Even before you set out for the Charlotte Art League, the quest for parking, and the unique Eat the Runt from Donna Scott Productions, you need to remember one key preparation: bring your smartphone. Yes, you’ll be asked to turn off or silence the device when the action is set to begin, but before that, you’ll be asked to join the remainder of the audience in choosing the cast for that evening’s performance.
Eight actors vie for the seven roles listed in your program. The audience goes through the cast list one by one, voting their choice for each role on a group texting setup by punching the number assigned to each actor. Playwright Avery Crozier gives each of the characters at his (or her) second-tier art museum a unisex name, so any member of the ensemble directed by Tonya Bludsworth might play any of the roles on a given night.
To execute all of the possible 40,320 casting permutations, each actor must be prepared to play all of the roles, wear all of the costumes, and pounce on cues from all his or her castmates. That not only multiplies what each character has to memorize and the number of costumes designer Luci Wilson has to create, it also multiplies the amount of time that the ensemble must devote to rehearsal – even though they can’t begin to cover all the possible scene partners they will have during the actual run of Runt performances.
On the Saturday night that I attended, I voted with the audience on four of our choices: Ericka Ross as grantwriter Chris, Stephen Seay as human resources coordinator Jean, Tracie Frank as curator of modern art Hollis, and Kevin Shimko as museum director Pinky. Andrea King won the juiciest – and most demanding – role as Merritt, interviewing for a vacant position at the museum. Kevin Aoussou as director of development Royce and Jenn Grabenstetter as museum trustee Sidney rounded out the cast.
Somehow Stephen West-Rogers’ previous exploits in theatrical versions of Fight Club and Trainspotting had escaped the notice of Donna Scott fans. Nor did his new clean-shaven look bring fresh evocations of his ruggedness. As a result, West-Rogers was the odd man out, sent away to take the night off when Shimko snagged the last remaining role.
After this poignant moment, presided over by Scott, we were asked to give the cast a few minutes to sort things out, a reasonable enough request, I thought. When they returned, it was virtually impossible to find any indication that this wasn’t the fixed cast that had rehearsed Eat the Runt every night. King especially was a delight as Merritt, deftly bringing out the applicant’s uncanny ability to take the ideal approach for each museum official who interviewed her.
Merritt’s chameleonic shifts bespoke either a dangerously unstable personality or a cunning Machiavel – one perhaps gifted with psychic powers. Whether it’s the hemorrhoidal HR coordinator, the horny development director, the coke-addicted curator, or the defensive trustee, Merritt always seems to pounce on the perfect approach without any need for probing. It’s only when she’s spouting Ayn Rand to the museum director that Merritt drops hints of a supernatural gift.
Forget about the gimmickry at the top of the evening, it’s very rare for any playwright to be able to detonate a walloping surprise at the end of Act 1 and at the end of Act 2. Crozier not only achieved that, but the surprise at the end of the evening slickly explains away much of the puzzlement we may experience as the series of job interviews metastasizes and explodes.
A few days later, some of the deception that had been played on me became clearer. By then, I couldn’t regret the fun ride that Eat the Runt had taken me on. It may be radically different for you if your casting choices turn out to be more incongruous, risqué, or preposterous. That may increase the already plentiful comedy.
Theater Review: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical
By Perry Tannenbaum
So the holidays are here, and we know the live entertainment drill: inevitable revivals of A Christmas Carol, Nutcracker, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever plus a few fresh novelties to liven the mix. This year, one of the novelties is also one of the inevitables. For while it’s possible to see the customary stage adaptation of Barbara Robinson’s Yuletide favorite at Matthews Playhouse starting on Thursday, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte unveiled the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musicalon Black Friday.
Robinson adapted her 1971 novel for the Seattle Children’s Theatre in 1982, and the proliferation of productions across America has arguably made the playscript more beloved than the book. So the team of Johanna Beecham and Malcolm Hilgartner, adding their lyrics and musical score, did the prudent thing in adapting Robinson’s stage version.
Nearly 34 years to the day since the story succeeded in Seattle, a whole generation of parents who saw Best Christmas Pageant onstage as children are bringing their offspring to ImaginOn to see The Musical. Our Children’s Theatre, which has grown to national renown during those intervening years, had to add five performances to the run before opening night – a tribute to their prestige as well as the bankable title.
