Annual "Britt's Picks" Best-of List - Facebook Live - December 17 at 8:00 PM
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
November 21 - 25, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
November 26, 2018
RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Earth has spun around the sun three times since Zalman Raffael and Robert Weiss’s ballet of Gustav Holst’s The Planets premiered. The epic symphony had no definitive choreographed interpretation, offering Weiss an opportunity to explore the cosmos without battling preconceptions.
The main curtain can barely contain the first piece. Holst’s first movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” explodes from the orchestra (albeit a pre-recorded one) just as the ballet itself explodes from the stage. Choreographed by Zalman Raffael, the military-inspired piece enlists the weight and brutishness of its male dancers who march and stomp their way across a scarlet battlefield, soloist Rammaru Shindo sharply in command. With its rumbling, sinister staccato of horns and beating drums, “Mars,” is the indisputable father of John Williams’s “The Imperial March.”
The ever-versatile Holst hoists us from the dark trenches and into the misty clouds with “Venus, the Bringer of Peace.” Raffael proves his own versatility with a contrastingly delicate piece, an ensemble of women--led by principal dancer Lara O’Brien--float serenely but swiftly across the stage like white dandelion petals blowing on the wind.
Following the third movement, “Mercury, the Winged Messenger” (choreographed by Robert Weiss and danced playfully by soloist Sokvannara Sar), comes “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” led by vivacious soloist Alyssa Pilger and strapping principal dancer Marcelo Martinez. With “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” Weiss offers the ballet’s most galactic vision. His dancers, clad in muted greens and golds, spin rapidly and precisely across the dark space, forming rings of bodies around graceful soloist Kiefer Curtis in a clear representation of Saturn’s structure.
Principal dancer Jan Burkhard and up-and-comer Jayson Pescasio execute Raffael’s frenetic “Uranus, the Magician” with remarkable control before principal dancers Yevgeny Shlapko and the incessantly flawless Margaret Severin-Hansen close the ballet with Weiss’s “Neptune, the Mystic.” The duo display their continued capacity to unite emotion and movement but the piece is overpopulated and, as a result, lacks the clarity of the earlier pieces.
Throughout the ballet, Ross Kolman illuminates the stage with effective hues that match the temperament of each god, as with the bloody red of war-bringer Mars and pastel yellow of jolly Jupiter. Each of Kerri Martinsen and Billie Pierce’s ingenious costumes serve the dancer, the music, and the story. Jupiter’s stormy swirls of orange and yellow contrast with the bold, pink fabrics of Uranus the Magician, reminiscent of Scheherazade's tales. In honor of Venus, bringer of peace, bright side lights flow through breathtaking floor-length skirts of translucent white tulle, providing structure and silhouette while revealing the dancers’ legwork.
A different asymmetrical metal sculpture flies high above the stage through each musical movement. Designed by Durham-based artist Guy Solie, these oversized mobiles bend and twist almost imperceptibly, reflecting light and casting shadows across stage and dancer. The shapes of each sculpture are seemingly disparate, until the subject and mood of each piece develop and the artwork reveals itself as synthetic cubist representations of the Roman deity-inspired themes, taking inspiration from Picasso and Gris.
Carolina Ballet’s The Planets shines as brightly as a supernova, doing tremendous honor to Gustav Holst, the gods of Ancient Rome, and the Milky Way itself. The company has lit a fire under this century-old symphony and rocketed it toward a new frontier in dance. I hope The Planets comes back into our orbit again soon and with a lengthier run.
Photo courtesy of Carolina Ballet.
A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater
November 23, December 24, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
November 24, 2018
RATING: 4 stars (out of 5)
A nearly line-by-line, note-for-note staging of a television special is not likely to be very engaging. Many of us know the 1964 Rankin/Bass special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by heart. The stop-motion animated Christmas special has aired at least once a year for generations.
