Annual "Britt's Picks" Best-of List - Facebook Live - December 17 at 8:00 PM
Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio
May 11 - 27, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
May 20, 2018
RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)
It would be easy to analyze Dry Powder through an economic lens. I’m not sure, though, that playwright Sarah Burgess really cares about the world of finance. The rapid-fire outpouring of private equity lingo proves that fact. The audience cannot, and should not be able to understand the precise nuances of the firm’s dealings.
Burgess builds her play upon a MacGuffin-like foundation where the points are made up and the rules don’t matter: a debate over potential business models. But the real story happens between the lines: decision-making is driven entirely by biases.
This play is--figuratively--a case of greed v. altruism, KMM Capital Management President Rick presiding. Arguing for greed is Jenny, thirtysomething co-managing director of KMM. Arguing for altruism is Seth, the other thirtysomething co-managing director of KMM. They are Katherine and Petruchio without the romance.
An imposing and expressive Dan Oliver plays the reactive Rick, who must decide whether his firm chooses to protect workers or toss them overboard for a higher profit.
A fierce Michelle Murray Wells plays the indefatigable and fiscally-minded Jenny, who stands on one principle: her job is to make money for KMM. Period. Collateral damage be damned. She’s an omelette maker, and there will be eggshells.
A sincere Chris Hinton plays the insistent Seth, who argues that deals should be mutually beneficial for all parties, if slightly less profitable. All of this is to convince the irresolute CEO Jeff--played with extensive ebullience by Allan Maule--to accept the firm’s buyout offer.
A case of man v. woman is also before the court. Misogyny pops its head into the workplace conversation every now and then to remind Jenny that her employment status is always precarious. And that she has something to prove.
Burgess avoids making this a play about sexism in the workplace, choosing instead to illustrate its ongoing presence in the office. Jenny is routinely interrupted, condescended to, corrected (usually incorrectly), and shamed by her male boss and coworker in ways that could easily go unnoticed by most passers-by. “I apologize” has crept into her vocabulary, continually slipping out with a frightening lack of effort.
Mark Filiaci’s direction is spry, befitting a Wall Street environment. Vivian Chang’s minimalist set--six cubes and a single table--signify a handful of locations. Lighting designer Anthony Buckner starts the play with an unpleasant icy blue palate which gradually warms as the story progresses. As the lighting warms, a projected image gradually fades up, achieving full visibility by the play’s end. Both moves are almost certainly intended as symbolic, but are more perplexing than enhancing.
The play is neither a dark comedy or a political drama. It lands somewhere between The Big Short and What We’re Up Against as far as theme and tone. You needn’t be a financial wizard to enjoy it, but don’t blink or you’ll miss something vital. A few scenes drag as Burgess belabors some points, but the cast--driven by character-oriented direction--enlivens a play that could easily have been a dry, lifeless treatise on corporate greed. If the Sonorous Road Repertory Company can bring this play to life, I anticipate relatively smooth sailing for the new group.
Photo courtesy of Sonorous Road Theatre.
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
May 17 - 20, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
May 19, 2018
RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)
In collaboration with the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, under music director Lorenzo Muti, Carolina Ballet has chosen to end its 20th season with Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.
Though not a particularly outside-the-box selection, director-choreographer Robert Weiss has still manages to breathe new life into a nearly 700-year-old tale of light and dark. The audience brings with us a bevy of Disney-tainted images: the tall blonde Aurora waltzing with forest critters, a trio of maternal fairies keeping house, and a treacherous spinning wheel lying in wait for a victim’s finger.
These impressions echo much of what is seen in this ballet, but the presentation is different enough to command our attention, though the exhausting third act (The Wedding Celebration) needed a fair share of trimming long ago. Marius Pepita’s original choreography--with additional material by Weiss--goes against the grain of expectation.
Under the baton of Alfred E. Sturgis, the fully visible orchestra delivers Tchaikovky’s dynamic score with tremendous energy and volume. Harpist Laura Byne, percussionists Krista Siachames and Scott Pollard, and oboists Bo Newsome and Anna Lampidis brought some of Tchaikovsky’s most intriguing work to life.
Principal dancer Margaret Severin-Hansen dances Princess Aurora with physical weightlessness and emotional weight. Her movements precise, her face brimming with emotion, the rest of the world fades away upon each entrance.
