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Collins & Co. rev up their satirical revue of Charlotte

It's 7 o'clock on a Thursday, a song-and-dance group shuffles in. They get up from their seats, and they step to the beat, and rehearse for a show that they're in.

With apologies to Billy Joel, after sitting in on a rehearsal for this year's Charlotte Squawks with LUV, real life and real songs have become intertwined. A group of eight professional actors and singers are assembled in a sparse room labeled "Auditorium" in the WCCB-TV building off of Independence. They have only two weeks remaining before their February 13 and 14 performances at Spirit Square, and, across an expanse of black-and-white linoleum squares, they're doing their best to memorize new lyrics and corresponding dance steps.

Their choreographer and leader, Keith Martin, formerly the producer and managing director of Charlotte Repertory Theatre (and no relation to this writer), leads them through a take-off of "New York, New York," which riffs on The Rep. He counts down as troupe member Alan Morgan walks front and center and adopts a Noo Yawk accent. Although the representation is never overtly stated, Morgan obviously is portraying the recently departed Rep Producing Artistic Director Michael Bush:

Start spreading the news. / I'm casting a play. / But don't show up / Unless you're from / New York, New York.

Castmate Aaron Capps joins in with his manifestation of a beleaguered Matt Olin, who resigned (in a Matt Doherty sort of way) from the Rep just months before Bush did.

Those Big Apple crews / Demand hefty pay / To leave the town / from which they come --/ New York, New York.

The lyrics refer, of course, to the Rep's Rep-utation for eschewing local talent in favor of hiring actors from New York.

The Squawks audience may or may not get the joke -- Charlotte audiences have been known to confuse the "Broadway Lights" series with local productions -- but Rep supporters will.

The obvious question: Don't the folks involved worry that this tongue-in-cheek sendup might affect their chances at getting future gigs at The Rep?

"Definitely not," smiles actress Cat Zeggert, whose opera-trained voice and acting chops have earned her the leads in recent Charlotte productions of Sweet Charity and Evita. "(During the show) we poke fun at everything: the mighty churches of Charlotte, political venues, about how there's new restaurants (opening) every day at SouthPark. It's all in light fun."

"Charlotte takes itself too seriously," agrees Martin, whose family roots in the area go back to the early 1700s. "We too often fail to stop, reflect and laugh at our own foibles . . . I don't think [the show] will offend. It's irreverent, but it's respectful."

Charlotte Squawks with Mike Collins got off the ground last year as a fledgling song-and-dance parody designed as a fundraiser for public television station WTVI, its name a takeoff of the title of Collins' morning show on public radio affiliate WFAE-FM.

The show was born out of a collaboration that began several years earlier when a mutual acquaintance introduced Martin to attorney Brian Kahn, who had performed in UNC musical theatre productions and directed The Libel Show, a music revue of law school, when he was a 3-L at the University of Virginia.

"I missed it when I got out of school," says Kahn, who co-wrote and performs many of the Squawks numbers. Martin and Kahn worked together on musical parody shows for the County and NC Bar Associations that were so well-received, another collaboration was a no-brainer.

Last year's Squawks took flight with a lineup of skits and musical numbers that parodied, among other things, NASCAR, the impending NBA arena, the Charlotte Trolley, USAirways, and the mugshot IDs of Charlotte's professional athletes.

When asked if the group received any harsh feedback from the targets of satire, from the higher-ups at WTVI, or from the sponsors, Martin shakes his head.

"What we heard was that we had been a little too easy on folks. That it needed a little more bite. So this year we've taken the gloves off. It's not vicious, but it's still irreverent."

Martin estimates the creative team -- himself, Kahn, Collins, actor/humorist Stan Peal and contributor Don Russell -- got together about 20 times to choose subjects, create material, change lyrics, and refine the tone of the show.

"It's a simple matter of picking a subject you want to sing about, picking words associated with that topic -- some of which hopefully rhyme -- then seeing if any key phrases suggest popular songs," adds Peal, whom Martin recruited to help craft the show this year. "Keith . . .was my first director in town," Peal explains," so he knew I was a smartass. He may have been told about my satirical works like "Best Little Crackhouse in Philly' and "Tales of Sex and Horror from the Bible.'

"ASC [Arts and Science Council] immediately brings to mind "ABC' by the Jackson Five," Peal explains about one of this year's musical numbers. "The DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] made me think of "MTV' so I used Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing.'"

Peal also wrote "Pink," a commentary on the big rose-colored high-rise in South End. Actress/singer Tanya McClellan belts out the song, set to Aretha Franklin's "Think": What architect's bad dream / Would make them choose a color / Only found in cheap ice cream / (PINK!)

The show contains about 85 percent new material this year, says Martin. Favorites such as the Bank-versus-Bank song ("Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better") have been updated; in this case, to include Bank of America's recently announced naming of the Venue Formerly Known as Ericsson Stadium. Likewise, the John Edwards piece ("Does Anybody Know My Name?," a takeoff of the Cheers TV theme) will reflect Edwards' recent gains in Iowa and New Hampshire. And expect some musical interpretation of the Super Bowl, too.

The actors, singers, writers and crew know they need to remain flexible. Last year, Martin recalls, lyrics were changed on opening night to reflect something that happened that day, and the second performance was different from the first, thanks to a snippet that Collins pulled from the Sunday paper.

Collins' involvement in Squawks this year coincides with his role in The Rep's production of Copenhagen. Collins will host the Squawks opening number at 7:30pm, then head up the street to the Booth Playhouse for Copenhagen's 8pm curtain. Martin promises that Collins will "keep appearing throughout the show"; he's recorded voice-overs that will be inserted, and his headshot will be used in the "New York, New York" number. Collins' photo will be pasted onto a life-size cutout, which will change costumes just like the rest of the cast.

Also in this year's production is Mark Mathis of Fox18 weatherguy fame -- whom cast members describe as "wild," "a riot," and "choreographically challenged." Martin predicts that audiences will be impressed with Mathis' singing ability.

Describing the show as an "equal opportunity offender," media materials list "topics/targets" including, among others, the media, the Imaginon partnership between the Library and Children's Theatre, Duke Energy, Charlotte Bobcats owner Bob Johnson, former mayor Richard Vinroot and US Senate aspirant Erskine Bowles.

Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the ASC, says the arts group can withstand some friendly ribbing. "If you are asking if we want to laugh at ourselves, or have others do it, I think the answer is yes. Certainly in this not-so-perfect world and this not-so-perfect organization, we have had our moments -- and a little laughter is required."

"We keep it fair and balanced -- quote unquote -- to make sure that we don't lampoon any one person too often," Martin adds. "We make sure that an equal number of Democrats and Republicans are skewered in our elections tribute." He confirms that former city councilwoman Lynn Wheeler, mentioned in a version of the Crystals' hit "Da Do Ron Ron," will make an appearance onstage, jitterbugging after the lyrics: Yeah, her name was Lynn / But she didn't win / She took it on the chin / She Don't Run Run Run, Do-Don't Run Run.

"We do this to have fun, and to pay irreverent tribute to this incredible community we call home," Martin adds. "There's no shortage of material."

Charlotte Squawks with LUV will be at Spirit Square's McGlohon Theatre on Friday and Saturday, February 13 and 14, at 7:30pm. Tickets are $25. For info, call 704-372-1000.

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