Tag Archives: Ron Chisholm

Children’s Theatre’s “Mary Poppins” Raises the Bar While Flying Its Star

Poppins(C)DBise063

Review:  Mary Poppins

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s a strange proposition when you decide to bring Mary Poppins to Children’s Theatre at ImaginOn, Charlotte’s pre-eminent fantasy palace. Yes, it’s Disney, but it shatters the Children’s Theatre norm of 90 minutes or less, running over 145 minutes. And the story of how Mary Poppins turns the Banks family from bitterness to joy is only half about children.

Mary Poppins 7

Mary P is definitely needed to halt the vicious cycle of bad behavior from Jane and Michael, the Banks siblings, who seem to live for the thrill of defying and driving away their nannies. But there are marital issues plaguing George and Winifred Banks at the same time, some of them rooted in Victorian sexism; and their ideas about nannies, parenting, and the primacy of money could use a reset. George’s basic failures of self-examination and communication are ultimately the prime reasons why his family is so dysfunctional.

Although the problems are nicely laid out, neither of the two rehab stories is told cogently. Yet the re-education of Jane and Michael certainly has sensational episodes. Statues come to life at a park, a beggar lady sings a heartfelt ballad, the sibs frolic with a preternaturally long word, they cavort with all of London’s chimney sweeps on top of their roof under a midnight moon, and most importantly, they get to discard their castor oil regimen in favor of a sugary tonic. Surely, these are experiences that all good moms and nannies can give their children, right?

Well, they can at ImaginOn, where Children’s Theatre has raised the bar for spectacular technical derring-do – a bar that, among local theatre companies, has mostly been theirs during my 30 years on the beat. While the “Feed the Birds” street scene might strike you as saccharine, and you might accuse the magical park scenes of silly pandering to the anklebiters in the audience, it’s difficult for children of all ages to resist the enchantment of the darkling rooftop scene, further elevated and charmingly smudged by Ron Chisholm’s choreography.

Even that wonder is eclipsed by the flying effects engineered by ZFX, Inc. The only thing I can compare with Mary’s final voyage at ImaginOn are the flying effects I witnessed in the Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Credit Aimee Hanyzewski’s lighting design for enhancing the wonder.

Poppins(C)DBise 142

Swimming against the current of the kid-friendly storyline, Steven M. Levine and Lisa Schacher do their best to stretch fledgling attention spans when they dominate the actionas the elder Bankses. Poor Winifred gets the impression – like we all do – that George reveres his childhood nanny, since he keeps invoking her as a standard, yet Schacher manages to make Mrs. Banks seem credulous rather than stupid, loving rather than meek.

We like her as much as we despise the perversity of George’s parenting ideas, but the simple intervention of Mary – just showing up at his workplace with his children – seems to be enough of an influence for him to do the right thing. All of George’s contradictions and vacillations may seem to be dubious on paper, but Levine makes them work onstage, merging essential morality with a starchy aloofness.

As we get to know Mary better and better, we realize that Bert, her admirer and confidante, is by far the warmest character in the whole crew. Poppins may be able to furlough some statues from their pedestals, but who can muster all the chimney sweeps in London for a midnight frolic other than good ole Bert? Caleb Ryan Sigmon reminds me that Bert is a slightly mischievous and broadly chameleonic creature more than any actor I’ve seen onstage before. Sigmon is also a practicing magician who serves as the show’s magic consultant, so he definitely holds up that end of the bargain.

Mary Poppins 4

Perhaps because of Jill Bloede’s offstage ministrations as dialect coach, I could believe that Janeta Jackson was channeling Julie Andrews in almost every word and note. We probably perceive Jackson as a starchier Poppins than Andrews because she doesn’t arrive with any Sound of Music baggage. Her elegant serenity is hardly sweet at all, even when she sings her signature “Spoonful of Sugar”: she almost makes a point of not emphasizing the sugar, thereby adding weight to the medicine.

The starchier approach helps us to believe in the nurturing distance she maintains with the Banks kids – whom she claims not to love – and in her fundamental capriciousness. Normally, I’m somewhat aghast when “The Perfect Nanny” punishes Jane and Michael by abandoning them. For abusing a ragdoll? Next thing you know, that beggar lady will be wailing “Feed the Toys.”