The adaptation includes quite a menagerie. Amanda Gerhardt’s brief turn as the fluttering Canari is bright and stirring while Rammaru Shindo’s Blue Bird is robustly fervent. Maxmilian Isaacson and Carmen Felder are definitely crowd pleasers as a pair of comical gambolling felines.
Randi Osetek’s regal Lilac Fairy, Courtney Schenberger’s poised Princess Florine, Richard Krusch’s lively Prince Désiré, and Kiefer Curtis’s prancing Cavalier step to the front of the ensemble with inventively choreographed and sharply executed solos. Unfortunately, much of the male corps appear underrehearsed, a few dancers falling routinely out of sync.
Most memorable are the villainous Carabosse (Lindsay Purrington) and her Raven attendant (Yevgeny Shlapko). Backed by a terrific and gigantic dragon puppet, the two make a devious, wicked pair of magical antagonists. The choreography is at once menacing, spry, and dryly amusing. The duo’s performances are entertaining beyond measure and truly the highlight of this ballet.
Resident scenic designer Jeff A.R. Jones transports us from the palace court to the ornate royal gardens. Then to the enchanted forest and back again. His lavish painted backdrops are worthy of their own exhibition and are reflected in Ross Kolman’s dramatic and highly saturated lighting. David Heugvel’s shimmering costumes are at once dazzling and consistent with fairy tale imagery.
Though the tale be old, and some sequences drawn-out, the surprising choreography, vivid design, and inventive composition make Sleeping Beauty an impressive conclusion to the Carolina Ballet’s china anniversary.
Photo courtesy of Carolina Ballet.
Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre
May 11 - June 3, 2018
(includes four added performances)
by Dustin K. Britt
May 18, 2018
RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
The year is 1970. The place is Oxford, North Carolina. A group of white men have murdered a 23-year Vietnam veteran. He was a black man. His name is Henry “Dickie” Marrow.
What follows--trials, riots, boycotts, sermons--will be investigated and reported by Duke professor Dr. Timothy B. Tyson, who witnessed the Oxford fallout firsthand.
The result, the autobiography Blood Done Sign My Name, will publish in 2004. In 2008 North Carolinian and actor-playwright Mike Wiley will adapt the book and present it as a solo stage performance. In May 2018 Raleigh Little Theatre will produce a newly-expanded and fully-cast version.
Wiley’s new script is dynamic, with interwoven storylines and criss-crossing time periods. The awkwardly abrupt endings of both Act One and Act Two are the only notable flaw--perhaps a directing fumble. Otherwise Joseph Megel’s captivating direction is at once frenetic and coherent.
Jenny Mitchell’s costume designs help clarify shifts in time without leaning on fashion cliches, while Sonya Drum’s clever set maximizes transition time with multipurpose benches. Dozens of short scenes materialize and vanish at breakneck speed with Cailen Waddell’s masterful lighting directing our focus. Stage manager Karyn Aberts maintains precision throughout.
The cast is prodigious, diverse, and synchronous. Sixth grader Benjamin Cashwell delivers an exceptionally promising performance as the boyhood version of narrator Tim Tyson--holding his own with the ensemble’s most veteran actors including Mark Phialas, who plays Older Tim with simplicity and truth.
Germona Sharp and Benaiah Barnes are stirring as activists Eddie McCoy and Ben Chavis. Standing by them in the fight for justice are Tim Tyson’s parents: minister Vernon (a splendidly understated Kevin Leonard) and Martha (an honest Hope Hynes Love). Maternal tough love comes in the form of Rosanna Allen (a no-nonsense Nickea Latrice) and Fannie (a spirited Alicia Whitfield).
Randy Jordan is striking as vile racist Robert Teel, his attitudes shared by his son Gerald (a fearless Matt Bain). Teel’s connection to the murder of Dickie Marrow (JuJuan Cofield) is undoubted. Juanda LaJoyce Holley, Scott Nagel, and Daniel P. Wilson tackle a bevy of characters both sympathetic and loathsome, though casting Mr. Nagel as the female Francis Taltton is a distractingly bizarre choice.
Wiley has been celebrated much this season. PlayMakers Rep’s triumphant staging of his Leaving Eden last month and RLT’s daring production of Blood Done Sign My Name prove that the praise is well-earned. Mike Wiley a playwright of the highest calibre, deftly rising to the challenges of both solo and ensemble storytelling.
