Sunday, May 19, 2019

Superb performances enhance compelling “Two” at none too fragile



Jim Cartwright, the author of “Two,” which is getting an outstanding production at none-too-fragile theater, is an English dramatist who writes about the lives of the working classes. 

His style of writing is often compared to that of Anton Chekov because of the poetic lyricism of his narration.  He has the ability to dig into angst and also inject humor in the most tragic of situations, whether he is describing starvation, domestic violence, the death of a child, or cancer.

Cartwright examines the themes of the “individual within versus the community; the nature and power of memory; and oneself as one's own worst enemy.”

His style often has a narrator setting the scene, introducing characters, and providing social and political comments, while remaining in character. 

His plays, as evidenced in “Two,” commonly are a series of vignettes interspersed with monologues, which take the form of a stream of consciousness.

“Two,” which is funny as well as heartbreaking, takes place on one night in a pub in northern England.  Two actors play 14 characters who reveal a cross-section of the pub’s town. 

As the scenes unfold the pub’s patrons down liquid refreshment and munch on chips as they tell of their dreams, ambitions, desires, disappointments and frustrations.

We meet the pub’s owners, a bickering husband and wife, and a range of characters whose tales take us on a rollercoaster ride of emotional highs and lows. 

The pub guests vary from a small meek man who is controlled by his wife, a male who does not speak but interacts with the proprietors, to an abusive husband and his terrified wife.

And so it goes until a young boy is left alone by his father and is mothered by the Landlady.  When the father returns, and the boy exits, we quickly realize the trauma that the departure has on the woman.  Raw feelings erupt between the barkeeps and an incident that shattered this couple is revealed.

The play finishes with the lines: Landlord: “I love you.” Landlady: “I love you too.” But, is that their real feelings?  And how long will the truce last?

Derdriu Ring and David Peacock are nothing short of marvelous as the pub keepers and the many characters they portray.  The accents, the levels of emotions, and the completely believable characters that are created, are all meticulously done.  These are award winning portrayals!

As has come to be expected, Sean Derry’s direction is spot on.  The pacing and the keying of laughs and angst, are etched with care and purpose.  


Capsule judgment: “Two” proves once again that none-too-fragile is the consistently best off-off Broadway theaters in the Greater Cleveland area.  The quality of play choices, the prime acting and the spot-on directing, makes going to this venue a theatrical wonder.  

For tickets for “Two” which runs through March 31, 2018, call 330-671-4563 or go to nonetoofragile.com

Up next: “Woody’s Order” is a solo show written and performed by Ann Talman.  It tells the tale of the decision that must be made by Ann, an actress/comedian, who is torn between her Broadway career and being her nonverbal, cerebral palsied brother’s caregiver.  Presented from August 16-31.

Special event:  N-T-F’S “Boogieban” last year was one of the area’s most awarded shows. The production received recognition from both the Cleveland Critics Circle and Broadway World.  David Peacock and Travis Teffner were co-winners of the Cleveland Critics Circle award as Best Actors in a Non-Musical.  N-T-F will be presenting the show in both Chicago and New York later this year.  Before it leaves the local area it will be staged again at none-too-fragile on August 2 and 3, 2019.  Tickets will go fast.  Call immediately to reserve your seats. 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Welcome to the Renaissance--touring “Something Rotten!” delights at EJThomas


Theater history books refer to “The Black Crook,” which opened in 1866 in New York, as the first book musical.   According to “Something Rotten!,” by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell (book) and Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick (music and lyrics that honor should go to “Omelette.”

Never heard of “Omelette?” Unless you’ve seen the hysterically funny “Something Rotten!” you don’t realize that “Omelette” is an in-joke at the center of a farcical plot that exposes how the Bottom brothers outsmarted the Elizabethan era’s literary rock star, William Shakespeare, in producing the world’s first musical. 

Nick and Nigel Bottom, an actor and his playwright brother, live in the theatrical shadow of the Bard of Avon.  They desire to take some of the attention away from Will. 

How to do it?  They pay a soothsayer, a maybe-relative of the famous Nostradamus, to look into the future.  His predictions?  Shakespeare’s greatest hit is going to be a play named, “Omelette” and the next big trend in theatre is going to be musicals, where the actors sing many of their lines.   So, the duo starts to one-up Will by writing a musical play about eggs.

Their efforts result in a kick line of dancing omelettes, a silly story line, and ridiculous farcical actions.  The musical number “Make an Omelette,” ranks with “Springtime for Hitler” from “The Producers” as one of the funniest dances in musical history choreography.

We observe Shakespeare as "a hack with a knack for stealing anything he can,” who swipes not only the title, but plot devices and lines from the naïve Nigel, which turns out to be “Will’s” “Hamlet.” (Oh, “Hamlet,” not “Omelette!”)  As the soothsayer says, to audible groans, laughter and applause from the audience, “Well, I was close!”

From its opening, the creative “Welcome to the Renaissance,” to the “Finale,” the musical is classical theater gone awry, complete with show-stoppers (“A Musical,” “We See the Light,” and “It’s Eggs!”), encore after encore, ridiculous sight gags, double entendres, sexual allusions, and male costumes with huge codpieces, which are often used as pockets, with delightful effect.

There are numerous references to the Bard’s plays and Broadway musicals. Anyone not familiar with either of these topics might not get all the subtext.  But even they will find enough to laugh about.

How can a show with a score which contains such titles as “The Black Death,” “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top,” “Welcome to the Renaissance” and “To Thine Own Self” be anything but be filled with ridiculous delight?

Farce is hard to perform well because of the need for broad realism where the audience laughs with the performers, not at them.  The cast makes the difficult look easy.  This is even more impressive in that this is not the original Broadway or touring performers.  Kudos to director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw.




The ensemble is outstanding.   Matthew Baker amuses as Shakespeare, who struts around the stage in sensual leather biker gear with ripped abs exposed, the obvious superstar of the Renaissance. Matthew Michael Janisse delights as the obsessive Nick Bottom whose mission in life is to out-bard the Bard.  Richard Spitaletta is charming as the shy poet and writer, Nigel Bottom.  Mark Saunders swishes with gleeful ease as Brother Jeremiah.  Greg Kalafatas is hilarious as the bumbling Nostradamus. 

The talented supporting performers all dance and sing with talent and enthusiasm.

Capsule judgment: “Something Rotten” is a theatrical treat…a wonderfully conceived and performed musical farce.  Unfortunately, this is the must see musical, only ran for two nights in Akron.  But, despair not, Beck Center will be doing their version of the show July 10 – August 9, 2020 (note: 2020).

Sunday, May 12, 2019

CHARLIE BROWN, with a kind of new twist at Theatre in the Circle


In the Spring of 1967 a group of theater students from Lorain County Community College went to New York to get their first experience with Broadway.

One of the shows they saw was YOU’RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN.  Fortunately, due to a friendship between one of the LCCC faculty and Clark Gesner, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show based on the “Peanuts” characters created by cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz,” the students not only got to meet the writer, but spent time socializing with the cast. 

This connection led to LCCC’s drama department getting permission to stage one of the first amateur productions of the work. 

“Peanuts” is often thought of as just a cartoon about kids.  It is, but in fact, it is infused with philosophical, psychological, and sociological overtones.  Not only are relationships, concepts about the American educational system, family connections and the angst of childhood showcased, but as stated in the book, “The Gospel According to Peanuts,” “it sheds more light on the Christian faith and how it is to be lived than many more serious theological works.”

“Peanuts” is among the most popular comics with 17,897 strips published.  At its peak in the mid-to-late 1960s, the strip ran in over 2,600 newspapers, with a readership of around 355 million in 75 countries, and was translated into 21 languages.

