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Theatre Review Archive


Reviews Spring-Summer 2008

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Book & Lyrics by Ben. H. Winters
Music & Additional Lyrics by Stephen Sislen
Directed by Kerry Ferguson
Musical Direction by Marty Gregory
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, Theatre 650 Production
August 7-23, 2008

The title says it all. SLUT! is a funny, crude, musical that is an entertaining, if superficial romp about twenty-somethings sleeping around. While several of them (mostly the women) want to connect and create more lasting relationships, it’s difficult given the bar scene in New York City. Be warned, this is part of Actor’s Theatre’s 650 Series, which means less mainstream, more edgy, out-there productions. If you have a more conservative sensibility, this may not be the show for you.

Adam (Tommy Foster, always appealing/on target) is the ultimate “slut” who wakes up at the beginning of the first act with a bed mate and tells her she has to leave. He will not sleep with a woman more than once, and so comes the first song of the show, “I’m Probably Not Gonna Call.” It’s honest, if unwelcome. At the bar where they all hang out is the pragmatic bartender Lilly (Liz Huchens, possessing a strong voice, and delightful singing, “Lower the Bar”), who has a thing for Adam; Doug (Stan Peal, providing much of the humor in his many portrayals), a variation on the falling down drunk, young version; and J-Dogg (Ryan Stamey, given the broadest roles), the white guy who thinks he’s the epitome of Rap. Dan (Jon Parker Douglas, excellent) who failed his medical board test when his girlfriend dumped him, and is Adam’s childhood best friend, joins them at the bar one night.

In walks Veronica (Candace Neal, a gifted comedienne), the not too bright girl next door; Janey (Elizabeth Simpson, pert), who is getting married and set for life, she thinks, and Delia (Tory Macomson, well played), an ambitious singer, are all there for Janey’s bachelorette party. Several hook-ups are made and complications and subplots come out of those relationships, most notably Dan and Delia. But Dan is needy and lacks focus; Delia wants to make it big with her music. Toby Macomson and Jon Parker Douglas’ characters are the only couple that have anything close to an actual male/female relationship, and any semblance of depth at all, thanks to their acting abilities.

Director Kerry Ferguson gets her talented cast working well together as an ensemble. Each character is distinct and a variation of recognizable “types” we all know or have known. The music is more in the Off-Broadway tradition of being memorable for the clever lyrics, while the music is more generic; although the songs do move the action and plot along well. This is definitely a New York story and those not familiar with the city might not understand the lyrics of not wanting to “get stuck on Long Island,” (where there isn’t much action). The band capably accompanies the cast, who are all talented singers. The choreography by Ryan Powers suits the play.

The set by Colleen Ballance is appropriately wacky. The lighting by Hallie Gray works to enhance the goings on. The sound by Chip Decker, which can be tricky when singers are wearing mics, is quite well done. Eric Grace’s costumes are fine, though changes in the second act (bedsides Delia) would have given the audience something different to look at.

What’s interesting is the comedy made out of a lifestyle that is self-destructive and can be dangerous. The only nod to that is the opening song of Act II, “J-Dogg’s Lament” about an STD. The excessive drinking while funny, in the person of Stan Peal, keeps his character and the others from moving past an extended post-adolescent period. But if you go to SLUT!, you can’t be too judgmental or thoughtful. Enjoy it for what it is…           Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright with over 80 productions across the U.S. She is the producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode and a judge for the National Youth Theatre Awards. Ann Marie is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

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By Aubrey Nolan
Directed by Benjamin Brian McCarthy
Assistant director Kaity Neagle
Co-produced by Yellow Bird Theatre Company &
Theatre Charlotte's Stage 501
Theatre Charlotte
August 8 & 9, 2008

Play On Words is a new play by local playwright, Aubrey Nolan. It is jointly produced by Theatre Charlotte and the Yellow Bird Theatre Company, a new company dedicated to producing plays that deal exclusively with issues of sexuality and gender. The Yellow Bird Theatre Company is almost totally student run and managed. The play is well directed by Benjamin Brian McCarthy, who is also the Artistic Director of Yellow Bird. Kaity Neagle is the assistant director of the play.

I sat in on a dress rehearsal due to the short run of this poignant play, so I saw this "diamond in the rough” so to speak and didn’t see any obvious flaws. With a little polishing it is going to be a crown jewel that speaks from the heart.

It chronicles the emotional ups and downs of an insecure and gay young man, Colin McBride (played by Brandon Curry), from the first day of high school (at a select high school of the arts) through all four years; including his coming out talk with his mother and his falling in love with troubled, manipulative, Nick Emerson (played by Daniel Pietruszka). Both young men portray their roles excellently; Daniel with a twinkle in his eye that makes you want to instantly forgive him, and Brandon with earnestness that rings true whether it is angst, longing, fear, confusion, lust or love that he is feeling.

Rashon Murph plays Haley Fields, another troubled teenager with hatred to spew at everyone around her; hopefully she has a happier real life and is showing that she is a really good actress. Jessica Lit portrays Reena Smith–Jones, the chatty peacemaker of the class and friend and confidant to Colin, with confidence and ease.

The talents of this cast are reflected in the multiple facets of the characters they portray. The supporting cast members include: Dee Abdullah, who plays the supportive mother with love and lots of caring actions. Wes Turner IS the understanding, compassionate theatre arts teacher, and Megan Dallas has a cameo as a harried waitress. This is a strong debut for Yellow Bird Theatre Company.                   Review by Karen Lambruschi

Karen Lambruschi has been involved in theatre in South Carolina for over a dozen years as a stage manager, teacher, director and (under duress) an actress. She is currently on the board of Rock Hill Community Theatre and works in North Carolina in the entertainment industry.

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By William Shakespeare
Directed by Alexander Harrington
Collaborative Arts Theatre
The 2008 Charlotte Shakespeare Festival
The McGlohon Theatre
July 30 – August 10, 2008

Collaborative Arts brings their successful Shakespeare Festival from The Green uptown to the McGlohon Theatre with this engaging, polished production of Much Ado About Nothing. The play is a comedy that takes place in Messina, Sicily, and is about two couples: Claudio and Hero, and Beatrice and Benedick. As is usual in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, the “course of true love never did run smooth.” These high-born people must contend with the rigid gender roles and social structure of their time while trying to find suitable spouses. What the play highlights (more darkly) is the dominance of men and the power imbalance that could easily disgrace and ruin a woman if her purity was in question.

Although no one would ever accuse Shakespeare of being a feminist (the word didn’t exist then), given that he was writing this play in the 16th century, it does have one of my favorite strong female characters, Beatrice, perfectly embodied by Elise Wilkinson as a witty, tart-tongued, independent lady, and cousin of Hero (well played by Leah Palmer-Licht). The two couldn’t be more opposite in that Hero has all the qualities desired for a young woman of her social station at that time: she is obedient, quiet, and compliant.

The story begins when Don Pedro, (an impressive Patrick Tansor), a prince, and several of his men return from a successful military campaign to visit with his friend Leonato (Craig Spradley, playing comedy/drama/guitar with equal ease), Hero’s father. He brings with him, Claudio (Chaz Pofahl, attractive/appealing), Benedick (Joe Copley, doing his best work onstage yet), and his illegitimate brother Don John (a suitably off-putting Greg Paroff), who is not in his favor. When they first arrive and are greeted by Leonato’s family, Claudio takes “note” of Hero and immediately falls in love with her. Beatrice and Benedick, having known each other previously begin to verbally spar to the amusement of all present. Both Beatrice and Benedick insist they will not marry at all, and a plot is hatched by Don Pedro who senses their affinity for each other, to get them together.

It all starts to go wrong when Don John sends Borachio (Myk Chambers, believable as a scamp) to have a tryst with Margaret (Ashli Stepp), while Don Pedro and Claudio watch from afar thinking it is Hero losing her chastity the night before her wedding to Claudio. At the wedding, Claudio exposes what he thinks to be the truth and berates Hero who begs her father to listen, but Leonato is as incensed as Claudio, and Hero faints. (Any shame for a woman is reflected on her husband or father, and dishonors them, too.) The Friar (Joe Falacco, in a good turn) convinced that Hero is innocent, asks Leonato to announce that Hero has died to give them time to find out the real truth behind the story. Ironically, it is Benedick, not previously open to love or marriage, who believes Hero and having told Beatrice of his love for her, supports Beatrice by agreeing to fight Claudio.

The local policeman, Dogberry (a funny Peter Smeal) provides comic relief with his malapropisms after the intense thwarted wedding scene and gets the truth out of Borachio after his night watchmen (Alex Brightwell, Julia Grigg, Christian Michelsen) overhear him and Conrade (James Shafer) talking about the ruse. When Claudio finds out the truth, he is remorseful and tells Leonato he will do whatever he asks to try and make up for his part in the fiasco.

Shakespeare, always mindful of his character’s inadequacies, doesn’t let that overwhelm the story in this comedy and cause an unhappy ending. The bad are ultimately caught and pay for their sins. There are deceptions, mix-ups, misconceptions, false accusations, misunderstandings, and mistaken identities that all play out, but are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. In Much Ado About Nothing, the two couples, so different in every way, show what a conventional relationship looks like, and what a marriage between equals could be, which from the beginning of the play looks like it’s much more interesting, fun and equitable, especially from the modern point of view.

Although Shakespeare’s language may intimidate some, the director, Alexander Harrington, has done an excellent job in making this play understandable to the regular theatre-goer. He also makes it an immensely enjoyable experience by excellent casting, and directing the play to bring a high quality Shakespearean experience to the Charlotte stage. In addition, Alex Brightwell (Balthasar) adds his admirable singing voice, Allen England is amusing as the lecherous Antonio, and Greta Marie Zandstra plays Ursula and choreographs the show. The technical aspects are likewise excellent from the set design by Chris Timmons, costume design by Kendra Johnston, and lighting design by Trista Rothe.

This production is FREE, and that is some bargain! Don’t hesitate to get to the McGlohon and see this wonderful production. Support Collaborative Arts in bringing first-rate productions to Charlotte audiences.                    Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright with over 80 productions across the U.S. She is the producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode and a judge for the National Youth Theatre Awards. Ann Marie is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

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Music & Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Book by Jeff Whitty
Based on an original concept by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Directed by Jason Moore
Choreography by Ken Roberson
Musical Director Andrew Graham
Puppets Conceived and Designed by Rick Lyon
Music Supervision, Arrangement, and Orchestrations by Stephen Oremus
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Belk Theatre
Stanford Broadway Lights Series
July 22 – 27, 2008

Imagine approaching a producer and saying you have a musical comedy play about twenty-something, self-mocking, X-rated puppets; would he/she like to take a chance? Today, producing plays in New York, or anywhere for that matter, is not for the timid. Going halfway with Avenue Q would have been disastrous, but Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx have created a clever, entertaining show that provides the audience with enough recognition of this generation’s post-college plight that most will find it particularly hilarious, if sometimes achingly true.

How do you navigate your life after you (and your parents) have made a college degree the focus of years and years of your young existence, only to find out it’s not the magic answer you thought it would be? What next? That’s the question for the characters in this Sesame Street influenced show. How do you find a job/love/fulfillment once you’ve accomplished your educational goal? How do you deal with the let down?

You might think that actors in full sight holding puppets next to them would distract the audience, but it’s easy to accept, especially because of the wonderful puppetry and performances by the cast. Princeton (Robert McClure) follows his dream by rushing to New York City where his first shock is trying to find an affordable place to live. After starting at Avenue A, he ends up at Avenue Q. Here he and the rest of those he meets try to deal with the angst of their times. “What do you do with a BA in English?”

The music provides a background of simple childlike melodies yet is shrewd in using lyrics in the syntax of those growing up with unlimited possibilities, meaning delightfully politically incorrect and/or confrontational, with a liberal use of curse words. Especially amusing are: “Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet is for Porn,” “Schadenfreude,” “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want.” Because the words come from innocent-looking puppets it’s outlandish rather than shocking. There are also humorous videos that “instruct” the audience and add to the humor. The utilitarian set design by Anna Louizos is a perfect complement to the action, as is the lighting by Howell Binkley.

The ensemble cast is excellent across the board, with those manipulating puppets not breaking character, but rather reflecting the emotions of their puppets. Robert McClure plays the new college grad, Princeton, with a believable, naïve hopefulness, as well as playing Rod without awkwardness in switching characters. Anika Larsen brings wonderful energy to Kate Monster, Lucy and others. Angela Ai gets big laughs by going against the stereotype of a shy, demure Asian woman who defers to her man. Danielle K. Thomas, as Gary Coleman (yes the actor), keeps the audience from getting tired of jokes at his expense because she brings such good humor to the part. Cole Porter plays a likeable thirty-two year old still looking for himself. David Benoit shows versatility with his mix of characters. Maggie Lakis and others in the ensemble add to the fun when called on.

While some of the jokes can be crude, and the full frontal nudity (even with puppets) is jarring, it’s an evening that provides wit, originality, and imaginative soul-searching while making points about a generation told they could do anything, be anything they wanted, and that all are “special,” which turns out to be a huge overstatement. Not everyone’s dreams are going to come true, although the play ends on a high note.

It leads to some second thoughts like: if everyone’s a star who’s going to do the heavy lifting? Doesn’t the world still need plumbers?                   Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright with over 80 productions across the U.S. She is the producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode and a judge for the National Youth Theatre Awards. Ann Marie is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

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Music & Lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin
Directed by Tom Hollis
Choreography by Eddie Mabry
Musical Direction by Drina Keen
Central Piedmont Community Theatre
Halton Theatre
July 18 - 26, 2008

This 1992 Tony-winning musical, based on the 1930 Gershwin show, Girl Crazy, adds more of their famous songs for a nostalgic return to the romantic, jazzy, tap-dance magic of an earlier era. The CPCC production brings both of the play's settings, New York City and Deadrock, Nevada, to full life on the stage--with fantastic sets and costumes, talented performers, and terrific energies.

We begin backstage with Bela Zangler (Gerald Colbert) and his Zangler Follies dancers. A young hopeful, Bobby Child (Nic Bryan), grabs Zangler for a quick tap audition, but blows it by landing on Zangler's foot. We then see the bright lights of Broadway, outside Zangler's theatre, with sparkling signs and a period limousine. Out of the car emerges Bobby's wealthy mom, Lottie Child (Elyse Williams), who fights with her son about his desire to work in theatre, while she wants him in her banking business--a drama resonating perhaps with some in the Charlotte audience today. Bobby is sent by her to Deadrock, to foreclose on an old theatre there (again ringing a current theme). He reluctantly accepts, also escaping his New York fiancée (Dionne Eleby), then day-dreams a dance with the Follies girls--who pour out of the limo to join him onstage.

The scene shift to Deadrock provides a radical change of tone--from New York glitz to the hot, dry, comical, yet still wild West. We soon see both the exteriors and interiors of a saloon and the defunct theatre--in elaborate multi-level designs by Robert Croghan, who also designed the amazing array of costumes. (Full disclosure: I work with Prof. Croghan in the Theatre Department at UNC-Charlotte. My son, Luke Pizzato, also plays Jimmy, one of the Deadrock miners, in this show.)

Faced with a mortgage they cannot pay, the theatre's owners, Polly Baker (Julianne Katz) and her father (Kevin Campbell), are offered a buyout by the saloon owner, Lank Hawkins (Michael Seward). They resist, of course. Then Polly and Bobby fall in love, through the Gershwin magic of "Shall We Dance?" And Bobby comes up with a plan to save the theatre by bringing the Zangler dancers, now on break, to Deadrock for a benefit. But when Polly learns that Bobby is the banker sent to close her theatre, she falls out of love with him. So, he disguises himself as Zangler to continue his plan and recapture her heart.

As the dancers arrive and teach the local miners new moves, Gershwin passions take over again. The clumsy miners are transformed into dapper tappers and the girls also become musical instruments in their hands, with a comical, joyous rendition of "Slap That Bass." Such magic, while bringing a ghost-town theatre back to life, fails to draw an audience on opening night. Even the two British tourists (the Fodors), arriving on the train, merely sample Lank's saloon-hotel and skip the show. And yet, the chorus and leads still realize an East-West rebirth with "I Got Rhythm"--and us as their audience.

After the real Zangler arrives, pursuing his beloved dance director, Tess (Emily Hunter), we get more farcical fun with the double Zanglers, with the miners rehearsing a saloon shoot-out, and with corny puns sprinkled liberally throughout the play. Of course, the desired audience does come eventually, with Bela's advertising budget, and true love is found in multiple ways through Deadrock's theatrical goldmine.

All the acting here matches the sleek sophistication and yet silly charm of the many musical numbers, in an overall blend well mixed by director Tom Hollis. The tap choreography by Eddie Mabry is especially spectacular--across the stage floor or on roof tops, a table, and gold-mining pans. Overall, this is a Broadway-quality musical, with local and regional actors, bringing high-class pizzazz to the dusty West--and to our Southern summer stock. The rousing encore at curtain call is also not to be missed; so don't leave early, humming Gershwin tunes, after the first round of applause.   Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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By Glenn Hutchinson
(with translations by Claudia Lemus Farnandez)
Directed by Michael Simmons
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre
July 10 - 26, 2008

What is an American? Where is home?

What if the law views you as "illegal" in the only country you've known since childhood? And threatens to prevent you from returning if you leave--or may force you to leave if the authorities find you? If that's the way it is, then you're in "limbo."

With this show, CAST creates a new kind of theatre for the Charlotte community, combining traditional Latin American music, singing, and dancing with a real-life, political drama in English, Spanish, and Spanglish. This can be a powerful mixture for Latinos in the audience who, like many in the show's cast, have backgrounds and current conflicts akin to those of the main character. Yet, many spectators who are not bicultural, or not bilingual, will still appreciate the story of Marie González. She is a Missouri college student who dreams of reuniting with her Costa Rican parents, while also continuing her life in America, but can't because they were deported and she might be barred from returning if she left--because of her legal limbo.

CAST also brought Marie González to Charlotte to speak after the show during its opening weekend. She explained that she's become a political activist to help the many others who are also in "limbo" now, as children of immigrants who were raised in the U.S. and feel it is their home, yet do not have the legal right to live here. As Limbo shows, her parents came to the U.S. on a tourist visa, ran a Chinese restaurant, and yet failed to get resident status. They were deported, but she was given a special, limited "deferral" to finish college--though not to stay for graduate school.

Others rallied around her cause, including Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat from Illinois), who is trying to get a "Dream Act" through Congress, which will give more rights to immigrant Americans who have lived most of their lives here, but were not born here. As González explained, her parents risk a 10-year ban against visiting the U.S. if they come to see her here and she risks the same if she goes to Costa Rica. Yet, she cannot apply for a student visa (to go to law school here) unless she leaves the country. Clearly, this is a Catch 22 in the current law, which likewise affects thousands of high school graduates in America, she says, who cannot go to college.

This is also a very timely issue in North Carolina, since our community college system decided just last May to ban undocumented students from degree programs here, based on the state attorney general's interpretation of national law. (The UNC system still admits illegal immigrants, but they must pay out-of-state tuition rates.)

Once again, CAST has transformed its lobby, as well as its larger theatre space, for this production. Murals with Latino images (created by Carlos Herrera Burgos) extend from the lobby into the theatre, forming a background to the stage. The audience is invited to join in a salsa dance prior to the show. There is also much dancing, guitar playing, and singing at key points during the play, with traditional folk ballet and brightly colored costumes, or newly choreographed movements (by Christy Edney and Brenda Giraldo) in the drama's transition points.

