Tag Archives: Tyler Smith

Best of Charlotte, 2017

Best of Charlotte, 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

                                           Best ActorJeremy DeCarlos

 

Among local performers, there are strong candidacies from Brian Logsdon (Pride and Prejudice and Ragtime), Jonavan Adams (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Christians), Scott A. Miller (Stupid F@#%ing Bird and The Submission), Jermaine Gamble (A Raisin in the Sun and Jitney) and Tyler Smith (Ragtime and Memphis). All of them sparkled on multiple occasions. But the runaway victory goes to Jeremy DeCarlos, who laps the field – in range and productivity – with four scintillating outings. Draped in a braided Hussar jacket, DeCarlos just finished channeling his inner Jimi Hendrix as the devilish St. Jimmy in American Idiot. That was the last of his Actor’s Theatre gems over the past year, including some cross-dressing preaching in Bootycandy, his insouciant devotion in Stupid F@#%ing Bird, and his amazing transformation – from Jerry Lewis nerd to Incredible Hulk-ish monster – in The Toxic Avenger.

Best Actress – Shar Marlin

The field of contenders is larger among the ladies, but the roles were more thinly distributed, eliminating productivity as a decisive criterion. But which other benchmark should override all others? If it’s flesh-crawling menace, Sarah Woldum gets the edge, bringing Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla to life in She Who Watches. Leslie Giles was the funniest as the blind librarian in The Toxic Avenger, Lucia Stetson the most revelatory as Mother in Ragtime, and Allison Snow Rhinehart was better than her Broadway counterpart as Mama in Memphis. And how can I forget the sizzling dominatrix arrogance of Nonye Obichere as Whatsername in American Idiot? I’m turning instead to Shar Marlin for her sheer power and imperial dominance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a dramatic stunner that also showed Shar’s blues singing chops. Dignity in the face of exploitation and discrimination. Diva!

Best Comedy – Women Playing Hamlet

 

Theatre Charlotte’s You Can’t Take It With You and the Citizens of the Universe farewell, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, were arguably the zaniest productions of the 2016-17, while the Chekhov knockoff from Actor’s Theatre, Stupid F@#%ing Bird, was surely the most poignant. And what about OnQ Productions’ A Brown Tale from James T. Alfred, maybe the funniest one-man show I’ve ever seen? All were worthy candidates, but I’m going to let Chickspeare split this prize with Donna Scott Productions for their joint production of Women Playing Hamlet. Glynnis O’Donoghue starred as the soap queen saddled with the lead role in the Mona Lisa of tragedies, and the galaxy of comediennes – all in multiple roles – offering her questionable advice included Tania Kelly, Andrea King, Vivian T Howell, and Sheila Snow Proctor.

Best Musical – Ragtime

Ragtime Promo Photos

Folks who confine their diet of musicals in Charlotte to touring productions at the PAC are missing out bigtime on the locally-produced blockbusters playing out at smaller venues around town. Actor’s Theatre scrambled to produce a marvelous Toxic Avenger at a storefront church because this city doesn’t have the vision to see the arts flourish on Freedom Drive without a needless morass of red tape. Still in exile, they just brought the noise of American Idiot to Queens University for a face-melting month. After reminding us how finely they can produce A Year With Frog and Toad, Children’s Theatre astonished with the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical. With more than one Broadway-level performance, Theatre showed us their mettle with Memphis, and CPCC re-emphasized that their musical excellence isn’t confined to summer anymore. Maybe it was sheer luck, but CP’s wintertime production of Ragtime was the most timely of the year, underscoring the sad fact that institutional racism, police brutality, and prejudice against immigrants aren’t quaint relics of the Jazz Age. As the martyred Coalhouse Walker, Tyler Smith’s impassioned “We are all Coalhouse!” reverberated through a city in turmoil.

