Sunday, July 24, 2016

Clevelander’s invade Canada for the Shaw Festival—2016


Walking down Queen Street, the main shopping boulevard in beautiful Niagara-on-the Lake, during the third week of July, was like being in downtown Cleveland.   Cav championship t-shirts and Indian’s garb were worn by many of the strollers.  Our Toronto friends shared that in almost every play they attended, their neighbors on one or both sides of their seats were from the Cleveland area.

Why the population shift?  According to some, they wanted to escape the hordes of “foreigners” who were invading the area lovingly called 216/440 (the local area codes) because of the Republican convention.  Others contended that “flower-wise” this was “the” time to be in “the most beautiful little city in Canada, as Niagara-on-the Lake is often called.  Some liked that this was the height of the fruit season in the area allowed them to purchase peaches, cherries, and nectarines.   Others were pleased with the offerings in Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell’s last season at The Shaw.

Several mentioned that this is an economically wise year to go north.  The U.S. dollar value is high against the Canadian currency, making the trip a bargain.  At the time I went, the exchange rate gave Americans a 30-cent advantage on each dollar (e.g., a $100 (Canadian) purchase cost around $70).

The theatre season, entitled “Curiouser and Curiouser,” intended to highlight “a great diversity of work,” including many of Maxwell’s favorite plays.



The Shaw Festival is a tribute to George Bernard Shaw, his writing contemporaries,  and contemporary plays that share Shaw’s provocative exploration of society and celebration of humanity.  


It’s a good idea to make both theatre and lodging reservations early, especially with the B&Bs on weekends. Our home away from home is the beautiful and well-placed Wellington House (http://www.wellington.house@sympatico.ca), directly across the street from The Festival Theatre, within easy walking distance of all the theatres, where the breakfasts are great and the furnishings lovely.  I also like the Two Bees B&B (1-289-868-9357).  For information on other B&Bs go to www.niagaraonthelake.com/showbedandbreakfasts


There are some wonderful restaurants.  My in-town favorites are The Grill on King Street (905-468-7222, 233 King Street) and Ginger Restaurant (905-468-3871, 390 Mary Street), with Old Winery, (2228 Niagara Stone Road/905-468-8900), a worth while very short ride.

Having just returned from the Festival, I offer these capsule judgments of some of the shows:

Engaged by W. S. Gilbert, through October 16, is a comic look at love, marriage and money.
Capsule judgement:  If you are in the mood for a Victorian romp, filled with physical and verbal slapstick and shticks, Engaged is going to be your “thing.”  Don’t expect a realistic moral, profound wisdom or thought provoking insights.  But, if you are married, you might ask yourself between laughs, “Why did I do it?”

A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde, through October 15, is a social commentary which states, “Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious.  Both are disappointed.”
Capsule judgment:  Though the script is not of the quality of some of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde’s other comedy of manners plays which satirize English upper society, such as The Importance of Being Earnest, there is enough going for this production, including the quality of the acting, nicely timed laughs, beautiful costumes, and original music, to strongly recommend it.

The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God
, adapted for the stage by Lisa Codrington from a short story by G. B. Shaw, through September 11, illuminates, “There are a lot of old men pretending to be gods in this forest.”
Capsule judgment:  The commentary labeled The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God is one of the most compelling hour productions that has ever been staged at The Shaw.  Ravi Jain’s direction and Natasha Mumba’s performance make this a must see production.  Bravo!

Mrs. Warren’s Profession, by G. B. Shaw, through October 16, offers the author’s view that “There are no secrets better kept than the secrets everybody guesses.”
Capsule judgment:   Mrs. Warren’s Profession is classic Shaw, filled with a critique on the economic system, the double standards applied to men and women, the objectification of women, the British family system, marriage, and parent-child relationships.  Unfortunately, the well-conceived script gets a less than stellar production due to some questionable directing decisions and a disappointing performance by the actress in the title role.

Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekov’s script adapted by Annie Baker from the original Russian text, through September 11, carries that author’s message that, “What still gets me is beauty.  I’m not indifferent to beauty.”
Capsule judgment:  Jackie Maxwell’s direction of Chekov’s classic tragicomedy is filled with a focused  reflection of the hopelessness, waste, boredom and suffocating world of Russia in the late 1800s.   The quality cast and technical crew set the right tone for the required realistic aspects of the script.

Alice in Wonderland
, adapted for the stage by Peter Hinton, with music by Allen Cole, and based on the book by Lewis Carroll, through October 16, follows Alice down the hole in pursuit of the white rabbit because, “I’ve never seen a rabbit with a pocket watch before … or a waist-coat pocket to take it out of, for that matter.”
Capsule judgment:   The technical aspects of The Shaw’s Alice in Wonderland are outstanding.  Compelling projections, magical costumes, dancing lobsters, a talking rabbit, an ever-smiling, bigger than life Cheshire cat, a beautiful river with a floating boat, and ever-growing/shrinking Alice, all combine to make this a must see production.   (BTW---reputation not withstanding, this is not a show for young children.)

Master Harold . . . And the Boys
, Athol Fugard’s examination of apartheid in South Africa, through September 10.
Since this show is in previews, though I saw it, I am not allowed to review it.  However, I don’t think the powers that be will be upset by my comment to a friend that I “found the production to be compelling, thought-provoking and of the highest quality.  The cast was superb, the directing spot-on.”

I did not see Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street A Musical Thriller, Our Town, or Dance of Death.

To read the complete reviews of the shows I saw, go to:  http://www.royberko.info




For theatre information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

Go to the Shaw Festival!  Find out what lovely hosts Canadians are and see some great theatre! 

Don’t forget your passport as it’s the only form of identification that will be accepted for re-entry into the U.S. and figure in time to get through customs at the U.S.-Canadian border.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Impressive Assassins @ Near West Theatre


“There’s Another National Anthem, folks. For those who never win . . . for the ones who might have been.”  A line from a Trump election advertisement?  No, its from the Stephen Sondheim, John Weidman musical, Assassins, now on stage at Near West Theatre.

Assassins seems an ideal script to choose at this time of year, as the Republican convention is in town and there is a general feeling of discomfort and mistrust sweeping the nation.  Political conflicts, racial distrust, police shootings, and left/right belief disagreements are running rampant. 

Assassins is based on a concept of Charles Gilbert, Jr..  It examines, in musical review style, men and women who have attempted to assassinate Presidents of the United States.  The musical score parallels the music popular at the time of each President.

Never noted as one of Sondheim’s great musicals, it has some interesting ideas and does contain a “signature song,” “Everybody’s Got The Right To Be Happy.” The defining song is a common element in Sondheim musicals.  Think, “Agony,” Into the Woods, “Tonight,” West Side Story, “Another Hundred People,” Company, and “Johanna,” Sweeney Todd.  They keynote a major element of the script.

The musical opened off-Broadway in 1990 and ran only 73 performances. A review stated, “Assassins will have to fire with sharper aim and fewer blanks if it is to shoot to kill.”  There have been productions in London and numerous other cities.  None of them seemed to have completely dealt with the show’s problems.

There are three different versions of the script (original, London and Broadway).   The major difference is the treatment of the song, “Something Just Broke,” which was added for the London production, but dropped from the 2004 Broadway revival.  (The Near West Side production includes this song.)  Also, in some scripts the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald are blended into a single role.  NWS has them as separate characters, alleviating some confusion as to the relationship between Oswald and the Balladeer.

Near West is a family-oriented theatre, with many of the cast members and audience tweens and teens.  It is therefore surprising that they chose to do Assassins, which contains mature content, gun use, representations of death and violence, and very strong language.  It is bold, disturbing and alarming.

But, director Bob Navis, Jr. decided to put aside the possible negatives, confront the issues of today, accept the language and subject matter of the script, and, the results is that he has staged a winner.  The interpretation, singing, stage movements, choreography and, most importantly, the quality of the acting that makes real people, not caricatures, of the assassins, is impressive.

Cameron Caley Michalak’s massive set works well.  Matthew Dolan’s musical direction has the cast singing impressively and the orchestra in good tune.  Rob Wachala has created unique and appropriate lighting that aids the tone of the staging.  Same for Josh Caraballo’s sound design.  Sarah Russell has dressed the very large cast in era correct designs.

The cast is strong, and considering they are high school and college students, they are nothing short of amazing. 

