Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Phantom of the Opera

Phenomenal Phantom at Allen Theatre

By the time the farewell national touring production of ‘PHANTOM OF THE OPERA’ leaves Cleveland on August 22, around 600,000 audience members will have experienced the show since its first local performance in 1993.

Not only is the production a local success, but, the show, which is credited with starting the mega musical trend, is still running on Broadway. It became the longest-running show in Broadway history in 2006. In 2007, it became the first show in on-Broadway history to celebrate 20 uninterrupted years in production.

The mega musical designation comes from the cost and number of sets, costumes and special effects which create the illusions of the opulent show. For instance, the replica of the Paris Opera house chandelier features 6,000 beads, and weighs over a ton. The show takes 125 cast, crew, orchestra members and house personnel to create a single showing. Originally costing a record $8 million to mount, it would take about $13 million in 2010 dollars to reproduce the show. It took over 20 tractor-trailers to bring the sets, costumes and sound equipment to town for this staging.

‘PHANTOM’ is a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on the French novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra by Gaston Leroux. It opened in London’s West End in 1986, and then on Broadway in 1988. The music was composed by Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Charles Hart and additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe.

The plot revolves around Christine Daaé, who becomes the obsession of a mysterious, disfigured musical genius known as The Phantom of the Opera. Mostly an opera within an opera, the story centers on the Phantom’s lusting for Christine, while she covets Raoul. The score contains such classics as “Think of Me,” “The Music of the Night,” “I Remember,” and “Wishing You Were Here.”

Both the London and Broadway productions originally starred Michael Crawford as the Phantom and Sarah Brightman as Christine.

The touring production is every bit as visually stunning as the original. Yes, the famous chandelier suspends above the audience and crashes to the stage, the sets are numerous, the costumes are beautiful, the musical sounds created by the orchestra is exciting, and the sound system is crisp allowing for easy hearing of the libretto.

Though he does not have Michael Crawford’s mesmerizing vocal sound, Tim Martin Gleason is excellent as the Phantom. He adds his own twist to the role, creating a characterization which is well textured and allows the audience to experience the character’s emotional torment.

Brunswick native, Trista Moldovan (Christine), a 2002 musical theater graduate from Baldwin-Wallace College, is beautiful and has a stunning soprano voice. In contrast to Brightman’s maturity, Moldovan has a youthful vulnerability which works perfectly in her creation of the role. It’s exciting to see a local talent make good!

Handsome Sean MacLaughlin has a fine voice and the right attitude to portray Raoul, Christine’s love interest.

The choreography, vocal sounds, chorus actions and technical aspects of the show are all excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The touring company of ‘PHANTOM’ lives up to all its hype and is a must see, especially if you have never seen the show. No local theatre will be able to reproduce it at this level of extravagance.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bye Bye Birdie

‘BYE BYE BIRDIE,’ dated, but still fun at Porthouse

The original Broadway production of ’BYE, BYE BIRDIE,” which is now being staged at Porthouse Theatre, ran 607 performances and won the Tony for best musical of 1960. It starred Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera and Paul Lynde. The script’s popular 1963 film featured Van Dyke , Maureen Stapleton, Janet Leigh and Lynde.

The Michael Stewart (book), Charles Strouse (music), Lee Adams (lyrics) traces the adventures and misdeeds of what happens when a theatrical agent (Albert Peterson) arranges for his client, rock star (Conrad Birdie), who has been drafted into the army, to come to Sweetwater, Ohio, to give one last kiss to the president of his local fan club (Kim McAfee) before he leaves for the service. Complications set in when Kim's frustrated father ,and her beau (Hugo), place stumbling blocks in the way of the public relations gimmick. Peterson’s possessive mother and his longtime girl friend (Rosie), who are in a constant battle for Peterson’s affection, add to the delight.

Notable songs in the score, which is credited with being the first Broadway musical to recognize the rock ‘n roll craze, are: “Put on a Happy Face,” “A Lot of Livin' to Do,” Talk to Me,” and ”Kids.”

