Tag Archives: Jill Bloede

2020 or Not 2020

Review: A Half-Masked Christmas Carol at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Luckily, the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, so friendly and jolly with his glowing torch, was more than 175 years removed from 2020 when he made his first oxymoronic appearance in print. Christmas of 1843 may not have been the best ever as it greeted Dickens’ original readers, but it had to be more festive than 2020, the gloomiest in centuries.

While it’s possible to retreat into the nostalgia of numerous movie and TV adaptations of the Yuletide classic, Charlotte is one of hundreds of cities where watching live theatrical adaptations has become a holiday tradition. So it’s fascinating, even revelatory to see how Theatre Charlotte is adapting to the unprecedented circumstances of 2020 in presenting its 14th annual production of A Christmas Carol.

It’s a remarkable chameleon, adapted by Julius Arthur Leonard and co-directed by Stuart Spencer and Chris Timmons. This is truly a to-be-or-not-to-be effort: Live and virtual, at Theatre Charlotte on Queens Road and not, set in Dickens’ London in the 19th century and unmistakably invaded by COVID-19 and the constraints of the pandemic. 2020 or not 2020.

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Watching the virtual version recorded at the Queens Road barn, I was surprised to find how Dickens’ characters, in period costumes designed by Chelsea Retalic, replicated daily life today. While Marley and the three famous Christmas Ghosts wore masks, others – including Scrooge, his nephew, and the Cratchits – did not. No wonder poor Tiny Tim is dying!

Live outdoor performances of Theatre Charlotte’s pandemic edition of Dickens premiered at Christ South’s Old Dairy Farm in Waxhaw on Reid Dairy Road, which may account for some of the anomalies we see when we tune in to the indoor version. Outdoors, winter is upon us, so Spencer and Timmons may not have wished their Scrooge to change into his jammies. Besides that, an outdoor shift in scene from the Scrooge & Marley counting house to Ebenezer’s bedroom may have been unwieldy out on the farm.

So all of the action, aside from the Ghosts’ travels, is confined to Scrooge’s office until he sallies forth on Christmas day. To achieve this economy and consistency, Spencer and Timmons alter the plot just a little, sending Scrooge outdoors for dinner and having him realize that he has forgotten his pocket watch at his office. That’s where Marley and the Ghosts will now do their haunting. Nor do our directors forget about Ebenezer’s watch or his watch chain, elegantly transforming it into a fresh plot point without changing any of the dialogue.

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The uncredited set design, likely by Timmons, is very spare, silhouettes of city and government buildings in the background, connected to the Scrooge & Marley firm by a stunted staircase and a front door. No walls or windows obscure our view of the sidewalk outside the office or the silhouetted figures that traverse it. Inside, we never need more at Scrooge’s HQ than desks for Ebenezer and his oppressed drone Bob Cratchit. Bedtime is never observed, so there’s no longer any need for a bed. When we visit the Cratchits or Scrooge’s nephew Fred, as much as a cushioned chair and a wee table are necessary, so that Fred’s wife may have a glass of wine and a decanter nearby, but that is all.

Sound design by Timmons and Vito Abate only blunders with the opening and closing of Scrooge’s front door. Opening it lets in a hullabaloo of street sounds and closing it silences the noise – except we can clearly hear the footsteps of whoever departs on the sidewalk. Grander and more successful are the sounds heralding the supernatural entrances of Marley and the three Christmas Ghosts, while lighting by Rick Wiggins brashly suggests that all three of Scrooge’s guides have celestial origins.

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Hank West, mostly prized around town for his comedy exploits, is not a complete stranger to mean roles, having portrayed the Marquis de Sade in 2003. There’s nothing missing of Scrooge’s flinty cantankerousness in the opening scene. West’s rebuffs of a charitable solicitor (just one this year instead of two) and his nephew Fred are even more repellent than his tyranny and resentment toward Cratchit. It’s when we approach West’s comedic wheelhouse where we find him woefully hamstrung. Deprived of Scrooge’s bedclothes and his dopey nightcap – the lone accessories that make Ebenezer vulnerable or adorable through five-sixths of the story – West must accompany the Ghosts in business attire.

Worse than that, West must give us a Scrooge who dances with glee, realizing that he hasn’t missed Christmas morning, dressed up like an adult going to work rather than as a child waking from – and to – a fabulous holiday dream. Missing this parcel of Dickens’ visual genius, we can appreciate it more, for the nightcap and bedclothes are also as indispensable to the distinctive flavor of Scrooge’s supernatural journeys as the Ghosts’ personalities.

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West’s comedy isn’t totally eclipsed, peeping out in his retorts to Cratchit and the Solicitor, in his timing of remarks after visitors exit, and in his sunny sallies around town making his many amends. Of course, the final prank on Cratchit when he comes in late on the 26th is handsomely done, though I was a little surprised by West’s decision to underplay Scrooge’s mischievousness and glee as he did Ebenezer’s playacting.

More women than men are seen onstage here, with Andrea King tipping the balance as Bob Cratchit. At work, she is purely deferential toward Scrooge, and King’s entrance on the 26th has a stealth worthy of Chaplin or Lucille Ball. We probably notice that at home, King’s Cratchit as a husband and a father comes off as less of a patriarch than we’re accustomed to. Can’t say that I minded much – am I becoming too evolved?

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Seeing both Allen Andrews as Christmas Yet to Come and Josh Logsdon as Marley’s Ghost wearing masks hardly detracted from their portrayals. Logsdon’s mask had an orifice that seemed rimmed with teeth, he was bundled up with enough rags under his chains to look like a leper, and a huge gray wig affixed to his head with a shroud-like kerchief made him even more loathsome. Notwithstanding Scrooge’s doubts, when Logsdon bemoaned his fate and issued Marley’s warnings, there was far more grave than gravy in this ghost.

More noticeable were the alterations that masks imposed on the women Ghosts. Reprising her role as Christmas Past, Anna McCarty had a veiled look in her gleaming white gown, Arabian or ecclesiastical in its modesty. Yet when she needed to be strong and authoritative, McCarty didn’t disappoint, even though she seemed more socially-distanced than her castmates. Lechetze Lewis as Christmas Present was free to mingle more in her garrulous London tour. Her lively interaction with Fred and his wife, Andrews and Mary Lynn Bain, offered the most spectacular display of Retalic’s costume designs this side of Marley.

