Sunday, June 26, 2005

Secret Garden (Cain Park)


‘SECRET GARDEN’ fails to enchant at Cain Park

Most young girls have read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘THE SECRET GARDEN,’ which tells the story of Mary Lennox, a lonely little English girl who is sent to live with her Uncle Archibald after being orphaned by a cholera epidemic in India. Still grieving over the loss of his beloved wife Lily, who died ten years earlier during childbirth, and distraught over the physical condition of his bedridden son, Archibald casts a dark shadow over the manor and its inhabitants until Mary discovers a secret garden that had once belonged to Lily. By nursing this garden back to full bloom, Mary restores life to her grieving uncle and his son.

‘THE SECRET GARDEN’ was first published as a novel in 1910 and became an instant best selling children’s book. In 1937 a statue of its heroine was dedicated in New York’s Conservatory Gardens located in Central Park. The art piece has become a tourist attraction, not only because of the popularity of the book, but for some inexplicable reason Mary is practically naked.

In 1949 the book was turned into a movie starring Margaret O'Brien and Dean Stockwell. Later it was transposed into a musical with Marsha Norman serving as playwright and lyricist and is scored by Lucy Simon . The stage version, which won Norman a Tony Award for “Best Book of a Musical,” opened in 1991 and ran for 706 performances. At that year’s Tony Awards ceremony, Daisy Eagan became the youngest actress ever to win a Tony for her portrayal of Mary.

Cain Park’s production, though quite acceptable, misses its emotional mark due to the one-tone directing of Meryl Friedman. The staging lacks texturing. There are no emotional highs and lows so it lacks the necessary realistic emotional depth to carry the true meaning of the book.

The vocal elements of the play are excellent. The singing voices highlight the lush music. The acting of the cast, with few exceptions, is good.

The children, Sara Masterson (Mary) and Lincoln Sandham (Colin) are quite acceptable though neither has the singing or acting depth to expect them to be on their way to Broadway as has been the case recently with several local Cleveland kids. Patrick Janson sings and acts the role of the tortured Archibald effectively, though at times he goes over the edge in his display of angst. Sandra Simon, as the dead wife, has a big and pure voice, but is difficult to understand in the opening number. Part of this may have been due to the excessive volume of the orchestra.

Russ Borski’s representative sets don’t work well with the realistic story. When the dead garden comes to life there is little on stage to excite the audience, to show the marvelous effect that Mary has had on everything and everyone she touches.

As I’ve done in the past with shows that have been aimed at children, I took my grandsons Alex (9 1/2), Noah (8) and Ian (5) to see ‘THE SECRET GARDEN.’ Alex’s summary, “I liked the singing.” Noah, “I liked the scene with the thunder.” Ian didn’t contribute a summary as he fell asleep early in the second act. Those are not exactly ringing endorsements.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE SECRET GARDEN’ was advertised as a show appropriate for children. I think not. There just isn’t enough fantasy to hold their attention. This was evidenced when, at the performance I attended, many children and their parents left at intermission. This is not to say the production is bad, it’s just not all it could be.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Baby (Kalliope Stage)

Kalliope Stage delivers a fine "Baby"!

Lyricist-librettist Richard Maltby and composer David Shire's musical ‘BABY,’ which opened in New York in 1983 and ran for 276 performances, is considered by many theatre buffs to be one of the most underrated concept musicals ever written. It is now being performed at Kallliope Stage.

This is a musical not about babies but about the life-altering challenges of having a baby. It takes place at an unnamed American college, where three couples face pregnancies. They are a pair of unmarried juniors, a set of married 20 something athletic coaches, and a 40-something couple that has just sent their kids off to college. We follow them through nine months that lead to lots of laughs, some truthful awareness and some eye-welling moments.

I wouldn’t go so far as a reviewer who stated that “‘BABY’ is a masterpiece and Sybille Pearson's book is one of the strongest original libretti ever written for Broadway,” but I would say that when I first saw the musical at Berea Summer Theatre many years ago, I was enthralled. I wouldn’t classify this with ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ or ‘CHORUS LINE,’ but it has so much charm, pathos and wonderful songs, that it holds its own against many musicals.

