Saturday, July 27, 2002

The Melody Lingers On...The God Belss America Musical (Berea Summer Theatre)

Pleasant Meldoy lingers on at Berea Summer Theatre

Summer is made for relaxing, reminiscing, and pleasant times. Berea Summer Theatre’s THE MELODY LINGERS ON...THE GOD BLESS AMERICA MUSICAL, which is based on the songs of Irving Berlin will satisfy all those summer needs.

Irving Berlin was born in Eastern Russia in 1888. His family moved to New York in 1893 to escape the pogroms. At the age of eight, he took to the streets of the Lower East Side of New York City to help support his family after his father had died. In the early 1900s he started writing songs. His first published hit was "Marie From Sunny Italy."

In World War I he wrote the musical YIP, YIP, YAPHANK which included the hit song "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." On Armistice Day, 1939, he introduced "God Bless America," which was sung by Kate Smith (a filmed version of this is included in the BST production). This song threatened to replace the national anthem because of its popularity. In World War II, he wrote the musical THIS IS THE ARMY, which contained "This is the Army, Mr Jones" and “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen."

Berlin was prolific. He wrote more than 900 songs, 19 musicals, including the legendary ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, and the scores of 18 movies. Some of his songs that have become classics include "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Easter Parade," and "White Christmas."

Following a 1988 gala 100th birthday celebration concert at Carnegie Hall, Morton Gould, president of ASCAP, said that "Irving Berlin's music will last not for just an hour, not for just a day, not for just a year, but always." Songwriter Jerome Kern observed "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music." Not bad for a poor immigrant who had only two years of formal schooling and who never learned to read music! Irving Berlin died on September 22, 1989, at the age of 101.

THE MELODY LINGERS ON...THE GOD BLESS AMERICA MUSICAL chronicles Berlin’s life and music, with an actor portraying Berlin acting as the narrator.

Director/choreographer Eric van Baars has developed a pleasant show. There are neither stirring moments nor disappointing flaws. The 10-person cast is competent, the music well presented, the choreography nicely developed. Scenic designer Todd Kripsinsky’s mutli-leveled piano-motifed set works well. The use of real slides and pictures of Berlin’s life was a production enhancement. Jeffrey Smarts’ costumes are nicely conceived.

Show highlights include the cleverly choreographed “When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam’,” the flapper era ditty “Shaking The Blues Away,” “ the energetic “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” and the creative “Let Yourself Go.”

Capsule judgment: One of the show’s lines states, “The evening was electric.” No, the evening wasn’t electric, but it is pleasant and reminiscent and relaxing. It makes for a nice summer entertainment.

The Music in Me!/Varla Jean (Cleveland Public Theatre)

I've got 'The Music in Me!' a delight at CPT

The stage is dark. The music, “Make Your Own Kind of Music” fills the theatre. A vision appears, a tall, long legged, muscular, full-busted woman with flowing red hair appears. Varla Jean Merman is here! Well, in actuality it’s Jeffery Roberson portraying Varla Jean. Don’t get the idea that this is a drag show. It’s not. Jeffery is Varla Jean. He/she also does all her own singing. No tapes of Liza, Bette or Barbra here. As Varla states, “I’m too self absorbed for that.”

The show, which is audience-inclusive, is part adlib, part music, part video, part double entendre, and full-time fun! This “woman” can sing. “She” can sing even when shooting canned cheese whiz down her throat. This “woman” can bat her eye lids and convulse an audience. Her rewritten version of MY FAIR LADY’S “Why Can’t the English” as a rap song is clever. Her Yodeling Weiner ventriloquism act convulses. The video of her attendance at her prom was delightful. Her final goodbye, complete with a plea to the audience to buy her c.d., left the audience laughing.

Capsule judgement: Go to the show expecting the outrageous and you’ll go with the right attitude. Do go, you’ll be enraptured.

