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Of Prodigies and Prostitutes 

Walking the walk on Stonewall Street

No doubt about it. At Halton Theater, Belk Theater and Pease Auditorium, prodigies were the musical theme of the week. All across town, we could find precocity on trumpet, tuba, piano, cello and violin ­-- culminating with the ultimate tribute to music's ultimate prodigy, Peter Shaffer's Amadeus.

While youth was served and glorified in the musical realm, the lessons of age and experience were receiving wicked indulgence onstage at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte. There's no false advertising in Paula Vogel's The Oldest Profession. All five protagonists are proud proponents of the skin trade.

Yet I must hastily append a caveat emptor for anyone who might think that Stonewall Street has been transformed into a red light district. All the prostitutes in this melancholic comedy are, in truth, actresses -- and all are well past the fullest bloom of youth. Vogel likely intended her practitioners of the oldest profession to be the oldest pros in Manhattan.

If that sounds oddly reminiscent of the premise underlying Chicago and Roxie Hart's corrupted charm, you're pretty close. Sure, these are five old broads reminiscing about their salad days on the Vieux Carrè in New Orleans, bemoaning the passing of class from the life. "Where is the joy?" one laments.

Vogel has a merry time riffing on such incongruities, never more hilariously than when the decaying prostitutes are remonstrating on company rules, business trends, organizational efficiency and investment strategies. Other oddball outbreaks of sophistication include the Gallic reference to soixante-neuf.

Vogel's comedies are always laced with provocative empathies -- think Baltimore Waltz and How I Learned to Drive. Here in The Oldest Profession, the empathy is so lightly sprinkled throughout most of the evening that director Chip Decker can virtually ignore it. Age has encroached, and mortality is on the prowl; the wizened streetwalkers are rapidly losing traction -- and clientele -- amid our rabid youth culture; yet the picture doesn't truly strike us as grim until the cold, hungry, bitter end.

When it's curtains in Vogel's screwy concept, each of our ladies of the evening bids her farewell singing and vamping. Exiting to that great piano bar in the sky.

I suspect this script has greater bite when the whores strike us as altogether hardened with surprising streaks of softness, pathos, self-mockery and humanity. Emphasizing the comedy, the Actor's Theatre cast has a very good grasp of what makes each of these women different and individual. On opening night, however, I missed a sense of sisterhood from the actresses and that elemental hardness that must be inevitable when the boudoir is your place of business.

Confirming their age, more than one person onstage struggled with her lines. All were victorious without major halts or slowdowns, and the comedy never suffered. Only Rachel Jeffreys as the arthritic Lillian really seemed less than spontaneous once the action reached cruising speed.

Best on the comedy are Polly Adkins and Pat Heiss. Adkins' entrance as Edna, the sassy waif who learns her worth by getting bailed out of jail, struck me as the spark that ignited the ensemble. Heiss's acid delivery is perfect for the calculating, businesslike Ursula -- her most outrè role since she bumped it with a trumpet years ago at Theatre Charlotte.

You'll find yourself a little surprised even if you've braced yourself for the venerable Annette Gill and Ginger Heath as hookers. Gill is the aging madam who shepherds the group, convincingly beset by business woes and Alzheimer's but stretched beyond her limits when called upon to defend her turf in madam Mae's she-wolf episode. Heath, like Heiss, is a smidge too prim as Vera, the whore with a mother's heart, yet her final transformation was utterly unforgettable.

Stan Peal's set design is unexpectedly detailed and toney, evoking an Upper West Side with hints of red light Amsterdam instead of a secluded lunchtime retreat. Equally off-target is Chip Decker's ambient sound design, which gracelessly shuts on and off. Never you mind. You'll probably love the modest extravaganza Decker makes out the ladies' cabaret songs, ethereal and tacky at the same time.

Word of mouth will likely keep seats full throughout the run of The Oldest Profession. Grab one yourself.

As a devout NPR listener, I already knew that last week's live taping of From the Top at Halton Theater would be melodious, informative and corny-cute. What I didn't realize until I reached the hall was the special excitement -- mixed with a curious sense of complicity -- that comes with being an audience member at a studio broadcast.

