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Theatre Review Archive

REVIEW ARCHIVE

(Select Title To Go To Review)

THOM THOM
(if that bird won't sing)



SUMMER SKETCH


THE COLOR PURPLE


ARTS à la Mode 2009 Awards


ALTAR BOYZ: THE MUSICAL


JULIUS CAESAR


GRITS: THE MUSICAL


MAMMA MIA!


ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA


THE BALD SOPRANO


FIGHT CLUB


THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA


METAMORPOSES


9 x 9 x 9


EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL


SHEAR MADNESS


DANCING AT LUGHNASA


TWELFTH NIGHT


MIRACLE KICK: STORIES FROM FLORENCE CRITTENTON


THE TRIAL


OPRAH WINFREY PRESENTS
THE COLOR PURPLE



ONSTAGE 2009


THE FULL MONTY


THE COMMEDIA ALADDIN


ALICE IN CONCERT


SOUTHERN RAPTURE


NO EXIT


LEGALLY BLONDE


DANGEROUS


DANCEBRAZIL


THE SECRET LIFE OF GIRLS


DIXIE'S TUPPERWARE PARTY


BURN THE FLOOR


ELTON JOHN & TIM RICE'S AIDA


THE DRAMA CLUB


DEATH OF A SALESMAN


KILLER JOE


DEJEMBE FIRE!


RIVERDANCE


LIVING OUT


BLUE


THE TRUE STORY OF THE
THREE LITTLE PIGS



AMERWRECKA


DISNEY'S HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL


SPOOKY DOG & THE
TEENAGE GANG MYSTERIES



THE HOUSE OF
BERNARDA ALBA



FROST/NIXON


A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD


SHAKESPEARE IN HOLLYWOOD


A TANGLE OF TALES


RENT


SOMEONE WHO'LL WATCH
OVER ME



BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL


DRIVING MISS DAISY


SAVAGE IN LIMBO



THOM THOM
(if that bird won't sing)

ACT I
By Matt Cosper
Directed by Barney Baggett
Machine Theatre
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
September 17-19, 2009 (11 pm)

Writers often ask the question, “What if?” If Scout Finch and Boo Radley from the novel To Kill a Mockingbird had to be on the run to protect innocence, what would happen? Thus we have Jean Louise (Chloe Aktas), the given name of Scout in the novel, and Arthur (Robert Haulbrook), Boo’s given name, on the move. In the novel Scout is smart beyond her years. She initially misjudged Boo, who was in fact, a protector.

This odd couple is nomadic but can’t seem to escape a roving band of creepy characters who are loosely set up as a family, or a gang, or fatal flaws, or a nightmare? (It’s difficult to tell, or maybe Mr. Cosper trusts the audience enough to decide for themselves.) The leader is one Magisterial Cort (Robert Lee Simmons), the “mother” figure and pirate, is Kate the Killer (Barbi Van Schaik), young Lizzie Lies (Jenny Wright), comic relief Savage Red (Jeremy Shane), and the title character Heartless Thom (Luke Pizzato).

Through a series of short scenes, perfect for a black box or simple, unadorned production, we see Jean Louise and Arthur traveling around with little focus except escape. Questions are asked, but not answered, yet there are many allusions to sex and violence. Loaded words like: brutal copulation, ghouls of war, dogs of war, blood drops on the snow, rape, knives, power, be willing to do whatever it takes, and more. Blood doesn’t gush, but it is literal at times, such as when it is used to paint on third eye on Jean Louise’s forehead or coming from Thom’s heart.

Director Barney Baggett is fortunate to have such a stellar cast, and he gets excellent performances, with conviction, from all of them. An intense actor to begin with, no one does menace better than Robert Lee Simmons. His presence in any scene assures a tension and uneasiness among the characters. Barbi Van Schaik has been a Charlotte treasure for a number of years now, versatile enough to play many types of roles from innocent to eerily wicked. Jenny Wright has a sweetly corrupt presence that adds to the chaos. Jeremy Shane’s face is covered so that much of his acting in Thom Thom has to be more physical. His “poetry” rendition, as performance art, is wonderfully funny. Robert Haulbrook brings a seriousness and weight to Arthur. His line readings can be surprisingly inventive and droll.

Then we have the two youngest actors, Chloe Aktas and Luke Pizzato. I have watched these two for several years now on various stages in Charlotte and both show admirable growth as actors. The pretty Ms. Aktas does her role in overalls, a la Scout the tomboy, but she is able to evoke the awakening emotions of a young girl. It’s important to have someone who can carry that role since it’s her innocence (and that of all young women?) that’s at stake. Luke Pizzato shows range and intensity, too, as he is given the chance to show his acting and singing ability.

The songs and music direction by Jon Lindsay add to the ritualistic nature of the group’s doings. It’s more like a Greek chorus rather than razzle dazzle show stopping tunes but fits the tone of the work.

Machine Theatre bravely put on this first act to get feedback about the play, and openly seem to want it. I can’t say that I honestly understand everything (especially the metaphors and symbolism) that Mr. Cosper is trying to say with this work, but he’s obviously put much thought into it, and besides, ACT II usually answers the questions that are posed in ACT I. I’m genuinely interested to see where this is going. If you are intrigued by philosophical ideas I would certainly recommend this play as an example of avant-guard originality.

Charlotte needs and should welcome distinctive new voices. There’s no reason innovative theatre has to side-step the Queen City. (The acting alone here is worth seeing.) Every theatre company has its own unique qualities. I can’t envision Machine Theatre ever doing a production of South Pacific, unless it’s got some way out spin on it. And that’s a very good thing.                Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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SUMMER SKETCH
By Michelle Brzycki, Caleb H. Moore, Chaz Pofahl,
Stacey Rose, James Shafer, Matt Webster,
Shon Wilson, and Greta Marie Zandstra
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
August 28-29, 2009

A new theatre group has sprouted in Charlotte, dedicated to actors performing their own material. Eight talented actors took turns in writing and directing, as well as the playing roles in 14 skits, in the Saturday Night Live style. Shon Wilson took on the lead job of producing the show, along with being a company member.

With minimal yet evocative scenery on the wide, Actor's Theatre stage, the skits (like similar parodies on TV) were often satirical, frequently hilarious, and sometimes fell flat. Costuming and props increased the pleasure, especially in "Blind Date" (by Zandstra), when a medieval knight (Shafer) meets a modern black woman (Wilson) and comical confusion results. Their waiter, Mr. Andre (Pofahl), also adds comical flavors, with his French accent and gestures, in "Salad with a Side of Green" (by Webster), when a mother and daughter (Brzycki and Zandstra) find their politics twisting around the menu's choices. Another success in the show is "Hit Me" (by Shafer) with Spam Shade (Webster), an assassin for hire disguised as a private eye, whose client (Rose) surprises him with her deadly desires. Even more media parody and political bite comes from "Absolute Justice," a Judge Judy satire (by Pofahl), and "Rainbow Road," a TV game show about stereotypes (by Webster).

The second act got less laughs and wore out some in the audience, unfortunately inspiring a drunken spectator to verbalize his thoughts loudly on opening night. Yet both Jesus and the Easter Bunny (Shafer and Moore) made intriguing appearances in a comical, mythic skit penned by Rose. The parody of TV wrestling shows, "WWTF" (by Brzycki), revealed some backstage surprises. And "Sista Secretary" (by Rose) provided the most insightful satire, with a tour-de-force performance by Wilson as a legal secretary, code switching between her black friends on the phone and her formal office duties, while the situation around her becomes evermore schizoid—with the lawyer (Pofahl), his mistress (Zandstra), his wife (Webster), a delivery man (Shafer), and a woman (Brzycki) with itches she can't stop scratching.

Overall, the show deserved some editing, especially in the scripts not mentioned here, which went on too long with a simple, repeated idea. But this group shows much promise for its next production in the spring, Shakespeare Sketch, with talented writer-performers who create plenty of silly and yet intriguing caricatures.                    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.

(Full Disclosure: Matt Webster is a fellow professor of Mark Pizzato's at UNCC's Department of Theatre; Stacey Rose and James Shafer are his former students there.)

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OPRAH WINFREY PRESENTS THE COLOR PURPLE
Based on the novel by Alice Walker
Adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman
Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray
Directed by Gary Griffin
Choreography by Donald Byrd
NC Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Belk Theater
August 25-30, 2009

The Color Purple returns to the Belk Theater for five days. Based on the 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, the musical tells the story of Celie (Kenita R. Miller) who after living with constant abuse from her supposed father is married off to the equally abusive Mister (Rufus Bonds, Jr.) where she is expected to take care of his unruly children and even his mistress Shug Avery (played when I attended by Reva Rice ). The story is surely well known to most either through the movie (which starred Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey) or the novel of the same name. Celie, who is constantly told she is “ugly” discovers her strength and inner beauty through the support of the women in her life. It is an uplifting evening that suffers primarily from its desire to include perhaps too much from the novel. At two hours and forty-five minutes, the musical still seems all too brief, and many key moments are rushed through at breakneck speed—including Celie’s climactic decision to stand up for herself. Still, there are some truly wonderful performances and this play certainly speaks to its audience.

When I entered the Belk Theater, and as a regular reviewer I am a frequent visitor, I was struck by the audience which was predominantly African American. Broadway has long been chastised for a lack of diversity (though certainly there have been great improvements over the years), but for most of the musicals I have attended both in Charlotte and New York, the audiences tend not to accurately represent the culture at large. Despite some of the misgivings I have about the musical itself, it is clear that The Color Purple has attracted a new audience that may have felt neglected by other offerings. In addition to this, it was clear the audience and the company on stage connected in a way I haven’t witnessed in a long time. Regardless of the weaknesses I find in the musical, there is something amazing happening in this show and you can’t help but be caught up in it.

The performers (many from the original Broadway cast) are uniformly wonderful—especially the women. Kenita R. Miller convincingly ages from fourteen to sixty-something and manages to make us believe she is both homely and beautiful. Her voice soars through inspiring song after inspiring song. Felicia P. Fields nearly steals the show as Sofia (the role made famous by Oprah Winfrey). Fields is a woman of considerable size but is an incredibly gifted dancer. It is a shame that her more dramatic scenes are raced through. When she finally speaks after years of silence, she and the audience are hardly given enough time to recognize the importance of the event. Understudy Reva Rice played the incorrigible Shug Avery with the appropriate passion and sass. Her “Push Da Button,” number (a song that would make me blush to explain) brought down the house. It is the relationship between Celie and Shug that brings both women to a new understanding of themselves. Though certainly more overt than the movie, this lesbian relationship is still handled with kid gloves (a few pecks on the cheek and a tender caress or two). It is clear that the production does not wish to offend and it is unfortunate.

The men are almost an afterthought. Though all strong performers, the men still suffer from being more two-dimensional than their female counterparts. Alice Walker came under fierce disapproval from the African American community upon the release of The Color Purple movie (not so much from her novel) for her negative portrayal of black men, almost all of whom are abusive to the women in their lives in one way or another. The character of Harpo (played by Stu James) is fleshed out a little more in the musical perhaps to combat this, as is the redemptive journey that Mister ( Rugus Bonds, Jr.) goes through.

Playwright Marsha Norman (who won a Pulitzer for her play ‘Night,Mother the same year as Walker did) seems an odd choice to write the book (she previously wrote the book for The Secret Garden). Walker received some criticism for allowing (and it was ultimately her decision) Steven Spielberg to direct the movie version, and it seems just as strange here. Norman’s book seems to sprint too quickly through some very key scenes. I would have loved to see less ground covered more thoroughly. The music, however, is lush, eclectic, and stunning. Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Ray have created a very memorable score. Technically the production works very well. Though scaled down from the Broadway production, John Lee Beatty’s scenic design is beautiful and suggest the many different areas fluidly. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are surprisingly colorful and suggest the period without being servant to it. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting enhances every moment and the judicious use of purple light was a nice touch. Though it is doubtful the fault of the sound designer, I must take issue with the quality of amplified sound in this production. In many of the larger chorus numbers, it as difficult to determine what was being sung and the amplification became tinny. This was not the case for solo or small group numbers.

Ultimately, technical difficulties and script weaknesses are immaterial. When the musical had barely finished the audience leapt to its feet with a standing ovation. There was such a sense of community and good will in that theatre. If the purpose of theatre is to generate a cathartic reaction in its audience; make us feel connected to each other in some profound way; make us want to forgive those who’ve wronged us and reach out a hand; then The Color Purple is absolutely successful.                              Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

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

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ALTAR BOYZ: THE MUSICAL
Book by Kevin Del Aguila
Music and Lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker
Directed by Glenn T. Griffin
Musical Direction by Marty Gregory
Choreography by Courtney Johnson and Alyson Lowe
Queen City Theatre
The Duke Energy Theatre at Spirit Square
August 6-22, 2009

A currently-running off-Broadway hit for the last several years, Altar Boyz comes to Charlotte via Queen City Theatre. The plot of the musical is simple—The Altar Boyz, a Christian-based boy band, are presenting the final concert of their national “raise the praise” tour. Band members include Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Juan—as well as Abraham (who the other boys are quick to point out is Jewish). Throughout the real time concert (played without intermission) the boys check in with the “soul sensor,” an electronic device that measures how many souls need saving—the ultimate goal being, of course, that everyone in the audience be “saved” by the end of the evening. A tribute to both the boy band craze and renewed interest in Christianity of a few years ago, Altar Boyz is nonstop singing and dancing and is great fun.

When you enter the Duke Energy Theatre, you are immediately submerged into the concert experience—complete with opening band, Virgo Musik. Two small stained glass windows frame the band platform. The rest of the stage is framed in by a host of concert lights hung on trussing and an enormous “Altar Boyz” sign that hangs above the stage. The set design by Andrew Fisher and Emily Eudy strikes a good balance between verisimilitude and theatricality—but it is Fisher and Eudy’s lighting design that clearly steals the show. Using state-of-the-art concert lighting, every song and every moment of the musical is supported and enhanced by some of the most dynamic lighting I’ve seen. Sound designer Glenn T. Griffin (also the director) does a wonderful job of balancing the microphones of the cast and the five-piece band. This is obviously no small feat in a space the size of Duke Energy.

I’m saving the cast for last. Regular Queen City Theatre director Glenn T. Griffin molds his young cast into a believable boy band. Attention is always paid to the ensemble and there is never a moment when any of the boys is not fully engaged with what is happening on stage. Each character is distinct and Griffin’s cast straddles the line between camp and believability very well. Of course, with any boy band, it’s all about the dance moves. Choreographers Courtney Johnson and Alyson Lowe put the boys (boyz?) through their paces with moves that put N SYNC, New Kids on the Block, and the Backstreet Boys to shame. Special mention should also be made of the “Altar Boyz Band.” Marty Gregory, Jeremy DeCarlos, Don Jaeger, Greg Lisi, and John Stafford not only provide some great pop music they also become five more characters on stage.

Finally, we have the boyz themselves. Jonathan Van Caudill plays the leader Matthew. He is both earnest and G-rated seductive. He shines best when singing about the wonders of abstinence (which he serenades an audience member with). Tyler Mercereau plays the flamboyant and deeply closeted Mark. Mercereau is perhaps the strongest dancer of the group (which is saying a lot since all five boys are wonderful). Mercereau’s best moment is when he finally decides to come out of the closet (but I won’t ruin the twist here). Tim Leftwich plays the troubled singer Luke just out of rehab for “exhaustion.” I must provide full disclosure here and acknowledge that Tim graduated from the Limestone College theatre program that I am chair of. Still, it would be a shame not to acknowledge some truly fine comedic work. Leftwich plays the less-than-bright Luke without turning it into a caricature. Alex Aguilar plays the orphan Juan. He is the epitome of the Latin popstar and shines when he bravely tries to make it through his solo after receiving devastating news. The final Altar Boy is played by Joseph Veale. Abraham is the single Jewish boy. Veale has a beautiful singing voice and is very funny. Mike Collins, host of NPR program Charlotte Talks nicely fills out the cast as the announcer and voice of God.

The boys all sing and dance well together. Though there were some flat notes here and there, harmonies are usually tight and the sense of ensemble is very strong and it is great fun to watch them play together. Some small technical flubs involving a portable microphone provided the cast some opportunities to ad lib and Tyler Mercereau’s reactions to the series of attempts to fix the problem were truly hilarious (and always in character!). It is clear everyone in the show is so fully in the world of the musical that nothing is going to shake them, and the audience loves it!

What separates a concert musical like this from others is its commitment to character. There is a sense of conflict, of momentum, and there is even a shape to it all. Though it seems like just a concert, we end up caring about the struggles of these five boys. Queen City Theatre has yet another wonderful production on their hands. I always expect good things from them, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed this time.                             Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

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

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JULIUS CAESAR
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Elise Wilkinson
Collaborative Arts Theatre
McGlohon Theatre, Spirit Square
August 5-16, 2009

Great Caesar's ghost! This play about ancient Romans, scribed by the Bard 400 years ago, still haunts us with current political meanings. The casting in this free showing at Spirit Square helps to make that clear. With a young black male (Jonavan Adams) as an Obama-like Caesar and with a female Cassius (Andrea King) opposing his godlike status, the audience might recall a similar rivalry during the recent Democratic primary race. Yet the Romans, like tribal warlords, drive the conflict toward conspiracy, assassination, and civil war—warning us, through Shakespeare's insights, how idolization can become demonization and thus turn noble courage into catastrophic acts.

King's power as a performer recalls the challenge that Hillary Clinton gave to many Americans, as First Lady, Senator, and presidential front-runner, with her commanding matriarchal voice and stance. But here, King shows her character's strength also through weakness, as she charms a reluctant Brutus (Joe Copley) into the conspiracy against Caesar, yet commits suicide on the battlefield, when he rejects her "love."

There are other strong performances, especially in the first half of the show. Small scenes of Brutus with his daughter and wife, and of Caesar with his wife, reveal the vulnerability and yet wisdom in such family ties. Caesar's wife (Shon Wilson) almost persuades him, through her visionary dreams, not to visit the Senate on the Ides of March, like a street-woman (Corlis Hayes) had earlier warned him.

The modern weapons and costumes (designed by Luci Wilson) also make connections between this ancient context and today's domestic or political relations. But the battle scene in the second half, with characters lining up for a knife fight, despite their guns and military uniforms, seems a bit odd. Perhaps it ties the ancient ideal of hand-to-hand combat in gladiatorial displays to the appeal of swordfights onstage in Shakespeare's time and the high-tech fantasies of movies and videogames today—with a real acting out of such violence in military theatres abroad.

The simple set of draped columns adds to the fluid staging and cross-cultural connections—especially with the uncanny use of live and taped video (edited by Ron Cook) for news reporter and newscaster segments, including a cable crawl at the bottom of the large screen onstage. That screen is also employed for a not so effective lightning show and an abstract splatter of blood at Caesar's death. It is not utilized for the appearance of Caesar's ghost, though whispered voices do bring that spectacle nearer to audience ears.

This is an abbreviated version of the play. But that does not make it Shakespeare "lite." There are many details that increase both clarity and meaning in this production. Cassius becomes a "glass" for Brutus in various ways throughout the play, through the actor's transformations. Co-conspirator Casca (Craig Spradley) gestures with his fingers as he tells of Caesar's temptation to take the crown offered him offstage, even while refusing it. There is a balance of three women and three men when the conspirators meet, suggesting how women are now playing stronger roles in our own Senate and as business leaders, even if not always persuading men in a better direction. Both Caesar and Cinna are black, though the idolized leader refuses to pardon the kneeling politician, perhaps to show he is above race—just before Cinna and the others stab him to death.

Also, the auditorium (as a former church space) is used well in this show. Actors are placed in it at key points, such as when Marc Antony (Chaz Pofahl) gives his famous speech. He persuades the crowd, sitting with today's audience, to praise Caesar in death, raising his bloody suit-coat as a flag for the counter-revolution.

