Tag Archives: Kayla Ferguson

Jews, Blacks, and JFK Converge at Concertized Kushner

Theatre Review: Caroline, or Change

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L-R: Brittany Currie, Tracie Frank, and Veda Covington

By Perry Tannenbaum

The relationship between African Americans and Jews has been a fascinating convergence of parallel histories and unavoidable class conflict. We’ve had a couple of dramas here before that dramatized the relationship, beginning with Alfred Uhry’s famed Driving Miss Daisy, which reached the Charlotte stage in 1991, just two years after the Oscar-winning movie. The 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner took us back to Atlanta after World War 2, when the curmudgeonly Daisy was in denial about her physical deterioration, her racist attitudes, and the prevalence of anti-Semitism in her city.

Just over three years ago, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte brought us Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Boy, transporting us to the first days of Reconstruction after the Civil War, when two emancipated slaves returned to their former owner’s home for Passover. Between Uhry’s drama and Lopez’s auspicious 2011 debut, Tony Kushner collaborated with composer Jeanine Tesori on a musical – a chamber opera, really – that looks at yet another Jewish household where an African American was employed.

Until last February 26, when Theatre Charlotte brought Caroline, or Change to its lobby for one night only, the widely-hailed 2003 piece had never been performed in the Queen City. It’s unquestionably the most ambitious Grand Night for Singing event held at the 501 Queens Road barn. The format has been in a cabaret spirit, songs selected from a rarely performed musical taking up half of the program, more rarities by the same composers after intermission. With Caroline, music director Zachary Tarlton staged a concert-style production of the full show – and so many people bought tickets that Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law nearly had to move the performance out of the lobby and into the auditorium.

Caroline Thibodeaux works in the bowels of a home owned by Stuart Gellman and his second wife, Rose, but the core of Kushner’s story – an autobiographical one according to the playwright’s intro to the printed edition – is the relationship between Caroline and Noah, Stuart’s 8-year-old son from a previous marriage. Although Caroline takes place in 1963, closer in time to Daisy than Whipping Boy, its resemblances to Lopez’s script are strong enough that it could have served as the younger playwright’s model. During the Passover holiday celebrated by Caleb DeLeon in Whipping Boy, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. In the November-December timeline of Caroline, John F. Kennedy is assassinated before the Gellmans’ Chanukah celebration.

If Kushner had a model, the likeliest candidate would be another autobiographical play, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold, in which the title character also behaves unforgivably toward a black person working for his dad. In her dignity, in the way Caroline absorbs Noah’s abuse in apartheid Lake Charles, Louisiana, she very much resembles Sam’s forbearance toward Hally in apartheid Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950. The big difference is that Kushner looks at Caroline as critically as he looked at Noah.

She’s a divorced, conspicuously joyless mother of three, staunchly resistant to change. The entire cast was outstanding, but we were especially fortunate to have Tracie Frank in the title role. We had a brief sampling of Frank’s gospel fire last spring in Theatre Charlotte’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but even her Whitney Houston bravura singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” hardly cushioned the surprise of this sustained excellence, her silent reactions nearly as taut as her vocals.

Stuart and Rose realize they’re not paying Caroline enough to comfortably take care of her three children, but they do what they can. In order to teach her stepson a lesson – and to slip the Thibodeauxs some extra cash – Rose decrees that Caroline can have whatever loose change Noah carelessly leaves in his pockets when she puts his clothes in the washing machine. Noah is more softhearted than Rose, so he starts leaving loose change in his pockets on purpose – until Chanukah rolls around.

Grandpa Stocknick, Rose’s dad, gives Noah a $20 bill in Chanukah gelt. Some days later, Noah is back in school and realizes that he has left the 20 in a pair of pants earmarked for the laundry. His piddling charity is in serious jeopardy of becoming lavish generosity, and he rushes home to retrieve his gift. Too late. It’s nearly Christmas, her three kids expect something under the tree, so do you think Caroline is going to put that $20 bill back in the bleach cup for Noah?

Noah is even less likable than Caroline in the fight that ensues, so it’s to Rixey Terry’s credit that he made the transition from adulating schoolboy to beneficent master to sore and abrasive loser so convincingly over the course of the night – and no fewer than 15 songs. Terry didn’t try to emulate an eight-year-old, so he didn’t sound at all like Harrison Chad on the cast album, a prudent choice for this reading-stage style presentation, adroitly stage directed by Corey Mitchell. He and the other younger members – the three Thibodeaux siblings and The Radio – had their music down pat, thanks to some good hard work and, I suspect, that cast album.

