Tag Archives: Theatre Charlotte

Climb Aboard a Retro Laugh Riot

Review: A highly animated Odd Couple revival with a professional-grade cast

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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With the benefit of hindsight, we can see more clearly that Neil Simon and his esteemed stablemates – Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, and Mel Brooks – who all wrote for Sid Caesar during the early days of television, didn’t simply disperse into the realms of stand-up, movies, and theatre for the obvious practical reasons. Autonomy, fame, and fortune were surely enticing, but so was the satisfaction of working in longer forms than TV sketch comedy or a star comedian’s monologues.

Come back to The Odd Couple – or revisit Bananas and Zelig, A Funny Thing Happened and Tootsie, The Producers and Blazing Saddles – and we see a mature writer working beyond the limitations of zany characters and snappy one-liners. Simon develops his Oscar and Felix, tells a full-length story about them, and keeps the hilarity going. Entering Theatre Charlotte, where Jill Bloede is directing a highly animated Odd Couple revival with a professional-grade cast, I wasn’t thinking that I’d be seeing this old cash cow so freshly.

Somehow the difference between this 1965 comedy and TV sitcoms of the same era – including the spinoff Odd Couple sitcom that came to ABC in 1970 – suddenly seemed rather radical. The cardinal rule for most 22-minute sitcom writers back then was to hit the reset button at the end of each episode, so that next week’s episode would start out as if this week’s had never happened. On Broadway, you could expect the uptight, neurotic, neat freak Felix to wear out his slovenly pal Oscar’s patience by the time the curtain came down. On TV? No way. Felix made himself at home in Oscar’s Manhattan apartment for nearly five seasons.

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Many in the sold-out house at the Queens Road barn on opening night were struck even more freshly by Felix, Oscar, their poker-night buddies, and the neighboring Pigeon Sisters. Unless the younger people in the house had been hooked on the Matthew Perry reincarnation of the sitcom during 2015-2017 on CBS, they likely hadn’t run into much Simon or Oscar in their lifetimes. I was a little taken aback when I came home, double-checked, and found that I’d only seen Odd Couple once in Charlotte during the last 30+ years, back in 2007 at CPCC.

On the other hand, this comedy staple had been quasi road-tested at Theatre Charlotte when the Female Version – with Florence, Olive and a klatch of Trivial Pursuit-playing women replacing the poker buddies – dropped by in the summer of 2012. Bloede also directed then, an overachievement that certainly warranted her current return engagement.

Whether it’s Lady Bracknell or Lucy Ricardo, Bloede knows her comedy, and she has prospected long enough in Charlotte to be able to mine its finest talent. Doesn’t look like she had to twist any arms, either. For her Oscar, she landed the most experienced Simon exponent in town, Brian Lafontaine. Breaking in to Charlotte theatre in 1992-1994, Lafontaine played leads in three of Simon’s comedies, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues on Queens Road – and Lost in Yonkers at Charlotte Rep.

Bloede goes edgier and high-energy for her Felix with Mark Scarboro, who first carved out his eccentric niche in 2001-02 with standout performances in Thumbs, The Pitchfork Disney, and Fuddy Meers. Yet Bloede has Lafontaine playing the 43-year-old Oscar with more energy than I’ve ever seen from this slovenly New York Post sportswriter. If she’s going to turn Scarboro loose to be as anal, neurotic, outré, and irritating as he can imagine Felix to be, then she’s returning the favor to Lafontaine and turning him loose to be as irritated, provoked, and out-of-control as he can imagine a devout 44-year-old slob can be.

No less pleasurable is the build-up to Felix’s first entrance. That’s because Bloede has a deep bench sitting around Oscar’s dining room poker table, supporting her stars. If we’re returning to Odd Couple, we’re likely surprised to find that Felix isn’t going to show up until we’re 17 pages into the script. Even Oscar isn’t onstage at the outset in his own apartment! Simon’s poker preamble steadily stokes concern for fragile Felix’s welfare in the wake of his breakup with his wife, but there’s already hostility and comedy shtick at the table before the two marquee combatants show up.

Just watch Michael Corrigan and Patrick Keenan at work, sparring as Murray and Speed, and you’ll see that Bloede has selected a second comedy team for us to revel in, very much in the same Felix-Oscar, Laurel-Hardy template. Decades ago, when Corrigan was younger and slimmer, he tended to remind you of Tim Conway. So the particular quirks of Murray the policeman come to readily to Corrigan, his exasperating slowness in shuffling cards and his alarmist reactions to any new news about Felix. Keenan is the master of the slow burn and the bellowing explosion, repeatedly supplying perfect exclamation points to punctuate the comedy.

Tall and lanky Matt Olin is the perfect choice for the spineless Vinnie, the guy Murray and Speed can both agree to pick on, the dutiful husband who submits to his wife’s curfew, and the man who deeply appreciates Felix’s sissy sandwiches. Meanwhile, Lee Thomas continues to ply his teddy bear charm as Oscar’s diffident, occasionally witty accountant, Roy.

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If you’re worried that Bloede might be taking PC pains to update the Pigeon Sisters and present them as more evolved, rest easy. Vanessa Davis as Gwendolyn and Johanna Jowett as Cecily stay true to their origins, Davis the flirtier sister and Jowett the more empathetic bleeding heart. Set designer Rick Moll, costumer Yvette Moten, and sound designer Rick Wiggins have all climbed aboard Theatre Charlotte’s retro train. With a soundtrack that includes James Brown, Petula Clark, Jack Jones, Herb Alpert, and The Shirelles, Bloede and her all-pro cast are bent on taking you back to the ‘60s, like it or not. I’m betting you’ll like it.

Dancing in the Aisles for 36 Years

Interview: Billy Ensley

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Call him Mister Versatility. To find anyone else in the Charlotte theatre scene who has been celebrated for excellence in so many different areas as Billy Ensley, you would have to summon up the memory of Alan Poindexter, the wunderkind who came out of the UNC Charlotte theatre program and won accolades as an actor, director, and sound designer. Ensley’s awards, a total of 16 from Creative Loafing and the Metrolina Theatre Association, have been for his work as an actor, director – in musicals, comedies, and dramas – and as a choreographer.

