Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ensemble hits a hole-in-one with Radio Golf



 August Wilson is considered not only one of the greatest of African American playwrights, but of all theatrical writers.  His themes of self-identity, racism, loyalty, religion, deception, love, gentrification and historical verification form the centerpiece of his well-received “Century Cycle” about black life in Pittsburgh.

Radio Golf, which was completed only months before Wilson’s death in 2005, is the last installment in his ten play cycle.  It is set in the Hill District of the steel city, an area which is undertaking gentrification, as the once all-white area transitioned to primary African American, and now is trending back.  It is an area which, in its recent past, had no retail stores and is now experiencing the likes of Starbucks, Whole Foods and Barnes and Noble.

The script came to life in 2005 in a production at Yale Repertory Theatre.  It opened on Broadway in 2007 after a short run of 64 performances.  Ironically it played at the Cort Theatre, where Wilson’s first Broadway play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was staged in 1984.

The script won the 2007 New York Drama Critics Circle’s Award for Best Play, and was nominated for a Tony Award.

The play, with strong melodramatic overtones, contains a vocal tone that is almost poetic in its flow.  It’s a sound of the past which linguists report “can be heard only faintly now.” 

Wilson, in contrast to the earlier plays in the cycle, gives glimpses of the rise of the black man into the “American dream,” which had been reserved for the white man.  This is the world of financial investments, real estate, politics and golf, which generally has taken place at segregated country clubs, and played by those of the privileged leisure class.  Golf, in which Tiger Woods, whose picture holds a prominent place in the office of Wilkes Realty, along with a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., has made symbolic inroads into the white world.

The story centers on Harmond Wilkes, who, along with his friend, Roosevelt Hicks, are intent on redeveloping the Hill District for civic pride and financial profit. 

Wilkes, an Ivy League educated man, is seemingly on a roll.  He is touted to be a candidate for mayor, and would be the city’s first black leader.  His wife, Mame, is in line for a major state-level consulting job, and the realty company he had inherited from his father is about to break ground on the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Project, which includes apartment buildings and high-end chain stores. 

The project becomes complicated when, Elder Joseph Barlow, an eccentric derelict, claims that a house at 1939 Wylie (a residence which has played major roles in former Wilson plays) has been illegally taken from him. 

As the plot develops, Wilks is caught between loyalty to Hicks, his friend and co-investor, his wife Mame and his conscience. 

On the day the house is to be demolished, Wilks, in a surprising, but satisfying ending, leaves his office to join a group of Hill residents to protest the demolition of 1839 Wylie.  This action brings the Pittsburgh Cycle to a significant and final conclusion. 

The Ensemble production, under the adept directing of Terrence Spivey, is outstanding.  Well-paced, using the authentic “Pittsburgh black American sound” balanced with the educated language and pronunciation of the emerging black community, and well-textured characterizations, the staging holds the audience’s attention.


 

Rodney Freeman shines as Elder Joseph Barlow, the seemingly odd elderly man who turns out to be a rebel with cause.  This is a finely developed characterization. 

Though he stumbles over numerous lines, Theodore M. Snead makes Harmond Wilks live.  Kristi Little nicely creates Mame Wilks as a supportive yet success-driven wife.



Leilani Barrett, properly creates Roosevelt Hicks as a dislikable, self-centered cad.

Darryl Tatum nicely portrays handyman and ex-convict, Sterling Johnson, who in many ways is the fulcrum on which the plot turns.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  August Wilson, who is one of the most important contemporary playwrights, shines a well-focused spotlight on the history and conflicts of the African American community.  Ensemble’s production of Wilson’s Radio Golf is a well-conceived tribute to the man and his message.  It is a must see!

Radio Golf, whose first act runs 1 hour and 35 minutes and second act is one hour with a ten-minute intermission, runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 7 pm and Saturdays @ 3 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through February 26, 2017 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

Ensemble’s next fully staged production is Cleveland Heights’ playwright Rajiv Joseph’s The North Pool opening April 28th, running through May 21st, 2017.

To see the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to:  clevelandtheaterreviews.com


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Well-conceived The Bridges of Madison County @ Lakeland Civic Theatre



The capsule judgement of my review of the Broadway production of The Bridges of Madison County stated, ““The Bridges of Madison County” is one of those special, intimate, meaningful, well-conceived and performed shows that deserved a longer shelf-life than it is getting.”

The show opened to tepid reviews.  Why?  It’s not “filled with flash, glitter, large production numbers and massive choruses.  It is a well-conceived, tender, and low-keyed experience.”  It is a “little” musical, much in the realm of “She Loves Me.”  Those qualities are not the elements of which present day Broadway shows are made.

As I predicted, the show closed its Broadway run quickly.  Now it is released for hinterlands’ productions. 

Fortunately for Cleveland area theatre patrons, Lakeland Civic Theater, located on the campus of Lakeland Community College, acquired production rights, and under the adept direction of Martin Friedman, it had a healthy run.  (Disclosure:  I was out of the country during much of the show’s staging and returned just in time to see the last performance, thus this late review.)

The musical is adapted from Robert James Waller’s best-selling “The Bridges of Madison County.”  It, as was the book, is based on Waller’s homey belief that “some people experience a special love that happens just once in a lifetime—if you’re lucky.”

The score, which won the Tony Award, is beautiful.  It is filled with tender ballads, country twanging and good old fashioned 1950-60’s sentimentality.  It would have made Rodgers and Hammerstein proud.

The story, which some will think is way too Harlequin romance novel sentimental, centers on Francesca Johnson (Trinidad Snider), an Italian who was brought to Iowa after World War II by nice guy, low-keyed “Bud” Johnson (Scott Esposito).  She leads a quiet life on a desolate farm with one close neighbor, Marge (Amiee Collier) with whom she can share her homesickness for Italy, and discuss issues of her marriage and children, Michael (Frank Ivancic) and Carolyn (Anna Barrett).

It’s 1965, and into Francesca’s life comes Robert Kincaid (Shane Patrick O’Neill), a “National Geographic” photographer, who has come to take pictures of the famed covered bridges of Madison county.  He stops for directions to find a bridge he can’t locate, Francesca’s family is at the state fair, they quickly fill a need in each other, a love affair results and he offers to take her away from her “unfulfilled” life.

It’s a tender tale of infidelity, love, unfulfilled experiences, and then the inevitable need to make a pivotal decision that will not only affect the lives of Francesca and Robert, but her family. 

Friedman’s direction is spot on.  The show is well-paced, the human interactions real, and the overall effect is emotionally wrenching.  (The woman sitting next to me sobbingly used two packets of Kleenex during the closing scenes.)

The cement of this production is the totally convincing relationship developed by Snider and O’Neill.  Every touch, kiss, and extended eye contact screamed, “this is real love.”  Very seldom do you see such real interconnectedness on stage.  Bravo!

The rest of the cast, Scott Esposito, Frank Ivancic, Anna Barrett, Aimee Collier, Brain Altman and Amanda Tidwell, all develop real people.

Jordan Cooper’s musical direction, Trad A Burns set design, and Tesia Benson’s lighting design were all well-conceived and helped make this a special production.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  It may be cliché and overly dramatic, but The Bridges of Madison County makes for a fine evening of theatre.  The Lakeland production was stellar.  Applause, applause, applause! 

The Bridges of Madison County ran from February 2-19 at the Lakeland Civic Theatre located on the campus of Lakeland Community College.

WAIT UNTIL DARK underwhelming at Great Lakes Theater


Over the last number of years Great Lakes Theater has cobbled together seasons consisting of Shakespearean classics, musicals and mystery plays.  The combination has proven to be very successful, with many award winning productions and audience pleasing shows being produced.

Presently at GLT is Frederick Knox’s Wait Until Dark, the stage version of the 1967 film of the same title, whose climactic scene has been ranked as tenth on the list of Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”

The melodramatic story centers on the Greenwich Village apartment of Sam and Susy Hendrix.  She is blind, which turns out to be a key ingredient of the script. 

While on an assignment, Sam was persuaded by a woman to transport a doll across the Canadian border into the United States.  He is unaware that packets of heroin have been sewn into the toy. 

A con man and his ex-convict associates connive their way into the Hendrix apartment with the intent of finding the doll.  A deadly game of cat and mouse develops in which Susy’s blindness, the help of a young neighbor, a couple of murders, and some convoluted plot twists carry the play to a dramatic ending.

The play, with a cast of Robert Duvall and Lee Remick, who was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Actress, ran on Broadway for 374 performances in 1966.

The GLT production, part of its 55th consecutive season, opens with tense music which sets a proper mood for what should be coming. 

Unfortunately, in this era of visually dynamic movies and hyped television crime shows, the dated and often contrived script does not grab and hold attention as it did in the 60s. 

The first act is long and often tedious, overly slow in its development.  The second act, which does picks up the pace, fails to have the startling effect that the ending deserves. 

There is too much that doesn’t ring true in the production.  Whether this is result of Joseph Hanreddy’s direction, the acting, or the difficult to stage climactic scene, the overall effect is not compelling.

Scott Bradley’s set is appropriate, Rick Martin’s lighting, which is the key to the effectiveness of the last scene, has some flaws, and the sound effects by Lindsay Jones help develop the right mood.

