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Bush's Vanishing Act 

An awkwardly magical finale

Last season, Michael Bush launched his era as Charlotte Repertory Theatre's producing artistic director with a parade of notables from Broadway and Hollywood. The Tony Award caliber talent began with Penny Fuller last fall and crescendoed with an onslaught from Andre De Shields, Marla Schaffel, and Gretha Boston last winter. And springtime brought us intermittent showers of dazzling Hollywood tinsel when the city laid out the red carpet for Academy Award winner Hilary Swank. Charlotte audiences who came to Rep's productions seemed sufficiently impressed with the new regime. But those audiences didn't grow sufficiently to stave off a stinging $600,000 deficit for the season.

Emily Skinner jump-started the 25th anniversary edition of Pump Boys and Dinettes alongside the musical's prime creator, Jim Wann. But it was obvious that Rep's finances were hemorrhaging when the company applied a tourniquet on October 17.

A full week was surgically removed from the runs of all new mainstage productions -- including Jar the Floor, with notables Suzzanne Douglas and Gretha Boston opening in previews one night after the announcement came out. Subscribers learned that Hamlet had been amputated from the season along with the annual New Play Festival and the New Year's fundraising gala.

So here we are, a month into Rep's counterintuitive austerity plan, and Bush is directing his swan song as the company's chieftain, having resigned five days before previews for All of the People, All the Time. Ironically, the man who busted Rep's budget is ending with his smallest show. Returning to its previous home at Duke Playhouse in Spirit Square, Rep is actually playing to its smallest house in over a decade.

Make no mistake, though, Bush and Rep are still cramming some big names into those small confines. At the table making coins appear and disappear at will is David Roth, two-time Magician of the Year. Matching him wonder for wonder is pre-eminent card wizard Darwin Ortiz.

All of the People gives us a comical, swiftly paced, autobiographical look into the intimate world of sleight-of-hand magic. Ortiz and Roth have been friends since their early 20s, and we watch as their disdain for each other's specialties grows into admiration. Cementing the intensified theatricality is playwright/actor/lyricist Patrick Cook. Co-authoring the script with Roth and Ortiz, Cook has the advantage of a longtime friendship with both magicians -- and he's something of a magic enthusiast and aficionado in his own right.

Two actors, Randell Haynes and Lane Morris, augment the storytelling, playing multiple roles -- including parents and mentors. You also see audience members whisked onstage to see the illusions unfolding close-up and to add to the overall amazement.

Ortiz is marginally the better actor of the two magicians, his exploits with his 52 assistants (a deck of cards) more baroque. In his climactic "Four Queens" trick, he deploys four of the deck's picture cards, signed by two audience members, to the most improbable destinations in less than an eyeblink. Roth's style is simpler, less fidgety, classic. Sleeves rolled up nearly to his elbows, he can pluck coin after coin out of midair and -- in his climactic "Midas" illusion -- toss them clanging into a steel pot. Once, he even tosses an invisible coin into that pot. How he makes that clunking sound baffles me yet.

Bush directs in the florid spirit of the magician's art. As a result, Haynes and Morris seem a tad loud and overdone at times compared to our protagonists, who have spent a lifetime playing to small houses. What seems intended as lightweight Neil Simon reminiscence veers too often toward broad sketch comedy.

On the other hand, Bush works beautifully with Roth and Ortiz, both newbies in the acting game. Selecting the magic we see -- from what must be a huge catalog -- Bush does more than merely skim the cream. He deftly balances the time and impact allotted to each member of the duo, and he nicely contours the amazement that the routines yield so that it conforms to the performers' growing stature as we follow their careers. Best of all, we get seamless transitions when our heroes leave their sleight-of-hand comfort zone and venture into the terra incognita of acting.

During his season-and-a-half, Bush thought big and spent big, aiming for the stars and plucking them down to Charlotte. He leaves us with a little gem, so small that he had to downsize from Charlotte Rep's usual stage. A sudden, odd, awkward, and abbreviated farewell that's likely to sell out every night. After an hour and 50 minutes, I found myself wanting more: more of the close-up magic and more of Bush's eclectic range of productions. Guess it isn't in the cards.

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