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No Need for Column B 

And a little cheesiness in a good way

In the Charlotte scheme of things, culture is regarded as an asset that lures intelligent and creative folk to our metropolis so that they may live under the thumbs of their rightful masters and exploiters – the power brokers, the pragmatists, and the filthy rich. So it's really no wonder that the unprecedented objections of the Communist Chinese Embassy failed to rouse a spasm of local enthusiasm for Holiday Wonders.

New Tang Dynasty TV defiantly presented this colorful extravaganza at Ovens Auditorium for two evenings last week, but if the size of the crowd on opening night was an accurate barometer, one performance was quite sufficient to satisfy Charlotte's oriental culture appetite. No column B was required on the menu.

So did the oppressive Red regime really have something to object to? Miracle of miracles, they did.

Holiday Wonders spotlighted dancing and drumming from dynasties that the Commies would rather people of the People's Republic forget about. Amazingly, it also presented frontal assaults on Red China in the form of original songs and choreographies. The dances were actually blunter than the lyrics. Encircled by a sea of soft silks, dazzling glitter and pastels, the hated rulers were depicted in black uniforms, snarling as they wielded their blackjacks against innocent women. The only non-black elements of their costumes and props were the blood-red hammer-and-sickles bulging on the backs of their shirts. This trio of thugs actually rampaged in two separate dances.

Songs composed by Junyi Tan, Qu Yue and Yi Sheng emerged slightly more nuanced after passing through the crucible of Da Fa's lyrics. "For even the wrongdoer, a way out is given: Truth alone is what sets you free," sang Qu in the refrain to his song -- after decrying the disappearance of a moral compass and 5,000 years of culture amid a reign of depravity. If you missed the essence of that refrain, Pi-ju Huang told us, "God gives the wrongdoer a way out: Awareness breaks the spell of confusion."

Fortunately, the traditional dances and drumming weren't plagued by such wishful repetitions. Among the most fascinating pieces was "Forsythia in Spring," with the ensemble skillfully wielding bright orange handkerchiefs that were initially worn as hats. The ladies also wove pleasing spells with other props. In the "Mongolian Bowl Dance," stacks of bowls were balanced on the ensemble's heads as they danced, and in "Lightness and Grace," they mesmerized us with green-and-cream colored fans. "Ladies of the Manchu Court" provided perhaps the most enchantment as they moved about -- glided, seemingly -- in raised shoes whose soles had migrated to an elongated area under their arches.

The men also had their moments. "Herding on the Mongolian Plains" was a spirited simulation of China's answer to the American cowboy, with horseman moves dominating the action. Perhaps the finest of Michelle Ren's modernistic choreographies, "The Fruits of Goodness," depicted a pair of cool youths, ably danced by Xuejun Wang and Brian Nieh, driven by a thunderstorm into a Buddhist shrine. Very saccharine in a pleasing Xmas way.

Genuine thunder was battered our way by the drummers, bringing down the curtain for both intermission and the entire evening. Good programming choice. "Drummers of the Tang Court" assaulted their drums in eye-popping military outfits of yellow and gleaming copper. Men and women beat upon copper kettledrums in "Victory Drums," men decked out in blazing yellow and orange, women in more demure blue and white.

Not such great programming choices were emcees Mei Zhou and Leeshai Lemish, whose patter, shtick, audience interaction and informative intros were inserted to cover every set change. Too much of a mediocre thing. Leeshai can keep his Santa suit -- but only if he drops his ring announcer style of announcing the acts.

You might have wondered why a TV company would be showcasing this extravaganza -- until the curtain went up. All evening long, the upstage wall at Ovens was filled with colorful projections. On this cavalcade of scenery and iconography, animation was often superimposed -- to present song lyrics in Chinese and English, to depict birds or simmering volcanoes, or to show Buddhas doing whatever it is that they do.

Never was all this high-tech commandeered to better effect than in the opening spectacle, "Creation," an ornate homage to the Tang Dynasty and its golden age choreographed by Vina Lee. Costumes set the standard for the wonders to come, women filling the stage in lavender/pink, turquoise/green and purple/fuchsia dresses. Music by Xuan Jong enhanced the majesty of the concept.

By no coincidence, Xuan also wrote the score for "Fruits of Goodness." I'd extol the dignity of Xuan more highly, and his ability to avoid collaborations with Da Fa, were it not for the exigencies of realpolitik. You have to bluntly get in the faces of people if you really want revolution. Even then, as the apathy and complacency of Charlotte aptly demonstrate, you're not very likely to inspire grassroots interest or solidarity, let alone action.

On the unctuous wheels of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, lubricated by Costco cider, Epic Arts Repertory Theatre brought a revamped version of A Mad, Mad Madrigal to Duke Power Theatre last week. What a merry holiday gift this was! Beyond the shameless self-promotion by playwright Stan Peal -- and puns as achingly bad as a "minstrel cramp" -- there was the undeniable affirmation of a full house at Spirit Square for opening night of a local fringe production. On a Tuesday!

Peal, whose set designing talents have blossomed this year at Actors Theatre, engagingly re-imagined the Duke. A stairway connected the customary stage area to the balcony, bleacher seats were banished for cabaret tables, and the entire audience-stage orientation shifted toward house-left by 90 degrees. Peasants, wenches, gypsy dancers and demigods came flying in and out of the action from every angle.

All of the new stuff was devoutly incongruous, beginning with Tanya McClellan's on-the-spot audition for the show. Julie Janorschke, as the Ivory Sorceress, made numerous oracular attempts to rebuild the fourth wall, but alack, 'twas not to be.

At the heart of this pagan mockery is the yuletide usurpation of the Holly King's throne by the upstart Oak King. Hank West made a full seven-course meal of the Holly's elderliness, doddering and stumbling, usually succumbing to slumber midway through wielding his broadsword. Lou Dalessandro, soundly upstaged in his first incarnation as the Oak, proved to be a surprisingly winsome rebel, probably because all his pretensions to budding youth were decisively mowed down.

In the secondary plot -- for the life of me, I can't remember how Peal manages to incorporate this -- the love triangle of Rabid Rockeater (Tom Ollis), Gwendolyn of Stonehenge (Kristen Jones), and Biggs of Stonehenge (Lee Thomas) was so overdone that a child at one stageside table began to bawl, adding to the comedy. The famed pillars of Stonehenge were lowered from above, nearly the size of a laptop computer. Cheesy, but in a good way.

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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