Friday, December 31, 2004

Times Tributes--2004


Greater Cleveland is blessed with a vital theatre scene. It is the purpose of the TIMES THEATRE TRIBUTES to recognize theatrical experiences that, in the mind of this reviewer, were excellent.

I did not see all of the productions in the area, so only shows performed in 2005 that I reviewed were considered. Selections are limited to locally produced performances, so none of the professional touring shows are recognized, though actors, directors and technicians who were imported by local theatres were considered. Actors were not separated by gender or leading or supporting roles.

Thanks to the following for making the theatre scene in the Cleveland area vital and exciting:

“By Jeeves,” Beck Center
‘Copenhagen,” Actors’ Summit
“Hot N Throbbing,” convergence-continuum
“Julius Caesar,” GLTF
“Leading Ladies,” CPH
‘Miss Saigon,” Beck Center
“Nickel And Dimed,” GLTF & CPT
“Our Town,” Ensemble
“Private Lives,” GLTF
“Confessions of Punch and Judy,” CPT
“Ragtime, The Musical,” JCC
“Summer of ‘42,” Kalliope
“Vincent in Brixton,” CPH
“Agnes of God,” Beck Center
“Five Guys Named Moe,” Beck Center

Michael Rogaliner, “By Jeeves,” Beck Center
Gregory Vovos, “Charge,” TITLEWave THEATRE
Wayne Turney, “Lend Me A Tenor,” Actors’ Summit
A. Neil Thackberry, “Copenhagen,” Actors’ Summit
Clyde Simon. “Hot and Throbbin,” convergence-continuum
Ray Roderick, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” Playhouse Square
Risa Brainin, “Julius Caeser,” GLTF
Ken Ludwig, “Leading Ladies,” CPH
Seth Gordon, “Lobby Hero,” Beck Center
Scott Spence, “Miss Saigon,” Beck Center
Melissa Kievman, “Nickle and Dimed,” CPT & GLTF
Lester Currie, “Nine,” Cassidy Theatre
Victoria Bussert, “Private Lives,” GLTF
Raymond Bobgan, “Confessions of Punch and Judy,” CPT
Fred Sternfeld, “Ragtime, The Musical,” JCC
Paul Gurgol. “Summer of ‘42,” Kalliope
Seth Gordon, “Vincent in Brixton,” CPH
Victoria Bussert, “tick, tick...Boom!,” Cain Park
Seth Gordon, “Agnes of God,” Beck Center
Martin Cespedes, “Five Guys Named Moe,” Beck Center

