Review: Cold-War, USA-vs.-the-Soviets overlay of intrigue to the actual chessboard drama
By Perry Tannenbaum
So who wins the world championship match between Frederick Trumper and Anatoly Sergievsky in Tim Rice’s Chess, with music by the bodacious ABBA duo, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus? Depends on whether you’re watching the original concept album of 1984, the touring concert version that followed, several British productions that expand the original further for the stage, or the American version with a book by Richard Nelson that arrived on Broadway in 1988. Based very loosely on the premiere event in chess history, when Bobby Fischer challenged Boris Spassky for the world title in 1972, Rice reveled in applying a Cold-War, USA-vs.-the-Soviets overlay of intrigue to the actual chessboard drama.
Good instincts there. The game of chess is even more antithetical to performing arts presentations than golf or curling. Yet Rice’s elaborate behind-the-scenes chess games were equally ill-suited to a concert or album format.
Glenn Griffin said as much before directing and starring in Queen City Theatre Company’s presentation of a reworked Broadway version in 2011. “This makes me feel old, but I have the records,” he said of the concept album and the concert album, nearly four hours in length combined. “I have the two records, and I just remember loving this music even before I knew what it was really about.”
Right now, CPCC Theatre is doing what director Tom Hollis, giving his curtain speech, called a new United Kingdom version that has only recently become available. Don’t expect to see Nelson’s name in your playbill, and don’t count on much dialogue in this bookless throwback – and don’t expect historical accuracy in the outcome of the match. If you saw the QC Theatre production in 2011, that outcome has flipflopped.
What CPCC and a very able cast offer is mostly an improvement on getting the storyline from the original albums, for you can see what is going on between Freddie, Anatoly, and Florence Vassy, the woman torn between them. You can track the political and romantic defections, compounded by the machinations of KGB operative Alexander Molokov, which are countered by the CIA’s Walter de Courcey. Production designer Bob Croghan’s slick set and costumes – with Freddie in leather! – make it all so easy on the eye, and James Duke’s projections usefully show or tell us where we are.
What I heard last Saturday night, however, was a sound technician’s nightmare. An unintelligible chorus of 18 voices disorients us from the outset, obviously the opposite of what they’re intended to do, and the solo voices of the principals are only intermittently an upgrade. Just about two weeks earlier, sitting farther from the stage at Matthews Playhouse, my wife Sue and I were able to hear another ABBA opus, Mamma Mia, far more clearly.
No doubt about it, CP lost the ABBA showdown with Matthews because of their wayward sound system and microphones. Oddly enough, we were consistently able to hear the Russians, Anatoly and Alexander, more clearly than the Americans, Freddie and (Hungarian refugee) Florence. Unless CP can clear up its technical difficulties, the best thing they can do would be to send Duke back to his computer, where he could whip up a set of supertitles.
Otherwise, some of the projections and scene titles that Duke throws on the upstage screen or over the Halton Theater proscenium might confuse first-timers. For example, why are we seeing a grainy old photo of Budapest in 1956? Because those fiendish Russians are using the possibility that Florence’s dad might be alive behind the Iron Curtain as a pawn in their game, a potent bargaining chip that might persuade Freddie’s aide to help them conquer Trumper.
Double-crooked, those nasty Russians also dangle the wife Anatoly left behind when he defected, so he’ll return to the motherland after successfully defending his title – or throw a second title match to a new Russian challenger. CP also produced Chess in a revamped Broadway version back in 1991, and it’s interesting to see how Svetlana, Anatoly’s wife, has kept changing. Back then, she had a frumpy peasant personality, but Griffin transformed Svetlana into an alluring black temptress who was every bit as queenly as her white Hungarian counterpart. Now she’s stolid, conventional, and underutilized when she appears in Act 2.
The Broadway denouement happened in Budapest, a more telling place for pressuring Florence. “One Night in Bangkok” is the marquee song in Chess, so you know part of the action will stay there no matter what. But with a return to a British version, action starts out in Merano, Italy, as the match begins. That means “Merano” and up to 12 other songs that were axed from the original British stage version – and the Chess in Concert album – are being heard in Charlotte for the first time.
After the first act, all of it in Merano, my wife Sue sat there bewildered at intermission, wondering how she could have forgotten Chess so totally. Simple answer: we hadn’t seen it here in Charlotte before. The Bangkok setting that we remembered had been moved to Act 2, and Budapest was discarded.
If it weren’t for the execrable sound, CP’s Chess might have been a pleasant discovery. In or out of his leather, Patrick Stepp brought a great punkish look to Freddie and a piercing heavy-metal tenor, but when he wasn’t singing “Pity the Child,” I rarely understood a word. The score was kinder to J. Michael Beech as Anatoly, doling out more power ballads to his mellower voice, since the brooding Soviet, like Spassky, really is the mellower, more humane chess player. Why else would two women adore him?
Totally obscured in her previous role at CP as the bodacious voice of Audrey 2 in Little Shop of Horrors, Iris DeWitt emerges as merely slightly bigger than life as Florence, easily the most frustrating performance in the show. The pure voice is as delightful to hear as Beech’s, but the most conflicted character onstage during Act 1 wasn’t intelligible for more than a few words at a time – even in her beautiful “Heaven Help My Heart” – and DeWitt’s mic only marginally defogged after the break.
Wearing a painfully symmetrical dress, Kristin Sakamoto earned future CP payback in the thankless role of Svetlana. No longer worthy in this UK version of a “You and I” duet with her husband Anatoly, Sakamoto’s highlight is the comparatively tepid “I Know Him So Well” duet with DeWitt. The Arbiter, who explains the championship rules and adjudicates protests from the rival camps, turns out to be a juicier role for Rick Hammond in his local debut. Hammond’s mic was no more reliable than DeWitt’s, but his gaudy costume gave him an aura like The Engineer’s in Miss Saigon or a villain in a Batman movie.
With a serviceable Russian accent and an ominous gruffness, Matthew Corbett as Molokov was conspicuously successful in making himself understood – and justifying everybody’s hatred. He’s the one cast member who appeared in the Queen City production of 2011, and after crossing the pond from the American version to the UK edition, he’s likely keeping his preference between the two Top Secret. It sure was useful to have his malignant clarity spread out over seven songs during an evening that left many in the audience completely nonplussed.
Maybe while they’re tearing down and replacing Pease Auditorium across Elizabeth Avenue, CP could be correcting the chronic sound woes at the Halton.
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.
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.
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.
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 ofEvita, Bat Boy, andHedwig 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.
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?
Lucia 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!
Review: Central Piedmont Theater’s Shakespeare in Love
By Perry Tannenbaum
For centuries, theatergoers and scholars have mulled over the question of how William Shakespeare became the magisterial genius he was, how as a poet and playwright he came to know so much, write with such a honeyed tongue, and move so many so deeply. In 1998, screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard tackled that question with Shakespeare in Love, taking a new approach and attitude. Discarding the usual methods of textual study and meticulous historical investigation, Norman and Stoppard wove a new fabric, some of it out of whole cloth and some of it stitched together from familiar scraps of information and familiar quotes.
Two operative principles preside over their work, normalizing Shakespeare as a writer. You will certainly come away from playwright Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, currently at Halton Theater in a handsome Central Piedmont Theatre production, with the notion that the Bard of Avon wrote about what he personally experienced and that he was a magnificent and insatiable sponge, absorbing everything that was said to him and sublimating it into magnificent verse and poetry. In the words of Henry James, repeatedly intoned in graduate level writing programs across America, Shakespeare was “one upon whom nothing is lost.”
