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Theatre Review Archive

REVIEW ARCHIVE

(Select Title To Go To Review)

OTHELLO


THE SUNSET LIMITED


THE GREAT AMERICAN
TRAILER PARK MUSICAL



FAST TRIP TO OMAHA


REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES


GIRLS ONLY


THE DROWSY CHAPERONE


THOM THOM (if that bird won't sing)


A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD


BAREFOOT IN THE PARK


MACBETH


INTO THE WOODS


MANISH BOY


FIVE COURSE LOVE


THE COMEDY OF ERRORS


WICKED


DIE ROTEN PUNKTE


HEAVEN ON WHEELS


WELCOME TO THE
MONKEY HOUSE



CAVALIA


ONSTAGE 2010


UNCLE VANYA


PORGY AND BESS


ANIMAL FARM


EVITA


THE ROAD TO MECCA


THE BOYS NEXT DOOR


GOODNIGHT MOON


THE COMMEDIA
KING ARTHUR



END DAYS


BILL COSBY


VENUS & ADONIS


JERSEY BOYS


EMBRACEABLE ME


EPIC SKETCH


EVIE'S WALTZ


VIOLET


TREASURE ISLAND


MUM'S THE WORD


THERE'S A MONSTER
IN MY CLOSET



THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE


CALL MR. ROBESON:
A LIFE WITH SONGS



BLACK PEARL SINGS


RESERVOIR DOGS


MIKE MULLIGAN and
HIS STEAM SHOVEL



AS YOU LIKE IT


CHARLOTTE SQUAWKS:
SIX DEGREES OF DESECRATION



WOODY SEZ


GREY GARDENS


TALES OF A
FOURTH GRADE NOTHING



SPRING AWAKENING


OUR LADY OF 121st STREET


THE ALUMINUM SHOW


THE FIRST TIME


ALMOST MAINE



OTHELLO
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Elise Wilkinson
Collabortive Arts/Charlotte shakespeare
McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square
August 4-15, 2010

This is the fifth summer that Collaborative Arts has offered free Shakespeare in Charlotte and Othello is their best production yet, in my view, though I've not seen them all. It's also in the beautiful, cool, and resonant McGlohon Theatre. So what's most disappointing about the show is that the theatre was not packed for the early performances of the two-week run. Othello is one of the Bard's best and this is a fine introduction to it for those who don't know it or a reminder of its complexity for those who do.

There were murmurs of "OJ" and "lynching" in the audience the night I went. Apparently, others were thinking, too, of how this play continues to be meaningful today. Its racial ironies, showing the heroic rise of a charming black leader, the resentment that evokes, and his tragic fall due to others' manipulations and his own insecurity, might serve as a warning tale to our current Head of State. Likewise, many in the Charlotte audience may identify with Othello and others in this play, well beyond race or gender.

A prominent balcony with Gothic arches and painted stonework, plus a footbridge and column, or (for the climax) a curtained bed, provide key dimensions of the play's Venice and Cyprus locations (as designed by Stan Peal). Middle-Eastern music also helps to turn the surrounding theatre, formerly a church, into a mosque-like space (through Christy Edney's sound design). This plays well with the allure of the "Moor of Venice"—how that evokes the admiration of many, the love of Desdemona, the rage of her father, the vengeance of Iago, and the mixed sympathies of the audience.

Derrick Parker plays Othello with an initial boyish enthusiasm, showing how pleased he is to be a newlywed with a young beautiful wife. Yet in the first scene, he holds an embroidered handkerchief, a clue, given by director Wilkinson, to the tragedy's unraveling—through the hero's insecurity. (We later learn from Shakespeare's script that the hanky belonged to Othello's mom, has exotic properties, becomes a gift to his wife, and is lost by Desdemona, though we see her drop it through a greater concern for her husband's well-being.) Parker's face gives early hints of Othello's hurt and potential rage, while keeping an outward calm and beguiling smile, even as Brabantio, Desdemona's dad (Peter Smeal), storms at him for stealing his child, after he's teased by Iago (Joe Copley), about an "old black ram" spoiling the "white ewe."

Parker shows a full range of emotions as the play proceeds, with many compelling gestures and facial expressions. He moves from a giddy confidence in his wife's loyalty and his own military leadership, to terror and shame at his body's epileptic rebellion, to panic at the seeds of doubt that Iago sows, to the passion of killing through love. Copley plays Iago with sly charm, gradually revealing his "hate" of Othello, through asides to the audience. He gets the spectators at least partly on his side, while starting his revenge for stories he's heard that the black ram took his place in the sheets with Emilia, Iago's wife. Christine Dougan, as Emilia, furthers the ironic twists of vengeance while seeming innocent about those stories. She ranges from indecision at a slight dishonesty in order to please her husband (taking the hanky her mistress dropped), to compassion at Desdemona's mortal fears, to shock and tragic rage at the full revelation of Iago's treachery and her role in it.

The young Jennifer Lynn Barnette (one of the most promising and hard-working actors in town) is luminous onstage as Othello's dream-girl. Her deeply sweet and eloquent voice, along with her beautiful body language, shows the currents of passion between her and her husband. Her emotions shift from joy at their union and courage in vying against others' views, to hauntedness at his changes, and yet the fierce will to convince Othello of the truth, beyond his fatal mistrust of her. New York actor Adam Ewer, as Cassio (who is set up also by Iago for the Moor's misplaced revenge), more than matches his fellow leads with a multifaceted performance. He moves from initial charm and drunken mishaps, to impetuous rage, to a backbreaking self-doubt at losing his reputation after a bar fight, to valiant efforts at overcoming the conspiracy against him. Likewise, Alan England, as both the Duke of Venice and leader of street musicians in Cyprus, provides stoic discernment and fluid, comical delight. Brian Seagroves, as Roderigo, offers further comic twists with his foolish passion for Desdemona and his gullibility in Iago's hands.

A few parts of this production were a bit off key, with unconvincing slaps, a stray sword, or overblown emotions, and some tittering in the audience at serious scenes. Yet, overall it is well worth a couple hours on an August night—to experience profound passions, shifting perspectives of heroism and villainy, and playful, precise, Shakespearean terms, with actors who understand and convey the script's many meanings, about the past and for today. So, Charlotte, fill those seats. Travel to Venice and Cyprus with the Bard.           Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. 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 SUNSET LIMITED
By Cormac McCarthy
Directed by Robert Lutfy
3M Productions Inc.
Duke Energy Theatre
August 5-8, 2010

The Sunset Limited has a short run at the Duke Energy Theatre, and it’s too bad because this is one of the best independent productions I’ve seen all year in Charlotte. If you are familiar with Cormac McCarthy’s novels, you know he has a very dark world view. This play, reportedly one of only two he has written, is no exception.

There are two characters: Black played by Jacobi Howard and White played by Tom Ollis. You have to be a talented playwright to keep the audience engaged with only two actors on stage, not much physical action, and small one set, especially when the subject is suicide. Unlike a novel, which can take time away for diversions, a play must constantly move forward or lose its audience. The skill that Mr. McCarthy uses to keep the conversation between Black and White intriguing only falters toward the end. The play goes on a bit too long, and thus loses some of its power.

The play starts before it opens on stage with White sitting at Black’s small kitchen table in a rundown area of New York City, the sound effect of a rumbling train passing by. Apparently White tried to end his life by throwing himself in front of the Sunset Limited Train one morning. Unknown to him, Black was at the station on his way to work when he saved White’s life.

It is through the next 90 minutes that we learn about what drives Black to help others, the mistakes of his past, his beliefs, and his good will. Interestingly, we don’t learn as much about what is behind White’s total despair. Does it matter why he is so desperate? This may bother some, but is obviously purposeful on Mr. McCarthy’s part. It is almost axiomatic that unless one has ever been suicidal, it is impossible to understand the “black hole” of clinical depression. The closest White comes in his explanation is, “My life is about minimizing pain.”

The philosophical discussion, in which religion comes up often between the men, is skillfully managed as it takes place on several different levels: Black and White as the real characters in front of us, but also as metaphors for different points of view about life and death. Naming them by the color of their skin doesn’t entirely define them, but it does indicate the hopefulness and resilience of Black given his past of deprivation and violence, even going beyond his meager means to help others. While White, a professor, given all his childhood and adult privileges, can’t bear to endure his existence, only feeling emptiness and futility.

Director Robert Lutfy has done a masterful job. Every detail has been thought through. He has added movement when possible, but his respect for the power of playwright’s words takes center stage. Jacobi Howard and Tom Ollis are both outstanding as Black and White. Mr. Howard, who is 26 (!), gives a mature performance, in every meaning of the word. Mr. Ollis, known to Charlotte audiences, and while always good in his roles, is a revelation here. Both are totally credible and draw in the audience from the first words of dialogue.

Also to be commended are Samuel Fisher for lighting/sound design, and Jenny Wright and Marvin Odom for the set design which, though spare, is just right in terms of size and props for the Duke stage.

White’s despair is a long time coming as he says, “You give up the world line by line.” Yet, locked in our own consciousness as we are, we cannot will others to be well, happy, or want to live, no matter how much we want it for them. Ultimately, the audience is left to ponder these difficult questions of existence. See this moving production if at all possible.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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 of America.

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THE GREAT AMERICAN TRAILER PARK MUSICAL
Music & Lyrics by David Nehls
Book by Betsy Kelso
Directed by Dennis Delamar
Musical Direction by Marty Gregory
Choreography by Eddie Mabry
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte
July 21 – August 14, 2010

They’re trashy, they’re sassy, they’re incorrigibly tacky, but the folks at Armadillo Acres are loads of fun. Actor’s Theatre brings back The Great American Trailer Park Musical, and in the midst of this heat wave, it’s a welcome distraction.

Betty (Taffy Allen), Pickles (Cassandra Howley Wood), and Linoleum (Carmen Schultz), begin our adventure in trailer park land by introducing this story of, what else, love gone bad in the sleepy little Florida town. The women narrate throughout, but each has her own issues, too. Linoleum’s husband has a date with Old Sparky (the electric chair) at the prison, Betty functions as renter and know-it-all gossip, and young Pickles has phantom pregnancies.

Toll collector Norbert (Matthew Corbett) and shy Jeannie (Lisa Smith Bradley), have been married since high school, and were happy until their baby son was kidnapped. Jeannie has since become agoraphobic, severely straining the relationship. Enter Pippi (Heather Hamby), the sexy stripper who comes into town and turns Norbert’s not too bright head. Another complication is Pippi’s psychotically jealous ex-boyfriend Duke (Ryan Stamey) who is pursuing her.

Director Dennis Delamar, perennially proficient, draws excellent performances from his top notch cast. Lisa Bradley Smith and Heather Hamby have especially good voices, Taffy Allen, Carmen Schultz, and Cassandra Howley Wood add good comic timing to the mix, Matthew Corbett is good as the sad sack husband, and Ryan Stamey is an energetically disturbed boyfriend in pursuit of the one that got away.

The music is serviceable, and Marty Gregory and band keep it grooving, but it’s those durn lyrics that will have you laughing with outrageous lines like those found in most quotable country songs. Eddie Mabry’s choreography accomplishes more than you would think possible on a stage filled with a large set. The lighting by Hallie Gray, set/sound design by Chip Decker (which includes such touches as a clothes-line owl, satellite dish, pink flamingos, and a wall-studded interior—-because after all, “knick-knacks is what make a trailer park a home”), costumes (including an apropos Snuggie) by Jamie Varnadore, and scenic art by Kate VanderWood Shore, all add to the good-natured redneck soap opera effect.

If you’re fixin’ to go, get ready for some good times. You won’t be sorry.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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 of America.

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FAST TRIP TO OMAHA
By Don Cook
Directed by Tim Ross
The Warehouse Performing Arts Center
SPECIAL REGIONAL REVIEW
July 22 - August 8, 2010

Memory is an amazing thing. It brings joy about times shared. Sadness about loss. Fear and anger about buried stories, which younger generations need as clues to their fate. A new, very well-made comedy by Don Cook explores all these aspects of memory—in an Omaha family of 1969 that emerged from a touring jazz band. (Full disclosure: Don Cook is a friend of mine. We both belonged to a former playwrights’ group at Theatre Charlotte.)

There are many great lines in this play. "Nebraska is a state, but Omaha's a state of mind." "You open a can of worms and things get slimy." "Kids need to hear their dad loves them, no matter how old they are." These are not just sayings. They're demonstrated through this play's ironic journey into night.

Bright yellow walls, shelves, calmly framed photos, a period phone and TV, sofa, chairs, small tables, and many knickknacks fill out the set, giving a realistic environment to the reunion of family members (with lighting and tech design by Ben Pierce). Eddie, known to the family as Old Grouch or Stone Face (Bill McNeff), is a shaky patriarch, part Archie Bunker and part Don Rickles, getting silly only when he drinks, but with a biting wit all the time. His meathead son, Scott (Scott Reynolds), makes "fast trips" to visit family, takes detours to Iowa to meet his married girlfriend, and wears a dashiki to disturb the scene, yet claims to be a conventional industrial writer in Detroit, despite his long, strangely styled hair. His half-sister Liz (Annette Saunders) is more sensible about managing the craziness around her, yet she also pokes at secrets when she scents them. Her mother, Connie (Divina Cook), who's been married to Eddie for 34 years, brings even more life to the party, plus a sense of limits. She is eventually pushed to her breaking point when Sticks (George Gray), an old drummer from the band in which she was the singer and Eddie played trumpet, teases out the passions of the past and Scott demands to know why his father left him and his mom for Connie so many years ago.

Cook and Saunders bring the most energy onstage. Without them, the play suffers in the first act from the frozen resentment between father and son, although humorous edges break the ice—as, for example, when Eddie jokes about being in a "bonding" scene with Scott. The play also points to absent characters, Eddie's parents and his first wife (Scott's mom), who play increasingly significant roles in the unfolding of past choices and current fates, through various perspectives of those present in the family room. The Sixties frame the social environment as well, influencing the generational differences with references to hippies and feminism.

Yet Scott, the "hippy writer," is brought to a poignant realization that he is not rebelling against his father's neglect, but repeating it with his own son, while blaming that boy's mom for keeping them apart, like his dad blamed his mom. Further reflections between relationships develop toward the farcical climax of old men fighting and women restraining them. But serious feelings are also at play—with betrayals revealed and ideals unmasked.

While set in the Sixties, this play reflects our own time, too, with questions about false bravado in patriarchal roles, about women sacrificing careers for marriage and motherhood, and about the effects of romantic illusions for those who come after. Through its tragic and comic edges, it offers hope for change, even in characters that have lived long, resisting difficult memories.           Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. 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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REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES
By Josefina Lopez
Directed by Adyana de la Torre
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
July 15-31, 2010

Real Women Have Curves is more than a coming of age story, as most would describe it. It's the Latina version of Steel Magnolias, but ends much happier. No one gets married, except personalities, nothing perishes, except fear.

This sassy story of five Latina women trying to make it in 1987 East Los Angeles, without La Migra (Immigration Officials) looming overhead, is entertaining for the young and not-so-young. Pouring her heart out in her journal, young Ana, played by 15 year old Caterina Giammerisi, aspires to be a famous writer and attend New York University, far away from her family, their poor neighborhood, and their various female problems. Her older sister, Estela, played by Cristina Layana Varas, is the owner of a seamstress factory and has a major problem that can't be easily sewn back together and forces her to live in hiding. Co-worker, Pancha, Maria Garcia, longs to have children, while Rosali, played by Delia Rabah, attempts to diet her way to an unhealthy size 6. The matriarch of them all, Carmen, Basia Watts, tries to keep the peace in the mini sweatshop while battling her own life’s dilemmas.

While this production is written from a Latin perspective, many others can appreciate each lady's individual predicament. They effortlessly transition over age, race, and time, making each character feel like a friend or relative you have met before: the liberated teen, the ambitious twenty-something, the clock-ticking older women, and an over-the-hill mother. While each woman is immersed in her own problem, they manage to support each other despite arguments, hurt feelings, and disappointments.

The venue, CAST, affords the play to be situated in a small intimate space, putting you closer to the action. I was so close to the set, I could have easily slipped into one of the beautiful dresses hanging on the racks. The audience is nestled around the floor that houses sewing machines, spools of thread, and boxes of material waiting to be pieced together and sold at wholesale. During the performance, an electrical plug popped, sending screams and smoke into the air, leaving me to wonder if it was apart of the act or was it a malfunction that the cast played off calmly. Either way, the ladies didn’t miss a beat.

Although the first act explored each woman’s individual issue, including Rosali’s goal to fit into a size 6 dress, I hoped to hear a play on the title, but was disappointed until the second act. During Act II, the performance ran away with the title and decided to show a lot more than just curves. Each woman boldly stripped down to her unmentionables and pranced around, showing off gravity’s generosity, or lack thereof. Comparisons of scars, lumps, breasts, and rolls caught the audience’s attention and commanded cheers and screams of support. Covering up in beautiful hats and stylish suits, the show ended with each woman walking an imaginary runway and plucking watchers out of the audience to share a dance.

This production is strictly the equivalent of a chick flick even though I saw several men laughing and enjoying themselves. My guest and I did manage to miss a few jokes due to the language barrier (our Spanish is limited), but still enjoyed the production. If you’re looking for an off-Broadway show complete with singing, dancing and a large cast, you may want to skip Real Women Have Curves. This play is strictly for those with a heart, an interest in controversial issues, and those who want to reconnect with his or her feminine side.                Review by Dawn Cauthen

Dawn Cauthen is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area currently working on a screenplay, a novel, and many freelance articles. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. She has appeared in Uptown Magazine and enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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GIRLS ONLY
THE SECRET COMEDY OF WOMEN
Written by Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Stage Door Theater
May 7 – August 1, 2010

If you want to spend an entertaining, charming evening sharing knowing laughs about girly things, Girls Only will provide it for you. Last night, actors Bethel Caram and Diana Dresser worked hard to give the audience a light-hearted, laugh-at-yourself experience. Do you remember writing in your diary in middle school? Do you remember obsessing about bras? Do you remember the boys you liked who didn’t like you, but that prettier girl instead? This is your chance to go back and relive some of it, this time without the drama.

This is not an edgy show. The humor is tame compared to what’s out there now. Occasionally, it’s more like cleaner (and better) Saturday Night Live skits. There are a few creative videos where we even get to see creators Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein perform. Funny song lyrics often replace the originals for added humor.

Ms. Caram and Ms. Dresser are onstage already in their underwear (and credit to them for seeming so comfortable in front of a crowd) as the audience enters. The point is made immediately that so much about girls is thanks to our special hormone-driven anatomy. From puberty to pregnancy to menopause, our physical being is much more complicated for us than for men, and adjustments are constantly being made.

Both actors are likeable, girls who could easily be your girlfriends. Bethel Caram is appealing and Diana Dresser sparkles. They have a good rapport onstage. I especially liked the physical comedy bits, the improvisation, and the audience interaction.

The show will be at the Stage Door Theater for a while so you have the opportunity to get a few girlfriends together and make a night of it. It will certainly bring you back to those early days, and even give you a few ideas about other uses for feminine products.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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 DROWSY CHAPERONE
Music & Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Directed by Tom Hollis
Musical Direction by Drina Keen
Central Piedmont Community College
Dale F. Halton Theater
July 16- 24, 2010

The Drowsy Chaperone opened on Broadway in May of 2006 after nearly a decade of development. Written initially for actor/playwright Bob Martin’s bachelor party, the musical quickly found a larger audience. The Drowsy Chaperone is a musical about the effect musicals have on those who love them. Our narrator, The Man in Chair, charmingly played by MTA award-winner Billy Ensley, tries to cure a case of the blues (or “non-specific sadness”) by playing his favorite Jazz-age musical cast album for the audience. The musical runs approximately ninety-minutes without intermission and is set in the unassuming apartment of our narrator. As he retells the story of his favorite musical, the characters and settings pop out of the walls, literally.

The Drowsy Chaperone is great fun from start to finish. It moves briskly and blithely from one hilarious and/or show stopping number to another with satirical commentary from the narrator. Though the commentary can sometimes be subtly adult and biting, it is always through the eyes of someone who genuinely loves musicals despite or even because of their flaws. The plot is paper thin (and should be). Famous actress Janet Can De Graaf (Courtney Markowitz) decides to leave fame and fortune to marry all around good guy Robert Martin (Grant Gustin). Of course, this is complicated by the fact that producer Feldzieg (Patrick Ratchford) is in deep with the mob (represented by comic gangsters Adam Kaplan and Chris Trepinski) and doesn’t want to lose his starring player.

Everyone in the cast is top notch and embraces the style of the piece with good humor and affection. Polly Adkins as the absent-minded matriarch Mrs. Tottendale is a joy to watch especially in conjunction with Vito Abate’s stuffy and long suffering Underling. Grant Gustin’s Robert Martin in all broad smiles and bluster. Best friend and best man George is played with good humored silliness by Adam Morse. Brittney Caughell chews the scenery delightfully as wannabe starlet Kitty. Adam Kaplan and Chris Trepinski, who were both so delightful in A Year with Frog and Toad, are equally entertaining as the punning gangsters posing as pastry chefs. Beau Stroupe is hilarious as the Latin lothario Adolpho. Courtney Markowitz is charming and certainly exudes the necessary star power as Janet Can De Graaf and Marsha Colbert is wonderful as the Ethel Merman-esque Drowsy Chaperone. Ericka Ross completes the primary cast as the aviatrix, Trix.

