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Surprise! Surprise! 

Moving Poets Group is outta here, but not without a parting shot

OK, it's official. It wasn't Dracula who said, "Ask, and ye shall receive."

Back in August, when Till Schmidt-Rimpler announced that Moving Poets Theatre of Dance would fold its tents here in Charlotte and move to Berlin, the most pioneering of the Poets also promised an October farewell. Poetic justice, since the company's early production of Dracula at moldering Carolina Theatre was the cross-disciplinary fantasia that cemented their following, sparking a Halloween tradition.

And fueling discussions of reviving the historic Carolina.

Sad to say, the city's support for the Carolina Theatre has faithfully mirrored its dreary record of supporting Moving Poets -- and a growing cavalcade of other professional arts organizations we could name. But when September and October came and went without further word about the haunted farewell, I grew worried. Had a stake been driven through the Poets' creative heart?

So on Nov. 9, I launched an SOS into cyberspace. For all you sticklers for Scripture, the answer is no: I didn't ask in the Son's name.

But all lovers of the Poets' subversive mix of dance, theater, music, sculpture, and videography will like the answer that lit up my landline a week later. The Poets farewell is on, scheduled for Dec. 14-17 at Theatre 36 in the Hart-Witzen gallery, fittingly titled Surprise! Surprise!

"Originally, we were not planning at all to do another show," Schmidt-Rimpler admits. "We were just planning on having like a one-evening goodbye event. We said that, in October, it was too busy and there was too much stuff going on. So we'd rather wait 'til a little bit later. But people kept on asking us -- and other artists kept saying, you should really do one more real show, not just one droopy goodbye thing. Which I guess is the truth. I think it's best for us to put a show together."

Less than two weeks after my SOS, the Poets' valedictory had taken shape. Considering that Schmidt-Rimpler had to mobilize dancers, actors, singers, and musicians to deliver his Surprise! package -- along with funding to keep the presentation up to customary pro standards -- Poets will be bowing out with a minor miracle.

Dancers converging on the project will include Sarah Emery, who had moved to New York, and Skyla Caldwell, who had stopped dancing. Music? Rock hall-of-famer Tom Constanten will come off the road to contribute his keyboard wizardry, hopefully buoyed by the guitar licks of Mike Lassiter (not yet confirmed). Classical guitarist Bob Teixeira will be in the house. Ditto operatic soprano Cynthia Farbman.

Theater alums will include Randell Haynes, a Founding Poet, and Mike Harris, Katherine Harrison, and Rob Simmons. Oh yeah, playwright James McLure (Lone Star & Pvt. Wars) will chip in a new script.

A full-fledged show, needless to say, seemed like a more daunting undertaking than a mere one-night event. So it's nice to know that my timely e-mail, the power of the Loaf, and the loafers for whom we stand all played a role in making it happen.

"It took us until -- when did you send me that e-mail?" Schmidt-Rimpler remembered. "That was actually one of the last motivators to say, let's at least see if we can pull it together. Somebody just spontaneously said, 'OK, let's see if we can get the artists together.' Then we looked at the funding, seeing who wants to be a part of it, who can be part of it. That was phenomenal, a great response from all the artists, and amazingly, a really good response from people who wanted to see the show, putting in the money that we needed to make it happen."

After covering the Charlotte arts scene for nearly 20 years, I'm eagerly awaiting my first Chanukah gift from a local performing arts group. I'll be attending Surprise! on Dec. 15, after lighting the first candle.

Now perhaps you're wondering what I wrote to bring Charlotte this parting shot from Schmidt-Rimpler and his artistic accomplices. Just a dozen words, actually: "Halloween has come and gone. Would that describe Moving Poets as well?"

SPEAKING OF outrè gift-giving, Carolinas Black Pride Movement founder Jermaine Nakia Lee will be gifting himself on his birthday. Production begins this week as Lee and fellow cast members from BlackOut 2006 spend five days at Electronic Specialties Studio in Edgemoor, S.C., recording their soundtrack CD.

If you missed out on BlackOut during its two runs at the Afro-Am Cultural Center, Sept. 15-16 and the Oct. 28 encore, the CD won't bring back the full impact of Lee's formidable acting chops. Or the purely dramatic facets of Lee's writing skills as BlackOut explored the seminal Harlem Renaissance from a gay/lesbian perspective. Out indeed!

But you'll get heaping helpings of Lee's songwriting and singing skills in a mix of Lee originals, instrumentals inspired by Renaissance stalwarts Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Bruce Nugent, and songs associated with Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.

