Tag Archives: Tom Hollis

CP’s Becket Struggles With Loyalty, Faith, and Caring

Review: Becket

By Perry Tannenbaum

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.

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Earthbound “Newsies” Charms With Punk Hero and Youthful Fervor

Review: Newsies The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

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.

Break Out the Mindless Nostalgia With CP’s Re-Engineered “Grease”

Review: Grease

By Perry Tannenbaum

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.

 

Lucia Stetson Brings a Regal, Enigmatic “Evita” to CP

Review: Evita

By Perry Tannenbaum

There isn’t a superabundance of melody in Evita, but when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s supply begins to run low, he deftly puts his few song lines, riffs, and strands of recitative into a spin cycle, zigzagging through Spanish, Latin, and jazz idioms. Or he might shift tempos for a reprise, shift the context for a song’s reprise that gives it new meaning, or simply drop in a replay.

More conspicuous is the lack of action complementing Tim Rice’s lyrics for a musical purporting to bring us the life and legend of Eva Perón, Argentina’s first lady during the presidency of Juan Perón. Much of this story is told through the cynical-yet-captivated eyes of fellow Argentinian Ché Guevara, beginning his narrative at Evita’s phenomenal state funeral. What Ché attempts to explain is how an obscure commoner from the boonies could become so beloved and venerated in the space of 33 years.

Less dramatic muscle, bone, and spectacle were baked into this 1976 opus than the sturdier Phantom of the Opera, which would be minted 10 years later. In previous Charlotte productions by Queen City Theatre Company (2010) and Theatre Charlotte (2003), small-scale design concepts reminded us that Evita is closer in Sir Andrew’s chronological development to the episodic Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat than his signature guignol. After all, only four major characters create the whole Argentine tapestry.

CPCC Theatre shoves Evita toward grandiosity at spacious Halton Theater, largely through the design wizardry of Robert Croghan. There is classic splendor to the iconic balcony scene at the Casa Rosada, and when Peronistas demonstrate in the streets for a “New Argentina,” Croghan drapes his set design with massive flags and banners scribbled with slogans that drop down from the Halton’s high flyloft.

Plenty of Croghan’s costume designs are of the peasant variety, but when it comes time for Evita to be dressed to the nines – or for the strongman Perón to luxuriate in the opulence of his bedroom – we can see what South American excess and corruption look like. Actors and audiences love this musical beyond its deserts, so director Tom Hollis could be expected to find a fine Evita to glitter in this excellent Halton setting. In Lucia Stetson, he has struck gold.

Or should we say silver, since that’s what Argentina is known and named for?

Along with her wardrobe, Stetson becomes more and more refined as she exploits one man after another in her climb to the top. The sassy arriviste of “Buenos Aires – Big Apple” turns imperious as Evita supplants Perón’s previous mistress, but we don’t see the first rays of sublimity until after intermission when she appears on the balcony of the presidential palace – aglow in Jeff Child’ lighting design – and sings the iconic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” Stetson does majestic even better than she does sass.

From that moment on, it’s up for grabs whether Evita is a saintly benefactor of the poor, Argentina’s beauteous ambassador to the world, or a corrupt, self-indulgent template for Imelda Marcos. Not only is there a tension between Che’s cynical jabs and the Peróns’ official line, there’s also an inscrutable quality to Stetson’s performance that blossoms naturally out of her majesty. Crowning that regality is Stetson’s star-quality singing, which makes everything believable – Evita’s vanity, her savvy, her belief in her own beneficence, and her physical frailty.

Sadly, Stetson was the only singer onstage at the Halton last Saturday night who was consistently intelligible. Whether it was their diction, their mics, or settings at the Halton’s notorious soundboard, Ron T. Diaz as Che and Robert Nipper as Perón struggled to be understood. Diaz started off well enough in the opening funeral scene, but when the orchestra grew loud behind him, the words and the narrative thread got lost, though Diaz’s voice and Che’s gadfly intensity still pierced through. He restores the rock intonations that Ricky Martin rejected in the most recent Broadway revival of 2012, and I recognized them like an old frenemy in all their original gusto.

Thuggish, conceited, and physically imposing, Nipper helps the “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” duet to sizzle with restrained sensuality and menace, as good a Perón as I’ve ever seen, with a robusto voice. If they’d fix the audio, his performance would likely join Stetson’s in the not-to-be-missed stratosphere.

Joel King as the crooner Magaldi, Evita’s small-town ticket to Buenos Aires, and Leana Guzman as Perón’s Mistress both satisfy in their respectively comical and pathetic cameos, and music director Drina Keen leads a fine 13-piece band in the pit. We don’t quite hear the volcanic eruption at the end of the symphonic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” that would give us the lift of a true coronation, but the ensemble is sleek in the Latin-flavored sections of the score, and drummer Kyle Merck makes the military interludes a delight.

