Tag Archives: Lisa Blanton

Matthews Mamma Mia! Mixes Summer Romance and Autumn Regret

Review: Mamma Mia! is playing this ABBA hit parade

By Perry Tannenbaum

Promo.1

There’s typical teenybopper inanity – and melodrama – in the lyrics of ABBA tunes that infiltrated the pop charts during the glam rock supergroup’s heyday, 1974-82. It’s all about desire, baby, followed by intense workouts on the hormonal treadmill of adolescence. Prospecting for ABBA gold, you’re rewarded with the age-old cycle of blissful acceptance or bitter ejection, romantic pleasure and conflict, burnout and breakup, cynicism and regret, all rendered in the elegantly engineered shorthand of a Top-40 hit.

Something interesting happened in 2001, after even the youngest member of ABBA had turned 50 and the quartet’s jukebox faves were cunningly transformed into a hit Broadway musical. You can feel it at Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts, where Mamma Mia! is playing through February 9. Writing the book for this ABBA hit parade, Catherine Johnson gave most of the songs to characters we could presume were nearly her own age, almost 44 on opening night. Old enough to have teenybopper kids of their own.

When a teenybopper pout is transformed into a midlife lament, regret takes on a whole new coloration in the title song as Donna Sheridan sings:

Yes, I’ve been brokenhearted,

Blue since the day we parted.

Why, why did I ever let you go?

The “day we parted” isn’t two melodramatic weeks ago. Not anymore. It’s over two decades ago, long enough for Donna to be experiencing the autumnal chill of lost youth. But hold on, Donna! You’re on a colorful Greek Isle, with lively cabana studs serving your taverna’s drinks, bikini-clad nymphs frolicking everywhere, dazzling eternal sunshine – and your darling daughter Sophie is getting married tomorrow!

It was easier to see Mamma Mia! from Sophie’s point of view in its Broadway days, pre-Meryl Streep, for Sophie really kickstarts the plot by prying into Mom’s secret diary and inviting all three of her possible dads to her wedding. Imagine if your three exes showed up unexpectedly for your daughter’s wedding. Sophie might as well have hired a skywriter to spell it all out: MOM, I READ YOUR SECRET DIARY AND INVITED ALL THREE OF MY POSSIBLE DADS TO MY WEDDING. Donna probably wouldn’t have looked up and noticed.

Promo.3

Presumably, Mamma is preoccupied with wedding preparations, but Donna compounds her distractions by inviting two of her old chums, Tanya and Rosie, to the festivities. Plenty of catching up to do, but conveniently, the three women were a glam rock vocal trio back in their salad days, Donna and the Dynamos, so they can provide the party entertainment. With this makeshift guest list and its ‘90s setting, the prevailing outlook of the story shifts emphatically toward the baby boomers, ABBA’s perennial demographic.

Directing the show, Billy Ensley clearly gets the boomer drift, and more than a couple of seasoned Charlotte musical stars ride the wave with him to the Matthews Playhouse stage. With a richly detailed scenic design by John Bayless and a sumptuous array of costumes by Lisa Altieri – including a surprise set of glam rock duds for the dads – it’s likely that all of these vets appreciated the warmth of their welcome.

We don’t need to wait around for all these elders to gather in the Mediterranean sun before the excitement begins, for Ensley has found newcomer Alexis Thomas to ignite the action as the nubile Sophie. Thomas quickly proves she’s a precocious belter, bookending Act 1 with lead vocals on “Honey, Honey” and “The Name of the Game.”

Having deceptively invited her three possible dads – Sam, Bill, and Harry – using Mom’s letterhead, Sophie must also subject each of the candidates to an impromptu paternity test, inviting all three to give her away at tomorrow’s wedding. The hurried brevity of these scenes would make any self-respecting playwright blush, but Thomas carries them off as if they were hallowed Broadway formalities, codified as cliché. Which they are. Spencer Ellis doesn’t get nearly as much opportunity to shine as Sky, Sophie’s fiancé, but he makes his big moment in Act 2 count, letting Sophie know that he feels her quest for her true dad is a bigger thing to her than their wedding.

Of course, the ABBA songs, stirred by island breezes and mixed with the celebratory vibe of the oncoming nuptials, become a cocktail that takes all six of the mid-lifers sip by sip from the tipsiness of nostalgia to the full inebriation of regression and reawakening. The women are the most intoxicated here, each arriving at her own pace. Burdened with a mother’s cares and saddled with the bitterness of a jilted sweetheart, Lucia Stetson as Donna travels the longest path – though the magic is there from the moment she sees Sam.

