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High C Errors 

Opera pretenses get punctured

Backstage misadventures have been a perennial source of comedy and farce -- probably dating back to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor takes us backstage in the world of opera, and once we arrive, it's natural for us to wonder why so few farces journey there. The pretension of opera is Shakespearean in scale and nine times as artificial. It is the indisputable womb and wellspring of prima donnas everywhere.Drop one of these immense egos into a dumbed-down Cleveland, circa 1934, and we can compound the absurdity. In Tenor, the renowned Tito Merelli manages to check into a fine downtown hotel suite without being closely observed by anyone but the local producer and his diffident assistant.

He is followed by his jealous, tempestuous wife and a worshipful admirer or three. In the bed- hopping, door-slamming confusion, Merelli ingests a large helping of ceramic fruit and an overdose of potent pharmaceuticals. Not only can't he go on, he can't be roused.

To avert catastrophe, the desperate producer calls upon his assistant to don Otello's blackface and impersonate the superstar. Improbably, after just one master lesson from the magnanimous Italian, the local dweeb pulls off the audacious charade!

Wisely, Ludwig leaves the causes of this triumph to the imagination -- chiefly of the director. When Charlotte Rep mounted their production in 1991, Steve Umberger opted for two of the city's best singing actors, Stephen Ware and Brian Robinson, to pull on Otello's tights. Discerning Charlotteans were encouraged to cheer as lustily as the provincial Clevelanders.

But now we have Theatre Charlotte tackling the same madness with the creme de la creme of the town's best warblers beyond director Dennis Delamar's grasp. Not a problem. Stateside, the timorous Max can sing quite pitifully without marring the joke. Even Merelli can be perceived as overworked, overhyped or over-the-hill, dumping further scorn on Cleveland's undiscerning dilettantes.

Delamar chooses newcomer Ben De Burle to lay on the thick-a Italian accent and lanky young Michael Capps to perform the Clark Kent transformation. Capps is genuinely lacking in macho stage presence and De Burle is absurdly ultra-Italian and unmusical, yet the comedy still feeds nicely off their predicaments and their sub-mediocre singing.

A substantial portion of the comedy burden is shifted onto the shoulders -- and the leather lungs -- of Tom Scott as superstressed impresario Saunders. Every glitch on opening night registers with Saunders as a seismic event, echoed by Max's shudderings, appeasements and timid suggestions. The comedic counterpoint peaks when Merelli lies lifeless in his hotel bed, his wife's goodbye letter looking like a suicide note.

Max shakes him beseechingly, shocked that the legend has died under his charge -- and petrified that he might have to fill his tights. Saunders shakes him maliciously, furious that the tenor has wrecked his promotion. Capp and Scott do it so violently that I fear De Burle will be leaking spinal fluid before the end of the run.

The womenfolk are equally attuned to Delamar's showmanship. Daryl Wood Gerber is fully matured, alluring terror as Tito's termagant wife. Gloria King is stupidly imperious as the Opera Guild chieftain. Cindy Barringer has her best outing yet as Max's starstruck girlfriend. And Elyse Williams as the ambitious soprano is temperamentally the polar opposite of Otello's chaste Desdemona, rapaciously besieging Merelli's loins in quest of a Met audition.

It's time to take notice of a new theater powerhouse in our region. During a weekend trip to Greensboro, I peeped in on Triad Stage's powerful new A Lesson Before Dying. Submerged within an old downtown storefront, the new 300-seat space -- with funky thrust stage and cafe-style balcony seats -- is nearly as exciting as the adventurous company. There's nothing like it in Charlotte.

Artistic director Preston Lane will be remembered by theatergoers who saw the Actor's Theatre version of Love! Valour! Compassion! he directed here in 1998. After surpassing their daunting fundraising target of $4.5 million, Triad opened on January 8 with Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer. Since then, Lane & Co. have ranged from Lynn Nottage's sentimental Crumbs from the Table of Joy to Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep.

Romulus Linney's latest script first saw light two years ago at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival before moving up to Signature Theatre for an off-Broadway engagement. It's based on Ernest J. Gaines's novel, which won the 1993 National Book Critics Award.

The lesson before dying is instigated by Emma Glenn, the nanny of a black teenager condemned to be electrocuted in a Louisiana courthouse for a 1948 murder he didn't commit. Pleading for Jefferson's life, the white public defender has said that condemning the boy to the chair would serve no more purpose than slaughtering a hog. The degradation of that phrase is nearly as devastating to Jefferson as the death sentence.

So to help Jefferson die like a man, Emma enlists college-educated Grant Wiggins, a fourth-grade country schoolteacher who has some growing up of his own to do. Irma P. Hall, who originated the role in the Emmy- winning HBO movie adapted by Amy Peacock, proves to be quite an imposing Emma onstage. But it's the chemistry between sullen Peterson Townsend as Jefferson and Kes Khemnu as Wiggins that truly catches fire.

If the Bayou and Cajun accents sometimes stray from dead center under Kaia Calhoun's direction, production design more than compensates. Deborah Bell's costumes bring out the hardscrabble trials of Emma and Jefferson's humble lives, counterpoised against the tailored dignity of Wiggins and the black preacher. Jason Romney's sound design is a fine distillation of Delta blues and field calls, and Les Dickert's sharply silhouetted lighting ranks with the best I've ever seen.

Only a couple of scenes midway through Act 2 suffered from formulaic made-for-TV triteness. The rest was imbued with riveting intensity and revelation. Worth the trip if you can snag tickets.

After Charlotte Symphony's brilliant hookup with Emanuel Ax -- and their climb to the summit of Mahler's Third Symphony -- last week's rendezvous, Christopher O'Riley Plays Chopin, promised to be a light interlude before Britten's War Requiem two weeks hence. So it was.

The radio host of PRI's From the Top was flawless through the opening movement of Frederic's Piano Concerto #2, impassioned if not flamboyant. His technical proficiency wasn't stretched by ensuing larghetto, either, where the gorgeous phrasing evoked the composer's famed nocturnes. But when the turbulent episode of the middle movement arrived, O'Riley played with more geniality than fire. The closing allegro, clearly the most virtuosic of the movements, brought the most joy from O'Riley's fingers -- until he returned in silver lame jacket and candelabra to perform "Candelabra Rhumba." Liberace lives!

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