Sunday, June 25, 2017

Black comedy, “An Impending Rupture of The Belly,” insights at none-too-fragile


Matt Pelfrey is noted for inventing oddball concepts and writing sardonic dialogue. His “An Impending Rupture of the Belly,” now on stage at none-too-fragile, is Pelfrey at his “creative” black comedy best.

Clay Stilts is paranoid.  He constantly worries.  He obsesses about nuclear terrorism, earthquakes, riots, small pox, and impending fatherhood.  If something might happen, he marks it for fear incitement.

Clay is also blessed with a slacker brother, Ray, an unsuccessful musician, who believes that Clay has copped-out by living in the burbs and has a 9 to 5 job.  This, of course, doesn’t stop Ray from mooching off his brother.

Clay’s insecurities are fanned by his co-worker, Eugene, a Trumpite who proudly proclaims his chauvinistic, alpha-male attitudes including beliefs regarding the necessity of a white macho male dominated society, free of gays, blacks and other minorities. 

After numerous verbal confrontations with his neighbor whose dog likes to poop on Clay’s immaculately manicured front lawn, Clay follows Eugene’s advice, takes matters beyond the verbal and attacks the animal.  Of course he does!  That’s what any “macho” male should do to protect his territory.  What follows is an “actual threat” to Clay and his wife.

The script is a perfect metaphor for today’s explosive political climate.  And, though the audience laughs at Clay’s ridiculousness, it is the not taking the Eugenes of this country seriously, that may well have led to Trump’s election.

Sean Derry has pulled it off once again.  none-too-fragile’s production, as has become the trend at this venue, is of high quality.  The pace is enveloping, the laughs nicely keyed, and the ridiculousness kept under control causing a thinking rather than escapist reaction.

Filled with nervous ticks, stammering, darting eyes and rigid posture, Andrew Narten is paranoid-believable as Clay.  

Benjamin Gregorio steals the show as Clay’s doped-out brother, Ray, who appears in dirty tighty-whities, urinates on stage, and rants, while his crazed wide-eyes signal as out-of-control beacons, “danger here.”

Why the costumer didn’t perch a red Trump cap on Eugene is a surprise.  He is a Trump clone presenting message and attitude, complete alternate facts.

Kelly Strand nicely develops Terri, Clay’s wife, as an angel of strength for putting up with her husband’s rantings.

Much to the audience’s delight, Brian Jackson “feys” his way as Doug, the dog owner who has found Clay’s Achilles heel.

Capsule judgement: “An Impending Rupture of the Belly,” which gets a fine production, should be seen by anyone interested in experiencing outstanding acting coupled with a challenging and thought-provoking script.

ATTENTION:  July 7 and 8 @ 4, none too fragile will stage “Sea’s Night,” a special production of “An Impending Rupture of the Belly.”  The theatre is encouraging patrons, family and caregivers of special needs people, including Rett Syndrome, to attend the special performances.  All profits will benefit the Rett Syndrome Research Trust.  (Call the theatre for details.)

For tickets to “An Impending Rapture of the Belly,” which runs through July 8, 2017 at none too fragile theatre, located at 2835 Merriman Road in Akron, call 330-962-5547 or go to nonetoofragile.com

Next up:  none too fragile takes a summer break in its 2017 season for the months or July and August, returning on September 15 with “Last of the Boys,” Steven Dietz’s examination of identities and memories of the past, especially of the Vietnam War.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

“’S Wonderful’ “An American in Paris” at State Theatre



“9 to 5,” “Aladdin,” “Ghost,” “Groundhog Day,” “The Producers,” and “Hairspray” are all Hollywood films that were transformed into Broadway musicals.  Another of that ilk, “An American in Paris,” is on stage at the State Theatre.

Based on the 1951 Academy Award winning film, the stage version, with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and book by Craig Lucas, opened on the Great White Way in April of 2015 and ran until mid-October of 2016.  It won Tony Awards for best choreography, lighting design, scenic design and orchestrations.

With the theme, “A time of hope. A city of dreams. A love story for the ages,” 
“American in Paris A New Musical” is a symphony of music, dance, and special effects.  The stage is a constant blur of ever-changing electronic media, mood enhancing lighting, visually pleasing costumes and artistic dance.  The choreography, created by the brilliant Christopher Wheeldon who also directed the epic, incorporates ballet, jazz and contemporary movements to create a new style and vocabulary of stage movement.
 
In many ways, “An American In Paris” is an old-fashioned Broadway musical.  Boy meets girl, boy falls in love, girl falls in love, problems cause them to be separated, they come together, and, of course, they will live happily ever after.  But few, if any, traditional musicals have resulted in such an elegant mélange of music, dance and concept as this show.

Jerry Mulligan, an American soldier, decides, following World War II, to stay in France and hone his skills as an artist. 

In Paris, he sees and is smitten by Lise Dassin, a ballet dancer.  He finds out that she is engaged to Henri Baurel, a Parisian aristocrat.  Both Lise and Henri have hidden stories that help form the underbelly of the tale.  To complicate the goings-on, Jerry’s friend, Adam Hochberg, an American who was injured in the war and has also decided to stay in Paris, who is the ballet’s accompanist, also has a crush on the lovely Lise.

Through many twists, turns, revelations and lots of singing and dancing, the tale comes to its logical end with Lise and Jerry coming to the conclusion that “For You, For Me, Forevermore,” “They Can’t Take that Away From Me.”

From its opening expository dance sequence, to the concluding ballet, “An American In Paris: A New Musical,” seamlessly unfolds as a visually compelling production that is breathtaking to watch.

The elegant, artsy projections by 59 Productions create a cityscape of Paris, that makes the smell of baguettes baking, the trickling sound of the meandering Seine River, and the illuminating gaslights of the city live.  The effect is aided by the lighting of Natasha Katz and the scenery and costumes by Bob Crowley.

The orchestrations are both lush and, at times, jazzy.  The musical sounds are full, enhancing the singing and dancing.
 



The triple threat cast is generally strong.  The petite, lovely, Sara Esty, a Leslie Caron look-alike, who was the understudy for the Broadway run, captivates as Lise. Her dancing, singing and acting are top-notch.  (BTW, her sister, Leigh-Ann plays the roll on Sunday evenings during the Cleveland run).  

Though he sings, dances and performs at a high level, handsome McGee Maddox, is missing the macho-presence that garnered Robert Fairchild a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical.  Maddox’s rendition of “Fidgety Feet” makes sitting calmly in a seat without tapping your toes impossible.

Etai Benson does a nice turn as the piano playing, wise-cracking Adam.  “But Not for Me, sung with Emily Ferranti (Milo) was a strong duet.

Nick Spangler is strong as the sexually conflicted Henri, Lise’s fiancée, who knows that she is Jewish and was hidden by his family during the war while he secretly was in the resistance.  He has a strong singing voice.

Capsule judgement: My Broadway review of “An American In Paris, A New Musical,” stated that it was “a visual, dance-driven Broadway story-telling creation that is gorgeous, enchanting, seamless and sophisticated.” Though I won’t go raise the banner as high for the touring production, I will say that it is a very, very pleasing and “’S Wonderful” evening of theater.

