Tag Archives: Kevin Roberge

Remembering in September – While Building Back Better

Review: The Fantasticks at the Palmer Building + Theatre Charlotte Update

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Screenshot 2021-09-19 at 21-13-57 Fantasticks Playbill

You don’t need to try very hard to remember why Theatre Charlotte is beginning its 94th season at the Palmer Building. Built on East 7th Street in the late 1930s as part of FDR’s signature Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, the place itself gives you a hint. It was built and landscaped by firefighters to be the best training academy in the country and served that purpose for firemen who came after them for over 30 years.

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Late last December, on a slow news night, fire struck Theatre Charlotte’s beloved HQ, nicknamed “the Queens Road barn.” Ignited by the facility’s wayward HVAC system, the fire gouged a sizable trench into the right side of the auditorium. Slammed by COVID lockdowns, scrambling to reconfigure a full season without live performances and sustain their bond with actors and subscribers, Theatre Charlotte had the ground literally taken out from under them by the late-night fire.

One last indignity at the end of a grim 2020 that would already live on in infamy.

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When January dawned, it was clear that the initial damage estimates of $50,000 by fire officials – not trained at the Palmer Building – were far off the mark. Although the exterior at 501 Queens Road looks relatively unscathed from the street, a brief peep inside shows the full toll of the devastation.

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Walls that marked off the box office and administrative quarters from the lobby have been punched away, with only their wooden framework remaining. Looking across the lobby, into the auditorium, and backstage, you won’t find any ceilings, just more woodwork, metalwork and lighting fixtures that the fire’s flames and smoke failed to fry or destroy.

Cleanup took between three and four months, acting executive director Chris Timmons tells me. Not only was the HVAC toast, but so were all the theater’s precious electronics. That $50,000 estimate didn’t come close.

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“Our entire sound and lighting systems were lost, and those items alone total well over six figures,” Timmons reckons. “The latest number we tracked for complete restoration to the building ‘as it was pre-fire’ was in excess of $1 million. Because of some likely unknowns, such as damage not visible and county code requirements, we expect those numbers to change.”

So in recalibrating their 2021-22 season, Theatre Charlotte’s board and staff not only knew that they would need to take their productions on the road, they knew they had none of their old sound and lighting gear to bring with them.

That turns out to be okay when we see The Fantasticks, directed by the venerable Billy Ensley, at the Palmer Building. It’s a well-known title, famously the longest running show in American history. Perhaps more importantly, the show travels light.

Scenery has always been minimal since the musical, written by Tom Jones and composed by Harvey Schmidt, opened off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in May 1960. Instrumentation of the original score was positively gossamer, just a piano and a harp. Not the sort of thing that would work at Belk or Ovens.

Screenshot 2021-09-19 at 21-03-04 Fantasticks Playbill

As Theatre Charlotte’s admirable digital playbill points out, startlingly more informative and colorful than their printed programs from past seasons, The Fantasticks started out with nine players, but the cast was winnowed to eight – when a Handyman was no longer needed to come onstage during intermission to fix the lights. Ensley restores the original count by doubling the role The Mute.

Two are arguably better than one when it’s time for The Mute to act as the wall between the homes of lovebirds Matt and Luisa (built by their wily, matchmaking dads, Hucklebee and Bellomy). It also doubles the number of women Ensley can present onstage.

Although I haven’t reviewed a show at the Palmer since 2007, when the now-extinct Pi Productions presented The Guys there, Ensley is likely familiar with the space, since Theatre Charlotte has staged numerous soirees and fundraisers there in the intervening years. What struck me most was the strength of the voices in Ensley’s cast – exactly what is needed if you’re presenting a musical at the Palmer without microphones. Despite the sparse orchestration, there were moments that sounded like we were at the opera.

So you think that’s outlandish? Opera Carolina produced The Fantasticks during the summer of 1994, and Queens University Opera Theatre followed suit in 2004.

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The score is front-loaded with its best music, two of its most familiar songs, “Try to Remember” and “Much More,” starting us off. It doesn’t take long for us to discover how fine and robust all these voices are. Matthew Howie and Jocelyn Cabaniss are the lovestruck teens, open and credulous, while Kevin Roberge and Phil Fowler handle the comedy as their manipulative dads, pretending to feud so that their kids will be all the more drawn together.

