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Theater reviews: Freda, Pink Martini 

TAPROOT's storytelling is compelling

You can't accuse TAPROOT of doing children's theater like everyone else. For example, I've never attended or performed in a children's show on a Saturday evening. Yet there we were, my wife Sue and me, at Studio 1212 last Saturday evening for the 7:30 start of Freda, a brand-new work inspired by — and created for — kids. Besides the seats surrounding the performing area for parents and other assorted adults, there were cushions in front of us for the small fry.

As chronicled in TAPROOT's press release, the process of putting Freda together involved interactive storytimes with a diverse student population whose input helped shape the development of the set design as well as the performers' costumes and movement. The framework of the piece was Joseph Campbell's famous explorations, in such works as The Hero With a Thousand Faces, of what it means to be human — as revealed in the stories we tell and the myths we make.

So if ever there was a writer who stressed multiculturalism, it was Campbell, and if ever there was a Charlotte theater presentation imbued with a multicultural bent, it's Freda. When was the last time you picked up a Spanish playbill here in the Queen City? That's one of your options at the ticket counter as you enter before choosing your seat.

Any of the four surrounding rows of seats will work equally well. From the moment that TAPROOT artistic director Brianna Smith came out and began chanting, she gave each of the four sections equal time. Even when Brenda Giraldo came out as our heroine and the action became more fluid, the collaborative team was remarkably even-handed about giving everyone in the room a good perspective. When the three other performers lurked menacingly around Freda, as wolves or billy-club wielding jackboots, they circled the entire audience, entering and exiting in different directions.

When the unnamed figures in black appeared before us, they usually surrounded Freda, rarely if ever bunched up closely enough to obscure anyone's view. The first time they appeared, they were in their martinet gear, during a picnic scene that cemented the wholesome, blithe mother-daughter relationship. You couldn't be surprised, when they attempted to arrest Freda, that Mom was so fiercely protective and defiant. The jackboots have no choice but to subdue and lead Mom away, and she's so much of a handful that Freda must be allowed to escape.

What happens in the swirl of music, dance and theater that follows is open to interpretation — for adults in the audience as well as tots. Before reappearing with their cutesy clubs, the dark figures re-enter in different mysterious shapes, and Mom's subsequent appearances are sheathed in black and veiled. At the finish of one dance, Freda appears to get the gift of fire, handy when the wolves appear, and in the denouement, she disarms one cop of her nightstick.

But in a nicely mythic touch, that instrument of repression isn't Freda's ultimate weapon. No, Freda's greatest power lies in the song her mother has taught her in the opening sequence after teaching it to us. Aladdin's lamp, Dorothy's ruby slippers and whatever trinkets Gandalf might hand out to a Hobbit are all in this grand heroic tradition.

Delivered by Smith, surely one of our finest vocalists, the song is mysterious enough to carry magical power. But her "Tura Tura" sounds Hawaiian in its innocence, if it's in any language at all, a sunshiney magic rather than an infernal incantation.

Too bad TAPROOT hadn't found a similarly potent charm to draw parents and children to their quixotic Saturday evening performance. A photo feature in the Observer's special Friday leisure time supplement certainly didn't work any magic. Instead of listening to ourselves singing in response to the gentle promptings of Smith and Giraldo, we would have found a fresh magic if a gaggle of grade-schoolers had joined together in the singing.

The melody and lyric were more elemental than anything the kiddies sang in South Pacific or The Sound of Music, so the presence of Smith and her accompanying "musicos" — Austin Cline, Clara Meeks, Sean Mulcahy and Matthew Tully — deeply enriched the experience, aided by the tech derring-do of Eric Beckwith. Before I could call Freda a fully satisfying evening, it would need to clock in at considerably more than 38 minutes.

Words and spoken dialogue would be the first malt and yeast I'd like to see added to this brew, not to mention just one hero's (or she-ro's) story from Campbell's thousand. Children who can endure the darkness of Freda — in its hints of dreams, danger and death — can easily sit through a story twice this length, particularly when TAPROOT's storytelling is so compelling.

WHEN A MUSICAL GROUP is as eclectic and beyond category as Pink Martini — with tunes in Turkish, French, Italian, German, Arabic, Croatian, Spanish, Japanese and Hebrew on their nine recordings — how do they manage to winnow their "greatest hits" for a concert performance? Even the prospect of taking requests is problematical!

At Belk Theater last Friday, with the group co-founders at the controls downstage, namely pianist Thomas M. Lauderdale and vocalist China Forbes, there was a predictable emphasis on the group's newest CD, Get Happy. Other delightfully quirky excavations on the program included the Hunt's ketchup jingle, "Hang On, Little Tomato," Doris Day's "Que Sera," and an Arabic song that Dinah Shore once crooned, "Bukra Wba'do." Still another consideration had to be the setting as our Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Albert-George Schram, ably backed them up.

Forbes and her singing partner, Timothy Nishimoto (the Judy Garland of their duet), also gleaned a handful of their selections from their trusty Spotify popularity list. Besides "Little Tomato," they also plucked "Amado Mio," "Hey Eugene," and "Donde Estas Yolanda?" from their top 10. Nishimoto's bodacious vocal on "Zudoko" was another inevitable choice, since it's on Get Happy and has been released as a single.

Still another consideration had to be the setting as our Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Albert-George Schram, ably backed them up. The concert kicked off with an entirely instrumental rearrangement of Maurice Ravel's "Bolero," with violinist Nicholas Crosa softly caressing the theme, trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulos and trumpeter Gavin Bondy lifting us into a Latin orbit, while Lauderdale hinted broadly that he had learned a lick or two from the great Eddie Palmieri. The finale had all its brassy symphonic blare.

Later on, Forbes managed to convince me for a while that she had decided to sing the "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's Rusalka especially for this occasion. Funny though, her introduction allowed her to narrate the origins of Pink Martini, when Forbes and Lauderdale were college classmates. Similarly, the intro to "Ich Dich Liebe" allowed Lauderdale to reference its original exponent, Mamie Van Doren, and the blonde bombshell's 3D attributes.

While Forbes didn't quite measure up to the silky, effortless highs I heard from Renee Fleming when she sang Rusalka at the Met last season, the voice was quite lovely in its comfort zone, and I'd take her "Que Sera" over Day's any day. It was a great night for musical omnivores, especially Boomers, whom the jolly band finally coaxed into conga lines with the last encore, "Brazil." Not only were there CDs available in the lobby for autographing, there were also vinyl versions for those of us who still know how to play an LP. Hell, Forbes stopped mid-song and ripped one open onstage when she forgot a lyric on the Splendor in the Grass album. She was poised, confident, and spontaneous enough to simply reboot.

What else could she do with an 11-piece band and a full orchestra behind her?

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