Tag Archives: Griffin Digsby

Downsizing “Sister Act” Pays Big Dividends at Matthews Playhouse

Review: Sister Act at Matthews Playhouse

By Perry Tannenbaum

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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.

CP’s “Joseph” Connects With Talent and Style, Frustrates With Ongoing Audio Woes

Review:  Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Halton Theater

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Before this weekend, Halton Theater hadn’t opened its doors to a theatre crowd since February 2020, and Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre had been dark since July 2019, when they closed their five-show season with A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Returning to the Halton stage as guest director of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Tom Hollis posed a poignant question during his introductory remarks. Does it really count as a season when a company offers its audience just one production? Even the most loyal Central Piedmont supporter can’t buy a 2021 season ticket, that’s for sure. And until Central Piedmont Community College completes its recovery from a debilitating ransomware attack this past winter, they won’t be able to accept credit card payments at their Overcash ticket windows. Cash or checks for walk-ups, plastic for online sales only.

Opening night at Halton was a cautious first step back toward pre-pandemic norms – with a Delta-be-damned giddiness to it as COVID protocols were loosened at last. For most of the crowd mingling in the Halton lobby before and after the show, this was probably the first public event they had risked in at least 16 months, a milestone moment. For the theatre folk scattered among us, it was an emotional reunion – an affirmation.

Last season was originally envisioned as Hollis’s grand valedictory after nearly four decades at Central Piedmont, his latter years as theatre department chair. An encore reset of the lost 2020 season was rumored for a while as Central Piedmont scrambled with their winter programming, so Joseph is a double surprise – not among the shows announced for the lost 47th Central Piedmont Summer Theatre season and the only show replacing them. Previously mounted in Summer 1993 and revived in Summer 2001 at the now-demolished Pease Auditorium (the CPCC Theatre production of 2008 at the Halton was a wintertime affair) – with rousing success on all occasions – Joseph is likely more bankable than Footloose, lighter on the budget than The Music Man, and far better-known and cheaper to produce than Something Rotten! Additionally, there is likely a finely calculated ecology in a true Central Piedmont Summer season that allows the college the biggest bang for their bucks when auditioning and casting their overall troupe of performers and designers. These discarded musicals, plus Peter Pan Jr. and a Ken Ludwig comedy, might conceivably be in cold storage, slated for resurrection in 2022.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1267

Sitting in Row K, I only noticed one gentleman taking a restroom break during this intermission-free presentation, and I was somewhat surprised that the cast began taking their bows a mere 71 minutes after the show commenced. Another eight minutes came packaged in a “Megamix” reprise of Webber’s most bodacious songs – or parodies, since the composer delights in shuttling among an unlikely array of genres in retelling the most epic tale from the Book of Genesis, aided by Tim Rice’s lyrics. The news of Joseph’s demise is delivered to his doting father, Jacob, in the form of a sobbing lone-prairie cowboy song. Pharaoh is transformed into a pre-historic Elvis as he rocks his account of his prophetic dreams. The poverty of Joseph’s 11 brothers during the years of famine takes on the nostalgic air of a sad French café, complete with Apache dancer, and Naphtali’s pleas for the innocence of little brother Benjamin come in the form of a Caribbean calypso.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1815

Curiously, the irreverence and multitudinous anachronisms of this Webber-Rice concoction, not to mention the narrative alterations of Holy Writ, have never seemed to spark any massive public outcry from Judeo-Christian clergy. Maybe the outright anachronisms, beginning with the Technicolor in the title, insulate all the irreverence and textual tinkering from being taken seriously. James Duke’s scenic design and Bob Croghan’s costume design underscore the assurance that we are not in the immediate vicinity of ancient Egypt or Canaan, fortified by the equally anachronistic projection designs by Infante Media. No, this is more like a Disney or a Las Vegas style of Egypt, with Duke taking full advantage of the lordly height of the Halton stage compared with Pease’s pancake panorama. Our Elvis is also a Vegas version, clearly the sequined, jumpsuited, decadent superstar of his latter days. The Duke-Infante collaboration is so glittery and colorful that it is only slightly upstaged by Croghan’s creations for Pharaoh and Joseph.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1357

You don’t often get the chance to design a costume that is hyped in the title of a show, and Croghan, on the Charlotte scene even longer than I, doesn’t disappoint. The impact of this mid-pandemic return to live theatre caught me off-guard several times. Each time a major character made his or her first entrance – Lindsey Schroeder as our Narrator, Rixey Terry as Joseph, and J. Michael Beech as Pharaoh – I had that tingling sensation of recognizing something basic and exciting that had been missing in my life for over a year.