The strip focuses on a social circle of young children, where adults exist but are rarely seen or heard. 

The main character, Charlie Brown, is a meek, nervous boy who lacks self-confidence.  He is unable to fly a kite, win a baseball game, or kick a football held by his irascible friend, Lucy, who always pulls it away at the last instant.  “Good grief Charlie Brown!”

The musical, which, during its off-Broadway and subsequent revivals, has starred such theater and television stars as Gary Burghoff (Radar on “Mash”), Anthony Rapp (RENT) and Kristin Chenoweth (WICKED).  The LCCC production featured Crissy Wilczak, who went on to Great White Way fame in A CHORUS LINE, 1940s RADIO HOUR, SEESAW and was featured in TV’s “Mork and Mindy.”

The musical opens with Charlie Brown sitting alone as his friends give their various opinions of him.  Today everyone is singing “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” rather than berating him for the many stumbles as he follows his life path.

The usually depressed Charlie Brown is happy and hopeful, that is, until he notices the Little Red-Haired Girl, who he secretly loves.  He decides to go sit with her. However, in typical Charlie Brown fashion, he cannot find the courage to do so, winding up putting his lunch bag over his head in utter frustration. 


As the tale goes on, Lucy expresses her deep infatuation with Schroeder and asks him what he thinks of the idea of marriage. Schroeder remains aloof as he continues to play his piano. Sally is sad because her jump rope tangled up. And so the tale of Charlie Brown and his “pals” goes on, with humor, pathos and such songs as “My Blanket and Me,” “Queen Lucy,” “The Kite,” “The Book Report,” “Suppertime” and “Happiness” are sung.

 
Theatre in the Circle presented YOU’RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN by adding a “new wrinkle or two.”  Though the show is usually done with adults playing Charlie and the gang, this production features actors of “a certain age.”  These are not spry young twenty-somethings.  They are closer to having to use canes and walkers to traverse the stage.  No amount of makeup is going to conceal the frown and laugh lines of lives well spent.


George Roth is properly introspective as Charlie Brown.  Former “Scene” drama critic, Christine Howey, was born to play the sarcastic, grumpy, self-centered Lucy.  Agnes Herrmann is adorable as Patty.  Bob Navis, Jr. is piano-centric as Schroeder.  Kevin Kelly, the king of overacting and shtick, has a wonderful time as Snoopy.  Noah Budin is endearing as thumb-sucking, blanket-obsessed Linus.  


Director Bill Corcoran keeps the show zipping right along (well, as zipping as he can get a cast of slow moving seniors to move.)


CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Happiness” is watching a mainly “mature” opening night audience delight in seeing YOU’RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN (with a new wrinkle) at Theatre in the Circle.  (Unfortunately, the show only had a one-weekend run so there is no chance to see it.)


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

Saturday, May 11, 2019

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET…Great Balls of Fire! @ GLT


Part concert, part history lesson, a lot of rock ‘n roll, and a heck of a good time-- that’s MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, now on stage at the Great Lakes Theater.

The venue is playing host to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.  Well, four performers portraying those icons of rock and roll, in a stage show that attempts to duplicate the one time that the four actually did get together for an informal rock session.  The event took place in the recording studios of the legendary Sun Records on December 4, 1956.

Pretend it’s 63 years ago, four emerging music icons, all of whom were good old Southern boys, identified and molded by Sam Phillips, are in his Memphis Sun Studios.  They improvised an evening of gospel, blues and rock ‘n roll music. 

Whether the actions happened exactly as portrayed is not known, but the fact that there was such a jam session is a reality.  A recording of the session, and a picture of the four, documented the event and became the basis for the musical with a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. 

The event was chronicled by a reporter from the Memphis Press-Scimitar.  The next day the article discussing the event stated, “This quartet could sell a million.”  Little did the reporter realize that though that number sounded like a lot, these four would go on to sell many, many millions, and become individual musical icons.

The GLT production, under the direction of Hunter Foster, is on target.  The production is filled with well-timed humor and a little drama.  And, of course, there is a Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.

The stage literally explodes with hit after hit, including Blue Suede Shoes, That’s All Right, Sixteen Tons, I Walk the Line, Great Balls of Fire and Party.  Then, there was a curtain call which featured the likes of Hound Dog, Riders in the Sky, and See You Later Alligator.

The cast members don’t exactly look or sound like the big four of Rock and Roll and Rock-a-Billie, but they sing well, and play their own instruments.



Sean Michael Buckely faintly looks like Elvis, and imitates the prescribed hip swivels, pelvis thrusts and toe twists.  He’s missing the bedroom eyes and full lips and Elvis’s search-light sexuality. Appropriately, the last line heard from the stage at the conclusion of the production was the famous exit line of the King of Rock, “And Elvis has left the building.”

Gabe Aronson, who gives a new meaning to ADHD, delights as the undisciplined, dynamic pianist and performer, Jerry Lee Lewis.  He is often electric on stage, hardly able to contain the character’s twitching, jumping, and hillbilly persona.  

Sky Seals is Johnny Cash-light.  Dressed in Cash’s signature black uniform, his deep voice makes for an acceptable stand-in for the real thing.

James Barry develops nicely the conflicted Perkins, whose fame was eclipsed by Presley, all the way from the King taking Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes and making it into a hit that exceeded the original author’s recording, but generally overshadowing the man known as the King of Rock-a-Billie. 

James Ludwig gives a human portrayal of Sam Phillips, Kristen Beth Williams is fine as Presley’s girl friend of the moment, bass player Eric Scott Anthony and drummer Dave Sonneborn, are excellent musicians who add much to the show.

Capsule judgement: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET is one of those enjoyable evenings of theater.  It’s filled with great music and good enough performances that led to screaming, yelling, clapping, and multi-standing ovations given by the audience.  Yes, Memories Are Made of This!

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET plays Great Lakes Theater through May 26, 2019.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or going to http://www.greatlakestheater.org/.

Monday, May 06, 2019


CLEVELAND THEATER CALENDAR—June-August, 2019

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

Though it seems like it will never be here, there will be summer and the Cleveland theater scene will heat up.  Here’s a list of some of the offerings that are being staged. 

BECK CENTER

216-521-2540 or http://www.beckcenter.org
8 p.m. evenings, 3 p.m. matinees

MATILDA (July 12-August 11) -- Based on the novel by Roald Dahl, the musical tells the tale of Matilda who takes a stand against oppressive forces, thus taking her destiny into her own hands.  (SAVE!  Use code MISSHONEY before July 12 when ordering tickets and get $5 off on adult or senior tickets.)

BLANK CANVAS



440-941-0458 or www.blankcanvastheatre.com

THE TOXIC AVENGER (July 12-27) -- Melvin Ferd, the Third, wants to clean up Tromaville, the most polluted town in New Jersey.  Foiled by the mayor's bullies, Melvin is dumped into a vat of radioactive toxic waste, only to reemerge as The Toxic Avenger, New Jersey's first superhero.  A musical delight!

LOBBY HERO (August 23-September 7) -- A young security guard with big ambitions clashes with his stern boss, an intense rookie cop and her unpredictable partner.

DOBAMA
216-932-3396 or www.dobama.org

33 1/3 A WORLD PREMIERE MUSCAL (June 26-July 14)— A musical tale of four young people who experience a tumultuous New Year's Eve and make a decision
that will change all of their lives.

CAIN PARK
216-371-3000 or http://www.cainpark.com
Thursday-Saturday 7 pm, Sunday 2 pm

RAGTIME (June 13-30 Alma Theatre)— Called, “The Ultimate Musical of Our Time,” this sweeping musical portrait of early-twentieth-century America tells the story of three families in the pursuit of the American Dream. Together, they confront history's timeless contradictions of wealth and poverty, freedom and prejudice, hope and despair...and what it means to live in America.

