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.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Shallow script hampers “This Much at convergence continuum 



Clyde Simon, the Artistic Director of convergence continuum, often referred to as con-con, knows his potential audience well.  His tiny Tremont theatre draws a diverse group who tend to like off-beat shows, from out of the norm authors.  This is not the home of Arthur Miller, William Inge or Edward Albee.  More like the abode for Alexi Kaye Campbell, Athol Fugard and Nick Payne (authors who are having their scripts performed next year at the venue). 

Many of his patrons are gay, or are gay supporting, so Simon usually peppers his seasons with a couple of explicit homosexual scripts.  That can create a problem.  After the epic “Angels in America” and the classic “Boys in the Band” and the staples like “Jeffrey,” “Love! Valour! Compassion,” “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” “Beyond Therapy” and “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me,” the quality of scripts falls-off. This often leaves Simon scampering for material.  Sometimes he uncovers a gem, other times the scripts are, at best, adequately conceived.

A case in point is the theatre’s present production, “This Much (or An Act of Violence Towards the Institution of Marriage).”

The play is described as, “Gar can’t decide between the man who plays games and the man on one knee with a ring. In fact, Gar can’t decide on anything because every choice seems like a compromise. Everyone wants answers but nothing lives up to the image he has in his head. Facades start crumbling into a violent mess as the world implodes around him but Gar just wants to dance with his friends,” while contending “I don’t want to be a parody of a straight family.”

Sounds promising.  It could be an exploration of how we define relationships or the role of traditions on marriage.  Or, since Gar is obsessed with wearing a white wedding gown, how clothing choices affect marriage ceremonies.  Or, the difficulty of gay marriage is another possible theme.   

Unfortunately, “This Much” is not the quality of writing of such out-gay playwrights Tony Kushner or Christopher Durang who dig into the gay psyche, leaving clear and strong messages through drama and humor.

As is, the script does not probe deeply into the backgrounds, histories and motivations of characters, thus failing to give the actors the sociological background to use in developing motivations to make their characters real. 

Daryl Keley (Anthony), Maximillian Winer (Albert) and Wesley Allen (Gar) do their beginning and ending and dance with style and smooth moves, but develop characters who stay on the surface.  We don't know much about them.  Thus it is difficult to feel much empathy and care what happens to any of them.

The Liminis Theatre’s small space, with its runway configuration, places the audience within close proximity to the performers, maybe too close for the male frontal nudity and simulated sex acts, but that’s what draws some of con-cons audiences to the theatre.

Capsule Judgment: “This Much” is a rather shallow script, which gets an acceptable production at con-con, is filled with forced dialogue and contains little about the true life of gay dating and marriage, and why we should care about these particular characters.

 

“This Much” runs through November 3, 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: ”Rapture, Blister, Burn,” Gina Gionfriddo’s unflinching comedy about gender politics from November 30-December 15.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Dobama’s “John,” too much to do about nothing


Annie Baker is the author of “The Flick,” which had an award-winning production at Dobama last March (e.g., Cleveland Critics Circle and Broadwayworld.com recognitions).  That script was clever, thought-provoking and generally mesmerizing.  

Baker is noted for her ability to seek out the minutiae in the way people speak, act and relate to one another and write about “the humor, absurdity and tragedy that result from the limitations of language and our fraught search for more meaningful human connections.”

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Obie Award for Playwriting, and numerous other accolades, her works have been done by over 150 theatres.  She is one of the new breed of “it” script authors.

Anyone going to see Dobama’s production of “John,” expecting another sure fire winner like “The Flick,” is likely to be disappointed.  While last year’s show grabbed and held the attention, “John” meanders on for three long acts, two intermissions and a between acts monologue, teasing, but never bringing about the needed spark.  That is, with the exception of the monologue.

Elias and Jenny stop at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, not far from the Civil War battle sites.  It quickly becomes obvious that they are in a troubled relationship.  The duo is greeted by Mertis Katherine Graven, the owner of a period home filled with antique dolls, toys, figurines and other Victorian tchotchkes. 

It’s late at night, there is a strangeness to the house and to the seemingly airheaded hostess.  Ghost stories, cookies, unaccounted for music, the tale of a husband who may or may not be alive, bickering between Elias and Jenny, a visit from Genevieve, Mertis’ blind and elderly friend who tells the tale of John her abusive ex-husband, revealing childhood traumas, incantations, mistrust, tales of infidelity, strange cell phone interjections, and impending doom ensue.

