Sunday, November 28, 2010

This Wonderful Life

Meaningful and charming THIS WONDERFUL LIFE at Cleveland Play House

It's that time of year when local theatres are showcasing holiday themed shows. Great Lakes Theatre Festival is raising the curtain once again on the story of stingy a Ebenezer Scrooge's ideological, ethical, and emotional transformation in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. David Sedaris' SANTA LAND DIARIES is bringing smiles at the 14th Street Theatre. Actors' Summit is showcasing a version of Dickens' A CHRISTMAS CAROL that was done 22 years ago at the Cleveland Play House. CPH, which for the last several years has focused on THE CHRISTMAS STORY, the movie version of which was filmed partly in Cleveland, has abandoned that script and is presenting a one-man version of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE renamed THIS WONDERFUL LIFE.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is one of the most popular and heartwarming holiday films. Directed by Frank Capra, the cinema version starred James Stewart, who considered the role to be the favorite of his long career.

Interestingly, the original 1946 film was a financial flop. It only rose to its present cult status when, in 1974, it went into public domain and TV stations could air it for free. And show it they have done, over and over and over. It has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made, and placed number one on their list of the most inspirational American films of all time.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE was based on Philip VanDoren Stern's THE GREATEST GIFT, which tells the story of George Bailey, a man whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of Clarence, his guardian angel, who shows George all the lives he has touched and the contributions he has made to his community. The story ends as George finds a gift of a book from Clarence inscribed "Dear George, Remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings. Love, Clarence." A bell rings and George's daughter reminds him that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings. George looks skyward, to the winkling stars above and says, "Atta boy, Clarence."

The CPH production is a one-man, intermissionless show. The charming and talented James Leaming plays all the characters. It's a daunting job. For 90-minutes Leaming not only emotes all of the play's lines, but dives off a platform, goes shovel sliding, moves the set pieces, plays one or two or three people at one time, and holds the audience captive.

Leaming starts to charm audience members as they file into the theatre. Talking to those near the stage, learning their names (which he uses in the performance's first couple of minutes), he makes personal contact that perfectly fits the folksy show. The audience has no trouble differentiating the many characters. Leaming changes his voice and body to fit each. From the Jimmy Stewart imitation, to the voice tone of Henry Travers, who portrayed Clarence in the film, he is character-right.

THIS WONDERFUL LIFE was conceived by Mark Setlock and written by Steve Murray. Director Peter Amster, lighting designer Aaron Muhl and sound designer Kevin Kennedy all help give Leaming the assistance he needs to flesh out the message.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH's THIS WONDERFUL LIFE is a fine script for the holiday season, showcasing the real meaning of humanity and personal integrity. It gets a charming production that only Scrooge wouldn't like.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Billy Elliot The Musical


When Elton John saw the movie BILLY ELLIOT at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, he wept. He stated, “The story is very similar to mine: Trying to be something out of the ordinary. Having a talent and wanting to break free from what others want you to do.”

John was so inspired that he approached a director about making the film into a stage musical. After many rejections, based on “who wants to see a musical of striking miners and a kid in Northern England,” John prevailed. The results? A musical that won 10 Tony Awards, and has been seen by over 4.5 million people. A musical which opened on Sunday evening to an enthusiastic audience at the State Theatre. They came expecting something special and from the way they responded, they received it.

BILLY is not the traditional feel good musical. Yes, in the end, there is a happy ending; but, in the process, the story of an adolescent who discovers he has a talent for dance and pursues it against the vehement objections of his father and the derision of his coal mining villagers, is also filled with the devastating repercussions of the 1984 British coal miners strike, which has affected that country until this day.

Besides the low key Elton John music, the thing that seems to most excite the audience is the boy, actually boys, playing Billy. As Stephen Daldry, the show's choreographer puts it, “Not only is the character [Billy] onstage for the better part of three hours, he sings, acts, speaks with a Northern English dialect, does gymnastics, and dances in a variety of styles. In the touring production, the part of Billie is traded off by five boys.

