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Monday, March 18, 2013

Local playwright Monica Byrne lands major book deal with first novel

Posted by on Mon, Mar 18, 2013 at 9:10 PM

Durham playwright Monica Byrne
Crown Publishing Group, a division of publishing giant Random House, has signed a major book deal with Durham playwright Monica Byrne for the rights to publish her first novel, The Girl in the Road, in 2014. Details of the arrangement were released over the weekend on the website for Publishers Marketplace, an industry publication.

“I wanted to scream,” Byrne recalls when she received news of the agreement at the end of last week. “[My agent] was excited, everyone was so excited, and so pleased by the deal, which was considerable.”

Crown signed what Byrne characterized as a six-figure deal for the North American publication rights in a pre-emptive contract for the book, buying it before it went to auction with other publishers. As a result, she now joins a group whose roster of writers is capped by the likes of Rachel Maddow, Martha Stewart, George W. Bush and Michelle and Barack Obama.

The Girl in the Road, some 98,000 words long in manuscript form, traces the harrowing twin journeys of two women forced to flee their homes in different times in the near future. The first, Meena, is a Brahmin-caste student whose odyssey takes her from the coastal city of Mumbai toward Djibouti across a futuristic but treacherous bridge that spans the Arabian Sea. The second, Mariama, escapes from slavery as a small child in Mauritania, joining a caravan heading across Saharan Africa toward Ethiopia.

The novel took five years to write, Byrne says, and was completed during a research trip to Belize at the end of last year. Its purchase came three weeks after she acquired representation with the Frances Goldin Literary Agency, a New York firm specializing in literary fiction and politically oriented nonfiction. Its clients include Barbara Kingsolver, Adrienne Rich, Dorothy Allison and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The development follows Byrne’s successes as a playwright on local stages over the last two years. After she appeared in productions of Fistful of Love and REDGHOST with Durham’s Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, artistic director Jay O’Berski directed Byrne’s dark comedy Nightwork for Manbites Dog Theater in 2011. Last April, Little Green Pig commissioned and produced What Every Girl Should Know, a speculative historical drama inspired by the work of Margaret Sanger. The company has commissioned a new work for their 2013—14 season. A subsequent drama, The Pentaeon, was selected for the 2012 Collider New Play Project, a collaboration between Fermilab and Fox Valley Repertory Theater in Illinois.

Byrne is currently at work on her second novel.

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    “I wanted to scream,” Byrne recalls when she received news of the agreement at the end of last week.

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Monday, March 4, 2013

The most amazing season, eh? A closer look at DPAC's new Broadway line-up

Posted by on Mon, Mar 4, 2013 at 1:23 PM

The Book of Mormon comes to Durham Feb. 11-23, 2014.

To summarize the lineup of touring Broadway shows coming through the Durham Performing Arts Center’s new season as succinctly as possible: Hope you like Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Sir Andrew’s work may be found in three of the seven new shows announced at DPAC’s SunTrust Broadway Preview Event on Friday, specifically the touring version of the recently-closed revival of Evita, the 2011 West End musical version of The Wizard of Oz film with new songs by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and a whole concert featuring songs from Lloyd Webber’s extensive oeuvre, including The Phantom of the Opera and Cats.

If you’re not a Lloyd Webber fan and you hold season tickets for DPAC’s Broadway series, you might be in trouble.

The other new shows are a strange mix. I’m most excited about the touring productions of two recent Tony winners, The Book of Mormon and the minimalist stage adaptation of the film Once. I’m less enthused by a musical of the Patrick Swayze film Ghost that flopped after 136 performances on Broadway last year, or by a new musical of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, though the Grinch costume shown to us is less trauma-inducing than the Jim Carrey film from a decade back.

Mind you, my cynicism wasn't shared by the DPAC members who swarmed the auditorium on Friday for the announcement (at least 1,200 were present, based on the number of raffle tickets submitted to the event organizers), who cheered loudly at the announcements. One patron told me that he was pleased that the lineup features shows with more “broad appeal,” claiming DPAC’s recent showing of Jekyll and Hyde with American Idol’s Constantine Maroulis was “too dark.")