Promo.4

Stetson staunchly deals with the fact that Donna is prone to some truly stupid-ass choices, flexing the same regal star-quality insouciance that carried her through the title role of Evita a couple of summers back. Notwithstanding the baggy overalls she wears early on, we’re not surprised that she’ll soon emerge as a “Dancing Queen” and a “Super Trouper” – singing lead vocals, of course. You wonder a bit at first about Lisa Smith-Bradley, sporting a pair of mousy eyeglasses as Rosie, a far cry from the charismatic Mama Rose she brought to Theatre Charlotte seven years ago.

Never fear, Ensley and Smith-Bradley are cooking up a startling mouse-to-tigress rejuvenation as Rosie sets her sights on Bill, sinking her slinky claws into him in their “Take a Chance on Me” duet. Lisa Blanton talks like the bawdiest woman onstage as Tanya, but is it all talk? No, it is definitely not as we watch Blanton’s cougar rampage on “Does Your Mother Know?” Blanton pulls double duty at Matthews, doubling as the production’s choreographer, captaining her own carnivorous showcase with obvious gusto.

Aside from Thomas, a young talent to watch, the most promising of the young Greeks is Adrian White as Pepper, prime target for Tanya’s predations in “Does Your Mother Know?” – agile and slightly bewildered. He’s the dancing king here, for none of his elders, aside from Blanton, was chosen for hoofing prowess.

We’ve seen all the middle-aged guys before in Charlotte, Bob Mauney most recently starring in The Music Man at Theatre Charlotte, Steven B. Martin in Evita and Bridges of Madison County, and Patrick Ratchford in anything he has ever auditioned for over the last 25+ years, most recently 1776, Ragtime, and Charlotte Squawks! The Ratchford voice is still in peak condition, mostly held in reserve until Sam’s “S.O.S.” duet with Donna in Act 2, an all-out cri de Coeur in the top-40 world. Those smooth baritone tonsils also wrap themselves around two other hit singles, “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and – spoiler alert – the climactic “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” duet.

Sam isn’t the most comical of Donna’s exes, just the most interesting: the last he heard from her before Sophie’s faux invite was that she didn’t want to see him again. Understandably, he’s a bit uncomfortable and ambivalent when Sophie admits the subterfuge, but like the other guys who are also residually fond of Donna in various degrees, the possibility of being Sophie’s father keeps him hanging around in hopes of closure – and maybe making amends.

Martin as Harry and Mauny as Bill follow parallel tracks, not called upon to do much singing. Neither squanders his opportunity, Martin in a nostalgic “Our Last Summer” duet in Donna’s bedroom (here we go again?) and Mauny as Rosie’s willing prey in their “Take a Chance on Me” tête-à-tête. Bill claims to be an adventurer, so a tigress should be just right up his Aussie alley.

Dancing in the Aisles for 36 Years

Interview: Billy Ensley

By Perry Tannenbaum

image001

Call him Mister Versatility. To find anyone else in the Charlotte theatre scene who has been celebrated for excellence in so many different areas as Billy Ensley, you would have to summon up the memory of Alan Poindexter, the wunderkind who came out of the UNC Charlotte theatre program and won accolades as an actor, director, and sound designer. Ensley’s awards, a total of 16 from Creative Loafing and the Metrolina Theatre Association, have been for his work as an actor, director – in musicals, comedies, and dramas – and as a choreographer.

Song and dance were Ensley’s calling cards from the beginning, and they remain handy skills as he directs the upcoming Matthews Playhouse production of Mamma Mia! – the fifth musical that he has directed there. We interviewed Ensley about his evolution as an artist, the enduring popularity of Mamma Mia! and the vital importance of our community theatres.

QC Nerve: Take us back to the early days. Outside of school productions, what was your first appearance on a Charlotte stage? Can you tell us how you felt about theatre at that time and the part it would play in your life?

My first appearance on a Charlotte stage after school was in Seesaw (1983) at Theatre Charlotte [then known as Little Theatre of Charlotte]. At that time, I was moving into theatre as a result of having dance training throughout my youth. Male dancers were in demand, and therefore I was able to make that transition and learn acting and singing as well. While performing on Charlotte stages in my 20’s, I regularly got work in professional theatres, some of which include The Blowing Rock Stage Company, Opera Carolina, Busch Gardens, and Cook/Loughlin productions at Spirit Square.

