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Ho-Hum in NY is Ho-ho-ho at PAC Box Office

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And OTTC offers something completely different

Seasoned New Yorkers might suppress a yawn when guests or relatives report spending an afternoon at Rockefeller Center and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. That's if they're uncommonly polite. True Manhattanites customarily respond to anyone who gushes over "The Living Nativity," "Santa's Gonna Rock-n-Roll," or the world-famous Rockettes with a devastating sneer that can be translated into a single word: Tourist!

When the leggy legends and their furry friends put this show on the road, however, joy and enthusiasm greet their Yuletide arrival -- along with a sprinkling of disbelief. Charlotte is one of a small handful of cities deemed worthy to behold this glitzy miracle.

"It's the full production that people see up in New York with the animals," proclaims Tom Gabbard, president of the NC Blumenthal Performing Arts Center (PAC). "I've had people ask me, 'Is the camel going to be in it?' ALL THE ANIMALS. So it's really the same production they would see in New York. Of course, with the Rockettes."

While live holiday entertainment is staple fare up in the Big Apple, allowing theater owners and producers to close their yearly ledgers with gusto, the concept in Charlotte -- and other glitzless burgs across the country -- seems to be confined to cinemaplexes. Belk Theater and Ovens Auditorium, in previous years, have not shared in the box office bonanza.

Most local theater companies will have torn down their sets and locked their doors weeks before Santa rounds up his reindeer. In past years, Charlotte Rep proved that Booth Playhouse could be profitable over the holidays -- even with non-Christmas-themed shows like I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change! But touring blockbusters like Radio City Christmas Spectacular, opening at Ovens Auditorium this Friday for a hefty 35-performance run through January 1, are terra incognita for the PAC.

Getting the first Christmas Spectacular visitation in the Carolinas was certainly a coup for Charlotte. Gabbard saw the show as a compelling answer for people across Metrolina with friends, relatives and time on their hands during the week between Christmas and New Year's. Now they needn't wonder "What should we do?"

"This is the first time we've had any programming between Christmas and New Year's," Gabbard confirms.

After looking at the early box office data, Gabbard wasn't sure the congregation had quite gotten the memo about the post-Christmas niche Radio City was designed to fill so gloriously. Overall sales have been brisk but largely concentrated on the pre-Christmas performances.

"So we're encouraging people," Gabbard says, "that the best seating availabilities are for performances after Christmas, if they're in town."

Radio City doesn't normally tour the same location in consecutive years, according to the PAC chieftain, so it's advisable to jump on those availabilities now if you're at all bitten by Rockette curiosity or nostalgia. Gabbard hopes that people who get their first taste of live performance via the "March of the Wooden Soldiers" and the kicky Santa Claus chorus line won't be waiting for a Second Coming.

"A lot of cities would love to have this show because it is immensely popular," Gabbard gushes. "One of the great things from my perspective is that it brings a lot of people into the theater who don't normally come there. So my hope is that they'll get a taste of how exciting the performing arts are, and that will whet their appetites to come back and sample more."

Amen.

Review: E-pistles 2.0 Is E-ffective

I thought Off-Tryon Theatre's artistic director, Glenn Griffin, had a winner when I attended the first reading of his new script, Intim@te E-pistles, a couple of years ago up in NoDa. At the heart of the tragicomedy is Alistair Archer, a cuddly British author of bodice-ripping romance novels that suits Griffin's acting talents to a T.

As a favor, the jovial Alistair begins writing e-mails to a handsome zillionaire that his wife has met and coupled with. No jealousy is involved -- not at the outset, anyway -- since Alistair is gay and his marriage to Aimee is a device to keep Alistair living legally in the United States.

In Charlotte, to be precise.

Besides the refreshing novelty of its down-home location, the script had a cozy affinity with the reading stage format. E-mails bounced cross-country through cyberspace between Alistair and his duped pen pal, Carlyle Raye, thicken the plot. Although Griffin actually based his script on a story by Thomas Hardy, the reading was redolent with the deception practiced by Cyrano on his beloved Roxanne.

The ambience was so ideal that I came to SouthEnd Performing Arts Center on opening night with misgivings that a fully staged production might do more harm than good. So I was gratified to find that the new OTTC e-dition, directed by Julie Janorschke, actually delivers some substantial enhancements.

Two projection screens lurk upstage, springing to life when the epistolary action begins. Recorded voices of Griffin and Will Culp, playing Carlyle, are layered on as their messages are typed across the supersized PCs. That's more high technology than we often see onstage these days.

And more than the usual protracted tedium, as our protagonists sit silently in front of their computers. Yet how absurdly delicious! Patrons who see Intim@te E-pistles after a full workday in front of a computer monitor will no doubt experience something like a replay.

Janorschke's staging of E-pistles also heightened my awareness of its flaws. For Alistair to continue wooing Carlyle on Aimee's behalf in 2005, there has to be a reason why the fabulously wealthy publishing heir never uncovers the deception by phoning, texting or instant messaging his beloved before learning that she is pregnant with his child.

Perhaps Griffin will come up with a more solid explanation in a 3.0 version of the script. E-pistles 2.0 would be better off omitting the lame explanations we currently hear.

To his credit, Griffin takes us deftly from the moment Carlyle learns of his paternity to his fast-forward marriage to Aimee. The discovery that his pen pal was actually Alistair is beautifully plotted, too, perhaps the supreme delight of the evening.

Unfortunately, we're supposed to grieve over Carlyle's discovery that Alistair is his true soulmate -- after he's locked in matrimony to Aimee. Yet the ease with which Carlyle has dissolved the Alistair/Aimee marriage undercuts the entire thrust of this somber ending.

So there's another wrinkle to be ironed out in the 3.0 update. Meanwhile the performances by Culp, Griffin and Amanda Liles are very e-ffectively thought through in the current 2.0 version.

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