Tag Archives: Nonye Obichere

Two Iconic Singer-Songwriters Collide

Reviews: Nina Simone: Four Women and Ain’t Misbehavin’

By Perry Tannenbaum

With three new theater productions opening last week from Actor’s Theatre, Brand New Sheriff, and Theatre Charlotte – all sporting all-black casts – we have entered a Black History Month in Charlotte that is more about black history than ever before. Some of the African Americans who might be expected to show up for those auditions will be shining in the spotlight somewhere else this weekend as Children’s Theatre of Charlotte opens Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds at ImaginOn.

Unless you count university productions, we haven’t had more than one truly black theater production here in Charlotte during any Black History Month in the past 10 years.

So our Black History Month upgrade – and the stunning amount of local black talent necessary to make it happen – was definitely on my mind as I took in all of these shows. But a couple of times, in Actor’s Theatre’s tribute to Nina Simone and Theatre Charlotte’s Fat Waller revue, I found myself flashing back to January 2003.

That’s when a bi-racial Charlotte Rep production of Let Me Sing featured two black Broadway veterans, Gretha Boston and André de Shields, who boasted five Tony Award nominations and two wins between them.

Nina Simone: Four Women from Actor’s Theatre threw a new perspective on what are usually regarded as Rep’s declining years. The title role, calling for a passionate Black Power advocate and a charismatic singer-songwriter, would obviously benefit from the Broadway star power that Michael Bush, with his Manhattan Theatre Club connections, was able to lure down to our Booth Playhouse during Rep’s latter days.

De Shields was actually one of the original stars of Ain’t Misbehavin’ when it opened at Manhattan Theatre Club and took the Tony for Best Musical in 1978. So my thoughts naturally returned to De Shields, Rep, and Let Me Sing when Theatre Charlotte opened the Fats Waller musical revue two days after Actor’s opened their Simone musical. On this night at least, I had the satisfaction of recalling the Broadway star and feeling that our fair Queen City was getting along just fine without him.

A lot of the credit goes to Charlotte’s own Tony winner, educator extraordinaire Corey Mitchell, who directs this sassy 94-minute show at the Queens Road barn. The cast he culled from auditions is consistently spectacular, whether they’re singing or dancing, but we also need to slice off some accolades to the seven-piece jazz band led by trombonist Tyrone Jefferson, featuring Neal Davenport at the piano. Kudos to choreographer Ashlyn Sumner: with some formidable talents to work with, she has stretched them.

Conceived by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., Misbehavin’ goes about capturing Waller’s essence by culling the gems from his imposing oeuvre and preserving the pianist’s penchant for interpolating sly comments and wisecracks between his lyrics. Comical gems like “The Viper’s Drag,” “Find Out What They Like (and How They Like It),” and “Your Feet’s Too Big,” all score big. Adapting and orchestrating, Luther Handerson and Jeffrey Gutcheon usually go with the grain of Waller’s merry, mischievous recordings, but occasionally they go against it, slowing down “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Mean to Me” so they sound brand new.

Yet Waller also composed one solemn anthem that belongs in the same elite pantheon as Simone’s “Four Women” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The introductory chords from the piano were all I needed to tell me that “Black and Blue” was on its way with lyricist Andy Razaf’s indelible refrain: What did I do to be so black and blue?

After delivering more than an hour of pure ebullient joy, it was a powerful question to ask. Lighting designer Chris Timmons dimmed his gels over Tim Parati’s funky nightclub set, Jefferson hushed the band, and Mitchell huddled his entire cast downstage where all five could look us coldly in the eye.

Never afflicted with obliquity. Waller and Razaf answered their own question: My only sin is in my skin.

Keston Steele has the most amazing voice in this cast, and it’s not just her range and volume. Steele may look small, but as “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” proves, this lady can g-g-growl! Best dancer is more of a toss-up. Look no further than Nonye Obichere kicking “How Ya Baby” if you’re looking for somebody startling and athletic. Tyler Smith is your man if your quest is for someone smooth and sensual.

Smith was the comedy showstopper – and the chief reason why De Shields can stay right where he is – delighting us with his stealth and style in “The Viper’s Drag,” but Marvin King was just as hilarious in the outright insulting “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Danielle Burke’s breakout moments were her mellow “Squeeze Me” solo and her bawdy “Find Out What They Like” duet with Steele.

