Sunday, November 19, 2017

O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” opens Ensemble’s 28th season



Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, William Inge and Eugene O’Neill are considered to be the major writers in the mid-20th century modern drama movement.   They used concepts of the emerging field of psychology to illuminate problems of individuals and the society in which they found themselves.

O’Neill, who wrote more than 50 plays, was the first American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He also was awarded four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.

Scripts such as “Beyond the Horizon,” “Anna Christie,” “The Emperor Jones,” “Desire Under the Elms,” “Mourning Becomes Electra,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “A Moon for the Misbegotten” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” are now considered to be classics of the modern theater movement.

The latter is an autobiographical play which, though written in the early 1940s, was not produced until 1957, 25 years after his death because O’Neill stipulated that condition.  It is considered his masterpiece.

Ensemble Theatre is opening its 28th season, entitled “We the People,” with O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape.”  The script fits into the theatre’s selection of plays that “celebrates the diversity and dynamics of the population that makes up this ‘great nation’ while also speaking to the challenges we still face in 2017!”

“The Hairy Ape,” is not one of O’Neill’s classics.  At its opening, and since, the audience, and especially the critics, were perplexed with its expressionistic form.  The use of “excessive monologues, the slowness of certain scenes, and the depressing monotony of the situation,” along with its general tone of brutishness, do not bode for emotional involvement.

It is, in fact, more a closet drama, one which lends itself to reading and discussing, rather than a full staging.  Little happens that requires visual observation of movement.  It lends itself to academic intellectual discussion, more than actor-audience connection.

The overt expression of existentialistic thought, mainly highlighted by the protagonist’s final speech in which he bemoans, “Where do I fit in?” is also off-setting to many. 

The play centers on Yank, the ruler of the steam room on a large ocean liner.  He and his coal-shoveling crew are responsible for the ship’s movement.  He considers himself to be the principal cause for the motion of the vessel, more so than even the captain. Yank is a “coal” guy not one who approves of wind or other forms of energy.  (Sound familiar in this age of energy/global warning disagreements.)

He perceives society as being controlled by the rich, but he fights to control his part of that world.  One day, when a wealthy debutante takes a tour of the boiler room, is repulsed by him, and calls him a “filthy beast,” a hairy ape, he goes through a crisis of identity. 

When he leaves the ship and wanders into Manhattan, he finds himself at odds with the people he sees, even the labor organizers on the waterfront.  He becomes more and more animalistic, living up to his reputation as “a hairy ape.”   He becomes absurd, the very definition of the hero of an existentialistic play.

O’Neil probes the meaning of masculinity, the primitive nature of humans, social repression of the working class by the wealthy, toxic industrial environments, superficiality of the rich, and religious and racial degeneration.

The long one act, 1 hour and 25 minutes without an intermission, is not captivating theatre.  There is little actual action.  Instead long monologues and contrived movement take place.

Director Ian Wolfgang Hinz does what he can to induce attention.  He succeeded in most instances.  He uses the set well and adds lighting to add visual texture.  But, in the end, he can only do so much with the script.

The cast puts out full effort, but often presents “affect” rather than achieving effect.  Many speeches are flat in tone.  There is little texturing of characterizations.  Yelling and forced action often are present.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Ensemble is to be praised for continuing to present classic theater to its audience.  Whether “The Hairy Ape” was the best of the O’Neill play to select is questionable.  For anyone who likes to be exposed to works by noted writers, and those who like to probe into the intellectual nature of the arts, the play may be of interest.

“The Hairy Ape” runs Thursdays through Sundays through December 10, 2017 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

To see the views of other Cleveland area theater reviewers go to:  clevelandtheaterreviews.com

Next up at Ensemble: “The Little Prince,” from December 1-17, a play for the whole family, followed by Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America Part One:  Millennium Approaches” from January 5-28, 2018.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Wonderful WICKED wows yet again at State


Okay, I’m a “Wicked” junky.  I’ve seen the show five times, including seeing it in its first week of the New York run. 

“Wicked” opened on Broadway on October 30, 2003.  It is still running, and has performed almost 6,000 shows.   It is the 7th longest-running musical in Great White Way history.

A prequel to the “Wizard of Oz,” “Wicked” tells the “true” story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, and her relationship with Glinda, the Good Witch. 


The musical has all the elements of the original tale, but gives you the background to how the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin man came to be, as well as how Dorothy got the red (in this version silver) slippers. And, most importantly, what really happened to Elphaba.  (Bet you thought she melted when Dorothy threw water on her. Ha!  That’s fake news!)


We also become aware of the power of gossip and rumors.  Most importantly, in this era of rising bigotry, encouraged by the “Wizard” in the White House, we are exposed to how hatred and making outcasts out of those not white and part of the “in” group, can lead to mass hysteria.


The music and lyrics, by Stephen Schwartz, includes such beautiful and meaningful songs as “Defying Gravity” and “As Long as You’re Mine.” 


As always, Schwartz includes a message song in the score (think “Corner of the Sky” from “Pippen”).  In “Wicked,” it’s “For Good,” stressing the importance of true friendship.


The production qualities of this touring show are impressive. There is a dragon hanging over the proscenium arch that has a wingspan the same as a Cessna 172 airplane. They use 200 pounds of dry ice every show for smoke effects and enough power in a single production to supply twelve houses with electricity. This is not a stripped-down touring show, it’s a full-blown Broadway extravaganza. 


The choreography is creative.  The orchestra is excellent.  (The 5 traveling musicians are joined by 10 locals.)


The cast is very strong.  No, it’s not Idina Menzel (Elphaba), Christine Chenoweth (Glinda) and Clevelander Joel Gray (as the Wizard), but, realistically, who can top that amazing trio?





In this production, Mary Kate Morrissey glows gloriously green as Elphaba.  She hits the vocal high notes with ease and creates a clear characterization.  Her “I’m Not That Girl” is heart breaking, while “No Good Deed” is powerful. 




Ginna Claire Mason is properly bubbly as the shallow blonde ditz, Glinda.   She sings beautifully and textures the role well.  Her smile-inducing “Popular” brought lasting applause.


Jon Robert Hall handsomely walks though the role as the self-centered Fiyero, who falls in love with Elphaba.  Unfortunately, there is little obvious physical chemistry between the two.


There is a strong Cleveland connection and WICKED.  ARACA, (http://www.araca.com) the theatrical production company founded by Michael and Matthew Rego and Hank Miller, all native Clevelanders, are the producers of the show.


CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Put on your tiara, bring your wand, and join the masses who will enjoy “Wicked.”  Whether it is your introduction to this delightful and well-performed musical, or your umpteenth time, you will absolutely enjoy this must see production. 

 
WICKED runs through December 3, 2017 at the State Theatre in downtown Cleveland.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

“Diary of Anne Frank” conveys important message at the Cleveland Play House


The Holocaust was a horrific series of experiences.  As the years go by, and the survivors of the atrocities die off, leaving no one to attest to the actual pain and suffering, those who want to make sure that such experiences do not repeat themselves turn to tangible objects and written accounts.

Probably no record of the trauma has gained more attention than the diary of a German Jewish girl, Anne Frank, whose family went into hiding in Amsterdam, Holland, and came within months of being survivors of the onslaught.

Her words have lived on through the publication of her recounting of time spent in the upper floor of her father’s warehouse and office building in play scripts, textual analysis of her writing, and classes which use her diary as a text.  

Anne Frank, has, in fact, become cottage industry.   The site where she was sequestered offers daily tours.  The site’s bookstore sells everything from copies of the diary, coloring books, Holocaust drawings and art work, commemorative pens and pencils, and yellow cloth Jewish stars, like the ones Jews were forced to wear. 

Anne Frank is one of the most searched topics for research projects and school reports. 

Anne’s symbolic power has been memorialized with streets, schools and parks named after her.  There are also tasteless Halloween costumes and anti-Semitic taunts of soccer fans who draw on her identity.  


Several weeks ago, Lazio, Italy soccer fans plastered the Stadio Olimpico with stickers of Anne Frank wearing a jersey of city rival Roma, whom the Lazio supporters consider to be socialist and “Jews.”  Lazio’s anti-Semitic slurs in the past have included a banner telling Roma supporters: “Auschwitz Is Your Homeland; The Ovens Are Your Homes.”  The actions drew condemnation from the soccer league, the nation’s premier and the head of the European Parliament.