Tickets for An American In Paris A New Musical, which runs through July 9, 2017, at the State Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Slight “9 to 5” pleases sold-out Porthouse audience



“9 to 5 The Musical” is based on the 1980 comedy film which starred Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton.  After the success of the movie, which is credited with being the 20th highest grossing comedy film, Parton decided to add music and put the story on stage.

The Broadway production was not a smash success, running less than 150 performances.  After a touring production (which starred Lakewood’s Dee Hoyt), the script is now being performed in the summer and community theater circuit. 

The story line, with a strong women’s rights underbelly, concerns workers at Consolidated Industries who toil for the chauvinistic, ego-maniacal Franklin Hart, Jr. 

Three of the put-upon women are Violet (who has been passed over many times for management positions because she is a woman), Judy (a new employee with no office experience whose husband ran off with a much younger woman) and Doralee (a sexy, married woman, who is the office outcast as the other women assume she is Mr. Hart’s mistress).  Then there is Roz, who, with her hair in a school-marmish bun, owlish glasses and frumpy clothing, perceives she is having a romance with her misogynistic boss.

Violet accidentally puts rat poison in Hart’s coffee.  Hart doesn’t drink the coffee, but finds out what happened, threatens to call the police, the trio captures, kidnaps, and imprisons him in his own house, which has a sling attachment connected to the ceiling. 

While Hart is “away,” Violet takes over the leadership of the company, and much to the delight of the workers, relaxes lots of the rules. With the help of a member of the accounting office she uncovers Hart has been stealing company money.

Of course, as happens in over-blown musical farces, all comes out well in the end, and the company and the audience celebrate with a resounding performance-closing version of “9 to 5.”

The Porthouse production, under the sprightly direction of Terri Kent, is a nice escapist show for the theatre’s target audience.  It’s filled with lots of dancing (well-conceived by Kelly Meneer), fine singing and music (kudos to Jennifer Korecki) and is nicely paced.

Amy Fritsche delights as she creates Violet with the right amount of smartness, competence and sparkle. Her upbeat “Around Here” set a nice tone for showcasing her character.  “One of the Boys,” complete with “jazz hands,” gleefully sounded and looked like it was right out of Bob Fosse’s staging of “Chicago.”

Erin Diroll avoids making Doralee into a Dolly Parton clone and sings and sasses, making the character her own.  Her “Backwoods Barbie” was well performed.

Courtney Elizabeth Brown nicely transitioned from mouse to powerhouse with ease.  Her heartfelt rendition of “Get Out and Stay Out” brought down the house. 

Fabio Polanco was correctly smarmy as Mr. Hart.  He played the chauvinistic cad with over-done farcical glee.

Sandra Emerick (Roz) did what Emerick does so well...created an over the top, beyond-belief character.  Her rendition of “Heart to Hart” stopped the show!

The rest of the strong cast danced and sang with enthusiasm and polish.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “9 to 5,” which opened Porthouse Theatre’s 49 th season, has neither a great script, nor a wonderful score, but, never-the-less, is an audience pleaser.  The sold out opening night audience was on its feet at the end, screaming and clapping their delight proving once again that Artistic Director Terri Kent knows her intended audience.

“9 to 5” runs until July 1, 2017, at Porthouse Theatre (3143 O'Neil Rd., Cuyahoga Falls, OH, on the ground of Blossom Music Center).  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to www.porthousetheatre.com.  Curtain times are 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Porthouse open 90 minutes prior to curtain time.

NEXT UP: “Ain’t Misbehaving” a sassy, sultry musical celebration about the legendary jazz great, Fats Waller, from July 6-27.

Mesmerizing “How To Be A Respectable Junkie” in world premiere @ Dobama



Newspapers and television are filled with stories of drug overdoses, excessive prescriptions for opioids, and dependency on drugs due to PTSD, pain and depression.  Obituaries note an increasing number of young people dying because of overdosing.  Hands are wrung, mea culpas chanted, and social service centers pontificate, but the siege continues.

Playwright Greg Vovos has been collecting tales about heroin addiction for a number of years.  One story stood out from the narratives he heard.  This account, the experiences of Brian, has been translated into “How To Be A Respectable Junkie,” now being performed in its world premiere at Dobama.

In a one man 90-minute epic, Brian (Christopher M. Bohan), tells the audience his tale.  A story of a “normal” kid who gets exposed to the use of drugs through a friend, progresses to being a junkie, who seemingly cannot get a grasp on overcoming his habit, bounces from respectable white collar employee to going through numerous interventions and rehabs and winds up living in his mother’s basement, a helpless and hopeless shell of a man, contemplating suicide.

We know the complete experience because Brian has made a video of his “advice” to others so they, too, can become respectable junkies.

Bohan, who has given outstanding performances on the Dobama stage in “The Flick,” “Peter and the Starcatcher, “ Slowgirl,” and “The Lyons,” outdoes all his past successes with his portrayal of Brian.

Well-guided by director Nathan Motta, Bohan does not just portray Brian, he is Brian.  There is not a moment that he lets the audience off the emotional hook.  Through the use of humor, pathos, angst and tears, we are under a Bohan-spell.

Vovos’s script is well-conceived.  His narration is worded for clarity and realism.  There could, however, be some tightening in the script, and a shortening of the conclusion, especially the period of time where the actor changes his costume on stage, which causes a stutter in the action and segments the conclusion from the body of the play.

Capsule judgement: “How to Be A Respectable Junkie” is a special evening of theater.  Superb acting, within the confines of a meaningful script, it grabs and holds the audience’s attention.  This is absolute must be seen theater for anyone who goes to be informed, to share in a real experience, to see that there may be light at the end of a tunnel, while observing a master class in acting. 

“How to Be a Respectable Junkie” runs through July 2, 2017 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up on the Dobama stage

Jewish Cleveland/Israelarts presents Roy Horovitz, one of Israel’s foremost actors and directors, in his internationally-acclaimed, “My First Sony” and “The Timekeepers,” on July 13-16, 2017. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” less than it should be at Blank Canvas



Want to see a play that has been censored?  No, it’s not “Spamalot,” “The Vagina Monologues,” “Godspell,” or “The Laramie Project” (which, incidentally have all been banned, at one time or another, from the stage).   It’s comedian Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”  Yes, that Steve Martin, the standup comedian, actor, musician (he plays a mean banjo), teacher of comedy and playwright. 

“Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” Martin’s imaginative script about a fictitious meeting between artist Pablo Picasso and scientist Albert Einstein, whose basic topics are the similarities of art and science as a factor in society, anarchy, self-awareness, ego and the forces that will shape the world in the 20th century and beyond. 

In March of 2009, at LaGrande High School in La Grande, Oregon, 137 parents petitioned to have the play shut down before it opened, because of “some of the adult themes and content.”  Martin, while recognizing that some of the "questionable behavior sometimes evident in the play is not endorsed"
he compared the characterization that the play is about "people drinking in bars and treating women as sex objects" to summarizing Shakespeare's Hamlet as being "about a castle." Martin responded to the banning of the play at La Grande High School with an offer to underwrite a production of the play at an alternative location, stating he did not want the play to acquire "a reputation it does not deserve."

The play has another interesting sidebar.  It was not only the first full-length play written by Martin, but at its initial oral reading, which took place at the author’s Beverly Hills, CA home, Tom Hanks read Picasso and Chris Sarandon read Einstein.  How about that for a cast!