On the surface, it sounds like a compelling tale.  Unfortunately, Baker goes on and on, for almost three hours and much of the impending doom and excitement never unfold.   

That is, except for the dialogue.  Between the second and third act, Dorothy Silver, the grand dame of Cleveland theatre, saves the night with a compelling direct speech to the audience.  

Portraying the blind Genevieve, Silver slowly feels her way out from behind the front curtain, and gropes her way to the edge of the state.  She greets us, “Hello. Hello.”  She teeters almost falling.  She continues, “Don’t go yet.  I’m going to tell you a story but I’m going to do it in under five minutes.” 

And, then Silver captivates with a tale of how she “went mad in seven stages!”  She relates how dreamt of scorpions every night for a month, heard a name over and over in her head, woke to the sensation of the bugs now in her head, knowing God was doing an experiment on her, her breasts shrinking and a penis growing between her legs, the scorpions disappearing replaced by the knowledge that tiny men were colonizing her brain, being aware of “a deep connection with the soul of every person and every object that ever existed,” and finally realizing that she was in a godless world.

She concludes, “Sometimes I just lie in bed in the morning and think about nothing. Imagine that.  Sitting in the center of your own life with no thoughts at all about what other people are thinking.  They can think whatever they like.  You can all think whatever you like about me.”

The conclusion of the speech was met with tumultuous well-deserved applause.   It’s probably the best five minutes of theatre one could experience.

Silver’s is not the only outstanding performance.  Catherine Albers is obtuse, scatter-brained and on-target as Mertis.  She orchestrates the performance, opening and closing the front curtains, fussing over the minutia, all while acting as the mysterious caretaker of the B&B.

Both Luke Werner (Elias) and Kat Shy (Jenny) talk to each other, rather than projecting loud enough for the audience to hear their words, thus many of their speeches lack clarity.   

(The late Don Bianchi, the founder of Dobama, when directing, would place himself in the furthest seat from the stage during rehearsals would scream, “I can’t hear you” when an actor failed to project.  The young actors needed Don’s admonishment!)

Cameron Caley Michalak’s scenic design and IBG Designs:  Dred Geib, have created a perfect setting.  The tones, accents and set pieces are impressively era correct.  

Capsule judgement:  In spite of several outstanding performances, Dobama’s “John” is overly long and too slowly paced.  The author misses the opportunity to develop the potential of the core concepts of the tale.  It is worth the long sit, however, to experience the astounding five-minute between acts monologue by Dorothy Silver!

 

“John” runs through, November 11, 2018 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Superb “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” @ Beck Center


Edward Albee, author of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” now in production at Beck Center for the Arts, is one of the best known Theatre of the Absurd American writers.  This form of theatre, which was at its apex shortly following World War II, is based, in part on philosophical existentialism, which asks “what is the purpose of existence?”  

Absurdist playwrights create instances in which the characters are caught in hopeless situations and repeat meaningless actions.  The stories often highlight individuals who seem to have no purpose in life and are caught where their communication breaks down. 

Albee, who was adopted at an early age, led a life of luxury, but was seemingly denied love by parents who didn’t really know how to raise a child.  They gave him the opportunity to go to the finest schools, but never bonded with him.  His background is often credited with his hostile view of society and loving relationships.

Albee’s writing career has been filled with highlights.  He received three Pulitzer Prizes for drama--“A Delicate Balance” (1967), “Seascape” (1975), and “Three Tall Women” (1994), which recently completed an award winning revival on Broadway. 

Interestingly, his “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” considered to be his greatest work, was not honored with a Pulitzer.  It was selected for the award by the drama jury, but the advisory committee, with no explanation, overruled the selection and gave no award that year.  Rumor was that Albee’s open gay life style was repugnant to the conservative board.   It is interesting that Albee, himself, states “I am not a gay writer.  I am a writer that happens to be gay.”

Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a classic example of absurdist writing.  It contains biting dialogue highlighting the dysfunctional relationship between two people who seemingly have only one purpose…the psychological destruction of each other.