The original production was credited with being “filled with a kind of affectionate freshness,” and “clever cultural references.” Not any longer. As I left the theatre two tweens, who had come to the production with their parents, were overhead saying, “I didn’t understand a lot of things.” No wonder. The times have changed, the media has changed, attitudes have changed and what might have been fresh in the 1960s is stale today.

When ‘BYE BYE BIRDIE’ opened on Broadway, Ed Sullivan’s variety show was the king of Sunday night TV, Elvis Presley had been drafted into the army, getting pinned was the “in” high school relational activity, Mussolini was still known as the former leader of Italy, and “The Shadow” was on the radio.

In spite of the datedness of the script, the Porthouse production was fun filled. Director Terri Kent paced the show well. John Crawford’s choreography was not only clever, but he had talented and enthusiastic dancers who could do the many synchronized moves with ease and flair. Though, at times, the music dragged a little, the words could be clearly heard over the muted orchestra. A wonderful blended quartet was one of the musical highlights.

The cast, with one major exception was excellent. Though she started the show screaming, Sandra Emerick, settled down and was delightful as Rose Alvarez. Her song interpretations were excellent and her “Spanish” fire burned brightly. Nick Koesters, who is noted as one of the area’s best actors, has developed a wonderful singing voice and style, and though at times he could have hammed it up a little more, he made an excellent Albert. His “Put on a Happy Face” was delightful. Cassie Rea, who has a younger Ann Margaret look, has a fine singing voice and was a sweet Kim. Marc Moritz, was hysterically funny as Mr. MacAfee. Danny Lindenberger, he of slight body and high pitched voice, was character right as Hugo. Lissy Gulick was obviously the crowd favorite as the passive aggressive Mae Peterson.

Unfortunately, Dan Grgic was miscast as Conrad. He didn’t have the attitude, the body, the steely look, the hip movements, the compelling voice or the sensuality for the role. Not that he didn’t try, but his Conrad didn’t engender the needed quality to make girls swoon. He was not helped by wearing poorly fitting and designed costumes that didn’t’ help the characterization.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Porthouse’s ‘BYE BYE BIRDIE,’ though dated, is still fun. With slightly different casting it could have been even more endearing. And so, the 42nd season of KSU summer theatre comes to a close.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Hunter Gatherers

‘HUNTER GATHERERS’ absurdity in action at convergence continuum

Within the first five minutes of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s ‘HUNTER GATHERERS,’ now on stage at convergence-continuum, you are aware that this is not going to be a traditional play. A live lamb is in a cardboard box. As you watch, Geoffrey Hoffman, portraying the alpha-male Richard, chops the animal into morsel-sized pieces ready for cooking. Sound ghastly? In the hands of the actors, under the direction of Clyde Simon, what is repulsive turns out to be bizarrely humorous. That is, if you aren’t a member of PETA or a similar animals rights group.

‘HUNTER GATHERERS,’ the winner of both the 2007 ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award and the Will Glickman Award, is obviously not a play for everyone. Few scripts produced by con con are. There is a select audience which has tuned into Clyde Simon’s weird sense of humor and curiosity, who have become cult followers of the theatre. ‘HUNTER GATHERERS’ will satisfy their tastes (no pun intended).

Pam and Richard are hosting their best friends, Wendy and Tom, for a monthly dinner get-together. The animal sacrifice is followed by sex, violence, deception, wrestling, more sex, and dancing. This is an evening where the line between civilized and primal man is blurred, and where not everyone will survive long enough to enjoy the brownies for dessert. In fact, the ending makes Macbeth seem like a lark.

Nachtrieb has been compared to a modern Edward Albee. He examines repression and hypocrisy by dissecting motives and actions. For him, as for Albee, no taboo is beyond violation. But, in contrast to Albee, Nachtrieb uses excess outrageousness to make his absurdist point. He uses flipped out characters and extreme sexuality to examine the fine line between civilized behavior and animalistic actions.

Neanderthal Richard, intent on spreading his “man seed,” self-centered Wendy who wants a baby and relishes Richard’s sperm, Wendy’s geeky and suppressed homosexual husband Tom, and Richard’s mild-mannered wife, Pam, are the participants in this game of desperation. A game which has dire consequences.