Andrews’ entreaties that Uncle Scrooge come dine with Fred were nearly as foundational in establishing the Christmas spirit on Queens Road as Cratchit’s sufferings and goodwill. Bain was also more impactful when she doubled as Belle, Scrooge’s sweetheart in the flashback, particularly when she returns her engagement ring, releases Ebenezer from his obligations, and decries his worship of Mammon.

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Little moments like this, Cratchit applauding Fred’s advocacy of Christmas, and the perfect view we get of Cratchit sneaking in late after the holiday are among the many testaments we get to the work of Megan Shiflett and Nick Allison behind the cameras – delivering the best angles from the best distances. Theatre Charlotte may not have the resources that CPCC can boast in video gear, but they’re outstripping every live video I’ve seen from the college, because Spencer and Timmons are so deftly cuing their cameras where to be and when.

Amid the special hardships of 2020, local theatre companies are substantially sharpening their video techniques and their cinema savvy, good tidings that will pay dividends when COVID-19 is conquered.

With Jill Bloede executing the Narrator’s role in such a ceremonious British style, and with the likes of Tom Ollis and Rebecca Kirby as the Fezziwigs, quality runs deep in this cast – as deep as you’d expect with productions running twice the five performances this one is getting. There’s plenty of mileage left in the virtual version, which continues its on-demand run through January 2.

Climb Aboard a Retro Laugh Riot

Review: A highly animated Odd Couple revival with a professional-grade cast

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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With the benefit of hindsight, we can see more clearly that Neil Simon and his esteemed stablemates – Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, and Mel Brooks – who all wrote for Sid Caesar during the early days of television, didn’t simply disperse into the realms of stand-up, movies, and theatre for the obvious practical reasons. Autonomy, fame, and fortune were surely enticing, but so was the satisfaction of working in longer forms than TV sketch comedy or a star comedian’s monologues.

Come back to The Odd Couple – or revisit Bananas and Zelig, A Funny Thing Happened and Tootsie, The Producers and Blazing Saddles – and we see a mature writer working beyond the limitations of zany characters and snappy one-liners. Simon develops his Oscar and Felix, tells a full-length story about them, and keeps the hilarity going. Entering Theatre Charlotte, where Jill Bloede is directing a highly animated Odd Couple revival with a professional-grade cast, I wasn’t thinking that I’d be seeing this old cash cow so freshly.

Somehow the difference between this 1965 comedy and TV sitcoms of the same era – including the spinoff Odd Couple sitcom that came to ABC in 1970 – suddenly seemed rather radical. The cardinal rule for most 22-minute sitcom writers back then was to hit the reset button at the end of each episode, so that next week’s episode would start out as if this week’s had never happened. On Broadway, you could expect the uptight, neurotic, neat freak Felix to wear out his slovenly pal Oscar’s patience by the time the curtain came down. On TV? No way. Felix made himself at home in Oscar’s Manhattan apartment for nearly five seasons.

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Many in the sold-out house at the Queens Road barn on opening night were struck even more freshly by Felix, Oscar, their poker-night buddies, and the neighboring Pigeon Sisters. Unless the younger people in the house had been hooked on the Matthew Perry reincarnation of the sitcom during 2015-2017 on CBS, they likely hadn’t run into much Simon or Oscar in their lifetimes. I was a little taken aback when I came home, double-checked, and found that I’d only seen Odd Couple once in Charlotte during the last 30+ years, back in 2007 at CPCC.

On the other hand, this comedy staple had been quasi road-tested at Theatre Charlotte when the Female Version – with Florence, Olive and a klatch of Trivial Pursuit-playing women replacing the poker buddies – dropped by in the summer of 2012. Bloede also directed then, an overachievement that certainly warranted her current return engagement.

Whether it’s Lady Bracknell or Lucy Ricardo, Bloede knows her comedy, and she has prospected long enough in Charlotte to be able to mine its finest talent. Doesn’t look like she had to twist any arms, either. For her Oscar, she landed the most experienced Simon exponent in town, Brian Lafontaine. Breaking in to Charlotte theatre in 1992-1994, Lafontaine played leads in three of Simon’s comedies, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues on Queens Road – and Lost in Yonkers at Charlotte Rep.

Bloede goes edgier and high-energy for her Felix with Mark Scarboro, who first carved out his eccentric niche in 2001-02 with standout performances in Thumbs, The Pitchfork Disney, and Fuddy Meers. Yet Bloede has Lafontaine playing the 43-year-old Oscar with more energy than I’ve ever seen from this slovenly New York Post sportswriter. If she’s going to turn Scarboro loose to be as anal, neurotic, outré, and irritating as he can imagine Felix to be, then she’s returning the favor to Lafontaine and turning him loose to be as irritated, provoked, and out-of-control as he can imagine a devout 44-year-old slob can be.

No less pleasurable is the build-up to Felix’s first entrance. That’s because Bloede has a deep bench sitting around Oscar’s dining room poker table, supporting her stars. If we’re returning to Odd Couple, we’re likely surprised to find that Felix isn’t going to show up until we’re 17 pages into the script. Even Oscar isn’t onstage at the outset in his own apartment! Simon’s poker preamble steadily stokes concern for fragile Felix’s welfare in the wake of his breakup with his wife, but there’s already hostility and comedy shtick at the table before the two marquee combatants show up.

Just watch Michael Corrigan and Patrick Keenan at work, sparring as Murray and Speed, and you’ll see that Bloede has selected a second comedy team for us to revel in, very much in the same Felix-Oscar, Laurel-Hardy template. Decades ago, when Corrigan was younger and slimmer, he tended to remind you of Tim Conway. So the particular quirks of Murray the policeman come to readily to Corrigan, his exasperating slowness in shuffling cards and his alarmist reactions to any new news about Felix. Keenan is the master of the slow burn and the bellowing explosion, repeatedly supplying perfect exclamation points to punctuate the comedy.

