Sunday, January 30, 2005

Johnnie Taylor is Gone - Karamu

Performances make 'JOHNNIE TAYLOR IS GONE' worth seeing

Each year Karamu holds the R. Joyce Whitley Festival of New Plays Arenafest. The last one was held in May of 2004. From the offerings, Gregory S. Carr's 'JOHNNIE TAYLOR IS GONE' was selected for inclusion in the theatre's regular 2005 season.

The play takes place in the Golden Zodiac Lounge, a bar in North St. Louis which appears to have outlived the high points of its existence. It is peopled by a group of "Old School" misfits. The music selected on the juke box centers on the "oldies" with special emphasis on Johnny Taylor who once stopped in at the lounge.

Who is Johnny Taylor? He was a real recording great. Despite Taylor's awesome run of hit records, he remains somewhat of an enigma, perhaps one of the most underrated recording artists of all time. His offerings embraced Gospel, Pop, Blues, Doo Wopp, Memphis Soul, and even Disco. His hits included: "Somewhere To Lay My Head," "I Had A Dream" and "I've Got To Love Somebody's Babe" and "What About My Love."

Every once in a while a theatrical offering overcomes a mediocre script with high production qualities. This is the case with 'JOHNNIE TAYLOR IS GONE.' This is not to say the script is bad, it just isn't the quality of works by such Black writers as Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson or LeRoy Jones.

Lots of topics are covered: black men dating white women, baseball, the Ku Klux Klan, politicians, UPN (under paid negroes), riots, the St. Louis black community, retirement, rap music, Presidents Bush and Clinton, old versus new styles of music, and Chinese food. But, in the end, this is probably more a set of character studies rather than a well-constructed play. There are no intriguing mysteries or conflicts, though some soap-opera like problems regarding relationships, financial needs and philosophical ideals are present.

With that said, Director Caroline Jackson Smith and her cast should be proud of the final outcome. In general, the characterizations are well honed so the play's humor comes across well and the audience left in a jovial mood.

Cornell Calhoun, III is excellent as the bar's proprietor. The character's stubborn streak of pride and purpose are well developed. Eva Withers-Evans, as a single mom and the chief bar-keep, targets in well on the woman's determination. Marvin A. Hayes is character-perfect as a henpecked bar patron, instantly becoming the audience's favorite. Hayes keeps delivering laugh line after laugh line with perfect interpretation. Though he shouts too much for the small theatre space, James Seward is good as one of the long-time patrons and Kenny Johnson is on target as the beer delivery person.

Many Black community members have been brought up in an interactive story-telling society. In church services they are encouraged to participate vocally. The Karamu audience takes their participant role seriously. They make comments regarding the statements and actions of the actors. They express pleasure and displeasure as they see fit. This breaking down of the traditional staid reactions of audience members at many theatres adds greatly to this production.

The show is being performed in Karamu's intimate Arena theatre, which is a perfect setting for the show. Be aware that if you sit at one of the tables on the main floor, you will be treated like a bar patron and given snacks and even maybe a bottle of beer.

apsule Judgment Black history month is upon us. Many theatres will be doing shows highlighting the plights and delights of Blacks in US history. You won't get a great history lesson, won't see a perfect play, but if you want to go to an offering and have fun, put 'JOHNNIE TAYLOR IS GONE' on your see list.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Honky Tonk Angels - Carousel Dinner Theater

'HONKY TONK ANGELS' at Carousel a country music fan's "thang"

Okay, I have to be honest. I am not a lover of review-type musicals, and I don't favor country music. With that said, for me to pronounce that 'THE HONKY TONK ANGELS,' now on stage at the Carousel Dinner Theatre is an "okay" evening, is taking a long step.

I have never figured out why reviews are called theatre. They are a series of songs, much like that presented in a cabaret or night club. Sometimes the songs are connected with some trite kind of plot. But, in general, that, in my opinion, is a concert, not musical theatre.

As for country music, after a while all the wallowing in self-pity, death, wife-beating and cheating husbands, and the near-same twanging sounds, just gets to me. (Okay, country music lovers, before you fill up my e-mail box, you have the right to listen and love anything you want. I'm sure that if I was brought up on The Grand Old Opera, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton I'd probably be on your side, but I wasn't. I'm just not a fan.)

