Thursday, December 13, 2018

Liberace, well, facsimile, thereof, coming to Cleveland’s Theatre in the Circle


David Maiocco is noted as being a tour-de force solo-performer, who is presently making a career of portraying “Mr. Showmanship,” the uniquely American icon, Liberace.

Maiocco, a child prodigy, started playing piano at 3.  Quite a feat since his parents were too poor to own a piano.   Young David would go to relative’s homes for Sunday dinner and play, by ear, the hymns she heard in the church.  He didn’t have a formal music lessons until he was nine. 

Once he started lessons, his happiness turned to fear when the shy young man found that at the end of the year he had to play in a recital.  He wanted to quit his lessons.
His father stated, “you are going to see it through and then you can quit.” 

To the delight of the audience, which had heard a series of classical compositions, by lots of aspiring little Mozarts, his “Pink Panther” received an ovation and resulted in a commitment to continue his lessons, with a dream of playing on Broadway.  He has not only achieved that goal, but has been recognized with MAC and Bistro awards as a performer and music director. 

Along the way, at age 15 he became a music director, finished his BA at the Boston Conservatory of Music where he was every music professor’s nightmare, as he only wanted to play show music, not classical arrangements.

He was working on his master’s degree when he was “discovered” by Tommy Femia, a Judy Garland illusionist.  Femia at first thought Maiocco, who was in his 20s, was too young to travel the circuit.  However, within two weeks of meeting and working with Femia on an AIDS benefit production of the off-Broadway Musical “Whoop Dee Doo!” David joined Femia on the road.

Included in his experiences is accompanying such other gender illusionists as Chuck Sweeney as Peggy Lee, James Beaman as Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall, Steven Brinberg as Barbra Streisand and Richard Skipper as Carol Channing.

Someone suggested that since he had a good ear for impersonating, was a top-notch pianist, played piano with flailing arms and excessive bodily movements, and had a physical resemblance to Liberace, rather than just accompany the gender illusionists, he should mount his own show. 

David eventually did develop a Liberace show, which opened an Alice Ripley concert, and the “pseudo” Liberace was born.   (Side note:  Tony Award winning Ripley is a Kent State University graduate.)

“Liberace!,” which will be staged at Theatre in the Circle, is not the script that Maiocco developed.  This version was written by Brent Hazelton, who, ironically Maiocco has never met. 

The show has been described as a “moving and highly entertaining tribute to a legendary performer famous for his charm, glitz and glamour.  It relives the highs (and lows) of Liberace’s prolific life, revealing the real person behind the persona. Interwoven with a rollicking piano score spanning classical and popular music from Chopin to "chopsticks" and Rachmaninoff to ragtime.”

As one reviewer stated, it is "A glorious tribute to the uncanny performer and gifted musician."

The musical has been performed in Milwaukee (where Liberace was born), as well as Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Connecticut by other performers. 

David first did “Liberace!” in Kalamazoo, Michigan.   It was there that the producers of Circle in the Square saw the production and contracted him to perform in Cleveland.

Recently, David was informed that he was nominated for Broadwayworld.com’s Detroit area best actor award, and the production was nominated for best costumes and lighting.  

The $20,000 costume collection for the show, which is owned by Maiocco, are exact replicas of Liberace’s performance costumes, with some having been built to evoke the Vegas heyday of his career.  The wardrobe is specific to Liberace and references to the clothing are written into the script.

Clevelanders can re-acquaint themselves with Liberace from February 14 thru 17, 2019 at The Theatre in the Circle. 

All performances are at the historic Judson Manor, 1890 E. 107th St, Cleveland, OH 44106. Curtain times are Thursday, Friday and Saturday @ 7:30 pm and Saturday and Sunday @ 2 pm.  Ticket cost:  Adults $20, Seniors $18, Judson/South Franklin Circle residents $15, Students $12. For tickets call 216-282-9424 or go to theatreinthecircle.com. There is free parking.

Monday, December 10, 2018

“Special” “Avenue Q” @ Blank Canvas


It has been said that dying is easy, farce is hard to do!  And, “Avenue Q,” the delightful, satirical, coming of age parable by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, is farce at its highest level.

An adult take-off on “Sesame Street,” the catchy tune-filled show, puts a spotlight on porn, issues and anxieties associated with growing up, porn, homosexuality, puppet sex and porn.  Centering on the issue of being a generation that found they were praised for little effort, and being “special” with no need to prove it, the musical not only stars real people, but adult sized puppets, entertaining graphics and puppet nudity.

“Avenue Q,” which won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Book for a Musical and Best Original Score, has a score made up of such fun memorable songs as “Special,” “It Sucks to Be Me,” “If You Were Gay,” ”Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” and “For Now.”  (Hey, this is a farce, not “West Side Story.”

The story centers on Princeton, a recent college graduate, who is anxious to discover his purpose in life.  Reality sets in when he realizes that his degree in English is an open alley to no job skills, has no place to live, and is dependent upon his parents for money. 

His search for a place to live leads him to Avenue Q, in the low rent district, populated by an eccentric group of neighbors, including Kate Monster, an assistant kindergarten teacher; Rod, an up-tight closeted gay Republican banker; Nicky, Rod's slacker roommate; and Trekkie Monster, a recluse who surfs the Internet all day in search of porn.  They all agree that "It Sucks to Be Me.”

With advice from the Bad Idea Bears, Princeton makes some very bad choices, his neighbors attempt to navigate their rudderless lives and, as happens in all good fairy tales, all ends well “For Now.”

“Much of the show's ironic humor emerges from its contrasts with “Sesame Street,” such as illustrating the differences between innocent childhood and difficult adulthood. The storyline pre-supposes the existence of "monsters" and talking animals, and human actors who sing, dance and interact with puppets, both human and non-human in a light-hearted, quasi-fantasy environment.”

The original script was set on a fictional street in an “outer-outer borough” of New York.  The Blank Canvas version takes place in an unidentified neighborhood of Cleveland, allowing for references to the Terminal Tower, the Browns, moving “upscale” to Cleveland Heights, and wearing CLE clothes.

“Avenue Q” is the type of script that Blank Canvas Artistic Director Pat Ciamacco, does so well.  He knows exactly how to guide a cast to develop believable farce, adds humorous “shtick,” engages the audience, and milks laughs while keeping true to the intent and purpose of the author.  He also knows how to design and build marvelous puppets (along with Dave Haaz-Baroque)!

The cast is outstanding.  They not only smoothly operate the adult-sized puppets, but have developed personalities and voices that perfectly fit every character.  Wow!

Huzzahs to Shane Patrick O’Neill, Leah Smith, Scott Esposito, Trey Gilpin, Luke Scattergood, Anna Sylvester, Neda Spears, Brett DiCello, Katie Gucik, David Turner, Becca Ciamacco and Kate Michalski for forming an ensemble cast without a weak link.  They have great singing voices, do choreography with ease, and nicely texture their characterizations.

Matt Dolan and his raucous band have the difficult task of keeping the volume down in the small black box space and generally do it, while effectively rocking away.

The show is aided by smooth transitions from scene to scene, creative choreography (Katie Zarecki), effective lighting (Jeff Lockshine) and clever projections (Ciamacco and Noah Hrbek).


CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Avenue Q” is a well-conceived, delightful, must see production that shows how entertaining and purposeful a play can be with the right director and talented cast.  Most performances are sold out, but it’s well worth the effort to try and get a ticket!
“Avenue Q” runs through December 22, 2018, in the Blank Canvas west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.   For tickets and directions go to http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com/

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Choreography the highlight of less-than-well-conceived “Shrek” at Beck


Jeanine Tesori (music) and David Lindsay-Abaire (books and lyrics) developed the creative musical “Shrek” from DreamWorks Animation’s film and William Steig’s book of the same name.

The script, which tells the tale of Shrek, who on his seventh birthday is sent out by his parents into the “Big Bright Beautiful World,” knowing that the strange looking ogre, will encounter problems of rejection and bullying.

Shrek, in order to survive, isolates himself in a swamp.  Unfortunately, his safety and solace are destroyed when the evil Lord Farquaad of Duloc banishes Pinocchio, The Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, a Wicked Witch, The Big Bad Wolf, and about every fairy tale character in Western literature, from his lands and into Shrek’s swamp.  (How they all got to Duloc is never revealed.  But, remember, this is a fairy tale, so no exposition is needed.)

The banishment is because they are freaks.  The fact that Farquaad is a dwarf, and he fits his own definition for those who should be cast out, doesn’t seem to come into his awareness.  (Hmm, is there some resemblance here to a 2018 tale of a President and his biased blindness?)

Shrek decides that being surrounded by whining, noisy fairytale folk is not to his liking, so he sets out to convince Farquaad that he has to take this motley crew back. 

On his way Shrek rescues a talkative donkey from some of Farquaad’s guards, thus gaining his first real friend. 

What follows is a tale of Shrek making a deal with the Lord to bring him Princess Fiona, who is trapped in a castle surrounded by boiling lava and guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, so Farquaad can become King since he will be married to Princess.  

The rescue, of course, is filled with many overly dramatic twists and turns, including our finding out Fiona’s secret, Farquaad’s lineage (“Hi Ho, Hi Ho” oops, that’s another tale) and Fiona and Shrek finding true love.  (I told you this was a fairy tale and didn't have to be logical.) 

The keys to making “Shrek The Musical” into a truly enchanting show is for the lead character to have an underbelly of lovability, the show to be a triumph of imagination with a “heart as big and warm as Santa,” an unbridled spell of wackiness, and be a gag-fest of creativity with a wink of satire.   (All the story and musical elements are there to make this a reality.)

Unfortunately, except for Martin Céspedes’ creative and inventive choreography, which is filled with a variety of diverse dance styles including a knee-high kick line and borscht-belt shenanigans, and a fun portrayal by Remell Bowens who does a fine Eddie Murphy-take on the part of Donkey, the show is fairly static.

The dances explode, creating all the right moods, to be followed by acting scenes which lack the needed whimsy and creativity.

Though he has a fine voice, and obvious quality acting chops, as displayed in his portrayal of Daddy Warbucks, in the road tour of “Annie,” G.A. Taggett Gilgamesh displays little charm as Shrek, missing the lovability factor.   

Brian Altman (Farquaad) and Antonio DeJesus (Pinocchio) come close to creating the story book farce, but needed directing-help to fully develop the needed images.  Natalie Steen makes for a lovely Fionna, and, at times, show flashes of the needed quirkiness, but, as with almost everyone in the cast, needed guidance in understanding that this is wackiness, farce at its highest.

The rented costumes, Brittany Merence’s projection designs and the dragon design by Jim Gough and Russ Borski all contributed to the correct visual images.

At the conclusion of the opening night show many in the audience, which was composed of friends and family of the cast, gave the production an undeserved standing ovation.  Standing ovations are meant as the highest form of compliment that a member of the audience can give a production.  Its saying this is a special performance.  If the gesture becomes an automatic response, it lessens its value.  What do you have when you see a production that is really outstanding?
   
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Shrek The Musical’ should be an irresistible mix of adventure, laughter, romance and zaniness.  In spite of creative appropriate choreography, and at least one standout performance, the production is less than it should be. 

“Shrek The Musical” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through January 6, 2019.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org 

Friday, December 07, 2018

Imaginative “Around The World in 80 Days” by Shahrazad Theatre Company



Shahrazad Theatre Company was formed late in 2016 with “the purpose of performing shows that were important and valuable contributions to today’s Cleveland theatre scene.” 
Their home base is in Cleveland Heights’ Ensemble Theatre, where the company is an “incubator,” with Ensemble’s staff acting as their fiscal agents and guiding them in show production.

The three company co-founders, who met while students at Hiram College, are Kyle Huff, Kayla Davis and August Scarpelli.

Shahrazad’s latest production is “Around the World in Eighty Days,” based on the classic Jules Verne novel of the same name.

The play, which loosely follows the novel’s story line, centers on Phileas Fogg and his newly employed French valet, Passepartout.  Based on a wager, the duo attempts to circumnavigate the world in 80 days, a major task in 1872, when air transportation didn't exist, train lines were few, and ship travel was perilous.

Fogg, with mathematical precision, figures that the task can be accomplished as a new railway section in India has been opened, which makes the connections to various parts of the world possible.

With Passepartout accompanying him, Fogg departs from London by train at 8:45 p.m. on 2 October.  In order to win the wager, he must return to the club by this same time on 21 December, 80 days later..

Their planned itinerary is London to Suez, Egypt, Suez to Bombay, India, Bombay to Calcutta, India, Calcutta to Victoria, Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Yokohama, Yokohama to San Francisco, San Francisco to New York City, and New York to London.  Their planned means of transportation includes rail and steamer.   Of course, many complications along the way endanger their not accomplishing the task and losing the wager.

The challenge for the Shahrazad Theatre is how to envision the trip so that the audience is a participant on the voyage.

The major means for the imagination is a world map which covers the entire Playground Theatre’s floor, allowing for a clear picture of the path and a padded surface for pratfalls, lots of slapstick, overacting, gender bending and imagination.  Creative shadow puppets add to the illusion.

The cast, Hannah Storch, Kyle Huff, Becca Moseley Davis, Andrew Keller, Valerie Young and Santino Montanez put out full effort.  The show is nicely directed by August Scarpelli.

Kyle is especially effective as Passepartout, flinging his slight body around like a rag doll and overdoing the French accent and outrageous situations just to the right level.

Capsule judgment: “Around The World in 80 Days” is an inventive, enjoyable and family-friendly little show.  To truly go along for the ride one has to abandon theatrical etiquette and let loose and have a good time and participate in the involving audience experience.


“Around The World in 80 Days” runs until December 16, 2018 on Fridays and Saturdays @ 7 pm, Saturdays @ 3 pm and Sundays @ 2 at Ensemble’s Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

Monday, December 03, 2018

Relevant “Rapture, Blister, Burn” intrigues at convergence continuum 



The anti-sexual assault and women’s empowerment movements #MeToo and Time’s Up have brought new relevance to the public conversation about women’s issues surrounding the obstacles women encounter in their personal and professional lives.

Since theatre, like all art forms, represents the era from which it comes, exposing present day theories concerning women and such topics as feminism, marriage, pornography, male-female relations, non-marrying females, child-rearing, and media depiction of women, a script such as “Rapture, Blister, Burn” which is now on stage at convergence-continuum, should incite interest. 

