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Peal's Drumming Orbit 

Plus, a new Nutcracker

Something about solstices seems to stimulate Stan Peal's musical instincts. For the third time in recent years, the diminutive playwright-composer-director-actor-singer-drummer-set designer will be staging A Mad, Mad Madrigal just in time to make a mockery -- and a pagan sacrament -- of the holiday season.

"And of course," adds Peal, "we're inviting the audience to drum before and after the show."

Peal and his merry band of Epic Arts Repertory actors will take over drumming chores during the show, thank you very much. The rowdy medieval gang not only includes Bobbin Good and his Berrymen, but also the Scarlet Pimpernel on leave from the French Revolution, a guy named Rabid Rockeater kidnapped from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and those ancient Wiccan rivals, the Holly King and the Oak Queen.

Somewhere in the middle of all this madness, there's room for a queen -- Peal's able spouse, Laura Depta -- and Peal's own vatic drumming. Peal and Depta, the king and queen of Epic Arts Repertory Theatre, will be reigning at Spirit Square for the first time since they reprised Peal's The Friar and the Nurse three summers back.

They've never done Madrigal at the Duke Power Theatre, and they're planning some major reconfigurations -- of the 2003 show, Peal's set design, and the Duke space.

"We're going to be in a three-quarter round," Peal reveals, "but our backstage is going to be what people usually think of as house left, stage right. We're going to have the thrones, and then we're going to have cabaret seating on three sides. There will actually be a few small new elements to the set. We'll have a visible staircase to get from the floor to the balcony. We'll also be using the balcony seats, so it will be a little bit disorienting in a good way."

About half of the Madrigal is retained from previous iterations. With new performers in the mix, Peal has created new characters and new comedy bits, presumably in the hallowed Monty Python mold. Cabaret and the besotted Oak King -- or was that the Holly King? I forget -- should fit one another like a gauntlet.

The silliness promises to be an eye-opener for the new generation of Epic Arts fans who have enjoyed the company's two notable premieres since its rebirth, The Expanding Sky and Goddess and the Magdalene. Peal and Depta get to revive a fun show for the newbies while building a bridge to the next solstice.

"We've been getting a bigger audience," Peal notes, "especially with Expanding Sky. We have a new board. A lot of those people came on after seeing Expanding Sky. We picked up steam with Goddess this summer, so a good part of our audience is new. [Madrigal] is a good way for us to stay visible, while we get ready to introduce a new show next summer."

Depta is busily translating Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream into, heaven help us, contemporary English. When she's finished with that update, Peal will swing into action and write music to Laura's new lyrics. The result will be A Midsummer Night's Musical, slated to premiere at Duke Power on June 5. Yes, the three-weekend run will end on June 22, so Peal and Depta will have straddled both solstices. Meanwhile, Peal is warming up his composing chops by introducing a new original song into his olde Madrigal. Further warmth and merriment are supplied by returning cast members. Besides Depta and Peal, these include Annette Saunders, Kristen Jones, Julie Janorschke, Andrew Barron, Lee Thomas, and the irreplaceable Hank West as the besotted king, whichever one that was. Oak, I'm betting.

Meghan Lowther, Karen Lamb, Jina Barragan and Paul Goodson haven't always been cast members. Each was absent for one of the previous editions. I'd say they've come to their senses: The prodigal sleaziness of Barragan and Goodson are both pearls of great price.

Paula Schmitt, Lou Dalessandro, Tom Ollis and Tanya McClellan are all new to the Madrigal cast, but not to Epic Arts fans. Dalessandro was Peal's co-star in Expanding Sky. Marty Gregory, who supplied honky-tonk piano for the Hubble-Humason vaudevilles, steps in as music director and accompanist.

Unlike the summer rites to come, Madrigal runs for one week only. Cider, if memory serves, is the wassail of the week, and the staff of life is doughnuts. So the circle won't be unbroken.

Besides the Wiccan-flavored revels at Duke Power, you can find an exotic Yule celebration at Ovens Auditorium this Wednesday and Thursday. New Tang Dynasty TV of New York, which claims to be the largest independent Chinese media in the world, is the main presenter of Holiday Wonders, a music-and-dance celebration of traditional culture calculated to Ming in the New Year.

The main objector to this celebration is the Chinese Embassy! Yes, they somehow felt chances of shielding Charlotte from this non-state-approved entertainment was worth a phone call to Ovens HQ. Comforting to know that the Red Regime has its priorities straight instead of squandering its focus on lead poisoning, SARS or human rights.

THE TRANSITION from the familiar Salvatore Aiello to the new Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux version of The Nutcracker has taken another giant leap forward with a fresh infusion of sets and costumes on loan from the Pennsylvania Ballet. Hopefully, the evolution will proceed at Belk Theater in future years beyond this mishmash of three different design concepts, two by North Carolina Dance Theatre and the fresh Philadelphia infusion.

I do like the latest candy-cane realm better than last year's interloper, although Clara is badly upstaged in her upstage throne, and the snow scenery that greets us at the outset of Act 2 is also a keeper. But the opening tableaux at the Stahlbaum's doesn't excite my imagination, and the transition from Christmas festivity to fantasyland is downright lame.

Bonnefoux's choreography remains lackadaisical and repetitious in spots, nor is his scenario as adventurous as Aiello's. NCDT's evolving Nut is undoubtedly more balletic, however, and the range of talent on display must be termed unprecedented.

Ellen Hummel, timesharing the Clara role with Patterson Floberg, was nothing short of phenomenal on opening night, ably partnered by young Nicholas Watson as Fritz. We can be truly proud that NCDT is grooming such talents at their fine school and satellite company, but the elderly Mark Diamond is no less a Charlotte treasure as Herr Drosselmeyer -- in a conjuring, comic vein, of course.

Tracy Gilchrest remains the essence of grace as Sugar Plum Fairy, elegantly partnered by Addul Manzano as her cavalier. Rebecca Carmazzi and Sasha Janes reigned over the Snow Kingdom with similar aplomb. In the boutique dances, standouts were Justin VanWeest as Candy Cane, Alessandra Ball in the "Waltz of the Flowers," and a slithery Nicholle Rochelle as Coffee -- stirred by Jhè Russell.

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