Tag Archives: Ron Law

Soot of Sodom Chases the Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath”

Review: The Grapes of Wrath @ Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’ve ever read John Steinbeck’s sprawling masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath, you know that it’s framed with a seething anger as a picture of America’s unfulfilled promises, the cruel exploitation of the poor, and the undiminished aspirations of the Joad family. These dispossessed and determined Oklahoma sharecroppers believe in the dream.

But the Okies are tested before they reach the Promised Land of California and once they’ve arrived. Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, they must cross burning desert. Clutching onto the printed handbills promising work and honest wages, they must resist the report of a broken, disillusioned man who found California to be nothing like the handbills’ hype. They must endure attacks from anti-labor thugs who fear the latent strength of worker groups.

Perhaps most difficult of all, they must strive to hold together despite forces of attrition from within – disagreements, defections, and death. Manna doesn’t shower down upon them from heaven to ease the journey.

We easily presume, with their consuming hope of a Promised Land, that the Joads’ journey is an exodus, a liberation from the landowners who have burdened them with sufferings. Another biblical parallel suggests itself on Queens Road, where Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel is making its local debut at Theatre Charlotte – a mere 37 years in the wilderness after winning the 1980 Tony Award for Best Play.

Since vile bankers and beancounters cannot loom as large on the stage as they do on the vast canvas of Steinbeck’s pages, another biblical parallel emerges clearly. Under Ron Law’s direction, with severely weathered scenery by Chris Timmons, and stark, pitiful costume designs by Chelsea Retalic – Okie clothing and faces equally sooty – I couldn’t help sensing echoes of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in this depiction of Dust Bowl devastation.

One faint echo is the drugging of Grampa Joad when he resists leaving, a parallel to how Lot’s daughters bamboozled their dad. The loudest echo came from Ma Joad, proving that she’s the antithesis of Lot’s Wife. You’ll recall that when Lot’s family was commanded not to look back while God was raining fire and brimstone on the sinful cities, Lot’s wife disobeyed and paid a famous price.

As the Joads embark, one of Ma’s kinfolk asks if she is going to take one last look back. Her no in response, with the aid of modest embroidery, is so emphatic that we take it as a philosophy. Ma Joad looks forward and moves forward. She lives by doing what needs to be done.

It’s an outlook that she successfully hands down to her daughter, Rose of Sharon, in the poignantly perverse pieta that ends the epic story.

With a performance like Paula Baldwin’s as Ma, we readily grasp that Steinbeck wished us to see her as the steadying bedrock of the family. The jut of Baldwin’s jaw and the tightened sinews of her neck were unlike anything I’d seen from her in her numerous leading roles. She’s unrelentingly purposeful, sternly nurturing, with all the patience and endurance of the ground she stands on.

Standing firm isn’t all that simple on the raked stage that Timmons has built. His pared-down design must accommodate campfires, a riverbank, and a ramshackle jalopy able to accommodate the whole clan. The skin-and-bones truck is altogether worthy of the ridicule it draws. Inspiration taken from the Little Engine That Could? You decide.

Vying with Ma for the right to be called the backbone of the family is the second-eldest son, Tom Joad, a volatile straight-shooter who is coming home from prison after serving his time for murder. It is so telling – about Tom and his fellow Okies – that everyone seems disappointed that Tom didn’t break out of jail. Easy to rile when he or his family is threatened, Tom is a seeker of truth, curious to learn how the system works.

Max Greger subordinates Tom’s volatility to his heartland wholesomeness in a promising Charlotte debut, holding his own when he shares the spotlight with Baldwin or the wild-eyed Andrew Tarek, who shambles brilliantly about as Jim Casy, a former preacher who feels like he has lost the calling. Yet in the same way that Tom is branded as an outlaw after killing in self-defense, Casy is branded as a holy man despite his renunciation – with Steinbeck’s approval, we presume, since four gospels were written about a man with the same initials.

Amid a dust cloud of bleakness and hopelessness, these running gags slightly lift the gloom.

