Sunday, April 30, 2006

All in the Timing (Actors' Summit)

Delightful ‘All in the Timing’ mentally challenges at Actors’ Summit

The world according to David Ives, the author of ‘ALL IN THE TIMING,’ now on stage at Actors’ Summit, is a very odd piece. Ives loves to play with the English language and disorient an audience.

On the surface, the segments don’t seem to hook together. In actuality they do. They all deal with language. They probe the way language is used, how it is created, and whether people are really communicating when they use language. This is both the strength and weakness of the script. It will delight many but frustrate those who like things clearly spelled out.

‘ALL IN THE TIMING’ was originally a book of six one-act plays by David Ives written from 1987 to 1993. The current script contains fourteen one acts. Actors’ Summit is using the original script.

The short plays include ‘SURE THING’ in which a man and a woman meet for the first time in a cafe, where they have an awkward meeting continually reset each time they say the wrong thing, until, finally, they connect.

‘WORDS, WORDS, WORDS’ displays three chimpanzees in their attempt to write Hamlet. ‘THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE’ finds a man and a woman falling in love while communicating in the invented language intended to be used as part of a con game.

‘PHILIP GLASS BUYS A LOAF OF BREAD’ is a musical parody of contemporary composer Philip Glass, in which he has an existential crisis in a bakery. ‘THE PHILADELPHIA’ concerns a man in a strange state where he must ask for the opposite of what he wants in a restaurant. In ‘VARIATIONS ON THE DEATH OF TROTSKY’ Leon Trotsky dies, and dies and dies.

The Actors’ Summit cast, under the adept direction of A. Neil Thackaberry, does a consistently excellent job of developing the many roles they portray. Both Alicia Kahn and Noah Varness milk the humor out of ‘SURE THING.’ Kahn, Peter Voinovich and Sally Groth totally “monkey-around” in ‘WORDS, WORDS, WORDS.’ Sally Groth and Peter Voinovich do an amazing job of making the audience understand a language that is not understandable. Their ability to remember the complex lines is amazing.

The Philip Glass piece is creatively staged as the actors move in parallel time to the composer’s discordant music. Kahn, Varness and Voinovich are excellent as people caught in black holes where they can’t get what they want. Only ‘VARIATIONS OF THE DEATH OF TROTSKY’ falls short. The piece becomes tedious and doesn’t have the creative power to wrap up the evening.

Ives, in explaining why he writes for the theatre stated, “Our lives happen in voices: in inner monologue and outer dialogue, in scenes of interwoven tension and resolution with comic byplay. As drama. As comedy. As a live, local, handmade event. As theater.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ives’ ‘ALL IN THE TIMING’ displays his philosophy and receives a fine production at Actors’ Summit.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Ponna the ****Dog (convergence-continuum)

‘POONA THE ****DOG’ is a thought twister at convergence-continuum

A catalog description of ‘POONA THE ****DOG AND OTHER PLAYS FOR CHILDREN,’ now on stage at continuum-convergence, states, “These outrageous fairy tales for grown-ups are not for the easily offended! Poona, our ingenuous heroine, meets up with aliens, talking shrubs, and mealy-mouthed salesmen in her quest to find someone to play in her big pink box. Nothing is sacred in this raucous assault on the power of language.”

For those who are easily upset by foul language or political attacks or questioning of the whys and wherefores of modern society, read no further because this play is not for you, and is definitely not for ANY children. If, on the other hand, you are adventurous, want to stretch your imagination and don’t care about **** words, read on.

Jeff Goode, the author, has written a raucous, funny, and perverse funhouse ride which takes no prisoners as it highlights and attacks sex, relationships, television, advertising, politics, religion and fairy tales themselves.

How does Goode accomplish this? He uses fairy tales to tell the story of Poona the lonely ****dog who spends about two hours pursuing friends to play with.

In the first tale, the dog falls instantly in lust when a handsome and conceited prince crosses her path. If this, like all fairy tales, had a happily-ever-after ending, we’d all be satisfied and on our way. But, the prince turns out to be a people user, taking advantage of our poor naive Poona, so she must look further.

Flip the page of the book and we find the next fairy tale, and then the next, and then the next. The tales are social commentaries, such as when a television set is crowned king of the Kingdom of Do (where nobody did). We see the tale of Suzy-Suzy Cyber assassin who metamorphoses from an innocent child into a hit woman, with the help of a computer. Then there is the tale of the guy who interviews God, and wins $500 by out-smarting the “old” guy. (I told you if that you were easily offended not to read beyond the first paragraph.)