Tracee Patterson, “Bright Room Called Day,” CPT
Charles F. Kartali, “Bright Room Called Day,”CPT
Larry Nehring, “By Jeeves,” Beck Center
Nina Domingue, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” Karamu
Christopher Bohan,, “Lend Me A Tenor,” Actors’ Summit
Tina Stump, “Menopause the Musical,” Playhouse Square
June Lange, “Menopause the Musical,” Playhouse Square
Maryann Nagel, ,“Menopause the Musical,” Playhouse Square
Wayne Turney, “Copenhagen,” Actors’ Summit
A. Neil Thackaberry, “Copenhagen,” Actors’ Summit
Lucy Bredeson-Smith,“Copenhagen,” Actors’ Summit
Lavonda Elam, “Crowns,” Cleveland Play House
Angela Gillespie Winborn, “Crowns,” Cleveland Play House
Joel Hammer, “Ears on a Beatle,” Dobama
Wayne Turney, “Give “Em Hell Harry,” Actors Summit
MaryAnn Black, “Guys and Dolls, Porthouse
M. R. Culver, “Guys and Dolls,” Porthouse
Paul Floriano, “Highway Ulysses,” Dobama
Lucy Bredeson-Smith, “Hot and Throbbin,” convergence-continuum
John Regan, “Hot and Throbbin,” convergence-continuum
Tricia Bestic, Julie Hogan, Nicholas Koesters and Larry Nehring (the ensemble cast), “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” Playhouse Square
Douglas Frederick, “Importance of Being Earnest,” GLTF
Richard Klautsch, “Julius Caeser,” GLTF
Geoffrey Hoffman, “‘La Turista” convergence-continuum
Brent Barrett, “Leading Ladies,” CPH
Christopher Duva, “Leading Ladies,” CPH
Matthew Joslyn, “Lobby Heros,” Beck Center
Robin Lee Gallo, “Miss Saigon,” Beck Center
Scott Plate, “The Last Five Years,” Dobama
Nan Wray, Sheffia W. Randall, Nina Domingue, George Roth, Tracee Patterson, Jill Levin (the ensemble cast), “Nickle and Dimed,” GLTF & CPT
Robert McCoy, “Of Mice and Men,” Beck Center
Greg DeTorto, “Of Mice and Men,” Beck Center
Andrew May, “Private Lives,” GLTF
Laura Perotta, “Private Lives,” GLTF
Tannis Kowalchuk, “Confessions of Punch and Judy,” CPT
Ker Wells, “Confessions of Punch and Judy,” CPT
Kyle Primous, “Ragtime, The Musical,” JCC
Maggie Stahl Wirfel, “Ragtime, The Musical,” JCC
Sean Szaller, “Ragtime, The Musical,” JCC
Sandra Emeric, Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Beck Center
Tracee Patterson, “Seussical, The Musical,” Beck Center
Andrew May, “Taming of the Shrew,” GLFT
Laura Perrotta, “Taming of the Shrew,” GLFT
Alex Wyse, “Summer of ‘42,” Kalliope
Jodi Brinkman, “Summer of ‘42,” Kalliope
Nina Dominque, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” CPT
George Roth, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” CPT
Simon Kendall, “Vincent in Brixton,” CPH
Patrick Janson, ‘tick, tick...Boom!,” Cain Park
Emily Keieger, ‘tick, tick...Boom!,” Cain Park
Lucy Bredeson-Smith, “Tone Clusters,” convergence-continuum
Clyde Simon, “Tone Clusters,” convergence-continuum
Renee Matthewws-Jackson, “Bee-Luterh-Hatchee,” Karamu Theatre
Sherri Briton, “Agnes of God,” Beck Center
Alicia Kahn, “Agnes of God,“ Beck Center
Kyle Primous, “Five Guys Named Mo,” Beck Center

Trad Burns, set design, “Bright Room Called Day,” CPT
Zach Humes, sound design, “Charge,” TITLEWave THEATRE
Richard Morris, Jr., light and stage design, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, ” Karamu
Tony Straiges, scenic design, “Enchanted April,” CPH
Alejo Vietti, costume design, “Enchanged April,” CPH
Gage Williams set design, “Importance to Being Earnest,” GLTF
Kim Krumm Sorenson, costume design, “Importance to Being Earnest,” GLTF
Todd Krispinsky, set design“Nickle and Dimed,” GLTF & CPT
John Ezell, sets design, “Private Lives,” GLTF
Charlotte Yetman, costumes, “Private Lives,” GLTF
Richard Gould, set design, “Ragtime, The Musical,” JCC
Dana Romeo, costume design, “Ragtime, The Musical, JCC
Russ Borski. scenic design, “Summer of ‘42,” Kalliope
Kim Brown, costume design, “Summer of ‘42,” Kalliope
Richard Morris, ”Bee-Luther-Hatchee,” Karamu Theatre

MaryAnn Black, “Godspell,” Porthouse
Martin Cespedes, “Miss Saigon,” Beck Center
Janiece Kelley-Kiteley, “Anything Goes,” Carousel Dinner Theatre
Martin Cepedes, “Ragtime, The Musical,” JCC
Martin Cespedes, “Seussical, The Musical,” Beck Center

Musical Direction
Larry Goodpaster, “By Jeeves,” Beck Center
Brian Laakso, “Godspell,” Porthouse
Josh Senick, “Highway Ulysses,” Dobama
Larry Goodpaster, “Miss Saigon,” Beck Center
David Dettloff, “Nine,” Cassidy Theatre
David Williams, “Five Guys Named Mo,” Beck Center

