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June 2019

Bright Star ★★

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University Theatre's TheatreFEST 2019

NC State University Theatre

Titmus Theatre, Thompson Hall

RALEIGH, NC

June 13-23, 2019


by Naveed Moeed
June 20, 2019


Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)


Bright Star is a Bluegrass Musical set in North Carolina, written by virtuoso banjo performer and national treasure Steve Martin and folk-singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. What could possibly go wrong? Toe-tapping indeed! This performance had this reviewer’s toes tapping rapidly back to the parking deck, such was the urge to leave. 


As befits a musical, the story is simple: young Billy Cane, from a struggling family in Hayes Creek, NC, returns from World War II to find his mother has passed. Leaving both his father and his love Margo behind, he chooses to move to Asheville to become a writer for the Southern Journal. Unbeknownst to Billy, his fate is intertwined with another love story from decades earlier; one involving his editor Alice at the Southern Journal


Based on true events, Martin and Brickell wanted to write a simple musical with traditional, uplifting music that would leave the audience happy. Even occasional appearances by Martin himself failed to help the show realize its Broadway box office potential and it closed after 109 performances. Among the accusations levelled at the original was the “whiteness” of it all. Director Rachel Klem attempts to undo this and revitalize the musical by casting strong performers of color: Benaiah Barnes as a heart-warming Billy, Tina Morris-Anderson as a vocally resplendent older Alice and a fiery Aysia Slade as a younger Alice. The hope is that in this diverse interpretation, the existing tropes of “illicit relationship” and “working class misery” translate into deeper issues of race relations. Sorry, they just don’t. 


An audience member sitting next to this reviewer summed it up perfectly when commenting to their neighbor: “Wait, so people were fine with interracial couples in the 40s? I’m confused.” Honey, we all were. This reviewer couldn’t decide if this was a fictional Appalachia or a real one. If real, why was everyone so OK with the main romantic couples? One of the main plot points centers around the fate of a child born out-of-wedlock and is rendered beautifully by Danny Norris’ Mayor Dobbs (in the number “A Man’s Gotta Do”). In the racially mixed reimagining the reaction of the characters to the “illicit” nature of the pregnancy is confusing for this reviewer: was the union illicit because the pair were of different color or because the pair were unwed? Leaving the audience to decide which, informs their opinion of the majority of the second half. 


Another example of this problem is Billy and Margo’s interracial relationship in 1945, which implies a colossal improvement in miscegenation in the space of twenty years. One that did not happen at the time; the first states to allow interracial marriage did so in 1948 and NC not until 1967. Public opinion on such relationships is still less than satisfactory in 2019, let alone a century earlier.


All this said, the quality of production was superb. Wood-panelled mountains in the set design (courtesy of scenic designer, Jayme Mellema) really thrust the audience into the rustic atmosphere. Lights in mason jars, hung like stars, evoked a strong sense of the Asheville night sky. And from band to cast, every performer dug deep into their NC roots; even if not originally from NC! Dialects were, as expected, flawless. The band however, under the excellent direction of Diane Petteway, were the stars. Bluegrass, much like its Celtic roots, is a highly fluid musical style, with rhythms and reels rolling in and out of each other like the landscape of the western counties. It felt like they were just a Bluegrass band, in a barn, in the mountains, enjoying the heck out of playing. While following a complicated score, they made it feel as if there wasn’t one - now that’s talent!


The music and songs are worth listening to. An overly simplistic plot, confused with racial overtones – whether in the original or this reimagining – left this Bright Star somewhat dimmed.


Photo by: Ron Foreman

Gay Card: The Musical ★★1/2

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North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre

RALEIGH, NC

June 7 - 23, 2019


by Dustin K. Britt

June 27, 2019


RATING: 2.5 stars (out of 5)


Making its world premiere at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, Gay Card: The Musical follows gay college student Logan (a sparkling Collin Dunn) as he seeks to earn his Gay Card. Commonly proverbial, this story’s Gay Card is a literal one, issued by the gatekeepers of gay culture. Don't like Beyoncé? Card revoked.


Jonathan Keebler’s book and lyrics demand that Logan search for membership among the many gay subgroups to be “gay enough.” Is he a big hairy bear, a leather daddy, an waifish “art fag” (an ill-fitting and cringeworthy term), a hairless twink, or a buff jock? Aloof and judgemental Graham (a beautifully sympathetic Shane de León) and loyal BFF Melanie (Miranda Millang, giving the production its strongest vocals) are always nearby to provide the necessary feedback, as are a Greek Chorus of “Blogs” (Camden Trimmer, Brent Blakesley, and a seductive Melanie Carviou). 


Composer Ryan Koell squanders his opportunity to present something new. Alas, these songs are so forgettable it is a wonder the cast can remember them at all. Saved only by enthusiastic performances, the show sounds more like High School Musical than anything daring. Quiet backstage monitors were the likely culprit behind many solo vocalist’s hunt for the correct pitch, but Music Director Craig Johnson elicits gorgeous harmonies from the ensemble numbers.