At the café where Evita enchants Magaldi and when Evita begins to move to the same music with Perón, choreographer Ron Chisholm makes the company and his principals look good. When the choruses of aristocrats and army soldiers join in berating “Perón’s Latest Flame,” one of numerous spots where we might perceive a disconnect between the music and the intended mood, Chisholm goes with the comical flow. So Argentina’s military struts like a regimented bunch of banana republic bumpkins.

Hardly a minute later, Perón considers running away from these buffoons to Paraguay. Guess he didn’t see them the same way. In that crucial moment, Evita becomes Lady Macbeth to keep him on track.

Miller’s “Crucible” Roars Its Power at CP

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Review: The Crucible

By Perry Tannenbaum

Powerful men abound in the annals of drama, but few can vie with the formidability of Deputy-Governor Danforth in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Reminding the petitioning Francis Nurse just exactly whom he’s dealing with, he can honestly claim to have jailed nearly 400 people in various towns across Massachusetts with his signature – and sent 72 to the gallows with that many strokes of his pen.

“We burn a hot fire here,” he warns soon-to-be martyred John Proctor. “It melts down all concealment.”

If those declarations sound to you like they should be spoken softly, you are not reading them the way stage director Tom Hollis did for the current CPCC Theatre production at Pease Auditorium. Panoramic Pease is a challenging place acoustically, often frustrating audience members, especially the elderly, who chance to be seated in one of the side sections, trying to hear what actors are saying at the other end of the stage.

Anybody who has been reluctant to go to Pease, or stayed away because of that frustration is now encouraged to come back. There has never been such a roaring production at Pease – or anywhere else on the CPCC campus. It would be misleading to say that it begins with Tim Huffman, who gives a fearsome account of the Dep Governor in the climactic scene at the Salem Meeting House, ground zero of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. He doesn’t appear in the drama until the second scene after intermission, or Act 3 in the original script.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

We don’t hear anything about the full extent of Danforth’s rampage until he announces it himself, but the steady roar of the panicked citizens of Salem – and the shrieks of the pubescent girls who incredibly become their accusers – testify to the hysteria that has gripped the whole colony. Reverend Samuel Parris intrudes upon his servant Tituba leading a pagan moonlight ritual, with his daughter Betty and his niece Abigail Williams among her acolytes, in a marvelously creepy scene that Miller added to his 1953 script for his 1996 screenplay.

The secret of how that cinematic lagniappe was converted to stage may be locked in a local recipe, since the brief prologue isn’t referenced in the playbill’s rundown of the scenes. When we cut to the original opening scene in an upstairs bedroom of the Reverend’s home, Parris is huddled over the seemingly comatose Betty who will not waken since returning from her midnight revels. As great as Parris’s fears may be for his daughter’s life, his greatest fear is that the word “witchcraft” might be whispered around town about members of his family. His career is at stake.

The fear flips Reverend Parris from his initial condemnation of Betty and Abigail to becoming their staunchest supporter no matter how outrageously they overreach in their reign of terror. Cole Long may be giving us the most chilling performance here as Parris for he is never in the least soft-spoken. This rabid weasel speaks in a passionate, panicky squeal that threatens to shatter glass, most heinously in his waspish attacks upon John Proctor. Long’s high-voltage intemperance makes it easy for Huffman to become mightily annoyed with his zeal.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Hollis also finds strong – yet sweet – voices for the two most important accusers: Sarah Clifford is the implacably wicked and wanton Abigail, and Ashley Gildersleeve is the ambivalent Mary Warren, the witness Proctor enlists to debunk Abigail’s masquerade. Interestingly, Mary is Abigail’s successor in the Proctor household, hired after Abigail was told to hit the road when she had committed adultery with a now-penitent John.

Clifford gives us a shameless and forceful Abigail. Hollis is wise to include the nocturnal confrontation between Abigail and Proctor, written by Miller for the stage shortly after the original Broadway production, for it reveals Clifford’s full range. Switches between Abigail’s vamping, seductive mode to her imperious affirmations of divine judicial authority can be played so abruptly that the wench can seem to have an insanely split personality. But Hollis and Clifford find the bridge between the two Aby’s in her arrogant self-confidence – she obviously has no doubt that John will ultimately succumb to her charms.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Gildersleeve proves to us that Mary is also quite a powerful role, pulled ferociously hard in opposite directions by John and Abigail, pivotal in the outcome of the climactic court scene. Hollis is going against the usual impulse to cast Mary as a diminutive mouse who will cower in the proximity of the domineering Abigail. Making her more substantial magnifies the power of both adversaries who tug at her, and Hollis – not withstanding today’s political correctness – does not gloss over John’s abusiveness toward his servant.

The biggest payoff with Gildersleeve is how taut the tension can become before Mary makes her fatal choice. We can see that she isn’t going to break easily. When inevitability sets in, the chaos that breaks out in Danforth’s court is as alarming as you’ll ever see, like a vast cauldron coming to a boil and overflowing.