These tales go on and on, alternately offensive, baffling, disgusting, and delightful. As one reviewer put it, ‘POONA THE ***DOG’ is a warped experimental oddity that almost defies description.” Or, just think “Saturday Night Live” on stage.

As with almost all convergence productions, director Clyde Simon does an effective good job of pacing, presents generally clear character development and creative approaches to milking the laughs. In spite of his efforts, his cast is inconsistent in their abilities to develop the multi-characterizations they are required to create.

Jovana Batkovic nicely textures the role of Poona. Lucy Bredeson-Smith milks everything she can out of being a human television set. Denise Astorino, as our storyteller, does a nice job of verbally and visually holding the chaos together. Geoffrey Hoffman is wonderful as the Rabbit. His nose twitching is hutch perfect! Wes Shofner is his usual delightful self as the Man Who Could Sell Anything and “God.” Lisa Bradley’s alien is right out of “Mork and Mindy.”

Most of the rest of the cast has their highs and lows, most often because they cannot sustain consistent characterizations. The singing, other than the vocalilzations of Mark K, leaves much to be desired. This group should definitely not do a musical.

Dan Pongallo and Katie Maurer’s graphic designs are show highlights.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As with most convergence-continuum shows, ‘POONA THE ***DOG’ is not for everyone. And, as has become the pattern since their theatre was conceived, the nitch audience that identifies with Simon and Executive Director Brian Breth’s philosophy of being in a 60s time-warp, continues to find its way to the 50-seat theatre. This group won’t be disappointed with POONA.

Mrs. Warren's Profession (Beck Center)

‘MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION’ challenges cast and audience and Beck

Playwright and social critic George Bernard Shaw never backed away from a battle. His play, ‘MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION’ was written in 1893, published in 1898, but not performed until 1902 because of British government censorship. When a private performance was finally arranged, it rocked the London theatre. It was, according to the testimony of the author, ‘like an earthquake which shocked the foundations of morality and sent a pallid crowd of critics into the street shrieking that the pillars of society are cracking and the ruin of the state was at hand."
What was the fuss all about?

Mrs. Warren has never disclosed to her Cambridge graduate daughter, Vivie who Vivie's father is and how Mrs. Warren earns her money. During a visit, Vivie is “accidentally” told that her mother is a member of the "oldest profession." Mrs. Warren's confession, "All we had was our appearance and our turn for pleasing men" is met with a sympathetic hearing from her daughter. But after a series of events which challenge Vivie’s ethical system, she rejects her mother.

In the most notorious scene of the play, Mrs. Warren states, “You think that the way you were taught at school to think right and proper is the way things really are. But it's not. It's all only a pretense, to keep the cowardly, slavish, common run of people quiet. The big people, the clever people, the managing people, all know it. They do as I do, and think as I think. Morality means being a mere drudge, toiling and moiling early and late for your bare living and two cheap dresses a year."

Shaw not only examines women, but also men. Each of his male characters represents a type: the aesthete and artist (Mr. Praed), the feckless young man (Frank Gardner), the unscrupulous capitalist (Sir George Crofts) and the hypocritical vicar (Reverend Samuel Gardner). Shaw's perception of Victorian society draws all these men as caricatures and all of them are vile in their own way.

‘MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION’ was Shaw’s third play and did much to establish him as a social critic. He exposes the weaknesses of the British education system, the negative treatment of women, the flaws of religion, the value of determinism, the foibles of marriage, the questionable value of families, and the negative effects of capitalism. These are issues as relevant today as during Shaw’s time.

Interestingly, after the first World War, when women started to enter the professions, it became possible to mount a public showing of "MRS WARREN'S PROFESSION" without the fear of censorship. Yet, the play continues to make certain audience members and some critics uncomfortable.

British drama and comedy are difficult for American actors and directors to get exactly right. The accents, the pacing, the subtle character developments necessary to make the plays believable, are often lost on non-British or Canadian-trained actors. One only has to see a Shaw play done at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada and an American creation of the same script, to note the difference. With that said, Beck’s production, under the direction of Scott Plate, is a generally acceptable US American creation.

Dorothy Silver, the first lady of Cleveland theatre, makes Mrs. Warren both believable and a strong spokesperson for Shaw’s views. She nicely textures the role. The conflict scene between Mrs. Warren and her daughter is well developed.

