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Disneyworld At Dana 

Vance returns with a Beauty of a show

Round One of the Tom-Tom shootout has been decided - and it's a clear victory for Vance. Last December, after 34 years of sterling service to Central Piedmont Community Theatre and the cause of Charlotte musical theater, venerable Tom Vance was told to clean out his office. In the process, the reins of CP Summer Theatre were handed over to Vance's longtime heir apparent, Tom Hollis. Without skipping a beat — or a season — the indomitable Vance has created Charlotte Summer Theater, so he's competing against the company he founded in 1974. Artistically, he's winning.

Opening with a four-weekend stand of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Vance & Company have dispelled numerous doubts hovering over the enterprise. Looking at the costumes, the lights and the special effects, you quickly get the idea that Charlotte Summer has raised the capital to compete successfully with CP Summer. Listening to the orchestra under Don Hite's musical direction underscores that impression.

During the Loaf Era, there really haven't been any successful stage productions at Dana Auditorium. Concerts by the Charlotte Civic Orchestra have shown the large hall to be endowed with less-than-thrilling acoustics. Where the Pease Auditorium stage is low-slung, Dana offers perhaps too much height, and only Moving Poets Theatre of Dance has come close to taming it.

Until now. Scenic design by Joe Gardner reminded me of production values for the Vance Theatrical Organization's lavish Oklahoma! back in 1997. OK, so there were a couple of ragged scene changes along the way — and one frightful clunker setting up the climax — but Beauty far outclasses the craftsmanship and fluidity of CP's Gypsy.

Technically, there's even more to admire, from the adorable teacup illusion for Chip Potts to the dramatic transformations that frame the evening: the supplicant hag who turns into the Enchantress in the intro and the Beast's final restoration to princely form. Both of these transformations are admirably delivered by ZFX Flying Illusions.

For a locally produced show charging $25 for its primo tickets, that might be quite enough with a passable cast. Amazingly, Vance's troupe outshines the official Disney tour that first brought Beauty to this burg.

To be honest, after seeing Marc Dalio's somewhat lackluster performance as Tony in West Side Story at CP last summer, I was skeptical that he would bring us the full ferocity and passion of the Beast. He does that and more, abetted by a sound-sample roar that struck terror into some grade-schoolers' hearts. Dalio was more than athletic and ferocious. He was comically clumsy in the finest Disney vein, and his growing intimacy with Belle was genuinely moving.

Danyelle Bossardet, like Dalio, is a veteran of Beauty's touring Equity company. As Belle, she metes out exactly the right measure of pluckiness, intellect and backbone.

But don't get the idea that Vance and his assistant director Eddie Mabry turn their talented players loose to do as they please. The polish of this production demonstrates more extensive rehearsal — and more detailed direction — than any local musical I can remember. Just watch the exits of Steven Bryan as the butler-turned-candelabra Lumiere. They are an anthology of precision and excellence.

Deborah Rhodes makes a welcome return to the local stage, singing the title song as Mrs. Potts. Robert Nipper as the clock, Lynn Scoggins as the armoire and Holly Riley as Lumiere's darling feather duster are equally flavorful and humorous. I even liked the boorish sadism of Brandon Ellis as Gaston — largely because of Brandon Upshaw's exuberance as Gaston's masochistic sidekick, Lefou.

With the positive word-of-mouth Beauty and the Beast will generate, Vance's goal of 500 tickets per performance seems reachable. But this production at Queens University does raise two very pointed questions. Were the administrators at CPCC who dismissed Vance out of their minds? And how do the folks on Elizabeth Avenue expect to fill their new theater without significantly upgrading their artistry and budget?

As I've said before, Lyle Kessler's Orphans is among the most perfectly constructed American tragedies of the past 25 years. In its current revival at CAST, both the charm and the humor of this gritty urban drama also come through.Credit goes to the breakthrough performances of Tom Scott as our tragic hero, Harold, and Jonathan Ewart as the needier of his adopted orphans, Phillip. Scott brings a haunted quality to Harold that I've never seen before, a quality which helps to explain why he would choose to foster the development of two warped brothers — one of whom has attempted to kidnap Harold — and endanger his own life in the process.

Ewart has usually given us the slick surface of characters before, sweetened with his signature cuddliness. Here he totally immerses himself within the weird, sheltered, cunning, innocent and phobic Phillip — tantalizingly close to perfect.

Danny Griffin doesn't give quite as seamless a portrayal as Treat, the predatory and protective brother who can't control his savagery. But he's riveting in the most memorable moment of this taut work — a fainting scene as powerful as the one in Othello. Directing the best CAST work of the season, Michael Simmons needs only to fine-tune the final confrontation between the brothers. The tragedy afterwards is technically adept and powerful.

The most daunting aspect of Off-Tryon Theatre Company's revival of Torch Song Trilogy is its playing time, clocked last Thursday at a tick under 2:54. But most of the dross is in the opening act, stacked with monologues as we get to know Arnold, the lovable drag queen, and schoolteacher Ed Reiss, Arnold's newest flame.As we reach cruising gear, we find that director Glenn Griffin has secured Stuart Williams' most subtly nuanced performance to date as Ed. Hank West was already quite winning as Arnold — and he's sure to get better in the mammoth role when he's surer of his lines. Griffin allows us to endure far too many wretched a capella solos from Christy Basa before we arrive at the evening's dramatic payoff, a fierce, moving and altogether human confrontation between Arnold and his disapproving mother, delectably rendered by Jorja Ursin.

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