The play centers on Martha and George.  He is a seemingly inept professor at the small New England college whose President is Martha’s father.  The duo has been married for many years, use alcohol to escape from their miserable existence and play word games to torture not only themselves, but anyone else who enters their chaotic home. 

One evening, after a faculty party, a young couple, Nick, a new Biology instructor, and his wife, Honey, are invited by Martha, to come over for drinks (and “games”).  Little do they know the verbal torture session that is about to take place. 

Alcohol flows freely, secrets are exposed, and the result is an emotional bloodbath.  Each horrific episode is keyed or ended with George and/or Martha’s repetition of the words, “who is afraid of Virginia Woolf” chanted to the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” from Disney’s “Three Little Pigs.”  

Written in 1962, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” has three fairly long acts.  

The first act entitled “Fun and Games,” lays the foundation for what is to come through a series of verbal, physical and emotional expository revelations.  The writing of the first act is often “hailed as some of the greatest in all of the American theatre.” 

The second act, “Walpurgisnacht,” takes its theme from the night that witches meet and Satan appears. 

In the final stanza, “The Exorcism,” takes place through the evicting of demons and other spiritual entities from a person or area through an elaborate ritual.  In this script, a ritual of verbal blood-letting.

The Beck production is superbly and sensitively directed by Donald Carrier.  The staging, the pacing, the development of uncomfortable humor, and the acting, are all well-focused.  The tension often gets nearly unbearable. 

The audience laughs and wonders why they would be expressing such a positive emotion to such terrible verbal destruction.  The ending leaves both the audience and the actors exhausted.

At the final blackout, the audience was totally quiet, in shock and fatigue.  Finally, a first person clapped.  Then the extended applause was thunderous.

Uta Hagen, who played Martha in the original Broadway production, indicated that playing the role of Martha was like having a nervous breakdown every night.  In fact, the strain was so much on the actors, that a separate cast played the matinees.

Having seen the original cast, on the first night of my honeymoon, no less, I can attest to not only the brilliance of Hagen, and her costar, Arthur Hill, but to the utter emotional high of the experience.  (My wife, on the way home from the Beck performance said, “It’s been 55 years and I still can picture every instance of that production.”)

The role of George is usually a tirade of strong emotion.     Michael Mauldin does not take that approach.  He is like a sword fighter, jabbing and thrusting to take advantage of his opponent’s weaknesses.  He is a stealth of power who puts on the role of George and never takes it off.

Derdriu Ring, one of the area’s premiere actresses, embodies the sexy boozed Martha.   She spews venom, creating a Martha to be reckoned with.  A viper whose every bite carries poison.  This is an emotionally-injured-women who takes out her angst on everyone in her presence.   

Handsome Daniel Telford is excellent as Nick, the young professor who was coerced into marriage by a “pregnant” Honey, she of wealth and beauty.
     
When Martha attempts to seduce him, in spite of his having “the physical potential,” Telford displays deep vulnerability due to his lack of ability to sexually perform.

Becca Ciamacco is appropriately emotionally and physically fragile as Honey.  She performs well the role of the hypochondriac with obvious issues.

Aaron Benson‘s well-executed unkempt living room set helps enhance the psychological messiness of George and Martha.

Capsule judgment:  Kudos to Don Carrier for his bullseye direction of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”  This is about as perfect a production as the script could receive.  If you have never seen the Albee masterpiece on stage, see it now!  You won’t have another chance to experience such a wonderfully crafted piece of theater.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” runs Friday through Sundays through November 4, 2018 in Beck’s Studio Theatre.  For tickets call 216-521-2540 or go to http://beckcenter.org/

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Less than clever “Cannibal! The Musical” raw @ Blank Canvas



As Blank Canvas’s program notes states, “Before South Park.  Before “The Book of Mormon.  There was “Cannibal! The Musical!” 

Yes, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of one of television’s cult shows and a long running musical, as college students, put their genius together and produced a three-minute trailer for a film class.  They then raised enough money and produced the full-length black comedy horror musical, “Cannibal! The Musical.” 

Originally a flop, after the success of their television and Broadway shows, the film became a cult-favorite.

Oh, if the film, turned into a stage show, was any way as clever as their later works!  As is, it is holds a slight telescope to view the “sense of humor” of the duo.

The process of developing the project was written about in the book, "Shpadoinkle: The Making of Cannibal! The Musical," which chronicles all aspects of the creation and how the film became a cult phenomenon.

