Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Nixon's Nixon

‘NIXON’S NIXON’— a probe into the past at ACTORS’ SUMMIT

Russell Lees' ‘NIXON’S NIXON,’ now on stage at Actors’ Summit, is a historical docudrama which imagines the conversation that might have taken place when then-President Richard Nixon summoned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the White House on August 7, 1974. This was the night before Nixon resigned from the Presidency due to the Watergate scandal. Though no one, except the two men knows the content of their conversation, Lees imagines that the duo relived past glories, conjured up their political legacies, and wrestled with their personal insecurities.

The ninety-minute play, performed without an intermission, is at times compelling, while at other times gets a little tedious. At times it is humorous, at times humorless.

We see a Nixon who alternates between being desperate, shrewd, paranoid, but, most important, utterly baffled by the situation in which he finds himself. How could his “friends” be demanding his resignation? How could his loyal public not come to his side, like Napoleon’s former warriors did when he returned from exile? This is a man who is on the brink of a total psychological melt-down. No sooner does one thought come into his head than another arrives before he has fully articulated the first. His language is obscene. His always inept smile, his inability to see reality, is present.
Kissinger, who starts off as a statesman who sees reality, but soon falls prey to his ego and desire to continue to be at the hub of the US foreign policy, starts conceiving illogical plots to save the duo. His fertile imagination includes various "Dr. Strangelove"-like possibilities including starting a war on the Russian-Chinese border.

Unfortunately, Lees fails to build all the needed tension of the high-stakes poker game he’s set up. The script often meanders.

Though both A. Neil Thackaberry (Nixon) and George Roth (Kissinger) are generally excellent, there are times when the portrayals need some polishing and a reality check. For example, Roth continually hides his head in his hands looking very child like. This would work if his actions following this departure from his usual logical control, were more keyed. His accent comes and goes. Thackaberry often misses the maniacal look that Nixon had, foreshadowing one of his deceptive actions. His body, complete with the traditional almost cartoon like gestures, sometimes loses the image. The “tricky Dickey” is only there part time.

The production yells for a keen eye to detail and the needed frenetic pacing to highlight Nixon’s closeness to being totally out of touch with reality and Kissinger’s near desperation, the qualities that garnered critical claim in its New York run.

Things are not helped by director Constance Thackaberry’s direction. Part of the problem may be the director’s youth. As she indicates in the program, the era and the characters were a historical discovery for her. Maybe someone who had lived through the Nixon days might have had a clearer awareness of the almost bipolar swings of the man and the tension of the era. And, her lack of directing background may also come into play here as the eye for detail is often missing.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “NIXON’S NIXON’ is a good exposé of the Nixon era. The production, though sometimes slow, is interesting, if not compelling, and is worth a go-to for those interested in historical events and political intrigue.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Goldstar, Ohio

Emotionally draining ‘GOLDSTAR, OHIO’ at CPT

Being in the audience opening night at the world premiere of ‘GOLDSTAR, OHIO’ at Cleveland Public Theatre was a surreal experience. Many of those in the sold out crowd were wearing pictures or badges with the facial images of members of the 325th Marine unit who were killed in the Iraq war during the first week of August, 2005.

‘GOLDSTAR, OHIO’ is a play based on interviews conducted with the families of the fallen marines. Four families continued to speak to Michael Tisdale, the interviewer and author of the play for two-and-a-half years after the original in-take of information. They are the center of the script. The result is an in-time and personal revelation which, at times, becomes emotionally draining.

The first act lays the foundation of what happened. The second act, reveals reactions to and experiences following the killed Marines bodies arriving home.

Unfortunately, the play is at least forty-five minutes too long. It’s too bad that most of the excess is in the second act. But, it is also there that the words of families twist the heart. Jill Levin speaks words which rip into George W. Bush and his failed policy of taking the country into a senseless war which has resulted in over 4000 American deaths and multiple mental and physical injuries. I can’t perceive anyone sitting through that speech and not be repulsed by the actions of this administration and all those who support and supported the Iraq war. As the script states, “The casualties and fatalities of war will affect our communities for years to come.”

The cast, who play numerous roles, is universally excellent. This is a unit cast performing as a unified team. Applause to Jill Levin, Anne McEvoy, Dana Hart, Justin Tatum, Sarah Marcus, Bob Goddard, Casey Spindler, and Chuck Tisdale for a job well done.

Some might fear that the play may be too graphic. Be aware that there are no events that show the actual deaths. In addition, there is comedy that relieves the stress.

