Tag Archives: Matthew Howie

Remembering in September – While Building Back Better

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

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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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.

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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 “Joseph” Connects With Talent and Style, Frustrates With Ongoing Audio Woes

Review:  Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Halton Theater

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Before this weekend, Halton Theater hadn’t opened its doors to a theatre crowd since February 2020, and Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre had been dark since July 2019, when they closed their five-show season with A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Returning to the Halton stage as guest director of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Tom Hollis posed a poignant question during his introductory remarks. Does it really count as a season when a company offers its audience just one production? Even the most loyal Central Piedmont supporter can’t buy a 2021 season ticket, that’s for sure. And until Central Piedmont Community College completes its recovery from a debilitating ransomware attack this past winter, they won’t be able to accept credit card payments at their Overcash ticket windows. Cash or checks for walk-ups, plastic for online sales only.

Opening night at Halton was a cautious first step back toward pre-pandemic norms – with a Delta-be-damned giddiness to it as COVID protocols were loosened at last. For most of the crowd mingling in the Halton lobby before and after the show, this was probably the first public event they had risked in at least 16 months, a milestone moment. For the theatre folk scattered among us, it was an emotional reunion – an affirmation.

Last season was originally envisioned as Hollis’s grand valedictory after nearly four decades at Central Piedmont, his latter years as theatre department chair. An encore reset of the lost 2020 season was rumored for a while as Central Piedmont scrambled with their winter programming, so Joseph is a double surprise – not among the shows announced for the lost 47th Central Piedmont Summer Theatre season and the only show replacing them. Previously mounted in Summer 1993 and revived in Summer 2001 at the now-demolished Pease Auditorium (the CPCC Theatre production of 2008 at the Halton was a wintertime affair) – with rousing success on all occasions – Joseph is likely more bankable than Footloose, lighter on the budget than The Music Man, and far better-known and cheaper to produce than Something Rotten! Additionally, there is likely a finely calculated ecology in a true Central Piedmont Summer season that allows the college the biggest bang for their bucks when auditioning and casting their overall troupe of performers and designers. These discarded musicals, plus Peter Pan Jr. and a Ken Ludwig comedy, might conceivably be in cold storage, slated for resurrection in 2022.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1267

Sitting in Row K, I only noticed one gentleman taking a restroom break during this intermission-free presentation, and I was somewhat surprised that the cast began taking their bows a mere 71 minutes after the show commenced. Another eight minutes came packaged in a “Megamix” reprise of Webber’s most bodacious songs – or parodies, since the composer delights in shuttling among an unlikely array of genres in retelling the most epic tale from the Book of Genesis, aided by Tim Rice’s lyrics. The news of Joseph’s demise is delivered to his doting father, Jacob, in the form of a sobbing lone-prairie cowboy song. Pharaoh is transformed into a pre-historic Elvis as he rocks his account of his prophetic dreams. The poverty of Joseph’s 11 brothers during the years of famine takes on the nostalgic air of a sad French café, complete with Apache dancer, and Naphtali’s pleas for the innocence of little brother Benjamin come in the form of a Caribbean calypso.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1815

Curiously, the irreverence and multitudinous anachronisms of this Webber-Rice concoction, not to mention the narrative alterations of Holy Writ, have never seemed to spark any massive public outcry from Judeo-Christian clergy. Maybe the outright anachronisms, beginning with the Technicolor in the title, insulate all the irreverence and textual tinkering from being taken seriously. James Duke’s scenic design and Bob Croghan’s costume design underscore the assurance that we are not in the immediate vicinity of ancient Egypt or Canaan, fortified by the equally anachronistic projection designs by Infante Media. No, this is more like a Disney or a Las Vegas style of Egypt, with Duke taking full advantage of the lordly height of the Halton stage compared with Pease’s pancake panorama. Our Elvis is also a Vegas version, clearly the sequined, jumpsuited, decadent superstar of his latter days. The Duke-Infante collaboration is so glittery and colorful that it is only slightly upstaged by Croghan’s creations for Pharaoh and Joseph.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1357

You don’t often get the chance to design a costume that is hyped in the title of a show, and Croghan, on the Charlotte scene even longer than I, doesn’t disappoint. The impact of this mid-pandemic return to live theatre caught me off-guard several times. Each time a major character made his or her first entrance – Lindsey Schroeder as our Narrator, Rixey Terry as Joseph, and J. Michael Beech as Pharaoh – I had that tingling sensation of recognizing something basic and exciting that had been missing in my life for over a year.

