Monday, October 31, 2011

Theatre in Cleveland, feature story


Feature story to: Arts America

The woman on the deck of the cruise ship looked at me and asked, “What do you do?” I responded “I’m a theatre and dance reviewer in Cleveland, Ohio.” “Oh,” she responded, “you must not have a lot of work to do.” When I told her I cover an average 3 or 4 productions a week, and that’s only the professional theatres and dance companies, and don’t get to the twenty or so community theatres and college productions in the area, she looked at me in shocked surprise.

Yes, as is the case with many other things, the Cleveland’s arts scene, is under appreciated, but booming. Yes, booming, even in these times of recession. For example, five theatres and a dance company have moved into new venues in the past several years.

Cleveland is the home of the second largest arts complex in the country. Only New York’s Lincoln Center is larger than PlayhouseSquare, with its assemblage of the Palace, Ohio, State, Allen, Hanna, 14th Street, and Kennedy’s Down Under theatres. This complex plays home to the Broadway touring series, Page to Stage (a program in which theatre writers and producers are invited to develop Broadway-aimed productions), a joint effort between Baldwin Wallace’s nationally recognized musical theatre program and PlayhouseSquare, as well as the Cleveland Play House, Cleveland State University’s drama program, and Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA in Acting program.

Professional theatres include CLEVELAND PUBLIC THEATRE, located in the transforming Detroit-Shoreway area, which not only stages traditional performances, but does many new and experimental works. It is the home of Springboard, a
 staged reading program of new scripts by local writers.

CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE, which was founded in 1915, CPH, is America’s oldest regional theater in America. It produces new and classic works in its newly refurbished home in the Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square. It’s new play development program has produced numerous well-known playwrights. The MFA program, which is affiliated with Case Western Reserve University has a growing national reputation.

DOBAMA THEATRE, in the Lee Road area of Cleveland Heights, is dedicated to the production of new and recent plays. The theatre recently celebrated its 50th anniversary by moving into a new facility. It is the home of the Marilyn Bianchi Kid’s Playwriting Festival.

BECK CENTER produces a combination of traditional musicals and cutting edge plays, as well as children’s productions. It is housed in the inner rim community of Lakewood. It recently refurbished its Studio Theatre.

ENSEMBLE THEATRE believes that the arts are an essential and meaningful part of life; therefore, the theatre offers an important forum for stimulating and provoking thought about the issues of contemporary life, and it is a place for communal experience. This fall it found a home by retro-fitting the gym of a former elementary school in the Coventry area of Cleveland Heights.

GREAT LAKES THEATER was founded by Arthur Lithgow (father of John Lithgow) in 1950. Formerly known as the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, it has remolded its it programming to fit into its brand new space in the Hanna Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. Operating on a $3.7 million dollar-a-year budget, it produces it produces Shakespeare, the classics and modern day musicals. GLT
shares a resident company with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. On its main stage, GLTF connects approximately 85,000 adults and students to the classics each season. The theatre’s lobby bar is named for Tom Hanks who started his acting career here.

ACTORS’ SUMMIT, located in Akron, is home to a dynamic mom and pop theatre family, whose purpose is to present professional theater created by Ohio artists for the entertainment and enrichment of its diverse community.

MERCURY SUMMER THEATRE, recently relocated to the campus of Notre Dame College, was founded by graduates of the Baldwin Wallace College’s musical theatre program. It stages summer theatrical productions.

KARAMU opened in 1915 and is the country’s oldest African American theatre. Housed in the inner city, the mission of Karamu House is to provide a joyful place of gathering where all people can learn about and experience multicultural arts, foster an awareness of cultural diversity, and inspire an appreciation for the richness of African American cultural heritage. It gave the first voice to Clevelander Langston Hughes.

CONVERGENCE CONTINUUM, a quirky theatre, with a resident company, stages non-traditional productions in the Liminus, a former car repair garage turned theatre in the Tremont area of Cleveland. As the artistic director states, “What if, instead of going to the theatre to watch a play, you crossed the threshold into the world of the play to experience it? Theatre that expands the imagination and extends the conventional boundaries of language, structure, space, and performance that challenges the conventional notions of what theatre is?” That is convergence-continuum.

PORTHOUSE Theatre, located on the grounds of Blossom Center, the summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra, is the warm weather residence of Kent State University’s theatre program. It produces three summer offerings each year with student and local professional actors.

LAKELAND Civic Theatre is housed on the campus of Lakeland Community College, in Kirtland. Its goal is to provide a learning environment that fosters aesthetic literacy and expressive capability through the cultivation of artistic techniques and skills and the exploration of creative traditions and possibilities . Sondheim shows often grace the theatre’s stage.

THEATRE NINJAS, the brainchild of artistic director Jeremy Paul, was founded to create accessible and entertaining live performance while attracting new and young audiences to the theater. Ninjas performs original works and interpretations that draw on elements of film, dance, improvisation, physical theater, graphic novels and music. They are a vagabond troupe who appear in various venues, from art galleries to actual theatres, according to the physical needs of a production.

FAIRMOUNT PERFORMING ARTS CONSERVATORY, located in Mayfield Village, is the professional wing of a thriving student theatre training school. The adult productions center on musicals and traditional comedies and dramas.

Yes, to the surprise of many, theatre is alive, well and thriving in Cleveland!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Little Night Music

Silver, Patterson, Wright and Sondheim—A LITTLE LIGHT MUSIC at FPAC

Some theatre goers have a love-hate relationship with Stephen Sondheim. His music is often beautiful, but complicated to play and sing. His lyrics often have hidden meanings. His plots usually are not the escapist surface level tales from which musical comedy is made. With few exceptions, his style is sophisticated and most appealing to theatre-wise audiences. A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, a production of which is now on stage at Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory (FPAC) is no exception, but in the hands of director Fred Sternfeld, it gets an audience-friendly approach.

