Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Streetcar Named Desire (Cleveland Play House)

‘STREETCAR’ gives a proficient, but not compelling ride at CPH

Tennessee Williams is considered one of America’s greatest modern playwrights. His works, along with those of Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller and William Inge, have reached the level of classics and continue to be produced and produced. For example, ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, has had over 20,000 productions since it opened on Broadway in 1947 and went on to win many awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The play, and its movie version, have many highlights. It was Williams’ second smash hit, following on the heels of his THE GLASS MENAGERIE. In 1995 it was made into an opera with music by Andre Previn.

Vivien Leigh garnered an Academy Award for the movie version for her portrayal of Blanche, while Jessica Tandy won the Tony Award for her portrayal in the staged version. In contrast to what many believe, the role of Stanley was not Brando’s first Broadway appearance. He was in ‘I REMEMBER MAMA’ in 1944. As for Brando’s casting in ‘STREETCAR,’ Williams recalled that one day, while he was doing rewrites for the play, he opened the screen door of his summer home to find Brando there asking to play Stanley. Williams knew instantly that he had his Stanley Kowalski.

On the surface, the play centers on the psychological and physical conflicts between Blanche DuBois, a faded Southern belle with a history of nymphomania and alcoholism, and her sister Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, a thunderstorm of brutish sensuality.

‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’ centers on many themes. A recurring topic is the conflict between reality and fantasy. Blanche does not want, "..what's real, but what's magic." Blanche's deception of others and herself is not characterized by malicious intent, but rather a heart-broken retreat to a romantic time before disaster struck when her young husband was revealed as being gay and subsequently committed suicide.

Another theme centers on the very title of the play. Blanche states, “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemetery and ride six blocks and then get off at Elysian Fields. The streetcar and its route, which is a reality in New Orleans history, does, in fact, transport her on a ride of ultimate doom. Interestingly, Williams played with many titles while developing the play including: ‘THE MOTH,’ ‘BLANCHE'S CHAIR ON THE MOON,’ and ‘THE POKER NIGHT,’ finally settling on the one with the most symbolic meaning for the core of the script.

In contrast to most American plays, ‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’ is characterized by the absence of a male protagonist imbued with heroic qualities. Instead, there is Stanley, who Blanche describes as a "...survivor of the Stone Age." She recounts his uncivilized manners, demanding and forceful behavior, lack of empathy, selfishness, and chauvinistic attitude towards women. Interestingly, Stanley is not a villain, per se, but a symbol of the changing South of the mid-20th century which included the destruction of real or portrayed codes of chivalry for which the old south was noted.

Williams’ plays, including ‘STREETCAR,’ reflect his life. His mother never adjusted to being ripped out of her southern home and being transported to the North by a husband who had difficulty holding a job and was often brutish. Williams had an older sister named Rose who was emotionally and mentally unstable. She was the model for the sister in ‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE.’ Based on his mother and sister’s fragility, many of his women characters find themselves in societies that they don’t understand and which don’t understand them. This is another theme in ‘STREETCAR.’

The loss of a lover also is part of Williams’ life. The death of his long-time life-partner Frank Merlo sent Williams into a deep depression that lasted for many years and resulted in drug and alcohol dependency.

The Cleveland Play House production, under the direction of Michael Bloom, succeeds on many levels, yet gets off track on others.

The play looks right in Todd Rosenthal’s French Quarter New Orleans setting.

Kelly Mares (Stella), Lucas Caleb Rooney (Blanche’s disillusioned suitor Mitch) and Starla Benford (the Kowalski’s neighbor) all shine. They develop clear and consistent characterizations.

Hollis Resnik has many outstanding moments as Blanche. Her slender body and vulnerable looks help create the right illusion...a moth about to be extinguished by a flame. Many of her soliloquies are effectively delusional. However, her emotional break at the end of play needed to be more clear and pathetic. She needed to wilt, to totally leave her ever-decreasing world of reality. Her face and voice failed to emotionally wrench the audience as she stated one of the theatre’s most powerful under-stated lines, “I’ve always been dependent upon the kindness of strangers.” In addition, I can only assume, based on her talent, that if Resnik had been playing opposite a more proficient Stanley, a Stanley who engendered sexual tension between them, her portrayal would have been stronger.