IMG_6979

I wanted to dedicate my life to the theatre arts, but I also had a strong desire to own a home and be self-sufficient. I worked for over a decade as the director of office operations for the Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson law firm. After a couple of years in the travel industry, I went to work for Rexus Corporation, a national background screening company, where I am their chief operations officer for 15+ years.

By the time I first saw you back in the late 80s, in House of Blue Leaves and The 1940s Radio Hour, you were well on your way to establishing yourself as Charlotte’s pre-eminent triple threat. How committed were you at that time to accomplishing that goal, and how did you hone your acting, singing, and dancing skills?

At the time, I was not aware that I was establishing myself in any way actually. I was merely doing what I loved and what I was driven to do. Of course, it helped that I was receiving good reviews in the local press and support from the theatre community. That was positive reinforcement to keep working basically two full time jobs.

IMG_6589

Through the support and training of many people in Charlotte – including Tom Vance, Tom Hollis, Ron Chisholm, Terry Loughlin, Steve Umberger, to name a few – I was fortunate enough to work in the theatre almost constantly. I received a lot of my acting and singing training by being in productions, but I also continued to take dance classes, study voice with Joyce Marshall and study acting privately.

What role did our community theatre play in launching your career in theatre? How do see Theatre Charlotte and Matthews Playhouse figuring in the local scene today?

Theatre Charlotte often had the best directors and performers in the region. I was surrounded by some of the best and, as a result, I almost always got a paying gig from that exposure in community theatre. In addition, I was getting excellent hands-on training from them.

IMG_6982

Theatre Charlotte and Matthews Playhouse figure prominently in the local scene today, attracting good directors and seasoned performers as well as exciting new talent. In addition to cultivating new talent, they both are providing a venue for professional performers to have the opportunity to perform roles that may not be possible otherwise, due to the fact that Charlotte still struggles with sustaining many theatre companies.

You’ve made a couple of dramatic changes to reignite your career. First, you stopped doing musical after musical and took on a major role in a straight play, You Should Be So Lucky, in 1997. Then in 2003-04, we suddenly found you directing local productions of Evita, Bat Boy, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. What motivated you in each of these instances to break out of your previous mold – were there practical considerations involved, or was it all about self-fulfillment?

For me, it was a combination of both. As a dancer, you learn pretty early in life that the thing you have been training for, performing and loving, must eventually come to an end, or at least morph considerably. The same applies to playing the young male leads in musical theatre. I knew that I wanted the theatre to remain in my life, and I wanted to continue growing in other ways so that I could facilitate that.

IMG_6981

As a youngster, I marveled at performers that were always reinventing themselves – David Bowie comes to mind, actually – and I thought that was a great way to remain relevant. I also did not want to be pigeonholed in musical theatre, which I felt I clearly was. I wanted the challenges of dramatic acting like McDonagh’s The Pillowman (2007), in which I was lucky enough to play the lead, Katurian, in the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

As for directing, that was a slow and methodical process, and not an easy career to break in to. I started choreographing and directing in theatres outside of Charlotte like Belmont Abbey College and Wingate University. Eventually, the executive director at Theatre Charlotte, Candace Sorensen, offered me my first directing job in Charlotte with Sweet Charity (2002). After a few Charlotte shows, I got a great deal of support from Dan Shoemaker and Chip Decker at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.

Tell us about your history with Matthews Playhouse and what you have experienced there in terms of the quality of their facilities, staff, and talent pool.

I have directed Shrek, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Bonnie & Clyde and Grey Gardens for Matthews Playhouse. Matthews Playhouse is an excellent example of a successful and vibrant community theatre. Under the leadership of June Bayless, they have an excellent staff, a remarkable youth training program, combined with a very nice auditorium and excellent technical staff.

Who are the familiar audience favorites and the hot new discoveries that are going to make your Mamma Mia! a smashing success? Who are the scenic design, costume design, and choreographer aces on the case?

