Tag Archives: Rachel Engstrom

Bravura Aplenty in Theatre Charlotte’s “Memphis”

Review:  Memphis

By Perry Tannenbaum

As you may have found out, ignorant buffoons can make it big in America. So why not ignorant eccentrics? If Huey Calhoun didn’t make it big as a ‘50s deejay in Memphis, the musical by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, then his fall from celebrity wouldn’t be nearly as reckless or spectacular. When he has lost his local TV show, tossed away his shot at national fame, and blown his romantic chances with the R&B queen he has catapulted to stardom, Huey defiantly delivers the anthem he has earned, “Memphis Lives in Me.”

“One more drink and you’ll see God everywhere,” sings Huey in tribute to his chief consolation: a bluesy Beale Street honky-tonk bar. It’s the culmination of a Broadway- caliber performance that Joe McCourt is currently giving at Theatre Charlotte in the lead role that DiPietro patterned after legendary rock pioneer Dewey Phillips.

Contrary to the preproduction signals that McCourt and director Corey Mitchell were sending, McCourt hasn’t muted Huey’s nasal drawl or portrayed him as much less of a rube than Chad Kimball did on Broadway. That’s a good thing. “Sounds just like him!” my wife Sue concurred at intermission.

Whether it’s the pork-pie hat and costume by designer Rachel Engstrom, or Huey’s sidling walk – seemingly unable to unbend his knees, straighten his back, or take two consecutive steps in the same direction – McCourt also looks a lot like Kimball’s Tony-nominated portrait. Perhaps rehearsals with Dani Burke as hot young singer Felicia Farrell revealed that, if McCourt were to tone down Huey’s goofball attributes, he would come off as more of a creepy stalker.

Ultimately, McCourt has arrived at a very likable blend of naïveté, chutzpah, neediness, awkwardness, and hipness – not the easiest elements to combine – and as usual, he torches every song he touches. For her part, Burke hasn’t lost any of the voltage she first brought to the Queens Road barn when she electrified audiences with “Aquarius” in the 2014 production of Hair.

 

Felicia isn’t nearly the plum role Huey is, but Burke proves to be fairly formidable in her first full-fledged lead. A few of Engstrom’s creations glam her up, and I liked Burke’s regality at the “WRNB” studio, where Huey has the nerve to ask Felicia to perform live. We’ve only seen Felicia in a seedy honky-tonk before, and the top radio station in Memphis also looks pretty shabby, but Burke demands, “Where are my backup singers?” as if she’s already a star.

What’s happening here in Memphis doubly crosses racial lines as Huey brings black music to the middle of the AM radio dial and presumes to romance Felicia while promoting her talent. Both of these audacities bring powerful characters into the flow of the action. Station owner Mr. Simmons is easily the most comical of these, and Mike Carroll beautifully brings out the businessman’s starchy pomposity – and astonishment – each time a new Huey atrocity increases his listening audience, his sponsor’s satisfaction, and finally his own teenage son’s admiration.

I hardly even remembered the role of Huey’s mom from the original Broadway production, so I was fairly blown away by the heart – and the pipes – that Allison Snow Rhinehart brings to Mama. Of course, she’s as déclassé as Huey, so his outsized dreams and successes are a total shock to her, not to mention coming home one day to find his black girlfriend in her kitchen. But Mama’s prejudices occupy the same space as her love and loyalty, so Rhinehart has a couple of gratifying surprises in store for us after intermission.

Least surprising, after his triumph as Coalhouse Walker in last winter’s CPCC production of Ragtime, is Tyler Smith’s powerful portrayal of Delray, Felicia’s fiercely protective brother and owner of the dive where Huey discovers her. It doesn’t take long to catch on to Smith’s power, since he’s toe-to-toe with Burke in the opening “Underground” ensemble, and he’ll prove equally capable of facing off with McCourt on “She’s My Sister” when Delray flares up about Felicia’s interracial affair. In fact, when the catastrophe strikes that ends Act 1, I suspect that Mitchell may have imposed some unnecessary restraint on Delray’s ferocity.

But there was more than enough power from all the frontliners to justify the “Why didn’t you tell me about this place?” comments I was overhearing during the break. Apparently these newbies were undeterred by the lackluster scenic design by Chris Timmons or the generic choreography by Ashlyn Summer, which never reminded me of what my teen elders were dancing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand or Alan Freed’s The Big Beat. Victoria Fisher’s lighting design goes a long way to redeeming the drab sets, and music director Zachary Tarlton makes sure there is always a lively jump to Bryan’s score when needed.

Maybe the best reason to be wowed by Theatre Charlotte’s Memphis is how deep the excellence goes in this cast. After AJ White literally glows in a lemon yellow outfit as Wailin’ Joe on the first R&B track that Huey spins, there are two marvelous rebirths among the black folk that Huey’s musical mission reaches. First there’s Traven Harrington as Bobby, the radio station janitor, who will pile one shocker upon another before he’s done. Then there’s Clayton Stephenson, whose transformation as Gator may leave you weeping as Act 1 climaxes.