Technically the production is strong. Robert Croghan’s set is clever and it is good fun to see how each location would be realized. Croghan’s costumes are also clever, especially the almost endless array of gowns, bathing suits, and other ensembles worn by Janet Van De Graaf. Gary Sivak’s uses light to help transform the apartment into the various settings, and Linda Booth’s choreography is inventive and always whimsical.

If you love musicals, this is the show for you. It is a hilarious and touching homage to the genre. It both lampoons and celebrates the musical. The final few moments of the show are surprisingly touching and transform what at first seems to be lightweight frivolity into something much, much more substantial. Tom Hollis’ direction is confident and sure and you’re in good hands. This is the last production of CPCC’s summer season and it’s a fitting production to end on. Don’t miss this one.                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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THOM THOM (if that bird won't sing)
By Matt Cosper
Directed by Barney Baggett
Musical Direction by Jon Lindsay
Machine Theatre
Duke Energy Theatre
July 8–17, 2010

The best way to experience Thom Thom (if that bird won’t sing) is to know going in that it’s not going to make sense. It’s Theatre of the Absurd where the only logic is the one imposed by a strange world outside of any real time or place. The play asks questions, but you will have to come up with your own answers. Having said that, you will be thoroughly entertained by the originality of the work, inspired direction of Barney Baggett, and the acting of a talented cast. It isn’t easy to challenge an audience with a mostly incongruous plot, yet keep their attention and have them laughing all the way through to the end.

It begins with two characters from the iconic book To Kill a Mockingbird: Scout Finch, here called by her given name Jean Louise (Julia Grigg), and Boo Radley (Robert Haulbrook), here called Arthur. They are traveling in a bizarre netherworld, trying to get “home”, yet when asked where home is don’t seem to know. They are pursued by a group of weirdos who harass and menace them throughout the play. They include Magisterial Cort (Matt Cosper, also the playwright), Kate (Barbi VanSchaik), Savage Red (Jeremy Shane), Lizzie (Mimi Harkness), and Thom (Berry Newkirk).

It’s difficult to explain what happens from here because there are all kinds of metaphors and symbols involved, except to say that broad comedy and tragic happenings exist in combination. The fourth wall is broken a number of times when the audience is addressed directly by the characters. Though there are plenty of comings and goings, the action seems meaningless. Philosophical (mostly existential) undertones abound about: power, family, home, life, death, and God. The dialogue has wordplay that is funny, but also contains mention of underlying serious questions about human existence and universal concerns.

Magisterial Cort is the malevolent leader of the pack. He insists “Family is the most important thing,” yet is ready to kill anyone who will not help him consolidate his power. Is Cort a symbol of the “courts” of all kinds that stand in judgment of us and rule our lives, but will destroy us without hesitation if we dare not buckle under? Savage Red is the cowardly follower who doesn’t have the gumption to say no, even to murder. He is the most comical character, yet the most pathetic, and maybe closest to the unthinking masses.

Lizzie, dressed in a girlish outfit, has the speech of an angry truck driver which offends the hypocritical Cort. Her offense seems to be the ability to see clearly. Her voiced dissatisfaction is her downfall. Thom is a teenager who drifts along with the others and whose main motivation is to be cool. Cort tells them they are wizards and that seems a description Thom can live with despite all the sinister things that go along with it. Kate is a more complex character. She carries The Book they are all afraid of and reads from it at various times. Yet she seems the most understanding and motherly; she knows how dangerous Cort is and tries to protect the others. Does she represent religion that tolerates evil, if it must, for its own survival?

Arthur has the least fun, not being able to be part of any of the merry malevolence that takes place. He tries to protect Jean Louise. Is he the conscience of society? (We all know that’s the most thankless role in today’s world where any means justify ends.) Jean Louise gets seduced by the fun she thinks the weirdos are having after being escorted by Arthur, who she calls boring. Of course, doing the right thing is not as exciting as breaking taboos. She and Thom, the two teenagers, are like magnets to each other.

The entire tech crew does a good job especially: set design with Jungle Jim and abstract wire and rope construction by Jeremy Shane, lighting by Ashley Hawkins, sound design by Barney Baggett and Jon Lindsay, promo photography and graphics by Carlisle Kellam. Also, Jon Lindsay is the musical director and composer of the songs in the show. The music supports the concepts of the play yet doesn’t overwhelm or take away from the action. No song titles are listed, but the musical interludes work well.

The acting is good across the board. Matt Cosper is like a wicked vaudevillian, evil with a smile, willing to “do what needs to be done.” Mimi Harkness as Lizzie plays tough talking and saintly with equal appeal, and has a good singing voice. Jeremy Shane as Savage Red is excellent as the bumbling follower. Barbi VanSchaik is always a pleasure to watch on stage; she brings energy and stage presence to any role she plays. Berry Newkirk holds his own with this group of performers, and is able to evoke some sympathy for Thom. Julia Grigg conveys feistiness as Jean Louise that echoes her character in the book. Robert Haulbrook probably has the most difficult job of being glum throughout the show, but he never breaks character.

If you can tolerate ambiguity, but like to laugh and be entertained, and even turn some of the issues in a play over in your mind later, then you will certainly have gained much from this original, mystifying, yet ultimately satisfying play.                Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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 of America.

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A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD
Music BY Robert Reale
Book and Lyrics by Willie Reale
Based on the books by Arnold Lobel
Directed by Ron Chisholm
Music Direction by Jean Colgan Phillips
Central Piedmont Community College
Dale F. Halton Theater
June 28-July 10, 2010

A Year with Frog and Toad is a gentle, simple, and engaging children’s musical based on the popular books by Arnold Lobel. The musical, like the books, contains simple stories about the undying friendship between its titular characters.

Children’s theatre is especially important in all its forms. It is often the first experience with theatre we have, and because of that, it can either create lifelong theatre goers or create such a negative experience that it colors all future experiences for that person. Having had the opportunity to present theatre to young people on a number of occasions, I always give my performers a speech that goes along the lines of, “Nothing you have ever done on stage up to this point in your life is more important or will have more impact than what you are about to do now.” For theatre artists, in many ways, there is no higher calling than being able to present such an experience. For parents, it is vital to take our children to good performances that will excite and challenge them. Kids know bad when they see it.

Fortunately, CPCC’s production is worthy of any young child’s attention. I would say the target audience is for the ten and under set and for those adults who grew up on the beloved books. Anyone outside this age group might be engaged by the beautiful sets, costumes, and fantastic performances, but will certainly be challenged by the episodic script, gentle storytelling, and lack of action. My two-year-old was enraptured by the performance from start to finish.

Before getting into the performance itself, I hope the reader will indulge the following bit of unsolicited advice: I encourage parents to read the books to their children before and after attending the performance. The actors are costumed in such a way as to suggest their characters, but they are not in animal costumes. My young daughter, who is very familiar with the books, knew right away who was who, but it might be a challenge for those new to everything. It’s also so important to take these opportunities to get kids excited about literature. As someone who teaches writing to college students on a regular basis, the reason so many students are having trouble writing now, in my opinion, is they don’t read. If you can create a love for books early on, you’ll also create good writers and good thinkers. I am now stepping off of my soapbox.

For those of you who stuck with me, thanks, and for those of you skimming through this, you can start reading again now. A Year with Frog and Toad was commissioned by Adrianne Lobel (daughter of Arnold Lobel) and presented first at the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis and then moved quickly Off Broadway where it played to sold out houses for several months. It moved to Broadway in 2003 where it played for three months and then finally closed. Considering the Off Broadway and Broadway productions of the musical utilized a small cast of five actors, it must have been a change from big Broadway children’s musicals like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Annie. CPCC’s production is much larger in scale, enlarging the cast of five to over a dozen. The larger cast offers more elaborate and exciting dance numbers and gives an opportunity for some very talented young actors to shine.

The musical follows a year in the life of the title characters as narrated by a trio of birds who have just returned from a warmer climate. Frog (played by Christopher Trepenski) is enthusiastic and adventurous; and Toad (played by Adam Kaplan) is a grouchy homebody. Throughout the seasons we watch the two mismatched friends meander through a series of funny, sometimes poignant, and always gentle adventures. Both Trepenski and Kaplan are charming as their characters and never overplay (nor underplay) the love and adoration these amphibians have for one another. It is a tender “bromance.”

Full disclosure before discussing the technical elements for this production, I was fortunate enough to work with the good people of CPCC summer theatre while serving as set designer for My Fair Lady.

Ron Chisholm makes good use of the expanded chorus and makes sure the focus is always firmly placed on the duo. The younger performers are well utilized and blended well with the more experienced actors.

Gary Sivak’s sets make good use of some of the previous set of Into the Woods but add a lovely marsh background, several rolling units that could have come straight out of Lobel’s books, and a particularly imaginative presentation of a swimming hole. Sivak, who also served as lighting designer, uses rain, lightning, snow, and falling leaf projections to great effect. All in all it is beautiful work. I particularly like the rolling docks and, of course, the monster frog.

Heidi O’Hare’s costumes are imaginative and beautiful. As I mentioned before, costumes are more suggestive than literal. Frog and Toad wear swim goggles to suggest their amphibious eyes. The moles wear dark glasses, and the snail has a large bustle. Again, my toddler had no trouble identifying everyone, so I think the choices made were successful.

Eddie Mabry’s choreography is also innovative and well utilized. Special mention should be made of the “He’ll Never Know,” number where Frog and Toad use garden rakes to scrape out rhythms while dancing. Mabry’s choreography is whimsical and varied and his dancers should make him proud.

If you have young children, I hope you will take the time to see this gentle and heartwarming musical. Its sweet message of the value of friendship could not be lost on even the youngest of viewers.                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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BAREFOOT IN THE PARK
By Neil Simon
Directed by Carey Kugler
Central Piedmont Community College Summer Series
Pease Auditorium
July 2 - 16, 2010

Neil Simon's award-winning romantic comedy, Barefoot in the Park, originally debuted on Broadway in the fall of 1963 and starred Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley. The show ran for almost four years and is the tenth longest-running non-musical play in Broadway history.

I was actually somewhat unfamiliar with the play until asked to review it and noticed my guests and I were the youngest in attendance. However, the seats were filled with those old enough to fondly reminisce, having seen the original performance several decades ago.

During the era of individualism, the Civil Rights Movement, and women’s liberation, the 1960s brought about conflict with many people searching for their own identity as the main characters are in the show.

It's 1963 and free-spirited newlywed Corie Bratter played by Greta Zandstra has settled into married life with her stuffy lawyer husband, Paul Bratter, played by local veteran actor and real-life husband, Chaz Pofahl. They have set up house in a tiny and flawed fifth floor one-bedroom walk-up apartment with a hole in the skylight and an oversized closet for sleeping quarters. On a particular cold February night Corie and Paul have just returned from a six day honeymoon with Corie head over heels in love and tickled to be Mrs. Bratter. Awaiting the arrival of their new furniture Corie, overjoyed and optimistic, attempts to continue the honeymoon, while Paul, weary and skeptical, attempts to focus on his new career.

Soon after the move to the apartment, Corie's mother Ethel, played by Paula Baldwin, arrives, spent, after crawling up five flights of stairs in the brownstone and sends Corie into a nervous frenzy trying to please her. In the meantime, pessimistic Paul meets all the weirdo neighbors in the building and vows to stay far away. The weirdest neighbor, Victor Velasco, played by award-winning local actor Hank West, who ultimately steals the show, quickly befriends Corie, Paul, and Ethel, and gives them a night to remember.

Over the next several hours, spilling into the early hours of the morning, the four grow closer, and farther apart, then any of them can imagine which unfortunately causes Corie and Paul to question their existence together.

Since it was opening night I expected minor bloopers like Chaz flubbing lines and an unsecured telephone cord slipping out. However, I did not expect the drab set design that does not mimic true 1960s retro décor. Fortunately, what the props lack, the costumes make up for in the flowered patterns worn by Corie and Ethel, and the bright orange and blue neck pieces Victor Velasco models.

Overall, the production is comical, entertaining, but fairly simple. The ideals are definitely dated, with the husband working daily and the wife manning the home. At times, Ethel and Victor outshine the main characters with their wit and charm and I felt myself wanting to see more of them than the irrational, hysterical Corie and the stoic and slightly boring Paul. The show forces the audience to ponder many things, i.e., have I married the right person, are commonalities the most important factor, and can I live with my mate for the rest of my life?

If you are a fan of period pieces or marital humor, Barefoot in the Park will be right up your alley.                Review by Dawn Cauthen

Dawn Cauthen is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area currently working on a screenplay, a novel, and many freelance articles. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. She has appeared in Uptown Magazine and enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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MACBETH
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris O’Neill
Shakespeare Carolina
Duke Energy Theatre
June 26 - 30, 2010

Shakespeare Carolina’s mantra is “We are not your father’s Shakespeare company.” True. This young theatre company is doing something difficult. They are interpreting classic work using non-traditional and experimental methods to give the audience a new perspective on the work. With that challenge often comes growing pains. This production of Macbeth is their first in the Duke Energy Theatre, and Artistic Director Chris O’Neill shared with the audience that in 2011 they will begin a cooperative association with Winthrop University.

Macbeth, or the “Scottish Play” (said to have had a curse placed on it, hence superstitious theatre people won’t mention the name on stage), is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known and easily understood plays. After all, in our time of Enron, Madoff, Wall Street, and big banks we all have our own particular understanding of power, greed, and ambition.

The plot is familiar. It begins on the Scottish moors where Macbeth (Brian Willard) has proven to be a brave warrior and killed an enemy of King Duncan (Simon Donoghue, suitably regal/noble), who unbeknownst to Macbeth has rewarded him with a title. He and fellow warrior/friend Banquo (Nick Iammatteo, showing growth as an actor) are accosted by three witches (Iesha Hoffman, Kaddie Sharpe, and newcomer Vanessa Malanga showing excellent instincts), who make the famous predictions, including the title, thereby hooking Macbeth with their evil intent. When the title comes through, Macbeth, who is first hailed as a hero is set on the downward spiral toward tragedy by a desire to murder Duncan and take his throne. Helping him get there on the fast track is his femme fatale wife Lady Macbeth (Kathleen Taylor).

These two characters are still fascinating over 400 years after they were written. You can debate whether you think the Lady is the cause of Macbeth’s troubles, or whether she just pushs him a little faster in a direction he is already headed. Yet, there’s no denying something about the story still resonates with audiences.

Macbeth is a bloody, violent play and the atmospherics here are good. The set design by Biff Edge, spare, cold, eerie, splashed with “blood” on plastic gives a sense of foreboding. It also reflects the dark nature of the play as well as the many night scenes. The light design by Cyd Knight supports the theme as well. The costumes by Karin Eichler and Geri Boyette for the warriors are motorcycle clothes with chains and faux leather, but also cleverly have strips of plaid dangling from their waists. The ladies are less motorcycle mamas, though dressed mostly in black (and maybe could have stayed more within the motorcycle theme with boots, etc.). Music direction by Jill O’Neill is generally good except the incessant drumming that becomes too loud. As an underscore or accompaniment it should not interrupt the play or obscure the dialogue. The sword fight choreography by Christopher Donoghue is excellent. Large swords are used with less hesitation than in most productions conveying a sense of actual combat.

Chris O’Neill’s direction includes some interesting nuances. The scene of Banquo’s ghost appearing at supper is very good. The three witches coil around Banquo and open up to show him bleeding from the mouth. This would certainly horrify a guilty man. Yet, actors walking around in high heels almost on tip toe is distracting. And having a servant enter before Macbeth finishes his famous “tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, upstaging the actor, while unintentional is nevertheless regrettable. Also, a severed head in a satchel might be a better choice than an unrealistic one.

The production is most uneven in the acting. The standout is Christopher Donoghue as Macduff. Tall and good-looking, his intense energy and stage presence draw the eye to his character, and he dominates any scene in which he appears. Chemistry can be a tricky thing on stage; unfortunately, it is not evident here between Mr. Willard and Ms. Taylor despite some passionate kissing. Their performances are not convincing. Lady Macduff, as played by Annette Saunders, has good presence in her short scenes.

Charlotte Shakespeare is producing Much Ado About Nothing in July. This is a quick turn around from Macbeth, and an ambitious agenda. They are still developing their chops and are working toward building a solid foundation. Their passion for theatre is not in doubt. I look forward to how they will surprise audiences next.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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INTO THE WOODS
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Tom Hollis
Music Direction by Drina Keen
Central Piedmont Community College
Dale F. Halton Theatre
June 18 - 26, 2010

Stephen Sondeim’s Into the Woods (with book by James Lapine) opened on Broadway in 1987. It is, as all Sondheim musicals are, sprawling, complex, discordant and challenging. These are the things that make people either love Sondheim or hate him. I am one of the former, of course, but it is easy to recognize, simply from the posture of the audience, which camp one belongs to. As I sat in the beautiful Dale F. Halton Theatre, half of the audience was leaning forward in rapt attention, and the others were sinking back into their chairs in frustration. So let me simplify this, if you love your musicals dark, brooding, clever, and reflective—be sure to see Into the Woods before it closes. Tom Hollis’ production (put up, like all of the summer productions at CPCC in an insanely brief period of time) is a solid and electrifying representation of Sondheim at his best. With spot on casting and imaginative staging, it is easy to forget that this was produced so very quickly.

The play centers around a collection of fairy tale characters (Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and others. The tales are narrated by a story teller who the characters become increasingly aware. All of the tales are connected through the addition of a baker and his wife who have been left childless by the curse of a witch who “for reasons of her own” decides to lift the curse by mixing items such a Red Riding Hood’s eponymous hood, Cinderella’s golden slipper, Jack’s white cow, etc. Lapine’s book briskly moves us from plot point to plot point though often at the expense of complexity. I’ve always felt that Lapine’s book was somewhat at odds with Sondheim’s lush score. The book being brisk, elegant, and above all else simple but broken up by Sondheim’s multi-layered songs that seem often to sprout out of nowhere—motivate by previous songs but not by the text.

It is Sondheim’s music that makes this work and Hollis and his cast handle it very well. Standouts in the cast include Susan Gundersheim as the Baker’s wife, Oliva Edge as the witch, Adam Kaplin as Jack, and Britney Caughell as Little Red Ridinghood. Gundersheim’s powerful voice and mix of humor and pathos brings to life one of Sondheim’s more interesting women. The Baker’s Wife, like all of the characters in this piece, are searching for what they are expected to search for (love, money, a child), but along the way, she discovers self-reliance and unexpected romance. Olivia Edge’s witch is vain and self-absorbed. The only love the witch can find is through the kidnapped daughter she raises in a tower. Adam Kaplin’s Jack is simple to a fault, but manages to hit the high notes with style. Caughell’s Little Red Ridinghood is a mix of spoiled toddler and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her tempestuous mix of pouting and bravado is always delightful.

Special mention should be made of Christopher Trepinski and Grant Gustin who play a pair of philandering princes who enjoy the quest of romance more so than actually having a mate. Katie Chung is also a lovely Cinderella and manages the early humor of the role and the dawning awareness of her maternal side in the end. Ashby Blakely as the Baker has an astounding singing voice. When he sings, he carries the audience with him and layers each word with meaning. Unfortunately, he seems at a loss when he is not singing and often looked disconnected from the action. He is a remarkable performer nonetheless.

Those familiar with earlier incarnations of this musical might be surprised by some additions to the musical that were made (or reintegrated from previous workshops) either in the London revival in 1990 or the Broadway revival in 2002. An entirely new musical number (Our Little World) has been added between the Witch and Rapunzel to further flesh out the Witch’s need for someone to love and Rapunzel’s yearning to be free. It’s a lovely song, and performed very well here by Edge and Courtney Markowitz. Another wolf has been added to “Hello, Little Girl” presumably to reinforce the notion that all princes are wolves. The number now also includes a surprise cameo by the Three Little Pigs. It’s more distracting than enchanting, but children may enjoy it. Considering the overt sexual undertones in the original, the additional wolf and pigs seem to muddy the waters a bit.

Technically the production is mixed. Robert Croghan’s set is simple and delightful. The forest is always moving throughout the production and a set of storybook wagons that represent houses, towers, and trees are well used. The woodcut-style of all of the major pieces was consistent and interesting. Croghan’s costumes are also quite nice (and there are a lot of them). All of the characters are both recognizable and original with a palate of colors that work nicely with his settings. The only possible misstep, was the final green dress worn by the newly transformed witch. The choice of such a strikingly shimmering fabric is a bold choice, but is often distracting. Her earlier white dress, however, is a joy. Gary Sivak’s lighting is hit or miss. The trees and drops are often amazingly lit with surprising subtlety, however, often the actors faces are entirely in shadow—especially when perched on the aforementioned wagons. The use of projections throughout is especially delightful when a certain character is fed to a giant. The night I attended the performance, the microphones were working well and balances were handled expertly.

