Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Farcical “Blithe Spirit” @ The Fine Arts Association

Noël Coward, the author of “Blithe Spirit,” now on stage at The Fine Arts Association in Willoughby, is noted for his wit.  The author of over 50 plays, many of which he starred in himself, he was also a composer, actor, and singer.  His satirical song, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” which he often performed in his concerts, was classic Coward.  It made fun of the uptight Brits, their penance for following custom, and their love of the “empire.” 

Many of his plays, such as “Hay Fever,” “Private Lives, “Design for Living,” and “Present Laughter,” are considered classics of world theatre, produced over and over by professional, educational and amateur theatres.  They are all high comedies, often farces, many were domestic in nature, garnering the title, “drawing room comedies.” 

A closeted homosexual, he was referred to as a “congenital bachelor.” He often took on subjects which drove censors of the 20s and 30s mad.  He continued his playfulness well into the 60s, much to the delight of audiences. 

His works are British through and through.

“Blithe Spirit” centers on a series of incidents which some think is based on a combination of his own search to find out about the occult, his desire to write a play about clairvoyance, his wanting to make fun of writers, and a way to banner his views of marriage.

The storyline centers on Charles Condomine, a snobbish British socialite and novelist.  In his desire to write a book about clairvoyance, he invites his neighbor, the eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a séance at his home.  His present wife and two very British friends, a doctor and his wife, are present.  None are believers in mysticism, and make snide comments about the whole event. 

The séance gets out of control when Madame Arcati actually summons Elvira, Charles’ dead wife from the “in between.”  Only Charles can see or hear Elvira.  The often annoying and temperamental first wife attempts to destroy his marriage to second wife, Ruth.  As Charles talks to Elvira, Ruth takes his words as critiques and remarks about her.  When he finally tells Ruth that Elvira is present, she fails to believe him.  She becomes reluctantly convinced when Elvira brings her a vase of flowers, lifts and replaces objects, and causes general chaos.

Farcical incidents happen, an accident accidently kills Ruth, but she is soon back as a “ghost.”  Eventually, after Madame Arcati is able to rid the house of the two mirages, the tale seems to come to its merry end.  Seems to, but who knows?

“Blithe Spirit” is a British comedic farce.  This genre is very difficult to direct and perform.  The Brits have a way of putting things that doesn’t lend itself to American senses of humor.  They like overdone reality.  They require fidelity to realism, but exaggerate in a subtle way that makes for a less is more pattern that is often hard for non-Brits to achieve.  They make an art out of door slamming, over-exaggeration of the trivial, and saying biting things with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

In other words, Coward and his modern colleagues write plays that are very, very hard to present in a way that makes them as funny as they have to be. 

Many American amateur and even some professional companies stay away from Coward’s works because, even though they read well on paper, are nearly impossible to stage.  English accents must be exact, but not overdone, clear enough for the untrained Yank ear to understand.  The pacing must be alternately over and under done, depending on whether the scene is comical or farcical.  The characterizations must be realistic, real people, not being superficially presented as these people are perceived to be.  Gestures and facial expressions must be British.  Sometimes stoic, sometimes condescending, yet always in character, and natural, not faked.  This is a rough task. Why the powers that be at FAA selected such a difficult play is a mystery.

The director and cast of the Fine Arts Association’s “Blithe Spirit” try hard, but are over matched by the requirements of the script.  Congratulations to Nicole Alponat, Cami Blanchard, Justin Steck, Korbin James Lashley, Leah Smith, Marcia Mandell, Angela Savochka and director James Mango for a great effort.

Michael Roesch’s set design is excellent.  The accents were consistent, though a little overdone.  The pacing was generally good, but the production was slowed down by the extremely long blackouts between the scenes.  Some of the farce shticks worked, especially in the play’s last scene.

Capsule judgement:  “Blithe Spirit” is considered by theatre experts to be one of Coward’s greatest farces.  Though the director and cast at The Fine Arts Association give it a “pip, pip, hurrah” effort, they just can’t overcome the barriers created by picking a script with such high level of directing and performance requirements.

Tickets for “Blithe Spirit,” which runs through October 26, 2014 can be ordered at 440-951-7500 or online: http://www.fineartsassociation.org

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A haunting “Night of the Living Dead” @ Blank Canvas

Pat Ciamacco, Artistic Director of Blank Canvas Theatre, is audience friendly.  He wanted to find a script for the venue’s Halloween season.  Though there are a lot of movies that fit his liking, there were few to no plays.  So, true to Ciamacco’s nature, he decided to write one.  But, then he thought, why invent a new script when he could adapt a classic like the 1968 horror comedy cult classic indie film,  “Night of the Living Dead.”  And, to make matters even better, due to a glitch by the films producers, who forgot to register the rights to the script, the work is in the public domain.  In other words, no royalty has to be paid.

The film, which cost $114,000 to make has taken in nearly 30 million dollars and has a cult following.  Another plus for Ciamacco.  A built-in group of followers.   Stage it, and they shall come! 

The story concerns Barbara and Johnny, a brother and sister, who, each year make a visit to their father’s grave, in an isolated rural area.  Barbara is up tight over being in the graveyard.  So, of course, Johnny hides, jumps out and scares her, shouting, “They’re coming to get you.”  Little does he know how right he is.  In fact, “they,” the zombies, are coming to get everyone. 

Barbara runs when a “man” attacks and kills Johnny.  She finds an abandoned farm house with a mangled corpse inside.  She tries to flee, only to be confronted by another zombie.  She is saved by Ben, who is seeking gasoline as his truck has run out of fuel.  They return to the house, board up the windows and wait for “the attack of the creatures.”

Ben finds a gun in the house and proceeds to shoot some of the attackers.  In the meantime, a young couple, and a married duo whose daughter has been attacked by the zombies, are holed up in the basement.  When downstairs residents hear the sound from the radio which Ben has turned on, they emerge from down below.  A series of twists and turns, and a television broadcast, push the plot of the intermissionless one-hour tale to its gruesome conclusion. 

Getting the idea that this is not exactly the writing quality of “Hamlet?”  Well, as it turns out, it is a lot like the Shakespearean tragedy, as in the end, the stage is littered with dead bodies, good and bad characters, alike.

To the delight of the audience, each time someone is shot, red liquid squirts onto the patrons seated in the first two rows.  (If you don’t want to be part of the blood bath, make sure you are in the rear seating areas.)  A woman who saw the theatre’s even more bloody 2012 “Texas Chainsaw Musical” came into the theatre on opening night wearing a plastic raincoat with a hood, prepared for the spurting red showers.

The cast, garbed in bad wigs and over-stylized costumes, true to the melodramatic nature of the goings-on, play their roles with great seriousness, but with a tone of affected acting.  They take themselves seriously, in spite of the ridiculousness of the goings on, so the audience will both laugh at them as well as their surreal plight. 

Kudos to Matthew Ryan Thompson (Johnny), Amber Revelt (Barbara),  DeVon Settles, Jr. (Ben), Stephen Berg (Tom), Jonathan Kronenberger (Harry Cooper), Tasha Brandt (Judy Rose), Theresa Dean (Helen), Makenna Weyburne (Karen), Ian Atwood (Sheriff McClelland), and Will Crosby (Posse Member), plus a horde of Zombies, for being ridiculous in order to create the ridiculous.

Credit for the stage blood effects goes to Ciamacco and Chuck Klein.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  It’s the Halloween season, the traditional time of the year to pay homage to ghosts, goblins, and of course, zombies.  Pat Ciamacco and his merry band of performers give the audience a chance to wallow in stage blood, feign fear of the denizens of the dark, and enjoy themselves by watching the “Night of the Living Dead.”  Just remember, “Hamlet” this ain’t!

Tickets for “Night of the Living Dead,” which runs through November 1, 2014, can be ordered at 440-941-0458 or www.blankcanvastheatre.com

Enjoyable “Making God Laugh” at Actors’ Summit

Families can be interesting to observe.  Take for example, the family who is the subject of Sean Grennan’s “Making God Laugh,” the 125th main stage production of Actors’ Summit. 

