Saturday, March 25, 2017

A tale of disinterring bodies makes for wild night of Irish black comedy at none too fragile



Last year none too fragile theatre produced Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” one episode of the Leenane trilogy.  The production was greeted with great critical and box office success. 

It 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, along with Dorothy Silver for “The Revisionist” at Dobama, as the outstanding female performer.  The Cleveland Critics Circle recognized “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and Ring for Superior Achievement.

It only makes sense that this season they do another of the contemporary Irish writer’s plays, “A Skull in Connemara,” another tale in the trilogy.

The Irish are a unique brand of people.  Living in a land of rocks, ragged hills, harsh weather, poverty and isolation, they have developed attitudes toward life that lend themselves to dark thoughts, bleak tales and sentimentality supported by a lot of alcohol consumption!

McDonagh is one of the most successful young playwrights this century.   He is the first dramatist, since Shakespeare, to have four scripts produced on the professional London stage in a single season.   His black comedies examine cruelty and violence but rebuke the tendency of Irish writers to be overly mawkish.

“Skull” is set in Connemara, located on Ireland’s west coast, the area which has been described as “a pitiless universe.”   Even the dead have it rough in that part of the world.  The local cemetery has limited space.  Since this is a solid Catholic area, cremation isn’t an option.  So, in order to accommodate the newly dead, bodies which have been buried for seven years are dug up and replaced by new arrivals.  What happens to the exhumed skeletons?  That’s a major part of the mystery of “A Skull in Connemara.”

One thing is a given.  The task of digging is left to Mick Dowd.  This year’s task has special significance.  It was seven years ago that Mick’s wife was killed when he drove his car into a ditch while intoxicated. 

As the time approaches for him to dig, rumors arise.  Gossip seeps into the collective brain of the citizens of the small village who have way too much time on their hands for “tellin’ tales” and imbibing to excess.

Maryjohnny Rafferty, an elderly woman who is noted for both cheating while playing bingo and “tippin’ a wee bit” stops regularly at Mick’s house to mooch whiskey.  One of her grandsons, Thomas, is the town’s inept lawman, and the other, Mairtin, is a young bumbling airhead with a penchant for saying and doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. 

As the tale proceeds we find that Maritin is going to help Mick dig the graves, while Thomas is going to continue to prove that Mick killed his wife.  Their ineptitudes only increase the nature of the black comedy.  Maritin keeps falling into graves, Thomas finds leads that lead nowhere.  

We watch as the duo of diggers banters, with Mairtin being the butt of many of Mick’s tall tales.  They remove the remains of one corpse, but, when they come to Mick’s wife’s grave…they find the body has been stolen.  Of course, chaos, accusations, another car crash, much consuming of whiskey, and lots of blood, add to the bizarre story.  (What else can you expect from a tale of the land of blarney and an adept storyteller?)

The ntf production, under the direction of Sean Derry, as we have come to expect of him and his talented bunch of thespians, is excellent.

The set, especially considering the compact black box theatre, is astounding.  The kitchen morphs into hills and tombstones and affords the view of two graves actually being dug while dialogue flows.  (Consider this--all that dirt had to be dragged into the space and will have to be removed.)

Prop masters usually get little attention, but, in this case, the “guy in Pittsburgh” (quoting Derry) “handmade all the skulls and body parts which are used in the show.”  (A word of advice:  If you are sitting in the first row, you may well be hit by flying bone fragments as the bodies are decimated with mallets.)

David Peacock is outstanding as Mick Dowd.  He doesn’t portray Mick, he is Mick.  His Irish brogue, as is the case with all the cast, is spot on.  Of course being a Brit, who is a member of British Actors Equity, doesn’t hurt.

Linda Ryan transforms herself into the arthritic Maryjohnny with conviction.  Her sitting and standing is a black comedy, in itself.

With his flat affect Nate Homolka (Mairtin) has some nice moments, as does Doug Kusak as his brother Thomas.

Be warned that some of the language may offend, but it’s all Irish realistic extremism and that’s the beauty of McDonagh’s writing.

Capsule judgement:  Partake in the free shot of Jamison, which is the hallmark of the pre-show ritual at none-too-fragile, sit back, and allow yourself to be immersed in an Irish black comedy, complete with skull battering, blunt language and a wee bit of fun.

For tickets to “A Skull in Connemara” which runs through April 1. 2017 at none too fragile theater in Akron, call 330-671-4563 or go to nonetoofragile.com

The next none too fragile show is “Salvage” (May 5-20) which finds a recently deceased young man’s sister and mother finding themselves racing against time to rescue his prized possessions from the family basement before a flood hits.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Touring “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” less than it should be





When the 2016-17 Key Bank Broadway series was announced, I was ecstatic.  Three of my favorite recent Broadway shows were listed: “Something Rotten,” “An American in Paris,” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

The capsule judgment of my New York “Curious Incident” review read: “The production is outstanding on every level.  Well written, creatively staged and exceptionally acted, it is a highlight of the Fall, 2014 season.  It well-deserved the screaming standing ovation it received.  To add to the excitement, Alex Sharp gives a Tony Award winning performance!”

I was right about Sharp’s performance as he did win the valued statue.  The show won 5 Tony’s in all.

I wish I could be as excited about the touring show as I was about the Great White Way staging.

In spite of the same director, Marianne Elliott, the touring production, at least on opening night, didn’t have the same spellbinding effect.  The sets, lights, special effects were all basically the same.  Unfortunately, Alex Sharp is not on stage, and that took the level down quite a bit.  It’s not that this version isn’t quite acceptable, it just isn’t all that it could have been.

In an interesting theatrical device, the tale is told via a narrator reading a story that Christopher, a high functioning autistic teenager, has written as a school assignment.

As the lights come up, it is 1998 in Swindon, England.  Christopher is standing over the dead body of Wellington, a neighbor’s large dog.  The animal has been killed by a pitch fork.

As many with Asperger’s Syndrome, Christopher has strong deficits in social interaction and communication.  His eye contact is inconsistent.  He has difficulty in understanding social cues and a poor ability to read nonverbal signs.  He takes most information he receives literally and is obsessive compulsive, requiring each thing to have its place and for little or no changes in his routines.




Christopher reacts to loud noises and being touched by physically lashing out and then quickly withdrawing.  Rituals have to be followed in order to touch him.  He is also very clumsy.  Many AS patients have a strong mental skill.  Christopher’s is mathematics.

The dead dog takes Christopher out of his comfort zone, flips on a desire to right the wrong so things are as they were, and he becomes obsessed with finding the killer.

When the police arrive, the bobby invades the boy’s territory and touches him.  Christopher panics, flails and shrinks.  As a result, Christopher is taken to the police station for attacking an officer.

The tangled plot includes several infidelities, Christopher’s desire to take the A-level math exam, and the discovery of letters that leads him to distrust his father.

Pushing against his strong desires for security and order, Christopher undertakes the daunting task of leaving his neighborhood, taking a train to London, and searching for the mother that his father had told him was dead. 

There is a reconnection with his mother, a return to Swindon, readjusting to his father, and his sitting for the difficult A-level test.  As Christopher has promised the audience, he gets his A grade, “the best possible score,” and solves the mystery of Wellington’s murder.

Christopher says, “I have been very brave.”  Yes, he has faced his fears, conquered the unnerving trip to London, and written a book that tells the tale!

The touring production, as was the case with the Broadway production, is blessed with Finn Ross’s video design.  We are often inside of Christopher’s mind, seeing where his confusions and disconnects happen.  We fall off the platform of the tube [London’s subway] as he chases his pet rat, watch his mind navigate the unfamiliar streets as he searches for his mother, are encapsulated by hundreds of lights which cover all areas of the stage, and become swept into what is almost a large computer game.

Adam Langdon, who portrays Christopher is acceptable in the role.  (The part is double cast, so the comments about Langdon’s portrayal might not pertain to those who see Benjamin Wheelwright.)