So come early to get a good seat for this free Shakespeare play. See how you're persuaded to rethink the idols and iconoclasts of the past, or relate ancient leaders and their passions to current screen spectacles and talk-radio voices.                          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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GRITS: (GIRLS RAISED IN THE SOUTH) THE MUSICAL
Conceived, Adapted, and Directed by Erica McGee
Based on the book "Friends are Forevah" by Deborah Ford
Original Score by Erica McGee
Musical Arrangements by Michael Van Patter
The Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte
July 31-August 15, 2009

GRITS aims to recreate the feeling of sitting on a rocking chair on the porch and listening to four women tell about what it means to be a “girl raised in the south.” The production is almost insistent in its good manners—never wanting to offend, GRITS tries to charm its audience with sweetness. My experience with Southern women is there is always an iron spine underneath all of that meringue, and I kept hoping to see some evidence of that spine in this production. Instead we are given a thoroughly charming evening of gentle stories and pleasant musical numbers. All tea sweetened with Splenda.

Based on a book, Erica McGee (who also stars, directs, and writes the music) adapts the book with an airtight structure. There is always a famous quote, followed by a touching story, and then capped off with a song. The musical never strays from this formula. Often either the story or the song seemed to cover the same ground twice, and one wonders if some of the material could be trimmed to create a less predictable evening.

Consisting of four women, the cast is fairly strong. Each actor is given an opportunity to shine, and they mostly take it. The musical is most successful when the women are interacting together—their voices blend beautifully and they seem to take some strength from each other. Erica McGee, the woman responsible for creating the show, seems comfortable in her role and does not stand out. Her retelling of working at Dollywood and meeting Ms. Parton, is one of the highlights of the show, but creates a good deal of confusion for the audience. Since McGee plays herself, I began to wonder if the stories the other actors told where their own stories, too. I don’t believe this to be the case, but it was confusing. Julia VanderVeen’s song about her piano recital is masterfully handled, though the song stood out much better than the preceding speech. Kim Lanphear is often a joy to watch in this production (she shows a little more spine than the others!), but her strange transformation into an older woman (It Ain’t All Thorns) seemed inconsistent with the rest of the show. Nicole Danielle Watts completes the cast. She has a beautiful and powerful voice. I witnessed the production on opening night, and there were some line flubs and missed cues here and there. Watts and Lanphear seemed less comfortable with their roles than the other two. I expected more energy from an ensemble trying to create all that is best about women in the South. Like the musical itself, the women seemed as charming and as reserved as if there were hostesses at the country club.

Considering the musical claims to celebrate the lives of GRITS, it is interesting that neither class nor race issues ever surface. In fact, short of the death of a family pet, there is very little drama here. Without strong characters and plot, a musical has to find something else to rely on—whether that be a new way to telling a story or perhaps an important theme or issue. GRITS is structurally predictable, has no real characters (though the actors do a compelling job), and the plot never rises above the mundane.

Technically the production suffers here and there as well. Though the setting does evoke a back porch feel, the Powerpoint presentation of slides depicting various GRITS seemed more distracting than supportive. Hallie Gray’s lights were quite good and always added to each scene or song. The use of the fifties-style cocktail dresses made all of women seem like upper-class housewives. Tammy Fox’s choreography was particularly good and very inventive. My primary complaint was the use of what I assume is canned (or taped) music for the musical. I could be wrong, but there are no musicians listed in the program. Judging from the website, this is a production that is designed to tour. I can certainly see the benefits of not having to hire musicians, but not having real musicians was clearly felt in each and every number.

Again, there is much to like about GRITS, and a good deal of the audience that attended that night seemed very pleased. I applaud Ms. McGee’s ability to successfully create a musical from start to finish. I do wonder if she is perhaps too close to the project now to step back and see what might be necessary to create a more compelling refection of some of the most interesting women on the planet.         Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

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

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MAMMA MIA!
Music/Lyrics by Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus
(some songs with Stig Anderson)
Book by Catherine Johnson
Choreography by Anthony Van Laast
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Belk Theatre
July 28-August 2, 2009

Do you wanna to have fun, well do ya? Then you have a few days to get over to the Belk Theatre to see Mamma Mia! The show is not Shakespeare, and never promises to be, but it is one of the most upbeat, satisfying jukebox musical experiences you’ll have in a theatre. The 22 ABBA songs, which the show is built around, are catchy and make you want to move. Even if you’re not a fan of their music many of the popular songs will be, at the very least, recognizable from the disco era. The audience especially responded to the favorites: Mamma Mia!, Dancing Queen, Take a Chance on Me, The Winner Takes it All, and Dancing Queen, but all the songs were executed with good-natured enthusiasm by the talented cast.

Writer Catherine Johnson has devised a clever story that includes lost love, missed chances, and middle-aged regret. Yet, the main focus is on a 20 year old girl trying to find her identity. She is from a generation that is all too familiar with divorce, blended families, never-marrieds, or loose affiliations of people who become family, as in the play. There is a strong pull for people that age to understand who they are and where they come from; the need to know is powerful as they move on to build a life separate and apart from their parents.

Donna Sheridan (Michelle Dawson), the mother, was a nice Catholic girl who had a love affair with Sam (John Hemphill) that went wrong in 1979. She then had brief, sweet flings with two other men. Pregnant and disowned, she stayed in Greece to raise her daughter Sophie (Liana Hunt). Conveniently she was left money and built the small island hotel where the play takes place.

Sophie, angry at Donna and desperate to know who her father is, has invited the three men to her wedding after reading Donna’s diary. Thinking she will instantly recognize her father she becomes confused instead. Sam, Bill (Martin Kildare), and Harry (Michael Aaron Lindner), at first are stumped as to why they are there, but of course, all becomes obvious soon.

Donna has invited two pals from her girl group, Donna and the Dynamos (which comes in quite handy as they perform). Rosie (Kittra Wynn Coomer) is a cookbook author; Tanya (Rachel Tyler) is the thrice married man-eater.

Director Phyllida Lloyd has brought all the elements of the musical together into a dandy package. The choreography by Anthony Van Laast is energetic and fun. The band under Bill Congdon is excellent; although it’s sometimes so loud it drowns out the lyrics, especially for the women. The set is perfectly compact for a touring company. The lighting design by Howard Harrison adds atmosphere to whatever is happening on stage.

The ensemble cast, and all the major roles are impressive across the board, but the mother-daughter bond as played by Michelle Dawson and Liana Hunt is especially recognizable, touching, and knowing for women in the audience. John Hemphill carries off the part of Sam with an everyday guy kind of appeal and a strong voice. Martin Kildare and Michael Aaron Lindner are comical as possible fathers. Kittra Wynn Coomer and Rachel Tyler, though, provide personality plus as the two best friends as they gyrate and move confidently across the stage.

Mamma Mia! is one entertaining experience. Try it. I dare you not to like it.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris O’Neill
Shakespeare Carolina
Theatre Charlotte
July 15-25, 2009

This is Shakespeare Carolina’s best outing yet. Not that Antony and Cleopatra is an easy play to contend with; it’s one of Shakespeare’s later tragedies when there was more subtlety and ambiguity to his characters and themes, yet it’s also considered one of his “problem” plays. It’s also long.

Though I don’t agree with those who say that Shakespeare was a feminist, I appreciate his urge to write about that fascinating diva, Cleopatra. (How could he be a feminist writing in the 1600s?) Yet, as Queen Elizabeth I was his monarch most of his writing life in London he had to be somewhat cautious not to pander or insult her. Antony and Cleopatra was written after her death. Talented playwrights, like any good artists, want to challenge themselves and try to create something new and better. Here Shakespeare gives us a Cleopatra (Iesha Hoffman) open to interpretation by directors and actors.

As the play opens, the Roman hero Marc Antony (Henry Cabaniss) is shirking his duties in Rome due to his obsessive love for Cleopatra in Alexandria. If you’ve never been totally, stupidly, passionately in love before, well, it’s impossible to explain why he puts everything on the line for his lover, but he does. For her part, Cleopatra is alternately loving, jealous, and manipulative. Antony’s supporters urge him to return to Rome where Octavius Caesar (Sean Foley) is getting impatient with his dalliance with Cleopatra. (This is not Julius Caesar who was killed by his enemies Brutus and Cassius whom Antony helped defeat, thus causing his honored status.) This is Julius Caesar’s successor who is angry that Antony’s brother and wife wanted to overtake him. Octavius Caesar is another conflicted ruler. He wants to trust Antony based on their past, but has doubts about his loyalty because of Cleopatra. Antony finds out his wife Flavia is dead while still in Egypt before his return to Rome. When it’s suggested after he travels to Rome that Antony marry Ocatvius Caesar’s sister, Octavia, all seems well—-until Antony goes back to Egypt, sees Cleopatra again, and abandons his new wife.

This sets in motion the rest of the action that follows, and that’s why it’s a tragedy. The forces that cause Antony to both mistrust and dislike Cleopatra can’t stop him from loving her beyond all reason, and so leads to both their downfalls. Even going into battle, knowing he is a warrior who has defeated others doesn’t stop him from listening to her disastrous advice.

It’s not every actress who can play Cleopatra. Iesha Hoffman shows us an intelligent, but ego-centric beauty who believes she and Antony will ultimately rule the world, conveniently forgetting some practical problems with her plan. She is girlish in some scenes fretting over her looks, angry when she is displeased, and in charge when giving orders to others. Henry Cabaniss plays the aging warrior who is powerless to stop his infatuation with a woman like no other he’s ever known. He is most effective in scenes where regrets about losing his honor become clear to him. Sean Foley doesn’t overplay Octavius Caesar’s power. He conveys the sense of a resolute leader who will not lose what he has achieved, yet has compassion for one he defeats.

Director Chris O’Neill obviously took great care to prepare his actors and tend to every detail. With such a large cast, though, there are a few uneven performances. Yet overall this bare bones production is impressive. The set design by Biff Edge is spare but utilitarian. The lighting by Cyd Knight is also notable.

I recommend you read a summary of the plot before going to the show because the language can be intimidating, but you will still be able to understand what’s going on. It’s terrific to see a theatre company in town tackle Antony and Cleopatra. Don’t miss this opportunity, and decide for yourself if Cleopatra loved Antony--or power more.            Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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THE BALD SOPRANO
By Eugene Ionesco
Directed by Matt Cosper
Machine Theatre
Patchwerk Playhaus at Century Vintage
1508 Central Avenue
July 9-12, 2009

This is not an easy play to perform. But Machine Theatre makes it easy to enjoy. For its first offering, this new company picked a classic absurdist play from the 1950s, where the ordinary world of a British dinner party goes topsy-turvy, especially through language. Yet, under the astute direction of Matt Cosper, the play jumps into the 21st century, with lots of current weirdness emerging through tones of voice, the spaces between words, and the actors' ADHD, multi-channeling actions.

Chairs are packed tightly into the small backroom performance space at Century Vintage. But the walk through that shop, with its many odd and charming antiques from decades ago, sets up the play very well. The setting for the play seems drawn from the store: mod paintings and a background panel, a furry lamp with an African-style wood-carved face at its base, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith already sitting in a mismatched chair and sofa. Lighting instruments (designed by Carlisle Kellam) are craftily hidden in set pieces near the front row of seats—adding to the normalcy and yet strangeness that eventually erupts.

When the audience is seated and quiet, the characters come to life. Mrs. Smith (Caroline Bower) prattles on and on while her husband (J. R. Adduci) grunts and reads his paper, which has the face of a young Michael Jackson on its cover. Both of the Smiths exhibit a middle-class British air, while wearing trim costumes (designed by Amy Holroyd) in styles that bridge the last half century. But odd terms pop up as Mrs. Smith speaks. And the logic continues to twist as Mr. Smith joins in dialogue. (Ionesco wrote the script as a Romanian immigrant to France, puzzled by the strange phrases in language learning books.)

Some of the best professionals in Charlotte are in this cast. They create many surprising details, with ways of speaking and moving that are comical, yet also painfully absurd. It's like the classic Abbott and Costello routine: Who's on first, What's on second, and I Don't Know is on third. And then a clock chimes (in the sound design by Jonathan Lindsay) interrupting their conversation, again and again, while eerily suggesting that time itself, like language, may be going haywire.

The play gathers more steam, with hints of the uncanny, when the Maid (Barbi Van Schaik) goes mad all on her own, then returns to her proper role, as servant and master to the dinner party that's 4 hours late. Her farcical jests almost make sense out of the non-sequiturs in the script. Yet her passion is both funny and frightening.

The guests, Mr. and Mrs. Martin (Jeremy Shane Kinser and Jes Dugger), are politely received by the Smiths, but also blamed for the dinner's delay. When the Smiths leave for a bit, the Martins play a silly game of pretending not to know each other, while being surprised at the "coincidences" of living together and having the same child. Yet the Maid makes the obvious conclusion more twisted—into a Twilight Zone unknown.

After the Smiths' return, a repeated doorbell ringing with no one at the door divides the men and women into an argument about what that means. Then the Fire Chief (Robert Haulbrook) arrives, becoming a confessor to them all and a lover to the Maid. The characters also compete in telling stories, with Mr. Smith's, about a snake and fox, turning into the most sinister.

As such "fires" proceed, domestic rules of behavior spin beyond limits. "All that is human is honorable," one character says (with irony more apparent in 1950 than today). Yet that sentiment is also undercut in this show, with costumes coming off, lights flashing, and a violent storm of madness erupting toward the end.

Be assured, however, it's all very funny, even if disturbing, and a great offering by a new company (with a core group from Children's Theatre). At just over an hour, and costing about the same as a movie, this show is an exciting opportunity to experience "theatre of the absurd": live, homegrown, and at its best in bridging the past and present, nonsense and 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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FIGHT CLUB
By Dylan Yates
Based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk
Directed by James Cartee
Citizens of the Universe
A parking lot behind 1311 Central Avenue
July 2-11, 2009

OK, space monkeys. What's the first rule of Fight Club? Don't talk about Fight Club. So I can't say as much as I want to. But this show proves that theatre can take place just about anywhere. In a parking lot between corrugated metal buildings, next to a train track and trees, beside a dumpster, Citizens of the Universe is meeting with courageous theatergoers to explore our postmodern appetite for violence and madness.

The opening night's rain ruined COTU's lighting and sound equipment. But the company adapted, creating a more primal, urban experience with car headlights and speakers in an open hatchback. Noise from nearby building fans, a helicopter circling overhead, and even a train passing by—all add to the gritty environment, even if actors' voices are hard to hear at times.

The set consists of shredded pieces of hung plastic, an unpainted platform on the side, a fridge, and a table on the other side, plus a few folding chairs. And the actors sometimes seem to be reading lines from the novel, rather than playing characters. Yet this fits the novel's spirit of consumer critique, sardonic wit, angry energy, and ironic mimicry.

Actual fight clubs emerged around the US, with men fighting bare-fisted and bare-chested, in imitation of the machismo shown by Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in the 1999 film version of Palahniuk's book. Perhaps some homegrown terrorists have also been spawned by the goofy, violent pranks of Pitt's Marxist trickster, Tyler Durden, and his Project Mayhem. But the book works on the reader in a very different way from the film, drawing one inside the mind of the troubled narrator, Jack. Through him, the novel evokes personal identifications with the charming Tyler, rebellious Marla, and other weird characters, twisting it all, through shockingly comical actions, into a self-critical knot.

This Fight Club stands somewhere between the novel and film. With excellent fight choreography—and the immediacy of actors' bodies hitting the same concrete where spectators sit on portable chairs a few feet away—the thrilling brutality of WWF or Extreme Fighting begins to peal away and the wastefulness of young male egos appears. The play's airplane scene (and program cartoon) also reveals the deeper terrors of mortal vulnerability and wasted time, behind the veneer of safe travel and routine work, yet here with a comical roughness. Likewise, the support group meetings, the soap making out of maternal fat, the double-breasted birthday cake, and the split-self suicide become visceral in this show, as well as literally insightful and movingly action-packed.

It's a difficult play to watch, though. Even the wicked charm of Stephen West-Rogers as Tyler, the burning confusion of Diego Francica as Jack, and the playful transformations of other actors into various characters barely makes this show pleasurable. For they each acquire monstrous attributes that reflect the madness in us (and the patriarchal crisis in our society) like an intricate, shattered mirror.

So go if you dare. But don't tell 'em I told you about it.            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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THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Music by Andrew Lloyd Weber
Lyrics by Charles Hart
Directed by Harold Prince
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Broadway Lights Series
Belk Theater, June 10 to July 5, 2009

What's in a face? We might say that true beauty is more than skin deep. But beautiful, young faces and bodies are so magnified today by our mass media that such inner beauty becomes hard to believe in—or find—if it is not mirrored in an outer form.

The Phantom of the Opera (based on a French novel from 1910) was originally staged in London in 1986 and later became the longest running musical in Broadway history. It is famous for its romantic characters, ghoulish mystery, and operatic passions. Yet the fame of its lead character bears much irony. How substantial is this phantom and his musical drama? He turns out to be a human, not a ghost, who wears a half mask because one side of his face is horribly disfigured. He thus combines elements of the Elephant Man, Svengali, Mephistopheles, and even the theatre god Dionysus—with a chorus girl, Christine, becoming the extension of his ideal artistic desires.

Having taught Christine to sing, the masked Phantom demands affectionate loyalty from his protégé. He also forces those in the theatre he haunts to make her a star, leaving letters that insist his new opera be performed with her in the lead. When she betrays him, falling in love with a handsome young Vicomte, the Phantom takes revenge. But he receives pity from Christine, despite his murder of two people in the theatre. She kisses him to save the Vicomte from a similar fate, yet the mystery continues. Has she fallen in love with the monstrous Phantom after all? Does this change him? Or return him, as her "Angel of Music," to hell?

This character study does not give the details of character development. Yet, its plot holes create more mystery for imaginative spectators to fill with their own passions and insights, inspired by the show's music, romance, and Gothic spectacle. It is set in 1881 (except for the opening scene, an auction 30 years later) and in various areas of the monumental Paris Opera House, plus the Phantom's underground labyrinth and a graveyard—with many amazing scenic effects.

The proscenium frame of the Belk becomes much enhanced by golden baroque angels and satyrs, some of which come alive, like flying Jack o' Lanterns. An added chandelier over the stage also expresses the Phantom's passions. There are several opera, ballet, and party scenes, with huge Egyptian cow-headed gods and a life-size (but not live) elephant, a picturesque pastoral backdrop, and a joyous yet sinister masquerade on the lobby's grand staircase. We see boxes from above the stage, inside the star's dressing room (with its phantom mirror), the managers' office, and the performers' view, from backstage, of the darkness of the audience. We even go to the roof of the theatre. And the steamy lake, where Christine floats with her Phantom to his labyrinth, is even more mysterious, as he lures her into "the music of the night."

Lighting transforms the stage during these scenes, as well as between them. The many bejeweled costumes and masks are fantastic, too. And there are surprises with fire and magic tricks, plus moving choreography and gestures, along with various moments of humor. But the best treats come from the excellent voices, in powerful arias and the complex, layered dialogue of recitative. Even if the lyrics are difficult to discern at times (and the acting not as fine as the voices), the play’s music echoes throughout its spectacle and within the bodies performing and watching, as the Belk becomes the Paris Opera House and its audience is haunted, like Christine, with the "phantom in my mind."

In Phantom, various styles of music and movement vie for power: threatening organ chords, sweet romantic tunes, grand opera, comic operetta, and dainty ballet. All of it entertains. Yet, an irony remains. With all this showiness and contrapuntal harmony, what demons are shaped in the darkness, in others without beautiful faces, who are devalued and demeaned? Or in the talented beauties that we idealize onstage and onscreen?           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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METAMORPHOSES
Written by Mary Zimmerman
Directed by Michael R. Simmons
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre
May 28-June 27, 2009
EXTENDED to July 12!

If, as a theatergoer, you think you've seen everything, look again. Maybe theatre cannot compete today with movie spectacle or TV immediacy, but it can still impress. Especially when there's a pool in the middle of the stage, actors appearing from underwater, and detailed scenery and costumes that evoke ancient Greco-Roman myths.

CAST is a small theatre that likes to take on big challenges. But this may be its biggest yet. Based on Ovid's stories about the interactions of gods and humans, Zimmerman's version of Metamorphoses requires a pool center stage, used throughout the show, with an underwater tunnel for entrances and exits.

With this production, the audience enters CAST through a cave-like environment when they pick up their seashell tickets. The lobby then shows the ruins of ancient columns, seagulls, and videos of ancient Mediterranean travel. Plus Bacchus joining spectators at the bar, celebrating the drinks and "Italian food" (free Fuel Pizza on Friday nights).