Marie's life story is framed by a tale of two college students, one white (Bob Glahn) and one Chicano (Juan Carlos Piedrahita) who make a documentary film, using interviews with Marie (Brenda Giraldo) and others--as Glenn Hutchinson used in writing this play. Some of the interviews are acted out. Interviews are also shown on video-screens above the stage, along with other dramatic scenes projected there. The multi-media, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual mix thus reflects both the play's creation and the participation of many in the audience--as well as the cast--in its stories, emotions, and politics.

Many questions remain about specifics in Marie's life, including legal and political details, or about others also struggling for their identities and rights. Especially compelling is the subplot of Danielle (Cristina Layana) who fights with her co-worker Isabel (Elena Mateus) about whether she should marry an American to get legal status. But only fragments of her drama are shown. Likewise, Marie's parents (Frank Dominguez and Delia Rabah) are sympathetic but not fully developed as characters--when visited in their home by La Migra (Jonavan Adams and Christy Edney), then questioned, and forced to return to Costa Rica within 45 days. Yet, even spectators whose politics are different from the play's will probably be made more aware of the human suffering caused by a strict adherence to the current law in such cases.

Some of the actors in this show have more experienced onstage than others, but all contribute to an ensemble work with much to offer. Powerful emotions of real-life Latinos are expressed throughout the play. In dance, music, song, and drama (onstage and onscreen), Limbo celebrates and documents a pressing problem for many in our community, as well as an important political issue in this election year. With our current terrorist fears, racial rivalries, and legal conflicts, can the immigrant's sueño still be realized as a free American life?                           Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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By William Shakespeare
Directed by Christopher S. O’Neill
Shakespeare Carolina
Theatre Charlotte
July 10 - 25, 2008

Shakespeare Carolina continues their season with the ambitious production of one of Shakespeare’s bloodier plays, Richard III. Despite the nearly three-hour playing time, it is an engrossing evening. Hank West’s unapologetically nefarious Richard and Brian Willard’s charmingly amoral Buckingham are a fascinating duo and drive the play very well. The careful use of original music (by Jill O’Neill) and Cyd Knight’s artful lighting create a foreboding atmosphere that belies the utilitarian setting (used with little variation by both Twelfth Night and Richard III). This is one to see.

Audiences will surely find the labyrinthine plot a challenge, but briefly the play tells the story of Richard the Third’s rise to power through murder and deceit. The play is (for the most part) artfully cut down to its essence (and is still nearly three hours), so audience members should try to read the play before attending or at the very least download a synopsis. Some key characters are cut (though still referred to in the script) and some actors are double cast, so if you’re not familiar with the play, you’re likely to become confused. Still, O’Neill shepherds his cast well and the meat of the play is readily accessible.

O’ Neill is particularly interested in the women of this play, and through careful stage pictures and casting, this focus is clear. The women are the survivors of so much of the devastation this play portrays. Stephanie Howieson is marvelous as the bitter Queen Margaret whose powerful curse haunts the rest of the play and provides one of Shakespeare’s darker messages: sometimes revenge is enough to live for and enough to die for. Iesha Hoffman, who is equally wonderful in Twelfth Night embodies the horrified mother of Richard very well. These two performers are forces to be reckoned with, and they are a joy to watch. Carrie Anne Hunt’s (who is so lovely in Twelfth Night) portrayal of Lady Anne is darker and more raw than some might be used to. Though often it is portrayed that Lady Anne is seduced by Richard’s words (though he has killed her father and her husband), O’Neill and Hunt give us a woman who has no choice but to go along with whatever the man in power tells her to do. It is a study in the effects of oppression. Karen Surprise’s Queen Elizabeth also embodies this theme.

As mentioned before, Hank West’s Richard is strongly defined. Hunch-backed with a withered hand, Richard is universally reviled and his own self-hatred drives his villainy. West’s sly looks, serpentine glances, and his measured portrayal of a man’s descent into paranoia and madness is effective. His scenes with Brian Willard are particularly powerful. Willard plays Buckingham with a kind of boyish earnestness that is a nice contrast to his evil intent.

The rest of the company is strong as well, though some of the moments of double casting are confusing. Many of the actors from Twelfth Night are also in Richard III and I applaud their dedication to their craft and the countless hours they must have invested into these fine productions.

Some of the cuts in the play lead to confusion, especially the elimination of the Duke of York (young Prince Edward’s brother), because the princes are referred to in the plural throughout the play. Cutting such a complicated work is a necessary evil and insanely complicated, so this is a minor quibble.

Technically the play is elegant and effective. The costuming, though simple, is appropriate and conveys the information we need to know about each character. I particularly enjoyed the original music.

My sixteen-year-old daughter attended the play with me and said that Richard III is in her “top five” favorite Shakespeare plays now (right after Hamlet), and it’s easy to see why. With sword fights, intrigue, strong female characters, and one of the most interesting anti-heroes ever put on the stage, as I said before, this is one to see.                            Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

Tim Baxter-Ferguson is an associate professor of Theatre at Limestone College and Chair of that program. He is a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte and has had his plays produced throughout the United States and Canada.

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By William Shakespeare
Directed by John Hartness
Shakespeare Carolina
Theatre Charlotte
June 26 - July 26, 2008

Having run off and on since 1997, Shakespeare Carolina has provided Carolina audiences with classic theatre, including last year's productions of The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet (both performed at Theatre Charlotte). This year they are back (again at Theatre Charlotte) with a production of the bard's most famous gender-bending comedy, Twelfth Night. Once again, we are given a thoroughly enjoyable evening that makes Shakespeare's sometimes difficult language crystal clear.

Running at a brisk two hours, this production speeds through the story of Duke Orsino's pursuit of the Lady Olivia. Unfortunately, Olivia is still deeply in mourning for both her father and (more recently) her brother. Meanwhile, a ship wreck separates twins Viola and Sebastian. Viola, thinking her brother is dead, disguises herself as a man in order to serve Duke Orsino. It is in this position that both Orsino and Olivia fall in love with Viola.

The magical kingdom of Illyria is suggested simply by stacked platforms and wooden cubes. The simplicity of the staging is effective enough and does not detract from the magic of the story. In fact, it is when this production keeps things simple that it is most effective.

I was impressed with the comic lunacy of last year's production of Taming of the Shrew; Twelfth Night takes that lunacy even further and to even better effect. Featured in the play are Colby Davis, who plays the incorrigible clown Feste; Tom Ollis, who portrays the partying drunkard, Sir Toby Belch; David Loehr as the mincing would be suitor to Olivia, Sir Andrew Aguecheek; and finally the earthy Karen Surprise, who plays Lady Olivia's servant. It is this quartet that drives the energy and comedy of this production. The musical numbers are particularly inventive!

Also especially strong in this production are the performances of Carrie Anne Hunt as the cross-dressing Viola/Cesario and Iesha Hoffman as the Lady Olivia. Hunt is charming and plays both boyish charm and feminine wiles equally well. Hoffman is a joy to watch and commands every scene she is in.

In contrast, Jimmy Cartee as Orsino is an unusual choice for the role. With glasses on and a humorous, almost nerdy Woody Allen-like demeanor, it is a different take on the lovestruck duke than I am used to. He's not given a lot of time to establish this portrayal, so it was difficult to decide if it worked or not.

Similiarly, Joe Mertes as the other half of the twins is one of the more problematic actors in the play. Though he looked every inch the romantic lead and has a wonderful voice, his habit of pausing before many lines made it difficult to determine if it was for dramatic effect or a problem with memorization. (I saw this production in the first week and it's possible some of this will have improved in later performances.)

Though both the lighting and scenic design are simple and effective, I did feel the costuming seemed overdone. I would have liked to see the elegance and simplicity of the set mirrored in the costumes. I question, in particular, the fact that the twins are not really costumed similarly despite the fact the script mentions on more than one occasion that they are wearing nearly identical outfits. I am more than willing to suspend my disbelief (and happily) but when the “twins” have nearly a foot's difference in height between them and are not dressed similarly at all, it is difficult to understand why anyone would confuse the two—especially, and here's a big SPOILER to follow—Olivia marries Sebastian because she thinks he is Cesario.

All in all, despite these minor quibbles, I strongly recommend this production. It's truly one of Shakespeare's more enjoyable comedies and it's well-realized here. One of the strengths of Shakespeare Carolina's productions is that the clarity of the play is stressed and even those unfamiliar with his work should be able to follow the plot and enjoy it. It's important to support companies such as this, and I hope the crowds continue to grow.  Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

Tim Baxter-Ferguson is an associate professor of Theatre at Limestone College and Chair of that program. He is a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte and has had his plays produced throughout the United States and Canada.

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Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell
Music by Henry Rieger
Directed by Glenn T. Griffin
Choreographed by Eddie Mabry
Musical Direction by Marty Gregory
Queen City Theatre Company
McGlohon Theatre
July 3 - July 19, 2008

Queen City Theatre Company presents their most ambitious production to date with the musical Side Show, which plays at the McGlohon Theatre through July 19th . The musical, which tells the story of the rise to stardom and maturity of real life conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, is a sheer joy from start to finish. It is truly one of the most satisfying evenings of theatre I’ve had in a long time. Considering how rarely this particular musical is produced (this is no Oklahoma after all), I strongly encourage anyone who enjoys cutting edge musicals to find a way to see this one.

The musical is minimally produced with a collection of different chairs, two chandeliers, and some hanging drapes providing most of the scenery. Still, despite this, because of some truly stunning costumes provided by Stuart Williams and Leighton Aycock and some remarkable lighting design by Andrew Fisher, the musical seems lush and spectacular. Leighton Aycock’s vaudeville costumes for the twins and company are particularly impressive.

The success of this show is dependant on the abilities of the actors playing Daisy and Violet Hilton. They must be believable as twins, convince us of their “affliction,” and have distinct characteristics that generate sympathy in the audience. Alyson Lowe, who plays the fame-seeking and more cynical of the twins, is wonderfully brassy and captivating. Sydney Shepherd, who is only seventeen years old, holds her own despite her young age, and creates a remarkably layered performance that evokes the pain and yearning the more innocent and romantic of the twins must have faced. The two are amazing performers individually but it is their interaction as conjoined twins that really sells the show.

The musical opens with The Boss, the seedy manager of some far off sideshow, played with appropriate menace by Kristian Wedolowski (though his accent did make for some challenging moments for the audience during the opening number) introducing his collection of freaks to the audience. The company is strong and impressive. Marcus Sherman, who plays the sideshow “cannibal” and who is deeply in love with Violet, is particularly good. He steals the show in the song, “The Devil You Know,” and is heartbreakingly vulnerable when he realizes that though he is willing to give up everything for the love of a conjoined twin, his love interest (Violet) is unwilling to even consider being in a relationship with an African-American man.

Soon after we are introduced to the freaks, we meet the earnest young Buddy Foster (played with bright-eyed intensity by Benjamin Brian McCarthy) and his partner, producer Terry Connor (played by Steven Martin), who decide to take the twins to vaudeville. This is complicated by Violet’s romantic feelings for Buddy and Daisy’s less romantic infatuation with Terry. Most of the musical is built upon the conflicting feelings of the two men and whether or not they can find it in themselves to ignore the fact that any relationship they might have becomes a threesome. Steven Martin and Alyson Lowe illustrate the tortured attraction in the dreamlike song, “Private Conversation.” When Buddy Foster agrees to marry Violet (simply to keep her from feeling sad), McCarthy, Lowe, and Shepherd present the comically perverse “One Plus One Equals Three,” during which Buddy leers at the audience, suggesting that his motives are less than pure.

The musical, despite its serious subject matter, mixes pathos with big production numbers, and though it runs well over two hours, flies by and was over before I knew it. Again, I encourage everyone to see this very special musical. By now, the fact that Violet and Daisy Hilton spent their last years in Charlotte is no secret. I would like to think they are smiling down on this performance. They have every reason to.             Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

Tim Baxter-Ferguson is an associate professor of Theatre at Limestone College and Chair of that program. He is a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte and has had his plays produced throughout the United States and Canada.

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By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Ann Marie Costa
The Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte
June 6-28, 2008

Theresa Rebeck’s script is smart, funny, deceptively simple, and director Ann Marie Costa and cast make the best of it. Ms. Rebeck is not only a playwright, but a television writer with many credits for, among others, the Law & Order series, (a show that has single-handedly employed more New York actors then probably any TV show ever will). So she has observed the actor’s plight up close. She knows that pop culture moves along quickly and not everybody is able to keep up. Take Charlie (Brian Robinson), for instance, a former sit-com star; he’s now a jobless has-been actor whose wife Stella (Allison Lamb) supports him with a high-powered casting job she hates. That dynamic sets the stage for the events that follow as Charlie runs around railing against the system and the fates for letting him down.

Charlie and his best friend Lewis (Dave Blamey), meet Clea (Kelsey Formost) a young twenty-something from small town Ohio who is thrilled to be in New York. Although her syntax is annoying to Charlie, especially her use of the word “surreal,” there’s no getting away from the fact that she’s a beauty, and men being what they are…well, hey, naturally they want to have sex with her, even if she is empty-headed or maybe because of it. Except---Clea’s not as dumb or naïve as they think. A hint may be that she turns down initial offers of a drink claiming she doesn’t drink because her mother is an alcoholic, and then accedes, only to down the vodka in one gulp--twice.

Lewis invites Clea to his apartment and starts to make progress in pursuing her until Charlie shows up in a rage about a former high school friend named Nick who essentially wants Charlie to beg him for a nothing role in his new TV pilot. It’s a script so bad, according to Charlie, it might actually get made (Ms. Rebeck throws this in-joke in for the many writers who often wonder why such dreck is produced while good scripts languish). Clea is turned on by Charlie’s explosions of bile, sensing he’s ripe for somewhere to put his “anger.” (By the way, early on Stella turned Clea down for a job, much to her displeasure.) Stella is stunned by the betrayal, since she has been the “competent, perfect” wife and grown-up in the marriage. She’s devastated by the thought of losing her last hope of motherhood since she and Charlie were planning on adopting a baby.

The acting is top notch by all as director Costa perfectly cast the play. As Charlie, Brian Robinson proves again what a talented actor he is. While the audience could be put off by the character’s bitter narcissism, Mr. Robinson gives him just enough humanity and humor to keep us intrigued and wanting to see more of his personal train wreck. Dave Blamey continues to show his versatility on Charlotte stages. His Lewis, more low key than the others, has the outsider’s view on all the scummy goings on. A basically decent sort, he tries to deal with the scene the best he can. Allison Lamb is a terrific addition to our theatre scene. As the wronged woman, it’s easy to root for her steady, hard-working Stella. Yet, she also brings an extra dimension to the character when showing her belated acknowledgment that her very competency is one reason her husband’s ego couldn’t hold up. As for Kelsey Formost as Clea, this pretty young woman (who is still in college!), has star power. Unlike her character, Ms. Formost has the talent to realize her potential. In five years if Clea hasn’t snagged a rich man, or made some kind of solid career move, she will be watching the next bunch of Cleas come into New York taking over her territory. Whereas, Ms. Formost has all the attributes to take her to high levels and keep her in acting for the long haul.

The audience has come to expect technical excellence from Actor’s Theatre and The Scene is no exception, with lighting by Hallie Gray, costumes by Donna Conrad, and especially the set by Chip Decker, all adding to the excellent quality of the production. The plot, while not an overly original set-up is interesting when viewed in the context of modern pop culture and the desperation/grasping/desire for money/power/fame, deserved or not. The dialogue is sharp, barbed, clever; a real avenue to success for the play. You’ll laugh, cringe, gasp, nod in recognition, but most of all you’ll have a good time at The Scene. It’s first-rate theatre. Don’t miss it.                            Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright with over 80 productions across the U.S. She is the producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode and a judge for the National Youth Theatre Awards. Ann Marie is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

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Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Elise Wilkinson
Collaborative Arts Theatre
The Green Uptown
June 5-22, 2008

Don't let the ticket price (or absence of tickets) fool you. Free Shakespeare can still offer fine acting, with beautiful poetry and precise gestures, even when set on The Green between Charlotte's big businesses and buildings.

In this two-hour version of Shakespeare's romantic tragedy about young lovers caught in a family feud, the key notes are all presented well. Despite the challenge of traffic noises, from Tryon and College Streets on each side of The Green's open space, the performers captivate their audience and use various areas around them as stages. The large fish statues on one side of the Green give a backdrop to "fair Verona," with a newscaster as initial Chorus, introducing the play. Groundskeepers in modern clothes (designed by Kimberly Pixton Millar) then challenge others passing through the park, picking a fight in the Italian way, by biting their thumbs. Elegantly dressed elders in the powerful Capulet and Montague families are separated by a Prince and his men in soldiers' uniforms. But their passions only increase as the young Juliet and Romeo cross these family battle lines.

A small wooden building with a balcony (added to The Green by designer Tim Baxter-Ferguson) suggests various locales, with entry and exit doors for the actors. It's especially useful for the famous wooing scene--with the real moon shining overhead to reflect Juliet as "the sun." The Green's location also provides a much taller skeleton of a building in the background, with moving cranes and distant work noises even at night, reflecting the patriarchal powers that clash with the lovers' natural passions.

Body-mikes help the actors to be heard across The Green. Yet, much concentration is demanded of the audience, especially with the tragic nature of this play. It's a bit odd to hear the actors' voices coming from raised speakers in the background--more than from their own lips. But precise performances, using the Bard's poetry to sculpt a wide range of passions, reengage the audience despite such distractions.

Especially intriguing is Robert Lee Simmons as Mercutio, with evocative gestures, poetic spells, and a violent wit--when speaking of dreams, summoning Romeo, or fighting his mortal enemy. Corlis Hayes as the Nurse also provides comic relief with expressive antics. Peter Smeal's Friar adds a ritual conviction to his role, yet reveals its perverse trickery, when he wraps the lover's hands in his rosary beads, while secretly marrying them, or when he pauses and gestures slightly to suggest the opposite of his line about young men's passion coming through the "eyes."

The leads, Chaz Pofahl and Greta Marie Zandstra, play the young lovers' ecstasy, fear, and suicidal passions without sacrificing clarity. Others provide many moments of contemporary insight as well. Catherine Howard plays Lady Capulet with a poise and vulnerability well beyond her years, as she tries to make her daughter conform to paternal decisions. Caroline Granger is an obedient, yet suspicious Servant and Soldier. James Shafer becomes a sneaky, hooded Apothecary, like a modern drug-dealer in the park. Joe Copley as Lord Capulet takes his belt off his pants, whipping it against the ground (and slipping into a Southern accent) to impress Juliet with his marriage demand. And Jonavan Adams presents an Obama-like Count, who aligns himself also with patriarchal power in order to advance beyond a woman's feelings.

Whether you know this play well or only by its fame, whether you admire the lovers or lament their foolishness, this romantic tragedy, in its current incarnation on The Green, warrants another look. Given the current idolizing of young bodies and their passions onscreen, while others pull strings behind the scenes, a dose of Shakespeare's poetic tricks might be just what we need to cure us from too much tragedy in real life.                  Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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By William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by Laura Depta
Original music by Stan Peal
Musical direction by Ryan Stamey
Epic Arts Repertory Theatre
Duke Energy Theatre
June 7-22, 2008

If you're a purist and have the poetic verse of Shakespeare's Dream memorized, you may be scandalized by this musical adaptation. But if you're open to verbal changes that make the script more accessible and musical interludes that convey its emotional spirits, then this new version of a classic is well worth a try.