Though he physically fit the role, Jason Paul Field was unconvincing in his portrayal of Stanley. This was not the animalistic, sensual Stanley that Williams’ wrote about. It was all surface portrayal, substituting yelling for emotional strength, with no texturing. I must wonder, as I did earlier in the season with the miscasting of the lead role in ‘ROOM SERVICE,’ what criteria CPH is using for its casting selections.

Though it might seem like a minor point, Joshua John McKay looked too old to portray the young collector who Blanche attempts to seduce. In a small, but pivitol scene, we need to gain an insight into Blanche’s desire for attractive young men, a desire based on needing someone to replace her young lost love.

Michael Lincoln’s lighting failed to create all the right moods. The dark shadows, the symbolism of hidden desires and needs, and the feeling of New Orleans’ heat were missing.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’ was an adequate production which should satisfy most audience members. However, this is one of the greatest American dramas and should have been enthralling. Michael Bloom’s directing debut as the new Artistic Director of the CPH was not all we could have hoped for.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Verb Ballets (Beck Center)

VERB BALLET wows west side audience

There appears to be little doubt that Verb Ballets has emerged as the leading large- ensemble dance company in the area. It far outstrips Ohio Ballet, its nearest rival, for attendance, creativity, positive reviews and the development of a loyal following.

The company is in its fourth season under the creative Artistic Direction of Hernando Cortez and the savvy Executive Director Dr. Margaret Carlson. The two have carefully honed offerings and public relations that reach out to more than traditional attenders of dance programs. The recent offerings at Beck Center, for example, found a mixture of preteens through senior citizens in attendance, with many seldom seen twenty-five to forty year-olds, including many men.

Verb has been dubbed by Dance Magazine as one of the “25 to Watch.” I’ve declared in reviews that, “Verb’s the word in local ballet” and “It is so exciting to be able to look forward to every performance of this wonderful group.”

Verb Ballets' mission is reflected in the company’s repertory which includes Ian Horvath’s “Piano Man” and “Laura’s Women”; David Parsons’ “The Envelope,” and “Sleep Study”; Sean Curran’s “Mozart Piano Trio”; and, Hernando Cortez’s “Two Hours that Shook the World,” “MoonDogg-Cleveland Celebrates Rock n’ Roll,” “Chichester Psalms,” “Planet Soup” and “Carmina Burana.”

Their recent program at Beck Center, whose three performances played to near sold out audiences, included “MoonDogg,’ “”Laura’s Women,” and the world premiere of “Super Friends-Episode 6.

“MoonDogg” is a tribute to Rock and Roll, specifically to the contributions of Alan Freed. Cortez’s choreography was right-on, but this was one time when being too proficient in traditional dance excellence somewhat got in the way. Rock and roll is spontaneous, filled with joy and abandonment. The well-trained company did the right moves, but with none of the needed flair. Except for dynamic Jason Ignacio, they danced with emotional control. It was interesting that when the younger students in the company’s dance school came on stage for a brief appearance, joyous excitement over-form filled the stage. The next time the company performs this piece I’d love to hear Cortez tell them to just let loose, have fun, forget the precise movements and really have a great time rocking and rolling!

Ian Horvath was one of the founding artistic directors of the now defunct Cleveland Ballet. Unfortunately, he become ill and died at a young age, before he had the chance to develop a comprehensive repertory. One of his finest pieces was “Laura’s Women.” The second piece in ‘VERBS POPS PROGRAM,’ the ballet was restaged by Margaret Carlson and danced to perfection by Danielle Brickman, Elizabeth Flynn and Katie Gnagy. Trad Burns’ lighting helped create the perfect mood and images.

‘SUPERFRIENDS-EPISODE 6, THE MONOLITH OF EVIL exposed the audience to the dancing exploits of Batman and Robin, Superman, Mighty Mouse, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Popeye and Olive, Tarzan and Jane, and Speed Racer.

The piece started with a wonderful reenactment of “Magic to Do,” the opening number from the musical ‘PIPPIN.’ I’ve know for a long time that Mark Tomasic is one of the area’s best dancers, but little did I know that he was also a proficient singer. Any director planning to do ‘PIPPIN’ should definitely cast him as the Leading Player. Or, for that matter, in such musicals as ‘CHICAGO’ which requires a macho male with a big voice who can really dance.