Bernadette Clemens is properly uptight as Vivie Warren. Though at times her accent seems overly affected, it helps separate her from her mother, who, when riled, falls into her historic lower-class English pronunciation.

Nick Koesters effectively develops the role of Frank Gardner, the gambling son of a Reverend, who sees Vivie as his possible source of financial support. He thrusts and paries well with the emotional levels of the character though at times he seems to be playing with rather than playing the role.

Though too young for the part (the character was written to be in his sixties), Jeffrey Grover (Sir George Crofts) makes for an acceptable cad, but could have textured the role to create a character that was more bi-polar--swinging from charming to deceitful. Michael Regnier (Mr. Praed) and Reuben Silver (Reverand Gardner) are believable in their roles though more textured characterizations could have been developed to illustrate the conrasting sides of the men’s personalities.

Shaw, who often draws attention to the pronunciation of people as the hallmark of their background (think Liza Dolittle and Henry Higgins in ‘PYGMALION’) would not have been pleased with some of the accents of the Beck cast. The sounds came and went and differed for no particular reason.

Don McBride’s set design did little to create a “high class” illusion. Especially distracting were some of the poorly restorred chairs whose squeaking often broke the mood of scenes. On the other hand, Richard Ingraham’s selection of music set the proper tone before the opening curtain and between scenes. Jenniver Sparano’s costumes were outstanding and era correct.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION’ is a creditable production, with some excellent acting.

Dr. Dolittle (Playhouse Square Center)

‘Dr. Dolittle’ may please some of the kids, but......

During Tommy Tune’s curtain call speech following his ‘DR. DOLITTLE’ performance at Playhouse Square’s Palace Theatre, he thanked John Kenley. Kenley, the 100 year-old theatrical legend, who was the guiding light behind the Kenley Players, gave Tune his first professional theatrical job. Tune, originally a chorus boy, went on to star not only in Kenley productions, but on Broadway.

It was appropriate that Tune mentioned Kenley, for ‘DR. DOLITTLE’ is much like a typical Kenley Players show. It is long on a star performer and short on quality.

Based on Leslie Bricusse's Oscar-winning film, the stage musical has had a checkered existence. For some inexplicable reason the show, which opened in 1998 to a generally positive reaction, was totally redone for the US audience.

For the tour and projected Broadway run, Jim Henson's Creature Shop was brought in to conceive the animals. Henson’s company is world-renowned for bringing inanimate objects to life through computer technology, cable control and hand puppetry. Creature Shop produced a live-action Pushmi-Pully dancing two-headed llama, a parrot, a dog, a monkey, a giant pink sea snail and a 14-foot flying lunar moth.

The US tour opened in Pittsburgh in August of 2005 to tepid reviews and closed in Hershey, PA on October 2 due to “slow ticket sales.” Since it was listed on so many national theatre packages, such as Cleveland’s Broadway Series, an effort was made to resurrect the vehicle. Enter....Tommy Tune, the National Medal of Arts and nine time Tony winning actor, singer, dancer and director. The show was rewritten and Tune assumed not only the leading role but became the director.

Tune recast the show, selecting Clevelander Dee Hoty to play his love interest. Hoty is a three-time Tony winner. Twelve-year-old Aaron Burr was picked to play Chee-Chee the monkey. Burr recently won the Greatest Dancer competition on ABC’s "Good Morning America.”

Based on "The Doctor Dolittle Stories" by Hugh Lofting, the tale concerns a Pouddelby, England people-doctor turned veterinarian. He finds himself on trial, accused of murder. Insisting that he can actually talk to animals, the doctor defends himself against charges that he threw an unknown woman off a cliff to her death, contending that he was following the wishes of a seal who wanted to return to her fiance in the North Pole. With only his faithful parrot, Polynesia (the finest animal linguist in the world), a neighbor who dislikes him, and a menagerie of animals to support his story, Dolittle is somehow believed. He decides to leave the area and go on a search for the wondrous giant pink sea snail and return the monkey (Che-Che) to his native environs. (Okay, ‘LES MISERABLES’ or ‘CHORUS LINE’ this isn’t.)

It would be nice to say the whole thing works. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The production often looks like it was developed to go from one Tune dance number to another, with little glue holding the whole thing together. To make things worse, the production qualities are poor. The sets are mostly cheap looking drops. The special effects go awry. On opening night the flying moth didn’t work as intended. On the second night the curtain call was delayed because of technical problems. And, even the choreography is wanting. The dance routines gets boring after a while due to repeated movements.