Depta and Peal, as set designer and technical director for this show, have transformed the Duke Power Theatre into a magical space. Rather than the usual bank of seats with a limited stage area, they've arrayed the audience around a circular thrust with multiple platforms, providing an Athenian palace at one end and a fountain-like fairy cliff at the other, plus forked tree limbs and trunks between. Fantastic costumes, wigs, makeup, and masks (designed by Amy Holroyd and Ryan Fischer) also run the gamut from ancient Greek robes, with bright colored layers and batik patterns, to furry, horned, and hook-nosed animal spirits. A puppet creature even pops up--out of cut tree trunk. Great lighting effects (designed by Stephen Clifford) add further magic, including a floating fluorescent ball.

Although just one musician (Caroline Firczak) plays the keyboard, Peal's music ranges from pop, with the young lovers, to operatic with the Athenian and woodland rulers. The quality of performers' voices is mixed, but the appealing variety of songs amplifies the many mood shifts and passionate twists in the Bard's lyricism--even while losing much of its original phrases and rhythms. Amy Van Looy provides the most powerful voice and sensual movements as Titania, Queen of the Fairies. But her spirit's force is matched by William Boyer as Oberon, the Fairy King, with his well-muscled form sniffing the air like an animal and his alpha commands directing Puck's tricks. Yet, despite her boss's authority, Barbi Van Schaick (one of the main chameleons at Children's Theatre) performs Puck with rebellious enthusiasm for the "play" of misplaced passions in the foolish mortals that she's manipulating.

Puck also finds inspiration in the Mechanicals--the bumbling laborers who rehearse their court play in the woods--as she watches them and decides to "be an actor, too." She then returns with Bottom (Stan Peal), the ham actor, transformed into a donkey-man, whom Titania falls in lust with, due to a magic flower and Oberon's vengeance. The young lovers from the Athenian court also have their passions twisted in a knot, through the fairies' flower power, with two men who loved one women then switching both to another woman, who'd complained that she's "as ugly as a bear." (Casting two black and two white actors in these roles makes the mix-ups even more intriguing.)

All is put right finally for a triple wedding as happy ending--and for the Mechanicals to delight the court and theatre audience with their farcical attempt at performing moonlight, a lion, a wall, and the tragedy of suicidal lovers (spoofing Romeo and Juliet). Bottom even adds a ballad about his dream in the woods, which is only suggested by Shakespeare's text.

Much is cut from the original by this show, especially in the jump from Puck's mischief to putting all the passions back in order. But, if this appetizer pleases, especially through its added arrangements of music and song, then the full course is still available in the Bard's script--but this is for those who are open to the magic of spirits at work in each of us during a midsummer night's dream.                           Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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Produced & Directed by Keith Martin
Book, lyrics, and slide projections by Brian Kahn
Musical and vocal direction by Jenna Neal Borman
Choreography by Keith Martin and LouAnn Vaughn
McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square
June 5-14, 2008

In the tradition of the Capitol Steps of Washington, DC, Charlotte is squawking again this year, for the fifth in a row, with its best bird brains satirizing local and national politics in a musical review. Part Broadway, part stand-up comedy, and part Saturday Night Live, this show continues to sparkle with stinging commentaries and songs about the famous people and foibles of our fair city.

Mike Collins leads the group in introducing the review as his "Charlotte Talks" radio show "on crack." The year's news thus becomes fodder for song parodies and surprise lyrics, with comical illustrations projected above. The satire ranges from Nik Mackey to Eliot Spitzer, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Bush, and John McCain, then back to local names like Humpy Wheeler, and even to Kermit the frog asking for a "civil election" instead of vicious TV attack ads. There are send-ups of our new light rail system, of US Airways' Frequent Flyer program, of rednecks, of HMOs, of Starbucks' coffee, of the Whitewater Center, of our sports teams, and much, much more. We also learn about the whorehouse in town and the true meaning of "Morehead Inn." There's even a choir song, as encore, about our street names leading to illusion and confusion.

The costumes and props, designed by Rebecca Cairns and Ann Hoskins, are decorative and useful. The musicians are superb. And the cast is excellent, especially the voices and personas of Mike Collins, Beth Troutman, Bobby Tyson, and Alan Morgan. But Kashanna Brown, Kevin Harris, Robbie Jaeger, Carmen Schultz, and LouAnn Vaughn also bring a special twist to the musical horse-play at various points.

It helps if you know the year's news when you see this show, or if you're a follower of Broadway and pop songs, so you get the multiple parodies of media images, sound bites, singers and lyrics, political celebrities, and plots. But even if you're not, there's much to learn through laughter in this topical treat, which puts the Queen City on the entertainment map once again.                          Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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By Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Dallett Norris
Choreographed by Arlene Phillips
North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Belk Theatre
June 3-4, 2008

Is Jesus a "superstar"? When the record album, stage musical, and movie first appeared more than 30 years ago, the association of Jesus Christ with media stardom in a rock opera was controversial--even sacrilegious to some. So was Mary Magdalene singing passionately about how to love Jesus and Judas blaming God for murdering him as he commits suicide. But today the mixing of Christology and rock music is familiar to many church-goers, as is the idea of Jesus (or one of his ministers) as a mass-media star.

And yet, seeing Ted Neeley, who played Jesus those many decades ago on Broadway and on the silver screen, resurrected now in the role presents a new twist to the rebellious beat of this rock opera. Early in the touring show, his voice seems a bit hoarse, as if he's been too long on a dusty trail. Other details become strange, too, with this more wrinkled Jesus, such as Mary Magdalene singing about how to love him (though Tiffany Dodson's voice is still beautiful and poignant) or his own song's lyrics about "three years" seeming "like thirty."

But Neeley's power--in voice and body--builds during the course of the two-hour performance, until he becomes almost superhuman, like his character. He shows alienation and vulnerability, however, both as the character and as an actor, in relation to the different generation that's cast around him. Thus, this aging movie star, also eclipsed by his younger self in the same role onscreen, portrays our current illusions and yet persistent beliefs about godlike figures, secular and religious.

Pilate almost steals the show, too, in his main scenes--with his ominous dream about the Galilean and then his passionate questioning of Jesus’ desire to die. Craig Sculli combines extraordinary vocal power and yet a shaking hand in showing Pilate's tragic flaw of authority, seeking a "crime" to convict the King of the Jews, while also trying to rationalize his vulnerability to the crowd's chant of "crucify him." Caiaphas (Darrel R. Whitney) likewise shocks the audience with his seductive politics, using his very, very deep voice to lure us, along with Judas, toward a bottomless well.

Corey Glover (lead singer of the band, Living Colour) plays Judas in this production, as a black man with red-dyed hair, crouching throughout the show with the weight of his treacherous fate, almost a tragic, raging clown, until he reappears at the end, after death, in MTV mode. His suicide by rope also gains new meaning as a self-lynching, blaming God then and the watching theatre audience, as well as the history between Christ's time and hours, for his role as villain.

The show's beginning makes such references as well, with a slow-motion massacre of civilians by soldiers in ancient costumes, using large-bladed battle axes. Yet, after the massacre (but still during the wordless musical overture), Jesus heals one of the slaughtered, raising him to life again.

The setting is both ancient and modern, with mostly period costumes, until Herod's (Aaron Fuksa's) bathrobe harem court and the MTV-like "Superstar" song near the end, questioning Jesus’ meaning to us today. The set design involves angular, metal platforms and a background bridge, with hanging nets in between. Jesus and his followers wear white and light-colored robes. The Pharisees, soldiers, and Pilate are in blacks and dark purple, with flat hats or a simple headband as signs of authority.

But there are also spectacular moments onstage, such as the bodies writhing in a collective mass of suffering under a grey cloth, asking the holy man for healing. Or Jesus in slow agony on the cross (where Neeley shows even more physical power as a 62-year-old actor) and then ascending upward after death, like the Dali Christ. Lighting effects include the audience as well, in the spillover of onstage transcendence and in the complicity of religious, mass-media idealism--or raging iconoclasm.

Stretching from the Vietnam War to Iraq War era, with its movie star onstage and its superstar Jesus, this revival of an early rock opera offers many pleasures and challenges to our Bible-Belt audience. Too bad it only came for two days and not a third or more. But we can always hope for another resurrection.                           Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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By Reginald Rose
Directed by Scott Ellis
North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Belk Theatre
May 27 - June 1, 2008

We all have certain genres of entertainment that we enjoy more than others. Me? I’m always up for another rerun of an old (or new) western, film noir, anything Billy Wilder and some family fare and chick-flicks that would surprise those outside my family. My theatre tastes are not much different. I lean more toward Neil Simon than to Ibsen. But nothing can hold me in tighter grip than a good courtroom drama. I love them… all of them. From the box office champs like Witness for the Prosecution and The Caine Mutiny to some that very few even know about, much less remember - like Sgt. Rutledge which starred Woody Strode, one of my favorite African-American movie stars of the fifties and sixties.

But I’ve always reserved the top shelf of the court drama trophy case for Twelve Angry Men which is in a class by itself. The film has such an iconic status in my memory that I was a little intimidated at having to review a live performance that didn’t include Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall et al. Come to think of it, Marshall also starred in my all-time favorite courtroom series The Defenders, which made all the Perry Masons and Matlocks look like little leaguers.

My preconceptions of Richard Thomas, the star of this show, were minimal. I’m probably one of a very small minority of viewers who has never watched a complete showing of The Waltons, the popular, long-running foster child of the movie, Spencer’s Mountain.

I quickly set aside any reservations about this production when we took our seats in the Belk and I got a good look at the jury room setting which seemed more authentic than I thought possible. Everything in the room looked tired, smudged and worn. Even the windows were stained and dirty, but you could still see some of the outside walls of the courthouse through them. It wouldn‘t have surprised me to see a pigeon camped out on the window sill. I had the impression that if this were the old days when curtains rose to start the show, we would have been so captivated by the set that we’d have gasped and broke into applause. (Note to myself: when did theatre start leaving the set sitting naked before the show without a curtain to cover it?)

That authenticity carried through the whole evening. I quickly forgot about Fonda, Cobb and the other film guys and became absorbed in what was happening with the cast on the stage in front of me. Aside from Thomas, the only actor I recognized was Kevin Dobson who used to be in Kojak. Like the set, the words were familiar, for the movie I had watched so often had obviously stayed true to its stage roots. And like the film, this was an ensemble effort with each actor getting several opportunities to shine. And they all did.

Unlike film, which lets the director use close-ups and camera angles to influence the viewer’s focus, this cast carried the weight of the story and the underlying tensions and prejudices all on their own. It’s difficult to single any actor out because (apologies to Mr. Thomas) it’s the work of the ensemble itself that is the star of the show. The script gives Julian Gamble and Kevin Dobson (Juror Three and Juror Ten) the most dramatic moments as they let their characters explode, releasing their deep-rooted anger and hatred on the other panelists. But other cast members were equally effective in letting their characters use humor, sarcasm or quiet thoughtfulness to raise questions or make points.

Although Richard Thomas’ Juror Eight seemed to lack the underlying strength of Fonda’s film character, I felt that his uncertainty about what really happened in the murder case and about the position he carved for himself in the jury room were very effective. It was that lack of certainty and his unfamiliarity with being the lone voice of dissent that made his character more human and intriguing. Despite his billing, Mr. Thomas seemed less a star than just another member of a cast that worked well with each other. That’s when ensemble theatre works best. And this was theatre at it’s best.

While my wife and I were in the parking lot elevator after the show, several of our fellow passengers were debating whether this production was as good or better than the performance they saw at the Roundabout Theatre in New York. We smiled because it doesn’t matter where or when it happens. This kind of theatre doesn’t come around that often, so it’s best to enjoy it while you can.                Review by Don Cook

Don Cook is a retired film and speech writer who worked primarily for the car companies in Detroit and Los Angeles. He was also a founding member of two Detroit professional theatres and his plays have been produced in eight states. He is now a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte.

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By Federico Garcia Lorca
Translated and adapted by Ted Hughes
Directed by Mark Sutton
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
Ensemble Company
Wachovia Playhouse
May 22-24, 2008

Children’s Theatre of Charlotte celebrates its 61st season with the Ensemble Company as an example of the innovation that keeps it so popular with parents and children. The Ensemble is for serious high school actors, with instruction on various techniques provided free for those who successfully audition and work throughout the school year. Their selection for this May’s production is Blood Wedding, an interesting choice.

Federico Garcia Lorca, an acclaimed Spanish poet/playwright was martyred in his prime by his political murder at the hands of Generalissimo Franco’s militia in 1936. His work was poetic, symbolic, surreal, and avant-garde for its time, raising the continuing question about artists---are they different because they’re artists, or are they artists because they’re different? In the context of the play, several characters go against the convention of their time, and Lorca was both praised and damned for daring to write about such issues. It cost him his life, but he left us with powerful works that still have resonance today because they deal with universal (if out of control) emotions.

Blood Wedding, about a love triangle, is said to be based on an actual account of a family tragedy in Spain. A Mother (Brittany Kvitko), bitter over the death of her husband and one of her sons, learns that her remaining son’s bride-to-be is related to the Felix family who had a hand in the killings. There is foreshadowing early on as she uses a knife to cut food, and her son, The Groom (Luke Pizzato), takes it back. They travel to see The Bride (Abbey Spoon) and her Father (Judson Abraham) to arrange the wedding. The Bride’s former love, Leonardo (Alex Brightwell) is married to her cousin (Adara Blake) who has had one child and is expecting another.

Needless to say, anger and passions run wild when right after the wedding Leonardo and The Bride run away into the forest to be together. The Groom pursues them looking for revenge. It’s never explained why the couple didn’t marry to begin with, but it’s clear their lust completely overtakes them when faced with separation, no matter the consequences or what that means for anyone else.

Lorca incorporated music/song, dance, verse and symbolism in the play as the Moon (Julia Grigg) decides she will cast enough light for the pursuers to catch the couple. She is encouraged by the Beggar Woman (Judson Abraham), representing death (payback for sins against morality?).

Director Mark Sutton has put together an impressive cast although some gender switches seem unnecessary and distracting in the first half where there is more humor. Brittany Kvitko does a good job as The Mother with her grief turned to anger, or resentment always just below the surface. Abbey Spoon as the Bride is effective in portraying a young woman trapped and unhappy, but willing to risk everything for a few moments of freedom. Alex Brightwell is suitably intense and believable as a frustrated husband caught in a loveless marriage. Luke Pizzato navigates his role well as the initially naïve, happy Groom trying to please his mother, then the betrayed new husband. Elijah Allred provides most of the comic relief as The Neighbor and The Servant. Adara Blake elicits sympathy as Leonardo’s confused and very pregnant wife. Julie Grigg does a nice job as The Moon, and Judson Abraham shows versatility as both The Father and the Beggar Woman. The other actors, Arianna Knox and Justin Kennedy, also add to the overall effect of the play.

The set is kept suitably spare, though there seemed a few awkward moments between scenes. The second act is more poetic, darker in tone, and more compelling when Leonardo and The Bride run away, and works better in reflecting the power of Lorca’s play. The production is particularly effective here showcasing the talent and potential of the young actors as the passions that drive the story lead inevitably to blood and death for their characters.                    Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright with over 80 productions across the U.S. She is the producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode and a judge for the National Youth Theatre Awards.

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By Doug Wright
Directed by Dennis Delamar
Starring Scott Ripley
The Actor's Theatre of Charlotte & North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Booth Playhouse
May 6 - 18, 2008

I didn’t see this show the first time around at Actor’s Theatre and that’s my loss, for I get the feeling that, as with any classic piece of art, new nuances and insights emerge with every repeat visit…and often just as many new questions arise. So even though several things about this show left me puzzled, one thing was perfectly clear – I had just witnessed an extraordinary theatrical tour de force that I’ll remember for a very long time. Scott Ripley’s performance is so compelling, and his immersion into his central character so complete, that that I'm glad he took off his head covering for the curtain call so we could separate the performer from that character and all the satellite roles that orbited around her. Stepping up to a one-person show is a daunting enough challenge, but taking on a one-person show that has over 30 characters, covers more than three-quarters of a century and utilizes more than ten languages and/or dialects seems as difficult as trying to define the reaches of infinity without Mr. Einstein’s theories to lean on.

The central character in this play is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, once-known-as Luther Berfeld. She is a transvestite who survived the intolerance and brutality of her father, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Russian controlled East German Communists and even the post-unification skinheads. Under all those regimes, homosexuals and others who were either non-conformists or whose lifestyles did not come up to the mandated social/political standards faced the same fate as the Jews and Poles.

Wearing a woman’s black dress, shoes, and headscarf, Ripley’s Von Mahlsdorf introduces us to her life's work - a museum that holds her carefully chosen collection of classic furniture, gramophones, art and other relics from Germany’s glorious past. The complex plot structure hangs neatly from a single peg - a playwright is conducting research and then personally interviews Charlotte because her collection and history are so intriguing. A neat twist to this device is that Doug Wright, the playwright of I Am My Own Wife, weaves himself into the fabric of the plot as a character named…Doug Wright. Most of Charlotte’s life-story is revealed in almost shy tones by von Mahrsdorf herself, yet Ripley lets the pride shine through when she talks about her collection and her survival.

My notes, taken in the semi-dark of the theatre, include some of my favorite lines that showed how Wright deftly added humor to lighten Charlotte’s shadowy story but also to add details that might have been overlooked without them. For instance, a note about a skinhead raid on a homosexual hangout said simply: “The gays ran; the lesbians stayed to fight.” In another, a psychologist sums up Charlotte’s account as…”not lies per se, but self-mitigation.” And then there’s another character’s assessment that Charlotte “doesn’t run a museum; she is one.”

There are also two facets of this production that impressed me more than others. The first is Charlotte’s revelation that her home not only became the Grunderseit Museum, but that it also survived detection by the SS and the Stasi as a gathering place for gays and lesbians during the Nazi and Communist regimes. Any history buff or anyone familiar with The Diary of Anne Frank or Schindler’s List would be impressed and even astonished by that accomplishment.

The second is a staging effect that I didn’t see coming. Even though Charlotte tells us that her treasure trove of collectibles is displayed elsewhere in the museum, we never see more than a few of them. I am pretty sure at this point that she is a little delusional; that her collection is probably no grander than what you’d find in any well-preserved historical home. I was wrong. Near the end of Act One, the stage lights dim and little red lights (almost like votive candles) can be seen through the backdrops that form the walls of the set. I liked the effect because it suggests that there really is more to her world that we have seen thus far. Wrong again. As the performance winds down to the final curtain, the stage lights cross-fade again and reveal the extent of her collection. Behind the scrim-curtain walls, the little points of light have been joined by a staggering array of furniture, art, gramophones and other collectibles that far exceed anything I had anticipated. It is a breathtaking and delightful moment that ties up the evening’s event with beautiful bow.

Another of the show’s most intriguing features are the questions about her life that are left unanswered. The most important of these is whether or not Charlotte accumulated her treasures at the expense of her fellow citizens. She does admit that, under threat of death, she agreed to be a government informant, and records show that she often acquired the belongings of neighbors, friends and other locals after they were arrested and carted off. However, following the reunification of Germany, other Stassi records indicate that she gave the officials no information of importance and was dismissed as an informant. So we are left with that ambiguity and a suspicion that the truth probably lies somewhere between the rumors and the dusty files of a now-defunct regime.

In looking for a downside to this production, I’d probably only quibble about the length of the play. The first act sped along like a Porsche roadster on the autobahn. The second seemed to get stuck in idle occasionally and I wanted to get back up to speed. I’m not sure whether the problem is with the script, the performance, or this viewer’s sleep-deprivation, but my guess is that trimming a minute of two from the second act would improve the flow without losing any important story-points.

