April 2019

Four Weddings and an Elvis ★★★


Cary Players

Cary Arts Center


April 26 - May 5, 2019

by Dustin K. Britt

April 30, 2019

RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)

A proficient cast can sometimes--but only sometimes--save a playwright from themselves. With its production of Nancy Frick’s  Four Weddings and an Elvis, Cary Players illustrates such salvation. They took a mundane and predictable play and made it funny.

Chapel owner Sandy (a smart and nuanced Laura Arwood) endeavors to serve and advise a barrage of melodramatic and foolish would-be spouses. A pair of vengeful lovers (a forceful Sean Malone and a fiery Michelle Corbitt) lay the groundwork for a hectic evening via their tempestuous entrance, running into The King himself. As Elvis impersonator John, R. Freeman Sykes’s believable work will come in later scenes when John sheds the Vegas duds.

Compared to Malone and Corbitt’s frantic opening scene, the next one moves as slowly as the ancient widower Lou (a career best performance from a lovable Dan Bain). Jenny Marconyak and Keith A. Kenel commit fully to their inflated Hollywood characters, but oversell each word, causing the play to ease up on the gas pedal.

The production’s best acting and pacing (and Frick’s best writing) lay in its third story: the wedding of Marvin the meek (Danny Mullins) and the rough Fiona (Susie Pratt). The nicely mismatched pair avoid melodrama and play the truth, making their scene all the funnier. As the overly-long scene begins to cool, the unexpected appearance of leather-clad ex-con Fist (a confident Jason Christ) turns up the heat.

In the fourth and final wedding, Frick rolls out some actual surprises. Director Nicola Lefler keeps her staging fluid but controlled, exploiting the stage’s depth and the set’s width to maintain visibility and clarity with a stageful of characters. Scenic designer Katie Moorehead’s semi-circular layout admirably amplifies actor’s voices. Michael Lefler’s interior lights are appropriately tacky, but the color and intensity of the exterior window lights are unbalanced. Emily Johns’s costumes, hair, and makeup fit setting and character while stage manager Beth Somerville carefully cues a synchronized stream of images flipping by on the chapel’s digital billboard system.

The between-scene stumbling of the silent, drunken Ken (Tim Coyle) is both inexplicable and unnecessary, much like Nancy Frick’s frequent attempts at “cross dresser” humor. Her transphobia reveals itself via stubbornly outdated terms and shameless mockery of trans people in a play that is barely 8 years old. It is awkward and distracting. I say to yet another theatre company: if you do this play, change these lines. If you cannot change these lines, do not do this play. 

With her own knack for comedy, Nicola Lefler has rounded up enough gifted performers to earn a high laugh-per-minute rate and plug up some holes in the shoddily-constructed boat--the type of easy, innocuous play commonly found in high school drama catalogs. The quality of Cary Players’ work has been increasing over the last few seasons, hitting some fast balls (Oklahoma!, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) and tackling new material (Naima Yetunde Ince’s Men Always Leave). 

But the low-ball Four Weddings and an Elvis is just too easy. It will certainly bring in an audience, but how many of them will remember the show three seasons from now? They need to step up to the plate and take some real risks in season selection if they want to continue into the major leagues.  


In Rehearsal with "Little Shop of Horrors"

Interviews with the cast & creative team of Benson Little Theatre's production.

by Dustin K. Britt

April 24, 2019

On the off chance you have never seen the sci-fi musical comedy Little Shop of Horrors or its 1986 film adaptation, Benson Little Theatre has your weekend covered. Director-choreographer Hayden Tyler is presenting the off-Broadway theatre classic with some twists in casting, staging, and tone, while honoring the source material (including Roger Corman’s 1960 B-movie). The requisite human-devouring plant, sassy Supremes-esque vocal trio, and sadistic dentist are in store. That’s quite a departure from Tyler’s 2018 production with the company, from which he’s pulled some of his cast and design team for 2019’s Little Shop of Horrors. Chatham Life and Style checked in on the rehearsal process and spoke with the cast and creative team.

Hayden Tyler (director/choreographer)

I directed Godspell for Benson Foundation for the Arts last season and was honored to be asked to return for Little Shop of Horrors. I sang the role of Audrey ll in my senior year of high school, so this show is particularly special to me. 

Hannah Marks (actor, Audrey)

There are a lot of preconceived ideas about how Audrey is supposed to look and sound; I don't fit in that box. The most challenging part of doing this role is battling those ideas.

Hayden Tyler (director/choreographer)

Most casting teams wouldn't look twice at a more voluptuous performer to play Audrey. But when Hannah auditioned, I knew she was the one. I hope those underrepresented by the Size Zero Ingenue trope will find inspiration and power in her fearless performance.

Hannah Marks (actor, Audrey)

All of the music sits really well in my chest voice. Our music director, Stephen, has a great way of explaining what he wants to hear, and he allows me a lot of freedom to phrase things in ways that showcase my voice.


Hayden Tyler (director/choreographer)

Stephen Pfeiffer and I worked together on Godspell. He has a practical eye, whereas I can get lost in fancy. He has this way of pulling things out of a performer's voice that even they didn't know they were capable of. 

Rebekah Meekins (actor, Crystal)

All throughout school, I was put in the Alto box but I’m actually a Mezzo-soprano. I’m so grateful to Stephen for recognizing that and helping me get to where I need to be. Crystal’s high notes are in my range but I’m trying to undo years of being told I can’t do it.

