Theater Review: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical
By Perry Tannenbaum
So the holidays are here, and we know the live entertainment drill: inevitable revivals of A Christmas Carol, Nutcracker, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever plus a few fresh novelties to liven the mix. This year, one of the novelties is also one of the inevitables. For while it’s possible to see the customary stage adaptation of Barbara Robinson’s Yuletide favorite at Matthews Playhouse starting on Thursday, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte unveiled the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical on Black Friday.
Robinson adapted her 1971 novel for the Seattle Children’s Theatre in 1982, and the proliferation of productions across America has arguably made the playscript more beloved than the book. So the team of Johanna Beecham and Malcolm Hilgartner, adding their lyrics and musical score, did the prudent thing in adapting Robinson’s stage version.
Nearly 34 years to the day since the story succeeded in Seattle, a whole generation of parents who saw Best Christmas Pageant onstage as children are bringing their offspring to ImaginOn to see The Musical. Our Children’s Theatre, which has grown to national renown during those intervening years, had to add five performances to the run before opening night – a tribute to their prestige as well as the bankable title.
Turns out that the Robinsons, the playwright (who died in 2013) and her daughters, were pretty prudent themselves in choosing Beecham and Hiltgartner. They seem to know what can be enlarged to musical proportions and how to get the job done. I’d also say that Best Christmas Pageant is easier to swallow than A Christmas Carol was when it morphed into Scrooge.
Big crowd scenes can be magnified most easily from stage to musical dimensions, but A Christmas Carol doesn’t really abound with them. Scrooge’s workplace and Cratchit’s home aren’t bustling places, and London is a cold, lonely, and forbidding city until Ebenezer’s reformation. So a couple of parties and a funeral were supersized, effervesced, and choreographed for Scrooge. We’re also more familiar with the older, more entrenched Dickens tale, so tampering is riskier, more jarring.
Recognizing that they’re primarily dealing with schoolkids, normal ones in fear of the notorious Herdmans, they make sure to create their biggest scenes when kids congregate, at church for Sunday school, at school during lunchtime, and at their rehearsal hall near the fateful church kitchen. The catastrophic rehearsal scene, causing Rev. Hopkins to cancel the pageant after the Herdman herd has stampeded it, is rockin’ pandemonium.
Beecham and Hiltgartner are more artful even before that in their depiction of the adult antagonists. What I labeled as the four Old Biddies, when Jill Bloede directed the play for Children’s Theatre in 1995, are now three parents of Beth and Charlie Bradley’s classmates. Luanne, Connie, and Betty start us off singing “Perfect Little Town,” as beautifully harmonized and sugary as the overdubbing Connie Francis cooing “My Happiness.” They are natural allies of the dictatorial Helen Armstrong, the rigid director who is usually in charge of the unchanging Christmas pageant year after year.
But Armstrong is hospitalized this year, so the vocal trio mobilizes with Helen to convince Grace Bradley, Beth and Charlie’s mom, to take over just before auditions. In the play version, all four women wielded old-fashioned phones in cajoling Grace. A musical allows for more fanciful, comical liberties. By the end of another pop rocker, “Counting on You,” the ladies have circled to the opposite side of McColl Family Theatre from Helen’s bedside to resume their vocal trio assault on Grace at the Bradley home, with the siblings and their father joining in on the hubbub.
If the ladies can be more ridiculous now – a big if, since Bloede had Alan Poindexter and Sidney Horton crossdressing as two of the hags in ’95 – then the Herdmans can be more fearsome and ferocious to counterbalance them. Augmenting their chaotic energy is the fiendish work of choreographer Ron Chisholm, who keeps the six Herdmans and their terrified victims spread across the stage in frenetic action. Even Rev. Hopkins must be convinced of their true menace.
We are far closer here to believing Beth’s famed opening pronouncement: “The Herdmans were the worst kids in the whole history of the world.” Where Bloede capitalized a bit on the fact that rather entertaining performances could come from kids who might be visibly reluctant to immerse themselves in the full barbarity of a Herdman, current Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke will have no such laxity.