The songlist is loaded with Fats faves that will get your toes tapping, including “Handful of Keys,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Fat and Greasy,” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Or you might get into the sway of “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Lounging at the Waldorf.” All in all, another insane overachievement for Charlotte’s community theater. Pass the reefer and the champagne!

Production values at Hadley Theater looked like they would be up to the usual high Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte standard when we took our seats on opening night of Nina Simone: Four Women. Chip Decker’s set design for the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is colorful and impressive. And shifty: when Decker detonates his sound design, simulating the bomb blast that killed four black girls on September 15, 1963, the walls twist acutely to register the racist atrocity.

But after Lizzie and American Idiot, two arrestingly loud shows at ATC’s new Queens University home, this Christina Ham drama was often too soft-spoken to be clearly heard – even though I spotted the actors wearing head mics late in the 86-minute performance. That was a major element that can improve as the run continues.

Shortcomings in Ham’s script and Chanel Blanchett’s stage direction are not so easily remedied. I’m sure the playwright didn’t intend to be insulting, but her scenario basically tells us that Simone went down to the 16th Street church, stationed herself defiantly behind the sanctuary keyboard with the intention of completing her livid protest song, “Mississippi Goddam.” While completing her response to the murder of Medgar Evers three months earlier in Mississippi, three of the women who would be immortalized in “Four Women” walked in off the street to take refuge from the violence still raging out on the streets of Birmingham.

Fate basically hands the songwriter one of her most revered compositions, if you take Ham literally.

I’m not sure that Blanchett wants us to take the story that way. Played with stormy intensity by Destiny Stone, Simone is already hostile and militant when she arrives in Birmingham. Nina’s urgent need to get her song finished only begins to catalog the reasons why she antagonizes each of the three women who walk in on her. Sarah is a humdrum housemaid who would rather pursue MLK non-violence than take Malcolm X action. Sephronia is a yellow-skinned socialite who doesn’t struggle at all financially like Sarah, drawing class hatred from the housekeeper for her money and scorn from Simone for her political aloofness.

Further stirring the pot is Sweet Thing, seething because she can’t have Sephronia’s fiancé though she can have his baby. This liquor-swigging streetwalker draws hatred and scorn from all quarters, for how she lives and for entering a holy place. Beware, though, she’s brandishing a knife.

Although the arguments are passionate, Blanchett blunts their sharpness, preferring to space her players rather than getting them in each other’s faces – until Arlethia Friday arrives as Sweet Thing. Stone, Erica Ja-Ki Truesdale as Sarah and Krystal Gardner as Sephronia often face us instead of the person they’re arguing with. Maybe Blanchett doesn’t really believe that Simone and the “intruders” are really there at the Baptist Church. Having these actors appear like they’re reliving the first play they ever performed in grade-school doesn’t solve the problem.

After all the verbal and physical combat, the title song breaks out. It’s surreal: all three women miraculously know their lyric and their order in the song. I’m guessing this dramatic flouting of logic will help distract us from the fundamental flip she burdens Stone with in portraying Simone. For 80 minutes, she has heaped hatred, anger, and scorn upon these women who are interfering with her creative process. Now she’s deeply empathetic toward them all, turning them into emblems of scarred, heroic black womanhood.

With 11 other songs along the way, there are sudden lurches as we move forward, cutting abruptly from argument to song. Stone’s singing, with pianist Judith Porter leading a driving quartet, is the show’s most human element as she channels Simone’s fire into “Sinnerman,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and the last of the “Four Women.” Stripped of the backup singers that sugarcoat Simone’s recordings of “Young, Gifted, and Black,” I liked the crispness of Stone’s even better.

Intensity was never Stone’s problem. What I was looking for was more arrogant self-assurance lifting her rage to a higher plane – a serene majesty that earns you the title of High Priestess of Soul. A few more leading roles, not to mention turning 30, will likely do the trick someday. Probably because she comes in toting a flask and a knife, getting the liberty to stagger around the stage rather than finding a mark and facing front, Friday’s Sweet Thing is the best acting we see. She isn’t Simone’s Sweet Thing until she sings her, but she’s closer to what Nina had in mind than Ham’s housemaid. Darting between the worlds of rock, jazz, blues, folk, and soul, Simone has eluded many who would find excitement and enjoyment in her music. Ham’s writing marshals key facts in this North Carolina native’s life into the dialogue but never really captures her soul. The songs in Four Women and Stone’s singing could be a gateway to that treasure trove.

