Tag Archives: Jennifer O’Kelly

Flouting History and Scholarship, “Shakespeare in Love” Reveals How the Bard Became the Bard

Review: Central Piedmont Theater’s Shakespeare in Love

By Perry Tannenbaum

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For centuries, theatergoers and scholars have mulled over the question of how William Shakespeare became the magisterial genius he was, how as a poet and playwright he came to know so much, write with such a honeyed tongue, and move so many so deeply. In 1998, screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard tackled that question with Shakespeare in Love, taking a new approach and attitude. Discarding the usual methods of textual study and meticulous historical investigation, Norman and Stoppard wove a new fabric, some of it out of whole cloth and some of it stitched together from familiar scraps of information and familiar quotes.

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Two operative principles preside over their work, normalizing Shakespeare as a writer. You will certainly come away from playwright Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, currently at Halton Theater in a handsome Central Piedmont Theatre production, with the notion that the Bard of Avon wrote about what he personally experienced and that he was a magnificent and insatiable sponge, absorbing everything that was said to him and sublimating it into magnificent verse and poetry. In the words of Henry James, repeatedly intoned in graduate level writing programs across America, Shakespeare was “one upon whom nothing is lost.”

You can also choose to be outraged by the shambles Norman and Stoppard make of actual history, beginning with the notion that the story of Romeo and Juliet is a Shakespeare original. Even undergrad lit majors know better. But you’ll likely be won over by the fun-filled attitude of Norman and Stoppard as they put together a story with sufficient romance, theatre and court intrigue, comedy, and tragedy to inspire not only Romeo and Juliet but also armloads of Shakespearean treasure afterwards. With Stoppard on the team, a genuine theatre insider, there’s a theatre-making perspective that adds to the excitement of the multiple plots that keep us scrambling to follow the action. Under the direction of Tom Hollis, the energy and enthusiasm of this teeming yarn were quite contagious for its Saturday evening audience.

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Before Will meets Viola De Lesseps, who will inspire the playwright to change his frivolous “Romeo and Ethel” comedy into the tragedy we all know – and serve as model for the heroine of Twelfth Night – a hectic stew of rivalry, antagonism, and desperation is boiling around him. Assailed by writer’s block, Will is already past the time when he promised to finish new scripts for Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre and Richard Burbage’s Curtain Theatre. Henslowe’s need is particularly acute because he owes money to Fennyman, a shark who employs henchmen and torture to ratchet up his coercion. Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary, is a friend here, helping Will toward shaping the plot of Romeo and feeding him lines for his most famous sonnet.

All of this desperation and streetfighting are a perfect backdrop for the luminescence of Viola. A beautiful noblewoman smitten by the theatre and Shakespeare’s verse, she disguises herself as Thomas Kent in order to audition for the role of Romeo, performing a speech from the Bard’s first hit, Two Gentlemen of Verona, as a sampling. (Audience members who don’t know that women were forbidden to act onstage during the Elizabethan Era will be deftly brought up to speed.) Until Viola shows up, Will hasn’t seen much to encourage him that he’ll be able to cast “Romeo and Ethel” if he ever finishes writing it. When Kent flees the audition after flubbing some kissing business, Will pursues, only to come face-to-face with Viola. So now it’s Will’s turn to be flustered.

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Once Viola is on the scene, romance enters to dispel Will’s writer’s block and the world of Shakespeare in Love widens to include nobility, government, and royalty. Lord Essex, aspiring to Viola’s hand and fortune, is Will’s chief romantic obstacle, having obtained daddy’s permission – and Queen Elizabeth herself will also need to approve. If Viola does achieve her ambition and appear publicly onstage, the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, stands in the wings, empowered to instantly stop the performance and shut down the theatre.

Jennifer O’Kelly’s set design, with its Globe Theater arches and balcony, emphatically reinforces the notion that the action we’re watching in Will’s life is the stuff of Shakespearean drama. Pre-recorded music composed by Paddy Cunneen, infused with the sounds of flutes and lutes, helps in the transitions from theaters and taverns to noble and palatial surroundings. With plenty of input from companies and theatre departments as far away as Greensboro, costume designer Emily McCurdy splendidly outfits a cast of 23 playing 60 different roles – though it might be pointed out that the Queen of England should have more than one dress. Choreography by Clay Daniels, when we reach the iconic Romeo ballroom scenes in real life and in rehearsal, meshes with the music simply and authentically.

