Sunday, April 21, 2019

A visit to Broadway with the BWU senior class with some time for reviewing


OnStage’s 2018-2019 rankings of musical theater programs ranked Cleveland suburban Baldwin Wallace University' as number 1 in the nation, indicating that it was the “top destination for any student wanting to study musical theatre."

The OnStage research team was impressed that the BW program "has produced six regional premieres in partnership with Playhouse Square [the country's largest performing arts center outside of New York] and received national attention for academic premieres of Broadway productions."
 

The program, which is headed by Victoria Bussert also has strong professional theatre ties to Beck Center, Great Lakes Theatre, Idaho Shakespeare Festival and the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.
 

Bussert, is supported in developing the students’ talent by Gregory Daniels, Dance Program Coordinator and Matthew Webb, Music Director. 

Many BW grads appear on Broadway, in touring companies, in regional theaters and on cruise ships.   Last year at least 25 were in Broadway runs and touring shows.
 

The students’ training reaches its crescendo when the senior class travels to New York in April to perform before agents, casting directors and other Great White Way luminaries. 

Last year, all of the BWU class of 2018 grads got agents, many having multiple offers.  Besides agents, at least a half-dozen were offered tryouts in present, upcoming, touring and soon-to-be touring shows. 

As I did last year, I attended rehearsals at BW and went to New York with this year’s seniors.  Members of the class are Amy Keum, David Holbert, Noa Luz Barenblat, Joshua Regan, Kelsey Anne Brown, Zach Landes, Matthew Henry Pitts, Emmy Brett Jake Salter, Gilian Jackson Han, Courtney Hausman, Sam Columbus, Warren Egypt Franklin and Tia Karaplis.



All four of the workshops, which were performed at New World Stages, were packed. 

According to Bussert, “The class had over 150 requests with 9 of them called in for Broadway auditions.” 

Want to see the group before they hit the Broadway stages?  The class will perform as a unit at Cleveland Heights’ Nighttown on April 29.  For tickets and information, go to www.nighttowncleveland.com

Besides attending the showcases, I saw some shows.  Here are capsule judgments of what I saw.  To read the complete reviews go to www.royberko.info and scroll down to find the show.

What:  FIDLER AFN DAKH ongefelt mit Yiddisha traditsye un veytik
     (FIDDLER ON THE ROOF filled with Jewish tradition and pain)
Where: Stage 42
Capsule judgment:   The Yiddish version of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (FIDLER AFN DAKH) is not the FIDDLER of old, with a new set and costumes.  It’s a more emotionally moving story and less entertaining.  It is more fitting in the telling of what was, but is no more. The authenticity created by using the “real” language of these people adds to the tale filled with Jewish tradition and pain.

What:  THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is a farcical delight!
Where:   New World Stages
Capsule judgment:   Like any well-written farce, the quality of the ridiculousness is only as effective as the cast and director.  In the case of THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, all of the needed elements are present and hysteria reigns. 

What:  MEAN GIRLS, a musical for youth of the 2019s
Where: August Wilson Theatre  
Capsule judgment:  MEAN GIRLS is filled with music, characters and Tina Fey satire that will appeal to young audiences.  It is a show that will do very well on tour (it will be on stage at Cleveland’s Connor Palace from December 3-22, 2019) and will be performed by every community theater and high school in the country when it is released for amateur production.  Go. Enjoy.

What:  Exquisite, delightful, MY FAIR LADY captivates at Lincoln Center
Where:  Vivian Beaumont Theatre
Capsule judgment:  My Fair Lady has deservedly been called "the perfect musical" and the Lincoln Center revival will do nothing but increase the respect level.  The staging is glorious. The stage pictures exquisite.  The performances universally enchanting.  “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” if all Broadway shows could reach this pinnacle of writing, staging, performance and musical excellence?

MEAN GIRLS, a musical for youth of the 2019s



In 1958 there was BYE BYE BIRDIE.  1960 brought HAIR.  1971 showcased GREASE.   1980 gave us CARRIE.  Then in 1990 there was 13 (MUSICAL).  2016 saw DEAR EVAN HANSEN exploding on the scene.  Now, there is MEAN GIRLS.

What do all these Broadway musicals have in common?  They placed the spotlight on teens and their angst.

OMG!  Think back to high school, specifically the cafeteria, at lunch time.  Horror of horrors!  There was the table of math geeks.  Another of drama kids.  The testosterone-laden jocks held out over there and the cheerleaders were right next to them.  Then there was the queen bee and her small swarm of drones.  The mean girl and her attack team.  They are perfectly coiffed, expensively dressed, spoiled, lacking in empathy, anorexic, and share one leaf of lettuce for their midday meal. 

With that in mind, you are now ready to immerse yourself into MEAN GIRLS, the stage-show with music by Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, and a book by the queen of television comedy, Tina Fey.

The musical is based on Fey’s popular 2004 film which was inspired by Rosalind Wieseman’s book, “Queen Bees and Wannabes.”

Fans of the movie should be releaved that nothing important has been purged from the story.   Those who went through the horrors of slam/shame books, hazing, verbal abuse and general “hell” at the hands of the mean girls at their high schools will be happy to know that, in the musical, the queen and her swarm get their stingers removed.  (Yeah, revenge for the high school “odd balls.”)

In the musical, Cady, fresh from a life in Kenya, is a new girl in town.  She is taken on a tour of her now educational institution, an Illinois high school, and exposed to the ways of its pecking order, by “good guys,” Janis and Damian. 

The J and D duo have taken the attitude of not being affected by self-selected school royalty and nasty-girl Queen Bee Regina George and “the Plastics” (Gretchen and Karen), her lackey hanger-ons.  They caution Cady to be careful in deciding where she belongs in the school’s social fabric.

And, wonder of wonders, for an unexplained reason, Cady is invited to sit with “the Plastics” on a one-week trial.  (Hmm…what do the terrible trio have in mind?)

Everything goes well for Cady until she meets “dreamy” Aaron in honors math class.  She falls for him.  But, horror of horrors, Aaron has recently broken up with Queen Regina.  (You know this is going to make life for Cady a horror show.)

In order to “keep” Aaron’s interest Cady plays dumb, turning to him for “extra” help.

 A bus accident, a Burn Book which slams students by commenting on their weight (“hips like a Hippo”), parents’ infidelities (“the only reason he made the team is that his mother slept with the coach”) and eating habits (“Vegan freak”), Cady taking over Regina’s place as Queen of the plastics, Cady being elected Spring Fling Queen and her surprising act of sharing the crown, all lead to a happy-ever-after feel-good ending.  (Hey, this is a Tina Fey written high school Broadway musical, what did you expect?)

Though it received 15 Tony nominations, MEAN GIRLS, as evidenced by the fact that it won no statues, is not a great musical.    This is definitely not DEAR EVAN HANSEN quality.

It is, however, enjoyable and, as evidenced by the screaming teens in the audience, it has caught on and has developed its cult following.

On Broadway, the teen-laden audience, mostly composed of girls, whether from their knowing the story from the film, or having attended previous performances, knew what was coming, both plot twists and songs, and constantly screamed their approval.

The serviceable score, the Tina Fey sharp tongued satire and one-liners gave a positive vibe to the goings on.

“Where Do You Belong” stopped the show.


The cast is strong.  Grey Henson was delightfully endearing as the flamboyant Damian.  He was nicely balanced by Barrett Wilbert Weed’s Janis, his side-kick, the outspoken bud.  Their opening song, “A Cautionary Tale,” set the right mood for what was to come.