With that said....The slight plot unfolds with three woman from varying backgrounds developing a friendship on a Greyhound bus on their way to Nashville, the country music capital. As the "story" goes on we see their performances and how they handle the changes in their lives. In the process they sing some of the most recognized country-western songs, including "Harper Valley PTA," "Stand By Your Man," "Angels Among Us," "I Will Always Love You," and "Coal Miner's Daughter."

The three characters are Darlene (Elizabeth Stanley) who moved to the Mississippi delta before heading for Nashville. We are led to believe that she has been kind of stuck between being a child and an adult for a long time. The show is her journey into adulthood.

Angela (Trudi Posey) is a Texas housewife. Between her truck driving husband, repetitive daily life, and out-of-control kids, she needs to take a break, to try something different for a while.

Sue Ellen (Barbara Helms) is a native Texan, living in Los Angeles, who realizes that life is not turning out the way she wants it to.

'HONKY TONK ANGELS,' written by Ted Swindley, who also created 'ALWAYS PATSY CLINE,' gives each of the actresses a chance to shine in several solos as well as a number of medleys.

The show has a much stronger first than second act. The first segment is filled with some humor and allows the performers to show their acting as well as their singing abilities. The second act is a concert which often turns sappy and centers on how angels affect our lives (Angles Among Us," "The Circle is Unbroken," and "I'll Fly Away." (Don't blame me, I didn't write the so-called script!) A segment dedicated to the County Music "Hall of Fame" is pathetic.

All three of the Carousel performers are quite good. They are obviously soloists, for their individual efforts far outshine their blendings.

Of the three, Elizabeth Stanley stands out. She has a nice stage presence, interprets her spoken lines well, sings meanings rather than words to her songs, and has a nice voice. Her versions of "Fancy" and "I Believe in Music" were exceptionally fine.

Barbara Helms displays nice comic timing and has a fine voice, though her version of "These Boots Are Made For Walking" was given a poor vocal interpretation. She does a fun version of "Cornell Crawford" while gliding across the stage on roller skates.

After a while, Trudi Posey's speaking voice just becomes too raspy, too loud, too hard to listen too. She needs to tone down the screech. Her "Stand By Your Man" was nicely humorous and "The Pill" was fun.

While the show's costumes are wonderful, the wigs are awful. Many scenes found the wearers having to hold on the obviously fake pieces, which were often poorly coiffed.

Capsule Judgment If you love or even like country music and aren't put off by a flimsy plot, you'll be find Carousel's "HONKY TONK ANGELS a "Paradise Road" and have a "Fancy" for the goings-on. If not, "These Boots are Made for Walking" in another direction.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Children's House (Beck Center)

‘THE CHILDREN’S HOUR’ receives fine production at Beck

Some might claim that Lillian Helman’s ‘THE CHILDREN’S HOUR,’ now on stage at the Beck Center, is outdated, at least regarding its sexual identity content. The argument goes that this is an age of enlightenment and such a subject as lesbianism is not that shocking. There is a cable series dedicated to the “L” word. Two women can get married in Massachusetts, most of Canada and much of Europe. What’s the big deal?

Well, only the naive believe that times have really changed. There is still a major movement against same-sex relationships as was witnessed just last November when 11 states passed anti-gay marriage acts and elected a president who is proposing a Constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. The right wing religionists are still pushing their agenda to make the rest of the US culture follow their beliefs. Add to this the other major topics of the play: gossip, lying, blackmail, the power of the rich, and you’ve got even a broader basis for saying that in spite of its stilted melodramatic mold and language, the play is present-day relevant.

The plot concerns two female friends who run a school for girls. Enter the sociopathic student Mary Tilford whose purpose in life is to get what she wants, when she wants it, and damn the costs. Mary has a strong weapon...her influential grandmother..who is in the social position to control the community and the fate of the school. Mary makes up a lie, expands on the truth, blackmails a fellow student to back up her tale, and grandma spreads the rumor to the other parents, who then remove their children from the school. The end result is the closing of the school, the disintegration of one of the women’s engagements and eventual total tragedy. As in all good melodramas the truth comes out at the end, but it is too late.

When ‘THE CHILDREN'S HOUR’ opened on Broadway in 1934, it was well-received by critics. However, it was banned in Chicago, Boston, and London. The Pulitzer Prize committee refused to consider the play for its reward due to the “shocking” subject matter.