Tall and lanky Matt Olin is the perfect choice for the spineless Vinnie, the guy Murray and Speed can both agree to pick on, the dutiful husband who submits to his wife’s curfew, and the man who deeply appreciates Felix’s sissy sandwiches. Meanwhile, Lee Thomas continues to ply his teddy bear charm as Oscar’s diffident, occasionally witty accountant, Roy.

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If you’re worried that Bloede might be taking PC pains to update the Pigeon Sisters and present them as more evolved, rest easy. Vanessa Davis as Gwendolyn and Johanna Jowett as Cecily stay true to their origins, Davis the flirtier sister and Jowett the more empathetic bleeding heart. Set designer Rick Moll, costumer Yvette Moten, and sound designer Rick Wiggins have all climbed aboard Theatre Charlotte’s retro train. With a soundtrack that includes James Brown, Petula Clark, Jack Jones, Herb Alpert, and The Shirelles, Bloede and her all-pro cast are bent on taking you back to the ‘60s, like it or not. I’m betting you’ll like it.

Fleet Buffoonery Conquers Enchantment in “Peter and the Starcatcher”

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher

By Perry Tannenbaum

As a fairly frequent reader of Dave Barry’s newspaper work, still recycling in Miami Herald newsletters a full 13 years after he left, I’ve developed a healthy skepticism about whether the humorist is capable of being serious about anything. I was optimistic that I might witness a breakthrough back in 2012 when I realized – as I was preparing to review the original Broadway production – that Rick Elice’s Tony Award-nominated Peter and the Starcatcher was adapted from a novel by Barry and Ridley Pearson.

Surely a prequel to Peter Pan, the most adulated and beloved story of the 20th century, would give Barry the incentive to see beyond his next one-liner, especially with a collaborator on board to keep him from jumping the rails. The giddy acclaim buzzing around the show and its five Tony wins for acting and design further fueled my optimism. On a July evening, I entered the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with the wild expectation of seeing a play that artfully, joyfully, and humorously dovetailed with James M. Barrie’s indelible fantasy.

My expectations were badly misaligned with the clever deconstruct of storytelling that I saw. Elice and Barry were equally tone-deaf to the sense of enchantment that Barrie brought to Peter Pan and to the Englishman’s flavorful zest for the primitive. In its belated rush to chime with the story so many of us grew up with, Starcatcher plopped Neverland in the middle of the ocean rather than up in the stars, Peter remained far from the heartless arrogant joy we all remember, and we were left to figure out that Barry’s Molly was Barrie’s Mary, Wendy’s elegant mom.

Unhindered by my former expectations, I found the touring version of Starcatcher far more enjoyable than the Broadway version when it came to Charlotte in 2014. A lot of credit went to the players. There was more chemistry at Knight Theater between Peter and Molly than I saw on Broadway, therefore more heart emerging from Elice’s script, and unlike the fellow who tried so hard to please as Tony Award winner Christian Borle’s replacement, John Sanders seemed to be having a great time as Black Stache, alias Captain Hook.

Yet I must have still been searching for Barry-Barrie links that I might have missed two years earlier, because I found myself even more pleased last week when Theatre Charlotte opened their 91st season with Jill Bloede directing a strong cast in Peter and the Starcatcher. Adept at zany comedy and slapstick, Bloede knows what this piece is – and what it isn’t. She has prodded Dave Blamy to the top of his game as Stache, no less funny here than in his award-winning turns at Actor’s Theatre in The 39 Steps and The Scene, eight years ago and more. How far can Blamy go over-the-top? The climactic amputation scene will be your delightful answer. Part-time foil and part-time torment, Jeff Powell as Smee outbumbles his master, perpetually aflutter and the perfect complement for Blamy,

Prime yourself for buffoonish villainy rather than hapless wicked cunning to get the full effect of Blamy Stache. The other wicked captain onstage, Tim Huffman as Captain Slank, takes up some of the slack on wickedness and menace – not a surprise if you saw Huffman in his Queens Road debut in The Crucible. Two piratical seamen have gotten wind of the treasure that Lord Leonard Aster is transporting to India. Getting both vessels to sea obliges us to accept that Lord Aster would want her Molly to sail separately from her father with one of the two treasure chests.

With Troy Feay making his Theatre Charlotte debut as milord, there was plenty starchy British propriety on board one of the ships, and with Johnny Hohenstein crossdressing as Mrs. Bumbrake, there was plenty of bawdy bustle aboard the other. Bowen Abbey woos her with intermittent success as Alf, allowing Hohenstein some comical vacillations – and partially explaining her slack supervision of Molly. Hey, they’re all kidnapped anyway, so Mrs. B has some cover for her negligence.

Also kidnapped – sold into slavery, if you want to get picky – are three orphan boys whom Molly befriends. By the process of elimination, we can figure out that the urchin with no name, played with a soft chip on his shoulder by Patrick Stepp, will eventually emerge as Peter. In the spirit of adventure, Molly seeks them out in the bowels of the pirate ship, and in the spirit of Barrie’s Wendy, she takes on the burden of educating the Lost Boys. Fifteen-year-old Ailey Finn is more than sufficiently precocious to portray both the tomboy and maternal dimensions of Molly. Why not? She was Rose of Sharon nearly a year ago in Theatre Charlotte’s Grapes of Wrath!

Stepp and Finn both render their roles like they’re on the cusp of puberty, so their mutual awakening comes moments before they must part forever. With Bloede at the helm, this is the most poignant ending I’ve seen in any Starcatcher production.

We seem to get there at warp speed, even though Bloede manages to sharpen Captain Slank and Mrs. Bumbrake more than I’ve previously experienced. Yet the sensory bombardment is so constant that I can admit without shame that, while I can tell you that Jesse Pritchard and A.J. White played the orphans creditably, I can’t say for sure whether Prentiss was the ornery one or Ted. Likewise, a peep into Wikipedia was necessary to nail down which character wooed Mrs. B.

Somebody remarked to me in the lobby at intermission that Peter and the Starcatcher is like children’s theatre for adults. If you’ve seen ensembles in children’s productions who break away from their characters and directly narrate to the audience, you’ll see the truth of that comment hand-in-hand with Elice’s deconstructing mischief. We are taking in a lot of information here. Listening to the players is often a more reliable indicator of where we are than following the changes in Chris Timmons’ spare set design, nicely coordinated with Gordon Olson’s lighting.

