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

Saturday, April 21, 2018

CPH’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”—F*U*N!

How would you do if asked to spell: “syzygy,” “capybara,” “cystitis,” “pandemonium,” and “qaymaqam?”  How about “crepuscule?” 

C-r-e-p-u-s-c-u-l-e, which means twilight, is the original name of the musical now known as “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which is presently on stage at Cleveland Play House’s Allen Theatre.

Originally a play created by Rebecca Feldman for her New York based improvisational comedy group, its transition into the present script was done by Rachel Sheinkin with music and lyrics by William Finn.

The 2005 Broadway production was a hit, garnering six Tony Award nominations, including Best Book. 

The fun-filled romp centers on a fictional spelling bee conducted at the Putnam Valley Middle School, which finds six quirky kids, joined by four culled-from-the-audience “volunteers,” who vie for the coveted large blue and gold trophy and the pride that goes with it. 

On opening night, two celebrities found their spelling skills presented.  First up was last year’s Cleveland Critic Circle’s best “a-c-t-o-r” Alex Sylerk (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” @ Great Lakes Theater) who quickly was dismissed with his prize of a box of juice.  Though she made it through the first couple of rounds, tall, pretty, animated local Channel 3 “m-e-t-e-o-r-o-l-o-g-i-s-t” Betsy Kling, also slinked away.

We quickly meet the nerdy group of “r-e-a-l” spellers who are competing for our laughs, hearts and the trophy.

There’s Chip Tolentino (Andres Quintero), an Eagle Scout and last year’s winner, who, unfortunately, gets distracted by a pretty young lady in the audience and his resulting erection throws him off and, though he spells the word correctly, he is eliminated by Vice Principal Panch (Jon Schrerer) because of a rule infraction.

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, an African American lesbian, is accompanied by her over-attentive gay fathers. The girl of many causes also falls by the wayside.

Leaf Coneybear (Lee Slobotkin), an adorable geek who makes his own “unique” clothes, is considered dumb by his family.  He’s only in the competition because the winner has her bat mitzvah on the day of the competition, and her best friend, the runner-up, is also at the religious event.  Much to his surprise he sails through the early rounds.  Unfortunately, he stumbles on the word “chinchilla” but walks away head held high, singing “I’m Not That Smart,” having proven to himself, despite his elimination, that he is okay.

William Barfee (Chad Burris, Elder Cunningham in the national tour of “The Book of Mormon”), an obnoxious know-it-all, demonstrates his very successful “magic” foot spelling routine, in which he spells out the word on the ground with his shoe.

Marcy Park (Kay Trinidad Karns), an up-tight young lady who has obviously been put under high pressure to succeed, whizzes through words until she makes a life-changing decision and intentionally spells an easy word incorrectly.

Olive Ostrovsky (wheel-chair bound Ali Stroker, who was in Broadway’s “Spring Awakening” and TV’s “Glee”) is able to break through Barfee’s curtain of nastiness by doing a kind deed when he is threatened by Chip with peanuts, one of many things to which Barfee is allergic.

The cast, which also includes Garfield Hammonds in several roles, and Kirsten Wyatt, as Rona Lisa Perretti, the Bees director, is universally strong, with each of them clearly developing a fleshed-out comic charter.

Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge keeps the action moving right along and keys the laughs with the right degree of farcical mischief.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Sometimes it’s fun to just sit in the theatre and laugh.  If that is your kind of entertainment, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is your thing and will spell “d-e-l-i-g-h-t” for you. 
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs through May 6, 2018 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

SPONGE BOB, with its non-stop creativity, is a visual delight

Some present-day musicals, such as “Dear Evan Hansen” and “A Bronx Tale” shine their spotlight on societal issues.   Others like “Hamilton,” and “Come From Away” concern history.  “SpongeBob Squarepants” has its own vision…to entertain in a psychedelic underwater world of neon colors.  No strong message, but there are child-friendly hints of the value of friendship and of overcoming fear! 

From its reconfigured auditorium space, to its quirky set and creative costumes, non-stop showstoppers, over-the-top farcical acting, and funky television storyline, everything points to escapist enjoyment.

The musical was conceived and directed by Tina Landau.  It has songs by such artists as Sara Bareilles, Cindy Lauper and Rob Hyman, Lady Antebellum, John Legend, David Bowie and Brian Eno, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith.

It is based on the characters and themes of the “SpongeBob SquarePants” animated children’s television show, which was created by marine biologist and animator Stephen Hillenburg.  It takes place in the fictional underwater city of Bikini Bottom.  

The stage version opens as SpongeBob SquarePants wakes up one morning, in his usual wide-eyed happy mood, ready to face another wonderful day with his pet snail, Gary.  He wanders through Bikini Bottom, greeting various people including his best friend, Patrick (a squid) and Sandy Cheeks (a human who lives in a bubble-like dome and possesses great scientific skills). 

As the day progresses a violent tremor rocks the town.  A television news report relates that a nearby volcano is about to erupt.  Oh, what to do?  Stay and be destroyed?  Flee?  Find a way to save the city by neutralizing the danger.   

Hey, this is an escapist farce.  There has to be a plot device that contains danger, a bad guy and a happy ending to fulfill the formulaic story requirements.   So, off to climb the volcano, get rid of the danger (thanks to an invention by Sandy), and defeat an evil villain.  And, of course, our hero has to be the title character—SpongeBob.

The process of saving the town is filled with lots of singing and dancing and visual delights including a couple of Rube Goldberg devices mounted on the side walls of the theatre to the right and left of the proscenium arch, climbing the walls of the volcano which are created of entwined and moving scaffolding, electronic graphics, flying characters, skateboarding rockers, and lots of properly overdone farcical acting. 

All in all, there is visual and entertainment overload which, if the kid in front of me, who bounced in his seat, waved his arms until he was exhausted, is any indication, pleased the audience—adults and kids alike.

