Tag Archives: Vito Abate

Chicklet Is Back – All Five of Her!!

Preview: Psycho Beach Party @ The Warehouse PAC

PsychoBeachParty5[5]

By Perry Tannenbaum

Odd juxtapositions like ketchup and cantaloupe don’t always work on your taste buds. But in comedy, the results can be spectacular. Ranging far beyond the incongruities of The Odd Couple, actor/playwright Charles Busch created a sea of contrasts and hairpin turns for himself, bridging the gap between Gidget and Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho Beach Party.

Combining the sunny surfboard innocence of Gidget with the multiple personalities that marked Marnie, the title character of a Hitchcock thriller, Busch became Chicklet in 1987, tossing flamboyant cross-dressing into the mix. Four years later, Alan Poindexter brought the role to Charlotte at the Pterodactyl Club under the direction of George Brown, a prime reason why the future artistic director of Children’s Theatre took CL’s Actor of the Year honors for 1991.

Fast-forward to 2017 as The Warehouse brings Psycho Beach to Cornelius for a three-week run starting on Friday. The most recent sighting of a Busch lampoon in Charlotte was The Divine Sister in 2013, preceded by Queen City Theatre Company’s Die Mommie Die in 2008. Psycho Beach hasn’t washed ashore anywhere in the Metrolina region since BareBones Theatre Group produced it – for a second consecutive season – in 2005.

Busch pretty much surrendered his enfant terrible status when he crafted a Broadway hit, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, in 2002. In an age when importance is gauged by what’s on people’s tongues and in their tweets, Busch’s trusty Hollywood targets – Gidget, Hitchcock, Psycho, Joan Crawford – have also lost traction.

You have to explain a lot of the once-familiar references to today’s audiences. Same goes for today’s actors. Jesse Pritchard, who takes on the role of Chicklet, admits to a learning curve.

“I was not familiar at all with the play,” he says. “It seemed funny, and so I wanted to try it out. I did have a bit of a brain blast looking into all of the different cultural references that the play portrays, but other than that, it all came over pretty well.”

PsychoBeachParty2[13]

Chicklet is your basic beachcombing ingénue, innocent and wholesome, hoping to capture the eye of ace surfboarder Kanaka. Embedded within the demure Chicklet is the personality of dominatrix Ann Bowman, whose desires go far beyond The Great Kanaka, all the way to world dominance.

And there’s far more lurking inside of Chicklet, expanding the diva role.

“I don’t even think I know all her personalities yet,” Pritchard confides. “Tylene is a bit of a stretch, a strong black woman in a loving relationship. She may be the biggest stretch because it’s hard for me to embody her truthfully. Doctor Rose Mayer is like the mom of the group. The accent is a bit much, but I feel like I’ve made headway with her. Steve is also fun, the male model.”

Behind all this pathology? That’s where Joan Crawford gets layered on, channeled into Chicklet’s harpy mother, Mrs. Forrest. Two divas will dominate Warehouse’s diminutive storefront stage, with Mara Rosenberg taking on the Mommie Dearest allusions.

Presiding over the auditions, director Vito Abate liked Pritchard’s stage presence and his ability to capture Chicklet’s girlish innocence. But of course, the comedy needs to go nuclear.

“I was fortunate enough to have Mara and Jesse audition together,” Abate reveals, “and there were instant fireworks and a connection between them. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mara before, as an actor and director. I knew she would be good fit for the role. She captured the passive-aggressive nature of Mrs. Forrest, and I knew she’d enjoy taking on the different ages and aspects of the character.”

A mainstay at Theatre Charlotte, where he originated the Just Do It series, Abate’s most recent wallow in trashiness came when he directed Sordid Lives at Spirit Square last fall. That production featured Ann Walker as LaVonda, reprising the role she played onscreen and in the TV series.

PsychoBeachParty3[14]

Both of those stages dwarf the storefront in Cornelius where Abate will be bringing his Beach. That suits him fine.

“The intimacy of the Warehouse really lends itself to the fluid nature of this show,” Abate insists. “Every time I see a production in this space, I have a sense of being part of something quite special happening between the actors and the audience, and it’s a unique theatre experience. The title of the play strongly suggests a party and that’s exactly what we plan on delivering!”