Some of his choices--such as a staged KKK rally--will prove shocking to many, which is precisely as it should be. White supremacy is not some long-past aberration. The murder of young black men does not illustrate “who we used to be.” These horrors are as real as they have ever been. This is us. And it is ugly.
We live in a world where education and--as a result--empathy are actively undermined and disavowed. It is at the crossroads of education and empathy that Mike Wiley’s Blood Done Sign My Name stands strong.
Content warning: racist language, violence, and intense imagery.
Recommended for mature audiences.
Photo by Dennis Berfield.
May 10 - June 10, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
May 18, 2018
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
Guy is here to deliver--in a way--his own eulogy. The wheelchair-bound (or is he?) man has gathered us to witness an outpouring of disjointed thoughts and unnameable feelings in real time. His last 75 minutes on earth.
Derrick Ivey gives a career-defining performance as our eager but befuddled host. Playwright Will Eno has gone out of his way to make Guy appear scatterbrained and director Jeff Storer leans into the many uncomfortable pauses and unfinished thoughts. Perhaps the final firing synapses of a dying man.
Accompanying Guy on his final journey is hospice worker Lisa, played soundly and warmly by Lakeisha Coffey. Lisa participates in Guy’s presentation without judgement and Eno asks the audience to do the same.
This one act is surprisingly metafictional, involving the entire theatre and its occupants from the start. Ivey moves around far too much during the piece, seemingly quite needlessly. Ivey’s performance is so good that he could easily deliver Eno’s text without so much shuffling about.
Alex Maness enhances Guy’s narration with hyperrealistic sound effects and an engaging sequence of projections, which integrate nicely with Andrew Parks’s lighting. All this on Sonya Leigh Drum’s simple set: a meeting room in what appears to be a nursing home.
Guy’s numerous cognitive derailments add to the sense of mental disintegration and nudge us toward the play’s inevitable conclusion. We may be witnessing a man’s life flash before his eyes--scrambled though the images may be--before his death. Some of these moments, though, become tedious as Eno indulges in Annie Baker-like conversational realism without enough content to support the style.
Wakey, Wakey, in the end, serves as a celebration of one human’s existence. We know little about what Guy accomplished in his days on earth, but we get a glimpse of his attitude. With Lisa here to carry on his final, surprising wishes, the audience at Manbites Dog Theater is treated to a bittersweet farewell to both our leading character and the legendary Durham theatre company.
The Fruit, Mystery Brewing Company, and Culture Mill
DURHAM, HILLSBOROUGH, and SAXAPAHAW, NC
May 3 - 19
by Dustin K. Britt
May 12, 2018
RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
I cannot determine if director Jaybird O’Berski is insane, brilliant, or a combination of the two. In any case, he routinely creates for himself a world of striking contradictions, unafraid to grip a text and stretch it in opposite directions, even past the breaking point.
In writing 1622’s The Changeling, authors Thomas Middleton and William Rowley seemingly flipped a coin--tragedy on one side and comedy on the other--and switched between two plots with little logic, though always favoring a return to the safety of tragedy. “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” comes to mind. As a treacherous, carnal drama plays out in the Spanish city of Alicante, a nearby asylum houses a comic subplot rife with japes of madmen and fools. Unlike Hamlet, where comedy and tragedy are sublimely interwoven, The Changeling feels like two stories at odds.
In Little Green Pig’s latest concoction, director Jaybird O’Berski has surgically excised the comedic scenes from The Changeling and set them aside, giving them a play of their own, staged in a separate room. You, the spectator, choose your poison. Later, the two groups will be switched to view the yet unseen content.
I chose to attend “The Castle” side first, getting my tragedy out of the way early. In a dilapidated side room of The Fruit is a world of blacks, whites, and grays. The bleak, German Expressionist-inspired setting emerges from the minds of scenic designer Vanessa Mills and costume designer Jane Caradale. A silent live video feed gives us a view of the comedy show down the hall. Through very intriguing, this proves somewhat spoilerific.
Just as The Castle’s design plays in black and white, the characters are creatures of contrast. Alsemero (a hesitant Mara Thomas) is both asexual and lustful, while Beatrice Johanna (a stellar, nuanced Rebecca Bossun) is both sweet and scheming. The unsettling DeFlores (a formidable Shelby Hahn) is both doting and violent.