IMG_6570Lucia Stetson and Lisa Blanton are audience favorites. Lucia having played Maria in The Sound of Music and Lisa Blanton having played Little Edie in Grey Gardens. Our two young romantic leads both qualify as hot new discoveries. They are Alexa Thomas and Spencer Ellis as Sophie and Sky. Lisa Blanton agreed to pull double duty for this show by both choregraphing and playing the role of Tanya. Lisa Altieri is handling costumes and Emmy Award-winning John Bayless is the scenic designer. His work is amazing and his talents run very, very deep.

What do you continue to find in Mamma Mia! that keeps us from getting tired of it?

Well, ABBA of course! The music is familiar and well loved; bringing back lots of memories of love and romance for us middle-aged folk. The women characters in the show are strong and independent, the male characters are sensitive and compassionate. Like other jukebox musicals, it is fun to watch a scene that evolves into a song that most of us know at least some of the lyrics to. It is a show where the audience should come in with their hair down, their troubles stowed away, and perhaps their inhibitions stowed away as well – in favor of singing along or dancing in the aisles!

 

Dangerous and Delicious London – With a Twist

Review: Oliver! at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

IMG_1349

Ron Law will be retiring when his 15th season as executive director at Theatre Charlotte comes to an end next spring, but he sure isn’t retiring – or even receding into the background – right now. The spotlight will shine brightest on Law in December when he stars for the first time ever as Ebenezer Scrooge in the annual revival of A Christmas Carol at the Queens Road barn. Meanwhile he’s had other things besides bookkeeping on his mind for the past month or so, since the 92nd season at Theatre Charlotte is kicking off with a different Dickens, Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and Law is the stage director.

Thanks to some impressively weathered scenic design by Josh Webb and a juicy mix of dignified and low-life costumes by Melody Branch, the current production looks vibrant and fetching before we even reach the title song, though purists will recoil at the sound of the prerecorded orchestra. Your first favorable impressions will be sustained by the fine set of adult principals that Law has gleaned from the rich Queen City talent trove that showed up for auditions. Yet the mean rigidity of Mr. Bumble, the terror of Bill Sikes, the acquisitive cunning of Fagin, and the conflicted kindness of Nancy would be largely wasted if they were directed at an Oliver who didn’t win us over.

IMG_1318

Atticus Ware passes his first key test as Oliver Twist simply by standing up after dinner has been served at the workhouse and having the cheek to say, “More, please!” We’ve actually seen an Oliver at Children’s Theatre long ago who looked the very antithesis of orphaned malnourishment, and it was hard to suppress a laugh. Easily two years younger than any Oliver to appear in a local production – except for Andrew Kenny in 2001 – Ware also passes muster when Bumble reassures the Sowerberrys, morticians he has sold Oliver to, that the lad will surely grow bigger.

There are prudential reasons past directors haven’t opted for an Oliver as young and small – and maybe considered cutting Bumble’s room-to-grow remark. Without a body mic, it’s hard for a middle-schooler to sing Oliver’s angelic “Where Is Love?” or his wonderstruck “Who Will Buy?” and make himself heard across an orchestra and an audience. Nicely miked-up, Ware holds up as beautifully as Andrew Griner did in Theatre Charlotte’s last Oliver! in 2007, and he adds palpable charm when he takes his turns in “I’ll Do Anything.”

Of course, the main reason why Oliver! is being offered in the metro Charlotte area for the sixth time this century is Bart’s amazing score. No fewer than a dozen of the songs have engraved themselves in my mind so that I can agreeably recall their main hooks without assistance. Familiarity can tempt directors and actors to deviate from established Oliver Twist expectations – or, in the practice of casting girls at the workhouse and in Fagin’s band of thieving urchins, widening our expectations.

Law has presented enough iterations of Christmas Carol to value and preserve the Dickensian spirit of Oliver while loosening casting requirements where the envelope has already been pushed. Johnny Hohenstein immediately stands out as a fierce and booming Mr. Bumble, while Geof Knight as Fagin and William Kirkwood as Sikes are among the best we’ve seen. Together they form an adult triumvirate who remind us that greed and corruption aren’t simply confined to the underworld.

Hohenstein is as titanic as a beleaguered husband as he is when he’s a tyrannical beadle, a definite asset. I find ample menace and intimidation in Sikes when Kirkwood delivers his growling “My Name,” and I like the sliminess that Knight brings to “You Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” – and the grim calculation of his “Reviewing the Situation.” You couldn’t get me to dispute that any of these three gave the best auditions for their respective roles.