Best Drama – Jitney

Early last season, PaperHouse Theatre proved that The Frock Shop on Central Avenue was the perfect site for a creepshow with a dazzling She Who Watches, and early this season, a legend made a comeback when Steve Umberger and his Playworks Group brought a sterling production of The Christians to Booth Playhouse. In between, as Charlotte was fully wakening to how badly we have neglected and mistreated our underclass, theatergoers may have finally been zonked by the realization that our city is exceptionally rife with African American acting and directing talent. Kim Parati made an auspicious directorial debut at Theatre Charlotte with a freshened-up Raisin in the Sun, but this was a vintage year for August Wilson – in two dramas directed by Corlis Hayes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at CPCC and Brand New Sheriff’s Jitney at Spirit Square. Hayes brought out the best in John W. Price and Jermaine Gamble as the father-son antagonists in Jitney, with Gerard Hazelton adding a mix of comedy and poignancy as the gypsy cab company’s resident lush. Move over OnQ Productions, there really is a brand new black company in town – our second! – producing professional-grade work.

Best Night @ Symphony – Mahler’s “Resurrection”

While a well-played Beethoven symphony, a Rossini overture, a Strauss tone poem, or a Mozart concerto might be the secret sauce to get newcomers to become Charlotte Symphony subscribers, longtime concertgoers like me wish to dismount the warhorses and hear something off the beaten trail. There’s plenty out there that will please both camps: big, unfamiliar orchestral works that will instantly grab you by the lapels even if Symphony hasn’t reprised them within the last decade. Armed with an audacious orchestra and choir, plus two soloists who have sung with Opera Carolina, Davidson College showed the way with a rousing performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, set to poetry by Walt Whitman. That’s the sort of daring we hope for from Charlotte Symphony’s British maestro, Christopher Warren-Green. We did get a British Isles-themed evening when pieces by Edward Elgar and Peter Maxwell Davies, spiced up with a bagpiper, were served with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish.” Utilizing the Symphony Chorus and distinguished guest vocalists, Warren-Green turned up the power with a pair of Bruckner chorales last November and Mendelssohn’s Elijah last March. If you wanted to sample the full capabilities of Symphony, their chorus, and the guest vocalists Warren-Green can summon to Belk Theater, you had to hear them introducing the wonders of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 to an astounded audience.

Best Night @ the Opera – The Girl of the West

Under maestro James Meena, Opera Carolina does the oldies better than ever, as their uproarious Barber of Seville and their vivacious, ultimately anguished La Traviata amply proved. There was even some audacity in the 2016-17 programming as OpCar partnered with Warehouse Performing Arts Center and the D9 Brewing Company to produce an evening of three short operas – including the world premiere of Scott Joiner’s “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)” – at the brewery in Cornelius. Yes, a world premiere on Treynorth Drive! But most exciting was the Charlotte premiere of Puccini’s The Girl of the West, as Meena collaborated with six other international companies, including New York City Opera and Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown. Singing was exemplary, persuading me that this second-tier Puccini opera was actually a first-rate work, and staging was anything but stodgy or conservative: much of the scenery was animated and bold, with authentic relics evoking the Wild West supplied by our own dearly beloved Wells Fargo. An appreciable, if infinitesimal, atonement for all the bank’s Wild West chicanery.

 

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Bravura Aplenty in Theatre Charlotte’s “Memphis”

Review:  Memphis

By Perry Tannenbaum

As you may have found out, ignorant buffoons can make it big in America. So why not ignorant eccentrics? If Huey Calhoun didn’t make it big as a ‘50s deejay in Memphis, the musical by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, then his fall from celebrity wouldn’t be nearly as reckless or spectacular. When he has lost his local TV show, tossed away his shot at national fame, and blown his romantic chances with the R&B queen he has catapulted to stardom, Huey defiantly delivers the anthem he has earned, “Memphis Lives in Me.”