The con con’s production is vivid, but unevenly paced. The deep intensity needed to really give the true absurdist message is on the surface, not in the fiber of the acting. The characters are caricatures, not real people, so identifying with them is difficult.

Though Geoffrey Hoffman is on the verge of maniacal, there is too much surface emotion, and a lack of alpha male consistency. Whether this is the fault of the script or the actor is debatable. The same goes for Laurel Johnson. She needs more earthy sensuality. This is a woman who wants a baby at all costs. Tom Kondilas is on target as the nerdy Tom who finally, in the midst of having sex with Pam, seems to accept who he is, but as it turns out, too late. Laurel Johnson’s naivety and sweetness were fine until she needed to do a stronger character twist to make the ending truly her personal denouement. Simon arranges for the participants to keep their clothes on, at least most of the time.

Jim Valore’s set design works well and Terrii Zernechel’s lighting is extremely effective.

Capsule Judgement: ‘HUNTER GATHERERS,’ as with many convergence shows, isn’t for everyone. It is worth the time for those who are interested in contemporary theatre, the messages of new authors, and aren’t offended by overt sexuality.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review of the Reviewer's Reviews: Tom Kuby

How we value your opinions, insights and capsule judgments. They powerfully influence our decisions, especially since we go to the [Shaw]Festival each year. We appreciate being on your mailing list for your most incitful reviews. Thanks a million.

Tom Kuby

Shaw Festival, 2010

THE SHAW FESTIVAL 2010…worth the ride!

The lovely village of Niagara-on-the-Lake is the home of The Shaw Festival. A generally excellent season of theatre, lovely flowers, classic home architecture and inviting well-stocked shops and galleries allow an inviting experience.

The Niagara area is dotted with wineries, many of which, besides offering wine tastings and sales, have fine dining restaurants.

There are some wonderful restaurants including Niagara Culinary Institute, 905-641-2252, ext. 4619 (, at which student chefs hone their skills. A new favorite is The Grill on King Street (905-468-7222, 233 King St.)

Because of the economy, there are more empty storefronts than in the past, but downtown still has an abundance of stores to satisfy shopping needs. Though the Canadian and US dollar are about on par, there are some good buys. I purchased a Corragio leather jacket for two-thirds off at Leonardo's (33 Queen Street). The Prospect, 92 Queen Street, has a vast collection of Crocks, not the ugly garden digger variety, but fashionable and comfortable ones for both men and women.

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 day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.
To satisfy border requirements carry your passport.

REVIEWS OF SHAW 2010 productions:

HALF AN HOUR’—thirty-six minutes very well spent!
(Royal George Theatre through October 9)

Have 36 minutes to spare? If so, and you are in Niagara-on-the-Lake, go see J. M. Barrie’s ‘HALF AN HOUR.’

Barrie, who is known to many for his examination of boys who refuse to grow up and the women who are their caretakers, as expressed in his classic, PETER PAN, has a philosophical side as well.

In ‘HALF AN HOUR’ he illustrates how life can change in thirty minutes. Ironically, those precious few minutes are not only the subject of his play, but also approximately the play’s length, which is counted off to the audience.

The story concerns Lady Lilian Garson, described by the author as a “frozen flower,” who decides to escape from her confining husband. Is she successful? The plot includes a run for Egypt, a civil engineer, a left note, a wedding ring, a necklace, a taxi, and a case of hidden identity. It would ruin the experience to tell you the conclusion, but the route to the ending is compelling. But, as a hint to how this all turns out, remember the author’s words, "Those who risk all and lose have to face the consequences."

The cast is universally excellent. Michael Ball delights as the gentleman butler, Diana Donnelly is properly rigid and perplexed as the wife, Peter Krantz is excellent as the unflexible and controlling husband, and Peter Millard adds the correct confused and controlled characterization as Dr. Brodie.

Tyler Sainsbury’s set design is cleverly conceived.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘HALF AN HOUR’ is a lovely pastiche that proves that a lot can be said in thirty six minutes, and in the hands of a creative director and a talented cast, it doesn’t take a lot of time to entertain.

