Tag Archives: Glenn Griffin

CP Loses the ABBA Showdown

Review: Cold-War, USA-vs.-the-Soviets overlay of intrigue to the actual chessboard drama

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Chess Dress Rehearsal; February 13th, 2020

So who wins the world championship match between Frederick Trumper and Anatoly Sergievsky in Tim Rice’s Chess, with music by the bodacious ABBA duo, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus? Depends on whether you’re watching the original concept album of 1984, the touring concert version that followed, several British productions that expand the original further for the stage, or the American version with a book by Richard Nelson that arrived on Broadway in 1988. Based very loosely on the premiere event in chess history, when Bobby Fischer challenged Boris Spassky for the world title in 1972, Rice reveled in applying a Cold-War, USA-vs.-the-Soviets overlay of intrigue to the actual chessboard drama.

Good instincts there. The game of chess is even more antithetical to performing arts presentations than golf or curling. Yet Rice’s elaborate behind-the-scenes chess games were equally ill-suited to a concert or album format.

Glenn Griffin said as much before directing and starring in Queen City Theatre Company’s presentation of a reworked Broadway version in 2011. “This makes me feel old, but I have the records,” he said of the concept album and the concert album, nearly four hours in length combined. “I have the two records, and I just remember loving this music even before I knew what it was really about.”

Right now, CPCC Theatre is doing what director Tom Hollis, giving his curtain speech, called a new United Kingdom version that has only recently become available. Don’t expect to see Nelson’s name in your playbill, and don’t count on much dialogue in this bookless throwback – and don’t expect historical accuracy in the outcome of the match. If you saw the QC Theatre production in 2011, that outcome has flipflopped.

Chess Dress Rehearsal; February 13th, 2020

What CPCC and a very able cast offer is mostly an improvement on getting the storyline from the original albums, for you can see what is going on between Freddie, Anatoly, and Florence Vassy, the woman torn between them. You can track the political and romantic defections, compounded by the machinations of KGB operative Alexander Molokov, which are countered by the CIA’s Walter de Courcey. Production designer Bob Croghan’s slick set and costumes – with Freddie in leather! – make it all so easy on the eye, and James Duke’s projections usefully show or tell us where we are.

What I heard last Saturday night, however, was a sound technician’s nightmare. An unintelligible chorus of 18 voices disorients us from the outset, obviously the opposite of what they’re intended to do, and the solo voices of the principals are only intermittently an upgrade. Just about two weeks earlier, sitting farther from the stage at Matthews Playhouse, my wife Sue and I were able to hear another ABBA opus, Mamma Mia, far more clearly.

Chess Dress Rehearsal; February 13th, 2020

No doubt about it, CP lost the ABBA showdown with Matthews because of their wayward sound system and microphones. Oddly enough, we were consistently able to hear the Russians, Anatoly and Alexander, more clearly than the Americans, Freddie and (Hungarian refugee) Florence. Unless CP can clear up its technical difficulties, the best thing they can do would be to send Duke back to his computer, where he could whip up a set of supertitles.

Otherwise, some of the projections and scene titles that Duke throws on the upstage screen or over the Halton Theater proscenium might confuse first-timers. For example, why are we seeing a grainy old photo of Budapest in 1956? Because those fiendish Russians are using the possibility that Florence’s dad might be alive behind the Iron Curtain as a pawn in their game, a potent bargaining chip that might persuade Freddie’s aide to help them conquer Trumper.

Double-crooked, those nasty Russians also dangle the wife Anatoly left behind when he defected, so he’ll return to the motherland after successfully defending his title – or throw a second title match to a new Russian challenger. CP also produced Chess in a revamped Broadway version back in 1991, and it’s interesting to see how Svetlana, Anatoly’s wife, has kept changing. Back then, she had a frumpy peasant personality, but Griffin transformed Svetlana into an alluring black temptress who was every bit as queenly as her white Hungarian counterpart. Now she’s stolid, conventional, and underutilized when she appears in Act 2.