The cast is truly in tune with the right attitude for farce, and have the tap dancing, contemporary movement, and special skills needed to carry off the creativity of the director and choreographer.

Every once in while an actor and a role so meld together that forever the two are linked.  Think Yul Brenner in the “King and I,” Carol Channing in “Hello Dolly” Julie Andrews in “My Fair Lady,’’ and recently, Ben Platt in “Dear Evan Hansen.”  


Add Ethan Slater to that list.  The talented young man “is” SpongeBob!  He delights in his singing, dancing, line interpretation and character development.

Danny Skinner, as the chunky Patrick Star, has some wonderful musical moments in “BFF” (with Slater), “Super Sea Star Savor” and “(I Guess I) Miss You.”

Gavin Lee is wonderful as the multiple-legged Squidward Q. Tentacles, whose “I’m Not a Loser” brought prolonged audience applause.  

Fine performances were also given by Lilli Cooper (Sandy Cheeks), Brandon Espinoza (Patchy the Pirate) and Brian Ray Norris (Eugene Krabs).

A special nod of approval to the Electric Skates (L’ogan J’ones, Kyle Matthew Hamilton and Curtis Holbrook) for their exciting skateboard routines.

Both David Zinn’s costumes and scenic design are Tony-nomination worthy!  Peter Nigrini’s projections help flesh out the visual aspects of the dazzling production.  Christopher Gattelli’s choreography adds to the delight, and director Tina Landau’s creativity shines through.

Of interest to 216ers:  With “Spongebob,” the Araca Group, Cleveland natives Matthew Rego, Michael Rego, and Hank Unger, add to their ever-expanding list of Broadway hits, which include such smashes as “Urinetown,” “Wicked,” “’ night mother,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Rock of Ages.”

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: “SpongeBob Squarepants The Broadway Musical”
Where:  Palace Theatre—47th and Broadway
When:  Open run

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Tony winning “The Humans” has audience unexpectedly laughing at Connor Palace

Stephen Karam is one of the new breed of contemporary American playwrights.  His “The Humans,” the Tony Award-winning Best Play of 2016, and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is now on stage at the Connor Palace.  

The young Lebanese-Irish-American writes plays about the human experience that should not be as funny as they are.  His painful comedies center on misfits, traumatic sexual experiences, depression, dementia, illness, 9/11, the foibles of religion, infidelity, homosexuality, poverty and prejudice.  How can we listen to all that angst and be incited to laugh?  But laugh we do!

Karam is noted for demonstrating “an acute perceptiveness for the ways people lean on one another even as they get under each other’s skins.”  The author says he’s drawn to 'the strangeness in people' who live in a state of dread; it’s the psychological realism of the everyday, it seems, that fires his imagination." 

Several local theatres have showcased Karam’s other works including “Speech and Debate” and “Sons of the Prophets.”

The Pulitzer Prize committee described “The Humans” as "A profoundly affecting drama that sketches the psychological and emotional contours of an average American family."  At times the happenings seem as much horror story as  comedy.

The Humans” centers on an Irish-American “Scranton, PA” family who are celebrating Thanksgiving at their daughter’s and her live-in boyfriend’s New York Chinatown apartment.  The couple has just moved into an ill-kept building where the electricity keeps going out, the upstairs neighbors make unbelievable amounts of noise, and the furniture hasn’t arrived. 

Present are Brigid Blake and her boyfriend Richard. Brigid's parents, Erik Blake and Deirdre Blake, arrive to have dinner along with their other adult daughter Aimee, a lawyer.  Aimee has recently broken up with her girlfriend and has developed an intestinal ailment.  Also present is Erik's mother, Fiona "Momo", who has Alzheimer's. 

This is a family filled with hidden secrets, outspoken pain, faltering yet blind beliefs, prejudices, and failures.  As the evening proceeds, their imperfections and affections flow forth.  

The proficient touring company cast is headed by Richard Thomas.  Yes, that Richard Thomas, “John Boy” from television’s “The Waltons” who has gone on to gain stardom in hit shows such as “The Americans” and numerous Broadway roles.

The rest of the cast, Therese Plaehn, Daisy Eagan, Pamela Reed, Lauren Klein and Luis Vega are all excellent.  They flesh out their roles so successfully, that we find ourselves “peeking in on” this real family, rather than watching a play. 

The set is a bizarre physical presence which becomes a character in the goings on.  The lightening effects are well conceived.  The sound system is subpar causing many “huhs” from the audience. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   Key Bank subscribers may be thrown off by the fact that “The Humans’” is not a musical.  But it, like last season’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night,” and “War Horse,” the marvelous hit of several seasons ago, is a straight play that has special appeal.  Unlike those shows, it lacks the outstanding technical and special effects to grab and hold attention.  What it does have is a finely-written story that gets an outstanding performance that is well-worth experiencing.
The Humans” runs through April 29, 2018.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

“The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God,” misses its mark @ Karamu


George Bernard Shaw’s views on religion may be summarized by his statement, “People believe anything that amuses them, gratifies them, or promises some sort of profit.”  

He showcased his anti-organized religion and doubt of God in his “The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God,” a novella he wrote after returning from five weeks in Africa in the winter of 1932.  He imagined a young black girl roaming the “darkest of Africa” in search of God.  

His story was adapted for the stage by African-American writer, Lisa Codrington. 

A staging of Codrington’s script is now on stage at Karamu.

 “The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God” tells the tale of an African girl who has been abandoned by her missionary for asking too many question about God, religion and philosophy that the church proselytizer couldn’t answer.   

Left on her own, The Black Girl sets out on her own mission to find God, since she has been taught, “Seek and you shall find me,” which she takes to mean, “seek out and actually speak to God.”


In the Shaw essay the Black Girl meets a vengeful deity of the early books of the Bible, a philosophical version as exposed in the “Book of Job,” and two versions of Jesus…a kindly but ineffective young man and another posing as an artist who is depicting Christ on the cross. 