The quintet are functional, but with some over-arching problems, mainly centering on Ruthie, an obsessive-compulsive wife and mother.  Ruthie, who believes rules are rules, traditions are traditions, and none these are up for discussion or change.

Ruthie’s “absolutes” include serving her foul tasting and smelling Fantasia Dip on every holiday, the infallibility of the Catholic church, her drive for making everything “perfect,” and her harassing two of her three children. Only Thomas, the youngest, who, at the start of the play is a priest-in training, is exempt.  The oldest son, Rick/Rickie/Richard, an alcoholic “wanna be” playboy, whose life centers on “a guy told me” get-rich schemes, purchases of off brand and weirdly colored cars, such as a “pink” Gremlin, wears trendy clothing, and perceives himself as a woman’s man.

Then there is middle child, Maddie.  Insecure Maddie, a lesbian, would-be actress and sometime teacher, is the constant recipient of her mother’s attempts to get her married, bring forth grandchildren, and be the duplicate of “Ruthie’s former best “friend.”

Bill is a quiet, undemonstrative dad and enabling husband, who puts up with Ruthie’s manipulations and control, including sleeping in a separate bedroom, for no other reason than that he loves her.  But even that parameter meets its match when Ruthie finally goes too far.

This a family filled with unresolved issues, met and unmet dreams, and angst.  Yes, a family, like many families. The negatives come forward during the holidays.  Ah, yes, the holidays, which are supposed to be happy times, but often, as is true of other stressing situations such as weddings, turn from happy anticipation to intra-family squabbles.

As outsiders looking in, the audience can laugh at the idiocy, sigh as they relive similar personal comparisons, and feel the tug of heart strings as each family member changes before our eyes due to attitude changes, realizations, and physical and mental illnesses.

The play covers three decades, each accented by a holiday.  First, there’s Thanksgiving (1980)…the era of green and gold furniture, David Hasselhoff, polyester clothing, words like “cool,” and “Fantasy Island” on television. 

Then comes Christmas Eve (1990)…gas selling for $1.16 a gallon, Pinto autos, Tom Sellick, huge portable phones with bad reception, sideburns, and dudes in denim duds. 

Next, it’s New Year’s Eve, 2000.  Yes, the time of the Y2K prediction of the millennium bug, the impending apocalypse, changes in the Catholic church, the forecast of Google, the fall of Enron, and soy beans as the farm crop of choice. 

The last scene is Easter Morning, in 20??...sometime in the near future.  When reality sets in, the “children” have found their niches in life, the physical and psychological woes of the elders are apparent, “pleasant dementia” is on display, and a new reality and family dynamics have set in and need to be managed.

The dramedy’s title was inspired by a Woody Allen’s classic line, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”  This family had its plans and they make not only God, but the audience laugh, in the process of watching these plans followed, changed, accomplished, and fall apart.

“Making God Laugh” is formulaic, more television than theatre in its writing style.  It’s not Neil Simon or Woody Allen funny, more “Modern Family” cute.  It does have its “ah ha” moments and “aw isn’t that nice” inclusions.

The Actors’ Summit production is nicely paced by director Neil Thackaberry.  The natural farcical instances are stressed, the laughs are abundant.

MaryJo Alexander’s costume designs are era-exaggerated, especially carried out in Rick’s garb and hairstyles and Maddie’s wardrobe.

The cast, Chanda Porter (Ruthie), James Hill (Bill), Keith E. Stevens (Richard), Shani Ferry (Maddie), and Adam Klusty (Thomas) develop consistent characterizations.  These are theater characters, not real life people, and are portrayed as such with exaggerated facial expressions and body movements.

Capsule judgement:  “Making God Laugh” is one of those nice escapist evenings of theater that will induce laughter, cause nostalgic trips to yesteryear for the more mature members of the audience, and incite awareness of the fears of some as they look forward to the “golden” years.   
“Making God Laugh” runs at Actors’ Summit, located in Greystone Hall, 6th floor, 103 S. High Street, Akron, through November 2, 2014.  For tickets call 330-374-7568 or go to http://www.actorsummit.org

Actors’ Summit’s next show is “Hound of the Baskervilles, the original Sherlock Holmes story, which runs from November 26-December 21, 2014.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Delightful "[title of show]," at Beck

Truth, well maybe the truth, can be stranger than fiction.  According to the show, itself, the musical “[title of show],” yes, that’s the title of the show, which is now appearing on stage at Beck Center’s Studio Theater, was conceived when one of the script’s authors received an announcement about a musical festival.  The New York Musical Festival, to be exact.  The NYMF was in search of new musical scripts. 

The duo, Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell (their real names and also the names of the characters in the script) decided that they could, in three weeks, accomplish the deed!  A script and four songs had to be written.  Bowen, who is a lyricist, supposedly wrote the words before any music was conceived.  Along with a couple of female friends, the duo wrote a script which was about them writing the script. 

Much to the amazement of all, “[title of show]” was accepted for production.  During the summer of 2004, the quartet (quintet if you count the piano player who has some spoken lines) performed three times at The Manhattan Theatre Source.  Their set?  Four office chairs on wheels, a telephone recording machine, an electronic piano, some sound equipment, a few posters, a couple of smartphones, and a lot of imagination.  In September of that year, they performed it again for six performances. 

Five new songs were written, a little conflict between the participants was added, some more short runs followed, and then the big break:  a limited off-Broadway run.  Then a bigger break:  a Broadway production in 2008 which ran 102 performances.  It won the 2009 Broadway.com Audience Award for Favorite Ensemble Cast.  And that wasn’t the end of the road.  In August of 2013, the show opened in London, numerous equity and non-equity local performances have followed, and the script was translated into Danish for a production in, you guessed it,  Denmark.

Not bad for a show conceived on a spur of a moment whim.

So, what’s the story?   You just read it.  Bowen and Bell tell the tale of how the script was written, how it got its first performance, and the stresses and joys of the writers and cast in developing the piece.

This is no great musical, no “My Fair Lady,” or “Chorus Line,” or even “Espresso Bongo.” (Did anyone but me see “Espresso Bongo?”) but, it makes for a delightful sit, especially for those who have knowledge of  the Broadway theatre and its many stars.  There are many “in theatre jokes” and celebrity name references that might roll right off the ears of non-theatre geeks. 


Does this mean, if you aren’t a member of the august community of theater aficionados, you won’t appreciate the show?  No.  There is enough charm to carry anyone to be intrigued about the toils and troubles of accomplishing the major task of creating a musical, even one without a name.

Clever songs include:  “Filing out the Form,” “Montage Part 2: Secondary Characters,” and “Change It, Don’t Change it/Awkward Photo Shoot.”  “A Way Back Then” is a tender offering.  BTW…want to hear a free song from “[title of show]?”  According to the Beck program, if you go to http://www.rnh.com/contest/TOS and enter the code Untitled you can get a free download from the original Off-Broadway cast recording. 

Director Scott Spence has conceived a production that is laid back and comfortable.  No big production numbers, no complicated sets, no attempts to make the show a classic. 

The cast also play rather laid back.  Though they are all talented, no attempt is made for anyone to be a diva.  Amiee Collier (Susan), Pat Miller (Jeff), Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly (Heidi), and Will Sanborn (Hunter), have all proven before on local stages that they are solid performers, with good voices, and concrete acting chops.  They use their skills well.

And, let’s not forget about Larry Goodpaster, the multi-award winning musical director, most people have never seen on stage, because he is usually in the orchestra pit, directing.  So, if for no other reason, here is your chance to see the cherubic Goodpaster, not only play the electric piano, but sling some clever lines and get lots of laughs.   Gee, he might trade in his baton for stage makeup.

