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BLUE MAN GROUP


THE LAST DAYS
OF JUDAS ISCARIOT



THE RELUCTANT DRAGON


GHOST THE MUSICAL


FUN WITH STEM
(Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)




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BLUE MAN GROUP
Created, Written, and Directed by
Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton, and Chris Wink
Blumenthal Performing Arts
Belk Theater
April 15 - 20, 2014

Creepy, blue, yet entertaining is how I would describe the painted trio better known as the Blue Man Group. Belk Theater was packed with giggly, squirmy little kids accompanied by giggly, squirmy adults for the opening of this production, originally formed in 1987 as a tribute to '80s culture.

Several men rotate characters throughout the tour and those that participated in Charlotte's show really delivered. Beginning with techno beats bumping so hard I could feel the vibration in my chest, each man had his moment behind his own shadow and whatever instrument he tapped. For one, it was an oversized drum and mallet that he banged with such force it could probably be heard throughout the uptown area.

Beating drums that housed fluorescent vials of paint that splattered onto the stage and into the audience was one of the wildly creative antics displayed by the group. As children screamed and their parents whistled, the guys came up with even sillier tricks including a mouth-stretching ball toss that almost caused me to lose my dinner. The woman who received the end product didn't seem to mind the art piece the Blue Man spewed from his mouth into her expensive looking purse.

Since there were no words spoken, there was great use of large screens with typed messages for the patrons to read and participate. And participate, the audience did—especially the incredibly energetic boy sitting next to me. The little guy had a blast! Many of the references were simply for adults, like, 80s songs and dance moves. But the children who weren't the target audience for those moments enjoyed it as if it was Sponge Bob Squarepants.

One big let-down was a patron they plucked from her seat and pulled on stage. After several minutes of group comedy, I waited for the big pay-off but it never came. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy the high energy music throughout and the fantastic Fourth of July type finale with blinking ginormous vinyl balls bouncing in the audience, the shooting streamers and the dance club strobe lights.

The show is wonderful for all ages and would be an ideal family outing.                 Review by Dawn Thornton

Dawn Thornton is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Uptown Magazine. Dawn enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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THE LAST DAYS OF JUDAS ISCARIOT
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Heather Byrd
Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST)
April 10 - May 3, 2014

If anyone deserves to be in Hell, it's Judas, right? So why bring him up to Purgatory to retry his case? But that's the premise of this 2005 play (originally directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman for an off-Broadway audience). The time is ripe to ask such questions, here in the "buckle of the Bible Belt." After a banking crisis and thirteen years of the War on Terror, we are starting to see that our enemies may be more like us than we'd like to believe.

Courtroom dramas are popular in film and TV. And the earliest extant Greek play (The Oresteia) ends with a trial scene. But they are difficult to make engaging onstage, especially in an almost 3-hour play, with the static layout and legal formalities of a courtroom. Wisely, Guirgis interweaves the trial scenes with flashbacks of Judas as a child excited by a spinning top (showing the development of compassion and yet thievery in his character), as a guilty guy in a bar befriended by Satan, as a traitor interrogated by Pilate (like Jesus), and as an abject, catatonic convict visited by a funky St. Monica. His mother, Henrietta, also evokes sympathy with her views of him at the start of the play and when she takes the witness chair. And there are subplot speeches by a cigarette-smoking angel named Gloria, Mary Magdalene, St. Peter, St. Thomas, St. Matthew, and several jury members. Indeed, some of this is too much—in plot, long speeches, and empty philosophizing.

Yet the CAST lobby and set design (by Chris Schenning) create interesting ways to include the audience in the well-known story of a traitorous apostle and in the new twists of his purgatorial retrial. Religious pictures in the lobby help to identify the historical characters. Audience members are given a small black bag "of silver" as their ticket. And nooses are hung above their heads as they approach the stage.

Onstage, a central chair on a platform allows each witness to turn totally around, to continue facing the various areas of the arena's audience, and for lawyers on each side to circle with challenging questions. The judge's bench is high in one corner with sheets of blank paper extending down from it to the stage floor and also surrounding the witness platform, like scales or rectangular feathers, suggesting both a hyper-legal cosmos and our brain's reptilian origins, yet angelic aspirations. Overhead are broken ceiling ledges. The floor is rough concrete and the lawyers' benches are folded cardboard boxes on beer kegs, evoking Purgatory's dingier side, too.

All fourteen actors are excellent with many playing multiple characters and several as new faces on the CAST stage. Especially powerful are Dominic Weaver as Pilate, Brandon Samples as Judas, Christian Caspar as Satan and Sigmund Freud, Michael Smallwood as the prosecutor, Caroline Renfro as the defense attorney, Robert Hackett as the bailiff and Simon the Zealot, and Jonathan Ray as the judge, St. Matthew, and Caiphas. Corlis Hayes as St. Monica and Iesha Hoffman as an angel and Mother Teresa also bring comic relief, but at critical angles.

Idioms, characteristics, and costumes (by Kaylin Peachey) bring the Biblical characters into today's contexts, even when in Purgatory or Holy Land flashbacks. Pilate has a Caribbean accent, for example, and is dressed in shorts and a golf glove, ready for his tee-time. Satan trades his silk shirt for Judas's dirty brown vest, while seducing him toward false friendship, suicidal despair, and a self-made hell.

