Cool, comfy Dock Street highlights Spoleto Festival

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Upstairs, downstairs, in the lobby, and in its lavatories, Dock Street Theatre has been remodeled with the utmost discretion, emerging once again as the hub of Spoleto Festival USA after two years in hibernation. Inside the hall, seats are padded and individualized, sightlines in the middle section have been rehabilitated, and in its first tests, the new millennium A/C system passed with flying colors, operating quietly and effectively under conditions that would have turned program booklets into makeshift fans three years ago.

Four of the 12 Spoleto events I’ve attended down in Charleston so far have been at the Dock Street. My second Spoleto fix of six more events, two at the Dock, will be coming this weekend as the festival winds up. Already, I’ve sampled the prime specialties of the house – opera, theatre, and chamber music. So a report on what I’ve seen so far on Church Street, where the old place is actually located, turns out to be a great way to begin my 2010 roundup. We’ll do a couple dance roundups over the next week or so, and my complete jazz reviews will be collected at JazzTimes.com.

Chamber Music

Charles Wadsworth’s last years as host, musical director, and occasional harpsichordist at the Bank of America Chamber Music Concerts were celebrated while the series was in exile at Memminger Auditorium. So this year’s series not only marks its return to Dock Street but also the apotheosis of Geoff Nuttall, first violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, to the positions of host and music director.

Credit Wadsworth for the smooth transition. His unique style of hosting certainly left Nuttall with few onerous restrictions to be mindful of, and there were a few times in recent years, even before Wadsworth presented him as his successor, that Nuttall was called upon to introduce the music that he and his colleagues were playing.

Properly groomed for his expanded role at Spoleto, Nuttall doesn’t seem to be straining to imitate Wadsworth. With admirable candor, Nuttall reported on his opening-concert failure to recite the movements of Schumann’s Fairy Tales in a German accent – a Wadsworth specialty that didn’t quite compete with his beloved Italian. On the other hand, Nuttall was able to do a demonstration with his portable instrument that Wadsworth couldn’t match, illustrating the funereal second movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet by playing the lugubrious theme while trudging across the stage.

Since it’s the 200th anniversary of his birth, there’s likely to be more work by Robert Schumann at Dock Street this year, as inevitable as Haydn music was last year on his 200th deathaversary. But Nuttall also seems intent on expanding the already eclectic repertoire of the lunchtime concerts.

Each had at least one offering off the beaten track. The first concert included a movement from a Viola Quintet by American composer Johann Frederick Peter (1746-1813) that sounded remarkably similar to his contemporary Luigi Boccherini. More unusual, the next concert concluded with pianist Stephen Prutsman’s transcription of “Soundchaser” by Yes, complete with hippy lighting and a galactic fog machine effect. The David Bruce Gunboots Clarinet Quintet, inspired by the language and music developed by oppressed South African miners, wasn’t quite so outré, but in a newly revised score, Nuttall could rightfully claim that it was “a half world premiere.” It was also an amazing workout for clarinetist Todd Palmer, who had the unenviable task of playing the clarinet and bass clarinet parts twice on the day I heard it, at the 11am and 1pm performances.

Nuttall’s playing style, always flamboyant and uninhibited even when seated behind a music stand, has mellowed slightly since his younger days when his hair grew long. But the sound is just as bold, and his unvarnished ardor occasionally finds voice in his spoken introductions. Nuttall’s advocacy on behalf of Haydn’s op. 20 no. 4 string quartet, Bartok’s Contrasts, and Dohnanyi’s Piano Quintet was particularly passionate. Nor does Nuttall neglect the humor in his programs. Where the Gulliver Suite for two violins sported time signatures of 3/32 for the flickering Lilliputians and 24/1 for the lumbering Brobdignagians, Nuttall made sure to hand out samples of the sheet music so we’d all be in on the joke.

Of course, with the new regime, there has been some turnover in personnel. Prutsman and Palmer are back, playing with their usual flair; violinist Daniel Phillips has already sparkled on the Bartok with Palmer, and his wife, flutist Tara O’Connor, is also on the roster. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein, another returnee, will be of special interest to Charlotte Symphony subscribers, since she’ll be the guest soloist playing the Cello Concerto in the all-Elgar concert launching the 2010-11 season. Among the newcomers, only Hsin-Yun Huang has been disappointing in Bach’s viola da gamba sonata, her tone and forcefulness on viola not nearly as pleasing as Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s in past years.

Reviving a fine custom at Spoleto, Jonathan Berger is serving as composer-in-residence at this year’s festival. Even more exciting, superstar soprano Dawn Upshaw is singing his new songs – through tomorrow – in her Spoleto debut.

The BofA series continues through June 13.

Theatre

Verdict just in: The fault was not in the hall that the witty repartee of Dublin’s Gate Theatre players could not be heard when they performed Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife at Dock Street in 2007. Exactly the same problem plagues their current production of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, most egregiously when the women in the cast converse.

By far the worst offender is Paris Jefferson as egomaniacal actor Garry Essendine’s preternaturally indulgent wife Liz. Granted, standing in elegant contrast to Garry’s grandiose posturing comes with the territory, but not to the extent of being nearly totally inaudible before intermission. Maybe Jefferson’s worldly maturity comes across robustly at her home theater in Ireland, where seating capacity is a mere 380. Here at the Dock, she must reach 468 patrons, and the hum of antiquated A/C equipment is no longer an obstacle. Or a convenient excuse.