It’s October 8, 1904, before Einstein (Robert Kowalewski) is famous for his theory of relativity and Picasso (Roderick Cardwell II) has just started to transition into his cubistic style of painting. 

The setting is the Lapin Agile, a French neighborhood watering hole. 

The duo debate topics such as the values of genius and talent and the cultural influences of the coming century, in the company of an amateur barkeep/ philosopher (Freddy—John Busser), his wife (Germaine—Carla Petroski), a bizarre inventor (Charles Dabernow Schmendiman—Ronnie Thompson), a woman with whom Picasso had an affair (Suzanne--Becca Ciamacco), a bar hanger-on (Gaston—Rich Stimac), a Countess (Britt Will), and an art dealer (Sagot—Greg Mandryk).  The Singer/Elvis Presley (Evan Martin) appears to add another aspect by delving into a musical, unintellectual cultural dimension.

After a lively exchange, Picasso and Einstein come to the conclusion that their abilities are both of value, as is the worth of the entertainer.

The script inspires thought and is filled with humor.  Unfortunately, the production, under the direction of Jonathan Kronenberger doesn’t generate the emotional and logical reaction needed to inspire audience reaction.  The pacing is too languid, the accents confusing and often unnecessary, some performances are on the surface and substitute overdrawn affect for character development.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Comedian Steve Martin has written a thought-provoking, clever script which gets a less than stellar production.  It’s not bad, just not what it could be.

Blank Canvas’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” runs through, June 24, 2017 in its near west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website. Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvastheatre.com

Next up at BC is “Equus” in which Dr. Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist, is confronted with a boy who has blinded six horses in a violent fit of passion. To Dysart it is a psychological puzzle that leads both doctor and patient to a complex and disturbingly dramatic confrontation.  (This show contains adult content and nudity.)  August 11-26, 2017.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

“Rock of Ages” rocks, really rocks, Cain Park



Cain Park’s Alma Theatre is rocking and rolling with the classic up-beat sounds of the ‘80s.  Yes, “Rock of Ages” features the likes of “The Final Countdown,” “Here I Go Again,” “I Wanna Rock,” “High Enough,” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”  That’s right, the songs of  Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Steve Perry, Poison and Europe.

“Rock of Ages,” based on the 2012 film, is a juke box musical.  It takes songs written before the script was conceived and intersperses them into a less than well-put-together story.   Interestingly, for no apparent reason, the title song, as written by Def Leppard, is not included in the goings-on.

The original stage production, which ranks in the top 30 of the longest running shows in Broadway history, played 2,328 performances.

It’s 1987.  Sherrie Christian (the adorable, sweet-voiced Lauren Ashley Berry), a young, small-town virgin (what would you expect with a name like that?) gets off the bus in Los Angeles, ready to become the next great film star, and is immediately robbed.  Into her life comes her “hero,” the handsome Drew (Shane Lonergan), who works at the Bourbon Room, the fabled West Hollywood club, the home of rock and roll stardom. 

No, Drew is not an R&R star, just a busboy, with stars in his huge doe-like eyes, a guitar in his hands, and a stellar voice which hits long-held high notes and slips nicely into a cool falsetto. 

As happens in these fairy-tale tales, Drew is love-struck, gets Sherrie a job at the club, and it looks like we are headed for a “happily ever-after tale.” 

Oh, come on, we have an hour-and-a-half to fill with songs, so there has to be conflict, chaos, heartbreak and then, a happy ending.

The conflict comes in the form of Hertz Klinemann (the funny, over-the-top Kevin Kelly, complete with very bad accent), who dreams of designing formal wear for pets, but instead is planning on knocking down the Sunset Strip and building an upscale shopping center.  His sidekick is his fey son, Franz (David Turner who lisps and swishes his way through his stage-time).  The duo is eventually foiled by a group of activists, who picket to stop the destruction of the strip.

Meanwhile, our heroine, good girl Sherrie, who fight off of the advances of super-rock god Stacee Jaxx (Connor Bogart O’Brien, not quite reaching the sensual level needed for women to lose their undies over), gets Sherrie fired from the Bourbon Room.  She is taken in by Justice (Trinidad Snider, a wailing momma with a big voice, who almost steals the show).  She runs a strip club. 

In the meantime, the show’s MC (the hysterically funny Douglas F. Bailey, who knows his way around a laugh line and does steal the show), and bar owner Dennis Dupree (smarmy Phillip Michael Carroll) discover they are “in love” and delight while singing “Can’t Fight this Feeling.” 

Lots more goes on, but of course, in the end, our Sherrie hooks up again with the still love-struck Drew and, as is the case with all good juke box musicals, they know “The Search is Over,” kiss their way to “Heaven,” knowing that they will never say, “I Hate Myself for Lovin’ You,” and the entire cast and the audience claps, sings and dances to”Don’t Stop Believing.”

The band (Jesse Fishman, Jeremy Poparad, Tim Keo and Justin Hart), under the leadership of Jordan Cooper, rock.  Yeah, man, they really rock!  



Kevin D. Marr II's creative choreography, is spot on!

Director Joanna May Hunkins has the cast psyched, and, after a slow, often hard to hear first act, and lots of overacting, the assemblage gets focused and lets loose in Act II, earning a screaming final reception.



CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  If you are a fanatic for rock and roll, especially from the genre’s golden age, you will absolutely love “Rock of Ages.”  “Oh Sherrie,” “The Search is Over,” as you’ll think it’s “Just like Paradise” and believe that you are in “Heaven,” having “Nothin’ But a Good Time,“ which is pretty darn good!
The show runs through June 25, 2017 in the Alma Theatre in Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park.   For tickets call 216-371-3000 or go to http://www.cainpark.com/

Upcoming musical theater events at Cain Park:

August 5 & 6--“The Music Man in Concert,” with Eric Fancher, as Harold Hill, and Nicole Sumlin, as Marian Paroo, in Meredith Wilson’s classic musical.

July 20, 7 PM--The Musical Theater Project presents “For Good:  The New Generation of Musicals,” examines Broadway shows from 2000 until today in narration and song.  Hear selections from “Hamilton,” “1776,” Wicked,” “Book of Mormon” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”

August 10, 7 PM—The Musical Theater Project presents “Luck Be A Lady:  the Songs of Frank Loesser,” a multi-media concert featuring the music of “Guys and Dolls,” “Most Happy Fella,” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

Saturday, June 03, 2017

“Really, Really,” thought provoking, inciting, well-conceived at Beck


In this era where the nation’s leader has displayed chauvinistic attitudes, spoken disrespectfully about women, where sexting is part of the mode of operation of not only politicians but business people, and civil disregard is seemingly a daily incident on airlines and television news, it is not surprising, since art reflects the era from which it comes, that the play “Really Really,” is now gracing the stage at Beck Center.  It is a script and production that will insight much discussion.

To place the play’s spotlight in perspective, it might be helpful to recount the 2006 incident when the members of the Duke University lacrosse team were accused of raping a female student during a party.  Or, the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio situation when a high-school girl was sexually assaulted at a party by some of the school’s football players. 

Paul Downs Colaizzo’s play has similarities with these incidents as it concerns a party, a sexual incident, and an accusation of rape, but it also has a twist that the others didn’t have. 