As Imogene, the Herdman who takes the role of Virgin Mary by the throat, Carlyn Head is an absolute she-wolf in her howling vocals, and there is only the slightest glint of cuteness in Charli Head as Gladys, the little sister who pounces on the role of Herald Angel. With all of this vocal artillery hurled at her from young and old, Ashley Goodson can be sweet and caring as Grace, but when those moments arrive for reasserting control and conviction, she also unveils a voice of steel.
So when the Herdmans come around to the spirit of the Nativity, Grace is a little more amazing than she was in the play version, but I’m more thankful for the fulminating comic relief from Allison Snow Rhinehart, thwarted each time she issues a demand or insists that the Herdmans must be thrown out of the pageant. As phlegmatic as Rhinehart is, Tiffany Bear as Connie, Olivia Edge as Luanne, and Tracie Frank as Luanne are purest plastic, aging Supremes wannabes.
Arella Flur is more than satisfying as Beth, but she’s usually upstaged by Bennett Harris as the bullied younger brother or Ryann Losee, the tattletale Alice who lets Imogene snatch the role of Mary from her without a struggle. Bobby Tyson’s comic timing is so sharp in the minor role of Mr. Bradley that it’s reassuring to see him get a duet with wife Grace late in the show, and Dan Brusnson is the kindliest, most Christian Rev. Hopkins that I can recall. Among the male Herdmans, Colin Samole as Ralph and Rixey Terry as Leroy impressed me the most, but I don’t think either is written fully enough.
At least not yet. Estimates of the running time that I’ve seen in the Children’s Theatre press releases and in their program booklet have ranged from 60 minutes, approximately the length of their 1995 production, to 80 minutes in the current playbill. My clocking of the Sunday matinee at under 67 minutes suggests that the piece I saw underwent feverish modifications in its final weeks of rehearsal.
I point that out for a couple of reasons. It illustrates that Burke and Children’s Theatre, who commissioned this world premiere, have taken significant ownership in intensively shaping the product. It also suggests to me that the process isn’t finished, that the 80-minute target that seems more sensible to me might be what we see the next time The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical opens at ImaginOn. Or even by the time it closes on December 23.
Maybe then I’ll be able to say that this is the best Best Christmas Pageant Ever ever. It’s pretty damn close right now – and a very gratifying achievement at Charlotte’s fantasy palace.
Theater Reviews: Saturday Night Fever and 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche
By Perry Tannenbaum
(Photo by Chris Timmons)
John Travolta at his peak: has there ever been anyone like him? The ruggedness, the grace, the strut, the conceit, and the boyish charisma — all of these studmuffin assets uniquely tinged with a robust Brooklynese vulgarity that took America by storm from the moment Welcome Back, Kotter hit the airwaves in 1975. But the full bloom of Travolta-mania didn’t happen until 1977, when Saturday Night Fever hit the big screen.
Surely the music of the Bee Gees was a prime component in the mystique of that breakthrough film. Yet the Bee Gees’ film score underpinning Travolta’s disco exploits was exquisitely subordinated to the heart of Tony Manero’s halting, confusing, and sometimes comical progress toward manhood in Norman Wexler’s screenplay. Bring the song hits more to the fore, as the Broadway musical version of 1999 attempted to do, and the narrow emotional range of disco is cruelly exposed.
“More Than a Woman” is unquestionably less than a woman to me, “Tragedy” is barely morose, and the answer to “How Deep Is Your Love?” is not very deep at all. I’d say that the Gibbs Brothers chose wisely in never attempting to write music for the Broadway stage.
We can only guess why director Ron Law, kicking off Theatre Charlotte’s 89th season, passed on the original Broadway adaptation by Nan Knighton in favor of a newer 2015 adaptation by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti that has never been on Broadway — or even a national tour. Either way, Law faced an uphill battle with his core of teenage performers.
After playing the somewhat delicate boy protagonist in Caroline, or Change earlier this year in the Theatre Charlotte lobby, Rixey Terry attempts a huge leap forward from that concert production in tackling the iconic Travolta role of Tony. While the welter of tunes launched at us — the worst are those newly penned by Abbinanti — dilute the impact of the drama, they don’t obscure the complexity of Tony’s character or his double lives.