Song and dance were Ensley’s calling cards from the beginning, and they remain handy skills as he directs the upcoming Matthews Playhouse production of Mamma Mia! – the fifth musical that he has directed there. We interviewed Ensley about his evolution as an artist, the enduring popularity of Mamma Mia! and the vital importance of our community theatres.

QC Nerve: Take us back to the early days. Outside of school productions, what was your first appearance on a Charlotte stage? Can you tell us how you felt about theatre at that time and the part it would play in your life?

My first appearance on a Charlotte stage after school was in Seesaw (1983) at Theatre Charlotte [then known as Little Theatre of Charlotte]. At that time, I was moving into theatre as a result of having dance training throughout my youth. Male dancers were in demand, and therefore I was able to make that transition and learn acting and singing as well. While performing on Charlotte stages in my 20’s, I regularly got work in professional theatres, some of which include The Blowing Rock Stage Company, Opera Carolina, Busch Gardens, and Cook/Loughlin productions at Spirit Square.

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I wanted to dedicate my life to the theatre arts, but I also had a strong desire to own a home and be self-sufficient. I worked for over a decade as the director of office operations for the Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson law firm. After a couple of years in the travel industry, I went to work for Rexus Corporation, a national background screening company, where I am their chief operations officer for 15+ years.

By the time I first saw you back in the late 80s, in House of Blue Leaves and The 1940s Radio Hour, you were well on your way to establishing yourself as Charlotte’s pre-eminent triple threat. How committed were you at that time to accomplishing that goal, and how did you hone your acting, singing, and dancing skills?

At the time, I was not aware that I was establishing myself in any way actually. I was merely doing what I loved and what I was driven to do. Of course, it helped that I was receiving good reviews in the local press and support from the theatre community. That was positive reinforcement to keep working basically two full time jobs.

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Through the support and training of many people in Charlotte – including Tom Vance, Tom Hollis, Ron Chisholm, Terry Loughlin, Steve Umberger, to name a few – I was fortunate enough to work in the theatre almost constantly. I received a lot of my acting and singing training by being in productions, but I also continued to take dance classes, study voice with Joyce Marshall and study acting privately.

What role did our community theatre play in launching your career in theatre? How do see Theatre Charlotte and Matthews Playhouse figuring in the local scene today?

Theatre Charlotte often had the best directors and performers in the region. I was surrounded by some of the best and, as a result, I almost always got a paying gig from that exposure in community theatre. In addition, I was getting excellent hands-on training from them.

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Theatre Charlotte and Matthews Playhouse figure prominently in the local scene today, attracting good directors and seasoned performers as well as exciting new talent. In addition to cultivating new talent, they both are providing a venue for professional performers to have the opportunity to perform roles that may not be possible otherwise, due to the fact that Charlotte still struggles with sustaining many theatre companies.

You’ve made a couple of dramatic changes to reignite your career. First, you stopped doing musical after musical and took on a major role in a straight play, You Should Be So Lucky, in 1997. Then in 2003-04, we suddenly found you directing local productions of Evita, Bat Boy, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. What motivated you in each of these instances to break out of your previous mold – were there practical considerations involved, or was it all about self-fulfillment?

For me, it was a combination of both. As a dancer, you learn pretty early in life that the thing you have been training for, performing and loving, must eventually come to an end, or at least morph considerably. The same applies to playing the young male leads in musical theatre. I knew that I wanted the theatre to remain in my life, and I wanted to continue growing in other ways so that I could facilitate that.

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As a youngster, I marveled at performers that were always reinventing themselves – David Bowie comes to mind, actually – and I thought that was a great way to remain relevant. I also did not want to be pigeonholed in musical theatre, which I felt I clearly was. I wanted the challenges of dramatic acting like McDonagh’s The Pillowman (2007), in which I was lucky enough to play the lead, Katurian, in the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

As for directing, that was a slow and methodical process, and not an easy career to break in to. I started choreographing and directing in theatres outside of Charlotte like Belmont Abbey College and Wingate University. Eventually, the executive director at Theatre Charlotte, Candace Sorensen, offered me my first directing job in Charlotte with Sweet Charity (2002). After a few Charlotte shows, I got a great deal of support from Dan Shoemaker and Chip Decker at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.

Tell us about your history with Matthews Playhouse and what you have experienced there in terms of the quality of their facilities, staff, and talent pool.

I have directed Shrek, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Bonnie & Clyde and Grey Gardens for Matthews Playhouse. Matthews Playhouse is an excellent example of a successful and vibrant community theatre. Under the leadership of June Bayless, they have an excellent staff, a remarkable youth training program, combined with a very nice auditorium and excellent technical staff.

Who are the familiar audience favorites and the hot new discoveries that are going to make your Mamma Mia! a smashing success? Who are the scenic design, costume design, and choreographer aces on the case?

IMG_6570Lucia Stetson and Lisa Blanton are audience favorites. Lucia having played Maria in The Sound of Music and Lisa Blanton having played Little Edie in Grey Gardens. Our two young romantic leads both qualify as hot new discoveries. They are Alexa Thomas and Spencer Ellis as Sophie and Sky. Lisa Blanton agreed to pull double duty for this show by both choregraphing and playing the role of Tanya. Lisa Altieri is handling costumes and Emmy Award-winning John Bayless is the scenic designer. His work is amazing and his talents run very, very deep.

What do you continue to find in Mamma Mia! that keeps us from getting tired of it?

Well, ABBA of course! The music is familiar and well loved; bringing back lots of memories of love and romance for us middle-aged folk. The women characters in the show are strong and independent, the male characters are sensitive and compassionate. Like other jukebox musicals, it is fun to watch a scene that evolves into a song that most of us know at least some of the lyrics to. It is a show where the audience should come in with their hair down, their troubles stowed away, and perhaps their inhibitions stowed away as well – in favor of singing along or dancing in the aisles!