Langdon fails to become the autistic youth, he portrays him.  The eye blinks, hand flailing, avoiding contact are feigned, not lived.  This is obvious when, after the curtain call, Langdon returns to the stage to fulfill a promise he made about telling us how he solved a very complex math problem.  He is Langdon, not Christopher during the languid explanation, during which, unfortunately, many in the audience left.

On Broadway, in that scene, Sharp transformed himself completely back to Christopher and with arms flailing, voice filled with excitement and eyes flashing, he mesmerized the audience with his three-minute explanation.

The rest of the cast, each of whom play multiple roles, are all excellent.  They mold together to create the people in Christopher’s life.

Unfortunately, due to an overly loud blasting of background music, some of the dialogue was drowned out.   This, plus an underperforming mic, caused most of the words of the narrator to be almost impossible to hear, robbing the audience of valuable and vital words.



Capsule judgement:  The script and visual technical aspects of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is outstanding on every level.  Unfortunately, on opening night, the touring production did not take the play to the heights that it deserves.

Tickets for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which runs through April 9, 2017 at the Connor Palace, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ensemble’s 2017 Colombi New Plays Festival features “Occupation Dad”



Ensemble Theatre’s “Playwrights” was established in the early 1990’s by Don Bianchi, one of the founders of Dobama, and Park Goist, a professor of American Studies at Case Western Reserve.  It was started with the hope of creating an opportunity for local playwrights to have their works staged. 

With that experience in their background, Ensemble Theatre established the COLOMBI NEW PLAYS FESTIVAL in March of 2012.   This year’s selection for staging is Tyler Whidden’s “Occupation Dad,” which was workshopped at Ohio University and centers on Jason, a stay-at-home dad.  No, he’s not a stay-at-home dad, he is a dad who is employed. Well, he’s not presently employed, but stays home with his son.  Confused?  So, is Jason.

When he takes his one-year old son, Parker, to the park, the mothers hound him because of his stay-at-home, employed/unemployed status and fill him in on what books he should be reading to properly nurture his son, who is not yet walking or talking or being anything other than a black rectangular stand.  Yes, Parker is actually a black rectangular stand with a stocking cap attached to his “head.”  (This is a clever “shtick.”)

As the line from “The Sound of Music” says, “Let’s start at the beginning.”

Jason is the youngest of three siblings of a very dysfunctional family.  His father, Walt, was distant while the children were growing up, their mother drunk much of the time.  Now that Walt is in early stage dementia, he is even more distant.  Daily he packs up his tools to go to work in his non-existent garden.  He actually goes to a plot of land with a bench on which he sits and stares into space.  This is where Walt and Jason sometimes used to go to play ball and spend time together.

Jason’s mother isn’t talking to his sister, is being denied access to her granddaughters, and is constantly nagging Jason to “talk to” his older brother, Patrick.  Patrick is a man/child who likes to play games, get high, and has impregnated a woman.  He looks forward to having a “playmate.”  Little does he know, based on Jason’s experiences, especially with the park ladies, what fatherhood is really all about.

To make matters worse, the park ladies have recorded Jason “going off on them” and have put it on Facebook.  Now everyone knows what a horrible father Jason is.  Can things get worse?

Local writer Tyler Whidden’s play, in two one-hour acts and a ten-minute intermission, is a humorous, sad, over-the-top tale, which showcases gender, identity, responsibility, connecting and dysfunctionality.

The script is peppered with folksy sayings such as: “Sometimes parenting is knowing when to say “No.”  “Parenting is knowing CHOPS [being Comfortable, Helping, Observing and Problem solving].”  “Fathers are useless when it comes to raising children.”  “If you stay at home you are a mom.”  “Our children are not direct reflections of who we are as parents.”

The Ensemble production, under the direction of Aaron Elersich, zips nicely along, stressing the humor and dysfunctionality of the characters.  The cast is excellent.

Abraham Adams delights as the confounded Jason.  His frustration and confusion is well-etched on his mobile face.  He plays comedy well, texturing the character with total believability.

Mitch Rose appears born to play a slacker.  His Patrick, Jason’s brother, is boy/man perfect.

Darrell Starnick, as Jason’s father has the right vacant eyes of a person with memory loss.  His last scene is especially emotionally touching.

The rest of the cast, Valerie Young, Katie Atkinson, Hope Wondowsky and Becca Moseley, all nicely walk the line between comedy and farce.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Occupation Dad” has many laughs, is often thought provoking and gets a nice production.  This is not a great script but offers a nice escapist evening of theater.

“Occupation Dad” runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Saturdays @ 2 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through April 2nd at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

Ensemble’s next fully staged production is Cleveland Heights’ playwright Rajiv Joseph’s The North Pool, opening April 28th and running through May 21st, 2017.

To see the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to:  clevelandtheaterreviews.com

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

“Honey, Honey,” “Mamma Mia!” makes yet another stop at Connor Palace



Yes, the jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” is back in Cleveland.  And, as has consistently happened in the past, the audience was on its feet dancing and singing in the rows and aisles during the extended curtain call.

“Mamma Mia!” is a jukebox musical, meaning that the music for the show was written before the book, and a story line was developed to hook the songs together.  Think “Jersey Boys,” “The Who’s Tommy,” “All Shook Up,” “Forever Plaid,” and “American Idiot.”

The music for the show was written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA.  The duo was also involved in the development of the book by Catherine Johnson.

The show opened in London, where it is the 8th longest running show in the West End.  The Broadway version closed in September 2015, after a 14-year run.  At the time it was ranked as the eighth longest-running show in Great White Way history.

The ABBA excitement starts from the first chord of the dynamic overture when the synthesizer-heavy sound permeates the theatre.  From there, the beat goes on and on.

Even the curtain call is set up to excite and incite.  After the traditional bows, the orchestra performs a reprise of the title song, “Dancing Queen” and then “Waterloo” explodes resulting in the audience being encouraged to clap, dance and sing their way out of the theatre.

The contrived story takes place on the lovely Greek island of Kalokairi.  It centers on 20-year old Sophie, who is preparing to wed Sky.  She wants her father to walk her down the aisle.  The problem?  Her single mother, Donna, has never revealed his identity.

Sophie conveniently finds her mother’s diary, which reveals Donna’s relationships with three men, approximately nine-months before Sophie’s birth.  Of course, the lass invites all three to the wedding.  She doesn’t tell Donna, nor do we find out how she located the three who are spread around the world.  (Don’t look for flaws of logic in the script, just accept that they are there and go with the flow.)

Obviously, the arrival of the three “fathers” the day before the wedding, along with numerous other guests, starts a series of events which result in a “surprise” soap opera inspired ending. 

It would be amazing if anyone could sit through the likes of “Dancing Queen,” “Honey, Honey,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Take a Chance on Me,” and “The Name of the Game” without bouncing on the seat, moving your feet, and not wanting to sing along.

The touring production is strong.  Though not of the quality of the Broadway or earlier renditions, the technical aspects, appropriately over-loud band, and performances, all make for a fun evening of theatre.  Just remember, “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” or “Next to Normal,” this isn’t.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Honey, Honey,” “The Name of the Game,” is “The Winner Takes All” when you go to see what may well be the final tour of “Mamma Mia!.” Yeah, be a “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance on Me” and be a “Winner [who] Takes It All.”

Tickets for MAMAMMA MIA!, which runs through March 19, 2017, at the Connor Palace, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

“Floyd Collins” melodramatically spelunkers into eternal fame at Blank Canvas


 
Floyd Collins,” now on stage at Blank Canvas Theatre, isn’t your typical musical.  There is no dancing, no show-stopper production numbers, no intentional humor, no subplot, no “I wish for” numbers.  It’s a tale of simple folks, a story focused on a man with an obsession to spelunker (explore caves), the power of sensationalism in the press, and the role of family and faith.