The sold out opening night audience, and the discussions at intermission and after the production, seem to support that theory.  As is the fact that the script was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Gina Gionfriddo, the author of “Rapture,” is noted for crafting “sharp-witted dialogue, developing full-felt characters who fling themselves into dramatic extremities, and delving into disappointment and its aftershocks.  She is a spokesperson for feminism.”

Of her script “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” Gionfriddo states, “This is not the play I sat down to write. I wanted to write a play about Internet pornography. I didn't have a coherent position on the subject, but I felt the tug of an important question, and that's how I like to begin a play. What I did (and do) believe is that Internet porn is a massive generational game changer.” 

Pornography, though a topic dealt with in the play, is not the central issue.  Relationships, both male-female and female-female, goal setting and personal expectations are front-and-center.

The story line centers on Catherine, a New York college professor who makes regular television appearances and is the author of several top selling books.   During summer break, she comes back to her home town to care for her mother who has recently had heart problems.

She is hired by a local small college to teach a seminar on feminism in the 20th century.  The class of two, which includes her former college roommate who dropped out of school to marry Aaron, Catherine’s former boyfriend, and, Avery, an eager young lady. 

Catherine rekindles her relationship with Aaron, causing difficulty within his married, and eventually, confusion for her. 

Marriage issues, deep discussions, and awareness of gender politics in the wake of 20 th century feminist ideals unfold.

Con-con’s production, under the competent direction of Geoffrey Hoffman, nicely develops the author’s intent and purpose.

The acting is basically good, highlighted with strong performances by Laurel Hoffman, as Catherine, Madelyn Voltz as Avery, and Anne McEvoy as Alice, Catherine’s mother.

Clearly hearing some of the lines is sometimes difficult for those sitting on the extreme ends of the long thin stage arrangement.   A recorded speech, near the end of the production, is impossible to comprehend.


Capsule Judgment: “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is a very relevant play in this #MeToo age. The writing is good and the production clearly develops the author’s intent and purpose.   



“Rapture, Blister, Burn” runs through December 15, 2018, 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/

Saturday, December 01, 2018

“Ella” less than “Enchanted” at Dobama


Gail Carson Levine, author of the modern-take on a children’s fairy tale, “Ella Enchanted,” started her career as an illustrator.  “After taking a class in writing and illustrating for children, she discovered she enjoyed writing far more than illustrating.  Thus in 1987 she began penning tales.  Over the next nine years, all of her manuscripts were rejected. 

April 17, 1996, she recalls, “was one of the happiest in my life."  It was that day that her book “Ella Enchanted,” was signed.  It was published in 1997, and the next year it received a Newbery Medal, a literary award given by the Association for Library Service to Children, “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." 


She says, of the process that lead up to “Ella,” “I was starting a new writing class and needed an idea, so I thought maybe I could expand a fairy tale. Cinderella is such an important tale, it's the first one I thought of. But when I considered it, I realized I didn't like Cinderella or understand her. She's so disgustingly good! And why does she take orders from her horrible stepmother and stepsisters?” 


She continues, “It's hard to write a book about a character who annoys and puzzles you. I was in trouble until I thought of the curse of obedience. Then I got it.  Ella has to do as she's told, and she takes revenge whenever she can.” 


The story centers on a girl who is given the “gift” of obedience at birth. As she grows up, the girl must defeat her evil stepmother, hungry ogres, and the troublesome curse to find her own voice.  In the process she finds her own voice and can live as her true self.


The book has been adapted into a musical play by Karen Zacarías with music by Deborah Wiks LaPuma. 


Zacarías is a Latina playwright who was the winner of the National Latino Playwriting Award.  She states, " My strongest playwriting lessons have come in trying to create stories that will resonate with young people—it is a rewarding, hilarious and heartbreaking endeavor to create plays in which kids really see themselves on stage."  


Wicks La Puma is a composer, music director and orchestrator. 

In order for a modern musical to be successful, it not only has to have a story that grabs and holds the attention, but music that not only helps develop the story, but is memorable.  


In the case of “Ella Enchanted The Musical,” after a strong start, the story becomes repetitious, a one-themed repeated idea, that of Ella not being able to resist her curse and overcome the commands for her to act against her natural will. 


The music is unmemorable, no song stands out, no melody lingers after one leaves the theatre.  The only part of the score that holds attention is the “ad lib” curtain call, when the tone changes and rock takes over.  It is here that the cast and the audience get involved and have some fun.


Dobama’s production, under the adept direction of Nathan Motta, exceeds the script and score.  Motta has let loose with all the theatre’s technical creativity.  


Marcus Dana’s lighting design helps create the proper moods. T. Paul Lowry’s projection designs are enchanting, the best seen this season on local stages.  Jeremy Dobbins’ sound design creates the proper illusions. Robin Vanlear’s puppet designs are impressively creative.


The cast is generally strong.  


Petite Natalie Green is charming as Ella.  She has a pleasant singing voice and creates the right child/adult image for the frustrated young lady held, against her will, to be a follower, rather than a leader.  


Tina D. Stump wails and delights as “de” fairy god mother. Amy Fritsche plays nice and then nasty as the mother and then step-mother. Neely Gevaart does air-head with double-take efficiency.  Kelly Elizabeth Smith is evil step-sister prime. 


The rest of the cast, Eugene Sumlin (Sir Peter), Joshua McElroy (Prince Charmont), Madeline Krucek and Arif Silverman are effective.


Capsule judgement:  In spite of getting a fine production, “Ella Enchanted, The Musical” fails to be everything it should.  Too bad.  It’s the “fa la la la la” time of year and a better red-bow theatrical present would have been nice.

“Ella Enchanted the Musical” runs through December 30, 2018 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama:  Alice Birche’s “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again” a grouping of vignettes that ask how to revolutionize language, relationships, work, and life while bursting at the seams of conformity,” from January 25 through February 17, 2019.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Fosse influences almost saves touring ‘CHICAGO’ at the Connor Palace


As the red-jacket usher guided us to our seats before the opening curtain of “Chicago” at the Connor Palace she said, “I love musical theater, especially if the show has a Fosse influence.”

How prophetic she was!

The multi-award winning musical “Chicago,” is one of the longest running  musicals in the history of the Great White Way.  It is blessed with the contributions of John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics and book) and Bob Fosse (book).

The story is set in the razzle-dazzle decadent era of the 1920s, when “gangstas” and corruption ran wild.  It centers on a Windy City story of Roxie Hart, a married free-loving housewife and wanna-be nightclub performer who murders her lover after he threatens to walk out on her.   She, along with fellow inmate Velma Kelly, both long for attention and turn to Billy Flynn, Chicago’s slickest criminal lawyer, to get them out of jail and into show business through a series of publicity charades. 

The original 1975 production and staging highlighted the dynamic choreography of Bob Fosse.  The dancing in the touring production is staged in the style of Fosse by Ann Reinking, who played Roxie in the show’s 1996 revival.  That production  also stared Bebe Neuwirth  as Velma and Cleveland’s Joel Grey as Amos, Roxie’s husband.

The wonderful jazz score lends itself to blockbuster production numbers.  Outstanding are “All That Jazz,” “Roxie” and “Razzle Dazzle.” 

The touring show is production-adequate, not reaching the excitement level of some other versions, including the 2002 Academy Award-winning film directed by Rob Marshall, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, and Queen Latifah. 

On the plus side are the dance numbers, especially the performances of the male corps.  These guys can really dance!  Having the excellent orchestra on stage adds to the flamboyance of the show as do the sensual costumes and the glitzy set. 

