Remember the red clown nose and the Superman pj's that once adorned the savior? Well, in the current Theatre Charlotte revival of Godspell, that conspicuously un-sagely Jesus has been transfigured — into a grownup. Executive director Ron Law, taking over stage directing chores at the Queens Road barn for the second time this year, has seen the light. Buck Fuller, Socrates, Nietzsche and Sartre have been banished from the opening tableau, replaced by a bare stage and a ghost light.
Instead of the great thinkers of the ages, who subsequently morph into groupies or apostles as Jesus delivers his teachings and parables, we now have a company of actors -- clearly more believable than Luther or Aquinas when descending into the playacting and silliness that still infest Christ's lesson plan. Now they can wear the goofball T-shirts credibly from beginning to end! Conversely, when Jesus turns serious and warns us against sin, hypocrisy and hellfire, there is more voltage to Joe McCourt's thunderbolts when his costume can't be paid for in Frosted Flakes boxtops.
McCourt is at the vanguard of this ensemble, not excessively dignified, only slightly twinkling with mischief. Vocally, he is self-assured and easy-on-the-ear in all his familiar solos and duets. McCourt is also aptly gaunt and ethereal as the charismatic teacher who suffers so heroically. With no Romans or Pharisees in John-Michael Tebelak's book, those sufferings aren't overlong.
Forget about Luke, Matthew or Peter and that all-male club of apostles. Most of the characters who orbit around McCourt bear their own given names in the style of the original off-Broadway production of 1971. And most are still women, quite a revelation back then. Only a slight residue of the flower-child softness conceived by Tebelak remains here, and the juvenile energy is muted -- but Law has gotten his cast to see how the energy and the softness can feed into each other. For me, the impact becomes far more agreeable, far less patronizing.
Without a professional company in Charlotte producing adult musicals past Labor Day, Law has reaped a bumper crop of talent that sings Stephen Schwartz's catchy score with a polish and verve that completely belies the amateur connotations of community theater. Ball cap perfectly askew, Steve Buchanan brings a New Millienium street cred to the Prodigal Son in Act 1, and leads a rousing "We Beseech Thee" after intermission. Joe Veale brings an earnest purity to his "All Good Gifts" solo, while Carolina Firczak, Kristin Graf and Leigh Anne Spencer effectively split the spotlight in assorted duets. Only Brittany Currie draws a solo that sits uncomfortably in her range, but she gets brief chances to sizzle in the ensembles.
Familiar members of the congregation don't disappoint. Vito Abate is clearly the most chameleonic as John the Baptist and Judas, with a spot of hosting tossed in, launching the evening -- with a janitor's pail and sponge! -- in "Prepare Ye." Emily Johnson brings all the simplicity and spirituality you could wish to "Day by Day," Schwartz's breakout hit. After a topical reference to John McCain's presidential campaign, Jack Stevenson (on loan from Tarradiddle Players) takes us back to the last recognizable Democrat we can safely mock: Bill Clinton in his most Christian persona.
The band, led by Ellen Robison at the keyboard, is excellent, shoved so far upstage they're leaning on the loading dock door. A fine start to Theatre Charlotte's 81st season and a revelatory use of the space.
You'll need to resolve to set a spell if you wish to savor all the nectar of the new Carolina Actors Studio Theatre production of Foxfire, the first hereabouts in the Loaf Era. Get into the proper rustic spirit, and the leisurely-paced musical play by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn oozes with pithy charm. Nudging you along in that direction -- and not being gentle about it -- is CAST artistic director Michael Simmons and his trademark environmental staging.
Ticket stubs to gain admittance to the slope of Stony Lonesome Mountain? Pshaw. Try an ear of corn. The CAST lobby has undergone a makeover with all the inspired insanity of a Wall Street broker investing in a Cracker Barrel franchise. You can read folk remedies for burns and fever in the restrooms. Scoop up peanuts from a feed trough to munch on during the show. Or popcorn.
Charles LaBorde reminds us what a powerful stage performer he can be as Hector Nations, the stubborn, stolid, swindling, bible-quoting, know-nothing patriarch of the beauteous Western Carolina hills. Easily LaBorde's most memorable outing since his Willy Loman just over a decade ago. Although she doesn't quite elicit the love poetry that gushed forth from Frank Rich when he first saw Jessica Tandy in the role, Paula Baldwin is more than sufficiently luminous when she transforms from the elderly widow, Annie Nations, to the blithe young lass Hector proposed to. She carries this production with determination and grace.
A latecomer to the company, Michael Sharpe brings a raffish charm to Dillard Nations, the hillbilly guitar picker who made good down in the civilized world -- thanks to small expenditures of self-respect, responsibility and integrity. He has a Kris Kristofferson leanness and arrogance to his moves paired with a Keith Carradine sheen to his vocals. Or he does when he's relaxed and assured. Sharpe should get even better as he becomes more acclimated to the role.
Sharpe's surplus of rugged vulnerability goes a long way toward making up for a woefully sparse back story. Likewise, in an auspicious Charlotte debut, Desiree Christa Ricker helps us to care about Holly Burrell, the schoolmarm Dillard left behind, though their connection was left too nebulous on the page.
The ramshackle set designed by Courtney Blake is a gem. The Stony Lonesome backup band, led on dobro by Peter McCranie, start a-playin' in the pre-show, and McCranie's original music adds a pleasant soundtrack as the story unfolds, like cool sips of purest moonshine.
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