Attention: “[title of show]” is advertised as “an adult” production.  Yes, some “F” bombs fly, masturbation is mentioned, gay sex and porn are alluded to, males are shirtless for brief interludes, and one of the girls removes her blouse, but not her bra.  You have been warned!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  During the performance, when the cast of “[title of show]” are reading the show’s opening night reviews, it is revealed that Broadwayworld.com panned the show.  The Beck Center doesn’t have that problem.  This review (yes, it will appear on Broadwayworld.com, one of the sources that carries my show reactions) will be stating, ”[title of show],” now on stage at Beck Center for the Arts, in Lakewood, Ohio,  is a delightful theatrical experience, that audiences should enjoy!”).

“[title of show]” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through November 16.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org

Friday, October 10, 2014

Impressive, must see "Les Miz" @ Great Lakes Theater

“Les Misérables” is a classic historical novel by Victor Hugo.  It is probably one of the most noted literary pieces of the 19th century. “Les Misérables,” Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s musical adaptation of the novel has become an epic of the musical theatre stage. 

The script is usually performed in grand style with large sets, a huge cast, a big orchestra.  The Great Lakes Theater’s production of “Les Miz,” as it is commonly called, takes a somewhat different approach.  The ingenious Victoria Bussert has reimagined the show as a smaller, more intimate, more personal offering. Bussert’s concept works wonderfully.  

The Hanna Theatre, GLT’s Cleveland home is a perfect venue for Bussert’s concept.  The audience is up close to the happenings, making every action, every emotional feeling, every nuance, observable.   The cast, the theatrical elements, and the musicians, don’t let the audience down.

Hugo was a commentator on the French condition during the 19th century.  He examines such topics as morality, the power and place of religion, the justice system, the role and format of the family, and the corruption of the times. 

His “Les Miz” gives a vision of the frustrations of the people with the royal system of the time.  It exposed the injustices of the legal system, where a man can get a long prison sentence for stealing bread, food intended for a starving nephew.  It tells of how, even after serving his sentence, the man must carry papers and a body signature that tattoo him for life as a convict.  It illustrates the frustration of a group of idealistic dreamers who wish to make changes, but lack the skills, the tools, and the support to exact alterations in a bad governmental system.

The musical version, a two-year labor which the writers call a period of “cutting, condensing and shaping,” resulted in a moving tale that parallels the book, and gives further light to Hugo’s message. 

When it opened in London, the show received mixed reviews.  Cameron Mackintosh, the show’s producer, who reported that he was in an “elevated state” due to the powerful emotion of the cast and audiences, as the preview period came to an end, was surprised by the reviews.   He said, “I couldn’t reconcile the sense of uplift and exhilaration I had witnessed in the theatre with these words [the reviews].”  The public seemed to take the reviews in stride, and besieged the box office for tickets.  The results have been astounding.

The show has been translated into 22 languages, has played in 42 countries and is still running in London.  The original New York show ran 6,680 performances, one of the longest runs on-Broadway. It was recently revived on the great white way.

The centerpiece of the story is Jean Valjean, a prisoner who serves his time, breaks parole, steals silver from a priest who was kind enough to take him in, is caught by the police, and released when the clergyman tells his captors that the silver was a gift.  Valjean transforms himself into a self-made successful, moral man, but is sought after by Inspector Javert, who obsessively perceives it his mission to catch convict 20641.  Valjean becomes wealthy, assumes responsibility for the daughter (Cosette) of a former worker [Fantine] at his manufacturing factory, who was slandered by gossip, cast out, turned to prostitution, becomes ill, and is visited in the hospital by Valjean who promises to raise Fantine’s daughter as his own.  The rest of the tale follows Valjean, Fantine and Marius, one of the student leaders of an attempted revolt to change the governmental system, as they live out their lives against the background of 19th century France.

Bussert has taken the serious underbelly of the tale, softened it with some humor, and fashioned a musical tale that clearly develops the story, stresses Hugo’s intentions, and presents the musical aspects in a glorious vision.  This is a masterful job of directing.

Instead of the usual massive set on a turntable and an impregnable barricade, scenic designer Jeff Herrmann, has given a fragmented, suggestive vision.  The barricade is made of regular household items—bed headboards, tables and chairs—things that would have been really used to create a makeshift structure.  They are staked from the floor and hung from the fly gallery to create an impression of what might have been part of the battle.  Houses, the sewer, walls, the ballroom are suggested in such ways that there is no question of where the scene is taking place.  The only slightly out of kilter visual was the illusion of Javert’s body falling into the water after he jumped off a bridge.

Musical director Joel Mercier and his orchestra present a lush and well interpreted sound that highlights the action and supports rather than drowning out the singers.  The individual and choral singing is excellent.

Esther M. Haberlen’s era-correct costume designs enhanced the production, as did Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting and Amanda Werre’s sound design.  Gregory Daniels choreography added to the show’s quality.

The cast is generally excellent.  Stephen Mitchell Brown displayed a well-trained voice in his portrayal of Jean Valjean.  He knows how to sing meanings, not just words so the songs resonated with the audience.  His “Bring Him Home” brought the show to a stop as a result of a screaming positive audience reaction.  His rendition of “Who Am I?” was another of the show’s highlights.

Jodi Dominick, as Fantine, was properly down trodden by life’s issues of having an illegitimate child, being abandoned by the child’s father, and being the brunt of unfair gossip.   Her role interpretation was excellent, her musical version of “I Dreamed a Dream” was emotionally tear inducing.

Brian Sutherland, as the obsessive Javert, displayed a solid singing voice. “Stars” was well interpreted.  He could have been more menacing, thus enhancing the emotional level of his dealing with Valjean. 

Kyle Jean Baptist displayed a strong voice and a powerful stage presence as Enjolras, the leader of the rebellious students. 

Though both were fine,Tracee Patterson (Madame Thénardier) and Tom Ford (Thénardier) could have had added even a little more farce to their roles.

Capsule judgement:  Director Victoria Bussert and her production team fashioned  a marvelous and impressive “Les Misérables.” Besides the quality of staging, it’s worth seeing the show, to experience Stephen Mitchell Brown’s ownership of the difficult role of Jean Valjean. The GLT production is an absolutely must see!

“Les Misérables” runs through November 2, 2014 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets go to: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

A “cool” “Motown, the musical” rocks the State Theatre

The State Theatre in PlayhouseSquare is rocking.  Rocking with sounds of the likes of Diana Ross, The Supremes, The Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.  Rocking with a full orchestra, a visually stimulating electronically enhanced production, and the story of Berry Gordy.

Berry Gordy, who is the central character of “Motown The Musical parlayed a loan of $800 into a mega-million musical composing, recording and producing business.  Gordy not only influenced the musical sounds, but found the entertainers who transformed America’s musical tastes, played a role in the civil rights movement, and helped hone an identity for black entertainers.  He did this in an era of segregation, white disc jockeys not willing to play “black” music, and the KKK on the march.

“Motown” is a jukebox musical.  It has a book which surrounds Motown’s catalog of hits.  It is based on Gordy’s autobiography “To Be Loved:  The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.”

The book for the show, which was written by Gordy, takes a journey from 1938, in the Gordy family home in Detroit, Michigan, to 1983 in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where an event is being held to celebrate the stars, hits and success of Motown.  The success which, between 1961 and 1971, had 163 singles in “Billboard Magazine’s Top 20,” including 28 songs that reached number one.  It was the most successful business owned and operated by an African American in the United States.

The musical premiered on Broadway in April, 2013.  Though the cast and the music was praised by critics, the script was generally called “light weight.”  The show went on to garner four Tony nominations, but none were for the book.

With choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, and directing by Charles Randolph-Wright, the touring show, even with its one and a-half hour first act, zips right along.  The full orchestra, under the baton Darryl Archibald, blasts away, creating the right sounds, even if some of the older ears in the audience may have felt bombarded by the volume.  More than one person was seen popping in ear plugs while others were pulling out their hearing aids.