Best of all, the key roles were aptly cast. Morgan Wakefield had an abundance of breathless energy and theatre enthusiasm that never seemed nerdy and – since she was the inspiration for Juliet as well as Viola – a total lack of vanity staining her beauty. While Wakefield’s energy largely fueled the pulsing effervescence of this performance, Jack Stanford was no less on point as Shakespeare. He walked a similar tightrope between pragmatic calculation and youthful impulse that Wakefield trod, never becoming too cerebral. As lines from Shakespeare’s future works showered him from all directions throughout the evening, I always sensed from Stanford that Will was absorbing rather than stealing them.

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The nobles all sounded very polished, beginning with Jonathan Stephens as the pushy, valorous and conceited Essex and Pat Heiss as the sternly regal Queen Elizabeth – with a broad vein of worldliness. Jim Greenwood as Tilney was exactly the kind of prig you would want to cram into a trapdoor, costumed puritanically to make it obvious that he inspired Malvolio in Twelfth Night; and Anne Lambert bustled about officiously enough as Viola’s Nurse to make it obvious that Juliet should have one, too.

Out in the London jungle where the Rose Theatre struggled for survival, inexperience only occasionally peeped out among the players. Jeff Powell infused Fennyman with menace, convincingly shifting his attitude once the moneylender became stagestruck, and while Larry Wu could be downright bizarre as the tortured Henslowe, his intensity was endearing. A little more confidence and individuality would help Blake Williams in his portrayal of Kit Marlowe, but there was abundant stage presence from Bryce Mac as Ned Allyn, the star actor who took on the role of Mercutio, and from Brian Holloway as the predatory, opportunistic Burbage.

Chemistry between Stanford and Wakefield in the Will/Viola romance will sufficiently captivate groundlings new to the world of Shakespeare. But the more you’ve experienced of the Bard, the more you will be delighted by the quotes from Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Lear that also creep in. Where the intended allusions and echoes ended and where unintended parallels began was sometimes hard to discern. When Elizabeth told Viola that even she could not dissolve an ordained marriage, was this a foreshadowing of what Theseus had to tell Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? While Romeo and Juliet was virtually writing itself before my eyes, it was reassuring to recall that genuine monarchs can understand the limits of their power.

 

Waiting for Tina, Janis, and Aretha

Review:  Beehive The 60’s Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

Beehive Dress Rehearsal; July 4th, 2019

Lovers of The Chiffons, The Ronettes, Donna Loren, and Lesley Gore, rejoice! Or if you’ve never heard of The Chiffons and The Ronettes – or you’ve simply despised Lesley Gore for the past 50 years – have a little patience. Beehive The 60’s Musical, Larry Gallagher’s jukebox revue, has wended its way at long last to Halton Theater. The show has kicked around for over three decades since its New York debut at the Village Gate nightclub in 1986 (the show never ran on Broadway) and my Google searches of past productions – and the original cat album on Spotify – testify to a songlist that has been frequently in flux.

Like a jukebox.

I’ve found accounts of the show that report a full two hours of music, compared to the current CPCC Summer Theatre production that clocked in at a shade over 79 minutes plus a 16-minute intermission. Other reports indicate reprises of hits by the Shangri-Las, Shirley Bassey, Petula Clark, Janis Ian, Sonny & Cher, and Brenda Lee. Most of them opt for a different selection of hits by Janis Joplin.

Beehive Dress Rehearsal; July 4th, 2019

But the good news is that while we endure the Beach Blanket Bingo dross of Loren, Gore & Co. throughout Act 1, there are gems we remember from The Shirelles and The Supremes – and the kooky fun of Shirley Ellis’s “The Name Game” – mixed in with the insufferable pap that prevails. And the 40 minutes after intermission are much improved over the 39 before. We reach a Promised Land of singles originated by Dusty Springfield, Mama Cass, and Jefferson Airplane. We sojourn with the likes of Tina Turner, Janis, and Aretha.

Under the lively direction of Tod Kubo, who also choreographs, Beehive sustains the same high level of artistry and polish that lifted Jekyll & Hyde earlier in the CP Summer season. With wig designs from Barbi Van Schaick, hair reached heights you have to expect from Beehive. Costume designers Bob Croghan and Jennifer O’Kelly, held oddly in check at the outset, break free flamboyantly after intermission, especially when Tina and Janis strut the stage.

Beehive Dress Rehearsal; July 4th, 2019

Defying the Halton’s spacious stage, O’Neill’s scenic design strives to simulate a nightclub feel. Conspiring in the scheme, music director Amy Boger Morris and her band camp upstage, often in plain view and often under a funky “Beehive” logo that helps to fill in the vast expanse of drapery above them.

