Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Great White Hope

Karamu, Weathervane and Ensemble Theatre collaborate on ‘THE GREAT WHITE HOPE’

In a display of multi-theatre cooperation, Howard Sackler’s award winning play, ‘THE GREAT WHITE HOPE’ is being staged as a joint production of Karamu, Weathervane and Ensemble theatres.

‘THE GREAT WHITE HOPE’ is a fictional account of the real life of Jack Johnson, an African American who wins the world boxing championship just before World War I, an era of strong segregation. His defeat of the Caucasian champion stirs up prejudices. The desire of the boxing community to find the “great white hope,” a white man who can gain back the championship, is the core of the play. It is not, however the heart of the play.

The viewer watches as the boxer, named Jack Jefferson in the script, who, instead of being honored for his athletic prowess, is psychologically tortured, convicted under the Mann Act for illegally transporting a white woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Eventually he must flee the country.

Sackler once said of his play, "What interested me was not the topicality but the combination of circumstances, the destiny of a man pitted against society. It's a metaphor of struggle between man and the outside world."

Boxer Muhammad Ali once commented about the play, "That's my story. You take out the issue of white women and replace it with the issue of religion. That's my story!" Ali was fighting being drafted into the army at the time on grounds of being a conscientious objector.

The play opened on Broadway in 1968, ran 546 performances and starred James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander in the lead roles. Both won Tony Awards for their performances. In 1970 Sackler adapted the script into a film which also starred Jones and Alexander.

Producing ‘THE GREAT WHITE HOPE’ is a daunting task. The script has numerous scenes requiring many sets and numerous costumes. The cast is immense and must speak multiple languages. The leading performers must be masters of their trade.

Anthony Elfonzia Nickson-El is excellent as Jack Jefferson. He develops a clear and textured characterization, which displays the many moods and psychological conflicts of a man caught in the crosshairs of a prejudiced society.

Ursula Cataan is his equal as Eleanor Bachman, a white woman who falls in love with Jefferson, and is the fulcrum for many of his problems. This is a very well developed performance.

Peter Lawson Jones leaves behind his daytime role of Cuyahoga County Commissioner, and effectively transforms himself into Tick, Jefferson’s trainer and friend. This may be your only chance to see Jones as a cross dresser.

Colston Corris is excellent as Cap’n Dan.

Director Terrence Spivey needed to work with many of the supporting ensemble for the creation of reality, thus being the person being portrayed rather than acting like the person.

Richard Morris, Junior’s scenic and lighting designs are appropriate, Jasen Smith’s women’s costumes work well. Why Spivey has music underscoring much of the actions and drowning out lines, is to be questioned.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In spite of excellent performances, the over-all effect of ‘THE GREAT WHITE HOPE’ is not up to the quality of the writing. Sometimes theatres have to be realistic. Picking a script like ‘THE GREAT WHITE HOPE,’ in spite of its relevance and historical truth, creates a daunting task. If it’s too herculean, maybe some other script choice should be made.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Is He Dead

Twain’s “new comedy,” ‘IS HE DEAD?” on stage at Beck

The question anyone looking at the heading of this review should ask is, “How did Mark Twain write a new comedy. Isn’t he dead?”

Well, Twain didn’t just write ‘IS HE DEAD?’ He scribbled the piece in 1898. He had previously written ‘COLONEL SELLERS,’ which became a box-office success. But, before his newest work opened, London’s Bram Stoker Theatre, where ’DEAD’was to be staged, burned down. And, that was the end of that.

Well, not quite. In 2002, Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a Twain expert who is a professor at Stanford University, discovered the long-forgotten script in the Twain archives amidst a dusty collection of inferior theatrical attempts.

The script was given to David Ives to do an adaptation, which had a Broadway opening in 2007. That production had some positive critical reactions, but was generally viewed as being out of date with references and cornpone humor that were not for modern audiences.

The story is set in 1840s Paris, and fictionalizes the non-death of real-life painter Jean-Francois Millet. To help himself and his debt-ridden friends, Millet fakes his passing to inflate the value of his paintings. He impersonates his imaginary sister, a widow named Daisy Tillou. Millet's contrivances grow more absurd until the moment he's caught dancing in drag on his own coffin.

Besides the datedness of the material, it is a melodrama. Melodrama requires just the right attitude in staging. It is a theatrical form which calls for double identities, physical exaggeration, lots of slamming of doors as characters run on and off stage while often returning momentarily in different clothing and even as members of the opposite sex. There are stock characters: the pretty heroine, the stud hero, the villain (complete with a mustache and dressed in black) and some cartoon characters who add to the laughter. This is the non-talky ‘PERILS OF PAULINE’ and the Mark Brothers comedies.