‘JOHN BULL’S OTHER ISLAND’ examines British and Irish relations
(Court House Theatre, until October 9)

George Bernard Shaw is noted for his caustic humor and strong political views. Being an Irishman, he had strong opinions about the Irish, the Brits, the church, socialism, the role of women and businessmen. His 1904 play, ‘JOHN BULL’S OTHER ISLAND,’ is a comedy centering on Larry Doyle, who was originally from Ireland, who has moved to England, become a successful civil engineer and has returned to his home town in order to obtain land and build a golf course and other facilities.

Doyle, who has forsaken an Irish lass, brings Tom Broadbent, his English partner with him. Broadbent is taken in by the romance of the place and soon is displaying the Irish ability to talk-the-talk. He becomes a candidate for Parliament , and steals away Nora Reilly, who has been pining many years for Doyle. Peter Keegan, a defrocked priest, is Shaw’s moral voice in the script.

The term John Bull is the name of a character in British satire, Law Is a Bottomless Pit. He is represented as a stout Englishman wearing a top hat, waistcoat, knickers and high boots and has become the symbol of the British empire. In the case of this play, he is the stereotype of the Brit who thinks it is his duty to take care of and guide the Irish for “their own good.”
This play played an important role in Shaw becoming a major theatrical writer. The story goes that a command performance was given for King Edward VII. He laughed so hard he broke his chair. This incident was widely reported, the play became a “must see.” and Shaw’s reputation was set.

The Shaw’s production, under the adept direction of Christopher Newton, consistently develops the plays intent and purpose. Though a little long, it grabs and holds attention.
The cast is very strong. Especially effective are Jim Mezon as Keegan, Graeme Somerville as Doyle and Benedict Campbell as Broadbent.

William Schmuck’s stage design is excellent, considering that the numerous scenes are done on a three-quarter round stage which, due to sight-line requirements, restricts the placement of set pieces so that all the audience can see.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: While not being one of Shaw’s great plays, ‘JOHN BULL’S OTHER ISLAND’ is filled with laughs and makes its well-conceived points. It is well worth attending and is a must-see for Shavians as the script is seldom staged.

‘THE WOMEN’—poorly directed and acted!
(Festival Theatre through October 9)

Clare Boothe Luce’s ‘THE WOMEN’ became a cult hit when it was made into a 1939 film starring Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine. The author’s acidic wit and overdone caustic realism featured catfights never seen before on screen.

The story concerns the pampered lives and power struggles of wealthy Manhattan socialites and the backstabbing chitchat that propels and damages their relationships. In both the play and the film, Luce probes into the role of the modern woman, marriage and divorce, female friendship, the power of gossip, beauty standards and socio-economic class.

The original Broadway production opened on December 26, 1936 and ran for 666 performances, making it a major box office hit.

For a production of ‘THE WOMEN’ to be successful takes unbridled realistic exaggeration. It must show the nasty underbelly of dialogue that has been described as “sparkling” and “glittering.” Unfortunately, the Shaw production has none of that.

Director Alisa Palmer does not seem to understand Luce, the New York society women who are present, or the necessity of using correct accents to stress the language that Luce writes.

The actresses don’t seem to get it either. Maybe they should have watched the 1939 film to see how US Americans took on these roles. The problem may well be that Canadians are too nice, they don’t understand and can’t duplicate the likes of caustic New Yorkers.

The results of all these missteps is a disastrous production which is too slowly paced, misses the pointed wit, and seems dated.

Though they seemingly try hard, none of the cast is character correct.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: While walking down the street, I overheard a discussion between two women who had just left ‘THE WOMEN.’ One said to other, “That was probably the worst production I’ve ever seen!” I wouldn’t go that far, but from my perspective, she wasn’t far from wrong.

‘DOCTOR’S DILEMMA’ makes effective house call
(Festival Theatre through October 30)

George Bernard Shaw was a social critic. His prime targets were the church, the political establishment, the lack of women’s rights and the British class system.

In ‘THE DOCTOR’S DILEMMA’ he chooses to skewer the medical establishment. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Shaw play without some socialist and anti-vivisectionist viewpoints as they relate to the topic.