Rotund Paul Vogt wins the audience over as Roxie’s nebbish husband, whose rendition of “Mister Cellophane” is tenderly appealing.   D. Ratell, as the reporter, Mary Sunshine, does a fun bait-and-switch, male as female impersonation that fooled many members of the audience, until he whipped off his wig. 

Dylis Croman was acceptable as Roxy.  Terrra C. MacLeod often appeared to be a wind-up doll as Velma, complete with plastered on smile.   Eddie George (the former football player) attempted to act, sing and dance as Billy Flynn.  Jennifer Fouché disappointed as  Matron “Mama” Morton, using pre-set acting gimmicks to develop her character.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   Except for the dancing and the band, the show is tired, lacking the dynamics needed to make it compelling.   Touring is exhausting, but the cast has an obligation to give the paying public a fresh, attention holding production.  This performance, unfortunately, wasn’t compelling!

Tickets, for the show that runs through December 2, 2018 can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Monday, November 26, 2018

BOOGIEBAN, compelling, emotionally gripping at none-too-fragile


According to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, “roughly 11 percent of veterans who served in Vietnam, approximately 271,000 veterans of the war, continue to suffer from clinically PTSD symptoms.” 

PTSD is defined as “a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world.”  Common signifiers of PTSD are flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about an event or series of events.

D. C. Fidler, the author of “Boogieban,” is a psychiatrist.  He has had years of experience working with those who suffer from PTSD, says of his play, “We have always known how to send our young to war, known to welcome them back with parades, garlands, and trumpets. We have never known how to bring home their hearts and souls.”

He further states, “The story has strong elements about war … but is not a play of war. It is a play of the journey that two men from two different military generations take together, a journey they take to that mystic place where hearts alter. I hope audiences find that mystic change as they too share in this journey.”

The tale centers on two people, Lawrence Caplan, a Vietnam War veteran now working as a military psychiatrist. Before retiring, Caplan must assess one last soldier, Spc. Jason Wynsky, who, during his first session with Caplan insists that he is "good to go" back to his unit in Afghanistan.  Caplan soon discovers, that Jason, in spite of his glib and often insightful comments, is tortured by nightmares, flashbacks, and a “secret.”

The young soldier's stories have an unexpected effect, lifting Caplan's personal “amnesia” for his experiences in Vietnam, rekindling the trauma of the loss of his son, and spotlighting his conflicted marriage.

Together, the two launch on separate, yet parallel journeys that will change them forever.  And, maybe, even change many of the members of the audience.

The script is well written and filled with realistic and poetic speeches including such thought provokers as “The brain cannot handle truth” and “You are the author of your nightmares.” 

None-too-fragile’s production is spell-binding.  Besides the verbalizing of lines, the sounds of war, and appropriate musical segues between scenes, the only sound in the theatre during the close to 2-hour play without intermission, was the audible sobbing of many audience members.

Director Sean Derry finely hones every emotional level of the script.  The production’s meticulous pacing does not allow attention to wane.  The action is highlighted by pauses for effect and emphasis for importance.  The sound effects underline lines and emphasize the cacophony of emotions.  The well-selected between-scenes music clearly bridges the ideas of one segment into the next.  The ideas are reinforced by effective lighting.

The acting is outstanding.

Travis Teffner gives what must be one of the best local performances of the year as Jason.  His ability to play comedy and high drama for perfect effect is breathtaking.  The emotional roller coaster he goes through must be like having a nervous breakdown every performance. This is one very, very talented young actor!

Teffner is perfectly balanced by David Peacock as Lt. Col. Lawrence Caplan.  He puts on the character in the first scene and never takes the persona off.  Peacock becomes Caplan.  Caplan is Peacock!

Capsule judgment:  With its must see production of “Boogieban,” none too fragile again proves that it is one of the area’s finest theaters.  This gem of a production house expands to the national scene when this staging moves to Chicago and then to New York with the same cast and production values!    

For tickets for “Boogieban,” which runs through December 8, 2018, call 330-671-4563 or go to nonetoofragile.com

Thursday, November 08, 2018

“Willokommen” to a compelling “Cabaret” at BWU



In 1966, when “Cabaret,” the John Kander, Fred Ebb musical based on John Van Druten’s play, “I Am a Camera,” adapted from the short novel “Goodbye to Berlin“ by Christopher Isherwood opened at the Broadhurst Theatre, patrons were thrown off balance when, as they walked down the aisle toward their seats, a large out-of-proportion self-image was reflected back by a convex mirror on stage. 

As the musical proceeded three concepts of Epic Theater, Berthold Brecht’s concept of making the theatrical process became meaningful for the audience, became apparent.  The audience was wrapped in alienation, historification and epic. 

Alienation is keeping the audience aware that they are in a theatre. That this was a staged production.  The mirror, the exposed lighting instruments, the lack of realistic scenery, the actors often addressing the observers directly and wearing outlandish makeup that made them less than real, became readily apparent.

Historification concerns the story, in this case, Joe Masteroff’s book for the musical, showing historical concepts in a non-real setting.  This was reality, but not necessarily a real story.

Epic, the story is bigger than life and has huge consequences.  There is an important message being told.  Pay attention and apply the concepts to your life!

Yes, that well-describes the uncommon nature of the script and Hal Prince’s unusual staging.  

There was no overture.  Instead, a drum roll and cymbal crash led into the opening number. “The juxtaposition of dialogue scenes with songs used as exposition and separate cabaret numbers providing social commentary was a novel concept that initially startled the audience, but as they gradually came to understand the difference between the two, they were able to accept the reasoning behind them.”

The story, on the surface is easy to describe.  The setting is 1931 Berlin. Germany is in economic and political turmoil.   Adolph Hitler and his Nazis are rising to power.  At the seedy, decadent Kit Kat Club, the home to gays, political-deviants and those more interested in having a good time than being concerned about the world around them, we find English cabaret performer, Sally Bowes, an emcee who will set the Epic nature of the story in context, and Cliff Bradshaw, a bi-sexual American who is out to write the great novel, but has writer’s block.  The relationship between Cliff and the unpredictable Sally, Cliff’s landlord, Frau Schneider and her beau, Herr Schultz, and Ernst, who Cliff met on the train coming to Berlin, and is a member of the rising Nazi party, become the focal point of the storyline.

The club is a metaphor for the political developments of the country.  As the country tumbles into chaos, so does the Kit Kat Club and its clientele.

The original Broadway production became a hit, inspiring numerous subsequent productions, as well as the 1972 film of the same name. 

Both the original show and the film starred Cleveland-native Joel Grey as the emcee.  Both the 1993 London and the Broadway revival starred Alan Cummings.  The difference in the Grey and Cummings characterizations of the role spotlights the vast difference between the philosophy and effect of the interpretations.

Joel Grey was asexual, dressed in a tuxedo with rouged cheeks.  He was delightful, not giving us a hint of the true horrors of the rise of the Nazi party and what was to come.  The after effect was left to the audience.

Alan Cummings' portrayal was highly sexualized, as he wore suspenders around his crotch and red paint on his nipples.  Grey delighted, Cummings was decedent, placing a spotlight on the true story of what was to come and what did transpire such as the destruction of the Jewish community, homosexuals, Gypsies, political dissidents and the mentally ill in Germany.