The cast, Nick Steen (Mike Talman), David Anthony Smith (Sgt. Carlino), Arthur Hanket (Harry Roat, Jr), Jodi Dominick (Susy Hendrix), Jonathan Dyrud (Sam Hendrix), Elise Pakiela (Gloria), Laura Welsch Berg and Lynn Robert Berg (policepersons) are all quite acceptable in their portrayals.

Capsule judgement:  Wait Until Dark continues the GLT tradition of producing a mystery as part of its season offerings.  Those who love murder mysteries may well be enthused, but both script and production do not reach the level of effectiveness of previous shows of this genre.

Wait Until Dark runs through March 12, 2017 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Dynamic choreography lights up the stage in Beck Center’s Bring It On: The Musical



Mention Lin-Manuel Miranda and the musical sensation Hamilton comes to mind.  If not, then, In the Heights, which had a run at Beck Center last year, is noted.  Few know Miranda also wrote both the music and lyrics, along with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green for Bring It On:  The Musical, with book by Jeff Whitty, which is loosely based on the 2000 film of the same name.  The script centers on the competitive world of cheerleading, with side stories about bullying, teen angst and determining what’s important in the world.

The story centers on Campbell Davis (Kailey Boyle) who has achieved her goal of being elected captain of the Truman High School co-ed cheerleading squad.  Through manipulation of the school district boundaries by the mother of Eva (Abby DeWitte), a devious sophomore, Campbell and her friend Bridget (Shelby Griswold), who can’t make the cheer squad because of her heft, are transferred to Jackson High, a predominately black school, with (horror of horrors) no cheerleading squad.

In her exile, Campbell leaves behind, Steven (Jonathan Young), her studly boyfriend, her chances at a national cheerleading championship and her role as “queen bee.”

As must happen in tales of teenage angst, Campbell and Bridget win over the originally hostile students at their new school, forms a cheerleading squad, and go on to compete in the national competition. 

Though the outcome is not what “after school specials” are usually made of, the conclusion is pleasing, the moral well honed. 

If the standing ovation and tween girls who were seated in front of me, who sat on the edge of their seats, often jumping up and down with squeals of excitement, are representative, the audience will love this show in spite of its soap opera tale.

Bring It On: The Musical opened on Broadway in August, 2012 and closed in December of that year.  Termed “a high-energy stage spectacle,” it opened to generally positive reviews, with special praise for its dance numbers.  It was also praised for Manuel’s “sassy libretto.” It was nominated for Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Choreography.

The power of Beck/Baldwin Wallace College’s staging is Martin Céspedes’ spot-on choreography and Mary Sheridan’s cheerleading stunts which take the show to a high level of pleasurable excitement.

Céspedes creatively lets loose.  Constant motion rocks the stage with hip hop, poppin’, breakdancing, freestyle moves, isolations, jerkin’, krumping and freezes being showcased.  This is a lesson in modern street dancing vocabulary and forms. 

What’s compelling is that the moves are being performed by music theatre majors, not trained cheerleaders and free form dancers.  The BW cast are performing dangerous human pyramids and athletic movements which normally take years to perfect and do safely, and dancing which requires years to learn the body control to achieve the moves. 

Director Will Brandstetter keeps the show moving swiftly along and has done a nice job of helping the large cast develop realistic characterizations.

The cast, Baldwin Wallace University musical theatre majors, is excellent.  They are well trained as performers, and it shows in their performances.

Shelby Griswold (Bridget) has a wonderful sense of comic timing. Her mobile face and line interpretations light up the stage.  David Holbert (Twig, Bridget’s boyfriend) also displays strong comic chops.

Kailey Boyle not only looks like the stereotype blond, cute cheerleader, but is convincing in creating a real Campbell.  Shayla Brielle effectively wails and dances up a storm as Danielle, the leader of the “Queen Bees” of Jackson High.  Mike Cefalo is appealing as Campbell’s new boyfriend.

Michael Canada’s convincing and humorous cross-dressing performance La Cienega made him an audience favorite.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Bring It On: The Musical is not a great script, but with a talented cast, high energy dancing, creative choreography, compelling gymnastics, and a dynamic musical score, Beck appears to have another cash cow on its hands as large audiences should fill up the theatre.

Bring It On: The Musical is scheduled to run until February 26, 2017 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org
Next at Beck: The regional premiere of A Great Wilderness tells the tale of a gay conversion therapy camp in the remote Idaho woods. (March 3-April 9, 2017)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Farcical Sherlock Holmes’ mystery, Baskerville, at the Cleveland Play House


Ken Ludwig is the crown king of writing modern farcical plays.  He and the Cleveland Play House seem to have a “thing” for each other.  Ludwig has had world premiere productions of his scripts A Comedy of Tenors (2015), The Games Afoot (2011) and Leading Ladies (2004) on CPH stages.

Ludwig is a play writing machine.  The author of 18 plays and 3 musicals, he has had 6 shows on Broadway.  His stage creations have been performed in more than 30 countries and have been translated into over 20 languages. 

Success came quickly to Ludwig. In 1989, his first Broadway play, Lend Me a Tenor, was bannered as “one of the two great farces by a living writer.”  It went on to win three Tony Awards.  His second play, Crazy for You, ran for over five years and won every important award for Best Musical. 

The likes of Carol Burnett, Lynn Redgrave, Frank Langella, Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche have starred in his writings.

Baskerville is based on the book, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the third of the crime novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which featured Sherlock Holmes.  The book has been listed in the top 200 in the BBC’s “The Best Read Poll” and as the top Holmes novel by the Sherlockian scholars.

Like the book, Baskerville takes place in both London and Devonshire, England in the late 1890s.  The tale starts when Dr. James Mortimer asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate the death of his friend, Sir Charles Baskerville, who had been killed at his Devonshire estate, Baskerville Hall.  There is fear that Sir Charles’s nephew, and his sole heir, a Texan who is about to assume ownership of the estate, Sir Henry Baskerville, will meet the same fate. 

This fear is based on the “family” curse, which dates back to the English Civil War, when Hugo Baskerville supposedly sold his soul to the devil for help in abducting a woman.  Hugo was reportedly killed by a giant dog dubbed “The hound of Baskerville.”  Since that time, there have been reported howling and the evidence of giant footprints, credited to the massive creature.

Though retaining the traditional Sherlock Holmes observations of wonder, Baskerville is written as extended farce, a murderously funny adventure.  As is the usual case, much to the delight of the Conan Doyle fans, the play is filled with Holmesisms such as, “That was a curious incident,” "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?,” “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbably, must be the truth,” and, of course, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

To find their ingenious killer, Holmes and Watson must brave the desolate moors before the family curse dooms its newest heir. And, of course, there must be a twist at the end, so our heroes can solve yet another case!

CPH’s production, creatively directed by Brendon Fox, leaps over all the farcical barriers to create mayhem.  Sets zoom on and off stage, costumes morph from being one thing to being another, lighting and sound effects create mystery and intrigue.  The audience is taken on a silly overly dramatic journey as the intrepid investigators escape a dizzying web of clues, silly accents, disguises, and deceit as five actors portray more than 40 characters. 

The first act plodded along, with actors sometimes giving the feeling that they were not sure where the laughs were going to take place, so they paused and waited to see. In the second act, all the plugs were pulled and giggling and fun resulted.  

Though not looking like the traditional tall, thin image created by the movies and television of Sherlock Holmes, Rafael Untalan, created a believable character.  Jacob James looked like the stereotypical Doctor Watson and created a nicely textured interpretation.  The rest of the cast, Brian Owen, Evan Alexander Smith, and Nisi Sturgis were outstanding in morphing from character to character.  Though sometimes overdone accents got in the way of understanding, the intent and purpose of each character was clear.

Kudos to Candace Brown, Janel Moore, Christina Spencer, the off-stage dressers, for pulling off the numerous costume changes.  They well deserved their curtain call.

Timothy R. Mackabee’s scenic design, Lex Liang’s costumes, Peter Maradudin’s lighting, Victoria Deiorio’s original music and sound design all helped to create the right aesthetic images.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   Is Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a great play?  No!  Is it even a very good play?  Probably not.  What it is is a play that will delight many.  Especially those who like to solve mysteries, who are enamored with farcical delights, and enjoy a cast who is having a lark playing lots of characters and changing costumes a great deal.  And, no spoiler alert here, the butler didn’t do it!

Baskerville
runs through February 12, 2017, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.



Next up at CPH:  Laura Kepley directs Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize winning How I Learned to Drive, March 4-26, 2017 @ Allen Theatre.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Review and previews: Dance Theatre of Harlem, The Cleveland Ballet, Groundworks



DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM @ Ohio Theatre

Founded in 1969, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which is housed in the Harlem section of New York City, was the first black professional classical ballet company.  Since that time, as was evidenced in their recent Cleveland concerts, the organization has extended its purpose to being racially diverse and performing an eclectic repertoire that stresses empowerment through dance.

The company’s two Ohio Theatre sold-out performances were co-sponsored by Dance Cleveland and Cuyahoga Community College.

Consisting of four segments, three short, full length works and a four-segment number, the program showed the breadth of the company.  Mainly modern ballet, with the women on point, they also showed off their jazz and contemporary moves. 

CHANGE, danced by all women, was a tribute to Black, Brown and Beige females.  EQUILIBRIUM (BROTHERHOOD) highlighted the physicality, athleticism and grace with the spotlight on the exploration of “male bonding and how it brings stability to one’s life.”  SYSTEM, danced to the atonal music of John Adams, centered on migrants and the need to “hold the door open for them to continue moving, building and expanding their consciousness.”

