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Oliver Twisted 

Plus, an optimum Omnium

Was a time, back in another millennium, when Billy Ensley was Charlotte's go-to triple threat performer when you needed a wholesome lead in your production of How to Succeed, Forever Plaid, or the mildly subversive Pippin. Our Donald O'Connor has discarded his toothpaste grin, reinventing himself in such saturnine roles as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, the Emcee in Cabaret, and Hedwig.

The musical makeover is also carrying over to Ensley's directorial efforts, giving the current Theatre Charlotte production of Oliver! a grimmer aspect than you'd expect at our community theater as it celebrates its 80th anniversary. Two of Ensley's best Huckleberry friends join him along the River Thames in transformations that are equally rad.

With sooty visage, Patrick Ratchford is a truly fearsome Bill Sykes. The mellow baritone is coarsened, and Ratchford's gleaming smile -- familiar to his followers in Oklahoma, Plaid and Music Man -- blackened beyond recognition. Similarly begrimed, Mike Collins is arguably even more perverted as the conniving Fagin, if not so artfully costumed. The best that can be said for his vile gray wig is that it partially obscures a viler false beard.

Fagin's corruption goes beyond rotted teeth, though Collins sports these, too. More appalling are the pustules that spot his face, reminiscent of the nightmare world of Ivan Le Lorraine Albright and suggesting a virulent STD.

Consistent with their mentors, Oliver's fellow workhouse drones and Fagin's band of runaway purse-snatchers are estranged from bathing. I daresay Ensley has no wish to extol the wonders of British hygiene and dentistry. Ensley's correctives to prevailing notions of Victorian England are firmly grounded, no doubt, but he push them to excess from the beginning. An ominous London fog hovers over the opening scene -- in a workhouse dining hall?

Linda Booth works her customary choreographic magic with the workhouse kids in "Food, Glorious Food," but she seems hamstrung in "Who Will Buy?" usually an expansive stretch of morning sunlight and community. Ensley also suppresses those outbreaks of sentimentality that drive the storyline. We see no chemistry between Fagin and Oliver, so there's little reason to believe that our hero might embrace pickpocketing. Nor is there any chemistry twixt Twist and Nancy, so you wonder why she risks her life on his behalf.

Nonetheless, Andrew Griner as Oliver and Kathryn Stamas as Nancy yield abundant pleasures. Griner sings angelically and handles his physical business like a seasoned pro. Stamas capably goes through all her paces as moll, party girl and Samaritan -- yet in curious isolation. You may observe less intimacy between Nancy and Sykes than between her and Fagin! As for that rollicking "Oom-Pah-Pah" beer hall romp at the start of Act 2, it intermittently pulsates with sensuality, but there's no joy or licentiousness. Worse, when Stamas launches into her famed "As Long as He Needs Me" lamentation, the revelers abandon the stage as if she has the plague.

There are some notable comedy gems in the minor roles that I'd be remiss in ignoring. Craig Estep is deliciously hypocritical and henpecked as Mr. Bumble opposite Patti Jones's capricious Widow Corney. Bob Tully is similarly oppressed as undertaker Sowerberry, with Carol Weiner tyrannizing over his household with the funereal mien of Whistler's mother.

Paradoxically, more joy might have insinuated itself into this Oliver! if there weren't so many professional grade performers in the prime roles and so few eager amateurs. Theatre Charlotte celebrates its 80th anniversary by presenting a polished, provocative hybrid that's a tad too decadent for its own good. It's the sort of community theater you can expect in a city that boasts a fine armada of professional grade talent -- without the will to support a professional mainstream theater company throughout the year.

Surrounded by banquet-length tables at Duke Power Theater, the new restaging of Omnium Gatherum has the ambiance of a post-9/11 Last Supper. Originally presented back in January by Carolina Actors Studio Theatre on a revolving stage at its home turf on Clement Avenue, the dinner table drama hammered home for me how desensitized we had become to the original wound that had been gouged into Ground Zero -- and our presumptions of security and invincibility.

A week after our annual commemorations of the horror, I reacted quite differently. Of the three productions I've seen -- including the revolving stage original in Louisville -- this one is the most opulent, truest of all to the Martha Stewart style of super-rich soiree that detonates when the vacuous hostess drops a terrorist into the contentious repartee.

Robert Lee Simmons has portrayed the terrorist Mohammed on all three occasions. So if you miss him a third time, you really have struck out.

The second annual Charlotte Dance Festival concluded last Saturday with a wondrous Aerial Dance Concert. In three segments, one of them filmed and projected on a large screen at Booth Playhouse, Blue Lapis Light brought us three encounters with the divine. Whether climbing on silk, hovering over the front row on roller skates, or (in the filmed segment) bouncing off a skyscraper, Laura Cannon was the haunting luminescence of Lapis with Nicole Whiteside her able consort.

Karola Luttringhaus and her alban elved dance company used their harness rigging to more thematic effect in a couple of intriguing pieces, objectifying the agony of the human condition. Attached to their harnesses, Luttringhaus and her partner, Shawn Worthington, were clearly capable of flight in "Escape from Planet Blackwater." But only briefly. The were equally ungainly on their confined home turfs, ugly brown cubes that reared up from the stage.

Luttringhaus further explored that notion of unsettledness in a solo piece, "Caulda." Without the clumsy attempts to connect with a partner -- and creepier music -- this journey was less comical and more like a hellish descent, with hints of Kafka's Metamorphosis in its insect-like moments.


A staggering 78 plaques were given out Sunday evening at McGlohon to local actors, directors, designers and theater companies at the 4th Annual MTA Awards. For the third time, Actor's Theatre of Charlotte took top honors as Theater Company of the Year, winning best drama honors for the third straight year with I Am My Own Wife. BareBones Theatre Group took comedy honors for the third straight year with Mr. Marmalade and the Blumenthal PAC scored its second straight win in the musical category with Wildwood Flowers.

Multiple winners included choreographer Delia Neil, director Dennis Delamar, actors Scott Ripley and Vito Abate, playwright/actor/set designer Stan Peal, costume designer Bob Croghan and lighting designer Eric Winkenwerder.

Robert Bush, emissary of the Char-Meck Arts & Science Council, made a couple of thrilling announcements. The ASC will be subsidizing a massive effort to heighten the functionality of MTA's Web site. Even better, they will be springing for "Two for $20" ticket deals for locally produced shows throughout the coming season. Stay tuned for more details.

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