Erika Henningsen transitioned from curious newcomer to Queen Bee with charm and appeal.  Her reprise of “Fearless” was well sung, as was “Stupid With Love.” “More is Better,” sung with heartthrob Kyle Selig (Aaron), had the female teens and tweens pining for more.

Taylor Louderman, Krystina Alabado and Kate Rockwell are character-perfect as “the Plastics.”




Capsule judgment:   MEAN GIRLS is filled with music, characters and Tina Fey satire that will appeal to young audiences.  It is a show that will do very well on tour (it will be on stage at Cleveland’s Connor Palace from December 3-22, 2019) and will be performed by every community theater and high school in the country when it is released for amateur production.  Go. Enjoy.

WHAT:  MEAN GIRLS
WHERE:  AUGUST WILSON THEATRE
WHEN:  OPEN RUN

FIDLER AFN DAKH ongefelt mit Yiddisha traditsye un veytik (FIDDLER ON THE ROOF filled with Jewish tradition and pain)



Solomon Rabinovich was a leading Yiddish author and playwright from Ukraine.

At the age of fifteen he adopted the pseudonym “Sholem Aleichem,” a Yiddish variant of the Hebrew expression meaning "peace be with you" and typically used as a greeting.

He was a “folkshrayer” (a folk-story teller) who wrote over forty volumes in Yiddish, thereby becoming a central figure in Yiddish literature, best remembered for his fictional confessions, letters, and monologues, all written in the voice of the simple religious Jew.

In 1905, as pogroms swept through southern Russia, Sholem Aleichem attempted to settle in New York City.  Despite his great popularity in Europe, his lot in the US was not as good.  He was forced to take up an exhausting schedule of lecturing to make ends meet.

In spite of the success of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF today, Sholem Aleichem was not a successful playwright in the US in his lifetime.  His plays were not well received because they didn’t offer an object lesson in the social questions of the day.  They were “old fashioned” and about tales that the newly arrived immigrants wanted to forget.

Success came three years after his death, when the famous Yiddish theater actor, Maurice Schwartz, did an adaptation of Aleichem’s TEVYE DER MILKHIKER, which consists of 8 tragic-comic stories.  


Each of the tales had a farcical plot, employing stylistic humor.  In a classically rabbinic manner, Tevye, the main character, tells stories about his village of Anatevka and life with his wife Golda and his five daughters.  He asks questions of God and sprinkles his speeches with “biblical verses.”  Some of these are mangled and others are just made up.
 

Of the eight Tevye stories, five were later woven into the script of the musical, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. 
 

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein, is a tale of tradition.  It a snapshot of hardship of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia during the early nineteenth century after the death of the tolerant Czar Alexander III and the ascension of the anti-Semitic Nicholas II (Nicholas the Bloody).
 

The story centers on Tevya and his attempts to maintain his religious and cultural traditions as outside influences encroach upon the family's lives.  “He must cope both with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters, who wish to marry for love – each one's choice of a husband moves further away from the customs of their Jewish faith and heritage – and [finally]with the edict of the Czar that evicts the Jews from their village.”
 

The musical was an instant hit when it opened in 1964, becoming the first musical in Broadway history to surpass 3,000 performances.
 

The road to success was not an easy “miracle of miracles.” 
 

Rogers and Hammerstein considered writing the script, but abandoned the idea.  Even when Bock, Harnick and Stein succeeded in writing a book and music, investors were concerned that it was “too Jewish.”  

Early on it was described as “shtetl kitsch.”  Some complained because the selection of stories from TEVYE DER MILKHIKER didn’t include the “real ending” in which Tevye is left alone, his wife dead and his daughters scattered, traditionalists might be upset by the new final scene. 
 

The biggest problem was that in out-of-town tryouts, the musical just wasn’t working.  It wasn’t until Jerome Robbins came in as the new director that the problem was unearthed. 
 

Robbins asked what the show was about.  The usual answer was “a dairyman and his marriageable daughters.”  It’s is recounted that Robbins said, “No, no, no, that’s no good.” Someone said, “It’s about the dissolution of traditions, a way of life.”  Robbins responded, “Yes, that’s it.  We have to establish the traditions at the beginning and then the audience will see how they’re breaking down.  That’s the show!”

The song “Tradition” (“Traditsye”) replaced the original opening, “We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet” which showed the frantic preparations for the Sabbath but not clearly enough to understand what was to come, which is a requirement for an opening song of a musical. 

Robbins added the circle entrance, holding hands, and introducing the people of Anatevka.  He then enhanced the theme by adding lots of ferocious dancing, including the bottle and bar dances, to express Jewish robustness and resilience.

Yes, the story was about a dairyman and his marriageable daughters, but oh, how much more.

The four-hour opening night length was shortened, but the story remained the same, just became more focused.

The script went through many titles including TEVYE, A VILLAGE STORY, TO LIFE, ONCE THERE WAS A TOWN, and WHERE POPPA CAME FROM.  Finally, the producers settled on, though some disagree with this part of the tale, the image created by Jewish painter Marc Chagall of a fiddler on the roof, which also became the visual image of the production.

In spite of the fact that the show had no overture, no flirty chorus girls, no reprises, no simple plot line, no show stopper, no happy denouement/ending, it became a smash hit, considered by many to be one of the classics of American musical theater.

Because of the humorous elements in his writing, Sholem Aleichem is often thought of as a comic writer, but there is an undeniable darkness to his work which is obvious in the Yiddish revival.  Maybe it is the authenticity of the language or that many don’t understand some of the subtle humor because they are not Yiddish-literate, so they miss some of the laughs.  Whatever, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF IN YIDDISH carries a deep meaning and sense of purpose.




The Yiddish version, FIDLER AFN DAKH, with Yiddish translation by Shraga Friedman, under the direction of Cleveland native Joel Grey, with Jerome Robbins’ choreography, and new staging and choreography by Stas Kmiec, is captivating in a very different way than the English version.  It’s a more emotionally moving story and less entertaining,  more fitting in the telling of what was, but is no more.
 

FIDLER AFN DAKH marks the first time that the Tony Award-winning musical is being performed in Yiddish in the United States, and only the second time in history. A Yiddish version ran in Israel in 1965.
 

The Yiddish production, as produced by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene played at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. It was originally scheduled for an eight-week run, but due to audience demand, it was extended four times. It has moved to Stage 42 with continued success.
 

In FIDLER AFN DAKH “the actors sing about joy and hardship, and argue about the importance of tradition, in the language their characters would have spoken in the Old Country.”  Are the cast Yiddish speakers? No. “Before rehearsals, the majority of them had no experience with the language. Of the 26 cast members, only three spoke Yiddish fluently.”
 

The truth is that, “as part of the auditions for Folksbiene’s production, actors had to prove that they would be able to learn Yiddish quickly. Those called in for auditions were given 24 hours to memorize a recording of a song in the language. From the 2,500 applications, 26 actors were chosen for the production.”
 

“Once the cast was chosen, each member received a recording of his or her lines and songs in Yiddish in addition to private language coaching.”
 

Do you have to understand Yiddish to appreciate the production?  Not really.  Translations are printed in English and Russian on side curtains.  If you are familiar with the story and music, just taking in the happenings on stage are enough to carry the meaning. 
 

The featured actors and the chorus are all strong storytellers, singers and dancers.

Broadway actor Steven Skybell is Tevya.  This is not a Zero Mostel Tevya.  This is a much deeper, more realistic Tevya.  Yes, there are laughs, but the tale is more important than making funny faces, milking for laughs and providing entertainment.