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    If you're not a Lloyd Webber fan and you hold season tickets for DPAC's Broadway series, you might be in trouble.

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Take it from us: Monty Python's Spamalot is for fans and non-fans alike

Posted by on Thu, Feb 14, 2013 at 4:08 PM

The Spamalot ensemble
  • Photo by Scott Suchman
  • The Spamalot ensemble
* * * * stars
NC Theatre
@ Raleigh Memorial Auditorium

A confession: I never totally understood the "classic" status of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I remember watching it for the first time in seventh grade at my friend’s house, and I remember how bewildered I was as she howled and quoted every line. I mean, it was amusing, but was it one of the funniest movies of all time? That seemed doubtful. It was so dumb and old-fashioned and low-budget and … British. I had the feeling I was missing the joke.

So, as a confirmed outsider to the phenomenon, I will report that Spamalot, the musical adaptation of The Holy Grail featuring a book and lyrics written by original Python Eric Idle, currently playing at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, is hysterical and silly and had my mouth hurting from smiling so much by the end of it. It makes sense that a campy and over-the-top film would be perfectly suited for the campy and over-the-top world that is musical theater. Disjointed sketches, farcical gags and a constant bombardment of cultural references fit the stage even better than the screen, and Idle’s updated script speaks to my more contemporary sensibilities while still preserving the spirit of the original film.

Like The Holy Grail, which employed low-budget props and terrible animation to satirize both modern cinema and the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Spamalot doubles as a medieval tale and a broad parody of Broadway tropes. The plot is relatively simple: King Arthur (Arthur Rowan), with the aid of buxom diva The Lady of the Lake (Abigail Raye), rallies up a ragtag team of men to become his knights, and together they set out on the quest for the mythical holy grail (as instructed by God, portrayed as a giant pair of cartoon legs descending from the sky, and voiced by Idle himself). That’s pretty much all that happens. Along the way, our heroes run into some obstacles—lewd Frenchmen, an enchanter named Tim, knights who demand the production of a Broadway show in order to gain passage through the “very expensive” forest—but eventually, King Arthur and his knights sing and dance their way to the grail and everyone lives happily ever after. Or something like that.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mary Poppins is witty and colorful, if not supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

Posted by on Wed, Feb 13, 2013 at 2:37 PM

Madeline Trumble and Con OShea-Creal as Mary Poppins and Bert
  • Kyle Froman
  • Madeline Trumble and Con O'Shea-Creal as Mary Poppins and Bert
* * * 1/2 stars
Through Feb. 17
Durham Performing Arts Center

The touring production of the stage musical version of Disney's Mary Poppins, co-created by Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera hitmaker Cameron Mackintosh and appearing at the Durham Performing Arts Center through Feb. 17, is an odd experience, depending on which version of Mary Poppins you know. If you're mostly familiar with the 1964 film with Julie Andrews, this version jettisons many of the songs, scenes and plot points, creates a completely different conflict for the second act and adds a handful of new characters, including a nemesis for the titular magic nanny. If you're familiar with the movie version's source material though, the stage show is a mixed but sometimes fascinating attempt to find a middle ground between the fantastic-but-deadpan tone of the original Mary Poppins books and the more sweetness-filled film.

A history lesson: As a kid, I had all the Mary Poppins books by Pamela "P.L." Travers, in which the children Jane and Michael Banks are naughty and incorrigible, and Mary Poppins herself is a satire of a stereotypical uptight British nanny, guiding her charges on fantastic adventures without betraying a moment of excitement or interest with the wonders they encounter. (When they meet the Man in the Moon, Mary Poppins is mostly irate he's planning to make some cocoa and take a nap instead of doing his job.) Though Walt Disney himself campaigned mightily to make a film of Travers' work (soon to be the subject of its own film, Saving Mr. Banks, with Tom Hanks as Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers), Travers herself was deeply disappointed with the resulting film, even though its success brought renewed interest to her work. (The full story is chronicled in this fascinating New Yorker article from a few years back.)