With a radio program, there's a mixture of old-time quaintness and high-tech electronics. Replacing the bustle of cameras and cameramen was a profusion of microphones such as I'd never seen at a classical concert or operatic event slated for live broadcast. Before the iconic "On the Air" light came on, producer Gerry Slavet came onstage and coached the audience on how to behave. I just loved that.

Two of the soloists, 15-year-old cellist Alan Toda-Ambaras and 17-year-old trumpeter Ben Fuller, hailed from the Tarheel State. Fuller's performance of Alexander Goedicke's "Concert Etude" was nearly as flawless as Toda-Ambaras' excerpt from Debussy's Cello Sonata, pretty impressive for anybody blowing a horn.

Most impressive was Pennsylvania import Yin-Yin Ou, who displaced host Christopher O'Riley at the keyboard and dispatched Liszt's "Waldesrauschen" (Forest Murmurs) with startling maturity. Wrapping himself around the tuba, Texas native Zachary Graff got the most play, a serious spot with a transcription of a Bach flute sonata and a comical closer accompanying the Charlotte Children's Choir.

The Charlotte Choir, directed by Sandy Holland, began richly with a Zoltan Kodaly arrangement of a Hungarian folksong, "Mid the Oak Trees," and zigzagged to the zany "Roger Bobo Plays the Tuba," set by composer Brian Holmes to verses by John Updike.

Curiosity about From the Top can be satisfied on Sundays at 5 p.m. on WDAV-FM. Tune to 89.9 on Dec. 31 for last week's Charlotte edition.

Even in the grand tier at Belk Theater -- where most Charlotte Symphony subscribers aren't bussed in from nursing homes -- exclamations of wonder and surprise gushed forth at intermission after violinist Shannon Lee's amazing debut. Most of them hadn't gotten the memo, I guess. This was CSO's The Prodigy Plays Sibelius concert, and Lee arrived at the tender age of 14 with numerous national and international prizes already in her vitae.

So if her execution of the Sibelius Violin Concerto wasn't quite as perfectly polished as Chee-Yun's triumph at the Belk in 1999, the effect was decidedly more stunning. Lee's sweet-sounding interpretation had a maturity far beyond her years, and her bowing showed truly prodigious command.

Led by maestro Christof Perick, who discovered the phenom in Dallas, the orchestra rose to the occasion. After intermission, they were even more impressive.

Just because CPCC Theatre has retreated from the Halton to panoramic Pease Auditorium for their current revival of Amadeus, there's no reason to fear a similar retreat in production values. Suzy Hartness' costumes are as varied and lavish as you might wish, from Mozart (in prosperity or paupery) right on up to the Austrian emperor, Joseph II.

Downsized? You bet.

We're not just talking about James Duke's elegant but diminished set design. CP director Tom Hollis has damped down the melodrama of Shaffer's script -- while sound designers Jeff Murdock and Chris Bateson have potted down the decibels. What was originally a Phantom of the Opera-sized spectacle on Broadway a quarter of a century ago is now an intimate confession as we celebrate Wolfie's 250th birthday.

The cast is extraordinarily gifted for a community effort. As Antonio Salieri, Mozart's bitter rival, Tom Scott greatly internalizes the mediocre composer's anguish and rage, so his steely vocal cords don't get quite the workout we expect. Nor can Hank West be expected to inhabit Mozart with the blissfully bestial energy of his performance at Theatre Charlotte back in 1991. At the twilight end of the story's arc, however, West's maturation as an actor rewards us.

Heather Wilson, returning to the Charlotte stage after far too long an absence, is the essence of delight and pity as Mozart's wife. The rollcall of excellence also includes Glenn Griffin, Tom Ollis, Greg Paroff and Elyse Williams. The cherries on this delightful confection are surely Meredith McBride and Kristian Wedolowski as the gossipiy "Venticelli."

Running time is not downsized, a full two hours and 23 minutes plus intermission. It's time well-spent.

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