The audience loved ‘SUPERFRIENDS.’ This is a program which should be done for school students to introduce them to dance. The cast was wonderful, especially Jason Ignacio as Mighty Mouse. The program was narrated by John Wesley Shipp, who played the title role in the CBS comic book series, “The Flash.” This is a piece that will surely be added to the company’s repertory.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you haven’t seen Verb Ballets, you should make every effort to get to their next performance, ‘HONORING POLL’ to be presented on Friday, March 24 and Saturday, March 25 at the Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square. Their last downtown Cleveland performance was a total sell-out, so you would be well-advised to quickly call 216-241-6000 or go on line to www.playhousesquare.com and get tickets.

Friday, January 06, 2006

HAIR (Cain Park)

‘HAIR’ at Cain Park, more affect then effect, but audience pleasing

When ‘HAIR,’ now in production at Cain Park’s Alma Theatre, opened on Broadway in 1968, it was the musical that best mirrored the life and times of the 60s...the anti Vietnam war movement, free love, the hippie crusade, nudity, breaking of traditional values, anti-establishmentarianism and the rise of rock and roll. It mirrored a generation that would not blindly be led, who burned draft cards and bras in order to express their views of what was wrong with the U. S. political and social system. In fact, it was subtitled, “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.”

The book and lyrics for ‘HAIR’ were written by Jerry Ragni and Jim Rado with music by Galt MacDermot. Memorable music it is. The score contains such hits as “Aquarius,” “Donna,” “Hashish,” “Manchester, England,” “I Believe in Love,” “Air,” and “Good Morning Starshine.”

The original production was directed by Lorain-native Gerald Friedman, who at one time served as Artistic Director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare (Theatre) Festival.

The show challenged many norms held by Western society at the time. It caused controversy. Much publicity was provoked by the Act I finale which included nudity. (The Cain Park production does not contain that misunderstood scene.) Many thought the nudity was included as a shock factor. It achieved that, but its purpose was much more. It was a statement of exposure. It allowed the cast, as the characters, to express the statement of being exposed...exposed to the controls of the time. The were living restricted lives where they were forced to go fight a war that they didn’t believe in, living lives according to customs they didn’t like, including that they should not have long hair, needed to wear conservative clothing, had their political voices taken away from them (they were too young to vote, but old enough to be drafted.) It was Ragni and Rado’s tool for shocking societies’ sensibilities into an awareness of the limiting of a free voice, the freedom to do and act as each person wanted.

Because of the show’s burning of the American flag (omitted in the Cain Park production) and the course language used (included in the Cain Park version), a case against the production went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court. The court’s decision not to censure the show ended many of the rules of censorship. (Ironically, the flag burning issue has again surfaced.)

The show actually has a weak book. The major story line, which concerns whether Claude, who has received his draft notice, will go into the service, doesn’t enter the production until late in the first act. The first part of the show lays exposition to the politically-active views of a group of long-haired" Hippies of the Age of Aquarius." Ultimately, Claude goes to Vietnam and is killed.

There have been revivals of the play due to what many feel are its parallel message to the war in Iraq and the comparable political deviousness of the Nixon and Bush administrations. A thoughtful evaluation, however, reveals some parallels, but great differences. There is no universal draft today. There is no above or underground movement to overthrow the administration, as was the case in the 60s. There have been no Kent State riots, mainly small peaceful demonstrations. It is also probably why, there is a disconnect in the Cain Park production.

The Cain Park cast, though the actors are filled with enthusiasm, don’t seem to “get it.” They play characters, they do not populate the roles. Only Mitch McCarrell, as Claude, seems to have a real grasp of the implications of what the characters are doing, what their actions represent…a total dedication to a cause. This generation doesn’t have the experiences of being parts of “causes.” They haven’t put their physical and emotional lives on the block like the anti-war activists, the freedom fighters, and the women’s libbers did.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The production, as directed by Victoria Bussert, is an audience pleaser due to its fine musical sounds, enthusiasm and creative settings, but it misses the message mark. It is a production of affect, not effect. It looks great on the surface, but fails to develop the underlying message of the times it represents. This may not be obvious to the average audience member, many of whom didn’t live through the put-your-life-on-the-block-rebels-with-a-cause years. Those who look at theatre as a means of entertainment, not as a means to teach and reflect important messages, will love the show. Others will be troubled by the lack of message depiction.

Janeice Kelley-Kitely’s choreography is outstanding. There are no dance numbers, per se. Instead the scenes are movement segments. Highlights are “Black Boys,” “White Boys’ and the intriguing “Walking in Space.”