“One more drink and you’ll see God everywhere,” sings Huey in tribute to his chief consolation: a bluesy Beale Street honky-tonk bar. It’s the culmination of a Broadway- caliber performance that Joe McCourt is currently giving at Theatre Charlotte in the lead role that DiPietro patterned after legendary rock pioneer Dewey Phillips.

Contrary to the preproduction signals that McCourt and director Corey Mitchell were sending, McCourt hasn’t muted Huey’s nasal drawl or portrayed him as much less of a rube than Chad Kimball did on Broadway. That’s a good thing. “Sounds just like him!” my wife Sue concurred at intermission.

Whether it’s the pork-pie hat and costume by designer Rachel Engstrom, or Huey’s sidling walk – seemingly unable to unbend his knees, straighten his back, or take two consecutive steps in the same direction – McCourt also looks a lot like Kimball’s Tony-nominated portrait. Perhaps rehearsals with Dani Burke as hot young singer Felicia Farrell revealed that, if McCourt were to tone down Huey’s goofball attributes, he would come off as more of a creepy stalker.

Ultimately, McCourt has arrived at a very likable blend of naïveté, chutzpah, neediness, awkwardness, and hipness – not the easiest elements to combine – and as usual, he torches every song he touches. For her part, Burke hasn’t lost any of the voltage she first brought to the Queens Road barn when she electrified audiences with “Aquarius” in the 2014 production of Hair.

 

Felicia isn’t nearly the plum role Huey is, but Burke proves to be fairly formidable in her first full-fledged lead. A few of Engstrom’s creations glam her up, and I liked Burke’s regality at the “WRNB” studio, where Huey has the nerve to ask Felicia to perform live. We’ve only seen Felicia in a seedy honky-tonk before, and the top radio station in Memphis also looks pretty shabby, but Burke demands, “Where are my backup singers?” as if she’s already a star.

What’s happening here in Memphis doubly crosses racial lines as Huey brings black music to the middle of the AM radio dial and presumes to romance Felicia while promoting her talent. Both of these audacities bring powerful characters into the flow of the action. Station owner Mr. Simmons is easily the most comical of these, and Mike Carroll beautifully brings out the businessman’s starchy pomposity – and astonishment – each time a new Huey atrocity increases his listening audience, his sponsor’s satisfaction, and finally his own teenage son’s admiration.

I hardly even remembered the role of Huey’s mom from the original Broadway production, so I was fairly blown away by the heart – and the pipes – that Allison Snow Rhinehart brings to Mama. Of course, she’s as déclassé as Huey, so his outsized dreams and successes are a total shock to her, not to mention coming home one day to find his black girlfriend in her kitchen. But Mama’s prejudices occupy the same space as her love and loyalty, so Rhinehart has a couple of gratifying surprises in store for us after intermission.

Least surprising, after his triumph as Coalhouse Walker in last winter’s CPCC production of Ragtime, is Tyler Smith’s powerful portrayal of Delray, Felicia’s fiercely protective brother and owner of the dive where Huey discovers her. It doesn’t take long to catch on to Smith’s power, since he’s toe-to-toe with Burke in the opening “Underground” ensemble, and he’ll prove equally capable of facing off with McCourt on “She’s My Sister” when Delray flares up about Felicia’s interracial affair. In fact, when the catastrophe strikes that ends Act 1, I suspect that Mitchell may have imposed some unnecessary restraint on Delray’s ferocity.

But there was more than enough power from all the frontliners to justify the “Why didn’t you tell me about this place?” comments I was overhearing during the break. Apparently these newbies were undeterred by the lackluster scenic design by Chris Timmons or the generic choreography by Ashlyn Summer, which never reminded me of what my teen elders were dancing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand or Alan Freed’s The Big Beat. Victoria Fisher’s lighting design goes a long way to redeeming the drab sets, and music director Zachary Tarlton makes sure there is always a lively jump to Bryan’s score when needed.

