Tag Archives: Jessica Borgnis

Hitting the (Monroe) Road With a Slightly Toned-Down Rock of Ages

Review: Rock of Ages at The Barn @ MoRA

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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As the exit ramp from the pandemic keeps getting longer, summertime urges to break out of isolation, let loose, and rock out aren’t likely to back up now. In this confused and anxious moment, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has taken a nicely calculated route to satisfying these urges, moving from their established HQ at Queens University to the outdoors and presenting a three-show “Rock the Barn” mini-season of three rock musicals out on Monroe Road. The first of these, Rock of Ages, has begun a run that will play to fans of ‘80s heavy metal and power ballads through August 21.

Days are still long enough so that shows begin before dark, but when night falls, Biff Edge’s lighting design gradually becomes gaudier, smoke effects play better, and we’re immersed in a true arena rock vibe. Musicians and actors are covered by a massive pavilion while ticketholders bring lawn chairs and experience the musical on a gently sloping lawn. ATC executive director Chip Decker assured us that the grounds at The Barn at MoRA (Monroe Road Area or Monroe Road Advocates, take your pick) had been sprayed for bugs, and indeed, although one of the critters crashed into my face during the full-length show, none bit.

Decker had directed an indoor production of Rock of Ages back in 2015, finding far more humor in Chris D’Arienzo’s book than the touring production of 2011 had brought to us and adding far more energy with Tod Kubo’s raunchy choreography. This time around, Decker wanted to play to a younger crowd, sidestepping some of the previous sleaze that might affright locals on the east side of town. A portion of that R-rated content had been achieved with scanty costuming and zesty pole dancing, but only one of these can be readily exported to the great outdoors. Taking over for Kubo, Renee Welsh Noel is not at all timid with her choreography, lavishing plenty of bumps and grinds for our delectation when the action moves from the rockin’ Bourbon Room to the salacious Venus Club, and costume designer Carrie Cranford’s working gear for Sherrie Christian, our heroine, credibly delivers what her customers would desire.

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Sherrie and our hero, Drew Boley, converge in LA sometime in 1987 and are briefly co-workers at the Bourbon Room. Since D’Arienzo’s book is tasked with connecting about 30 songs filled with teen passion and suffering, Drew and Sherrie’s romance is predictably rocky, filled with misunderstandings, bitterness, regret, and compromising situations before we come anywhere near a first kiss. At times, the couple fades into the background because the main plot and its complications concern the imperiled Bourbon Room, owned and managed by beloved goofball Dennis Dupree with the assistance of Lonny Barnett, his soundman and our narrator.

This cherished Sunset Strip landmark is targeted by the greedy German real estate developer Hertz Klinemann and his submissive son Franz for liquidation. Funky neighborhood and cultural treasures yielding to real estate profiteers and gentrification? That only happens in real life – not in feel-good movies and musicals. City planner Regina Koontz, do-gooder and rabble-rouser, pushes back against the Klinemanns, hatching a couple of nifty plot twists and song assignments before the blissful finale.

As Decker foretold in his welcoming remarks, performing on the grounds of The Barn at MoRA is a bit of a leap into the unknown, and he hoped the top of the pavilion would hold fast after being blown away during rehearsals. A plucky last-minute soundcheck by Cranford, doubling as our production manager, provided further reason for us to keep our fingers crossed when the show began. Thankfully, she concentrated on Elizabeth Medlin and Grant Zavitkovsky, who play the temperamental Sherrie and Drew. Cliched as they may be as lovebirds, they needed to have the best mics for their songs.

When things were going badly, when Drew was hoodwinked by record producer Ja’Keith Gill into fronting a boy band while Sherrie had been recruited by Justice Charlier into the degradations of the Venus Club, their anguished duet on Damn Yankees’ “High Enough” came across like the climactic highlight it was intended to be. By that time, we could chuckle a bit as we noticed that Decker had placed Zavitkovsky and Medlin at opposite sides of the stage to belt out their harmonies. Close contact between even the best mics onstage almost invariably led to lethal feedback blasting through the loudspeakers. Mercifully, these blasts were on the low end of the audio spectrum rather than high squeals.

The chief roadblock to romantic bliss between Sherrie and Drew is the awesome rock icon, Stacee Jaxx, coerced by Dennis to help raise funds for the Bourbon Room and prevent the Klinemanns from taking over. We quickly see the rowdiness and lawlessness that has alienated Stacee from Arsenal, the hit band that made Jaxx a star. Decker has sprung a surprise here, for the role played onscreen by Tom Cruise switched genders and Stacee was now sung by Shea – not with the best of the mics – adding new twists to Sherrie’s sexuality and Drew’s jealousy.