RETURN, performed to music by James Brown, Alfred Ellis, Aretha and Carolyn Franklin, was the crowd favorite during the evening concert, often eliciting loud cheers from the audience, especially the large group of dance students from The Cleveland School for the Arts.  “Superbad,” the concluding segment, which was contemporary hip-hop and street moves, brought the program to a joyous conclusion.

Dance Cleveland’s next concert is Jessica Lang Dance on March 4, 2017 at the Ohio Theatre.  For tickets visit http://www.playhousesquare.org/or 216-241-6000.

CLEVELAND BALLET to present encore performance of A CELEBRATION OF DANCE & MUSIC

The “new” Cleveland Ballet, under the artistic leadership of Puerto Rico-born Gladisa Guadalupe, a former member of the Dennis Nahat-led company which left Cleveland for San Jose, California, wants “Cleveland Ballet to again join the list of jewels that make Cleveland a special place artistically.”  She, along with the ballet board’s CEO and Chair, Michael Krasnyansky, a global business developer, have high hopes for cultivating a world-class resident professional ballet company.

The company’s corps presently consists of 14 dancers, 11 females and 3 males.  They are rehearsing in a studio in Bedford Heights with the goal of presenting classical dances and also telling contemporary stories.  Proudly hanging on the studio’s wall is a banner emblazoned with the motto: “Cleveland Ballet—Respect for the past-present—vision for the future.

Sitting in on a rehearsal for their upcoming Hanna Theatre program helped solidify the idea that these young dancers have formed into a company that is filled with mutual respect and pride.  Taking constructive criticism from the multi-talented Cynthia Graham, a former member of the original Cleveland Ballet, who serves as the company’s Ballet Mistress, they were polite, interested in reaching for perfection, and willing to be a support to their fellow dancers.  No competition here, that is so prevalent in some dance groups.

Whether you missed the company’s CELEBRATION OF DANCE AND MUSIC the first time, or want to see it again, January 27th at the Hanna Theatre is your chance. 

The program will include: “Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Artists,” “Tarantella,” “Dicitencello Vuie,” “Granada,” “The Cycle of My Love,” “Amore Perduto,” “Piano Trio in C minor Op. 1, no. 3 Finale, Prestissimo” “Octet for Strings in E-flat major,” and “Op. 20 Allegro moderato ma con fuoco.”  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go on line to http://www.playhousesquare.org

The company will dance A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM, choreographed by Ramon Oller, at the Ohio Theatre on April 7.  The company’s annual Black and White Gala fundraising event will take place on February 25 at the Tudor Arms Hotel.  For information about the School of Cleveland Ballet which takes students 10-22 years of age or about the fundraiser call 216-320-9000 or go to http://www.clevelandballet.org/

GROUNDWORKS to present 2017 Spring Dance Series

Groundworks, the inspiration of David Shimotakahara, who serves as the company’s Artistic Director, is one of the area’s premiere dance companies. 

The company will present “An Exploration in Connectivity, Changeability and Transition,” on March 17 and 18 at 7:30 in the Breen Center for Performing Arts on the campus of St. Ignatius High School in Ohio City and on March 31 and April 1 at 7:30 at EJ Thomas Hall on the campus of Akron University.

The program will consist of a world premiere works by Shimotakahara and Gina Gibney, as well as “Romora” by award-winning choreographer Eric Handman.

Ticket information can be found at http://www.groundworksdance.org/or by calling 216-751-0088.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

THE NIGHT ALIVE, a downer which confounds @ Dobama



Conor McPherson, author of THE NIGHT ALIVE, now on stage at Dobama Theatre, is considered one of the important new breed of playwrights who delve into the lives of people.  In this case, Irish people, usually Irish men.  He has an eye for loneliness and despair.  His plays often are “meditations on regret, guilt and confusion.”  

Often in McPherson’s writing, and THE NIGHT ALIVE is no exception, he writes in a form of “self-conscious realism, which, weirdly, reveals few truths, universal or particular.”

As the lights come up, Tommy (Joel Hammer), who lives in a large unkempt room in his Uncle’s house, stumbles into his living space with Aimee (Anjanette Hall), a woman who is beaten and bloody.  She tells a tale of having been attacked by a man who was giving her a ride.  As the real story unravels we find that she has been beaten by her boyfriend, Ken (Val Ozlenko), and makes a living as a prostitute.

Tommy, a middle-aged man, separated from his wife and children, is wandering through life without a purpose.  He comes up with crackpot schemes, ekes out a living doing odd jobs, such as disposing debris from others’ property, but is incapable of cleaning up his own life. 

Tommy’s only friend is Doc (David Peacock), who keeps getting into trouble due to his limited abilities.  Like Tommy, Doc is desperate for a purpose in life and a place in the world.

Maurice (Robert Hawkes), the owner of the house, has been in deep depression since his wife died.  He covers up his psychotic swings with alcohol.

Tommy, unrealistically, fantasizes a relationship with Aimee that will give meaning to his life.  In reality, it brings him false hopes, betrayal, an attempted theft, a beating, and being involved in a murder.

The Dobama production, under the direction of Leighann Delorenzo is well performed.  The cast is universally excellent.  Joel Hammer, as is his custom, well-textures his performance as Tommy as a complex, confounded, frustrated man, with little meaning and purpose in his life.

Anjanette Hall develops a clear characterization of Aimee who uses her body as a tool to get through her desperate existence.   

Robert Hawkes gives no doubt of Maurice’s depressive state and Val Kolenko is properly brutish as the psychotic Kenneth, Aimee’s abusive boyfriend.

In his Cleveland debut, David Peacock, who has a long history of world-wide theatrical training and experience, shows strong acting abilities and comic timing skill in an astounding performance as Doc.   Bravo!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   THE NIGHT ALIVE, which is about the lives of a few lost souls, gets a strong staging.  Unfortunately, the play is about people who don’t engender a reason to be cared about. 

THE NIGHT ALIVE runs through February 12, 2017 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

THE PHANTOM TOLL BOTH not all it could be at Ensemble




Much like Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND and L. Frank Baum’s THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF OZ, Norton Juster’s THE PHANTOM TOLL BOOTH is a fantasy adventure.  All three are perceived as tales for children, but, in reality, though they are intended to teach youngsters, the messages are often so complex that they go over the heads of their intended audience.

All three have been reformatted as plays.  A version of THE PHANTOM TOOL BOOTH is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre.

Juster’s tale centers on Milo, a young boy who is both bored and creative.  He “receives” a magic toy toll booth one day, which sets his imagination off.  He conjures up a story of driving his toy car into the Kingdom of Wisdom, which is experiencing troubled times.  The problems center on exiling the princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Castle in the Air due to a conflict between believers in math being the most important communication tool and those who believe that words are most relevant. 

Milo, along with his sidekicks Tock, his faithful dog, and Humbug, a maker of improbable tales, traverse the dangers to bring Rhyme and Reason back to the Kingdom of Wisdom and restore order to the land.

In the process, of course, Milo applies all that he has learned in school, realizes the value of knowing about language and numbers, the importance of reasoning to reasonable conclusions, and to love life and not be bored.

Children’s theatre is hard to stage.  Though they often have great imaginations, youngsters also have short attention spans and a strong need for exciting stimuli.  Holding attention has become even more difficult in this age of electronics as very young people are visually stimulated with I-pads, computers, fantastic movies and vivid television.

Ensemble’s THE PHANTOM TOOL BOOTH, an adaptation by Susan Nanus, under the direction of Brittni Shambaugh Addison, puts out full efforts, but fails to command attention.  It lacks the necessary joyous spontaneity needed to make the fantasy aspects spark to life.

Part of the problem is the general aura of the staging.  Though creative in many ways, there is a lack of physical slapstick, fun and frenzy.  The whole thing is just too serious.

The cast (Natalie Grace Sipula, Davion T. Brown, Andrew Keller, August Scarpelli, Evan Thompson, Kayla Davis, Derek Green, Samantha Cocco, Rose Scalish and Rebecca Moseley) is quite competent, but, they, like the stage action, generally just don’t let loose.  There appears to be a lack of understanding of the playfulness needed.  This is not HAMLET, it is MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, not DEATH OF A SALESMAN, but THE BOOK OF MORMON.

To the surprise of many, acting in a children’s play and getting it right is often more difficult than playing a great dramatic role.

Instead of acting, the rest of the cast needed to take the lead of Evan Thompson, who created in each of his characterization’s zany presence that elicited giggles and wonder.  He has a natural ability to grow characters into bigger than life beings.  This is hard to do.  It’s often beyond the abilities of most actors.  It takes the talent of a Danny Kaye, Carol Burnett, Tim Conway, or Lucille Ball to pull this off well.  His multi-faceted Dodecahedron was a feat of comic timing, and visual presence, as was his Spelling Bee.

As one little tyke, at intermission, asked her father the night I saw the show, “Why was the boy a girl?,” in referring to Milo.  The father couldn’t answer the question, and neither can I.

The visual image would have been enhanced by the use of the book’s original Jules Feiffer cartoons being projected onto the back walls.  