Inspired by an Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night, LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC opened on Broadway in 1973, and ran for 601 performances. It was directed by Harold Prince and had a cast which included Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold. The script has experienced several revivals and was made into a film staring Elizabeth Taylor.

The beautiful score includes Night Waltz, Now/Later/Soon, Remember, A Weekend in the Country, The Sun Won’t Set and It Would Have Been Wonderful.

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is set in 1900 Sweden. It is a romp focusing on the sexual dalliances of some obviously badly matched couples. The result is a series of love triangles. It is these triangles that gave Sondheim the idea of writing the entire score in ¾ time, thus creating a series of waltz movements that carry over not only in the sound of the music but in the dialogue and lyrics.

The poorly matched couples include an 18-year-old self-absorbed virgin (Anne) who is married to a 50-something lawyer (Frederick), who is still in love with an actress (Desiree) with whom he unknowingly has a daughter (Fredericka). Complicating matters is that his uptight teenage son (Henrik) is in love with Fredrik’s wife. Then there is the affair between Desiree and Count Magnus-Malcolm, who has a wife (Charlotte), who decides to make her husband jealous by pursing Frederick. A maid, who is Henrik’s lover, and a butler are also having a romp in the hay. Sound complicated? Actually, on stage it isn’t. First, the characters are clearly identified, the alliances easy to follow, and the Liebesslider Singers act as our Greek chorus to guide us through the experience and help bring order to mismatched lovers while helping them find the right mate.

The FPAC production, under the direction of Fred Sternfeld, has charm and humor. The cast mainly has fine voices and the character development is generally clear. Even the technical elements are finely tuned.

Doing Sondheim is not an easy task. As a performer said, “Just to understand Sondheim has been a good challenge, just figuring out what it means. There’s a lot of hidden depth in his work. There’s a little laughter, a little tears, a whole gamut of emotions.” Sternfeld and his cast get the meaning and open up the audience to those ideas.

The lead performers are sound, performance and picture perfect. Dorothy Silver, the grand dame of Cleveland theatre, is endearing as Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s mother, and the spinner of wondrous tales. Silver sing-talks her songs with fidelity and attention to creating meanings from the words with a musical undertow.

It’s worth going to the see the production if for no other reason than to hear Tracee Patterson’s rendition of Bring in the Clowns. Patterson gives just the right serious yet playful interpretation to Desiree.

Matthew Wright is well cast as Frederick, the lawyer going through middle age crisis. He is properly conflicted as a man in a sunrise-sunset relationship who is still in love with a woman from his past. Wright has a fine singing voice.

William Clarence Marshall, Claire Connelly, Bernadette Hisey, Justin Williamson and Lydia Hall, the Liebeslieder (love song) Singers, not only have well-trained voices but carry their acting roles with ease.

Natalie Green is delightful as Petra, a free-spirited young lady who dreams of love in the well sung, The Miller’s Son. Katherine DeBoer is excellent as Charlotte Malcolm.

Though some of the supporting performers have difficulty in creating realistic characters, the strength of the leads and the quality of the singing make those weaknesses fade.

The play’s title is an English translation of the German name for Mozart's Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major, Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Scenic designer Trad Burns has taken this theme and created the set by constructing walls covered with musical notes of Mozart’s score. It is a perfect backdrop for the goings on. Craig Tucker’s costume designs and execution are era right and beautiful in detail. Benjamin Gantoe’s warm lighting helps create the perfect love moods.

David Williams’ orchestra plays well, especially considering that shortly before opening night curtain, the violin player broke her wrist and had to be replaced. Yes, the old adage, the show must go on, was in force.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The FAPC production, under the creative direction of Fred Sternfeld, makes for a wonderful theatrical experience. Go see!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Tigers Be Still

TIGERS BE STILL…a slight comedy about depression

Have you ever had an American cheese, mayonnaise and white bread sandwich? You finished it and for a while are satisfied, but never thought much about it afterwards? That’s my reaction to TIGERS BE STILL. I saw it, left the theatre, walked to my car with a friend and talked about our dinner that evening, got into the car, listened to the seventh game of the World Series on the way home, and didn’t think about the play again until the next morning, when I saw the platbill on my desk.

This is not to say TIGERS BE STILL is bad. It’s perfectly okay…like an American cheese, mayonnaise and white bread sandwich. It’s just not exciting or memorable. The message of “you are responsible for your own actions” is clear, the plot flows right along with some quirky inserts, but nothing screams out, “pay attention to this.”

Playwright Kim Rosenstock said, of TIGERS BE STILL, that she “wanted to write a comedy about depression.” She did. Not a great comedy about depression, but a less than depressing comedy about depression.

TIGERS BE STILL examines the lives of a mother, two sisters, a former beau of the mother who is now a junior high principal, and his son. All are dysfunctional. The mother has a disease, which forces her to take a drug that causes severe weight gain. A former beauty, she crawls into bed, has not come out of her room for months, and communicates with her daughters, who live in the same house as the mother, by telephone. Her husband walked out when she became bedroom bound.

Her oldest daughter has called off her impending wedding because her fiancé cheated. She is in deep depression, drinking and eating with abandon, and lying on the living room couch watching over and over again a Depends commercial, and a video of TOP GUN, while having a sexual fling with the octogenarian mailman.

The youngest daughter, who just completed her MA in art therapy, has been hired to teach at a junior high by her mother’s ex-boy friend and also to counsel his angst-filled and angry son. She is as needy as the rest of her psychotic brood.

The principal is grief stricken and acting off-kilter due to the sudden death of his wife. The son, who was responsible for his mother’s death, when he lost control of the car he was driving, has a rage problem. Guess what? They are both depressed.

