Friday, April 28, 2017

“Something Rotten!” is a must see musical farce at Connor Palace



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), now on stage at the Connor Palace, 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 him.  



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 turn 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.

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.  Under the deft hand of director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (“Disney’s Aladdin” and “The Book of Mormon”), the cast makes the difficult look easy.  



The ensemble is outstanding.  Adam Pascal amuses as Shakespeare, who struts around the stage in sensual leather biker gear, the obvious superstar of the Renaissance.  Rob McClure delights as the obsessive Nick Bottom whose mission in life is to out-bard the Bard.  Josh Grisetti is charming as the shy poet and writer, Nigel Bottom.  Scott Cote swishes with gleeful ease as Brother Jeremiah.  Blake Hammond 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.  Anyone who wants to go to the theater and have a great time, unburdened by a complicated plot, listen to fun lyrics, see dynamic dancing and experience two acts of non-stop laughter…this is the must see musical!

 
Tickets for “Something Rotten,” which runs through May 14, 2017 at the Connor Palace, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Superb “Hand To God,” demands attention with laughter and angst @ Dobama



My summary review of Broadway’s “Hand to God” stated, “The production is well-conceived and performed and makes for a fascinating theatrical experience.” 

I went on to say, “Tyrone is evil.  Tyrone, he of big, vacant eyes is both disturbing and funny.  Tyrone is vile, violent and demonic.  Tyrone is raunchy.   Tyrone is foul-mouthed.”  

Tyrone is a sock puppet who is the anti-hero of Robert Askins’ “Hand To God,” a play that induces convulsive laughter while being terrifying.

Happily, my summary reaction to the New York staging also fits that of the Dobama production, where the well-written script is now being performed. 

The local theatre pulls out all the stops.  The production qualities…set, props, puppets, acting and staging are all top notch.

“Hand To God” tells the tale of Jason, a shy, inhibited, confused teen who lives in Cypress, Texas.  His father has recently died.  Both he and his mother, products of the country’s bible belt, are in chaotic angst.  

As an escape from reality, Jason’s mother, Margery, has created a Christian Puppet Ministry with the purpose of teaching “faith and morality.”  Little does she know that her project will result in Jason creating Tyrone, an alter ego, which provides an outlet for the boy’s inner turmoil.  Tyrone becomes a permanent fixture on Jason’s arm and takes on a life of its own.

The church’s other teens are likewise affected.  Timothy, a studly oversexed bully, not only harasses Jason, but lusts after Margery.  He uses his charms to seduce her, while intimidating not only Jason, but Jessica, who Jason secretly lusts after.

Tyrone, like all alter-egos, is everything Jason is not. He festers the boy’s darkest desires and becomes his destructive dominant personality.  He speaks and acts as timid Jason cannot.  Tyrone fights back against Timothy, he makes a connection with Jessica, he swears, rants and raves, he questions the purpose of religion.  He even goes as far as seducing Jessica’s puppet.  Yes, a vivid puppet sex act takes place on stage!

Steven Boyer played Jayson in the original Broadway production.  He was compelling in the role.  Interestingly, he had an intimate relationship with the googly-eyed-sock puppet with the mop of red hair, as he personally crafted it when the show had its first reading at Pace University.  Boyer went on to garner a Broadway Tony nomination for Best Leading Actor in a Play for his portrayal.

Luke Wehner, who portrays Jason in the Dobama production, is every bit as proficient as Boyer.  As did Boyer, Wehner makes little effort to be a ventriloquist.  It matters little as the sock puppet becomes so real that when Tyrone speaks, all eyes are on him, not Jason.  Tyrone becomes a real being, the devil incarnate.

When Jason tries to rid himself of Tyrone in a battle to the end, it parallels a victim of Dissociative Identity Disorder, which in lay terms is referred to as “Split Personality.” He must fight to destroy the psychological issues of trauma that brought about the need for the protective device. 

The rest of the Dobama cast, under the wise and focused direction of Mathew Wright, is excellent. 

Tricia Bestic is correctly pathetic as Marjory, the grief stricken mother who, like Jason, needs to go through an emotional catharsis, which takes on the guise of sexual promiscuity, drinking, and rejection of the affection shown to her by Pastor Greg (David Bugher as a well-meaning nebbish). 

Molly Israel (Jessica) clearly portrays another lost soul who stands up for and tries to help Jason.  The duo portrays a sex scene using puppets as substitutes for their own desires which was hysterically funny, while creating embarrassment for some purists in the audience.

Austin Gonser was born to play the smarmy Timothy who undulates across the stage in pursuit of seducing Marjory, while intimidating Jason.

Benn Needham has created a multi-setting acting area, complete with massive turntable, that makes the scene changes flow quickly.  Marcus Dana’s lighting design enhances the varying mood changes, as does Richard Ingraham’s sound design.

Be aware that the script questions the role and purpose of religion, has numerous swear words and contains several sex scenes, real and simulated.
Capsule judgment: “Hand to God” is a brilliant production, and places a spotlight on lost people caught up in their inabilities to cope with grief and abandonment.  In fascination, we watch as these people lose healthy reality, replace it with abject pain, interspersing horror with laughter.  This must-see staging, has to be one of the highlights of this theater season!
“Hand of God” runs through May 21, 2017 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama:  

•April 30-May 2, 2017, Interplay Jewish Theatre presents “Now Circa Then” a staged reading about an immigrant couple on New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1890.  Admission is free. Donations are greatly appreciated.  Reservations are requested.  Email: interplayjewishtheatre @gmail.com or leave a message at (216) 393-PLAY.

