The Lotus Project Takes it Day By Day
For its inaugural production, new theater group presents a diverse and inclusive Godspell (Dec. 1 – 3)
If you’ve seen the musical Godspell, chances are you saw it in a church.
That’s where I first saw it. It was at Myers Park Presbyterian in the early 1980s. I was in 10th grade and had been listening to the soundtrack for years by then. The show’s Day By Day was one of my favorite songs. (Because I love Meet the Parents and this scene, in particular, I invite you to enjoy Ben Stiller-as-Greg Focker’s blessing. He “borrowed” some of the lyrics.)
I can still see the black, white and red album cover with an illustration of a man’s face. He had the most glorious head of thick, shoulder-length wavy hair. Although that face was meant to be that of Jesus, the man looked more like The Who’s Roger Daltrey to me.
Godspell’s Jesus was a hippie. Come to think of it, the real Jesus probably was, too.
The show, composed by Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Wicked) with a book by John-Michael Tebelak, is told in scenes that mirror parables, and it ends with Christ’s crucifixion – not on a cross but on a chain-link fence.
But for The Lotus Project, a new theater company in Charlotte, Godspell isn’t necessarily about Jesus. The website references “a character who shows up, challenges everything that has come before, dreams of a better world for ALL people and creates community among an incredible and diverse group of humans.”
All good gifts
Susan Cherin (recently seen in Three Bone Theatre’s Andy and the Orphans) and Kayla Piscatelli] (Children’s Theatre’s The Lion and the Little Red Bird), are partners in real life and in Lotus. When they left The Jewish Community Center, where they created the community theater program, JSTAGE, they started The Lotus Project, which aims to use the arts as a tool for empowerment. Godspell is Lotus’ first public production.
“People have found it interesting that we chose Godspell because it’s thought of as a religious musical,” Piscatelli said. (It is; the show’s subtitle is A Musical Based Upon the Gospel According to St. Matthew.) “And neither of us identifies as Christian. Susan is Jewish, and I hang out with the Jews.”
The two are trying what seems impossible: turning a religious musical into a mostly secular one. Cherin said, “We should be moving away from the assumption everyone is Christian and believes in God. And I know it’s ironic that we’re doing a religious musical to make that point.”
Make yourself uncomfortable
They’re prepared for criticism.
“We’re ready to have hard conversations,” Cherin said. “People may walk out or be uncomfortable with some of the casting choices. And we say: Good. If you’re uncomfortable, then we’re challenging the norm you’ve come to expect.”
“This person, this educator,” she continued, referring to the Christ figure, “shows up and teaches the community how to be good humans. And [in our work] we’re trying to build this beautiful community of people from every walk of life. Our cast of 50 is kooky and diverse. They’re insanely different from one another. But they’ve come together to build a beautiful community. That’s our whole mission.”
Cherin calls Lotus “an LGBTQ- and female-owned business dedicated to not only diversity and inclusion, but to amplifying marginalized voices.”
The principal cast has “performers of color and at least six queer people, including trans performers,” said Cherin. “Our goal is to [open a] dialogue about how organized religion and bigotry, homophobia and transphobia intersect, and what we can do about it.”
Cast members range from 6 to 70 years old. Cherin said, “They represent the rich diversity of our Charlotte community.”
‘The least of these’
Cherin and Piscatelli are the entire creative team. Together, they’re handling directing, musical direction, choreography and all design and tech elements – “a unique situation,” they admit.
Principal cast members – playing Jesus’ ragtag followers, Judas and John the Baptist – are Steve Berenfeld, Andie Jones, Valerie Thames, Shay Brummitt, David Catenazzo, Mary Thomas, Nicole DePietro, Maksim Rex, Zelena Sierra, Jassi Bynum, Sierra Key and Julia Straley. Kel Wright (she/they) is the Christ figure.
“That casting might unsettle people who think of Jesus as a cisgender, white man,” Cherin said. “We have trans cast members, people of color, people with disabilities, the whole gamut. Of the eight times I’ve done this show, four have had a not-male person in the lead. So, this isn’t unusual for me.”
Cherin’s eight times with Godspell have included her work as a performer, director and musical director. This marks Piscatelli’s third outing with the show. She said about choosing this show for their first production, “We looked for a show that was incredibly flexible, because we had no idea where we’d be able to perform it. And we wanted something that was sort of limitless in who we could have in it, which aligns with who we are as a company.”