Floyd Collins’ gravestone is emblazoned with the words, “The Greatest Cave Explorer Every Known.”  It is this man who is the subject of a musical by Tina Landau (book) and Adam Guettel (music and lyrics) which bears his name.

The musical tells the tale of the man and the media circus created when the Central Kentucky spelunker explored the hundreds of miles of interconnected underground caverns within Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world.

Collins’ tale takes place in the early 20 th century during an era known as The Kentucky Cave Wars when land owners and explorers competed to exploit the caves for commercial profit from tourists who pay to enter and explore the caverns.

On January 30, 1925 Collins happened upon an entrance to what would come to be called “Crystal Cave.”  He entered, went down about 55 feet and became stuck by a slide which entrapped his legs. 

A newsman who found out about the confinement wrote a piece that became a national story, making Collins a media sensation.  The predicament also became the first major news story to be broadcast on radio, the newest media technology.

The cave area took on the likes of a country fair and media circus when thousands swarmed to the site. 

Unfortunately, Collins couldn’t be dug out and he died of thirst, hunger and hypothermia after 14 days of isolation.  His body wasn’t recovered for two months.

The musical, which had a short off-Broadway run in 1996, plays a little loose with the “facts” in order to build the melodramatic elements, allow for song intrusions and add some heroics. 

The major additions include the character of reporter "Skeets" Miller, a small man, who is able to squeeze through and visit with Floyd, as well as the heroics by Floyd’s brother, Homer.

Guettel, who is the grandson of musical theater icon, Richard Rodgers [“The Sound of Music,” “Carousel,” “Oklahoma”] is also the composer of “The Light in the Piazza, for which he won two Tony Awards.

The complex score is a mélange of bluegrass, Americana, and atonal influences.  The final song, “How Glory Goes,” has become the musical’s major contribution, having been included in albums by both Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell.”

The story-line is filled with dramatic holes.  One can only wonder why, with all the media attention, some experts on cave excavation and recover methods didn’t come forward to aid in saving Collins.  Oh well, if they had, there would not have been a story for the musical.

The production is performed on a nicely conceived multi-tiered set in the small black box theatre.  With the audience no more than four rows from the performance, the feeling of being trapped in the cave with Collins is easily created.  The illusion is aided by an increasing mist of water-based haze.

The cast, under the deft hand of director and scenic designer Patrick Ciamacco, makes the melodramatic script live.

Area newcomer, Michael Snider, has the vocal and acting chops to pull off the difficult role of Floyd.  His renditions of “How Glory Goes,” and “The Call” were compelling.  His duets with the equally gifted Michael Knobloch, portraying Floyd’s brother Homer, of “Daybreak” and “The Riddle Song” were performance highlights.

Pat Miller [Skeets Miller] captured the essence of the story with his well sung and interpreted, “I Landed Him.”  Madeline Krucek [Nellie Collins], Amiee Collier [Miss Jane] Rob Albrecht [Lee Collins], along with the chorus, performed with vocal excellence. 

Ciamacco’s well-researched graphic projections, which show historical pictures of not only the Collins’ family, the cave areas, the surrounding scenery and the circus-like atmosphere, greatly enhance the production.

Thanks to musical director Matthew Dolan’s ability to generally control the volume of the well-tuned band in the small space, allowed for the important story-telling words of the songs to be heard.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Floyd Collins” is an unusual musical that receives rare productions.  It gets a very proficient staging at Blank Canvas and is very well worth seeing due to strong musical performances and a nice interpretation of the melodramatic story.
Blank Canvas’s “Floyd Collins” runs through March 25, 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 “Picasso at the Lapine Agile,” Steve Martin’s tale of an imagined conversation between Einstein and Picasso.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE makes for a slow haunting trip at the Cleveland Play House



The mission of the Cleveland Play House is to produce plays that “inspire stimulate and entertain.”  It further intends to bring bold, necessary, personal stories told in imaginative ways to the public.  

Paula Vogel’s one-act “How I Learned to Drive,” the 1988 Pulitzer Prize winning play for drama, which also was recognized by the Outer Critics Circle Award and New York Drama Critics Award, well fulfills that mission.

That being said, “How I Learned to Drive,” in spite of getting a high quality production, is not an easy play to watch.   It is a tale of incest and pedophilia.

Pedophilia is a disorder in which “an adult experiences a primary or exclusive sexual attraction to prepubescent children.” Incest is “sexual activity between family members or close relatives.”  Both pedophilia and incest are never the victim’s fault, though a well-prepared practitioner makes the victim feel guilty, as if the abuse was their fault. 

The plot of this haunting play centers on Li’l Bit, as she traverses her life in rural Maryland and her college years in Baltimore.  Li’l Bit and her dysfunctional, crass family, give each other names that refer to their genitilia.  She was branded with the alias Li'l Bit at birth, her alcoholic mother was known as the "titless wonder," her misogynistic grandfather "Big Papa", and her young Cousin BB (Blue Balls).

The story, which is told out of chronological order, with the help of a Greek chorus, who comment on the tale and fill-in as various characters, relates the sexual relationship between Li’l Bit and her aunt’s husband, Uncle Peck.

In many ways, Li’l Bit has been set up for what happens to her.  She hears tales of sexual conquest concerning her grandfather of her grandmother and her mother’s falling prey to early sex and pregnancy.  Also, being “well endowed,” she receives undue attention from both her junior high school mates. 

Matters are not helped when her mother allows the 11-year old, during the summer of 1962, to go driving with her Uncle, admonishing her with the phrase, “If anything happens, remember I hold you responsible.”  Not only is Lil Bit thrust into a world of experiences which she is far too young for, she is held responsible for them happening.

The imposition continues when Peck’s wife, Aunt Mary, asks him to “comfort her” when the girl becomes upset, giving him permission to continue the incest.

The title leads to the awareness that the car is also the safest place for her, as long as she’s driving… the only time she is free from his abuse.

At times, her being abused doesn’t feel to her as if it’s unwanted. And this is perhaps the darkest, most haunting aspect of the piece. The play doesn’t hide from the gritty, dark aspects of Lil Bit’s mind as we watch her grow up not completely aware that what is going on is wrong.  This attitude is enforced by her uncle telling her that he’d never do anything she didn’t want him to do, a control mechanism that those in involved in pedophilia and incest often use. 

Li’l Bit is not Uncle Peck’s only victim.  He also takes her cousin B.B. fishing, with an outcome similar to that experienced by Li’l Bit.

The CPH production, under the focused attention of director Laura Kepley, is creative and attention holding. 

The technical devices aid the visual imagery.  Collette Pollard’s set, a slanted road which starts at stage level and ascends to the midlevel of the theatre’s back wall, flanked by screens which allow Caite Hevner’s projections to take us on the many car rides, and gives us word messages about the actions and how each scene is located within the oral narrative.  For example, “Safety First—You and Driver Education,” works much better than the traditional way of playing the show on a blank stage with a couple of chairs and tables. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting design helps lead through the tale.

Madeleine Lambert hones a realistic performance as Li’l Bit.  Her pains become the viewer’s pains.  Michael Brusasco is properly horrific as the manipulating Peck…earning his gains at the expenses of others. 

Karis Danish, Nick LaMedica and Remy Zaken arc from one character to another with astonishing ease.  Each person they portray becomes a living being.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “How I Learned to Drive,” in spite of its excellent staging, is not an easy play to watch.  It is haunting, dark, and the topic is not something to which everyone can relate.  But it deals with a realistic subject that is more prevalent in our society than is often recognized and if you’re willing to open yourself up to the emotional upheaval that the story may induce, this is a play well-worth seeing.
“How I Learned to Drive” runs through March 26, 2017, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Next up at CPH: Between Riverside and Crazy,” a dark comic tale of truth, family and pride finds an ex-cop risking his family’s apartment because of a racially charged lawsuit, runs from April 1-23, 2017.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Nancy Maier, Jerry Herman, “Open a New Window,” The Musical Theater Project


Nancy Maier left New York and a budding career to move to Cleveland.  Yes, she traded the Big Apple for Cle!

