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Hip-hop goes to war in The Red Badge of Courage 

Tone-deaf lyrics mar interesting interpretation

With music by Reemycks and hip-hop lyrics by David McCullough, the Children's Theatre of Charlotte production of The Red Badge of Courage is as up-to-date and contemporary as it possibly could be without incorporating "The Harlem Shake" or a projected Twitter feed. Over at ImaginOn, you'll be confronted by a fascinating hybrid.

Scenic designer Jeffrey Kmiec evokes the Civil War era depicted in Stephen Crane's classic novel with wooden set pieces and a facade that adds platforms, egresses and weaponry to the chaotic clutter. In the midst of the mess, battered loudspeakers are embedded at strategic intervals, and sitting overhead in a broadcast perch, DJ Flemingo presides in cool celebrity shades as Beats, never seeming to move his lips.

The dichotomy carries over into Eric Schmeidl's stage adaptation, which plays as if it were handed over to Reemycks and McCollough upon completion. Traditionalists don't have to worry that their children or students will be exposed to Henry Fleming and his fellow Union soldiers rapping or break-dancing. Instead, we have a character named Voice who serves as Henry's conscience and our narrator — except when he is spelled by Beats' seemingly disembodied voice.

Before our hero flees from battle, Voice expresses Henry's doubts and anxieties about how he will perform while he and his unit are waiting to be deployed. Here is where the hip-hop concept proves to be so much more congenial than a musical adaptation — or perhaps even a dramatization. For despite the epic backdrop of the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage draws its power from Crane's unflinchingly honest and objective psychological penetration. It's the interiority of this novel that Voice captures so compellingly.

Or it would be if McCullough's lyrics were less superficial and tone-deaf. Mason "Quill" Parker's lapses in intelligibility don't help matters as he keeps pace with the prerecorded music as Voice. But even when Voice comes through with crystal clarity, Parker rarely seems to belong in the same time and place as Fleming. He's close to simpatico anticipating the dragon of the carnage to come, but just where he or hip-hop have earned their street creds for honor and valor is a mystery when Voice scolds Henry for fleeing from battle.

Yes, Henry's denials and rationalizations are lame, but Voice's scorn is irritatingly at odds with Crane's non-judgmental objectivity, especially when Parker is making that scorn so vivid.

Between the audacious hip-hop interludes, we're in good hands with three of Charlotte's finest actors. Chaz Pofahl stars as Henry, while Mark Sutton and Berry Newkirk serve up multiple roles. Surrounded by simplification, Pofahl gives us a remarkably nuanced portrait of Henry and his growth in the crucible of warfare, from scared recruit to panicked warrior to brave hero within the space of 58 minutes. Newkirk is beautifully reserved as the taciturn Jim Conklin, the recruit who serves as Henry's role model, quietly reassuring him that it's OK to be afraid.

Sutton has a couple of tasty turns. Most of the time, he's Wilson, gossipy and boastful while the regiment is still safely encamped, and timorous at the first sign of danger. We see Wilson at the end, a changed man, but not before Sutton's brief — and equally important — stint as the Tattered Soldier. Offering medical help to everyone in sight (which Henry shamefully doesn't need), he steers us toward Crane's ironic lesson. To be accepted among his fellows as a true soldier, what Henry needs, rather than to become impervious to fear, is a physical manifestation that he's been through the same fray. His passport must be a battle scar, a red badge of courage.

Technically, the production strikes a prudent balance between warfare realism and family friendliness, particularly when many parents are bringing kids who are way younger than the recommended threshold of 11. Sounds by designer Benjamin G. Stickels are realistic but not earthshakingly explosive. Limbs, brains, intestines and blood aren't flying in the air, though we hear some fairly graphic descriptions, and stage director Sidney Horton has Pofahl and Sutton discreetly miming the wounded and dying soldiers that they lay out on the battlefield.

Costumes by Magda Guichard ignore the stereotyped blue for Union soldiers, going for a less-familiar fawn and leather color scheme. Voice's costume ingeniously combines hip-hop flash with the style and colors of Confederate officer uniforms. Too bad the overall hybrid works only fitfully when Voice and his red-and-gray greatcoat are on the scene, but it's an experiment worth repeating. Next time, I'd recommend a lyricist more willing to read and yield to the original material.

(The Red Badge of Courage runs through March 16 at ImaginOn, 300 E. 7th St. Admission is $18. For showtimes or other info, call 704-973-2828 or go to www.ctcharlotte.org.)

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