Unfortunately, his 1906 complaints are still present today. Less so in England and Canada, who have universal health care, but still a major issue in the United States. Shaw’s antipathy for doctors may have been caused, in part, because as a young man he had a bout of smallpox which left him scarred on his right cheek, leading him to grow his signature beard to cover the mark.

The theme of the play centers on what treatments should be used, how doctors decide on treatments, and who should pay for medical care. It is thought that the passage of the British National Health Service Act of 1946 was passed, in part, because of Shaw’s strong stance for the service.

The story’s core centers on a doctor who has developed a cure for tuberculosis, but has only enough serum for one patient. Should he chose a poor medical colleague who treats the needy for very little personal gain, or an extremely gifted but very unpleasant young artist whose attractive wife the doctor wants for his own?

In spite of some extra-long monologues and excessive pontification on the part of the author, the Shaw production works well. Director Morris Panych points the actors in the right direction, paces the show well, and creates clarity of purpose.

The cast is excellent. Patrick Galligan is believable as Ridgeon, the doctor who developed the tuberculosis treatment. Jonathan Gould is excellent as the self-centered conniving artist, Thom Marriott (Bonington) and Michael Ball (Cullen) play the doctors more interested in individual profit and ego-satisfying than cure, with the right amount of humor and guile.

Ken MacDonald’s set designs and Charlotte Dean’s costumes aid in the plays development.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE DOCTOR’S DILMEMMA’ gets a strong production at The Shaw. It is a production well worth seeing, especially in regard to recent conflicts over health care in the U.S.

‘ONE TOUCH OF VENUS’—dated show without much of a storyline
(Royal George Theatre through October 10)

It wasn’t until 1943, when Rogers and Hammerstein penned ‘OKLAHOMA,’ that the American musical began to stress the story line and integrated the songs and dances into the script. Before that, almost every musical had no story line or a thread of a plot. Songs and dances could be added and dropped without changing the impact of the show. A classic example of that non-integrated musical is Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash and S. J. Perelman’s ‘ONE TOUCH OF VENUS.’

Loosely based on Thomas Gutherie’s novella The Tinted Venus, the show satirizes newly emerging American suburban values, artistic fads and romantic and sexual mores.

The original 1943 Broadway production, which starred Mary Martin, ran 567 performances. It is most noted for the featured choreography of Agnes de Mille.

The story concerns a long-lost, priceless statue of the goddess, Venus, which is found and placed on display in an art museum in New York. The sculpture comes to life. Complications ensue when human males fall in love with the now “real” Venus. As in all good light fairy tales, all’s well that ends well, and Venus is returned to her natural state and the now real Venus moves to the suburbs and lives happily ever after.

Though it gets a nice production, as directed by Eda Holmes, with choreography by Michael Lichtefeld, the show goes basically no place and there is little to hold the viewers’ attention. The music, which is basically bland, is not-memorable. The show has only one well-known tune, “Speak Low,” and it is so irrelevant to the plot that it is sung three times, all in different contexts.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Shaw’s ‘ONE TOUCH OF VENUS’ is not bad, it’s just that unless you are interested in musical theatre history, there isn’t much of a reason to see the production. The final curtain was met with politic applause and the audience left the theatre without reacting much to what they had just seen.

Wilde’s ‘AN IDEAL HUSBAND’ is ideal!
(Festival Theatre through October 31)

A gifted poet, playwright, and wit, Oscar Wilde was a phenomenon in 19th century England. He was noted for preaching the importance of a grand style in life and art, and of attacking Victorian narrow mindedness. Probably his most famous play was ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST.’ Also of note was his only novel, ‘THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY’ which caused controversy as the book attacked the hypocrisy of England and its aristocracy.

Oscar Wilde, who was married, had an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father did not approve of the gay relationship and accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde, unwisely, tried to sue the Marquess. His case was dropped when his homosexuality, which was outlawed in England, was exposed. Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor in prison. When released, he was penniless and died shortly thereafter at the age of 46.