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Yes, the dramatis personae included some inanimate objects that brought Caroline’s basement domain quirkily to life, often with a gospel flavor. Dani Burke was Caroline’s Washing Machine while Maya Sistruck, Dominique Atwater, and Kayla Ferguson were The Radio, even more amazing when they harmonized than when they soloed. Among these kitchen accouterments, Tyler Smith was the king of appliances as The Dryer in an electrifying performance, Tesori’s score starting him off with a mix of street shout, yelped with Porgy and Bess gusto, and R&B that he crushed into the depths of his velvety bass baritone – with The Radio providing backup.

More of Kushner’s fanciful universe turned up outside of Caroline’s basement. Much to our delight, Smith returned to the row of lecterns at centerstage as The Bus taking Caroline and her friend Dotty home from work, but Brittany Currie often lurked on the side as The Moon, emblematic of change. The change that Noah leaves in his pants isn’t the only change Caroline struggles with. Although $30 a week isn’t enough to get by, it’s Dotty who is resolved to do something about it, going to night school in an effort to better herself.

So it’s both Dotty’s energy and initiative at the end of a long workday that irritates Caroline. Watching Veda Covington as Dotty, bragging that her daytime employer is actually proud of what she’s doing, I found myself a little irritated with both women, Dotty for needling her friend and Caroline for her unremitting sullenness. Currie as The Moon was a somewhat soothing presence crooning about change, but there was also a wisp of sultry sensuality in her vocals, very effective in this cabaret setting.

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L-R: Yabi Gedewan, Ibrahim Web, and TyNia Brandon as Caroline’s children

Mitchell had the races sitting at opposite sides of the stage when they weren’t at the lecterns, accentuating how little they actually interact during this musical. It’s mostly Noah and stepmama Rose who show an active interest in Caroline. Although she badly flubbed the Yiddish word for navel, Allison Snow Rhinehardt was an otherwise credible balaboosteh: a little unsure of her footing with both the new stepson and the help, somewhat sensitive to their feelings, yet definitely reveling in her mission to run the household and to command.

Upstairs-downstairs decorum was broken momentarily at the Chanukah party in one of Kushner’s most insightful scenes. Asked to help with the extra party housework, Caroline’s eldest daughter Emmie gets into an argument with Rose’s father about the efficacy of Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement. Caroline is outraged by her daughter’s presumption, Emmie is angered by her mother’s inbred meekness, and Mr. Stopnick thinks this is the first real conversation he has had since coming South to visit his daughter. Excellent work here from Frank, TyNia Brandon, and Vito Abate.

I would have been quite content just to witness some local theatre company putting Caroline on its feet after all these years. The fortunate few who attended the February 26 performance saw something far finer. With a minimum of rehearsal, the 17 singers and Tarlton performed nearly flawlessly, all the more astonishing when you consider that the musical director was never in the line of sight of any of the performers even once as they performed this challenging two-hour Tesori score.

Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait another 13 years before Caroline, or Change is produced here again – and that, when Kushner’s lone musical returns, it will be fully staged in a larger hall for a larger audience in a longer run. As it deserves.

Photos by Perry Tannenbaum
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Selling Elegance, Spirit, and History for Just a Song

Theatre Reviews: I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin and The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

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After its most lavish and extravagant production ever, last November’s The Phantom of the Opera, what was CPCC Theatre going to do to follow up? Well, since the laws of mathematics and the logic of budgets still apply on Elizabeth Avenue, the answer was simple: economize! Rolling into the parking garage, where the second story was unusually unoccupied, I was worried the audience for I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin would be as drastically reduced as CP’s expenditures.

Not to worry, I didn’t find that many more empty seats at Halton Theater last Saturday night than I saw at last February’s How to Succeed. More importantly, considering the relative merits of Berlin and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show attracted a competitive enough turnout at auditions to yield a cast that is worthy of the music — including holdover Ryan Deal, who you may recall in the title role of The Phantom.

Like the audience, the orchestra isn’t reduced quite as much as the funding, a quintet led by music director Ellen Robison from the keyboard. They’re a busy bunch, accompanying the cast — all six of them triple threats to various degrees — through a songbook that includes 53 different titles. A few of these songs are reprised, and at one point, when Andy Faulkenberry’s “The Girl That I Marry” is juxtaposed with Corinne Littlefield’s “Old Fashioned Wedding” — while J. Michael Beech and Megan Postle are teaming up on the counterpoint of “You’re Just in Love” — there are four different vocalists onstage singing four different melodies simultaneously.

Conceived by Ray Roderick and arranger Michael Berkeley, Love a Piano never says Berlin’s name out loud. But the 11 scenes, beginning with Tin Pan Alley in 1910 and ending in a summer stock revival of Annie Get Your Gun in the late 1950’s, take us chronologically through the composer’s career. Or roughly so: “Old Fashioned Wedding” was written for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and you can bet the anachronisms don’t stop there.

