Arts » Performing Arts

Umberger's Swan Song


Nobody has won Creative Loafing's Theatreperson of the Year Award as many times as Steve Umberger. No one is more responsible for Charlotte Rep's steady growth and artistic excellence than Umberger, the company's founder. Yet at a recent 25th Anniversary Gala that felt more like chamber of commerce banquet than a celebration of great theater, Rep's visionary board of directors welcomed a new artistic director, unveiled an inane new logo with insane enthusiasm, and smilingly handed Umberger his walking papers.

On the surface, the separation appears amicable. Flyers for Umberger's new enterprise, a Summer Stage revival of Shirley Valentine opening on August 14 at Spirit Square, appear as inserts in playbills for Rep's current production. And in Proof, Umberger's valedictory as artistic director, the Ubiquitous One is signing off with one of the most perfect gems ever produced by the Rep.

I didn't think so right away. Sharing the stage with Sarah McCafrey in her Rep debut, the venerable Graham Smith sounded a bit too quick on his cue pick-up. As an indirect result of this accelerated pacing, prepaid coffees for my wife and me were not waiting for us at intermission in the lobby! It is the bartender's sworn testimony that Act I ended a full five minutes sooner than expected.

But I've reconsidered. In the ghostly Robert, Smith is portraying a mad mathematical genius, and his daughter Catherine -- McCafrey's role -- gives strong evidence of inheriting both abnormalities. These manic minds spark quickly. One of the thrilling aspects of Smith's Act II monologue, jubilantly riding the volcano of fresh inspiration after years of inactivity, is its sheer speed.

With fascinating twists, mysterious puzzles, and a quartet of nicely rounded characters, Proof makes you see all of its subjects from multiple angles. Just don't be intimidated by the Tony and the Pulitzer racked up by playwright David Auburn for his breakthrough drama. For all the intricacy of its design, Proof is user-friendly, glittering with humor. And its rewards are as much emotional as cerebral.

Reconsideration, reunion, and rejuvenation are all at its marrow. So are love, sacrifice, guilt, exploitation, and higher mathematics -- math at the Nobel Laureate level. We convene on the rear porch of a ramshackle Chicago home in the early morning hours before the great mathematician's funeral.

Catherine is at a crossroads. She has given up her early 20s -- often the most productive years in a mathematician's career -- taking care of her testy dad. After an abortive attempt to break away from home during Robert's last golden remission, she has returned to endure the final deterioration. Stressed by her unwanted responsibilities, guilty over her sense of relief, and embittered by her sacrifice, Cath must start anew -- haunted by the suspicion that she is falling prey to her father's illness.

Fascinating layers of caretaking here, because sister Claire swoops in from New York, where she has built a successful career as a currency analyst and married well. Seeing Catherine's distress, she proceeds to dictate her future, confident she knows what's best because she's her sister. Sound like any relatives of yours?

Meanwhile one of Rob's former students, Hal, is rummaging among the 103 notebooks Rob filled up during his illness. Now a stagnating math professor, Hal could be A) trying to find a germ of lucidity amidst Rob's gibberish to preserve for posterity; B) attempting to pillage from his more distinguished colleague to revive his own career; C) attempting to hit on the vulnerable Catherine; or D) all of the above.

Hal does find a lucid passage during his first nocturnal vigil in the genius's study. And there's one additional notebook kept apart from the rest.

Performances rise consistently to the level of the engrossing script. For awhile, I thought Sioux Madden's supremely irritating Claire was the best thing happening onstage at Booth Playhouse. Then there's Josh Gaffga's beautifully nuanced Hal, the geek with rock-and-roll tendencies. Or there's Smith, storming back in those Act II flashbacks, reclaiming dominion with his towering exhilaration and rage before his pathetic disintegration.

But this is Catherine's story, after all -- her voyage into trusting her talent, her gift, and Hal's good intentions. It's what she must do despite the mutability of love, virtue, and mental health. Even if the outcome is heartbreak. McCafrey's foaming explosion -- when all is thrown into chaos, confusion, and possible catastrophe -- sweeps away all that precedes it. Stunning.

Proof was originally produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, where Michael Bush served as associate artistic director before moving back to his hometown as Rep's incoming AD. As the final production of Rep's 25th year, Proof is an appropriate bridge to the future. It's also a lovely swan song for Umberger.

There's a magical interlude between the first two movements of Einojuhani Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus that was emblematic of the entire first half of last Friday's Northern Lights concert at Belk Theater. While the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra waited expectantly for their cue from guest conductor Leonid Grin, there was nothing to be heard in the big hall beside the taped sounds of singing birds.

Absolutely nothing. CSO's staid subscribers had been so thoroughly intrigued by the opening episode that they were actually awaiting the resumption of the piece as intently as the players. They were listening to hard-core 20th Century music! Pleasurably.

Of course, in a composition subtitled "Concerto for Birds and Orchestra," interlude is probably not the correct terminology for the unaccompanied playing of that tape. That was our featured performers' most extended cadenza, I'd have to conclude.

Finer points such as that may not have registered with well-heeled patrons up in the grand tier. What probably did happen, while they were listening so attentively to the lovely chirping of the natural world, was a confirmation that Rautavaara's exquisite evocation of the Arctic wild had also been music.

So it was: two flutes circling canonically, joined at judicious intervals by clarinet, trombone, and other brass. Then with the wakened birds sounding off, the lower strings entered melodically and merged into a deep-toned organ richness. Violins took the melody aloft, lightly dusted by sprays of harp and celesta. Just when I thought the beauty of "The Bog" had reached full blossom, principal cellist Alan Black launched into a ravishing solo.

Violins entered gingerly for the brief "Melancholy" section -- after the birds' cadenza -- and whipped themselves into a windy swirl to trigger the "Swans Migrating" finale. Eugene Kavadlo started a new canonic episode on clarinet. Lower strings gave it gravity, harp and celesta sprinkled their delicate magic, and Robert Jackson's trumpet crowned the great massing with majesty. The orchestral ensemble that followed was thrilling. Oddly enough, Rautavaara's percussion overlay didn't come at the peak of the symphonic swell but afterwards -- sort of like adieus as the migrants reached the horizon. A triumphant Charlotte premiere by Grin & Crew.

Elsewhere, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto #1 has been accepted as standard repertoire for over a half century. But the lyrical 1917 showpiece didn't invade CSO music stands until 1990. We've had the work just twice before last weekend's reprise, only once by a guest soloist -- Joshua Bell, during the dreary Leo Driehuys era. Concertmaster Sungil Lee performed it rather blandly in 1997, and his successor, Jinny Leem, brandished her bow with Grin.

The piece can be truly electrifying when the soloist works up to a full lather. Leem managed only a fine froth, but the crowd was more than satisfied.

In a concerto where the whole orchestra doesn't join together until the final moderato movement, there were a multitude of good sources for satisfaction -- and more than a couple of individuals. After Leem flashed her maximum intensity in the opening andante, Susanna Huppert unleashed an achingly lovely flute solo over Leem's filigree.

Principal bassoonist Mary Beth Griglak set an infectious rhythm for the closing movement. Leem was thoroughly charming before the orchestral swell and took us to deep meditative waters afterwards. While she didn't dazzle in the climactic passages, she certainly sparkled agreeably.

If the Prokofiev was a tad too controlled and leisurely, the Tchaikovsky Symphony #1 ("Winter Dreams") worked beautifully after intermission with Grin's controlled reading. The evening held a fascinating collection of instrumental shadings and orchestral textures -- all of them nicely captured by CSO in their best form. *

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