We meet the remnants of a collegiate apartment party, the morning after.  Obviously, the well-heeled athletes and their guests consumed large amounts of alcohol.  Exact memories of what happened are sparse.  
 



Vague recollections evolve.  Davis (Daniel Scott Telford) seemingly got “lucky.”  Cooper (Chris Richards), the oldest of the teammates, one of the party’s hosts, who is a hanger-on delaying graduation until the “right” opportunity comes along, may have listened to the bedroom goings-on through a closed door.  Johnson (Jack Schmitt), who was present, wants to study for his up-coming exams and seems uncomfortable with the hijinks of the party. 

In another apartment, after some hesitation, Leigh (Molly Israel) shares with her roommate, Grace (Rachel Lee Kolis), that she was “raped” at the party.   Grace, a national leader of the Future Leaders of America, whose icons are political conservatives including Ted Cruz, Ronald Reagan and Phyllis Schlafly, supports Leigh’s reporting the incident to the University.

Jimmy (Randy Dierkes), Leigh’s wealthy boyfriend, who is on the same athletic team as the party holders, but was not at the get-together, finds out about the incident and goes to confront Davis.  Leigh’s sister, Hayley (Olivia Scicolone), arrives to supposedly support her sister.  

Questions abound, both about the story and the generation which these young people represent.

•Did Leigh try to fend off Davis?  •Did Cooper actually hear Leigh say, “No” and “Stop,” or is he an agreeable witness trying to insure a prize position in Jimmy’s dad’s business.  •Did Leigh set up the entire scenario?  •Was Leigh trying to get back at Davis for rejecting her when they were freshmen?  Was Jimmy her fallback guy to insure her dream of the perfect (wealthy) husband and perfect (financially abundant) life? Is the purpose of Haley’s “trailer-trash” character present to illustrate what Leigh is trying to escape from? 

•Do those of Generation-I (also referred to as GenZ, Gen Me, and Centennials), who are the first of citizenry born with the Internet and were taught to be individualistic, generally operate on the mind-set that it is their right and responsibility to impose their will and desires on others?  •Do Gen-I males believe that they can talk and bluster with no consequences?   •Do Gen-Iers, both male and female, think/feel it is their privilege to get what they want from life, no matter what they have to do to achieve their nirvana?  •Can there be more than one conclusion reached based on the same set of “facts” and observations?




“Really Really,” under the focused direction of Don Carrier, is fascinating.  The show is well-cast, nicely paced, gets the required laughs and gasps, and grabs and holds the audience’s attention.  There is no acting going on, just realistic portrayals of real people, speaking understandably in natural language.

Scenic designer Cameron Caley Michalak has effectively shoe-horned a multi-setting play into Beck’s compact Studio Theatre.  His use of a small turntable makes for efficient location changes.  Trad A Burns’ lighting design aids in setting the right moods. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Really Really” is “murder” mystery without a dead body, but still asks, “Who did it?”  The cast is well-selected and each person effectively textures their role.  The result is a production which sparks with intensity, sucking the viewer into an experience which is edgy, shocking and thought-provoking.  It’s a must see for anyone interested in thoughtful and well-conceived theater.

“Really, Really” runs at Beck Center for the Arts until July 2, 2017.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org

Saturday, May 27, 2017

“Massacre (Sing to Your Children) challenges at convergence continuum



There is darkness.  Suddenly there is screaming and yelling from off-stage, the stage lights snap quickly up, bright red, casting eerie shadows.  A door bursts open, 7 people come stumbling through the doorframe, each covered with blood, and wielding an instrument of destruction…knives, screwdriver, rake, machete.  Someone wedges a chair under the doorknob.  They all look and sound energized, out of control, on a high. 

Thus starts Jose Rivera’s “Massacre (Sing to Your Children),” now on stage at convergence continuum

Jose Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico, comes from a family of storytellers.  His family moved to mainland USA when he was 4.  He is noted for incorporating his life experiences into his plays with the spotlight on his Puerto Rican and small town New York experiences as well as focusing on family, sexuality, religion, spirituality and the occult.

He has written for the stage and television, but, he is probably best known for his adaptation of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which led, in 2005, to his being the first Puerto Rican to be nominated for an Oscar in the category of” Best Adapted Screenplay.”

“Massacre (Sing to Your Children)” is said to be, “A Rorschach Tests-of-a-play whose narrative loopiness, supernatural meanings and political allegory will haunt and confound each audience member in a different way.”

Rivera exposes the audience to a group of “everyday” people, living in a small town, who appear to have their sights set on the revenge of Joe, an outsider who came to town, gained power and authority, and has, in the view of these citizens,  used it to control mistreat others.  

The blood-covered townsfolk are people who are filled with hatred and want retribution for the destruction of the society they had known.  They speak of having endured rape, child molestation, murder, blackmail, concentration camps, sacrifices, and bad faith.

All “these things” happened after Joe came to town five years ago.

Using abstract poetic language, which is often interlaced with swearing, Rivera veers off into undeveloped and underdeveloped ideas, causing confusion over what is real and what is made up.  

If the script hadn’t been given its first staging in 2007, it would be easy to assume that Rivera was writing an allegory, placing a focus on the Donald Trump and Fox News world of alternate facts.  Several times the line, “Did we deserve this?” is asked.  It is a question that those opposed to the present DC administration ask on a regular basis.

The con-con production, under the direction of the theater’s artistic director, Clyde Simon, is vivid, well-paced and often confusing. 

The cast varies in their acting depth.  Some lines sound flat, a memorized flow of words with little attempt to create meaning, and characterizations replace character development.  On the other hand, at times the speeches mesmerize. 

Brian Westerley immerses himself in Joe.  He nicely textures the role.  Lucy Bredeson-Smith’s hollow eyes, are the key to Vivy, a school teacher who is confused and lost.  Kelsey Rubenking is believable as a lost soul whose outlet to her feelings is in writing somewhat childish songs.  She displays a nice singing voice.

The rest of the cast consists of Wesley Allen, Dennis Burby, Jamal Davidson, Beau Reinker, and Hillary Wheelock.

Capsule Judgement: “Massacre (Sing to Your Children)” is an abstract play whose meaning will depend on an individual’s views of the world, and their willingness to search for the author’s intent and purpose.  This is a script and production for playgoers who like to probe for ideas with no need for clarity of ideas or outcomes.

“Massacre (Sing to Your Children)” runs through June 10, 2017, at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s gentrifying Tremont neighborhood.  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to http://www.convergence-continuum.org/

Coming up at con-con:
“Illuminated” a world premiere by Katie O’Keefe (June 22-23)
”Neighbors” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Terrence Spivey (July 7-29)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Cleveland reviewer goes to Broadway at Tony time, 2017 (capsule summaries)




Several times a year I go to review what’s on stage on Broadway.  This spring, at the time the Tony Award nominations were announced, I had the chance to see some excellent nominees. 

Seeing local talent on stages on the Big White Way adds to the excitement.   During this and last season about twenty Baldwin Wallace University grads (Berea, OH, a CLE suburb), which recently was named as the best musical theatre program in the country, were appearing in the Big Apple.  Many of them are still on stage, as well as some newbies. Included are Caitlin Houlihan, “Waitress,” Steel Burkhardt, “Aladdin,” Shannon O’Boyle and Kyle Post in “Kinky Boots,” Cassie Okenka, “School Of Rock,” and Colton Ryan, “Dear Evan Hansen.”