A talkback with children in the audience being brought onto stage and sitting with the members of the cast, and an educator leading them in a discussion of the relevance of learning and other morals of the play would also have added to the experience.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Ensemble Theatre should be commended for bringing live children’s theater to an audience.  There are far too few opportunities for youngsters to be exposed to the theatrical arts.  Though not a totally effective production, there is enough positive about THE PHANTOM TOLL BOOTH to encourage parents to bring their children and, hopefully, then discuss the implications of the script with them.

THE PHANTOM TOLL BOOTH, which runs 85 minutes with a ten-minute intermission, runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 7 pm and Saturdays @ 3 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through January 22, 2017 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

Ensemble’s next staged production is August Wilson’s RADIO GOLF!, the final installment in the writer’s ten-play Pittsburgh cycle.

To see the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to:  clevelandtheaterreviews.com

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Amy Schwabauer wretches her soul in THIS IS NOT ABOUT MY DEAD DOG @ Playwrights Local



A present trend in entertainment is story telling before an audience.  “The Moth:  True Stories Told Live,” is one of Public Radio’s highest rated offerings.   The publicity for the show states, “The Moth is deeply rooted in the desire [of humans] to connect with each other through shared experiences in stories.”  According to its blog site, though there are many opportunities nation-wide to experience first-hand “The Moth” readings, none are being staged in the Cleveland area.

Don’t let that deter you from having a story-telling experience.  Playwrights Local is presenting a world premiere of THIS IS NOT ABOUT MY DEAD DOG, Cleveland playwright and actor Amy Schwabauer’s one-woman confession, as she knows it, or what she wants us to know about it.

Schwabauer, a Cleveland State University 2011 graduate, studied sketch comedy writing at The Second City Theater in Chicago.  The improv and sketch training is obvious in both the script and the well-acted presentation of the piece which was originally workshopped in Playwright Local’s 2016 Play Lab.  The show is directed by Dale Heinen, director-in-residence at Playwrights Local, who is a director/dramaturge focusing on new works.

Presented in 20+ sketches, Schwabauer, takes us on a journey through her “so-called” life, much of which took place in Cleveland Heights.  It is performed on a platform, with the audience curving around it.  On the stage are a series of props which the actress/playwright uses to help tell her stories.  Included are a desk, chair, two hassocks, a doll and dollhouse, and a rag rug.  The back wall of the theatre is adorned with three headboards.

The intermissionless staging finds a drunk Amy, wine bottle in hand, looking into the water of the lagoon situated in front of the Cleveland Museum of Art, observing the goldfish (carp) and wondering what the fish do when the water freezes in winter.  As we learn later, the carp descend deep into the water, below the three-foot ice crest, and go into a state of dormancy, saving themselves from being frozen.

Through other interjections we are exposed to what happens to a whale who gets separated from its pod, tries to find a new group, but whose voice and language is not recognized by whales in other pods, so the isolate must remain alone.  In addition, we learn how human reactions to full moons, the traditions of the Catholic church regarding sex, having a “fake boyfriend,” and the carp tale, all have to do with this Amy.

The “morals” are interspersed, sometimes in chronological order, sometimes randomly in “real” stories which include:  Amy’s belief when she was growing up that she was a boy without a penis, her exposure to alcohol at her brother’s house party when she was 6, her love for her dog “Scout,” her status as the family’s bonus baby, a trip to DC to visit her sister where she realized she was invisible, the tale of the “Larchmere” tree, her grandfather’s suicide in the family garage, why she cut off her hair, the trials of being in junior high, life in Catholic school, a tale of Rum drinking in the bathroom with a boy, her first fling at making out, the tribulations of “required” virginity, the problems with Tampons, a sonnet she wrote to Brad, the search for a boyfriend, why college is the worst idea in the world, how to be shy at a party, why her attempts to stalk a man named Tyler lead to her being designated as a “make out whore,” why she is not good at sex, and how an intervention by the Cleveland Heights police helped her become aware of who she really is.

Sounds like a lot.  It is.  The script could be cut by at least ten minutes, the number of drunk scenes compressed, the death of Scout told only once, a lot of the vomiting sequences eliminated and some bright light among the darkness being interjected.  Only so much self-pity works.  After a while the whole thing becomes an endless loop of drunk “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa,” and loses some of its impact.

Capsule judgment:  The largely mid-twenties female sold-out audience responded well to the tales of self-loathing.  Some even shed tears at the end.  The stories obviously hit a chord with them.  Some adjustments in the script could expand the appeal to a wider audience and provide a better theatrical experience.

Playwrights Local, a development and production center, is dedicated to fostering diverse talents and presenting locally written theatrical works.  “It strives to increase the impact of original theater on the community and to raise the profile of area playwrights both within Greater Cleveland and beyond.”

The group has quickly made its mark on area theatre.  In 2016 the organization was recognized by Broadway World in its “BWW-Cle Theater Tributes” for three citations:  OBJECTIVELY/REASONABLE (COMMUNITY RESPONSE TO THE SHOOTING OF TAMIR RICE) was chosen as one of the areas outstanding non-musical productions, Ashley Aquilla, was recognized as having given one of the outstanding performances by a female in a non-musical, and the organization was singled out for “creating a venue for local playwrights to develop their works.”  A recognition was also accorded the organization by the Cleveland Critics Circle in their 2016 awards.  

(Side note:  if you missed OBJECTIVELY/REASONABLE, it will be revived from February 17-March 11, 2017 at Playwright Local’s home theatre, Creative Space at Waterloo Arts.)

Playwrights Local 4181, which is located at 397 East 156th Street, has a parking lot adjacent to the building.  For information and ticket orders go to:  http://playwrightslocal.org/

Friday, January 13, 2017

Innovative INTO THE WOODS examines “happily ever after” at Connor Palace


Contemporary musical theater and jazz, are two major contributions to the arts of the world that have come from the United States.  Originally filled with escapist reviews and song and dance shows, with no story or purpose other than to entertain, the American musical has evolved into a format to tell tales of importance (HAMILTON), highlight sociological and societal changes (HAIR) and make pleas for understanding (RENT).

Probably no composer/lyricist understands the affect that musical theatre can have more than Stephen Sondheim who has examined such themes as revenge (SWEENEY TODD) and actions on the course of history (ASSASSINS and PACIFIC OVERTURES).   Sondheim doesn’t write escapist works.  Even his hilarious A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM showcased the role of slavery and deception.

Sondheim is a master at telling tales with a spotlight on consequences.  INTO THE WOODS, a version of which is now on stage as part of the Key Bank Broadway series, which on the surface is a mash-up of fairy tales, has a strong warning of “be careful of what you wish for” and that one’s communication can affect others.

Awareness that the light-hearted entertainment in the first act, where we are introduced to Jack, of Beanstalk fame, Little Red Riding Hood (and the wolf), Cinderella (and her Prince Charming), and Rapunzel (she of long blond hair and her own Prince), all of whom get their wishes granted, can quickly do a flip-flop and roll out to have dire consequences.  At its core, INTO THE WOODS is about reality and the curse of wish fulfillment.

Reality is keyed by the song “No One Is Alone,” whose melodic theme runs throughout the score.  The words to the song remind us that we are intertwined with those around us and our actions affect them, and their actions affect us.  We are inextricably interconnected.  Once an action has taken place, blaming is irrelevant.  In the play, for example, Jack’s stealing the hen that lays golden eggs and the golden harp, and the presence of the giant, and later his wife, can’t be wiped out by an “I’m sorry.”  His actions have consequences as do the actions of the characters in the fairy tales.

Sondheim indicates that “We cannot act in isolation, nor should we want to for we can accomplish individually only a fraction of the things we can accomplish communally. Appreciate what you have, realize what you want, accept what you can't have, but discover what you are capable of.  It is only when we start accepting each other's faults and acknowledging each other's strengths, then we can join together to combat the giants that face us all.”

Viewers who go to see INTO THE WOODS thinking it is an escapist show will be surprised that it contains “anxiety, rage, anticipation, suspicion, denial and dread.”

This is not a show for children, unless time is going to be spent talking about implications of false “happily ever after endings.”

Though the first act ends with everyone’s wishes having come true, in Act II, all the sweet marzipan falls to pieces.  The giant’s wife goes on a killing spree, the princes cheat, the Baker and his wife blame and bicker, each character questions their original wishes and what they had to “sell” to get the desires to come true and eventually realize that in reality, few, if any, live happily ever after.

The show’s score, typical of Sondheim, is complex and compelling.  Songs, such as “Agony” and “It Takes Two,” are delightful.  “I Guess This is Goodbye” is emotion-provoking.   The powerful “Children Will Listen,” is one of the greatest musical theatre songs every written.  (Side note:  One needs little more to understand the power of the lyrics to that song than knowing that Sondheim’s mother wrote him a letter stating her only regret in life was giving birth to him.)

The Fiasco Theatre production is a creative, innovative, oft compelling version of INTO THE WOODS.  Those who have seen other productions or the movie version, will be surprised by actors playing musical instruments, the lack of lush orchestrations, a set consisting of ropes, crystal chandeliers, and piano sounding boards, and pure focus on the characters and their messages.

This is an inspired, artistic, resourceful production with a superlative cast.  Special spotlights must be shined on the beautiful Vanessa Reseland (the Witch), whose renditions of “Witches Lament” and “Last Midnight” were compelling.  Phillipe Arroyo was charming as the wide-eyed Jack and created a special moment with his rendition of “Giants in the Sky.”