Abate got a taste of that intimacy as a performer when he appeared in Fuddy Meers three years ago. In the eight-year history of Warehouse Performing Arts Center, Fuddy Meers, along with Wonder of the World and Mr. Marmalade, has been as edgy as it gets. Red, Sylvia, Road to Mecca, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf are the more customary style of wares at 9216-A Westmoreland Road.

Boomer nostalgia and the silly summer season may prove that the time – and the tide – are right for bringing the smuttiness and perversion of Psycho Beach to Cornelius. America has evolved so much in the 30 years since Busch introduced Chicklet & Co. that’s it’s likely politically incorrect to call anything in Psycho Beach smutty or perverted anymore.

“The first group sale [of tickets] was several weeks ago and it was from a senior community in Davidson!” says Abate. “It’s summertime and in my opinion it’s always time to laugh, and this is a perfect show for both. I’m sure many who come will be fans of the movie, some of Charles Busch, and others just out to see a comedy.”

Pritchard’s Charlotte debut back in February, as the Clybourne Park emissary in A Raisin in the Sun, didn’t exactly give him the chance to show off his comedic talents. But he feels like Chicklet is nearer to his wheelhouse than Karl Lindner. Down at Winthrop University, where he earned his Performing Arts degree, Pritchard did some cross-dressing as the sidekick in Leading Ladies, and he logged additional comic turns at Rock Hill Community Theatre, including Hillbilly Hankerin’.

He takes direction well, according to Abate. But there’s a reason for that: “Vito definitely has a vision and a keen eye to detail,” says Pritchard, “and so I’m working to make it just as he sees it.”

Abate has been very satisfied with his cast as opening night approaches, and he’s confident that his dueling divas will shine brighter afterwards. “I expect their chemistry to grow during the course of the run, with a mix of typical teenage mother-daughter relationship stuff with some severe psychological and behavioral problems thrown in.”

Still Creepy and Kooky

Theater Review: The Addams Family at Theatre Charlotte

The Addams Family runs through May 29 at Theatre Charlotte.

By Perry Tannenbaum

Gloomy lighting and cobwebs. Raging thunderstorms and decrepit dungeons. The whole Gothic horror thing, on screen or onstage, is a carnival of special effects — the bizarre compounded by the supernatural. Vampires, ghosts, werewolves, and monsters don’t often wear jeans and T-shirts. Costumers, wigmakers, prosthetic manufacturers, and makeup artists work overtime to get the right look. Buckets of blood must spew on cue, get mopped up, and spew again for the next take.

Even though fangs and gore aren’t factors in The Addams Family, there was sufficient tech wizardry in the 2010 Broadway musical to give Theatre Charlotte pause. Past springtime hits at the Queens Road barn like Rent, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar haven’t required fog, fangs, or extensive set changes. As we reported back in 2011 when Charlotte was the third city it visited, the national Addams Family tour cut back significantly on the tech pizzazz because it was so daunting. On Broadway, the curtain was so active, talented, and amusing that a Tony nomination wouldn’t have surprised me.

There’s a vestige of that precocity before the curtains part, but don’t expect it to last. On opening night, the raging storm that sound designer Erik Christensen concocted to assail the Addams mansion was mighty enough, but it inexplicably subsided in a matter of seconds. Morticia’s flaming red tango skirt peeped through her funereal black evening gown at least a minute too early, spoiling the surprise. And the apple that Wednesday Addams was destined to split with her crossbow on her fiance’s head fell apart when Lucas Beineke first brought it in from the wings, half of it popping hilariously into the first row of the orchestra.

Perhaps because the script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice seemed more akin to the Addams Family sitcom on TV than the darkly comical Charles Addams cartoons in the pages of The New Yorker, the musical drew no more respect from New York critics than its Mel Brooks cousin, Young Frankenstein. That lack of critical cachet may explain why there are so many relatively unfamiliar names in the cast. Rest assured, the uptick in no-shows at Addams auditions hasn’t been replicated at the box office. Locals filled the house pretty well for the opening and brought plenty of enthusiasm with them. Throughout the hall, finger snaps came resoundingly on cue during the overture.

Audience enthusiasm is the main thing stage director Jill Bloede, music director Zachary Tarlton, choreographer Lisa Blanton and the title characters keep going, earning almost every bit of the fervor with their high energy. With a storyline that echoes You Can’t Take It With You, the Addams family has a license to be every bit as weird as George S. Kaufman’s Sycamores. Each of these families has a mutant daughter who wishes to couple with a normal person, each of the daughters’ beaus has parents who are conspicuously boring and respectable, and each of the hosts launches a game at the dinner table that causes the guests to reveal a deep-set fissure in their marriage.

