3 in 1 theater reviews

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Just when I wanted to throw up my hands in despair, CPCC Summer Theatre has recovered its old pizzazz with The Will Rogers Follies. With our Tech of the Year Bob Croghan back on the job, they’ve remembered how to design and build a set. With triple-threat Theaterperson of the Year Billy Ensley portraying the beloved Cherokee-rancher-philosopher-comedian, CP is back to doing what they do best, filling the stage with dancers and tapping their fool heads off. Better than that, they’ve even managed to exorcise the gremlins from their sound system.

The Peter Stone book is more than a little weird. Building on Rogers’ fame as a key cog in the Ziegfeld Follies, he creates a Follies show telling the story of the superstar’s life with Rogers himself returning from the grave to play the title role. Florenz Ziegfeld is up in the soundbooth, occasionally chipping in with stage directions, and famed transatlantic pilot Wiley Post is in a balcony box, periodically inviting Will to go flying with him. We learn fairly early, if we didn’t know already, that the two flying buddies perished together in a crash up in Alaska.

Of course, doing rope tricks while delivering pointed political commentary is pretty weird, too, so why not go with the flow? Ensley radiates a homespun crooked-smile charm from his opening monologue, and Susan Cherin Gundersheim as Betty Rogers (née Blake) is a perpetually sunny presence, able to make her Cy Coleman ballads less deadly than they really are. In her CP debut, Lucy Werner brings youthful glamor and cheerleading pep to her role as the ultimate vaudevillian, Ziegfeld’s Favorite; and as Will’s father Clem, doubly brought back from the grave in defiance of all logic, James K. Flynn gets to feast on all the choicest comic and sentimental bits.

All those white Ziegfeld-style stairs in Croghan’s set do not go to waste, for director/choreographer Ron Chisohm has Ensley, Gundersheim, Werner, a dozen Follies Girls, and Four Cowboys hoofing all over them. Drina Keen leads the CP Orchestra, and it’s so wonderful to hear what they really sound like. On the way out, I told the guy who was potting sound “Good job,” but the same could have applied to everyone onstage and in the pit.

On Q has had its ups and downs during its Season of Satire, but on balance, I have to like what they’re doing with Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine. Quite the reverse of missed Q’s of the past, this is a strong script that, at least on opening night at Duke Energy Theatre, was nearly getting a production worthy of it.

When we first see her, Undine Barnes Calles is mired in the stressful, fast-paced world of PR. No doubt about it, director has Nicole Danielle Watts as Undine and Briana Gibson her assistant Stephie motoring as fast as they can, but in they key opening scene, the two got derailed a couple of times. Nottage does some derailing of her own to her heroine, for when Undine’s Argentinian hunk of a husband leaves her, he takes all the money – except $47.51 – with him.

The fall is precipitous. Before she can say “pre-natal care” – did I mention she was pregnant? – Undine finds herself back in the hood with the family she renounced 14 years earlier. Back then, her name was a more down-to-earth Sharona Watkins. There was nothing wrong with the fancy education Sharona received the first time around, thanks to considerable sacrifices from her parents, but this time, Undine is home-schooled. When she isn’t doing time.

Rose and scenic designer Daniel Fleming re-configure the Duke in an intriguing fashion, but for me, the circular scheme didn’t work well when we moved from Undine’s office back to the Watkins place in the hood. Sightlines from the front row didn’t give me a clear view of the whole family, and there was a badly missed light cue when Watts stepped out from that corner into the center circle. Others in the house may have had it worse, facing similar problems at Undine’s office in the opposite corner where the drama begins.

Watts and Gibson were both excellent after the bumpy start as Gibson drifted in and out of multiple roles. They were also the most consistently audible from those corner locations. Calvin Walton is at his best as Undine’s admonishing accountant, Dominic Weaver has a perfect arrogance for Undine’s jiggolo ex, and Sanchez Crenshaw has the big cuddly warmth needed for guy Undine meets in group. Was that Gibson or Myrna J. Key as the unflappable, spaced-out therapist? Not sure. But Lillie Oden steals her every scene as Undine’s junkie Grandma – whenever she wakes from her stupor.

The current edition of Charlotte Squawks has relocated to Booth Playhouse, and believe me, 7 Year Bit©# is the meanest, nastiest, and filthiest Squawks I’ve seen yet. Halleluyah, the gloves are finally coming off!

As the title indicates, there is some lingering squeamishness over language from previous Squawks revues. Cee Lo Green’s “F**k You” is unnecessarily cleansed when Mekole Wells sings it to Brian Kahn’s parody lyrics. But Kahn and co-producer Mike Collins must have hit the Comedy Zone within recent months – or chanced upon HBO or Comedy Central – for there are expletives and F-bombs galore everywhere else.

The extra verbal zing is fortified with a whole new level of production glitz. Kahn has dramatically amped up the video and PowerPoint elements, including an encore cameo from Pat McCrory, and Gillian Albinski’s production design sizzles, offering us a taste of strip joint ambiance when we get to the climactic “Hey, Big Lender” take-off on the classic Sweet Charity come-on. Choreography has tightened exponentially, with Linda Booth cracking the choreo whip for that number and, even more amazingly in “Twitter,” getting the whole cast of 10 to replicate the routine from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Contrasted with the beefy Kevin Harris in drag, Maret Decker Seitz brings the most shimmying sluttiness to the “Hey, Big Lender” chorus line, but her Actress of the Year talents come just as sensationally to the fore in her stratospheric vocal on “The Fandom of the Oprah.” Wells in a wig does a damn good Winfrey.

Squawks has been a staple of my annual Bombs list in the past. Definitely not this year.

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