Many know Nancy Maier from her many performances with Bill Rudman and The Musical Theater Project’s concerts.  Some know her from her work with the wunderkinds of the nationally revered Baldwin Wallace’s Musical Theater program.  But how many know the “real” Nancy Maier?

A native Clevelander, born and brought up in the Brooklyn area of the city, Nancy started to play the piano at age 8.  She played by ear, could pick out tunes and modify them with no training.  Eventually she took lessons where her teacher, who was proficient in stride piano, exposed her to ragtime, chord charts, and boogie-woogie in addition to classical technique.  She was exposed to playing before people and her future track for her life was set!

Her life at Brooklyn High School, on Cle’s west side, mainly centered around music.  Her choice of a college was easy…Indiana U’s well known music school.  Now known as the Jacobs School of Music, it is one of the top institutions for composing, piano and performance.  She later transferred to Baldwin Wallace where she finished her undergraduate degree, and started to sing and play piano at local piano bars and pick up musical directing positions at area theatres.


When her husband, Dan, a stellar musician, wanted to expand his own musical career, the duo moved to New York.  Ironically, Brooklyn [New York].  While her husband toured with various bands, Nancy waitressed, accompanied various singers, became an audition accompanist, did some music directing and summer stock, performed at An Evening dinner theatre as associate conductor, and studied voice.  

In 1989, Nancy and Dan moved back to Cleveland.  They were “tired of all the gigs, their family was here, it was time to come home.”  As she said in a recent interview, “Coming back was wonderful.  I got my masters at CIM [Cleveland Institute of Music], met Vicky [Bussert, the “Mother Superior” of the BW music theater program], worked at Cain Park and BW, and adopted a child.”

Her career as a free-lance music director was on a roll.  Nancy became affiliated with Great Lakes Theater, Cleveland Play House, Beck Center and Karamu.

In 1996 she was appointed Music Director and vocal coach at BW Conservatory of Music, where she stayed until 2012.  In reality, she is still there.  She returns and “steps in as needed.” 

 


Her affiliation with Bill Rudman and The Musical Theater Project, started serendipitously.   “Bill used to see musical things I directed, realized I was passionate about my music, and sought me out for special projects.  We did some broadcasts from Cain Park and started to do concerts which honored specific composers and musical theatre topics.  I was appointed Associate Artistic Director and started to do some feature singing.”

Upcoming for Nancy and TMTP will be “Open a New Window:  The Songs of Jerry Herman.”  Maier, in her effervescent way stated: “I love Jerry Herman.  He knows he isn’t contemporary writer, he writes traditional “show” tunes, he has kept traditional music alive, is much deeper a composer than most people think, his ballads are quite deep, his lyric writing complex, he is an AIDS survivor from the 1990s, he identified with the message of his musical, “La Cage aux Folles.” She continued: “He was an only child, born in New York. At a young age he played music by ear, much like me.  I identify with him.” 

“You can hear a sense of optimism and hope in his songs.”  Herman wrote lots of standards including “I Am What I Am,” “Before the Parade Passes By,” “Hello Dolly,” “It Only Takes a Moment,” “Open a New Window,” “Mame,” and “I Won’t Send Roses.”

What should we look forward to in “Open a New Window:  The Songs of Jerry Herman?”  Nancy happily said, “Sing-a-longs, a couple of special guest artists, a surprise, hearing songs of Jerry Herman that you haven’t heard before, and gaining a new respect for a great composer.”



You can hear Nancy, Bill Rudman and the music of Jerry Herman on Sunday, March 26 at 3 pm at The Temple-Tifereth Israel, 2600 Shaker Boulevard, Beachwood.  To get tickets call 216-245-8687 or visit MusicalTheaterProject.org

Monday, March 06, 2017

Controversial, thought-provoking “A Great Wilderness” at Beck Center’s






The American Psychological Association, American Counseling Association, American Psychiatric Association and almost all professional mental health practitioners agree that homosexuality is not an illness.  There is also almost universal agreement among psychological experts that reparative therapy does not work as there is no reason to repair that which is not broken.

Those who disagree with these views tend to do so on moral grounds.  Their morality is generally based on religious beliefs coming from fundamental and Orthodox groups who use Biblical interpretations as the source of their convictions.  These beliefs, after years of preaching about sin and punishment, have become the basis for many societal attitudes about sexual orientation among a great number of people.

MacArthur “genius” Fellow and award winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter takes on the topics of sexual orientation and conversion therapy in his “A Great Wilderness,” now on stage in Beck Center’s Studio Theater.

Hunter’s plays frequently are set in a backdrop of the mountain ranges and towns of Idaho where he grew up, and often examine the limitations of humanity’s vision as well as the role that religion plays in people’s longing for relief from the uncertainty of life. 

“A Great Wilderness” centers on Walt (Tim Tavcar), who has spent many years as the leader of a Christian retreat whose goal is “curing” gay teens of their homosexuality.  We find him in the process of closing down the camp, reluctantly retiring to an adult living facility.

Much against his desire, Walt takes on a last client.  Daniel (Christian John Thomas), the young son of a minister, arrives confused and scared.

After a short talk with Walt, being assured that he will not be subjected to electroschock therapy, food deprivation or other devices used at other such facilities, Daniel leaves to go for a walk in the Idaho wilderness.

Several hours later, when Daniel doesn’t return, Abby (Lenne Snively), Walt’s ex-wife, and Tim (Bryan Byers), her present husband, who have come to “take over the camp, go in search of the boy.  They unsuccessfully comb the area.  Janet (Kelly Strand) a park ranger, search parties and helicopters then try to find Daniel.  Eunice (Heidi Harris), Daniel’s mother, arrives upset by his disappearance and indicates that the boy has no survival training or skills.  The next day Janet returns from her search with a blood stained jacket.  A worst-case scenario ensues.

Later that day, in an unexpected plot twist, Daniel returns, with a new vision of who he is and what his path should be.  As the boy talks, Walt, in reflecting on his own life, seems to come to an awareness that his “previously unwavering moral compass no longer points the way he thought it did.”  Curtain!

Probably because of Daniel’s last speech, his “seeing the light scene,” Hunter was confronted in an interview with the reaction, “I can’t believe a gay person can write this.”  Hunter responded, “I was in Idaho and around his age in 1999.  He says at the end of the play that he feels he didn’t exist, and I remember feeling that way, being a gay kid in Idaho, not knowing if there’s a place for me in the universe. And I found the place where I found connection and meaning kind of unlikely.”

Beck’s production is outstanding.  Director Scott Spence has well-paced the staging and selected a strong cast. Tim Tavcar, Lenne Snively, Bryan Byers, Heidi Harris and Kelly Strand all develop well-textured roles.   Special huzzahs to young Christian John Thomas who is note-perfect as the confused Daniel.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “A Great Wilderness” is a thought-provoking script that gets an excellent production.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself involved in a lengthy discussion regarding the meaning of the play’s conclusion and have lots of self-thoughts about the play and its implications.

 
“A Great Wilderness” runs at Beck Center for the Arts until April 9, 2017.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Compelling The Flick unreels as a must see production @ Dobama




Annie Baker, who deservedly won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her play The Flick, was perceived by the awarding committee as one of “the most impressive dramatists of her generation.”  They went on to say she, “writes with tenderness and keen insight.”

Baker is the author of such plays as Body Awareness and Circle Mirror Transformation, which won an Obie for Best New American Play and Performance, and The Aliens, which shared the 2010 Obie Award.

What makes Baker so exceptional?  She has a knack for creating normal individuals who cope with everyday issues.  She combines a depth of character development with people who speak simple and clear narrative lines with a kind of tender, off-the wall humor.    Her writing forces the audience to think, while holding up a mirror to themselves. 