It ain’t perfect, but Mitchell has directed one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen on Queens Road in 30+ years of covering Theatre Charlotte. Chances are better than even that Memphis will live in you if you’re in the house when this company comes out for their final bows.

CP Summer’s “Sleuth” Plays Its Mind Games With Exceptional Polish

Theater Review: Sleuth

By Perry Tannenbaum

Between the time that Edward Albee was the playwright of the moment on Broadway with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962 and the torch was passed along to Peter Shaffer when Broadway unveiled his two sensations, Equus in 1973 and Amadeus in 1979, Peter’s twin brother, Anthony, probably came the closest to equaling their éclat with Sleuth in 1970. Central Piedmont Community College produced Amadeus at Pease Auditorium in 2006, so they can no longer be accused of favoritism between the twins now that they’re bringing Sleuth to the same venue. Sleuth is tricksy, twisty, and suspenseful, a battle of wits between a successful mystery writer and a younger travel agent who plans to wed the writer’s wife once the estranged couple is legally divorced. Above all, Sleuth is brainy, witty entertainment with undeniable appeal.

Andrew Wyke, the celebrated detective novelist, while cultivating lavish and eccentric tastes, has a keen sporting zest for game playing – and takes vicious delight in besting an opponent. But Wyke underestimates Milo Tindle, a scrappy fellow of humbler origins who turns out to be far more resilient and resourceful than we might have thought.

When Anthony’s Sleuth burst on Broadway, it logged more performances in its initial run than either of Peter’s hits in their original runs – more performances, in fact, than Virginia Woolf has logged to date in all four of its Broadway engagements combined. Sleuth still has not achieved the prestige – or sparked the Broadway revivals – of the others. It’s noticeably lighter; the whole game playing motif seems borrowed from Virginia Woolf, particularly when Sleuth becomes a best-two-out-of-three affair – and the movie version starring Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier seems so definitive. It may have been more than 40 years since I last saw this film, but as the action unfolded at Pease, I remembered Olivier’s distinctive way of reading “Punchinello” a minute before the moment arrived, and Wyke’s wounded, “You mocked Meridew!” evoked a similar echo.

At Halton Theater, where CPCC Summer Theatre launched their 2016 season with Annie and Chicago, production polish – including the Halton’s historically wayward sound system – has risen to unprecedented heights. With James Burns’ scenic design and Don Ketchum’s technical direction, that trend continues at panoramic Pease, where the width of the stage may be four times its height. Under these constraints, Burns delivers the most luxurious set ever seen at Pease for Wyke’s country home, lavishly outfitted with more props, furnishings, and glazed windows than the script requires. The big maritime dummy that must laugh at Wyke’s wit, the crockery that must shatter under gunfire, and the concealed wall safe that must explode all responded reliably on cue, though a little more volume and smoke from the dynamite would not be amiss. Really, it’s a kind of synergy: Burns’ set establishes confidence in the solidity of the production and Ketchum’s tech makes good on it.

Gerry Colbert was masterful in bringing out the charming and the vile aspects of Wyke’s fine breeding, a wily spider meticulously weaving a fatal web to ensnare his younger, less urbane guest. Christian Casper wasn’t the most docile patsy as Milo, all the better as Wkye gradually, skillfully exposes and preys upon his weaknesses and insecurities. It was delightful to see Milo’s comeback in Game Two after intermission, though I needed to depend on overheard audience reaction after the show to confirm that the disguise devised for Casper by costume designer Rachel Engstrom really worked. Watching Wyke crumble under Inspector Doppler’s examination was perhaps the most satisfying part of Colbert’s whole performance, a retribution the patrician brute richly deserved.

Only Game Three of the drama failed to meet my highest expectations. Directing the show, Carey Kugler uses the full width of the Pease stage as skillfully as you’ll ever see, but in opting for clarity at the end instead of heightened tension and urgency, the thrill of this thriller is diluted. The ten minutes that Wyke has to solve Milo’s three riddles before the cops arrive felt like 20. Getting Milo’s clues clearly and following Wyke’s ratiocination isn’t as important as conveying his terror. In the aftermath, I was quite satisfied with how Colbert and Casper ended their joust, but Kugler and lighting designer Sarah Ackerman need to find a way to frame it more dramatically.

If you haven’t seen Sleuth before, there are some twists and deceptions from Shaffer that I must not betray. Watching these unravel for the first time in live performance is a special pleasure, but those coming back to Sleuth will find a unique joy in listening to the whoops of surprise during and after the show. For that reason, I can’t comment in any detail on the work of newcomers Stanley Rushton as Inspector Doppler, Robin Mayfield as Detective Tarrant, and Liam McNulty as Constable Higgs. I can only give you my word that they were every bit as effective as Phillip Farrar, Harold K. Newman, and Roger Purnell were in the original Broadway production.