In a visit to Rome’s main synagogue, the premiere said the club would intensify its efforts to combat racism and anti-Semitism and organize an annual trip to the Auschwitz concentration camp with some 200 young Lazio fans to “educate them not to forget.”


A passage from Anne Frank's diary was read before Italian league matches as part of a number of initiatives to condemn the acts of anti-Semitism earlier this week by Lazio fans and to keep alive memories of the Holocaust.  The diary passage reads: “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”


Even positive attempts to use Anne’s identity have backfired.  Deutsche Bahn (railroad) recently announced that it was planning to name a new high-speed train after her.  Supposedly, this was done to commemorate Anne’s train ride to the concentration camp in which she died at age 14.  The idea, which the railroad thought was an honor, was met with negative outcries and then withdrawn.

The play “The Diary of Anne Frank” is a stage adaptation of the book “The Diary of a Young Girl.”

It is generally believed that the diary was found by Anne’s father, Otto, when he returned to the building where the family hid for slightly over two years, after he was released from captivity.  He was the only one of the hiding place’s population to survive. 

In fact, the handwritten book of notes was hidden by a family friend and given to him upon his return.  Mr. Frank published it in 1947. 

A version of the play, which was produced on Broadway in 1955, was created by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.  Though it won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize and garnered strong positive reviews, it was often accused of being too sentimental and void of the Jewish part of the experience. 

In 1997, a revision of the script was done by Wendy Kesselman.  It more closely resembles the diary with some of the conflicts, growing pains and “Yiddishkite” more clearly presented.  It is this script that director Laura Kepley is using for the Cleveland Play House’s present staging.

The CPH production is generally well thought-out and crafted.  Kepley has nicely paced the show, has been careful to honor the Jewish aspects of the story, and brought attention to the part played by the brave gentile men and women of Holland who risked their lives to save their Jewish countrymen.

The cast is strong.  Special recognition to Rick D. Wasserman as the compassionate Otto Frank, Yaron Lotan as Peter Van Daan, who emerges from a shy, almost reclusive young man into Anne’s “beau,” Laura Perrotta as the self-centered Mrs. Van Daan, and Lise Bruneau as the stoic Edith Frank, Anne’s put-upon mother. 



For the play to work on its highest level, the audience must have a love-affair with Anne.  They must feel compassion for the youngster who grows and matures before their eyes.  Annie Fox does not totally gain that affection.  She is too old and lacks the teenage emotional undercurrent to garner the needed empathy.   This is not a bad performance; it just doesn’t hit the heart as it should.

The sound effects:  the sound of the carillon, the voices of children playing in the street, the tramp of marching feet, the singing of German troops, a boat whistle form the canal, add to the emotional power of the piece.




The set, though impressive, is problematic.  Those who have visited the actual site where the Franks, Van Daans and Mr. Dussel hide know it was much smaller and cramped than the massive CPH set.  The construction may mislead some viewers to believe that the inhabitants were not cramped, living on top of each other.  They, in fact, were in a claustrophobic place.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “The Diary of Anne Frank” is a powerful and important play. Especially in this country, when racist, religious and national attacks are condoned by the country’s leader, it is imperative that the message of “never again” be bannered.  Cleveland Play House has done a great service by staging the message of a young girl who was destroyed by bigots and haters.  This is a must see production!
 

“Diary of Anne Frank” runs through November 19, 2017, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Next up at CPH: “A Christmas Story,” which plays from November 24 through December 23, 2017.  For information go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com/

Monday, November 06, 2017

Karamu and Ensemble team up for dealing with “The Lake Effect”



Karamu and Ensemble are two venerable local theatres. 

Karamu, the joyful meeting place, is the oldest continually running Black theatre in America.  Ensemble, whose purpose is to showcase classical American drama, has some of its history steeped in Karamu. 

Lucia Colombi, one of Ensemble’s founders was, at one time, Karamu’s interim Artistic Director.  Her daughter, Celeste Cosentino, Ensemble’s present Artistic Director, spent much of her informative theatre years at Karamu.

It is logical, therefore, that the two theatres join forces to produce “The Lake Effect,” a local playwright’s Cleveland-centric script.

Rajiv Joseph is a Cleveland Heights native, a multi-award winning author, who has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (“Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo”) and won an Obie Award (“Guards At The Taj”).  These, and several of Joseph’s other scripts, including “Animals Out Of Paper” and “Gruesome Playground Injuries” have had Ensemble productions.

“The Lake Effect,” as with other Joseph scripts, is intimate and character-driven.  It spotlights his imaginative voice and his ability to come up with innovative, often quirky ideas, to develop a message.

Joseph says of “The Lake Effect,”” it is, in many respects, a play about separate worlds colliding. On one level, these worlds are divided by race and culture, but beyond that, it’s a play about secrets and families and what binds us together as just regular people.”


It is winter, 2013.  There is a typical 216/440 snow storm raging outside the small, intimate Indian restaurant in Lakewood.  (Yes, the script is filled with area references such as the Cuyahoga River and Edgewater Park.)


Inside we find Vijay, an assimilated mid-thirty-year old son of Vinnie, a man from India, who emigrated with his wife to the area and operated the small neighborhood restaurant while living with his family in the apartment above the establishment. 


Vijay’s mother died in an auto accident when he was 12, leaving not only a void in his life, but resentment because Vinnie unceremoniously dumped her ashes in Lake Erie.  The action caused a permanent rift between father and son.


Vijay fled Cleveland, became a day trader in New York and has returned for his father’s funeral.


As Vijay goes over the restaurant’s books, Bernard, an African American enters in search of lamb biryani.  He asks about Vinnie and shares tales about the family which Vijay didn’t know.  Who is Bernard?  Why does he know this information?


When Priya, Vijay’s younger sister appears, much of the mystery of the relationship between Vinnie and Bernard is revealed, as well as the facts of the strained relationships between the father and his children.


Joseph’s script does not have the depth of some of his other writings, but it holds attention.  As always, the actor’s writer, he gives cast members fleshed out characters to develop. 


Celeste Cosentino’s direction is focused.  Though the script is very talk-centered, she keeps the action moving, thus holding attention.


The cast is generally effective.  LaShawn Little shines as Bernard.  He doesn’t portray Bernard, he is Bernard.  His long monologue, which finds him isolated, outside, in the cold, with snow falling on him, spotlights the play’s theme, as expressed in the analogy that we are all connected by the “water is us,” in this case, the lake effect snow.


Resembling a young Omar Sharif, matinee-idol handsome Ammen T. Suleiman has some nice moments as Vijay.  At times, Natalie El Dabh (Priya), falls into becoming an actor portraying a character, rather than becoming the person

Karamu’s Concert Hall, a newly repurposed black box acting space, allows for an intimacy which this script needs.  Being up-front and personal with the cast allow for a requisite connection.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “The Lake Effect,” written by Cleveland Heights’ award winning playwright Rajiv Joseph, is a thought-provoking script which uses Cleveland area references to develop its theme.  It gets a creditable production at Karamu.

THE LAKE EFFECT continues through November 26, 2017 in the Concert Hall (Black Box Theatre) at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street.  For ticket information call 216-795-7070 or go on line to www.karamuhouse.org

Friday, November 03, 2017


STILL STANDING: A Musical Survival Guide for Life’s Catastrophes

Written and performed by ANITA HOLLANDER

SATURDAY, NOV. 18, 2017 at 8 p.m.

Fairmount Temple, 23737 Fairmount Blvd., Beachwood, OH

New York-based actor/singer/songwriter ANITA HOLLANDER wrote her evening of original songs to chronicle a journey that began when she was a college student stricken with cancer. A recurrence when she was 26 led to the amputation of one leg, leaving her to perform for more than three decades on the other one. The New York Times review of STILL STANDING called her “provocative, funny, moving, communicative and beautifully polished [with] a wide rainbow of vocal colors that she uses with dramatic sensitivity as well as comic insights…. plus a charming presence that flavors everything she does.” 