Many modern questions about God, psychology, sex, abortion, and guilt circulate in this cross-historical court/circus. It might not be the real Bible characters that we see onstage (or Freud who forgets here about his death-drive theory). But this inventive absurdist play is often engaging and insightful, for various types of believers, holding many surprises for those who wonder what kind of cosmic justice we can still agree on 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, 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. He blogs at mpizzato.wordpress.com .....here

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THE RELUCTANT DRAGON
Story by Kenneth Grahame
Adapted by Mary Hall Surface
Directed by Adam Burke
Children's Theatre of Charlotte
McColl Family Theater
April 11 - May 4, 2014

Kudos to puppet designer Magda Guichard for the mythical, magical creature on stage in The Reluctant Dragon. Reminiscent of the stage puppet in War Horse it is truly spectacular. Ms. Guichard was somehow able to make a gentle face for the artistic-leaning dragon. It also releases puffs smoke at the right moments, and does double takes! The dialogue and head control is left to Mark Sutton, always so spot on that Im running out of superlatives to describe his work. The other puppeteers include Matthew Baldoni, Sidney Horton and Kayla Piscatelli. As in War Horse the fact that you can see the puppeteers doesn't distract from the enjoyment. In fact, it stretches the imagination, which isn't a far reach for children, and a good exercise for adults.

A smart boy named Glaston (in a good turn by Nicholas Stephens), wants to find the dragon, and when he does is surprised by a creature unlike anything he expected. Glaston and the talking dragon bond over their literary leanings. But he must convince his parents, the townspeople, and St. George (David Warwick, suitably heroic), who has come to slay him, that the dragon (the last of his kind), is worth saving.

Director Adam Burke assembled a sterling cast, and along with those already mentioned include: Allison Rhinehardt, Steven Ivy, Darlene Parker, Greta Marie Zandstra and Chaz Pofahl. At times the thick accents are difficult to understand, but the intent is always clear. The technical crew did a wonderful job with costumes by Jennifer Matthews, clever projections by Ryan Wineinger, props by Peter Smeal, sound by Jason Romney, lighting by David Fillmore, choreography by Greta Marie Zandstra and original music by Danielle Rhea. However, along with the dragon, the set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec is super, especially the medieval town with half-timbered houses that gives a perspective of depth, highlighted by the work of scenic artist Tim Parati.

Based on the story by Kenneth Grahame, this version was written by Mary Hall Surface conveying the necessary facts and themes. Children do go through a phase where they are fascinated by dragons, and of course, they are meant to be scary. Beyond that, is there something in our DNA as we were evolving that warned us that those different from ourselves were dangerous? In his time, Kenneth Grahame thought it was time to advance, and so we should.

The Reluctant Dragon is a delightful way for Children's Theatre of Charlotte to end the main stage season.           Review by Ann Marie Oliva

Ann Marie Oliva is co-founder and film/theatre review editor of ARTS la Mode. Vive les arts.

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GHOST THE MUSICAL
Book & lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Blumnethal Performing Arts
Belk Theater
April 1 - 6, 2014

Ghost The Musical has made it's way to Charlotte and debuted on April 1st at Blumenthal's Belk Theater. The production opens with bright-eyed couple Molly and Sam moving into a swanky New York City loft, and Sam's third-wheel friend, Carl, admiring their new digs. The apartment, dressed in steel beams across the ceiling and walls, hardwood floors, and large windows that glisten with the New York City skyline, is perfect for a young couple.

Molly, a potter, played by Katie Postotnik, is a blonde-haired beauty in this production, far from the cropped brunette worn by Demi Moore in the original 1990 movie. Along with her beau Sam (Steven Grant Douglas), they immediately break out into song and a lazy minimalist two-step attempting to be excited and in love.

Soon after, the first effort at the classic song, "Unchained Melody" is performed by Sam and seems misplaced and very understated. After creating a crowded moment with Carl, (Robby Haltiwanger), having to witness their sappy love, the third wheel leaves the two alone and Molly begins poking at Sam with her longing to hear those three little words that he's never said, reassuring her of his feelings. Instead, he fills the air with, "Ditto" and dismisses her desires like useless dried up clay.

A quick scene between banker buds Sam and Carl reveals that Sam is worried about his accounts having too much money in them and prompts Carl to immediately offer to investigate. This ignites a fire in money-hungry Carl and begins the downward spiral for the threesome.

While Sam and Molly are enjoying a date night, a greasy thug by the name of Willie Lopez robs Sam of his wallet and a battle over Willie's gun ensues in the process. A gunshot rings out and Sam is killed while a mortified Mollie attempts to save him. Sam's ghost emerges from his body although he has yet to realize it's his body lying on the ground. Minutes later at the hospital, he's encircled by friendly singing spirits who help him understand that he's in between the world of life and death and just needs to accept the circumstances. I never thought singing dead people could be so entertaining. In death, they actually seemed to rouse more energy and display more talent than earlier tunes performed by the main characters.