Tony and Tuna's Wedding, adds a new star (Hanna Theatre)

TONY N’ TINA adds a new star for the night

After a lifetime on stage as an actor and director, I hadn’t appeared on stage in over 15 years. That string was broken on July 17 when I had made a cameo appearance in TONY N’ TINA’S WEDDING, the longest running play in Cleveland history. The program addition read, “At this performance Roy Nunzio will be played by theater critic Roy Berko.”

Not only did I have a wonderful time, but was again impressed with the delight the cast shares with the audience as they enact a wild Italian wedding complete with fights, a priest and nun who get drunk, dollar dances, a gay romance, an Italian feast highlighted by Orlando’s bread, a bad-joke MC, wedding guests singing and dancing, and a congo line down 14th Street.

The members of the cast are dedicated to the production and were wonderful hosts. Pete Ferry, the father of the groom, steered me through the evening with the able assistance of beautiful Erika Nicol Whites, who portrays his blond bimbo girlfriend. Michael Herzog, a charmer who conned my wife into giving him a backrub, and who portrays Tina’s brother, was always at hand with a smile to assist when Pete had to leave me alone. Tony, James Klein, and Mark Gates, portraying Father Mark were wonderful in our interactive scenes.

People in the audience who I knew tried, of course, to get me to break character. After a while they just started to play along.

My favorite moment? When a woman asked me to dance and slipped a dollar bill into the cummerbund I was wearing with my tux!

If you’ve seen it before, come back to see TONY N’ TINA’S WEDDING, it’s even more fun the second time. If you haven’t seen it, do so, you’ll have a wonderful time. According to Jeon Francis, the show’s public relations coordinator, the show is scheduled to run through New Year’s Eve.

By the way, if Jacqui Loewy, the show’s production stage manager, ever needs a fill-in cast member, I ‘m willing to appear at a moment’s notice.

Brigadoon (Porthouse/KSU)

Well-conceived 'BRIGADOON' closes succesful Porthouse season

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe are icons of musical theatre. Their musicals center on the theme of the perfect place, the perfect time, the perfect love story. Think of CAMELOT, MY FAIR LADY, and, of course, BRIGADOON.

Brigadoon was the first big hit for the magical team. The story is based on a tale by Frederick Gerstacker. The original story centered on the mythical German village of Germelshausen that fell under a magical spell. The play transforms the setting to a Scottish village named Brigadoon which remains unchanging and invisible except for one day every hundred years, when it can be seen and visited by outsiders. Visitors might be allowed to stay, but if any residents ever left, the spell would be broken -- and that would be the end of them all. Two American tourists, Tommy Albright and Jeff Douglas stumble upon the misty town. Tommy soon falls in love with Fiona, a local lass, and must decide whether to return to the real world or remain in Brigadoon forever. The title comes from the word "Brigadoonery" which describes anything that is grotesquely Scottish-like, but well-intentioned.

The Porthouse production is very well-intentioned. Director Terri Kent has assembled a talented cast, has a clear concept of where she wants the production to go, and has created a well-conceived though slightly flawed production.

As Tommy, Lorain County’s Raymond Ewers has Broadway leading-man good looks and possesses a pleasant singing voice. He needs to sell his songs more, stressing the meaning of the words, not just singing them. Mary Klaehn is enchanting as Fiona. She has a marvelous singing voice and develops a clear character. May Ann Black, a Rue McClanahan look and act-alike, portrays Meg, the female comedy relief. She has a fine sense of timing, but the clever words to her songs are often lost between the heavy brogue and lack of crisp articulation. Frank Kosik, as Tommy’s friend Jeff, brings the right New Yorker touch to the role. Lauren Marshall and Lisa Kuhnen display finesse in two dance solos. Adam Day Howard’s proficiency as a bagpiper is astounding.

Scenic Designer Raynette Halvorsen Smith’s set is impressive, but turns out to cause problems. It is so massive that it leaves performers little room for movement. Choreographer John Crawford has conceived some wonderful dance numbers, especially considering the limited space with which he had to work.