After an intermission, my fellow spectators and I switch places with the comedy room audience and journey to a large, brightly-lit room with a cabaret stage lit by Jaybird O’Berski and Erin Bell, who stage manages this event masterfully. Here in “The Club,” Victoria Bender’s 1980s Club Kid-inspired costumes and Anne Gregory-Bepler’s S&M-charged set design serve as a palate for unbridled burlesque. This whole new world is an uncomfortably technicolor circus.
The nightclub-nuthouse is run by the emcee Lord Monkey (a wonderfully outlandish Dale Wolf), who serves up insane magicians, musicians, and stand-up comics playing a game of bourgeois dress-up. The performers ask, “who is a fool and who is a madman? Is there a difference?” As the audience laughs, claps, and sings along with this sinister revelry, we must wonder: “who is spectator and who is spectacle? Is there a difference?” The juxtaposition of pain and pleasure, enthusiasm and confusion, calls to mind both Cabaret and Marat/Sade in equal measure.
Isabella (an unnervingly trance-like Victoria Bender), clad in Björk-like vogue, blandly recites Sophie Tucker sex jokes while sharing the stage with a vaudevillian duo: mad doctor Alibius (a controlled Ian Bowater) and downcast clown Lollio (a perfectly discomfiting Paul Deblinger). Musical director and pianist Ashley Willard leads this grotesque cavalcade of halfwit clowns, in what proves to be a presentation even more unsettling than the violent happenings back in The Castle.
The true ingenuity of O’Berski’s concept lies in the crossover of the two worlds. Characters, on occasion, literally invade the other show in subtle and explosive ways. More frequent occurrences would help solidify the concept. Moreover, there are (intentionally) unclear moments that click together satisfyingly once you’ve seen both halves and experienced all the crossovers. Given moments selected for crossover, this click would have been more satisfying if I discovered them in The Castle’s ending.
As Little Green Pig is wont to be, this production is unsettling, hysterical, and engrossing. And this time, in three different locations. But its level of unevenness is likely stronger than intended. The comedic half is filled with new material to fill time and sync its conclusion with the plot-heavy tragedy. The “choose your own adventure” structure provides for an exciting but disjointed evening, given the lack of clear connection between the two. The What and How of the two-show concept are riveting, but the Why remains uncertain.
But I will always value a fascinatingly enigmatic experience over a predictable, neatly concluded play. This is why we value Little Green Pig in the first place: they do something that's never been done before and that no one would be insane enough to try again.
Content Warning: Sexual Violence
Photo by Bull City Photography.
Fletcher Opera Theatre
May 4 - 20, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
May 9, 2018
RATING: 1.5 stars (out of 5)
This production, staged by North Carolina Theatre, works so hard--even in the pre-show speech--to convince its audience that we are at a genuine Janis Joplin rock concert. It tells us again and again and again that we should scream and get on our feet and “rock out, man.” If the production spent as much time being exciting as does telling us how excited we should be, it might not be quite so embarrassing.
Ryan O’Gara’s high-tech lighting design is perfect for a contemporary arena rock concert, which this is not. Brian Prather puts his set’s most emblematic visual--a brick wall awash with 1960s rock posters and graffiti--in the darkest back corners of the set: the remnants of a coherent design concept.
Elisa Acevedo does solid work with the production’s many period wigs while LeGrande Smith’s diverse costumes are the show’s strongest design element. Eric Alexander Collins provides a quality concert sound mix, though some might complain about the loudness of the vocals in a theatrical venue.
Music director Alex Prezzano has assembled an impressive roster of musicians, with particularly strong input from the brass trio of Fleming, Weiss, and Barrett. Drummer Jon Rossi energetically and ably keeps the show on tempo.
Paige McNamara--one of the two actors rotating as Janis--is obviously a strong vocalist and capable actress. Had she looked, acted, or sounded like Janis Joplin, she would have been perfect. But no actor could compensate for the lazy, uninformed, dispassionate writing: one of the worst musical theatre books I have ever encountered.
Creator and author Randy Johnson must have, at some point, read a Wikipedia article about Janis Joplin and decided to write a cabaret show about her. And the show is about Janis Joplin. This is not a night with anybody.