The cast puts out full efforts. Phil Carroll, makes a strong physical presence as Berger. Benji Reid handles the role of Woof well. Libby Servais, is plaintive as the pregnant Jeanie. Kayce Çumming’s vocal version of “I Believe in Love” is strong though her “Good Morning Starshine” lacks the needed vocal texturing. The chorus sings well.

Jeff Herrmann’s set and lighting designs work well. Matthew Webb’s musical direction is excellent. Charlotte Yetman’s costumes are generally era correct.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘HAIR’ is an audience pleasing production which has all the veneer needed to highlight the show’s songs, but misses the mark in keying the emotional and historical impact of the play as it represents the era from which it comes.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Shaw & Shakespeare Preview--2005


John Simon, the legendary drama reviewer of New York Magazine, stated in his 2004 Shaw Festival review that is was “The best repertory theater on the entire continent.” Based on their most recent offerings, I’d have to agree. Not far behind would be the Stratford Festival of Canada.

It may seem like spring and summer are a long way off, but Shaw and Shakespeare, the two Canadian theatrical venues, have announced their season offerings. It might be a good time for you to think “go north” for a spring, summer or fall vacation that includes attending one or both of these theatres as ticket sales are generally brisk and many of these theatres’ shows sell out before the season opens. This is especially true on weekends.


The Shaw Festival is conducted in three theatres in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, an easy four-hour trip from Cleveland. You travel through the wine countries of Ohio, New York and Canada enroute. Once you arrive, you will be entranced by the lovely city. It is called the most beautiful city in Canada, and it is! Lovely flowers, classical home architecture and inviting well-stocked shops make for an inviting experience.

Jackie Maxwell, Shaw’s creative Artistic Director, has described the 2005 season as, “Stories galore that will provoke, intoxicate, move and delight.” The offerings, which run from April 1 through November 27 include: ‘YOU NEVER CAN TELL,’ ‘THE CONSTANT WIFE,’ ‘GYPSY,’ ‘JOURNEY’S END,’ ‘HAPPY END,’ ‘MAJOR BARBARA,’ ‘SOMETHING ON THE SIDE,’ ‘THE AUTUMN GARDEN,’ ‘BUS STOP,’ AND BELLE MORAL.’

Besides the plays themselves, the Festival includes a reading series, Sunday coffee concerts, a Village Fair and Fete, seminars, backstage tours, pre-show chats, Tuesday Questions and Answers and Saturday Conversations.

The area itself is filled with activities ranging from a golf course within the city limits; an art park (www.artpark.net); The Good Earth Cooking School (www.goodearthcooking.com); the Jordan Village, a diverse blending of fine shopping, dining and antique treasures (www.jordanvillage.com); an international chamber music festival (www.niagramusicfest.com); learning vacations at Niagara College (www.niagaralearning vacations.com); bike paths; and you can zoom into the whirlpool of the Niagara river on a jet boat.

The Niagara area is dotted with wineries, many of which, besides offering wine tastings and sales, have fine dining restaurants. The best of these, at least on our last visit, was Hillebrand Estates Winery.

There are some wonderful restaurants including my favorites, The Inn on the Twenty (www.innonthetwenty.com), located in historic Jordan Village about forty minutes from Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Queenston Heights Restaurant (www.queenstonheights.com). The latter is located in a park just over the US-Canadian border, the facility has a breathtaking view of the Niagara River gorge.

Greaves Jams and Marmalades is famous for its products since 1927. A Niagara tradition is the Maple Leaf Fudge store. Also, don’t miss out on the several stores that sell yogurt which is blended before your eyes with Niagara fresh fruits.

The area has many excellent hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. We have found Abbotsford House Bed and Breakfast (www.abbotsfordbandb.com) to be our home away-from-home. Owner Margaret Currie is a total delight. Her breakfasts are scrumptious, she keeps an immaculate home, and the antiques and decorations are impeccable. Return guests are the rule here. For reservations and/or information call 905-468-4646 or e-mail AbbotsfordBandB.com.

For theatre information, a brochure, lodging suggestions or tickets call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers Sunday night specials, day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

Tired of waiting for a casino in Cleveland? For those so-inclined, Niagara Falls has a brand-new gambling casino. An added attraction is the new Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort which features 3,000 slot machines, 150 gaming tables and overlooks the thunderous cascading water. There is also a large outlet store complex for the bargain shopper. And, of course, not to be overlooked are the attractions connected to the magnificent falls.