Eventually we, like the Black Girl, come to the conclusion that, “There are a lot of old men pretending to be gods in this forest [the world].”

She also meets an atheist-behaviorist, and others who explain that the speculations about God are passé.  She finally is confronted by an elderly man who persuades her to abandon her quest and settle down “with a red-haired Irishman and rear a charmingly coffee-colored family.”  (Note:  at one point in his writing career, Shaw started a general furor by proposing intermarriage between blacks and whites as a solution to racial problems in South Africa.)

My evaluation of the Shaw production of the script was, “staging is illuminating, delightful and the standing ovation was well deserved.”

I wish I could say the same for the Karamu production; but, I can’t. 

Shaw calls the play a comedy with satirical overtones.   Unfortunately, in spite of a strong performance by India Pierre-Ingram as the Black Girl, the Karamu production misses the mark.  

Presented as a farce with slapstick, double takes, and overdone characterizations running wild, Shaw’s messages get lost in the mayhem.  In spite of the over the top screaming, over-acting and begging for laughs, few guffaws were heard.

The director and cast had another issue to contend with at the “joyful gathering place.”  When Shaw published “Black Girl” in 1932, it was so controversial that, probably much to his delight, he was decried as a “blasphemer.”

The Shaw Festival audience, many of whom were religiously liberal Canadians, took the Irishman’s satire as such.  However, the Karamu audience, many of whom are devout Christians, were not amused by the overdrawn depictions of the men of the “Bible,” the simpering Jesus’s, and the mindless prophets. 

An elderly woman, sitting diagonal to me, had a stressed look on her face from the start of the second scene on.  At the end there was no applause from her, and she reached out and took my hand as I went to exit and said, “God is not happy!”  The show was definitely not an appropriate happy 90 th birthday present for her! 

From the exit conversations, unfortunately, she was not alone in her dislike of the subject matter.

Capsule judgment:  The commentary, “The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God,” as evidenced at the Shaw Festival, can be a compelling hour production.   Unfortunately, in spite of a valiant effort, this isn’t the case at Karamu.

“The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God” continues through April 15, 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.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Compelling “The Scottish Play” (“Mac**th”) at Great Lakes Theater

Theater people are superstitious! 

The practices that relate to the fears have various origins.  For example, “the ghost of Thespis (the first known actor in ancient Greece) is said to wreak havoc upon theaters all over the world. The ghost light tradition—leaving a single lit bulb upstage center when the theater is empty—is meant to ward off these mischievous specters.”

Know someone in the cast? If so, only give flowers after the performance.  Old school actors require their flowers after the curtain call—not before—claiming that a gift prior to the start causes a lackluster show.

Be forewarned that if you are going to go to the present staging at the Great Lakes Theater, don’t say you are going to see “Macbeth.” To ward off problems, state that you are going to see “The Scottish Play.”   Some believe that the play’s fictional incantations -- “Double, double toil and trouble…” are authentic examples of witchcraft, and therein lies the danger of speaking the title out loud. If you state the Shakespearean title, you will be required to exit the theater, spin three times, spit, and utter a Shakespearean insult (or an equally vulgar profanity).  

“Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays and is recognized as one of the Western theatre’s most important tragedies.

With its tale of deception, corruption, power of unchecked ambition, a leader with a lack of moral order, lust, manipulation, and taking actions with no plan-- the story is as modern as when it was written.  

The tale starts with a storm on a Scottish moor.  Three witches chant incantations and share with Macbeth, a brave army general, that he will become King of Scotland.  Thus, is set in motion a series of actions that roll out as a tale of intrigue and darkness. 

Ambition awakened, Macbeth, who shares the prophecy with his power hungry wife, becomes obsessed with destroying anyone who might stand in his way.   He murders King Duncan and takes the throne for himself.  

But, not all is well in Scotland. Both Macbeth and his lady become wracked with guilt and paranoia as the number of murders increase and plots of revenge take hold.  They lose track of humanity and reality.  An ever increasing bloodbath ensues and dissolves into madness and ultimately death.

This is the stuff of which great Shakespearean tragedies are made.

The script is filled with epic lines and speeches that many a school child has had to memorize including: "Screw your courage to the sticking-place."  "Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand?"  "What's done is done."  "Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble." "Out, damned spot! out, I say!" and "Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The Great Lakes Theater’s production, under the adept direction of Charles Fee, is superb.  Every aspect of the show:  the acting, pacing, technical creations, fight sequences, clarity of language, and story development, all ring true. 

Especially effective is the visual and story-developing creativity of the three “witches” (Laura Welsh Berg, Jodi Dominick and Meredith Lark.)

Strong performances are presented by Lynn Robert Berg as the increasingly maniacal Macbeth, Erin Partin as the obsessed Lady Macbeth, Nick Steen as Macduff, Jonathan Dyrud (Banquo) and young Jake Spencer as Fleance. 

Huzzahs to scenic designer Russell Metheny, costume designer Kim Krumm Sorenson, light designer Rick Martin, sound designer and incidental music composer Matthew Webb, and fight choreographer Ken Merckx.  

Capsule judgement:  The staging is exciting, the story line is paced to build to the forewarned conclusion, the language is easy to understand, the characterizations are well-etched, the acting is superb, the technical aspects are excellent, the fight scenes are theatrically real, the creative development of the three witches is groundbreaking.  All in all, this is a “Macbeth” to be treasured and is a must see production! 

“The Scottish Play” (“Mac**th”) runs through at the Hanna Theatre through April 15, 2018.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Humorous ‘The Oldest Profession” at convergence continuum


Paula Vogel, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Oldest Profession,” now on stage at convergence-continuum, is noted for her witty and compassionate prose.  