Maybe the best reason to be wowed by Theatre Charlotte’s Memphis is how deep the excellence goes in this cast. After AJ White literally glows in a lemon yellow outfit as Wailin’ Joe on the first R&B track that Huey spins, there are two marvelous rebirths among the black folk that Huey’s musical mission reaches. First there’s Traven Harrington as Bobby, the radio station janitor, who will pile one shocker upon another before he’s done. Then there’s Clayton Stephenson, whose transformation as Gator may leave you weeping as Act 1 climaxes.

It ain’t perfect, but Mitchell has directed one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen on Queens Road in 30+ years of covering Theatre Charlotte. Chances are better than even that Memphis will live in you if you’re in the house when this company comes out for their final bows.

Corey Mitchell Fine-tunes a Kook’s Southern Drawl

In Corey Mitchell’s production of 'Memphis the Musical,' Joe McCourt (right) plays Huey Calhoun, and Dani Burke Huey’s love interest Felicia Farrell.

Preview: Memphis The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

You can see Huey Calhoun as a scavenger, a conman, and an illiterate hick. Or you can see him as a rock ‘n’ roll visionary, a natural salesman, and a quirky promotional genius. However you see Huey, in Memphis the Musical at Theatre Charlotte starting this Friday, you will not find him dull. Based loosely on the career of Memphis radio jock Dewey Phillips, the story by Joe DiPetro may remind you of Hairspray, another musical that took us back to the early days of rock and tensions between the races.

Taking us to the innards of radio as well as TV, Memphis gets us closer to the true heart of rock. South of the Mason-Dixon line, there’s more bigotry from whites — and more wariness from blacks — when Huey not only promotes African American music on the middle of the AM dial, but also romances a black singer.

Without the comical cross-dressing, cartoonish bigots, and outrageous promotional stunts incorporated into Hairspray, the terrain of Memphis will be more difficult to navigate. So it’s exciting to learn that Tony Award winner Corey Mitchell will be directing, Joe McCourt will be starring as Huey, and Dani Burke will be sparking Huey’s passions as femme fatale Felicia Farrell.

Burke has been sensational in her two previous mainstage appearances at the Queens Road barn, first with her lead vocal on “Aquarius” in the 2014 production of Hair and again last year singing “Disco Inferno” in Saturday Night Fever. Since his Theatre Charlotte debut as the star of Godspell in 2008, McCourt has shown us astonishing range, from Roger Davis of Rent to the porn-addicted Trekkie Monster of Avenue Q to low-self-esteem finalist Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

After singing telegrams on land and entertaining on cruise ships at sea, Mitchell came to Charlotte in 2001 by way of Wilmington — and its Opera House Theatre Company — to make his sensational local debut as Hysterium in the Theatre Charlotte production of A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum. Since then, Mitchell has directed or acted in productions at Theatre Charlotte, Davidson Community Players, CPCC, and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.

What makes Mitchell such a key part of the Charlotte scene is his teaching and directing in the theatre program at Northwest School of the Arts. And don’t think his special Tony Award for Theatre Education was a bolt out of the blue. Aside from a CL Theatre Award, Mitchell has snagged honors from the Metrolina Theatre Association, the North Carolina Theatre Conference, the Educational Theatre Association, the International Thespian Festival, and National Youth Theatre. Productions directed by Mitchell have garnered at least a dozen Blumey Awards — with seven more nominations still in play for the 2017 ceremonies at Belk Theater on May 21.

You could say he’s connected in the community. It would have been hard for anybody who has performed extensively in Charlotte to catch Mitchell off-guard at auditions when he cast Memphis. He has worked with Burke before in Davidson and is quite familiar McCourt’s work. Tyler Smith, who plays Felicia’s protective brother Delray, is coming off a powerful performance as Coalhouse Walker, fueling CP’s production of Ragtime.

“The three of them bring so much presence and power to the stage,” Mitchell says. “Joe’s work is incredible. The biggest challenge has been just the herculean task Joe has to take on each evening. Huey is in every single scene in this show.”

