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Something To Shout About 

Charlotte festival gets off to a roaring start

Whatever Charlotte Shout becomes, its first two weeks have delivered an exhilarating range of theater, dance, classical galas and jazz. Over the past three weekends, we've had thrilling visits from the Paul Taylor Dance Company, Nnenna Freelon, Denyce Graves and "America's tenor," Daniel Rodriguez. A new era has dawned at Charlotte Rep, and Charlotte's exciting Off-Broadway coalition has made it to a second season.

Lost in all the city-booster hoopla has been the handsome launch of Theatre Charlotte's 75th anniversary season. Show Boat, directed and choreographed by Ron Chisholm, far transcends the homely stereotype of community theater.

Indeed, you wonder how so many seasoned pros who've worked for CP Summer Theatre, Children's Theatre, Actor's Theatre and Charlotte Rep were shanghaied into the venerable Queens Road barn -- even for a diamond anniversary celebration of both the company and the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein classic. Such a glittering affirmation of local talent was worth stronger support from the organizations sponsoring Charlotte Shout.

Occasionally in past Theatre Charlotte musical productions, inexperienced star performers have been upstaged by the pros in the pit and by the visual splendors surrounding them. This time, the tables are forcefully turned. Set designer Brian Ruggaber rarely rises to the lavish occasion, and lighting designer Cara Wood is even less inspired.

Not to worry, the electricity generated earlier this summer by Susan Roberts Knowlson and Patrick Ratchford at CPCC in Oklahoma! is undimmed down in the Delta. It was Ratchford who dazzled most devastatingly as Curly in the previous musical love match. This time, it's Knowlson who shines brightest as Magnolia Hawks, the singing riverboat rat who blindly adores gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Her mournful reprise of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" at her Chicago nightclub audition couldn't be better.

Of course, Ratchford holds up his end gorgeously in the signature duets, "Make Believe" and "You Are Love." He wears some of costumer Rebecca Cairns' finest finery to advantage, but he could stand to be a tad more confident and conceited -- and that fluorescent mustache badly needs trashing.

The supporting cast is a wonder. Two of Charlotte's prime triple threats, Linda Booth and Billy Ensley, play song-and-dance team Ellie May and Frank in outrageous burnt-orange outfits that accent their comic attributes. Dennis Delamar and Pat Heiss are Magnolia's folks. Cap'n Andy is the sort of garrulous role that Delamar perfected long ago, while crusty old Parthy Ann is perfectly configured for Heiss -- but take a look of her nifty hoofing in the final scene. In high heels!

As Joe, Kevin Harris hits those rich low notes of "Ol' Man River" again and again, but less wood and more warmth would be welcome. No such problems with Elisha Minter, the former CL Actress of Year who plays Joe's wife Queenie with her usual maternal brass.

Watching Show Boat three-quarters of a century after its 1927 Broadway debut, you quickly realize how beautifully it's suited to an integrated community production. Kern's music is as multicultural as Edna Ferber's novel.

Chisholm's choreography is stronger than his stage direction, which is quite reliable. Drina Keen ably directs down in the pit from the keyboard. And the show is miked better than any I've seen at Theatre Charlotte in recent years. An auspicious beginning to a historic season.

Emmy Award winner Penny Fuller garnered most of the hype as Charlotte Rep launched its new era with Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Indeed, Fuller imbues fragile matriarch Amanda Wingfield with strength, nobility, vanity and grace. But she's largely upstaged by the whelps who play her brooding brood. Michael Milligan has stylishly minted Tennessee's accent as our restless narrator, Tom. Caitlin Muelder sports a beautifully modulated limp and deftly navigates the rollercoaster of Laura's fears, joys and obsessions.Maybe I should say Fuller was downstaged. Director Joseph Hardy often brings Milligan and Muelder to the lip of the stage where their craft can be best appreciated. But he fails to bring Fuller forward till it's way too late. From Row J, it was difficult to connect.

Joe Gardner has built a wonderful stage to evoke the tawdry alley in St. Lou where the gracious Wingfields have fallen. Sad to say, Gardner's bland lighting of the climactic scenes drain them of much of their magic.

