Annual "Britt's Picks" Best-of List - Facebook Live - December 17 at 8:00 PM
Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre
March 16 - April 1, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
March 26, 2018
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
Passing through the elegantly remodeled Gaddy-Goodwin lobby, one enters a storybook world designed by Elizabeth Newton. A village of humans, giants, and barnyard creatures are putting a few subtle twists on Jack’s classic fairy tale adventure in Beanstalk! The Musical!
Under the lively direction of Kathleen Rudolph, the hour-long 10-song children’s play stirs noticeable excitement in its young audience, who bounce and call out when danger is near.
Lighting designer Cailen Waddell uses the Gaddy’s new LEDs to strong effect, even if the giant’s castle in the sky is tough to light. Jenny Mitchell’s costumes are the show’s technical highlight, with imaginative anthropomorphic creations in addition to some fairy tale standards.
The play is certainly for kids, with simple songs and 1-2-3 storytelling. It’s up to the cast to sell the heightened reality of the world created by writers Ross Mihalko & Donna Swift and composer Linda Berg and keep things engaging.
While some cast don’t quite live up to the story’s Larger Than Life reputation, there are several notable standouts:
George Russing is thrillingly expressive as one of the duo of narrators while Cole McFaden’s Potpourri Merchant is fabulously sassy. Dan Bain is expressive both in face and voice as The Giant, while Zoe Wright embodies the Hen with amusing accuracy. The show’s standout is Ellie Faggion, whose diva Harp is beautifully sung and boldly acted.
The trio of young Jacks (he disguises himself upon each journey up the beanstalk) are each effective in their own way: Joshua Messmore with his perfectly-timed delivery, Noah Zimmermann with his goofy physical expressions, and Matthew Bain with his genuineness and sweet voice.
While it verges into School Play territory in terms of execution and writing, and some of the technical magic falls flat, Beanstalk! The Musical! proves to be drawing packed houses of eager families, who leave satisfied and humming along.
Photo By Jeannine Borzello.
March 23, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
March 25, 2018
RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Anthony Jeselnik, a 39-year-old Pittsburgh native, swaggers arrogantly onto the stage, almost daring you to heckle the lanky, scruffy slacker. If you don’t already know, he’s going to spend the next hour convincing you he’s a complete asshole. And he’ll succeed. Fans will laugh and cheer at his amoral stances, sexist attitudes, racist remarks, and advocacy of child abuse.
Fans will laugh because we understand what’s really going on here: Anthony Jeselnik The Stage Comic is merely a persona.
A master of ironic misdirection, Jeselnik takes great pride in the one-two punch of surprisingly you with cleverness and offending you with his hotter than hot takes on some of our most sacred topics.
His trademark laidback cockiness serves as wink to the astute observer that he, in fact, is creating a character that you’ll love to hate--a scapegoat for all of the kinds of people that good left-leaning creative types loathe. We can finally laugh at the ridiculousness of some of the most radical and conservative (or sociopathic) viewpoints we hear on the news every day.
The persona makes him palatable, and excuses most offenses, while the misdirections earn the laughs that we’d otherwise be ashamed to let out.
Many are perfectly innocuous:
“My sister had a baby to try and save the relationship.”
“But I still don’t talk to her.”
It’s that (pause) that makes it work. Both statements are made with equally disassociated delivery, as though recalling a rather mundane incident at the DMV. He sets up the pins slowly and methodically before he strikes, destroying all expectations.
“Never snatch out a kid’s glass eye.”
“In case you guess wrong.”
“Just slap them on the back of the head.”
The one-two-three punch is perhaps his trademark. Similar to comic Amy Schumer (whom he dated for a time), his punchlines actually serve as setups.
But when the setup goes into darker territory (abortion, suicide, AIDS, child abuse), each laugh can become a guilty one. And some patron’s will turn on him. If you don’t appreciate (or simply don’t understand) this type of semantic sorcery, you’re likely to call him all sorts of names.
