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A Prime World Premiere 

Dissecting Charlotte's holiday-oriented theater

Many fine Christmas yarns have gently reminded us of the evil, poverty, and disease that still blight humanity two millennia after the New Testament messiah. The redemptive power of the manger child -- or an act of charity, self-sacrifice, or any shining example of Christian kindness that even momentarily captures the blessed babe's sanctity -- is invariably the happy cure.

Of course, the ills depicted in such stories are judiciously rationed. Dickens and A Christmas Carol may be presumed to set the proper limits on how much ugliness Americans may wish to ingest during the holiday season.

So it's shocking -- and downright inspiring -- to find those unspoken boundaries trampled upon in The Christmas Doll at ImaginOn. Children's Theatre of Charlotte presents us with a Victorian England that is grimmer than Ebenezer Scrooge's. Kids will be facing some harsh realities at McColl Family Theatre, and their parents need to brace themselves, too ... for a damn good musical!

Previous musical confections by Joan Cushing brought here by Children's Theatre, Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business and Miss Nelson Is Missing, have left me more than sufficiently amused. The best I could say about Cushing's scores, however, was that they didn't get in the way of the silliness.

So here in this world premiere production at ImaginOn, Cushing has not only traversed the bridge from ankle-biter comedy to gritty Victorian drama, she has overhauled her credibility as a composer with equal success. No doubt she has studied -- and hugely benefited from -- her most distinguished predecessors in this realm: Sondheim's Sweeney, Wildhorn's Jekyll, and Bart's Oliver!

The twist here is that Cushing's heroine, Lucy Wolcott, isn't as sweet, innocent, and appealingly pathetic as Oliver. Spurred by artistic director Alan Poindexter's dark concept, we're buttonholed from outset by the bitter circumstances that mold Lucy's character. Her parents are taken from her by the 1848 London epidemic; she's exploited at Grimstone Union, a public workhouse for orphans; and she remains the caretaker for her little sister Glory.

When a doctor detects that Glory has come down with the fatal fever, condemning her to the sick ward whence no child returns, Lucy kidnaps her and flees the workhouse. Later, Lucy has more hard choices to make. Can she betray Glory's trust and sell the doll they have found in the mud by the Thames? Yes, she can -- and she can leave Glory near the hearth of an unscrupulous stranger in the process.

Even when she finally meets her benefactress, upscale doll merchant Mrs. Thimblebee, Lucy can betray Mrs. T's trust for Glory's sake. Superb moral lessons here in Cushing's adaptation of Elvira Woodruff's book.

We've seen parts of Caroline Bower's portrayal of Lucy before in her previous lead roles. There's the rube in the big city from Thoroughly Modern Millie and the fierce protective determination of Dorothy from Wizard of Oz -- newly synthesized in utterly compelling fashion. Cushing probably didn't expect such a star turn from her heroine. Otherwise, she would have contrived to reprise Lucy's signature song, "One Kiss for Love, One Kiss for Luck." Rookie mistake.

The rest of the big cast is outstanding, beginning with Emily Calder as Glory -- please give that kid a cough drop! -- and Ben Mackel as Nick Button, best described as The Artful Dodger turned street entertainer. We also see numerous stars in the Poindexter constellation in delightful clusters of roles, including Gina Stewart, Chaz Pofahl, and Nicia Carla. Their startling transformations, abetted by costume designer Bob Croghan's inexhaustible zest, are part of the fun that makes this staging such a harrowing delight.

I particularly enjoyed Barbi VanSchaick, morphing from cruel orphanage dominatrix to eye-patched Washerwoman mentor before gliding into Thimblebee's Doll Shoppe as a highborn customer. Mark Sutton was notably droll as the crusty old rag merchant Florrie Nuggins and her crustier husband. Following up on her ethereal turn as Glinda in Oz, Amy Van Looy inhabits Mrs. Thimblebee's crinoline with perfectly calibrated cheer.

Croghan's smooth shifting stage designs are his best ever, though they can't upstage his costuming brio, and musical director Drina Keen is beautifully supportive from the pit. How impressive is it all? It's better than half the new musicals I saw on Broadway last year -- with production values at the same high level.

Given a choice, I'd take a lovingly seared or blackened tuna over a cold tuna salad every day of the week. But the Carolina Actors Studio Theatre production of A Tuna Christmas at McGlohon Theatre is an exception that proves the rule. I'd like to send this one back to the kitchen and exchange it for a less elegant, fast-food version.

Tom Olson as Bertha and the artsy Joe Bob is funny enough. Ditto Josh Elicker as the troubled Stanley and chain-smoking, gun-peddling Didi. But they've got to speed up the patter and the costume changes. More importantly, director Robert Tolan must be sat in a corner, not to emerge until he realizes that this whole sojourn in Tuna, Texas (third smallest burg in The Lone Star State) is to be played wholly for laughs. Special sentimental dispensations are granted for Petey's star monologue and the boozy Arles-Bertha foxtrot scenes. Nothing else, thank you.

The CAST end of its collaboration with Tolan's Generations Theatre Group, scenic design and costumes, are sassy and classy -- arguably better than Charlotte Rep's. But there needs to be as much voltage in the people as there is in the UFO and the Christmas trees, OKKK?

Down the hall at Spirit Square in Duke Power Theatre, a five-person ensemble from North Carolina Stage Company was demonstrating how less really can be more in It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. No Christmas trees among the props, nor any 1940s Radio Hour contretemps among our players. Instead, the stage is outfitted like a real radio studio with all the wondrous paraphernalia necessary to stage the beloved parable for a listener's imagination.

I can't say a single misstep marred the resourceful actors' efforts, either in voicing their many characters or producing their sound effects. George Bailey's obscure life in Bedford Falls came off every bit as worthy as the wonderful efforts of the actors to tell it down to its tiniest detail. Up in the sound booth, folks potting the mic levels occasionally let a line slip past at fully amped volume, and the softest sound effects didn't quite reach me up in the fourth row.

All that really matters in this treasurable story was vividly rendered with just the right mixture of artifice and sincerity under Hans Meyer's flawless direction. The justification for doing all this in radio style seemed to be the pace of the action and the wide vista of scenery we know from the film. But at the end, the radio concept adds its own layering of meaning: the troubles, setbacks, self-doubts, and hopelessness that George feels so keenly are as insubstantial as the hokey WBFR studio compared to the wonder of living a life anywhere when ennobled by the attempt to lift up a community and raise a wholesome family.

Willie Rapoley's earnestness as George was felicitously paired with Lauren Fortuna's steadfast belief in him as Mary, and Joe Sturgoen's gruffness as Potter was an apt counterweight. The only bad news here is that NC Stage's run with Wonderful Life is over at the Duke, though you can follow the troupe back home to Asheville, where they'll light the applause sign again December 18-23.

Otherwise, you can get over missing this wonder by catching the next two scheduled N.C. Stage invasions: Moonlight and Magnolias (April 30-May 4) and Chespeake (June 25-29).

Online Extra: Perry stomps on guest conductor Edwin Outwater in his review of Charlotte Symphony.

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