Christopher MacDow (actor, Orin)

Little Shop has been on my bucket list since in saw the movie in 1986. I always knew I’d be cast as Orin the Dentist, but always wanted to play the romantic Seymour. Orin is brutally abusive, while I can be an obsessive people-pleaser.  He's far more blunt and forward than I could ever dare to be. I’m trying to avoid being a copy of Steve Martin’s performance in the movie. Since being cast, I've heard many times “The Dentist is my favorite!” or "I love that song!" 

Tyler Pearsons (actor, voice of Audrey II)

Ever since I was a kid, I have wanted to sing this score. The challenge with Audrey II’s voice is finding stylizations that convey the soul of this rock score. Stephen has never scolded me for trying a particular stylization. I think he likes the risks I take.

Stephen Pfeiffer (music director)

For this production, we’re using pre-recorded instrumental tracks. They ensure that the music will be consistent between rehearsals and performances. However, the actors have to follow the music. If I had a live orchestra, I could (and should) follow the actor to keep us all on track.

Tyler Pearsons (actor, voice of Audrey II)

Having no onstage interaction with my fellow actors makes it a very difficult. It requires me to musically perfect because if we get off track and it’s almost impossible to get back on. 

Christopher MacDow (actor, Orin)

The acoustics inside Orin’s gas mask are crazy loud. When I sing “Now (It’s a Gas)! with the mask on, I try to project so I can be heard. But when we rehearsed it the first time the inside fogged up and I started feeling the heat from the stage lights building up inside.  

Stephen Pfeiffer (music director)

Hayden approached this production with a “divide and conquer” rehearsal process. While he is working with some cast on book scenes, I'm teaching music to the others.  

Hayden Tyler (director/choreographer)

I love this director-choreographer double duty because it's easier to layer in movement motifs, foreshadowing, and commentary when you are the mind behind two modes of visual storytelling.

Rebekah Meekins (actor, Crystal)

We hosted one open rehearsal where anyone could walk in and watch our process; they are really trying to involve the community.

Hayden Tyler (director/choreographer)

For design, we went with “more is more.” We have close to 100 individual prop pieces. We are fortunate to have a puppeteer, Nate Camp, who has performed the gigantic Audrey II plant puppet before. He brings an unexpected cuteness to Audrey II, though she’s hard to move.

Christopher MacDow (actor, Orin)
Audrey II was a grossly over-sized, enormously heavy, monster of a puppet - a beast that almost literally consumed us all. I do not interact with Audrey II much, other than to move her on and off stage.

Tyler Pearsons (actor, voice of Audrey II)

I think we all have our own Audrey II; a devil on our shoulder.

Hannah Marks (actor, Audrey)

I feel like I'm going to break it every night. 

Little Shop of Horrors runs this weekend: Friday & Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sunday at 3:00 PM at the WJ Barefoot Auditorium in Benson, NC. Find tickets at

Photo courtesy of Benson Foundation for the Arts.

Performance Information

April 26 & 27 at 7:30 PM

April 28 at 3:00 PM

W.J. Barefoot Auditorium

303 East Church Street

Benson, NC 27504

All tickets are $12.

Purchase tickets at 

The Great Celestial Cow ★★1/2


Burning Coal Theatre Company

Murphey School Auditorium


April 11 - 28, 2019

by Naveed Moeed

April 20, 2019

Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)

Burning Coal’s 2018-19 season ends with a production of Sue Townsend’s The Great Celestial Cow, directed by Sonia Desai. Originally written and staged in 1984, this tragi-comedy follows the migrant struggle of Sita (Seema Kukreja), a young Indian woman, as she and her children Prem (Darius Shafa) and Bibi (Priya Singh) are plucked from their homeland and transported to the metropolis of Leicester, England. 

Sita takes with her a milking pail as the only reminder of her beloved cow, Princess, whose symbolism as a sense of home and belonging underpins the narrative. The twin evils of misogynistic family hierarchy and anti-immigrant sentiment form a backdrop to her struggle to assert herself and secure a future for her children.

Artistically, this production hit a couple of high notes: the use of Indian film songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s during the pre-show--and interspersed throughout the production--reflects accurately the musical ambiance found in British-Indian/Pakistani households of the time. Similarly, the female costuming, with more changes than a Bollywood spectacular for some of the cast, impressed with attention to detail, contrasting heavily with the dull tones of the male characters. Technical cues and lighting were practically unnoticeable and, thus, served their purpose with utmost professionalism.

Sita’s journey encompasses an extensive emotional range, from hopeful optimism through utter confusion, rage, despair, and the brink of sanity. Kukreja’s portrayal brought unique sensitivity and humility to these elements. Outstanding mention goes to Snehal Bhagwat and Maneesha Lassiter (as Dadima and Masi, respectively). These two were so on point with their depictions of mother-in-law and aunt that this reviewer was almost fooled into believing his own relatives had taken to the stage. Priya Singh as Bibi, in her debut performance, shone brightly and defiantly; we hope to see more of her.

Scenic transitions make sense when the creative team wishes the gravitas of a scene to settle in the mind of an audience; a brief breathing moment while we contemplate the conflict we just witnessed. This production’s heavy-handed and frequent transitions were just long enough to make the audience wonder if the stage manager and director were in the same room during rehearsal. This lack of pace, combined with sometimes confused blocking (which, granted, is more challenging when playing on a thrust stage), made it harder to narrate clearly an already troubled message.