 

“And Then There Were None” Keeps Us Guessing as the Body Count Mounts

Review: Dame Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Theatre audiences love mysteries. Action, intrigue, plot twists, murder, and maybe a jolt of romance – they deliver an intoxicating brew and demand your heightened attention. Yet there aren’t nearly enough theatre mysteries to satisfy audience demand. The big names in the field are Christie and the Holmeses – Sherlock and Rupert. Either purloined from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories or cynically refashioned and rebranded for commercial consumption, Sherlock is the mystery detective personified. Rupert Holmes has had the chutzpah to craft two mystery musicals, Drood and Curtains, as well as two mystery dramas that premiered here in Charlotte, Accomplice and Thumbs.

Whether onstage or in bookstores, Dame Agatha Christie is the unchallenged queen of mysteries. A trio of Christie titles are constantly making the rounds: The Mousetrap, renowned as the longest-running stage production of all time since 1952; Witness for the Prosecution, especially after Billy Wilder’s Oscar-nominated film in 1957; and, first presented as Ten Little N-Words back in 1943, And Then There Were None.

Christie’s zero-sum mystery is based on the most beloved of her 72 novels and one of the six best-selling novels of all time. There’s absolutely no problem with name recognition at Theatre Charlotte, where few seats were left on opening night. Nor was there any sign that director Dave Blamy had any difficulty attracting sufficient local talent to fill his cast of 10 suspects/victims who arrive on Soldier Island, all claiming to have been invited by the same person they’ve never met. An eleventh cast member ferries the guests, the butler, and the maid from the mainland and then departs.

Or does he?

Whoever sent out the invitations was selective, choosing only people who were responsible for other people’s deaths. They will all be victims, in the killer’s mind, who deserve to die. A recording that the butler has been instructed to play calls out each of the guests’ names and tells the group whose death he or she is responsible for. Justice is to be meted out to them all, for there is no escaping to the mainland.IMG_1674

That only begins to describe the fiendishness and arrogance of the killer who is on the loose, probably hiding in plain sight. Hanging over the mantle – and printed as an insert in our programs – is a poem, “Ten Little Soldier Boys,” chronicling how the group dwindled until “there were none.” As the dwindling survivors of the murderous rampage soon figure out, the poem has become a template for how the killer will snuff out each of them, following the order of the poem. The first “choked his little self,” the second “overslept himself,” the third “got left behind,” and so on.

Each time one of the guests is murdered, a soldier boy figurine sitting on the mantle disappears or falls to the floor.

It’s an elegant touch, an impressive sleight-of-hand, another affirmation that the killer is in control and always one or two steps ahead of his victims – another way he or she is toying with the ineffectual survivors who remain, mocking their efforts. And ours.

Chris Timmons’ set design, one of the best and most beautiful he has built during his 13-year tenure at the Queens Road barn, has four exits on its two levels, allowing a certain amount of bustle and confusion as we track the whereabouts of our chief suspects. We’re also rubbernecking where the next victim is, for we never know who that will be until late in the game – this is a diabolical game, right? – and only vaguely how the next murder will be done.IMG_1668

Blamy keeps the action flowing masterfully, varying his pacing, and getting Christie’s suspects to engage with each other intensively. Once the game is afoot, we must believe that each one’s demeanor – suave, artless, judgmental, analytical, scientific, or dignified – hides the heart of a maniacal murderer.

The Theatre Charlotte veterans are as reliable as we expect them to be. Caryn Crye drips piety and primness as spinster Emily Brent, saving her most severely moralizing barbs for young Vera Claythorne, whom she views as scandalously immodest. Johnny Hohenstein, not always on his best form on opening night, was sleazy and obnoxious as retired policeman William Blore when he hit his stride, both deceitful and maybe a little stupid. Timothy Huffman was actually a little less commanding than we’ve seen him before as retired General Mackenzie, perhaps too overcome by guilt and senility to be a serious threat.

On the other hand, Philip Robertson emerges as a natural leader and investigator as Sir Lawrence Wargrave, a retired judge who gets all the guests to respond to the crimes they’re accused of, rousing suspicions and animosities among the group. Thanks to him, we see the rogues’ gallery we’re dealing with fairly clearly.

Among the Queens Road newcomers, Peter Finnegan takes top-of-the-class honors as adventurer Philip Lombard. After a startling local debut as Bottom in Actor’s Theatre’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in August, Finnegan turns the pistol-toting Lombard from a semi-romantic hero into an Indiana Jones rascal, absorbing multiple rejections and altering the chemistry between him and Vera. Jonathan Stevens’ breakout performance at CPCC came even more recently as Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love. Some of that same aristocratic conceit and bearing transfers well to Rogers the butler, and his toxic superiority to Mrs. Rogers also has a familiar ring.

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As Mrs. Rogers, Cadie Pittman comes closer to a breakout role, giving the overworked maidservant a nice resentful edge. We keep guessing about Vera and her past because newcomer Quincy Stanford keeps her so unpredictable as she establishes bumpy relationships with both Lombard and Emily. It’s hard to surpass Finnegan for reckless swagger, but newcomer Carson Edwards gives it a try as inconsiderate daredevil Anthony Marston. He’s somewhat thwarted by the playboy outfit designed for him by costumer Chelsea Retalic, more apt to drink champagne than bourbon, and too carefree to carry a gun.

Rounding out our primary suspects, Will Lampe makes an interesting study as Dr. Armstrong. He might be a truly timorous, harmless, and useful physician, but Lampe’s fearfulness could be a façade if he’s furtively dealing out death with his medicinal syringes. Then he disappears! Dead? Lurking? The tension ratchets up suspensefully as we puzzle out whether he’s the “red herring” in the “Ten Little Soldier Boys” poem or the latest addition to the body count.

