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This Other Hilary Plays Around 

Hahn fiddles with our heartstrings

Despite her stony senatorial demeanor, there is irrefutable DNA evidence proving that the former First Lady has "done it" at least once -- unless you subscribe to that scandalous artificial insemination theory. Without prying into the privacy of her boudoir, we can assert that another Hilary is definitely putting out -- on the concert stage and beyond.

No, we're not referring exclusively to the bared shoulders of chaste violinist Hilary Hahn in her debut with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra last week. Nor need we stop at the charisma she poured into Louis Spohr's Violin Concerto #8. Hahn returned after intermission and infused Vaughan-Williams' The Lark Ascending with a gossamer mix of solitary yearning and purest ecstasy.

Then she played an encore. And then she waited through a Schumann symphony, reappeared upstairs outside Belk Theater after the concert and signed autographs for a line of fans -- newly bought Hahn CDs in hand -- who stretched more than halfway across the Blumenthal PAC lobby.

Hahn had not left the building before I did.

You can bet Symphony subscribers were duly appreciative. They reserved their lustiest ovation for the conclusion of Hahn's cherishable Lark, a performance that fairly screamed for an encore. They mostly stayed seated after she played Bach's Sarabande, an encore finely calculated to satisfy without sparking a desire for seconds. And they went out and bought plenty of the Grammy Award-winning artist's product.

The CSO wasn't as consistently pleasing as their guest soloist. In the opening appetizer, Weber's "Overture to Euryanthe," Maestro Christof Perick had the ensemble playing a tad slower than they should. But they still couldn't deliver the crisp bounce of the main theme -- and the quiet midsection was too often a thin porridge, never quite cohering.

While they proved their mettle in the Spohr, the concerto offered little for the orchestra to prove. Composed on an operatic model and nicknamed the "Gesangsszene," or song scene, the piece is more like a lightly accompanied monologue, the short bursts of solo violin resembling recitative and the longer lines evoking aria. Hahn was certainly an ardent and persuasive advocate in the slower sections, and her virtuosic double-stopping in the final cadenzas -- capped with silvery, thin high notes -- was thrilling to hear.

Yet the keenest delight came in The Lark Ascending, whose onomatopoetic wings Hahn captured better than anyone else I've ever heard. Behind these magical flutterings, Perick had the CSO at the peak of their game, showcasing the hushed, silken strings and Vaughan-Williams' gorgeous scoring for the winds.

With Schumann's "Spring" Symphony, the jaunty bounce missing from the Weber arrived belatedly. The brass delivered their best punches in the opening movement, remaining firm in the softer larghetto and growing a tad helter-skelter in the closing allegro. As a whole, the CSO sounded most winsome in the penultimate movement, a waltzy scherzo.

Maybe you've never been willing to grant Annie more than guilty pleasure status among America's most successful musicals. If so, the touring version that camped out at Ovens Auditorium last week provided ample reason to see this early exploit by Thomas Meehan -- 24 years before he wrote the book for The Producers -- among the near-greatest musicals to hit Broadway.

While I'm sure director Martin Charnin sought ways to give this brand new production an extensive makeover, it was Charnin who wrote the original lyrics to Charles Strouse's score. And it was Charnin who directed the Tony Award-winning production of 1977. With top billing going to Conrad John Schuck, one of the Oliver Warbucks originals, the apple wasn't going to fall far from the tree.

I'd say much of the rethinking went into the set designs, among the most impressive we've seen recently from a touring production. Warbucks' first stroll with Annie, from 82nd to 42nd Street, wasn't the ultimate in high-tech, but Times Square was elaborate enough. And considering how massive the sets were and how swiftly they changed, the Great Depression -- from Hooverville to FDR's White House -- never looked greater.

Charnin's finer tuning may have been done more discreetly with his cast. After the cavalcade of excruciatingly cute Annies that I've seen here in the Carolinas, I took a real liking to Marissa O'Donnell's tough, determined and unshakably optimistic reading. Sure, O'Donnell's forlorn "Aw, gee," could still shake the Republic, but her grittiness seemed right for her orphanage origins, right for her friction with the boozy Miss Hannigan and right for an evolving relationship with the crusty Warbucks.

Adjustments were still in progress, it seems. A late replacement, who I'm told is coming on board the tour full-time, Victoria Oscar, refreshed Hannigan in a way I never expected, giving the orphanage gargoyle a frowzy, gluttonous, Ralph Kramden dimension. An outsized riot -- best when hung over. Announced at showtime as Molly, the angelic cherub whom Annie takes under her wing, Amanda Balon also scored unexpectedly as the pipsqueak hilariously mimicking the jumbo-sized Hannigan.

Schuck is still the complete package as Warbucks. Stuffy and high-handed when he's commandeering Don Budge for tennis lessons or yanking Eliott Ness off the Capone case, Schuck is no less convincing falling under the spell of Annie's artlessness.

FDR and his cabinet were a vaudeville hoot, Allan Baker as the prez calling for backup harmony and Harry Turpin as the Secretary of the Interior getting down on one knee like Jolson. The only real disappointments in the cast were Scott Willis as sleazeball con-artist Rooster Hannigan and Mackenzie Phillips as his gum-popping girlfriend, Lily St. Regis.

Luckily, Strouse's score is strongest when the songs are most abrasive. With Oscar radiating her wickedness alongside them, not even the lackluster Willis and Phillips could rain on "Easy Street." And by leaving some of the sugar out, O'Donnell made the pleasure of "Tomorrow" that much less guilty.

Theatre Charlotte's stage is transformed into Central Park for one more week as I'm Not Rappaport serves up a final round of octogenarian face-offs. Director Jim Yost has drawn an uneven cast to the Queens Road barn, but he gets a superb performance from James K. Flynn as Nat Moyer, the incorrigible visionary and former deli waiter.

Thom McKinney doesn't match Flynn's comic timing (or decrepitude) as Midge Carter, the self-effacing janitor. But he sets Flynn up nicely, keeps out of the star's way and gets off a sweet zinger or two of his own. As Nat's stressed-out daughter, Sarah Lewis is the only sore spot in the production. Jonathan Ewart is OK as the officious emissary who wants to retire Midge, while David Holland and Robert Janezic are truly fearsome as the Park predators.

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