Friday, December 17, 2004

Miss Saigon (Playhouse Square Center)

‘MISS SAIGON’ proves the show must go on

There is a motto in the theatre that the show must go on. In the opening night performance of the road show production of ‘MISS SAIGON,’ which has a short December 14-19 run at the Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square, reality confronted the myth. It seemed obvious as the first act proceeded that Jennifer Paz, who was portraying the leading female role of Kim, was losing her voice. After an extended intermission an announcement was made that in the second act the role would be played by Laurie Cadevida. Cadevida plays the role at matinee performances so this was not a case of someone unfamiliar with the part taking over, but it was a first in my many years of acting, directing and reviewing theatrical productions in which a switch took place mid-show. Yes, the show did go on!

‘MISS SAIGON’ is set in 1975 during the final days leading up to the American evacuation of Saigon. The multi-award winning play is from the hands of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg who also wrote ‘LES MISÉRABLES.’‘

It is the story of two young lovers torn apart by the fortunes of destiny and held together by passion and the fate of a small child. As one of the authors said, “We have an epic tale still to tell, but we also hope that when we focus on the passionate longing of a woman for her lover, and her unconquerable love for her son; when the Saigon pimp hurls himself demoniacally into action; when we are with real people: spurned lover, helpless children, the ones who matter, then the surroundings are put into perspective.”

The score contains "The Heat is On in Saigon," "The Movie in My Mind," "Why God Why?," "Sun and Moon," "The Last Night of the World," "I Still Believe," "Bui-Doi," and "The American Dream."

One of the problems confronting theatre organizations such as Playhouse Square is that some of the road shows touring the country are non-union groups which travel with minimal orchestras and performers who haven’t quite cut their teeth on professional stages. This means that audiences are paying to see mid-professional level shows. The shows are often peopled by recent college grads who are willing to take on the hard task of performing for a couple of days in one city and then packing up and dragging their weary bodies off to another short stopover. It’s wonderful experience for the cast, but not always such a wonderful experience for the audiences, who often think they are going to see experienced professionals.

‘MISS SAIGON’ is a case-in-point. The show is quite acceptable. In fact, in places it is very good, but it is not equal to earlier professional productions. In fact, the script has been released for local production and Beck Center staged a production this past summer. It was excellent and, in some cases, superior to the non-union show that is performing at the Allen Theatre.

The cast is quite uneven. Both of the women who played Kim were effective. Both had fine singing voices.

A pivotal character, The Engineer is supposed to be a slimy guy who will do anything to make a buck and reach his goal to become part of the American dream. Johann Michael Camat is much too young to play the role and lacked the necessary sleaze factor. His singing voice was excellent. His rendition of “The American Dream” was a show stopper.

Alan Gillespie, who portrayed Kim’s lover Chris, has a nice singing voice but has not developed the acting skills to pull off the role. His face showed a constant grimace rather than emotional texturing and there was a shallowness in his character development. D. J. Oliver, as John, who both makes arrangements for Chris to meet Kim and then reconnect with the son he fathered, lacks the charisma necessary to make”Bui-doi” the potent song that it should be. Tadeo is not menacing enough as Thuy the man to whom Kim has been promised in marriage and whom she kills when he searches her out and attempts to hurt her son.

Highlights of the show were the beautifully sung “Sun and Moon” by Paz and Gillespie, the powerful “You Will Not Touch Him” as rendered by Paz , and “Now That I’ve Seen Her” as performed by Rachel Kopf, who portrayed Chris’s American wife. The chorus was excellent and the choreography quite effective.

This production has a stripped down set which makes for some awkward staging. The famous helicopter flight is done with projections. Actually, the effect is quite good as are the pictures used during the emotionally heart-effecting song “Bui-Doi” in which pictures are shown of orphaned children born to Vietnamese mothers and U.S. GIs.