Stage Manager Natasha Jackson ably cues Scott Wray’s projections and Liz Grimes-Droessler’s lighting designs, both of which clarify settings. Sheila Cox’s costumes are perfectly exaggerated and often amusing, particularly the black leather harness and kilt (worn by a very game Kenny Hertling), Matt Sheaffer’s Chippendales “tux,” and Collin Dunn’s outrageously twinky Pride-inspired crop-top. 


The virginal Logan’s peers award him with his Gay Card once he displays the most stereotypical gay behavior: he becomes a sort of Super-Slut, making out with porn stars on Pride floats and jumping in the backs of any number of cars. But Logan is far from the only character engaged in hookups. Bisexual creeper Cory (a committed Patrick Scott Holt), straight Ken doll Justin (a charming Aydan Hansen), and salacious RA Danielle (Chelsey Winstead in a delightfully farcical, career-best performance) certainly set an example.


Logan’s celebrated promiscuity might be satirical. Either the play is perpetuating the harmful cliché or it is satirizing it. Director Timothy E. Locklear leans into the sentimentality of Logan’s cathartic journey. The humor and shenanigans of Saved by the Bell and the teenage melodrama of The OC are ever-present and befitting a focus on theme: the universal quest for self-identity.

But if the authors intend to focus on the challenges specific to queer youth (which they should), they must satirize Logan’s troubling real-life experiences, not normalize them. The show’s lack of irony or self-awareness lets a straight audience confirm its bias while the old guard gays laugh at 21st century gay boy “problems.” Younger queers are the ones most likely to call bullshit.


Why call it Gay Card if we won’t address any actual gay issues? The search for a queer subgroup is not universal. It is mostly about judging and objectifying the body. “Don’t Join the Clique” after-school specials look at the differences between nerds and jocks; Veronicas and Heathers. But in the straight world, there is no honorific for “big, older, and hairy.” 


The only way to make Gay Card: The Musical worthy of staging is as a satire on expectations put upon young gay men to comply with a very specific set of expectations. Since the book is so schmaltzy, the only way to sell this as parodic is to turn everything up to 11. The characters, costuming, set, and choreography all have to explode with a certain level of cynicism. Heartfelt anthem “Perfect Day” celebrates the naive and white-centric mockery that Pride has become. If we’re taking the piss out of Pride, these performances need to be extremely exaggerated. Only the super-cute and nearly all-white cast makes me think we might be at Pride. Only the song “Fake I.D.,” makes any real commentary: how queer youth must often hide their true identities.

 

Gay Card does not know what it wants to be. A heartwarming after-school special or a comedic satire on gay culture? Given little indication by its authors, Locklear is forced to choose, with a 50/50 shot of getting it right: sweet or salty? We cannot tell. I'm just glad to see a rare gay play where nobody dies.

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Junk ★★★1/2

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Theatre Raleigh

Kennedy Theatre

Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts

Raleigh, NC

June 5 - 16, 2019


by Naveed Moeed 

June 14, 2019


Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)


“Debt is an asset.” Want to know how our obsession with debt came into being? Curious as to when it was that credit and loans stopped becoming bad words and, instead, symbols of financial independence? Go and see Theatre Raleigh’s impressive production of Junk: Ayad Akhtar’s fictionalized account of the rise of the junk bond and its legacy on the money markets of America. 


A junk bond is a guarantee on a loan, wherein the interest rate has been raised significantly because the debtor is perceived to be higher risk (i.e. unlikely to pay the loan back). Such bonds are something no investor would touch with a barge pole. Until in the 1970s Michael Milken and others hit on the fact that they could be bought very cheaply and sold on at a margin to unsuspecting buyers, thus raising the vast amounts of cash needed for corporate takeovers. 


Akhtar’s play is set in the financial world of the late 80s: the era of big smiles, big suits, big money, and bigger lies. Loosely based on the life and scandal of Milken – the messiah of the junk bond – Junk follows the story of Bob Merkin, a financier who uses junk bonds to execute the “sale of the century”: a hostile takeover of Everson Steel. There is a dizzying array of players involved from brokers and law firms to the FBI. 


If poorly executed, you could lose the audience in the whirlwind of dialogue and characters. This is not the case here. Director Charlie Brady’s coherent direction takes us into a world where everyone is tainted by avarice. A sign of this production’s resounding success is having the audience exit the theatre, gripping their pocketbooks tightly. Caveat emptor – they’re all out for your money! We leave with understanding as to why this happened but definitely unable to feel sympathy for those involved. 