She writes with warmth about subjects which are often the object of repulsion.   In probably her best play, “How I Learned to Drive,” which was recently staged at Cleveland Play House, Ms. Vogel took on the subject of child sexual abuse and incest.  

As Vogel states, “I only write about things that directly impact my life.”  She adds, “If people get upset, it’s because the play is working.”

“The Oldest Profession” isn’t going to upset many, if any of con-cons patrons.  It should incite some laughter, a dash of titillation, and a lot of head nods.  It does have some clever lines such as “Any girl can stand in the alley and end up a madam” and “We need to get the AARP mailing list.”

The play’s description summarizes it all: “As Ronald Reagan enters the White House, five aging practitioners of the oldest profession are faced with a diminishing clientele, increased competition for their niche market, and aching joints.”

Vogel illustrates the obstacles and angst of the five women of the street.  (Well, actually, they don’t hang out on the street, they work out their living spaces or visit the clients).   The major problem centers on the issue that their source of income is drying up as the ladies of a certain age have a clientele that is dying off or is too infirm to “perform.”

They’ve migrated from New Orleans to Manhattan under the guidance of their “madam,” the forgetful Mae (Marcia Mandel). 

Ursula (Lucy Bredeson-Smith), the financial brains behind the group, wants to take over as she thinks the operation isn’t being run for the highest possible returns.  She pesters the “naïve” Lillian (Jeanne Task), who often gives services with no financial reward. 

Mild-mannered, timid Vera (Jeanne Madison) concentrates on what she is going to make for dinner and tries to make “nice” to all. 

Edna (Valerie Young), the most beautiful and probably the most successful of the group, just wants to keep the business going and not get wrapped up in the politics of prostitution.

Not much happens through much of the play other than the oft-humorous bickering and revelations about their geriatric clients.

The production, under the direction of Amy Bistock, leisurely flows along.  The cleverest part of the staging is each woman’s final exit, which consists of a burlesque-inspired swan song (performed to the piano music of Moss Stanley).

Marcia Mandel does what she does best—portraying being air-headed.  

Jeanne Task, the queen of “shtick” faces and vocal gymnastics, delightfully does her thing with verve!  

Lucy Bredeson-Smith hits her stride when she comes on stage with a sex-whip, dressed in a black leather dominatrix outfit, and takes on audience-members and their fantasies. 

Jeanne Madison is charming as the gentle Vera, who clearly displays that she is a caring and soothing purveyor of her wares, more interested in mothering than sex.  

Valerie Young nicely textures the role of Edna, giving the character a clear and identifiable personality.

Scott Zolkowksi’s costumes are excellent.

Capsule Judgment:  The script, which is more character study than plot driven, doesn’t have much to say, but it does entertain.  Though “The Oldest Profession” is one of Paula Vogel’s lesser plays, it gets a humorous staging. 

“The Oldest Profession” runs through April 14, 2017, at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to http://www.convergence-continuum.org/

Next up at con-con:  Suzan Lori-Parks “In The Blood,” a modern riff on “The Scarlet Letter.”

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Acting soars in “Late Henry Moss” at none too fragile

Sam Shepard, the author of “The Late Henry Moss,” which is now in production at none too fragile, once wrote, “I believe in my mask-- The man I made up is me.  I believe in my dance--And my destiny.”

His “mask,” consisted of a bleak writing style which had many surrealistic elements, including using black humor to portray rootless characters living on the edge of American society. 

Shepard often showed what psychologists would classify as “daddy issues.”  His father, a military man, who moved the family on a regular basis, was an alcoholic noted for abuse and creating a dysfunctional atmosphere in the Shepard home.

His poetic use of language and the creation of characters rather than plot-centered stories, made him an icon with performers who found lots of “meat” on the bones of those who populated his writings.  

The Shepard writing elements are clearly on display in the depressing “The Late Henry Moss,” including creating people who are not likable and for whom we have little reason to feel empathy.  These are generally low-lifes, who seem to ask for all the pain and suffering that is heaped upon them.

Yes, vintage Sam Shepard!

The basic story centers on the Moss brothers, Ray (Sean Derry) and Earl (Bryant Carroll) who, through a series of present and flashback scenes, confront their own interpersonal relationship and that with their father, their sibling rivalries, and distorted remembrances as they delve into their father’s recent death.

They try to construct the tale of their father’s fishing expedition with a local town prostitute, Conchalla (Diana Frankhauser), a taxi driver (Brian Kenneth Armour) who took them on the expedition, the father’s relationship with Esteban, a trailer park neighbor, and his demise.

The brothers, who haven’t seen each other in seven years, verbally and physically spar in a fight-cage atmosphere, hitting raw nerves by exposing confusion and contradictions. 

None too fragile’s production, under the adept direction of the theatre’s co-Artistic Director, Sean Derry, though overly long, is fast-paced and enveloping.  The verbal and physical punches generally ring true as the angst-level grows. 

With his high quality consistent directing of script after script, it’s easy to forget the high quality of Sean Derry’s acting.  There is no chance of overlooking it in this production.  His soliloquy about their mother is emotionally wrenching.  Near the end of the play he shows masterfully how even silence can evoke strong meaning.

Derry is matched by a finely textured performance by Bryant Carroll.  The duo mesmerizes as they verbally thrust, parry and finally, physically attack!

Nice performances are also put in by Robert Hawkes (Henry Moss) and Brian Kenneth Armour.

Capsule judgment:  As in almost all Sam Shepard blunt, hard hitting plays, the questions of what’s true, what’s fiction, what is family history and what is mythology pervade this tale of dysfunctional relationships in this character-driven tale.  The acting is generally superb, the pace intense, and the over-all effect is unnerving.  If you like good acting and can endure Shepard’s cage-boxing style of writing, this is a production you won’t want to miss.