The tale it tells is loosely based on a true story of a man an accused of cannibalism (thus the title). 

Alfred Packer, in “real life” led a group of five men from Bingham Canyon, Utah, through the Colorado Territory, in search of the city of Breckenridge, where gold had supposedly been found.  Only Packer survived the trip.  Supposedly, he made it by eating his fellow travelers. 

The tale tells how Packer and his trusty horse, Liane, set off on what should be a three-week journey.  The travelers include Shannon Bell, an aspiring Mormon priest; James Humphrey, who was forced by his father to go on the journey; Frank Miller, a cynical butcher; George Noon, a horny teenager hoping to meet girls; and Israel Swan, an optimist.  

Getting lost, getting more lost, meeting up with some native Americans and a group of trappers, wandering in the Rockies, getting further lost, and Packer arriving alone in the town of Saguache without the rest of his party, and his eventual arrest for cannibalism, follows.  

The show includes a series of scenes, with over-wrought dialogue, chopped together into a script with such musical numbers as “It’s A Shpadoinkle Day,” which gets an unneeded reprise, well, in fact, two reprises.  Also included are “Don’t Be Stupid,” “When I Was On Top of You,” “Let’s Build a Snowman,” (yep it gets a reprise), “Swan’s Swan Song” and the ever popular, “Hang the Bastard.”  Oh, and there’s “Packer’s Dream Ballet.”  (Honest, I couldn't make this stuff up!)

Patrick Ciamacco, the Artistic Director of Blank Canvas states, ‘’I have been wanting to direct and produce this show for some time now.”  (Oy, why?)

To his credit, Ciamacco has a wonderful sense of humor and has proven over and over his ability to take way-out material and make it at its best, hysterical, at its lowest level, palatable.  He’s successfully staged the likes of “Debbie Does Dallas,” “Psycho Beach Party,” “Hellcab,” and “Silence, the Musical.”)   He often selects scripts that no other theatre in the area would.  He loves blood splatter-zones, ear shattering music, and ridiculous farce.

The cast tried hard, the band played with enthusiasm, but, unfortunately, with “Cannibal! The Musical,” Ciamacco appears to have met his unsaveable challenge.
 
Even with all the farcical shticks, double-takes, over-blown stylized acting, blood and urine sprays, bloody bodily pieces parts, including an erect penis and bloody testicles, the show is not funny, not even gross, just stupid.

(Side note:  if you do attend, unless you want to leave covered with fake blood and urine, don’t sit in the first row yellow seats.   A couple, whether intentional or not, wore white t-shirts and jeans and left in red and yellow attire!  (It’s washable, but . . .)

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Blank Canvas pulls out all the stops in order to make “Cannibal! The Musical!” palatable, but from my stodgy old view-point, it just doesn’t succeed.  Some of the theatre’s die-hard regulars, including the guy sitting next to me who clapped and howled throughout the goings on, may be thoroughly amused, but consider this:  even the usual automatic standing ovation of CLE productions, was missing.

Cannibal the Musical!” runs through October 28, 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/

Next up at Blank Canvas is irreverent, fun filled “Avenue Q,” running from December 7-22, 2018

Monday, October 08, 2018

Beautifully crafted “Pride and Prejudice” at Great Lakes Theater


Great Lakes Theater has found a perfect combination of scripts to start its 57th season.  The fun, escapist juke box musical, “Mamma Mia!,” had the audience excitedly on its feet for the extended curtain call.  “Pride and Prejudice,” the epic     story of class-stratification and misunderstanding feelings in 19 th century England, also had the audience on its feet at the end.  This time, instead of dancing and singing, it was applause for a well-directed and performed staging. 

Jane Austin, the author of the romantic novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” is noted for her abilities to write narration, create lush locations, present ideas in the form of letters exchanged by the story’s characters, and write long complex sentences.  These all work fine in a novel, but cause major problems for anyone attempting to transform her works into plays. 

Confronted with the task of adapting one of Austin’s most famous books, Joseph Hanreddy, who also serves as director of Great Lakes Theater’s production, built on the volume’s dynamic dialogue and simplified the need for many settings and costume changes by using a minimalistic approach.  He did so masterfully.  The play flows, the tale unfolds, the use of sliding panels and period furniture placed on stage through ingenious choreography, the simple addition of hats and shawls make the costume changes effortlessly simple. 