Amazingly, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts has combined old-school theatre magic with some high-tech wizardry to masterfully translate the musical special to the stage. Thanks to Alan Coats’s imaginative direction, Sherry Lee Allen’s spirited--and precisely-executed--choreography, and Michael Santangelo’s smart music direction, this over-the-top production inflates the material enough to enchant the kids in the audience without making the adults gag.
Melvin Gray, Jr.’s vocal range, from low baritone to high contratenor, makes him a perfect match for the childlike Rudolph. He bounds around the stage with unbridled exuberance, infusing the production with youth and vitality. Gray continues to prove himself an inimitable triple threat and if he is not on the Broadway stage within the next three years you can call me a liar.
Sean Michael Jaenicke offers a sympathetic Hermey the Elf while Alex Reynolds’s Santa is amusingly obstinate and Jock Brocki’s Yukon Cornelius is a congenial, colorful crowd favorite. Grace Bell lends her impeccable voice to demure but plucky hair-bowed doe Clarice and T. Philip Caudle, but the gentle narrator Sam the Snowman, never quite connects with his audience.
An indefatigable ensemble of singer-dancer-puppeteers (called Snowken) operate a flock of puppets, including Charlie in the Box (Sean McCracken), Dolly (Mary Lynn Bain), and Cowboy Ostrich (Alexandra Finazzo, who is also a vivacious Mrs. Claus). Each is a perfect replica of the film’s iconic character, with winged lion King Moonracer (Jordan Clifton) the most elegant reproduction. Taller than two grown men, Bumble The Abominable Snow Monster, operated by a well-coordinated Hayden Tyler, steals the show with his huge set of teeth, furry puppeted arms, and grasping hands. The creatures, designed and created by Orlando-based Hardrive Productions, are the show’s highlight.
The design team do justice to the cartoonish special but never rest on their laurels. Jennifer Sherrod’s alluring pink lighting dances across Thomas Mauney’s multi-faceted arctic set, complete with conical Christmas trees reminiscent of those from the famous Rankin/Bass title sequence. Costumes designed by Hardrive Productions and supervised by Iris Lloyd are appropriately exaggerated and topped by Joyce Hawkins’s wigs. Lora McIntosh’s props, from Yukon Cornelius’s pickaxe to Santa’s workshop toys, are magically magnified, constructed by head carpenter Greg Osbeck. Lucky for us all, Eric Alexander Collins is on hand to create a silky-smooth sound mix.
Director Alan Coats has created a world in which overemphasis is the norm. With a trusting and fearless cast, and a collection of inventive designers, he knows precisely what Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is and alway was: a mesmerizing, tender pop-up book that lets us all know that Old Saint Nick is on his way.
Photo courtesy Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts.
Paul Green Theatre, UNC
Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art
CHAPEL HILL, NC
November 14 - December 9, 2018
by Dustin K. Britt
November 20, 2018
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
With a script by Cabaret bookwriter Joe Masteroff and a score by Fiddler on the Roof composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, one has high expectations walking into She Loves Me.
This production hits most of its design targets. New to PlayMakers, Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting is dramatic and colorful yet unshowy, though the “A Romantic Atmosphere” restaurant is occasionally underlit, obscuring Tracy Bersley’s ebullient choreography. Eric Alexander Collins presents another balanced mix of vocalists and musicians.
Making his PlayMakers debut, Daniel Zimmerman’s detailed, rotating storefront set makes for magical transitions, thanks in part to stage management exemplars Charles K. Bayang and Elizabeth Ray. The array of alluring makeup counters forms a straight line right down the length of the stage--picturesque for those seated on the sidelines, but not ideal if facing the set head-on. The white-tiled floor, reminiscent of an empty swimming pool, is incongruous and perplexing.
Andrea Bullock approaches this production’s props list with sleeves rolled up to the shoulders, producing an impressive cortège of gorgeous period pieces that seal the deal on establishing a 1930s parfumerie. Bobbi Owen’s costumes may be accurate, but the colors are too muted for such a glamorous show. However, they are perfectly-fit, particularly the men’s suits.