As it happens, I just returned from a trip to visit ancient Greek and Roman ruins in Italy and France. But I think any spectator might be drawn by this CAST lobby to imagine such ruins and their original inhabitants, from 2,000 or more years ago. The set inside the theatre, designed by Robert L. and Michael R. Simmons, brings to life the typical atrium of a wealthy Roman home (ruins of which I'd recommend seeing in Roselle, Ostia, Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Vienne). There are columns and an impluvium, a rectangular pool, which would have been below an opening in the roof, for collecting rainwater as well as providing beautiful reflections within the home.

Such liquid reflections in this show, along with fantastic costumes by Maria Marciano (a former student of mine at UNC-Charlotte), enable many mythic transformations. The bodies of 23 actors mutate into various gods and human heroes, while new music by Michael Sharpe and Alex Mauldin augments the lyricism. (Ron Taylor also sings operatically as the god Apollo in one scene.) Some of the myths may seem cliché or somewhat sketchy, yet they often bear ancient wisdom, while offering many humorous twists and modern ties.

King Midas appears in a tux and tries to explain his logic of wealth, getting annoyed at his daughter's interruptions, even before he turns her to gold. Poseidon's sea-monsters cause a wondrous shipwreck (in the pool onstage) and a parade of the dead to the underworld, with a ghost then returning to his grieving wife, Alcyone, through her prayers to Aphrodite, and further transformations. Erysichthon becomes ravenous, with Hunger riding on his back, after he defies the goddess Ceres, by cutting down a sacred tree. Orpheus goes to the underworld (through the onstage pool and its waterfall shower), regaining his dead wife as a "loan," yet losing her again on the return trip to earth. But she also gets a voice, in this show, through the poetry of Rilke as well as Ovid.

In the second act, the passion between a father and daughter, Vertumnus and Pomona, becomes both beautiful and perverse, as directed by Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Then Phaeton, son of Apollo, tells how he borrowed his father's sun-chariot and crashed it, like a wayward teen talking to a modern therapist, about his attempts at getting attention. Eros becomes a monster to Psyche, until she overcomes her fear of his passionate weaponry. And an elderly couple gives hospitality to Zeus and Hermes, disguised as beggars, which also brings a tragicomic ending to the first story in this play.

Despite the large ensemble and elaborate set, Metamorphoses flows smoothly from one myth to the next. Its ancient, poetic charm (along with a warm CAST theatre and passionate stories) made some spectators want to join the performers in the pool, though the appearance of Narcissus provided a caveat about that. And yet, the magic of this show still provides a metamorphic swim with the gods—at least in my mind.                      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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9 X 9 X 9
9 new plays, 9 minutes long for $9
Written by local playwrights
Directed by local directors
Theatre Charlotte
June 26 & 27, 2009

This is the 9th anniversary of the 9 x 9 x 9. It started as a forum for playwrights to experiment and try different ideas and new short work. The nine new plays are each approximately 9 minutes long by seven different playwrights. (Once upon a time they started at 9:00pm...hmmmm) It also gives directors and actors a chance to stretch different muscles so to speak. You would be surprised at the variety of styles of plays. This year the playwrights decided to do an all-comedy version. You will enjoy these new shows; laughs, giggles, guffaws and snorts were heard in abundance.

The King is Retired; Long Live the King, written by Ann Marie Oliva, directed by Ted Delorme.
Ted Delorme is his normal funny, bumbling self as the King. Brenda Hochreiter plays the Queen beautifully (a long, long time ago she was known as Sleeping Beauty). The cast is rounded out with Wyounda Horton as the gorgeous Princess Shaneesha from neighboring Gastonialee and Joel Sumner as King Junior. Laughs abound as an exhausted King has to discuss life, love and King Junior with his insomniac Queen; compounded by a visit from Junior and the Princess.

It's All About the Mayonaise written by Laura Pfizenmayer, directed by Gaye Haid
Southern humor at it cutest with Clee Knooihuizen as Mama discusses life's quirks with daughter, Lora Beth, played by Michelle Hough while making potato salad. Yes, it may take longer, but "from scratch" is much better than store bought, and it definitely is all about the mayo.

Judge Julie and the Expectant Father written by Don Cook, directed by Della Freedman
Judge Julie is set on a "live TV show set." Judge Julie is played by Della Freedman with tongue-in-cheek humor and archness. Bailiff BB is played with comic naiveté by David Cruse. Francis (Michael Szymanski) is suing Angelique (Therese St. Germain) who manages a home for unwed mothers in a reverse discrimination suit for bannning him from sleeping with his girlfriend. Cute, cute, cute!

Nature's Way written by Ryan Jenkins, directed by Douglas Welton
While stalking a leopard in some desolate bush, Porter (Paul Goodson) is challenged by Landon (Lou Dallessandro) to catch the leopard's attention in a dare. Silly, macho stupidity is a given.

Coat Postal written and directed by Tim Baxter-Ferguson
Bea (Sarah Kier) and Cal (Aaron Watkins) and Betty (Melissa Scott) and Al (Timothy Leftwich) reflect the same couple, but further along, and at the beginning of the relationship; an interesting juxtaposition on what is definitely the best set of the night.

The Penny Pincher written by Dawn Cauthen, directed by Patrick Howsare
Everyone knows someone who is a cheapskate, but Tom Olson as Steven Zeblon really kicks it up a notch. Zendyn Duelman plays his very frustrated wife, Trish Zeblon and Scott Flanary (Drew, the waiter) try to keep some semblance of normal behavior going in the face of some very funny schtick.

Momology written by Ann Marie Oliva, directed by Annette Saunders
Three mothers discuss aspects of motherhood, from first feeling the flutters of pregnancy through dealing with obstreperous teens and beyond. Shows the ups and downs, the hilarity of some situations, the poignancy of others. The moms are: Mom #1- Corrine Biazzo; Mom #2 - Charlotte Hampton; Mom #3 - Annette Saunders.

The 612-Year-Old Man written by Mark Pizzato, directed by Jim Esposito
Alan England is phenomenal as the Old Man in this hilarious play about a history teacher who thinks he has lived since the Crusades, since they are more real to him than his granddaughter (Robyn Shute). The straight man in this case is the Nurse (Michelle Fleshman-Cross).

The Shaft written by Don Cook, directed by Della Freedman
A reclusive playwright has moved into a recently renovated theatre's elevator shaft and all the furniture is from different sets from previous shows. Michael Szymanski plays Denny (the playwright) who is confronted by the Boss (David Cruse) and his assistant, Courtney (Therese St. Germain) who does know where he is and what has happened; slap-stick and very funny.                Review by Karen G. 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.

(Full Disclosure: All of the playwrights listed have written reviews for ARTS à Mode; Ann Marie Oliva is the editor.)

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EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL
Book and Lyrics by George Reinblatt
Music by Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris and George Reinblatt
Directed by Billy Ensley
Music Direction by Marty Gregory
The Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte
June 5-June 27

These days they will turn anything into a musical. Recent adaptations include Nine to Five, Legally Blonde, and even The Toxic Avenger. It should come as a surprise to no one that Sam Raimi’s cult classic Evil Dead should receive the same treatment. In addition, horror musicals have become so plentiful these days, they’ve become their own genre. Musicals such as Little Shop of Horrors, Bat Boy, Young Frankenstein, and the less successful Dracula (or the megaflop Lestat) all attempt to combine chills with memorable tunes. Musicals, by their very nature, already have a challenge to make the audience suspend their disbelief and accept the world presented to them as real. Throw in a man-eating plant, or, in this case, a group of Candarian demons, and the audience just might throw up its hands and head for the exits. These musicals usually choose to spoof their horror roots, sidestepping the need for believability with straightforward farce. Evil Dead: the Musical is both an homage to the Raimi flick of the same name and a spoof of teen horror movies in general. It never takes itself seriously, but abandons logic and characterization for gore and laughs.

The plot is fairly simple. Five college students decide to break into an abandoned cabin in the woods for spring break. Little do they know the missing professor has accidentally summoned the evil forces of the woods. One by one, each of the college students is first killed and then possessed by a Candarian demon until all that is left is our hero, Ash. The production is great fun from start to finish. Technically it's nearly flawless. Chip Decker creates an appropriately creepy cabin (complete with a tiny bridge that collapses to comic effect early in the play). There were some slight masking problems on opening night. When actors would exit stage left, I could see the band and most of backstage left. Eric Grace’s costumes are great fun and look like a cross between the original film’s costumes and, for the women anyway, the suggestive costumes in a Russ Myer film. Decker’s sound effects are wonderfully executed throughout the musical (the fight noises were right on cue each and every time, the gunshots convincing and startling, and the demon voices creepy and amusing). There were some minor microphone problems throughout, but no doubt these will be taken care of. Hallie Gray’s lights were a great mix of horror and disco. For the most part, the special effects makeup by Melissa Brown and Mark Barry are appropriately ghoulish, but the demon faces (no doubt made necessary by the quick transformations (possessions?), seemed less fully realized than the rest of the show. I expected more. Still, the disembodied hand and decapitated head (complete with spraying blood) were wonderful! A special mention must be made of Drew Nowlin’s moose design. I won’t spoil it here, but watch for it. Watch the moose.

The cast is wonderful. Each and every person in the cast has a chance to shine and takes it. John Parker Douglas does enough to evoke the spirit of Bruce Campbell with his depiction of Ash but still makes the part his own. Fans will be happy to know that by the end of the show he has both his “boom stick” and his chainsaw hand. Douglas stays in great voice throughout the show despite some difficult high notes. Stephen Seay is equally suited to frat boy Scott. His misogynistic cursing and his insatiable sexual appetites make for the perfect fodder for horror movie mayhem. Any actor who can make me laugh while trying to hold in his own intestines deserves praise. Robbie Jaeger is wonderful as the befuddled and constantly interrupted Ed, who later becomes the bit part demon Evil Eddie. Ryan Stamey almost steals the show as the reliable redneck Jake. He is intensely funny. His moose isn’t bad either. Remember: watch the moose.

The women of Evil Dead are equally wonderful. Caroline Bower plays Linda, the first love interest of Ash. They sing of meeting each other at “S-mart.” And it is a sweet and hilarious ballad. Caroline plays both sweet and sultry well. Katie Rebecca Cheek is extraordinary, first as the geeky little sister and later as the evil succubus who puns mercilessly. Confined behind a rubber mask for most of her time on stage, she still manages to convey her part well enough. Allyson Lowe plays the sexy and dumb Shellie. She played the part honestly and without commenting on herself and the part benefits from it. Finally, there is Emily Mark, who plays the hyper in-control Annie. Her song about the “men in her life,” is one of the showstoppers.

The music is good fun, if not always memorable. Many of the funnier moments rely on a knowledge of the film, but there’s enough here to keep even the most ignorant engaged. The audience seemed enthralled when I saw it, riveted through every scene, and highly entertained. I felt the same way!         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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SHEAR MADNESS
By Paul Pörtner
Directed by Bruce Jordon
Bluementhal Performing Arts Center
Stage Door Theater
April 9-June 6, 2009

Once you see Shear Madness, you will quickly understand why it gained the honor as the longest running show in Charlotte history and has been performed to over 8 million people throughout the world. With all the classic elements of a whodunit, this play not only will have your brain racking to find clues to solve this murder mystery but, through this process, you will be busting at your seams with laughter. And that’s not even the best part—you, the audience, are part of the play! Interacting with the characters, you get to interrogate the prime suspects and, ultimately, bring the perpetrator to justice.

Stage Door Theatre, part of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, has revived this play with a lively cast and a production staff who capture the frenetic spirit of the play. The moment you enter the theatre and hear classic jukebox tunes such as “Louie, Louie” and “Help Me Rhonda”, the energy immediately sucks you in. The set by Luci Wilson, accented with hot pink and neon green, perfectly reinforces the energetic feeling. From the start, it is apparent that this barber shop oozes with eccentric spunk. And then you meet the characters. With the music still playing in the background and the latecomers strolling in, the characters enter. However, they do not speak. They engage in spirited stage action such as, putting on lipstick, burning each other with scolding hot water, throwing dabs of shaving cream, and other stage movement that already have you laughing from the belly. The madness bites you from the beginning and, as the characters begin to speak, it never relents.

As with any whodunit, it is difficult (and downright taboo) to leak any plot details. However, since the audience interacts with the characters, the actors do not always have a script to follow, which makes this play quite unique. In fact, one performance could significantly vary from another, as the actors must adapt and improvise to the some of the most unexpected questions from the audience. This type of “interactive theater” so-to-speak, revs up the energy and the mystery even more. Even the shyest people will find themselves desperately searching for clues and, quite possibly, shouting out answers. As the audience actively participates, the play remains engaging throughout. One would think that, since the audience partially leads the play, it could get out-of-hand or perhaps gain a cheesy edge. This is simply not true. The actors, in character, maintain control while, at the same time, encouraging the audience to play a major part and, as a result, the “script” or plot remains quite convincing.

Stage Door Theatre has provided a hilarious cast who maintains all the eccentricities of their characters but never go over-the-top. Furthermore, it takes place in Charlotte and a number of the familiar references to the area strengthen their believability. Tony Whitcomb (Tom Wahl) is a “retro” flamboyant barber who spouts off funny pop culture references but always plays innocent. There is Mrs. Shubert (Linda Edwards), who is the middle-aged bourgeois southern belle that emphasizes that she is from Ballantyne and not Pineville. Barbara Jean Devereaux (Juliana Black) is the gum smacking hair dresser with leopard-printed pants and red high heels. Obviously, these characters could get ridiculous but this cast uses their peculiar character traits to their advantage and makes them believable. And, in response to the audience, their improvisations were practically just as funny as the script itself. For example, when one audience member was asking a question, he forgot the names of the characters so he referred to Mrs. Shubert as the “old lady”. Linda Edwards, remaining in character, looked as if she saw a ghost. The audience roared with laughter.

This cast of six is equally adept and their ensemble acting bursts with energy and hilarity. No one outshines another and this makes for a perfect night of theatre. Besides the cast, the director, Bruce Jordan, deserves just as much credit. Not only did the cast create bizarre yet believable characters, half of the laughs are unspoken, in the stage action. Shear Madness is a delight and Stage Door Theater has brought it back to Charlotte with brilliance. As I said, it is no wonder that this was ordained the longest running show in Charlotte history.              Review by Ryan Jenkins

Ryan Jenkins is a member of the local playwrights group in residence at Theatre Charlotte, Playwrights in Progress, and currently attends Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC.

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DANCING AT LUGHNASA
By Brian Friel
Directed by Lon Bumgarner
Epic Arts Repertory Theatre
The Duke Energy Theatre, Spirit Square
Thurs-Sat at 7:30 pm, May 28-June 14, 2009

This is not one to be missed. Especially if you like the tales of rural Ireland and Africa, the wistful nostalgia of Williams's Glass Menagerie, or the comical unfulfilled longings of Chekhov's characters. It's also the final offering of Epic Arts, and perhaps their best.

In August 1936, in the small home of the five Mundy sisters, near the village of Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland, four unmarried women support and irritate one another, as they have for many years. While the adult Michael (Joe Rux) watches from the edges of the stage, remembering his childhood there, the women, including his mother Chris (Ellerie Daube), the youngest sister, interact with his invisible presence, shaping his identity in the past. Thus, the play's narrator haunts the stage physically, as the audience joins him in watching the women and imaging the boy he was, in the space he no longer occupies, and yet is also haunted by.

The women are haunted as well by the lack of a man in their lives. Yet, their brother, Fr. Jack (Hank West), is living with them now, recently returned from decades of missionary work with lepers in Uganda, where he nearly "went native." This brings a mysterious, infectious, yet threatening joy into their otherwise routine lives, along with a radio that only works some of the time, but may trigger ecstatic dancing in their bodies, starting with Maggie (Laura Depta), who plays the earth mother role. Kate (Sue Plassman), the oldest and sternest Mundy sister, is more fearful about Jack not being the same as when he left, because he struggles to remember English words and he often speaks of the wonders of native rites. She also demands to know where the mentally disabled Rose (Annette Saunders) wanders off to, meeting with a man who may be taking advantage of her. Agnes (Julie Janorschke Gawle) sides with Rose and will eventually run away with her, becoming destitute in a big city, as the adult Michael explains. But Chris refuses to leave, even when her son's father, Gerry (Nathan Rouse), visits and charms her, like Jack and the radio, with his tales and dancing spirit. (The title of this 1990, Tony Award winning play, refers to dancing at the time of Lughnasa, a traditional harvest festival in honor of the local Irish god, Lugh.)

All of these roles are admirable played, with precision and passion. West is particularly convincing as he shows the bodily frailty and phantom power of Jack, who is caught between worlds, onstage and off. But each of the five women also expresses specific inner conflicts, as well as the shifting alliances between them—while Rouse plays Gerry as the ideal romantic and yet flawed father figure, a crucial conundrum for the watching storyteller. Why, Rux seems to ask, with subtle emotions emerging in his lyrical Irish brogue, behind Michael's spinning of reminiscences, did Chris not love and trust him enough to leave with him?

The set, designed by Stan Peal, brings the spirit of rural Ireland to Charlotte, too, with its details of kitchen, dining, and living room mixed into one floor space, plus hints of herbs in the windowsill, a stoop with handmade kites, and stone bench in a garden. The lighting design by Eric Winkenwurder shapes the shifting moods. And the costumes by Myk Chambers show the contentious mix of traditional and foreign in the Mundy home.

I suspect a great deal of the artistry here is due also to director Lon Bumgarner (a colleague of mine in the Theatre Department of UNC-Charlotte, where Daube happens to be a student). But this may betray my bias, too, in admiring a show that reveals so well the ghostly lures of personalities and cultures, of open and closed minds in our lives—even if what appears onstage in this play is very different from our own homes.            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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TWELFTH NIGHT
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Joe Copley
Collaborative Arts Theatre
The Green Uptown
May 28-June 14, 2009

Once again this summer the groundlings are gathering with their blankets, munchies, and folding chairs to watch free Shakespeare on The Green. This time they've washed up on the shores of Illyria, along with the separated siblings, Viola and Sebastian. Despite the distractions of modern street noises, the distinctive characters, costumes, and language lure spectators into the comical twists of Shakespearean desire.

In designs by Erin B. Dougherty, both Sebastian and Viola wear green vests, suggesting their potential for new growth—and the eventual confusion of identity with others mistake them for each other. (Viola pretends to be a boy, Cesario, in order to survive in a strange land. Duke Orsino uses Cesario to send messages of his love for the widow, Olivia, who desires Cesario instead, while Cesario/Viola loves Orsino.) Orsino bears a blue suit, showing his mood with love unrequited. Olivia wears black for her mourning, yet red underneath it, as her passions emerge. Her servant, Malvolio, wears a grey suit to show his sternness, yet lace cuffs blossom at his wrists, indicating his potential for excess. (He is tricked by others into thinking his mistress loves him and so puts on ridiculous yellow stockings and red garters to please her.) The fool, Feste, has puffy sleeves, showing his clownish role also.

The staging of the play, without adding much of a set, makes good use of various areas of the existing Green, including its fish sculptures (as hiding places for Feste, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew when they play their trick on Malvolio). The actors give many witty twists to the play as well. For examples, Andrew and Toby show their rear ends to the audience when Feste mentions the fine portrait that they make together. They also add humor from behind the fish sculptures as Malvolio goes into contortions of desire, while reading the fake love letter from Olivia that they (and Maria) planted for him. The sea captain, Antonio, creates some jesting between the lines, as he sneaks through the audience to follow his friend, Sebastian, despite the dangers for them both in Illyria. And Andrew builds the comedy even further as he practices sword play by slicing at a tree's leaves.