The story centers on Elizabeth Bennet, the attractive, intelligent, out-spoken second daughter of Mr. Bennet of the Langbourn estate. 

Bennet, the father of five daughters, finds himself in the position of being a member of the “upper” class, but almost impoverished because his property is “entailed,” meaning none of the girls can inherit it. 

Five daughters with no dowries makes them undesirable pawns on the marriage market.   Having a near hysterical wife, doesn’t make matters easier.  Oh, what to do? 

The 1813 tale, as is the case with many of the author’s works, looks at “the importance of environment and upbringing in developing young people’s character and morality.”   It exposes not only the folly of the British class system, the error of making hasty judgments, the difference between superficial and essential, and the “lies in the depiction of manners, education, marriage and money in the British Regency period.”  

Elizabeth is twenty, witty and opinionated and full of unbending pride.  She meets and verbally spars with the Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, a wealthy, seemingly distant, moody and prideful man.  The two must confront their prejudices in order for their spiral into love for each other. 




Surrounding Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s love story are others who fumble, through a series of almost Oscar Wilde-like overblown humorous, ridiculous situations related to love, family squabbles, and parental and societal stumbles.

Hanreddy’s fine directing keeps the play moving along at a nice clip, stressing the story while incorporating a light and laugh-filled attitude.  What many could perceive as a dry meander through an “old time” trite tale becomes a fun-filled romp.

The cast is totally immersed in developing the balance between the almost melodramatic drama and high comedy.

It’s so nice to have Andrew May back in town doing what he does best—using his mobile face and wide range of acting skills to get laughs by overplaying roles with the right amount of farce.  He steals the show as the put-upon Mr. Bennet.



Carol Healey comes close to matching May as his angst-ridden “daughters must get married at any cost” wife, who is always one step away from hysteria.

In the lead roles, Laura Welsh Berg (Mary Bennet), and Nick Steen, (Mr. Darcy), are character perfect.  

Berg gives the role just the right amounts of disdain and sweetness, displaying the needed pride and prejudice.   Steen has the correct levels of aloofness, but allows for his kindness to peek through.  They both create characters who, by the end of the play, make the viewer happy for their bliss. 

Other standouts are Jillian Kates (Elizabeth Bennet), Courtney Hausman (Mary Bennet), Daniel Millhouse (Mr. Bingley), Eric Damon Smith (Mr. Collins) and Lynn Allison, as the over-blown, pompous Lady Catherine de Bourgh. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The adaptation of novel-to-play is finely done. The directing is inspired.  The acting is finely tuned. The technical aspects are outstanding.  This is a must-see production which shines a spotlight on Great Lakes Theater at its finest. 

Tickets for “Mamma Mia!” and “Pride and Prejudice,” which run in tandem through November 4, 2018 can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to http://www.greatlakestheater.org/

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Hello Dolly @ Connor Palace (Key Bank Broadway Series)



“It Only Takes a Moment” to know that “Hello Dolly,” Betty Buckley and the audience are having a musical theater love affair

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)


It was apparent on reviewer’s night of “Hello Dolly,” which is starting its national tour in Cleveland, that many of the audience, which was awash in red clothing, had heard of the “wear David Merrick red” to productions of this script.  David Merrick red? 

Merrick was often referred to as the “Abominable Showman.”  One of Broadway’s greatest producers, he often came up with gimmicks to get attention for his shows. 

Supposedly, Merrick replaced the front curtain of the theatre in which his “Hello Dolly” was to play with a red one of a particular rouge hue.  In addition, the lead character, Dolly, in her most spectacular scene of the show, makes an entrance coming down a staircase in the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant wearing a red gown, a dress which became the traditional costume choice for all future Dolly’s.  

There have been lots of famous women who have played Dolly including Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, Bette Middler, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Phyllis Diller, Molly Picon, Eve Arden, Ann Southern, Michelle Lee, Lanie Kazan, Tovah Feldshuh and, even Betty White, who appeared in Ohio’s Kenley Players production in the summer of 1979.  Barbara Streisand played Dolly in the film version of the show

The newest Dolly is Betty Buckley, who leads the staging in Cleveland, the starting site of the show’s newest reincarnation and the kick-off point for its national tour.



