Annual "Britt's Picks" Best-of List - Facebook Live - December 17 at 8:00 PM
The Cary Arts Center
September 28 - October 7
by Dustin K. Britt
October 1, 2018
RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
1968. London. A church music teacher gives a $130 advance to a 19-year-old kid, Andrew Lloyd Webber to team up with his buddy Tim Rice to write a 20-minute pop cantata based on the Old Testament story of Joseph. A church parent happened to be the music critic for the Sunday Times and was more than pleased with the first performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. A few months later, the now-35 minute pop oratorio played at St. Paul’s Cathedral. A year later, riding on the coattails of the first Webber-Rice hit Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph… grew in length and popularity in London before making its Broadway home on W. 45th Street in 1982.
Though the 90 minute score was poppy, exuberant, and catchy, no major production ever quite outgrew the humble church pageant style of the original. Its cartoonish, low-budget presentation has always felt juvenile--never living up to the score’s splendor.
For Cary Players, masterful director Nancy Rich has dug the show from the ground, severing its churchhouse roots--leaning more toward Jesus Christ Superstar: an anachronistic rock concert spectacle. An expert in musical comedy, Rich’s Joseph… favors variety show excitement over deference to earlier, “cute” incarnations. Her swirling, snappy staging and choreography brings the cast right down to the footlights for a presentational and engrossing pop concert.
Musical director Darylene Hecht extracts lush harmonies from the ensemble and energetic performances from her orchestra (though the score’s cutesy-synthy 80s orchestration still needs an update). Ian Robson’s staircase set makes it easy for Rich to play levels, though its use is not maximized and the fly system, operated with precision by Scott Peters, has some surprises in store.
Ami Kirk Jones’s exaggerated and creative props add comic flavor and while some of Rachel McKay’s costumes are engaging--and Joseph's coat is stunning--several others miss the mark, particularly some of the men’s ill-fitting old testament robes and the female ensemble’s lifeless black dresses. Ryann Norris mimics the titular garment’s vibrant palate with her fearless lighting design--painting the stage with ever-changing waves of gorgeous hues. Bill Johnson and Ed Killian mix masterfully the multitude of vocal parts with the seven-member orchestra pit. The performance's many cues and scenic transitions appear seamless thanks to capable stage manager Jenny Robinson.
Joseph may be the mascot, but the Narrator is the show’s most vocally and physically challenging role. This is a 90-minute marathon, not a sprint, and Lauren Bamford is the athlete the score needs--strategically switching between head voice and chest voice for a perfect balance of earthquaking belts and lovely high tones. Bamford ably conveys attitude sans dialogue, scrolling through a rolodex of delightfully amusing facial expressions.
Erik Agle hits all the right notes with Joseph, making him sympathetic but not pitiful, while Doug Kapp plays patriarch Jacob’s comedic and dramatic moments with equal skill. Duo Charles Robson and Christopher Ray MacDow are appropriately goofy as the Butler and the Baker, David Adams delivers the Elvis-inspired Pharaoh’s song with ample irony, and Keith Petersen is a hammy and adorable baby brother Benjamin.
Rich, known for her colorful ensembles, has amassed quite the troupe of clowns, including Michael Phillips (Asher), Ryan Madanick (Issachar and Potiphar), Aydan Hansen (Napthali), Sean Malone (Zebulun) and ensemble members Dan Bain, Charleigh Smith, Debbie Litwak-Kring, and Heather Shinpaugh. Rich incorporates the seven-member angelic children’s choir creatively and subtly. Mike Muhlada, as Simeon, leads the production’s most entertaining and memorable number, “Those Canaan Days” while Jonathan Rand, as a nimble Reuben, leads the swinging “One More Angel."
Joseph… rarely squeezes more than a brief chortle out of me, but Nancy Rich provided me 85 minutes of solid laughs and 5 minutes of watery eyes before the curtain fell on opening night. With Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cary Players continues a winning streak of excellent productions (alongside Almost, Maine and Plaza Suite) delivering their strongest show in recent memory. Hopefully this is a sign of the season to come.
Photo courtesy of Cary Players.
September 14 - 30
The September 14 - 16 shows were cancelled due to inclement weather.
A performance has been added on September 27 at 8:00 P.M.
by Dustin K. Britt
September 26, 2018
RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
A handful of local theatre companies have woken up to the fact that the voices of women of color are integral to the continuing impact and success of the arts in this area. Justice Theatre Project, Women’s Theatre Festival, Black Ops, and Mojoaa Performing Arts Company are working their way into the consciousness of local theatregoers. Producer Timothy E. Locklear hopes to add North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre into the mix by presenting By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, a 2011 play by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage.