Jackson comes the closest I’ve ever seen to making this cruel medicine go down, and she has the highest voice I’ve ever heard singing Mary. That extra range pays extra dividends when Olivia Edge enters the fray as Miss Anderson, Mr. Banks’ fearsome nanny of yore. Not only do Jane and Michael flee in terror from Miss Anderson, so does Papa George!

Poppins(C)DBise 572

Edge’s preternaturally high range, fueling her “Brimstone and Treacle” showstopper, pitted against Jackson’s stratospheric soprano – and her “Spoonful of Sugar” philosophy – makes for a climactic showdown of double-barreled power. Since Edge is also fearsomely large in her frilly, funereal gray-and-black dress (designed by costumer Ryan J. Moller), her disposal is specially delightful, a sadistic mix of the witches we loved in Hansel and Gretel and Wizard of Oz.

Poppins(C)DBise 160

Somehow, director Michael J. Bobbitt gets a Charlotte cast that is stronger than the national tour that blew through here in 2010. Getting their equals from the local talent pool of children, 15-year-old Haley Vogel as Jane and 12-year-old Alex Kim as Michael, not only underscores Bobbit’s discernment and directing skills, it also reaffirms what we’ve come to expect at Children’s Theatre: the ability to attract, excite, and mentor the best young theatre talent in town.

Bratty and lovable is a tough balance to sustain, but Vogel and Kim have just the right energy and verve, with a grasp of their character arcs and an appreciation of how the Banks kids might be helping their dad to get his head straight. Like the original Broadway cast and the national tour, Vogel and Kim share their roles with alternates. If Lydia Farr and Ryan Campos are up to the same standard, you will not be disappointed.

Advertisements

Hey, Hey, We’re the Herdmans!

Theater Review: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

primary-pageant-1

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.

ladies

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.

ctc-bcpetm-4

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.

“1776” Still Preaches Compromise to a Skeptical Electorate

Musical Review: 1776 The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

2c12d4d82-b764-cbe5-a645e52c8298150f

Firebrand and future president John Adams couldn’t declare independence by himself. Not only did he need to recruit Thomas Jefferson to write our foundational document, he needed to get all 13 colonies represented at the Continental Congress – including his own Massachusetts – to come over to his side. As 1776 The Musical, currently running at Central Piedmont Community College, reminds us, Adams was too headstrong, combative, irritating, and off-putting to sow the seeds that would blossom into our republic.

With George Washington and his army further north, already engaging the British Crown on the battlefield, Adams couldn’t even count on his staunchest sympathizers, Jefferson from Virginia and Ben Franklin from Pennsylvania, to deliver their states’ votes. In fact, it would be an uphill battle for Adams to even get the matter of independence considered at the Congress in Philadelphia – over a year after the first shots had been fired at Lexington and Concord.

So in a climate and an election year where cooperation, compromise, and consensus are so widely despised, 1776 comes along propitiously to remind us how fundamental these things were in forming our national DNA and how essential they remain if we are to make big changes in our democracy. With inevitable sacrifices to detail and accuracy, Peter Stone‘s book presents the story with surprising nuance, depth, and even tragedy.

For a musical clocking in at 2:35 plus intermission, 1776 also has a surprisingly spare songlist, perhaps because composer Sherman Edwards had the original concept. There is also a gratifying self-awareness we can detect in the storytelling at Pease Auditorium in this CPCC Theatre production. We’re not seeing all white men all the time.

Edwards gracefully works in Adams’ wife Abigail through an ongoing exchange of letters that twice become duets. At a clandestine location away from the Congressional Hall, we peep in on an episode that Franklin has contrived to help Jefferson in his struggles to craft the Declaration, sending for Jefferson’s wife Martha. It’s already a conjugal visit by the time Franklin and Adams come calling.

CP director Tom Hollis stirs the pot a little more with a modest infusion of colorblind casting, while costume designers Robert Croghan and Jamey Varnadore offer us what diversity they can, making the chasm between a New Jersey reverend and a South Carolina plantation owner as wide as possible.

Adams is rather lonely and hopeless before Franklin helps him form a cogent strategy to get things rolling. They send Richard Henry Lee of Virginia back home to convince his state legislature to back an initiative for independence. The jubilation of concocting this stratagem is celebrated by Adams, Franklin, and Lee in “The Lees of Virginia,” a song whose toxicity extends beyond its jaw-dropping silliness. I can only hope that its parade of dopey adverbs doesn’t lodge in your memory as an earworm.

