Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Superb “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” jazzes up Beck Center

Having seen Audra McDonald’s Tony Award winning Broadway performance of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” I went to see the Beck production of the show with trepidation.

I should have feared not.  As it turns out Nicole Sumlin, in the lead role, and Ed Ridley portraying Jimmy Powers, Holiday’s musical director and jazz pianist-extraordinare, were more than up to the challenge.

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is a jukebox bio-musical by Lanie Robertson which loosely recounts some of the life of Billie Holliday, an American jazz singer whose career as the first-lady-of-jazz spanned over thirty years.

Known for her seminal influence on jazz and pop singing, as well as her manipulation of phrasing, tempo and improvisational skills, the talented Eleanora Fagan, better known as Billie Holliday, had little formal music education and training.

The child of unwed teenagers, she had a turbulent childhood and became a hit at Harlem nightclubs and brothels at an early age.

Her life and career were marked with many unwise love affairs, brush-ups with the law, which included jail and prison sentences, and singing with Count Basie.  Basie once said, of Holliday’s tenacity, "When she rehearsed with the band, it was really just a matter of getting her tunes like she wanted them, because she knew how she wanted to sound and you couldn't tell her what to do.”

Her life was also filled with incidents in which she found herself at odds with the “white’s only” policy of many nightclubs, business, hotels, hospitals and restaurants. 

Holiday is noted for many songs but her two biggest hits were “God Bless the Child,” which she supposedly wrote as a tribute to her mother, and “Don’t Explain,” written after she caught her husband, Jimmy Monroe, with lipstick on his collar.

She appeared in a number of films including  ”New Orleans,” which also featured Woody Herman and Louis Armstrong.

Drug usage and alcohol consumption paid their toll.  In 1947 she was arrested in her New York apartment for possession of narcotics and was sent to Alderson Federal Prison in West Virginia.

Unfortunately, after her release, in-spite of a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert attended by over 2700 fans and a musical entitled “Holiday on Broadway,” which ran three weeks, she was again arrested on drug charges.

Thus we find ourselves in Emerson’s Bar and Grill, her favorite Philadelphia haunt, obviously drunk, singing and recounting the highs and lows of her life.

This is a withered Holiday, the lows of her life having taken over, in what was probably going to be one of her last performances.

The Beck production is compelling.  Nicole Sumlin is spot on as Holiday.   The signature phrasing, the flow of ideas filled with hurt, the sultry jazz sound, are all present.  Sumlin has put on the Holiday aura and wears it with fidelity throughout. 

She is brilliantly supported by Ed Ridley, the master of the keyboard, who also portrays the role of Jimmy Powers, Bradford McGhee, a very talented bass player, and Leonard Goff, as the Emerson’s bartender.

Cameron Michalek’s simple set, a small stage surrounded by tables, Trad Burns’ lighting and Carlton Gur and Angie Hayes’ sound designs all enhanced the production.  Scott Spence directs.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Nicole Sumlin is superb as Billie Holiday, Ed Ridley plays one mean piano and Bradford McGhee plucks a happy tune.  The result is a special evening of musical theater!  This is an absolutely must see!
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through April 14, 2019.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org  

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Thought provoking “The Nether,” at Dobama

In this era, confusion and uncertainty are the present trend in many cutting-edge plays by a new breed of playwrights that Dobama is using as its writing stable.

Following this trend, the theater’s play selections have landed on the side of intellectual thought-provoking scripts that often leave the audience confounded and with few answers to the many questions asked by the playwrights. 

“The Nether” is another one of those scripts. 

As can be expected, the directing, technical aspects and acting are top-notch.

The audience is confronted with a sci-fi “crime” drama written by American playwright Jennifer Haley.  Haley is noted for delving into the ethics of virtual reality and the impact of technology on our human relationships and identity. 

The time is “soon” and the setting jumps from an interrogation room to the “Hideaway.”

“The internet has evolved into the Nether, a vast network of virtual reality realms. Users may log in, choose an identity, and indulge any desire. When Detective Morris investigates a realm called The Hideaway where pedophiles may live out their fantasies involving children, she brings its creator in for interrogation. They discover they have made emotional attachments in his realm that blind them to the greater questions of ethical behavior, both in the imagination and the outside world.”

Recent psychological studies have raised the question of whether being able to “act out” needs and fantasies, through game playing and simulations, relieves a person from performing deeds and actions in reality. 

Is the need to act sexually through rape and sexual imposition reduced by having vicariously watched pornography reduce the need for actual sex and control? 

Does having killed and maimed via the play of X-box games taken away the desire to actually pick up a gun and shoot a real person? 

Or, as proposed in “The Nether,” does the ability to role play pedophilia suppress the desire to really perform the act? 

Or, as Nathan Motta the Artistic Director of Dobama asks in his program notes, “What happens when we are able to completely immerse ourselves in a world without consequences?  Is it accurate to say that there are no consequences in a virtual world?” 

Shannon Sindelar’s direction of “The Nether” is flawless, as is the performance of Matthew Wright as Sims/Papa, the facilitator into the pedophilia-world of the Nether.  Wright creates a clear character, who justifies his not acting on his child-centered desires, by being above the philosophical fray by participating in a make-believe world.  His is both an illuminating and psychologically chilling character portrayal.

Young Calista Zajac as Iris, a child avatar, whose purpose is to welcome and satisfy the “guests” in Papa’s Nether Hideway, proves herself to be one of the few child actresses in the area, capable of being an equal of the professionals with whom she is surrounded.  Hers is an amazing performance.

Equally excellent are the character developments of Sarah Durn as the investigator who is trying to ascertain the value or harm of the Hideway, and Joe Pine and David Peacock as participants in the on-line experience.

T. Paul Lowry’s projections, displayed within Patrick Rizzotti’s set design, add to the smooth transition from scene to scene.

Side comment:  It is interesting to note that following the staging I saw, a number of audience members, knowing I was a reviewer, asked, “what is all this about?” That can be a positive evaluation of the play as it shows that it inspired the viewers to think, or it can be perplexing in that the intent and purpose of the author wasn’t clear. Hmm.

Capsule judgement: “The Nether” is a thought-provoking, disturbing script which gets a fine production.  It is not for those who go to the theater to escape from the real world, but for those who wish to probe into ideas and are willing to look for the consequences of the decisions we make, whether they be in real life or a fantasy world. 

“The Nether” runs through March 31, 2019 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama:  Melissa James Gibson’s “THIS” an un-romantic comedy which captures the uncertain steps of a circle of friends backing their way into middle age, staged
from April 26 through May 26, 2019.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Enjoyable touring “School of Rock The Musical” at the Connor Palace

What happens when a musical film earns over $131-million on a $35-million-dollar investment?  If you are Andrew Lloyd Webber, you buy the rights and turn it into the musical SCHOOL OF ROCK with lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Julian Fellowes.  

