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Christmas By the Busload 

All Aboard!

Once upon a time, Bob Inman was a sober news anchor on the soberest of local TV stations, WBT.

Then he chucked away a credibility that was 25 years in the making and went creative. His novels and screenplays both found wide audiences and earned solid respect. Recently, Inman has turned to the stage -- successfully, though he's still finding his way.

If his writing exploits for page, stage, and screen seem improbable, what are we to say about Inman's forays into the realm of musicals? "Gosh" just doesn't seem adequate for a man who never gave an inkling that there was a single note of music in his soul for a quarter of a century.

Now it's unlikely that you would schlep your family to ImaginOn during the Yule season to see whether a newsman can write music. But the truth is -- if you can handle it -- the musical score may be the most satisfying element of The Christmas Bus.

The sputtering storyline is just narrowly adequate, lightly besprinkled with rusticity and nostalgia. Beset by a trio of busybodies who want tighter discipline at the Pleasant Valley Orphanage, our lovably beleaguered Mrs. Frump contrives to send each of her nine orphans to a local family for a sleepover on Christmas Eve, to be followed by a yummy holiday dinner that transcends Frump's customary stir-fry. To deliver the kiddies hither and yon, Frump has prevailed upon the Hooterville Headknockers to lend her their ramshackle team bus, garishly redecorated for the occasion.

Trouble is, Frump hasn't told the busybody board members of her scheme (they're not likely to countenance such gallivanting), and the good Sheriff Snodgrass watches her like a hawk. Nor is that bucket of bolts a sure bet to reach all of its far-flung destinations.

Even with eight songs, those aren't quite enough complications to keep us engaged for a full 87 minutes. So let's try to give Frump's right-hand man, Thomas, a college education and rescue him from a life of replacing brake pads. And let's pep up that bus ride.

Enter Elmer, the Traveling Troubadour. Fearing a career at the saw mill, this plucky young musician takes to the road, guitar in hand, in quest of semi-stardom. That adds another four songs to our playlist.

Inman's patch-up isn't quite seamless. Two songs during our bus ride may be one too many, and intermission arrives at the 44-minute mark with too little tension, suspense, or plot development.

The Children's Theatre cast and production team offer more than ample compensation, beginning with Susan Roberts Knowlson as Frump. She sells her songs beautifully, most notably the frenetic "It's a Madhouse" and the gooey "A Christmas Like This." But have we ever seen such a high Lucy Ricardo energy level from Knowlson? Either Alan Poindexter or co-director Jen Band must have been pinching her during rehearsals.

While he's not destined for the R&H songbook, Mark Sutton does surprisingly well as the Troubadour. His raw delivery emerges charmingly as he leads the orphan ensemble in "Santa Wears Cowboy Boots," Inman's most contagious novelty.

The orphans handle the rest of the vocalizing, backing up Knowlson and Sutton with some nice harmonies. Occasionally, brief solos are spooned out among the kids, but it's Ben Mackel as Thomas who gets to shine brightest in "Persistence," a catchy duet with Knowlson.

James K. Flynn plays a pivotal role as the Sheriff, a pillar of forbearance in scene after scene, with the raucous orphans or with Frump's nemeses, the busybodies. Among these bees, Jill Bloede, with a wig high enough to require a zoning ordinance, bustles with the most ostentation, backed by Gina Stewart and Amy Van Looy.

Sandra Gray's set, airy and rustic, resonates well with the cheery family message, but design-wise it's that huge colorful school bus that we remember most, careening and swiveling across the stage with 11 passengers aboard, plus guitar and suitcase. Mysterious horsepower (or Tarradiddle power) lurks underneath the hood, fueling this rousing, comical, and utterly amazing bus.

While his storytelling could occasionally use some extra giddy-up, Inman knows his smalltown characters and his big-hearted Yuletide spirit. "Trouble and Christmas don't belong in the same sentence," we're told. Of course, the two always jostle together in a good Christmas tale. The Christmas Bus sorts everything out with whimsical, sentimental grace, running right on schedule.

The mechanized style of John Adams grabbed the spotlight at Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's Modern Masters concert last week at the Belk. In the composer's earlier "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," the obsessive pounding (some might call it punishment), came from an intriguing assortment of brass and percussion, including xylophone, glockenspiel, and bass drum.

Guest soloist Joanna MacGregor added a new sonority to the clatter, pounding out chords from the moment she sat down at the keyboard for Century Rolls. I nearly gasped when I noticed the sheet music perched on the Steinway, but it wasn't hard to guess why MacGregor needed it once the concerto started.

Nobody can sight-read that many blocks of notes at that rate, but you could probably use the help keeping track of how many repetitions each of the figures required, and where you make your entrances. The usual structural and instinctual guideposts were stripped away in the outer movements, with an oasis of meditative calm in the middle.

Resident conductor Alan Yamamoto and the ensemble sounded far more confident when they reached Stravinsky's Pètrouchka. Unfortunately, the Adams selections had so completely satisfied subscribers' hunger for adventuresome fare that huge chunks of audience had disappeared into the night before they could be exposed to the more tonal, programmatic portion of the evening.

They missed one of the season's truly sparkling performances. Mark Tysinger took over keyboard chores creditably, but two rookie principals upstaged him. New flutist Elizabeth Landon exuded the requisite magic in the passages designed to bring Pet and his fellow puppets to life, and Lyle Steelman unleashed what was conceivably the cleanest, most impressive barrage of trumpeting that has ever originated from CSO's back row.

So you really need to know whether Spamalot lives up to its hype? You bet it does, plumbing depths of silliness that must be seen to be believed. Some of the choicer bits (and some of the not-so-choice) have indeed been ripped off the Holy Grail movie perpetrated by the Monty Python comedy brigands in the waning days of the Ford Presidency.

But the new bits and the new Broadway/Vegas-style production numbers concocted by Python emeritus Eric Idle and director Mike Nichols are just as strong, and they mesh beautifully with the original cartoonish cheesiness of King Arthur's quest. In a pair of bravura satirical songs, "The Song That Goes Like This" (accessorized with Phantom gondola and chandelier) and "The Diva's Lament", Pia Glenn electrifies the role of the Lady of the Lake with full-bore Whitney Houston wattage.

Then there's "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," the exuberantly Semitic affirmation that rivals "Springtime for Hitler" in its crassness. Michael Siberry presides as Arthur with all the British crust you could ask for, and both his Sir Robin (David Turner) and Sir Dennis Galahad (Bradley Dean) were worthy of his majesty.

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