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. (The routings offered by both the AAA and Yahoo maps are confusing and miles longer.)


Besides the regularly scheduled plays the Festival offers public readings, Monday night music, a Celebrated Writers Series, buffet lunch and dinner table talks, special lectures, stageside chats, backstage and costume warehouse tours, and garden tours. Special offerings include “The Making of a Musical,” “Canada Play Day,” and “Saints and Sinners: Religion and Morality.” A series of events and activities for the entire family including song and dance workshops, dress rehearsals with the actors and a “Fall Fairy Tales” storytelling day are also on the docket.

What’s the lodging like? Hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts abound to fit any wallet. I enjoy the B&Bs where you get to meet local people who operate the facilities and fellow travelers from around the world. My favorite 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 a wonderful art gallery that offers 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.

Hungry? For moderate cost and high quality, try The Annex Room (38 Albert Street). For a relaxed and fairly inexpensive breakfast treat try Demetre’s Family Eatery (1100 Ontario Street). Cleveland theatrical legends Dorothy and Reuben Silver recommend The Waterlot Restaurant and Inn (17 Huron Street behind the Royal Bank) in New Hamburg, which is about 20 minutes away “and well worth the trip.”(www.waterlot.com) Also on their favorites list is The Keystone Alley Cafe (34 Brunswick Street) in Stratford (www.keystonealley.com) which has an outdoor patio.

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.

Been to the festivals in the past? Then you know the joy of being in a country of warm and hospitable people and the quality of the offerings. If you haven’t ventured before, you might want to consider these cultural and recreational areas.

Helpful hint: To make your border passing easier carry some official form of identification (passport, or driver’s license with a picture).

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Annie (Playhouse Square Center)


The comic strip, Little Orphan Annie first appeared in 1924. It was based on James Whitcomb Riley's 1885 poem of the same name. In the comic strip version, Annie, an orphan, was taken in by Oliver Warbucks, a prototypical capitalist. Together they tackled international intrigue. Annie's main physical characteristics were a mop of red, curly hair and vacant circles for eyes. She is always accompanied by her dog, Sandy and is noted for her catchphrase, "Leapin' Llizards!."

In 1997 an award-winning musical appeared on Broadway scene. In August of 2005, “The Brand New Production” of ‘ANNIE’ went on tour. It is that version that is now on stage at the Palace Theatre.

The show centers on Annie, an orphan abandoned by her parents during the depression. She is left at an orphanage, which is under the tyrannical control of Miss Hannigan. Warbucks decides to host an orphan for Christmas. He wants a boy, winds up with Annie, and the rest, complete with plot twists and a happy ending, is history.

This touring production features the delightful Marissa O’Donnell as Annie. This is a very talented young lady who can sing, dance and act with amazing abilities. John Schuck of “McMillan and Wife” TV fame looks the role, performs well, and adequately sings Daddy Warbucks. Local opening night found Victoria Oscar more than adequately substituting in the role of Miss Hannigan. The orphan kids, some of whom are a little too old to be playing “adorable,” were not up to expected levels. Their dancing lacked unity and their singing often missed proper blendings.

The show is definitely dated. Few in the young audience had any knowledge of the depression, the importance of radio in the pre-TV culture, and of President Roosevelt. Many of the clever lines were missed because of this lack of audience awareness.
Songs like, “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover”
and “A New Deal for Christmas” have lost their relevance.

As I have done when children-friendly shows appear at local theatres, I took my grandsons, Alex and Noah Berko, along as my “kid” eyes and ears. In spite of the datedness, the 10 and 8/1/2 year olds “really liked” the show. They both thought Annie was, “great”
and Miss Hannigan “hysterical.” They loved the special effects, particularly “the real snow falling on Christmas” and the “huge tree.” They were very pleased that Sandy, the dog, was “real, not someone dressed in a dog suit like some of the kid’s shows we see.” Their favorite orphan was Tessie (Casey Whyland) whose constant “Oh, my” squeals were the cause of delight. They loved looking down into the Palace Theatre’s big orchestra pit during intermission and thought the theatre was “awesome.” Both boys had seen the movie version several times, so they were familiar with the music and the story line, which I think helped enhance their experience.

Capsule Judgment ‘ANNIE’ is a dated, but cute show. It is a little long for younger audience members, but any child over 8 should enjoy it. This will probably be the last of the touring versions of the show, so if you want to see a professional company, this may be your final chance.