The play ends with the line, “And, that’s how my mother got out of bed.” That gives a broad hint of how the whole saga works itself out.

Dobama’s production, under the direction of Mark Moritz, is fine. The pace, movements, idea development, and characterizations are all on track. Nothing great, nothing bad.

Rachel Gehlert is like the Energizer bunny on speed. She is delightful, quirky and makes Sherry, the art therapist, fun. Well, as fun as a depressed person can be.

Kristy Cruz, is fine as the depressed older sister. She appropriately makes depressed look depressing.

Mark Mayo adds a quirky twist to the role of the Principal, but one can only wonder why a school board would continue to employ someone “so out of it.” But, this interpretation of a principal seems to be the trend…think Principal Figgens in GLEE.

Joe Dunn gives a nice interpretation to the role of the guilt-ridden teenager. His “why I didn’t shoot the tiger speech” is excellent.

Oh, the title. A tiger has broken out of the local zoo and the citizenry is very depressed over what might take place if someone is confronted by the animal.

Capsule judgement: TIGERS BE STILL, which gets a nice production at Dobama, isn’t the kind of play that will long be remembered. It’s not a don’t see nor a must see kind of offering.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Daddy Long Legs

DADDY LONG LEGS…charming and harmonic at CPH

Daddy Long Legs, a novel by the American writer Jean Webster, Mark Twain’s great grandniece, has had a glorious trek. Originally published in 1912, it was transformed into a play in 1914 starring Ruth Chatterton, into a 1919 Mary Pickford movie, a 1931 film staring Janet Gaynor, a 1935 movie called CURLY TOP starring Shirley Temple, a 1952 British stage musical dubbed Love from Judy, then the 1955 film Daddy Long Legs (starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron).

Most recently, it became a musical with a book by Tony and Olivier Award-winner John Caird (Nicholas Nickelby, Les Miserables) and music and lyrics by Tony-nominee Paul Gordon (Jane Eyre). Not bad for a plot that is as thin as a pencil lead and whose conclusion is telegraphed within the first minute of play.

The Caird-Gordon rendition is presently on stage at Cleveland Play House.

The script, like most female writing around the turn of century, centers on a sentimental girl heroine. Think Kate Douglas Wiggin’s REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, Eleanor Porter’s POLYANNA and Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN.

Set in early 1900 New England, this is the story of Jerusha Abbot, a bright orphan sent to a prestigious college by an anonymous benefactor she nicknames Daddy Long Legs. Revealed through witty and insightful letters sent to a man she supposedly never sees, it is a delightful look at her journey to womanhood.

The spoken and sung lines are so blended together that the entire effect carries the audience into a state of serene smiles and the feeling of happy escape. The music is often intoxicating. The song titles give clear clues to the story, The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home, Who is This Man?, Things I Don’t Know, What Does She Mean By Love?, and I Couldn’t Know Someone Less.

The song, The Secret of Happiness, which carries the script’s theme, is a tribute to how a person can have a series of personal revelations that result in her finding her true self. As Gordon states, “It’s about how people come together in a quite interesting and magical way. Don’t be afraid to be different. Be yourself. Just work your hardest to get your own ideas out there and do what you can in the world and shine.”

The staging and interpretation is creative. John Caird’s direction is spot on. There are two glorious performances. Add an effective lighting design, a purposeful set, finely tuned music which supports and does not drown out the lyrics, and the result is a wonderful theatrical experience.

The CPH production is a resurrection. Caird previously staged the show at numerous venues, with the same cast, starting with its world premiere in 2009.

Megan McGinnis is effervescent as Jerusha. The beautiful young lady has a wonderful singing voice, is a fine actress and lights up the stage with her presence. She is the prototype of the Broadway leading lady.

Tall, handsome and talented, Robert Adelman Hancock is the perfect partner for McGinnis. He sings well, develops the right vulnerability, and the duo appears to be made for one another.

In an interview McGinnis said, "I can't tell you how much I love this piece. It's a brilliant and beautiful show — so well crafted. Jerusha is the most human character I've ever played. She is fallible and opinionated and real. You watch her develop into this wonderfully strong and independent woman, as she falls in love with knowledge and learning, and also falls in love with a man! It's certainly a journey I don't mind taking every night."

Capsule judgement: Though some may call it a bit of sentimental fluff, a staged chick flick with formulaic music, I’d term it a charming tale, developed with clear characters, set to melodic music with beautiful harmonic blends, that is well staged and performed. DADDY LONG LEGS is an absolute must see!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Waiting for Lefty

Ensemble initiates its new home with classic WAITING FOR LEFTY

In this era of Wall Street sit-ins and the politicizing of unions, as represented by Kasich’s administration’s passing of a non-negotiation bill, a return to examining the reason for, and the rise of unionism, is appropriate. Probably no play better looks at the subject of U. S. union confrontation then Clifford Odets’ WAITING FOR LEFTY.

Based on the true story of the 1934 unionization of New York City cab drivers, the organizing efforts, dubbed by opponents as “the promotion of the communist revolution in America,” is a vivid example of “agit-prop” theatre. Agit-Prop was a form of writing with the intent of agitating, propagandizing and spreading ideas, which was popularized by Bertolt Brecht and U. S. social action writers, such as Clifford Odets.

Odets’s writing style, as is that of others of his era, is somewhat outdated by modern standards, due to its stylized language and over-dramatized situations, but it is appropriate to highlight the rage that was seething during the depression in the United States. This was an era of using the power of drama and the other arts to push a specific political cause and create what has commonly been dubbed in drama history as “people’s theatre.” And, since theatre is representative of the era from which it comes, it is only appropriate that Odets’ words spew forth and be heard in this, a decade of parallel social unrest.