What happens when you take a bunch of adorably geeky fifth-graders who are singing, dancing and musical instrument playing phenomes, and add to the mix the rock musical sounds of Andrew Lloyd Webber?  It becomes SCHOOL OF ROCK, THE MUSICAL. 

In contrast to his usual scheme of things, Britain’s Webber opened the show in New York rather than in London.  Why?  Child labor laws are more relaxed in the United States than in England.  In addition, the subject matter better fit Broadway than London’s West End.  But, most importantly, the American schools “produce the sort of kids required to actually perform the show.” 

The capsule judgement of my Broadway review of “School of Rock” stated that it “is a fun-filled show with a nice moral base.  The music rocks.  The cast entertains.  It’s the kind of show that audiences love, will do well as it tours the country, and should have a long Broadway life!”

It did have a long Broadway life.  It made its Broadway debut and world premiere on December 6, 2015 and ran through January 20, 2019. The tour opened on September 30, 2017 in Rochester, New York, and is now making a three-week stop at the Connor Palace.

So, what’s it all about?  As was the film, the plot centers on rock singer/guitarist Dewey Finn. There is, however, a lot more emphasis on the kids and their parents than in the flick, which was basically a vehicle for comedian Jack Black.

The musical starts with a performance by the No Vacancy band.  Finn, who has an A.D.D. personality, has difficulty pulling back his exuberance and keeps upstaging the lead performer.  Enough is enough, and he is kicked out of the group.

With no income, he moves in with and mooches off Ned, his long-time easily manipulated college band-buddy, much to the irritation of Patty, Ned’s domineering girlfriend.  

When a call comes for Ned to substitute at Horace Green, a prestigious prep school, Dewey sees a chance for some much needed money by posing as Ned. 

Despite the initial doubts of Rosalie, the uptight principal, he gets the gig.

The kids are wary of him, especially the uber-organized brainiac, Summer.  

He has to confront the problems of Tomika, the extremely shy daughter of gay men, who turns out to be a superstar singer; Zack, the son of an uptight businessman who doesn’t realize his son is a musical prodigy; Lawrence, who has no confidence, but is a keyboard wizard; Freddy, who everyone thinks is intellectually slow, but once he gets a pair of drum sticks in his hand, he shows how talented he really is; Billy, who is flamboyant, has an interest in fashion design, but is not appreciated by his macho father.  

Each of the other kids has untapped talent which the creative Dewey brings out through non-traditional means.

Dewey decides to enter them in the Battle of the Bands. They get to the tryouts after sneaking out of school, but they are too late to play.  Summer tells the casting director that all the children have “stickittothemanis,” (a made-up “disease”), pleads for some mercy, and the heartbroken manager lets the kids perform.  Of course, they get into the competition.

What follows is a series of manipulations, implausible coincidences, and some out and out stretching of dramatic license.  The result?  Farce and hysteria run wild and the audience has one heck of a good time.

Do they win the Battle of the Bands? 

That’s not important.  What is significant, is that Dewey and the kids find love and self-respect.

The musical score, though it includes iconic songs from the film, adds many well-crafted additional theatrical melodies.  Among the show stoppers are, “You’re in the Band,” “Stick it to the Man,” “In the End of Time,” “Math is a Wonderful Time,” and “School of Rock.”  Throw in “If Only You Would Listen” and “Time to Play,” and you have the makings of a very good score.

The cast is generally excellent. 

Though he is properly hyper and often compelling, Gary Trainor, who played Dewey on press night (he alternates with Merritt David Janes), lacked the needed spontaneity.  His actions seemed preplanned and lacked authenticity.

Layne Roate nicely creates an awkward, hen-pecked Ned, yearning to put on skin-tight banger-leather pants and let loose.  

Most of the kids are excellent.  Camille De La Cruz stopped the show with her wailing rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Special credos to Cameron Trueblood, Mystic Inscho, and Julian Brescia. 

Unfortunately, one of the lead lasses kept breaking character, looking at the audience, upstaging others.  Normally this could be over-looked, but this is a professional production and these kids are getting equity pay.  

Director Laurence Connor has molded together a cast of kids and adults, created the right attitude for the farcical staging, and hit the right emotional notes.  The choreography is creative.  John Rigby, the music supervisor, nicely incorporated the kids on-stage musical performances with the pit orchestra.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  I didn’t find the touring production to be as dynamic as the Broadway show, but few patrons are going to leave not entertained. Come on, the stage is filled with talented kids, loaded with shticks and gimmicks, a dynamic score enfolded in an easily follow feel-good story.  What’s not to like?

“School of Rock” runs through March 24, 2017 as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series.  To purchase tickets, call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

SPIDER WOMAN weaves intriguing web @ Blank Canvas

Musicals come in different forms.  Musical comedies, such as “Cinderella” and “School of Rock” intend to entertain.  Musical dramas--think “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Come From Away,” and “Hamilton,” relay thoughtful ideas in words, song and dance. The musical tragedy, such as “Sweeney Todd” and “The Kiss Of The Spider Woman,” which is now on stage at Blank Canvas, finds a “victim” in a society which doesn’t understand or appreciate them, resulting in dire consequences.

“Kiss of the Spider Woman,” with music by Oberlin grad, John Kander, and his writing partner, Fred Ebb, the conceivers of “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” is based on Manuel Puig’s novel “El Beso de la Mujer Araña.”  The musical won the 1993 Tony Award for Best Musical.

In “Spider Woman,” Luis Alberto Molina, an Argentinian, has been sentenced to an eight-year jail term for corrupting a minor.  The fey homosexual former window dresser, who has a mother fixation, lives in a fantasy world as a means of escaping the horrors of prison.  His obsession is movies which featured Aurora, a sultry diva, who starred in bigger-than life telenovela soap-opera films of high emotion.  

In one of her movies, Aurora, as a spider woman, kills her lovers with the kiss of death.

Molina has learned to live with the taunting and sexual impositions of the prison guards, but one day his world is rocked when a new prisoner, Valentin, a handsome Marxist political revolutionary, is cast into his cell.

Valentine, who has been severely tortured, is nurtured back to health by Molina.  In order to block out the cries of other tortured prisoners, Molina talks non-stop.  He shares his history, his love of movies, his obsession for Aurora. 

At first the duo clashes. Valentin draws an imaginary line down the middle of the cell with an understanding that Molina will stay on his own side.   Eventually, however, Molina starts to win over Valentin with his story telling and humorous charm. 

Valentine is again severely tortured.

Molina again nurses him back to health.  In a show of faith, Valentin shares information about his personal life and his revolutionary activities.

In an attempt to get Molina to relate the vital information the warden offers to free him so he can go home to his “ill” mother.

The relationship between the cellmates deepens. Molina is forced to make a decision of whether or not to share the evidence that Valentin has secretly shared, while the “kiss of the Spiderwoman” hangs over the lives of the men.

“Kiss of the Spider Woman” is a difficult musical to produce.  It requires two exceptional actors to create the roles of Molina and Valentin. Director Patrick Ciamacco was fortunate enough to find the perfect duo.  