You can also choose to be outraged by the shambles Norman and Stoppard make of actual history, beginning with the notion that the story of Romeo and Juliet is a Shakespeare original. Even undergrad lit majors know better. But you’ll likely be won over by the fun-filled attitude of Norman and Stoppard as they put together a story with sufficient romance, theatre and court intrigue, comedy, and tragedy to inspire not only Romeo and Juliet but also armloads of Shakespearean treasure afterwards. With Stoppard on the team, a genuine theatre insider, there’s a theatre-making perspective that adds to the excitement of the multiple plots that keep us scrambling to follow the action. Under the direction of Tom Hollis, the energy and enthusiasm of this teeming yarn were quite contagious for its Saturday evening audience.
Before Will meets Viola De Lesseps, who will inspire the playwright to change his frivolous “Romeo and Ethel” comedy into the tragedy we all know – and serve as model for the heroine of Twelfth Night – a hectic stew of rivalry, antagonism, and desperation is boiling around him. Assailed by writer’s block, Will is already past the time when he promised to finish new scripts for Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre and Richard Burbage’s Curtain Theatre. Henslowe’s need is particularly acute because he owes money to Fennyman, a shark who employs henchmen and torture to ratchet up his coercion. Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary, is a friend here, helping Will toward shaping the plot of Romeo and feeding him lines for his most famous sonnet.
All of this desperation and streetfighting are a perfect backdrop for the luminescence of Viola. A beautiful noblewoman smitten by the theatre and Shakespeare’s verse, she disguises herself as Thomas Kent in order to audition for the role of Romeo, performing a speech from the Bard’s first hit, Two Gentlemen of Verona, as a sampling. (Audience members who don’t know that women were forbidden to act onstage during the Elizabethan Era will be deftly brought up to speed.) Until Viola shows up, Will hasn’t seen much to encourage him that he’ll be able to cast “Romeo and Ethel” if he ever finishes writing it. When Kent flees the audition after flubbing some kissing business, Will pursues, only to come face-to-face with Viola. So now it’s Will’s turn to be flustered.
Once Viola is on the scene, romance enters to dispel Will’s writer’s block and the world of Shakespeare in Love widens to include nobility, government, and royalty. Lord Essex, aspiring to Viola’s hand and fortune, is Will’s chief romantic obstacle, having obtained daddy’s permission – and Queen Elizabeth herself will also need to approve. If Viola does achieve her ambition and appear publicly onstage, the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, stands in the wings, empowered to instantly stop the performance and shut down the theatre.
Jennifer O’Kelly’s set design, with its Globe Theater arches and balcony, emphatically reinforces the notion that the action we’re watching in Will’s life is the stuff of Shakespearean drama. Pre-recorded music composed by Paddy Cunneen, infused with the sounds of flutes and lutes, helps in the transitions from theaters and taverns to noble and palatial surroundings. With plenty of input from companies and theatre departments as far away as Greensboro, costume designer Emily McCurdy splendidly outfits a cast of 23 playing 60 different roles – though it might be pointed out that the Queen of England should have more than one dress. Choreography by Clay Daniels, when we reach the iconic Romeo ballroom scenes in real life and in rehearsal, meshes with the music simply and authentically.
Best of all, the key roles were aptly cast. Morgan Wakefield had an abundance of breathless energy and theatre enthusiasm that never seemed nerdy and – since she was the inspiration for Juliet as well as Viola – a total lack of vanity staining her beauty. While Wakefield’s energy largely fueled the pulsing effervescence of this performance, Jack Stanford was no less on point as Shakespeare. He walked a similar tightrope between pragmatic calculation and youthful impulse that Wakefield trod, never becoming too cerebral. As lines from Shakespeare’s future works showered him from all directions throughout the evening, I always sensed from Stanford that Will was absorbing rather than stealing them.
The nobles all sounded very polished, beginning with Jonathan Stephens as the pushy, valorous and conceited Essex and Pat Heiss as the sternly regal Queen Elizabeth – with a broad vein of worldliness. Jim Greenwood as Tilney was exactly the kind of prig you would want to cram into a trapdoor, costumed puritanically to make it obvious that he inspired Malvolio in Twelfth Night; and Anne Lambert bustled about officiously enough as Viola’s Nurse to make it obvious that Juliet should have one, too.
Out in the London jungle where the Rose Theatre struggled for survival, inexperience only occasionally peeped out among the players. Jeff Powell infused Fennyman with menace, convincingly shifting his attitude once the moneylender became stagestruck, and while Larry Wu could be downright bizarre as the tortured Henslowe, his intensity was endearing. A little more confidence and individuality would help Blake Williams in his portrayal of Kit Marlowe, but there was abundant stage presence from Bryce Mac as Ned Allyn, the star actor who took on the role of Mercutio, and from Brian Holloway as the predatory, opportunistic Burbage.
Chemistry between Stanford and Wakefield in the Will/Viola romance will sufficiently captivate groundlings new to the world of Shakespeare. But the more you’ve experienced of the Bard, the more you will be delighted by the quotes from Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Lear that also creep in. Where the intended allusions and echoes ended and where unintended parallels began was sometimes hard to discern. When Elizabeth told Viola that even she could not dissolve an ordained marriage, was this a foreshadowing of what Theseus had to tell Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? While Romeo and Juliet was virtually writing itself before my eyes, it was reassuring to recall that genuine monarchs can understand the limits of their power.
It’s been 70 years since Kind Hearts and Coronet, based on Roy Horniman’s Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, became a delightfully wicked vehicle for Alec Guinness, who was murdered multiple times during the film as he portrayed various members of the aristocratic D’Ascoyne family – one of them female. Jefferson Mays drew similar kudos in 2013 when Horniman’s novel was the source of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, with all of Guiness’s D’Ascoynes discreetly converted into more singable D’Ysqiths – and featuring an additional lady among the slain. Lauded by the press, Gentleman’s Guide didn’t click at the box office until the Tony Award nominations were announced in the spring of 2014. When the show and its book by Robert L. Freedman won the Tonys, the victory bump carried into early 2015. But the run barely lasted into 2016, a full three months short of reaching the 1000-performance mark when it closed.
The touring version of Gentleman’s Guide was all the more fresh when it opened at Knight Theater that same November, and the Charlotte audience welcomed it heartily. Directed by Tom Hollis, the current CPCC Summer Theatre version reminded me of the charms and shortcomings I saw in the original Broadway production while setting in bold relief a couple of the technical difficulties it overcame. Even though I had seen the show twice before, I was struck afresh by the artificiality of Freedman’s concept, which decrees that our hero Monty D’Ysquith Navarro’s recollections are staged under a proscenium within the Halton Theater proscenium at CP. Puzzling over why critics so adored this artificiality, I hadn’t pondered why Freedman had insisted on it.
My best guess is that Freedman wished to double-underline the idea that we were watching a comedy as Monty murderously ploughed through most of the eight D’Ysquiths who stood in his path to becoming the next Earl of Highhurst. Before we even see Monty at his desk in prison, writing the confessional memoirs that will flash us back to the story of his crime spree, an ensemble dressed in funereal black advises us to depart immediately if we don’t have the stomach for the carnage to come. Whether intentionally or not, Hollis further shields us from the notion that Monty is a heartless murderer, aided chiefly by Kevin Roberge playing all the D’Ysquiths that Monty knocks off.
