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Ready or not, the godfather returns 

Prepare for more innovative ideas

If you're one of the few who stole away from Broadway's Tony Awards on Sunday night for one last peep at that HBO Tony, you've already gotten the memo. The world is still safe for godfathers.

George Brown, arguably the godfather of Charlotte's fringe theater scene, is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his groundbreaking guerilla group, innovative Theatre, by reviving Women Behind Bars at Spirit Square. The three-week engagement in Duke Power Theatre through June 30, where Brown and innovative last produced a decade ago, isn't merely a wistful trip down memory lane.

By restaging one of the company's biggest hits, Brown hopes to lay the foundation for a whole new era of iT wickedness, mischief and mayhem. The Tom Eyen script is a no-holds-barred homage to the corruption inflicted upon us by grade-B women's prison flicks, fully equipped with an innocent heroine tossed into a nefarious snake pit, wriggling and jiggling to survive.

With the momentum of Women Behind Bars behind him -- and a whole new generation of awestruck Center City yuppies anticipating his next assault on Charlotte conventionality -- Brown plans to bring Return to the Forbidden Planet to the Duke this fall. It's a show that the mild-mannered Brown has been fiendishly contemplating for years.

"It's a musical," he promises. "I was putting it up for next year when I was shutting the company down. Then at that time, Spirit Square was changing over. Rent was going to increase, according to Michael [Marsicano] and the ASC, to around three times what we were paying. And they were cutting our funding. I burned out, essentially."

Brown and company still aren't receiving basic operating grants from the Char-Meck Arts & Science Council, but producing at Spirit Square is a far more agreeable proposition under Tom Gabbard's enlightened PAC leadership. The Blumenthal PAC has been so welcoming that Brown and numerous other local fringe groups will need to sit down together to coordinate the high volume of theater traffic expected at both the Duke Power and Booth Playhouse this fall.

Sad to say, Charlotte's theater community hasn't been nearly as welcoming.

"The reception I was getting from a lot of people was that they just didn't want me to do it," Brown confides after a deadly pause. "I didn't seem to be getting any help much from anybody. No one really wanted to help, and I don't know why that is. As soon as people knew that I was even considering putting innovative back up, they kind of steered away from me."

When people did open up to Brown, they'd tell him that Charlotte audiences had forgotten innovative Theatre. One friend told him that the company's return would upset the delicate fringe ecology in Charlotte.

Of course, such nervousness and timidity are exactly why Brown's boldness is so desperately needed around here. Anybody who thinks Brown & Co. cannot carve a niche totally apart from other local companies is forgetting what innovative achieved in the late 1980s and early '90s. More to the point, they're underestimating the city's unslaked thirst for the kinky cross-dressing irreverence that Brown will deliver.

Since Angels in America tore Charlotte apart in 1996, theater artists and their supporters have played it safe. Ironically, on the same night that Women Behind Bars opens here at Spirit Square, one of the most notorious ventures of the early innovative years -- the Charles Busch double-bill of Sleeping Beauty or Coma and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom -- will also return to North Carolina.

Late on Friday and Saturday night, after Triad Stage presents its Actors Equity version of Tobacco Road, the Charles Busch duo will be staged at the same Pyrle Theatre in downtown Greensboro. Now you Christian taxpayers will really need to take a deep breath when I inform you that this sacrilege will be presented by the UNC Greensboro Theatre Department as part of the second annual THTR 232 Festival.

Face it: Bankers, theater artists and board members who fear Brown's heightened kink quotient or a fundamentalist wacko uprising should have looked themselves in the mirror -- and blushed -- a long time ago. Brown's return and the daring fare promised by Queen City Theatre Company are good things.

Competitors and bean counters need to deal with the new reality. The rest of us can revel in it.

