Bukowsical!

Photo by Erik Maasch of EJM Photography

Photo by Erik Maasch of EJM Photography

This past weekend I had an opportunity to go to Wilmington and see yet another musical being put on by a dear friend’s production company, C’est La Guerre. I’ve actually now got a few friends and acquaintances among the theater crowd up there. This time it was a production of Bukowsical! A musical based on the life of Charles Bukowski.

For those who don’t know, Charles Bukowski was a German born, American author. Bukowski wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories and six novels; his work addresses the ordinary lives of poor Americans and the struggles that come with that. He even was a subject of FBI scrutiny thanks to his column, Notes of a Dirty Old Man, in the LA underground newspaper Open City. He’s been called the laureate of American lowlife, and I was warned that this performance was strictly for mature audiences due to it’s raunchy, raucous and profane nature.

This show was being held in the Beam Room at Front Street Brewery in Wilmington, NC. A quick note about Front Street Brewery: I used to like them. I no longer do. They seem to have become overrated and rely on tradition and location more than any real service or good food. I had never even heard of the Beam Room. Apparently it’s their special events space on the top floor. That said, a room with a bar was definitely fitting for this particular story. Plus it meant drinks during the show! Unfortunately I’ve been sick and on medication so I had to stick to Sprite. Although I did consider if a shot of whiskey might help my throat.

However as much as the idea of the space was wonderful, it failed in other ways. First, the distracting chandelier hanging down at floor level into a skylight to the level below, right in the middle of the stage area. However the silver lining to that is that it also provided a gorgeous light source and helped cast a warm glow on the actors from behind. Second, the acoustics were less than stellar. But hey, ya win some, ya lose some. In this case it was more of a win as the room itself had a lovely mix of exposed brick and wood that leant itself well to the show, and it had ample space. Plus did I mention the bar. I hope the production got a cut from the tab, because it was open during the show and people took definite advantage. This show also featured a live band. When during their warm up I heard a rockabilly jazz style version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” I knew I was in for a treat. My dear friend George Domby was the musical director, which can’t have been easy given how many different styles are represented in the score. There is everything from classic Broadway to rock ballads to even a ditty that wouldnt be remiss at a square dancing event. Also, while the band may only consist of a handful of people at times the music comes together in such a way it moves you as much as a full orchestra. George also had a bit in the beginning of the show where he portrayed Bukowski’s dad… while still conducting the band. It was hysterical and drew huge laughs from the crowd.

In fact, the whole show did. This isn’t a surprise when a number in the first act features deceased authors William Faulkner, William S. Burroughs, Sylvia Plath and Tennessee Williams encouraging our titular “hero” to “get down, get dark, get dirty.” While the writing isn’t particularly mind blowing, it’s perfect for escapism and a little bit of naughty humor. But it’s the actors who really sell it. Actors that in a way, includes the audience. The entire show is put on as if it is a preview for a panel of investors, the audience is that panel of investors. So that 4th wall is completely broken, and particularly in this case where if you needed to exit or use the restroom you had to cross the “stage” and therefore became a part of the damn show. Which I almost did just for funsies.

Now, full disclosure, I left at intermission. Not because it was bad, but because I had become extremely ill. I’m so sad and mad I missed the second half. Because I know it was going to be fantastic, everything had been gelling that night. The audience was so into it, the cast was amazing, and the band was on point.

Photo by Erik Maasch of EJM Photography

Photo by Erik Maasch of EJM Photography

The cast features Brendan Carter as Charles Bukowski, and he does an amazing job. With a voice that doesn’t quite match up with the image, but makes him all the more believable as a guy who would continually get the shaft. However its also a voice that changes as the show progrsses which follows along with the progression of Bukowski’s life and goes to show what an amazing talent Carter has to embody each stage. also have to admit that being able to play such a foul mouthed character must have been great fun. Although I do hope spending so much time inside Bukowski’s head doesn’t have harmful effects.

It also features Jeff Phillips as both Sweet Lady Booze and a television evangelist whose name I’ve already forgotten because that’s how much I pay attention to television evangelists, even fake ones. I last saw Jeff in Chicago at Thalian Hall where he portrayed Billy Flynn. Jeff is a big dude, he’s very tall, and seeing him in drag, and with the very suggestive dance moves, was absolutely hysterical. He also pulled off both roles with an ease that can’t be duplicated. He’s not the only one who had multiple roles, pretty much everyone did except Carter. In addition to various chorus, student, bar patrons, etc. there were juicier roles to get into such as other writers, Hollywood types and the loves of Bukowski’s life. Which were spread out amongst the cast. It was very interesting to see some of them embody different people completely from one scene to the next. Between that and the different styles of music it must have been a real work out mentally and vocally. It was also a work out physically with some very physical choreography. The opening number welcomed us with just the right amount of Broadway flair and a balance of synchronicity that appealed to my OCD. Sweet Lady Booze also had a fantastically choreographed number that managed to be sultry, but also slightly disturbing when you consider she’s representing an inanimate object. I also enjoyed the use of simple props and signs during the numbers to provide more information and interaction.