Medlin didn’t get a shot at the pole dance Decker staged in 2015, nor can we pity her any longer as a rape victim, but she definitely turned up the heat on the lap dance she performed for Stacee at a less provocative Venus Club. Less obvious are the benefits of Decker’s rethinking of Drew, for Zavitkovsky has the steely larynx needed to wail this rockstar wannabe, but his looks, while wholesome enough, allow more readily for failure – and the direction where this plot is actually headed.

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Jeremy DeCarlos as Dennis got his mic working intermittently, a definite improvement after his inaudible soundchecks, partnering well with Ryan Stamey as Lonny, who wrestled ebulliently with similar variables in his signature wild-man style. Nevertheless, dialogue and plot grew as foggy as the two flawless fog machines facing the stage when Katy Shepherd stepped forward in rather butch fashion as Regina and we needed to rely on Ryan Stinnett’s mic as Hertz and Jamaas Britton’s as Franz to keep track of the plot. Yet the three of them collaborated more than effectively enough, aided by a couple of tearaway costumes, to deliver the high comedy voltage of Pat Banatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”

With a more colorful costume, better lighting, and a better mic, Tony Mullins as Ja’Keith fared better on opening night than Shaniya Simmons as Justice. While lights and sound seemed to let Shea down and tamp down Stacee’s villainy – if a heavy-metal villain isn’t a sort of oxymoron – the setup for the five-piece band, including two guitars and led by Jessica Borgnis on keys, held rock-steady throughout the evening.

That was often bad news for the audience when we needed to hear the singers and discern the lyrics they sung over their relatively underpowered mics. As a result, the show remained more compelling for the older generation lounging on their lawn chairs, those spry folk already familiar with the oeuvre of Banatar, Yankees, Poison, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, REO Speedwagon, Quiet Riot, Bon Jovi, and David Lee Roth. As for me, “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “I Want to Know What Love Is” had me thinking that the collected works of Foreigner might be worth looking into.

“Lizzie” Whacks the Bordens in a Creepy, Hard-Rock Witches’ Brew

Review:  Lizzie

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s amazing what murdering your mom and dad can do for your outlook, for your self-esteem, and especially for your fashion sense. Back in a radically revisionist 1892, Lizzie Borden took an axe and, in a vigorous aerobic workout totaling 81 whacks, achieved all of these wholesome objectives. Or so Lizzie, a rock musical playing at Queens University in a devoutly raucous Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production, insists on telling us, piling onto the lurid Lizzie urban legend and her bloody skip-rope rhyme. Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer and Tim Maner began work on this musical a couple of years before the centennial of the infamous axe murders, and between 1990 and 2013, the enterprise grew from four songs to a smallish full-sized rock melodrama, taking in Alan Stevens Hewitt along the way to add in new music, lyrics, and orchestrations.

Victims Andrew and Abby Borden do not appear in this rock retelling. Concepts of calibrated punishment, let alone penance, are righteously bludgeoned here. The stage belongs to Lizzie, her elder sister Emma, the Bordens’ housemaid Bridget Sullivan, and Lizzie’s neighbor friend, Alice Russell. Emma also emerges as homicidally inclined, her animus mostly directed at her stepmom because Abby may be scheming to rob the sibs of their inheritance. That threat layers onto Lizzie’s resentment against her dad: there’s no doubt anymore that he molested Lizzie repeatedly. Similarly, suspicions that Alice was deeply in love with Lizzie are confirmed. Perhaps the most startling character makeover here is Bridget, who takes on Miss Danvers-like malevolence, goading Lizzie to the breaking point and slyly pocketing payoffs along the way.

If all this sounds like the lyricist/composers are leaning towards feminism, anarchy, and decadence, then you should also know that director Joanna Gerdy hasn’t pushed back. The writers haven’t mandated that musicians, directors, and designers all be women. That’s Gerdy’s idea, apparanetly. With the possible exception of set construction personnel, she has kept this production cordoned off as an exclusively Women-at-Work zone. Yet it would be a mistake to suggest that the earmarks of testosterone have been banished. Emily Hunter’s choreography, unmistakably suggesting the Weird Sisters of Macbeth when the time comes to burn Lizzie’s bloodstained dress, at other times evokes the strut of heavy metal rockers. Carrie Cranford’s costume designs, prim and Victorian for the principals throughout Act 1, takes on a definite S&M edge after intermission. From the outset, the musicians’ costumes, hairdos, and makeup telegraphed where we were heading. Nor was there anything lacy or dainty about Kaylin Gess’s tabloid set design and how it synergized with Hallie Gray’s creepy, diabolical lighting.