FOR GOOD:  THE NEW GENERATION OF MUSICALS, VOL.4 (July 17 Alma Theatre) -- In partnership with The Musical Theater Project--From the cutting edge BE MORE CHILL to the contemporary KINKY BOOTS, musicals produced since 2000 have awakened audiences to new possibilities for America's great art form.  Hosted by Nancy Maier and Sheri Gross the production features singers Bridie Carroll and Eric Fancher.

THE LAST FIVE YEARS (July 25-27 Alma Theatre) -- Jason Robert Brown’s classic musical about love, loss and the moments we wish we could do over. (Presented by The Passion Project.)

CLEVELAND SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL

Free admission, except where noted. 
For times and places go to http://www.cleveshakes.com

O FOR A MUSE OF FIRE (June 8)— 6-10 pm at Ensemble Theater—food, cash bar, silent auction, raffle--$25 (a benefit for The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival)

HENRY V (June 21-July 7)—  The political situation in England is tense: King Henry IV has died, and his son, the young King Henry V, has just assumed the throne.  A quest for power follows!

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (July 19-August 4) -- A respectable nobleman lives in the idyllic Italian town of Messina.  He shares his house with his lovely young daughter, his playful, clever niece, and his elderly brother. What ensues is Shakespeare at his creative best!

convergence continuum

convergence-continuum.org or 216-687-0074
Thursday-Saturday @ 8
 

STATEMENTS AFTER AN ARREST UNDER THE IMMORALITY ACT (May 24-June 15) -- Set in apartheid South Africa, where interracial relationships were a criminal offense, a black man and white woman meet secretly in the library to share their hopes and fears.
 

TOM AT THE FARM (Jul 12-Aug 3) -- After the sudden death of his lover, Tom travels from the city to a remote farm for the funeral, and finds a religious family who know nothing of his existence. Tom is threatened by the deceased’s brother and is drawn into a brutal, sexually-charged game.

SHAKESPEARE’S R & J An Adaptation (Aug 30-Sep 21) -- In a boys' boarding school, four students discover a forbidden text of Shakespeare’s play and secretly enact the play in a deluge of agitation, terror, and fierce desires that parallel their own lives.


OBERLIN SUMMER THEATRE FESTIVAL

Hall Auditorium, 67 N. Main Street, Oberlin and other venues
Free admission, reservations requested—440-775-8169

BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE by Leonard Gershe, William Shakespeare’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill, and A MUSICAL CABARET, run in repertoire.   For details and dates go to www.oberlinsummertheaterfestival.com

OHIO SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL

Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens (outdoor performances)
714 N. Portage Path, Akron
ohioshakespearefestival.com or 1-888-718-4253 opt.1

HAMLET (June 28-July 14)— The king is dead. His brother had taken the throne and married the queen. For young prince Hamlet, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE (July 26-August 11) -- Intrigues, disguises, and amorous plots propel this twisted, comedic adventure to its unexpected conclusion.
   
PLAYHOUSE SQUARE

216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.

PORGY AND BESS (June 1)— Cleveland Opera presents this most famous American opera which includes such songs as “Summertime,” “A Woman Is A Sometime Thing,” “My Man's Gone Now,” “I Got Plenty of O’ Nuttin’.”

ROCK OF AGES TENTH ANNIVERSARY TOUR (June 6 @ 7:30)— A musical that captures the iconic era that was the big bad 1980s Hollywood, featuring the music of hit bands such as Styx, Poison and Twisted Sister.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN (June 11-30)— Winner of six Tony Awards, this is a deeply personal and profoundly “must see” contemporary musical about life and the way we live it. (Part of the Key Bank Broadway series.)

COME FROM AWAY (July 9-28) -- A true story of 7,000 stranded airline passengers and the small town of Gander, Newfoundland that welcomed them on 9-11. Cultures clashed, but uneasiness turned into trust, music soared into the night, and gratitude grew into enduring friendships.  (Part of the Key Bank Broadway series.)

THE LION KING (August 7-September 1)— Giraffes strut. Birds swoop. Gazelles leap. The entire Serengeti comes to life. And as the music soars, Pride Rock slowly emerges from the mist. This is Disney's THE LION KING, making its triumphant return to Playhouse Square! (A Huntington Bank feature performance.)

PORTHOUSE

http://www.porthousetheatre.com or 330-929-4416 or 330-672-3884

MAN OF LAMANCHA (June 13-29)— The “Impossible Dream” musical inspired by Miguel de Cervantes' masterpiece DON QUIXOTE, follows the journey of a dying man determined not to abandon his ideals or passion.

TINTYPES (July 4-20)— A collection of snapshots of America prior to World War I featuring such patriotic and ragtime classics as "The Yankee Doodle Boy," "Stars and Stripes Forever," "Meet Me in St. Louis," "America the Beautiful," and "You're a Grand Old Flag."

THE MUSIC MAN (July 25-August 11)— The “Seventy-Six Trombones” musical story of a fast-talking salesman who arrives in River City, Iowa to con the townspeople and hurry off with their money, but he doesn't count on falling for the town librarian in the process.  (See this classic at Porthouse before its scheduled fall Broadway revival.)

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Should we laugh or cry? State of civility examined in NATIVE GARDENS at CPH


Negative racial and ethnic stereotypes, anti-ageism, political philosophical differences, and border conflicts are not usual topics for a comic play.  But, author Karen Zacarías, whose “Native Gardens” is now in production at Cleveland Play House, believes “humor humanizes” when what could be the basis of a blood bath becomes a pool of laughter with a purpose.

“Native Gardens” is a comedy.  Yes, a Neil Simon type of comedy, not a dark comedy with underlying meanings and hidden intentions where things are manipulated to fool the audience.  Everything in “Native Gardens” is clearly sown on the landscape.  In fact, the landscaping of two yards is the center of the comic gem.

No punches are pulled.  Phrases like “you people,” “privileged class,” “old people, “Mexican,” “Latino” and other non-pc words flow easily off the tongues of Frank, Virginia, Pablo and Tania as they battle over a fence, property lines, and the kinds of vegetation to be planted.

“Native Gardens” is a perfect piece to define and explain the political and societal climate of today. 

The bright, witty and clever story tells the tale of the families Butley and Del Valle.
 


Virginia Butley is an engineer for a defense contractor.  Frank, her husband, is now retired but was formerly a consultant for a government agency.  They are wealthy, conservative Republicans who believe in the “American” way of life. 



Pablo Del Valle, a rising attorney who is the token Hispanic at a prestigious law firm, and his very pregnant wife and doctoral candidate, Tania, have just purchased the home next to Frank and Virginia in the up-scale Georgetown neighborhood of DC. 

The backyard of their houses are complete opposites.  Frank is an obsessive gardener, fanatically pursuing the Gardener of the Year award from the local horticultural association.  He uses a number of fertilizers and insecticides to insure the visual beauty of his garden. To hell with the environment.

Tania, an environmentalist, plans to make their backyard into an oasis for native plants, shrubs, butterflies and nature. No pesticides here. 

The De Valles duo loves their backyard’s century-old tree, while Frank hates the tree and its falling nuts and leaves which defile his meticulously cropped lawn and flowers.

At first the neighbors get along well, but when the Pablo and Tania find out that Frank has, by intent or not, planted on two-feet of their backyard, all hell breaks loose.

As the fence line issue soon spirals into an all-out border dispute, both couple’s notions of race, taste, class and privilege bloom.  As the backyard brawl escalates, cultures collide and mudslinging ensues…literally.

The CPH production is nicely guided by Robert Barry Fleming.  The humor stays comic, not bridging over into farcical ridiculousness.  The characters are finely etched.  The battle lines are clear.

