The Queen City has played host to historic productions of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America before, most famously the Charlotte Rep bombshell of 1996, which blew up into a culture-war disgrace that shamed the city nationwide. Rep’s greatest hit — in attendance and critical esteem — sowed the festering seeds of the regional company’s eventual demise in 2005.
Nor did Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST) have any better success in 2014 when, following in Rep’s footsteps, they also staged both Part 1 and Part 2 of Angels: Kushner’s Millennium Approaches, which won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993; and Perestroika, which repeated for the 1994 Tony, Drama Desk, and Olivier awards in 1994. After just one more production, CAST folded.
By even contemplating an Angels revival, QC Concerts and music director/founder Zachary Tarlton are obviously tempting fate. More than that, they’re smashing their own musical template and flouting the company’s brand by airlifting their upcoming production to Matthews and the new Georgia Tucker Fine Arts Hall, running from May 18-21.
QC Concerts has happened by accident, beginning like Angels with the onset of an unheard-of disease. In Tarlton’s case, the plague was COVID-19 rather than HIV AIDS.
The company started small; smack in the middle of preparing to spearhead an Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte fundraiser at Middle C Jazz, Tarlton was faced with the suddenness of the pandemic shutdown and the uncertainty of what would follow. He didn’t want to sit around idly by his keyboard.
“So, I launched kind of an online streaming platform,” Tarlton recalls. “We were then known as QC Quarantine Concerts — a bit of a play on words. What we did was we modeled ourselves after a program in New York that Seth Rudetsky [and his husband, James Wesley] from Sirius XM started called Stars in the House, where he was running these broadcasts at the same time that shows would have been running.”
Thursdays through Sundays, for a 10-week run extending from mid-March through June of 2020, Tarlton’s piano room became a live-streaming studio. To create these mini-concerts, Theatre Charlotte’s go-to music director networked with Matthews Playhouse, Davidson Community Players, and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, as well as the now-defunct Actor’s Theatre.
Tracks recorded in the Tarlton piano room also went beyond Charlotte to contacts in Chicago, New York, and musical performers who had been left in the lurch by stalled national tours and became singing collaborators in Talrton’s concerts.
“It was a good opportunity to kind of bring the arts together at a time when that was not really possible and people were kind of starving for the arts. And it gave us a chance to really get to know and meet and work with a lot of really, really wonderful people,” Tarlton recalled.
That sweet taste of collaboration — and that newly-forged network of musical artists — seemed like a shame to waste. When live theatre began to return late in the summer of 2021, Tarlton dropped the Quarantine from his brand, fired up his network, and launched live programming through QC Concerts, season one. Angels will mark the end of season two, detouring from a cavalcade of musicals that has included Titanic, Kinky Boots, Head Over Heels, and Cruel Intentions.
Season three scheduling was unveiled last month, with an all-musical lineup that will include Diana The Musical, Hit the Wall, Local Singles, Merrily We Roll Along, Parade, and Sunset Boulevard. The season kicks off late in July with Diana at Free Will Craft + Vine, a favorite NoDa haunt where Tarlton staged Kinky Boots. The season reaches its pinnacle in November, when Sunset Boulevard opens Uptown at Booth Playhouse — backed by a 40-piece orchestra.
The emphasis, except when Angels are flown in, is always on the music.
“We do concert stage productions of shows,” Tarlton explains. “So, we do them with the full orchestra, whatever the complement is that the show is written for. A lot of our musicians are Symphony subs that play all the Broadway national tours, and their schedules fill up super quickly. So, to get those folks willing to come on board and play Titanic [boasting a 22-piece orchestra] for one weekend with two rehearsals is astounding.”
Dramatic presentation continues to evolve, though Tarlton has no plans to move beyond the concert format. In the beginning, it was a fairly straightforward reading-stage layout, with the singers at music stands behind a row of mics and the orchestra lurking upstage. At Free Will in NoDa, they built a drag-show style runway and the audience surrounded the players.
Prodded by imaginative guest directors, Tarlton kept pushing the envelope, adding light costumes, some props, and moving his leading men and women away from their scripts for the key musical numbers.
The return of ‘Angels in America’
While guest director J. Christopher Brown won’t be crashing ceilings or flying angels when QC Concerts travels to the Georgia Tucker, he will be using projections and sound design to clarify the narrative and amp up the key moments.
That will put the traditional reading-stage setup on steroids. Written for an eight-person ensemble, Angels could be expected to add on a narrator for the script-in-hand format to read the scene settings and stage directions. Brown is expanding his cast to 18, using multiple narrators and cutting down on actors playing two or more roles; there are 21 roles in Millennium Approaches and 25 in the stupendous Perestroika.
Only one cast member doesn’t double: the actor who portrays protagonist Prior Walter. It’s an epic role that single-handedly justifies Kushner’s audacious Angels subtitle, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Not the kind of role you plunge into if you’re accustomed to singing “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” or “Marian the Librarian.”