Guest director Kirsten Sanderson treats us to a welcome view of the band, nestled in a loft above the stage. Thanks to accomplished musical director Mark Hartman, cast harmonies are airtight, particularly in the “Come Again” interludes, and Hartman’s band is a remarkable one. Himself on piano, he is blessed with associate music director Alex Thompson on synth, Joan Beck on violin, Paul Hannah on percussion, Jake Wenger on cello, and indefatigable local mainstay Wayne Leechford on reeds. They make six sound like twenty. Responsible for the frequent and unpredictable shop door entrance bells, Hartman and company remain teetering on their toes throughout show.
Jenny Latimer is a cute and heartfelt Amalia Balash, though her act two work is noticeably stronger. Her comedic talents bring songs like “Vanilla Ice Cream” to life and mostly compensate for a general tendency to miscalculate high notes. Michael Maliakel makes a stunning PlayMakers debut as the adorable and sympathetic Georg, combining crisp but emotional vocals with sex appeal and an old Hollywood charm that makes Jimmy Stewart look like Homer Simpson.
Adam Poole is effective as the scummy Kodaly while a terrific ensemble, Dan Toot’s perfect pomposity, and Tristan Parks’s debonair dancing endow the restaurant-set “A Romantic Atmosphere” with enough zest to save the lighthearted scene from its jarring placement: mere seconds after the play’s most devastating emotional blow.
In a welcome first visit to PlayMakers, an electric Janet Krupin delivers the show’s most memorable performance: lonelyheart shopgirl Ilona. With Rosalind Russell’s mouth and Ginger Rogers’s feet, Krupin sasses and saches flawlessly across the parfumerie floor, making “A Trip to the Library” the show’s highlight. Ray Dooley is explosive as parfumerie owner Mr. Maraczek while Jeffrey Blair Cornell offers contrast as a sincere and understated Sipos.
Connor Nielsen sparkles as spry errand boy Arpad, showing promise as a physical comedian. With improved vocal control, Nielsen could prove a valuable addition to the company. An equally animated David Fine makes an impact in his brief turn as the Busboy. Having made an impression with his witty characterizations in last season’s Tartuffe, Fine seems to be collecting evidence so that he may eventually be judged a star player.
Kirsten Sanderson imbues She Loves Me with just enough vigor and wit that we may tolerate the play’s motionless first act, laying in wait for Masteroff’s delightful and forward-moving act two material. But some additional flair in design and choreography up front could even things out a little, especially during the flat “Good Morning, Good Day.”
Fans of other adaptations (e.g. 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner and 1998’s You’ve Got Mail) might relish the predictability of She Loves Me. Those seeking an easygoing evening of holiday entertainment (though not a very Christmassy one) may be comforted by the low stakes and lack of suspense. Though the 55-year-old musical deserves retirement, its enchanting and spirited presentation will certainly prove a crowd-pleaser and rightfully so. With excitingly-staged and charmingly-performed songs like “A Trip to the Library” and “Twelve Days to Christmas” in the play’s second half, even Scrooge would leave this show with a mild-wide grin.
Photo by HuthPhoto.
hoUmstead Park United Church of Christ
November 15 - 18
by Dustin K. Britt
November 19, 2018
RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
I needn’t explain why an actor--faced with portraying nearly 40 characters in a single play--might be clutching their pearls in fear.
Fearless performer Brian Westbrook and shrewd director Jackson Cooper have teamed to fearlessly bring Doug Wright’s 2003 solo play, I Am My Own Wife, to the Justice Theatre Project stage. Based on his recorded conversations with transgender German antiquarian Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Wright weaves a Tony-winning tapestry using Charlotte’s voice, and those of whom she speaks, as his thread.
Wright’s original text consistently refers to a male actor as the interpreter of these voices; a limited vision indeed considering the storyline. It was not until 2016 that a transgender actress was cast to play the famous--some might say infamous--transwoman.