Darick Pead displayed a wonderful flair for comic delight as Milky White and Rapunzel’s Prince.  “Agony,” a duet by Pead and Anthony Chatmon II (Cinderella’s Prince) was a production humor highlight.  Laurie Veldheer (Cinderella) enchanted with “On the Steps of the Palace.”

Derek McLane’s scenic design, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, and Darron L West and Charles Coes’ sound design, all enhanced the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The Fiasco Theater staging of INTO THE WOODS, part of the Key Bank Broadway series, is not a flashy production filled with special effects.  It is a visionary piece of directing excellence by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, who looked beyond the surface and came up with a concept which gave new life to an oft-produced play.  Will everyone like it?  No.  Those who live for escape, want conflict-free stories, who are tired of seeing yet another production of this script, and those who don’t appreciate Sondheim’s musical genius, may well be turned off.  The rest of us will revel in a magical evening of theatrical creativity.

Tickets for INTO THE WOODS, which runs through January 29, 2017, at the Connor Palace, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

BWW-Cle Theater Tributes--2016 (BROADWAYWORLD-CLEVELAND PROFESSIONAL THEATER TRIBUTES)


Greater Cleveland is blessed with a vital theater scene.  It has been the purpose of the TIMES THEATER TRIBUTES, now known as BROADWAYWORLD-CLEVELAND REGIONAL PROFESSIONAL THEATER TRIBUTES (BWW-Cle Theater Tributes), to recognize theatrical experiences that, in the subjective view of this reviewer, were excellent and deserve recognition.

These awards are separate and distinct from the Broadwayworld.com awards which were open to public nominations and voting.

Only shows performed in 2016 which I reviewed were considered.  With the exception of Outstanding National Touring Production, selections were limited to local presentations though actors, directors and technicians who were imported by local theatres for their productions were considered.  Actors are separated by gender, but not equity or lack of union affiliation, or leading or supporting roles. 

Nominees designated by a * indicates my recognition as the most proficient in that category.  In rare cases more than one person is designated as “most proficient.”  Special recognition designees are listed in alphabetical order, not in a rank order.
   
2016 OUTSTANDING NON-MUSICAL PRODUCTIONS
*THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, none-too-fragile
ALL THE WAY, Cleveland Play House
ANNAPURNA, none-too-fragile
CLYBOURNE PARK, CWRU/CPA MFA Acting Program
LINES IN THE DUST, Cleveland Public Theatre
LUNA GALE, Cleveland Play House
OBJECTIVELY/REASONABLE (A COMMUNITY RESPONSE TO THE SHOOTING OF TAMIR
           RICE), Playwrights Local
SANS MERCI, none-too-fragile
SEX WITH STRANGERS, Cleveland Play House
THE MOUNTAINTOP, Cleveland Play House
THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL, Ensemble Theatre
THE REALISTIC JONESES, Dobama
THE REVISIONIST, Dobama
THE WHIPPING MAN, none-too-fragile

2016 OUTSTANDING MUSICAL THEATER PRODUCTIONS

*MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
FOOTLOOSE, Porthouse
IN THE HEIGHTS, Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace University
RING OF FIRE, Porthouse
THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
THE TOXIC AVENGER, Cain Park

2016 OUTSTANDING DIRECTOR OF A NON-MUSICAL

*Sean Derry, THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, none-too-fragile
Austin Pendleton, LUNA GALE, Cleveland Play House
Beth Woods, LINES IN THE DUST, Cleveland Public Theatre
Celeste Cosentino, THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL, Ensemble Theatre
Donald Carrier, CLYBOURNE PARK, CWRU/CPA MFA Acting Program
Giovanna Sardelli, ALL THE WAY, Cleveland Play House
Joanie Schulz, SEX WITH STRANGERS, Cleveland Play House
Katori Hall, THE MOUNTAINTOP, Cleveland Play House
Leighann Delorenzo, THE REVISIONIST, Dobama
Sean Derry, ANNAPURNA, none-too-fragile
Sean Derry, THE WHIPPING MAN, none-too-fragile
Shannon Sindelar, THE REALISTIC JONESES, Dobama

2016 OUTSTANDING DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL
*Victoria Bussert, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Amanda Dehnert, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, Cleveland Play House
Nathan Motta, THE TOXIC AVENGER, Cain Park
Scott Spence, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Steven C. Anderson, RING OF FIRE, Porthouse
Terri Kent, FOOTLOOSE, Porthouse
Victoria Bussert, IN THE HEIGHTS, Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace University

2016 OUTSTANDING CHOREOGRAPHY IN A THEATER PRODUCTION

*Martin Céspedes, Billy Elliot, Beck Center
Greg Daniels, IN THE HEIGHTS, Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace University
Gregory Daniels, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Martin Céspedes, HEATHERS the musical, Beck Center
Martin Céspedes, RUTHLESS!, Beck Center
Martin Céspedes, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
MaryAnn Black, FOOTLOOSE, Porthouse

2016 OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A MALE IN A NON-MUSICAL

*Geoff Knox, THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL, Ensemble Theatre
Andrew Gobmas, THE REVISIONIST, Dobama
Chris Richards, THE REALISTIC JONESES, Dobama
Jeffrey Grover, ANNAPURNA, none-too-fragile
Keith Stevens, TALLY’S FOLLY, Actors’ Summit
Michael Mauldin, MARGIN OF ERROR, Ensemble Theatre
Ro Boddie, THE MOUNTAINTOP, Cleveland Play House
Sean Booker, LANDFORD WILSON:  TAKE 5, Cesear’s Forum
Sean Hudock, SEX WITH STRANGERS, Cleveland Play House
Skip Corris, LINES IN THE DUST, Cleveland Public Theatre
Steve Vinovich, ALL THE WAY, Cleveland Play House

2016 OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A FEMALE IN A NON-MUSICAL
*Derdriu Ring, THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, none-too-fragile
*Dorothy Silver, THE REVISIONIST, Dobama
Ashley Aquilla, OBJECTIVELY/REASONABLE (A COMMUNITY RESPONSE     TO THE SHOOTING OF TAMIR RICE), Playwrights Local
Carly Germany, MARIE ANTOINETTE @ Dobama
Derdriu Ring, ANNAPURNA, none-too-fragile
Holly Holsinger, FRANKENSTEIN’S WAKE, Cleveland Public Theatre
Juliet Brett, MR. WOLF, Cleveland Play House
Maya Jones, HARBOR, convergence-continuum
Monette Magrath, SEX WITH STRANGERS, Cleveland Play House
Nicole Sumlin, LINES IN THE DUST, Cleveland Public Theatre
Rachel Lee Kolis, A KID LIKE JAKE, none-too-fragile

2016 OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A MALE IN A MUSICAL
*Matthew Wright, RUTHLESS!, Beck Center
Ellis C. Dawson III, THE TOXIC AVENGER, Cain Park
Jason Leupold, THE LAST FIVE YEARS, Lakeland Civic Theatre
M. A. Taylor, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Paul Schwensen, FOOTLOSE, Porthouse
Tom Ford, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater

RISING STAR (PROMISING NEWCOMER)
*J. R. Heckman, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
*Calista Zajac, RUTHLESS!, Beck Center

2016 OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES BY A FEMALE IN A MUSICAL

*Natalie Green, THE TOXIC AVENGER, Cain Park
Calista Zajac, RUTHLESS!, Beck Center
Colleen Longshaw, SISTER ACT, Porthouse
Jillian Kates, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Katharine DeBoer, BILLY ELLIOT, Beck Center
Kathleen Rooney, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Neely Gavaart, THE FIRST FIVE YEARS, Lakeland Civic Theatre
Trinidad Snider, INTO THE WOODS, Lakeland Civic Theatre

2016 OUTSTANDING SCENIC DESIGN OF A NON-MUSICAL or MUSICAL

*Philip Whitcomb, THE GOOD PEACHES, Cleveland Play House/Cleveland
    Orchestra
Douglas Puskas, LINES IN THE DUST, Cleveland Public Theatre
Douglas Puskas, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Jeff Herman, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Michael Schweikardt, LUNA GALE, Cleveland Play House
Robert Mark Morgan, ALL THE WAY, Cleveland Play House
Russell Metheny, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, Great Lakes Theater
Timothy R. Mackabee, MR. WOLF, Cleveland Play House
Trad A Burns, HEATHERS the musical, Beck Center
Trad Burns, INTO THE WOODS, Lakeland Civic Theater

2016 OUTSTANDING MUSICAL DIRECTION

*Larry Goodpaster, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Jennifer Korecki, SISTER ACT, Porthouse
Joel Mercier, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Jonathan Swoboda, FOOTLOOSE, Porthouse
Jordan Cooper, INTO THE WOODS, Lakeland Civic Theatre
Jordan Cooper, THE TOXIC AVENGER, Cain Park
Larry Goodpaster, HEATHERS the musical, Beck Center
Travis Smith, RING OF FIRE, Porthouse

2016 OUTSTANDING SOUND DESIGN IN A NON-MUSICAL OR MUSICAL
*Beau Reinker THE KNIFE IS MONEY, THE FORK IS LOVE, convergence
 continuum
Carlton Guc, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Daniel McNamara, LINES IN THE DUST, Cleveland Public Theatre
James C. Swonger, THE GOOD PEACHES, Cleveland Play
 House/Cleveland Orchestra
Jeremy Dobbins, THE REALISTIC JONESES, Dobama
Joe Court, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, Great Lakes Theater
Josh Horvath, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, Cleveland Play House
Kevin Rutan, SAME TIME NEXT YEAR, Actors’ Summit
Richard Ingraham, MARIE ANTOINETTE, Dobama
Trad A Burns, INTO THE WOODS, Lakeland Civic Theatre