The minimalist, but highly effective set (designer Josh Smith), is a cross-section of a skyscraper with action happening on all three levels. Curtain blinds are used to reveal or hide a scene, allowing for the smooth and rapid scene transitions the script requires. If anything, our main criticism is that the pace could have been more rapid. However, as this reviewer overhead one gentleman saying to his wife during intermission “Phew! Could you follow all of that?” Balancing content as fast-paced as the stock markets with your audience is hard work. The soundtrack definitely helps here. Created by sound designer Eric Alexander Collins, it provides a constant, menacing “ticker tape beat” that builds the tension methodically. Additional ambiance comes through the clever use of contemporaneous news-bites during the longer scene transitions. 


Reflecting the attitude of the privileged towards those with less, the intricate plot is interwoven with all-too-real racial and nationalistic overtones. A very solid cast masters this by emoting both compassion and cruelty in equal measure. In their efforts to crawl over each other to the top, each character becomes complicit in one illegal financial activity after another. Yet, as Marc Levasseur’s powerful Bob Merkin shows us, a ruthless boardroom tyrant can be a passionate husband. Of particular mention is Kevin Otos as the misogynist, racist, yet well-intentioned Leo Tressler; the investor who comes in to save Everson Steel. Otos, in a scene which foreshadows the rhetoric of Donald Trump, leaves us, appropriately, conflicted. Like others he holds up a mirror reflecting back to us the likability of even the most unlikable of characters.


 Jorge Sánchez-Díaz is energetic in his duplicitousness as Merkin’s firm’s lawyer, Raoul Rivera. Edith Snow as Merkin’s wife, Amy, provides a necessary and heartfelt moral compass. Thomas Everson, the beleaguered CEO, is portrayed impressively by Jeffrey Blair Cornell, whose range has to vary from man-of-the-people to the abject misery of the lonely billionaire. This reviewer’s show-stealer however, was Daniel P. Wilson as the devious market-manipulator Boris Pronsky; you can’t help but enjoy how distasteful he is!


We walk away with more questions than we had at the beginning. What motivates the characters to do what they do? Or the question asked repeatedly of Tressler: “What did he [Merkin] do to you?” To which he has no answer. Because there is no answer to either of these. As Merkin says, “the system is rigged,” so you have to keep rigging the system to beat it. The only unifier is greed. 


Of the many financial melodramas to have hit the screen in the last two decades, Junk most resembles Ben Younger’s iconic Boiler Room. Similar to that film, Junk takes the “Greed is Good” mantra from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street to the level of “Greed is God.” If only this really were fiction. The sad reality is that films such as The Big Short and Margin Call, and plays such as Junk, reflect accurately the callousness and recklessness of the ruling financial class. We should listen to their messages and take heed; “All we are creating is debt”. Caveat investor – nothing in this world comes free.


Photo Courtesy of Theatre Raleigh.

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Caroline, or Change ★★★

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Justice Theater Project

Umstead Park UCC

Raleigh, NC

June 7 - 23, 2019


by Naveed Moeed

June 13, 2019


Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)


How do you humanize one of the most turbulent times in American History? By making your story as human as possible. Justice Theater Project’s adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change achieves this admirably. With healing as its central theme, it is a fitting end to their 2018-19 season “S/HE IS: Becoming Whole”.


Kushner’s book is set in 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The story describes the delicate balance between two lost souls: eight-year old Noah Gellman, whose mother died from cancer, and the household maid Caroline Thibodeaux. Noah, portrayed excellently by Andrew Farmer, idolizes the single mother of three, spending all his time playing in the laundry and lighting her cigarettes. Caroline, played by the highly talented Danielle J. Long, tries her level best to raise three children on $30 a week. His stepmother Rose (Leslie-Ann Ball) juggles maintaining a household, nurturing  his grief-stricken father, Graham (James Hale) and trying to help Noah overcome the loss of his mother. Hale and Ball’s performances communicate well both the anguish of grief and the humility that should come with being privileged. The three Thibodeaux children – performed strongly by Qualia Holder-Cozart as Emmie, Ricardo Razon as Jackie and Quinn Gray as Joe – sharply contrast the mindset and struggle of their elders. A gutsy Emmie gives voice to the nascent civil rights battle of the times and the realization of her own black identity in the face of centuries of discrimination. 


Kushner is known for his use of anthropomorphism (Angels in America). Thankfully not as caricatured as Disney animations, his use of inanimate objects to relay story elements is marvelous. This production has cast these solidly. In particular, the use of people of color to represent the appliances is a subtle recognition of how black people were seen at the time. The chorus line is represented by a Radio, portrayed by a feisty vocal trio of Micaela Shanyce Bundy, Laren Foster-Lee, and Germôna Sharp. The washing machine is played by the highly versatile Maria Barber, Taufiki Lee is a beautifully bold dryer, and a shining and ethereal Dr. Joy L. Bryant plays The Moon. Last, but by no means least, Sound Designer Juan Isler doubles up as the Bus. What I would have given to have more of his deep bass in the production! 