Kudos to Director Andy Paris, who, in his initial directing experience, did a masterful job. His stage pictures were involving. The creative use of the set was symbolically strong. Bows to Trad Burns for both the set and lighting design.

Capsule judgement: “GOLDSTAR, OHIO,’ in spite of its excessive length, is a compelling and meaningful presentation. It’s a go see!

Thursday, October 16, 2008



So there is no question about the basis of this review: I am ‘A CHORUS LINE’ fanatic. I love the show! This affection carries with it a problem...I go into productions of the show with the fear that the director/choreographer/actors are going to give me visual and emotional mind-burn.

Unfortunately, the touring production of ‘A CHORUS LINE,’ now on stage at the Palace Theatre, is a major disappointment! It lacks energy. It lacks the quality of acting, dancing and singing that makes the show a theatrical feast.

The results are very surprising considering that the tour has only been on the road since the beginning of May, so there is no reason for the general look of exhaustion from the cast. It is directed by Bob Avian, who was the co-choreographer of the original show which opened on-Broadway in 1975, won nine Tony Awards and ran for nearly 15 years, and closed in 1990 after 6,137 performances. This can’t be the show that opened in a Big Apple revival to rave reviews in 2006 and was billed as “exhilarating,” “endearing,” and “a masterpiece.”

‘A CHORUS LINE’ was originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, the recognized genius of theatre choreographers. It has music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban. The book was assembled by Elyria native James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante.

The script was not written by the traditional means of a writer conceiving a plot. ‘A CHORUS LINE’ began as a workshop "share" session. A group of dancers met after rehearsals for other shows to talk about their personal and professional lives. The sessions were tape recorded, written down, and a libretto was pieced together. Their combined work, guided closely by Bennett, resulted in a staging scheme that filled the songs and book with overlapping layers.

The final result was a story set in a Broadway theater. Young hopefuls are auditioning for a job in the chorus line of a musical. As each speaks, sings and dances, we learn about their hopes, insecurities and dreams. And eventually, their individuality becomes blurred as they become part of the chorus line, blending together into a unit of one…a chorus line.

What has always stood out in the show was Michael Bennett’s amazing choreography. Unfortunately, in the touring production Baayork Lee, who restaged the moves, didn’t demand Bennett’s perfectionism, the use of what he called “cinematic staging.” The Bennett signatures of slanted bodies, tilted heads, precise hand and arm movements, the flick of the wrist that turns the hats, aren’t there in total harmony.

Bennett used a constant "jump-cutting" so the audience's attention is shifted from one figure to another. This draws focus to the character by placing the visual spotlight on that person. Bennett also used a series of mirrors to spotlight performers and make them stand out bigger than life in the eyes of the audience. This production lost many of those qualities.

The cast is uneven. Gabrielle Ruiz’s (Diana) “Nothing” was well interpreted, but her “What I Did for Love” ” failed to capture the mood and meaning of the song. Hollie Howard (Maggie) has a great voice, Derek Hanson (Don) has the Bennett dance attitude and moves, and Emily Fletcher has the right attitude as Sheila. Kevin Santos hits Paul’s emotional self-revealing monologue right on, not only bringing tears to his eyes but to the eyes of many in the audience.

On the other hand, Nikki Snelson doesn’t display the dancing, acting or singing skills to pull off the pivotal role of Cassie. Elise Hall (Val) fails to get the necessary humor from “Dance; Ten; Looks: Three). She doesn’t compare with Elyria’s Crissy Wilzak, who played the role during part of the original Broadway run.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The touring production of ‘A CHORUS LINE’ misses the mark of being a “singular sensation,” which it should have been. It’s not, as a line from the show says, “nothing,” but it should have been so much more!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Noises Off

‘NOISES OFF’ at Cleveland Play House is entertaining, but…

‘NOISES OFF,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, is a farce. In fact, it is considered to be one of the best written of the modern farces.

A farce, as the CPH program states, is “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, typically including crude characterizations and ludicrously improbably situations.” As anyone who has ever attempted to direct or act in a farce knows, it is hard work. It is probably the most difficult of theatrical formats to do well.

Though they try hard, the cast and director of ‘NOISES OFF’ just don’t get it totally right. Not that the production is bad, it’s not, it is quite entertaining. But it is not of the quality, for example, of the great production I saw in London of this show.

Maybe seeing a British play requires the British to do it. The accents, the natural over-exaggeration, the bigger than life characters, need that special Anglo touch.

The original staging opened in 1982 in London to rave reviews. A version of it opened in New York in 1983, starring Dorothy Loudon. It had moderate success, running 553 performances. A film version was made with Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve and John Ritter. Good cast, bad flick. A well respected critic wrote that the film was "one of the worst ever made."