Kent has done a good job of making sure that the chorus is involved in the production. She might, however, urge some of the members to cut down their distracting overacting and preplanned facial moves and gestures. A problem was also present in a pivotal death scene. Since the body is lying on the floor within easy view, when he was pronounced dead, due to the actor’s obviously heavy breathing after a furious chase scene, the audience giggled. Placing the body on a level, or blocking him from the audience would have eliminated this problem. Small problems in an otherwise audience-pleasing production.

Capsule judgement: 'BRIGADOON 'brings to an end a very impressive season at Porthouse. Terri Kent and her staff deserve a curtain call for taking this Kent State University summer project to a higher level than has been experienced in the past. Kudos!

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

The Shaw Festival/Canada--2002 review

Shaw Festival, a place to go for entertainment and beauty

Nestled in lower Canada’s beautiful wine-country, just over the border from Buffalo rests Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. It is noted as the most beautiful little city in Canada. The reputation is deserved. In spring and summer the village blooms with wonderful flowers, green golf courses, and vineyards. It is the home of fine bed and breakfasts, spas, and an excellent array of restaurants.

For many US Americans, besides the beauty, the big draw is the annual Shaw Festival. Housed in three unique theatres, the festival is dedicated to producing musicals, dramas and comedies that were written during the life span of George Bernard Shaw or about that era. The mainstay productions are Shaw pieces themselves. This is high quality, professional theatre at its finest. The Festival has been successfully headed by Artistic Director Christopher Newton who is retiring this year after 22 years at its helm.

The present season includes two wonderful productions ,CANDIDA and CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, both written by Shaw. There are also a couple of strong shows, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, a musical by Steven Sondheim, and Ronald Ackland’s THE OLD LADIES which is based on a novel by Hugh Walpole. Also on the board are two less successful productions, Sidney Kingsley’s DETECTIVE STORY and Harly Granville Barker’s HIS MAJESTY. Shows which are running, which I didn’t get to review are THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL, THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, and THE OLD LADY SHOWS HER MEDALS. Later in the season Noel Coward’s HAY FEVER and Simon Bradbury’s CHAPLIN will be added. Productions run to late November.

CANDIDA is a delight which centers on a menage a trois between a vicar, his beguiling wife, and a youthful poet. The show has a perfectly balanced cast and is well directed. It is Shaw at his finest...illustrating the power of women, poking fun at the frailties of men, mocking the church, making political lectures, and dispensing with God. And, of course, adding memorable lines to the English vocabulary such as “Nothing worth saying is proper.” “Poets talk to themselves out loud and the world hears them.” and “The quantity of truth the average man can bear is still very small.” As Jackie Maxwell says in her director’s notes, “CANDIDA shows us that nothing is still as timeless, resonant and fascinating as the mysterious workings of the human heart.” This is a wonderful production!

Written in 1898, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA is as relevant today as it was then. It is part lesson in how states should be governed, part comic critique of the occupation of one country by another, part love story and part murder mystery. The play asks, How do you live a good life? Can we accomplish the impossible? Can there be such a thing as ethical government? One of Shaw’s great plays it is crammed with authentic historical details and then embellished with the writer’s own philosophy of life and politics. As director Christopher Newton states, “Like the Sphinx itself, this is a play of smiling riddles and mysterious omens.” CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA is a wonderful theatrical experience. Everything is well honed. The sets are awesome, the acting compelling, the pacing perfect, the humor well-keyed.

How does US America’s most proficient writer, Steven Sondheim, wind up on a Shaw Festival stage? MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG fits the Festival’s mission as it is based on a 1930’s Kaufman and Hart comedy.

The musical has an interesting gimmick. It is written in reverse order. We know how the characters end up right at the start. What we find out is how they got there. Memorable music includes “Old Friends,” “Not a Day Goes By,” “Opening Doors,“ and, of course, the title tune. The festival chooses its cast for their acting abilities as they all appear in several shows. Unfortunately, this leads to some inconsistency in their musicals as singing and dancing are not the company’s primary strengths. That’s not to say the production is bad. It isn’t. In fact, it is quite good. Just don’t go expecting to hear Broadway caliber singers. The audience was delighted at the show and that, in reality, is all that is important.