Johnson’s book, painfully redundant in its over explication of “the blues” does enormous disrespect to Joplin by ignoring the things that made her want to sing the blues. A single, thrown-away reference to “drug problems” (apparently cured, given McNamara’s overly lucid performance) minimizes Joplin’s years-long battle with drugs and alcohol. You may cry, “oh, but this is about her musical influences, not about her life!” But the life of the artist is inextricably linked to their work. Each influences the other. Joplin’s live performances were often SoCo-fueled, heroine-coursing master classes in anguish--expressed through a wailing, shattering voice rarely heard in this production (save, perhaps “Cry Baby”).
The trite, generic, unemotional anecdotes about life interrupt a much more interesting tale that is almost told: the influence of black, female blues singers on American popular music.
Aurianna Angelique is a resolute and jazzy Bessie Smith in “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and Tawny Dolley is an energetic (perhaps too much so) Etta James, leading the memorable “Tell Mama.” The show’s musical standout is “Today I Sing the Blues,” delivered with gusto and unbridled passion by Jennifer Leigh Warren.
Nattalyee Randall masters the style of two very different vocalists: the extravagant Aretha Franklin and the intimate Nina Simone. “Spirit in the Dark” would have been the show’s shining moment had Aretha not spend half of the song trying to shout the audience into participating.
Johnson has decided to direct his own play, preventing an objective party from shaping the script into a tolerable form or, even better, demanding a rewrite.
With some attractive design elements, an impressive supporting cast, and a phenomenal band, A Night with Janis Joplin just manages to keep its head above water. But the phrase “shut up and sing” comes to mind midway through the third monologue.
At the corner of Tacky Drag Show and Thursday Night Karaoke lives A Night with Janis Joplin. Those unfamiliar with Janis might be displeased with a night in which they learn nothing. Casual fans of Janis might be pleased with a night of fabricated, force-fed nostalgia. Her devotees, however, can’t help but wonder where she was all night.
Photo by Curtis Brown Photography.
Kenan Theatre at UNC
CHAPEL HILL, NC
April 25 - 29, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
May 7, 2018
RATING: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Written and performed by New York-based musical theatre actor Anne Torsiglieri, “A” Train, chronicles the author’s experiences raising a son with autism. Risa Brainin directs the play, which is still currently finding its legs.
Torsiglieri is a fearless and multitalented performer: singing, dancing, and storytelling in her own voice and of those she has interviewed: teachers, parents, and caregivers of individuals on the autism spectrum. And, on several occasions, those individuals themselves.
The metaphor-heavy script leads us through a minefield of differing viewpoints on autism and its causes, treatments, and characteristics. The author avoids the vaccination conversation altogether--perhaps wisely. That could be its own play.
Michael Klaers’ stunning and complex lighting designs takes the play up a notch. The set--a New York City subway platform--brings us into the mind of the author’s son--a lad more than a little obsessed with the city’s labyrinthine train system.
Unlike The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe or Latin History for Morons (Best Play Tony award nominee this year), Torsiglieri’s collection of characters are grounded firmly in reality and based on real accounts. She has neither the blessing or curse of ground-up character creation.
Watching Torsiglieri portray individuals with autism puts the play on shaky--though well-intentioned--ground. Her portrayals are varied and respectful, never mocking or condescending. But I still felt palpably uncomfortable whenever she became someone who was not seemingly neurotypical. Even with the permission of interviewees, and a wealth of experience with her own son, she cannot presume to be an authority on autism. And she does not claim to be.
In actuality, any interviewee’s autism (or lack thereof) is beside the point. She communicates all verbal and physical mannerisms as honestly as she can, regardless of any diagnosis.
Art curator and autism advocate Keri Bowers has assembled an impressive collection of paintings by artists on the Spectrum that are displayed during the performance. While this is an appropriate choice, it reads slightly as a mandatory commercial break for inclusive “due diligence.”
Unfortunately, Brad Carroll’s superfluous score feels hokey and a tad juvenile. Though showtunes are Torsiglieri’s personal interest, the use of songs as a storytelling device is unnecessary. Despite the sincerity of the writing and the nuances of performance, the production lacks innovation--feeling like another off-off-Broadway solo autobiography show.
The play needs some cuts and a clearer objective before it’s ready for mass consumption. This stop at the PRC² station will likely prove beneficial. I am curious to see where the “A” Train stops next.
Photo by HuthPhoto.