•From July 13th through the 16th, Cleveland-Israel Arts Connection, a program of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, presents Roy Horovitz, one of Israel’s foremost actors/directors, in “The Timekeepers” by Dan Clancy and “My First Sony” by Benny Barbash.  For tickets and information call 216-932-3396 or go to http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Monday, April 24, 2017

“Freaky Friday A New Musical” Broadway-ready at the Cleveland Play House


Many know Mary Rodgers as the daughter of Richard Rodgers the composer of such classic musicals as “Oklahoma” and “Carousel.”  Others are aware that she collaborated on the musicals “Once Upon a Mattress” and “The Mad Show.” Some might know that she is the mother of Tony Winner, Adam Guettel (“The Light in the Plaza”). 

Ask any tween or teen and they will probably relate that Rodgers wrote the 1972 book, “Freaky Friday.”

Yes, that “Freaky Friday.”  The one which tells the tale of a mother and daughter switching bodies, which was made into three different Walt Disney Company films, including one version whose screenplay was actually written by Mary Rodgers, herself.

The musical version of the story, which is based on the original Rodgers’ book, as well as the films, is set in present time Chicago.  It debuted at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia on October 4, 2016, where reviews hailed it as “a polished, peppy, modern fairy tale.”  A production was staged at California’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2017, where it had an extended run.   Much of that cast is now on stage at Cleveland Play House.  

Though there has been no announcement beyond the next venue, Houston’s Alley Theatre, serious consideration should be given to taking the package to Broadway.  It’s as good as many of the present Great White Way productions.

The storyline centers on Katherine, the overworked, stressed-out mother of Ellie, a sarcastic, self-involved teenager, who lives life in constant emotional hell.  Through a quirk of fate, the duo switches bodies, and then has one day to put things back.  Yes, it’s one day before Katherine’s wedding, and both ladies are about to find out what it’s like to live life in the other’s body surrounded by wedding plans, school stresses, a runaway kid, burgeoning love, mistaken identities, and the loss of the device which “caused” the biological time switch to take place.

Bolstered by a dynamic pop-rock score, whose recording was released this past February, the stage explodes with farcical humor, mountains of teenage angst, and a scavenger hunt that leads to the obvious but fun conclusion.  

Major songs are “What You Got,” “Oh, Biology,” “Busted,” ”Just One Day,” and “No More Fear.”

The book is by Bridget Carpenter  (TV's "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood") with a score by the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning team of Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (lyrics), creators of the celebrated Broadway musicals “Next to Normal” and “If/Then.”

The production’s high quality pedigree continues with a crew highlighted by director Christopher Ashley (“Memphis” “Xanadu.” and “All Shook Up”) and Tony nominee choreographer, Sergio Trujillo (“Jersey Boys” and “On Your Feet!”).

Broadway star Heidi Blickenstaff (“Something Rotten!,” “[title of show]” “The Adams Family,” “The Little Mermaid” and “The Full Monty,”) who displays a big voice and solid acting chops, is dynamic as Katherine.  She flips from wrought mom to hyper-driven teen, with compelling believability and ease.  Her vocal version of “I Got This” is delightful, her “Parents Lie” endearing, and “After All of This and Everything” a vocal winner.  This is a star in her element!



Blickenstaff is balanced by big-voiced Emma Hunton, who appeared in Broadway’s “Next to Normal” and “Spring Awakening” and reprises the role of Ellie, which she performed at Signature and LaJolle.  Hunton is a special talent who is totally believable as the obnoxious teenager turned stressed mom.  She has a nice touch with humor and knows how to play for laughs.

Jake Heston Miller comes close to stealing the show as Fletcher, Katherine’s young son and Ellie’s brother.  His puppet shenanigans are delightful and line interpretations realistic.  His duet “Women and Sandwiches,” sung with Chris Ramirez (Adam) brought gleeful audience reaction.

The rest of the quality cast are all prime as singers, dancers and actors.  

Much to the delight of the audience, many who had wondered where the orchestra was hidden as the Allen does not have an orchestra pit, the proficient assembly of musicians got a well-deserved curtain call when the back stage wall disappeared, thanks to scrim (gauze cloth that appears opaque until lit from behind and it becomes translucent), revealing them in their hiding place.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  If you go to the theater for enjoyment, Cleveland Play House’s “Freaky Friday” is your thing.  If you go to the theater to see marvelous talent, in a well-directed, well-conceived show, “Freaky Friday” is your thing.  If you don’t go to theater but have always wondered what a Broadway show is like, “Freaky Friday” is your thing.  Yes, if you don’t go see “Freaky Friday” you are going to miss out on a special event!

“Freaky Friday” runs through May 20, 2017 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  (Rumor has it that the

production will be adding performances.)  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Farcical “You Can’t Take It With You” delights @ Karamu


During the late 1920s and into the 1940s, the United States went through the great depression. Unemployment in the U. S. rose to 25%.   These were drab times and, as is the case, since the arts represent the era from which they come, the theatre of that time period represented two extremes:  heavy drama reflecting the negative mood of the nation and escapism to make people feel better by hiding from their angst-filled reality.