All in all, this surprisingly difficult musical is given a first class production by CPCC. Attendance was a little light when I went and I hope some will take the time to see this. I always feel like I have a lot to think about when I get out of a Sondheim show. This one asks you to contemplate the nature of wishing, of parenting, of all forms of love and nurturing. It asks us to question both our humanity and our inhumanity. It’s a lot to take in, but in the hands of capable performers it’s always a joy to experience. You’re in good hands here. So lean forward in your chair and listen carefully. You’ll be glad you did.             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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MANISH BOY
Written & Performed by Ralph Harris
Directed by Oz Scott
Associate Producer Zadia Ifé
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Booth Playhouse
June 22 - 27, 2010

The best comedy comes out of character, truth, and pain. Comedian Ralph Harris’ Manish Boy is a one-man show that folds all three into the story of how one man grew up to become the person he is today.

One-person shows have become more popular recently; they are easier to mount. But it is also difficult to keep an audience entertained for a straight 90 or so minutes with only one actor on stage. No worries here. This polished, insightful show is engaging from the moment the lights go up with Mr. Harris at the microphone giving a nod to what must have been many years of standup comedy in small, tough rooms. The microphone, fittingly, is at the back of the stage because what follows is actually storytelling where Mr. Harris recounts the funny, embarrassing, painful, exhilarating trajectory of his growth from boy to man.

Like all comedians, he’s very quick, and will respond to audiences’ comments, or unexpected mechanical noises, with sharp humor. Yet, my favorite parts of the show are his character studies of the people in his life while growing up: his Uncle Earl, his mother’s friend Betty, his Grandfather, and his own childhood and teenage selves. It shows not only his powers of observation but the need to understand himself, others, and life. He is also forutnate to have had loving people who cared enough to teach him what is right. His acting and transformation into these people is impressive.

Yet, he nails chronic alcoholics’ dual personalities, as exemplified by his “Happy Dad,” and the “Demon Dad,” who can be full of personality making breakfast on a Saturday morning for his children, and then be an abusive, raging drunk who will grab his son by the throat and almost squeeze the life out of him.

It isn’t easy to cut yourself open every night to let audiences see what you are made of, but comedians do it all the time, only most not as successfully as Mr. Harris has done here. He leaves it all on the stage as he works hard for the audience. He isn’t asking for pity and doesn’t make excuses for any of his own mistakes. It’s a gift to be able to look back on the early part of your life humorously, but realistically, without bitterness or regret.

What comes across is a decent, funny, caring man who respects women. His growing up years may be uniquely his own, but there is a universality to his memories. How many of us had perfect, happy childhoods? Ralph Harris shows he’s developed into a formidable writer and performer with this energetic and versatile display of his work. The show is running until June 27th at the Booth Playhouse. What are you waiting for??
Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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 of America.

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FIVE COURSE LOVE
Book, Music & Lyrics by Gregg Coffin
Directed by Craig Spradley
Music Direction by Ryan Stamey
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte
Southeast Regional Premiere
June 16 – July 3, 2010

Five Course Love is a laugh-out-loud, over-the-top, musical, five scene feast. Though it displays a wide range of love “styles” it’s certainly not a serious treatise on the nature of love, and you wouldn’t want it to be because it’s got every hilarious visual you can imagine from a suicidal puppet to leather bondage.

The scenes all take place in a variety of restaurants where there always seems to be the ever-present “trouble in the kitchen”. The narrative is carried by dozens of songs, with the lyrics ripe with sexual innuendo and double-entendres. Chip Decker’s clever set is perfect for the wide stage, using rear-projected posters changing to suit each eatery’s venue. There’s down home Bar-B-Que, Italian, German, Mexican, and a fifties style diner. Yes, it is all so stereotypical, but with a wink from playwright Gregg Coffin, and the audience’s approval, it’s a wild ride.

Director Craig Spradley is to be commended for outstanding “showmanship” in this production. Gags and slapstick abound, from deranged puppets to the dreaded horse’s head mob signal. I mean, there’s even a rubber chicken in there somewhere! The three actors: Jon Parker Douglas, Joe Klosek, and Maret Decker Seitz are more than you could hope for in this musical. Each one sings, dances, and plays multiple roles with energetic abandon. What can you say about Mr. Douglas? He is quite simply, awesome. Mr. Klosek is solid in the less showy roles that make the scenes work, and Ms. Seitz is an exciting new exceptional talent on Charlotte stages who also shows here that she can literally carry her weight.

Even with five hectic scene changes the show moves along seamlessly thanks to the excellent talents of the technical people. Credit to musical director Ryan Stamey, and his three piece band with himself on keyboard, Don Jaeger on bass, and Mike Charlton on percussion.

Further applause to Chip Decker for the sound design as well as the set, Kate VanderWood Shore for scenic art, Jamie Varnadore for the outrageous costumes, Hallie Gray for lighting (which also manages to get itself into the act), Christy Edney for sound design, and Christy Edney and Craig Spradley for inspired choreography with the occasional pelvic thrust.

Actor’s Theatre manages to give an air of expectation from the moment you walk in the door. In this day of tight budgets audiences are smart enough to know where to find entertainment value. Not every new play is going to be a homerun. The important thing is that theatres make the effort to give audiences something fresh and bold; for that reason alone they will outlast theatres around the country that are going to have to close their doors because they can’t or won’t change with the times.

So don’t hesitate to order up some Five Course Love, and bon appetit!             Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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 COMEDY OF ERRORS
By William Shakespeare
The 5th Annual Charlotte Shakespeare Festival
Collaborative Arts Theatre
The Green Uptown
June 3 – 20, 2010

You’ve heard before that a little adversity can make you stronger. That’s what has happened to the production of The Comedy of Errors. The weather respects no one’s plans, so when you have outdoor performances the rain comes and goes as it pleases. Last night there was an early shower, but it cooled off the temperature and there was a perfect breeze on the Green. In short, it was a great night for enjoying theatre outdoors.

The Charlotte Shakespeare Festival keeps getting better and better. This production of one of Shakespeare’s early silly comedies is fun. Kudos to director Joe Copley for bringing light comic touches that help make the play easily understandable, and for working so well with his actors to draw out good performances.

Shakespeare liked the idea of mistaken identity. Of course, in his day, men played women’s parts. I’ve always imagined, being the playwright he was, he must have thought it was a stupid restriction. The basic plot is that we have two sets of twins with everyone running around thinking one set is the other. Complications ensue, as usual. But here, Mr. Copley has cast one set of brothers with women: Dromio of Syracuse played by Andrea King, and Dromio of Ephesus played by Shon Wilson. Both provide laughs with good comic timing, and a wink and nod to the fact that Ms. Wilson is African-American; and it doesn’t matter a wit.

Chaz Pofahl and Adam Ewer play the other set of twins, the “masters” with both named Antipholus to make it more believable that both would answer to the same name, I suppose. Mr. Ewer is here visiting from New York City for the summer and brings considerable stage presence with him. Both actors are terrific and resemble each other enough to make it work.

The cast is good across the board: Meghan Lowther as Adriana, confused wife of one of the Antipholus’, Elise Wilkinson as her equally confused sister Luciana. Peter Smeal is affecting as twins’ father, Aegeon, who explains as the play opens how the separation of the twins took place. Nick Asa does well as Solinus the Duke who is sympathetic to Aegeon, and look for him in another gender-bending role. Joanna Gerdy, Ken Akers, Greta Marie Sandstra, Kirk Dickens, Corliss Hayes, and the ensemble Maddie Metz, Gabielle Pentalow, and Amanda Kendall all add to the production.

Charlotte is fortunate to have this level of Shakespeare outdoors. It may not as big as the Central Park Shakespeare in New York founded by Joseph Papp, but for our city it’s just right, and we should support it. Bring lawn chairs or blankets, and food and drink. The production, and the stars, are free.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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WICKED
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Winnie Holzman
Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire
Directed by Joe Mantello
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Ovens Auditorium
Runs through June 13, 2010

The musical Wicked, based on the novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire, deconstructs the beloved characters from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. In this story, Elphaba (who will grow up to be the Wicked Witch of the West) and Galinda (who becomes Glinda the Good) meet at a boarding school and, though starting as enemies, grow into the closest of friends. Wicked, the musical opened on Broadway in 2003 and earned back every penny of its whopping fourteen million dollar investment in less than fourteen months. Today Wicked still plays to sold out houses in New York and earns over a million dollars a week in its various incarnations. When eighty percent of Broadway shows fail to recoup their costs at all, there is clearly something special about this show.

After witnessing several musical tours where the staging is so drastically stripped down and simplified that you feel more like you are watching community theatre, it is a pleasure to report that Wicked is lush, lavish, and extravagant. I had the pleasure of attending Wicked in New York last summer, and I was truly amazed at how much of the staging was retained, and amazed at some of the innovative staging used to make up for the lack of hydraulic elevators sunk into the floor and other such Broadway finery. The sets, costumes, and the truly amazing lighting would be enough of a reason to attend, but combine this with one of the most engaging scores and the engrossing books of any musical in recent memory. Wicked is doing well because it’s a great time—funny, touching, and with a half-dozen memorable songs you’ll leave the theatre humming.

Wicked is a musical that depends heavily on the talent of its two leading ladies. Galinda, played this time by Natalie Daradich, is able to handle the over-the-top comic elements of the characters. When we first meet Glinda, she is the epitome of the dumb blonde—bubbly, popular, and vapid. What Daradich also manages is to show the intelligence and compassion that lurks just under the surface. Glinda’s character, like all good leading ladies, evolves throughout the musical. Vicki Noon’s Elphaba (named by Maguire after L. Frank Baum—El—Pha—Ba) is at first the hard-edged loner forced to come to terms with a larger world when she becomes aware of her innate power. Noon has the pipes for the role, nailing each of the power ballads given to her, and able to alternate between menace and vulnerability. These two powerhouse actors dominate the stage and it is an enormous joy to see such talent!

The supporting cast is also quite good, notably Chris Peluso as the “brainless,” but redemptive, Fiyero and Marilyn Caskey as the evil Madam Morrible.

The writers of the musical have great fun tweaking the story we all know. All of Dorothy’s companions on the yellow brick road make an appearance at some point in the show. Dorothy’s house does indeed play an important role in the story, though maybe not in the way you think.

The stage is a collection of clockwork gears and an enormous dragon puppet. The machinery of Oz surrounds the action at all time. This is a land, not so much of magic, but of rampant industrialization. An important story element is that the animals of Oz are losing their speech because they are “afraid to talk.” We later learn the animals are made convenient scapegoats to the bad times that have affected Oz. The novel goes into all of this in much, much more detail and it is fortunate that Schwartz and Holzman only give it a tacit nod—boiling down to a few key moments that motivate Elphaba into at first becoming advocate and later terrorist for the cause.

The crux of the production, however, is the friendship between the two witches, who must learn from each other. Glinda’s realization that status and power have little real value, and Elphaba’s realization that she is capable of love and being loved. Though there is the prerequisite romance in the show, it never loses site of this key relationship.

Whether or not you are a fan of the Oz books, movies, or what have you, this musical survives on its own merits. A truly engaging story with one of the best scores in some time. What’s also notable, again, is the lavish and sumptuous production. In these days, when we’re all counting pennies, sometimes it’s hard to justify attending a production like this, but let me assure you, this one is worth it.             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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DIE ROTEN PUNKTE
Paul Lucas Productions
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Booth Playhouse
May 26-31, 2010

Hey Charlotte, Die Roten Punkte (The Red Dots) is performing at the Booth Playhouse through Memorial Day. Don’t be late for the party; get over there if you can. This parody of self-important Euro/rock/punk bands is really funny as performed by the sister and brother, Astrid and Otto Rot from Berlin, who never break character (and real names we don't know).

The first thing you notice is the child size drum set that Astrid plays and the small guitars that Otto uses. Everything about them is askew, but all the better to get the joke, and they do let the audience in on it. The dysfunctional siblings come on stage and we learn of their “tragic” past, their rivalry, Astrid’s trip to rehab (which didn’t quite take), but most of all their talent. These two become charismatic right in front of you as they play their songs, squabble, and interact with the audience. They’re quick on their feet, and respond to comments, tsk at the audience, and even stop the show and chastise people coming in late. Yet it’s not mean-spirited; the laughs are on everyone, but especially them.

The German accents sometimes make it difficult to catch every word of their lyrics, but they are amusing, too, like from Rock Bang! “I was alone listening to sad songs/They were soppy/Even my hands were confused/They went floppy...” They are both good singers who know how to turn a phrase for best comic effect. In between the banter, the duo perform a limited but broad range of music that gives each performer a chance to shine, and one number includes a laughable bit of choreography to boot.

It’s fortunate for Charlotte that Blumenthal Pac brings us a caliber of act like this that is original and fun; don’t miss it rock ‘n roll fans.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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HEAVEN ON WHEELS
By Tally Sessions and Peter Holland
Actors Theatre of Charlotte
May 6 - May 29, 2010

My biggest regret with Heaven On Wheels is that I didn’t see the show sooner so that I could have recommended it and more people could have seen it. This quirky, engaging musical is the perfect compliment for a day spent at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Written by Tally Sessions and Peter Holland this world premier racin’-and definitely racin’ NOT racing -tribute show will draw you into the world of dirt tracks and Darlington.

Beginning in the forties the show looks at the evolution of stock car racing from its roots running moonshine through the dawn of the modern era of the supertracks and super drivers. Peter Holland who co-wrote the show also stars in multiple roles including narrator Hytop and Bill France-“the father of stock car racing and NASCAR”. His wife Christina Holland plays Arlene Smith, the first lady of racing long before Danica Patrick ever got behind the wheel. She also does a hilarious turn as the Darlington speedway-the infamous lady in black. And you read that right, she plays the speedway.

The entire cast, almost all coming from Virginia did a uniformly wonderful job. Young Maya Burgess had two standout numbers in the show: first as Jocko Flocko, a racin’ profane monkey and as a hard drivin soap box racer. Also, Kyle Courter did a wonderfully evocative turn as hard-living, hard racing driver Curtis Turner

The music was fun with a definite bluegrass flavor with hints of rock and beach music including an audience participation conga line. Also, toward the end of the second act we had a touching sing-along about Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and Dale. Enhancing the experience were hundreds photographic images of the early days of racing projected on either side of the stage.

The narrative gets a little sketchy at points and there were times when I wished things touched upon, such as the efforts to unionize drivers, could have been expanded upon. However, I learned a lot and I actually thought I knew NASCAR history. It is a fun show that draws you in to “The most exciting sport in the world.”             Review by Laura Pfizenmayer

Laura Pfizenmayer is a South Carolina playwright and freelance writer. She is a partner in Hometown Promotions, LLC. Laura is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

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WELCOME TO THE MONKEY HOUSE
By Kurt Vonnegut
Directed by Michael R. Simmons & Charles LaBorde
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
April 29 - May 29, 2010

Vonnegut fans, rejoice! The master of tragic irony and comic fantasy is visiting Charlotte 3 years after his death, like Billy Pilgrim unstuck in time, and bringing 8 of his stories with him to the stage. A huge Smith-Corona typewriter forms much of the set, with video screen above it. Vonnegut (John Merrick) sits on the keys and chats with us, introducing and concluding the presentation of his work. With each story, words appear on the screen, letters tapped out one at a time to show the initial narrative that then becomes acted out onstage.

News stories and other media messages also appear onscreen, as we return to prior periods of Americana and project to political futures. The video (by Jay Thomas) and set design (by Robert Lee Simmons) become our magic carpet in this fantastic tour backwards and forwards in fictional time. Monkey madness spills into the lobby, where the audience enters the theatre greeted by gorillas, bamboo frames, grass hut fringes, banana tickets, and other safari elements. But it's not all just exotic fun. Challenges await the visitor with ironic twists inside, as Vonnegut investigates the instinctual fates and political fortunes of the human ape—though he warns it might involve "narcissistic giggles."

In "Harrison Bergeron," set in 2081, all men are equal and mediocre, until one of them rebels against the Handicapper General and the government signals disrupting any higher order thinking. This fantasy may be easier to enjoy when reading, however, since the audience must participate in watching and hearing the futuristic equity, when disharmony and brain control reign.

"Who Am I This Time" mostly involves lines from A Streetcar Named Desire, as two shy actors are transformed in a community theatre audition. Scott McCalmont and Jennifer Lynn Barnette, as Harry and Helene, are charming in both their reticent and active aspects, raising ironic mirrors about finding or losing identity in doing theatre.

In a wilder piece, "Welcome to the Monkey House," J. R. Adduci plays multiple roles as various manifestations of a trickster, Billy the Poet. He rebels against the Virgin Suicide Hostesses at an Ethical Suicide Parlor, in a future time when the world's overpopulation pressures people to do the right thing by dying. Costumes here and elsewhere in the show, designed by Wendy Deitz and Wendy Bailey, offer a witty pastiche of nostalgic and sci-fi farce.

Other pieces are quainter, like the second mentioned above. In two separate scenes, families in the USA and USSR lament the loss of sons to their nations' space programs. In another piece, American youths who grew up next door to each other realize their feelings go farther than friendship when he goes AWOL to kiss her, after she gets engaged to another man. Here again, McCalmont and Barnette play the enamored couple, yet show their fine acting skills in making these characters distinct from Harry and Helene.

A more surprising plot twist occurs in "Next Door," when a boy (Andrew Griner, Jr.), left at home for the first time by his parents, affects his fighting neighbors by calling a radio DJ with a made-up dedication. But "The Euphio Question" presents the most intriguing fiction in this show, when a happiness machine causes a dangerous collective contagion.

Energetic acting abounds in this large cast production. But some spectators may find various stories here less engaging as performances, especially on a warm night. (Wear light clothing unless you want to feel like you're in a gorilla suit, too.) Full disclosure: CAST is presenting a series of short pieces written by me, and by other writers on this website, in a new play festival, Ice Fishing on Europa, this summer. So I was already inclined to sympathize with Vonnegut's visit and his monkey house mirrors. Yet this commemoration is certainly a mighty effort by CAST and benefits those tuned into the late author's wry vision of the human species, as we travel onward and recall his warnings.
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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CAVALIA
Artistic Director Norman Latourelle
914 South Clarkson Street
www.cavalia.net
April 30 to May 23, 2010

Horse people are a different breed and they'll be wild about this show. But even if you've never owned, groomed, or ridden a horse, Cavalia offers an amazing display of the profound ties between horses and humans, which have evolved together over millennia. Under those huge white tents near the Panthers' stadium, real animals are playing, dancing, leaping, and racing with human artists, trainers, and acrobats—in Cirque du Soleil-style wizardry. Though the show has toured for 7 years, across Europe and North America, it appears now in Charlotte as fresh and unique as a newborn foal (and such a birth is shown on video during Cavalia).

There's an old adage in theatre warning against the use of animals onstage because they steal the show. Their presence brings too much play and wildness, beyond what can be rehearsed and controlled. Yet Cavalia uses such aliveness to evoke wonder at the horse's beauty, grace, and power, in relation to human performers who are wildly fantastic as well.

About 40 horses perform during the show, all stallions and geldings. More than 60 travel in the company, with some in training and some used as substitutes. (Don't miss the chance to meet them with a visit to the stable after the show.) Their breeds exemplify various forms of human creativity in guiding equine evolution toward our ancestors' goals. American Quarter Horses, Paint Horses, and Appaloosas show the desires of European colonizers and Native Americans in refashioning their animal collaborators as instruments of culture. Arabian Horses bring thousands of years of trained instincts, as do the Pure Spanish Breed, which were ancient Roman war horses. Various others—the muscular Belgian and Comtois draft horses, versatile Warmbloods (for jumping and dressage), elegant Lusitanos (still used today for bullfighting), and tough Criollos (from South America)—also provide distinctive genetic skills, displayed in specific ways.

The preshow entertainment brings the audience into one of two tents: circus-style amenities and souvenirs in one, a delicious reception in the other for "Rendez-Vous" patrons (who also pay for preferred seats). Inside the big tent, air-conditioning is adequate. Spectators sit in hard plastic seats without much leg room. But any discomfort is soon overlooked with the initial humorous quiz, projected on the show's curtain, the aura of a live soundtrack (composed by Michel Cusson), and then cinematic landscapes on a 210-foot wide screen evoking various settings (designed by Erick Villeneuve and Marc Labelle), as magical environments for the horse and human choreography (by Magali Delgado, Frederic Pignon, and Alain Gauthier). The spectacle is also enriched by fantastic costumes and superb lighting effects (by Manon Desmarais and Alain Lortie, respectively). There are even scenes where autumn leaves fall or soap snow drifts through the patterns of light.

Small toy horses are set in the sand for the initial scene, prior to the curtain's opening, with live horses interacting as if in the wild, or picking up the toys in their mouths. This natural play of young horses is shown again with Arabians later in the show. They script their own plot, rearing and nuzzling, climbing on one another and kicking against that, or mutually grooming with their teeth, while signaling in many other ways. The trainers enter and guide the horses with subtle gestures and tones—as humans fit into and shift the horse community. Sylvia Zerbini is especially masterful at this, conducting 9 white Arabians in rearing, rolling in the sand, and dancing in collective synchrony.

The trainers, artists, and acrobats come from many countries: the U.S., Canada, Mexico, France, Britain, Belgium, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, and Australia. Early on, a female dancer performs pirouettes with a horse in sand and water. Later, 12 men chase 7 horses in a loop around the tent poles, with prehistoric cave art projected behind them, showing the equine spirits that fascinated our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. An acrobat balances on a large ball while a horse plays along. A trainer exchanges kisses with a horse, makes him jump on and off a wooden ledge, and induces him to kneel and lie on the sand.

