Thursday, June 28, 2007

Groundworks 6/07

GROUNDWORKS continues to captivate in Cain Park performance

I took a friend, who had never seen Groundworks Dancetheatre to the company’s recent Cain Park concert. His reaction? “Wow, that was really something special!”

Yes, as has come to be expected from Groundworks, the choreography and dancing were something special!

The program opened with “U me U,’ choreographed by company member Amy Miller. Danced to music composed by and performed live by James Marron, there was perfect synchrony between the dancers and the guitarist. Miller’s creative choreography, a series of movements featuring interlocking bodies and flowing heads and arms, was enhanced by Dennis Dugan’s lighting, which created flowing shadows on the intimate Alma Theater’s back wall. Petite Felise Bagley and very tall Mark Otloski danced with disciplined control to create a sometimes sensual, sometimes joyous duet. This was a wonderful start to the program.

‘PROXIMAL,’ choreographed by KT Niehoff, was a crowd pleaser. The piece started out with a pounding sound coming from behind a steel garage door at the rear of the stage. One hand appeared underneath the door, then three more hands appeared as Amy Miller and Damien Highfield pried open the portal and crawled underneath to freedom. Giving each other verbal instructions regarding what moves they were going to perform, the duo, moving to no music, showed amazing athletic strength and abilities to manipulate each other’s bodies through lifts, drops and pushes. Their crawling back under the door at the conclusion of the piece was met with enthusiastic applause by the near sold-out house.

“JUXTA,’ Amy Miller’s choreographed offering introduced the audience to Sarah Perrett, the company’s newest member. Perrett fits well into Artistic Director David Shimotakahara’s dance philosophy. She displayed controlled movements, blending into the physical action and reaction of the choreography. She is an excellent addition to the Groundworks family. ‘JUXTA,’ which featured same and mixed sex couples working as a group, was danced to selections from Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint.” As exemplified by Miller herself, the choreography was gymnastic, controlled, and well defined. It fit the tone and intent of the music.

The evening concluded with the creative ‘KABILA’ (Tribe), based on “African Voices Song of Life.” Shimotakahara used numerous African dance forms to create an audience pleasing number. It featured wonderful costumes by Janet Bolick and fabric artist Esther Montgomery, inspired by the Dark Continent. The many moods and illusions of Africa were showcased in the dancing of Bagley, Miller, Perrett, Highfield and Otloski.

Capsule judgement: Groundworks Dancetheatre has to be listed as a Cleveland artistic treasure. It’s ninth consecutive performance at Cain Park, was, once again, a showcase of what well-conceived and executed audience-pleasing dance is all about! BRAVO!

Monday, June 25, 2007


When ‘OLIVER’ hits its stride it should be a crowd-pleaser at Cain Park

Fred Sternfeld, the director of ‘OLIVER’ which is now appearing at Cain Park’s Evans Theatre, is noted for his ability to take large casts and make them into cohesive units (think ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST” at Beck Center and ‘RAGTIME’ at Jewish Community Center). He pulls it off again with ‘OLIVER,’ though there were some rag tag moments on opening night, some questionable casting, and a languid pace.

I was fortunate enough to have seen the second night performance of the London production of ‘OLIVER.’ I clapped my hands sore during the numerous curtain calls. The show has continued to be one of my very favorites.

The script, with music, book and lyrics by Lionel Bart, is loosely based on Charles Dickens' ‘OLIVER TWIST.’ It is noted as being the first musical adaptation of a Dickens novel to become a successful stage hit. The New York version opened in 1963 with Ron Moody (Fagin) and Georgia Brown (Nancy) of the original London cast.

The story centers on Oliver, an orphan who runs away from the funeral parlor to which he has been sold for misbehaving at an orphanage. He hooks up with a group of boys trained to be pickpockets by the devious but good hearted Fagin. On his first outing, Oliver is wrongly accused of a theft. Through a serious of twists and turns, and some glorious songs, Oliver’s life takes a drastic turn and it appears that he winds up living happily ever after.

Cain Park’s production is blessed with George Roth portraying Fagin. He has a delightful singing voice and gives the role the right tone. His “ Reviewing the Situation” was wonderful, as was “Pick A Pocket or Two.” He walks the line between bad guy and curmudgeon with finesse.

Lincoln Sandham (Oliver), though a little too old to be playing the role, has the requisite blonde hair and innocent wide-eyed look. He has a nice pure singing voice. His “Where is Love” was right in tonality and meaning.

One of my favorite musical theatre songs is, “As Long as He Needs Me.” Each time I see the production I sit in fear that the song will be ruined. No fear in this production. Patty Lohr sings beautifully, stressing meaning over mere words, and she also acts the role with assurance.

