Visions of big city avenues, post offices or suburban malls are usually conjured up by the phrase holiday rush. Or perhaps you imagine scurrying mythical elves up at the North Pole at an improbable toy factory, the joyous workshop magically lit up amid the long Arctic night.
Well, you might be surprised to learn that two of Charlotte's most successful arts companies have their own version of the holiday rush. At Actor's Theatre, the lead actor in The Santaland Diaries wasn't asked to don Crumpet's signature elfin garb until mid-October. When he was approached to spearhead David Sedaris' screwball one-man show, Hank West was already in the midst of a mad marathon that had him opening as Nijinsky in late September and rehearsing the title role of Amadeus for mid-November.
That show at Pease Auditorium closed 18 days before the current run of Diaries began at 650 East Stonewall.
OK, so that's one guy facing a mental meltdown. What about some true mass confusion?
Look no further than the North Carolina Dance Company, this week opening its new version of Tchaikovsky's beloved Yuletide ballet, The Nutcracker, freshly choreographed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux.
"Let's say that you rehearse your regular Nutcracker for three weeks," Bonnefoux explains. "When you do a new one, you need six weeks of rehearsals."
Well, NCDT's last show at Booth Playhouse, "Innovative Works," closed on Nov. 11, nearly five weeks before the new Nut opens at the Belk on Thursday. But you don't understand: The company takes its holiday cheer on the road every year to Syracuse for a six-performance run. They had to be ready for those audiences -- sold-out houses of more than 2,100 seats -- on Nov. 30.
So rehearsals for the new Nut had to begin during preparations for "Innovative Works," while five other choreographers were vying for rehearsal time and space. No way you could assemble the complete corps de ballet during that mayhem.
"It was at that time," Bonnefoux recalls, "that I did a good part of my rehearsals and the choreography for some of the divertissements because some of the divertissements have just one soloist or two. Then we only had two weeks, meaning one week to finish the choreography and then one week to run it. Because you have to run it with the kids. The kids are really included in so many parts."
After the Freudian undertones of Sal Aiello's signature version of The Nutcracker, an NCDT mainstay since the early '90s, Bonnefoux wants to reaffirm that this holiday staple is a kids show. So there are more kids than we've ever seen in an NCDT ballet, and two teenagers will take turns portraying Clara, E.T.A. Hoffman's protagonist.
"This Nutcracker is really a tribute to our school," Bonnefoux proclaims, "because we have two Claras, and they are really wonderful dancers, 14 years old. And I added six friends to Clara. I added more children, eventually. We used to have two casts for The Nutcracker. We had 50 kids in each cast. Now, what I did, there is only one cast with 100 kids. Yes! One-zero-zero!"
Those 100 kids did not, however, travel to Syracuse. Another mob of anklebiters rehearsed all those extra roles up yonder. Kathryn Moriarty, a faculty member at the NCDT school, was at the vanguard of a delegation that brought film of the choreography to New York and readied the kids to replicate it.
Balletomanes who have missed the Sugar Plum Fairy in the deep Aiello fantasia will happily rediscover her in the Bonnefoux version. Moriarty's husband, choreographer/dancer/NCDT faculty Mark Diamond, will also play a prominent role.
"I like the idea that people want to see the Sugar Plum Fairy," Bonnefoux confides. "She's going to have a central part in my Nutcracker. Also, what I like is that Mark Diamond is going to do the Drosselmeyer. The Drosselmeyer in a traditional Nutcracker is really like a character role, and I must say that's one of the reasons why I felt really comfortable doing it, because of Mark Diamond. He's a wonderful character actor. He is so expressive, he is so inventive, he is such an artist. And that's one of the most important parts that people are going to enjoy. To see affection between Clara and Drosselmeyer."
Like the rest of us, Bonnefoux was fond of the Aiello version. But audiences were beginning to weary of the old version, ticket sales for The Nutcracker -- like other Nuts across America -- were starting to sag, and the NCDT dancers are eager for a new challenge.
"You know, most of the companies change their Nutcracker every seven to 10 years, and our Nutcracker has been in Charlotte -- the same one -- for 15 years. So it's time."
Unexpectedly, Bonnefoux has found the challenge of freshly choreographing a classic to be fun, from the warring mice on up to the grand pas de deux. Hank West, on the other hand, didn't sound nearly as buoyed by his exertions in Nijinsky's Last Dance, followed by Amadeus, and now The Santaland Diaries.