Roberge made them less eccentric, less broadly comical, maybe a tad meaner, and worthier of extermination. Touches of the original comedy remained when he was Henry D’Ysquith, the beekeeping squire, and in the denouement where Lord Adelbert, the present Earl of Highhurst, was poisoned. But there was less marital shtick between Asquith and his wife, Lady Eugenia, at that climactic banquet, and Roberge got less comedy mileage out of the women he portrayed, the crusading Lady Hyacinth and actress Lady Salome. Maybe the blame should be spread to costume designer Robert Croghan and wig designer Barbi Van Schaick for failing to outfit Roberge with more outré femininity, though I’d be lying if I said there was abundant treble or prissiness in Hyancinth or Salome’s voices. The fakey whiskers and mustaches that Roberge wore and discarded further damaged the aura of his versatility.
Audience members unfamiliar with the exploits of Guinness and Mays were likely to come away with a better impression of Roberge’s work than mine, but no such concessions were necessary on the love side of the action. In his third substantial role of the 2019 CP Summer season, Ashton Guthrie proved that he could ease us from Monty’s initial innocence to his ultimate roguishness while sustaining his appeal. Without those horrid mustaches, Roberge might have been more winsome in Adelbert’s “I Don’t Understand the Poor” than Monty was singing “Poison in My Pocket,” but Guthrie flipped my previous preference.
When Monty’s eyes are opened to his noble pedigree, his innocence is more than slightly eclipsed by his rapacious and romantic instincts. During this transition, two contrasting women whet Monty’s ambitions while humanizing him. Emily Witte as Sibella Hallward is the stylish social-climber who appeals to Monty’s eyes and loins, while Karley Kornegay as Phoebe D’Ysquith appeals to his heart, mind, and bank balance. Apart from a woefully floppy wig when she first appears, Croghan and Van Schaick were consistently inspired by Witte, but compared with the regalia they whipped up for her in Jekyll & Hyde four weeks earlier, they consistently let Kornegay down.
No such disparity is evident when Witte and Kornegay ply their respective charms or sing their songs, and Guthrie’s reactions beguile us into believing that Sibella and Phoebe are exquisitely balanced in Monty’s eyes. All three collaborate brilliantly in the farcical “I’ve Decided to Marry You” scene when Monty entertains both of his ladies simultaneously at his bachelor pad in two rooms that face the same foyer. The synchronicity of this trio, obviously well-rehearsed, was quite delectable, though Croghan’s mini-set seemed shaky in surviving the door-slamming abuse.
What really took its toll on Witte’s and Kornegay’s performances was the sound system. Perhaps because of the effect that the proscenium-within-the-proscenium set had on the Halton’s acoustics, sound designer Stephen Lancaster couldn’t deliver the admirable clarity we had heard there earlier this season. Ensembles were consistently garbled, and so were the higher voices. The swifter and cleverer the women’s lyrics became, the more apt they were to succumb to distortion, penalizing Witte slightly more since Sibella has a bit more Gilbert and Sullivan flowing in her veins.
Hollis manages to stage all this artificial mayhem with a cast of 10, two fewer than performed on Broadway. Only two that haven’t been mentioned get to sing outside their ensemble assignments, and both have shining cameos. Among multiple roles, Allison Rhinehardt was eccentricity personified as Miss Shingle, the mysterious family acquaintance who divulges Monty’s lineage after his mother’s death in “You’re a D’Ysquith.” Lucianne Hamilton was more briefly in the spotlight as Miss Barley, Asquith Jr.’s mistress until their unfortunate skating accident.
Of course, the Halton audience lapped up each of the artful murders. Yet the script and the production struck me as overly worried about whether we would properly digest the D’Ysquiths’ brutally unjust fates. Justice is too often miscarried in fiction and in life to have such scruples. Frankly, Horniman’s storyline fortifies the ambivalence that Americans already have toward the wealthy and the well-born. We blithely allow them to get away with rape and murder while hating them to the bone.
Like other famed works of literature that have been turned into films, plays, and musicals, the story and characters of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have long ago ceased to belong exclusively to their creator, Robert Louis Stevenson. The most obvious measure to thicken the plot – my paperback copy is a scant 68 pages – is to supply Jekyll with a fiancé to agonize over when he can’t control his nightmarish transformations into Mr. Hyde. After that initial blandishment for the stage, Hollywood added a second woman for Hyde to prey upon.
In rewriting the story for Frank Wildhorn’s musical Jekyll & Hyde, Leslie Bricusse layered on additional refinements. Bolstering Jekyll/Hyde’s motivations, Bricusse added a board of governors at a hospital that turns down the Dr.’s highly risky experimental research. Though the board’s decision looks better and better as Jekyll’s experimentation on himself becomes more and more catastrophic, we can see why Hyde is targeting Bishop Basingstoke, Lady Beaconsville and others for his brutality.
Before Jekyll’s wedding day is over, Hyde has collected the complete set of governors with the exception of his prospective father-in-law, who abstained with his vote. So much for the board’s cautious medical judgment. After all, distilling the essence of man’s evil nature was a fabulous idea, was it not?
Presenting the Wildhorn musical for the first time at CPCC Summer Theatre in 17 seasons, director Tom Hollis goes with a version of the show that’s closer to the 2013 Broadway revival of J&H than the original 1997 adaptation. Wading through the alternatives of how to present the climactic “Confrontation” solo duet – Jekyll and Hyde switching repeatedly back and forth – Hollis and his star, Tommy Foster, go retro with some major electronic enhancements. You’ll see Foster’s face when he’s Jekyll, demanding that Hyde set him free, and when Hyde retorts, “you are me,” his long mane of black hair covers all.
No pre-recorded Hyde for Foster, who doesn’t chew his locks too many times during his Hyde hair flips. Scenic designer Robert Edge, leaning heavily on video for many of the scene changes, projects a spinning vortex behind Hyde a la Hitchcock’s Vertigo as the murderer gets the upper hand, but sound designer Stephen Lancaster has more dramatic impact. From the time Hyde first emerges, Foster differentiates his voice from Jekyll’s, but during Act II, as Hyde becomes more monstrous, Lancaster dials in more huffy echo-laden feedback.
Remembering that the sound system at Halton Theater has been treading water at best since the hall was first opened in late 2005, we have to acknowledge that Lancaster, moving beyond adequacy to creativity, has achieved a breakthrough. Notwithstanding those electronic embellishments, Foster’s performance sizzles and electrifies on its own. Forget the power ballads that he torches – I’d actually like to forget a few of those American Idol abortions that clutter the score – and just see what Foster does, as Hyde alone, with the demonic energy of “Alive!” as Act I ends. Riveting.
Yet the most daring and brilliant choice that Hollis and Foster make is with Jekyll, making him more of a hothead than I’ve ever seen before, doctor or not. This guy is on the brink of losing his grip while he’s being questioned by the governors and even more so when he is turned down. That garish fluid Jekyll injects into himself still isn’t a placebo, but the thought crossed my mind.
While all that Foster, Hollis, and his design team do with the dual leads make Jekyll and Hyde more exciting and cohesive, they sure don’t enhance my regard for his way overindulgent leading ladies. When Lucy, the loose saloon girl fatally attracted to Hyde, is told that she needs to leave London immediately to escape the deranged murderer, she sings, “A New Life” and goes to bed. Even as she pours out her heart into her fourth or fifth power ballad, you know she’s staying.