Nothing less can bring Josh Logsdon down in his hulking, near-Promethean performance as Proctor. There are few mild-mannered moments in his tragic odyssey toward the gallows. If, as he claims, he has walked tiptoe around his own home since his great sin, Logsdon certainly turns the corner when John confronts Elizabeth, raging and roaring at her like a tyrant before her unexpected arrest. Then he turns on the gendarmes with leonine fury as they take her into custody. Then on the quailing Mary, who has brought the incriminating poppet to his house from Salem.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Torn between taking advantage of Abigail’s affection and risking her fury, Logsdon is comparatively becalmed in their forest scene, but he’s only truly temperate in the presence of the Dep Governor when Elizabeth’s fate hangs in the balance. Even then, we see him as a powder keg, ready to explode in a heartbeat.

The Gothic aspects of such sulfurous action are somewhat muted by the raked and abstract set design by Beth Aderhold and costume designer Jason Estrada’s execution of what could have been Hollis’s most daring concept – transporting the 1692 atrocities to the McCarthy Era 1950s when Miller’s tragedy premiered. But the concept gathers little further momentum. We find no TV in the Proctor home that could be tuned to the HUA or Army-McCarthy hearings, and no projections on the blank upstage wall from contemporary newspapers heralding the anti-Commie hysteria that Miller was obliquely targeting.

It’s Caryn Crye who unexpectedly brought me the strongest flashback to the 50s as Elizabeth. Again and again, Crye’s quietly assertive and judgmental portrayal evoked the Emmy Award-winning Audrey Meadows in her iconic role as Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners (1952-57). This is a cold and grudging Elizabeth who knows a woman’s place yet never backs down. She comes to see her own failings and their causes in the poignant final dialogue with John. Yet when we hear her last words, it’s hard to discard the notion that nothing less John’s march to the gallows could convince her of his complete atonement for his infidelity.

The depth and power of the CP cast helps to shine new light on Miller’s lesser characters. Giles Corey usually comes off as a contentious, litigious, and ultimately harmless old fool, but Tom Ollis – among the loudest actors we have – bellows him to a different place, now fully consistent with the defiant eulogy Elizabeth gives him. Reverend John Hale is also prone to trivializing, apt to be portrayed as a naïve student who needs the books he carries to substantiate his witch-sleuthing credentials.

Tony Wright plops those books down in the Parris bedroom as if he has read and absorbed very word, needing them merely to double-check his vast erudition and point out chapter and verse to the common folk who have hired him. Most Hales seem to be windblown by the dizzying events in Salem, but Wright’s is open-minded and discerning, ultimately bewildered by the insanity that surrounds him, still grasping and feeling the tragedy as deeply anyone.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

My only disappointment was Corlis Hayes, who starts off so spectacularly in her second pass at Tituba at CP, where she also excelled in 2001. Abetted by James Duke’s lighting design and Marilyn Carter’s movement coaching, she’s an object of terror in the opening blood ritual. She “lays low” obsequiously enough, if I might be permitted an Uncle Remus allusion, as cries of witchcraft pursue her like the Eumenides. Hayes breaks so pitifully under the merest pressure that it’s almost comical.

Ah, but when she reaches the prison – the first to be branded a witch – Hayes mangles the words of Rev. Parris’s hapless servant so badly that they are unintelligible. That’s a shame, because Tituba has the freshest, wittiest, big-picture perspective on the whole Puritan catastrophe.

“Devil, him be pleasure-man in Barbados, him be singin’ and dancin’ in Barbados. It’s you folks – you riles him up ‘round here; it be too cold ‘round here for that Old Boy.”

Those who profess to fear and loathe Satan come to rule in 1692 Salem – zealots, scoundrels, and a pack of screaming she-wolves led by a vengeful, slatternly she-devil – wreaking havoc that even Satan might marvel at. Miller wrote The Crucible in 1952 to show postwar Americans that history can repeat itself, destroying us from within. Miller’s message still resonates in post-2016 America, and CP is serving it up scorching hot at maximum volume.

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.

CP Gets Its Act Together for Summer 2017

Preview: CPCC Summer Theatre 2017

Fiddler on the Roof Promos

By Perry Tannenbaum

Entering its 44th season, Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre would be hard-pressed to surpass the lineup of shows they presented last year – Annie, Chicago, Sleuth, and Sister Act. But there are good reasons for the folks on Elizabeth Avenue to be super-confident that 2017 will be even more successful at the box office.

Yes, the family-friendly mix of popular Broadway musicals, adult comedy, and an AM kiddie show will provide the perfect refuge from a slapstick presidency that hasn’t managed to derail our strong economy (yet). And yes, after 10 years of random screeches, thumps, and bumps in the night, technicians were able to exorcise the demons that had previously haunted the Halton Theater sound system. Throughout the 2016 season, CP had its act completely together and gremlin-free.

