usually been absent from American comedies: sorrows and regrets. You could easily presume that these were Southern heirlooms from Williams’ iconic dramas, but I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that this quality in Henley’s heroines may have had its roots in the novels of Jane Austen. Like Gentle Jane, Henley doesn’t presume to show us how men speak to each other when ladies aren’t in the room.

Directing for the first time at Theatre Charlotte, Christian Casper isn’t trying to reimagine our leading characters. Nor is set designer Chris Timmons trying to depict the Hazelhurst, Missisippi, home as any more luxurious or squalid than you might expect. We’re in a bland, slightly cheesy smalltown home, and its only discordant element is the dwarf fridge in the kitchen.

One of the ways that Henley binds her comedy together and makes it memorable is with the pair of ceremonies framing the action in celebration of Lenny’s 30th birthday. As you’ll see in the final moments, budgetary constraints are a bit more exposed than strictly necessary – cakewise and candlewise. But if Casper isn’t sufficiently savvy about the technical strategies to make the final scene truly shine, he certainly doesn’t mess up the opening.

Lenny’s clandestine celebrations get us off to a charming start with Meredith Westbrooks Owen as the pitiful birthday girl, repeatedly hunched over her wee little cupcake, singing to herself. Comedy – and the big news about the crime – burst in with Zendyn Duellman feasting on the role of Chick. Catty, gossipy, and fault-finding don’t completely describe Chick, for she’s also vulgar and trashy, richly deserving the Magraths’ scorn. Picking up a pair of pantyhose that Lenny has obligingly bought for her at the store, Chick begins squirming into them before our very eyes.

Henley meant Chick’s struggles to appear “slightly grotesque” in her stage directions, but Casper has Duellman going way beyond that. Like Lenny, we don’t care whether Chick remembers her cousin’s landmark birthday or not, but the same lapses from her younger sisters clearly hurt. Lenny’s clandestine candle-lighting lingers as an subliminal rebuke, underscoring her siblings’ tendency to be insensitive, neglectful, and self-absorbed. Beyond that, they expect Lenny to perform all the family’s mop-up chores, chiefly the onerous task of caring for bedridden Old Granddaddy.

From the moment that Jennifer Barnette enters as Meg, there are conflicting airs about her of regality and rebelliousness, elegance and uncouth. One minute, she’s lighting up a cigarette to vex Chick, the next she’s disconcerting Lenny by cracking pecans with her shoe. What a fascinating character arc for Barnette as she careens from Coca-Cola and stolen candy crèmes to bourbon and birthday cake. But of course, Barnette’s physical comedy – or even Chick’s, for that matter – will pale in comparison to Babe’s prodigies.

Emily Klingman performed them on opening night with a neurotic edge that eventually won me over. She repeatedly convinces us that Babe is the youngest, most immature person onstage, quite capable of obsessing morbidly over why her mom killed the family cat when she committed suicide. And hey, when a kitchen oven and a chandelier are among your props, you will get laughs.

Self-sacrifice is enough to win our affection for Lenny, but Henley calls upon two good men to help in sealing our fondness for her more self-centered sibs. Allen Eby is Doc Porter, surprisingly mellow for a man whom Meg left drenched and limping after a spectacular breakup during Hurricane Camille. On the other hand, Cole Long as dorky Barnette Lloyd, the legal eagle who is trying to keep Babe out of jail, seems uncannily capable of homing in on his client’s ditzy wavelength.

Technical Difficulties Nearly Capsize “Singin’ in the Rain”

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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!

Lady Bracknell Weathers Three Storms

Reviews of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Jon Ecklund (John Worthing) and Lance Beilstein (Algernon Moncrieff) in The Importance of Being Earnest.

They were planning to open The Importance of Being Earnest on January 22 at Theatre Charlotte, where Oscar Wilde’s “Trivial Comedy for Serious People” hadn’t played since 2002. But the snow and sleet that were icing the roads hadn’t begun to melt away on the following evening, so opening night was transformed into an opening Sunday matinee. Even if I had been able to scale my icebound driveway, I was already booked for the opera at Belk Theater.

After all the reshuffling on my iCal, my wife Sue and I were finally able to catch up with Wilde’s menagerie of smart alecks at the second Sunday matinee, nine days after the originally scheduled opening. With so many other reshufflers in the crowd, the Queens Road barn was close to capacity. An extra performance has been slated for 2:30 this Saturday to help out other migrants.

The airy sophistication of Joshua Webb’s set design boded well for the blizzard of bon mots to come, but who were these Ernests opening up the action, Lance Beilstein as the roguish Algernon Moncrieff and Jon Ecklund as the deceitful John Worthing? Beilstein had briefly blipped on my radar last year when he was cast in a stage adaptation of Casablanca that didn’t happen. and Ecklund had never performed on a Charlotte stage before nailing his audition as Wilde’s protagonist.

Yet they instantly established a fine rapport, hinting early on that Algy and Ernest — as John calls himself in London — were not only great friends but kindred spirits.

There was a problem, however, even before the divine ladies arrived. Though their chemistry was sparkling, Beilstein’s cue pickup was razor sharp while Ecklund’s was erratic. Not a symptom you would expect from your lead at the end of your second week.

Ecklund’s symptoms became more serious during the scene change between Acts 2 and 3. In fact, he was taken to the hospital, reportedly suffering from dizziness, and didn’t reappear.