Wynn Harmon creates a perfect caricature for Frank as an up-tight, tightly wound, khaki pants, button-down-collared, starched-shirt wearing conservative.

Charlotte Maier etches a clear role as the snobbish Virginia, a woman-of-privilege and wealth.  She is a “refined,” wine-drinking lady, until the gloves come off and her claws are revealed.

Natalie Camunas, a second-gen Latinx actor, has the soul of Tania, and unfurls it with ease and purpose.

Grayson DeJesus, gives a nice realistic depth and texture to Pablo.

Jason Ardizzone-West’s scenic design is breathtaking.  Every detail, every flower, tree and shrub reeks real!  As someone in the audience said, “I want to move into that house (referring to the perfectly conceived House and Garden domicile of Frank and Virginia.)
 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Native Garden” is that perfect script which grabs and holds an audience with humor and good story telling, while clearly making its philosophical point. It gets a picture-perfect production at CPH.  It is a wonderful piece to define and explain the political and societal climate of today.  Go!  See!  Enjoy and learn!!

“Native Gardens” which runs ninety-minutes without an intermission, can be seen in CPH’s Allen Theatre through May 19, 2019.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The horrors of addiction showcased in “Water by the Spoonful” at Ensemble


Chemical addiction is the “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (such as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol).”   In those with addiction, the substance controls the person, rather than the person being able to control their desire to stop usage or change their addictive behavior.

“Water by the Spoonful,” now in production at Ensemble Theatre, is the second installment in Quiara Alegria Hudes “The Elliot Trilogy,” three tales centering on Marine vet Elliot Ortiz.

 The Pulitzer Prize winning play tells a story of people connected by familial bonds, an online community, trauma and recovery.

Addiction “recovery” is a complicated and debilitating process which often leads to short term successes and numerous failures. 

Traditionally, it starts with the “victim” admitting they are an addict, not only to themselves, but to those who serve as their recovery team and potential support individuals.  Without this first step, the limited path to recovery is nearly impossible.

Recovery assistance takes various courses including institutional programs, drug or alcohol anonymous groups, chemical replacement (e.g., Methadone usage), a rational recovery approach, or going cold turkey, when the individual attempts to fight the addiction on their own.

Though the fulcrum of “Water by the Spoonful” is Elliot, the catalyst of the story is addiction, especially the drug addiction of his birth-mother, Odessa, the chat room monitor for an on-line group of addicts.

Eliot, who served in Iraq, is haunted by memories, including a recurring dream about an Arabic message which translates as the phrase, “Can I please have my passport back?”


The events of the real world transpire, superimposed on those of the online chat room, where people recovering from drug addiction come together for comfort and support.
 

This is a tale not only of addiction, but of family. 
 

In the cyber-world, “Orangutan,” “Chutes & Ladders,” and “Fountainhead,” the usernames of the addicts, have formed a type of family.  They interact, share information, and act as a support group for the members.
 

In the real world there is the natural family of Elliot, his cousin Yaz, their beloved aunt Mami Ginny (Odessa’s estranged sister) and Odessa.  They are dealing with the tragic death many years ago of Elliot’s sister, the demise of Mami Ginny, Elliot’s battle with PTSD, as well as Odessa’s on-going battle with drugs.
 

Elliot and Yaz confronting the details of Mami Ginny’s funeral, Odessa overdosing, the sprinkling of Mami Ginny’s ashes in Puerto Rico, Chutes & Ladders and Orangutan developing a special bond, Fountainhead becoming Odessa’s caretaker, Yaz buying Mami Ginny’s house in North Philadelphia, and Elliot buying a one-way ticket to Los Angeles to try and make a living as an actor, completes the tale.
 

The Ensemble production, under the direction of Celeste Cosentino, is a thought-provoking experience.  While sometimes difficult to hear the dialogue because of the long, narrow stage-seating arrangement, the story flows easily. 

Though sometimes lacking in developing fully realistic characters, the cast (Inés Joris—Odessa, Santino Montanez—Elliot, Tania Benites --Yazmin, Greg White—Chutes & Ladders, Kat Shy--Orangutan, Jason Markouc—FountainHead, Meshal Al Sunaid—Professor Aman/Ghost/Policeman) is generally effective.

Capsule judgment:  Pulitzer Prize winning “Water by the Spoonful” is a thought-provoking play which gives a clear picture of the horrors of addiction, the difficulty of overcoming its grip, and what it is to live with a force controlling you, instead of you controlling it.

“Water by the Spoonful” runs through May 17, 2019 on Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2.  Ensemble is 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

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Relationships, mourning and life as we live it examined in “This” at Dobama


Social scientists explain that, when relationships are formed, the resulting “group” follows rules that emerge or were implanted on the participants based on their past experiences and modeling the way in which the individual’s families and other influences operated.

Once the rules are set, any alteration in the structure of the pair or group may send the group into dysfunction and demands that the operational procedures need to be altered. 

A death, birth of a child, personal traumas are examples of incidents that may cause trauma in operational plan.

Melissa James Gibson’s “This,” billed as an “un-romantic comedy” which captures the uncertain steps of a circle of friends backing their way into middle age, is a prime spotlight for examining what happens when incidents cause dysfunction and interfere with long-held patterns of operation. 

This” places a spotlight on Jane, whose husband died a year ago, causing her to be a single mother with a group of life-long friends who are unsure of how to cope with her rudderless existence.    

Husband and wife, Marrell and Tom, part of the friendship circle, have recently had a baby.  Sleepless nights and adjusting their time-patterns to the needs of the newborn, throw a curve into their mode of operation. 

Alan is going through a midlife crisis.  What’s the single, gay man going to do with his life?

Into the mix comes Jean-Pierre, a physician affiliated with Doctors without Borders.  His entrance into the group adds yet another cause for the need for adjustment and change.

Obie Award winning Melissa James Gibson is a Canadian-born playwright who is noted for writing “well executed and wholly accessible works.”  When it opened off-Broadway, “This” was labeled, “the best new play to open Off-Broadway this season.”

The realistic and appealing characters “are drawn with a fine focus and a piercing emotional depth; the dialogue sparkles with exchanges as truthful as they are clever; and…the play's delicate pace, richly patterned wordplay and undercurrent of rue combine to cast a moving spell that lingers in the memory, like a sad-sweet pop song whose chorus you can’t shake.”

Director Nathan Matta keeps the pace rapid and has selected a well-balanced cast.

The acting is realistic, fitting the script, with nicely textured nuances incorporated into the characterizations.



Rachel Lee Kolis creates the teacher and poet, Jane, as a woman whose angst and confusion over the loss of her husband, difficulty in dealing with her tween daughter, as well as living in a single widow world, are clear. 

Treva Offutt sings and develops a Marrell who is both likeable and possesses the earth-mother quality that is necessary for dealing with the sexual relationship between Jane and Marrell’s husband, Tom, her career as a jazz singer, her “I won’t sleep for more than fifteen minutes at a time” newborn son, and the perplexing problem of “how difficult is it to keep the water in the Brita above the filter line?”

Abraham McNeil Adams clearly displays Tom by highlighting the character’s nerdy and needy qualities as he gallops confusedly into middle-age.

Craig Joseph is both acerbic and delightful as the “I don’t know where my life is heading” Alan.  His interplay with Kolis, over the word “schvitz” is a total hoot.

Handsome Kieron Cindric (Jean-Pierre) uses his skills as a real-life French teacher to carry on an animated telephone conversation.  It is somewhat surprising, however, that his “English-French” accent, seems fake, spoken by an actor rather than a native French speaker.

