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Pat and Cat Do Argentina 

Plus, griddle grease returns for 20th anniversary

If you've followed Billy Ensley for the past three years, you'll notice that Charlotte's preeminent triple threat has expanded his horizons as a singer and an actor. To effect his startling transformations -- most memorably as Fagin in Oliver! and as the lead rocker in Hedwig -- Ensley has radically changed his look.

He brings the same approach to directing Theatre Charlotte's compelling production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita. As many times as you've seen the wholesome Patrick Ratchford -- as Curly in Oklahoma! or as Ravenel in Show Boat -- you won't recognize him as Che Guevara without your program. Long, greasy hair cascades from his beret while a muddy coloring distorts the fiery guerrilla's face.

The urbane Dennis Delamar, curves shaved away from his eyebrows, doesn't bear a strong resemblance to Argentine strongman Juan Peron. But he has the steely stare and the beefy brutishness of a true fascist pig.

You can't help but think that Ensley has had a hand in both of these remarkable metamorphoses. He worked wonders with Cat Zeggert when she starred in Sweet Charity last year. Now she evolves convincingly as Eva Peron, from opportunistic country wench to national ambassador to holy icon -- with a sequence of wigs to accompany her changes in attitude and stature.

At least that's what appears to happen under Ensley's direction. Musical director Scott McKenzie's obnoxious octet drowned out all clear communication between Eva and audience at the by-invitation-only opening night performance. If they finally do put a muzzle on McKenzie & Crew after week #1 of the run, there's no guaranteeing that Pat and Cat won't have wrecked their voices in combat before week #2.

Ratchford, mostly roaming across the downstage for Che's narrative and vocals, mostly stays afloat above the orchestral tidal wave. But the Cat mostly capsizes, sometimes a faint cry for help for as much as 15 minutes at a time. Not that Zeggert isn't outfitted with a body mike. When she's stripped down to her silky undergarments, in fact, the huge contraption strapped on her back makes her look like a suicide bomber.

Linda Booth's choreography for the military and tango segments adds to the glamour and the bite. But some of the other ensemble pieces are strangely static. Matthew Corbett's set design, a boxy and gloomy affair, isn't at all spectacular. Still, it gives the production an old-timey documentary flavor you may like. Mindy Bass's smart costumes are hugely helpful in delineating character and situation when the scenery isn't up to the task. Despite a major snafu on Eva's final exit, lights and slide projections run effectively.

It's a mixed bag, to be sure. Zeggert, Ratchford and Delamar don't always get flattering support, but their intense work lifts the overall effort above mediocrity. And TC's Evita conclusively demonstrates that Ensley is a visionary director.

If there's a soft spot in your heart for griddle grease, you may be hopelessly hooked and pre-sold on Pump Boys and Dinettes. This Carolina confection, written principally by Jim Wann, is a laid-back blend of country music, soft rock, broad comedy and a sly pinch of romance.Make that very laid-back. The 20th anniversary Pump Boys, currently at Booth Playhouse launching Charlotte Repertory Theatre's 27th season, still doesn't have much of anywhere to go. Nor does it appear to get there in any great hurry, what with its excursion to Frog Level for a dalliance with a Woolworth's babe, time off for an impromptu fishing break, and an on-impulse Florida vacation by the entire ensemble. The Winnebago that was brought in to the Flying A gas station for repairs, up on blocks somewhere before we arrive, hasn't budged an inch by the time we leave. So the idea that these folk need a break or a vacation is a running joke.

And you may not instantly get the hang of Wann's concept of "musicians' theatre." Most grease monkeys that you encounter at rural filling stations aren't bellied up to keyboards, straddling bass fiddles or sporting guitars around their necks. That's precisely what we find on Highway 57 -- "somewhere between Frog Level and Smyrna" -- when we meet the four Pump Boys.

Under Michael Bush's canny direction, the anniversary Pump Boys has more credibility -- and electricity -- than any other revival I've seen. Gone are the microphone stands that littered the stage in decades past. But take a look at Jim Gloster's wondrous set design, split by a Highway 57 that almost gives off the aroma of freshly laid tar.