THE OLD LADIES makes for intriguing theatre. The play is brooding and spooky. Set in an old house with three apartments for let, we find ourselves entwined in the lives of three very different old, unmarried women. The story concerns displacement, poverty, fear, social reality, disappointment, and relationships between individuals. The weakness, if there is one, is the ending. It was interesting to hear the audience offering alternative conclusions as they exited.

The performances are outstanding. Each character is perfectly developed. We are made to feel like voyeurs peeking in on the solitary lives of these three elderly women, sharing their few joys and many sorrows. This is a thought provoking theatrical experience.

Both DETECTIVE STORY and HIS MAJESTY, though very different venues, suffer the same problem. They both are ploddingly directed by Neil Munro. DETECTIVE STORY is a US American mystery. As often happens with Canadians attempting to do US plays, they lack the right cadence and attitude. DETECTIVE STORY requires New York accents, rapid pacing and intensity. An interesting play that weaves multiple characters into a story, much like present-day TV programs such as THE PRACTICE, Kingsley forces characters to reveal themselves to each other, and therefore, to the audience. Basically, it is a story about the fall of a policeman who becomes one of the criminals he despises.

With a better production HIS MAJESTY could have been captivating. It is a political thriller which examines the role of a deposed monarch and his role in dealing with a brutal political struggle for his country. As the king proclaims, “I won’t win back my kingdom by bloodshed,” but the forces around him plot otherwise. HIS MAJESTY is filled with the stuff good scripts are made of--ultimatums, political intrigue and the games of war men play. It’s a shame that the production lacks dynamism. As is, it’s a talkathon.

The Shaw Festival is about a 3 1/2-4 hour easy drive from Cleveland. See a show or two, visit nearby Niagara Falls, see the Welland Canal, ride in a horse drawn carriage, take a bike ride along the river, visit a winery, go antiquing, experience a jet boat ride, and take advantage of the great exchange rate which makes the entire experience a bargain. Stay at a bed and breakfast. Suggested: TAIGH-NA-MRRA on Mississauga Street. Margaret Currie, the owner, offers old-fashioned Scottish hospitality, her breakfasts are wonderful, and the house is immaculate. (Call 905-468-4646). Favorite places for dinner are The Inn on the Twenty Restaurant (a Zagat Guide favorite) and Queenston Heights Restaurant, which has wonderful food and an awesome view of the river and valley.

Sunday, July 21, 2002

I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change (Actor's Summit)

'I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE' pleasant at Actors' Summit

Now in its 6th smash year I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE Is currently Off-Broadway's longest-running musical revue. Written by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts, the show opened on August 1, 1996. Since then productions have been mounted in more than 150 cities worldwide. Since its opening, I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE has become the most proposal-friendly show in history. On thirteen reported occasions a young man has taken the stage to make a surprise proposal to his sweetheart. In all cases, the brides-to-be accepted as the audience roared with approval.
The show takes the audience on a musical ride through the difficulties and joys of connecting with another person. It specifically probes dating, dating rituals, romance, marriage, lovers, husbands, wives, in-laws, sex, the effect of babies on a marriage, and late life relationships. The cast portrays over 50 roles in a collection of scenes and songs.
Actors’ Summit is the first local theatre to present the review. Though slowed down by extensive set changes, most of which could have been eliminated by allowing the audience to imagine the various settings , the production is an audience pleaser.
The young cast is pleasing but uneven in their performances. The singing, which is the center of the production, is generally fine, but sometimes there are problems in vocal blending. The musical accompaniment is generally good, but the violin and piano sound is shallow and on occasion the performers have precision difficulties.
Broadway bound Jenn Goodson has both a strong singing voice and nice comedic timing. Her version of “Always a Bridesmaid” was especially endearing. Kari Kandel has a pleasant singing voice. A show highlight was her rendition of ”He Called Me,” about the habit of men forgetting to call after promising to do so. Keith Stevens is a delight, especially in ”The Baby Song,” portraying the idiocy associated with being a new father. Andrew Brelich has some good moments as in his rendition of “Shouldn’t I Be in Love With You.” Other show highlights are “A Stud and a Babe” about nerds finding love and “Not Tonight, I’m Busy, Busy, Busy” about contemporary speed dating.“
I LOVE YOU, YOU'RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE is a delightful concept and a perfect summertime escapist break from world and personal problems.

