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Gold-Plated Crowns

Scattered assets can't save messy miss

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If you've only heard about Crowns, now on view at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, you probably suspect that the underlying concept wasn't hatched at a Hollywood brainstorming session. A musical about churchgoing African-American ladies centered around their hats!?

Truth to tell, no single mind was responsible for this strange catfish stew of a musical. It began as a coffee table book, Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, showcasing photos by Michael Cunningham of Southern women proudly modeling their Sunday-best chapeaux, accompanied by profiles crafted by journalist Craig Marberry, who interviewed the hat queens.

Then it was passed off to actress Regina Taylor (via Having Our Say playwright Emily Mann), who adapted the sprawling work for the stage. Taylor added an impressionable hip-hop protagonist from Brooklyn, who comes down South after her brother's shooting death to catch a spiritual breather and a taste of her heritage. Various Carolina locations are conflated into Darlington so that our Brooklynite, Yolanda, seems to be soaking in a mix of cultural heritage, old time religion and female gossip amid the warmth of a community during the healing process.

Sprinkle in some traditional gospel music, a revivalist sermon or two -- plus the obligatory stageful of hats -- and voila, you have a hot musical property that Mann's McCarter Theatre shepherded to off-Broadway late in 2002. Taylor herself directed that production and those later co-produced by Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Arena Stage in DC and Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Yet the humble down-home origins of Crowns have been lost in the shuffle. Photos and accounts of these pedigreed productions disclose a design concept that does seem like a gilded Hollywood brainstorm, more like All That Jazz or a Frank Sinatra TV special than anything you might find at a Holiness Church.

Sadly, under the direction of Sidney Horton, the Actor's Theatre production goes beyond the tone-deafness that has plagued previous set designs and spreads the disease into the sound and the music. There's a dramatic place for African percussion as the lessons of the elders penetrate Yolanda's tough, cynical defenses. It's toward the very end of the story when Africa is actually mentioned.

Giving percussionist Wynn Durrah free rein, music director Marty Gregory has us hearing hands on drums -- instead of true American drumsticks -- as soon as Yolanda sets foot on Southern soil, even though the playlist runs emphatically in the vein of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow," "The Hem of His Garment" and "When the Saints Go Marching In."

So I must regretfully report that I preferred the version of Crowns that played in December and January at Trustus Theatre. A simple roadhouse ambience was restored to the story down in Columbia, and the conventional jazz instrumentation was consonant with the music, making up for the superior acting talent now on display on Stonewall Street.

More devastating in the Charlotte-Columbia matchup is Horton's failure to insist upon sufficient differentiation among his characters. All six ladies onstage are dressed in style by costumer designer Donna Conrad, projecting the requisite "hattitude." Yet only Kim Watson Brooks as Yolanda and Cassandra Lowe Williams as Mother Shaw, the loving grandma who takes the hip-hop gamine under her wing, deliver any dramatic zing. The others are interchangeable composites, devoid of individuality.

Even Brooks, one of our best, falls short, delivering the torment and anger of Yolanda but nothing of the yearning child. Jeremy DeCarlos drops in deftly when needed, as the local pastor and various husbands. His gospel style, like his sermonizing, is closer to Sam Cooke than James Cleveland -- fine for the music but somewhat underpowered for the pulpit. So it's Williams, with a touch of Odetta in her tonsils, who is the true jewel in this otherwise messy Crowns.

No need to worry about a letdown after The Sound of Music, CPCC's outstanding doorbuster at their new Halton Theater last November. Triple threat Billy Ensley is at the top of his rockin' game as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, and director Tom Hollis utilizes his new playground resourcefully -- on a noticeably straitened budget -- modernizing the setting and getting serious about Tim Rice's lyrics.

With Olivia Edge as Mary Magdalene reprising the magic she dazzled us with last summer in Cats, we're not shortchanged on the big tune. And Drina Keen, leading a 17-piece orchestra, gets more righteous sound from the pit than I remember at the raucous touring version (headlined by Sebastian Bach) that hit Ovens in 2003.

CP misses glory only in its leading man, promising newcomer Jason Barney -- audible yet unintelligible for the first two-thirds of this opera. Barney is obviously saving himself for Christ's final agonies, and a little more help from the sound booth might help some. There were problems with the equipment, that's for sure.

When he finally cut loose, Barney hot-wired some high notes that Ensley couldn't reach without audible discomfort. But at the most gripping moment of the night, the music stopped, the audience fell silent, and the sound of Barney's breathing -- on the cross -- resounded throughout the hall. Wow.

We're not sure that the mighty Observer has emerged from its slumber even yet, but word was out on the street about the goods delivered by Columbia City Ballet's Off the Wall & Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green. Easily the biggest spontaneous turnout at Belk Theater since the first visitation of Def Poetry Jam, the success of the event seemed to catch even the sponsoring Afro-American Cultural Center by surprise.

The Belk was packed to the rafters, all copies of Green's book (Gullah Images with Pat Conroy) were snapped off the tables, and the artist held court, inscribing the books and meeting his newfound admirers. Best of all, the $1.25 million ballet choreographed by Columbia City artistic director William Starrett was truly amazing.

Not that the dancers reached the stratosphere of artistic prowess where the NC Dance Theatre corps reside. But the technology was awesome.

We saw Green's paintings splayed across the full width and height of the stage. Backgrounds were fleshed out by computerization so that the dancers could replace Green's colorful people onstage. And those eye-popping backgrounds coordinated with translucent scrims upstage, aglow with portions of the same paintings. Result: magical transitions back-and-forth between the dancers and the art.

It was a new way of connecting with art in general -- and with Gullah culture in particular. And it worked.

So how deep of a coma was our daily newspaper in? Last February, The State published an 8-page spread in Columbia on Off the Wall. In full color. Their sister Knight-Ridder paper's coverage here in Charlotte? Zippo.

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