Talking of narration: the use of accents in theatre is a device designed to establish storytelling rules such as where someone might hail from or their social class. Most importantly, when one of a play’s key elements is race, an accent tells us the emotional truth of how one character might react towards another. 

The productions barely-intelligible working-class British accents not only distracted from that truth, but harmed it. As the audience, we already know the play is set in England and actors would have more effectively communicated both character and relationships using their own voices. With some playing up to six roles, it is understandable that one would use accents and dialect to differentiate. But makeup, costuming, posture, and intonation are enough to accomplish the task.

This play is rarely staged in the UK anymore. With current migrant issues and Brexit being played out on the public stage, one would think that this play would form a timely counterpoint to the constant bleating of anti-immigrant sentiments in social and mainstream media. 

But The Great Celestial Cow has problems this reviewer was hoping and praying would be tackled by director Sonia Desai. Sadly, they were only compounded. The play tackles both feminism and racism. Our understanding of both has evolved since 1984 and Burning Coal’s production examines that historical context.

However, it completely ignores the current context, leaving this reviewer painfully embarrassed by an anachronistic view of Coming to England. Assimilation was the overwhelming and dominant narrative during the wave of immigrants between 1947 and the mid-nineties; the play’s overtly racist scenes at the airport, fruit-stall, and cattle market make us all uncomfortable; rightly so, as such scenes and dialogue still play themselves out today. But they are far less common than once they were. 

The author’s cringeworthy implication--in a couple of the monologues and Dadima’s lecturing--is that immigrants were somehow deluded to want to save up and “go back home” (a dream for the majority of Indian/Pakistani immigrants of the time). While almost all of them found their new home in the UK (and very happily so), the notion that India is a backward place that no one should want to go back to should be consigned to the history books.

With painful reluctance, a behind-the-times Britain is finally realizing what the USA realized long before: that molding immigrants into a monoculture is wrong. The authentic voice in this play is not just Sita, but Prem and Bibi also--recognizing how their identity has been eroded. Despite Sue Townsend being, as we all once were, blind to the effects of assimilation, her play nevertheless has the magical potential to point out assimilation’s flaws and to champion, alongside feminism and the assertion of the rights of the individual, the vast richness indigenous culture brings. I feel sad that this production didn’t.

Photo by Areon Mobasher Photography.

How I Learned to Drive ★★★


PlayMakers Repertory Company

Paul Green Theatre


April 3 - 21, 2019

by Dustin K. Britt

April 10, 2019

RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)

Each play has its audience. With Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, that is difficult to ascertain. 

Perhaps her story is for the unsympathetic. Those who do not care or believe survivors of assault. The first person narrative style and unflinching representations of assault may elicit sympathy from untroubled arm-folders. 

Perhaps it is for the empathetic. Those who care, believe, and perhaps even advocate for survivor support; they leave the theatre in tears. Some may have relatives or friends who are survivors and want to learn more about those experiences. 

But it is most certainly not for survivors of assault. At least not this survivor. But it is about a survivor: a story that should be told publicly and unreservedly. 

My critical left brain was intrigued by Vogel’s unique (save a few cliches) storytelling devices. He appreciated a breathtaking, multifaceted performance from Julia Gibson and an unwavering one from Jeffrey Blair Cornell. He observed Emily Bosco, Dan Toot, and Gabriella Cila form a skillful ensemble of peripheral characters. 

Anne Kennedy’s costumes differentiated characters clearly while Barbara Samuels’s lighting delineated playing spaces on the overly large Paul Green stage, which inventive director Lee Sunday Evans can occasionally make intimate. Unlike the traditionally sparse How I Learned to Drive set, Jan Chambers has designed an innovative and threatening wall of boxes packed with our heroine’s many memories, unwrapped one by one to reveal Andrea Bullock’s props.

But my emotional right brain sat hand over mouth, legs shaking as if watching a horror film. The right brain knows Vogel’s story all too well--clearly foreseeing within minutes the entire plot laid out before him like a highway lined with clearly-labeled and increasingly sinister exit ramps. 

Vogel’s unique storytelling order engages the intellectual, but the relentlessly fatalistic plot and graphic detail in which assaults and verbal abuse are represented betray the author’s titular metaphorical journey. This production does not help by eliminating most of Vogel’s humor from the text.

It is not a playwright’s job to make the audience feel comfortable. Quite the contrary. Vogel holds up this survivor and demands that we look her in the eye and value every word she speaks. There are few theatrical experiences as valuable as that, especially now.

But for survivors, we must witness our own horrors laid out before us. Discomfort quickly evolves into insecurity and fear. Fight or flight kicks in wherein we bury head in hand and--in the case of the person seated next to me--rush from the theatre, and building, by the 15 minute mark. Eliminating the intermission is a wise call. Who would go back in?

“Sometimes to tell a secret, you first have to teach a lesson,” our heroine instructs us. Already Vogel has made a promise: everything the heroine does is meant to be instructive--serving as a conduit for her author. But to what lengths does she keep that promise?

When the heroine demonstrates empathy for her abuser, is Vogel suggesting all survivors do the same? When the heroine Learns How to Forgive her abuser, is Vogel saying that we should forgive ours? Another character cleverly describes implied consent: getting behind the wheel implies consent to a breathalyzer. Refusal to comply earns punishment. Does our heroine imply consent when she enters her abuser’s car? It’s hard to know whether Vogel is critiquing the system or blaming the survivor.