That criticism in itself is revealing, for I was forced to stretch a bit to find something to knock. The script, performance, direction, lighting, set design - and yes, even the costume (singular) - all surpassed my expectations of what a local production can bring to the table. A very nice job indeed by Actors Theatre... and a well-earned standing O from a guy who doesn’t do that very often.             Review by Don Cook

Don Cook is a retired film and speech writer who worked primarily for the car companies in Detroit and Los Angeles. He was also a founding member of two Detroit professional theatres and his plays have been produced in eight states. He is now a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte.

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Book & Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Music by Alan Menken
Directed and Choreographed by Ron Chisholm
Musical Director Ellen Robison
Set Design Chris Timmons
Lighting Design Gary Sivak
Costumes by Annamarie Gatto
Theatre Charlotte
May 1 - May 18

The original musical opened up off Broadway 26 years ago this week. I don’t know if the timing is coincidental or planned but it works out very nicely. This show is totally campy and fun to watch. Wish I hadn’t had a linebacker in front of me, but I had an aisle to lean into. Come out and enjoy an oldie but a goodie and have a very punny time.

The narrators are the three urchins named Ronette, Chrystal and Chiffon. (Do the names sound familiar?) These Doo Wop caricatures of some of the great girl groups of the 60s musically carry the storyline along. Played in order by Monica Williams, Kecia Capers and Tonya Rogers; these girls can sing!! As well as throw in some comic relief.

Mr. Mushnik, the proprietor of the flower shop is portrayed by Stuart Spencer who is normally behind the scenes but found himself in a role on the stage. The lovable, gruff penny-pinching Mr. Mushnik (think Mr. Whipple) is great. The nerdy horticulturist, Seymour, is played earnestly by Patrick Chittenden (a high school sophomore) so well that the shyness, ineptness, insecurities and geekiness of his character are consistent throughout the show. Excellent job. Audrey, the cute, sweet, abused stereotypical Barbie doll is played by Christina Enrico to the "Nth" degree. Christopher Brown plays Orin (the cad) the leather clad motorcyclist, Audrey’s abusive boyfriend and sadistic dentist and various other roles. Audrey II takes the combined efforts of Paul Ash to manipulate her / him and is given voice by Matt Corbett.

Ellen Robison directs a small but powerful band to accompany the actors. They include: Jim Duckworth on guitar, Pat Cray on keyboards, Matt Curl playing percussion, Don Jaeger on bass and Ellen Robison at the piano.       Review by Karen Lambruschi

Karen Lambruschi has been involved in theatre in South Carolina for over a dozen years as a stage manager, teacher, director and (under duress) an actress. She is currently on the board of Rock Hill Community Theatre and works in North Carolina in the entertainment industry.

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By Hans Christian Anderson
Adapted by Aaron Moore & Nicia Carla
Directed by Nicia Carla
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
Wachovia Playhouse
May 2 - 11, 2008

Okay, we’re back on track now. My now eight-year old grandson found time in his busy schedule to go with me to a kid’s show, thus saving me the embarrassment of again sitting by myself in an auditorium filled with kids, parents and suspicious glances. However, when I couldn’t give him much advance info about the plot or the songbird in the play’s title, he hedged his bet by taking his new GameBoy along … “just in case, Papa.” I like to think that this has something to do with his Cub Scout training of being prepared and not a reflection of the old guy’s tastes in entertainment.

The precaution wasn’t necessary. The Nightingale is a marvelous little show (less than an hour in length) that kept both of us entertained throughout. The kid enjoyed the story that was unfolding on stage on one level; I enjoyed the political insinuations that jumped from ambush every now and then. Nothing heavy-handed here; just nice little jabs that are especially relevant in light of the current administration and its response to global issues.

The play itself takes place in China many years ago. The emperor lives in a magnificent place surrounded by beautiful gardens. He has no knowledge of – or interest in – anything that is going on in the real world outside the palace walls.

One night the emperor reads of a bird - the nightingale – that has the most beautiful song in the world. Being a William Randolph Hearst kind of collector of things beautiful, he commands his courtiers to bring the bird to him by the end of the day or they “will all be trampled.” It should be noted that the word trampled was in the original story by Anderson and is used as a frequent, delightful threat throughout the play. When the nightingale is eventually brought to the emperor, its song is so beautiful that he confines it to the palace. Its days of freedom are over. However, it isn’t long before the nightingale and its intricate melodies are replaced by the song of a mechanical bird from Japan which sings the same notes over and over. Eventually the mechanism breaks down and the emperor is so distraught he is in danger of dying (I have some relatives that reacted the same way to Elvis’s death). Only the return of the nightingale can save his life. It happens, of course, but the nightingale (probably with the help of an NFL agent) negotiates an I-need-some-space-outside-the-walls clause in the contract before everyone lives happily ever after.

Just as I like the team concept over the superstar system in sports, I prefer a true ensemble cast devoid of star focus in theatre. That’s one of the strengths of this cast which played multiple roles with flair and skill that translated into pure fun for themselves and the audience. The nightingale itself was a hand puppet (well, really a two-hand puppet) that was flown and sung by Ashby Baker who seemed to be having a ball with the role. However, in fairness it should be mentioned that his rendition of the supposedly ethereal melody of the nightingale probably wouldn’t have made the qualifying round of American Idol, and may have gotten Mr. Baker trampled by all three judges. But if an audience can accept that a man running around the stage with feathers on his hands is a bird, they can accept that his voice is the stuff that songs are made of. It’s all in the ears of the be-listener.

Darlene Parker Black played the lead role of Emperor with ease and didn’t seem conflicted by the gender-bending. Stephen Seay (as advisor Feng) and Leslie Ann Giles (as the kitchen maid) complete a more than competent cast that not only handled several roles, but also took on stagehand chores as they moved small panels and furniture pieces around the stage when the setting changed.

And as usual, the audience frequently got in on the act with enthusiasm. Whenever the emperor would enter, leave or even change position, Feng would turn to the audience and chant “All hail the emperor.” The kids responded on cue with “The emperor is great!” and then they all giggled.

I found most of my own giggles in what was between the lines. Aaron Moore and Nicia Carla did a good job of contemporizing Anderson’s tale and inserting some social commentary without bashing anyone over the head with a political agenda. For instance, outside the walls, the kingdom is experiencing such a severe drought that fields are left bare. A peasant asks the emperor to release water that is being diverted from the river to the palace grounds and thus alleviate the drought conditions that threaten the kingdom. The advisors assure the emperor that the rumors of a drought are exaggerated and that giving water to the farmers would mean that the palace fountains would go dry and the beauty of the grounds would be diminished. The farmers do not get their water. Another citizen requests more books so the children of the kingdom can be better educated. The request is overridden when an advisor convinces the emperor that there are not enough funds in the treasury for both books and swords. Swords win; books lose. Sounded sadly familiar…and so, right on.

Now I do have to admit that there was a bit of stage business that was very nice theatrically but which I didn’t really get. When the nightingale would sing, a wide piece of sheer fabric would come from his mouth and into the hands of the listeners on stage. Did the fabric represent the melody? Or love? Or…? During the talk-back session afterwards, I was tempted to ask the cast about the fabric but didn’t want to be the only adult with a question. Especially when the answer might be so obvious to everyone that I could be in danger of being trampled by the cast and audience. I was equally sure my grandson wouldn’t voice my question for me, so I settled for asking a woman who was exiting with us. She said she didn’t know either but thought it might represent the love of the music. I should have asked the cast.

Anyway, my grandson’s GameBoy never got used until we were back in the car because the kid was into the show from the opening scene. He even turned to me once mid-performance and said, “Papa, I really like this. “ When we were driving home he said liked The Nightingale better than The Commedia Pied Piper. That’s high praise indeed because that has been the benchmark he measures all shows by. And I wouldn’t argue with his judgment. This Nightingale is a keeper.             Review by Don Cook

Don Cook is a retired film and speech writer who worked primarily for the car companies in Detroit and Los Angeles. He was also a founding member of two Detroit professional theatres and his plays have been produced in eight states. He is now a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte.

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By William Gibson
Directed by Corlis Hayes & Corey Mtichell
Central Piedmont Community College
Pease Auditorum
April 25 – May 4
Special Review

Even though The Miracle Worker is over fifty years old from when it was first produced for television, it still has the power to move an audience. This is especially true when two very good directors are at the helm. Corlis Hayes and Corey Mitchell, though they are hampered by the odd stage dimensions of Pease Auditorium (soon to be renovated); they have obviously worked hard with their cast to bring the play to life.

The fact that everyone knows the story of Helen Keller doesn’t diminish the heartfelt performances of the lead actors. Full credit and kudos go to both Amanda Berkowitz as Helen Keller, and Courtney Wright as Annie Sullivan who do a terrific job individually, and together. One can only imagine the hours of rehearsal to get the timing and choreography of their “dinner” scene to look as natural as it does. Tony Wright, fight choreographer, has done an impressive job with that aspect of the show.

The large cast all do their best with Samantha Driver the most convincing as Helen’s mother Kate who loves her disabled daughter in a heartbreaking way that parents will understand. Even Maggie the dog gives some character to the proceedings.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but Annie Sullivan was only twenty when she first worked with Helen Keller. Her own deprived, desperate childhood gave her the wisdom to know that Helen needed discipline first and not pity to make the most of her life. Their inspiring story is well worth our time and consideration.                    Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright with over 80 productions across the U.S. She is the producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode and a judge for the National Youth Theatre Awards.

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By Ron Hutchinson
Directed by Ron Bashford
North Carolina Stage Company
Duke Energy Theatre
April 30 – May 4

Gone With the Wind, a dud? That’s what David O. Selznick believed three weeks into filming the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel. Based on “true events” Moonlight and Magnolias is a behind-the-scenes show biz story of the obsessive Selznick’s efforts to save the movie, and himself, from ruin. As the play begins, Selznick has fired George Cukor, replacing him with Victor Fleming who is pulled off The Wizard of Oz. He also calls in his friend, the playwright and former newspaper man Ben Hecht, to rewrite the script. The problem? Hecht’s never read the book. Selznick calls in his chips with Hecht and strong arms him by sheer force of will to help him. The three are locked in his office for five days with Selznick and the former macho chauffeur Fleming acting out the book as Hecht types a new screenplay. The set-up is inherently funny. The problem comes with the expectation that the play is “hilarious.”

Though billed as a comedy, the play is really a comedy/drama that tends to get heavy-handed at times. Discussions of the Hollywood treatment of Jews who run the studios but can’t join the country clubs; racism of the South that is accurately portrayed in this novel epic melodrama; who/what makes the movies successful as the producer/director/writer each pleads his case are all debated in between the fast paced comedy.

Director Ron Bashford draws good work from the ensemble cast, especially Scott Treadway as the manic, go-for-broke producer Selznick. Charles McIver’s contrast showing the tough director Fleming throwing his weight around and then acting out his “birthing” scenes are some of the funniest in the show. Willie Repoley is more effective when Hecht intellectualizes about the prejudices of Hollywood towards Jews and African-Americans rather than showing the cynical, rough-edged reporter turned script doctor, which reflects the more pragmatic side of his character. Lauren Fortuna has a nice character arc as the initially calm, servile secretary turned flustered, frustrated professional assistant trying to meet the crazy boss’ every demand.

North Carolina Stage Company brings a welcome professionalism to the Charlotte stage. The technical elements of the show: set by Rob Bowen, lighting design by Keith Kirkland, sound design by Hans Meyer, costume design by Deborah Austin are all well done. Moonlight and Magnolias is an entertaining comic back story of “old Hollywood” and one of our most revered movies that, incidentally, won eight academy awards including one for Selznick and one for Fleming. Ben Hecht chose not to be credited and someone else won for adapted screenplay for the movie. That’s Hollywood for you…                            Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright with over 80 productions across the U.S. She is the producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode and a judge for the National Youth Theatre Awards.

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From the series created by George Newall and Tom Yohe
Based on an idea by David McCall
Book by Scott Ferguson, George Keating and Kyle Hall
Music and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Bob Dorrough, Dave Frishberg, Kathy Mandry,
George Newall and Tom Yohe
Originally adapted and produced for the stage by TheatreBAM, Chicago
Director & Choreographer Ron Chisholm
Musical Director Drina Keen
McColl Family Theatre at ImaginOn
April 18 - May 4, 2008

Okay, so I went to this kids’ show alone. Again. That’s twice in a row. And the only explanation I have is that both my grandson and his mom are sorely in need of PDAs. Despite advance notice, this soon-to-be 8-year-old kid’s afterschool calendar was over-booked with a baseball practice, birthday party at a judo dojo (cool!) and a sleep-over with some teammates who were playing in a Saturday soccer tournament. All of these items had higher priority than going with Grampa to the theatre. But he did say he wanted to see the show, so I said I’d swap tickets to a night when his social calendar was more flexible. I struck out because this show is sold out for the next two weeks. I settled with a promise to buy some tickets to the third week, and I headed for ImaginOn alone. And feeling again that no adult should go to a children’s theatre performance without being escorted by a much shorter, much younger companion. This was going to be a downer if there ever was one.

Boy, was I wrong. This show was so much of an upper that it seemed a shame to waste it on kids. But kids were there aplenty. In fact, the place was packed to the walls with kids and parents who themselves appeared to be too young to remember the 70’s show on ABC TV which introduced a unique concept: let’s make learning enjoyable by writing clever lyrics and wrapping them in a rock-and-roll package that kids can sing and dance to.

I’m not sure how closely the TV show stuck to real rock-and-roll music, but I do know that the stage show I saw last night had more jazz and blues numbers than rock. The kids and parents around me didn’t seem to notice the discrepancy…or maybe they just didn’t care because they were having so much fun. Why quibble about terminology when lessons about multiplication tables, grammar, history, civics and science are all heading for the dance floor and the playground. The songs were great and the kids in the audience jumped right in. I loved the word play on the parts-of-speech songs like Verb: That’s what’s Happening, or A Noun Is a Person Place Or Thing, or Conjunction Junction, and others which were all cleverly written and performed. But what surprised me the most was the audience reaction that followed the gospel-rock rendition of Preamble to The Constitution. That’s right; the cast sang and danced The Preamble. When they finished, the two little girls in front of me were clapping and cheering louder than their mothers. And so did kids all over the auditorium. In other words, they got it! And so did I. I teared up (my wife could have predicted that one) and I can see some hope for the next generation after all.

And so it went--a simple, highly entertaining show that involved audience participation, simple costume changes, props, even roller skates and shopping carts to provide added interest. The sets and lighting were also simple and imaginative, helping to move the flimsy plot lines from one song to another. But most of these devices were not needed because what worked on TV thirty years ago worked even better today. A great deal of the credit for that is due to the enthusiastic performance of the six-person cast that went all-out to see who could wow the audience the most: Caroline Bower, Kashanna Brown, Nicia Carla, Robbie Jaeger, Lawrence Levine, Mark Sutton. If I had to select a favorite performer, I couldn’t; they worked so well as a team that I wouldn’t do them that disservice.

From opening curtain to final bows, this blast from the past show energized everyone in the opening night audience. Well, let me hedge that statement a little. About two rows down and five seats to my left, there was a grumpy looking dad guy and his kid sitting glumly and expressionless through the whole evening. I suspect that they had not behaved well at home and the McColl theatre was their time-out chair. They were the first to head out the door and down the ramp when the show was over.

The rest of us stayed behind to give the cast a well-deserved standing O.             Review by Don Cook

Don Cook is a retired film and speech writer who worked primarily for the car companies in Detroit and Los Angeles. He was also a founding member of two Detroit professional theatres and his plays have been produced in eight states. He is now a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte.

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By Douglas Carter Beane
Directed by Dennis Delamar
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
AprIL 4-26, 2008

Actor's Theatre of Charlotte offers here a behind the screens look at the gay side of Hollywood. Not "gay" as in the merriness of a classic, black and white movie. But rather, you know, like the rumors about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes being so "happy" together--for other reasons.

The ATC set, designed by Stan Peal, suggests this immediately with classic commercial icons imprinted on the walls, like Warhol prints, but with a large bedroom center stage--gray bed cover and gray carpet--along with side areas for further locations and angles of insight. (A central, upper platform also flips over, near the end, to reveal airplane seats for one character's escape from the hypocrisy of the other scenes.) The play is structured with many inner monologues and extended asides by various characters, involving the audience directly and ironically in their passions and ploys. The main mood of this "edgy comedy," as one character reflects, is snide humor--with romantic hopes of honesty and true love returning to the cynical, yet practical motto of laughing through the tears.

There's fine acting from all corners, especially by Brian Robinson as Mitchell, the rising celebrity, and Kim Cozort as Diane, his crafty agent-manager who pretends to be his girlfriend, but loves him in a much more intimate way as her protégé and potential mega-star. The twist comes when Mitchell meets Alex (Ian Bond), a younger, bisexual, male prostitute who brings out the star's desire to have a long-term boyfriend, or just a "date," in public. Alex also has a girlfriend, the boarding-school party-girl, Ellen (Glynnis O'Donoghue). But his love for Mitchell eventually grows beyond his connection to Ellen--while something else grows inside her. Even more ironically, Diane is wheedling and dealing to get a hit play about gay romance turned into a similar movie starring Mitchell. Yet this can only happen--as a major Hollywood picture, not just an art film--if Mitchell still appears to be straight. So, Diane comes up with an ingenious solution and proposes it to all three--as an alternative to the hush money.

Funny twists and witty lines abound in this play. But in the end, the joke's on us. We're the ones who idolize the Hollywood stars and force them to be false--in order to fill up our dreams with them, as ideal beauties, and yet also tear them down, through malicious gossip, scandalous photos, and tabloid lies. The soap-opera plot of this play, with its mostly superficial characters and their many quips, thus touches on many sore spots in our current mass-mediated lives--even while we, as little dogs, laugh at the dish running away with the spoon. Of course, for those little dogs in the audience who must also wear masks in their everyday lives, there's another level of poignancy here as well.              Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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by Carlos Murillo
Directed by Paige Johnson Thomas
CAST - Carolinas Actors Studio Theatre
March 27 - April 26, 2008

CAST offers a unique experience with this play--to go inside the virtual mind of a chat-room trickster. The theatre's entryway and lobby, as well as its stage space, have been redesigned with computer circuits, mouse devices, keyboard letters, and video screens. But the actors do even more to embody the dangerous wizardry of the web, under the able direction of Paige Johnston Thomas--involving also the multimedia wonders created by her husband, Jay Thomas.

One of the best actors in town, Robert L. Simmons, plays the lead in this dark comedy. (He also designed the play's fantastic set.) As Nick, he guides us through the desires of online chat-room users, selecting one, named Adam, because of his innocent purity--to tempt toward perdition. In his Mephistophelian role, Simmons charms and teases the audience, until we become complicit in the "dark play" of Web masks and plot spinning.

Nick uses the Web to convince Adam (Robert Crozier) that he's met the perfect girl, Rachel. But she's a fiction, co-created by the two men through lines of dialogue, projected on screens over the audience, and yet also played with stunning beauty, both real and manufactured, by Jennifer Barnette onstage.

Meanwhile, Nick is repeatedly questioned by his new girlfriend, Molly (Sarah Provencal), who wants to know about the scars on his stomach--after their passion has been consummated. But this dark secret from Nick's past is not revealed until it is acting out again in the present of his Web dream/memory at the climax of the play.

The interplay of theatre and Web, actors and spectators, is further reflected with scenes of Nick's high school drama teacher, Ms. Spiegel (Cynthia Farbman), inspiring her students with the idea of "dark play" as a game where only some of the players know it's not real. (Ms. Farbman also plays Nick's mother, giving us insights as to why his bisexual desires become so cruel toward those he loves, both virtual and real, and toward himself as well.)