Three beloved Broadway hits are coming to the Halton to keep the good thing going, beginning with Fiddler on the Roof (June 2-10) and followed by A Chorus Line (June 16-24) before CPCC Summer Theatre makes its exit with the pop ABBA jukeboxer, Mamma Mia! (July 14-22). In between the last two Broadway extravaganzas, the summer’s kiddie musical, James and the Giant Peach (June 28-July 8) takes over the Halton by day while the nighttime action scoots across Elizabeth Avenue to Pease Auditorium with A Comedy of Tenors (June 30-July 9).

Oh yeah, one more reliable predictor of success: “We have had record season ticket sales so far,” says Tom Hollis, the CP Theatre Department chair who runs the show and will direct Fiddler and Mamma Mia!

The process of selecting CP’s summer lineup, says Hollis, is ongoing throughout the year with suggestions from audience, from members of the creative team, and consultation with other theater companies. CP wants the lowdown on what others are programming and how well tickets are selling. Radar is also aimed at what Broadway producers are making freshly available from their inventory.

“There used to be a rule of thumb that said you should wait four or five years before you do a show that had toured through,” Hollis recalls. “But that no longer seems to hold true. Our experience with Les Miz and Phantom showed that proximity to the tours actually increased sales.”

It might be assumed that tours of these perennials and Mamma Mia! – which has touched down in Charlotte no less than six times since 2002 – would spark interest in enthusiasts to see them again. Yet Hollis cites trade publication data indicating that audiences across the country who attend Broadway Lights series like those offered here by Blumenthal Performing Arts don’t ordinarily attend local theatre.

“Maybe they have spent all their money on those tickets and can’t afford to attend more,” Hollis speculates. “What we are seeing is that the combination of our more competitive pricing in comparison with the touring houses and the quality of our product makes it possible for people who love theatre but can’t afford the tour prices to see the show in our theater and bring the entire family when they do it.”

Fiddler on the Roof Promos

On the other hand, CP allows absence to make their subscribers’ hearts grow fonder of shows they’ve previously presented. Both Fiddler and Chorus Line have been done before on campus but never at the Halton, which became the home for CP’s big musicals in the fall of 2005. Budgetary considerations also go into the lineup formula, so comparatively barebones productions like Chorus Line and Chicago help to rein in the bottom line.

Additional economies are available through casting, when an actor can take on multiple roles, navigating a labyrinth of rehearsals and performances to appear in as many as four of the five shows that CP Summer mounts in an eight-week span. It takes eagerness, enthusiasm, and plenty of stamina to go through such a demanding grind, which is why the Summer acting company always skews so young.

In seasons when CP is planning shows like Annie or Oliver, they’ll hold separate auditions in February for kids on top of the cattle calls for local actors and aspiring high school interns. Then in early March, directors will trek to the Southeastern Theatre Conference for regional auditions, where collegians and recent grads come in search of summer work. CP signed up six budding pros at this year’s auditions in Lexington, KY. Look for some of this new blood in A Chorus Line, where young triple threats belong.

Perhaps the optics of overly youthful casts have grown stale for Hollis and his colleagues as the years roll by, or maybe budgetary purse strings are loosening, but we’re recognizing more veteran locals who are returning annually to the Halton and to Pease for CP’s summer rites.

Jerry Colbert, whose CP credits date back to 1974 and took the Laurence Olivier role in last summer’s Sleuth, returns as one of the over-the-hill candidates who might be the father of the bride-to-be in Mamma Mia! Alongside Colbert, Dan Brunson and Kathryn Stamas will be familiar to more recent subscribers. James K. Flynn, fatherly enough to play Tevye when CP last presented Fiddler, moves into A Comedy of Tenors along with two other familiars, Craig Estep and Caroline Renfro.

For the second successive summer, Susan Cherin Gundersheim is teamed with Beau Stroupe. Last year, she was Daddy Warbucks factotum Grace Farrell in Annie. Now in Fiddler, she gets to variously torment Tevye – or emote to his fake dream – as Golde, the mother of his five daughters.

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Stroupe has walked a rocky road to Anatevka and the iconic role of the Scripture-fracturing dairyman. Photos of Stroupe as Daddy Warbucks show him with scarcely less hair than he had when he was finishing chemotherapy in late 2013 – more than a year after a grapefruit-sized malignancy was found in his intestine. A rather hostile divorce compounded his woes, so his role as the predatory Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel during the next summer seemed to chime with his embattled temperament.

The road from chemo to Anatevka led through Cherry Tree Lane, where Stroupe was George Banks, the starchy and clueless father who was transformed – along with his unruly children – in Mary Poppins through the magical nanny. A role he neither knew nor cared about until he began rehearsing, Banks awakened in Stroupe a new affection for father roles.

Warbucks pointed him in the same direction. “Again, the journey of a seemingly rigid and even detached businessman to one of tender-hearted father figure,” says Stroupe.

