Tag Archives: Willis Hickerson

Escape… to the East Side

Preview: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte Rock the Barn

By Perry Tannenbaum

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After more than a year of lockdowns and social distancing, meat shortages and toilet paper shortages, wildfires and hurricanes, astonishing protests and insurrection – along with more Zoomed meetings and celebrations and religious services than anyone could ever have imagined – are we ready to ROCK? Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and its intrepid executive director, Chip Decker, definitely think so.

They aren’t merely serving up one liberating escape to rock-and-roll heaven. They’re coming at us with a whole Rock the Barn outdoor mini-season. Three shows, hosted by Levine Properties and MoRA, at The Barn – beginning this week.

Head on out with your favorite lawn chair to 8300 Monroe Road, where Decker will direct a nine-person cast in Rock of Ages. Keyboardist Willis Hickerson, Jr., leads the five-man band that will help this motley crew of singers, dancers, slackers, and meanies to deliver more than 30 hits of the ‘80s, many of them calculated to melt our faces off with heavy metal intensity.

That shredding, mind-scrambling mix plays Wednesday through Sunday evenings for four weekends until it closes on August 21. Then the Charlotte premiere of Head Over Heels sashays over to The Barn before Labor Day weekend, an unlikely gender-bending mix of hit music by The Go-Go’s and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, running from September 1-25.

Ever unconventional, the Actor’s Theatre version of a summer season extends until Halloween, with the Queen City’s dearest cult favorite, The Rocky Horror Show, dropping its special creepshow merriment on The Barn at MoRA’s greensward with an October 6-31 run. Hint: Rocky is like Scarowinds, except it’s for people who might enjoy content, righteously rockin’ music, and not sitting in an endless car caravan on I-77 South.

Glancing at his bottom line, Decker has a bit of an oldies bent himself, bringing back two hits that grossed well for ATC in the past decade, Rocky Horror in 2011 and Rock of Ages in 2015.

“We want to help folks rediscover a sense of normality, of fun, of camaraderie and friendship,” Decker stresses. “This summer, post-COVID, I felt like we all needed a break from everything, and a chance to mentally check out and leave a horrific year behind. Finances are always a concern for a non-profit, but it is almost immeasurable the devastation the pandemic has wreaked on the performing arts organizations around the country. Hundreds of companies have closed, some short-timers, some surprisingly long-established companies that could not, for whatever reason, weather the COVID storm. I am extremely proud of ATC and the fact that we are still here to offer three ‘oldies.’”

The third oldie, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, marks the transition between Act 1 of the company’s 33rd season to an Act 2 indoor season they’re calling An American Tale. The January 2022 production will be the company’s fifth Hedwig since 2003 and their first at Queens University, where ATC is a resident company. It’s been a long time away from Hadley Theater, where the lights last went down on Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill when it closed in February 2020. The beautiful new Sarah Belk Gambrell Center, an added jewel on the Queens campus, will likely wedge its way into ATC’s future plans.

For those who vividly remember ATC’s raunchy 2015 take on Rock of Ages, a burning question might be whether they can reprise the pole-dance choreography outdoors – and how that kind of edginess might play out there on the East Side. In neighboring Matthews, Bonnie & Clyde and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are as outré and daring as it gets.

So it’s telling that Renee Welsh Noel takes over for Tod A. Kubo, the original Rock choreographer. Kubo slides gracefully over to the director’s slot in Head Over Heels, which is more of a fairy tale in style.

While heaping praise on the support ATC has received from MoRA and businesses along the Monroe Road corridor, Decker freely acknowledges that the reprised Rock won’t be as hard.

“Our aim is to allow a slightly younger teenage crowd, 13+, to enjoy the music their parents loved and see a little naughty shenanigans to boot,” Decker explains, “an experience that both theatregoers will love and have fun at and, at the same time, an event the Summer Rock Concert attendees would get into as well. A sort of Woodstock/Theatre-in-the-Park extravaganza. The shows are silly fun but with great music, and our singers are excellent and the band is kick-ass!”

Fronting the flimsy plot and driving the action are two longtime ATC vets, Ryan Stamey as Lonny Barnett and – one of two holdovers from the 2015 production – Jeremy DeCarlos as Dennis Dupree. Owner of a sleazy, rundown club in ‘80s LA, Dennis is facing financial ruin as greedy German developers are poised to take over, not above bribing the mayor to have their way.

