Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Homecoming, renovations and “Letters from Zora” @ Karamu


In September of 2015, when Tony F. Sias was appointed as President and CEO of Karamu, the country’s oldest African-American theatre, the organization was at its lowest point.  In financial trouble, having slipped in the quality of its arts programs and seemingly rudderless, the future looked bleak.

Now, three years later, the organization, which was founded in 1915 by two white Oberlin College grads, Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, has revitalized its theater offerings, finished a construction project which renovated the 200-seat Jelliffe Theatre, and has plans to renovate their Arena theatre, add a restaurant and an outdoor patio, redo the lobby and other parts of the facility and add a gift shop and retail space.  The once bleak future now looks bright.

Sias states, “The Jelliffe renovation maintains the traditional proscenium layout with a permanent apron [minimal thrust], but now includes an orchestra pit stage left that can also be used for additional seating.”  The auditorium has been heavily raked, making sight lines excellent.  There are new seats and the entire area has a warm and comfortable.

The opening coincided with the induction of “National Living Legend” Vanessa Bell Calloway into the 2018 Karamu Hall of Fame and the regional premiere of her award-winning one-woman show, “Letters from Zora.” 

Calloway, who has earned eight NAACP Image Awards for her role as Zora Neale Hurston, has been seen in such films as “South Side With You,” “Coming to America,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” and “The Inkwell.”   She is currently starring in Bounce TV’s “Saints and Sinners.”  She has also been seen in numerous stage productions.

Calloway says, “I’m so very proud of my Karamu roots!  This playhouse was the beginning of my career and it taught me so much about the Arts.  I am delighted to return home.”

“Letters from Zora,” a two-act one-woman show, presented without intermission, was written by Gabrielle Denise Pina and directed by Dashiell Sparks.

The story is based on letters written by prolific novelist Zora Neale Hurston, a self-proclaimed “early cougar.”  Her correspondences have been fused with a fictional narrative which illuminates the highs and lows of Zora’s life, her years as a literary giant who offered a new creative expression in the arts to deeply influence culture, and her contributions to the American literary canon.


The actions are supported by a soundtrack which, by incorporating the musical styles of Hurston’s life, including blues guitar and harmonica sounds, creates the moods of the deep south as well as the pulse of the Harlem Renaissance and Zora’s role in one of the highlight times for Black arts in America.


Though a little long, the story teaches a history lesson to those unaware of the complexity of the life of the Negro in the south during the late 19th and early to mid-twentieth century.
Ms. Calloway’s performance is a tour de force.  Alone on stage for almost an hour-and-a half, she weaves the tale with sass, power, inflection, and a compelling presence. 


Capsule judgment:  Karamu enters mid-2018 with a bright future.  Considering that only a few years ago it was rumored that the nationally important African American institution was on death’s doorstep, this is an amazing success story.  Their recent Homecoming celebration is a welcome sign that there is much to come from “the joyful gathering place.”

Letters From Zora” continues through, June 24, 2018 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.

Monday, June 18, 2018

HOCKADOO! “Memphis” enjoyably rocks Cain Park with its music and poignant message


The 1950s was a period of racial stress in much of the south.  Lynchings, school segregation, separate lunch counters and drinking fountains, blacks to the back of the bus, laws against black and white mixing.  Even separate black and white radio stations was the custom, as were black and white musical styles.  Patty Page, Perry Como and “nice music” was the white style.  Rock and Roll was for blacks. 

Memphis, Tennessee was no exception.  That was until “Huey Calhoun,” a somewhat slow, naïve and black music-loving white disc jockey popped onto the Memphis scene.  (The show is loosely based on real-life Dewey Phillips.)

One night, Huey, who coined the non-defined word “Hockadoo!” wandered into an underground black Rock and Roll bar.  He was probably the first white man, other than the police looking to collect payoffs, to invade the premises.  The patrons made for the exits, suspicious of Huey’s presence.  After a few more visits, the well-meaning pseudo-redneck, became convinced that the music he was being exposed to, Rock and Roll (Negro blues on steroids), needed to be heard by the white community.

Legend has it that Huey made a deal with a local department store owner that if he could sell 5 records by playing music over the store’s speakers, he could have a music sales job.  Huey supposedly played a rock & roll song and sold 29 records in five minutes.  Unfortunately, the store owner reneged on his deal because he was incensed at the “black” music. 

Huey later conned his way into a white radio station, commandeered an on-air mike, played a rock and roll record, was about to get thrown out by Mr. Simmons, the owner, when a burst of phone calls demanding more of “that” music, took place. 

Simmons agreed to give him a two-week trial, and if he was successful, he'd get hired full-time. That opportunity, and his adlibbing of a beer commercial (he couldn’t read so he made up the wording), and inserting his signature “Hockadoo!,” led to Huey’s march to becoming the number one disk jockey in Memphis.

Adding to the tale is the love affair between Huey and Felicia, a black singer, her rise to fame, his decline into becoming a down and out, end-of-the-dial disc jockey, his prejudiced mother, Felicia’s over-protective brother, and societal laws and barriers.

“Memphis” is a musical by David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (lyrics and book).  It played on Broadway from October 19, 2009 to August 5, 2012 and won four 2010 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Musical selections include “Music of My Soul,” “Scratch My Itch,’ “Everyone Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night,” “Someday,” “Say A Prayer,” “Tear Down the House,” and “Love Will Stand.”

Great White Way opening night reviews stated, "An exuberant musical with classic values: catchy songs, heaping spoonsful of inspirational moments,” "It's nice to know a new musical can actually surprise you,” and "I guarantee you a rambunctious good time.”

The Cain Park version, under the adept direction of Joanna May Cullinan, choreographer Leillani Barrett and musical director Jordan Cooper is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. 

The high energy cast is generally excellent.  The singing is strong and though the choreography often challenges some of the dancers, the over-all effect is very positive.

The Cain Park production is blessed with two dynamic lead performers. 

Though he is a little over-the-top on selling the character’s eccentricity at the start, Douglas F. Bailey II soon settles into a realistic pattern, and develops Huey’s uniqueness.  He wails with a big, on-tune voice and deserved the screaming opening night ovation during the curtain call.

Nicole Sumlin is electric as Felicia.  Captivating the audience with her stage presence and marvelous singing voice, she doesn’t portray Felicia, she is Felicia.

Chris Richards does a nice turn as Mr. Simmons, Elijah Dawson convinces as Bobby, Cynthia O’Connell is redneck-right as Mama.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Memphis,” Cain Park style, is a total delight.  It’s a must see for anyone who likes well sung and preformed rock music, is interested in a well-conceived juke box musical and wants to relax in the Alma Theatre’s “in nature” setting.  HOCKADOO!

The show runs through July 1 in the Alma Theatre in Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park.   For tickets call 216-371-3000 or go to http://www.cainpark.com/

Saturday, June 16, 2018

“Anything Goes” delightfully sails at Porthouse


The fiftieth anniversary season of Porthouse Theatre is a perfect representation of the history of musical theatre.  The opening show, “Anything Goes” is a typical 1930s escapist mélange of songs and dances enfolded in a slight story.  It is Cole Porter’s fancy word patter and farcical interludes, with a score that includes “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’d Be So Easy to Love,” “You’re the Top,” “Friendship,” It’s De-lovely,” “Blow Gabriel Blow,” and the title song, “Anything Goes.”  No thinking here, just joy.

“Oklahoma,” the season’s closing production, is the show that introduced the well-made musical.  Song, dance and plot-line are so enmeshed that everything blends together to tell a clear story.  The Rogers and Hammerstein 1943 classic resulted in what is known as the Golden Age of Broadway Musical Theater.

The center show of the season is the thought-provoking Pulitzer Prize winning “Next to Normal,” a musical drama exposing the underbelly of living with mental illness.  It helped develop the contemporary era of “real issue musicals,” such as “Rent,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Come From Away,” “The Band’s Visit” and “Hamilton.”  Kent State grad, Alice Ripley, starred in the Broadway production, winning the 2009 Tony Award for her portrayal of a woman with bipolar disorder.