2016 OUTSTANDING COSTUME DESIGN IN A NON-MUSICAL OR MUSICAL

*Charlotte M. Yetman, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Andrea Hood, LOVE’S LABOURS LOST, Great Lakes Theater
Anne Medlock, FOOTLOOSE, Porthouse
Tesia Dugan Benson, MARIE ANTOINETTE, Dobama

2016 OUTSTANDING LIGHTING DESIGN IN A NON-MUSICAL OR MUSICAL
*Jeff Hermann, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Kevin Ozan, THE WHIPPING MAN, none-too-fragile
Marcus Dana, MARIE ANTOINETTE, Dobama
Marcus Dana, THE REALISTIC JONESES, Dobama
Rick Martin, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, Great Lakes Theater

2016 OUTSTANDING ELECTRONIC MEDIA IN A NON-MUSICAL OR MUSICAL
*Adam Zeek, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Ben Gantose, INCENDARIES, Cleveland Public Theatre/Ohio City Theatre
    Project
Dan Scully, ALL THE WAY, Cleveland Play House
Dan Scully, THE MOUNTAINTOP, Cleveland Play House
Mike Tuta and Jeremy Dobbins, MARIE ANTOINETTE, Dobama
Perren Hedderson and Zac Hudak, THE 39 STEPS, Blank Canvas
Val Kozlenko, 44 PLAYS FOR 44 PRESIDENTS, Cleveland Public Theater

2016 OUTSTANDING NATIONAL TOURING PRODUCTION

*FUN HOME, Play House Square
KINKY BOOTS, Play House Square
WRESTLING JERUSALEM, Cleveland Public Theatre

LIFE TIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

David Frazier, the beloved stage performer who appeared in more than 150 Cleveland productions, made his earthly curtain call on March 13, 2016.

SPECIAL RECOGNITION

Cleveland Play House and the Cleveland Orchestra on their impressive world premiere production of THE GOOD PEACHES.

Playwrights Local for creating a venue for local playwrights to develop their works.

Raymond Bobgan on the occasion of his 10 years of creative leadership at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Victoria Bussert on her 30th anniversary with Great Lakes Theatre.

Near West Theatre for its commitment to empowering children, teens and adults through transformational arts

If any names are spelled incorrectly, or there are errors in identifications, please let me know so I can change the permanent record on www.royberko.info.

If you would like to read any of my reviews for the year, please go to www.royberko.info, enter the blog and click on “2016 Reviews” or click on the name of the producing theatre and scroll through their performances. Reviews from previous years may also be accessed.

Friday, December 16, 2016

KNIFE/MONEY FORK/LOVE intrigues, convergence continuum at a life/death crossroads



 
Theaters such as Blank Canvas, Cesear’s Forum, Ensemble and congruence continuum are the creation of one or two people who invest their own money, lots of time, and emotional energy in creating a performance space. 

One such entity, Actors Summit, the labor of love of Mary Jo Alexander and Neil Thackaberry, recently went belly-up.   The duo had a long run thanks, in part, to not only their own efforts, but their supportive family.  But, soon, enough was enough and last December, the final curtain fell.

Blank Canvas, Cesear’s Forum and Ensemble, the “love children” of Pat Ciamacco, Greg Cesear and Celeste Cosentino, are hanging in there. 

Congruence-continuum, the one-man business of Clyde Simon may be almost near the end of the road.  It isn’t the lack of an audience.  Simon has cultivated a loyal group of niche followers as evidenced by the near sold-out audience, on a below-zero snowy Thursday night, for a performance of Jonathan Wilhelm’s The Knife is Money, The Fork is Love.

Con-con’s issue is performance space.  Tremont, where the theatre is located, is in the midst of active gentrification.  The area immediately adjacent to The liminus, the building in which the theatre performs, is in the midst of being developed with up-scale condos.  The land on which the theatre stands is valuable.

The campaign, “Save The liminis” has raised $116,000 of the needed $130,000.   If $14,000 more isn’t raised by the end of the year con-con may be in danger of going out of business. (If you’d like to help the cause, go to http://www.convergence-contiuum.org/ click on “support” and follow the links to “Save-The-liminis-Theatre).

As for The Knife is Money, The Fork is Love it fits the con-con mode d’operation. 
The play is billed as, “It's 1932, and Tobias, a young man enamored with radio serials and pulp fiction, receives a package which leads him on a search for the members of a secret society. It’s also present day in the theater, where the actors are trying to work out Tobias’ strange story.  Confusion, and much comedy, ensues as they try to untangle the tale for us.”

Wilhelm, who is an actor, playwright and theatre executive, is very creative, with a wonderful sense of humor and irony.  (Personal disclosure:  Jonathan is a former student who I’ve not only taught, but directed in several productions.) 

George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neil and Arthur Miller all explained in side-notes to their script’s potential directors and actors the playwrights “hints” on how a show should be staged and acted.  These notes were on the written page, not shared with the audience.  Wilhelm, though not yet in a writing level with Shaw, O’Neil and Miller, does them one better.  He writes the directions into the script, to be emoted by the actors so the audience knows what the performer is doing, and often why.  The technique is a little off-putting until you get used to it.  Once you catch on, the device incites fun.  Especially so when the actors argue over whether the playwright is right and whether the performer is capable of carrying out the dictates.

Another writing device is that events are not always in chronological order.  In fact, the play’s first scene is actually one of the concluding scenes, which leads us to jump back to the beginning and then, eventually repeat the scene in its correct place in the logical order of the goings on.  Sounds confusing.  It’s not.  When it happens on stage, the whole thing makes good sense and adds to the “creativity” factor.

Con-con’s production is adeptly directed by Geoffrey Hoffman.  The cast, who, with the exception of David Thonnings, whose sole task is portraying the boy-to-young man Tobias, play various roles and are all excellent. 

Thonnings is delightful as he changes voices, body postures, and uses his mobile face and boyish charm to convey astonishment, awareness and knowledge.

Talented Lucy Bredeson-Smith, con-con regular, transitions nicely from obsessive and secretive mother to “Snake Lady,” a central character in the cult that Tobias is searching out in hopes of discovering the identity of his father. 

Rob Branch, who not only explains the stage directions, but portrays Bill, a detective, Shoefly Joe, a hobo who gives advice to Tobias, when the boy hops a freight train in his journey from the east coast to California, instructs about the symbols painted inside of the railroad car in which the duo travels, as well as the meaning of the “purple hand.”  Branch also takes a turn as Leander, a member of the cult.  He does all with ease and believability. 

Amy Bistok Bunce performs with conviction as the well-meaning Miss Everson, Tobias’s teacher, Theodora, a promiscuous young woman who Tobias meets on his journey in search of self, and a cult member.

Beau Reinker, the sound designer, does an outstanding job of picking mood-setting background music that fits the 1930s mystery radio show mood of the work.  Terri Wachala does a nice job with the lights.



Capsule Judgement:  Consider making a contribution to “Save the liminis” and keep congruence-continuum, the off-off-Euclid theatre, which produces “way out scripts” that other local theaters don’t stage, in business.  As for The Knife Is Money, The Fork is Love, it’s a work in progress that has some fine fun segments in a creative noire model of theater and makes for fun viewing. 



THE KNIFE IS MONEY THE FORK IS LOVE runs through December 17, 2016, at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to http://www.convergence-continuum.org

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Compelling and relevant Clybourne Park by CPH/CWRU


This country is in political and social turmoil.   There is a President-elect who appears will win the Electoral College endorsement, while losing the election by a reported 2-million plus votes.  There is a rise of xenophobia, the Alt-right, the presence of hate groups, possible destruction of the health care system, while the liberal-left pleads for protection against sexual imposition, women and gay rights, and clean air.

It is only appropriate, therefore, since theater represents the era from which it comes, that the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program, stage Clybourne Park, a script which highlights under-the-radar communication about racial, sexual and gender attitudes.  Bruce Norris’s play won both the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play.

Clybourne Park is a follow-up to Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, which looks at a house in the fictional Chicago urban area, before and after the Younger family moved in. 

Hansberry’s play, titled after Cleveland poet Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred,” was the first script by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway.  It starred Sidney Poitier, Cleveland native Ruby Dee, Louis Gassett, and Claudia McNeil as Lena “Mama” Younger, the woman of the family, who decides to invest the payment from her dead husband’s insurance into the purchase of a house in Chicago’s all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood in order to allow the family to have a better life.  The play won the 1969 Tony Award for best play.

Raisin in the Sun was based, in part, on Hansberry v. Lee (1940), a court case that centered on a class action suit by Lorraine’s father and the NAACP against Chicago’s restrictive covenants against Blacks living in certain areas of the city.

Hansberry wrote of the situation and the lawsuit: “That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house. ... My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."

Norris, who is white, portrays fictional events, based on his imagination of what happened when, after the Clybourne Park neighborhood became almost all black due to white flight, and then became an “in-place” for young white “liberal” families to buy and restore, or wreck and replace properties in the now gentrified area, complete with a Whole Foods.