By day, Tony works a dead-end job at a Brooklyn paint store, coming home to parents who adulate his older brother Frank, a priest, while belittling his talents. A huge chunk of Tony’s paint store paycheck — and some elaborate rehearsals and primping rituals — go into Saturday nights, when he reigns as king of the dance floor at the 2001 Odyssey club. Local girls long to be his partner, thrilling to the privilege of even mopping his brow after a dance.
So at work and at home, Tony is meek, querulous, and downtrodden, but out on the street or at the club among his friends and admirers, he’s self-absorbed, arrogant, and cruel. He ignores and snaps at his good friend Bobby, who leans on him for advice, and he forcefully rejects all advances from Annette, the best dancing partner in the neighborhood.
From the moment he first sees Stephanie Mangano at the club, Tony’s world turns upside-down. Classically trained, Stephanie’s moves are easily a match for Tony’s — and her savoir-faire is miles ahead. She has a job in Manhattan! Suddenly, Tony is the supplicant and the pursuer, hoping Stephanie will be his partner for an upcoming prize competition. Yeah, the story has been slightly altered.
Terry wraps his arms around the meek, downtrodden, and needy aspects of Tony a lot more readily than his imperial arrogance. Terry’s ordinariness carries over to Tony’s first few turns on the dance floor, where he just doesn’t look masterful. So the true turning point on opening night last week came when we reached Terry’s solo on “You Should Be Dancing” at the end of Act 1. Adding acrobatic break dancing moves never seen in the iconic film, choreographer Lisa Blanton unleashed the beast in Terry.
In less than a minute, Rixey proved that, even among triple-threats, he possesses unique gifts.
Whether or not Stephanie is intended to have more confidence and dancing polish than Tony, Susannah Upchurch definitely brings it. The way things are between Tony and his groupies doesn’t always come off precisely as they should, but when Upchurch is around, Tony’s shortcomings and vulnerabilities snap sharply into focus. Her Stephanie is almost unattainable, not quite.
Meanwhile Ava Smith is acting up a frenetic whirlwind as Annette, almost convincing us that Tony is the dreamboat we never quite see. Vic Sayegh and Mara Rosenberg make Tony’s parents a rather squalid couple, contributing mightily to the Brooklyn ambiance, and Jay Masanotti brings out all of the older brother’s cryptic contradictions.
The fabled three-piece suit from the film isn’t quite equaled by costume designer Jamey Varnadore, whose budget was likely too strict for all the clotheshorses and wannabes he’s called upon to outfit. Zachary Tarlton leads a tight five-piece band, but the real heat is mostly generated by Blanton’s choreography — and Dani Burke’s solos as Candy, the 2001 chanteuse. Burke’s “Dance Inferno,” not a Bee Gees song, is the chief showstopper among the vocals. With so many three-part harmonies discarded, it’s hard to pick a lowlight among the songs that the Gibbs Brothers made famous. Not one falsetto all evening long!
I’ll go with “Stayin’ Alive” as the nadir. For decades, I’ve despaired of explaining how tone-deaf most renditions of “If I Were a Rich Man” sound to Yiddish-speaking Jews when Christian singers navigate the vocalise, non-verbal sections of the lyrics. Now I can finally point to an equivalent.
At first, I could hardly believe how over-the-top director Sarah Provencal was wanting her cast to act in 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, currently at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius. This was the customarily sophisticated Lane Morris as Wren, one of our five quiche bake-off hostesses? The effusive audience interaction, from the time we enter the Westmoreland Road storefront, makes Pump Boys and Dinettes seem funereal by comparison.
But after a while we realize just how strange this script by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood truly is. For this egg-worshipping black comedy takes us back to a 1950s dystopia in an alternate universe. Only the desperation of our hostesses’ plight can prod them into coming proudly out of the closet, a delicious juxtaposition with their ’50s primness.
Actually, Morris with her “victory curls” looks more like a throwback to the ’40s and the Andrews Sisters (yes, these Daughters of Susan B. Anthony and Gertrude Stein have a club song). It’s Joanna Gerdy as Vern who’s the outright lesbian of this quiche quintet from the start, flinging away her customary sophistication even further from the norm in a comedy performance to relish.