My biggest surprise, a frisson of renewal, came from the audience when they reacted to the most iconic moment in Joseph, when the brothers picked up the skirts of Croghan’s knockout dreamcoat so that it formed a pinwheel around Rixey, spinning around as he, Schroeder, and the ensemble sang “Joseph’s Coat.” Anybody even glancingly familiar with musical theatre anticipates this moment before it happens, or at least recalls it fondly from a previous encounter. But part of the audience at Halton erupted in delighted and surprised laughter, recalling what the first London and Broadway and high school audiences must have experienced when Joseph was new and reminding me of my own delight back in 1993.THEA2021-DLV-0708-1130

Rixey walked a treacherous tightrope, blending innocence with vanity as beautifully and energetically as any Joseph I’ve ever seen, lacking the cloying wholesomeness that only true Donny Osmond fans will miss. Maybe a plunge or two into that saccharine syrup might make Rixey more memorable in “Any Dream Will Do,” but I would prefer that he add a sprinkling of excess to those melodramatic moments when he is unjustly imprisoned, crying out his “Close Every Door.” Lighting designer Jeff Childs does come to the prisoner’s rescue, adding some spiritual gravitas.

Schroeder was brimful of brilliance as the Narrator, infusing enough energy into her string of recitative that it never devolved into tedious singsong, though she was often unintelligible. Beech’s misfortunes with his microphone were even more egregious as Pharaoh, including intermittent sonic dropouts, but his audio setup was likely jostled over the course of the evening, since he donned different costumes and headgear for his other roles – Jacob, Potiphar, and the doomed Baker.

Admittedly, it’s churlish of me to keep harping on Central Piedmont’s defective sound equipment and the cavalcade of professional-grade technicians who have failed to tame it. North of $115 million are being spent on replacing Pease, originally a lecture hall, with a genuine theatre facility, while Central Piedmont’s audio woes have gone unaddressed since 2005, when the Halton was new. But new generations come to the Halton every year, and new summer visitors from afar get their first taste of Charlotte theatre there – and they still need to be cautioned. By the time the “Megamix” came around on opening night, Beech’s “Song of the King” was only fitfully audible and Schroeder’s mic was intermittently dropping out.

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More power, then, to the performers onstage who merrily soldiered through. Even the charade of the brothers’ mournful moments was untarnished. All of the cameo solos hit their marks. Matthew Howie was hilariously rusticated as Reuben delivering the bad news to Jacob with “One More Angel,” and Neifert Enrique as Simeon – aided by his brothers and Emma Metzger’s scene-stealing table dance – brought a boulevardier’s wistful regret to “Those Canaan Days,” with more than a soupçon of self-mockery in his lamentations.

Even more THEA2021-DLV-0708-2049irrepressible and irresistible was the calypso lightness and joy that Griffin Digsby brought to the “Benjamin Calypso” as Naphtali. Around the third or fourth time Digsby reached the “Oh no! Not he!” refrain, I had to stop myself, for I had started to sing along. Just another adjustment I’ll need to make after 16 months of consuming theatre in front of my computer monitor and TV set. It was hard to be displeased by anything that accompanied this welcome change.

Upsizing “Little Shop” at CP

Review: Little Shop of Horrors

By Perry Tannenbaum

Little Shop of Horrors Final Dress Rehearsal; October 24th, 2019

What seemed so axiomatic when Little Shop of Horrors opened Off-Broadway in 1982 – that it was a little musical – was shunted aside when the smash hit was finally revived on Broadway in 2003. Bringing the show to Broadway seemed against the grain to Howard Ashman after he had directed his own original adaptation of Roger Corman’s 1960 sci-fi comedy. His misgivings were borne out by the lukewarm reviews from the New York critics and the equally tepid box office.

Big productions of Little Shop, like the touring version that hit Ovens Auditorium in 2005, have been aberrations. Around the country, the welcome mat for Ashman’s artful adaptation, with a rockin’ doo-wop score by Alan Menken, is customarily rolled out by smaller regional companies and community theatres.

A little surprising, then, to see Central Piedmont Theatre bringing Audrey, Seymour, and Audrey II to Halton Theater, which is only marginally smaller than the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson), where it ran on Broadway. But guess what? Charlotte isn’t receiving Little Shop as if it were a niche musical for guerilla companies and intimate venues. A robust crowd turned out for this past Sunday’s matinee, with armloads of tickets sold up in the oft-empty Halton balcony.