The Broadway denouement happened in Budapest, a more telling place for pressuring Florence. “One Night in Bangkok” is the marquee song in Chess, so you know part of the action will stay there no matter what. But with a return to a British version, action starts out in Merano, Italy, as the match begins. That means “Merano” and up to 12 other songs that were axed from the original British stage version – and the Chess in Concert album – are being heard in Charlotte for the first time.

After the first act, all of it in Merano, my wife Sue sat there bewildered at intermission, wondering how she could have forgotten Chess so totally. Simple answer: we hadn’t seen it here in Charlotte before. The Bangkok setting that we remembered had been moved to Act 2, and Budapest was discarded.

Chess Dress Rehearsal; February 13th, 2020

If it weren’t for the execrable sound, CP’s Chess might have been a pleasant discovery. In or out of his leather, Patrick Stepp brought a great punkish look to Freddie and a piercing heavy-metal tenor, but when he wasn’t singing “Pity the Child,” I rarely understood a word. The score was kinder to J. Michael Beech as Anatoly, doling out more power ballads to his mellower voice, since the brooding Soviet, like Spassky, really is the mellower, more humane chess player. Why else would two women adore him?

Totally obscured in her previous role at CP as the bodacious voice of Audrey 2 in Little Shop of Horrors, Iris DeWitt emerges as merely slightly bigger than life as Florence, easily the most frustrating performance in the show. The pure voice is as delightful to hear as Beech’s, but the most conflicted character onstage during Act 1 wasn’t intelligible for more than a few words at a time – even in her beautiful “Heaven Help My Heart” – and DeWitt’s mic only marginally defogged after the break.

Chess Dress Rehearsal; February 13th, 2020

Wearing a painfully symmetrical dress, Kristin Sakamoto earned future CP payback in the thankless role of Svetlana. No longer worthy in this UK version of a “You and I” duet with her husband Anatoly, Sakamoto’s highlight is the comparatively tepid “I Know Him So Well” duet with DeWitt. The Arbiter, who explains the championship rules and adjudicates protests from the rival camps, turns out to be a juicier role for Rick Hammond in his local debut. Hammond’s mic was no more reliable than DeWitt’s, but his gaudy costume gave him an aura like The Engineer’s in Miss Saigon or a villain in a Batman movie.

Chess Final Dress Rehearsal, February 13th, 2020

With a serviceable Russian accent and an ominous gruffness, Matthew Corbett as Molokov was conspicuously successful in making himself understood – and justifying everybody’s hatred. He’s the one cast member who appeared in the Queen City production of 2011, and after crossing the pond from the American version to the UK edition, he’s likely keeping his preference between the two Top Secret. It sure was useful to have his malignant clarity spread out over seven songs during an evening that left many in the audience completely nonplussed.

Maybe while they’re tearing down and replacing Pease Auditorium across Elizabeth Avenue, CP could be correcting the chronic sound woes at the Halton.

Two Takes on Gay Pride, 50 Years Apart

Preview: The Pride

By Perry Tannenbaum

Whether it’s Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency, chronicling the downfall of Oscar Wilde, or Martin Sherman’s Bent, depicting gays imprisoned by Nazi Germany at the Dachau death camp, compelling dramas written during the past 25 years have repeatedly reminded us how far gay rights have progressed. Yet progress can be precarious. Within the last year, we’ve seen the passage of HB2 locally and the imposition of Stalag Trump nationally: relapses and backlashes are still very possible.
Besides the occasional wave of reactionary politics and demagoguery, we must acknowledge that there’s more to quality of life — gay or straight, First World or Third — than laws and rights. That’s a key reason why Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Olivier Award-winning drama, The Pride, promises to be so fascinating in its Charlotte premiere this week at Spirit Square.