"I'm crazy, yeah," West acknowledged early in our interview.
Then he hedged, offering a second reason for accepting his third mammoth role in just over two months.
"I was forced at gunpoint to say 'yes' by my agent, Jorja Ursin."
West saw Mark Scarboro in the original Actor's Theatre of Charlotte production of Santaland and thought he was perfect. While West had 18 days to transition between Mozart and Macy's, we can reveal to you that he wasn't simply plopped into an existing ATC mold. The 2006 Santaland is newly directed by Scott Ripley with a complete set design overhaul by Mike Snow.
Scarboro tended to shuttle between cute and slyly caustic, giving an unexpectedly relaxed performance after numerous turns as a psychopathic predator. West finds his own affinity with Santa's snarkiest helper.
"I think it's the sarcasm," he says with a sigh. "I tend to have this -- sometimes it's thinly veiled -- sarcasm. I don't think some people know how to take me sometimes, and I think that's the way it is with Crumpet. Or David Sedaris himself. Sometimes it's hard to catch the depth of his sarcasm, you know what I mean? And I think I have that in me."
The new set converts from the squalid exterior of Macy's (not the legendary picture window but the employees' entrance) to the splendor of the toy department and Santa's throne. A brightly lit runway thrusts into the audience, enabling West to interact more with the audience than the moody Scarboro did.
"I think that works for me," West ventures. "I love the audience. I usually do the murder mystery for Old Courthouse Theatre up at the Speedway Club, and I love it, absolutely love it. So I'm hoping to engage the audience. I might have them running out, but I hope not."
As usual, West is eager to blow his horn about his absolute superiority in Santaland.
"Right now, I'd say forget it. This will be my swan song. This finally drove me out of town. This is it."
For the record, those words were uttered before The Charlotte Observer clocked West's opening night performance at 75 minutes. By Saturday, West had trimmed his time to just over an hour.
Meanwhile, the countdown continues for the Moving Poets Theatre of Dance farewell, Surprise! Surprise! So many of their past shows have been so quickly and frenetically slapped together -- often with fabulous results -- that it might be hyperbole to categorize the current commotion as a holiday rush.
Maybe it's the audience who will experience the rush as Charlotte's most eclectic multidisciplinary performing arts company makes its final stand this weekend in Theatre 36 at the funky Hart-Witzen Gallery. The announced lineup of musicians, actors, dancers and visual artists who will participate continues to mushroom.
Dancers joining the revels include Joe Curry, Miranda Haywood, Bridget Morris, Janelle Tatum-Eggleston and the perennially saturnine Till Schmidt-Rimpler. Newly revealed thespians include Gerry Colbert, Cody Harding, Scott Helm and the inimitable Phillip Sprinkle.
Let there be music! Percussionist/composer David Crowe joins the combo with cellist Matt Levine. Visual artists and designers jumping into the fray include Kit Kube, MyLoan Dinh, Jim Nicholson, Brian Quan, Osiris Rain and Charlotte's prince of gels, Eric Winkenwerder.
Beginning Thursday and continuing through Sunday, Surprise! Surprise! simultaneously celebrates Moving Poets' 10th anniversary and their Berlin bon voyage. Life and death in one tasty cabaret-style package. The glory and shame of Charlotte. They won't be missed by the clueless stuffed shirts who imperially guide our cultural scene, but to Poets' loyal fans and supporters, this will be a reaffirmation of the cross-disciplinary vitality we will sustain if Charlotte's starchy plutocrats ever wake up and grow up.
Professional theatre, anyone? It thrives at ImaginOn in the current productions of The Christmas Bus and 'Tis the Season. If you're hankering for another truly special new musical, escape to Greensboro, where Beautiful Star runs at Triad Stage through Dec. 23. With much of the same Appalachian flavoring of last spring's Brother Wolf, this banjo/mandolin inflected tuner is the most moving telling of the nativity story this Jew has ever beheld.
Perhaps that's because it's preceded by the most moving rendition of the binding of Isaac that I've ever seen onstage. Best of all, the two backwoods narratives are linked in revelatory style.
Humor? Plenty of that, too. Noah gets his call over the radio, a waddling Mary wears a maternity dress and tennis shoes and the Three Wise Men wear caps and gowns.