Much of the musical accompaniment was produced by a sinfonia, an electronic musical instrument which substitutes for many of the instruments used in a complete orchestra. This saves on costs but also produces less than a full orchestra sound as only ten musical instruments are actually playing in the orchestra pit.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Though this production of ‘MISS SAIGON’ is quite acceptable, it is a non-union show which should be advertised as such. It is unfair to lead potential audience members to believe that they are seeing a Broadway-level production when that is not the case.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

NEOS Dance Theatre

NEOS Dance Theatre a pleasant surprise

One of the problems with many dance productions in the Cleveland area is that they usually run for one performance or no more than a weekend so if a company comes along which is outstanding, it is impossible to get the word out in time for them to build an audience.

This was definitely the case with the recent performance by NEOS DANCE THEATRE at the Cleveland Public Theatre. NEOS is a company who have only recently left their confines in Ashland, Ohio to venture into the Cleveland market.

The company’s goal is to make dance accessible through outreach programs that are both lectures and performances, as well as doing traditional dance concerts.

The company is led by Robert Wesner, who serves as the artistic director and lead male dancer. The rest of the company consists of Sarah Cyders, Kari Nikolaus, Justin O’Donnell, Gabrielle Smith and Brooke Wesner (the wife of the artistic director). The individual dancers are well versed in traditional ballet as well as eclectic movements including tap and modern dance.

The CPT program opened with “Rondo Capriccioso,” in which the young and talented dancers worked with choreography by Robert Wesner that was perfectly timed to the mood and beat of the music. Using creative body movements and excellent control, the black-clad dancers combined classic and modern movements effectively. There was a wondrous whimsical quality to the staging that fit the recorded sounds of the Saint-Saens music.

“Missing Person” was meant to expose the different emotional states that one goes through when considering, committing to, and dealing with an abortion. Appropriate facial expressions and controlled and expressive bodily movements allowed for clarity of Wesner’s choreographic mission.

“Trilogy,” the third selection, was a combination of sprightly and then serious movements. Effective lighting helped create the proper moods as the music made its transitions. Using interesting body angles to form geometric shapes, intricate lifts, appropriate facial expressions and body intensity, the piece was well received by what unfortunately was a sparse audience.

“Song of Solomon,’ danced to the music of George Gershwin, was elegantly performed by Brooke and Robert Wesner. Dressed in formal wear, the duo performed a modern ballet piece with classical overtones. Brooke was on toe for much of the selection. The pair displayed fine partnering skills.

“Draw Back” was a tap number staged with no music. Choreographed by Justin O’Donnell, it was performed by O’Donnell and Wesner. Unfortunately, the duo was not well matched. Wesner’s dancing ability far outstripped his younger partner, making for some disjointed timing and dynamics. O’Donnell looked like he was laboring throughout, displaying almost no facial expression except for occasional grimaces.

“Norm and Cleo” was danced to an organ rendition of JS Bach’s “Toccatta and Fugue in D Minor.” A bench served as a staging platform for examining a trying time in the lives of Pastor Norman Johnson and his wife. Though well done, the piece became laborious with its heavy religious overtones.

The final program segment was “Flash Forward” a very creative piece staged by Wesner. Using flashlights, smoke, spotlights and special lighting effects, the piece accurately developed Paul Ruskay’s chanted music. The dancing combined balancing of bodies, gymnastic movements and unusual carries. This was a well executed and fascinating piece.

Excellent dance perfomances were consistently given by Robert Wesner, Sara Cyders, Gabrielle Smith and Brooke Wesner.

Capsule judgement: Robert Wesner proved in NEOS DANCE THEATRE’s recent short residency at Cleveland Public Theatre that he is a very gifted choreographer and dancer. His company is well-trained and disciplined. He does have to make a decision regarding his thematic selections. The program presented at CPT contained several religious-based pieces. If he wants NEOS to be a Christian-based company, then he has to advertise it as such. It is a production decision he is going to have to make as he moves his group from a local to a regional or national company.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Seussical! The Musical (Beck Center)

'SEUSSICAL! THE MUSICAL' gets an "okay" production at Beck

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in 1904 in Springfield, MA. He held a doctorate in literature from Oxford University in England. In 1936, on the way to a vacation in Europe, while listening to the rhythm of the ship's engines, he came up with And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. It was the first in what was to be a long line of children’s books. Ironically, the volume was rejected by the first 43 publishers to whom he showed it.