A luminosity named Natasha Harper was cruelly imprisoned in last week's lame touring production of West Side Story. Orchestral arrangements of Leonard Bernstein's music, from the overture onwards, were jejune. The street gangs ruling the mean streets of New York were about as ferocious as the Lost Boys in Disney's Peter Pan. And when she sang, poor Natasha was criminally overmiked by some tin-eared tech. Despite that, Harper's energy, spontaneity and exuberant youthfulness as Maria lit up every scene of her ill-fated romance with Tony. Her "I Feel Pretty," lightly kissed with a Spanish accent, had me giddy.

There were many reasons to be disappointed in this cut-rate production. The actor who was cast as the leader of the Jets was replaced by spindly Shane Kirkpatrick, originally slated to play the overeager Action. Set pieces, which weren't the height of scenic artistry to begin with, rumbled during scene changes as loudly as in a community theater production.

But while Harper triumphed, so eventually did the original Bernstein/Sondheim collaboration. What popped out at me with fresh clarity was the brilliance and prevalence of Jerome Robbins' choreography. I left Belk Theater marveling at the resilience of West Side Story as a powerful dance piece as much as its continued relevance as a musical.

What a show. And what a shame to see it revived in such mediocre fashion.

Music sounded much finer in the season openers by Opera Carolina and the Charlotte Philharmonic. While PAC impresario Judith Allen informed the opening night audience at West Side Story that we were marking the 10th anniversary of the beauteous Blumenthal, the gala Denyce Graves concert presented by Opera Carolina was a more flattering celebration of the facility -- and a glorious arrival in programming quality.Graves warmed up with a couple of arias from Saint-Saens' Samson et Delilah, noticeably heightening the sensuality -- and softening her timbre -- as she purred the steely temptress's "Ma coeur s'ouvre a ta voix." Then she discarded her yellow dress, returned in sexy red, and sizzled her way seductively through two vamps from Bizet's Carmen. By the time Graves reached maximum combustion in the notorious "Habanera," this critic was no longer equipped to deliver objective judgment.

Not that we needed comfort afterwards, but Graves returned after intermission dressed in solemn black, picked up a hand mike, and crooned a series of spiritual and patriotic tunes. The "We Shall Overcome" could take some coaching from Pete Seeger, but the "God Bless America" pierced my heart.

Of course, nobody does patriotism like the Charlotte Phil. Six white colonnades, draped in red and blue ribbons, flanked a massive Statue of Liberty centered behind the orchestra. Projections of Miss Liberty were splashed on the walls over the wings of the Belk stage, time-sharing with the flag, starbursts of fireworks, an evening cityscape, and the American eagle. Little flags were dispensed free at the door.

Guest soloist Daniel Rodriguez, on official leave from the NYPD, proved to be personable from the moment he grasped the microphone. No, he didn't sing the Miranda Rights. His first set of showstoppers from Jekyll and Hyde, Les Miz and The Scarlet Pimpernel made it abundantly clear that he'll never pound a beat again. He hits the high emotions as hard as hits the high notes.

You're never shortchanged by the Phil on variety. In addition to 10 Broadway, folk and flag-waving tunes from Rodriguez, there were two extravaganzas from the Eddie Mabry Dancers, a shtick from mime Hardin Minor, and choice orchestral morsels from Morton Gould, Aaron Copland and John Williams. The concert ended at 10:37, but the adoration lingered on. At 11:05, there were still some 40 fans on line waiting for Rodriguez to sign autographs, most of them clutching new CDs.

He said he was willing to sign anything -- except the flag.

Up in NoDa, we are grimly reminded in Martin Sherman's Bent of the human wreckage that occurs when bigoted ideologues seize power and wield it. The most arresting feature of the new Off-Tryon Theatre production is the barbed wire fence that encloses the stage where the mind-numbing routine of a work detail at the Dachau concentration camp is repeated over and over and over. And over.The script is gripping, chronicling the victimization of gays by the Nazi Regime -- and the cruel betrayals, desperate ploys and touching bonds that occurred in response. Glenn Griffin, Jimmy Chrismon and Lee Thomas are all fine in the central roles, though Griffin's allure as our gay hero Max is short of electrifying. The Nazis are implacable, but never too monstrous, and director John Hartness delivers a fine cameo as Max's Uncle Freddy.

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