“In the final scene, the Emcee removes his outer clothes to reveal a striped suit of the type worn by internee concentration camps; on it are pinned a pink triangle (denoting homosexual).”  This was our clue as to what was to come!

Baldwin Wallace’s “Cabaret” under the visionary direction of Victoria Bussert, creative choreography by Gregory Daniels and superlative musical direction of Beth Burrier, goes even further than Cummings’ version of the show.

The ending was so riveting that, as the lights snapped off, signifying the end of the show, the audience was absolutely silent, except for a number of audible sobs. 

It is a shame that the decision was not made to forgo a curtain call and let the audience sit in a minute or two of dark silence, allowing the vivid ending to sink in and become not only a tribute to the six-million or more who the Nazis murdered but the recent hideous Pittsburgh Squirrel Hill synagogue shootings.  The audience should not have been given the opportunity to applaud a eulogy.

In doing this script, the young cast of students were forced to see things they probably hadn’t even thought about.  Events out of their life time-line such as World War II, Kristallnacht, the rounding up of Jews and gays, the concentration camps.  Without that awareness, however, the entire production, especially the ending, would have rung hollow.

(The show is double cast.  The specific performance comments are about the “Cliff Cast” which appeared on opening night.)

Pencil-thin Charlie Ray started out rather mechanically as the Emcee, but as the show progressed Ray’s performance gained natural nuance and his playfulness, while shadowing to the final solution, gained creditability.  “If You Could See Her” was nicely developed, leading to appropriate silence rather than laughter at the end of the number.  His performance during the last scene was mesmerizing. 

Nadina Hassan did her own interpretation of Sally.  This was not a Liza Minelli imitation.  There was a hard edge, “don’t give a damn attitude” to her black lipsticked persona that might turn some off, but was consistent throughout and perfectly fit her vocal choices for her powerful rendition of “Cabaret.”

Zach Landes nicely textured the role of Cliff, making him a realistic and likeable character.  Too bad he only had a short singing segment in “Perfectly Marvelous” as he displayed a pleasant singing voice.

Forced to use students, not adults in the mature roles, Bussert made the decision not to “fake it”--no gray hair spray, no wigs, Herr Schultz (Sam Columbus) and Fraulein Schneider (Erin Niebuhr) assumed the roles and after the original awareness that they were twenty-somethings playing middle-aged people, the portrayals rang true. Their duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” was delightful, as was Niebuhr’s “So What.”

The Kit Kat Girls and Boys sang and danced well, nicely executing Daniels’ often difficult era-correct moves.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Cabaret” is an important epic musical theater script which gets a strong performance at Baldwin Wallace.  The ending of this production was one of the most horrifying and effective closing scenes ever performed on stage.   The long silence that followed it was a tribute to Bussert and her cast and crew.   

“Cabaret” is scheduled to run through November 18, 2018 on the Baldwin Wallace University campus through, 2018.  For tickets and information call 440-826-2240 or go on-line to http://www.bw.edu/tickets

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Musical Theater Project to feature the comedy of musical theater


What do “Avenue Q,” “Spamalot,” “Something Rotten” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum?” have in common?  They are all American Musical Theater comedies, meant to entertain and evoke laughter.

In addition to entire shows, there are songs within musicals that are intended for pure enjoyment.  “Springtime for Hitler” in “The Producers,” “Make an Omelette” in “Something Rotten,” “Putting on the Ritz” in “Young Frankenstein,” and “When You’re an Addams” from “The Addams Family,” come to mind.

Interested in learning more about the outrageous in musicals? To find out why we laugh at the performances or the material itself?

What better source to learn about the wonder of musicals than from The Musical Theater Project which was founded in 2000, and built on the principal that “Americans have an enduring love affair with Broadway and Hollywood musicals. It’s our very own art form, combining song and dance to express what we can be at our best.”

It is the purpose of Bill Rudman, the organization’s founder, and his merry bunch of entertainers, to “create personal connections with the songs, characters and themes of the American musical, document the lives of important American musical theater artists, explore the connections between the musical and the rich diversity of the American experience, and examine the relevance of musical theater in contemporary society.”

For this concert, TMTP will feature live performances and video clips as they present “Just for Laughs Comedy Songs from Musicals.” You’ll learn how, when we are exposed to comedy “we connect more deeply with our dreams, joys and frustrations. In short, our laughter brings us closer to ourselves.” 

The concert, which will be hosted by Rudman and Nancy Maier, will explore great comedy songs going back as far as Eddie Cantor's "Makin' Whoopee" (1928) and as far forward as John Cullum's "Don't Be the Bunny," written 83 years later for “Urinetown,” while featuring singers Douglas F. Bailey II, Ursula Cataan and Sheri Gross

The concerts will be @ The Solon Center for the Arts on November 14 @ 7 pm.  For tickets call 800-838-3006 or go on-line to www.MusicalTheaterProject.org.  A second performance will be at 3 pm on November 18 in the Hanna Theatre in Playhouse Square.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go on-line to www.PlayhouseSquare.org


Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Karamu’s “Day of Absence” loses its message due to misdirection


 
Karamu’s “Day of Absence” loses its message due to misdirection 
 
Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

As Douglas Turner Ward, the author of “Day of Absence,” explains it, “The time is now. The play opens in an unnamed Southern town of medium population on a somnolent cracker morning — meaning no matter the early temperature, it’s gonna get hot. The hamlet is just beginning to rouse itself from the sleepy lassitude of night.”

What follows is the revelation that all the black people in this imaginary Southern town have suddenly disappeared.

Ward continues, “The only ones left are sick and lying in hospital beds, refusing to get well. Infants are crying because they are being tended to by strange parents. The Mayor pleads for the President, Governor, and the NAACP to send him "a jackpot of jigaboos." On a nationwide radio network, he calls on the blacks, wherever they are, to come back. He shows them the cloths with which they wash cars and the brushes with which they shine shoes as sentimental reminders of the goodies that await them. In the end the blacks begin to reappear, as mysteriously as they had vanished, and the white community, sobered by what has transpired, breathes a sigh of relief at the return of the rather uneasy status quo. What will happen next is left unsaid, but the suggestion is strong that things will never quite be the same again.”

The play, when if applied to today, would be a Trump nightmare.  Yes, though Trump rages against minorities, how would he operate his hotels and resorts if all those people he hates and wants to expel, or not let into the country, disappeared?  Would Donald, Jr. be cutting the lawns at the golf courses?  Would Ivanka be changing the hotel’s bed linens?  Would son-in-law Jared be caddying? 

Yes, this is a play which not only targets Southern bigots and other nationalists, who use the services of minorities while condemning them, but also points to the reality of what would happen without the slave and low-paying members of the minority “working class.”

In talking about how the play should be produced, Ward states, “No scenery is necessary — only actors shifting in and out on an almost bare stage and freezing into immobility as focuses change or blackouts occur.  The play is conceived for performance by a Negro cast, a reverse minstrel show done in white-face. Logically, it might also be performed by whites — at their own risk. If any producer is faced with choosing between opposite hues, the author strongly suggests: “Go ’long wit’ the blacks — besides all else, they need the work more.  All props, except essential items (chairs, brooms, rags, mop, debris) should be imaginary (phones, switchboard, mikes, eating utensils, food, etc.).”