“Anything Goes” is a 1934 musical with music and lyrics by the prolific Cole Porter.  The original book was by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse.  Yes, original book, as the show has been revised numerous times   At last count there are four different “approved” versions.  Even the show’s name has gone through alterations (“Crazy Week” and “Hard to Get” among others).   In the process, the score has been altered, some songs cut and others moved to different scenes and sung by different characters, and compositions from other Porter shows have been added.

As is true of escapist era musicals, the plot plays second or even a third level of importance to the singing and dancing.  A well-made musical, this is not!

The “story” centers on the antics which take place on an ocean liner sailing from New York to London.  The various characters include Billy Crocker (Matthew Gittins), a nerdy young stockbroker who is in love with heiress Hope Harcourt (Liz Woodard).  He stows away with the hope of stopping her from marrying Evelyn Oakleigh, a British Lord (Eric van Baars). 

Also on board is Nightclub singer/Evangelist Reno Sweeney (Sandra Emerick), who in in love with Billy, public enemy #13 Moonface Martin (Christopher Seiler), Erma (Kelli-Ann Paterwic), his “doll,” two Chinese “reformed” gamblers (Antonio Emerson Brown and Adam Graber), Hope’s mother (Jess Tanner), her former lover, Elisha Whitney (Rohn Thomas), who is Billy’s boss, the Angels (Felicity Jemo, Abby Morris, Kaetlyn Cassidy, Luna Cho, Falyn Mapel), and a whole bunch of sailors.

“Anything Goes” is the type of musical that Porthouse Artistic Director Terri Kent does so well.   Her staging of the farcical romp is highlighted by a stress on the slapstick, double entendre, and character misidentifications.  It showcases MaryAnn Black’s sprightful choreography highlighting crowd-pleasing tapping, line and jazz dancing and show-stopping movements.

Sandra Emerick sparkles as Reno Sweeney, singing, dancing and mugging with professional delight.  She was born to play the role!  She is surrounded by a cast of competent performers who play the farce for all it is worth, dance well and sing with gusto. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Anything Goes” is a perfect summertime escapist farcical musical that will please audiences.  Sandra Emerick delights. She is supported by an enthusiastic cast of Equity actors and college students who are enmeshed in outright escapist fun, dynamic songs and creative choreography.

“Anything Goes” runs at Porthouse Theatre through June 30.  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to http://www.porthousetheatre.com/.

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE: The must-see multiple Tony Award winning “Next to Normal” from July 5-21.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Cleveland Musical Theatre and Miles J. Sternfeld…two entities with a mission


Miles J. Sternfeld is in a big rush for theatrical success.  The 23-year old, who graduated from Orange in 2013, is not the regular theatre nerd.  He’s not interested in being the next big star.  Instead, he has set his sights on being a successful producer and director.

So far his credits have included being a production assistant on Broadway for “Finding Neverland,” producing and directing “The Who’s Tommy” for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and a CLE production of AIDA; being the CEO/Founder of WERK WITH BWAY; being the Director of Programing of Making It On Broadway; and is undertaking the development of Cleveland Musical Theatre as its Founding Artistic Director.

WERK WITH BWAY is a program run in New York.  It offers week-long or weekend intensive experiences related to a Broadway show in which master classes are offered.

This summer’s New York WERK programs are “Anastasia Intensive” (June 18-22)—faculty includes Max von Essen (Gleb in “Anastasia”), Derek Klena (original Dimitry in “Anastasia”) and Dustin Layton (dance captain for “Anastasia”).  “Waitress Intensive (July 9-13)—faculty includes Jamibeth Margolis (casting director), Morgan James (“Motown,” “Godspell,” “The Adams Family”), Caitlin Houlahan (Dawn in “Waitress”), Miles Sternfeld (Artistic Director, Cleveland Musical Theatre).  “Phantom Intensive” (July 30-August 3)—faculty to be announced.
For information go to:  https://www.werkwithbway.com/

Cleveland Musical Theatre “is a non-profit professional theater company that produces newly developed and re-imagined musical theatre, featuring Broadway and Cleveland artists with emerging talent, and offers educational programs.  By serving as Cleveland's only Equity theatre company devoted to musical theatre, CMT seeks to push artistic boundaries and redefine Cleveland as a national arts destination.”

The organization plans to present two shows a summer.  They are looking at new pieces, to revising shows, and to reimagining works.

As Sternfeld stated in a recent interview, “As a young artist I want to develop a home for professional actors in Cleveland to help them develop a career.”

Cuyahoga Community College East’s newly refurbished Mandel Arts and Humanities Center is serving as CMT’s production home.  How were the arrangements made?  Sternfeld shared that “we first approached CCC after “Tommy” [which performed at CCC] about joining forces.  We proposed offering internships for the college’s students and special Tri-C ticket prices.  After our premiere season, we plan to establish the organization as the college’s official partner.”

This summer’s offering is the reimagining of “Jane Eyre.” 

 

“Jane Eyre” is a musical drama with music and lyrics by composer-lyricist Paul Gordon and book by John Caird, and is based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë. The musical premiered on Broadway in 2000.  It ran 36 previews and 209 performances and was nominated for five Tony Awards.

The story centers on Jane Eyre, a strong-willed young lady, and her search to find independence as she deals with her cruel Aunt Sarah and her cousin John, being shipped off to Lowood School for Girls, being hired as a governess where she meets Edward Rochester, and finding love.

Why is CMT doing the script?  Sternfeld shared, “I was actually unfamiliar with the piece.  I was working with a student on one of the show’s songs and immediately fell in love with the music.  I was intrigued and started to dig into the novel.  I realized after reading the original play script that it would benefit from doing a smaller version of the show.  I contacted the original writers and they were keen to revise the show as a chamber version.  We had a reading in New York, followed by a developmental lab in Cleveland, and are now holding Cleveland and New York auditions for the full production.” 

“We will continue to work on the piece during the Cleveland run, but the majority of the structural changes and new songs were done during our readings and labs.”

The Cleveland production, which will run from August 31-September 9, will have a cast of 10.  It will feature direction by Sternfeld, music supervision-orchestrations by Brad Haak, choreography by Martin Céspedes, scenic design by Gabriel Firestone, costume design by Sydney Gallas, lighting design by Benjamin Gantose, sound design by Carlton Guc, and casting by Jamibeth Margolis.

Where does “Jayne Eyre” go after Cleveland?  “We have lots of ideas.  There is some interest from commercial producers to remount the piece.  Streaming is also a possibility but no decision has been made yet.   Regardless, the show will be re-licensed and become the new version.”

In addition to the “Jayne Eyre” staging in Cleveland, there will be an audition masterclass and college audition prep intensive. 

Where will CMT be five years from now?   Sternfeld “hopes that it will have done more works like “Jayne Eyre,” have developed new and exciting theatre for local and national audiences, all with Cleveland as the incubator.

Miles J. Sternfeld’s five-year projection?  If multi-award winning choreographer Martin Céspedes, who works closely with Sternfeld, is correct, “Miles possesses that rare theatrical trifecta:   work ethic, instincts, and a director’s eye.  That, combined with a keen sense for collaboration, elevates and excites the room around him.”  That should pay off and Sternfeld will be a well-known member of the local and national theatrical community. 

Sternfeld, himself states, “Five years from now I hope that I will still be hustling.” 

Tickets for “Jayne Eyre” can be purchased at www.clevelandmusicaltheatre.org or by
calling (800) 595-4849.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Playwrights Local Presents “The Panther Dancer,” a bio-play about Michael Jackson


The mission of Playwrights Local is to support dramatists of Northeast Ohio by presenting locally written works, with the vision of increasing original theater and raising the profile of area playwrights.
 