“Did you know that there are more slaves on earth now than ever before?”
“You think your job is hard?”
“Imagine counting slaves for a living.”
Set it up, knock it down. Is he mocking slaves? Of course not. Is he mocking slavery? Again, no. What he’s doing is playing against your expectations. It’s all sleight-of-hand. “Look here at this value of yours,” he seems to say. While holding it before your eyes, his other hand sneaks around and punches you in the side.
I cannot print 90% of what he said at the Carolina Theatre that night (keep your kids far, far away). A ten minute piece on murder-suicides (his “favorite kind of suicide”) or an epic 15-minute finale re: a visit to the abortion clinic (“the waiting room magazines are awful”) follow his pattern, but the stakes are raised.
His “screw what you think” delivery is abrasive, sure. But his content is mathematical and carefully crafted. While not every joke is uproarious (some are downright unfunny), it’s still fun to watch an expert bowler at work.
I’ll leave you with this:
“Once I dropped a baby.”
“I scooped it back up before anybody could notice.”
“It was a close one. I had to run down three flights of stairs.”
Photo courtesy Carolina Theatre of Durham.
Memorial Hall, University of North Carolina
CHAPEL HILL, NC
March 20, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
March 24, 2018
RATING: 5 stars (out of 5)
Collectors of classical recordings may know the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields best for their 1969 best-selling recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Film buffs have undoubtedly heard their thrilling work on the soundtrack of Milos Forman’s 1984 Oscar-winner Amadeus.
The Academy famously operates on a play-directed basis. Rather, they often perform without an individual conductor. They breathe as one, each heart beat in sync, and use an incredible sense of rhythm and musical dialogue to guide themselves--and each other--through performances of some of the world’s best-known symphonic and chamber repertoires.
Since its inaugural concert in 1958--at its namesake church--Sir Neville Marriner’s passion project has soared across the world, from New York to Beijing, with fresh and highly energized interpretations. You have not heard a symphony until you have heard it played live by the Academy.
Since 1958, only two individuals have held the position of Musical Director at the Academy. Sir Neville himself, of course, followed by Joshua Bell, who took the reigns in 2011. An accomplished Grammy-winning violinist in his own right, Bell served on President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities and has strived to provide arts education to underserved communities around the world.
Serving as the leading violin soloist, Bell brought an invigorating and glorious program to UNC’s Memorial Hall last week, playing to a worshipful and sold-out crowd of adoring fans. No rock star has received such a thunderous welcome.
The evening was dedicated to the work of Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
His bow held aloft, Bell serves as a pseudo-conductor, giving appropriate starts and guiding the Academy through trickier shifts in time. The program begins with Mendelssohn’s magical Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21.
The staccato strings open the piece quietly and sneakily--bows quivering imperceptibly, before rounding the corner with full force, the winds in assertive support. Following Bell’s lead, the string section are as athletic as any acrobatic troupe, nearly leaping from their seats as they rapidly poked the heavenly muses with the ends of their bows during strong martelés. For those that know Shakespeare’s play well, sounds of the woodland fairies, the Athenian court, and the playful mechanicals can all be heard and felt in turn as the overture progresses.
Unimpeded by any amplification, the audience is treated to an awesome sound, the quite familiar movements of the Midsummer overture executed brilliantly and warmly--something unachievable outside of a concert hall.
A substantially reduced ensemble tackled what proved to be the evening’s most impressive rendering: Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major.
Conducting with the bow, Bell meets Mozart--his challenger it would seem--on his feet. I doubt he could have sat still for long in any case. Bell dances with his violin, swaying to and fro, rising to his tip-toes to match higher pitches, bending his knees to hold steady, and leaning forward, almost encouraging the violin. In the first movement, his fingers are a blur as his face contorts--a combination of ecstasy and pain. He is mischievous and curious in his expression, dipping the violin as if dancing. His double stops capture harmonies that only an accomplished musician can.