She has performed the show off Broadway, at the White House, across America and around the world. 

She returns to her native Cleveland for this one-time event, with her sister Rachel signing for the hearing impaired.

A $10 donation is requested at the door, by cash or check. 

The event is underwritten, in part, by the Roy and Eunice Berko Fund at Interplay.

RESERVATIONS at interplayjewishtheatre@gmail.com; or leave a clear message at 216 393-PLAY (7529)

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Con-Con’s “In the Closet,” a thoughtful journey into whether anyone can ever emerge from hiding



Have you ever wondered if your life would have played out differently if, at a young age, you had been able to meet “yourself” a couple of years older, forty years older, and then you as a person near the end of your life?  Would the knowledge of the path you would follow, what pitfalls you would encounter, what decisions you made, make your life different?

That’s basically what happens to “John,” in Siegmund Fuchs’ literal and metaphorical closet in “In The Closet,” now on stage at convergence-continuum.

Siegmund Fuchs, a practicing lawyer who dabbles in play writing, is a native Clevelander.  His first play, “Never Turned Out To Be Four Months,” was first performed at John Carroll in 1998.  He has won recognition in several playwriting competitions with his “In The Closet” being a finalist in the 2015 Elitch Historical Theatre Playwriting Competition.

As the audience enters the small black box, Liminis Theatre, the home of convergence-continuum, they find themselves seated in an area entirely surrounded by men’s clothes.  The “closet” is well- organized.  There is a color—coded place for shirts, another for jackets and coats, another for sweaters and t-shirts.  Besides clarifying the setting, various pieces of apparel will be used as the play progresses to aid in character changes and plot development.

We find Old Man, then Middle-Aged Man and finally Young Man entering into the space for various reasons. 

Old Man is writing his autobiography, which includes comments about the long term cancer illness of his husband. 

Middle-Aged man, who was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown, is confronting his being “old” in a community of men who value youth. 

Young Man shows facial abrasions from his being raped by five men at a party which he was being paid to attend by his bar-owning boss.  He is in the process of a trial for the attackers.

In the midst of their revelations, youthful John enters.  He has just experienced his first gay sexual experience and is angst-filled. 

Why are these men here?  Why do they share information that only each would know if they had lived the same life?  Can they ever “leave the closet”?

The story’s exposition unfolds slowly, the speeches often filled with clichés, and obvious laugh lines, but settles into an interesting framework somewhere during the first act, maturing into a thought-provoking second act.

Director Cory Molner, who designed the clever set, also does a nice job of pacing the performances so that the audience becomes sucked into the swerves of the tale, wondering if any of these men will ever escape the safety of the closet…the place in their minds where they can feel safe, unencumbered by the attitudes, beliefs and criticism of the outside world.



In his con-con debut, handsome young David Lenahan impresses as John.  He has a natural presence and textures the character’s many emotional roller-coaster ride reactions to what he finds out about his present and future life.  This is a talented young man.

Mike Frye nicely develops the tale of his rape and trial experience as Young Man.  Jason Romer, though he sometimes becomes an actor rather than the person he is portraying, has some nice moments as Middle-Aged Man.  Clyde Simon is convincing as Old Man.

Capsule Judgement: “In the Closet” is not a great play, but it is a script that incites a great deal of thought.  It gets a very creditable production at con-con.



“In The Closet” runs through November 4, 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: Cleveland playwright Jonathan Wilhelm’s “Camp Beaucoup Congo” from November 16-18, followed by the World Premiere of “The Chaste Genius and His Deathray Gun,” a tale of Tesla, who developed alternating current, florescent bulbs, lasers and robotics as he wrestles with his friends and detractors.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Touring company of “Waitress” serves up sumptuous treat in premiere at Connor Palace


If you were a Broadway investor and someone approached you with the idea of producing a musical about a waitress who worked in a diner, was an expert pie maker, in an abusive marriage, who gets pregnant, has an affair with her gynecologist, and whose only way out of the mess of a life, was to win a pie-baking contest, how likely would you be to plunk down your money?  Oh, and the show will have an all-women development team.

Believe it or not, the money was raised, “Waitress” was mounted, and became a smash Big White Way musical.  Now, the show’s touring company, which rehearsed here, opened this week at the Connor Palace for a three-week run.  It will then tour the country spreading cheer, and the smell of pies throughout the land, forever marked with a “made in CLE” trademark.

As you enter the lobby of the Connor Palace your olfactory senses will be assaulted by the strong smell of cinnamon and sugar.  At every performance frozen apple pies are placed in convection ovens in fireproof boxes near the theatre’s entrance to put you in the right mood. 

According to Andrea Simakis, “Plain Dealer” writer extraordinaire, “A local Whole Foods, following Stacey Donnelly’s lead (she is the owner of Cute As Cake, the bakery which supplies 1500 to 2,000 pies a week to be sold at the New York production of “Waitress”) will provide 16 pies a week to trigger the olfactory fancies of Cleveland theater-goers.”

The smell will be Cleveland, but the pies you can buy in the Connor Palace lobby are products of the Big Apple. 

Simakis continues, “The day before "Waitress" kicks off its national tour in Cleveland, Donnelly will drive about 1,000 pies - Salted Chocolate Caramel and Key Lime - to Playhouse Square.  Apple Crumble, another fan favorite, might be added to the order in the second or third week.”

How is the pastry?  Can’t tell you.  The line was too long for me to get to taste the delicacies, but an overheard opinion was, “the pies are as good as the production…delicious!”

“Waitress” has music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, who achieved general attention when her 2007 hit single, “Love Song,” reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  She is listed on the “Top 100 Greatest Women in Music” and her memoir, “Sounds Like Me:  My Life (So Far) in Song” was published in 2015 and made the “New York Times” best seller list.  To add the meringue to the top of the creation, she played the lead role in “Waitress” for a short time during its Broadway run.

The show’s book is by Jessie Nelson.  The original production was choreographed by Lorin Latarro and directed by Diane Paulus, making it the first Broadway show in which the four top creative spots were filled by women.  (The same group is doing the touring production.)  The posts of costume design and musical direction were also occupied by women.  Talk about breaking the glass ceiling!

The musical is based on the film of the same name written by Adrienne Shelly.  The motion picture, which was a hit at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, was marked by tragedy as Shelly was murdered three months prior to its showing.

The touring production is wonderful in every way.  The well-chosen cast, the creatively designed fragmentary scenery which helps the staging smoothly move along, the right stress on humor and angst, the well-played pop and indie rock music created by the on-stage six-member orchestra, and the finely tuned pacing, all work well. 

Even the pre-curtain recording “turn off your cellphone” message, which was written by Bareilles, is special, setting a wonderful “smile” factor for the show.

Pert Desi Oakley sparkles as Jenna, the pie-maker superb and waitress extraordinaire.  She has a fine singing voice and textures the role of Jenna to elicit strong emotional feelings of empathy from the audience.

Her rendition of “What Baking Can Do” effectively introduces her character, and “She Used to Be Mine” helps in the exposition of her personage.

Charity Angel Dawson is “awesome-right-on” as Becky, the earth mother waitress with a sassy mouth and “zaftig” bosom.  Her voice wails and she compels in “I Didn’t Plan It.”

Lennie Klingaman is delightful as another waitress, Dawn, the geeky, Betsy Ross history-enactment specialist.  She adds just the right level of ditziness to make the character real, and not a caricature. 

Klingaman is matched by the scene-stealing, hysterically funny, Jeremy Morse, whose awkward Ogie appears to have forgotten to take his ADD meds.  Dawn and Ogie’s duet, “I Love You Like a Table” was the production’s musical delight highlight.

Nick Bailey was so successful in creating Earl, Jenna’s abusive husband, that when she said she was leaving him and wanted a divorce, there was protracted applause and cheers from the audience.  His solo curtain call was met with some “boos,” a tribute to his strong character portrayal.

Bryan Fenkart, Dr. Pomatter, Jenna’s gynecologist, Larry Marshall, Joe, a diner customer who plays a major role in Jenna’s ability to break from Earl, and, Maeisha McQueen, Dr. Pomatter’s smart-mouthed nurse, were all excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The quality of the music, the staging, the performances and the story line of “Waitress” assure that it will delight audiences as it traverses the country.  It’s a must see for anyone who loves musical theater at its creative best.