This production misses the more complex levels of passion in Shakespeare's text, such as Orsino's for Cesario, despite the apparent wrongness of gender, so that he is ready to marry him/her in the end, as soon as the disguise is unveiled and Sebastian gets Olivia. Or Viola's double-bind of desire, wanting to show her love for Orsino, while fearing that she must maintain her male mask, even as Olivia falls in love with him/her, making Cesario a threat to his master. (Originally, a boy played the female Viola, pretending to be the male Cesario, while Orsino sent messages of his love to Olivia, also played by a boy—redoubling the gender play and hints of homosexuality, turned straight in the play's apparently happy ending.) Yet, this Collaborative Arts version, free on The Green, is still a fine introduction to the main story line, most of its characters, and its witty play with mistaken identity and misplaced desires.           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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MIRACLE KICK:
STORIES FROM FLORENCE CRITTENTON

Written by Tim Baxter-Ferguson, Dawn Cauthen,
Don Cook, Ryan Jenkins, Ann Marie Oliva,
Laura Pfizenmayer, Mark Pizzato, and Erin Pushman.
Directed by Carrie Ameling
Theatre Charlotte
May 28-30, 2009

What happens when 8 playwrights interview 18 young women, residents at Florence Crittenton Services? The result of this BIG collaboration (though spare production) is Miracle Kick: Stories from Florence Crittenton, a joint project between Theatre Charlotte and Florence Crittenton Services, an organization that “promotes Health and Hope for Tomorrow’s Children by providing comprehensive health, educational and social services for single pregnant and non-pregnant adolescents, women and their families.”

On stage we meet Miss Ashley, the Admissions Coordinator (played by Ashley Beatty who has the same position in real life) and 9 of her pregnant clients. Each young woman is in a unique situation and feels differently about herself, her unborn child and circumstances that put her there. Each character is a composite of several real-life women so the facts have been changed enough to protect the innocent and comply with various privacy laws.

The residents are 13 year old Angela (played by Michelle Busiek with wide-eyed innocence) a “Daddy’s Little Girl” and also the show’s minstrel. Lakeisha (played by Collette Brown) who is pregnant by her football hero boyfriend; Jessica (played by Brenda Giraldo, a choreographer in real life) who is a college student with self-esteem issues; Imelda, a young mother-to-be of 16 and pregnant again (played with anger and angst by Sarah Kier); and Graciela (played sympathetically by Carmen Redfearn) a teenager pregnant by her mother’s boyfriend. Carmen Thwaites plays strong, decisive Marisol as well as Graciela’s mother. Tiare Gross has dual roles as Catherine, a young African woman who has been abandoned, sold and abused by various relatives in her life and the crackhead parent of one of the other residents. Wyounda Horton plays several residents, Tammy and Payton. Poppy Pritchett portrays Deirdre and also transforms into Deirdre’s schizophrenic mother in one very disturbing scene.

As these women talk, you are drawn into their lives by their stories, letters, and diaries. The movements of the cast are lyrical and poignant. The emotions run rampant, just like the hormones do. While it is difficult for me to identify with the background and the lives of some of the real-life clients, I am glad that they decided to share their stories with honesty and courage with the writers, so that all can get a glimpse of them (of what they have been through); the real residents, and the created ones and their babies.                Review by Karen G. 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.

(Full Disclosure: All of the playwrights listed have written reviews for ARTS à Mode; Ann Marie Oliva is the editor.)

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THE TRIAL
By Franz Kafka
Adapted for the stage by Steven Berkoff
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
Ensemble Company
Wachovia Playhouse
May 22-24, 2009

This stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel The Trial is a true ensemble piece. The fifteen young actors impressively move in coordination carrying empty frames, flats and stools structuring the action so that the scenes flow into each other seamlessly. In one scene the props represent a jail, in another a hallway, and even a bathroom.

Kafka is one of those writers who more pragmatic audience members might, at first, find difficult to decipher. Yet, his work continues to intrigue and his influence is clearly seen in modern images. It’s a good selection for teenagers who instinctively understand the meaning of “welcome to my nightmare.” But it also has meaning for anyone living in a culture where the individual feels alienated and under siege.

Joseph K. wakes up one day and finds himself under arrest. Why? He doesn’t know, and we never find out. Although he says, “I’m not guilty of anything,” he accepts this condemnation and tries to find someone to help him. That’s the big mistake, though. Once he accepts other peoples’ version of his reality, the rest of the play is his attempt to extricate himself from an oppressive, irrational legal system that moves along without caring about Joseph K.’s explanations or defenses.

Director Mark Sutton, has drawn excellent performances from the Ensemble Company and guided the production with a sure hand. He has been careful to include Kafka’s absurdist humor and sexual overtones, which also often provoke laughter. The bare, stark set is a good complement to the storyline, including the dark, ominous lighting by Hallie Gray. The choreography by Candace Neal works well to add to the oppressive tone. The costumes by Amy Akerblom Holyroyd are the same simple shirt and pants worn by all to suggest a uniform.

Only Andrew Clark who plays Joseph K. wears a red shirt to distinguish him from other cast members wearing beige shirts. He is very good as the “everyman” protagonist conveying confusion, loneliness, fear, paranoia. All the actors in the Ensemble Company deserve recognition for their performances. Notable are Elijah Allred, Chloé Aktas, Luke Pizzato, and Brandon Rafalson.

It would not be true to say this is an exactly joyful experience, rather it’s more a cautionary tale overlaid with bizarre elements of dreams, alienation, a corrupt and unfeeling power structure and a culture that seems determined to squash anyone who dares to be different or maintain his/her own perspective on the world. Despite the stylized, abstract presentation, it’s closer to the truth than we might care to admit.                           Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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OPRAH WINFREY PRESENTS THE COLOR PURPLE
Based on the novel by Alice Walker
Adapted for the stage by Marsha Norman
Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray
Directed by Gary Griffin
Choreography by Donald Byrd
NC Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Belk Theatre
May 19-24, 2009

The Broadway musical made its Queen City debut on Tuesday, at the Belk Theater and starts off with a resounding religious bang. The show quickly dives into the sad story of fourteen year old Celie Harris (Kenita Miller), who has been subjected to molestation and teen pregnancy at the hands of her father, who she later learns is her step-father. After giving birth to her second child, her father rips the baby from her arms as her younger, more favorable sister, Nettie (LaToya London) helps her cope with the heartache. These two sisters are best friends but couldn’t be more different. It is clear that Nettie is beautiful, smart and wanted, and Celie is ugly, uneducated, and loathed. The sisters cling to each other like lifelines until Celie is paired with the family cow and given to a local widower loyally named Mister (Rufus Bonds, Jr.) who rapes and abuses Celie verbally, mentally, and physically while she is forced to take care of his home and his uncontrollable children. After Nettie finds her way to Mister and Celie’s home, the two girls are briefly reunited and their sisterly bond molds tighter. But once again, the beloved Nettie is taken away from her sister and the mistreatment of Celie grows more and more distressing by the year.

The arrival of the infamous, in more ways than one, Shug Avery, causes an uproar in the town and provokes the residents to belt out "Shug Avery Comin’ to Town". The ladies, Shug and Celie, become more than wife and mistress to Mister, and the relationship between the women inspires a beautiful song "Too Beautiful for Words" sung to the bashful Celie by the gregarious Shug.

Stepson Harpo finds tough love in his new wife Sofia (Felicia Fields) whom Mister despises but Celie respects. Sofia is a hard-nosed, cheeky, stout woman who teaches the older Celie as well as Harpo, a thing or two about love, life and losing. With her rebellious raspy tune, "Hell No!" Sofia defies everything Harpo tries so hard to create and represents everything Celie aspires to be.

Between Shug making Celie feel wanted and Sofia making her feel strong, Celie begins to gain much needed confidence. It’s with the discovery of hundreds of unopened letters from her long lost Nettie that renews her faith. Celie discovers that her son and daughter have been living and learning in Africa with Nettie who has become a missionary.

In the play, a most beautiful scene of African dance, chants and music, are all present and immerses Celie in a dreamlike state while she enjoys the festivities. Shortly after, Celie gets the confidence to leave Mister and start anew with Shug Avery and her new husband Grady (who eventually runs off with Squeak, Harpo’s girlfriend).

It is during this time that Mister finds his heart and decides to change his ways and arrange for Nettie and Celie’s two children to return to Georgia.

This much anticipated musical is filled with hearty songs rich with jazzy tunes, heartfelt ballads, and rhythmic dance ensembles that were very impressive. All who sang a song belted out melodies that only Broadway stars could compete with. Unfortunately, many signature tunes and infamous monologues loved by The Color Purple followers were sorely missed; especially tunes by Shug Avery. In addition, the intensity and fervor that was shown in the movie was also lacking as it is more closely related to the novel; specifically, the separation of Nettie and Celie early on, as well as Sofia’s confrontation with Celie following her beating from Harpo.

This production is beyond entertaining and inspiring, but will be most enjoyed by those who have not watched the film. Although it may possibly be mildly disappointing to those who are expecting the film on stage, there is much to admire for its own sake.                      Review by Dawn Cauthen

Dawn Cauthen is a North Carolina native and a recent graduate of Queens University. Having received her Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing, she is a new playwright and an aspiring screenwriter. She has also contributed articles and reviews to Arts à la Mode, CharlotteVibe.com, and other local publications.

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ONSTAGE 2009
Children's Theatre of Charlotte's
Training Program
4 shows, over 100 students, 1 weekend of theatre
May 15-17, 2009

It’s always fun and interesting to see what the folks at Children’s Theatre put together for OnStage. This year the students presented a delightful mix of styles and presentations, although movement and dance seemed more prominent in all the shows. In no particular order here is my take on the four shows.

A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Joanna Gerdy and Nicia Carla

Condensing Shakespeare is always a challenge, but this energetic and talented group of young actors presented an exhuberant show which came in at a fast-paced hour and fifteen mintues. It helps if you are familiar with the play, but the story of dreams, fairies, magic, and misplaced and/or unrequited love was understandable all the same.

There was quite a bit of physical action: sliding, carrying, falling, kneeing, and especially pushing, which was a mistep. Sometimes less action can be more, and can be indicated without being so emphatically played. Cartoon-like humor is not real life where excessive physical behavior can possibly have serious consequences. It was the directors’ choice, but to me, erring on the side of sensitivity to issues like dating violence and bullying might have been a better one.

This otherwise excellent production showcased some impressive acting by the cast, especially the lovers: Molly Smithson as Hermia, Rachel Tate as Helena, Calvin Cross as Lysander, and Stephen Friedrich as Demetrius. Also notable were Rebecca Gossage as Titania, Anurag Argara as Oberon, Charlie Holt as Puck, and Alex Rosinski who did justice to that perpetual audience favorite, Nick Bottom.

The scenic design (used by three of the four shows staged in the McColl Family Theatre), by Andrew Gibbon was inspired. Costumes by Jason Estrada, props by Peter Smeal, lighting by Eric Winkenwerder, and sound by Van Coble, Jr. were all first rate, and added to the richness of the production.

INTO THE WOODS
By James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Jen Band

The fractured fairy tales included in Into the Woods are clever and set a high standard for other shows that have since come along trying to capture the wacky and irreverent tone of these classics. This was the only musical included in OnStage and Mr. Sondheim’s music is not known for being easy to master, but the cast handled it well. Musical director James Kennedy edited the score with good choices. The female ensemble had high energy and there wasn’t one slow moment in the production.

This was another entertaining ensemble group with all good performances especially Carrie Holt in multiple roles, Charlotte Parrott as Little Red Riding Hood, Lauren Phelps as the Baker, Hayden Rockecharlie as the Baker’s wife, Julianna Sosa as Jack, and Amelia Brown as Jack’s mother.

Director Jen Band kept things moving with sight gags as well as dancing and movement back and forth across the stage. The cast was large and co-costume designers Amy Akerbloom Holroyd and Marina Arconti did a fine job with getting everyone appropriately attired. Prop designer James Cartee provided a hilarious “cow” which got funnier as the play went on.

SEAGIRL
By Francis Elitzig
Directed by Jenna Derrick Cartee

The younger student actors filled the Wachovia Playhouse with laughter and fine ensemble work in Seagirl. With so many younger actors on the smaller Wachovia stage, inventiveness was a necessity, and director Jenna Derrick Cartee was able to give each actor his/her moment.

The play Seagirl, taken from a Chinese folk tale, allows the audience to go along for the magical story of a young girl who decides it is up to her to save her village from drought. She goes up a mountainside to find the cause, and there she meets wild geese, her (many) reflections, parrots, peacocks, a dragons’s daughter, and her own courage. Brooke Feinglass does a very good job as Seagirl interacting with the entire cast.

The charm of this show is that there are not high tech effects and elaborate costumes. A little fabric becomes goose down, flowing water, a dragon’s body. Kudos to costume designer Kehlee Walsh for her imaginative ideas.

¡BOCÓN!
By Lisa Loomer
Directed by Sidney Horton

¡Bocón!, meaning loud mouth, told in flashback, is about a young boy named Miguel in Central America who likes to tell stories. He lives in a small village with his family under constant threat of “soldiers” who march in and out of the town menacing the villagers who just want to be left alone to enjoy their fiestas and live in peace.

One day his father and mother are taken away for not obeying the soldiers and Miguel, in that instant, loses his voice. He is told he should leave the village and go to the city of angels, Los Angeles, to start a new life and be safe. Miguel struggles with his fears and loneliness on the journey to the north but is joined by La Lloronas, folk spirits that his mother told him about long ago.

The subject of immigration, freedom, and individual rights are all touched on in this play and have implications beyond the story. Presented with song and dance interspersed throughout, the poignant imagery of a child alone trying to reach freedom after the loss of his family is sad, yet familiar.

Director Sidney Horton brings a sophistication and seriousness to this show because of the subject matter, but also includes humor, and draws good performances from his actors. Brenda Giraldo’s choreography is appealing and dynamic. Paula Garafolo’s costumes are colorful, and Josh Lucerno’s props are spare but fitting.

The younger, more boastful Miguel is well played by Nolan Dunagan, with Kyle Alderdice bringing more melancholy to the older, voiceless Miguel. The entire ensemble made this show a thoughtful, but genuine pleasure.      Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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THE FULL MONTY
Book by Terrance McNally
Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed by Dennis Delamar & Polly Adkins
Choreographed by Eddie Mabry
Theatre Charlotte
April 30-May 17, 2009

When a couple of out of work Buffalo steelworkers try to figure out their wives (well one is an ex) and their interest in the Chippendales, things get going. Kevin Roberge plays Jerry Lukowski with barely contained exuberance. Stuart Spencer plays his best friend, bumbling, overweight Dave Bukatinsky with humor and self-depreciation. Rounding out the newest dance rage of the Buffalo stage are: Alan Morgan as Harold Nichols, Steven Martin as Malcolm McGregor, Alex Aguilar as Ethan Girard, and Chris Thompson as Noah (Horse) T. Simmons. When they get together, let the fun and foibles begin.

Andrew Griner, Jr. plays pre-teen, Nathan Lukowski with great flair. All the women in the cast play their parts vivaciously, especially Candace Neal as Georgie Bukatinsky, the ring leader of the ladies night out group. Stephanie DiPaolo portrays Pam Lukowski, Courtney Johnson plays the high maintenance Vicky Nichols, Emily Hunter plays the flirty Estelle Genovese, Evie Victorson is Susan Hershey, and Carmen Coulter is Joanie Lish. Pat Heiss portrays the wise-cracking piano player Jeanette Burmeister with wonderful aplomb.

Everyone in the cast seemed to be having a ball and I know the audience was as well. Lots of chuckles, guffaws, and rolling laughter abound as you watch the antics in this show. The Full Monty is a great way to spend an evening; you can forget about your life and enjoy getting to know this blue collar clan.    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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THE COMMEDIA ALADDIN
By Lane Riosley
Directed by Steven Ivey
Childfren's Theatre of Charlotte
Wachovia Playhouse
May 1-10, 2009

The broad, outlandish humor and characters of the Italian commedia dell’arte style is a good match with Children Theatre’s own touring company, the Tarradiddle Players who perform over 400 shows a year throughout the southeast. The four actors with this grueling schedule make the production of The Commedia Aladdin fun for everyone.

What’s especially entertaining for the audience is that you get to see a play within a play as Columbine (Leslie Ann Giles) is the “director” and I use the word loosely, who casts the parts with the actors complaining about their roles. She uses the “Bigga Book of Stories” that contains a different type story of Aladdin. This is decidedly not the Disney version. Here Aladdin (Stephen Seay) begins as a lazy son who won’t get a job. His mother, resentfully played by Punchin (Ashby Blakely), is all the more comical because he doesn’t want to do it. Rosetta (Darlene Parker Black) plays multiple characters including the evil magician. Gender bending is no problem here, and I’m convinced they are all versatile enough to play anything. The actors chase each other around the stage, make off-handed sarcastic remarks, play different characters by changing costume pieces, voices, and do their own sound effects.

Director Steven Ivey has used creativity to make up for the simplicity of the production, and even draws a few ahhhs from both adults and children. The technical folks, as always, do an excellent job supporting the production with costumes, lights, props and scenery that delight the kids.

After the performance the actors were introduced and asked questions by children in the audience. It’s obvious from the questioning they saw how much fun the actors were having. Ms. Black and Giles, Mr. Blakely and Seay make it look easy, but behind all that humor is hard work, and talent which the four have in abundance.

You’ll enjoy this 50-minute production no matter your age.           Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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ALICE IN CONCERT
Book, music, lyrics by Elizabeth Swados
Directed by Alan Poindexter
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
McColl Family Theatre
April 17-May 3, 2009

Wow, what a trip! I think I'm still dreaming it. With beautiful music, whimsical lyrics, fantastic scenery, and even more amazing characters, this Alice entertains spectators of any age. It makes the well-known story seem as fresh as a spring nap—revealing the magic below the surface of our minds.

While her nanny reads under a tree, Alice sees an Elton-John-like White Rabbit. Following it, she falls through a hole, past signs, playing cards, bones, and fossils. She encounters a singing bottle that tempts her to drink. When she does, she's shocked to find how big she's grown, becoming a giant inside the Rabbit's house. Then she meets a crazy Caterpillar, a baby that turns into a pig, a Cheshire Cat who disappears with a grin, a Mad Hatter's Tea Party, cards painting white roses red in order to keep their heads, and an operatic yet not too threatening Red Queen who enjoys decapitations.

The dragonish Jabberwock might be a bit scary for young spectators, but Alice wields a big sword to finish it off, as Humpty Dumpty tells the story of that within her story. He then falls off the wall and becomes a scrambled egg. Tweedle Dum and Dee dance together as twins. Then one falls asleep; the other says he's dreaming Alice and she may disappear if he stops. But she meets the White Queen who explains how to live backwards. The White Knight also helps Alice to believe in impossible things. After dancing with more queens, and being told she'll become one, she finds herself back asleep on her nanny's lap.

Yet, this summary doesn't begin to express the wild, tour de force of musical theatre spectacle here. It offers almost continuous singing with high-energy dance, astounding costumes, and awe inspiring scenery. Then the White Queen and Knight offer Alice some oddly current physics and metaphysics, slowing the fantasies a bit as food for thought. Whether it's all "nonsense," as director Poindexter says in his program note, or something more, bubbling up in our collective unconscious, is left up to each spectator to see.

And that's due to Poindexter's wonderful balancing of many artists' feverish imaginations. Scenes designed by Jim Gloster, costumes by Connie Furr-Soloman, lights by Eric Winkenwerder, props by Peter Smeal, and sound by Ryan J. Gastelum all approach wizardry. The music, directed by Drina Keen, with her and Pat Cray at keyboards, Jimmy Duckworth on guitar, and Josh Walker at drums and keyboard, also charms the audience into a trance.

Yet, the adult actors display even more magic, turning the fears and desires of a child's world into ever-changing, prismatic figures. Ashley Bradley is adorably convincing as Alice, drawing us all through the rabbit hole with her. Mark Sutton takes the White Rabbit and Knight far beyond caricature. Nicia Carla and Robbie Jaegar are totally transformed as the Caterpillar and Cheshire Cat. Jon Parker Douglas becomes a surprisingly real baby-cum-pig and then an eloquently stoic White Queen. But these and the other actors are excellent in many more roles, and in their ensemble feats. They're like circus clowns who become wild, hybrid creatures—almost mythic, yet with the naïve joy of innocent dreams. And so is their show, whatever it means.           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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SOUTHERN RAPTURE
By Eric Coble
Directed by Chip Decker
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
April 10-May 2, 2009

13 years ago this city was shaken to its core by the controversy over Angels in America being performed, with a gay sex scene and male frontal nudity (not in the same scene), at the Charlotte Repertory Theatre, which no longer exists today. The actors were threatened with arrest. The theatre company had to get a court injunction to stop the Performing Arts Center (which still exists) from locking them out of the Booth Playhouse. Now, a new script by Cleveland playwright Eric Coble turns this painful history into comedy. It has received a finely tuned premiere at Actor's Theatre.