Tune, at age 66, still dances up a storm and his singing voice is more than adequate. Hoty is excellent. The puppets are fun and the score is pleasant (“Talk To The Animals,” “I”ve Never Seen Anything Like It,” and “Something in Your Smile.”). “Monkey Monkey Island Dance” was the standout production number. Unfortunately, the whole thing just doesn’t hold together.

My grandson, 9 year-old Noah Berko, who attended the production with me, serving as the voice for the children who might attend, thought a lot of things in the show were “fun.” He especially liked the monkey (Aaron Burr), the flying moth on which Tune floated above the stage, and the monkey dance. He liked the goings-on a lot more than his grandpa. But, you must understand that he was sipping a strawberry slushy in a cocktail glass and being fussed over by the nice ladies sitting next to him who kept telling him how cute he was, so he may have been distracted.

Capsule judgment: ‘DR. DOLITTLE’ is just not ready for prime time. I’m not sure that it ever will be without a drastic redo of the redo.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Polish Joke (Beck Center)

'POLISH JOKE' at Beck is fun, but....

The Beck Center’s present production is ‘POLISH JOKE.’

Were you offended by the title of the play? Did you think that many of the lines in such a play would start with “Did you hear about the Pollack who....? or “How many Pollacks would it take to ....?”

Well, if so, you weren’t alone. When David Ives’ satirical comedy opened in Hartford, Connecticut, a letter was sent to the editor of a local paper. It read, in part: “As a member of the Polish Cultural Club, I was surprised the production was not advertised in our local Polish newspapers. I understand why now. I was completely unprepared for the level of ridicule and defamation in this production. Part of this is the fault of the playwright, David Ives, born David Roszkowski, and now writing under an Irish pen name. The depiction of Polish Americans in the play was a vehicle for his own self hatred as a Polish-American and lack of connection to his own deep patrimony, which is used only as an occasion for ridicule. From the first scene, Poles are caricatured as fat, dirty, working class drunks, sometimes crawling out of pipes with toilet plungers, at other times pulling shiny, greasy kielbasas out of their pockets. The Polish psyche is repeatedly called one of "disappointment, discouragement, and despair." When I left the theater, I approached a member of the board of directors to voice my complaint, and she retorted "obviously you didn't get it!"

On some levels both of these people are right. The letter writer took the jokes and the stereotypes literally. He did not recognize the use of stereotype to try and make the point of self-hatred by many immigrants, and the need for some people to attempt to deny their heritage as part of their coming to terms with what it means to be an “American.” He couldn’t see the satire because of his deep abiding pride in being Polish. Part of the problem was also the poor writing structure of the play. This is no great work of literature.

On the other hand, the board member was correct. Ives was telling the story of many immigrant groups who tried to escape from their pasts because they did not want to be thought of as “greenhorns,” “foreigners,” not “real” Americans. They didn’t want to be part of the people who ate strange foods, spoke strange languages and wore strange clothing.

POLISH JOKE had its world premiere in Seattle in 2001 and was subsequently produced in New York in 2003.

It recounts the tale of Jasiu through the myriad ramifications of ethnic identity in America. His journey starts, innocently enough, in the Polish working class neighborhood of Chicago called “The Bush.” As a nine-year old, he is influenced by his Uncle Roman who utters the life-altering questions that will send the young man on his pilgrimage, “ Are you sometimes overwhelmed by a tragic feeling of hopelessness and despair?” and “Some days do you get this profound feeling of utter, total futility?” When the boy admits he does have those feelings, Uncle Roman pronounces the cause: “ It’s because you’re Polish”. This begins young Jasiu’s quest to escape his destiny and adopt another ethnic origin with fewer dire consequences.

The play has been called, “hilarious,” “inventive,” and “thoughtful.” I would have used words like “funny in parts,” “poorly structured,” “stretching believability,” and “written more like an extended comedy sketch than a compelling play.” The fragmentation and the feeling that this is an over-extended one joke reflect from Ives best being known as “the master of the comic one-acter.”

Beck’s production, under the direction of Jerrold Scott, is quite acceptable. Greg Wenz is consistently excellent in a role that requires him to grow from age nine to adulthood. He makes Jasiu real in spite of being given lines that often fringed on the ludicrous. Leslie Feagan, though he stumbled over some of his lines, changed from one character to another with ease. He was especially effective as a priest. John Busser, Sheila Maloney and Kim Weston all took on numerous roles with general success.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “POLISH JOKE’ will offend some, hit personal chords with others, and entertain some. It’s one of those theatrical experiences that brings neither boos nor resounding applause.