Keeping pace with all that happens is hard enough without worrying how Elice’s play connects with Barrie’s. So don’t. It was only on my third go-round that I realized how important the sound designer’s contributions are to making Starcatcher work. No sound designer is listed in the Theatre Charlotte playbill, so I’ll cite Ben Sparenberg and Rick Wiggins, listed jointly as light and sound board operators. Bloede and her cast certainly keep them busy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that both of them might be cuing sounds together when tensions intensify.

You won’t find much enchantment in this 91st season launch, but there’s some magic aboard one of the ships when we land in Neverland. The journey is roaring good fun at its best, and it’s running with professional polish and precision.

The Other Shue Drops at Theatre Charlotte With “The Nerd”

Review: The Nerd

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s only infrequently that playwright Larry Shue’s name crops up on the Charlotte theatre scene. The New Orleans native, whose comedies were all premiered at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, died in an airplane crash at the age of 39, while his most familiar work, The Foreigner, was still playing off-Broadway. Charlotte Repertory Theatre staged that backwoods farce during the same year that Shue died, 1985, and it was a huge hit, so huge that when Rep marked its 25th anniversary in 2001, a revival of The Foreigner was part of their celebration.

Yet Shue’s “other” comedy, The Nerd, also figured significantly in Rep’s history, for when the company went from a summertime schedule to year-round status in 1988, The Nerd was the company’s first non-summer production. Thirty years later, the current Theatre Charlotte presentation of The Nerd is actually its Charlotte premiere, for Rep staged this wacky comedy at Davidson College.

Wacky might be considered a gracious description of The Nerd, which premiered in Milwaukee two years before The Foreigner and arrived on Broadway two years after its worthier sibling. Silly, over-the-top, and unfocused might be better ways to describe this belated coming-of-age story of young architect Willum Cubbert. We first encounter the low-key Willum as he’s insufficiently surprised by his 28th birthday party. The surprises have hardly begun, for the party is wildly impacted by the unexpected arrival of the title character, Rick Steadman, who retains Willum’s undying gratitude for saving his life in Vietnam.

Thanks to other guests, excesses abound before Rick’s bodacious entrance. Not only is Willum’s current client, Warnock Waldgrave, insensitive to the niceties of Willum’s architectural drawings, he comes to the party with a neurotic wife and a fiercely obnoxious daughter. The little brat has thrown two or three tantrums, assaulted her dad and other adults, and locked herself stubbornly in the bathroom on multiple occasions a sedate warmup compared to the action after Rick arrives. As you might presume, the extremely starchy Warnock and the preternaturally eccentric and irritating Rick are not destined to get along.

Aside from Willum, whose gratitude toward Rick and dependence on Warnock prevent him from taking a hard line, two of Willum’s friends, Axel Hammond and Tansy McGinnis, try to mediate as the party spirals further out of control. Tansy is particularly sympathetic toward Willum. She’s his girlfriend now but will soon be breaking his heart when she moves from Terre Haute, Indiana, to DC, where she has a job waiting for her as a TV weathergirl. Axel is a drama critic, so he’s more inclined to crack wise than be helpful.

Just when it seems that Willum’s evening can’t get any worse, Rick makes his second entrance, suitcases in hand, intent on moving in. It’s here that Shue begins to misdirect us or lose focus, for everyone onstage except Rick becomes intently preoccupied with expelling Willum’s noxious visitor. We’re likely to forget that Tansy has really set the agenda early on in a conversation with Axel.

With set and lighting by John P. Woodey, this Theatre Charlotte production has a very sharp and detailed look to it, augmented by Sabrina Blanks’ splendid costume designs. Mom Clelia and daughter Thoralee clash like crazy in their party outfits, and Rick, dogged in insisting that this is a Halloween party, is positively unearthly when he arrives. Directing this mayhem, Jill Bloede takes a sensible approach, drawing outré performances from her three most noisome players, Trulyn Rhinehardt as the incorrigible Thoralee, Simon Donaghue as a perpetually outraged Warnock, and Jonathan Slaughter as The Nerd.

Rhinehardt misbehaves with such savage zest that you’ll want to take a stick to her. I don’t mind saying that I most delighted in Thoralee when she fainted from fright. Even if Bloede hadn’t changed Thoralee’s gender – Shue originally saddled Warnock with a Thor – I don’t think that a fainting spell by a bratty boy would have been any more satisfying. Donoghue’s powerful take on Warnock seemed to be the only misguided aspect of Bloede’s approach: why didn’t he take a stick or a belt – or a machine gun – to his unruly daughter, and why didn’t he simply fire Willum on the spot for ruining his day? Whatever softness accounted for Warnock’s forbearance wasn’t visible.

Slaughter’s way with Rick, not far distant in its absurdity from the sound and awkwardness of the Nutty Professor minted by Jerry Lewis, always bordered precariously on the unbelievable. There were times when Rick seemed to be trying to irritate everyone in sight, exactly the impression that Shue would have approved of. A tad too young to be playing Willum, perhaps, Cole Pedigo was a near-perfect foil for Rick’s nuttiness once he conquered his opening-night jitters. Shue wanted us to see a talented desirable man who is kind, grateful, and accommodating to a fault. That was exactly how we saw Pedigo.

Shue’s women weren’t as well drawn here as they would be in The Foreigner, but Bloede probably could have pushed Allison Kranz as Tansy and Audrey Wells as Clelia further toward farce. They also suffer at the epic birthday party from hell, Tansy especially after she slaves over a custom-made dinner and Clelia most memorably when she quizzes Rick about his love life. Perhaps if Shue had made her more decisive, Tansy would have seemed less vanilla as the would-be weathergirl, so Kranz definitely needed to pick her spots to show us that she was worthy of Willum’s adoration. Mostly, Shue and I forgot about her. Of course, Clelia was as much generic comedy material as her child, but Shue gave her some bravura business to perform in her reactions. Bloede should have lit the fire that would have made these diva moments for Wells. We weren’t as close to Carol Burnett as we should have been.