The syncretic rhythms of blues, Motown, classical, and Yiddish folk music in Jeanine Tesori’s score interweave the individual stories to make a whole. Such melodic diversity requires strong musical performances which Music Director Jackson Cooper elicits from both band and cast. Isler’s smoothly-operating sound design combined with Arthur Reese’s large, meticulous and versatile period set, let the audience feel immersed in the story. 


Our only criticism here: the band, to the right of the stage, were sometimes so loud for nearby audience members that it was hard to hear the voices on stage. Then again, you are staging a Broadway musical in a church. Adding details through lyrics, and intent through music, is hard work. Overall, Tesori’s score and Kushner’s book are strong. However, there were moments, such as at the end of Act I, where the mishmash of words and melodies left us more confused than enlightened.


Justice Theater Project has accomplished well  its mission, this season, to address the complex stories of women through the lens of empowerment, growth and transformation. Artistic Director Jerry Sipp’s vision of showing women at the crossroads of their journey is exemplified in this play’s conflict: what happens when Caroline is allowed to keep the change found in the unwashed laundry, including $20 of Hanukkah gelt that Noah forgets in his pants? 


For all the joviality on the surface of the Gellman and Thibodeaux households, the underlying tensions of the time build throughout the show. References to the beheading of a confederate statue, the assassination of JFK, the lack of resources available to people of color, and the lengths white people will go to in order to avoid their discomfort all stack up as a precarious house of cards which comes crashing down in the climatic exchange of racial slurs. 


The real power of the play comes in the moments after this. Rather than provide us a gentle, self-indulgent, catharsis in the form of a happy ending, the truths are laid bare. Noah will grow up with his white privilege. Emmie “ain’t got no tears to shed for no dead white guy”. Caroline and Noah “weren’t never friends”. For all her good intentions, Rose’s good was just that: intention. Referring to the state being below sea level, a line repeated throughout the musical becomes strangely apt, both for that time and for now: “nothing ever happens on the ground in Louisiana, only under water”. Our state of racial politics is no different today: nothing happens on the surface; only beneath it do tensions still simmer.


Photo courtesy of Justice Theater Project.

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Of Good Stock ★1/2

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Theatre in the Park

RALEIGH, NC

June 7 - 23, 2019


by Naveed Moeed

June 12, 2019


Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5)


If you don’t get to attend this production and don’t have the time to read this review, here is the one line summary: OK, now we’ve talked about death, let’s have sex. 


Melissa Ross’ story centers around three fictional sisters from Cape Cod, who come together through shared and personal tragedy. With a few laughs along the way! Theatre in the Park , courtesy of a long line of kind donors and hard work, are able to put on productions which have received accolades from the public and critics alike. A script this easy allows TIP to stage a show of consistent quality. Consistent quality, however, isn’t always enough. Much like the consistently good sandwiches this reviewer gets from Cook Out, the play is in the moment, satisfying; in the aftermath, unfulfilling. 


The majority of the set and action take place on the ground floor of the Stockton house, with an external dock to one side--providing a literal and metaphorical escape from the family tensions. Subtle changes in lighting focus the audience’s attention from one end of the stage to the other. We were impressed by the active use of running water from taps, functional appliances, and real food & drink on the set. The large number of technical elements was pulled off without a hitch. Overall, the pace of the show was smooth, save a few distractions like actors clearing a table for the next scene while action was taking place across the other side of the stage.  


Notable performances include Brian Yandle as Hunter, an amiable working-class “Bruiser with a Soft Centre”. Brian steals a number of the scenes with the affable charm of those unafflicted by wealth. Elizabeth Anderson, as his pregnant wife Celia Stockton, is a textbook middle child. In turns enthusiastic and calming, Anderson provides depth to a narrow spectrum of emotions. Fred, played by Brook North, is husband to protagonist and eldest sister Jess Stockton (played by Andrea Amthor Twiss). North plays a consummately cordial Fred whose character is there to inject pathos into the proceedings. However, as with most of the characters, this fails because of a script that prevents actors from exploring emotions with any profundity. The text chooses instead to hammer home concepts such as the supposed difficulties of inheriting a beautiful residence in Cape Cod. 


Of Good Stock is billed as humorous. Playwright Ross utilizes a tried and trusted formula of “any conversation between two people has to be serious; any conversation with three or more leads to hilarious consequences”. This allows literal and farcical gags, combined with rapidly-paced dialog, to punctuate the sisters’ frustration with each other and their men-folk. The latter being--and here Ross does get some points--the butt of most of the jokes. However, disappointingly, many of the jokes fail to land because of the awkward timing between punchlines and action. Thus, moments which could have been universally funny and physically comic became strangely insular, eliciting isolated laughs.


