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Like Panoramic Pease, Music of the Night Was Fun While It Lasted

Review:  The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’ve never heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber – or you’re aching to become reacquainted – don’t blame Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte Symphony, or CPCC. Three times in last nine years, Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights series has brought us touring versions of Phantom of the Opera with visits from Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and School of Rock sprinkled in-between. CP brought us one of the first local productions of Phantom anywhere in 2015 and has kept enthusiasms stoked for Lord Lloyd with productions of Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar over the past decade and Evita earlier this year.

Denial and deprivation have become harder to sustain in recent months. Broadway Lights brought Love Never Dies, Webber’s sequel to Phantom, to Belk Theater in early September, and both Charlotte Symphony and CP piled on with Andrew Lloyd sequels in late October. Symphony’s “Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and More” opened last Thursday and encored the following evening, but the melodies of CP’s The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue linger on after opening on the same night.

The current revue marks a farewell to panoramic Pease Auditorium, which is slated to be demolished along with the school’s library in early 2019. As you might expect, the fondness of the farewell comes from numerous actors and artists who have kept the theatre tradition thriving at Pease, regathering at ground zero where the CP program started in 1972.

At the helm, directing and choreographing, is Ron Chisholm, whose local pedigree goes back to 1990. Susan Roberts Knowlson, Patrick Ratchford, Lisa Smith Bradley, and Kevin Harris qualify as distinguished veterans handpicked for this 13-member cast, while Ryan Deal and Lucia Stetson have the creds to be labelled the new establishment. Watch out for a few of the others, though. There were stars on the ascendant in my telescope.

With a running time of less than 73 minutes, nobody onstage gets a truly full workout except the musicians led by the versatile Lucia Stetson, who has acted, directed, and conducted both musicals and operas over the years at CP. Why such a miserly songlist with so many singers onstage and so many songs to choose from? With a decent bouquet of your fave CP singers on hand to deliver, it would have nice to claim that you’d be hearing all your fave Andrew Lloyd Webber songs.

There are 20 songs, or there would have been if one hadn’t been skipped last Saturday. Most generously represented are Evita and Phantom of the Opera – not surprising when you consider that Lucia Stetson and Ryan Deal, who starred in the title roles at CP, are on hand to handle their reprises. This they do with panache, for Chisholm knows where to place his chips when he ponders his staging. Stetson is festively dressed by costume designer Ramsey Lyric for the brash “Buenos Aires” and backed with enough vocalists to evoke a carnivale – and she really is dressed to the nines when she does Evita’s anthemic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”

As the ghoulish, predatory Phantom, Deal can only fully come into his own when paired with his prey – the more beautiful, the better. Deal breathes heavily enough to be truly sinister in singing “Music of the Night,” but he’s most commanding when he torments Knowlson in the title song. Squat as Pease is, scenic designer James Duke does provide twin staircases flanking his final Pease set. The one at stage left is definitely an asset when Deal makes his dominant melodramatic exit. “Sing!” he bellows as Knowlson sustains high notes we haven’t heard from her in years. I’m guessing that’s the rest of the ensemble forming an offstage chorus for this duet, intensifying its power.

Taking up the Raoul role, Ratchford struck up the more consoling duet with Knowlson, “All I Ask of You.” All that chemistry was still there, no doubt kindling widespread nostalgia among those in the audience who remember the multiple times Knowlson and Ratchford shared top billing at CP in the past. With the entire ensemble singing “Masquerade” and Knowlson soloing on “Wishing You Were Here,” you will gather that Chisholm & Company’s Music of the Night is wringing maximum mileage from Phantom.

Even before the selections already cited, Brittany Currie Harrington and Traven Harrington were a more age-appropriate Christine and Raoul in “Think of Me.” Traven’s voice is the mellower at his low end, but Brittany was sensational at her uppermost in an unforeseen cadenza at the end of their duet. Each of the Harringtons logged an additional solo before the revue was done, Brittany reprising the title song from Love Never Dies and Traven taking us way back to the title song of Starlight Express.

