Tag Archives: Johanna Jowett

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.

“Squawks” Hasn’t Sharpened Its Claws

Review:  Charlotte Squawks 13

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By Perry Tannenbaum

The time seemed so ripe for a Charlotte Squawks makeover. Since last year’s Squawks 12: Twelve Angry Hens, Charlotte has been rocked by the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, the riots Uptown, the shame of national headlines, and the awkward agonies of our mayor and police chief. Rescinding the liberalized treatment for our LGBTQ community that led to the notorious HB2 law from Raleigh lawmakers, Charlotte received zilch for its concession, another Queen City humiliation.

So when the word came out that Squawks 13, riffing on the Apollo space drama, would be subtitled Charlotte, We Have a Problem, I held out the hope that Squawks might transcend its ducky cartoon logo and address substantial issues. Sharpen its feeble claws into angry talons.

Instead, the familiar formulas and musical parody format established over the years by producer-director Mike Collins and writer Brian Kahn remained intact. New wine was poured into the old bottles, presented by a slightly altered cast of admirable performers, with customary sensory overload provided by three big screen monitors – streaming memes, produced by John Merrick, that ran simultaneously with Kahn’s parodies.

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Lightweight eggs laid by Kahn rolled in one after another, foredoomed by their safe, jejune subjects: parodies targeting rampant Charlotte construction, pussyhats, the craft brewery craze, airport delays, Carolina Panther concussion injuries. Subjects that didn’t figure to deliver hilarity consistently fulfilled their dismal potential. While it certainly was a brave public service for somebody to tell Mayor Jennifer Roberts to do something about her hair, the assault wasn’t the thunderbolt I’d hoped for.

Keith Scott, the Uptown riots, and Police Chief Kerr Putney? Never mentioned.

Not surprisingly, Kahn fares better when he abandons Squawks 13’s implied purpose of taking on Charlotte and its foibles. He finds more fertile soil ranging into more open, less threatening frontiers where the deer, the antelope, and latenight TV comedians roam. Modeled after B.B. King’s raging blues, “The Bill Is Gone” is a lusty attack on the homophobic HB2, and “Give Us Our Way, We’re Republicans” after intermission is a delicious second helping.

Our tweeter-in-chief also draws fire early and late, “Tweet Commotion” before the break eclipsed by “I Deny This Scheme” – with its Donald-Putin innuendo – after intermission. Lest you think Act 2 is pure gold compared to what precedes, beware: successive takedowns of memes, former guv McCrory, Bill Reilly, and Starbucks are all lyrically toothless (though three of the parodied songs are catchy). Collins and his cast make a nice point about the inane predictability of Charlotte 5, but the mockery of Luke Kuechly’s local CPI ad doesn’t even achieve the mediocrity it aspires to.

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Collins’ opening monologue and his stints behind the Squawks newsdesk with Johanna Jowett are still punchy, and the new parodies poured into “Bad Day” are worth keeping the annual reprise of Daniel Powter’s song alive. But CMPD’s blunders throughout the Keith Scott debacle merited a spot on the roster of shame.

There’s always an element of schadenfreude watching Collins and his cohorts trying to deal with Linda Booth’s glitzy choreography. Aside from Jowett’s sassy irony, I’m addicted to the annual shots of brassy phoniness that Robbie Jaeger delivers. A new sensation is added to the brash Squawks bird this year, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, who was last on my radar in 2014 as a Blumey Award nominee. That was three years after she represented Central Academy of Technology and Arts Performing Arts Academy from Monroe at the North Carolina Theatre Conference State Play Festival – and took home Outstanding Achievement in Acting honors.

Pairing Obi-Melekwe with Jaeger in the two “Thrill Is Gone” segments is a masterstroke, giving Jaeger a chance to blaze through his half of the blues shouts with white-boy chutzpah and Obi-Melekwe a chance to torch hers with the authentic flame. These showdown performances, half hilarious and half thrilling, upstage the parodies. So I’m hoping something equally loathsome will be gone over the next 12 months, just so I can see Robbie and Nkeki doin’ it again.