Sunday, February 22, 2009


‘CRAVE’ a mind stretching experience at Theatre Ninjas

Sara Kane, the author of ‘CRAVE,’ now being staged by Theater Ninjas, was a very troubled woman. Even though she was hailed as a talented playwright by the press, she committed suicide at the age of 28. Her plays, from a psychological viewpoint, were cries for personal help from the demons who were at war in her mind.

‘CRAVE,’ which is having its Ohio premiere, was her fourth play. It was first performed in 1998 in Scotland. It features four characters (or possibly four elements of the human mind), each of whom is only identified by a single letter. The script has no stage directions and no indication of the intent of the writer.

It examines the trauma of rape, infidelity, loneliness, familial rejection, childlessness, death, sex, loneliness, relationships, suicide and child molestation. The characters appear to be dismayed by an existence over which they have no control.

In contrast to a traditional script, ‘CRAVE’ is a series of fragmented sentences, phrases, poetic stories, monologues and dialogues. They are not connected to each other to create clear concepts. Ideas flow through phrases such as: “I am not what I am; I am what I do.” “It talks about the definitive role of the centre in the geometry of the circle where there is no chicken and egg dilemma as to who came first as it was the centre that came first and then the circle was formed.” “I had to fake orgasms before but now I have to fake not having an orgasm.”

The Theater Ninjas production of ‘CRAVE’ is creatively staged by Jeremy Paul. He uses the space in the Asterisk Gallery to intensify the chaotic arrangement of the lines. The four actors run, jump, roll, crawl, chase each other and move in programmed chaos around the gallery’s display panels.

The members of the cast, Lucy Bredeson-Smith, Terence Cranendonk, Val Kozlenko and Layla Schwartz are each compelling. It is not only a wonder how they not only learned the massive number of lines but also the intricate blocking.

Capsule judgement: The 50-minute play is a mental challenge. There are constant questions of “what does this all mean?” Discussing the happenings after the production is as intriguing as watching the abstract experience itself. If that’s your “thing” then you’ll enjoy the production. But, if you’re into clear messages in happy encasements, forget seeing ‘CRAVE.’


Hello, Roy...

Sorry this is a little overdue, but I just wanted to thank you for recognizing my work
in Between Life and Death and for honoring me along with so many
talented Cleveland theatre artists with a Times Newspaper's Theatre Tribute certificate.
Collaborating with Holly Holsinger was an honor and inspiration, as was being associated
with Raymond's The Other Shore which I never tired of watching.

Please know I sincerely appreciate the time, effort, and care you take
to promote theatre in this area, for all the tickets you've helped to sell,
for all the seats you've helped to fill, for your ongoing passion for theatre.

Wishing you well, with much thanks...
Anne McEvoy

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ballet Hispanico, Merce Cunningham Dance Companies


One of the problems in having touring dance companies come into the Cleveland area is that they perform only one of two days. Reviews mean little for locals as the companies may not return for years, or ever again. But, for the record, it’s interesting to give picture snap-shots of the various companies’ performances.


Dancing before three sold-out performance audiences, BALLET HISPANICO, whose appearance was co-sponsored by DanceCleveland and Cuyahoga Community College, presented a mixed-bag program. Pieces varied from traditional Hispanic dance, including the mambo, cha cha cha, bolero, rhumba and conga, to modern and contemporary pieces.

Those coming to the programs expecting folkloric presentations of dancers in traditional costumes were probably disappointed. Those knowing the reputation of this world class company got what they expected, a combination of Hispanic sounds and movements blended with balletic and contemporary moves.

The highlight of the program was the closing piece, ‘RITMO Y RUIDO,’ a contemporary number choreographed by Ann Reinking, a protégé of Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse. Known for her appearances in ‘PIPPIN,’ ‘CHORUS LINE’ and the movie ‘ALL THAT JAZZ,’ Reinking is as dynamic a conceiver of dance as she was a performer. Many of her moves are patented Fosse. Quick hand and head movements, pelvic thrusts, gymnastic moves were combined in ‘RITO Y RUIDO,’ with traditional Hispanic steps and body positions, to create an exciting and audience-pleasing dance.

The rest of the program was not as successful as the Reinking piece. Though generally well danced, there were lapses in synchronized movements and the pieces often were not dynamic enough to hold the audience’s attention.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Those who left the Ballet Hispanico program after the first two-thirds of the program, and, unfortunately, there were quite a few at the Friday night offering, missed out on ‘RITMO Y RUIDO,’ the highlight of the evening.


