Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Christmas Story

Nostalgic ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY’ delights at Play House

Many Clevelanders think that ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY,’ whose stage version is now being produced by the Cleveland Play House, is set in Cleveland, and is written about life in the Forest City during the 1940s. In actuality, Jean Shepherd, whose books and stories the movie, and subsequently the play, was based on, sets the story in the fictional northern Indiana town of Hulman.

So what’s the Cleveland connection? As legend reveals, Cleveland was chosen as the site to shoot the film because the producers needed snow and a MidAmerican setting. Everything went well in the early shooting, except it didn’t snow. In fact, the famous Christmas parade scene in front of Higbee’s Department Store and the house and streets covered with snow, were an illusion. Fake snow was sprayed around to create the illusion of the real stuff. Finally, the production team packed up and left, going to Canada, where it was snowing, to finish the flick. But, all that withstanding, “A Christmas Story” is a Cleveland institution.

Today, at 3159 W 11th Street, on Cleveland’s near west side, stands the house that was used for the exterior shots. Its inside has been reconstructed to resemble the movie’s rooms which, in actuality, were built in a Canadian warehouse, and it is open for daily tours. A museum and gift store across the street sell the legendary leg lamps, Lifebuoy soap and action figures of Ralphie.

I have fond recollections of that film. I actually was an extra, who was cast in a serendipitous way. I was working for a television company and was dispatched to do an interview with Ralphie (Peter Billingsley). Peter and his mother had never been to Cleveland and I offered to take them around when he wasn’t shooting. So, the three of us, plus Scott Schwartz who was playing Flick, explored Cleveland. I was asked to appear in the film. Most of my footage wound up on the cutting room floor, but it was a fun experience.

The play centers on 9-year-old Ralphie Parker, who wants only one thing for Christmas – "an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle (BB Gun) with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time." Between run-ins with his younger brother Randy and having to handle school bully, Scut Farkus, Ralphie does not know how he will ever survive long enough to get the BB gun.

But, as in all good comedies, the ending is happy as Ralphie overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles to get the instrument which all of the adults of his life remind him, “you will shoot your eye out.” And, in the end, he almost does!

The CPH production, under the direction of Seth Gordon, is quite good. Of course, whenever you use child actors, there is going to be some variance from the requirements of professional theatre’s desire for concentration and discipline. In the main, except for difficulty in his articulation and speed in delivering lines which caused slurring, Kolin Morgenstern makes for a fine Ralphie. The super star of the kids, however, is Joey Stefanko, whose Flick, is delightful. His getting his tongue stuck on the light post and being bully Scut Farkas’s punching bag, were sheer fun.

Wilbur Edwin Henry, who looks remarkably like what you would perceive Ralphie looking like as a grown up, makes for a convincing Ralph, who serves as the narrator and reminds us of the nostalgia of growing up. Carole Monferdini is dead on as the uptight elementary teacher who demands “correct margins.”

In the roles they’ve played for the past four years, Charles Kartali as the Old Man (Ralphie’s father) and Elizabeth Ann Townsend (mother) are wonderful.

Michael Ganio’s set designs work well, as does David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes and Richard Winkler’s lighting.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH has found a cash cow in ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY.’ Even on a Thursday night of a school week, almost every seat in the Bolton Theatre was filled with adults and children. I’m not sure locals will ever get tired of seeing this wonderful piece of nostalgia. Thanks CPH for giving us a shot of remembering how good the simple life of the past was in days before the spoiling of imagination and making kids grow up too soon.

(P.S--I went home and went through my junk box which contains some of the “relevant” mementos of my past and “gosh darn it” I couldn’t find my Orphan Annie decoder ring! Maybe I can borrow Ralphie’s.)

David's Redhaired Death

Bang & Clatter’s ‘DAVID’S REDHAIRED DEATH’ leaves little after-effect

Every once in a while I leave a theatre and could care less about a show I’ve just seen. Unfortunately, that was my reaction as I wandered around the parking garage searching for my car, after seeing Bang & Clatter’s newest Cleveland theatre’s DAVID’S REDHAIRED DEATH.’

The lack of emotional or cerebral involvement wasn’t totally the fault of director Sean McConaha or the acting company. It was mainly the vehicle itself. Author Sherry Kramer, just doesn’t create characters who I cared about, who I could empathize with, or had lives or issues that made me want to care.

That opinion of Kramer’s writing is not shared by other critics. In its Washington, DC production reviewers stated, “All the scenes are interspersed foreshadowing of things to come, so there is a coiled, spiraled tension instead of the suspense of an ordinary linear plot and, ‘DAVID'S REDHAIRED DEATH’ is a stirring, annoying and difficult piece of work.”

Being married to a redhead, yes, a real redhead, I was expecting to get some insights into the personality of these unusual creatures. It was sure alluded to enough. Nope, nothing here turned me onto any real secrets of redheads, so I guess I’ll just have to continue to search for the key to my wife’s unique personality.