One of the classic plays to emerge from that era was Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s farcical “You Can’t Take It With You.” 

Farce is “a comedy that aims at entertaining the audience through situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, and thus improbable.”  It is also “characterized by physical humor, the use of deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and broadly stylized performances.”  It is often “set in one particular location, where all events occur.”

“You Can’t Take It With You,” which won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize, fulfills all of the descriptive farce requirements, ran 838 performances in its initial staging, was revised many times on the Great White Way, and has been staged by many educational institutes and community theatres around the world. 

The stage show was transformed into a film which won an Academy Award for Best Picture.

The script, which is as much character as plot driven, centers on the Vanderhof home in New York.  Grandpa (Greg White) decided one day to live his life by the philosophy, “don't do anything that you're not going to enjoy doing,” so he goes to circuses, commencements, throws darts, and collects stamps.  His massive home, besides being cluttered with “stuff,” becomes the haven for a number of erratic and lovable incompetents.

Grandpa didn’t like how his tax payments were being spent so he stopped making the payments.  Penny Sycamore (Anne J. McEvoy), his cheerful daughter, an on-again-on-again incompetent painter, also writes plays because one day a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the Vanderhoff residence.  Her husband, Paul (Luther Robinson), whose hobby is playing with erector sets, manufactures fireworks in the basement, along with Mr. DePinna (Bob Abelman), a man who delivered ice to the house eight years ago and never left.

Then there is Essie (Maya Jones), Penny’s candy-making daughter and inept ballerina, and her husband Ed (Joshua McElroy), who plays the xylophone because the house has one, makes masks, and loves to create meaningless messages on his printing press, that he includes in Penny’s confectionaries that he delivers to buyers. 

The house also has visits from the likes of pseudo-dance teacher Boris Kholenkov (Chris Bizub), a wild Russian who escaped that country before the revolution and hates everything, and Duchess Olga Katrina (Sue Cohen), a cousin of the deposed Russian Czar, who now works at a Child’s restaurant and has a passion for making blintzes.

The only seemingly “normal” person in the household is Alice (Corlesia Smith), who is a secretary for a wealthy Wall Street stock broker.  She is dating Tony Kirby (Chris Richards), her boss’s son. 

One evening, which turns out to be the wrong night, the Kirbys (Lou Will and Laura Starnik) come to dinner at the Vanderhof’s to celebrate the engagement of Alice and Tony, and all hell breaks loose. 

The Vanderhof's irrepressible maid, Rheba (Jeannine Gaskin) and her wise-cracking hyper-active boyfriend, Donald (Miguel Osborne), hysterically try to make a dinner with little foodstuffs in the kitchen, with constant frenetic trips to the local A&P, while the rest of the menagerie bumbles through saying and doing all the wrong things.

Alice is humiliated. Tony finds the whole chaos amusing. His uptight parents are mortified and then totally lose it when Penny convinces them to play a word game with cues that have sexual connotations and reveal a great deal of embarrassing information about Mr. and Mrs. Kirby and their relationship.

To add to the chaos, the IRS invades because of Grandpa not paying his taxes, along with the feds because of the subversive messages Ed has put into the candy deliveries.  And, wonder of wonders, the fireworks in the basement find this the ideal time to explode, causing the entire household to be hauled off to jail.

Of course, for those who are interested in plots coming to happy endings, all works out.  Peace and harmony are restored, and Alice and Tony, it appears, will live happily ever-after.

“You Can’t Take It With You” is farce at its highest level and the Karamu production, under the direction of Fred Sternfeld, delights. 

Each cast member nicely conceives their role and the whole production, though a little languid in pace, and missing some shticks which would have enhanced the madness, works nicely.

The massive set, impressively decorated with era correct memorabilia, is well conceived by Richard H. Morris, Jr. and India Blatch-Geib’s costume designs fit the time period.

It is nice to report that Karamu, under the guidance of its new President and CEO Tony Sias, has returned to the color-blind casting stressed by Dorothy and Reuben Silver when they were producing the organization’s plays, making it once again “a joyful gathering place,” where all are welcome.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  For those who like to go to the theater to have fun, get away from their own work-a-day world of angst, “You Can’t Take It With You” is your thing.  Don’t’ expect a professional level production, most of the cast are not Equity members, but there is enough comedy, ridiculousness, and delight to make even the Grinch smile.

“You Can’t Take It With You” continues through May 7, 2017 at Simon and Rose Mandel Theatre at Cuyahoga Community College-Eastern Campus in Highland Hills where Karamu is performing as its theatre facilities are being upgraded.   For ticket information call 216-795-7077.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

2017 Summer Cleveland Theater Calendar



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

June 2-July 2—REALLY REALLY—A comic tragedy which was loosely inspired by the Duke University Lacrosse team scandal, in which the collegiate party of the year results in the regret of a lifetime, and one person will stop at nothing to salvage a future that is suddenly slipping away.

July 7-August 13--CITY OF ANGELS—The Tony award winning musical by Larry Gelbart (book), Cy Coleman (music) and David Zeppel (lyrics), is a tribute to 1940s film noir in which two plots simultaneously weaves between the ”real” world and the “reel” world.

BLANK CANVAS

440-941-0458 or www.blankcanvastheatre.com

June 9-24—PICASSO at the LAPÍN AGILE—A conversation between Einstein and Picasso before they became well-known, in which they debate the meaning of art, the power of thought and the essence of everything, as conceived by comedian Steve Martin.