Her The Flick, which is now in production at Dobama, puts the spotlight on three movie employees in an outdated movie theatre in Worcester, Massachusetts in 2012.  These are individuals who lead mundane lives.  They do the same tedious things every day.  They sell tickets, tend the box office, turn on the projector, sweep up the spilled popcorn and throw away empty candy boxes and soft drink cups.  They talk to each other about their limited-opportunity lives. 

We observe days that are the same, with some interruptions for a marriage in one employee’s family, underplayed conflicts over which is the best film ever, and trivia contests centering on how movie actors are connected through their appearances in various films with other actors as they play “Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” 

There are no holdups, no catastrophic fires or accidents, no unexpected pregnancies, no fist fights, no hostage-taking episodes. 

The most “exiting” things that happens are how the three amigos steal a small amount of money each day from the sale of tickets, to supplement their meager pay, and a funny scene about someone’s defecation in the men’s bathroom.

The question arises as to how the actions and conversations of Avery, a young college student who has lots of phobias and is taking a leave of absence from his college career to get his life back on track, Rose, who runs the film projector and may or may not be a lesbian, and Sam, a slow moving, slow thinking life-time movie house employee, grab and hold and audience’s attention?

The effect of the show is in Baker’s writing.  She takes the mundane, adds comedy and clear character development in an understated way.  She gives us the privilege, yes, privilege of sharing time with her perfectly etched characters.  It’s like we have a camera on their lives and we are allowed to people watch and share their secrets, no matter how shallow their lives may be.

What results is a tender drama which is funny, heartbreaking, caring and filled with long lasting memories. 

The Dobama production, under the focused direction of Nathan Motta, is compelling.  Motta knows and understands Baker, her writing and her characters.  He has selected and honed a cast that make the script live and fulfills Baker’s intent and purpose.

Young Gordon Hinchen, a Tri-C student, is pitch perfect as Avery, a film buff whose knowledge of cinema has depth well beyond his age.  He is an African American who is aware of the prejudices of the world around him, but isn’t a product of the ghetto.  Hinchen creates a character with a soft underside, who is filled with angst, is tender and vulnerable.  This is a masterful performance.

Christopher Bohan, complete with a perfect New England accent, wears his Red Sox cap as if it was a permanent part of his body.   Already, at a fairly young time in life, he has accepted that he is going nowhere on the ladder of life.  As with Hinchen, Bohan is character perfect.

Paige Klopfenstein is yet another cast member who understands the role she is playing and creates a well-textured Rose who doesn’t have a plan for her life.  She just lives life as it comes.

Nate Miller does a nice job as the double cast vagrant who falls asleep in the movie theatre and who later becomes an employee.  

Scenic Designer, Jill Davis, has set the play in a real old-time movie theatre that doesn’t exist much anymore, a one-screen neighborhood entertainment center like the now destroyed Mayland, Richmond, and Center Mayfield cinemas.  The back wall, hung with maroon material, evokes the walls of old.  The seats of the set actually came from a now defunct movie theatre. The projection booth, complete with a real reel-to-reel projector (found in the basement of the Cedar Lee Theatre) takes us back to the era before digital movies. 

Marcus Dana has designed a production-enhancing lighting design.

Praise to the backstage crew who scattered popcorn and refreshment containers during the blackouts to make sure the cast had lots of clean-up to do while they were saying their lines.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The Flick is a masterfully written, performed and produced play.  It is dramatic theatre at its finest.  With that said, there are some who go to the theater for action or slapstick comedy or intrigue.  This script isn’t for them.  But, for those who want to be drawn in by sheer spoken words and fine acting…this is an absolute MUST SEE!  

 
The Flick runs through March 26, 2017 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Dobama ends its 2016-17 season with the poignant Hand to God.  My review of the Broadway production stated, “Hand to God is a compelling tale of two lost people, caught up in their own lack of ability to cope with the death of a major person in their lives, who are losing their fight to chart a course of healthy reality and turn to escapism to get through the angst.” 

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Exciting Broadway series announced for CLE--2017-2018




It was an exciting evening at the State Theatre, where a capacity crowd heard Gina Vernaci, architect of the Key Bank Broadway series, announce the 2017-2018 season.

Besides the charming Vernaci, the program included an interview with Sara Bareilles, who wrote the original music and lyrics for WAITRESS, which will not only be featured in the season, but will rehearse in Cleveland and start its road show here.

Bareilles played the piano and sang a song from the show.  Featured were two members of the present Broadway cast. 

Also performing was Solon High School sophomore, J. R. Heckman, who was last year’s Cleveland Male Dazzle Award winner, who was recognized by both the Cleveland Critic’s Circle and BroadwayWorld-Cleveland Professional Theater Tributes as their “Rising Star” for being the area’s most promising male newcomer.

A member of the German company of LOVE NEVER DIES, which will also be performed here, sang a composition from that show.

Short clips from all of the shows showed highlight numbers and brought extended applause from the assemblage.

Announcements included that Key Bank has agreed to sponsor the series for another five years and that this year there were over 36,000 subscribers.

As announced in PHSQ’s press release, here is the list of shows and their presentation dates:

WAITRESS
October 17 – November 5, 2017

Brought to life by a groundbreaking all-female creative team, this hit features original music and lyrics by 6-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles and was inspired by Adrienne Shelly's beloved film, WAITRESS.  It tells the story of a waitress and expert pie maker, who dreams about finding a way out of her small town and loveless marriage. A baking contest in a nearby county, and the town's new doctor, may offer her a chance at a fresh start.
 
ON YOUR FEET!
December 5-23, 2017
http://onyourfeetmusical.com
 
From international superstardom to life-threatening tragedy, ON YOUR FEET! takes you behind the music and inside the real story of Cuba’s Emilio and Gloria Estefan, the record-making and groundbreaking couple who, in the face of adversity, found a way to end up on their feet.
 
LOVE NEVER DIES
January 9-26, 2018
http://www.loveneverdies.com

The ultimate love story continues in LOVE NEVER DIES, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s spellbinding sequel to The Phantom of the Opera.

The year is 1907. It is 10 years after his disappearance from the Paris Opera House and the Phantom has escaped to a new life in New York where he lives amongst the joy rides and freak shows of Coney Island. In this new, electrically charged world, he has finally found a place for his music to soar, but he has never stopped yearning for Christine, his one true love and musical protégée.

RENT
March 6-25, 2018
http://rentontour.net

In 1996, RENT, an original rock musical by a little-known composer, opened on Broadway.  It forever changed the landscape of American theatre.

The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning masterpiece returns to the stage in a vibrant 20th anniversary touring production.

THE HUMANS
April 10-29, 2018
http://www.thehumansonbroadway.com

Stephen Karam’s THE HUMANS, the 2016 Tony Award winner for Best Play, is an uproarious, hopeful, and heartbreaking play that takes place over the course of a family dinner on Thanksgiving.  As darkness falls outside the ramshackle pre-war duplex eerie things start to go bump in the night, and the Blake clan’s deepest fears and greatest follies are laid bare.
 
ALADDIN
May 2-27, 2018
http://www.aladdinthemusical.com

From the producer of The Lion King comes the timeless story of ALADDIN, a thrilling new production filled with unforgettable beauty, magic, comedy and breathtaking spectacle.

HAMILTON
July 17 – August 26, 2018
http://www.hamiltonbroadway.com

With book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, HAMILTON is the story of one of America's Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies who became George Washington's right-hand man during the Revolutionary War and was the new nation’s first Treasury Secretary.

The story of America then, as told by America now, it features a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, blues, rap, R&B, and Broadway.