With a generous portion of poetic license, the show sketches a musical portrait of a composer who was consistently able to mirror his times. The title tune, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” take us back to a sepia-tinted era when rags roamed alongside sentimentality. As we cut from band shell to speakeasy, “Pack Up Your Sings and Go to the Devil” and “Everybody’s Doing It” evoke the wicked carefree spirit of the Roaring ’20s during Prohibition.

Two scenes are devoted to the ’30s, “Blue Skies” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” offering consolation during the onset of the Great Depression. Then a suite of dance tunes, including “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek,” evokes the elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Thanks to Mel Brooks, the audience failed to take “Puttin’ on the Ritz” altogether seriously.

For some reason, Roderick — or perhaps CP’s director and choreographer, Ron Chisholm — bounced the heyday of dance marathons from the 1930s to the 1940s, sketching that lugubrious phenomenon with “Say It Isn’t So” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” When we authentically reached the World War II era, it was quite obvious that Berlin more than reflected the hopes, the pride, and the humor of the times. He simply was these things, with a flowering of songs that included “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “This Is the Army,” “Any Bonds Today,” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Even those left plenty of room to bring down the first-act curtain with two of Berlin’s most enduring songs, “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.” A more judicious dividing line would have been the beginning of WW2 toward the end of the ’30s. As it stands, Roderick drops a bunch of CARE packages on the 1950s, including “Easter Parade” from 1933 and everything attached to Berlin’s sharpshooting homage to Annie Oakley, which premiered in 1946.

I Love A Piano

Photos by Chris Record

James Duke’s scenic and lighting design, relying heavily on period slides and Berlin show posters projected onto three screens, move us gracefully from era to era. But it’s Debbie Scheu who most colorfully clinches the deal with her cavalcade of costume designs. Chisholm’s choreographic demands certainly tax his cast, with Littlefield and Faulkenberry negotiating their steps with the most apparent ease. On the other hand, while Postle and Beech looked like they might not be up to their challenges, both of them surprised me with their hoofing.

Deal and Kayla Ferguson were the remaining couple, most memorable in their “Blue Skies” duet. All six of the singers proved to be quite capable, not at all fazed by the spotlight, but Deal and Littlefield were my favorite soloists. The ensembles were often very lively and charming, but a special pinch of conflict was added in the summer stock tableau when Ferguson, Littlefield, and Postle all auditioned to be Annie opposite Faulkenberry’s Frank Butler.

“Anything You Can Do,” usually a comical face-off between Frank and Annie, is set up as an audition piece. So the comedy is reborn — as a rollicking showdown between three aspiring Annies.

Eliza and Watson 3

Time and reality bend in curious ways in The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, now at UpStage in NoDa through February 21. But so does playwright Madeleine George’s title, so what else would you expect?

Three rather curious Watsons that we’ve already heard of are trotted out and shuffled in Three Bone Theatre’s production, directed by Robin Tynes. The first of these is a relative, shall we say, of the Watson computer that defeated its human opponents on Jeopardy in 2011. Eliza, who collaborated with IBM on the victorious Watson, is now in her living room, working independently on a new android that sports a far more human body.

We travel back to the 19th century for the other two Watsons that we know. The first of these is the Watson summoned to Alexander Graham Bell’s side when Pa Bell invented the telephone, his assistant Thomas A. Watson. But we don’t really see him, either, on that historic day in 1876. Instead, it’s Alex repeatedly calling for him in brief blackout vignettes between other scenes. No, we must wait until 1931, when Watson goes on record at Bell Labs, insisting that what his boss really said was, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want you.”

The third or fourth Watson, depending on how you tally the computer chips, is more in control of his narrative, for this is the Dr. John H. Watson who ostensibly chronicles nearly all of the Conan Doyle adventures of Sherlock Holmes. You’ll find that Watson Intelligence is all about connections Ð personal and electrical — and vague connections between the android and Sherlock’s sidekick are established by a fifth Watson, a tech dweeb hired by Eliza’s ex-husband to spy on her.

Compounding the absurdities, Tynes has chosen a black actor, Devin Clark, to play the whitest sidekick in the history of literature. What’s more, Clark is perfection as all the Watsons, human and robotic, plus a special set of scenes where he dons Sherlock’s deerstalker cap. Chesson Kusterer-Seagroves crystallizes Watson’s role as the archetypal listener, pouring out her heart to the robot and the tech dweeb in modern times and bringing an intriguing mystery to Watson at Baker Street in Sherlock’s absence.

Ken Mitten rounds out the cast as Bell and the two Merricks who cause their Elizas so much distress. He’s a powerful stage presence, but I’m sure he’ll be even better when he’s more secure with his lines and cues.