Strong performances were given by Marco Colant as Lee Harvey Oswald, Molly Walsh as Sara Jane Moore, Anna Parchem as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Leah Windahl as The Proprietor, Patrick Hanlon as Leon Czolgosz, Edward Gale as John Hinckley, Peter Bradley as Charles Guiteau, Antonio DeJesus as Giuseppe Zangara, Dylan Toth as Samuel Byck and Michel Knobloch who persevered in a long, important speech, when his microphone went out. 

The Balladeers—Clye Black, Jabri Johnson, Scott Pyle and Nick Sobotka sang and danced well, bridging the segments of the show nicely.

Though the almost two-hour intermissionless play stressed the attention and bladder span of some, the long sit was worth it!

Capsule judgement:  Near West Theatre’s Assassins is an impressive production.  The cast shows maturity well beyond their years and well develops  the concept, “Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” even if the person is delusional.  Congrats to Bob Navis, Jr., the cast and crew for weaving a fine evening of theatre.  This is a production well worth seeing!

Assassins runs at New West Theatre through July 31, 2016 at their new home, 6702 Detroit Avenue.  Valet parking is available Friday and Saturday for $6 and lot and street parking  is available.  Call 216-961-6391 or go to http://www.nearwesttheatre.org for tickets and information.   

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Harbor attempts to examine “what’s a family” at convergence continuum




What happens when a happily married gay couple’s home is invaded by one of the duo’s pot-headed, manipulating sister, with her teen daughter in-tow?  According to Chad Beguelin, the author of the play Harbor, which is now on stage at convergence-continuum, the answer is angst, frustration, revelations and a surprising, if less than expected, conclusion.

Ted, a successful architect and his younger husband Kevin, an unproductive writer who has been working on a novel for ten-years, are living a comfortable life in the upscale community of affluent Sag Harbor, New York.  The spouses appear to be in a loving and caring relationship, with Ted as the breadwinner and decision-maker and Kevin as the passive partner.

One evening, with no pre-notice, Donna, Kevin’s sister, and Lottie, her precocious daughter, appear on the doorstep, expecting to stay for “the night.”  That night stretches out to many months as Donna reveals she is pregnant, wants the “boys” to become the child’s father, and pay her for her “services” as the surrogate mother.   The goings on center on manipulation, a power struggle, discovery of self values, and a path toward the future that few would expect.

Beguelin has a background in writing light-weight musicals such as Elf and The Wedding Singer. This background seems to have imbued him with a writing style that centers on speeches that don’t sound like words a person would say in a realistic play.  His script is full of stereotypes of gays and the less affluent.

The writer goes for one line “yuks.”  Donna, who has little education, but lots of street smarts, states, “I thought the word misogynist meant someone who gives massages” and in describing the men she has dated relates, “I’ve seen so many assholes I could be a proctologist.”  That kind of “humor” may work in escapist musicals, but aren’t as effective in what is supposed to be a message show.

The 2013 off-Broadway production of Harbor received a positive reception, more for the production than for the script.  Yes, the concept is interesting, while the development somewhat weak.   For the show to have a chance of working, there must be a clear development of the characters, as was done in NY.

The con-con production, under the direction of Cory Molner, isn’t terrible, but doesn’t fare as well as its off-Broadway counterpart. 

Talented Maya Jones gives a very strong performance, portraying the 15-year old Lottie in a totally believable, well-textured manner as a bright, polite and creative young lady.

Patrick Gladish, as Ted, has some nice moments.  Especially effective is his outburst about hating children, entitled parents and double-wide strollers.  He states, in one of Beguelin’s stereotyping speeches, “One of the best benefits of being gay, aside from the really great taste in window treatments, is that kids aren’t expected to be part of the equation.”  His rant about Ted’s pampered, idle life was also effective.

Gideon-Patrick Lorete (Kevin) and Cat Kenney (Donna) unfortunately create caricatures rather than living, breathing people.  Preplanned, unnatural gestures, rolling eyes and pouts often accompany over-done speeches.

Molner needed to work to create realism, not representationalism.  He does add an interesting dimension by using ethnic-blind casting, resulting in a gay white/Asian couple, a mother with an African American daughter and an Asian/white brother/sister.

Clyde Simon’s set design works well.  Working in a bandage-sized stage, he has wrangled the multiple spaces needed to visually realize the show within the theatre’s small budget.

Yes, con-con works on a petite budget, but when a whole segment of the script raves about the birthday cake that is about to appear, and when what comes out is five cupcakes with some plastic flowers, the results, like the over-all effect of the play, is disappointing.

Capsule Judgement:  Billed as an “uproarious and moving comedy,” though the cast tries hard, this play basically misses out on both concepts.  It’s not all the director’s fault.  The script doesn’t hold up its part of the bargain, either.  Too bad…the concept is very thought provoking.

Harbor runs through July 30, 2016 at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to http://www.convergence-continuum.org

convergence-continuum’s next show is Cleveland Height’s playwright Eric Coble’s Barking Dog present the weekend of August 11-13.   It will be followed by the world premiere of Chris Johnston’s Selfies at the Clown Motel, running from August 26-September 17.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Billy Elliot sings and dances its way onto the @ Beck Center stage



The year is 1984.   Margaret Thatcher, the first woman British Prime Minister, declared war on the coal labor unions, closed 20 mines and laid off 20,000 workers in what she called “the process of bringing the British coal industry up to competitive levels.”

In County Durham, an area nestled into the middle of Great Britain’s coal mining district, workers went on strike.  A disastrous strike that lasted over a year, brought the workers and their union to its knees, forever changed the industry and made Thatcher the most hated person in some parts of the United Kingdom.

A. J. Cronin wrote the book, “The Stars Look Down” as a vision of what happened to the miners’ families and what went on within many communities, overlaid with the story of Billy Elliot, a talented tween with dance talent, who trades in his boxing gloves for ballet shoes.

A 2000 film, named after the boy, was inspired by the book, and was transformed into Billy Elliot the Musical, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall, who had written the screenplay, and music by Elton John.

The musical opened in London in 2005 and won four Olivier Awards.  The New York version won ten Tony Awards.

Billy Elliot is not a typical musical.  It requires an awareness of the background to the story.  The question facing any director is how to achieve that information.  In the case of the Beck production, the decision was made to show a news reel about Thatcher and her strike-breaking decision.  Since the opening number, “The Stars Look Down” and the second act curtain raiser, “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” and the numerous script references to the strike and its effect on the coal miners are made, the decision to show the newsreel seems to be overkill.

Once past the opening, the strike story overlays that of eleven-year old Billy who is forced, against his desires, to take boxing lessons.  One day, he is told to stay behind after his fight instruction to give the keys to the gym to Mrs. Wilkinson, who runs a ballet class. 

Through a series of incidents, Billy winds up involved in the class (“Shine”), Mrs. Wilkinson quickly ascertains that he is a talented dancer, and the groundwork for a conflict of wills between the teacher and Billy’s macho father and brother is laid. 

With all the emphasis on the strike, the clashes with the strikebreakers, and the need for the community to stick together, Billy’s continuing to dance gets overlooked. 

The reality of the strike is well-developed in the song “Solidarity,” which not only highlights the conflict, but Billy’s skills. 

Eventually, his father and brother discover Billy’s ballet participation.  In spite of the family’s objections, Mrs. Wilkinson encourages the boy to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London. 

Billy and his friend, Michael, confront the restrictive nature of their working class community and break the barriers in “Expressing Yourself,” when the boys cross-dress, dance and sing, and find their hidden selves.

Questions abound.  Will Billy get to try out for the ballet school?  If he does, will he get in?  If so, how will the family pay for his schooling?  What will be the result of the strike?

Billy Elliot, The Musical is a difficult musical to produce.  It requires two tween boys who can sing, act and dance, an entire cast who can produce the difficult North Eastern English speech sound with consistency, and the proficient singing of a score that often has difficult melodic blends.  Most important is the fact that this is a dance show, which requires many choreographic effects.

The Beck production is blessed with having Martin Céspedes as its choreographer.  Most of the stage movements, even those that aren’t danced, are stamped with Céspedes’s creativity.  Movements of chairs (showing barricades and attitudes being constructed and torn down), marching into the mines after the miners are defeated with head lamps on and then turned off one by one (symbolizing the closing of the mines until total darkness descends on the nation’s entire coal industry), the controlled chaos of the dance classes, and the individual and group ballet creations, are much of the visual basis for the show.

The production has both high and low points.  The cast is to be commended for creating both the right verbal sounds (kudos to Dialect Coach, Mathew Wright) and consistent characterizations.