So, why is ‘BABY’ underrated? The Broadway show, which opened on December 4, 1983, probably suffered from an accident of timing. Debuting in the same season as ‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE,’ ‘THE RINK’ and ‘LA CAGE AUX FOLLES,’ it was never able to win the attention -- or the Tonys -- it deserved. This, in spite of excellent reviews.

Another reason is that this is a small theatre musical. Kalliope Stage is a perfect venue for the show. It, like intimate musicals such as ‘I DO, I DO’ and “THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG,’ need the audience to be up-close so the ideas speak directly to the audience. The Broadway house in which it played was anything but intimate.

The Kalliope production is adeptly directed by Paul F. Gurgol. He has perfectly paced the show, creatively staged it, and gets wonderful performances out of his talented cast.

Andrew Smith and Carrie Hall play the college students. Smith is an all around performer. He develops a clear character, sings well, has a fine sense of timing and dances with ease. This is a very talented young man. Hall has a big and well-pitched voice. She lacks the physical looks probably needed for the role, but makes up for it with her singing. The duo’s “What Could Be Better” was cute and well sung. There did, however, appear to be a lack of emotional connection between them throughout the show...kisses weren’t real, the handholding was tentative, there was a lack of direct connection when they spoke and sang.

Scott Posey (Nick) and Kris Comer (Pam) were right on as the athletic coaches who have trouble conceiving. They both have strong singing voices and keen acting talent. Their “With You” was so tender that there was an emotional pause on the part of the audience following it’s conclusion followed by appreciative applause.

The always engaging Adina Bloom (Arlene) and the excellent John Jensen (Alan) were surperb as the older couple faced with the decision of whether they wanted to start their lives all over as “older” new parents. Their voices soared and their scene development was perfectly keyed. They played off each other as the performance pros they are. Their version of “And What If We Had Loved Like That” was an emotional show-stopper.

Kimberly Koljat and Rita Linger added their fine vocal talents in supporting roles.

Show highlights included the trio of Hall, Comer and Bloom belting out “I Want It All” and the male quartet of Smith, Posey, Jensen and John Paul Boukis presenting a cleverly staged “Fatherhood Blues.” Another show highlight was a very funny scene in which Boukis, portraying a doctor with new contact lenses, explains why one of the couples was having difficulty conceiving. Normally this wouldn’t be perceived as a funny scene, but Boukis took the concept and worked it to perfection.

The only flaw in the show was the poor costume choices. The play takes place in 1983, but many of the costumes were inappropriate for the era and often were ill-fitting.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you don't know the musical ‘BABY,’ it is high time you made its acquaintance. If you’ve seen it before, you won’t see a better production than that at Kalliope Stage!

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Spitfire Grill (Porthouse/KSU)


‘SPITFIRE GRILL ‘ a well crafted crowd pleaser at Porthouse

In 1997 Lee David Zlotoff’s film version of ‘THE SPITFIRE GRILL’ received the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. When writers James Valcq and Fred Alley transformed the screenplay into a musical for the stage, the off-Broadway production won the Richard Rogers Production Award. As attenders at the opening night of Porthouse Theatre’s 2005 season discovered, the production is everything it is trumpeted to be.

As the play starts, Percy, an ex-convict, is getting off a bus. She has decided to start a new life in Gilead, Wisconsin, a location she selected because of a picture she found in an old travel book. The authors’ choice of the city’s name is not accidental. In the Old Testament a reference is made to a salve noted for healing--the balm of Gilead (Jeremiah 46:11). This allusion supports the play’s themes of healing and hope.

Sheriff Joe Sutter takes Percy to the Spitfire Grill, since it has the only guest room in town. Here, Percy meets Hannah, a seemingly hardened woman, who reluctantly takes her in, but eventually gives her a job.

Effy, the town postmistress and busybody, is immediately suspicious of Percy, as is Caleb, Hannah’s nephew. They make it known that a jailbird isn’t welcome in their midst. It is the shy Shelby, Caleb’s wife, who is the only one willing to suspend judgment. Hannah accidentally falls and injures her leg, Percy gets her medical help, Effy spreads the story that Percy pushed Hannah down a flight of stairs, Hannah puts Percy in charge of the grill, Percy’s cooking proves to be nearly lethal, Shelby helps out, Percy also takes over Hannah’s unexplained ritual of leaving a loaf of bread next to a stump behind the grill. Hannah has been trying to sell the grill for years with no luck. Percy and Shelby, come up with a scheme for an essay contest with an entry fee of $100 and award the restaurant to the writer of the best “Why I Want the Spitfire Grill” essay. And so, the pieces are all set in place for an obvious, but audience pleasing climax.