It’s just that I want to see a craven factor, a fear of Sikes’ violent volatility that would give an extra dimension to Fagin’s craftiness. From there, the chemistry between the two rogues can be further textured by their one-time mentor-apprentice relationship. Knight just doesn’t have the appearance of a cerebral weasel, which would make these layers relatively easy and self-evident. Here it needs work.

When it comes to Sikes’ abusive relationship with Nancy, Bart gives Kristin Graf Sakamoto all that she needs to get to its heart. Even if Nancy isn’t liberated, she’s spirited, best seen in Sakamoto’s interactions with the youngsters and in her lusty, boozy rendition of her “Oom-Pah-Pah” polka. Nancy faces some grim choices with Oliver, yet Sakamoto makes it clear that fidelity to Sikes is infused with fear – propped up by fear, you could say – when she repeats her signature “As Long as He Needs Me.”

So the Sikes-Nancy-Oliver drama and suspense develops beautifully from the first moments that we see Sakamoto. There’s already a glint of welcoming light when the Artful Dodger accosts Oliver after he has escaped Bumble and the Sowerberry mortuary. Bailey Wray ignites a “Consider Yourself” welcome as Dodger, assisted by Lisa Blanton’s choreography, that seems to engulf the whole city of London. Wray himself radiates a city-sized energy all by himself. Dodger’s precocious top hat is a couple of sizes too large, a plausible wardrobe choice, but I suspect that Law has elected to keep it that way in order to keep Wray’s hyperactive hands partially occupied.

Later there’s lively bustle in Fagin’s lair when the master puts his kids through their pickpocketing drill, and a new flowering of Blanton choreography when Oliver awakens at the home of his benefactor, Mr. Brownlow. the greatness of Britain beams at us like a sunshiney day, for Ware isn’t the only vocalist in “Who Will Buy” as it swirls with increasing anthemic force. Consonant with this cornucopia of wholesomeness, Rick Taylor is upright and trusting, a quiet affirmation that goodness and kindheartedness can rise above the miasma that swallows up Bill and Nancy.

Aside from the cloudy Sikes-Fagin chemistry, Law only loses focus at the end when Fagin and Dodger make their final exits – seemingly without any emphasis or attitude. Maybe bringing them downstage would help, but it’s a moment that deserves more fiddling with and agonizing over. Last impressions are as important as our first.

IMG_1338

It’s still quite sensible to hurry over to Queens Road, where the corruption and goodness of humanity are as exquisitely balanced as night and day. At its core, Oliver’s journey is a progression from secluded, deprived oppression to the centers of opportunity and civilization. Performances are almost universally fresh and decisive among over 40 onstage participants, and it’s hard to overpraise the work of musical director Ryan Deal in keeping his singers fresh and precise through a long rehearsal process.

Of course, the excitement of opening night added a jolt of energy to the performance, especially for the 13 actors – plus a dog – who were making their Theatre Charlotte debuts. If you’ve never experienced Oliver! before, you will likely feel a similar jolt of discovery.

 

Confused and Abused Teens – With Unmistakable Talent

Preview:  Spring Awakening

By Perry Tannenbaum

For over a century, playwright Frank Wedekind was best remembered as the creator of Lulu, the libertine protagonist in two of his erotically charged dramas, Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904). Alban Berg combined the two works into one Lulu (1937), an opera that stands as one of the sexiest of the 20th century.

Then came 2006.

Wedekind’s notoriety was refueled for a new millennium when Steven Sater adapted the German’s first script, Spring Awakening, for an off-Broadway production. If Lulu was risqué and amoral, Spring Awakening was angry, raw, and a bit shocking – teen chaos rather than salon decadence. The score, composed and orchestrated by Duncan Sheik, certainly wasn’t opera. It was a wicked mix of sensuous, anguished ballads like “Touch Me” and “The Word of Your Body” juxtaposed with raging frenetic rockers like “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk,” and “Totally Fucked.”

Schoolkids standing up rebelliously on their desks, dancing and stomping catatonically. Vilifying parents and teachers. Ecstatically screwing just before intermission. Even liberal newspapers had to tiptoe around the song titles, lyrics, and actions.

The Atlantic Theatre Company production was an instant sensation, picking up an armful of awards before transferring to Broadway that same year. Eleven Tony nominations and eight Tony Awards were added to the haul, including Best Musical. Somehow the Victorian repression, the withholding of sex education, and the perils of unprotected sex, backstreet abortions, and teen suicide of Wedekind’s 1891 script had leapfrogged into the 21st century in a theatrical triumph – with no mealy-mouthed concessions whatsoever to the older generation.

