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Friday, December 17, 2010

Holly Jolly Holiday Roundup – Part 2

Posted By on Fri, Dec 17, 2010 at 2:38 PM

Ho, ho, ho! We’re getting closer and closer to Christmas, boys and girls, that merry time of year in Charlotte when local entertainment shuts down and all is quieter than a cobwebbed tomb. So whether you’ve been naughty or nice, hurry up and catch some live performance action before you join the mice in hibernation. Here’s the concluding half of my holiday roundup.

The Nutcracker (***3/4 out of 4) – All the praise that can be heaped on North Carolina Dance Theatre’s presentation of Tchaikovsky’s most beloved ballet has already been heaped. Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s choreography and his interpretation of the E.T.A. Hoffman storyline are simpler, sunnier, and sweeter than the Freudian-flavored Salvatore Aiello Nut that preceded it through 2005. The current Christmas extravaganza boasts a cast list that runs four pages, typeset like an Excel spreadsheet, showcasing the full varsity troupe, NCDT2, and a humongous herd of apprentices, trainees, and students from the NCDT School of Dance. The sheer profusion of youth, colorful costumes, and action is at the heart of the joyfulness.

If you’ve seen Bonnefoux’s version once, it’s fair to say you haven’t seen it all – there’s just so much going on across the full expanse of the stage all through Act 1, especially in the iconic party scene and in the fantasy battle between the Nutcracker soldiers and the Mouse King’s army. And in her second year as Clara, I’d venture to say Kira Greer-Rice is the most adorable Nut heroine we’ve had at Belk Theater since Mia Cunningham bid a poignant farewell to the Aiello version.

Still, I would steer people toward the other Clara, Hannah Maloney, when she performs this Friday evening and on Sunday afternoon – even though I haven’t seen her. That way, you won’t miss one of Mark Diamond’s remaining performances as Herr Drosselmeyer, the eccentric gift-giving wizard who whisks Clara off to fairyland after all the partyers have gone to bed. Over the years, Diamond has artfully simmered all the marrow from this hambone role, performing it with a diva’s flamboyance and the preternatural energy of a man who realizes that there are precious few Drosselmeyers left in his tank. For starters on opening night, at the climax of his commanding entrance, Drosselmeyer’s hat was seen flying over the tall scenery as Diamond haughtily flung it to the wings.

Aside from all the ace students onstage, there will be at least a few hundred more aspiring ballerinas in the audience at any performance you attend. Outside in the lobbies, at numerous strategically placed concession outposts, are the nutcrackers, tree ornaments, T-shirts, and toe slippers of their dreams.

WVL Radio Theatre: It’s a Wonderful Life (***1/2) – This North Carolina Stage Company gem originated during the Yuletide season of 2006 in Asheville and made its way to Duke Energy Theatre the following year, so I’ve raved about it before. Good tidings, then, that the show has returned for 2010 after going MIA last year.

As my 2007 description and its accompanying photo clearly show, Willie Repoley has tweaked his adaptation of the Frank Capra film classic. Four actors instead of five (plus a sound ace) now deliver all the characters and all the sound effects in George Bailey’s wintry odyssey. WBFR is now the struggling WVL radio station, whose financial woes very much parallel those of the Bailey Savings & Loan. Repoley actually weaves these two strands together in the frame he has newly draped around the familiar holiday parable: the bulk of the cast who normally perform the show have been unavoidably held up by a winter storm. But WVL’s plight is so precarious that the show must go on or the station will cease to exist.

Even among the four performers we see, two of them have never performed before. Only because station manager Lee Wright persuades the owner’s daughter, Evelyn Reed, that there is no other alternative, they agree to make their debuts before our eyes. Repoley, as Lee, becomes George Bailey, and Maria Buchanan as Evelyn becomes his steadfast wife Mary – initiating an additional romantic parallel between the frame and the fable.

Of course, we are a live studio audience, cued by applause signs and witnessing all the backstage brinksmanship. But this time, we are uniquely onstage at Booth Playhouse. None of the usual seats are sold for this show as ushers lead ticket holders behind the curtain – yes, there really is a curtain at the Booth – where stadium seating has been set up. The modest set and the funkiness of the Booth’s stage, back walls and flylofts lying completely exposed, feed into the actors’ and characters’ frantic scrambling.

Despite the more frantic, driven concept, the production directed by Charles Flynn-McIver has the same unmistakable polish of the 2007 production at the Duke. And though I couldn’t sit as close, dialogue and sound effects came across more clearly thanks to the audio wizardry of Allen Sanders.