Scott Esposito develops a Molina who gives just the right level of fey, while not going over-the-top.  He is real, accessible, allowing the audience to feel his emotional pain.  He has a fine singing voice, which is beautifully showcased in “She’s a Woman” and “Mama, It’s Me.”  “Only in the Movies” is a showstopper.  His is an exceptional performance.

Michael Snider creates a well-textured macho, yet sensitive, Valentin.  His developing affection toward Molina unfolds in a shroud of reality.  The duo’s affection has an air of authenticity.  His strong vocal talents are showcased in “Over the Wall III” and “The Day After That.”  “Anything for Him,” sung with Esposito and Rachel Maria Ines (Spider Woman/Aurora) was powerful.  The emotional arching between Snider and Esposito was extremely believable, a necessity for the “realness” of the story development.

The male chorus sings exceptionally well.  Their “Morphine Tango” was engaging.  The men’s dancing generally has an air of clumsiness and lack of spontaneity which adds to their macho, rather than chorus boy image.

Rachel Maria Ines does not have the stage dynamics needed for Spider Woman/Aurora.  Though she sings well, and her aerial work is intriguing, she fails to spotlight the firepower to be the subject of Molina’s obsession.

Musical director, Bradley Wyner, needs to rethink some of his musical choices.  Often, such as in “The Day After That,” the singers had to fight with the music to be heard.  In general, the heavy handed keyboard pounding was over-the-top.  The purpose of the music is to support the singers, not drown them out.

Patrick Ciamacco’s metal spider-webbed design is functional and works well to keep the action moving along, as does his precise and nicely-conceived stage movements.

Jenniver Sparano’s costume designs, especially as they relate to Spider Woman/Aurora helps develop the image of the character.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is a haunting musical drama which generally gets a fine performance. The stellar performances by Scott Esposito and Michael Snider is a master class in musical theater performance.  It is a production very well worth seeing!

“Kiss of the Spider Woman” runs through March 16, 2019 at Blank Canvas, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.   For tickets and directions go to http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com//

Next up at Blank Canvas is “Art” an examination of the world of art and the resulting conflict between three “friends” who are forced to ask question of not only the nature of painting, but the purpose of friendship.  (April 5-20, 2019)

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Plot twisting “Witness for The Prosecution” compels at Great Lakes Theater

Agatha Christie, the “Queen of Crime,” was a British writer of murder mysteries, noted for creating plays, books and short stories.  They not only contained intriguing plot twists, which centered on scandalous murders, elaborate twists and turns, but revealed basic “truths” that are not what they seem.

Her “The Witness for the Prosecution,” now in production at Great Lakes Theater, is a typical intriguing Christie script.  In this work, however, instead of a death or deaths taking place on stage and a search taking place for “who did it,” the murder has already occurred, and the police have already arrested a solid suspect.”

Prosecution” was originally published as a short story, and later, after supposedly laying in a drawer with other manuscripts for years, was transformed into a play.

A review of the initial production stated, “The author has two ends in view, and she attains them both.  She takes us into the Old Bailey during an exciting trial for murder, into chambers where the human reactions of the lawyers engaged in the case may be studied; and when the trial is over and there seems no more to be said, she swiftly ravels again the skein which the law has confidently unraveled, and leaves herself with a denouement which is at once surprising and credible."

The tale begins with a conversation between Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Q.C., a lawyer, and Leonard Vole, a handsome young man who is accused of the murder of Miss Emily French, an elderly, wealthy, woman who Vole recently befriended.

The young man seems honest to the core.  He states he is innocent, but is soon arrested by the police.  

The quickly evolving plot is pushed along when Robarts takes the case. 

The majority of the rest of play, with the exception of one pivotal scene, takes place in the courtroom where the details of the murder, Vole’s relationship with his “wife,” and what really happened, unfolds.

Christie creatively leads us down one path, changes directions, throws other possibilities out, and then, as good writers of mysteries do, taunts us once more.  In the end, a sudden twist, or in this case, several plot turns, leaves not only no doubt of “who did it,” but exhausted from the chase.

The Great Lakes production, under the solid direction of Artistic Director Charles Fee, quickly grabs and holds attention.  The drama, humor and clever plot construction are finely tuned.

Gage Williams’ meticulously constructed court room set, with the jury stage right and the visitor’s gallery stage left, the judge presiding over the hearing, stage center, creates a perfect setting. 

Rick Martin’s lighting effects help transfer us out of the courtroom for several scenes.  Esther M. Haberlen’s period-correct costumes aid in creating the needed reality and point to the personalities of the characters. 

The acting is all top-notch.  Aled Davies nicely creates Robarts as a strong, dedicated lawyer.  Taha Mandviwala plays naïve well as the accused Leonard.  Jodi Dominick’s Romaine Vole, Leonard’s “wife,” is chillingly iceberg-cold and manipulative.  David Anthony Smith is delightful as the judge, Mr. Justice Wainwright.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: With fine acting, clear directing, impressive technical aspects, and encompassing writing, “Witness for the Prosecution” makes for a wonderful theatrical experience. Go.  See.  Enjoy!

The show runs through March 10, 2019 in the Hanna Theatre.  Tickets can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to http://www.greatlakestheater.org/

Next up at GLT: “The Taming of the Shrew,” Shakespeare’s fun-filled battle of the sexes from March 29 through April 14.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Shaw Festival’s 2019 season

It’s still cold and snowing, especially in the eastern provinces of our neighbors to the north, but things are heating up in Niagara-on-the-Lake, home of Canada’s Shaw Festival.  It’s getting closer to “curtain up, light the lights at Shaw Festival 19.

Many Clevelanders take the four-hour drive up to “The Shaw,” as it is called by locals, just to participate in theater.  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.  Other go to shoot-the-rapids on the Niagara River.  Some go for a round or two of golf.  Whatever, The Shaw is a wonderful spring, summer or fall adventure.


It’s a good idea to make both theater and lodging reservations early, especially 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, where Karen, and her fabulous breakfasts and immaculate rooms, holds forth. 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 says, of the varied play choices in this, his third season as The Shaw’s Artistic Director, “I could afford to be bold in my [play] choices, because of the incredible Ensemble there.”

The season, which opens on April 6 and runs through December 22, has audiences experiencing musicals, passion, crime, laughter, pure escapism, and romance. 

Here are his 2019 theater offerings:

THE HORSE AND HIS BOY—C. S. Lewis’s family friendly tale of four runaways—a boy, a girl and their horses, who are called upon to rescue Narnia.  (Recommendation:  Strongly consider a pre-show workshop that is filled with an exposition of the magic that happens on the stage.  A great fun and educational delight for adults and children.  April 6-July 21.

BRIGADOON—Lerner and Loewe’s charming musical, which contains such songs as “Almost Like Being in Love” and “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” asks, “What would you give up for love?”  May 5-October 13.