Not only did Karamu director Nathan A. Lilly ignore Ward’s advice on scenery and props but he failed to heed that the actors are “cautioned not to ham it up too broadly. It just might be more effective if they aspire for serious tragedy”

Lilly has played for laughs, ignoring that the play is a satirical farce.  In good farce, such as productions of such classics as “The Importance of Being Earnest,” actors play it straight. The audience should not be laughing at the ridiculousness of the performers as they overact and do slapstick, they should be laughing at the outrageousness of the situation and lines.  Otherwise, the message is lost. 

The cast tries hard. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, their efforts are lost as they look foolish due to “over-acting.”  The exceptions are a marvelous monologue, near the end of the play, presented by Robert Hunter, the mayor.  By playing it straight, Ward’s message rings clear.  The same could be said for Sherrie Tolliver, in her role as the TV announcer.

Capsule judgment: “Day of Absence” is a well-written play whose message rings loud and clear today in the era of “Make America White Again.”  Too bad some of the message is lost due to an emphasis on over-done acting rather than letting the farcical writing carry the day.
“Day of Absence” continues through, November 18, 2018 in the Arena Theatre at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.

Apollos Fire to present “O’Jerusalem! Crossroads of Three Faiths”



Jeannette Sorrell, Artistic Director of Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland-based Baroque Orchestra, started to study conducting and musical composition at age 16.  A trained pianist, the young lady, who has been called a “wunderkind” by “Audiophile Audition,” won first prize and the audience choice award in the 1991 Spivey International Harpsichord Competition, competing against 70 uber-talented international musicians.  

Sorrell’s path to developing Apollo’s Fire included an interview for the position of Assistant Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.  When the Maestro told her he would not give her an audition because she was a woman, the talented lady, who believes that a person must be true to yourself, replied that her first choice was to conduct baroque music on period instruments, rather than a symphony job. 

Proving that a woman could lead a world class orchestra, with seed-funding from the Cleveland Foundation, Sorrell has developed a musical assemblage that has sold out audiences in venues in London, Madrid, Washington, DC, New York, and, yes, at Severance Hall.

She always loved the beautiful and colorful sound of baroque music which she feels has universal emotional qualities, Sorrell indicated that this type of music has “Affekt,” a quality of emotional music common in the 17th and 18th centuries, but which, she feels, has been lost in the 19th and 20th centuries as people lost sight of the concept developed by rhetoricians, where the timing of the voice and timing of the sounds were stressed as important to appeal to the emotions.

The publicity for "O Jerusalem! – Crossroads of Three Faiths" describes the program as a "tour" (through music and poetry) of the 4 quarters of the old city of Jerusalem – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian.  And that Sorrell felt “compelled to create this program because of the urgent need for peace and understanding in the world and how music can cross social divides and bring people together in times of conflict.” 

The concert takes a broad look at the people who have inhabited Jerusalem, allowing us to peek into a mosque, a synagogue and a cathedral…interweaving of the sounds and illustrating how they influence each other.   The concert often juxtaposes music from one source upon the other. 

The concert will show the music and poetry that all groups share.

She believes that “we all want to live with love and brotherhood.” To put this into action the concert includes “Israeli, Palestinian and Persian performers, a multi-cultural group who love each other and love making music together.”

Besides the music, Sorrell thinks people will also enjoy seeing some “cool” instruments on stage, including the Oud, a short-neck lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument, the Tanbur, a long-necked, string instrument originating in Mesopotamia, Southern or Central Asia, along with other middle eastern instruments, and a medieval harp.





"O Jerusalem! – Crossroads of Three Faiths” will be presented Saturday, November 10 at 8pm at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood; Monday, November 12, 7;30 pm @ St. Paul’s Episcopal, Cleveland Heights; Friday, November 16 ,8pm @ Fairlawn Lutheran Church; Saturday, November 17, 8pm @ Cleveland Institute of Music’s Kulas Hall; and Sunday November 18 @ 4pm at Avon Lake Church UCC.

For tickets and information call 26-320-0012 or go on-line to http://www.apollosfire.org/

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Creative staging, quality singing featured in Kent’s “Children of Eden”


When one thinks of Stephen Schwartz, the lyricist and composer of theater titles “Godspell,” “Pippin,” and “Wicked,” or the films “Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and “Enchanted” come to mind.  How about “Children of Eden”?  Probably not.

Yet, in 1991 Schwartz did pen that show.  Why isn’t it commonly identified with this prolific tunesmith award winner?  It was one of Schwartz’s few flops.

“Children of Eden” is a two-act musical, with a book by John Caird.  The first act is based on the Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel tales from the Book of Genesis.  The second act deals with Noah and the flood. 

Originally written under the title “Family Tree” for a production by Youth Sing Praise, a religious-oriented high school theater camp, it was later adapted into a full-length musical intended for commercial use, with its new “Children of Eden” title. 

It opened in January of 1991 and closed in April of that year in London’s West End.  Poor reviews sealed its fate.  Interestingly, though it has not been revived for professional productions, it has become a staple for community and educational theatres.

Though Schwartz’s music is fine, it’s the book that pales.  The first act is the better written of the two. 

The story generally holds the attention as God creates and then warns Adam and Eve not to be tempted to eat from the tree of life.   The all questioning Eve breaks the rules and the duo, along with their children, Cain and Abel, are sent from the Garden of Eden to wander in the wilderness.  Cain eventually kills Abel, is marked with the “sign of Cain,” and sin and destruction follow.

The second act tells of Noah’s building of the Ark and the killing off of those not thought worthy of continuing to inhabit the earth.  It is filled with many innocuous lines and situations that defy smooth story-telling.

Artistic director Terri Kent has let all her creative talents fly in staging The Kent State University School of Theatre and Dance production.  She is ably assisted by MaryAnn Black, whose innovative choreography helps create moving pictures.  Ben Needham's original scenic designs, three constantly moving steel pipe scaffolds, and building blocks whose sides are painted with pictures that depict various visuals as they are assembled and disassembled, create all the needed images from the ark, to animals, to the tree of life

The cast, under the musical direction of Jennifer Korecki, sings well.   The solos are strong and the choral blends are clearly in-tune.  The orchestra nicely underscores, rather than drowning out the singers, as is more and more common in many musicals.



In the first act, Fred Rose creates a strong yet loving Father (God).  He has a strong singing voice and nicely interprets his lines.   Devon Pfeiffer and Merrie Drees are charming as Adam and Eve.  Each has a fine singing voice and creates a realistic character.  Mason Henning shines as Cain.  The young man sings and moves with confidence, displaying strong talent.  His “Lost in the Wilderness (Reprise) is one of the show’s finest vocals.  Adam Kirk does a nice turn as Abel.

The first act ends with the show’s highlight, “Children of Eden.”

In the second act Clinton Owens develops a believable Noah.  Montria Walker whales as Mama Noah.  Her “Spark of the Skies” and powerful solo in “In the Beginning” are showstoppers.

Capsule judgment: “Children of Eden” gets a strong production due to creative staging, innovative choreography, fine singing, and an effective set design.  The production, which far exceeds the mediocre book, is an excellent showcase for the Kent State musical theater program students.

“Children of Eden” runs in the E. Turner Stump Theatre on the Kent State University main campus through November 11.  For tickets call 330-672-ARTS or go on-line to http://www.kent.edu/theatredance

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Touring LES MIZ Les Okay at the Connor Palace



From the very first time I saw “Les Miserables,” shortly after its opening in London, to the New York production, and through the various touring shows, I have been a fan of the show.  Not just a fan, a fanatic fan!

