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Amazing Encore 

Graceful show hard to resist

Despite its high place among Laura Bush's favorite children's books, Mary Hoffman's Amazing Grace doesn't exactly abound in unexpected plot twists or gripping suspense. In its first appearance at Children's Theatre in 1999, Shay Youngblood's stage adaptation looked rather listless and pedestrian at the Morehead Street fantasy palace.Then April Jones took hold of the franchise in a stunning directorial debut, infusing the 2000 sequel, Boundless Grace, with colorful African costumes, spectacular dancing and an irresistible musical backbone. Not only did Boundless eclipse Amazing, it was the best show in town, grabbing CL's award for Show of the Year.

Now Jones has returned to Children's Theatre, this time onstage as a Guest Equity artist portraying Grace's calypso Nana. She is just one of many reasons why the current Amazing Grace, playing at Spirit Square through Sunday, is so vastly improved over its previous incarnation.

Mark Sutton, in his directorial debut, doesn't make the mistake of trying to ratchet up any unfounded worry over whether Grace will win the role of Peter Pan in the school play. Instead, he sees the story as a celebration of the imagination. With Children's Theatre's army of gifted craftspeople hatching wonder after wonder at Sutton's command, that's how we see it, too.

In CT's farewell to Spirit Square, McGlohon Theatre becomes a tapestry of Miro-styled tracery from the floor to the proscenium. Colorful costumes transform the stage into a Caribbean carnival. A mighty multicolored elephant comes rolling out of the wings to simulate Hannibal's march over the Alps — reinforced by a quaint animation projected on an enormous upstage screen.

But you may be even more wowed by the mighty sailing ship. The visual delights extend to an eye-popping sofa, a tinker-toy plum tree, Nana's walking stick and the bright green toothy croc that swallows Captain Hook, with more additional treats than we have space to catalog.

This Grace was so eye-popping that I sometimes wished it had the backbeat to match. But aside from the carnival interlude, we do get Jones's singing on a couple of occasions to supplement her impeccable island accent.

Sutton asks a helluva lot from his perilously youthful cast. Words fly by at a swift pace, occasionally at the price of audibility or expression. Kimberlee Robinson as Grace does project the copious pluck and charisma necessary to win honors of class leader by spontaneous acclamation. She also gives a childish dimension to Peter Pan that is refreshing. As Felix/Hook, Grace's chief doubter, Austin York is more than formidable enough to make Grace's triumphs — as Joan of Arc and Peter — feel hard-earned.

Early on, Ma's role as a well-meaning meanie who discourages Grace's theatrical aspirations seemed to make Alicia Williams uncomfortable. But when called upon to yield to Nana's charm — and Grace's irrepressible enthusiasm — Williams had exactly the right look of helplessness. The whole spectacle is difficult to resist.

At times, there was a surreal quality to the Benefit Concert at St. Peter's Episcopal Church last Friday night : as if the chamber music were being played in two different rooms at once. Seated at the rim of the chapel, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Calin Lupanu and CSO principal cellist Alan Black sounded vibrantly live and electrically present. Further back in the smallish nook under the chapel dome, however, guest pianist Jon Nakamatsu occasionally sounded like he was broadcasting from overseas.The folks who put together St. Pete's free monthly chamber music concerts seemed aware of the problem. The Steinway placed onstage for Nakamatsu was a baby grand. So until Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio required forays an octave or more above middle C, Nakamatsu was among us, even with light pedaling. Called upon to reach higher into the sonic stratosphere, Nakamatsu faded — and echoed — dramatically.

Black's fumbling with some of his early fingerings didn't help, and Lupanu overdramatized the dynamic shifts when he seized the lead. Nakamatsu's heavy entrance high up in Liberaceland had me thinking this might be a long evening. But Black quickly steadied, Lupanu showed a superb instinctive feel for the shifts in the pacing of the elegiac opening movement, and Nakamatsu burrowed into its darker shadings and exploded with its rumbling thunderbolts.

Nakamatsu-Lupanu-Black were quite respectable in preserving the lucidity of the ensuing theme and variations. Especially laudable were the passages where the pianist liltingly jumped the tempo and afterwards in his dirge-like exit.

Associate concertmaster John Lee joined the ensemble on second violin along with CSO violist David Filner for Dvorak's Op. 81 Piano Quintet. Then Black, the Chamber Music at St. Pete's artistic director, shared the stage with Nakamatsu for the encore, a beautifully played andante from Rachmaninoff's G Minor Cello Sonata.

All in all, a superb benefit program — and a compelling case for why Chamber Music at St. Pete deserves enthusiastic community support.

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