Pamela P.L. Travers

All this backstory is important because the stage version of Mary Poppins takes most of its cues from the original book. The settings (a combination of physical sets and rear-projection) are designed heavily in the style of Mary Rogers' illustrations of the original books, with the Banks household first appearing as a flat picture that folds out to reveal its interior like a pop-up book. The play also borrows from other books in the series, incorporating the character of a living statue of the Greek demigod Neleus (Leeds Hill) and Mary Poppins' (Madeline Trumble's) various methods of arrival and departure from the different books.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

Home movies at Mike's place? AMERICAN UTOPIAS at DPI Theatre

Posted by on Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 6:54 PM

3.5 stars
(out of five)
Mike Daisey
Duke Performances
PSI Theatre, Durham Arts Council
Through Feb. 3

Since it’s my first time in the room since renovations in 2011, I’m a little shocked when I enter Durham Arts Council’s PSI Theater on Wednesday night.

Monologist Mike Daisey
  • Monologist Mike Daisey
The stage is now conventionally draped; its lighting grid professionally concealed, for the first time in memory, behind black cloth borders known as teasers. On its floor, a subtle coat of matte gray has replaced the reflective white surface that so effectively bounced the theatrical light—in all directions—during every production staged there in the 1990s and 2000s. (Just how much you can gauge by this photograph from before the facelift, that's still on the DAC website.)

The one main question left about the room’s suitability as a theater was left unanswered Wednesday night, since Durham’s Carolina Theatre, on Morgan Street, was dark that night.

Why might that be important? Because the Carolina and the Durham Arts Council buildings abut one another. The back walls of the two venues are so close that concerts on the Carolina mainstage were clearly audible during a number of shows I saw at PSI Theater during the first decade of its existence, including a dramatically derailed Manbites Dog Theater’s production of The Moonshot Tapes.

I’m hoping that such a fundamental engineering gaffe which once made the room regularly unusable was addressed, either years ago or during last year’s renovations. I’m guessing audiences on Friday night (when Jesse Cook plays the Carolina) and Saturday (with a concert next door by Jane Monheit, with Mark O’Connor) will find out.

But the element that really chills me as I enter the room involves the two pieces of furniture on an otherwise empty stage: a wooden table, set front at center, with a single chair behind it. On the table, a glass of water waits, a little off to the right hand side.

The space seems clearly set for Spalding Gray, the dean of modern-day monologists who took his own life in January, 2004.

I’d followed much of Mr. Gray’s career, interviewing him in New York in 2002. Somehow, in the three years since I last saw Daisey’s work, I’d forgotten the extent to which he copies the late monologist's setting. The frisson of the moment is a ghostly little hug.

But as I settle into a new, upholstered seat in the audience, I realize that what I’m actually expecting from this show is unmitigated disaster. Or, more accurately, a show about unmitigated disaster, at the least.

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Nerds, a new musical about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, premieres in Raleigh

Posted by on Sat, Jan 19, 2013 at 1:48 PM

Diana DeGarmo and other performers in Nerds
Half a dozen nerds cross the stage at the A.J. Fletcher Theater holding their homemade computers, hoping to launch their careers and, more importantly, make friends. Behind them, a computer motherboard acts as a backdrop, with dozens of LED screens providing commentary. Director Marc Bruni stops the action: the screens are blank. “The lights aren’t talking to each other,” says a technician. Thus this rehearsal, for a new musical about the rise of the digital world, has to pause in order to fix a computer.

North Carolina Theatre’s Nerds: A New Musical Comedy, running from Jan. 18 to Feb. 2 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, is the story of Bill Gates (Stanley Bahorek) and Steve Jobs (Darren Ritchie), the two men most celebrated for the rise of personal computing.

“We thought it would be fun to watch nerds singing,” says co-writer Jordan Allen-Dutton. “In any type of musical you have to believe that someone at anytime can burst into song. And in order to do that, you need characters who are really over-the-top, bigger-than-life characters. And these two guys fit that model.”