The clichés of living in the heart of gentrification make the production increasingly alien and less relatable. The main plot is focused around the loss of the Stockton sisters’ mother (many years earlier) to breast cancer. The occasion of the family gathering is Jess’ birthday, who after suffering the same cancer, celebrates “outliving” her mother. For cancer sufferers and survivors, much may resonate here. What is inescapable, however, is that recovering from cancer surrounded by family, good health insurance, and privilege, is a very Upper Middle Class--and predominantly white--problem. 


The dysfunction of sisters’ Celia and Amy (played by Angela Burks), one pregnant and the other jilted, is the primary catalyst behind much of the dialogue and action during their weekend. However, each time these concepts are explored the conversations peter out, leaving the audience wondering where this is going. A climatic and supposedly cathartic scene on the dock, where the cheer of “Fuck Cancer” is belted out with aplomb by all three, should reflect the anguish of women in suffering. Had we felt invested in their issues, this probably could have been the case. Instead, it felt more like three kids chasing after a receding school bus. Finally, the resolution for the primary couple of Fred/Jess is that once they are able to talk about death, Jess can finally lead Fred to the bedroom! Lovely. Now we’re all done with that; we can live happily ever after.


One sits in vain hope that at some point the characters will somehow exploit these tropes and ridicule, or become victim to their normal Whole Foods and Yoga lifestyle. But no. All this is very normal for them and if we are to relate, this should also be relatable for us. Of Good Stock is a story about privileged white people and for privileged white people. Gilmore Girls meets The First Wives Club. Luckily--for TIP’s ticket sales--there is no shortage of such privilege in America.


Photo by Catherine Davis Photography.

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Cats ★★1/2

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North American Tour

Durham Performing Arts Center

DURHAM, NC

June 4 - 9, 2019


by Dustin K. Britt

June 5, 2019


RATING: 2.5 stars (out of 5)


When cult fans rewatch their favorite movies, reread their favorite books, or revisit their favorite theatre production, they are not looking for sweeping change. They love it because it is eternal, like the muses. Revivals are familiar, comforting, and fun to sing-along with. Nostalgia at its peak.


Thirty-eight years--and many lives--ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats premiered in London. With no conventional plot, the sung-through and dance-heavy musical takes its lyrics from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot, published in 1939.' At their annual nighttime junkyard festival, we meet cat after cat after cat as they tell their stories, each hoping to be the one chosen by the tribe for reincarnation. Since 1981, the show has developed a massive following: a consistent sell-out risk in theaters across the globe. 


The current incarnation of Cats currently nestled at DPAC makes few changes to its four-decade old formula. Imperceptible changes in John Napier’s costumes, wigs, and makeup combine with the same famed junkyard set design to offer a faded image of Cats from the Broadway musical archives. Musical arrangements are largely the same, save a little less of the anachronus 80s synths. Andy Blankenbuehler copies most of the late Gillain Lynn’s original choreography, giving us the same gentle balletic moves already burned into our minds.


We see substantial dance rearrangements in three places: the tap-heavy “The Old Gumbie Cat,” the Mick Jagger-styled “The Rum Tum Tugger,” and a funky Prince-inspired iteration of “Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” danced sparklingly by the tour’s crowning jewel, Tion Gaston. 

From the first notes of the opening “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” (with an inviting Dan Hoy as Munkustrap), we sense that conductor Eric Kang plans to keep this train in low gear. Act One’s music is abnormally slow and the cast’s energy weakens. The overuse of the actors-through-the-audience gimmick fails to distract from the problem.


The cast tackles the complex score expertly. A noticeably unbalanced sound mix gives much attention to the altos’ and baritones’ harmonies, losing the sopranos (a rare problem indeed). The quietness of the music sometimes causes our feline friends to rush ahead or lag behind the orchestra, even falling out of sync with each other, notably in the whispery chanting of “The Naming of Cats.” 


Natasha Katz’s high-tech and extravagant lighting design saves the show from most of its predictability and tiredness. This tour’s greatest moment, “Magical Mister Mistoffelees,” owes much of its splendor to Katz’s flashy and surprisingly colorful designs, including a color-changing tuxedo jacket for the magical black cat himself.


Liz Schmitz (Demeter) and Lexie Plath (Bombalurina) execute the Chicago-esque “Macavity, The Mystery Cat” with considerable sass, while Tony d’Alelio and Rose Iannaccone temporarily galvanize the first act with the playful “Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer,” though the song’s original, unique 9/8 musical timing is treasonously deflated into a run-of-the-mill 4/4, taking much edge off of the song. 


Brandon Michael Nase demands respect as Old Deuteronomy in the culminating “The Ad-dressing of Cats.” Standing out from the litter are Keri René Fuller’s mighty voice as prima donna Grizabella the Glamour Cat in the iconic “Memory” and Timothy Gulan’s slyly comical disposition as Gus the Theatre Cat.