Casts from previous QC Concerts productions fill only four of the 18 slots for the company’s first nonmusical foray. Most notorious among these usual suspects will be Beau Stroupe as Roy Cohn, the demonic counterpart of the angelic Prior. Both of these powerhouse characters are AIDS victims, and another QC mainstay, Lamar Davis as Belize, is the link between the two; he’s the registered nurse who cares for the hospitalized Cohn — and he’s Prior’s prior lover.
The other major roles came from outside QC’s musical circle, a daring outreach since Brown didn’t bring a wealth of local experience to the table.
“It was 100% a leap into the void,” Tarlton admits. “I hoped that [Angels] was a title that would catch people’s eyes and they’d be like, ‘I might never get the chance to do this again.’ Foundational to the work we do is that idea of creating a home for everybody and really doing a lot of diverse work to challenge the way we think about and view the world. We’re not a company with a 95-year history; I’m totally out there to push the envelope and to bring something new and exciting and fresh, and if it makes people mad, it makes people mad. If people love it, people love it.”
Tarlton’s zest for challenging himself evidently goes beyond founding a theatre company unlike any we’ve seen before in Charlotte. Although he hadn’t appeared onstage since he was “in college a million years ago,” he auditioned for Angels — only after telling Brown not to use him if he sucked.
He’ll be playing Louis Ironson, the self-pitying nebbish and seducer who connects Prior with a third plotline. Too weak to stand by Prior in his AIDS sufferings, he abandons him in favor of his Mormon co-worker, Joe Pitt, luring him away from his religious principles and from his flaky, pill-popping wife, Harper Pitt.
While Angels on high are recruiting Prior to redeem America, Harper is taking flight to a narcotic dreamworld and Roy Cohn is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Enter Hannah Pitt, flying in from Salt Lake City to save her dear son Joe from the mortal sin of sodomy.
Yeah, it’s a lot.
Additionally, Tarlton is glad that two married couples, neither of whom have appeared with QC before — or at Theatre Charlotte — have become core players in Concerts’ Angels.
Building a team
Rachel and Brandon Dawson, both faculty members at Winthrop University, star together in Angels, Rachel making her Charlotte debut as the confused, jilted, and somewhat spacey Harper; then Brandon — who made his own local debut in Shepherd Shakespeare’s production of Twelfth Night at the Barn at MoRa last fall — as our gay visionary Prior Walter. The scene they will have together is among the most incredible of the entire epic.
Scott and Robin Tynes-Miller, on the other hand, have been mainstays on the Charlotte theatre scene for the last decade, ever since Robin founded Three Bone Theatre in 2013.
She is also the one solid link between the current QC Concerts Angels and the CAST production, shifting from the role of Harper Pitt in 2014 to the more elevated role of The Angel. Rehearsal photos repeatedly depict Robin rising above ground level, even if she doesn’t fly. Scott figures to be more earthbound as the straight-arrow Joe Pitt.
While Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte provided the platform for QC Quarantine’s launch at their website, Theatre Charlotte deserves credit as the more significant source of inspiration for Tarlton’s unique enterprise — and its true birthplace. At about the same time that Tynes-Miller was piloting her first Three Bone production in 2013, the old Queens Road barn began hosting a series of annual fundraising concerts, Grand Nights for Singing, showcasing showtunes.
Tarlton was a fixture at the keyboard for these concerts. That’s where he started to become the only theatre person in Charlotte to be connected with two different Tony Kushner works. Instead of the customary medley format, focusing on a particular era (like pre-1965) and highlights from a signature show (like Funny Girl), Tarlton approached executive director Ron Law with the idea of doing a full show.
So, on February 26, 2016, the new concert musical concept took wing in the lobby of Theatre Charlotte with Caroline, or Change – music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Kushner.
“Caroline, or Change was one of those shows that I just felt like it was the right time, the right group of people in Charlotte to be able to pull something like that off. It was an incredible experience,” Tarlton says.
He caught the return of that musical to Broadway in 2021 as well as the Nathan Lane Angels in 2018. Taking his first leaps away from musicals with Angels – as a producer and as an actor – was pretty much a no-brainer.
“There’s no better show to do than something that means so much to me and the community.”
Publicity photos for the Georgia Tucker Fine Arts Hall are delicious, showing a 145-seat black box with ample projection and sound booth resources for a knockout Angels. As the new fringe theatre movement continues to gain momentum around town, the Tucker becomes another tempting place for it to hang out.
The runs of QC Concerts’ shows remain tantalizingly short, a limitation Tarlton hopes to address in the coming years. This week’s Angels run, four performances from May 18-21, offer only two opportunities for us to see both parts of Kushner’s masterwork … then it’s gone.
For Tarlton, that ephemerality is part of QC Concerts’ attraction. Like New York City Encores or the Broadway Center Stage Program at Kennedy Center in DC, the concept might be stretched to a full week. Maybe the sweet spot for ticket sales, publicity, reviews, and word-of-mouth will be found in that discreet degree of expansion.
“The idea is that these shows live and breathe in one specific moment in time,” Tarlton insists. “Our goal is to become a fully professional company in the next five years so we’re able to kind of pay everybody along the way.”
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