An early movie of the play changed the relationship into an implied ménage-a-trois between the teachers and one of their fiances. Though many were upset with the forced changes in the story, Hellman, in her autobiographical work, said she was happy with the film because the subject of false accusation and gossip were the central issue of the story rather than the nature of the gossip.

In 1952, Lillian Hellman was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. She was so upset by the McCarthy witch-hunting that the same year she personally financed a revival of ‘THE CHILDREN’S HOUR.’ The themes of secrets and lies and malice and persecution struck a high chord and led to additional praise for the work.

1962 saw the release of a more faithful film version of ‘THE CHILDREN'S HOUR’ starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Due to the controversial subject matter, the film was a direct challenge to the Hays Code, and, eventually, brought about a revision of the code to permit "tasteful treatments of homosexual themes."

The Beck production, under the able direction of Sarah May is good. The adults in the cast are extremely proficient. Kristie Lang and Jennifer Clifford are outstanding in their portrayal of the teachers. They weave their roles with the right amounts of spirit and frustration. Nicholas Koesters, as the fiancé, perfectly walks the difficult tight rope between emotional control and compassion. Mary Jane Nottage gives a wonderful portrayal of the air-headed, needy, self-involved aunt. Rhoda Rosen is marvelous as Mary’s manipulated grandmother.

The roles of the young girls are difficult to portray. The character of Mary Tilford, the manipulator, is extremely challenging. 15-year old Mary Tilford does a very creditable job as Helen, though she sometimes fails to add the necessary texturing to the role. This results in a rather one-key characterization. Several of the other girls lose concentration when they are not speaking lines, but, as a whole, the young actresses are more than acceptable.

Don McBride’s creatively designed set works well, in spite of some shoddy workmanship. May has included some cleverly choreographed set changes to add to the production qualities. Jeff Smart’s costumes are period and aesthetically correct.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE CHILDREN’S HOUR’ is a historically important play. Though somewhat dated in language, it is a play that conveys strong messages. The Beck production deserves to be seen.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Producers (Playhouse Square Center)

‘THE PRODUCERS’ produces laughs once again!

Britain’s Prince Harry has been getting bad press for his wearing a Nazi swastika arm band to a costume party. Ironically, comedian and writer Mel Brooks has received raves for his displaying swastikas in his musical ‘THE PRODUCERS,’ THE NEW MEL BROOKS MUSICAL.’ The difference? Harry was oblivious to the reaction his unthoughtful act would evoke. Brooks, on the other hand, knew that by mocking Hitler and about every other group including gays, Jews, Swedes, old ladies, World War II vets, hillbillies, blacks, and the Irish, he’d start a riot. In his case, a laugh riot.

‘THE PRODUCERS THE NEW MEL BROOKS MUSICAL’ is the most awarded show in Broadway history. It won a record 12 Tony Awards and 11 Drama Desk Awards, and is still playing to sold out houses in The Big Apple. Clevelanders loved the show when it played in Play House Square in 2002. It is back for an abbreviated visit (January 18-23) before this professional touring company calls it quits.

From exit comments it became apparent that the audience on opening night loved the production. What is not to like? There are a chorus line of old ladies dancing with walkers, flapping pigeons singing backup, and a chorus line of convicts. This is funny stuff concocted in the mind of a genius comedic madman.

The musical is based on Brooks’ Academy Award winning 1968 film, THE PRODUCERS. It centers on the fortunes of Max Bialystock, an unsuccessful theatrical producer, and Leo Bloom, a nebbish accountant. They dream-up a scheme to raise money, produce the world’s worst musical staged by the world’s worst director, close the show quickly, and run off with the profits. The problem? Their choice, "Springtime for Hitler" turns out to be a smash hit and they wind up going to jail. "Springtime for Hitler?" That title’s offensive! Well, the entire production can be offensive if you don’t have a sense of humor.

After having been sold amateur productions as being professional (e.g., the recent embarrassing ‘OLIVER’), some people in the area are suspicious of Play House Square offerings. Be assured, this was not a "second rate" tour. Lewis Stadlen was a delight in the role created by Nathan Lane in New York. Hunter Foster, who recently joined the cast, is not the quality of Mathew Broederick (who will play the role in the forthcoming film version along with Lane) or Don Stephenson who played the part in the former Cleveland showing, but he was adequate as Leo Bloom, the nebbish who wants to “be a producer.” The rest of the cast is excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE PRODUCERS,’ THE NEW MEL BROOKS MUSICAL’ is fun. There won’t be another first-line professional tour so if you want to see a legit production, and aren’t planning on going to New York, this is it!

