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Bob Beats Boston 

Plus, a sparkling Diamond

People who saw the electrifying Gretha Boston last year at Booth Playhouse in Cookin' at the Cookery may still be wondering: Why did I part company with the Metrolina Theatre Association and deny her the prize for Best Musical Actress in CL's Charlotte Theater Awards? Until Lisa Smith reprises her starring role in The Spitfire Grill -- which MTA's judges may include in their regional 2006-07 deliberations -- you won't be able to test my judgment.

Meanwhile, I can invite you to return to Booth Playhouse, where an exquisitely polished production of Wildwood Flowers: The June Carter Cash Musical lingers a little longer through May 27. There's a technical term for the superiority I find in Pamela Bob's portrayal of June Carter vis-à-vis Boston's stint as jazz legend Alberta Hunter.

It's called acting.

Wildwood Flowers was written by a former CL Actress of the Year, Angela Holley Bennett, upon first encountering June Carter's unique gifts. Watching Bob, you gradually see why Bennett was so enthusiastic -- why she was compelled to recreate this entertainer onstage. More than that, you see Carter's heart. Almost immediately.

Theater is so routinely imprecise that it still brings a lump to my throat when suddenly -- out of the blue -- an emotional moment is executed perfectly. That's what happens after June's opening songs when Bob gazes downstage right where, nudged along by Eric Winkenwerder's lighting design, we behold the wellspring of the Carter Family's musical legacy, Mother Maybelle Carter. Like an unspoken eulogy.

Gina Stewart outdoes herself as Maybelle, immersing herself into the musical matriarch -- and a frumpy wig from Barbi VanSchaick that's pitch-perfect -- with a simplicity and selflessness we've never seen from her before in a musical. It's a bravura performance that we scrutinize down to her fingertips as Stewart simulates Mother Maybelle's thumb-over-the-bridge guitar playing style, most memorably perhaps in the title song.

Bennett's script, co-written with Bobby Bodford and directed in this MaxxMusic Production by Bo Thorpe, presents some thorny problems for its star. Without going full-bore on her comedy shtick at first, Bob's singing belies her designation as the Carter family's vocal ugly duckling. There's a charming moment when she feels an upsurge of motivation as she learns that she can actually earn money with her performances!

But what age is she when she faces this stunning revelation? So much of the action floats freely out of all historical or chronological context, and Arthur Laurents' book for Gypsy stands in no danger of being eclipsed by the Bennett/Bodford depiction of June's sibs. Brenda Gambill and Allison Modafferi, Stewart's offstage bandmates in Volatile Baby, add heavenly harmonic layers as Anita and Helen Carter, but their roles are woefully underwritten.

All quibbles evaporate when Bob transforms herself into June's supreme comedy creation, Aunt Polly, and saunters down among the Booth Playhouse patrons seated around the cabaret tables. Those 10 minutes of hilarity, when Polly performs "Country Girl" between chats with the audience, are what elevate Wildwood Flowers to must-see entertainment -- while showing us what was treasurable about June Carter Cash as a performer.

MARK DIAMOND CLEARLY got his groove back for his contribution to Rhythm & Moves, the season-closer for North Carolina Dance Theatre last week. The choreographer's world premiere suite, New City South, was teeming with variety, original moves and sass. After a trashy, funky "Evening Street" segment by the six-member ensemble, we had an "After Hours" pas de deux from Traci Gilchrest and Sasha Janes that was oftentimes an anti-dance.

Then Justin Van Weest was the central homeless figure in "Bottom Dollar," ignored by various passersby too preoccupied by cellphones or iPods -- or just too paranoid to think of charity. Nicholle Rochelle, more hungry and engaged than we've seen her in awhile, scorched the stage in "Brew & Crew," before we transitioned to Randolph Ward (fast becoming an audience fave) as a preacher opposite Mia Cunningham as his illicit love in "Grace."

YOU MIGHT HAVE SNAPPED a compromising photo of this critic -- with his hands clapped tightly over his ears -- during former NCDT principal Uri Sands' All In Your Trunk. I must protest, however, that I was acting in self-defense: The West Charlotte High School Drumline made their dramatic entrance at full cry from the rear of Belk Theater, passing within inches of my aisle seat.

Very loud. Mia Cunningham, who should have been whipped by her exertions in the previous dances, cavorted like a possessed dervish in her majorette costume. Futilely, she importuned her fellow marchers to abandon regimentation and join her in joyous movement, finally surrendering to conformity. Or perhaps exhaustion.

The West Charlotte Drumline had some moves of their own, particularly among their line of cymbalists. The whole band meshed beautifully with the solemn symphonic figure that opened the work, drawn from the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony #7, riffing on Beethoven's rhythm in decidedly unsolemn style. Sands definitely rocked my world with this grandiose concept.

OPERA LOVERS IGNORE the current generation of CPCC Opera Theatre productions at their peril. I found that out last Saturday night at Halton, where I chose to attend The Marriage of Figaro because it marked the debut of David Tang with the company.

But the former Charlotte Symphony Orchestra resident director's ascent to the podium wasn't the only worthy attraction. Under Rebecca Cook-Carter's enterprising direction, the whole Beaumarchais story was transported pointedly to the present day. The English version of Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto by Ruth and Thomas Martin, performed by Opera Carolina in 2002, got some spirited tweaking as well.

Count Almaviva became political candidate Senator Almaviva, and his servants of yore were transformed into campaign staffers, including Figaro and fiancèe Susanna. Wielding cellphones and popping Advils, Mozart's characters were satisfyingly reconceived.

They were birthed with minor deformities, however. Baritone Jeffrey Braaten made for a dashing Figaro, singing with admirable richness. Yet among the Figs whom I've seen, this is surely the first to totally miss the wiliness and rich Rabelaisian humor that should mate with the vocals. Otherwise, I found the acting quite adequate.

Peter Barton had a nice starchiness as the Senator, and Sarah Starling had an appealing vivacity, though both could have played up the lecherous/lascivious elements of their characters much more. Ashley Kerr contributed the most poignant vocals of the night as Almaviva's forsaken wife, Rosina, while Whitney MacManamy as Cherubino is developing quite excellently as CP's pants role specialist.

The floor-level supertitles were a failed experiment, but that's showbiz. All in all, this was a production that deserved to play to a capacity house. Maybe by next season, word-of-mouth will catch up with the quality of opera at Halton.

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