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CP Reaches New Heights at Halton 

Music, dance and comedy hit Charlotte's stages

With the words "House to half -- house out -- raise main curtain up -- light cue #1," Dale F. Halton had the unique pleasure of launching a brand new 1056-seat theater named in her honor. After a gala celebration and ceremony last Thursday evening, Central Piedmont Community College has a new facility for theater, opera, and dance.

Then with the official opening of The Sound of Music on Friday night, longtime CP subscribers shared a rare pleasure of their own, one that few Charlotteans had experienced before. They watched a homegrown production of a big Broadway musical, presented in a hall that was truly designed for that purpose.

Judging from the buzz I heard at intermission when I returned on Saturday night -- and after the two-hour, 26-minute production -- the experience was a revelation to all who have been suckled on musicals at panoramic Pease Auditorium. When the scrim of the abbey chapel lifted to reveal the alpine meadow where postulant Maria Rainer sings the fabled title song, imposing mountains loomed behind her. Plenty of blue sky was visible above the mountain peaks.

Moving on to the luxurious von Trapp living room, we beheld a lordly 13 steps leading to the airy balcony. Back at Pease, where the height is a mere 12 feet, five steps is about the max for multi-level shows like Rumors, The Foreigner, or Noises Off. More than that would cut into the scalps of taller actors -- and shrink upstairs doorways past the threshold of absurdity.

If the audience was wonderstruck by this awesome new palace, I have to observe that there was also a certain degree of disorientation evident from the design and tech people charged with filling the Halton with theatrical sights and sounds. Lights coming up on the grand meadow scene were nearly as graceless and disorganized as ticket pickup at Will Call. The area designated for the Mother Abbess's chamber didn't exactly chime with the scrim painted for it.

In the cuddly thunderstorm scene, set designer Fereshteh Rostampour and director Tom Hollis appeared to be at odds on the dimensions of Maria's bedroom. And a glaringly incongruous gate swooped down in front of the chapel from the fly loft to commemorate the joyous occasion of Maria's marriage to Captain von Trapp.

Surely an altar would have been more sensible?

Fewer blemishes marred the soundscape at the Halton, which was dialed in rather handsomely for a maiden effort. But when Maria's mike cut out amid the high spirits of "Do-Re-Mi" it was dispiriting. And when the eldest von Trapp sib's sound flickered during "So Long, Farewell," the title took on an unwelcome double entendre.

Larger stages cry out for larger stage presences. So The Sound of Music is, in many ways, an exclamation point on the talent that has toiled onstage hereabouts for many years without the acclaim -- and environment -- they deserve. The perkiness of Maria may not come as naturally to Susan Roberts Knowlson as her romantic roles in The Fantasticks, Show Boat, and Oklahoma! but she carries it off with breezy ease.

If the von Trapp siblings are not quite as decorous or cutesy-poo as those seen on film, I really didn't mind the subtle update. Linda Booth's choreography for "Do-Re-Mi" and "So Long, Farewell" catapults them to solid-gold adorable. Similarly, Patrick Ratchford is only slightly less crusty and regimented than your usual Captain, narrowing the wide gulf between him and Maria.

Vocals by Knowlson and Ratchford are outstanding, and you'll also descry outsized character acting from Dennis Delamar as the avuncular Max, James Duke as the sinister Zeller, and Pat Heiss as the disapproving Mistress of Novices. Crossing over from her labors at CPCC Opera Theatre, Rebecca Cook-Carter draws the biggest gasps of gratified surprise as the Mother Abbess. When you hit the high notes in "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" -- twice -- and hold your own with Knowlson in the "My Favorite Things" duet, èclat surely follows.

I have to confess that a tear came to my eye before Cook-Carter uttered her first "climb." Blame that partly on music director Drina Keen and the glorious sound she draws from the 22 musicians in the pit. Keen works equal wonders with two other large groups: the von Trapp kiddies and the Tyrolean nunnery.

You'll love The Sound of Music at Halton Theater. In more ways than one.

Since I was the first to note that North Carolina Dance Theatre fell short of their usual standard in their "Classics" season opener in September, let me proclaim that last week's Innovative Works was triumphantly back on stride. Sasha Janes reaffirmed his ascension to the company's top rung among the men with his stunning performance opposite Mia Cunningham in the late Salvatore Aiello's "Satto (Wind Dance)."

The newcomers proved that rebuilding isn't going to be a yearlong ordeal. Jhe W. Russell and Vladimir Lut brought a winning appeal to the Native American idiom of Mary Hudetz's "In Voice and Light." Nor were Tobias Parsons in overalls and Justin Van Weest in jeans any less characterful in Michael Vernon's zydeco-flavored "Watch That Dog."

My other favorite among the contemporary six-pack demonstrated that Mark Godden, after multiple misfires with NCDT, could finally get it together. His zany "Nocturnes" was a capricious combo, sloppily -- and slobberingly -- uniting Chopin's darkly romantic piano works with Anton Chekhov's The Lady With the Pet Dog. The Pomeranian hardly mattered in the short story, but it becomes a vehicle for Daniel Wiley to comically reassert his ascendancy alongside Janes.

Meanwhile, you could say that Traci Gilchrest, Nicholle Rochelle, and Rebecca Carmazzi also flashed their brilliance in making this Innovative the best in years. As for Kati Hanlon Mayo, she discarded her usual hauteur and danced with newfound vivacity.

BareBones Theatre Group is saying goodbye to the warehouse they've cunningly transformed into the SouthEnd Performing Arts Center. Their farewell to SPAC, Clive Barker's Crazyface, is a wonderfully surreal, picaresque, slapstick, and profound journey following the legendary Tyl Eulenspiegel on a series of loosely connected fantastical adventures. How fantastic? Let's just say that a prankish angel, a witch who can conjure up the dead, and a female pope are among the dramatis personae.

The 10-actor ensemble, headed by Matt Cosper as Tyl and directed by Peter Smeal, is as fine as any you'll encounter in post-Rep Charlotte. What further elevates this production far above the ordinary are the cavalcade of spot-on costumes by Kimberly Millar, the harlequin makeup design by Chad Calvert, and the phantasmagorical gargoyles by Grey Seal Puppets.

If you have fond memories of BBTG's superb production of Tony Kushner's The Illusion, you'll scamper to SPAC as quickly as you can.

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