Aaron Benson’s scenic design, of sliding panels of various textures, generally works well, but the need for constant pushing and pulling and rearranging and bringing furniture pieces on and off, though well executed by a hard working set crew and the actors, becomes tiresome after a while.  Fewer “realistic” scenes and some representations might have helped the flow of the action.

Marcus Dana’s lights aided in setting the right moods for the action.

Capsule judgment:  Melissa James Gibson’s “This” is a realistic presentation of existence and the stumbles and needed adjustments that must be made as life progresses.  It gets a fine production at Dobama and is well-worth the 90-minutes sit.
This” runs through May 26, 2019 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org/ for tickets.

Friday, April 26, 2019

The musical drama, “A Bronx Tale,” relates an impressive tale of loyalty, neighborhood and family


Calogero Lorenzo “Chazz” Palminteri is a Bronx guy through and through.  He lives and breathes New York Yankee pinstripes, is addicted to “sauce,” and “tawks” Bronxese. 

Palminteri is best known for an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in the film “Bullets Over Broadway” and playing “tough guys” on both the big screen and television, but has gained additional fame for his autobiographical “A Bronx Tale.”


Originally conceived as a one-man show in which Palminteri performed, “A Bronx Tale” became a 1993 film.  The cinema version achieved limited commercial success in spite of praise from the critics.  Reviewers heaped accolades on Palminteri and recognized Robert De Niro’s excellent directing.
Palminteri is reaching new audiences through the Broadway musical based on the one-man show and film.  (He was warmly welcomed when he made a surprise curtain-call appearance following the opening night performance of his play at the Connor Palace, where he heaped praise on Cleveland as a great theater town.)

With book by Palminteri, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, the story centers on the experiences and people who populated Palminteri’s life in “de neighborhood”—Belmont Avenue and 187th Street in the Bronx.

The coming of age story centers around Calogero witnessing a Mafia boss shooting a man in front of the boy’s apartment building stoop.  When questioned by the police, the lad intentionally fails to identify Sonny, the neighborhood head of crime, earning a bonded connection between the two. 

This relationship creates a family schism when Calogero, nicknamed “C” by Sonny, must choose between the Mafia leader’s “slick” and strong-armed illegal ways and his father’s advice that “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”

Crime battles, Calogero meeting and falling in love with an African American girl, an attempt by his friends to firebomb a black nightclub, the murder of Sonny, and Cologero’s growing awareness of the negatives of being bound to the neighborhood’s rules and customs, rolls out the “facts” of the tale, a story of family and personal growth.

Musical theatre has various genres.  There’s the musical comedy of “The Producers,” “The Adams Family” and “Mean Girls.”  There are the Juke Box musicals such as “Mamma Mia” and “The Jersey Boys” in which a story is shoe-horned in between pre-written songs.  And, there is the musical drama, such as “Next to Normal” and “Dear Evan Hansen” in which dialogue and songs tell a serious story, often with psychological and moral overtones. 

“A Bronx Tale” falls in the latter category.  It has a serviceable score, a few dance numbers but no glitzy show stopper, and some humor.  The story shines forth, not hummable songs or splashy sets and costumes.  It has a relevant message.  The ideas are not soon thrown away.

The Key Bank Series touring production of the show is a Broadway-level presentation.  In fact, two of the leading roles are portrayed by the Great White Way actors who portrayed the parts in New York.  Joe Barbara reprises the iconic role of Sonny, and Richard H. Blake, who originated the role of Lorenzo (C’s father) in the original staging of the show, is appearing in the role once again. 

Barbara is Mafioso perfect!  Blake has a gorgeous singing voice which is well displayed in “Look to Your Heart” and “These Streets.”



Joey Barreiro shines as Calogero.  He sings and acts with the proper Bronx attitude.  Brianna-Marie Bell is appealing as C’s African American girl friend.

Locals may recognize Solon High School and Kent State University grad Kirk Lydell, who is part of the Ensemble.

The cast is strong, the simple sets work well, and the orchestra is in perfect pitch.


CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:    After seeing A BRONX TALE on Broadway, I wrote: “Look for A Bronx Tale to be one of the hits of the 2016-2017 Broadway season.”  Anyone who sees the touring version of the musical now on stage in CLE will know why I made that prediction. Yes, this is an excellent production of a nicely conceived musical drama.  Go! “Divertitevi”!  Enjoy yourself!  

 
“A Bronx Tale” runs through, May 12, 2019 as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series.  To purchase tickets, visit playhousesquare.org, call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

A visit to Broadway with the BWU senior class with some time for reviewing


OnStage’s 2018-2019 rankings of musical theater programs ranked Cleveland suburban Baldwin Wallace University' as number 1 in the nation, indicating that it was the “top destination for any student wanting to study musical theatre."

The OnStage research team was impressed that the BW program "has produced six regional premieres in partnership with Playhouse Square [the country's largest performing arts center outside of New York] and received national attention for academic premieres of Broadway productions."
 

The program, which is headed by Victoria Bussert also has strong professional theatre ties to Beck Center, Great Lakes Theatre, Idaho Shakespeare Festival and the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.
 

Bussert, is supported in developing the students’ talent by Gregory Daniels, Dance Program Coordinator and Matthew Webb, Music Director. 

Many BW grads appear on Broadway, in touring companies, in regional theaters and on cruise ships.   Last year at least 25 were in Broadway runs and touring shows.
 

The students’ training reaches its crescendo when the senior class travels to New York in April to perform before agents, casting directors and other Great White Way luminaries. 

Last year, all of the BWU class of 2018 grads got agents, many having multiple offers.  Besides agents, at least a half-dozen were offered tryouts in present, upcoming, touring and soon-to-be touring shows. 

As I did last year, I attended rehearsals at BW and went to New York with this year’s seniors.  Members of the class are Amy Keum, David Holbert, Noa Luz Barenblat, Joshua Regan, Kelsey Anne Brown, Zach Landes, Matthew Henry Pitts, Emmy Brett Jake Salter, Gilian Jackson Han, Courtney Hausman, Sam Columbus, Warren Egypt Franklin and Tia Karaplis.



All four of the workshops, which were performed at New World Stages, were packed. 

According to Bussert, “The class had over 150 requests with 9 of them called in for Broadway auditions.” 

Want to see the group before they hit the Broadway stages?  The class will perform as a unit at Cleveland Heights’ Nighttown on April 29.  For tickets and information, go to www.nighttowncleveland.com

Besides attending the showcases, I saw some shows.  Here are capsule judgments of what I saw.  To read the complete reviews go to www.royberko.info and scroll down to find the show.

What:  FIDLER AFN DAKH ongefelt mit Yiddisha traditsye un veytik
     (FIDDLER ON THE ROOF filled with Jewish tradition and pain)
Where: Stage 42
Capsule judgment:   The Yiddish version of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (FIDLER AFN DAKH) is not the FIDDLER of old, with a new set and costumes.  It’s a more emotionally moving story and less entertaining.  It is more fitting in the telling of what was, but is no more. The authenticity created by using the “real” language of these people adds to the tale filled with Jewish tradition and pain.

What:  THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is a farcical delight!
Where:   New World Stages
Capsule judgment:   Like any well-written farce, the quality of the ridiculousness is only as effective as the cast and director.  In the case of THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, all of the needed elements are present and hysteria reigns. 

What:  MEAN GIRLS, a musical for youth of the 2019s
Where: August Wilson Theatre  
Capsule judgment:  MEAN GIRLS is filled with music, characters and Tina Fey satire that will appeal to young audiences.  It is a show that will do very well on tour (it will be on stage at Cleveland’s Connor Palace from December 3-22, 2019) and will be performed by every community theater and high school in the country when it is released for amateur production.  Go. Enjoy.