Therapists are on-site to provide post-show support. That should be the only Content Warning you need. Vogel’s blade is finely-sharpened. Hopefully her handiwork leaves you breathless rather than limbless.

Photo by HuthPhoto.


In Rehearsal: Mom & Son at Cary Youth Ballet

At a dress rehearsal for Cary Youth Ballet's "Sleeping Beauty"

by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten

April 8, 2019

For 30 years, the Triangle Academy of Dance in Cary, NC, has provided dance education in ballet, tap, jazz, and hip hop to dancers of all ages and levels of experience. 

Founded by Annette C. Hagopian in 2003, the academy's non-profit, pre-professional company, Cary Youth Ballet, currently trains 85 young performers aged 11-20 years old.

Though studio training makes up the bulk of any dance education program, the element of public performance is equally important; it provides public exposure for emerging artists, allows families, friends, and sponsors to observe student progress, and encourages local families and kids to come to the ballet--often for the first time.

Cary Youth Ballet invited Chatham Life & Style's Mom & Son team to a dress rehearsal of their new production of Sleeping Beauty, ahead of their April 13th matinees at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theatre at the Duke Energy Center.

Mom Says: See it!

For many families, a day at the ballet with little ones doesn’t sound worth the trouble: you’ve got to keep your kids still for hours, follow a plotline with no dialogue, and watch people doing pretty turns but not much else. Even if you make an annual trek to see The Nutcracker, another ballet is out of the question. Right?

Wrong. Enter Carolina Youth Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty. We were lucky enough to be invited to attend a dress rehearsal of the show, and we (especially Emory, who is about to turn seven years old) were absolutely riveted. CYB allows young dancers the opportunity to perform classical ballet choreography normally reserved for those in professional companies. Part of the group’s mission is to cultivate appreciation for classical ballet in the community and Sleeping Beauty will certainly do that for its audience.

Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker share a composer--Tchaikovsky--and a flair for the dramatic. The ballet roughly follows the familiar fairy tale: a new princess, Aurora, is born, and the whole kingdom is invited to celebrate her birth; everyone except the evil fairy (named Carabosse in the ballet), who shows up anyway and curses the princess to die from a spindle prick on her 16th birthday. Another fairy is able to weaken the curse so that Aurora will only fall asleep, but she will stay asleep until her true love can save her. 

It would be helpful to provide a refresher of the story to your children before seeing the show (or you might end up answering a lot of questions). Disney fans will recognize the melody to the Garland Waltz, which was cleverly used as a theme throughout the animated Sleeping Beauty and provides the tune for “Once Upon a Dream.”

Based on what we saw in rehearsal, I enthusiastically recommend this show for the whole family. I was shocked to learn that almost all of the costumes and props were made by volunteers on a very low budget. This does not look like an amateur production. I was also incredibly impressed by the positive, encouraging atmosphere during the rehearsal. And if you need some convincing about just how impressive it is, here is CYB’s Sleeping Beauty by the numbers:

  • 26 gorgeous tutus, 1 for each fairy.
  • 1 “Batmobile,” the impressive wheeled carriage carrying the fairy Carabosse (and 11 bat attendants to accompany her).
  • 43 garlands, held by the dancers in the Garland Waltz.
  • 7, the age of the youngest dancer in the show
  • 18, the age of Wenzori Moody, who stars as Aurora and will join a professional ballet company next year
  • 5 princes vying for Aurora’s affection, all of whom are professional guest performers from Carolina Ballet.
  • 5 dancers needed to play the enormous (and beautiful) dragon.
  • 4 fairy tales referenced in the finale (children will love spotting Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, and more).
  • 1 hour and 40 minutes, the very reasonable length of the show, including intermission
  • 78 dancers in just the first act (if we counted correctly!)

Son Says: See it!

This was my first time seeing a dress rehearsal; I am so sad that I have a Cub Scout trip the weekend of the show, because Sleeping Beauty is amazing! I wish I could see it on the big stage! The costumes were really neat and there are so many different ones; my favorite are the bats and the evil fairy. They were wearing black so you know they are evil. 

There was a lot to look at on the stage all of the time. There is a giant, life-sized dragon with a mouth that opens and closes and big teeth. The dancers wear the pieces of the costume like backpacks and dance together to move like a real dragon.

There is a big cart that they nicknamed “the Batmobile.” Everyone has to jump out of the way when it comes in because it’s so big. I wonder, if the evil fairy had just been invited to the party,  would she have been nicer? It’s not nice to leave people out. I also think Aurora’s parents should have just told her about the curse so she could avoid spindles.

Ballet looks really hard. Aurora (Moody) did so many spins and had to balance on one foot. There are three boys in the show who are around my age, and they looked like they were having fun. Ms. Annette (Hagopian, the director of CYB) gave me a lot of interesting information about how they made the show. For example, they started practicing in January; it takes a long time to make a show like this.

I think everyone would like this show, especially if you like the movie Sleeping Beauty or fairy tales and dragons.

NOTE:  Emory takes a jazz class at Triangle Academy of Dance. Carolina Youth Ballet founder Annette Hagopian is their Artist Director

Photo by Annette Hagopian.

Performance Details

A.J. Fletcher Opera Theatre

Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts

Raleigh, NC

  • Saturday, April 13 at 11:00 A.M.
  • Saturday, April 13 at 4:30 P.M.