Performers bounce on trampolines and leap over running horses. Others do flips while riding them, race while standing on their backs (using 2 or 4 horses at a time), or hang alongside gripping the saddle's horn. A clown adds skillful amusement with Wild West tricks. Women on wires glide and twirl above circling horses, adding flight in the air to the beauty on the ground. A man and woman also perform a flying dance, suspended by a single strap each, and 5 female acrobats use bungee cords and swings for elegant aerials. There are rope climbers, a pole dancer, lasso artists, and majestic parades of costumed riders evoking a "middle earth" fantasy realm. Plus multiple grand finales.

It's all much more than words can describe—more alive, playful, beautiful, and wild.           Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. 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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ONSTAGE 2010
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
Theatre Training Program
McColl Family Theatre
Wachovia Playhouse
May 21-23, 2010

The School of Theatre Training Program gives us OnStage every spring: four productions as the culmination of classes that have been meeting all year. It’s always interesting to see what shows are chosen, but more than that, to see the students who get their chance to perform. This year the plays are very different, and if several of the productions are not as tight as years past, the enthusiasm remains high.

PERICLES
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Patrick Tansor
McColl Family Theatre

Shakespeare for this age group is a challenge. Pericles is not an easy play; the language is difficult and the story is not widely known, though there is a narrator (Camille Gross) to help us along, and the humor is played up. The young actors do a fine job with the dialogue and staying in character. Editing the text makes it a manageable length of about an hour. Taking place in ancient times, we first meet Pericles (Calvin Gross) as he washes up on the shore of a foreign country after a shipwreck, gets involved in a tournament, and wins the hand of the King’s daughter Thaisa (Kirsten Alderdice). They fall in love and marry, but she seems to die in childbirth as they are traveling and her body is set adrift in the ocean only to be found and miraculously revived. Pericles is distraught, but has a daughter, Marina (Caroline McKinley). Later, as Marina is about to be killed by jealous nobles, she is kidnapped by pirates. In her new land, she finds a way to avoid prostitution through her wits. Meanwhile Pericles has become unstable over the loss of both wife and daughter. He eventually finds Marina and they are reunited in a happy coincidence.

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS
Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer
Music by Mary Rodger
Lyrics by Marshall Barer
Directed by Kelly Cates
McColl Family Theatre

One musical is included among the four OnStage plays, and this year it’s Once Upon a Mattress, that fun and frothy tale of the unusual Princess Winnifred (Holly Knowles) who has, potentially, a terrible mother-in-law problem in Queen Aggravain (Carrie Holt). The Queen’s son, Prince Dauntless the Drab (Justin Norwood), wants to marry, but the Queen keeps finding tests princesses will fail to keep the Prince to herself. Jesters narrate the tale to young ladies of waiting in the court as the Princess and the Pea, a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. The musical numbers are entertaining especially as performed by Ms. Knowles and Ms. Holt.

JUNGALBOOK By Edward Mast
Directed by Sidney Horton
Wachovia Playhouse

Adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book stories, this version is presented by the youngest performers in the Training Program, and it’s delightful. The tale of a baby whose parents are killed and subsequently raised by animals of the jungle resonates with kids and adults alike. All the characters are well represented: Baloo the Bear (Rae Brown), Bagheera the Panther (Meghan Levinsky), Sherakhan the Tiger (Anna Mace), Akela the Wolf Pack leader (Mary McBryde), the Grab and Grey Wolves (Chandon Glenn & Mitchell Longo), Kaa the Python (Tessa Giordano), and of course, Mowgli the Human Boy (Aman Singh).

THE CRANE WIFE
Adapted by Barbara Carlisle
Directed by Craig Kolkebeck
McColl Family Theatre

This is a beautifully realized production based on the Japanese folk tale of the peasant Kokuro (Jason Chinduntdet) who helps an injured crane (Tiffany Adams) and saves its life. Later, a lovely woman shows up at his door and he marries her. They are poor, but just as they are desperate for food; the wife manages to weave a cloth like never seen before. Kokuro sells it and they are comfortable for a while, but he asks her again to make another cloth. Like the first time, she asks him not to look at her as she weaves the cloth. He makes even more money on this cloth. Finally, a samurai will make him rich if his wife can make one more cloth. Kokuro agrees but his greed has dire consequences. The precision of the stick puppets, especially the large crane, the dancers, the narrators, the hunters, and the actors is excellent. Much credit to director Craig Kolkebeck, the cast, and the production staff for an outstanding show.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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UNCLE VANYA
by Anton Chekhov
directed by James Cartee
Citizens of the Universe
StorySlam
May 15-22, 2010

Citizens of the Universe, a Charlotte company that often acts out movies onstage, has committed another sacrilege. As they must know, Chekhov is sacred to many theatre artists, because Konstantin Stanislavski honed his realistic acting "method" on Chekhov's tragicomedies. And that method, in various American forms, permeates most of theatre and film acting today. But COTU has turned Chekhov's esteemed Uncle Vanya into a Saturday Night Live satire—making it outrageously funny, at least at first.

Chekhov insisted that his plays (about the foolish, passionate, self-sabotaging upper-class and their servants in rural Russia over a century ago) were comedies, though Stanislavski and later directors have tended to focus on the tragic elements. With this production, Cartee pushes Chekhov's play into Ionesco territory, finding its wild absurdities and adding more, across elite and popular, past and present cultures. The deep, complex emotions and relationships of the original become cartoonish. This may be initially entertaining, even liberating. But it then becomes tedious like a TV skit going on too long.

Lou Dalessandro, as Dr. Astrov, proves to be a handsome figure with mischievous charm, as he twists his missing mustache or teases the servants. But his passion to save a forest, to stop Vanya's suicide, or to confess his true feelings for Yelena (and against Sonya) gets lost in the translation to satire. Colby Davis puts great energy into portraying Vanya with reckless drunkenness, smarmy sorrow, and violent lust, as if being John Malkovich in revenge against Stanislavski. This evokes more sympathy for the actor, as entertainer, than for the character—especially in his crazy love of, grabbing at, and falling for Yelena. Annette Saunders as Yelena (married to the much older Professor) provides a stoic grace but does not show the twisted feelings within this character, as she poses for the gazes of various men around her, and helps or makes use of the plain-looking Sonya, who has a hopeless love for Astrov.

Likewise, the other actors fit the director's concept well, though that limits what they can do. James Lee Walker II, perhaps the most mutable actor I've seen in Charlotte, gives new meanings to Telegin, who is also known as "Waffles," due to his acne. Walker brings smooth black skin, big smiles, harmonica playing, and pick-pocketing to his trickster turns. Jim Esposito, as the Professor, gives a grotesque mirror to those of us who pose as knowing more than others, while our aging bodies undermine such arrogance. Caitlin Snead is absurdly young to play the old nanny, Marina, but that fits here, too. Zannah Kimbrel has studs in her lower lip, as Sonya (the Professor's daughter), perhaps connecting her motherless plain Jane to our time. And Charlotte Hampton, as Vanya's mom and Sonya's grandma, Maman, reads a big book entitled The Liberated Woman, pulls smaller books from her bosom, and reads steamy scenes from an Anne Rice novel during the scene changes.

The small Story Slam stage allows for two to three acting areas with minimal furniture. Prerecorded Russian music offers stirring spirits, more authentic than the show. (The night I went, Virgo Musik also provided a wonderfully lively hour of new American songs, with acoustic guitar and violin, prior to Vanya. I especially enjoyed the ghost ballads and the love-crush tango.) But a bill comes due from Stanislavki near the play's end—added by the director, as if admitting the guilty pleasures here, with a classic tragicomedy trimmed and twisted into soap opera.             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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PORGY AND BESS
Written by George Gershwin, DuBose & Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin
Directed by Charles Randolph Wright
Opera Carolina
Belk Theater
May 14 - 16, 2010

In the Age of Obama, do we need Porgy? The story of a crippled black man from Catfish Row in Charleston, who stands up to the evil Crown in order to win the love of Bess, yet loses her again to the trickster Sportin' Life, has many melodramatic stereotypes from another age. Blacks are poor, primitive, gambling fools, addicted to "happy dust" and violence, with pleasure-dancing at a church picnic, superstitions about death, and a collective cowering before the white man as "Boss." But tragic insights also emerge in this Gershwin classic from 1935, which features intriguing black characters, famous songs, and a powerful mix of jazz, blues, and opera, through the Jewish and African-American experiences of alienation.

The 75th Anniversary Tour of Porgy and Bess shows how far we've come in three-quarters of a century—if we cringe at the black caricatures in this opera, as adopted from the Heyward novel. Yet its music can still draw us into emotions that cross racial lines and historical periods. The overture of tooting horns evokes the chipper business of big city traffic (suggesting Sportin' Life's tempting of Bess). Then "Summertime" recalls the sweltering Southern heat, especially before air-conditioning, with its rapturous lure to slow down and enjoy livin' easy. The music may seem even more dated with the next song about Woman as an unreliable "sometime thing," while the men insist on their "right to play," while shooting craps on Saturday night.

But even here one might hear a tragic echo of events in the play and in history, involving blacks and Jews—when the men sing: "roll them bones." Porgy is mocked by Crown for being less than a man because of his crippled foot. He kneels on a cart to roll himself around. Crown suddenly kills Robbins during the crap game and the rest of the blacks are told by the white lawman to bury him by tomorrow or the health authorities will give the body to medical students to dissect. Later in the opera, a woman sings to the drug-dealer, Sportin' Life, about cutting him up, turning him inside-out, and skinning him. Such lyrics may reflect white views about blacks in 1935, but they are also eerily prescient of the monstrosities suffered by Jews at the hands of whites in the decade that followed.

The language in the lyrics (which also recalls minstrel show caricatures of blacks) is hard to catch when sung. "I Got Plenty of Nuttin'," or "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," may be familiar enough to follow, yet it helps that this show projects the lyrics above the stage. A bit more shocking, and thus intriguing, is Sportin' Life's song about Jonah, Moses, and the devil as a villain—that "ain't necessarily so"—as he rips up and stomps on the Bible. Likewise, when the exiled Crown returns, after capturing Bess on his island, he sings of defying God during a hurricane, wrestling with him (like Jacob with his angel) and now being "friends" with God, though he continues in his evil ways. Such existentialist twists offer deeper layers to the double love triangle around Bess and to the religious beliefs and material struggles of other characters in this black community.

There are many fine performers in this production. The strongest, as singer and actor, is perhaps Phillip Boykin in the role of Crown, showing the dangerous passions that are so tempting to Bess. But the night I went, there were several understudies in other lead roles—and a change between the acts in who played Sportin' Life. This was announced before the curtain rose, but then it got stuck part way up. It took several tries before the full view of the set was revealed. Yet this evoked audience more sympathies for the performers and the trials of their characters. The set and lighting were also compelling, with two-story wooden shacks showing their bone-like structures and various shades of sunset, or stormy skies, displayed over the water behind them.

Its overall melodrama may be cliché and the characters often stereotypical. Yet Porgy and Bess, a three-hour meditation on various historical, racial, romantic, and musical themes, deserves attention today. Looking back through the eyes of whites and blacks at their fantasies, passions, and mistakes helps us to see the differences and similarities that continue, even with a black man in the "White House."           Review by Mark Pizzato

Mark Pizzato is Professor of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte and author of Ghosts of Theatre and Cinema in the Brain, Theatres of Human Sacrifice, and Inner Theatres of Good and Evil. 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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ANIMAL FARM
Book by George Orwell
Adapted for the stage by Nelson Bond
Directed by Mark Sutton
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
Wachovia Playhouse
May 13-15, 2010

Most of us don’t get through high school without reading Animal Farm by George Orwell. He found it difficult to find a publisher for his political satire of communism when first written, so of course, today it is a classic. We often appreciate writers more in retrospect when their ideas are ahead of their time.

Seeing the play at Children’s Theatre reminds me why it’s lasted. It’s not just about that particular political system, it’s about the very human inability to resist being corrupted, as in “...if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” And that can apply to anyone, any government, anywhere.

The story begins at Manor Farm when Old Major (Aubrey McGrath), an honored old boar, calls a meeting of the animals to rise up against the farmer, Mr. Jones, who mistreats them. His plea that “all animals are equal” appeals to their sense of justice, and they soon drive out Mr. Jones. The future looks bright for “Animalism” as they draw up seven commandments to ensure that the animals stand together against the enemy, humans.

The pigs, Snowball (Ian Fermy) who is the idealistic pig, and Napoleon (Kayla Carter) who is the practical pig begin to organize and run the farm. As often happens, idealism is crushed under the weight of alliances and power grabs as Squealer (Chloé Aktas), the persuasive pig, sides with Napoleon and they drive out Snowball. The essentials of subjugating a group follow as power lust emerges and the rest of the animals are manipulated, end up working harder for less food, and are finally subject to arrest and elimination if they are perceived to pose any threat to the new power structure. What is finally established is much worse than the original situation.

The high school Ensemble Company and technical staff, under the direction of Mark Sutton, have put on another impressive production. The utilitarian set design by Mr. Sutton is enough to suggest a variety of scenes. The lighting by Hallie Gray supports that nicely with shadows, and various light settings. The costumes are simple and consist of t-shirts, fatigue-like pants and sticks used as hooves.

This version tends to be wordy, which often happens when adapting fiction into play form; the dialogue feels repetitive, which causes it to lose punch as the expected lines are delivered. This is no reflection on the acting. Kudos to the Ensemble Company actors for learning all those lines without faltering. All the actors stayed in character throughout, which is significant. It is one thing to do an acting exercise when the director tells you to play a cat for five minutes; it’s another when you have to sustain a character for a full-length play using just one prop and your own physicality.

This group of young actors works well together, and all do a fine job with some notable performances by Ian Fermy as Snowball, Will Davis as Boxer, Kayla Carter as Napoleon, Chloé Aktas as Squealer, Rachel Tate as Muriel, and Luke Pizzato (also the assistant director) as Benjamin.

It is heartening to see Children’s Theatre not only bringing high level productions to Charlotte, but also nurturing exceptional young talent in our community.
Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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EVITA
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Glenn T. Griffin
Queen City Theatre Company
Duke Energy Theatre
April 29 – May 16, 2010

The musical Evita based loosely on the life of Eva Duarte de Peron opened on Broadway in 1978. It is, I am happy to say, as fresh now as it was then. So many musicals begin to show their age, but there is something timeless here. The musical recounts the rise to power and influence of Eva through any means necessary. Rice and Webber are clearly critical of her life and works, and director Glenn T. Griffin, afer a visit to Buenos Aires, says she remains a controversial figure today, viewed either as Madonna or whore. Whether or not the musical is historically accurate is immaterial; it is a fascinating exploration of the dangers and rewards of unchecked ambition. It is insistently enigmatic, and Queen City’s pared down production lets us pay full attention to what matters most—Eva Duarte de Peron.

Glenn T. Griffin’s decision to set the musical in a non-specific time sometime between now and then is effective. Combined with Kristian Wedolowski’s simple metal set (a collection of scaffolding and two rolling stair units), the musical is almost Brechtian in its simplicity. We are not to be distracted by beautiful costumes or sets, but instead we are to focus on the narrative and the political musings of our narrator, Che.

I’m always pleased when a company takes the chance producing what is usually a larger-scaled musical in a more intimate space. Sitting in the Duke Energy Theatre just inches away from the ensemble, I could really appreciate the tight harmonies Webber is known for. Each and every member of the chorus sang beautifully. Anyone in theatre knows that the chorus is where the real work is done (no slight meant to the wonderful leads in this production)—the chorus sings more, dances more, and spends more time on stage than any other person. In the Duke Energy Theatre the chorus is under tremendous scrutiny and I never saw a single slip. This is an exhausting and meticulous score and they nailed every number.

Steven B. Martin, who is always a pleasure to see on stage, is wonderfully befuddled as Juan Peron. Webber and Rice’s Perron is a man who, left to his own devices, would probably have sunk into obscurity without the prodding of Eva. Martin’s initial attraction to her and then his outright obsession are nicely underplayed, and, as always, he carries a song well.

Peter E. Guarascio plays the probably apocryphal role of Agustin Magaldi, the first of the men Eva uses to get where she wants. He is wonderfully sleazy.

Kristin Hinds has the enviable role of the mistress. It is a strange moment where a chorus member steps out and sings the beautiful “Another Suitcase in Another Hall.” No doubt meant to show the difference between being just a mistress and being ruthless, the song also shows the emotional cost of searching for identity by being the plaything of another.

But, of course, the success of the production depends on two key roles being acted and sung to perfection: the role of Che (transformed by Harold Prince, the first director, into Che Gueverra but later returned to his “everyman” role); and the role of Evita.

Kristian Wedolowski is a wonderful Che. He sings better than I have ever heard him, and his passion and empathy are evoked in nearly every song. Che, in this production, is a foil for Evita. He is the sentimental moralist. In other productions I have witnessed, Che is characterized as the voice of reason, the outraged conscience of Argentina and the world at large. In Griffin’s production, Che is as flawed in his sentimentality as Eva is in her ruthlessness. They are two incomplete sides and an effective ruler would need to find somewhere to exist in between. Wedolowski’s most poignant moments are between his songs. Watching his transformation from bemused follower to disappointed cynic is heartbreaking.

Whitney Drury’s Evita is nothing short of phenomenal. When first we see her at the start of the show, in long shaggy brown curls and a peasant dress, one can hardly believe she will be the lead. But as soon as she sings, we are left with no more doubts. The role is a difficult one because Webber and Rice clearly have no empathy for this woman. They are interested in her comeuppance, and are more interested in showing why she deserves it than in layering her character. It is the job of the performer to find or create those moments of empathy. Drury does this as often as she can, showing a woman who has discovered that a woman can only have power if she uses flattery and sex. Like Wedolowski, it is Drury’s moments of realization between the songs where we realize, along with her, that she has sacrificed too much—that the game’s stakes are too high.

Ultimately, what made this story relevant to me more than the political discourse on Peronism, is the exploration of unearned celebrity. Clearly in our age of reality television, Evita can be compared to Kate Gosselin, Paris Hilton, any of the Kardashians, even Angelina Jolie. Her fame and her accomplishments are not real. She is a product of self promotion and hype and she cannot exist unless she is seen and adored.

Technically, all elements, as usual, were exemplary. Alyson Lowe’s choreography made good use of the limited space. Marty Gregory and the “Evita” band were fantastic, and Emily Eudy’s lights made the simple staging and costumes look beautiful every moment.

The two hour production is brisk and invigorating. You’ve never seen an “Evita” like this. Make sure you don’t miss it.             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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THE ROAD TO MECCA
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Louise Robertson
The Warehouse Performing Arts Center
April 30 - May 15, 2010
Special Regional Review

This production has quite a pedigree. It's rare here to see a play by Athol Fugard, the world's most famous white African dramatist. It's also rare to see a senior actress on a Charlotte stage with the background of Divina Cook, who has performed extensively in New York and in regional theatres around the US. It's even rarer to have a Fugard play, with such an actress in the lead, directed by a British artist who has performed in London's West End and in Cape Town, South Africa, near the play's origins.

But we have that opportunity now and it's worth it for Charlotte residents to drive 15 minutes north of I-85 to experience The Road to Mecca. The recently opened Warehouse PAC in Cornelius (run by friends of mine) is a small space in a transformed office building. For the set of this play, a team of visual artists created the inside of Helen Martins's home, with walls turned into canvases for bright slashes of colors and sparkling fragments of glass. There are also mirrors with ornate frames, shelves with vases and owl figurines, and many candles for the tables—reflecting Helen's fantastic artworks outside in her yard, which are evoked during the play in the spectator's imagination.

Cook portrays Helen with boundless energy, childlike playfulness, transcendent joy, and yet a profound sense of terror. Fugard gradually reveals what terrifies this elderly artist so much: living alone after her husband's death, her distance from others in the rural Afrikaner village, the rocks thrown at her sculptures by children, the fire from her candles that caught on her curtains and nearly burned down her home, and the "darkness" against which she lights her many candles. Eventually, Helen explains that she has lost her faith in God, that such a term has become merely a pebble (like "heaven" or "hell") in contrast to her artistic visions and icons. Many in the Charlotte area might be fascinated with this old woman's existential crisis, as her trust shifts from the community of Calvinists she knew all her life, to a minister who moved there 20 years ago, to a young British woman who visits her, to something else within herself, despite the frailty of her body and mind.

Tonya Bludsworth performs Elsa, the aging artist's lifeline to youthful independence, who just drove 12 hours to visit once more, because of a letter Helen sent with suicidal thoughts. Tom Scott plays Marius, the minister who offers Helen a room in the church-run retirement home with kindness and concern, yet also a controlling desire to return her to the fold and reverse her backyard "idolatry." Both of these performers express a powerful, yet subtle range of emotions, in their battle to free or to save Helen. Though Marius does not appear onstage until the end of Act One, his plan is discussed by Helen and Elsa prior to that. After he appears, as the villain in Elsa's view, new details emerge that shift audience sympathies to his side and then back again against him—making him change his position as well.