The staging of often untested scripts makes for a serendipity experience for the observer.  Sometimes there is a gem. Other times the experience leads to viewer frustration.  The possibility of hit or miss makes seeing a production in this venue an adventure.
 

“The Panther Dancer,” a script by Logan Cutler Smith, which basically is a biography about Michael Jackson, is a work in progress which was originally presented in the 2016 NEOMFA Playwright Festival at convergence-continuum. 
 

The story covers Jackson’s life, many of the people he knew and befriended (e.g. Diane Ross, Quincy Jones, Brooke Shields, Prince, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli).  It also spotlights his rise and fall from innocent kid, to icon, to accused “pervert.” 
 

We are exposed to his abusive father, many brothers and sisters, signing by Motown Records, the many mega hits, lack of having a childhood or any friends which may have been responsible for his fascination with and probably living the “never grown up” life of Peter Pan, obsession with his “big” nose, the question of whether he was gay, whether he fathered “his” children, the philanthropic activities he funded including the sponsorship of a burn unit and the recording of “We Are the World,” Neverland, his playland home, the comparison to Elvis, the lawsuits over possible child endangerment and molestation, his drug addiction and early death.
 

Smith has obviously done an impressive study of his subject.  His knowledge of the boy/man is admirable.  Unfortunately, he has tried to stuff all of Jackson’s life into one piece.  Though creating a piece of history, he has also used up a huge chunk of time, which makes the sit sometimes overwhelming, and too much of a good thing.
 

A dramaturg needed to take red pencil in hand and eliminate scenes which, though factual, may not be of great importance.   A book of intense length can be put down when there is over-kill of material, but there are no resting periods in a theatrical piece.
 

Smith has used a creative device to portray the plethora of characters.  The actors constantly are changing parts.  A performer may be Jackson in one scene, his father in the next, and then his mother.  This could be confusing, but by use of wigs and costume adjustments the characters are fairly easy to follow.  This, however, creates consistency issues as some of the performers are more adept than others in their singing, dancing and acting.
 

Director Jimmie Woody has done an excellent job of using a variance of staging techniques.  Acted scenes, singing and dancing segments, use of electronic visuals and shadow scenes, hold interest. 
 

The cast, Andrea Belser, Robert Branch, Corin B. Self and Kim Simbeck, put out full effort.  Anthony Velez stands out.  His singing and dancing are show highlights.
 

Capsule Judgment: “The Panther Dancer,” is a well-researched, in-depth telling of the life of Michael Jackson, but needs a strong dose of cutting. Director Jimmie Woody does a nice job of creative staging.
 

“The Panther Dancer” runs through May 26 at the Creative Space at Waterloo Arts, 397 East 156th Street.  There is a parking lot immediately adjacent to the theatre.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre Class of ’18 showcases their talents in NY


Backstage.com’s recent listing of the top Musical Theater Programs in the U.S. included such schools as Carnegie Mellon University, Conservatory of Music at University of Cincinnati, University of Michigan, Penn State University and Syracuse University.

Onstage blog’s list had many of the same institutions.  Playbill presented recognitions for the number of its alums appearing in Broadway shows in the 2017-2018 season. 

All these noteworthy sources also had Baldwin Wallace University on their lists.   In addition, College Magazine ranked Baldwin Wallace's Music Theatre program second in the nation in a review of the "Top 10 Colleges for Musical Theatre Majors."

Most of those on the “best” lists are large institutions.  Baldwin Wallace, on the other hand, is a school of about 3,500 located in Berea, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.

 

The BWU Musical Theatre Program, headed by Victoria Bussert, is a very selective program.   Students are chosen from a process in which Bussert “personally auditions over 700 students each year -- in person, not video auditions. Those auditions resulted this year in a class of 22 from around the country -- Alaska to California to Texas to New York to Maine!”

The program is noted for its meticulous preparation of students for a life in professional theatre.  For example, “Each audition and rehearsal is run with AEA [Actors Equity Association] rules to prepare students for the industry standard. The school also offers a master class series that allows students to be seen by 10 different professionals (agents, managers, and casting directors) offering critiques and advice at the beginning their sophomore year.”

The system obviously works.  A list of BWU alumni presently (May, 2018) appearing on the Great White Way include Kate Rockwell (Mean Girls --Drama Desk Nomination), Corey Mach & Kyle Post (Kinky Boots), Cassie Okenka (School of Rock), Caitlin Houlahan and Keri Fuller (Waitress), Steel Burkhart (Aladdin), John Kramer (Book of Mormon) Jai’Len Josey (SpongeBob the Musical) and Zach Adkins (Anastasia).   In addition, six more are in national or international touring companies.  Ryan Garrett, the conductor of Kinky Boots, is a BWU grad.

Then there are those trodding the boards in professional regional productions such as Cory Mach, Keri Rene Fuller and Alex Syiek who recently appeared in Great Lakes Theater’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Annalise Griswold is presently in Beehive at GLT and Shayla Brielle, who is in Mamma Mia at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, will be appearing in the show this fall at GLT.

To cap off their undergraduate experience, each of the Musical Theatre’s program’s enrollees spends two days doing showcases at New World Stages, with the goal of getting representation and having the spotlight placed on them for the Great White Way’s professional community.  In addition, this year they each performed at Feinstein’s/54 Below along with BWU alumni- Corey Mach, Caitlin Houlahan and Keri Fuller.

Bussert is actively aided in preparing the students for their showcases by Greg Daniels, the dance program coordinator and Matthew Webb, musical accompanist.

According to Bussert, “We had the largest industry turnout in our 21-year history of doing showcases.” The results of the presentations: “the 15 students had more than 250 requests [for representation and tryouts].”  “Everyone has an agent.”

Bussert added, “[Mentor high school grad] Jason Goldston, had a tryout for SpongeBob The Musical and MacKenzie Wright had a tryout for Wicked.  Alec Irion has had a meeting with Warner Brothers.” “Matthew Harris, Shayla Brielle, Tré Frazier, Olivia Kaufman and Noah Mattocks all had auditions for Hamilton.  Others had tryouts for Book of Mormon, Miss Saigon, Aladdin, Once On This Island and Dear Evan Hansen.”

Besides Broadway, BW musical theatre students are, or have appeared on the stages of “Lyric Opera Chicago, Kennedy Center, La Jolla Playhouse, Goodspeed Opera, ART, Fulton Opera House, Arena Stage, Firebrand Theatre, Northern Stage, Indiana Rep, Berkshire Theatre Festival, Utah Shakespeare Festival...and many more including theatre in London and Australia.”

Students who, for whatever reason didn’t go or stay in New York as performers, have gone on to be, among other things, “writers, directors, producers, composers, cruise performers, personal trainers, teachers, coaches, puppeteers, photographers, marketing directors, film/television/video performers, models, and make-up artists.”  Bussert also stated, “We have a multiple Emmy award-winning TV Producer, Sainty Nelson, along with grads who are in casting, publicity, arts management, music directing, stage management, design and work as agents.”

Several class of 2018 students have shared their BW and showcase experiences.  




Alec Irion signed with Pete Kaiser of The Talent House as his agent, and Tony Cloer of Blue Ridge Entertainment as his manager.   He did so because he wanted to be with a small boutique agency rather than a major company so he could have more one-on-one attention and he felt the duo he signed with “had my back.”  He recently finished a run of tic, tic… BOOM! at the Helen in the Hanna complex in PlayhouseSquare and will be off to New York shortly.

He found the feedback in New York “pleasing and surprising” since he doesn’t perceive himself physically or talent-wise to “fit the usual role of theatre guy.” 

Alec thinks the BWU Musical Theatre program got him ready for his future as it was “so hard,” “kept us going constantly,” “taught us what the business is,” “didn’t spoon feed us.”  Now, he is “excited to go forward.”



Dan Hoy signed with CSED, a large agency with offices in Los Angeles and New York.  He chose them because “the agency is remarkably reputable and seemed excited to work with me.  They were already strategizing and planning when I walked in for my interview and showed real interest in my future and career goals.”  Dan had four tryouts as a result of the showcases.