Wilde’s ‘AN IDEAL HUSBAND’ has a close tie to his trial and imprisonment. The play opened on January 3, 1895. In April of that year, Wilde was arrested for 'gross indecency' and his name was taken off the play. When the manuscript was published in 1899, Wilde was not listed as the author.

‘AN IDEAL HUSBAND’ is a comic-farce that tells the story of two women who want their husbands to be perfect. Through wit and pointed humor, exposing blackmail and political corruption, and examining private honor, Wilde exposes the difficulty of living according to limited perspectives.

Wilde said of the play’s purpose, "Sooner or later, we shall all have to pay for what we do." To which it can be added, as the play states, “Truth is a complex thing.”

Shaw’s production, under the meticulous direction of Jackie Maxwell, is superb. From the creative set changes, to the sure pacing, to the stylized character interpretation, the play sizzles with humor.

Steven Sutcliffe fully inhabits the role of Viscount Goring, who is the flamboyant Oscar Wilde, thinly veiled. Wendy Thatcher is delightful as the uptight gossip, Lady Markby. The rest of the cast is equally of high quality.

Judith Bowden’s design, Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and John Gzowski’s original music, all add to the quality of the production.

Capsule Judgement: ‘AN IDEAL HUSBAND’ gets a wonderful production under the masterful guidance of director Jackie Maxwell. It is one of the highlights of this season at The Shaw.

(Royal Geroge Theatre through October 31)

I did not see ‘HARVEY,’ but friends whose opinion I trust raved about the production.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Producers

‘THE PRODUCERS’ produces laughs at Beck

Mel Brooks, who co-authored the script for the musical, ‘THE PRODUCERS,’ is noted as an off-the-wall, hysterically funny film director, screenwriter, composer, lyricist, comedian, actor, and producer. He is one of the few artists who has received an Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy. Among his zany works is The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000 with Carl Reiner. He was a comedy writer for Your Show of Shows, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Steve Allen Show. His list of movie, TV and stage shows is endless. This is one talented man.

Brook’s first feature film was the satire, The Producers, a dark comedy. Because the major production number was entitled "Springtime for Hitler," studios wouldn't touch it. He finally found an independent company which released it as an art film. It went on to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and became a cult hit. Brooks later turned the script into a musical, which became hugely successful on Broadway, receiving twelve Tony awards. It is this script which is now being presented at the Beck Center for the Arts.

‘THE PRODUCERS’ centers on a theatrical producer (Max Bialystock), noted for his many flops who, along with a nebbish accountant (Leo Bloom), schemes to collect an enormous amount of money, produce a flop, steal the money and fly off to Rio. Unfortunately, their ‘SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER’ becomes a hit and they wind up in trouble with the law. This is not before Bloom falls in love with the curvaceous Ulla, a group of old ladies perform a dance using walkers, a coop of pigeons do the “sieg heil,” and ridiculous accents, caricatures of homosexuals and Nazis are presented.

The musical takes much of its format and humor from the film, but deviates enough so that it becomes its own entity. It is much more upbeat and doesn’t have the flick’s darker side.

The original production opened on Broadway on April 19, 2001, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and ran for 2,502 performances.

Judging from the reaction of the nearly sold out Sunday matinee audience I attended, the Beck production, under the directorship of Scott Spence, delights. This, in spite of the fact, that some of the characterizations were slightly off and laugh lines were lost due to timing and nuance issues.

Mark Heffernan physically fits the role of Bialystock. He has a fine singing voice but lacks the comic timing and development of the shtick that is needed to fully flesh out the conniving producer. His “Betrayed” was well done, but “The King of Old Broadway” was emotionally flat. Brandon Isner, as Bloom, has a well-tuned singing voice but could have been more neurotic at the start so that we see a more drastic change as he “matures.” His “I Wanna Be a Producer” needed a harder sell, a more exciting presence. Both men need to grow into their roles, be more spontaneous and react, rather than act. They feign rather than are.

Betsy Kahl has the physical attributes for Ulla, but her accent keeps coming and going, especially when she is singing. Her “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” lacked the necessary overdone sexiness.

