The gloves didn't come off for a while when Charlotte Squawks started out as a WTVI fundraiser 10 seasons ago. It was in an exploratory mode during its early editions, toothless and clawless in its satire.
"There was a hesitancy at first to be as direct or as biting," says Brian Kahn, who has written 90 percent of this year's edition, "because nobody in Charlotte had really done this before."
Mike Collins, the suave and erudite host of Charlotte Talks, the NPR fixture that inspired the Squawks title, actually marvels now at the early timidity. "We were very afraid that we were stepping over all kinds of lives. When we look back on the script from the first year, it is such pabulum. It's almost embarrassing that we thought people would be angry — there'd be rioting in the streets, and they'd be burning our houses down."
Audiences — and at least one local theater critic — kept telling the Squawks team that it needed to get meaner. They listened, pushing the envelope a little further each year, but we couldn't report that the gloves had really come off until year seven, when the annual revue moved into Booth Playhouse with 7 Year Bit©#.
With Blumenthal Performing Arts taking over as producers of Squawks and moving it from Spirit Square to the Booth, the artistic team could put more pizzazz into Kahn's song parodies and layer on some slick video. When one-time Charlotte Rep managing director Keith Martin produced the maiden Squawks, it ran just three performances. Charlotte Squawks X: Ten Carolina Commandments is now at the Booth through June 29 with a healthy run of 15 performances.
And a healthy budget. "It's now a six-figure show," says Collins.
With video segments in the past by Jennifer Roberts and Pat McCrory, not to mention this year's cameo by mayor-select Dan Clodfelter, the revue has acquired a noticeable cache, magnified by VIPs turning up in the audience, like Rep. Thom Tillis, who was roasted on the spot. It's also a terrific showcase for the crème de la crème of Charlotte's musical theater talent.
Collins not only emcees, sings and anchors the faux news, he also casts and directs the show. It takes a special breed to be one of the 11 Squawkers at the Booth.
"Everybody who comes in new, the first year and the first couple of rehearsals, they look like somebody hit them with a Mack truck," he said after opening night. "Because it's not like any other show they've been in, unless they've been in an original musical. Things change constantly during the process, right until the end of the run. We have an invited dress rehearsal, we have a talkback. People tell us what they thought, and we changed several numbers last night."
Knowing the songs that are being parodied can add an extra level of difficulty, because Kahn's lyrics are often in vicious conflict with the original tone and subject of songs the performers may have known, loved and sung all their lives. So they have to fight back against what they know.
Kahn can hardly refrain from salivating audibly when thinking of the bumper crop of new satiric targets that presented themselves for his annual harvest since mid-2013. He's going after Obamacare, selfies, our pro sports teams, Steven Furtick and his Elevation Church, and Patrick Cannon. Duke Energy's coal ash woes are transfigured into a parody of "Old Man River," and for a touch of the international, there's "Putin's on a Blitz."
The evolution of Squawks has taken Kahn and Collins past their Bit©# squeamishness toward potty language. That has occasioned some pushback from their six-figure producers at Blumenthal, who have asked them to tone it down. Neither of the key conspirators seems to mind.
"Part of my creative process is to take it all the way out there and get reined back in, and I appreciate that," says Kahn, a lawyer by day. "I may have a disagreement from time to time about how far things need to be taken back in, but I recognize that our audiences aren't as wide open across the board as some people like."
"Screw that" is what I hope Collins will say, but he doesn't.
He's actually closer to the Blumey position. "Our job is to push the envelope, and sometimes we push too far!" Collins laughs. "It's a crutch to rely on four-letter words, which rely on childish humor. Yeah, you'll get a laugh, you'll get a titter. But it cheapens the show. I thought that before, and we've been asked to tone it down, so we did. It's no big deal."
Caving in — somewhat — to language policing really isn't the capital crime in the Squawks rap sheet. Neither Collins nor Kahn are ready to own up to the fact that Squawks and Pat McCrory's string of astoundingly hilarious videos turned the washed-up ex-mayor into an electable commodity. He was nobody, no longer mayor and defeated in his first run at the governor's mansion, when Collins asked him to follow in the humble footsteps of Jennifer Roberts.
Collins maintains that McCrory was a really good actor coming in. Most eye-opening were the special costume effects that McCrory added to a lascivious spot that only he could deliver, electioneering like a movie hunk. "Hey baby," Collins echoes, recalling hizzoner's lines, "four years ago, I tried to get you to be with me, and you just couldn't go there. But now I'm back. You don't want to vote for that old guy, Dalton, because I know how to push your buttons."
Collins still sounds amazed at how McCrory showed up for the shoot — in a leather jacket and sunglasses! Like it or not, Squawks made history there, turning loose a tiger.
Kahn sounds a little more repentant. "Let's say we might try to take him down a couple of pegs this year, and it may not be as nice as we were before."
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