The tale is of a man named David's sudden and violent suicide. David, who we never meet, is etched for us by his sister Jean and her lover Marilyn’s words. And though David is supposed to be the center of the action, it is really the tale two people dealing with death and their struggle to form new relationships in the aftermath of a tragedy, that is in the forefront.
Told in a unique mixture of nonlinear monologues, and abstract dialogue, we are supposed to see how the two deal with the death from different perspectives. Supposed is the key word here, for I couldn’t get involved enough to perceive those reactions.

Faye Hargate’s Jean is well etched. She is a good actress who develops a clear character. On the other hand, Katelyn Cornelius plays at being seductive and coltish. I never believed she was Marilyn. She stayed on the surface most of the time, never digging into and living Marilyn. The interaction between them was not really interaction, as I felt little real connection between the actors. Even the kissing scenes lacked linkage.

Capsule judgment: Bang and Clatter’s ‘DAVID’S REDHAIRED DEATH’ just didn’t move or enlighten me. It didn’t pull me in. I like plays that have a clarity of message and are linear in development rather than truncated. On the other hand, that may be your thing. (For those who are smoke sensitive: Be aware that there is great deal of smoking onstage which drifts into the seating area.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Peter Pan

Uninspired ‘PETER PAN’ at Beck, but the Kid Reviewers liked it!

You can often get the unexpected from director Fred Sternfeld! He did not disappoint in his production of ‘PETER PAN’ at Beck Center.

Though the script centers on a little boy, the part of Peter is usually played by a female. The likes of Mary Martin (Peter in the 1954 Broadway premiere of the modern version of the show), Sandy Duncan and Cathy Ribgy are noted for portraying the role. Only one male, Jack Noseworthy, played Peter on Broadway, and he was an understudy. In the Beck production, Sternfeld selected John Paul Sato, a mature male, to play the role. In many ways, it was a wise choice.

The story of Peter becoming the subject of a musical has an interesting history. A short-lived 1905 musical version appeared on a New York stage. In 1924 Jerome Kern tried his hand at an adaptation with little success. In 1950 Leonard Bernstein wrote five songs for a stage version which starred Boris Karloff and Jean Arthur, but it wasn’t audience pleasing material. It wasn’t until 1945 that a hit was born due to the creativity of director Jerome Robbins, music by Mark Charlap and Jule Styne, and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It was a hit despite mixed reviews. The final push toward immortality for Peter was a television production of that Broadway staging which brought the Peter Pan story into many homes. And, of course, then there was the Disney film.

The musical is based on J.M. Barrie's 1904 tale of Peter Pan, a boy who didn't want to grow up and spent his life in Neverland. The tale recounts how he brings the Darling children (Wendy, John and Michael) to Neverland with him, the machinations of the Indians and the Lost Boys to confront pirates, and how Peter defeats his foe, Captain Hook, with the help of a crocodile.

The Beck production, in spite of having basically a good cast, fails to light up the stage. The show drags. Much of the humor doesn’t work. The fight scenes, which were poorly developed by John Davis, are flat and fake. The cast doesn’t seem to be enjoying themselves and so the audience doesn’t either. Even the music lacks the necessary exciting tempo needed to envelop the many youngsters in the audience and give service to the score.

For those who are used to seeing and hearing a sprightly and slight body and voice in the role, it takes a little bit of getting used to to accept Sato’s deep voice and muscular form in the green-tighted role. He wins us over with his animated face, though he sometimes overdoes the smirks and smiles. He has a good singing voice and “flies” comfortably. His “I Got to Crow” is delightful.

Kelly Smith is charming as Wendy. She has a very nice voice, the right attitude, and a good English accent. Lincoln Sandham (John) and Stephen Sandham (Michael) are quite acceptable in their roles, though their spoken lines were sometimes hard to hear.

Michael Mauldin was not believable as Mr. Darling and was never evil nor snarly nor funny enough as Captain Hook. In fact, much of the problem with the production centered on his performance as “meanest pirate of them all.” The same lack of characterization could be aimed at the pirates who are often the center of amusement in Pan productions. Bob Abelman came close to the right image, but the others were flat.

On the other hand, the Lost Boys were excellent. Each maintained his characterization well and their singing and dancing were quite good. The same could be said for the Indians.

Aimee Kliuber’s costumes were disappointing, especially the badly designed dog suit for Nana. Instead of cuddly and cute, the animal looked flea-bagged and molting. This left little visual room for Gregory White to create a delightful dog/nursemaid.

As I have done in the past with kid-friendly shows, I took the “Kid Reviewers,” my grandsons Alex (13) and Noah (11 1/2) to the production. They liked it a lot more than grandpa, giving the production thumbs ups of 7 and 8 out of ten.

Noah liked Ben Needham’s sets (grandpa totally agreed), the way the story developed (yep!) and the dancing (grandpa wasn’t totally enamored with some of the movements, especially “Mysterious Lady” and the dreadful “The Battle”).

Alex liked most of the singing, thought the music was well played, and believed that Peter was very good.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: I expect much from a musical directed by Fred Sternfeld and choreographed by Martin Cespedes. I was disappointed in their version of ‘PETER PAN.’ It wasn’t terrible, but it just wasn’t everything that it could and should have been.