Deep in the weave of Shue’s plot is Axel, whose scheme to exorcise Rick in Act 2 is approximately as disastrous as the birthday party was before intermission. Chip Bradley is sufficiently urbane and snarky as this theatre critic, but I sometimes got the impression that he was a late addition to the cast. Along with a few instances of slow cue pickup, Bradley fumbled a few lines before getting them right. I’ve seen him do better in productions just as fast-paced as this one, so I’m expecting better performances in the nights ahead.

Coping with so many moving parts and quirks, Charlotte Rep also had some rough edges in its opening night performance of The Nerd 30 years ago. You wouldn’t want to tame all of this volatile ball of energy, but a little more energy here and a little sharpening there would help Theatre Charlotte’s production to snap into better shape.

 

Children’s Theatre’s “Mary Poppins” Raises the Bar While Flying Its Star

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Review:  Mary Poppins

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s a strange proposition when you decide to bring Mary Poppins to Children’s Theatre at ImaginOn, Charlotte’s pre-eminent fantasy palace. Yes, it’s Disney, but it shatters the Children’s Theatre norm of 90 minutes or less, running over 145 minutes. And the story of how Mary Poppins turns the Banks family from bitterness to joy is only half about children.

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Mary P is definitely needed to halt the vicious cycle of bad behavior from Jane and Michael, the Banks siblings, who seem to live for the thrill of defying and driving away their nannies. But there are marital issues plaguing George and Winifred Banks at the same time, some of them rooted in Victorian sexism; and their ideas about nannies, parenting, and the primacy of money could use a reset. George’s basic failures of self-examination and communication are ultimately the prime reasons why his family is so dysfunctional.

Although the problems are nicely laid out, neither of the two rehab stories is told cogently. Yet the re-education of Jane and Michael certainly has sensational episodes. Statues come to life at a park, a beggar lady sings a heartfelt ballad, the sibs frolic with a preternaturally long word, they cavort with all of London’s chimney sweeps on top of their roof under a midnight moon, and most importantly, they get to discard their castor oil regimen in favor of a sugary tonic. Surely, these are experiences that all good moms and nannies can give their children, right?

Well, they can at ImaginOn, where Children’s Theatre has raised the bar for spectacular technical derring-do – a bar that, among local theatre companies, has mostly been theirs during my 30 years on the beat. While the “Feed the Birds” street scene might strike you as saccharine, and you might accuse the magical park scenes of silly pandering to the anklebiters in the audience, it’s difficult for children of all ages to resist the enchantment of the darkling rooftop scene, further elevated and charmingly smudged by Ron Chisholm’s choreography.

Even that wonder is eclipsed by the flying effects engineered by ZFX, Inc. The only thing I can compare with Mary’s final voyage at ImaginOn are the flying effects I witnessed in the Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Credit Aimee Hanyzewski’s lighting design for enhancing the wonder.

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Swimming against the current of the kid-friendly storyline, Steven M. Levine and Lisa Schacher do their best to stretch fledgling attention spans when they dominate the actionas the elder Bankses. Poor Winifred gets the impression – like we all do – that George reveres his childhood nanny, since he keeps invoking her as a standard, yet Schacher manages to make Mrs. Banks seem credulous rather than stupid, loving rather than meek.

We like her as much as we despise the perversity of George’s parenting ideas, but the simple intervention of Mary – just showing up at his workplace with his children – seems to be enough of an influence for him to do the right thing. All of George’s contradictions and vacillations may seem to be dubious on paper, but Levine makes them work onstage, merging essential morality with a starchy aloofness.

As we get to know Mary better and better, we realize that Bert, her admirer and confidante, is by far the warmest character in the whole crew. Poppins may be able to furlough some statues from their pedestals, but who can muster all the chimney sweeps in London for a midnight frolic other than good ole Bert? Caleb Ryan Sigmon reminds me that Bert is a slightly mischievous and broadly chameleonic creature more than any actor I’ve seen onstage before. Sigmon is also a practicing magician who serves as the show’s magic consultant, so he definitely holds up that end of the bargain.

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Perhaps because of Jill Bloede’s offstage ministrations as dialect coach, I could believe that Janeta Jackson was channeling Julie Andrews in almost every word and note. We probably perceive Jackson as a starchier Poppins than Andrews because she doesn’t arrive with any Sound of Music baggage. Her elegant serenity is hardly sweet at all, even when she sings her signature “Spoonful of Sugar”: she almost makes a point of not emphasizing the sugar, thereby adding weight to the medicine.

The starchier approach helps us to believe in the nurturing distance she maintains with the Banks kids – whom she claims not to love – and in her fundamental capriciousness. Normally, I’m somewhat aghast when “The Perfect Nanny” punishes Jane and Michael by abandoning them. For abusing a ragdoll? Next thing you know, that beggar lady will be wailing “Feed the Toys.”

Jackson comes the closest I’ve ever seen to making this cruel medicine go down, and she has the highest voice I’ve ever heard singing Mary. That extra range pays extra dividends when Olivia Edge enters the fray as Miss Anderson, Mr. Banks’ fearsome nanny of yore. Not only do Jane and Michael flee in terror from Miss Anderson, so does Papa George!

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Edge’s preternaturally high range, fueling her “Brimstone and Treacle” showstopper, pitted against Jackson’s stratospheric soprano – and her “Spoonful of Sugar” philosophy – makes for a climactic showdown of double-barreled power. Since Edge is also fearsomely large in her frilly, funereal gray-and-black dress (designed by costumer Ryan J. Moller), her disposal is specially delightful, a sadistic mix of the witches we loved in Hansel and Gretel and Wizard of Oz.

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Somehow, director Michael J. Bobbitt gets a Charlotte cast that is stronger than the national tour that blew through here in 2010. Getting their equals from the local talent pool of children, 15-year-old Haley Vogel as Jane and 12-year-old Alex Kim as Michael, not only underscores Bobbit’s discernment and directing skills, it also reaffirms what we’ve come to expect at Children’s Theatre: the ability to attract, excite, and mentor the best young theatre talent in town.