The show is all about music.  And, fear not that this is a touring production, the voices are superb, and the acting is right on target.

Some of the songs from the past, reproduced here, are “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “My Girl,” “What’s Going On?,” “My Guy,” “Dancing in the Street,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Do You Love Me?,” “I’ll Be There,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I‘m Yours.”

Clifton Oliver creates a Berry Gordy who is completely believable.  His ups, his downs are all fully developed.  Allison Semmes is Diana Ross.  Ross, Gordy’s lover.  Ross, the Supreme’s front lady. Ross, The Diva. 

Nicholas Christopher as Smokey Robinson and Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye are character correct.  Those old enough to have experienced Ed Sullivan were delighted by Doug Storm’s imitation of the crossed arms, over-articulating host of the top rated Sunday night TV variety show.  A show which bannered many of Motown’s biggest stars.

The rest of the huge cast, often playing various roles, were all excellent.  The vocal sounds and the blendings were all music to the ears.

Davis Korins’ scenic design, consisting mostly of a series of vertical and horizontal beams, which often slid into various configurations, and cleverly designed projections by Daniel Brodie, framed and illustrated the action.  The time sequences were illustrated by pictures and films, including Martin Luther’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his murder, the Dallas assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the slaying of his brother Bobby.  Freedom Marches, civil unrest, and the wars, were all vividly projected.

Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams created dynamic choreography which not only duplicated the moves of the boy and girl groups, but also set the right tone for the time period.  Esosa’s costumes were not only era, but character, correct.

Capsule judgment: If you like the Motown sound, dynamic singing, and a good history lesson, MOTOWN THE MUSICAL will be your “thing.”  It was definitely my thing!  As the silver-haired lady, standing several rows in front of me, jumping up and down and waving her hands from side-to-side, kept yelling during the curtain call, “That was cool!”

“MOTOWN THE MUSICAL,” a part of the Key Bank Broadway Series, the show runs through October 19 at the State Theatre.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Superb Aspen Santa Fe Ballet excites audience at E. J. Thomas Hall

Dance Cleveland opened its 59th season in spectacular style with a performance of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at E. J. Thomas Hall, on the University of Akron Campus.  The company, which was founded in 1996, has two official schools, one in Aspen, one in Santa Fe, and a year-round Mexican outreach program.

The huge audience, which filled the orchestra section of the auditorium, was enthralled by the eleven person company’s creativity and discipline.  They lived up to their advanced billing for adventurous dancing.  The style has been credited with “epitomizing the contemporary-classic genre.”

The program opened with “Over Glow,” choreographed by Jorma Elo, and performed to music by Felix Mendelssohn and Ludwig van Beethoven.  The composition was danced with precision, with three male clones and three females who could have been triplets in physical style and appearance.  The dynamic music was perfectly paralleled in mood and temperament by Elo’s dance designs. 

Combining classical ballet moves with modern movements, the body shifts, freezes, lifts, running, slides, spins, and jumps were a master class in combining the two styles.  The finely gym toned bodies of the dancers created enthralling visual and emotional pictures.

If “Over Glow” had been the sole offering on the program, the audience would have been satisfied, but it was only the appetizer.

“Return to a Strange Land,” set to four emotional pieces by Czech composer Leoš Janáček, and choreographed by Jiří Kylián, Czech contemporary dance choreographer, explored the limitations and capabilities of space, body parts, entrances, exits, and contrasts, with some humorous overtones.  The distinctive movements, which incorporated dancers running and sliding across the floor, combined classical ballet and modern dance.  With overtones of sadness and longing, the overarching feeling was that of hope.  

“Square None” was choreographed by Norbert De La Cruz III, a young Filipino-American.  Still in his twenties, the Julliard School graduate is noted for his creation of inventive and haunting characters.  Accented by creative lighting, the dancers thrust their limbs in and out of the squares of lights, parts of their bodies often seeming to disappear.  Constantly changing from intertwining patterns, to unison solo dancing, the performers seemed to be playing a game in which the musical notes set the pattern and tone for point and counter-point movements.   The overall effect was an audience-pleasing experience.

Capsule judgement:  Pam Young, executive director of Dance Cleveland has done it again.  Young has the ability to find dance companies that entertain and delight audiences.  Her selection of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet futher confirms her grasp of the national and international dance scene and makes sure that Cleveland area audiences experience the best.

Next presentation by Dance Cleveland is the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, presented through the sponsorship of the Cleveland Israel Arts Connection, a program of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, on Saturday, November 8 @ 8 PM and Sunday, November 9 @3 PM at the Ohio Theatre.


Thursday, October 02, 2014

Farcical "The Merry Wives of Windsor," doesn't leave well enough alone @ Great Lakes Theater

“The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a version of which is now on stage at Great Lakes Theater, is considered by many literary critics to be one of Shakespeare’s “lesser” plays.  Not bad, just not up to the dramatic level of the great writer, though its farcical nature is often praised.

Nicholas Rowe, a Bard expert, indicates that the reason the play was written may account for its structure and format.  According to Rowe, Queen Elizabeth was pleased with the character of Falstaff in two parts of “Henry IV” so she commanded the writer “to continue him for one play more,” for a special occasion.  She wanted and got a fun farce which is intended to be a romp, delightful, and for audience enjoyment.

It is the opportunity for creative staging that should make this production excellent, since Tracy Young, the show’s director, is noted for her imagination.  In my review of “The Imaginary Invalid,” which she staged for GLT a while back, I stated, “Under director Young’s guidance, the cast has a wonderful time and so does the audience.  She directs with a broad brush, creating lots of easy to laugh at shticks.”

If only I could write that about “The Merry Wives.”

I’m not a Shakespeare purist.  I like a director with creativity, but the reinvention has to be purposeful.  From my perspective, Young tried to add message where it wasn’t needed.

The director explains in her program notes that the play is now placed in an era following the Second World War.  (Why?)  She has moved the place from Windsor, England to Windsor, Wisconsin.  (Why?)

The director refers to the late 1940’s era  as a time of “darker awareness of humanity,” and “tensions between ideals of community and individualism, transformations of accepted notions of status, and evolving expectations of traditional gender roles.”  Yes, some of these ideas are lightly hit upon in “Merry Wives,” but Shakespeare wrote the script as a farcical romp, not a “message play.” Yes, Madam Director, create broad farce, but why attempt to add a social/political message where none was intended?

The slight story centers on Falstaff, one of the Bard’s most beloved creations.  Falstaff, the boisterous, lively, funny and mischievous fat man gets himself into all sorts of trouble, thus delighting audiences.  In “Merry Wives” he comes to the city, broke, and desiring to get some quick money.  Young has imagined him as “a down-on-his-luck celebrity in exile from Hollywood.  Think Orson Welles plotting his come-back!”  (Why was that twist added?  Does that add humor?)

He thinks he can get cash by deceiving Mistresses Ford and Page, as they are “only” women.  As it turns out, the ladies turn the tables on Falstaff, resulting in his getting put into a trash container, dumped into the river, being forced into women’s clothing in order to escape the wrath of the ladies’ husbands, getting thrashed, and humiliated. 

In a subplot, three different men are trying to win the hand in marriage of the Page’s daughter, Anne.  The mother prefers Doctor Caius, a French physician. The father wants her to marry Mr. Slender.  Anne, herself, is in love with Mr. Fenton.  In the end, there is a festival as each of the men gets what he really wants.

Production questions arise:  Why do accents come and go?  Why is Dr. Caius unintelligible?  Why does Falstaff keep changing physical size?  What is the purpose of the costumes (Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts, safari clothing, modern day suits, varying eras of women’s fashions)?  Why the large contemporary set that makes movements on stage difficult?  What is the purpose of the group of children, who are at various times  Scouts, birdwatchers, and ballet dancers?

Fortunately, Young has inserted some great shticks.  The farce is at a high level. The pace zips along, though the ninety-minute first act is a long sit, followed by another, though shorter act.  Most of the acting is excellent.