“I certainly relate to the journey of a father with my own four children through the difficulty of divorce and the slow healing process. It’s easy to understand the juggling act of breadwinner, patriarch, husband, father and visible member of the community. When Tevye is saying goodbye to Hodel at the train station, it takes very little effort for me to feel what any true father feels when letting his child go to live a life of their own choosing.”

New directions will be running amok when CP opens A Comedy of Tenors, Ken Ludwig’s sequel to Lend Me a Tenor, a CP Summer hit way back in 1996. No matter what its pedigree is, Ludwig’s operatic farce – think three tenors misbehaving in Paris – is the newest show CP has ever done, from farm to fork after its New Jersey world premiere in less than two years. Unheard of, as Tevye would say.

And Renfro, CP’s go-to action heroine in Dial M for Murder and Wait Until Dark, tackles a comedy – with a Russian accent! As sexy diva Tatiana Racon, Renfro will have her sights set on a very married tenor, but her seduction will farcically misfire.

“There will definitely be some good old-fashioned vamping,” Renfro promises. “I am so psyched about doing the accent. And so freaked out about it. At this point in my career, the thing that appeals to me most about a role is doing something I’ve never done before, especially if it scares me.”

Strong CP Cast Unleashes Newfound Power of “Ragtime”

Ragtime Promo Photos

Review: Ragtime The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

Like Fiddler on the Roof, another musical with wide vistas, Ragtime The Musical begins its voyage back to 1906 by introducing us to groups of people. The stage begins to fill with comfortable, well-mannered white folk. Oppressed black folk, struggling for dignity and survival, form a crowd at the opposite side of the stage. Immigrants, disoriented and bewildered in the Promised Land, fill in the divide. Social activists Booker T. Washington and Emma Goldman flank the groups, along with the celebrities who tower above them all, including Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, and Evelyn Nesbit.

But while shtetl life in Czarist Russia remains quaint, picturesque, and old-fashioned with each new revival of Fiddler, the issues revisited in Ragtime – racial prejudice, women’s second-class citizenship, and intolerance toward immigrants – have bounced back in our faces with frightful new life. The superiority we could feel toward the injustice suffered by Coalhouse Walker Jr. has evaporated since the days when Ragtime was published by novelist E.L. Doctorow in 1975 and adapted by Terrence McNally for the 1998 musical. Trayvon Martin, Ferguson… the list goes on.

Women’s rights and the welcoming attitude symbolized by Lady Liberty are also threatened by the reactionary sentiments unleashed by the 2016 election, the odious barrage of anti-Muslim rhetoric, and the post-inauguration travel ban. So the current CPCC Theatre production of Ragtime is not only timely, but thanks to one of the best casts ever assembled on the Halton Theater stage, it’s also newly powerful.

Tyler Smith delivers the most scorching performance as Coalhouse, particularly in the ragtime pianist’s valedictory solo, “Make Them Hear You,” when he’s on the brink of martyrdom. It’s as devastating a Coalhouse as I’ve ever seen, including the original Broadway production and the first national tour. But the taunting and race-baiting that come at Coalhouse from Josh Logsdon as New Rochelle fire chief Will Conklin no longer seem to be clichéd. Where Brian Stokes Mitchell on Broadway might have asked himself “how would I have felt 90 years ago?” Smith is merely tapping into how he feels – and it’s very fierce and raw.

The voice and delivery are Broadway-worthy, so it’s not at all a slight when I say that Smith’s partner, Brittany Harrington, nearly reaches the same lofty level as Sarah. When they reconcile and introduce “Wheels of a Dream,” seated in front of their Model T roadster, Harrington reminds us that this dream belongs to them both. It’s a tribute to their combined power that director Tom Hollis nearly empties the stage of the entire ensemble when the song is reprised at the end as an anthem. Together, as the happy-ending segment of the cast strolls into the horizon, Smith and Harrington sing them off.

What struck me by surprise was how much more forcefully the peaceful Mother’s story resonates. It’s quite natural to think of Mother as one of the handy junctions in this artfully interlaced tale. She welcomes Sarah and her newborn baby into her New Rochelle home, drawing the abandoned Coalhouse in pursuit – before he even realizes that he is the father of her child. Younger Brother, a member of the same well-to-do household, has a string of idols, including Nesbit and Goldman, before joining Coalhouse after the bold seeker of justice has taken over J.P. Morgan’s Manhattan library.

Ragtime Promo PhotosWhile all this spectacle rages around her, Mother has begun to evolve, almost from the moment that Father sails off with Admiral Peary on his expedition to the North Pole. After welcoming Sarah and the newborn into the household, her empathy widens to Coalhouse. Smith exudes a Nat “King” Cole kind of savoir-faire at the keyboard, so we’re not surprised. Yet Grandfather (Brian Holloway) is horrified and, after he returns from his explorations, so is Father.

But in the intervening year after her audacious decision to open her doors to Sarah, Mother has discovered that she has a voice. Not a small revelation when it comes more than three presidential elections before she will get the vote.