Nate Blackmon teamed together with Lee on the original compositions while W. Stanford Curtis spearheaded a swinging jazz trio from the keyboard. More memorable still were the occasions when Curtis abandoned his combo and sang, particularly his rousing hook-up with Lee on "Why," a Lee-Blackmon original.

Dramatic segments that stood out in BlackOut were "Colored Me," a monologue written by Jazmina Diva featuring Diva as Hurston, and "Love/Hate," showcasing Lee as poet Countee Cullen opposite Keith Roberts as Langston Hughes. Quandrico was fairly impressive as Nugent in his scene, "Richardo," hampered by the presence of Saundra Thomas as the interviewing reporter.

BlackOut is already booked at 2007 black gay pride celebrations in Detroit, Atlanta, and Columbia, S.C. Lee has also been asked to submit his play to the Black Theatre Festival, so an encore engagement in Winston-Salem is also possible.

Meanwhile, the web launch of BlackOut 2006 is scheduled at on Dec. 18, Lee's birthday. Not only will the soundtrack be available online, but an edited video recording of the show -- plus behind-the-scenes footage and commentary -- will also be posted. That should transmit some of the electricity from the live performances at the Afro-Am, including a slice of JaJuana Moonie's dancing and choreographic prowess.

HEY. SOMETIMES downsizing works out. Witness the abbreviated version of The Spitfire Grill, the co-production by Davidson Community Players and Mooresville Community Theatre that finished a split run in its two parent towns on Nov. 19. While Spitfire was switching gears from the Davidson United Methodist Church Chapel to the Charles Mack Citizens Center in Mooresville, a streamlined version of the musical was taking first prize in statewide competition at the North Carolina Theatre Conference here in Charlotte.

The 96-minute version that I caught in its final matinee at the Mack -- a gorgeous facility, by the way -- had to be shortened to 60 minutes to participate in the NCTC competition.

"Less than that," corrected director/designer Melissa Ohlman-Roberge when I congratulated her at intermission. "If you go one second over your 60 minutes, you're disqualified."

Watching the production, I had no difficulty discerning the reason for Spitfire's success. Her name is Lisa Smith, past winner of Creative Loafing's best musical actress awards for performances in Oliver! and Cabaret. As ex-con Percy Talbott, who attempts to find balm for her shattered life in Gilead, Wis., Smith embraces a role she was born to play. Her backwoods accent and her Linda Ronstadt timbre sound exactly like what James Valcq and Fred Alley must have had in mind when they wrote their book and score, taking Lee David Zlotoff's 1996 movie as their inspiration.

To Ohlman-Roberge's credit, the rest of the Spitfire cast usually looks like it belongs on the same stage with Smith. Will Charlotte audiences ever get to see this production?

Don't bet against it. The Mooresville matinee may have been the last full-length performance of Spitfire, but the Slimfast version goes on to regional competition in Atlanta, where the Southeast Theatre Conference meets on March 8-10. If the Davidson-Mooresville entry clicks in Atlanta, then it's on to the National Community Theatre Festival. Two winners will represent the Southeast at AACTFest '07 to be held here in Charlotte on June 18-24.

If Spitfire wins in competition here, I'm guessing that a full-length revival will not be far behind.

READERS MAY remember when I wrote about witnessing the opening of the Four Seasons Performing Arts Center in September and Canada's first complete production of Wagner's Ring Cycle. It's fair to say that I tossed a barb in the direction of Opera Carolina when I cited the fact that, in its 59th season, our opera company hadn't voyaged any further into Wagner than The Flying Dutchman.

So did OC leadership take umbrage at my comparison? Not at all. Three days after the piece ran, OC general director and principal conductor James Meena shot me an e-mail that contained a bravo in its opening paragraph.

"It seems ESP is in the air," Meena continued. "We've been trying for three years to program either Die Walkyrie or Tannhauser and have run into so many obstacles each time that I eventually abandon those attempts. The problem, surprisingly, is not money, but schedule. Because of the tight schedule at the PAC, the most time we ever get in the theater is 12 days -- for tech, rehearsals and performances. Singers just aren't willing to sing 3 performances of one of these titanic pieces on this schedule -- it is grueling, so what we've tried to do is spread out the performances, which, as I said, on our schedule is nigh to impossible.

"Our latest attempt is for a Walkyrie in 2009, but only scheduling 2 performances, which will allow us to spread them out and give the singers the type of schedule that will ensure a good performance. But, I'm not sure that will work either. Hopefully, with the opening of the new Wachovia Theater down the road, the schedule will free up, and we will be able to schedule all our performances over a two-weekend schedule -- much, much better.

"By the way, I think our local premiere of La Vida Breve in January is going to be very cool -- different not only for us, but I think only the third performance of the work on stage in the States."

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