Buckley, won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Grizabelle in “Cats.”   Her rendition of “Memories” is a classic of the American Musical Theatre.  She also played Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” and appeared in “Triumph of Love,” “1776,” “Pippin,” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”  For a number of years, she starred in the ABC-TV series “Eight is Enough.”

Buckley is so perceived to be such a national draw that her name appears in the program and advertisements above the title of the show, an honor rarely bestowed upon a performer.

“Hello, Dolly!,” which has lyrics and music by Jerry Herman and a book by Michael Stewart, is based on “The Matchmaker,” a 1954 play by Thornton Wilder, a rewritten version of his 1938 play “The Merchant of Yonkers.”  The musical was first produced in 1964, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Interestingly, though most think of Carol Channing as Dolly Levi, the role was originally written for Ethel Merman, who decided not to do the part.  The role was then offered to Mary Martin, who also declined.  Eventually, Channing was hired and made the role not only hers for life, but made the show an international hit.

You’d never know it due to its amazing long-running Broadway runs, revivals, and local and international productions, but the show had rocky out-of-town tryouts.  Major changes were made to the script and score.  Even the name of the show was changed.  Originally entitled “Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman” and then,” Call on Dolly. “Merrick finally settled on "Hello, Dolly" and musical theater history followed.

The story centers on a meddlesome widow who, out of need for money, and her natural exuberance for controlling others and searching for a satisfying life, turns to matchmaker, striving to bring romance to others as well as herself.


The memorable score includes such hits as It Takes a Woman, Put on Your Sunday Clothes, Before the Parade Passes By, Elegance, and It Only Takes a Moment.  It is filled with joyous dancing and lots of audience pleasing show-stoppers notably “The Waiters’ Gallop” and the title song.


The touring production, under the direction of Jerry Zaks, who directed the recent Bette Midler Broadway version of the show, is very enjoyable, with many highs and few okays.  


The scenery, mainly colorful curtain drops, which are needed to facilitate easy moving from theatre to theatre on the tour, set the right moods.  A full-operational massive horse and carriage and a locomotive brought extended applause.


Santo Loquasto’s costumes are period correct and spectacular, adding appropriate visual stimulation to the goings on.


Warren Carlyle’s choreography is creative, often spectacular, though, at times, seemingly a little repetitious with repeated dance movements.  


From her first entrance, which was met with thunderous applause, Buckley “had” the audience.  She delighted, playing much of the show toward the viewers, and waving and teasing people close to the stage apron.  Her voice was strong, her movements appropriate for the choreography she was given.



Though at times Buckley seemed to show some signs of being tired, she went on singing and dancing.  One can only wonder what will happen during the long, arduous city-to-city trek and multiple performances a week.
Lewis J. Stadlen, as Horace Vandergelder, the focus of Dolly’s matrimonial interest, was excellent in the role.  He displayed just enough huff and puff and underbelly vulnerability.  


Nic Roleau, who recently finished a long run in “The Book of Mormon,” delighted as Cornelius Hackl, the 33-year old boyish clerk in Vandergelder’s store.  He has a lanky, free-moving, charming Tommy Tune-like image.  


Many probably saw Jess LeProtto (Barnaby Tucker) on “So You Think You Can Dance.”  He has a long theatrical resume including Broadway’s “Newsies” (in which I found him commanding many of the dance routines in the show).   He sings, dances and clowns with infectious ease.
Analisa Leaming was charming as Irene Molloy, Vandergelder’s intended, who winds up with Cornelius.   Kristen Hahn was adorable as Minnie Fay, Irene’s shop assistant.   


CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  The sold out opening night audience got what they came for:   Betty Buckley, enthusiastic dancing and singing, spectacle in the form of wonderful costumes and special effects, some laughs, and lots of wonderful music!  Not all theater is intended to tell philosophical and meaningful ideas.  Sometimes it is just nice to go and enjoy, feel warm and happy, and appreciate the joys of life! See “Hello Dolly.”

Part of the Key Bank Broadway series, “Hello Dolly” runs through October 21, 2018 in the Connor Palace, in the PlayhouseSquare complex.  Next up in the series is a newly conceived version of “Les Miserables” from October 30-November 18, 2018.

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

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