Catnip must have been distributed to the company during intermission, because Act One’s listlessness has been energized, with a practically flawless Act Two. Fortified by a more dynamic set of songs (except the still-unnecessary “The Moments of Happiness”), the junkyard and the audience buzz with energy and the entire company picks up the pace. “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles” is delightfully silly, thanks mostly to Timothy Gulan’s leadership as the supervillain Rumpus Cat.


The costumes, set, and choreography of Cats have far exceeded their allotted 9 lives, but that will surely go unnoticed by first-times. The Cult of Cats will be comforted by the lack of innovation. But for many, some new surprises and reimagining are due after nearly 40 years in the London darkness. By some miracle, the show’s second half is so rousing that many sins are forgiven by the final catcall.


Dan Hoy as 'Munkustrap' and the North American Tour of CATS.

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

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Faust ★★★★

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Royal Opera House Live

Recorded Broadcast

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

RALEIGH, NC

June 2, 2019


by Philip Guadagno

June 5, 2019


RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)


Charles Gounod’s Faust is a common piece in the repertory of major opera houses and has been for over a century. Discussing themes such as desire, religion, seduction, sin, damnation, and salvation, there’s something cathartic in watching Faust sell his soul to the devil for one last taste of youth and fall to the depths of Hell to save the woman that he loves. The cinema broadcast of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden’s production leads the audience to ask a difficult question, especially for people in the American South, where religion plays so heavily into daily life. How far would you go to change your destiny? This production of Faust explores human nature in its most intrinsic forms: chastity, sexuality, and unadulterated fear.


The April 30th performance was broadcast to Raleigh’s Alamo Drafthouse on June 2nd. This performance began with the entrance of Maestro Dan Ettinger, conductor of this season’s production of Faust. This was Ettinger’s sixth production at ROH as a conductor. With his seemingly unending energy and commanding baton, he plowed through the music of Faust with a voracious appetite indicative of his unearthly hunger for the final cadence. The lights rose on a set with a theatre box on one side and a massive, ever-looming church organ on the other, clearly establishing the fundamental dilemma of the story of Faust: the conflict between a man’s worldly desires and his religious convictions. Charles Edwards’ set continued to bring towering drama throughout the opera with its tall construction, allowing for the sound to travel out into the audience more quickly without first having to hit the back wall of the stage. Cultivating the setting of the Second French Empire under Napoleon III, the set shifted between a colorful cabaret, a cold cathedral, the plain home of the sweet Marguerite, a spacious town square, and Faust’s dark, sinister library. The set was almost never the same twice, allowing for clear differentiation between scenes and action.


Paule Constable’s lighting design harkened back to the dark, Gothic nature present in 19th century Romanticism, with choices that starkly lit up some moments and left many moments in shadow. In some ways, this fits the themes of the opera extremely well. However, for the Royal Opera House, it tends to leave the audience–and some of the cast–in the dark. The Act III quartet constantly had either Madame Schwertlein or Méphistophélès shrouded in shadows, the choral prayer at the end of Act IV appeared as though Marguerite was the only one mourning her brother’s death, and the chorus as Marguerite’s soul ascends to Heaven at the end of Act V was barren of any visibility other than on Marguerite’s body. The beginning of Act IV, when Marguerite and Méphistophélès are in the cathedral where she comes to beg God for forgiveness, was exceptionally well-lit. The inconsistency ultimately asks the question of whether these were intentional moments of darkness to evoke the spirit of Romanticism or if it was simply shoddy lighting.


Brigitte Reiffensteul’s elegant costumes clearly depicted these characters. Dr. Faust’s lush red robes in the opening and finale and his gentlemanly tuxedo throughout the rest of the opera all clearly showed his wealth and success as an academic and philosopher. Méphistophélès’ costumes range from drab traveler’s clothes to a gilded, red velvet suit. He even manages to conjure a glittering black evening gown befitting a drag queen, complete with a diamond-encrusted tiara and chandelier-style earrings. Valentin’s fitted soldier’s uniform and Siébel’s modest pants and shirt both suited their personalities: clipped and respectful yet reliable. “Madame” Schwertlein wore a gaudy purple gown unsuitable for her age as she tries to dress like her much younger “employees.” Marguerite’s cabaret barmaid’s dress was appropriate, but extremely well-tailored and the chosen fabric seemed to be of silk or satin: too good for a woman of her low standing in society.


Opera broadcasts present a number of challenges to the audience, most notably visibility and sound quality. Opera was and is better heard live because of the innate loss of quality in recording technology and the lack of true visibility from the camera. Microphones were in the orchestra rather than out in the hall. We wonder if the sound we heard in the cinema had been digitally manipulated or if it was untouched. There are moments where the camera actually detracts from the overall understanding for the viewer because of the cameras’ limited views of the overall stage picture. It takes away our freedom of choice of where to look. Stage direction and lighting are sufficiently helpful in guiding the audience to the most important aspects of the scene.


