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Fabulous February!!

Brace yourself for a month-long artistic invasion

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Don't look now, but the British are coming! Troupes of Americans and North Carolinians are also on the near horizon. Plus keep you're eyes peeled for a return visit from Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell and a fresh HD fix of The Metropolitan Opera.

No need for panic, fellow patriots. You can leave your trusty muskets on the wall. But to take full advantage of the "Fabulous February" invasion of performing arts now in progress across Mecklenburg County, better reach into your wallet for your favorite plastic.

If you've been in winter hibernation, under the illusion that theatre, opera, dance, and classical music won't be blossoming here until spring, you've already slumbered through some choice fare: Edward Scissorhands. Omnium Gatherum. La Vida Breve. Junie B. Jones and, earlier this week, the tap dancer behind the lovable animated penguin of Happy Feet, Savion Glover.

Instead of moping in your igloo, get out on I-77 and head up to exit 30. The Royal Shakespeare Company has journeyed across the Atlantic from its headquarters in Stratford-Upon-Avon, bringing three exciting new productions to its third Residency at Davidson College. All three can be beheld between now and Feb. 18.

Or hang a right at I-85. Next week at UNC Charlotte, dance troupes from across the state converge on Anne B. Belk Theatre at beautiful Robinson Hall for the annual North Carolina Dance Festival. Each of the three nights (Feb. 15-17) showcases a different assortment of companies from here in Metrolina, together with imports from as far away as Wilmington.

You can also lurk in ambush within the Innerbelt if you choose. Joshua Bell makes his third concert appearance at the Performing Arts Center in the last eight years this coming Sunday. One of the jewels of this year's Broadway Lights Series, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, follows fast on Bell's heels at Belk Theater (Feb. 13-18).

Adventurers can hop on the Outerbelt for the next new Met Goes to the Movies matinee presentation, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, at the Regal Stonecrest on Feb. 24. Charlotte Observer music critic Steven Brown learned a cruel lesson when he showed up at the Rea Road cineplex last month without a reserved ticket for The First Emperor, starring Placido Domingo.

Brown couldn't get into the sold-out screening. So you need to go online sooner, not later, to be sure you catch Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin -- with a side order of Renèe Fleming.

RSC @ Davidson

Last time the Royals visited the Davidson campus, they brought two intriguing takes on the Bard in Two Gentlemen of Verona and Julius Caesar. This time around, the categories of comedy and tragedy are blurred. We get a production of The Winter's Tale (now through Feb. 17), Shakespeare's grayest comedy, and Pericles (Feb. 9-18), a story whose arc is so long -- and geography so wide -- that it's best categorized as a "romantic epic."

Both stories end happily like the comedies, but with sufferings and trials along the way that make deep empathetic inroads into the wilds of drama. Adding to the richness of the experiences is the style of presentation. They call it "promenade staging." The entire lower part of the Duke Family Performance Hall will be transformed throughout the residency into a common space where actors and audience move and intermingle. A generous number of seats will remain surrounding the action for those who prefer a relatively traditional sedentary theater experience.

As the action moves from place to place, so do the actors -- with the audiences tagging along behind them. We haven't seen anything like this in Charlotte since the now-extinct Chickspeare's 2001 production of Fefu and Her Friends, performed simultaneously in multiple rooms -- for multiple audiences -- up in NoDa.

Pericles is a rare enough treat without the promenade, as I discovered when I first encountered this most-medieval of spectacles at the Stratford Festival of Canada in 2003. Two years later, at the Edinburgh International Festival, I saw a particularly topical adaptation, Children of the Sea, weaving young refugees of the great Indonesian tsunami into the storyline.

Spread out across the lawns of Edinburgh's Botanical Gardens, with distant views of the city's illuminated castle after dark, this was very much a promenade affair. We followed the children and the players up hills and across paths as the long adventure unfolded across time and space.

The pauses, as we all decamped from one performing site to another, added a ceremonial overlay to the performance. And the accumulated fatigue from our wanderings helped us empathize with the long travels of Shakespeare's protagonists -- adding to the joy that ultimately comes to them all through their integrity and fortitude.

RSC's promenades have some intriguing overlays of their own. Pericles will take us to war-torn Somalia, Eastern Europe, and contemporary London during his odyssey. In RSC's Winter's Tale, the canker of suspicion followed by the balm of penitence is played out during a time span beginning in the paranoid Red Scare 1950s and ending at 1969 Woodstock.

There's more: For just two days, Days of Significance (Feb. 15-16) gets its American premiere in promenade style. Roy Williams' piece is his response to Much Ado About Nothing, with the action split between market-town England and the deserts of Iraq. Ka-pow!

Scoundrel Time

There's a local story wrapped in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the musical that takes us to the French Riviera, where two conmen fleece the rich and shameless. Benjamin Klein, the associate director for the tour and the original Broadway production, graduated from the Northwest School of the Arts in 1998 -- after a season onstage with the Children's Theatre Teen Ensemble. Proving that Charlotte's theatre companies and teachers are incubating topnotch pros.

It's Klein's first trip back home since leaving for college. He has watched the collaboration of composer/lyricist David Yazbek (The Full Monty) with ace TV writer Jeffrey Lane (Mad About You) from the early workshop stages of Scoundrels development, and he's proud of the result.

"Everybody expects to see the Steve Martin shtick," says Klein, "and it was a lot of fun to see Freddie Benson come to life in a completely different way. We were able to add songs that were not in the movie, obviously, and they help not only tell the story, but they're packed with comedy. Fans of the movie will love it, but the people who don't know the movie at all enjoy themselves just as much."

Yes, Ben is the son of Jerry Klein, the man who scorched the earth with controversy at various writing and broadcasting gigs around town, most notably at WBT and Creative Loafing. Not to worry, Jerry remains up yonder in D.C. and is not a part of the British/Bell/Scoundrels invasion.

So everybody -- even our rabid evangelicals -- can relax and enjoy the "Fabulous February" ahead.

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