Tickets for “Waitress,” which runs through November 5, 2017, at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cleveland Ballet now the resident ballet company of PlayhouseSquare



The “new” Cleveland Ballet, under the artistic leadership of Puerto Rico-born Gladisa Guadalupe, a former member of the “old” Cleveland Ballet, the Dennis Nahat-led company which left CLE for San Jose, California, has been officially named the Resident Ballet Company of Playhouse Square.   

Guadalupe, along with the ballet board’s CEO and Chair, Michael Krasnyansky, have developed a company which intends to “cultivate a world-class resident professional ballet company.”

If their recent Ohio Theatre “Les Sylphides,” the three-part program is any indication, they are well on their way.

The woman-dominated company displayed fine technique and clear purpose as they opened the program with “Les Sylphides,” a half-hour non-narrative ballet with original choreography by Michael Fokine and music by Frederic Chopin.   Danced in traditional costumes and classic moves, the dance was performed to live piano music played by Ralitsa Georgieva-Smith.  The piece was staged by Russian-born ballerina, Aygul Abougalieva.

Filled with lovely moves, nice toe-work and elegant freezes, the “romantic reverie” was filled with poetic meaning. 

“A Collage of Frank Sinatra Songs” took the dancers in another direction…contemporary ballet with an “old blue eyes” twist. 

While still on toe and using effective movements, the dancers took on a guise of relaxed body postures and modern dance freedom of form and flow.  The highlight segment was “Saturday Night” in which Rainer Diaz-Martin instantly became the audience’s favorite, with his floating turns, powerful leaps and complete body control. 

“Saturday Night,” which highlighted Luna Sayag and Victor Jarvis and ‘I’ve Got the World On a String,” were also crowd pleasers.

“Concerto,” the world premiere, choreographed by Gladisa Guadalupe, closed the program.  Danced to Johan Sebastian Bach’s Piano Concerto in D minor, with live music played on dual pianos by Ralitsa Georgieva-Smith and Sophie Van Der Westhuizen, the sound and dance form of the three-movement piece melded well. 

Cleveland Ballet is an up and coming company.  They need more strong male dancers to balance off their very proficient women’s corps de ballet.

Next up: “Nutcracker Suite and Nutcracker Tea Festivities” (with a special appearance of the Singing Angels), December 15-17, 2017.  (Tickets:  playhousequare.org)

For information about the School of Cleveland Ballet which takes students 10-22 years of age call 216-320-9000 or go to http://www.clevelandballet.org/



Sunday, October 15, 2017

“Marjorie Prime” is prime offering at Dobama



Local theater-goers are familiar with the outstanding performance work of Dorothy Silver, often called “the first lady of Cleveland theater.”  Many are also aware of the creative writings of Jordan Harrison from his script development of the television hit, “Orange is The New Black.”  The two merge in Dobama Theater’s masterful “Marjorie Prime.”

Eighty-six-year old Marjorie (Dorothy Silver) sits stage left in an overstuffed recliner chair, which appears out of place in the contemporary sleek living space.  It is a chair obviously placed there for Marjorie’s convenience.

Her grayish wispy hair neatly combed, dressed in a bathrobe and high Ugg-like slippers, she is in conversation with “Walter.”  Walter (Nicholas Chokan), her dead husband.  Walter appears to be in his young thirties.  Walter moves rather stiffly and his voice sounds somewhat mechanical. 

As we find out, Walter is a “prime,” a computerized version of her husband who has been programmed to help Marjorie uncover the intricacies of her past, a necessity, as the woman has started to slide into dementia. 

Marjorie’s memory state confounds her daughter, Tess (Derdriu Ring), with whom she seems to have a contentious relationship.  Marjorie now lives with Tess and her supportive husband, Jon (Steve Sawicki).

The tale takes audience on a twisting, thought-provoking journey, complete with exposure to artificial intelligence.   To reveal any more of the actual story would ruin the experience for those who will be seeing the play.

The ninety-minute intermission-less exploration is almost existentialistic in its pursuit of asking questions.  Queries like: What does it mean to be human in the digital age?  Can technology replace humans?  Is rebuilding past memories really advantageous or is moving forward void of the past better, less painful?  If we had choices, what would we remember and what would we chose to forget?   And, probably the most important inquiry--What are my attitudes toward memory, mortality and the prospect of future life and decline?

Yes, Jordan Harrison explores the mysteries of human identity and the limits, if any, of what technology can replace.

Dobama’s production, under the wise direction of Shannon Sindelar, is superlative.  The cast, the pace, the line interpretation, grab and hold the audience from the fraught, frustrated opening comments and movements of Marjorie, through the introduction of the concept of a prime, to the growing frustrations of Marjorie and Tess, to the heart breaking conclusion.  It’s quite a journey.

Dorothy Silver, as we have come to expect, gives a compelling performance as Marjorie.   Every move, every line, every frown, every flick of her wrist, is meaningful.  It’s such a privilege to be in the spell of this bright, talented and alert octogenarian.

Derdriu Ring again displays her well-honed acting chops.  She doesn’t portray Tess, she is Tess.  It’s hard to believe that Silver and Ring (both Cleveland Critic Circle and Broadwayworld.com-Cleveland Best Actress award winners) aren’t really mother and daughter, simply presenting themselves in a public space.

CLE newcomer, Steve Sawicki, is a welcome addition to the local acting pool.  He gives a nicely textured performance as Jon.

Nicholas Chokan takes on the difficult task of portraying a “prime.”  He easily transfers from a motionless automaton to a life-like robot with amazing ease.

Jill Davis’ realistic contemporary set is playing area correct.  Sound Designer Erik T. Lawson has wisely placed a subtle “Twilight Zone” sound underlying the entire production, taking the audience into an other-world-like space.  (It’s either there, or I was transported to imagine the sound.)

Capsule judgment: “Marjorie Prime” is one of those special theatrical occurrences that allows the audience to experience both a thought-provoking script and a superbly acted and directed staging.  This is theater at its finest!  Go see!  Must see!

“Marjorie Prime” runs through November 12, 2017 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama: Local playwright Eric Coble’s adaptation of “Sherlock Holmes:  The Baker Street Irregulars,” from December 1-30, 2017.

Friday, October 13, 2017

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (MUSICAL) rings in at Great Lakes Theater


What do “Beauty and The Beast,” “The Lion King,” “Tarzan,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” and, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” have in common?  Yes, they are all animated Walt Disney Studio films.  The first five also transformed into Broadway hits.  Though “Hunchback” received Disneyfication, it never made it to the Great White Way.
 

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” which is now on stage at Great Lakes Theatre, which has music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Peter Parnell, is based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel of the same name which was transformed by Disney into an animated film in 1996.

The musical debuted at California’s LaJolla Playhouse in October of 2014.  In March of 2015 it played at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse.  Both venues have hosted shows on their way to Broadway.  However, after the Paper Mill production closed, it was decided that “Hunchback” was not Broadway material.
 

The question as to why the script has been released for non-Broadway theatres without getting a Big Apple trial has been a subject of conjecture.

Casting a crystal ball into the producers’ mind, here is some conjecture.


In contrast to most previous Disney tales transferring film to stage, Hunchback’s subject matter doesn’t center on princesses, animals or fairy book characters who end up with happy-ever-after lives.  Instead, the Hugo tale concerns physical and emotional malformation, negative observations about the church and its leadership, as well as prejudice about a cultural group, in this case, Gypsies. 
 

The ending is anything but happy.   The audience does not leave humming lovely ditties, they don’t joyfully exit with positive thoughts and feelings.  The subject doesn’t lend itself to joyous musical sounds and lyrics.
 

Then there is the case that “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is dark, both in staging and in message.  Its hero is not heroic in the traditional sense.  He does not reach a happy ending, problems solved.  He starts as a troubled, misshapen child and ends as a troubled, misshapen adult.
 

The script, with the play’s topics of gothic architecture, religion, politics and  immigration, are not exactly the subject of Disney musicals.
 

