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Cass Morgan, Let Down Your Hair! 

A look at Charlotte Rep's True HomePerry

There's an undeniable charm about the simple way True Home goes about making its music and telling its story. Three singer/actors sitting on three stools, joined onstage by three intrepid musicians. Few props and no scenery.Cass Morgan's new "concert musical" is a breed apart, and Charlotte Rep is putting the newborn on its feet for the first time at Booth Playhouse. And since that's Morgan sitting on the middle stool, we're getting an authentic draught of the singer/songwriter's heart and soul ­ and a sublimated summation of her life.

With the help of Maureen Silliman and Daniel Jenkins, we meet Cass's overtasked mom and her moody, military, invalid father. Then there's Cass's eccentric grandmother and her green, green house in Rochester; a string of husbands who never quite click; and a seedy Broadway debut in Hair.

The soul-searching ­ about her flawed parents and her own flawed parenting ­ does Morgan credit. Her journey to Ireland and the meditation on her roots also bring pleasure. But even more piercing self-examination and honesty are called for. And at nine songs, 75 minutes, delivering just the barest slivers of her career, True Home could use more true substance.

When you've whittled your materials so thin, you ought to finish with a graceful, glittering, faultless gem. So I'm guessing Morgan and the 8-member team who pitched in on this musical score aren't finished yet.

The first big problem surfaces as soon as Cass and her backup group take their places. My big question is why? Because there's really no attempt to set up a situation, to begin telling a story, or to connect with the audience in any meaningful way. Instead, Morgan & Company perform two pleasant tunes before Silliman and Jenkins morph into the voices of Morgan's parents.

At the talkback after last Saturday night's preview, there was some approval voiced for this aimless opening ­ and indications from the author that she intended to be mysterious. But true mystery onstage must be about what's happening now, not about when the show will start.

A little less coyness would help once the narrative begins rolling. Morgan has been closely involved in some of the most notable musicals of recent times, including Violet, The Capeman, Children of Eden, and Pump Boys and Dinettes. Yet she ignores these career highlights, choosing instead her relatively obscure stint in Hair.

I'm tickled by Morgan's lingering embarrassment over disrobing and revealing her stretch marks to an unprepared public. I'll ride along with the assertion that she had never touched a mind-altering substance before she was offered some powerfully laced brownies backstage back in the early 70s.

But no matter how comical Morgan's reaction to prime grade hash, I'm just not accepting that it was so potent that she totally blacked out on her naked moment in America's "Tribal Love-Rock Musical," returning to awareness only when she returned to her apartment. Sweetheart, you stripped, you did it for the money, and you need to deal with it.

Once she decides to be more forthcoming, Morgan and director John Carrafa have assembled a superb group to help her along. Carrafa's approach is finely calculated casual. His actor/singers are even in synch when they reach for their water glasses.

Steven Tyler, on leave from conducting The Producers on Broadway, shows his mega-hit talent here as music director and arranger. Particularly impressive are his arrangements of Morgan's nostalgic "All I Want" (with memories of Patti Paige and Teresa Brewer in the lyric) and Stephen Schwartz's magnificent finale, "Forgiveness' Embrace." Tyler's work at the keyboard is always tasty, and I liked his cool way of tossing off his few wisps of dialogue.

Silliman is faultless in all her brief incarnations young and old. It's Jenkins who has the flashiest role, dishing out comedy as an impish sib and an 87-year-old Irishwoman, shaking some catchy Latin percussion along with his silken vocals, and suddenly brandishing a flute and a pennywhistle when we reach the Old Sod.

Jenkins' bravura is another reason why Morgan needs to assert herself more powerfully and connect with us sooner. Her vocals can be quite special, as David Bucknam's enchanting "Tap, Tap, Tap" clearly demonstrates. But if Morgan wants to keep circling back to her unsatisfying relationship with her dad ­ and clearly she does ­ then the circles need to be wider. They need to take in her life as a child, a lover, a mother, and most of all, as an artist.

We're very lucky here in Charlotte as we watch Cass Morgan elevate herself from observer and interpreter to meaningful subject. True Home is well worth our attention and may mature into a groundbreaking piece.

Speaking of being lucky, let's consider the extraordinary Children's Theatre production of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. No joint effort by director Alan Poindexter and production designer Johann Stegmeir has been this good since the bad old days when they were co-conspirators at naughty Innovative Theatre.

Flavoring this story of a queenly young mouse who learns to yield the spotlight at school and tolerate a baby brother at home, Stegmeir has created a stunning set of costumes blaring attitude from ear to tail. The rig he has created for baby brother Julius is a comic wonder, part bonnet, part blanket, and part basinette on wheels. Even the pre-schoolers were howling with laughter.

To appreciate Poindexter's exploits, simply reference any other theater presentation you've ever seen where grade-school, middle-school, or high-school students shouldered the lion's share of the acting burden. These mice are all lions. Truly phenomenal.

Tenth-grader Amanda Rentschler is the pride of the bunch in the title role, brassy in her conceit, touching in her contrition. Justin Loiseau and Stephen Rowland, in their mainstage debuts, are adorable as Chester and Wilson, flamboyant Lilly's mundane chums.

Most phenomenal is the comedy, spot-on even in the supporting roles. Dustin Rubin has but one word ­ and pages of googling - as baby Julius, and he's a scream. Trent Holzinger in a peacenik T-shirt as Dad and Kara Hester as the fastidious Cousin Garland are lesser hoots.

The two adults also shine. April Jones adds mock authority to Lilly's loving Mom. And just how does one react to all the warmth and humor generated by Mark Sutton as Lilly's wise, "Listen up, Rodents" schoolteacher, Mr. Slinger?

Well, to quote Kevin Kling's terrific stage adaptation of the Kevin Henkes books, "All I can say is wow."

Find a kid ­ or whatever excuse you can ­ and see Lilly. Charlotte's children are extremely fortunate to have access to such an unforgettable intro to live theater. We all are.

There's nothing on tap at CPCC Theatre this season that I haven't seen twice before. In the case of Tom Griffin's The Boys Next Door, currently at panoramic Pease Auditorium, I was facing my fourth go-round with this earnest, engaging, sometimes schmaltzy script.

It's not easy for actors to depict mentally retarded adults. Griffin tosses in some gratuitous vaudeville that makes it even tougher to avoid ridicule. Director Tom Hollis and his cast walk that tightrope rather well, though the depictions of the residents at a New England group home aren't consistently true-to-life.

Hollis beautifully sculpts the moments that matter most. Doughnut addict Norman dancing with his sweetheart Sheila and later presenting her a ringful of keys. Fantasy golf pro Barry breaking down and being comforted by the profoundly retarded "I got Spiderman" Lucien. Choicest of all, ultra-anal Arnold's extreme anxiety when he throws a surprise farewell party for the group's social worker, Jack.

Tony Wright's Jack is the best I've seen. He beautifully balances the patience and stress of a professional edging closer to burnout. And there's no softening of the heartlessness of his pragmatic abandonment of "the boys" who adore him.

Once he picked up his pace and began pouncing on cues, John Dickson beautifully captured the legions of Arnold's sometimes ludicrous anxieties and his ever-adorable catch phrases. James Duke and Amy Laughter are both comical and touching as Norman and his ladylove.

All the minor roles are capably handled, but Dana Alderman is the standout as a clueless employer and a stuffed-shirt Senator.

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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