One of the keymarks of a well-crafted book musical is that each of the songs focuses on the development of the story line. “THE SPITFIRE GRILL’ fulfills that definition as throughout, there is a perfect flow of lyrics and script that carry the story along.

Why did such a wonderful little musical not get its deserved attention? In reality, theatre audiences never really got the opportunity to experience the production because the show opened only three days before the 9/11 tragedy. The calamity closed down much of New York theatre. The show lasted only four weeks, but has increased in popularity as it is done by some of the country’s leading community and regional theatres.

The music of ‘THE SPITFIRE GRILL’ is appropriately rife with the sounds of banjos, guitars, fiddles, and the other instruments closely associated with American folk music.

Terri Kent’s directing is right on target. The pacing is crisp, with just enough stress on pathos and comedy to make the show pleasing without being maudlin or trite.

The cast ranges from outstanding to adequate. As she did in her Times Tributes performance as Lauri in Porthouse’s ‘OKLAHOMA,’ Kayce Cummings lights up the stage with her wonderful singing voice and fine acting skills as Shelby. Her “When Hope Goes’ was not only well sung, but well-interpreted.

Lenne Snively makes Hannah a real person with her textured acting. Her singing versions of “Come Alive’ and “Forgotten Lullaby’ were perfectly interpreted.

Another Times Tribute Award winner, MaryAnn Black, is delightful as Effy, the town gossip. Everything from her prissy walk to her controlled over-the-top characterization works.

As the sheriff, Steel Kurkhardt displayed a nice singing voice, but demonstrated some character-development shallowness. Lisa Marie Schueller seemed miscast in the role of Shelby. She had difficulty with the singing requirements and stayed on the acting surface. There was little visual and oral transition as she traveled from the hardened released criminal to the town savior. Eric van Baars’ singing showed some raggedness which was countered by his fine character development as Caleb.

Melissa Fucci and her orchestra were excellent, Steve Pauna’ set design worked well, and Cynthia Stillings lighting aided in proper mood development.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE SPITFIRE GRILL’ offers some mystery, a little romance, lots of nice music, some views of friendship and familial love mingled with themes of starting over, unconditional love, and life in small-town America. In the hands of Terri Kent and her wonderful cast, Porthouse’s version is a must see production!

Friday, June 17, 2005

Hairspray - Playhouse Square Center


TOURING COMPANY’S ‘HAIRSPRAY’ FUN, BUT....

During the curtain call on opening of night of ‘HAIRSPRAY,’ at the State Theatre in Playhouse Square, the audience was on its feet, clapping in harmony and moving in time to the music. They obviously had enjoyed this touring production of the multi Tony Award winning musical.

Now, don’t get the idea that ‘HAIRSPRAY’ is a great musical. It’s not. It will never be ranked with the likes of ‘A CHORUS LINE,’ ‘WEST SIDE STORY,’ or ‘CAROUSEL.’ What it is, as reviewers of the Broadway production stated, is “an audience pleaser,” “bubble gum-flavored confection,” “tons of fun,” and sweetly subversive.” It’s more in the realm of ‘THE PRODUCERS’ ‘FOOTLOOSE’ and ‘SEUSSICAL, THE MUSICAL.’

Based on the 1988 movie penned by John Waters, the musical, like the film, takes place in segregated Baltimore in the '50s. Change is in the air and Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart, has only one passion--to dance on "The Corny Collins Show." Through a series of quirks she is transformed from outsider to irrepressible teen celebrity who might even get her second and third wishes, winning the love of heart throb, Link Larkin, and integrating the television show while not denting her 'do’?

Walters grew up in Baltimore in the 50s. With his weird counter-culture friends he started making films that outraged the traditionalists and entranced underground audiences. By the early 70s he was regularly making films like ‘PINK FLAMINGOS,’ a deliberate exercise in ultra-bad taste. It was his crossover film ‘HAIRSPRAY,’ which reflected Walters playfulness and his life-long obsessions, including integration and the need for social change, that brought Walters to national prominence.

