Tag Archives: James Duke

Family and Romance Tug at an Iowa Housewife in “Madison County”

Review:  The Bridges of Madison County

By Perry Tannenbaum

When the touring production of The Bridges of Madison County came to Knight Theater in the spring of 2016, I can easily imagine CPCC Theatre set designer James Duke watching the rusticated wooden bridge as it descended from the fly loft. “We can do that!” he would be thinking to himself. And nearly 17 months later at Halton Theater, he has done it, in a spare, taciturn design style that works well with the Midwest – in this case, Iowa – ably complemented by Jeff Childs’ lighting design.

One additional inverted V goes a long way to simulating the lonely Johnson homestead where roaming National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid falls in love with Francesca, a stoically transplanted Italian housewife marooned on the prairie after raising a wholesome 4H family. Scenery pieces at ground level aren’t quite as mistakable for the touring version, largely because crew and cast shuffle them in and out of the wings with conspicuously less professional polish.

Once everything is set in place, the sound of the current CPCC Theatre production consistently overachieves. I can also imagine Rebecca Cook-Carter, CPCC Opera Theatre’s artistic director, looking at the touring version of Madison County and saying, “We can do that!!” Look down in the orchestra pit at the Halton and you won’t find brass, woodwinds, and batteries of electric guitars and keyboards. Musicians are overwhelmingly classical string players, and their conductor, Craig Estep, has made valuable contributions to both theatrical and operatic productions at CP in the past.

In adapting the wildly popular bestseller by Robert James Waller, James Robert Brown’s score does occasionally soar toward opera in its ambitions when we listen to his melodies and orchestrations, both of which won Tony Awards. But there’s a very relaxed vibe to the roving photographer that contrasts with Francesca’s operatic frustrations, swooping toward chamber and country music. When the storyline detours toward the nosy neighbors and the raucous State Fair, velvety classical violins are likely to mutate into bluegrass fiddles.

If she hadn’t been on my radar in 2011, playing a supporting role in the CPCC Summer Theatre production of Hello, Dolly! I would have thought that Sarah Henkel was a genuine Italian neophyte as Francesca. Hand movements were shy, awkward, and clichéd at first when we looked at the opening wartime scene that tied Francesca’s fate to the uniformed Bud, who pales to humdrum farmer by the time we see him again in Iowa.

With Robert’s arrival, the shy awkwardness begins to work for Henkel, and as the couple’s intimacy increases, the fumbling and tentativeness dissolve, so there’s no longer a disconnect between Henkel’s actions and her soaring mezzo-soprano voice. I still missed a lot of the lyrics she was singing, but as passion took the place of preliminary exposition, that difficulty mattered much less. Compared with the virtually indecipherable Elizabeth Stanley on the national tour, Henkel was clarity itself.

Since I raved about Andrew Samonsky as the lanky dreamboat who captivated Francesca on tour, its no small compliment to say that Ryan Deal is nearly as fine as Robert. Deal may even be better at getting into the vagabond country lean of the music. As passionately as many local theatergoers might feel that he will never surpass his previous autumn exploits in Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz at the Halton, Deal delivers here, seemingly more comfortable in this music.

While Deal is not likely to be mistaken for a lean, rugged Marlboro man, the gap between him and Samonsky might have been bridged at least partially if Deal, along with director Cary Kugler and costume designer Rachel Engstrom, had seriously considered what a hippie looked like in 1965. To get instantly labeled as a hippie by a provincial Iowan, more hair and looser, more casual clothes are required. An untucked sport shirt just won’t do.

Politeness and consideration, mixed with a heavy sprinkling of artistic intensity, are also part of Robert’s appeal, and Deal conspires very nicely with Henkel on the chemistry of the mutual seduction. Looking at how Kugler directs and how Engstrom dresses the townsfolk, you will likely think that Marsha Norman borrowed heavily from Meredith Willson’s Music Man in crafting the Iowans in her script.