Laura Welsh Berg and Jodi Dominick are delightful as Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page as are Lynn Robert Berg and Ian Gould as their husbands.  When he is allowed to go over the top in his performance, Aled Davies is fun as Falstaff, but too often he is bogged down by the film scenes and other sidetracks that are intended to develop the “plot.’  His getting thrown into the trash and impersonating of a woman scenes are what this script is all about!

Clare Howes Eisentrout is charming as Ann Page.  Sam Wolf (Fenton) shows some great dancing talent in the celebration scene.

Capsule judgement:  Opening night audience reactions to “The Merry Wives of Windsor” varied greatly.  Many of the spectators generally sat in stony silence, not even giving the show the traditional Cleveland standing ovation.  A group in the theatre’s rear section laughed constantly and stood at the curtain call.  A fellow reviewer left at intermission stating, “I’ve never walked out of a show before!” Me? Though there were some very entertaining segments, this was not one of my favorite evenings of Shakespeare.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” runs through November 2, 2014 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets go to: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Compelling, must see "Anna Christie" at Ensemble

Eugene O’Neill is one of America’s greatest, if not THE greatest playwright.  The winner of a  Nobel Prize for Literature and four Pulitzer prizes for drama, including “Anna Christie,” which is now in production at Ensemble Theatre, his plays are master classes in language usage.

His forte is realism, much in the mold of Chekhov and Ibsen.  He was the forerunner of the likes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge.

O’Neill writes natural, real dialect.  His characters speak as real people from the area and class of the play’s settings.  They are often people on the fringes of society, struggling to find their footing. They dream of a better life, but almost always slide into despair, hopelessness and disillusionment.  Even when he writes a happy ending, as he does in “Anna Christie,” there is no certainty that tranquility will reign. 

O’Neill spent many years at sea, after having been expelled from Princeton for throwing a beer bottle through the window of Professor Woodrow Wilson.  Yes, that Wilson, the future President of the US.  The contents of the bottle is significant, as O’Neill was an alcoholic.  He also suffered from depression. 

It is helpful to know O’Neill, as a person, in order to fully appreciate and gain a depth of insight into his writing.  Because of his life, habits and actions, many of his characters are people with a connection to the sea, are alcoholics, have mental illnesses, abandon the important people in their lives, and are self-destructive.  His messages and characters not only resonate, but stay with those who experience his writings.

O’Neill was unique from birth to death.  His life started in a hotel room and also ended in one.  He succumbed in 1953, at the age of 65, in the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Boston.  It is now Shelton Hall dormitory of Boston University, and the legend is, that his spirit haunts the room and the dorm.
“Anna Christy” opens in a waterfront bar in New York about 1910.  Old Chris, a coal-barge captain, receives a letter from his daughter, Anna Christie, who he has not seen since she was 5 years old.  

Unbeknownst to Old Chris, she has lived a tumultuous life, filled with secrets and regrets.  They meet at the bar and have a tenuous connection.  She agrees to go to the coal barge with him.  She finds peace on the water and decides to stay on the boat. 

During a sailing, they rescue survivors from a shipwreck.  One of the boatmen is Mat Burke.  At first he and Anna spark.  Then they fall in love.  Mat wants to marry Anna who he perceives to be a sweet innocent.  In order not to reveal her past, she refuses.  Eventually, a fight for control of Anna ensues between Chris and Mat.  To assert her independence, Anna reveals the lurid details of  her life, including being raped, homelessness, and a turn as a prostitute.  Chris leaves, Anna sticks around, Chris returns, they agree to marry.  A twist of fate brings a new issue, as the play comes to its dénouement.

The Ensemble production, under the laser focused direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz, is compelling.  Each character is carefully etched. The pacing and story clarity make the 125-minute, four act epic, zoom by.  The audience rides the emotional waves, carried by what often appears to be the rocking of the boat, the flowing of the fog, and the magic of moonlight at sea.

Katie Nabors gives what must be one of the best local performances of the year as Anna.  The beautiful young lady is completely believable in the role.  She is not acting a part, she is living Anna’s life.  Bravo!

Greg White, as Anna’s father, sets his Norwegian accent at the start and retains it throughout.  He does not portray a conflicted, alcoholic man of the sea, he is one.  Hurrah!

Handsome Michael Johnson is totally believable as the young longshoreman who falls in love with Anna and must decide whether he can “forgive” her for her past life’s actions.  Good job!

The rest of cast, Mary Alice Beck (Marthy), Stephen Vasse-Hansell (Larry), Allen Branstein (Johnny the Priest) and Kyle Huff (Longshoreman) are all excellent.

The set, the lighting, and the special effects all enhance the production.

Capsule judgment:  Ensemble’s “Anna Christie” is one of those special theatrical events that is required seeing for anyone who not only wants to appreciate the wonders of Eugene O’Neill’s masterful use of words, but see a flawless production!  Go see a show that actually deserves a standing ovation!

“Anna Christie” runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through October 19, 2014.  For tickets go to www.ensemble-theatre.com or 216-321-2930.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

THE PILLOWMAN--a chilling looks at life and death at convergence continuum

Clyde Simon, Artistic Director of convergence continuum, has a knack for finding off-beat, provocative plays that incite discussion and strong reactions from the theatre’s loyal following.  That group, and probably many more, will find themselves entranced by Martin McDonagh’s  black comedy, “The Pillowman.”

The play is set in an unnamed country whose symbol is a large five cornered red star, which is bannered on the wall of the interrogation room in which the story takes place.  The symbol is also emblazoned on the armbands of the two government officials, one a detective, the other a law enforcement officer, who are conducting an “interview” with a short story writer, whose “crime,” at the start of the play, is unknown. 

Before the tale is over, suicide, murder, decapitation, the sadness of life, sadism, perversion, incest, childhood deaths, misguided love, and inhuman torture is exposed through a volley of “f” bombs, sick humor, and storytelling. 

The audience is swept along, reacting in strange ways.  There is laughter when the response should be cries of anguish.  There are times when watching and listening should be replaced by closing of eyes and refusing to hear the goings on.  But pay attention we do.

“The Pillowman” tells the story of Katurian (his first, middle and last name), a short story “fiction” writer, who composes tales which are often bizarre tellings of child mistreatment and murder.  He has been brought to a secret place and is being interrogated by Tupolski (a detective) and Ariel (a brutish officer with a tendency to use torture to get desired answers).   Katurian’s “slow witted” brother, who is in the next room, is supposedly also being questioned. 

As the story unravels, over a two-and-a-half hour period, we become aware of the strange childhood experiences of the brothers, at the hands of their step-parents. 

Readings and enactments of some of Katurian’s stories are presented.  The most revealing as to the actions of the brothers are, “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother,” (a boy is encouraged to write happy stories by his parents, but the sounds of torture in the next room soon results in his writing disturbing tales);
“The  Pillowman,”(a being made of pillows visits people on the verge of suicide); “The Little Appleman, “ (a young girl carves little people out of apples into which she places razor blades); “The Tale of the Town By the River,” (a reinterpretation of the “Pied Piper of Hamelin”); and “The Little Green Pig (a green pig, who enjoys his strange coloring, and is mocked by the other pigs).

Assuming that the brothers will soon be executed, Katurian attempts to make their impending deaths less traumatic for his brother, and save his legacy, his stories, from destruction.  Whether he is successful or not, and the role in that decision by his torturer, Ariel, leads to McDonagh’s dénouement.

The play received a 2003 Olivier Award for Best New Play, a 2004-2005 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Play, and two Tony Award nominations.

Con-con’s production, under the direction of long-time company member, Geoffrey Hoffman, is often compelling.  The length and wordiness of the play sometime gets in the way, but the over-all pacing, staging and acting leads to a disturbing set of feelings that last long after the production is over.

