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Coco goes nuts 

Plus, a rampaging Artzilla

Somebody didn't shoot me the memo. Last weekend must have been declared the official opening of a citywide non-ASC fund drive. A rash of fund-raising events challenged Charlotte's battalions of philanthropic arts lovers to be multiple places around town at the same time, emptying their wallets for beauty and truth.

First came the invite from Theatre Charlotte, a longtime affiliate of the Char-Meck Arts & Science Council, which hosted its black-tie "Night at the Copacabana" gala at the Levine Museum on Saturday evening. Then came word that two new indie groups had also earmarked Palm Sunday (or pre-Passover) weekend to rally their faithful supporters.

Faithful is an apt word here since both the Queen City Theatre Company and Charlotte Total Theatre are offshoots of long-entrenched guerilla groups that recently bit the dust. Queen City is spearheaded by Stuart Williams and the former artistic director of Off-Tryon Theatre Company, Glenn Griffin, while Total is the enterprise of Joseph Curry, a refugee from Moving Poets, currently seeking more cultivated soil in Europe.

It seems clear that Total Theatre will launch operations at the Hart Witzen on 36th Street, close to the bosom of its artsy NoDa constituency. Where Queen City's imposing 2007-08 season will land is still open to conjecture, but a multi-site solution seems inevitable.

After last Saturday night, Griffin and Williams can have no lingering doubts about Actor's Theatre on Stonewall Street -- except for the fact that it couldn't accommodate the rabid demand for An Evening with Miss Coco Peru. A trés formidable transvestite cabaret performer, Miss Coco is a rare combination of bitchiness, grace and devout political incorrectness. One night of her glitzy trannie antics will have to do until she returns next year with a new show.

The quirky poles of this show's song list were two tunes from Chicago -- including a "Coco" makeover for "Roxie" -- and a couple of dashes from Disney. Naughtiness and saccharine mixed to perfection. Dolly P's "Here You Come Again," apparently an anthem in Coco's warped universe, became a rousing sing-along finale.

In between songs, Miss Peru ranged from her vulgar Bronx upbringing to her spicy dalliances with Rafael, who (if memory serves) is from Spain. Miss C has had much to deal with along the way. Bullying classmates in preschool were a formative part of the doleful tapestry. More recent plagues include catty fellow queens, critiquing her spelling when she achieved fame, and an unrequited desire to play the lead in the Broadway musical version of The Little Mermaid.

Above all, Miss Coco was gracious enough to confide in us what a humiliating low point in her career it is for her to be invited to perform in Charlotte. You've got to love her for her honesty alone.

While all seats on Stonewall Street were filled with Coco-natics, the situation at Artzilla was more fluid and primitive. Outside on the Hart Witzen's rear porch, you could sip a libation and watch a flaming phoenix dim into embers. One of the two stages inside was perpetually in use. Dance, hip-hop, rap and spoken word reigned near the loading dock -- with occasional invasions of sculpture, mime and paganism. Music ensembles filled in the gaps on the smaller satellite stage, an even mix of acoustic and electric during the brief time I was able to attend.

Living sculptures lined the wall, their bodies scantily wrapped in togas, exposed skin painted by the roaming artists who claimed them. Ostensibly inspired by Egyptian mythology -- not to mention a fabulously cheesy Japanese monster -- Artzilla ran a giganto 4-plus hours on each of its two nights last Friday and Saturday.

The freewheeling festival atmosphere kept the experience from losing its Bohemian casualness and becoming a stifling arts avalanche. Bryan Quan, Alban Elved, Jim Nicholson and Omimeo were the key notables in the lineup. There were two shots of Total Theatre's Benu Khet Nefer (Sun, Fire, Beauty) each evening, a clear hint you weren't expected to catch everything.

Miranda Haywood and Tai Dorn were certainly worth catching in their sultry Arabian pas de deux, breaking out of their cocoon and steaming up the stage with their sinuous symmetry before reverting to embryo. Moonlighting from the North Carolina Dance Theatre -- and hobbled by injury -- Jhé Russell brought an interesting company of mic-holders. Bluz was the most satisfying as he elaborated on his sexual overdrives.

A new monster has indeed been unleashed at Artzilla, one with an even greater potential than Charlotte Total Theatre. Anyone who felt the pulse and saw the synergy at Hart Witzen last weekend no doubt feels confident that it will return.

Joining Miss Coco in preempting a deeper immersion in Artzilla was the second half of Charlotte Symphony's mini-festival of British-American music, spotlighting Holst's The Planets. So far in 2007, the CSO has been impeccable after intermission in their four Classics concerts. This time, subscribers stuck around to listen!