Underscoring the generic, unsympathetic nature of Wedekind’s adults, all 14 of them were portrayed by one male and one female actor. This was not merely a tragedy of star-crossed lovers. It was an explosively presented nightmare scenario of what can go wrong when adults refuse to discuss sex with their children.

And now this scorching musical hits Charlotte this Friday, barreling into our community theatre for a three-week run – including three Sunday matinees and two Saturday performances on June 1 at 8:00 and 11:30pm. Somebody at the Queens Road barn believes they’re going to sell a whole bunch of tickets. Nobody seems worried that we’ll experience a repeat of the Angels in America uproar that rocked the city in 1996, with aftershocks that ultimately capsized Charlotte Repertory Theatre in 2003.

“We have no trepidation about Spring Awakening being a bridge too far,” says executive director Ron Law. “Many young performers and audience members have lobbied for it, and it has always performed strongly in our show selection survey.”

Touring versions of the show came here in 2010 and 2011, but of course, these weren’t shows with local artists funded by local dollars. The feeling was, even then, that the city had changed and audiences had matured since the Angels debacle. But there is likely another factor at work. Theatre Charlotte has better prepped its audience than Rep.

Oleanna, Falsettos, and Miss Evers’ Boys were as far as Rep pushed the envelope before fielding Tony Kushner’s gay fantasia. At 501 Queens Road they’ve pushed further with its more diverse audience, bringing us The Full Monty, Rent, Hair, and La Cage aux Folles in recent years. One way or another, the unholy trinity – nudity, foul language, and homosexuality – have all been addressed.

“All those shows were huge box office successes for Theatre Charlotte, with little pushback,” Law reports. “For this show, we even offered season ticket buyers the opportunity to buy a package that did not include Spring Awakening. A very small number took us up on this.”

Caution was not altogether thrown to the winds in scheduling this potential powder keg. Some niceties were also observed on the production end, beginning with auditions for the roles of the kids crossing the threshold of puberty. Nobody was allowed to audition unless he or she would be 18 on opening night.

“There were many disappointed 15 and 16 year olds who love the show and couldn’t audition,” Law confirms.

Most of the teens who did audition were savvy theatre students, according to Law. Some have participated in Theatre Charlotte’s youth-oriented summer stock productions, and others have been groomed in the robust theatre programs of our local high schools.

Nominated for the prestigious Blumey Awards for high school musicals across metro Charlotte, three of the major players in Spring Awakening are so accomplished that they put a major crimp in director Billy Ensley’s rehearsal schedule.

Seniors at NW School of the Arts, Renée Rapp (Best Actress), Liam Pearce (Best Actor), and Maya Sistruck (Best Supporting Actress) all earned Blumey Award nominations for their work in the school’s presentation of Big Fish, which is nominated for Best Musical honors. As finalists, all three were spirited away to Belk Theater, rehearsing for multiple segments of last Sunday night’s award ceremonies, where they performed individually and together.Rapp first landed a role at Theatre Charlotte when she was 10 and transferred to Northwest in her junior year. “They are both truly such talented and good-hearted human beings,” she says of Pearce and Sistruck. “Working amongst them all these years has helped me grow as a performer watching the dedication they put into what they do. We have so much love amongst the three of us that even in this especially stressful time with the Blumeys, Spring Awakening and graduation, they make every day and every rehearsal feel like a celebration for me.”

As Wendla Bergmann, Rapp launches the horrific scenario of Spring Awakening when she asks her mom how babies are made and gets a bogus answer. The only teen around who seems to have the lowdown is Melchior Gabor, a voracious reader who quietly shares the news with his shy neurotic bestie, Moritz Steifel – with explicit illustrations and written descriptions. But the atheistic, amoral Melchior does not share the facts of life with Wendla before he deflowers and impregnates her.

Dire consequences all around.

“Melchior has many layers to him,” says Pearce of this charismatic troublemaker. “He clearly wants to experience all of these activities he has read about but may not necessarily be ready to deal with the aftermath of what they may lead to. While he is extremely intelligent, he is still a teenager who has not completely grasped all of the knowledge he needs to be a functioning adult in society.”

