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ImaginOn Opens With a Roar 

Funny sounding building hosts a hit

After those piddling ImaginOn cost overruns you may have read about, Children's Theatre of Charlotte was somewhat behind schedule moving into their new home on Seventh Street. New phone numbers then scrambled communications with the outside world during the transition from their old Morehead Street fantasy palace.

Yet there was executive director Bruce LaRowe at the top of the ramp leading to the new McColl Family Theatre, beaming and confident as he greeted the sellout crowd for last Saturday's 3pm performance of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Artistic director Alan Poindexter was nowhere to be seen, presumably backstage sweating the details. Good omens, both. You hope the actors onstage and the directors and designers in the wings will acclimate themselves to a new facility more readily than the public or administrative staff.

That's how it played out at ImaginOn's new 570-seat fantasyland. Disoriented parents seemed confused about where the box office was, where to stand in line with their anklebiters, where to enter the theater, and where to sit. Children's Theatre seemed undermanned in dispensing will-call tickets downstairs and admitting patrons above.

So lift-off for The Lion didn't actually happen until 3:15. But for the next 83 minutes, the flight was as graceful as an eagle's -- as enchanting as anything CT has produced in the 19 years we've covered them.

Johann Stegmeir's scenic and costume artistry makes an effortless leap to the larger scale demanded at the McColl. The segue between the opening scene in WW2 Britain to our first glimpse of C.S. Lewis' beguiling Narnia -- the magical wardrobe splitting apart in three directions to reveal the crystalline alternate universe -- is as much a wow as entering ImaginOn for the first time.

More impressive is sound designer Gary Sivak's adaptation to the new Mac, delivering a lush, richly textured soundscape unlike anything we've heard in a homegrown theater production in Charlotte. Think IMAX. Nor do the dazzling sights and sounds of this maiden Children's Theatre production at ImaginOn get in the way of the storytelling and the thematics.

The first splash of color in the winterworld of Narnia is the army of woodland creatures who follow their lion king Aslan (Mark Sutton and April Jones). With blithe choreography from Delia Neil augmenting the eye-popping costumes by Stegmeir and mask artisan Tim Weathersby, you really do recall Disney's King during this animal procession.

But these colorful paragons of innocence and virtue are actually upstaged later in this Lion when we first behold the reigning Witch's Army. Neil's choreography for this diablerie of ghouls and goblins, mixing with Sivak's soundtrack and Eric Winkenwerder's explosive lighting, crescendoes into an experience that will leave four-year-olds clinging to their mommas in terror.

Most fearsome is the angry battle cry of the White Witch rallying her forces. Wielding the "dark magic" as Jadis, the White Witch whose evil powers keep Narnia in perpetual winter, Catherine Smith has never been more imperious, every inch a villain to the tip of her icicle crown. Her supreme outburst is festooned with sonic and visual salvos, sharpened to a lethal edge with some of Poindexter's most elaborate direction.

After a self-conscious start, the four young protagonists performed magnificently. There's a quiet wonderment to Allison Whitmeyer's discovery of Narnia as Lucy, and Stephen Friedrich brings a bratty propriety to Edmund that seems perfectly apt for the sib who falls prey to Jadis' spell. Robert Stephens and Emily Hudson dispatch the smaller roles of the elder sibs with pleasing British grit.

From the kingly Aslan on down, all the adult roles are superbly done. Gretchen McGinty's debut as Mr. Tumnus and Nicia Carla's turn as Mrs. Beaver are particularly delectable. Chris Donoghue brings a sharp bite to the White Witch's top henchman, Fenrus Ulf, a role that enables Donoghue to captain his own fine fight choreography in the climactic clash of armies.

Ultimately, the only significant things missing from this spectacle were the hordes of frozen statues that the White Witch turned her legions of enemies into with her dark magic. Otherwise, the McColl is overflowing with theater magic. As the standing ovation subsided, and minutes later coming down the lobby ramp, I heard parents contemplating the options of seeing more shows and enrolling their kids in Children's Theatre classes. It's a new era, with a new excitement.

Heartland paranoia arrived at Actor's Theatre by way of off-Broadway in the form of Tracy Letts' creepy hit thriller, Bug. The cargo was bumped and jostled in transit, losing much of the seedy zip I savored last winter up in Greenwich Village.

If there's less ambiguity and less explosive octane under Karen Lamb's meticulously manicured direction, there's definitely more humor. Too much, I'd say.

Letts' brand of suspense burrowed more effectively under my skin when performed under low light through a heavy cigarette haze and the sickly aroma of Raid. Set ostensibly in an Oklahoma City motel, the action of Bug is really zoned in a foggy borderland between desperate, alienated reality and surreal nightmare. There you can actually share some of Peter Evans' wild misgivings about the bio-terror -- in the form of insect microbes -- the US is willing to unleash on Baghdad. After fiendish experiments on our own GIs.

In his Charlotte debut, Scott Ripley delivers the full spectrum of Peter: the shyness, the desperation, and above all, the ambiguity. Is he the horrific victim of governmental arrogance or a lethal madman? But with Lamb's muted atmospherics, we maintain a distance from these questions. The violence isn't as brutal or bloody. No howls of agony from Peter as he cuts out his own tooth to conquer the bug infestation; no blinding flames in the motel's final Apocalypse. Lamb is too meek to take on the technical challenges that could yield a deep, visceral response.

Kelly Mizell plays Aggie, the despairing waitress who lets Peter into her motel room -- and the void in her soul. She's not as hardened or slatternly as the Aggie up in Greenwich Village. Mizell is kookier, which skews the chemistry between our tragic lovers. As R.C., Aggie's coke-snorting lesbian friend, Kim Watson is actually more dissolute, wanton, and street-wise than her New York counterpart. She's the one solid improvement Actor's Theatre can claim.

Stephen Ware isn't quite the monster I've seen made of Goss, Aggie's abusive ex-husband, back from "a deuce" in prison for armed robbery. He's a drunken handful, however. While Chip Decker's slimy take on the ambiguous Dr. Sweet is eminently sensible, it's not as effective as Letts' robotic concept.

MAGIC AT IMAGINON Stephen Friedrich and Catherine Smith in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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