Ah, but how shall Hucklebee and Bellomy reconcile so that the two feuding households may live happily ever after? This is where that swashbuckling rogue, El Gallo, comes in. He will abduct Luisa and allow Matt, against all odds and reason, to rescue her. Actually, Mitchell Dudas as El Gallo has been there from the beginning, presiding over the action as our narrator, preening like a latter-day Fabio with flicks of his long hair when the dads hire him, and reminding us – almost exactly 19 years since CPCC brought The Fantasticks to Pease Auditorium – how perfectly suited to the season it is.

It’s El Gallo, after all, who repeatedly sings, “Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow…” And it’s all the other players who chime in, “Then follow, follow, follow, follow, follow.”

Howie is likely the most familiar youngblood here, having proven his acting skills up in Davidson as the lead in The Curious Incident after an eye-opening turn at Theatre Charlotte as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. When Matt boasts of all his heroism in rescuing Luisa from the clutches of El Gallo and his bumbling henchmen, it isn’t nearly as irritating as Hucklebee finds it – so Howie has gauged it perfectly.

Dudas and Cabaniss have lurked more on the periphery in recent years, but Ensley directed Spring Awakening at the Queens Road barn in 2018, so he’s well aware of Cabaniss’s powers. They show out most memorably when she passionately sings “Much More.” Granted, there isn’t much special in watching a guy kiss a girl on the eyes. The magic that Jones tapped into when he wrote this song was Luisa’s aspiration to be that girl. Cabaniss also shines in her climactic duets with Howie, especially the beguiling “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” before intermission.

If Howie and Cabaniss aren’t always as carefully paced, audible, and intelligible when they speak as they are when they sing, rest assured that their elders always are. Roberge and Fowler make a nicely balanced comedy team as the dads – perfect if you conclude that a prime aim of Jones and Schmidt was to juxtapose flamboyance and bluster with simplicity and sincerity. This little stage seems far too small for Roberge and his leonine energy, yet Fowler, more physically imposing, seems perpetually inclined to shrink out of sight.

Reserve and restraint, on the other hand, seem totally alien to Geof Knight and Tim Huffman, both of whom are bluster personified as Henry and Mortimer, El Gallo’s Shakespearean thugs. Watching Huffman perform his multiple dyings, you will likely realize how much, along with Jones’s wall antics, this book leans on the mechanicals and the closing scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Yet there’s also Act 2, where all the fairytale “Happy Ending” that’s frozen at intermission is exploded – when lies, fantasies, and perfect bliss collide with the real world. Here we can see that The Fantasticks was not merely derivative but also, very likely, a prime inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

After the rousing opening performance, Ensley consented to an email exchange where he shared his on-the-road experiences and views. Auditions and early rehearsals for The Fantasticks, he disclosed, had to be transplanted from Queens Road to Dilworth United Methodist Church. An empty Pier One store in Ballantyne subsequently became Theatre Charlotte’s “permanent” rehearsal space for the current season – which will see stops at Dilworth United, The Halton Theater at Central Piedmont, and The Great Aunt Stella Center before Love, Loss, and What I Wore hopscotches between four locations, including the Palmer, next spring.

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Cast and crew arrived at the Palmer for final tech and rehearsals on Sunday, just four days before The Fantasticks opened. Ensley had indeed accounted for the special challenges of the site.

“The Palmer Building only affected casting in that we cast the strongest singers possible, which we would do as a matter of course anyway,” Ensley observes. “The primary thing was to project and enunciate. Also, to adhere to their blocking very closely for lighting purposes as we had limited equipment and flexibility. I feel our lighting designer J.P. Woodey did a great job in a very short amount of time with limited equipment.”

Kudos should likewise go out to Christine VanArsdale at the harp and musical director John Smith at the keyboard. To my great relief, we found staff and audience to be pandemic-diligent. Proof of vaccination or recent COVID testing was required outside the site before we were admitted, touchless electronic ticketing was in place, and your program is a single piece of paper with a QR Code you scan with your smartphone to access the digital playbill. Everyone in the hall (except the performers, of course) wore masks from beginning to end.