Once we’ve crossed that jingling Delaware, we sail smoothly and convincingly through the labors that culminated in our nation’s birth. Virginia’s support leads to a majority vote approving consideration of an independence initiative, the formation of a committee to articulate the reasons and objectives for this action, with the proviso that the vote for adoption of this initiative must be unanimous. Every colony had veto power over the move for independence, adding tension to a drama whose outcome we already know, and leading to the compromise that stands as the Original Sin of our nation.

At the conclusion of his grievances against Britain, Jefferson penned two blistering paragraphs excoriating the Crown’s cultivation of the slave trade and – conveniently omitted from Stone’s book – their incitement of those slaves to rise up against their masters. After a devastating attack on Yankee hypocrisy in “Molasses to Rum,” future South Carolina governor Edward Rutledge demands that the section on slavery, effectively abolishing the institution, be stricken from the Declaration and walks out on the Continental Congress until he gets his way.

There is certainly no trivialization of that haunting but necessary compromise, and the hauteur of Josh Logsdon as Rutledge, along with his resounding singing voice, are among the chief reasons why 1776 will linger in your thoughts. Eric Johnston really is nettlesome and curmudgeonly as Adams, biting in his patriotic vocals yet petulantly tender when he’s interacting with his dear Abigail. Exorcising the clownish look that bedeviled Franklin in Theatre Charlotte’s 1995 production, James K. Flynn plausibly takes on America’s fount of aphorisms and brilliantly balances his avuncular practicality with his comical tendency to doze off.

Depicted as quiet, contemplative, and artistic, Jefferson is a romantic lead in Stone’s narrative who has almost been demoted to a supporting role. While George DeMott isn’t nearly the dreamboat Patrick Ratchford was when he sang the role in 1995, there comes a time when we’re supposed to be wondering what his sex appeal actually is. In giving weight to that question, DeMott is very appropriate. Nor could you hope for a more charming answer than “He Plays the Violin” from Emily Witte as Martha.

Witte is so graceful and charming that I could hardly imagine omitting her “Violin” when this musical was last revived on Broadway in 1997, more than 28 years after its original premiere. By coincidence, it is omitted from the songlists of 1776 on both the IBDB.com listing for the 1997 revival and in CP’s playbill. But Amazon assures me that it’s still on the 1997 cast album.

In real life there was an age difference of 29 years between John and AbiGail Adams, but Hollis dispenses with that gulf in casting Megan Postle as AbiGail Adams. As you’ll find, it’s a very unique role since Hollis insists on preserving the Adamses’ separation when they converse by mail, yet Postle warms wonderfully to the task. At the comical end of the spectrum, Alan Morgan can be commended for delivering the deadly Lee with all his giddy gleefulness, while choreographer Ron Chisholm doesn’t stint on the energy and dopiness of our Founding Fathers’ dances, fearlessly risking the charge of sacrilege.

Conspicuously missing from the Philadelphia deliberations is General Washington, but we periodically get gloomy dispatches from him in the field, delivered by Trey Thomason as the Courier. After a few of these, lights dim unexpectedly on Thomason, who sings grimly to us in “Mama, Look Sharp” about the realities of fighting and dying for your country.

Sobering moments like that are why 1776 remains relevant nearly 50 years after its original Broadway opening. Recounting how we reached our landmark July Fourth, this lively evening occasionally packs the power to explode our drum-and-fife expectations.

Roxie gets the Pippin treatment

CENTRAL_THEA_Chicago_02[11]

Theater reviews: Chicago and Manifest Pussy

By Perry Tannenbaum

When I saw Annie at Halton Theater earlier this month, I had a theory about why the first show in CPCC Summer’s 43rd season boasted such opulent production values. Surely they had chosen to follow up with Kander and Ebb’s Chicago because this decadent vaudeville could be produced so cheaply, freeing funds for the other musicals on CP’s summer slate.

Thanks to the set and costume designs by Robert Croghan, I could discard that theory almost as soon as I settled into my seat. The onstage band, led by musical director Drina Keen, is mostly concealed by an art deco façade with wooden frames and chrome bars. An overarching bridge that crests in the middle covers the band, with a backlit outline of Chicago’s skyline stretching up into the fly loft.