In addition, the talented Chagrin Falls native Corey Cott, A Carnegie Mellon grad, has the lead in the Cleveland-centric “Bandstand.”

On the business side, Matthew and Michael Rego and Hank Unger, of The Araca Group are one of the producers of Tony nominated “Groundhog Day.” They formed their very successful production team in 1997 and have been involved with such hit shows as “Urinetown,” “Wicked,” “’night mother,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and “Rock of Ages.”   (Honesty disclosure:  Mike, Matt and Hank met when they were involved in a production of “The Music Man” which I directed some years ago.)

Here are capsule judgments of four new shows, all of which received Tony nominations.  To read the whole review of each, go to http://www.royberkinfo.blogspot.com/, scroll down to find show of choice.




What: “Groundhog Day”
Where:  August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street
Capsule judgment:  Though it doesn’t reach the comic levels of the film version of the tale, “Groundhog Day The Musical” delights.  It’s the kind of show that will entertain Broadway audiences and be a hit when the sure to come national tour hits the road. 



What: “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”
Where:  Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street
Capsule judgment:  The total effect of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” is breathtaking.  The traditional music, dress, stylized acting, and Josh Groban’s booming voice add to the over-arching effect. Yes, this is more than a musical, it is a spectacle of enormous proportions. 

 


What: “Bandstand—The New American Musical”
Where:  Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street

Capsule judgment: “Bandstand” isn’t a great musical, but the well-conceived production has the music, story line, dancing and patriotism to make the show a touring company favorite when it hits the hinterlands.  In the meantime, it deserves a healthy run on the Great White Way.



What: “Sweat”
Where:  Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street
Capsule judgment: 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.  It’s a script that is sure to be produced by many theatres as soon as its Broadway run concludes.

The much Tony nominated “Falsettos” which opened last spring, opened too late for the 2016 recognitions, but you can read its review on my blog.

Other new multi-Tony nominated shows which I did not see, but deserve attention are: “Come From Away,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Oslo,” “Indecent,” “War Paint,” “Anastasia,” and “Doll’s House Part 2,” as well as the revival of “Hello Dolly” (starring Bette Midler) and “Miss Saigon.”

“Groundhog Day The Musical” delights on Broadway


“Groundhog Day The Musical” has had a somewhat rough path to Broadway.  The show, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, and book by Danny Rubin, which is based on the hit 1993 film by Rubin and Harold Ramis, opened in 2016 in London and all went well.  Reviews were good, attendance was solid, and it seemed like the legend of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who holds the secret of whether those in the eastern US will have a short or long winter, was going to have smooth sailing into its Broadway burrow.

That prognosis was wrong!  The first scheduled preview in New York had to be stopped because of technical difficulties in getting the revolving stage to work.  Then, on the April 14 preview night, Andy Karl, who was reprising his leading man role from the English production, tore his anterior cruciate ligament during one of the show-stopping numbers.  He hobbled through the rest of that performance with the aid of a cane and was replaced by his understudy for the rest of the previews.  Rumors ran rampant that the show would close before it opened.  But, true to the old adage, “The show must go on,” Karl returned on opening night to positive reviews. 

Things seemed to right themselves after that and the musical, which has been praised as “So much fun it should be illegal,” has gone on to garner seven 2017 Tony Award nominations, including one for Karl as the Best Performance in a Musical, as well as recognition for best musical, book, direction, original score, choreography and scene design.

“Groundhog Day The Musical” basically follows the plot of the Bill Murry, Andie MacDowell hit movie which, in 2006, was added to the United States National Film Registry as the #8 in the top ten greatest films in the fantasy genre.

The story centers on weatherman Phil Connors (Andy Karl).   Phil, he of good looks, an attitude of self-importance and unbridled egotism, finds himself assigned, by his Pittsburgh based TV station, to go to Punxsutawney, PA to do a special report on the annual Groundhog Day Ceremony. 

He reluctantly arrives, checks into a B&B, and goes to bed.  From there on any semblance of normality in his life ends! 

Phil wakes up the next day, drinks some terrible coffee, goes to Gobbler’s Knob, where the ceremony is to take place, and meets Larry (Vishal Vaidya) the cameraman and Rita (Barrett Doss) his newbie producer.  He does his lack-luster recap of the event, goes to eat lunch, finds out that a snowstorm is blocking his return to Pittsburgh, and stays the night at the B&B.  The next day turns out to be a duplicate of yesterday, and the following day turns out to be the same as the day before, and the following day . . ..  Phil is caught in a time warp, with no escape.    

As happens in all romantic fantasy musical comedies, Phil and Rita fall into lust and love.  A transformation takes place when he becomes a nice guy helping townsfolk, does a positive promo about the town and its festival, and even though the route has finally cleared to return, he spends the day with Rita and watches the sun rise on the next day.  As one of the show’s songs states, “There Will Be Sun.”

The show, under the astute direction of Matthew Warchus, who has directed such Tony award winning shows as “Art,” “Boeing, Boeing” and “Matilda,” delights with imaginative staging.

One of the shows highlights is a car chase in which a car is built before the audience’s eyes, then transforms into a mini-remote control auto which dashes around the stage.  The audience reaction was explosive delight.

The cast is strong, singing and dancing and performing with great skill. 
 



Andy Karl lives up to his advance billing as Phil.  Still operating with a leg brace due to that rehearsal injury, he surprisingly moves and dances freely.  His voice is strong and sense of comic timing excellent.  His displays of self-love are hilarious, and his double takes, charming.  His Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical is well earned.
 



Barrett Doss inhabits the role of Rita.  She sings, dances and performs with certainty and believability. 

It’s always an added treat when, as a Cleveland-based reviewer, there is a CLE connection to a Broadway production.  In the case of “Groundhog Day,” the hook is Matthew and Michael Rego and Hank Unger, The Araca Group (www.araca.com).  They formed their production team in 1997, producing shows, selling theatrical merchandise and staging live entertainment and theatrical events on Broadway and around the world.  They have been involved with such hit shows as “Urinetown,” “Wicked,” “’night mother,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and “Rock of Ages.”   (Honesty disclosure:  Mike, Matt and Hank met when they were involved in a production of “The Music Man” which I directed some years ago.)
Capsule judgement:  Though it doesn’t reach the comic levels of the film version of the tale, “Groundhog Day The Musical” delights.  It’s the kind of show that will entertain Broadway audiences and will be a hit when the sure to come national tour hits the road. 
THE FACTS:
What:  GROUNDHOG DAY THE MUSICAL
Where: August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street
Open ended run
Matinees: Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday
Evenings:  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Monday, May 22, 2017

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






In 2011, steel industry-centrific 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. 

Lynn Nottage, who has been called “as fine a playwright as America has,” started to craft “Sweat” in 2011, just before the height of the national malaise, but not before Reading 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.

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 script is effective, though the first act could lose about ten minutes and not endanger the exposition that leads up to the compelling second act.

The explosive drama is nicely directed by Kate Whoriskey.  It is well-paced, the dynamics finely keyed, and the characterizations well-etched.