“We impressed upon the cast from the very beginning how important the success of this show was and how much Theatre Charlotte valued their talent and their personal commitment to bringing the community live theatre,” Ensley says. “Chris has been wearing a lot of hats and I have been impressed with how well he and the TC staff have been keeping everything going and in a positive and determined way.”

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Topping the company’s priorities are returning to Queens Road for the 2022-23 season and, ultimately building back better. The timetable is only beginning to narrow, for Timmons estimates that, once the reconstruction actually commences, it will take 6-8 months. While Timmons and his wife Jackie Timmons, who serves as director of marketing and development for Theatre Charlotte, are hoping that insurance will cover everything, donations have spontaneously poured in from across the country and through a special Save My Seat Theatre Relief Fund.

Many of the contributors who checked in from far and wide had formative, life-changing experiences at the Queens Road barn.

“Knowing how so many people in the industry were struggling because of the pandemic and receiving support from them at the time of the fire was humbling,” Chris says. Yet the disaster struck at a time when the arts were not only reeling from COVID but also undergoing a Black Lives Matter, We-See-You-White-American-Theatre reckoning.

Timmons doesn’t plan for Theatre Charlotte to be behind the curve in reacting.

“We are taking time to plan for the long-term future of the building,” he says, “how it operates and can better serve our community, and we are looking at enhanced safety and accessibility improvements that may be phased in over the next several years. We don’t want to simply put a fresh coat of paint on the walls and new carpet on the floor and call it a day. We want our facility to be better suited for community partnerships and engagement opportunities that we haven’t been able to accommodate in the past, and we want to showcase more of the creatives who need a voice in our community.”

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Standing about a yard from a partially broken window at 501 Queens Road, a pane framed by countless layers of cracked and gouged paint, Jackie focuses on the near-term, striking a more urgent tone. When I ask about a possible second season on the road beginning next September, she doesn’t hesitate.

“We have to open here next year,” she says. “Finding other venues is too exhausting!”

 

CP’s Gentleman’s Guide Sports a Solid Cast but Overthinks Our Scruples

Review:  A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

By Perry Tannenbaum

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It’s been 70 years since Kind Hearts and Coronet, based on Roy Horniman’s Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, became a delightfully wicked vehicle for Alec Guinness, who was murdered multiple times during the film as he portrayed various members of the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family – one of them female. Jefferson Mays drew similar kudos in 2013 when Horniman’s novel was the source of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, with all of Guiness’s D’Ascoynes discreetly converted into more singable D’Ysqiths – and featuring an additional lady among the slain. Lauded by the press, Gentleman’s Guide didn’t click at the box office until the Tony Award nominations were announced in the spring of 2014. When the show and its book by Robert L. Freedman won the Tonys, the victory bump carried into early 2015. But the run barely lasted into 2016, a full three months short of reaching the 1000-performance mark when it closed.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Final Dress Rehearsal; July 18th, 2019

The touring version of Gentleman’s Guide was all the more fresh when it opened at Knight Theater that same November, and the Charlotte audience welcomed it heartily. Directed by Tom Hollis, the current CPCC Summer Theatre version reminded me of the charms and shortcomings I saw in the original Broadway production while setting in bold relief a couple of the technical difficulties it overcame. Even though I had seen the show twice before, I was struck afresh by the artificiality of Freedman’s concept, which decrees that our hero Monty D’Ysquith Navarro’s recollections are staged under a proscenium within the Halton Theater proscenium at CP. Puzzling over why critics so adored this artificiality, I hadn’t pondered why Freedman had insisted on it.

