Friday, March 26, 2004

A Grand Night For Singing (Kalliope Stage)

Kalliope Stage, the North Coast's new musical theatre

It’s always a dangerous undertaking to start a new theatre. It is even more tenuous in these times of economic wariness. In spite of the odds, the Cleveland area has seen the birth of several new theatrical enterprises in the last year or so. The newest is Kalliope Stage which has settled into a space at the corner of Lee and Cedar Roads, diagonally across from the Cedar Lee movie theatre. Kalliope has a unique role in the area…it is the only venue dedicated exclusively to the American musical.

The American musical, for all practical purposes is the child of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. They conceived ‘OKLAHAMA!’ the first true book musical, in which the music, the lyrics and the storyline all melded into one. In contrast to previous musicals, the dancing, the singing, the spoken lines of ‘OKLAHOMA’ were all integral to the story, which cannot be told if any of the elements is missing. The Rodgers and Hammerstein scheme gave birth to works by Lerner and Loewe (e.g., ‘MY FAIR LADY’), Steven Sondheim (‘FOLLIES’), Stephen Schwartz (‘PIPPIN’), Leonard Bernstein (‘WEST SIDE STORY’) and a number of others.

It is only fitting that Kalliope Stage open its doors with a tribute to the fathers of the American musical. Their production of ‘A GRAND NIGHT FOR SINGING’ is a review which blends together songs from such hit shows as ‘CAROUSEL,’ ‘THE KING AND I,’ ‘SOUTH PACIFIC,’ and ‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC.’ The title comes from the song “It’s a Grand Night For Singing, written for ‘STATE FAIR’ the only movie musical the duo wrote.

Kalliope’s theatre is a spanking brand new, intimate space, consisting of about 50 comfortable seats, placed in three rows. The audience is right up front and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. The box office personnel, ticket taker, ushers and theatre staff are warm and welcoming. They even hand out chunks of home made chocolate “thingies” to every patron.

It would be wonderful to say that Kalliope Stage’s opening production was superlative. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, but it was entertaining. It was extremely well sung. The music was well played. The production is filled with some very fine moments. But, there are also some problems.

On the plus side, all five cast members individually sing extremely well. Unfortunately, because they are all essentially soloists, the choral sounds were not as blended as they could have been.

The women, both in their acting and singing, were fine. Lisa Spinelli was a total delight flashing her sparkling eyes and playing perfectly the fallen innocent in “I Cain’t Say No.” She captures the stage as soon as she makes an entrance.

Joan Ellison’s “Something Wonderful” was wonderful. She does a nice job of altering her presentational style to fit the mood and ideas of each song.

Allison Hedges has a beautiful voice but needed more glee in “A Wonderful Guy” and more passion in “If I Loved You.” Joan and Allison did a delightful version of “Stepsisters’ Lament” from ‘CINDERELLA.”

Robert Burian has a full and powerful voice. Unfortunately, has not learned to visualize images of the things he is singing about. When he sings a love song, he has to feel the love, we have to see it in his eyes and observe it in the way he looks at and touches his partner. Often he sings off in space, eyes blank, his gestures automatic, not powered by emotion. It’s too bad because he has a gorgeous voice. His ‘We Kiss In A Shadow” for example, had a wonderful vocal sound.

Though he doesn’t have Burian’s vocal abilities, John Paul Boukis does have a pleasant voice. Unfortunately, as with Burian, he seldom makes emotional contact with the person with whom he is singing. His finest moments were during “All At Once You Love Her” and “Maria.”

Reviews often get bogged down in song after song with little variation. Paul Gurgol, the show’s director, made sure this didn’t happen by adding some very creative moments to the show. Having males sing traditional female songs and vise versa was a nice touch. “Kansas City” was delightfully staged as was “It’s Me.” Unfortunately, some of the “schticks” were over-the-top. The twister game in “Don’t Marry Me” put singers in positions where singing was nearly impossible. The constant moving of the hay wagon/table was distracting. In fear of falling into the “bogged down trap,” he over directed, trying to make too much of songs that may have done with less trappings.

Technically, the lights and set were nicely conceived. Especially effective were the trees, with trunks in the form of human bodies and branch like arms reaching out to enfold the audience. On the other hand, Kim Brown’s costume designs detracted rather than added. The costumes often drew attention to the clothing rather than assisting the performer to develop his or her character.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Kalliope Stage is a welcome addition to the Cleveland theatre scene. It takes guts and determination to give birth to a new theatre. The theatre’s directors, John Paul Boukis and Paul F. Gurgol, can only be wished the very best. Their ‘A GRAND NIGHT FOR SINGING’ was a pleasant way to start the season.