Next door neighbors, Taffy Allen as Marge and Jeff Powell as Charlie, are exactly as you would expect. She’s unsatisfied unless she’s ferretted out every spec of scandalous gossip while, even when she’s most annoying, he can be mollified with a fresh slice of pie. Closer to the vortex of the central romance, Francesca’s family is humdrum rather than silly. Steven Martin as Bud, the husband, is a solid and confident blockhead, but we get the hint from Martin that some of his cocksureness comes from Francesca’s support.

Yet Bud is the primary reason that the kids need Mom. Gabe Saienni as Michael needs Mom to help him convince Dad that there is an alternative future for him that doesn’t include taking over the farm. Sharing the role with Olivia Aldridge from night to night, Leigh Ann Hrischenko convinces us that Carolyn’s needs are even more acute and poignant. Mom stands as buffer between Carolyn and her father’s brusqueness, and despite the fact that she may have raised a prize-winning steer, it’s Mom who must bolster the younger sib’s determination and self-confidence.

As the romance heats up, Francesca must choose between her inner drive to break free and globetrot with Robert or the tug of her loyalty, calling upon her to remain in Iowa with a family that needs her. After two hours and 18 minutes, plus a 20-minute intermission, you wouldn’t want the choice to be easy, would you?

 

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Spying on Hamlet for Laughs

Reviews: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and BOOM

By Perry Tannenbaum

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead PromosIf you’re playing Rosencrantz or Guildenstern in Hamlet, you’re not exactly one of the Danish Prince’s most formidable adversaries. On the contrary, you’ve been specially chosen by King Claudius to spy on your old friend Hamlet, who sees through your treachery rather quickly. You’re not exactly peripheral, either: you come on early in Act 2, lurk fairly often onstage until late in Act 4, and the pair of you have nearly 5% of the tragedy’s lines.

But the most telling comical point that Tom Stoppard makes about you in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the playwright’s 1966 riff on Shakespeare’s text, is that neither of you has enough personality to distinguish yourself from the other. Winner of the 1968 Tony Award, the play is a centerpiece of the current Sensoria celebration of the arts at Central Piedmont Community College, a natural in the month and year marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.

With a title that telegraphs the fate of its protagonists, there are easier scripts to produce. Other than the UNC Charlotte staging in 1992 directed by Bill Morrison (#12 on my list of best shows for that year), I can’t recall a single local production that truly satisfied. On the contrary, each of the three revivals I’ve seen in the past eleven years, including this one at Pease Auditorium piloted by Tom Hollis, has come freighted with enough confusion and incoherence to make most audience members wonder: why?

To be fair, Hollis is working with the most inexperienced CPCC Theatre cast that I can recall. Yet at the same time, he and scenic designer James Duke try to keep things simple. There’s usually an upstairs-downstairs distinction between the royals who dominate Shakespeare’s stage and Stoppard’s flunky protagonists. Costumes by Jamey Varnadore aren’t lavish – down-market Elizabethan for the royals and courtiers, and a touch of commedia for The Player and his acting troupe.

Fifty years ago, it was only a slight exaggeration to declare that the pervasive influence of Hamlet in modern literature and culture was overbearing. Responding to all that was obviously a part of Stoppard’s agenda in his offstage retelling. But 50 years ago, Stoppard could be fairly sure that nearly everyone in the audience – on both sides of the pond – was in on the joke. In Stoppard’s native England, that’s probably still true. In 2016 Charlotte, after overhearing someone in the lobby confess that she’d never read Hamlet, I’d have to concur that it would have been helpful.

Quick quiz: what was The Murder of Gonzago? You might want to brush up on that stuff before you spend two hours and 40 minutes with Rosie, Guildy, and the gang.

Of course, it helps to have Shakespearean actors playing those portions that Stoppard swipes from the Elizabethan master. Yet what I saw from Jacob D. Page as Hamlet, Cara Cameron as Ophelia, Nick Southwick as Horatio and Polonius, Dwayne Helms as King Claudius, and Kristina Blake as Queen Gertrude didn’t convince me that any of them could give a credible full-length performance of any of those roles.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead Promos

I did detect some promise in this group of nobles and even more in the actors that Hollis found for his leads, particularly Tyson Hamilton as Guildenstern, usually the straight man in the comedy. If Kyle Willson had delivered more broadly and confidently as the simple-minded Rosencrantz, the chemistry might have worked better. Similarly, I saw plenty to praise in Larry Wu’s animation as The Player, but his scenes with the title characters lost traction as inevitably as the duo’s dialogues.