The story centers on a hotly-contested strike vote in which a corrupt union leader (Harry Fatt) tries to discourage the membership from walking out. His motives are anything but pure, and definitely not in the interest of the membership. In a series of 8 vignettes, the tale is told through the words of union members. The climax of the play comes when word arrives that Lefty Costello, the leader of the strike faction, has been killed. This pushes the assemblage over the top, and cries of, “strike,” “strike,” “strike” are heard as the play comes to a shattering conclusion.

In the analogues of theatre history, “Waiting for Lefty is seen as an important dramatic work that offers historical evidence of the social power and aspirations of theatre.

Ensemble’s production, being performed on a thrust stage in their new home in the reconfigured gym of the former Coventry Elementary School, lends itself to the up-close and in-your-face format of the script.

The performance, under the direction of Ian Hintz, is generally excellent. The pacing is even, the idea development clear, the use of graphics to bridge the various eras of history are creative, and the music is appropriate. The ending, however, which didn’t quite build to the desired climax, could have been more frenetic and emotionally keyed, adding to the cry for change, for action.

The large cast, only two of whom are professional actors, does a very creditable job of generally creating the right atmosphere. Especially strong performances were presented by Skip Corris, Layla Schwartz and James Rankin.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: WAITING FOR LEFTY is an important American play which reflects not only the depression era, but is relevant in today’s chaotic times. Odets’ script gets a strong performance at Ensemble Theatre.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

RACE, a must see at Beck

David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, is noted for his ability to create vivid images with his use of language. His writing style is so distinct that it has been officially dubbed “Mamet Speak.” That fast paced, direct, in-your-face flow of words, which often forces the actors to overlap ideas, cut each other off, and use terms that grate on moralist’s ears, is clearly displayed in his script, RACE, which is getting its regional premiere at Beck Center.

RACE, which ran on Broadway from 2009 to 2010 and featured James Spader, David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, and Richard Thomas, is a thought provoking, often incendiary piece which follows three attorneys, two black and one white, who grapple with defending a wealthy white man accused of raping a black woman. As the story unfolds, the characters and the audience are faced with examining their definitions, thoughts and feelings about race.

Mamet has said that the play is not only about race but “the lies we tell each other, and ourselves, about the subject.”

Because of the complex language and character development, a production of the script requires not only a focused director, but a superb cast that works as a well oiled unit. Fortunately, Beck has the creative and exacting Sarah May as the show’s director. The award winning May not only understands the requirements of how to make Mamet live, and the necessity of finite timing, but how to work with actors to get the desired outcome.

The production is also blessed with a fine cast. Justin Emeka, an equity member and professor of theater at Oberlin College, is compelling as Henry Brown, one of the black attorneys. He immerses himself in the role, giving human reality to the part.

Tom Woodward, another equity actor, is at his finest as Jack Lawson, the white lawyer. The character’s personal struggle between being racially tolerant, and being unclear of his underlying motivations, is well developed.

Aungelique Scott balances the duality of the role of Susan, a young newly hired member of the law firm, who has both racial and personal agendas, which temper her participation in the legal process. Scott has the ability to distance herself, early on displaying a lack of outward emotion in her eyes and body, that gives clues of what will come in the startling ending of the play. Her emotional transition in the final scene is finely honed.

Brian Pedaci does an acceptable job of portraying Charles Strickland, the wealthy white man accused of raping a black woman. Additional arrogance might have helped build a more conflicted real person. This could have helped heighten the concluding scene.

Richard Gould’s upscale law office set is well conceived, with small details and props creating the required realism. Jenniver Sparano’s costume designs are questionable. Strickland’s suits and ties were definitely not the Brooks Brothers quality that would be worn by a wealth man and Susan’s clothes seemed questionable for an ivy league lawyer to be wearing.

As is Mamet’s hallmark, the play’s conclusion, a twist of what might be expected, encourages the audience to leave the theatre to discuss and dissect what they’ve just experienced.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: David Mamet’s RACE, under the fine directing hand of Sarah May, gets an outstanding production at Beck! It’s one of this season’s MUST SEE highlights.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Monster Play

MONSTER PLAY, Jeremy Paul’s imagination again goes wild

When Jeremy Paul, the creator and director of MONSTER PLAY, now getting its world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre, was a child, he was afraid of monsters. A normal kid would be afraid of bats, witches, thing under the bed, or the boogey man. As has been demonstrated in many of his previous productions, Paul’s fertile imagination doesn’t follow the “normal” path. Believe it or not, his monsters were robots. Yep, robots.

As I said in a previous Theatre Ninjas’ review, “being inside Paul’s head must be like being in a labyrinth of a fun house. Weird visions must swirl around and around. The result of Paul’s creativity is usually fascinating and confounding theatre.” MONSTER PLAY, his latest invention, is true Paul.

The evening starts out with the author, sounding like Bela Lugosi of Count Dracula film fame, warning the audience to turn off their cell phones and not dare to crinkle candy wrappers. Or else! You have been warned. The bizarre is about to begin.

Paul creates a combination of monsters, fantasies and haunting metaphors. Andrew Kaletta’s set, is a canopy of fabrics draped over the theatre-in-the-round playing area. Large blood covered tarps often enshroud the actors making them into a solo monster, and other times individual actors are wrapped in the cloth. Startling Benjamin Gantose lighting effects, including a strobe light, add to the visual illusions. Blood inked actors assault the senses.

Paul inserts comic routines that delight, including a walking version of the shower scene from the movie PSYCHO, a macabre segment from Little Red Riding Hood, and several Grimm’s fairy tales.

Paul doesn’t just stop at getting you ready for Halloween, he also takes on the real monsters: religion, doctors, and parents.