Tickets: For season tickets go online at playhousesquare.org/broadway or call 216-640-8800.   Single ticket purchase dates vary by show and will be announced at a later date. Stay informed about Hamilton’s Cleveland engagement by signing up to receive our HAMILTON updates by email at playhousesquare.org/HAMILTON

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I CALL MY BROTHERS challenges and confounds at Cleveland Public Theatre


It’s no wonder in this age of xenophobia, racial profiling and baiting, irrational interpretation of regulations, police brutality and alternate facts being spewed, that when a car bomb goes off in the center of a large American metropolis, a Muslim young man would become paranoid.

I Call My Brothers, multi-award winning author Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s play, which is now in production at Cleveland Public Theatre, takes the audience on a journey through the mind of Amor, a 20-something Muslim, as he suffers through 24-hours filled with angst, pain and fear.

The idea challenges what is real, is fiction, are actual events and what are fantasies.

We share with Amor his attempt to return a replacement head for a drill, talking almost non-stop on the phone, revisiting a relationship with the woman of his dreams who rejected him, conversing with his dead grandmother, confronting the police, having an extended conversation with a call center operator and attempting to “walk like a person who isn’t think about walking.”  The issue is, which of these events, if any, really did happened? 

Much of the paranoia comes from the realization that the Boston Marathon happened, that 911 took place and Arabs and Muslims have had a bullseye painted on their backs ever since.  Will Amor, with his Arab looks, carrying a backpack in crowded New York, be the next subject of profiling?

On the surface the play would seem to be a strong candidate for a thrilling theatrical experience.  Unfortunately, that is not true.

The author is Swedish.  The play has been translated into English by Rachel Willson-Broyles.  Whether it is the author’s not being an American or the translation, the script doesn’t always hold up well. 

From Amor traversing Times Square, which is a vast, very well-protected area in a major US city (not like a small Swedish village), to his attempt to return the drill head to a Home Depot-like store, of which there are none in New York’s theatre district, to his description of where he is, there is a lack of authenticity.

Performed in a very creative set designed by Douglas Puskas, which has many car parts suspended against the back wall, depicting the remains of the car bomb explosion, the set speaks to the play’s theme.  Wes Calkin’s lighting, Alison Garrigan’s costumes and James Gillen Kosmatka’s sound designs all work to effectively aid the production.

But there are some issues with CPT’s production. The pacing seems hurried. The swiftness results in lines often becoming unintelligible and scenes not being allowed to gel, thus robbing the audience of a complete experience.
   
Salar Ardebili puts full effort into his portrayal of Amor.  He is like the Energizer bunny, non-stop movement.  Unfortunately, his articulation lacks precision, so many of his lines are lost in a blur of unintelligible sounds. 

The rest of the cast, Abdelghani Kitab, Andrea Belser and Rocky Encalada
playing multiple roles, fair better vocally. 

Capsule judgement:  The intention of I Call My Brothers is well justified.  Unfortunately, the script and the production do not totally accomplish the author’s goal.

I Call My Brothers runs through March 4, 2017 at Cleveland Public Theatre. For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Well done Barbecue lights up Cleveland Public Theatre



Addiction, whether it's alcohol, drugs, sex, racism, obsessive compulsion or eating, is no funny matter. That is unless it's in a play written by playwright Robert O'Hara.

Robert O'Hara, a native of Cincinnati, is a master at writing comedic and satirical scenes and lines, often in relationship to what it means to be a black gay man in America. He probes into identity, social injustice, and attempts by blacks to live the American dream.

The winner of the Oppenheimer Award for best New American Play (Insurrection: Holding History), Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play (Antebellum) and Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Drama (Bootycandy), his works are often met with very strong positive or negative reactions as he does not shrink away from bold and daring themes and language.

Barbecue centers around a severely dysfunctional family in which every member has one or more addictions. Even the "healthy" member of the family is afflicted.

The family has come together in sister Barbara's favorite haunt, a picnic area in a secluded park, to stage an emergency intervention. Barbara is drug addicted, and raises money for her habit through various nefarious means.

The question, of course, is why, in this family of "sickies," is Barbara being picked out to be "saved?"
To complicate the matter, there is not only one family, but two of them! One white, one black.
Of course bickering, spilling family secrets, accusations, bitching, and backwoods and Ebonic colloquialisms flow forth as chaos reigns. The dialogue is filled with both funny and pathetic phrases. The characters are extremes, but that's a requirement for a farcical examination of addiction, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity.

For the sake of those who go to see the show, that's the end of spoiler alerts, other than to say surprise after surprise, including an Oscars Awards ceremony take place and a best-selling book is written.
Cleveland Public Theatre's serving of the play is well paced and nicely developed by director Beth Wood who again proves she has a way of getting high comedy from all sorts of scripts.

The actors cavort in a realistic fenced in park setting, complete with grass, hills, a barbeque, benches, street light and a symbolic gnarled dead tree, creatively designed by Ryan Patterson. Benjamin Gantose's lighting nicely illuminates the goings one.

The play zings right along, teeter-tottering between ridiculous and asking "who are these people and what are their stories?" O'Hara challenges each of us to probe what makes and affirms identities. He challenges us to consider what is truth and what is fantasy.

The cast is strong. Examining each of them would reveal some of the creativity of O'Hara's creative plot devices. It will have to suffice that there are some standout performances, but all the characters are well etched. Congrats to Jill Levin, Teresa DeBerry, Ray McNiece, MaryAnn Elder, Sally Groth, Katrice Monee Headd, Tonya Broach, Scott A. Campbell, Pamela Morton and Ashley Aquilla.

Capsule judgement: Barbecue is the type of script that some will love, others abhor. It is farce, which means broad, overplayed written and portrayed characters, which again, will turn some on, others off. I found the evening funny, thought provoking, creative and effective, while recognizing its use of writing gimmicks and overly broad characterizations. It's worth the time to see this show!!!

(Side comment: While in the Gordon Square arts district, explore the exploding restaurant and other venues which surround CPT.)

Barbecue runs through March 11, 2017 at Cleveland Public Theatre. For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ensemble hits a hole-in-one with Radio Golf



 August Wilson is considered not only one of the greatest of African American playwrights, but of all theatrical writers.  His themes of self-identity, racism, loyalty, religion, deception, love, gentrification and historical verification form the centerpiece of his well-received “Century Cycle” about black life in Pittsburgh.

Radio Golf, which was completed only months before Wilson’s death in 2005, is the last installment in his ten play cycle.  It is set in the Hill District of the steel city, an area which is undertaking gentrification, as the once all-white area transitioned to primary African American, and now is trending back.  It is an area which, in its recent past, had no retail stores and is now experiencing the likes of Starbucks, Whole Foods and Barnes and Noble.

The script came to life in 2005 in a production at Yale Repertory Theatre.  It opened on Broadway in 2007 after a short run of 64 performances.  Ironically it played at the Cort Theatre, where Wilson’s first Broadway play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was staged in 1984.

The script won the 2007 New York Drama Critics Circle’s Award for Best Play, and was nominated for a Tony Award.

The play, with strong melodramatic overtones, contains a vocal tone that is almost poetic in its flow.  It’s a sound of the past which linguists report “can be heard only faintly now.” 

Wilson, in contrast to the earlier plays in the cycle, gives glimpses of the rise of the black man into the “American dream,” which had been reserved for the white man.  This is the world of financial investments, real estate, politics and golf, which generally has taken place at segregated country clubs, and played by those of the privileged leisure class.  Golf, in which Tiger Woods, whose picture holds a prominent place in the office of Wilkes Realty, along with a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., has made symbolic inroads into the white world.

The story centers on Harmond Wilkes, who, along with his friend, Roosevelt Hicks, are intent on redeveloping the Hill District for civic pride and financial profit. 

Wilkes, an Ivy League educated man, is seemingly on a roll.  He is touted to be a candidate for mayor, and would be the city’s first black leader.  His wife, Mame, is in line for a major state-level consulting job, and the realty company he had inherited from his father is about to break ground on the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Project, which includes apartment buildings and high-end chain stores. 