THE LADYKILLERS—Based on the beloved Alex Guinness film, this comedy is set in post-World War II London where five oddball crooks find out how hard it is to kill a little old lady who is getting in the way of their heist.  June 11-October 12.

MAN AND SUPERMAN WITH DON JUAN IN HELL—G.B. Shaw’s script which states, “There are two tragedies in life.  One is not to get your heart’s desire.  The other is to get it.”  Only 17 performances.  August 27-October 5.

ROPE—A gripping psychological thriller about two friends who commit a murder and host a party for the victim’s friends with his hidden body as the center piece.  April 12-October 12.

GETTING MARRIED—Shaw’s witty comedy which claims, “Married people should take holidays from one another if they are to keep at all fresh.” May 10-October 13.

THE RUSSIAN PLAY (lunchtime one-act)—A small-town flower girl falls for a gravedigger in Stalinist Russia.  What can go wrong?  About everything! (mature content) June 8-October 12.

CYRANO de BERGERAC—The tale of Rostand’s swashbuckling 17 th century swordsman who can do anything—except tell the woman he loves, how he feels.  July 27-October 20

THE GLASS MENAGERIE—Tennessee Williams’ classic autobiographical play which asks if we can ever truly escape the life we have been given.  May 22-October 12.

SEX—Margy LaMont, a quick-witted prostitute in Roaring Twenties Montreal, is looking for a better life.   This comedy drama got its author locked up for “corrupting the morals of youth.”  June 21-October 13.

VICTORY—A controversial play set in the aftermath of Charles II’s Restoration on the thrown of England.  The play may enrage you, but it won’t leave you!  (Warning: “VICTORY is deliberately offensive.  It is not for the squeamish as it contains very strong language.”)  July 14-October 12.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL—Ebenezer Scrooge is back. ”Bah, humbug!”   November 13-December 22.

IRVING BERLIN’S HOLIDAY INN—Fun loving, tap-dancing, romantic comedy with such classic songs as “Cheek to Cheek,” “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.”  November 16-December 22.

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.

The Shaw’s social consciousness is clearly stated in their statement: “We acknowledge and honour the land upon which we gather as the historic and traditional territory of First Nations peoples.  In particular we recognize and thank the Neutral Nation, the Mississauga and the Haudenosaunee for their stewardship of these lands over the millennia.  

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 US.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Seeing BW/Beck’s wonderful “Once,” once, is not enough

“On Stage” recently announced that Baldwin Wallace University's Music Theatre program has risen to number one calling it "a top destination for any student wanting to study musical theatre."

The honor is no wonder as around twenty of Victoria Bussert’s thespians have graced Broadway for each the last several years.  This, along with all those who are staring in professional productions, such as Great Lakes Theater, Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival have brought much attention and prestige.

If you need personal proof, and you haven’t seen productions by the collegiate group at BWU or Play House Square, get over to Beck Center, where the students are appearing in “Once,” the Edna Walsh (book), Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová (music and lyrics) Tony Award winning musical, based on John Carney’s 2006 film of the same name. 

As “Once” starts, Guy, a busker, is singing a ballad of unrequited love.  He is in despair over the loss of the-love-of-his-life who left him and went to America. 

Girl is watching, listening, and approaches him.  Posing personal questions, she finds out that he is giving up music because singing songs of love is just too difficult.  

Seem like an extreme reaction?  Not if you remember that the Irish are noted for their strong display of emotions, the acting out of their angst, and the expression of those feelings in songs, poetry and staged drama.

Of course, the two develop an emotional relationship, but are confronted with the barrier that Girl is married to a man who has left her and their daughter, but may return.  Over the period of one week, the duo, with the help of various friends, creates a CD of raw, emotional, music. 

A vacuum cleaner, a piano, a recording studio, hope, laughter and Irish angst all play into the tale.  The expected happy ending may or may not take place, depending on how you interpret the touching final scene.

Jordan Janota’s minimalistic set is transformed into various places by adding a few tables and chairs and some strategic lighting. 

Though the songs are often dynamic, there is no rock and roll, no hip hop, nor show stoppers, leading to a laid-back feeling, not often found in musicals. 

The cast members are four-level performers who act, sing, dance and play instruments.  They present the depressing “Leave,” the pretty and plaintive “Falling Slowly,” the beautiful “Gold,” and the dance-inducing “North Strand.”  There’s nothing here that will make the hit parade of great songs.  It’s mainly emotional Irish “woe-is-me-music.”

This is the kind of script that BW’s Music Theatre Director, Victoria Bussert, does so well.  It is full of pathos, needs creative staging and a firm understanding of the subtle, as well as the importance of blended dancing, good vocals, strong acting and a comfortable pacing.  Bussert and her BW “cherubs” make it a “wee “grand experience. 

The choreography, which is well-performed staged movement, is nicely designed by Gregory Daniels.  The vocal blends and musical sounds are impressively conceived by Matthew Webb.

The entire cast impresses with their musical performances, proficient singing and clear characterizations.

Kelsey Brown is Broadway ready!  Her nicely textured creation of Girl grabs and holds the audience.  She has a good take on subtle comedy.  Her singing voice and acting talents are well-honed.  Her Czech dialect, developed under the coaching of Matthew Koenig, was clear, crisp and easy to understand.  Her piano playing added a special dimension to her performance.

Jake Slater grows nicely into the role of Guy as he transforms from depressed, even by Irish standards, to having a positive outlet for life.  He has a nice singing voice and displays good guitar skills.

The rest of the strong ensemble cast was impressive, displaying clear Irish dialects, thanks to Brennan Murphy’s guidance, and excellent singing blends and solos.  Their character development and playing of instruments impresses. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   The Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace Music Theatre Program production of “Once,” is vibrant, and has talent overload.  This production rivals the Broadway staging and is much superior to the touring show which was part of the Key Bank Series.  It’s the kind of production that you might be tempted to go back and see again!  Go. You will enjoy!
“Once” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through February 24.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org  

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Farcical “Robin Hood” delights at Cleveland Play House

Ken Ludwig's first Broadway play, “Lend Me a Tenor,” has been called "one of the two great farces by a living writer.”   It won three Tony Awards.  He has gone on to win another other Tony Award, two Helen Hayes Awards and the Edward Award.  It is no wonder, therefore, that plays by the "the purveyor of light comedy has been performed by almost every regional theatre in America.”

Ludwig’s major works include “Leading Ladies,” “Moon Over Buffalo,” “The Game’s Afoot,” “Baskerville, The Sherlock Holmes Mystery” and “A Comedy of Tenors.”  His musicals include “Crazy for You” and “An American in Paris.”  Many of these have been seen on CLE stages.

Ken Ludwig’s “Sherwood the Adventures of Robin Hood “is a romp full of swashbuckling and romance, and it’s also a moving tale of a young man’s discovery that everyone has a responsibility to care for his fellow man." 