No fewer than two women will throw themselves at Garry – one per act – under the thin pretense of forgetting their latchkeys and needing shelter for the night. Fortunately, the second of these, the predatory wife of his producer, Henry Lyppiatt, is portrayed in truly seductive style by Fiona O’Shaughnessy. So Henry’s delectable spouse Joanna not only seduces with a convincing force and allure that carries up into the furthest reaches of the balcony, O’Shaughnessy also manages to coax some extra vitality out of Jefferson.

Director Alan Stanford has obviously set the sky as the limit for Garry’s vanity, and Stephen Brennan does his level-best to reach it in a performance that’s worth the price of admission. Particularly when complications farcically compound after intermission, and everyone is joining Garry on his upcoming African tour, Brennan bumps the physical comedy into overdrive, effectively extinguishing the suspicion that he’s a decade too old for the role. His chief rival in comical éclat is John Kavanaugh as Roland Maule, an aspiring playwright whose gawky tactlessness is exceeded only by his unctuous friendliness. Stanford’s most outrageous work comes here as he turns each of Maule’s unwelcomed appearances into a slapstick epidemic.

Surprisingly, the bit players who round out the cast add little to the comedy. The shortfall is keenest in Barbara Brennan’s mush-mouthed portrayal of Miss Erikson, the housemaid. Jorja Ursin was far more effective when she took up the featherduster in the Theatre Charlotte production of the comedy in 1990.

Through June 13.

Opera

Leave it to Spoleto Festival USA to find a uniquely historical way to reopen their most storied venue. Flora, an Opera was the first piece of musical theater to be performed in Charleston and in America. Its performance in 1735 by a strolling band of players actually predates the opening of the original Dock Street Theatre by less than a year and was undoubtedly a factor in fundraising and ticket selling when the doors on Queen Street admitted their first patrons on February 12, 1736 – less than two years after Dock Street had been renamed Queen Street by an order signed by the colonial governor.

Historical preservation is a way of life in Charleston, but while the original libretto attributed to Thomas Doggett and John Hippisley still survives – and the tunes of the original songs can still be found – the entire orchestral score has disappeared with the name of its composer. So the Flora at Spoleto in 2010 isn’t the same as the one that originally premiered on April 17, 1729, in London.

But as skillfully reconstructed by composer/conductor Neely Bruce, the piece has recaptured its silly, sentimental 18th Century youth. With costumes, set, and stage direction by John Pascoe, it’s tempting – and absolutely safe – to say that Flora is better than ever. Costumes are elegantly colonial, set design delivers more theatricality than Present Laughter or any other Dock Street production in recent memory, the whole operetta explodes into an unexpectedly decorous finale, and Pascoe views the sentimentality and melodrama at the heart of the piece with just enough irony to make it all captivating fun along the way.

Our heroine is immured behind stone walls by her cruel uncle, Sir Thomas Testy, who covets Flora’s fortune and virginity with equal fervor. But Flora’s heart belongs to Tom Friendly, who contrives with an assortment of servants and dimwits to outfox Testy – and his assorted thugs – and provide his sweetheart with opportunities for escape and happiness. The initial fun comes from the cartoonish malignity of Testy and the idiocy of Friendly’s trusted messenger, Hob. What Hob lacks in education he makes up for with his putrid odor.

Sturdier humor is injected when Flora finally gets her chance to escape while Testy is diverted elsewhere and the gateway to freedom lies open. Impervious to Friendly’s earnest pleadings, Flora delays taking advantage of her gaping window of opportunity – her modesty, her scruples, and a hefty string of arias keep her from rushing into her beloved’s arms until it’s… well, why spoil the excruciating suspense?

While none of the music will live in your heart despite Bruce’s able ministrations – and supertitles are desperately needed to get most of the lyrics – Flora is a lovable lark and a fitting tribute to the Dock Street Theatre. Andriana Chuchman is a demure angel as Flora, with a slight dash of girlish libido, and Tyler Duncan, in an almost blindingly blond hairpiece, is the essence of Dudley Do-Right rectitude with a touch of Disney dreaminess. Upstaging them both, and providing welcome refuge from all the lovebirds’ romantic fructose, Timothy Nolen is a perfect Testy, his every word a starchy periwigged sneer.

Two more  performances: June 10 and 12.

Sitting through Flora provided another stern test for the remodeled Dock Street, since the opera is presented without intermission and clocks in at an hour and 45 minutes. That would have been cruel punishment back in the days of the plain hardwood pews. Now the individual seats and seatbacks, together with the A/C, make for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Side sections are pointed inwards at Dock Street toward center stage, though I wish they had cheated and slanted these rows even more and improved sightlines.

As I finally found at my third chamber music concert, the center section has very handsomely staggered seats in alternate rows so that everyone is looking over shoulders instead of heads. Everything inside the old French doors of the theater has been subtly scrubbed and upfitted. Outside toward the front of the building, more space has been ceded to the modernized washrooms by moving the box office out to the gallery at the other side of the building, near the open-air courtyard to the rear of the hall.

Still very 18th Century in appearance, all in all, and very 21st Century in comfort.

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