Successful Broadway musicals aren’t all sunshine and roses.  Think “Next to Normal,” “Ragtime,” and “Spring Awakening.”  But these didn’t start out as animated movies, products of Disney Studios.
So, what’s the tale? 


The story centers on Quasimodo, a bastard and deformed child who is being raised by his uncle, Dom Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre Dame.  The youth grows to manhood hidden away in the church’s bell tower with only the gargoyles as friends.  Gargoyles who come to life only in Quasimodo’s presence.
 

One day Quasimodo overcomes his fears and, against Frollo’s commands, decides to go to a festival.  There he is humiliated when he is offered as a contestant in the “ugliest man competition” by Esmerelda, a well-meaning Gypsy.  He wins, but is attacked in the riot which follows.  A riot started by Frollo’s men mainly because of the archdeacon’s hatred of the Gypsies.  He is freed by Esmerelda, goes back to the tower, but pines for the gypsy girl.
 

What follows are a series of events which eventually lead to a heartbreaking ending.  An ending which leads to a curtain-closing speech about bodies found years later in a burial vault in Notre Dame, a vault in which “two skeletons, one of which held the other in a singular embrace.”  The spine of one of the skeletons was crooked, “the head depressed between the shoulders, and one leg was shorter than the other.”   When the skeletons were touched, they disintegrated into dust.
 

After a slow, often tedious first act filled with lots of exposition, the second act exploded into strong, often captivating theatre.  The second act also contained stronger music.
 

The music, most of it based on clerical, heavy sounds that fit in Notre Dame, but aren’t exactly Broadway riffs.   “Entr’acte,” the first song of the 2nd Act was mesmerizing.  Esmeralda and Phoebus’s “Someday” is one of Stephen Schwartz’s signature “message” songs, such as “Corner of the Sky” from “Pippin,” which creates memorable meaning for a character and their dreams and wishes.
 

The GLT production, under the direction of Victoria Bussert, gets a lot out of what the conceivers give her.  There are many meaningful and impressive segments and performances.
 

The cast has a definite Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre program slant.  Among others, in name roles, Dan Hoy (Jehan Frollo, the Archdeacon’s younger brother), Alex Syiek (Clopin Trouillefou, King of the Gypsies), Olivia Kaufmann (Florika), Jon Loya (Phoebus De Martin), Corey Mach (Quasimodo) and Keri René Fuller (Esmeralda) are all BW grads or students.  Ironically, in both the LaJolla and Paper Mill productions, Esmeralda was performed by 2013 BW grad, Ciara Renee (who appeared on Broadway in “Big Fish” and the revival of “Pippin.”  
 
The cast was strong.  Alex Syiek, with his deep set dark eyes, sunken with makeup, was excellent as the swarthy King of the Gypsies.  He is a strong presence on stage.
 

Cory Mach’s strong singing voice and acting skills gave Quasimodo a sad but charming presence, though on occasion, he had some difficulty consistently maintaining the gimpy walk and stammering speech.  Mach has appeared on Broadway in “Hands On Hardbody,” and “Godspell,” and in the national tours of “Flashdance (The Musical),” “Wicked” And “Rent.”
 

Keri René Fuller sang Esmeralda beautifully.  She could have displayed a little more seductive fire as the beguiling Gypsy and center of Quasimodo’s infatuation. 
 

When Tom Ford came out for his solo curtain call he was soundly booed.  That’s quite a compliment for the believability of his nastiness in developing the maniacal archdeacon of Notre Dame.
 

The choral singing was beautifully executed by the Baldwin Wallace Choral Studies Program Choir and the orchestra was excellent under the conductorship of Joel Mercier.
 

Jeff Herrmann’s scenic design aided in setting the somber mood, as did Mary Jo Dondlinger’s somber lighting.  
 

Capsule judgement: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is not a typical Disney stage creation.  It is a dark, brooding musical and probably not appropriate for children.  While the first act is rather slow, the second act is strong.  It is well worth seeing.
 

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” runs through November 4, 2017 at the Hanna Theatre in repertoire with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Monday, October 09, 2017

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” delights at Great Lakes Theater



In his program notes to Great Lakes Theater’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the show’s director states that the play allows the audience to “sympathize with the joy and pain of being in love; the mystery of attraction, the intoxication of loving fiercely and not having love returned and how deeply the anguish is felt when quick bright things come to confusion.” 

Believe it or not, he is describing one of Shakespeare’s “most joyous comedies.”

The fantasy story centers on three couples and six amateur actors, all unknowingly controlled by a group of fairies.

The settings are Athens and a nearby forest.  The major event is the impending marriage of Theseus, Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, the former queen of the Amazons. 

While the festivities are being planned, Egeus, an Athenian nobleman, comes to court with his daughter, Hermia, and two young men, Demetrius and Lysander. Egeus wishes Hermia to marry Demetrius, but Hermia is in love with Lysander and refuses to comply.   

Theseus warns Hermia that disobeying her father’s wishes could result in her being sent to a convent or even executed.  

Young love is powerful and Hermia and Lysander plan to escape Athens the following night and marry. They confide in Hermia’s friend, Helena, who was once engaged to Demetrius and still loves him.  Hoping to regain his love, Helena tells Demetrius of the plot.  And, of course, chaos ensues.  Love potions, a man turning into an ass, hooking up of wrong lovers, and a terrible play within a play takes place.

Sound confusing?  It’s not.  The obvious tale of mixed love, the bumbling of the good intention of the fairies, and the final conclusion when all’s well that ends well, is all part of a delightful evening of Shakespeare and Great Lakes Theater at their very best.

“Dream” is filled with many of the Bard’s oft-repeated lines including “Lord, what fools these mortals be” and “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind."  Then, there is “The course of true love never did run smooth,” A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s most important theme.

Other themes are: The wonder of magic to embody the supernatural nature of love, and as a device to create a surreal world.  There is also a spotlight on the contemporary ideas of ambiguousness of sexuality, with some overtones of homoeroticism and lesbianism, as well as statements about feminism.  All this is a script written in the late 1500s.  A comedy, at that.

The GLT production, under the discerning direction of Joseph Hanreddy, is superb.  The laughter is primed just right, the farce is well-keyed and the slap-stick is held in check so that it is fun because it is well done, not over-done, as is the tendency in many of the stagings of the Bard’s comic works.

The cast is consistently excellent.  Corey Mach delights as the mod-hip, endearingly outrageous gum-chewing Lysander.   He is matched by Hermia, his lady love, in the personage of Michelle Pauker, who personifies well the Bard’s line, “And though she be little, she is fierce.”

Nick Steen reigns as both Theseus and the King of the Fairies.  Jillian Kates is regal as both Queen of the Amazons and Queen of the Fairies.  M. A. Taylor does himself proud as Puck, and Keri René Fuller delights as the much put-upon Helena.  David Anthony Smith almost steals the show as Nick Bottom, the weaver turned ass, turned weaver.

Scott Bradley has taken a traditional Globe theatre set and added shades of teal and netting to create a charming play area for the lovers.  Rachel Laritz’s modern-day costumes work well with the gentle updating of the Bard’s words and the mod interpretation. 

Capsule judgement:  Those who are afraid of seeing Shakespeare because of the oft abstract language and confusing plot twists should fear not.  This production is a total delight, with a nice mash-up of comedy and outlandish farce, mixed in with a little lover’s stardust.  It’s definite must see!

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs in repertoire with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame The Musical” through November 5, 2017 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Farcical, slapstick “The Rocky Horror Show” fun at Blank Canvas



On June 20, 1973 I had one of my mind-blowing experiences in a theater.  I was in London, the theater broker couldn’t get a ticket for the show I wanted and offered a ducat for a newly opened show.

I knew nothing about the musical, but, upon arriving at the Royal Court Theatre, I realized that I was in for a wild ride.   Instead of entering the lobby, those with tickets were queued-up, single file.  One-by-one, we were ushered into a blackened auditorium, led by an usher with a narrow-beamed flashlight.  Some of the audience members were given rain ponchos.  He led me down the aisle, pointed to a seat, I sat.