Emma, the pure-hearted fiancée, is another piece of work. At the climactic wedding scene, she watches Jekyll turn into Hyde, watches him murder the last of his enemies in cold blood, and does she turn away in horror or disgust when he perishes? Not exactly. The final tableau, with Emma huddled over the fallen Jekyll, is more like a Pietà. Utterly loathsome.
Times have changed since Linda Eder, who would become Wildhorn’s wife, originated the role of Lucy on Broadway in 1997. Grown lurid and rancid, the storylines of Lucy and Emma both sorely need a refresh.While Hollis made both of the ladies’ final scenes a bit cringeworthy, he certainly didn’t err in his casting. No daring or brilliance was necessary here. Karley Kornegay was the devilish leading man’s “Angel of Music” when Hollis directed Phantom of the Opera in 2015, and now she’s Jekyll’s angelic Emma. More recently, Lindsey Schroeder was the coarse lady outlaw in Wildhorn’s Bonnie and Clyde at Matthews Playhouse, and now she’s his wanton Lucy. Any questions about whether they’re right for their roles is answered long before they sing their wondrously unwoke duet, “In His Eyes,” idolizing both halves of our hero’s split personality simultaneously.
In a grotesque way, “In His Eyes” and “The Confrontation” are a matched set.
Nobody else gets an American Idol moment in this belt-a-thon, but choreographer Tod Kubo and costume designer Robert Croghan turn up the heat colorfully at The Red Rat Club in “Bring on the Men,” where Lucy makes her first splash, setting herself apart from the other risqué saloon girls. There are also Phantom-like moments (if you recall “Masquerade”) each time the ensemble sings and numbingly reprises “Façade.”
Notwithstanding the elementary psychological truths that Briscusse rehashes about human pretense and deceit, he doesn’t offer many other performers an opportunity to craft two-dimensional portraits, let alone transcend them. Hollis has an embarrassment of riches to deploy on these thin characters. After proving himself up to the challenge of Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat, Ashton Guthrie as hospital colleague Simon Stride gets only a precious few seconds to reveal himself as Jekyll’s rival – or at least a jealous aspirant to Emma’s affections.
As the only other surviving character from Stevenson’s 1886 novella, Jekyll confidant John Utterson really gets short shrift in the Bricusse book. Tyler Smith ranges very far from his humble “Ol’ Man River” role in Show Boat, giving Utterson true elegance and distinction. Making his first appearance at CP in 2019, where he has performed mostly leading roles over the last 35 years – Camelot and Grand Hotel are among my faves – Jerry Colbert cuts a venerable figure as Danvers Carew, Emma’s ambivalent dad.
Protective toward his daughter, appreciative of Jekyll’s potential, wary of his colleague’s volatile temperament, but abstaining when the governors vote, Danvers sets the tone in crucial ways. Colbert’s “Letting Go” duet with Kornegay finely balances his fatherly affections and trepidations. Trouble is, with Foster giving us a Hyde that is such a natural outgrowth of his Jekyll, it shouldn’t be a close call for Danvers. Or for his daughter.
A theatrical breakthrough when it first opened in 1927 but so politically incorrect today, is it finally time to declare that Show Boathas sunk? At the current CPCC revival, kicking off Summer Theatre’s 2019 season, Tyler Smith as Joe seems to avoid the 92 years of “Ol’ Man River” revisions, its Oscar Hammerstein lyric migrating from N-word to “darkies” to “colored folk” and beyond, by making the Cotton Blossom’s stevedore sound like he jes’ step off de boat from Jamaica.
Yet we’re still back in 1887 Natchez, Misssissippi, where the local Sheriff, enforcing Jim Crow laws that forbid Julie LaVern from performing because she is one-sixteenth African, probably hasn’t gotten any memos that he should clean up his speech when referring to his oppressed brethren. It’s sad, but Julie can take solace in the fact that she has made her white chum Magnolia’s singing career – and comeback! – possible by vacating her gigs on the Cotton Blossom and later at the Trocadero Nightclub in Chicago.
Julie’s voluntary departure from her Trocadero dressing room enables us to realize how noble she is even if Julie remains blissfully unaware. Insidiously, it also justifies the suffering we burden black folk with – because they’re so much better than us and so much more equipped to bear it.
It gets irritating for me. Each time Julie appears, it’s so she can benevolently disappear! And doesn’t the rugged, hard-bitten Stoicism of Joe’s “Ol’ Man River” make the innate nobility of his people even greater?
Yes, it does.
Watching Show Boat last weekend, I couldn’t help thinking how much more interesting this Jerome Kern musical would be if it were about Julie, Joe, and their respective spouses. Instead the Hammerstein book, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, concentrates on Magnolia Hawks, her outgoing dad Captain Andy, her small-minded mom Parthy, and her dashing man, riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Hammerstein’s book doles out crumbs to the people I care about when they should be seeing at least half the loaf.
Ah, but the best of Kern’s score is still heartland wonderful, and director Tom Hollis has assembled an outstanding cast to bring it to life. Set designer Jennifer O’Kelly creates a riverboat with a fair amount of Mark Twain flair, twin staircases joining at the deck and two smokestacks above, and there are impressive drop pieces descending from the fly loft when we arrive at the Trocadero for a genuine scene change. Debbie Scheu’s costume designs have exactly the right frilly-silky-grubby mix to sharply define the racial and class divides.
It’s important that the evening starts off with the big-hearted garrulousness of Tom Ollis as Captain Andy, because other than the salty bitchiness of Paula Baldwin as his wife Parthy, longstanding conflict is in short supply. As the rakish Gaylord, Ashton Guthrie gets the best of the music written for the men who matter here, and he’s singing better than ever before on “Where’s the Mate for Me” and “Make Believe,” adding a touch of old-timey crooning to remind us what this show would have sounded like way back in the Roaring Twenties.
Lindsey Schroeder as Julie and Sarah Henkel as Magnolia share the “Fish gotta swim” resignation of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” long before their paths cross in Chicago and each gets a song of her own. Schroeder’s farewell is a similarly resigned “Bill” before she cedes the Trocadero stage to Magnolia. You would think that Henkel could simply take it from there, but it’s only 1899, women are decades away from getting the vote, so Daddy needs to drop by in the nick of time – coincidence, huh? – to buoy sweet Magnolia’s confidence in “After the Ball.” Hooray for Captain Andy! He saved the day.
The sexual politics here are fairly dismal, Edna Ferber story or not. Men can abruptly leave both Magnolia and Julie without accounting for themselves, and they can expect a hearty welcome if they have second thoughts. The layabout Joe lays it out best in his “I Still Suits Me” duet with his long-suffering wife Queenie (Brittany Harrington): “I may be lifeless, But with one wife less, My life would be more strifeless, yes sirree, No matter what you say, I still suits me!”
That’s the brutal, sexist side of Joe, and you can bet that Tyler Smith brings plenty of bite to his complacent boasting. Yet Smith, singing every bit as beautifully as Guthrie in his reprises of “Ol’ Man River,” is especially golden at the end of each bridge, when he sings those two dark low notes each time “you land in jail.” Are there two bluer notes in the American songbook?
Paul Robeson, the megastar this role was originally written for, must be looking down kindly from his heavenly sphere, for Smith is the best reason at Halton Theater not to get weary of Show Boat.