Smokey Joe's Cafe (Beck Center)

Remarkable 'SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE' at Beck Center AT BECK CENTER

Start with an outstanding score, add a very talented cast, sprinkle with functional sets, spice with a great band, and place the mixture in the hands of a talented director and choreographer. The results? Beck Center’s remarkable SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE.

SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE is a musical review composed of songs written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who are the soul of the 1950s and 60s Rock and Roll era. Their songs were sung by the likes of Elvis Presley and include such classics as “I’m a Woman,” Jailhouse Rock,””Hound Dog” and “Yakety Yak.” There is no plot, no story line, no attempt to impart a message. This is singing, dancing and music. In lesser hands than choreographer/director Martin Cespedes and his marvelous cast it would have been nothing more than a nice journey back in time. But, not so with the Beck production. This show sizzles with originality and audience pleasing creativity leaving the audience on its feet yelling for more.

Music Director David Anthony Williams, who has conducted over 600 productions of SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE has honed the singing talents of his cast to perfection. His band rocks, yet wisely does not drown out the performers.

The multiracial cast is talented and finely honed. Alltrinna Grayson, who was in the Broadway version of the show which earned seven Tony award nominations, wails. Her version of “Fools Fall in Love” was poignant and powerful. She controls the stage whenever she appears. Multi-talented Laurel Held-Posey convulses the audience with her rendition of “Teach Me How To Shimmy.”

Lawrence Maurice’s deep base voice perfectly blends with the quartet throughout and he endears himself in “Charlie Brown.” Darrel Miller thrilled the audience with his falsetto version of “Who Have Nothing.”

Michelle Moye, does a fine job with “Neighborhood.” M. Duanne Osborne is a Nat King Cole look and sound-alike. His “Spanish Harlem” is exceedingly well danced and sung.

Craig Recko, a former Times Tribute award winner, had the audience cheering with his rendition of “Jailhouse Rock.” Beautiful and vocally talented Trinidad Rosado totally enticed the audience with “You’re the Boss” and “Don Juan.” Devon Settles is a wonderful dancer and did a fine version of “Love Potion #9.”

Caplsule judgement: Beck’s SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE illustrates what local theatre can be at its very best! Congrats to Martin Cespedes, his cast, and production crew. The show deserves a sold out’s that good!

Monday, July 15, 2002

Patience (Lyric Opera)

Wooden, Over-directed 'PATIENCE' at Lyric Opera

Gilbert and Sullivan wrote fourteen operettas including 'TRIAL BY JURY,' 'H.M.S. PINAFORE,' 'PIRATES OF PENZANCE,' and 'MIKADO.' The duo is noted for their creativity and cleverness as well as their social and political satire.

The Gilbert and Sullivan partnership was absolutely unique. Neither could create alone, but as a duo they were the light opera masters of their day. This is interesting since the two men did not get along very well. Sullivan, without Gilbert, seemed to lose the gift of melody, and Gilbert, without Sullivan was parted from that exquisite humor which made him, even above Mark Twain, the merrymaker of his generation. Their works were often descirbed as vehicles which convulsed audiences.

'PATIENCE 'opened April 23, 1881 at the Opera Comique and ran for 578 performances. It concerns a bevy of county dames who are in love with two poets. The poets, however, are both in love with Patience, the village milkmaid. The dames are sought after by the Dragoons, a brigade of soldiers who don’t understand or appreicate the need for aesthetics, such as poetry, but decide they had better give it a try to win the women's love.

