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Kicky Bard on The Green 

Outdoor production is a Dream come true

It's been nearly 18 years since anybody staged a Shakespeare play outdoors in the Center City. That legendary Charlotte Shakespeare Company production still resonates down the corridors of history. Humble fried chicken baskets on sale to theater lovers who attended the free presentation. Ambient sounds of city buses and the nearby parking garage echoing through medieval Verona and Mantua. Most of all, I recall the thick accent of the Russian actress portraying the nubile Capuletovsky in Romeo and Juliet.

Time marches on. So does technology in the marvelous new Collaborative Arts production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Thanks to an American-born cast -- and an expertly deployed wireless sound system -- we hear nearly every word with admirable clarity. Quite a feat when you consider that helicopters and small aircraft flew overhead during Thursday night's opening, harmonized with a couple of Harleys growling down South Tryon.

The proficiency of Total Event Production's electronics allows director Elise Wilkinson to broaden her stage to arena-sized proportions. Like Cirque du Soleil's Delirium at Bobcats Arena last month, there's a runway bisecting the area where the audience sits on the Green. Unlike the Cirque spectacle, live action isn't confined to that chained-off runway.

No, you won't want to get too settled into your blanket or beach chair as we follow Shakespeare's frisky Athenians into the enchanted woods. While a large chunk of the comedy does unfold at our feet, there are scenes at either end of the runway -- including the discordant opening and the mechanicals' rehearsal. After Oberon and Puck work their magic on the fugitive young lovers, Bottom and the Fairy Queen, action sprouts up behind us and beyond the other half of the audience facing us.

The sound stays so satisfyingly loud and clear that you'll sometimes need to visually sweep the Green to find where it's coming from. To keep the action comical at long distances, Wilkinson has this new generation of Shakespeareans playing big -- and at high energy in the most frenetic scenes.

As the mercurial Demetrius, Jonavan Adams inadvertently kicked off one of his shoes during one of his scuffles. Attempting to intimidate her rival Helena as jealousies come to a boil, Beth Yost hisses through an elaborate martial arts routine, kicking and thrusting and chopping as Hermia.

After portraying Theseus and Hippolyta by day, Matt Cosper and Leah Webb effectively moonlight as the quarreling fairy royals, Oberon and Titania. No less pleasing is the elfin flavor Joanna Long sprinkles onto Puck. Among the mechanicals, Joe Copley doesn't deliver Bottom's beastliness with the omnivorous gusto I'd prefer, but I was quite taken with Karen Lamb's officiousness as Peter Quince.

On a less than regal budget, costume designer Laura Pyle modernizes the Athenians without sacrificing the heathen charm of the woodlanders. Much the same can be said for Wilkinson's resourceful use of the Green as an environmental setting. Yes, it's refreshing to take in an evening vista that looks down past the Convention Center to the Hilton beyond and the full moon above.

But the near-absence of stage scenery nearly transports us back across the centuries to when Shakespeare penned his winsome couplets. Place yourself among the picnicking, cocktailing, lounging, wandering-by crowd at the Green, and you'll likely discover some of the Bard's original jollity.

In Jack: The Musical, composer Erik Sitbon and the able cast of Actors Scene Unseen have proven that a musical centering on Victorian England's notorious serial killer can be a ripping, gripping experience. Unfortunately, Sitbon is saddled with the jangling, repetitious lyrics of Christopher T. George and the leaden direction of Elizabeth Peterson-Vita.

George and Peterson-Vita, to be fair, are mixed blessings in the enterprise. A native Liverpudlian and a Ripper enthusiast, George pieces together a coherent scenario for the murder spree, creating a fictitious journalist named Tom Dolan as the killer, exploring his tortured psyche and wrapping up the tawdry episode with a plausible Scotland Yard cover-up. While Peterson-Vita does nothing to trim the script's excesses -- and much to slow its pace -- her CSCi Multimedia connections assure that the best photos and editorial cartoons from Jack's reign of terror are vividly projected.

Portraying Tom/Jack, Bryan Long displayed some ghoulish colorations at the lower end of his vocal range -- and a welcome willingness to immerse himself in the killer's mania. But George and Peterson-Vita conspired to have him enter the spotlight so repeatedly, agonizing over his descent into criminality and infamy, that Long's hand-wringing performance grew shrill and bathetic before intermission.

George had some inkling that he ought to put somebody else in the spotlight, but these spasms were even less compelling. I lost all my confidence in George's dramatic instincts when he botched a scene where London bobbies dressed up as whores in a ludicrous attempt to catch Jack. How do you allow this obvious chorus line to exit without a song?

Sitbon's score is studded with delights, including a nice duet between Tom's wife and his newspaper colleague, a waltzy evocation of London to start Act 2, and an impassioned resignation for Sir Charles Warren after the case is bungled. Numerous songs and orchestrations betray some quality time listening to Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde.

Still, Jack: The Musical cries out for sharper lyrics and dialogue, an infusion of diabolical humor and somebody with a merciless knife who will eviscerate the repetitions and trim this two-hour, 23-minute melodrama to the bone.

We haven't heard Copland's Appalachian Spring at Belk Theater in more than 13 years, so last week's season-ending Classical Grass concert might have been an opportune time for us to take stock of how far the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra has evolved. Alas, judgment must be deferred.

The accompanying program, featuring the Charlotte debuts of double-bassist Edgar Meyer and guest conductor George Hanson, was too lightweight for the CSO to show its true mettle. For instance, composer Conni Ellisor's opening appetizer, "Blackberry Winter," showcased the virtuosity of Stephen Seifert on mountain dulcimer and Tennessee music box. To keep the sonic spotlight on a dulcimer in a concert hall, however, an orchestra must virtually disappear.

I'd already heard Meyer playing his Double Bass Concerto #1 in Raleigh with the North Carolina Symphony. Compared with that January performance, the only thing remarkable about Hanson's conducting was its diffidence.

So after CSO's sleepy rendition of Mark O'Connor's "Appalachia Waltz," I checked out -- rushing over to McGlohon to catch Paula Poundstone. Surprisingly, I liked Paula live far more than on either radio or TV.

My previous impressions of Poundstone were of an abrasive, unfunny neurotic with a nebulous point of view. Armed with her signature Diet Pepsi while interacting with the audience, Poundstone bobbed and weaved with hilarious purposefulness. More of her self-deprecating humor and her hard-hat liberalism snapped into focus.

Her attitude toward audience members couldn't have been clearer. What Poundstone wanted to know, first and foremost, was what her victims did on-the-job. Her assumption was that every 9-to-5 gig out there would prove to be dull, stultifying and unfulfilling -- requiring only the barest qualifications and intelligence. Damned if she wasn't right every time.

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