Interestingly, when “Les Miz” first opened in London in 1985 the production was generally met with tepid reviews.  This was a musical about greed, child abuse, revolution and cruelty.  It contained thwarted idealism, frustration and the seeming defeat of good by evil. 

This is a musical with the word “miserable” in the title, has physical beatings and numerous onstage deaths, and lacks a typical happy ending.  Is this the stuff musicals are made of?  Not usually.  But, there is no reason that serious subjects cannot be treated in the musical form.  Les Miz proves that contention, as does “Next to Normal” and “Dear Evan Hanson,” and proves it well.

There is also no reason that strong emotions about death cannot be visualized as “empty chairs at empty tables,” or hope cannot be expressed as, “there is life about to start, when tomorrow comes,” or, that infatuation cannot be explained as “a heart full of love,” or the future can’t be prophesized as, “I dreamed that love would never die,” and a powerful story can’t be summarized with the musical’s ending lyric, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  Yes, these are all lyrics conceived by Herbert Kretzmer and set to the emotionally charged music of Claude-Michel Schönberg.  These are the thoughts of a potentially great musical.

“LES MISÉRABLES” is an epic 1862 French tale by Victor Hugo, one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century.  Though long and complex, the basic story line centers on a period in the early nineteenth century, which culminated in the unsuccessful June Rebellion.  This is not the larger French Revolution of 1788 that overthrew the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons and the system of aristocratic privileges, as many assume. 

The story revolves around Jean Valjean, who was caught when he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew.  Imprisonment, frustration and moral awareness are pivotal ideas of the story.  It is played out in front of the history of France’s politics and what is meant by the concept of justice. It is fiction broadly entwined within factual and historical events.

In 1987, the musical debuted on Broadway. After 6,680 performances spanning sixteen years, it closed on May 18, 2003, making it one of the longest running Broadway shows.  Revivals and a movie followed that run. 

The advanced publicity for this touring show indicates that the production has been reconceptualized.   The music has been reframed, some of the songs reinterpreted, there is new staging and reimagined scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo.  In addition, it is noted that the attitude is more somber, more dramatic.

I wish I could say that I was as enamored by this staging as those I have seen in the past.   Though I still found it fascinating, I also perceived that the energy level was not the same as in the past. Maybe it’s because the show has been on the road since September, 2017 and the cast is exhausted or on auto-pilot.  Maybe it’s all the darkness.  Not the seriousness of the story, but the overly somber heavy set and dim lighting.   Maybe it was the sometimes languid pace.

Even the usually ridiculous, over-the-top “Master of the House” and “Beggars at the Feast,” which are “noisy numbers” inserted usually in mid-first and second acts to excite the audience and keep their attention, didn’t render their usual farcical joy.

The cast generally sings well though some of the vocal-blendings appeared off.  Thankfully they interpreted the lyrics rather than just singing words.  The company’s “One Day More” was a show stopper. 

Nick Cartell, who is believable as Jean Valjean, sings the role with a full voice and adds a youthful presence not always found in the actors who are cast in the taxing role.  His “Who Am I” and “Bring Him Home” were excellent. 

Mary Kate Moore (Fantine) grabbed the emotions of the audience with “I Dreamed a Dream.”  Paige Smallwood was compelling as Eponine and received an extended ovation for her well-nuanced “On My Own.” Josh Davis was evil incarnate as Javert.

Locals might have noted that Gabe Brown, a University Heights resident and Baldwin Wallace musical theatre graduate, played a prominent chorus role.  They might even get to see him as Marius if Joshua Grosso, who charmingly plays the role, is out for a performance or two.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   LES MIZ! Les Okay!   The touring version is not as compelling as other productions, but still a captivating piece of musical theater.


For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Compelling “Sweat” tells an emotional tale of the fall of the American working middle class and its effect on the nation





Lynn Nottage, who has been called “as fine a playwright as America has,” started to craft “Sweat,” which is now getting a production at Cleveland Play House, in 2011, just before the height of the national malaise, but not before Reading, Pennsylvania and similar areas were hit by layoffs, plant closings, and general angst.  The playwright honed in on the national problem and succeeded in writing a raw, disturbing and illuminating script that won the 2017 Pulitzer for Drama.



As I said in my Broadway review of the show, in 2011, steel industry-centric Reading, Pennsylvania, topped the national census’s poverty list.  The city’s residents were battered by the closing down of rust belt industries as companies packed up and moved to countries with lower worker wages, and low-cost steel from China’s government-subsidized plants flooded the market.



Economic inequality and economic insecurity raised their ugly heads, not only in PA, but other industrial states, resulting in a surprise election result as the usual Democratic voters became desperate for scapegoats and easy cures for their woes.  



Most of the eight-year story takes place inside and outside a bar in Reading, where the employees of the nearby steel mill hang out. 



In the early segments, the bar visitors are in a positive mood.  Hours, pay, and working conditions are good.  One of the women, an African American, is promoted to a management position and there is general pride in her advancement.  Then downsizing and a strike to protect wages takes place.  The bartender warns, “You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico.”



As his prophecy becomes reality, as de-industrialization takes place, attitudes of the “friends” change.  Inner group squabbles emerge, hatred toward scabs who cross the picket line become strong, as scapegoats for the changing economics are needed, racial and ethnic differences become causes for arguments and physical abuse.  Matters get even worse when the plant closes.   



The script clearly reveals the frustration of the white blue collar middle class, who, in their desperation to regain self-respect and hope for financial stability, are willing to put aside their respect for truth and start to believe “alternative facts,” to replace logic with acceptance of emotional shim-sham, and accept that they need to make America “white” again as a combination of Hispanics, blacks and Asians have become the majority population.  Slogans and insults became their truth and they became Trump voters.



The Cleveland Play House production, under the adept direction of Laura Kepley, is even better than the Broadway show.  Not only has Kepley captured every nuance of the finely written script, she has developed a cast whose textured performances make the characters live.  Their depictions are so real that every pain, every emotional crack in their lives, become our pain.



The production is helped by the thrust stage of the Outcalt Theatre which forces the audience to be up-front and personal with the action, thus proving the wisdom of moving the CPH productions from the outdated, three proscenium stages of their former home into the freshly adaptive Allen complex.




Each of the unit cast of Jack Berenholtz (Jason), Brooks Brantly (Chris), Xavier Cano (Oscar) Nehassaiu deGannes (Cynthia), Robert Ellis (Stan), Robert Barry Fleming), Evan (Robert Barry Fleming), Nancy Lemenager (Tracey), Chris Seibert (Jessie) and Jimmie Woody (Brucie) is flawless.  Special huzzahs to Lemenager, Berenholtz and DeGannes.



It is so nice to see many Cleveland area professional performers in this production.  It adds a special touch to CLEVELAND Play House.



Capsule judgement: Theater represents the era from which it comes, and “Sweat” clearly and shockingly tells the depressing tale of what went on during the financial downturn of this country and the resulting hysteria and desperation by a group of people who felt they had been disenfranchised by big business, betrayed by their government, and sold out by their union and political leaders.  It is an important play which fulfills the educational obligation of the arts.  THIS IS AN ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE PERFORMANCE!