Bratty and lovable is a tough balance to sustain, but Vogel and Kim have just the right energy and verve, with a grasp of their character arcs and an appreciation of how the Banks kids might be helping their dad to get his head straight. Like the original Broadway cast and the national tour, Vogel and Kim share their roles with alternates. If Lydia Farr and Ryan Campos are up to the same standard, you will not be disappointed.

Forget All That Money Stuff and Be Happy

Review:  You Can’t Take It With You

By Perry Tannenbaum

When it first came to Broadway, just after the 1936 election, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You was steeped in the Great Depression – and a deep suspicion of the efficacy of government. Twenty elections later, as the audience favorite returns to Theatre Charlotte yet again in a truly sharp production directed by Mitzi Corrigan, the anti-government sentiments of the Sycamores and family patriarch Martin Vanderhof may strike some longtime subscribers as more virulently right wing than they remember.

Previous revivals of the show that I’ve seen tended to portray the whole extended family – except for Alice, who has ambitions and craves normality – as lovably eccentric, even borderline daffy. With the pandemonium that cuts loose at the end of the first two acts, that’s certainly a major part of the impression that Kaufman & Hart sought to convey.img_5635But the wonderfully avuncular Dennis Delamar as Grampa Vanderhof has a bit of an edge to him when an IRS agent comes calling about those income taxes he has never paid. There’s a “government of the people” tinge to his reaction as he demands to know how his money will be spent, but there’s also a saintly element of renunciation – for he has willfully abandoned the hustle-and-bustle of capitalism outside his home and devoted himself completely to doing as he pleases in and about his own roost.

Although there’s plenty of hustle-and-bustle inside the home, all except Alice fit the same mold: busy and industrious though they are, none of them has a job. How pleasant and agreeable such a bunch must have seemed to Depression Era Americans! Not only aren’t they competing with anybody in the jungle of a desperately shrunken job market, they’re genially and energetically coaxing us to toss aside all our anxieties about getting and spending. Forget all that stuff and be happy.

Corrigan softens the usual daffiness just enough for us to see the eccentricities of the Sycamore household winking at us as the sunny side of American individualism rather than principled silliness. This puts Alice in a somewhat different light, more akin to the disagreeable hetero son in La Cage aux Folles than we usually see. Cora Breakfield takes nicely to these fresh shadings of her role, subtly aided by costume designer Chelsea Retalic. The dresses she changes into for dates with her beau Tony Kirby are darkly elegant, but the clothes she wears coming home from work are less flattering.

Set design by Chris Timmons is uncommonly handsome, further discouraging our impulse to view the household as a clown car. Della Knowles is less outré as Essie, Alice’s hopelessly bad ballet dancing sister, and Stephen Peterson is mellower than most versions of their father Paul, the fireworks enthusiast. Johnny Hohenstein mostly lurks contentedly in the background as Paul’s lab assistant, Mr. De Pinna, briefly taking the spotlight when he models for Penny Sycamore’s long-unfinished painting of a Greek athlete.

These finely judged touchups allow Alice’s mom, Penny, and Russian dance teacher Boris Kolenkhov to emerge more emphatically from the general hullaballoo. When Tony’s parents unexpectedly arrive to meet their prospective daughter-in-law’s family, these emphases pay off. It’s Penny, after all, who scandalizes Mrs. Kirby by declaring spiritualism an obvious fake, shortly before Boris shocks Mr. Kirby by wrestling him to the ground.

Jill Bloede makes Penny a blithe short-attention-span spirit, while Frank Dominguez turns Boris into a spectacularly bellicose poseur – with some brash assistance from costumer Retalic. The Kirbys are nicely matched to absorb these indignities, John Price as the orchid-cultivating plutocrat and Corlis Hayes as the delicate Mrs. Kirby. Price especially traces a graceful character curve, ultimately receptive to Vanderhof’s soft sermon – and itching for a rematch with Boris! Armie Hicks cuts a fine figure as Tony, well mannered yet susceptible to the charms of both Alice and her family.

Standing out among the unwelcome intruders, Mike Carroll brings a starchy persistence to the IRS agent, while Rick Taylor layers on a New York vulgarity to the Head G-Man. The aging waifs that the Sycamores embrace during this farce are closer to caricature and more delectable. Zendyn Duellman has a regal tipsiness to her as the soused actress who wanders into the scene, and Suzanne Newsom is superbly compromised as the Russian royal, Olga Katarina, exiled to waiting tables at a Child’s restaurant.

I waited and bussed tables at multiple Child’s locations around Times Square during one memorable summer break. There were 45s by the Four Tops playing on the jukebox and no aristocrats sitting down for dinner. So I can personally vouch for Olga’s humiliation.

Still Creepy and Kooky

Theater Review: The Addams Family at Theatre Charlotte

The Addams Family runs through May 29 at Theatre Charlotte.

By Perry Tannenbaum

Gloomy lighting and cobwebs. Raging thunderstorms and decrepit dungeons. The whole Gothic horror thing, on screen or onstage, is a carnival of special effects — the bizarre compounded by the supernatural. Vampires, ghosts, werewolves, and monsters don’t often wear jeans and T-shirts. Costumers, wigmakers, prosthetic manufacturers, and makeup artists work overtime to get the right look. Buckets of blood must spew on cue, get mopped up, and spew again for the next take.

Even though fangs and gore aren’t factors in The Addams Family, there was sufficient tech wizardry in the 2010 Broadway musical to give Theatre Charlotte pause. Past springtime hits at the Queens Road barn like Rent, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar haven’t required fog, fangs, or extensive set changes. As we reported back in 2011 when Charlotte was the third city it visited, the national Addams Family tour cut back significantly on the tech pizzazz because it was so daunting. On Broadway, the curtain was so active, talented, and amusing that a Tony nomination wouldn’t have surprised me.

There’s a vestige of that precocity before the curtains part, but don’t expect it to last. On opening night, the raging storm that sound designer Erik Christensen concocted to assail the Addams mansion was mighty enough, but it inexplicably subsided in a matter of seconds. Morticia’s flaming red tango skirt peeped through her funereal black evening gown at least a minute too early, spoiling the surprise. And the apple that Wednesday Addams was destined to split with her crossbow on her fiance’s head fell apart when Lucas Beineke first brought it in from the wings, half of it popping hilariously into the first row of the orchestra.