So while Andy Faulkenberry has a fine revolutionary zeal as Younger Brother, while Megan Postle breathes Mosaic fire as Emma Goldman, and Patrick Ratchford is extraordinarily patrician and privileged as Father – one of his best-ever outings – it was Lucia Stetson as Mother who truly bowled me over. The arc of Stetson’s journey, from “What Kind of Woman” when she first meets Sarah to “Back to Before” when she realizes she cannot continue under Father’s restrictions, is stunning and inspiring. This is how much a person can evolve. To his credit, Ratchford lets us know that Father has also budged slightly from his bigotry when his brave stint as a hostage is done.

In a way, Billy Ensley personifies all immigrants as Tateh, who arrives at Ellis Island at precisely the moment when Father is embarking on his polar adventure. J.P. Morgan, Goldman, and Houdini are all wrapped into Tatah’s dreams of “Success” and disillusionment, but neither Doctorow nor McNally soft-pedal his Jewish heritage. Right before his wide-ranging fantasia, Ensley sings “A Shtetl Iz Amereke” in his first song, faring better with the Yiddish than the chorus of immigrants behind him.

Houdini, a circus-like attraction in Tim Eldred’s portrayal, likens achieving success to escaping from a cage, but it’s Goldman, a fellow Jew, who speaks home truths. When Tateh wraps his daughter (Annabel Lamm) in a prayer shawl to combat the cruel cold, Emma says his rabbi would approve. Tateh is indeed a role of Houdini tricksiness as he begins by cutting out silhouettes of celebrities, later toils and goes on strike at a Massachusetts textile mill, and finally becomes the quintessential American success story when he reinvents himself as an Atlantic City filmmaker, Baron Ashkenazy.

Against the sunniness that Ensley brings to this epic musical, Keith Logan as Booker T. Washington and John DeMicco as J.P. Morgan help to shape the dark tragedy at the Morgan Library. It seems so much more inevitable to me now than it did when I first saw the denouement in 1998. If we can’t trust policemen to hold fire in 2017 when a black man surrenders with his hands up, how could we expect that they’d behave otherwise before World War I?

“We are all Coalhouse,” the ensemble sings in the somber aftermath – with a fresh sting. These words now ring as true as yesterday’s headlines. Much more in this CP revival of Ragtime may strike you that way.

 

American Reset Brings New Relevance to “Ragtime”

Ragtime Promo Photos

Preview: Ragtime

By Perry Tannenbaum

Things were so different in 1906, when E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime begins. Theodore Roosevelt, a conservationist Republican, was in his second term at the White House. The wave of immigrant Jewish refugees, fleeing pogroms in Russia, was at its peak.

American women would have to wait three more presidential elections before they could vote, but the charismatic Emma Goldman was one of the strong voices agitating on the streets. Jazz had yet to be born in New Orleans, and the African-American superstars who sparked its popularity were still children, but Scott Joplin had already codified the architecture of ragtime.

When Terrence McNally adapted Doctorow’s 1975 novel for the musical that opened on Broadway in 1998, costumes worn by Goldman, by Tateh the Jewish immigrant, and by ragtime piano player Coalhouse Walker added to my impression that Ragtime was so yesterday. Women had already ascended to high elective offices and had figured prominently in presidential politics. Jewish immigrants and their descendants had crafted the very framework of Hollywood’s studios and Broadway’s musical theatre. Satchmo and the Duke were far in the rearview mirror of American cultural history, and Michael Jackson was deep into his reign as the King of Pop.

Surely we had matured as a nation since those primitive days Doctorow and McNally chronicled. Each time I saw Ragtime again, in 2001, 2005, and especially in 2011 – when Barack Obama was President, and Hillary Clinton, his most formidable opponent in the 2008 election, was Secretary of State – my sense of our superiority and progress as a nation continued to grow.

Then came 2016. The shocking election result. The inauguration. The women’s demonstrations across America and across the ocean. The opening assault on immigration.

Or how about Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, and the cavalcade of atrocities posted to social media since early 2012? When Ragtime arrives this weekend at Halton Theater in a new production by CPCC Theatre, it won’t seem as quaint and primitive as it did five years ago. In so many ways, we’ve punched the reset button.

When I saw Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse, the rousing song he introduced, “Wheels of a Dream,” seemed to be dreaming of today – or 1999, when I saw Mitchell at the Ford Theatre on 42nd Street, and the whole ensemble transformed “Wheels of a Dream” into an anthem at the end of the show. This week, when Charlotte powerhouse Tyler Smith takes on Coalhouse, I’ll have to humbly concede that his anthem is still envisioning a better tomorrow that hasn’t come.

Ragtime Promo Photos

Smith was never under any illusions. “This country was founded on principles that were never all-inclusive,” he says. “Our recent presidential results showed the world how much racial hatred still looms here.”