As has come to be expected, Martin Cespedes’ choreography is creative. He has honed the youngsters in the cast into a cohesive unit that is delightful in “Food, Glorious Food.” His staging of “I’d Do Anything” is a show stopper.

Musical Director Jodie Ricci, Scenic Designer Jeff Hermann, and Costumer Aimee Kluiber all should be proud of their contributions.

On the other hand, Kris Hebble fails to develop any meaningful character as Mr. Bumble. Surprisingly Juliette Regnier is emotionally flat as Widow Corney and Bob Adelman speaks lines without much meaning as Mr. Sowerberry. Because of this, the second and fourth scenes in the first act drag. Even “I Shall Scream” lacks the humor inherent in the song. Chris McCarrell lacks the enthusiasm and a twinkle-in-the-eye playfulness needed for portraying the Artful Dodger. Bob Russell could be more consistently verbally and physically menacing as Bill Sykes. His "My Name" lacked the necessary shudder-factor.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “OLIVER,’ with its wonderful score and slight but engaging story line is one of musical theatre’s better scripts. The Cain Park production has the potential to be very good, thanks to some strong performances and wonderful choreography. It can only be hoped that as the production runs the weaker cast members will truly develop their characters and the pace of the show will pick up.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mercury Summer Stock’s ‘BIG RIVER’ gets a 7 out of 10 from my side-kick kid reviewers

Remember the scenes in the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies when they get a group of kids together to do a play? The results, because of their enthusiasm and dedication, were fun, amateur productions. That’s the feeling one gets from Mercury Summer Stock, which is now performing ‘BIG RIVER, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN.’

Mercury has as its goal “providing local performers opportunities to work on and off stage during the summer season.” Though they are listed as a “professional based” theatre, in their present production only one equity member is listed. It matters not. If you go in expecting to see young performers who really love the theatre, putting out full-effort, the evening is fulfilling.

Based on Mark Twain's classic 1884 novel, ‘THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN,’ the show features music in bluegrass and country styles, in keeping with the setting and era of the novel. The Broadway production, which won a Tony for Best Musical, ran for over 1,000 performances.

The Broadway production opened on April 25, 1985 and ran for 1,005 performances. A revival opened in the Big Apple in 2003. It was staged by the Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West Theatre, and about half the characters, including the leading role of Huck, were played by deaf or hard-of hearing performers. Having seen the production, I can assure you it was both entertaining and enlightening.

The story follows Huck Finn as he helps Jim, a slave, escape to the north to gain his freedom. Along the way, they encounter a fake duke and king, slave hunters, and are participants in a stolen money scheme, a plot to free Jim after he is captured, and Huck’s first love affair. All in all, the script and music (“Muddy Water,” “River in the Rain,” “Worlds Apart,” and “Free at Last”) are both moving and of high quality.

Mercury’s production is under the deft direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, a 2001 graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College's Music Theatre Department. His directing credentials are impressive for one so young. His youthful enthusiasm has been infused into the cast, who appears to be having a great time on stage.

The production’s accomplishments are even more impressive when one realizes that they are performing on a tiny stage, with no fly gallery or wing space, and a very limited budget. This causes all sorts of complications of a show that requires a number of sets, set changes and extensive costumes.

The production is uneven, but that’s to be expected with such a young cast. Brian Marshall, the theatre’s Managing Artistic Director, makes for a fine Huck. Though appearing a little too old for the role, he has a nice voice and a good grasp of the nuances of the part.

Charles Walker (Jim) has fine vocal and acting abilities. His rendition of “Free At Last” was powerful. Daniel Marshall (Duke), the only listed union performer, is delightful as the overblown Shakespearean actor, as is Arthur Wise (King) as his scheming sidekick. Corey Joseph Mach is Tom Sawyer personified. Some of the singing and dancing by those in minor roles was a little ragged, but the vocal blends, especially of the boys chorus, were excellent.

