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Tabloid Terror On Stonewall 

Cult favorite swoops down at Actor's Theatre

You may have missed the amazing story glaring at you along the checkout line at your local supermarket when Weekly World News first broke the story in 1992. Or you may have been so traumatized that you've forgotten the horror. "BAT CHILD FOUND IN CAVE!" blared the headline in boldface caps.

After years of government denials, the alarming story leapt from the Shenandoah mountains of West Virginia to the streets of New York as Bat Boy: The Musical premiered Off-Broadway, spawning a cadre of Batophiles and winning the Outer Critics Circle award as Best Musical of 2000-01. Now the menace alights at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte's new home on Stonewall Street.

Billy Ensley, who unleashed his wild side last May directing and starring in ATC's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, will direct the winged creature. Although he hasn't met the actual Bat Boy, Ensley made a pilgrimage to Atlanta last summer to watch a minimalist production of the cult favorite before holding auditions here in Charlotte.

Stalking authenticity, Ensley resorted to extraordinary methods in helping his leading rodent.

"I watched bats on Discovery Channel!" he confesses. "You can't really turn a man into a bat. It was primarily posturing and the way we have him holding his arms and his hands. He and I worked a lot together physically to see what looks right. He's jumping around and I didn't want him to look like a monkey. We figured it out."

With book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, Bat Boy predictably targets smalltown small-mindedness, but it also takes on such revered theater chestnuts as My Fair Lady, Little Shop of Horrors, and Elephant Man. Music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe carry additional delights and challenges.

Ensley is confident that newcomer Bob Walker will handle them in the title role.

"Bat Boys just don't come out of the woodwork," he insists. "The range is astronomical. You have to be young to do the role. It requires a lot of skill, and that's a hard thing to find in a youngster. So I got very lucky that I found a great Bat Boy. After the auditions, there was no question in my mind who it was going to be."

Joining Walker and a quartet of other new discoveries will be some more familiar local stars, including Dennis Delamar, Patrick Ratchford, Corey Mitchell, and Johanna Jowett.

Reviews

Gone are the days when BareBones Theatre Group lived down to its name, offering meaty texts and capable actors up at the Afro-Am Attic Theatre -- with few technical trimmings. Now in their sixth season, BBTG is beginning their second year at their own SouthEnd Performing Arts Center (SPAC) with Steven Dietz's grimly comical ode to friendship, Lonely Planet.

Like their previous efforts on Rampart Street -- and those of its tenants, Epic Arts Repertory and Actor's Gym -- this BareBones production is a joy to behold. Fittingly, Peter Smeal's design for the Jody's Maps shop is a diamond-shaped island with walls made of dangling global maps, a flimsy door, and thin air. Here is where Jody maroons himself, rarely opening for business, afraid of the pandemic that lurks outside on the street, and unwilling to walk five blocks to get himself tested for the prowling HIV virus.

Nicia Carla, CL's reigning Actress of the Year, makes her directorial debut with BareBones and gets conspicuously restrained and sensitive performances from husband Aaron Moore as Jody and Smeal as best friend Carl. The symbiosis between the two is nothing if not quirky. Holed up in his store, Jody needs Carl to provide him with a link to the outside world -- and with basic supplies.

Carl is not the ideal person for helping a map geek overcome his phobias. Eventually, we get the idea that he might be a furniture mover, but not before we sift through the lies he tells about being involved in five or six other professions. Meanwhile he uses Jody's shop as a refuge, bringing in the chairs of dead friends after attending their frequent funerals. By intermission, the shop is choking with chairs. Then the curtains flanking the stage are ripped aside, and the AIDS epidemic looks strangely like a holocaust.

If you saw the recent HBO production of Angels in America, Tony Kushner's culminating manifesto, "We will no longer be silent," has a special resonance here. Those big capital letters, AIDS and HIV, are never spoken aloud on the moonscape of this 1992 script -- so our catharsis is barely a tremor. The greater rewards come from the chemistry and carefully limited intimacy between Moore and Smeal, their wry, spontaneous humor and their submerged desperation.

Don't miss the final subtlety -- how the two friends switch positions at the last moment.

Before the musicians' strike decapitated the 2003-04 Charlotte Symphony season, one of the biggest stories figured to be the new uptown venue for the Mostly Mozart Neighborhood Concert series, First Baptist Church on South Davidson Street. The strike was settled after the first concert was originally scheduled, leaving the series in a sticky predicament: Symphony would be playing zero Mozart in the remaining MM concerts.

That didn't detract from the acoustic benefits offered by First Baptist. CSO maestro Christof Perick conducted a zesty hour-long program in November that effortlessly bridged the gap between Bach's third Orchestral Suite and Franz Schreker's Chamber Symphony. Then on December 30, a Symphony press release announced a solution to the Mozart dilemma.

Handel's Water Music would be scuttled in the upcoming concert and replaced by a varied program featuring Wolfgang's Violin Concerto #3, originally slated for September. Last week's musicmaking was thus triply auspicious, marking the Symphony's first complete performance of the concerto, the debut of new resident conductor Alan Yamamoto, and the solo bow for concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu.

First Baptist's outstanding acoustics scored highest last Wednesday, ahead of Lupanu and the slow-starting Yamamoto. Lupanu's tone and presence were both impressive, particularly in the adagio of the Mozart. But he smeared the swiftest passages of the outer allegros -- at tempi that were less than torrid. Still, his unattributed cadenza at the end of the opening movement was the highlight of the evening.

Yamamoto was personable introducing -- and conducting -- the contemporary pieces, Arvo Part's Fratres VI and John Harbison's Music for 18 Winds. But Faure's Pavane was stiff and labored under his baton opening the evening, and the Mozart finale lacked both fleet tempi and dynamic range.

Perick returns to the MM podium on Valentine's Day, perhaps with an hour of Schubert and Haydn. We'll try to keep you apprised of any surprises.

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