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

Up next:  Bruce Graham’s “White Guy on The Bus” (May 11-26th)), a story of race, and the dynamic between low-income blacks and economically comfortable whites.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Shaw Festival’s 2018 season

Canada's Shaw Festival is a tribute to George Bernard Shaw and his writing contemporaries.  

Many Clevelanders take the four-hour drive up to “The Shaw,” as it is called by locals, just to participate in theatre.  Others tour the “most beautiful little city in Canada,” eat at the many restaurants, and go shopping for Canadian goods.  Some take a side trip to Niagara Falls to see the world’s water wonder or to gamble.  Whatever, The Shaw is a wonderful spring, summer or fall adventure.

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

There are some wonderful restaurants.  My in-town favorites are The Grill on King Street (905-468-7222, 233 King Street), Ginger Restaurant (905-468-3871, 390 Mary Street) and Niagara’s Finest Thai (905-468-1224), 88 Picton Street, with Old Winery, (2228 Niagara Stone Road/905-468-8900), a worth-while ten-minute ride from downtown.

Tim Carroll, in his second season as The Shaw’s Artistic Director, dedicates this season to a chance to put into practice what he learned in his first season.  The audiences love musicals, passion, crime, laughter, brilliant writing, pure escapism, in-person performers and romance.  So, here are his 2018 theater offerings:

THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW—C. S. Lewis’s plunge into Narnia at its very beginning. An adventure of what it means to do the right thing. (World Premiere) April 4-October 13.

GRAND HOTEL—Check into the lavish Grand Hotel, where the lives of ten hotel guests collide over one unforgettable night with songs and dance.  May 3-October 14.

MYTHOS--Stephen Fry, one of the great story tellers, uses humor and a company of the Greek gods, heroes and men, to tell gripping tales.  May 24-July 15.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES—Sherlock Holmes is on the case to find a murderer in this sly, darkly funny and suspenseful tale.  August 1-October 27.

STAGE KISS—In this modern romantic comedy by Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Ruhl, two bitter exes are cast in the same play as passionate lovers.  Will they strangle or seduce each other?  April 11-September 1.

OF MARRIAGE AND MEN:  A Comedy Double Bill—Two great humorous short plays about marriage in a single show about the hitches of being hitched.  May 13-September 2.

O’FLAHERTY V.C.—Packed with family feuding and witty repartee, this G. B. Shaw one-act skewers every illusion about why we go to war.

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR—A provocative WWI musical intended to make audiences laugh, cry and clench their fists.  July 14-October 13.

THE ORCHARD (After Chekhov)—It’s Chekhov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD transformed into the tale of two immigrant families fighting to hold onto their orchard in British Columbia.  June 7-September 1.

THE BARONESS AND THE PIG—An idealistic 19th century baroness has found her next maid—a girl who can barely speak, let along keep house.  This Canadian play cuts to the core of what it means to be “civilized.”  MATURE CONTENT.  JUNE 10-October 6.

HENRY V—A troop of Canadian soldiers is hunkered down in a dugout during WWI with some copies of Shakespeare’s HENRY V for company.  Juy 22-October 28.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL—Ebenezer Scrooge is a miserable old miser, but . . .!  November 14-Decemer 23.

For theater information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

Go to the Shaw Festival! Find out what lovely hosts Canadians are, and see some great theater! 

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

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Cleveland Play House Announces 2018-2019 Season

Cleveland Play House (CPH) Artistic Director Laura Kepley announced the 2018-2019 Season today to a standing-room-only gathering in the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square.

“This season will inspire and invigorate our loyal patron base and introduce new audiences to what CPH does best -- tell stories that matter in productions that are imaginative, thrilling, and entertaining,” said Kepley.

The 2018-2019 Season Subscriber Series begins in September with the launch of the U.S. National Tour of London’s long-running hit The Woman in Black, a mystery thriller based on the novel by Susan Hill.

The 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Sweat will then heat up the Outcalt Theatre with a story of the working class struggling to make ends meet in the Rust Belt.  

An Iliad hits the stage in January, featuring two women in a modern, visceral telling of the ancient Greek story of war and vengeance.

Next up is the return of CPH favorite Ken Ludwig and his rollicking new comedy, Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Several exciting shows are under consideration for the next spring slot. The Subscriber Season comes to a hilarious and poignant conclusion with a look over the fence -- the neighbor’s fence -- in Native Gardens.

From Cleveland favorites to new voices, every show features strong, determined characters staring down the obstacles for the greater good.

In addition to the six-play Subscriber Series, CPH is proud to announce two special attractions: the family holiday favorite A Christmas Story in November and December, 2018, and The Wolves, a full immersion into the world of teenage girls, which will be featured in the 2019 New Ground Theatre Festival.

Subscriptions to the 2018-19 Season at Cleveland Play House are on sale now. Subscribers save up to 25% off individual ticket prices and receive many great benefits throughout the season. Full and flexible season packages begin at just $262.

To purchase subscriptions or to receive more information, call 216-400-7096 or visit clevelandplayhouse.com.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Disappointing “Rent” less than it should be at Connor Palace

The history of American musical theater is laced with firsts and trend setters.  Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” introduced the well-made book musical in which a story was told, with music, lyrics and dance all integrated and setting the pattern of the first act ending with a conflict that would be solved in the second act.

“Hair” introduced the rock sound to Broadway shows and took on societal beliefs, challenged the status quo, and opened the door to shows which broke from the traditional mold including “Company,” “Godspell,” “Rocky Horror Show,” and “Pacific Overtures.”

Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” broadly based on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” took on the series topics of AIDS, economic disparity, and sexual and gender orientation.  It ushered in the era of “thinking” musical theatre and became the godmother of “Next to Normal,” “In the Heights,” “The Color Purple,” “The Scottsboro Boys,” and “Fun Home.”

“Rent” centers on the psychological and sociological attitudes of the lower East Side of New York at the turn of the 21st century.   Larson stated that, from his viewpoint, ”traditional society was thwarting the hopes and dreams of the MTV generation.” 