Opening night found 13-year old Giuseppe Bausilio, from Bern, Switzerland, who recently appeared in the role during the Chicago run of the show, as Billie. Other Billies on this tour are from Australia, Michigan and California. The average stay for a Billie is 1.5 years. They physically grow and their voices change. In fact, ”each boy grows out of their shoes at least once, often twice during their time in the role.”

The plot revolves around a boy, whose mother has died and is being brought up by his grandmother, coal mining father and brother, and who, under the guidance of a tough minded dance teacher, trades boxing gloves for ballet shoes. It is based on A. J. Cronin's novel, THE STARS LOOK DOWN, to which the musical's opening song pays homage.

As Alex, my 15-year old grandson, who comes along to productions to give the tween-teen point of view stated, “This is more than a musical about a kid with untapped talent. There is a strong story of history that has to be understood in order to gain a true understanding of the show.” With that in mind he indicated the need to read the information in the program or the poster in the lobby in order to gain the necessary background. “It also might not be appropriate for younger kids due to the language and the story, but they could appreciate the dancing and the fun parts.” He was impressed by the dancing, thought the singing was acceptable, and the story line was well developed.”

The touring production is blessed with a uniformly excellent cast, headed by the multi-talented Faith Prince, probably best known for her Tony award winning portrayal of Adelaide in the revival of GUYS AND DOLLS. Highlight performers included Jacob Zelonky, as Billy's cross-dressing chum, Rich Hebert as Dad, Patti Perkins as Grandma and Jeff Kready as Billy's brother.

Highlights of the show include a balletic duet performed by Maximilien Baud and Bausilio, the intense “Angry Dance,” and the exuberant “Express Yourself.” There wasn't a dry eye in the house during the original “Dear Billy” a letter from Billy's dead mother to him, and the song's revival, in which Billy writes.

The full orchestra was excellent, as was the corps dancing. The stylistic settings, though somewhat low budget, worked.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL will hit audiences on many levels. There is a solid story, excellent dancing, quality acting and a talented 13-year old. BTW---don't run out at the start of the curtain calls…it's worth the wait to see the cast totally let loose in a rousing after-act.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dividing the Estate

DIVIDING THE ESTATE, a lesson in good Southern storytelling

Humans are storytellers. We tell tales to set patterns for our cultures, to have family continuity, to create histories and retain traditions.

In the US American culture, some of the best story tellers are southern. This may well be because of the sense of community, the large African American population whose traditions include oral story telling, and the commonality of a unified history concerning slavery, class standing and privilege. Writers like Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty and Harper Lee come to mind.

The story telling southern tradition also gave birth to such playwrights as Lillian Hellman, Alfred Uhry, Tennessee Williams and Horton Foote. Foote's DIVIDING THE ESTATE is now being staged by Ensemble Theatre.

Foote is at his best when he is dissecting the emotional dynamics of southern townsfolk. His DIVIDING THE ESTATE is Foote at his writing best. He creates a tale of a formerly wealthy and landed family, with a questionable history, whose privilege is evaporating in the change of the economic climate. Family squabbling and squawking emerge as the Gordon clan realizes that life, as they know it, is quickly being extinguished. Much like the message of Chekov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Foote's subjects are mostly obtuse to the changes that are taking place, often living in a fantasy world of their own design.

Its Harrison, Texas. Three generations of malcontents pass the time in Southern style, drinking iced tea and hard liquor, gossiping, sparring and infighting over money and life styles. Interestingly, though the play takes place in 1987, it is relevant today.

The Gordons, ruled by Stella, a mentally failing octogenarian matriarch, are totally unprepared for the reality of an uncertain future when plunging real estate values and an unexpected tax bill have a negative impact on the family fortune. Stella's children--predatory Mary Jo, complacent Lucille, and alcoholic Lewis--engage in a debate about whether or not they should divide the estate while their mother is still alive in order to ensure themselves financial independence. When reality hits, all the pretenses go flying out the window.