A staged reading can take different forms: actors might stand at podiums or sit at a table or row of chairs. They might even do the play on their feet, though with very minimal movement. The common thread is that actors are typically on-book, scripts firmly in hand.
In JTP’s otherwise fully staged production, actor Brian Westbrook takes the occasional glance at the in-hand text (bound as a leather diary), but he knows most of it by heart. Without his face in the book, he can dig deep, imbuing Charlotte Mahlsdorf with dignity without canonizing her. She is both sinner and saint; selfish and selfless; manipulator and victim. Neither Westbrook nor director Cooper pass judgement on the controversial figure.
Presenting multiple characters with sufficient distinction can turn farcical: a carousel of silly voices and exaggerated gesticulations. But Westbrook does not slap on these characters like so much clown makeup. Rather, spirits from the past seem to possess him. His transmissions are so nuanced, so meticulous, so utterly believable that he is more medium than actor. He tours the world, jumping nimbly between accents, with only the rarest slip. I wished for a longer run, that everyone might see his work.
This production team shirks off the Staged Reading epithet like a burdensome cloak. To that end, Cooper over-directs Westbrook, leading Charlotte--supposedly tranquil--aimlessly about the stage as if lost in her own home, freed from the confines of a Reading. He has greater success once Westbrook is beyond Charlotte’s museum set, offering clarifying and appropriately spirited staging as we traverse the surrounding world.
Louis Bailey creates a homey, warm set worthy of a full production and Darby Madewell manifests a seance-like atmosphere with hazy, moody lighting, though it sometimes leaves Charlotte in the dark. Frequent shifts in hue and intensity, though pleasing to the eye, often distract from the performance and seem showy. We need Juan Isler, who summons the musical spirits of World War II with ample finesse, but do not need the unidentifiable garment that is wearing Brian Westbrook. Louis Bailey’s cavalcade of antique props include decorative boxes of mementos, delicate and detailed doll’s house furniture, and the play’s famous Edison phonograph itself.
Both Cooper and technical director Jerry Sipp have certainly made I Am My Own Wife a visually stimulating piece of theatre. But they are caught between creating the world’s most beautiful staged reading and presenting underdeveloped full production.
But they needn’t do either. With this strong script and sharp director, Westbrook is perfectly capable of telling this story without complication. I wanted to shut off the electricity and just let him work. He shines brightly enough on his own. Design for design’s sake robs an actor of their agency. I Am My Own Wife requires no gilding, nor does its leading actor.
Photo courtesy of The Justice Theatre Project.
Sweet Bee Theater, Pittsboro Center for the Arts
November 3 - 11
by Dustin K. Britt
November 8, 2018
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
The paint is still drying on Chatham Community Players, developed as a grown-up extension of Pittsboro Youth Theatre. After their inaugural Steel Magnolias, which boasts a cast of six, artistic director Tammy Matthews has more than doubled the size with a 15-member interpretation of John Cariani’s well-worn Almost, Maine. Intended for a cast of four, Matthews has taken the opportunity to find some hidden talent in the Chatham county area, though some of the company are finding their footing.
Technical director Craig Witter employs small set pieces that maximize the already limited playing space. The lighting available is almost nil, but he manages to effectively indicate northern lights, though time and setting are not--or cannot be--manipulated. Deborah Sparma keeps things moving well, considering the need for cast to hide hither and yon throughout the space--wing space at a premium in the miniscule theatre. Only a few hiccups interrupt the proceedings. Smartly, director Tammy Matthews exploits the center aisle as a playing space.
Hilary Hall kicks off the play with a funny, focused performance during the prologue. An enthusiastic Larry Hazelwood is still very green and hopefully this production will help him get out of his head, loosen up his body, and find value in stillness (more a directorial flaw than anything). Mary Laga is bursting with energy in “Her Heart,” but is forced to sit for much of the scene, stifling her obvious inclination to move. Her counterpart, Ron Coley, is sympathetic but overly timid. Paula Marinis sells Sandrine’s silent frustration in “Sad & Glad,” though Kevin Smith is more awkward than his character, Jimmy, should be.