Do you remember There’s A Light at the End of the Tunnel from that same rollerskating musical? Me neither, but Kevin Harris – perhaps signaling that he’ll be back for Showboat next summer? – reminds us how righteously rousing it is in bringing us to intermission, with backup support that matches the liveliness of “Buenos Aires.” Of the remaining cast members, I most fancied Ron T. Diaz and Emily Witte, both of whom I wished were better showcased.

Witte was saddled with the lackluster “Another Suitcase” from Evita before being obliged to timeshare “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar with Sarah Henkel and Karen Christensen. Diaz continues the Superstar momentum into the final bows, getting a better split on that title song, with J. Michael Beech sharing the spotlight and everybody in celebratory form backing up.

Lisa Smith Bradley bore the burden of beginning the evening with “Memory” from Cats, a song that I loathe from a show I despise. As we moved onward – and inevitably upward – I could be thankful that this irritation had been immediately disposed of. But I remain peeved at the evening’s brevity and the songs from other shows that remained AWOL. If we could dip into Joseph for Ratchford’s Elvis-like “Song of the King” and Harris’s “Close Every Door to Me,” surely there could be space for more than the peeps we had into Song & Dance and Whistle Down the Wind.

Maybe it’s okay to skip past The Woman in White, Aspects of Love, and Tell Me on a Sunday, but surely we must sample the Tony Award-winning Sunset Boulevard and Sir Andrew’s triumphant comeback, School of Rock, which wowed this town back in January. A couple of songs from each of those hits would expand the running time past the 90-minute threshold – and sound more like a respectable survey of this composer’s work.

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Landing the Next LeBron Is Just Step One in “King Liz”

Review: King Liz

By Perry Tannenbaum

Wheeling and dealing, trading on her feminine wiles, sports agent Liz Rico is a dynamic dynamo in Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz. To keep her edge, Liz has to lie and cheat, sweet-talk and scold, soothing some mighty male egos while knowing her shit better than any of them. She must fight tooth-and-claw for every client and every dollar while keeping her calculating cool.

In the heat of an NBA draft session, Liz hopes to land her hotshot high school point guard, Freddie Luna, with the New York Knicks. Playing all the contingencies, Liz makes promises to the New York Nets that she doesn’t intend keep, works the phone further to keep the Knicks interested, and fervently prays that some other team doesn’t mess up her schemes by snatching up her player – and ruining her cred with everybody she’s been dealing with.

Including her boss, Mr. Candy, who has been dangling the prospect of letting Liz take over the company when he retires.

After the draft, Liz’s trials have barely begun. Coach Jones isn’t on the same page as the Knicks’ GM on Freddie’s readiness for the NBA, so the rookie’s place in the starting lineup and his actual playing time are both unknowns. Further threatening Freddie’s marketability are the kid’s impoverished, violent past, his hair-trigger temper, his déclassé friends, and his inexperience in the media spotlight.

The current Three Bone Theatre production at Spirit Square has a couple of extra déclassé elements that don’t chime well with Coppel’s script. The first is Three Bone’s budget, which doesn’t allow set designer Ryan Maloney to come anywhere close to simulating the office at a high-powered sports agency that boasts such big-name clients as James Harden, Kevin Love, and Carmelo Anthony.

Though she undoubtedly has the power and charisma for the full range of King Liz, I sometimes felt that Shar Marlin needed to be more of a smooth operator to completely define her. Having directed Marlin’s stunning performance last year in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director Corlis Hayes had to be supremely confident that this force of nature was equal to tackling Liz. But Hayes doesn’t altogether curb Marlin’s inclination to carry elements of the blues divas she has played – Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey – over to a more modern powerhouse who has the finesse to wow a boardroom.

I’m not sure that a big wheel like Liz needs to do quite so much yelling working the phones and bossing her assistant. Less would have counted more.