Actor’s Theatre Makes “American Idiot” an Immersive Face-Melting Experience

Review: American Idiot

By Perry Tannenbaum

Young love and the ills of the world are so frequently the focus of rock musicals that we sometimes feel little need to decipher the words that jangle together with the actions and emotions we’re seeing onstage. This week is a particularly rockin’ and raucous week in Charlotte, with the 20-year revival tour of Rent and the new Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of American Idiot opening on consecutive nights.

The original premiere of the Jonathan Larson musical and the 2004 Green Day album were separated by a mere eight years. While the young adult angst lived on, the world had completely changed: the old preoccupations with AIDS and AZT were supplanted by post-9/11 disillusionment and a scattershot scorn for suburbia, corporate America, the war-mongering George W, and the powerlessness of teens to change any of it.

Actor’s Theatre certainly knows powerlessness. Scheduled to open their new location on Freedom Drive last October, they had to be content to offer tours of their production-ready facility. Governmental regulations, foot-dragging and red tape have pushed back the opening to a still undetermined date in 2018. For a second consecutive show, Actor’s Theatre is relying on the kindness of Queens University and their Hadley Theatre, a facility they share with Myers Park Traditional School. Once you get past the decorous entrance and the antiseptic hallway, the black box venue actually possesses much of the off-Broadway feel we’ve come to expect from this company.

At the core of this production are a stage director, music director, choreographer, and a couple of lead actors who have figured prominently in past Actor’s Theatre productions at their demolished former home on Stonewall Street. They may be taking their exile from a permanent home personally, now that it’s prolonged to nearly 18 months, with an understandable urge to scream. Producing artistic director Chip Decker didn’t appear to be worried about reining any of them in, especially music director Ryan Stamey and choreographer Tod A. Kubo.

Stamey stands behind a keyboard at the edge of the stage, looking up at a six-piece band perched above the middle of the stage, occasionally leaning into a microphone and joining the vocalists. There’s a cellist embedded in the sextet whom I never heard. Likewise, the tropical strains of steel guitar, so clearly soothing in the background of the Broadway cast album on “Give Me Novacaine,” has been almost completely sandpapered away by Stamey’s heavy-metal approach.

The storyline, not exactly robust on the Grammy Award-winning concept album, has been somewhat bolstered by lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and stage director Michael Mayer in their book. Instead of a single Jesus of Suburbia, the musical has three. We have the original Johnny, who escapes the burbs only to encounter his hipster, heroin-shooting alter ego, St. Jimmy, and the possible love of his life, Whatsername.

At a neighborhood 7-Eleven, Johnny meets two other chums who have been crucified by suburbia – and turned into American Idiots – Will and Tunny. Only one of those two will use the bus tickets Johnny has purchased for the trio’s glorious breakaway. Will’s girlfriend, Heather, shows up and places his hand on her belly, obviating the need of saying to him that she’s pregnant. Apparently, punk rockers aren’t very articulate, for Tunny doesn’t do much of anything in the big city, mostly lying face down on a bed until lured by a US Army commercial to go off and fight in an unspecified foreign war.

With two more self-pitying saviors and two additional girlfriends worked into the story – Tunny eventually finds The Extraordinary Girl – Armstrong added more Green Day music to his score, conveniently taken from 21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up album to American Idiot. Their decibel level tamped down to barely bearable, the band is so face-meltingly loud that you have to admire the singers’ will to prevail. Decker doles out the most expressive and outré action to Johnny and St. Jimmy, keying electrifying performances from Matt Carlson and Jeremy DeCarlos respectively.

From his defiant and rebellious posturing in suburbia, Carlson became pure decadence in the city, simulating casual sex, shooting dope, and reeling around in a stupor as he sang. To contrast with this charismatic dissipation, DeCarlos had to take extreme measures to strike us as Johnny’s inner Beelzebub. There has always been a physical resemblance between DeCarlos and Jimi Hendrix, and I had to suspect that St. Jimmy would be the role to set it loose. Costume designer Carrie Cranford audaciously joined in the conspiracy, supplying a flamboyant jacket that evokes the Hussar military jacket Hendrix sported back in the late ‘60s. There wasn’t a headband or a Mexican bandit’s sombrero in the outfit, but the outrageous hairdo more than compensated, so puffed and straightened that I didn’t notice the thin dangling braids at first.