The Day They Shot John Lennon (***1/4) – Carolina Actors Studio Theatre gets kudos for presenting an alternative to the prevailing holly jolly fare that dominates Christmas programming in Charlotte – and for opening this show exactly 40 years after it takes place. Lennon has been senselessly assassinated the previous night near his residence at the Dakota apartments in Manhattan, and playwright James McLure brings together nine assorted characters who represent a microcosm of America and the effect (or lack of it) that the ex-Beatle had upon us.

Unfortunately, the playwright hasn’t obtained the clearances he would have needed to bring us the lyrics and the music that were the essence of the man. So the approach McLure took in 1984 is frustratingly oblique and, at 74 minutes, needlessly truncated. On the other hand, Karina Roberts-Caporino in her directorial debut leads CAST’s customary all-fronts experiential assault that greets us in the lobby with Lennon-Beatles cover art, takes us into the Clement Avenue boxagon with 45rpm discs as our tickets, and prefaces the show with a handy newsreel that reminds us of the stunning impact of the moment. Further retrieving McLure from folly is an excellent CAST cast that keeps it real, as I explain in my full-length review.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (***) – The merchandise that playwrights David Ives and Paul Blake were transporting from the Hollywood screen to the Broadway stage wasn’t exactly handle-with-care treasure to begin with. Even the 2008 production at the Marquis Theatre must have lost a little of the modest luster bestowed upon the film by the presence of Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Mr. “White Christmas” himself, The Bingle.

The plot has always been flimsy. Two G.I. Joes make it big enough in showbiz that they can save their former commanding general’s Vermont hotel from financial ruin – and romantically hook a singing sister act as a reward for their do-gooding. Complications along the way in this scenario were thinner than the paper they were written on.

But the mechanism Bob Wallace and Phil Davis use to float their General Waverly’s finances is an impromptu musical staged in a barn. And guess what? The energy of that hackneyed enterprise works far better on a live stage with no-name actors than it does on the silver screen with marquee stars. With regional names like Greenville’s Peace Center and our own Blumenthal Performing Arts listed above the title as part of the producing consortium, I found myself rooting for this touring enterprise at Ovens Auditorium last week.

For the most part, this little engine overachieves, with topnotch choreography from Randy Skinner, yummy costumes from Carrie Robbins, and spirited stage direction from Norb Joerder. Reminding us that some belt-tightening may have been wrapped into the budget, a couple of set designer Kenneth Foy’s smaller pieces seemed on the verge of buckling under stress, but the larger sets were quite handsome.

I admit to terrible forebodings when I heard that the lead actor in the Crosby role was to be replaced on opening night by Tony Lawson, who normally plays the lead duo’s sidekick, Ralph Sheldrake, former army grunt turned Ed Sullivan Show talent broker. But if Lawson gave the suave Wallace a somewhat jarring Rich Little look, his acting was absolutely authoritative, and his singing was more than on a par with the rest of the guys’.

Aside from the lame script, then, this was quite a solid production, with a bunch of Berlin blockbusters helping to deflect our attention away from the predictable action, including “Let Yourself Go,” “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” “I Love a Piano,” “Sisters,” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Most affecting was the chemistry between Lawson and Amy Bodnar, as Betty Haynes, in their climactic “How Deep Is the Ocean” duet.

In fact, both of the Haynes sisters, Bodnar as Betty and Shannon M. O’Bryan as Judy, were clearly Broadway caliber. Bodnar was the sultry, cynical sib who sizzled with her hair up in a low-cut gown, while O’Bryan was the peppy, perky tap dancer, perfectly partnered with Denis Lambert as Davis. Erick Devine projected the right combination of brassy cuddliness as the General, and the wobble in Ruth Williamson’s voice was as wide and nearly as loud as Ethel Merman’s, making Martha Watson, the General’s long-suffering concierge (and former Broadway star) his inevitable mate.

My pet peeve with this production is directed toward the big mega-tap production numbers, especially the “Blue Skies” extravaganza that closes Act 1. While the smaller O’Bryan-Lambert tap-a-thons were rendered au naturel, the biggies were enfolded with pre-recorded tapping that cheapened the genuinely fine work – and authentic sweat – generated onstage. Granted, we’re supposed to be hicks down here in the Carolinas, and to reach the balcony at Ovens, the tapping sounds generated onstage must cross county lines. Still the pre-recorded and amplified crap could have been layered on with far more finesse.

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