A Slow Seasonal Wrap Up

Offerings By UTC, Chatt State, And Choral Arts Of Chattanooga

Tuesday, January 11, 2005 - by Bart Whiteman

Writers have at least two inherent problems in attempting to exercise their curse-like trade: being reluctant to write because of a sense of pointlessness with regard to their product or being physically incapacitated and therefore unable to write. I confess I have suffered from both maladies recently. I am happy to report that both problems appear to have been temporary, but now I have some catching up to do.

I have been regretfully tardy with some product because I have been ill. I didn’t have the will or energy to write, but at the same time, this gave me the opportunity to re-think the point of what I write. I have realized that writers cast themselves as a voice, sometimes in the wilderness, that cries out from necessity and often out of loneliness. If no one else is saying what you are saying, there is a good chance it must be said. There is a slimmer chance it might be heard, but then again if everyone is saying what you are saying, you could be lost in all the noise. Once others pick up your thread, you might have to find a new ball of yarn.

We have just made it through the Holidays, in the midst of which was a little Indian Ocean disturbance and reminder of our true place and hold on the planet and just how delicate our collective survival truly is. One can only hope that there have been numerous New Year’s resolutions to re-prioritize our focus and convictions. So many “important” concerns can become trivial in seconds.

When asked to cover performing arts events during the Christmas season, there is always a small Grinch-like pleasure if you have anything to say which is beyond “enjoy.” Most seasonal fare is repetitive and also a staple product, which can often be a cash cow, since the public seems devoted to the endless repetitions. They turn out in droves. Anything to avoid another glass of eggnog I guess.

I did manage to cover a few Yuletide offerings, but have held off from saying anything until now for the above stated reasons. I also didn’t want to be a dyspeptic presence amid all the usual good will toward men and so forth.

I generally give individual coverage to each event I cover, but because of the time delay and because of the fact that some of the points that needed to be made with each are similar, a combination article seemed prudent and more efficient.

The first show I saw was presented by the UTC Theatre Department, and it was a refreshing departure from their usual “I am going to die-You are going to die-We are all going to die” fare. In fact, it was Blithe Spirit by none other than the twentieth century’s own bon vivant himself, Noel Coward. It was also distinctly unseasonal, which was another plus, since we now start marketing Christmas in early August, so that by the time the poor beleaguered holy birthday arrives, we are already exhausted by it and not particularly sorry to see it pass.

This is no small sorrow in that I can remember growing up when Christmas possessed a breath-stopping magic that moved it well ahead of any other day of the year in anticipation. Ah, the loss! But then, I grew up in Connecticut, and there was a distinct advantage to Christmas there having to do with the weather and the prospect of a real “White Christmas” like the one the song promises, or at least dreams about. Since Santa rides in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, snow again seems to fit more neatly into the picture. Sleighs don’t travel well in mud. On the other hand, since the South rarely sees a white Christmas, it always has to work harder to generate that Christmas feeling, thus the houses and yards that become eyesore tourist attractions.

Actually, the Christmas season is a good time to present something that is not at all seasonal for this reason – to buck the trend of diminishment. Blithe Spirit is the story of a rather unique and ingenious love triangle, since one of the apices is a ghost. Husband Charles finds himself simultaneously in the presence of two of his wives, Ruth, the living, current one and Elvira, the expired, former one. This predicament is the product of an aborted seance with one medium named Madame Arcati, who, despite some clearly charlatan-like proclivities, manages to find a small seam in the wall separating the living from the dead through which Elvira makes her surprise entrance.

Director Fred Behringer decided to approach the play as a farce instead of the urbane situation comedy that it is. This gave the proceedings a decided heavy-handed feel. The key should have been that the biggest laughs came on the lines that were thrown away, meaning they were delivered with little energy in stark contrast to the clanking and clanging around of the surrounding unsubtle stuff.

Coward is a direct artistic descendent of Oscar Wilde, and both had no shortage of material surrounding them in their observations of the British bourgeoisie. There are some farcical elements embedded the action of the play to be sure (yes, parts of the set periodically move mysteriously), but the characters are funniest when they behave as if they don’t know they are supposed to be farcical.

James Logan gave an intelligent performance as the spectrally challenged Charles. He probably could deliver Coward dialogue in his sleep. Anne York brought out the impishness in Elvira. What might have been missing was a sense of being startled by suddenly being thrust back into the world of the living.

Nevertheless, the native “highjinks” of the play provided the audience with an enjoyable evening. (There, I came close to saying “enjoy.”)

The Chattanooga State Repertory Theatre was also busy providing some audience fun. They gave a second staging to the musical comedy A Nutcracker Christmas Carol. It might become an annual event, giving loyal audience members a new tradition. The original book and lyrics were written Rex Knowles, with music by Sherry Landrum, Allan Ledford, and again Rex Knowles. The show cleverly combines elements of two Christmas classics, Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker and Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol.

This two-for-one hybrid examines the idea that Ebenezer Scrooge, the villain turned hero of A Christmas Carol and his nocturnal journey to self-realization is the seminal Christmas story to which all others we are familiar with owe their existence. And numerous recognizable bits and pieces drift through the show like tinseled flotsam. Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life is so omni-present, one wonders if the title of the show shouldn’t be The Wonderful Nutcracker Christmas Carol Life.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to make this show a local Christmas tradition, if for no other reason than to see how it evolves. LoriBeth Perry and Jerry Bowman reprised their roles as Caroline Crachit/Clara Stahlbaum and Tiny Tim/Fritz Stahlman, respectively, making them mother and son one moment and sister and brother the next. Both handled the multiple transitions flawlessly, and, as a team, they have provided regularly distinctive performances in all of the CSRT shows they have appeared in for the past few years.