Ensemble's production, under the watchful eye of Sarah May, effectively milks Foote's very southern context. Accents are on target, pacing generally good, ideas develop clearly, and the major characters are well textured. Forced to move a huge cast around the postage stamped Brook's theatre stage, is a major chore, which is not always accomplished, especially when we are supposed to be observing a grand, though tired, southern mansion. There is often a feeling of confinement which doesn't fit the message. There are also line stumbles which, hopefully, during the run of the show disappear.

Strong performances are given by Bernice Bolek as Stella, the matriarch who refuses to accept change is a comin'. Robert Hawkes, as the alcoholic Lewis, walks the fine line between reality and drunkenness with finesse. Anne McEvoy makes daughter Lucille a real person, who is one of the few who grasps reality. Valerie Young is so successful as the self-centered Mary Jo, that I wanted to jump on stage and, in good old southern fashion, give her a “womp upside her h'ad.” Gregory White is compelling as Doug, the 90-something year old servant. The rest of the cast varies from proficient to acceptable.

Given the constraints of the minute stage size, scenic designer Ron Newell justifiably goes for grand furniture rather than massive set.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you like a well-written story about fading southern gentility, filled with some laughs and clear characterizations, you'll enjoy Horton Foote's DIVIDING THE ESTATE.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Groundworks Dancetheater/Trinity Cathedral

GROUNDWORKS says goodbye to Amy Miller with engrossing production

Since 1998, Amy Miller and David Shimotakahara have been the artistic backbone of Groundworks Dance. Unfortunately, for the company and the audiences who have come back again and again to see the ensemble, Miller is moving to New York City. The company's recent program at Trinity Cathedral, a repeat of a presentation done earlier this season at The Akron Ice House, was a final tribute to the relationship between the dynamic duo.

Nothing could more exemplify Shimotakahara and Miller's bond than the last 30 seconds of 'DnA,' when the duo stood face-to-face bathed in share warmth. It was an emotional tribute to the connection that comes from two very talented individuals who melded into a powerful artistic force to give joy to both each other and audiences. Bravo!

The opening number, the world premiere of choreographer Jill Sigman's 'SPLIT STITCH,' was set to original music by Gustavo Aguilar. Each of the four-part movements found the dancers displaying a different set of emotions. Coordinated and segmented moves, interaction, lack of interaction, lyrical and static bodily actions, all highlighted by Dennis Dugan's lighting which cast shadows and moved in coordination and discordance with the dancers, created a series of illusions.

The final piece, 'JUST YESTERDAY,' was a recreation of a Dianne McIntyre choreographed number which is a series of vignettes, based on stories being told by the dancers, which are recreated in movement. Nostalgia, joy, sadness, personal traditions as they related to food, hi-jinks, fads, movies, family, and people who touched the dancers' lives, flowed forth. The fine acoustics of Trinity Cathedral allowed for clarity of hearing the spoken words. All in all, this is a fascinating selection, which got a wonderful performance.

Capsule judgement: As has come to be expected, the sold out performance of GROUNWORKS DANCE THEATER at Trinity Cathedral was a visual delight. Good luck to Amy Miller and welcome to Katie Wells, the newest of the company's dancers.

Inlet Dance/Nehemiah Mission


Inlet Dance, whose motto is “using dance to further people” and Nehemiah Mission, whose purpose is “reaching out to the entire community in order to rebuild the lives and homes of people of all ages, races, ethnicities, religious beliefs and lifestyles,” are organizations on parallel paths. It is only fitting, therefore, that they should be assisting each other. Inlet needed rehearsal space, Nehemiah Mission had an unused gymnasium. Nehemiah Mission needed finances and Inlet is a performance company who could do a series of concerts to raise funds. So the match, probably made in heaven, came to be.

Recently a two-night benefit concert was held at Breen Center on the campus of St. Ignatius High School.