The play starts with video: a joking narrator introduces a list of relevant headlines from The Charlotte Observer, summarizing the conflict of 1996—for those who were here then or not. When the scenes begin, names are changed, yet caricatures are recognizable. The local theatre critic, Simon Larisher, provokes the community with a front-page story that a play, "Rapture in America," about male sex acts and an exposed penis is being produced by their regional theatre. Mayor Winston Paxton visits the theatre's Artistic Director, Marjorie Winthrop, trying to persuade her to do more easily entertaining shows instead, like their recent production of The Odd Couple. Then Mayor Paxton gets a visit from the Most Reverend DuPree, who warns him that his constituency will not be pleased and the city is in danger of becoming the "New Sodom," rather than the "New New York" or "New Atlanta," as the Mayor hopes (while also fantasizing about an Olympic bid). He then must face an angry citizen complaining at a publicly televised meeting, after she read the play off the shelf at the local library, where any seven year old could reach it. She reminds the Mayor that the city's obscenity law needs to be enforced.

At first, the theatre's Managing Director, Donald Sherman, is eager for this "war" with his enemies. But then he becomes terrified when a leading board member comes to complain. The Artistic Director tries to calm her actors, by creating a safe "bubble" for their art. But they fear sharp shooters, carry mace for protection, and debate with her whether the "seven seconds" of penis exposure has a crucial metaphorical meaning or can be cut to avoid the controversy. Yet, the conflict builds to national exposure, when the Mayor and Artistic Director lose their tempers on Good Morning America.

The comical twists just escalate from there. Chip Decker's directing extends the farce and yet also tunes the rhythms for poignant, meaningful moments. Fine acting also adds many details. The young, very talented Jeremy DeCarlos brings ironic layering to the multiple roles of Reverend DuPree (who feels God's power behind his anti-gay mission), Mickey Stedman (the actor most vulnerable to arrest or violence because he's dropping his underwear in the "Rapture"), and Anton Finewitz (the playwright who also pressures the theatre not to change that detail in his play or he'll shut them down). Other amazing transformations are shown by Sheila Snow Proctor as the sophisticated board member torn between desires for art and civility, the actress playing an angel who only has half a wing, the complaining citizen who represents many paranoid others, and the stern yet politically savvy D.A. Nathan Rouse also plays multiple roles with aplomb: the theatre critic who gains power by provoking the scandal, a genial but fearful actor, the goofy GMA TV host, and a slick southern lawyer who wields absurdly funny phrases (though those were difficult to catch, on opening night) amid all the audience laughter.

Laura Depta, Joe Rux, and Tim Ross are just as strong in their single roles, as the Artistic Director, Managing Director, and Mayor. They show how both sides in the controversy get power, stress, and bits of insight through others supporting and pressuring them, as well as in the difficult choices they make. The set design by Chip Decker also suggests a prism of reflections, with back wall, desks, and stools made with spots of light and cubes within cubes, becoming poetic for the cityscapes, mazes, and power traps of the play.

As a comedy of manners, leaning toward farce, this show does not probe the intricacies of religious and political issues in the original situation—with Tony Kushner's Angels in America involving AIDS, Mormons, historical ghosts, and epic theological questions, as well as homosexuality and male nudity, or with the passion of many in Charlotte in the 1990s to keep their community from becoming too "world class." But Southern Rapture does present a new, hilarious way to reflect upon deep conflicts that linger in our city, as the New South grows. And it shows how much we have changed in just over a decade. Perhaps it took an outsider, as playwright, along with an upstart company, emerging out of the ruins of Charlotte Rep (and celebrating its 20th Anniversary with its adventurous supporters) to provoke such cathartic laughter at the past.          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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NO EXIT
By Jean-Paul Sartre
Directed by Paige Johnston Thomas
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
April 2-25, 2009

CAST is unique in the Charlotte theatre community, doing contemporary plays in very intimate spaces, with scenery extending into the lobby and box office areas. This time, CAST has chosen an existentialist drama from the 1940s, showing a parable of "hell" as being (like and in) our own world of mortal existence and human conflict. Yet, spectators are again invited to participate, from the moment they walk in the door. With a warped checkerboard design painted on the floor, walls, and ceiling; with a little round mirror as a ticket to get in; and with video and further mirrors catching audience members' reflections—all before they enter the theatre.

Once inside the set's mausoleum-like space, spectators sit in a single row, around the black square stage. There are three padded benches onstage, each with a specific color and yet the same minimalist foundation, like the table, which has a small abstract sculpture attached. And then, after the angled doorway closes, spectators exist for 90 minutes in the heat of the play's modern "hell," both as lost souls and as Others watching, like supernatural spirits at a human zoo.

Thus, director Paige Johnston Thomas and set designer Michael R. Simmons offer a full experience of a very difficult, intelligent, and emotional play. The acting is also excellent, with Dave Blamy as the first soul thrust into the chamber: Garcin, a newsman who cheated on his wife and betrayed his profession. From the beginning and with increasing meaning, he reveals the twisted tensions of guilt and self-doubt, behind his rational, aloof demeanor. Corlis Hayes plays the Valet, giving cryptic replies to Garcin's questions, with her expressive face suggesting even more about the sinister or wise forces of mastery and judgment, behind the audience as all four walls. Her white tuxedo, contrasting with her black skin, also implies an ironic questioning of traditional devil or angel codes, like Morgan Freeman cast as God in recent movies.

Eventually, Garcin is joined by the middle-aged Inez (Meg Wood) and the younger Estelle (Christy Edney), both of whom confess how they caused the suffering and death of those who loved them in life. The living in that other world continues to haunt all three of these dead souls, as shown with intriguing video projections, supplementing the characters' verbal memories and future concerns. Throughout the show, Wood and Edney join Blamy in an intricate dance of desires, ideals, disgust, and vengeance—as torturers of each other. And the video artistry, by professional editor Jay Thomas, hints at many further dramas within the character's minds, as they hear and glimpse what the living on earth are doing. The stage's turntable also offers a surprise spin on the drama's continuing conflicts.

No Exit combines romance and horror, philosophical ideas (such as "hell is other people") and character's shifting alliances, with bodies and egos still at risk, even after death. Estelle thinks they're there by chance, Inez that it's all been planned by the Others watching. Garcin demands that a door open, so he can leave. But when one does, he won't. These inmates of hell become intense friends and enemies, with compulsions to repeat, yet choices about change, while the audience at the edge forms part of the metaphysics that frames them—reflecting what exits might yet exist, in life and at its end.          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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LEGALLY BLONDE
Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin
Book by Heather Hach (based on the novel by Amanda Brown and
The Metro Goldwyn-Mayer Motion Picture)
Directed and Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell
North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Ovens Auditorium
April 21-26, 2009

I imagine that those who are first introduced to the idea that Legally Blonde the movie starring Reese Whitherspoon as a sorority girl who pursues the love of her life all the way to Harvard law school has been transformed into a Broadway musical might react the same way I did—with horror and despair. At first glance it would seem that whatever Broadway used to be, a Legally Blonde musical would surely be an omen of darker times. But, instead, Legally Blonde is a bright, funny, touching, whimsical, American musical. Like Guys and Dolls or Kiss Me, Kate, Legally Blonde is an expertly crafted collection of show stopping number after show stopping number. The audience openly cheered on several occasions when I attended, and it was clear that a good time was had by all.

I had the pleasure of attending Legally Blonde in New York when it had first opened, and the tour does (as it must) scale down and alter some of the magnificent set pieces, but it is no worse for it. The heart of the musical is the comedy and the music; neither of these were affected in the least by the elimination of a set or two. Sorority president Elle Woods is jilted by her perfect boyfriend, Warren Huntington III. He feels he must start acting more seriously when he goes to Harvard and needs to date someone who is “less of a Marilyn, and more of a Jackie.” Elle takes this to heart and decides, despite having no previous interest at all, to get into law school, too, to prove her love for Warren. Of course, once she is accepted, Elle slowly realizes there is more to life than she first thought.

Becky Gulsvig is a wonderful Elle Woods. The part demands a true triple threat—an actor who can sing, dance, and act—and Gulsvig does all very well. A particularly long number where she pleads her case to be admitted to Harvard is perhaps the most impressive as she belts and dances for several minutes and then must sing a short ballad. D.B. Bonds as the nerdy Emmet Forrest is also quite good.

Crowd favorites included Ven Daniel as the UPS delivery man, Kyle, and his lady love, Paulette (played with brash humor by Natalie Joy Johnson). Both steal the show and received enormous applause during their curtain call.

What works best in this musical is that each song moves the plot along yet each song is a gem and stands alone. In addition to this, it has one of the smartest and funniest books in recent Broadway memory. So, regardless of what you might first think, don’t be turned off by Legally Blonde’s source material. This is a legitimate musical comedy and one of the most enjoyable evenings at the theatre you’re likely to have any time soon.               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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DANGEROUS
By Tom smith
Directed by Glenn T. Griffin
Queen city Theatre Company
April 2-18, 2009

Queen City Theatre’s mission statement has always been “to present theatre that celebrates the many different races, religions, genders, and sexual orientations that exist in both Charlotte, NC and the world.” Their current production of Tim Smith’s Dangerous not only explores, it wallows. Its frank exploration of sex and sexuality is a bold and ballsy production that is unapologetic and pulls no punches.

Dangerous is an all gay (or potentially gay) version of Pierre Cholderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, later adapted into a play and then a film (Dangerous Liaisons by Christopher Hampton). The epistolary novel is a collection of letters between the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. The novel is either a biting commentary on the moral decay of the French aristocracy or a celebration of the same. Tom Smith updates the play, changing the wealthy French aristocrats to two wealthy gay men whose only purpose is to play with and destroy the men that fall into their orbit.

Marcus is played by Salvador Garcia. His only ambition, other than sex and revenge, seems to be inheriting the estate of the older Rosemonde (played by Hank West.). Garcia’s Marcus is cold and reptilian, and joylessly sexual. His vengeance seems more reflexive than inspired. It is a mostly chilling portrayal.

His partner in crime and sometimes rival is Valmont. Kristian Wedolowski’s Valmont seems to enjoy the destructive games much more than his friend, even falling in love with one his victims to disastrous effect. Wedolowski’s accent becomes such an integral part of the charm of Valmont, it would be difficult to imagine the character without it. Aside from the prerequisite swagger and sexuality, Weolowski lends the character enough vulnerability and self doubt to make his character interesting.

The plot is multifaceted and progressively more complex in the manner of the best sleazy storylines. Marcus challenges Valmont to seduce and publicly humiliate Jason (Steve Buchanan) the personal trainer and recent lover of one of Marcus’ recent conquests. Jason, unaware of Marcus’ existence, is, of course, blameless and therefore a perfect subject. He has only recently come out and Valmont initially turns down the challenge as it is too easy. He prefers, instead, to concentrate his efforts on the seduction of priest-to-be Trevor (played with earnest sincerity by Scott Flanary). To further complicate matters, Jason falls in love with the slightly older music director Daniel (played with straightforward sweetness by Justin Dionne). Completing the cast are Joshua Bistromowitz as the jilted stooge Landon, and Hank West as the dying Rosemonde. West gives a heartbreakingly understated performance and acts as the (mostly ignored) moral compass of the play. Most of the play involves Marcus and Valmont systematically seducing and destroying the innocents around them. It is engrossing to watch, though sometimes the premise wears thin. The play challenges us by providing two protagonists who are apparently amoral and unredeemable. Without Wedolowski’s layered vulnerability, it would be difficult to sit through the two hour plus production.

Technically the production is appropriately sparse. Designer Kristian Wedolowski gives us a flat floor with no levels and no furniture and painted with a chessboard pattern that sets the stage for the complicated games the two play. A quartet of chandeliers suggest the earlier pedigree of the play. Director Glenn T. Griffin makes amazingly creative use of such a simple playing space. Alfie B. Griffin’s costumes stylish, and whimsical, often subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) comment on the action of the play. Trista Rothe’s lighting is appropriately simple save for some fairly heavy-handed work near the end of the play. A montage of scenes depicting the fall of Valmont could have been supported more fully through lights and sound.

Again, this is a brave production that deserves to be seen. Obviously those sensitive viewers who are unaccustomed to the intensity of sexuality that is displayed in this production might consider other fare, but for the rest of us, straight and gay alike, this is an intriguing evening at the theatre. Like the novel that inspired it, it is not immediately clear if this is a biting commentary on the moral wasteland of contemporary culture or a celebration of the same, but it will make you think.               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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DANCEBRAZIL: RITMOS (RHYTHMS)
Choreographed by Jelon Veiera
North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Belk Theater
April 5, 2009

Movement is a language and each culture has its own. DanceBrazil's presentation of Ritmos was a rare chance to experience the martial art of capoeira as a dance. Capoeira was created by African slaves in Brazil and bears the rhythms of both old and new worlds. DanceBrazil's 10 athletic, slim, yet muscular dancers (8 men and 2 women) were even more impressive than expressive, offering their acrobatic bodies in sexy, defiant, competitive, and collaborative patterns.

Each act began with the musicians playing and the guitarist singing. He then got the audience to sing along. For most in the audience, the musicians and their instruments were difficult to see, placed in a small area below the stage, near the front row of seats. Yet, they set the mood and connected the audience to the stage—even before the curtain opened.

Initially, the dancers performed as a group, all wearing white pants, with the men in T-shirts and the women in sports bra tops. Eventually, they appeared in brightly colored pants and shirts, or in shorts (in the finale), with flexing thighs, shaking hips, and muscular abs also on display.

At times, some of the dancers held a hand over others, as if conducting them in a trance. But more often they sparred in pairs, crouching capoeira-style, hands to the floor, with legs swinging over heads, or with bodies inverted even further.

They would also lean slowly backwards, balancing on bent knees and toe tips, until reaching the floor behind them. Or they'd perform handstands, with legs straight together, yet held to the side, then raised gradually upward and lowered to the other side. Several dancers also did flips from a push up position, spinning laterally in the air, with body straight, and landing again in the same position. Also, one dancer did over 20 cartwheels in a continuous circling display.

Such gymnastic feats were woven into a mix of many movement miracles—with amazing energy over the course of the two hour show, and its brief encore, after the audience stood in applause. Perhaps the Blumenthal will bring this company back someday, so that more in Charlotte may experience its Afro-Brazilian language of art, battle, and spirit.          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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THE SECRET LIFE OF GIRLS
By Linda Daugherty
Directed by Nicia Carla
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
Wachovia Playhouse
March 27-April 5, 2009

The Secret Life of Girls has garnered well-deserved attention, and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte presents a thoughtful, stage-worthy production of the play.

The story revolves around a group of middle school girls. It begins innocently enough when Abby (Chloé Aktas) invites the girls to her birthday party. They giggle, compliment the gifts, and eat pizza. One girl, Kayla (Kali Hackett), spends the night. This irritates Stephanie (Kristyn Callaway), leader of the group, especially when she finds out that Abby wants to join the volleyball team. They won the championship last season, and she thinks Abby will cause the team to lose if she’s allowed to join. At least, that’s what she says is the reason as she begins to ostracize Abby (with the others falling into place). Abby is at a loss as to what she could have done to anger her friends.

The insidious nature of gossip and bullying is shown clearly as each of the other girls, including Anna Marie (Lauren Berg), Rebecca (Adriana Jerez), and Sutton (Sarah Slusarick), take their turn being the object of scorn led by the vindictive Stephanie. The adults, Sutton’s Mom/Coach (Donna Scott), and Abby’s Mom (Rebecca Koon) are either clueless or are at a loss as how to help.

The structure of the play, by necessity, is episodic as it needs to show the passage of time. The set is spare and the mostly bare stage is used effectively. There are three video screens where projections appear frequently. The technical expertise of the video design by Jay Thomas is solid. And although the videos provide visual interest and some much needed comic relief, it is over-used at times. For instance, when the characters are emailing to others, the actors read the emails, but the projected emails lag behind. We all know what emails look like. Anything in a play that slows the forward progress of the action, or distances the audience, is questionable. Video is a great tool onstage, but its use needs to be judicious.

Having said that, Nicia Carla is talented director who clearly has a good rapport with her actors. The adult actors do well, but this is the ensemble of young actors’ play, and the director gets credit for creating an atmosphere where they feel safe to make choices that work even when their characters are unlikable. Each character is distinct and not difficult to differentiate. They are all very good in their roles, but Chloé Aktas as Abby and Kristyn Callaway as Stephanie anchor the play and help give their characters subtext and depth.

After the performance Ms. Carla had the audience rate the characters from “good to bad” opening up a much needed follow-up discussion led by Jeanine Davis (WPEG-FM Power 98 radio) from an organization called Girl Talk Foundation, Inc., about the play and the characters. This is particularly helpful since the play raises so many areas of concern for the audience of girls. Their comments were alternately funny, insightful, and poignant.

Adults know that gossip and bullying are facts of life, but for girls, especially the idealistic ones, reality can be a let down. Many don’t have the inner resources yet to know how to deal with an ugly side of human nature, believing it’s their fault. Being a mother to children of both genders, though, I know girls have a more complex road to navigate. The worrisome thing about gossip, rumors and lies is that there is no way to counteract it. The important thing, though, and why this play is a good beginning for discussion, is that we all have choices about who we want to be in the world. I’ve never heard of anyone saying on their deathbed they wished they had gossiped more. If there’s regret, it’s that they weren’t kinder. Our girls don’t just need to know how to get through today. We need to help them see other perspectives on finding their way to a healthy, self-respecting adulthood.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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DIXIE'S TUPPERWARE PARTY
By Kris Anderson
Directed by Patrick Richwood
NC Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Booth Playhouse
March 24-29, 2009

From the moment I entered the Booth Theatre lobby I was greeted by an usher who insisted I go to a table and get my name tag and “materials.” I was attending the production with my thirteen-year-old daughter (I mention this only as it will come to into play later), and we dutifully put on our name tags, collected an actual Tupperware catalogue, and took our seats.

The woman (well, man) of the hour, Dixie Longate (played by actor Kris Anderson), fulfills her duty as hostess by mingling with the crowd, chatting and getting to know her potential customers. Dixie is resplendent in her checkered minidress, long red hair, and blue eye shadow. She is a charming hostess and maneuvered comfortably from person to person.

Select audience members are chosen by Dixie to join her party up on stage. They sit on two enormous couches that flank a large table piled with the latest offerings of Tupperware. Just to clear things up, and Dixie does this a few times, this is an actual Tupperware Party. You can purchase any of the items you see throughout the hilarious and often raunchy demonstrations of the hostess. In fact, it has been reported that Dixie Longate (aka Kris Anderson) sells in the neighborhood of twenty thousand dollars a month in Tupperware products. He is one of the top sellers in both the United States and Canada, and believe me, by the end of the evening, you will want to purchase Tupperware, it almost seems un-American not to.

We learn during the course of the evening that Dixie, as part of her parole, and in order to get her kids back (Winona, Dwayne, and little Absorbine Jr.), she has to have a job and selling Tupperware seems like the best choice for a woman who doesn’t fit into the standard workforce. There’s no real plot in the show, no character development, or any of the things one might look for in a one-woman show, but Dixie makes you forget about any of that. It is a party after all!

The subject matter is decidedly adult. I had done some research before bringing my teen-aged daughter along, but was not fully prepared to participate with her in the onstage “rimming” contest (which consisted of my daughter tossing shape-sorter key chains into collapsible Tupperware bowls that I had to put the lids firmly onto—or “rim” them). It was all in good fun, although it did lead to an awkward conversation on the way home as to why the audience was laughing. So parents, even if your teens are seasoned theatre goers (and mine are), unless you want to go through what I did, leave them home. I’m just saying.

Technically, the production is appropriately sparse (after all we’re not supposed to be distracted from the product or the hostess) with minimal (but effective lighting) designed by Richard Winkler; a selection of background music Dixies uses to enhance her presentation provided by Christopher K. Bond; and a fabulous wig (designed by David H. Lawrence) that is as much a part of Dixie as Elvira or Dolly’s own hair pieces.