Allen O’Reilly nicely textured the role of Billy’s dad, clearly illustrating the polar pulls of loyalty to the union coupled with the region’s strong macho image, and the need to show caring love for his son. 

Katherine DeBoer is spot on as Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy’s ballet teacher.

Riley Ewing gives a strong performance as Billy’s older brother.  Hester Lewellen delights as Billy’s Grandma. Brittni Shambaugh Addison sings well as Billy’s dead Mum.  Michael Hinton does an impressive ballet solo as the Older Billy.


Houston native, Seth Judice, displays a fine singing voice as Billy.  His “Electricity,” an exhausting dance and singing marathon which illuminates the tenacity of the character, is a show highlight.   His speaking accent is excellent.  He is a well-trained dancer, but sometimes broke the effectiveness of his movements by rearranging his bangs and straightening his shirt after many of his turns and leaps.  As he becomes more comfortable in the role, hopefully these distracting movements will cease. 

Vancouver, Canada resident, Maurice Kimball IV, dances well and was generally effective as Michael.  Both he and Seth needed to be more physically and vocally free and have more fun, especially in their “Expressing Yourself” segment.

The orchestra was fine, but the production would have been enhanced by a more plush sound.  The vocal solos and choral blendings were excellent.

Unfortunately, as is the case in the Mackey Theatre, the inadequate sound system often causes difficulty in clear hearing and problematic balance between the orchestra and the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  As evidenced by the many bursts of applause following dance numbers and vocal solos, in spite of some questionable conceptual and execution aspects, audiences should appreciate the production.  Praise to Martin Céspedes for his choreographic concepts.

Billy Elliot, The Musical is scheduled to run through August 14, 2016 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ring of Fire, Johnny Cash jukebox musical, delights at Porthouse

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


Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black,” was noted as a somber singer of such songs as “I Walk the Line,” “If I Were a Carpenter,” and “Ring of Fire.”  The latter was chosen as the title for Richard Maltby, Jr.’s jukebox musical, now on stage at Porthouse Theatre, which loosely centers on the trials and tribulations of Cash’s life.  While not autobiographical, per se, there is enough of the tale of the man to gain an understanding of Cash, his music, his strong belief in social causes, and his personal problems.

Cash’s deep, calm bass-baritone voice set the gold standard for the sound for other male country music icons, making him one of the most influential musicians of the 20 th century.  He sold more than 90 million records worldwide.

Ironically, though most would identify the man as a country icon, his songs and sounds encompassed not only country music but rock and roll, alternative rock, rockabilly, blues, folk, gothic and gospel.  And, though he was noted for his sincerity, he also is identified with such ditties as “A Boy Named Sue,” “Egg Suckin’ Dog, and “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart.”

Born in 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas, to Scottish and English parents, his family’s roots trace back to 11th century Scotland, where, to this day, locations such as Cash Loch (Lake) bear the family name.

Johnny was close to his older brother, Jack, who, in 1944, at the age of 15, was killed when he was pulled into a whirling saw blade at a mill where he was working.  The song, “Sweet Bye and Bye” was written in his memory.  This and other songs, such as “The Far Side Banks of Jordan” and “Why Me, Lord?” hint at the performer’s spiritual ties.

Cash served a stint in the Air Force, married young, had four daughters and divorced.   Following his service time, in 1955 he brazenly walked into the offices of Sam Phillips, the legendary owner and producer of Sun Records.  Phillips was responsible for finding and mapping the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.   Cash sang a gospel song, was told that Sun wasn’t recording gospel any longer and was supposedly sent away with the message, “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.”  Legend has it that Cash came back the next day with “Cry! Cry! Cry!,” which became a country hit parade success.

In the late 1950s the pressure of performing hit Cash and he started drinking and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates.  Those demons, in spite of several attempts at rehab, shadowed him for the rest of his life.

The addictions created a frenetic creativity, which produced the likes of “Ring of Fire,” a crossover hit that reached No. 1 on the country charts and was in the Top 20 on the pop charts.

Interestingly, though he cultivated an outlaw image, he never actually served a prison sentence.  He did, however, feel a strong compassion for prisoners, and not only performed in many prisons, he performed songs such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” illuminating the need for prison reform.

By the early 1970s Cash had established his public image as “The Man in Black.”  Why did he perform in all black, including a long black knee-length coat?  It was probably good showmanship as well as a statement of opposition.  Other country singers wore rhinestone suits and cowboy boots.  How to be different?  Wear a somber color.  It was also his identification with the poor, hungry, his tie to the prisoners and his strong anti-Vietnam War stance which caused him to state that his clothing choice was worn “in mournin’ for the lives that could have been.”

He had a long term relationship with June Carter of the famed Carter Family.  They fell in love, married and had a son.  Their duet, “Jackson,” which closes the first act of Ring of Fire, reveals the inklings that became their life story, and foreshadowed the many duets the couple would perform.

Cash passed away on September 12, 2003, at the age of 71, supposedly from complications from diabetes.

“Ring of Fire” had a short run on Broadway in 2006.  It uses songs recorded by Cash between 1955 and 2002, both those he wrote and those written by other composers. 

The Porthouse production, co-produced with the CATCO Theatre, had an extended run in Columbus before being staged locally.  Under the direction of Steven Anderson, with high quality musical direction by Travis Smith, the production is creatively staged and well sung.   Anderson won the Times Tribute Award last year for his directing of Porthouse’s Violet.

Anderson’s concept alters the Broadway production by using only 5 performers (4 males—Brian Mueller, Travis Smith, Mathew Smolko, and David Goins) and a female—Amy Fritsche) instead of the six used in the Big Apple, where three heterosexual couples--young, middle-aged and older) sang the roles.

Anderson has all of the cast become “Johnny Cash,” singing Cash, June Carter and various band members, stressing the songs rather than who sung them.  The talented ensemble plays all of the music on electric guitars, banjo, washboard, harmonicas, ukulele, bass, piano, drum, tambourine, auto harp, spoons, metal pipes and chains.  No off-stage band is used.  All of the performances are top notch!

The cast was so proficient that listing the songs they each sang so well is impossible.  The up-beat “Get Rhythm,” the weeper, “Cry, Cry, Cry,” the pretty, “I Still Miss Someone,” the humorous, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” were the less well-known tunes that deserve recognition.

Special notice should be made of last year’s Cleveland Critics Circle Best Actress in a Musical, Amy Fritsche, for her performance in Violet, who will be appearing in Best Intentions at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as in London, in August.

Terry Martin’s set centers on a conceived barn with a wall on which various instruments are hung.  Jakyung Seo’s lighting effects help develop the song moods by creating the correct  emotional illusions.  While Nathan Rosmarin’s sound design makes for clarity of hearing and nicely inserted special effects.

The intimate Porthouse thrust stage is a perfect venue for the show…it makes the action up-close and personal and allows the cast and audience to interact.  (Many of the audience, obviously Cash fans, were mouthing the words to many of the songs.)

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  If you like jukebox musicals that concentrate on a series of songs, rather than developing a clear story line, are a Johnny Cash fan, want to see and hear a wonderful cast sing and play musical instruments at a high level of proficiency, and want to be in a theatre set within the lovely grounds of Blossom Center, Ring of Fire should be on your must see list

Ring of Fire runs until July 23, 2016 at Porthouse Theatre.  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to www.porthousetheatre.com.


NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE:  FOOTLOOSE, which proves that dancing can be a fun part of life, from July 28-August 14, 2016.  Curtain times are 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Blossom open 90 minutes prior to curtain time.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Beck Center does national search for their Billy


The multi-award winning Billy Elliot The Musical tells the historically tale of a community in strife caused by a miners’ strike in County Durham, in North Eastern England, balanced against the fictional tale of a lad named Billy. 

The strike, took place in 1984-85 as part of the Margaret Thatcher-led government’s attempt to bust the coal union.  Billy is a tween who finds a love for dancing and is thrust into a competition to get into the Royal Ballet School of London.

The strikers are rough, blunt speaking, action-oriented men.  Billy does not fit into their mold of what a boy should be.  The community expects him to be a boxer, not a ballet dancer.

When artistic director Scott Spence, choreographer Martin Céspedes, and musical director Larry Goodpaster, decided to stage Billy Elliot The Musical as Beck Center’s highlight summer musical, they knew they were undertaking a major series of high hurdles.

The casting required two boys, Billy and his friend Michael, to be not only acceptable dancers, but proficient ones, youth who can do ballet, tap and modern dance.  Billy must also be an exceptional actor and singer.  The casting must also include an older Billy who has grown into a star ballet dancer and a cast who can produce the difficult North Eastern English speech sound.  And, the score for the musical, which is by Elton John, requires a large-sized pit orchestra.