Various other characters (played by Tamara Ivins, Kristy Morley, Lamar Wilson, and Matthew Melton) emerge through the devilish tricks that Nick plays on Adam, such as a mafia-like step-dad, Capisce 911, and a "Special Victims Unit" cop, derived from the Law and Order TV show. But all of them eventually prove to exist only in the collective dream/memory space of this theatre within the Web, or Web within a theatre, which brain circuits in the audience also create--if they choose to connect and play.            Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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WICKED: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Winnie Holzman
Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire
Directed by Joe Mantello
Orchestration by William David Brohn
Music Supervisor Stephen Oremus
Musical Staging by Wayne Cilento
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Ovens Auditorium, April 9-20, 2008

Wicked is so clever at every turn you can’t help but be swept away by the real magic created by the talented cast, musicians, and technical crew of the show. Gregory Maguire gets credit for the idea of using one of pop cultures most compelling stories to craft a whole new mythology with this narrative about the Witches of Oz. The music, lyrics, superior singing, choreography, dialogue, costumes, sets, lighting, etc., work to make it a perfect blend of all things enchanted and fantastic.

The story begins with Glinda (a wonderful Katie Rose Clarke) descending in her “bubble” to calm the people of Oz after the Wicked Witch of the West, better known as Elphaba (an equally wonderful Carmen Cusack) has died. The town’s people confront her about rumors of their friendship, and she tells the story in flashback beginning with how Elphaba got her unfortunate green skin tone. Of course, in school Elphaba is an outsider and perpetual outcast in a world that rewards beautiful, popular people like Glinda. The song, “Popular” is the highlight of Act I sung/acted to perfection by Ms. Clarke with Ms. Cusack playing her part deadpan, which can’t be easy given all the comic moments the audience enjoys.

Complications naturally ensue, including: the resentment of Elphaba’s sickly sister Nessarose (a touching Deedee Magno Hall); a snoopy, busybody matron named Madame Morrible (a delightfully corrupt Alma Cuervo); a handsome, misunderstood love interest Fiyero (a suitably charming/believable Cliffton Hall); the flaky Wonderful Wizard of Oz (well done by Lee Wilkof); as well as talking animals, flying monkeys, political intrigue/outrage, great costumes, huge sets, and a terrific ensemble. Other performances of note include: Brad Weinstock, Tom Flynn, and Spencer Jones. If there were any glitches, I was too intent on the action to catch them. And there are some interesting twists and reversals by the end.

The genius of Wicked, though, goes deeper than the story the audience is watching on stage. No matter what gender/race/sexual orientation/age/family situation/heritage, everyone at some point in his/her life has an equivalent of the cursed green color. It is the thing that one either is defined by or one transcends. It is this universal feeling of being different that is often unacknowledged but just below the surface; unnamed but deeply felt that keeps people from living as fully as they can. Friendship for women begins early and goes deep. The extent to which the push/pull of the relationship between Glinda and Elphaba accurately reflects down-to-earth friendship provides some of the most poignant moments in the show.

Books have been written; theories abound about the meaning of witches in folk stories and fairytales. Some current wisdom says she represents the wish of the child for the bad scary mother (often portrayed as the stepmother, not the “real” mother) to go away, and therefore must die; the good witch being the good part of mother that loves and protects the child. Whatever the reason, witches fulfill some need in the collective unconscious and children (and adults) are fascinated by them. Here they seem like opposite sides of the same person, because the point is that good/bad isn’t either/or, but rather manifests along a continuum. We tend to ignore or don't understand the reality that bad people aren’t necessarily evil, and good people aren’t necessarily nice.           Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright with over 80 productions across the U.S. She is the producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode and a judge for the National Youth Theatre Awards.

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By Flora B. Atkin
Directed by Matt Cosper
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
Wachovia Playhouse at Imaginon
April 19-20, 2008

The Tarradiddle Players offer inventive, charming entertainment for some of Charlotte’s youngest audience members. This show, aimed at three to five year olds, lasted about forty minutes which is a good time frame for this age group. There were only a few children having difficulty sitting still (which is very good) while the vast majority were watching the stage intently and participating in the fun when called on to do so.

Tarradiddle Travels tells four folk tales from different parts of the world. The first takes place in Mexico and features a poor put-upon donkey. The man and boy with the donkey get various points of view about whether they should or should not be riding instead of walking. You can’t please everyone! The next story called Mouse Marriage from Japan is a well-known one about a father mouse who thinks his daughter mouse is so special she should marry only the most powerful entity he can find until he realizes each one has to contend with a force he cannot defeat, and it brings him back where he started. The third tale from Puerto Rico about a fussy cricket that makes flan (a type of custard dessert) is fun, but my favorite is the fourth called Caps for Sale from the Sudan about monkeys who have some comical moments mimicking a lazy salesman.

Director Matt Cosper has cleverly put the show together so that the children’s short attention span is taken into account and the audience is directed around the stage, between the actors, and the changes of props. Full use is made of narrative story-telling, singing, and dialogue. The three young actors in the cast are engaging. Tania Kelly gets more of the reactive roles, but has her funny moments as the cricket, and the salesman. Jack Stevenson is expressive and does well with the singing and male roles. Alyson King’s energy is contagious and she is simply terrific in all her various incarnations as her face and body contort in unexpected, amusing ways.

Tarradiddle productions are meant to be spare, simple productions, but I do wonder if music could have been used in some way to enhance the performance since children respond so well to it; but overall this is a fun and worthwhile endeavor for our youngest/newest theatre goers.          Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright with over 80 productions across the U.S. She is the producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode and a judge for the National Youth Theatre Awards.

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Led by Dr. Maha Gingrich
Central Piemont Community Theatre
Halton Theatre
April 19, 2008

In the Euro-American tradition, theatre is often considered a separate art form from dance. But in many Asian cultures, dance dramas have been performed for centuries or perhaps millennia. Once a year, Charlotteans have a chance to see Indian dance theatre onstage--when Maha Gingrich presents the local dancers she has trained, along with other professional artists.

This year, the performance began with an invocation dance, seeking the blessings of Shiva, god of dance and destruction/rebirth, and Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of good luck. But first, Gingrich explained the dance and demonstrated some of its mudras (symbolic hand gestures). More such explanations with each of the dances would have helped spectators perceive further details. Yet, all of the dances were also enjoyable as abstract forms, for those who could not read the signs.

The first dance began with a bright light near the performers, turning their figures into shadows behind a screen. (Unfortunately, the light was so bright it made the screen difficult to look at.) The second and third performances, like the first, exemplified how dance is often a form of worship in India. These pieces gave spectators a taste of Bharatha Natyam (originally a temple dance) with images of the gods Shiva and Krishna projected on the screen behind the dancers.

The last piece in the first act was an even more elaborate example of dance drama: three scenes from "Shiva Leela," in the Kuchipudi style. With snow-capped mountains projected on the screen, illustrating the setting, the god Shiva (Deepak Hemnani) meditated atop the Himalayas and gave a blessing to his son Ganesh (Beejal Patel). But then the proud goddess Ganga (the River Ganges) entered the scene, disturbing Shiva's meditation. She was performed by Gingrich with wild, fluid gestures--and was also shown with aerial views of a mighty river onscreen. Shiva grasped at Ganga, but was unable to catch her. Then he used the power of his "third eye" (between the other two) with another hand gesture from his forehead, containing Ganga's destructive force on earth and tying her in the locks of his hair, to make her flow as the holy river, which purifies India today.

In the next scene of this dance drama, Shiva, while mourning the death of his first wife, became distracted by Cupid's flowers and arrows--and by the beauty of Parvathi. In his rage at Cupid's arrogance, Shiva killed him, but then regretted his violence and brought Cupid back to life. The final scene showed Shiva marrying Parvathi--as a happy end to the concert's first act.

The second act included half dozen folk dances from various parts of India, some of which told stories (with wives complaining about their husbands or other women worshipping a god). But there were also some surprise insertions. Rodrigo Jimenez and Vadim Kolpako performed a Russian gypsy (Romani) dance, with high kicks and body slaps. And there was an improvised "rhythmic challenge" between Gingrich, wearing 300 ankle bells, and the internationally famous drummer, Jim Brock.

Yet, the most unique piece in the concert came at the climax, with a combined dance--to live Latino music--of Indian and gypsy styles, along with flamenco and ballet. The entire show thus proved Gingrich's assertion of "unity in diversity." It also demonstrated once again that Charlotte is a cosmopolitan, "world-class" city, especially through the passion, skill, and energy of its Indian artists and interethnic community.                           Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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by Erica Schmidt, Andrew Sherman, Susan L. Schwartz, Tom Kitt, and Jonathan Callicutt
Bare Bones Theatre Group
Duke Power Theatre, Spirit Square
March 27-April 12, 2008

Oh my ... gosh. A musical based on a porn movie playing in Charlotte! What's this city coming to?

For those spectators open-minded enough to try it, director Jim Yost offers many edgy ironies in BBTG's first musical production. Cheerleaders and football studs may be easy targets for farce. But this show goes far beyond exaggerating such stereotypes for laughs. It plays upon the extremes of our mass-media desires, showing how silly we become in trying to see and have it all.

Despite the title, Debbie only does Dallas as a dream here--trying to leap from high school cheerleading straight to stardom as a professional "Cowgirl." She glimpses this American Idol goal through a try-out in "Small Town, USA," and then gets a mysterious letter saying she's made the squad. But her parents won't give her the money to travel to Dallas, so she and her teenage girlfriends get various odd jobs to enable her to go.

As in any porn movie, such a simple, superficial plot is just the cover for various sexy situations. Yet, the joy of this show goes far beyond erotic envy and fantasy. We laugh at ourselves as well as the characters--while watching the girls' foolish enthusiasm for making it big in others eyes and their gradual loss of dignity in doing anything for more and more money.

The simulations of hard-core sex scenes and twisted orgies are uproariously funny, skirting yet never crossing the line to the fully obscene. Set pieces, props, gestures, and choreography are all terrifically campy, especially when streamers fly and performances spill out--into the audience. The acting is uniformly excellent, even when cheerleading and football uniforms are exchanged for towels in the locker room scenes. Five fine actresses play Debbie and her girlfriends (Heather Leanna, Kristen Jones, April Leanna, Rachael Roberts Kozlowski, and Greta Marie Zandstra). Three versatile actors play their boyfriends and various bosses--each with a perverse desire that's realized at a price (Joshua Looney, Chaz Pofahl, and Ryan Stamey). It takes great courage for actors to play such farce and much skill to keep the waves of laughter rolling, especially when more and more of their bodies are revealed, as well as their characters' souls.

There are many sweet, campy songs in this show about cheerleading dreams, about the moral dilemma of making money by letting a boss see and touch one's breasts, about candlepower (you'll have to see it to believe it), and about "doing Debbie." There's even some crooning about the joy of stealing a friend's boyfriend and about the loss of that boyfriend--or of one's virginity. And there are further scenes teasing the audience with how far this show might go in presenting the girls' "Teen Services" business.

On the first night, the pre-recorded music was too loud at times and cut off abruptly during one song. Yet, Heather Leanna sang on bravely, making her performance even better than planned. At 90 minutes this musical might benefit, too, from an intermission break, at least to let the audience catch its breath amidst all the laughter. But these are minor problems compared with the fun physicality and wicked wise-cracks of this musical. It may be mostly foreplay, with its biggest climax in spectators' minds. Yet this show connects us with the subjectivity of the characters as sex objects, far beyond the 1970s porn movie on which it is based and the "male gaze" that women must still negotiate in their daily lives--while dreaming of true love and future appreciation.             Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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By Laurie Brooks
Directed by Matt Cosper
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
Wachovia Theatre at ImaginOn
March 28-April 6, 2008

In this problem play, three teens dig each other deeper and deeper into trouble--through curiosity, camaraderie, and confusion. The best part of the play is the discussion at its end, led by actors reading statements about their characters and asking for spectators to raise their hands if they agree, then continuing with many insights from both sides of the stage edge.

Jessie (Abbey Spoon) is bored hanging out with her friend Serena (Emily Moore), whom she teases as an "AP Princess," and with Moss (Daniel Szymczyk), whom she taunts about not being brave enough to use the switchblade that he's stolen from his older brother. She then leads this mini-gang to investigate the mystery of another teen's disappearance. They believe that the absent Corky is dead and that his "old man," Mr. Leisner (Sidney Horton), must have killed him. So they sneak into Mr. Leisner's house to find evidence, after taking an oath not to tell on each other if caught.

These friends need each other--to tease, bully, and trust--but their talk and actions show that they need caring adult guidance even more. They distrust parents and police. But when the drunken Mr. Leisner comes home, locks them in his house, and grabs Serena, Abbey shows her outrage against and fear of authority--expressed as a violent rage.

All three teens have wounds that are gradually revealed, provoking the audience to analyze their backgrounds, beliefs, and actions. Abbey Spoon is especially strong in her role, as both villainous bully and tragic heroine--engaging spectators' fears and sympathies to rethink their own identifications. A compelling sound-scape (designed by Van Coble, Jr.) is also created in this production, with eerie notes throughout and with police sirens moving across the offstage space. Lighting and set designs (by Jonathan L. Dillard and Micah Morrison), in both Moss's bedroom and Mr. Leisner's house, suggest the play's violent passions and disordered lives.

There are a few problems in the script and its performance (as when the teens try climbing out a high window before considering the door or when one of them thinks Mr. Leisner is dead, although she can see him moving). But these are minor flaws compared to the value of this production in exploring problems that teens face today: when left to their own mischievous devices, when dealing with abuse in their lives, and when forced to choose between loyalty and the law.             Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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Written and Performed by Robert Dubac
Executive Producer William L Franzblau
The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Booth Playhouse
April 1-6, 2008

The one-person show is one of the most difficult formats in theatre. It’s difficult to write; difficult to perform; and even more difficult to sit through. Three exceptions spring to mind – Miss Margarida’s Way; Shirley Valentine; and Lilly Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Robert Dubac’s The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron which played at the Booth last week is a solid candidate to be placed on my own mantle of the mind with those three, for it was innovative, thought-provoking, downright funny and - most of all – a piece I’d like to see again.

The sequel has many of those same attributes. At first glance that would seem to make it a show worth remembering. But on second glance, it falls short because much of the material in The Second Coming was already in … An Oxymoron.

It wouldn’t have bothered me if Dubac had just dropped some references to the Part-1 piece to bring the audience up to speed; what did bother me was that whole chunks of monologs, visual aids and shtick were lifted intact from the first script and dropped into the second. It seemed that I had seen about twenty percent of last night’s show the previous week. And although the rehashed stuff was almost as funny the second time around, it did put a damper on the evening. On the drive home I realized that my feelings about this show were similar to how I feel about television right now -- the writers’ strike is over, so it’s time to lose the repeats and get on to something new.

That negative criticism does not lessen my appreciation of Dubac’s many talents. I love the way he plays with words, twisting them and repeating them and juxtaposing them to get more humor and greater insight with each manipulation. Last night’s Act One was a continuation (and partial repeat) of … An Oxymoron, but the apartment on the stage-left (male) side of the stage was a little neater. A little more mature. The stage-right (female) side still had the almost-clean chalkboard that represented the uncluttered female intellect. The biggest change to the setting was that in Act Two, the chalkboard was turned vertically and becomes the “Door of Truth,” through which Dubac’s characters pass in their search for answers. The focus in Act Two turns to a study of Truth vs. Illusion – a theme that may sound tedious, but it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. It was both cerebral and corny; it was Mort Sahl meets Jeff Foxworthy. And it was all laced with some wonderful, rapid-paced word-plays and social comments that were both humorous and insightful. For instance in a sequence about what would happen if women did gain true equality, Dubac suggested that they might have to make some trade-offs. One of these was that women would get equal pay; men would get multiple orgasms.

Dubac also added some new characters to The Second Coming to show the influences that affect Bobby’s growth as an adult. I found that the new characters weren’t as well defined as those in the first, but that could be because the lines of distinction become blurred as we get older. The Colonel (my least favorite in the first play) is back, but this time we get a glimpse of his background and the reason behind his being such an obnoxious redneck. It seems that he graduated from an Ivy League University, but his intellectual philosophizing and attitudes didn’t sit well in Smyrna, GA where he settled down, so he chameleoned himself into a local jerk. I’m not sure I bought the premise, but it gave Dubac a rationale for the guy as well as a voice from Dubac’s own hometown --- a setting that is not too far from my own small-town roots out West. A new voice is Bobby’s feminine side -Bobbi –which we learn is his “metro-side…” not to be confused with “gay.” Other new characters include Phillip Pomeroy, an academic chauvinist; the Voice of Reason; and Uncle Bobby, a James Garner-ish old-man who delights in dispensing his opinions and words of wisdom (or lunacy) with no purpose other than to tick people off. I related to him in a heartbeat. We are kindred spirits.

So despite my feeling that the repeat stuff was an unnecessary shortcut, I found plenty to enjoy about the show, and I would encourage anyone who wants to laugh long and hard and still have a left-over chuckle the next day to take this one in. The Tuesday night audience was a little sparse which is not a big surprise because Tuesday nights in general are not known as big theatre nights. But since there are no more Tuesdays in this week, this might be the show to make your theatre week worthwhile. Especially if thought-provoking irreverence and laughter are high on your list of entertainment priorities.            Review by Don cook

Don Cook is a retired film and speech writer who worked primarily for the car companies in Detroit and Los Angeles. He was also a founding member of two Detroit professional theatres and his plays have been produced in eight states. He is now a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte.

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Written and performed by Robert Dubac
Executive Producer William L. Franzblau
The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Booth Playhouse
March 25-30, 2008

With a title like this show has, I think it was understandable that I felt the same kind of apprehension that every newly married man has experienced on his first trip to the drug store to get those feminine protection products that wives never seem capable of planning ahead for. Those fears became more intense when my own wife bailed on going to the show with me, citing some lame excuse about working overtime. A sense of dread hit me – the same sense of foreboding that would have been there if I had been going stag to a performance of the Vagina Monologues.

Those apprehensions abated somewhat as the houselights went down and an offstage voice made the obligatory announcement to turn off all electronic devices -- including pacemakers. I thought it was a nice touch since I don’t wear one (yet), and it set the mood for what was ahead. And then Robert Dubac came out on stage as Bobby and gave us a friendly intro to the show and established the basic plot line about wondering why his girl left him-- it had something to do with his not wanting to share his bed with her cat… or his need for space – an ambiguous term that sets the play in motion as Bobby searches for the answer and contemplates the difference between the female and male psyches.

As expected, much of what follows includes a multitude of clichéd viewpoints and stereotypical male characters, all played by Dubac. There’s a discourse on what an oxymoron is – some of these are old and worn (like military intelligence); some new (like the best of Geraldo Rivera.) But all in all, the show had a number of neat, insightful new twists that made the evening interesting and, in some cases, downright hilarious. In fact I haven’t had this much fun being insulted since that long-ago campus night when I sent the same love note to two girls who lived in different dorm rooms but just happened to be together when the notes were delivered. Their feedback was very straightforward, prejudicial and emotional -- as I believe Robert Dubac could have predicted.

Dubac uses a clever set to illustrate the difference between men and women; the left half of the stage is a man’s apartment, complete with dirty clothes, dirty dishes, empty beer bottles and all the other stereotypical props that littered male domains of Oscar in The Odd Couple and the frat rooms in Animal House. The other half of the stage, which represents the female mind, is simply a clean chalkboard. Both sets are used frequently to make a point or to serve as a visual aid to the discussion about male/female psyches and the left-side/right-side duties of the brain – in this case Logic (male) vs. Emotion (female).