Johnny Hohenstein, who plays John’s butler at his country home, bravely substituted for Ecklund during the final 19 minutes, script in hand. That forced the imperious Lady Bracknell to announce herself when she triumphantly reappeared.

The waters were already troubled in Act 1 when Jill Bloede, amply bustled in a floor-length dress, first floated in like a majestic tugboat as Her Ladyship. It was she and she alone who must approve of Ernest as the prospective husband of Algy’s cousin, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax — a grim prospect, since her wicked nephew has already devoured all the cucumber sandwiches.

Lady B attempts to be judicious. Ernest’s income of seven to eight thousand pounds, the equivalent of $1 million annually according to the Norton Edition of the text, actually counts in his favor.

It’s Ernest’s lineage that is an insuperable stumbling block, for he cannot trace his family any further back than a leather handbag! My, how Bloede huffs when she repeats that fatal word, nearly adding an extra syllable to it each time she lingers on the first letter.

Lady Bracknell’s contempt was so hilariously absolute that when she exited, leaving Ernest and Gwendolen’s hopes of marital bliss in shambles, the audience erupted in lusty applause.

By the sort of insane coincidence that Wilde uses to resolve Ernest’s difficulties, Bloede’s name rhymes with Lady. So, after her current triumph, Jill is no more: she will no doubt have to suffer being called Bloede Bracknell for the rest of her days. You may revise my headline accordingly.

Needless to say, Bloede’s arrival calmed any worries that this production, directed by Tonya Bludsworth, would be anything less than a delight. Eleven years after starring in NC Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Gretchen McGinty’s professionalism still gleams with vitality and caprice as Gwendolen, irresistible despite her perverse silliness. She accepts Ernest, but only for the shallowest of reasons — she’s the perfect antithesis of Juliet.

Caprice continues to rule when we arrive at John’s country home for Act 2, where we meet his lovely ward, Cicely Cardew. Her requirements for a prospective husband are not merely similar to Gwen’s.

They are exactly the same, obliging both John and Algy to make christening appointments with the Rev. Canon Chasuble. Under the watchful eyes of Cicely’s governess, Miss Prism, Algernon has snuck into John’s home, pretending to be his fictitious brother Ernest, and swept Miss Cardew off her feet. That’s partly because Miss Prism’s eyes are devotedly affixed to the Reverend.

As we’ll learn in the denouement, it’s not the first time Miss Prism’s attention has wandered.

Further complicating John and Algy’s attempts to live double lives, Gwen follows her would-be fiancé into the country — with her mother barking at her heels. The running joke of Act 2, amid all the confusion of who’s really betrothed to Ernest, is the radical shifts of sisterly love and murderous hatred between Gwen and Cicely.

Mixed in with devout cynicism and decadence, punctiliousness and pomposity squandered over trivialities are the key ingredients of Wilde’s satire, and Bludsworth has her entire cast embracing it with the proper élan.

Emily Klingman is hormone-driven innocence in a lemon chiffon dress as Cicely, assiduously transcribing Algy’s marriage proposal into her teen diary, and Hank West bumbles quite sanctimoniously as Rev. Chasuble when he manages to recall where he is. Scrunched up like a squirrel, Stephanie DiPaolo is the essence of fretful and incompetent spinsterhood as Miss Prism.

Bludsworth also differentiates nicely between the servants. Ron Turek is urbane and dignified as Algy’s man, Lane; while Hohenstein, tasked to distraction by his temperamental superiors, is more apt to let his resentments play over his face as John’s butler, Merriman. Or he was until he was obliged to pick up Ecklund’s script and stand up to Bloede Bracknell.

Edward Tulane(C)Donna Bise 6686

Photo by Donna Bise

Not at all plagued by postponements, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane opened at ImaginOn last weekend in as polished a production as you’ll ever see from Children’s Theatre. It’s a gem that will no doubt remind longtime subscribers of The Velveteen Rabbit, since the title character is a rabbit doll. Ah, but Edward is fashioned entirely of porcelain, except for his furry ears and tail (he prefers not to think about the origin of his whiskers).

Adapted by Dwayne Hartford from the novel by Kate DiCamillio, Edward’s story begins when he is given to 10-year-old Abilene Tulane on Egypt Street by her mysterious grandmother Pellegrina, the only human who knows his heart.

Unlike the Velveteen, Edward does not aspire to be real or human, but he is frustrated when Abilene doesn’t set him in a place where he can see the outdoors and the stars through her window.

Even before he is severely broken many years later in Memphis, Pellegrina perceives his flaws, and the inference is that he must suffer for them. But Edward’s sufferings and adventures will be epic ­— beyond human, to tell the truth.

Our protagonist remains the three-foot doll the DiCamillio created, but Mark Sutton is always close by to articulate his thoughts, shouldering and picking a banjo as Edward morphs into Susannahr, Malone, Clyde, and Jangles during his odyssey on land and under the sea.

Margaret Dalton figures most prominently as the bereft Abilene, but she resurfaces on numerous occasions during Edward’s journey, most notably as a frisky dog. Beginning as the semi-exotic Pellegrina, Allison Rhinehart ranges across multiple roles and genders, last seen as Lucius Clark, the sagely doll mender. Devin Clark rounds out the cast, shapeshifting from fisherman to hobo to handyman when he isn’t slyly inserting sound effects. Pure enchantment for 81 minutes.