Tickets: $12 - $22


In Rehearsal with VocalMotion director Susan Berry

VocalMotion presents "Heroes and Villains" this weekend

by Dustin K. Britt

April 5, 2019

Defy gravity. 

Be a pinball wizard. 

Do whatever a spider can.

You can do it all at VocalMotion’s upcoming concert: Heroes and Villains.

This weekend at Apex’s Halle Cultural Arts Center, the all-volunteer show choir will present famous TV themes and Broadway hits from the 1950s through today.

Known for high-energy choreography, powerhouse vocals, and jokes and japes, the Cary-based company has been touring the triangle for nearly three decades and has garnered national attention. The company dedicates each season to community outreach; they raise thousands of dollars each year for local charities and nonprofits related to education, healthcare, social services, and the arts. This year, they’re lending their support to Garner Fire-Rescue.

Chatham Life and Style sat down with artistic director and long-time VocalMotion performer Susan Berry to find out what this weekend has in store for us.

Chatham Life & Style: How did this theme come about?

Susan Berry: I'm a sci-fi, fantasy, and comic-book fan from way back in my childhood, so "Heroes and Villains" was a highly appealing theme for me. A couple of years ago, I started sketching out a long list of songs I thought might work. When the opportunity came this year for me to direct again, I knew this was the theme I wanted. 

CL&S: How do you determine who is a Hero and who is a Villain? 

SB: Some characters straddle the fence. Defining factors have to do with heart, intent, circumstances, and even the perspective of the outside observer. The characters we've chosen represent different aspects of the human condition. Some of us are heroes; some are villains. Sometimes we have the capacity to be both.

CL&S: With hundreds of possible characters to choose from, how did you approach song selection?

SB: Singers auditioned various spotlight songs--solos, duets, and small groups--that matched the theme. We chose the ones that worked best in terms of flow, energy, and style. I chose the other group numbers based on what our cast members like what we thought audiences of all ages would enjoy. Three or four numbers are from previous VocalMotion seasons. Everything fell together very nicely into two categories: heroes and villains from the worlds of animation and comic books and “real-life” heroes and villains from movies, stage, and television. Those two categories became the two acts of the show. 

CL&S: How would you define the show's style? 

SB: Like most show choirs, it’s a musical revue, with an overarching theme and songs that fit. At VocalMotion, we have professional choreographers that know the personality of our group and they choreograph with that in mind. Several of us have performed together in this group for many years and we're able to develop some of our own choreo and staging.

CL&S: The Addams Family and The Who's Tommy are such different universes. Where do you get the musical arrangements? 

SB: Most of the choral music has band parts already available and come from standard choral publishing companies like JW Pepper and Hal Leonard. Auditionees have to provide music for the band. Sometimes, we need to arrange our own band parts for spotlight numbers. 

CL&S: How much visual design is incorporated?

SB: We typically do about 10-12 shows per season. Three or four of those are mainstage shows with full lighting, sound, a live band, props, and costumes. We have some smaller venues, like Halle Cultural Arts Center this weekend, where we won't have the option of special lighting, props, or our band--we'll use recordings of them from earlier performances. We also perform “selections from” shows at places like retirement communities with one of our sequined costumes and minimal additions. 

CL&S: What is the makeup of your cast?

SB: The cast, band, and crew are made up of SAS employees, spouses, and friends that have been invited and sponsored by a SAS employee. We've had as many as 24 performers in a show. This year, we have 12 regular singers and 5 backup singers. Some are formally trained, some have been in choirs and stage productions for years, and others are performing for the first time. We rehearse for many hours to get it “show worthy.” We’re already asking ourselves “How do we top this next year?”

Photo courtesy of VocalMotion.

Performance Details

Garner Performing Arts Center

  • Saturday, April 5 at 7:00 pm
  • Sunday, April 6 at 2:00 pm. 

Performances are free and open to the public, but the public is invited to make a donation to Garner Fire-Rescue. Tax-deductible donations can be made in the lobby before and after the show as well as during the 15-minute intermission.

VocalMotion is sponsored by SAS.


In Rehearsal with Tristan André Parks

"They Do Not Know Harlem: In Communion with James Baldwin"

by Dustin K. Britt

April 4, 2019

Graduation is mere weeks away, but Tristan André Parks shows no symptoms of senioritis. One of the stars of PlayMakers Rep’s MFA class of 2019, Parks has one foot on UNC campus and the other in Harlem with James Baldwin. 

With a creative consultancy--young gifted & broke--this writer-choreographer has been workshopping They Do Not Know Harlem: in Communion with James Baldwin in preparation for a May residency at Duke University’s Slippage Productions. 

Chatham Life & Style spoke with Parks after an electric, packed-house workshop performance of the piece at Durham’s NorthStar Church of the Arts.

Chatham Life & Style: How did this project germinate? 

Tristan André Parks: It was my research thesis for an MFA movement class. In fall 2018 we began developing solo pieces to amplify our own, singular artistic voices. I thought this topic might have its own legs, rather than me auditioning for other people's work and waiting on them.

CL&S: Why James Baldwin?

TP: I was always inspired by his courage to disrupt systems and paradigms. He was a seer and there was something very spiritual about him. He was impassioned about where he comes from and about his own people. I feel an interconnectedness with him. 