Les Miserables (Playhouse Square Center)

‘LES MIZ,’ in its last local professional touring stop, is a definite “go see!”

One of the fears of going to a touring show of a musical that announces that it has been on the road since 1988 is that the viewer will see a second-rate cast, watered-down technical effects, and a tired and bored cast that is walking through the motions. Well, have no fears about the ‘LES MISERABLE’ production now in a short 6-day run in Playhouse Square. This is a first rate production in every sense.

‘LES MISERABLES’ opened in London in 1985 and is still running. It came to Broadway in 1987, after playing the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and played for over 18 years, making it the third longest-running show in Broadway history. Only ‘CATS’ and ‘’PHANTOM OF THE OPERA’ ran longer. There have been three national touring companies, all of which have visited the North Coast.

LES MIZ is based on Victor Hugo’s classical novel. It is an epic saga of romance and passion which centers on the life of Jean Valjean who was convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. He served his time, broke his parole and then is hunted by Javert, an inspector who becomes obsessed with making the now successful businessman pay and pay-again for his crime.

The show’s beautiful music was composed by Claude-Michel Schonberg and the poignant lyrics were penned by Herbert Kretzmer. The score includes such favorites as “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” “Bring Him Home,””A Heart Full of Love,” and “Turning.” The musical’s book was developed by Alain Boublil and Schonberg.

Because all the words are sung, it is best to be familiar with the story and score before entering the theatre, especially due to the poor sound system and the horrible Allen Theatre acoustics. . If you aren’t acquainted, the program offers an excellent scene by scene description .

The production encompasses all of the scenic, costuming and lighting effects necessary to make this a true professional offering. The massive turntable, which revolves 63 times during the show, allows for fluid set changes. (Interestingly if a person stood in the same place at the edge of the turntable during an entire production, s/he would travel 1/2 mile.) Other interesting facts about the production are that 101 people are involved in the show’s performance including 26 actors, 28 crew, and a 15 member orchestra. One-thousand seven hundred and eighty-two costumes, 31 wigs, and 150 pairs of shoes are used in a single production.

The cast is outstanding. Randal Keith is as good as any of the Jean Valjean’s I’ve observed in the nine times I’ve seen the show. His voice is glorious and his acting makes the character live. His rendition of “Bring Him Home” brought sustained applause. Robert Hunt, though not as menacing as others who have played the role of Javert, has a powerful voice. His final leap to death is a creative theatrical experience.

Daniel Bogart (Marius) effectively develops the role of the love-struck idealist student. He poignantly sang, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” a tribute to his friends who were killed in an unsuccessful revolt. Melissa Lyons, as Eponine, the young woman in love with Marius, but whose love is unreturned, has a marvelous stage presence. Her fine voice is well displayed in “On My Own.” Leslie Henstock failed to create the right illusion as Cosette, Marius’s love and Valjean’s adopted daughter, though her singing voice was quite lovely.

Jennifer Butt (Madame Thenardier) and Norman Large (Therardier) were audience favorites in their comic relief roles. I found their version of “Master of the House,” which is usually a rousing romp, too slowly paced and lacked the needed abandonment. This was the only time during the 3-hour production that I thought the cast was tired.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: This is your last chance to see a professional production of “LES MISERABLES,’ and an excellent production at that. When the script falls into the hands of local theatres they will most likely be unable to find a cast and create the sets, costumes and special effects the show requires. SEE IT NOW!

Monday, April 17, 2006

A Little Night Music (Kalliope Stage)

Kalliope Stage presents an acceptable ‘A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC’

Earlier this year Kalliope Stage opened its second season with an amazing production of the musical ‘SUMMER OF ‘42.’ Their present production of ‘A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC’ doesn’t live up to the ‘42 experience.

‘A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC,’ with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler is based on the Ingmar Bergman film “SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT.” The show originally opened on Broadway in 1973, with a cast which included Glynnis Johns in the lead role. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Tony Award for Best Musical. It was made into a less-than-successful movie starring Elizabeth Taylor.

