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Performing Arts Fall Preview

Baseball, Beatles and Broadway

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OK, so the 2003-04 arts season didn't pan out exactly as planned. A couple of the kingpins on the Charlotte performing arts scene went through some headline-making upheavals. Symphony musicians balked at a salary cut, walked out on strike, and spooked their season until Halloween, heaving the orchestra's first nine concert dates down the crapper.

Meanwhile, in the space of three months, four of Charlotte Repertory Theatre's top theater professionals had the impulse to "resign" as Rep's meddlesome board of trustees went into financial frenzy followed by PR panic. When the smoke had cleared, the company's performance schedule was in shambles.

All of these unexpected twists turned last year's Fall Preview into faulty presumption. But hope springs eternal as a new season begins. Peace reigns at Symphony, which can suddenly afford the most glittering array of guest artists in its history. Rep remains without an artistic rudder. Yet with new leadership quietly taking over their boardroom, Charlotte's flagship Equity company is holding out an olive branch to its founder, Steve Umberger. The beancounters up at Rep's new NoDa headquarters are swearing to subscribers that the show for 2004-05 will go on as advertised.

We can make even sunnier predictions in other sectors of the local performing arts scene. NC Dance Theatre stormed one of New York City's most prestigious citadels last spring, the Joyce Theatre, emerging with heady accolades from the Gotham press corps. They build on that eclat on September 23-25 at Belk Theater, opening their new season with a tasty mix of old and new dances, fetchingly titled Beatles, Barbeque & Balanchine.

NCDT artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux hopes to replicate the success of last fall's Red Hot "n' Bluegrass, the combo that wowed 'em in the Big Apple. Buoyed by the rave notices, Bonnefoux wants to perform more and tour more.

"I wish we'd have more season," Bonnefoux confesses, "so we could do even more programs because there are so many works that I'd love to do. There's much more Balanchine for us to celebrate, and we're presenting lots of new works with Dwight Rhoden and Alonzo King and Mark Godden and Septime Webre. It's a good mix of different styles."

Dwight Rhoden's piece, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' first US tour, figures to be the season's biggest crowd-pleaser. The world premiere rocks with numerous Fab Four faves.

Coming off the success of their two Summer Sensations series, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center is bringing noticeably more programming to Spirit Square -- and they're reportedly selling noticeably more subscriptions to their big Broadway Lights Series at Ovens and the Belk. Small wonder. Three hugely popular musicals are in the lineup, including Hairspray (June 28), Movin' Out (January 25), and the most hilarious musical ever written about Broadway, Mel Brooks' The Producers (October 19).

If their lamentable artistic drift and their ludicrous belt-tightening have robbed Charlotte Rep of its former luster, there are plenty of bright spots elsewhere on the local scene. For theatergoers in search of consistent excellence, clearly the torch has been passed to Actor's Theatre of Charlotte. Their victory as CL's Theatre Company of the Year in 2003 was their third in the past five years -- and they swept both our readers' and critic's awards in this year's Best of Charlotte just two Loafs ago.

The cutting-edge comedies and dramas that were once snatched up by Rep are now falling into Actor's Theatre's sure grasp. ATC's first full season at 615 E. Stonewall finds them at the forefront of the local scene -- with a perfect catch phrase for opening night:

Play ball!

Opening Day Excitement
Lon Bumgarner, our reigning Theaterperson of the Year, directs the Charlotte premiere of Take Me Out, a paean to our national pastime. It's the hottest script out there right now. Chip Decker, artistic director at Actor's Theatre, knows it.

"We're obviously very excited about getting the rights to it as quickly as we did," Decker declares, "and it being the Best Play of 2003 and winning the Tony Award. It's a great piece, not only about what it says as a social commentary, but also just about baseball. Everyone relates to it just because it's Americana and it's got a message."

A dozen years after Magic Johnson's notorious brush with HIV, there are still taboos in sports. Richard Greenberg plays hardball with the major league hang-ups of today's high-priced athletes, exploring the effect of one man's shocking revelation on teammates and fans. There are plenty of laughs too as the yarn unwinds.

But ATC's fall classic wasn't easy to cast with Hispanics and an Asian on the team, so Decker is relieved to report signing up the requisite Spanish and Japanese speakers for the cast. They'll be heading for a belated spring training shortly with opening night scheduled for September 15.

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