He stated, “Baldwin Wallace has allowed me to grow immensely as both a performer and a professional.  I feel they have prepared me for a future in the industry.”

Other talented members of the BW music theatre class of 2018 not mentioned in this article are Meghan Cordier, Jon Loya, Michelle Pauker, Holly Moss and Chandler Smith.

As a Cleveland based theatre reviewer, I was invited to sit in on the Class of 2018’s preparation for their showcase and then accompany the fifteen seniors to New York to observe their showcases and share their pursuit of agents, managers and, in some cases tryouts for present and future Broadway shows.  It was a compelling and educational experience.

Heads up:  Watch for the names of the Musical Theatre BWU Class of 2018 on Broadway stages, local venues, television and film productions.  This is a special group of talented and well-trained young people, who are dedicated and ready to make their marks on the world of entertainment.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"Passing Strange," a Black youth's search for self-identity, rocks Karamu




“Passing Strange,” a Black youth’s search for self-identity, rocks Karamu 
 
Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
 
Mark Stewart, better known as “Stew,” is noted for being a member of the band, The Negro Problem.  He is also the author of the book and lyrics for “Passing Strange,” a semi-autobiographical musical, co-written with Heidi Rodewald in collaboration with Annie Dorsen.  The script is presently rocking Karamu.

“Passing Strange” opened on Broadway to positive reviews and was a serious contender for the 2008 Tony Award.  (It lost to Lynn Manuel Miranda’s “In The Heights.”)  Unfortunately, it never caught on with Broadway audiences and ran a disappointing 165 performances. 

Maybe it was “too loud,” or not about a subject identifiable with the white and older Broadway audience, or was ahead of its time, or is a small show that needed to be in an intimate theatre.  Whatever, it just didn’t get the traction it needed to have a long run.

 “Passing Strange” is based, in-the-main, on Stew’s experiences as a young musician traveling through Europe in the 1980s.  When the show opened on Broadway, Stew played the Narrator, an older version of himself, reflecting on his youthful angst, family rebellion, drug use, sexual exploration and spiritual awakening.

Classified as a comedy-dark rock musical, it examines a young African American’s journey of self-discovery both in the U.S. and Europe.  It is filled with self-reflection, a probing to find out why he exists, child-mother angst and an examination of the Black community’s attitude about members of their community who are not “black enough.”

Stew summarized the story and the music when he wrote, "It's ... about the costs of being a young artist. It's a 46-year-old guy looking back at the things that he did and the values he had in his 20s, sort of when you're making that decision to really be an artist ... We knew we were going to invent something 'cause we kind of knew this hadn't been done before, the goal being to bring the actual music that one hears in a club to the stage — not through some kind of theatrical musical-theater filter."
Some may remember “Passing Strange” from Spike Lee’s film which premiered in 2009.

This was Stew’s first foray in playwriting, and it shows.  The story is not totally developed and the writing, especially the dialogue, is not always well-conceived. It has a disconcerting looseness which envelops a number of memorable songs.

Karamu is a perfect venue for the show.  The audience is mainly African American.  Since the story is about a black youth who isn’t “black enough,” there is more chance of the ticket buyers to identify with him than was the case on Broadway. 

Karamu’s Arena stage, a small theatre with no seat more than 15-feet from the action, is a perfect stage size and configuration for “Passing Strange.”

The Karamu production, with adept directing by Nathan A. Lilly, is excellent.  The music includes such well-conceived songs as “Sole Brother,” “Amsterdam,” “Keys,” “We Just Had Sex,” “Identity,” “The Black One,” “Come Down Now,” and “Love Like That” rocks.  The lyric interpretations are generally meaningful.

The cast is universally strong.  Darius J. Stubbs nicely takes us on the journey as the narrator.  He has a fine singing voice and good acting chops.

Justin C. Woody wraps himself into Youth.  He professes to have a skill in painting.  If his art work parallels his singing, acting and dancing, he immediately deserves a public display.

Treva Ofutt is totally believable as Youth’s mother.  Carlos Antonio Cruz is strong in multi-roles as is Joshua McElroy, and Mary-Francis R. Miller.  CorLesia Smith provides strong vocal backup and solos.  

Ed Ridley, Jr.’s band (Elijah Gilmore, Kevin Byous, Bradford L. McGhee and Chantrell Lewis) not only effectively backs up the singers, but does justice to some complicated arrangements which include gospel, punk, blues, jazz, as well as rock.

Kenya R. Woods’s creative choreography molds the production together.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: After an overly long first act, the show shifts into high gear and wraps up with a strong final act.  The Karamu cast is excellent.   

 
 
“Passing Strange” continues through June 3, 2018 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.

Next up at Karamu House:  The Jelliffe Theatre Grand Reopening on Saturday June 9.  Featuring a gala, Hall of Fame Induction and an after party; a family-friendly production of “Homecoming Celebration” on June 10 from 1-4; and Vanesa Bell Calloway starring in “Letters From Zora,” from June 14-24.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

“The Royale”—a “fight” play that probes prejudice, personal goals and the effect our choices make on others



Some explaining Marco Ramirez’s “The Royale” at the Cleveland Play House may refer to it as a “boxing” play. 

The script does contain the act of fisticuffs, but it is, in fact, a play about the psyche of a black man who finds himself in three life battles.  He has a strong desire to be the world’s heavyweight boxing champion.  He is also trying to make a stand against prejudice.  And his third battle is a historical struggle with his sister and her desire to protect him.

The play, set in 1905 in the midst of Jim Crow, takes its fisticuffs tale from the true story of Jack Johnson [Jay Jackson in the play], an athlete who dominated the black world of boxing as the Colored Heavyweight Champion, but was continually denied the chance to fight for the World [White] Heavyweight Championship. 

Only when Jackson accepted a bout that would pay him 10% of the gate,  in contrast to his opponent’s 90%, did he get his chance.  And even after he won, he found himself receiving death threats and being denied recognition by the majority white society.

Johnson {Jackson] was rebuked with some of the same reasons as the great track and field star Jesse Owens.  The arguments were based on the sociological attitude that “the negro excels in the events he does because he is closer to primitive than the white man.”  Thus, a black man was more an animal than the white.

With that attitude, the denial of admittance to “white” hotels and restaurants, separate drinking fountains and rest rooms, was justified, as was the lack of equal payment for services and the recognition of the talent and abilities of blacks.

Ironically, though almost all of the play takes place in a boxing ring, and fights are presented, not a single physical punch is struck.  The damage is done with words.  Words that showcase all three of Jay “The Sport” Jackson’s battles.

Jackson had gone through much of his life denying his family and his upbringing.  His sister, Nina, will not allow him to run and hide, and turns out to be his greatest adversary, and motivator.  Even after his boxing victory, it is she whom he must confront in the ring, and it is she who he cannot defeat.

The 85-minute play without an intermission, is filled with abstractions and illusions that might not be grasped by the viewer. 

The production, itself, filled with foot-stomps, handclaps, and fist bumps, is outstanding, exceeding the material, itself.  The cast, the effective directing by Robert Barry Fleming, CPH’s Associate Artistic Director, and the technical aspects, are all of high quality.

Preston Butler III is convincing as Jay.  His athleticism and role interpretation are well-honed.

Nikkole Salter has the right tone for Nina, Jay’s pragmatic sister.  Her “sparring” with her brother during their “fight” scene is well conceived.

Brian D. Coats (Wynton), Leo Marks (Max) and Johnny Ramey (Fish) were all character correct.

Jason Ardizonne-West’s set design, Alan C. Edwards’ lighting, Jane Shaw’s sound design and Toni-Leslie James’ costume designs all enhanced Fleming’s script interpretation.

Though it was sometimes frustrating not to hear all the words due to the theatre-in-the-round staging, being up and close and sitting in an authentic boxing venue, added so much that missing words here and there didn’t take away from the over-all effect.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  To fully appreciate “The Royale,” audience members must broaden their view beyond the boxing ring, the story of the fight for the championship and societal prejudice, and delve into the psychological motivations of the great black champion, himself.   “The Royale” is a thought-provoking conflict which many will appreciate, while others will find themselves defeated by some of the script’s abstraction.

“The Royale” runs through May 27, 2018 at the Outcalt Theatre in the Allen Complex in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

“Beehive” rocks Great Lakes stage as it tells a tale of change


Jukebox musicals contain a story, wrapped around a series of pre-written songs.  Think “Mama Mia,” “Jersey Boys,” “Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story,” “On Your Feet,” and the present Broadway hit, “Escape to Margaritaville.”

Though it has music from the past, “Beehive,” now on stage at the Hanna Theatre, isn’t a Jukebox show.  There is no storyline, per se.  Instead the show is all or part of 40 songs, all but two written for other stars and productions, that chronicle an array of popular female performers from the innocent days of the late 1950s and early 1960s to periods of women’s activism for rights and equality. 

There are girls’ groups with their pastel dresses, full skirts, puffy crinolines and beehive hairdos to the natural look and tight jeans and cleavage, and the era of hippiedom.

Created in the mid-1980s by Larry Gallagheer, the show starts “pretty” and ends pretty powerful.  We travel from the Chiffons, the Shirelles and the Supremes, with their coordinated hand movements and footwork, to the solo work of early Janis Joplin, electric Tina Turner, and dynamic Aretha Franklin.

The evening, with adept directing by Victoria Bussert, dynamic choreography by Greg Daniels, and musical pitch-perfect sounds under the baton of Matthew Webb, is a great summer evening get away.  Yes, problems in the world exist, but harking back to “those days” will grab and hold the attention of those of “a certain age” who grew up with these musical sounds and performers. 

Many a member of the audience forgot they were watching and started to sing along.  (BTW...that is encouraged, as is dancing in the aisles.)  

A couple in front of me snuggled in and were seen “making out” as if they were in a 1960’s convertible parked on lover’s lane.

For those too young to call the tunes “their music,” this will be an excellent education on the evolving history of “female” musicology from the later mid-twentieth century.

First act songs included “Walking in the Rain,” “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Will, You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “One Fine Day,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” and “To Sir, With Love.” 

The mood changes quickly as the second act morphs into “Proud Mary,” “Cry Baby,” “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder),” Me and Bobby McGee,” and what could be the show’s theme, “Make Your Own Kind of Music.”

The cast, many of whom are Baldwin Wallace Music Theatre students or graduates, are all strong.  Each develops a clear song image and personality.  Kudos to Adrianna Cleveland, Annalise Griswold, Shelby Griswold, Christiana Perrault, Camille Robinson and Hannah-Jo Weisberg.

Capsule judgement: Go tap your feet, hark back to those “olden” days when life had a different level of angst, hum or sing along with the talented young ladies, and be educated in the way that theater represents the era from which it comes.  In this case, the musical 60s.

“Beehive” runs through May 20, 2018 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

“Aladdin” takes audience on a magic carpet ride to “A Whole New World”


Disney, whether it’s their theme parks, cruises or Broadway-style shows, has a special approach that excites kids as well as adults.  Disney’s “Aladdin,” which is now on stage at the Key Bank State Theatre, is no exception.

The two tweens sitting next to me gushed after the show that they “loved it” because it was “so colorful.”  Their favorite character? “Genie” they shouted in unison.  Covered with yards of Mylar ribbon, which exploded during one of the production’s many showstoppers, they merrily skipped down the aisle to go home and dream of their magic carpet ride.

The musical, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Menken, is a magic carpet ride, both literally and figuratively.


Based on the 1992 Disney film “Aladdin,” the stage version basically sticks to the cinema’s story line, but makes some alterations that better fit the stage where animated monkeys and tigers only work in shows like “The Lion King.”  Instead, Aladdin is blessed with three buddies to help him through his exploits, and add delight through their Three Stooges-like shenanigans.  Jasmine gets three handmaidens, and Aladdin's second wish is used to free him and his friends from capture, not to stop him from drowning, as it is in the movie.

“Aladdin,” as is the case with most Disney shows, has become a cottage industry entertainment giant.  Besides the movies, the show is playing on board the Disney Cruise Line Fantasy, there is a touring company, and a version will be performed in India starting in 2018.  The soundtrack is a best seller, and the concession stand where everything from tote bags to t-shirts to cds are sold, does a landmark business. 

The story follows the charming young orphaned Aladdin, who, along with his three amigos, does petty stealing in a marketplace in the Arabian city of Agrabah, someplace in the Middle East, in order to get by. 

Aladdin has big dreams, but little way to get them. 

Bad guy Jafar, Grand Vizier and assistant to the King, finds out there is a magical lamp which encases a Genie who can grant three wishes to its possessor.  It’s a great way for Jafar to become the King.  Unfortunately, the cave can only be entered by the “chosen one.”  The chosen one?  Aladdin, of course.  (Hey, this is a Disney fairytale.) 

Meanwhile, Princess Jasmine is in a tizzy because the law of the land says she must marry a prince.  She’s not interested, but she has a three-day window of time and every prince that she’s offered isn’t to her liking.  (We all know where this plot device is going!)

She sneaks out of the palace and goes to the bazaar. Aladdin and his friends are being chased by the royal guards after our hero stole a loaf of bread.  The duo locks eyes and the adorable princess and gym-toned Aladdin are smitten.

And, so, the plot is laid for the Genie to grant Aladdin his wish to become a prince, thus being eligible to marry Jasmine.  Of course, there are stumbles along the way, as well as lots of singing and dancing and a real magic carpet ride. 

In the end, as is the case with all good tales of this ilk, guy gets girl, villain gets his just reward, and the audience goes home happy, many with lots of Disneyesque “stuff.”

The touring company is a visual and audio delight of Arabian night costumes, sets and music, with the appropriate tone for Disney’s first venture with a non-Caucasian princess.

The cast is character perfect.   Michael James Scott is delightful as the wise-cracking, ad-libbing, bedeviling Genie.  His cast-involving opening number sets a perfect tone for the show, and “Friend Like Me,” sung with Aladdin and the Ensemble, evoked extended cheering.

Jonathan Weir’s evil Jafar was so effective in his character development that he was soundly booed by the audience in the curtain call.  Jay Paranada, as his bumbling side-kick, Iago, with looks like Tweedle Dum from “Alice in Wonderland,” delighted.

Clinton Greenspan, he of handsome face, dark curly hair, nice singing voice, appealing personality and expressive eyes, beguiled as Aladdin.  His well sung “Proud of Your Boy,” was one of the highlight serious moments in the fantasy.

His sidekicks, Babkak (Zach Bencal), Omar (Phillipe Arroyo) and Kassim (Jed Feder), were perfect foils.  (Side note:  Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre grad, Steel Burkhardt played Kassim on Broadway). 

Pretty Isabelle McCalla had the right spunk as Jasmine, one of the few Disney princesses with a backbone.  Her nicely sung “These Palace Walls,” gave a clear picture of her desire to be her own person.  “A Whole New World,” a Tony Winner for Best Song, a duet between Greenspan and McCalla, received a beautiful rendition.

Casey Nicholaw’s creative direction and choreography were show-perfect.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Aladdin” is a charming, well produced, escapist musical that gets a fine production.  It’s a must see family-friendly show that should be enjoyed by everyone.
“Disney Aladdin” runs through May 27, 2018 at the Key Bank State Theatre.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

CLEVELAND THEATER CALENDAR—June-August, 2018




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

BENT (June 1-July 1—Studio Theatre—Martin Sherman’s play follows a group of gay men finding ways to survive persecution before and after the Night of the Long Knives.

GYPSY (JULY 6-AUGUST 12—Mackey Theatre)—Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the musical follows an overbearing stage mother and her two daughters during the 1920's when vaudeville was dying and burlesque was born. The score features songs that have become standards, and helped launch the career of Stephen Sondheim.

BLANK CANVAS  

440-941-0458 or www.blankcanvastheatre.com

HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (June 8-23) Rock musical which tells of the search for love and identity by the “slip of a girlboy.”

WE WILL ROCK YOU (August 3-18) The Cleveland Premiere of a juke box musical, featuring more than 20 Queen songs, which tells the tale of two revolutionaries as they try to save Rock in a post-apocalyptic world.

DOBAMA
216-932-3396 or www.dobama.org
ON THE GRILL (June 21-July 8) The American premiere of Dror Keren’s 2015 Israeli Academy Award winning “best play,” is an intimate look into the hopes and heartbreak of an Israeli family and the community that surrounds them.   Featuring Dorothy Silver, David Vegh and Juliette Regnier.  (This production is supported by Cleveland-Israel Arts Connection, a program of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.)

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

MEMPHIS THE MUSICAL (June 14-July 10)—A juke box musical inspired by actual events, tells the story of a white radio DJ who wants to change the world and a black club singer who is ready for her big break.

CLEVELAND MUSICAL THEATRE

216-584-6808 or https://www.clevelandmusicaltheatre.org/jane-eyre

August 31-September 9--Cuyahoga County Community College-East/Simon Rose Mandel Theatre—The world premiere of Paul Gordon and John Caird’s revised musical based on Charlotte Brontë’s most famous female heroine, who is a strong-willed and resilient young womAn on her journey to find independence.

CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE

216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com
Wednesday-Saturday @ 7:30, Saturday @ 2:30, Sunday @ 2:30 and 6:30

HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN (June 7-17) Award-winning Hershey Felder brings to life the remarkable story of Russian-American-Jewish Composer, Irving Berlin ("Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Always," "Blue Skies," "God Bless America," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "There's No Business Like Show Business.”)

CLEVELAND SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL

Free admission. 
For times and places go to http://www.cleveshakes.com

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (June 15-July 1)—An adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of the angst that took place when Troilus, a Trojan prince, falls in love with Cressida, the daughter of a Trojan priest who has defected to the Greek side.

TWELFTH NIGHT (July 20-August 5)—An adaptation of Shakespeare’s comic tale in which hidden identity, cross-dressing, unrequited love and chaos take the stage. 

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

AND ALL THE DEAD LIE DOWN (July 6-28)—The story of a gay couple dealing with stigmatization, family conflicts and their differing cultural backgrounds.

THE CASUAL TREE WARD (August 24-September 15)—The world premiere of Cleveland playwright/actor Robert Hawkes’ tale which asks the question, “Does the world really depend on this single tree (Yggdrasil), or is this a self-generating myth?”

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

LITTLE WOMEN (June 22 to August 5)—A drama adapted from the novel by Louise May Alcott concerns the struggle to keep a family together while their father is away in the Civil War.

ROMEO AND JULIET (July 6 to August 4)—Arguably the greatest love story ever told comes to life.

PICNIC (July 20-August 4)—William Inge’s award winning play which centers on a group of lonely women in a small Kansas town whose lives are disrupted by a charming drifter.

OHIO SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL

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

ROMEO & JULIET (June 29-July 15)—Shakespeare’s classical tale of love and loss.

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (July 27-August 5)---A Shakespearean fairy tale turned on its head.

THE THREE MUSKETEERS:  AN ADVENTURE WITH MUSIC (August 9- 12)---Alexandre Dumas' classic tale of friendship, daring, romance, and intrigue...with music. (A family adventure for all ages.)

PLAYHOUSE SQUARE

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

BEAUTIFUL—THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL (June 5-17—Connor Palace)   A juke box musical based on the story of King’s rise to stardom.

HAMILTON (July 17-August 26—Key Bank State Theatre)—Key Bank Broadway Series—The mega hit about Alexander Hamilton, with book, music and score by Lin-Manuel Miranda, that blends hip-hop, jazz, blues, rap, R&B, and Broadway.
    Pre-Broadway Buzz…featuring Joe Garry (July 17-August 11—upper Allen Theatre)
    Post show talk…featuring cast members (July 19-August 2--Key Bank State Theatre)

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

ANYTHING GOES (June 14-30)—Cole Porter’s timeless tale of boy meets girl and a ship full of singing and dancing sailors, gangsters and showgirls.

NEXT TO NORMAL (July 5-21)---A  rock musical that examines bipolar disorders, depression, grief, marriage, and adolescence.

ROGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S OKLAHOMA! (July 26-August 12)—The show that changed the very nature of what is American musical theatre!

BWU/Square’s “Tick, Tick…Boom! Rocks and Delights at The Helen


The story of Jonathan Larson’s death before the first scheduled preview of the off-Broadway performance of his “Rent” has become theater history.  

Many assume, incorrectly, that “Rent” was Larson’s only contribution to the lexicon of American musical theater.

Before he composed his most popular work, Larson penned several other pieces, including “tick, tick… Boom,” which is basically personally biographical as well as an homage to theater legend Stephen Sondheim.  The script includes the song, “Sunday,” a tribute to Sondheim.

Larson idolized Sondheim, who professionally aided Larson by writing letters of support praising the young man’s work to various producers.  Not surprising, Larson was awarded the Stephen Sondheim Award.


“tick, tick… Boom” tells the tale of an aspiring composer named Jonathan who lives in NY in the 1990s.   It relates in spoken lines and songs the frustration he endures as he writes and has showcases for various musicals, with little success. 


The piece was originally a solo work which Larson performed.  After his death, playwright David Auburn re-wrote it as a three-actor piece.  It is this work that had four performances in The Helen, one of the black box performing spaces in the Allen complex at PlayhouseSquare.


The show has fourteen pop/rock songs and ballads and ironically predicts that Jon is about to write a “hit.” show.


As the lights come up a persistent ticking sound illustrates Jon’s mounting anxiety of having nothing to show for his soon to be 30 years on earth.  From that point, to the ending, when a message from Sondheim inspires Jonathan to play “Happy Birthday to me,” the small slice-of-life-show works well.


The BWU Musical Theatre program’s production was staged with two alternating casts, and an understudy cast (Andrew Nelin, Claire Soulier, Gordia Hayes).  The Saturday matinee and Sunday evening productions featured Alec Irion as Jonathan, Addie Morales as Susan and Matthew Harris as Michael and will be commented on in this review.  The other performances featured Charlie Ray (Jonathan), Nadina Hassan (Susan) and James T. Frazier (Michael).

The “Susan Cast” was excellent.  They exhibited strong voices, great enthusiasm and consistent awareness of their roles and the mood of the piece.
 



Alec Irion displayed a nice sense of comic timing, modulated well between being charming and fear-struck, sang well and competently played the piano.  His “30/90 Reprise” was a vocal highlight.

Irion, a rising senior, just returned from New York, where he and his classmates, presented their talent showcases.  Alec, as well as all others, received agent offers and many are or will soon be going to try to ply their craft on Broadway.



Another BWU soon-to-be-graduated senior is the very talented Matthew Harris.  His portrayal of Michael, Jonathan’s life-long friend and former roommate, showed why he has already had interest from Broadway casting directors.  “No More,” sung as a duet with Irion, was beautifully interpreted.

Undergrad, Nadine Hassan, who was one of the Maria’s in last year’s outstanding BWU’s production of “West Side Story,” displayed a nice stage presence in her portrayal of Susan, Jonathan’s girlfriend.  

Victoria Bussert’s direction was bulls-eye on target.  Musical director Beth Burrier and her band (Brent Hamker, Blake Kniola, and Jesse Penfound) rocked.  Gregory Daniels’ movement/choreography rolled. And the entire production was a “dope!”

Capsule judgment: “tick, tick… Boom” gives a focused picture of Jonathan Larson, who created the seminal musical, “Rent” which carried the art form into the twenty-first century.  It’s a shame that the production only ran for one weekend.  It could easily have developed a cult following and run for a long, long time.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

“Angels in America, Part 2” continues Tony Kushner’s saga at Ensemble



Tony Kushner, the award winning author of “Angels In America Parts One and Two,” says of his work, "The question I am trying to ask is how broad is a community's embrace?  How wide does it reach?"

Part I, presented at Ensemble earlier in this season, laid out the exposition and the foundation for the saga’s concluding segment, “Perestroika, Part II,” which is now on stage at Ensemble under the direction of Celeste Costentino.

It’s New York City, October, 1985.  Prior has been abandoned by Louis when Prior is diagnosed with AIDS.  Joseph Pitt, a married, closeted homosexual Mormon, starts a sexual affair with Louis.  Joseph, encouraged by Roy Cohn, yes, that Roy Cohn of the McCarthy hearings, has taken a position in the Justice Department with the purpose of protecting his mentor from possible recriminations for bribery and legal manipulation. 

Prior continues to receive “visits” from an angel. Harper, Joseph’s wife, retreats further into drug-fueled fantasies.

Cohn uses his political connections to illegally get a supply of the newly discovered, experimental drug AZT.  In his fits of delusion, he is often confronted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who, along with her husband, were convicted of espionage when Cohn was the prosecutor at their trial for suspected treason.

The characters approach the new millennium.  In the guise of a Russian philosopher, Kushner asks, “Can people change? And can the world survive without an all- encompassing theory like the one that communism offered?”

Prior confronts his angels as he wrestles with his illness, helped by a supply of AZT which his friend, Belize, Roy Cohn’s nurse, has stolen.  Joseph’s mother befriends Prior and Louis realizes his selfishness and reunites with Prior.  Cohen dies. Harper confronts Joe, tosses her drugs and returns to the security of Salt Lake City.  We learn about the statue of the Angel in Central Park, the visual image of Kushner’s message.

In Perestroika, Kushner “reconstitutes community in new and unlikely ways, forging bonds between seemingly unconnected characters (Hannah and Prior) and repudiating those, like Joe, who see law as unconnected to morality.  Louis's optimism for democracy is naive but not invalid—democratic community is even able to withstand the crisis of AIDS.  Even Roy [Cohen], the play's most difficult character, is not abandoned to the wilds of isolation: his death unwittingly links him to communities he had abandoned—gays and lesbians, people with AIDS, Jews—and he is reclaimed, albeit with difficulty, by those with whom he had tried to sever all connections.”

Ensemble’s second part of the play has the same excellent cast as the first production:  Scott Esposito (Prior Walter, Jeffrey Grover Roy Cohn), Craig Joseph (Louis), Kelly Strand (Harper Pitt), James Alexander Rankin (Joe), Davion T. Brown (Belize), Inés Joris (Angel) and Derdriu Ring (Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg).

There were some of the opening-night overly long set and costume changes, but these should disappear as the play runs and everyone gets comfortable.



Capsule judgment: “Perestroika” completes the “Angels In America” tale. Though overly long, the strong cast, creative staging, effective projections, and vivid writing make for a challenging but fulfilling theatrical experience that is well-worth seeing for those who like “thinking” theater.



“Angels in America, Part Two, Perestroika” runs April 27-May 20, 2018 on Thursdays through Sundays at Ensemble’s 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


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Musical Theater Project and Jewish Federation put the spotlight on Israeli’s 70th anniversary with “Milk and Honey”


Many know Cantor Kathy Wolfe Sebo as a superlative cantor.  Few know, however, that she didn’t start out to make the religious life her career.

Sebo, a “University Heights girl” (Belvoir and Wiley before going to Hathaway Brown), graduated from the Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music with a major in Voice Performance.  Her goal was “to become a star!”

How did she wind up at The Temple-Tifereth Israel?  As Sebo states, “I tripped into it.  It was definitely not on the radar.”

After a loss in the family, and the desire to come “home,” she was asked to do some cantorial work.  After marriage, children, and a fourteen years as being one of the first female cantors in the Conservative movement, she was offered her present job where she has served for the last 19 years.  Thirty-three years later, “Cantor Kathy,” she is!

She still has her heart in musical theatre and, she will soon again be treading the boards, as she will appear on stage with the cast of The Musical Theatre Project’s concert presentation of “Milk and Honey.”  The program is co-sponsored by The Cleveland Israel Arts Connection, a program of The Jewish Federation of Cleveland.



In 1961, “Milk and Honey,” Jerry Herman’s first Broadway show, premiered.   It opened the door for the such Herman hits as “Hello Dolly!,” “Mame” and “La Cage aux Follies.”

Herman, crafted a show that highlighted the State of Israel, which was only 13 years old at the time.  He built the score on the tale of Zionistic zeal, turning the desert into fields of green, and creating the “land of milk and honey.”  It has a book by Don Appell.

The story centers on a busload of  American widows hoping to catch husbands while touring Israel.  It is set against the backdrop of the country's struggle for recognition as an independent nation and what it could and should become.

The program will be hosted by Bill Rudman and Nancy Maier, with musical arrangements by Ty Emerson. 

Besides Sebo, members of the singing cast are Sheri Gross, Michael Snider, and Greg Violand.

As a child, Sebo’s father encouraged her to sing “Milk and Honey” and “Shalom,” two of the songs from “Milk and Honey.”  This lead to her appreciation for the music which she feels is “emotional and has an earthiness to it.  The songs are filled with Jewish motifs, has gorgeous writing and, in many ways is “magical.”  She adds, “It’s not just a show for Jews, but all people.”

As is true of the arts, the show represents the era from which it comes.  “It works best if you realize what Israel was then a land of pioneering drive.  It was that attitude that has led to the small country now being a world leader in medicine, rescue operations, draught relief, and is a light onto nations.”

Sebo, a proud former Singing Angel, has great enthusiasm for the project.  She is finding the experience “exciting,” and feels “privileged.”  “Watching Bill, Nancy, Ty, the orchestra and the cast is like sitting in on a master class.”

The one-time-only concert will be held at Cuyahoga Community College’s Eastern Campus on Sunday, May 6 at 3 PM.  General admission tickets are $35 and are available by calling 1-800-838-3006.  For more information about the program or to reserve group tickets, call 216-245-8687 or email info@musicaltheaterproject.org.

A Cleveland reviewer goes to Broadway with the BWU senior class


Several times a year I go to review some of what’s on stage on Broadway.  This year, I expanded the experience by accompanying the Baldwin Wallace University Musical Theatre program’s fifteen seniors.

During this season, about a dozen Baldwin Wallace University grads (Berea, OH, a Cleveland suburb), which recently was named as one of the best musical theatre programs in the country, are/were appearing in the Big Apple. 

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

Side note:  Watch for my in-depth article on the BWU Musical Theatre program and the Class of 2018 which will be written after the total results of their showcase, signing with agents, tryouts and casting are all in.

On the business side, CLE’s Matthew and Michael Rego and Hank Unger, of The Araca Group, are one of the producers of the present running “SpongeBob SquarePants” and also the record-breaking “Wicked,” (Honesty disclosure:  Mike, Matt and Hank met when they were involved in a production of “The Music Man” which I directed some years ago.)

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



What: “Hamilton”
Where:  Richard Rogers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street
When:  Open run
Capsule judgment:  The question asked by many who see “Hamilton” is whether it is worth the investment of time and money.  This reviewer’s answer, “Absolutely!”  I can’t wait until it comes to Cleveland this summer to see it again!  (And, hopefully more than once!)



What: “SpongeBob SquarePants The Broadway Musical”
Where:  Palace Theatre—47th and Broadway
When:  Open run
Capsule judgment: “SpongeBob SquarePants The Broadway Musical” is a wonder of neon psychedelic delight starring a character-perfect lead surrounded by a fun-centered cast which should delight adults and children of all ages!