The project becomes complicated when, Elder Joseph Barlow, an eccentric derelict, claims that a house at 1939 Wylie (a residence which has played major roles in former Wilson plays) has been illegally taken from him. 

As the plot develops, Wilks is caught between loyalty to Hicks, his friend and co-investor, his wife Mame and his conscience. 

On the day the house is to be demolished, Wilks, in a surprising, but satisfying ending, leaves his office to join a group of Hill residents to protest the demolition of 1839 Wylie.  This action brings the Pittsburgh Cycle to a significant and final conclusion. 

The Ensemble production, under the adept directing of Terrence Spivey, is outstanding.  Well-paced, using the authentic “Pittsburgh black American sound” balanced with the educated language and pronunciation of the emerging black community, and well-textured characterizations, the staging holds the audience’s attention.


 

Rodney Freeman shines as Elder Joseph Barlow, the seemingly odd elderly man who turns out to be a rebel with cause.  This is a finely developed characterization. 

Though he stumbles over numerous lines, Theodore M. Snead makes Harmond Wilks live.  Kristi Little nicely creates Mame Wilks as a supportive yet success-driven wife.



Leilani Barrett, properly creates Roosevelt Hicks as a dislikable, self-centered cad.

Darryl Tatum nicely portrays handyman and ex-convict, Sterling Johnson, who in many ways is the fulcrum on which the plot turns.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  August Wilson, who is one of the most important contemporary playwrights, shines a well-focused spotlight on the history and conflicts of the African American community.  Ensemble’s production of Wilson’s Radio Golf is a well-conceived tribute to the man and his message.  It is a must see!

Radio Golf, whose first act runs 1 hour and 35 minutes and second act is one hour with a ten-minute intermission, runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 7 pm and Saturdays @ 3 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through February 26, 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

Ensemble’s next fully staged production is Cleveland Heights’ playwright Rajiv Joseph’s The North Pool opening April 28th, running through May 21st, 2017.

To see the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to:  clevelandtheaterreviews.com


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Well-conceived The Bridges of Madison County @ Lakeland Civic Theatre



The capsule judgement of my review of the Broadway production of The Bridges of Madison County stated, ““The Bridges of Madison County” is one of those special, intimate, meaningful, well-conceived and performed shows that deserved a longer shelf-life than it is getting.”

The show opened to tepid reviews.  Why?  It’s not “filled with flash, glitter, large production numbers and massive choruses.  It is a well-conceived, tender, and low-keyed experience.”  It is a “little” musical, much in the realm of “She Loves Me.”  Those qualities are not the elements of which present day Broadway shows are made.

As I predicted, the show closed its Broadway run quickly.  Now it is released for hinterlands’ productions. 

Fortunately for Cleveland area theatre patrons, Lakeland Civic Theater, located on the campus of Lakeland Community College, acquired production rights, and under the adept direction of Martin Friedman, it had a healthy run.  (Disclosure:  I was out of the country during much of the show’s staging and returned just in time to see the last performance, thus this late review.)

The musical is adapted from Robert James Waller’s best-selling “The Bridges of Madison County.”  It, as was the book, is based on Waller’s homey belief that “some people experience a special love that happens just once in a lifetime—if you’re lucky.”

The score, which won the Tony Award, is beautiful.  It is filled with tender ballads, country twanging and good old fashioned 1950-60’s sentimentality.  It would have made Rodgers and Hammerstein proud.

The story, which some will think is way too Harlequin romance novel sentimental, centers on Francesca Johnson (Trinidad Snider), an Italian who was brought to Iowa after World War II by nice guy, low-keyed “Bud” Johnson (Scott Esposito).  She leads a quiet life on a desolate farm with one close neighbor, Marge (Amiee Collier) with whom she can share her homesickness for Italy, and discuss issues of her marriage and children, Michael (Frank Ivancic) and Carolyn (Anna Barrett).

It’s 1965, and into Francesca’s life comes Robert Kincaid (Shane Patrick O’Neill), a “National Geographic” photographer, who has come to take pictures of the famed covered bridges of Madison county.  He stops for directions to find a bridge he can’t locate, Francesca’s family is at the state fair, they quickly fill a need in each other, a love affair results and he offers to take her away from her “unfulfilled” life.

It’s a tender tale of infidelity, love, unfulfilled experiences, and then the inevitable need to make a pivotal decision that will not only affect the lives of Francesca and Robert, but her family. 

Friedman’s direction is spot on.  The show is well-paced, the human interactions real, and the overall effect is emotionally wrenching.  (The woman sitting next to me sobbingly used two packets of Kleenex during the closing scenes.)

The cement of this production is the totally convincing relationship developed by Snider and O’Neill.  Every touch, kiss, and extended eye contact screamed, “this is real love.”  Very seldom do you see such real interconnectedness on stage.  Bravo!

The rest of the cast, Scott Esposito, Frank Ivancic, Anna Barrett, Aimee Collier, Brain Altman and Amanda Tidwell, all develop real people.

Jordan Cooper’s musical direction, Trad A Burns set design, and Tesia Benson’s lighting design were all well-conceived and helped make this a special production.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  It may be cliché and overly dramatic, but The Bridges of Madison County makes for a fine evening of theatre.  The Lakeland production was stellar.  Applause, applause, applause! 

The Bridges of Madison County ran from February 2-19 at the Lakeland Civic Theatre located on the campus of Lakeland Community College.

WAIT UNTIL DARK underwhelming at Great Lakes Theater


Over the last number of years Great Lakes Theater has cobbled together seasons consisting of Shakespearean classics, musicals and mystery plays.  The combination has proven to be very successful, with many award winning productions and audience pleasing shows being produced.

Presently at GLT is Frederick Knox’s Wait Until Dark, the stage version of the 1967 film of the same title, whose climactic scene has been ranked as tenth on the list of Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”

The melodramatic story centers on the Greenwich Village apartment of Sam and Susy Hendrix.  She is blind, which turns out to be a key ingredient of the script. 

While on an assignment, Sam was persuaded by a woman to transport a doll across the Canadian border into the United States.  He is unaware that packets of heroin have been sewn into the toy. 

A con man and his ex-convict associates connive their way into the Hendrix apartment with the intent of finding the doll.  A deadly game of cat and mouse develops in which Susy’s blindness, the help of a young neighbor, a couple of murders, and some convoluted plot twists carry the play to a dramatic ending.

The play, with a cast of Robert Duvall and Lee Remick, who was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Actress, ran on Broadway for 374 performances in 1966.

The GLT production, part of its 55th consecutive season, opens with tense music which sets a proper mood for what should be coming. 

Unfortunately, in this era of visually dynamic movies and hyped television crime shows, the dated and often contrived script does not grab and hold attention as it did in the 60s. 

The first act is long and often tedious, overly slow in its development.  The second act, which does picks up the pace, fails to have the startling effect that the ending deserves. 

There is too much that doesn’t ring true in the production.  Whether this is result of Joseph Hanreddy’s direction, the acting, or the difficult to stage climactic scene, the overall effect is not compelling.

Scott Bradley’s set is appropriate, Rick Martin’s lighting, which is the key to the effectiveness of the last scene, has some flaws, and the sound effects by Lindsay Jones help develop the right mood.

The cast, Nick Steen (Mike Talman), David Anthony Smith (Sgt. Carlino), Arthur Hanket (Harry Roat, Jr), Jodi Dominick (Susy Hendrix), Jonathan Dyrud (Sam Hendrix), Elise Pakiela (Gloria), Laura Welsch Berg and Lynn Robert Berg (policepersons) are all quite acceptable in their portrayals.

Capsule judgement:  Wait Until Dark continues the GLT tradition of producing a mystery as part of its season offerings.  Those who love murder mysteries may well be enthused, but both script and production do not reach the level of effectiveness of previous shows of this genre.