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Momix - Playhouse Square

Momiz Dance Theatre mesmerizes in spite of box offic snafu

It was an exciting night for dance in downtown Cleveland. Dance Cleveland and the Cuyahoga County Community College Center for Arts and Culture combined to bring Momix Dance Theatre to the State Theatre. This, combined with pre and post program parties sponsored by the website, produced an announced audience of 2500.

Under the creative direction of Moses Pendleton, Momix is noted for displaying its dancer/illusionists via a unique mix of breathtaking images, creative humor and eclectic music. "OPUS CACTUS,' the program presented in their Cleveland appearance, a botanically-inspired creation, is a series of hallucinatory visions of the great American desert landscape.

What style of dance is MOMIX? Don't think ballet or modern dance or gymnastics. Think all of those combined. This is anything other than the usual. Artistic Director/Choreographer Moses Pendleton, who calls his performers "dancer illusionists," requires them to blend dance, gymnastics and circus acrobatics into mesmerizing performances.

The program contained dancers in silhouette against varied color-lit backdrops, a performer who did her entire number without leaving a hammock, a gila monster made up of four intertwined bodies, skateboards used for body surfing, and a metal geometric sculpture employed as a rolling jungle gym, huge fans acting as skirts for the female dancers, a giant puppet, performers balanced on swings suspended from the fly gallery, florescent human balls which roll and bounce, a human totem pole, a dance conceived totally around the use of vaulting poles. Flowers bloom, bugs crawl, storms are created, stars twinkle, tumbleweeds tumble, lizards leap and rattlesnakes slither.

As one reviewer stated, "Pendleton has conjured 19 desert scenes, and devised such stunning imagery (set to New Age and traditional music) that you may never think of the desert in the same way again."

The exciting evening was not without its problems. The performance started over thirty minutes late due to a snafu at the box office. Long lines snaked out onto Euclid Avenue as people attempted to buy tickets and pick up prepaid orders. The situation resolved itself when a wise decision by the house manager allowed everyone in to the theatre to find an available seat. The Playhouse Square box office needs to investigate what went wrong so that this situation does not happen again.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Tuesday's With Morrie (Cleveland Play House)

‘TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE’--a good visit at the Cleveland Play House

Several months ago I heard Mitch Albom speak about his beliefs, attitudes and books Tuesday With Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven. He talked about how his reconnection with his former Brandeis University sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, and how it made him reexamine who he was and how he was proceeding through life.

If you have read Albom’s books, you know that he is a writer who combines pop psychology and emotional triggers to get his points across. He writes of topics, such as death, which could be daunting and scary, in words that are easily digested and thought-provoking.

‘TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, is the play version of the book. It tells the story of how Albom, now a well-known sports reporter, discovers Schwartz is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. Albom, whether out of guilt or need, agrees to meet with Schwartz every Tuesday and, in doing so, learns lessons about love and understanding. He discovers that something is missing from his success-driven life.

The play, as the book, is based on many of Morrie's pronouncements including: "Love is the only rational act," and "There's two big F words in the English language and one of them is forgive." Other gems that the audience gets to consider are: “Are you at peace with yourself? Are you trying to be as human as you can?” and “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” Albom caps off his mentor’s ideas with the haunting, “the kind of things you say to someone at the end are the things you should say everyday.” These may sound pop-psych and hokey, but they are the reason that the book held its place on the New York Times best seller list for four years.

In its off-Broadway production the play was greeted with such reviewer comments as: “No matter how well you know the story, the play makes it more vivid, more shattering, more humorous.” "I was unprepared for how moving and powerful it turned out to be.” And, “A love song to a wise old professor who taught a young man how to feel."