As is the case when a show has youth attendance potential, I took my grandsons Alex (11) and Noah Berko (10) to see the production. On their grading scale, they gave the production a 7 out of 10. Alex summarized, “It was a good play, but I didn’t understand all of the jokes, but lots of it was funny. (Sidenote: as a fifth grader he hasn’t quite been exposed to Shakespeare and southern folk humor.) The singing was really good and I liked Charles Walker who played Jim, the African American slave. I don’t think people should own slaves, it’s dumb!” Noah agreed. He also expressed concern because the set wasn’t realistic enough to portray the raft moving down the river. They both liked Huck and Tom. Alex added, “They used the “N” word a lot and they swore 26 times.” Noah stated, “That might offend some people.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: BIG RIVER is a well-conceived script. In the hands of Pierre Brault and his Mercury youthful, enthusiastic cast, it gets an uneven but pleasing production. It’s worth a “go see.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Chris Blisset reviews the reviewer

Chris Blisset here. I am playing Jim in Porthouse Theatre's Pump Boys and Dinettes. I just thought I'd drop you a note and thank you for your review. I read it (and some others), and I like your review style. You are fair but honest, so I am taking your praise to heart. The review was lucid and professional, which is nice to see.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Pump Boys and Dinettes

‘PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES’--a perfect summertime escape at Porthouse

In 1982 ‘PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES,’ a version of which is now appearing on stage at Porthouse Theatre on the grounds of Blossom Center, was a Tony Award nominee for “Best New Musical.” It ran for 573 performances on the Big White Way.

If you go to see the production at Porthouse, don’t expect to see a story line show. The script is tale-light, though this version is talent heavy. The story, at least the general “plot” outline, centers on the goings on of 4 males (the pump boys) and 2 females (the dinettes) who work at a gas station/dinette somewhere between Frog Level and Smyrna, North Carolina.

The music, which is mostly from country/hillybilly rock/pop music genres, including some “pump rock”, is mostly unknown. None of the songs went on to any great fame, but they all “kind a’” sound familiar. Titles include, “Fisherman’s Prayer,” “Vacation,” “”No Holds Barred,” and “Serve Yourself.”

The Porthouse cast is excellent. The talented musicians, who play everything from piano to harmonica to guitar to electric bass to accordion, are wonderful. The singing is also mighty fine.

Since many of the lines are ad libbed, right from getting a volunteer out of the audience to play Uncle Bob, to handing out fresh baked apple pie, to having a raffle for a “real honest to goodness” car air-freshener, the performers have to be up on their quick thinking game. They pass the test with flying colors, especially Chris Blisset, the guitarist and chief trouble maker. Besides his fine joking around, his version of “Mamaw” was a vocal highlight.

Ian Lowe not only plays a “mean pie-ana,” but has a charming presentational style. His “T.N.D.P.W.A.M (The Night That Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine)” was one of the evening’s delights.

Laura Cook, could have used more animation and playfulness, but her “The Best Man” was presented with a nice country sound.

Gary Thobaben, he of the wild black Mohawk wig and no facial expression, made quite a presence, though he only had a single line.

Laura Beth Wells was a hoot as the sexy come-hither waitress. She teased with the audience, and rocked through “Be Good or Be Gone.” W. James Koeth was dynamic in “Mona.”

Director Eric van Baars paced the show well and kept the tone well-focused.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES’ is perfect summer time escapist entertainment. If you just want to sit outdoors amidst the chirping of the birds and insects, and hear some “good-ol’” music encased in “down home talkin’,” then this is your “thang.” You’ll find yourself “Taking It Slow,” until “Closing Time” and then taking “Highway 57” (or Route 8) home.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Farcical ‘DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS’ pleases some at the Palace, but...

‘DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS,’ which is now on stage at the Palace Theatre, is a musical farce. Farces aim to entertain the audience by means of unlikely and extravagant situations, disguises and mistaken identities. They contain broad physical humor and verbal comedy of varying degrees of sophistication, which often includes puns and sexual innuendo. To be effective the material must sizzle and the performance must be right on target. (Think Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s ‘FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM’ and ‘HAY FEVER.’) Unfortunately for local audiences, ‘DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS’ is shallow in both book and staging.

First conceived as a movie in 1988, the film, which starred Steve Martin and Michael Caine, is considered by many cinema aficionados as one of the 50 most humorous American films.

In 2005, the movie was adapted into a Broadway musical following the same plot line. It starred John Lithgow and Norbert Leo Butz, and in spite of mixed reviews, it was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The story concerns Freddy Benson, who lives off women by conning them with stories about his fake persona. One day, he meets Lawrence Jamieson, who shares the same passion. Lawrence, however, has neither the charm nor the maturity to pull off high level cons. He relies on his youth and made-up family tales. As there is no way two con men can work the small French town, Lawrence and Freddy agree that the first one to extract $50,000 from a young female target stays, and the other leaves town. What they fail to realize is that a con man can also be conned!

The touring production does not have the appeal of the Broadway production or the film. Tom Hewitt is fine, but not outstanding, as Lawrence. D. B. Bonds has some good moments as Freddy, but isn’t in the same league as Norbert Leo Butz, who won a Tony for the role. Laura Marie Duncan, who has a nice voice, doesn’t ring true as Christine Colgate, who eventually cons the con artists. Only Hollis Resnik stands out as one of the ladies taken advantage of by Lawrence.