Coupled with this look were spell-casting gesticulations that went beyond the Wicked Witch of the West and World Wide Wrestling in their shamelessness, and I’ve never heard DeCarlos sing with such ferocity before, though there are also seductive and manic moments for St. Jimmy. Where exactly in this charismatic performance the ministrations of Kubo’s choreography began was difficult for me to divine, but the choreographer should definitely get a large proportion of the credit for making this American Idiot such an immersive, visceral experience. Like Actor’s Theatre general manager Martin Kettling told us in his curtain speech, the ensemble frequently used the platform looming above the stage as a jungle gym, often joining the musicians at the top. Over and over, I saw daring dance moves that must have come after Kubo hopefully asked, “Can you try this?” in rehearsals.

Some of the most arresting action came from the women, differentiating the Charlotte American Idiot from the Broadway edition, where hard rock seemed to be the exclusive playpen of macho sexist louts. Nonye Obichere was particularly stunning as Whatsername, all Johnny could handle and more, singing and dancing with a dominatrix edge. As Heather, Lizzie Medlin was more bitchy and Gothic, upstaging Steven Buchanan, who was mostly confined to the vicinity of a sofa once Will grudgingly chose domesticity as his direction in life.

Grant Zavitkovsky was underpowered, undermiked, and largely unintelligible as Tunny in the early going, but those problems thankfully vanished by the time he enlisted. While the budgetary concessions Decker made in his set design worked well, the technical economies he adopted meant that Tunny’s wartime travails were far less catastrophic. No matter how well Grant Zavitkovskyperformed the role, The Extraordinary Girl couldn’t be nearly as extraordinary in her devotion.

There’s a self-critical bent in Armstrong’s leading men that is totally at odds with the striving, sentimental nobility and martyrdom of the Rent heroes and heroines. Lyrical and melodic takeaways from American Idiot aren’t as vivid or memorable as those you might find in the sassy “Out Tonight” or the anthemic “What You Own” that Larson crafted for his glorified squatters. I didn’t find myself nearly as much on the side of Armstrong’s troubled American Idiots, but I did feel they should be listened to. Even if I hadn’t known how passionately Carlson and DeCarlos felt about this music, I would have heard it in their voices and seen it in their actions.

A High School Queen Drinks Drano

Reviews of Heathers: The Musical and Motherhood Out Loud

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Then the movie first came out in 1989, Heathers was already raunchy enough for an R rating. But after the musical revels of Bat Boy, Spring Awakening, Reefer Madness, and Evil Dead have already pushed the envelope, raunchy in 2016 is an altogether different proposition. Three of the first six songs in the new Queen City Theatre Company production of Heathers: The Musical take us to places where the movie feared to tread.

“Candy Store” is fairly ballsy as the three Heathers — Heather Chandler, Heather McNamara, and Heather Duke — lay down the rules for admission into their elite clique. But it’s Veronica’s “Fight for Me” that tells us ballsy is just the beginning. Newcomer J.D. shows her there’s somebody else to be impressed with at Westerburg High School. Yes, the backup singers are chanting “holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!” Pretty soon, J.D. is encountering Veronica at a 7-Eleven and enticing her with the mind-numbing effects of Slurpees in “Freeze Your Brain,” comparing a deep sip to a hit of cocaine.

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But when “Dead Girl Walking” climaxes, it’s a full-blown copulation song of animalistic force. And unlike the movie, where J.D. is always breaking into Veronica’s bedroom, here it’s Veronica hungering for J.D. and hunting him down. “Shut your mouth,” she commands, “and lose them tighty-whities!”

With Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy combining on the book, music, and lyrics, Heathers is actually the lovechild of the mischief-makers who had separately brought us Bat Boy and Reefer Madness. Besides Bat Boy, O’Keefe can claim the musicalized Legally Blonde on his résumé, while Murphy was head writer on Desperate Housewives. That should adequately preface my declaration that the musical, which rocked the off-Broadway scene in 2014, outclasses the movie in every way.

The music certainly does rock, and with KC Roberge and Matt Carlson as our leads, it’s rocking harder here in the QC than it does on the original cast album. Directing the show, Glenn T. Griffin steers us quickly away from Glee territory, with Carlson’s highly-amped and punkish read on J.D., a brilliant move when the dreamboat turns out to be a raving psychotic.

But while Veronica mulls over the relative merits of staying in the Heathers’ good graces or killing them off — an ambivalence Roberge sustains earnestly — it isn’t all sex, drugs, and rock. There are three pointed ballads in Act 2, one by a surviving Heather who is contemplating suicide, another by the cruelly shunned Martha Dunnstock (nicknamed Dump Truck) about her halcyon days in kindergarten, and a wistful Veronica-J.D. duet, “Seventeen,” on the charms of being ordinary humdrum high schoolers.

