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Plus, Rigoletto done di rigueur


At one point, late in the second act of Children's Theatre's fast-moving production of Louis Sachar's Holes, we find out how Stanley Yelnats' runaway chum, Zero, has survived his escape from Camp Green Lake. He has taken shelter from the lethal sun amid a heap of wooden wreckage he has found in the parched, stone-dry lakebed, and sustenance from drinking bottles of "sploosh" that he finds buried within.

If you've read Sachar's award-winning book, which hopscotches between continents and centuries relating the intertwined fates of three families, you can quickly ID that sploosh. Why, it's the 100-year-old spiced peaches Kate Barlow bottled in her domesticated days -- before heartbreak and injustice forced her to turn outlaw. Key intelligence when you recall 'twas the bandita Kissin' Kate who robbed Stanley's great-grandpaw of his fortune before he died.

Alas, if you haven't read the book, it might be best to bone up beforehand -- or have a middle-school sage at your side. Luckily, I had my wife with me on opening night. Having indoctrinated generations of middle-schoolers in the intricacies and subtleties of Sachar's yarn, Sue was able to call my attention to signposts and plot points that would otherwise have eluded me.

I emerged from McColl Family Theatre highly satisfied with the acting and stagecraft I had seen, yet still haunted by the feeling that something very essential had been missing. Sue, on the other hand, knew what had been left out and which key connections hadn't been hammered home. That put her in her finest teacher mode during the drive home.

So I know that the wooden wreckage was an ancient boat that the evil Trout Walker had sunk a century before, thwarting Kate's escape with Zero's doomed ancestor. But I suspect that nearly all those who had entered McColl without reading Sachar's curriculum staple -- or without buying the book afterwards -- didn't have a clue until this paragraph.

Likewise, I now know how the palindromic Stanley's heroic labors lifted the curse that had hung over his family since pig-poaching patriarch Elya Yelnats embarked for America. Because Sachar took on the challenge of adapting his own work for the stage, he has only himself to blame that the script doesn't work as well as it could. As a playwright, he lacks the vision -- or the heart -- to reconfigure his long, looping plotline and rewire those key connections.

Faced with a botched adaptation, director Mark Sutton and his all-adult cast provide an engrossing theater experience -- with all the tech trimmings of ImaginOn. Tensions between the good guys and the baddies have a primal chain-gang crackle, seasoned with welcome comedy bits.

Rory Dunn as Stanley and Leonard Alford as Zero make excellent debuts. Dunn bears the heavier acting burdens, including carrying Alford in the climactic expiation sequence, but the bond between the two goes beyond what can be set down in books. That's important, since we ultimately need to feel that Stanley's unjust sentencing to the Green Lake penal camp is a godsend.

Ace villains are Craig Kolkebeck as seed-spitting Mr. Sir and Barbi Van Schaick as the obsessive Trout spawn who is the Warden at Camp Green Lake. Maybe rattlesnake poison can't kill, but it increases the fear factor for both these sadistic oppressors.

Stan Peal does his subtlest work as the hypocritical camp therapist Mr. Pendanski, a smiling mockery of rehabilitation, but Peal's comical bits as the western Sheriff and the profoundly Polish Elya are just as savory. Hilariously dictatorial from her wheelchair, Tanya McClellan gets free rein to ham it up as gypsy soothsayer Madame Zeroni, and she doesn't disappoint.

The cons at the camp are a pleasingly tough and sleazy bunch. Gerard Hazelton stands out for his cool authority as the goggled X-Ray, counterpoised by the psycho volatility of Jason Thomas Mayfield as Zigzag.

Shoulder-deep holes, spotted lizards and even a jeep appear and disappear slickly from the McColl stage, precisely calibrated for their impact on the kiddies. Too bad the techs couldn't work on the holes in Sachar's script. Let a middle-schooler fill you in.

Decked out with a gallery of characters who are thoroughly vile -- or, at best, maddeningly stupid -- Verdi's Rigoletto has never ranked among my favorites. So I'm happy to report that unexpected delight ousted my dread last week as Opera Carolina reprised the tuneful tale of rancid morality and vengeance in 16th Century Mantua.

Among Victor Hugo's hunchbacked protagonists, court jester Rigoletto will always play second fiddle to the bell-ringing Quasimodo. Hell, the title character doesn't even get one of Verdi's hit tunes. They go to Rig's lovely daughter, Gilda ("Caro nome"), and the libidinous Duke ("La donna è mobile") she idiotically throws away her life for.

Bass baritone Gordon Hawkins is simply too large to slink across the stage with servile meekness. Like Quaz, Hawkins' hunchback is a monster to be feared, which is exactly how stage director John Hoomes has the courtiers behave in Act 2 when Rigoletto vents his righteous rage upon his daughter's abductors. There were plenty of moments when Rigoletto goaded the humpless in Act 1, including the confrontation when he prodded the unjustly arrested Count Monterone to issue his fatal curse.

Hawkins' domineering heft made his protective tenderness toward Gilda akin to King Kong's vulnerability, so his soft side had a similar appeal. What's more, Hawkins' singing, particularly in the Act 2 discovery scene, was filled with power, whether the jester was worrying, raging or pleading.

So it's no small feat that Ailyn Pérez as Gilda came close to upstaging Hawkins, beginning with an Act 1 "Caro nome" that had me in tears. The soft delicacy of Gilda's deluded joy was soon succeeded by high-volume protestions when she was deflowered in Act 2 and jilted in Act 3. Not a total idiot in Pérez's hearty portrayal.

Until Act 3, I felt Rigoletto was the best-sung Opera Carolina production I'd seen, fully on a par with the Met. But I grew gradually disenchanted with tenor James Valenti, whose voice has unmistakable superstar timbre. He carried off the first two acts roguishly enough, even convincing me early in Act 2 that his tryst with Gilda had momentarily converted him to the joys of constancy.

But what seemed like an individualistic rubato early on was mercilessly unmasked as poor breath control when Valenti attempted to wrap his larynx around the Duke's money tune. It ended with a weak whimper instead of a baroque bang.

All in all, the larynxes were superb when you toss in the exploits of Jamie Offenbach as the assassin Sparafucile and Angela Horn as his wanton sister Maddalena. Continuing his astonishing development, John Fortson really did have the intimidating moral force of Count Monterone.

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