August 11-26—EQUUS—A psychological puzzle in which a psychiatrist confronts a boy who has blinded six horses in a violent fit of passion.  (This show contains adult content and nudity.)

CAIN PARK
216-371-3000 or http://www.cainpark.com

June 6-25—ROCK OF AGES—The regional premiere of the jukebox rock musical featuring the songs of Def Leppard, Journey, Scorpions, Poison, Foreigner, Guns N' Roses, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, and REO Speedwagon.

August 5-6—THE MUSIC MAN IN CONCERT—Liza Grossman and the Contemporary Youth Orchestra present a concert of Meredith Wilson’s musical with a score that includes “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Ya Got Trouble,” “Gary, Indiana,” and “Pick a Little, Talk a Little.”

CLEVELAND PUBLIC THEATRE
216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org

May 26-June 17—RED ASH MOSAIC-- An experiment in theatrical form, with interwoven and contradictory narrative threads, powerful physical action, chanting and poetic texts, which is designed not to show, but to invoke.  It begins in the daily doldrums of a video game store and erupts into a fracturing of realities and parallel lives of one man as he confronts his own death/life.

CLEVELAND SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
Free admission.  http://www.cleveshakes.com
Varying locations…check site for times, dates and venue

JUNE 16-JULY 2--THE TAMING OF THE SHREW –Fortune-seeker Petruchio and shrewish headstrong Katherina, are forced into a relationship.  Initially, she is an unwilling participant; however, he "tames" her with psychological torments until she becomes a desirable, compliant, and obedient bride.

July 21-August 6—MACBETH—Shakespeare’s tragedy, in which a Scottish general receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth causes a bloodbath that results in his madness and death.

DOBAMA
216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org

June 15-July 2--HOW TO BE A RESPECTABLE JUNKIE--Based on real-life events, JUNKIE takes an in-depth look into the troubled soul of a man caught in heroin’s deadly grip.

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

July 7 - July 29—NEIGHBORS--A minstrel show, family drama and tragic farce takes racial rage head-on in our supposedly "post-racial" world with shocking, savage humor.

August 25 - September 16—RHINOCEROS--Existentialist playwright Eugene Ionesco’s tale of what happens when a brutish rhinoceros storms through a quiet neighborhood, infecting the townsfolk with the "rhino virus," causing them to become part of the mindless herd.

OBERLIN SUMMER THEATRE FESTIVAL
Hall Auditorium, 67 N. Main Street, Oberlin
Free admission, reservations requested—440-775-8169
For details and dates go to  www.oberlinsummertheaterfestival.com

June 16-July 30—THE MIRACLE WORKER—Follows Annie Sullivan who, as Helen Keller’s governess, tames and teaches the deaf, blind, mute, and completely out-of-control girl.

June 30-July 28—BAREFOOT IN THE PARK--Neil Simon’s romantic comedy about newlyweds during the contentious first days of marriage, as they learn how to live together.

July 14-29—THE WINTER’S TALE-- Shakespeare’s timeless romance of obsession and redemption which begins as an intense psychological drama, but midway jumps time and place to become a hilarious pastoral, and ultimately brings the two plots full circle to a magical and moving ending.

OHIO SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens (outdoor performances)
714 N. Portage Path, Akron

June 30-July 16—AS YOU LIKE IT—A Shakespearean tale of forbidden loves, banished dukes, cross-dressing ladies, and three marriages.

July 28-August 13—THE WINTER’S TALE—A comic tragedy which tells a story of royal love, revenge, injustice, and family.  (Contains probably Shakespeare's most famous stage direction: "Exit, pursued by a bear.”)

PLAYHOUSESQUARE
216-241-6000 or go to http://www.playhousesquare.org
See the website for specific dates and times

June 20-July 9—AN AMERICAN IN PARIS—The multi-Tony Award Winning musical, filled with wonderful music and sensational dancing, about an American soldier, a mysterious French girl and an indomitable European city, each yearning for a new beginning in the aftermath of war.

Note:  One hour before each show, Joe Garry offers a free of charge Broadway Buzz Pre-Show Talk which is held in the Idea Center® at Playhouse Square (1375 Euclid Avenue).  Following the June 22, 29 and July 6 performances, cast members come on stage to chat with the audience, offering a chance to ask questions.

July 18-23—THE SOUND OF MUSIC--The Rogers and Hammerstein musical story of Maria and the von Trapp children, is presented in a new production, directed by Tony Award winner Jack O'Brien.

August 15-20—MOTOWN THE MUSICAL--Motown founder Berry Gordy's journey from featherweight boxer to the heavyweight music mogul who launched the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson and many more, which includes such songs as, “My Girl,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

TAKE A HIKE TOURS, FREE--every Thursday at 6 PM, from mid-May through mid-September, 90-minute walking tours of the Playhouse Square District, with actors portraying important historic Clevelanders from the neighborhood.

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

June 15-Juy 1—9 TO 5 THE MUSICAL—With music and lyrics by Dolly Parton and book by Patricia Resnick, the musical, based on the 1980 hit movie, places a spotlight on three female coworkers who confront their sexist, egotistical boss.

July 6-22—AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’—The 1978 Tony Award winning jukebox musical is a celebration of the legendary jazz great, Fats Waller.

