Thursday, March 18, 2010

Millie and the Machine

Posted By on Thu, Mar 18, 2010 at 1:11 PM

Aside from the hoard that Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver are searching for at ImaginOn, there’s buried theatrical treasure galore to be unearthed in Charlotte. Youth theater in Charlotte, in terms of both its established stature and its sustaining developmental programs, far outstrips our adult scene. It would be ludicrous, however, to pretend that Charlotte isn’t already keenly aware of the annual musicals presented by Northwest School of the Arts at Booth Theater, co-produced by the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

Tickets for last week’s Thoroughly Modern Millie were hard to find by the time the show premiered last Friday, and the opening night vibe recalled the electricity that filled the hall back in December when students from Providence High presented Columbinus at Spirit Square. Like last month’s As You Like It, heavily cast with Children’s Theatre Youth Ensemble teens and directed by distinguished Ensemble alum Matt Cosper, Millie begged the question of whether more performances needed to be scheduled to meet ticket demand. Maybe the 2011 musical needs to be moved to Knight Theater.

After last year’s stunning Aïda, director Corey Mitchell had a tough act to follow. Where the Disney extravaganza could lean heavily on scenic design and eye-popping costumes, Millie is far more actor-driven. Mitchell proved that Northwest still has the goods. Amy Rowland had the vocal artillery for the plucky flapper heroine, if not quite the sleek Millie look, and her ability to hoof it made her biggest production number, “Forget About the Boy,” the dazzler of the evening. Eddie Mabry, who also choreographed the CPCC Summer Theatre production of Millie in 2007, didn’t seem to let up at all in his demands, spraying the stage with a machine-gun barrage of tap dancing.

Another big talent onstage was Jay Kelley as Trevor Graydon III, the boss Millie tries vainly to hook – until true love trumps Millie’s mercenary impulses and she looks elsewhere. The voice may be big enough for opera, but I’m hoping Kelley’s acting chops will catch up. No such problem for Ashton Guthrie, who scintillated last year as Zoser, Radames’ scheming father. This year, he crossed over and played Miss Flannery, Graydon III’s over-protective, over-officious secretary. Aside from the drag comedy, Guthrie displayed some preternatural dancing ability on heels.

Sara Reinecke proved adept at Mrs. Meers’ comedy after a shaky start, and the “Muquin” trio (“My Mammy” in Chinese with supertitles) was a triumph. Mitchell made sure we understood his commitment to colorblind casting, double-underlining it with Matt Carlson and Jurá Davis as Meers’ confederates, Ching Ho and Bun Foo. Of course, the Richard Morris-Dick Scanlan book is insistently color-specific, so I’m glad Mitchell preserved the contrast between Jimmy Smith, the boy Millie falls for, Dorothy Brown, the sister who slums it as Millie’s boarding house neighbor, and their fabulously wealthy stepmother, nightclub diva Muzzy Van Hossmere. Aubrey McGrath and Kyra Green were adorable as the sibs, Green shining especially brightly in the “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” duet with Kelley. Taheerah Harrison had impressive enough pipes singing Muzzy’s songs, but I’m not sure I ever understood three consecutive words of her dialogue.

There were some high-profile theater folk up in the Booth balcony with Sue and me, so be on the lookout for Northwest’s big 2011 musical and pounce on tickets as soon as you can.

Another two weeks are left at Patchwerk Playhaus, the backroom of Century Vintage in the heart of Plaza Midwood, where Machine Theatre is premiering Mum’s the Word. Written and directed by Matt Cosper, the one-act play is an absurdist takedown of American arrogance, dissipation, and self-delusion. Unlike most absurdists, who tend to linger in suggestive – and safe – abstraction, Cosper’s writing occasionally plows straight ahead into his bold and blunt theme.

Like D.H. Lawrence, who told us the white race was in a death-dance of self-destruction before the onset of Hitler, the Cold War, 9/11, and Wall Street mortgaging our economy to China, Cosper sticks a fork in us. Unlike Lawrence’s Women in Love, the assertion isn’t buried in mountains of prose. Nobel, the Somalian teen delinquent adopted by Lois and Todd, says it straight to his new father’s face:

“You, the white race, you’re a mistake. You’re done.”

Okay, it’s not quite so simple, since the language barrier between Nobel and Todd is never completely bridged. We understand what the Somalian is saying to Todd and Lois because actor Biniam Tekola delivers it in English. Similarly, all the sage fatherly and motherly advice aimed by Jim Yost and Julie Strassel at the adoptee whips past Nobel without grazing his psyche. All that registers are their actions.

The circumstances of the adoption are wacky enough. Let’s just say that Lois is a creature of vision and impulse, sort of like Dubya without the nukes, and Todd is so soaked in pills and booze that his agreement to her sudden maternal instincts can happen during a convenient stretch of semi-consciousness. Signals that bridge the language barrier are even more disturbing. Lois insists on calling her baby Tyler and treating him like an actual infant. It’s impossible to say what exactly happens when they’re snuggling and Mom covers her Tyler in a blanket, but Nobel tries to tell Todd it was rape. The delusional aspect of Lois’s motherhood is only magnified by the fact that her cute Somali baby arrives at his new home with a gun. No, Nobel isn’t exactly a prize.

Cosper directs in exaggerated black-box style, completely covering the three walls of his little stage in the luxuriant black plastic we fondly associate with trash bags. Once Tekola arrives, there are no exits. When Nobel/Tyler is sent to his room, he stands in the corner facing a wall, setting the ensemble’s precedent. Periodically, one of the characters strides forward and addresses us – more effectively than most of the communications attempted with other players.

Along with the vulnerability that is more his forte, Tekola brings a volatility to The Kid that I’ve never seen from him before. Strassel, a latecomer to this cast – and a newcomer to Charlotte, as far as I can tell – was only exhibiting a slight residue of tentativeness on opening night as Lois, so I’m expecting her part of the overall chemistry to strengthen and mature during the final weeks of the run.

Yost’s performance as the stoned, befuddled, fitfully violent and avuncular Todd may be the best acting he has done on a Charlotte stage, the familiar Yost mannerisms magically vanished. Whether this is all Cosper’s influence is hard to say. Yost has taken to teaching at Providence High School, and the Chaos Ensemble he formed and directed there brought Columbinus to Spirit Square last fall. As a writing teacher, I can attest to the fact that the profession forces you to learn from your students – if for no other reason than the necessity of narrowing the gap between what you practice and what you preach.

So supporting a guerilla group like Machine Theatre, in this case, is also a vote of confidence in the network of Charlotte developmental programs that nurtured the multiple acting, directing, and writing talents of Matt Cosper, one of the Machine’s key co-founders. Obviously, the talent most worth developing is the talent that gives back as Cosper is doing. Having these strong programs – Cosper working with the Children’s Theatre Ensemble on As You Like It, Yost working at Providence High School – offers the opportunity for local artists to give back to future artists as well as current theatergoers.

These opportunities, in turn, force professionals to think intently about what they communicate to a new generation about their craft. When the teacher’s temperament is right, he or she grows by participating in the generational cycle.

Besides that, how can you turn down the chance to watch a cutting-edge production from a comfy sofa? If you get to Patchwerk early enough to snag a spot in one of the two front rows, that’s your reward at Mum’s the Word.

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