When Roxie Hart dreams of the vaudeville stardom that will come with her killer celebrity, a huge luridly lit marquee drops down from the fly loft, and when Roxie and fellow murderess Velma Kelly achieve that dream together, another fresh marquee drops down. The entire proscenium has been redone to chime in with the art deco style. Its stripes don’t seem to be electrified, but at the denouement, reflections from a row of red footlights set them aglow. The lurid footlights are the cherry on the bottom of Gary Sivak’s outstanding lighting design.

Croghan’s costumes are even bolder. Prison bars descend from the flies when we arrive at the Chicago jail, and Croghan doesn’t let us forget that the women inmates are celebs. The black stripes on their prison uniforms are far wider than normal, twinkling with glitter. I can’t remember any version of “Cell Block Tango,” either locally produced or in a national tour, that oozed so much sinful glamor.

The wildest wrinkle comes later when we reach Billy Flynn’s incomparably corrupt pretrial “Razzle Dazzle” peptalk. Very much like the recent Broadway revival of Pippin, the stage is transformed into a circus with colorful costumes, a flashier onset of glitter and an outbreak of acrobatics. Much of this Pippin-effect lingers through Roxie’s travesty of a trial.

Of course, choreographer Tod Kubo and stage director Ron Chisholm are involved in this circus conspiracy, for every woman in the cellblock seems able to do a split. Both Roxie and Velma can also turn cartwheels. Chisholm is also a splendid choreographer, so casting demands must have been precise and rigorous with Kubo’s work very much on his mind.

Aside from the inevitable orphans, the excellence of Annie under Tom Hollis’s direction mostly emanated from seasoned performers, Beau Stroupe as Daddy Warbucks, Susan Gundersheim as Grace Farrell, and Allison Rhinehart as Miss Hannigan. Even where Chisholm might have looked for more fully aged talents; in less athletic roles such as Amos Hart, lawyer Flynn, and corrupt prison matron Mama Morton; he opts for youth.

For the most part, we can overlook the profusion of college students and recent grads onstage at the Halton, but overall, Chicago needs a bit more swagger and arrogance than I was seeing, and the superabundance of youth is to blame. Justin Miller doesn’t always seem to grasp the full magnitude of Flynn’s slickness and hypocrisy, and as Velma, Caroline Chisholm occasionally loses the edge of the baddest broad in the cellblock and starts worrying whether she’s executing her dance routines correctly.

Both Miller and Chisholm often bring fresh juice to Billy and Velma, but it’s Meredith Zahn as Roxie who demonstrates what happens when you add swagger and arrogance to the package — or you simply inhabit Roxie’s clever wickedness every moment. Zahn isn’t the best singer or dancer on the stage, but her “Funny Honey” solo elevates the show before “Cell Block Tango” sustains that plateau. Most importantly, in the climactic courtroom scene, when Flynn becomes the ventriloquist behind Roxie’s every word on the witness stand, Zahn’s floppy antics as the lip-syncing ragdoll sitting on Billy’s lap are by far the best I’ve seen.

Stephen Stamps isn’t quite as innocuous as a true “Mister Cellophane” should be, but that number remained a uniquely quiet showstopper — and the scenes with Roxie had the right combination of intensity and cluelessness as Amos processed the fact that his wife had been screwing around with the furniture guy and expected him to take the blame for killing him. Alex Aguilar doesn’t quite have the high notes for Mary Sunshine’s bleeding heart vocal, but her unmasking is a hoot.

A little bit more nastiness and downright vulgarity wouldn’t have hurt Jessica Rebecca as Mama Morton, but she’s a very formidable stage presence. What was so jaw-droppingly good about the “Class” duet with Chisholm wasn’t how crass it was on the eighth time I’d seen it but how beautifully harmonized it is when the two sing together.

So I’ve revised my theory. The significant anniversary that has happened on Elizabeth Avenue isn’t CPCC Summer’s 43rd. No, it’s the Halton’s tenth anniversary that has sparked the continuing turnaround, which began with the landmark production of The Phantom of the Opera last fall. Now if I had presented that show, I might have resolved, “Enough of these ‘Nice try, kid’ productions!” and maybe that’s how Hollis, CPCC’s Theatre Department chair, looked at it.