Meymandi Concert Hall
April 27-28, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
May 4, 2018
RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
With more operas, ballets, theatre adaptations, and film versions than Wikipedia can keep up with, another incarnation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet seems unnecessary, if not a downright waste of time. But Carl Forsman (faculty, University of North Carolina School of the Arts) and the folks at the North Carolina Symphony had an idea. Worthy of at least a phone call or two.
A fully-staged production of the play accompanied by a symphony orchestra. Some of the musical selections will be directly related to Romeo and Juliet (per authorial intent) and others are simply evocative. Considering the limited space between audience and orchestra, Forsman took great risk in staging a full production rather than a reading. The risk, as few do, paid off.
Conductor Grant Llewellyn, who interacts with the cast on occasion, carries the play through centuries of instrumental music. Some composers you may know: Puccini, Wagner, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Philip Glass. And there are those that you likely do not: Berlioz, Delius, Gabrieli, Kabalevsky, Pärt, and Saariaho. Each carefully-selected composition served one of two purposes: to underscore a scene’s content or to serve as storyteller in its own right.
Forsman’s surprised us all with several minutes of dialogue-free staging near the beginning of the play. After the recitation of the iconic prologue, the entire “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?” street fight was set to music alone: a ballet, with athletic fight choreography by Dale Girard.
Forsman and Llewellyn manage to stay out of each other’s way, working in tandem or in turn, depending on the need--never one outshining the other. Meymandi is not set up for full-scale theatrical productions per se, but the lighting design was impressive and far grander than I had expected, though some additional rehearsal would have helped actors remain lit.
With no set to speak of, actors moved swiftly through Forsman’s tight cut of the script, the orchestra often driving the actors to keep apace (stage directors, take note). Emily Brink’s costumes, with common-sense color coding of the two families, were elegant and ornate with strong silhouettes that could be easily seen from the balcony.
The UNCSA students, on the whole, showed tremendous promise; an ensemble who evidently understood the text they were speaking--a skill that many seasoned actors have yet to master. This was particularly true of Cricket Brown, who played Juliet with strength and abandon--never leaning into the pity party that we often see, proving a force to be reckoned with.
Nearly as forceful was Ben Weinswig, whose Romeo was satisfyingly charming and comical--unlike the glaze-eyed nimrod we sometimes see. The duo did not entirely sync, appearing as strangers through much of the play: perhaps the production’s notable flaw.
The company’s choices were bold. Dyer Rhoads’ Capulet switched from mildly cold father to blatantly enraged taskmaster in a matter of a few lines. It was certainly a strong choice (which I prefer over none at all) and justifiable due to limited stage time in which to explore the nuances. Still, it shocked the system perhaps more than Forsman intended.
Chris Holtkamp was a commanding and somehow mysterious Friar Laurence, while Gracey Falk was an exemplary Nurse, finding the requisite balances: tender-scolding and comical-tragic. Siena Werber was a confident, militant Mercutio, but overlooked opportunities for humor. Katie Weinstein, however, discovered humor at every turn, making Peter one of this production’s most memorable characters and by far the audience favorite.
Ladies Capulet (Sydney Endicott) and Montague (Claire Pruett) explored boundless grief, their presence garnering more attention than the two roles typically earn. Noah Crandell was a traditional Tybalt: the haughty swashbuckler. Malik Childs avoided a one-dimensional pacifistic Benvolio, favoring a far more uncertain loyal companion.
As Paris, David Lawrence moves about in a way that often elicits laughter when it shouldn’t, and Bailey Lee’s Prince is more sympathetic than authoritative. Again, a strong choice. Forsman’s recasting of Brother John as Sister Joan (Maddie Milligan) is a unique and welcome change.
In a world of Oh-Not-Again Romeo and Juliets, this iteration is inventive enough to prove itself worthy of production and, yes, hopefully reproduction. With perfect synchronicity of text, design, music, and performance, this joint venture has proven valuable. Might I suggest the music-layden Twelfth Night next?
Meymandi Concert Hall
April 29, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
May 4, 2018
RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)
Intended as a concert piece, North Carolina has presented Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila as such an event. The French grand opera, which premiered in 1877, was penned by creole librettist Ferdinand Lemaire and based on the Old Testament’s Book of Judges.