My biggest surprise, a frisson of renewal, came from the audience when they reacted to the most iconic moment in Joseph, when the brothers picked up the skirts of Croghan’s knockout dreamcoat so that it formed a pinwheel around Rixey, spinning around as he, Schroeder, and the ensemble sang “Joseph’s Coat.” Anybody even glancingly familiar with musical theatre anticipates this moment before it happens, or at least recalls it fondly from a previous encounter. But part of the audience at Halton erupted in delighted and surprised laughter, recalling what the first London and Broadway and high school audiences must have experienced when Joseph was new and reminding me of my own delight back in 1993.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1130

Rixey walked a treacherous tightrope, blending innocence with vanity as beautifully and energetically as any Joseph I’ve ever seen, lacking the cloying wholesomeness that only true Donny Osmond fans will miss. Maybe a plunge or two into that saccharine syrup might make Rixey more memorable in “Any Dream Will Do,” but I would prefer that he add a sprinkling of excess to those melodramatic moments when he is unjustly imprisoned, crying out his “Close Every Door.” Lighting designer Jeff Childs does come to the prisoner’s rescue, adding some spiritual gravitas.

Schroeder was brimful of brilliance as the Narrator, infusing enough energy into her string of recitative that it never devolved into tedious singsong, though she was often unintelligible. Beech’s misfortunes with his microphone were even more egregious as Pharaoh, including intermittent sonic dropouts, but his audio setup was likely jostled over the course of the evening, since he donned different costumes and headgear for his other roles – Jacob, Potiphar, and the doomed Baker.

Admittedly, it’s churlish of me to keep harping on Central Piedmont’s defective sound equipment and the cavalcade of professional-grade technicians who have failed to tame it. North of $115 million are being spent on replacing Pease, originally a lecture hall, with a genuine theatre facility, while Central Piedmont’s audio woes have gone unaddressed since 2005, when the Halton was new. But new generations come to the Halton every year, and new summer visitors from afar get their first taste of Charlotte theatre there – and they still need to be cautioned. By the time the “Megamix” came around on opening night, Beech’s “Song of the King” was only fitfully audible and Schroeder’s mic was intermittently dropping out.

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More power, then, to the performers onstage who merrily soldiered through. Even the charade of the brothers’ mournful moments was untarnished. All of the cameo solos hit their marks. Matthew Howie was hilariously rusticated as Reuben delivering the bad news to Jacob with “One More Angel,” and Neifert Enrique as Simeon – aided by his brothers and Emma Metzger’s scene-stealing table dance – brought a boulevardier’s wistful regret to “Those Canaan Days,” with more than a soupçon of self-mockery in his lamentations.

Even more THEA2021-DLV-0708-2049irrepressible and irresistible was the calypso lightness and joy that Griffin Digsby brought to the “Benjamin Calypso” as Naphtali. Around the third or fourth time Digsby reached the “Oh no! Not he!” refrain, I had to stop myself, for I had started to sing along. Just another adjustment I’ll need to make after 16 months of consuming theatre in front of my computer monitor and TV set. It was hard to be displeased by anything that accompanied this welcome change.

Return to Planet of the Masks

Reviews: CP Theatre’s Webcast of John Cariani’s Almost, Maine and Terry Gabbard’s Our Place.