In 1954, a report concerning illiteracy among school children stated that kids were having trouble reading because their books were boring. Using a list of 250 words, which was considered to be the number a first grader could absorb at one time, he designed and wrote The Cat in the Hat. It became an instant success. What followed was a series of children’s books that have sold over 100 million volumes.

Why are the books so engaging? Geisel created whimsical characters, wrote in convoluted rhyme and rhythm schemes and allowed children’s imaginations to run wild. Most important from the standpoint of adults, are the morals and messages the books taught including respect for differences, the keeping of promises and the uniqueness of each individual.

In 2001 the author’s reputation took another step forward with the Broadway opening of ‘SEUSSICAL! THE MUSICAL,’ a contemporary re-imagining of Dr. Seuss, which weaves together many of his most famous stories and characters. The Tony Award winning team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (‘RAGTIME’ and ‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’) created a score which includes pop, gospel, blues and R & B music.

On its opening ‘SEUSSICAL! THE MUSICAL’ was greeted with reviews that called it, “imaginative,” whimsical,” and “abounding with invention and visual surprises.” Any production of the show, in order to fulfill the Dr. Seuss philosophy, must contain those qualities.

The Beck Center production, under the direction of Scott Spence, fulfills some of the requirements, but falls short on others. The major missing element was the whimsy. There has to be consistent exaggeration and the unexpected. In spite of some clever gimmicks, such as the use of roller skating and scooters used in “It’s Possible,” and the flashlights and Groucho-eyebrows-and-nosed glasses in “Havin’ A Hunch, too much of the show lacked excitement, lacked the needed pizzazz.

The performances ranged from wonderful to acceptable. Tracee Patterson stole the show as Gertrude McFuzz, the bird with the short tail, who is infatuated with Horton the Elephant. Her renditions of “The One Feather Tail of Miss Gertrude McFuzz” and “All for You” were show stoppers. Jarred Nichols had exactly the right tone of exaggeration as Mr. Mayor (the leader of The Whos). Sean Szaller danced with proper abandonment as one of the Wickershams. The chorus, as a whole, stayed in character and sung and danced with the right moods and feelings.

Patrick Carroll had the proper slow moving gate of Horton the Elephant, but lacked the vocal ability to develop the moods of his solos and the acting dynamics necessary to build a compelling character. As Boy, young Christopher Gaertner displayed a nice singing voice, but was too automatic in his performance. He needed to play himself--a real boy--instead of trying to act like a boy. As Sour Kangaroo, Tonya Broach displayed nice vocal abilities, but it was impossible to understand the words that she was singing due to either poor articulation.

In the pivotal role of The Cat in the Hat, Marc Moritz needed to create a character who was a delightfully spirited boy inside the body of a man, or, in this case, a rambunctious kitten in the body of a full grown cat. He needed a constant sparkle in his eye and movements which got the audience ready for him to verbally pounce at any moment. The show depends on his setting the proper mood. He did that in several scenes, but just wasn’t consistent, wasn’t whimsical enough in others.

Martin Cespedes, is quickly establishing himself as THE major local musical theatre choreographer. He does not disappoint in this show. The creative movements, which change to fit each musical variation, were wonderful and he prepped his performers well. Richard Gould’s scenic design is delightful and functional. Sharon Stark’s costume renderings are wonderful.

Musical Director Larry Goodpaster’s orchestra played well, but at times drowned out the performers. If we can’t hear the words to songs, there is no sense in the cast singing them.

Roland Massatti’s sound design was lacking. Many of the performers couldn’t be heard (at least not from the side section of the theatre where I was seated). When I asked the technician if the sound system was working correctly I was told it was. Obviously, not so from the standpoint of my well functioning ears.