Songs like “Great Big Stuff” and “Love Is My Legs” were audience pleasers. However, “All About Ruprecht” and “Ruffhousin’ Mit Shuffhausen” were just too ridiculous to entertain anyone with at least a normal IQ.

The dancing was often too automatic and uncreative and the pace seemed to be that of a show which has been on the road too long.

Capsule judgment: The opening night audience gave its usual Cleveland standing ovation to a production which was basically mediocre. This is the kind of show that some will love, while others, like the four ladies sitting behind me, who are self appointed critics, were debating during intermission whether they were going to give the show a C- or a D+. Whichever grade they picked was just about right.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Walkin' Talkin' Bill Hawkins...In Search of My Father

Performance better than material at Dobama

Bill Hawkins, the subject of William Allen Taylor’s play ‘WALKIN’ TALKIN’ BILL HAWKINS...IN SEARCH OF MY FATHER,’ was supposedly Cleveland’s first black disc jockey. Supposedly, since there are no known tapes of Hawkins’ broadcasts, and few of his life facts exist, other than some references in the city’s African American CALL AND POST newspaper.

Word-say indicates that Hawkins was noted for his jiving, rhyming style of patter. He went on the air in 1948 on WSRS-AM, broadcasting from his record store at Cedar Road and East 105th Street. There are pictures, some of which are displayed during the Dobama production, illustrating the crowds outside the store window during the shows.

Hawkins’ popularity grew and over the next decade he was heard on up to four different stations on the same day. Some feel Hawkins laid the foundation for broadcaster Alan Fried, who coined the term “rock and roll.”

What wasn’t generally known was that Hawkins had a son. And, that his son, William Allen Taylor, didn’t find out Hawkins was his father until the boy graduated from college. The two actually met, but Taylor, then a teenager, was unaware that during an interview for a job, the interviewer was his dad. Hawkins died in 2004, before his son ever got to know him.

W. Allen Taylor is an excellent actor. Unfortunately, his writing skills don’t match his performance abilities. The script is choppy, often unfocused, filled with characters who do little to push along the plot. There are holes where costume and set changes break the flow. Often it is difficult to distinguish who is who among the numerous characters.

Since Taylor fails to flesh out any traumatic consequences of not having an a father in his life, the plot has nothing to texture it. In the main, the story is lacking in drama, suspense and humor.

It was fun being at the invitational preview performance. Many audience members were relatives and friends of Hawkins and his son. They responded well to “in jokes” and references to local places and incidents they shared. I’m not sure what’s going to transpire when a “regular” audience views the work.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘WALKIN’ TALKIN’ BILL HAWKINS..IN SEARCH OF MY FATHER,’ is like a lazy river which just flows, carrying us along for a pleasant, but not memorable journey. It’s a nice look at by-gone Cleveland, but not much more after the novelty of being exposed to the area’s first black dj transpires.


Insightful, effective ‘TWO HEADED’ at TITLEWave

September 11 will long be noted as a day that changed America and its attitude toward “foreigners.” No, this isn’t the 9/11 of 2001, this is the September day in 1857 when 127 California bound men, women and children from Arkansas and Missouri were killed by a group of zealous Mormons.

The Mormons, who practiced polygamy, were reacting not only to the “gentiles” crossing their territory, but to the fact that in 1844 Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and his son were killed in a Carthage, Missouri jail. The mass killing was a way to “revenge the death of the Mormon prophets and punish non-believers.”

Until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and then the World Trade Center attack, the Mountain Meadows Massacre was the largest civilian atrocity of non-Native Americans, on US soil. Only one man, John Doyle Lee, was ever put on trial for the massacre. After two trials he was executed some 20 years after the event.

Though Julie Jensen’s play, ‘TWO HEADED,’ concerns the massacre, it is only one of many topics dealt with. The play, in five scenes, each spanning 10 years, examines the lives of two Mormon women, Lavinia and Hettie, from the time of the massacre. Jensen showcases the impact on the choices the women make and those made for them in the male-controlled culture.

As one reviewer states, “The perspective forces the audience to imagine what it was like to be a Mormon woman in the nineteenth century and thus understand how we all circumvent speaking freely about a lot of things. It transforms docudrama into the saga of a friendship pieced together like one of the women's painstakingly sewn quilts threatening to fray, but invariably patched together again.”

In this era of a serious bid for the US presidency by Mitt Romney, a devote Mormon, it is a perspective that may help some to understand the concepts of his religion, even in this era when the views toward pluralistic marriage have altered.