Kevin Joseph Kelly displays a big voice and personality as Roger DeBris, the fey director. His “Keep It Gay” was cleverly conceived and well done. Gilgamesh Taggett was properly overboard as Franz, the pro-Nazi. His “In Old Bavaria” was well done.

“Springtime for Hitler” should be a hysterical show stopper. As is, it was entertaining, but could have been so, so much more outlandish and fun.

The show moves quickly along, aided by well-timed set changes and May Ann Black’s nicely conceived choreography as performed by the huge but sometime laboring cast. Larry Goodpaster’s peppy orchestra does a nice job of playing and not overshadowing and drowning out the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘THE PRODUCERS’ gets lots of laughs, though it misses some others. This show should be a total romp. When the cast settles in and stops begging for laughs and lets Brook’s natural humor and ridiculousness come through, the show should be even more pleasing.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Li'l Abner

‘LI’L ABNER’ cute but lacking at Mercury Summerstock

This month the U. S. Postal Service issued it’s “funnies” series. The stamps honor the likes of Archie, Dennis the Menace, and Calvin and Hobbes. Unfortunately, missing from the list are two comic strips that led to Broadway musicals: Little Orphan Annie and Li’l Abner. A version of the latter is now on stage at Mercury Summer Theatre.

‘LI'L ABNER,’ with book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, music by Gene De Paul, and lyrics by Johnny Mercer is a satirical look at the inhabitants of Dogpatch, USA (Kentucky). The comic strip, written and drawn by Al Capp, ran from August 13, 1934 through November 13, 1977. The Broadway production, directed and choreographed by Michael Kidd opened on November 15, 1956 and ran for 693 performances.

The somewhat dated musical is a spoof of hillbillies but also points zingers at the incompetent federal government, corrupt politicians, and perceptions of masculinity.

Just before the traditional Sadie Hawkins Day race when Daisy Mae is again “yurnin’ to ketch” the handsome, muscle bound, emotionally void Li’l Abner, Dogpatch is declared the "most unnecessary town" in the U.S. and is set to be turned into a nuclear testing site. The only thing that will save it is to locate something that makes the area a national treasure. Of course, in the end, as is true of all musical spoofs, things “turns out fer the best.”

Besides Li’l Abner, whose family name, “Yokum,” cartoonist Al Capp conjured up by combining “yokel” with “hokum,” and Daisy Mae, she who gave the signature name to short-shorts, all the well known comic strip’s characters are present including Mammy and Pappy Yokum, Marryin’ Sam, Earthquake McGoon, Evil Eye Fleagle, General Bullmoose, Stupefyin’ Jones and Senator Phogbound.

The original Broadway cast starred Peter Palmer in the title role, Edie Adams as Daisy Mae, and the marvelous Stubby Kaye as Marryin' Sam. A film based on the stage musical was released in 1959, with most of the Broadway cast reprising their roles.

The clever words and the catchy music include “A Typical Day,” “If I Had My Druthers,” “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands,” and the cute ballad, “Namely You.”

The Mercury production, under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, has many creative moments and some right-on performances. However, to make this show work, the staging and attitude must be one of comic strip level farce and attitude. No tongue and cheek here. Out-and-out comic mayhem must let loose, as was the case with the Broadway production. Unfortunately, though the performers try, the Mercury cast just doesn’t make the show explode.

When I saw the show in the Big Apple, my feet were constantly tapping and I had a feeling of total glee. In the Mercury production I smiled and appreciated the many creative moments conceived by Brault, but I wanted more. I wanted more of what Brian Marshall created with his over-the-top Pappy Yokum. Though they gave good performances, I still wanted even more exaggeration from Kelvette Beachman as Mammy Yokum and Dan DiCello as Marryin’ Sam. We needed a more stupefying Stupefyin’ Jones and more macho braggart Earthquake McGoon. Why did Evil Eye Fleagle, whose quirky actions were well developed by Ryan Thompson, have a Russian accent? Capp said of the character, “The zoot suit-clad Fleagle was a native of Brooklyn, and his burlesque New York accent was unmistakable.”