The cast is quite good.  The highlight performance is turned in by Daniel McElhaney, as Michal, Katurian’s child-like and childish brother.  He develops a vulnerable character who elicits viewer compassion. 

Tom Kondilas uses his deer-caught-in-the-headlights eyes to display bewilderment, understanding, and desperateness.   Robert Hawkes is excellent as Tupolski, the emotionally “in control” detective with an underlying layer of seething purpose. 

Stuart Hoffman, the “bad cop,” shows menace well.  His most effective moments are at the play’s conclusion.  Nicole McLaughlin and Melissa Frelich are believable in their supporting roles.

Capsule Judgement:  “The Pillowman” is a disturbing script which gets a mainly effective production at con-con.  It is not a play for those who go to the theatre for escapism, but it will be of interest to the type of theatre-goer that likes to delve into the world of motivations, philosophical decisions, and the effects of the actions of others on the psyche.

“The Pillowman” runs through October 18, 2014 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 convergence-continuum.org

Con-con’s last show of this season is Mark O’Rowe’s “The Terminus,” a tale of three people who are ripped from their daily lives and catapulted into a fantastical world of singing serial killers, avenging angels, and lovesick demons.  It runs from November 21-December 20, 2014.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lakeland Civic Theatre presents depressing, well staged, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

The Westons of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning, AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY, gives new meaning to the phrase dysfunctional family. 

The dark comedy centers on Beverly Weston, an alcoholic, the family patriarch, and award winning poet who-disappears.  We quickly learn that his wife, Violet, eats prescription drugs like they are popcorn.  Her bossy sister, Mattie Fae, has a secret that is about to be revealed.  Daughter Barbara’s marriage has fallen apart.  Fourteen year-old granddaughter, Jean, is a secret pot smoker.  Without knowing it, daughter Ivy is involved in an incestuous romance.  Daughter Karen is engaged to a man with a questionable past and present.  Before disappearing, Beverly hired Johnna, a native American, to be the family’s housekeeper, but why seems to be a mystery.

The Sheriff appears to reveal something.  What?  The answer is the pivotal plot device that sets AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY on its unnerving course.

It might not be so depressing if the whole thing was made up.  But the author admits that the character, Violet, the vindictive, substance-abusing mother, is based on his maternal grandmother, who, he states, “was a piece of work.”  When Letts gave the play to his mother to read, he was nervous, but her first response was, “I think you’ve been very kind to my mother.”  Kind?  Only if kind means Attila the Hun on meth!

The Lakeland production, under the direction of Martin Friedman, is a well conceived, if overly long, staging.  While the first act drags a little, the second act speeds towards its upsetting conclusion at a roller coaster pace.  The characters are clearly etched.  For the most part, there is a nice level of character development rather than actors just playing roles.

Bob Abelman makes Beverly Weston into a believable drunk.  So often actors go too far, feigning slurring and unsteadiness.  No such problem here. Abelman does drunk well.

Annie McElvoy, as the pill popping Violet, the clan’s mother, is effective, swinging from drug induced fuzziness to rational clarity and back again.

Courtney Nicole Auman, as Ivy, has the most difficult role of the three sisters, as she needs to be in emotional control almost throughout.  She achieves the right levels of pathos and frustration. Diane Mull, as Barbara, a victim of possessing the psychological worst of both of her parents, effectively fizzles out before our eyes.

Caitlin Post nicely underplays Johnna, the Native American housekeeper, working at the Weston home out of financial necessity.

 Jeffrey Glover effectively portrays the henpecked Uncle Charlie, who morphs into a man with a backbone.  Rose Leninger, is focused correctly as Mattie Fae, a bitter woman with a secret.  Jeremy  Jenkins, as Little Charles, a boy/man who has been thoroughly psychologically whipped by, Mattie Fay, his mother, is correctly pathetic.

The rest of the cast nicely develops their roles.

Keith Nagy’s three level set is a perfect setting.  It is cluttered, dark and depressing, as sad as its occupants.

Be aware this production is not a show for the up-tight or those looking for a light, escapist comedy.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The Lakeland production of AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY is a well-conceived staging of an award winning script, and though not for everyone, makes for a well worth drive to Lake County.

For tickets to AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, which runs through October 5, call 440-525-7134 or go to http://www.lakelandcc.edu/arts

Sunday, September 21, 2014

OCCUPANT @ Cesear's Forum

Louise Nevelson, the subject of Edward Albee’s play, “Occupant,” now in production by Cesear’s Forum, may or may not be the person that is written about in the script.  The iconoclast artist, known for her monochromatic abstract expressionist sculptures, was an elusive figure.  Many of the accepted “facts” of her life have been proven to be untrue.  It matters not if Nevelson told the stories, or an art historian searched and found the information. No one knows exactly what is accurate.

Nevelson lived the “great lie theory.”  If you tell a lie over and over, after a while you can’t tell if it is the truth. 

Who is better to probe into Nevelson’s life than Edward Albee, America’s greatest existentialist playwright, whose works are representative of the Absurdist school of writing.  Absurd, meaning “out of sync” in one sense, “ridiculous” in another.  Yes, Nevelson led a life that was eccentric, when compared to the norm, and her fanciful exploits make for a bizarre story.

Who was Louise Nevelson?  Only she knows, and as we find out, she’s not telling.  Or, is she?

Albee sets up the investigation in what appears to be a clear format.  An interviewer is probing into Nevelson’s life, asking her questions.  But, suddenly the interviewer informs us, “I never interviewed someone who was dead!” Yes, the woman we see before us, is dead!

As the interview proceeds, we find that Leah Berliawsky was born in Kiev, Russia, on September 23, 1899.  (Well, maybe.)  She and her Jewish parents were driven out of the country during a series of pogroms.  They eventually settled in Rockland, Maine, where her father became a fairly wealthy lumber and real estate tycoon. (Maybe.)  Leah, tall, beautiful and shy, according to her, “suffered many anti-Semitic experiences.”  She escaped from Rockland to New York, via what may have been an arranged marriage to Charles Nevelson, an older, unattractive, but wealthy New Yorker. 

The stories of a life filled with lovers, expensive tastes, the Nevelsons losing much of their wealth, the birth of her unwanted son (she admits to being a “lousy” mother), her escape to Paris to attend art school, a return to New York, getting rejected by art reviewers and the buying public, finally making her breakthrough in the 1950s when museums began to buy her wooden sculptures, and her ultimate death in 1988.  She is recognized by many as one of America’s most innovative sculptors, but shunned by others as a “gimmick” artist.

Nevelson, always knew she was “special,” lived with the motto, “I am going to be my own special self.  I’m going to occupy that space if it kills me.”  This mantra kept her going when things looked bleak and life impossible.  Kept her going through suicide attempts, depression, and regrets.

The play is filled with droll humor.  And, as in many of Albee’s existentialistic theater creations, explores individual veracity, selective memory, and the process of self-fulfillment as he asks, “Why do we exist?”

The play’s title is taken from a real life happening.  Nevelson, near the end of her life, dying of lung cancer after being a chain smoker, was in the hospital, didn’t want visitors.  She had the sign on her door, which had been emblazoned with large letters spelling out her name, taken down and the word “Occupant” put up instead.  She was an eccentric to the end!

Julia Kolibab and George Roth are up to the challenge of performing the two-person, two-act, two-hour show, with great aplomb.  Roth chides, teases and challenges with a twinkle in his eye and sardonic and sarcastic vocal and physical tones.  Kolibab , wearing eccentric clothing and two pair of mink eyelashes, dominates the stage, fully capturing the very being of Nevelson. 

Director Greg Cesear keeps the action rolling.  This is difficult as the script is a long duologue with little action.  He manages to retain the audience’s attention by keying in on the humor and playing up the exaggeration.

Scenic designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski creates a clever set which imitates the sculpture style of Nevelson.  Make sure you get an up close and view Tarantowski’s clever use of castaway products that form the basis of the set.

Kennedy Down Under is a perfect space for this intimate piece. 