DeCarlos triumphed over the schlocky Chris D’Arienzo script in 2015, “zigzagging between fine hash mellow and bad trip freak-out” as Dennis, according to this reviewer. With as much range and versatility as any performer we’ve seen at ATC, does DeCarlos mess with success?

Yes…and no. He thought he had a fresh brilliant motivation for Dennis…

“Until we got to the read-thru and I realized ‘Wait, this was the idea I had LAST time…!’” DeCarlos recalls. “Part of my process as a performer compels me to find new things and new discoveries in playing a familiar character. So, I’m hoping those that know Dennis will still see familiar shades of my previous version a few years back, but layered into something a little different. I like to think of ‘Old’ Dennis as a mixture of David Lee Roth and Shaggy from Scooby Doo. I’ve been having a lot of fun finding ‘New’ Dennis’s mixture while keeping true to some shades of the ‘Old.’”

If cooped-up audiences are eager to cut loose, DeCarlos reminds us that performers feel very much the same. The ace actor and singer also plays guitar, so – counting in ATC productions that had to scrapped or delayed during the pandemic – DeCarlos estimates that four or five gigs disappeared from his docket. The effect was visceral for him. Yet with all that has happened politically, racially, and pandemically over the past 16 months, DeCarlos feels that Dennis is the right way for him to roll, rather than with heavier fare.

“I do think coming back with something fun,” he says, “definitely works a little better to release any pent-up frustrations from the pandemic. The first few nights of coming back to rehearsals made it pretty clear that this cast was ready to cut-up and fool around. After such a serious year, it’s been amazing having an opportunity to let loose and make each other laugh!”

Stamey is also one of the most versatile guys in the ATC stable, sometimes toiling behind the scenes as a music director. Since 2007, however, when he introduced the role of the volatile, Sharpie-sniffing Duke in The Great American Trailer Park Musical, singing the showstopping “Road Kill,” Stamey is best known for his trashy wildman antics. Your basic ex-boyfriend-from-hell roles.

Yet he was too young to experience the highest decibels of the ‘80s as a teen.

“The 80s were actually my elementary school years,” Stamey confesses. “Funny enough, I went to a very strict Free Will Baptist Christian school back then. In 3rd grade, our teacher thought we were old enough to teach us about the evils of heavy-metal music. He explained to a bunch of 9-year-olds about pentagrams, and upside-down crosses, and deals with the devil, and backmasking, and heads of doves being bitten off by rock singers. I remember some kids crying as he played music backwards and told us the Satanic messages he thought he heard in the music, all while having a Satanic Bible at his lectern. Needless to say, I was pretty terrified of rock music, particularly heavy-metal music, at that age.”

Until the revelations of Napster during his college years, Stamey didn’t begin to appreciate, download, or catch up on all he had missed. Now he’s catching up with Rock of Ages as Lonny, the man with the plan, the story, and the persuasive powers. Working at the Bourbon Room as Dennis’s soundman, a side-hustle since he’s our narrator, Lonny persuades his boss to hire young rocker Drew, a hunk who aspires to superstardom but is currently content to sweep the floors. More importantly, he advises Dennis on a can-miss scheme to call in old favors and save the club.

If that isn’t enough, Lonny tells us what’s still missing from the story. Romance!

With masterworks by Bon Jovi, Pat Banatar, and REO Speedwagon in the abundant songlist of this jukeboxer, Stamey has a surprising favorite.

“One of my favorite songs was ‘High Enough’ by Damn Yankees,” he reveals. “It was just so epic and dramatic, and the harmonies you could sing with it! It’s one of the moments when the whole cast is getting a chance to just stand and sing their faces off, and it gives me chills every time.”

Kubo’s defection from Rock of Ages won’t rob ATC loyalists of seeing his choreography, for on top of his directing chores, he will be furnishing the dance moves in Head Over Heels. Like Hedwig and the 2022 premiere of Ghosts of Bogotá, this Go-Go’s/Sir Philip mashup was originally envisioned as part of the company’s lost Season 32. In terms of topicality, this James Magruder adaptation, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 and greatly altered for its 2018 Broadway run, is noticeably edgier – and newer – than ATC’s other outdoor shows.

Head Over Heels celebrates the LGBTQIAPK+ community unlike any Broadway musical of our time and puts a non-binary character at the center of our story!” says Kubo. “This old Elizabethan story of Arcadia, mixed with the high energy musical catalog of the Go Go’s, is very relatable to today’s audience and is easy to follow.”