Campbell compares 1958 with 2008 by placing the same three people in both eras — not 50 years older in the new millennium but, by some freak of reincarnation or misaligned parallel universes, the exact same people of the exact same ages. Of course, their identical essences are shaped by their upbringings and the times they’re living in. So outwardly, vocationally and temperamentally, we will see that the Oliver, Philip and Sylvia of 1958 are different from those we’re reacquainted with in 2008.

Costume changes and music cues will keep us from falling off the merry-go-round as we circle back and forth between the two eras.

“With the first shift to 2008,” says Queen City Theatre Company artistic director Glenn Griffin, “it might be a little jarring for the audience to fully understand that we have shifted to a different time plane, but after the first few minutes it becomes completely understandable. How the characters dress in 1958 and again in 2008 is also incredibly different. I have worked extremely hard with the cast on body language of both decades, and how society norms would influence how they would do everyday actions from sitting, talking, acting, etc.”

Philip is a real estate agent in 1958, married to Sylvia, an illustrator who brings Oliver into the picture when they collaborate on a children’s book he has written. To Philip, Oliver’s advances are a mortal threat: yielding to them risks everything. Jump to 2008 and Philip is a photographer who has already committed himself to Oliver, who is now a journalist. Entering such relationships is no longer an existential threat — but that is the problem.

Enough of a problem to scrutinize the presumed benefits of social progress. “In 50 years,” Griffin notes, “so much has changed, but is it all for the better?” Maybe not.

“In 1958, it was illegal to be gay, which put a huge barrier up when it came to relationships in general,” he continues. “In 2008, it is not illegal, but technology and sexual freedom have also put a large barrier up when it comes to close relationships. With different phone apps, it is so easy to find a sexual partner 50 feet away from you, hook up with them, have sex, and then they will leave. There is so much freedom now, which is great, but it’s getting in the way of human connections, the real type, the one that lasts.”

Buchanan and Collins.

Bringing anguish to poor Philip at 50-year intervals, Oliver is likely the most fascinating creation in Campbell’s drama. After a hiatus of just over eight years, Steve Buchanan is returning to Queen City Theatre Company — and Duke Energy Theater — to slip into Oliver’s skin (or skins). In the space of a couple of months before leaving for New York in 2009, Buchanan ranged from Jason at Queen City, the hunky quarry of Valmont’s seductive powers in Dangerous (an all-male update of Les Liaisons Dangereuses), to Riff, the leader of the Jets in Davidson Community Players’ West Side Story.

Buchanan finds elements of both those diverse roles as he prepares for The Pride: the self-assured Riff inside 1958 Oliver and the wild, free attitude of Jason in the 2008 edition. Though he’s not at all uncomfortable with his sexuality and questioning of the convention of monogamy, Buchanan admits that being two different people in the same skin, interacting with the same pair of people 50 years apart, was difficult at first.

It had to be. Imagine walking into a bare rehearsal space and trying to create slightly different selves, from scene to scene, in two different stories — even though you’re performing with the same people in the same clothes with the same fictitious names in both stories.

“As I progressed thru the script and exploring with Glenn in various ways, I came to terms with exactly who I want Oliver to be,” Buchanan says. “It’s definitely been a struggle at times to nail down certain reactions to very similar circumstances. Glenn has been an excellent guide. We have explored the two worlds by watching documentaries, photos — even 1958 gay pornography — and he shared his own research and knowledge making this show come to life for us.”

Griffin didn’t see either the original 2009 London version of The Pride or the 2010 off-Broadway import directed by Joe Mantello for the Manhattan Theatre Club, and as a director, he prefers it that way, trusting completely to his informed imagination. Getting 1958 right was Griffin’s primary challenge, but he also devoted time to 2008, and in directing the show, he had to give equal emphasis to both eras. Eventually, he decided the best way for his actors to look at themselves and their stories was through the lens of reincarnation.