Granted, the streets and the projects loom large in Liz’s background, allowing her to empathize with Freddie, but if Marlin were finding them in Liz rather than Rainey, her manner would be more consistently elegant. Yet we need to acknowledge that Marlin nearly makes Liz a cohesive person despite the fact that Coppel makes her excessively chameleonic. Coppel does have that tendency. If you think Liz flits from persona to persona in the blink of an eye, wait to till you hear about her board of directors’ flipflops in the final scenes.

The script only takes us back to 2015, when Phil Jackson was GM at the Knicks, but Hayes manages to accent the #MeToo elements of the story, encouraging Tim Huffman to remain a blowhard as Mr. Candy while adding a sprinkling of Harvey Weinstein sleaziness. Costume designer Ramsey Lyric puts an exclamation point on Mariana Bracciale’s transformation as Gabby Fuentes, Liz’s ambitious assistant, making sure we see how much more willing she is to play ball with Candy.

Marlin fares better outside the office, strategically captivating Coach Jones without giving in or quashing his desires. Hooking Freddie and keeping him in line requires even more virtuosic hairpin turns from Liz, so Marlin gets to show the agent’s wiliness until Freddie breaks loose from her control, exposing her doubts and insecurities. He can’t control himself, so how can she?

Although Sultan Omar El-Amin doesn’t boast the physicality of a point guard sporting the stats of a latter-day LeBron James, he has proven himself to be a master of youthful roles that require resentfulness and volatility. Once we get past his lack of size, muscles, and tattoos, El-Amin grows on us, sparking empathy and frustration with equal force. Jermaine A. Gamble has played his share of brooding youths recently, so it’s gratifying to see how convincingly he ages here as Coach Jones, adding a hint of a limp to give his mellow pursuit of Liz extra poignancy. His put-downs of Freddie hardly qualify as tough love – kindness is an unaffordable luxury when your job with a perennial losing team is on the line.

The wildcard in Coppel’s scenario is Barbara Flowers, a TV host that Liz is counting on to help her repair Freddie’s damaged image after he goes off the rails at a postgame interview. Disdaining the obvious prompt to do a Barbara Walters imitation, Susan Ballard initially does give us the impression that Flowers will toss Freddie one softball question after another on her show as Liz and Coach Jones sit beside him, holding his hand. But when Flowers discards Liz’s playbook and goes rogue, Ballard makes her a hard-nosed journalist asking tough hardball questions, way beyond Walters cordiality and a fair distance beyond civility.

It’s in these interview scenes that Coppel’s penchant for abrupt surprises works best. Freddie has definite rough edges, but the media can grow cruel fangs when they smell blood. In a stressful stew of crisis and tantalizing ambitions, Liz must reassess the consequences of her goals and who she wants to be.

Subversive Energy Still Ignites “Fahrenheit 451”

Review:  Fahrenheit 451

By Perry Tannenbaum

Each time Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 returns to Charlotte, it seems like a telltale barometer: how much closer have we come to fulfilling its grim dystopian vision – or how much further have we mercifully drifted away? Book burning and other assaults on culture may have been more virulent when the sci-fi classic was last served up at Children’s Theatre in 2005, when Taliban desecrations flamed our anger, or as recently as 2015, when ISIS insanity ruled Mosul and Palmyra.

With Kindle and Google Books, the concern nowadays seems more centered on physical books and booksellers, for notwithstanding the proud illiteracy of the toxic Agent Orange 45 – who still knows words, mind you – reading and literature appear safe for now. The battlefront seems to have shifted to information, reporting, and science. In Charlotte, the culture wars played out at local theatres back in the 90s have been upstaged by anti-LGBT initiatives in the state legislature and racial profiling on the streets.

Because of the complex crisscrossing of events in Charlotte and Charlottesville in the past few months, it gets pretty murky when we attempt to draw a sharp parallel between the firefighters that Bradbury’s hero, Guy Montag, breaks away from and the police of today. It was the protestors, after all, who carried the intimidating torches up in Virginia while police meekly looked on.