The play involves various social issues, in addition to care of the elderly: feminism (with Elsa encouraging Helen's rebellion against the patriarchal Marius), racism (with Marius expressing shock at Helen's attachment to a black girl who used to visit her), nationalism (with the British Helen criticizing Afrikaner ways in 1974), and religion. But it's the personalities involved—carefully crafted by the playwright, actors, and director—that make The Road to Mecca worth a trip Cornelius. Although it becomes toward the end, with a warm theatre and a two and a half hour show, like a marathon to Mecca, it is also the pilgrimage of a lifetime.          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 BOYS NEXT DOOR
By Tom Griffin
Directed by Phil Taylor
Old Courthouse Theatre
April 29 – May 9, 2010
Special Regional Review

Although The Boys Next Door was first written and produced in the 1980s, this play about four mentally challenged men is relevant and holds up well. The reason is the humanity of the characters that the playwright, Tom Griffin, has managed to impart to each one. Still, a director has to be careful that an approach doesn’t cross the line and become either overly-sincere mush or mocking disrespect. No worries here. Director Phil Taylor has created a production whose tone and pacing is just right.

May happens to be Mental Health Month, and Next to Normal, a musical about a woman dealing with bi-polar disorder and depression won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Though this is encouraging, plays with social issue themes struggle for recognition which makes The Boys Next Door all the more impressive.

The four boys live together in an apartment (within an apartment complex) for individuals with challenges. (The word retarded and other language is used that is now considered politically incorrect, but is not offensive here.) They are: Arnold (Ron Seabolt), a marginally mentally challenged, though anxiety-ridden man; Norman (Mike Curtis), who is able to hold down a job at a donut shop, and has a girlfriend named Sheila (Tammi Shumate) who is also challenged; Lucien (Jacob Brayton), who has the most severe deficits functioning at most at a five year old level; and Barry (Jamison Middlemiss), who has schizophrenia and thinks he is a golf pro. Jack (Jon Bowlby) supervises their care and is also the narrator, often speaking directly to the audience.

The play takes place over a short period of time, enough to give the audience the necessary information to understand Jack’s frustration as an empathetic, excellent caregiver who tries to help them function independently in an insensitive world. Each character has issues that make his life difficult: Arnold is intimidated by others, often wanting to move to Russia; Norman gains weight because he can’t resist the donuts he gets at the shop, and longs for a normal life with Sheila; Lucien’s benefits are threatened because the authorities think he’s faking his condition; and Barry has normal intelligence but is delusional and psychologically fragile.

At first, the actions of the men and their limited/distorted thinking keep them at arms length, but over the course of the play their struggles become more understandable and more poignant. Several scenes are touching. During a fantasy sequence, Norman and Sheila dance as if they were “normal” instead of the awkward side step they do most of the time. During his senate testimony, Lucien transforms to “normal” by pulling off his Spiderman tie and speaks about his condition in a fully functional manner. One can only imagine the heartbreak of a parent imagining what their child might have been like if it were not for his unfortunate circumstances. Another scene, when Barry’s abusive father Mr. Klemper (John Xenakis) comes for a visit after nine years, is disturbing in its implications.

The show is well cast, with everyone fully committed. It is obvious Mr. Taylor has worked hard with his actors to help them be as authentic as possible given the difficulty of portraying such characters. Ron Seabolt is able to bring humor to the obsessive, high-strung Arnold. Jacob Brayton is touching as the sad, lost Lucien in his first appearance on a stage since high school. Mike Curtis is sweet Norman, someone who will never fulfill his dream of having a family. He has a good rapport with Tammi Shumate who does a fine job as Sheila, who is also limited by her deficits. Jamison Middlemiss gives a moving, balanced performance as the delusional Barry. Jon Bowlby fully inhabits Jack. It’s crucial that he connect with the audience because we’re seeing most of the show from his point of view. His performance is pitch perfect.

The supporting actors are also to be commended: Gene Saine, Evelyn Foley, Katie Warlick, Virginia Tracy, Rebekah Haridson, and John Xenakis who doesn’t hold back Mr. Klemper’s despicable behavior.

The stage at the Old Courthouse Theatre is wide, and each side is used for asides and monologues from different characters. Often, props were brought on and off for these few lines, which tended to slow down the progress of the play. There were also a couple of technical glitches that I’m sure will be corrected.

Overall, this is an affecting and heartfelt production.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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GOODNIGHT MOON
From the original book
Written by Margaret Wise Brown
Illustrations by Clement Hurd
Stage Adaptation by Chad Henry
Directed & Choreographed by Ron Chisholm
Musical Direction by Drina Keen
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
McColl Family Theatre
April 16-May 9, 2010

If you’ve ever read the classic Goodnight Moon to your children, or you are reading it to them at night now, you are probably wondering how the short rhyming verse can be extended into a one-hour play. I will tell you: with great imagination. Chad Henry adapted the book cleverly by keeping the elements the readers know and love, and then adding others.

Bunny (Ashby Blakely) still isn’t tired, and the Old Lady (Tanya McClellan) still says “hush” but the resistance to going to sleep is helped along by moving set pieces and various characters who come and go. Mouse (Karen Christensen) and Bunny are precocious young ones who mock the Old Lady as she tries to calm them down in the Great Green Room. Yet, the bendable light, moving mittens, lighted doll house, and moveable pictures keep Bunny going at a pretty frantic pace.

Hey Diddle Diddle’s Dish & Spoon, the Cat and the Fiddle, three tap dancing Bears and their chairs, a Tooth Fairy in natty white tails, a talking clock, and Clarabelle the Cow who’s trying to jump over the moon all come to life. These characters are more enjoyable because of the added funny side-comments for adults.

Children’s Theatre always does an excellent technical job with set design, but I have to say that this set by Ryan Wineinger is one of my favorites. Not only does it incorporate the beloved illustrations of Clement Hurd in the original book, but the breakaway scenery adds another level to the fantasy and sophistication of the show. (How many children think inanimate objects come to life while they are sleeping?) A huge moon and thousands of stars are mysterious to Bunny and Mouse, and millions of children stare at them every night.

As for the cast who all sing and dance, they couldn’t be better under the excellent direction of Ron Chisholm who also choreographed the show (love the tap dancing Bears). Ashby Blakely’s Bunny is mischievous and ideally captures a young child’s humorous rebellion. Karen Christensen gives voice to perfect high-pitched mouse sounds if they existed. Tanya McClellan is always an asset to a production, and her Old Lady strikes the right tone as indulgent yet firm with her charges. The rest of the cast play multiple characters. Jon Parker Douglas so easily changes from Kitten, Dog, to Bear and is a physically gifted actor. Matthew Keffer shows versatility, too, as a Bear, Cow, and especially a comic turn as the Tooth Fairy. Jenny Chen manages to be graceful in the Dish & Spoon costume, no easy feat. And Mark Sutton, coming off his success as Long John Silver in Treasure Island brings an edge to the face of the clock, and a vaudeville-like Cat with his fiddle.

Kudos to the technical staff and crew: music direction by Drina Keen and her musicians, outstanding costumes by Jennifer Matthews, sound by Elisheba Ittoop, lighting design by Eric Winkenwerder, and all the folks behind the scenes.

Most of the children in the audience were watching attentively, but a few of the youngest did have trouble remaining quiet.

I must admit to a bias. I read Goodnight Moon to my three children and didn’t mind reading it to them again and again. I don’t know how this production could be improved; it’s magical in every way.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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 COMMEDIA KING ARTHUR
By Lane Riosley
Directed by Steven Ivey
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
Wachovia Playhouse
April 23 – May 2, 2010

The commedia dell’arte style of traveling artists that began in Italy centuries ago is perfectly suited to the Tarradiddle Players who tour the southeast with 400 (!) shows a year. The basic story of King Arthur is supplemented with laughable props, clever costume pieces, asides, comments, and witty comebacks among the actors. The actors themselves, though, are the most amusing device as no situation is too contrived or stage direction too silly to be performed. They travel best when they travel light and let their talent speak for itself.

What’s entertaining for the audience is to see the play from inception, when they argue about who’s playing what part, to reading from the “Big-A-Book” of stories as narration, to the end when the adventures are resolved. You can just imagine the petty annoyances of people who spend more time on the road with each other than with their families; the human comedy of that situation causes more than few laughs. Yet, it’s all in good fun and the four Tarradiddle Players: Salvador Garcia, Leslie Ann Giles, Darlene Parker, and Stephen Seay are delightful and talented individually, and as an ensemble.

Director Steven Ivey plays up the buffoonery of the dell’arte style while giving each actor chances to shine throughout the production as he/she plays multiple roles. Guys can play girls, girls can play kings as well as princesses, and anyone can play a magician, ogre, or dragon. And it works.

Adults as well as children in the audience were laughing out loud at the antics on stage. (When Dads are laughing you know you’re on to something.) This one hour show is the kind that gives parents and kids the experience of spending fun time together. The audience is always an important part of a performance. Their stage direction might read, “Exit, smiling.”              Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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END DAYS
By Deborah Zoe Laufer
Directed by Chip Decker
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
April 9-May 1, 2010

Why do so many people, especially in the Bible Belt, find joy in believing the end of the world is near? This paradox is explored with graceful wit in a new comedy, which also resonates with the trauma of 9/11, at the recent turn of the millennium, when the world did not end, as predicted.

Each of the play's four main characters is transformed by the end, even if the world is not. The most cheerful spirit belongs to Nelson (Joshua Ozro Lucero), who has lost his parents after his father's suicide, gets beaten up at school due to his habitual Elvis outfit and incessant guitar ballads, and yet follows a girl home after she repeatedly rejects him. Nelson's persistence in connecting, with a notebook of polite questions, revives her father from a morbid depression and wins her love through his enthusiasm for astrophysics. He thus brings her dad back to life, even if he can't resurrect his own, and finds the full family he'd lost, which helps him let go of the Elvis suit, though he gets to keep the belt. Lucero plays this obnoxiously earnest character with compelling charm, making his loquacious absurdity into an almost divine virtue. (Disclosure: Lucero was a student of mine at UNC-Charlotte, but he learned his fine acting skills from others there, since I teach courses in theatre history, drama, theory, and playwriting.)

The most bitter of the quartet is Nelson's heartthrob, Rachel (Meagan Douglas). Her Goth whiteface makeup, red eye shadow, and black costume with cross necklace only begin to indicate how pessimistic she is about her screwed up family and the foolish Nelson trying to talk with her when she just wants to be left alone. But they're both new to their high school and eventually Nelson persuades her to read A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, his favorite book. Through her lonely pot haze, she's visited by this visionary quadriplegic physicist with the robot voice, who helps her figure out her new admirer and her parental baggage, as she travels through space and time to a fresh experience of family. Douglas performs the sour Rachel with a wry energy that makes her conversion both believable and enchanting—as well as comical, with her darting, skeptical eyes.

Her father, Arthur (Lamar Wilson), is even more of a surprise as he goes from lethargic oaf, barely able to raise his head from the breakfast table, or choose a box of cereal in the grocery store, to a chipper enthusiast for family games and party food. Yet behind such a change is a poignant past: he used to be an intense business man with many people working under him, until he left them behind in the Twin Towers' rubble, but continued to be a wreck himself at home for another couple years. Arthur is haunted by his trauma and yet, with Nelson's help, finds meaning again through his Jewish heritage and return to tenderness with his wife. Wilson makes the most of these moments, as his character loses and regains a soul, despite his refusal to join in his wife's passionate beliefs.

With her Jesus joy barely masking a much deeper anxiety, Sylvia (Allison Lamb) provides an all-to-real caricature of Evangelical confidence and desperation. She not only carries a large poster showing Jesus's loving embrace, as she finds purpose in her mission to convert the public with Christian pamphlets. She also brings her imaginary friend, her i-Jesus, with her on her pilgrimage. (Michael Sharpe plays both Hawking and Jesus, with an uncanny aura.) But Jesus leaves her in order to return in his Second Coming, which she interprets from his eye blinks to be on the coming Wednesday. In this she finds a resolution to the world's craziness and yet a crazier zeal to convert her husband and daughter, before it's too late, fearing that they'll be "left behind." Lamb evokes not only laughter here, but sympathy for this controlling mom, suffering so much from the sudden catastrophe of 9/11 that she re-creates it at a cosmic level.

The set for this show (designed by Stan Peal) deserves mention as well. Cracked and fragmented walls of the Steinberg home are frozen in time, breaking off and flying upward, along with drawer fronts and chip bowls, into the star-spotted darkness. Yet the family room sofa and TV, plus the kitchen table and chairs, seem normal and stable at the centers of the home, even as it flies apart at its edges.

This satire of manners may be too sharp-toothed for some in Charlotte, evoking painful recognition or defensiveness more than light-hearted laughter. Yet its emotional insights provide a valuable questioning about our need for religious and scientific saviors, for the young to conform or rebel, and for an end to daily anxiety. The striking set, cogent directing, and ironic performances remind us to look to life and family for joy and meaning, instead of making hell on earth and heaven elsewhere—because we want a cosmic climax to make us significant.              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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BILL COSBY
North Carolina Blumenthal
Performing Arts Center
Belk Theater
April 25, 2010

Bill Cosby and wonderful memories of the Huxtables and Fat Albert and I Spy helped pack the Belk Theater on this beautiful April Sunday afternoon. But the 90 minutes the wildly enthusiastic audience spent with this amazing 72 year old were not at all about past glories. In fact, not one word was spoken about his varied and myriad achievements.

Instead, he strolled on stage in crocs and a “Hello Friends” sweatshirt and opened with “Sorry about your basketball team.” Which rocked the house. And we didn’t stop laughing as he sat and told us stories for the next hour and a half.

He revisited the familiar territory of his childhood when if you told a cop, “My father hit me,” then the cop would hit you too. Cosby became a six year old listening to the radio in the projects of Philadelphia, wanting the fabulous race car that could be his for 15 Cents and one box top. He carried us along as he became a 13 year old being advised by his father about his first wet dream.

He pondered on the missing pages in Genesis, all the stuff that they left out in the story of Adam and Eve. And then he explained how the dumbing down of men began with beer. That led to marvelous stories of his wife of 46 years involving the thermostat and some very irritating nose hairs. He finished up with an absolutely hysterical routine about a trip to the dentist.

In short, the stories were all over the place and all wonderful. It was like spending time with the world’s funniest grandfather. His facial expressions, reflected on a big screen were worth the price of admission. What a great way to spend an afternoon and as we exited the theater we were all in an exceedingly good mood.

Thank you Mr. Cosby.              Review by Laura Pfizenmayer

Laura Pfizenmayer is a South Carolina playwright and freelance writer. She is a partner in Hometown Promotions, LLC. Laura is a member of the Dramatists Guild.

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VENUS & ADONIS
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tony Wright
AvantVanGuard Late Night Series at
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
April 9-17, 2010

Love hurts. Literally, it turns out, in director Tony Wright’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Venus & Adonis. Mr. Wright gives the audience some background about the narrative poem written in 1593 when theatres were closed for a few years because of health issues.

What’s a genius playwright to do with his creative juices? Shakespeare always had ideas for his writings because he took them from other sources. Yet, his brilliance lies in creating something wholly new out of whatever stories existed. Here, he looked to mythology and the love goddess Venus and her beloved mortal Adonis, and turns it around by having her pursue him. Myths themselves tell tales of gods with out-sized emotions: love, jealousy, anger, etc. The difference is that gods and goddesses had at least some control over destiny.

All 1194 lines of Shakespeare’s erotic poem are spoken by the actors, so please understand this is a serious presentation. That’s not to say that it lacks comic, sensual, and original elements. The most intriguing may be an all female cast. Mr. Wright has chosen to portray the characters in full fetish fashion, including an assortment of dominatrix garb—-corsets, stiletto heels, leather collars, chains, riding crops, and whips. The direction suggests a variety of BDSM activities (i.e. bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) including the use of restraints and flogging, emphasizing an underlying theme of sexual obsession rather than a sugary, though passionate, love. I didn’t find this off-putting; but it was distracting at times until the nature of the poem, the lines, and the narrative become the focus. A line from the poem even tells the audience, “Venus has fallen in love (or lust) with him...”

Venus (Jennifer Barnette), the beautiful goddess, sought often by others finds herself unable to get much of a response from the beautiful young Adonis (Leslie Beckham). Adonis’ only focus is hunting boar. She woos Adonis variously with words, anger, tantrums, comic frustration, pleading, tears, whatever she thinks will win over the beauty, but encounters only resistance. Eventually, sex if not love, allows her some victory, though it’s clear Adonis will not be controlled and intends to hunt the next day. Venus predicts tragedy for his obsession with the chase. Sometimes even the gods are powerless in stopping humans from their own particular fixations.

The language is challenging though the actors speak them with authority. This is especially true of Jennifer Barnette who has the majority of the lines. She is believable as the smitten Venus, and pretty/sexy enough to be cast as a goddess. Leslie Beckham plays Adonis with a shy, awkward quality that fits the character. She has only a few lines, though in attempting to keep her voice lowered, they were, at times, not easy to hear. Karina Roberts, just coming off her excellent performance in Evie’s Waltz at CAST, is the Orange Haired Mistress and one of the narrators (and horse), and does her supporting job well. Courtney Wright as the Black Haired Mistress and narrator is confident with the language and helps substantially to anchor the production.

The question is: Is this interpretation, with the use of sexual fetish, as well as female on female action, too distracting from the story and power of the words? Or does the mix of styles enhance the subtext and give a complex dimension to the poem? In the end, Venus curses mortal love, including “sorrow and jealousy, falseness and fraud, suspicion. . .and “they that love best their loves shall not enjoy". Personally, I think Shakespeare would approve.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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JERSEY BOYS:
THE STORY OF FRANKIE VALLI & THE FOUR SEASONS

Book by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice
Music by Bob Gaudio
Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Directed by Des McAnuff
Choreography by Sergio Trujillo
Music Direction by Ron Melrose
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Belk Theater
March 31 – April 18, 2010

What a story. You didn’t have to be there, or grow up with doo-wop music, to appreciate Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. Ultimately, it’s the human journey of ambition, weakness, wreckage and redemption that makes this musical biography so affecting.

Coming from a lower middle class Italian New Jersey neighborhood there are few ways out of a lifetime of blue collar jobs. A teenage Frankie Castelluccio (Joseph Leo Bwarie), soon renamed Valli, in minor scrapes with the law, has a gift that can get him out, his voice. This is recognized by a small time hood and local musician named Tommy DeVito (Matt Bailey) who, always looking for an angle, recognizes Frankie’s talent.

The making of The Four Seasons is a complex story about guys from the neighborhood who get together, split up, reconstitute with different musicians, and survive mob connections, road sins, personal problems, and gambling debts. Frankie, Tommy, and Nick Massi (Steve Gouveia) start to make headway, but they want a fourth singer since “trios are out.” The most important addition, and what sets them off on the long road to fame, is a teenage songwriter named Bob Gaudio who at 15 wrote a hit called “Short, Shorts” and is brought into the mix by Joe Pesci. Yes, the actor. The blending of Frankie’s singing and Bob’s songwriting, well, it’s one of those magical combinations that can’t be explained. (Amazingly, a handshake agreement of 40 years ago keeps them partners to this day.)

One of the best things about the show is there is no attempt to whitewash less attractive qualities of the individual members, the group, or the music business. Compromises constantly interrupt success, and it’s this cruel cost to the men that evokes the audience’s empathy, especially when Frankie’s family situation turns tragic.

Director Des McAnuff’s choice of emphasizing the lives of the singers, rather than just a concert of The Four Seasons’ catchy pop music is what makes it rise above the usual jukebox musicals that have become popular Broadway fare. Snappy dialogue balanced with heavy issues by writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice relieve the tension and give it weight where it is needed. The story is metaphorically told in the four seasons, from spring to winter, and gives each member the opportunity to tell the story from his point of view.

Mr. McAnuff uses every bit of the utilitarian set design by Klara Zieglerova. Also notable is the lighting design by Howell Binkley (though blinding light directed at the audience doesn’t seem necessary), costume design by Jess Goldstein, and sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy which is especially important in a musical. The projection designs by Michael Clark evoking a pop art style are fun and clever. And, be prepared for some strong Jersey-style language.

The show opens with an entertaining misdirection of sorts via a modern funky rendition of “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”, or “Ces Soirées-La”, performed by a French Rap group to perhaps show the decades old music can be made current. From there, the music veers into the boys’ early formative years, evoking the period with such tunes as “Silhouettes”, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, “Earth Angel”, and “Sunday Kind of Love”. The boys eventually find themselves in the studio as session backup singers, but when they meet Bob Gaudio, their musical journey really gets on track. It’s not until well into the first act that we’re treated to “Sherry”, their first chart-topping hit single. From there, the hits just keep rolling, including “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, and “Walk Like a Man”, which gave the boys three number one hits in a row.

The second act opens with “Big Man in Town”, followed by “Beggin” and “Stay”. “Bye Bye Baby” and “C’mon Marianne” lead up to the point where, after the group has been reconstituted due to member departures, Frankie Valli is launching a solo career, highlighted by “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”.