The program included ASCENSION, a Bill Wade choreographed piece with contemporary music by Ryan Lott, which investigated relationships. Filled with gymnastic moves, which featured fine body control and powerful lifts, the well danced piece showed respect for balance and trust.

THE DOOR, choreographed by Steve Rooks, was a series of varying configurations in which the dancers appeared to float through a triangle of light to illuminate a journey through redemption.
IMPAIRED is a fascinating piece in which Justin Stentz and Mackenzie Clevenger danced blindfolded, to experience what it is like to unleash the sensitivity of going through life sightless. The idea flowed from Inlet's residency at the Cleveland Sight Center in which they worked with impaired and blind students.

BEAUTY IN TENSION, one of my favorite offerings in the Inlet repertoire, features a large piece of stretch material which is held tightly by the corps of performers. While in single or group units, the dancers move under the material and attempt to stretch their way out. The emotional and physical tension created is highly involving, causing audience members to squirm in response to the efforts of the dancers.

The highlight piece was STONE BY STONE, a premiere dance choreographed by Bill Wade in collaboration with the cast and set to original music by Jeremy Allen. It is a contemporary telling of the Biblical story of Nehemiah, who, after the Jews were dispersed from Jerusalem, came back and organized the people in voluntary groups to rebuild the city. This concept is much like the mission of the local Nehemiah Society, whose purpose is to recreate Cleveland out of the destruction of years of neglect and financial problems. It visually showed how to rebuild cultures through eliminating the physical and psychological stones which block progress and present hope and restoration to the brokenness of the community.

Capsule judgement: Inlet Dance created an artistic, meaningful and involving evening of dance in their successful fund raising effort on behalf of the Nehemiah Mission of Cleveland.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

METAMORPHSES @ Cleveland State University

METAMORPHSES @ Cleveland State University

METAMORPHOSES, meaning "changes of shape,” is a classical narrative poem in fifteen books by the Roman poet Ovid, and is considered to be a masterpiece of Golden Age Latin Literature. It the history of the world from its creation. The writing, which uses the mock epic form, follows an arbitrary writing pattern in which scenes are not always linked together in numerical order, leaping from story to story with little connection.
The CSU production is a script originally written by Mary Zimmerman, the Artistic Associate of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The local production is directed by Holly Holsinger.

With the purpose of staging a show that “reminds us of what it mans to be human, the director states, “These are our stories. They belong to us. They echo from the past. The have become ingrained in our psyches.”

Vocal projection is often weak, the music sometimes drowns out the speaking voices, and the line meanings are not always clear. In spite of these weaknesses, the play is well paced, the humor level is high, and the technical aspects are outstanding, especially scenic designer Russ Borski's set with a water-filled pool and shimmering gold infused back walls. As for the performers, Stephen Farkas has a nice touch with comedy and Lew Wallace makes some excellent character transitions.

Capsule judgement: The production is a daunting task. It requires a level of acting sophistication which, in some cases, is beyond the performance levels of the cast.

Roe Green Center at Kent State

College Theatre: Roe Green Center @ Kent State

On November 6, the Kent State Theatre and Dance program entered into a new world. With the opening of the Roe Green Center, the programs took a large step forward when they increased their performance spaces, storage areas, added a grand new lobby, and updated their lighting and sound systems. Added were a lighting laboratory, acting studio, vocal coaching suite and theatre and dance classrooms, a dance rehabilitation studio, a jazz dance class, a dance technique studio and a swing dance studio. All in all, the facilities are beautiful and practical.

The building was made possible due to a large financial grant by local arts patron and activist, Roe Green. An avid theatergoer, she received her M.A. in theatre from Kent State, has been a long time member of the KSU Foundation and School of Theatre and Dance and Porthouse Advisory Boards. She is on the Board at the Cleveland Play House, where she is the honorary producer of “FusionFest.” A graduate of Beachwood High School, where she was my student and got the “theatre bug,” she was recently inducted into the school's Hall of Fame. She is lovingly known to the KSU theatre students as, “The Fairy Godmother.”