Lauded by Broadway critics as an artistic breakthrough, showered with 11 Tony Awards, celebrated and denounced by successive US Presidents, and worshipped by millions wherever it has played. Hamilton has been an unprecedented sell-out smash since it opened on August 6, 2015. It’s the hottest ticket in New York, and wherever it tours, it’s big – capital boldface letters big.
And now the actors, the scenery, the technicians, and the musicians have arrived in the QC, triggering an influx of ticketbuyers, hotel bookings, restaurant reservations, and sheer I-got-to-see-Hamilton euphoria that will linger until the tour’s final performance at Belk Theater on November 4.
The hullabaloo peaked on August 1 when non-subscription seats went up for grabs. Beginning at 5 a.m., three hours before tickets were scheduled to go on sale, over 110,000 hopefuls queued up to snag seats online – plus an estimated 8,000+ bots that were poised to steal and scalp tickets, delaying sales until 9:20.
Another crowd lined up at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center box office on Tryon Street, where wristbands were distributed starting at 5:30 a.m. By 9:46, the box office allotment of seats had been doled out to proud wearers of 1200 lucky wristbands, who could score a maximum of four tickets. It wasn’t until 3:37 p.m. that folks still waiting on the online queue were told to abandon all hope.
But the financial impact of Hamilton – and the ticketbuying frenzy – really began more than a year ago. If you wanted first dibs on Hamilton seats, you had to splurge on a full Broadway Lights subscription for 2017-18. Largely because Hamilton loomed so enticingly over the rainbow as part of the package, all subscriptions for the Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights Series, including eight other shows, were sold out by August 1 of last year. A waiting list for those precious subscriptions was announced on June 24, 2017.
Not only did Hamilton enable Blumenthal to sell out its entire 2017-18 Broadway Lights inventory, it set the stage for them to launch an additional Encore Series, including reprises of Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Book of Mormon, and Lion King. Those also sold pretty well.
So more than a whole year of theatergoing at Blumenthal’s big boxes – Belk Theater, Ovens Auditorium, and Knight Theater – was built on the public’s insatiable demand for Hamilton tickets. That’s some pretty heavy lifting.
But what kind of lift does Hamilton deliver for local artists and arts organizations? Around town, there are grumblings that the big-box successes at the PAC suck audience, revenue, and esteem away from local pros, shunting them into the shadows.
We heard from Carver Johns during the recent run of The Foreigner at Belmont Abbey College. Back when he was more active on the Charlotte scene, Johns had starring roles in Charlotte’s Web at Children’s Theatre, The Changeling with Innovative Theatre, Fool for Love with Off-Tryon Theatre Company, and The Exonerated, the last show produced by Charlotte Repertory Theatre before it flamed out in 2005.
“The way [Broadway Lights] is framed and kept separate from local fare,” Johns says, “suggests that the Blumey shows are ‘real theater’ and the rest of us are Little Rascals throwing things up in a barn. And this I believe was the long-term fallout of Angels [in America] and Rep.”
Shuttling back and forth from Charlotte Rep to Children’s Theatre acting jobs – supplemented by gigs as a certified lighting, sound and AV technician and a fight supervisor – Johns could cobble together a livelihood in theatre here in town. That can’t happen anymore unless you’re on the payroll at ImaginOn with Children’s Theatre.
When Johns was acting and directing Fool for Love, theatre groups formed coalitions, advertised jointly, and coordinated programming schedules. With the coming of light rail, construction of yuppie housing, and the demise of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST), the NoDa scene where all that happened has all but disappeared.
“Smaller companies have to own that we have eaten our own by driving one another out of business,” Johns admits. “But the ‘real theater’ vs ‘local loonies’ comparison the Belksters and their programming creates will always be a negative impact until the city power structure becomes more progressive and truly embraces local artists.”
Tim Ross was a mainstay at Charlotte Rep in leading roles onstage – and prominent at the pioneering Charlotte Shakespeare before that. Over the years, Ross found his lifeline behind the soundboard at the WFAE studio in Spirit Square where he produced the Charlotte Talks broadcasts five days a week until 2015. What irks Ross is how feebly media has pushed back against the power structure. Even at arguably the friendliest media outlet for performing arts publicity in the QC, Ross found that local theatre literally struggled for air.
“I had a constant struggle trying to get the host or the other producers to get on board with doing more shows about local theatre,” Ross recalls. “I don’t know how Hamilton helps beyond motivating people to go to the theater in general. There might be three or four interesting productions going on at exactly the same time as Hamilton but I’m pretty sure that Hamilton is going to get an absolute ton of free local press that it doesn’t even need while these other productions will barely get mentioned.”
Banding together might help local theatre companies do more advertising and promotion, and it would be immensely helpful if local media gave them more of an airing, but a change in outlook could also provide a lift. Tom Gabbard, president and CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts (BPA), scoffs at the notion that Hamilton and Broadway Lights are the natural enemies of local theatre.
“My arts colleagues who get wound up about this don’t understand that their real competition is not the blockbuster shows or other arts events,” Gabbard insists. “It’s Netflix, brew pubs, the Panthers and a million other things that people do besides go to theater. All of us in the arts, big or small, are together in needing to get the public who aren’t going to the arts to watch less Netflix and go to a show. Worrying about competition within the arts is delusional, and misses strategizing on what are solutions.”
It’s also delusional to presume that BPA isn’t already reaching out with help, promotional and financial, to local arts groups. After paying staff and maintaining facilities, BPA plows plentiful monies into tilling the soil for local artists and arts groups – and enriching it.
But of course, you want to know how much cash we’re talking about. As we began digging into this, BPA issued a press release proclaiming that the sold-out run of The Lion King that began in August grossed more than $4.8 million over a three-week, 24-performance engagement. Using a multiplier of 3.66 supplied by the Touring Broadway League, promotions manager Brandon Carter estimated an economic impact of well over $17 million.
Set to run for 32 performances, Hamilton will have an even larger impact. Compared to Lion King ticket prices, which averaged $100 each, the range for Hamilton was $75 to $175 a shot, with select VIP premium seats going for $434.50. So ticket sales won’t merely be 33% higher because of the longer engagement. Factoring the higher sticker prices, Gabbard predicted last week that Hamilton would gross over $9 mil for a total economic impact of more than $30 mil – or a less gaudy $23.5 if you go by the more conservative 2.5 multiplier that Gabbard prefers.
And that’s not counting all the additional subscription tix – an additional five thousand subscriptions compared to 2016-17, a 50% increase – and encore programming that Hamilton has carried on its back.
So BPA has plenty of profits to play with, about 10% of the Broadway Lights gross for starters. Some of these proceeds go into helping local resident companies like On Q Performing Arts, Three Bone Theatre and Caroline Calouche & Co. pay rental fees at smaller venues under the BPA umbrella, namely McGlohon Theater and Duke Energy at Spirit Square and Booth Playhouse up in Founders Hall. By day, Community School of the Arts gets a break at Sprit Square.
Fully itemized, subsidies and rental waivers approached $1 million in 2016-17, since beneficiaries also included users of BPA’s bigger boxes: Opera Carolina, Charlotte Symphony and Charlotte Ballet, who all used the Belk and Knight Theater. These companies would pay nearly 22% more to perform in St. Paul and more than 200% more to perform in Dallas, according to Gabbard.
