A holly jolly holiday roundup – Part 1

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After an uncommonly vitriolic political year, it is uncommonly shocking to find myself knee-deep in sweetness as local companies and touring events fill my schedule with a blizzard of holiday fare. Between November 30 and December 10, I’m on a stretch of attending 12 performing arts events in 11 nights – and that’s not counting my modest party lineup, including the CPCC Culinary Arts Center’s media night and the Gantt Center’s Jazzy Holiday Awards Luncheon.

Armed with fresh batteries in my gluco-meter, I have managed to survive the sugary onslaught so far. Here’s a consumer’s guide to eight shows I’ve already dragged my incredibly indulgent wife Sue to see, with my merry snowflake ratings in honor of the season:

Scrooge! (***1/2 out of 4) – Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and Mark Sutton were both relatively new and unproven in the realm of musicals when this Leslie Bricusse adaptation of A Christmas Carol was presented at McGlohon Theatre in 2003. Seven years later, Sutton moves up confidently – and effectively – from the cameos of Jacob Marley to the title role. And with the technical artillery of McColl Family Theatre, the current edition is a don’t-miss stunner, commendably free of the stinginess (in length and budget) that plagued Aladdin, the previous musical at ImaginOn. Full review at Classical Voice of North Carolina.

My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m Home for the Holidays (***1/2) – Yes, I was somewhat disappointed by Solomon’s Italian… Jewish & I’m in Therapy back in March because, silly me, I expected some cohesive, explosively comedic cause-and effect between the writer/performer’s parentage and his psychological trials. Instead, I saw a loosely themed stand-up act with a splash of scenery. But when Solomon returned for the holidays, my expectations of linearity and storyline had already been discarded, and I was far more prepared to take the comedian on his own terms.

Armed with another flimsy storyline – stranded at an airport and (between shticks) trying to keep his deaf parents informed via cellphone – Home for the Holidays overachieved for me, eclipsing I’m in Therapy. Hell, the running cellphone gag was funny! Most of all, I continue to like Solomon’s beautifully poised ordinariness, which is somewhere between the extremes of Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield. For the most part, Solomon’s manner was surprisingly subdued for a stand-up artist, but he could suddenly turn mildly confrontational when the audience didn’t respond. The flare-ups weren’t full-blown Don Rickles when he first came to Charlotte, but Solomon appeared even more diffident this time around, my biggest disappointment. It would have been wiser for Solomon to show his fangs.

The Littlest Angel (***1/4) – I don’t go to heaven every year to see the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of this Charles Tazewell parable dramatized by Patricia Gray. So I cannot authoritatively say that the 2010 edition with Stephen Seay in the title role is the very best, but I cannot remember any that were better, including the marvelous 2005 version with wee Nikki Adkins as The Littlest.

Steven Ivey deftly directs a cast of fellow-Tarradiddlers, beautifully shaping the narrative as it gracefully evolves from heavenly comedy to Nativity sublimity. Darlene Parker oozes warmth as the Gatekeeper, Andrea King is starchily fuddy-duddyish as the Choir Mistress, Salvador Garcia is imperturbable energy as Coach Speedy, and Leslie Ann Giles is pure serenity as the Understanding Angel. I actually found myself more choked-up by the Littlest’s ascension than I was in the denouement of Scrooge! – presumably my reward for not seeing the story so often.

Bach’s Magnificat (***1/4) – The Chancel Choir at Myers Park Baptist Church wear some snazzy robes, so their orderly parading into the sanctuary added a processional majesty to their performance of Mary’s song of praise, as chronicled in Luke 1:46-55. Bach’s setting of the liturgical classic is a small taste of heaven in itself, and a 17-piece orchestra, about 2/3 from the Charlotte Symphony, was perfectly matched both to the strength of the choir and the fine acoustics of the hall.

Reverend Dr. Jonathan Crutchfield led the choir and orchestra with admirable precision – and brisk tempos when they were called for. A pleasing variety of dynamics also marks the piece. Instrumentation winnows down as far as a single cello, organ, and vocalist in the fifth segment of the Magnificat. Only four of the 12 segments showcase both orchestra and chorus at full throttle, with some mighty flourishes from the three-piece trumpet section. Congregants wisely left the front row seats vacant near the brass.

Admission is free at this annual event, and the performance is nicely framed with a church service, including a welcome and homily from the Reverend Dr. Stephen Shoemaker, a reading from Scripture, and a couple of congregational hymns. I suspect that most of the audience have made the Magnificat a personal Christmas tradition. If you don’t mind taking a sabbatical from Messiah – or listening to a more mundane set of vocal soloists – you should seriously consider adding Magnificat to your 2011 to-do list.