The greatest need the show has right now is at its center. Rex Knowles could easily pass for a young Dickens up late at night struggling with his muse and encountering his own sequence of ghosts in the same manner as his chief protagonist and creation Scrooge does. He frequently finds recourse in employing the time-honored writer’s tradition: when running dry, steal. But he needs to realize there is almost no time for easing into a developmental gear in this somewhat short, intermission-less show. He is on the horns of his dilemma right from the start.

Dick Ramsey also reprised the role of Scrooge, and now is the time for frankness, if he is going to do it again. Ramsey is a classic physically and emotionally “bound” actor who means well, but has the performance trapped below the surface, and it is not coming out. If he fails, the show fails. He has classic Scroogian looks, but it is not enough to be a nice person. There is a reason that all the many A Christmas Carol productions are referred to by whoever plays Scrooge and not by whoever plays Tiny Tim. In this new show, Scrooge not only has to play the Dickens story of miserable curmudgeon turned happy benefactor, but also has to play the problem of an unreal creation fighting for human identity and a say in his creation. If anything, this is a much harder and more sophisticated demand than the Dickens original. Ramey has to dig deeper.

Then there is the problem of the torrent of allusions to other material. Sometimes too much wit is not a good thing. Some references and insertions work wonderfully, like the “Frosty the Snowman” moment generated by a top hat, but others thud and need to depart. A few camp (ugh!) pauses aren’t bad, but the material really is at the point where it needs to raise its sights higher. There is the potential of a unique new Christmas tradition here.

Speaking of which, Darrin Hassevort is a newcomer to the cast in the role of Bob Crachit/Dr. Stahlman. The man can also sing up a storm. Hassevort took a break from his duties of managing the chorus with the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera and appeared for once in a role where he could actually be seen and heard. The results are that I hope someone at the Chattanooga Theatre Center is fighting right now to get the rights early to the musical Les Miserables because Jean Valjean is waiting in our midst.

With that musical plug out of the way, it’s on to the Choral Arts of Chattanooga and their annual Christmas concert held at the First-Centenary United Methodist Church as part of their twentieth season. By the size of the large crowd, it would appear that this group has built up a loyal following in that time. The chapel setting with its massive gold leaf decorated window provided plenty of drama. If only someone had said that it might be nice to add some lights to this to really give it a kick.

The performance consisted of Ottorino Respighi’s “Laud to the Nativity” and G.F. Handel’s “Messiah,” both having obvious connections to the time of year. The former turned Christmas into an existential experience, and the latter was the old crowd favorite.

Respighi’s opus will probably continue on in relative obscurity, since it was hard to get a grip on it other than it had its virtuoso elements, including the presence of a wind ensemble on loan from the CSO. Michael Kull made an impression in his tenor solo as the Shepherd in the story.

I was struck listening to the “Messiah” that despite its fame, it has some really trying elements. Halfway through, you start thinking, “If I hear one more ornate passage, trill, or single syllable turned into forty-eight, I will get very upset.” Handel turns a simple word like “hello” into the baroque version “hell-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o.” Enough already.

By the time the familiar “Hallelujah Chorus” is reached at the end, both the performers and the audience have had a work out. King George I of England set the tradition of standing during its performance, something modern audiences still observe. Legend has it that he did so in awe of the beauty of the piece, but could he have been thinking upon hearing the chorus sing “hallelujah,” the first word of the work’s last section, “My thoughts exactly! I have got to stand. My legs are asleep?” We’ll never know.

Of particular note was the singing of bass Kim Thompson, who had a nice steely quality to his solo, and the creamy-voiced soprano Vanessa Kimbrough. All in all, the Choral Arts brightened up a dark and rainy downtown evening, but I left with the feeling it could have been more. Purists will say, “Well, the music was clean. What more do you want?” I am not going to accept the idea that choral music doesn’t matter. I can still vividly remember being in the third grade and hearing the fifth and sixth grade chorus of my school sing “O, Holy Night.” I thought a shaft of light had opened directly up the heaven and my knees started to crumble. Now, they just crumble on their own. Don’t tell me choral music doesn’t matter.

What all three productions had in common was that despite their relative success with their audiences, there is still a feeling of it all needs to be better, particularly if the performing arts are going to be a major player in the downtown renaissance. After all, can you think of the actual Renaissance without thinking of the arts? They were a major component.

Too much of Chattanooga art plays to the home team. Too much of the art we place around town is just there for decoration. There is still little that resonates beyond, which would makes the arts yet another major draw to bring people to Chattanooga either to visit or to stay. To resonate beyond both an unflinching eye and demand for quality mixed with a sense of the unique and the surprising are what is needed. Art at its best is a force. It can change lives. It can change communities. All three companies – UTC Theatre, the Chattanooga State Repertory Company, and the Choral Arts of Chattanooga – have the makings for being part of that art world. All three will be back, so let’s see what’s cooking in the creative kitchen in the interim.

Bart Whiteman

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