High Fives On Bali Ha'i

Mike Collins' clout with CPCC Summer Theatre doesn't equal that of other artists who have performed and directed more often at Pease Auditorium and the new Halton Theater. Or so it would seem when you count the paltry number of musicians in the Halton's roomy pit for the current production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific. And while it's the soul of financial prudence to stage "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair" without a drop of water, while filling the stage with pulchritudinous chorines, it's artistic heresy.

So I'm tipping my hat to Collins in his CP directorial debut -- abetted by musical director Drina Keen, scenic guru James Duke and costume designer Jennifer Matthews -- for doing so much with so little. Fortunately, no such allowances need to be made for the leading players. Pound for pound, and larynx for larynx, they are the equals of the most recent touring productions that have stormed into Belk Theater.

In his CP debut, Steven Jepson follows in the footsteps of prestigious matinee idols who have portrayed Emile de Becque on stage and screen. Once you've heard him, you're unlikely to feel that he's standing in their shadow. Similarly, Rebecca Cook-Carter is a robust revelation as Bloody Mary, an astonishing turnabout after her miscast performance as the delicate Cio-Cio San just last year.

Carving up the rest of the boatload of standards, Susan Roberts Knowlson is at her perkiest as Ensign Nellie Forbush and newcomer Jonathan Caudill hits all the high notes dead-center as the tragically doomed Lt. Cable. Comedy is also in deft hands with Vito Abate floating his tattoo belly-boat as Luther Billis, and Kevin Campbell -- yes, that Kevin Campbell -- giving Billis a thunderously military dressing-down as Capt. George Brackett.

While boasting Molly Ringwald in the title role, the touring production of Sweet Charity was seriously hampered by its impoverished Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields songlist. The book, by Neil Simon, became a godsend -- particularly in that scene where Charity Hope Valentine is stuck interminably in a stalled elevator with claustrophobic Oscar Lindquist, performed with rubber-limbed brilliance by Guy Adkins.

A scene where your big-name star must pretend to be gaga over the machismo of a nobody portraying a screen Lothario should have sputtered. But Ringwald sailed along triumphantly at Belk Theater, buoyed by Simon's perfection and the fine staging of "If My Friends Could See Me Now," Charity's only memorable song.

I don't hate that song as much as I hate the title tune, so I appreciated how Adkins managed to mute its lameness. Amputation would have been the only remedy for "Rich Man's Frug." Alas, we had to suffer.

Can a theater production be victimized by its own success? That's one way to analyze what has happened to Collaborative Arts and their Southern-fried remake of the Bard, renamed As Y'All Like It. The second annual Shakespeare at the Green presentation is as well-acted as their first outdoor extravaganza, even though the text is breaded with a Dixie twang.

But where are all these fine actors -- most notably Beth Pierce as Rosalind, Greta Marie Zandstra as Celia, Chaz Pofahl as Orlando and Peter Smeal as Touchstone? The plenitude of people on blankets or on folding chairs at The Green often blocked or obscured sightlines. With the fine rigging by Total Event Production, however, you could always hear what you couldn't see.

Thanks to the musical derring-do of composer Stan Peal, the songs of this comedy -- often a pain in the butt at big Bard fests around the country -- provided a consistent lift. Doug Roaten, Michelle Busiek and Joe Smith make a fine vocal/instrumental trio as Amiens and Lords 1 and 2.

They've added an extra row of seats up close to the action at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre for the current production of Suzan-Lori Parks's Top Dog/Underdog. All 72 seats would be filled every night if poetic justice had a say on the fortunes of CAST's fascinating Lincoln-Booth face-off.

Two black brothers bear this volatile combo of names as Parks sardonically dramatizes the low ceiling for self-development among young African-Americans a full 140 years after their "emancipation." Jonavan Adams doesn't get all the nuances of Lincoln early on, but he's wonderful in the explosive denouement. CAST and director Aisha O. Dew can take special pride in James Lee Walker II's performance as younger brother Booth. The steely-voiced Walker bristles with menace, and his development in the past year as an actor has been a wonder.

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