Of course the script, which is set in Sherwood Forest and the town of Nottingham, England, around 1194, is peopled by Greedy Prince John (Price Waldman) and his bad henchmen-- Sir Guy of Gisbourne, The Sheriff of Nottingham, and the good guys-- the dashing “outlaw” Robin Hood, the band of Merry Men (and women) the lovely Maid Marian, Friar Tuck. Little John, Deorwynn (Andrea Goss) and King Richard the Lionheart. 

Knowing a little about England in the twelfth century helps to understand the conflicts that evolve.  A quick picture shows that “English society is a feudalist one with a king and royal family at the top, countless peasants and serfs at the bottom and knights and nobles in between.”

About a hundred years before this tale enfolds, William the Conqueror, a Norman descendent of the Vikings, earned his title by conquering England. His success set up an on-going battle between the Normans and Saxons.  (An excellent abbreviated explanation is contained in the CPH program that is well-worth reading before the play.)

As is the case with Ludwig’s other plays, farce and slapstick runs wild.  Add sword fights and arrows flying around the stage, direct involvement of the audience, and lots of chaos, and you have the possibility of delight.

To make farce work, a creative director and a disciplined cast is needed.  Having an inventive set designer also helps.

Fortunately for the audience, CPH has all the necessary requirements.

Director Adam Immerwahr, has a long resume of directing shows that are “wildly funny and full of heart.”  His local directing includes well-reviewed productions of “The Games Afoot (Or Holmes for the Holidays),” “A Comedy of Errors,” and “Baskerville; A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.”

Immerwahr pulls out all the stops for “Sherwood.”  Shticks, gimmicks and slapstick abound.  Swords clang, actors fly around stage with abandonment, sexual innuendoes erupt, ramparts are attacked, actors fall off buildings and are pummeled with glee. It’s all in good fun.  Farce at its very best.

Misha Kachman’s impressive set, complete with a massive tree, platforms, and a revolving center stage which is cleverly used for moving set pieces, fight sequences and acting stunts, becomes as much a performer as a visual delight.

 J. Allen Suddeth’s choreographed fight scenes are obviously staged, but delight with their well-executed movements.  The sequences often not only evoke laughter, but prolonged applause.

The cast is universally strong.  The good guys are pure and innocent, and the bad guys are evil to the core.  The audience got into the mood of the piece by cheering on our heroes and booing the evil-doers.

Handsome Zack Powell is Robin Hood, swashbucklingly perfect, displaying an impish quality that made the character endearing.  

Amy Blackman as his lady love, Maid Marian, nicely textures her acting and shows masterful physical moves as the “#Times Up” modern woman before her generation. 

As Little John, the physically imposing Jonah D. Winston got laughs on his entrance and got more and more guffaws as the show developed.  Our “narrator,” Doug Hara’s Friar Tuck, led the audience on a delightful journey. 

Josh Innerst is so successful in developing Sir Guy of Gisbourne as a bad guy that he got well-deserved “boos” on his curtain call entrance.  And Steven Rattazzi is delightfully pseudo-evil as The Sheriff of Nottingham.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Sherwood” is for those who love to laugh at the ridiculous and see a well-written farce performed at the highest level.  The staging, the acting, the technical aspects are superb.  Go…laugh…escape from the ridiculousness of what’s going on in this country and the world, and have a good time!!!

“Ken Ludwig’s Sherwood the Adventures of Robin Hood” runs through February 24, 2019 at Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Next up at CPH:  March 23-April 14, 2019) “Tiny Houses,” a world premiere comedy in which a couple builds a 200-square foot tiny house to create a “simpler” life.  (Outcalt Theatre)

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Lakeland Civic Theatre’s “Freaky Friday” is missing the freaky!

“Freaky Friday” is a musical based on the 1972 book by Mary Rodgers.  Yes, the daughter of Richard Rodgers, composer of such classic musicals as “Oklahoma” and “Carousel.”  Others are aware that she collaborated on the musicals “Once Upon a Mattress” and “The Mad Show.” Some might know that she is the mother of Tony Winning composer, Adam Guettel (“The Light in the Plaza”).  

Her endearing book was made into 1976 and 2003 films.

As in the book and film version, the storyline centers on Katherine, the overworked, obsessive-compulsive, stressed-out mother of Ellie, a sarcastic, self-involved, angst-driven teenager, who lives life in constant emotional self-imposed “drama queen” hell. 

Through a quirk of fate, the duo switches bodies, and then has one day to put things back. 

Yes, it’s one day before Katherine’s wedding, and both females are about to find out what it’s like to live life in the other’s body surrounded by wedding plans, school stresses, a runaway kid, burgeoning love, mistaken identities, and the loss of the device which “caused” the biological time-switch to take place. 

The musical was produced at the Cleveland Playhouse in April, 2017, with Broadway’s Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton in the lead roles.  Of that production, I wrote, “if you don’t go see “Freaky Friday” you are going to miss out on a special event.” 

I wish I could say the same thing for the Lakeland production, but I can’t.

“Freaky Friday” is a farce. Okay, not a totally well-written one, but it is still a farce.  Farces are meant to delight the audience.

Things started well as the psychedelic set designed by Aaron Benson created the right off-kilter mood. 

The overture and “Just One Day” did a good job of developing the exposition, getting us ready for the “delight” that was supposed to come. 

Matthew Dolan and his orchestra did a masterful job of underscoring, rather than drowning out the performers.  They played the pop-rock score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey well. (The mediocre score includes “What You Got,” “Oh, Biology,” “Busted,”” Just One Day,” and “No More Fear.”)

To make the script display its farcical level, requires letting out all the slap-stick, over-done physical and humorous stops.  This, of course is dependent upon the director building in shticks and gimmicks and the cast being able to pull off all the exaggeration, making each character a caricature.

Director Martin Friedman has given us some great theater. His Sondheim productions usually are top-tier and his recent production of “The Bridges of Madison County,” was an award winner.

Somehow, Friedman seems to have missed the key to “Freaky Friday.”  The needed cartoon characterizations, emphasis on the ridiculous, and creative staging were missing.  The performance seemed under-rehearsed and not well thought-out.

The director needed to make his cast aware of the qualities of farce.  As is, many acted, rather than reacted to the material.  Preset gestures and fake facial expressions, signs of bad performance, peppered the stage.

In spite of what was going on around her Trinidad Snider, as has come to be expected from this very talented woman, gave a stellar performance as Katherine/Ellie.  Her version of “After All of This and Everything” was beautiful. “Today and Ev’ry Day,” her duet with Alley Massey (Ellie) was nicely done.  Massey consistently sang well.

Rick McGuigan nicely developed the role of Mike, Katherine’s fiancé.

Jay Lee had the right touch as Adam, the high school hunk who Ellie lusts after.  “Women and Sandwiches” was delightful.  Several of the female high school students were on track.

The static and mechanically performed choreography didn’t help much to create the right mood.  The same could be said for the costumes, which were often ill-fitting and lacking in the needed visual polish.  In one scene, a lead actress came on stage with her dress inside out…label and seams exposed.