My apologies if you have not realized that Beehive is an all-woman show, sort of the partner to the all-male Forever Plaid, another jukebox revue that never made it to Broadway. The basic difference between the two, besides gender, is that Beehive has lost all pretenses of sporting a plot. Iris DeWitt as Wanda serves intermittently as our emcee, and the only discernable reason why the other women have character names is so they don’t have to look beyond the script when they introduce themselves in “The Name Game” as Pattie, Alison, Laura, Jasmine, and Gina.

They also go out into the audience and pick out more people to play. Got me on Saturday night! Sorry, no photos or recordings were allowed.

DeWitt, who was quite the authority figure in a 2016 production of Pride and Prejudice at CP, turns out to be a powerful vocalist as well, particularly in “Natural Woman,” her segment in the Aretha trilogy. Caryn Crye is no less revelatory as Laura, since I’ve only seen her in dramas before, most memorably at Theatre Charlotte as Mina Harker in Dracula and as Goody Proctor in The Crucible at CP. She’s stretched a little too far in her Janis Joplin trilogy in “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” but her “Me and Bobby McGee” – when she sheds her Pearl fur coat and lounges in her Woodstock gladrags – is a definite highlight.

Beehive Dress Rehearsal; July 4th, 2019

Making her Charlotte debut as Alison, Grace Bell doesn’t get much of a taste of Act 2, but she’s definitely a highlight in the early action, singing The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” and bringing more to Kubo’s choreography than anyone. Bell’s one spotlight after intermission is a dazzler as she shares the stage with Ava Smith on Jeff Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” If you’ve seen Smith’s high-energy performances at CP as Frenchy in Grease or at Theatre Charlotte as Annette in Saturday Night Fever, expect more of the same now in Beehive, complementing Bell’s Rockstar moves, aggressively engaging with a guy in the front row, and doing a Pattie solo on Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” Sadly, she also draws two Lesley Gore clunkers, but that’s showbiz.

After playing second fiddle to Tyler Smith in Ragtime and Show Boat, Brittany Harrington Currie reminds us here that she also appeared in an Andrew Lloyd Webber revue at CP and is quite comfortable in that format. Currie reveals some truly awesome wheels in “Proud Mary” with her Tina Turner vocal and her frenetic moves. Her vocal on The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is a bright spot before we descend into Connie Francis, and her “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” keeps the Aretha heat smoldering.

Beehive Dress Rehearsal; July 4th, 2019

Coming over to CP after a series of scintillating outings at Children’s Theatre, including Mary Poppins and Three Little Birds, Janeta Jackson flies under the radar for most of the evening, drawing nothing better than The Chiffons’ “One Fine Day” before intermission. We get a better sampling afterwards, when Jackson leads off the Aretha set with “Chain of Fools,” but it wasn’t enough for me.

I could have said the same about the show if it were possible to restore some of the hits that are no longer available with the rights to perform Beehive. Aretha’s “Respect” and “Do Right Woman” from the cast album would top my list of restorations, making it worthwhile to linger longer at Halton Theater, along with Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and her “Ball and Chain.” Unerring with their tempos, Morris and her band squeeze more than 30 tunes into the evening. Sometimes that mitigates the irritants, and sometimes that abbreviates the pleasures.

Excellent CPCC Cast Isn’t Weary of “Show Boat”

Review: Show Boat

By Perry Tannenbaum

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

A theatrical breakthrough when it first opened in 1927 but so politically incorrect today, is it finally time to declare that Show Boat has sunk? At the current CPCC revival, kicking off Summer Theatre’s 2019 season, Tyler Smith as Joe seems to avoid the 92 years of “Ol’ Man River” revisions, its Oscar Hammerstein lyric migrating from N-word to “darkies” to “colored folk” and beyond, by making the Cotton Blossom’s stevedore sound like he jes’ step off de boat from Jamaica.

Yet we’re still back in 1887 Natchez, Misssissippi, where the local Sheriff, enforcing Jim Crow laws that forbid Julie LaVern from performing because she is one-sixteenth African, probably hasn’t gotten any memos that he should clean up his speech when referring to his oppressed brethren. It’s sad, but Julie can take solace in the fact that she has made her white chum Magnolia’s singing career – and comeback! – possible by vacating her gigs on the Cotton Blossom and later at the Trocadero Nightclub in Chicago.

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

Julie’s voluntary departure from her Trocadero dressing room enables us to realize how noble she is even if Julie remains blissfully unaware. Insidiously, it also justifies the suffering we burden black folk with – because they’re so much better than us and so much more equipped to bear it.