Merce Cunningham is a dance legend. His choreography and dance programs are either revered or hated by both critics and audiences alike.

Very contemporary in intent, the pieces are often danced to atonal sounds which defy the description of “music.’ Many audience members were seen at the company’s late January Cleveland performance, with fingers firmly thrust into their ears during much of the program. In fact, for the last number, ‘SOUNDANCE,’ Dance Cleveland, the show’s sponsor, provided foam ear plugs for the attendees.

Cunningham’s choreography features precision combined with randomness. They are static, non-story pieces, with posing, slow and controlled movements, and the melding of bodies. After a while, the whole experience results in tediousness, at least in their local program.

To really appreciate Cunningham, it is necessary to let loose of traditional understanding of the movements of dance and literally “tune out” and let what happens happen. He proclaims to be an inducer of meditation. But, but how does one meditate when the ears are being accosted by a combined cacophony of screeching sounds of lawnmowers melded with motorcycle engines being amplified to piercing ear shattering tones?

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: I found myself, during the MERCE CUNNINGHAM COMPANY dance concert, thinking like the patron of an art show looking at a palate of a black on black painting, and asking myself “what is the positive shouting all about?” I need to feel some pleasure during an artistic experience, not thinking that I need to get an appointment to have my audiologist daughter check my hearing for potential injury due to the sounds of the program.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Folino and Garrigan make SWEENEY TODD an audience pleaser

Martin Friedman, Lakeland Civic Theater’s director of ‘SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET,’ is a self-professed Stephen Sondheim fanatic. As he states in the play’s program, he has been “delighted, enchanted and challenged by Sondheim.”

Friedman has always wanted to direct ‘SWEENEY TODD,’ considered by many to be one of the master’s most difficult shows to stage due to the love or hate relationship it often engenders with audiences. His path to the production was thwarted when, while staging the show last year, a heart condition slammed on the breaks to opening. Now feeling fine, he has completed his quest.

‘SWEENEY TODD,’ the 1979 Tony Award winning musical, has music and lyrics by Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler (‘A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC,’ ‘CANDIDE.’ ‘PACIFIC OVERTURES,’ ‘MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS’). It is based Christopher Bonds’ 1973 play of the same name.

It tells the story of Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, who returns to London from Australia after spending fifteen years in prison on false charges. When he learns from his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett, that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by the Judge who wrongly imprisoned him and who took Barker’s daughter to be his ward, Barker, as Todd, vows revenge. The plot, full of twists, turns, gore and more gore, is not the stuff from which musicals are usually crafted. Nor is using the French Grand Guiginol melodramatic structure of a play (violent plot and terrifying stage effects), which can lend itself to farcical over-staging.

The score, which contains some of Sondheim’s most memorable music, includes “Johanna,” “Pretty Woman,” the repulsively hysterical “A Little Priest,” and the brilliant, “Not While I’m Around.”

Friedman has reinvented the setting, placing it in a courtroom in which the members of the cast are basically on stage during the entire production, and the audience also sits in judgment of Todd and his actions. These alterations made the staging easier as it eliminated many of the technical difficulties of the script. However, it also created problems. Friedman has cast member wandering in and out of their seats, which causes constant distractions because their movements upstage some of the play’s most emotional scenes and songs.

Trad Burns’ multi-level set also causes problems as actors are constantly climbing up and down a ladder placed in the center of the back wall, often with no intended purpose. On the other hand, Burns’ light design adds much intensity to the staging.

Dan Folino, one of the area’s best actors and singers, is superb as Todd. His full voice, depth of acting ability and total immersion into the schizophrenic role, make Todd live. At the start of the play, his dead eyes reflect pain and angst. As the play progresses, his eyes become demon-like as he gets more and more obsessed in his murderous mission.

Alison Garrigan adds a sensual dimension to the role that Angela Lansberry, the original Mrs. Lovett, did not engender. Garrigan, portraying Lovett, the cheery and chatty but wholly amoral maker of meat pies, seems to evoke glee in her character’s idea to get rid of the victims of Todd’s murderous ways by grinding them up and baking them into edible treats. This is undoubtedly one of Garrigan’s highlight theatrical performances.

Brian Altman gives a nice vulnerability to the role of Tobias, a seemingly retarded lad, who becomes Mrs. Lovett’s assistant. His puppy dog loyalty to his mistress is tenderly developed in “Not While I’m Around.”