Since no local boys could reach the performance levels needed for the roles of Billy and Michael, a national search was undertaken.  From the many recommendations by agents and submission of video tapes and interviews, Houston native, 12 year-old Seth Judice (Billy), and 13 year-old Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada’s Maurice Kimball (Michael) were selected.

An interview with Seth and his mother (Robin) revealed that the youngster started dance lessons at the ripe-old age of 17-months.  His mother, who teaches dance, and his aunt, who is also a dance instructor and runs a performance studio, were his first teachers. 

Seth stated, “I really liked dancing.  I don’t like sports, don’t like to get dirty.  Dancing was the cleanest thing I could do!” 

He not only wanted to do it, but showed early high levels of proficiency, winning Houston’s Petite Mr. Star Quest, a performance competition.  He followed that by winning the Junior level competition.  (To view his performances go to You Tube and search for:  Fabulous Feet - Seth Judice - Petite Mr. StarQuest, Select Top Score Petite Solo - Houston, TX 2012 and Wanna Be Like You - Seth Judice - Junior Mr. StarQuest - Houston, TX 2014).

Because of his performance and lesson schedules, being the subject of bullying, and having Irlen Syndrome, a perceptual disorder which centers on the brain’s ability to process visual information (some may think of it as dyslexia), Seth is home schooled by his mother.  He reads with special glasses, but generally he learns his lines by oral drill with his mother reading him his lines.  Fortunately, his high functioning intelligence allows him to quickly grasp both the lines and dance routines.

Does this dynamic young man miss not being a “regular” kid due to his time-consuming regime of ballet, tap, contemporary dance, acrobatics and tumbling lessons and not being in the social environment of a traditional school?  “No,” states Seth, “doing theatre makes me realize how much I don’t want to be a regular kid.”  He does have cyber friends and has social contacts with dance and theater acquaintances.  Fortunately, the parents of the only child agree with his assessment.

He recognizes the financial commitment his parents have made for him, as well as the time his mother and father spend to support his dreams.  (His mother accompanied him to Cleveland, transports him and is present at all rehearsals.)

Seth was in a Memphis production of Billy Elliot, playing the part of Michael.  He was also in the national tour of A Christmas Story, The Musical, portraying Grover Dill, bully Skut Farkas’s side-kick. 

Eddie Rabon, a bi-coastal agent with Take 3 Talent’s Theatrical Department signed Seth as his client based on a showcase in which the youngster appeared.

Seth, who is not yet a member of Equity, said he is “having a lot of fun” working at Beck.  He was especially enamored with going onto the set for the first time.  The downsides?  “Not many, other than I’m on stage almost the entire time so it’s difficult to be able to drink water and stay hydrated.”

He strongly identifies with the “Billy” of the play, as “we both really want what we do and do what we want.  My philosophy is, if we want to do it, we will do it!”

In Cleveland, where he is living in a house provided by Beck for the duration of the Billy Elliot run, which he shares with his mother, he “goes to rehearsals, works out, does ballet, plays video games, and sleeps.”  He indicated that after the show opens, he’ll have time to explore the city.  He is especially looking forward to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with his father, when his dad comes to town to see the show.  He also has been with Maurice a lot, and has gone to the movies with him.

Though he’s not into sports, he did get caught up in the Cavalier’s championship excitement, “thanks to members of the cast.”

And how does his mother, Robin, view her son’s quest for stardom?  As a dance instructor who performed professionally and was a Houston Texan cheerleader, she understands Seth’s drive, and is happy that she and her husband can support him. 

What advice would she give the parents of other kids who see “entertainment stars in their  eyes?” She sensitively stated, “Let them pursue their dreams.  Let them do it.  Do what you can to help them grow, as people and performers.  Give them the necessary tools.” 

You can see Seth, Maurice and the rest of the Billy Elliot The Musical cast from July 7 through August 14 at Beck Center.  For tickets call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org

Monday, June 20, 2016

Sister Act delights as the opening show of the 2016 Porthouse season


What happens when a new musical opens at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse in California and becomes the highest grossing show ever at that venue? Obviously, it is grabbed up by a Broadway producer who opens it on the Great White Way.  Right?  Wrong!

The tale of the success of the musical, Sister Act, has a strange path from California to Broadway.  After the Pasadena success in 2006, the show played in Atlanta.  Then, in 2009, it went across the pond and opened in London to mixed reviews, including one which, with British subtleness, referred to it as “a brainless show.”

After a sidetrack in Hamburg, yes, Germany, Sister Act finally opened on Broadway in 2011.   It was a newly revised adaptation, which included a slightly different song list than the Brit or Pasadena versions. 

Strongly praising the tunes of songwriter Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, which has the harkenings of Motown with a blend of soul and funk, and a little disco thrown in, the show was praised for its ability to “switch up the mood and tempo.” 

The results?  Five Tony nominations, a successful run, and a much praised North American Tour, which graced the State Theatre stage in March of 2013.   Now the script has been released for local productions.  Its regional premiere is gracing the Porthouse stage.

The musical is based on the 1992 comedy film of the same name, which starred Whoopi Goldberg, who, interestingly enough, was the producer of the Broadway production.  

The musical, like the movie, concerns Deloris Van Cartier, a street-smart African American singer “wanna be,” who sees Curtis, her boyfriend shoot a man.  She goes to the police and reunites with Sgt. “Sweaty Eddie,” who had a crush on her when they were in high school.  Fearing for her life he places Deloris in protective custody in a broke, soon to be closed church/convent. 

The Mother Superior (perfectly portrayed by Tracee Patterson), comes from the mold of nuns of old.  Yes, those fearsome enforcers of strict rules, who wielded punishing yardsticks, and gave lesser human beings the evil eye.  The purveyors of such wisdom as “don’t wear patent leather shoes because they reflect up,” “don’t go on a date to a restaurant with white tablecloths because it will remind the boy of bed sheets,” “red clothing incites passion,” and “don’t wear makeup as it entices the devil.” 

When Deloris arrives at the mother house, she and Mother Superior are immediately placed in a battle of wills. 

Of course, Deloris stirs up the cloistered place, makes the quiet nuns into singing rebels, saves the convent,  becomes wimple-buddies with the Mother Superior, and wins Eddie in the process. 

Songs such as “It’s Good to Be a Nun,” “When I Find My Baby,” “Raise Your Voice,” and “Take Me to Heaven,” while not classics, are good Broadway fare. The cast can really sing well.  The choreography is fun. 

Though she could have “copped” a little more attitude, Colleen Longshaw is “Fabulous, Baby!” as Deloris.  Tyrell Reggins wails as Eddie, displaying a strong singing voice and a charming attitude, especially in “I Could Be That Guy.”

There are some nice characterizations, including Katelyn Langwith as Sister Mary Robert, a young novice who isn’t yet “sold on the program” who is influenced by Deloris.  Langwith’s presentation of “The Life I Never Led” is a tender probe into what happens when life limits your options.

Hannah Quinn is delightful as the uninhibited Sister Mary Patrick.  Terri Kent, yes, the Artistic Director of Porthouse, is amusing and has a great time as the straight-laced Sister Mary Lazarus.  Bernadette Hisey is a hoot as Sister Mary Martin-of–Tours, the totally “out of it” member of the sisterhood.  Rohn Tomas does a nice turn as Monsignor O’Hara.

Of course, as in any good escapist musical, there have to be showstoppers.  Sister Act is full of them.  “Sunday Morning Fever,” “Raise Your Voice,” “Fabulous Baby,” and the title song, “Sister Act” all get the audience excited.

Yes, there are flaws.  The gangsters aren’t “gangsta” enough.   The plot is full of plausible holes.  But, in the end, the show is fun, it’s a perfect choice for summer entertainment in the lovely Porthouse Theatre, on the grounds of the magnificent Blossom Center.

The supporting cast is all excellent.  Many play multiple roles with ease.

Jennifer Korecki has her musicians in good tune and support rather than drown out the performers.

The technical aspects of the show, including the abundance of costumes, are all done well.

Oh, be aware that due to a wonderful fund-raising effort by Terri Kent, the entire washroom building has been redone.  Yes, ladies…no long standing in a long line at intermission! 