That not only impacts Opera, Symphony, and Ballet, it also impacts music lovers and balletomanes who subscribe to their performances, keeping ticket prices down. Companies that rent BPA’s venues can also take advantage of their databases to reach out to their untapped market. Whether or not they rent space at BPA’s facilities, companies that have the necessary hardware can utilize Carolina Tix, the ticket selling engine launched by BPA that’s offered free to all local companies.
All of the above may sound a bit under-the-hood or behind-the-scenes, but BPA also ventures into sponsorships of high profile events. About the same amount of money that goes annually for subsidies and slashed rentals goes into putting up unique events – or bringing in young people to see shows that would otherwise be way beyond their means. The three-year-old Charlotte Jazz Festival and Breakin’ Convention, a three-day showcase of break dancing, both required outlays of at least $200K annually before they could happen.
And have you heard of the Blumey Awards? High schoolers go insane watching their classmates perform onstage at Belk Theater, unleashing deafening cheers for winners of best acting, design, and musical awards and scholarships. Two Charlotte winners have gone on to New York and won the national Jimmy Award for best actress, and two of Charlotte’s best actresses, Eva Noblezada and Abby Corrigan, have gone on to Broadway fame, Corrigan in the national tour of Fun Home and Noblezada in the title role of the Broadway and London productions of Miss Saigon.
Ironically, the judges who decide the Jimmy Awards up in New York are more aware of the high level of talent we’re training in Charlotte than most people who live here.
High school theatre programs across the Metrolina region have been galvanized and incentivized. But without a thriving regional theatre company in Charlotte, how can the best talent incubated here stay in the city and build professional careers? How can Corrigan and Noblezada go home again?
“We have, as a community, allowed so many of our local arts organizations to close, shut down, wither and wilt with very little pause or remorse,” Karina Caporino declares. A fixture onstage at CAST before it abruptly folded in 2014, Caporino has been a leading light in the Machine Theatre and XOXO guerilla groups, and she’ll be at Spirit Square at the end of November in an Actor’s Gym revival of Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels.
With a viewpoint mostly taking in the scene beyond the BPA’s big and small boxes in the Uptown, Caporino doesn’t see the Hamilton “lift” extending to the artists and companies she has worked with in the past. She was shaken by the frenzied queuing up for Hamilton tickets in a city that neglects its own.
“The values of our community unnerve me,” she posted on Facebook the following day. “We have the opportunity now to really take a moment to evaluate and reconfigure our values as an arts community. We have the opportunity to refocus ourselves and to push up our own creators. I recognize my chance to change trajectories and push our community in a more productive and inclusive direction, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
Gabbard also sees this Hamilton moment as a ripe one. Calling upon his own experience running an affiliated League of Regional Theatres (LORT) company in the Denver metro, he advises mainstream groups to ride the lift rather than fighting against it.
“I used the success of someone else’s big shows as a launch point for my own success,” he explains. “I’m not spinning to say that the whiners need to get more strategic about leveraging off the success of these big shows. In Denver, I grew the subscription from 500 to 10,000 by carefully researching the Broadway series and building my LORT seasons off it, and off of what some consumers found missing in the experience.”
Does that sort of thing happen in Charlotte? Not so much. We thought it was a promising sign that CPCC Theatre and Charlotte Symphony were both staging shows later this month steeped in the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber – just six weeks after Lord Andrew’s Love Never Dies played the Belk.
In his 35 years on Elizabeth Avenue, drama department chair Tom Hollis has seen precious little overlap between the audience that turns out for Broadway Lights and the crowds that line up for CP’s musical offerings. He fondly remembers the time at Belk Theater when someone sitting in front of him turned to a friend and asked, “Have you ever heard of this Theatre Charlotte?”
Likewise, Symphony executive president Mary A. Deissler described the alignment of the “Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” concert with the Love Never Dies tour as serendipitous rather than designed. “We didn’t plan it that way – just coincidence,” she confides. “But as we know our Pops audience loves Broadway, we viewed it as a great additional option.”
Less hand-wringing and more strategic planning couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure.
Whether or not local arts organizations take advantage of next-big-things like Lion King, Book of Mormon, and Hamilton, Gabbard maintains that BPA is still benefiting theatre companies around town. As a member of IPN, the Independent Producers Network, BPA invests in many of the shows that wind up opening on Broadway, touring across America, and popping up again on college campuses and at community theaters. Shows produced by IPN that have played at Theatre Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre or CPCC Summer Theatre in recent years include 9 to 5, Memphis, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Mountaintop, Spamalot, and The Addams Family.
Among the IPA shows still headed for the Belk – and Broadway – are Dear Evan Hansen, Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, Donna Summer The Musical and Tootsie.
Closer to opening night, Caporino was striking a more balanced and conciliatory tone. “It’s a ‘yes and’ situation,” she begins. “YES, it is super exciting that Hamilton exists, is coming to Charlotte, is getting all this attention for/engagement with the arts AND we should use this opportunity to examine how we as a community value our local artists. Do we provide them with ample funding? Do we provide them with marketing and media coverage? Do we provide them room for errors? Are we making sure what we are providing is being done consciously and with great intention across broad spectrums of identity, race, class, gender? And do we value what is made here in Charlotte?”
On the Charlotte scene since 2007, when she was still finishing her college degree, Caporino still wrestles with student loan debt as she tries to balance work in the organic grocery industry with a career as a performing artist. Optimistically winking, she acknowledges that the artistic career of her dreams isn’t possible here yet – and that she thinks about leaving.
“I’m also rather stubborn,” she adds, “and don’t want to throw in the towel on the Queen City just yet.”
When Becket began at Halton Theater this past Sunday afternoon, it struck me as a vast historical tapestry. I was a bit startled to find that I was asking myself, Why didn’t Shakespeare ever take up this story? As Jean Anouilh’s drama rumbled majestically on, however, quite a different question gripped me: Isn’t this a glorified two-hander between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, with other characters strewn around them like so many chess pieces?
This seems to be only the second play that CPCC has presented at Halton Theater – the first since Noises Off in 2012. You can infer from that history that theatre department chair Tom Hollis, who directs here for CPCC Theatre, is not a big fan of the Halton when CP isn’t using it for Broadway musicals. His pre-performance invitation to the audience to find seats closer to the stage during intermission underscored his wariness.
Hollis has had to make peace with the Halton – for now, anyway – because Pease Auditorium, the longtime anchor of dramatic presentations at CP, will soon be facing the wrecking ball. A new building with theatre facilities will replace it at that razed site. Very likely, Hollis is also surprising himself a little with this Becket because scene designer Jennifer O’Kelly has filled the stage so handsomely, both horizontally and vertically.
The pillars spaced across the stage are at least three times as tall as the squat dimensions of panoramic Pease would allow, so the impressive scenery evokes Las Vegas more than London. Action does cheat forward at times to the floor that covers Halton’s commodious orchestra pit, but the chief reason we hear all the actors so well is sound designer Stephen Lancaster’s sure hand with the hall’s famously wayward audio system.
With so little between those pillars, which must remain fixed whether we’re sallying forth to a Saxon hut or to a French battlefield, there are many times that you accept O’Kelly’s set as the sort of backdrop we’ve accustomed ourselves to in Shakespearean productions. Unfortunately, the wide range of characters that Becket engages aside from Henry, from sullen peasants to a pragmatic French king, don’t deliver the rich depth we’re accustomed to in the Bard’s teeming histories.