Gerdy and musical director Jessica Borgnis have skillfully interwoven their respective primary goals, creeping us out and rocking our faces off. The thrust of the creepshow began before Actor’s Theatre executive director Chip Decker welcomed us to the company’s 30th season. Added on to the specified core group of players, Gerdy had Emma Lippiner darting around the mysteriously lit Hadley Theater as Young Lizzie, disappearing into the wings and then returning with a skip-rope. We also watched her ascend to the upper level of the Borden home where, flanked by Mom and Dad’s rooms, she ominously swung on a swing. Lippiner had not been instructed to portray a happy child, that was certain. Turn of the Screw or Stephen King were more likely what Gerdy was going for.

There’s certainly an affinity between Lizzie and the repressed teens of Spring Awakening in terms of the period and the style of the Actor’s Theatre production, which stakes its claim to freewheeling anachronisms with Young Lizzie’s plastic skiprope and continues with microphone stands and hand mikes for the ladies. What separates Lizzie from achieving similar greatness is the writers’ failure, despite all the juicy historical sources and suppositions available to them, to fully embrace the concept of a script – and their resolute insistence on developing only their title character.

Credit Gerdy and her cast with finding ways to close the gap. Even with her hair up and confined by a full-length dress, Katy Shepherd remained volatile and spellbinding throughout Act 1, a seething cauldron of sexual and homicidal impulses. The pathologically buttoned-down Kristin Jann-Fischer seemed even more likely to snap in the early going as Emma, but Shepherd suddenly leapfrogged her when Emma left Lizzie alone with her parents. Previous productions of Lizzie have established splatter zones in the theaters where they have played – and a patch of comic relief as melons or pumpkins were hacked. Gerdy doesn’t go for that kind of gore, but when we saw Shepherd’s face smeared and spattered red, a radical change had come over her. It was impossible to say whether that change had led to the violence or whether taking in the spectacle of what she had done had triggered that change. Shepherd seemed equally stunned and liberated by the crime.

By the time we returned from the break, Lizzie had let down her hair and totally changed her look, lounging lasciviously on the only stick of furniture that Gerdy allowed on the floor of the set. With the Weird Sisters episode, we realized that bacchanalian delight and wicked diablerie could reach maximum depth. The shaken demeanor that Shepherd switched on toward the end of Act 1 morphed into evil leers and insane eyerolls in Act 2. While some might find Shepherd’s vocal exploits on par with her acting, I’d say they come fairly close, which is high praise.

My reference to Miss Danvers will be clear enough to anybody who has read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or seen the Oscar-winning Hitchcock film. Yes, there was a Judith Anderson dimension to Shea’s performance as Bridget Sullivan as she prodded Lizzie toward catastrophe, and Shea seemed to haunt the Borden house far more than take care of it. She may have the best voice onstage, even if it doesn’t reach Shepherd’s stratospheric heights. Though she doesn’t evolve, she occasionally dominates. My suspicion about Alice Russell is that the writers didn’t consider changing her with the times. CiCi Kromah’s sweet, sweet performance might have seemed more satisfying back in 1990 – or certainly 1892 – when simply being an open lesbian could stamp you as a kind of small town outlaw. Today, Alice’s sincere love for Lizzie just struck me as a sentimental strain in the story, necessary as part of the sequence that triggered Lizzie’s homicidal rage but discarded afterwards during the crime investigation and Lizzie’s court trial.

Piloting from an electric keyboard, Borgnis drew searing vocals from the true lady outlaws onstage and the requisite smashing and slaying from her tight instrumental quintet, which unexpectedly includes a cello for those unexpected mellow moments. Best of the raucous vocal quartets was “Somebody Will Do Something” bringing us to intermission, but there were three or four of nearly equal power after we returned, including “Burn the Old Thing Up” and “Thirteen Days in Taunton.” Yes, it was noisy when everybody onstage was wailing and rocking, but Actor’s Theatre has always been savvy in measuring the difference between loud and deafening. Once again, they have it dialed in just right.