Tag Archives: Nonye Obichere

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.

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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.