Perhaps because the script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice seemed more akin to the Addams Family sitcom on TV than the darkly comical Charles Addams cartoons in the pages of The New Yorker, the musical drew no more respect from New York critics than its Mel Brooks cousin, Young Frankenstein. That lack of critical cachet may explain why there are so many relatively unfamiliar names in the cast. Rest assured, the uptick in no-shows at Addams auditions hasn’t been replicated at the box office. Locals filled the house pretty well for the opening and brought plenty of enthusiasm with them. Throughout the hall, finger snaps came resoundingly on cue during the overture.

Audience enthusiasm is the main thing stage director Jill Bloede, music director Zachary Tarlton, choreographer Lisa Blanton and the title characters keep going, earning almost every bit of the fervor with their high energy. With a storyline that echoes You Can’t Take It With You, the Addams family has a license to be every bit as weird as George S. Kaufman’s Sycamores. Each of these families has a mutant daughter who wishes to couple with a normal person, each of the daughters’ beaus has parents who are conspicuously boring and respectable, and each of the hosts launches a game at the dinner table that causes the guests to reveal a deep-set fissure in their marriage.

Wednesday is the new wrinkle in the old formula, which most recently recurred on Queens Road in La Cage aux Folles. This mutant child is not as normal and wholesome as previous defectors who fled their kooky coops. No, our rockin’ culture has overtaken the Addamses to the extent that Goths like them have established themselves on the fringes of high school life. Only those who enter the hall with black lipstick will fully recognize Wednesday as a kindred spirit. Yet the crossbow keeps her securely outré for everyone.

As a result, Wednesday can rock when the whole William Tell scene circuitously makes its point in the “Crazier Than You” duet. This role is not at all as humdrum as Alice Sycamore, and Emily Roy takes full advantage of Wednesday’s weird glamor. Standing next to Morticia, Roy looks puritanical and punkishly pugnacious at the same time — and she can definitely belt her half of the duets. In his debut, Christian Regan is noticeably underpowered as Lucas the apple-bobbler, but his shortcomings are poignantly effective. After all, he and his family hail from Ohio.

“A swing state!” is how the horrified Gomez describes the unfathomable gulf. But you look at how sloppily Lucas is dressed and you already see that he is more than meeting Wednesday halfway. Regan talks his talk far better than he sings it.

Challenged by Blanton’s choreography and a Morticia decades younger than he is, Kevin Roberge surpasses himself as Gomez, even if he is visibly panting at the finish line. He may not have the essence of this unctuous patriarch as thoroughly as Nathan Lane did on Broadway, but he has the Gomez sound perfectly, and there is such fatherly pathos when Roberge sings “Happy/Sad” in Act 2 that the power of it took me by surprise. Followed by “Crazier Than You” before Gomez teams up with Morticia for “Tango de Amor,” the hits do keep coming as Roberge gasps for breath.

Nor is Aubrey Young less than breathtaking as the preternaturally tensile Morticia, though her dress is disappointingly less revealing than Bebe Neuwirth’s was on Broadway. Young is also less Zombie-like than Neuwirth, further altering the icy marital chemistry. Ah, but when Morticia pines for the sewers of Paris, Young is just as wry. I was every bit as impatient as the red skirt for the tango to begin, and when Young stretched herself into its most extreme choreography, her youth provided ample rewards.

With the Addamses’ pet squid axed from the script, Mal Beineke is no longer the sort of role that would warrant Terrence Mann’s bravura. Instead of being asked to sing the bodacious “In the Arms of a Squid” in the Act 2 denouement, Jonathan McDonald merely piggybacks onto the “Crazier Than You” duet playing Mal with Jenn Grabenstetter as Alice Beineke. There is no diminution of the éclat Grabenstetter is allowed to make in Act 1 after Alice drinks the misdirected potion in the “Full Disclosure” game. She’s a pure undersexed animal in the “Waiting” showstopper.

Delicacies are doled out deeper into the cast. After stomping around inarticulately on platform shoes for nearly the entire evening, Johnny Hohenstein makes good on his liberation as the family’s Zombie butler Lurch. And who could possibly have a more ardent crush on the moon than Vito Abate as Uncle Fester? Abate was simply born for this role and the epic passion of “The Moon and Me.” The lightbulb prop he messes with was still a work-in-progress on opening night, but his rocket backpack was pure bliss.

The wig and costume Vanessa Davis wears as Grandmama and the grimy makeup sported by Jackson Davis as Pugsley, Wednesday’s masochistic little brother, help to make their Theatre Charlotte debuts successful. Up on Broadway, if you were buried in the Addams Ancestors ensemble, you went home with a paycheck. Down here in Charlotte, it’s nice to find that the eight members of our ensemble are individualized in the cast bios with such identifiers as stewardess, baseball player, and Greek.

Make no mistake, there’s plenty of authentic Charles Addams embedded in the script, nowhere more effectively than at the end. What Gomez and Morticia say to one another in the closing dialogue is quoted verbatim from an Addams cartoon. It still worked the third time I heard it.

Lady Bracknell Weathers Three Storms

Reviews of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Jon Ecklund (John Worthing) and Lance Beilstein (Algernon Moncrieff) in The Importance of Being Earnest.

They were planning to open The Importance of Being Earnest on January 22 at Theatre Charlotte, where Oscar Wilde’s “Trivial Comedy for Serious People” hadn’t played since 2002. But the snow and sleet that were icing the roads hadn’t begun to melt away on the following evening, so opening night was transformed into an opening Sunday matinee. Even if I had been able to scale my icebound driveway, I was already booked for the opera at Belk Theater.

After all the reshuffling on my iCal, my wife Sue and I were finally able to catch up with Wilde’s menagerie of smart alecks at the second Sunday matinee, nine days after the originally scheduled opening. With so many other reshufflers in the crowd, the Queens Road barn was close to capacity. An extra performance has been slated for 2:30 this Saturday to help out other migrants.