 

Dangerous and Delicious London – With a Twist

Review: Oliver! at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Ron Law will be retiring when his 15th season as executive director at Theatre Charlotte comes to an end next spring, but he sure isn’t retiring – or even receding into the background – right now. The spotlight will shine brightest on Law in December when he stars for the first time ever as Ebenezer Scrooge in the annual revival of A Christmas Carol at the Queens Road barn. Meanwhile he’s had other things besides bookkeeping on his mind for the past month or so, since the 92nd season at Theatre Charlotte is kicking off with a different Dickens, Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and Law is the stage director.

Thanks to some impressively weathered scenic design by Josh Webb and a juicy mix of dignified and low-life costumes by Melody Branch, the current production looks vibrant and fetching before we even reach the title song, though purists will recoil at the sound of the prerecorded orchestra. Your first favorable impressions will be sustained by the fine set of adult principals that Law has gleaned from the rich Queen City talent trove that showed up for auditions. Yet the mean rigidity of Mr. Bumble, the terror of Bill Sikes, the acquisitive cunning of Fagin, and the conflicted kindness of Nancy would be largely wasted if they were directed at an Oliver who didn’t win us over.

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Atticus Ware passes his first key test as Oliver Twist simply by standing up after dinner has been served at the workhouse and having the cheek to say, “More, please!” We’ve actually seen an Oliver at Children’s Theatre long ago who looked the very antithesis of orphaned malnourishment, and it was hard to suppress a laugh. Easily two years younger than any Oliver to appear in a local production – except for Andrew Kenny in 2001 – Ware also passes muster when Bumble reassures the Sowerberrys, morticians he has sold Oliver to, that the lad will surely grow bigger.

There are prudential reasons past directors haven’t opted for an Oliver as young and small – and maybe considered cutting Bumble’s room-to-grow remark. Without a body mic, it’s hard for a middle-schooler to sing Oliver’s angelic “Where Is Love?” or his wonderstruck “Who Will Buy?” and make himself heard across an orchestra and an audience. Nicely miked-up, Ware holds up as beautifully as Andrew Griner did in Theatre Charlotte’s last Oliver! in 2007, and he adds palpable charm when he takes his turns in “I’ll Do Anything.”

Of course, the main reason why Oliver! is being offered in the metro Charlotte area for the sixth time this century is Bart’s amazing score. No fewer than a dozen of the songs have engraved themselves in my mind so that I can agreeably recall their main hooks without assistance. Familiarity can tempt directors and actors to deviate from established Oliver Twist expectations – or, in the practice of casting girls at the workhouse and in Fagin’s band of thieving urchins, widening our expectations.

Law has presented enough iterations of Christmas Carol to value and preserve the Dickensian spirit of Oliver while loosening casting requirements where the envelope has already been pushed. Johnny Hohenstein immediately stands out as a fierce and booming Mr. Bumble, while Geof Knight as Fagin and William Kirkwood as Sikes are among the best we’ve seen. Together they form an adult triumvirate who remind us that greed and corruption aren’t simply confined to the underworld.

Hohenstein is as titanic as a beleaguered husband as he is when he’s a tyrannical beadle, a definite asset. I find ample menace and intimidation in Sikes when Kirkwood delivers his growling “My Name,” and I like the sliminess that Knight brings to “You Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” – and the grim calculation of his “Reviewing the Situation.” You couldn’t get me to dispute that any of these three gave the best auditions for their respective roles.

It’s just that I want to see a craven factor, a fear of Sikes’ violent volatility that would give an extra dimension to Fagin’s craftiness. From there, the chemistry between the two rogues can be further textured by their one-time mentor-apprentice relationship. Knight just doesn’t have the appearance of a cerebral weasel, which would make these layers relatively easy and self-evident. Here it needs work.

When it comes to Sikes’ abusive relationship with Nancy, Bart gives Kristin Graf Sakamoto all that she needs to get to its heart. Even if Nancy isn’t liberated, she’s spirited, best seen in Sakamoto’s interactions with the youngsters and in her lusty, boozy rendition of her “Oom-Pah-Pah” polka. Nancy faces some grim choices with Oliver, yet Sakamoto makes it clear that fidelity to Sikes is infused with fear – propped up by fear, you could say – when she repeats her signature “As Long as He Needs Me.”

So the Sikes-Nancy-Oliver drama and suspense develops beautifully from the first moments that we see Sakamoto. There’s already a glint of welcoming light when the Artful Dodger accosts Oliver after he has escaped Bumble and the Sowerberry mortuary. Bailey Wray ignites a “Consider Yourself” welcome as Dodger, assisted by Lisa Blanton’s choreography, that seems to engulf the whole city of London. Wray himself radiates a city-sized energy all by himself. Dodger’s precocious top hat is a couple of sizes too large, a plausible wardrobe choice, but I suspect that Law has elected to keep it that way in order to keep Wray’s hyperactive hands partially occupied.

Later there’s lively bustle in Fagin’s lair when the master puts his kids through their pickpocketing drill, and a new flowering of Blanton choreography when Oliver awakens at the home of his benefactor, Mr. Brownlow. the greatness of Britain beams at us like a sunshiney day, for Ware isn’t the only vocalist in “Who Will Buy” as it swirls with increasing anthemic force. Consonant with this cornucopia of wholesomeness, Rick Taylor is upright and trusting, a quiet affirmation that goodness and kindheartedness can rise above the miasma that swallows up Bill and Nancy.

Aside from the cloudy Sikes-Fagin chemistry, Law only loses focus at the end when Fagin and Dodger make their final exits – seemingly without any emphasis or attitude. Maybe bringing them downstage would help, but it’s a moment that deserves more fiddling with and agonizing over. Last impressions are as important as our first.

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It’s still quite sensible to hurry over to Queens Road, where the corruption and goodness of humanity are as exquisitely balanced as night and day. At its core, Oliver’s journey is a progression from secluded, deprived oppression to the centers of opportunity and civilization. Performances are almost universally fresh and decisive among over 40 onstage participants, and it’s hard to overpraise the work of musical director Ryan Deal in keeping his singers fresh and precise through a long rehearsal process.