Well, almost wonderful fund-raising effort.  There is still a need for  more funds.  Besides dropping in donations when the “altar-boys” come around during one of the show’s “church services,” donations can be sent on line at GiveToKent.org (designate the gift to “Porthouse Theatre 50th Anniversary Fund 18802” or send a check to College of the Arts, Attn:  Pam Hutson, P.O. Box 5190, Taylor Hall, Kent, OH 44242.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Sister Act is a perfect slice of summer entertainment placed in a lovely get-away setting!  Director Eric van Baars has put together a smooth running production which gets all the necessary laughs, develops the story line as well as one can with something as fluffy as he has been given, and paces the show so that it moves smoothly along.  See it!


Sister Act  runs until July 2, 2016 at Porthouse Theatre.  For reasonably priced tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to www.porthousetheatre.com.

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE: RING OF FIRE, in which music legend Johnny Cash comes to life, from July 7-23, 2016 and FOOTLOOSE, which proves that dancing is a fun part of life, from July 28-August 14, 2016.  Curtain times are 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Blossom open 90 minutes prior to curtain time.

Reimagined Phantom of the Opera impressive at the State Theatre, but . .


It’s been seen by over 140-million people in 30 countries and 151 cities.  It’s been translated into 14 languages.  It’s Broadway’s longest running show. What is it?   Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, which is now on stage at the State Theatre, in a reimagined form. 

The present touring version has a new set, staging, choreography and costumes.   There are new special effects, including computer generated graphics, fire bolts (much like the scoreboard at The Q for Cavs games).   Even some of the characterizations and the emotional level have been altered.

Be assured, however, that in spite of the changes, the well-known story line and the sumptuous music remain intact.

The tale takes place in the Paris Opera House more than a century ago, centering on a  disfigured musical genius who is obsessed with a talented member of the chorus, who he trains to be the leading lady in his new musical, with dire consequences.

And, yes, the sounds of “Think of Me,” “Angel of Music,” “The Music of the Night,” “All I Ask of You,” and ”Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” fill every nook and cranny of the theatre.

The changes have resulted in a staging which appears smaller and less impressive. This, in spite of the cast and orchestra of 52, making it one of the largest productions now on tour.

Though still opulent, this Phantom doesn’t appear to be as “grande” as the original.   The always anticipated chandelier crashing to the stage has been replaced by an unspectacular vertical drop of the large fixture straight down above the heads of the audience seated in the first ten or so rows.  There were sound pops and lighting sparks, but the effect was disappointing, thus no screams of terror or ducking from the people seated in the expensive seats. 

Some will consider the elimination of the crashing chandelier parallel to doing Miss Saigon without the requisite helicopter, Wish You Were Here minus the real swimming pool or American Psycho without a blood splatter zone.

Director Laurence Connor has decided to go with a youthful Phantom, more realism, some less exaggerated characterizations of some roles, and a large cylinder on a turntable placed stage center, which makes for smooth transitions, and enhances the journey of Christine and the Phantom into the bowels of the Paris opera house, but takes away some of the eerie darkness of the original set. 

In other words, the menace of the Phantom is watered down.   This may well have been Connor’s intent as his version places more stress on the intimacy of Christine and Raoul, which adds to the conflict of the romantic triangle.   This version also  stresses the romantic realism of the story, down-pedaling some of the spectacle and melodrama.  

One can only wonder if this less grandiose, reserved, story-line clearer version had been the original, would the show have achieved its level of greatness?   My guess…probably not.

As for this cast, Chris Mann, best known for being a finalist on NBC-TV’s “The Voice,” has a fine Billboard voice.  It does not translate into the powerful Broadway sound needed for The Phantom.  Nor does he have the physical and emotional power to transform a mere human into a maniacally obsessed, bigger-than-life menace.   He definitely is not in the same class as Michael Crawford (the original Broadway Phantom), Mark Jacoby, or Thomas James O’Leary, who also performed the role.  (The part, in this touring edition, is exchanged between four actors, so attendees may see a different Phantom then was on stage opening night.)

Katie Travis has the looks and voice for Christine, but she, like Mann, doesn’t exude the necessary hyper-emotional level.  Hers is a good, but not great interpretation of the role.  (Three actresses trade off the part.)

There are local connections between the cast and this area.  Price Waldman (Monsieur André) was an Oberlin attendee,  Stephen Mitchell Brown (Jeweler) won a Cleveland Critics Circle Best Actor award for his portrayal of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, and Kathryn McCreary (Wild Woman) is a College of Wooster and Ohio State grad.

Cleveland native and Baldwin Wallace University Musical Theatre grad, Trista Moldovan, won raves for her portrayal of Christine on Broadway several years ago. 

The orchestra was full and lush, as befits the score, but sometimes, the lack of sound balance caused lyrics and words to be drowned out.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Phantom of the Opera newbies will undoubtedly be wowed by the reconfigured production.  Those who have seen the Broadway, or one of the early touring company editions, may be less impressed. 


Tickets for The Phantom of the Opera, which runs through July 10, 2016 at the State Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

2016 Blossom Music Festival is a potpourri of treats!



What do the “1812 Overture,” “An American In Paris,” Pinchas Zukerman, and viewing of film Raiders Of The Lost Ark and playing it’s score all have in common?  They are all part of the 2016 Blossom Music Festival.

Yes, there is something for everyone, no matter your musical tastes, in the July 4-September 4, 2016 season at the beautiful Blossom Music Center.  Sit in the pavilion or lounge on the lawn, but take advantage of northern Ohio music under the stars.

In an interview with Ilya Gidalevich, the Cleveland Orchestra’s assistant artistic administrator, who was hired in January to aid Franz Welser-Möst in the conception and execution of programs at Severance Hall and Blossom Music Center, he revealed that the organization followed the “same programming philosophy of earlier seasons centering on the knowledge that audiences at Blossom were of different age groups and backgrounds than at Severance.”  Therefore, “effort was made to bring in new names as well as those with whom the orchestra has a relationship that would appeal to the Blossom audience demographics.”

The selection of programs are a collaborative process where the history and reputations of the guest artists, the orchestra’s background, the conductors, various selections, and the musicians are considered.    The objective is to “find what will cast the best possible light and make for success.”

Gidalevich, indicated that, “all of the artists are at the top of their field.”  He added, “if you think Broadway, you think Michael Feinstein,” who had a strong performance last year at Blossom.  This year, he will be appearing with the orchestra, itself.  (“Michael Feinstein’s Broadway,” Sunday, July 31 @ 7 p.m.)






 



Celebrated and award winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma “brings together musicians from all over the world with the thread of the Silk Road.”  (“Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma ,” Saturday, August 13 @ 8 p.m.)

Randy Jackson, best known as the front man for the band, Zebra, will sing selections from the Led Zeppelin repertoire accompanied by the Blossom Festival Orchestra.  (“The Music of Led Zeppelin: A Rock Symphony,” Saturday,
August 20 @ 8 p.m.)

Other highlights of the 2016 Blossom Season include: 
•”1812 Overture,” Saturday July 2 @ 8 p.m. and Sunday July 3, 8 p.m., with fireworks.
•”Beethoven’s Heroic Symphony,” Saturday, July 9 @ 8 p.m., conducted by Welser-Möst, with fireworks.
•”Thibaudet Plays Grieg,” Saturday, July 23, 8 p.m., Jean-Yves Thibaudet plays piano, Jahja Ling, conducts.
•”Magic of the Movies,” Sunday, July 24, 7 p.m., Blossom Festival Chorus, Capathia Jenkins, vocalist, Michael Krajewski, conductor.
•Pinchas Zukerman plays Mozart,” Saturday, July 30 @ 7 p.m.




•Zukerman, violin, and The Cleveland Orchestra, with the Kent/Blossom Chamber Orchestra performing a side-by-side performance of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”), Hans Graf, conductor.
•Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Plays Bach (Brandenburg Concertos #3, 5, 6 & 2), Saturday, August 27, 8 p.m., (Blossom Music Festival debut).

For a complete schedule, times and dates, go to clevelandorchestra.com.

Tickets:  Individual pavilion and lawn tickets, starting at $24, are now on sale by telephone (216-231-1111), in person at the Severance Hall ticket office or online at clevelandorchestra.com.

“Under 18’s Free” offers free tickets to those 17 and under.  Over 90,000 youth have attended Blossom concerts under the support of the Maltz family Foundation.

See you under the stars at Blossom!  Come early, bring a picnic, enjoy the beauty of the grounds.   

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Must see LINES IN THE DUST, a play about Apartheid Schools in U.S. is riveting, edifying and upsetting @ CPT






What will a parent do to insure that her child gets a quality education? 