Suddenly a spotlight on stage revealed an usherette who gave a short speech.  Then a spot appeared on a platform raised above the audience at the rear of the theatre and we watched as Brad proposed to Janet.  The duo got into a car, the motor was heard starting, along with deafening thunder.  Lightning flashed and a “roadway” was seen, “rain” started falling, splashing onto the rain-coated people sitting along the runway that ran down the center of the performance space toward the stage.  There was the sound of a tire blowing out, Janet and Brad, with rain falling on them ran down the ramp, the stage became illuminated with more lightning and we were looking at an old scary castle with massive doors.

Yes, I was about to experience the bizarre “The Rocky Horror Show.” 

Yes, that musical.  The phenom which would become the cult movie. 

Yes, the show that introduced the world to Riff Raff, the live-in butler, his sister Magenta, the maid, Eddie, an unlucky delivery boy who fell victim to unfortunate circumstances, Rocky, the super-stud creation of Dr. Frank N. Furter, a pansexual, cross-dressing mad scientist, who plaintively tells us, in song, that he is "a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania."   Oh, and “The Time Warp,” the show's signature dance number.

During the ridiculousness, both nerdy Brad and virginal Janet are seduced by Frank "N"Furter, the mystery of aliens is revealed, Rocky turns out to be a sweet monster, Phantoms run wild, and poor Eddie gets mangled by an electric saw (relax, we only see the blood spattering). 

“The Rocky Horror Show” is a musical with music, lyrics and book by Richard O'Brien.   It is a bizarre tribute to the science fiction and horror B movies of the mid-1900s.

The original London, England showing was staged at the Royal Court Theatre (Upstairs) on 19 June 1973, and ran for a total of 2,960 performances.  

The 1975 Broadway debut at the Belasco Theatre was met with terrible reviews and ran only forty-five showings. (Yes, I saw that bomb as well.)

Fortunately (?) it was adapted into the also badly reviewed 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  In spite of the reviews, it became a cult hit, with Saturday night midnight showings.  Showings at which customers dress as story characters yelling out lines and follow-ups to the sexually suggestive lines, squirting each other with water during the rain storm and leaping from their seats to dance “The Time Warp.”  (Interested?  The Cedar Lee Theatre on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights has regular showings.)

You have to go into the 90-minute gag-fest with the right attitude.  This is over the top, farcical, slap-stick material presented with over-acting, audience involvement, and no semblance of purpose or message.

As the program states, “when sharing the Rocky experience, the idea is to have fun!’  participants are encouraged to: 
•DRESS UP: Everyone has a right to wear whatever you wish. We encourage you to come dressed as your favorite character or just come casual. It’s up to you!  

•CALLBACKS: Callbacks are encouraged and allowed. They should be used to add to the Rocky experience. Don’t try to shout down other people. They might know better lines than you do!   (A number of brave souls yelled out frequently.)
•THE TIME WARP: You can stand and dance with the cast. Just stay off the stage, please. Doing the “Time Warp” is essential, but it’s easy because they just tell you how to do the dance in the song! You’re set!
•PROPS: You can bring approved props or buy an audience bag at the theater. Some of the standard items are not required for the LIVE version of the show and others just are not allowed in our theater due to safety and cleanup.”

“The Rocky Horror Show” is a perfect script for Patrick Ciamacco, the “curmudgeon-in-charge” (Artistic Director) of Blank Canvas Theatre.  He loves shtick, he revels in slap-stick, he lives for the ridiculous.  He also knows his loyal audience, who have his same tastes, and has told his cast to let loose, and they do. 

Kevin Kelly camps to excess as Frank “N” Furter, Jonathan Kronenberger does a perfect Alfred Hitchcock as the Narrator, Danny Simpson makes us relive the glory days of Peter Loree as Riff Raff, and Amber Revelt is appropriately seductive as the alien Magenta. 

Mark Vandevender, he of gym-toned body, shows off his muscles clothed only in gold lamé short shorts, with a 9-inch appendage hanging out, while Ken-doll, Eric Fancher (Brad) and Gidget-cute, Meg Martinez (Janet) display vocal and acting skills (especially when reaching the heights of their sexual releases) as the star-crossed lovers.

The band (Zach Davis, Jason Stebelton, Keith Turner and Mark Bussinger), under the conducting of Bradley Wyner, gets a little out of hand at times, drowning out the singers, but neither the score nor the lyrics are Tony Award caliber, so the excess doesn’t get in the way.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  If you are in the right mood, and can let loose of your inhibitions, and take “The Rocky Horror Show,” for its intended purpose—a screwball musical comedy, you’ll have a blast!  This is not “Next to Normal” or “Bridges of Madison County,” just some” The Time Warp” fun!

Blank Canvas’s “The Rocky Horror Show” runs through October 28, 2017, in its near west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website. Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvastheatre.com

Next up at BC: “Urinetown The Musical” from December 1-16, 2017.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Compelling, must see “Well” @ Ensemble


Lisa Kron, who is best known for writing the lyrics and book to the musical, “Fun Home,” for which she won both the Tony Award for Best Original Score and for Best Book for a Musical, says of her play, “Well,” which is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre as the opening show in its 38th consecutive season, “It is a theatrical exploration?  That is … it's a very hard play to describe."  

Yes, the script is hard to classify.  Comedy?  Drama?  Biography?  It is all of these. 

“Well” is ostensibly an investigation of relationships between mothers and daughters, and the meaning of the word, “wellness,” but, it is so much more.

The creative, captivating, inventive journey is based on the author’s real relationship with Ann, her mother, in the Lansing, Michigan neighborhood in which she grew up with her chronically unwell, hypochondriac, social activist- parent.

Kron says that she “felt like an outsider even in her own family because she, her parents and her brother David were the only Jews.  And, one of the few white families in the neighborhood, as her non-Jewish born mother insisted on living in an integrated environment.

As the play unfolds, Lisa tries to explain her past, but Ann keeps correcting the narrative and other characters talk with Ann about her life and themselves.

Part of the time Lisa is speaking to the audience in intense, often humorous, sometimes heart-wrenching monologues.  Part of the time she is speaking to her mother.   In other instances, she interacts with neighbors, hospital personnel and members of the cast who break out-of-character to express their opinions about Lisa, Ann, both the characters and the actors who are portraying the duo, as well as themselves.  The exposition follows no time line, jumping easily back and forth. 

Yes, definitely not the typical modality of a play.

All in all, though it sounds confusing, the concept and the production are brilliant and easy to follow.

Director Celeste Cosentino has a clear understanding of Kron’s intention and has been blessed with a superlative cast who make the entire production seem like a first-time conversational experience.  No acting here.  Just real people, speaking well-written, believable lines.

It is hard to conceive that Lara Mielcarek is not Lisa Kron.  She perfectly inhabits the role.  Incidentally, in the New York production of “Well,” the author played herself.

Laura Starnik is Mielcarek’s equal as Kron’s mother.  Old and addlepated one minute, charming and funny the next, Starnik is Ann-perfect.

The rest of the cast, April Needham, Maya Jones, Brian Kenneth Armour and Craig Joseph, playing various roles of people in Lisa’s life, as well as themselves, are all up to the task. 

Bryanna Bauman’s lighting design aids in assisting the audience to adjust to time lines and the “acted” versus the “live” scenes. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Well” is one of those special scripts and performances that showcases the message of what theater is all about.  It’s a must see experience.
“Well” runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Saturdays @ 2 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through October 22, 2017 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  (BTW--there is no performance on 10/7 and an Industry Night on 10/9.)  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

Ensemble’s next production is Eugene O’Neill’s socially relevant, “The Hairy Ape” being staged from November 17-December 10, 2017.

To see the views of other Cleveland area theater reviewers about this production, go to:  clevelandtheaterreviews.com

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Musical Theater Project presents “The Impact of OKLAHOMA!”


March 31, 1943 is a key day in American theatrical history.  It is the date that is often credited with introducing the world to the “book musical,” a form of theatre in which songs and dances are fully integrated into a well-conceived story.  A story that evokes emotions by incorporating themes and motifs that connect all parts of the production.

That March day, “Oklahoma!,” the first musical written by composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II opened and set the theatrical world on its proverbial head.