Of course, the excitement of opening night added a jolt of energy to the performance, especially for the 13 actors – plus a dog – who were making their Theatre Charlotte debuts. If you’ve never experienced Oliver! before, you will likely feel a similar jolt of discovery.

 

Theatre Charlotte’s “The Producers” Is More Politically Incorrect Than Ever

Review:  The Producers

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When I first saw Mel Brooks’ The Producers on Broadway in 2001, my disappointment in not seeing Nathan Lane in the role of Max Bialystock was assuaged by the realization that the show was still so damn good with last-minute replacement Brad Oscar filling the megastar’s shoes. Each of the successive versions I’ve seen in Charlotte – the national tour at Ovens Auditorium in 2004 and the CPCC Summer Theatre production at Halton Theater in 2009 – has only strengthened my conviction that Lane was not an essential ingredient in the show’s success.

But isn’t it too much to expect a smashing Producers at Theatre Charlotte, where they don’t have a Broadway-sized budget – or even a spacious orchestra pit like the Halton’s? Make a couple of allowances and then prepare to be astonished.

Scenic design by Chris Timmons is cheesy, even by community theatre standards, and there are no live musicians in sight – or out of sight – at the Queens Road barn. Once you get past those visible and audible austerities, you can revel in the costume designs by Rachel Engstrom, so crucial to the big “Springtime for Hitler” climax, and in the deep cast, so necessary in putting over Brooks’ comedy and his schlocky score.

Benefitting from the embarrassment of riches that showed up at auditions, director Caroline Bower hasn’t squandered her good fortune. In David Catenazzo as Max, she has found a leading man who is as seedy as Timmons’ scenery. Mostly a secret kept in recent years by JStage at the Levine Jewish Community Center, where he has starred in A Year With Frog and Toad and Fiddler on the Roof, Catenazzo proves to have a strong singing voice to go along with his comedic gifts. He absolutely oozes corruption, eager to enlist humdrum accountant Leo Bloom to cook his books, eager to bilk show investors in a surefire flop, and rabid to shtup Ulla, the voluptuous Swedish actress who turns up early for auditions.

A second solid gold debut comes from Landon Sutton as the diffident Leo, more than nerdy enough for a numbers crusher who discovers how to pocket a shady profit from a Broadway flop. There’s pallid innocence to Sutton’s manner as Leo, plus a little endearing pudginess, that works well when he’s too timid to plunge into the crooked scheme he has inspired. But there’s a surprisingly strong and smooth singing voice when Leo jumps aboard on the reprise of “We Can Do It,” and hormonal heat in “That Face,” his serenade to Ulla.

Brooks’ book and lyrics are so politically incorrect that they still seem to draw a pass from the audience – apparently willing to overlook the sexist attitude toward Ulla and the mockery directed at Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-keeping diehard Nazi who has penned the worst musical script that Max has ever read, Springtime for Hitler. Bower makes the right choices in casting the very un-Swedish Hailey Thomas as Ulla, draping her curves with a modicum of modesty, and limiting her flirtatiousness in comparison with Max’s leering. The Sveedish accent is ba-a-a-d, which is paradoxically good, and she’s positively smashing in her Nazi eagle outfit.

Neo-Nazis are less of a laughing matter than they were 18 years ago, so it’s also wise to have Chip Bradley tone down Franz’s achtung authoritarian qualities and pile on some extra daffiness. The result is the best performance I’ve seen from Bradley, particularly when he shows us all how Hitler should be sung at Springtime auditions. Bradley’s eccentric excellence is sustained when we encounter the Greenwich Village artistes who will direct Franz’s stinker, Roger De Bris and his loyal assistant Carmen Ghia, handpicked for their inabilities.

Here we are blessed with the gay flamboyance of Matt Kenyon as Carmen and the Ethel Merman regality of Paul Reeves Leopard as Roger. It takes a professional-grade queen to pull off Carmen’s arrogant servility and Roger’s ornate Chrysler Building party dress. Kenyon and Leopard have the goods. Leopard is certainly a different kind of Hitler than Bradley when Roger must sub for Franz on opening night.

On my fourth go-round with The Producers, I wasn’t laughing out loud until the Springtime for Hitler auditions, where I found myself enjoying the outrageousness as much as the newbies in the audience. I suspect their expectations were surpassed as much as mine were 18 years ago when Lane’s absence was announced as I stood in line outside the St. James Theatre. Enthusiasm for the Little Old Ladies and their tap-dancing walkers crackled like I remembered it even if the shtick has gone a little stale for me.

Iesha Nyree as Lick-me Bite-me and Layla Sutton as Hold-me Touch-me rounded out the named characters in the cast, which lists another 14 ensemble members who make choreographer Lauren “Loz” Gibbs look good. So what ever happened to the biddie named Kiss-me Feel-me? A victim of downsizing, we must presume.

Butchering a Tearjerker

Review: Terms of Endearment

By Perry Tannenbaum 

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In spite of its Academy Awards and critical acclaim, I’ve never much wanted to see Terms of Endearment. Reading the old Roger Ebert review of the film does a far better job of changing my mind than the current stage adaptation at Theatre Charlotte, I can say that. My working theory on tearjerkers is that I already know it’s sad when good people die young, sad that people allow petty differences to stand in the way of enjoying one another, and that sorrows and pointless conflicts are redeemed by moments – too few moments – of sweetness and laughter. Watching the 129-minute Hollywood version of these self-evident truths still doesn’t entice me.

The stage adaptation by Dan Gordon trims James L. Brooks’ 1983 screenplay, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, to a mere 108 minutes at the Queens Road barn. No doubt some butchery was involved, for I can’t find serious fault with Chris Timmons’ cheery and versatile scenic design, Mitzi Corrigan’s direction, or the efforts of her cast. Can’t find the characters played by John Lithgow or Danny DeVito, either. Maybe McMurtry and Brooks were better judges of their worth.

