Diving into the whole etymological discussion of cougar, that newly repurposed noun (and verb), isn't for the faint of heart if you're a man in mixed company. Granted, the term is sexist compared to cradle robber, but is it any more disparaging — or admiring — than wolf or dirty old man?
Perhaps I was missing the point of feminist objections to the predatory term, because I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the local premiere of Cougar the Musical by Donna Moore last Wednesday, except possibly the predominantly female full house. Would Moore be satirizing the phenomenon of divorced, moneyed and experienced women 35-and-up who are on the prowl for younger beef that is as commitment-averse as they are? Or would she be glorifying the new breed?
More intent on having fun than changing minds, Moore — apparently not related to Demi — and director/choreographer Tod A. Kubo consistently vacillate. The most devout cougar of the three female co-stars, Mary-Marie, has opened a cougar bar. At her Elder Grille & Younger Boys Lounge, she recruits two others to join the pack: Lily, an embittered kids' birthday party entertainer, and Clarity, a financial analyst who is writing an unflattering thesis on the cougar phenomenon. But not before all three perform a tabletop dance, singing "On the Prowl" to kick off the show.
Set designer Dee Blackburn has built a curving bar front at the lip of the stage, wiping out a good swath of the front row and jutting out to about chest level of those sitting in the second.
Underneath the cougar-spotted trench coats of our heroines, there are three Catwomen ready for action. You shouldn't be surprised to hear a growl or three during "On the Prowl" — or if you also see a trio of catty, clawing hand gestures during the 93-minute musical.
While Cougar celebrates and has fun with the midlife prowlers, Moore and Kubo want to give them something to hunger for. Grant Zavitkovsky is all the fresh meat the three women crave and more, playing the full smorgasbord of men plus a stereotypical Asian manicurist on the side. Wanton and salacious as this all promises to be, actual exposure will be disappointingly wholesome for those on beefcake watch. There is one odd nude scene that is funny, played chastely and silhouetted behind lighted screens, so Charlotte's moral wardens can sleep peacefully with their bibles.
Clarity's transition from the privacy of her vibrator, "Julio," to a bar applicant nicknamed Goliath vies with Mary-Marie's as the funniest of the three plot threads, but whether she remains a confirmed cougar remains up in the air.
Lily, who's somewhat maudlin to start with, nobly releases Elder Grille barkeep Buck to trundle off to LA. Even Mary-Marie doesn't prove to be a die-hard cougar, shutting down her bar before committing an even more ignominious surrender to conventionality.
So the reasons that Moore's cop-outs don't destroy her musical are her affirmative closing number attempting to paper over all those compromises and the fine performances by the cast — dancing and cavorting atop the bar front and beyond. Ericka Ross gives us our best musical moment as Clarity, extracting her vibrator from her purse and serenading it, then undergoing the most satisfying conversion of the evening.
Of course, Moore's sensitivity to commercial propriety dictates that someone among these rampaging sexual animals be capable of human intimacy, so Josephine Hall's journey from self-doubt to self-valuation as Lily can also be cherished.
Sporting a Southern accent as thick as Mississippi molasses, Taffy Allen does most of the comedic heavy lifting as Mary-Marie, particularly triumphant in that silhouetted scene and its traumatized aftermath. Neither Allen nor Hall seemed to be on pitch or in harmony on opening night during Act 1, but if they can sustain the top form they achieved after intermission, you won't be wincing at their vocals.
Whether or not you judge Zavitkovsky to be Chippendale-worthy as Buck, Bourbon Cowboy, Naked Peter and Goliath, he definitely ranges convincingly from stud to would-be stud to dreamboat, and his detour to Eve the manicurist will be quite funny if you leave political correctness at the door.
Aiding one and all in losing their qualms and inhibitions is the open bar before the show and during intermission, very manned by Brandon James, offering cougar-tinis (pomegranate juice and vanilla vodka) and other potables. Upstage and hidden from view, music director Mike Wilkins leads the three-piece band from the keyboard, hitting the perfect groove all evening long.
There is virtue in recycling to be sure, but when you're presenting a satirical assault once a year upon a city as ripe for satire as Charlotte, you ought to be bringing all-new material every year.
Last year, Charlotte Squawks: Ten Carolina Commandments failed the freshness test badly, not only reprising stale material from previous years, but stinking up Booth Playhouse with a self-congratulatory medley of their choicest Carolina Panthers parodies from previous editions. Worse than that, the Squawks scripting birds reverted to pecking at their targets instead of clawing.
Meanness is back for Charlotte Squawks: The 11th Glower, and so is freshness, except for the reprise of a punchless attack on Netflix binging. Unlike last year's misadventures with Putin and Obamacare, when the Squawks guerillas went on the attack outside our city limits — against Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Uber, vaxxers, dysfunctional airline travel and NBC's Brian Williams — script and lyrics writer Brian Kahn actually armed them with something pointed to say.
Or if the lyrics aren't always razor-sharp, something that Kahn throws onto the three projection screens surrounding the stage might ignite an explosion of guffaws.
I've grown a certain fondness for the sensory barrage that Squawks hurls at us, more like the information glut we encounter at home on our computer and TV monitors than anything else we see here on the live stage. Production values, ballyhooed by host Mike Collins as topping six figures, show it in the vibrant band led by Jeana Neal Borman, the sparkling array of costumes designed by Robbie Jaeger, and the video segments starring Gov. Pat McCrory and select cast members.
Glower is probably best when it turns its gaze upon Charlotte and North Carolina, skewering Restaurant Week, seething at toll lanes, bemoaning the upcoming mayoral fracas, mocking Thom Tillis, recalling City Council's restroom kerfuffle and cataloguing the Queen City's failed corporations. After going soft on our sports teams last year — the Hornets because they changed their name, and the Panthers because "Riverboat" Ron guided them back to the playoffs — Kahn let it rip with "I Want to Strangle This Basketball Team."
Even the NFL Panthers, who won a playoff game last season, were savaged by a Kahn parody of Queen's anthemic "We Will Rock You," a bluntly declaimed "We Can't Block You" followed by a devastating "We Were the Champions" (of the abysmal NFC South).
In a wonderful set of film noire takeoffs on the Matthew McConaughey series of Lincoln commercials (produced by Jay Thomas), McCrory cruises through our town and deadpans hilariously. A lampoon of the Rob Lowe series of DirecTV ads also hits the bull's-eye; but the repeated Morris Jenkins send-ups, a holdover concept from last year, wear out their welcome. McCrory wins my best screen actor honors this year, but more than a couple of the live actors pitch in with fine gems, including Kahn, Jaeger, Patrick Ratchford, Carmen Schultz and Bobby Tyson.
Collins had a marvelous night emceeing — perhaps because he had two esteemed members of the press to pick on? Equally delightful were the Squawks News segments, co-anchored by Collins and Johanna Jowett.
Now we should say that Squawks swings and misses a few times, just plain flubbing Kim Kardashian, for instance, or growing mawkish about Randolph Road and the Penguin Restaurant. But if you look at the playbill and compare the bird with last year's, you'll notice that the 11th Glower cartoon has replaced the wildly wagging tongue of Ten Carolina Commandments with a set of gnashing teeth. Sometimes, they actually bite.