Yes, as the conceiver warns, “Monsters haven’t gone anywhere, they still wait outside our houses, our closets, beneath old bridges, and in the grills of cars as they run stop lights.”

The cast is well versed and trained. They consume the stage and the imagination. Ray Caspio, Stuart Hoffman (adorned in a hair shirt), Val Kozlenko, Jenni Messner and Lauren B. Smith morph from role to role with ease in their grubby blood and dirt stained rough-clothed costumes.

Since the audience is no more than 15 feet away from the performers, the cast’s grunts, moans and smells are up front and personal. It all adds to the bizarre effect.

A pre-tween girl watching the performance I saw, spent most of the evening clinging to her father, being devoured by Paul’s imagination. I’m sure she spent a sleepless night.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: MONSTER PLAY is a fun, confounding and psychologically disrupting experience. It should be on the must see list for every warped teenager, and will also appeal to adults who are fascinated by things that go bump in the night.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Woody Guthrie's American Song

WOODY GUTHRIE’S AMERICAN SONG educates and delights at Actors’ Summit

If Woody Guthrie, America’s rambling troubadour were alive today, he’d probably be mixing in with “his folk” at the Occupy Wall Street Movement rallies. Yes, Guthrie, who is the subject of WOODY GUTHRIE’S AMERICAN SONG, now on stage at Akron’s Actors’ Summit, would be strumming his guitar and telling the tales of the people he knew and whom he told song stories about.

Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. Though he was forced by dust storms and droughts to leave his Okie homeland, he never let the taste of the raging sands, the financial hardships and his love of the real people, fall far from his attention.

Guthrie took to the road early in life and became an itinerant folk singer, telling the tales of those hit hard by the fury of nature and the Great Depression. He clearly developed a vivid musical history of the farm workers, union members, illegal immigrants, labor strikers, and big and small town people. His lyric poems of praise and protest, classics such as So Long It’s Been Good to Know You, Pastures of Plenty, Union Made, and This Land Is Your Land, have engraved him as an indelible part of Americana.

The Actor’s Summit production, under the creative guidance of director Neil Thackaberry, makes for a delightful evening of theatre. The musical arrangements by Michael Anderson, and the talented cast, bring Guthrie’s ideas to life and teach his lessons well.

Rather than using the traditional narrator introduces songs which are sung as individual units, Thackaberry has all of the cast speak the story lines, alternating and often blending the words with the song lyrics. There is no backup orchestra, the actors play all the musical instruments. The music is integrated into the whole. This is a play about the people, performed by the people, for the people!

The entire cast is excellent. MaryJo Alexander, Ryan Anderson, Scott Davis, Sally Groth, Dana Hart, Mark Leach, Emma Pitch and Keith Stevens all have the right spoken sound of the people and sing with meaning. Even the costumes, shades of the muddy ground, are era and setting correct. The railroad car, saloon and thrust stage setting all enhance the atmosphere.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: WOODY GUTHRIE’S AMERICAN SONG is both an educational, theatrical, and pleasing experience. It’s very well worth the trip to Akron!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Boys in the Band

Con-con’s THE BOYS IN THE BAND fun, but lacks needed consistent realism

Mart Crowley’s THE BOYS IN THE BAND, now on stage at convergence-continuum, holds a unique and important place in theatrical history. It was the first professional hit play to examine life for homosexuals before the Gay Revolution. It played over 1000 performances off-Broadway, an unheard of success for a show that appealed to a niche audience.

To truly get in touch with the script’s intent, it is necessary to understand the era from which it comes. It’s 1968, a time when intimacy between same sex people was illegal. Where gays and lesbians had no legal rights regarding jobs or housing, and gay hate ran rampant. It’s a year before the Stonewall riots the event that ushered in a drive for gay and lesbian human rights. A revolution that has brought about legal changes, the elimination of restrictions against homosexuals in the military, achieved gay marriage or civil unions in many states, and created a general lessening of negative attitudes towards those attracted to members of the same sex.

A group of eight gay men are assembled for a birthday party in a New York apartment. There’s Michael, the party’s host, an alcoholic who turns to excessive buying and religion to try and hide himself from himself, and Donald, his weekend guest, who escapes to the Hampton’s to spend his time constantly reading and going to his therapist to fill a psychological void. There’s the flamboyant Emery, who uses sarcasm and outrageous humor to deflect his true feelings. Another attendee is Larry, an artist who finds satisfaction in multiple lovers, much to the angst of his boyfriend, Hank, who has left his wife to be with Larry and wants relational fidelity. Bernard is a black man who plays the “yasa boss “roll of allowing others to taunt him for not only his blackness, but his everlasting love for the Caucasian son of his mother’s employer; and the birthday boy Harold, who describes himself as “a pock-marked Jew fairy.”

As the play evolves, one wonders how and why this group are friends. They appear to not like each other, and, in fact, spew dislike. But, there is a bond, a bond of desperateness. These are all men who cling to each other because of their need for reassurance, even if it’s negative, in order to deal with their self-doubts and self-hatred.

Con-con’s production, under the direction of Tyson Douglas Rand, is inconsistent. This is a drama that requires fidelity and realism. Though filled with laughs, it seriously focuses on these men and their angst filled lives.

Clyde Simon steals the show as the flamboyant Emory who can hardly keep his wrists from going limp, hips from swaying, hands from flailing, and voice from screeching. Zac Hudak is natural and believable as the introspective Donald. Dan Kilbane, as Hank, the man who left his family for a new life, is real, both properly pathetic and vulnerable.

Jonathan Wilhelm has all the right snarky moves and right biting vocal sounds as the self-loathing Harold. Though he does a nice job of acting as the air-headed Cowboy, a hustler who has been purchased for the evening as a gift for Harold, Benjamin Gregg is missing the physical brawn and beauty that is a requirement for the role. Bobby Williams creates a credible Bernard.