It should be noted that the author has a “deep, abiding hatred of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints” and her ‘TWO-HEADED’ is considered by believers to be a ferocious attack upon the church. Jensen sees Brigham Young’s creation as an “edifice for the sexual gratification of lecherous men.” This concept is clearly showcased in the play’s final moments when Hettie asks Lavinia about the two-headed calf that supposedly was hidden in a cellar. Lavinia states that it was a lie which she made up. It is clearly author Jensen’s analogy for the Mormon church and its hidden rituals.

Jensen's straightforward writing embraces humor as well as sadness. Each of the five scenes carries us further into an elliptical story of the machinations of each of the women, with comments about the church. Each segment is bridged by a religious or philosophical song.

TITLEWave’s production, under the steady direction of Greg Vovos, gets everything possible out of the script. The characterizations are clearly etched, the underlying concepts revealed.

The strong-willed, often maniacal Lavinia is well-portrayed by Holly Holsinger. At the start it is a little difficult to believe that she is 10-years old, but once the idea sets in, the ideas flow. The character’s strong personality and her obvious lesbian love for the never seen Jane, receive a strong and textured development.

Chris Seibert, as the sensitive, trusting and naive Hettie is believable from the start. She gives the role a child-like presence throughout, even as a mature woman. It is easy to accept that she is a willing participant in her fate.

Lydia Chanenka’s set design, mainly consisting of a gnarled tree from which the massacre is viewed by Lavinia, remains, like Jensen’s view of the Morman church, strong, but misshapen. The backdrop of burning red colors symbolically remains throughout the presentation to remind us of the overlying effect of the massacre.

Capsule judgment: ‘TWO HEADED’ is a vivid play which holds our attention for its hour-and-a-half intermissionless presentation through fine acting and a consistent concept.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


‘FROZEN’ at BECK is thought provoking, though talky

In recent years the Beck Center has become known for its quality productions and thought provoking script selections. ‘FROZEN’ by Bryony Lavery is another one of those stagings.

As with the company’s recent ‘EQUUS” and ‘PASSION,’ ‘FROZEN’ explores a psychological theme. In this case, the play asks, “Is it possible to forgive that which seems unforgivable -- the abduction, presumed sexual assault, and murder of one's child? And if so, what effect could that forgiveness have on the mother as well as the killer?”

Lavery explores the subject through a series of meetings which take place 25 years after the crime between the mother, the pedophilic killer, and a psychiatrist.

'’FROZEN’ was a hit in London and then New York, though the Big Apple production only played 128 regular productions. And, despite its difficult subject matter, it's the fourth-most-produced play in the country in the 2005-06 season.

Swoozie Kurtz, who played the role of the mother in the off-Broadway and Broadway productions states of the script, "When I first read this play last summer, it knocked the wind out of me. I can't imagine what it is to watch it. I've never been in a play that people say the kind of things they say about this one. It gets inside people's hearts and won't let go. I mean, this woman has survived 20 years of darkness and grief, navigating her way past the land mines.”

The play, besides the subject matter, is not without controversy. Bryony Lavery, the script’s author, has been accused of plagiarism by criminal psychiatrist, Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis and writer, Malcolm Gladwell who said that they have found at least "a dozen instances of word-for-word plagiarism in the play, as well as thematic and biographical similarities to a 1997 New Yorker profile of Dr. Lewis and a 1998 book by Dr. Lewis.” To date, there has been no resolution to the case.

Beck’s production, under the wise direction of Sarah May, has an excellent cast. Derdriu Ring as the mother (Nancy) wisely walks a tight rope of despair and depression. She does so with controlled emotions, psychiatric nonverbal reactions and total involvement in the character. This is a tour-de-force performance.

Jason Markouc is obsessive as Ralph, the pedophile. He is down-right scary in his complete emersion into the role. It is impossible to separate Markouc from Ralph.

Liz Conway does not fare as well as Ring and Markouc. Her psychiatrist is often unbelievable. Her opening scene, when she has a panic attack, is overacted and unrealistic (side note: as a crisis counselor, I know about panic attacks). She often shouts or goes into speeches with no transitions. It is hard to accept her as a credible psychiatrist.

Don McBride’s glacier/tundra setting is chilling. It develops the script’s theme of being psychologically frozen, often below our level of awareness, in subtle, yet obvious ways.

Jenniver Sparano’s costume choices are right on. This is especially true of Ring’s frumpy English up-tight early dresses, which morph into brighter colors as the character reaches outside her traditional self.

Audiences should be aware that there is harsh language and the subject matter will upset some.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Though a little talky, and sometimes feeling overly long, ‘FROZEN’ is a thought-provoking script which is given an intelligent production at Beck.