Wednesday is the new wrinkle in the old formula, which most recently recurred on Queens Road in La Cage aux Folles. This mutant child is not as normal and wholesome as previous defectors who fled their kooky coops. No, our rockin’ culture has overtaken the Addamses to the extent that Goths like them have established themselves on the fringes of high school life. Only those who enter the hall with black lipstick will fully recognize Wednesday as a kindred spirit. Yet the crossbow keeps her securely outré for everyone.

As a result, Wednesday can rock when the whole William Tell scene circuitously makes its point in the “Crazier Than You” duet. This role is not at all as humdrum as Alice Sycamore, and Emily Roy takes full advantage of Wednesday’s weird glamor. Standing next to Morticia, Roy looks puritanical and punkishly pugnacious at the same time — and she can definitely belt her half of the duets. In his debut, Christian Regan is noticeably underpowered as Lucas the apple-bobbler, but his shortcomings are poignantly effective. After all, he and his family hail from Ohio.

“A swing state!” is how the horrified Gomez describes the unfathomable gulf. But you look at how sloppily Lucas is dressed and you already see that he is more than meeting Wednesday halfway. Regan talks his talk far better than he sings it.

Challenged by Blanton’s choreography and a Morticia decades younger than he is, Kevin Roberge surpasses himself as Gomez, even if he is visibly panting at the finish line. He may not have the essence of this unctuous patriarch as thoroughly as Nathan Lane did on Broadway, but he has the Gomez sound perfectly, and there is such fatherly pathos when Roberge sings “Happy/Sad” in Act 2 that the power of it took me by surprise. Followed by “Crazier Than You” before Gomez teams up with Morticia for “Tango de Amor,” the hits do keep coming as Roberge gasps for breath.

Nor is Aubrey Young less than breathtaking as the preternaturally tensile Morticia, though her dress is disappointingly less revealing than Bebe Neuwirth’s was on Broadway. Young is also less Zombie-like than Neuwirth, further altering the icy marital chemistry. Ah, but when Morticia pines for the sewers of Paris, Young is just as wry. I was every bit as impatient as the red skirt for the tango to begin, and when Young stretched herself into its most extreme choreography, her youth provided ample rewards.

With the Addamses’ pet squid axed from the script, Mal Beineke is no longer the sort of role that would warrant Terrence Mann’s bravura. Instead of being asked to sing the bodacious “In the Arms of a Squid” in the Act 2 denouement, Jonathan McDonald merely piggybacks onto the “Crazier Than You” duet playing Mal with Jenn Grabenstetter as Alice Beineke. There is no diminution of the éclat Grabenstetter is allowed to make in Act 1 after Alice drinks the misdirected potion in the “Full Disclosure” game. She’s a pure undersexed animal in the “Waiting” showstopper.

Delicacies are doled out deeper into the cast. After stomping around inarticulately on platform shoes for nearly the entire evening, Johnny Hohenstein makes good on his liberation as the family’s Zombie butler Lurch. And who could possibly have a more ardent crush on the moon than Vito Abate as Uncle Fester? Abate was simply born for this role and the epic passion of “The Moon and Me.” The lightbulb prop he messes with was still a work-in-progress on opening night, but his rocket backpack was pure bliss.

The wig and costume Vanessa Davis wears as Grandmama and the grimy makeup sported by Jackson Davis as Pugsley, Wednesday’s masochistic little brother, help to make their Theatre Charlotte debuts successful. Up on Broadway, if you were buried in the Addams Ancestors ensemble, you went home with a paycheck. Down here in Charlotte, it’s nice to find that the eight members of our ensemble are individualized in the cast bios with such identifiers as stewardess, baseball player, and Greek.

Make no mistake, there’s plenty of authentic Charles Addams embedded in the script, nowhere more effectively than at the end. What Gomez and Morticia say to one another in the closing dialogue is quoted verbatim from an Addams cartoon. It still worked the third time I heard it.

Jews, Blacks, and JFK Converge at Concertized Kushner

Theatre Review: Caroline, or Change

2016~Caroline or Change_0028-1_edited-3
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.

2016~Caroline or Change_0017-1_edited-1

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.

2016~Caroline or Change_0030-1_edited-1
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