Pearce isn’t altogether sure why he landed this plum role, but he has worked with Ensley – and choreographer Lisa Blanton – before at Theatre Charlotte in Jesus Christ Superstar. Ensley saw Pearce as a clear choice at his auditions, both as a singer and as an actor.

“Melchior needed to be a double threat actor singer,” Ensley says, “who could understand the commanding ‘big man on campus’ ego and the broken-hearted lover.”

In love with the misfit Moritz and abused by her father, Martha Bessell takes us to other dark regions of Wedekind’s story. “I always thought that her character arc was one of the strongest and most complex of the girls in the show, and I thought it’d be a wonderful challenge for me to take on,” Suskind says of Martha. “As for being nominated for Blumeys, it was quite nice to be able to link up our busy schedules and have a little ‘buddy’ looking out for any missed rehearsals or information. We were always on the same page.”

All three are also on the same page about delving into their troubled teen characters. They all give props to Ensley. Rapp offers the most detailed insights.

“I have heard countless people tell me how amazing working with Billy is,” she begins, “but it wasn’t until I had a one-on-one with him that I truly understood the depth of what they meant. He puts his heart into this production 100%, and that is so evident and inspiring for me. We sat and talked about myself and my character, and he really helped me break down what this show will mean. His direction is unmatchable. He works and tweaks things with such a specific eye, and I absolutely love it.”

Update: Renée Rapp took honors for Best Actress at the Blumey Awards on Sunday night, winning a trip to Broadway with Ethan Holtzman from Charlotte Latin School for a chance the national Jimmy Award on June 25. So who else won? Check it out here. Ceremonies will be rebroadcast on WTVI on May 29 at 8:00pm.

 

 

 

 

The Bee Gees Lose Their Falsettos

Theater Reviews: Saturday Night Fever and 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

img_4913

(Photo by Chris Timmons)

John Travolta at his peak: has there ever been anyone like him? The ruggedness, the grace, the strut, the conceit, and the boyish charisma — all of these studmuffin assets uniquely tinged with a robust Brooklynese vulgarity that took America by storm from the moment Welcome Back, Kotter hit the airwaves in 1975. But the full bloom of Travolta-mania didn’t happen until 1977, when Saturday Night Fever hit the big screen.

Surely the music of the Bee Gees was a prime component in the mystique of that breakthrough film. Yet the Bee Gees’ film score underpinning Travolta’s disco exploits was exquisitely subordinated to the heart of Tony Manero’s halting, confusing, and sometimes comical progress toward manhood in Norman Wexler’s screenplay. Bring the song hits more to the fore, as the Broadway musical version of 1999 attempted to do, and the narrow emotional range of disco is cruelly exposed.

“More Than a Woman” is unquestionably less than a woman to me, “Tragedy” is barely morose, and the answer to “How Deep Is Your Love?” is not very deep at all. I’d say that the Gibbs Brothers chose wisely in never attempting to write music for the Broadway stage.

We can only guess why director Ron Law, kicking off Theatre Charlotte’s 89th season, passed on the original Broadway adaptation by Nan Knighton in favor of a newer 2015 adaptation by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti that has never been on Broadway — or even a national tour. Either way, Law faced an uphill battle with his core of teenage performers.

After playing the somewhat delicate boy protagonist in Caroline, or Change earlier this year in the Theatre Charlotte lobby, Rixey Terry attempts a huge leap forward from that concert production in tackling the iconic Travolta role of Tony. While the welter of tunes launched at us — the worst are those newly penned by Abbinanti — dilute the impact of the drama, they don’t obscure the complexity of Tony’s character or his double lives.

By day, Tony works a dead-end job at a Brooklyn paint store, coming home to parents who adulate his older brother Frank, a priest, while belittling his talents. A huge chunk of Tony’s paint store paycheck — and some elaborate rehearsals and primping rituals — go into Saturday nights, when he reigns as king of the dance floor at the 2001 Odyssey club. Local girls long to be his partner, thrilling to the privilege of even mopping his brow after a dance.

So at work and at home, Tony is meek, querulous, and downtrodden, but out on the street or at the club among his friends and admirers, he’s self-absorbed, arrogant, and cruel. He ignores and snaps at his good friend Bobby, who leans on him for advice, and he forcefully rejects all advances from Annette, the best dancing partner in the neighborhood.

