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Talking Baby! triumphs 

Plus, two NCDT premieres

Charlotte is not what I'd call a capital of sketch comedy or song parody. Look how Charlotte Squawks epitomizes the lameness: Given a year to put together an evening-length revue, their writers mostly misfire on new material and pad their programs with dubious hits from their dubious past.

So I was pleasantly surprised with the first installment of The Robot Johnson Show at Duke Energy Theatre last Saturday night. With filler between songs or sketches provided by SpaceMonkey, a three-piece rock band that can really tune their instruments, Robot is promising to recycle every week with 8 and 10 o'clock performances every Friday and Saturday night through May 31 -- roughly as much new material as Charlotte Squawks has generated since 2004.

Sean Keenan is the group's emcee and the perpetrator of its most devastating segment, Talking Baby! If you've seen the recent TV ads for an online stock trader utilizing a toddler avatar to demonstrate how easy it is, you get the basic premise. Crudely manipulating an utterly innocuous doll behind the imperfect concealment of a black-draped frame, Keenan brings the idea to an infinitely higher level of cheesiness -- with a touch of Audrey II and a potty-mouthed foulness you won't find on any VHF station.

Last week, Talking Baby! was a movie reviewer, tearing into Iron Man, Sex and the City and Speed Racer. No, professionalism be damned, he really tore into Sarah Jessica Parker, and not on an artistic level. How this tied into the theme of the night -- racism -- I wouldn't venture to say.

Other sketches were often on task. Meghan Lowther got to do her pitch-perfect Canadian accent in a zany sketch where an insouciant head of a Canuck KKK chapter gets dressed down by rabid statesider Jason "Bear" Blackman. Quay Rogers introduced his "surrogate black guy" service to Keenan -- and all other white guys itching to use the N-word but enslaved by propriety.

And if rednecks qualify as a race, Robot stuck it to 'em in a couple of sketches.

Tiffany Apple may eventually prove to be too wholesome for the Robot aesthetic, but the tattooed Luci Wilson is not wholesome at all. Every member of Robot is more stageworthy than Squawks regular Beth Troutman, that's for damn sure.

Wherefore wert thou? Top billing in Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's new adaptation of Serge Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet wasn't enough to prevent David Ingram from being upstaged by a multitude of familiar and unfamiliar characters at last week's North Carolina Dance Theatre premiere.

Bonnefoux not only gave better solos to Traci Gilchrest as Juliet, he lavished choreographic lagniappe upon Randolph Ward as Mercutio, Jhe W. Russell as Tybalt, Mia Cunningham as Juliet's Nurse and Nicholle Rochelle as Lady Capulet. Why, there were three Sassy Ladies in the marketplace scenes -- Alessandra Ball, Anna Gerberich and Sarah James -- who could have worked up a sweat to equal the iconic wooer's.

If Bonnefoux scanted Juliet of visible reasons to be smitten by her Romeo, he did offer fresh insights into Prokofiev's score. If you thought the Russian's music unfeeling or overly genteel, Lady Capulet's grieving over Tybalt would have jostled your preconceptions. The primal savagery of Rochelle's extravagant mourning didn't gibe with Lady C's coldness the rest of the evening, but I instantly forgave the inconsistency.

NCDT entertained its younger constituency with Mark Diamond's charming and resourceful adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. Our heroine, Anna Gerberich, was legless until the end of Act I, when a marvelously decadent Sea Witch (Seia Rassenti) traded her own legs for the Mermaid's rainbow tailfin. Lots of lifts from a group called Undertow -- and some courtesy wheels from a humble wood warehouse dolly -- kept the restless sea princess in motion amid long skeins of fabric.

Mermaid was nearly as immaculately executed as R&J with Justin van Weest getting plenty to do as the fairy-tale prince. Now that Diamond has seen Mermaid up on its feet, I suspect his storyline will get a more satisfying ending along with a discreetly shortened opening act.

Is Charlotte's intrepid opera-going audience ready to handle Handel? Apparently not, if the droopy attendance at last week's CP Opera production of Giulio Cesare is any indication. This concert version was actually perked up by director Rebecca Cook-Carter's blandishments -- and costumer Kristine Fisher's derring-do.

The orchestra pit platform brought the full cast upwards from beneath the stage with a full set of furniture. One is tempted to say the performance went downhill from there, but actually Doug Crawley as Cesare, Jacqueline Ashley as Cornelia and Mary Lee Cooke as Cleopatra all had their proud moments. Ashley Kerr in the valiant pants role of Cornelia's son Sextus was best of all.

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