What:  Exquisite, delightful, MY FAIR LADY captivates at Lincoln Center
Where:  Vivian Beaumont Theatre
Capsule judgment:  My Fair Lady has deservedly been called "the perfect musical" and the Lincoln Center revival will do nothing but increase the respect level.  The staging is glorious. The stage pictures exquisite.  The performances universally enchanting.  “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” if all Broadway shows could reach this pinnacle of writing, staging, performance and musical excellence?

MEAN GIRLS, a musical for youth of the 2019s



In 1958 there was BYE BYE BIRDIE.  1960 brought HAIR.  1971 showcased GREASE.   1980 gave us CARRIE.  Then in 1990 there was 13 (MUSICAL).  2016 saw DEAR EVAN HANSEN exploding on the scene.  Now, there is MEAN GIRLS.

What do all these Broadway musicals have in common?  They placed the spotlight on teens and their angst.

OMG!  Think back to high school, specifically the cafeteria, at lunch time.  Horror of horrors!  There was the table of math geeks.  Another of drama kids.  The testosterone-laden jocks held out over there and the cheerleaders were right next to them.  Then there was the queen bee and her small swarm of drones.  The mean girl and her attack team.  They are perfectly coiffed, expensively dressed, spoiled, lacking in empathy, anorexic, and share one leaf of lettuce for their midday meal. 

With that in mind, you are now ready to immerse yourself into MEAN GIRLS, the stage-show with music by Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, and a book by the queen of television comedy, Tina Fey.

The musical is based on Fey’s popular 2004 film which was inspired by Rosalind Wieseman’s book, “Queen Bees and Wannabes.”

Fans of the movie should be releaved that nothing important has been purged from the story.   Those who went through the horrors of slam/shame books, hazing, verbal abuse and general “hell” at the hands of the mean girls at their high schools will be happy to know that, in the musical, the queen and her swarm get their stingers removed.  (Yeah, revenge for the high school “odd balls.”)

In the musical, Cady, fresh from a life in Kenya, is a new girl in town.  She is taken on a tour of her now educational institution, an Illinois high school, and exposed to the ways of its pecking order, by “good guys,” Janis and Damian. 

The J and D duo have taken the attitude of not being affected by self-selected school royalty and nasty-girl Queen Bee Regina George and “the Plastics” (Gretchen and Karen), her lackey hanger-ons.  They caution Cady to be careful in deciding where she belongs in the school’s social fabric.

And, wonder of wonders, for an unexplained reason, Cady is invited to sit with “the Plastics” on a one-week trial.  (Hmm…what do the terrible trio have in mind?)

Everything goes well for Cady until she meets “dreamy” Aaron in honors math class.  She falls for him.  But, horror of horrors, Aaron has recently broken up with Queen Regina.  (You know this is going to make life for Cady a horror show.)

In order to “keep” Aaron’s interest Cady plays dumb, turning to him for “extra” help.

 A bus accident, a Burn Book which slams students by commenting on their weight (“hips like a Hippo”), parents’ infidelities (“the only reason he made the team is that his mother slept with the coach”) and eating habits (“Vegan freak”), Cady taking over Regina’s place as Queen of the plastics, Cady being elected Spring Fling Queen and her surprising act of sharing the crown, all lead to a happy-ever-after feel-good ending.  (Hey, this is a Tina Fey written high school Broadway musical, what did you expect?)

Though it received 15 Tony nominations, MEAN GIRLS, as evidenced by the fact that it won no statues, is not a great musical.    This is definitely not DEAR EVAN HANSEN quality.

It is, however, enjoyable and, as evidenced by the screaming teens in the audience, it has caught on and has developed its cult following.

On Broadway, the teen-laden audience, mostly composed of girls, whether from their knowing the story from the film, or having attended previous performances, knew what was coming, both plot twists and songs, and constantly screamed their approval.

The serviceable score, the Tina Fey sharp tongued satire and one-liners gave a positive vibe to the goings on.

“Where Do You Belong” stopped the show.


The cast is strong.  Grey Henson was delightfully endearing as the flamboyant Damian.  He was nicely balanced by Barrett Wilbert Weed’s Janis, his side-kick, the outspoken bud.  Their opening song, “A Cautionary Tale,” set the right mood for what was to come.



Erika Henningsen transitioned from curious newcomer to Queen Bee with charm and appeal.  Her reprise of “Fearless” was well sung, as was “Stupid With Love.” “More is Better,” sung with heartthrob Kyle Selig (Aaron), had the female teens and tweens pining for more.

Taylor Louderman, Krystina Alabado and Kate Rockwell are character-perfect as “the Plastics.”




Capsule judgment:   MEAN GIRLS is filled with music, characters and Tina Fey satire that will appeal to young audiences.  It is a show that will do very well on tour (it will be on stage at Cleveland’s Connor Palace from December 3-22, 2019) and will be performed by every community theater and high school in the country when it is released for amateur production.  Go. Enjoy.

WHAT:  MEAN GIRLS
WHERE:  AUGUST WILSON THEATRE
WHEN:  OPEN RUN

FIDLER AFN DAKH ongefelt mit Yiddisha traditsye un veytik (FIDDLER ON THE ROOF filled with Jewish tradition and pain)



Solomon Rabinovich was a leading Yiddish author and playwright from Ukraine.

At the age of fifteen he adopted the pseudonym “Sholem Aleichem,” a Yiddish variant of the Hebrew expression meaning "peace be with you" and typically used as a greeting.

He was a “folkshrayer” (a folk-story teller) who wrote over forty volumes in Yiddish, thereby becoming a central figure in Yiddish literature, best remembered for his fictional confessions, letters, and monologues, all written in the voice of the simple religious Jew.

In 1905, as pogroms swept through southern Russia, Sholem Aleichem attempted to settle in New York City.  Despite his great popularity in Europe, his lot in the US was not as good.  He was forced to take up an exhausting schedule of lecturing to make ends meet.

In spite of the success of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF today, Sholem Aleichem was not a successful playwright in the US in his lifetime.  His plays were not well received because they didn’t offer an object lesson in the social questions of the day.  They were “old fashioned” and about tales that the newly arrived immigrants wanted to forget.

Success came three years after his death, when the famous Yiddish theater actor, Maurice Schwartz, did an adaptation of Aleichem’s TEVYE DER MILKHIKER, which consists of 8 tragic-comic stories.  


Each of the tales had a farcical plot, employing stylistic humor.  In a classically rabbinic manner, Tevye, the main character, tells stories about his village of Anatevka and life with his wife Golda and his five daughters.  He asks questions of God and sprinkles his speeches with “biblical verses.”  Some of these are mangled and others are just made up.
 

Of the eight Tevye stories, five were later woven into the script of the musical, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. 
 

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein, is a tale of tradition.  It a snapshot of hardship of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia during the early nineteenth century after the death of the tolerant Czar Alexander III and the ascension of the anti-Semitic Nicholas II (Nicholas the Bloody).
 

The story centers on Tevya and his attempts to maintain his religious and cultural traditions as outside influences encroach upon the family's lives.  “He must cope both with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters, who wish to marry for love – each one's choice of a husband moves further away from the customs of their Jewish faith and heritage – and [finally]with the edict of the Czar that evicts the Jews from their village.”
 

The musical was an instant hit when it opened in 1964, becoming the first musical in Broadway history to surpass 3,000 performances.
 

The road to success was not an easy “miracle of miracles.” 
 

Rogers and Hammerstein considered writing the script, but abandoned the idea.  Even when Bock, Harnick and Stein succeeded in writing a book and music, investors were concerned that it was “too Jewish.”  

Early on it was described as “shtetl kitsch.”  Some complained because the selection of stories from TEVYE DER MILKHIKER didn’t include the “real ending” in which Tevye is left alone, his wife dead and his daughters scattered, traditionalists might be upset by the new final scene. 
 

