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A sound display of physical comedy

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Away from my Charlotte beat, I religiously avoid Noises Off and its signature revolving set. Nearly every production I've seen of Michael Frayn's backstage comedy in Charlotte has been better than the wretched Broadway version I endured in late 1984.

While I've grown to like and appreciate Noises Off over the years, I still collide with it far too often to be soliciting encores. Besides the 1987 Rep version, I've seen four other local and college reprises. Nor will the current production — a second for Theatre Charlotte — be the last.

But the Queens Road barn boasts the best version to come along since that ancient Rep staging first revealed to me the charms of Frayn's intricate creation. Guest director Simon Donoghue has a punctilious style ideally suited to this fizzy silliness.

Donoghue brings an admirable group of accomplices who share his enthusiasm. Most prominent among them are Mike Collins and Catherine Smith, who divvied up the stage with Donoghue a year ago in Rep's notorious production of Frayn's Copenhagen.

Bob Tully has also appeared in numerous productions at Belmont College, where Simon Donoghue offers monastic seclusion from reviewers as director of theater. Here Tully is miscast as Lloyd Dallas, director of Nothing On, the play within Frayn's play. It's the only serious flaw in an otherwise rollicking evening.

In Act 1, when an error-riddled rehearsal makes it obvious that Nothing is nowhere near ready for its impending premiere, Tully's salvos of irony and exasperation don't scale to sufficiently Olympian heights. After intermission, Tully cannot summon up Lloyd's elegant charm and savoir-faire as he strives to woo starlet Brooke Ashton. But he's definitely up to the aging director's subsequent humiliations. By this time, physical comedy reigns supreme.

Collins has never given a better display of it. His tumble down the staircase, amid the shambles of Act 3, caps a cleanly crafted rendering of jealousy-prone Gerry Lejeune, albeit a little heavy on the starch. Susan Roberts Knowlson meshes beautifully with Collins as Brooke, plumbing new depths of tartiness and dimwittedness that will be a revelation to her fans. Dopiest of all is her wondrous header over the couch.

As the resident gossip, Smith gives Belinda Blair a slightly arch cheeriness that is perfection. But it's Dottie Ashley, beleaguered by the phone, the sardines and Gerry's jealousy, who gets the wealth of comical opportunities, and Polly Adkins executes all her gaffes with admirable ease.

Patrick Ratchford expands his range as the sensitive, obtuse Frederick Fellowes, tossing in two of the best pratfalls in the final act. Quickly dispelling all suspicions of nepotism as Allgood, Christopher Donoghue makes a compelling case for using a youthful actor as the sleep-deprived company manager.

Yes, the backstage explosions of Act 2 flit by too quickly to be fully absorbed in one viewing. But Donoghue pre does the best job of any director I've seen in keeping the multiple plotlines clear without slowing the pace to a crawl.

Charlotte lucked out last week, getting to see Darren Holden as the Piano Man in Movin' Out, his final touring performances before taking over the role on Broadway. Holden ignited the dancers : and the audience : at Ovens Auditorium on opening night in his grueling traversal of Billy Joel's songbook.He was no less the real deal than the spectacular lead dancers who turned up the heat and electricity on Twyla Tharp's celebrated Tony Award choreography. Most of them have already logged time in the Broadway version.

Holly Cruikshank and David Gomez were both standout soloists, and their chemistry as Brenda and Tony sizzled most memorably in a smokin' "Shameless." In "Summer, Highland Falls," their sinuous connectivity brought Brendan King, as Eddie, to a jealous boil. King's fiery athleticism delivered some of the evening's most visceral moments. But his brilliance was tainted when he prodded the audience for more and more applause.

Who did he think he was — a rock star?

Joel's songs didn't always accommodate Tharp's storyline — of a boomer generation that sprang up on the streets of New York and matured (or died) in the jungles of Vietnam. Occasionally, you needed the synopsis in the playbill to figure out what was happening onstage.

When Tharp's tortured juxtapositions worked, the impact scored a knockout. Especially potent were the three scenes just before intermission, where Tharp projected both the home front and the battlefront ambience on her broad canvas.

In that wartime context, "We Didn't Start the Fire" emerged as an anthem — and a lament — for an entire era.

Troupers to the end, my wife and I defied the doomsaying weathercasters to attend last Saturday night's Samson & Delilah. What we found at Belk Theater, after braving the icy elements, was an Opera Carolina presentation that did most of the little things gloriously well : yet spectacularly botched the biggest moments.Roberto Uzan's scenery transitioned smoothly from the public square where Samson rallies the Israelites to Delilah's exotic grotto. We eased impressively from the dungeon where Samson prays for deliverance to the Temple of Dagon where Delilah's treachery is avenged.

Better yet, stage director Bernard Uzan injected much-needed dynamism in Saint-Sans's oft-static opera. But what he was thinking at the climactic moment when Samson was betrayed? Modern wigmaking enables Delilah to cut off Samson's hair every night in plain view. Uzan reverted to the old-fashioned practice of having the hero's emasculation occur offstage. Fine, but then he inexplicably brought Samson back, in Philistine custody, with no less hair than when he left!

The cataclysmic ending was an awesome disaster. We expect Samson to shed his chains, freeing him to tear the mighty temple pillars asunder. The temple should then come crashing down, and the proud, taunting Philistines should be flattened. To my amazement, this sequence was totally reversed. Yup, the Phils fell before everything else, and Samson never did break those chains until he took his curtain call.

For all his stocky muscularity, Mark Baker made a rather gnomish Samson, particularly in his exchanges with the Old Hebrew warning him against Delilah. But if the tenor's French was somewhat wayward, there was steel, anguish, self-loathing and penitence where needed — in action and voice. Jessie Raven, as Delilah, often declaimed her arias with no apparent comprehension.

One big moment that did come off nicely was Raven's recumbent love duet with Baker deep into Act 2. Definitely no wardrobe malfunction there.

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