Turns out that the Robinsons, the playwright (who died in 2013) and her daughters, were pretty prudent themselves in choosing Beecham and Hiltgartner. They seem to know what can be enlarged to musical proportions and how to get the job done. I’d also say that Best Christmas Pageant is easier to swallow than A Christmas Carol was when it morphed into Scrooge.
Big crowd scenes can be magnified most easily from stage to musical dimensions, but A Christmas Carol doesn’t really abound with them. Scrooge’s workplace and Cratchit’s home aren’t bustling places, and London is a cold, lonely, and forbidding city until Ebenezer’s reformation. So a couple of parties and a funeral were supersized, effervesced, and choreographed for Scrooge. We’re also more familiar with the older, more entrenched Dickens tale, so tampering is riskier, more jarring.
Recognizing that they’re primarily dealing with schoolkids, normal ones in fear of the notorious Herdmans, they make sure to create their biggest scenes when kids congregate, at church for Sunday school, at school during lunchtime, and at their rehearsal hall near the fateful church kitchen. The catastrophic rehearsal scene, causing Rev. Hopkins to cancel the pageant after the Herdman herd has stampeded it, is rockin’ pandemonium.
Beecham and Hiltgartner are more artful even before that in their depiction of the adult antagonists. What I labeled as the four Old Biddies, when Jill Bloede directed the play for Children’s Theatre in 1995, are now three parents of Beth and Charlie Bradley’s classmates. Luanne, Connie, and Betty start us off singing “Perfect Little Town,” as beautifully harmonized and sugary as the overdubbing Connie Francis cooing “My Happiness.” They are natural allies of the dictatorial Helen Armstrong, the rigid director who is usually in charge of the unchanging Christmas pageant year after year.
But Armstrong is hospitalized this year, so the vocal trio mobilizes with Helen to convince Grace Bradley, Beth and Charlie’s mom, to take over just before auditions. In the play version, all four women wielded old-fashioned phones in cajoling Grace. A musical allows for more fanciful, comical liberties. By the end of another pop rocker, “Counting on You,” the ladies have circled to the opposite side of McColl Family Theatre from Helen’s bedside to resume their vocal trio assault on Grace at the Bradley home, with the siblings and their father joining in on the hubbub.
If the ladies can be more ridiculous now – a big if, since Bloede had Alan Poindexter and Sidney Horton crossdressing as two of the hags in ’95 – then the Herdmans can be more fearsome and ferocious to counterbalance them. Augmenting their chaotic energy is the fiendish work of choreographer Ron Chisholm, who keeps the six Herdmans and their terrified victims spread across the stage in frenetic action. Even Rev. Hopkins must be convinced of their true menace.
We are far closer here to believing Beth’s famed opening pronouncement: “The Herdmans were the worst kids in the whole history of the world.” Where Bloede capitalized a bit on the fact that rather entertaining performances could come from kids who might be visibly reluctant to immerse themselves in the full barbarity of a Herdman, current Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke will have no such laxity.
As Imogene, the Herdman who takes the role of Virgin Mary by the throat, Carlyn Head is an absolute she-wolf in her howling vocals, and there is only the slightest glint of cuteness in Charli Head as Gladys, the little sister who pounces on the role of Herald Angel. With all of this vocal artillery hurled at her from young and old, Ashley Goodson can be sweet and caring as Grace, but when those moments arrive for reasserting control and conviction, she also unveils a voice of steel.
So when the Herdmans come around to the spirit of the Nativity, Grace is a little more amazing than she was in the play version, but I’m more thankful for the fulminating comic relief from Allison Snow Rhinehart, thwarted each time she issues a demand or insists that the Herdmans must be thrown out of the pageant. As phlegmatic as Rhinehart is, Tiffany Bear as Connie, Olivia Edge as Luanne, and Tracie Frank as Luanne are purest plastic, aging Supremes wannabes.
