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Theater reviews: Jackie & Me and Sylvia

New shows from Children's Theatre and Appalachian Creative Theatre

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An amazing crush of traffic on I-77 made it impossible for my wife, Sue, and me to see Steven Dietz's Jackie & Me at ImaginOn on Saturday afternoon. Yet when we caught up with the new Children's Theatre production the following afternoon, March 1, it was equally impossible to overlook how supremely appropriate this unique homage to Jackie Robinson had been in capping Charlotte's 2015 celebration of Black History Month — though I suspect it didn't drive quite as much traffic as the CIAA Tournament.

Adapted from the book by Dan Gutman first published in 2000, the second of 12 Baseball Card Adventures aimed at the 8-12 crowd, the play introduces us to the star of the series, time traveler Joey Stoshak. Put a vintage baseball card in Joey's hand ­— picturing Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams or Roberto Clemente, to name some others in the series ­— and Joey can journey back to the year that card was issued and meet his idol face-to-face.

What I found particularly neat was Gutman's casual flouting of sacred comic book conventions, which decree that all who possess super powers must keep their specialness hush-hush and spawn secret identities. So when Joey decides to visit 1947 and Jackie's historic first appearance at Ebbets Field with the Brooklyn Dodgers, his divorced parents know all about his special gifts. Mom packs a few snacks for the trip, and Dad contributes a beat-up satchel, slipping his son a $20 bill so he can return with as many vintage baseball cards as possible.

There are additional personal layers to the story, a couple of them competitive. Joey has chosen America's first professional black athlete as his target because he wants to write the best essay in his class for Black History Month — and win three free tickets to Magic Mountain. Jackie is not only the perfect model for Joey's report, he also turns out to be a perfect role model for Joey. Our hero has a hard time controlling his temper at Little League when opposing pitcher Bobby Fuller taunts him for being Polish. Joey's violent reaction has led to his team's forfeiting the game, and his Mom has tacked on a suspension that just may prevent him from returning to the diamond.

Robinson famously had to promise Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, as a condition of signing with the team, that he would put a lid on his fierce pride and temper no matter what insults were hurled at him by fans, opponents and even teammates. We see hostility from all those groups, up to and including the N-word on one occasion. So there is that lesson for Joey to take him with him and apply.

Interestingly enough, we learn nationwide production of baseball cards, halted during wartime, didn't resume until 1948. This info comes at us geekily from Flip, the old codger who runs Pittsburgh's trading card and memorabilia shop, an avid Dodger fan who still wears a Brooklyn cap proudly. Fortunately, a limited edition of Robinson cards, 13 of them, were issued by the Bond Bread Company, and Flip has the complete set.

Curiously, there are no white bread jokes in the entire 87-minute show. But there's another educational — and diabolical — curve that's thrown at Joey when one of those precious Bond Bread cards transports him to Branch Rickey's office just before Robinson meets him for the first time. When Joey rises from the floor and sees his reflection, he is anything but our clichéd idea of a Pole. He's black!

All the better to learn the indignities of being black in America first-hand. Joey not only witnesses how Jackie tamped down his fury, he learns it as a survival skill for himself when he saunters up to a "Whites Only" water fountain.

In Brooklyn? Historically, Joey's time in New York City is compressed and altered so he can witness Jackie's signing, his first game at Ebbets Field and his first road trip to Philadelphia. A truly wicked plot twist allows him to attend the opening game of the 1947 World Series at Yankee Stadium and meet Babe Ruth as an old-timer.

Under the direction of Matthew Mazuroski in his Children's Theatre debut, Jackie & Me is so powerful and technically sophisticated you forget it's being staged at the smaller Wells Fargo venue at ImaginOn rather than the lordly McColl. Tom Burch's set design splashes some of the best-known baseball cards ever coveted on projection panels that slickly revolve when we adjourn to the Dodgers' locker room or a Brooklyn street. Old-fashioned manpower, mostly supplied by the cast, whisks us in and out of Rickey's office and Flip's shop.

Thanks to the richness of Dietz's script and Mazuroski's work with an absolutely sterling all-adult cast, a production that I expected to be mildly informative became surprisingly moving. Starring in his first mainstage production for Children's Theatre, Chester Shepherd is captivatingly boyish as Joey, suitably callow on the diamond emulating Robby's signature base-running bravura, and childishly impulsive when challenged or abused. Back for another marquee role after his triumph as Daddy Dalmation a few months ago, Bobby Tyson gives us a Jackie who is heroic in his determination and forbearance yet truly human in his warmth, understanding, and moments of self-doubt.

Supporting players get a lot to sink their teeth into. Charles LaBorde, who has ranged from Willy Loman to Vince Lombardi in his career, now tackles Rickey, the Babe, and Joey's crusty Little League coach among his five cameos. CT stalwart Mark Sutton is equally protean, excelling most as Flip behind the counter and Pee Wee Reese on the field. Of course, since white folk 68 years ago aren't going to be quite as enlightened, Tommy Foster and Danielle Rhea as Joey's parents acquire a nasty edge when they're multitasking in the past. Foster is particularly bigoted as Dixie Walker, explaining why he isn't looking at the camera in the Dodgers' 1947 team photo.