CL&S: With dance, spoken word, and musical improvisation combined, how do you define the piece?

TP: It is a dance piece yes, but I think of it more as a spiritual workshop piece--a catalyst for change: what art is to me. I want it to disrupt the paradigm of western art: performer on one side and spectator on the other. When you witness this work you are not spectating, but participating; it takes all of us to shape this.

CL&S: How did you translate James Baldwin’s voice into movement?

TP: When you read his words on the page, you see that it is a dance. I kept track of quotes that struck me from works like The Fire Next Time, If Beale Street Could Talk and No Name in the Street. Those words led to questions about the language.

CL&S: How did you answer those questions?

TP: I improvised phrases of choreo and manipulated them based on the composition of his language and our original score. Then that gradually changed based on how my live drummer is responding to the music and my movement.

CL&S: How did They Do Not Know Harlem end up occupying a church?

TP: I’d been wanting to develop something site-specific with Marcella Camara, creative consultant at young, gifted, and broke, which helps produce artists of color around the triangle. She happens to be the artist-in-residence at NorthStar Church of the Arts.

CL&S: It felt like a church service in both structure and tone. And you’re calling it a “communion.” 

TP: This performance dwells in the metaphysical. When we enter into the holy places--whether a theatre, church, synagogue or mosque, I want us to collectively move together--whether through dance or oratory or song. The Africanist aesthetic accesses the Grandfather; our live percussion acts as a way of triggering me and calling me home.

CL&S: Do your own experiences inform the show’s spirituality? 

TP: I was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. I’m a black southern queer survivor. A lot of us have a nuanced history with church--particularly when speaking truth to power. The space has been antagonizing toward queer people and women and our sexual being. But in the same breath, the church was the place I danced for the first time--where I learned that I could translate a story through my body.

CL&S: How do you approach the intersection of queerness and blackness inherent in Baldwin’s work?

TP: He was an elegant dancer. Maya Angelou has written about dancing with him. Voguing and whacking were a form of resistance through dance. Drag ball culture is etched in my spirit because my foremothers and forefathers created it to free and define themselves in the 1970s and 80s.

CL&S: Didn’t the voguing at the church workshop start to morph into something different?

TP: Yes. Juba dance: based on a form of expression during slavery. Whenever the enslaved had their music taken away from them, they’d have to use their hands--to hambone--to make music. Juba and voguing continue to inform one another. We time travel through those gestures.

CL&S: The music was a remarkable fusion of styles as well.

TP: I knew I wanted to incorporate live music with the pre-recorded score and interview clips. The score inspires the band and I let them riff. Against each other, there is a polyrhythmic pattern. I wanted a western sound over Baldwin’s voice--both recorded and mine. Early on, we took a Philip Glass concerto sample and our band both disrupted and married it.

CL&S: What’s next on your road to the Duke residency?

TP: Lisa Suzanne Turner at Walltown Children’s Theatre is my next collaborator. For the April fundraiser, she’ll be my projectionist and scenic/lighting designer. She has been helpful in suggesting dramaturgical choices and bringing in the voice of a queer black woman.

CL&S: Then back to Slippage Lab for the residency. What’s next for They Don’t Know Harlem?

TP: It will continue to evolve. I believe the piece will be performed at MoMA and places like the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I can carry my community’s comments and questions forward with me and eventually bring it back here. I have been really blessed.

Photo by Erin Bell of Bull City Photography.

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The Mikado ★★★★


Durham Savoyards

The Carolina Theatre of Durham


March 28 - 31, 2019

by Dustin K. Britt

April 3, 2019

RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)

In recent decades, reasons to produce The Mikado (catchy songs, witty banter, colorful costumes) have had to compete with the main reason not to do The Mikado: it’s super racist; a yellowface minstrel show. The 1885 satire on the British government was not really about Japan. But we did--and do--rejoice in the novelty of Anglo Women tiptoeing about with heads bowed, in geisha wigs, pink kimonos, and ear-reaching eyeliner. Older fans of the work might excuse the yellowface or overlook the brazen mockery of Japanese culture, but those audiences are thinning-out fast.

So how do we fix this? 

Ask Derrick Ivey, director of the Durham Savoyards’ recent production of the Gilbert & Sullivan bastion. He’ll tell you:

Leave Japan. 

Ivey has replaced the Town of Titipu with the contemporary catwalk of a Japanese-inspired haute-couture fashion show. James Vollers’ multi-tiered, straw mat-colored set is topped with a Nagasaki Arch through which bejeweled models, champagne-guzzling designers, stately ushers, frantic tailors, and irritated janitors come and go. 

Pam Guidry-Vollers’ hair and makeup designs are distinctly Paris chic and UK glam, while Karen Guidry’s innovative fashions embolden Japanese flavors to an absurd level with sushi-topped hats and pink obi bustiers. The North American cast of characters open the show by choosing from myriad rack-hung garments in preparation for the catwalk before launching into the now co-ed “Citizens of Japan.”  

There’s no suggestion that the characters or the setting are Japanese. Quite the contrary. Instead of a gottan-strumming folk singer, our Nanki-Poo is a camera-wielding paparazzo (an adorably goofy and golden-voiced tenor Brady Delvecchio).