What: “Once on this Island The Musical”
Where:  Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th Street
When:  Open run


Capsule judgment:  The enchanting “Once On This Island” is a tale well conceptualized and told sharing the power of love and tradition as it reveals that “our lives become the stories that we weave.” 

Other shows I saw, but did not review were “Come From Away A New Musical” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” which are both on the Key Bank 2018-19 season, and are very well worth seeing, and “Three Tall Women.”  I was scheduled to cover “Mean Girls,” but the morning of the show I was informed that the lead female would not be in the cast and they didn’t want me to review the understudy.  Oh well, that’s show business.

Monday, April 23, 2018

A Cleveland reviewer gets to evaluate whether “Hamilton” lives up to its advanced billing



Some musicals change the very nature of the genre.  “Oklahoma” gave birth to the book musical in which story, dance and lyrics blended together perfectly.  “Chorus Line” brought the concept of the dance-centered musical.  “Hair” encouraged societal topics and mores to be probed.  “Rent” introduced the stage to 21st century ideas and issues.  Then, along came “Hamilton” which opened the door to singing, rap and movement blending into fine-tuned story telling.   The color-blind casting brought a new stage image to Broadway.

“Hamilton” was inspired by the 2004 biography, “Alexander Hamilton” by historian Ron Chernow.  It has book, music and lyrics by Lin Manuel Miranda, who perfectly honed each element to clearly represent our Revolutionary fathers. 

The script and production have been called, “exhilarating,” “a theatrical watershed,” and “sublime.”

After a successful off-Broadway run which opened in February, 2015, it moved to a Broadway stage in August of that year, and set unprecedented multimillion-dollar advanced box office sales.  Even after numerous cast changes, including the departure of Miranda, the show still over-sells nearly every performance.   

Tickets for the Broadway version can go for many hundreds of dollars. (The people sitting next to me in seventh row center paid $625 for each of their seats).  Why?  It’s “Hamilton.”  No more needs to be said!

The script tells the tale of Alexander Hamilton, who was born out of wedlock in the West Indies.  He comes to the American colonies at age 19 and seeks out revolutionary patriot, Aaron Burr, who advises the young and enthusiastic youth to “talk less; smile more.”  This is advice Hamilton did not take, and helps set the stage for a life-long set of philosophical battles between the men.

The people of Hamilton’s life, the Marquis de Lafayette, the Schuyler sisters, George Washington, Charles Lee, James Madison, and John Jay, flow by in song, rap,  movement, and spoken words. 

The story of the Revolutionary War, the birth of the nation, Hamilton’s developing the country’s financial system, the death of his son in a dual, and his own demise in a dual with Aaron Burr, all transpire in compelling fashion, under the adept direction of Thomas Kail and precision choreography and movement by Andy Blankenbuehler.

Too bad history classes don’t so successful tell such tales.

Tickets are hard to get, but despair not.  The show is running in Chicago, and touring versions are now wending their way across the country.  These productions are duplicates of the Broadway staging, complete with the original choreography and concentric turntables. 

It is also running in London and will be performed, with Manuel in the leading role, in Puerto Rico beginning in January, 2019.

Still want to see the show on Broadway?  Hamilton, like other Broadway musicals, offers a ticket lottery before every show, allowing a very limited number of those in line to purchase tickets for one Hamilton ($10) each.  You may, if you are standing near the theatre before curtain, be exposed to “Ham4Ham” shows, mini-performances which allow lottery participants to experience a part of the show.

Capsule judgment:  The question asked to many who see “Hamilton” is whether it is worth the investment of time and money?  This reviewer’s answer, “Absolutely!”  I can’t wait until it comes to Cleveland this summer to see it again!  (And, hopefully more than once!)

What: “Hamilton”
Where:  Richard Rogers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street
When:  Open run

Sunday, April 22, 2018

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND an enchanting legend revived



Yes, as the advertisement’s banner says, “Our lives become the stories that we weave.” 

In the revival of the one-act “Once on This Island The Musical,” that weaving takes place on Circle in the Square’s rectangular, seat-encircled stage, which has literally been transformed into a sandy island in the Caribbean.  (Over 5 tons of sand were trucked in to accomplish the effect).

Yet another destructive hurricane has struck the forsaken place.

Stray goats and chickens run wild, palm fronds, plastic bags, knocked down huts and random laundry litter the landscape.  Water laps at the shore.  People, out of habit, go about the task of trying to clean up. 

The musical, based on the novel “My Love My Love” by Rosa Guy, which has book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, first opened in 1990 and received eight Tony nominations.  A London production garnered the 1995 Olivier Award for Best New Musical.   This newest version recently opened.
The encompassing and entrancing Caribbean-influenced music, played by traditional musical instruments, are supplemented by storm-dropped “found objects,” including trash bins, flexible piping and wooden boxes.


A young girl cries out in fear.  Story tellers, stirred on by the unrelenting winds and rain, tell her the tale of Ti Moune, a native girl in love with a young aristocrat, who is sent on a journey by the gods.  The story, like many oral history folk tales, uses the customs and mores of the area to paint a story of love and loss, faith and hope. 

The tale concerns the land, four gods: Asaka, the Mother of the Earth, Agwé, god of Water, Erzulie, the goddess of Love, and Papa Ge, the Demon of Death, and the people who worship them. 

The island is populated by peasants, the people as “black as night,” and the lighter-skinned descendants of the French planters and their slaves.  Each lives on their own side of the island, segregated from each other. 

As tradition tells, one day a terrible storm flooded the island, wiping out many people and dwellings. The gods place Ti Moune, an orphan girl, in a tree high above the flood’s waves, thus saving her.   She is found and adopted by Mama Euralie and Tonton Julian.  

Years pass, and the now grown-up beautiful Ti Moune, prays to the gods to set her on a path so he can find her purpose, establishing why she was saved from the storm.

Though they are amused by her wish, they arrange to have the car of Daniel, a light-skinned “grande homme” crash during a storm.  Ti Moune saves his life and restores him to health.  She falls in love with him and assumes he loves her as well.

Ti Moune follows Daniel when he returns to his side of the island. She finds out Daniel is engaged to Andrea, the daughter of family friends. 

Ti Moune is distraught, but when given the opportunity to kill him she will not do so, proving that love is stronger than hate. 

Erzulie takes Ti Moune to the ocean where she drowns peacefully and is taken to shore by Asaka who transforms her into a tree which eventually becomes a celebration of life and love.  As the tree grows, it cracks open the gates of the hotel, allowing those of all social statuses to become one.

And, as in all good folk tales, there is a happy ending as Daniel’s son, playing in the branches of the tree meets a peasant girl.  As the custom of separation of the groups has been eliminated, we are left to believe that love will conquer all.

As the musical ends, the frightened little girl from the beginning of the tale starts to retell the story herself, thus ensuring its continued significance in the history of her people.

The musical, under the direction of Michelle Arden, is enchanting.   Dane Laffrey’s setting, Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting, Peter Ramos’s costumes, and Peter Hylenski’s sound all enhance the story development and the esthetic effect. 



The cast is outstanding.  Hailey Kilgore is award-worthy as Ti Moune.  She has an air of vitality that well fits the story and a lovely voice.  Her vocal, “Waiting for Life” is well interpreted.  Isaac Powell nicely develops the role of Daniel.

The gods, Asaka (Aurelia Williams), Agwé (Quentin Earl Darrington) , Erzulie (Lea Salonga), and Papa Ge (Rodrick Covington) all are convincing in their role interpretations.

“Once On This Island” will launch a North American tour in the fall off 2019.

Capsule judgment:  The enchanting “Once on This Island” is a tale well conceptualized and told sharing the power of love and tradition as it reveals that “our lives become the stories that we weave.”  

What: “Once on this Island The Musical”
Where:  Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th Street
When:  Open run