Wait Until Dark runs through March 12, 2017 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Dynamic choreography lights up the stage in Beck Center’s Bring It On: The Musical



Mention Lin-Manuel Miranda and the musical sensation Hamilton comes to mind.  If not, then, In the Heights, which had a run at Beck Center last year, is noted.  Few know Miranda also wrote both the music and lyrics, along with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green for Bring It On:  The Musical, with book by Jeff Whitty, which is loosely based on the 2000 film of the same name.  The script centers on the competitive world of cheerleading, with side stories about bullying, teen angst and determining what’s important in the world.

The story centers on Campbell Davis (Kailey Boyle) who has achieved her goal of being elected captain of the Truman High School co-ed cheerleading squad.  Through manipulation of the school district boundaries by the mother of Eva (Abby DeWitte), a devious sophomore, Campbell and her friend Bridget (Shelby Griswold), who can’t make the cheer squad because of her heft, are transferred to Jackson High, a predominately black school, with (horror of horrors) no cheerleading squad.

In her exile, Campbell leaves behind, Steven (Jonathan Young), her studly boyfriend, her chances at a national cheerleading championship and her role as “queen bee.”

As must happen in tales of teenage angst, Campbell and Bridget win over the originally hostile students at their new school, forms a cheerleading squad, and go on to compete in the national competition. 

Though the outcome is not what “after school specials” are usually made of, the conclusion is pleasing, the moral well honed. 

If the standing ovation and tween girls who were seated in front of me, who sat on the edge of their seats, often jumping up and down with squeals of excitement, are representative, the audience will love this show in spite of its soap opera tale.

Bring It On: The Musical opened on Broadway in August, 2012 and closed in December of that year.  Termed “a high-energy stage spectacle,” it opened to generally positive reviews, with special praise for its dance numbers.  It was also praised for Manuel’s “sassy libretto.” It was nominated for Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Choreography.

The power of Beck/Baldwin Wallace College’s staging is Martin Céspedes’ spot-on choreography and Mary Sheridan’s cheerleading stunts which take the show to a high level of pleasurable excitement.

Céspedes creatively lets loose.  Constant motion rocks the stage with hip hop, poppin’, breakdancing, freestyle moves, isolations, jerkin’, krumping and freezes being showcased.  This is a lesson in modern street dancing vocabulary and forms. 

What’s compelling is that the moves are being performed by music theatre majors, not trained cheerleaders and free form dancers.  The BW cast are performing dangerous human pyramids and athletic movements which normally take years to perfect and do safely, and dancing which requires years to learn the body control to achieve the moves. 

Director Will Brandstetter keeps the show moving swiftly along and has done a nice job of helping the large cast develop realistic characterizations.

The cast, Baldwin Wallace University musical theatre majors, is excellent.  They are well trained as performers, and it shows in their performances.

Shelby Griswold (Bridget) has a wonderful sense of comic timing. Her mobile face and line interpretations light up the stage.  David Holbert (Twig, Bridget’s boyfriend) also displays strong comic chops.

Kailey Boyle not only looks like the stereotype blond, cute cheerleader, but is convincing in creating a real Campbell.  Shayla Brielle effectively wails and dances up a storm as Danielle, the leader of the “Queen Bees” of Jackson High.  Mike Cefalo is appealing as Campbell’s new boyfriend.

Michael Canada’s convincing and humorous cross-dressing performance La Cienega made him an audience favorite.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Bring It On: The Musical is not a great script, but with a talented cast, high energy dancing, creative choreography, compelling gymnastics, and a dynamic musical score, Beck appears to have another cash cow on its hands as large audiences should fill up the theatre.

Bring It On: The Musical is scheduled to run until February 26, 2017 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 A Great Wilderness tells the tale of a gay conversion therapy camp in the remote Idaho woods. (March 3-April 9, 2017)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Farcical Sherlock Holmes’ mystery, Baskerville, at the Cleveland Play House


Ken Ludwig is the crown king of writing modern farcical plays.  He and the Cleveland Play House seem to have a “thing” for each other.  Ludwig has had world premiere productions of his scripts A Comedy of Tenors (2015), The Games Afoot (2011) and Leading Ladies (2004) on CPH stages.

Ludwig is a play writing machine.  The author of 18 plays and 3 musicals, he has had 6 shows on Broadway.  His stage creations have been performed in more than 30 countries and have been translated into over 20 languages. 

Success came quickly to Ludwig. In 1989, his first Broadway play, Lend Me a Tenor, was bannered as “one of the two great farces by a living writer.”  It went on to win three Tony Awards.  His second play, Crazy for You, ran for over five years and won every important award for Best Musical. 

The likes of Carol Burnett, Lynn Redgrave, Frank Langella, Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche have starred in his writings.

Baskerville is based on the book, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” the third of the crime novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which featured Sherlock Holmes.  The book has been listed in the top 200 in the BBC’s “The Best Read Poll” and as the top Holmes novel by the Sherlockian scholars.

Like the book, Baskerville takes place in both London and Devonshire, England in the late 1890s.  The tale starts when Dr. James Mortimer asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate the death of his friend, Sir Charles Baskerville, who had been killed at his Devonshire estate, Baskerville Hall.  There is fear that Sir Charles’s nephew, and his sole heir, a Texan who is about to assume ownership of the estate, Sir Henry Baskerville, will meet the same fate. 

This fear is based on the “family” curse, which dates back to the English Civil War, when Hugo Baskerville supposedly sold his soul to the devil for help in abducting a woman.  Hugo was reportedly killed by a giant dog dubbed “The hound of Baskerville.”  Since that time, there have been reported howling and the evidence of giant footprints, credited to the massive creature.

Though retaining the traditional Sherlock Holmes observations of wonder, Baskerville is written as extended farce, a murderously funny adventure.  As is the usual case, much to the delight of the Conan Doyle fans, the play is filled with Holmesisms such as, “That was a curious incident,” "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?,” “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbably, must be the truth,” and, of course, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

To find their ingenious killer, Holmes and Watson must brave the desolate moors before the family curse dooms its newest heir. And, of course, there must be a twist at the end, so our heroes can solve yet another case!

CPH’s production, creatively directed by Brendon Fox, leaps over all the farcical barriers to create mayhem.  Sets zoom on and off stage, costumes morph from being one thing to being another, lighting and sound effects create mystery and intrigue.  The audience is taken on a silly overly dramatic journey as the intrepid investigators escape a dizzying web of clues, silly accents, disguises, and deceit as five actors portray more than 40 characters. 

The first act plodded along, with actors sometimes giving the feeling that they were not sure where the laughs were going to take place, so they paused and waited to see. In the second act, all the plugs were pulled and giggling and fun resulted.  

Though not looking like the traditional tall, thin image created by the movies and television of Sherlock Holmes, Rafael Untalan, created a believable character.  Jacob James looked like the stereotypical Doctor Watson and created a nicely textured interpretation.  The rest of the cast, Brian Owen, Evan Alexander Smith, and Nisi Sturgis were outstanding in morphing from character to character.  Though sometimes overdone accents got in the way of understanding, the intent and purpose of each character was clear.

Kudos to Candace Brown, Janel Moore, Christina Spencer, the off-stage dressers, for pulling off the numerous costume changes.  They well deserved their curtain call.

Timothy R. Mackabee’s scenic design, Lex Liang’s costumes, Peter Maradudin’s lighting, Victoria Deiorio’s original music and sound design all helped to create the right aesthetic images.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   Is Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a great play?  No!  Is it even a very good play?  Probably not.  What it is is a play that will delight many.  Especially those who like to solve mysteries, who are enamored with farcical delights, and enjoy a cast who is having a lark playing lots of characters and changing costumes a great deal.  And, no spoiler alert here, the butler didn’t do it!

Baskerville
runs through February 12, 2017, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.



Next up at CPH:  Laura Kepley directs Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize winning How I Learned to Drive, March 4-26, 2017 @ Allen Theatre.