A traditionally demure and powerless ingenue, Yum-Yum is now a fiery and effective costumer (gentle and sincere soprano Farren Hilliard). Ko-Ko (humorous, though sometimes unintelligible, baritone Greg Toft) wields fabric shears instead of an executioner’s axe while Alana Sealey’s Katisha is a fussy but sympathetic designer instead of a disagreeable crone. However, this Katisha is neither unattractive or particularly cruel, making the town’s detestation of her unwarranted. As a janitor playing Pooh-Bah, baritone Jim Burnette realizes the ridiculous politician with greater commitment to character than any other Pooh-Bah we’ve seen.

Though modernization of Gilbert’s topical humor is commonplace, Ivey’s are distractingly specific (e.g. Climate Change Deniers). Super-conductor Jackson Cooper sometimes sacrifices his singers’ diction and oxygen levels in exchange for speed; they sometimes fall behind, particularly in the rousing “Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast,” which might as well be in Japanese for all its clarity. Fortunately, the harmonious cast and Cooper’s nimble and indefatigable live orchestra soldier on, making Gilbert & Sullivan’s score soar.

It is often unclear whether the fashion show meta-cast are playing dress up and telling a silly romantic story (which makes the most sense) or whether we have fully entered The Mikado. The line between the play and the play-within-a-play is a thin one, and it proves best not to think about it too hard, lest one’s excitement fizzle. This flaw does not detract from the vibrancy and joy exploding from the stage toward this critic; immediately curing him of his cautious optimism and infusing him with pure merriment. 

The working class and aristocracy will always detest one another. Governments will always revel in corruption and deceit. The satire in The Mikado will always work, and nearly anywhere you stage it. And anywhere you set it. Its misogyny problem still needs addressing, which might take some heavy textual revision. If this Savoyards production is any indication, Derrick Ivey might just be the one to finally fix The Mikado.

Photo by Mark Welker.

Carnival of the Animals


A Mom & Son Review

North Carolina Symphony & Paperhand Puppet Intervention
Young People's Concert Series

Meymandi Concert Hall


March 30, 2019

by Rachel Kasten & Emory Kasten
April 3, 2019

Mom & Son Rating System:

👍 Thumbs Up

🤷‍ Shrug

👎Thumbs Down

Mom Says: Thumbs Up 👍

If you think classical music is boring, the North Carolina Symphony is out to prove you wrong with its latest Young People’s Concert, Carnival of the Animals. Dramatic lighting? Check. Conductor in costume? Check. Audience interaction? Check. Ten foot tall puppets? Check. Orchestra members making animal noises? Check. Check. Check.

So does it work? Mostly. If your mind is already made up about classical music, then Carnival of the Animals - and other shows in this series - probably won’t change it. But if you’re indifferent or new to the art form, this is an ideal introduction to the symphony experience for both kids and adults.

Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s well-deserved reputation for bold, beautiful, and surprising puppetry created a buzz leading up to Carnival, even from adults without children. The idea of fantastical animal puppets, soaring above the heads of wide-eyed children, accompanied by a full orchestra captured the imagination. Unfortunately, the show didn’t quite live up to the hype.

This isn’t to say that Carnival of the Animals wasn’t enjoyable; it absolutely was. It’s just that the ratio of music to puppets was lacking, and if you have previously seen Paperhand’s summer pageants, you’ve already seen these particular puppets (and many more). The visuals, however, were still awe-inspiring and beautiful.

The show got off to a raucous start, with “Ranger Wes” (conductor Wesley Schulz) in full safari costume, scanning the audience for animals. The sun - a large puppet that was posted in the balcony above the stage - rose with the instantly recognizable “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt (used in a number of Bugs Bunny cartoons). The orchestra then launched into a surprisingly lush arrangement of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” which featured the musicians making duck calls, deadpan “moos,” and other noises, to the delight of the audience. I’ve never heard so much laughter at a symphony.

As Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals is only 25 minutes long, the first half of the show also included selections from The Thieving Magpie, The Wand of Youth, The Waltzing Cat, and Swan Lake. The Magpie puppet was riveting, and the performer who played The Bear in The Wand of Youth was fantastic. But during The Waltzing Cat, the theater filled with confused whispers of, “Where’s the cat?” Ranger Wes explained that a few of the animals were left up to the audience’s imagination, which went over better with some kids than others.

The Carnival itself began with a small technical difficulty involving a faulty tablet, but aside from that hiccup, both Clara Yang and Jacqueline Nappi played beautifully. “The Tortoises” wowed and both “Aquarium” and “The Swan “provided the type of immersive experience I craved from the show as a whole. “Aquarium” saw the stage filled with fish puppets of different shapes and sizes, moving across the stage, while “The Swan” even included painted scenery with moving water. In general, birds lend themselves well to Paperhand’s style and thus made up most of the puppets in the show.

Although I would have loved to see more of Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s style throughout, this wasn’t a Paperhand show. The orchestra was excellent as always, and the Young People’s Concerts continue to facilitate innovative, exciting partnerships with other artists. I recommend these shows to anyone who wants to dip a toe into classical music (even adults); unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until October for the next show in the series.

Son Says: Thumbs Up 👍

This was my second time at the symphony, so I knew what to expect. I liked this show, Carnival of the Animals, even better than The Mozart Experience. I like that you can always watch the orchestra play the warm up music. It’s like being behind the scenes.

At the beginning of the show, the conductor came out dressed in a safari costume. That was great! The sun rose and the animals woke up. I didn’t really like the sun because it looked like it was frowning. They should have made the sun happy. Next they played “Old MacDonald Had A Farm.” I loved the sound effects. Some of the musicians made noises that sounded like farts. That was so funny! The Magpie was interesting because it was looking for food in the audience. Ranger Wes said that Magpies are very sneaky.