Veteran triangle performer Tina Morris-Anderson steps forward to direct this piece with prolific stage manager Natasha Jackson close at hand, honoring us with a story by a black woman, about black women, and interpreted by black women--all working in the arts.
The production struggles getting off the ground (as much Nottage’s fault as anyone’s), but things eventually smoothe out as we move toward act two. Morris-Anderson’s staging is straightforward and clean. The lengthy scene changes, however, muddy the road quite a bit. Thomas Mauney’s set and lighting help set the scenes, but the elements never quite cohese. A more minimalist approach may have better suited NRACT’s small stage. Videographer David Iversen’s believable digital degrading helps sell the filmed sequences--one of the play’s most unique devices.
Act two serves as both sequel and self-commentary on the play’s first half, with delightful 1970s costumes by Sheila Cox and effective lighting by Mauney dropping us onto the set of a fictitious but oh-so-recognizable evening talk show. The Dick Cavett-inspired setup is hijacked by Charles Nelson Reilly doppelganger Brad Donovan (a delightfully campy David Klionsky).
Terra Hodge is a bold, unwavering Vera Stark, staring the audience right in the eye and daring us to judge her. Hodge was still settling into the role on opening night, seeming self-conscious, but we get a taste of her tremendous, fiery passion in the second act, when Vera--and the play itself--matures.
Rebekah Holland is a winsome Gloria Mitchell, flittering about the stage in a feathery, silky robe. Holland is given little to work with in the first act--mostly bubbly Marilyn Monroe-type stuff. The second act finally gives her the opportunity to dig deeper and Holland finds Gloria just as Gloria finds herself.
April Christian is astoundingly charming as wisecracking sidekick Lottie McBride. Christian communicates Nottage’s text as if singing--the rests, rhythms, and tempos carefully placed to make every line meaningful, witty, and sometimes heartbreaking. This season, Christian’s is one of the most impressive comedic turns of any show in town. She is marvelously controlled as the frustrated academic Carmen Levy-Green in the story’s second half, proving that Christian may have many more characters up her sleeve. I would like to find out what they are.
Jacquie Deas-Brown is quite fun as the flamboyant, flirty Anna Mae Simpkins, but her strength lies in her grounded performance as political activist Afua Assata Ejobo. Stephen Carl is on hand as a pair of delightfully dissimilar Europeans and Darryel Washington was--on opening night-- still finding his footing as a charming love interest and an emerging sociologist.
A fair bit of line stumbling and the clunky scene changes prevented the opening night performance from achieving maximum flow. I anticipate greater smoothness in the second weekend. Some imperfections aside, Nottage’s text is an invaluable inclusion in NRACT’s (and the area’s) lineup this year. Incisive, witty, and instructive, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark finds a safe, if not entirely polished, home in Tina Morris-Anderson’s capable hands.
Photo by Natasha Jackson.
Paul Green Theatre
CHAPEL HILL, NC
September 12 - 30
September 12 - 16 shows cancelled due to inclement weather.
by Dustin K. Britt
September 23, 2018
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
Playwright Ken Ludwig is no stranger to farce. He proved that with Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo. Nor has he shied away from fiddling with older material, as with Shakespeare in Hollywood and Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (which Raleigh Little Theatre will present next April). He’s even poked around with adventure classics like The Three Musketeers and Treasure Island.
Unlike Rick Elice’s clever J. M. Barrie remix, Peter and the Starcatcher, Ludwig’s new remix sounds too much like the original, making Sherwood merely a run-of-the-mill adaptation rather than an inventive retelling. The relevant, much-needed, social justice message is blunted as Ludwig’s Robin reiterates again and again that we should care for the less fortunate among us, but leaves it at that--a wasted opportunity to build empathy through some more impacting moments.
Luckily for us all, inventive director Jessie Austrian’s hyperkinetic staging is fraught with enough vaudevillian antics to make the show quite enjoyable. Jack Herrick’s merry music glues scenes together nicely, while Tracy Christensen’s magnificent costumes give the production a strong visual pop. McKay Coble’s forest-inspired set has a handful of clever elements (a fire-fighter’s pole, for example) but relies mostly on Rui Rita’s detailed lighting for texture. Melanie Chen Cole’s precise sound design supports actors and musicians both high and low, near and far. As always, stage manager Charles K. Bayang keeps this high-speed train secured to the tracks.