However, design is merely the skeleton of the production. What makes it so much more interesting are the performers. The namesake of the opera, Faust, was sung by American tenor Michael Fabiano. His bright tone and ringing high notes lent themselves extremely well to the varying styles of this opera, jumping with ease between verismo-like solo moments and the typical French grand opera style. Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott sang the role of Méphistophélès, the physical manifestation of the Devil, with unearthly expression, switching between humorous bits, like waving a handkerchief to clear the smoke upon his arrival, and deadly serious moments with astonishing and unsettling distinction. Russian soprano Irina Lungu sang the role of Marguerite, running the gamut of vocal complexities with seeming ease. Her “Jewel Song” in Act III offered a convincing depiction of Marguerite’s modesty, purity, and innocence.


French baritone Stéphane Degout gave a stunning performance as Marguerite’s brother Valentin. His endless array of vocal colors transitioned beautifully from the warm depths of his range to the high, ringing, almost tenor-like high notes. British-Spanish mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons sang the role of Siébel, the love-sick, pubescent boy that admires Marguerite from afar. Her thoughtful performance gave Siébel a sense of agency while still showing how the young boy’s immaturity kept him from achieving his true goal: to protect and love Marguerite. British mezzo-soprano Carole Wilson sang the role of Madame Marthe Schwertlein, a homely, older woman who serves as Marguerite’s guardian. Her wide range and vocal flexibility made it nearly impossible to tell whether she was soprano or a mezzo-soprano, lending the character a sense of intrigue. She effortlessly navigated her soprano-like upper register and the dark, tumultuous tones of her lower register. Argentinian baritone Germán E. Alcántara’s ardent performance as Valentin’s friend and fellow soldier Wagner was warm, clearly displaying Wagner’s obliviousness to the danger around him. His clear diction, crisp musicality, and mellifluous tone made him fit in smoothly with the rest of the cast. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s choreography was top-notch from beginning to end. His watchful eye provided a moving vitality to the opera with notable moments in the Act II Cabaret L’Enfer and the Act V Walpurgisnacht Ballet.


Gounod’s Faust is a difficult opera to undertake, both musically and theatrically. However, ROH’s production provides a sonic and visual experience that conscientiously considers the physical manifestations of desire and the spiritual manifestations of love and evil. When Faust gets to the end, what will he find: damnation or salvation?


Photo by Tristram Kenton.

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Pippin ★★★1/2

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Raleigh Little Theatre

Cantey V. Sutton Theatre

RALEIGH, NC

May 31 - June 16, 2019


by Dustin K. Britt

June 3, 2019


RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 5)


Conceived by director-choreographer Bob Fosse, composer Stephen Schwartz, and book writer Roger O. Hirson, Pippin has always been a circus of a musical. The 1972 Broadway premiere saw cartwheeling and clownish japes, but Diane Paulus’s stunning 2013 revival upped the ante with Barnum and Bailey-level circus tricks added to Chet Walker’s already exhausting choreography. 


Much like Cabaret or Into the Woods, this tale goes from flashy fun to a discomfiting and metafictional spiral toward darkness. Director Patrick Torres’s focused application of the shocking--though wickedly satisfying--1998 revised ending is one of the Raleigh Little Theatre production’s defining moments.


Torres’s iteration flirts with the revival’s circus concept but (understandably) cannot jump through the revival’s literal and metaphorical flaming hoops. Rather, Elizabeth Newton’s set leans into the patchwork style of the 1972 production with the guts of the Sutton Theatre born bare.


Incandescent light bulbs, asymmetrical wooden platforms, and visible pulley systems suggest an unfinished circus; or perhaps a dilapidated one. A haunting ghost light indicates a theatre, as does a two-dimensional country house backdrop. Whatever universe we’re in, it definitely isn’t store-bought. The show’s flammable grand finale lacks intensity, though, since Pippin’s final task is undercut by unclear design.


Cailen Waddell provides surprising and evocative lighting cues, but some of his stage paintings seem incomplete, sacrificing visibility for style. Jenny Mitchell’s flourishing and colorful costumes support dancers as well as the show’s magical nature. Riley Lange’s props are simple and well-suited. 


Sound designer Todd Houseknecht mixes perfectly his actors with Katherine Anderson’s magnificent 14-member orchestra. The onstage tech is mostly actor-operated and the hectic presentation benefits from Elaine Petrone’s capable stage management. 


As the Leading Player (akin to Cabaret’s emcee), nimble performer Deanna Richards is voguish and intimidating. She’s working so hard that she’s losing breath and vocal strength as the show gets deeper into Act Two, though her intensity sells the show’s distributing final scenes. Choreographer Chasta Hamilton never gives Richards the complex choreography she deserves--favoring five or six patented Fosse silhouettes instead. 