It gets irritating for me. Each time Julie appears, it’s so she can benevolently disappear! And doesn’t the rugged, hard-bitten Stoicism of Joe’s “Ol’ Man River” make the innate nobility of his people even greater?

Yes, it does.

Watching Show Boat last weekend, I couldn’t help thinking how much more interesting this Jerome Kern musical would be if it were about Julie, Joe, and their respective spouses. Instead the Hammerstein book, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, concentrates on Magnolia Hawks, her outgoing dad Captain Andy, her small-minded mom Parthy, and her dashing man, riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Hammerstein’s book doles out crumbs to the people I care about when they should be seeing at least half the loaf.

Ah, but the best of Kern’s score is still heartland wonderful, and director Tom Hollis has assembled an outstanding cast to bring it to life. Set designer Jennifer O’Kelly creates a riverboat with a fair amount of Mark Twain flair, twin staircases joining at the deck and two smokestacks above, and there are impressive drop pieces descending from the fly loft when we arrive at the Trocadero for a genuine scene change. Debbie Scheu’s costume designs have exactly the right frilly-silky-grubby mix to sharply define the racial and class divides.

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

It’s important that the evening starts off with the big-hearted garrulousness of Tom Ollis as Captain Andy, because other than the salty bitchiness of Paula Baldwin as his wife Parthy, longstanding conflict is in short supply. As the rakish Gaylord, Ashton Guthrie gets the best of the music written for the men who matter here, and he’s singing better than ever before on “Where’s the Mate for Me” and “Make Believe,” adding a touch of old-timey crooning to remind us what this show would have sounded like way back in the Roaring Twenties.

Lindsey Schroeder as Julie and Sarah Henkel as Magnolia share the “Fish gotta swim” resignation of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” long before their paths cross in Chicago and each gets a song of her own. Schroeder’s farewell is a similarly resigned “Bill” before she cedes the Trocadero stage to Magnolia. You would think that Henkel could simply take it from there, but it’s only 1899, women are decades away from getting the vote, so Daddy needs to drop by in the nick of time – coincidence, huh? – to buoy sweet Magnolia’s confidence in “After the Ball.” Hooray for Captain Andy! He saved the day.

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

The sexual politics here are fairly dismal, Edna Ferber story or not. Men can abruptly leave both Magnolia and Julie without accounting for themselves, and they can expect a hearty welcome if they have second thoughts. The layabout Joe lays it out best in his “I Still Suits Me” duet with his long-suffering wife Queenie (Brittany Harrington): “I may be lifeless, But with one wife less, My life would be more strifeless, yes sirree, No matter what you say, I still suits me!”

That’s the brutal, sexist side of Joe, and you can bet that Tyler Smith brings plenty of bite to his complacent boasting. Yet Smith, singing every bit as beautifully as Guthrie in his reprises of “Ol’ Man River,” is especially golden at the end of each bridge, when he sings those two dark low notes each time “you land in jail.” Are there two bluer notes in the American songbook?

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

Paul Robeson, the megastar this role was originally written for, must be looking down kindly from his heavenly sphere, for Smith is the best reason at Halton Theater not to get weary of Show Boat.

CP’s “Becket” Struggles With Loyalty, Faith, and Caring

Review: Becket

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Becket began at Halton Theater this past Sunday afternoon, it struck me as a vast historical tapestry. I was a bit startled to find that I was asking myself, Why didn’t Shakespeare ever take up this story? As Jean Anouilh’s drama rumbled majestically on, however, quite a different question gripped me: Isn’t this a glorified two-hander between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, with other characters strewn around them like so many chess pieces?

This seems to be only the second play that CPCC has presented at Halton Theater – the first since Noises Off in 2012. You can infer from that history that theatre department chair Tom Hollis, who directs here for CPCC Theatre, is not a big fan of the Halton when CP isn’t using it for Broadway musicals. His pre-performance invitation to the audience to find seats closer to the stage during intermission underscored his wariness.

Hollis has had to make peace with the Halton – for now, anyway – because Pease Auditorium, the longtime anchor of dramatic presentations at CP, will soon be facing the wrecking ball. A new building with theatre facilities will replace it at that razed site. Very likely, Hollis is also surprising himself a little with this Becket because scene designer Jennifer O’Kelly has filled the stage so handsomely, both horizontally and vertically.