This is not the first play to be based on Raisin in the Sun.  In 2013, Kwame Kwei-Armah wrote Beneatha’s Place, the tale of one of the Younger daughters who becomes the Dean of Social Science at an unnamed California University, after a period of time in Nigeria.

Clybourne Park introduces Bev and Russ, who are in the process of packing to move out of their recently sold home in Chicago’s Clybourne Park neighborhood in September, 1959. 

The house is filled with negative memories.  Kenneth, their son, a Korean War depressed vet, who was accused of slaughtering civilians, hung himself in the home’s attic.  The neighbors, rather than befriending the couple, shuns them.

In Raisin in the Sun, when the neighborhood association finds out that the  house at 406 Clybourne Street has been sold to “negroes,” in order to save the community’s property values because of extrapolated black in-flight, the association sends Karl Lindner to make an attempt to bribe the Younger family to not move.  The pay-off is rejected.

In Clybourne Park, about an hour after Lindner went to the Younger apartment, he comes to the Clybourne Street house to plead with Bev and Russ to consider the neighbors and the property values.  Who the house was sold to and the attempt to call off the sale was unknown to owners.

Arguments, the history of Bev and Russ’s conflicts with the neighbors and their need to move ensue.  Their black housekeeper and her husband, who has come to take her home from work, become involved, a trunk containing Kenneth’s mementos is buried in the backyard, and the exposition for what is to be the riveting second act is laid.

The setting for the second act of the play is exactly fifty years later in the same 406 Clybourne Street house as the first act.  Now it is dilapidated.  The wall paper is ripped, windows boarded up, the wooden floor streaked with water stains.  Six people are present.  An African American couple, the wife, who we find out is the great niece of Lena “Mama” Younger, a young white couple who are planning on building a grand new house on the property, and several lawyers.

There is underlying tension.  Yes, the planned replacement house doesn’t fit the building code requirements, and there are problems over the wording of the deed, but there are unspoken issues.  After much running around in verbal circles, racial, gender and sexual orientation issues emerge, full blast.  Offensive jokes, accusations, and insults abound.  

During the mayhem, a workman, who is preparing the ground for the excavation for the new house’s foundation, enters.  He brings in the buried trunk, which is eventually opened.  The contents lead to the emotional climax of the play.

The CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program production is meticulously directed by Donald Carrier.  The humor and pathos are well refined.  The pacing, the setting, and the cast are all on target.

The cast, Lavour Addison, Paul Bugallo, Mariah Burks, Kyle Cherry, Sarah Cuneo, Randy Dierkes, Peter Hargrave and Megan Medley, all of whom play dual roles, are focused and create real and believable people.  They don’t act, they are.  Past members of the program have gone on to very successful careers in professional theatre.  The members of this class should tread the same path to positive curtain calls.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   Clybourne Park is a special evening of theater.  The Pulitzer Prize play is well written and relevant.  The production is well-conceived and acted.  This is an absolute must see production.

Clybourne Park runs through December 17, 2016, in the Helen Theatre in the Cleveland Play House complex of PlayhouseSquare.   For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

The CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program’s next presentation is Oliver Goldsmith’s SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER from March 15-25, 2017.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Applause, but no standing ovation for CABARET at Blank Canvas, but big time accolades for Allen Cumming in Concert



Cabaret.  It’s 1931 in Germany, a country of unrest.  We find ourselves at the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy cabaret, a place of decadence and emotional abandonment.  Hanging over the entire scene is the aura of the growth of the Nazi party and the impending reign of terror.

Cabaret.  An award-winning musical based on John Van Druten’s play I Am A Camera, which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye To Berlin, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.

Cabaret.  A glimpse at Sally Bowles, an English cabaret singer, her seedy life as a performer, her doomed relationship with American writer Cliff Bradshaw, and a strong subtext of another doomed relationship between German boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider and her suitor Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor.  Not to be overlooked is the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, who oversees the entire affair, not aware that he is also on a doomed path.
 

Cabaret.  A version of which is now on stage at Blank Canvas.
 

Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966.  Upon entering the theatre, the audience was struck by the difference between this and other shows.  The curtain was up, a large convex mirror reflected each person back at themselves, out of proportion, as they walked down the aisle. 
 

Lights up, the theatre’s brick side and back walls were all exposed.  Ironically, the staging was reflective of exiled German Jewish playwright Bertolt Brecht’s theory of theater: “alienation” (awareness that you are watching a theatrical production), “epic” (that which was presented is bigger than life), and “historification” (a message from the past, which the viewer is to bring into the present, and learn from the experience).
 

The original cast included award winning Clevelander Joel Grey as the Emcee.  Grey went on to also star in the 1972 movie version which featured Liza Minnelli as Sally.
 

In the London revival of 1993, under the direction of Sam Mendes, the show took on a new persona.  The emcee morphed from an asexual, malevolent character to a highly sexualized homosexual (brilliantly portrayed by Allen Cumming) who, at the end of the play, along with all the other “decadents”—Jews, Communists, physically disabled—are taken off to the concentration camps.  

Reference was added to Cliff's bisexuality, including a scene where he kisses one of the Cabaret boys.  A 1998 Broadway revival, which also starred Cumming, further refined the script, added wandering musicians to bring out the alienation and identified each character with a musical sound.

Basically using the Mendes rewrite, the Blank Canvas production, under the direction of Patrick Ciamacco, works on some levels, stumbles on others. 

The staging creates many illustrations of the impending horror.  On the other hand, some questionable casting, a potential horrific ending was so fast in developing that the effect was lost, and some questionable costume choices, all added up to a less than stellar production.


On the positive level, young, angelic looking and sounding Colin Myers’ “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is a haunting prelim to the horror that is to follow.  The reprise by Kimberly Eskut was emotionally haunting.
 

Bernadette Hisey is properly pragmatic and tender as Fraulein Schneider, whose purpose in life is to survive at all costs.  John J. Polk is wonderful as Herr Schultz, the Jew who thinks he is a German and naively assumes that the forces that are coming will assume the same.  The duos’ versions of “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married” were charmingly tender.  Hisey‘s “What Would You Do?” was wrenching.
 

David Turner (Bobby), with a snarl and a sneer, makes for a proficient Kit Kat male dancer and Cliff’s former lover.  Stuart Hoffman (Ernst) is properly despicable as a scheming Nazi.  Kimberly Eskut is spot on as Fraulein Kost, Fraulein Schneider’s roomer, who offers sexual favors for pay to numerous sailors.
 

Tricia Bestic does the near impossible.  She not only doesn’t do a Liza imitation, but actually sings the meaning of “Cabaret.”  This is a song of great emotional depth, not a cutesy pop tune as is often the style in which it is presented, which gives the final clue to both Sally and Germany’s impending destruction.  Her beat down, rather than up-beat Sally Bowles, adds a unique dimension to the character.
 

Katie Zarecki’s choreography helped set the right decadent and sensual mood.
 

On the other hand, Devon Turchan tries hard, but winds up posturing at being the Master of Ceremonies, using surface vocal and physical gimmicks, in his failed attempt to imitate Allen Cumming.
 

Handsome Noah Hrbek, who has a nice singing voice, doesn’t get beyond the surface as Cliff.  
 

Luke Scattergood’s costumes were era correct but failing to put yellow Star of David on Herr Schultz’s jacket in his exit scene and avoiding using the pink triangle on the Emcee’s coat before he is hauled off to the furnaces, may have robbed the audience of the needed visual images that lead to the emotionally wrenching last scene.
 

The heavily brassed orchestra wailed the score.
 

Capsule judgement:  Cabaret gets a serviceable, yet flawed production at Blank Canvas.  The very fact that the production I saw received applause, not a Cleveland automatic standing ovation, gives a message that the show did not get the most out of the script.
 

Cabaret continues until December 17, 2017 in its near west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website. Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvastheatre.com


Endearing Allen Cumming in concert

It’s ironic that the same weekend as Cabaret, one of the shows for which he is best known opened at Blank Canvas Theatre, Allen Cumming appeared live in concert at the Connor Palace Theatre.

The talented Scotsman, not only gained fame from his sensual award-winning portrayal as the MC in three productions of the Kander and Ebb tale of the rise of Nazism in Germany, but for being Eli Gold in television’s “The Good Wife.”  His performance resume, which includes classical as well as musical theatre, television, commercials and writing, runs deep!

What few know is that Cumming has a commanding full, mellow, singing voice, is a delightful story teller, and has a magnetic personality, which, even in the cavernous confines of the Connor Palace, allowed him to grab and hold the attention of the audience.  In truth, the performance was better suited to a cabaret venue.

Using personal experiences and show business inside stories, Cumming even set up and coaxed the audience into giving him an extended curtain call.

Accompanied by a pianist, drums and a carbonite cello, his tales included his misguided decision to get his then-boyfriend’s name tattooed on his right hip.  The story of its removal and then the introduction of the now replaced lover, was highlighted by the appearance of the man, who is now a Clevelander, who displayed Cumming’s first name inked on his hip.

A Lisa Minelli tear-jerker, but fake tale, delighted, as did the story of doing a condom commercial, the review his penis got when he wore tight leather pants on stage, and his search for information about his mother’s father, all added to the audience’s delight.   

Cumming became emotionally wrought when he sang a song about his abusive father, bringing not only himself, but the audience to tears.

