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Barn Storming 

There's no fully fathoming Nine

OK, it's time for me to toss in the towel, hoist a white flag, and surrender. After a long frustrating evening at Theatre Charlotte, where an energetic cast drifts in and out of audibility during the current production of Nine, I'm more than a little tempted to spout outright heresy. Bring on the head mikes, I say, or forget about doing big musicals at the Queens Road barn. Directing this flashy musical adaptation of Federico Fellini's 8-1/2, Ron Chisholm makes all the right moves in placing the band and limiting their number. Capably led from the keyboard by Ryan Michael Blake, the sextet is far upstage — behind a tiled bathhouse of a set that oozes decadence — almost totally out of the audience's view.

Yet when famed auteur Guido Contini (a transparent pseudonym for Fellini) communes with his 9-year-old self after an evening filled with wanton phantasmagoric reminiscence — and Fellini-esque self-indulgence — nearly all of that pivotal dialogue was inaudible in the third row. That was partly because Robert Nipper, starring as the elder Guido, was deluded about how far his sotto voce would carry. And it was partly because Corey Cray, as the flashback Contini, never gets the amplification he needs to connect with the audience.

Most of the women onstage — Guido's mom plus nine later intimates — also drift off the audio radar from time to time. Or they strain so mightily at the upper end of their vocal ranges that they produce high notes we'd rather not hear.

Polly Adkins and Daryl Gerber were welcome exceptions to the prevailing vocal woes. Gerber struts before us as Liliane La Fleur, the fount of Condini's capitalization even as he languishes in a career slump. She belts out "Folies Bergere" with a finely articulated French accent. Not long afterwards, Adkins sashays downstage as Sarraghina, Young Guido's guide on the path of sensuality, delivering "Be Italian" with all its sexual freight intact.

Nipper, when he is audible, goes through the conceited Condini's midlife crisis with a slightly flabby macho appeal that can hardly be bettered. We need that lovability most acutely in those scenes where Carol Weiner appears as Guido's wife or Lisa Valverde materializes as his mater. Amid flecks of Italian flavoring, these two tomatoes transport us from Roma to Savannah in a matched set of wooden performances.

If Nipper convincingly demonstrates that Condini doesn't require Antonio Banderas' high voltage, other aspects of the show don't travel quite as well. The tessitura of Maury Yeston's score may be too relentlessly high for comfort at the community theater level. The slope of Nick Collins' tiled set may be further eroding the ladies' comfort, particularly since they usually traverse the treacherous terrain in high heels. Otherwise, Rebecca Cairns' dazzling set of costume designs must be counted as confidence boosters.

Less than three weeks before Nine opened, I attended Honk, Jr., a delightful musical adaptation of "The Ugly Duckling," at Springfield Elementary School down in Fort Mill. Thanks to head mikes, those fourth- and fifth-grade Springfield kids were often more audible than the adults at Theatre Charlotte — in a large lunchroom that, acoustically, wasn't nearly as friendly.

I wish that space cadet gear were over at Queens Road. Even with Arthur Kopit's stageworthy book, Fellini can be sufficiently baffling when the sound is crystal clear. Pumping up the volume would provide welcome relief to audiences and to some valiantly struggling vocalists.

Uptown at Belk Theater, North Carolina Dance Theatre brought its season to a rousing close with World Beat. While the reprise of Nicolo Fonte's Brave! was more than a mere appetizer, clearly the main spotlight was reserved for the world premiere of Alonzo King's SALT.The whole spectacle ventured outside the box before the curtain went up. Seated in the orchestra pit — but level with the audience — was a distinguished quintet of international musicians. Most familiar perhaps was vocalist Rita Sahai from India, an honorary Flecktone after her debut on Bela Fleck's first Sony album. She blended seamlessly with her four Moroccan cohorts after an opening round of solo chants.

King's choreography chimed beautifully with the music, beginning with the opening tableau featuring young students from DancePlace. Dressed in diaphanous pink pastels, the youngsters played joyously with large pearlescent beach balls, tossing them in the air or rolling them across the stage. The millennial spirit of this cherubic frolic was a throwback to those halcyon days when The Beatles first infused their work with sitar and other Eastern spices.

Then our focus shifted to the bravura of NCDT's frontliners, chiefly the women beginning with Ayisha McMillan in her elfin/angelic mode. Kati Hanlon Mayo partnered with Sasha Janes in a more civilized balletic style before giving way to the more primal revels of Mia Cunningham, draped in a sultry burnt orange chemise.

Most outré was the suggestive slithering of Traci Gilchrest against reflective silver panels manned by Jesse Tyler and Justin Van Weest. Somehow it all fit, though I wondered how King decided to inject this jest.

With stunning crispness, energy and angularity, Nicholle Rochelle nearly swept away all who preceded her. Her brilliance in the "Marhaba" segment foreshadowed the orgiastic jubilation of the concluding "Hela" ensemble. Peppered with vigorous drumming, clapping and chanting from the exotic musicians, what sounded like an idyllic dream at the start of SALT ended as a triumphant celebration.

If you like your theater raw and raunchy, with a jalapeño pop of roughhouse and vulgar comedy, head over to the SouthEnd Performing Arts Center as fast as you can say Sam Sheperd. BareBones Theatre Group is presenting Lynn Siefert's Coyote Ugly, featuring a trashy Redi-Whip guzzling Pewsey family that is so useless, violent and incestuous that they're almost adorable.Driven by some masochistic urge to return to the rattlesnake nest where he was born, Dowd Pewsey brings his bride Penny back home to the scorching Southwest. If anything, his folks — Red and Andreas — are more repulsive now than when Dowd fled 12 years earlier. And there's a new bundle of hatred, hopeless yearning, feeblemindedness and inbreeding in the household, a wild 12-year-old girl named Scarlet.

Directing for the first time at SPAC, Matt Cosper assembles a cast that performs more brilliantly than Siefert's script, abetted by Chris Timmons' tumbledown set and Christopher Donoghue's explosive fight choreography. James Yost as Dowd and Beth Pierce as Penny have been this good before, and Hank West as Red gives a more textured rendition of the crazed and besotted creature you may remember from Betty's Summer Vacation last year.

But Anne Lambert as the mean layabout matriarch and Andrea King as her rabid hellspawn break through into fresh frontiers, better than we've ever seen them before. A guilty pleasure with action and comedy that will make you gasp.

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