In reality, the opera satirizes Great Britain’s aesthetic craze. It also pokes fun at Oscar Wilde, an acknowledged wit and dramatist, who became famous as the leader of aestheticism in England. The dialogue of 'PATIENCE 'is witty and the music full of richness.

Productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works vary greatly in their quality as their shows require a special directorial touch and fine musical and comic talent. Credit must be given to a director who has a clear image of what he or she wants from a cast and production and achieves it. Unfortunately, sometimes that vision gets in the way of the production.

Cleveland Lyric Opera’s 'PATIENCE,' under the heavy hand of director Philip Kraus, comes off as wooden, affected, and as one of the lines states, “Hollow and unsatisfactory.” Much of Gilbert and Sullivan’s humor was lost in the maze of over stylized movements and lack of spontaneity on the part of the cast.

The singing was accepatable, though many of the words to the clever patter songs that G & S are famous for were lost due to poor diction amd improper phrasing. This was especially true with the performance of John Payonk, the Colonel Calvery. Lance Ashmore, as Reginald, one of the poets, sings well, but his overly stressed facial expressions, affected speech patterns and excessive makeup, made him come off more like a marrionette than a person. Marian Vogel, who portrayed Patience, has a nice voice. Todd Ranney has a fine sense of comic timing, though, again, stylization got in the way of meaning. The chorus sings well.

Don McBridge’s set design was funcitional and attractive. Though they sometimes drowned out the singers, the orchestra, under conductor Dennis Northway, had a solid sound.

Capsule judgement: Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas not only carry a message, but are supposed to be fun. Since the performers in Cleveland Lyric Opera’s 'PATIENCE' did not appear to be having fun, neither did the audience. There were titters, but not the myrth that often accompanies G &S.

Sunday, July 14, 2002

Once On This Island (Porthouse/KSU)

'ONCE ON THIS ISLAND' a calypso delight at Porthouse

Combine the purposeful directing of Victoria Bussert, the fine musical direction of Nancy Maier, the creative choreography of Eric van Baars, the whimsical costuming of Robin Ruth, the consistent dialects created by Chuck Richie, and a multi-talented cast with a lovely script by Lynn Ahrens and the memorable music by Stephen Flaherty. The results? 'ONCE ON THIS ISLAND,' Porthouse Theatre’s audience pleasing evening at the theatre.

'ONCE ON THIS ISLAND' was Ahrens' and Flaherty's first real taste of success. Based on the novel My Love, My Love by Rosa Guy, the show is a twist on the Little Mermaid legend. The musical tells the story of Ti Moune, a poor native peasant girl who falls in love with Daniel, an upper class white boy whose life she saves after a car crash. Central to the story are four gods that the peasants believe rule their lives. The gods of Love , (Erzulie), Earth (Asaka), Water (Agwe) , and Death (Papa Ge) cause the lives of the young lovers to intersect, and send Ti Moune on the fateful journey that tests the strength of her love. It centers on the idea of stroytelling and the way people use stories to understand their own life expereinces. As a line in the play says, “Our lives become the stories we weave.”

Set in the French Antilles, 'ONCE ON THIS ISLAND' boasts a score that makes the feet tap, the body flow and the nose smell the Caribbean breezes. There are rousing, upbeat numbers like "Mama Will Provide" and "Some Say," poignant ballads like "The Human Heart" and "Forever Yours,” emotional songs such as “A Part of Us,” and the joyous “Why We Tell The Story.” Throughout, each song helps build the tale and grows from the story's Caribbean roots.

'ONCE ON THIS ISLAND' opened on Broadway on October 18, 1990 and played for 469 performances. The show received eight Tony Award Nominations, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book.

The Porthouse production is a delight. It shimmers with the smells, sights and traditions of the island. There is hardly a weak link in the production elements or casting. The voices are pure and melodic. The dancing is precise and full of creative abandonment. Under Bussert’s clear direction cast members understand the story, their role in that tale, and how to develop their presence.