He holds at the rests, reveling in the tension, and darts his eyes at the audience and his ensemble as if to say “watch this.” An enthusiastic, lengthy standing ovation follows the conclusion of this piece, which closes with an extended sequence of original, flamboyant cadenzas by Bell.
The program’s second half consisted of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, “Pastoral.”
In the appropriately titled “Pastoral,” one can immediately hear the influence on Aaron Copland’s rousing evocations of the American natural landscape. One can also detect the influence on Beethoven of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and La Silvia, equally redolent of nature.
The ensemble is noticeably reveling in this piece. Exclusively play-directed, the Academy is at its most united. The french horns are bold and the cellos fire on all cylinders as a beehive of polyrhythms--extremely difficult to execute without a conductor--are played flawlessly.
The program culminates with a fiery seastorm, heavily reliant on timpani and the cellos, building to a climax of thunder, lightning, wind, and rain. It is here that we see bow hairs begin to detach and fly away as the strings saw for their survival.
Given Bell’s string expertise, it is no wonder that he chose a strings-heavy program, something at which The Academy has no peer. They produce immense power and vivacity without sacrificing precision. One could not wish for a finer concert, as proved by the five curtain calls demanded by the audience.
March 9 - 25, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
March 23, 2018
RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)
With lively direction and exuberant choreography by Liz Grimes Droessler, North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s staging of Ain’t Misbehavin’ scores higher marks that one might have expected.
The 1978 revue, based on the swinging piano tunes of Thomas “Fats” Waller, challenged book writers Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr. to develop a through-line that could sustain nearly two hours of nonstop--and seemingly unrelated--songs.
Luckily for the plotless musical, Waller’s music needs no excuse. With clever lyrics by a bevy of writers, the show is known for the numbers’ exaggerated vaudevillian style, highlighting the comedy and tragedy of each. With each musical vignette existing in its own separate universe, it is up to Droessler to find a common language.
With Marshall Butler’s airtight harmonies and rollicking band laying an impressive groundwork, Droessler borrows from older productions’ antics: jealous lovers and competing showboaters carrying on unspoken stories during the songs. She’s also invigorated the staging with amusing choreography and clowning that plays to each actors’ strengths.
On Thomas Mauney’s elegant but mismatched set (unaided by a horribly glaring and omnipresent projection of the show’s logo) a capable and diverse ensemble strutted and sweated for nearly two hours of nonstop singing and dancing.
When there is this much talent in the area, why limit oneself? Of the two rotating quintets of actors--the Blue Cast and the Green Cast--I was able to catch the former on Thursday night. The always-impressive Tina Morris-Anderson never missed a note, channeling Ma Rainey as she swung between the perky “Cash For Your Trash” and the wounded “Mean To Me.”
Aya Wallace creates the show’s most intriguing character: a fearless Bette Midler-type would-be diva. She has the crowd roaring during her faux-opera, tulle-wrapped rendition of “When The Nylons Bloom Again” and her precise comedic timing during interstitial moments.
Droessler’s detailed staging and the acting/vocal pairing of Morris and Wallace makes “Find Out What They Like” a comedic and musical highlight of the evening.
An indefatigable Chanda Branch brings Carol Burnett's fearless goofiness to the stage with marijuana-induced shenanigans during “The Viper’s Drag” before proving her vocal chops in the bittersweet “Keepin’ Out of MIschief Now.”
Juan Isler commands the audience with some welcome interactions, though some of his ad libs are decidedly anachronistic or a touch too mean to his co stars. He has an impressive vocal range and earns the evening’s largest laughs with “Your Feet’s Too Big.”
Spencer E. Jenkins proves the hardest working man in showbusiness, practically leaping into the stratosphere with a comic energy worthy of variety road acts like The Rabbit’s Foot Company. Though he sometimes struggles with projection and diction, Jenkins is superbly entertaining and always genuine. His stoned master of ceremonies in “The Viper’s Drag” is one of the show’s masterworks.