Gordon starts with a scene so cinematically short that I couldn’t see its connection with the rest of the story. It’s useful for you to notice that the newborn Aurora Greenway is screaming at in the cradle is Emma. The next time we see Emma onstage, she’s being played by Gabriela Celecia and she’s at least 20 years older. Cynthia Farbman Harris as Aurora cannot age so radically so quickly, helping me to miss the passage of two decades. What Harris can do very well is retain Aurora’s imperious prissiness, her total self-absorption, and her industrial-strength vanity.

These are wonderful traits for Celecia to play against as the normal wife and mother of three who hopscotches from one Midwestern locale to another with Flap, her college teaching husband. Suffering the slings and arrows of Aurora’s patrician superiority, Maxwell Greger makes good on his scant chances to fire back. He’s also an effective Middle America edition of Don Juan. If James Dean ever became so humdrum that his utmost rebellion against propriety were sneaking kisses with one of his students, that Dean would look very much like Greger’s Flap.

But the juiciest pushback against Aurora’s dominion comes from Garrett Breedlove, a former astronaut whose ego outstrips his fading celebrity. He’s as open about his profligate ways as Flap is furtive and delights in offending Aurora’s elegance with his vulgarity. Why not? He still has the goods in the sack. Kicking, screaming, and sputtering, Aurora is putty in his hands.

In an auspicious Theatre Charlotte debut, Vince Raye mixes charisma and conceit into this aging moonwalker – with a chunk of tenderness that took me by surprise. At his most impressive, Raye took up Garrett’s revelation that he still boasted friends in high places. If not, he certainly showed he could bluff a weak poker hand at a championship level.

By the time this happened, the drama had seemingly dragged on for seven hours, Emma had been diagnosed with Stage 7 cancer, and the only chance she had at survival was to be admitted to a special clinical trial that was already closed to new applicants. Only Dr. Maise, the head of the hospital could make that happen, and Maise had no intention of being cowed by a mere astronaut with VIP connections.

To guard the gates against Emma’s last chance, Corrigan chose the formidable Tim Huffman, who has chewed and spit out scenery as Capt. Slank in Peter and the Starcatcher and as the thunderous Deputy Governor Danforth in The Crucible. This was quite a heavyweight confrontation, Raye’s celebrity cool as Breedlove pitted against Huffman’s towering dignity as Maise. I’m not sure which delighted me more, watching Raye coolly assailing Dr. Maise with Breedlove’s vicious threats or Huffman’s trembling capitulation.

Ah, but after that clash, the very sweet and likable Celecia had miles to go before Emma slept. Farbman had to absorb additional rebuffs and regrets as Aurora and learn additional lessons before she grieved. Let it be noted that costume designer Chelsea Retalic dresses Farbman beautifully during all her changes. When Breedlove leers at her, it is not for naught. There are also lighter moments between Aurora and Emma that allow Farbman respites from her hauteur and Celecia respites from her wholesome bland forbearance. Maybe three of them.

Two Iconic Singer-Songwriters Collide

Reviews: Nina Simone: Four Women and Ain’t Misbehavin’

By Perry Tannenbaum

With three new theater productions opening last week from Actor’s Theatre, Brand New Sheriff, and Theatre Charlotte – all sporting all-black casts – we have entered a Black History Month in Charlotte that is more about black history than ever before. Some of the African Americans who might be expected to show up for those auditions will be shining in the spotlight somewhere else this weekend as Children’s Theatre of Charlotte opens Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds at ImaginOn.

Unless you count university productions, we haven’t had more than one truly black theater production here in Charlotte during any Black History Month in the past 10 years.

So our Black History Month upgrade – and the stunning amount of local black talent necessary to make it happen – was definitely on my mind as I took in all of these shows. But a couple of times, in Actor’s Theatre’s tribute to Nina Simone and Theatre Charlotte’s Fat Waller revue, I found myself flashing back to January 2003.

That’s when a bi-racial Charlotte Rep production of Let Me Sing featured two black Broadway veterans, Gretha Boston and André de Shields, who boasted five Tony Award nominations and two wins between them.

Nina Simone: Four Women from Actor’s Theatre threw a new perspective on what are usually regarded as Rep’s declining years. The title role, calling for a passionate Black Power advocate and a charismatic singer-songwriter, would obviously benefit from the Broadway star power that Michael Bush, with his Manhattan Theatre Club connections, was able to lure down to our Booth Playhouse during Rep’s latter days.

De Shields was actually one of the original stars of Ain’t Misbehavin’ when it opened at Manhattan Theatre Club and took the Tony for Best Musical in 1978. So my thoughts naturally returned to De Shields, Rep, and Let Me Sing when Theatre Charlotte opened the Fats Waller musical revue two days after Actor’s opened their Simone musical. On this night at least, I had the satisfaction of recalling the Broadway star and feeling that our fair Queen City was getting along just fine without him.

A lot of the credit goes to Charlotte’s own Tony winner, educator extraordinaire Corey Mitchell, who directs this sassy 94-minute show at the Queens Road barn. The cast he culled from auditions is consistently spectacular, whether they’re singing or dancing, but we also need to slice off some accolades to the seven-piece jazz band led by trombonist Tyrone Jefferson, featuring Neal Davenport at the piano. Kudos to choreographer Ashlyn Sumner: with some formidable talents to work with, she has stretched them.

Conceived by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., Misbehavin’ goes about capturing Waller’s essence by culling the gems from his imposing oeuvre and preserving the pianist’s penchant for interpolating sly comments and wisecracks between his lyrics. Comical gems like “The Viper’s Drag,” “Find Out What They Like (and How They Like It),” and “Your Feet’s Too Big,” all score big. Adapting and orchestrating, Luther Handerson and Jeffrey Gutcheon usually go with the grain of Waller’s merry, mischievous recordings, but occasionally they go against it, slowing down “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Mean to Me” so they sound brand new.