He supposedly chose the title “Rent,” not only because a major conflict in the storyline centers on paying rent but that the term also means, “tearing apart,” which was what was happening to the relationship between varying segments of the culture. 

The somewhat autobiographical story centers on the conflicts of gentrification of the home of the bohemians and drug worlds, as the setting for his examination of love, loss, illness, sexual and gender angst and everyday existence.

Unfortunately, Larson never lived to see his musical become a multi-mega hit, which twenty years after its opening, is still bringing in sold out crowds as it crosses the nation on yet another tour.  He never knew he won a Pulitzer Prize.

Larson died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm the day before the first preview of the show.  “The first preview was canceled and instead, friends and family gathered at the theater where the actors performed a sing-through in Larson's memory. “

When I saw the show shortly after it opened in New York, I was blown away by the message, the intensity and the score.  Follow-up productions have usually brought about the same reactions.  I wish I could say the same about the 20th Anniversary Tour production.  I can’t!

The show on the Connor Palace stage lacks the intensity and dynamics need to make Larson’s ideas ring true.   The young cast has excellent singing voices, but generally lack the acting chops to develop the necessary character depth and story identity.  They are not helped by uncreative directing.

There is a lack of emotional connection between Destiny Diamond (Mimi) and Logan Farine (Roger) which places a damper on the love story, which is one of the basic story lines.  Their “Light My Candle” flickers, rather than flairs.  “Without You” lacks emotional passion. 

Farine seems more authentic in his shared scenes with Sammy Ferber (Mark).

Aaron Alcaraz is one of the show’s bright lights as the cross-dressing Angel.  His “Today 4 U” is well done, as is “I’ll Cover You” sung with Josh Walker (Collins).

The second act opening song, “Seasons of Love” is well sung, as is the playful “Tango: Maureen.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   The 20th anniversary tour of “Rent” disappoints.  In spite of the wonder of the Pulitzer Prize winning script and score, this staging lacks the intensity and dynamics need to make Larson’s ideas ring true. 

“Rent 20th Anniversary Tour” runs through March 25, 2018.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.

See “Rent” for $20 in choice seats:  The show offers a ticket lottery prior to each and every performance. Tickets are $20, cash only, limit of two per lottery winner. Seats are located in the first two rows of the orchestra section. The lottery signups begin 2.5 hours prior to performance time, with winners being drawn 2 hours prior. You must be present at the time of the drawing to be eligible to purchase lottery tickets.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Dobama’s “The Effect,” more effect than well-told story

Lots of today’s science news concerns controlled drug studies done by pharmaceutical companies, as well as government agencies, to insure the safety and identify side-effects of the compounds.

Lucy Prebble, one of England’s young and up-and-coming playwrights, takes on that subject in her “The Effect,” which won the 2012 UK Critics Circle Award for Best New Play.  It is now on stage at Dobama, in just the third U.S. production of the script.  It was previously done off-Broadway in 2016, then at the Studio Theatre in DC.

The story revolves around two young paid drug-test volunteers in a study on anti-depressants, psychology student Connie (Olivia Scicolone, in her Dobama premiere) and drifter Tristan (Ananias J. Dixon, acclaimed for his Dobama performances in “An Octoroon” and “Sherlock Holmes:  The Baker Street Irregulars”). 

We meet the pair who are staying at the clinic for four weeks.  They have just collected urine and awkwardly interact while holding their specimen bottles.

We learn that Tristan plans to use his earnings to embark on a backpacking expedition.  We are never quite sure why Connie is participating, other than she often reminds of her status as a college psychology student.

As the doctors up the dosage, Connie and Tristan find themselves attracted to each other.  They and the medics struggle to work out whether their feelings are real or a side effect of the drugs.

In the dialogue, Prebble, who believes that “we are our bodies,” questions whether psychiatric drugs are all placebos as they only work, at best, for short periods of times and are not curative.  She also encourages thoughts about whether “chemical imbalance” theories are bogus, in that, even with modern fMRI and scan tests, there is no definitive proof of what constitutes a chemical balance.

Dobama’s production, under the watchful eye of director Laley Lippard is, in many ways, better than the script itself.  All four actors, Scicolone and Dixon, and “old pros” Derdriu Ring and Joel Hammer, who play doctors, are excellent, nicely texturing their performances.  There is good connection and interplay between the young leads. 

One must wonder why the sex-enactment scene goes on-and-on, extending an already overly long play.  

The Dobama production is done in the round, set-up like a hospital observation room, with the audience in close proximity to the action.  

Whenever a play is done in the round, though the audience experiences it up-close and personal, unless the actors wear microphones, there is a loss of clear vocal sound and the ability to see facial expressions when the actors are facing “the other way.” 

The lighting, sound, projections, and tech designs enhance the show. 

Prebble is excellent at not being overly wordy and presents ideas in a clear, non-complex manner, but the script, itself, is “never as convincing as the intellectual arguments in which its characters frequently engage.”  

Alert:  Potential audience members should be aware that metal banisters have been placed in front of most of the seats.  Only the first row of two sections are cane and walker accessible.  If you need easy physical access, tell the box office that you should be seated in sections two or three, row A.

Capsule judgement: Though the Dobama production aspects are quite good, and the performances are top notch, the experience is not without angst.  One leaves asking, “What does Prebble want us to gain from the script?  The ending, two incomplete conclusions, doesn’t help to answer the question.

“The Effect” runs through March 25, 2018 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up:  The regional premiere of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ Obie Award winning “Appropriate” (April 20-May 20).  The play’s catalyst is a book of old photographs, found in an Arkansas mansion after its owner dies. So what? Family albums often surface at such moments. This one, though, is filled with pictures of dead black people, with broken necks. It would appear that they had all been lynched.  Hmmm….