The pillars spaced across the stage are at least three times as tall as the squat dimensions of panoramic Pease would allow, so the impressive scenery evokes Las Vegas more than London. Action does cheat forward at times to the floor that covers Halton’s commodious orchestra pit, but the chief reason we hear all the actors so well is sound designer Stephen Lancaster’s sure hand with the hall’s famously wayward audio system.

With so little between those pillars, which must remain fixed whether we’re sallying forth to a Saxon hut or to a French battlefield, there are many times that you accept O’Kelly’s set as the sort of backdrop we’ve accustomed ourselves to in Shakespearean productions. Unfortunately, the wide range of characters that Becket engages aside from Henry, from sullen peasants to a pragmatic French king, don’t deliver the rich depth we’re accustomed to in the Bard’s teeming histories.

Henry is selfish, lecherous, petulant, and spoiled throughout, but Becket transforms, beginning as a wily manipulator who thrives on the challenge of hunting and the thrill of battle. At his core, only fitfully awakened, are a set of scruples and a sense of honor. He is as apt as Henry to forget that he’s an archdeacon of the church.

In the long arc of the story, we watch Becket, appointed by Henry as chancellor of England, helping his king to extract taxes from the church. But then Henry miscalculates and appoints Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, reasoning that that his old chum will make it so much easier to shake down the church. Becket shocks his benefactor after he becomes Archbishop, renouncing the chancellorship and returning the chancellor’s ring to Henry, and standing up for the church. In bare feet, renouncing worldly possessions.

In the shorter arc that plays out through much of the first act, very much along the same contours as the larger arc, we get a more vivid sense of who Henry and Becket are. After a daylong hunting excursion, the pair stop to rest and refresh at the Saxons’ hut. While the father is fetching water for the king, Henry takes a fancy to his daughter. To protect the girl from Henry’s ravishing, Becket professes to want her for himself. Henry yields the nameless girl up – on condition that he can demand payback later. When they return to the castle, Henry names his price. He lays claim to Becket’s mistress, Gwendolyn.

You can outwit and outmaneuver a monarch, we’re repeatedly shown, but power ultimately prevails. Gwendolyn and the Saxon girl are crucial to illustrating Anouilh’s point, but Shakespeare would have granted them the privilege of also being people. Hollis seems to empathize with the slenderness of these roles, giving both to Gabriela Celecia, who does what she can. Becket declares that he has never really loved anyone, but that doesn’t give cover to the playwright. Nor is this simply misogyny on Anouilh’s part, for the English clergy – and The Pope, for that matter – are also paper-thin. Seriously, he couldn’t give the Pope a name?

Ailing and decrepit, the Archbishop whom Becket will succeed is discerned easily enough amid the clergy, and Jim Greenwood gives him ample texture, the best of his multiple roles. But I can only report that Rob Craig was the Bishop of York, Roger Watson was the Bishop of York, and John DeMicco were the Huey, Dewey, and Louie of the English church. As a group, they are fine and spirited with a righteousness that is balanced with practicality. Or greed, depending on your view of the church.

Tony Wright is one of the best all-around theatre professionals we have in Charlotte, and his own company, Actor’s Gym, will soon be returning to the local scene, reviving Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels at Spirit Square. You can recognize various elements of Wright’s greatest hits as an actor – beginning with the comically delusional Elwood P. Dowd and the swashbuckling Zastrozzi – in the sunny, insouciant wickedness he brings to Henry II. The world is Henry’s playpen, so you almost laugh at his dark moments. They are petulant rather than profound.

Cole Long doesn’t always convince me as a man of valor, not exactly conjuring up Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton, the Beckets of Broadway and Hollywood. Lacking that physicality may be advantageous for Long when he tackles Becket’s more prominent traits, his wiliness, his deference, his fundamental decency, and his spiritual struggles to experience love and faith. With so few consequential people around Anouilh’s protagonists, we don’t need to pause and register that Long doesn’t ooze leadership qualities. He’s most credible as a loyal subject and surrogate before excelling as a fugitive.

The most affecting of Anouilh’s minor characters bloom when Becket becomes openly defiant towards his king. Rick Taylor’s portrait of King Louis of France has a weathered, wizened dignity to it as he offers refuge to the renegade Archbishop. Yet there is no heartbreak from His Highness when sympathy and goodwill toward the holy refugee must give way to expedience.

Accompanying Becket through his latter tribulations, the Little Monk that Becket has taken under his wing still seethes with Saxon resentment of Norman rule, nicely calibrated in Jake Dodge’s portrayal. Like Gwendolyn, he’s there for a purpose, but the fierce allegiance that Becket inspires in the Little Monk – contrasted with Henry’s inability to keep anyone’s true loyalty – strikes a deeper chord.