Some of the show’s most memorable moments are those without foolery. Droessler respects the sublime vocal arrangements of “Black And Blue,” having her actors sit perfectly still and letting the song and voices do the work. The show needs more of these moments, however, with incessant movement and “bad singing” used too frequently for laughs, making numbers like “The Jitterbug Waltz” lose their musicality.
The visibility of the band is a fitting choice for a show about its music and the lighting scheme strikes a pleasant contrast between the upstage pit and the foreground action. The exaggerated costumes add terrific color, with campy accessories for physical comedy bits.
Vince Moss’s rapidfire drumming is less impactful on an electric kit, but his skills still shine through. I could feel the accomplished basswork of David West shaking the floorboards all night, giving Jeffrey Gutcheon and William Elliott’s arrangements an extraordinary punch.
Pianist Craig Johnson is one of the show’s brightest stars, echoing Fats Waller’s playful style while adhering to a profoundly complicated piano arrangement. When the productions second keyboardist, Ronzel Bell, proved unavailable on Thursday night, Johnson proved more than capable of taking on the challenge and the show never suffered.
The cast, female vocalists in particular, never rely on amplification to sell their songs. Though we miss the energy of an all-acoustic band, the small enclosure that is the NRACT auditorium demands that we go electronic in order to get a tolerable sound mix.
Save losing the men’s voices at times, this proves to be one of the best sound mixes at any NRACT show I’ve experienced--largely because Butler’s singers are projecting and selling their songs through the air, not through the speakers. Area performers, please take note.
Photo courtesy of North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre.
Page-Walker Arts & History Center
March 16 - 25, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
March 20, 2018
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
There’s a good reason that Jean-Paul Sartre did not name his play No Exit: getting out is not the point.
He named it huis clos--more akin to the phrase “behind closed doors.” It’s less about the leaving than it is about being constantly watched.
An examination of Sartre’s notion of “the look,” wherein the presence of another person forces you to see yourself through their eyes, No Exit traps three strangers in a room for all eternity. Relationships evolve and devolve, truths and lies are told, and each experiences his or her own emotional torment at the hands of the others.
Director and co-producer Kurt Benrud has chosen a splendid location to stage the work: the attic-sized third floor of the historic Page-Walker Hotel. In-the-round staging and the low ceiling ensnare the trio and keep the action close. The crucial locked door, however, is recessed into the wall, making it invisible to much of the audience.
The set, designed by Cole Russing, is simple, suitable, and mostly true to Sartre’s descriptions. With a play this well-known and this old, strong choices are necessary. The production’s boldest decision--the use of backlit silhouettes to help illustrate the characters’ haunting visions--is sadly ineffective as the images do not connect clearly to the verbal descriptions. Their use is inconsistent as actors sometimes reference them directly and, at other times, simply ignore them and stare into space (a better choice, frankly). David Serxner’s costume designs and Anna Benrud Talley’s hair and makeup styles reinforce the play’s original 1944 setting.
Thom Haynes has a handful of strong moments as cowardly Garcin, but is often underplaying it, especially in the early scenes. Joanna Herath embodies her character’s physicality with great confidence, but her full-throttle delivery makes us grow weary of the sadistic Inez long before we should. The pair seem to be in two simultaneous, but completely different, productions of the play. Melanie Simmons, on the other hand, finds a suitable middle ground, playing the snobbish Estelle with terrific honesty and nuance. Oddly, Simmons’ performance seems more in line with the intense Inez character and Herath’s more like the flamboyant Estelle. Even their costumes seem switched. Our fourth player, Angela Callahan, remains controlled as the Valet, but the reason for her English accent is unclear.
Benrud communicates the play’s themes with ease and keeps his actors in motion to minimize audience fatigue. But at nearly two hours, the piece does grow tedious around the third quarter, especially with no intermission (though this is the right choice for this play). For a company with limited resources that convenes only occasionally, Pequod Productions’ No Exit, while far from perfect, is a relatively strong showing.