So don’t be intimidated by the 1300-word synopsis of the action in Wikipedia.

“While our story will be told through a funky Elizabethanesque lens, with costumes [by Carrie Cranford] that will reflect elements of that era, the scenery [by Decker] provides an industrial, rock concert backdrop – with surprises of its own.”

Aside from the title tune, expect the newly formed 14-member ensemble to exhume “We Got the Beat,” “Mad About You,” “Our Lips are Sealed,” and “Turn to You” from the all-female Go-Go’s golden vaults. Henri Freeman has won the coveted non-binary role of Pythio. After achieving fame in 2017 on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Peppermint became the first openly trans woman to play a principal role on Broadway as Pythio.

“There are many twists, turns and surprises we have in store and can’t wait to share Head Over Heels with the Queen City,” Kubo says. Rehearsals begin next month.

We haven’t seen yet how Decker & Co. are adapting The Barn at MoRA to outdoor theatre, but it sounds like plenty of cover will be provided for the musicians’ electronics and the actors’ mics, for Chip is telling us that shows will go on under most weather conditions. You can also expect that your tickets will provide you with a clearly delineated, socially-distanced spot on the well-maintained MoRA field.

“Everyone should bring a folding chair,” says Decker, “so while the ground may be wet, your chair won’t be. Be prepared for rain, heat, wind, snow, frost warnings, tornadoes, typhoons and other weather anomalies. Unless there are high winds, thunder and or lighting, all shows will go on.”

Comedy and sexiness were the ingredients that made ATC’s 2015 version of Rock of Ages, directed by Decker, so much better than the comparatively staid and respectful touring version that came to the Queen City in 2011. Eagerness and glee seem to be carryovers in the upcoming revival – largely because everyone involved feels the jubilation of emerging from our national hibernation and getting back to work.

“We’ve all been isolated for so long,” DeCarlos asserts, “that I think we’re dying to let loose the energy that’s been building up in us over the pandemic, and that’s making us try lots of stuff to generate some really silly stuff!”

Stamey is definitely getting a kick from the special circumstances as he conspires with his co-star.

“After years of doing shows at Actors Theatre, it’s like working with family now,” he says. “My favorite part of this experience has been getting to be the Lonny to Jeremy’s Dennis, and Chip just letting us be completely stupid and just play around and try new things, new gags, new ideas. There have been many moments where I can barely contain my laughter when we are working through a scene as I’m watching Jeremy’s Dennis do something completely ridiculous.”

Part of this escape – for us all – is remembering how to have fun.

Janeta Bounces from Poppins to Billie

Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Forget the famous nickname for a second. Like only a handful of jazz artists – instrumentalists Miles Davis and John Coltrane come to mind – Billie Holiday’s vocal career had a distinctive arc, leaving the diva’s fans with a blithe and sunny early period of recordings, a forceful and dramatic middle period, and a worldly wise and poignant late period. The meteoric 25-year Lady Day career has stages as identifiable as Beethoven’s groundbreaking music or Shakespeare’s awesome procession of plays.

The legend of Billie Holiday took off almost instantly after her early death in 1959. That legend is easier to capture on film if you want to deliver the full breadth – and the full tragedy – of the story. But Lady Sings the Blues (1972) was a wasted opportunity, totally worthless as a biography, notwithstanding Diana Ross’s Oscar-nominated portrayal. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill by playwright Lanie Robertson was a more serious attempt, though the 1986 drama didn’t gain real traction in the theatre world until 2014, when Audra McDonald brought it to Broadway – and subsequently to HBO.

Now it’s here at Queens University, where Hadley Theatre has been transformed into Emerson’s in an Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by Jeremy DeCarlos. Janeta Jackson not only sings Billie’s songs and wears her signature gardenia, she mingles with the paying customers and engages them as they sit in casual cabaret style at cocktail tables. Chip Decker’s scenic setup also provides for extra stadium seating behind the many cocktail tables plus a bar at the rear of the hall.

Robertson focused on the most notorious part of Billie’s life, the final days when her deteriorating health and appalling finances sent her on a trajectory toward police custody on her deathbed. When she died of cardiac arrest and liver disease at the age of 44, handcuffed to her hospital bed, there was $7,500 in cash taped to her body and 70 cents in her bank account. It’s already 1959 when we see her at Emerson’s, and costume designer Carrie Cranford has outfitted Jackson in the same sort of satin dress that you’ll find on Billie’s valedictory Columbia album, Lady in Satin, and on the Verve memorial LP set, The Unforgettable Lady Day.