Aided by the age difference between them, Christy Stephens as the Queen Mother and Amy Pearre Dunn as the Young Queen transcend cardboard as the chief irritants of Henry’s court after intermission. Yes, Henry is lonely without Becket by his side, but he’s also afflicted.

Art and Business Clash in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

By Perry Tannenbaum

Few playwrights, black or white, would write a line so richly laden with poignancy as “Somewhere the moon has fallen through a window and broken into thirty pieces of silver” only to bury it in the silent text of his prologue. Just to ensure that such a line would be spoken out loud, Tennessee Williams would have temporarily deputized one of his characters as his mouthpiece so that this line would have a life in our ears.

Yet somehow, the “Somewhere” line dropped into the intro of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom perfectly describes the setting of August Wilson’s 1984 drama. Ma Rainey, her entourage, and her jazz quartet gather at a one o’clock rendezvous with Ma’s nervous manager, Irwin, and record studio boss Sturdyvant. While Irwin is careful not to rouse Ma’s mighty temperament and ego, Sturdyvant’s regard for Ma extends no further than to the pieces of silver her recordings can stream into his coffers.

So I can think of a personal as well as an artistic reason why Wilson elected to inter his telling line. A man who conceives of a ten-play series of plays that will chronicle the history of his people through every decade of the 20th century probably wouldn’t preserve, shepherd, and showcase a 30-pieces line like that with the same urgent care that we might. Or frankly, surveying the crew he assembles for this 1927 studio session, Wilson could have soberly concluded that none of these folk, black or white, had the discernment or eloquence to deliver such a lyrical line.

What comes out of Ma’s mouth is almost always salty, bitter, and infused with rage, while her nephew Sylvester, a stutterer, struggles to say anything at all – even as Ma, laying on more pressure, insists that he deliver the spoken intro to her “Black Bottom” recording. These are the two people who present the most daunting challenges for the whites in the recording studio.

But as the split layout of the Pease Auditorium stage faithfully discloses in Jennifer O‘Kelly’s shambling set design, this CPCC Theatre production of Ma Rainey is very much an upstairs-downstairs story. We spend as much time downstairs in the musicians’ rehearsal room – Cutler on trombone, Toledo on piano, Slow Drag on bass, and Levee on trumpet – and the latter half of the tragic denouement unfolds there.

Needless to say, there is as much tension downstairs between the musicians as there is between Ma, the truculent Sturdyvant, and the ever-appeasing Irvin. Cutler seems to run the show downstairs from a business standpoint, accountable for getting the band to show up on time, distributing the pay, and counting out the downbeats. Levee is the young buck with the big ideas, confident that his arrangements of Ma’s tunes will be preferred to her own, and planning to sign on independently with Sturdyvant so he can record his own songs with his own band.

Although the inevitability of a clash between Ma and Levee isn’t exactly trumpeted when we first meet them, it is deep-set into the structure of the script. Both Ma and Levee arrive significantly later to the gig than Sturdyvant or Cutler expect – though Ma’s arrival is later, louder, and more tumultuous. So the outcome of these prima donnas’ collision is also fairly predictable.

Since at least 1998, Corlis Hayes has been involved in several August Wilson plays around town, including The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Fences as both a player and a director. Although line problems cropped up occasionally in the rehearsal room, lengthening the production to a running time of nearly 2:20 plus intermission, Hayes directs with a sure feel for Ma Rainey’s moody, spasmodic pacing, and Tony Wright’s fight choreography aptly points up the climaxes.

Jonavan Adams first teamed up with Hayes in 2008, when I felt that The Piano Lesson should have been more forte. As Levee, there are welcome times when Adams goes fortissimo on us, particularly in his mighty monologues and crises. Yet there are still a few moments when we’re getting to know Levee that Hayes should whisking Adams downstage so that we can hear him better and other moments that Adams zips through unclearly. More forgivable toward the end are the moments when Levee is desperately talking to himself.

Clearly, this is a man who is haunted by his childhood and partially imprisoned by it – very emblematic of his people.

Pitted against Adams as Ma is Shar Marlin, who made her first splash on the local scene six years ago as the matriarch in George C. Wolfe’s “Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” and hasn’t looked back. With both Bessie Smith and Zora Neale Hurston’s Blues Speak Woman in her rearview mirror, Marlin takes on another outsized personality with perfect aplomb. Called upon to sing Rainey’s signature blues, Marlin delivers ornery volume laced with gutsy growls. And believe me, the force of her first entrance is worth waiting for.

