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Smoke in the auditorium 

And a rockin' robin

Who walks in the classroom cool and slow?

Who calls the English teacher Daddy-O?

With admirable speed and precision, the lyrics of songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller sketch the portrait of smoker, joker, all-around class clown Charlie Brown -- conjuring up '50s coolness in just three syllables. Music and drama ooze from the funky brew. As the guys in Smokey Joe's Café wail the harmony, "He's gonna get caught, just you wait and see," the awaited response is as much the gravelly, honking sax of King Curtis as the hapless Charlie's existential "Why's everybody always picking on me?"

We're fortunate to have the musical craftsmanship and storytelling wit in this 36-song, 91-minute cruise through the magnum opuses of Leiber & Stoller as it jolts Theatre Charlotte through May 20. The vocal firepower of performers onstage, alas, often doesn't match the material. Or the tight instrumental sextet led by Ellen Robison.

Director/choreographer Ron Chisholm has a fine grasp of the storylines capsulized in "Poison Ivy," "Broadway," "Yakety Yak," "Spanish Harlem," "D.W. Washburn" and "Little Egypt." With Robbie Jaeger gassing the lead vocal, flanked by Alyson Lowe and Courtney Johnson supplying the gyrations, "Teach Me How to Shimmy" has the visual appeal to make eager students of us all.

After all five ladies in the cast get a piece of the wickedness in "I'm a Woman," Chisholm lets Corey Mitchell loose with full melodramatic excess on "There Goes My Baby," The Drifters' doo-wop classic. At the height of the hilarity, it looked like Mitchell was doing the backstroke on the floor, drowning in misery behind his backups.

I'm not sure that Chisholm and music director Robison allowed this cast to sufficiently rest their tonsils while they were perfecting the visuals. Jaeger, Mitchell, Lowe and newly crowned CL Actor of the Year Billy Ensley have all sounded better in previous outings. All 10 performers wear those new-millennium headsets, but amplification doesn't always materialize when needed. Four days' rest and better coordination at the soundboard could cure a lot of ills -- and spell a world of difference -- as the show eases into its second week.

Among the newcomers, L-Jae Levine was the standout soloist in "Spanish Harlem," but after an abortive duet with Suzanne Newsome in the first act, Matthew Talford showed real promise after intermission in "You're the Boss," a better showing for Newsome as well. All of the performers blend well in the group pieces, a good thing when you consider that Leiber & Stoller worked extensively with boy and girl groups in the 50s and 60s.

And they all seem to get the steps -- except for Mitchell, who's still battling mightily with the "On Broadway" routine. The real aces among the hoofers are Johnson, Ensley, and Lowe. It would be a treat to see all three in action at CPCC this summer.

SO JUST HOW MUCH difference can a maestro make? After last week's all-Wagner Outside The Ring concert at Belk Theater, I couldn't help wondering how much help Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's Christof Perick could have been in this lackluster season finale -- or how much blame could legitimately be laid at the feet of last-minute substitute George Hanson.

Striding genially to the microphone, Hanson certainly made a fine initial impression as he introduced the evening's excerpts from Die Meistersinger, Lohengrin, and Tannhauser. Bloom quickly vanished from the rose in the "Prelude to Act 1 of Meistersinger" and the ensuing chorale. After some minor ungainliness from the horns, the performance steadied but never excelled. And what about the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, normally huge assets under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett? Didn't add any spark here.

Much the same can be said for the Lohengrin package after intermission. The violins captured the sublimity that bookends the Act 1 prelude, but there was a vast desert of dullness in-between. A sudden upswell of urgency and involvement marked the Act 3 prelude, but that segued into the Oreos' rendition of the familiar "Bridal Chorus," sweet to start but then cloying and tiresome as the freshness faded away.

So it was Perick's presence -- in the programming selections -- that accounted for some of the tedium. Similarly, the guest vocalists weren't always the best choices.

Michael Dries produced beautiful bass tones in his rendition of Sachs' magnificent aria from Meistersinger, but little of the fervor that should animate it, and tenor Albert Bonnema's loud pass at Walther's prize-winning song could barely be judged an also-ran.

Soprano Carola Hohn was the one person who seemed to have a positive impact on the proceedings, straining audibly to meet the vocal demands of Elisabeth in Act 2 of Tannhauser but totally inhabiting the tragic heroine from her first note. Bonnema looked downright dopey opposite her, singing the title role out of a score and seeming to need the supertitles more than we did. But his singing improved, rising -- slightly -- to the occasion.

Dries then returned briefly with the purest soloing of the night, a solid foundation for the final flourishes of the CSO and the Oreos. Yes, the Tannhauser March, with three extra trumpeters perched up in the fourth level box, was a marvel, and the chorus of Thuringian knights, nobles and ladies made for a thrilling finale.

CHILDREN'S THEATRE and their vagabond Tarradiddle Players are mining their trusty vein of commedia dell'arte with as much zest as ever. Under Jill Bloede's peppy direction, The Commedia Robin Hood is spreading the gospel of slapstick to a new generation. But the intrepid Tarradiddlers strike me as more eager to transport us to Sherwood Forest than playwright Lane Riosley.

So the Commedia Princess and the Pea beats out Sir Robin of Locksley for excitement and comedy? 'Tis true.

I don't think anybody forced Riosley to tell the story of the benevolent outlaw and his legendary band of merry men with a cast of two men and two women, so the "you try it" defense doesn't hold up. Naturally, Bloede and her Players toss as much-a comic marinara sauce on the mess as they can.

As a result, the ill-conceived project has them rolling in the aisles at Wachovia Playhouse. Robby Fulton leads the ImaginOn assault in the dual roles of Robin and the wayward Arlequino. Counterbalancing him are Greta Marie Zandstra as the presiding Rosetta, moonlighting as Maid Marian, and Leslie Ann Giles as the shrewish Columbine when not clomping around as the 7-foot-tall Little John, afraid of heights.

Chaz Pofahl has fun in his set of roles, Punchin while he's laying on the Italian accent, Friar Tuck or the Sheriff of Nottingham when we hit Sherwood. Belly and butt both come into play as Pofahl shuttles between jolly cleric's robes and fencing against Robin with slapstick swords.

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