They were treated to a gorgeous performance following resident conductor Alan Yamamoto's supersized intro. Our planetary voyage traversed the specific gravities of 2007, as rich at times as the Brahms #4, as buoyant as Beethoven's Pastoral, and nearly as kaleidoscopic as Elgar's Enigma. Somewhere out in the wings, the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte sounded heavenly as they faded out the final great orb, "Neptune, the Mystic."

Both Mars and Uranus had a fine brassy relentlessness to them, akin to the climaxes of Ravel's Bolero or Dukas' Apprentice. Inner movements were markedly daintier, with flutterings of harps and celesta that recalled Debussy's gossamer compositions. The Venus adagio paraded effective solo work from Frank Portone on French horn, concertmaster Calin Lupanu, and oboist Hollis Ulaky. Nicely contrasted was Mercury, swift and quicksilver as its name, with Bette Roth and Christine Van Arsdale chasing each other on the harps.

I could only wonder that capricious subscribers stayed. Onstage prior to intermission, the Oratorios were no less glorious with director Scott Allen Jarrett making his debut at the CSO podium. Musicians didn't fail Jarrett in Barber's "Prayers of Kierkegaard" nor in the Charlotte debut of Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music," but the four solo guest vocalists were pretty damn horrible on Friday. Only bass Daniel Boye and tenor Jeffrey Price rose to the level of lackluster.

I won't name the others or belabor their deficiencies. Yet without strong, pleasing solos, the impact of "Prayers" was marred and the eloquence of "Serenade" was scuttled. Perhaps CSO should declare a moratorium on solo vocalists when the Queen City is awash in pollen -- or be prepared to jettison guest artists who aren't cutting the mustard in rehearsals.

Similar cold-bloodedness can be recommended to [project incite], the bracketed lower-case indie that presented their dance-inflected the relocation of pluto. at CAST last week. I was captivated by [pi]'s half of pluto, a two-part fantasia, WITHIN (the moment of waking)/WITHOUT (a life jacket). The imagery of waking was sufficiently vivid. But while I searched in vain for a visible life jacket, I could console myself with the white-on-white choreographic concept of Justin Turnow and Jacqueline White, spiked with effective robotic and blackout effects. Meredith Starnes' fleecy costume design -- and that silvery blue wraparound eye paint -- capped the alien ambiance.

The ensemble was also top-notch, including such notables as Audrey Ipapo, Sarah Emery and Turnow herself. Bravura solo work from Bridget Morris, a Moving Poets stalwart, made her the standout of the evening.

So what egregious lapse in judgment permitted [pi] to team up with emancipated logik for vernal, the second part of the evening? This chest-pounding chunk of pretension was written and performed by turtle -- there is nothing wrong with my shift key -- and his hapless accomplice, Patrick Mawn. Turnow and White were implicated in the choreography, I'm afraid, though they steered clear of the stage as performers.

On the slim one-act evidence of vernal, I would arrest, convict and incarcerate all who comprise the emancipated logik arts collective. That's for starters. Next I would sentence them to solitary confinement. Forever. Without parole.

Didn't like 'em.

A more intriguing pairing occurred with pianist Olga Kern's return engagement at Belk Theater, presented once again by Carolinas Concert Association, this time fortified by the National Philharmonic of Russia. Decked out in a glittery day-glo lime dress, Kern dazzled the CCA subscribers, and you can see why Charlotte Symphony is drooling at the prospect of showcasing Kern for the first time.

Musically, they're getting the short end of the stick. Kern pounded out some passages of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and luxuriated pensively in others. There was very little playing in the vast oceans that lie between fortissimo and mezzo piano in abler, more sensitive hands -- and none in the softer depths below. Melody was often obliterated in the hammering. Even when she relaxed and played the big tune reasonably well, there was never the subtle ebb and flow of truly artful phrasing, never a gleam of contemplative revelation.

On the other hand, graded on live performance, Russia's National Phil took a secure top spot among the prestigious orchestras that CCA has brought here in recent years. The massive ensemble not only redefined the dramatic argument of Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture," they reaffirmed the beauty of the Belk's acoustics.

After intermission, the Phil and its maestro, Vladimir Spivokov, offered remedial schooling on the shadings Rachmaninoff's music can truly convey in Sergei's Symphonic Dances. Friskier yet were the two encores. Khatchaturian's "Georgian Dance," the Phil's final salvo, left me gasping for air -- and adequate superlatives.

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