Henry is selfish, lecherous, petulant, and spoiled throughout, but Becket transforms, beginning as a wily manipulator who thrives on the challenge of hunting and the thrill of battle. At his core, only fitfully awakened, are a set of scruples and a sense of honor. He is as apt as Henry to forget that he’s an archdeacon of the church.
In the long arc of the story, we watch Becket, appointed by Henry as chancellor of England, helping his king to extract taxes from the church. But then Henry miscalculates and appoints Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, reasoning that that his old chum will make it so much easier to shake down the church. Becket shocks his benefactor after he becomes Archbishop, renouncing the chancellorship and returning the chancellor’s ring to Henry, and standing up for the church. In bare feet, renouncing worldly possessions.
In the shorter arc that plays out through much of the first act, very much along the same contours as the larger arc, we get a more vivid sense of who Henry and Becket are. After a daylong hunting excursion, the pair stop to rest and refresh at the Saxons’ hut. While the father is fetching water for the king, Henry takes a fancy to his daughter. To protect the girl from Henry’s ravishing, Becket professes to want her for himself. Henry yields the nameless girl up – on condition that he can demand payback later. When they return to the castle, Henry names his price. He lays claim to Becket’s mistress, Gwendolyn.
You can outwit and outmaneuver a monarch, we’re repeatedly shown, but power ultimately prevails. Gwendolyn and the Saxon girl are crucial to illustrating Anouilh’s point, but Shakespeare would have granted them the privilege of also being people. Hollis seems to empathize with the slenderness of these roles, giving both to Gabriela Celecia, who does what she can. Becket declares that he has never really loved anyone, but that doesn’t give cover to the playwright. Nor is this simply misogyny on Anouilh’s part, for the English clergy – and The Pope, for that matter – are also paper-thin. Seriously, he couldn’t give the Pope a name?
Ailing and decrepit, the Archbishop whom Becket will succeed is discerned easily enough amid the clergy, and Jim Greenwood gives him ample texture, the best of his multiple roles. But I can only report that Rob Craig was the Bishop of York, Roger Watson was the Bishop of York, and John DeMicco were the Huey, Dewey, and Louie of the English church. As a group, they are fine and spirited with a righteousness that is balanced with practicality. Or greed, depending on your view of the church.
Tony Wright is one of the best all-around theatre professionals we have in Charlotte, and his own company, Actor’s Gym, will soon be returning to the local scene, reviving Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels at Spirit Square. You can recognize various elements of Wright’s greatest hits as an actor – beginning with the comically delusional Elwood P. Dowd and the swashbuckling Zastrozzi – in the sunny, insouciant wickedness he brings to Henry II. The world is Henry’s playpen, so you almost laugh at his dark moments. They are petulant rather than profound.
Cole Long doesn’t always convince me as a man of valor, not exactly conjuring up Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton, the Beckets of Broadway and Hollywood. Lacking that physicality may be advantageous for Long when he tackles Becket’s more prominent traits, his wiliness, his deference, his fundamental decency, and his spiritual struggles to experience love and faith. With so few consequential people around Anouilh’s protagonists, we don’t need to pause and register that Long doesn’t ooze leadership qualities. He’s most credible as a loyal subject and surrogate before excelling as a fugitive.
The most affecting of Anouilh’s minor characters bloom when Becket becomes openly defiant towards his king. Rick Taylor’s portrait of King Louis of France has a weathered, wizened dignity to it as he offers refuge to the renegade Archbishop. Yet there is no heartbreak from His Highness when sympathy and goodwill toward the holy refugee must give way to expedience.
Accompanying Becket through his latter tribulations, the Little Monk that Becket has taken under his wing still seethes with Saxon resentment of Norman rule, nicely calibrated in Jake Dodge’s portrayal. Like Gwendolyn, he’s there for a purpose, but the fierce allegiance that Becket inspires in the Little Monk – contrasted with Henry’s inability to keep anyone’s true loyalty – strikes a deeper chord.
Aided by the age difference between them, Christy Stephens as the Queen Mother and Amy Pearre Dunn as the Young Queen transcend cardboard as the chief irritants of Henry’s court after intermission. Yes, Henry is lonely without Becket by his side, but he’s also afflicted.
It wasn’t long after music director Drina Keen cued the opening bars of Newsies that I already knew. This Disney musical fits the CPCC Summer Theatre program like a glove. Largely fueled by singing, acting, and dancing talent fresh out of college and grad school by way of regional Southeastern Theatre Conference auditions, CP’s youthful summer company is exactly what you want for a story about underpaid New York City newsboys who dare to strike against newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer.
Look at the scaffolding that rises across the stage at Halton Theater, representing the tenements where the raw, gifted Jack Kelly and his fellow newsies are holed up, and you might also suspect that Robert Croghan’s set design measures up well against those of the Broadway production and the national tour. Having seen both, I can add that Croghan’s costumes and Gary Sivak’s lighting also reach those lofty levels. Differences only begin to emerge when the ensemble of paper hawkers starts to dance.
Whether constrained by the limitations of his dancers or the liability limits of CP’s insurance coverage, Ron Chisholm’s choreography doesn’t begin to compare with the high-flying exploits that brought Newsies a best choreography Tony Award in 2012. I found it illuminating to see how that shortfall reverberated through the rest of the production. Music played by the CP Orchestra seemed less vibrant behind more earthbound dancers, draining the Alan Menken score of a bit of its punch. Even the Harvey Fierstein book seemed thinner, plotlines and characters less fleshed-out.
Of course, director Tom Hollis hasn’t trimmed the script, so I’d presume that first-timers may be surprised to discover how mature this Disney product truly is. Sure, the history of the 1899 strike has been tidied up and moved to Manhattan, while the financials are fudged to amp up the drama. Kelly has been installed as the single organizer and leader while Katherine, modeled on an actual newsperson who backed the strike, has been extensively re-engineered, predictably becoming Jack’s love interest.
Jack gets a Jewish newbie named Morris as a sidekick who handles the practicalities of organizing and publicizing the strike, another vague nod toward history; and up in his office, Pulitzer does entice Jack to recant his strike support with a tempting offer. Teddy Roosevelt, then Governor of New York, makes a couple of cameo appearances, adding extra period flavoring, though not nearly as crucial as cousin Franklin was in Annie.
Other factors come into play that could deflect Jack from plunging into full-bore labor agitation. At the top of the show, he and his crippled crony stand on top of their roof, mooning over an escape from the tenements to a cleaner life in “Santa Fe.” Later on, the police raid a newsie gathering and haul Crutchie (what else does a city kid call a crippled crony?) off to jail. Jack feels responsible – and he’s on the lam from the cops himself.
Above all else, our Jack has talent. He could become a visual artist or, more to the point, an illustrator at the newspaper he’s been selling all this time. Jack’s artistic aptitude and the introduction of Katherine are the chief alterations Fierstein makes to the 1992 screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. You may shake your head a bit at the end after watching Jack take advantage of both of these exciting opportunities. He’s still waltzing off into the sunset as a newsboy.
With awesome gravity-defying dancing in the jubilant Newsies package, you might easily ignore this gauche resolution, but at Halton Theater, we must fall back on the excellence of Ashton Guthrie as Jack. C’mon, this is all about Jack, isn’t it? Happily, Guthrie delivers. I’ve been watching Guthrie on local stages since high school when he was the evil Zoser in Aïda (from Disney to Disney, right?), and I greeted him back then in 2009 as a triple threat to watch – and keep in Charlotte.