Rather than doing an impersonation of Frankie Valli, which would be next to impossible anyway given his unique style, Joseph Leo Bwarie inhabits Frankie as man committed to the group and striving for success. His voice does not quite attain the soulful falsetto power of the original, yet his singing and acting convey the true nature of Mr. Valli’s talent. Ryan Jesse as Bob Gaudio shows the initial teenage awkwardness yet savvy business mind of someone who is smart about his abilities. The relationship between Frankie and Bob is vital to their success as musicians and people and a strong element of the story. Matt Bailey is effective as Tommy DeVito the guy you dislike, and yet without him there would be no Four Seasons. Though his personal failings cause trouble for everyone, loyalty won’t allow Frankie to bail on him. Steve Gouveia as Nick Massi, from the original Broadway cast, is solid as the early vocal arranger for the group and guy who goes along to get along. Jonathan Hadley, who is from Charlotte, plays Bob Crewe with style. It’s a kick to see one of our talented actors on the Belk stage. The entire ensemble provide excellent back-up in multiple roles.

Jersey Boys is a thoroughly entertaining musical that should not be missed. It’s a compliment to the talent of all involved that it works so well, not just because of the music, but because of the legacy of the musicians, and imperfect men, whose lives are so honestly portrayed in the show.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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EMBRACEABLE ME
By Victor L. Cahn
Directed by Eric Parness
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Stage Door Theatre
March 27-April 17, 2010

Superb acting, great script, witty comedy, and love story. What more could one ask for? This new 90-minute play from Off-Broadway (using local actors) clips along with nostalgia, conflicts, and kisses, but it is not just hollow entertainment. It's an intriguing, sharply written, character study of how opposites may attract—and yet remain apart for many years—as separate careers keep soul mates from meeting fully.

Since the ancient Greeks and Romans, romantic comedy has evoked audience desires for lovers to overcome obstacles and reach the "happily ever after together" ending. But instead of patriarchs blocking the way, this play (by a Shakespeare scholar at Skidmore College, who is also a New York actor) reveals subtle twists of fear and desire that foil our deepest passions today. Parents cannot forbid a daughter or son from marrying. Yet friction in the parents' marriage, plus pressures to prove one's value in the work world, may make the young doubt whether love and family are ever viable beyond just sex and friendship.

Remarkably, this play is mostly back-story. But it still makes every moment compelling in the present. It begins with Edward (Dave Blamy) and Allison (Johanna Jowett) introducing themselves to the audience and then meeting at his home in rural isolation outside New York, where he's a lonely writer, while she's a TV news reporter who loves to travel and recently became engaged. The two actors offer amazing subtleties of facial expressions, poses, and gestures, as well as vocal intonations and words, to convey the depth of background in this relationship, just in the play's initial crisis—and then even more as they present the full story.

The characters speak their private thoughts directly to the audience and sometimes comment on each other's asides, for further comic effects and insights. But what reality do they have then? As deftly staged by Eric Parness, this play presents characters who are both ideal and real. They exist in the desires, associations, and memories of the audience—needing the audience to make them real—as they reflect upon the twists of fate and current choices that may part or pair them.

The play's title seems based on the 1928 Gershwin song, "Embraceable You," filtered through Women's Lib and the Me Generation. Yet it also expresses a fundamental dilemma for many couples today, with father no longer knowing best and women not tied to the home. Who gives up what, embracing your goals instead of mine, so we can be together? And can I embrace the flaws in you, which initially drew us together to help each other, without trying to make you more like me?

Jowett and Blamy are two of the best actors in Charlotte and they show it here. In an intricate dance of desire and distrust, of tease and torment, they shift into key scenes of the past, transforming their bodies, minds, and interactions into different ages and stages of a love-life. They evoke the initial college meeting of these two, their friendship as writers in the dorm (despite very different personalities), their developing plans and sexual tensions, their longing for each other while apart, their passionate week in a cabin together, their separate careers, and their critical decision (building across a decade or more) of whether to embrace in marriage or let go.

The finely designed set (by Gillian Albinski) facilitates this staging of many places and time-points. Shy, orderly Edward has his bookshelf, chair, and a small couch in dark earth tones. Outgoing and messy Allison has a tiny dorm space on the other side with bright colored chairs and desk, plus clothes strewn around. Yet these spaces and the open area between (backed by a curtain suggesting a sliding glass door) become various other places also, including the cabin of that one passionate week, a college cafeteria where Allison taunts Edward's faculty friends, the woods where they walk, hashing out difference, and the home he gives her a key to, as a step toward what they both want most.

Whether you're in a relationship like this now, or you remember such a passion which might come again, or you just love great theatre, don't miss this chance to see it. It's a great sign that the Blumenthal not only brings New York shows on tour to Charlotte, but also develops new work here, using local actors of the same top caliber. Now they need our support—to make the ideal real.              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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EPIC SKETCH
By Michelle Brzycki, John Cunningham, Mimi Harkness,
Aby Pagan, Joel Sumner, Matt Webster, and Shon Wilson
Shon Wilson's Sketch Theatre Acting Company
Duke Energy Theatre
Spirit Square
April 9-10, 2010

If you like Mad TV and Saturday Night Live, there's a show onstage in Charlotte that's just as mad and even more live. Shon Wilson's Sketch Theatre Acting Company is following up its initial offering last summer with parodies of epic scenes in American history and recent celebrities. The show satirizes our current ideals of race, politics, literature, TV, and sports—evoking at times more bites than belly laughs. Yet the funniest bits, especially those performed by Matt Webster and Joel Sumner, are worth waiting for.

Full disclosure: Webster is a professor and Sumner a student in the Theatre Department at UNC-Charlotte, where I teach. But I still say their caricatures are not to be missed, especially when they demonstrate how two drunken Canadians invented curling, as an Olympic sport, and how Shakespeare might be revised by his agent today (in scripts written by Brzycki and Webster, respectively, yet not so respectfully). Other highlights of this 90 minute show include Sarah Palin with her interior decorator in the Oval Office, Herman Melville being mocked in a bar for his big fish stories, a TV game show about Americans trying to become Mexican, President Bush reacting to 9-11 by looking for his sling shot, two of the original Charlie's Angels returning as senior sleuths, Merlin reporting on the knights of the round table around the seductive Guinevere, the wife of Thomas Jefferson getting revenge for his black offspring, and various former celebrities becoming spokes-models for strange products.

The show moves quickly with many brief skits, becoming faster and more furious in the second act. This group may not be ready for prime time, or to compete with Second City. But they commit fully to roasting the mythic elite and media egos, so the rest of us can revel and rebel.              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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EVIE'S WALTZ
By Carter Lewis
Directed by Michael R. Simmons
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
March 4 - April 3, 2010

Someone's always watching you: Our Father, Big Brother, Yo Mama, or their superego views which you've absorbed. But in this play, it's the next generation who's watching, through the crosshairs.

The lobby of CAST gives a glimpse of what the troubled teens in the play have been excluded from: high school lockers, team logo, class president poster, and composition books. The play's set (designed by Robert L. Simmons) shows a Better Homes and Gardens ideal of a patio with stone floor, table and chairs, tasteful bar, and wooden rafter overhang, plus the home's back windows and glass encased doors. Between that high school lobby and home patio set, the audience sits—in the crosshairs like the parents at their barbeque, and yet also with a view through the gun-sight.

The parents, Clay and Grace, are edgy from the start, teasing and tense with each other. Thom Tonetti and Kristy Morley play these characters as always bickering, perhaps missing the subtler possibilities in their love-to-hate relationship. But when Evie arrives, played by Karina Roberts-Caporino, the show's trickster energies become multidimensional. She explains that the delinquent Danny, her boyfriend, is eyeing his parents from the grassy knoll above. Shots shatter the patio décor. But Clay continues cooking and serving the shish kabobs, trying to appear "normal" as therapy for his son. Grace argues with Evie about getting the teens' love-pact plan—or reconnecting with Danny through the cell in Evie's hand. More will be revealed, however, about Evie's mother, the sins of Danny's parents, and the waltz that Evie and Danny are dancing in their dead-end dream.

The parents know that Danny was suspended for taking a gun to school. But Evie tells about the school maps he has in his locker, the teasing he suffered from students, and how she intentionally got them caught before he went on a shooting spree. Yet, darker secrets gradually emerge, as in the well-made, social-problem plays of Henrik Ibsen a century ago. This crisis drama points beyond a single screwed up family to America's current intergenerational nightmare. Youth are fetishized by our mass media, pressured to belong by buying trendy products, and yet pushed to rebel against the hypocrisies surrounding them. Evie's wild waltz with the offstage Danny shows the extremes of the American Dream and our frontier history crashing together.

Evie evokes primal passions when she speaks of the "survival of love" and killing what threatens it or dying for it. Her body language speaks even more about the furious twists of fate in her survival and sacrifice drives. She gestures, for example, with a missing hand (hidden inside her sweatshirt) while defining the American conspiracy against her generation's happiness. She turns the patio set into a boxing ring, yet includes the watching audience, when she challenges Danny's mother and lures his father into critical admissions of culpability in their son's violence.

Some in the audience might wonder why Clay keeps his hands in his pockets and remains stoic with such a crisis around him, or why Grace screams so much even before they're under the gun. Spectators might also want to know more from the 80-minute script about the sources of such evil acts—or for a different pace in the show to explore various levels of fear, rebellion, choice, and guilt. Yet, I saw the show with Bosnian-American friends who did not find it false that such a sniper might exist here, through teen rebellion rather than ethnic cleansing. The technical prowess of CAST, putting characters and a beautiful patio in the crosshairs, plus the lead actor's tour-de-force, may provoke others to ponder, too, where Western consumerism is headed through the X-Box generation.
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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VIOLET
Book & Lyrics by Brian Crawley
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Melissa Ohlman-Roberge
Davidson Community Players
Armour Street Theatre
March 11-28, 2010
Special Regional Review

One of the qualities I admire most about Davidson Community Players is that they are not afraid to take a chance. Violet is a complex musical with controversial themes that many might not want to tackle, yet here it is in this small community theatre outside Charlotte.

Violet (Cassandra Howley Wood) is living an isolated existence with her father (Dennis Delamar) in the mountains of North Carolina when an accident with an ax leaves her with a disfiguring scar across her face at age 13 (the younger Violet is played by Hannah Roberge). This unfortunate accident warps Violet’s sense of herself, and she develops an obsession with a preacher in Oklahoma who she thinks can remove the scar. (A choice is made to not have Ms. Wood heavily made up with a scar, though her hair does mostly cover the right side of her face.)

Violet decides to travel to Oklahoma by bus to see the preacher and be healed. It’s 1964. Some bus passengers recoil at Violet’s scar as do others along the way, but 25 year old Violet meets and becomes friendly with two solders on the bus, a white private named Monty (Jack Stevenson), and an African-American named Flick (Timothy Scott Thomas). Monty hasn’t faced discrimination so minimizes Violet’s angst, but Flick, as a Black man, has had to deal with racism and is more understanding. Not that Violet is sensitive to Flick’s issues; she is as insensitive to him as Monty is to her. But the play is, after all, a journey of self-discovery, forgiveness, and the growing realization that hope is mostly illusion.

What is most interesting about the play is the creative staging by director Melissa Ohlman-Roberge and the excellent acting by the cast. Ms. Ohlman-Roberge always manages to raise the level of the acting in her productions which comes from her commitment and understanding of the characters and their subtext, as written. Even when the play itself may let the audience down, she never does. Good material helps, of course, but talented directors add a special essence to the overall success of a production, while still respecting the script. (This is a quality playwrights particularly want from directors and appreciate greatly when their work is being staged.)

Every inch of the small stage area is used efficiently. A multi-level set with many entrances gives a feeling of space and more movement than seems possible. Yet, it is not a high tech set. The band sits nestled among the construction, partially visible, but not distracting to the audience as is often the case. Musical director John Smith and musicians Charley Darcey, Dave McNulty, and Jennie Brooks handle the varying musical styles in the show expertly and support the singers without over-powering them.

Cassandra Howley Wood gives it her all as Violet, almost working herself up into a frenzy at the climax of the play. The character is not always likeable in her ignorance, but Ms. Wood is able to evoke sympathy for Violet’s effort to relieve the pain of her circumstance. She sings well, as does Timothy Scott Thomas, who plays Flick. His acting is natural and layered, providing much of the heart of the play. Jack Stevenson is well cast as Monty who is not as superficial as he first appears. Hannah Roberge is believable as the younger version of Violet. She and Dennis Delamar, as her father, have a good rapport. He is able to convey the guilt and confusion of a parent who has inadvertently harmed his child.

The supporting cast is also excellent across the board. Patrick Ratchford especially brings a nuance to the role of the preacher who excels on television but is sadly morally bankrupt as a person. Carmen Coulter’s powerful vocals as the gospel soloist and stage presence always make her a stand out on stage. Kevin Roberge provides energy and humor as Virgil, the preacher’s assistant. Ginny Darcey, TJ Nelson, Brianna Smith, Stuart Spencer, and Teresa Miller round out the cast with multiple roles, and are the choir of voices of everyday people.

The first act is long with more exposition than necessary, but the second act picks up steam and moves along. There are times when the plot is clichéd and you can see what’s coming, but the device of scenes from Violet’s past interspersed throughout the play add interest to the character development.

There’s much sermonizing by the characters to each other. What does Violet learn? There are no easy fixes in life—anywhere; it gets more complicated rather than less so, accept you can only control so much, and for Pete’s sake, find someone to trust and love.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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TREASURE ISLAND
By Ken Ludwig adapted from the novel
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Directed by Alan Poindexter
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
McColl Family Theatre
March 12-28, 2010

The staging of Treasure Island, using an intelligent adaptation by Ken Ludwig, is another excellent production at Children’s Theatre. (I’m starting to run out of positive adjectives, though I’ll spare you the pirate-speak.) Smart directors often say that directing is 80% (or 90% or whatever percentage they choose) in the casting. And Alan Poindexter is a smart director. Along with the script, the acting, the directing, and the technical elements, it all adds up to a captivating production.

The novel Treasure Island has been classic almost from the time it was published in the 1800s. It started as a serialization, which may be why it was essential for Robert Louis Stevenson to keep the narrative interesting and exciting. His imagination and his characters have kept readers around the world riveted. Mr. Ludwig had to pare the work considerably for the stage while keeping the story intact, which he does quite successfully. Though it does move along briskly in Act II.

The familiar coming of age tale of young Jack Hawkins (Isaac Josephthal) and his adventures with Long John Silver (Mark Sutton) begins in the play after Jack’s father dies and he is helping his mother (Barbi VanSchaick) run their inn. Billy Bones (Chad Calvert), a dissolute pirate, comes into their inn pursued by other greedy pirates who are after a treasure map. Billy hands the map off to Jack, who in turn hands it off to respectable men, Dr. Livesey (Steven Ivey) and Squire Trelawney (Ashby Blakely), who decide to pursue the treasure themselves. When they get to port Jack gets robbed, but Long John Silver saves his purse and soon finds out about the map. He offers to get the crew for the ship, using pirates unbeknownst to Squire Trelawney. They set sail.

Jack narrates the adventure and there is a definite divide between the stodgy, righteous adults: the doctor, Squire, Captain Smollett (Nathan Rouse), and the disorderly, drunken, dissipated, not especially bright pirates who are more fun to watch.

Many of our clichés about pirates come from Treasure Island, though they had vanished by the time Stevenson wrote about them. But Long John Silver, the lying, thieving, murdering, clever, charming pirate remains complex, morally ambiguous, and fascinating. His relationship with Jack is at the heart of the play. Mark Sutton’s portrayal of Long John Silver is outstanding. We like him, we hate him, we can’t stop wanting to see more of him. Which is the way the fatherless Jack may feel as the pirate becomes a kind of surrogate father, except a father wouldn’t so easily trade one’s life if it came to that. Long John is neither stodgy nor dissipated, and given an accident of time and place, may have been a born entrepreneur. Instead, survival is not easy and a pragmatic man with his wits, smarter than those around him, could find a fortune, yet there is that troubling part of killing off men without any remorse.

The actors are excellent in their roles. Isaac Josephthal is an impressive young actor, bringing nuance to a familiar role, creating empathy and admiration for Jack. He and Mr. Sutton work very well together. Kudos to Barbi VanSchaick as the only women hanging with the guys as Mother, Strumpet, and amusingly, one of the pirates. Steven Ivey shows authority as the doctor, but is likeable. Ashby Blakely bumbles well as the Squire. Nathan Rouse is physically imposing as the captain with an air of self-righteousness. You can count on Jon Parker Douglas for those hard to cast roles. Here he is Ben Gunn, abandoned resident crazy man on Treasure Island providing comic relief. The rest of the men play multiple roles: Matt Cosper, James Dracy, Matthew Keffer, David Sebren, and Chad Calvert, all doing a notable job (looking like they’re having a great time, too).

Technically the show’s seafaring theme is well represented by some outstanding effects such as the staging at the port when the sailing ships’ bowsprit (a pole with sails furled) extends from stage left and right. Nice touch! Creative scenic design and costume design by Bob Croghan, and properties designer Peter Smeal, including the ingenious peg leg design of Long John Silver, good action sequences by fight choreographer Tim Ross, and the excellent movement work of Ron Chisholm. The sound by Van Coble, Jr. allows the audience to hear the sometimes difficult dialogue clearly. The lighting by David Fillmore, Jr. is high quality. Musical Director Drina Keen incorporates original music by Elisabeth Ittoop that complements the action but is not intrusive.

There's more to pirates than Johnny Depp. Treasure Island is an exciting adventure for children and adults. Don’t miss it.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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MUM'S THE WORD
Written & Directed by Matt Cosper
Machine Theatre
Patchwerk Playhaus at Century Vintage
March 11-27, 2010

If Brad and Angelina can do it, why shouldn't we? Matt Cosper's new play offers an absurdist view of the American Mum, reflecting our imperialist hubris as world saviors. Lois (Julie Strassel) decides she wants to adopt a foreign child. Her husband, Todd (Jim Yost), doesn't realize he's already agreed, while under the influence of pills and drinks.

What they get is a teenage boy from Somalia. But Lois insists on treating the Kid (Biniam Tekola) as their baby—even to the point of giving him suck under a blanket. Todd tries to treat the Kid as his son, taking him fishing, watching football with him, and advising him not to bite people at the mall. But when Lois ends up pregnant by the Kid, Todd beats him bloody. He also forces Lois to terminate her pregnancy. Yet she continues to believe in the goodness of her maternal instincts, despite misplacing them.

There are many revealing moments of direct address to the audience, especially with the Kid speaking a language that we understand, but his American parents don't. He tells Lois that white people are finished as the dominant race, going extinct globally. But she blithely professes her motherly ideal, assuming that she understands her son, without any racial, cultural, or generational gap. Mum's the word, as she misses the victim's criticisms—like charitable Americans and our disaster-loving media.

A new raised stage in the narrow Patchwerk Playhaus improves the sightlines for spectators in the comfy sofas and chairs. The nostalgic antiques of the Century Vintage store, as lobby to the theatre, also add historical depth to this play's cultural critique. It has a minimal set, with black boxes and a few key props (a trophy Todd polishes, a whiskey bottle, birthday masks, Thanksgiving hats, and a gun that Lois takes away from the Kid), indicating various elements and seasons to the place where one Somali teen learns about being American.

The three actors remain onstage the entire time, turning their backs to the audience when their characters are "offstage." They each bear a vicious edge, yet make their characters likeable and intriguing, while connecting more to the audience than with each other. Ironically, they seem to ask for our help, in entertaining us, as they also provoke us to question how we try to help others in order to feel good about ourselves.

Further Brechtian devices might have been used for such ironies. There's room also for the script to explore more American family absurdities and global political reflections. But fine acting and directing compliment this insightful one-hour play, with something to joke about and perhaps even more to say.              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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THERE'S A MONSTER IN MY CLOSET
Book by Angela D. Stewart
Music & Lyrics by Bill Francoeur
Directed by Jen Band
Playing for Others Arts Festival 2010
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte
March 12-21, 2010

There’s a Monster in My Closet performances are presented as part of the Playing for Others Arts Festival. It’s probably the closest thing you’ll find in Charlotte to that old show biz exclamation, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” What’s implicit in that statement is that this is going to be performed from the heart, and it will be fun to watch. It is both.

Playing for Others is a four year old organization for teens interested in the arts to use their passion and skills “for the greater good.” The other areas of the Arts Festival are visual arts and music. Whatever interests or strengths the teens possess can be used to support the cause which is to partner with organizations that provide services for children with disabilities, this year Mitey Riders. They also spend time with a “buddy” assigned to them. It is an inspired idea to help young people learn that individuals can contribute their hard work, kindness, and talent to make a difference in others’ lives.

The choice of There’s a Monster in My Closet for this show is a good one. It addresses a fear many children have in a clever, fanciful way. Emily (Emily Hudson) is having her friend Stephanie (Julianna Sosa) sleep over for the night. As they are dozing off, a wayward monster named Murray (Joe Ehrman-Dupre) tiptoes out of the closet to go and play her video games. The girls spot him and though scared at first decide to capture him. This, of course, sets off a chain of events with the large cast that includes more monsters, a sandman (Abigail Moore), Murray’s monster partner Wanda (Hayden Rockecharlie), an Elvis-attired Dream King (Izzy Francke), her assistant Toady (Daniel Morrice), dreamcatchers, Emily’s mom (Catherine Smith), a father (different men rotate in the part), brother Tom (Jordan Monaghan) and his friends.

