Looking up at the full balcony at Booth Playhouse, or listening to the buzz in the lobby between acts and after the show, I gathered sufficient data on Press Night to declare that Charlotte Squawks X: Ten Carolina Commandments is a palpable hit. Watching the show, long codified into a Mike Collins monologue followed by a string of topical song parodies written by Brian Kahn, which are punctuated by faux news and faux commercial segments, I was less encouraged.
When I reviewed Squawks three years ago (7 Year Bit©#), I could finally assure my good Loafers that the gloves were coming off. The positive turn toward satire was confirmed the following year (8 Misbehavin') when I could actually exhale and announce they had crossed the line.
Those were the golden years. Maret Decker Seitz impacted the Bit©# show with her shimmying electricity, combining in with cross-dressing Kevin Harris on "Hey, Big Lender" to attack our banks and teaming up with Mekole Wells - the best faux O ever - in "The Fandom of the Oprah." With Decker returning and Terry Denise Henry replacing Wells, Misbehavin' hit paydirt with "Why Not Wed Gays?" cleverly set to the Village People's "YMCA" and, eyeing the DNC on the horizon, "Convention," a multi-layered parody of "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof.
Garnished with election-year thrusts at Mitt, Newt, and Barack - and a boffo cameo from Pat McCrory - Squawks richly merited its smashing success.
So with Duke Energy and Patrick Cannon misbehaving this past year, Republicans pummeling education, the NASCAR Hall remaining a boondoggle, and Chiquita stabbing us in the back, I was expecting to see some blood. And indeed, the Squawks beak takes a peck at all these juicy targets, but without any devastating bite. Collins' opening pledge to offend everyone is fairly well shattered.
Production levels remain fairly dazzling for an original homegrown musical, with a cast that doesn't permit a demotion any lower than silver when compared to the golden years. Whether it's Mayor Dan Clodfelter filling McCrory's shoes, the commercial segments lampooning the Morris-Jenkins and CPI Home Security ads, or the steady stream of still images accompanying the live action, video produced by Jay Thomas - with a team of writers and directors - often yield bigger laughs than the people sweating under the lights.
Electronics worked sleekly throughout the evening, though the wit on the big screens flanking the stage often had me in a quandary about where to look. If there's an outbreak of laughter in the audience over what just went up on a screen, there ought to be enough time for those of us watching the stage to catch up. Do not even attempt to watch this show from the first two rows if you're wearing a neck brace. (If you aren't, you might need one afterwards.)
Costume designs by Robbie Jaeger were consistently striking and on point, and his singing also chimed better with the Squawks spirit than some of his castmates' if, say, you wished to decipher the new lyrics to the old songs. But even if you were the target of one of Kahn's 2014 sallies, your ego would emerge unbruised.
Chiquita, Art Pope, McCrory, Duke Power, Obamacare, and Rev. Steven Furtick all paraded before us in Act 1 as ripe targets for ridicule and satire, but I doubt any of them - or their supporters - would know when they were supposed to say "ouch."
If you're keen on seeing McCrory and Furtick turned into rock stars, then this Squawks is definitely for you, particularly when Patrick Ratchford reprises his McCrory shtick in the "Hard Lines" parody of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." But even this was eclipsed by Susan Roberts Knowlson's bravura performance of "Don't Try to Change Harris Teeter," delivered with the requisite Evita imperiousness. I know: that's their punchiest satire? Well, that lightweight was certainly their funniest.
Act 2 started out as if it might offer sharper fare, reviving "Why Not Wed Gays?" after opening with "What Do the PACS Say?" - targeting the best bipartisan annoyance ever. My expectations plunged precipitously when we went into the first of a lame and bewildering set of CPI spots. (The original ads are made with Charlotte actors, but that exhausts their topicality.)
Instead, the segment crested with a review of the 2013-14 Panther season and a "Go Go Ron Ron" parody for Coach Ron Rivera based on "Da Doo Ron Ron." At that ignominious moment, Charlotte Squawks morphed into Charlotte Cheers.
Nor did the boosterism end there, for there was another pro team to not skewer, the Bobcats - although it offers an epic of clueless mismanagement, disastrous drafts, and idiotic trades. If there was one shock here, it was the audience's fabulous enthusiasm for the team's reclaiming of the Hornets name. What an eruption!
We endured another CPI bomb before the faux news came to our rescue. Collins, of course, is a masterful anchor for this kind of spot with his decades of broadcast experience, and Johanna Jowett is way better than Beth Troutman ever was as co-anchor. I found myself getting a little mournful each time their newsdesk was rolled off. After "Patrick's Canon" (to the tune of Pachelbel's "Canon") hit the disgraced mayor-elect with the satirical force of a wet noodle, the show actually concluded on an upswing.
"Freaking Snow" tackled our indigenous incompetence with snowfalls over one inch - a regional problem that really is absurd - before "Land Use," lacking a clear point but bursting with spirit and mischief, sang us out. There's no reason to question the lusty ovation for the performers or the crowd's enjoyment of the various forms of parody, especially from those who were seeing them all for the first time. But if you're going to Charlotte Squawks hoping to witness a venting of wit and satire that capsulizes your own rage against the evils, duplicities, absurdities, and stupidities of Charlotte and the world beyond, I can only apply the everlasting motto of the Bobcats, the Hornets, and the Panthers. Wait till next year.
With an equal degree of confidence.