After a couple of lightweight roles at CP in last winter’s Irving Berlin revue and last summer’s Sister Act, Megan Postle is eager to show some range – and depth – as Goldman. “I have a personal attachment to Ragtime,” Postle reveals. “It was my first Broadway show. My aunt took me to see the original cast.”

One of the fascinating things about Ragtime is its mix of historical and fictional characters. Doctorow also gives cameos of varying lengths to J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Admiral Peary, and Evelyn Nesbit.

But none of the historical characters is altered more in trafficking with Doctorow’s fictional characters than Emma, who sheds her anarchist and assassin tendencies. “Goldman is the Greek chorus for Ragtime,” says Postle. “She speaks for all members of the human race who feel there is inequality.”

Emma also helps to stitch the various strands of the plot together. Coalhouse and Tateh head two of the three families that anchor this story. They are the outsiders while the third family, prosperous inhabitants of New Rochelle, complete the New York triangle of the story. Sailing off to join Admiral Peary’s polar expedition as we begin, the Father waves to Tateh, who is on a raggedy ship that has nearly completed its voyage across the Atlantic to Ellis Island.

From that point, the story forms an epic arc that resolves gracefully as the full company delivers its epilogue. Along the way, we glide past a labor strike by exploited millworkers in Massachusetts, Goldman’s galvanizing oratory, horrid police brutality, and audacious, explosive, vengeful responses from Coalhouse.

Smith admits that racial issues have heated up since the most recent 2009 revival of Ragtime on Broadway and the end of the Obama presidency.

“Today’s Coalhouse is every father, husband, brother and son killed without proper justice being served,” he said. “Every wife, sister, mother and daughter who have to feel the grief and bear the weight of losing a lost one while nobody seems to care. People like Eric Gardner, Trayvon Martin, Keith Lamont Scott, the mothers of all those murdered in Chicago. There is a line sung in the show saying ‘we’re all Coalhouse.’ It hits home because it is true.”

Tom Hollis, CP’s drama chair, chose Ragtime for the 2016-17 season back in the spring of 2015, around the time when the announcement of Donald Trump’s candidacy was greeted with more laughter than alarm. Hollis considered it then in the vein of 1776, the musical that was already set to run last September, just before the first presidential debate.

He still does. “When we were doing 1776 in the fall of 2016, we were constantly being struck by the parallels to life today,” Hollis says. “Each generation of Americans has had to face coming up with an answer to these issues because they are woven into the fabric of our country. That we haven’t been able to find a permanent solution is the sad irony of our history.”

A hard, tragic compromise on slavery clouded the happy ending of 1776, and what happens to Coalhouse clouds the ending of Ragtime. A member of the New Rochelle family who was inspired by Goldman ultimately vows to keep Coalhouse’s story alive, while Tateh achieves the American dream.

Billy Ensley, a mainstay of the CPCC Theatre for decades, will play Tateh at the Halton. It’s just the latest in a series of Jewish roles that he has played over the course of his acting career, including Eugene in Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound and two ill-fated historical figures, San Francisco activist Harvey Milk and Atlanta’s Leo Frank. Wrongly convicted of the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan in Atlanta – and subsequently lynched – Frank was the tragic hero of Alfred Uhry’s Parade, presented at the Halton in 2006.

So for Ensley, it’s a journey back to the same period with a similar rueful takeaway, even if Tateh does end happily.

“Current events regarding immigration have only strengthened the way I have always felt about those that are marginalized, forgotten, discriminated against,” Ensley says. “We all deserve a chance to live fulfilling, safe and happy lives, and those of us that have that already should do what we can to see to it that others less fortunate can as well. Our country was built by immigrants.”

Ensley offers advice for immigration opponents: “For those today in favor of a closed-off America, I suggest a trip to Ellis Island and a little research on where the people came from that made this country the wonderful and rich country that it is.”

Travel advisory: Ellis Island is just a short boat ride away from the Statue of Liberty, depicted on the cover of numerous editions and translations of Ragtime.

“1776” Still Preaches Compromise to a Skeptical Electorate

Musical Review: 1776 The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Firebrand and future president John Adams couldn’t declare independence by himself. Not only did he need to recruit Thomas Jefferson to write our foundational document, he needed to get all 13 colonies represented at the Continental Congress – including his own Massachusetts – to come over to his side. As 1776 The Musical, currently running at Central Piedmont Community College, reminds us, Adams was too headstrong, combative, irritating, and off-putting to sow the seeds that would blossom into our republic.

With George Washington and his army further north, already engaging the British Crown on the battlefield, Adams couldn’t even count on his staunchest sympathizers, Jefferson from Virginia and Ben Franklin from Pennsylvania, to deliver their states’ votes. In fact, it would be an uphill battle for Adams to even get the matter of independence considered at the Congress in Philadelphia – over a year after the first shots had been fired at Lexington and Concord.