Arella Flur is more than satisfying as Beth, but she’s usually upstaged by Bennett Harris as the bullied younger brother or Ryann Losee, the tattletale Alice who lets Imogene snatch the role of Mary from her without a struggle. Bobby Tyson’s comic timing is so sharp in the minor role of Mr. Bradley that it’s reassuring to see him get a duet with wife Grace late in the show, and Dan Brusnson is the kindliest, most Christian Rev. Hopkins that I can recall. Among the male Herdmans, Colin Samole as Ralph and Rixey Terry as Leroy impressed me the most, but I don’t think either is written fully enough.
At least not yet. Estimates of the running time that I’ve seen in the Children’s Theatre press releases and in their program booklet have ranged from 60 minutes, approximately the length of their 1995 production, to 80 minutes in the current playbill. My clocking of the Sunday matinee at under 67 minutes suggests that the piece I saw underwent feverish modifications in its final weeks of rehearsal.
I point that out for a couple of reasons. It illustrates that Burke and Children’s Theatre, who commissioned this world premiere, have taken significant ownership in intensively shaping the product. It also suggests to me that the process isn’t finished, that the 80-minute target that seems more sensible to me might be what we see the next time The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical opens at ImaginOn. Or even by the time it closes on December 23.
Maybe then I’ll be able to say that this is the best Best Christmas Pageant Ever ever. It’s pretty damn close right now – and a very gratifying achievement at Charlotte’s fantasy palace.
The relationship between African Americans and Jews has been a fascinating convergence of parallel histories and unavoidable class conflict. We’ve had a couple of dramas here before that dramatized the relationship, beginning with Alfred Uhry’s famed Driving Miss Daisy, which reached the Charlotte stage in 1991, just two years after the Oscar-winning movie. The 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner took us back to Atlanta after World War 2, when the curmudgeonly Daisy was in denial about her physical deterioration, her racist attitudes, and the prevalence of anti-Semitism in her city.
Just over three years ago, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte brought us Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Boy, transporting us to the first days of Reconstruction after the Civil War, when two emancipated slaves returned to their former owner’s home for Passover. Between Uhry’s drama and Lopez’s auspicious 2011 debut, Tony Kushner collaborated with composer Jeanine Tesori on a musical – a chamber opera, really – that looks at yet another Jewish household where an African American was employed.
Until last February 26, when Theatre Charlotte brought Caroline, or Change to its lobby for one night only, the widely-hailed 2003 piece had never been performed in the Queen City. It’s unquestionably the most ambitious Grand Night for Singing event held at the 501 Queens Road barn. The format has been in a cabaret spirit, songs selected from a rarely performed musical taking up half of the program, more rarities by the same composers after intermission. With Caroline, music director Zachary Tarlton staged a concert-style production of the full show – and so many people bought tickets that Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law nearly had to move the performance out of the lobby and into the auditorium.
Caroline Thibodeaux works in the bowels of a home owned by Stuart Gellman and his second wife, Rose, but the core of Kushner’s story – an autobiographical one according to the playwright’s intro to the printed edition – is the relationship between Caroline and Noah, Stuart’s 8-year-old son from a previous marriage. Although Caroline takes place in 1963, closer in time to Daisy than Whipping Boy, its resemblances to Lopez’s script are strong enough that it could have served as the younger playwright’s model. During the Passover holiday celebrated by Caleb DeLeon in Whipping Boy, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. In the November-December timeline of Caroline, John F. Kennedy is assassinated before the Gellmans’ Chanukah celebration.
If Kushner had a model, the likeliest candidate would be another autobiographical play, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold, in which the title character also behaves unforgivably toward a black person working for his dad. In her dignity, in the way Caroline absorbs Noah’s abuse in apartheid Lake Charles, Louisiana, she very much resembles Sam’s forbearance toward Hally in apartheid Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950. The big difference is that Kushner looks at Caroline as critically as he looked at Noah.
She’s a divorced, conspicuously joyless mother of three, staunchly resistant to change. The entire cast was outstanding, but we were especially fortunate to have Tracie Frank in the title role. We had a brief sampling of Frank’s gospel fire last spring in Theatre Charlotte’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but even her Whitney Houston bravura singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” hardly cushioned the surprise of this sustained excellence, her silent reactions nearly as taut as her vocals.
Stuart and Rose realize they’re not paying Caroline enough to comfortably take care of her three children, but they do what they can. In order to teach her stepson a lesson – and to slip the Thibodeauxs some extra cash – Rose decrees that Caroline can have whatever loose change Noah carelessly leaves in his pockets when she puts his clothes in the washing machine. Noah is more softhearted than Rose, so he starts leaving loose change in his pockets on purpose – until Chanukah rolls around.