Jennifer Babiak is a strong matriarchal Golde.  Emmy Award nominee Jackie Hoffman is appealing and delightful as Yente, the matchmaker. 


Pint-sized Ben Liebert is endearing as the nebbishy Motl Kamzoyl.  His “Nisimlekh-Veniflo ‘oys” (“Miracle of Miracles) is charming.

Stephanie Lynne Mason (Hodl), Rosie Jo Neddy (Khave) and Rachel Zatcoff (Tsaytl) are character correct as the three older daughters.   

Studly Cameron Johnson is convincing as Fyedke, as is Drew Seigla as Pertshik.

The set and costume designs, the lighting and sound all add to the quality of the production.

Capsule judgment:   The Yiddish version of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (FIDLER AFN DAKH) is not the FIDDLER of old, with a new set and costumes.  It’s a more emotionally moving story and less entertaining.  It is more fitting in the telling of what was, but is no more. The authenticity created by using the “real” language of these people adds to the tale filled with Jewish tradition and pain.
 

What: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (FIDLER AFN DAKH)
Where:  Stage 42

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Exquisite, delightful, MY FAIR LADY captivates at Lincoln Center


What do Rogers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser and Cole Porter all have in common?  Yes, they are all composers of American musicals, but they are also just some of those who attempted, and failed, to make George Bernard Shaw’s classical PYGMALION into a musical.


At one point, Shaw had given permission to transform his DEVIL’S DISCIPLE into the musical operetta.  The resulting CHOCOLATE SOLDIER was not to his liking and he stated, “Nothing will ever induce me to allow any other play of mine to be degraded into an operetta or set to any music except its own.”  This was especially true of PYGAMLION, supposedly his favorite work.  He was immovable on the point until he died.
 

After his demise, and the proclaimed barrier was lifted, many tried but failed to transform PYGMALION.

The problems were great.  Foremost, from the time of Rogers and Hammerstein’s smash hit OKLAHOMA, which ushered in the Golden Age of the American musical, certain “rules” of writing the book for a musical were set.  Included in this format was that there would be numerous settings, a B-level plot with a supporting couple, a chorus, dance numbers, and that it be about a romance.  (Think CAROUSEL, CAMELOT and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN.)
 

PYGMALION didn’t have any of those elements.   Basically, the plot centers on “two old gentlemen who meet in the rain one night at Covent Garden. Professor Higgins is a scientist of phonetics, and Colonel Pickering is a linguist of Indian dialects. The first bets the other that he can, with his knowledge of phonetics, convince high London society that, in a matter of months, he will be able to transform the cockney speaking Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a woman as poised and well-spoken as a duchess.”

“The next morning, the girl appears at his home on Wimpole Street to ask for speech lessons, offering to pay a shilling, so that she may speak properly enough to work in a flower shop. Higgins makes merciless fun of her, but is seduced by the idea of working his magic on her. Pickering goads him on by agreeing to cover the costs of the experiment if Higgins can pass Eliza off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party. The challenge is taken.” 

This is not the “stuff” on which traditional musicals are made.

Mainly, there is no love story.  The plot is a reflection of Shaw’s attitudes about the rigidity of the British class system and his strong stand against the view that a person cannot shape his or her own destiny.


A look at the ending of PYGMALION clearly illustrates this lack of a romantic tale.  In the play Eliza leaves Higgins after a quarrel, and Higgins remains onstage alone, in what Shaw describes as “a highly self-satisfied manner.”
 

When attempts were made to give his tale a “happy ending,” Shaw fought back.  He even added a postscript essay, “What Happened Afterwards,” to the 1916 print edition of the play in which he explained precisely why it was impossible for the story to end with Higgins and Eliza getting married [or having a romantic relationship]. 

Another problem with making the conversion from play to musical is that, in contrast to many other such adaptations, the play is so tightly written that any attempt to shoe-horn songs or dance numbers destroys that language and flow of ideas. 
 

It wasn’t until Lerner and Loewe realized that “the lyrics and music have to be an extension of Shaw’s dialogue,” that the classic masterpiece of straight theater could be reimagined as one of the greatest of all musicals.
 

Other problems needed to be confronted before MY FAIR LADY became a staged reality.
 

Shaw was specific that Eliza be eighteen.  Mary Martin, who was decades older than being a teenager, wanted to play the lead, but was too old for the role.
 

Legend has it that Rex Harrison, who was cast as Henry Higgins, was insecure of his “singing” ability.  He also seemingly had difficulty working with the young and non-classically trained Julie Andrews.  In fact, legend has it that the duo never really got along.  As recounted in one discussion of the two “There was chemistry on stage, but they were never close off-stage.”
 

Then there was the issue, whether caused by Harrison or her youth and lack of self-worth, that Andrews didn't consider herself to be the star of the show until the musical’s director, Moss Hart, convinced her of that.
 

The original script played out at four and a half hours in its early development.  Technical problems were also encountered when, for the first time on Broadway, twin turntables were used causing balance and coordination problems for the cast and crew.
 

In spite of the issues, the show did open on Broadway on March 15, 1956 to critical raves and resulting long lines at the box office.  The production set a record for the longest run of any show on the Great White way up to that time.  It was followed by a hit London production, a film, and many revivals.

The 2018 Broadway revival opened on April 19, 2018.  The Bartlett Sher direction and Christopher Gattelli choreographed reimagining has breathtaking scenery by Michael Yeargan and equally astounding costumes by Catherine Zuber.  The reconceived orchestrations add depth to the actions, as do the clear characterizations and fine staging. 

 
This is a work of beauty and creativity. 




Laura Benanti gives her own slant to Eliza.  She gives us a bright young lady, caught in the British societal system that has cast her as a “prisoner of the gutter,” but who has the grit to rise above her surroundings.  The performance makes clear that her “I want” desires, as expressed in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” are destined to be accomplished.  Achieved not by Henry Higgins, but by Eliza’s own gumption.  


Harry Hadden-Paton is no Rex Harrison clone as Doolittle.  He gives a sensitive, if somewhat obtuse image to the role.  He doesn’t disdain others.  He just doesn’t even consider them as being important.  His universe has the world revolving around his wants, desires and needs, as clearly set out in “A Hymn to Him.”  Eliza has no role in “his” success of turning her into a lady.  It is all his talent that accomplished the task.  Of course, he did it.  Even in his singing of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” the character, as interpreted so well by Hadden-Paton, doesn’t have the slightest understanding of why Eliza is not going to continue to be his puppet.  As the Brits would say of Hadden-Paton’s Higgins, “Good show!”



Danny Burstein delights as Alfred P. Doolittle.  His “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” are show stoppers.  His transformation in becoming a “gent” is a smile inducer.
 

Normally, “On the Street Where You Live” is a wistful song, showing a love-struck Freddy blindly enamored by Eliza.   The song becomes an audience entrancing anthem when sung by Christian Dante White, he of outstanding voice and consuming presence.  This is one talented young man.
 

Rosemary Harris (Mrs. Higgins), Allan Corduner (Colonel Pickering) and Linda Mugleston (Mrs. Pearce) are all excellent, creating nicely textured roles.
 

Capsule judgment: My Fair Lady has deservedly been called "the perfect musical" and the Lincoln Center revival will do nothing but increase the respect level.  The staging is glorious. The stage pictures exquisite.  The performances universally enchanting.  “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” if all Broadway shows could reach this pinnacle of writing, staging, performance and musical excellence?
 