There was a stand out in Anna Gamel, as expected. Anna had been nominated last year for a Wilmington Theater Award for her role as Lotte Von Elsner in C’est La Guerre’s first production, The Lady in Question. I’ve also seen her in so many other things I’ve lost count. Anna also portrays a cheeky German accented nun as a young Bukowski’s teacher. Leading the class in a song declaring all the ways they hate him, that is filled with tongue in cheek gestures and humor. She also portrays Sylvia Plath, hitting just the right notes with her joke about Easy Off oven cleaner, her earnestness in her advice for the struggling writer, and her “guys gal” persona singing with the boys encouraging Bukowski to embrace the lewd side of life in his writing.

I also can’t forget Bryan Cournoyer as The Founder. Addressing the audience as one of the producers of the musical within a musical it can almost be easy to over look him as a narrator. However he also had multiple roles to play and brought each to life with perfect balance.

Bukowski’s One True Love was portrayed by Katherine Rudeseal. She did a wonderful job in this role. Their meeting at a bar managed to be sweet and their duet “Chaser of My Heart” showcases her amazing voice. It’s also quite an interesting love song, interjected with raw truths just like Bukowski’s work. Her performance during “Love is a Dog From Hell” alongside Anna Gamel and Beth Corvino is spot on and eerily heart wrenching for anyone who has questioned a lover’s fidelity.

Bringing myself back around to the beginning again, in the scenes of a young Bukowski struggling with peers and with his father, I found a bit of heartbreak. So much of the troubles he went through, being bullied for being different, being overly criticized by a father who doesn’t understand, they still happen today. I actually found it difficult to watch the scene in the classroom with the teacher and children ganging up on him, and had to focus on the absurdity of the lyrics in order to not start crying right there. I can only hope that half of the children undergoing this treatment today find the strength to turn it into something lasting and positive the way Charles Bukowski did. Because despite his alcoholic nature he did have the strength to overcome those adversities and persevere in his dreams which is even more apparent during the number “Postal.” In today’s hot debate of gun control that is another number that is chilling and haunting as an examination of our society.

Over all the bare bones staging and props, as well as utilizing the cast in multiple roles not only made sense for the story but also made sense for C’est La Guerre. The cast was extremely well chosen and each had multiple moments to shine. It truly is an ensemble show. If I have any complaints it’s that at times it was hard to hear the lyrics over the music and laughter, and that I didn’t see the second half. Otherwise, I highly suggest catching this show this weekend before it’s gone!

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“It is a lovely country, the land of beer, Wagner, and terror.”

I have attempted to write this review for ages, but life keeps getting in the way! On September 27, 2014 I went up to Wilmington to see my good friend George in a play. It was actually a special occasion. See not only was George playing the lead, but this was also his first producer credit. George and two of his friends, Brian & Nina Cournoyer have formed a fledgling production company, C’est La Guerre, to bring art to the masses in Wilmington, the idea being guerilla theater and art installations and the like that are affordable and accessible to the average person. It’s all very exciting.

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Baroness Augusta Von Elsner (Tom Briggs) chastises her son, the Baron Wilhelm Von Elsner (Troy Rudeseal).

This production happens to be The Lady in Question by Charles Busch, which involved George, Brian and other menfolk in drag. Always a good time! The play is a satire of the 40s era war and spy dramas, that revolves around a famous pianist who finds herself pulled into the drama of an American actress being held hostage in Nazi Germany. Doesn’t sound like the stuff of laughter, but oh it was.

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Professor Erik Maxwell (Erik Maasch) realizes he’s falling for the self-absorbed pianist, Gertrude Garnet (George Domby).

Most of the actors played dual roles. Such as David Bollinger playing both Professor Mittelhoffer and Doktor Maximilian, Tom Briggs the former artisitc director of Thalian Hall played both Augusta Von Elsner and Raina Aldric (note both are female characters!), and the lovely Anna Gamel played both Hugo Hoffman and Lotte Von Elsner. These wonderful actors all pulled off a fantastic show, under difficult circumstances. Bravo to all of them, though I’m really not surprised! Time and time again Wilmington proves to have some amazing theater talent!

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Lotte Von Elsner (Anna Gamel), the Baron’s niece, is suspicious of Gertrude’s role in the attempts to break Raina Aldric free from her uncle’s jail.

The play was performed in a speakeasy downtown, with a small intimate setting that lent well to the play. For C’est La Guerre’s first outing they did an outstanding job and have raised their bar high! In fact, I was told that the play sold out every single night to standing room only. People were even turned away at the door. The Blind Elephant was a wonderful site that transported me away for the night into another time. I felt like I was living in Boardwalk Empire and should have worn a flapper dress and sensible heeled shoes. I applaud everyone involved, you all did an extremely great job! I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.

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Gertrude Garnet (George Domby) prepares to shoot the Baron Wilhelm Von Elsner (Troy Rudeseal).

Oh, and P.S. – The alternate title for this post was “She’s Just Gertie From the Block.”