The plot to ‘NOISES OFF’ centers on a play within a play. The fictional ‘NOTHING ON’ is a sex comedy which finds the cast often running around in their underwear, running in and out of doors, with no real purpose.

The ‘NOISES OFF’ segment finds us viewing three acts. The first, a rehearsal the night before opening with the cast still fumbling with entrances and exits, missed cues, misspoken lines, and bothersome props, most notably several plates of sardines.

Act Two portrays a performance one month later which reveals the deteriorating personal relationships among the cast that have led to offstage shenanigans and onstage bedlam.

In Act Three, we see a performance near the end of the ten-week run, when personal friction has continued to increase and everyone is bored and anxious to be done with the play. It contains one of the most delightful death-defying down-the-stairs falls you’ll ever see.

Much of the comedy should emerge from prat falls and general on and off-stage chaos. There should be a sharp contrast between players' on-stage and off-stage personalities.

The CPH version, under that direction of David Bell, tries hard for the slapstick. But, because of inconsistent pacing, some of it doesn’t work as well as possible. As for the on-stage/off-stage personalities, the cast generally fails. The personalities generally blend into one.

The play’s success depends, to a great degree on the set. Here, the CPH production shines as James Leonard Joy has created the perfect setting. In fact, the set is so effective that the audience universally sat in their seats at the set change between the second and third act. Unfortunately, after giving the viewers a taste of how the set would be altered, the curtain was dropped and the rest of the change hidden from view. Bad choice. The audience moaned and there were actually a couple of boos when the curtain closed. They wanted to see the stage hands do their thing.

Standouts in the cast are Christopher Kelly who is quite good as the mumphering Garry/Roger and Linda Kimbrough as Dotty/Mrs. Clackett, the maid.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The CPH production of ‘NOISES OFF’ is quite entertaining, but doesn’t reach the level of farce needed to really get the audience into a hysterical mood. As the play runs, maybe the cast will pick up the pace and separate the on-stage from the off-stage characterizations.

Into the Woods

'INTO THE WOODS' delights at Great Lakes Theater Festival

Have you ever asked yourself what happens following the “and they lived happily ever after” at the conclusion of most fairy tales? Do you think everything is rosy for the prince and his beloved, or for Jack and his mother after they get the hen that lays the golden eggs? Well, after watching ‘INTO THE WOODS’ at Great Lakes Theatre Festival, you might change your mind.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical, which was inspired by Bruno Bettelheim's THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT, intertwines the plots of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales in the first act and then explores the consequences of the characters' wishes and quests in the second act. The main characters are taken from “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel,” and “Cinderella,” tied together by a story involving a Baker and his wife and their quest for a family.

‘INTO THE WOODS’ premiered on Broadway in 1987. Bernadette Peters' portrayed the Witch, and Joanna Gleason was the Baker's Wife. It won Tony Awards for Best Score, and Best Book in a year dominated by ‘THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.’

This is one of Sondheim’s most beautiful and accessible scores. It includes the poignant “No More,” “No One is Alone,’ and “Children Will Listen.” The music lingers in your mind long after the production.

As proven by Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s ‘MACBETH,’ which opened last week and now ‘INTO THE WOODS,’ GLTF is on a roll. It might be their new refurbished home in the beautiful Hanna Theatre, or it may be a change in attitude; but, whatever it is…audiences are in for a treat.

Director Victoria Bussert and choreographer Martin Cespedes create ever-involving stage pictures, which are framed by Scenic Designer Jeff Herman’s creative set. (Be sure to look for the faces and figures cleverly interwoven into the trees, which overlook the happenings.) Charlotte Yetman’s costumes, Norman Coates lighting and Stan Kozak’s sound design help complete the illusion.

Musical Director John Jay Espino and his well-tuned orchestra generally do a good job of backing up rather than drowning out the singers.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Jodi Dominick sings well and creates the right empathy as the Baker’s wife. Tom Ford, he of sad and mobile face, is excellent as the Baker. Jessica L. Cope has a compelling singing voice and creates a Witch who is delightfully witchy. Derrick Cobey makes for a great wolf, but overacts and postures too much as Cinderella’s Prince. Maryann Nagel is a fine fuss-budget as Jack’s mother. Tim Try is perfectly nerdy as Jack. Mark Moritz does a nice job of transitioning between being the Narrator and the Mysterious Man. Emily Krieger creates the right image as Cinderella, but is often difficult to hear during her songs.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: GLTF’s ‘INTO THE WOODS’ is a delightful production which entertains completely. It’s a go see!