July 27-August 13—NEWSIES--Adapted from the Disney film of the same name, the dance-centered musical follows the plight of newsboy Jack Kelly as he takes on publishing giants Joseph Pulitzer and Willian Randolph Hurst as the powerful duo attempts to endanger the livelihood of a band of newsboys.

THE MUSICAL THEATER PROJECT
http://www.MusicalTheaterProject.org for tickets and information
(productions staged in review format with narration)



June 24—3 PM—PURE IMAGINATION— Geauga Lyric Theatre--Tickets—216-245-8687--An interactive performance for the entire family with tunes from Disney and Sesame Street featuring Ursula Cataan, Jodi Maile Kirk, Nancy Maier and Shane Patrick O’Neill

June 25—3 PM—PURE IMAGINATION
Lorain County Metro Parks, French Creek Theatre--Tickets:  440-949-5200 X221 or http://www.metroparks.cc/

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Disturbing, funny “Between Riverside and Crazy” at the Cleveland Play House



Pulitzer Prize Winner and Steinberg Distinguished Playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose script “Between Riverside and Crazy,” is now on stage at Cleveland Play House, is noted for writing plays that feature racial discord and the definition of family, while examining “self-interest, self-delusion, self-recriminating, greed and amorality.” 

He’s also a master at assigning his scripts provocative titles including, “The Motherf**ker with The Hat.” “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” and “Lady of 121st Street.”  You might wonder, after seeing “Riverside,” why he didn’t entitle the work, “The Effect of Angst and the Church Lady.”

Blurring lines between the sacred and profane has always been a specialty of the playwright.  In his writings, as is evident in “Riverside” Guirgis, who is considered one of America’s foremost new contemporary playwrights, does not shrink from four-letter words, explicit sex scenes and “in your face” reality.

The story centers on Pops, a cantankerous ex-cop.  He retired when he was shot in the backside in a bar while he was off-duty.  He did not go gently into the good night. Instead, he sued, fails to agree to the “fair” settlement he was offered, and refuses to act on the eviction notices being sent to him by the owner of the rent-controlled, Upper West Side Hudson River-view prime piece of New York real estate he occupies. 

This is a man of major contradictions.  At one moment he can be sweet, the next obstinate. He takes in stray people, often peppering them with money and affection, while being rejecting and stand-offish toward his son and now deceased wife.  He is pig-headed and aggravating, yet amusing.

Living in the huge apartment with his son, Junior, and the boy-man’s “pregnant” girlfriend, Lulu, and Oswaldo, a newly–sober hanger-on, Pops needs to take action. 

Pressure reaches the boiling point when Audrey, his former patrol partner and her boyfriend, Dave, a police Lieutenant who is trying to settle Pop’s prejudice case against the department for what appears to be self-interest, put pressure on Pop.  The eviction notices seem to be moving toward forcing him out of the apartment.  Oswaldo comes home drunk and physically attacks Pop.  And the actions of a church lady, who is trying to save his soul, but may have ulterior motives, has raised a new issue. 

Pop is between Riverside and crazy.

Each time you think you have a handle on what’s going on, a new wrinkle in the plot evolves, causing an emotional readjustment.

The CPH production, as directed by Robert Barry Fleming, the theater’s Associate Artistic Director, in his local directing debut, is well-paced, nicely nuanced, and plays the humor against the angst.  The cast is excellent and nicely textures their performances, walking the thin line between comedy and drama.

Larry Marshall so well develops Pop that his naturalness makes you forget you are watching an actor portraying a role, but are peeking into the apartment and seeing reality.

Zoë Sophia Garcia is Rosie Perez-delightful as the well-endowed Lulu, bringing the right level of humor to Junior’s live-in girlfriend and Pop’s caretaker and sometime confident.

Yvette Ganier almost steals the show as Church Lady.  Her sex scene with Pop has to be one of the funniest enactments portrayed on a CPH stage.

Dominic Colón, though sometimes difficult to understand due to a heavy accent and mumbling projection, is properly pathetic as Oswaldo, who clings to Pop as the father he desires, but does not have, yet lashes out against him when stressed.

Ken Robinson (Junior), Danielle Skraastad (Detective Audrey O’Connor), and Michael Russotto (Lieutenant Dave Caro) are all effective in their portrayals.

The set, the apartment, is a co-star of the play.  Unless it is believably expansive and desirable, the production falters.  Fear not.  Challenged by a staging that is done in the runway style of seating, with the audience on two-sides of the stage and all action taking place in a long narrow space, between the segments of the playgoers, scenic designer Wilson Chin has created an appropriate apartment within the walls of a realistic building. 

The difficulty in hearing is not Chin’s fault. It is a by-product of the actors projecting in a horizontal space in which words get lost according to the way in which an actor faces.  It is one of the issues faced by a director and cast when intimacy of audience to actors is placed ahead of clear sound projection which results from using runway staging.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Between Riverside and Crazy” is an interesting set of character investigations within a plot which probably won’t fascinate, but will instill interest.  The production is excellent, the set fascinating, the laughs enough to keep attention and diminish some of the angst, and offers viewers a chance to experience seldom used runway staging.

