Tag Archives: Tod Kubo

Roxie gets the Pippin treatment

CENTRAL_THEA_Chicago_02[11]

Theater reviews: Chicago and Manifest Pussy

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Advertisements

A High School Queen Drinks Drano

Reviews of Heathers: The Musical and Motherhood Out Loud

IMG_9919

By Perry Tannenbaum

Then the movie first came out in 1989, Heathers was already raunchy enough for an R rating. But after the musical revels of Bat Boy, Spring Awakening, Reefer Madness, and Evil Dead have already pushed the envelope, raunchy in 2016 is an altogether different proposition. Three of the first six songs in the new Queen City Theatre Company production of Heathers: The Musical take us to places where the movie feared to tread.

“Candy Store” is fairly ballsy as the three Heathers — Heather Chandler, Heather McNamara, and Heather Duke — lay down the rules for admission into their elite clique. But it’s Veronica’s “Fight for Me” that tells us ballsy is just the beginning. Newcomer J.D. shows her there’s somebody else to be impressed with at Westerburg High School. Yes, the backup singers are chanting “holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!” Pretty soon, J.D. is encountering Veronica at a 7-Eleven and enticing her with the mind-numbing effects of Slurpees in “Freeze Your Brain,” comparing a deep sip to a hit of cocaine.

IMG_3561

But when “Dead Girl Walking” climaxes, it’s a full-blown copulation song of animalistic force. And unlike the movie, where J.D. is always breaking into Veronica’s bedroom, here it’s Veronica hungering for J.D. and hunting him down. “Shut your mouth,” she commands, “and lose them tighty-whities!”

With Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy combining on the book, music, and lyrics, Heathers is actually the lovechild of the mischief-makers who had separately brought us Bat Boy and Reefer Madness. Besides Bat Boy, O’Keefe can claim the musicalized Legally Blonde on his résumé, while Murphy was head writer on Desperate Housewives. That should adequately preface my declaration that the musical, which rocked the off-Broadway scene in 2014, outclasses the movie in every way.

The music certainly does rock, and with KC Roberge and Matt Carlson as our leads, it’s rocking harder here in the QC than it does on the original cast album. Directing the show, Glenn T. Griffin steers us quickly away from Glee territory, with Carlson’s highly-amped and punkish read on J.D., a brilliant move when the dreamboat turns out to be a raving psychotic.

But while Veronica mulls over the relative merits of staying in the Heathers’ good graces or killing them off — an ambivalence Roberge sustains earnestly — it isn’t all sex, drugs, and rock. There are three pointed ballads in Act 2, one by a surviving Heather who is contemplating suicide, another by the cruelly shunned Martha Dunnstock (nicknamed Dump Truck) about her halcyon days in kindergarten, and a wistful Veronica-J.D. duet, “Seventeen,” on the charms of being ordinary humdrum high schoolers.

When they aren’t plotting date rape, footballers Ram and Kurt are the clowns you expect jocks to be, but the unexpected jolt of new comedy happens at their funeral when their dads deliver their eulogies. Time after time, J.D.’s acts of homicidal mayhem result in unlikely epiphanies. The Heathers Band, led at the keyboard by Mike Wilkins, gives rousing support to “My Dead Gay Son” and all the other showstoppers, but it’s Tod Kubo’s choreography that pushes the big ensembles over the top.

IMG_5097The three Heathers retain their iconic croquet mallets from the film, but costume designers Beth Killion and Ramsey Lyric get Griffin’s drift and take their outfits in a more dominatrix direction. Together in various synced poses, they are sensational — all in major roles for the first time.

Tessa Belongia, a senior at Northwest School of the Arts, has the requisite queen bee regality for Heather Chandler, a bitch that O’Keefe and Murphy just couldn’t bear putting to sleep. She appears just once after J.D. offs her with Drano in the film, but here in the musical, she haunts Veronica repeatedly.

You wonder which Heather will be top dog after Chandler’s demise, and Nonye Obichere proves to be a worthy successor as Duke, not at all the dimwit of the movie but a lingering villainess until the finale.

Ava Smith, who also auditioned for the Blumey Awards last Saturday, was McNamara, the most sensitive of the Heathers, but she doesn’t give away her softness too soon.

Martha is a conflation of two of Veronica’s classmates in the film, making for a more satisfying stage character than either of her film components, and Allison Andrews capitalizes big-time on her anguished moment in the spotlight, “Kindergarten Boyfriend.” Griffin’s casting, Liam Pearce as linebacker Ram and Kaleb Jenkins as quarterback Kurt, cures the Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum aspect of the film — Pearce is far taller — helping us to feel that Martha is smitten by a real person rather than a generic jock in a school jacket. The horny pals are also a pretty effective comedy team.

Notwithstanding Carlson’s spiked hairdo, there’s a thread of 80’s nostalgia that lingers on. J.D. has this Paleolithic, Oklahoma City notion of destroying his high school by planting remotely controlled dynamite packs throughout the building and setting them off with a detonator hidden down in the basement. Pretty lame compared with today’s hip style of grenades and assault weapons, right?

Adults are all as clueless as we remember from teen films immemorial, if not a bit eccentric. Here they’re interchangeable enough for three elders to play multiple roles. Alyson Lowe is funniest as Ms. Fleming, the hippy-dippy teacher who wants the student body to assemble and ventilate after each murder. Steven Martin and Nathan Crabtree split four Dads between them, but their gay moment at the church funeral is unforgettable — and so very 2016.

Fast Birth Hi-Res-1

What a wonderful idea Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein had for a Mother’s Day theatre event: a group of monologues and brief sketches, mostly by women playwrights, called Motherhood Out Loud. Turns out the brilliance of this idea largely belongs to Three Bone Theatre which staged the Charlotte premiere at McBride & Bonnefoux Center for Dance Studio last weekend. Nearly every other production that came up in my Google search, dating back to Fall 2011, opened during some month other than May.

The timing helped, for some of the 22 stories were sappy, and the five “fugues” that prefaced the five chapters — “Fast Births,” “First Day,” “Sex Talk,” “Stepping Out,” and “Coming Home” — were unnecessary. The best segments were those that confounded expectations.

Although she perpetrated all those fugues, Michele Lowe also wrote “Queen Esther,” narrated by a Jewish mother whose son refuses dress up as any of the customary male characters for his school’s Purim party.

“If We’re Using a Surrogate…,” by Marco Pennette, was a gay father’s account of arranging — and attending — his daughter’s birth, two very awkward meetings with an obliging lesbian. Theresa Rebeck’s “Baby Bird” brought us the experience of an American mother adopting a Chinese baby, and “Michael’s Date,” by Claire LaZebnik, was a mother’s account of chaperoning her autistic son on his first date.Group Hi-Res

Perhaps the most unexpected piece was “Elizabeth,” where a divorced man goes home to his elderly mom and finds that he needs to mother her.

A cast of 18, sensitively directed by Kim Parati, helped us over the rough spots. So did that timing when we came to Jessica Goldberg’s “Stars and Stripes,” about a military mother, and Annie Weisman’s concluding “My Baby,” an unabashed description of the joy and pain of childbirth. No better time for these than Mother’s Day.