All five chauvinists in the supporting cast were well done; each wrote one-word or a phrase on the chalkboard to summarize their feelings of what women want. I won’t give away the final conclusion or the surprising way that it evolved on stage. But it was so unique that the audience gasped, laughed and then applauded when it happened.

As for the supporting cast played by Dubac, the only character I didn’t like was the red-necky, retired Colonel who adhered too closely to stereotype to keep me interested. He believed that women want “honesty” – as long as it’s not about themselves. Another was Jean-Michel, a smarmy know-it-all French foreign exchange student who believes that women are susceptible to “abstract fatalism.” His chalkboard word is “commitment.” There’s also Fast Eddie, a throwback of the 60s fast-talking hot-rodder whose motto is “love ’em fast; leave ’em first.” He thinks women are looking for “Passion.” Another character is Old Mr. Unger who is only slightly older than I, so I related to his geriatric comments like “you know you’re getting old when your address book is filled with the names of dead people”… Not sure if that was funny or scary, but the audience loved it. I think my favorite line from Mr. Unger was, “… if a man plays hard to get, he doesn’t get anything.” When Mr. Unger scrawled “sense of humor” on the board, his writing had that same familiar written-in-overcooked-spaghetti mess that was in my own notes. The most surprising character was Ronnie Cabrezzi, a Bronx-born young man who defied my pre-conceptions by demonstrating a better grasp of what women need than the other characters. But he misspelled the word Sensitivity as he wrote it on the chalkboard. Perfect!

The description above doesn’t come close to explaining how completely the audience – men and women; young and old – bought into this show. The grins, loud bursts of laughter, and good-hearted knowing looks between couples made it clear that Dubac had nailed this piece. In fact, the laughter was often so constant and intense that many of us had had to wipe tears from our eyes. It has been a long time since that happened to me. It took me back the old days when I saw comedy acts like Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, and Mort Sahl - three comic geniuses who used their brains to get laughs instead of referring to the nether regions of the anatomy. But I have to concede that the superstars of my youth had nothing on Dubac. And while he may not like being compared to comedy acts, it’s meant as a compliment. Everything about this show was carefully planned and orchestrated; it seemed every little sight gag and joke not only had a payoff on the spot, but also at the ending when they achieved even deeper and more satisfying meanings about the tactics employed in the battle of the sexes.

Would I like to see it again? You bet. In fact, I bought the DVD so I could share it with my wife. Would I recommend it? Absolutely --- to anyone who isn’t offended by some words that Lenny Bruce might have used but never Newhart, Sahl or Berman. Did Bobby ever find the answer? Well yes. And no. To know for sure, we’d have to read the “Book of Women’s Rules.” It’s is a huge prop in the show. Every page is blank; the rules change every day.

But we all knew that anyway. We just didn’t know it was this funny. If you see the show, you’ll know what I mean.             Review by Don cook

Don Cook is a retired film and speech writer who worked primarily for the car companies in Detroit and Los Angeles. He was also a founding member of two Detroit professional theatres and his plays have been produced in eight states. He is now a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte.

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by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
Adapted by Wendy Kesselman
Directed by Ron Law
Theatre Charlotte
March 20-30, 2008

Ultimately The Diary of Anne Frank functions as a window to a claustrophobic world made up of a couple rooms in an attic, or annex, teeming with fear in Nazi occupied Holland during World War II. Yet, the story transcends this grim premise to rise to classic status and remain there for every generation that follows. It is something about the characters, yes, and the unusual story with its glimmers of hope for the human spirit in these most dire, even horrifying, circumstances. A story seen through the eyes of a child becoming a woman.

After the sold-out show on opening night (a Thursday no less), there were sniffles to be heard throughout the audience. Someone behind me murmured, "Whenever there is a production of this show, I don't think I can put myself through it. But then I go and I'm glad I did."

My guess is that most of that crowd was glad they put themselves through it. It resonates universally while revealing an honesty about people with all their flaws and strengths to endure a period in history rife with epic-proportioned insanity. A madness that repeats itself and reverberates in the mind like the periodic dropping of bombs in the world outside the attic. A world that Anne Frank describes as "transforming into a wilderness."

This production at Theatre Charlotte, directed by Ron Law, is very fine and distinguishes itself with its haunting, nuanced performances amidst the clever use of sound effects. Noises invade the stage at precise intervals to move the story along. The air raid sirens. The BBC broadcasts with snippets of news that wash across the rooms prompting near hysteria. Footsteps. Knocks. Rats scurrying. The numbing bombs, which these characters recognize are bringing them closer to the end, hopefully, of the war.

Julia Grigg portrays Anne Frank as a fanciful, spirited, often clumsy teenager imprisoned in that attic with seven other people. She has bonded with her father Otto, played by Dave Blamy with an almost saint-like but highly appealing posture, and is at odds with her distant but concerned mother Edith (lovely Caroline Granger) and perfectly behaved sister Margot (a winning Emily Johnson).This family unit is one to watch as the dynamics play out.

Anne keeps her journal and hopes to someday publish it as the novel "The Secret Annex." Writing is at times difficult for her, since her roommate is actually a grown man, the grumpy dentist Mr. Dussel, prissily played by Robert Haulbrook for frequent comic relief.

The other family group sharing these sardine-tight quarters are the Van Daans, clearly urbane and once successful, who have found themselves nearly broke. Mr. Van Daan (Robert Dominguez) struggles with his pampered nature, while his high-strung son Peter (Alex Brightwell) fights and flirts with Anne in various stages of each one's adolescent development. It is Jorja Ursin, perfectly cast as Mrs. Van Daan, who brings real sparkle to the proceedings with her stage presence as the woman who can't be parted from her fur coat. This role won Shelley Winters an Academy Award for the 1959 film and Ursin makes the most of the earthy humor and poignant moments.

Another key character is Miep Gies, the Dutch woman responsible for hiding these Jewish families being persecuted for their religion. Kathleen Taylor plays her with a pragmatic softness and a much-needed touch of elegance. As her co-conspirator Mr. Kraler, Kevin Campbell contributes a sympathetic performance.

Director Law, the superb cast, and everyone involved behind the scenes make this production well worth the trip back to a time and place that provide all the necessary trimmings for a horror story. This one reminds us of the societal dangers of an Adolf Hitler. Anne states that he has taken away her nationality. But her shell-shocked mother provides the gut reaction to the monster. "I knew what was going to happen when I heard Hitler's voice screaming out of the radio. I was paralyzed."            Review by Greg Paxton

Greg Paxton is an award-winning journalist and playwright. He was editor of the entertainment magazine On The Arizona Set, has taught creative writing for Coastal Carolina University, and has over forty of his plays produced, directed a dozen, and acted in several. Recently, his play Somebody Broke My Heart was the audience favorite at the Down Home Fest sponsored by Rock Hill Community Theater at Winthrop University where he received the Palmetto Award.

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by Stephanie S. Tolan and
Katherine Paterson
Directed by Alan Poindexter
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
McColl Family Theatre, ImaginOn
March 7-22, 2008

Tolan's Newberry Award-winning book has been given a funny and joyful production at ImaginOn. E.D. Applewhite (Nikki Adkins), a 14-year-old girl who is a careful planner, unlike her wild family of artists, speaks directly to the audience, explaining the situation at the start of the show. So does Jake Semple (Stephen Friedrich), a dysfunctional teenager who set fire to his school and was banned from all schools in his home state, then was sent to a Creative Academy in North Carolina, becoming its first non-Applewhite student. (He hates it at first. But at least he doesn't have to dig holes in the desert like another recent inhabitant of the ImaginOn stage.)

The Applewhites' home school lets students find what they want to learn and, as the charming grandpa, Zedediah (Michael Mattison), tells Jake, find where their joy is. The problem is that E.D. is the only one organized enough to create a lesson plan. Each of the other Applewhites tends to be a self-centered artist. And chaos often reigns in their house at "Wit's End."

Jake learns, however, to give up his attention-seeking vandalism, as well as TV, music, videogames, and cigarettes. He also learns to collaborate in teaching 4-year-old Destiny (played with tour-de-force childishness by John Wray), and to care for the dog Winston (puppeteered with aplomb by Robert Glahn) who, like Destiny, has formed a strong attachment to him. Eventually, he not only finds a place in the Applewhite home and school. He also gets the role of Rolf, singing in the father's community theatre production of The Sound of Music.

When the father, Randolph (in Steven Ivey's perfect caricature of a snobbish yet passionate director), bullies the technical staff and they quit, his family pitches in also to make the show a success. But they must produce it in their own barn and they lose electricity near the end of the show. E.D., as the stage manager, finds a brilliant way for the show to finish--and finally gets the appreciation she deserves from her crazy family.

Many more family members sparkle onstage. Aunt Lucille (the heavenly Nicia Carla), a hippy poetess, nearly suffers a nervous break down mourning the loss of her parsley garden to caterpillars, but survives through meditation, while teaching others the joy of life and how to make costumes in a pinch. Sybil (played by the always spectacular Barbi Van Schaick) endures writer's block while working on the great American novel, yet also learns to collaborate on her husband's show. Cordelia (Caroline Bower) seems self-absorbed in making her one-woman dance piece, "The Death of Ophelia." But she, too, catches the collective theatre bug when her dad needs to draw on the family talent pool--after the local stage mom, Mrs. Montrose (Mary Eva Gibson), almost closes him down. Even the visiting journalist Jeremy (Mark Sutton) contributes his cooking skills and accordion playing, as he is drawn--like the Children's Theatre audience--into the magic of this family's wildness.

Of course, the CTC technical staff extends the community theatre energy of the play within the play toward professional excellence with set, lighting, costumes, and sound effects. The "beeps" that cover various characters' foul words are especially hilarious--as are many details in this fine show. Though the plot and overall message may be simple, the vivid characters and sharp performances give a taste of many lifetimes in the Applewhites' spontaneous soufflé. And thus, their home school cum artist colony becomes an "adventurous quest," shared with the audience, to find meaningful connections through frustration, confusion, and yet a joyous creativity onstage.            Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice. His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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Created by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Conceived by William Meade
Directed by Joe Calarco
North Carolina Bluementhal Performing Arts Center
Ovens Auditorium
March 15, 2008

If you should get a chance to see Ring of Fire, go for the music. If you go for any other reason, you may well be disappointed. Don’t go to learn anything about the actual life of Johnny Cash. There is a reason the show is billed as “The Music of Johnny Cash.” This is definitely a revue and not a traditional musical. This “Jukebox Musical” features 30 songs most written or recorded by Cash. Some are familiar hits like “Ring of Fire” and some are obscure like “Cocaine Blues.” Yes, Johnny Cash recorded a song in 1958 called “Cocaine Blues”. There is a storyline but it is so barebones that most of the highpoints of Cash’s life aren’t even mentioned. For example, June Carter Cash, the great love of his life, his wife and muse, is mentioned once about midway through the first act and never again. Cash “dies” with a press release type announcement about midway through the second act that is followed by a rousing bluegrass style fiddle solo by Jens Kramer.

But the music, both the instrumentals and vocals are wonderful. The large cast is mostly young and energetic and they dance and sing their hearts out under the musical direction of Steven Bishop and the choreography of Karma Camp. The production values are excellent and kudos to scenic designer Walt Spangler and lighting designer Mike Baldassari for a spare yet evocative set that really highlights the music while allowing the cast to perform literally on several levels.

When it came to costuming however, it seems that the entire troupe was outfitted by the Thrift store with no particular eye to what people were wearing in the eras they were portraying in song. I am pretty sure depression era women did not wear low cut sundresses and multicolor cowboy boots.

No one actor portrays Cash. Jeremy Wood, Steve Benoit and Scott Stacy do a by and large acceptable while not exceptional job each portraying “The Man in Black.” Cash was such a musical force it’s hard for these three very earnest imitators to truly measure up to the original. But if you don’t expect them to be as good as the original then it doesn’t make the show any less enjoyable. The fast moving production really shines in the company numbers such as “Daddy Sang Bass” and “I’ve Been Everywhere” and you’ll find yourself clapping along as did most of the audience.

Johnny Cash left a huge legacy of music and Ring of Fire is an entertaining showcase that will have you leaving the theatre humming.              Review by Laura Pfizenmayer

Laura Pfizenmayer is a South Carolina playwright and freelance writer. She is a partner in Hometown Promotions, LLC, and a member of Playwrights In Progress at Theatre Charlotte.

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Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Music by David Shire
Directed by Elise Wilkinson
Musical Direction by Marty Gregory
Choreography by Greta Marie Zandstra
Collaborative Arts Theatre
The Duke Power Theatre, February 28 – March 15, 2008

Collaborative Arts’ Closer Than Ever is an impressive production. This musical revue of Maltby and Shire songs is not meant to be a big budget musical extravaganza, but rather an intimate look at relationships. Here is where the production excels and succeeds. The Duke Power Theatre is transformed into a cabaret-style setting with audiences seated at tables in front of the simple yet effective set by Andrew Gibbon. This creates the atmosphere that allows the audience to be close enough to connect with the talented singer/actors. There is no dialogue in the play so the lyrics of the 24 songs become the thread that takes us through youth to middle age, weaving together accounts of romance, marriage, friendship, and parenthood, each song being its own emotional little story; sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, but always understandable with universal truths with which we can identify.

Director Elise Wilkinson has done a masterful job with the five performers, bringing out each one’s individual strengths, yet also presenting a strong ensemble cast of two women and three men. Lisa Smith is a delightful, appealing performer who is animated and engaging whether she is giving her guy a dressing down in the humorous “You Want To Be My Friend?” to the more subdued “Back on Base.” Amy Van Looy has a strong, operatic voice and sings one of the most challenging solo pieces, “Patterns” about the sadness of bad choices and lost opportunities. Yet, she is wonderful in the comical “Miss Byrd” about an office worker euphoric after a lunch time tryst.

Jerry Colbert's work, well-known to Charlotte audiences, brings his usual high level of professionalism and strong baritone voice to the production. He is a generous performer and works well with the other cast members, while his solo, “If I sing” is thoughtful and charming. Dan Brunson’s tenor adds a nice touch and his everyday, good guy persona works to enhance his solo, “I’ll Get Up Tomorrow Morning.” Joseph Klosek, as the youngest male in the cast, also known to Charlotte audiences through numerous productions, gets to sing songs about romance and young adulthood. “What Am I Doing?” about an obsessive lover, who sits in a tree in the rain, is especially amusing. The three men sing one of the most poignant songs of the evening near the end of the second act, “Fathers to Fathers” as three stages of fatherhood are represented from the inexperience and doubts of new fatherhood, to an older father missing his adult children, to an adult son now parenting his own father. The ensemble songs are well done with everyone contributing.

The high energy level is helped by the expert choreography of Greta Marie Zandstra. The lighting design by Stephen Clifford is inspired but never overbearing. The musical direction by Marty Gregory is excellent, and contributes much to the overall success of the production. Her keyboard accompaniment, with Don Yaegar on bass, (a drummer was not available the night we attended) enhances but never overpowers the singers, allowing the lyrics to be clearly heard.

Many will not be familiar with the music, which tends to be very “Broadway-like,” but as is true of any play, it is the story/stories expressed through the lyrics and the talent of the singers that make all the difference. This polished production is all the more admirable because it is a sophisticated, challenging music revue. Don’t miss Closer Than Ever if you want to see independent theatre at its best in Charlotte.               Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva's plays have received over 80 productions across the U.S. She is producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode, and a judge for the National Youth Theatre Awards.

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Based upon the New Line Cinema film written by Tim Herlihy
Music by Matthew Sklar
Book by Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy
Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Originally directed by John Rando
Direction recreated by Paul Stancato
Originally choreographed by Rob Ashford
Choreography recreated by Chris Bailet
Stanford Broadway Lights Series
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Belk Theatre, March 4-9, 2008

The Wedding Singer, the Musical Comedy based faithfully on the Adam Sandler movie of the same name, opened last night at the Belk Theatre to an appreciative crowd. The paper-thin plot and equally emaciated characterizations did little to deter the obvious enjoyment of the audience that erupted into a spontaneous and heartfelt standing ovation at the end of the show.

The biggest draw to this frothy event is its slavish homage to the 80s. I can readily admit that I was entrenched in that decade. I had a pair (or two) of parachute pants, I wore skinny ties and “rocked” to the musical stylings of Depeche Mode and Duran Duan, so with my teen-aged daughter in tow (who is obsessed with the decade in a way I don't ever remember being), we sat expecting to be entertained. For those looking for this nostalgia, you would not be disappointed. There's enough big hair, shoulder pads, and “Michael Jackson” gloves to go around. Though, unlike the movie, there are no true covers of classic 80's music, the original music evokes the time period.

As in the movie, the musical follows Robbie Hart who, as the title suggests, makes his meager living as a wedding singer in an 80s cover band called “Simply Wed.” Robbie, at the start of the musical, is a hopeless romantic who sees nothing better than being part of such an important event. Of course, everything changes when his heavy metal tramp of a fiancé leaves him at the altar. Merritt David James plays this role made famous by Adam Sandler. He is a capable comic with a nice enough voice. Unfortunately, throughout the production there seemed to be some problems with the sound and I could often only barely hear him even though I was sitting in the third row. Since this was the opening night in this space, I can only assume the significant problems in sound amplification will be corrected before the next paying audience watches the show.

Robbie's love interest is the sweet and overly earnest Julia Sullivan (Drew Barrymore in the movie) played by the charming Sarah Peak. Ms. Peak's performance is as good as can be expected with the material she's given to work with. The character is essentially a waitress who wants to be married and that is all. Perhaps in a movie such shallow characterization can be compensated by sheer star power, but I wanted more.

Still, as I alluded to earlier, the crowd seemed enchanted by the production, and, I admit that despite the lack of any real plot or characterization, it was easy to be sucked into the exuberant music and inventive choreography. This combined with some inspired comic moments (many from the film but some created specifically for the musical) made for an exciting evening. Standout performers included the previously mentioned, Andrea Andert who played the skanky ex-fiancé of Robbie, and Penny Larsen as the foul-talking grandmother.

If you enjoyed the film or if you're a big fan of the 80s than it's likely you'll find much to love in this inoffensive and entertaining homage. If your tastes run more to compelling characters and interesting conflicts this might not be for you. All in all I enjoyed the infectious music, the wonderful choreography and the period costumes, and it was clear that the audience really enjoyed this performance—and I will say this, I'm still humming the opening number.          Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

Tim Baxter-Ferguson is an associate professor of Theatre at Limestone College and Chair of that program. He is a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte and has had his plays produced throughout the United States and Canada.

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Directed by Nick Olcott
Book and Lyrics by Merlanie Marnich
Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman
McGlohon Theatre
One of the Presbyterian Hospital Family Series
Presented by the North Carolina Performing Arts Center
and The Kennedy Center Theatre for Young audiences on Tour
March 2, 2008

The Brand New Kid is the first kid’s show that I’ve attended in Charlotte without my 7-year-old grandson. This solo flight was my own fault because I hadn’t checked my own assignment close enough. All I had was “Katie Couric” on my calendar. I didn’t know it was a children’s show; I thought it was Katie in person doing a lecture series or a reading of some kind. By the time I realized my mistake the morning of the show, my grandson couldn’t squeeze this into a Sunday schedule that included church, baseball practice, lunch at Mickie Ds, a batting cage workout with his best friend and an afternoon soccer game that I would have liked to have seen. As strange as that sounds, it doesn’t compare to how strange I felt when I took my seat in the half-filled McGlohon for the late matinee and noticed some parents looking at me sidewise, like they were wondering what the old guy is doing at a kid’s show without a kid in tow. I can’t blame them because I had a few questions of my own in that regard.