Ginny, played by Stephanie DiPaolo, is a diffident Brit who almost seems catatonic at times. Vying with her for the distinction of being the most repressed in the house is Nikki Stepanek as Dale, who hasn’t spoken to a man since the age of three. She’s definitely the youngest, which is why she becomes the chosen vessel — for a while, anyway — to save mankind.
Every one of us in the audience must come out and admit that, yes, we are also lesbians, a quite unique moment in the annals of theatre. The only remaining holdout is Pam Coble Coffman as club president Lulie, a veritable Betty Crocker of propriety and discipline. Lulie hits us with the startling revelation that sends this 73-minute production into its unnecessary break. My wife Sue balked at this intermission, but the folks taking hits from the boxes of wine on the buffet seemed to be okay with it.
So real men and real women don’t eat quiche? Please forget I said that.
Theatre Review: Caroline, or Change
By Perry Tannenbaum
The relationship between African Americans and Jews has been a fascinating convergence of parallel histories and unavoidable class conflict. We’ve had a couple of dramas here before that dramatized the relationship, beginning with Alfred Uhry’s famed Driving Miss Daisy, which reached the Charlotte stage in 1991, just two years after the Oscar-winning movie. The 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner took us back to Atlanta after World War 2, when the curmudgeonly Daisy was in denial about her physical deterioration, her racist attitudes, and the prevalence of anti-Semitism in her city.
Just over three years ago, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte brought us Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Boy, transporting us to the first days of Reconstruction after the Civil War, when two emancipated slaves returned to their former owner’s home for Passover. Between Uhry’s drama and Lopez’s auspicious 2011 debut, Tony Kushner collaborated with composer Jeanine Tesori on a musical – a chamber opera, really – that looks at yet another Jewish household where an African American was employed.
Until last February 26, when Theatre Charlotte brought Caroline, or Change to its lobby for one night only, the widely-hailed 2003 piece had never been performed in the Queen City. It’s unquestionably the most ambitious Grand Night for Singing event held at the 501 Queens Road barn. The format has been in a cabaret spirit, songs selected from a rarely performed musical taking up half of the program, more rarities by the same composers after intermission. With Caroline, music director Zachary Tarlton staged a concert-style production of the full show – and so many people bought tickets that Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law nearly had to move the performance out of the lobby and into the auditorium.
Caroline Thibodeaux works in the bowels of a home owned by Stuart Gellman and his second wife, Rose, but the core of Kushner’s story – an autobiographical one according to the playwright’s intro to the printed edition – is the relationship between Caroline and Noah, Stuart’s 8-year-old son from a previous marriage. Although Caroline takes place in 1963, closer in time to Daisy than Whipping Boy, its resemblances to Lopez’s script are strong enough that it could have served as the younger playwright’s model. During the Passover holiday celebrated by Caleb DeLeon in Whipping Boy, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. In the November-December timeline of Caroline, John F. Kennedy is assassinated before the Gellmans’ Chanukah celebration.
If Kushner had a model, the likeliest candidate would be another autobiographical play, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold, in which the title character also behaves unforgivably toward a black person working for his dad. In her dignity, in the way Caroline absorbs Noah’s abuse in apartheid Lake Charles, Louisiana, she very much resembles Sam’s forbearance toward Hally in apartheid Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950. The big difference is that Kushner looks at Caroline as critically as he looked at Noah.
She’s a divorced, conspicuously joyless mother of three, staunchly resistant to change. The entire cast was outstanding, but we were especially fortunate to have Tracie Frank in the title role. We had a brief sampling of Frank’s gospel fire last spring in Theatre Charlotte’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but even her Whitney Houston bravura singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” hardly cushioned the surprise of this sustained excellence, her silent reactions nearly as taut as her vocals.
Stuart and Rose realize they’re not paying Caroline enough to comfortably take care of her three children, but they do what they can. In order to teach her stepson a lesson – and to slip the Thibodeauxs some extra cash – Rose decrees that Caroline can have whatever loose change Noah carelessly leaves in his pockets when she puts his clothes in the washing machine. Noah is more softhearted than Rose, so he starts leaving loose change in his pockets on purpose – until Chanukah rolls around.
