It was a super Chamber of Commerce year for Charlotte as a skyscraper of construction cranes fluttering over our Center City parted and revealed ... the new NASCAR Hall of Fame on East Martin Luther King Boulevard and the completed Levine Cultural Campus on South Tryon. Along with that stunning Niki de Sainte Phalle sculpture on the street, the Queen City's cultural portfolio has expanded to include the Bechtler Museum, the Uptown Mint, the Gantt Center, and Knight Theater. On top of that, 2010 was the year we learned that Charlotte had landed the 2012 Democratic National Convention, a booster's ultimate boost.
But landing next year's convention didn't alter Charlotte's lack of conventional wisdom regarding the virtues of having a homegrown, fully professional, honest-to-God regional Equity theater company in our cultural landscape — as zealously treasured as our Symphony, Opera, and Dance companies. On the contrary, the groundswell of theater activity that we saw in 2009 in the funky Plaza-Midwood sector began to deflate last summer with the exit of Machine Theatre and collapsed at the end of the year with the closing of Story Slam.
The one survivor of that disintegration, Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, has now moved north — following the lure of a location without a leaky roof constantly ruining their equipment — making NoDa the city's new hope for a theater district. As welcoming as the Knight has been to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and our own NC Dance, the new space has served music and dance far better than our local theater groups. There's a Broadway feel to the touring shows that have come in and played there, namely Avenue Q and The Aluminum Show, but the rent is too high (not to mention the seating capacity) for local companies to pick up the vibe.
Just exactly what Story Slam could mean for the Charlotte theater scene was best exemplified when Citizens of the Universe, after scrambling around the Central Avenue corridor for over 14 months, settled into the Slammer for two of the best guerilla efforts we've seen in recent years, Uncle Vanya and — continuing founder James Cartee's predilection toward noir-ish movie titles — Trainspotting. Actor's Gallery was less roguish in its roots, formed by two former Tarradiddle Players, Chaz Pofahl and Greta Zandstra, but their production of The Credeaux Canvas jibed with the Story Slam vibe just as well. With CAST continuing to crank out their experiential fare, most notably Welcome to the Monkey House and The Elephant Man, the continued presence of Matt Cosper's Machine Theatre at Century Village with his exciting new absurdist script, Mum's the Word, seemed to solidify the whole Central Avenue thing.
With Machine's premiere of Cosper's ThomThom at Duke Energy Theatre in Spirit Square, a budding bridge between the raffish new theater district and the Uptown mainstream could be envisioned. Ironically, the faux musical sequel to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird became the final product of the Machine, for Cosper no longer resides in Charlotte.
Machine wasn't the only theater fledgling that Blumenthal Performing Arts nurtured at Spirit Square. A dozen other locally produced theater events happened there, including works from start-ups 3M Productions and PlayPlay Theatre and full seasons from Queen City Theatre Company and On Q Productions. Like Collaborative Arts, Q made the occasional excursion to the bigger house down the hall, McGlohon Theatre. So rumblings that our purblind city fathers and mothers are once again plotting the cultural doom of Spirit Square are not welcome news to Charlotte actors, directors, designers, and theater producers.
If the local ecology is poisoned for theater professionalism, it certainly hasn't hurt the quality level at Theatre Charlotte, where true amateurism verges on extinction. Proving the excellence of The Full Monty hadn't been a fluke, the Queens Road barn was consistently solid all year long, with Biloxi Blues making a serious run at our Best Comedy award and Steel Magnolias making our Top 20. No, these productions were studded with professional-grade actors and actresses who weren't getting paid. To see more representative examples of community theater, I advised readers to head over to Halton Theater where they could find CPCC Theatre's production of Bye Bye Birdie with a more ecologically sound mix of pros and greenhorns.
Of course, CP's Summer Theatre is a different animal, emphasizing trad musicals with a payroll for its performers throughout its eight-week season. The Drowsy Chaperone was the best of the company's 2010 vintage, but with other players in the musical arena, they don't dominate the category like they once did. Children's Theatre of Charlotte has made inroads on family fare, Scrooge! continuing a string of Best Musical victories that began a year before with Beauty and the Beast, while Actor's Theatre stands firm on its edgy, small-scale, off-Broadway turf, contending for the 2010 prize with Five Course Love. These two powerhouses also split the non-musical prizes, Children's nabbing the drama palm with Treasure Island while Actor's cruised to the comedy winner's circle in Becky's New Car.
The true interlopers at this year's prize party are the renegades at Queen City Theatre Company, who barely broke into our Sweet 16 for 2009 with Dangerous, a queenish remake of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. We placed two of their musical productions, Grey Gardens and Reefer Madness, in our top 14 for 2010 and thought highly of their other effort, Evita — while their voyage into suspense, Rope, also landed in our Top 20 list and clinched our Newcomer of the Year race.
Outliers to watch are The Edge Theatre Company down in Rock Hill and The Warehouse up in Cornelius. I caught the best dramatic performance of the year at Edge's The History Boys, and up past Exit 25 on I-77, I found my bronze medalist for Best Drama of 2010, Warehouse's The Road to Mecca. There's a lot of good stuff out there. Here are the winners: