Monday, July 27, 2015

The brief but poignant THE TWELVE-POUND LOOK delights and edifies @ Shaw

“The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they cant find them, make them.” (G. B. Shaw)

J. M. Barrie’s one act drama, “The Twelve-Pound Look,” which is now in production at The Shaw Festival, is a funny, poignant, strong strike for the women’s movement.  It is a quick view (35-minutes) of how a woman can take control of her destiny, break traditional bonds, and lead a worthy life.

In the late 1800s only three major occupations were available to British women:  being a governess, dressmaker or a wife and mother. 

In 1910, when  “The Twelve Pound Look’ opened, based on the encouragement of such writers as G. B. Shaw and J. M. Barrie and early women’s activists, the idea that women could leave the security of being a wife and venture into the world of work was being debated.  But societal  patterns were starting to  recognize that maybe women wanted something more than being an “object d’art” and to be an equal in a marriage.  As a quick study of modern history will reveal, for better or worse, women have come a long way.

When the proverbial curtain goes up on “The Twelve Pound Look,” wealthy Harry Simms is practicing for the ceremony in which he will become a knight.  He is a success!  His finely coiffed and dressed wife’s attempts to insert her ideas into the process are summarily rejected.  She is, of course, “just a woman.” 

A typist is brought in to answer the messages of congratulations which have already started to arrive.

Much to “Sir” Harry’s consternation, the typist turns out to be a woman.  Not just any woman, but his former wife, Kate.  Kate, who, fed up with his controlling ways, demeaning attitudes about women, and view that women are decorations and chattels of men, saved 12 pounds, bought a typewriter, and left him to fend for herself.

In contrast to Harry’s new wife, the beautiful and cowed “Lady” Sims, Kate, has grown into a self-satisfied woman, full of humor and confidence.  How long will it be before wife number two decides to take a stand and no longer be the slave to Harry’s macho control?  Probably not very long, as before Kate leaves, “Lady” Simms asks the price of a typewriter!

Under the focused direction of Lezlie Wade, the Shaw lunch time production is an edifying delight.  From the manly furnished and decorated living room designed by William Schmuck, to the costumes which show the differing attitudes of the two Mrs. Sims, the production is perfectly conceived.  The musical prelude “If Eve Had Left the Apple on the Bough,” a comic opera song by Victor Herbert and Henry Blossom, sets the perfect comic  and ironic attitude.

Neil Barclay is properly filled with pomp and circumstance as Tombes the butler who also acts as the narrator.

The beautiful Kate Besworth is perfectly dressed and coiffed as the cowed Lady Sims.  Her delivery of the play’s final line, the most important utterance of the play, is presented with just the right tone of foreboding doom for Harry and his controlling ways.

Patrick Galligan has the proper air of arrogance and entitlement to make him the villain of the well-conceived piece.

Moya O’Connell makes for a perfect Kate.  Dressed in a business suit, displaying the carriage of a self-respecting woman, she makes it clear that she has achieved her goals in life…becoming an independent woman and living a worthy life!


Capsule judgement:  “The Twelve Pound Look,” is a perfect device to prove that with a focused purpose and a clear outline, it doesn’t need to take hours to make a statement.  The meaningful script gets a delightful and well conceived production.  What a lovely way to spend a  35-minute lunch break.

What: “The Twelve Pound Look:
Where:  Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre
When:  June 11 to September 12, 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or http://www.shawfest.com/



Creative, delightful “Peter and the Starcatcher” @ The Shaw

“Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage:  it can be delightful.”  (G. B. Shaw)

Mention J. M. Barrie, and the immediate thought is Peter Pan.  Peter Pan, the tale of a boy who refused to grow up, has become a cottage industry.   Dolls, movies, a musical play, coloring books, cartoons, Halloween costumes, a non-musical play, and books quickly come to mind. 

Did you know that there has even been a prequel written about Peter and the boys?  Yes, a subsidiary of Disney, published, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a 2004 book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, which provides a back story, an explanation of what happened before the J. M. Barrie popular tale, “Peter Pan.”

A play with music, with book by Rick Elice and music by Wayne Barker, was adapted from “Peter and the Starcatcher.” It debuted in 2009 at La Jolla Playhouse.  It was restaged in 2011 for an Off-Broadway production, and opened on-Broadway in 2012.   It is now on stage at the Royal George Theatre of the Shaw Festival in a delightful production directed by Jackie Maxwell. 

Act 1 takes place at sea.  We sail on ships which evolve before our eyes.  Act Two finds us on an island.  

We find out how an orphan called Boy evolves into a lad named Peter.  The tale reveals how he and two friends meet Molly, confront a band of pirates led by Black “Stache,” and how a crocodile got a taste for the pirate leader.  We share with the cast how Peter protects a trunk of “star stuff,” and the mischievous Tinker Belle comes to be.   The action ends as Molly and her father return to the real world, while Peter and the Lost Boys remain on the isle of Neverland, with a promise to visit Molly sometime in the future.  

For those in the know, we realize that Peter, will use the “star stuff” to fly to a home in England, where Molly (Darling) now lives with her children Wendy, John and Michael.  And, of course, Peter will take the trio on a flight to Never Neverland where Wendy will become, at least for a short time, the “mother” of the lost boys and have an adventure which includes a croc with a taste for Captain Hook, a band of pirates, some Indians, and, well….you get the idea!

The farce is performed with imaginative staging that enhances the fantasy nature of the work.  It is, as the program says, “deliriously foolish.”  The production elements, as evidenced by the howling and giggles emitted from both adults and children alike, is meant for everyone.  Only a true grouch wouldn’t be entertained.

Filled with ropes which become waves of water, doorways, devices for levitation and Peter’s near drowning and flight, the simple effects work well.  Hanging sheets of filmy gauze create sails, but are also used as devices for mermaids to hang from and swim their way through the sea.

Each member of the cast is character correct.  Kate Besworth, is the fearless tomboy, Molly, with enough lady-like characteristics, to see her as a future proper mother.  Charlie Gallant delights as Peter, the orphan boy who doesn’t want to grown up, but obviously needs a mother so he can become a true “leader.”

Andrew Broderick (Ted) and James Daly (Prentiss) take on the roles of Peter’s friends with wonderful boyish hellion qualities. 

Jonathan Tan morphs into Smee, Black Stache’s bumbling henchman, with a nice farcical quality.  Martin Happer doesn’t scare the little ones as the “fiercesome” Black Stache.  Instead, he takes on a rather cherubic bad guy veneer.  


Capsule judgement:  “Peter and the Starcatcher” is a delightful fantasy of imagination and  growing up that gets a farcical, creative and wonderfully enjoyable production under the direction of Jackie Maxwell and scenic design by Judith Bowden.  It’s  a must see for anyone, child or adult, who can turn themselves over to experiencing the wonderment of imagination. 

What: “Peter and the Starcatcher”
Where:  Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre
When:  April 8 to November 1, 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or http://www.shawfest.com/

Tony Kushner's "iHo"--a long play that captivates at Shaw

“Revolutionary movements attract those who are not good enough for established institutions as well as those who are too good for them.”  (G. Bernard Shaw)

The Mandate of the Shaw Festival is to “produce plays from and about his [Shaw’s] era and contemporary plays that share Shaw’s provocative exploration of society and celebration of humanity.”   Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” is a perfect example of a contemporary script that fulfills that mission.

The title was inspired by Shaw’s pamphlet, “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.”  Though it doesn’t try to explain or build on Shaw’s pamphlet, the publication’s topics of socialism and capitalism are central to the play’s core.

The rest of the title alludes to “Science and Health” the book written by Mary Baker Eddy, which serves as the central text of the Christian Science religion.  The teachings of Eddy, and the book itself, though not central to the play, are alluded to in the script.

Kushner’s plays often center on Judaism, politics, gay rights and the metaphysical world.  A declared liberal, he often examines social justice.  “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,” which is referred to by The Shaw as “iHo,” contains references to all of the usual Kushner themes.

Kushner received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play “Angels in America:  A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”  The openly gay playwright and scriptwriter, has also received The National Medal of Arts, as well as several Tony Awards and an Emmy. 

Kushner in a 2011 interview indicated that the title of his almost four-hour play centers on the intrusion of the spiritual into the political and economic world.  He indicated that not this, nor any of his plays, is meant to be politically illuminating though his works contain many references and speeches about these topics.  (To hear the interview go to: http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Writers+and+Company/ID/2273993459/
“Writers and Company”  September 25, 2011.)

“Iho” is saga about a big American family in 2007.   A big Italian American family which contains lesbians, homosexuals, an African American, an Asian, a laborer, teacher, lawyer, former nun, and a theology professor.  This dysfunctional family unit is headed by the patriarch, Gus Marcantonio, a former longshoreman and  union organizer with strong left-leaning tendencies, has been behaving oddly.   

At the stage where we meet him, Gus is disillusioned, confused and defeated by the 21st century.  He is aware of his feeling of having lived false dreams, of seeing his life and that of his children, caught in a conundrum of historical forces not being on his or their side.  He questions revolutions, the consequences of compromise, evolutionary socialism (a movement advocating political, religious and/or economic reform), though he has lived his life dedicated to the accomplishment of change.

Into his Brooklyn brownstone converge his sister, a former nun, who has been staying with him for a year, his three children and their spouses, ex-spouses and lovers.  Questions abound:   Should he sell the brownstone?  How are the various factions within the family dealing with infidelity and conflicting political and religious views?  Can they or should they stop Gus from committing suicide?

The dark comedy uses humor and exposition to examine the various aspects of a family unit and what happens when individual needs conflict with group process.  It probes a world of abandoned dreams.  It showcases political fantasies and what happens when those dreams come up against life’s realities.  Kushner seems to propose the idea of the perfectibility of the world as being a religious concept, not a political one.

The staging is creative.  Pairs and trios square up to verbally slug it out.  The whole stage often explodes in talk and counter-talk, overlapping rants.  It seems that no one is listening to anyone else.  That is, no one except the mesmerized audience! 

The cast is excellent.  Jim Mezon puts on the persona of Gus Marcantonio at the start of the production and wears it throughout.  The character is complex, requiring complete reality and sensitivity to the motivations that cause someone to contemplate and attempt suicide.  Mezon accomplishes that completely.

Steven Sutcliffe is pathetically convincing as Gus’s gay, oldest son, Pill, caught in his obsessive needs for a young prostitute and the requirements of being married to a man who has given up so much for him.   Andre Sills effectively portrays Paul, Pill’s husband. 

Empty, Gus’s labor lawyer lesbian daughter, gets a strong focused presentation by Kelli Fox.  Her pregnant partner, Maeve, is clearly developed by Diana Donnelly.

Both Gray Powell, as Vito, the youngest son, and Julie Jasmine Chen, as his wife, are completely believable.

Fiona Reid, as Clio, Gus’s pacifistic sister, is physically and verbally absent, making her right on target as the former nun. 

Thom Marriott (Empty’s ex-husband) and Julie Martell, as Michelle, the wife of Gus’s former union member, play their vital roles with a clear focus.

Peter Hartwell’s complex era correct set works well.

One of the hallmarks of the audience’s involvement in a production are the discussions which take place during intermissions.  At “IHo,” the time was spent by many discussing the play:  Good sign!

Capsule judgement:  Director Eda Holmes has honed “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” into a  well acted, well staged production that grabs and holds an audience’s attention.  This is a thinking person’s play, not aimed at the “I go to the theater to have a good time and get away from my troubles and that of others” crowd.

What: “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures”
Where:  Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre
When:  July 11-October 10, 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or http://www.shawfest.com/

Monday, July 20, 2015

A lovely night at Blossom: Michael Feinstein entertains and educates

The evening was warm, the crickets in full voice, the pavilion almost filled, the lawn covered with bodies, blankets, bottles and baskets, sounds wafting from the big band musicians, melodic words, and a spoken and sung pleasant voice entertaining and educating.   It was the program,  “Michael Feinstein A Big Band Tribute to Frank Sinatra” at the beautiful Blossom Center.

Diminutive Michael Feinstein’s musical career started at age 5 in Columbus, Ohio.  The young Michael started to play piano by ear, developed into a piano bar celeb, came to New York, was introduced to Ira Gershwin, composer of “I Got Rhythm,” “Love is Here to Stay,” and “’Swonderful,” became his assistant for six years, met the elite of the music business, and transformed himself into “The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook.” 

Feinstein has transcribed, arranged, catalogued and performed a vast collection of American musical standards.  His personal connection with such musical greats as Rosemary Clooney, Sammy Davis Jr., Cole Porter and Liza Minnelli opened the door to a knowledge of music that turned him into an anthropologist and archivist.  In 2007 he founded the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, dedicated to celebrating the art musical form and preserving it through educational programs, competitions, and making the songs available to the public.

Feinstein, who has won two Emmy Awards, is also a song stylist who presents over 200 shows each year.

You don’t go to a Feinstein concert to hear imitations of the singers whose songs he presents, but to hear the compositions presented in the style of those artists.  You don’t go expecting a performer who captivates the audience like Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler or Edina Menzel.  You go to hear a pleasant evening of personal tales, revealing information, and classic songs.

His July 18, 2015 Blossom concert was a tribute to Frank Sinatra.  Feinstein revealed how he met and became friends with “old blue eyes.”  How Sinatra was instrumental in expanding the young man’s musical contacts, and personal stories about the man who is considered to be one of the greatest interpreters of American songs.

Starting with “Luck be a Lady” from the musical, “Guys and Dolls,” to probably Sinatra’s mantra,  “New York, New York,” the evening flowed easily from song to song, from tale to tale.  There was humor, pathos, name dropping and a little gossip.

Songs included “Time After Time,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” which was written as a waltz, but was reinterpreted by Sinatra, and “It’s Alright With Me.”  Other songs were “Just One of Those Things,” which Feinstein indicated Sinatra viewed as the saddest lyrics ever written, and “Night and Day, “one of the great man’s favorites.  Others presented were “Someday,” “My Kind of Town,” written specifically for Sinatra by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn for inclusion in “Robin and the Seven Hoods,” and “Fools Rush In,” the kind of song which was sung with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of Scotch in the other.  “All the Way” was followed by a medley of songs from the Sinatra songbook including “Come Fly With Me,” “It’s Witchcraft,” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.”

The appreciative crowd gave Feinstein a much deserved standing ovation and left humming their favorite song from the encyclopedia of music they had just heard.

Future pop Blossom presentations include: 

“Broadway Divas,” a program including songs from “Wicked,” “Les Miz,” “Cabaret,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Chicago.” (August 2)

“The British Invasion:  The Music of the Beatles, The Stones, The Who,” and more.  (August 16)

“Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis” (August 29)

For tickets to these and other Blossom concerts call 216-231-1111 or 800-686-1141, go the Severance Hall Ticket Office, or Blossom Box Office, or go online to http://www.clevelandorchestra.com

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Groundworks Dance Theater captivates at Cain Park

As the capacity audience was settling in on opening night of Groundworks Dance Theatre’s summer concert in Cain Park’s Alma Theatre, there was a loud electronic sound stage right.  As the eyes shifted in its direction, a lawn mower was pushed on stage.  This was followed by a series of other sounds and actions of everyday occurrences including playing golf, sunbathing, and living in suburbia. 

“House Broken, as choreographed by Rosie Harerra is a series of everyday songs such as “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones, “So Happy Together” by the Turtles, “Little Boxes” by Pete Seeger, and “Cranking and Old Lawnmower,” by Million Dollar Sounds,” which, when blended together, created a zany picture of modern life via dance.

Each well executed crossroads piece between theatre and dance highlighted the skills of the newly constituted Groundworks company.   The composition, which was premiered in 2014, was well executed and delightful.  New dancers are Lauren Garson, former member of the Houston Metropolitan Dance Company and Parson Dance.  You may have seen her on the launch of Microsoft XBOX 360. Michael Marquez is a 2015 graduate of The Julliard School, who has premiered a series of new creations by such choreographers as Monisa Bill Barnes, Emery LeCrone and Kyle Scheurich.  The duo blended well with company veterans Felise Bagley, Annika Sheaff and Damien Highfield.

“Remora,” in its world premiere, was a superb showcase that demonstrated the physical skills of the company.  The piece was complex and demanded and received perfect timing. 

Synced to the repetitive cadence of the music created by composer Michael Wall, the non-narrative performance exploded on stage with gymnastic exertions, controlled moves, fine lifts and meaningful body contact between the dancers.   Dennis Dugan’s lighting enhanced the mood and movements.  Two highlight segments were Annika Sheaff’s solo and Damien Highfield and Felise Bagley’s duet.  The audience response was explosive.

“Boom Boom,” created by Groundworks Artistic Director David Shimotakahara in 2009, is a highlight piece in the company’s repertoire.

The number pays tribute to the essence of the blues.  As stated in the program about that musical form, “For all its pain and suffering it is also full of life.  There is loneliness and endless journey, but here is also an attitude about survival.”

The musical sounds, sometime plaintive, sometimes playful, sometimes lively, sometimes haunting, were well echoed in the dancing.

The musical score included:  “Sitting on Top of the World,” “Today I Sing The Blues,” “When the Train Comes Along,” “Hound Dog,” and “Got My Mojo Working.’

Capsule Judgement:  GroundWorks Dance Theater’s “At Cain Park’s Alma Theater” was a well danced and an entertaining evening of theatre.  The newly constituted company has a vitality and proficiency that maintains the integrity and artistic significance of David Shimotakahara’s mission of fine dancing and imagination. 


Presentation dates:  July 17-19, 2015

Upcoming GroundWorks performances:

Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival
July 31 and August 1 @ 8:45 pm
Glendale Cemetery, Akron

Arts in August
August 14, 2015 @ 8:30 pm
Tremont’s Lincoln Park

Fall Performance Series
October 16 & 17 at @ 7:30 pm
The Allen Theatre, PlayhouseSquare

For information about GroundWorks go to http://www.groundworksdance.orgor call 216-751-0088.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Green Day’s “American Idiot” is a mixed bag at Beck

Local theatres each tend to have a niche audience based on the venue’s play selection.  Dobama leans toward intellectual contemporary which are having their local premiers.  convergence-continuum tilts toward off-beat writers and plots, many with homosexual themes. Cleveland Public Theatre thrives on a diet of creative, often devised theater offerings.  Beck Center for the Arts is noted as the place for family offerings and scripts that appeal to the more conservative tastes of its older patrons (e.g., “Mary Poppins,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “She Loves Me.”)

In his attempt to attract new and younger audiences, Scott Spence, Beck’s artistic director, has sometimes staged contemporary musicals in their small Studio Theatre.  Musicals like “Altar Boy,”  “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “Reefer Madness,” and “Evil Dead The Musical.”

This summer, hoping to entice large groups of younger audience members, who are turned on by the music of  Green  Day, a punk rock band, Beck is staging the group’s rock opera, “American Idiot,” in the venue’s large Mackey Theatre.  (Yes, Green Day, the creators of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Holiday,” “Jesus of Suburbia,” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”)

A version of the musical toured into PlayhouseSquare in April of 2014 for a very short run.  As I noted in that review, Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, who created “American Idiot,” seemingly tried to duplicate the success of “Hair” and “Rent” in reflecting the societal image of the mid-to-late 2000s by creating a musical based on high-octane rock guitar riffs, vigorous singing and dancing, and what they termed “an evergreen narrative of teen rage, love and loss.”

Unfortunately, their creation, though it works on some levels, does not have the story line depth, the quality of music, or stage presence of “Hair” or “Rent.” We care little about the self-centered characters, who aren’t acting out for a cause, but out of self-centered egotism.

The tale takes place “in the recent past,” and concerns three guy friends, Johnny, Will and Tunny, who plan to escape their suburban “wasteland.”  As they are about to part, Will finds out that his girlfriend is pregnant.  He decides to stay home, leaving the other two to go on their way.  

Life in the “big city” doesn’t turn out to be what the boys expected.  Johnny wanders down the road to drug addiction (supplied by the snarly St. Jimmy) and sexual depravity (with Whatsername).  Bored Tunny enlists in the army and goes off to fight in the Iraq war.  

Tunny loses a leg, but falls in love with his nurse (The Extraordinary Girl).  Eventually, Johnny recognizes the error of his ways and returns to suburbia, as does Tunny with his new love.  The plot is thin, with no moral, no big causes to defy, and is basically rudderless.

The musical, which is overly long and filled with repetitive music, screams along on one emotion…angst!

In Beck’s production, under the musical direction of Bryan Bird, the music was high decibel and frenetic, not even mellowing out for the ballads.  The drummer, who created an over-powering presence, seemed to struggle at times with the beat and sometimes slipped up when changing tempo.  The score, which is synchronized to the beating heart, causes audience exhaustion.

The sung words are basically screamed and incomprehensible, which is probably not important in a rock concert, but are necessary when you are trying to tell a story.  The sound system seemed pushed to its capacity, resulting in muffled clarity. 

The high point of the production is the choreography of Martin Céspedes.  The dancers in the touring production spent a lot of time in static simulated marching in place, or stepping forward and then freezing in place.  That was not the case with Céspedes’s dancers.  Using grunge and rock movements, gymnastic based actions, pony prancing, and creating some new choreographic vocabulary, the high energy movements worked.   The segment with the cast moving around the stage, on a simulated trolley car, was extremely creative.

The metal scaffold set design, basically a duplicate of the Broadway and touring show, worked well.  Trad Burns’ pulsing lighting helped set the frenetic pace.

Dan Folino created a one-dimensional Johnny who was on a seeming high at the beginning of the show, and collapsed as a burnt out druggie heap at the end.  His usually powerful voice was so strained from all the shouting that when he got to the ballad “When It’s Time” he sounded gravelly.   (It’s a good thing that Folino and the other leads have understudies as it would be amazing if they each didn’t get laryngitis during the show’s run.)

Of the leads, Jonathan Walker White was best able to create a textured character as Tunny. 

Riley Ewing, who has a nice singing voice, spent the entire production seemingly sulking.

Joseph Virgo was properly snarly as the drug dealing St. Jimmy.

It is hoped that Spence’s strategy works and funnels much needed cash into the theatre’s coffers.  Saturday night’s open week audience was composed of the theatre’s usual gray-headed attendees, some of whom sat through the intermissionless show with their hands covering their ears, and pockets of “Green Day” groupies, who cheered mightily.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Devotees of Green Day should be turned on by Beck’s “American Idiot.”  It is a loud, brash musical which attempts to tell the tale of youthful disgust with modern day America.   The cast puts out full energy, the choreography is well designed and executed.   But, the thin one dimensional script, nearly impossible to understand lyrics, and redundant overly amplified music, will make this a less than a stellar theatrical experience for many.
“American Idiot” is scheduled to run through August 16, 2015 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org  

“Violet” blossoms at Porthouse Theatre

Musicals can, among other things,  be loud and brassy (think “Gypsy), filled with high drama (“Les Misérables), emotionally wrenching (“Carousel”), delightful (“Something Rotten”), filled with romantic, lush music (“An American in Paris”), farcical (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”), political (“Cabaret”), or historical (“1776”).  

“Violet,” the musical by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (lyrics and book), which is now on stage at Porthouse Theatre, is none of these.  It is a gentle story, with music that is not memorable.  And though it isn’t the type of show that wins Tony Awards, it is the kind of show, with the right directing and cast, that can provide a wonderful theatrical experience.

Fortunately for the audiences that should flock to see the Porthouse production, Director Steven C. Anderson has conceived a well-crafted and creative show, which is engrossingly performed by a very strong cast.

“Violet” is based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” a short story by Doris Betts.   It examines personal perceptions and the effect of our society’s pressures to look “perfect.” 

Violet was scarred when an ax wielded by her father “accidentally” sliced her face from nose to ear (“The scar that cuts a rainbow clear across my cheek…”).  She becomes obsessed by her vision of herself as ugly, unattractive to everyone.  Violet becomes obsessed with a televangelist who she believes offers her last chance to be cured.  She sets out on a bus ride from Spruce Pine, a small town in the hills of North Carolina, to Tulsa, Oklahoma in order to be healed.   During the trip she comes upon two soldiers, Flick, who is African American, and Monty, who is white, who seem unaffected by her scars and fight for her love.  

The storyline has enough twists and turns and suspense to hold the audience’s attention.  The staging keeps the show riding along smoothly, adding some interesting visualizations, and overcoming much of the trouble usually presented by Porthouse’s thrust stage where the audience members sitting in the side sections, may have difficulty hearing.   A lot of the sound floats into the woods which surround the open theatre, making the sound system almost useless.  Expect to lose some of the spoken words, and even some song lyrics.  It may be distracting, but the story line will remain obvious.

Questions abound. “What is meant by beauty?”   “Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?”  “Can someone find love even if they are physically scared?”  “Can a person’s attitude about themselves be changed by unconditional love?

The music integrates the twangy flavors of gospel, country, bluegrass, Memphis blues, and honky-tonk rock.  Though there is no single memorable song in the score, the overall musical sound fits the multi-moods of the story, etching the characters and effectively pushing the plot along.

Amy Fritsche is completely believable as Violet.  She transforms herself into the character, never leaving any hint that she is acting.  Her singing voice is strong.  Her renditions of “Lay Down Your Head,” “Raise Me Up,” and “On My Way” are all enveloping.

Talia Consentino, as Young Violet, is wonderful.  A rising Junior at Kent State, the young lady, who easily passes for a tween, has a fine singing voice and stage presence.  Her, “Look at Me,” a duet with Fritsche, is well performed.

Jared Dixon shines as Flick, an African American army sergeant, who, like Violet, suffers emotional scars from living in the Deep South in segregated 1964.  Dixon gives a finely tuned interpretation to the role.   His duet, “Promise Me, Violet,” sung with Fritsche, is compelling as is his “Let It Sing.”

Ian Benjamin’s “aw shucks” attitude is perfect for the character of Monty, the gum chewing, tall, lanky, self-confident paratrooper.   His “Question and Answer” duet with Dixon was one of the show’s comic delights.

Shamara Costa wailed as the Gospel Soloist and Paul Floriano developed well the disillusioned Preacher.

Musical Director Jennifer Korecki and her band, Ryan McDermott (Guitar/Banjo), Don T. Day (Bass), William Sallak (Percussion) and Michael Houff (Violin/Fiddle) did an excellent job of setting the proper musical tone as well as supporting and not drowning out the singers.

“Violet” premiered off-Broadway in 1997 and was selected by the Drama Critic’s Circle as Best Musical.  It opened on Broadway in 2014 with Sutton Foster playing Violet.  

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: While “Violet” does not have the components of a classic musical production it is a special evening of theatre resulting from a clear directing concept by Steven C. Anderson, fine instrumental performances, excellent vocalizations by the entire cast, and excellent acting.

“Violet” runs until June 27, 2015 at Porthouse Theatre.  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to www.porthousetheatre.com.

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE: “Hairspray” from July 30-August 16.  Curtain times are 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Blossom open 90 minutes prior to curtain time.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

A preview: Gays, Lesbians, Transgenders and the American Musical: Musical Theater Project

What do “Avenue Q,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “A Chorus Line,” “Fun Home,” “The Color Purple,” “Kinky Boots,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “A Man of No Importance,” “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Spring Awakening,” and “Victor/Victoria” have in common?  Yes, they are all musicals.  They also  contain Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and/or Transgendered characters or themes.

William Goldman in his book, “The Season,” states that “the Broadway musical would not exist without LGBT involvement.”  Yes, themes about those various lifestyles abound.  And people who identify themselves LGBT have had strong influences and involvement in the musical theatre art form.  From composers like Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein and Jerry Herman, to performers such as Harvey Fierstein, Nathan Lane, Lea DeLaria, Neil Patrick Harris,  Jane Lynch, and Lilly Tomlin, the LGBT community has been a power in musical theater.

The field probably attracted and still attracts so many LGBTs because it provides a safe place for participation.  Rather than entering a hostile corporate world, the choice is to go into a theater community which is more accepting, less prejudiced, allowing talent rather than sexual orientation to be the evaluator of who is successful.  The rainbow ceiling tends to be porous in the wonderful world of show business.

As an art form, the Broadway musical probably “came out” in 1983 with the opening of Jerry Herman’s “La Cage aux Folles,” which contained not only a love story between two mature gay men, but bisexuality, cross-dressing, a drag queen, confronting of homosexual prejudice, and the song, “I Am What I Am,” considered to be the “national anthem” of gay men.

The newest “LGBT” musical hit is the multi-Tony and Drama Desk winning “Fun Home,” the adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about herself (a lesbian) and her father (a closeted gay man).  It’s the first mainstream musical about a young lesbian.

The Musical Theater Project will, on August 13, present, “I Am What I Am:  Gays, Lesbians, and the American Musical,” at 7 pm in the Alma Theater of Cain Park.  It will look at the “coded” songs of Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart in the 1920s to the breakout musicals of the post-Stonewall 1970s.  The performance will be co-hosted by Scott Plate and Bill Rudman, and feature Molly Andrews-Hinders, Katherine DeBoer and Jared Leal.

For tickets call 216-245-8687 or go online to musicaltheaterproject.org or to Cain Park, 216-371-3000 or go to http://www.cainpark.com/


(Footnote:  some material in this article is based on “Musical Theater” http://www..glbtq.com/literature/musical_theater.html)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

A preview: DANCECleveland and Cain Park Co-Sponsor David Parsons Dance to Celebrate National Day of Dance

New York City based David Parsons Dance will kick off DANCECleveland’s 60th Anniversary Season with dancing for the whole family.  The summer performance, co–sponsored by DANCECleveland and Cain Park will
take place at Cain Park’s Evans Amphitheater on July 25 at 8 p.m.

Events on schedule for The National Day of Dance include picnic options,
wine tastings, free ballroom and line dance classes, and the chance to see local dance students perform before the show.

Advanced dancers over 16 years of age can participate in a free dance master class in the morning with David Parsons himself at 11 a.m. on the Evans Amphitheater stage. RSVP is required by emailing sarah@dancecleveland.org. Limited space is available.

Performance tickets range from $20- $25 and are now on sale at www.dancecleveland.org, or call 216-371-3000. Tickets can also be purchased in person at the Cain Park Ticket Office, or by visiting www.cainpark.com. Discounts for groups of five or more are also available by calling DANCECleveland at 216-991-9000. For more information on the David Parsons Dance, visit: http://www.parsonsdance.org

Abstract “The Train Play” confounds at convergence continuum

Liz Duffy Adams, whose play, “The Reckless Ruthless Brutal Charge Of It, or The Train Play” is now on stage at convergence continuum is noted for being an American abstract writer.  The word “abstract” may be the key to confronting “The Train Play.”

The play may well represent “the derailment of American dreams and apocalyptic nightmares,” as it was described by a San Francisco reviewer, or it may be, “a meditation on time, history and apocalyptic anxiety during an all-night journey to the end of the world,” as explained by another reviewer. 

Or, it might just be an attempt by the writer to convince intellectuals that she is actually saying something of great philosophical sense and purpose, when the whole effort is to try and duplicate the concept developed in television’s “Twilight Zone,” and tease the viewer into believing that what is being said is greatly profound, when, in fact it is nothing but a device to confound.  

So, what’s it all about?  We find ourselves observing a group of people entering and becoming seated on a train to some unannounced place.  The announcer abstractly and humorously, announces that we are about to go on a journey. 

We are in the company of Gabriel Angelfood, who appears to be a deranged young man who babbles incessantly about angels and other topics as he scribbles away in his notebook.

There is Leopard-Girl, a twelve-year old who goes through life reliving antics of comic book characters.  She seemingly believes that she can make herself invisible, freeze time, and look into the future.    There is a female Scientist who is running from something or escaping to something.

Paul is writing a travel book, and is also in a flight to or from.  Gaia is an older woman who is in a flight of fancy and trying to avoid the boredom in which she lives, and there are three Russian brothers who are touring the United States in search of something, who sing of their former lives.

Yes, these are lost souls who appear to be on an absurd journey, searching the cruel world, trying to “outrace their creative confusion, festering memories, delusions of grandeur, and dogged compulsions.”  They eventually confront a metaphorical apocalypse.   Sound abstract?  It is!  Sound like the work of a playwright who could have spent her time in a better pursuit?  It is!

The con-con production, under the guidance of Clyde Simon, gets what it can from the abstract script.  Wonder what would have happened if the director had overdone the acting and pushed a farcical approach.  Marcia Mandell, noted for doing ditzy women, is the comic relief of the production.  She has some wonderful over-blown moments as Gaia.  Maybe an entire cast of overblown characterizations would have at least made the play worth sitting through by infusing laughter into the goings on.

As is, Cody Zak was properly possessed as Gabriel Angelfood.  Sweating, red cheeked, mumbling to himself, he clearly displayed signs of both craziness and guilt.

Taylor Tucker, though a little to old to be playing a twelve-year old, effectively emerged herself into portraying characters from her fantasy comic book world.  

Lauren B. Smith was uptight as the Scientist.  Her sex scene with Beau Reinker (Sergei) was well done.

Tim Coles did a nice job of creating Paul, a man in conflict with himself and the world. 

The three Russians, Mikhail, Sergei and Dmitri are well played by Robert Branch, as the older and “wiser” brother, Beau Reinker as the cute, seductive, musical Sergei and Jack Matuszewski as the poet Dmitri, who has a nice make-out scene with Cody Zak (Gabriel Angelfood). 

Capsule Judgement:   “The Reckless Ruthless Brutal Charge Of It, Or The Train Play,” should appeal to con-con audiences who attend in their search for off-beat theatre.  If you are looking for a play with a message, it should be easy to use your imagination and conjure up a lesson to be learned from the abstractions and pseudo-philosophical pontifications which flow from the mouths of the actors.  

“The Reckless Ruthless Brutal Charge Of It, Or The Train Play,” runs through July  18 2015 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.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Opinions differ on TRIASSIC PARQ THE MUSICAL at Blank Canvas

--> As I sat shaking my head in disbelief of what I was seeing and hearing on the Blank Canvas Theatre stage, those around me were howling with uncontrollable laughter.  What I was seeing was ridiculous, unbelievable, and basically poorly performed.  I’m not sure what was making my audience-mates laugh so hard,  but I heard one of the young ladies behind me confide that she had just wet her pants and then I got sprayed by a shower of beer that came forth from her companion’s nose as he exploded in laughter.

We are all being exposed to TRIASSIC PARQ, THE MUSICAL (“a musical 65 million years in the making”), winner of the best musical at the 2010 New York Fringe Festival.  That’s TRIASSIC PARQ, not JURASSIC PARK, the 1993 movie or its 2015 sequel. 

We had been told at the start of this epic that the authors of the musical, (book and lyrics by Marshall Palet, Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo), even though this story, as does the movie, takes place at a theme park centering on dinosaurs, they  couldn’t use the “other name” because they would get sued. 

Believe me, from my perspective, the developers of the musical could well be sued for unusual and cruel punishment to my psyche and fractured ear drums, but, that’s just my opinion.  An opinion obviously not shared by most of the rest of the audience.  Maybe it’s a generational thing.  “They” were all in their upper-teens and twenties, not a gray head in the place.  I, on the other hand, was around when the dinosaurs roamed the earth.

The advance billing indicates that TRIASSIC PARQ follows a group of cloned dinosaurs as they unearth the very foundations of their existence.  Morality, faith, science, gender identity, and interspecies fornication are all explored, and sung about by the narrator who talks of love, loss, and resurrected reptiles.  The only thing missing from that explanation is the indication that right before our eyes two of the female dinosaurs grew penises, and there is lots of high decibel rock music blaring and simplistically rhyming lyrics sung at full volume, often off-key. (Music by Marshall Palet).

Why the blaring music had to be amplified in the tiny Blank Canvas Theatre, I’ll never know.  It overrides the singing voices, so the actors could be intoning nonsense syllables, for all the meaning that they projected.

It’s the next day, and my ears are still ringing.  My daughter, an audiologist, is ministering to more and more twenty and thirty year-olds who are basically deaf due to attending loud concerts and blasting their iPods into their fragile ear area, and going to venues like this that think more volume is better.

The show tells the story of the film JURRASIC PARK from the stand point of the dinosaurs.  As one of the authors states, "It is completely bonkers. We all know what happened to the humans in the movie, but in TRIASSIC PARQ we find out what the dinosaurs in the movie were so pissed off about."  The “what” behind the dinosaur revolt is spontaneous sex change.  The author continues, “It’s not supposed to be a parody. It's a genuine attempt to create a parallel story about science, faith and acceptance with anthropomorphized singing-and-dancing dinosaurs in a glam/punk rock setting.”

We are informed that the dinosaurs in the Parq were created all female so they wouldn’t breed, but do have a small percentage of frog DNA which means they can switch gender.  Suddenly, the Parq’s inhabitants become confused when a T. rex develops a mysterious new front appendage and a strong compulsion to mate with young velociraptor.  From here on, all hell breaks loose as dinosaur’s try to escape, are killed, and mate.  (I swear.  I couldn’t make this stuff up.)

The Blank Canvas cast works exceedingly hard.  The fact that the theatre only has three rows which wrap around the thrust stage allows for up-close and personal views of the sweat flowing off the performers.  The voices go all the way from Kate Leigh Michalski’s full blown diva power to several cast members who are constantly vocally flat.  The highpoint numbers are ‘Love Me As A Friend,’ by Michalski (T-Rex 1) and Neely Gevaart (T-Rex 2), and the rap number “Science” intoned by Eryn Reynolds.

The acting, like the singing ranges from excellent to bland.  Michael Crowley did a nice job as the narrator. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: As evidenced by the response of the audience present when I saw the production, it’s obvious that director, Pat Ciamacco succeeded in pulling out all the shticks to make this absurdity work.  His targeted audience of young, hip, lovers of off-beat stuff should love TRIASSIC PARQ.  The rest of us will have to try and remember what it was like to be young and naïve about what good story plots with music that backed up, rather than drowned out the singers, and singers who sang lyrics that helped move the plot along, were all about.

Blank Canvas’s  TRIASSIC PARQ runs through June 27, 2015 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website.  (My GPS was of little help).  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.  It’s an adventurous battle. For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvasthetre.com

Blank Canvas’s next show is Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN, the script that many believe is the greatest of all American plays.  Ciamacco has assured me that this production will be true to the author’s intent and purpose.

“Prepare Ye”--Updated musical arrangements and script ,“All for the Best” in Cain Park’s GODSPELL

The story goes that in 1970, while attending college in Pittsburgh, John-Michael Tebelak went to church on Easter Sunday.  A theology student before he decided he wanted to be a theatrical director, he found the service to be devoid of feeling. 

Afterward, the long-haired Tebelak was stopped by a policeman and searched for drugs.  (Remember, this was the era of student protests, hippies, draft card burning, and “dangerous” peaceniks.)   Tebelak confided that this experience provided him the inspiration for GODSPELL, which he developed as a series of parables, mostly based on the “Gospel of Matthew.” He produced the show as his senior project at Carnegie Mellon University.

John Michael left school without graduating.  The show was eventually staged at the off-Broadway Cafe La Mama Theatre.  A producer saw the production and said he would finance it if it had a new score. 

Enter Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the songs in 5 weeks.  (The only tune remaining from the original production is "By My Side"). The newly conceived show opened Off-Broadway on May 17, 1971.  Tebelak was 22 years of age!  GODSPELL then moved onto Broadway where it ran for 2,124 performances.  Hundreds of professional and amateur productions of the show continue to be done, making it one of the most produced scripts.

Tebelak was a Berea product.  As related by Bill Allman, the former producing director of Berea Summer Theatre, “John-Michael cut his theatrical teeth at Berea Summer Theatre where he acted, designed scenery and directed.  In 1980 he returned to his roots when he directed a revival production of GODSPELL.” 

The show’s other connection to the area is that in August of 1971, before it became a mega-hit, GODSPELL was produced at Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, the predecessor to Great Lakes Theatre, which, at the time was housed in Lakewood High School’s auditorium.  The show’s director was non-other than Tebelak.   

The show is not without controversy.  It has been called “blasphemous.”  Religious leaders have stated, “Surely no Christian who believes the Bible would approve of the perversion of GODSPELL.”  The Wexford Pennsylvania School Board banned a production of it after “complaints about its religious message.”

Any director of GODSPELL has a number of choices to make.  First, there is no traditional script.  There is a score and no stage directions.  It has been done as a series of segments in which comic characters are the center of attention.  It was staged as children in a Sunday school class.  It has been done as a religious sermon in a church setting.  It has been done as a dream sequence.  It has been staged as a circus.

Another issue is the tone of the piece.  Should the production center on the religious message, forsaking the humor, or take Tebelak to heart and make this a production of joy?

Cain Park’s GODSPELL, under the co-direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz and Joanna May Hunkins, takes a literal approach.  Though there have been new and interesting musical arrangements, and the language and nonverbal gestures have been brought up to date, Tebelak’s message of elation, with preaching overtones, is present.

The staging is creative.  The choreography by Katie Nabors Strong is inventive and well executed.  The singing is exceedingly strong.  The solos well done and the choral sounds nicely blended.  There is a nice spontaneity to the spoken lines and interactions.  The humor is well timed, the dramatic scenes clearly developed. 

Jordan Cooper’s band plays well, but at times gets a little too exuberant and drowns out the singers.   It’s difficult to hear well in the open sided venue to start with, so the musical overplaying rather than underscoring often blocked out song meanings.’’

The directors have chosen to start the production with speeches by various philosophers, followed by “Tower of Babble,” thus setting a preaching tone.  Many productions simply start with “Prepare Ye.”   (My preference is for the latter approach, which gives an immediate uplifting concept.)  The director’s have chosen to included the oft omitted “[We can build a] Beautiful City,” which many consider Schwartz’s most enthralling composition. (I’m on board with that choice.)

The inclusion of a Pictionary and charades segment got the audience involved in the action.

The cast is universally strong.  Standouts are Scott Esposito, whose Judas was well developed and became the fulcrum for the production, Jade McGee who sparkles on stage, and Douglas F. Bailey II, who has a special talent for comedy. 

Warren E. Franklin III, as Jesus, displayed a strong singing voice and excellent dancing skills, but failed to develop a charismatic Jesus.  His lines were often lost due to rapid delivery.

Highlight songs were “All Good Gifts” (Ellis C. Dawson III), “Light of the World” (Bailey), “By My Side” (Treva Offutt), “Beautiful City” (Franklin), and “We Beseech Thee” (Eric Fancher).  

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Cain Park’s GODSPELL is a creatively conceived and generally well performed production which will keep the audience rocking and laughing, while imparting the philosophical message of the “Book of Mathew.”  You don’t have to be a believer to be entertained by the high spirited songs and the clever staging.  “We Beseech Thee,”---go, see, enjoy---“You’ll Learn Your Lesson Well!” 

(Thanks to John Nolan, theatre buff extraordinaire and a member of the 1980 Berea Summer Theatre “GODSPELL” cast, for background material used in this review.  His contributions were also used several years ago in writing another review of “Godspell.”)

The show runs through  June 28, 2015 in the Alma Theatre in Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park.   For tickets call 216-371-3000 or go to http://www.cainpark.com/

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC opens 2015 season at Porthouse

What do “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd” “Sunday in the Park with George,” and “Into the Woods,” all have in common?  Yes, they are shows which have music written by Steven Sondheim. 

Steven Sondheim is considered by many to be the greatest composer of the American musical theatre.  Sondheim, who has won more Tony Awards than any other composer; Sondheim who is also the winner of eight Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize and has a Broadway theatre named after him.  Not bad for a man who has been accused of writing pompous shows with music that is impossible to sing.

Sondheim, who is 85 years old, became friends with James Hammerstein, the son of lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II, when the boys were ten.  Hammerstein became surrogate father and musical theater tutor for the young Sondheim, whose parents were divorced, and, as the story goes, the rest is history.

Since its original 1973 opening, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, which is now in production at Porthouse Theatre, has been a staple in the repertoire of professional, collegiate and community theatres.

With music by Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, the story was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night.”  The title is the English translation of Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”  It is not surprising, therefore, that allusions to Mozart’s “Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major” are heard throughout the score.

The soap-opera story is set in 1900 Sweden.  It examines the tangled web of relationships of Desirée Armfeldt, a famous but fading actress, her wise-beyond her year’s precocious daughter whose paternity has been kept a secret, her opinionated advice-giving mother, her former lover, Fredrik Egerman, and her present lover, Count Carol-Magnus Malcom. 

As the tale unravels, we meet Egerman’s “new” wife, the very young and virginal Anne, and Henrik, his frustrated and overly dramatic son, who is in love with his step-mother. Into the mix, is thrown the Count’s wife, Charlotte, and Petra, Henrik’s lover and Anne’s maid.

Take the entire group, put them together for a weekend in the country, and the stage is set for infinite possibilities, illicit liaisons, open warfare, and endless, but obvious surprises.

The format of the show, as is often the case with Sondheim’s creations, is  unusual.  Instead of an overture, The Quintet enters singing fragments of “Remember,” “Soon,” “ and “The Glamorous Life,” leading into the “Night Waltz.”  The five singers morph into a Greek chorus, which musically comments on the machinations, as the play unfolds. 

As is also the case with Sondheim, the music is intricate.  “Complex meters, pitch changes, polyphony, and high notes for both males and females” abound.  “The  score contains patter songs, contrapuntal duets and trios, a quartet, and even a dramatic double quintet.”  The musical accompaniment consists only of piano, violins, viola and cello, which makes for a lush sound.

The original Broadway production opened in 1973 and ran for over 600 performances, winning the Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Best Musical.  Hermione Gingold’s caustic performance as Madame Armfeldt and Glynis Johns’ interpretation of “Send In the Clowns” were two the production’s high notes. 

Interestingly, it was Johns being a “non-singer” that led Sondheim to write the song in short phrases, with no long musical holds.  As he said, “by ending lines with consonants that made for a short cut-off, the phrases could be acted, rather than sung.”  This structural format makes the composition unique in the annals of well-known Broadway hit songs.

The Porthouse production, as directed and choreographed by Sean T. Morrissey, is slowly paced, and lacks some of the potential humor.  The production would have been helped if the over-stylization present in the Quintet and the servants was duplicated by all of the leading cast.  These aren’t real people, they are exaggerated characterizations. 

Lenne Snively as Madame Armfeldt has the right tone, as does charming Julian Kazenas as the over-wrought Henrik Egerman.  Jim Weaver, as the count, gives hints of the needed melodramatic tone, as does Amy Fritsche as his put-upon wife.  Adorable Talia Cosentino is correctly wise beyond her years as Fredrika.

Musical conductor Jonathan Swoboda has his musicians underscoring the singers, thus allowing for ease in hearing the clever Sondheim lyrics of “The Glamorous Life,” “Remember,” “You Must Meet My Wife,” “In Praise of Women,” ‘A Weekend in the Country,” and “It Would Have Been Wonderful.”  Shamara Costas’ rendition of “The Miller’s Son,” was delightful.   The individual voices and choral blends were consistently excellent.

The musical highlight was Terri Kent’s rendition of the show’s memorable, “Send in the Clowns.”  Acting the words with musical intonations, Kent was able, in contrast to the many pop versions of the composition, to tell the story of the song by singing/saying meanings, not just words.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is a melodramatic story, with memorable music, that gets a nice production.  It would have been aided by stressing the story’s soap-opera aspects to garner the humor built into the script, thus sending in the clowns.  As is, as represented by the opening night assemblage, audiences will enjoy this evening of musical theatre on the Blossom grounds.

“Little Night Music” runs until June 27, 2015 at Porthouse Theatre For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to www.porthousetheatre.com.

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE:  VIOLET from July 9-25 and HAIRSPRAY from July 30-August 16.  Curtain times are 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Blossom open 90 minutes prior to curtain time.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Chris Howey reveals all in the funny, often sad, always compelling EXACT CHANGE

In her book, “Dress Codes: of three girlhoods—my mother’s, my father’s and mine,” Noelle Howey writes, “I have a dad who is a woman much like me, but with better legs.  And when he was still male, I had a dad possibly like yours: sullen, sporadically hostile, frequently vacant.  I had a dad who became a woman in order to be nice.”  Noelle goes on to say, “I have a family that survived a life in the closet . . . a traditional family . . . that would probably be the right wing’s worst nightmare.”

Noelle is writing about her father, Richard Howey, historically a leading actor in the Cleveland area noted for his starring roles as a bearded, balding, macho male in many Dobama Theatre shows. 

Howey is known today to many Clevelanders as Christine Howey,  one of the area’s leading theatre critics. 

“Exact Change,” is a one-woman play about Chris’s transition, and is now being staged at The Helen, in the Cleveland Play House complex in PlayhouseSquare.

Christine reflects on her motivation for bringing her story to the stage, and its importance in 2015:  “For people to understand and feel positively towards [transgender people], they first have to see  us…For many years I wanted to live my life - my new life – and not call attention to it.  But the continuing assaults on transgender people have bolstered my resolve to be a part of the solution.  If telling my story, warts and all, is what is required, then it is a small price to pay.”

The effect of the story may have somewhat softened by the recent announcement of Olympic superstar, Bruce Jenner’s, “coming out.” But, in contrast to Jenner’s dependence of media sensationalism, Howey’s story is told with the use of her brilliant poetry.  Personal complete with the voices of his demons [“The Enforcer”], his mother, wife, daughter, and various people who were and are part of “his,” then “her” life. 

Richard, early in life, became aware of his internal message, “IWTBAG” (I Want To Be A Girl.)   Through such poems as, “1957 Puberty,” “The Pickle Coke,” “Sick Day,” “Beowulf and Dinah at Breakfast,” ”Dolly,” “The Family Way,” “The Crowded Chair,” “”Potholder,” “Mom’s Pro and Con List,” “Outing 1999),” “And One More Thing,” “Major Pelvic Event,” “They Didn’t Notice Me,” and “Coming Out Party,” we are taken on the journey from frustrated male to full functioning female.

We see the character from outward appearance to inner thoughts, from actions to perceptions.  Sometimes Richard and Christine are in the open, center stage.  At other times one or the other is behind or peeking through three sets of venetian blinds, which act as both the characters’ shields and openings into the world.

Electronic visuals aid, personal pictures, titles of the poems, help us on the journey.  Part of the story is backed up by music intended to intensify the spoken words.  At times, the music, especially that which contains sung words, is distracting.  This is one of few production hitches in the staging.

The production in the Helen is not the first presentation of the script.  It has gone through a number of productions and recreations.  The tale of 22 years of transformation was first a series of poems, then took on a play format entitled, “Like a Doberman on a Quarter Pounder,” the title of a poem in the original conception. 

The play  premiered in early 2013 at Cleveland Public Theatre in the “Big Box New Work Development Series.”   A year and many revisions later, it appeared in CPT’s main stage season as “Exact Change.”  It was subsequently performed in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and at none too fragile theatre in Akron.  The production has been accepted into the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival for several late August performances.

During the process of development, the focused direction and advice of Scott Plate has been evident.  From a series of poems scattered on a card table at Baldwin Wallace University, the ideas have been arranged and rearranged. Chris and Scott have sparred over the format, the staging, and the special effects.  The end result shows all the work, which included a major change being made the day before the latest staging opened.  Yes, in their march toward perfection, theatre scripts are an evolving art.

The journey of the production has been helped by local producers, including Raymond Bobgan (Cleveland Public Theatre), Gina Vernaci (PlayhouseSquare) and Sean Derry (none too fragile).

This is a real tale that clearly explains the concept of a boy born in the wrong body and the real tale of how he morphed into the “she” “he” had to become.

Capsule judgement:  Those of us who have followed the development of the staged tale from Richard to Christine, from idea to the compelling piece of theater, have been privileged to watch the piece evolve through the diligence of Chris Howey and Scott Plate.   You now can see the results of many, many hours of extremely hard work, toil that resulted in a compelling, funny, emotionally charged experience that is a must see experience.  Do yourself and Chris a favor by attending one of the remaining performances.  (Since The Helen is a small space, get tickets early as the show should sell out.)

For tickets to “Exact Change,” which runs June 11 through 13, 2015  and June 25-27, with performances at 8 on Thursday and Fridays and 5 and 8:30 on Saturday, go to playhousesquare.org or call 16-241-6000. 

[Personal reveal:  Chris is a friend.  I acted with Richard at Dobama. I serve with Chris as a member of the Cleveland Critics Circle.  She has aided me in my role as counselor and life coach to better understand and help my gender conflicted clients.  Thanks to Chris for her bravery in making her life’s path public as a source of information and entertainment.]

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Honky Tonk, Nashville, and pop music invades Actors’ Summit

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ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE, now on stage at Actors’ Summit, is a well formed musical review in which a Patsy Cline-imitator wails away Cline’s signature songs, including “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “She’s Got You,” “Anytime,” “Stupid Cupid,” “Lovesick Blues, “Faded Love,” and “Crazy.” The songs are interspersed with comments by a Cline fan and Cline, “herself.”

Born Virginia Patterson Hensley in 1932, she became the signature voice of the Nashville sound, a subgenre of American country music, which was noted for substituting the honky tonk previous style of country music which used fiddles and a nasal sound by the lead vocals, with strings, background music, and crooning lead vocalists. 

Cline’s success, more than anything else, was probably brought about by her appearance in 1957 on the “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” radio show. 

Cline proved to be one of the few country stars of her day who could make the crossover to pop music.

Cline’s sound was distinctive.  She had a rich tone, unusual phrasing, a hitch in her voice that is the key to any singer duplicating her sound, as well as an ability to pronounce words in a way that often made single syllable words into three or four parts. 

She died in a plane crash at age 30.  Ten years after her death, she became the first female solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.  Her induction plaque read, “Her heritage of timeless recordings is testimony to her artistic capacity.” And even today, she is recognized as one of the greatest women in country music and rock and roll.

The script and song order for ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE was created by Ted Swindley.

The Actor’s Summit production, under the direction of MaryJo Alexander, is very entertaining.

The two-person show features Jennifer Browning as Cline and Chanda K. Porter as Louise, an avid Cline fan.  The duo is backed up by a wonderful group of musical artists consisting of JT Buck, Musical Director and pianist, Patrick Altmire as percussionist and drummer, Brian Del Bianco on bass, and a set of guitarists who alternate nights.

Porter steals the show as the dynamic, funny, “in your face” Louise.  She has a wonderful sense of comic timing, is totally uninhibited on stage, connects well with the audience, and has a great singing voice.  She is a delight to watch.

Jennifer Browning a has a VERY strong singing voice and has mastered the “Cline” sound and pronunciation.   She fails, however to display the “dynamic” presence for which Cline was noted.  She acts Cline, rather than being Cline. Thus, she becomes a caricature of the great singer rather than Cline.

The bandstand stage design works well.

Capsule judgement: ALWAYS PATSY CLINE makes for a pleasant evening of songs, humor and musical delight.  If you appreciate country music or are an avid fan of Patsy Cline, you will have a wonderful time.

For tickets to ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE, which runs through June 21, 2015, call 330-374-7568 or go to www.actorssummit.org

Actor’s Summit’s 2015-2016 season includes:  QUILTERS, (Oct. 8-Nov. 1), GUYS ON ICE (Nov. 25-Dec. 22), SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR (Jan. 21-Feb. 7), CHIAPATTI (Feb. 25-Mar. 13), TALLY’S FOLLY (April 14-May 1), TINTYPES (May 19-June 19).


Roy Berko's commentaries and reviews appear on coolcleveland.com, artsamerica.org, with selected reviews posted on broadwayworld.com and BWWdanceworld.com  To subscribe to his blog go to and follow the directions in the right hand column:  www.royberko.info 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Pulitzer Prize winning THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA @ Beck Center

On the surface, Horton Foote’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA, now in production at Beck Center, tells the tale of the Kidders (Will and Lily Dale), a Houston, Texas couple who, in 1950, take different paths in coping with the death of Bill, their only son. 

Beyond the surface tale, the script probes into the consequences of false dreams, misguided values, the southern tradition of pride, the covering of reality with illusion, elected ignorance, racism, conspiracy theories, the changing business environment, ageism, and possible homosexuality.

Bill, whose relationship with his father centered on incidental emotional attachment, moved to Atlanta, lives in a rooming house, and shares his space and resources with Randy a younger man.  One day, Bill, who has never learned to swim, while traveling in Florida on business, stops his car, walks into a small lake, and drowns. 

Lily Dale believes the death was accidental, and desperately turns to religion as her means of escape.  She believes that Bill was pious and couldn’t have killed himself.  Her beliefs are backed up by Randy, who attended Bill’s funeral, grieves mightily, and has become Lily Dale’s emotional prop. 

Lily Dale who is childish and lonely, with no one but her religious beliefs, her bible, and the maid to turn to, has given Randy, often referred to as the “young man from Atlanta,”  large sums of money to supposedly aid him in his job search and the needs of his family. 

Will knows information which he has not shared with Lily Dale, such as Bill gave Randy over $100,000 and has been told by Carson, his father-in-law’s nephew who lived in the same Atlanta rooming house as Bill, that Randy was a liar and had a bad reputation. 

Will, who believes that he must work hard to have “the best of everything,” suddenly finds himself, in his waning years, with a dead son, an emotionally vacant wife, let loose from his high paying job, replaced by a younger man who he hired and trained, ill with a heart condition, and disillusioned over his beliefs.

Though he never appears on stage, much of the angst of the story centers on Randy, who may or may not be a charlatan, and may or may not have been Bill’s kept lover.

As the play comes to its bleak conclusion, Will states, “Everything will be all right, the best and biggest is as empty as the young man’s lies.”

After being produced off-Broadway, THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA received the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  A 1998 Broadway run lasted only 84 performances, but was nominated for, but did not win a Tony Award for Best Play.

One might ask why this play received the Pulitzer Prize.  It is definitely not a play which has or will become an American theatre classic.  It is not in the class of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, OUR TOWN, or LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT.  There are, however, other winners who were recognized for being a “play for its time”  and are not stage classics.  Remember, this was a script about the 1950s.  It was in the forefront of dealing, even indirectly, with homosexuality.   One of the only major plays to take on that subject was TEA AND SYMPATHY.  It also dealt with the topical subject of the roles of blacks in the South,  the status of women in Southern society,  changing business philosophies, the shifting population, the 1900 mid-century work ethic, conspiracy theory, and ageism.

The characters in THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA may be familiar to the avid theatre-goer and script reader as Foote revived most of them from his THE ORPHAN’S HOME CYCLE, a series of plays often referred to as “the story of a family,” the Foote family.

Horton Foote, who wrote over sixty plays and numerous screen plays and television productions, is probably best known for writing the screen play for the 1962 film TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.  Though most of his plays have been performed in community theatres, with several having off-Broadway showings, his THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL did have a Broadway run.  

The Beck production, under the direction of Eric Schmiedl, is generally faithful to Foote’s writing and the setting of the script.  Paced in a leisurely southern manner, the play unfolds slowly.  Even in strong emotional scenes, there is sometimes a “dragging” pace, which may lose the audience’s attention. 

Foote is known for writing in the language of the time and place of the story.  This, again, provides a good reflection of the personality of the character’s but does not always make for attention demanding interactions.

Dudley Swetland rants well as Will.  As the character becomes more fatigued and defeated, the actor nicely textures his pace and dynamism.  His final speech, which is presented in a near whisper, is compelling.

Anne McEvoy gives a clear illusion of Lily Dale’s lack of being in touch with reality.  She is a traditional southern lady who lives in dreams and fantasy.  She clearly develops an almost child-like Lily Dale, with no friends, who refuses to face the facts, obsesses about rumors, half-truths and religion.

Michael Regnier clearly develops Pete, Lily Dale’s step-father, into a real person.  Tina D. Stump creates Clara into a stereotype of the well-mannered Black southern woman who knows her role in the household.

Aaron Benson’s scene design creates the correct atmosphere for the upscale nature and the time of the play, incorporating a Frank Lloyd Wright feel to the dwelling appointed with the clean-lined modern furniture of the era.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Though THE YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, potential viewers should not expect to see an epic play.  The tale is a 1950s tale which reflects the era and southern attitudes of the day.  The production values reflect Foote’s writing style and gets his message across.

THE  YOUNG MAN FROM ATLANTA is scheduled to run through June 28, 2015 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org

Next at Beck:  Green Day’s musical AMERICAN IDIOT (July 10-August 16). 

Monday, May 25, 2015

A preview: EXACT CHANGE @ PlayhouseSquare/Helen--original play by local critic, writer and actor, explores his/her transgender journey

Before transitioning in 1990, Christine Howey was Richard Howey, a celebrated stage actor in Cleveland, known for playing such heavy-hitting male roles as Lucifer, Goebbels, “Terrible Jim Fitch,” Richard Nixon, and God. 

Exact Change explores Howey’s gender transition from many angles in a one-woman tour-de-force spiked with political rants, historical reflections and an incisive wit that packs a punch. Described as “rewarding and life-changing theatre” (Fran Heller, Cleveland Jewish News), 

Exact Change combines spoken word poetry, monologue and dialogue in a deeply personal show that is as amusing as it is poignant. Exact Change is written and performed by Howey, with direction by Scott Plate.



The content is best described by its creator and subject:
“I feel a strong need to communicate the challenging issues and deep satisfaction that comes from finding one’s true gender. I know the idea of a gender change is a very foreign one for most people…so I wanted to make the feelings and aspirations of a transgender person accessible and as understandable as possible.“
– Christine Howey




The show has received endorsing reviews in its development including:

"One of the most compelling and fascinating one-person shows I've ever seen!  The writing and performance are enthralling, the ending is startling!  This is a must see!"


--Roy Berko, broadwayworld.com, artsamerica.com, coolcleveland.com, www.royberko.info

 “The writing is funny, fierce, bawdy, and smart. Howey commands the stage, hurling lightning strikes of emotion and insight.”

 – Dee Perry, Senior Host/Producer, 90.3 WCPN/Ideastream/NE Ohio Public Radio

 About the Playwright:


A native of Northeast Ohio, Howey is a graduate of Brecksville High School and Kent State University. She taught English in the Cleveland Public School system, followed by a 35 year career in advertising. In 1999, she began work on a solo show dealing with her transgender journey, which was performed in New York and Cleveland.


Exact Change takes the stage for two weeks only, Thursday, June 11 – Saturday, June 13 and Thursday June 25 – Saturday, June 27, 2015, in Playhouse Square’s intimate Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre. 

Performance times are Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 5:00pm and 8:30pm. General admission tickets are $29.50 and available at playhousesquare.org, 216-241-6000 or the Playhouse Square Ticket Office. Discounts are available for groups of 10+ by calling 216-640-8600.


For additional information, visit www.ExactChangeThePlay.com

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Disappointing DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA @ Cleveland Public Theatre


About fifteen years ago, an African American student on a Semester at Sea around the world educational cruise jumped overboard.  The ship was sailing toward the Suez Canal, with Africa on the port side.  The ship turned in the Gulf of Suez, and miraculously found the college student.  The young man, after arriving back, stated that he had jumped overboard because he “wanted to touch the water, that touched the land from which his forefathers were taken into slavery.  He wanted to be reunited with his history.” 

Whether Ethan Davis, the author of DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA, which is now in production at Cleveland Public Theatre, was exposed to the true tale of the Semester at Sea student is unknown, but there is an eerie parallel.  Dontrell Jones III, an 18-year old honor student dreams of an ancestor (his great-grandfather) who dove off a slave ship, and dedicates his life to “kiss” the sea and meet the man.  The student who dove off the ship, seemed to have an analogous purpose. 

There are similarities and differences.  The student who jumped from the ship was a championship swimmer and kept himself afloat until help arrived. Dontrell, who began his quest by unrealistically diving into a pool, could not swim, and was saved by a lifeguard.  

The student had given no prior evidence of any desire for a historical connection. Dontrell, on the other hand, spends the entire play leaving messages for “future generations” in a mini cassette recorder.

Dontrell, an honor student with a scholarship to the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, puts aside his future in an attempt to find the truth of his dream.  With the help of Erika, the lifeguard, who supplies a boat, Dontrell sails off in pursuit of his goal.  The student was expelled from Semester at Sea and sent home minus academic credits. 

Questions arise: what will a person do to satisfy his dreams, what are the consequences of pursuing a goal, and is either Dontrell or the student’s desires realistic or reasonable?

The CPT production was disappointing.  It failed to develop, in a compelling manner, the winner of the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association’s new play award.  The oft-poetic language often was lost due to poor projection and articulation. The blocking on the thrust stage, which found the audience on three sides of the action, was not well conceived, with much sound being lost due to poor planning of stage movements. 

So much time is spent changing scenes, dragging props on and off the stage, that the momentum of the play is disrupted.  And, much of the acting is on a surface level.

Young Kalim Hill gives a reasonable interpretation of Dontrell III, but lacks the depth of acting experience and training to dig into the young man and create a full character.  On the other hand, Sheffia Randall Dooley fleshes out the role of Dantell’s mother, into a realistic woman.  The rest of the cast stays close to the surface in their character development.

Todd Krispinski’s set, which transforms itself into a living room, aquarium swimming pool and boat, is creatively and impressively conceived.

DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA is Cleveland Public Theatre’s 2nd production in their affiliation with NNPN (National New Play Network), an organization of theatres dedicated to new theatre.  “Rolling World Premieres,” a project of NNPN, supports the idea that a play often needs more than one reading or production to fully flesh out storylines and dialogue. Over the course of a year, four to six different theatres across the US will produce the same play, with the author in attendance to work with each production.  Besides CPT DONTRELL is or will be staged at Skylight Theatre (LS), Phoenix Theatre (Indianapolis), Theatre Alliance (D.C.), and Oregon Contemporary Theatre (Eugene)

Capsule judgement: After writing this review I read the reactions of critics from other cities where DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA has been presented.  It appears that Cleveland got short-changed by director Megan Sanderg-Zakian.  Other reviews recount much laughter, vivid visualizations and the line interpretation that was “poetically transfixing.”  These  weren’t present in the local production. I wish I had seen that quality at CPT.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.

DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA, runs from May 21 through June 6 at 7:00 p.m. in the James Levin Theatre at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets ($12-28) call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.

(Side note:  I was a faculty member and a psychological support staff on the Semester on Sea voyage noted.)