And though there are strong unionist sympathies in the framework of Steinbeck’s yarn, you will also find an all-American emphasis on teamwork, which Law’s cast underplays enough to keep us from smelling Hollywood. Chris Melton has an adolescent randiness as Al Joad that augurs trouble and a shotgun marriage, but he also has a way with cars, performing the marvel of getting the Joads’ jalopy going. Between bouts of guilt, discouragement, and drinking sprees, Victor Sayegh as Uncle John often struck me as the most fatherly in the clan with a generous spirit.

With a cast of 23 trafficking back and forth on the sloped stage, Law needed to shape a deep ensemble that bonded together while divvying up two hours and 15 minutes of running time. Nor could he rely on the top tier of players to deliver all the little crevasses of comedy and poignancy that lurk in the wide tapestry.

Annette Gill and Rick Taylor are largely responsible for getting us off to a rousing start as the ever-bickering oldsters, Granma and Grampa Joad, portraying them as loud and slightly doddering. We get an interesting take on Pa Joad from Ryan Dunn, who doesn’t seem broken by his family’s rude displacement but rather gladly retired from the responsibility of it all, a bit dazed by the turn of events.

Zach Radhuber goes light on the simplemindedness of Noah Joad, yielding a touching moment when he sets off on his own, and Cole Pedigo gives a nerdy edge to the befuddlement of Connie Rivers, Rose of Sharon’s husband. In some ways, Ailey Finn represents the best of the new generation as “Rosasharn,” but it’s suffering that strengthens and ennobles her, and the mysterious smile that ends the novel can’t be incorporated into a stage adaptation.

Law keeps the concept of incidental music from the Broadway version but discards the content, switching from a Tin Pin Alley songlist to a folksy Woody Guthrie flavor. “California, Here I Come” steps aside for “This Land Is Your Land.” Strumming an appropriate guitar, Tom Schrachta attacks the material a bit harshly with his robust voice, but I grew fond of that discord. Schrachta also drew the acting chore of donning a rumpled trench coat (a hint of the spy parallel in the biblical exodus story) and delivering the bad news about California to the Joads.

That same harshness remained in Schrachta’s voice. Yet now it was mixing grief, discouragement, futility, and rage – very much what Steinbeck felt about the ruinous actions of America’s bankers when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath.

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Classics Collide!!

Preview:  The Grapes of Wrath and The Crucible

By Perry Tannenbaum

We can’t explain this curious phenomenon, but the Queen City’s performing arts companies seem to have outgrown their customary October fixations with vampires and spooks. Instead, this coming Halloween weekend, if not entirely witch-free, will be more haunted by a swarm of classics.

After gorging on the full score of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone last weekend, Charlotte Symphony returns to Belk Theater on a strict diet of Mozart & Beethoven. As a spectacular Mary Poppins finishes its run on the east side of ImaginOn, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte slips Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day and Other Stories into the west.

Saturnalia Central will be located at Central Piedmont Community College, where CPCC Theatre presents The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s weaponizing of the Salem Witch Trials to take aim at the infamous anti-Communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Counting the Robert Ward adaptation produced by Opera Carolina, we’ve had at least five opportunities to view this classic in the Metrolina area since 1998.

Another Tony Award winner has had to wait longer than that for its first run here. Frank Galati adapted and directed John Steinbeck’s epic Depression Era novel, The Grapes of Wrath, winning the 1990 Tony less than three months after its Broadway opening. To all those theatre lovers wondering over the past 27+ years when this classic would finally reach us, Theatre Charlotte is answering: now’s the time.

Steinbeck’s biblical exodus begins in the Dust Bowl during the Depression Era, focusing on one family of dispossessed Oklahoma farmers, the Joads, as they journey to California in search of jobs – and their lost dignity. What the Okies find at the end of their journey isn’t a Promised Land at all. Joining a severely overpopulated workforce, they’re plunged into a sun-kissed cesspool of migrant worker exploitation.