At the building's grand opening ceremony and ribbon cutting, the musical theatre program performed BRIGADOON, under the direction of Terri Kent. A sprightly and well-focused production, it featured fine performances by Miriam Henkel-Moellimann as Fiona, Kaitlyn Warren as Meg, and Gunther Henkel-Moellmann as Charlie.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Review of the Reviewer's Reviews: Linda "The Flower Lady" Klein

Because of you, we saw Wings -- an unbelievable performance!

Because of you, we saw The Kite Runner - Johnny thought it was the best play he ever saw at The Cleve. Playhouse - spellbounding!

I so enjoy your reviews, Roy - and, usually, when they say "Don't Miss!", we don't, -- because of you!

You DO have a bearing on what we see!


Theater Ninjas' INOCULATIONS challenges the senses

As I was driving home from Theatre Ninja's confounding production of INOCULATIONS, the Terminal Tower loomed ahead. It was lighted in bright purple, the color representing Alzheimer's Awareness. (November is Alzheimer's Awareness month). My mind flashed back to the theatrical experience and its probing into random scientific and philosophical concepts including the way in which colors affect the body.

INOCULATIONS is an evening of two one-act plays, WHO SHOT JACQUES LACAN? and RADIO ROOSTER SAYS THAT'S BAD. The former runs about 15 minutes, the latter around 45.

As described by Jeremy Paul, Theatre Ninja's Artistic Director, “using rhythm and rhyme, songs and science, INOCULATIONS is a crazed meditation on unconscious drives, millennial paranoia, and collective psychosis.” He adds, “Come for the pumpkin pie: stay for the hallucinations.”

Those who have been to Theatre Ninja's previous productions will not be surprised by Paul's explanation, nor his choice of this duet of plays. Paul, has a knack for picking plays which are challenging. Challenging to the cast, who must find the performance devices to portray characters which are usually extremely non-traditional, often edging on the insane. Also challenging to the audience who must figure out what is going on with these people.

INOCULATIONS is the work of Darren O'Donnell, a Canadian novelist, essayist, performance artist, playwright, director and actor. He states that he “engages the public and claims to prove the generosity, abundance and power of the social sphere.” Sounds obtuse and abstract? Yes, those words definitely explain INOCULATIONS.

WHO SHOT JACQUES LACAN? is an investigation of the theories of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The play, according to the author, is written so that “the performers create a vortex to slowly evoke the audience's unconscious.” To explain: Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, proposed that there was a division between the unconscious (id) and the consciousness (ego). Therefore each human self is divided between his conscious and unconsciousness. Freud thought that human actions are shaped by the unconscious. Lacan developed his own version of psychoanalysis by reinterpreting the theories of Freud with an emphasis on the humanist philosophy, indicating that people made conscious choices and not all of a person's actions were below his/her level of awareness. Lacan's concepts are the basis for WHO SHOT JACQUES LACAN?.

The play, in an abstract way asks such questions as, “Why do we do the things we do?” “Do we chose to act as we do, or are hidden drives causing us to perform in certain ways?” and “Are we responsible for our actions?”

RADIO ROOSER SAYS THAT'S BAD exposes us to the thinking (ranting) of Dr. Radio Rooster, a so called “member of the scientific community” who proposes results of real and fictional research on such subjects as the effect on the human body of exposure to different colors of light and how people are manipulated by music. He expresses righteous indignation regarding theories of science, philosophy and psychology while hanging from a swing, turning various color light bulbs on and off, and speaking through the mouths of a dog (“a very, very good dog”) and a mouse (who prefers cheese to peanut butter). This is a character brimming with paranoia and neuroticism.