Yet Waller also composed one solemn anthem that belongs in the same elite pantheon as Simone’s “Four Women” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The introductory chords from the piano were all I needed to tell me that “Black and Blue” was on its way with lyricist Andy Razaf’s indelible refrain: What did I do to be so black and blue?

After delivering more than an hour of pure ebullient joy, it was a powerful question to ask. Lighting designer Chris Timmons dimmed his gels over Tim Parati’s funky nightclub set, Jefferson hushed the band, and Mitchell huddled his entire cast downstage where all five could look us coldly in the eye.

Never afflicted with obliquity. Waller and Razaf answered their own question: My only sin is in my skin.

Keston Steele has the most amazing voice in this cast, and it’s not just her range and volume. Steele may look small, but as “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” proves, this lady can g-g-growl! Best dancer is more of a toss-up. Look no further than Nonye Obichere kicking “How Ya Baby” if you’re looking for somebody startling and athletic. Tyler Smith is your man if your quest is for someone smooth and sensual.

Smith was the comedy showstopper – and the chief reason why De Shields can stay right where he is – delighting us with his stealth and style in “The Viper’s Drag,” but Marvin King was just as hilarious in the outright insulting “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Danielle Burke’s breakout moments were her mellow “Squeeze Me” solo and her bawdy “Find Out What They Like” duet with Steele.

The songlist is loaded with Fats faves that will get your toes tapping, including “Handful of Keys,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Fat and Greasy,” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Or you might get into the sway of “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Lounging at the Waldorf.” All in all, another insane overachievement for Charlotte’s community theater. Pass the reefer and the champagne!

Production values at Hadley Theater looked like they would be up to the usual high Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte standard when we took our seats on opening night of Nina Simone: Four Women. Chip Decker’s set design for the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is colorful and impressive. And shifty: when Decker detonates his sound design, simulating the bomb blast that killed four black girls on September 15, 1963, the walls twist acutely to register the racist atrocity.

But after Lizzie and American Idiot, two arrestingly loud shows at ATC’s new Queens University home, this Christina Ham drama was often too soft-spoken to be clearly heard – even though I spotted the actors wearing head mics late in the 86-minute performance. That was a major element that can improve as the run continues.

Shortcomings in Ham’s script and Chanel Blanchett’s stage direction are not so easily remedied. I’m sure the playwright didn’t intend to be insulting, but her scenario basically tells us that Simone went down to the 16th Street church, stationed herself defiantly behind the sanctuary keyboard with the intention of completing her livid protest song, “Mississippi Goddam.” While completing her response to the murder of Medgar Evers three months earlier in Mississippi, three of the women who would be immortalized in “Four Women” walked in off the street to take refuge from the violence still raging out on the streets of Birmingham.

Fate basically hands the songwriter one of her most revered compositions, if you take Ham literally.

I’m not sure that Blanchett wants us to take the story that way. Played with stormy intensity by Destiny Stone, Simone is already hostile and militant when she arrives in Birmingham. Nina’s urgent need to get her song finished only begins to catalog the reasons why she antagonizes each of the three women who walk in on her. Sarah is a humdrum housemaid who would rather pursue MLK non-violence than take Malcolm X action. Sephronia is a yellow-skinned socialite who doesn’t struggle at all financially like Sarah, drawing class hatred from the housekeeper for her money and scorn from Simone for her political aloofness.

Further stirring the pot is Sweet Thing, seething because she can’t have Sephronia’s fiancé though she can have his baby. This liquor-swigging streetwalker draws hatred and scorn from all quarters, for how she lives and for entering a holy place. Beware, though, she’s brandishing a knife.

Although the arguments are passionate, Blanchett blunts their sharpness, preferring to space her players rather than getting them in each other’s faces – until Arlethia Friday arrives as Sweet Thing. Stone, Erica Ja-Ki Truesdale as Sarah and Krystal Gardner as Sephronia often face us instead of the person they’re arguing with. Maybe Blanchett doesn’t really believe that Simone and the “intruders” are really there at the Baptist Church. Having these actors appear like they’re reliving the first play they ever performed in grade-school doesn’t solve the problem.

After all the verbal and physical combat, the title song breaks out. It’s surreal: all three women miraculously know their lyric and their order in the song. I’m guessing this dramatic flouting of logic will help distract us from the fundamental flip she burdens Stone with in portraying Simone. For 80 minutes, she has heaped hatred, anger, and scorn upon these women who are interfering with her creative process. Now she’s deeply empathetic toward them all, turning them into emblems of scarred, heroic black womanhood.

With 11 other songs along the way, there are sudden lurches as we move forward, cutting abruptly from argument to song. Stone’s singing, with pianist Judith Porter leading a driving quartet, is the show’s most human element as she channels Simone’s fire into “Sinnerman,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and the last of the “Four Women.” Stripped of the backup singers that sugarcoat Simone’s recordings of “Young, Gifted, and Black,” I liked the crispness of Stone’s even better.

Intensity was never Stone’s problem. What I was looking for was more arrogant self-assurance lifting her rage to a higher plane – a serene majesty that earns you the title of High Priestess of Soul. A few more leading roles, not to mention turning 30, will likely do the trick someday. Probably because she comes in toting a flask and a knife, getting the liberty to stagger around the stage rather than finding a mark and facing front, Friday’s Sweet Thing is the best acting we see. She isn’t Simone’s Sweet Thing until she sings her, but she’s closer to what Nina had in mind than Ham’s housemaid. Darting between the worlds of rock, jazz, blues, folk, and soul, Simone has eluded many who would find excitement and enjoyment in her music. Ham’s writing marshals key facts in this North Carolina native’s life into the dialogue but never really captures her soul. The songs in Four Women and Stone’s singing could be a gateway to that treasure trove.

“The Philadelphia Story” Bides Its Time Before Detonating

Review:  The Philadelphia Story

By Perry Tannenbaum

One of the wonderful things about Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story is that, yes, it really is about class distinctions and peculiarities, but the playwright remains ambivalent and tolerant of them all. Beneath their upper or lower crust exteriors, all of these Philadelphians – young and old – are recognizably human. You rarely see so many fully-fleshed characters onstage in the course of a single evening. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a premier professional company repeatedly reviving this witty, effervescent comedy, but it’s absolutely astounding that Theatre Charlotte, our community theatre, has revived Philadelphia Story twice in the new millennium, now and back in 2000.