With trombonist Tyrone Jefferson tackling the roles of Cutler and this production’s musical director, the jazz behind Rainey – and behind the scenes downstairs – has a unique authenticity. When Cutler gives his oft-repeated “One… Two…You know what to do” cue, three musicians respond from somewhere offstage while he himself delivers the trombone fills. Jefferson, the arranger and musical director behind numerous recent productions, proves to be quite capable as an actor.

Gagan Hunter turns pianist Toledo into a slightly starchy back-porch philosopher, which seems about right, and soft-spoken Willie Stratford – who really needs to be brought downstage – brings an abundance of cool to Slow Drag. In real life, Ma Rainey was indeed the Mother of the Blues, and there was also a notable New Orleans bassist named Slow Drag Pavageau who got his nickname from his dancing prowess.

The white folk are both exploiters, but it’s Tom Scott as Sturdyvant who is far and away the more cruel and noxious. His presence is so toxic that we can easily forget the looming clash between Ma and Levee. Scott always seems to be close to boiling over when he considers Ma’s sense of majesty and entitlement. Hank West as Irvin is the conciliator, but just when he verges on becoming sympathetic, a thin steely mean streak appears in a very nuanced portrayal.

No such subtlety beclouds Carol J. McKIenith’s wantonness as Dussie Mae, Ma’s companion. But there’s an interesting combination of meekness and determination, pride and shame, in Danius Jones’s portrayal of the stuttering Sylvester that makes him unexpectedly rewarding.

In another burst of unheard poetry, Wilson quotes blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson in his epigraph. Because “they tore the railroad down,” sings Jefferson, “the Sunshine Special can’t run.” Confronting this catastrophe, Jefferson plans to “build me a railroad of my own.” Ma and Levee have the same yearnings deep in their bones, to break away and blaze their own musical trails. But it’s still 1927, the traditional tracks are still sturdy, and their people don’t own them.

Can’t Get Enough of Your Nun, Babe

Reviews of Sister Act and Killing Women

By Perry Tannenbaum

Maybe Ophelia should have followed Hamlet’s advice. Julie Andrews — or was that Carrie Underwood? — checked into a nunnery in The Sound of Music and, in spite of some serious compatibility issues, wound up with a husband and a singing group. The same thing happened to Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act when she hid from a Las Vegas gangster at a San Francisco convent and wound up leading a choir of nuns in a command performance for the Pope.

Sister Act runs through July 23 at CPCC’s Halton Theater. (Photo by Chris Record)

(Photo by Chris Record)

The musical version, transplanted to Philly and currently completing a very successful summer season at CPCC, makes it a little clearer that lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier gets her man. Some might say that Sweaty Eddie, the shy and timid police desk sergeant who whisks Deloris into hiding, mans up at just the right moment and gets his woman. No matter, there’s plenty of righteous jubilation at the end.

Relationships with Deloris tend to be turbulent. She disdains the timid Eddie even though she knows he has a crush on her. Yet she submits to the indignity of being gangster Curtis Jackson’s piece-on-the-side, because he might soften up and get her a record deal. That relationship sours when Curtis gives Deloris one of his wife’s hand-me-down coats for Christmas — a rather noxious blue number — but before we can see whether she’ll follow through on her resolve to walk out on him, she witnesses Curtis killing off one of his henchmen.

So that relationship is also on the rocks.

It’s only when Eddie puts her in the witness protection program at Queen of Angels Cathedral that we arrive at the relationship that gives Sister Act its true spark. Eddie and Curtis merely represent the diverging paths Deloris might take in life. Mother Superior is her polar opposite, disciplined, dignified, god-fearing, ascetic, and tradition-bound. Comical shockwaves fly in both directions when they meet — as soon as Mother Superior espies Deloris’s glittery scanty attire, and as soon as Deloris whips out a cig.

What elevates this script, adapted by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner from Joseph Howard’s screenplay, is the attention it gives to the Mother Superior’s spiritual crisis as Deloris’s leadership of the choir brings crass commercial success to the struggling Cathedral. The stinging line she nails Deloris with, “God sent you here for a purpose — take the hint,” gets flung right back in Mother Superior’s face.

CP and director Corey Mitchell are so fortunate to have Paula Baldwin for their top nun. While Baldwin gets great comedy mileage out of Mother Superior’s discomfiture, she also delves deeply enough into the Mother’s spiritual anguish for us to empathize, even if we can’t climb aboard. It would be an overstatement to say that Baldwin can’t sing a note, but there are some notes Mitchell and music director Drina Keen should have advised her not to sing. Speaking some of “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” would have helped, but it remains one of the evening’s highlights.