The biggest problem was that in out-of-town tryouts, the musical just wasn’t working.  It wasn’t until Jerome Robbins came in as the new director that the problem was unearthed. 
 

Robbins asked what the show was about.  The usual answer was “a dairyman and his marriageable daughters.”  It’s is recounted that Robbins said, “No, no, no, that’s no good.” Someone said, “It’s about the dissolution of traditions, a way of life.”  Robbins responded, “Yes, that’s it.  We have to establish the traditions at the beginning and then the audience will see how they’re breaking down.  That’s the show!”

The song “Tradition” (“Traditsye”) replaced the original opening, “We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet” which showed the frantic preparations for the Sabbath but not clearly enough to understand what was to come, which is a requirement for an opening song of a musical. 

Robbins added the circle entrance, holding hands, and introducing the people of Anatevka.  He then enhanced the theme by adding lots of ferocious dancing, including the bottle and bar dances, to express Jewish robustness and resilience.

Yes, the story was about a dairyman and his marriageable daughters, but oh, how much more.

The four-hour opening night length was shortened, but the story remained the same, just became more focused.

The script went through many titles including TEVYE, A VILLAGE STORY, TO LIFE, ONCE THERE WAS A TOWN, and WHERE POPPA CAME FROM.  Finally, the producers settled on, though some disagree with this part of the tale, the image created by Jewish painter Marc Chagall of a fiddler on the roof, which also became the visual image of the production.

In spite of the fact that the show had no overture, no flirty chorus girls, no reprises, no simple plot line, no show stopper, no happy denouement/ending, it became a smash hit, considered by many to be one of the classics of American musical theater.

Because of the humorous elements in his writing, Sholem Aleichem is often thought of as a comic writer, but there is an undeniable darkness to his work which is obvious in the Yiddish revival.  Maybe it is the authenticity of the language or that many don’t understand some of the subtle humor because they are not Yiddish-literate, so they miss some of the laughs.  Whatever, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF IN YIDDISH carries a deep meaning and sense of purpose.




The Yiddish version, FIDLER AFN DAKH, with Yiddish translation by Shraga Friedman, under the direction of Cleveland native Joel Grey, with Jerome Robbins’ choreography, and new staging and choreography by Stas Kmiec, is captivating in a very different way than the English version.  It’s a more emotionally moving story and less entertaining,  more fitting in the telling of what was, but is no more.
 

FIDLER AFN DAKH marks the first time that the Tony Award-winning musical is being performed in Yiddish in the United States, and only the second time in history. A Yiddish version ran in Israel in 1965.
 

The Yiddish production, as produced by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene played at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. It was originally scheduled for an eight-week run, but due to audience demand, it was extended four times. It has moved to Stage 42 with continued success.
 

In FIDLER AFN DAKH “the actors sing about joy and hardship, and argue about the importance of tradition, in the language their characters would have spoken in the Old Country.”  Are the cast Yiddish speakers? No. “Before rehearsals, the majority of them had no experience with the language. Of the 26 cast members, only three spoke Yiddish fluently.”
 

The truth is that, “as part of the auditions for Folksbiene’s production, actors had to prove that they would be able to learn Yiddish quickly. Those called in for auditions were given 24 hours to memorize a recording of a song in the language. From the 2,500 applications, 26 actors were chosen for the production.”
 

“Once the cast was chosen, each member received a recording of his or her lines and songs in Yiddish in addition to private language coaching.”
 

Do you have to understand Yiddish to appreciate the production?  Not really.  Translations are printed in English and Russian on side curtains.  If you are familiar with the story and music, just taking in the happenings on stage are enough to carry the meaning. 
 

The featured actors and the chorus are all strong storytellers, singers and dancers.

Broadway actor Steven Skybell is Tevya.  This is not a Zero Mostel Tevya.  This is a much deeper, more realistic Tevya.  Yes, there are laughs, but the tale is more important than making funny faces, milking for laughs and providing entertainment.

Jennifer Babiak is a strong matriarchal Golde.  Emmy Award nominee Jackie Hoffman is appealing and delightful as Yente, the matchmaker. 


Pint-sized Ben Liebert is endearing as the nebbishy Motl Kamzoyl.  His “Nisimlekh-Veniflo ‘oys” (“Miracle of Miracles) is charming.

Stephanie Lynne Mason (Hodl), Rosie Jo Neddy (Khave) and Rachel Zatcoff (Tsaytl) are character correct as the three older daughters.   

Studly Cameron Johnson is convincing as Fyedke, as is Drew Seigla as Pertshik.

The set and costume designs, the lighting and sound all add to the quality of the production.

Capsule judgment:   The Yiddish version of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (FIDLER AFN DAKH) is not the FIDDLER of old, with a new set and costumes.  It’s a more emotionally moving story and less entertaining.  It is more fitting in the telling of what was, but is no more. The authenticity created by using the “real” language of these people adds to the tale filled with Jewish tradition and pain.
 

What: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (FIDLER AFN DAKH)
Where:  Stage 42

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Exquisite, delightful, MY FAIR LADY captivates at Lincoln Center


What do Rogers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser and Cole Porter all have in common?  Yes, they are all composers of American musicals, but they are also just some of those who attempted, and failed, to make George Bernard Shaw’s classical PYGMALION into a musical.


At one point, Shaw had given permission to transform his DEVIL’S DISCIPLE into the musical operetta.  The resulting CHOCOLATE SOLDIER was not to his liking and he stated, “Nothing will ever induce me to allow any other play of mine to be degraded into an operetta or set to any music except its own.”  This was especially true of PYGAMLION, supposedly his favorite work.  He was immovable on the point until he died.
 

After his demise, and the proclaimed barrier was lifted, many tried but failed to transform PYGMALION.

The problems were great.  Foremost, from the time of Rogers and Hammerstein’s smash hit OKLAHOMA, which ushered in the Golden Age of the American musical, certain “rules” of writing the book for a musical were set.  Included in this format was that there would be numerous settings, a B-level plot with a supporting couple, a chorus, dance numbers, and that it be about a romance.  (Think CAROUSEL, CAMELOT and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN.)
 

PYGMALION didn’t have any of those elements.   Basically, the plot centers on “two old gentlemen who meet in the rain one night at Covent Garden. Professor Higgins is a scientist of phonetics, and Colonel Pickering is a linguist of Indian dialects. The first bets the other that he can, with his knowledge of phonetics, convince high London society that, in a matter of months, he will be able to transform the cockney speaking Covent Garden flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a woman as poised and well-spoken as a duchess.”

“The next morning, the girl appears at his home on Wimpole Street to ask for speech lessons, offering to pay a shilling, so that she may speak properly enough to work in a flower shop. Higgins makes merciless fun of her, but is seduced by the idea of working his magic on her. Pickering goads him on by agreeing to cover the costs of the experiment if Higgins can pass Eliza off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party. The challenge is taken.” 

This is not the “stuff” on which traditional musicals are made.

Mainly, there is no love story.  The plot is a reflection of Shaw’s attitudes about the rigidity of the British class system and his strong stand against the view that a person cannot shape his or her own destiny.


A look at the ending of PYGMALION clearly illustrates this lack of a romantic tale.  In the play Eliza leaves Higgins after a quarrel, and Higgins remains onstage alone, in what Shaw describes as “a highly self-satisfied manner.”
 

When attempts were made to give his tale a “happy ending,” Shaw fought back.  He even added a postscript essay, “What Happened Afterwards,” to the 1916 print edition of the play in which he explained precisely why it was impossible for the story to end with Higgins and Eliza getting married [or having a romantic relationship]. 