Taking Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which is set in the Oklahoma Territory, before the birth of the state to be known as Oklahoma, it looks at a small Okie town in 1906.  It showcases the plight of the territory to become part of the USA and the love stories between Curly McLain and Laurey Williams and that of Will Parker and Ado Annie.  Pathos and humor abound.

“Oklahoma!” was the first true book musical.  “Showboat” and “Porgy and Bess” had story lines, but all the parts, the music, book and dance, were not well integrated.  Songs and dances could be dropped or added and the story would continue. “Of Thee I Sing,” (1932) won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the first “musical” to do so, but, again, all the pieces-parts were not tightly woven together.

“Oklahoma!” set the structure that was followed by most productions during the Golden Age of the American Musical (1943 to 1959):  a story into which dance and music are melded into the plot, an overture, a first act that ended with a conflict that would be solved in the second act, and a rousing production finale.   Gone were the days of the totally escapist, plotless reviews, spectacles and vaudeville.  Now, and forever more, the story holds sway.

The musical, with captivating choreography by Agnes De Mille, ran for a then record 2,212 performances.   Numerous revivals and national tours followed and it became an Academy Award-winning film (1955).

The show also highlighted some Rodgers and Hammerstein patterns which are found in their future collaborations.  Almost all of their musicals are about community, the formation and/or sustaining of a community.   Many of their songs have an Eastern European cantorial musical sound which is highlighted by “exaggerated abrupt shifts of key, tempo, and style—that dramatize the progression from sorrow to joy and vice versa, as well as small melodic ‘cells,’ that are combined like building blocks to create tunes.”

R & H plots often have two levels of relationship (e.g., Curly and Laurey/Will Parker and Ado Annie in “Oklahoma,” Billy and Julie/Mr. Snow and Carrie in “Carousel,” Nellie and Emile/Lt. Cable and Liat in “South Pacific”).  There is always a song which carries the duo’s social message (e.g., “The Farmer and the Cowman” -- “Oklahoma!,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — “Carousel” and” You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”— “South Pacific.”

Ready to hear more about Rodgers and Hammerstein III and hear their songs?  On Saturday, October 14 @ 7, The Musical Theater Project will present “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ The Impact of Oklahoma!,” at Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center, 1005 Abbe Road, Elyria (for tickets call 440-366-4004 or go on line to stockerartscenter.com).  The program will be repeated on Sunday, October 15 @ 3 PM in the Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square (tickets:  216-241-6000 or playhousesquare.org)

The program will be hosted by Bill Rudman and Nancy Maier and will feature Ursula Cataan, Lindsey Sandham Leonard, Joe Monaghan, Shane Patrick O’Neill and Fabio Polanco.

For information about the Musical Theater Project go to http://www.musicaltheaterproject.org/

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Mesmerizing, emotion-laden “Last of the Boys” at none too fragile



It is ironic that the same weekend that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War” started screening, none too fragile theater brought up the lights on its intimate stage to showcase Steven Dietz’s Vietnam memory play, “Last of the Boys.”

An award-winning playwright, Dietz is one of the nation’s new breed of writers who are noted as being “prolific and versatile” and in search of showcasing modern problems.  With his mastery of language and ability to create complex and dynamic characters and tell stories, he could qualify as the Arthur Miller or William Inge of the twenty-first century.

As for “Last of the Boys,” Dietz says, “though the play reflects on the events of the Vietnam era it is not a historic play.  This is about a world in which the same hard choices keep presenting themselves.” 

Those hard choices include asking:  What are the toxic results of horrific experiences of fighting in a war?  Should we blame others for their urging us to make certain life changes?  Can we forgive the mistaken beliefs of others that have an effect on our lives?  How long do fearsome memories haunt a person?  And, can we hide from our past?

The story centers on Ben, a Vietnam war vet who lives in a California trailer park situated on a toxic wasteland, and his war buddy, Jeeter, a hippy, modern age college professor, who is obsessed with the Rolling Stones and follows them around the world on their concert tours. 

Though the war is forty years in the past, much of the duo’s relationship and identity center on the haunting effects of their battle experiences, especially on Ben, who has nightmares and sees illusions of military men and Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, at the time of the conflict.

Jeeter comes for his annual visit, accompanied by Salyer, his new girlfriend.  The couple goes to Ben’s father’s funeral, which Ben does not attend.  (The reason rolls out as the play develops).  Shortly after the funeral, Lorraine, Salyer’s alcoholic mother, shows up.

What ensues is an examination of identities, angst and revelations, including the 1967 incident outside of Dak To which changed Ben and Jeeter’s lives forever, and why Salyer encases her entire body in a layer of black clothing.

As has become the pattern at none too fragile, the production is compelling.  Director Sean Derry hits all the right vocal and blocking notes in developing the story and highlighting Dietz’s razor sharp language.

Skinny, balding, pinched faced, with hollow vacant eyes, Rob Branch is the requisite image of the PSTD remains of the human once known as Ben.  His tortured-being shines through.

Paul Floriano makes Jeeter a physical and emotional being stuck in the 1960s.  He seeks peace, literally and figuratively, through reliving the flower-child era in his life style and attitudes, unable to move forward.

Rachel Lee Kolis is appropriately angst filled, having been forced to live a life of lies created by her alcoholic, pathetic mother (Anne McEvoy) who, like the others, refuses to face reality.

Nate Homolka effectively develops the role of the phantom soldier, appearing as needed to help fulfill fantasy.

Capsule judgement:  War is hell and, as highlighted in “Last of the Boys,” its aftermath is often worse.  Kudos to Sean Derry and his cast for creating a compelling evening of theater.  This is must see theater for anyone interested in fine acting and a more real than life picture of the outcomes of combative and emotional wars on human beings.

 “Last of the Boys” runs through September 30, 2017 at none too fragile theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron.  For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to nonetoofragile.com

The next none too fragile show is Keith Huff’s “A Steady Rain” from October 27-November 11.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Cleveland Play House opens 2017-2018 with entertaining “Shakespeare in Love”


Lee Hall, the Tony Award winning musical book writer for “Billy Elliott the Musical,” once wrote, “The point of theatre is transformation:  to make an extraordinary event out of ordinary material right in front of an audience’s eyes. What matters is the power of theatre to move and to change people.  That is what “Shakespeare in Love” is about.  It is about a place which can allow a common player to be a Queen, boys to be girls, where we make the miraculous out of the mundane” and include a part for a dog.

The adaptor of the film “Shakespeare in Love” into play form, which is now on stage at Cleveland Play House, Hall might have added, “and where we can watch as a very talented man, creates poetic words and idea-inciting plots that will live forever.”

The play’s program states, “We invite you to join us in the lusty, bawdy, adventurous world in which Shakespeare lived loved, and wrote.  A world where sex and history combine for a punchline, where desires of the body go hand-in-hand with those of the soul, and where a good disguise can go a long way.”  And, it could have added, to a question posed in the script, “Yes a play can be about true love.”  And, yes, as Elizabeth I demanded in all the plays of her era, there is a dog!

Those who watched the recent television series, “Will” will be glad to add to their pseudo-history knowledge of The Bard by participating in yet another of the hot-blooded Shakespeare’s infidelities in this production.

A combination of farce, comedy, drama, tragedy and historification, “Shakespeare in Love” allows us to view a penniless youthful Shakespeare go from a 1593 playwright with writer’s block to a “phenome” churning out hit plays after he meets the fair Viola, who inspires him to write the likes of “Romeo and Juliet” and lay the foundation for many of his other masterpieces (which often include a dog.)

Because of the blending of acting styles needed to perform the various genres of the script, the complexity of the plot and the need for a perfectly trained dog (yes there is a dog), the material is difficult to perform.

Worry not.  Director Laura Kepley has the entire mélange in hand.  The farce and slapstick are well developed, comedy lines nicely cued, the tragedy focused and the entire production zips right along.

Lex Liang’s sets and costumes, Russell H. Champa’s lighting design, Jane Shaw’s sound design and compositions add the right moods to the staging.  The fights, the choreography and the music, thanks to Drew Fracher, David Shimotakahara and Nathan Motta are well conceived.

