Charlotte, we have a problem. However, poking fun at politics and the quirks of this Southern city is definitely not one of them. Charlotte Squawks, the Saturday Night Live-meets-Broadway musical is celebrating its lucky 13th anniversary with Charlotte, We Have a Problem — and there’s still time to crash in on the fun.
If you’ve never been to a Charlotte Squawks performance, it’s time. And if you’re an annual squawker, then brace yourself for two hours of LOL entertainment synced with songs you know and altered lyrics that make sense if you follow the news, pop culture … or have a pulse.
Mike Collins spends the month of June emceeing the show, and many months prior blocking and tackling every number — all while juggling a day job as the host of WFAE’s “Charlotte Talks.” Brian Kahn, a local litigator with a serious sense of satire, writes the script — every song lyric and news sound bite — and he does it year-round, right up to curtain time to keep the material current. Together, they’ve spent more than a decade creating something uniquely Charlotte that has the city squawking.
The concept began as a fundraiser for WTVI, but according to Brian, it didn’t raise much money and angered a lot of sponsors, but the audience loved it.
Mike and Brian turned it into a stage show, and five years ago the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center joined as a partner, taking care of the venue, ticketing and logistics. They continue to add more shows every year, with this year’s Charlotte We Have a Problem set for 22 performances, including a few new matinees.
“We raise our game every year; in fact, people expect it,” claims Brian.
Mike opens the 13th season’s show with a late night talk show-like monologue, which he pens himself and which Brian insists needs to be shorter, in a tongue-and-cheek way. This year’s song and dance takes on Hamilton, proclaiming “Charlotte Squawks is Back Again,” in a parody of Alexander Hamilton. And it’s back in a big way.
When dealing with timely topics, especially in today’s political climate, the pencil stays sharp and at the ready. “I’ve had to rewrite the Comey number twice (a parody of Blondie’s “Call Me”),” says Brian. “Now that he’s set to testify, I had to go back and revise again.”
Revisions are routine and also come based on audience response. “We’ve scrapped a number in the past because it just didn’t go over well,” he adds. This year, that hasn’t been the case. In fact, there’s a song that is such a crowd favorite they moved it to the top to open the show. It highlights the Democrats’ reaction to the election results, set to Earth Wind & Fire’s “September” and is appropriately renamed “November.”
Donald Trump is an easy target, making this year’s material even meatier and ever-changing. A Twitter number called “Tweet Commotion,” a parody of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” requires constant copy updates based on news topics.
The show is a multimedia, two-hour extravaganza complete with news breaks and commercial spoofs. Powerpoint slides punctuate most numbers and add graphic support to the antics on stage. The show proudly stakes claim as THE fake news — where every word is unfair and unbalanced.
“The graphics are easiest to update — that and the news,” says Brian. “We save the big songs for fairly static topics like this year’s numbers that poke fun at Charlotte’s obsession with craft breweries and people’s addiction to Starbucks and Costco.
Everyone can relate to having a bad day, and some sorry souls have their bad day blunders splashed all over the news. In an annual parody of Daniel Powter’s hit song “Had a Bad Day,” the song reminds us of people like the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants who flubbed the Oscar announcement for best picture, and the poor Atlanta Falcons, who blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl 51.
The commercial breaks are also a big hit. Scripted videos poke fun at brands like CPI Security and Morris Jenkins, which, according to Brian, is being retired this year because it simply ran its course. A new ad makes up for it, however, with a parody of the Ancestry.com ad profiling “Patrick,” whose Irish world is turned upside down when he learns he’s Scottish.
Speaking of Patrick, former Governor Patrick McCrory takes a beating on everything from his current inability to find a job to his legacy of the legendary House Bill 2 in last year’s number, “Let ‘Em Pee.” McCrory goes down in Squawk history as having been made fun of the most. In years’ past, he’s even participated in pre-recorded material, like a parody of the Buick ads two years ago featuring Matthew McConaughey where he rolls along speaking in a stream of consciousness.
Brian credits this year’s cast as the best ever. “The talent is incredible!” he says. There are 11 cast members, including Mike, with three new additions this year. A few mainstays also make return appearances, including Johanna Jowett and Bobby Tyson, who’s left three different times and keeps coming back for more. Newcomer and youngest cast member, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, blows the audience away with her big vocals. She starts her senior year of college this fall.
Undeniably Charlotte, the city’s banks and sports teams always get squawked. Panther players like Luke Kuechly and Cam Newton get called out year afteryear — Cam for his wardrobe, while Kuechly gets his own commercial this year. In a big basketball number, Hornets fans can relate to the “Purple Pain” number (a parody of “Purple Rain”) after a disappointing season.
While Wells Fargo would like to forget the fake account scandal, they get squawked in news segments, and Mike points out that they are the only bank with a get-away car in their logo — referencing the company’s iconic stagecoach mark.
In the end, Brian encapsulates it all with a song that truly summarizes Charlotte. Mike explains that it’s in repose to Mayor Jennifer Roberts’ plea that, like NYC and Chicago, Charlotte needs its own song. (Roberts gets squawked in a hilarious number called “Like a Mayor,” to the tune of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”). Charlotte Squawks version of our Queen City song is simply called “Banks and Sports.” A parody of Starship’s famous song, it reminds us that “We built this city on banks and sports.”
“If it’s relevant and ripe for comedy, it’s our job to make fun of it — it’s satire,” says Brian. And it’s a job they do quite well!
Want to Go?
Charlotte Squawks 13: Charlotte, We Have a Problem runs through June 25, 2017 at the Booth Playhouse at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Ticket prices begin at $24.50 and can be purchased here.
All photos courtesy of Charlotte Squawks