Photo courtesy Pequod Productions.
Mystery Brewing Company
March 16-18, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
March 16, 2018
RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
“There’s always a killer, so logically someone has to die.”
For its inaugural production, Two-Way Street Theatre has chosen Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash’s 2012 one-act rock opera Murder Ballad. This is not a whodunnit, but rather a whosgonnadoit. And to whom?
Greta Zandstra directs a bold, fearless quartet of actor-singers as they recount the lusty twists and turns of quarreling lovers--culminating in an ending befitting the title.
Zandstra eschews the prescribed performance area in Mystery Brewing Company’s brewery, staging the piece right by the bar, the audience nearby. The staging, like the score and the storyline, is in perpetual motion. Music director and pianist Joanna Li has done magnificent work here, ensuring that her cast find the rock-and-roll passion needed to communicate the story, while still respecting the vocal score and keeping harmonies airtight.
Violinist Trev Wignall and percussionist Andrea Dreier join Li, forming an impressive trio that play with vivacity and precision. Lighting designer Sean Powell has hung a mere ten theatrical lights from the brewery’s rafters, which have proven more than sufficient to take us superbly through the play’s myriad settings and highlight its many intense moments. Mira Horowitz runs through the show’s rapid-fire lighting cues without hiccups.
As the Narrator, Elizabeth Quesada serves as a Cabaret-like master of ceremonies, both commenting upon and interacting with the story. Quesada’s epic voice and devastating emotional performance draw the audience in song-by-song until we, too, become overwhelmed by the drama.
Aaron Alderman, as the hostile Tom, is at once charming and terrifying. Alderman brings powerful vocals, intuitive acting, and an imposing physicality to the role. Christopher Maxwell plays the well-grounded Michael with terrific sensitivity and subtlety while off-Broadway actor Samantha Matthews makes her triangle debut as Sarah--a role whose emotional complexities and demanding vocal part she tackles with great finesse.
The the plot leans on some well-worn tropes, and some of the characters’ inner thoughts--Sarah’s in particular--are given more stage time than is warranted. Still, the haunting and ever-evolving score, plus a unique perspective on murder mysteries, result in an immensely engrossing 80-minutes or so of live theatre. Zandstra’s imaginative direction is icing on an already well-baked cake.
Photograph courtesy of Two-Way Street Theatre.
March 9 - 25, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
March 16, 2018
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
There’s an old Hollywood aphorism that every movie is really three: the one you write, the one you shoot, and the one you edit.
The final product is rarely identical to what was yanked out of the typewriter. Often for the better. But not always. Sometimes the director simply doesn’t like (or doesn’t trust) the screenplay and decides to make it something different.
Sonorous Road is presenting Allan Maule’s tightly plotted and comical one-act thriller Framing the Shot, newly revised to star a pair of women instead of a duo of dudes. Dramatically different from his more recent work, the video game-inspired EverScape, this play reads as the love child of Neil Simon and Alfred Hitchcock. However, director Ira David Wood IV reads it as a Three Stooges film, bursting at the seams with unnecessary drunken antics--though he certainly keeps things interesting. Like a pageant parent, he forces the play--straightforward and unassuming--into a gaudy outfit that screams of insecurity.
Michelle Murray Wells keeps the production from jumping off the rails, with an honest, unshowy portrayal of would-be assassin Nicola’s internal crises. Comedic mastermind Lorelei Lemon earns routine explosions of laughter from a delighted and mesmerized audience as she clowns through the show as Terri. Her delivery is marvelously funny, but some of the clowning feels forced by the director and does not match the play’s tone. Patrick Whalen appears as mobster-type Lance, his interpretation landing tonally between the two leading ladies, combining wit and danger--somewhere closer to where the production should be.