‘IS HE DEAD’ contains all the requisite melodrama pieces parts.

Under the direction of Matthew Earnest, the Beck production reaches an acceptable, if not a highlight level. Many in the cast just don’t seem to understand the need to be over-the-top and to exaggerate all their actions, not just the asides, affronts and preplanned gestures. This is surprising, because Earnest is a superb director, as was proven with his productions of ‘OUR TOWN’ and ‘PETER PAN’ at Porthouse Theatres.

Nick Koesters knows melodrama and has the ability to play with characterizations. As both Jean-FrancoisMillet and Widow DaisyTillou, Koesters does his thing and does it well. It’s worth seeing the show just to see his cross-dressing charade. The rest of cast ranged from good to almost acceptable.

Don McBride’s set worked well, Melissa Owens’ costumes were era correct, Joseph Carmola’s lighting was appropriate, and Richard Ingraham’s sound effects were on-target.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘IS HE DEAD?’ is one of those plays that I have difficulty figuring out why a theatre would pick to stage. But, pick it Beck did. Even with the low level of the script, the production could have been a lot more fun.

Friday, February 19, 2010


Teen angst musical gets Ohio premiere at Fairmount Conservatory

Jason Robert Brown, Dan Elish and Rob Horn’s ’13,’ a musical centering on teenage angst, is getting it’s Ohio premiere at the Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory (FPAC).

‘13’ finds Evan Goldman, a happy Jewish kid from New York City, closing in on his bar mitzvah. His big dream is to have a great party with all his friends. Evan’s parents suddenly announce that they are getting divorced and Evan and his mother are going to move to Indiana. Specifically, Appleton, Indiana. How is that kid, with no friends, going to have a bar mitzvah blast? Is that a place to hold what Even refers to as, “the event that defines you, the Jewish super bowl!”

But, as is the case with this type of story, all is not lost. Evan meets his new neighbor, Patrice, a quirky girl who is as much of an outcast in this Midwestern burg as Evan. They jointly sing, “The Lamest Place in the World.” The rest of the predictable story concerns Evan trying to be popular and get lots of kids to come to his party. In the process he goes head to head with Brett, the football hero at Dan Quayle Junior High (I did not make this up!), and Brett’s attempt to “do the tongue” with Kendra, the head cheerleader. Throw in a quirky crippled kid, a dozen or so hormone and gossip producing tweens and teens, and you’ve got the story. A story which would make a great afternoon TV special, and, of course, has a happy ending!

Okay, this is not a great script. Not a story that adults, except in remembering their own teen years, will get involved in. But that’s okay. It’s not aimed at adults. It’s specifically aimed at a generation of kids addicted to gadgets, who have short attention spans, and are in the midst of those “junior high years.” The years of feeling like a freak, wanting to fit in. The age of gossip, mortifying nicknames, and peer pressure. The unrelenting peer pressure to be someone smarter, prettier, hipper, and better than who you are. The years of the hierarchy of your status determined by at which lunch table you were allowed to sit. (“Oh, please don’t make me sit with the Geeks!”)

The FPAC show, under the direction of Sean Szaller, has many high and low points. The cast is enthusiastic, and in the main quite talented. The blocking is often awkward. The choreography, which has some cute gimmicks built in, tends to be more dynamic than disciplined. The music is well played. The sound system squealed with regularity which was very distracting. The character development is not always clear. Too bad Szaller didn’t work more on teaching the cast to portray reality. These are teenagers playing teenagers, rather than actors acting how teenagers are supposed to be.

The cast highlights included Dani Apple as Patrice, the outcast girl. Apple, who has a long record of local and national successes, continues to mature as a singer and actress. Her very strong musical abilities, at least at this point in her career, are ahead of her acting skills. She, along with Alexis Floyd, are the most mature performers on stage. Floyd rocks, rolls, wails, and dances up a storm in the dynamic after-curtain call. This is the highlight of the show.

Miles Sternfeld has a nice presence as Evan. He has a pleasant singing voice and develops a clear character. Aric Floyd and Daniel Sovich, as the shrimp-sized sidekicks of the football hero, are totally delightful. The duo sing and dance with spirit and are fun to watch.

