Ditch Netflix: 5 reasons to pay attention when Broadway comes to Charlotte

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Photo by Melissa Oyler
Belk Theater

One of my favorite reasons to visit New York City used to be going to the theater. The first live performance I ever saw was “Cabaret,” sometime around 2003. Next, I fell in love with “Rent,” and the rest was history. It’s the sole reason I have La Boheme on my calendar, the opera upon which Rent was based.

Since “Rent,” whenever I have planned to travel to the Big Apple, checking out upcoming performances is on the itinerary. 

Except, I’ve learned a trick: I first check to see if these shows are coming to Charlotte. No navigating through Times Square or the touristy theater districts to get to Belk or Knight. No plane ticket. No hotel costs. I can watch “Dear Evan Hansen,” “A Bronx Tale,” or “Hamilton” right here.

Then, when I’m actually in New York for a long weekend, I can spend my time on experiences we don’t have here, such as an evening at Marie’s Crisis Cafe. It’s a show-tunes bar, and many of the patrons are actually in the theater scene. My friend Joanne took me there last year. Go —you’ll thank me later.

So, without further adieu, we present 5 reasons to check out this season’s Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights/Extras:

(1) The Band’s Visit

Knight Theater |  Through Aug. 25

Photo by Melissa Oyler
The Band’s Visit

Here’s what you can expect: A sweet tale about a traveling Egyptian band that ends up in an Israeli town, stranded overnight.

Read between the lines: It’s a story about human interaction and how the smallest, shortest moments can make a difference. It’s touching, it’s subtle, it’s honest. Go see it.

Favorite song: “Answer Me,” the second time it’s performed, when the whole stage lights up with every performer taking part.

Pro tip: It’s slightly over an hour and a half long, and it goes quickly. But make sure to stop by the restroom before you go in: no intermission.

Reviews: “We know local friendships, fights and flareups of passion will go on as before, long after the band leaves. We learn only as much about the visitors and hosts as one might over a slow night in a small town. Yet though the vignettes don’t add up to a plot, the cumulative emotional effect moves us.” Read more from The Charlotte Observer’s Lawrence Toppman here.

[Related: How a UNCSA grad turned an obscure Israeli movie into a Tony Award-winning musical]

(2) CATS

Belk Theater | Through Aug. 18

Photo by Melissa Oyler
CATS

Here’s what you can expect: It’s the first musical many of us ever heard of. Growing up, one of my closest friends could sing “Memory” with a perfect range. I, who cannot carry a tune, found the music both frustrating to sing along to and, at the same time, the most beautiful song I’d ever heard. So what’s this show about, anyway? You’ll be watching a tribe of cats known as the Jellicle Cats meet for their annual Jellicle Ball. Seriously.

Read between the lines: One of the many criticisms of CATS, a show composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber and based on a story by T.S. Eliot, is that the plot is thin. The critics are right. But the plot is not why you see this show. It’s purely for the showmanship, the yoga, ballet and gymnastics maneuvers — and the songs.

Favorite song: “Memory,” of course. What else?

Pro tip: If you have an aisle seat, don’t lean out too far, lest you trip up a Cat on his or her way by.

Reviews: “Long before ‘immersive theater’ became trendy — before ‘Sleep No More’ and escape rooms — people were excited by the interactivity of ‘Cats,’ especially during the overture. Known backstage as the ‘green eyes’ portion, it’s when the cats slither among the audience in the dark and suddenly their green eyes light up. (Rest assured, the revival isn’t cutting this out.) But it’s precisely that audience involvement that leaves some ‘Cats’ detractors most allergic.” Read more from The New York Times here.

(3) Disney’s Aladdin

Belk Theater | Sept. 10-29

Photo by Deen van Meer / Disney
Arabian Nights Men

Here’s what you can expect: Romance, adventure and a magic carpet ride. Boy meets girl, a story complicated by the tragic separation of class and wealth. Luckily, Aladdin has a genie to help him navigate his mission to save the kingdom and get the girl.

Read between the lines: You know the movie like the back of your hand. What could be better than seeing it live? Aladdin’s tour will be its first in Charlotte, and although I could tell you all about the storyline from watching the VHS over and over again back in the day, I can’t speak to the live version yet. 

Favorite song: I can’t imagine anything performing better than “A Whole New World,” can you?

Pro tip: Several new songs are added for the musical version, so if you expect to lip-sing along, download the Original Broadway Cast recording and study up before you go. 

Reviews: “If you’re granted three wishes to make during Disney’s “Aladdin” you’ll definitely want to use one to discover how the musical’s creative genies pull off the magic-carpet ride in the second act. Seriously, it’s amazing.” Read more from The Daily News here.

(4) Les Misérables

Ovens Auditorium | Oct. 29-Nov. 3

Photo by Melissa Oyler
Playbill from Les Miserables

Here’s what you can expect: A story about a prisoner who breaks parole and the police inspector who makes it his mission to track him down. It’s a story of redemption during the beginning of the French Revolution.

Read between the lines: I saw this show in New Orleans earlier this year at the Saenger Theater — it was a pleasant break from the hurricanes on Bourbon Street. In the story, Jean Valjean was imprisoned for two decades for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child. Les Mis is the most popular musical in the world, according to the Saenger; it’s been seen by 70 million+ and is performed in 22 languages. The lesson about humanity is universal in this touching story.

Favorite song: “I Dreamed A Dream.” It’s hard not to have all the feels when hearing the lyrics “I dreamed a dream in time gone by / When hope was high and life worth living …”

Pro tip: This musical is considered a “sung-through” piece, which means the story is mostly told through song, with only a few spoken interludes. That’s nice, but it does make for a different pace, so prep your brain in advance.

Reviews: “Say what you will about the ridiculous storyline, the incomprehensible deaths and the unearned melodrama. “Les Misérables” is a bona fide Broadway show.” Read more from The Houston Chronicle here.

(5) Come From Away

Belk Theater | Jan 7-12

Photo by Melissa Oyler
Playbill from Come From Away

Here’s what you can expect: A touching and heartfelt story about the week after 9/11 from the point of view of a small Canadian town, where 6,700 travelers were stranded after the attacks. 

Read between the lines: Of all the shows mentioned in this article, this one is the one I would see over and over again without ever growing tired of it. I tried to get tickets in New York City without success (too pricey), but I caught it at the Peace Center in Greenville a few months ago. I will see it again when it comes to Charlotte early next year.

Favorite song: “Lead Us Out of the Night.” This is the song that describes what all of the passengers experienced after being stranded on the tarmac for up to 28 hours, coming off the plane only to find out about the attacks on the United States.

Pro tip: This show is an hour and a half with no intermission. Just like in The Band’s Visit, plan ahead. You don’t want to have to step out and miss a single moment.

Reviews: “… As it proceeds, the show — based on interviews with the people who inspired it — covers a vast expanse of sensitive material with a respect for its complexity. It understands that much of what it portrays is guaranteed to stir fraught memories among many of us. And it mostly refrains from overegging what could have been a treacly, tear-salted pudding.” Read more from The New York Times here.

Theater everywhere

Don’t forget: Although the big theaters in town often get a lot of the attention, Charlotte theater exists everywhere: bars, breweries and other offbeat venues. We recently wrote about 9 local theater groups, which just goes to show the options for Charlotte theater entertainment are endless.

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