Or maybe Hollis and CPCC’s administration got on board with the idea that theatre at the Halton should always strive for the same level of excellence. Whatever is going on behind the scenes, the CPCC Summer product is more polished at the Halton than ever before, not only because the sound system problems have been exorcised but because they’re beginning to utilize the full capabilities of the stage.

If that’s the new reality, the Halton may now be the best place in Charlotte to see a live musical. Maybe CPCC will need to start selling their balcony seats again once the word gets around.

As I climbed the stairs to UpStage last Wednesday to see the Charlotte stop on Shakina Nayfack’s Manifest Pussy tour, three worries concerned me: that it would be too preachy, too raunchy and too loud. Nayfack was bringing her one-woman show to North Carolina in response to HB2, and she’d been photographed with panties down, sitting on a urinal (see cover of our June 9 issue).

The bandstand set-up for four pieces, including a guitar, a keyboard, a drum set and an electric bass, seemed to confirm my fear that I’d be rocked to uncomfortable decibel levels.

What I witnessed turned out to be two autobiographical rock musicals artfully woven together to form a narrative that reminded me a lot of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and a little of The Vagina Monologues. Instead of cooing over and affirming the glory of having a vagina as Monologues does, Pussy dwelt on worries, misgivings and anxieties Nayfack went through in getting her vagina via a complex surgery in Thailand. And unlike Hedwig, which tells about the heartaches experienced by a rock singer after a botched sex-change operation, Pussy stays focused on what it feels like to go through the procedure — also partially botched — and waking up to find a railroad of 640 stitches framing a fragile canal where your penis once was.

Bottomline, I liked Pussy better than either Vagina or Hedwig. Nayfack isn’t as cute or coy as the Vagina monologists nor as offputting as Hedwig. Some of Nayfack’s songs are jangly and metallic, but others are quite beautiful. Above all, I learned more about the inner trials that transgender people go through — physically and mentally — than I ever thought I could know.

 

 

Selling Elegance, Spirit, and History for Just a Song

Theatre Reviews: I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin and The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

CPCCILoveAPiano6[7]

After its most lavish and extravagant production ever, last November’s The Phantom of the Opera, what was CPCC Theatre going to do to follow up? Well, since the laws of mathematics and the logic of budgets still apply on Elizabeth Avenue, the answer was simple: economize! Rolling into the parking garage, where the second story was unusually unoccupied, I was worried the audience for I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin would be as drastically reduced as CP’s expenditures.

Not to worry, I didn’t find that many more empty seats at Halton Theater last Saturday night than I saw at last February’s How to Succeed. More importantly, considering the relative merits of Berlin and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show attracted a competitive enough turnout at auditions to yield a cast that is worthy of the music — including holdover Ryan Deal, who you may recall in the title role of The Phantom.

Like the audience, the orchestra isn’t reduced quite as much as the funding, a quintet led by music director Ellen Robison from the keyboard. They’re a busy bunch, accompanying the cast — all six of them triple threats to various degrees — through a songbook that includes 53 different titles. A few of these songs are reprised, and at one point, when Andy Faulkenberry’s “The Girl That I Marry” is juxtaposed with Corinne Littlefield’s “Old Fashioned Wedding” — while J. Michael Beech and Megan Postle are teaming up on the counterpoint of “You’re Just in Love” — there are four different vocalists onstage singing four different melodies simultaneously.

Conceived by Ray Roderick and arranger Michael Berkeley, Love a Piano never says Berlin’s name out loud. But the 11 scenes, beginning with Tin Pan Alley in 1910 and ending in a summer stock revival of Annie Get Your Gun in the late 1950’s, take us chronologically through the composer’s career. Or roughly so: “Old Fashioned Wedding” was written for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and you can bet the anachronisms don’t stop there.

With a generous portion of poetic license, the show sketches a musical portrait of a composer who was consistently able to mirror his times. The title tune, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” take us back to a sepia-tinted era when rags roamed alongside sentimentality. As we cut from band shell to speakeasy, “Pack Up Your Sings and Go to the Devil” and “Everybody’s Doing It” evoke the wicked carefree spirit of the Roaring ’20s during Prohibition.