Jordan Brown nails the characterization of Archie, the “cripple,” who plays his illness for all it’s worth. “Terminal Illness,” his duet with Evan, is a joy.

Other strong songs and production numbers are: “Hey Kendra,” “Get Me What I Need,” “What It Means to be a Friend,” and “Tell Her.”

“Being a Geek,” performed by Evan and the “Rabbis,” was mocking and offensive. As a tween sitting next to me whispered to her friend, “Why are they making fun of rabbis and Jewish people?”

Be aware that this is not the “junior” version of the show. The presentation includes language and sexual innuendos which some parents will find objectionable.

The opening night audience, consisting of relatives and friends of the cast and crew, loved all the goings on and gave the performance a screaming standing ovation. It was a bit much, an example of bias goes wild, but, in reality, their reactions were justified. They came, they saw, they enjoyed.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘13’ is a slight script, which will have strong appeal to tweens and teens. It is being performed by teenagers, not theatre professionals, and it does itself proud on its own level. Adults should will themselves back to the age of teen angst. Teens should revel in life as they know it. And they should go and enjoy a group of kids who are having a wonderful time, making their personal dreams of being “stars” come true.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Peter Pan--A Musical Adventure

You’ve never seen Peter Pan like this before!

Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up, has been seen in various versions: book, film, television and on stage. But he’s never been seen locally in the form being performed by Mercury Summer Stock for their “Just Beyond the Stars” gala.

Peter first appeared in a section of The Little White Bird, a 1902 novel written, ironically, for adults. A play about the boy and his fellow “lost” boys, debuted in 1904. A stage musical came forth in 1950, with music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein. That version starred Jean Arthur as Peter Pan and Boris Karloff in the dual roles of George Darling and Captain Hook. It was initially intended as a full-blown musical, with Bernstein composing a complete score, but was staged with only five songs – "Who Am I?", "Pirate's Song", "Plank Round", "Build My House", and "Peter Peter," to accommodate the limited vocal ranges of the principal actors.

The boy really took off when, in 1953, Walt Disney’s animated version of ‘PETER PAN’ was released.

In 1954, the popular, and often produced stage version, most recently performed locally at the Beck Center, was conceived. With music by Mark "Moose" Charlap, additional music by Jule Styne, and lyrics written by Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it starred Mary Martin as Peter and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook, and earned Tony Awards for both stars. A major new stage production was performed in Summer 2009 in Kensington Gardens.

Entitled ‘PETER PAN--A MUSICAL ADVENTURE,’ it is this new British version, complete with a totally different score and book, that will be presented by Mercury Summer Stock on February 20 at 7:30 at the Breen Center, on the campus of St. Ignatius High School. It has music by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, composers of the Broadway hit ‘MARY POPPINS,’ which was a smash hit in its recent Cleveland showing as part of the Broadway Series, and book by Willis Hall.

The Mercury production, only the second time the musical will be performed in the United States, will be a staged reading. The cast includes Matthew Wright as Captain Hook, Maria Thomas Lister as The Storyteller, Natalie Green as Tiger Lily, Jeff Grover as Mr. Darling, Jen Myor as Mrs. Darling, Kelly Monaghan as Wendy and Brian Marshall as Peter Pan. The show will be staged by Pierre-Jacques Brault. Musical director is Bill Corcoran.

“My First Musical” program, is the educational arm of Mercury’s programming. Through it, children under the age of twelve from the Parma City School District and other educational institutions of the Greater Cleveland community, are given access to experiencing live musical theatre by attending, free of charge, each show of the Mercury season. They have interactive pre- and post-performance workshops to foster an interest in, and appreciation of the theatre.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In the Heights

‘IN THE HEIGHTS’ reaches the heights the Palace

There may have been a snowstorm raging outside, but inside the Palace Theatre, where the touring production of the Tony Award winning musical, ‘IN THE HEIGHTS,’ was having its opening night, the place was sizzling! The salsa, hip-hop , meringue and soul music, the dancers who were zooming all over the stage, and the well tuned voices of the singers, all blended to make ‘IN THE HEIGHTS’ reach the heights of an involving show.

The musical gives a glimpse of Washington Heights, an uptown New York City area, which has been the home to many immigrant groups. Though now becoming gentrified, it has a predominantly Latino essence.

‘IN THE HEIGHTS,’ with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, is both an artistic and financial success. In an unusual Broadway story, in less than one year, it recouped its $10 million dollar investment.

