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Blazing New Trails

Two Charlotte pioneers again break new ground

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They haven't worked together in nearly a decade. Yet the company they built together, innovative Theatre, has become an enduring Charlotte legend -- linking Alan Poindexter and George Brown together in the fabric of the city's theatrical heritage.

No, the Dynamic Duo haven't reunited. But in the space of just seven days, Poindexter and Brown will be embarking in new directions, blazing new trails.

Positioned at the creative vanguard of the sparkling new ImaginOn as the artistic director at Children's Theatre of Charlotte, Poindexter's coming exploits have drawn greater anticipation, excitement, fanfare and hype. A pioneering collaboration between Children's and the Char-Meck Public Library, ImaginOn opens its eye-popping doors this Saturday.

Then the true unveiling of the McColl Family Theatre. On October 14, Poindexter revisits The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one of his first -- and greatest -- Children's Theatre triumphs when he directed the C.S. Lewis fantasy adventure in 1992.

Less confetti and festivity will accompany Brown's latest venture as he returns to the Charlotte scene for the first time since 1998, when iT bowed out with Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. More typical of the company's guerrilla assaults were the Charlotte premieres of Psycho Beach Party, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Illuminati, Old Times, The Changeling, Kvetch and The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.

Now Brown is guest-directing Orange Lemon Egg Canary, opening at Carolina Actor's Studio Theatre on October 20. C.A.S.T.'s managing director, Michael Simmons, talked Brown into directing the technically demanding Rinne Groff spellbinder, a sensation at the 2003 Humana Festival in Louisville.

Brown more than returned the favor, talking Simmons into playing the leading role.

"This show is wonderful," says Brown. "It's the kind of theater that innovative would do, you know? It's all about illusion. The illusion of relationships, the illusion of magic, and it's a fascinating show. As you dig deeper, you dig out more stuff."

Centering around a charismatic magician who has lost his zest for magic -- and life -- Orange Lemon Egg Canary (subtitled "A Trick in Four Acts") demands an unusual amount of magic. Not a staple in an actor's education.

"The option was either find enough magicians and teach them to act or get the actors and teach them magic," Brown summarizes.

He went with actors, casting early so that his actors would have a full two months to master their prestidigitation. We're not talking about slight sleight-of-hand. The centerpiece of the production, integral to the unfolding of the plot, is the cringe-inducing Impalement Illusion.

"We only recently last week got the impalement trick," Brown blithely confides. Simmons did most of the work tracking down the trick, scouring eBay and networking among magicians. And, Brown admits, the cast did most of the worrying.

"I'm going to put them on a spike in the middle of the show," he explains, "and they have to do like eight pages of dialogue suspended on this spike -- and they're going, 'I'm not going to do that! How does this trick work?' And I'm telling them, 'I don't know. It'll be OK. I'm sure you'll be OK.' So they were getting a bit nervous about it, to say the least! And they still are a little nervous. Actually, it's a fairly dangerous trick!"

Agreed. At the magician's command, the spike goes through his lovely assistant's stomach.

The magic at ImaginOn behind the fantasy Wardrobe is hardly more benign. It's cosmic in scope, subjugating all the lovable fauns, dwarfs and centaurs of Narnia. But the frosty regality of the White Witch poses no physical threat to the posse of actors onstage -- though the stern glances from Catherine Smith might send a shiver or two through the audience.

Poindexter certainly wanted to open the McColl with a splashy visual spectacle. Along with that wow factor, he felt it was important to inaugurate the hall with a stage full of children.

"You basically have to have an army for the Witch and an army for Aslan [the liberating lion]," Poindexter points out. "Then there are the four children at the center of the story. It's just exciting to be able to take something that we've created in the past and to reconsider it. To go back at it with a notion of a new facility, a new time in the theater's history, and be able to take a well-loved story and recreate our notion of the story in this new context."

Is he looking at the opening of ImaginOn as a new beginning in his career akin to starting innovative Theatre?

"Absolutely," says Poindexter without hesitation. "I think it's a chance for not only Children's Theatre to grow our national profile, but it's also a chance for the artists internally in the company to take a step and to grow and to challenge ourselves in new ways. So it's very much the same thing. It's another step. And if you didn't have those every couple of years, you would be stagnating. We're extremely lucky to have this big challenge to move onto right now."

Let the true groundbreaking begin. Again.

Strauss On Steroids

Hey, maybe a sensational headline might have helped fill all those empty seats in Belk Theater at last Thursday's Don Juan concert. Great music written over a span of 60 years, 1888-1948, by one of Europe's greatest modern composers, Richard Strauss, certainly didn't rouse Charlotte's moribund classical audience.

Charlotte Symphony maestro Christof Perick obviously has a special affection and affinity for Strauss's music. He even added an orchestral Strauss encore, plucked from his operatic output, deigning to preface the "Moonlight Music" from Capriccio with -- stop the presses! -- an extended spoken intro.

Virtuoso fireworks began in earnest after intermission when Stefan Schilli played the Oboe Concerto -- without pausing between movements. Although Schilli blacked out on what he was supposed to play for a few bars early in the opening, everything he did play was extraordinarily full. Leaps in register were traversed with ease, long phrases were shaped without a trace of breathlessness, and Schilli could attack his lines with near-miraculous softness -- or cut them off with staccato high notes -- without ever compromising the richness of his tone.

Buoyed by the success of the Concerto, the CSO -- at full force for the first time all evening -- were a smidge too exuberant in a couple of the tutti passages of the Don Juan tone poem. Never mind. They captured the élan of the work magnificently. Concertmaster Calin Lupanu pranced gracefully on the high notes, Bartlett led a sharp charge of trombones, and the brasses were as clean and thrilling as I've heard them. Even the hushed ending worked.

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