Two scenes are devoted to the ’30s, “Blue Skies” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” offering consolation during the onset of the Great Depression. Then a suite of dance tunes, including “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek,” evokes the elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Thanks to Mel Brooks, the audience failed to take “Puttin’ on the Ritz” altogether seriously.

For some reason, Roderick — or perhaps CP’s director and choreographer, Ron Chisholm — bounced the heyday of dance marathons from the 1930s to the 1940s, sketching that lugubrious phenomenon with “Say It Isn’t So” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” When we authentically reached the World War II era, it was quite obvious that Berlin more than reflected the hopes, the pride, and the humor of the times. He simply was these things, with a flowering of songs that included “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “This Is the Army,” “Any Bonds Today,” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Even those left plenty of room to bring down the first-act curtain with two of Berlin’s most enduring songs, “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.” A more judicious dividing line would have been the beginning of WW2 toward the end of the ’30s. As it stands, Roderick drops a bunch of CARE packages on the 1950s, including “Easter Parade” from 1933 and everything attached to Berlin’s sharpshooting homage to Annie Oakley, which premiered in 1946.

I Love A Piano

Photos by Chris Record

James Duke’s scenic and lighting design, relying heavily on period slides and Berlin show posters projected onto three screens, move us gracefully from era to era. But it’s Debbie Scheu who most colorfully clinches the deal with her cavalcade of costume designs. Chisholm’s choreographic demands certainly tax his cast, with Littlefield and Faulkenberry negotiating their steps with the most apparent ease. On the other hand, while Postle and Beech looked like they might not be up to their challenges, both of them surprised me with their hoofing.

Deal and Kayla Ferguson were the remaining couple, most memorable in their “Blue Skies” duet. All six of the singers proved to be quite capable, not at all fazed by the spotlight, but Deal and Littlefield were my favorite soloists. The ensembles were often very lively and charming, but a special pinch of conflict was added in the summer stock tableau when Ferguson, Littlefield, and Postle all auditioned to be Annie opposite Faulkenberry’s Frank Butler.

“Anything You Can Do,” usually a comical face-off between Frank and Annie, is set up as an audition piece. So the comedy is reborn — as a rollicking showdown between three aspiring Annies.

Eliza and Watson 3

Time and reality bend in curious ways in The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, now at UpStage in NoDa through February 21. But so does playwright Madeleine George’s title, so what else would you expect?

Three rather curious Watsons that we’ve already heard of are trotted out and shuffled in Three Bone Theatre’s production, directed by Robin Tynes. The first of these is a relative, shall we say, of the Watson computer that defeated its human opponents on Jeopardy in 2011. Eliza, who collaborated with IBM on the victorious Watson, is now in her living room, working independently on a new android that sports a far more human body.

We travel back to the 19th century for the other two Watsons that we know. The first of these is the Watson summoned to Alexander Graham Bell’s side when Pa Bell invented the telephone, his assistant Thomas A. Watson. But we don’t really see him, either, on that historic day in 1876. Instead, it’s Alex repeatedly calling for him in brief blackout vignettes between other scenes. No, we must wait until 1931, when Watson goes on record at Bell Labs, insisting that what his boss really said was, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want you.”

The third or fourth Watson, depending on how you tally the computer chips, is more in control of his narrative, for this is the Dr. John H. Watson who ostensibly chronicles nearly all of the Conan Doyle adventures of Sherlock Holmes. You’ll find that Watson Intelligence is all about connections Ð personal and electrical — and vague connections between the android and Sherlock’s sidekick are established by a fifth Watson, a tech dweeb hired by Eliza’s ex-husband to spy on her.

Compounding the absurdities, Tynes has chosen a black actor, Devin Clark, to play the whitest sidekick in the history of literature. What’s more, Clark is perfection as all the Watsons, human and robotic, plus a special set of scenes where he dons Sherlock’s deerstalker cap. Chesson Kusterer-Seagroves crystallizes Watson’s role as the archetypal listener, pouring out her heart to the robot and the tech dweeb in modern times and bringing an intriguing mystery to Watson at Baker Street in Sherlock’s absence.

Ken Mitten rounds out the cast as Bell and the two Merricks who cause their Elizas so much distress. He’s a powerful stage presence, but I’m sure he’ll be even better when he’s more secure with his lines and cues.