A familiarity with the absurdist chitchat between Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is also recommended for all who plan to see or perform in R&G. Curiously, it was when the chitchat paused and Page appeared on the scene as the troubled Prince that my interest perked up. These are islands of realism in Stoppard’s world, for our bumbling antiheroes actually behave differently when confronted with their betters.

In the bustle of Friday evening in Plaza-Midwood, I wasn’t sure how many of the people crowding the nightspots were even aware of the new BOOM festival in their midst, and its special vibe. My wife Sue and I took in two events that night, On Q’s Mo’ Betta and Taproot’s DinnerBell, and two more the following afternoon, Sinergismo’s Not a Cult and Sarah Emery’s Threads of Color.

It was far easier to find parking on Saturday afternoon. Yet the shows we saw were just as well-attended.

All the fare I sampled was delightful. My favorite was the spoofery of Not a Cult: the True, Unbiased, Authentic History of Sinergismo at Petra’s Piano Bar & Cabaret. Mat Duncan was the Sinergismo Scholar, Dr. Reginald Haephestus Winterbottom, our guide to the sacred birth, copulation, sickness, celebration, and funeral rites of the ancient Gismo society, performed by re-enactors from Charlotte, their only known descendants.

Duncan likely concocted and directed all this fakery, including the first pair audience questions after the Winterbottom lecture. But who fleshed out the archeological spoof with the re-enactors’ costumes, choreography, and ceremonial masks is open to conjecture. The artisan who sculpted the sacred mound from whence all Gismo life issued and to whence it returned is also shrouded in mystery. Likewise the bogus, cheesy props, including a dispenser for the healing mound squeezings, a mound flower, and a severed head.

Probably the best aspect of Duncan’s performance was its lack of polish. Challenged by the planted audience member on why the mating ritual had omitted the jingling turtles, Winterbottom responded with the bluster of a true mountebank.

IMG_JazzyGala_2014_dcost_2_1_9L3PEP1I_L97362418

Mo’ Betta was an old-timey mix of jazz, stand-up comedy, and improv poetry hosted by Quentin Talley. Jazz vocalist Kenya Templeton, backed by pianist Tim Scott Jr. and his trio, was the standout. Freed of the scripted constraints of last January’s Children of Children retrospective, where Marian Anderson and Ella Fitzgerald were her primary inspirations, Templeton floated beyond strict 4/4 time, sounding more like Betty Carter in an exemplary rendition of “Afro-Blue.”

DinnerBell may add an “e” to its mealtime compound before long, since it was a compendium of feminine grace, hospitality, beauty pageantry, and genial racism that comprise the heritage of Southern belles. Brianna Susan Smith was the singer/narrator steering this “Field Guide to Impolite Southern Conversation” on its chameleon path – sometimes campy, sometimes satirical, and sometimes bluntly direct. There were biscuits, deviled eggs, collard greens, and bread pudding served up by the same ensemble that vied in the Ms. Georgia Cow beauty contest. The Q&A at the end of that contest was the best part.

For her suite of seven dance pieces, Emery took her inspiration from the paintings of local ArtPop Street Gallery artists, each of them projected on a huge wall at Open Door Studios as the dancers performed. With Emery taking a solo in “Sixth Season” and former Charlotte Ballet standout Emily Ramirez included in three other pieces – and taking a cameo in yet another – the ensembles and soloists were consistently proficient. Wrapped into the community feel that Emery orchestrated in her show was a dazzling array of costume designers who diverted my eyes as excitingly as the dancers and the projected paintings.

A great start for Boom and a great boost for Plaza-Midwood, where Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte plans to open early in 2017. You can help make that happen at atcharlotte.org.

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

CPCCILoveAPiano6[7]

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.