Both productions showed the pitfalls. The cast needs to be nine deep, alert to the amount of polish and roughness Barry expects of them, and aware of the energies and pacing required at each point of Barry’s intricate plot. The story revolves around “virgin goddess” socialite Tracy Lord – as you might expect, since Katharine Hepburn, the original Tra on Broadway and on celluloid, matched the 25% investment that the playwright plowed into the original production. Tracy is sensibly engaged to the cold and ambitious George Kittredge, impetuously divorced from the dapper C.K. Dexter Haven, and estranged from her father, whose indiscretions have brought the Lords unwanted publicity.

While Tracy is resolving these relationships, her brother is focused on suppressing a magazine exposé that will be published about their wayward father, dangling the prospect of exclusive access to the wedding as an enticing alternative for the publisher. The reporter and the photographer assigned to the Kittredge-Lord nuptials, Mike Conner and Liz Imbrie, bring another level of complications to the scene. She’s been secretly carrying a torch for him for years, but when spirits rise and champagne flows on the night before the wedding, Mike finds that he has fallen – hard – for Tracy, a prelude to their both enjoying an illicit, drunken midnight dip together in the Lords’ swimming pool.

While Barry is at work on how the wedding, the magazine story, and multiple alienated affections – past and present – will ultimately resolve, director Tonya Bludsworth and her cast must deal with all of the reactions and repercussions along the way. Making all of this bubbly complexity even harder for Bludsworth and Theatre Charlotte to achieve is the relative lack of enthusiasm for the project. Turnout for auditions was likely as tepid as audience turnout. Compared with opening night for Peter and the Starcatcher in September, there were conspicuously more empty seats at the back of the house – and a bit less confidence onstage.

Ten of the 14 cast members are new to Theatre Charlotte, including most of the key characters. We started off strong back in 2000 with a Tracy who had the look, the patrician manner, and sometimes even the sound of Hepburn, but that newcomer’s imperial highness never became sufficiently ruffled when the plot thickened. In Bella Belitto, we have another newcomer as Tracy, and on opening night, her serene highness was conspicuously lacking in the early going and – like others onstage – she was often underpowered and inaudible.

Without that serene aura and grace, the splintering of Tracy’s goddess élan isn’t as poignant as it should be in Belitto’s account of her re-education. Yet when she’s assailed by complications, catastrophes, and intensifying adoration, she faces it all very convincingly, her spirits and energies rising. Waking up on the climactic morning after, her decibel level also crescendos spontaneously. We feel that she is learning her lesson and actually benefiting from the indiscretions that brought on her fall – and that the lesson runs deep to her core. Her epiphany detonated effectively for me.

A lot of that depends on Nick de la Canal radiating a rakish upper-crust urbanity as Dexter with enough of that crust trimmed away to make room for tolerance and forgiveness – the two key qualities Tracy needs to acquire. De la Canal’s insouciance also contrasts nicely with the stuffiness that Will Millwood brings to George Kittredge. Barry doesn’t completely hide his disdain for George’s commercial outsider status, so Millwood makes a prudent choice in stressing his judgmental bent.

Dexter also comes off finer than Mike Conner, but by a significantly smaller margin. Here the nuanced class distinctions are no less telling. Christopher Long reminds us that Mike starts out fairly judgmental himself before Tracy bewitches him, but we indulge his pre-judgments more readily in the same spirit that we’re inclined to forgive his boyish, impulsive trespasses. Our best verdict on him vis-à-vis George is much like Barry’s: he’s more deserving, in spite of his depressed finances, of being called a gentleman.

What gives The Philadelphia Story its screwball slant is that everybody up onstage and down in the audience seems to know who the best fit for Tracy is – except for the goddess herself. This includes her mischievous younger sister, Dinah, who attempts some telephone matchmaking. Helena Dryer makes little sis pesky and likable in the right proportions. She’ll be an utter triumph once she makes herself consistently intelligible.

Tracy’s mom isn’t the most pivotal role here, though Margaret does point the way for her daughter in forgiving her husband’s infidelity. What makes Heather Place’s debut so auspicious as Margaret Lord is her clear bubbly delivery and her effortless projection of warmth and class, richly portending her reconciliation with the dashing, slightly over-the-hill Seth Lord. Victor Sayegh is mildly and earnestly supplicating toward Margaret and his disapproving daughter, as befits a Philadelphia patriarch, another cue for Tracy to accept people’s imperfections, including her own.

Sayegh and Place draw two of Chelsea Retalic’s most stylish costume designs in evoking high society elegance, but it’s an uphill battle to project prosperity amid Josh Webb’s drab and dour set design. Two Ionian columns fail to provide uplift, and there’s no longer a visible hint of the swimming pool in the wings. Portraying the eccentric Uncle Willie in a delightful debut, Dan Kirsch gets my nod as the plutocrat most at home in this down-market mansion, lovable for all his pomposity.

Fresh from his crossdressing exploits in Starcatcher, Johnny Hohenstein is mostly responsible, as Tracy’s scheming brother Sandy, for the PR intrigue that lurks beneath the romantic comedy. Good luck following – or caring about – all the Act 2 twists in that sector of the plot. For that reason, Anna Royal as Liz turns out to be more important for me. Ultimately, she’s modeling the patience, forbearance, and forgiveness toward Mike that Tra should have toward Dex. Royal gives Liz just enough edge to update her and elevate above the cliché she must have been in 1939 when THE PHILADELPHIA STORY first hit Broadway.

Here she isn’t just a working-class woman who knows her place, meekly deserving Tracy’s discards. Wielding her Contax camera, she’s Mike’s professional partner, biding her time for a natural upgrade.

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.

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.