Capsule judgment: “Freaky Friday” is a farce which should delight an audience.  As is, except for the audience member on opening night who thought he was at a football game, and kept loudly cheering “way to go” and “good job” after each song and scene, the production should disappoint many.  Too bad!

“Freaky Friday” runs Friday and Saturdays at 7:30 and at 2 on Sundays February 1 through 17 at Lakeland Community College, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland. For tickets call 440-525-7134.  (The college is only 10 minutes from the 90-271 split!)

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Reimagined “Miss Saigon” gets standing “O” at the Connor Palace, but . . .

Before you ask, “Yes, a helicopter lands on stage in the touring production of “Miss Saigon,” now on stage at the KeyBank State Theatre, but, as with the production itself there is a “but  . .  .”.

The Vietnamese are the sixth largest immigrant nationality group in the United States.  More than one million Vietnamese came to America after the fall of Saigon in 1975.  Over 4,000 of those now call Northeast Ohio their home.

These people, many products of American GI and Vietnamese combined parenthood, the military veterans of the Vietnam “conflict,” and musical theater aficionados are the stake-holders in Claude-Michel Schonberg, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil ‘s “Miss Saigon.”

When the show first opened, first in London, and then on Broadway, the big excitement was the “real” helicopter landing on stage.  The anticipation over experiencing the technical achievement was so great that the show opened to huge pre-ticket sales, in spite of mediocre reviews of the production in both venues.

That staging was also noted for the controversy concerning Jonathan Price, a Caucasian, portraying The Engineer, a pimp and proprietor of a Saigon bar.  He wore eye prostheses and bronzing cream to make himself look more Asian which drew comments calling “Miss Saigon” a “minstrel show.”

Finally, the focus shifted to the important issue, that this, like its sister show, “Les Miserables,” by the same writing team, was well-crafted, had a raw human storyline and a soaring score. These songs include “The Heat is On in Saigon,” “The Movie in My Mind,” “Last Night of the World” and “American Dream.”  

“Miss Saigon,” in an operetta format with few spoken lines, tells the story of Kim, a young Vietnamese woman who is forced to work in a bar run by a notorious character known as the Engineer.  There she meets and falls in love with Chris, an American G.I., but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon.  

Unable to get on the last helicopter evacuating troops and civilians from the country, Kim goes on a three-year journey of survival with her son, Tam.  

Chris is unaware that he fathered the child until, while attending a meeting of Vietnam vets he is told of the boy’s existence.  He and his wife, Ellen, must decide what action or lack of action they should take regarding Kim and Tam.

Cameron Mackintosh, the show’s producer, said of this tour of the reimagined show, “It’s hard to believe that it has been over 27 years since “Miss Saigon” first opened in North America but, if anything, the tragic love story at the heart of the show has become even more relevant today with innocent people being torn apart by war all over the world.”

This new production, as directed by Laurence Connor, is not a duplicate of the old, but “features new visual images, made possible by the development of new electronic devices and a cast of 42 Asian and Western performers,” thus avoiding the “white-casting” issue of the original.

This interpretation also highlights the plight of the Vietnamese women who were bought and sold as prostitutes and the resulting mixed race children, who were/are scorned by locals and uncared for by their absent fathers.

Still in place is much of the original choreography by Bob Avian, though it now takes a grittier, more realistic approach that magnifies the power and epic sweep of Boublil and Schönberg’s emotional score. 

And, yes, the helicopter lands on stage.  Well, sort of.  The electronically visualized helicopter “flies” over the heads of the audience via lighting effects and appears to land.  In contrast to the prolonged visual and emotional effect of the landing in London, Broadway and local stagings I saw, there was nary a gasp or any hand-clapping for this version. 

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only problem.  The overly loud sound system, had the orchestra drowning out the singers, the voices the singers often sounding “tinny,” as well as the direction which created high-level chaos in almost every scene.  Yes, these were times of emotional bedlam, but some texturing of pace was needed to add realism to the goings on and breathing time for the audience.

Emily Bautista was well-cast as Kim.  Rather than going with the traditional beautiful porcelain doll actresses, often cast for the role in the past, the tall, inhibited Bautista brought a realism to the part.  Her beautiful voice and her emotional awareness was well displayed in “I’d Give My Life for You” and “Little God of My Heart.”

Her duets with Anthony Festa (Chris), which included “The Last Night of the World” and “Sun and Moon” were encompassing.

Local theater-goes may remember Bautista for her portrayal of Éponine in the national tour of “Les Misérables.”  (At certain performances, the role of Kim will be played by Myra Molloy.)
Festa was also cast against type.  Usually the role is given to a handsome Broadway leading man-type.  Festa seems to have been chosen, instead, because of his beautiful voice and strong acting skills.

Though wishing Festa no ill, it would be a treat for CLE audiences to get the chance to see one of their own, Paul Schwensen, who understudies the role of Chris, get to play the role in his home town.

Schwensen graduated from Vermillion High School in 2013, where he was mentored by Ted Williams, who was head of the Vermillion theater program and directed Paul and his parents at Lorain Music Theater.  Paul played Ren in the 2017 production of “Footloose” at Kent State’s Porthouse theater, where he got his equity card.

Red Concepcion, The Engineer, yelled his way through the role failing to texture his performance, thus creating a one-dimensional manipulator.  On the positive side, his “The American Dream” received extended applause from the audience.

Young Jace Chen was appealing as Kim and Chris’s son.  (The part is multi-cast so different audiences will see different Tams.
The dancing was powerful, well-executed and spell-binding, the costumes era correct, and the lighting effects helped set the morbid and intense feelings throughout the show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:     “Miss Saigon” is a powerful piece of musical theater, with a vital story and soaring music.  It tells a tale of historical significance, not sugarcoating the conflict, the effect of the presence of American GI’s on the Vietnamese population, and the human chaos that was left behind.   The impressive touring production was hampered by an overly loud sound system which had the orchestra drowning out the singers and direction, which resulted in overblown chaos in almost every scene.  
“Miss Saigon” runs through February 17, 2019 as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series.  To purchase tickets, visit playhousesquare.org, call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Historical and Socially Important “A RAISIN IN THE SUN” at Ensemble

It is entirely appropriate that the songs of Nina Simone were heard before, during intermissions and following the Ensemble production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”  Simone, an activist and singer, was strongly influenced by Hansberry, who was the first female African-American playwright to have a play performed on Broadway. 

Hansberry, in turn, was influenced by Langston Hughes.  Hughes, who spent his formative years living in the Fairfax neighborhood in CLE, was a force in the Harlem Renaissance, which was the African American artistic movement in the 1920s that celebrated black life and culture.

“What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” is a sentiment that has been seminal to the black liberation movement.  It is a line from one of Hughes’ poems and inspired not only the title of Hansberry’s award winning play, but is at the center of the script’s message.