Capsule Judgement:  “Occupant” is one of those special plays and theatrical presentations that will be greatly appreciated by the serious theater-goer who likes to be exposed to a well-written, thinking person’s play, which gets a fine staging and interpretation.
“Occupant” runs through October 25 at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 3 pm for the Sunday performances at Cesear’s Forum, located in Kennedy’s Down Under, PlayhouseSquare.  The entrance to the theatre is off the lobby of the Ohio Theatre.  For information and reservations call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.playhousesquare.org

Friday, September 19, 2014

CPH examines greed, ambition and misguided principles in THE LITTLE FOXES

 
Lillian Hellman, author of “The Little Foxes,” which is now in production at the Cleveland Playhouse, was a rebel with many causes.  An independent woman in an era before the women’s rights and liberation movements, she had strong political and societal opinions.  Because of her liberal affiliations she was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  She was “a smoker, a drinker, a lover, and a fighter, who took stands against and placed a negative spotlight on greed, ambition and misguided principles.”  She was an advocate for the downtrodden.  These principles are at the foundation of “The Little Foxes.”

 “The Little Foxes,” is set in the beautifully appointed home of Horace and Regina Giddens in a small Alabama town at the turn of the century.  Regina is one of three Hubbard siblings.  Her brothers, Ben and Oscar, have inherited a store that takes financial advantage of the area’s Black population.  

Regina married Horace, not out of love, but because he was her ticket to getting the “things” she wanted out of life.  Her brother, Ben, is a controlling schemer who wants to jump onto the success bandwagon of the Gilded Age of the 1900s, no matter the cost.  Brother Oscar, lazy, psychologically weak and undisciplined, married Birdie as his entrance into the prestige of being part of the “old south. “ He verbally and physically abuses Birdie, who is too timid to stand up to Oscar’s attacks. Their unlikeable son, Leo, is a carbon copy of his father, willing to be Ben’s pawn, in order to be financially successful. 

In contrast to the Hubbards, Horace, his daughter Alexandra, the black housekeepers, Addie and Cal, and Birdie, are decent and respectable people. 

The Hubbard’s latest scheme is the building of a cotton mill in their town.  The idea is sound, as it would avoid shipping the south’s raw cotton to the north, thus insuring profits.  The problem?  They don’t have the money to pull off the transaction, so they make a deal with a Chicago company.  They scheme to get the seed money from Horace, who is ill and in the hospital in Baltimore.  The opportunity comes when Leo, who is working at his uncle Horace’s bank, finds out that there are $80,000 worth of negotiable bonds in a strong box in his uncle’s office.

Intrigue increases when Horace returns home, and Regina’s disdain for everything about him, except his money, becomes obvious.  Horace has a heart attack.  Will Regina give him his needed medicine?  Will the stolen bond scheme work? Will Regina’s blackmail of her brothers succeed, or will Ben’s parting remark, “What was a man in a wheelchair doing on a staircase?” be the undoing of Regina?  Will Alexandra be swept up in the family intrigue or will she flee? 

The CPH production, under the focused direction of Laura Kepley, is intriguing.  The script, which is written in a traditional 1930s format of three acts (exposition, telling the tale, and resolution) has been compressed by eliminating the intermission between acts II and III, and tightening some dialogue.  The pacing fits the southern way of life, yet doesn’t drag.  Accents are finely honed, and character motivations clear.

The cast is universally excellent.  Maggie Lacey creates a Regina who is evil incarnate.  Cameron Folmar is scheming and snarly as Ben.  Jerry Richardson clearly creates Oscar as a despicable spineless bully.  Nick Barbato presents a Leo, who is as whining, weak willed duplicate of his father, Oscar.

Donald Carrier is a mirror of perseverance and moral strength as Horace.  The lovely Megan King creates an Alexandra who is the shining hope that something good may well emerge from this dysfunctional family. Heather Anderson Boll is appropriately bewildered and manipulated as Birdie, a true southern belle, better suited for cotillions than real life.  Sherrie Tolliver is impressive as the strong willed but gentle Addie, the Carrier family maid and Alexandra’s guide and protector.  Kim Sullivan has nice comic moments as Cal, the family butler.  Robert Ellis presents William Marshall as a businessman who may feel comfortable with being part of a scheme with some shady overtones.

One of the difficulties of doing a period piece is whether to be true to the period set and costume designs.  Lex Liang, the production’s scenic and costume designer, based on Kepley’s desire to give a modern feel to the production, has taken the influence of the 1900s transitional aesthetic era and eliminated the heavy look of the furniture and costumes, creating sleek modifications in the style, thus retaining the right feel and vision, but not being absolutely true to the era.  The gorgeous set and costumes work well in creating the right illusion.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” is a classic American play which probes into the values, ethics and morals of a group of southerners at the turn of the century.  This is a play and production well worth seeing thanks to Hellman’s writing, Kepley’s directing, the excellent acting, and well-conceived technical aspects.  It makes for a fine opening offering in this, CPH’s ninety-ninth year.

Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” runs through October 5, 2014 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Meet Ricky Ubeda,the winner of TV's, "So You Think You Can Dance" who will be performing in Cleveland

When the tour of “So You Think You Can Dance” comes to the Connor Palace Theatre in Cleveland on October 20, it will expose the local community to the top ten contestants and some of the other dancers who got the attention of the judges.

Since its premiere in 2005, “So You Think You Can Dance,” has been a television sensation. Created by Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe, the show, which is a multi Primetime Emmy Award winner, has sparked the nation’s interest in dance and produced some top-ranked performers.  Many of the dancers have gone on to professional careers, including a number presently appearing in Broadway’s NEWSIES and hopefully in Cleveland when that show comes to town as part of the Key Bank Broadway series

A panel of dance experts select 20 dancers to appear in a competition.   They then whittle the number down to a final 10.  The jurists, plus votes by viewers, then select a winner.

The performers, who come from a variety of  dance styles including classical, contemporary, ballroom, hip-hop, street, jazz, tap and musical theatre perform all the genres on their march toward stardom.   Interestingly, two of the four 2014 finalists, were mainly tap dancers.

This year’s winner was Ricky Ubeda, who won a cash stipend of $250,000 and the offer of a part in the forthcoming Broadway production.

I interviewed Ubeda, who was in Los Angeles, during the rev-up to the national tour.  He indicated that he started hip hop dancing around age 12.  Raised by a single Cuban mother who “has always encouraged me to be myself, especially in dance, and be a leader,”  he was also “fortunate to go to Coral Reef High in South Miami.”  It has “a liberal atmosphere and advocates for being yourself.”  “There was no harassment over dancing.  In fact they had a co-ed dance team.  The attitude was, if you are talented, you were a hero. It definitely wasn’t like other schools.”

During the “So You Can Think You Can Dance” telecasts, Ubeda showed a great deal of emotion and emotional vulnerability, both as a dancer and in receiving comments from the judges.  Reminded that this is somewhat unusual for a male, he stated, “My mom was always open and vulnerable.  She taught me that it’s a beautiful thing to let the emotions show.”

Ubeda showed both amazing discipline and breath of ability in each of the dance styles.  He contends that his training helped, but that, in fact, “I was never taught half those styles.”  He contends that “having each choreographer for one and one-half hours the first day and five hours the second day, and then having the duets practice a lot on their own,” helped him hone his skills in each style.

Ricky is grateful to Miami’s Stars Dance Studio who held fundraisers and watch parties during the competition to raise money to send his mom, his siblings, his aunt and his best friend to the shows each week.

As for the competition itself, I probed whether he felt pressure since he was dubbed the potential winner by the judges from the first show on.  He stated, “it put pressure on me, but I listened to the judges’ feedback and took it as an opportunity to improve.”

What was the most difficult challenge he had during the competition?

“The physical exhaustion near the end was tremendous.  The stress and pressure added up.  There were times when we all felt that we just couldn’t keep going.  By the final four shows, we were all absolutely exhausted.” Also, since “we were a tight-knit group, and relationships formed as the competition went along, when friends were voted off it was tough.”