Fight choreographer Kara Wooten has laid out some very smooth moves, and plenty of them, but the cast were still tightening things up on opening night. This is tough stuff: multiple levels, swords, unarmed, even see-saws and water. Having audience on 3 sides makes it hard to manipulate perspective. But I've no doubt the capable company will have the combat in their bones as they move into the second weekend.
The company is likewise working hard--much harder than they should have to--to bring the lackluster text to life, giving exaggerated performances consistent with Austrian’s vaudevillian style. Joshua David Robinson captures Robin Hood’s requisite charm and Christine Mirzayan brings a welcome confidence to Maid Marian, but struggles to inflate Ludwig’s flaccid rendering.
Jeffrey Blair Cornell finds nuance within the sinister Sir Guy, while a musical Dan Toot is an agreeable master of ceremonies, Friar Tuck. A vibrant Ray Dooley is working overtime to convince us that this play is a comedy. In fact, 90% of the evening’s laughter comes in the plays third quarter, thanks to Austrian’s unique staging of the tournament, elevated by Herrick's musical flourishes and Rishan Dhamija’s comical embodiment of a bevy of archery teams. April Mae Davis is a robust, never pitiful Deorwynn and the cheeky all-singing all-dancing Tristan Parks steals the entirety of the show as the Sheriff of Nottingham.
One third farce, one third classical reimagining, and one third swashbuckling adventure, Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, as a play, is one third as entertaining as it could be. With tremendous inventiveness, Playmakers almost fills the other two thirds. Highly recommended for kids and families looking for an exciting night out.
Photo by HuthPhoto.
Kennedy Theatre, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
September 5 - 16
September 13 - 16 shows cancelled due to inclement weather.
Rescheduled for September 21 - 23.
by Dustin K. Britt
September 13, 2018
RATING: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Based on the 2007 film of the same name, Once--with a new book by Enda Walsh--started off-Broadway in 2011 and went on to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The score includes thirty songs with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová--composers and stars of the film. Their Oscar-winning song, “Falling Slowly,” makes its anticipated appearance early in the show.
The cast provide their own instrumental accompaniment, both singing and playing the indie-folk score with equal prowess. They never leave the stage, but retreat to the sidelines to strum, pluck, bow, and drum along. Another director, John Doyle, tried the actor-instrumentalist gimmick on Broadway with revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company. While a unique device, it did little to enhance the actual story. The same choice for Once is an honest storytelling device. It is, after all, a play about songwriting.
Tim Seib’s vivacious and precise direction prevents the occasionally repetitive story from becoming tiresome. Michael McClain’s music shop-inspired set is cozy and detailed--with myriad props by Kiernan Bastien. The smooth transitions primarily consist of shuffling a handful of chairs, lifting a table or two, and rolling around the upright piano (whose front side, sadly, is seen by only half the audience).
Christina Munich’s evocative lighting does most of the heavy lifting, seamlessly isolating scenes and clarifying setting. Eric Alexander Collins’s sound design is this production’s greatest achievement: blending (almost flawlessly) vocal/instrumental cacophony into something intelligible, distinctive, and harmonious. LeGrande Smith’s costumes define characters clearly while avoiding cliche. Stage Manager Mette Schladweiler calls cues with precision; the show advances without a hitch.
Engaging singer-actor-guitarist David Toole (as Irish songwriter Guy) and sincere singer-actor-pianist Morgan Parpan (as Czech-born Girl) manage to make these one-dimensional, insufferable characters both interesting and sympathetic. David Bartlett gives the show’s most heartbreaking performance as Guy’s proud but crestfallen Da, while Tracy Thomas’s robust voice and fearless presentation make Girl’s mama, Czech accordionist Baruska, a force to be reckoned with.
Violinist and quadruple-threat Megan Ort stomps and sings with passion, while maintaining Reza’s vulnerability. On cello, Andrew Nielson shows tremendous control as the Bank Manager, contrasting nicely with an abundance of energetic characters. Colson Dorafshar is adorable as lanky jokester Svec and Jack Boice’s charming performance of Billy is amusing but lacks focus.
A music director’s job is complex to begin with: their band and their vocalists require separate rehearsals, different skill sets, and equal attention. But only the best in the business could tackle these art forms simultaneously, with a group of 13 performers trying to execute both words and music without flaw. Joanna Li has risen admirably to the challenge. Her work on Once is some of the most effective musical direction I have heard, each singer-instrumentalist executing their dual tasks with equal prowess and precision.
Theatre Raleigh’s Once is an outstanding achievement: a strong, powerful body made of countless, complicated moving parts. This is a rousing example of artistic synergy.
Photo by Jennifer Griffin Robertson.
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
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