“Raisin” is, in part. based on Hansberry’s personal experiences of having been brought up in segregated Chicago.  Her family challenged a restrictive covenant, similar those imposed upon the Forest Hills area of Cleveland Heights and parts of Shaker Heights, in which minorities were denied the right to buy homes in a specific area. 

A lawsuit, based on the family’s desire to buy a home in a “restricted” area of Chicago, brought about the Supreme Court case of Hansberry v. Lee in which the Court held that “a restrictive covenant could be contested in court, even though some of the parties involved may have been included in the prior class of neighborhood landowner.”  It opened the floodgates to suits that eventually overcame the covenants.

The plot of “A Raisin in the Sun” centers on Walter and Ruth Younger, their son Travis, along with Walter's mother Lena and Walter's sister Beneatha, who live in a dilapidated two-bedroom apartment on Chicago's south side.

Walter is barely making a living as a limousine driver and desperately wishes to become wealthy. His plan is to invest in a liquor store in partnership with Willy and Bobo, his street-smart acquaintances.

Walter and Beneatha's father has recently died, and Mama is waiting for a life insurance check for $10,000.

The question of how the money will be spent becomes the center of the Younger’s existence. 

Eventually Mama puts some of the money down on a new house, choosing an all-white neighborhood over a black one for the practical reason that it happens to be much cheaper.  Mamma gives the rest of the money to Walter to invest with the provision that he reserves $3,000 of it for Beneatha's medical school education.

What happens with the money given to Walter, whether the Younger family moves into the “white” area of Chicago, and whether their dreams, like the raisin in the sun, will dry up and die, fills out the remainder of the plot.

Ensemble’s production, under the focused direction of Celeste Cosentino, grabs and holds the audience attention.  Though, at times, the acting levels dip below what they should, the over-all effect is powerful.

Angela Winbourn nicely textures the role of Lena Younger, creating a woman of strong convictions and an abundance of love and loyalty for her family, the kind of female figure who has, from slave times, been the backbone of the African-American family. 

Nicole Sumlin develops a consistent Ruth, who has conflicted views of how her husband is role-modeling for their son, and the wisdom of some of his far-fetched dreams of being a “success.”

Zyrece Montgomery nicely develops the image of the “new” black woman who is not willing to follow the patterns of the past and wants to reach for a role as a doctor, not a domestic worker, while still being a dreamer.

The rest of the cast, Eugene Sumlin (Walter Lee), Easton Sumlin (Travis), Nnamdi Okpala (George Murchison), Leilani Barrett (Joseph Asagai), Chris Bizub (Karl Linder) and Bobby Williams (Bobo) all develop meaningful characters.

Capsule judgment: “A Raisin in the Sun” is a play about the need to keep fighting to make this a more just and free world.  This is a play which is meant to counter those who believe that disdain for those who are different is what would “make America great again.”  Ensemble does the script proud.  It is a production very worth seeing!

“A Raisin in the Sun” runs through February 17, 2019 on Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2.  Ensemble is housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

Ensemble’s next production is A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, Eugene O’Neill’s classic script in which Jodie, an amazon-like woman, finds herself drowning in a wave of self-pity and remorse that results in her facing a new challenge to her dauntless spirit from March 8 to 30, 2019. 

Saturday, January 26, 2019

“Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again,” captivates and frustrates at Dobama

Theater is representative of the era from which it comes.  We live in an era of chaos.  This is a time of questioning with few answers.  It is an era of societal, political, and economic instability.  It is an era of news and fake-nears.  It is an era of headache-causing conflicts and contradictions.

Governments are questioning their philosophical roles.  Politicians--their actions, their philosophies, their roles, are up for question.  The status of sexual roles--what should be not only the definition of sexual identity, but what role should each of the genders play is up for interpretation.   The role of theological and philosophical beliefs is up for grabs.  And, the questioning and search for answers goes on and on.

Alice Birch’s “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again,” which is a grouping of vignettes that asks how to revolutionize language, relationships, work, and life, mirrors our society.

The script, which is unusual, as it does not identify the names of characters or even what line should be said by which actor, does not follow the usual format of beginning, middle and end.  It does start, but the usual structure of the first part being exposition, followed by a conflict or conflicts, followed by a solution to the problem, is not followed. 

After its beginning, the play, like the society it is commenting upon, falls quickly into chaos. 

Nathan Motta, Dobama’s Artistic Director, states of the show, “The Royal Shakespeare Company gave a group of select playwrights the opportunity to write a new piece of theatre based on the prompt "Well-behaved women rarely make history." Alice Birch studied various writings by feminists and emerged with “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again,” a theatrical manifesto for the #MeToo era.”  It is that, but, oh, so much more.  

Motta, goes on, “Influenced by Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane, and other ground-breaking women playwrights, Birch's play requires an ensemble of four powerful women and one token male to bring this unapologetically provocative, in-your-face text to life. This is a play of humor, strength, and punk rock attitude. WARNING: This play is not well-behaved.”

Also, the play is not for everyone to see and/or appreciate. 

Only 80-minutes long, with no intermission, the production may bewilder and confound.  As Motta indicated in his opening night, pre-production seminar, “this is a language piece.  It is a risk play.  The topic, the language, the style is about broken boundaries.”  He wisely advised, “You always don’t have to understand.”

Yes, that’s the clue to “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.”  To appreciate what is transpiring on stage, sit and listen.  Don't’ try and figure out where the plot is going…there is no plot.  Don’t figure out what the speeches mean…the meaning is going to be your emotional, and secondarily, your logical reactions, which may not be readily apparent and may never be clear to you.  Be prepared for anything and let that “anything” be what it is.

Sound like doubletalk?  Not really.  Birch isn’t giving answers.  She is exposing, in a non-linear form, a series of discordant ideas.  The script states, “There is a point where the thought is just not enough.”

We may be able to trace a line of where gender inequality comes from.   How attitudes and prescribed actions of males and females, through the influence of church, state and societal patterns became set.  There may be an understanding why the likes of Donald Trump became POTUS and why he acts and reacts as he does.  We may be able to grasp some concept of Brexit, the mid-eastern on-going crisis, the basis for Arab-Israeli misunderstandings, where various refugee problems stem from, and the seeming non-ending need for wars.  But the answers, or how to confront and deal with the answers, are harder to discover and implement.

Dobama’s production, under the creative direction of Sarah Elizabeth Wansley tends to be captivating, if frustrating.  The flow, line interpretation, use of music and sound, all help build Birch’s writing.  The cast, Lisa Louise Langford, Nina Domingue, Rachel Lee Kolis, Miranda Leeann and Abraham McNeil Adams, each does an excellent job of interpreting their various roles with clarity of purpose.  But the ever-evasive answer to “What’s this all about,” remains elusive.