What: MY FAIR LADY

Where:  LINCOLN CENTER, 

VIVIAN BEAUMONT THEATRE

When: OPEN RUN

Thursday, April 18, 2019

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is a farcical delight! (Broadway)





In 1923 there was THE TORCHBEARERS.  In 1982 the stage was filled with hysterical disasters during NOISES OFF.  Now there is THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, the zany Laurence Olivier Award winner.

All three farces are plays about plays in which everything that could go wrong does, and then some!

Even before the performance officially starts, the audience quickly knows that things are not theater-normal. 

Members of the cast crawl over and under auditorium chairs and ask the audience to help them find a lost dog that is needed for the show, but has escaped from backstage.  A member of the audience is dragged up on stage to help mend a broken mantelpiece while techies try and repair pieces of scenery with masking tape.  (Yes, this looks like a disaster in the making.)

The “director” of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, tells us about the group. He explains their financial problems and their productions of such economic-stagings of JAMES AND THE PEACH and CAT.   

No wonder with their financial problems the set for THE MURDER AT HAVERSHAM MANOR, which we are about to see, looks like it is about to fall down.  (Woops, plot revelation alert!)

As the “program” states, “Sanford Meisner (an acting teacher who developed an approach to acting instruction that is now known as the Meisner Technique in which the emphasis is on the reality of doing) once said, ‘Acting is behaving truthfully,’ so we immediately changed all the names in the play to our own names and cut the murder, the manor house setting and any other element that we hadn’t personally experienced.”  That, in and of itself, should prepare everyone who reads the creative Playbill of what idiocy is to come.

THE MURDER AT HAVERSHAM MANOR is a 1920s murder mystery and…

What we soon realize is that we are viewing a play within a play and even the playbill is that of two different shows.
We also learn that our original observations were right and the play within the play is going to be plagued with numerous disasters.  

In the process of the production, doors jam, windows fall out, set pieces fall off, a platform collapses in a series of slow drops with members of the cast perched on it. Chaos reigns.  

There are line flubs, late entrances, cast members are knocked out by doors which are opened at the wrong time, misplaced props, missed cues, repeated, wrong liquids drunk, mispronunciations, cast substitutions, physical violence between actors and the eventual collapse of the entire set.  



The production of THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG opened on Broadway in April, 2017, following a long London run.  The play then moved off-Broadway in February of 2019.
THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is farce at its highest level.  Director Matt DiCarlo, who directed this production (Mark Bell directed the original Broadway show) pulls out all the stops.  Shtick, prat-falls, fisticuffs, double-takes, thrown glass vases, and a swordfight complete with swords that break, are all included. 

Oh, and then there is the dog.  Well, much as the rabbit in HARVEY, an imaginary dog who plays a vital role in the plot.  (Come on now, could I make this up?)

The beauty of the whole production, and the resulting hilarity, is that the director and the cast know how to do farce well.   The audience laughs at the lines and the actions, not over-acting, which is often the trait of farce gone-bad.

According to the play within the play program, Chris Bean not only plays the leading role of Inspector Carter, but he also directed, designed the set and the costumes, as well as making the props, managing the box office, doing the press and public relations, and acting as the voice coach.  (Oh, what a man!)

The “real” cast, Ryan Vincent Anderson (Trevor), Matt Harrington (Chris), Chris Lanceley (Jonathan), Brent Bateman (Robert), Bartley Booz (Dennis), Ashley Reyes (Sandra), Matt Walker (Max) and Bianca Horn (Annie) form into a unit that plays off each other to create a symphony of hysteria.  

No one can be singled out, as the interaction between the group, as they face boundless obstacles, is a perfect blending.


 
Nigel Hook not only designed a set that works perfectly, but must be a mechanical genius to have devised all the set disasters. 

Capsule Judgment:  Like any well-written farce, the quality of the ridiculousness is only as effective as the cast and director.  In the case of THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, all of the needed elements are present and hysteria reigns.  

What: THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG
Where:  New World Stages
When: Open-ended run

Friday, April 12, 2019

“Art” examines the value of friendship and esthetics @ Blank Canvas


What is art?  What is friendship?  What is the value of a piece of art?  What is the value of friendship?  These are just some of the questions which are put forth in Yasmina Reza’s French-language play that has been translated into English by Christopher Hampton and is now in production at Blank Canvas theater.

Though billed as a comedy, the play, which centers on a long-time friendship between Serge, Marc, and Yvan, burrows more into the realm of drama.

The incident that kicks off the probe into the values of a variety of subjects, both real and emotional, centers on Serge, who has a penchant for modern art, buying a large, expensive, white painting.   Well, depending on the lighting and the viewer’s imagination, white or maybe white on white, or white with white stripes.  Whatever, it’s a $200,000, as Marc states, “Piece of sh*t.”

Often argumentative Marc, who seems to have no “speak what I think or feel” valve, is horrified by Serge being “had” by his desire to be on the ‘in” of the trends, strongly affected by what “they” think.

As a result of the war over white, the friendship suffers a severe strain.  Serge is miffed.  Marc is astounded by Serge’s naïve purchase.   The real issue, however, is below the surface.  The foundation on which their friendship gets unearthed in their arguments, and the end of their connection is near. 

In steps Yvan, a court jester-type friend who has neither the intellectual or debate abilities to spar with the fierce duo.  Why he is even a friend of Marc and Serge becomes an instant question.  He, like many court jesters, plays the role of emotional release.  He babbles on, jokes, naively makes pronouncements.  He’s good for a laugh.

Of course, Yvan, caught in the middle of the conflict, tries to please and mollify both combatants, to no avail.  He rambles on about the problems regarding his upcoming wedding, overacts the effects of whose names are going to appear on the invitations, and acts out his dramatic and angst-filled telephone conversations with his mother.


What’s is the real issue?   Is Marc scornful of the painting, or the uncharacteristic independence of thought that the purchase reveals in Serge? 


For the insecure Yvan, burdened by the problems of his impending doom wedding where he is stuck in an insoluble problem and his dissatisfaction at his job as a stationery salesman, is it anything other than his need for friendship, no matter the cost? 


For Serge, is it his need to be accepted, positively regarded by “them,” the art “aficionados” or his desire to break from the seeming control that Marc holds over him?


“Lines are drawn and they square off over the canvas, using it as an excuse to relentlessly batter one another over various failures. As their arguments become less theoretical and more personal, they border on destroying their friendship.” 


What is the value of art?  What is the value of friendship?


The Blank Canvas production, under the direction of Lara Mielcarek , is a work of art, in and of itself.  The characters are clearly drawn, the pace appropriately rapid, the script adjustment turning the play from a series of short scenes to a ninety-minute one act is effective.


Brian Pedaci properly rages as the powerful, controlling Marc.  He is a bull in an emotional china shop, needing to control, and angst filled when challenged. 


Chris D’Amico, appropriately dressed in a Victor Vasarely op-ed patterned sweater, is totally on track as the insecure Serge, both needing assurance and wanting to make decisions on his own that prove he is more than a friend in need.


Though he over-acts in his long wedding planning monologue, performing more with farce rather than a comedy slant, Michael N Herzog is properly pathetic as Yvan.


CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Art” is a fine example of “thinking-persons” theater.  It is the type of script that stays with the viewer a long time after the production encouraging probing into the value of not only art, but friendships and relationships.  Blank Canvas helps the thinking process with a strong production.