The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well. But, it must be remembered that Lakeland Civic Theatre is an amateur theatre, so the mostly non-Equity cast should not be expected to perform at a professional level.

Lindsey Sandham has a finely trained voice, but her words often got lost in the higher register, so she was sometimes difficult to understand. She also tends to be overly melodramatic in her character development, making Johanna less than real. She shows little emotional connection with Anthony (Connor O’Brien), her love interest. O’Brien has an excellent singing voice and often nails his character, but sometimes loses focus. Nicole Groah (Begger Woman) is not convincing in her portrayal. Douglas Collier (Judge Turpin) and Thomas love (Beadle Bamford) both have nice singing voices.

Musical Director Larry Goodpaster has honed his instrumentalists well, but often allows them to get overly loud, drowning out the singers. He also needed to get better blending of vocal sounds from the chorus.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Lakeland’s ‘SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET’ is an audience pleasing production, in spite of some staging and performance issues. It is well worth seeing! Also, besides seeing a rarely produced script, it may be your only chance to experience an audience hysterically laughing while throats are being cut and blood is squirting!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Verb Ballets-2/09

Verb Ballets back on pointe! Coming dance attractions.

During most of the past seven years, Verb Ballets was one of the most exciting dance venues in the area. Then, about a year and-a-half ago, they seemed to lose their focus. The programs seemed disorganized and the dancers seemed to be going through the motions. They lost company members and did not replace them.

A change in artistic management took place, dancers were added and deleted, and it has done a world of good. The company’s recent program, presented as part of the Chagrin Arts 2009 Winter Series and performed at Chagrin Falls High School’s beautiful Performing Arts Center, was a return to the shining days of the past. The company’s pieces ranged from traditional ballet, to contemporary and modern dance, to a youth-centered offering, to the late Heinz Poll’s ‘BOLERO.’ All were well performed. There was precision and a renewed positive attitude.

The opening piece, ‘VESPERS,’ choreographed by Ulysses Dove, with restaging by Dawn Carter, was a disciplined work, centering around a series of chairs, which were sat on, jumped on and over, straddled, and balanced upon. Based on the passions and the spirituality of women who have faith, it was danced to the music of Mikel Rouse.

Brian Murphy, one of the best male dancers in the area, was splendid as the solo performer in David Dearling’s ‘DARK WOOD.’ He displayed complete body control as he moved with assurance and power . This was a tour de force.

‘PETER AND THE WOLF’ was danced to the vocal narration of the late Leonard Bernstein and the recorded music of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” which uses a musical instrument to represent each of the animals and the people in the piece. For example, the flute represented the bird; the oboe, the duck; the clarinet, the cat; and grandfather was showcased by the bassoon. The delightful interpretation by Pamela Pribisco was well costumed by Gino Ventura. Though the pacing of the piece was a little languid, the children in the audience seemed delighted through out.

Jennifer Moll Safonovs and Brian Murphy, added grace and beauty to the program, dancing Heinz Poll’s ‘classically conceived ANDANTE SOSTENUTO.’ The pas de deux, set to Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2, was a visual delight as the duo performed floating lifts, alert partnering, and smooth classic movements with ease and assurance.

The program ended with the spirited ‘BOLERO,’ complete with the waving cloaks of the bull fight. The conclusion was met with an enthusiastic and well deserved standing ovation from the sizeable crowd.
Capsule judgement: Welcome back Verb Ballets!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Mahalia: A Gospel Musical

CPH’S ‘MAHALIA’ not only entertaining, but an important history lesson

‘’MAHALIA: A GOSPEL MUSICAL,’ which is now in production at the Cleveland Play House, fulfills all the requirements for a Black History month offerings. It tells a history of a black icon, who not only played an important role in both establishing a major Black arts contribution, but also affected African American history.

“MAHALIA,” a dynamic gospel epic by Tom Stolz, is a thinly veiled history lesson that takes a nostalgic glance back at the Civil Rights Movement through the vocals of Mahalia Jackson, who was a friend and confident of Martin Luther King.

Halie, as Jackson was often called, was a humble, deeply religious woman whose expressive, full throated voice carried her from a three-room shanty in New Orleans to appearances before presidents (she sang at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration) and royalty).