Among the other shape shifters, David Sebren and Ericka Ross stand out. Sebren is doubly villainous as Bobby Fuller, Joey's Little league tormentor, and Ant, the racist locker-room swab who rummages through Joey's gear. In the pithiest pairing of roles, Ross is both Jackie's wife, Rachel, and Joey's classroom teacher.

Transgressions against baseball orthodoxy are surprisingly few. I'm going to give a safe signal to the left-handed catcher we see at the beginning of the show, since it's a Little League game, but a left-handed shortstop at the Major League level is outright heresy. Paula Garofalo's costumes all hit the mark — when we're at Ebbets Field or Flatbush Avenue. But where are the road uniforms when the Dodgers take the field at Shibe Park in Philly — or when they take the crosstown subway to the Bronx and invade Yankee Stadium?

Overshadowing these gaffes is the glory of the Brooklyn accents, right on down to Chaz Pofahl as the cop on the beat. There's a comical little corner of this script that honors this earthy patois, climaxing in a translation of "Goodjooma." Only a sip of an authentic egg cream — or a bite of my bubby's unforgettable kreplach — could have brought me closer to the home of our beloved Brooklyn Bums.

Notwithstanding the fine Three Bone Theatre production of The Dining Room at the beginning of the 2013-14 season, Sylvia retains its commanding position as the leader of the pack among A.R. Gurney's ever-so-whimsical-and-literate comedies. The current Appalachian Creative Theatre production, presented at UpStage, is at least the seventh to be staged in the Metrolina area since the original Manhattan Theatre Club production wowed and bow-wowed off-Broadway audiences in 1995. Charlotte Rep promptly brought the first local production to Booth Playhouse in early 1997.

With a title role that is part Labrador retriever, part poodle and all exuberant doggie fun, it isn't surprising the show is reprised so often (including twice previously in NoDa by Off-Tryon Theatre Company in 2003 and 2005). There are only vestigial remains of Gurney's incurable bookishness here as Sylvia's nemesis, Kate ­— the sensible wife of Sylvia's savior, Greg — spouts lines from Hamlet, Henry IV, and Twelfth Night because she's a highly respected teacher by day, working on Manhattan's Shakespeare curriculum.

Greg and Sylvia are more instinctual and loosey-goosey when they meet in Central Park, get along famously and drive Kate into a tizzy of frenzy and jealousy just when she thought she and her husband had emptied their nest. They're trying to force Greg from stocks to currencies at the brokerage where he works, so the park is his refuge from the oppressiveness of his boss and the tedium of his job. Sylvia's unconditional love is exactly what Greg craves when he finds the stray pooch — but not exactly what Kate's wacky doctor would order.

Long before Kate manages to drag him into Dr. Leslie's lair, there are numerous marital battles strewn among the comedic doggie bits as Sylvia is groomed, walked, potty trained, taught tricks and — in a dastardly betrayal — spayed. Callie Bachorski is likely the grubbiest Sylvia to ever hit Charlotte when we first see her in her raggedy hippy costume designed by Mykal Smith, but she does glam up after her grooming session before her inevitable relapse. Bachorski enthusiastically flings all inhibitions aside in her worship of Greg and in her cunning courtship of Kate, with only occasional — yet delightfully incongruous — outbreaks of femininity.

Tom Ollis is probably the least starchy or avuncular Greg I've ever seen, so I was slightly alarmed by how well his red-blooded interpretation worked, without any of the wimpishness Lee Thomas brought to the role or any of Dennis Delamar's warmth. Rest assured that Pam Coble Coffman is starchy enough for two, a wonderful foil who subtly adds credibility to Kate and Greg as empty nesters. Luckily, she doesn't go too far in her aversion toward Sylvia (alias "Saliva") to preclude a marital reconciliation or a doggie détente.

Generally, I'm quite pleased with how Appalachian artistic director Justin Atkisson pilots this comedy, but I found myself as conflicted about Smith's costumes for Robert Brafford as I was about the actor's three cameos. As Tom, a fellow dog owner Greg encounters repeatedly in the park, free with advice and conceited about his stud-muffin Bowzer, Brafford rightfully drew yelps of laughter, aided by his boldly packaged exercise outfit.

But when he came on as Kate's chum Phyllis, mostly to be victimized by Sylvia's whorish attentions, Brafford looked and sounded too wholesome and pretty, not sufficiently haughty and scandalized. Costuming was far better for Dr. Leslie and his/her ambiguous gender, but the ready joke in this scene is that Leslie is far more disturbed than either of his patients. Neither Atkisson nor Brafford wanted to go there until it was too late.

Ultimately, members of the household must fend for themselves in marking out their territories and settling their differences. Along the way, there is plenty of comedy in the precocious communication and unseemly warfare between Sylvia and her new owners. But ever so gently as he presents the human dimensions that dog owners often perceive in their pets, Gurney also brings out the simple, sensual, animal aspects of our humanity that pets help us to connect with.

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