Populated by Denver Skye’s many props, Vivian Chiang’s unerring studio apartment set suits the play well, lit dramatically by Anthony Buckner, who continues to be Sonorous’s greatest technical asset, doing much to paint the stage with light, even with a limited palate. Stage manager Denver Skye runs the hectic show with commendable precision. Sound designers Shelley Snapp and Anthony Buckner do magnificent work integrating Alexa--Amazon’s revolutionary in-home A.I. system--into the show, though this gimmick, absent from Maule’s script, does little to support the storytelling. Rachel McKay’s costumes are well-suited, from Nicola’s badass assassin’s gear to Terri’s childlike sneakers.
Fight director Heather Strickland concocts an impressive knockabout fight (cue “Yackety Sax”), though I cannot find justification for Wood’s need to ravage an otherwise suitable, believable climax.
Despite nonsensical and self-indulgent direction, the production’s bold performances, Maule’s suspenseful and clever script, and a competent design team make Framing the Shot an entertaining, if bizarre, experience.
Photograph by Rachel Pottern Nunn.
Rubenstein Arts Center
March 8 - 10, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
March 15, 2018
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
“What is art?” is not a new question. Nor, I would argue, a particularly useful one. We can philosophize about audience perception and artist’s intention all we like. But what happens when non-human intelligence interferes with the process?
Self-taught composer Bill Seaman has spent years working with a form called recombinant poetics. The broad idea is not hard to grasp: a collage of computer-generated elements is used to create a new kind of poetry. When it works--and all of the randomized elements serendipitously fall into place--meaning emerges. When it does not work, it reads more like a 2 year old playing with magnetic fridge poems.
Seaman employs Duke University and the Rubenstein Arts Center as his latest poetic techno-lab, collaborating with composer and Duke professor John Supko and director-designer Jim Findlay to program an opera that evolves and morphs from moment to moment--performance to performance--based on the indiscriminate output of a computer.
The eight impressive vocalists of the all-women Lorelei Ensemble have perfected the delivery of Seaman’s minimalist score--around twenty minutes in length. They know the choreography--paths of seemingly unplanned, robotic movement.
What they do not know is the libretto. The computer will provide that.
Having fed a seemingly infinite series of words, images, and something akin to Google image search data, the creators stand back and watch the terminal spit out and project new combinations that surprise both the performers and the audience.
Standing before transparent projection screens, the ensemble stand attentive as a flurry of potential words scrolls past them like a wheel of fortune. Where she’ll stop nobody knows, but when a word finally lands before a singer’s eyes, she matches the word with the learned score and full sentences are formed word-by-word.
In a frightening Orwellian manner, the computer is teaching a new libretto to the singers as they perform and controlling what they say and do. We are experiencing design, composition, rehearsal, and performance happening simultaneously and in real time.
An impressive feat, and one ably handled by the ensemble. We watch this presentation four times over the course of the 90-minute performance. It takes a round or two of this process for the audience to fully realize the rules of this game. By the end, I wondered if I might not be able to perform it myself (though it would not sound very good).
Word and image randomly align to create entirely new meanings--perhaps never spoken or read before. Sometimes one must really stretch the imagination to bridge connections between the interweaving elements. But every once in a while the choreography, lighting, projection, narration, and lyric all slide into place, interlocking to form a perfectly-turning gear that powers the opera and keeps us guessing and yearning for more.
Though the delivery is randomized, there is a mandatory sequence of steps in place, lest the entire performance devolve into meaningless chaos.
Watching four iterations of the identical structure--and identical score--grows tedious at times, and the 90 minutes can feel like 180.
It is the methodology, not the content, that makes this work interesting. Its purported intent--communicating a tragic allegory for survival in the modern age--is hardly the takeaway.
We are much more interested in what the computer is doing than the humans. The score and choreography are engaging and commands attention for no more than two iterations, while the imagery and its interaction with the libretto keep the presentation afloat.
If I had gone in blind to the modus operandi, I’d never have survived the repetition. THE_OPER& feels more like a multimedia gallery installation than an opera and, though a worthwhile and inventive game of “what happens next,” I cannot say I’d like a rematch.
Photo courtesy of Duke Performances.