The acting is top-notch.  Lance Coadie Williams (Evan), Khris Davis (Chris), Carlo Albán (Oscar), Michelle Wilson (Cynthia), James Colby (Stan), Alison Wright (Jessie) and John Earl Jelks (Brucie) all create nicely textured and fleshed-out characters. 

 



Will Pullen (left in photo), who epitomizes the angry white male who has lost not only his financial base, but self-respect, excels as the explosive Jason.  




Tony nominee for Best Featured Actress in a Play, Johanna Day, effectively creates Tracey into the model for the woman who has lost all as a result of the economic whirlwind that hit Reading and much of the industrial heart of the country.

“Sweat” received two 2017 Tony Award nominations: Best Play and Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

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.  It’s a script that is sure to be produced by many theatres as soon as its Broadway run concludes.




THE FACTS:

What: “Sweat”

Where: Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street

Open ended run

Matinees: Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday

Evenings:  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Spectacular “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” mesmerizes


In 1811, a comet officially known as C/1811 F1 was visible to the naked eye for a record 260 days.  The huge comet, which is often call the Comet of 1812, became a fascination for artist and writers who painted it and wrote stories with it as the focus.  One of the best know literature usage was in Leo Tolstoy’s epic, “War and Peace.”

In the Tolstoy novel, he describes Pierre observing this “enormous and brilliant comet.”  He went on to indicate it “was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world.”  From the standpoint of the Russians, the prognostication became true as the invasion of Russia by Napoleon (Patriotic War of 1812) took place.

C1811 F1 has appeared again.  This time it is shaking up the Broadway theatrical world with the opening of Dave Malloy’s adaptation of “War and Peace,” as a musical entitled, “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”

When asked why the comet made it into the title of the show, Malloy stated, “for cosmic epicness.” 

Yes, the show” is proving itself to be an epic as evidenced by the fact that it became the most Tony-nominated show of the 2017 season, garnering 12 recognitions including that for best score, book and orchestration, as well as best direction, choreography, actor, actress, featured actor, scenic, costume and lighting design.

The power and grandeur of the show hits the audience upon entering The Imperial Theatre’s auditorium.  It has been totally transposed for the production. The proscenium stage has been replaced by a raked series of platforms that extends to the theatre’s back wall and ceiling.

Weaving staircases allow the actors to wander from one level to another, attenders to be seated in nooks and crannies on stage to get to their viewing platform, and musicians to be placed in varying places, including a circle in the middle of the stage area which contains a grand piano.

The entire theatre becomes a performance space as the orchestra, mezzanine and balcony have platforms that allow for performance pieces to be done immediately next to seated audience members.

The theatre’s walls have been draped with heavy maroon material, with varying antique framed photos and decorative art pieces hung on them.  It is as if one is in a grand Russian villa of old.

The wonder of the set is not the only thing The Comet has going for it.  The Malloy well-written music combines traditionally played ethnic, folk, classical, indie rock with EDM.  The sound of accordions, violins, tambourines, balalaika, and wood blocks, as well as piano and synthesizer, give the score a unique, not often heard on Broadway, sound.

Malloy’s book and lyrics, like Russian literature, is filled with great angst, over-exaggerated emotion and melodrama.  Wisely, the author has avoided the Russian tradition of each person having numerous full names plus diminutives.

The tale is set in Moscow in 1812.   Pierre (Josh Groban), a middle-aged aristocrat, is living an existential life, often influenced by an over-abundance of alcohol.  Into his sphere of life comes Natasha (Denée Benton), a beautiful young lady, who is visiting the Russian capital, while her fiancé, Andrey (Nicholas Belton) is at war.  She is seduced by Anatole (Lucas Steele), an attractive and manipulating married man.  Her social standing is ruined.  Her only hope lies with Pierre using his influence to save her reputation.

As can be expected in a Russian saga, Pierre helps Natasha gain her sense of self.  Afterwards, almost as a payment for his good deed, he experiences a moment of enlightenment as he sees the Comet of 1812 in the night sky.

The physical setting is impressive.  The musical presentation, grand.  The vocalizations, mesmerizing.  The stylized acting, character correct.



Tony nominee for Best Actor, Josh Groban’s voice is everything one would expect from the uber-talented performer.  His aria “Dust and Ashes” captivates.  His duets “Pierre & Anatole,” with Lucas Steele, is compelling as is his “Pierre & Andrey,” sung with Nicholas Belton and “Pierre & Natasha,” a duet with Denée Benton.

 


The gorgeous and talented Benton is charming as Natasha not only singing well, but creating a vulnerable young woman who is charmed into a seduction.  She well deserves her Tony nomination as Best Actress in a Musical.

Steele is Iagoesque as the innocent looking but evil villain, who takes away Natasha’s innocence.  He moves with arrogant ease, smiling with manipulative pleasure, while displaying no remorse.  His is another well-deserved Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. 

Those outside of Gotham, who wait for hit Broadway musicals to come to their city, may be disappointed.  Trying to replicate the theatre’s interior may be cost prohibitive and impossible to achieve in some of the venues in which touring shows perform.  A watered-down version of the grandeur of the Great White Way performance probably will not have the same effect, even though the story and music will be the same.  Maybe this is a good time to go to New York.

Capsule judgement:  The total effect of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” is breathtaking.  The traditional music, dress, stylized acting, and Josh Groban’s booming voice add to the over-arching effect. Yes, this is more than a musical, it is a spectacle of enormous proportions. 

THE FACTS:
What: “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Where:  Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street
Open ended run
Matinees: Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday
Evenings:  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday
(Note:  Josh Groban will not perform 5/4 through 5/9, 5/16, 6/13, 6/20 or 6/27.  He will play his final performance on 7/2.  Okieriete Onaodowan begins performing as Pierre on 7/3. 

Broadway’s “Bandstand” a swinging love-affair with Cleveland


“Bandstand—The New American Musical,” the Broadway hit musical, is Cleveland-centric.  It not only tells the tale of a post-World War II band which was founded in CLE, includes dialogue containing such area references as the Ohio Theatre, Halle’
s Department Store, “The Plain Dealer,” Public Square, and The Cleveland Limited train which ran to New York, but also stars an area native. 

It’s 1945. G.I.s are returning home.  Many are having troubles due to what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorders including depression, memory loss, and obsessive compulsivity.

Danny Novitski (Corey Cott), a jazz pianist, comes home to Cleveland, and like many others, can’t get back into his previous life pattern.  In his case, as a local club piano player.  Danny has survivor guilt.  His best friend died because Danny took the pin out of a hand grenade, accidentally dropped it into their fox hole, couldn’t retrieve it in the rain, jumped out of the hole, and the explosive device killed his long-time buddy.

Danny finds out about a national contest, centering on forming a musical group of veterans who will write and perform an original song and compete in a competition held in New York with a prize of fame and fortune.

Johnny puts together a group of psychologically wounded vets.  In a promise to his dead friend, he contacts his friend’s bereaved widow, who happens to be a church choir singer and poet.  As is the case in all feel good musical love stories, she joins the band, they win the Cleveland contest and then the qualifying round, and the two fall in love.  The contest results are part of a clever plot twist that leaves the audience feeling pleased and standing on their feet and cheering.