Songs from the show include, “Good Morning Baltimore,” the delightful opening number, the pretty ballad “Timeless to Me,” and the compelling “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

The musical, which is appearing in Cleveland as part of the Broadway Series, does not have the sparkle, the life or the spirit of the original New York production. Missing most are Marissa Jaret Winokur as Tracy Turnblad and Harvey Fierstein as her irresistible stage mother (played in drag).

Keala Settle’s Tracy is quite endearing. She sings and dances well, but doesn’t light up the stage like Winokur. J. P. Dougherty feigns being outrageous, a quality that comes so easy for Fierstein, but Dougherty can’t quite pull it off. He is funny, but the role requires being outrageous.

Chandra Lee Schwartz is wonderful as the mousey Penny, Tracy’s best friend. Charlotte Crossley wails as Motormouth Maybelle. Alan Mingo, Jr., sings and dances up a storm as Seaweed, Penny’s boyfriend. Serge Kushnier is quite adequate as Link, but lacks that special 50s stud luster needed for the role. Stephen DeRosa is fine as Tracy’s eccentric father.

A major issue is the sound. The orchestra is so loud that it often drowns out the performers. Since much of the charm of the show is Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman’s clever lyrics, some of the sheen is taken off the production by this technical glitch.

Jerry Mitchell’s choreography is fun and perfectly fits the 50s era. The sets, the lighting, the special effects all work well.

Capsule Judgment ‘HAIRSPRAY’ is a fun show. The Broadway series production will be enjoyed by the audience, though it is not of the same quality as the original show.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Stratford Festival of Canada--2005, Part 1



A glimpse at the Stratford Festival of Canada

When most people think of the Stratford Festival of Canada, they think Shakespeare. In the 2005 season, that thinking is right on. The two finest productions I saw on my recent reviewing trip were ‘AS YOU LIKE IT’ and ‘THE TEMPEST.’

‘AS YOU LIKE IT’

‘AS YOU LIKE IT’ is one of Shakespeare’s greatest romantic comedies. It was written just before he moved on to his major tragedies. It is not an original concept as it is based on Thomas Lodge's extremely popular prose romance ‘ROSALYNDE,’ though Shakespeare changed a great deal of the details.

The play follows the pastoral tradition of writing in which a story involves exiles from the court going into the countryside. While in the rural area, they would hold singing contests and philosophically discuss the various merits of each forms of lifestyle. Shakespeare used the same concept in ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream.’

The story begins with the ousting of the Duke, father of Rosalind, from the throne by his own brother. With some loyal servants, he hides in the Forest of Arden, while back in the court Rosalind falls in love with the orphan Orlando and is subsequently also expelled. Rosalind disguises herself as a man, a common Shakespearean device. (‘TWELFTH NIGHT’ for example has gender-bending antics). She brings along her friend Celia and Touchstone, the court jester. As always in Shakespeare's comedies, following unmasking and resolution the couples sort themselves out appropriately and all is happy.

The play is notable for having the most songs of any of Shakespeare's plays and for being largely amusement rather than plot based. Besides fine acting and very effective directing by Antoni Cimolino, the musical aspect is enhanced in the Stratford Festival’s production with wonderful new songs composed by Steven Page and produced by the group, Barenaked Ladies. Dan Chameroy did an excellent job as lead singer.

The entire cast is fine with special credit going to Dion Johnstone as Orlando, Sophie Goulet as Celia, and Sara Topham as Rosalind. Graham Abbey (Jaques) presents a compelling underplaying of the play’s most famous soliloquy, “All the world’s a stage.” Stephen Ouimette comes close to stealing the show with his delightful performance as Touchstone.

Technically the show was perfect. Santo Loquasto’s set design, in which he created a forest made of hanging opened umbrellas with ladders for tree trunks was wonderfully creative. The costumes and the lighting greatly enhanced the production.

‘THE TEMPEST’

There are several reasons to see the Stratford Festival’s ‘THE TEMPEST.’ The main on is the presence of William Hutt. On October 28 of this year, the day that the show closes, Hutt will be retiring. His Stratford record spans 128 roles as an actor or director in 40 seasons. In this production he will again play the pivotal role of Prospero. In 1962 he was the Festival’s first Prospero. The second reason is that the production is excellent. Under the clear direction of Richard Monette, the pacing is appropriate, the characterizations clear and the total effect is Shakespeare at his finest.

‘THE TEMPEST’ opens in the midst of a storm, as a ship, containing the king of Naples and his party, struggles to stay afloat. On land, Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, watch the storm envelop the ship. Prospero has created the storm with magic, and he explains that his enemies are on board the ship.

Prospero relates that he is the rightful Duke of Milan and that his younger brother betrayed him, seizing his title and property. Twelve years earlier, Prospero and Miranda were put out to sea in little more than a raft. Miraculously, they both survived and arrived safely on this island, where Prospero learned to control the magic that he now uses to manipulate everyone on the island. Upon his arrival, Prospero rescued a sprite, Ariel, who had been imprisoned by the witch Sycorax.

And, so, as is the pattern in Shakespeare’s plays, the plot weaves in and out until in a final speech, Prospero tells the audience that only with their applause will he be able to leave the island with the rest of the party. And, as can be expected, Prospero, in the person of the wonderful William Hutt, leaves the stage to the audience's thunderous applause.

Besides Hutt, Adrienne Gould is wonderful as Miranda, Jean-Michael LeGai is properly love struck as Ferdinand, Bernard Hopkins is purposeful as Sebastian. Jack James as Ariel, the spirit, is much too human-like and not enchanting enough.

The technical aspects of the show are very effective. The storm, the magic effects, the costuming, the lighting are all well designed. The dancing was excellent.

HELLO DOLLY

U. S. Americans don’t tend to do British farce and comedy well. Canadians don’t always to do U.S. musicals as effectively as they do other theatrical forms. This is especially true with shows that require some understanding of U.S. regions of the country.

Dolly Levi, the lead character in the Tony Award winning musical HELLO DOLLY, is a lower-east side New Yorker. There is needed cadence to her speech, an exaggeration of her purpose and a determination in her walk. Unfortunately, the miscast Lucy Peacock had none of these. Peacock, who was so wonderful in the company’s production of THE KING AND I, just doesn’t have the right personality or the vocal qualities to pull off Dolly. She sounded like an off-key sophisticate. And, to add to the production’s problems was Peter Donaldson, who also was miscast as Horace Vandergelder, the man Dolly plots to marry.

With a few exceptions, director Susan Schulman missed the musical theatre boat on this production. The exceptions were the wonderful choreography, Lawrence Haegert’s interpretation of Barnaby Tucker, Amy Walsh’s Minnie Fay and the production numbers: “Before the Parade Passes By,” “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “Waiters Galop.”

As was the case with every major production, the technical aspects of the show were terrific. The costumes, set design and lighting were all top rate.

As one U. S. American said as she left the production at intermission, “This is the most misinterpreted production of this show I’ve ever seen.”

In my next column I’ll review: ‘THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV,’ ‘INTO THE WOODS,’ and ‘WINFIELD’S INFERNO.’

THE STORY OF THE FESTIVAL

The Stratford Festival of Canada takes place in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. The ride from Cleveland is about six hours through Buffalo. Go on-line to the festival to get directions.

Hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts abound to fit any wallet. My favorite B&B is “The Jennie Forbes Cottage,” a charming regency cottage erected in 1857 (www.jennieforbescottagebb.com). Owners Don and Kathy Spiers are wonderful hosts.

As for shopping, I recommend Davis Canadian Arts (106 Ontario Street). This is an art gallery that offers well-crafted Canadian traditional and contemporary sculptures, ceramics and paintings. For women’s quality clothing make sure to stop at The Touchmark Shop (137 Ontario Street). The establishment offers unique and one-of-a kind products at excellent prices.

For moderate cost and high quality food, try The Annex Room (38 Albert Street) and The Keystone Alley Cafe (34 Brunswick Street). For inexpensive food try Demetre’s Family Eatery (1100 Ontario Street). We had a disastrous experience at “38,” a new restaurant in town. No air-conditioning on a hot and humid evening, an uninformed waiter and a lack of ability to honor any requests for deviating from their very limited menu, caused us to leave without eating.