The show, which improves over the course of the evening, hits its stride with “This Hurts.” A passionate, unselfconscious Arin Dickson contrasts perfectly with a nuanced and controlled Porter Humbert, while the duo do their damnedest to sell the awkwardly-choreographed “injuries.” A stormy Seema Kukreja stands out and--in duet with the subtle E.W. Quimbaya-Winship--ably manages the emotional dynamics of “Getting it Back.”
John Cariani’s somewhat updated text is still extremely problematic--male characters continuing to fling themselves at women for half the show--but the gender flip of “They Fell” proves beneficial and decreases the homophobia factor. Whereas the Straight Bros Fall in Love theme has always been played for laughs, a subtler Two Women Discover a New Bond plot is sincere and impacting thanks to Michelle Gagliano’s and Niki Lowrey’s honest and vulnerable rendering.
In “Where it Went,” Mary Laga and Ron Coley connect with greater chemistry and ardor than in their earlier scene. As usual, Cariani’s hokey, forced ending proves unsalvageable. Understated duo Kathi Parker and Sam White keep “Story of Hope” honest, but Parker lacks Hope’s requisite anxiety. White’s hat obscures his face from the audience throughout, making this one of the finest live radio performances I’ve heard. Kevin Smith improves notably, connecting better with “Seeing the Thing.” Stephanie Arndt’s infectious exuberance holds the repetitive scene aloft and helps to enliven Smith. Hers is a detailed and fearless interpretation of Cariani’s most perplexing Almost, Maine role.
As far as acting is concerned, the artistic soil in Pittsboro is richer than anticipated. The youth theatre should be used as a training ground, bringing well-nurtured artists into teen roles. Opportunities for adult acting training could make an impact, cultivating a new crop of useful local actors. But the Sweet Bee Theatre, home of the Pittsboro Youth Theatre, is a garden too restricting to allow growth. If Matthews can locate--and afford--a more suitable performance space, Chatham Community Players’ work could be of great value to Pittsboro’s theatrically barren soil. I am curious to see what they come up with next.
Northgate Stadium 10 at Northgate Mall
November 2 - 11
by Dustin K. Britt
November 5, 2018
RATING: 5 stars (out of 5)
Site-specific theatre is a term often misapplied to environmental, immersive, and promenade productions. It doesn’t just mean “outside of a theatre.” Venue and play must be hand-in-glove. Jonathan Bohun Brady’s gutsty staging of Annie Baker’s Pulitzer winner The Flick proves a model for what “site-specific” can and should mean. A play set in a cinema and staged in a cinema? Yes. This.
In Baker’s reversed universe, the audience sits with its back against the silver screen, watching the daily goings-on of a small theater's staff. You know those people with brooms that we all sprint past on our way to the car? They are people. With lives. Who knew?
Annie Baker’s characters are not here to present a story. The fourth wall is made of titanium.
Fans of Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens, John) value her naturalistic style: trademark pauses between lines (frequent and lengthy) that mimic the rhythms of common conversation. People talk intermittently, change thoughts midstream, and continue living through prolonged periods of silence. And we are there with them.
Most are not accustomed these rhythms on stage. Most don’t have the attention span to simply sit and observe life. A three-hour play with little “plot” is quite the paradigm shift. And two or three of these moment bypass tedium and take us all the way to frustration, as Baker does not always earn her pauses. Sometimes we do need something to consider as we observe. But, of course, that is not the way life works. And, frankly, we could all learn a little patience.
Director Brady has embraced Baker’s microscopic viewpoint which borders on voyeuristic. When you zoom in this far, everything is magnified. Every sideways glance is a punch to the face, every word is a soliloquy, and every emotional outburst could topple mountains.
Emerging artist Vincent Bland Jr., as anxious newbie Avery, settles into Baker’s rhythms and keeps things at an almost imperceptible simmer. It is easy to become self conscious with this naturalistic style, especially when alone on stage for such a long time, but Bland is fearless and proves himself a mature, controlled actor.