With a nicely conceived book by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker, who also wrote the lyrics, and Oberacker’s swing, bebop and jitterbug musical score, the show earns its’ “The New American Musical” subtitle.  It is a musical based on the tradition of the golden age of Broadway, but with a modern feel. 

The production, directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (“In The Heights” and “2016 Tony Award winner for his choreography of “Hamilton”) explodes with brassy music and dynamic choreography, while telling the tale with strong acting, dancing and singing.

Laura Osnes (Julia Trojan, the widow of Johnny’s friend), Beth Leavel (Julia’s mother) and Corey Cott, have been with the development “Bandstand” from the script’s September, 2014 initial New York workshop, through the October, 2015 Paper Mill Playhouse (Milburn, New Jersey) previews, to its April 26, 2017 Broadway opening. 




Osnes has a strong singing voice and creates a charming and realistic Julia.  Her “Who I Was” is emotionally touching, her first presentation of “Love Will Come and Find Me Again” is beautifully presented, and the “rewritten” version, which is the band’s contest performance, stopped the show with its high-level emotional words and presentation.  This is a two-hanky song!

Leavel has a nice touch with humor and pathos.




Chagrin Falls native Corey Cott is talent-perfect as Tommy.  Cott, who is dark and handsome, though not the stereotype Broadway leading man, tall and buff, is successfully making a career of playing sensitive young men.  He was the lead for two years in the much praised “Newsies” and then went on to star opposite Vanessa Hudgens in the revival of “Gigi.”  He was born to play Tommy.  A trained jazz pianist, he has an impressive singing voice and range, and is totally convincing in the role.  He, as well as all the members of the veterans’ band, actually play their musical instruments on stage. 

Director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler deserves his 2017 Tony nomination for the choreography.  It is innovative, era correct and helps create the proper mood and tone for the script. 

Paloma Young must have had a wonderful time reaching back and creating the 1950s era costumes.

The orchestrations by Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen are enervating and well-nuanced and properly deserved its Tony nomination.

Capsule judgement: “Bandstand” isn’t a great musical, but the well-conceived production has the music, storyline, dancing and patriotism to make the show a touring company favorite when it hits the hinterlands.  In the meantime, it deserves a healthy run on the Great White Way.  

 
THE FACTS:
What: “Bandstand”
Where: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street
Open ended run
Matinees: Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday
Evenings:  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday

Monday, May 15, 2017

“Things As They Are” examines poet Wallace Stevens @ Playwrights Local


“Things As They Are” explores the life of Wallace Stevens, the American modern poet who was often called “aloof” and “uptight,” has been classified as “meditative and philosophical,” and as “a poet of ideas.”   Those ideas often confounded and confused his readers.

Stevens once wrote, “We approach reality with a piecemeal understanding, putting together parts of the world in an attempt to make it seem coherent. To make sense of the world is to construct a worldview through an active exercise of the imagination. This is no dry, philosophical activity, but a passionate engagement in finding order and meaning.”
 
Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize of 1955 for his “Collected Poems.” 

Stevens, who lived from 1879-1955, is a perfect subject for a thoughtful drama based on his interpersonal relationship breakdowns, his mood swings, his marriage to Elsie Kachel who his social-conscious parents thought was “lower-class,” his breaking off all contact with his family, Elsie’s mental illness, an on-going crisis with his daughter, and his Robert Taft-like conservative political views.

His “Key West, Florida,” arguments with Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway are legendary, as were the details of his troubled marriage, and short-termed friendships.

This was a man of great contradictions and insights, of varying vocations and avocations.  During his life he was a successful poet, lawyer and insurance executive.

“Things as They Are” is a multimedia work written by David Todd.  It features an impressive original music score performed and conceived by Ben Chasny

Though Stevens is interesting, and well deserves to be immortalized on stage, the play is much too long and the script, as conceived, seems overly-ambitious and not clearly focused.

Due to stimulus overloud, it’s sometimes difficult to pay attention to the story line.  The need for all of the music, electronic images, dancing and Commedia dell’Arte is questionable.  Also up for examination is the weak presentational quality of some of the elements.

Kudos to director Anjanette Hall for attempting to get the pieces-parts all blended together.

Robert Hawkes nicely textures his performance as the Mature Wallace Stevens.  His final acting scene was very effective.  Laura Starnik and Tessa Hager create meaningful women as Elsie (wife) and Holly (daughter).  The rest of the cast, Jason Markouc, Robert Branch, Kenzie Critzer, Jeanne Task, Marco Liguori and Liam Stilson are generally effective.

Ben Chasny and John Elliott create a strong musical presence.  Unfortunately, the sound system is such that most of the off-stage reading of Steven’s poetry was drowned out by the underscoring music.

T. Paul Lowry’s projection design was well-conceived as was Jonathan Maag’s lighting.

Capsule judgment:  As a play in process, “Things As They Are” needs to be reexamined with an eye for sharpening and tightening the dialogue and ascertaining whether all the visual and audio stimuli are necessary to tell the tale.  For those who like to see new works, to discuss and add in-put into the development process, Playwrights Local and this play offer that opportunity.

Playwrights Local, a development and production center, is dedicated to fostering diverse talents and presenting locally written theatrical works.  “It strives to increase the impact of original theater on the community and to raise the profile of area playwrights both within Greater Cleveland and beyond.”

“Things As They Are” is being performed at Reinberger Auditorium on Cleveland’s near west side.  There is a parking lot adjacent to the building.  For information and ticket orders go to:  http://playwrightslocal.org/

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

“Forever Plaid,” a pleasant Jukebox musical @ Great Lakes Theater


What do “Motown the Musical,” ”Beautiful, the Carol King Musical,” “American Idiot,” “Jersey Boys” and “Mamma Mia” have in common?  They are jukebox musicals; stage shows that use previously written songs as its score.  The songs are folded into a story-line.   

“Forever Plaid,” now on stage at Great Lakes Theater is one of the most popular of this ilk of musical theater, and has been produced over and over by professional as well as amateur theatres since it was first performed off-Broadway in 1989.

The show is a flashback to the close-harmony, “guy” groups of the 1950s.  Noted for their matching costumes, in-sync hand and body movements, they epitomized the clean-cut scrubbed wholesome boys of the era.  Think of The Four Freshman and The Beachboys. 

The “story” in “Forever Plaid” centers on four high school nerds (members of the AV Club), who dream of having matching plaid jackets, recording a hit album and becoming part of the “in” crowd. 

Their fame came to a screeching halt when, on the way to their first gig, their car was slammed into by a bus filled with virginal Catholic schoolgirls on their way to see The Beatle’s American debut on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” 

We meet the Plaids when, by some quirk of fate, they return from the after-life and find themselves on the stage of the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland, OH.  They are here to have one opportunity to finally fulfill their musical dream.

They sing harmony renditions of such classics as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Moments to Remember,” “No, Not Much,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Perfidia,” “Cry,” “Heart and Soul,” “Shangri-La,” “Rags to Riches,” and “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” songs which the silver-haired oldies in the audience were singing along with.

The two-act, very short show (about an-hour-and-a-half with intermission), has musical and vocal arrangements by James Raitt, with book by Stuart Ross.  It was made into a movie in 2009, and a sequel, “Plaid Tidings,” with holiday songs, was written by Ross in 2002.