The sheer size of the story, in geography and humanity, is a prime reason why it took so long before the 1939 Pulitzer Prize winner was adapted for the stage – and for the additional delay before a local theatre company brought it here. Galati’s Broadway edition had a cast of 31 playing 45 roles, and that’s not counting the seven musicians on hand to play Mike Smith’s original incidental music.

Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law, taking over the creative reins for this production, is taking a simplifying approach, reducing his cast to a mere 23. Running the first local company to pick up the gauntlet on producing this behemoth, he can empathize with those that haven’t.

“The cast is large, which means a bigger costume budget,” Law points out. “If you are paying actors, that makes for a big salary line. There are also some very violent scenes in the play that really require a certified fight choreographer. The play calls for a river, campfires, a grave and a truck. Our space is very limited – virtually no wing space, no traps, no fly system. I truly favor minimalism in theatre, focusing on narrative and characters. But sometimes minimalism is not really all that simple.”

With so many roles, Charlotte’s community also had to worry about who would sign up. Decreasing the cast creates more multiple roles to keep the volunteers busy, and Law was pleased to be able to fill nearly half of his cast list with local theatre vets, including Vic Sayegh, Annette Gill and Paula Baldwin.

Gill and Baldwin have similar pedigrees at the Queens Road barn, playing Linda Loman in the two most recent revivals of Death of a Salesman in 1998 and 2009. Baldwin, the more recent Linda, has also aced auditions at a variety of local companies for prominent – and powerful – roles in Three Tall Women, August: Osage County, The Actress, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Baldwin chafes against the notion that Ma Joad, her role in The Grapes, is a softie by comparison.

“She fulfills her role as the Mother who nurtures, cooks and cleans,” she admits, “but Pa comes to her for her opinion and follows it even when he, at first, doesn’t agree with her. She is truly the backbone of the family. When the men start to falter and give up, she continues to be positive and strong. Ma has several wonderful monologues, and one of my favorites is when Pa has all but given up and she tells him that life for a woman is ‘all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on.’”

Vilified by bankers and landowners for his workingman sympathies, scorned by literary critics who preferred the apolitical beauties of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, the sun began to set on Steinbeck’s reputation and continued to decline after he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. The socialist label, not a problem in Europe, hampered him here.

So let’s look around and see the political reasons why the time may be ripe for The Grapes. An avowed socialist nearly captured the presidential nomination of one of our major parties, and the shadows of fascism and demagoguery hang over our land as heavily as they did when Steinbeck published his masterwork.

Baldwin and Law both cite the sowing of divisions and the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots as reasons why the Joads’ odyssey still resonates today.

“The question then seems to be the same as today,” says Baldwin. “What price are we willing to pay to affect change? Is America truly a land of opportunity for all?”

In the 2007 production of The Crucible at Theatre Charlotte, director Matt Cosper dipped into the screenplay that Miller had written for the 1996 film, freshening the version that had previously run on Queens Road in 1988. Tom Hollis, chairman of the CPCC Drama Department, has settled on an even more daring way to give the old classic a new look.

Directing at Pease Auditorium, Hollis is transposing the 1692 Salem Witch Trials to 1952, when the Miller script was released, while preserving the antique Puritan dialect that the playwright invented for his historical characters. From what we’re told about the impact Hollis hopes to achieve in juxtaposing Salem’s infamous trials and Sen. McCarthy’s infamous Senate hearings, we could possibly see a trace of Sen. Joe or his nemesis, Joseph Welch. Maybe some video cameos?

“The naming of names and the accuser being somehow sacrosanct has been an age-old issue in human affairs,” Hollis observes. “The hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials and the 50’s Communist hunts all echo with the proliferation of ‘fake news’ today. Did not Orwell predict that the shouting of a lie loud enough and long enough will make it true? The inability of many to separate belief from objective reality is more disturbing today than ever.”