Lovingly adorned with Lance and Coca-Cola vending machines, Sealtest and Caterpillar clocks, and miscellaneous signage from 7Up, John Deere and Mountain Dew, this roadstop exudes a rusted-out rusticity. The most inspired touch is the rolltop desk inside the Flying A station. Inside its wooden shell is L.M.'s electric keyboard, bridging the gap between motor oil and music.

Additional spark is supplied by the multi-talented Pump Boys supporting Wann, who reprises his original Broadway role starring as -- now here's a stretch -- Jim. Louis Tucci adds a whole new funky dimension as bassist Eddie, donning all sorts of spacey haberdashery, including the ballcap for the Smyrna Close Encounters.

We get a nice lead vocal from Miles Aubrey on "Mona" (Frog Level's "dime-store dream") and some nifty pickin' on electric and acoustic guitars. But the Don Juan dimension of the layabout Jackson that would put the glow in Prudie Cupp's cheeks is on back order. Randy Redd has the nimblest feet as the irresistibly nerdy keyboardist, L.M., giving choreographer Janet Watson a couple of chances to spice up his novelty numbers, "Serve Yourself" and "Farmer Tan."

It's the Dinettes, sibling owners of the Double Cupp Diner across the highway, who truly turn on the high voltage. As Rhetta Cupp, Lynne Wintersteller delivers enough righteous embellishment to nearly turn rockabilly into gospel. Wintersteller is so charismatic scolding her Jim in "Be Good or Be Gone" that you wonder why she gives him a glance. Yes, there's plenty of avuncular authority left in Wann, but 20 years after introducing Pump Boys, he's asking us to suspend a truckload of disbelief when he stands toe to toe with Wintersteller in their celebratory "Wild About My Honey" duet.

Breathing? Yes, Wann is definitely doing that. Wild? Not compared to this firecracker.

Emily Skinner takes us deeper into the torrid zone as Prudie, undoubtedly the hottest Dinette ever to serve coffee at the Double Cupp. I saw Skinner back in "97 when she earned a Tony nomination as Siamese twin Daisy Hilton in Side Show -- and again in the original Broadway cast of The Full Monty in 2000.

But not like this. Poured somehow into costumer Bob Croghan's pink waitress outfit, Skinner sizzles -- no cups obstructing the delicious decolletage. Then she switches into glittering royal blue, notching the temperature even higher.

Of course, there's more. Skinner's vocals on "The Best Man" and "Vacation" almost match Wintersteller's bravura. The Dinettes pump out three vocal duets, check in with numerous tasty backup harmonies, and -- a prime touch from musical director Joel Silberman -- add some kitchen percussion, banging on the pans hung over the griddle.

In their crowd-pleasing "Tips," both Dinettes work the audience, vamping for cash. The guy in front of me whipped out a $20 bill. I don't know what the high-roller next to him chipped in, but Wintersteller plastered him with a big sloppy smooch.

I guess they'd say this was the best work Michael Bush has done since coming to Rep. I'd have to agree.

Since heading off to Kentucky for an apprenticeship with the famed Actors Theatre of Louisville, Robert Simmons has peeped back on the Charlotte scene a couple of times. Now after a powerful lead last month in Victory Pictures' Kiss of the Spider Woman, he's back as production manager of Finer Noble Gases.Better still, he's rejoined his dad Michael as VP of development at Vic Pix. The significance of that comes clear from the moment you enter the Central Avenue Playhouse. With this magnificently detailed set, with superbly executed lighting, sound, make-up, costuming and electronic effects, the Simmons family enterprise has jumped back into the lead as the most technically accomplished fringe group in town.

Credit the younger Simmons for unearthing Adam Rapp's disturbing drama, a graduate of Louisville's famed Humana Festival of 2002. And credit the elder Michael Simmons, who directs, for getting his young cast to credibly evoke this strange East Village ambience, blending the absurd inertia of Sam Beckett with the naturalistic violence of Sam Shepard.

Eric Blake, who earned CL Newcomer of the Year honors in 2001, is the standout as Staples, but Derek Gamba has plenty of fine moments as fellow superslacker Chase. The three major food groups among these stoned roommates are blue, pink and yellow pills. Peeing is done into an upturned drumhead from their extinct rock band.

This is not the show you'll want to take your children to. Or your mom. It's a mesmerizing, bloody trip

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