All in all, if you’re looking for the most entertaining Tupperware Party hosted by a raunchy and charming diva named Dixie, then you should make a point of attending. Bring your checkbook, you’ll want that Jello-shot caddy. Trust me.                                         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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BURN THE FLOOR
Created & Choreographed by Jason Gilkison
NC Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Belk Theater
March 24-29, 2009

You’re quietly sitting there in the darkened theater waiting for the curtain to rise when two outrageously costumed pink ballerinas suddenly appear. They’re swathed in enough pink tulle for a half dozen bad bridesmaids dresses and these girls are acting out! In fact, they drag a poor unsuspecting audience member on stage. No wait, he’s Larry Sprinkle, everyone’s favorite weather man and he’s introducing Burn The Floor.

Burn The Floor showing now through March 29 at the Belk Theater features the dance troupe who performed as “Team Australia” on NBC’s “Superstars of Dance.” The show was originally conceived by Gilkison in 1999 in Australia and has since been performed in 30 countries to over 30 million people. The troupe is made up of 18 dancers from around the world, two vocalists and two percussionists. And it is hot. Smokin’, steamin’ hot. You almost need asbestos sunglasses to watch.

Riding the wave of incredible popularity that ballroom dance is now enjoying, this show is a homage to ballroom. However, this is not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers doing the Quick Step. Although they did perform a Quick Step, a Fox Trot, Waltz, Tango, Swing and even a little Tap, this ballroom is high energy, complex and almost gymnastic performed by beautiful, half naked young people. I haven’t seen this many six packs since I was in the beer section of the liquor store.

Everything is performed with a killer backbeat provided by percussionists Henry Soriano and Giorgio Rojas. The vocalists Jessica Lingotti (who is an 18 year old college student) and Kieron Kulik have strong, sensual voices that are a perfect accompaniment to the dance. And as for the dancers, there was not a weak dancer in the group. Their strength and athleticism and technical virtuosity made them a joy to watch. Their physical beauty is astounding. There’s probably not an ounce of body fat in the entire troop.

Late in the show, a cast member describes ballroom dance as “Two people moving together up close and personal.” And that is the essence of this show--heightened with couplings and uncouplings, passion and drama, delight and regret. Watching this show does make you understand why some religions ban dancing. It is like making love standing up.

And the audience absolutely loved it. They were on their feet for the entire last two numbers. For me at least, the best part was, I wanted to go and try it. I was ready to sign up for ballroom classes. If you’ve ever watched “Dancing With The Stars” or “Superstars of Dance” and enjoyed it, this is your chance to experience it “up close and personal.”               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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ELTON JOHN & TIM RICE'S AIDA
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls & David Henry Hwang
Directed by Corey Mitchell
Choreographed by Eddie Mabry
Musical Direction by Matt Hinson
Musical Conduction by Michael Sanders
Northwest School of the Arts &
NC Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Booth Playhouse
March 20-22, 2009-03-21

A rock opera inspired by the story of an ancient Egyptian love triangle, and based on the opera by Giuseppe Verdi, is a wonderfully ambitious project. That’s nothing new for Northwest School of the Arts as they keep to their own tradition of pushing the limits of high school musical production. All involved certainly have my admiration, even if the musical itself has some flaws. To be clear, it’s more the result of the play rather than the talent involved.

The music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice are eclectic with a mix of styles which makes it more accessible to general audiences who may not be familiar with what they perceive to be “high-falutin” foreign operas. Yet, the music and lyrics are not especially memorable. At times, the words of the songs in Act I were obscured by the very capable orchestra and band. The singers, though, were able to convey by their acting the gist of what was going on in the story.

It seems that in the ancient Egypt of the Pharaohs, when raiding and conquering neighbors’ lands was all the rage, a military commander named Radames captures a group of Nubians. Among them is a feisty young woman named Aida (Kel Williams). She grabs the sword of a soldier only to forfeit it when one of her country women is threatened, but she wins Radames respect. Little does he know she is the Nubian princess. He saves the group by keeping them from going to the mines, and in addition, sends Aida as a present to Amneris (Emily Wittie), daughter of the Pharaoh and his soon to be bride (although they’ve been engaged for nine years). Radames' father, Zoster (Ashton Guthrie) has been slowly poisoning the Pharaoh (Luke Pizzato) so that Radames will be Pharaoh when he marries Amneris. But Radames unexpectedly falls in love with Aida and she with him complicating everyone’s lives.

The story, like any self-respecting opera, is full of deceit, passion, out-of-control emotions, betrayals, bad behavior, and choices that ultimately doom the lovers.

Director Corey Mitchell has a knack for casting and working well with his young actors. Kel Williams as Aida is terrific as the lead character. She brings dignity and honesty to the role of a woman trapped by love and divided loyalties. Matt Carlson as Radames is bursting with potential since he is only a freshman this year. His portrayal of a soldier conveys a man changed by love. Emily Wittie does well as Amneris, a character that changes the most during the course of the play. At first she is more comic relief, like an Egyptian Valley Girl obsessed with beauty and fashion, but later, though deceived, shows strength of character and mercy towards her betrayers. Kyron Turner is Mereb the Nubian slave who knows how to get things done in the palace and helps Aida. His acting and singing are right on target. Ashton Guthrie, (another freshman) takes chances as Radames’ ambitious father, looking at times like a Rocky Horror character rather than one from ancient Egypt, yet he brings energy onstage and is entertaining to watch. Luke Pizzato has to look sickly as the ailing Pharaoh, but gets to show skill in his outrage and sorrow over condemning Radames, who he thought of as a son. Nonye Obichere is fine in the part of Nehebka. Both male and female ensembles merit praise, too.

The technical and music artists from the orchestra, to set design, scenic design, costumes, and lighting are all to be commended. I always enjoy the choreography of Eddy Mabry, and his work with the male ensemble here is especially well done.

The overall work to put on this show is admirable, and those in Charlotte should go see and support this show of talent and skill by those at our high school of the arts.      Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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THE DRAMA CLUB
By Bob Inman
Directed by Alan Poindexter
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
McColl Family Theatre, ImaginOn
March 13-22, 2009

This is a new play tailor-made (and grant funded) to get thoughts, feeling, and discussions going about racial conflicts in today's American high schools. At times, the play dips into various mini-dramas, like a TV soap (perhaps 90210). But it eventually focuses on the main conflict between two girls vying for the lead role in a "drama club" play. When their personal rivalry turns into a collective race riot, putting the school's broken friendships back together again becomes a much bigger puzzle to solve.

Set up as a morality play, the script becomes somewhat predictable. Yet, there are poignant edges, passionate conflicts, and wise insights along the way to the final lesson. Poindexter's creative staging, along with live video and photo projection designed by Jay Thomas, plus a stylized fight scene choreographed by Delia Neil, make the play even more multidimensional.

Adult actors play all the roles, but they do a fine job of finding the right characteristics to distinguish different attitudes. Emily, a cute blonde (played by the powerfully expressive Johanna Jowett), feels she's already earned the right to a prime part in The Importance of Being Earnest. But she gets angry at the deference given a black student, who's new to the school, and purposely blows the audition. She's then taught a lesson by her white drama teacher, Mr. Brady (who's played with convincing conviction by Mark Sutton). He gives the role to the black girl, Tasha (Shon Wilson), and yet offers the directing job to Emily. She takes revenge instead, partly due to a troubled home life.

The rumor Emily then spreads becomes a "grenade," as she's warned by her black friend Flora (who's given strong physical and vocal details by Ericka Ross). The school's black Principal (Sidney Horton) shows a complex mix of anxiety and courage, along with Mr. Brady, who trusts his students to create their own solution, and Emily, who returns to the drama club towards the end. Other students, white and black, also display their views on each side of the racial conflict—with the lone Hispanic, Carlos (J. R. Aducci), at first staying out of the mix, but then finding his role, too, as dramatic mediator.

Yet, the most entertaining character is outside the club, the comical "Camera Kid" (Jon Parker Douglas), who narrates it all and takes video to record it. This gives the theatre audience multiple angles to watch: from live stage action to the mediated view of the observing teen, projected above. Strangely, though, we also see video of private discussions in the Principal's office, when the Camera Kid is not there. Perhaps he also represents the omnipresent theatre audience, trying to put all the pieces together.

There is almost no set to this show, with the stage open all the way to its back and side walls, involving the audience in completing the school scenes, through their imagination and the photos projected above. (This creates some sound problems, however. And the stage lights, openly visible, sometimes challenge spectators' eyes.) Costumes are color coded in interesting ways, inverting stereotypes. Such stylizations fit with the Brechtian device used here of having all actors present, at the edges of scenes where their characters are not. This "alienation effect" provokes the audience to think critically about the choices being made by people playing roles—and how personal conflicts reverberate outward to affect others.

With humor and veracity, with creative staging and video projections (plus historical photos of racial violence), this new play has been given a fine premiere at CTC. Hopefully, it will continue to grow, through the minds of many in the audience, both teen and adult, completing the picture of the drama club. For it suggests, paradoxically, that drama onstage, or in the classroom, may help us to move past the temptation of too much dramatic conflict between competing egos and groups in 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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DEATH OF A SALESMAN
By Arthur Miller
Directed by Charles LaBorde
Theatre Charlotte
March 12-22, 2009

Death of a Salesman is a classic tribute to EVERYMAN as true in 1949 when Arthur Miller wrote it as it is today. While it may seem hard to realize that some families could actually survive on $50/week then, most of us would find it difficult to manage at 10 times that now. The parallels with the economy then and now, the struggles to live one pay check to another are the same and make this play timeless, even though the baby-boomers that made up a good portion of the audience were not even born or were barely toddling when this show was first produced.

Director Charles LaBorde tackles the role of Willie Loman and his increasing lack of control of his world, and not being able to keep in touch with reality, with energy and sincerity.

Paula Baldwin, a Theatre Charlotte newcomer, plays his wife, Linda Loman, as a down to earth, no-nonsense woman, who is also confused by the changes life is throwing at her, covering the lapses in her husband’s behavior while continuing to love him unconditionally.

John Cunningham’s emotionally charged portrayal of elder son, Biff Loman, is magical. He easily switches between the teenaged sports star in his father’s memories, and the mid-30’s man he has become with all the accompanying characteristics and body movements. Michael Sharpe plays younger son, Happy Loman just as his name suggests, very happy-go-lucky with a killer grin.

The rest of the cast does a wonderful job with their roles: Kirk Dickens as Bernard; Poppy Prichett as “The Woman”; John Xenakis as Charley; Jim Greenwood as Uncle Ben; Jon-Claude Caton as Howard Wagner; Joseph Peterson as Stanley; Jennifer Lynn Barnette as Miss Forsythe; and Amy Wada in the dual roles of Jenny and Letta.

The only difficulty I had was hearing some of the lines spoken in the bedrooms, probably because that part of the stage is elevated and the words got lost above the stage. Several of the older women behind me mentioned it as well. I could hear all the lines from the main level of the stage.

Congratulations to Theatre Charlotte for receiving the North Carolina Theatre Conference Award as Community Theatre of the Year this week for the third time!!!                                  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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KILLER JOE
By Tracy Letts
Directed by Tony Wright
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
February 12-March 7, 2009
Held over the next two weekends until March 21, Fridays & Saturdays only.

This is a sick play. It shows the infectious nature of violence, in an otherwise ordinary lower-class family, desperate for money and love. Through acid humor, it etches away at a sympathetic surface—challenging the audience with the difficult choices and surprising emotions of each character, likeable or not.

Chris Smith (Matt Cosper) needs money to pay off a dangerous loan shark, after his mother stole the coke he was dealing—or so he tells his father, Ansel (Matthew Corbett). They hire a police detective, Killer Joe (Robert Lee Simmons), to murder Chris's mother, Ansel's ex-wife, in order to get the insurance benefit. But Joe demands a "retainer," dinner alone—and more—with Chris's sister, Dottie (Cody Harding), a 20 year old, self-proclaimed virgin. She approves of the murder, she confesses to Joe, because her mom tried to kill her when she was a baby. Ansel's current wife, Sharla (Cindy J. Kistenberg), goes along with it all and plays her own trick to twist the violence even further.

There are fine performances all around (though no distinct accents for the Texas setting). The troubled Chris shifts from successfully persuading his father to self-doubt about his wicked plan and repeated mistakes in life. Killer Joe exhibits both smooth charm and rough control, as he demands proper payment for his services. And young Dottie shows a traumatic sadness in her face, yet also sly, admiring desire for the handsome assassin—who's taking her body as part of the deal, but stealing her heart as well. (Full disclosure: Cody Harding was a student of mine at UNC-Charlotte. Yet, I bet she moves many with this role, not just those who know her.)

As usual at CAST, the lobby experience becomes part of the show. It has been transformed into a rural Texas bar, complete with plywood cacti, fiberglass flamingos and Elvis, barrels and lanterns, a dart board, wooden fence, hay bails, and saddle. Audience members even get bullets as their tickets to enter. (As with other shows, there's also free fuel from Fuel Pizza on Fridays.)

The onstage set (designed by Mary Courtney Blake) is even more compelling with naturalistic details of the Smith's kitchen and living room, including a small, black and white TV set as continuous accompaniment and running water at the sink. But the edges of studs, insulation, and exterior siding are shown, where walls have been cut away for the audience to peer in, symbolic perhaps of the many edgy relationships on display. The costumes (by Jessica McQuillen) also add precise details to various scenes and characters. And there's a final fight (choreographed by director Tony Wright) that threatens to spill over into the audience spaces.

This is a funny play at times, despite its cruel material. But the humor is so wicked and bitter that the audience is not allowed to relax before the characters are drawn deeper into misbegotten plots, power plays, and eruptive violence. So once again, CAST throws the gauntlet down to its audience (like Actor's Theatre in staging two terroristic Irish plays by Martin McDonagh). In this case, how much of the "wild west" can you take?         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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DJEMBE FIRE!
Presented by Children's Theatre of Charlotte
Wachovia Playhouse
March 6 & 7, 2009

It's like traveling to an African village, with dancers in colorful robes, five drums, a marimba, and a stringed instrument made from a big gourd. Despite the microphones, black wooden stage, and audience in seats, the spirit of Africa appears in this show, through energetic dances, mimetic gestures, and powerful music.

A story is told, too, through dance. A young woman makes washing gestures with a basket of clothes, then lies down as if asleep. Another girl is courted by a young man, then the first woman is awoken by another and scolded for dreaming. Later, an elder blesses her and the young man, and she is wrapped in brighter colors for her wedding.

The five men and three women perform for a very full hour, engaging the audience with call and response, as well as rhythmic applause. Their energy builds to a climax, as each drummer comes forward to display his muscular skills—and the dancers continue their magical charm—beyond the show's end, in the minds and heartbeats of those who watched.

Programs are not given out and it is not clear where in Africa the language, music, instruments, and dance come from. But information on this group is available at: http://themagicofafricanrhythm.com/press_releases.html         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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RIVERDANCE
Original Principal Irish Dance Choreography by Michael Flatley
Original choreography by Mavis Ascott, Jean Butler, Colin Dunne, Carol Leavy Joyce, Moscow Folk Ballet Company, Maria Pagés, Tarik Winston.
Composed by Bill Whelan
Directed by John McColgan
Producer Moya Doherty, Abhann Productions
Performed by:
The Riverdance Irish Dance Troupe
The Riverdance Band
The Riverdance Singers
The Riverdance Flamenco Soloist
The Moscow Folk Ballet Company
The Riverdance Tappers
The Riverdance Baritone Soloist
The Riverdance Drummers
North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Ovens Auditorium
March 3-8, 2009

Riverdance is exhilarating. Even if you have little idea of the story behind the poetic narrative, you can’t help but be entranced by the fusion of Irish step dance, tap, flamenco, ballet, song, music and technical elements that make up the spectacle that is Riverdance. There is a reason that this show has been produced non-stop since 1996. It is quite simply the way one feels when watching it and walking out the door after the performance.

The show takes the audience on a journey with references that range from Celtic mythology at the opening of Act I, to crossing the ocean to an unfamiliar land, through the transformation with a mixture of cultures and the new world order of today. That’s a lot to cover, folks, but the lively, joyful dancing and haunting, mournful music accomplish much more than words alone ever could. In fact, the narration helps more with the mood than anything else. (If you are so inclined, the Riverdance website gives a scene by scene explanation of the choreography and music in the show.)

You may also develop a new found respect for Irish dancing. It’s not for the lazy or slow. Most dancers have been studying and step dancing since they were children. They are amazingly fast, agile, and sure-footed. Even with that, there wasn’t a slip up that I noticed; the synchronization is something to see.

The lead dancers of the night were excellent. Padraic Moyles is a terrific leader, encouraging his dancers and making a connection with the audience. He’s masculine and graceful at the same time. He never looked out of breath, though I can’t imagine he wasn’t with such strenuous routines. Caterina Coyne has a regal bearing onstage. She is delicate-looking, yet it belies her skill and spirited dancing, and she partners well with Mr. Moyles.

The large cast is excellent across the board. Everyone has his/her roles and performs them well. This includes: the dancers from the Moscow Folk Ballet Company who wow us with their jumps; the exquisite and passionate dancing of flamenco soloist Rocio Montoya; and the crowd-pleasing, energetic tappers Kelly Isaac and Lee Payne, as well as all those in the chorus.

The band is a stand out under the direction of Cathal Synnott with the first-rate solos of drummer/percussionist Mark Alfred, uilleann pipes of Matt Ashford, and the classic, rousing fiddle of Pat Mangan. Baritone Michael Samuels brings a commanding, relevant quality to his solo about freedom.

As the audience was leaving, most of the conversations contained the words “wow” and “wonderful.” Riverdance is only at Ovens auditorium through March 8 on its "farewell" tour. Don’t miss the chance to see it. You will definitely get your money’s worth and come out feeling awestruck by Riverdance.       Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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LIVING OUT
By Lisa Loomer
Directed by Anne Lambert
Charlotte's Off-Broadway
The Great Aunt Stella Center
February 18-March 7, 2009

Many of us know that working moms are torn between two responsibilities: careers and children. But most of us don't know that young mothers from Latin America, working as nannies in the U.S., must sacrifice time with their own kids to take care of someone else's. Living Out shows both sides of this dilemma, for American and Latina moms.

It's not as funny as a TV sit-com. And it's a bit long at two and a quarter hours. But this "comic drama" bears deeply emotional insights, especially for women faced with career, family, class, and geographical conflicts. We see Ana (the beautifully passionate Cristina Layana) interview with three potential employers. Eventually, she learns to lie about having a son here in Charlotte, as well as one son living with his grandma back in El Salvador, where she is from. She tells the third mom, Nancy Robin (Donna Scott) that both her sons live there, so she is free to give her full attention as a nanny here—and then she gets hired. But she must continue telling lies in order to please her employer, while also getting twisted between her responsibilities to her 6-year-old American son, her Latino husband (who, like her, is trying to get a green card), and the 11-year-old boy who hasn't seen her for 8 years and doesn't recognize her in the photos she sends.

All the actors offer strong performances. Layana shows a tragic, hard-earned maturity in the role of Ana. Salvador Garcia exemplifies both machismo and compassion, charm and self-interest, as Ana's husband, Bobby. Comic twists in the play are brought out especially by Glenn Hutchinson, as Richard Robin, Nancy's husband, by Carly Howard and Kim Lanphear, parodying upper-class moms, and by Nury Antomarchy, as a fellow nanny who meets with Ana and another Latina nanny, Sandra, in the park. As Sandra, Delia Rabah, like Layana and Antomarchy, brings a genuine sense of cross-cultural struggle to her role. Indeed, Rabah and Layana are originally from Ecuador and Antomarchy was born in Cuba. They readily convey the anxiety, envy, and yet joyful wit of their underclass, bilingual characters—speaking Spanglish at times (along with Garcia), and thus mixing Spanish and English terms, though not to the degree that anyone in the audience will feel totally lost.

The performance space of the Great Aunt Stella Center lends a church-like atmosphere to the show, offering a ritual sense of theatrical communion, with the padded pews, small platform stage, and echoing voices. The minimal scenery and props—a couch, a chair, a few tables, kids' toys, and the dolls used for babies (with a car seat signifying the nursery)—works well especially in the double scenes that overlap the Robin home and Ana at home with Bobby. The coffee table in that setting also serves as a bench for the park scenes. But the actors also bring reality to such places, along with the audience's open-minded imagination.