“How often have these same three characters been meeting, interacting, falling in and out of love until they can finally get it right?” Griffin asks. “All three want the same thing in both decades. Sylvia wants to be a wife and mother, be loved, but have a satisfying career in the arts. Oliver wants to find love with Philip, but can’t get beyond anonymous sex. Philip, on the other hand, wants to love Oliver, but can’t get past what society is telling him about this same-sex relationship.”

Parallels and differences, parallels and differences. They swirl around in this play, and they swirl around us. Beyond Trump and HB2, which might seem to change the conversation, Griffin notices that in Chechnya today, they’re entrapping gays in very much the same way they did in the U.K. after WW2.

Amid such uncomfortable echoes, the contemplation of transmigrating souls — and what they want — may be soothing. Buchanan is striving to convey sweet coherence in the face of historical and societal flux.

“There is a stark difference in 1958 and 2008 Oliver as it pertains to his social lives,” Buchanan says of the journey. “His ride feels very much like a wave. Ups and downs, calm to belligerent. Playing Oliver is one of the greatest challenges I’ve undertaken and I’m very proud of my work. I really hope you can see Oliver as a soul longing for love and acceptance. As a soul who is vulnerable and just the right kind of crazy.”

An Act of God Ordains Wedolowski as Divine Vessel

Theatre Review: Queen City Theatre An Act of God

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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After gracing Broadway’s Studio 54 with his presence in the body of Jim Parsons, God has chosen Duke Energy Theatre at Spirit Square for his newest abode and the body of Queen City Theatre Company’s Kristian Wedolowski as his instrument. As may be divined from the title, An Act Of God, there is no intermission as God gives Charlotte his new Ten Commandments – but flanked by two of his angels, the obsequious Gabriel and the trouble-making Michael, there are occasional interruptions, with faux questions from the audience.

The zenith of David Javerbaum’s career, which took a major upswing during his tenure as head writer and executive producer of The Daily Show (not to mention his participation in Jon Stewart’s knee-slapper textbook, America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction), this script began up in the proverbial cloud as @TheTweetOfGod and coalesced into The Last Testament: A Memoir by God in 2011, four years before Parsons was appointed as his vessel. Not having spoken to us for nearly two millennia, Javerbaum’s God has a lot to get off his chest.

He’s tired of man’s misconceptions about God, tired of our demands upon him, and he’s developed a painful insight: mankind has been fashioned too much in his image, an arrogant, vengeful asshole. Not only has God been thinking about his anger management issues and a reset for the Ten Commandments, he’s contemplating a rollout of Universe 2.0. Steve Jobs seems to be his role model.

Act of God turns out to have two simultaneous organizing principles. While we’re seeing the big reveal (thanks to the multimedia ministrations of Lore Postman Schneider) of the New Ten Commandments, some of which are holdovers from the Original Ten, God is also giving us the lowdown on the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, Adam and Steve through Abraham. Then we’re doing a jump skip to that notorious parenting episode when God allowed his kid to come down here.

picture-aog

We still have to brave Wedolowki’s Uruguayan accent to comprehend the word of God, but he has made large leaps in mastering American cadences, so the wacky incongruity works in his favor after a while. Christopher Jones seems to embody the Serenity Prayer as Gabriel, though we suspect he’s terrified of the boss, and Steven B. Martin as Michael is perpetually flirting with a furlough to the Other Place, sporting the thinnest veneer of obedience.

The show had already taken the Donald aboard when it reopened this past summer on Broadway starring Sean Hayes, but artistic director Glenn Griffin adds new topicality, acknowledging that the bible chronicles “alternative facts” and warning against faith in the Carolina Panthers. He also takes the opportunity to turn his pre-show greetings into an extension of what follows, giving God the benefit of a really big Ed Sullivan-style intro. WFAE radio host Mike Collins is the unseen Voiceover. We only mention that because I haven’t been a guest on Collins’ Charlotte Talks for over a year.