“Art” runs through April 20 at Blank Canvas, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.   For tickets and directions go to http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com//

Monday, April 08, 2019

“Gloria” -- excellent script gets less than desired production @ Cleveland Public Theatre



Braden Jacobs-Jenkins won the 2014 Obie for Best New American Play for his plays “Appropriate” and “An Octoroon.”  The latter received a Cleveland Critics Circle Award for its Dobama production several years ago. 

His “Gloria” was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist. It was originally titled, “Or Ambition,” as one of the major themes explored in that script is ambition and how it can affect the compromises people make.

The play takes place in modern-day magazine office in Manhattan. It’s a normal work day for a group of aspiring writers who are growing tired of the monotony of their jobs.

A member of the staff stumbles in hungover from a disastrous party that was held the night before at the home of the 'office freak', Gloria.  He was one of the only people who attended the event.

As the day goes on, everyone goes about their business, though tensions are high with a dispute over who should be allowed to write a story on a recently deceased pop singer.  Gloria begins to act stranger than usual.

Gloria suddenly shoots and kills some of the office workers.

The story then follows the fallout of the surviving characters’ lives as they try to cope with the stress of experiencing the events and feuding over who deserves a book deal based on relating the events of the shooting.

In this era of work, school and public mass shootings, unfortunately, the play’s basic topics are extremely relevant.  

The Pulitzer committee called the script: "A play of wit and irony that deftly transports the audience from satire to thriller and back again."

A previous a staging of the show was praised as "providing illumination into the characters, and raising some intriguing questions, such as the ugliness of artistic ambition, the ways we individually and as a society process trauma, and the exploitation and corruption inherent in our commercial culture.”

I wish I could say that the Cleveland Public Theatre production brought out those intriguing qualities, but I can’t. 

The show’s pace is slow, the needed attention to building tension are lacking, and, most importantly, some of the characters are weakly developed and performances are suspect.

Sally Groth, as Gloria, effectively built a character of intense depression with the right foreboding attitude.  She displayed an on-the-edge intensity that when she snaps, it seems entirely appropriate. 

One of things known about mass murders, and those who commit suicide, is that their basic need for survival has expired.  This is based on the anthropological theory that we have four basic needs … pleasure, territoriality, security and survival.  When a person no longer logically or emotionally finds life palatable, they give up, want to escape from the pain of living.  Gloria, obviously has reached that point, and Groth has given us all the clues that the frustration of life has reached its zenith.

Sarah Maria Yannie, Michael Prosen, Isaiah Betts and Keith Kornajcik each do an adequate job of developing close to realistic characterizations.  The final member of the cast acted, feigning rather than being, creating an unreal caricature.

The lack of production fidelity is surprising, as director Beth Wood has proven over-and-over her ability to mold and bring out the best in scripts.  Why she stumbled on this attempt is a mystery.

Benjamin Gantose’s set design is both creative and functional.  India Blatch-Geib’s costumes are both era and attitude correct.

Capsule judgement: “Gloria” is a relevant and topical script that with the right performances, attitude, and pacing could have been a fascinating evening of theater.  As is, it’s a disappointment.

 
“Gloria” runs through April 13.  For tickets to any CPT show call 216-631-2727 or go on line to http://www.cptonline.org/.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Well-conceived “The End of the Tour” introduces CLE to Seat of the Pants Productions



Since 2012, Seat of the Pants, self-referred to as a “band of storytellers,” has been traversing the countryside in various locations around Northeast Ohio, focusing their actions on “sharing compelling narratives in unique spaces and developing an aesthetic rooted in imaginative staging and human connection.”

The company is presently displaying their wares in 216/440.  They are in residence at Trinity Church in Tremont and, this summer, will venture into the eastern CLE burbs.

Using an ensemble concept, in which the same group of actors perform in a variety of plays, their present offering, “The End of the Tour,” combines a cast of Equity and non-Equity actors.

“The End of the Tour” is written by Joel Drake Johnson, who indicates that he is “interested in creating stories with characters who, despite their flaws, their bad decisions, their selfish inhibitions, their awkward/comic interactions and tragic setbacks, push themselves on to an enlightened understanding of their place in the world.”

“Johnson is a master of using seemingly ordinary conversations to yield startling depths. His characters are all at life crossroads, forced to acknowledge that past patterns of living are no longer possible yet unsure what directions to take or even whether they're capable of embracing something new.”

He uses humor, high angst, and relational connections and disconnections to develop plays that are both high in drama, while containing realistic humor.  No slapstick, shticks or prat-falls here.  Realism is front and center.

“The End of the Tour” is Johnson at his best, and The End of the Tour’s production, under the adept direction of Craig Joseph, is theater at its best.

The play is serious, yet funny.  Most of the action takes place in a nursing home where the disgruntled, bitchy, opinionated, controlling elderly mother is recovering.  With her middle-aged, recently divorced daughter by her side, she awaits the arrival of her long-estranged gay son who is bringing his male lover for a brief tour of his hometown and his damaging past.

In a parallel story, which takes place in a newly remodeled kitchen, we find the daughter’s former husband sharing, with his best friend, an emotional breakdown caused by a combination of the conflict with his ex-wife and the issue of a dying cat.

Each well-etched character is grappling with a defining moment in his or her life.  Johnson creates characters so real you wonder what will happen to them after the final blackout.

In spite of an echo in the high-ceilinged, long narrow production space at the church, which causes hearing issues, the acting, pacing, and performances are so top-notch that the venue’s flaws are over-come.




Anne McEvoy clearly creates Mae, the mother, as a closed-minded, manipulative woman, who may be in decline as a person, but remains stolid in her ego-centric ways.

Stephanie Cargill is character-correct as the put-on Jan, a daughter and ex-wife, who can’t seem to earn a break.

Stuart Hoffman is clearly angst and guilt-ridden as the son and lover whose every action illustrates a life not well-lived, a victim of verbal and emotional abuse, who, even in the presence of a loving and caring partner, has fears with which he can’t cope.

Scott Esposito, as has come to be expected from this talented actor, is the pillar of support as David, the understanding lover.

Anaias J. Dixon (Chuck), has a highlight emotional monologue in which he expresses that the travails of his life have all come crashing down and life just becomes too difficult to bear.

Jeff Haffner is compassionate as Tommy, the friend who is there to prop up Chuck, and Chris White shines as a dementia-struck nursing home patient.

Capsule judgment:  The play is well-paced, the characters clearly developed, the acting is of high quality, and the over-all effect is respect and awe for the cast and director.  This is a must see production which had a much too short two-weekend run.

“End of the Tour” ran March 29 &30 and April 5-6, 2019.

Next up for Seat of Your Pants in 216/440: “Smokefall,” a play of magic realism in which a man named Footnote acts as our guide for the evening which includes twin boys, in vitro, discussing philosophy while awaiting their birth, their sister, who eats dirt and doesn’t speak, and Father who is about to drive away and never return, leaving  a pregnant and dreamy Mother alone to live out Grandfather’s notion that “every love story is a tragedy, because its ending is built into its beginning.” (August 2-11, 2019 Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 2 PM, The Playground at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Boulevard, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets and information go to www.seatofthepants.org

Friday, April 05, 2019

Overly long, poorly conceived “The Pride” on stage at convergence continuum 




convergence continuum recently staged “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” a very well written clearly staged show, that highlighted the author’s intent and purpose.  It was a standout production. 

Sorry, but in spite of a valiant effort by the cast (Amy Bistok, David Munnell, Beau Reinker and Brian Westerley) and director (Jonathan Wilhelm), the same positives cannot be said of their present show, “The Pride.”