Grandpa Stocknick, Rose’s dad, gives Noah a $20 bill in Chanukah gelt. Some days later, Noah is back in school and realizes that he has left the 20 in a pair of pants earmarked for the laundry. His piddling charity is in serious jeopardy of becoming lavish generosity, and he rushes home to retrieve his gift. Too late. It’s nearly Christmas, her three kids expect something under the tree, so do you think Caroline is going to put that $20 bill back in the bleach cup for Noah?
Noah is even less likable than Caroline in the fight that ensues, so it’s to Rixey Terry’s credit that he made the transition from adulating schoolboy to beneficent master to sore and abrasive loser so convincingly over the course of the night – and no fewer than 15 songs. Terry didn’t try to emulate an eight-year-old, so he didn’t sound at all like Harrison Chad on the cast album, a prudent choice for this reading-stage style presentation, adroitly stage directed by Corey Mitchell. He and the other younger members – the three Thibodeaux siblings and The Radio – had their music down pat, thanks to some good hard work and, I suspect, that cast album.
Yes, the dramatis personae included some inanimate objects that brought Caroline’s basement domain quirkily to life, often with a gospel flavor. Dani Burke was Caroline’s Washing Machine while Maya Sistruck, Dominique Atwater, and Kayla Ferguson were The Radio, even more amazing when they harmonized than when they soloed. Among these kitchen accouterments, Tyler Smith was the king of appliances as The Dryer in an electrifying performance, Tesori’s score starting him off with a mix of street shout, yelped with Porgy and Bess gusto, and R&B that he crushed into the depths of his velvety bass baritone – with The Radio providing backup.
More of Kushner’s fanciful universe turned up outside of Caroline’s basement. Much to our delight, Smith returned to the row of lecterns at centerstage as The Bus taking Caroline and her friend Dotty home from work, but Brittany Currie often lurked on the side as The Moon, emblematic of change. The change that Noah leaves in his pants isn’t the only change Caroline struggles with. Although $30 a week isn’t enough to get by, it’s Dotty who is resolved to do something about it, going to night school in an effort to better herself.
So it’s both Dotty’s energy and initiative at the end of a long workday that irritates Caroline. Watching Veda Covington as Dotty, bragging that her daytime employer is actually proud of what she’s doing, I found myself a little irritated with both women, Dotty for needling her friend and Caroline for her unremitting sullenness. Currie as The Moon was a somewhat soothing presence crooning about change, but there was also a wisp of sultry sensuality in her vocals, very effective in this cabaret setting.
Mitchell had the races sitting at opposite sides of the stage when they weren’t at the lecterns, accentuating how little they actually interact during this musical. It’s mostly Noah and stepmama Rose who show an active interest in Caroline. Although she badly flubbed the Yiddish word for navel, Allison Snow Rhinehardt was an otherwise credible balaboosteh: a little unsure of her footing with both the new stepson and the help, somewhat sensitive to their feelings, yet definitely reveling in her mission to run the household and to command.
Upstairs-downstairs decorum was broken momentarily at the Chanukah party in one of Kushner’s most insightful scenes. Asked to help with the extra party housework, Caroline’s eldest daughter Emmie gets into an argument with Rose’s father about the efficacy of Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement. Caroline is outraged by her daughter’s presumption, Emmie is angered by her mother’s inbred meekness, and Mr. Stopnick thinks this is the first real conversation he has had since coming South to visit his daughter. Excellent work here from Frank, TyNia Brandon, and Vito Abate.
I would have been quite content just to witness some local theatre company putting Caroline on its feet after all these years. The fortunate few who attended the February 26 performance saw something far finer. With a minimum of rehearsal, the 17 singers and Tarlton performed nearly flawlessly, all the more astonishing when you consider that the musical director was never in the line of sight of any of the performers even once as they performed this challenging two-hour Tesori score.
Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait another 13 years before Caroline, or Change is produced here again – and that, when Kushner’s lone musical returns, it will be fully staged in a larger hall for a larger audience in a longer run. As it deserves.