The cast understands the necessary changes needed to accent the writers’ intent and play their multi-roles with aplomb.

Charlie Thurston looks like the sketches we have seen of Shakespeare, and nicely makes Will into a love sick charming rogue as well as a talented poet and playwright.  Marina Shay inhabits the role of the both cunning and lovely Viola.

Donald Carrier delights as Henslowe, a debt-ridden theater owner, Andhy Mendez well interprets Marlow, Shakespeare’s playwriting rival, Brian Owen blusters effectively as Burbage, the owner of a rival theatre, and Evan Zes delights as the uptight Fennyman, the money lender.  And of course, there is Nigel the dog, who brings many laughs as Spot. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   A combination of farce, comedy, drama, tragedy and historification, “Shakespeare in Love” delights.  It makes for a joyful start to CPH’s 2017-2018 season.  And, yes, there is a dog!

“Shakespeare in Love” runs through October 1, 2017, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Next up at CPH is “The Diary of Anne Frank” from October 21-November 19 in the Outcalt Theatre.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Finely performed “Simply Simone” jazzes up Karamu


Mention the name Nina Simone and your mind probably conjures up jazz.  Yes, Nina, the jazz superstar and writer/performer of such powerhouse songs as “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”  But, were you aware that the terms child prodigy, civil rights activist, political exile and the Legend Queen of Black Classical music also apply?

Simone, whose given name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was the child of a preacher who was emotionally absent and an uptight religious mother. 

Born in the deeply segregated South, she showed early talent as a pianist and, under the tutelage of a white piano teacher, and the financial backing of both blacks and whites of Tryon, North Carolina, Eunice, who wished to be the first black major concert pianist, was accepted at Julliard School of Music. 

She was later denied entrance into the prestigious Curtiss Institute of Music in Philadelphia, in a slightly veiled act of race and gender bias.  Two days before her death, the rejection was set aside when Curtiss gave her an honorary doctorate degree.

In order to avoid the wrath of her mother, who detested the “devil’s music”, Eunice changed her name to Nina Simone.  Thus, she started to play “cocktail piano” and sing, in her contralto voice, at venues in Atlantic City, wrote her own songs, and made herself into the diva of classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel and pop.  Before she was done, she produced more than 40 albums.

“Simply Simone the music of Nina Simone” is a biographical review which uses song to illustrate the turbulent life and rich artistic legacy of this American musical diva.

The songs, presented by four different African American women, all performing Nina at various stages of her life, illustrate the many moods of the woman, as well as the important people in her life.

We experience Eunice’s upbringing, early piano lessons, youthful successes, marriage and relationship failures, friendships with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lorraine Hansberry, Leroy Jones and Langston Hughes, as well as her exile from the country for tax evasion, refusal to return for the funeral of her father, her relationship with her daughter, and the rises and falls of her career.

To be successful, a production of “Simply Simone” requires four supreme actresses with stellar voices and a wailing band.  Fortunately, Karamu has all the bases covered.

In its regional premiere, and the opening of the theatre’s 2017-2018 season, the outstanding cast features Sheffia Randall Dooley (the Earth Mother image of Simone), Afia Mensa (youthful image), Corlesia Smith (sophisticated Nina) and Mariama Whyte (the edgy and powerful façade).  Each woman plays the singer as a person or as a part of the legend.

Ed Ridley’s band, featuring his keyboard playing, the percussion of Elijah Gilmore, Brad McGee on guitar and bass player Kevin Byous, excel, expertly backed up without drowning out the singers. 

The scenic and costume design of Inda Blatch-Geib, lighting by Prophet Seay, sound by Rob Peck and choreography by Adenike Sharpley all enhance the production, which is under the adept direction of Caroline Jackson Smith.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  If you like the sounds and music of Nina Simone, enjoy well played, sung and performed jazz, gospel, blues, folk, R&B, and pop music, and want to know more about the Diva of Jazz, Karamu’s “Simply Simone” should be your entertainment destination.

“Simply Simone” continues through October 8, 2017 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street. In contrast to a pervious announcement, the entire theatre season will be performed on the Karamu campus.  Free parking in a guarded lot is available.  For ticket information call 216-795-7070 or go on line to www.kramuhouse.org

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Irreverent “Book of Mormon” delights in return visit at State Theatre


One of the major concerns in attending a return visit by a Broadway touring show is that the production will be a lesser version.   Those planning on attending “Book of Mormon,” now on stage at the State Theatre, should have no fears.  This reincarnation is equally good as any of the other versions that have trucked into town.  In fact, it is probably better than some of the others.

After writing five reviews about the show, what more is there for me to say about the plot?  Not much, so here’s a blend of some of the former reviews and some added comments about this production.
 

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the long-time writers of “South Park,” are satirical comics extraordinaire.  Their writing marriage to Robert Lopez, the co-creator of the Tony Award winning “Avenue Q,” is a union made in heaven (or at least in the Broadway version of heaven). 
 

“The Book of Mormon” is a satirical musical filled with lots of explicit language.  It lampoons organized religion and, in its own way, follows the format, but mocks traditional musical theater. 
The script tells the story of two naïve and optimistic Mormon missionaries (Elder Price and Elder Cunningham) who are sent to a remote village in northern Uganda.  A brutal warlord is threatening the locals.  While the duo is trying to sell the locals on Mormon scripture, the people are more concerned with famine, poverty, female circumcision, war and AIDS.  Oh, what to do, what to do?
 

How did the duo get to Uganda or even get matched together?  Elder Price is the poster boy for the Ken doll, clean cut, and striving for perfection Mormon missionary.  Elder Cunningham is a rotund, friendless nerd, who relies on half-truths and a vivid imagination to get by.  They were cast as a duo through total serendipity, an act of heaven, and some clever comic writers, to go out and ring the doorbells of the world.

As Elder Cunningham, who admits never having read the mythical Book, makes up fantastic tales, which, in reality, aren’t far from the actual imaginative tales of Adam Smith, Brigham Young, the golden tablets, and the migration of the Mormons from upstate New York to Salt Lake City, and he wins over converts. 
 

After he baptizes the entire town, the church’s elders come to witness the miraculous success.  The villagers share their understanding of the Cunningham version of their new religion in a reenactment, which parallels in form to “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” in the “King and I,” with illusions to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from “The Sound of Music.”  Of course chaos results, everything turns out fine, and, after a standing ovation, the audience leaves the theatre singing, “I Believe.”
 

The touring show is spectacular.  It plays visually and emotionally on all the senses.  From its giddy opening number (think the “Telephone Hour” at the start of “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” to its mocking use of four letter words, to its bigger than life melodrama, to the over-the-top mythology (often paralleling the belief system to “Star Wars”), we are sucked into the idea that, as one of the words to the many delightful songs states, “tomorrow is a doper, phatter latter day.”  (I won’t even go into the concept of the song “Ma Ha Nei Bu, Eebowai!” [“F _ _ _You Heavenly Father”], you just have to experience it to experience it!)
 

The settings, music, costumes, lighting effects, perfect comic timing of the cast, and creative choreography all work.
 

With shiny perfect teeth flashing, Gabe Gibbs hits all the right notes as Elder Price.  Conner Peirson steals the show as Elder Cunningham, the “creative liar.” Maha’la Herrold is enchanting as Nabulungi.  Oge Agulue is both hysterically funny and evil incarnate, as General Butt-F _ _ king Naked, the war lord.  The rest of the cast also shines. 
 

Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker’s direction is spot on.  Farce, especially musical farce, is hard to accomplish due to its required spoken and sung controlled abandonment, but these guys guide their cast with laser perfection.  Nicholaw’s choreography is fun and well-executed.  Ever thought you’d see a dancing kick line of Mormons?
 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you haven’t seen “The Book of Mormon,” or need a new shot of irreverent satire which skewers anyone and everyone, this is an absolute go see production. If you are a language prude, religious fanatic, or aren’t in the mood for ridiculous delight, stay away.  It’s everything a modern musical that is meant for pure entertainment, with a sip of philosophy, should be!
 

Tickets for “The Book of Mormon,” which runs September 17, 2017, at the State Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to www.playhousesquare.org.