In the pre-dawn darkness, alarm clock radios ring from scattered windows announcing a record-breaking heat wave today, July 3. The sun rises, revealing a silhouette of the George Washington Bridge above the apartment buildings.
In the shadows, a young man sprays graffiti onto the awning of a bodega, but his artistic reverie is interrupted when Usnavi, the young store owner, enters and chases him away. Usnavi opens the store, which supplies neighbors with their morning coffee and papers. We meet Abuela Claudia, who raised Usnavi, and Sonny, his young cousin who helps with the store. Everyone's stories and dreams pass through this modest store front: his friend Benny wants a promotion, the ladies who work at the salon want some gossip, and Vanessa, Usnavi's love interest, wants an apartment in a different part of town. Usnavi has a dream of his own: to one day return to the island of his roots, the Dominican Republic.

As we watch the story of a neighborhood unfolds. Not unlike the opening number of ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF,’ the traditions of a culture are revealed as the title song curtain opener proceeds. By the time it’s over, the audience is informed and hooked.

Though the story line is trite, often soap opera-like, it matters little. What’s important is the music, the dancing and the singing. Such numbers as “Carnaval del Barrio,” “Enough,” “Breathe,” “The Club/Fireworks” explode on the stage.

Andy Balkenbuehler’s choreography and Thomas Kail’s staging are enveloping. The dancers are such an integral part of the action and the staging is so well developed, that wonderful stage picture after wonderful stage picture evolves.

The cast is universally excellent. All the characterizations are well developed and every voice is solid and on-key, and the dancers are fine, so very fine.
To highlight anyone is unfair to every one else, but a couple of special hurrahs to: Shaun Taylor-Corbett (as the delightful Sonny), Elise Santora (Abuela Claudia, the earth mother), and Kyle Beltran (the appealing Usnavi).

If there is a flaw in the production it’s the over-zealous, over-microphoned orchestra. Sometimes they forget that they are supposed to be playing back-up and drown out the singers/speakers. In a show that contains much hip-hop lyrics, the meanings of which are important to understand the show, the music needed to be underplayed during the speaking segments.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you like dynamic dancing and music, and want to be swept along to a different musical theatre experience, ‘IN THE HEIGHTS’ is a production for you to see. But, be aware the music is very loud.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Death of Salesman

“DEATH OF A SALESMAN’ gets a thoughtful production at Lakeland

Arthur Miller’s ‘DEATH OF A SALEMAN,’ is one of the greatest American plays. True to Miller’s form, the script probes his theme of the workings of society and asks his perennial question, “Is this the best way to live?”

On the surface, the play concerns Willy Loman, a traveling salesman who has worked for the same company for thirty-four years. He is now sixty-one years old, has lost his clients and has to borrow money from Charlie, his neighbor and only friend, in order to pay his bills. Neither of Willy's sons, who were brought up with Willy’s philosophy that to be “well liked” is the most important thing in life, have become the “heroes” he dreamed they would become. Willy has been plagued by illusions as he disintegrates into a state of failed dreams. He dies, as he lived, in a state of unrealistic expectations.
Oh, but how much more Miller is saying! It is almost impossible for one to leave the theatre without asking personal questions about the values by which you live your life and your affect on not only yourself, but the significant others in your life.

‘DEATH OF A SALESMAN’ opened on Broadway in 1949. It ran only 742 performances, but won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The original production was directed by Elia Kazan with Lee J. Cobb starring in the leading role of Willy Loman.
The play made both Arthur Miller and the character, Willy Loman, household names. Classified as a modern tragedy, it illustrates the downfall of a man, an everyman in this case, because of a tragic flaw. The misguided Loman ( the proverbial "low man"), has the flaws of a misguided image of self and ill-conceived values. As in the traditional tragedy, the hero’s downfall not only affects him, but those who surround him.

The play’s requiem is one the most emotionally moving scenes in modern theatre. Linda (Willy’s wife) and Happy (youngest son), stand in shock after Willy’s poorly attended funeral. Biff (the oldest son) states that Willy had the wrong dreams. (Thus, he has a denouement, an awakening, a requirement for the development of a modern tragedy, which, in this case, acknowledges that he has learned from Willy’s mistakes.) Biff invites Happy to flee the city and Willy’s influence. Happy, having not learned the lesson of ill-placed values, declares that he will stick it out in New York to validate Willy’s death. Linda stands at the grave looking downward and asks Willy for forgiveness for being unable to cry. She begins to sob, repeating “I don’t know why you did it. We’re free, we are finally free and clear. . . .” All exit, and a flute melody is heard as the curtain falls.