Anne Lambert has done a fine job as director and producer of this play. Although some of the plot seems predictable, with its twists and revelations slow in coming, the perspectives the play gives are valuable, witty, and hit close to home—with many references inserted about Charlotte locales. Hopefully, the local audience will support this production, in turn, and future ones from Lambert's "Off-Broadway" company.               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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BLUE
By Charles Randolph-Wright
Music by Nona Hendryx
Music & Lyrics by Nona Hendryx and Charles Randolph-Wright
Directed by Sidney Horton
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
February 13-March 7, 2009

Blue tells the story of the Clark family who run a prosperous funeral home in Kent, SC. Peggy Clark (Karen Abercrombie), a former Ebony Fashion Fair model, seems to care for nothing more than wearing the latest fashions and doting on her musician son, Reuben. She makes it clear time after time that she is too good for the people of Kent and the only real pleasure she has comes from the music of Blue, a fictional light jazz musician. The Actor's Theatre production provides an entertaining and heartwarming(if overly sentimental) depiction of a wealthy African American family in the South.

Like The Glass Menagerie, Blue is a memory play. The older Reuben (Jeremy DeCarlos) begins the play with a direct address to the audience and then haunts his younger self until the end of Act One. It’s an interesting device that doesn’t seem to add anything to our understanding of the characters nor the theme of the play itself. There are enough family dramas to hold our interest. Aside from Rueben, Tillie’s other son, Sam Clark III (Jonavan Adams) struggles to escape Kent (and his mother) by whatever means possible. He purposefully dates what appears to be one of the trashiest girls in town; a woman so low class his mother cannot help but despise her; but instead, due to LaTonya’s (Kim Watson Brooks) encyclopedic knowledge of Blue, she is welcomed into the family. Tillie takes it upon herself to improve LaTonya and eliminate her trashy ways. On top of this, the play provides the prerequisite wisecracking grandmother and the patient and harried father. Very little in the play stretches beyond what one might expect in a family drama on television. Even the “startling” revelation at the end (and I won’t give it up here) won’t be much of a surprise to most of the audience.

Still, there is much to recommend here. Though the material never stretches beyond the expected, it is, however, honestly presented without irony or comment. It is clear the playwright cares about these people and their struggles, and by the end of the play, we do, too. Though the play deals with a complete cast of African-American actors (a rarity in Charlotte), the play hardly discusses race. It is very concerned with class issues, but race is a distant footnote at best. I can remember debates about The Cosby Show’s idyllic portrayal of the Huxtable family. Many seemed to feel it was a disservice to the black community to fail to honestly reflect the struggles so many were facing. It would be frustrating for any artist to be restricted to only talk about life through the filter of race, and Randolph-Wright’s work, as I said, is real and approachable.

The cast is quite good. Sterling Frierson as young Reuben is charming and convincingly plays the dutiful son (all the while wearing bell bottoms and huge platform shoes!). Jeremy DeCarlos, his older self, is appropriately tortured and searching. Jonavan Adams (who begins the play in an enormous Afro), is both comic and sincere as Sam Clark III. Sidney Horton is as warm and patient as any family drama’s father figure, managing to convey a lot of emotion in just a few words as Samuel Clark, Jr. Kim Watson Brooks, who begins the play as the deep country-talking LaTonya Dinkins, evolves into a sad but confident woman by the end of the play. I was mesmerized by her deeply layered performance and look forward to seeing her on stage again. Cassandra Lowe Williams is the comic wisecracking grandmother, Tillie Clark, and manages to make a lot out of her drunk scene. Leading the cast is Karen Abercrombie as the arrogant and proud matriarch, Peggy Clark. Abercrombie manages to find moments of vulnerability, but she is particularly vibrant in scenes where she is passionate. Quentin Talley’s Blue sings softly throughout the play (music provided by the talented Nona Hendryx) and adds a nice underscore to the proceedings.

Technically the play is simply portrayed but manages to convey a sense of the same sadness suggested by the title’s character of Blue. Stan Peal and Chip Decker’s set is a collection of curved platforms and abstract furniture. It suggests, appropriately enough, an album cover and serves the play well. There are some truly imaginative moments throughout the play where the setting shifts from the Clark home and they were always a joy to watch. Erin Grace’s period costumes that span the 70s and 80s are convincing, comic (when necessary), but never overplayed. Hallie Gray’s lighting is subtle and evocative.

All in all, despite its two and a half hour (plus) running time, the play moves briskly, is engaging, and managed to bring tears to the eyes of many of the audience members who were sitting around me.             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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THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS
Adapted from he book by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
Directed by Mark Sutton
Book & Lyrics by Robert Kauzlaric
Music by Paul Gilvary and William Rush
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
Wachovia Playhouse
February 13-March 1, 2009

I so enjoy performers Darlene Parker Black, Ashby Blakely, Leslie Ann Giles, and Stephen Seay that even though this musical play seems stretched a bit, it’s still fun and entertaining. What also helps is the interactive nature of the format where children can talk back, oink like pigs, and even vote.

The action takes place after the huffing and puffing at trial for the big bad wolf, AKA Alexander T. Wolf played by Ashby Blakely. He’s well suited for the role since he’s not a scary sort and as the lone wolf is made sympathetic. His voice is strongest among the actors, which helps make lyrics easier to understand. Leslie Ann Giles is the prosecutor, Julia. Darlene Parker Black plays the judge, The Honorable Prudence with style. Stephen Seay gets to showcase his versatility as multiple characters, but is especially fun as Martha, a frumpy middle-aged pig with a high-pitched voice. Very funny. The kids loved it.

Much credit goes to director Mark Sutton. Also, the musical direction by Drina Keen, choreography by Ron Chisholm, scenic design by Tim Parati, costume design by Courtney Burt Scott, sound design by Van Coble, Jr., and lighting by Eric Winkenwerder continue to maintain the high standards of Children’s Theatre, and add so much to the charm of the production. The clever dialogue and sarcastic deliveries make this one hour play amusing for parents, too.       Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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AMERWRECKA
Written & directed by J.D. Lewis
The Actor's Lab
Charlotte Art League
February 12-28, 2009

What if the four students killed at Kent State in 1970 became guardian angels to four people in New York City in 2007? What if God, looking like a six foot seven Jimi Hendrix, sent them to start a revolution against George W. Bush? What if a play about this, with rock music from the sixties, were performed in an art gallery in Charlotte?

J. D. Lewis recently brought his Actor's Lab here from Los Angeles. Now he's revived this surreal musical and political satire, bringing several actors from L.A. also. It presents mostly two-dimensional characters. But its passionate political issues, historical cross-currents, nostalgic music, fine voices, live rock band, numerous witty quips, and poignant ritualized moments offer much to enjoy in 90 minutes.

Tim Baxter-Ferguson's set has the right mix of raked and level stages, with a blue corrugated border, framed by chain link fence and American flags. The dozen actors barely fit on it all at once. But they perform presentationally, directly addressing the audience and involving its members in imagining much more to each scene. Lighting and sound effects, by Jamie Grindstaff, Brennan Stultz, and Sunny Glottmann, also help with the comically mystical magic. The mix of various costume styles, designed by Chris Nod Norkus, from the sixties and today, become delightful as well.

There are many strong performances (even with the limited, agit-prop material). The four Kent State ghosts, as guardian angels, have distinct personalities, in conflict with each other, in discovering their heavenly mission, and in visiting their living protégés. They find and bring together a suicidal fireman, a Latina dyke chef, a black stripper, and a Republican politician—as an unlikely bunch of free-love revolutionaries. Yet, the play moves quickly from the Kent State shooting to the young ghosts being trained in heaven by militaristic (and oddly abusive) angels, to their appearances with protégés, to the hunger strike that tries to get President Bush's attention. A local red neck emerges from the audience with a more familiar parody. There is also much to laugh at onstage—with George and Laura Bush revealing their political and personal puppetry, and with God inspired to send a "brother" someday to make things better.

So, if you enjoy sixties music performed again live, or if you like political satire extended well beyond a Saturday Night Live skit, this play may be have the right revolutionary appeal. A nudity warning should be given, however. And if there are still supporters of GW out there: caveat emptor.           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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DISNEY’S HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL
(On Stage)
Based on a Disney Channel Original Movie
Written by Peter Barsocchini
Book by David Simpatico
Songs by Matthew Gerard and Robbie Nevil;
Ray Cham, Greg Cham and Andrew Seely;
Randy Peterson and Kevin Quinn;
Andy Dodd and Adam Watts; Brian Louiselle;
David N. Lawrence and Faye Greenberg; Jamie Huston
Music Adapted, Arranged and Produced by Brian Louiselle
Directed by Mark Sutton
Music Director Ellen Robison
Choreographer Ron Chisholm
Central Piedmont Community College
February 13-22, 2009

Disney’s wildly popular High School Musical franchise is alive and mostly well in stage format. This production at CPCC got off to a shaky Act I start Friday night as a sound glitch and nerves (or was it a bit of under-rehearsing), had a stage full of people looking not entirely sure of themselves. The second act was much improved, though, and to be fair to director Tom Hollis, the cast is very large, it’s a big scale musical, and abilities among the cast vary widely.

There is no lack of energy or enthusiasm as everyone gives it their all. The leads do a nice job conveying the, by now, familiar East High School group. Corey Cray, as jock/singer Troy Bolton, is natural in the part of the nice guy heartthrob. Ashley Bradley is well cast as Gabriella, the brianiac who wins Troy’s heart. Tierney Latham is a standout as the conniving Sharpay. Patrick Chittenden, who plays Sharpay’s brother Ryan, brings pizzazz to his role as well. Amy Laughter is fun to watch as the self-involved drama teacher Ms. Darbus.

Music director Ellen Robison and choreographer Ron Chisholm have an ambitious score to deal with in this play. The music, though it includes no overly complicated music, has a good number of songs. The dance numbers, when including the entire cast, must have been a challenge. And Mr. Chisholm does use basketballs as the Disney folks do to give an extra something special to watch.

Once the jitters pass, and the cast settles in, this production should prove a more coordinated effort. In any case, the tech folks and performers have obviously worked hard and the cast look like they’re having a great time. That makes it fun for the audience, too.       Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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SPOOKY DOG & THE TEEN-AGE GANG MYSTERIES
By Eric Pliner and Amy Rhodes
Directed by Glenn T. Griffin
Queen City Theatre Company
Duke Energy Theatre at Spirit Square
February 5-21, 2009

Loosely based on the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, Spooky Dog traces the quest of four intrepid young people and a dog with a speech impediment as they try to solve mysteries. Queen City Theatre Company presents a zany homage to the classic cartoon showing us the dirty little secret we always suspected of the gang.

Technically, the show is almost Spartan in its presentation. The bare minimum of settings and simple lighting stand in sharp contrast to some spot on recreations of the iconic costumes worn by our animated heroes. Though the names have been changed to protect the copyright, audiences will have no problem identifying each and every one of these beloved characters.

I would be remiss not to mention that despite the sparseness of the setting, this production has one element of staging that has thus far been my favorite piece of theatrical whimsy this season. That is the iconic green van the kids drive around in. I won’t spoil too much for the reader, but suffice it to say, I have never seen tap lights used so well, and so creatively!

Hopefully, astute audiences will know enough to leave the kids home. This cartoon spoof is just for the grownups. Rarely does a line go by that fails to make reference to something off-color, whether it be erections, drug use, or alternative sexual practices. Some of the funniest moments in the play stem from some pretty adult language coming out of the mouths of such straight-laced characters.

The cast is pitch perfect. Jennifer Quigley’s Thelma, who pines for the beautiful Tiffany (played with vampish vacuity by Courtney Johnson), is very funny. Joel Sumner’s permanently stoned Scraggly is a mix of Screech from Saved by the Bell and Casey Casum’s “Shaggy.” Jamison Middlemiss is the eponymous Spooky Dog, and could easily do voice over work for the real Scooby Doo. Clad in a heavy costume, I felt sorry for him as he looked very hot, but his energy and commitment was absolute. Rob White completes the gang with Ted the expected mix of arrogance and innocence. The supporting cast is also very strong. Matt Kenyon (who was psychotically funny in the previous Queen City production of Die Mommie Die!) here plays another psychotic. Josh Looney plays a redneck carnival owner with a mysterious secret. Anyone who has seen even one episode of the play’s source material will recognize the characters and that’s a big part of the fun. The cast works wonderfully as an ensemble and it is clear that a lot of time was spent observing the physical characteristics of each of their source characters.

There are several musical numbers interspersed throughout the production. The choreography by Courtney Johnson (Tiffany) is retro fun. The chase scene in particular (set to The Monkee’s Last Train to Clarksville) is wonderfully inspired and very much like its source material’s chase scenes. It is in these moments, when the play is most faithful to the cartoon, that it succeeds best.

The comedy moves at a breakneck pace. It is slightly over seventy minutes with no intermission and, when I saw it, the audience howled through most of it. Any small weaknesses in the production stem solely from the script. Some of the adult humor seems forced and many of the jokes based on the assumptions of these characters (Velma’s sexuality, Shaggy’s drug use, etc.) have been covered before. If you are not a fan of Scooby-Doo then much of the humor will go over your head and even at seventy minutes, the paper thin characters and even thinner mystery will do little to hold your interest. However, for those of us who spent many Saturday mornings with those “meddling kids,” and have now grown up wanting slightly more adult fare, Spooky Dog is a fun evening. It is clear in every second of the play that those involved love these characters and love this cartoon. Spooky Dog has enough laughs and heart to make any fan happy.                                      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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THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA
By Federico Garcia Lorca
Directed by Frank Dominguez
Theatre Charlotte's
Teatro Latino
February 12 & 13, 2009

Lorca’s last play, The House of Bernarda Alba was written only a few months before his death at the hands of Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Although not as lyrical as Blood Wedding (Bodas de Sangre) or Yerma, the beauty of Garcia Lorca’s poetry - the music of the earth - is still heard throughout this play.

The House of Bernarda Alba is a play about repression, passion and tyranny. It opens with the funeral of Bernarda Alba’s husband and the appearance of black clad women. Bernarda Alba rules her five daughters with absolute power – controlling every aspect of their lives and behavior. In this society there are clearly defined conventions to keep daughters from bringing dishonor and shame to the house. (We see correlations in 2009 in societies where woman are still dominated and controlled.)

In essence, Bernarda’s daughters are held captive; forced to capitulate to their mother’s strict moral code. A code that is predicated on appearances – defined by what people will say. The house is a prison whose barred windows, typical of homes in Latin countries, are not to keep people out but to keep these women in.

This prison of women steams with the heat of Andalusia, hatred and sexual frustration. There is a strict difference in the roles of men and women. Men are free; women are not. Sex is for men; not good, decent women. Women who cannot repress their sexuality pay dearly for their transgressions. And while there are no men in the house or on stage, their presence outside rules the women's lives.

Lorca uses horses as a metaphor for male dominance and sexuality. Whether it is for Pepe Romano - Angustia’s fiancé - or the field hands, the daughters’ blood boil with sexual longing. They are mares in heat and Pepe Romano is a stallion beating down the door. But it is Bernarda Alba’s repression of life itself that leads to tragedy. In the end, Bernarda is still concerned more about appearances than about the loss of her daughter. The play closes as it opened with death and Bernarda’s cry of “Silence.” (Silencio)

This was a staged reading rather than a production. Expectations for a reading are different than for a full production. The play was read in Spanish with English supertitles. The cast gave The House of Bernarda Alba a valiant effort although the abilities and experience of the actors were uneven. And while Lorca’s words were all there, the subtext was missing. Even though this could have been due to a short rehearsal period, I’d like to have seen more depth of character and meaning that I know are there.

Whatever faults I found in the reading are greatly overshadowed by my gratitude that the play was read and by my hope for full-scale productions of Lorca’s plays and those of other Spanish playwrights. I applaud Theatre Charlotte and the Teatro Latino program for bringing Lorca to the stage and for recognizing the needs of a growing population of Latinos in our community.       Review by Divina Cook

Divina Cook is a New York actor (stage, film, television) who now works as a CMS Parent Advocate.

(*Note: Children's Theatre of Charlotte performed a shortened version of Lorca's Blood Wedding with young actors last season.)

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FROST/NIXON
By Peter Morgan
Directed by Michael Grandage
North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Belk Theater
February 10-15, 2009

Richard Nixon is not a person of intense interest, much less fascinating to Americans, mainly because many wonder how this man got elected President of the United States in the first place. He was elected in another era; elected by another generation. Frost/Nixon, by British playwright Peter Morgan does give a certain take on the man, though, but no big revelations beyond what is known. The play moves at a considerable pace, without intermission. Based on the television interviews between talk show host David Frost and the disgraced Nixon, it does show some of the behind-the-scenes machinations that take place as each man vies for the upper hand in front of the camera.

Each man has his camp. Nixon has a few loyal men led by military stoic Jack Brennan; Frost has a group to help him understand Nixon’s history led by scholar Jim Reston. Yet the “truth” remains elusive when dealing with Richard Nixon. The supposedly fictional phone call that Nixon makes to Frost before the final meeting sparks something in Frost that helps him focus his energy after he’s blown the previous three meetings.

Stacy Keach’s Nixon is graceless and gruff, but not without some ironic wit. Mr. Keach does not try to impersonate the man, but rather uses his considerable actor’s tools to give the audience an overall impression of the slippery politician. Alan Cox is an excellent counterpoint as the perpetually upbeat, womanizing, frothy Frost who doesn’t quite get it until the last interview when they discuss Watergate. Brian Sgambati as Jim Reston helps anchor the play as he narrates large segments. Ted Koch, John Birt, Stephen Rowe, and Bob Ari are all notable as well.

Director Michael Grandage works well with his actors, and one of the strengths of the play is that, despite multiple characters, the play is easy to understand and follow. The video projections are used sparingly to best advantage, especially as the last interview comes to a conclusion. The audience has been held at arm’s length seeing both Frost and Nixon from a distance as the camera might, but in the last interview Nixon’s face fills the screen as he makes an admission that banishes him. And a sad face it is--for all of us.      Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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A YEAR WITH FROG & TOAD
Based on the books by Arnold Lobel
Music by Robert Reale
Book & Lyrics by Willie Reale
Directed & Choreographed by Ron Chisholm
Music Director Drina Keen
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
McColl Family Theatre
January 23 - February 15, 2009

A Year with Frog & Toad is a gentle, charming musical confection for younger children, or the younger child in all of us. Based on the books by Arnold Lobel, it chronicles the friendship of the two mentioned title characters, but the lyrics, dialogue, and direction give enough clever lines and events that will enable adults to get some chuckles, too.

The year of the title begins in spring when Frog awakens first after hibernating and wants his friend Toad to get up and enjoy the good weather with him. One of the biggest audience laughs is when Toad refuses. Who can’t identify with that? Other scenes in the first act involve smart-alecky birds, growing flowers, wanting to get mail, an embarrassing bathing suit, and a highlight of the play, eating cookies. The second act is chock full, too, so it’s helpful to know the tolerance level of the kids you may be bringing since the show is about two hours with intermission. The ensemble scenes seem to hold children’s attention better as there’s more activity on stage.

Frog and Toad are unfailingly polite to each other, even when they disagree, and there’s never any real danger of a falling out. Mark Sutton who plays Frog and Robbie Jaeger who plays Toad have a good rapport as the two best friends, and are appealing in their roles. Nicia Carla wins us over with her recurring appearance as the snail who thinks she’s going at breakneck speed once she has a mission to deliver mail. Caroline Bower and Susan Cherin Gundersheim are delightful in their multiple roles, especially as the birds. Nic Bryan, who also plays multiple roles, is excellent throughout conveying a lively energy when he’s on stage.

Director/choreographer Ron Chisholm’s inventive work keeps the scenes moving along. He mentions in his notes using a vaudeville approach which complements the songs and dances. It helps that the music and lyrics are catchy and a cut above some of the bland children’s music added to shows when adapted from previous work. Drina Keen’s excellent musical direction and accompaniment, along with the musicians’ steady hands, never overwhelms the action so that the lyrics are clearly understood.