The top ten and some additional dancers, who were eliminated earlier, are going on a 75-city tour, which opens in New Orleans on October 1, 2014, and lasts until mid-February.  Each of the top routines will be included.  “Choreographer Mandy Moore will put the show together. All of the dancers are getting paid.”

After the tour, Ubeda has many decisions to make.  As the competition’s winner, he has have been offered a part in Broadway’s “On The Town.”  As of now, he plans to take the part.  He has already met the cast and has “an interest in getting to know Broadway.”

As for the prize money, he plans to “invest it, life’s crazy, you have to have backup.”

Ricky Ubeda is a dynamic and talented young man.  His future looks bright.

To get tickets to see Ubeda and the rest of the 2014 “So You Think You Can Dance” top ten, on Monday, October 20 at the Connor Palace (formerly the Palace Theatre), call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.playhousesquare.org/events/index/20

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Thought provoking "The Sunset Limited" @ none too fragile

--> Cormac McCarthy, the author of “The Sunset Limited,” which is now on stage at none too fragile theatre, probes, in his script, the topics:   Why would someone want to commit suicide?  Why does one person turn to religion when angst-filled, while another rejects the concept of a deity?  Is traditional education a negative or positive influence in dealing with problems?  What is the meaning of life?  Can a person change from killer to saint?  It probes the decisions to end one’s life, as well as human suffering.

“The Sunset Limited” is a two-person character study centering on dialogue rather than being a traditional action driven play.  In fact, the real action of the play takes place before the initial lights come up.

The ninety-minute poetic drama takes place in a small inner-city project apartment.  It is a conversation between two unnamed men, “Black “ and “White,” whose identifications match their skin color.  The former is very large and speaks Black English, while the latter, sometimes addressed as “Professor,” is slender in build and obviously well-educated as represented by both his language, and the way he formulates his ideas.

As their histories unravel, we become aware that Black has been in jail for murder.  While there, he became an evangelical Christian, having found “Jesus.”  His world revolves around reading and believing in the “Bible.” 

Just before the duos’ entrance into Black’s apartment, White had attempted suicide by jumping off the platform in the path of The Sunset Limited, a train that travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles.  Black grabbed him and stopped White’s flight to death.

As director Sean Derry revealed in a conversation following the production, he needed to “cut a lot of the dialogue,” which, in form, “is really more novel than a play script.”  It is not by accident that the subtitle of the piece is, “A Novel in Dramatic Form.”

The script is filled with well-conceived, insightful written lines, such as:  “Education makes the world personal.”  “All knowledge is vanity.”  “The darker story is always the correct one.”  “You are walking around dead.”  “There is a lingering Scent of divinity.” And, “There is a hope of nothingness.”

The men sit at a table, share coffee and food, move into the living room area, constantly talking.  There are no physical battles, no strong display of emotional outbursts.  Not much physically happens, but ideas flow. 

Myron Lewis, as Black, is an imposing presence.  He creates a real person who comes across as someone with an honest bent on “saving” White, both physically and spiritually.  His is a nicely textured performance.

Richard Worswick, as White, also develops a believable being, filled with angst, overwhelmed by life, having few friends, and possessing little reason to live.  He makes us believe that he has rejected the basic human need for survival and is ready to depart from his earthly existence.

Capsule judgement: “The Sunset Limited” is a thought-provoking script, which gets an intelligent production at none too fragile.  It is a play that will hold the attention of those interested in a philosophical delving into life, religion, and the human condition.

Big news from none too fragile: The company will present “Possum Dreams,” a play they staged in June of this year in New York in March, 2015.  Watch for the official announcement!

“The Sunset Limited” runs through September 27, 2014 at none too fragile theater which is located in Bricco’s Restaurant, 1841 Merriman Road, Akron. For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to http://www.nonetoofragile.com

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Martin Céspedes creates a delightful "Forever Plaid" at Beck

Do you like close-harmonic singing?  Are you harking back to experience the “good” old days?  Do you like to escape from the stressful world and just “yak” at comedy shticks and revel in the ridiculous?   Then the place for you to be is Beck Center where Cleveland’s multi-award winning choreographer, Martin Céspedes, has added “creative director” to his résumé. 

“Forever Plaid” is a quirky, fun script, which takes the audience back to the 1950’s, a time of innocence, songs with words you could understand and identify with, with an occasional rock-and roll ditty thrown in.  This was the era of close-harmony boy groups (e.g., The Four Aces,  Four Coins, Four Preps).  Each step and gesture were pre-planned and in hopefully in sync.  Costumes and hair styles all matched. 

Ever hear of the group, “Forever Plaids?”  Probably not.  They weren’t a real boy group, but an imagined one by Stuart Ross, who invented them as the center-piece of his musical review, “Forever Plaid.”   Ross shoehorned songs of the era, melodies such as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Undecided,” “Perfidia,” “Catch a Falling Star,” “Heart and Soul,” “Lady of Spain,” and “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” between far-fetched stories to develop one of the most commonly produced theatrical reviews.

The premise is that the clean-cut quartet, Jinx, Sparky, Francis, and Smudge, had finally landed their first big gig at an airport bar in 1964.  To mark the event they ordered matching plaid tuxedos.  Unfortunately, on the way to the event, the high school chums’ dream of success, including their envisioned first album, ended when a bus filled with Catholic schoolgirls, on their way to see the Beatles’ American debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” slammed into their car, killing all four boys.  All they wanted was to get their chance, to wear those tuxes, to appear on a real stage, before a real audience.  But, those dreams were all snuffed out.  But . . ..

The play starts as the Plaids wander onto the stage and realize that they have been given a chance to  “live out” their dream.  What follows is a series of well harmonized songs, references to stars of the day, including Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, and the Ames Brothers, and lots of high jinx.   There are instances when the boys wander into the audience and interact with viewers, even bringing one startled lady on stage to help them out and do a synchronized dance.  They tease with the audience, and reminisce about the 1950s.

One of the show’s highlights is the reenactment of  the Ed Sullivan show, complete with appearances by Topo Gigio, Señor Wences and Johnny the puppet drawn on his hand, The Great Plate Spinner, and the Bersoni Chimps.

The Beck show, under the creative direction of Céspedes, delights.  The multi-award winning choreographer shows great skill in envisioning not only a perfect depiction of boy band moves, but letting loose with shtick that would have made Borscht Belt performers proud. 

The performers are Brian Altman as Smudge, the oft-confused member of the group, Shane Patrick O’Neill as Frankie, the leader with a tendency to hyperventilate when he gets stressed, Matthew Ryan Thompson as Jinx, the shy tenor with recurrent nose bleeds, and Josh Rhett Noble as the lovable, eager, adventurous, often goofy Sparky.  All have fine singing voices and display good comic timing.

On opening night, many audience members were heard singing along with the group, yelling out the names of the characters in the three and one-half minute capsulation of the “Ed Sullivan Show,” and being willing pawns in the audience participation segments.

Musical Director Bryan Bird and his orchestra (Bill Hart on percussion and Kevin Aylward on bass) created the right moods as they flowed from ballads to folk songs to rock and roll with musical ease. 

Joseph Carmola’s lighting, Aaron Benson’s night club set design, Carlton Guc’s sound design, and Aimee Kluiber’s costumes, all added to the overall effect.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Director Martin Céspedes’s creative directing and choreography, the excellent talents of Shane Patrick O’Neill, Matthew Ryan Thompson, John Rhett Noble and Brian Altman, and the fine musicianship of Bryan Bird, Bill Hart and Kevin Aylward, all combine to create a most pleasurable theatrical experience in Beck’s “Forever Plaid.”  It’s a relaxing, fun filled, “you’ll enjoy” it experience.

“Forever Plaid” is scheduled to run through October 12, 2014 on the Mackey Main Stage at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org