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Quirky Cargo Onboard New Relationships

Plus, middling Music

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Spicy ingredients abound in the urban stew of Relationships & Other Natural Disasters, assuring us that Charlotte playwright Terri Collin's new comedy isn't simply a wholesome rehash of Barefoot in the Park. We start off with a prologue in a New York City subway station. The lovebirds are bedeviled by eccentric neighbors whose hospitality extends to exotic animals and illicit tricks, a lazy, sleazy landlord, cooing pigeons, and a monstrous, mutated roach.

Although I'd stop short of declaring Collin's dramatis personae multicultural, it isn't lily-white, either. An aspiring stand-up comic from India sits at the stoop in front of the Lower East Side walk-up practicing one-liners that are too lame to believe.

No, that isn't meant as a compliment. Collin has yet to discern where she should trespass our credulity and where she shouldn't. This appears in small matters, such as Bhooshit's lame jokes, where Collin doesn't put in the effort that would end up delivering something unfunny that a promising immigrant would consider hilarious. It also appears at the heart of the play, where Collin feels obliged to tidy up every complication she has stirred up. Plus, one or two that were in place before we peeped in on the action.

In fin-de-siècle fashion, Fran and Joey are committing to marriage after sharing an apartment long enough to accumulate a lengthy to-do list for their landlord. Since Joey hasn't struck pay dirt as a writer -- and is loathe to accept the dubious career opportunities offered by Fran's father and his own -- Fran arrives at the decision that Joey isn't grown-up enough for marriage and she herself isn't ready. So the wedding and the relationship are off. Now Fran must break this catastrophic news -- deposits have been paid, dresses have been sized -- to her hypochondriacal mom and her vulgar dad (he deals in used forklifts). Also present at this impromptu family gathering, I'm not sure why, are Fran's blissfully married sister Mallory and her husband Mark.

With the aid of their gay neighbor, Dominick, the couple's designated best man, Fran finally succeeds in unburdening herself. Forget the fact that three words and a few discreet phone calls could have sufficed; Collin has a flair for the irrational dialectic of family strife, and this scene -- punctuated by multiple intruders bent on visiting the couple's toilet -- is the most rollicking success of the night.

Under Pam Galle's direction, this Pi Productions effort looks snazzier than Sin: A Cardinal Deposed, the company's fine debut last fall. Biff Edge's funky set design is among the finest I've seen at Actor's Theatre, Donna Conrad's costumes deftly traverse the mutant terrain and the cast is sinfully good at striking exactly the right tone.

There's a yummy, youthful chemistry between Emily Van Dyke and Nick Asa as Fran and Joey. Likewise, Jorja Ursin and Austin J. Murphy are the essence of quirkiness as Fran's parents. Autumn Gentile, in her Charlotte debut, ranges from airhead to dominatrix with aplomb as Fran's sister, nicely matched with Bill Mazzella's conventionally glib Mark. With Blair Peery entering flamboyantly as Eugene the landlord, in dress befitting a pimp, Vito Abate looks comparatively humdrum as Dominick, arguably the most well-adjusted person we see.

By evening's end, happiness is running riot. Dominick has new romantic prospects, Mal and Mark's jejune marriage flames with fresh S&M sauce, Fran's folks have relit their pilot light, and Fran and Joey are picnicking and necking in Central Park. Not like the Manhattan that I know. With all this hopeful reconstruction and reconciliation, the annoyances of modern life are ultimately reduced to window dressing.

As jocund and profound as Sondheim can be at his best, he can be infuriatingly arch and cerebral at his worst. In A Little Night Music, now playing in a fitfully elegant production at Theatre Charlotte, we have to navigate through dense thickets of braininess and virtuosity before reaching the sunny clearings of enjoyable comedy.

First, there's the vocal quintet that serenades us with Sondheim's totally dispensable overture. Contending with the stiffness and operatic shrillness of the singers, director Melissa Ohlman-Roberge and conductor John Stafford fail to mollify the deadliness of this opening. The brittle antique gowns furnished by Annie Laurie Wheat only intensify the torture.

Then, Sondheim feels compelled to introduce us to his primary principals in layered, contrapuntal fashion. These include Fredrik Egerman, his son Henrik and his virgin bride of 11 months, Anne. More stiffness in the acting and singing of Ryan Roets as Henrik as he delivers "Later." More shrillness from Alyson Lowe -- albeit with more natural acting -- as she scales the high notes of "Soon."

There's just one all-too-brief oasis of completely natural acting and intonation in newcomer Lou Dalessandro's Fredrik. Quickly, he's implicated in the "Now"-"Soon"-"Later" counterpoint. So there's one more reason to yearn for Fredrik's liberation. Along with an extra reason to see Henrik and Anne as perfect for one another.

Luckily, Dalessandro gets to spend quality time in the boudoir of Kathryn Stamas playing Desiree Armfeldt, the musical stage diva who named her daughter Fredrika for the love of her life. Dalessandro and Stamas strike sparks, and they ably contextualize the most famous song in Night Music, "Send in the Clowns."

We can also feel grateful for the presence of Olivia Edge as Petra's maid and her lusty rendition of "The Miller's Son." Other islands in the stream of ineptitude are Susan Cernyak-Spatz as Desiree's invalid mother and Amanda Roberge as her illegitimate daughter.

And many of the costumes by Wheat do evoke Sondheim's requisite sophistication and decadence. That's more than I can say for Todd Edwards' clunky set design.

NC Dance Theatre had plenty to celebrate as they closed their 35th anniversary season with American Genius. The choreography by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Alvin Ailey lived up to their heady billing, and the company proved eminently capable of delivering the goods onstage at Belk Theater.

That wasn't triumphantly evident as the program opened with Alvin Ailey's The River, caressed by some fine Ellington. Alessandra Ball, Adam Stein and Jesse Tyler looked tentative in the "Meander" section, and the ordinarily brilliant Nicholle Rochelle consistently missed the beat of "Vortex." But Mia Cunningham and Jhe W. Russell hooked up irresistibly in "Giggling Rapids," Justin VanWeest fronted a groovy "Riba," and Jason Jacobs returned to NCDT better than ever in "Falls."

It was particularly pleasurable to see Jerome Robbins' stylish storytelling -- and his witty detailing -- in Fancy Free, the embryonic version of Bernstein's On the Town. Russell and VanWeest returned flawlessly as two of the sailors, but it was Daniel Wiley's comedy (paired with the rejuvenated Cunningham) that added extra zip.

The purest enchantment in Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto was the elegant pairing of Traci Gilchrest and Sasha Janes in "Aria II." Nothing less could have followed Kati Hanlon Mayo's mesmerizing exploits in "Aria I."

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