‘A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC’ tells the story of a Fredrik Egerman an older lawyer who is married to a very young wife, Anne, who, despite the fact that they have been married almost a year, is still a virgin. An old flame, Desiree Armfeldt is appearing in a play at a local theatre. His romantic interest in her is rekindled when he and Anne attend the production. Desiree, who has an illegitimate daughter, is known for her liaisons. She is having an affair with a jealous and married military man, Carl-Magnus. Complicating matters is Egerman's divinity student son, Henrik, who is in love with his stepmother. The play culminates in a weekend at the country estate of Desiree's mother, Madame Armfeldt where everything turns out for the best.

Much of the show’s music is written in waltz (3/4) time which helps classify the work as an operetta rather than standard musical comedy. The operetta definition is furthered by the fact that the lyrics carry much of the play’s meanings. The score contains one of Sondheim's best-known songs, "Send in the Clowns," as well as "The Glamorous Life," "Every Day a Little Death," "Liaisons," "A Weekend in the Country" and "The Miller's Son."

Seindheim is noted for the complexity of his musical arrangements and requires cast members to sing his songs stressing the meaning of the words, not just mouthing lyrics. It is song interpretation that causes the Paul Gurgol-directed cast the most problem. Many of the cast sings word, not meanings, which results in the ideas being thrown away.

The KALLIOPE cast is uneven. The lead females are wonderful, while the males fail by comparison.

Marla Berg creates a clear characterization as Desiree Armfeldt. She has a fine singing voice and her rendition of “Send In the Clowns” is emotion-perfect! Kathleen Huber is very believable as Madame Armfeldt, but her solo “Liaisons” would have been more effective of it was sung or spoken with a musical cadence as Hermione Gingold did it on Broadway rather than spoken and ingnoring the music. Kimberly Koljat portrays well the role of Anne Egerman but the role should have been cast with a younger actress. Laurel Held Posey is youthfully right as Petra. Katrya Oransky-Petyk has a wonderful comedic flair which works well as Countess Malcolm. As the maid Petra, Laurel Held Posey displays a fine singing voice and a nice sense of comedy.

On the other hand, Frederick Hamilton is miscast as Fredrik Egerman. He is too young for the role, his characterization comes and goes, and he doesn’t interpret his songs well. The always delightful “You Must Meet My Wife,” fell flat. The same must be said for Tony Lehmenkuler who gives a less than stellar performance as Carl-Magnus. His “In Praise of Woman” was musically sung well, but with little attempt to create lyric meaning. Of the males, Brad Herbst came the closest to creating a meaningful character as the melancholy son, but his acting abilities fall short of making the character totally believable.

The vocal chorus, which acts as the narrator, was excellent. The musical accompaniment was much too shallow. The show needs a lush sound not capable of being produced by the few instruments used by musical director Brad Wyner.

Set designer Russ Borski continues to amaze in his ability to satisfy the needs of big shows placed on a postage-stamp sized stage. Borski and Aimee Kluiber’s costumes were awesome. This was the finest costumed show seen on local stages this year.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Kalliope’s “A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC’ is an acceptable, but not outstanding presentation thanks to some strong female performances and wonderful costume sand set design.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Charlotte's Web (Cleveland Play House)

Berko boys give thumbs up to ‘Charlotte’s Web’ at CPH

E. B. White’s ‘CHARLOTTE’S WEB’ is one of the most beloved children’s stories. It has been made into an animated movie which is also a favorite. My grandson’s Alex, Noah and Ian accompanied me to the Cleveland Play House’s staged version of the show so I could present a view of the production from the intended audience--kids.

Alex, age 10 and Noah, 8 (“nine next week!” he reminded me) gave the show an 8 on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being superb! Ian, age 6, didn’t contribute a number but said, “I really liked it.” Considering that Ian consistently falls asleep at plays, and that he stayed awake during the entire production and even went on stage to help with the finale, says a whole lot of positive about the happenings.

Alex was impressed that, “the actors sounded exactly like the film performers which allowed me to easily identify with the characters.” Noah “really liked Lelund Durond Thompson who played the lovable and gentle Wilbur, the pig who is saved from being killed by Charlotte, the caring spider who gives her life for the sake of others.” All of the boys thought Jason Miller, who used a Paul Lynde voice to portray the self centered, food-driven rat Templeton, was “hysterical.”

The play’s morals, “practice random acts of kindness every day” and “a good life is more important than a long life,” were repeated by the trio when I asked what the play’s message was.

So, with all the positives, why the 8? The older boys agreed that some of the scenes from the book were left out. These, they felt, were “necessary to completely develop the story.” (Smart kids!)