Capsule judgement:  Maybe the clue to gaining some concept of “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again,” is to look at the hundreds of shoes that totally surround the three-sided thrust Dobama stage, and realize that they are all different styles, sizes and colors, and accept that they, like the words of the script, are a clue to the chaos of our era, and though some may fit some, they will not fit all, and though some may serve one purpose, they each may fit another.  As such, the play, or any one pair of shoes, each is not for everyone!

“Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again,” runs through February 17, 2019 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama:  Jennifer Haley’s THE NETHER from March 8-31, 2019.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

History changing “Shuffle Along” to be examined by The Musical Theater Project and Karamu

Musical theater and Broadway have been changed by some specific shows.  Included are “Oklahoma!,” the first book musical, “Hair,” and its strong political/anti-war presence, “Chorus Line,” with its emphasis on dance, and “Rent” and its millennium theme.  Another show, which tends not to be as commonly known, is “Shuffle Along.”

“Shuffle Along” is one of the most significant musicals of the 20th century, since it was entirely written and performed by African Americans and was the first show that allowed black theatergoers to watch from the orchestra after so many years of segregated seating. It is noted for bringing the Harlem Renaissance to the musical stage.  

“Shuffle Along” was written by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissler, a Clevelander who graduated from Central High school in 1960.  He was one of 6 black students at the school. 

The program, “The Impact of Shuffle Along,” the first partnership between Karamu House and The Musical Theater Project, will be hosted by Bill Rudman and Tony F. Sias.  It features Treva Offutt, Justin Woody, Evelyn Wright, the Joe Hunter Trio and George Foley.

Sias, who hails from Jackson, Mississippi, has a graduate degree from Ohio University, and is the President and CEO of Karamu.  He was selected by Cleveland Magazine as one of CLE’s “Most Interesting People of 2016.

He came to “the place of joyful gathering” in 2015 after what he termed, “a great 15-year tenure as the director of arts education for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District” and after serving on Karamu’s Strategic Planning Committee.  He signed on with the attitude of “Things needed to happen…the quality of productions, the financial investment in the organization and its programs, and some progressive growth needed to be instituted.”  

Sias, is the product of a creative family, where piano lessons, arts culture, and the civil rights movement were a part of his everyday life.  This background led to his awareness of a need to create “an open, accessible and transparent” organization.  “His staff,” he states, “is lean and mean.”  When hiring he insisted that “they not only had content expertise to an arts discipline, but a good track record of leadership.”

How did the collaboration between TMTP and Karamu come about?  Sias relates that “Bill Rudman and I have worked on projects together. Bill asked if Karamu could partner and I could co-host.   I thought that Bill’s brain-child and the timing were right.”  

Tony’s interest in “Shuffle Along” comes from the awareness that the show “was a turning point of American theatre, helping Broadway redesign itself.”  “It is a seminal piece, has historical relevance and great ragtime and jazz music.  

Sias, who has a strong theater and music background, is looking forward to not only telling the tale, but in singing the show’s score, which includes such classics as “I’m Simply Full of Jazz,” “Love Will Find a Way,” “I’m Just Wild About Harry, “Everything Reminds Me of You,” and “The African Dip.”

“The Impact of Shuffle Along” brings two unique organizations together, each with different demographics to heighten the CLE community’s awareness of an important musical, “telling a story of then and today.”

The concerts will be staged on Thursday, February 7, 2019, Friday, February 8, 2019  and Saturday, February 9, 2019 @ 8:00 PM, and Sunday, February 10, 2019@ 3:00 PM at the newly renovated Jelliffe Theater located at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For tickets, which cost $30, call 216-795-7077 or go to http://www.karamuhouse.org/

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Brilliantly theatrical “An Iliad” at Cleveland Play House

Every once-in-a-while a production is so theatrically exciting that it provides an understanding of what theater is all about.  Such is the present Cleveland Play House presentation of “An Iliad.”

Performed in CPH’s Outcalt Theatre, it is yet another reason that local theater-goers should be cheering that the institution moved from its outdated three-proscenium home to the Allen complex in Playhouse Square.  This production simply could not have been performed in a proscenium stage. 

The thrust stage, inserted in the black box space, with the audience closely snuggled around the acting area, makes the entire experience up-front and personal.  That’s a necessity for the interactive concept conceived for the “past-to-present” based on Homer’s epic, “The Iliad,” expanded into a tale of societies who still define themselves by their wars.

Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare have kept the basic form of Homer’s work, added affronts to the audience, where The Poet, performing on a stage area with no set, with a step-ladder as her only prop, relates the tale of the divine-like destructive wrath of Achilles. It is a rage which the authors indicate is within all humans and “gods” alike. 

It is this rage that makes a person wage war, whether on the battlefield, as a response to road rage, or in personal disagreements. 

The staging of the tale, wisely directed by Tarah Flanagan and Andrew Carlson,  is done in the purest form of theatricality, placing all attention on the spoken word, not on the sets, costumes or special effects which often distract from the message, itself.

Flanagan, masterfully performs the ninety-minute, play with no intermission.  It is a tour-de-force presentation.  Speaking and moving with rapid, sure, powerful physical and vocal control, Flanagan climbs the ladder, moves up and down the theatre aisles, creates and destroys walls, while holding the audience’s attention as her captive.  Huzzah!!!!

Flanagan is nicely supported by Eva Rose Scholz-Carlson, a 17-year old wunderkind, who plucks and bows her cello with surety, using her self-composed music to highlight the spoken and emotional moods of the script.

Flanagan directly confronts the audience, with her fine story-telling skills, speaking of modern day events that parallel the Trojan wars.   She asks questions, sits among the audience and interacts with the viewers.  She floats, flees, fixates on the events of the war and its modern parallels.

At one point, The Poet, in a mind-blowing segment, lists all the major wars that civilizations have been involved in from ancient to modern times.  The result is an illuminating awareness of the cruelty and rage of humans.

Does it matter if you aren’t aware of “The Iliad” or the history of the Trojan Wars?  Actually, no.  Flanagan takes us on a journey that has such clarity of idea that literature and history teachers should take into account.  Oh, if only our teaching sages could convey the message as well!

The script is peppered with the phrase, “do you see?” as a device to make the listener aware of the parallel that history does repeat itself.  It screams, “Wake up, oh ye, naïve viewer!”

As the publicity for the play states, “An Iliad weaves humanity's unshakable attraction to warfare with the music of the muses, capturing the contradictory conditions of glory and violence with spellbinding modernity.” Oh, yes it does!

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: In a virtuoso performance, Tarah Flanagan, using language that ranges from contemporary realism to epic poetry, and inhabiting over 50 characters, challenges us to realize the role of rage and think, “How do you know you’ve won?”  As the modern day conflicts in Vietnam, Syria and Afghanistan illustrate, “How do you know?”  This is an absolute “must see” production for anyone who desires to experience a theater production at its finest and is willing to probe what makes us human.

“An Iliad” runs through February 10, 2019 at The Outcalt Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Next up at CPH: Ken Ludwig’s comedy delight, “Sherwood The Adventures Of Robin Hood, from February 2-14, 2019.