The Queen of Gospel’s music career stretched from the 1920’s-1940’s. During that time she produced many classic recordings, including “Precious Lord,” “Trouble of the World,” “Down By the Riverside,” and “Move On Up a Little Higher.”
The script, which is a series of songs connected by dialogue, is well crafted. By the time the journey is over, the audience has a clear picture of this important Black icon’s life, but also of the struggle of a cultural group’s moving from “coloreds” to “African Americans.” Segregation, bus boycotts, freedom marches, important speeches and legislation, and the path to integration are all showcased.

The Cleveland Play House’s production, under the adept direction of Kent Gash, is excellent. Much of the success of the show centers on Natasha Yvette Williams, who peoples the role of Mahalia. She is Mahalia, she is not an imitation of the great woman. She has a terrific voice and interprets the Jackson songs with verve, meaning and dimension. Her version of “Deep River” was riveting.

Terry Burrell, who portrays several parts, is at her best as Mildred, Jackson’s pianist and friend. Her hyperemotional response to traveling to the segregated South, was the production’s laugh highlight.

The only disappointing part of the show was C. E. Smith’s performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. If King had presented his “I Have a Dream” speech as blandly as Smith intoned it, one of the greatest speeches in the English language, would never would have become the beacon light of the civil right’s movement.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘MAHALIA: A GOSPEL MUSICAL,’ which is both an important and entertaining piece of theatre, should be required viewing by every student in the Greater Cleveland area. In the period of two acts, they would get a clear understanding of the plight of the “coloreds” as they marched toward integration. And, because of its entertainment value, would have enjoyed themselves.

Saturday, February 07, 2009



One of the fears of seeing a touring show of a production which is being showcased again after a couple of previous visits, is that it will have a “not ready for prime time cast,” few of the original theatrical effects, inferior settings and poor musical quality.

After the first ten minutes of ‘HAIRSPRAY,’ which is at the Palace Theatre for a short run, my grandson, Alex (13), who I brought along to be the eyes and ears of the many tweens and teens in the audience, whispered, “This isn’t very good.” Yep, he was right on. The opening scenes dragged, the music was way too loud, drowning out the singers, and it looked like a high school production. Then, like someone had thrown the, “okay, it’s time to have a good time and show your talent switch,” the show caught fire. From there on, it was a good time at the theatre.

‘HAIRSPRAY’ is the musical version of the John Walters’ movie of the same name. It centers on Tracy, a plus-sized teenager who longs for three things: being a regular dancer on the “Corny Collins Show (think Dick Clark’s “Bandstand”); having Link Larkin, the show’s super stud, fall in love with her; and having every day “negro day” on the show so that the blacks could display their dancing talents along with the white cast. To understand the latter aspect, you have to understand that Baltimore, where the show is set, is really a southern city, which clung to it’s segregated past with a fury and was torn with strife in the 60s.

The multi-award winning show was a smash on Broadway and in its first touring productions. The score, which includes “The Nicest Kids in Town,” “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” “I Can Hear the Bells,” and “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” is upbeat and is sure to inspire attendees to leave the theatre humming.

Alex, after standing and dancing and yelling with the rest of the audience during the curtain call, summarized the experience as a “9 on a scale of ten.” He loved Motormouth Maybelle (Lisa Linette), a black record store operator, and her son, Seaweed (John Edwards). Linette brought down the house while wailing, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Edwards, besides having a great voice, is a dancing fool!

Alex also thought Amber Rees, portraying Seaweed’s white girlfriend, was a “hoot.” He complained that the orchestra was too loud at the start, drowning out the singers, but got into the groove later and settled down to play their proper back-up role. Though he liked the sets, we both agree that they were a little “tacky” for a Broadway touring show. He contended that Brooklynn Pulver, who played Tracy, sang and acted well, but wasn’t much of a dancer, and he was disappointed with Matthew Ragas, who played Link, because in many scenes he was unbelievable. He liked Jerry O’Boyle, who played Edna, Tracy’s mother. In spite of the flaws, he loved the over-all effect. Grandpa liked it, but I’ve seen the show five times and have a basis for comparison.

The show, which played to a large opening night crowd, only runs through Sunday, the 8th.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘HAIRSPRAY,’ the 1960s fun show with a message, is just out and out fun. It’s latest touring incarnation was a good, but not a great production.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Shaw Festival preview-2009


Spring is almost here. Summer will eventually come. The dollar exchange rate again favors US citizens. It’s time to think SHAW FESTIVAL.

The Shaw Festival is conducted in three theatres in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, an easy four-hour trip from Cleveland. Once you arrive, you will be entranced by the most beautiful city in Canada. Lovely flowers, classical home architecture and inviting well-stocked shops and galleries make for an inviting experience.