“Sweat at runs at CPH through November 4, 2018.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.org/
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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

“Everything is Okay” focuses the spotlight on Millennials @ Cleveland Public Theatre



American Musical Theater has transitioned from the follies and vaudeville days of the early to-mid-1900s to its Golden Era of the 1940s through 1960s, starting with “Oklahoma,” the story musical, where the book, music and dance all blended together to tell a cohesive story.  “Hair,” the “hippie” rock musical, brought major alterations to the format by showcasing the changing political and societal attitudes of the 60’s.  “Rent” transported the musical theater world into the new millennium by showcasing the emerging “younger” generation who celebrated life in the face of the AIDS crisis with the use of rock-pop music, breaking the barrier between rock music and theatre music, and show-casing the reality of the tough, gritty life that that generation was facing.

Cleveland Public Theatre is now staging “Everything is Okay (and other helpful lies).” It is a musical written by Melissa Crum and Caitlin Lewins about the Millennium generation. 

Millennials, born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, are marked by an increased use and familiarity with communications, media, and digital technologies.  They are a generation who have been taught to ask themselves, “What’s wrong with me?”  They search for “what it is to be normal.”  They are “much-maligned as entitled, self-absorbed snowflakes.”   

As the program to the musical states, “Everything is Okay” is a generation’s harmonized laugh- ‘til-we-cry plea to sit in the discomfort of the big questions, rise above them, and keep fucking going.”  “They’ve gown-up with violence, racial divide, globalization, the Right, The Left, the conflicting worlds of fascistic religiosity, and a bankrupt system of morality, gender fluidity, queer revolution, rampant teenage suicide, technology that prohibits space and time and permission for self-reflection.” 

As was the case with “Rent,” the script is generation-specific and now easily misunderstood by those who are not actively living the lives of that specific group.  The show probably won’t be appreciated by “older” generations, who might ask, “What’s with all these self-centered characters, self-indulgent songs, and morbidity?”

At intermission I turned to a twenty-something young lady sitting next to me and asked, “How are you reacting to the production.”  She indicated that it represented a lot of what she and her friends were feeling and the ways they coped with the world around them.  She referenced the misbelief in killings of Jews in Pittsburgh and the words used by the President in basically condoning what went on in the 1917 Charlottesville, Virginia White Supremacist Rally.  She said many of her friends are disheartened and full of angst.

Yes, that’s the disjointed message of ““Everything is Okay (and other helpful lies).”

Yes, the musical is disjointed, not a clear storyline like we are used to in musical comedies and dramas.  The songs don’t hook together clearly.  The script has no clear beginning, middle and end.   The motivations between songs aren’t developed.  We have no clear identification of who is who as the characters often blend into each other.   The musical sounds are often discordant, out of balance. The music jumps from style-to-style…rock, country, ballads squish together.

All of those “complaints” are what makes the show so millennial!  This is not intended to be “The Sound of Music” or “Hamilton.”  It is the story of a specific -generation in angst.

Even the titles of songs carry that up-tight, lost feeling: “No One I Love is Gonna Die Today,” “Eulogy Song,” “Hey I’m Sorta Into You,” “Alone,” “Learned a Little,” “Shitty Sad Luau Song,” “Masturbation Song,” “Shame,” ‘Slut Song,” “Falling Apart,” and “Smile Song.”  The lyrics contain bad jokes, sexual allusions, swearing, statements of frustration, morbid ideas and escapist ideas.

The cast (Melissa Crum, Madelyn Hayes, Caitlin Lewins, Joshua McElroy, Matt O’Shea and Jerry Tucker) are young and filled with determination.  They have good voices.  They execute the shallow choreography with gritty determination.  They interact with each other as friends, rather than performers, allowing the audience to be part of their “in-jokes” and stories. 

Capsule judgement: “Everything is Okay (and other helpful lies)” is not a show for everyone.  It, in fact, could be an uncomfortable sit for some.  For Millennials, and those willing to open themselves to seeing a “new” style musical, based on a specific generation’s angst, it provides an interesting experience.

Coming up at CPT: “Outside The Mirror,” the 2018 CPT/Y-Haven Theatre Project.  November 8-11.  


For tickets to any CPT show call 216-631-2727 or go on line to http://www.cptonline.org/.

“East of Eden” finds a clear direction at Ensemble


John Steinbeck is one of America’s great authors.  His realistic and imaginative writings, which contain a strong social perception, are dramatic and humorous, look at the downtrodden, and generally have everyman protagonists. 

Many of his 27 books, including “Cannery Row,” “Of Mice and Men,” and” The Grapes of Wrath,” which has sold more than 14 million copies, are considered literary epics.

His “East of Eden,” has been adapted for the stage and is now being performed at Ensemble Theatre.  

“East of Eden” harkens broadly back to the Biblical Cain and Able story.  In this case, it’s the tale of twin boys, born to Adam and Cathy Trask.  Shortly after the boys were birthed, Cathy, a former prostitute, abandons the family and returns to her old trade.  The twins are told their mother died and are brought up by the solitary and silent Adam and his Chinese houseman. 

Adam and his family move to the city, from their farm.  It’s the tumultuous time leading up to World War I, a period of speculation and adjustment. 

Adam, in an impetuous act, attempts to develop a method of refrigerating California produce to ship to the east coast where fresh lettuce, for example, is not available during winter months.  The experiment fails and he loses much of his money.

Aron, the favorite son, falls in love with Abra, a local girl, and seems destined to fulfill the dreams of his father by going to college.  Caleb, the other brother, wants to gain his father’s admiration and borrows a small amount of money, speculates on a crop of beans, and makes a small fortune.

Caleb, aware of his mother’s existence, goes to see her.  Afterwards, he offers his profits to Adam to make up for the refrigeration loss.  When the father refuses to take the money the boy, in an act of defiance, takes the naïve Aaron to see their mother.  Traumatized, Aaron, acting out of shock and panic enlists in the army. 

The refusal, act of defiance and the enlistment prove tragic for all three Trask men.

“East of Eden” is an ambitious, over 600-page novel, which has been nicely-adapted by Frank Galati into an effective stage play.  Though long, three acts, with two intermissions, there is enough action and intrigue to hold the audience’s attention.

The play is well-directed by Ian Wolfgang Hinz.  The pacing is languid, but appropriate for the subject matter.  The acting is generally of a high level.  The characters are nicely etched and develop the intent and purpose of the material.  The era-correct set works well for quick and effective scene changes.

Scott Miller sulks and is introspective, well-developing Adam.  This is a man torn by guilt, filled with self-pride, and feeling the result of rejection by his ill-selected wife.  Dana Hart is effective as Sam Hamilton, Adam’s friend.  Jill Levin is properly stoic as Cathy, the mother who has rejected her children and is most comfortable being a madam.  Both August Scarpelli (Aron) and Kyle Huff (Caleb) have some fine moments, but sometimes fail to fully texture their performances, acting rather than reacting.  Leah Smith is believable as Abra.

Capsule judgment: ”East of Eden” is a classic Steinbeck novel which has been adapted into an excellent stage play.  The production, though long, is effective and is a theater piece well-worth seeing!

“East of Eden” runs through November 11, 2018 on Friday through Sundays at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

Ensemble’s next production is “Around the World in 80 Days,” an adaptation of Jules Verne’s class adventure.  It is an interactive adaptation for the whole family.  It will be performed from November 30-December 16 in Ensemble’s Playground Theatre.