Not a total surprise, since Willis Hickerson, Jr., leading his trio at the keyboard in the role of Jimmy Power, plays Billie on with “Satin Doll.” When Jackson arrives, she mostly sings songs that are actually associated with Billie – but not necessarily with her latter days. With his choice of songs and with the rambling patter of his script, Robertson contrives to have latter-day Lady Day present an informal retrospective of her life and career, musically emphasizing the early and middle years, leaving space for songs that inspired her and, of course, the songs she wrote and championed.

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Among the early songs sprinkled on the Lady Day songlist are “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Foolin’ Myself,” and “Easy Living” from Billie’s swinging early period, recorded in 1935-38 with the likes of Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, and Lester Young. Robertson does something interesting “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” not only programming it early in Billie’s set but making it emblematic of her heroin habit as she staggers backstage midway through her show. Jackson arrives onstage slurping a drink, so Billie’s substance abuse is never a secret. It’s the main reason she’s performing in this Philadelphia dive, we quickly learn, for she had lost her license to perform in New York City cabarets a few arrests earlier.

Although we never hear any of the mighty heartbreakers on Billie’s final album, like “I’m a Fool to Want You” or “You’ve Changed,” the mood definitely darkens toward the end. Although lighting designer Evan Kinsley repeatedly flouts the words of the script, which should prompt him to keep the piano player in semi-darkness, he does turn down the houselights and shine a spot on Jackson for the climactic “Strange Fruit,” a searing depiction of a Southern-style lynching that became a Lady Day hallmark.

Or as she puts it, one of the songs we came to hear. She doesn’t say it quite that politely.

There are no “I’ve seen the mountaintop” moments in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, so the ending is more pathetic than tragic. Embedding an autobiography into a cabaret performance wasn’t the easiest assignment for Robertson, but his best line, “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married: he was 18, she was 16, and I was three,” flows naturally out of the opening of Billie’s Lady Sings the Blues autobio.

He did his research, you will find, and so have DeCarlos and Jackson. DeCarlos has chosen his musicians well – bassist Peter de Klerk and drummer Tim Scott fill out the trio – and he gets an alert and spontaneous performance from Hickerson where Powers has to speak a few lines here and there, coping with Billie’s spaced-out eccentricities. And who what DeCarlos saw from Jackson at auditions, where she arrived with calling cards that included the doo-wop group in Beehive and the lead in Mary Poppins? Bet it wasn’t nearly the same Billie as we’re seeing now.

For there can be no doubting that, if she wasn’t a Lady Day fan when she showed up auditioned for DeCarlos, Jackson has certainly immersed herself in the recordings since landing the role. To a Billiephile, it’s obvious that Jackson concentrated most heavily on the Verve recordings of 1948-57, which have snippets of Billie’s spoken introductions, a nice compromise between the juicy early recordings and the raspy final releases. Jackson seems to have avoided or rejected the Emerson’s Bar recording by McDonald – a very wise choice, for Audra not only leans a bit on Billie’s raspiness, she occasionally exaggerates the mannerisms of her last years.

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Jackson echoes those mannerisms rather than imitating or caricaturing them, and she is almost as uncanny as McDonald in capturing the timbre of the speaking voice, though she eschews the telltale rasp. On other aspects of the speaking voice, Jackson might move closer to the six-time Tony Award winner, who won her sixth as Lady Day. Slowing down would help Jackson make Lady Day’s aging and physical deterioration more real, and slurring her speech a little more would couple nicely with the effects of the liquor and the junk.

The Jackson vocals are consistently wonderful in her chosen Verve groove, most Billie-like near the end of the evening in “Don’t Explain,” where she almost equals “Strange Fruit” as the highlight. If she puts a little too much mannered mustard on the bridge and at the end of “God Bless the Child,” Holiday’s most-admired original composition, it’s still outstanding – and she has none of the difficulties with the metre that plague the recorded covers by McDonald and Ross.

While the setting at Hadley isn’t as intimate as the HBO Special, it’s cozier than the Broadway production was and DeCarlos gives Jackson freedom to mingle with the clientele and roam away from the little stage – which she does with admirable poise. Ladylike, we can say. If you love Lady Day, there’s no need at all to hesitate, and if you’re looking to find out more, look no further.