The full-length musical is charming and the songs are catchy. Director Jen Band obviously has a good rapport with her young actors and she excels when the songs include the entire large cast, as in “They’re Monsters” that ends Act I. It’s a highlight of the show, well choreographed; a spirited, high energy performance. All the actors are to be commended for their work in the show with special notice to Izzy Francke as the pompous Dream King, and Joe Ehrman-Dupre as Murray, the endearing monster, who has a strong voice as well as fine comic timing.

The technical aspects of the show are notable with lighting by Eric Winkenwerder, set design by Mary Courtney Blake and committee, and costume design by Hope Johnston and committee, all probably working with a minimum budget. Musical director James Kennedy makes the most of the varying musical talents of the cast to make the songs appealing.

The play works for both younger children as well as we older children in the audience. One theme the play addresses is the change from childhood to teen years when it is necessary to let go of childish pursuits to move on and grow up. Yet, there is a touch of sadness that goes along with that change as we never entirely let go of our need for a bit of the magic and dreams of childhood.              Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE
Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan
New Music by Jeanine Tesori
New Lyrics by Dick Scanlan
Original Story and Screenplay by Richard Morris
for the Universal Pictures Film
Produced by Sarah Buckner
Directed by Corey Mitchell
Choreographed by Eddie Mabry
Musical Direction by Matt Hinson
Northwest School of the Arts &
North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Booth Playhouse
March 12-14, 2010

Thoroughly Modern Millie is a light, frothy concoction of a musical comedy, but make no mistake; the work it takes to put it on stage is considerable. Northwest School of the Arts, supported by co-producer NCPAC, continues to make Charlotte proud of its performing arts high school. The talent is certainly on display.

In a recent trend, the movie version was adapted into a stage musical that won six Tony Awards, though it ran only two years before going on the road. New music and lyrics were added, though the original theme song is still the catchiest tune. Director Corey Mitchell plays it for laughs and it is fun thanks to the high energy performances of the cast. (I still don’t understand in what universe white slavery is supposed to be amusing, but the point is; don’t think too hard about it.)

The plot is involved: in the 1920s a girl from Kansas, Millie (Amy Rowland) comes to New York City to find fortune. She is immediately robbed and meets former paper clip salesman Jimmy Smith (Aubrey McGrath) and instantly dislikes him. You know what that means. She begins to fall for him. She decides that to be “modern” means to marry for money as a business arrangement, and is set on that course by getting a job at Sincere Trust where she thinks her boss, Trevor Graydon III (Jay Kelley) is the perfect candidate, though he has no knowledge of her plan. Millie is staying at a hotel for young women run by the vile Mrs. Meers (Sara Reinecke) who takes young women with no home or relatives and abducts them with the help of two Chinese brothers who only want to bring Mama to the US. The plot elements and subplots eventually converge until all is right with Millie’s world and true love wins out.

The leads and ensemble are all excellent. Amy Rowland, as Millie, is a perky heroine with a Broadway voice. Aubrey McGrath as Jimmy has a first-rate tenor voice. He and Ms. Rowland have a good rapport on stage. Kyra Owen is well cast as the sweet, naïve Dorothy. Jay Kelley adds considerably to the entertainment as Trevor Graydon. Sara Reinecke brings just the right tone to the villainous Mrs. Meers. Matt Carlson and Jura Davis provide more than a little comic timing as the Chinese brothers. Taheerah Harrison has the right attitude as Muzzy Van Hossmere. Then there is Ashton Guthrie. He is a crowd pleaser as Miss Flannery, the office supervisor, because of the energy he creates when he is on stage.

(Just a general observation for young performers and budding talents: you need to project even when you wear a mic. If your voice trails off from the middle of a line or lyric, the audience will miss what is being said or sung.)

Matt Hinson, the musical director, and his musicians provide good support for the performers. They were playing from a pit this year and that worked well. Eddie Mabry adds tap to the dancing which is welcome. Other tech support including lighting by Andrew Fisher, and sound by Morgan Calma mostly hit their cues. The costumes must have been a challenge because of the budget. The first ensemble number dresses weren’t eye catching, but Barbara Wesselman did a fine job otherwise with the period costumes throughout. The set design by David Ward and Corey Mitchell added to the atmosphere.

Any quibbles there might be are with the play, not the production or performers. It’s worth catching the show to see the young talent that Charlotte has to offer; you just might see several of these gifted students some day on Broadway.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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CALL MR. ROBESON: A LIFE WITH SONGS
Written & Performed by Tayo Aluko
with Dr. Gregory Thompson on piano
Directed by Olusola Oyeleye
Harvey Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture
Booth Playhouse
March 6, 2010

It's difficult for one actor to hold the audience's attention for an entire show. But Nigerian-British actor Tayo Aluko presents many aspects of the famous African-American actor and singer, Paul Robeson, to show his relevance today, as well as in history. He narrates Robeson's life by impersonating him, performs his songs with a deeply resonant voice (though not as full as the original), and acts specific scenes compellingly.

The show begins with Aluko, his back bent, carrying a chair onstage, as if to symbolize the weight of slavery into which Robeson's father was born. Certain props onstage indicate parts of Robeson's life, including American, British, and Russian (U.S.S.R.) flags. Aluko picks up different photos while he performs Robeson, describing the various women and other influences in his life—from his mother who died in a fire when he was 6, to his wife and the white woman he almost divorced her for, to various women "friends" in his rooms on tour. He also describes the influence of his father, a minister, who encourages him to persevere after he's beaten up as the only black man on the Rutgers football team.

He sings many spirituals, including "Steal Away Home," which he says was a code song for escaping slaves. But Aluko does not shy away from the more controversial elements of Robeson's life and politics. Aluko's Robeson expresses a fondness for the U.S.S.R., where he finds a kinship between Russian and slave folk songs, and is treated, for the first time in his life, as a "full human being." Robeson eventually suffers for his outspoken allegiance with the Soviets and with the struggle of black and white workers for freedom. He is followed by the FBI. His passport is taken away and he cannot travel internationally or tour in the U.S. He is also questioned by McCarthy's HUAC.

Aluko enacts such scenes, using the Charlotte audience to represent Robeson's thousands of fans who came to hear him sing at the Canadian border, which he could not cross. We also see his increasing mental illness, under political and personal pressures, with inner voices pushing him to slit his wrists, though he survives the suicide attempt. We see his eventual triumph as he gets his passport and travels again to Europe, touring for 5 years, although then suffering the death of his wife from cancer. Lighting changes and sound effects aid in the depiction of such scenes. But Aluko's talents are central in showing the life journey of this African-American performer, whose spirit (like a West African god or orisha), while not always ideal, inspires through his strengths and flaws.
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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BLACK PEARL SINGS
By Frank Higgins
Directed by Dennis Delamar
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
February 10 - March 6

In the middle of the Queen City's second snowfall of the year, the show still went on. With a handful of obviously dedicated theater goers in the audience, the mini-musical Black Pearl Sings graced the stage of the Actor's Theatre of Charlotte on Friday, February 12th. Even though it was quite frigid outside, Terry Henry-Norman and Stephanie DiPaolo warmed the stage with powerful performances filled with passion and triumph, as two women with one thing in common: Music.

Susannah Mullaly (Ms. DiPaolo) thinks the task of obtaining historical black music will be easy, since during the time of The Great Depression the Texas prison system is bursting with talented Negroes with memories of songs of their people. After overhearing someone belt out a throaty tune in her cell, Susannah summons the prison guard to bring the person attached to that voice to her makeshift audition room. With a scar on her neck and a chip on her shoulder, Pearl (Ms. Henry-Norman) lays eyes on a white woman who wants something from her, but is only willing to pay a mere fifty cents to get it.

Alberta “Pearl” Johnson is a down-trodden, physically and emotionally scarred convicted murderer who is on a mission to reunite with her daughter. When she first meets the determined musicologist, Susannah, the two women have nothing in common, one being the descendant of slaves and the other an Ivy League graduate. Yet Pearl realizes she has a beautiful gift (her voice) and attempts to use it as leverage to become a free woman. Susannah, the hard-nosed businesswoman, has an equally ambitious agenda and hopes to use Pearl’s musical knowledge to attain her goal of landing a position at prestigious Harvard University.

Pearl has a gift, but she also has a past. After having served ten years for castrating a man in Houston, Pearl wants to right the wrongs to the daughter she left behind. For the first few visits, Susannah and Pearl size each other up and think they have the other one all figured out. It's not until Pearl gives Susanna a glimpse of her past: the ambitious husband she fell in love with, the daughter she longs to see and the man whose livelihood she took that landed in her jail that Susanna really understands. Pearl realizes that Susannah is a lonely woman with no husband or children and only has her job to live for. Finding and recording music is her life just as Uniqua (her daughter) is Pearl’s.

Susannah is able to utilize a connection with an old classmate who happens to be the Governor’s assistant, and just the person who can approve Pearl’s parole. When the parole is approved, the women disagree as Pearl is determined to locate her daughter while Susannah has her sights set on glamorous New York, earning money, recognition, and the position at Harvard University.

In New York, Pearl is adorned with a beautiful satin dress, ruby red lipstick, and a perfectly placed bun of shiny black hair sitting atop her head. After settling at a friend's colorful bohemian apartment in the artsy Greenwich Village section of New York City, the two ladies prepare for their first show, which is an audience interactive performance at the theatre. Chanting Kum-ba-ya, meaning 'come by here' in the Gullah language, makes for a fun exchange between the performers and audience.

Pearl’s first show is a hit and she and Susannah are well on their way to fame and projected fortune until a somber note the next day. The local newspaper reviewed the performance and calls Pearl the “Homicidal Harmonizer” even comparing her to a talented King Kong. If that isn't insulting enough, Susannah insists that Pearl grace the stage of Carnegie Hall in her black and white striped prison uniform. Pearl vehemently refuses. Disagreeing with Pearl, Susannah storms out feeling unappreciated but returns later with bittersweet news.

The play is nothing short of moving. Two women, different in every way possible join forces and attain what seems to be two unattainable goals. The show wasn’t without simple mistakes, but had elements of humor hidden in wisdom that made one forget all about them. The set is well designed and the 1930’s wardrobe is exactly right. This production is well worth trudging through the snow. Black Pearl Sings is a must see for all.                Review by Dawn Cauthen

Dawn Cauthen is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area currently working on a screenplay, a novel, and many freelance articles. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. She has appeared in Uptown Magazine and enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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RESERVOIR DOGS
By Quenttin Taratino
Directed by James Cartee
Citizens of the Universe
Studio 1212
February 19-27, 2010

It’s hard to not be taken in by the sheer ebullience of this production. This production of Reservoir Dogs is like an Andy Hardy film, only this time instead of a barn, the audience is sequestered in a hangar-like artists’ studio, but like those films, we are treated to a plucky group of performers who want nothing more than to “put on a show.”

Based on the 1992 film by Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs follows the plights of seven total strangers who have been brought together to rob a bank. The play, like the film, revels in a mix of violence, pop culture references, and an almost insufferable need to be cool. The good news is if you like Tarantino and/or love the film, than this production will not disappoint. The ensemble is excellent.

I’m not entirely sold on the idea of performing screenplays as plays. Don’t get me wrong, I was completely engaged by some first-class acting and a truly remarkable ensemble. It’s just, especially with Tarantino, we are seduced by clever camera angles, multiple edits, and innovative cinematography. It’s true that Tarantino’s dialogue is clever enough, but once you get past the self consciously ironic sex jokes, the incessant pop culture riffs, and the heavy-handed morality, I’m never sure what it all adds up to. And ultimately, when you strip Tarantino of the one thing that he is arguably strongest at, his visual storytelling, you are only left with his words, and, clever as they are, he’s no David Mamet.

Before I get too much further, let me say, everyone should see this play. This company deserves an audience. Whether I agree with this particular choice of play or not is immaterial, this company is unique and should be championed.

I’m not going to try to summarize the plot too much. Suffice it to say a group of criminals are brought together to rob a bank. They’re not allowed to know each other’s names, so they are given the names of colors. The fly in the ointment, however, is that a cop may or may not be one of the criminals. I’m not going to spoil it here, just in case you’re not familiar with the film. The ending does sneak up on you.

As I’ve said, the ensemble is amazing. Nearly all of the actors are dynamic and engaging. Barry Newkirk as the wounded Mr. Orange and Scott C. Reynolds as the ill-fated Mr. White are particularly good, but the entire cast is fully committed to this production and we are sucked in.

Technically the play is sparse. Slip-covered chairs suggest the escape car, a plank of wood becomes the floor of a warehouse. There’s no need for much. The studio suggests the warehouse very well, and the other few locations are easily produced with an over-sized desk and some assorted chairs. Still, the costumes are wonderful, and the use of firearms (necessitating ear plugs which are generously provided at intermission) is great fun. There’s hardly a misstep in the production save for some fight choreography that needs a little fine tuning and some makeup effects that don’t stand up under the close scrutiny of an audience that is this close to the action. I might also suggest in future productions elevating either the audience or the actors. I missed a great deal of the play in my third row seat.

Again, Citizens of the Universe is a company to support. This is some of the best ensemble acting I’ve seen and this is a group that is seeking to do something new and unique. I’m still not convinced that such a talented company should be producing staged versions of movies, but they’re doing it really well. I look forward to seeing what’s next for this compelling group!             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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MIKE MULLIGAN and HIS STEAM SHOVEL
Based on the book by Virginia Lee Burton
Book, Music and Lyrics by Eric Lane Barnes
Directed by Mark Sutton
Music Direction by Drina Keen
Choreography by Ron Chisholm
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
Wachovia Playhouse
February 19-28, 2010

Talk about a well oiled machine. Children’s Theatre puts together productions that amuse, engage, and excite even the youngest theatre goers as evidenced by Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. What makes it work so well is that the elements blend together to make it a complete experience. It is well written; with a story young children can understand. It has delightful props, music and dance, a good director and actors. What more can you put into an hour production?

With audiences this young, it is wise to start off quick and strong. The characters; Mike Mulligan (Salvador Garcia), Mary Anne the steam shovel (Leslie Ann Giles), Henry B. Swap (Stephen Seay), and multiple fun people (Darlene Parker) are broad, but easily distinguishable yet not cartoonish.

The story is simple. Mike needs a job. He and Mary Anne are down to their last dime. They bid against more modern machines to dig the foundation for the new City Hall in the small town of Popperville. The new machines are shiny and showy, but wheezy old Mary Anne is loyal as only a best friend can be.

It’s interesting that the book was published in 1939, the year of the Wizard of Oz and other great films. There was quite a burst of pre World War II creativity, but the production, as directed by Mark Sutton, is not corny or overly sentimental. The actors work up to their usual high standards with Salvador Garcia sweetly childlike even playing an adult. Leslie Ann Giles manages to make the steam shovel, Mary Anne, human and sympathetic. I so appreciate Darlene Parker’s line readings and delivery. Stephen Seay plays the “mean guy” so well that we know that underneath he really just wants to be liked.

The songs and music under the direction of Drina Keen and the choreography by Ron Chisholm on a small stage are just right. In addition, the lighting by Eric Winkenwerder, the sound design by Van Coble, Jr., the scenic design by Tim Parati, the costume design by Courtney Burt Scott, and especially those delightful talking machines by Peter Smeal, each enhance the production.

In a disposable society like ours, now under economic stress, the old reliable value of a solid work ethic and dependable friends is comforting. Do we give our children too many things without having to work to obtain them? The adults in the audience can reflect on the subtext if they care to, the kids will just have a great time.             Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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AS YOU LIKE IT
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Matt Cosper
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
February 19-28, 2010

This shortened version of As You Like It will appeal to its young target audience. What do they want to see? Each other mainly. Though Shakespeare died hundreds of years ago, he was astute about falling in love (or is it infatuation?). It happens quickly as Rosalind (Kayla Carter) and Orlando (Will Davis) get hooked on each other almost at first sight. There are back stories, of course, as one brother banishes another, one betrays another, and everyone ends up in the Forest of Arden having a great old time.

The non-traditional elements that imaginative director Matt Cosper incorporates into the show keep it moving along. There will be no boredom here. Two areas of Children’s Theatre are used for multiple scenes, both in the lobby. In his time Shakespeare didn’t have much scenery on stage either. That is all the better to focus on the words, but the language is difficult for modern audiences, so knowing the basic plot ahead of time helps, though a summary is provided. There are a few benches, but mostly the audience sits on the floor or stands. Those who care less about comfort will appreciate this more than others. The audience is not only close to the actors, but close to other audience members in bright light. Yet, it does give you an appreciation of the acting. One reason we like movies is because we can see the actors’ faces close up. It’s the same here. In the lower lobby (the forest) there’s more room for the madcap running around that is usual in the Bard’s comedies.

This is not one of Shakespeare’s heavy plays, but the entire cast does a nice job overall conveying the joy and angst of each situation. Kayla Carter is a pretty Rosalind; she is comfortable with the material, and believable in all her scenes. Will Davis, as the lovesick Orlando, is a good match for her. Erin Johnson is appealing as the sweet Celia. David Gibson brings a natural intensity to Oliver without trying to force it as so many actors straining for “purpose” might attempt. Alexander Gagne as Touchstone, in wild get ups and with attitude, and Rachel Tate as Phoebe, provide much of the comic relief. Ms. Tate has good comic timing and hilarious facial expressions. Two adults, Jeff Bailey and Barney Baggett, play multiple roles and do well to help anchor the production, seamlessly fitting in with the young actors. Mr. Baggett even gets to recite the famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue.

Since there’s no scenery to speak of, except the theatre itself as background, and few props, the modern costumes by Marina Arconti become another way to express character. You can just imagine the logistics of multiple costume changes in such a shortened version without intermission. Sound becomes important in a minimalist production. Matt Cosper makes sure there is no impediment to hearing the actors, and adds unexpected music to keep you smiling.

It’s a kick seeing young actors obviously enjoying the thrill of live performance. Children’s Theatre continues to provide Charlotte with innovative theatre experiences that interest and excite audiences.                   Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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CHARLOTTE SQUAWKS:
SIX DEGREES OF DESECRATION

Book, Lyrics & Power Point Design by Brian Kahn
Directed by Mike Collins
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
McGlohon Theatre
February 11-20, 2010

Laugh. Laugh More. Laugh until you choke. Laugh until you fall helplessly on the floor gasping for air. That was the reaction of the entire audience on Thursday’s opening night to Charlotte Squawks 2010 Six Degrees of Desecration. The diabolical geniuses behind Squawks, Mike Collins and Brian Kahn have done their job well. According to Director Collins’ note desecration is defined as, “The act of depriving something of its sacred character-or the disrespectful or contemptuous treatment of that which is held to be sacred by a group or individual” and that is exactly what Collins, Kahn, and their talented troupe have done. For two hours they skewer everything and everyone that “have pissed us off” in 2009 in Charlotte with song, dance and above all else, humor.

Nothing is sacred in this sixth edition from the show opening when “Not Mayor. Not Governor” Pat McCrory tells us to turn off our cell phones via power point to the rousing finale “Twitter” to the tune of “Thriller” with zombie dancers. The talented cast sometimes in sequins, sometimes in frog suits set out to offend us hilariously with their take on famous adulterers, banks and their mergers, Myer’s Park moms, and snow storms. I don’t want to give away too many details because it will ruin the fun but be assured Ken Lewis and Julius Peppers don’t come off looking too good. The songs “Jerky Boys” and “My Husband’s Back” alone are worth the price of admission.

The cast: Mike Collins, Kevin Harris, Robbie Jaeger, Johanna Jowett, Brian Kahn, Susan Roberts Knowlson, Alan Morgan, Carmen Schultz, Beth Troutman, and LouAnn Vaughn bring enthusiasm, interesting dance moves, and decent voices to this absolutely delightful send-up. Everyone who had any part in this show including the band, the costumers, and the underappreciated tech guy did a marvelous job. A few jokes fell flat, and unfortunately, a few lines were lost, but that’s not the point. In these tough times this show makes us laugh at what just normally makes us crazy. As soon as you get your unemployment check run out and buy a ticket. This show is good for the soul.                Review by Laura Pfizenmayer

Laura Pfizenmayer is a South Carolina playwright and freelance writer. She is a partner in Hometown Promotions, LLC.

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WOODY SEZ
The words, music & spirit of Woody Guthrie

Devised by David M. Lutken
with Nick Corley
Directed by Nick Corley
Music Direction by David M. Lutken
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Booth Playhouse
February 3-21, 2010

Woody Guthrie is a beloved American folk icon. Born in 1912, almost 100 years ago, we may know his songs, but Woody Sez tells us about the man, often in his own words and through his music. He is part of a generation that experienced such tumultuous times as the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and World War II. What is wonderful is that the audience can experience a sense of the history of those times through this show, while being thoroughly entertained.

The most salient quality that comes across is Woody’s affable and hopeful nature despite the tragedies in his own life. He is presented as deeply committed to the everyday man, of which he saw himself as one. Yet, his talent for music, and especially lyrics and other writing, set him apart as a spokesperson for the downtrodden who just wanted to make a fair living and feed their families. As performed by the multi-talented David M. Lutken, who also helped create the show, we are taken on a moving American journey. Woody believed in music’s power to effect social change, and Mr. Lutken includes many references to Woody’s political sensibilities, including affixing a sticker on his beat-up guitar saying “This machine kills fascists”. Woody traveled the country singing his way from coast to coast. Though that hobo life is often romanticized in literature, there were most certainly many nights of hunger and desperation for men traveling the rails or simply walking across America to find work and a better life.