“Between Riverside and Crazy” runs through April 23, 2017, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Next up at CPH: “Freaky Friday,” a musical based on the novel by Mary Rodgers, which was made into a Disney motion picture.  It is presented as part of the New Ground Festival, which lasts from May 11th through the 20th.  For information go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com/

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

2017 season is about to lift its curtains @ the Shaw Festival



Those nice people from the North who are getting ready to create great theater are beaconing people from CLE to be their guests.

In Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, the “most beautiful little city in Canada,” flowers are about in bloom, the wineries are getting their best vintages uncorked, the quaint b&bs with their marvelous breakfasts are ready to open, and the Shaw Festival is getting ready to raise the curtain in its various venues. 

The city, which is only about 4 hours from 216/440, is a haven for those who like to see great theater, shop, eat at the wonderful restaurants, and take advantage of the very favorable exchange rate (as of April 3, 2017, $1.00 U.S.=$1.26 Canadian). 

Besides theater there is golf, speedboats ply the Niagara River, bikes are available for zipping up and down the path which runs along the river gorge, ship watching at the Welland Canal is a fun side trip, and gambling and scenic viewing is available in Niagara Falls, a short drive away.



 “The Shaw,” as it is dubbed by the locals, is a tribute to George Bernard Shaw and his writing contemporaries.  It offers dramas, comedies and musicals. 
The productions are professional quality, with many of Canada’s finest actors, directors and technical designers.  It has been dubbed “One of the great repertory theaters in the English-speaking world. 




This season’s offerings include:

SAINT JOAN (GB Shaw) --May 3-October 15—The 1926 Nobel Prize winner asks, “At what point does blind faith become simply blind?”

DRACULA (Brian Stoker as adapted by Liz Lochhead)—July 8-October 14—The classic funny, sexy and scary Gothic tale of repressed erotic hunger asks, “What if your darkest fear was also your deepest desire?”

1837:  THE FARMERS’ REVOLT (Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille)—May 7-October 8--“When was the idea of Canada born?” When a handful of immigrant farmers who have been struggling for years to turn Upper Canada’s forests into farmland find out that government has “dished out” their land, they rose up and probably paved the way for nationhood.

ANDROCLES AND THE LION (GB Shaw)—June 6-October 7—In ancient Rome, a group of early Christians wait to be thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. “For what cause would you be willing to die?”  You may find out as you will join the Shaw Ensemble in creating an experience that will be different every time.

WILDE TALES (Oscar Wilde)—June 8-October 7—lunchtime one-act—A series of stories for young and old which asks, “Should we always meet the world with love, even when it doesn’t deserve it?”  Special note:  Children, ages 6-12, can sign up in advance for a pre-show one-hour workshop with the actors that helps create the magic on stage.

THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III (Alan Bennett)—April 11-October 15—King George III may have been anointed by God, but when he starts to lose control of his speech and bodily functions it’s clear that he’s all too human.  So, “if the Head of State loses his head, what happens to the State?”

DANCING AT LUGHNASA (Brian Friel)—May 14-October 15—In the 1930s, five women try to eke out an existence in Ireland, the land where no tears are without laughter as the question is raised, “What power or passion fills us with the need to dance?”

AN OCTOROON (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins)—July 16-October 14--Winner of the Obie Award for Best New American play is a rewrite of the 1859 Dion Boucicault play by a modern young Black man.  It is full of strong language and challenging ideas and asks, “At least we don’t think like they did in the 19th century any more—do we?”

MIDDLETOWN (Will Eno)—July 13-Sepember 10—In the most average town in North America, a group of average people are living average lives of quiet desperation and are forced to deal with the question, “When did we lose the ability to make real human connections?”

1979 (Michael Healey)—October 1-October 14—One of Canada’s most celebrated playwrights takes on one of its least celebrated leaders, Prime Minister Joe Clark, asking, “Fight fair and go home, or fight directly and win?”

ME AND MY GIRL (Updated by Stephen Fry)—April 5-October 15—A musical which takes on the class system with charm, cheekiness and a dash of Cockney sass.

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


There are some wonderful restaurants.  Consider The Grill on King Street (905-468-7222, 233 King Street) and Ginger (905-468-3871, 390 Mary Street).  Reservations are encouraged, even during the week.

For theatre information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com.  Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets.  Discount tickets are available for seniors and students and under 30s. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets.

HINTS: 
•Don’t forget your passport as it’s the only form of identification that will be accepted for re-entry into the US.

•Because of the good rate, charge everything to your credit card as many of the stores give you dollar for dollar, while banks offer you the going rate.  If you pay cash, you are losing 26-cents on every dollar you spend.

Go to the Shaw Festival! Meet the nice Canadian people and see great theater.  

 

Sunday, April 02, 2017

A female “Hamlet” brings a twist to the play at Great Lakes Theater, well, almost . . .


Prince Hamlet is depressed, disillusional, and maniacal. 

Having been summoned home to Denmark from school in Germany to attend his father's funeral, he is shocked to find his mother Gertrude already remarried to his Uncle Claudius, the dead king's brother, who has declared himself the king, though young Hamlet is the actual heir to the crown. Hamlet, rightly, suspects foul play.

Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is considered by many Bard experts to be his greatest tragedy script.  For years, the melancholy tale of death, betrayal, family dysfunction, and revenge has been a staple on the programs of major theatres and analyzed in many a school classroom.

“Hamlet” is filled with intrigue, betrayal, deception and revenge. 