Jim Roof mines every ounce of nuance he can find in testy employee trainer Sam. While his performance may be a tad exaggerated for the play’s style, his range and attention to emotional detail is impeccable, making him fascinating to watch. Chloe Oliver is comfortable in the skin of angsty projectionist Rose and--thanks to Brady’s astute staging--uses the distance between characters to inform each moment.
Ford Nelson makes an impact in the play’s thankless dual roles of The Dreaming Man and new hire Skylar, who appears with a burst of energy that contrasts superbly with his co-workers. If only his Massachusetts accent were as consistent as his brusk physicality.
Inventive designer Stevan Dupor makes striking use of the cinema’s existing lights, sound system, and projector--incorporating Jesse Presler’s enigmatic film segments. Stage manager Jessica Flemming keeps Baker’s oddly-placed cues on target, while Emily Rieder’s dramaturgical notes provide valuable background on the film-to-digital movement of the early 2010’s.
Brady has put it all on the line. He is going to alienate some of his audience and he knows that. In the case of The Flick, the gamble pays off, and Baker could not have asked for a production of greater worth.
In Baker’s theatre, a buyout of one-screen cinema The Flick looms overhead. In Bartlett’s actual venue--The Northgate Stadium 10--foresees a similar fate.
In recent months there has been much excitement in the independent theatre community--particularly among smaller, itinerant companies that can no longer set up shop in the now-gone Common Ground or afford the costs of most rentable facilities--that Northgate Stadium 10 may become a rental space for rehearsals, storage, and performances.
But The Herald Sun reported in October that Northwood Investors swooped down from New York and scooped up Northgate Mall’s almost $62 million in debt. After four months, Northwood Investors cried Default on the mall and plans to foreclose on December 14. Northgate Mall--and its Cinema--will be sold off. Luckily for Bartlett Theater, its occupation of Cinema #6 space was always scheduled to end on November 11 after a two-weekend run.
Unless there is a Thanksgiving gift from some generous patron or fund, or the new owners are willing to make a home for local theatre, Northgate’s future as a live theatre venue sits on shaky ground.
Dustin K. Britt, a North Carolina native, is a performer, theatre instructor and freelance writer. He has worked in the theatre for more than 20 years and holds a Master of Arts in Education from East Carolina University. Dustin covers concerts, dance, comedy, and theatre in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Cary, Raleigh, Durham, Pittsboro, and Apex. His writing has appeared in IndyWeek, Carolina Parent Magazine, Pedal Fuzz, and Triangle Arts & Entertainment. You can find him on Twitter or Instagram @dkbritt85
Rachel Kasten, a North Carolina resident, believes that access to live theatre strengthens communities. She is happy to be back home in Raleigh after a whirlwind decade of living and performing in Ohio, Florida, and British Columbia. She was a professional background actor for 7 months in Vancouver and thinks it’s an experience everyone should have, but only once, and not in the snow. Although she has been frequently typecast as a witch or wicked stepmother (Cinderella, Macbeth, Into the Woods, Shrek...seriously, a lot of witches), she actually thinks she’s an okay mom. Most recently, Rachel discovered that she enjoys producing even more than being on stage, when she produced These Shining Lives for the Women’s Theatre Festival. Outside of theatre, she serves as a Graduate Program Coordinator at N.C. State and is an active participant in dismantling white supremacy. Rachel is looking forward to sharing something she loves with the person she loves the most.
Emory Kasten, Rachel's son, is 6 years old and in 1st grade. He loves musicals because they have singing and dancing, which are two of his favorite things. He takes jazz and tumbling at Triangle Academy of Dance so that he can perform in Newsies someday. Emory is also a proud Cub Scout. His favorite show is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat because it’s weird, colorful, and silly, like him. Emory wants to see more plays because sometimes they’re really funny.
P.S. He wants everyone to know that his favorite animal is the red fox.