Allen-Duton, along with writing partner Erik Weiner and composer Hal Goldberg, have crafted the story of how two lowly nerds rose to the highest levels of wealth and success. The heart of the show, however, is Gates and Jobs’s personal rivalry. In real life, their companies, Microsoft and Apple, were fierce competitors for decades, and the play makes this competition personal: Gates the insecure geek, Jobs the brash stoner, both trying to overcome the social limitations of being a “nerd.”

The celebration of nerds in all their forms is a major theme of the show. Producer Carl Levin notes that nerds have transformed from being social outcasts to leaders of the world. “They’ve evolved. I think now being a nerd is cool.”

Covering the years 1975 to the present, the show also uses the music as a way of exploring history and the characters. “We define Jobs as a rock star in a lot of ways,” says Goldberg, “so that comes through musically. Whereas Gates, he starts off in more of a traditional musical theater way, which is nerdy.”

At rehearsal, it takes no time at all to fix the LED screens. Such technology, of course, is possible thanks to the show’s real-life subjects. “I think the show is really a celebration of American ingenuity and innovation,” says Allen-Dutton.

“Over those 30 years that the show focuses on, we went from seeing a computer that was the size of a city block to a computer in everyone’s pockets at all times. And that was a lightning speed transformation.”

The NC Theatre production is the very first time Nerds is being performed for an audience. After being given a chance to workshop and premiere in Raleigh, Levin hopes to bring the show to New York and, eventually, the world.

“People in Europe and Japan, they really know Bill Gates and they know about Steve Jobs.”

It surely can't hurt the show's chances, then, that nerds are a universal subject.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Leave 'em wanting more: Deborah Cox sparkles, briefly, in Jekyll and Hyde at DPAC

Posted by on Wed, Jan 9, 2013 at 4:40 PM

Constantine Maroulis and Deborah Cox
  • Photo by Charles Bennion
  • Constantine Maroulis and Deborah Cox
Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical
* * 1/2 stars
Durham Performing Arts Center
Through Jan. 13
Tickets $35-$95

If you’re not a Deborah Cox fan, you’ll probably become one if you see Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical at the Durham Performing Arts Center this week. The Grammy-nominated R&B star pushes the rest of the cast out of the way with her round, rich voice and nuanced singing. It’s too bad this show doesn’t keep her onstage enough.

Cox, as hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Lucy Harris, belts bawdy brothel songs like “Bring On the Men” as well as she croons moony ballads “Such as Someone Like You” and “A New Life.” The same can’t be said for co-star Constantine Maroulis, who’s only up to the Hyde half of his dual role of innovative, headstrong Doctor Jekyll and lunatic murderer Edward Hyde.

Maroulis moves comfortably in Hyde’s muscular stalk, and Hyde’s vocal turns fit the Rock of Ages star’s skills perfectly. But his Jekyll is stiff and hesitantly voiced, suffering from the restraint he applies in order to contrast the character with Hyde. It’s a little silly, also, that director Jeff Calhoun makes Maroulis take his glasses on and off and put his flowing black hair in and out of a ponytail with each of his character’s transformations. We get it.

Calhoun’s choreography doesn’t help Maroulis either. The stagehands, in the process of shuttling various set pieces on and off, exhibited more interesting movement than the stars. Featuring almost constant video projection onto parts of the set, Tobin Ost’s scenic design was busy but effective. In the song “Confrontation” in one of the play’s last scenes, Jekyll argues with a gigantic video Hyde who’s periodically distorted and washed by waves of fire as if a pop metal show had broken out.

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    The minute Cox finishes a song, you might find your hand reaching for the remote to fast-forward to her next number.