Stratford Escapes, a division of Niagara Falls Tours, is an efficient way to make reservations. For information call 877-356-6385 or go on line to www.niagarafallstours.com. For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to www.stratfordfestival.ca.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Nature Moves (Verb Ballets)

Verb Ballets and Natural History Museum in perfect sync

How important is it for a performing art company to have a dynamic and creative artistic director and executive director. One only has to look as far as Cleveland’s Verb Ballets to find out. It’s only taken a couple of years for Executive Director Dr. Margaret Carlson and Artistic Director Hernando Cortez to transform the little recognized Repertory Project into an audience-centered, community-responsive, dynamic entity.

The excitement the company generates was again demonstrated at ‘NATURE MOVES!’ a program presented in collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in the museum’s attractive Murch Auditorium. This is a follow-up to the company’s sold out Playhouse Square performance earlier this year, and Cleveland Public Theatre’s capacity presentations.

It was exciting to see that the audience of over 300 who attended the opening night of ‘NATURE MOVES!’ was composed of multi-age and multi-ethnic groups. In contrast to many of the arts companies who are hurting for audiences since their base is made up of mature arts patrons who, unfortunately are dying off and not being replaced, Verb has been able to attract young people through creative advertising, partnering and thoughtful programming.

The segments of the program were chosen to fit the museum setting. “The Man and the Echo,” choreographed by Cortez to the beautiful “Holdberg Suite” by Edvard Grieg is a contemporary lyric ballet inspired by the words of William Butler Yeats. His poem explains how humans need their intellect and sight to grow before they “sink at last into the night.” Clothed in flowing costumes created by Edward Sylvia, the company danced in shadows created by the effective lighting design of Trad Burn. The company, many of them dancing barefoot, flowed through the piece with precise discipline. The highlight was Mark Tomasic’s leaping free fall into the arms of the other dancers, as he floated as an “Echo: into the night.”

“Jia Gu Sui Xiang: Inscriptions on Oracle Bones from the Shang Dynasty,” which featured a solo performance by Huang Dou Dou, was self-choreographed. Danced to music played by Tibetan monks on ancient temple bronze bells from 500 BC, the piece can best be summarized by the phrase “Oh, my God!,” uttered by a woman sitting behind me as Dou Dou performed a series of movements which extended the body beyond its normal limits. Barechested, and adorned with a tall slender feathered head dress, the dancer totally mesmerized the audience which rose to its feet enmasse and screamed their appreciation at the end of the number. This was a virtuoso performance!

The Feathered Dinosaur exhibit is presently on display at the museum. As you enter the gallery a large animated version of an ostrich confronts you. It was appropriate, therefore, that the programming include some reference to that exhibit. Cortez picked the gem, “Awassa Astrige/Ostrich.” The short but effective piece showcased solo dancer G. D. Harris, whose feathered costume, and ostrich-like moves gave a clear image of the elegance of what many consider to be a strange bird best known for putting his head in the sand when danger approaches.

Every company needs its “special” piece, one that elicits an immediate reaction from the audience. Verb has theirs. It’s entitled “The Envelope.” As described in the program notes, this is “A farcical and hysterical romp where the dancers are pitted against a renegade piece of stationery.” Dressed in dark glasses and black, body covering loose fitting costumes, the selection centers on passing an envelope from dancer to dancer as the company hops, tickles each other, jumps, grabs, twists, shimmies and does incredible body bends. Originally choreographed by David Parsons, Verb has made it its own through a restaging by Katarzyna Skarpetowska. It was a perfect piece to balance the more serious nature of the rest of the program.

“Nero’s Fiddle,” in its world premiere, was choreographed by Hernando Cortez to “Speed,” the music of Matthew Hindson. It featured Huang Dou Dou. The dancer had requested that he be given the chance to do a contemporary western piece rather than his usual Chinese routines. Though the dancer was wonderful, the piece did not have the depth needed to show off his extraordinary talents. Since he is often called the young Mikhail Barishnikov, it would have been exciting to see him totally let loose with the turns and monumental leaps that he is so well known for.