The only thing missing from the very entertaining evening was a rendition of at least one of the songs from Cabaret.  Oh well, you can go to the Blank Canvas production of the show to hear the songs.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Natalie Weiss will perform at Music Box concert and teach in a Cleveland Music Theatre intensive education program




Cleveland Music Theatre (CMT), the brainchild of native Clevelanders Miles Sternfeld and SeanPatrick, was created to provide exceptional education for the Cleveland community and beyond through reimagined, innovative musical theater productions and workshops. Broadway, national, and local artists collaborate to create a dynamic synergy, fostering successful professional careersand development in the theatre. The organization has presented the critically praised shows The Who’s Tommy (2013) and Aida, in July (2015). 

To date, CMT’s major thrust has been to present well-attended intensive training by providing opportunities for local students to explore the realities of what it means to be a modern working theater professional.  The intensive classes are taught by working Broadway professionals, national and local artists, including Tony Award winners, and cover every aspect of the business including the role of the performer, casting directors, agents, directors, music directors, choreographers, conductors, producers, and composers.

Intensive presenters have included Alice Ripley (Tony Award winner for Next to Normal), Shoshana Bean (Broadway:  Wicked and Hairspray), Christina DeCicco (Broadway:  Evita, Sister Act), Paige Faure (Broadway, Cinderella), Morgan James (Broadway:  Godspell, Wonderland, Motown), John Leggio (Broadway:  Cats, My Fair Lady, Showboat), Kathleen Marshall (Three-time Tony Winning Director/Choreographer), Patina Miller (Tony Award winner for Pippin), and Jared Zirilli (Broadway:  Lysistrata Jones, Wicked).

Local theatre professional instructors have included:  Victoria Bussert (Director of Musical Theatre, Baldwin Wallace University), Martín Céspedes (award winning choreographer), Jacqui Loewy (Director of Theatre, Notre Dame College), Fabio Polanco, (Professor of Acting, Kent State University), and Brian Zoldessy (Cleveland Critic Circle and Times Theatre Tributes award-winning actor).

CMT’s next offering will find Broadway performer, Natalie Weiss, doing double duty, teaching in the Cleveland Musical Theatre’s “Pop/Rock Intensive,” as well as starring in the organization’s Music Box Supper Club concert.   The venue is located at 1148 Main Avenue, on the West Bank of the flats.

Weiss, who graduated from Pennsylvania State University, was a season 4 semi-finalist on “American Idol,” was the understudy for Elphaba in Wicked, and spent two-and-a-half-years with Les Miserables.  She was also an understudy in Sherie Rene Scott’s Everyday Rapture.  Her videos, “A New World” and “Spark of Creation,” preceded her breakaway YouTube hit “Breaking Down the Riffs.”   She is noted for her impressions of Celine Dion and Britney Spears.  For more information on Weiss go to http://www.natalieweiss.net/

CMT alums Christina Ciofani, Dani Apple and Grace Hunt will also appear on December 18 at the 7:30 concert. 

The “Pop/Rock Musical Theatre Intensive” runs from December 16-18, 2016 at Cuyahoga Community College-East.  It will not only have Weiss on the faculty, but also features Martin Céspedes (choreographer) and Rob Kovacs (composer and music director).  The curriculum will include breaking down riffs, singing coaching, teaching auditioning techniques, and demonstrating original Broadway choreography.  Participants will also sing live in Natalie’s concert.

For information for both the intensive and the concert go to http://www.clevelandmusicaltheatre.org

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Delightful THE LITTLE MERMAID @ Beck Center



One of the difficulties of doing the Disney Theatrical, The Little Mermaid, is how to do the underwater scenes.  Yes, much of the story of Ariel, the daughter of King Triton, the master of the sea, in her search for “a world in which I feel truly realized in my own terms,” takes place, as the songs states, “Under the Sea,” in contrast to “The World Above.”  

Beck Center, with the aid of Projection Designer, Adam Zeck, from the University of Cincinnati, and a very expensive new projection system, solved the water problem by adding water motion, fish, underwater plant images, and a realistic storm.  The addition of undulating gossamer cloth, which created waves, added to the visual imagery. 

Scott Spence and his design team did everything except reverting to the Broadway use of “merblades,” wheeled footwear to allow the mermaids and fish to “float” across the stage, to making the whole fantasy aspect of the show work well. 

Then, Spence cast a wonderful blend of professional and amateur actors and singers, and turned the movement and dance over to award winning choreographer Martin Céspedes, to complete the visual and aesthetic delight.

The Little Mermaid is based on the 1989 Disney film of the same name, which brought to the big screen Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of a mermaid who dreams of wanting to be her true self.  In contrast to many Disney heroines, Ariel’s desire goes beyond finding Prince Charming, though, as is the case in most fairy tales, she does find and marry a Prince. 

The script made its Broadway debut in January of 2008 and ran 685 performances and fifty previews.   The Beck show is an interpretation developed in 2012 which strongly stresses that Ariel’s ambitions are bigger than the search for a man to complete her, moving Disney into the more modern era.

As the tale starts, Ariel (Kathleen Rooney), her side-kick, Flounder (J. R. Heckman), her sisters, the fish and crustations of the sea, frolic through the “Overture” and “The World Above.”  Meanwhile, Prince Eric (Shane Patrick O’Neill) and his adviser, Grimsby (Brian Pedaci) are aboard a ship at sea and discuss in the song, “Fathoms Below,” the mythical merfolk who live under the sea. 

Much to the delight of King Triton (Darryl Lewis), the court composer, Sebastian (Wesley Allen), a fuss-budgeting crab, has the Mersisters, Triton’s daughters, minus the always daydreaming Ariel, sing “Daughter of Triton.”

Eric, aboard ship, hears a lovely voice, is immediately captivated by the sound, thus laying the groundwork for his eventual pursuit for the source of the music.  It, of course, is Ariel.

A storm, Eric being saved by his yet unrecognized lady love, Ariel, who is fascinated by the “real” world, the plotting by Ursula to play revenge on Triton for taking away her “deserved” inheritance as the equal controller of the seas, the conflict between King Triton and Ariel for her breaking the rule against contact between merfolk and the human world, a deal between Ariel and Ursula in which the young beauty exchanges her singing voice for legs to replace her mermaid tail thus becoming a human, Ariel and Eric spending time together, (spoiler alert!) a conflict between Ariel, Triton and Ursula in which the magic seashell is broken and the bad aunt is destroyed, Eric proposing marriage, the declaration of peace between humans and the merfolk, and, as in all good fairy tales, the royal joining in marriage of Ariel and Eric takes place. 

The stage version, much to the frustration of some of the little ‘uns in the audience, one of whom was heard whining, “That’s not the way it was in the movie!” makes some changes from the film.  The main alterations include that an initial shark chase was dropped, more emphasis on the conflict between King Triton and his exiled sister, Ursula, and Ursula’s spying on Ariel, instead of being via the magic seashell, is done by her henchmen, Flotsam and Jetsam.  In a  major change, Ursula’s ultimate destruction, thus freeing Ariel from a nasty spell, is completed when the magic seashell is destroyed.  It was the latter that elicited the whine from the chiffon dressed little stickler for the movie’s version of happenings.

The Beck production is well conceived, creative and a delight for young and old.  The staging is magical, the visual elements far above anything done on local theatre stages due to the encompassing electronic visuals.  Martin Céspedes has outdone himself with creative, stimulating choreography which covers calypso, ballroom, soft-shoe, line dancing, and some balletic moments.





The cast is point-on.  Lovely Kathleen Rooney, a hometown girl and Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre grad, was born to play a Disney heroine, which she has done on professional stages.  She has a lovely presence, a well-trained singing voice, and acts and dances with complete believability.

Sean Patrick O’Neil makes for a charming Prince Eric.  Well known for his many appearances in Musical Theatre Project concerts, he has a strong voice well displayed in “Her Voice” and “One Step Closer.”

Natalie Blalock knows how to play bad, and her Ursula is bad to the core.  Her version of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” made her an enemy of everyone in the audience.  Even in the curtain call she was growling at the audience, scaring the little kids in the first couple of rows into utter panic.

Darryl Lewis, he of huge voice and physical presence, was King Triton right-on.  Zachary Vedermann (Scuttle), Wesley Allen (Sebastian) and Robert Pierce (Chef Louis) delighted the audience.





J. R. Heckman, winner of the 2016 Playhouse Square’s Dazzle Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance of Donkey in Solon High School’s Shrek the Musical, is an especially talented young performer who sings, dances and acts with total competence.  His Flounder was absolutely charming.  Watch for this kid’s name in Broadway lights.

Alan Menken’s music was lushly played by Larry Goodpaster and his large orchestra.

Douglas Puskas is not only an excellent scenic designer, who created a set for this complicated musical, but must be a master logo practitioner.  The Beck stage has no backstage, wing space or fly gallery.  How he managed to fit and figure out how to move the stage pieces in place with ease and proficiency is impressive.

Jeff Herrmann’s lighting added many specially needed effects and, for the first time in many a musical, the sound system, this time designed by Carlton Guc, actually made the performance audible, with no squeaks, squeals or dead spots. 

The costumes, provided by Music Theatre Wichita, were outstanding.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The Little Mermaid is a total delight and absolutely a  must see for anyone who likes well-performed and conceived fantasy musicals.   What a wonderful evening of theater for audiences of all ages.

THE LITTLE MERMAID is scheduled to run through December 31, 2016 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org