Tag Archives: J. Michael Beech

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.

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.

Like Panoramic Pease, “Music of the Night” Was Fun While It Lasted

Review:  The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’ve never heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber – or you’re aching to become reacquainted – don’t blame Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte Symphony, or CPCC. Three times in last nine years, Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights series has brought us touring versions of Phantom of the Opera with visits from Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and School of Rock sprinkled in-between. CP brought us one of the first local productions of Phantom anywhere in 2015 and has kept enthusiasms stoked for Lord Lloyd with productions of Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar over the past decade and Evita earlier this year.

Denial and deprivation have become harder to sustain in recent months. Broadway Lights brought Love Never Dies, Webber’s sequel to Phantom, to Belk Theater in early September, and both Charlotte Symphony and CP piled on with Andrew Lloyd sequels in late October. Symphony’s “Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and More” opened last Thursday and encored the following evening, but the melodies of CP’s The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue linger on after opening on the same night.

The current revue marks a farewell to panoramic Pease Auditorium, which is slated to be demolished along with the school’s library in early 2019. As you might expect, the fondness of the farewell comes from numerous actors and artists who have kept the theatre tradition thriving at Pease, regathering at ground zero where the CP program started in 1972.

At the helm, directing and choreographing, is Ron Chisholm, whose local pedigree goes back to 1990. Susan Roberts Knowlson, Patrick Ratchford, Lisa Smith Bradley, and Kevin Harris qualify as distinguished veterans handpicked for this 13-member cast, while Ryan Deal and Lucia Stetson have the creds to be labelled the new establishment. Watch out for a few of the others, though. There were stars on the ascendant in my telescope.

With a running time of less than 73 minutes, nobody onstage gets a truly full workout except the musicians led by the versatile Lucia Stetson, who has acted, directed, and conducted both musicals and operas over the years at CP. Why such a miserly songlist with so many singers onstage and so many songs to choose from? With a decent bouquet of your fave CP singers on hand to deliver, it would have nice to claim that you’d be hearing all your fave Andrew Lloyd Webber songs.

There are 20 songs, or there would have been if one hadn’t been skipped last Saturday. Most generously represented are Evita and Phantom of the Opera – not surprising when you consider that Lucia Stetson and Ryan Deal, who starred in the title roles at CP, are on hand to handle their reprises. This they do with panache, for Chisholm knows where to place his chips when he ponders his staging. Stetson is festively dressed by costume designer Ramsey Lyric for the brash “Buenos Aires” and backed with enough vocalists to evoke a carnivale – and she really is dressed to the nines when she does Evita’s anthemic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”

As the ghoulish, predatory Phantom, Deal can only fully come into his own when paired with his prey – the more beautiful, the better. Deal breathes heavily enough to be truly sinister in singing “Music of the Night,” but he’s most commanding when he torments Knowlson in the title song. Squat as Pease is, scenic designer James Duke does provide twin staircases flanking his final Pease set. The one at stage left is definitely an asset when Deal makes his dominant melodramatic exit. “Sing!” he bellows as Knowlson sustains high notes we haven’t heard from her in years. I’m guessing that’s the rest of the ensemble forming an offstage chorus for this duet, intensifying its power.

Taking up the Raoul role, Ratchford struck up the more consoling duet with Knowlson, “All I Ask of You.” All that chemistry was still there, no doubt kindling widespread nostalgia among those in the audience who remember the multiple times Knowlson and Ratchford shared top billing at CP in the past. With the entire ensemble singing “Masquerade” and Knowlson soloing on “Wishing You Were Here,” you will gather that Chisholm & Company’s Music of the Night is wringing maximum mileage from Phantom.

Even before the selections already cited, Brittany Currie Harrington and Traven Harrington were a more age-appropriate Christine and Raoul in “Think of Me.” Traven’s voice is the mellower at his low end, but Brittany was sensational at her uppermost in an unforeseen cadenza at the end of their duet. Each of the Harringtons logged an additional solo before the revue was done, Brittany reprising the title song from Love Never Dies and Traven taking us way back to the title song of Starlight Express.

Do you remember There’s A Light at the End of the Tunnel from that same rollerskating musical? Me neither, but Kevin Harris – perhaps signaling that he’ll be back for Showboat next summer? – reminds us how righteously rousing it is in bringing us to intermission, with backup support that matches the liveliness of “Buenos Aires.” Of the remaining cast members, I most fancied Ron T. Diaz and Emily Witte, both of whom I wished were better showcased.

Witte was saddled with the lackluster “Another Suitcase” from Evita before being obliged to timeshare “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar with Sarah Henkel and Karen Christensen. Diaz continues the Superstar momentum into the final bows, getting a better split on that title song, with J. Michael Beech sharing the spotlight and everybody in celebratory form backing up.

Lisa Smith Bradley bore the burden of beginning the evening with “Memory” from Cats, a song that I loathe from a show I despise. As we moved onward – and inevitably upward – I could be thankful that this irritation had been immediately disposed of. But I remain peeved at the evening’s brevity and the songs from other shows that remained AWOL. If we could dip into Joseph for Ratchford’s Elvis-like “Song of the King” and Harris’s “Close Every Door to Me,” surely there could be space for more than the peeps we had into Song & Dance and Whistle Down the Wind.

Maybe it’s okay to skip past The Woman in White, Aspects of Love, and Tell Me on a Sunday, but surely we must sample the Tony Award-winning Sunset Boulevard and Sir Andrew’s triumphant comeback, School of Rock, which wowed this town back in January. A couple of songs from each of those hits would expand the running time past the 90-minute threshold – and sound more like a respectable survey of this composer’s work.

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

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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.