Conversely, singing rather than acting is Jessica Rebecca’s strong suit as Deloris. She’s a fair substitute for the infallible Whoopi in the comical moments, but she’s an absolute force of nature when she breaks into song. I’m not sure that Rebecca even needs a mic when she’s belting at Halton Theater, but she was certainly overmiked for most of opening night.

I only began to feel raw emotion from Rebecca at Eddie’s apartment when she sang “Fabulous, Baby!” her second pass at proclaiming her aspirations. So it was especially devastating when she suddenly grew soft segueing into the title song, where she realizes the love, sisterhood, responsibility, and growth she has experienced at Queen of Angels. A goose-bump moment, for sure.

Rebecca towers over Christian Deon Williams, making it all the easier for him to simulate Eddie’s timidity, but the richness in his lower range as he sings his aspirational “I Could Be That Guy” tips us off to his manliness too soon. Big as he is, Stephen Stamps could stand to be raunchier — and older — as Curtis to get the full comical menace out of “When I Find My Baby,” a doo-wop love song with murderous intent, but his Barry White shtick later on is workin’, Babe.

Curtis’s backup thugs have a nice ethnic diversity, Justin Miller as Joey, Alex Aguilar as Pablo, and Justin Rivers as TJ, all of them getting prime spots in “Lady in a Long Black Dress.” More individuality is lavished upon Monsignor O’Hara and three of the nuns. It’s Beau Stroupe as O’Hara who prevails upon Mother Superior to offer refuge to Deloris and is then surprised — and surprisingly enthused — about the rock and gospel Deloris infuses into Sunday services.

Megan Postle is preternaturally welcoming and upbeat as Sister Mary Patrick, exactly the quality needed to maximize the comedy of “It’s Good to Be a Nun.” Caroline Chisholm is the conflicted postulant, Mary Robert, instantly drawn to Deloris’s worldliness. She has some prodigious high notes lurking within her, but Chisholm maintains her innocence even after Deloris helps set them free. As the usurped choir director, Sister Mary Lazarus, Kathryn Stamas is the most surprising of the nuns. Not only can she kick aside a piano stool with a flair that would make Jerry Lee Lewis proud, she can kick her left foot as high as her ear, kicking sideways.

Unless you truly expected the Halton’s stage to be transformed into a cathedral worthy of a Pope’s visit, you’ll be impressed by Jennifer O’Kelly’s set designs — and by how slickly one scene melts into another. Except for the glittery getups worn by Deloris and her backup duo, costume designer Theresa Bush reins it in, but the papal finale is pretty fab.

Alan Menken’s “Here Within These Walls” echoes his own “Beauty and the Beast,” a letdown where there should be uplift. But his “Sunday Morning Fever” — and a couple of his other songs here — will waken disco memories of Travolta, the Bee Gees, and their Saturday Night Fever, a trashy touch that somehow adds to the fun.

A shot from Killing Women. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Seay)

(Photo courtesy of Stephen Seay)

A similar vein of humor runs through Killing Women, a black comedy presented by Stephen Seay Productions at UpStage. Gwen is involuntarily recruited into a ring of hired killers, a profession totally inimical to motherhood. Forget about spiritual uplift as two other pistol packers, vulgar Abby and elegant Lucy, pitch in with the childcare.

Gwen earns one of the most hilarious character descriptions I’ve ever heard, rightly labeled a “do-it-yourself widow” by Abby. The action really revolves around Abby, for after Lucy splatters her hitman husband’s brains on their living room wall, Abby’s callous boss, Ramone, decrees that she must knock the mother off. What passes for Abby’s heart shines through here, for she sells Ramone on the notion of grooming Lucy to replace her dead husband at the firm — but only gets one week to deliver.

Turns out that Gwen has considerable aptitude: she’s a crack shot and more than one hitman is smitten by her, though her body disposal skills need work. Luci Wilson carries the show as Gwen, no less rough-around-the-edges now than when I first saw her in 2008 with the Robot Johnson sketch comedy group. That’s a good thing, and when we finally see all her tattoos, we’re not even slightly surprised.

A less confident, more wired performer, Elizabeth Simpson seems to know Gwen from the inside, and Seay casts two blue-chippers, Lesley Ann Giles and Christopher Jones, to fill out his front-liners as Lucy and Ramone. Cameos are quirky as everything else in Marisa Wegrzyn’s script, Matthew Schantz and Field Cantey handling them quite well.