Neither James Jarrell, as Alan, Michael’s former college roommate who accidentally walks in on the goings on, nor Scott Zolkowski, as Hank’s promiscuous lover, develops a consistent persona. Both speak words, not meanings.

A major cause of the show’s lack of true believability is Curt Arnold (Michael) not having control of his lines. It’s a minor problem in the first act, but his stumbles, repeats, and breaking character, takes the wind out of the highly emotional second act as he fails to realistically lose control as he falls deeper and deeper into drunkenness. His line flubs effect the interactions of all on stage and throw roadblocks to the realism.

The Liminus has a postage stamp stage that makes all the action up close and personal. Actors can literally touch and speak to the audience, which they often do. It supplies a greater cry for realism than if this were a performance with some distance of separation.

The costumes leave much to be desired. Many are not era correct, jackets don’t fit, supposedly expensive sweaters have holes in the sleeves.

Capsule Judgement: THE BOYS IN THE BAND is an important play filled with images of being homosexual in the U.S. before the gay revolution. The production is fun, but to be totally successful it needed to be consistently realistic. It’s okay, rather than being great!

Side note: With the sold performances that THE BOYS IN THE BAND is getting, artistic director Clyde Simon should consider doing at least one gay-themed show a season. No venue in the area makes an effort to satisfy the interests of this large niche audience. Numerous proven scripts are available or, if Simon wants to do originals, he can turn to Chicago’s Great Gay Play Contest for material.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Million Dollar Quartet

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET….great balls of fire!

Part concert, part history lesson, a lot of rock ‘n roll, and a heck of good time-- that’s MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, now on stage at the Palace Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.

The second largest entertainment center in the United States is playing host to
Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Well, four performers portraying those icons of rock and roll, in a stage show that attempts to duplicate the one time that the four actually did get together for an informal rock session. The event took place in the recording studios of the legendary Sun Records on December 4, 1956.

To make the whole experience of even greater importance, this production in the Rock and Roll capital, is the first venue for the touring version of the show. Yes, MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET’s trip around the country is being launched right here!

It’s fifty-five years ago, four emerging music icons, all of whom were good old Southern boys, identified and molded by Sam Phillips, were in his Memphis Sun Studios. They ad-libbed an evening of gospel, blues and rock ‘n roll music. The event was chronicled by a reporter from the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The next day the article discussing the event stated, “This quartet could sell a million.” Little did the reporter realize that though that number sounded like a lot, this quartet would go on to sell many millions, and become individual musical icons.

Whether the actions happened exactly as portrayed is not known, but the fact that there was such a jam session is a reality. A recording of the session, and a picture of the four, documented the event and became the basis for the musical with a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, and musical arrangements by Chuck Mead.

The production team was at Thursday’s press opening and was introduced by Gina Vernecci, PlayhouseSquares’ Vice President of Theatricals.

It is only right that the production started its journey here. Presley and Lewis were among our Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s charter inductees, and were soon joined by Perkins and Cash.

The touring production, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, who I worked with at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia (a suburb of DC), is right on target. He knows how to stage and inspire a cast. The production is exciting, enveloping, filled with well-timed humor and a little drama. And, of course, there is a Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.

The stage literally explodes with hit after hit, including Blue Suede Shoes, That’s All Right, Sixteen Tons, I Walk the Line, Great Balls of Fire and Party. Then, there was a curtain call which features the likes of Hound Dog, Riders in the Sky, and See You Later Alligator.

The cast is outstanding. The quartet not only sings well, but plays their own instruments, and acts with realism.

Cody Slaughter not only eerily looks like Elvis, but has the snarl, the hip swivels, the pelvis thrusts and the famous heavy eye-lidded stare. A true son of the south, Slaughter was named “Elvis Presley Enterprises’ Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist of 2011.” Appropriately, the last line heard from the stage at the conclusion of the production was, “And Elvis has left the building.”

Martin Kaye makes for the perfect undisciplined, dynamic, uber-talented pianist and singer, Jerry Lee Lewis. He is electric on stage, hardly able to contain the character’s twitching, jumping, ADHD persona.

Derek Keeling has the perfect Johnny Cash voice and sultry looks. Dressed in Cash’s signature black uniform, his deep voice, and smoldering personal underbelly, makes for a complete characterization.

Lee Ferris develops well the conflicted Perkins, whose fame was eclipsed by Presley, all the way from the King taking Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes and making it into a hit that exceeded the original author’s recording, but generally overshadowing the man known as the King of Rock-a-billie.

Christopher Ryan Grant gives a human portrayal of Sam Phillips, Kelly Lamont is fine as Presley’s girl friend of the moment, and bass player Chuck Zayas and drummer Christopher Ryan Grant, are excellent musicians who add much to the show.

Capsule judgement: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET is one of those special evenings of theatre. It’s filled with great music and fine performances that led to screaming, yelling, clapping, multi-standing ovations given by the opening night audience. Yes, Memories Are Made of This!

Monday, October 10, 2011


No standing ovation for CABARET at Great Lakes Theatre

CABARET. It’s 1931 in Germany, a country of unrest. We find ourselves at the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy cabaret, a place of decadence and emotional abandonment. Hanging over the entire scene is the growth of the Nazi party and the impending reign of terror.

CABARET. A musical loosely based on John Van Druten’s play I AM A CAMERA, which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s GOODBYE TO BERLIN, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.

CABARET. A glimpse at Sally Bowles, a young English cabaret singer, her seedy life as a performer, her doomed relationship with American writer Cliff Bradshaw, and a strong subtext of another doomed relationship between German boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider and her suitor Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. Not to be overlooked is the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, who oversees the entire affair, not aware that he is also on a doomed path.

CABARET. A version of which is now on stage at Great Lake Theatre.