Though author Alexi Kaye Campbell won an award for Most Promising Playwright, his “The Pride” is not an easy show to watch.   It is overly long and not well-constructed.  In fact, after an over-ninety minute first act, when the question was “Is the play over or is this intermission?” there was a tacked on “second act.”

As described, “The action of the play is set in two-time periods, 1958 and 2008, which interrelate in several ways, most obviously through the characters: in each period there is an Oliver, a Philip and a Sylvia, all in their mid-thirties, and each played by the same actor in both periods.
 

The 1958 Philip is a well-heeled estate agent married to Sylvia, a children’s book writer. However, when Sylvia invites her illustrator, Oliver, over for drinks, there is an immediate attraction between the two men. Philip is both drawn to and repelled by Oliver’s advances, aware that his whole identity may be at stake should his true feelings be known.
 

In 2008, the names are the same but Philip and Oliver are this time in a relationship, which has been damaged by Oliver’s addiction to anonymous sex. Sylvia is the friend to whom they turn for comfort.”

If it were that simple.  Unfortunately, it is not.


First, it is difficult to figure out, based on the modest setting (a table and a few chairs) which era we are in as scenes jump back and forth with little clear transitions or nothing more than subtle identity variations.  


Maybe a projected date-stamp projected on the scenes would have helped.  Maybe clearer era specific costume designs might have helped.  How about using different accents or even hairpieces?  

Whatever, we needed something to help. 

Even if the technical aspects would have been inserted successfully, the play’s message is unclear. 


There are so many issues including homosexual self-hate, conflicted married gay men, gay men’s quest for sex rather than for love, promiscuity, conversion therapy, fetishes, whether men are born gay or whether it is a “learned or acquired” behavior, that it appears that the British-Greek author simply sat down and listed as many angst-inducing homosexual topics he could think of, and then slammed them together in one script.

The bottom line is:  What was the author’s intent and purpose?  The answer:  ???.


Capsule Judgment:  con-con is noted for doing scripts that other area theaters won’t attempt.  Sometimes their bold steps work well.  In this instance, sorry, no gold ring.  As presented, “The Pride” is a long and tedious sit, interrupted by a few laughs.

“The Pride” runs through June 15th, 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/

Next up at con-con: (May 24-June 15, 2019) “Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act,”  Athol Fugard’s look at what happened, while apartheid reigned in South Africa, when a black man and white woman met secretly in the library where she worked to make love and share their hopes and fears.

Monday, April 01, 2019

“The Taming of the Shrew” is a farcical, thought-provoking delight at Great Lakes Theater



Most of Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed in the Globe Theatre.  That performance space, a thrust stage, with a great number of the audience, the groundlings, stood around the stage, laughing, hollering insults at the actors, and having a heck of a good time during comedies. 

Groundlings reveled in slapstick, prat-falls, cross-dressing, “shtick” and ridiculous characterizations. 

They loved framing-story plays, a play with a story within a story, often numerous stories within stories.  Plays with double-intendras, identity switches, coarse language and fantasies were prime.

Supposedly, “The Taming of the Shrew” was one of the audience favorites, and, we are led to believe, a favorite of the Bard, himself.  Yes, William of Stratford seemingly loved a riotous, no-holds barred farce. 

And, as the Sara Bruner directed version of “The Taming of the Shrew,” now on stage at Great Lakes Theater illustrates, “Shrew,” in the right production, is hysterically funny and a crowd pleaser.

“The Taming of the Shrew” interestingly is also one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays.

Controversial?  It's a comedy.  A farcical comedy, at that.  It’s intended to get laughter from the audience.  To incite merriment.  Yet, as a renowned Shakespearean scholar once wrote, “’Shrew” has elicited a panoply of ethically uneasy, or altogether disgusted responses to its rough-and-tumble treatment of the 'taming' of the 'cursed shrew' Katherine.”

Modern day followers of the “me too” movement are repulsed simply by the idea of Katherine, a woman, being “tamed” by her husband, a man.  Many find the last speech of the play to be a symbol of all things wrong with male dominated societies.   They find the references to Kate’s sister, Bianca, as being the “ideal” woman equally repulsive.  Bianca, the cute, petite, frilly-dress-wearing object of all men’s desires, is not, in their minds, “ideal.”

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the main story follows the courtship of Petruchio, a fortune-seeker, and Katherine, a headstrong and unwilling participant in the relationship.  She is a “kind of” chattel, given to the first person who will take her off her father’s hands and tame her.

Petruchio, through various psychological torments, including denying her food, trains her to be “desirable, compliant, and obedient.”  (Any “boos” from the reader, especially feminists and their supporters, would be appropriate here.)

Words matter, and Shakespeare’s language, therefore, becomes the major theme, when the question of “taming” is referred to in the play. 

First, Kate is initially described as a “shrew” because of her harsh language to those around her.  Petruchio sets out to rid Kate of her strong, “manish” language.  He uses terms to describe her which define her as “masculine,” rather than “feminine and describes her as a possession: “my goods,” “my chattels” and “my anything.”

Then, there is Katherine’s final speech in which she appears to have been “tamed” and has become compliant to her “master.”  If you take the words on face value, that’s what it sounds like.  However, if the words are considered sarcastic, given the idea that the “taming” is pretend, and she has duped Petruchio, then meaning changes greatly.  Or, the speech could be considered as part of a play within the play, and, therefore, not be taken seriously. 

Whatever, not only does the play delight, but can also inspire discussion.

Bruner has a long history with “Shrew.”  In high school, she relates in her playbill column, she “became enamored by the comedy and loved the feisty Kate.”  In her theatrical career she not only played Bianca and eventually, in the Great Lakes Theater’s 2011 production, Kate. 

Brunner’s long experience with the Bard’s script is apparent in her direction.  She not only understands the nuances of the script but how to keynote them.  The pacing is quick, the idea development clear.

In addition, she has a flair for farce.  She seemingly understands that farce, exaggerated action, is best when it comes naturally.  She has primed her performers so their exaggerations are in character and part of the action, not imposed upon the goings-on.  They fit into the chaos like a well-made glove, not drawing attention to themselves, but being a natural part of the action.

The cast is excellent.  Jessika D. Williams is a determined Kate, clearly knowing who she is and what she wants.  This is a strong characterization, unlike many interpretations where a lovely actress feigns obstinence until she is “trained.”

Jonathan Dyrud is not the usual handsome macho Petruchio.  He of long hair and lanky body does not look nor act like the typical leading man.  He adds a bit of whimsy to the role that adds to the merriment.

Mandie Jenson makes a lovely Bianca, Taha Mandviwala is fine as Lucentio, one of Bianca’s lovers, and Lynn Robert Berg gets lots of laughs as the bow-legged elf-looking aged, Gremico.

Having audience members seated on the stage has become a “new” Great Lakes tradition, whether appropriate for the play or not.  In this case, the “guests” are included in the action.  In fact, one unsuspecting soul, who becomes a “sheriff” in the goings-on, gets included in the curtain call.

A large group of students from mid-Pennsylvania were present for the opening night performance.  They laughed and clapped throughout the show.  A lineman sized football player, was heard to say to his friends, “If that’s what Shakespeare is about, I want to see more!”  How do you like that Sarah Bruner?

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   GLT’s “Shrew” is a wonderful evening of the Bard at his finest, in a production that delights and, if you are also in the mood, illuminates the tale of conflicted love and the battle of men and women.  Go!  See!  Enjoy!
   