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

SWEENEY TODD, Sondheim at his most complicated @ Blank Canvas

Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics for “Sweeney Todd:  The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which is now in production at Blank Canvas, is noted as a brilliant lyricist.  Interestingly, that is not the way he sees himself.  He is well-trained as a musical composer, having, from a young age, been the prodigy of Oscar Hammerstein II.  Yes, the composer of such mega hits as “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific” and “Sound of Music.”

Sondheim was in his mid-twenties when he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”  He quickly gained a reputation for writing pure rhymes, clever twists on phrases, and character-describing songs that fit perfectly into the plot.
“Sweeney Todd:  The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” or, as it is better known, “Sweeney Todd” was written in 1979.  Known as a musical thriller, is based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond and won the Tony Award for Best Musical Play.

The score, probably one of Sondheim’s most complex, is filled with intriguing harmonies and counterpoint.  Because most of the dialogue, about eighty percent, is sung, many consider the piece as an opera.  “Never before or since in his work has Sondheim utilized music in such an exhaustive capacity to further the purposes of the drama.”

The brilliant list of musical numbers includes the beautiful “Johanna,” the delightful “The Worst Pies in London” and the heart wrenching “Not While I’m Around.”

The story, centering on obsession, tells the tale of Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker), who was exiled to Australia by Judge Turpin, a ruthless judge who lusted after Todd’s wife.

It is now 1846, many years after the now renamed Sweeney Todd’s exile. 

We meet young Anthony Hope and Todd on a London pier.  Todd has recently rescued Hope at sea and befriended him.  The duo is confronted by a crazed Beggar Woman.   Todd wanders into a meat shop, below his former barber shop, hoping to find out the whereabouts of his wife and daughter. 

Mrs. Lovett, noted as the maker of the worst pies in London, tells about the “death” of his former wife.  She relates that Judge Turpin, who also has taken their daughter, Joanna, as his ward, raped Todd’s wife.  Todd threatens revenge against Turpin and his henchman, Beadle Bamford.  Thus, the plot is laid for a tale of murder and revenge.

Blank Canvas never ceases to amaze.  Performing on a postage-size stage, tucked away on the 2nd floor of the former American Greeting Card warehouse, operating on a shoe-string budget, Artistic Director Patrick Ciamacco and his merry band of performers draw in sold out houses producing off-beat musicals (e.g., “The Wild Party,” “Silence,” “Triassic Parq” and “Reefer Madness “), folded into such classics as “Our Town” and “Of Mice and Men.” The theatre often garners Cleveland Critics Circle and BroadwayWorld-Cleveland awards for excellence.

“Sweeney Todd” is yet another one of those winners.  

Director Jonathan Kronenberger has used every inch of space to keep the well-paced and intense drama moving along to its blood-drenched conclusion. 

Patrick Ciamacco’s scene design works well to enhance the action.  The vocal sounds and music, under the guidance of Matthew Dolan, are well conceived.

Ciamacco, with his strong singing voice and well-textured acting, makes Todd both grief-driven and revengeful.   “Pretty Woman,” a duet with Brian Altman (Turpin) was nicely sung.

Though he lacks the macho leading man presence, Robert Kowalewski is appealing as Anthony Hope.  His rendition of “Johanna” is masterful. 

Trinidad Snider delights as Mrs. Lovett.  Her “Not While I’m Around,” sung with Devin Pfeiffer (Tobias), is emotionally draining, while “A Little Priest” is laugh-inducing.

Lovely Meg Martiniez (Johanna) has a fine singing voice.  The rest of the cast is excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Sweeney Todd” gets a strong and meaningful performance and should please even the most critical of Sondheim aficionados.
“Sweeney Todd” runs through March 10, 2018, in the Blank Canvas west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.   For tickets and directions go to http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com/

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Unnerving, compelling “The Invisible Hand” at Cleveland Play House

Several years ago, when I saw the Broadway production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Disgraced,” I was totally impressed by the creative plot, the quality writing, and how relevant the subject matter was of modern day issues surrounding Islam. 

When I returned home I sent messages to several local theatres encouraging them to produce the play when it became available for staging. 

The Cleveland Play House didn’t grant me my wish, but it is staging Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand,” an equally unnerving and compelling script.

Akhtar is the son of Pakistani immigrants.  He was brought up in the 1980s in suburban Milwaukee, as one of the only Muslim families in the area. 

The award winning playwright has been compared to Shaw, Brecht, and Miller for his ability to write compelling dialogue and attack contemporary issues.

“The Invisible Hand” centers on American futures trader, Nick Bright, who has been captured in Pakistan when local terrorists mistake him for his boss who the captors think would be worth up to ten million dollars. 

Nick, in order to secure his release, offers to teach Bashir, his captor, and his Imam, who supposedly are trying to affect positive change for the local citizens and to manipulate the futures market in order to raise money.

As the tension increases, questions of position, loyalty and honesty emerge, finally culminating in a dramatic conclusion.

The play, which probes the philosophy of capitalism, Islamic fanaticism, the greed of those who purport to be at the “honor” end of the ideological spectrum, opened to widely positive reviews in all of its productions.

The title centers on the economic theory that “He who controls the currency controls the “power;” thus, the unknown controller is the “invisible hand.”

The Cleveland Play House production is blessed with an outstanding cast.  Max Woertendyke is totally believable as Max, the American captive.  His actions and reactions help create an air of realism which leads to strong empathy.  We emotionally cheer for him to be released safely and not become a television image of yet another beheaded captor.

Louis Sallan portrays the role of Bashir with the right level of emotional on-the-edge terrorist, but his English accent is so heavy that he is often difficult to understand.

J. Paul Nicholas captures the right edge as Imam Saleem.  Nik Sadhnani is effective as Dar, a guard.

Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh creatively develops the tension and perfectly paces the action, building the tension.  That anxiety is strongly accented by sound designer Daniel Perelstein’s intense sound and music, which, between each scene, jars the audience into the feeling of being captured behind slamming, confining jail doors. 