Their grandfather, who I guess isn’t as critical, gave the production a 10. I was impressed by Mark Alan Gordon’s pacing of the show. He knows what kids want and need and got right to the point, kept the action moving right along, and handled Charlotte’s death scene with great tact. The cast was universally excellent...not a weak thread in the web. The audience talk-back, including the audience in the production, and the fine costumes (James Strunk), scenic design (Reynard Pope), sounds (James Swonger) and lighting (Maureen Patterson) all added to the positive effect of the 50 minute show.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The Cleveland Play House’s ‘CHARLOTTE’S WEB’ was a delight.

Dream a Little Dream (Cleveland Play House)

‘Dream a Little Dream’ enjoyable, but not compelling at CPH

Question one: What group had the musical hits, “Monday, Monday,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “I Saw Her Again,” “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Some Flowers In Your Hair)?” Answer: If you are a 60s music fan or a rock and roll expert then you know it’s The Mamas and the Papas.

Question two: What quartet made up the group? Answer: John and Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and the dynamic 300-pound Mama Cass Elliott.

Question three: What happened to Cass Elliott? Answer: After the group broke up because of relational infidelity, too much drugs and liquor and internal wrangling, she went on to a successful solo career. In spite of rumors that she choked to death while eating a sandwich in a London deli, Mama Cass, who had an undetected heart condition, suffered a fatal heart attack at age 30.

Question four: What is the name of the nearly-true musical based on the group and its members? Answer: The original title of the work, when it opened in Toronto in June 2001, was “CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’.” The present title of the production, which is now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, is “DREAM A LITTLE DREAM.’ Supposedly the name was changed because Michelle Phillips entitled her autobiography ‘CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’” and the musical’s producers didn’t want any confusion (or, it can be assumed, didn’t want a law suit).

Question five: Why was the musical written? According to Doherty, one of two surviving members of The Mamas and the Papas, the project began in the mid-1990s when he decided to try to answer the many questions he faced about the seamier side of the band. As he says, “Everybody knows the music and everybody's heard something about something odd going on in there, so I decided to write a play. The songs, the music, tell the story. I'm just filling in the spaces in between." It is mostly a collection of the band's songs connected by Doherty's storytelling. He has also thrown in a few tunes from the era like "The Man Who Wouldn't Sing Along With Mitch" and "Twist and Shout."

He wrote the piece with Canadian playwright Paul Ledoux. The CPH and former productions of the show have been staged by Randal Myler, who is noted for his direction of ‘LOVE JANIS’ and ‘HANK WILLIAMS: LOST HIGHWAY’,’ both of which had Cleveland Play House runs.

The Play House production, which is placed on a multi-level set with the band on stage and the performers entering and exiting during the two-act, two hour production, is more a review with verbal and visual transitions, than a play.

Doherty narrates and is backed up vocally by Lisa MacISAAC, Doris Mason and Graham Shaw. Only Doherty speaks. MacISSAC has a striking physical resemblance to Michelle Phillips. She lacks some of Phillips’ quirky musical sound, but those who don’t know the group won’t know the difference. Mason, who is a somewhat slighter version of Mama Cass, sings well, but just doesn’t have the power and dynamics of the legendary Cass. Shaw basically fades into the background as little actual attention is given to his vocals.

Doherty's words are often illustrated by photographs and hallucinogenic-inspired special effects that flash across a huge screen on the theatre’s back wall. After a while the effect became redundant with many of the pictures being repeated again and again.

The horrible acoustics of the Bolton Theatre make the drum’s beat predominant and the voices often get lost in the high ceiling and the fake seating areas along the walls. It can only be hoped that before the company does ‘MY FAIR LADY’ and ‘RABBIT HOLE” next season a decision is made to stage the performances in the Brooks or bring in a sound technician to redo the acoustics of the Bolton’s original architectural design.

The irony of The Mamas and the Papas was that the band created such harmony while in such personal upheaval. "We made that sound in spite of ourselves," Doherty says. “When we sang, everything else became secondary." And, in ‘DREAM A LITTLE DREAM’ the same thing happens. Only the singing is really important or meaningful. The spoken script is way too long and too redundant. It takes on the feel of a nightly soul-searching for Doherty. A chance to sort out the haze of the drugs, drink and sex and try and put his world in some kind of order.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you love the music of the 60s and are really fans of The Mamas and the Papas ‘DREAM A LITTLE DREAM’ is a should see. If you like the “inside gossip scoop” you’ll be turned on. For the rest of us, it was nice to hear the music, but the play didn’t do much to “turn me on.”