The musical opened on Broadway in 1966. Immediately upon entering the theatre, the audience was struck by the difference between this and other shows. The curtain was up, a large convex mirror reflected each person out of proportion as s/he walked down the aisle. Lights and the theatre’s brick walls were all exposed. Ironically, the staging was reflective of exiled German Jewish playwright Bertolt Brecht’s theory of theatre: alienation (awareness that you are watching a theatrical production), epic (that which was presented is bigger than life), and historification (a message from the past, which the viewer was to bring into the present, and learn from the experience).

The original cast included award winning Clevelander Joel Grey as the Emcee. Grey went on to also star in the 1972 movie version which featured Liza Minnelli as Sally.

In the London revival of 1993, under the direction of Sam Mendes, the show took on a new persona. The emcee morphed from an asexual, malevolent character to a highly sexualized homosexual (brilliantly portrayed by Allen Cummings) who, at the ending of play, along with all the other “decadents”—Jews, Communists, the physically disabled—are taken off to the concentration camps. Other changes added references to Cliff's bisexuality, including a scene where he kisses one of the Cabaret boys. A 1998 Broadway revival, which also starred Cummings, further refined the script, added wandering musicians to bring out the alienation and identifying each character with a musical sound.

The Great Lakes Theatre production, under the direction of Victoria Bussert, works on some levels, stumbles on others. Basically using the Mendes rewrite, the general staging is acceptable, creating many of the right highlighting to illustrate the impending horror. On the other hand, some questionable casting, pedestrian choreography and a costume glitch, produce problems.

Neil Brookshire develops a believable character as American writer Cliff Bradshaw. Laura Perrotta, is properly both hard and tender as Fraulein Schneider, whose purpose in life is to survive at all costs. John Woodson is wonderful as Herr Schultz, the Jew who thinks he is a German and naively assumes that the forces that are coming will assume the same.

Perrotta and Woodson’s versions of It Couldn’t Please Me More and Married, Perrotta’s So What and What Would You Do?, and the wrenching Tomorrow Belongs to Me were the production’s vocal highlights.

Danny Henning (Bobby), with a snarl and a sneer, makes for a fine Kit Kat male dancer and one of Cliff’s former lovers. Jim Lichtscheidl (Ernst) is properly despicable as a scheming Nazi. Sara Bruner is spot on as Fraulein Kost, Fraulein Schneider’s roomer, who offers sexual favors to numerous sailors.

On the other hand, Eduardo Placer feigns at being the Master of Ceremonies. The performance is all on the surface, filled with vocal and physical gimmicks, never giving a clue that he understood the power of his character. The same can be said for Jodi Dominick’s Sally. Besides having difficulty singing the marvelous songs that the role is given, she never gives a clear reading of her basis for desperateness, the vulnerability that is covered by bravado. The flailing hands, high pitched vocal adventures into trying to dispilay desperateness, didn’t help create a believable character. Don’t expect to hear an emotionally moving version of the theme song Cabaret.

Gregory Daniels’ choreography was efficient, but never developed the underlying sensuality of the Kit Kat girls, nor the power needed to create the impending issues, nor was there any clear distinctive style displayed.

Charlotte Yerman’s costumes were era correct and worked well, but her yellow stars for the Jews and pink triangles for the homosexuals, were so small that unless a viewer knew what was going on, there was no way to catch the meaning in the quick last scene. In fact, while exiting the theatre, a woman was overheard saying, “I didn’t know the MC was Jewish,” which obliterated part of Mendes’ rewrite highlighting that more than Jews were taken to their deaths.

Capsule judgement: CABARET gets a serviceable, yet flawed production at Great Lakes. The very fact that the production I saw received light applause, not a Cleveland automatic standing ovation, gives a clear message that director Victoria Bussert did not get the most out of the script.

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Taming of the Shrew

Farcical THE TAMING OF THE SHREW entertains at GLTF, but…

Though it is billed as a comedy, Shakespeare’s TAMING OF THE SHREW, a version of which is now on stage at Great Lakes Theatre, is a play of controversy.

To understand the hullabaloo, knowledge of the plot is necessary.

The tale, which is set in Hollywood, California, in this version, finds Lucentio, a rich young man, arriving in the city with his servants, Tranio and Biondello, to attend a local university. Lucentio’s center of attention changes when he sees and instantly falls in love with the beautiful Bianca. As happens in such tales, there are problems. In this case, Bianca already has two suitors and, most importantly, her wealthy father will not let Bianca be courted until her older sister, the ill-tempered Kate, has married. Petruchio, a suitor for Kate comes along, and we are carried into Shakespeare’s tale of how the shrew is “tamed.”

The quote marks around the word “tamed” are not by accident. That word is the center of the script’s ability to inflame strong reaction.

The controversy centers on the play’s ending, when the strong-headed Kate does, or appears to buckle into the will of society, in this case, the will of her husband and declares, “The husband is the lord,” indicating the misogynistic and patriarchal view that women are persons to be controlled by men. This concept, of course, does not sit well with modern women. It reeks of the views of the rulers of such countries as Saudi Arabia and Iran and males who abuse and denigrate women.

While feminists and their followers declare that the play’s ending needs to be dropped, altered, or that Kate’s lines should be coded to indicate that what she is saying is not what she means, others have defended the play by highlighting the play's sentiments are not meant to be taken at face value, that the entire play is, in fact, a farce.

This disagreement places a clear obligation on each production’s director to choose an interpretation of Kate’s final speech, as it is this scene, which in the end defines the meaning of the entire production. The director has at least four choices: (1) Kate's speech is sincere and Petruchio (her husband) has successfully tamed her or she has come to see that they're well-matched in temperament; (2) Kate’s speech is ironic: she is not being sincere in her statements but sarcastic, pretending to have been tamed when in reality she has completely duped or is humoring Petruchio; (3) Kate's speech cannot be taken seriously due to the farcical nature of the play; (4) Kate’s speech both satirizes gender roles and emphasizes the social need for wives to be obedient to their husbands.