But after the show started, all the questions disappeared and my concerns about watching a kid’s show sans kid were realized. The show, which is based on a book by Couric , is as predictable as I had feared; the acting just as over-the-top as I had anticipated.

The story deals with the loneliness of a Hungarian immigrant boy (Lazlo) who on the first day of the school year, tries to find a place for himself with second graders who have been together in kindergarten and first grade. His very blonde hair, his foreign accent and his unfamiliarity with things American make him a target of ridicule and deepen his feelings of isolation. As expected, one of his new classmates, Ellie, finds something they have in common (soccer) and they become friends and she helps him win the others over. No new ground here. There’s a politically correct mix of genders and races, including a class bully and a clique-chic brat whose valley girl "tude" and dialect seemed odd for an elementary school in the Deep South where the play is set. All three of the adult roles are played by one actress who takes two of them are so far over the top they may have shown up as blips on flight control screens at Douglas International. I cringed in pain as she overdid her school cafeteria worker shtick complete with huge buck teeth like Jerry Lewis wore in the The Nutty Professor. I couldn’t watch so I looked around at the kids in the audience. The few older ones (i.e. soon-to-be middle schoolers) looked like they were practicing their looking-down-their-nose techniques that will be their M.O. for the next few years. The young ones were standing in front of their seats, giggling and pointing and eating it up. The parents were shaking their heads and laughing at the fun the kids were having.

So like it or not, I can’t knock it. From an objective viewpoint, the plot had all the right messages; the acting was good but no better than the acting at Imaginon; the songs were all professionally written and performed… especially by the two leads – Zack Colonna as Lazlo and Miriam Liora Ganz as Ellie; the sets and lights were simple but effective; the direction didn’t get in the way. And that’s it. Nothing else stood out. But as I walked through the lobby, I heard kids arguing about who they liked best. That sounded very familiar. I couldn’t wait to see my grandson and ask him how the soccer game turned out.            Review by Don cook

Don Cook is a retired film and speech writer who worked primarily for the car companies in Detroit and Los Angeles. He was also a founding member of two Detroit professional theatres and his plays have been produced in eight states. He is now a resident playwright at Theatre Charlotte.

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By Omimeo Mime Theatre
Directed by Hardin Minor and Eddie Williams
Wachovia Theatre, ImaginOn,February 28 – March 2, 2008

Words can barely catch a taste of the delicious magic in this show. First, a man wearing white gets entangled in a clothes line, Charlie Chaplin-like. Then he has more fun hanging underwear, spinning a laundry basket, and reinterpreting a lawn chair. All this, even before the black lights and magic of his dream storm.

Through the darkness, many fluorescent colors and malleable figures emerge. Flying clothes, newspaper, and umbrella in the street. Slowly mutating and floating shapes. Ocean waves, seashells with a pearl necklace, fish underwater with coral, plankton, anemone, and squid. Jelly fish, a bat ray, and a shark that threatens two divers but then has its biting teeth removed and replaced with kissing lips. A mermaid glowing green and orange. Then some ballroom dancing. A South American dancer with singing coconuts, plus other stretching, flying, humanoid and alien creatures.

As an encore, two ping pong competitors (Hardin Minor and Lazaro Memije) enter a Matrix-like realm of play, where they, the table, and the ball may float in slow-motion like astronauts or zip in high-speed like bees. Even for mass-mediated, video-game saturated kids today, such fantastic magic in a live, shared dream-space without a screen continues to entertain. Omimeo also reprises this show, originally presented last year, to celebrate its 30th anniversary and to honor the life of famous mime Marcel Marceau.             Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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Created and Directed by: Luke Cresswell
and Steve McNicholas
Lighting by: Steve McNicholas and Neil Tiplady
Production Manager: Dan McGuire
Production Sound: Robby McLean
Belk Theatre, February 26 - March 2, 2008

Paying homage to their British roots, the diverse cast of STOMP jumped onto the stage yelling, “Oy!” to one another before pounding on everything but the kitchen sink to make their melodic ruckus. Oh, wait, there eventually was a kitchen sink. The opening night of the acclaimed off-Broadway production STOMP was nothing less than phenomenal as the performers in grungy soiled clothes drummed out rhythms and beats on household goods and street garbage that you’d never think even made the slightest sound.

The show blew in with a single street sweeper fluffing dust and breaking bristles with his push broom. Minutes later, the rest of the ensemble joined him as more dust flew about and even more broom straw settled on the stage. Who knew that dirt could sound so good?

On to the bit that obviously gave the show it’s name; ‘STOMP’. Having attended a Historically Black College and University years ago, most of the cast's foot stomping and knee slapping directly reminded me of the Greek fraternities and sororities that littered the campus presenting ‘step-shows’ throughout the year. Crowds would gather around to admire the dance moves as well as see who could come up with the most creative performance. The cast members of STOMP definitely delivered the most creatively annoying, but fantastic, performance I’ve seen yet.

The cast, made up of two females and six males, managed to engage the audience with their clapping call-backs throughout the evening, and thus caused several patrons to join in prematurely. It was evident that hundreds of people didn’t mind sitting in the middle of a pseudo landfill because they were being entertained.

The cast strangely drummed on aluminum garbage cans, rustled local newspapers, thumped match boxes, drained the infamous kitchen sink complete with water, pots and pans, and even grossly cleared their throats in sync to make music. My favorite was the thud of rubber pipes that resembled cello strings being plucked in proper chords. Simply soothing.

If you’ve heard your children clanging kitchen utensils together, among other throw-away objects, and dreamed of burning them all, STOMP is a must see. You’ll have a new appreciation for junk.            Review by Dawn Cauthen

Dawn Cauthen is an aspiring screenwriter and graduate student at Queens University of Charlotte studying Creative Writing with a concentration in writing for stage and screen.

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by August Wilson
Directed by John Rogers Harris
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
February 8 - March 1, 2008

August Wilson has been the leading black playwright in America for two decades. He wrote Gem of the Ocean just a few years ago, toward the end of his life. It does not have the poetic power of some of his earlier plays, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Fences, and The Piano Lesson. Yet, like those works, this one builds from ordinary domestic routines, with various characters telling stories, toward conflicts and revelations about black experiences in a certain decade of the twentieth century, including the ghosts that haunted it and the spirits that continue today.

After writing a play about each decade of the twentieth century, Wilson returned to the early 1900s (and many of the issues in Joe Turner) to set this play in Aunt Ester's home in Pittsburgh, circa 1904. Actor's Theatre gives the play a beautifully detailed set, designed by Ken Ellis, with lanterns and a stained glass window over solid wooden doors, with period couches and chairs in the sitting room, with a wood burning stove and working water pump in the kitchen, plus table and chairs there, and a desk in between the two main areas. Most of the story-telling takes place in the kitchen. Yet, the sitting room is also significant as the entry way to the home and the place where the elderly Aunt Ester (Karen Abercrombie) gives a ritual therapy to the young, guilt-ridden Citizen Barlow (Jeremy DeCarlos) at the climax of the play. Both Abercrombie and DeCarlos give excellent performances in demanding roles. So does Marcus Minnard Sherman as Caesar Wilkes, the black sheriff, who demands respect for his power and assimilationist ethos, when he pounds on the door and enters the sitting room. Another, very moving portrayal is given by Kim Watson Brooks, as she subtly shows the inner conflicts of Black Mary, as well as her daily labor in the kitchen, while caught between her abusive brother Caesar, her controlling boss Ester, and her potential love for Citizen. Yet another intriguing character is Solly Two Kings, played with charm and poignancy by Sidney Horton, as he insists on his value to society as a dog manure collector, a former slave, and a fighter for the working man.

The main plot involves Citizen's need for healing from Aunt Ester; because he has a "hole" inside him, after stealing a bucket of nails and watching another man, blamed for the crime, commit suicide instead of living in shame. She helps him by sending him on a journey to find two pennies--and then by giving him a paper boat on which he rides to the City of Bones, reconnecting with his ancestors who died in the Atlantic during the slave trade and with their African traditions (such as the Yoruba egungun rite of West Africa). This part of the play is wonderfully presented with actors in masks and a set transformed, through uncanny lighting and a transparent wall, into a mystical space of history, memory, and ghosts.

Various political issues also arise through the play's dialogue. What good is freedom? Were some blacks better off as slaves? Does a woman need a man to "fill her"? But the power of this production emerges through its fine poetic details, rather than its grand statements--in ritual gestures, in props (such as the paper boat, which turns out to be Aunt Ester's bill of sale as a slave), and in the moving performances by all actors involved. At nearly three hours, it is a demanding show for the audience, especially with all the story telling. Yet, Actor's Theatre and director John Rogers Harris should be much applauded for bringing this evocative glimpse of Wilson's work and its many ghosts to the Charlotte community.            Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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by Bert V. Royal
Directed by Glenn T. Griffin
Queen City Theatre Company
February 7 - 23, 2008

CAUTION: Audiences offended by constant cursing, suggested sex, and adult themes should skip this one or risk a very uncomfortable ninety minutes. This is not meant to be "Peanuts," nor "Peanuts Lite." It may be like a "Peanuts" heavy: heavy on a lot of things considered “for adults only” but not as weighty as art. It is the exact opposite of ripped (off) from the headlines dramas that change the names to predict the obvious individuals involved.

Nothing is familiar in Bert V. Royal’s R rated retelling of this gang grown up. The Snoopy-like character is “offed” before the lights come up and he’s taken "Woodstock" with him. CB (Scott Flanary), and his “Goth this week” sister (Elizabeth Simpson), mourn this loss as the play begins. They might mourn the loss of true thematic unity as well as Royal gives his characters little to work with besides borrowed identities.

C.B. asks each of his friends if they believe in life after death. It becomes increasingly apparent that they believe in little beyond their own now narrow lives of sex, drugs, and a bit of rock and roll. This isn’t unrealistic, but it’s not great drama either.

There is Matt (Patrick Howsare) who behaves like pig, an out of the closest "Beethoven" character (Matt Kenyon), gossipy girl friends (Jenn Quigley and and Ashli Stepp). Extra applause should go to Amanda Nicastro who plays a Lucy-like character, sadly and ironically now under psychiatric care (for pyromania), and creates a credible and “fiery” character.

Bert V. Royal is not the first playwright to lift characters. Tom Stoppard took Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from the pages of Hamlet; playwrights and authors are allowed to adapt. Each is judged on the quality of his/her work. Despite the efforts of director Glenn T. Griffin and a talented ensemble cast the play itself is plot-less and predictable. Playwright Royal, not the actors, appears unable to push past the one joke narrative and built in laziness of his pre-fabricated "Peanuts." Queen City Theatre fills a needed niche and deserves a level of support that matches their commitment to the craft.        Review by Rita Leonard

Rita Leonard is a communications specialist who has most recently taught English at local colleges. She is originally from New York and in no danger of losing her accent or affection for the theatre.

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by David Mamet
Directed by Michael R. Simmons
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre
January 24 - February 23, 2008

Why do humans kill? In David Mamet's 1983 play, Edmond, we follow the title character from a visit with a fortune teller and escape from a dull marriage, through his odyssey in the sexual and violent underworld of New York City, to his sudden murder of a young girl, and then his capture, interrogation, and imprisonment. (He demands that the girl accept her identity--though he has not accepted his--and then he finds he has a new one.) The play was a hit in London with Kenneth Branagh in the lead role in 2003 and it was made into movie starring William H. Macy in 2005.

The current CAST production finds ingenious ways to fit this play into its intimate theatre and turntable stage, while parts of it also overflow into audience spaces. A whore (Tania Kelly) and a bar girl (Catherine Howard) might approach you at the bar in the lobby or you might find that the sink in the bathroom is taped off as a bloody crime scene. Inside the theatre, spectators are also be invited to visit the Fortune-Teller (Corlis Hayes), before Edmond does, and to join the congregation onstage at the start of Act Two, with other denizens needing salvation, as the Preacher (Jonavan Adams) stirs their souls. There's a physical stirring, too, as the turntable moves beneath this and other scenes, involving the audience in Edmond's spinning world and transforming identity.

The set deftly travels through 18 locations, with many telling details displayed. All the scenes are well directed and all the performances precisely defined, with various actors artfully playing multiple roles. For example, Corlis Hayes plays a peep show girl and woman on the subway. Jonavan Adams is a pimp, as well as a preacher. John Xenakis is a leafleteer, pawnshop owner, and priest. Even the director, Michael Simmons, filling in for a lost actor, plays a pawnshop customer and a cop. Yet, Glenn Hutchinson gives the most heroic effort in the solo-role of Edmond, a modern day Everyman moving from boredom in marriage to curiosity in the prostitution game, to the thrill of survival in the streets, to a seductive zest for life, to a sudden crime of passion.

In this realistic, but mythic journey, Edmond leaves his wife (Kathleen Taylor), then meets a Man at a bar (Christopher K. Hull) who dares to speak their shared undercurrent of racist thoughts and sends him to the Allegro, where he finds himself negotiating for affection at a price--with the same seductive bar girl that spectators may have met in the theatre lobby. He also goes to a peep show and a whorehouse (or "health club"), gets beat up on the street and loses his wallet through the tricks of Three Card Monte, tries to get help from a blind hotel clerk, and then hawks his wedding ring and picks up a World War II knife at a pawn shop. Through these verbal, violent, and sexual experiences, another Edmond emerges--a primal character who berates a black woman on the subway, beats up a pimp on the street, and picks up a sweet girl at a coffeehouse (Jennifer Barnette), then makes love to her in her apartment too madly.

Mamet's fragmentary storyline and choppy, yet intense dialogue often challenges the audience to discern more of the mystery behind these many, partial presented characters. Ironic insights are sometimes offered in the dialogue: talk of whites envying blacks, of being "bred" for one's destiny, with whites being "sheltered," and yet of a destiny beyond heredity and environment, glimpsed in dreams. But more often, language fails and bodily seduction or violence becomes the only means of communication. Edmond ends up in a prison cell forced to have sex with his black cellmate (James Lee Walker II). Yet, he then finds a spiritual connection with that man (rather than with the priest who visits him), a sense of hope in a shared vision of both darkness and light.

In this difficult play, spectators, too, may find not just the titillation of traveling safely through a steamy underworld, but also a discovery of primal passions that point to different potential destinies for our lives.             Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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From the book by Clyde Edgerton
Adapted by Reid Leonard
Directed by Dennis Delamar
Piano Arrangements & Musical Direction by Ellen Robison
Theatre Charlotte, January 31 - February 10

The setting for this play is given very tongue-in-cheek as Listre, North Carolina, "close to the present, but a little in the past." The set was designed by Joe Gloster. It is multi-tiered (I can't even remember how many levels there are) and the different levels and areas are utilized to create different places and times to help promote the essence of the play.

It has been a long time since there have been this many of the matriarchs of Charlotte's theatrical pool together on stage. Annette Gill is totally awesome as the 78 years young, but slowing down widow, Mattie Rigsbee. I don't think I could make it through the acrobatics she has to accomplish in this role. Polly Adkins shines as Alora, the busy-body next door neighbor with a runaway imagination. Ginger Heath is phenomenal as the caring older sister, Pearl (how do you walk on a raked stage in heels?). Ann Israel plays the "holier-than-thou" Beatrice. The antics and small nuances these women have crafted and fine tuned have brought their characters to larger than life proportions. They have become their characters.

Mattie's grown children are played by Jennifer Hubbard and Steven Martin. They bring insightful asides into their mother's life, and the dual conflicts of interacting adult to adult at same time as talking parent to child and vice versa are brought to the fore.

Joe Smith plays the dog catcher, Lamar, an easy going guy. Mattie calls him to remove a stray dog from her yard and Lamar rescues Mattie from an embarrassing situation. He stays, eats one of her delicicous meals, and is always ready to lend a hand if she will feed him. Lamar's juvenile delinquent nephew, Wesley, is beautifully played by Andrew Clark with all the angst and energy of a male teenager. Wesley's girlfriend Patricia (Moochie Moo) is played by Julia Grigg with both wit and charm.

Michael Ham plays Alora's gun-crazy husband, Finner. The policemen are played in true "Mayberry" fashion, by Matthew Corbett and Nick Iammatteo. Rounding out this wonderful cast are Philip Morgan, Victor Sayegh, Stuart Spencer, David Cruse, and Caroline Granger.

Church hymns have been incorporated into the play and are integral to the interpersonal events on stage. Kecia Capers is the angel with a voice to match as she leads her earthly choir (think Greek chorus) in hymns including the title hymn. Choir members are: Roshunda Anthony, Robin Clay-Pugh, David Horton, Emily Johnson, Patti Jones, Graham Mason, Susan Mason, Suzanne Newsam, and Julianna Sosa.

Of special note is the partnering Theatre Charlotte is doing with the Charlotte - Mecklenburg Police Department for Animal Care and Control. Every evening the role of the homeless dog is played by a homeless dog. Information on adoption is available on those dogs as well as a book of "critters" including more dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, a pygmy goat and even a gerbil. Who wouldn't want to at least look and think about it? Congratulations for bringing this need into the public eye.

A truly ensemble piece, I got so caught up in it, I stopped taking notes just so I wouldn't miss anything. If I missed anyone, please forgive me, I will be back to see it again and make sure I miss nothing then.        Review by Karen Lambruschi

Karen Lambruschi has been involved in theatre in South Carolina for over a dozen years as a stage manager, teacher, director and (under duress) an actress. She is currently on the board of Rock Hill Community Theatre and works in North Carolina in the entertainment industry.

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Adapted by David Wood
From the book by Roald Dahl
Directed by Mark Sutton
Puppets by Drew Allison
The Children’s Theatre Of Charlotte
January 25 - February 10

Upon hearing that The BFG was another story of an abused child in a British orphanage, my first reaction was, “Come on, guys; we saw that story in The Christmas Doll just a few weeks ago.” What I didn’t take into account was that the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte had never let me down or failed to delight my grandson. That record is still intact.

The play quickly shifts from the standard poor-orphan-girl story into a dream world in which giants prowl at night during the witching hour, snatching children from their beds and gobbling them up like Halloween trick-or-treaters scarfing their candy. The one exception is the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) who spends his nights implanting happy dreams into children’s rooms through a long trumpet-like horn. When he is discovered by the orphan, Sophie, he grabs her and carries her to his home where he convinces her that he’s really a nice giant who is a vegetarian, not a people-eater. He shows her his collection of bottled dreams, and later takes her with him on a dream-collecting trip.

In contrast to all that niceness, the kid-eating giants get a chance to show their sinister side as they prowl, snatch and chomp their young prey during the witching hour; naturally they view Sophie as a tasty hors d'oeuvre, which sets up a hilarious good-guy vs. bad-guys struggle.

One of the most entertaining aspects of this show is when the BFG uses Roald Dahl’s unique and delightful Gobblefunk language. Words like Disgusterous (disgusting); and scrumdiddlyumptious (delicious) all got giggles from the kids and smiles from the parents. But the one that got outright laughter from all (including the very proper woman in front of me) was whizzpoppers (farts). The word is explained and then demonstrated on several occasions and at a variety of decibel levels. All received as much laughter as if they were on The Redneck Comedy Show or in the Blazing Saddles campfire scene.