In 2011, Kelly Williams-Bolar served a 10-day jail sentence for illegally sending her children to a suburban school outside of her Akron, Ohio district.  The sentence disqualified Williams-Bolar from getting her accreditation as a teacher.  A storm of protests, both pro and con, quickly followed the sentence and a later pardon by the governor.

Why did Williams-Bolar feel compelled to get her child out of the ill-performing Akron schools?

As director Beth Woods, whose production of Nikkole Salter’s edifying and upsetting Lines in the Dust is now running at Cleveland Public Theatre, states in her program notes, “Our education system is broken and an entire generation of children has suffered for it.”  These students attend Apartheid Schools, “institutions where 99% of the attendees are black or Latino.” “Schools where courses such as Algebra II and chemistry aren’t offered.”  Schools where, even if Advanced Placement (AP) classes are presented, most students can’t pass the national tests, so they receive no credit for their class work.   Schools where “fewer than 60% of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements.”

Wait, this is 2016.  Over 60-years ago, the Supreme Court in Brown V. Board of Education, desegregate the schools.  But either by neighborhood design, attendance zones, controlled choice programs, poverty patterns, or municipal decree, segregated schools still exist.   Cleveland Schools several weeks ago, yes, that’s weeks ago, by court decree, integrated its schools.  Cleveland, Tennessee, that is.

But Cleveland, Ohio and such other metropolitan areas as Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, New York and St. Louis also have mainly Apartheid Schools.  The results?  In Cleveland (Ohio), which remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation, “66% of adults are functionally illiterate (read at or below a 4th grade level).  In some neighborhoods the rate is 95%.

Nikkole Salter is on a campaign to educate all of us, not only of the existence, but the financial cost and waste of human potential caused by Apartheid Schools. 

She also places a spotlight on people like Michael DiMaggio, one of the lead characters in Lines in the Dust, who believes, as do many Donald Trump followers, that “we need to return to the good old days and make America what it was.”  An America dominated by the thinking of Nationalists, who want “America for the Americans,” meaning the white, English speaking population, where women and other minorities know “their place.”   

Salter’s fictional play, with factual interludes, starts as we meet Beverly Long, the African American acting-Principal of the upper-class Essex County, Millburn, New Jersey schools, where houses each sell for around one-million dollars.  She is attending an open house of a home for sale in the community, where she meets Denitra Morgan, also African American.  The two talk about the community, their employment, and what their expectations are for their teen-aged children.

Long is unaware that Denitra is not a lawyer as she claims, does not live in the community, and is scouting out an address to use so that she can district-jump her daughter from the ill-performing inner city school to Millburn. 

What follows is a compelling exposé of the politics and operation of the educational system, the opportunity gaps between the “haves” and the “have nots,” the attitudes of people like Mr. DiMaggio, a member of a group who wants to keep their community as is, making sure that blacks, Jews and other “outsiders” don’t’ take away what the “good people of Millburn” have. 

Salter writes well.  The dialogue is compelling, the ideas crystal clear, the characters well etched.  It’s obvious why her 6 full-length plays have been produced on 3 continents and have received numerous awards.

The Cleveland Public Theatre’s production, under the focused direction of Beth Woods, grabs and holds attention.  The pacing is pitch perfect.  The acting is excellent, the author’s intent and purpose crystal clear.  

Nicole Sumlin gives a stellar performance as Denitra, a mother who wants only the best for her daughter, and is willing to do everything, including giving up custody of her child, in order to get her a prime education.  Bravo!

Kimberly Sias gives a” humanness” to Principal Long, which makes the production even more frustrating as we watch someone who has nothing but the best of intentions attempt to do an end-run around reality.

Skip Corris inhabits the body of Michael DiMaggio.  He is so effective that several “boos” were heard from the audience during the curtain call due to the hateful attitudes of the character. 

The chain link fence that surrounds Douglas Puskas’s set, is truly emblematic of the situation in which many people in this country find themselves able to see into what can be, but living a “can’t be part of that” existence. 

Daniel McNamara’s musical compositions and sound effects help set the proper moods.

Capsule judgement:  If you only see one play this year, it should be Lines in the Dust.  Because of its well-crafted writing that clearly develops Nikkole Salter’s fervent thoughts and feelings about Apartheid Schools and the people who make them happen, the play is often excruciating to watch.  The truth is painful!  The frustration of a problem with no seeming solution, and the possibility of a country operating on a Nationalistic philosophy, become truly scary!   As said, if you only see one play this year, it should be Lines in the Dust.


Lines in the Dust runs @ 7 p.m., Thurs/Fri/Sat/Mon in the newly refurbished James Levin Theatre, through June 18, 2016 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit, just east of W. 65th Street.  Free parking is available within a two-minute walk from the theatre.   For tickets and information call 216-631-2727 or go to www.cptonline.org

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Cain Park’s anti-pollution The Toxic Avenger will delight many!


There seems to be a trend in the choices theaters are making regarding musicals they produce.  Maybe it’s a desire to attract younger audiences, or it’s the popularity of comic book heroes as the subject of television shows and movies, but like it or not, the age of “unusual” protagonists is here.

Broadway has a serial killer in AMERICAN PSYCHO, Beck is running THE HEATHERS, about mean girls, Cleveland Play House showcased LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and a human-eating plant, and Blank Canvas staged THE WILD PARTY, which was filled with drugs, “offing” people, and rock and roll.  All contained murderers, weirdos and/or perverts.  Ah, for the likes of OKLAHOMA and FINIAN’S RAINBOW.  Even the gun toting female in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN would do.

Now Cain Park, that leafy little oasis in the middle of Cleveland Heights, has transformed the stage of  its intimate Alma Theatre into a New Jersey toxic waste dump and is staging THE TOXIC AVENGER.

Yes, THE TOXIC AVENGER, a rock musical based on Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman’s 1984 cult-film about the attempt of a sweet young man to clean up a New Jersey town, with death-filled results.

The musical, written by Joe DiPietro (who was born in Teaneck, New Jersey and was responsible for MEMPHIS, ALL SHOOK UP and I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE), with music by David Bryan, and lyrics by the same duo, contains songs with titles such as, “Get the Geek,” “Kick Your Ass,” “Thank God She’s Blind” and the ever popular, “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore.”  Really!  (Could I make this up?)

Before the conclusion is reached that THE TOXIC AVENGER is a definite “do not see,” be aware that it’s impossible for anyone with a sense of humor, who likes outrageous slapstick, cross-dressing, soft rock music, and an affinity for the bizarre, not to enjoy themselves.  (The young lady sitting next to me at opening night, mid first-act, leaned over and whispered to her equally hard giggling friend, “I just wet my pants from laughing.”

So, what’s all the fun about? 

Once upon a time in Tromaville, New Jersey, there was a corrupt Mayor-lady (who resembles Governor Chris Christy in many ways and has a Donald Trump hair-do), who with her henchmen (bullies, mobsters and crooked politicians) controlled the city and used it as their personal piggybank, caring little for the environment or the population. 

In the same town was Melvin Ferd, the third, a geeky aspiring scientist, who loves Sarah, the blind librarian.  Melvin wants to clean up the town’s toxic waste dump and also dump the mayor.  For his troubles he is thrown into a vat of sludge and comes out a hulking green monster named “Toxie.”  Toxie becomes a superhero to many as he fights city hall and sleazy politicians and businessmen whose greed have made the correctly named Tromaville unfit for human inhabitation.   

In the process, the hysteria is flamed by the blind librarian tripping over every pebble and crack, an old lady being stuffed into a washing machine, lots of men dressed in drag who sing and dance, as both good and bad guys.  Also on stage is Oprah doing her interviewing “thang”, animal puppets, men with “acne on their soul,” a battle of hairspray cans, a singing and dancing nun, hairdos from hell, and, of course, Toxie, running wild.  The political-infused ending is timing-perfect during this election year.

Add a wailing, but subtle rock score, several nice ballads, fun attempts at coordinated dancing, extended farce, and lots of slapstick, and you have THE TOXIC AVENGER.

The cast is outstanding.  BW musical theatre grad Ellis C. Dawson III is Toxie-right!   He is a hero’s hero, complete with green warts, a dangling right eye, glued on muscles, a charming personality and a nice voice.  His “Kiss Your Ass” and “I Promise” were nicely presented.

Natalie Green is wonderful as the cute and well-meaning blind Sarah.  Her duet, “Hot Toxic Love,” sung with Dawson III,  is delightful. 