Sunday, March 31, 2019

“Tiny Houses” gets built saying a lot about life and needs at Cleveland Play House



In 1906, San Francisco had an intense earthquake and resulting fires.  Little did my newly immigrant grandfather know that when he went to build “shacks” in the city by the bay, that he would be part of what has recently become a new trend—building “Little Houses.” He constructed many 200 square feet or less temporary homes, some of which became permanent residences. 

Grandpa appreciated the necessity of building small, quick and inexpensive because of the need to provide living places for displaced people.

On the other hand, as a man who escaped from the shacks of the shtetls, he probably would think the whole “new” trend of tiny house was “meshuga.”

“Tiny Houses,” Chelsea Marcantel’s Roe Green Award winning play, which was originally presented as a staged reading in Cleveland Play House’s 2018 New. Theatre. Festival., is now in its world premiere at CPH, as a fully staged production.

The play, like my grandfather’s little houses, is purposeful.  In this case it is part of the existential question of whether tiny living spaces, existing with few creature comforts like running water, and few possessions, leads to a better life.

It’s the backyard of a large home in rural Oregon.  Center stage is a flatbed truck platform which is eventually to be the foundation of a 200-square-foot house. 

What will transpire is the construction of the structure by four young adults (with the help of a small assemblage of stage hands). 

The purpose of the dwelling is to find out if the trend toward minimalism is practical and whether it will result in happiness for two young people, in a four-month relationship, who have given up their up-scale jobs in New York.  Well, she (Cath) has given up her well-paying career, to come to his (Bodhi’s) home area, to live out his Thoreau-like dream.

Building the house in the backyard of Ollie, who was Bohdi’s college roommate, turns out to be a series of amusingly misguided, awkward stumbles, missteps of relationships and construction.

“Will living small be a huge mistake?”

Besides the house construction, there are a group of idiosyncratic characters, each, looking for a place to physically and psychologically call “home.”

Besides the young lovers, Cath and Bohdi, there is Ollie, a South African, Bodhi’s college roommate, whose profession is selling haunted dolls, on line.  Yep, haunted dolls!



Jevne, Bohdi’s long time next-door neighbor and girlfriend, has a huge following for her on-line sharing of tales intended to put people to sleep through use of her “soothing” voice.  She appears, with the intention of helping out and rekindling her relationship with the Bohdi, the man of her dreams. (The plot thickens.)

Jeremiah, a local resident who left the area in search of self, has returned.  He has a knowledge of construction which becomes a necessity for the amateur builders.  As it turns out, his interest in the project, besides picking up some cash, soon turns to his attachment to Cath.  (The plot thickens further.)

Yep, the plot twists and turns, and the underlying hanky-panky make this comical farce a real attention grabber (and holder).

The wonder of the theatrical enterprise is watching as an actual little house, complete with roof, windows and solar panels, is built during the 90-mimute play with no intermission. 

Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design, Technical directors Davin Gallo and Liam Roth and the Tiny House carpenters, Cayla DeStefano, Andy Rowland and Kaleb Yandrick all deserve their own curtain call for the design and construction.  (And think of this—they not only have to build the house each night, but have to dissemble it and get the pieces-parts ready for rebuilding at the next performance!)

Director Laura Kepley’s direction is spot on.  The pacing is swift, the laughs constant, the fascination with the construction of the house impressive and the overall effect wonderful.

The cast is a perfect blend of eccentrics and “normals.” 

Michael Doherty delights as Ollie, the free spirt fascinated with haunted dolls.  Though we know little about how he wound up in a huge house in Oregon, or why he is entranced with the eerie figurines, Michael Doherty creates a character that is creatively etched.

Pretty Kate Eastman is believable as Cath, caught up in an adventure which had many unexpected twists and turns.  Eastman leads us on a path of discovery that is both revealing and satisfying.

Studly Peter Hargrave, who played Bohdi in the staged reading, is a grad of the Case Western Reserve University/CPH MFA Acting program.   He develops a real and conflicted character whose dreams are bigger than his realities, whether it’s building a tiny house or raising free range chickens.

Cutesy Nandita Shenoy delights as the seemingly air-headed Jevne.  At times her soft voice becomes hard to hear, but, in the main, her sense of comic timing wins out, as does her character’s quest for Bohdi.

James Holloway gives a realistic performance as Jeremiah.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Tiny Houses” is one of those special pieces of modern theater that both delights and causes audiences’ to think.  Is tiny better?  Is minimalism good for society and individuals?  Can we live deliberately?  Was Thoreau all wrong, “a nut job,” in his search for authenticity?  Whatever, go, see, be delighted, and learn how tiny houses are built!








“Tiny Houses” runs through April 14, 2019 in The Outcalt Theatre in the Allen Complex of PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Local playwright Eric Coble’s “The Velocity of Autumn” entertains and informs at Karamu


Cleveland Height resident Eric Coble is the area’s most prolific and successful contemporary playwright.  His scripts have been produced locally, as well as on- and off -Broadway, and at a significant number of national theaters. 

 Coble’s “The Velocity of Autumn” had its Broadway premiere at the Booth Theatre. It starred Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella.  “Fairfield”, “Southern Rapture”, “Bright Ideas”, “The Dead Guy”, “My Barking Dog”, “A Girl’s Guide to Coffee,” and “The Giver” have been produced Off-Broadway.  Not bad for a stay-at-home dad who served on the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education.

To make matters even more interesting, Coble was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised on the Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado, “playing with rocks, sticks, seeing 1940’s serials at the movie theatre thirty miles away, and wandering the desert with his friends trying to avoid cactus until he was 15 years old.”

He notes that “moving off the reservation led to acting in high school, which led to majoring in English at Fort Lewis College (Colorado) before winging it to Ohio University for an MFA in Acting.”  Along the way “he started writing plays, which were well-received enough to spur him on.”

“The Velocity of Autumn” swirls around “Alexandra, an 80-year-old artist in a showdown with her family over where she’ll spend her remaining years.  In Alexandra’s corner are her wit, her passion, and the fact that she’s barricaded herself in her Brooklyn brownstone with enough Molotov cocktails to take out the block.  But her children have their own secret weapon: estranged son Chris, who returns after 20 years, crawls through Alexandra’s second-floor window and becomes the family’s unlikely mediator.”


The 90-minute one-act play centers on their confrontation, during which long-simmering issues rise to the surface.  It’s a vision of onset senility, the indignities of aging and the realistic intra and interpersonal conflict of what happens when the mind and body start to betray us.  It also confronts the issue of homosexuality and the value of art.


“The Velocity of Autumn” has been produced locally at Beck Center and now is on stage at Karamu.  The Dobama staging featured Dorothy Silver, the grand-dame of CLE theater.  It opened to glowing reviews.  This was not the case in all of the other venues where the story has been told.  One reviewer thought the play “uneasily alternates between jokey, one-liner filled banter and such dark moments which lead to an expected conclusion.”

Maybe it’s 440/216 pride, but I thought the pathos, the humor, the interplay between the mother and the only one of her children whom she really likes, because he is most like her because of his artistic temperament, was realistic.  The ending is obvious, but what did you expect?  This is not a tragedy. The building was not going to explode and this spirited woman was not going to go flaming off into this good night.

The Karamu production features Jeanne Madison as Alexandra, the aging artist, Imani Khiry, as Chris, her son and is directed by Nathan Lilly.

Though not up to the level of the Dobama production, the intent and purpose of the author are adequately developed. 

The lovely Ms. Madison is much too young to be playing an over-eighty-year-old.  In order to add the appearance of aging she often feigned difficulty in walking and getting out of a chair.  In spite of these obvious ploys, her lines were sharp and pointed and the characterization is clear.  Along with Khiry, she will be helped by simply running the play before an audience, as some of the comic timing was off.