This season’s theatre offerings are: ‘BRIEF ENCOUNTERS,’ Noel Coward; ‘BORN YESTERDAY,’ Garson Kanin; ‘THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE,’ George Bernard Shaw; ‘THE ENTERTAINER,’ John Osborne; ‘WAYS OF THE HEART,’ Noel Coward; ‘A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN,’ Eugene O’Neill; ‘ALBERTINE IN FIVE TIMES,’ Michel Tremblay; ‘PLAY, ORCHESTRA, PLAY, Noel Coward; SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE,’ music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine; ‘IN GOOD KING CHARLES’S GOLDEN DAYS,’ George Bernard Shaw; ‘STAR CHAMBER,’ Noel Coward.

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

The area itself is filled with activities ranging from a golf course within the city limits; an art park (, The Good Earth Cooking School (, the Jordan Village, a diverse blend of fine shopping, dining, and antique treasures (, an international chamber music festival (, learning vacations at Niagara College (www.niagaralearning, bike paths, Mystery on the Lake, a new interactive theatre (, and a Niagara river jet boat trip.

The Niagara area is dotted with wineries, many of which, besides offering wine tastings and sales, have fine dining restaurants. My favorite is Hillebrand Estates Winery. Friends love Peller Estates.

There are some wonderful restaurants including my favorite, Queenston Heights Restaurant ( The latter is located in a park just over the US-Canadian border and has a breathtaking view of the Niagara River gorge. (Make a reservation and ask for a window table.) Lunch often finds me at The Epicurian, next to the Court House theatre. A real find was the restaurant at the Niagara Culinary Institute (, at which the student chefs hone their skills.

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

The area has many excellent hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. Our home away from home is the beautiful and well-placed Wellington House (, directly across the street from The Festival Theatre. For information on other B&Bs go to

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

Tired of waiting for a casino in Cleveland? For those so-inclined, Niagara Falls, a half-hour ride from Niagara-on-the-Lake, has several casinos. There is also a large outlet store complex for the bargain shopper. If you are taking kids be aware that a huge indoor water park has been constructed which connects to several hotels. And, of course, not to be overlooked are the attractions connected to the magnificent falls.

Helpful hint: To satisfy border requirements carry some official form of identification (preferred: passport, or driver’s license with a picture).
Go to the Shaw Festival! Find out what lovely hosts Canadians are, and see some great theatre!

Sunday, February 01, 2009


Bang & Clatter’s ‘BLASTED’ not for everyone!

Bang & Clatter, Cleveland’s Public Square Theatre, is noted for going outside the box in choosing their scripts. More often than not, their bold choices pay off by producing plays that other venues wouldn’t produce, and challenging audiences to think. Their latest choice, ‘BLASTED,” Sarah Kane’s antiwar/anti-life play is a case in point.

‘BLASTED’ was the first of the British author’s five plays. The initial performance was fiercely attacked by most newspaper critics, many of whom regarded it as a rather immature attempt to shock the audience.
(Note: I don’t normally give the step-by-step plot details in reviewing a play, but anyone planning on seeing this production needs to know exactly what they’re is in for. So…)

The play is set in an expensive hotel room in Leeds, England. Ian, a foul-mouthed middle-aged tabloid journalist has brought Cate, a young woman, to the room for the night. Cate is much younger than Ian, and emotionally fragile. They appear to have a past history together, but the playwright fails to fill in those details. Throughout Scene 1, Ian tries to seduce Cate, but she resists. The scene is populated by Ian’s statements about misogyny, racism and homophobia.

Scene 2 begins the next morning. Ian has raped Cate during the night. She goes to “take a shower,” and escapes out of the bathroom window. Unexpectedly, a soldier enters the hotel room. The hotel is struck by bomb. But, because the playwright fails to give us any idea of what war is being raged, and why, we are again at a loss.

In Scene 3, the hotel room is in ruins. The soldier and Ian begin to talk,. The soldier tells Ian about appalling atrocities that he has witnessed and taken part in, involving rape, torture and genocide, and says he has done everything as an act of revenge for the murder of his girlfriend. He then rapes Ian and sucks out his eyes. (Yes, that’s what happens. Would I make something like this up?) Why this happens I do not know as the motivation for those actions are not made clear.