Zaftig, big-voiced Kate Leigh Michalski does triple duty as the big-haired Mayor, Toxie’s mother and the singing Nun.  At one point she appears simultaneously as both the Mayor and the mom, with hysterical results.  (The wig designer, who gets no credit in the program, outdid her/himself on that visual allusion.)

Malik Akil, another BW musical theatre grad, has impressive stage presence and a good sense of comic timing, whether he was playing a black dude or in drag.  Trey Gilpin was Akil’s match in “Get the Chick.” 

Mariah Burks and Codie Higer were also excellent in multi-roles.

Jordan Cooper and his band rocked it right and wisely didn’t drown out the singers.

P. J. Toomey’s special effects, which it can be assumed included the makeup that transformed Melvin to Toxie, was impressive.

Though the set changes were a little cumbersome, the off-time was filled with clever actions and lighting effects.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Under Nathan Motta’s creative direction, and a cast of talented and uninhibited performers, THE TOXIC AVENGER is a total hoot!  If you are in the mood for an evening of extended farce and ridiculousness, this is a must see. 

The show runs through  June 26, 2016 in the Alma Theatre in Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park.   For tickets call 216-371-3000 or go to http://www.cainpark.com/

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Heathers the musical@ Beck Center…rockin’ music, teen-aged angst and great choreography!


A teenaged girl snarls at another, “I know who I’m sitting with at lunch, do you?”  Yes, high school can be a time of great angst or hellish glee.  Depends on which clique you are in!  Jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, drama-kids, brains…what was your place in the high school hierarchy?

Veronica, seventeen-year-old teenage misfit at Westerburg [Ohio] High School, yearns to be a Heather, the in-group!  The Heathers...head cheerleader Heather McNamara, the sullen Heather Duke and the “bitch Queen,” Heather Chandler. Yes, the Heathers….3 blond bombshells who run the high school for their own enjoyment.  Harassment, bullying and degrading, allowed.

Veronica hangs with over-weight, nice kid, Martha Dunstock, better known as Martha Dumptruck, until one “glorious day.  That day Veronica’s talents as a forger are discovered and the creation of hall passes  and absence excuses flow forth and detentions disappear.  Through forgery, Veronica becomes a Heather. 

Will Veronica now become miss popular?  Will she, after achieving her goal, turn on Martha?  Will she fall for J.D., new school bad boy and become, like him, a psychopathic killer?   Will idiot jocks Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelly be knocked from their stud pedestals?  Will J.D. satisfy the longings for revenge of every high school outsider who was the victim of character assassination and bullying by the likes of the Heathers?  Will the audience cheer when they vicariously get their settling of scores?

Yes, high school can be hell, and Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, conceivers of Heathers the musical, now in production at Beck Center for the Arts, have found the key to a fun, but often sadistic way of making bullying into a means of entertainment.

Heathers has a bizarre history.  A Daniel Waters-written, non-musical version was filmed in 1988 and became a cult hit.  It made instant celbs of Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannen Doherty.  Though not a critical hit, the film was named one of the “Best High School Movies” and Ranked #412 on the list of “The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.”

The musical’s start came on September 13, 2010, via a concert/reading in a pub.  The script languished until 2013 when it showed for a limited engagement at Hudson Backstage Theatre in Los Angeles.  And then it hit the big time when, in February, 2014, it opened off-Broadway for a moderate run.  Since then, the script has become a favorite of community theatres looking for a device to attract younger audiences.

Beck’s production, under the direction of Scott Spencer, which is being staged in the intimate Studio Theatre, fills the space with rock sound, great singing and good acting.  The star of the show, however, is Martin Céspedes’ choreography. 

One dynamic dance routine after another explodes.  The opening “Beautiful” sets the mood and is followed by such other showstoppers as “Blue” and “Shine a Light.”  This is Céspedes at his finest and it makes the production a special event.

Madeline Krucek, gives just the right tone to kind, Veronica, who has a strong sense of right and wrong, even if she gets waylaid for a while by bad boy JD (Shane Lonergan).  She has a fine singing voice and nice stage presence.  Her duets “Dead Girl Walking” and “Seventeen,” sung with Lonergan, are compelling.

Logan, dressed in the appropriate “Columbine” black trench coat, doesn’t look like a deadly psychopath (do they ever?), but he portrays killer to the core.  His well sung “Freeze Your Brain” gives a clue into what is going to come.  

Kayla Heichel was born a “high school mean girl!”  This lass portrays evil, power and control with ease as the hateful H. Chandler, leader of the Heathers.  She is well backed up by the other “Heathers,” (McNamara) Amy Kohmescher and (Duke) Tia Karaplis.    They all have strong singing voices and their solos are well done.

Molly Millsaps creates a Martha (Dumptruck), she of beautiful soul, with charm and pathos, in spite of teasing and rejection.  Her version of “Kindergarten Boyfriend” is a wonderful ballad which gets a lovely rendition.

Riley Ewing (Ram Sweeney) and Jonathan Walker White (Kurt Kelly) are right out of the playbook…walking six-packs with no brains and lots of unbridled testosterone.  The duo can actually dance, sing and act.

Matthew Wright (Ram’s Dad) and Paul Floriano (Kurt’s Dad) almost steal the show with their rendition of “My Dead Gay Son.” 

Multi-award winning Trad A. Burns shows his usual creativity in designing a visually and functionally perfect mock-locker filled set.  His lighting design, along with Aimee Kluiber’s costumes, helps in creating the right illusions.

Musical Director Larry Goodpaster and his band do a great job of hitting all the right notes and supporting instead of drowning out the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Heathers the musical continues the Beck trend of staging dynamic, small, cult appealing shows (e.g., Evil Dead, Reefer Madness, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) in its Studio Theatre.  With dynamic choreography, a well-played rock-infused-with-ballads score, and enough blood, gore and simulated sex to grab and hold an audience, Heathers should be awarded with a sold out run! 

Heathers the musical
is scheduled to run through July 2, 2016 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org 


Next at Beck: The regional premiere of Billy Elliot the musical with music by Elton John from July 8 through August 14, 2016.

Monday, May 30, 2016

New theatre, Playwrights Local 4181, to produce local writers’ scripts


The Cleveland-Akron area has many, many theatres.   They each fulfill a missions 

Dobama states its purpose is “to premiere the best contemporary plays by established and emerging playwrights in professional productions of the highest quality.”  The Tony Award winning Cleveland Play House, the first professional regional theatre, states its goal is “to inspire, stimulate and entertain diverse audiences in Northeast Ohio by producing plays and theatre education of the highest professional standards.”  Ensemble’s function is “producing American classics.”

David Todd, Artistic Director of Playwrights Local 4181, recognizes that some theatres have writer’s units which work on the development of new plays, and, on occasion, stage or do staged-readings of original play scripts.  He, however, states, “no local organization is dedicated to solely producing new scripts.” 

Todd and his supporting group present themselves as “a playwrights’ center,” which means they will “develop  plays (and playwrights), produce plays, and otherwise provide our dramatists with a long-needed home.”  They also intend to “offer classes, host projects in the community, and arrange special events.”  They intend to “provide a style of playwright-driven theater” similar to those “found in New York and Chicago.”

The theatre’s battle cry seems to be, “all-new, all-locally created work.”

Those unfamiliar with how a play gets on stage should be aware that the starting point is usually a script.  It may be the sole creation of a writer or writers, inspired by an idea, an incident or some source such as a book or poem or even a work of art that has inspired the writing of a script with the intention of getting it presented on a stage. 

On the other hand, a writer may be hired by someone, usually a producer, who engages the writer to create a script. 

In some instances an organization may encourage or employ someone to produce a document which places the spotlight on the organization’s purpose or some cause they wish to place in the public’s attention.

Once the script is written, it is common to have others read and comment upon the material.  Sometimes an expert, a dramaturge, is hired to work with the writer on developing the project.  Often, in order for the playwright to hear what the script sounds like, a group of actors read the material aloud and breath life into the characters.   The writer may find that the script holds up well or, that it needs rewriting. 

Often, the next stage in the production process is to have a staged reading where actors, usually using scripts and podiums prepare an oral presentation, usually under the guidance of a director.  That reading is usually done before an audience.  A discussion often follows which allows for additional evaluation of the material.  The play may also receive a staging.  This process may be repeated again and again until the script is “set,” vetted to the place that the playwright is satisfied that it has jelled into a final product, ready for staging, with no expected changes to be made.

In rare instances a writer prepares a script and, without any evaluations or readings, it is staged.  This is rare, but does happen.