Surprisingly, Mitchell doesn’t take the view that Memphis is about race, mixed couples, or even the title city.

“I decided to treat the relationship between Huey and Felicia on the micro level of how this man loves this woman,” Mitchell explains. “While Huey has an absolute obsession with black music, he certainly doesn’t fetishize black women in general. He is specifically in love with this woman — and despite her best efforts not to be, Felicia is love with this man. She is, however, a realist.”

Huey was an eccentric goofball when Chad Kimball played him in the original Broadway production, slinking back and forth across the stage, seemingly unable to take two consecutive steps in the same direction. He wasn’t Gomer Pyle, but Huey was very Southern, perhaps in a way that New Yorkers could look down on from afar.

“Trying to portray his unique persona was challenging,” McCourt admits. “We decided to tame the over-exaggerated drawl of Chad Kimball’s original Broadway take so that he doesn’t appear too cartoonish but still hold on to his kooky side. It has been hard finding a balance between too much and not enough [drawl] while trying hard not to insult the Southern accent itself!”

Dani Burke as Felicia Farrell and Joe McCourt as Huey Calhoun.

A new worry materializes when you make the illiterate Huey smarter and more cunning in Charlotte than he was on Broadway. Hopefully, the micro lens that Mitchell wants to apply to Huey and Felicia is helping McCourt to skirt the impression that he is slyly exploiting her commercial potential.

“Huey is a born salesman and smart for being uneducated,” says McCourt. “I don’t see him as a con artist nor cunning. He’s naive to a fault, a free spirit that knows what he wants. Music moved him; so it was no surprise that he fell for Felicia, who not only inspired him musically but also opened his heart to new possibilities. He simply lacked the emotional intelligence and social skills to handle those feelings. I’m walking a fine line trying to make sure he doesn’t come across the wrong way.”

And Mitchell, for all his accolades, is giving McCourt free rein. They’re definitely on the same page when it comes to portraying Southerners.

“I want to strike a balance with him — and the rest of the cast, for that matter — to be Southern without being a caricature,” Mitchell says. “Too often, I see Southern people portrayed onstage as rubes. Joe is an impeccable actor and a professional in the best sense of the word. I try to give him room to play and explore and then nuance in those areas that seem to need a little tweaking.”

Ultimately, the issue that drives a wedge between Huey and Felicia isn’t race or prejudice. It’s an issue that our most gifted theatre artists constantly wrestle with: should I build on what I’ve done here in my hometown, or should I set out for a bigger market in the hopes of greater opportunities and nationwide renown? McCourt senses that Memphis brings Huey a feeling of comfort and security, that he also fears the unknown.

He can identify with the dilemma.

“For me personally,” he says, “I took that leap and moved from a small town south of Buffalo and headed to NYC many years ago for the possibility of making it ‘big.’ Although young and bold, looking back, I was also afraid of failure, which held me back from pursuing many things there. I’m at a different stage in my life now. So building upon what I’ve done here in Charlotte has been very fulfilling. A realtor by day, a performer by night, and a father and husband in between!”

Mitchell is far from cooped-up in Charlotte since his Tony triumph. He has delivered keynote addresses at theatre conferences across the Southeast and traveled to Dubai as a Varkey Teacher Ambassador. Purple Dreams, a documentary about Mitchell’s 2013 production of The Color Purple at Northwest, was released on April 7 to considerable publicity and acclaim.

So it’s likely we’ll be seeing more from both Mitchell and McCourt in Charlotte for years to come. Their best work may still lie ahead.

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.

Jews, Blacks, and JFK Converge at Concertized Kushner

Theatre Review: Caroline, or Change

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L-R: Brittany Currie, Tracie Frank, and Veda Covington

By Perry Tannenbaum

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.

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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.

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L-R: Yabi Gedewan, Ibrahim Web, and TyNia Brandon as Caroline’s children

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.

Photos by Perry Tannenbaum