When wandering onto a subway car, Sam encounters a territorial ghost, Charlotte's own Brandon R. Curry, who has some of the same abilities as a human, such as moving tangible objects, and Sam is fascinated by this. The illusions in this scene were some of the best I've witnessed in a theater production. The other passengers on the subway car move about in a way that could rival any fight scene in the The Matrix sequels. This is undoubtedly an excellent use of projected images.

Sam finally accepts this stage of existence when he happens upon psychic medium Oda Mae Brown (Carla R. Stewart), who hands-down steals the show from here on, as did Whoopi Goldberg who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the movie. Oda Mae's sisters, Clara and Louise, are just as entertaining and put on their own compelling performances without missing a step.

Throughout the production there are certainly wonderful moments, more so with the technical elements: lighting, illusions, and set design. I also can't deny enjoying Oda Mae Brown's performance along with the subway ghost coaching Sam on how to own his new abilities. That's where it ended for me. Not only was I disappointed by the casting of Molly and her lack of musical talent, but Sam didn't at all push my Patrick Swayze button. This was especially true with the second-rate pottery wheel scene which was another try at "Unchained Melody". If nothing else was spot on, this should have been the scene that was, but it was not. It was awkward and bland.

Lucky for me, Ghost, the movie can be reserved on any rainy day with a simple click on Netflix for a small fee. I may even be able to catch it on the tube free of charge.                    Review by Dawn Thornton

Dawn Thornton is a freelance writer in the Charlotte area. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Stage and Screen from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Uptown Magazine. Dawn enjoys reviewing theater productions, movies, and loves most things artistic.

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FUN WITH STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)
By Cory Riback, Vlado Kolenic, and Linda Ann Watt
Directed by Cory Riback and Linda Ann Watt
Booth Playhouse
March 28 - April 6, 2014

Fun with Stem was a challenging evening ostensibly created to invigorate young minds with the possibilities afforded by Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Though the brief forty-five minute performance moved quickly and kept the younger members of the audience engaged and entertained, the particular performance I attended seemed off kilter due to a collection of small mishaps. The cast and crew, however, never lost a beat or a smile.

I attended the production with both my wife and six year old daughter. My daughter was enraptured the entire forty-five minutes by the antics of Cory the Clown and his friends. Set inexplicably in dense rainforest, Cory the Clown (actor and co-creator of this show) and his perky band of young clown friends (played with unending energy and pep by Sam Pomerantz, Amanda Leigh Berkowitz, Devin Rickus, and Noelle Cassier) load in a collection of wooden boxes (that conveniently spell STEM!). They are soon met by Fiona the Science Buff (Cameron Pace) who rides in a truly marvelous bicycle contraption and portable lab. Fiona is there to study the healing properties of plants, and, also to watch a meteor shower—in the deepest bowels of the rainforest, but, it's children's theatre, it's okay. Already present at the start of the show are band members Vlado Kalenic (co-creator, musical director, and keyboard), Ethan Uslan (piano) and Ocie Davis (drums). The band is as dapper and eager as the rest of the cast.

Where the show is most successful is when it strays from any attempt at educating. The cast is energetic and engaging and work well as an ensemble. Cory the Clown shines when performing an extended and rather funny magic trick involving a proliferation of bottles, and, after demonstrating a robotic toucan (the program lists Riback as voicing this bird, but I don't remember it ever speaking), Cory brings on an "old school" marionette and proceeds to bring life to that tiny puppet through a beautiful vignette involving a puppet's yearning for flight. In a show about the wonders of technology, it was ironic that the most amazing moment on that stage involved a string marionette. The educational components seemed to be shoehorned into the production.

Some of this might have been due to technical problems. The program lists "Darrel the Barrel," who I assume is a talking barrel based on a picture of same on the tee-shirts being sold in the lobby, but Darrel was nowhere to be seen. I can only assume he was not operational this evening. Another extended moment involved Cory the Clown creating a Rube Goldberg-like contraption of pulleys (supposedly to illustrate Engineering). Cory struggled to find where to attach each component to the tower of boxes, and ultimately the invention did not function. Lighting and sound cues also seemed haphazard at times and an extended conversation with the band about math seemed suspiciously adlibbed and off-the-cuff.

Riback also serves as set designer and provides a lush and colorful rainforest backdrop and banks of oversized flowers. From costumes, to props, to the robotic toucan, it is a professional caliber production. It was clear that everyone involved was passionate about the project and that energy was contagious.

Ultimately, despite my misgivings about the technical problems with the production, I leave the final verdict to my youngest daughter. If a production is aimed at children, the only measure of success is how they respond to it. My six-year-old loved every moment of it. She adored Cory the Clown and kept talking about him on our drive home. She sat (literally) on the edge of her seat the entire time and laughed openly throughout. So taking away the jaundiced eye of the adult, the evening was a success, and, honestly, there is no nobler or more important calling for theatre artists than to bring their art to children. It is the lifeblood and hope for our art form.

The production continues into next weekend. I hope you can find time to take the young people in your life to see it.          Review by Tim Baxter-Ferguson

Tim Baxter-Ferguson is 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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