On a dark winter night, a ghost walks the ramparts of Elsinore Castle in Denmark.  The apparition resembles the recently deceased King.  When Hamlet’s friend, Horatio sees the illusion, he brings the Prince of Denmark to see the ghost, who speaks to him, declaring that it is indeed his father’s spirit, and he was murdered by his brother, Claudius.  The ghost disappears with the dawn, leaving Hamlet with no option but revenge.

We observe as Hamlet schemes, acts irrationally, considers suicide ("To be, or not to be: that is the question"), and comes to the realization that death wouldn't be the escape he craves.

In this, and many other scenes, Hamlet displays his personal tragic flaw, a requirement that Shakespeare incorporated, based on Greek theatrical tradition, as a trait element of tragic heroes.  The Prince is unable to make decisions, and when he decides, the outcome has tragic consequences.  In the play, eight of the nine primary characters, including Hamlet, Ophelia, her father, her brother, his mother and uncle all die, because of Hamlet’s actions.

The play is filled with many themes, each identified by a quote. 

Political intrigue:   The king has been killed, there is a new king on the throne, one of questionable right to the seat, the deceased king's son acting erratically, something's clearly off. (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”)

Awareness of the process of life:  As Hamlet stands at the newly dug grave which will soon house Ophelia, he looks at a skull, which the gravedigger has identified, says, “Oh Yorick I knew him well.”  Yes, it is the remains of Yorick, the court jester who was the young man’s companion and tutor.  Hamlet realizes that death eliminates the differences between people as we all ultimately crumble into dust.

Women and their roles:  "Frailty, thy name is woman!" and “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” highlight Hamlet’s perception that women, like his mother, are weak, as she is not even strong enough to mourn but escapes her angst by insincerely moving on.  She is also manipulated by a man, unable to act on her own.

Irony is a part of life that becomes a message when Polonius gives advice to his son, Laertes, that "This above all: to thine own self be true." Yet he does not follow his sage words and both he and Laertes die because they are not true to themselves. 

The script goes on with more and more Shakespearean ideas such as, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in wisdom! How infinite in faculty!” and “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Charles Fee, the director of Hamlet at Great Lakes Theater, in his program notes explains some of the artistic decisions of this production.  He states, “In choosing to double cast the role of Hamlet with a woman and a man playing alternate performances, we are exploring the possibility that Hamlet’s nature and his responses to the dramatic action may reveal more depth and elicit more compassion than we would experience through a single actor’s interpretation.”

As for a female playing the lead role, this is not that unusual.  In 1775, Sarah Sidons portrayed the Prince of Denmark in British stagings, while in 1820 Sarah Bartley did an American production in the role. 

Probably the best known of female Hamlets was Sarah Bernhard, who, at the turn of the century, was much praised for her performances.  On the other hand, Dame Judith Anderson’s 1970 Carnegie Hall performances, at age 73, were “deemed weak and ill-conceived by critics.”

Joseph Papp, who established the Public Theater, explained, regarding a woman portraying the role, “''I have always felt that there is a strong female side to Hamlet --not feminine so much as female. To me that has to do with an easier capacity to express emotion. The person playing Hamlet should be able to weep unabashedly and unashamedly. There are men who can do that, but they should be young; Hamlet is a very young person, an adolescent, a student.” 

Papp went on to warn, ''I think most people would not approve of having a woman in the role.  I think most audiences are conservative about a change of sex of any kind, and they consider 'Hamlet' sacrosanct.''
 
Papp may well have been right.  In an intermission conversation with people at the GLT preview performance I was told by several Shakespeare traditionalists, “Why don’t these people leave Shakespeare as it was written.” And, “Why can’t they leave things alone and not tinker with greatness.”

I found Laura Welsh Berg’s portrayal of Hamlet appealing and providing a different emotional dimension to the role.  There was an introspection that I hadn’t heard in the many, many performances I had seen before, with males performing the role.

Frustration emerged however, since the actors referred to “her” as “he,” “him,” and “sir,” when I was aware that Berg was a female and was using “feminine” gesture patterns and vocal tonations.  (As per the research on masculine-feminine studies by Sandra Bem and Deborah Tannen.) 

Also, the relationship to Ophelia was confusing with the masculine gender terms.  If played as a woman-to-a-woman, truly a new, a modern dimension, would have been introduced.  If the intent was to stretch the interpretation, why not go all the way?  (The same could be done by adding a male-male component to the male Hamlet version.)

A third issue might be the assumption that members of the audience are going to see the performances of both Berg and the other Hamlet, Jonathan Dyrud.  If not, there is going to be no way to gain the appreciation which Fee explained might happen in the duo casting.

Fee’s program notes also state, “Our scenic design will allow part of the audience to sit onstage, surrounding the actors, as well as on either side of the platform downstage.”  He explains, “For those sitting onstage the experience my feel like being in the play rather than passively watching the play.”

Having some of the audience on stage was a departure.  In Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the groundlings stood around the stage in close proximity to the actors.  Several persons who were seated in the added seats which hugged the stage apron on two sides, expressed their pleasure in seeing and “feeling” the action up close.  

On the other hand, a local reviewer who was seated on stage, moved into orchestra seats for the second act, as he said he couldn’t hear many of the lines in the first act, as they were projected into the auditorium, with the actor’s backs to those ensconced on stage.  He also indicated that he could not see a great deal of action because of the wooden framing which blocked much of the stage and all of the action portrayed in the alcove at the rear of the center stage.

