Tag Archives: Sabrina Blanks

It’s Hard to Shout “Humbug!” at Theatre Charlotte’s Latest Dickens

Review: A Christmas Carol

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In his 15th and final season as executive director at Theatre Charlotte, Ron Law has been doing double Dickens duty in the artistic realm. Back in September, he stage-directed Oliver! to open the 2019-20 season, and now he has stepped into the formidable role of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. There’s a satisfying finality to seeing Law onstage, reminding us of the varied roles he and his family have played in reshaping Charlotte’s community theatre, which includes establishing the Dickens classic as a Yuletide fixture on Queens Road. For subscribers whose memories extend back to 2007, when Law introduced the first annual Christmas Carol, there was also an element of nostalgia: Oliver! was the season opener that year as well.

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Law brings different strengths to the role of Scrooge than his predecessors, Kevin Campbell and Christian Casper. He was frequently the loudest of the three as the unredeemed Scrooge when I saw him on Saturday night, so his explosions of meanness could be startling, though he was not as mean-to-the-bone as Campbell was in the latter years of his tenure – nor as greedily calculating as Casper. The joy and giddiness that Scrooge radiates are really the highest hurdles for an actor, and Campbell was one of the few anywhere who have ever fully convinced me of the miser’s miraculous transformation, one of the few to really create a convincing character arc.

Of course, the capability of an actor to deliver the full range of Scrooge partly hinges upon the adaptation chosen by the company or the director – and the amount of butchery inflicted by the director upon the script. Over 100 adaptations have been created for stage, TV, and film over the years, and Theatre Charlotte has done at least three of them. The current one, directed by Aaron Mize, was adapted by Arthur Julius Leonard. Unlike some others that I’ve seen, it shows us Scrooge and future partner Jacob Marley conspiring to take over the business run by Fezziwig, Scrooge’s great benefactor. And courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Present, we peep in on Ebenezer’s former fiancée Belle, happily married with two kids, bemoaning all that has befallen Marley and Scrooge. But the Ghost of Christmas Past only revealed Ebenezer’s first encounter with Belle at a holiday soiree hosted by Fezziwig, skipping over Young Scrooge’s marriage proposal. Thus the first conversation between Leonard’s version of Belle and her fiancé occurred when she dropped by Ebenezer’s office and returned her engagement ring. Any sense of Ebenezer having been on the path toward happiness until he took a wrong turn has basically been destroyed for anybody new to the story.

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Mize and lighting designer Chris Timmons continue to make the visit from Marley’s ghost a highlight of the show, aided by Sabrina Blanks’s costuming and accessorizing. Rick Taylor startled me more than once as Marley when sound board operator implemented Vito Abate’s original sound design and smoke seeped through Scrooge’s threshold. Taylor was sufficiently fierce, aggressive and urgent to make Law quail credibly in terror, and he was able to texturize Old Joe later on in one of the Christmas Future scenes. Costuming and atmosphere contributed decisively to making an impression this year on Queens Road. Maxwell Greger was surprisingly generic as Scrooge’s oppressed and underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit, and Keyes Miller was only marginally more satisfying as Fred, Ebenezer’s shunned nephew. Yet the garish largesse of Chip Bradley’s getup as the Ghost of Christmas Present – especially when a grubby Ignorance and Want crawled out of it – keyed his hearty success.

Only a handful of others in the 29-member cast had sufficient opportunities to leave an imprint during this production, which ran 110 minutes with an intermission. These included promising turns by Anna McCarty as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Olivia Lott as Belle, despite McCarty’s underpowered voice and Lott’s outrageous white wig, which did nothing for her romantic appeal. Mize utilized his large corps effectively toward the end of the evening when he had the bulk of them parading down the center aisle toward the stage – singing a Christmas carol, of course. But at other times, Mize seemed tone-deaf to the heart of Dickens’ appeal and how much kids should contribute to his Yule-flavored sentimentality. When the miraculously transformed Scrooge shouted down to the street to get a child’s attention, Mize had his Turkey Boy (Vann-Dutch Marek) standing up onstage near him instead of down below among the audience. Awkward. Worse was the deployment of Pearce Stinson as Tiny Tim. Perhaps misguided political correctness prevented Mize and Pearce from making much of Tim’s limp, but Mize never really allowed Pearce to shine, glow, or stand apart – even when he delivered his most famous line.

All these criticisms will likely sound as if I were shouting “humbug!” to this entire enterprise, for there was no grumbling heard as the audience filed out onto Queens Road on Saturday night, greeted warmly by cast members in the lobby. Nor were there many empty seats at Theatre Charlotte, where robust Christmas Carol sales can be expected to continue.

The Other Shue Drops at Theatre Charlotte With “The Nerd”

Review: The Nerd

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s only infrequently that playwright Larry Shue’s name crops up on the Charlotte theatre scene. The New Orleans native, whose comedies were all premiered at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, died in an airplane crash at the age of 39, while his most familiar work, The Foreigner, was still playing off-Broadway. Charlotte Repertory Theatre staged that backwoods farce during the same year that Shue died, 1985, and it was a huge hit, so huge that when Rep marked its 25th anniversary in 2001, a revival of The Foreigner was part of their celebration.

Yet Shue’s “other” comedy, The Nerd, also figured significantly in Rep’s history, for when the company went from a summertime schedule to year-round status in 1988, The Nerd was the company’s first non-summer production. Thirty years later, the current Theatre Charlotte presentation of The Nerd is actually its Charlotte premiere, for Rep staged this wacky comedy at Davidson College.