When they aren’t plotting date rape, footballers Ram and Kurt are the clowns you expect jocks to be, but the unexpected jolt of new comedy happens at their funeral when their dads deliver their eulogies. Time after time, J.D.’s acts of homicidal mayhem result in unlikely epiphanies. The Heathers Band, led at the keyboard by Mike Wilkins, gives rousing support to “My Dead Gay Son” and all the other showstoppers, but it’s Tod Kubo’s choreography that pushes the big ensembles over the top.

IMG_5097The three Heathers retain their iconic croquet mallets from the film, but costume designers Beth Killion and Ramsey Lyric get Griffin’s drift and take their outfits in a more dominatrix direction. Together in various synced poses, they are sensational — all in major roles for the first time.

Tessa Belongia, a senior at Northwest School of the Arts, has the requisite queen bee regality for Heather Chandler, a bitch that O’Keefe and Murphy just couldn’t bear putting to sleep. She appears just once after J.D. offs her with Drano in the film, but here in the musical, she haunts Veronica repeatedly.

You wonder which Heather will be top dog after Chandler’s demise, and Nonye Obichere proves to be a worthy successor as Duke, not at all the dimwit of the movie but a lingering villainess until the finale.

Ava Smith, who also auditioned for the Blumey Awards last Saturday, was McNamara, the most sensitive of the Heathers, but she doesn’t give away her softness too soon.

Martha is a conflation of two of Veronica’s classmates in the film, making for a more satisfying stage character than either of her film components, and Allison Andrews capitalizes big-time on her anguished moment in the spotlight, “Kindergarten Boyfriend.” Griffin’s casting, Liam Pearce as linebacker Ram and Kaleb Jenkins as quarterback Kurt, cures the Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum aspect of the film — Pearce is far taller — helping us to feel that Martha is smitten by a real person rather than a generic jock in a school jacket. The horny pals are also a pretty effective comedy team.

Notwithstanding Carlson’s spiked hairdo, there’s a thread of 80’s nostalgia that lingers on. J.D. has this Paleolithic, Oklahoma City notion of destroying his high school by planting remotely controlled dynamite packs throughout the building and setting them off with a detonator hidden down in the basement. Pretty lame compared with today’s hip style of grenades and assault weapons, right?

Adults are all as clueless as we remember from teen films immemorial, if not a bit eccentric. Here they’re interchangeable enough for three elders to play multiple roles. Alyson Lowe is funniest as Ms. Fleming, the hippy-dippy teacher who wants the student body to assemble and ventilate after each murder. Steven Martin and Nathan Crabtree split four Dads between them, but their gay moment at the church funeral is unforgettable — and so very 2016.

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What a wonderful idea Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein had for a Mother’s Day theatre event: a group of monologues and brief sketches, mostly by women playwrights, called Motherhood Out Loud. Turns out the brilliance of this idea largely belongs to Three Bone Theatre which staged the Charlotte premiere at McBride & Bonnefoux Center for Dance Studio last weekend. Nearly every other production that came up in my Google search, dating back to Fall 2011, opened during some month other than May.

The timing helped, for some of the 22 stories were sappy, and the five “fugues” that prefaced the five chapters — “Fast Births,” “First Day,” “Sex Talk,” “Stepping Out,” and “Coming Home” — were unnecessary. The best segments were those that confounded expectations.

Although she perpetrated all those fugues, Michele Lowe also wrote “Queen Esther,” narrated by a Jewish mother whose son refuses dress up as any of the customary male characters for his school’s Purim party.

“If We’re Using a Surrogate…,” by Marco Pennette, was a gay father’s account of arranging — and attending — his daughter’s birth, two very awkward meetings with an obliging lesbian. Theresa Rebeck’s “Baby Bird” brought us the experience of an American mother adopting a Chinese baby, and “Michael’s Date,” by Claire LaZebnik, was a mother’s account of chaperoning her autistic son on his first date.Group Hi-Res

Perhaps the most unexpected piece was “Elizabeth,” where a divorced man goes home to his elderly mom and finds that he needs to mother her.

A cast of 18, sensitively directed by Kim Parati, helped us over the rough spots. So did that timing when we came to Jessica Goldberg’s “Stars and Stripes,” about a military mother, and Annie Weisman’s concluding “My Baby,” an unabashed description of the joy and pain of childbirth. No better time for these than Mother’s Day.