The airy sophistication of Joshua Webb’s set design boded well for the blizzard of bon mots to come, but who were these Ernests opening up the action, Lance Beilstein as the roguish Algernon Moncrieff and Jon Ecklund as the deceitful John Worthing? Beilstein had briefly blipped on my radar last year when he was cast in a stage adaptation of Casablanca that didn’t happen. and Ecklund had never performed on a Charlotte stage before nailing his audition as Wilde’s protagonist.

Yet they instantly established a fine rapport, hinting early on that Algy and Ernest — as John calls himself in London — were not only great friends but kindred spirits.

There was a problem, however, even before the divine ladies arrived. Though their chemistry was sparkling, Beilstein’s cue pickup was razor sharp while Ecklund’s was erratic. Not a symptom you would expect from your lead at the end of your second week.

Ecklund’s symptoms became more serious during the scene change between Acts 2 and 3. In fact, he was taken to the hospital, reportedly suffering from dizziness, and didn’t reappear.

Johnny Hohenstein, who plays John’s butler at his country home, bravely substituted for Ecklund during the final 19 minutes, script in hand. That forced the imperious Lady Bracknell to announce herself when she triumphantly reappeared.

The waters were already troubled in Act 1 when Jill Bloede, amply bustled in a floor-length dress, first floated in like a majestic tugboat as Her Ladyship. It was she and she alone who must approve of Ernest as the prospective husband of Algy’s cousin, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax — a grim prospect, since her wicked nephew has already devoured all the cucumber sandwiches.

Lady B attempts to be judicious. Ernest’s income of seven to eight thousand pounds, the equivalent of $1 million annually according to the Norton Edition of the text, actually counts in his favor.

It’s Ernest’s lineage that is an insuperable stumbling block, for he cannot trace his family any further back than a leather handbag! My, how Bloede huffs when she repeats that fatal word, nearly adding an extra syllable to it each time she lingers on the first letter.

Lady Bracknell’s contempt was so hilariously absolute that when she exited, leaving Ernest and Gwendolen’s hopes of marital bliss in shambles, the audience erupted in lusty applause.

By the sort of insane coincidence that Wilde uses to resolve Ernest’s difficulties, Bloede’s name rhymes with Lady. So, after her current triumph, Jill is no more: she will no doubt have to suffer being called Bloede Bracknell for the rest of her days. You may revise my headline accordingly.

Needless to say, Bloede’s arrival calmed any worries that this production, directed by Tonya Bludsworth, would be anything less than a delight. Eleven years after starring in NC Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Gretchen McGinty’s professionalism still gleams with vitality and caprice as Gwendolen, irresistible despite her perverse silliness. She accepts Ernest, but only for the shallowest of reasons — she’s the perfect antithesis of Juliet.

Caprice continues to rule when we arrive at John’s country home for Act 2, where we meet his lovely ward, Cicely Cardew. Her requirements for a prospective husband are not merely similar to Gwen’s.

They are exactly the same, obliging both John and Algy to make christening appointments with the Rev. Canon Chasuble. Under the watchful eyes of Cicely’s governess, Miss Prism, Algernon has snuck into John’s home, pretending to be his fictitious brother Ernest, and swept Miss Cardew off her feet. That’s partly because Miss Prism’s eyes are devotedly affixed to the Reverend.

As we’ll learn in the denouement, it’s not the first time Miss Prism’s attention has wandered.

Further complicating John and Algy’s attempts to live double lives, Gwen follows her would-be fiancé into the country — with her mother barking at her heels. The running joke of Act 2, amid all the confusion of who’s really betrothed to Ernest, is the radical shifts of sisterly love and murderous hatred between Gwen and Cicely.

Mixed in with devout cynicism and decadence, punctiliousness and pomposity squandered over trivialities are the key ingredients of Wilde’s satire, and Bludsworth has her entire cast embracing it with the proper élan.

Emily Klingman is hormone-driven innocence in a lemon chiffon dress as Cicely, assiduously transcribing Algy’s marriage proposal into her teen diary, and Hank West bumbles quite sanctimoniously as Rev. Chasuble when he manages to recall where he is. Scrunched up like a squirrel, Stephanie DiPaolo is the essence of fretful and incompetent spinsterhood as Miss Prism.

Bludsworth also differentiates nicely between the servants. Ron Turek is urbane and dignified as Algy’s man, Lane; while Hohenstein, tasked to distraction by his temperamental superiors, is more apt to let his resentments play over his face as John’s butler, Merriman. Or he was until he was obliged to pick up Ecklund’s script and stand up to Bloede Bracknell.

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Photo by Donna Bise

Not at all plagued by postponements, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane opened at ImaginOn last weekend in as polished a production as you’ll ever see from Children’s Theatre. It’s a gem that will no doubt remind longtime subscribers of The Velveteen Rabbit, since the title character is a rabbit doll. Ah, but Edward is fashioned entirely of porcelain, except for his furry ears and tail (he prefers not to think about the origin of his whiskers).

Adapted by Dwayne Hartford from the novel by Kate DiCamillio, Edward’s story begins when he is given to 10-year-old Abilene Tulane on Egypt Street by her mysterious grandmother Pellegrina, the only human who knows his heart.

Unlike the Velveteen, Edward does not aspire to be real or human, but he is frustrated when Abilene doesn’t set him in a place where he can see the outdoors and the stars through her window.

Even before he is severely broken many years later in Memphis, Pellegrina perceives his flaws, and the inference is that he must suffer for them. But Edward’s sufferings and adventures will be epic ­— beyond human, to tell the truth.

Our protagonist remains the three-foot doll the DiCamillio created, but Mark Sutton is always close by to articulate his thoughts, shouldering and picking a banjo as Edward morphs into Susannahr, Malone, Clyde, and Jangles during his odyssey on land and under the sea.

Margaret Dalton figures most prominently as the bereft Abilene, but she resurfaces on numerous occasions during Edward’s journey, most notably as a frisky dog. Beginning as the semi-exotic Pellegrina, Allison Rhinehart ranges across multiple roles and genders, last seen as Lucius Clark, the sagely doll mender. Devin Clark rounds out the cast, shapeshifting from fisherman to hobo to handyman when he isn’t slyly inserting sound effects. Pure enchantment for 81 minutes.