Wee (***) – Sue and I happily foreswore our usual front row seats at Duke Energy Theatre to sit in the rear for this PlayPlay Theatre piece, for the company’s audience, mostly pre-school anklebiters and their parents, were a prime ingredient in the entertainment. Moonlighting from key roles in Children’s Theatre’s Scrooge! Mark Sutton and Jon Parker Douglas are two of the three baggy-pants mimes who propelled the merriment. Meredith Sutton, the mother of Mark’s eight children, was the other mime, absolutely radiant in her jailbreak. Completing the cast was Ashby Blakely, who emerged from a big black-and-white box with a compact keyboard synthesizer that he perched on the ledge, accompanying the mimes’ shenanigans.

Discoveries in boxes were a major motif in Wee. I confess that I’ve forgotten what popped forth from the small box at centerstage – the whole show was way under my head and a challenge to my attention span – but I may never forget the epic opening of the third box. After numerous attempts by the clownish mimes to unlock it, Meredith found a heart-shaped key that fit precisely in the box’s keyhole, and Mark hoisted a huge shiny heart high into the air, amid an outbreak of stars and lights above and around us.

The collective wonder of the children and their parents was a sight to behold. So was the mixture of wonder, exuberance, excess energy, and peevishness that prevailed among the kids up to that point. Inspiring, really, like watching the US Congress in action. But the play period after the heart-stopping heart climax decisively showed the difference between the toddlers and our elected representatives. The kids were better-behaved.

Home (**3/4) – The last production of this Samm-Art Williams drama, up at the Attic Theatre of the old Afro-American Cultural Center, spoiled me a little for the recent On Q Productions revival. Brian Daye, directing the show at Duke Energy, grasped the essence well enough, but his cast was uneven as we followed the maturation of Cephus Miles, heir to a modest homestead in Crossroads, North Carolina.

Robert N. Isaac beautifully captured the open simplicity of Cephus, but his concentration slipped too often as he experienced his trials, losing his childhood sweetheart, serving prison time for refusing to soldier in Vietnam, and hitting the skids up in New York. Selana Scott had similar ups-and-downs as an exploitive girlfriend up in the Big Apple and other roles, but her fine voice helped in numerous songs and chants.

Still it was Terry Henry-Norman as Cephus’s childhood sweetie and ultimate redeemer who made this presentation a consistent joy. She sings at least as well as Scott, and her adoration of Cephus actually ennobled Isaac before my eyes. The whole inconstancy curve of Pattie Mae – abandoning Cephus for college and a new college beau, seeing her mistake, and returning to the downtrodden love of her life – became as natural as wiping the sweat off your brow on a hot summer day.

Cinnamon GRITS (**1/2) – Don’t let anyone tell you that Erica McGee isn’t an effective tunesmith, even if she pilfers choice licks from such chartbusters as “Runaround Sue,” “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” “Young Love,” and “Rock Around the Clock” in cooking up her holiday score. But McGee proved a little green in understanding the groundrules of Christmas fare and sequels last week at Heaton Hall, behind the chapel at Myers Park Baptist.

Clocking in at 2:02, Cinnamon dispenses its sweets by the cupful instead of the tablespoon, and while the original GRITS of 2009 patiently explained that the title stood for Girls Raised In The South, McGee discarded such explanations in the sequel, presuming everyone knew. Rookie mistake. Over the course of 17 scenes, the routine becomes a little predictable: a pithy quote from a true or honorary GRITS, a tender, sugary, or comical story from one of our four women, and a song.

Individually, each of the songs and segments proves quite palatable. The little girl who craves Rebecca Rubin, the Jewish maiden in the American Girl doll catalog, is as amusing as the regift rift on “Runaround Sue” that follows, and the story of a 94-year-old celebrating her final Christmas is uniquely poignant. It’s the cumulative, repetitive effect of 17 scenes that’s the problem. Nor was I always convinced that McGee took her subtitle, “Christmas in the South,” seriously enough. Does she want to tell us that Christmas is different down here or the same as everywhere else?

McGee remains a personable performer as Georgia, and the rest of the cast had a nice variety of assets. Elizabeth Smith is youthful and wholesome as Charlotte, Asia Craft as Florence is the righteous belter who can go Cajun, and Ginger Newman as Virginia has the widest range as an actress – and the most mileage. McGee’s choreography, coordinating all these diverse women, is still as cute as a button.

Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!) (*3/4) – In years to come, just saying “Gustave, the Green-Nosed Rain-Goat” will be enough to get people who saw this bomb to shake their heads. I’ve already grilled the show in a full-length review. Hopefully, the ignominy won’t attach itself to Joe Klosek, the actor saddled with the task of portraying this shabby Rudolph ripoff, or his equally spirited cast-mates, Maret Decker Seitz and Chip Bradley, who occasionally lifted this sorry turkey off the floor.

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