Grandpa Stocknick, Rose’s dad, gives Noah a $20 bill in Chanukah gelt. Some days later, Noah is back in school and realizes that he has left the 20 in a pair of pants earmarked for the laundry. His piddling charity is in serious jeopardy of becoming lavish generosity, and he rushes home to retrieve his gift. Too late. It’s nearly Christmas, her three kids expect something under the tree, so do you think Caroline is going to put that $20 bill back in the bleach cup for Noah?
Noah is even less likable than Caroline in the fight that ensues, so it’s to Rixey Terry’s credit that he made the transition from adulating schoolboy to beneficent master to sore and abrasive loser so convincingly over the course of the night – and no fewer than 15 songs. Terry didn’t try to emulate an eight-year-old, so he didn’t sound at all like Harrison Chad on the cast album, a prudent choice for this reading-stage style presentation, adroitly stage directed by Corey Mitchell. He and the other younger members – the three Thibodeaux siblings and The Radio – had their music down pat, thanks to some good hard work and, I suspect, that cast album.
Yes, the dramatis personae included some inanimate objects that brought Caroline’s basement domain quirkily to life, often with a gospel flavor. Dani Burke was Caroline’s Washing Machine while Maya Sistruck, Dominique Atwater, and Kayla Ferguson were The Radio, even more amazing when they harmonized than when they soloed. Among these kitchen accouterments, Tyler Smith was the king of appliances as The Dryer in an electrifying performance, Tesori’s score starting him off with a mix of street shout, yelped with Porgy and Bess gusto, and R&B that he crushed into the depths of his velvety bass baritone – with The Radio providing backup.
More of Kushner’s fanciful universe turned up outside of Caroline’s basement. Much to our delight, Smith returned to the row of lecterns at centerstage as The Bus taking Caroline and her friend Dotty home from work, but Brittany Currie often lurked on the side as The Moon, emblematic of change. The change that Noah leaves in his pants isn’t the only change Caroline struggles with. Although $30 a week isn’t enough to get by, it’s Dotty who is resolved to do something about it, going to night school in an effort to better herself.
So it’s both Dotty’s energy and initiative at the end of a long workday that irritates Caroline. Watching Veda Covington as Dotty, bragging that her daytime employer is actually proud of what she’s doing, I found myself a little irritated with both women, Dotty for needling her friend and Caroline for her unremitting sullenness. Currie as The Moon was a somewhat soothing presence crooning about change, but there was also a wisp of sultry sensuality in her vocals, very effective in this cabaret setting.
Mitchell had the races sitting at opposite sides of the stage when they weren’t at the lecterns, accentuating how little they actually interact during this musical. It’s mostly Noah and stepmama Rose who show an active interest in Caroline. Although she badly flubbed the Yiddish word for navel, Allison Snow Rhinehardt was an otherwise credible balaboosteh: a little unsure of her footing with both the new stepson and the help, somewhat sensitive to their feelings, yet definitely reveling in her mission to run the household and to command.
Upstairs-downstairs decorum was broken momentarily at the Chanukah party in one of Kushner’s most insightful scenes. Asked to help with the extra party housework, Caroline’s eldest daughter Emmie gets into an argument with Rose’s father about the efficacy of Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement. Caroline is outraged by her daughter’s presumption, Emmie is angered by her mother’s inbred meekness, and Mr. Stopnick thinks this is the first real conversation he has had since coming South to visit his daughter. Excellent work here from Frank, TyNia Brandon, and Vito Abate.
I would have been quite content just to witness some local theatre company putting Caroline on its feet after all these years. The fortunate few who attended the February 26 performance saw something far finer. With a minimum of rehearsal, the 17 singers and Tarlton performed nearly flawlessly, all the more astonishing when you consider that the musical director was never in the line of sight of any of the performers even once as they performed this challenging two-hour Tesori score.
Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait another 13 years before Caroline, or Change is produced here again – and that, when Kushner’s lone musical returns, it will be fully staged in a larger hall for a larger audience in a longer run. As it deserves.