Forget the Charlottesville hullabaloo, then, if you go to see the Bradbury combustion up at Spirit Square in a crackling Three Bone Theatre production, for the company surely programmed 451 at Duke Energy Theatre between the Charlotte and Charlottesville riots.

Of course, while times inevitably have changed, productions will add another layer of difference, depending on the company and the director. Compared to the Children’s Theatre productions of 1993 and 2005, we get the full Bradbury stage adaptation now. Three Bone’s adds over 40 minutes, clocking in at 2:21, including intermission. The other big changes are the leading men that director Charles LaBorde has chosen.

With Harry Jones Jr. as Montag facing off against Thom Tonetti as Chief Beatty, we have a clash of physical titans that we haven’t seen before, both firefighters looking more like hard-working enforcers. Greater contrasts are also drawn between youth and age, innocence and experience, ignorance and knowledge. Mark Sutton could do many things onstage as Montag, but looming before us as physically – or vocally – intimidating wasn’t one of them. His early ignorance looked comparatively slack-jawed or nebbishy, slightly endearing.

Now we can see Montag as not only ignorant but also devolved and brutish. When Beatty warns that any influx of knowledge or enlightenment gained from reading will instantly register on Jones’s face, we believe it. He and the mass of mankind have evidently regressed so far that taking the first bite of the contents of a book is like beginning all over again – in a biblical or Darwinian sense.

Tonetti can roar nearly as loudly as Jones, and if he certainly isn’t any more rugged as Beatty than Scott Helm was in 2005, he has the advantage of more years to make him seem more experienced, scruffier, more cynical, and more embittered. Helm’s version of the fire chief was cooler, more inscrutable, while Tonetti is a hot boiling mess. He is erudite, filled with forbidden knowledge, and like God in Eden, able to smell the onset of intellect. But ambivalence rages within Beatty, set in his commitment to firefighting yet never able to fully vanquish the notion that he has made the wrong choice.

Library

Written in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 isn’t prescient about women’s advances in the future, but Bradbury was writing about a dystopian America, so we’re likely to give him a pass. LaBorde plants some women among the firefighters, and Bradbury’s main women, though not in the workforce, are interesting and varied. Mildred Montag, Guy’s wife, is the most conventional, unquestioning in her devotion to pills and brainless TV pap. Lisa Hatt as Mildred is mindless and sedated enough to be a likely source of Guy’s smoldering discontent.

Interestingly, there is a lax acceptance by Mildred and her neighbors of Montag’s predilection toward books. They’ll let it slide until Montag rocks the boat.

Near the Montags, a neighbor lady is found to have a vast home library that must be incinerated. Angie Cee gets a fine cameo as Mrs. Hudson, the library lady willing to burn with her beloved books, playing her with a memorable wild-eyed zeal – and just a trace of motherly love. Her martyrdom certainly gives Montag the inescapable notion that there might be something in books worth dying for.

Montag’s discontents at home and on the job make him vulnerable to the probing and teasing of his rebellious misfit neighbor, Clarisse. It’s a role that works well with the raffish delicacy that Stefani Cronley brings to it. Cronley becomes a dear and lively enough mentor to Montag for us to feel some of the same emptiness he feels when she disappears.

Perhaps the finest character Bradbury created in Fahrenheit 451 was the crazed fugitive outlaw, Faber. Somebody needs to register the horror of what has happened in America, and somebody needs to have an inkling about what can still be done. Bill Reilly brings a wild unkempt fervor to Faber, a catlike cunning wrapped into his cowardice and a divine spark twinkling in his despair. Mankind’s survival hangs on a slender thread, and he’s it – unless Montag and others like him can work out as recruits.

Like the Johann Stegmeir design concept for the 2005 Fahrenheit, Ryan Maloney’s set design and Ramsey Lyric’s costumes for Three Bone are not averse to the idea that we have entered a nuclear winter as well as an intellectual one. Other novelists have played with the idea that nuclear catastrophe might bring about reactionary rejection of science and culture. In Bradbury’s futureworld, nobody seems to know what exactly brought us to this, and that’s part of what makes it so sad.

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.