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Detour To Terabithia 

More work needed on valuable project

Children's Theatre is pioneering beyond their comfort zone with Bridge to Terabithia. We've seen CT musicals before, and we've certainly had brave confrontations with dark, disturbing themes. But we've never had an intermission during a CT production -- or a Newberry Award medalist fielding audience questions on opening night. Regardless of author Katherine Paterson's appearance, signaling an auspicious hook-up with the Library's Novello Festival, there's no precedent in Charlotte for the rich package that Terabithia can deliver to children and families. While CT has refined their production of Scrooge! in successive revivals, they've never attempted such a darkly tinged musical before, one that questions divine order and justice while taking on the full brunt of mortality and grief.

I'd love to report that Children's Theatre has crossed the Jordan of intermission and arrived triumphantly in the Promised Land of Act 2. Sadly, this Bridge needs more work -- and better tools.

Begin with the script. The adaptation by Peterson and Stephanie S. Tolan gives too little weight to Jesse Aaron's struggle to cope with the sudden death of best friend Leslie Burke. Long before that shocker, character shadings and regional flavorings are smoothed over.

Music by Steve Liebman impedes the storyline rather than illuminating it. I can only imagine how clunky the original piano/synthesizer arrangements were. But new arrangements by Gina Stewart, Brenda Gambill and Allison Modaferri -- on acoustic instruments -- are a valiant exercise in futility.

Pat Reynolds' set design doesn't really delight the eye until we arrive in the imaginary realm of Terabithia where Jesse and Leslie reign as king and queen. With the lighting wizardry of Eric Winkenwerder working on the linen cylinder trees -- and perhaps a dash of inspiration from sound designer Gary Sivak -- there's finally some magic. Until then, the scenery hardly attempted to represent Jesse's rural Virginia home, his schoolyard, the classroom, or even the toilet where school bully Janice Avery sulks.

We do get a gorge where Jesse and Leslie swing across on an old rope to reach their secret kingdom. But we also get a horribly sloped foreground framing the simulated waters.

Compensating for the lame script and the lamer set, director Alan Poindexter has chosen an all-adult cast that brings individuality to the predictable barnyard and schoolyard cliches. We're used to this sort of alchemy from Mark Sutton, who narrates as Jesse. But unless you saw Meghan Lowther starring in Sylvia last month, you'll be pleasantly introduced to her bravura as fifth grade classmate Leslie. Chemistry between Sutton and Lowther is so fine that we feel a genuine pang when Leslie dies. Pity is, the meaningful purgation we're expecting afterwards never comes.

Our protagonists sell the music to the max, and the solid supporting ensemble includes a trio of outstanding newcomers. Doug Spagnola makes his CT debut as Gary Fulcher, reigning running champ of the 5th grade. As Jesse's dad, Vito Abate gets good mileage from the postmortem heart-to-heart chat with his grieving son. Better still, the pigtailed Kristy Cardamone is a perpetual delight as Jesse's pesky little sister May Belle.

CT's established blue chippers prove reliable. Stewart as the school faculty strums her guitar engagingly; Jill Bloede and Nicia Carla are exemplary rounding out the Aaron family. Roundest of all is Claire Whitworth-Helm as the vulnerable bully Janice.

A disappointing production, to be sure, but one with numerous bright spots. If Terabithia follows the precedent of Scrooge!, we can expect better Bridges in years to come when ImaginOn becomes reality.

Ironically, just when the city is starving for classical fare, Carolinas Concert Association (CCA) schedules a jazz band! Not an ordinary band, mind you, but the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra led by venerable music educator David Baker, a mean valve trombonist in his heyday. The trumpets, featuring the 81-year-old Joe Wilder, were the most august section of virtuosi, but there were treasures among the trombones and sass amid the saxes, particularly altoist Shannon LeClaire. The Smithsonians weren't about pandering to big band nostalgia. Avoiding familiar dancehall hits, Baker's tightly knit group roamed exclusively among jazzband repertoire created after WW2. Instead of revisiting the stomping grounds of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, we sallied forth into the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Shorty Rogers, Neal Hefti, Thad Jones and Oliver Nelson. It wasn't the most popular approach for the bluehairs clogging CCA's subscriber rolls, but it was terrific music, excitingly played and sensuously harmonized.

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