Mr. Lutken is joined on stage by three gifted actors/singers/performers who play multiple instruments and multiple roles: Darcie Deaville, Helen J. Russell, and Andy Teirstein. There are no microphones or amplifiers in keeping with the spirit of the show, and there is no problem hearing the words or music.

With David Lutken’s distinctive voice, expert guitar and the accompaniment of the other performers, we are taken on a musical tour through Woody’s life. While Woody composed literally thousands of songs, the show includes a selection that adequately represents the body of his work and the breadth of his life. “This Train is Bound for Glory” opens the show, and following are many of Woody’s classics, including “This Land is Your Land”, “Mule Skinner Blues”, “The Ballad of Tom Joad”, and “Dust Storm Disaster”.

As musicians, each performer is given his or her moment to shine. Darcie Deaville plays a mandolin on most songs, but also shows her talents on other instruments, including fiddle, guitar and resonator guitar. Helen Russell, who also plays several instruments, is featured on the bass fiddle. Perhaps the most versatile, however, is Dr. Andy Teirstein who manages to display a wide range of talent on no less than a half dozen instruments, including fiddle, guitar, banjo, autoharp, harmonica and, yes, even the spoons. The show includes the performers in all combinations, from solos to duets to four-piece bluegrass band, where their well-blended harmonies are on display.

Center stage, of course, is David Lutken’s embodiment of Woody as he makes his way from childhood to troubadour. Songs cover a variety of emotions, from the touching “Curly Headed Baby” to the comic “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” and “Groundhog”. The song “Pastures of Plenty” demonstrates how Woody says he found his voice. “Talking Merchant Marine” speaks to his life at sea during the war years. His support for workers is displayed in “Union Maid” and “Vigilante Man”. And his life meets tragedy again when “Driving in My Car”, a song composed for his daughter, becomes her last words.

This would be a good show for young people, too, who are often interested in their grandparents or great-grandparents lives. The performers also extended an invitation for the audience to bring their voices and instruments to a good ol’ hootenanny in the lobby after each Sunday’s matinee performance.

Most poignant of all is that Huntington’s Disease, inherited from his mother, took Woody in 1967; at the end of his life, this wandering minstrel, this singer/songwriter of hard times and simple pleasures was confined to a hospital unable to speak, yet the joyful music and spirit of Woody Guthrie lives on.                   Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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GREY GARDENS: THE MUSICAL
Book by Doug Wright
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Glenn T. Griffin
Musical Direction by Marty Gregory
Choreography by Alyson Lowe
Queen City Theatre Company
January 28-February 13, 2010

Based on an early documentary, Grey Gardens explores the twisted love story of a mother and daughter who just happen to be related to Jackie Kennedy. That the two end up bound together in a dilapidated mansion inhabited by too many cats, infested with vermin and rats, in the middle of one of the wealthier parts of the Hamptons makes this a kind of dark American fairy tale. Edith Bouvier Beale and “Little” Edie Beale are stitched together by the thread of the American dream and the hopelessness of being women who have only been educated to become wives but dream of something more.

Grey Gardens is not a musical for everyone. The first and second acts of the musical are so different from one another, I almost felt I had come back into the wrong theatre after intermission. Act I is traditionally structured in the way Edward Albee might have if he had written a musical. Set in 1941, Edith Bouvier Beale (played in the first act by Alyson Lowe) is an aging debutante who is despised by all of the men in her life (husband and father) except her accompanist, the clearly gay, George Gould Strong (Billy Ensley). Alyson Lowe, who plays Little Edie in the second act, is wonderful as the tortured mother who is willing to lay out any family secret if it keeps her daughter from marrying. Little Edie, whose own sexual desires and brashness have kept her from escaping Grey Gardens as much as her mother’s meddling, is here played by Karen Christensen. Christensen is an adept singer and actress who layers this deeply flawed young woman with both sweetness and bile. Billy Ensley as George gives a subtle enough turn as the flamboyant pianist. He is sympathetic and makes it clear, that Gould, too, is caught in the destructive fantasy created by Edith. Beau Stroupe plays Edith’s strict father who demands that young women of high society should marry well and give charitably. Stroupe is in fine voice with this performance and I was riveted each and every time he sang. Joe Ehrman-Dupre plays the sometime fiancé of Little Edie, Joseph Kennedy, Jr. A senior in high school, he is perhaps too young for the role, but Ehrman-Dupre makes you forget his age early on and handles his songs and his dual role as “the marble faun,” very well. Jess Dugger, as the future wife of the president, and Amanda Berkowitz, are adorable as the young relatives, too naïve to understand the destructiveness of Edith’s charm.

If Act I is an Albee-styled musical, then Act II is all Samuel Beckett. Set some thirty plus years later, Edith (now played by Polly Adkins) is decrepit and mostly bedridden. She shouts in desperation for her daughter. Little Edie, played now by Alyson Lowe, has been driven nearly mad by isolation. She is almost bald and wears a collection of garments pinned and tied haphazardly to her, supposedly, growing frame. Where the first act’s setting (a triumph of elegance and simplicity by designer Kristian Wedolowski), the second act is dominated by two beds (one cluttered with papers and trash, the other neatly made), a cacophony of cat food cans, and other detritus. Both mother and daughter now talk directly to the audience. Past and present are tenuously separated at best.

Alyson Lowe is particularly effective in her dual role. She is funny and pathetic at the same time. There is no hope for her now and we see that despite this, she does hope. Polly Adkins is convincing as the now feeble Edith. Though her performance is bold, it never descended into caricature, which is no small feat considering the fact that the real Edith almost was just that—a caricature of a crazy cat lady. Adkins finds the tortured soul and makes Edith, if not heroic, at least sympathetic.

Director, Glenn T. Griffin doesn’t shy away from the nearly absurdist style of the second act. These are characters defined by the tension between hope and despair, and though the second act is sometimes excruciating, Griffin didn’t let his audience gloss over what is perhaps the most horrifying aspect of life in Grey Gardens—the sheer monotony of hopelessness.

Technically, the production was excellent as always. Matt Kenyon and Jennifer Quigley’s costumes are beautifully constructed; Jeff Capell and Stewart Hough’s wigs are a wonder (save for Jerry’s in the second act which looked less convincing than the wonderful and numerous wigs worn by almost all of the cast); Trista Rothe’s lighting is always appropriate and nicely highlighted some key moments in several musical numbers. I am still happy to see that Queen City seems to hold to the mantra that “less is more,” and the elegance of this staging is proof of that.

Queen City Theatre has managed to bring another demanding musical to Charlotte. Like Side Show, it challenges the musical form and explores a darker and more tragic side to the human experience than most musicals do. I was happy to finally get to see this and look forward to the upcoming production of Evita.                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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TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING
Based on the book by Judy Bloom
Adapted for the stage by Bruce Mason
Directed by Nicia Carla
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte
McColl Family Theatre
January 22-February 14, 2010

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Bloom has been a perennial favorite of young readers since it was first published in 1972. It’s easy to see why. Ms. Bloom knows children, and more importantly, she knows how they feel and is able to convey that to her readers. The same can be said for this stage adaptation directed by Nicia Carla. The warmth, honesty, gentle charm, and humor of the book are on display at Children’s Theatre. At times the tone of the show feels a bit too understated yet is (thankfully) without any heavy issues laid on top to weigh it down. Energy builds as the story progresses, though, and the show keeps the audience's attention throughout.

The tales center on Peter Hatcher (Ashby Blakely), a fourth grader, who feels put upon by his cute but mischievous and attention-getting younger brother, nicknamed Fudge (Jon Parker Douglas). Peter narrates often and his musings are both funny and on target as any older sibling will know immediately. The audience also gets to know the parents, frazzled Mom (Barbi VanSchaick), and hard-working Dad (Matthew Keffer). This is a regular family trying to negotiate modern life with career hazards, sibling rivalry, limited time, homework catastrophes, and occasional trips to the emergency room.

Fudge is a toddler and innocently annoys Peter at every turn especially by taking up his parents’ time and attention. Peter resents Fudge believing that he wrecks everything for him, even messing with his beloved turtle Dribble, but sometimes resents his mother even more thinking she favors Fudge. There’s only so much maturity a fourth grader can be expected to have and the audience’s laughter and sympathy grows along with Peter’s irritation.

Part of the fun of the play is reliving your own childhood memories or your family’s through the Hatcher family episodes. Fudge even turns three during the course of events and his birthday party, with other unmanageable three year olds (as Mom is the only adult handling the party), is one of the highlights of the show .

Ashby Blakely and Jon Parker Douglas are appealing and convincing as the Hatcher siblings. How many actors can believably play children and toddlers? Many moms will relate to Barbi VanSchaick. Though she can lose her cool, she projects warmth and patience with her children. Matthew Keffer’s role as the dad is limited, but he gets a chance to add to the fun in the party scene. Mark Sutton and Amy Van Looy play multiple roles and do each of them justice.

Ryan Wineinger’s set design of a New York City apartment is functional and inspired, though the black wires on the tall buildings behind the apartment are a distraction at first; the costumes by Courtney Burt Scott are well done, especially for Peter, Fudge and the other children.

Two young boys sitting in front of me, who looked like they could be in fourth grade, were having a great time talking back to the characters on stage, but adults will have fun, too, with this charming show.                   Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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SPRING AWAKENING
Based on the play by Frank Wedekind
Directed by Michael Mayer
Book & Lyrics by Steven Sater
Music by Duncan Sheik
Choreography by Bill T. Jones
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Belk Theater
Feb. 2-7, 2010

Youthful rebellion. It's something we all experience, to some degree, especially in our teenage years—and maybe fear later on. This award-winning Broadway musical takes us back a century with its setting and characters, based on a scandalous German play from 1891 (banned in its time and later). But it also creates ties to today's youth, through language, rhythms, music, and gestures, combining nostalgia for sexual innocence with the passions of its loss.

Some in the Belk Theatre audience sit on chairs with actors at the sides of the stage. Some of those actors are dressed in 19th century costumes and become characters onstage, but others wear today's clothes, remain with the audience there, and yet stand at times to sing in the chorus. A small rock band is positioned at the back of the stage. And a large brick wall with pointed church-like archways looms over them all. Many photos and antique objects hang from the wall. Colored lights also appear there (or a full orange moon) at various points in the show, like Christmas decorations giving hope toward a spring awakening for the children, despite the austereness of teachers, parents, and preachers.

Humor helps make the oppression entertaining at times, as when Wendla, her head on her Mama's lap, does not get an answer to how "it happens" because Mama is too embarrassed to say and then covers her daughter with her apron. Eventually, however, Wendla suffers from such delayed knowledge—when she demands a beating from her boyfriend Melchior, so she can feel something from him. Later, she also experiences "it" with him for the first time (in a bare-breasted love-making scene, on both sides of the show's intermission), becomes pregnant, and suffers again when her Mama forces her to have an abortion.

Caricatures of the Latin and music teachers provide humor for the audience and paradigms for the teens' sexual fantasies—with punishment sticks and piano fingers. Two actors play all the adult roles, male and female. While shown two-dimensionally at first, as foolish or fierce, the adults' hypocrisy gradually reveals some poignant dilemmas. Yet, the music, songs, and plot show much more of the teens' fearful, confused, and transgressive views.

The musical has its shocking points. Wendla's beating by Melchior, their lovemaking, boys kissing on the lips, and male masturbation scenes turn explicit sexuality into reinvented ritual and farcical song. (The masturbation is done with gestures under the costumes, but still creates theatrical tension and comic relief.) Ironically, the show may comment on the hollowness of our current youth-idolizing culture more than on the oppressions of the past. As teen males take wireless microphones out of their dark blue school uniforms to sing about their wet dreams and the "bitch of living," or as girls swoon while talking about Melchior's daring atheistic ideas, spectators might wonder why we have to go back a century or more, yet use today's terms, for such liberating moments.

Repeated love songs speak to the dark side: "I'm gonna bruise you" and "be your wound." Such tragic temptations are also shown when Ilse tells Moritz about her free-love experiences in a Bohemian artists' colony with older men, yet says she'll end up on the "trash heap." He rejects her offer to reconnect, as two lost souls that might save each other, and then ends up shooting himself, due to shame at his failure in school. Yet his ghost and Wendla's eventually return to help Melchior not repeat the same mistake—making this an ultimately moral tale about immoral rebellion against the "parentocracy." While some of the plot becomes predictable, the jarring mix of rock and punk music with period costumes, of the F-word and middle finger with quaint situations, plus spastic insect-like gestures during dance numbers, provides many moving and mindful edges for audience members, young and old, to piece together with their own desires, memories, and reflections. Maybe we do have to go back in time to making meaning out of our youthful confusion, nostalgic passions, and hollow idols today.                   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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OUR LADY OF 121st STREET
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Paige Johnston Thomas
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
January 7 - February 6, 2010

With this show, as soon as spectators open the door of CAST, they experience uptown Manhattan. The box office window is a fare booth with maps, posters, and a turnstile. In the lobby, spectators can light a candle at the Virgin Mary's statue to participate in Sister Rose's funeral or join others at the bar—with parallels to the main settings in the show. There is also a grocery and deli selling "fresh meat," with graffiti painted on the metal scroll covering its shop window, an entrance to a Chinese restaurant, a phone booth, the edge of a construction site, and a video of a New York street.

Inside the "boxagon," a dozen actors populate the play. Brief, sitcom-like scenes give glimpses of the many lives affected by Sister Rose as a Catholic school teacher. Victor (Jim Esposito) rages around her coffin, because her body and his pants have been stolen. Rooftop (Sidney Horton), a black radio show host, begins a circuitous 30-year confession to Father Lux (Bill McNeff), who lost his legs in Korea. Flip and Gail (Jonavan Adams and Robert Haulbrook), a lawyer and actor from Wisconsin, discuss how gay to appear when meeting with old school friends at the funeral and wake. A detective with dark secrets, Balthazar (John Cunningham), questions a hardened streetwise Hispanic woman, Norca (Carmen Thwaites), about where the missing corpse might be. A mentally challenged but cheerful man, Pinky (Robert Lee Simmons), distracts his brother Edwin (J.R. Adduci) from writing the nun's eulogy. In the bar, a stunning black woman in a red dress, Inez (Ife Moore), trades stories with Norca, who then erupts with anger at the preppie Sonia from Connecticut (Stephanie O'Neill), perhaps mistaking her for a different white girl who shamed her as a child at school. And the nun's niece, Marcia (Lauren Crozier), expresses both affection and aggression toward Edwin.

All of these characters are avoiding mourning, yet it leaks out in various acts and emotions. There is no through-line to the tragicomedy, except the mystery of Sister's stolen corpse, which is never resolved (though Victor does get his pants back). In the second act, scenes dig a bit deeper with Balthazar, Rooftop, and Flip (who masks his homosexuality) getting drunk together in the bar and recalling other funerals in their lives. Father Lux, legless in his wheelchair, catches up with Rooftop and provokes him back into prayer, reflection on his sins, and honesty about his continued feelings for Inez. Edwin yells at Pinky for being out of contact for 16 hours, showing his own guilt for having accidentally damaged his brother's brain and yet resentment at the job of caring for him. He also confesses to Marcia that she's beautiful, but chooses to follow his brother instead of being with her.

Such an ensemble show, with glimpses of present conflicts and reflections on the past, is fitting for a reunion play (like The Big Chill, a 1983 film). It provides a showcase for many fine performances and intriguing video images between scenes. But some in the audience may be frustrated with the skeletal nature of this script. Perhaps it shows the spirit of Sister Rose continuing in the lives of others, even with her body lost. Or it reveals how clergy get glimpses of many twisted lives, which cannot be untangled into a complete providential narrative. Either way, this show leaves the ultimate design to the minds in the audience, as spirits visiting Our Lady's wake on 121st Street.                   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 ALUMINUM SHOW
Created by Ilan Azriel
Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Knight Theater
January 12-31, 2010

Ready for something new? Enjoy playing with aluminum foil? Then this show is for you—and many others in its world tour. Having originated in Israel, it now combines dance, puppetry, and metallic wonders with audience participation in the new Knight Theater adjacent to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte.

Prior to the show, the audience sees aluminum pillows, machines, and curled tubes framing the flat aluminum curtain. Dancers enter the aisles to enhance the preshow announcement with gestures. And then the curtain is sucked up by a duct, in the first of many delightful surprises.

Duct worms on the stage floor come alive like Slinkies. Two large worms connect and produce a cute baby, which climbs along several square frames on wheels that move together and apart. Such scenes mix muppet-like playfulness with Freudian dreams.

Materials also make contact with the audience. Ducts expand with air and extend over spectators' heads. Pillows float on their hands as well. Aluminum strips and sheets shoot above them and fall onto them. Tubes roll over them, too.

Headless, humanoid, ductwork creatures dance with extended chimp-like arms. Dancers also create a giant pillow-man puppet that walks into and bows over the audience. They even make a mock fashion show with fanciful aluminum wear.

Throughout this 80 minute presentation, the six dancers and their two assistants continually amaze via the show's startling props and colorful lights. Whether inside aluminum ducts, behind rod and magnetic puppets, or extending beyond them from stage to auditorium, the performers become more and more playful with their metallic friends. In a futuristic style, they speak a universal language of youth glee, which shines beyond the troubled heritage of the Holy Land and its current contentious cultures.

Or, as my teenage son, Peter, put it, as he came home with an aluminum cape: "It was surprisingly entertaining."                   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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MY FIRST TIME
By Ken Davenport and
Real People Just Like You
Directed by Chip Decker
Actor's Theatre of Charlotte
January 6-23, 2010

This show uses words submitted to a website about a key physical experience in our lives. Four performers embody the many voices and memories, with precise transformations, sardonic reactions, and collective echoes. The audience also participates through surveys prior to the show, which are used by the actors and apparently affect the data projected on a screen over their heads.

With no other scenery and with minimal props and costume changes, all of the actors (Ryan Stamey, Shon Wilson, Biniam Tekola, and Carrie Cranford) give tour-de-force performances. Director Chip Decker and lighting designer Hallie Gray create various spaces onstage—with actors speaking directly to the audience from stools, or standing to give their characters more physicality, or interacting in brief scenes. Parts of the play become funny, poignant, and unsettling. It lasts just 90 minutes, with no intermission, but progresses through many lives and their intimate stories, focusing on who, where, and what that first time meant. It touches on multiple mysteries, in joy and pain, light and darkness, from naïve fears, insecurities, and identity-shaping desires to long-term romance or date-rape trauma. It also shows that live theatre can emerge from interactive, social media—and very personal memories, evoking many more in the present audience.

Whether a good or bad experience, our first time was a crucial moment of connection with another human being. (Or, if in the future, it bears even more mystery.) Pondering that again, together, is another way to relive it, not just with nostalgia or resentment, but with a new awareness of each time as a first.                   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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ALMOST, MAINE
By John Cariani
Directed by Melissa Ohlman-Roberge
Davidson Community Players
Duke Energy Theatre
January 7-17, 2010

When you see a Davidson Community Players production you have the feeling that this is a community theatre that represents the best of that type of theatre experience. So when these folks come down from Davidson to Charlotte the expectations are high. The shows are well-produced, directed and acted. In this case, Almost, Maine is pleasant, quaint, and light material.

Director Melissa Ohlman-Roberge does an excellent job with her cast making the most of essentially ten separate playlets or vignettes because not all are created equal. In fact, Mr. Cariani’s play about an area that is “almost” a town in rural Maine has enough quirkiness, sweetness, whimsy, and eccentricity to bring the audience to the brink of enough is enough. What makes the show work are the performers who give it their all inhabiting and bringing some life to the sketchy characters as best they can.

It is Friday night in the depths of the ususal brutal winter in the town of Almost. Various people are out and about. A young couple, Ginette (Kathryn Jeffords) and Pete (Isaac Josephthal) are negotiating their first serious romance. Next, in Her Heart, we meet Glory (Heather Love) who parks herself on East’s (Christian Love) lawn to watch the Northern Lights while carrying pieces of her broken heart in a paper bag. Sad and Glad is about love lost, a misspelled tattoo, and love found. This Hurts, about a man who can’t feel pain, is one of the less effective vignettes. (Actors being hit in the head with an ironing board is a bit discomforting.) Getting it Back is a clever ditty about measuring the love you give versus the love you get.

Act II brings They Fell which deals with love of a different kind. Best friends Chad (Christian Love) and Randy (Scot Slusarick) complain about striking out with the ladies. Story of Hope goes on too long for a payoff that isn’t satisfying. Where it Went, though the most poignant of the pieces is my favorite in the show where the actors (Larry L. Ligo and Ginny Darcy) actually elevate the material. Seeing the Thing is fun and probably has the most consistent laughs in the show. The epilogue is full circle back to Ginette and Pete again.

The cast works well together (they have to, there is plenty of kissing and hugging) and is fine across the board: Ginny Darcey, Kathryn Jeffords, Isaac Josephthal, Larry L. Ligo, Christian Love, Heather Love, Scot Slusarick, and Juli VonCanon.

Love is a magical, mysterious force. It can strike anywhere, any time. If you can put aside logic, or worse, cynicism and roll with the quirks, you will find Almost, Maine an engaging place to visit on a cold winter’s evening.                  Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is a local playwright and freelance writer. 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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