His command of all those skills is fuller now, and the professional polish of his Jack is a constant joy to behold whether he’s speaking, singing, dancing, or simply listening to others onstage. Smoothly, he combines the poise of a natural leader with the roughness of the streets, stirring in the rebellious hormones of a teen. Familiar with much of his past work, I had to chuckle a bit at his pugnacious punk mannerisms.
The elders are so good in this cast that I have to cite them as being the other key reasons why this CP production so enjoyable. Hollis gives every one of these vets free license to give performances that are a wee bit outsized. As Pulitzer, we find that Rob Addison adds a pinch of melodramatic villainy to the brass tacks businessman, and springing off Mount Rushmore as Teddy Roosevelt, Craig Estep adds a Jerry Colonna twinkle to the Rough Rider’s vitality.
Presiding over the newsies’ hangouts, Brittany Harrison and Jonathan Buckner bring us some Big Apple diversity, Harrison as a diva nightclub hostess and Buckner as a deli owner who opens his doors to the boys even when they’re nigh broke from striking. Among the newsie gang, only two pairs of brothers really stand apart to leave as much of an impression as Treston Henderson’s Crutchie. Jalen Walker is just slightly nerdy as Morris Delancey and Patrick Stepp is precociously adorable as little brother Oscar. Collin Newton and Alex Kim are the other bros, Jack’s most enthusiastic boosters and the staunchest militants in his roused rabble.
Looking quite serene and elegant in her prim business attire, Robin Dunavant does get to sketch out a modest storyline of her own, trying to prove that women can be serious journalists long before the suffrage movement prevailed. She’s cool to Jack’s advances at first. Only when she realizes that this déclassé Jack is an upstart labor agitator does she see him as a stepping stone toward professional respectability. And we eventually learn that Katherine isn’t a nobody from nowhere. So that’s why Fierstein has added on Jack’s talents! To justify her affections.
Whatever the right degree of warming up to Jack is required, Dunavant reaches it demurely. She could have turned up the heat a little without endangering Guthrie’s dominance, but this will do.
People forget that Grease was a huge smash on Broadway for over eight years, the incubator for such hunks as Patrick Swayze, Richard Gere, Barry Bostwick, Peter Gallagher, Treat Williams, and that John Travolta guy. The 1978 film starring Travolta and Olivia Newton-John not only eclipsed the 1972 original, it radically altered the Jim Jacobs and Warren Jacobs book and score. By 2007, the last time it was revived on Broadway, Grease couldn’t be Grease without the two hit songs created for the movie, “You’re the One That I Want,” one of numerous #1 hits that John Farrar wrote for Newton-John, and Barry Gibbs’ “Grease (Is the Word).”
The result at CPCC Summer Theatre, with Carey Kugler directing that 2007 version, will often play like a blurred – or cut – version of the movie. Our summer romance at the beach with its poignant farewells, the second beginning devised for the show, now gives way to a third. Sandy Dumbrowski’s nemesis, Rizzo, is more like a spider lady than a tough punk. Stockard Channing delivered. Sandy’s quest to become part of the Pink Lady clique is forgotten, and there’s no climactic drag race when Danny Zuko reasserts his heroism behind the wheel of Kenickie’s Greased Lightnin’.
With one of the actors absent for the Sunday matinee, confusions compounded. Justin Austin smoothly replaced Aaron Coulson as Teen Angel, singing “Beauty School Dropout” to the disconsolate Frenchy, Sandy’s staunchest ally. But Coulson was also supposed to portray deejay Vince Fontaine at the high school sock hop. Touchy situation. Megan Postle, who terrorized one of Danny’s T-Bird chums as Miss Lynch, his English teacher, had to reappear as the fulsome emcee of the hop, and Ashton Guthrie, who was just learning the rudiments of guitar at the top of Act 1 as Doody (a pretty lame “Those Magic Changes”), now gets to sing Vince’s “Born to Hand Jive,” one of the best numbers in Act 2.
Unless you had recalculated based on CP Theatre Dept. chair Tom Hollis’s pre-show announcements, these were additional head-scratching moments.
Perhaps the most charitable way of looking at the Jacobs-Casey book, substantially overhauled by Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard for the film, is to presume that they were trying to flip Manhattan’s West Side Story into a vaguely Chicago comedy – if they had any idea of what they were doing at all. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain the botched, crisscrossed contretemps at the prom and the abruptly scheduled rumble between the T-Birds and the Scorpions that never happens.
Kugler never seems compelled to plug up any of the plot holes, so Philip Stock as Danny acts like a jerk without any qualms or hesitation. Stopping one time while making your exit doesn’t quite cut it. Robin Dunavant gets more to work with in baring Sandy’s heart – including twice as many songs – but with Danny wavering so capriciously in his affections, her “Hopelessly Devoted to You” feelings seem downright stupid. While Jason Estrada’s costume designs could be more rugged for the T-Birds, the megawatt blond wig he saddles Sandy with throughout her pre-makeover scenes (I’m not sure a single hair moves) made me wonder whether or not a beautiful teen lurked underneath.
Despite these teetering foundations, Stock does project a hard James Dean-like edge and – keeping in mind that this is Rydell High – a lean, sneering arrogance that recalls Bobby Rydell. There really are sparks when Dunavant finally crosses over from Sandra Dee-land to the leather-clad tramp that Danny wants, but the gulf between the two Sandys is so wide that it’s hard to shake the notion that her latter-day self is her creators’ wet dream. The masculinity takeaways from GREASE, that gangster toughness gets you girls and that unprotected sex is cool, are pure ‘50s bull, never questioned.
Amid Danny’s vacillations and Sandy’s pathological primness, the bitchy, predatory Betty Rizzo stands taller with the steadfast power of her slutty convictions. Don’t you dare feel sorry for her! Lindsey Schroeder further accents Rizzo’s outlaw chic with a self-assured swagger that gives her dominion over every scene she appears in, singing or not. The astonishing dancing jolts that Treston Henderson brings to Kenickie’s “Greased Lightnin’” are totally worthy of this spitfire Rizzo, his usual girlfriend. But the garbled speaking parts? Not so much.
Coupling and uncoupling are so unmotivated that the remaining T-Birds and the Pink Ladies threaten to devolve into stock characters. Among the guys, Guthrie as Doody is the only other gang member to leave an impression. Ava Smith as Frenchy is the only Pink aside from Rizzo that I could care a little about, but a beauty school dropout warrants a far more frightful wig. Outside the Pink clique we do better, with Alexis Harder showing some flair as Cha-Cha DiGregorio, the outsider dancing ace that Kenickie brings to the sock hop to spite Rizzo. Patty Simcox is no more scheming or manipulative than Rizzo, but Susannah Upchurch manages to make us dislike her chiefly for her wholesome veneer – and because she doesn’t seem to be enjoying her own wickedness nearly as much.
Fun-loving mindlessness is as much the word at CP as GREASE is. At Rydell High, you are so uncool if you can’t sustain enthusiasm through all the many ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong nonsense phrases that “We Go Together” provides for the ensemble at the end of Acts 1 and 2. The old folk at Halton Theater on Sunday, bobbing their heads to the beats until the lights came up, weren’t looking for any meaning at all in GREASE. They were looking for the sheer joy of youth, and they were finding it.