As usual, the technical aspects of the show are commendable: scenic design by Jim Gloster, costume design by Courtney Burt Scott (although the birds seem a bit overdressed), lighting design by Eric Winkenwerder, scenic art by Tim Parati, and the technical crew who put it all together and make it work.

The seasons and lessons of A Year with Frog & Toad are a good fit for children who love the books, but even for those who are not familiar with them, there is value in the show since friendship helps make life a little brighter and more meaningful for everyone.       Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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SHAKESPEARE IN HOLLYWOOD
By Ken Ludwig
Directed by James Yost
Theatre Charlotte
January 29 - February 8, 2009

In this fanciful tale reality, mythology, literature and fantasy meet at the Warner Brothers Studio. It is 1934, and Max Reinhardt (Ted Weiner) is filming “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Enter Shakespeare’s infamous fairies, Oberon (Philip Robertson) and Puck (Elizabeth Simpson) who have been magically transported to Hollywood.

They are instantly accepted into the world of movie making and end up being asked to take roles as themselves. As in the original Shakespearean play mischief and mayhem are the order of the day. A simple flower also causes wacky love triangles to ensue with hilarious results. If you don’t use the facilities before and at intermission, cross your legs, tightly; the second act will especially keep you laughing.

Everyone in this ensemble cast is wonderful, and well directed by James Yost. All the roles are over the top which helps the story keep rolling along. The Hollywood cast is comprised of Anne Lambert as Louella Parsons, Michael Sharpe as Dick Powell, Victor Sayegh as Jack Warner, Michael Kahn as his assistant Daryl, Jennifer Lynn Barnett as Lydia Lansing, Greta Marie Zandstra as Olivia Darnell, Robert Haulbrook as Will Hays, Nick Iammatteo as Joe E. Brown, David Fichter as Jimmy Cagney, Nick Asa as Sam Warner, Steven Cobb as Albert Warner, Kirk Dickens as Harry Warner with Melissa Unger rounding out the ensemble.

Ken Ludwig is also the author of Broadway’s “Crazy for You,” “Lend Me a Tenor,” and “Moon Over Buffalo.” “Shakespeare in Hollywood” was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company; it had its world premier in 2003 at Arena Stage and won the 2004 Helen Hayes award for Best New Play of the Year. It is one of the most-produced plays by community theatres in the U.S. for the last several years.

As they say in Hollywood: “Lights, Camera, Shakespeare!”     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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A TANGLE OF TALES
Performed by the Grey Seal Puppets
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
Wachovia Playhouse
January 31 - February 1, 2009

Puppeteer Drew Allison, founder of the Grey Seal Puppets, performs this friendly, low-key, 60 minute one-man show consisting of three folk tales from around the world. In between are swaying/jumping/bouncing characters called Blockheads and Wobblies who entertain by moving creatively to background music.

The first tale is “The Frog Prince” from Germany which is a familiar story. The lesson being: keep your promises. The second tale is from Scandinavia, “Three Billy Goats Gruff”, where a troll living under a bridge is outsmarted by three brother goats. The third and, by far, most popular folk tale is “The Three Little Pigs” from England where the industrious pig’s brick house survives the huffing and puffing of the wolf, who proves more popular than scary with the kids.

The simple set with traditional puppet stage has Mr. Allison hidden beneath holding up the various puppets. He uses a microphone and is quite a voice actor speaking the dialogue of all the characters in the show, as well as managing the sound effects. This non-threatening performance is well-paced and age-appropriate for younger children (ages 5 and up) who have no trouble listening attentively or accepting and relating to the puppets as real, even interacting with the stage characters. It is clever enough so it can also be appreciated by adults willing to sit back let the inanimate objects come to life.

After the performance Mr. Allison came out to meet the audience and explain the types of puppets used (rod, string, and hand puppets). The variety of puppet styles adds to the fun, and is even more impressive when the attention to detail becomes more evident. The Grey Seal Puppets perform nationally and Charlotte is fortunate to have these high-caliber puppet performances to appreciate.      Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is an award-winning playwright. 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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RENT
Book, Music & Lyrics by Jonathon Larsen
Choreography by Michael Grief
Music Direction by David Trustinoff
North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Ovens Auditorium
January 27 - February 1, 2009

The musical Rent returns to Charlotte this week, this time with stars Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp in the roles they created in the original 1996 Broadway production. Based loosely on the Puccini opera La Bohème, the rock musical replaces consumption with AIDS and follows a youthful group of artists struggling with love, death, and dying. For those who haven’t seen this production yet, this is one to make time for. Director Michael Greif’s imaginative staging (using little more than scaffolding and folding chairs) is astoundingly rich and varied and Larson’s exuberant and muscular score is infectious.

The musical follows the complex lives of Roger Davis (played by Adam Pascal) and Mark Cohen (played by Anthony Rapp). Roger is a failed rock musician who finds out he has AIDS from the suicide note of his girlfriend. Mark is the failed film maker who can only stand by and observe as his friends fade away.

Roger falls for the exotic dancer Mimi Marquez (played with an appropriate mix of waifish innocence and violent sexuality by Lexi Lawson). Mimi also has AIDS. All of the characterizations in Rent are larger than life and Larson’s brisk score moves at such a breakneck pace that one must either accept this or get out of the way. Other major characters include Tom Collins, a former college professor who falls head over heels in love with cross-dressing Angel Schunard.

Collins, played by Michael McElroy, is a captivating presence. His mix of strength and heartbreaking vulnerability makes him a good match for Justin Johnston’s campy but nurturing Angel. Both actors have remarkable voices and both hold their own in this fantastic ensemble.

Nicolette Hart as the performance artist Maureen Johnson and Haneefah Wood as legal aid counselor Joanne Jefferson create a compelling relationship that forms much of the comic relief in the musical as well as some of the most energetic and memorable songs. Hart’s performance of “Over the Moon,” which has become nearly as iconic as “Rose’s Turn” is to Gypsy, is solid and humorous.

Each of the fifteen actors in the ensemble is strong and memorable. What impresses me most is how generous both Rapp and Pascal are to their fellow performers. They give stage and focus when appropriate and act like equal members of this wonderful ensemble. It is clear they each understand what this production is about—fellowship.

The staging of Rent is one of the things that makes this production stand out. The director resists big and flashy effects and staging for imaginative simplicity. Don’t mistake this for boring visuals, the set is massive, the lighting explosive, and the choreography amazing—but everything on the stage is there for a reason, everything has a purpose.

Rent, like the musical Hair was to the seventies, has become an iconic representation of the nineties. Written by a young composer who died tragically before the show opened Off Broadway, the musical suffers many of the faults one might expect of a new writer, but it succeeds more often and it strikes a chord that captures the essence of human experience at that time. That Larson died before he could see the success of his creation; that he died before we could really see him fulfill the promise he clearly showed; is one of the beautiful sad coincidences that infuses every moment of this haunting production. Go see this musical at least once. That’s all I can say.                 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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SOMEONE WHO'LL WATCH OVER ME
By Frank McGuiness
Directed by Matt Cosper
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
January 8-24, 2009

True “slice of life” theatre is difficult to watch, as this play shows, posing a question with its title. Is there someone who’ll watch over me—if I am kidnapped in Lebanon and chained like an animal, in a cinderblock room with a dirt floor?

Naturalism emerged as a style over a century ago to scientifically study abject human characters shaped by their social environment, reproduced as a slice of life onstage—like studying an animal in its natural habitat. The exact conditions and occurrences of urban life were copied in small independent theatres so that audiences could become naturalists observing human behavior without dramatic formulations of entertainment. With this play (perhaps related to its Frankenstein melodrama, Monster, last fall), CAST returns us to that scientific ideal of observing life itself onstage, as three characters compete and cooperate for survival in a harsh physical and cultural environment. Yet, there is also a spiritual question posed by this play and its title. In a modern world where religions once again seem to justify human sacrifice, as they compete for political dominance—are any gods or angels watching over the individual victims? And do human spectators have any power to help them, beyond just watching at a distance?

The audience first experiences the CAST entryway and lobby as a very inviting space of travel to exotic Middle Eastern lands. Maps adorn the walls. Pictures are artfully arranged, along with various artifacts, throughout the lobby (in an installation created by Rosalyn Morris, a retired Army officer). A traditional covering for Islamic women is displayed. So is a video of travel in, as well as many other items and photos from Afghanistan and Iraq. But once the audience enters the theatre, they are presented with another side of US and European investment in such lands.

Two bodies, wearing only T-shirts and gym shorts, are chained to a dirt floor, within a small square room, shown by a low cinderblock wall (as designed by Robert Lee Simmons). As they wake, exercise, talk, and play games, not seeing the theatre audience, we observe their struggle for survival--split between the roles of kidnappers or distant family and friends to them. They wrestle with boredom and madness, memories and regrets, not knowing why they’ve been manacled, except that their foreign identity is of value for ransom. They do not know how long they will be imprisoned, but are not otherwise tortured, apparently. They are fed and given water by a man who doesn’t speak—but does bring in a third prisoner for us to observe.

The young, handsome American, Adam (Patrick Howsare), has been in the cell the longest—for four months. The older, gray-bearded Irishman, Edward (Michael Harris), has been there for two. Eventually, they get a new companion, Michael, an Englishman (Robert Haulbrook). And the stage periodically revolves to show the passage of time and give the circular audience new angles for viewing them. Yet, spectators must also endure the tedium of such imprisonment—as the characters (in the words of Edward) do their “worst” to each other, so that the others won’t be able to “break” them.

The audience experiences the smell of dirt, while seeing dust in the theatre lights (designed by Michael R. Simmons), along with the full commitment of all three actors to their roles. Their intensity does not only involve suffering, but also the troubled joy of folk songs they sing, the Bible and Koran they read from, and the games they play: describing made-up movies, writing imaginary letters, making pretend drinks, reenacting a famous women’s Wimbledon tournament and tea with the queen, or flying a car over England. The games change as Adam and Edward are joined by Michael, and then one of them is taken away. The other two continue believing in his spirit, as watching over them, and use that idea to help each other survive. Thus, all three actors in this intense, difficult, but at times entertaining drama also remind their audience about others struggling to survive in strange lands—caught in human history between competing cultural identities.            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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BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL
Story and book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming
Lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe
Direction and Choreography by Bill Ensley
Musical direction by Marty Gregory
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
January 8-24, 2009

It's rare to experience a show as a comedy, horror, and musical. But this one works all three ways, satirizing a tabloid story of a wild child found in a West Virginia cave. The "Bat Boy" here, no relation to Bat Man, is more like a junior vampire than comic book superhero. Yet, he also follows in the long tradition of ambiguous, animal-human hybrids, from the ancient Greek Furies to wolf man, Kaspar Hauser, Frankenstein's monster, and Buffy's recent friends. The show's final song states its message very simply: "Love your Bat Boy; don't deny the beast inside." But its hilarious plot twists, amazing character transformations, and satirical settings suggest much more to that love and beast than just a myth.

Jon Parker Douglas is truly creepy as the bat-like creature, discovered by youngsters exploring a cave. The spelunking elements onstage, with rock walls, climbing ropes, helmet lights, and echoing sound effects, also add to the horror. (Set and sound designs by Chip Decker, with the lighting design by Hallie Gray, are superb throughout the show.) Bat Boy's rocky environment remains onstage as the play shifts to other scenes: the home of Hope Fall's sole veterinarian, its slaughterhouse as communal meeting room, a hospital, a church revival hall, and the woods where animals have a cheerful (Lion King lampoon) orgy. This implies that the Bat Boy's strange upbringing by bats in a cave and his taste for blood are connected to the rural town's other spaces and citizens, though they at first perceive him as an alien freak.

Douglas's performance as Bat Boy is profoundly convincing and poignant, as he is caught, bagged, and put in a cage inside the vet's home--and later taught to be human, although the animal within is not easily tamed. He inspires fear from the teens who find him, especially after he bites one on the neck, and then macho poses from the town's sheriff (Patrick Ratchford), maternal compassion from the vet's wife (Liz Hyde), erotic curiosity from her teen daughter (Jes Dugger), and vengeful rivalry from the vet himself (Dennis Delamar). Bat Boy also appears to the audience as frightfully sympathetic, both dangerous and damaged, thus evoking complex reflections through others' caricatured views. Eventually, his excellent speaking and singing skills emerge, after initial bat-like squeaks, through the struggle to communicate and belong, as his inhuman form, fang displays, and bloodlust change to proper posture, shy smiles, and ... other passions.

Costume and makeup designs by Eric Grace and Melissa Brown add a great deal to the many transformations, not only of Bat Boy into human boy, but also in the doubling of other roles--and with comical animals performed by actors and puppets in the woods, led by the nature god Pan. Like Patrick Ratchford, who plays both Pan and the Sheriff with comical aplomb, Denis Delamar reprises his role from ATC's previous Bat Boy of five years ago, with precise gestures that evoke both sympathy for and critiques of his developing villainy. Liz Hyde again brings maternal compassion, a powerful voice, and guilt-ridden anxiety to her reprised role. Corey Mitchell also returns with an astounding comedic, dancing, and singing display--as Mrs. Taylor, the hysterical mom who loses three children to the Bat Boy's bites and the vet's (or her own) vengeance, and as Reverend Hightower, the preacher who involves the theatre audience in a potential healing rite of the creature's infectious evil.

For those who are tired of hillbilly stereotypes, parts of this musical might become tiresome, since it runs for almost three hours. Yet, on opening night, laughter continued throughout the show--energized by the performers', designers', musicians', and directors' impressive skills. The play's music ranges widely, through rap, gospel, tango, and show-tune parodies, along with hilarious lyrics. There are also surprising plot twists, horrifying and farcical, beyond those I've mentioned here. However, like many ATC shows, audience should be warned: this play contains adult material that challenges spectators with many perverse insights about our animal natures and cultural hypocrisies, even as it entertains. See it if you enjoy being dared, scared, and prodded to laugh at your own alienated self and scapegoating temptations.            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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DRIVING MISS DAISY
By Alfred Uhry
Directed by Melissa Ohlman-Roberge
Davidson Community Players
Duke Energy Theatre at Spirit Square
January 8-18, 2009

What a wonderful way to spend an evening!

The plot is familiar to anyone who has seen the remarkable movie – it’s the 1940s, and a “colored” man is hired to chauffeur a well-to-do Southern Jewish mother who has become a threat to herself and the community whenever she gets behind the wheel. It’s all quite predictable stuff and, even if we hadn’t seen the movie, we’d know from the moment they meet that her initial resentment and resistance will soften and their relationship will evolve into deep respect and trust that is found only among best friends.

Although the script deals with 25 years of Southern history, it really reflects the changes that took place throughout America in those years - an era that I have lived through and still marvel at. As the play started, I couldn’t help but remember what it was like when I was a kid listening to the beginning of the old Lone Ranger radio show and waiting for the announcer to intone, “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…” It never occurred to me then that if you weren’t White, those yesteryears and the 1940s probably weren’t all that thrilling.

Many in today’s audiences are too young to know what it was like then, but let me assure you, despite what you hear from people my age who mourn the loss of those times when things were simpler, there was nothing simple about the times or the problems that lay beneath the surface. I got my own first slap-in-the-face culture shock during those same Lone Ranger radio days when I saw a group of White men beating a Black man outside our apartment during the 1943 race riots in Detroit. I couldn’t understand that kind of hatred then; I still don’t to this day. My second slap came when I was in my teens and traveling on a crowded bus to South Carolina. Somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line, the bus driver told a Black man to give up his seat so I could sit. When I protested, I got a lot of dirty looks from the other passengers, and the man assured me it was all right as he moved quickly to the back of the bus. I still can’t comprehend that. If I met that man today, I’d apologize profusely.

All three members of the cast were not only up to the challenge, but they actually made me wonder how Broadway actors could improve the performance. I’m sure it can be done, but until I see it, I’ll settle for this one. Joan Tate as Daisy, Greg Hensley as her son Boolie, and Sidney Horton’s Hoke all made the transition of passing years believable; their concessions to the aging process and social changes were portrayed clearly and (thankfully) without a lot of maudlin melodramatics. Of the three, I was especially impressed with Horton’s Hoke who grabbed my attention with his opening scene as an over-eager, fast-talking, desperate job applicant. That alone was worth the price of admission.

After that scene, Hoke’s nervous fast-talking disappears and we see other facets of his character: a quiet, insult-absorbing employee, a man whose own sense of dignity demands respect from Daisy, a cunning negotiator and proud new owner of a car, and finally an elderly retiree who demonstrates his deep love and compassion for his employer/friend.

The script is really a sequence of short scenes peppered with moments of humor, anger, quiet resolve and low-key but firm sentiments against social injustice. The large number of quick transitions demands either highly complex expensive staging or an imaginative use of simple set pieces. Thanks to director/designer Ohlman-Roberge this production uses the latter. Daisy’s traditional living room set remains upstage throughout the play while all the other scenes are depicted downstage with minimal, multi-functional set pieces and props. The most versatile of these are two long boxes - about the size of park benches - that serve as the front and back seat of the car and which in one scene are stacked to become the lectern Boolie uses when he gives a speech.

Of course, making a car ride believable while sitting on boxes demands a lot of help from the actors and the audience. Mr. Horton's miming did the trick as he opened and closed doors for Miss Daisy, manipulated a stick shift, and guided the car with one of those oversized steering wheels that cars had in those days. Like everything else about this show, it worked.                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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SAVAGE IN LIMBO
By John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Paige Johnston Thomas
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
December 11 - January 3, 2008

Once again, CAST has transformed its lobby and bar area for a new show--but this time into the performance space itself. Spectators sit on stools around the edges of the lobby, while several unique characters with deep New York accents populate the stools nearer the bar. Signs also pack the walls from many other bars in the Plaza-Midwood area, with graffiti in the entryway, making this show an intimate intersection of icons and personalities, both familiar and strange.

The hyperactive, philosophical Denise Savage (Johanna Jowett) meets the crying, but bellicose Linda Rotunda (Barbi Van Schaick), who has just broken up with her boyfriend. Denise admits she's a virgin, wanting to change her life, and Linda agrees to be her friend and find a place to live with her. April (Sarah Provencal), a sleepy, wistful woman at the bar, wants to join them. And a new sisterhood seems to be forming--until Linda's boyfriend, Tony Aronica (John Cunningham), becomes an object of romantic competition between them. But this is not a superficial TV soap. With sharp-edged irony, evoking sweet laughter and bitter pain, Shanley's play exposes how relationships become ruts, how the lonely hope for change, and how quickly friendships may form or fights may erupt or madness may intrude.

Ms. Jowett plays Denise Savage with a fierce, yet charming intensity--starting, continuing, and ending with an energy that is always intriguing, bearing both existential angst and beauty. Her limbo involves glimpses of heaven and hell as she grasps at or loses various futures with others, while trying to break free from her tie to an aging mother. Ms. Van Schaick brings a much different presence to the bar's limbo dance, playing Linda Rotunda with a wrestler's toughness and yet an openly wounded soul. John Cunningham's Tony is a match for her, though, in both ways, refusing to let her manipulate him into marriage--or let others lure him elsewhere--while also sharing his confusion about love and life.

The incessant challenge that these three pose to each other is punctuated, almost lyrically, by Ms. Provencal's April, as she slips from dreamy reverie toward an eerie madness. But the bartender Murk watches over her--as well as the others--stepping in with his barroom rules when things start to veer out of control. As played by Chris Walters, this barkeep is a solid combination of stern referee and kindly therapist, even putting on a Santa suit to bring April back from despair. The drinks he gives out to his customers suddenly appear from below the bar--without his mixing them--suggesting his uncanny knowledge of their desires, though he also insists that they pay the price up front.

Paige Johnston Thomas balances these personalities very well across the narrow spaces of the barroom, creating an intimacy that's always compelling, even if faces and gestures are blocked at times for some in the audience. (I especially liked the view I had of reflections along the bar's surface.) With a short play of about an hour, this small jewel of a theatre has once again shown remarkable creativity through unique staging and powerful actors (one of the best casts I've seen at CAST), involving the audience as collaborators at the edges of performance. And when the bar opens again after the show, spectators can mingle with actors in the same spaces where their characters' ghosts recently appeared.                     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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