Another problem with making the conversion from play to musical is that, in contrast to many other such adaptations, the play is so tightly written that any attempt to shoe-horn songs or dance numbers destroys that language and flow of ideas. 
 

It wasn’t until Lerner and Loewe realized that “the lyrics and music have to be an extension of Shaw’s dialogue,” that the classic masterpiece of straight theater could be reimagined as one of the greatest of all musicals.
 

Other problems needed to be confronted before MY FAIR LADY became a staged reality.
 

Shaw was specific that Eliza be eighteen.  Mary Martin, who was decades older than being a teenager, wanted to play the lead, but was too old for the role.
 

Legend has it that Rex Harrison, who was cast as Henry Higgins, was insecure of his “singing” ability.  He also seemingly had difficulty working with the young and non-classically trained Julie Andrews.  In fact, legend has it that the duo never really got along.  As recounted in one discussion of the two “There was chemistry on stage, but they were never close off-stage.”
 

Then there was the issue, whether caused by Harrison or her youth and lack of self-worth, that Andrews didn't consider herself to be the star of the show until the musical’s director, Moss Hart, convinced her of that.
 

The original script played out at four and a half hours in its early development.  Technical problems were also encountered when, for the first time on Broadway, twin turntables were used causing balance and coordination problems for the cast and crew.
 

In spite of the issues, the show did open on Broadway on March 15, 1956 to critical raves and resulting long lines at the box office.  The production set a record for the longest run of any show on the Great White way up to that time.  It was followed by a hit London production, a film, and many revivals.

The 2018 Broadway revival opened on April 19, 2018.  The Bartlett Sher direction and Christopher Gattelli choreographed reimagining has breathtaking scenery by Michael Yeargan and equally astounding costumes by Catherine Zuber.  The reconceived orchestrations add depth to the actions, as do the clear characterizations and fine staging. 

 
This is a work of beauty and creativity. 




Laura Benanti gives her own slant to Eliza.  She gives us a bright young lady, caught in the British societal system that has cast her as a “prisoner of the gutter,” but who has the grit to rise above her surroundings.  The performance makes clear that her “I want” desires, as expressed in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” are destined to be accomplished.  Achieved not by Henry Higgins, but by Eliza’s own gumption.  


Harry Hadden-Paton is no Rex Harrison clone as Doolittle.  He gives a sensitive, if somewhat obtuse image to the role.  He doesn’t disdain others.  He just doesn’t even consider them as being important.  His universe has the world revolving around his wants, desires and needs, as clearly set out in “A Hymn to Him.”  Eliza has no role in “his” success of turning her into a lady.  It is all his talent that accomplished the task.  Of course, he did it.  Even in his singing of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” the character, as interpreted so well by Hadden-Paton, doesn’t have the slightest understanding of why Eliza is not going to continue to be his puppet.  As the Brits would say of Hadden-Paton’s Higgins, “Good show!”



Danny Burstein delights as Alfred P. Doolittle.  His “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” are show stoppers.  His transformation in becoming a “gent” is a smile inducer.
 

Normally, “On the Street Where You Live” is a wistful song, showing a love-struck Freddy blindly enamored by Eliza.   The song becomes an audience entrancing anthem when sung by Christian Dante White, he of outstanding voice and consuming presence.  This is one talented young man.
 

Rosemary Harris (Mrs. Higgins), Allan Corduner (Colonel Pickering) and Linda Mugleston (Mrs. Pearce) are all excellent, creating nicely textured roles.
 

Capsule judgment: My Fair Lady has deservedly been called "the perfect musical" and the Lincoln Center revival will do nothing but increase the respect level.  The staging is glorious. The stage pictures exquisite.  The performances universally enchanting.  “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” if all Broadway shows could reach this pinnacle of writing, staging, performance and musical excellence?
 

What: MY FAIR LADY

Where:  LINCOLN CENTER, 

VIVIAN BEAUMONT THEATRE

When: OPEN RUN

Thursday, April 18, 2019

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is a farcical delight! (Broadway)





In 1923 there was THE TORCHBEARERS.  In 1982 the stage was filled with hysterical disasters during NOISES OFF.  Now there is THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, the zany Laurence Olivier Award winner.

All three farces are plays about plays in which everything that could go wrong does, and then some!

Even before the performance officially starts, the audience quickly knows that things are not theater-normal. 

Members of the cast crawl over and under auditorium chairs and ask the audience to help them find a lost dog that is needed for the show, but has escaped from backstage.  A member of the audience is dragged up on stage to help mend a broken mantelpiece while techies try and repair pieces of scenery with masking tape.  (Yes, this looks like a disaster in the making.)

The “director” of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, tells us about the group. He explains their financial problems and their productions of such economic-stagings of JAMES AND THE PEACH and CAT.   

No wonder with their financial problems the set for THE MURDER AT HAVERSHAM MANOR, which we are about to see, looks like it is about to fall down.  (Woops, plot revelation alert!)

As the “program” states, “Sanford Meisner (an acting teacher who developed an approach to acting instruction that is now known as the Meisner Technique in which the emphasis is on the reality of doing) once said, ‘Acting is behaving truthfully,’ so we immediately changed all the names in the play to our own names and cut the murder, the manor house setting and any other element that we hadn’t personally experienced.”  That, in and of itself, should prepare everyone who reads the creative Playbill of what idiocy is to come.

THE MURDER AT HAVERSHAM MANOR is a 1920s murder mystery and…

What we soon realize is that we are viewing a play within a play and even the playbill is that of two different shows.
We also learn that our original observations were right and the play within the play is going to be plagued with numerous disasters.  

In the process of the production, doors jam, windows fall out, set pieces fall off, a platform collapses in a series of slow drops with members of the cast perched on it. Chaos reigns.  

There are line flubs, late entrances, cast members are knocked out by doors which are opened at the wrong time, misplaced props, missed cues, repeated, wrong liquids drunk, mispronunciations, cast substitutions, physical violence between actors and the eventual collapse of the entire set.  



The production of THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG opened on Broadway in April, 2017, following a long London run.  The play then moved off-Broadway in February of 2019.
THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is farce at its highest level.  Director Matt DiCarlo, who directed this production (Mark Bell directed the original Broadway show) pulls out all the stops.  Shtick, prat-falls, fisticuffs, double-takes, thrown glass vases, and a swordfight complete with swords that break, are all included. 

Oh, and then there is the dog.  Well, much as the rabbit in HARVEY, an imaginary dog who plays a vital role in the plot.  (Come on now, could I make this up?)

The beauty of the whole production, and the resulting hilarity, is that the director and the cast know how to do farce well.   The audience laughs at the lines and the actions, not over-acting, which is often the trait of farce gone-bad.

According to the play within the play program, Chris Bean not only plays the leading role of Inspector Carter, but he also directed, designed the set and the costumes, as well as making the props, managing the box office, doing the press and public relations, and acting as the voice coach.  (Oh, what a man!)

The “real” cast, Ryan Vincent Anderson (Trevor), Matt Harrington (Chris), Chris Lanceley (Jonathan), Brent Bateman (Robert), Bartley Booz (Dennis), Ashley Reyes (Sandra), Matt Walker (Max) and Bianca Horn (Annie) form into a unit that plays off each other to create a symphony of hysteria.  

No one can be singled out, as the interaction between the group, as they face boundless obstacles, is a perfect blending.


 
Nigel Hook not only designed a set that works perfectly, but must be a mechanical genius to have devised all the set disasters. 

Capsule Judgment:  Like any well-written farce, the quality of the ridiculousness is only as effective as the cast and director.  In the case of THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, all of the needed elements are present and hysteria reigns.  

What: THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG
Where:  New World Stages
When: Open-ended run