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Ambition hardly lacking in new productions

(Father/DJ/Travel Guide) Time 

A friend of a close acquaintance claims it as the only reason she never says how old she is: "I can feel them; all the years within me. To defer to any one of them seems dishonest, a dishonor to the rest."

Be that as it may, not only does the theater regularly refuse to act its--or our own--age; it superimposes one upon another with regularity. Directors do this to show how timeless certain texts are--that, or how little we've progressed since their writing. Even so, an overachieving week saw no less than four ambitious productions shake the hands of time--and shake the audience as well. We focus on three this time around. The fourth, The Time Traveller's Wife, we'll address next week.

Begin with N.C. Central University's version of EUBIE! the 1978 tribute to ragtime and jazz composer Eubie Blake. Blake's syncopated scores fueled the first African American-written Broadway musical (Shuffle Along, in 1921), launching a career of original works through the late 1930s and revivals and tributes in the 1950s and the 1970s.

Traditionally, productions of this musical have relegated Blake's considerable influence on the musicians who followed him to the program notes. Clearly, director Karen Dacons-Brock and music director Cameron Morgan wanted to demonstrate just how pervasive those influences actually were.

Thus the pair sought--and, improbably, obtained--the blessings of licensee Music Theatre International to rearrange major portions of the revue in order to musically connect the dots between the rags, jazz and blues of the early 1900s and recent, contemporary music.

The results, while intriguing, won't entirely please the purists. During the first act, the adaptors seemed to spend more time with frequently imaginative updates than the original source material. Most of the audience chuckled when "In Honeysuckle Time" was rescored to unmask its similarities with "Where Did Our Love Go" by the Supremes. Morgan's recombinant score kept the audience playing Name That Tune as he repeatedly unearthed connections: between Alicia Keys' brand of R&B and "I'm Just Wild About Harry," the music of Betty Wright and "My Handyman Ain't Handy Anymore," Missy Elliott and "I'm Just Simply Full of Jazz," and a Stevie Wonder-ful "You Got to Git the Gittin' While the Gittin's Good."

Though quiet vocals called for miking in places, the audience roared with approval at Joshua Johnson's Notorious B.I.G. version of "I'm a Great Big Baby," before Denise Barnes' show-stopping rendition of "Handyman." Mavis Poole and Johnson alternated verses of "Cradle of Love" and "Low Down Blues," before the ensemble evoked a haunting "Dixie Moon."

Picture a strictly second-class despot: a pompous, plump, sawed-off little number in khaki and jodhpurs, a clearly temporary recipient of the favors of the crowd. Now meet director Henson Keys' JULIUS CAESAR.

After removing all nobility from Guiesseppe Jones' title character, the N.C. Shakespeare Festival production that visited Raleigh last week further de-dimensionalized Roman politics by reducing the motives of co-conspirators Cassius, Brutus, Casca and others to soundbites just as opportunistic and convenient as those earlier mouthed by Caesar himself.

In this near-Sartrean take transplanted from the first century B.C. to the near future, Caesar may be on the throne, but political expediency is really the king. In Keys' dark vision, the game is clearly bigger than the players. When principals laud civic virtues in one act only to disavow them when they are inconvenient later, the cheapness of even world-class oratory soon becomes apparent.

The difficulty with this production? We rarely see what, if anything, lurks beyond the simple will to power evinced by the major characters on stage. What ultimately drove David Foubert's Cassius to egg Brutus on, precipitating Caesar's downfall? What, if anything, differentiates them from Marc Anthony and Caesar's defenders on the other side? Having seen the show, I still couldn't tell you.

Keys' ultimate point may well be that politicians are all alike. But when everyone on stage is this much alike, all meaning stands in danger of being flattened. In this Caesar's world, they say the nicest things about you--once you're gone, that is. But the rhetoric stands as hollow as the characters who speak it.

Friends, this is how it's done. Gene Saks' interpretation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's comedy THE FRONT PAGE captures the wicked humor and the exquisitely refined cynicism of the newsroom set in dear, corrupt old Chicago of the 1920s--without, that is, turning a blind eye to the insiders' dirty pool, easy racism and politics of convenience and neglect practiced among these beknighted lords of the Fourth Estate.

Particularly after the Julius Caesar above, the pages of these major city tabloids seem yet another province where the art of the possible (with few, if any, frontiers) is being practiced. Yet the camaraderie of this phalanx of city reporters, passing an endless night before a dawn execution playing cards, is nothing if not infectious. And that's before central character Hildy Johnson--the ace of the Chicago Examiner--shows, for a victory lap with the boys before blowing town to marry his sweetheart in New York.

Of course, before you can say "Gimme rewrite," Johnson gets sucked into covering dramatic developments when he should be catching the evening train to Gotham. Hecht and MacArthur perfectly capture the centripetal vortex of breaking news, conveying flawlessly how easily newshounds get pulled into action, at times despite their better judgment.

With this many strong performances, where to start with compliments? Obviously with Grant Goodman's unsinkable work as Hildy, and Mike Genovese's etched-in-granite turn as irascible editor--and gamesman--Walter Burns. Mention Julie Fishell's dual turns as a frumpy Mrs. Schlosser and society matron (and mother-in-law to be) Mrs. Grant. Give credit for the reporters all around, including Jeffrey Blair Cornell's McCue, Ray Dooley's Endicott and David zum Brunnen's icy Kruger on the banjo. Kenneth Strong's work as dull cop Woodenshoes and John Feltch's similar take on former goon and aspiring newsman Louie also amused, while Rand Bridges' easy-going, corrupt Sheriff was matched by Samuel Maupin as the sanctimonious deal-making mayor.

Denizens of regional newsrooms should expect to see familiar figures in this hellzapoppin' comedy--maybe even themselves, if they're not careful. This show has the ring of truth to make it strongly recommended for general populations--and mandatory for members of the press.

Reviews
**Red Herring, Flying Machine Theatre--Good acting, so-so scripting and a fiasco in stage management and tech design: Thus go the box scores from this checkered season opener. Whitney Boreiko, Eric Morales, Stephanie Maysonave and Torrey Lawrence make the best of things as two troubled couples ripped from the pop culture of the 1950s, with notable support from a brassy Lisa Cates, a memorable Mark Zumbach (as a courtly Russian longshoreman) and wise-guy Todd Igoe.

But playwright Michael Hollinger's noticeably thin pulp fiction homage had already lost a lot of buoyancy before a cavalcade of technical gaffes and the sloppiest set changes in recent memory diverted most of the show's comedy from its scenes to its increasingly disastrous transitions. Whatever momentum the show had was sacrificed long before a desperate, kludgy ending. (Common Ground Theatre, through Oct. 15.)

E-mail Byron Woods at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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