There was also a person in a bear costume. It wasn’t a puppet, but I loved the costume. The bear was dancing and being silly; he pretended to conduct the music. He also threw the ball into the audience and then they threw it back. I wish I was the person who caught the ball.

For one song, Ranger Wes had us practice being dogs. We said “woof!” as loud as we could to try to scare away the cat in the song. But when they played the song, there wasn’t a real cat. It was just imaginary. I wanted to see a kitty.

My favorite puppet was the lion. A big tongue came out through the head, and it licked people in the audience! He was hungry for people and ready to pounce. At one point, there were lots of birds, including an owl. Why would an owl be out in the daytime? I shouted at it: “Go to sleep, owl! The sun is out!” The two turtle puppets kissed, and it was so sweet. I wanted the swans to kiss too.

I loved all of the music, especially “Old MacDonald.” All of the puppets were great. Before the show, they had activities for kids, like trying instruments, playing games, and last but not least, you could even make an animal puppet out of a Popsicle stick. I think kids should go see the show because the puppets are very creative.

The Setup: An Improvised Play ★★★1/2



The Fruit


March 27 - April 6

by Dustin K. Britt

April 2, 2019

RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in 3 weeks.

Stephanie Meyer wrote Twilight in 3 months.

E.L. James wrote the Fifty Shades trilogy in 1.5 years.

J.D. Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye over 10 years.

Good writing is good writing. Treasure and trash can both be written before the gas bill comes due, or they can take lifetimes. 

So how do you write a 45-minute play in 10 seconds? One line at a time.

Improvised performance is more about writing than acting. Developing a story in real time: conflict, setting, relationships, and dialogue without abusing the audience’s patience. How long can one keep that up? It's not unheard of for a troupe to walk that tightrope for hours as part of long-form showcases. Upright Citizens Brigade’s weekly long-form ASSSSCAT live show has become a staple of the New York improv scene. 

Mettlesome, in titling The Setup an “Improvised Play,” is stepping outside comedy club territory and resting their neck comfortably on the chopping block. Aside from the real rule-breaking authors, plays are assumed to follow a traditional plot line, ending on a witty quip or emotional button. Carefully plotted and paced, with important information revealed just-so.

The Setup is this:

A play is taken from the shelf. An audience volunteer provides the page number. A leading player scans that page for a juicy piece of dialogue and that line, sans context, begins this new play. Enter whomever, doing whatever. And we’re off to the races. As if there aren’t enough plates to spin, Mettlesome is collaborating with Bulldog Ensemble Theatre, dropping themselves onto the established living room set for the currently-running In a Word without any idea where their story may lead.

Scenes interrupt and flow into others, sometimes later than we’d like, but the cast are sharply focused. They’re listening to each other, even from offstage. An actor will ask a question or present a conflict, giving future scenes something with which they can grapple. Director Jeris Donovan has her team well-prepared.

They balance bone-dry wit and earnest emotion, calm contemplation with outburst. Actors weave in and out of different characters as deemed appropriate.

Matt Harris speaks the opening line and is particularly credible as both a frazzled roommate and an incensed yogi. He and Erin Hanehan bravely tackle the unenviable task of setting up the play’s primary conflict; their first few lines establish the impetus for all subsequent scenes. Success or failure hinge on this first minute and they proves successful: the troupe is able to keep this plate spinning for more than half an hour, tying up storylines and ending on a punchline.

Evidently connected at the synapses, the team establishes the play’s geography as would any capable director (hospital upstage, living room downstage) and maintains consistency. They create and hold unspoken furniture rules (yellow chairs are hospital beds) and specify entrance and exit zones (hospital entrances come beside or behind yellow chairs only). The group needs to tighten up its miming skills, though, if they continue to employ invisible props.

Some troupe members slow things down by spinning their wheels (arguing with other characters’ suggestions, for example) which adds unnecessary interference. Even in a 30-45 minute piece, one must play a number of emotional notes, never hanging on one, which at least one performer does. Some performers are far more confident than others, likely a result of experience, and each line and movement--whether it works or not--is delivered without hesitation or question. If you’re going to fail, fail big.

Actor Davis Tate is focused and patient, laid out in a “hospital bed” for most of the play while bickering with the sublimely absurd Jack Reitz--easily the production’s stand-out comedian--in a nearby bed. Brandon Holmes is adorable and convincing as our fallen hero’s fretful mother.

Out of the blue, one actor presents herself as a slow-motion hallucination and--as if on cue--the entire cast jumps into action, bombarding the drugged character with a cavalcade of bizarre nightmare-like noises and incongruous shifts between their earlier characters. This serves as a nifty shortcut: we dive into the character’s inner psyche without soliloquy. It was this show’s shining moment: perfect synchronicity of tone and purpose.

Theatrical preparation relies on repetition; traditionally, digging into every line and scene ad infinitum until opening night. But in improv, each word and movement--warts and all--floats into the ether, never to be observed or caught again. A show’s Its imperfections are part of the deal. Perfection would lead to suspicion. While there were several moments of wheel-spinning on opening night (especially in the first half) and some self-conscious performers, Mettlesome proves that an improvised play is something they can pull off if given frequent showings with strong, reactive audiences. 

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