Wacky might be considered a gracious description of The Nerd, which premiered in Milwaukee two years before The Foreigner and arrived on Broadway two years after its worthier sibling. Silly, over-the-top, and unfocused might be better ways to describe this belated coming-of-age story of young architect Willum Cubbert. We first encounter the low-key Willum as he’s insufficiently surprised by his 28th birthday party. The surprises have hardly begun, for the party is wildly impacted by the unexpected arrival of the title character, Rick Steadman, who retains Willum’s undying gratitude for saving his life in Vietnam.

Thanks to other guests, excesses abound before Rick’s bodacious entrance. Not only is Willum’s current client, Warnock Waldgrave, insensitive to the niceties of Willum’s architectural drawings, he comes to the party with a neurotic wife and a fiercely obnoxious daughter. The little brat has thrown two or three tantrums, assaulted her dad and other adults, and locked herself stubbornly in the bathroom on multiple occasions a sedate warmup compared to the action after Rick arrives. As you might presume, the extremely starchy Warnock and the preternaturally eccentric and irritating Rick are not destined to get along.

Aside from Willum, whose gratitude toward Rick and dependence on Warnock prevent him from taking a hard line, two of Willum’s friends, Axel Hammond and Tansy McGinnis, try to mediate as the party spirals further out of control. Tansy is particularly sympathetic toward Willum. She’s his girlfriend now but will soon be breaking his heart when she moves from Terre Haute, Indiana, to DC, where she has a job waiting for her as a TV weathergirl. Axel is a drama critic, so he’s more inclined to crack wise than be helpful.

Just when it seems that Willum’s evening can’t get any worse, Rick makes his second entrance, suitcases in hand, intent on moving in. It’s here that Shue begins to misdirect us or lose focus, for everyone onstage except Rick becomes intently preoccupied with expelling Willum’s noxious visitor. We’re likely to forget that Tansy has really set the agenda early on in a conversation with Axel.

With set and lighting by John P. Woodey, this Theatre Charlotte production has a very sharp and detailed look to it, augmented by Sabrina Blanks’ splendid costume designs. Mom Clelia and daughter Thoralee clash like crazy in their party outfits, and Rick, dogged in insisting that this is a Halloween party, is positively unearthly when he arrives. Directing this mayhem, Jill Bloede takes a sensible approach, drawing outré performances from her three most noisome players, Trulyn Rhinehardt as the incorrigible Thoralee, Simon Donaghue as a perpetually outraged Warnock, and Jonathan Slaughter as The Nerd.

Rhinehardt misbehaves with such savage zest that you’ll want to take a stick to her. I don’t mind saying that I most delighted in Thoralee when she fainted from fright. Even if Bloede hadn’t changed Thoralee’s gender – Shue originally saddled Warnock with a Thor – I don’t think that a fainting spell by a bratty boy would have been any more satisfying. Donoghue’s powerful take on Warnock seemed to be the only misguided aspect of Bloede’s approach: why didn’t he take a stick or a belt – or a machine gun – to his unruly daughter, and why didn’t he simply fire Willum on the spot for ruining his day? Whatever softness accounted for Warnock’s forbearance wasn’t visible.

Slaughter’s way with Rick, not far distant in its absurdity from the sound and awkwardness of the Nutty Professor minted by Jerry Lewis, always bordered precariously on the unbelievable. There were times when Rick seemed to be trying to irritate everyone in sight, exactly the impression that Shue would have approved of. A tad too young to be playing Willum, perhaps, Cole Pedigo was a near-perfect foil for Rick’s nuttiness once he conquered his opening-night jitters. Shue wanted us to see a talented desirable man who is kind, grateful, and accommodating to a fault. That was exactly how we saw Pedigo.

Shue’s women weren’t as well drawn here as they would be in The Foreigner, but Bloede probably could have pushed Allison Kranz as Tansy and Audrey Wells as Clelia further toward farce. They also suffer at the epic birthday party from hell, Tansy especially after she slaves over a custom-made dinner and Clelia most memorably when she quizzes Rick about his love life. Perhaps if Shue had made her more decisive, Tansy would have seemed less vanilla as the would-be weathergirl, so Kranz definitely needed to pick her spots to show us that she was worthy of Willum’s adoration. Mostly, Shue and I forgot about her. Of course, Clelia was as much generic comedy material as her child, but Shue gave her some bravura business to perform in her reactions. Bloede should have lit the fire that would have made these diva moments for Wells. We weren’t as close to Carol Burnett as we should have been.

Deep in the weave of Shue’s plot is Axel, whose scheme to exorcise Rick in Act 2 is approximately as disastrous as the birthday party was before intermission. Chip Bradley is sufficiently urbane and snarky as this theatre critic, but I sometimes got the impression that he was a late addition to the cast. Along with a few instances of slow cue pickup, Bradley fumbled a few lines before getting them right. I’ve seen him do better in productions just as fast-paced as this one, so I’m expecting better performances in the nights ahead.

Coping with so many moving parts and quirks, Charlotte Rep also had some rough edges in its opening night performance of The Nerd 30 years ago. You wouldn’t want to tame all of this volatile ball of energy, but a little more energy here and a little sharpening there would help Theatre Charlotte’s production to snap into better shape.