After a couple of memorable performances in 1776 and Ragtime last season, Josh Logsdon gets an even meatier role as Miller’s martyr, John Proctor, in his first non-musical foray at CP. He is tempted and traduced by the adulterous Abigail Williams while further tortured and frustrated by his unforgiving wife, Elizabeth – tasked with finding his authentic self while living in a sexist world.

“The text does paint him as domineering and harsh at times when arguing with Elizabeth,” Logsdon says. “But I try to draw on more of his softness with both Abi and Elizabeth. His relationship with Elizabeth transitions from one of resentment and more pain to a reclaimed love and a final peace. He has a softness to Abigail as much as he denies it, but he eventually sees that she’s willing to destroy everything and everyone to have what she wants, and he’s definitely horrified by it.”

Not quite a vampire, but chillingly close – and certainly in season.

A Dream Remembered… and Still Deferred

Preview: A Raisin in the Sun

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York on March 11, 1959, it was unquestionably a historical milestone. Hansberry was the first African American woman to write a play produced on Broadway, and Lloyd Richards was the first African American man to direct.

Although it lost the 1960 Tony Award to The Miracle Worker, Hansberry’s drama was destined to become a cultural touchstone, sprouting two notable offshoots. It was the most memorable target for George C. Wolfe’s 1986 satire, The Colored Museum, where the Younger family matriarch, Lena, was hilariously lampooned in “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play.”

Then in 2010, Bruce Norris wrote the sobering Clybourne Park, which opens on the same day as the Act 3 climax of Raisin and then, after intermission, takes us back to the home that the Youngers bought 50 years later, when the all-white neighborhood has become all-black. Posthumously and indirectly, Norris’s play honored Hansberry by taking the Tony Award – and the Pulitzer Prize – for drama.

Through it all, Raisin has continued to speak to audiences. Since the last time Theatre Charlotte brought the Youngers to Queens Road thirteen years ago, the sturdy script has been revived twice on Broadway, heaping more posthumous Tonys on Hansberry’s masterwork.

Kim Parati, directing for the first time at Theatre Charlotte, sees the play as more than a milestone or a touchstone.

“It’s a litmus test of our progress,” she observes, “or lack thereof, over these last 50 years. We’re still debating the infrastructure of the decaying conditions in the poor and segregated South Side of Chicago. We’re still lamenting the pain of the black male when it comes to dealing with THE MAN, and we’re still examining the conditions that rob poor people – and in this case, poor blacks – of their dreams.”

Hanberry’s drama actually had its roots in litigation her family was involved in 25 years before she wrote it, a case that fought Chicago’s “restrictive covenants” enforcing segregated neighborhoods through agreements by all-white property owners’ associations. You don’t forget such things when your mother patrols the house with a loaded gun at night to protect the family, or when your case – eventually adjudicated in the family’s favor by the Supreme Court – gets you spat upon on your way to school.

No wonder, then, that the home sold to Hansberry’s father in 1937 became officially recognized as a historic Chicago landmark. But while the confrontation with the emissary from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association is at the core of the drama, the young playwright, not yet 29 when Raisin premiered, layered on so much more. When Lena receives the $10,000 check from her late husband’s life insurance policy, only a portion of it goes toward a down payment on her dream home.

A third will go toward fulfilling her daughter Beneatha’s ambitions to attend medical school and become a doctor. The rest goes to Lena’s bitter and discontented son Walter Lee, who wishes to shed the daily humiliations of a limousine driver and open a liquor store. Meanwhile, Walter Lee’s wife Ruth has just learned that she is pregnant with another child that her family cannot afford.

So there’s a whole swirl of racial, societal, and women’s issues percolating throughout Raisin, with extra splashes of conflict supplied by Beneatha’s two suitors, the well-to-do George Murchison and Nigerian exchange student Joseph Asagai. Maybe Beneatha, immersing herself in African culture, should just forget this America thing and run off with Asagai to his homeland.

Amid all these conflicted and bickering folk, one non-combatant emerges with a pivotal role: Travis, Walter Lee’s son.