By Perry Tannenbaum

Our Place, Dress Rehearsal; Halton Theater, Overcash. November 4th, 2020

If you sign up for CP Theatre’s webcast of John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, you may wind up noticing that it has more than a couple of common features with CP’s other online production of Terry Gabbard’s Our Place. Both shows are comprised of multiple vignettes, both feature some of the same actors, and both share the same stage and elements of the same Kenton Jones set design. Both are also situated in places that tie together their varied vignettes, the sort of place we might think seriously about escaping to during a pandemic – particularly in the toxic twilight of Mr. Tangerine Man’s bizarre presidency.

The pandemic, however, follows both productions, Cariani’s suite directed by Ron Chisholm and Gabbard’s by James Duke, out into their forlorn wildernesses. These escapes, as a result, glow with an extra sheen of poignancy, for all the players – dating, breaking up, carousing at a bar, or bickering on a family outing – are doing the right thing, the CDC thing, and the Governor’s executive order thing: they are wearing masks.

It’s a curious collision. Wild pristine places you might dream of escaping to, away from the constraints of our COVID-infested civilization, are strangely populated with people who are devoutly wearing their mandated masks – as if they hadn’t escaped at all.

Cariani and Gabbard surely penned their blackout sketches without envisioning that someday they would be performed by acting troupes wearing surgical masks. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if their granting of licensing rights to CPCC Theatre hinged on the condition that everybody onstage would be masking up.

Almost Maine, Dress Rehearsal; Halton Theater, Overcash. November 3rd, 2020

After a dopey prologue, a native explains to a visitor that Almost comes by its name naturally, since there aren’t quite enough people, facilities, or initiative for the place to earn a spot on the map with Maine’s more substantial towns. It “doesn’t quite exist,” according to Cariani’s script. And the unreality of the place manifests itself fairly quickly, for the pilgrim who is hoping to glimpse the Northern Lights, Glory, is carrying her broken heart in her backpack, while her lovestruck host, East, is not particularly interested in debunking her wild story.

CP presented the Charlotte premiere of Almost in 2011, a little more than a year after Davidson Community Players brought their production to Spirit Square. Seeing it now during the Trump twilight, I find the goofball flavor altered somewhat. In “Her Heart,” the scene with the Northern Lights, I couldn’t escape the notion that I was watching extraterrestrial aliens becoming intimate. In “Seeing the Thing,” where Dave finds himself at Rhonda’s front door for the umpteenth time after a fun evening together – without being invited inside – their progress toward a long-delayed first kiss seems a bit like a Peanuts special when framed by a small screen.

Daniel Keith and Corina Childs deliver the comedy endearingly, quickening the pace awkwardly and adorably when they begin peeling off their clothes after their first kisses, but their brightly colored outerwear and all the garish underthings they tug off each other only heightened my impression that I was watching a cartoon. Garish jackets, woolly ski caps, and artsy masks push us toward the realms of Homer Simpson and Planet of the Apes. Add a couple of floppy ear flaps, and I sensed a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving right around the corner.

Almost Maine, Dress Rehearsal; Halton Theater, Overcash. November 3rd, 2020Can you literally return all the love your boyfriend has given you? In Almost, you can, as Gayle, infused with extravagant irrationality by Hannah Snyder, demonstrates by lugging suitcase after suitcase filled with it into a hapless Lendall’s living room. Responding to Hannah’s imperious demand that he return all her love, Andrew Blackwell as Lendall returns with a wee little red pouch – without faulting his beloved for the disparity. You can’t help feeling for the flummoxed lad.

East, a repairman, can have a go at fixing Glory’s broken heart in Almost. Two men in “They Fell,” Chad and Randy, can overcome their rustic inhibitions there and literally fall in love, with Griffin Digsby and Jacob Feldpausch executing an orgy of pratfalls. Chisholm, costume designer Beth Levine Chaitman, and the cast are ultimately on-target in their efforts to broaden the comedy. My smart TV isn’t quite as big as life, so this whimsical Maine can stand a modicum of upsizing.

Aside from the prologue and epilogue, there are eight vignettes in this cozy comedy. Cariani wrote it with four actors in mind, including himself, but Chisholm spreads the precious stage exposure to 16 people, including some you may have met back in September in CP’s Virtual Whodunnit.