The Theatre Ninja production, as is the case with Paul's work, is well conceived.
The actors are centered on their purposes, stay in character, and create the proper intensity. LACAN features Ray Caspio, Val Kozlenko, Ryan Lucas, Amy Pawlukiewicz, Michael Prosen, Nick Riley and Darius Stubbs.

RADIO ROOSTER is basically a very long monologue by the talented Nick Koesters. This is a herculean role. Not only were there 45 minutes of lines to memorize, but the timing needed for being exactly in the right place for all the special lighting effects, is daunting. Koesters, the first member of Actors Equity to appear in a Ninjas production, is marvelous. He is aided by a creatively designed light plan by Paul and technically produced by stage manager Dan Kilbane.

Oh, the pumpkin pie reference in the play's description. Come early and have free pumpkin pie to get you in the mood for the production. Following the obtuse concept of the production, the pie is free, canned whipped cream is a dollar.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: INOCULATIONS is a confounding yet fascinating evening of theatre. The production is well conceived and performed. Besides understanding the play, is the additional task of finding the arts building/factory, where the show is being performed.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Spotlight on Kristopher Thompson-Bolden

BW grad Kristopher Thompson-Bolden to appear in BILLY ELLIOT

During Kristopher Thompson-Bolden's senior year at Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Victoria Bussert, the head of Baldwin Wallace College's acclaimed Musical Theatre program, did a master class and talked about the BW program. Kris was enthralled, visited the campus, enrolled in the program, and has never looked back.

The 28-year old Thompson-Bolden, who will be a featured dancer in the cast of the touring company of BILLIE ELLIOTT, which opens on November 19 at the State Theatre, also works weekly with the “Billies” on acrobatic moves. Billies, because the touring production has five boys, who trade off portraying the show's lead role. The boys are from Australia, Switzerland, Michigan and California.

Kris is well-known to Cleveland audiences for the many roles he played while a temporary resident. He was seen at Porthouse Theatre in BIG RIVER, THE FANTASTICKS, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND and CHORUS LINE. His Richie in that production gained him a Times Theatre Tribute and a personal review which stated, “He [Kris] captivates an audience with his enthusiasm, fine singing and electric dancing.” He appeared in three productions for Cleveland Opera and did MISS SAIGON and CHORUS LINE at Carousel Dinner Theatre. He was also involved in the Great Lakes Theatre Festival.

Kris left a positive impression. Terri Kent, the Artistic Director at Porthouse said, “Kris is a wonderful human being and a talented and genuine artist. I adore him.”

He, in turn, has positive things to say of this area and BW's program, in particular. He states, “BW has a class-act theatre program. The college and the faculty shaped who I am as a person and a performer.”

After graduating from BW, he went on to appear in professional theatre productions of CATS, WEST SIDE STORY, THE COLOR PURPLE and CHILDREN OF EDEN. Besides BILLIE ELLIOT he has also been in the national touring companies of JOSEPH AND HIS AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT and THE COLOR PURPLE.

The BILLIE ELLIOT tour had what Kris calls a “preview city opening” in Durham, North Carolina on November 3. They will run for two weeks, “working out the kinks in the show” before coming to Cleveland.

Is he interested in appearing on Broadway? Yes, he's interested, but he likes traveling and is making good money touring. He went on to say that “though it's my home base, I'm not attached to New York.” When asked what he expected to be doing ten years from now, he laughed with an infectious sound of pleasure, and sighed!

For further information about Kristopher Thompson-Bolden go to:

What's the musical BILLY ELLIOT about? The winner of ten 2009 Tony Awards including Best Musical, the show is set in a small England town. The story follows Billy as he stumbles out of the boxing ring and into a ballet class, discovering a passion that takes him by surprise, and carries his whole family, and the audience, on an incredibly uplifting adventure.

I saw the show in London, and, if this production is even close to that one, audiences will fall in love with Billy and his tale.

For tickets to BILLIE ELLIOT, which is part of the Key Bank Broadway Series and runs from November 19 through December 12, call 216-241-6000, stop at the State theatre box office, or go to