Thomasina Gross is enchanting as Ti Moune. She has a wonderful voice, moves well and acts effectively. Dominic Roberts is adequate as Daniel, Ti Moune’s love. He sings and dances well. At times, however, his acting makes his character less than believable. Angela Gillespie-Winborn and Brian Johnson light up the stages as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents. Lauren Marshall’s dance solo is excellent.

All the supporting actors are effective, but Kristopher Thompson-Bolden and Yolanda Christine Davis stand out. Portraying the Death god, Thompson-Bolden grabs and holds the audience each time he appears. This is a very, very talented young man. Davis lights up a stage with an infectious smile and beautiful singing voice.

Capsule judgement: If you only see one show this summer make it 'ONCE ON THIS ISLAND.'

Tuesday, July 09, 2002

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Porthouse Theatre/KSU)

Insightful, humorous 'ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST' at Porthouse

In his early 20s Ken Kesey volunteered to be a subject in experiments with hallucinogenic drugs. Near the end of the trial, he began working the night shift in a mental ward. He began to believe that the patients weren't really crazy after all, just more individualized than society was willing to accept. The result of his experiences was the book 'ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST.'

The book, considered by many to be a masterpiece, was widely used as required reading in colleges just as baby boomers began to challenge authority. The movie and play versions have both received critical acclaim.

The play, penned by Dale Wasserman, effectively develops the theme of the book. It is a grim satire set among the patients and workers in a mental institution. It tells the story of Randle McMurphy, an energetic con man, who seeks institutionalization as a means of escaping the rigors of a prison work farm without realizing that his short stay may turn out to be forever as he has given up his rights when he entered the facility. Before long, in order to reduce the sexual and emotional impotence of the men at the institution, he challenges the dictatorial Nurse Ratched. McMurphy becomes a hero, changing the lives of the inmates, but pays for his defiance with consequences that bring a startling conclusion to the story.

This is a very difficult script to produce. Its many nuances require unique acting skills as each character is finely developed, even those who do not speak. The Porthouse production, under the adept direction of Sue Ott Rowlands, is startlingly forceful. Rowlands hones fine performances from her cast, paces the production with precision, and competently leads the audience through the humor and pathos.

Rowlands is ably assisted by a fine technical crew. Nolan O’Dell’s sterile set adds to the feeling of isolation and despair. Emily Cooper’s costumes give us clear pictures of each character.

But most important is the cast. Annie Fitzpatrick, who portrays Nurse Ratched, received one of the highest compliments an actress can receive...she was booed during the curtain call. She was so effective in her controlled performance that the members of the audience came to hate Nurse Ratched, and could not separate Fitzpatrick from the character, even when the play was over.

Marty Lode, as McMurphy, was the perfect foil for Ratched. He teased, taunted, feigned and struck with the effectiveness of a boa constrictor. He was charming and manipulative in a totally natural way. Never did acting get in the way of clarity of character development.

Donald Clark was pathetically perfect as the stuttering, mother-controlled man child Billy. Adam Hoffman’s twisting hands, inappropriate grins, Albert Einstein hairdo, and bulging eyes made Anthony Martini a living being. Dudley Swetland, made the role of Dale Harding his. The best educated of the men on the ward, Harding gives the audience much of the information we need. He tells McMurphy how Nurse Ratched is able to maintain her power, how electroshock therapy works, what a lobotomy does to people. Swetland gives us hope as we see him change and seems ready to move on thanks to McMurphy. Chief Bromden often acts as our Greek chorus and guides us through the play. He is a tall and strong Native American who feigns muteness and deafness to protect himself from pain. McMurphy rescues him from his silence. He, in turn, rescues McMurphy from life as a vegetable. Michael Greyeyes gives a powerful and finely tuned performance as the Chief.

'ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST' is a play filled with questions. It asks, what is insanity? What is morality? It challenges the symbols of conformity and the role of therapeutic intervention. It probes human freedom versus control.

Capsule judgement: 'ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST' is a powerful play, given an intelligent, sensitive, and insightful production at Porthouse Theatre. It’s a winner!