From the moment he first sees Stephanie Mangano at the club, Tony’s world turns upside-down. Classically trained, Stephanie’s moves are easily a match for Tony’s — and her savoir-faire is miles ahead. She has a job in Manhattan! Suddenly, Tony is the supplicant and the pursuer, hoping Stephanie will be his partner for an upcoming prize competition. Yeah, the story has been slightly altered.

Terry wraps his arms around the meek, downtrodden, and needy aspects of Tony a lot more readily than his imperial arrogance. Terry’s ordinariness carries over to Tony’s first few turns on the dance floor, where he just doesn’t look masterful. So the true turning point on opening night last week came when we reached Terry’s solo on “You Should Be Dancing” at the end of Act 1. Adding acrobatic break dancing moves never seen in the iconic film, choreographer Lisa Blanton unleashed the beast in Terry.

In less than a minute, Rixey proved that, even among triple-threats, he possesses unique gifts.

img_4851

Whether or not Stephanie is intended to have more confidence and dancing polish than Tony, Susannah Upchurch definitely brings it. The way things are between Tony and his groupies doesn’t always come off precisely as they should, but when Upchurch is around, Tony’s shortcomings and vulnerabilities snap sharply into focus. Her Stephanie is almost unattainable, not quite.

Meanwhile Ava Smith is acting up a frenetic whirlwind as Annette, almost convincing us that Tony is the dreamboat we never quite see. Vic Sayegh and Mara Rosenberg make Tony’s parents a rather squalid couple, contributing mightily to the Brooklyn ambiance, and Jay Masanotti brings out all of the older brother’s cryptic contradictions.

The fabled three-piece suit from the film isn’t quite equaled by costume designer Jamey Varnadore, whose budget was likely too strict for all the clotheshorses and wannabes he’s called upon to outfit. Zachary Tarlton leads a tight five-piece band, but the real heat is mostly generated by Blanton’s choreography — and Dani Burke’s solos as Candy, the 2001 chanteuse. Burke’s “Dance Inferno,” not a Bee Gees song, is the chief showstopper among the vocals. With so many three-part harmonies discarded, it’s hard to pick a lowlight among the songs that the Gibbs Brothers made famous. Not one falsetto all evening long!

I’ll go with “Stayin’ Alive” as the nadir. For decades, I’ve despaired of explaining how tone-deaf most renditions of “If I Were a Rich Man” sound to Yiddish-speaking Jews when Christian singers navigate the vocalise, non-verbal sections of the lyrics. Now I can finally point to an equivalent.

 

4cab0c_8e61596cf00f4ad2a25425910884a614mv2

At first, I could hardly believe how over-the-top director Sarah Provencal was wanting her cast to act in 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, currently at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius. This was the customarily sophisticated Lane Morris as Wren, one of our five quiche bake-off hostesses? The effusive audience interaction, from the time we enter the Westmoreland Road storefront, makes Pump Boys and Dinettes seem funereal by comparison.

But after a while we realize just how strange this script by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood truly is. For this egg-worshipping black comedy takes us back to a 1950s dystopia in an alternate universe. Only the desperation of our hostesses’ plight can prod them into coming proudly out of the closet, a delicious juxtaposition with their ’50s primness.

Actually, Morris with her “victory curls” looks more like a throwback to the ’40s and the Andrews Sisters (yes, these Daughters of Susan B. Anthony and Gertrude Stein have a club song). It’s Joanna Gerdy as Vern who’s the outright lesbian of this quiche quintet from the start, flinging away her customary sophistication even further from the norm in a comedy performance to relish.

Ginny, played by Stephanie DiPaolo, is a diffident Brit who almost seems catatonic at times. Vying with her for the distinction of being the most repressed in the house is Nikki Stepanek as Dale, who hasn’t spoken to a man since the age of three. She’s definitely the youngest, which is why she becomes the chosen vessel — for a while, anyway — to save mankind.

Every one of us in the audience must come out and admit that, yes, we are also lesbians, a quite unique moment in the annals of theatre. The only remaining holdout is Pam Coble Coffman as club president Lulie, a veritable Betty Crocker of propriety and discipline. Lulie hits us with the startling revelation that sends this 73-minute production into its unnecessary break. My wife Sue balked at this intermission, but the folks taking hits from the boxes of wine on the buffet seemed to be okay with it.

So real men and real women don’t eat quiche? Please forget I said that.

 

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.