One must wonder why Yousefzadeh and scenic designer Mikiko Suzuki Macadams decided to set the play in a runway configuration, with the audience on both sides of the stage.  Yes, being close to the action intensifies the audience’s emotional involvement, but the long set made the cell appear to be huge, rather than the needed feeling of insufferable confinement, and the large space creates echoes, which blunted the sharpness of the speech and caused periods of dialogue lapses.   Also, being able to see people reacting in the opposite audience was distracting, often breaking the mood.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: In spite of some technical issues, “The Invisible Hand” is an unnerving and compelling production at CPH.  The tale of how the economy works and can be manipulated, as well as placing the spotlight on Islamic terrorism, makes this a vital contemporary play.  The cast is outstanding and the pace and tone are tension-inducing.  This is a production which is required seeing by anyone interested in fine acting and the reality of the world around us.

“The Invisible Hand” runs through March 11, 2018, at the Outcalt Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Next up at CPH: Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July,” as performed by the CWRU/CPH MFA students (March 28-July 7), followed by “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (April 14-May 6).

Monday, February 19, 2018

He’s Back…Andrew May returns in a shocker at GLT

When Great Lakes Theater Festival announced in June, 2009, that it’s Associate Artistic Director, Andrew May, was no longer going to be part of the company, many CLE theatre-goers were shocked. 

Yes, our Andrew May, who had been an artistic associate at Cleveland Play House, and starred in 40 productions, before moving down Euclid Avenue to be part of GLTF.  The multi-talented Andrew May, who played farce, comedy, drama and tragedy with equal skill.

May had no choice but to flee.  The divorced father of two teenagers needed a gig that payed a regular salary.  CLE had only two professional theatres at the time and he couldn’t make enough free-lancing to remain.  In addition, as May said in an interview, “I think it might be about time to take the next step in my career.  He continued, "It's a gamble to just suck it up and do it, move to New York or Los Angeles, but this whole stupid career is a gamble."

So, gamble he did.

He went out into the big wide scary world and achieved.  Maybe not to the degree he wanted.  He never became the leading Hollywood actor or a household name on Broadway, but he had a leading role in the touring production of the award-winning WAR HORSE, which, ironically, had a run in Cleveland. 

His film and television credits included "Big Love" for HBO, "Duet" and "227" for FOX, “Striking Distance,” Columbia Pictures, and "Shades of Gray" and "The Babe Ruth Story," both for NBC.  He received the Joseph Jefferson Citation in Chicago for his portrayal of William Shakespeare in "A Cry of Players."

But fortunately for locals, May has decided to return and is now starring in GLT’s “Misery.”  He will also will be in “Macbeth” in March, and word is out that he will also be around for the fall repertoire productions later this year. 

For the sake of his many fans, it is hoped that he will again become a regular on local stages.

As for “Misery,” it’s a psychological horror thriller based on Stephen King’s 1988 novel, which was made into a 1990 film credited with being one of the most recognized “scare” flicks of all time, and for which Kathy Bates won an Academy Award as best actress.

The book was also made into a London performed play and a “feel bad” musical.

The American stage production, by William Goldman, was performed in New York in 2015 as a limited run production.  It starred Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf and ran about four months.  Metcalf was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, while Willis’s performance was termed by one Big Apple critic, as being “vacant.”

The story centers on Paul Sheldon, a noted writer of Victorian-era romance novels involving Misery Chastain. 

Sheldon, a man of habit, always finished his novels at a quaint, out-of-the-way inn in Colorado, smoking one cigarette and having a glass of Dom Perignon.

Unfortunately for Sheldon, he decides to take a drive, runs into a snow storm, loses control of his car and winds up in an off-the road crash.  He is “saved” by Annie Wilkes, a local who is the writer’s “number one fan.” 

One can only wonder if Wilkes forced him off the road so she could claim him to be her own, or whether it was an accident.

Whatever, Annie, a former nurse, pries open the car door, brings Sheldon back to her isolated home, sets his broken legs, plies him with pain killers, nurses him back to health and makes him a captive. 

When Annie finds out that Sheldon has killed off Misery Chastain, Annie’s favorite character in the just released book, she goes ballistic, demanding that he write a follow-up and bring Misery back to life. 

In the process of his confinement Sheldon realizes that psychotic Annie has no intention of letting him go.

What follows, which includes the famous crippling of Sheldon by a sludge-hammer wielding Annie, is an exciting ending which leaves the audience unnerved.

The acting quality of the GLT production, under the direction of Charles Fee, is outstanding.  Kathleen Pirkl Tague is deranged-perfect as the Annie.  You would not want to find yourself in a dark alley with Tague.  She is one crazy, scary, nut-case.  In other words, Tague is terrific!!

Nick Steen is believable as Buster, the local sheriff, who pays dearly for being too inquisitive.

It’s wonderful to see Andrew May on a local stage.  He is totally believable as the hobbled, pain-ridden Paul Sheldon.  He nicely textures the performance, even getting a few painful laughs in the process.  Welcome home Andrew!

The staging itself has some production issues.  Gage Williams’ set well fits the visual requirements of the story, but it creates practical issues.  One wonders how Sheldon manages to move from the upper to the lower level and visa-versa in a wheel chair.  Also, since we are told over and over about the vast amount of snow, the outside area of the house is void of any of the white stuff during the entire show.  As for the sound and lights…the sound of thunder is aptly terrifying, but lightning and thunder during a snowstorm?  The sound of the cars’ arrivals and exits are not consistent.  Then there is the questionable trajectory of the blood following the gun shot.

Capsule judgement:  In spite of some technical issues, “Misery” is well worth seeing!  The acting is of the highest level and it’s nice to see Andrew May on a CLE stage once again.
“Misery” runs through March 11, 2018 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org