The CPH production is well-conceived by director Seth Gordon. It is nicely paced, doesn’t become too sappy and plays all the right musical notes....literally and figuratively. Charles Kartali displays the right level of guilt and angst as Albom. The last scene, when he finally allows himself to feel emotion, is finely honed. Bernie Passeltiner is the perfect curmudgeon to portray Morrie. His eyes twinkle, he nags with delight, he stands on his philosophical soap box with gentle power, he dies with dignity. The only flaw in his performance was during the last scene in which he was supposedly totally paralyzed but gestured with his hands which distracted from the illusion of this brilliant man trapped inside a frozen body.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The fine CPH cast does its job of bringing Albom’s message to life. Whether you like ‘TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE’ is going to be based on your tolerance for the tender but preachy concept.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Clarence Darrow - Actors' Summit

‘CLARENCE DARROW’ wins at Actors' Summit

Clarence Darrow was probably the most celebrated American lawyer of the 20th century. Though he died in 1938, his fame continues. He is often quoted in matters of evolution, religion, unionism and freedom of expression.

Darrow’s life has been put on the stage in several formats. In the 1970s a one-man production, ‘CLARENCE DARROW: A ONE MAN PLAY,’ starred Henry Fonda.
“COMPULSION’ centered on Darrow’s defense of murderers Leopold and Loeb. ‘INHERIT THE WIND,” by Cleveland and Elyria’s Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, illuminated Darrow’s defense of the evolution teaching science instructor John Scopes. And David W. Rintels wrote the play ‘CLARENCE DARROW,’ which is now being staged by Actors’ Summit, Hudson’s professional theatre.

Darrow has deep Ohio roots. He was born in1857, near Kinsman, Ohio. He lived all of his youth and young adulthood in that small community which helped set his life-belief patterns. He was admitted to the Ohio bar
in 1878 at the age of 21.

He later moved to Chicago where he established himself as a proficient lawyer and a powerful speaker. He gained a national reputation as a labor and criminal lawyer thanks to his 1895 defense of Eugene V. Debs, president of the American Railway Union, who had been arrested on a federal charge of contempt of court over difficulties arising out of the Pullman strike of

Darrow did not shy away from controversy. He took on cases and causes which he felt would advance human rights and protect against human indignity. His two most famous trials were the Leopold-Loeb murder case
of 1924 and the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes. He
saved Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from execution--but not from prison--for the murder of
14-year-old Robert Franks. The Scopes trial
concerned the teaching of evolution, which was against Tennessee law. The prosecuting attorney in this famous "monkey trial" was William Jennings Bryan.

Darrow had strong convictions on many subjects, especially religion. Once, when asked his attitude toward that subject, Darrow replied: "I am an Agnostic because I am not afraid to think. I am not afraid of any god in the universe who would send me or any other man or woman to hell. If there were such a being, he would not be a god; he would be a devil."

Though historical, Rintels’ play is very contemporary.
Several comments about the corruption of politicians, especially in the wake of the recent Bush administration’s brushes with honesty, brought huge laughs and even applause from the audience. The teaching of evolution is in the forefront of the news with the push by religionists to force the teaching of the pseudo-science, “intelligent design,” in public school science classrooms. The questions over the
death penalty are still with us. Darrow’s view on
these topics is clear....politicians have to be monitored and questioned; evolution is science, creationism is not; and “I’m proud of the fact that
102 of my clients faced the death penalty and none were hanged!” As one openong-night attendee stated during the reception following the performance, “Where is Darrow when we need him?”

A. Neil Thackaberry is Darrow. His task is daunting.
The number of lines to memorize is awesome...35 or so pages...all are his speeches! Thackaberry is excellent! His performance is relaxed and offhanded.
He wisely doesn’t fake an orator’s voice. He invites
us into his thoughts and memories as if they are completely spontaneous. He adds vocalized pauses and
thought spaces to create total naturalism. He
clearly separates casual conversation from appeals to the jury by not only changing his physical demeanor,
but by putting on or taking off his jacket. His is a
well-thought out performance which has been well-honed by director Alex Cikra.

MaryJo Alexander has done a stellar job with props and the single costume. The stage is littered with age-perfect “things.” Things like an old upright typewriter, an old fashioned lamp, weathered books, and a worn leather chair. Darrow, who was noted as often looking like he slept in his clothes, which he often did, was perfectly dressed in an ill-fitting wrinkled suit, crinkled shirt and scuffed shoes.

Capsule Judgment One-man shows are hard to stage
as it is difficult to grab and hold an audience with little action and no interaction. Actors’ Summit seems to have a way of pulling it off. Last yer Wayne Turney won acting raves (including a Times Tribute Award) for his performance as Harry Truman, and now Thackaberry pulls off this fine portrayal as Darrow. Go see this production! You will not only get a fine history lesson, but see a wonderful performance.