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‘Sympathy Jones’ at Northwest Cabarrus High School

blumey student critics
T. Ortega Gaines - ogaines@charlotteobserver.com
Katie Iacovelli

The brave choice of an obscure, feel-good production proves a musical doesn’t need to have a big name in order to be big entertainment. “Sympathy Jones” is the tale of a plucky young secretary for a spy agency (Sympathy, played by Karen Stahl) who is more than eager to prove her use in the field. When the nefarious Kitty Hawk (Haley Penk) and her brilliant but possibly not quite sane henchman Tick Tock (Rye Latham) plan to abuse Hawk’s ex-husband’s invention – a watch that prevents the wearer from aging – by using it to create a bomb that will freeze the government in Washington D.C., humble solo detective Henry Greene (Kaleb Jenkins) is sent on a mission to prevent the disaster. Sympathy is determined to tag along and prove her worth by saving the day. Along the way, her best friend (and the agency’s technical disguise supplier), Caprice Nova (Emily Absher), provides support and falls in love with Nick Steele (Ethan Mullins), an accomplished yet numbskulled spy.

For the most part, the show was high-energy, well cast, and engaging. The smooth direction and extensive use of the restricted space were commendable. Before the show started, the audience was drawn into the action by spy music that played in the background. The set was fairly minimal but more than sufficient; black boxes painted for various scenes functioned as a skyline, rocket, and file cabinets. In one scene, Sympathy and Henry are handcuffed to a railing that is naturally part of the stage; this was a great use of space. The clock designed to pull Oscill apart was frighteningly comical, because of the believable manner in which the actor moved his tied hands.

Stage combat was neatly choreographed, and the entire cast had excellent skills in physical comedy. Mullins stole the show as the cocky, womanizing agent who is injured at the beginning and spends the rest of the show sporting crutches or steel wool pants. He maintained excellent physical awareness and had a powerful voice that stole the audience’s attention, as did his terrific acting. This was especially seen in “Get Your Gun,” a hilarious song between Nick, Henry and Mr. Pinkerton (Luke Ellington) that involved dancing with crutches and killer harmonies. Jenkins’s endearing reactions to his fellow actors in this scene were spot-on.

All actors exuded confidence in character, even when their notes fell flat. The occasional choreography was not always crisp. The lack of a microphone system was usually not a noticeable problem. However, there were times in the show when more projection was needed, especially for an actor to be heard over the crowd’s laughter or the shuffling of props and set pieces.

The audience was nevertheless delighted throughout the evening by the humor and talent behind such a quirky show. Stahl gave a compelling performance in “A Story.” The lights went out other than one spotlight, emphasizing how lonely and dark her situation was in that moment. The perfectly timed use of dynamics and power in her vocal expression awed the audience, especially during her flawlessly belted final note.

The character of Caprice, played by the talented Emily Absher, brightened the show with her boundless energy, fluorescent costume, and sweet performance. Joseph Sheldon was also cast well as geeky inventor Richard Oscill.

“Sympathy Jones” was a fun, charming experience that succeeded in providing a source of escapism for the audience while reminding them that it takes courage to face up to reality.

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