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Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is first-rate 

If ever the essence of a comedy could be distilled into three little words, then Peter Hatcher's cri de coeur in the climactic scene of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing is such a distillation. "I want Dribble!!" he bellows, with all his aching fourth-grade dignity.

And of course, we all do. It may not have been a teensy do-nothing turtle, but at one time or another, we have all found ourselves deeply invested in things that, measured against peace in Jerusalem, genocide in Darfur, or global warming, seem to be absurdly and comically trivial in hindsight. Growing up and maturing are fruitless accomplishments, on the other hand, if we don't preserve some of the childishness that makes such outrageous, indefensible, and altogether human investments of emotion possible.

When Judy Blume wrote Fourth Grade Nothing, she instinctively understood this wisdom in a better light than Mark Sanford, John Edwards, or Tiger Woods. So did Bruce Mason when he adapted the book for the stage, and so does Children's Theatre of Charlotte, now bringing us a third helping of Fudge -- Peter's incorrigible little brother -- with the first dating back to 1994. After all, the company exists to glorify the child. In a good way.

The 2003 production at Spirit Square tried a little too hard to differentiate itself from the zany, cartoonish original directed by Alan Poindexter and designed by Sandra Gray. Directing the current version, Nicia Carla takes a different route toward infusing more realism. She reverts back to an all-adult cast -- without the cross-dressing of 1994 that produced such outrageous mutants as Jill Bloede playing Fat Ralph and Scott Helm unforgettably bewigged as the carnivorous Vampire Jennie.

Bob Croghan's set design is another dose of sanity, spanning the stage with the Hatchers' kitchen/living room and tucking Peter's bedroom at stage right in front of the proscenium, with a colorful cityscape looming upstage in the background. Lights dim on the set and a sheer screen drops whenever we must journey elsewhere, as in the deathless park scene when Fudge attempts to fly.

Sporting a subtle wig of his own, Ashby Blakely gives us a less hyper Peter, slower to ignite and less comical than the Mark Sutton portrayal of 1994. But Blakely's response as his Fudgy vicissitudes pile up is all the richer for the sulkier edge that he sustains throughout -- not to mention his true tenderness toward Dribble. All this would be even more satisfying if Jon Parker Douglas, as Fudge, brought his audience at McColl Theatre the same love for his elder brother that we see in the publicity photos.

Yes, Fudge is annoying. He plays and torments parents and Peter alike. But he loves them, and I didn't see that on Saturday afternoon. Beyond that, Douglas's take on Fudgy had my wife Sue, a longtime Special Ed teacher, wondering if the child were mentally and physically handicapped.

Now the Amadeus defense might have some validity here. The infantile Wolfie we encountered in Peter Shaffer's drama, we'll remember, was his bitter rival Salieri's unflattering portrait of him. More than once, Peter cries out, "I hate Fudge!" So an unbalanced performance ought to be excusable here, too.

Fair enough, but while Salieri's hatred can remain indomitable, there needs to be enough sweetness in Fudge for Peter to come around to loving him. Barbi VanSchaick and Matthew Keffer both give entertainingly fallible accounts of Peter's folks, but our objective view of them is often more benign than Peter's.

What always softens our impression of Fudge is the onslaught of the monster guests at his third birthday party. Keffer as Fat Ralph, Sutton as Crybaby Sam, and Amy Van Looy as Vampire Jenny create more than enough collective chaos to remind us that Fudge is conceived as a normal anklebiter. Of course, the red-lined characters -- Ralph's Dad, Jennie's Mom, and Sam's Babysitter -- performed the same service for Mr. and Mrs. Hatcher before Carla opted to delete them.

Sutton has been in every Nothing that Children's Theatre has done, this time also reprising his 2003 role of Mr. Yarby, the pompous manufacturer of foul-tasting Juicy-O, a beverage all Hatchers must drink as Peter's ad exec dad sucks up to his client. Van Looy, last seen onstage replacing a Cecilia Bartoli recording at NC Dance Theatre's Light the Knight gala, brings her operatic hauteur with her as Yarby's ultra-prissy (and childless) wife.

Make no mistake. Although the 2010 edition is only my runner-up among the Nothings we've had in Charlotte, the Saturday afternoon audience, young and old, responded to the 66-minute presentation like the winner it is. Or to cut to the blurb: Fourth Grade is first-rate.

With two blacks, two Hispanics, and an Asian among its five core singers, Opera Carolina's new La Boheme is more than cosmopolitan and bohemian enough for today's audiences. At last Saturday night's premiere, even the top balcony was teeming with people who joined in the exuberant response to Puccini's most influential masterwork. Belatedly, Opera Carolina's 2009-10 season is off to a rousing start, with two more performances scheduled this week.

Boheme is box office manna from heaven, but was it worth waiting for artistically? Absolutely. Compared to the Charlotte production, stage directed by John Hoomes and conducted by OC artistic director James Meena, the Metropolitan Opera version we saw at Lincoln Center a year ago was decidedly stale. No wonder. Ramon Vargas, who turns 50 on Sept. 11, sang Rodolfo, and the soprano who sang his youthful beloved lacked any semblance of Mimi's fragility.

While neither is ideal vocally, Noah Stewart and Sandra Lopez are far superior theatrically as Rodolfo and Mimi, and at this stage of their careers, more capable of unbottling the love-potion chemistry of Puccini's music, especially the yummy duets. In fact, Elizabeth Williams-Grayson is the only real vocal disappointment as Musetta, but she has all the beauty and swagger of the femme fatale. David Won as the painter Marcello and Eric Greene as the musician Schaunard are both more than adequate, while Matthew Trevino as the philosopher Colline is fairly impressive.

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