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Friday, December 7, 2012

A bittersweet ballroom: Million Dollar Quartet at DPAC

Posted by on Fri, Dec 7, 2012 at 11:47 AM

Cody Slaughter as Elvis, in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET
4 stars
(out of 5)
Through Dec. 9

The live band is cooking, and dead ringers for the first generation of rockabilly royalty nail rave-ups from “Who Do You Love” to “Great Balls of Fire.” But even at its full (and considerable) force, the 2007 jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet seems haunted by something surprising, given the supposed durability of the subject matter. It’s hard not to conclude that Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott’s book ultimately celebrates—and mourns—its evanescence.

Yes, history proved Sun Records founder Sam Phillips right when he said “Rock ‘n roll ain’t a fad; it’s a damn revolution.” Even the briefest look around confirms that the culture-wide transformation sparked by this generation remains in progress.

But the way this show re-enacts the night that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis got together to do a few numbers in the studio that first catapulted them to fame asks a pointed question to those sharp enough to hear: Was Dec. 4, 1956 really an evening of rock apotheosis? Or, to borrow the phrase from Hunter Thompson, was it just the night a great wave crested—and then fell back?

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    A musical about Sun Records stays haunted by the songs they never made

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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Are your names on our list? INDY WEEK'S Year In Theater nominations now open

Posted by on Thu, Dec 6, 2012 at 2:38 PM

Its a good list, but it isnt ours...
  • Sure. It's a good list. But it isn't ours...
As happens about this time each December, INDY WEEK's critics are busy putting their heads together and reloading a full year's work in regional theater.

In short, you could almost say they're making a list and checking it...well, a great deal more than twice.

The List for 2012, our final take on excellence in regional theater, will publish in our issue of Dec. 19. But if you'd rather write the headlines, here's your chance. Leave your nominations for excellence in this year's regional productions in the comments below. (Or, if you're the shy type, forward them to

But wait. You can't play the game at home with another list: the annual categories and criteria we use. They're below, just after the jump. Best of luck!

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Catch Me If You Can soars on live jumping jive—before a bumpy landing...

Posted by on Fri, Nov 9, 2012 at 9:08 AM

Frank Abagnale (Stephen Anthony) and friends, in Catch Me If You Can
  • Carol Rosegg
  • Frank Abagnale (Stephen Anthony) and friends, in Catch Me If You Can
3.5 stars
(out of 5)
Broadway Series South/NC Theatre
Through Nov. 11

Frank Abagnale’s life story, vividly related in the jazzy Broadway musical Catch Me If You Can, beggars belief. A prodigy as an adolescent (albeit at check kiting and gaming various mechanisms in the American financial system), before age 18 he’d rung up well over $1 million dollars in multiple bank frauds. By 21, he'd established and lived under at least eight separate assumed identities, posing (and traveling across the world) as an airline pilot, teaching at Brigham Young University, managing interns as an ersatz doctor at a Georgia hospital, somehow passing the Louisiana bar exam and working in that state’s Attorney General’s office.

But that's not all. After his eventual capture and imprisonment, Abagnale started working for the FBI, instructing them on security vulnerabilities in the banking system. After his release, he set up his own consulting firm, advising banks and businesses on (what else?) fraud detection and avoidance. Some 40 years later, he’s a success and a millionaire several times over—legitimately, this time.

True, Abagnale and his chroniclers may have padded his felonious resume somewhat (in a manner at least potentially similar to his original modus operandi). Still, the 2002 Stephen Spielberg film with the same title, a Leonardo DiCaprio/Tom Hanks blockbuster which grossed over $350 million, proved that this was a life clearly meant for the silver screen. The musical stage adaptation of Catch Me ran six months on Broadway last season; if not a runaway smash, it still was a respectable showing, with a Tony and Drama Desk award for best leading performance. A national tour kicked off last month; its Raleigh stand this week is one of its earliest dates.

Out of the show's (literal) opening gate—somewhere at Miami International Airport, circa 1964—Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s propulsive score and Matthew Smedal’s sharp swing orchestra yank us onto the dance floor, through a series of original numbers reverently ripped from the school of jumping jive. Swing and jump blues aficionados have all the reasons they could possibly need to pony up for a ticket well before the end of the first act.

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