Jason Leupold has the face, hair, height and the singing voice for Abner, but he lacked the physique and vulnerable manhood. Leupold gave us sweet boyhood. Annie Hickey had the Daisy Mae look, except for the ill coifed wig. Her voice was a little shallow but she developed a charming rendition of “I’m Past My Prime,” with Marryin’ Sam. The male chorus sang and danced well, but didn’t fit the part of super studs when they were supposedly transformed into Abner-duplicates by Mammy’s potion.

Fun numbers were “Jubilation T. Cornpone” and “Progress Is the Root of All Evil.” On the other hand, “The Sadie Hawkins Day Ballet” went on and on and on, wearing out the cast and the audience.

As usual, Musical Director Eddie Carney did a great job of keeping his well-tuned orchestra under control so they backed up, rather than drowned out the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Mercury’s ‘LI’L ABNER’ is a pleasant evening of diversion, but could have been so much more fun if it had been played even broader and the cast had really let loose.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Foreigner

Blossom fireworks enhance laughter at Porthouse’s ‘THE FOREIGNER’

Just at the moment when a plot-changing explosion took place during Porthouse Theatre’s production of ‘THE FOREIGNER’ on opening night, a giant explosion of fireworks let loose following the conclusion of the “1812 Overture” at the Blossom Center Pavilion, which shares the grounds with Kent State’s Summer Theatre. The Porthouse audience broke out in thunderous and prolonged applause and laughter at the coincidence. How the cast held straight faces is a wonder, but they did, and continued on as if it was a planned occurrence.

The incident was a fitting conclusion to a hilarious evening of theatre!

Larry Shue’s ‘THE FOREIGNER’ is a comedy. In spite of a common belief that comedy is easy to do, it is one of the most difficult types of theatre to stage and perform. There is a tendency for directors and actors to overdo and milk laughs by overacting and adding much farcical goings on. This usually detracts rather than adds to the hilarity. Good comedy, based on clever lines which are presented in well-timed and delivered performances, leads to much more delight than overdone mannerisms. And, believe me, director Rohn Thomas and his well primed and talented cast, gets every deserved laugh out of Shue’s script!

‘THE FOREIGNER’ finds the pathologically shy Englishman, Charlie Baker, being brought to a resort-style fishing lodge in rural Georgia by Staff Sergeant Froggy LeSueur. In order to protect Charlie, Froggy concocts a story that Charlie is a resident of a “foreign” country and does not understand a word of English. Before long, Charlie finds himself privy to assorted secrets and scandals freely discussed in front of him by the other visitors, including knowledge of a pregnancy and an attempt by the Ku Klux Klan to get the lodge as their meeting hall. Besides the English duo, the characters include a spoiled but introspective heiress, her dim-wit Forest Gump-like brother, her preacher fiancé who has a dark underside, a racist county property inspector, and the lodge’s owner.

Though the script will not challenge the quality of Shakespeare’s comedies, or even the writing of Neil Simon, it did win several Obie Awards and two Outer Critics Circle Awards. Unfortunately, the author, Larry Shue , who incidentally acted in the show’s original production, died in a plane crash a year after the show opened, not living to see the lasting popularity of his oft-performed script.

Eric van Baars, who has a wonderful ability to play comedy, is right on target as Charlie. His timing was impeccable. Tony Zanoni, as the dim-witted Ellard, is nothing short of brilliant. Paula Duesing is fun as the lodge’s owner and Robert Ellis is properly obnoxious as the hate mongering Owen. Though Amy Pawlukiewicz could have been a little more belle-like in order to enhance her transition into a “real” person, John Kolibab could have screamed a little less as Froggy, and Darren Nash could have developed a more realistic Reverend, the over-all effect is just out and out fun.

Ben Needham’s set design, Thomas Kouyeas Jr.’s lighting design, and Jason Potts’ sound design all enhance Thomas’s fine directing.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Porthouse’s ‘THE FOREIGNER’ is just out and out fun. Though other audiences won’t get the thrill of hearing the extra added fireworks explosions from Porthouse, there is more than enough verbal excitement and glee going on to assure patrons of a perfect night of summer-time hysterical escapism.