A question that parents might ask, is whether ‘SEUSSICAL’ is a kids’ show? Though grown-ups, teens and tweens should find the show reminds them of why they came to love the stories, young children may find it difficult sitting through the production as the story line does not follow the books they may be familiar with. In addition, there may not be enough abandonment in the two-and-a-half hour production to hold a little one’s attention.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘ SEUSSICAL! THE MUSICAL’ is a cute script. The Beck Center give it an acceptable, but not the promised “loosey-gooseical lollapaloozical magical” performance promised on the show’s program cover.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Big River (Playhouse Square Center)

‘BIG RIVER’ flows triumphantly at the Palace

Billed as a celebration of silence and sound, ‘BIG RIVER THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN,’ now on stage at the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square, is a unique and entertaining experience.

Using deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing actors, the show, which had a recent on Broadway production, was developed by The Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West.

Adapted from the novel by Mark Twain, ‘BIG RIVER THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN’ is a tale of adventure and self-discovery. It takes the audience on a trip down the Mississippi River in the 1840s on a raft where Huck, escaping from his drunken father, is traveling with Jim, a runaway slave. The story of their journey captures the rhythms, sounds and spirit of life on the big river. Their adventures bring to life Tom Sawyer, the Widow Douglas, the sinister Pap Finn and Mary Jane Wilkes- the love of Huck’s life.

As Jeff Calhoun, who directs and choreographs the musical states, “The tradition of theatre for deaf audiences places an interpreter on the side of the stage, forcing the eye away from the physical drama. What I tried to accomplish is a marriage of the hearing world and the deaf culture. Every moment of the show is both signed and spoken. I didn't want there to be one moment in the show that favored the hearing audience or the deaf audience."

How does Calhoun accomplish this? The hearing actors sing and speak their lines and use American Sign Language (ASL) to accompany their performance. For example, Shaker Heights native Michael McElroy, who portrays the role of Jim, both speaks and sings. On the other hand, Tyrone Giordano, who was born deaf, portrays Huck, but his singing and speaking voice is provided appropriately by Mark Twain (in the person of Daniel Jenkins). Giordano makes no attempt to do a lip sink, but signs as his lines are presented. What makes it totally involving is that Giordano, as is the case of all the deaf cast members, moves his hands in perfect time to the music. He actually sings with his hands.

Director Calhoun has intentionally made it obvious when someone is projecting for another actor. The person stands next to, or is spotlighted on a balcony or a platform. No hiding here, no need to even look for the person. As the synchronized ballet of speaking and signing are interwoven with the music, the dancing and the storytelling a "third language" is created which the audience has no trouble in understanding and embracing.

The Tony winning music for the show, which is a mix of Cajun, gospel, folk, country and blues songs was written by Grammy Award winner Roger Miller, one of the great country singer-songwriters. The score includes “Do You Want to Go To Heaven,” “Waiting for the Light To Shine,” “Hand for the Hog,” “Muddy Water,” “When the Sun Goes Down in the South” and “Worlds Apart.”

The touring production is top-notch in every aspect. Ray Klausen’s ingenious set design allows the audience to participate as the raft floats down the river, often transfer to land, and returns to the flow of the river. Pages of the Mark Twain novel are hung from the fly gallery, stand on the stage, and sometimes even turn for us to gain a view of what is happening. Michael Gilliam’s lighting design helps lead the eye to the proper place on stage to view the center of the action.

The singing, dancing and acting are perfectly keyed. McElroy makes his local fans proud with his big well-tuned voice, engaging acting and total grasp of the character of Jim. Giordano makes Huck a delightful combination of a free-spirit who marches to a different drummer while having a strong moral core. Jenkins is believable as both Twain and the singing and speaking voice of Huck. The supporting cast is of equal quality.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘BIG RIVER THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN’ is a wonderful theatrical experience. The show itself is a joy, but this particular production, incorporating the hearing and the deaf performers in a seamless manner, makes it even more special. THIS IS A MUST SEE PRODUCTION!