Life SUCKS! But his life sucked in particular.

This past Saturday I went up to Wilmington, NC to see a show again. This time it was the delightfully old fashioned City Stage instead of Thalian Hall. City Stage is also home to Level 5 @ City Stage, which is a bar/night club on the roof. This meant Vodka Cranberries DURING THE SHOW! YAY!

It seemed vastly appropriate to be drinking at this musical, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Not only was there a saloon on stage, but one of the questions asked by this amazing show is; is wanting to have a beer with someone enough of a reason to elect them? If you don’t already know the basic story of Andrew Jackson’s life, go to wikipedia, and then come back. I’ll wait.

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I’m Not That Guy

Done? Okay great. So this musical basically spans his life, from his childhood where he was orphaned, up to his death and legacy. It’s facts are historically accurate, it’s staging is NOT. This show drags the early 19th century kicking and screaming into current pop culture with references abound! The cast is amazing and gels together really well. I’ve always held fast that the talent pool for community theater in Wilmington is significantly better than most other communities. These guys just go out there and prove it for me (so thanks guys!)

Jackson, the man, is an exercise in contradictions. He’s been called one of the greatest Presidents we’ve had, and he’s been called an American Hitler. Paul Teal portrays this walking, talking, eye-liner wearing, emo-rocking enigma in this particular production. I already knew he’d be good, because I’d seen Paul in Rocky (Check out that review here!) and of course on the CW show One Tree Hill. However he wasn’t just good, he was GREAT, amazing! He brought Jackson to life in a big way, strutting that line between good and “evil” all while educating and making us empathize with his character. It almost seemed this character was made for him, because I was far more appreciative of his chops in this show than in Rocky, and I gave him an amazing review there too! But he had me from, “I’m wearing some tight, tight pants and we’re going to delve into some serious, serious shit.”

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President Andrew Jackson

Of course, behind every great man is a super woman, this time it’s Rachel Jackson, his wife. A daring woman she was the first woman in Tennessee to get a divorce, and follow her heart despite the stain of bigotry. Rachel is played by the fabulous Anna Gamel in this, looking like a punk rock pinup girl. And boy does she run the gamut of emotions, from falling in love with Jackson, to feeling angry and betrayed (Expressed in rock anthem “The Great Compromise”) One of my favorite lines? “I didn’t leave my other husband and risk people calling me a whore to have an even more fucked up marriage with you.” Rachel’s death actually hit me almost as hard as Jackson which is a tribute to Anna making us love her with absolution in such a short time.

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Rachel Jackson

The wonderful cast is rounded out by Alex Wharff (Henry Clay/Black Fox), George Domby (James Monroe), David Heck (John C. Calhoun), Patrick Basquill (John Quincy Adams), Erik Maasch (Martin Van Buren), Michelle Reiff (Storyteller), Beck Hanner (Lyncoya) and the ensemble: Caitlin Becka, LaRaisha Burnette, Chris Connor and Robin Heck. All of these cast members (except Beck Hanner) play multiple roles from Jackson groupies to Indians to tourists at the white house. Each and every one of them did amazing and had a chance to shine.

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The Corrupt Bargain

Enough about the cast though, lets talk about the music and the direction. For starters the music director was Chiaki Ito, a Wilmington legend in her own right. The band shared the stage with the cast all night, and even had a bit part as Jackson’s cabinet. Best of all they held down the amazing soundtrack. It is catchy as all heck and 3 days later I am still singing snippets of songs like “I’m Not That Guy,” “Rock Star,” and “The Corrupt Bargain.” I also must give a special shout out to the rock ballad “Second Nature.” Ms. Ito’s decision to change the arrangement and singer from a white man with a guitar to an Indian girl with a full band was a stroke of genius. The song oozes emotion and LaRaisha Burnette keeps that fury on a delicious simmer throughout.

The production is directed by Shane Fernando, and it is his directorial debut! A very strong opening sir and I hope to see more “Directed By” lines in front of your name! Mr. Fernando is also the director of the new Humanities and Fine Arts center at Cape Fear Community College. Which makes me a little… conflicted. I was going to attend that college with the goal of getting into film. But I wanted to wait until I qualified for in-state tuition. Then I did but I was working a good job. Now I’ve moved back out of state and I feel a tiny slice of regret. But I digress, because the direction on this was amazing. The choices to have the set integrated with the theater to make one large cohesive area was wise, as was the mix of modern and old fashioned elements in both props and dress. The only difference I would have made is with the Storyteller. In the original treatment she rides an electric wheelchair, which is what they have her doing in the show. But it seemed kind of clunky and dated, in a bad way. I actually would have swapped it out for a Segway, like those seen all over Downtown Wilmington.

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Anna Gamel (Rachel Jackson), Paul Teal (Andrew Jackson), George Domby (James Monroe) and LaRaisha Burnette (Ensemble/Soloist)

Overall this production was an absolute smash and a joy to see and I’m actually trying to figure out if I can go again before it’s run is over.