In Scene 4, Ian lies blinded, next to the soldier who has committed suicide. Cate returns, describing the city being overrun by soldiers, and bringing with her a baby that she has rescued. However, the baby dies.

Scene 5 consists of a series of brief images, showing Ian crying and even hugging the dead soldier for comfort as he starves in the ruined room. Eventually, he crawls into the hole in the mattress in which the dead baby has been placed by Cate, and proceeds to eat it. Cate returns, bringing some food. Because her legs and vaginal area are covered with blood, we can only assume she has sold her body or has been raped. She eats and feeds the rest of her food to Ian, who says: "Thank you." Curtain!

After sitting through the 90-minute intermissionless play, I tend to agree with the London critics about the limited quality of the play. I’m not a prude, but the brutal show which contains masturbation, male sodomy, rape, urinating on stage and cannibalism was even a bit much for my sensibilities. And I left wondering what Kane was trying to share with me.

Sarah Kane committed suicide at age 28. I can only assume, based on ‘BLAST’ that she was a very troubled woman. As a counselor, I can possibly analyze that her play, from a psychological view point, was a cry for personal help from the demons who were at war within her mind.

Bang and Clatter’s production brings forth all the brutality of the script. It was well directed by Sean McConaha. Nick Koesters gives an amazing performance as the demonized Ian. This is an exhausting endeavor. Faye Hargate is nearly his equal as Cate. Allen Branstein is not quite as effective as the Soldier as he fails to clearly add the confused nature of the character. In the original script, to add to the emotional level of the play, the soldier is of color. Such casting would have heightened Nick’s horror from being raped by a member of a group he finds so abhorrent.

Capsule judgment: ‘BLASTED’ is an excruciating experience. For those who like their theatre raw, this is their thing. For the rest of us, maybe something a little less graphic with a more meaningful message, might be in order.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

‘MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM’ doesn’t hit all the right notes at Beck

A woman sitting next to me at the opening night of Beck Center’s ‘MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM,’ by August Wilson, turned to me at intermission and said, “When’s the music going to start? Isn’t this a musical? The answer: Don’t go to see ‘MA RAINEY’ with the assumption that it is a musical. It is a drama with some music.

The play centers on a recording session in which Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett Rainey, better known as Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” is recording a “new” edition of her music.

Though the title of the play makes one believe the central character is Rainey, in fact, the main character is Levee, a trumpet player. He is determined to make a name for himself in the world of music and intent on altering Rainey’s never-changing “jug band” style. When Levee finally gives his compositions to the white studio owner, he is given a pittance for them. This lack of respect by a white man for a black man, sets a series of events into action which brings the play to a shocking ending.

Wilson, who became famous after ‘MA RAINEY’ was awarded the 1985 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, was noted for writing “black dialogue” as Blacks actually speak it, complete with using language in which the “coloreds” called each other the “N” word and are often pictured as prejudiced against each other as whites are. He continued in his plays to illustrate that “Racism was no joke.”

Whether the story is true or not is open to conjecture. Rainey was a private woman who only gave one recorded interview. It is known that she was married to vaudeville singer, William "Pa" Rainey, had an unknown number of children, and was openly bisexual.

The Beck production, under the direction of Sarah May, is well staged, but on opening night did not appear to be ready for “prime time.” Many lines were dropped, cues were not picked up, the pacing was languid, and most performers did not have clearly developed characterizations. Many of the ideas were sometimes hard to understand due to a combination of poor articulation and lack of projection.

The musical aspects of the play were lacking. The attempt by cast members to “fake” the playing of the band instruments, which was obviously being performed off-stage, was not successful, adding to the lack of believability of the performances.

Though Angela Gillespie-Winborn has a nice voice, she did not display the intensity and style that captivates audiences like the real Ma Rainey was capable of doing. She often feigned characterization by using set gestures to play with her hair, making faces rather than experiencing emotions, and lost concentration when she was not speaking, thus lessening her believability.

On the other hand, Michael May was focused and showed the proper intensity as the trumpet playing Levee. His speech telling the story of the rape of his mother and the hanging of his father was riveting. And Anthony Elfonzia Nickerson-El was effectively consistent in his character development as the intellectual, piano-playing Toledo.

Richard Gould’s multi-room set was well conceived and executed.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Sarah May is one of the best area’s best directors. Unfortunately, she didn’t work her magic on ‘MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM.’ Maybe, as the show runs, and the actors get comfortable in their roles and learn their lines, the production will meld. On opening night, there was just too much wrong to get positively excited about.