Playwrights Local 4181’s first staged production is Les Hunter’s To the Orchard.  According to a representative of the organization, Mr. Hunter’s play is set…”in its final form.”

To The Orchard, according to Kelsey Angel Baehrens, who plays Rachel Bergman, the central character, who is a young gay Orthodox Jewish writing student at Brooklyn College,  is “about seeking the courage to live your own truth.” “It’s a sad show.”

Author Les Hunter adds, “All of the characters are wrestling with their pasts and who they are, and looking for ways to go forward.”

Dale Heinen, the play’s director says, “the play deals with the aftermath of the death of Rachel’s mother and what it means to her husband and her daughter.”  She adds, “there’s an element of magical realism to the play, and a lot of humor.” 

As for the production, itself, Heinen indicated she needed to understand the world that the author, Hunter, constructed.  “There is a lot we didn’t know, that we had to learn in order to give the world its proper dimensions.”  “The life of this community [Orthodox Jewish in Brooklyn], the life of this family [who recently lost their female lynchpin], the way the religion is practiced [often turning to their rabbi, their religious leader, for guidance and wisdom], the set of beliefs that go with it [how to honor the dead, what foods to eat, what the philosophy of Orthodox Judaism is regarding homosexuality], the history of the religion [the theory of the wandering Jews, the Eastern European roots of this particular family and religious leader].”

As a former dramaturge, professor of theatre, director, actor, playwright and theatre critic, I found the script to be wanting, in need of further refinement. 

The script is mainly a dialogue.  There is little to no action.  The way the script was staged, or since I didn’t see the script, it may have been the way the writer formatted the material, the staging was static.  Scene stage right, scene stage left, often simultaneous stage left and right staging.  It often felt like we were watching a tennis match. 

The was much movement of stage furniture, breaking the flow of the action.  Much of that was seemingly unnecessary.  Use of spotlights to accent certain areas would have fulfilled the same purpose.  In fact, this is a script which doesn’t appear to need a staged production.  A reading would have done just fine as this is a word play, a closet drama.  Very little of the stage action added much, if anything.

The script contains many concepts of Orthodox Judaism with which many in the audience were probably unfamiliar.  Even myself, who was brought up in a tradition almost identical to that of the characters in the play, found myself confused as to some of the speeches and actions.  Giving the audience a list of vocabulary words did little to help.  It is the responsibility of the author to invent ways of writing dialogue to take care of this problem. 

The staging left much to be desired.  The use of electronic graphics to create the set was interesting, but often disconcerting as the actors often were absorbed by the visuals or cast shadows on the “scenery.”  The actors (Kelsey Angel Baehrens, Andrea Belser, Robert Branch, Michael Regnier), though they clearly knew their lines and put out full effort, didn’t always stay in character or texture their parts to the point of making the people real.

Some of the dialogue seemed forced, unnatural, a written rather than an oral style.  Whether this was the script, the director or the actors’ fault, is unclear.

One might ask, who is the audience for this script?  To whom does it speak?  For whom does it speak?

Capsule judgment:
  Playwrights Local 4181 should be lauded for filling a void in the Cleveland theatre world.  Their goal of producing locally written and developed scripts is admirable.  Their initial production, To the Orchard, was a valiant try.  Though the final outcome left much to be desired, every new undertaking has to have a place from which to grow.  The organization has laid its foundation and it should be encouraged to showcase what hopefully will be a successful and fruitful future.

Playwrights Local 4181’s next production will be Objectively/Reasonable:  A Documentary Play on the Shooting of Tamir Rice.  It will be directed by Terrence Spivey, the former Artistic Director of Karamu in August, 2016.  For information go to:  http://playwrightslocal.org/

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Must see Steel Magnolias filled with pathos and comedy at Cleveland Play House



Steel Magnolias is now in an extended run at the Allen Theatre, as part of the Key Bank Broadway series.  It is based on author Robert Harling’s sister’s 1985 death from diabetic complications following the birth of his name-sake nephew. 

The script, which is one of the most produced in the American theater catalog, originally was a short story.  According to Harling, it was converted into a play in ten days. 

The author selected the title as he felt that Southern women are often considered to be “delicate as magnolias, but [are really] as tough as steel.”

Steel Magnolias is an old-fashioned, well-written play that is filled with pathos and comedy.  The playwright doesn’t obscure his purpose in why he wrote the script.   It is obvious that he unashamedly wants to tell the tale of a group of women who, in the comfort and security of “their” beauty shop, spend every Saturday morning as an informal support group, being for each other what women need…a sense of security and unconditional love.

The setting is Truvy’s Beauty Shop, where the motto is, “There is no such thing as natural beauty.”  The business is located in a converted car port, in the fictional small “twangy” northwest Louisiana parish of Chinquapin.

Truvy Jones, along with Annelle, her newly hired mysterious and anxious assistant, wash, comb-out, poof and hairspray the locks of the locals. 

The Saturday morning crowd includes Clairee, the former first lady of the town, who is now a wealthy widow and owner of the local radio station.  Also present is the ornery Ouiser, whose bark is worse than her bite, and insists, “I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a bad mood for forty years.”   M’Lynn, an earth mother, is often accompanied by her diabetic daughter, Shelby, the prettiest girl in town. 

The year is 1987.  Over three years (four scenes), the audience eavesdrops on Shelby having a diabetic crash, a risky pregnancy, a medical emergency and complications.  Annelle, grows from a timid outsider to a member of the in-group, gets married and transforms into a born-again Christian.  Ouiser continues to gripe, Clairee travels and shares her new-found knowledge, while M’Lynn goes through an event that mothers should not have to experience.

Through it all, there is a growing awareness of the intertwining love and caring each of these women has for each other and the important role that the beauty shop has in their lives.  As M’Lynn states to the women at the play’s conclusion, “You have no idea how wonderful you are.” Truvy responds, “Of course we do.”

Not a male shows his face on stage, though many are discussed.  Husbands, some dead, some living, past and present lovers and suitors, beaus, and a fiancé are all open for investigating, skewering, appreciating and/or rejecting.

The Cleveland Play House and PlayhouseSquare, co-produced this mostly women-conceived show (director Laura Kepley, scenic designer Vicki Smith, costume designer Jen Caprio, lighting designer Jennifer Schriever and sound designer Jane Shaw).  They have created an audience-pleasing production. 

The concept of bringing the two-major production houses together, under the banner of a production as part of the Key Bank Broadway series, is unique.  Usually PlayhouseSquare trucks in successful Broadway touring shows as part of the series.  CPH tends to stage previously produced scripts, adding some locally written works, and hires nationally known, as well as local actors, to populate their shows. 

To blend the two entities together was a bold, but natural move, something made possible by the creative forces of Gina Vernaci, Executive Producer of PHSq and Laura Kepley, Artistic Director of CPH.  They were aided by the physical proximity of the organizations, being in the same downtown block of buildings.

It is obvious that Kepley knows and has a connection with Steel Magnolias.  She adds the right amounts of pathos and comedy to keep and hold the audience’s attention.  The pacing is right on…languid, as fits the Southern setting, while focused, to bring about the levels needed for texturing the tale.

The introduction of talented musician/singers Emily Casey and Maggie Lakis to set the mood before the show starts, and then bridge the various scenes together, added much to the overall effect.

The cast is universally excellent.  Each character is clearly drawn.  The drawls, though present, are not so overdone that they become caricatures.  There is no mocking of these women, their life styles or the way they speak.  This is authentic as shrimp and grits, hush puppies and helmet-sprayed hair.

Elizabeth Meadows Rouse presides with pride and effectiveness as Truvy, proprietor and den mother.  Devon Caraway gives Annelle the right levels of panic and religious fervor.  Erika Rolfsrud is completely believable as M’Lynn,  the caring mother who experiences high grief.  Beautiful Allison Layman doesn’t play Shelby, she is Shelby.  Mary Stout steals the show as the obstinate and opinionated Ouiser.  Charlotte Booker transforms herself into Clairee with ease and surety.

The set, lighting, music (Nathan Motta, the “guy” in the production team) and costumes all come together to make for a flawless staging.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  There was some complaining when it was announced that one of the offerings of the Key Bank Broadway series was going to be a local staging of a script that has been done by many community theatres. After seeing the CPH/PHSq production there should be little upset.  Steel Magnolias is a must see production that tells a life story with comedy and pathos!  Bravo!

Steel Magnolias has an extended run from May 21 to August 21, 2016 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.