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17th Annual CL Charlotte Theatre Awards 

The pick of an increasingly large and creative litter

Never a dull moment. For sustained excitement and high-flying turbulence, 2003 was unprecedented in Charlotte theater history. The cavalcade of glitz began last January when Charlotte Rep's producing artistic director Michael Bush brought a bevy of Broadway stars to Booth Playhouse, staging his own oddball overview of the Great American Musical, Let Me Sing.

As often happened in the Bush Era, style trumped substance. We were dazzled by the grace of Andre De Shields, the flying feet of Randy Skinner, and the bumptious bounce of Gretha Boston. Message schmessage, the talent outshone any touring Broadway musical we'd ever seen downstairs at Belk Theater.

Then came the notorious Hilary Swank Affair, garnering more newspaper ink for local theater than we'd seen since Angels in America. Even Charlotte's clueless commercial broadcast media were nearly awake to the existence of culture in our midst! But Hilary was more interested in promoting her new action flick and getting airtime at the Oscars than attending silly ole rehearsals. So Rep's flirtation with Broadway producers Barry and Fran Weissler ended disastrously as the revival of The Miracle Worker went down in flames before reaching its intended destination at Manhattan's Music Box Theatre.

Simmering resentments surfaced. The daily newspaper's intrepid critic, who had breathlessly stalked Hilary on safari to Wal-Mart, now openly questioned Rep's commitment to Charlotte. Under Bush, Rep management seemed to revel in controversy. Taking up his pen again, Bush joined with Rep's ousted founder Steve Umberger in a three-week colloquy on the company's mission that brought a new, unfamiliar vigor to the Sunday arts section.

Having gotten the city's attention, Rep thought that their 20th anniversary revival of Pump Boys and Dinettes would silence their critics and retire their burgeoning deficit. When it didn't, Rep's volatile board of trustees freaked, canceling shows right and left while shortening the runs of the survivors. When the smoke cleared, Bush had resigned and Rep was rudderless.

If the biggest headlines often made it seem like catastrophe was following catastrophe in Charlotte's theater scene, the reality -- even at Rep -- was far more encouraging. Let Me Sing and Pump Boys were actually superb musical confections, though admittedly not revolutionary. And Bush's valedictory before announcing his departure, Jar the Floor, was a richly textured artistic triumph despite the trustees' idiocy in shutting it down.

Averting our eyes from Rep's implosion, theater lovers can take huge solace from the breathtaking progress occurring elsewhere. While the demigoddess Hilary imperiously shortened her stint in Charlotte, Children's Theatre of Charlotte was breaking ground on March 11 at the construction site of their exciting new ImaginOn complex.

The pioneering collaboration with the main branch of the Mecklenburg County Public Library is on track for completion in 2005. Don't look now, but not far from the Rep's ruins, Children's Theatre is now the best bet in town to win a future Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre.

Latest word at Central Piedmont Community College puts completion of their new theater in late 2005, giving us our first rejuvenated CP Summer season in 2006. Meanwhile, renovated facilities are sprouting up everywhere, emulating the distinguished model of Off-Tryon Theatre in NoDa and, in some cases, refining it.

BareBones Theatre Group was the first of the new wave, opening their new SouthEnd location in January with Little Murders and then conspiring with Actor's Gym and the new Epic Arts Repertory to keep a steady stream of provocative fringe fare flowing at SPAC. innerVoices temporarily got its act together, opening a new location off Central Avenue and offering an outre Rocky Horror Show and a high-impact Speed-the-Plow.

Victory Pictures co-tenanted the Central Avenue Playhouse for awhile, offering Kiss of the Spider Woman as prelude to the most gloriously offensive production of the year, a devilishly polished Finer Noble Gases. After Rocky Horror, Vic Pix engineered a palace coup, evicting innerVoices and taking sole possession of the newly rechristened Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, or C.A.S.T.

With less fanfare than the orgy of Hilary worship, Rep opened up a new headquarters in NoDa, consolidating their scattered administrative, production, storage, and rehearsal facilities into one pace-setting complex. Raising the roofline at their leased property, they were able to fully assemble the awesome three-story set for Miracle Worker that won our Best Set Designer award for Lez Brotherston. Amid the rubble of Rep's Tony Award aspirations, the new NoDa headquarters are a solid foundation for the future.

Capping the building binge, Actor's Theatre of Charlotte nearly finished their renovations on Stonewall Street in time for their season opener, sensibly postponed until December. It was a move that catapulted ATC to the enviable position of having the most easily accessible theater in Charlotte, right off the I-277 innerbelt.

So while Rep bumbled and stumbled in the spotlight, leaving Charlotte in jeopardy of becoming the largest city in America without a resident Actors Equity company, there were plenty of encouraging developments in the wings. The Queen City not only survived the onslaught of Broadway and Hollywood talent, it produced a bumper crop of homegrown theater while building prudently for tomorrow.

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