In its final chapters, the Book of Judges tells the story of Samson, who used his superhuman strength to slay the Philistine army. In retaliation, the Philistines hire Delilah to seduce Samson and cut his long hair--a violation of his holy vows--and Yahweh punishes him by revoking his power. After much praying from Samson, the ever-wrathful God of the Hebrews returns the Herculean strength, allowing the hero to single-handedly destroy the Temple of Dagon and its inhabitants.
Maestro Timothy Myers conducteds a splendid 52-piece orchestra, with a chorus of 47--under rigorous chorus master Scott Macleod--that ably supports this epic tale.
In French with English supertitles by Chris Bergen, knowledge of the story is imperative to understanding much of the plot. Because Lemaire forwent stage direction, the audience must rely fully on the sung text to ascertain the goings-on in Egypt. The score’s impressively clamorous conclusion suggests a catastrophe that only a written synopsis can explain. Several gaps in supertitles further reduce clarity.
Writing issues aside, North Carolina Opera’s company of musicians and singers is extraordinary. The chorus embodies the spirit of Egypt with a trio of soloists stepping forward. Special attention should be paid to up-and-comer D’André Wright, whose tenor voice cuts clearly through much of Saint-Saëns’ messier Philistine sequence.
Bass Hugh Russell continues to prove himself a consummate actor as well as singer as flustered governor Abimélech while Adam Lau’s resounding bass makes a tremendous impact with little time at the music stand. Bariton Mark Delavan delivers a fine performance as the High Priest of Dagon, but Saint-Saëns has not provided him with as dynamic a part as some others.
Vocally, mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens demands attention as Delilah--this opera’s only female soloist. She shines in the ever-popular "Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix,” a piece that recital attendees know well. Martens, though, makes it feel entirely new.
As the titular strongman, tenor Carl Tanner is an imposing Samson who find moments of sensitivity, especially in the tent duet with Martens.
A few momentary lapses choral-orchestral unity aside, the entire ensemble are stellar. The vocalists fit their roles perfectly--particularly important for an uncostumed work, where it is easier to identify characters. Any major flaws lay in Lemaire’s occasionally tedious libretto, not the concert itself--a rousing one indeed.
Though the human imagination is limitless, I am very interested to see a fully staged version of this classic. NC Opera may be just the company to do it.
Cary Arts Center
April 27 - May 6, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
May 2, 2018
RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Neil Simon’s 1968 comedy Plaza Suite has not aged particularly well. Its male-female relationship dynamics are decidedly sixties, including a stomach-churning scene in which a Hollywood producer humorously (?) attempts to seduce an old flame while pouring her endless vodka singers.
Cary Players saves this play from catastrophe by putting it into the hands of director Bruce Ackerman, who has put his faith in a worthy cast. With a strong acting ensemble and impressive designs, the production proves one of Cary Players’ better recent works overall.
As Karen and Sam, the first couple appearing in Plaza Hotel suite 719, Judie Bruno and John Geiger deliver some of Simon’s most heartbreaking material as their long marriage begins to crumble. Ackerman lets the opening pages of the act linger far too long and pauses are plentiful, getting things off to a slow start.
Next, Hollywood producer Jesse invites an old love interest to the same hotel suite, days later, to put “the moves” on her. Amanda Blake is pitch-perfect as the uncertain Muriel and mines what laughs she can given the awkwardness of the scene’s objective. Doug Simpson is straightforward as Jesse, attempting to undersell the Harvey Weinstein-esque sleaziness embedded unironically in Simon’s seductive (predatory) character.
The third act, commonly regarded as Plaza Suite’s strongest content, observes frantic mother-of-the-bride Norma and her exasperated husband Roy coaxing their nervous daughter out of the bathroom and down the aisle. Simon’s dialogue is more focused in this act, and does not spin its wheels as in the first two. Ackerman’s direction is nimble and tightly-paced and his two leads--a delightfully energetic Christine Rogers and a masterfully dry Jim O’Brien--play each moment masterfully.
Ian Robson’s scenic design and construction is sublime, capturing even the smallest details of a late 1960’s elegant hotel suite. Ann Marie Crosmun’s precise props help flesh out the setting while Ryann Norris’s lighting design ably incorporates practical lighting fixtures. Emily Johns’ costumes are appropriate and unshowy.
This production's lesser first two acts are worth wading through in order to reach the wonderfully funny third and final segment.
Photo by Scott M. Peters Photography