‘DEATH OF A SALESMAN’ is very difficult to perform to it’s highest level of effectiveness. This is especially true for amateurs, which basically is what is appearing on the Lakeland Civic Theatre’s stage. Under Martin Friedman’s direction, the cast does an acceptable job.

Mark Cipra gives a creditable performance as Willy. We feel his pain, observe his lack of ability to create reality as he escapes into a fantasy world. We, appropriately, want to scream at him, “Wake up and realize you are living a life of lies and misjudgments.”

Maryann Elder is excellent as the enabler wife who knows what Willy is doing is wrong, but her misspent love causes her to hide the truth from him. Unfortunately, Elder fails to completely develop the emotional impact of the requiem.

Though he tries hard, Christopher Richards doesn’t have the maturity to develop the frustration needed to fully flesh out Biff. Christopher Richards comes closer to exploring the underpinnings of Happy.

Michael Green gives a good spin on the character of Charley. The rest of the cast is quite acceptable.

Friedman has taken several liberties with the script that must be questioned. For example, he has given us actors who portray younger versions of Biff, Happy and Linda. Their reason is questionable. Since much of the play is illusionary, if well conceived the same actors who play the grown up trio would have made for less confusion. Miller didn’t include them in the original script. Why tinker with brilliance?

He has also added music throughout the play. The music does nothing to enhance the actions, often leading to underscoring confusion, and in some instances drowns out the quieter speeches.

Why was the sound of the car starting, followed by the straining engine, and then the crash, eliminated before the final scene? This is needed to clarify the way Willy misguidedly died.

Trad Burns lighting is excellent, but his set design, doesn’t work. The playing area of the house is not well conceived causing awkward blocking. Why are Biff and Happy sleeping on the floor, not in beds? What is the purpose of the anti-room that is on the second level? The supposed “flash back area” is often misused as scenes from the present invade the space.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Lakeland’s ‘DEATH OF A SALSMAN’ will allow its audiences to experience one of America’s great plays. Those attending, in spite of some questionable aspects of the production, will leave having the basic impact of Miller’s message. And, gaining that understanding is the essence of the reason for producing the script.

Ain't Misbehavin'

‘AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ jazzes up the Cleveland Play House

‘AIN’T MISBEHAVIN,’ the musical now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, is a tribute to the late great “Fats” Waller. Waller, who was known for his musical style of dynamics, tension and release, wrote hit after hit in the 1920s and 30s. In all, he penned over 400 songs.

‘AIN'T MISBEHAVIN' is a review of Waller’s’ songs as conceived by Murray Horowitz and Richard Maltby Jr. It opened on Broadway in 1978 and ran 1,604 performances, The show won three Tony’s, including the Best Featured Actress citation for Nell Carter.

Waller wrote during the heyday of Harlem clubs, often referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. Included in the score are such standards as ''I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling,'' ''Honeysuckle Rose'' and ''Two Sleepy People'.'

Waller wasn’t known for his Broadway tunes. In fact, the title song of this review was one of his few Great White Way contributions. It was first sung in the 1929 ‘HOT CHOCOLATES.’

As with many reviews, there is no plot, just song after song. This makes grabbing and holding an audience’s attention difficult. Each director must develop an entertainment format. In this case, director Kent Gash decided, rather than letting the songs’ natural humor and dramatic overtones create the attention, he would use an extra heavy dose of shticks and begging-for-laughs gimmicks.

From my perspective, the overdone shaking of boobs and booties, the repeated dance routines and over-stylized concepts became redundant. If Gash had allowed the Waller music to prove itself, like he did with the “Black and Blue” segment, ironically, the last song of the script, where the singers sat on stools and beautifully sang a great arrangement, the entire evening would have worked better.

Highlights of the show were the finale, Ken Robinson’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and his version of “Your Feet’s Too Big;” Christopher L. Morgan’s “The Reefer Song;” Rebecca Covington’s “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed;” and the company productions of “Handful of Keys,” “Lookin’ Good But Feeling Bad,” and “Off Time.”

The great sounding band sat stoically during the show, in stark contrast to the ever exploding stage images.

Emily Beck’s proscenium set was vibrant and added to the visual excitement of the show as did the very stylized costumes of Austin Sanderson.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH’s ‘AINT MISBEHAVING’ is entertaining, especially in the second act, but is overdone, often bombarding the senses. Director Kent Gash and choreographer Byron Easley might have done better by heeding the adage, “sometimes, less is more!”