They’ll perform in HUG (Hearts United for Good) CLT’s space. That’s a nonprofit focused on hunger, housing insecurity and animal welfare. (And don’t confuse that HUG with the HUG micro-grants Charlotte Is Creative awards.)
As for the “limitless” requirement, that’s because Lotus is open to all. No one gets cut during auditions.
“The audition process is a placement audition,” Piscatelli explained. “Musicals afford us the opportunity to take everyone and find a spot for them that’s appropriate and appropriately challenging.”
Cherin added, “It’s a different model. But if you believe the arts are for everybody, as we do, then everybody should get to participate.”
Theater’s life lessons
It was COVID, in part, that led Cherin and Piscatelli to start Lotus.
At the J, they’d been running a community arts program and producing five-plus shows a year. When COVID halted theater (and everything else), the pair began helping students with homework. During free time, they’d lead arts activities – singing, dancing, acting, visual art. Despite what a tough year it was, students were thriving.
That led them to think about using the arts as a catalyst for change. After all, theater teaches life skills – self-confidence, teamwork, public speaking. There’s a lot more to it than just the on-stage production.
Lotus started offering theater camps last summer – at Myers Park Baptist and Trinity Presbyterian – to kids and teens, who wrote scripts, choreographed, made their own costumes, painted scenery. Camp and workshop fees (financial assistance is available), along with ticket sales, fund Lotus. So, every ticket counts.
“When camp was over, some parents said, ‘My kid would rather shovel dirt with you than do anything else. I don’t know why that is, but thank you,’” Piscatelli said.
Godspell includes some of the Book of Matthew’s greatest hits – Forgive. Love your enemies. Let the one who is faultless cast the first stone.
And no matter your faith (or lack of one), those lessons are true and timeless.
Prepare ye for Godspell
See Godspell Friday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 2 at 2 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 3 at 3 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $18, including taxes and fees, and are available here.
What’s next for the Lotus Project?
Auditions for Grease are upcoming. “It’s a show that’s quite unexpected for us,” Cherin said. “We’re purposefully taking a piece that’s not our favorite in terms of its message” and casting it without regard to gender.
Grease auditions are open to students in sixth through 12th grades as well as to gap-year students. Also forthcoming: Magic To Do (for K through 8th graders) May 31-June 1 and two camp shows – Finding Nemo (June 27-28) and Junie B. Jones (July 26-27).
REVIEW: A Grant Time at the Theater
Three Bone Theatre opens its new season with a blockbuster, The Lehman Trilogy
NOTE: The Biscuit doesn’t typically run reviews. Page Leggett wrote this as part of an assignment from the National Critics Institute, based at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. NCI leaders, including the long-time theater critic for The Chicago Tribune, came to Charlotte last weekend to lead a workshop for local arts critics and writers. The instructors and fellows saw The Lehman Trilogy Saturday night, and fellows submitted reviews Sunday morning.
Timing is everything.
That’s the message director David Winitsky seems to be telegraphing from the moment you enter the black box theatre at The Arts Factory for The Lehman Trilogy, the blockbuster opener to Three Bone Theatre’s new season.
Clocks are everywhere you look. A dozen or so are suspended overhead, and a giant clock mural (painted by Bunny Gregory) covers nearly the entire floor and part of the rear wall.
You may already be contemplating the concept of time, if you’re aware that the epic, which won the 2022 Tony Award for Best Play, clocks in at nearly three-and-a-half hours.
I’d been concerned it might prove an endurance test.
During most plays and movies that last this long, I find myself thinking which scenes or sections of dialogue could’ve been cut if only the playwright had been willing to kill a few darlings. But in this masterwork by Stefano Messini, there isn’t a wasted word.
Three Bone has given Lehman its Southeastern premiere; it’s one of the first theater companies in the country to produce the play, which ran on Broadway for a hot minute in March 2020 before COVID shut the world down.
It’s a story about banking, of course – which should interest many in Bank of America’s headquarters city – but on another level, it’s America’s story, as told through the perspective of a single immigrant family. Sweeping in scope, it takes us from the 1840s through the 2008 financial crisis.
We see the rise of the family’s fortunes from the time the three Lehman Brothers arrive in New York from Rimpar, Bavaria, through their work as cotton merchants in Montgomery, Alabama and up to 1969, when the last member of the family involved in the business dies. (That’s Bobby Lehman, son of Philip and grandson of Emanuel, one of the three founders of the legendary investment bank.)