Playhouse Square had a long run of “Forever Plaid” from 1994-1996.  It was staged by the original conceivers.  Stewart Ross directed and musical direction was by James Raitt.  It stared Rex Nockingust, a stellar local singer/actor, a graduate of Baldwin Wallace College, and performer at many CLE theatres, who went on to play Matt in “The Fantasticks,” the longest running off-Broadway musical. 

The show has a strong Baldwin Wallace Musical Theater program connection.  It is directed by Victoria Bussert, the program’s director, who is celebrating her thirtieth year as GLT’s director of musicals, and a cast made up of BWU grads—Mack Shirilla (Francis), Andrew Kotzen (Sparky), Mickey Patrick Ryan (Jinx) and James Penca (Smudge).  Even the musical director, Matthew Webb, choreographer, Gregory Daniels, and many of the design team, are connected to BW.

The pleasant production’s singing is prime, the movements vintage, and the musical backup allows for the words to be easily heard. 

A former theater student cornered me during intermission and asked, “I thought Great Lakes billed itself as Cleveland’s Classic Company.  Why are they doing this show that I’ve seen at lots of community theatres?”  Hmm…Yes, its’ been around since 1989, but does that make it a “classic?”  Interesting question.

Capsule judgement: “Forever Plaid “is an escapist evening of theater, which is a pleasant trip back to yesterday, when clean-scrubbed boy singers waxed beautifully about the angst of young love, trips of fantasy and the mini-stresses of life.  If you like that kind of thing, this is a show for you.
“Forever Plaid” runs through May 21, 2017 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Well-written and performed “Salvage” fascinates at none-too-fragile



As the lights come up on George Brant’s “Salvage,” being performed on none-too-fragile’s tiny thrust stage, two women frantically search through a huge pile of boxes.  Boxes which contain the remnants of the life of Danny Aspern, their son and brother, who recently died in a car-bike accident and was buried earlier in the day. 

A storm is coming, with promises of mass flooding.  Assuming that their basement will be inundated by water, the question is what of hoarder Danny’s “treasures” should they save?  There are 40 years of stuff as the man/boy never moved out of his mother’s house and used the basement as his play and storage room. 

As the duo decides that they will save only a small number of Danny’s favorite music albums, Amanda Graham (Derdriu Ring) enters.  Amanda, Danny’s high school sweetheart, left him supposedly to go to college.  Her leaving left a void in the seemingly emotionally weak Danny, that was never filled.  He went through the rest of his hapless life rudderless, frustrated and unfulfilled. 

Mother, Roberta (DeDe Klein) and Amanda spar.  It quickly becomes apparent that both Danny and his younger sister, Kelly (Kelly Strand), were victims of their mother passing on her insecurities to them.  A mother, much in the vein of Amanda in Tennessee William’s “Glass Menagerie,” cannot see that her enabling is the major cause of her children’s issues.

Amanda has written a best-selling book with a plot centering on her relationship with Danny.  Roberta hates her for “using” Danny.  Kelly is awe-struck by Amanda’s success. 

Filled with deception and verbal game playing, the compelling play storms to a surprise conclusion, as Amanda’s “secret,” the real reason for her coming to Danny’s funeral, Kelly’s future, and a major decision by Roberta, consume the trio.  Questions abound:  What effect do we have on others?  What is the difference between love and need?  Can anything be salvaged from these lives?

Brant is a fine playwright.  Among others, he was awarded a Lucille Lortel Award, an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, the David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center, the Keene Prize for Literature, and a Scotsman Fringe First Award. 

His scripts have been produced locally at Cleveland Play House and Dobama Theatre. 

“Salvage” was commissioned by Theatre 4 in New Haven, Connecticut and received its premiere there.

The none-too-fragile production, as has become the expected habit at this theatre, continues their reputation for excellence.  None-too-fragile was recognized by Broadwayworld.com/Cleveland as the Outstanding non-musical production of 2016, Director Sean Derry was named the best Director of a non-musical, and Dedriu Ring was named as co-recipient of the outstanding female performer.  The Cleveland Critics Circle recognized “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and Ring for Superior Achievement.  “Salvage” should also receive such accolades.





The cast is universally outstanding.  Each actress develops a clear and textured real living character.  So much so that after a while, the play becomes a life experience, with the audience peeking in on the real lives of three tortured women in turmoil.   The performers make Brant’s realistic language live with vivid imagery.

Capsule judgement: “Salvage,” continues none-too-fragile’s history of outstanding theatrical presentations as it takes George Brant’s well-crafted script from page to stage, with clarity and vividness.  This is a must see experience!  Believe me, Clevelanders, it’s worth the drive!

For tickets to “Salvage” which runs through May 20, 2017 at none too fragile theatre, located at 2835 Merriman Road in Akron, call 330-962-5547 or go to nonetoofragile.com

The next none too fragile show is “An Impending Rupture of the Belly,” Matt Pelfrey’s odd-ball, black comedy of a couple expecting their first child and an impending disaster, a global struggle against threats to our security, both real and imagined.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Well performed “The North Pool” at Ensemble



Is Khadim Asmaan a terrorist?  Is he selling drugs at his public high school?  Is he responsible for the suicide of a talented flutist?  Why was the boy expelled from a private school?  Is he responsible for the on-going vandalism at this institution?  Why is he friends with a noted school delinquent?  What is he planning on doing with the items that have been found in his locker?  Why are his parents visiting Saudi Arabia? 

These are some of the questions raised by Pulitzer Prize finalist and Cleveland Heights native Rajiv Joseph in his “The North Pool.” 

Joseph has authored such plays as “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which starred the late Robin Williams on Broadway, “Huck and Holden,” “Animals Out of Paper,” “Gruesome Playground Injuries” and “Guards at the Taj,” many of which have been staged at Ensemble.

The setting is the office of Assistant Principal, Dr. Danielson, at Sheffield High, a public school in what appears to be a fairly typical suburban area.   It’s the afternoon of the start of spring vacation.  Khadim has been called in to discuss the details of his past and present, which appears to include his operating an underground business of selling various merchandise and what could be bomb making materials found in his locker, and also the suicide of a female friend.

The conversation includes twists and turns that reveal a great deal about both Danielson and the Arabic student as the participants unload material about each other.  In the process it is revealed that there are a series of passages, which were built into the school during the cold war era, that contain a shelter called “the North Pool” which was to protect the school community in case of a nuclear attack.

Though often compelling and disturbing, the intended impact of the script is somewhat vague.  After a while the question, “Where is this going?” rears its head.  What is the author trying to say?  What are we to carry from the experience?  Yes, racial profiling, sexual discretion, dealing with the aftermath of suicide, and school terrorism are all brought up, but for what purpose?

The one-and-a-half-hour Ensemble production, done without an intermission, under the competent direction of Celeste Cosentino, is well developed. 

David Vegh is focused and nicely textures the role of Dr. Danielson. 

Though he looks too old to be playing a high school student, and doesn’t fit the physical description of a cross-country runner (changing the sport to football or rugby would have been more appropriate), Santino Montanez is convincing as Khadim.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  While the production is well-conceived and holds attention, “The North Pool” is somewhat unsatisfying as a thoughtful piece of play crafting.  The script leaves us wanting more, a clearer message to carry from the theatre.

“The North Pool” runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Saturdays @ 2 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through May 21, 2017 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