Khiry played Christopher on the surface.  It was often difficult to feel the depth of his love for his mother, the real feeling of distress with his siblings and his interpersonal angst, though his lines said those things.

Director Lilly seemingly needed more time and insight into truly developing his actors to undertake this emotionally laden topic-relevant script.

The long, narrow arena theatre was too set-heavy for this sensitive show.  Though well designed and nicely decorated, the space overwhelmed the play.  Performing in a smaller three-quarter round configuration would have helped both the actors and the audience to get closer to the action.

Capsule judgement: “The Velocity of Autumn” gets an acceptable production.  Audiences should leave having both enjoyed themselves and come in contact with the issue of aging and its consequences.
For tickets to “The Velocity of Autumn,” which runs through April 21, 2019 call 216-795-7077 or go to http://www.karamuhouse.org/

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Superb “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” jazzes up Beck Center



Having seen Audra McDonald’s Tony Award winning Broadway performance of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” I went to see the Beck production of the show with trepidation.

I should have feared not.  As it turns out Nicole Sumlin, in the lead role, and Ed Ridley portraying Jimmy Powers, Holiday’s musical director and jazz pianist-extraordinare, were more than up to the challenge.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is a jukebox bio-musical by Lanie Robertson which loosely recounts some of the life of Billie Holliday, an American jazz singer whose career as the first-lady-of-jazz spanned over thirty years.

Known for her seminal influence on jazz and pop singing, as well as her manipulation of phrasing, tempo and improvisational skills, the talented Eleanora Fagan, better known as Billie Holliday, had little formal music education and training.

The child of unwed teenagers, she had a turbulent childhood and became a hit at Harlem nightclubs and brothels at an early age.

Her life and career were marked with many unwise love affairs, brush-ups with the law, which included jail and prison sentences, and singing with Count Basie.  Basie once said, of Holliday’s tenacity, "When she rehearsed with the band, it was really just a matter of getting her tunes like she wanted them, because she knew how she wanted to sound and you couldn't tell her what to do.”

Her life was also filled with incidents in which she found herself at odds with the “white’s only” policy of many nightclubs, business, hotels, hospitals and restaurants. 

Holiday is noted for many songs but her two biggest hits were “God Bless the Child,” which she supposedly wrote as a tribute to her mother, and “Don’t Explain,” written after she caught her husband, Jimmy Monroe, with lipstick on his collar.

She appeared in a number of films including  ”New Orleans,” which also featured Woody Herman and Louis Armstrong.

Drug usage and alcohol consumption paid their toll.  In 1947 she was arrested in her New York apartment for possession of narcotics and was sent to Alderson Federal Prison in West Virginia.

Unfortunately, after her release, in-spite of a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert attended by over 2700 fans and a musical entitled “Holiday on Broadway,” which ran three weeks, she was again arrested on drug charges.

Thus we find ourselves in Emerson’s Bar and Grill, her favorite Philadelphia haunt, obviously drunk, singing and recounting the highs and lows of her life.

This is a withered Holiday, the lows of her life having taken over, in what was probably going to be one of her last performances.

The Beck production is compelling.  Nicole Sumlin is spot on as Holiday.   The signature phrasing, the flow of ideas filled with hurt, the sultry jazz sound, are all present.  Sumlin has put on the Holiday aura and wears it with fidelity throughout. 

She is brilliantly supported by Ed Ridley, the master of the keyboard, who also portrays the role of Jimmy Powers, Bradford McGhee, a very talented bass player, and Leonard Goff, as the Emerson’s bartender.

Cameron Michalek’s simple set, a small stage surrounded by tables, Trad Burns’ lighting and Carlton Gur and Angie Hayes’ sound designs all enhanced the production.  Scott Spence directs.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Nicole Sumlin is superb as Billie Holiday, Ed Ridley plays one mean piano and Bradford McGhee plucks a happy tune.  The result is a special evening of musical theater!  This is an absolutely must see!
   
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through April 14, 2019.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org  

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Thought provoking “The Nether,” at Dobama



In this era, confusion and uncertainty are the present trend in many cutting-edge plays by a new breed of playwrights that Dobama is using as its writing stable.

Following this trend, the theater’s play selections have landed on the side of intellectual thought-provoking scripts that often leave the audience confounded and with few answers to the many questions asked by the playwrights. 

“The Nether” is another one of those scripts. 

As can be expected, the directing, technical aspects and acting are top-notch.

The audience is confronted with a sci-fi “crime” drama written by American playwright Jennifer Haley.  Haley is noted for delving into the ethics of virtual reality and the impact of technology on our human relationships and identity. 

The time is “soon” and the setting jumps from an interrogation room to the “Hideaway.”

“The internet has evolved into the Nether, a vast network of virtual reality realms. Users may log in, choose an identity, and indulge any desire. When Detective Morris investigates a realm called The Hideaway where pedophiles may live out their fantasies involving children, she brings its creator in for interrogation. They discover they have made emotional attachments in his realm that blind them to the greater questions of ethical behavior, both in the imagination and the outside world.”

Recent psychological studies have raised the question of whether being able to “act out” needs and fantasies, through game playing and simulations, relieves a person from performing deeds and actions in reality. 

Is the need to act sexually through rape and sexual imposition reduced by having vicariously watched pornography reduce the need for actual sex and control? 

Does having killed and maimed via the play of X-box games taken away the desire to actually pick up a gun and shoot a real person? 

Or, as proposed in “The Nether,” does the ability to role play pedophilia suppress the desire to really perform the act? 

Or, as Nathan Motta the Artistic Director of Dobama asks in his program notes, “What happens when we are able to completely immerse ourselves in a world without consequences?  Is it accurate to say that there are no consequences in a virtual world?” 

Shannon Sindelar’s direction of “The Nether” is flawless, as is the performance of Matthew Wright as Sims/Papa, the facilitator into the pedophilia-world of the Nether.  Wright creates a clear character, who justifies his not acting on his child-centered desires, by being above the philosophical fray by participating in a make-believe world.  His is both an illuminating and psychologically chilling character portrayal.
 



Young Calista Zajac as Iris, a child avatar, whose purpose is to welcome and satisfy the “guests” in Papa’s Nether Hideway, proves herself to be one of the few child actresses in the area, capable of being an equal of the professionals with whom she is surrounded.  Hers is an amazing performance.

Equally excellent are the character developments of Sarah Durn as the investigator who is trying to ascertain the value or harm of the Hideway, and Joe Pine and David Peacock as participants in the on-line experience.

T. Paul Lowry’s projections, displayed within Patrick Rizzotti’s set design, add to the smooth transition from scene to scene.

Side comment:  It is interesting to note that following the staging I saw, a number of audience members, knowing I was a reviewer, asked, “what is all this about?” That can be a positive evaluation of the play as it shows that it inspired the viewers to think, or it can be perplexing in that the intent and purpose of the author wasn’t clear. Hmm.

Capsule judgement: “The Nether” is a thought-provoking, disturbing script which gets a fine production.  It is not for those who go to the theater to escape from the real world, but for those who wish to probe into ideas and are willing to look for the consequences of the decisions we make, whether they be in real life or a fantasy world. 

“The Nether” runs through March 31, 2019 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama:  Melissa James Gibson’s “THIS” an un-romantic comedy which captures the uncertain steps of a circle of friends backing their way into middle age, staged
from April 26 through May 26, 2019.