Childs and Keith come the closest to tying all these vignettes together in “Seeing the Thing,” when Dave begins to enumerate all the Almost folk who have told him that he and Rhonda should be together. That rollcall ought to compound the happy ending when Dave finally gets to cross his beloved’s threshold, but Chisholm has pushed this scene up one slot and saved the sadder “Story of Hope” for last.

Almost Maine, Dress Rehearsal; Halton Theater, Overcash. November 3rd, 2020

That puts Tony Cudic and Quincy Stanford in a bittersweet finale as the title character returns to answer her high school sweetheart’s marriage proposal after many years of absence – long enough ago that Hope doesn’t recognize her Danny. Two dividends from transposing the last two vignettes: we’re not closing with a scene that mandates the two masked kisses we see in “Seeing the Thing,” and in “The Story of Hope,” we now have an additional reason to believe that a woman who has traveled 163 miles by taxi to say yes to a marriage proposal might not recognize that man at the front door of his house.

He’s wearing a mask to greet a stranger!

The bittersweet ending of CP’s Almost, Maine also meshes well with the more dramatic tone and consequential events of Our Place. Utilizing 14 players, half of whom also double as Almost citizens, Our Place is especially well-named a for local production. Gabbard’s play actually premiered here in Charlotte at the 2014 North Carolina Theatre Conference, performed by students of Ardrey Kell High School and directed by the playwright with Brian Seagroves.

Our Place, Dress Rehearsal; Halton Theater, Overcash. November 4th, 2020

Although projection designer Jeff Childs pushes the envelope a little, all five scenes – and a collective epilogue – occur at the same place. A weathered dock stretches across the upstage and extends a couple of arms toward us along the wings. The aura of a special, secret, and secluded place is somewhat contradicted by this dock and the wide canoe nestled against it in the water (imagination needed here), but that myth is exploded in the opening scene.

Hoping to impress his new girlfriend, Jake tells Holly that he is responsible for fixing up this hideaway, forgotten since real estate developers purchased it decades ago. Jake is in the middle of laying a “love blanket” on Holly – along with additional BS about their special place – when his former girlfriend Anne arrives with her new boyfriend, introducing him to their special place.

In the fracas that erupts, Gracie Page as Anne has the more serious grievances, so if you find yourself liking Brandon Scott as Jake, it will be more for his elaborate rascality than for his counterclaims or penitence. Three of the remaining four scenes are more obviously two-handers. In “Flick of the Wrist,” Corina Childs plays a daughter trying to connect with Tony Cudic as her widowed dad. “Tuna Fish” exposes the fissure between Yazmin Battee as Liberty, a woman so worried about her future that she cannot enjoy the moment, and Jacob Feldpausch as Corey, too smug in his rut to change course or see what’s coming.

Our Place, Dress Rehearsal; Halton Theater, Overcash. November 4th, 2020

“Stay With You” was easily the most haunting of Gabbard’s two-handers, with Andrew Blackwell as a moody, rebellious teen and Avery Ruse as his pesky six-year-old sister who pursues him to his secret retreat. Hoping to heal the rift between Stanley and his family, little Sidney achieves the exact opposite.

Midway through Our Place, “Famtime” is the scene that has the most affinity with Cariani’s comedy. J. Michael Beech as gung-ho dad Al drags the rest of the Gilbert household to their place because dammit, they’re going to have some fun together as a family. Michael Fargas as the disaffected son and Summer Schroter as the ditzy daughter aren’t close to sharing Dad’s enthusiastic pep, and Shelby Armstrong as the put-upon mom seems strapped in until Al’s whim runs its course.

So it’s midway through Gabbard’s one-act that the canoe comes into play. As a plot device, the wallop of a canoe has roughly the same decisive effect as an ironing board has in Cariani’s “This Hurts,” where Emma Joles wields the weapon against Scott. For once, this event at Our Place isn’t as consequential as the wallop is in Almost. Or even almost.