Among the many funny characters in this play, the most unexpected is the Queen of England who gets her fifteen minutes of fame...and whizpopping. She eventually sets the happy ending in motion when she finds a place for Sophie and the BFG in Buckingham Palace... an ending that seemed a little too reminiscent of The Christmas Doll’s finale. But that’s quibbling.

For me, the storyline has to take a back seat to the actors and tech staff of this production. As might be expected, the actors who play the leading roles are first-rate. Paula Schmitt (Sophie) has the toughest task because her role is so familiar -- i.e. boring. Duke Ernsburger (the BFG) has more opportunity to show off, and he seems to be having a great time while getting it right. However, it is the rest of the cast who have the real challenge. Barbi Van Schaick, Nicia Carla, Nathan Rouse, James Dracy, and Chaz Pofahi each have to play several different roles - a daunting task in itself. But when they play the evil giants, the difficulty increases significantly. Each actor has to speak lines and move about the stage while wearing oversized giant feet and manipulating the huge, cartoonish arms, hands and heads attached to the 14-foot skeletal framework hanging from their shoulders or torsos. And they do it all with deceptive ease.

Another unique aspect of this production is the constant shifting of size as the storyline changes focus. Sophie is full-sized in one scene; in another, she is played by a hand puppet that the actor either holds or walks beside while speaking the lines. Town buildings of dollhouse proportions make it possible for the BFG actor to seem more, uhh, giantish in one scene. But when the BFG is dining with the life-size Queen in Buckingham Palace, he becomes a huge puppet who sits on top of a trunk that’s on top of a baby grand piano. It is all very creative stuff that the audience bought into quickly.

On our drive home, I asked my grandson what he liked best about the show. With no hesitation he said, "The whizzpoppers.” That was the first thing all evening that didn’t surprise me.       Review by Don Cook

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Based on the novel by Irvine Welsh
Adapted for the stage by Harry Gibson
Directed by James Cartee
A Citizens of the Universe Production
The Milestone Club, January 23-25, 2008

Kudos to producer/director James Cartee. Not since Artzilla has Charlotte seen such an original, subversive production. And yes, it’s that Trainspotting. You may have seen the 1996 film which has become a cult favorite. Also adapted from the book, the film is a gritty black comedy about a group of young, socially disaffected heroin users in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1980s. It doesn’t get much blacker (comedically) and grittier than the stage production at the Milestone Club. It is definitely not for those with delicate sensibilities. Age should have nothing to do with it, though. A person can be old at 20, and young at 80, so don’t let that stop you from attending the closing performance tonight.

There is a reason, if not a message to all three incarnations of this story. We are mostly guided on our “tour” of the mean streets by Mark Renton (John Wray) who looks around him and is not impressed with what he sees. You’ll probably recognize much of the dialogue, “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a ******* big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers…” Then, the crux of the play, “I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reason? There are no reasons – who needs reasons when you have heroin?” As mentioned, this is not a message play. The audience simply goes along for the ride. There isn’t a plot per se either, but a series of escalating scenes that shows the brutality of addiction. Renton is intelligent, he tells us he is a dropout university student, but alienated and staring at the “truth” as he sees it in the beginning; you are born, suffer and die, without much fanfare or making a difference. Yet, if you become addicted, all your fears, anxieties, and problems just become one big problem - scoring heroin.

Also along for the journey are the multiple characters portrayed with zeal by the ensemble cast, all giving every ounce of energy to the multiple scene changes, costumes, and Scottish accents they use. John Wray is outstanding as Renton, the sarcastic, alienated, anti-hero. He maintains the accent throughout, but is understandable. If his performance doesn’t work, the play doesn’t work, but he does an excellent job of making Renton just human enough that there is empathy in the face of his depraved behavior. That’s not easy. Joel Sumner is a standout in his roles, especially as the initially sweet, naive Tommy. Jenny Wright is one of those actors who bring energy onstage whenever she’s in a scene, and is interesting to watch. She has one of the grossest scenes in the play, but somehow makes it work. Diego V. Francica is the most intense actor in the production and suitably scary as Berghie, although at times I couldn’t understand his thick accent. The other actors: Stephen West-Rogers, Kaddie Sharpe, and Teresa Abernathy also add nicely to the mix.

The “comedy” alternates with the torturous, shocking scenes of Renton trying to kick his habit when he’s physically sick and bodily functions are out of his control, or he callously uses other people. Because Renton doesn’t preach to the audience, merely reporting on his debased life as an addict, the audience can witness everything without being forced to make a decision of right or wrong. It simply is the way it is. Renton’s explanation about why he choose heroin? “Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still not near it.” Then you see the result of that choice.

The Milestone Club provides good atmosphere for this particular play. The program is a bonus and unlike any I've ever seen with CD's of songs donated by various local and regional bands. The technical folks deserve special consideration that so much was achieved with so little, but wear warm clothes. The near capacity audience sat in their coats throughout the play, although it didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. Trainspotting is quite an accomplishment.               Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a writer and producer/editor of ARTS à la Mode.

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by Adam Long, Reed Martin, & Austin Tichenor
The Reduced Shakespeare Company
The Booth Playhouse, January 16 - 20, 2008

"I'm a moron with a dream and that is the most dangerous kind of moron."

Well, okay. These ominous words come early on from one of the three loose-lipped intellectual clowns in The Complete History of America (Abridged) by the Reduced Shakespeare Company at the Booth Playhouse. And the brain trust who dreamed up the concept for this show and five others just like it was definitely onto something. In fact, for completist fans, there is also the Hollywood version, the Shakespeare version, the biblical version, the literary version (also running at the Booth), and another madcap historic tutelage, that of western civilization in general. No doubt they had fun with those hedonistic Romans in togas...

But back to this particular one. God bless America. The RSC has given her yet another attack to survive. Only this one is with a rapid-fire humor that would even crack a glimpse at the Statue of Liberty's stony teeth.

The show is Americanized Monty Python academia with nods to the Golden Age of Radio, Vaudeville, and television with its sketch comedy variety shows, notably Laugh-In, and a touch of Benny Hill. In other words, it's hysterically funny.

Our three co-conspirators in mad mirth are Dominic Conti, the aforementioned moron who stomps around with mock idealism and scene-chewing emotion and plays all the female characters, including the seductive ones that cause the other guys to experience "strange stirrings"; Reed Martin, the chrome-domed grounded one who tells most of the risque jokes and dons the trenchcoat to play gumshoe Spade Diamond in the whirlwind film noir segment; and Austin Tichenor, the most chameleon-like and thespian-like who "wears glasses to look smarter" and has a resume that includes television shows CSI: Miami, The West Wing, and Nip/Tuck.

What fun they provide. The proceedings get cranked up with a cute little Native American tribal elder skit followed by a salute to explorer Amerigo Vespucci with a theme song that has shades of Gilligan's Island. We get a tongue-in-cheek colonial period with its early wars and founding fathers, followed by one of the brightest contrivances of the show - Louisiana Purchase explorers Lewis and Clark doing a Vaudeville routine. An improvised Civil War slideshow, blithely narrated by anonymous British voices male and female, closes out the first act. The she-Brit informs us that right after Abe Lincoln was assassinated at Ford Theatre, his wife was asked, "Other than that, what did you think of the show?" Nothing like a little droll Brit humor to balance out the slapstick. We're even told that the Booth Playhouse is the only local theatrical venue named after a presidential assassin.

The list of presidents portrayed here include Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln (as an actual balloon head atop a massive body in the funniest and most tasteless bit), Franklin Roosevelt (with spot-on flair), Nixon, Reagan, George Bush I (whom Reagan confusingly calls Nancy), and our current Bush II. In fact, George W. makes a surprise appearance in cowboy drag to undergo a question and answer grilling session with the audience that's only mildly amusing. While there is no Clinton impersonation, there are a few snarky Lewinski references.

The jokes hit the audience like projectiles at warp speed, but there is an occasional thud. The worst were the lame attempts at sexual humor for the sake of a naughty wink. A particularly crude one with Spiro Agnew (obscure at best) should be cut. A nasty one targeting John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe seemed to work. Well, for some.

Also, if you sit anywhere near the front of the theatre, be prepared to get a little wet. There is a World War I trench warfare scene where our doughboys shoot at us with water pistols before they don wigs and brassieres to disguise themselves as the Andrews Sisters (from World War II no less) and sing and dance their way out of the heat of battle.

It is ultimately that film noir sketch that covers the most ground. Spade Diamond meets a beautiful redhead named Lucy and she's enlisting his aid to protect her fella Ricky Riccardo from a secret conspiracy. After she does some 'splainin' and Diamond gets a call from a Peter Lorre type, the silly plot wheels turn and we hop, skip and jump through the McCarthy trials, Vietnam, LSD, Watergate, disco, Irangate, and the New World Order.

Very little Americana has been left out of this wisecracking opus. For an update to the script, Carrie Underwood is mentioned as a foil for Madonna, whose name in a show usually elicits a smirk. Non-yanks Sean Connery and the Beatles earn honorary fav status.

Overall, this is a thundering herd of wily laughs that will leave you giddy. Wine is on sale at the concession stand.             Review by Greg Paxton

Greg Paxton is an award-winning journalist and playwright. He was editor of the entertainment magazine On The Arizona Set, has taught creative writing for Coastal Carolina University, and has had over forty of his plays produced, directed a dozen, and acted in several. Recently, his play Somebody Broke My Heart was the audience favorite at the Down Home Fest sponsored by Rock Hill Community Theater at Winthrop University where he received the Palmetto Award.

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by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor
Reduced Shakespeare Company
The Booth Playhouse, January 15-20

Not able to read as many books as you want--or feel you should have done? Fear not. You can experience the gist of 80-some "great books," including War and Peace, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, and The Odyssey, just a bit abridged, in less than two hours.

The audience becomes part of the show, as Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor, and Dominic Conti perform a high school coach, drama teacher ("Professor"), and student assistant giving a last-hours remedial class to help us graduate. They begin with "Great Expectorations" and then Coach diagrams Little Women on the white board as if it were a football play. They explore ethnic labels in Huckleberry Finn, enter a midstream improvisation about George Bush and the city of Charlotte, and explore Walden Pond as if it were written by Hemingway. Their ad libbing with each other and interactions with the audience are even more hilarious than the goofy scenes they act out from the books. Yet, catching multiple connections to famous works and characters we think we know or dimly remember is also part of the mysterious delight of this show. Is that Captain Kirk or Odysseus in the red cape with omega on the front--and as a small doll outwitting the giant Cyclops?

Of course, if you know Spanish while the performers are acting out parts of Don Quixote in that language, you'll find the simultaneous translation even funnier, especially as the student teacher struggles to interpret the vulgar into more polite terms. At other times, though, he rails against the censorship of great works, while also being horrified that the N-word might be spoken. Thus, the conflicts between the players, which make the audience laugh almost continuously, also suggest significant issues, albeit briefly.

Some of the best parts of the show don't just give the gist, but also expand the ironies of certain books. The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid are shown together as "The Idiotity" with dancing Trojan Horses and silly battle scenes that hint at a tragic flaw in basing cultural identity on the tricks of war. The inner monologues of Joyce's Ulysses--with performers reacting to their cinematic voiceovers onstage--reveal the split psyches we may also experience, as we seek meaning in our mass-mediated, partly scripted lives. The interviews with Jane Austin, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf (with the help of an audience member in a blonde wig) show our uncanny relations, too, to female authors of the past as heroes in a male dominated medium, with the possibility of our first female president now on the horizon.

But don't let such hints at seriousness mislead you. This show is total fun. Its extraordinary energy and wit teaches us to laugh at ourselves for not knowing as much as we pretend to. Yet, it also may provoke us to try again at those books, such as War and Peace, that seem an impossible challenge, but somehow influenced who we are--especially through those teachers who tried to share them with us.             Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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Puppeteer Drew Allison
The Grey Seal Puppets
Wachovia Theatre at ImaginOn
January 12-13, 2008

Many of us might know the story, but none of us has seen it performed quite this way before. Younger spectators laughed in delight and even my 12-year-old son, Peter, said it was "cool"--when Drew Allison performed a variety of puppets in distinctive voices to show the morality tale of an emperor's vanity and his subjects' fearful complicity.

As narrator, Allison creates the palace with a simple stand, fabric, and tasseled ties, then explains how the Emperor spends all his time changing clothes and looking at himself in a mirror. A camel as Prime Minister shows his main job of holding the Emperor's mirror (as we imagine the Emperor dressing behind a screen). A walrus Counselor says he polishes the crowns and watches the Emperor's diet, so that he'll continue to fit in his clothes. We also meet Greasy and Sleazy, two foxes from the "shady side of town," who eventually concoct a plan to get money from the Emperor by making him a magic suit of clothes that can only be seen by those animals that are fit for their jobs.

Children from the audience are also brought onstage to play various villagers--an elephant, toucan, mouse, cocker spaniel, and leopard--watching the Emperor's parade. But a bear cub is the one who points out that the pig Emperor is actually wearing nothing, helping him to learn to spend "less time on himself."

As in Japanese Bunraku, the puppeteer was visible here along with the puppets, yet also developed his own character, as narrator, along with many others. Allison demonstrated a great sense of theatricality in the movement of his body and of the puppets' forms, in their characteristic voices, and with the rhythms of storytelling and story-showing, at times interrupting the flow to create further suspense and wonder. At the end of the show, he also explained how the puppets were made--encouraging the children to make their own at home with paper sacks, plastic food containers, and "dirty socks." Thus, he gave many gifts to spectators, young and old, showing the possibilities of a familiar story taking on a new life and bigger meaning.             Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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Based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Originally directed by Trevor Nunn
Originally choreographed by Gillian Lynne
Directed and choreographed for the tour by Richard Stafford
Ovens Auditorium, Jan. 8-13, 2008

Humans are animals. We know this, but we often think of ourselves as opposite to the bestial, wild, or savage. Yet, many of us keep pets around to maintain a connection to our animal brethren. We tame those pets to bring them over to the side of culture and human rules--while also enjoying their different, natural behaviors.

Cats are especially mysterious this way. They may sneak away at night and do things somewhere else beyond our control. They might bring a dead bird home to us as a gift. They may hiss or show their claws--suddenly revealing a surprising wildness still within them.

The musical Cats ran for 21 years in London and 18 in New York (starting in the early 1980s) at least partly because of our fascination with the wildness in our pet cats, reflecting the animal nature in all of us. To see 20 humans transformed into numerous types of cats, with various names and passions, singing, dancing, and moving in a magical junkyard onstage continues to catch the popular imagination--as the musical tours into the 21st century.

This production is also a magical light show. And its fantastic set offers a cat's eye view of the feline world in our urban backyard. But the scenery and lighting are barely contained within Charlotte's relatively small Ovens stage. They burst out at times into the vast Ovens auditorium--with strings of colored lights reaching the balcony seats, search lights combing through audience eyes, and silver strands shooting over the front rows. And yet, the main attraction is still the cats--in their various feline costumes and roles.

Some exhibit youthful energy and acrobatic skills. Others show the wear and tear of age. They teach us--through T.S. Eliot's poetry--how cats ponder the mystery of their own names while staring off into space. They show us the collective ecstasy of the Jellicle Ball. And they feature specific characters, as human archetypes in feline form, like pets mirroring aspects of their owners, but also a wilder side.

There's the Old Gumbie cat who just sits, while others tap dance around her. There's the macho Rum Tum Tugger, who's a "curious beast," giving a tour de force with his hips. There's Grizabella, a former glamour cat, now with raggedy fur--who offers the most beautiful croon of the show on "Memory." And there's Bustopher Jones in his cat suit.

Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer are acrobatic leapers. Old Deuteronomy shares his wisdom of the ages. Gus, the theatre cat, not only waxes nostalgically about his former glory days, but also shows us a pirate melodrama that turns into grand opera and even involves a battle with Siamese enemies--as the stage is transformed into the popular theatre of over a century ago, setting action paradigms for today's movies.

The sinister Macavity arrives late, offering another fantastic fight. Mr. Mistoffelees gives us magic acts. And we see a final ascension scene, combining religious iconography, junkyard trash, and the cat's mythic extra lives.

All of this may have T.S. Eliot rolling in his grave--as the most famous American-British poet of the first half of the 20th century is now remembered for his children's poems about domesticated felines. But if you've not yet experienced this phenomenal musical, don't wait forever. Who knows how many lives it still has? And you may find you're more of cat person than you think.             Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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Music & Book by James Valcq, Lyrics and Book by Fred Alley
Based on the Film by Lee David Zlotoff
Directed by Melissa Ohlman-Roberge
Davidson Community Players
McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square
Jan. 4-13, 2008

For community theatre, it doesn't get much better than this: an award-winning musical in the beautiful McGlohon Theatre, where performances often acquire a sacred aura. The Davidson Community Players' Spitfire Grill won best production at the North Carolina Theatre Conference Community Theatre Festival in November 2006. And the musical magic that an ex-con brings to the small Wisconsin town of Gilead is appearing again in Charlotte's center city in this new year.

Secrets are gradually revealed and new life is given to the town when Percy (Lisa Smith) arrives on a bus from prison to start her life over in a new place--after an incident we don't learn about until later. At first, some of the locals sing their suspicions about the new stranger in town. The nosey, yet comical Postmaster, Eddie (Larry L. Ligo), sings about Percy as "Little Miss White Trash" and adds rumors to the mill. However, Hannah (Joan Tate), a widow who owns the Spitfire Grill, reluctantly takes Percy on as a worker, despite the misgivings of her son, Caleb (Jim Kidd), who sings: "She's not the kind we need ... if Gilead's gonna be the town it used to be." Jim Kidd's powerful voice, along with Lisa Smith's country soulfulness, provide the most moving notes in the show, ably accompanied by Janet Doles and Chas Willimon on keyboard and guitar/mandolin.

Sheriff Joe (Marc Bastos) also offers a heart-warming turn to the plot, as he changes from wariness about the ex-con's intentions in choosing Gilead to seeing her in a new light. Prior to that, his singing, with Caleb and Eddie, about the hardships of living in a land of "Ice and Snow" ingeniously involves props as musical instruments--with a plastic salt container and metal tire chains adding their own rhythm and timbre to the song. But the main plot device and inspiration for songs involves the grill itself. Hannah is getting too old to run it, but can't sell it. So, Percy, along with Caleb's wife, Shelby (Lori K. Tate), comes up with a plan to raffle it off. Soon, letters with life stories and $100 checks come pouring in. Yet, Percy also discovers a dark family secret with the loaves of bread that Hannah leaves on the back porch of the grill at night--leading to new revelations and songs in the musical's second act.

The set of the diner fits well on the McGlohon stage, with side areas for the porch and other locations, plus the grill's central counter and back wall, a front door, a cash register, and a single representative table--but also more tables in what used to be the first ten rows to the theatre's auditorium. Thus, the show connects with its Charlotte audience. We may live in a big city, where winters are not too harsh. But many of us have memories of or at least feelings for small town life--where harsh weather, economic downturns, family shame, and nosey neighbors produce tragicomic struggles, yet also inspiring songs.

Early on, Caleb sings passionately about how "hard times ... shut you down." But later, Percy finds a "diamond of hope" when a mysterious stranger shows her the morning's light--and she convinces the stubborn Hannah to look at things differently. Some spectators might want more from that character, who remains silent throughout the musical, or wonder why the multitude of incoming checks are not kept in a strongbox. Yet, as it is, this musical should warm many hearts here in Charlotte--even during our much shorter winter in a big banking city.             Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain and Theatres of Human Sacrifice . His plays have been published by Aran Press and his screenplays, produced as short films, have won New York Film Festival and Minnesota Community Television awards.

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