Little Shop of Horrors Final Dress Rehearsal; October 24th, 2019

Nor is director Ron Chisholm and his CP team shying away from the challenge of making Little Shop big. James Duke’s set design fills the stage from wing to wing, and Chisholm pours a larger cast around Audrey and Seymour than the one that populated Mushnik’s Flower Shop and Skid Row in the Broadway revival. I should also say that Chisholm pours a larger cast into Audrey II, but I won’t spoil how that plays out.

My wife Sue didn’t recognize any of the names on the CP cast list, which ultimately demonstrated just how deep Charlotte’s talent pool is these days. The name I recognized from her starring role over the summer in CP’s Beehive, Iris DeWitt, was not to be recognized here at Mushnik’s. With body mics liberally distributed among the Skid Row citizenry, it’s safest to say that DeWitt represented onstage by the latter Audrey II puppets. That’s when the alien plant lets loose with her infamous “Feed Me,” displaying its vocal gifts upon growing to maturity.LITTLESHOPOFHORRORS-123.jpg

While you need a full-throated – even intimidating – voice that DeWitt brings to an invader that metastasizes into a global threat, we need to get more ambivalent impressions of Seymour, Mushnik, and the human Audrey. We empathize with the orphaned Seymour, who is bossed by Mushnik, bullied by Mushnik, terrified by Audrey’s dentist boyfriend, and ignored by Audrey.

Until Seymour becomes homicidal.

Then we see him feeding body parts to Audrey 2 and covering up his guilt by luring Mushnik into the same maw. He’s reluctant to do 2’s bidding and become a bloodthirsty killer, but it’s bringing him fortune, fame, and – in his mind – the Audrey who has hitherto shunned him. Ultimately, he pushes back, ready to face what his recovered integrity brings him. It’s a fairly daunting role for Matthew Howie in his Charlotte debut, and the dude must also prove he can sing – both as a downtrodden clod and, in “Suddenly, Seymour,” as a newly-minted romantic hero. Howie knows how, and Chisholm gives him a comical Clark Kent moment to punctuate his transformation.

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Nearly 60 years after she first appeared onscreen, we look more askance at Audrey for absorbing and covering up the abuse she takes from Orin, her dentist boyfriend, than we do for her presumed promiscuity. She encourages Seymour to stand up to Mushnik, and when he suddenly achieves celebrity, declares she isn’t good enough for him. Anna Farish proved to be sensational in her own way as Seymour’s ideal, belting “Suddenly Seymour” opposite Howie with equal gusto in their duet and tapping into Audrey’s humdrum sweetness in the gooey “Somewhere That’s Green.”

I quite envy anyone who hears the reprise of that bucolic ballad for the first time. The sick comedy of it comes through in Farish’s last gasps, but that was one of multiple moments when I wished I were seeing Little Shop in a more intimate venue. Because a huge set piece by Duke was spun around when we went from the outdoor squalor of Skid Row to the inside of the flower shop, scenes at the shop played too far away upstage for maximum enjoyment.

Little Shop of Horrors Final Dress Rehearsal; October 24th, 2019

On the other hand, there were plenty of outsized performances besides DeWitt’s to help bridge the distance. Most outré was Victor Tran as the sadistic, laughing-gas fueled Orin, who gets to shine late in Act 1 singing “Dentist” with a backup trio, somewhat denuded of its usual 50’s trimmings. Clad in leather when he calls on Audrey, Tran also gets to handle two of the most interesting props in this production, an emasculated motorcycle and the wondrous dentist’s chair he mounts in order to terrorize Seymour – extracting only a single tooth, alas.

Jake Yara has that slight avuncular quality – and the hearty voice – you want to see in Mushnik and plenty of the selfish greed you want to see offsetting it. Mushnik is a bit of a Jewish stereotype, more comical than offensive. But when Yara sings “Mushnik and Son” with Howie, as Mushnik offers to make the suddenly promising Seymour his partner, there’s a pinch of warm regard mixed into his cunning pragmatism. On the street, where the alleys and trashcan evoke the seedy ‘hood, Katie Marcelino, Logan Cosper, and Taylor Goodwin do more than just sing backup.

They keep it real. So does the ensemble actor who plays the neighborhood drunk, rousing from his stupor only long enough to sing the low notes.