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High School Apocalypse 

Plus, season openers from Theatre Charlotte and the Symphony

Schoolyards have become armed battle zones; classrooms are seedbeds of religious fanaticism. And inside The Faculty Room of Madison-Feury High School, in Bridget Carpenter's alarmist drama, teachers are burning out under the pressure -- wallowing in self-loathing, drifting into delusion or going berserk.

At the core of Carpenter's indictment in the adept production at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, it's the teachers' transgressions that matter most in the rampant moral disintegration. Yes, the pistol packing on campus has reached such intensity that there's a convenient chute next to the fridge for depositing the latest confiscations. But lit teacher Adam Younger and drama mentor Zoe Bartholemew spend far more energy selecting prospective girl- and boyfriends from their class rosters for the upcoming school term.

Formerly husband and wife, Adam and Zoe tell newbie history teacher Carver Durand that the partner picking is a quaint school custom. We soon see that the prime motive of this sick pastime is rousing each other's jealousy.

So it's in the jungles of emotional warfare where Adam and Zoe are eaten alive. The idealistic Carver lectures the veterans on their toxic despair and exploitation. But Carver is a gay refugee from an urban school, with a checkered past of his own, so his moral authority is as negligible as his seniority.

Stick around after intermission and you'll find Carpenter scoring on more significant targets than Adam and Zoe's infighting. The onslaught of assault weapons eventually does count at M-F High. Heartbreaks suffered by Adam and Zoe lead to devastating cultural, spiritual and lifestyle surrenders.

Visually and sonically, the CAST production builds upon the version director Michael R. Simmons and I both admired last year at the Humana Festival. But CAST's upgrades aren't worth the price when they lengthen scene changes and slow the pace. The irrationality of the characters -- and the apocalyptic storyline -- works best when it speeds by in a blur.

Don't blame the actors for the pacing. Joseph Copley zips through Adam's lines at a rate that earns him crack-head credibility. Alyson Lowe sometimes sacrifices intelligibility keeping pace as Zoe.

Copley doesn't seem sufficiently hooked on Zoe in the early sparring, nor does he bestride the stage with the sort of charisma coed teens would swoon over. But his treacheries against Carver and his spiritual transformation are genuinely jolting. Lowe's fall would be more precipitous if she entered with more goddess-like confidence. Still, I'll never again make the mistake of pigeonholing her as a musical performer after witnessing her crack-up.

Nick Iammatteo doesn't go out of his way to accent Carver's idealism -- or his gay sensitivities. He handles himself as if there were a code of ethics and a dress code to be honored in the teaching profession. Costume designer Paris Simpson gets more of a workout keeping up with Zoe and Adam's caprices.

So do we. CAST is delivering back-to-school as you've never seen it before.

Director Steve Umberger has drawn a wondrous talent pool to the season-opening production of Cabaret at Theatre Charlotte. Perhaps you presumed that Charlotte Rep's esteemed founder would cruise along on artistic autopilot and let his blue-chip musical performers present the Joe Masteroff book and the Kander & Ebb music as we've come to expect.Not a chance. Umberger has scrutinized the script and decisively changed the narrator's sexual orientation. It happens in almost the blink of an eye when Bobby the Kit Kat Boy prods our hero, Cliff Bradshaw, to recall their previous rendezvous in France. Cliff displays the usual reluctance to acknowledge the peccadillo. But then he kisses the Kit Kat Boy with a gusto and ardor we've never seen before.

Instead of a wholesome heterosexual willing to test-drive a gay experience in Paris after midnight, this Cliff is a closeted homosexual willing to give the straight life a try -- with the charming, kookie, tenacious Sally Bowles. In pre-war Nazi Germany, it makes beautiful sense for the novelist to hide his sexual orientation, maybe dabble in bisexuality, while visiting Berlin.

Scenes between Cliff and Sally now work so easily that Umberger often seems to be unlocking their true intent. I'd also say that he had unleashed new dimensions in Patrick Ratchford as Cliff, except I've lost count of the times the good-looking crooner has confounded my expectations.

Maybe the kudos for Umberger are best applied to Lisa Smith's revelatory work as Sally. A moribund performer three months ago in Anything Goes (where everything didn't), Smith is vivacious and freshly appealing.

Thanks to Umberger's cinematic pacing, connections between the Kit Kat songs and the preceding action snap together with a satisfying click. One would never guess that "Money" was an afterthought added for Hollywood. It's so right with Billy Ensley as the Emcee, another bravura effort from Charlotte's leading triple threat.

At Belk Theater last Friday, it was the best and worst of times. Call it a tale of two horns. Emanuel Ax was the guest soloist as Charlotte Symphony kicked off its 2004-05 season with Mozart's Piano Concerto #27.Ax flashed his usual geniality and brilliance in his deceptively effortless manner, particularly in the eloquent larghetto. But he, like many of us, must have been wondering at some of the sounds coming from the rear of the stage where the French horns were seated. When they joined with the winds in the opening allegro, they vulgarized Mozart's delicate blend. And when they played more briefly in isolation during the larghetto, they were overbearing.

Some of my puzzlement was dispelled when principal hornist Frank Portone, absent during the Mozart, materialized after intermission for Bruckner's lordly Symphony #4. Portone's ardor was conspicuous throughout the 65-minute performance.

The poor fellow who replaced Portone during the Mozart continued to have a bad night, fidgeting with his horn throughout the Bruckner. If those were icy stares from the podium when Maestro Perick faced in that direction, it's possible the man is scanning want ads as I write. The opening movement sounded disorganized until the mighty first subject was restated.

Then the newly fortified brass section seemed to lift the entire orchestra, and Perick's native knowledge of the Austrian composer came to the fore. Portone got a well-deserved ovation for all his bosky hunting calls, and I doubt he'll be sitting out any more Mozart anytime soon.

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