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Humana Festival (Actors Theatre of Louisville, KY)

Humana Festival is theatre-goers dream weekend

From May 2 through the 21st, the Cleveland Play House complex will be host to FusionFest, an ambitious offering of new works. The events will include presentations from Cleveland Opera, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Verb Ballets, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Dobama Theater, Karamu House, Jewish Community Center, City Music Cleveland, Cleveland School of the Arts, and Shaker Heights High School.

Thus, CPH will be the only regional theatre in the country offering a new works festival that includes opera, ballet, theatre, dance and music. But, it is not the only venue to offer new works. One of the most exciting and ambitious is the Humana Festival of New American Plays which is now in its 30th year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Humana is so well regarded that the American Theatre Critics Association presents its yearly awards during the festival.

From March 31 to April 2, the festival hosted theatre reviewers and drama professionals. In two-and-a-half days attendees saw eight selections which, in reality were 6 full-length plays, 3 ten-minute plays and 17 short plays (‘NEON MIRAGE’).

Each script received a full-scale professional production, not just a staged reading. The shows had professional casts and the technical work was top flight. The authors were all well established scribes. Major play script publishers, theatrical agents, representatives from major theatres looking for scripts to produce were all present. A well received production could mean a lot of money and fame for an author.

It was interesting to hear informal comments about each play from representatives of papers such as Variety and representatives from New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, St. Louis, Miami and Cleveland. Yes, Cleveland was well represented. Tony Brown of the PLAIN DEALER and I were there representing the critics. Joyce Casey of Dobama Theatre, David Shimotakaraha and Pandora Robertson of Groundworks Dance were also present. And local playwright Eric Coble had his play ‘NATURAL SELECTION’ staged.

The likes and dislikes of the viewers reflected their theatrical philosophies. One reviewer, who favored esoteric and cutting edge scripts, praised ‘HOTEL CASSIOPEIA’ and ‘ACT A LADY.’ The former, by Charles L. Mee, mirrored the life of artist Joseph Cornell, who used articles of junk to create his collages. Like his art, the script was a fragmented view of Cornell’s longing, loneliness and heartbreak. The latter, by Jordan Harrison, was a gender-bending fable of a play-within-a-play which attempted to display the power of the theatre to illustrate the male within every female and the female within every male. I found both plays wanting.

Though praised for the performance by its author, ‘LOW’ by Rha Goddess was too long and a bit preachy. The African American writer probed mental illness, how to cope with drugs and the plight of the homeless. Cutting the last ten minutes would add much to the power of the script and intensify its meaning. We didn’t need the morale preached to us.

I felt the best shows were Sharr White’s ‘SIX YEARS,’ Theresa Rebecks’ THE SCENE’ and ‘Eric Coble’s ‘NATURAL SELECTION.’ Though all could use some doctoring, they each held the audience’s attention and I could see them as a candidate for being staged by one of Cleveland’s professional or semi-professional theatres.

‘SIX YEARS’ concerned a World War II veteran who fails to return to his wife and family for six years following the conflict. The play examines damaged souls who, by the closing curtain, have flipped in their security. Though the ending is a little self evident, the emotional highs and lows are audience involving. This might be a script that convergence-continuum would want to explore.

‘THE SCENE,’ which takes place in New York, concerns four people who find themselves playing scenes in their lives, scenes which reveal each of their vulnerabilities and motives. The script is ready for production. With an excellent cast it could be positively received by a traditional audience. It’s a show that would fit nicely in a Dobama or Beck’s studio theatre season.

In ‘NATURAL SELECTION’ Eric Coble digs into his years of living on American Indian reservations to examine what life might be like in the not-so-distant future when the only way to replenish the “stock” of the Culture Fiesta Theme Park’s Native American Pavilion is to venture into the wastelands of North America and find one. It forces the viewer to examine living in a world in which people find reality in cyberspace. It also examines the changing role of culture. At times paralleling the Noah story, the observer is forced into the Native American concept of the flood, the fifth world of the land of the rainbow.

Though the ending is a little dragged out, with some retooling, the play could do well in an off-Broadway or theatre which has a thinking audience. The script is generally surreal, funny, and engaging. Several reviewers shared that ‘NATURAL SELECTION’ was their favorite show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The Humana Festival is a theatre-goer’s all-you-can-view opportunity. Hopefully, the Cleveland Playhouse’s FusionFest can do for the local theatre and the Northcoast area what Humana has done for Louisville.