The play doesn’t end when Bobby dies. It takes us right up to the firm’s stunning collapse, presided over not by a Lehman, but by CEO Dick Fuld. The firm’s demise, you may recall, led to the largest financial crisis in history.
The Lehman Trilogy tells its story in three acts and chronicles over 150 years of the family’s – and the country’s – triumphs and tragedies. Each time it looks like the brothers’ fortunes have been destroyed and all has been lost, they figure out a way to rebound. Subsequent generations of Lehmans will say it’s all strategy, but luck plays a role, too.
Becca Worthington, Kevin Shimko Scott Tynes-Miller on rehearsal at the Arts Factory at West End Studios
Courtesy of Three Bone Theatre
Three acts, three actors
There are two intermissions – and you must leave your seat during both to allow the crew to reconfigure the 80-seat theater. In Act I, the audience is facing the action. Acts II and III, performed in the round, are even more intimate.
It’s up to just three actors to do all the heavy lifting. Each one portrays dozens of characters of varying ages, faiths, geography and genders. Kevin Shimko, Becca Worthington (the first woman to be cast in any production of the play) and Scott Tynes-Miller are more than up to the challenge. They manage to do it without a single costume change, and yet we never forget where we are in time or who’s who.
Through the actors’ considerable talents – and thanks to dialect coach Gretchen McGinty – we know exactly who’s talking. And where they’re from.
The set is as simple as it gets. A desk, a blue leather chair and several boxes (appropriately, bankers’ boxes) and a couple of movable walls are all that’s needed to place us in New York or Montgomery.
The actors, who at times also serve as narrators, describe in glorious detail the crowded fabric showrooms in New York; the busy, bustling stock exchange; the cotton plantations of the deep South.
Kevin Shimko, Scott Tynes Milller and Becca Worthington
Courtesy of Three Bone Theatre
Sign of the times
And signage. What seems like just another part of the minimalist set – the Lehman Brothers’ sign with yellow lettering (it’s Helvetica Neue for any font fans out there) against a black background – becomes central to the story. The sign gets updated with each new iteration of the firm. Ultimately, that sign will become a poignant visual signaling the firm’s collapse.
Kathryn Harding’s sound design should get top billing along with the three actors. Ominous music you might expect in a horror movie plays as the audience – which was a sold-out crowd last Saturday night – enters.
We hear the sounds of water lapping against the docks and gulls crying when Haim Lehman (Shimko) first arrives in New York after one-and-a-half months at sea. He’s forced to Americanize his name to Henry almost immediately. It doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s ready to assimilate in a near-mythical America – one where an immigrant can show up with nothing and, through sheer will and hard work, make his fortune.
When it’s a Sunday morning, we hear church bells. At other times, we hear claps of thunder, a rainstorm, the thwack of tennis balls being volleyed over an imaginary net, a piano recital, a funeral dirge, the whistle and rumble of a train, the ticking of a clock. Time is always of the essence.
Winitsky – the director – is founder and executive artistic director of the Jewish Plays Project. He was brought in from New York to helm the project. He’s an appropriate choice since Judaism plays an important role in the Lehman story. The first part of it, anyway.
Henry often, and enthusiastically, expresses his thanks to God (“Baruch Hashem”). When the first of the three brothers dies – not long after coming to America – the other brothers sit shiva for the requisite amount of time, just as they would have in Germany. Decades later, when a Lehman descendant dies, the mourning is condensed considerably – from days to seconds.
Despite the weighty subject matter (slavery, war, finance, keeping up with rapidly changing times), the play has some light, even funny, moments, allowing the actors to show their comedic chops. Shimko, co-founder and artistic director of Comedy Arts Theater of Charlotte (CATCh), is largely known for being a comedic actor and improv artist. Lehman gives him the opportunity to showcase those comedic chops – and also have the gravitas the play demands.
The play was a triumph on Broadway. And it’s the latest – and largest – triumph for Three Bone, a company unafraid to take on a sizable challenge. Don’t bide your time; see this show before it’s gone.
Move Now – Tickets Are Nearly Gone
Catch The Lehman Trilogy at Three Bone Theatre (Arts Factory at West End Studios, 1545 W. Trade St. in Charlotte) before it closes. Tickets for the Friday and Saturday performances are sold out, but a Sunday matinee (Nov. 19 at 2 p.m.) has been added.
Due to adult language and depictions of antisemitism, it’s recommended for ages 14 and up. Tickets range from $10 to $30 and are available at threebonetheatre.com.
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