The program concluded with the Cortez-choreographed “Planet Soup.” This is a dancer and audience exhausting experience which incorporates African ritual, Filipino folk and Irish reel dancing, Wayang Golek puppets from Indonesia, Indian traditional movements and pole jumping. The cross-cultural fusion, with contemporary dance dynamics, is high energy. The dancers, clothed at first in sarongs and then in loin cloths, showed great understanding of the need to vary their dance styles and body movements to fit the music and the choreography. Highlights included a strong gymnastics segment danced by Bobby Wesner, Glynn Owens and Jason Ignacio. Ignacio ignited the audience with his blindfolded pole dance. The piece ended with an emotionally charged segment in which the dancers, using large white square pieces of cloth, performed what might be called the Chinese ribbon dance meets marching band flag twirling.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Verb Ballets did it again with its wonderful performances in ‘NATURE MOVES.’ It is so exciting to be able to look forward to every performance of this wonderful group.

Stone Cold Dead Serious (TITLEwave Theatre)


Befuddeling 'STONE COLD DEAD SERIOUS' at TITLEwave Theatre

Adam Rapp is one of the new breed of young American playwrights. He uses modern day situations, surreal ideas and often implausible plot twists and turns to create an illusion of a society under the microscope.

Rapp has been called a cross between writers Christopher Durang and Sam Shepard. But, as one critic states, “This writer of young adult sci-fi novels has neither the ingenuity of the former or the searing honesty of the latter.” Another observer states that ‘STONE COLD DEAD SERIOUS,’ the play TITLEWave Theatre is now co-producing with Cleveland Public Theatre, illustrates “one dilemma when producing new works. . .cultural ephemera quickly become clich├ęs. Problems worsen when bizarre characters combine with a stale sci-fi theme.”

This view is counter-balanced by critics, who, after seeing the same production stated, “If you’re interested in playwriting talent and want to see it muscling toward maturity, you’ll find no more fascinating example than ‘STONE COLD DEAD SERIOUS.’ Another stated, ‘STONE COLD DEAD SERIOUS’ is a gritty, funny, surreal journey through extreme psychic landscapes.”

So, what’s all the fuss about? The Ledbetters are, what has been termed in self-help psychology, as a dysfunctional family. They are definitely a group who should appear on Jerry Springer as freaks or as candidates for serious help by Dr. Phil.

Husband and father Clifford is on worker's comp, a semi-zombie skidding along on pain pills and beer. Wife Linda works overtime as a waitress, obsesses about saints and vainly tries to retain a sense of family. Daughter Shaylee has bailed out, and now lives on the street as a drug-addicted whore. The only one who has a floating glimpse of reality is brother Wynne, a computer whiz, who has managed to offset a sense of duty to this sick group with his own obsession: a Samurai-themed computer game at which he is so good he finds himself as one of three finalists invited to come to New York for a live reenactment/contest in which the winner will get $1 million. He ventures forth stopping along the way to pick up one of the other competitors, a mute girl named Sharice, with whom he has fallen in love online. What follows are some scenes which could have been left out (a hitchhiking sidetrack in which he earns $100 participating in a sex act and a visit from Snake Lady, a colorful East Village denizen who occupies the room next door). After a brutal and bloody competition there is an unclear resolution.

I found the script riddled with detours, and in the end the writer seems at a loss as to how to wrap up the whole thing.

I’m still trying to figure out what message I was supposed to carry from the play. But that may be my issue...I like plays that when they set out to teach me something, make that message clear. I’m willing to think, but not to dig and create meaning as that is the job of the playwright.

The good news for this production is that there's a lot worthwhile to see. Young Stephen Dale gives an outstanding performance as Wynne. He gets the very most out of a character which is often given lines that are both unrealistic and not well written.

Meg Kelly Schroeder, as the mother and the Snake Lady, Robert Ellis as the father and the auto driver, and Magdalyn Donnelly as the sister and girlfriend, all are quite good.

Director Gregory Vovos has paced the play well and has pointed the cast in the right direction.

‘STONE COLD DEAD SERIOUS’ is not a play for everyone. If you like pseudo/contemporary plays you’ll probably like this one. If you are a traditionalist, you will probably leave the theatre upset that you paid money to see the play. No matter, be aware that the show contains blunt language, simulated decapitation and sexual situations. Again, these are a turn-on for some and a turn-off for others.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: I pass on recommending or not recommending. (Gee, does that make me like the playwright, unable to come to a clear ending?)