 

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Final Dress Rehearsal; July 18th, 2019My best guess is that Freedman wished to double-underline the idea that we were watching a comedy as Monty murderously ploughed through most of the eight D’Ysquiths who stood in his path to becoming the next Earl of Highhurst. Before we even see Monty at his desk in prison, writing the confessional memoirs that will flash us back to the story of his crime spree, an ensemble dressed in funereal black advises us to depart immediately if we don’t have the stomach for the carnage to come. Whether intentionally or not, Hollis further shields us from the notion that Monty is a heartless murderer, aided chiefly by Kevin Roberge playing all the D’Ysquiths that Monty knocks off.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Final Dress Rehearsal; July 18th, 2019

Roberge made them less eccentric, less broadly comical, maybe a tad meaner, and worthier of extermination. Touches of the original comedy remained when he was Henry D’Ysquith, the beekeeping squire, and in the denouement where Lord Adelbert, the present Earl of Highhurst, was poisoned. But there was less marital shtick between Asquith and his wife, Lady Eugenia, at that climactic banquet, and Roberge got less comedy mileage out of the women he portrayed, the crusading Lady Hyacinth and actress Lady Salome. Maybe the blame should be spread to costume designer Robert Croghan and wig designer Barbi Van Schaick for failing to outfit Roberge with more outré femininity, though I’d be lying if I said there was abundant treble or prissiness in Hyancinth or Salome’s voices. The fakey whiskers and mustaches that Roberge wore and discarded further damaged the aura of his versatility.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Final Dress Rehearsal; July 18th, 2019

Audience members unfamiliar with the exploits of Guinness and Mays were likely to come away with a better impression of Roberge’s work than mine, but no such concessions were necessary on the love side of the action. In his third substantial role of the 2019 CP Summer season, Ashton Guthrie proved that he could ease us from Monty’s initial innocence to his ultimate roguishness while sustaining his appeal. Without those horrid mustaches, Roberge might have been more winsome in Adelbert’s “I Don’t Understand the Poor” than Monty was singing “Poison in My Pocket,” but Guthrie flipped my previous preference.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Final Dress Rehearsal; July 18th, 2019

When Monty’s eyes are opened to his noble pedigree, his innocence is more than slightly eclipsed by his rapacious and romantic instincts. During this transition, two contrasting women whet Monty’s ambitions while humanizing him. Emily Witte as Sibella Hallward is the stylish social-climber who appeals to Monty’s eyes and loins, while Karley Kornegay as Phoebe D’Ysquith appeals to his heart, mind, and bank balance. Apart from a woefully floppy wig when she first appears, Croghan and Van Schaick were consistently inspired by Witte, but compared with the regalia they whipped up for her in Jekyll & Hyde four weeks earlier, they consistently let Kornegay down.

No such disparity is evident when Witte and Kornegay ply their respective charms or sing their songs, and Guthrie’s reactions beguile us into believing that Sibella and Phoebe are exquisitely balanced in Monty’s eyes. All three collaborate brilliantly in the farcical “I’ve Decided to Marry You” scene when Monty entertains both of his ladies simultaneously at his bachelor pad in two rooms that face the same foyer. The synchronicity of this trio, obviously well-rehearsed, was quite delectable, though Croghan’s mini-set seemed shaky in surviving the door-slamming abuse.

What really took its toll on Witte’s and Kornegay’s performances was the sound system. Perhaps because of the effect that the proscenium-within-the-proscenium set had on the Halton’s acoustics, sound designer Stephen Lancaster couldn’t deliver the admirable clarity we had heard there earlier this season. Ensembles were consistently garbled, and so were the higher voices. The swifter and cleverer the women’s lyrics became, the more apt they were to succumb to distortion, penalizing Witte slightly more since Sibella has a bit more Gilbert and Sullivan flowing in her veins.

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, Final Dress Rehearsal; July 18th, 2019

Hollis manages to stage all this artificial mayhem with a cast of 10, two fewer than performed on Broadway. Only two that haven’t been mentioned get to sing outside their ensemble assignments, and both have shining cameos. Among multiple roles, Allison Rhinehardt was eccentricity personified as Miss Shingle, the mysterious family acquaintance who divulges Monty’s lineage after his mother’s death in “You’re a D’Ysquith.” Lucianne Hamilton was more briefly in the spotlight as Miss Barley, Asquith Jr.’s mistress until their unfortunate skating accident.

Of course, the Halton audience lapped up each of the artful murders. Yet the script and the production struck me as overly worried about whether we would properly digest the D’Ysquiths’ brutally unjust fates. Justice is too often miscarried in fiction and in life to have such scruples. Frankly, Horniman’s storyline fortifies the ambivalence that Americans already have toward the wealthy and the well-born. We blithely allow them to get away with rape and murder while hating them to the bone.

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.