Jesse Farmer is a funnier and more charming Pippin than we have seen. His comic timing is impeccable and his delivery is genuine, though a few of the score’s (ridiculously) higher notes evade his grasp. In his best performance to date, Douglas Kapp proves a scene-stealer as the laughably pontifical King Charles. Amy White tackles the extended dance solo in “Spread a Little Sunshine” and easily finds the humor in Fastrada’s asides, but the role feels undersold next to Kapp. Molly Hamelin balances sweet and salty as ingenue Catherine and Rebecca Johnston is a winningly resilient Berthe, easily earning the audience’s affection. 


Dancers Sarah Preston and Carlie Huberman execute Hamilton’s athletic choreography with precision and athleticism--even climbing circus-esque aerial silks. The famous hat-and-cane Mansion Trio section of “Glory” (featuring Richards, Preston, and Huberman) is less impressive than it could be, given the obvious capabilities of these dancers.  Nic Sanchez and Lawson Walker alternate in the role of young Theo. We had the great pleasure of seeing Sanchez tackle the role with bravery, focus, and a lovely voice.


While some vocal solos are a bit unsteady, the ensemble numbers are solidly rousing, thanks to Anderson’s focus on tight harmonies, backed by her spectacular band. Likewise, director Patrick Torres keeps these large-scale pieces thrilling and dynamic. This duo creates a hauntingly embracing “Magic to Do,” a church camp sing-along “No Time at All,” and an operatically choral “Morning Glow.” When Torres’s full ensemble is on stage, he can do no wrong, save a cleverly-devised but ultimately incoherent “battle of the chairs” sequence.


Pippin is quite a dragon to slay--for any theatre company. Torres and company get most of it right: acting, music, and costuming are all on-point. And, most importantly, Torres’s always effective fusion of lightness and darkness. 


Photo by Areon Mobasher Photography.

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White ★★★★1/2

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Bulldog Ensemble Theater

Durham Fruit & Produce Company

DURHAM, NC

May 23 - June 9, 2019


by Dustin K. Britt

June 1, 2019


RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5)


In his 2018 play, White, Carolina-born playwright James Ijames is not a surgeon slicing carefully into the nuances of race, gender, and sexuality in the art world. Rather, he carries a sledgehammer, taking out the chair legs holding up a comfy, complacent, and proudly Woke audience.


The one-act satire features black actress Vanessa, played by an indomitable and electric Monét Noelle Marshall in one of the year’s finest triangle performances. Vanessa reluctantly collaborates with contemporary painter Gus (an earnest Jordan Clifton, a cisgender gay white man who uses Vanessa to gain fame and fortune in the art world. Gus’s Asian boyfriend Tanner (a tender, but guarded Raely Qiu) calls out the painter for his exploitation. Schmoozing, champagne-guzzling gallery curator Jane (a transcendentally hilarious A.C. Donohue) fancies herself a Woke White Woman, but that facade does not last since she, like Gus, fetishizes black women’s bodies and voices.


In perfect gay white boy style, the clueless Gus frequently snaps and struts all over the stage like a drag queen. Vanessa, speaking Ijames’s inimitable words, puts the clueless queen on blast:


“Let me play double-dutch with the black girls on the playground cause they make me feel all empowered and fierce. They can teach me fun comebacks and how to wag my finger and I can be just as fierce and fabulous as them, but without the burden of actually being a black girl.”


This is a decades-old phenomenon that continues to go unchecked. Straight white women and gay white men watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and Paris is Burning and think we understand the marginalization of damn near every other minority on earth. 


America documents and deifies cis gay white male activists like Larry Kramer and Harvey Milk, but overlooks revolutionists like black trans woman Marsha P. Johnson and Latina trans woman Sylvia Rivera: the ones that punched cops in the face at Stonewall in 1969. 


True to its name, White’s production’s design--suggesting a modern art gallery--is stark. Pamela Ford’s costumes give a welcome burst of color on the mostly-white landscape, but patchy lighting hides Michelle Davis Petelinz’s artwork and occasionally actors’ faces. A performer’s address to stage manager Johanna Rose Burwell adds an appropriate sense of artificiality to the art world. 


Bold director JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell has eschewed subtlety in favor of a broadly playful and exaggerated tone, allowing Ijames’s words to explode unimpeded. No syllable goes unheard. This director does not stifle her staging or her cast for the sake of “playing” social commentary. She balances the grounded with the surreal and we never question the reality of her world, even when surreal turns unreal in the play’s breathtaking and haunting final moments.


Ijames addresses five dissertations worth of social content in this remarkable and challenging play. But if there is one takeaway, it is this: many of us have become racial tourists, visiting the museum of black women’s history just long enough to swing through the gift shop and pick up a few shiny injustices to wear. Each is etched with the words I’m Not Racist, But.


Photo by Alex Maness

(L to R) Jordan Clifton and Monét Noelle Marshall 

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