So in a climate and an election year where cooperation, compromise, and consensus are so widely despised, 1776 comes along propitiously to remind us how fundamental these things were in forming our national DNA and how essential they remain if we are to make big changes in our democracy. With inevitable sacrifices to detail and accuracy, Peter Stone‘s book presents the story with surprising nuance, depth, and even tragedy.

For a musical clocking in at 2:35 plus intermission, 1776 also has a surprisingly spare songlist, perhaps because composer Sherman Edwards had the original concept. There is also a gratifying self-awareness we can detect in the storytelling at Pease Auditorium in this CPCC Theatre production. We’re not seeing all white men all the time.

Edwards gracefully works in Adams’ wife Abigail through an ongoing exchange of letters that twice become duets. At a clandestine location away from the Congressional Hall, we peep in on an episode that Franklin has contrived to help Jefferson in his struggles to craft the Declaration, sending for Jefferson’s wife Martha. It’s already a conjugal visit by the time Franklin and Adams come calling.

CP director Tom Hollis stirs the pot a little more with a modest infusion of colorblind casting, while costume designers Robert Croghan and Jamey Varnadore offer us what diversity they can, making the chasm between a New Jersey reverend and a South Carolina plantation owner as wide as possible.

Adams is rather lonely and hopeless before Franklin helps him form a cogent strategy to get things rolling. They send Richard Henry Lee of Virginia back home to convince his state legislature to back an initiative for independence. The jubilation of concocting this stratagem is celebrated by Adams, Franklin, and Lee in “The Lees of Virginia,” a song whose toxicity extends beyond its jaw-dropping silliness. I can only hope that its parade of dopey adverbs doesn’t lodge in your memory as an earworm.

Once we’ve crossed that jingling Delaware, we sail smoothly and convincingly through the labors that culminated in our nation’s birth. Virginia’s support leads to a majority vote approving consideration of an independence initiative, the formation of a committee to articulate the reasons and objectives for this action, with the proviso that the vote for adoption of this initiative must be unanimous. Every colony had veto power over the move for independence, adding tension to a drama whose outcome we already know, and leading to the compromise that stands as the Original Sin of our nation.

At the conclusion of his grievances against Britain, Jefferson penned two blistering paragraphs excoriating the Crown’s cultivation of the slave trade and – conveniently omitted from Stone’s book – their incitement of those slaves to rise up against their masters. After a devastating attack on Yankee hypocrisy in “Molasses to Rum,” future South Carolina governor Edward Rutledge demands that the section on slavery, effectively abolishing the institution, be stricken from the Declaration and walks out on the Continental Congress until he gets his way.

There is certainly no trivialization of that haunting but necessary compromise, and the hauteur of Josh Logsdon as Rutledge, along with his resounding singing voice, are among the chief reasons why 1776 will linger in your thoughts. Eric Johnston really is nettlesome and curmudgeonly as Adams, biting in his patriotic vocals yet petulantly tender when he’s interacting with his dear Abigail. Exorcising the clownish look that bedeviled Franklin in Theatre Charlotte’s 1995 production, James K. Flynn plausibly takes on America’s fount of aphorisms and brilliantly balances his avuncular practicality with his comical tendency to doze off.

Depicted as quiet, contemplative, and artistic, Jefferson is a romantic lead in Stone’s narrative who has almost been demoted to a supporting role. While George DeMott isn’t nearly the dreamboat Patrick Ratchford was when he sang the role in 1995, there comes a time when we’re supposed to be wondering what his sex appeal actually is. In giving weight to that question, DeMott is very appropriate. Nor could you hope for a more charming answer than “He Plays the Violin” from Emily Witte as Martha.

Witte is so graceful and charming that I could hardly imagine omitting her “Violin” when this musical was last revived on Broadway in 1997, more than 28 years after its original premiere. By coincidence, it is omitted from the songlists of 1776 on both the IBDB.com listing for the 1997 revival and in CP’s playbill. But Amazon assures me that it’s still on the 1997 cast album.

In real life there was an age difference of 29 years between John and AbiGail Adams, but Hollis dispenses with that gulf in casting Megan Postle as AbiGail Adams. As you’ll find, it’s a very unique role since Hollis insists on preserving the Adamses’ separation when they converse by mail, yet Postle warms wonderfully to the task. At the comical end of the spectrum, Alan Morgan can be commended for delivering the deadly Lee with all his giddy gleefulness, while choreographer Ron Chisholm doesn’t stint on the energy and dopiness of our Founding Fathers’ dances, fearlessly risking the charge of sacrilege.

Conspicuously missing from the Philadelphia deliberations is General Washington, but we periodically get gloomy dispatches from him in the field, delivered by Trey Thomason as the Courier. After a few of these, lights dim unexpectedly on Thomason, who sings grimly to us in “Mama, Look Sharp” about the realities of fighting and dying for your country.

Sobering moments like that are why 1776 remains relevant nearly 50 years after its original Broadway opening. Recounting how we reached our landmark July Fourth, this lively evening occasionally packs the power to explode our drum-and-fife expectations.