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Liver for dinner 

Decades later, life's still a beach

The great issues of modern life don't get an intense workout in Neil Simon's coming-of-age comedy, Brighton Beach Memoirs. Yet unlike the bulk of Simon's earlier work, whose First Commandment seems to be "Thou shalt keep them laughing," real-world problems and serious personal dilemmas frequently intermingle with the deft situational set-ups and Doc's sleek one-liners.

Sure, Neil's alter-ego Eugene must strive mightily to keep from gagging on the liver his mother Kate has served up for dinner -- and repeating the infamous "lima-bean catastrophe" of yore. But Mamma is inflicting the liver on her family because roast beef for an overcrowded household of seven is beyond their meager means.

Times are hard in 1937, deal or New Deal. Aunt Blanche, a boarder at the Jeromes' with her daughters, takes in sewing to bring in extra money. Eugene's dad supplements his day job in the garment industry with so much moonlighting that he's on track for a heart attack. And Eugene's elder brother Stanley, when he isn't passing along sacred lore on wet dreams and female anatomy, also holds down a job. Under the stress of failing his family, Stan runs off to join the Army -- a serious step with the news coming out of Poland over the radio.

Perspectives on Simon have changed since Brighton Beach was last staged at Theatre Charlotte nearly 20 years ago. Julie Janorschke, directing for the first time at the old barn, seems totally unburdened by the laugh-a-minute expectations that once attached firmly to the Neil Simon brand.

Except for Eugene and his mom, none of the characters onstage is really comical, ditzy or eccentric. And Janorschke, while working wonders with a cast comprised almost entirely of newcomers, decrees that this Kate will be played with all the warmth of a tax collector.

This clear-eyed reading returns rich dividends in this overachieving production. I found more emotional impact this time around when Blanche reconciled with her fetching eldest daughter, Nora, and when Stanley revealed his costly indiscretions to his dad. And there's one moment deep in Act 2 when Stephanie Howieson, playing Kate, is rewarded for her stonefaced stoicism -- by Janorschke, not Simon -- with the funniest physical comedy of the evening.

Alex Brightwell makes an auspicious debut as Eugene. While his accent makes frequent excursions from Brooklyn to Boston, Brightwell's inner GPS perfectly locates Eugene's sunny victimhood, his hormonal turmoil and his fantasy world, transporting us vividly to the borderline between childhood and manhood. We get a competent Stanley from Austin Boykin in his debut, though I wish he wouldn't double-underline all his reactions to Eugene's foibles.

Howieson and Scott O'Dell are nearly perfect as Eugene's parents, lacking only the Jewish cadences embedded in their dialogue. Happens on Broadway, too. Better to ignore the ethnicity than butcher it, I'd say.

By comparison, the Mortons who board with the Jeromes are somewhat formulaic. Blanche is a widow who needs to stop micromanaging her kids and get a life of her own. Her eldest, Nora, is the beautiful dance student who sets Cousin Eugene's blood on fire, and Laurie is the pesky, pampered, little sister who takes refuge from her chronic heart-flutter via books and hypochondria.

What you want to notice is how artfully Simon works the Mortons into the storytelling -- and the overall feeling of family solidarity that prevails at the end. Sarah Lewis as Blanche has the right pallor of careworn fatigue, and Lauren Phelps has the brittleness of an accomplished invalid. So what if Michelle Busiek, as Nora, projects the ebullience of a cheerleader shiksa goddess -- as long as she's a goddess?

Too bad a script doctor couldn't hook up with Spanish composer Manuel de Falla and Simonize the libretto of La Vida Breve. The music of the score was a rare Spanish treat for Opera Carolina, spiced with proud flamenco rhythms and dancers, prodded by elegant guitar licks and the distinctive clink of castanets. Choruses brought out the dignity and the sufferings of the peasantry.

But the story of the young gypsy Salud and her betrayal by Paco, her rich lover, follows an all-too-predictable downward arc. We're completely cheated out of the necessary upward arc, never learning how Salud bewitched Paco or the trials he endured before succumbing to family pressures. There's little to captivate us about Salud in her mopey, suicidal phase except when Paco appears and briefly quells her fears. Olivia Gorro certainly tried to make Salud a heroine, emphasizing the melodrama and the passion, even dancing a few steps.

Vocally, Gorro's allure resided entirely at the bottom of her range. Her top was bland at best, often strained. If you closed your eyes and listened, Israel Lozano totally upstaged and overpowered her as Paco, the only vocal oasis here aside from the chorus. Open your eyes, however, and you'd never find a trace of Paco the rogue. Or the conflicted lover.

On the other hand, the familiar Pagliacci benefited from a strong staging that went easy on the melodramatic marinara. Not only was Todd Geer rich-toned and credible in Canio's signature plaint, "Ridi, Pagliaccio!" -- laugh, clown! -- he was charismatically supported by Luis Ledesma as his hunchbacked nemesis, Tonio. Gorro returned as Canio's treacherous wife, Nedda, a little short on impudent sass but very convincing in the commedia.

The rusticated rawness of Leoncavallo's harlequinade stayed vivid to the bloody end. Gorro took a second knife to the gut to close out the double bill. She took two for the team!

Little things meant a lot -- twice in five days -- as two solo performers did their mini-impressario things at ImaginOn and Davidson College. First came Grey Seal Puppets where the voice and hands of Drew Allison were all of the characters in the zany new Salsa Cinderella. I'm not sure who wrote the tangy script, but the whole concept is brimming with delights, from the self-absorbed Prince Pepper and faithful factotum Spoon to Cindy -- quite a jalapeño in her own right -- and her tomato godmother Gazpacho.

John Alexander's original soundtrack was as delectable as his saxophone playing, but Allison's scene changes bogged down the pacing.

No such problems bedeviled the Tiny Ninja Theatre reduction of Hamlet in the 900 Room at the Wildcats' Student Union. With the aid of handheld cameras and projection screens, Ninja mastermind Dov Weinstein performed his transitions right before our eyes. The usurping King Claudius and his adulterous consort Gertrude proved to be a matched set of Smiley Face figurines. Never was wickedness reduced to such banality.

The ghost of the slain King Hamlet was a ninja held between Weinstein's teeth. And the soliloquizing Prince? Most of the time, his was the POV looking out from a camera lens at the other characters in the tragedy. A palpable hit idea!

The words were all Shakespeare's. Distilled to 47 minutes of inspired silliness.

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