Fee nicely added some humor to the performance, which relieved a degree of the tension without eliminating the angst.  The pacing was sprightly, making the long production seem short, with a high degree of audience attention.

The cast was excellent.  Berg earned her standing audience curtain call.  Erin Partin was superlative as Ophelia.  Her “insane” scene was spell-binding.  Laura Perrotta was properly conflicted as Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. David Anthony Smith nicely developed the king of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle, who killed the youth’s father, into a disliked not overly-done melodramatic maniac.  This added a nice realistic dimension to the role.  Strong performances were also presented by Dougfred Miller (Polonius), Nic Steen (Laertes), and Christopher Tocco (Horatio).

Kim Krumm Sorenson’s opulent costume designs, Rick Martin’s lighting and Ken Merckx’s fight choreography added much to the performance.  High praise to Lynn Robert Berg and Dougfred Miller whose coaching made the speeches easy to understand.

Capsule judgement:  The preview performance of “Hamlet” grabbed and held the audience’s attention.  Laura Welsh Berg was convincing and gave a “different” dimension to the role of the Prince of Denmark.  Though Shakespeare traditionalists may scream “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (GLT), others who see the “female” version of the play should leave saying, “Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”  

 
“Hamlet” runs through April 15 at the Hanna Theatre.  To ascertain when the male or female Hamlet is performing and to get tickets call 216-664-6064 or link to www.greatlakestheater.org

Sunday, March 26, 2017

“Harm’s Way” examines the underbelly of humanity at convergence continuum


Cleveland is in the midst of “The Mac Wellman Homecoming Festival,” presented by Playwrights Local, in partnership with Cleveland State University Department of English, the NEOMFA Creative Writing Program, and the Michael Schwartz Library, with performances by Playwrights Local, Theater Ninjas, convergence-continuum, CSU Department of Theatre & Dance, Baldwin Wallace University Department of Theatre and Dance, and The Manhattan Project–Cleveland Lab.

Mac Wellman, a local product, is a playwright, author, and poet.  His work is experimental in nature, rebelling against traditional theatrical conventions, such as having a clear plot. 

His play, “Harm’s Way,” is being staged at convergence-continuum, as part of the Festival.  Having a Wellman play at con-con is not an accident.  Clyde Simon, the theatre’s artistic director, seemingly has a thing for the author, having produced numerous stagings of his scripts.

In order to even attempt to “understand” a Wellman play requires a knowledge of the writer and his attitudes toward society and theatre.

In an interview about his philosophy of writing, Wellman said, “I am a pessimist, but a cheerful one. I believe, along with Beckett and Handke and Witkiewicz, that the depth is on the surface.”  He further stated that he uses words as objects in his writing. "I found if you try to write totally in clichés and things that don't sound right, you deal with a language that frankly is 98% of what people speak, think, and hear.”

Of “Harm’s Way,” a 1978 script, he states, “The play takes on working class and political topics without the typical rhetoric of those subjects. “It’s the first play [of mine] I really kind of liked. I ended up writing about violence and guns in the vast, empty Midwest.  Everybody gets angry at everybody else. I was once told that anger is emotion searching for an idea.”

Sound abstract?  Obtuse? An exercise in abstraction for the sake of abstraction?  If you said, “Yes,” then you agree with those who respond in the positive to the convoluted natured of Wellman’s plays. 

At the start of the “Harm’s Way,” a young boy is chased around the stage by his mother who has a sandwich in her hand.  Abbreviated dialogue from the script is:

MOTHER: Ugly kid. Eat!
CHILD: Witch. Go stuff it.
MOTHER: Watch your mouth.
CHILD: Don’t want that crap. It’s crap.
MOTHER: Good American cheese. Real baloney, on Wonder bread. Eat it. Or else.
CHILD: Crap.
MOTHER: You don’t eat it and I’ll whip you good.
CHILD: Crap sandwich.
MOTHER: You don’t eat that sandwich and I’ll kill you good. I’ll teach you, little son of a bitch.
She shoots him.  [I repeat . . . SHE SHOOTS HIM]   
MOTHER: No respect. . .

The play takes place in a mythical American West.  It centers on the adventures of Santouche [“Sans-touché” or untouchable], a very angry man who walks around with a loaded gun in his hand.   We follow his tale with no ordered references to time or place, just a series of scenes, which happen.
   
What we see and hear are a chaotic stream of shoot-outs, often with little explanation or purpose, set in a kind of circus sideshow imagery.  By the end, more bodies pile up than in a Greek tragedy.

Each scene contains the phrase, “It’s all part of the show,” but we are never sure of the referent for “it’s.”

The con-con production, under the direction of Clyde Simon, is about an hour long, well-paced and makes the most of what the playwright has given the director and cast:  Monica Zach, Robert Branch, Michael Regnier, Brian Westerley, Hilary Wheelock, Carrie Williams and Gideon Lorete, who are supported by a group of musicians:  Wesley Allen, Joseph Milan and Beau Reinker who sing, pluck away and fill in as characters in the tale.



Capsule Judgement: “Harm’s Way” looks at the underbelly of humanity, people who engender no positive emotional connection for many, in a frame work that follows Wellman’s abstract writing style.  If that’s your thing, then you’ll appreciate the happenings.  



“Harm’s Way” runs through April 15, 2017, at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to http://www.convergence-continuum.org/

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.