Parati takes on the task of shaping all these turbulences, crosswinds, and the crystallization they lead to with less than two years’ experience in directing. But Parati’s debut as director came a full 16 years after a young Kim Watson made her Charlotte acting debut in the long-forgotten Naked Navigations at a 5th Street art gallery where her turn as Madonna was interrupted by a passing freight train.

Her other role as Star, an Oscar recipient, was more indicative of things to come. By 2001, Parati had made her debut at Children’s Theatre as an unexpectedly active Annabel Lee in Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, before winning CL’s Best Cameo award in 2002 with walk-ons in The Vagina Monologues and Jungalbook and making her Charlotte Repertory Theatre debut in 2003.

Asked what her favorite roles were in her acting days, Parati cites her roles as Kaa the snake in Jungalbook, Janet in the rolling world premiere of Steven Dietz’s Yankee Tavern (2009), and multiple roles in Charles Randolph Wright’s Blue (2009). Recalling each of these productions, Parati offered customized kudos for each of her directors, respectively April A. Jones at Children’s Theatre, Dennis Delamar at CAST, and Sidney Horton at Actor’s Theatre.

Curiously, it was none of the above – nor her stellar turn in Intimate Apparel (CL Best Actress, 2007) nor A Lesson Before Dying or Bug (CL Best Supporting Actress, 2005) – that turned Parati toward directing. Her “aha” moment happened at Spirit Square in the Collaborative Arts Theatre production of Bad Dates, the one-woman show written by Theresa Rebeck.

“After all,” she recalls thinking, “I’d managed to carry a show on my shoulders for more than 80 minutes each night and not only survive it, but grow in the confidence that I might have the vision and fortitude to manage an entire production. That’s when I began thinking about directing.”

It took three years before Parati got her chance from Nicia Carla at PaperHouse Theatre to direct A Woman of No Importance. The site for this Oscar Wilde revival was unlikely, the first time The Frock Shop on Central Avenue was used for a theatrical production. Yet the triumph was undeniable: We picked the sophisticated PaperHouse frolic as both our Best Comedy and Show of the Year for 2015.

Other recent career moves for Parati have included resigning from WFAE after 10 years, delivering her own story on The Moth Radio Hour, and obtaining her realtor’s license. Keeping her hand in directing, she also piloted Motherhood Out Loud for Three Bone Theatre and The Bluest Eye for On Q Productions.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise when Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law called on Parati for A Raisin in the Sun.

“Ron and his team have worked hard to create a theatre that celebrates diversity and thought it might be wonderful to have a black woman direct a show written by a black woman!”

This black woman, as you may have surmised, is well-connected – and in demand. More than 50 actors showed up for auditions, and Parati found herself calling back 30. Better yet, she didn’t have to scout beyond this talent pool to fill any of Hansberry’s roles. Parati is excited about the new faces in the cast, and she’s also planning a couple of surprises, restoring one of the scenes – plus a telling moment – that were cut from the original 1959 premiere.

Yet Parati pushes back against the notion that A Raisin in the Sun has become newly relevant after the Obama presidency and the Trump election.

“In 2008, I – like a lot of Americans – celebrated the fact that our country had elected its first black president,” Parati recalls. “Yet, the disparities between blacks and whites in education, healthcare, mortality rates and income continue to widen. I’m not convinced there was an ascent and subsequent descent for African Americans from the Obama era to now.

“Sure, our conversation since Trump has changed because the optics and rhetoric seem drastically different, but the stats about the lack of equity between blacks and whites have continued along the same trajectory.”

 

The Bee Gees Lose Their Falsettos

Theater Reviews: Saturday Night Fever and 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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(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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

Jews, Blacks, and JFK Converge at Concertized Kushner

Theatre Review: Caroline, or Change

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L-R: Brittany Currie, Tracie Frank, and Veda Covington

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.

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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.

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L-R: Yabi Gedewan, Ibrahim Web, and TyNia Brandon as Caroline’s children

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.

Photos by Perry Tannenbaum