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Once Upon a Life

The Game that people play

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Lifegame isn't one of those gripping new dramas that reveals what today's hottest playwright has to say about where we've gone so terribly wrong. Nor does its creator, Keith Johnstone, pontificate about the woeful injustices and absurdities of the contemporary world -- or warn us of a horrific future perched on our doorstep.

No, Johnstone doesn't even equip his actors with a script. Scarier still, he tosses a new joker into their midst every night.

So the current show at SouthEnd Performing Arts Center, produced by Matt Olin for BareBones Theatre Group, is not theater as we expect it to be. At the left side of the stage -- the talk show side -- we're greeted by Lon Bumgarner, who introduces us to tonight's subject. Like us, he has no idea who he or she will be.

On the other side of the stage, we find a talented, plucky ensemble of seven actors. As Bumgarner interviews his guest, one or more of the actors may move to center stage and begin portraying the people in the guest's narrative. But first, each special guest chooses the actor who will be him or her all evening long.

At opening night, landscaper Margaret Brown chose Chandler McIntyre to stride over to "the tuffet of honor" beside the guest and become the surrogate Margaret. McIntyre was our protagonist from Margaret's childhood, through school and into marriage, then onwards to her afterlife.

Bumgarner emerged as the pleasant antithesis of the usual slick and jokey talk show host. Sometimes he struggled or looked mildly flustered as he attempted to delve into the dramatic core of Brown's life and the events that have made her what she is. At the same time, there was a bemused wisdom that seemed aware that all the spontaneous fumbling, stumbling, misunderstanding and struggles to communicate are at the heart of why Lifegame can be so compelling and true-to-life in a way conventional theater can never be.

Trained by Lee Simpson, one of the directors of the successful London version of Lifegame, Bumgarner clearly comes to his task with a preset agenda. Some of the segments do have a game-like quirkiness. When he set Margaret's family at the dinner table, for example, Bumgarner gave his guest a bell to indicate approval -- and a horn to loudly protest when they went astray.

Later, when McIntyre and Joe Rux reenacted the climactic marriage proposal from Margaret's husband, David, Bumgarner brought Margaret over to center stage, stood her behind the actors, and had her whisper their lines to them as the scene proceeded. We heard them aloud moments afterwards, as each brief thought became life-transforming family history.

The actors, also trained by Simpson, come armed with a small arsenal of props stashed backstage plus a toolkit of storytelling devices that they only began to unveil on opening night. At one point, a trio of actors paraded to center stage and mimed a series of actions, challenging Margaret to identify and elaborate on this person in her life. Later, with the aid of a cheap-o picture frame, the ensemble winningly capsulized Margaret's marriage into three "snapshots."

On opening night, the stellar performers in the ensemble were Aaron Moore, Johanna Jowett and Rux. But your mileage may vary -- radically -- depending on who steps forward and whom they play on any given night. Certainly the rest of the ensemble, including Nicia Carla, Brian Lafontaine and Barbi VanSchaick, have well-established credentials. Ensconced at the keyboard, Marty Gregory chips in with apt musical commentary and background.

Children's Theatre has a checkered history with musicals. They won Show of the Year honors way back in 1988 with Through the Looking Glass. But they've only mastered Scrooge! after repeated runs, and they misfired last year with Bridge to Terabithia.So it gladdens my heart to be able to report that Prince Brat & the Whipping Boy succeeds as a rip-roaring comedic adventure yarn and as a pulsating musical. With unexpected brio, Sid Fleischman has adapted his own Newberry Award novel for the stage, tossing in lyrics of unusual cleverness and flavor.

The music by John Engerman is even better news. "Hold-Your-Nose Billy," named for the garlic-draped outlaw who kidnaps our heroes, stops the show, and "Dog Rich" is as deliciously vile as "Easy Street" in Annie. Under Alan Poindexter's gregarious direction, Whipping Boy gallops triumphantly into the frontier of Act 2 without losing tot attentions.

CT's designers, costumer Johann Stegmeir and lighting whiz Eric Winkenwerder, mesh well with ace choreographer Ron Chisholm and musical director Scott McKenzie. Brian Robinson as Hold-Your-Nose and Susan Roberts as our cat narrator are two of our brightest musical comedy stars. Yet CT stalwarts Mark Sutton as outlaw sidekick Cutwater and Jill Bloede as potato vendor Captain Nips (in notably Falstaffian form) shine no less brightly.

Jason Stamey's waspish debut as Prince Brat in this all-adult production makes liking the reformed heir a wee bit difficult at the end. It helps that Conrad Ricamora has such enormously likable forbearance in his debut as Jemmy, the rat catcher who catches all the prince's punishments.

In the afterglow of Renee Fleming's gala visitation, any classical concert at Belk Theater might have seemed anticlimactic. But that hardly excuses last week's spotty turnouts for the Carolinas Concert Association's kickoff event or the Charlotte Symphony's bout with Strauss and Brahms.With maestro Christof Perick at the podium, the rich, sunny textures of Strauss's early Serenade for 13 Winds radiated through the hall at a strict bouncy pace that sometimes reminded me of Mozart's wind serenades. But Strauss's elegiac Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings -- written in 1945 after the demolition of opera houses in Dresden, Vienna, Berlin and Munich -- never quite filled the room, often diluting the composer's grief into wistfulness and robbing us of his outrage.

For those who waited through intermission for the stage to finally fill with Charlotte Symphony musicians, Brahms' Symphony #1 was a mighty gratification.

CCA's 75th anniversary could hardly have kicked off with more jubilation than the Canadian Brass marching down the aisles of the Belk, clad in matching black suits and white Nike tennis shoes, swinging to "Just A Closer Walk With Thee." The quintet's repertoire ranged engagingly from Bach to Piazzola, from Paganini to "Fats" Waller, and from Mozart to Ellington.Virtuosity was on plentiful display, chiefly from the French horn of Jeff Nelsen and the multiple trumpets -- including the piccolo -- of Josef Burgstaller. The coup de theatre came when the ensemble staged an abridged brass version of Bizet's Carmen, with wigs for Carm and Micaela plus horns and tail for affable tubist Charles Daellenbach. Ole!

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