In the GLT’s production, there is no satirical verbal or nonverbal hint of tongue in cheek, there is no wink as Sara Bruner (Kate) is stating her speech, there is no overdone farcical aspect to the scene as was present in much of the production. So, does this mean that Young, a woman, opted for option 1? Since she writes no program notes, the viewer has no way of knowing.

As to the rest of the production, Young has pulled out all the shticks to produce a staging that will delight all those who love the Three Stooges, Saturday morning cartoons, and productions that are way bigger than life.

Young has set the production in 1980, with many references to Tinsel Town. There are tourists going on home tours of the stars, mention of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Ralph Loren clothing designs. Slang, rock music, nonverbal gestures and somewhat era correct clothes waft across the stage.

The wedding scenes are each delightful, the elevator thrust stage is used effectively to make set pieces and people appear and disappear before our very eyes, the music is fun, the choreography properly over the top, and the fights are of well staged. The first act is let loose fun; the second stanza seems to run out of steam.

Sara Bruner goes totally overboard as Kate. How she gets through a performance without getting hurt from the flips, rolling on the floor battles, and headlocks, is amazing. She is beyond real, obviously creating a character true to her director’s desires. As such, she is a delight.

Her Petruchio, (Jim Lichtscheidl) a gentleman of Montana, who is used to roping wild things, wrestles and abuses his Kate into submission by withholding food, holding her captive and generally taming her. Unfortunately, he is somewhat inconsistent in his character development.

Reggie Gowland makes for a handsome and realistic love-sick Lucentio. Kjerstine Rose Anderson is adorable as the cheerleader perky Bianca. Neil Brookshire and Danny Henning, as Lucentio’s servants, are delightful.

Michael Locher’s steel-clad set is distracting. The doors don’t always work well as devices of quick exits, the constant changing of pictures and window coverings on the second floor rooms is distracting, and the straight line walls seems to get in the way of the action, rather than helping it.

Capsule judgement: Great Lakes Theatre’s production of TAMING OF THE SHREW will be a delight for those who like their theatre and Shakespeare over the top. It well may infuriate those who champion women as equals of men.

Saturday, October 01, 2011


NOVEMBER is relevant but humorous rather than hysterically funny at Lakeland

The dialogue writing style of David Mamet, the author of NOVEMBER, which is now being staged at The Civic Theatre at Lakeland Community College, is so unique that it actually has a name all its own.

Mamet speak is a cynical, street-smart, edgy way of talking. In his writing Mamet often uses italics and quotation marks to highlight particular words. The intent is to make the actors aware of how to stress certain terms, and that many sentences won’t be completed, and in speaking his ideas the performers need to overlap their speeches. A production of his works requires glib and fast-paced speaking.

He doesn’t write pretty, he writes blunt. He uses four letter words, not to shock, but in the natural flow of speech. He states things that many would find outlandish, but, in reality, are truths (or his version of the truth) and thought provoking. Ideas come from the mouths of his characters, ideas that many think, but few say. Many of his thoughts are outlandish, laugh-out-loud, and obscene in words and connotation.

NOVEMBER opened on Broadway in 2008 to mixed reviews. The positive comments included: "savage merriment . . . delightful . . . wild . . . brilliant." It was dubbed "vaudeville meets current events.”

The script is filled with satirical stabs at American politics, the public, special interest groups, women, and about everything else that Mamet’s darts happen to hit.

Meet President Charles Smith, of Shaker Heights, Ohio, the most corrupt, inept, unliked scheming buffoon ever to sit in the Oval Office. It's the final days of his bid for a second term. The country is a mess, his poll numbers are "lower than Gandhi's cholesterol count" and defeat is certain. He needs to get money for his Presidential library, his political party won’t help, and he’s so broke that he wants to take the sofa in the Oval Office with him when he departs.

Add to this his lesbian speechwriter longing to marry her sweetheart on national television, a cynical chief of staff, Thanksgiving turkeys awaiting to be pardoned, and a wife who almost causes the third World War because she spreads the rumor that there is going to be a nuclear attack on or by Iran, and you have the potential for hysteria.

Unfortunately, the Lakeland show, under the direction of Martin Friedman, doesn’t live up to the potential of the script.

In the Broadway show Nathan Lane, who played the President, was credited with being "glib and jaunty" and “knowing exactly how to pitch such lines, with a time-honed style that allows him to put the maximum spin on poisonous zingers and still keep the audience on his side.” Though he puts out full effort, Robert Hawkes doesn’t have Lane’s comic timing or bigger than life presence.

Andrew Narten as Archer Brown, Smith’s chief of staff, underplays the role. There is no Chaney evilness or Carl Rowe slithering here. It would have helped.

Anne McEvoy is fine as Clarice, the speech writer. She develops a consistent and believable character. Abigail Brace Allwein stays on the surface with little character development as Turkey Gal and the same can be said for Robert McCoy as Dwight Grackle, the Indian chief.

The show lacks precise timing and doesn’t lead up to and stress the comic aspects of the lines. It plays safe. It needs to be outrageous. The cast needs to let loose, thus insuring the audience has fun. As is, it’s smile material.

The Oval Office of the White House is well depicted here, but the view out the window is wrong. Having worked at the White House, I’m aware that the windows look out over the Rose Garden and the massive back lawn, not at the Capitol Building which is miles away and east, not south of the White House.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: NOVEMBER is a script full of biting satire and sharp dialogue. The Lakeland production is humorous, but needed to be outrageously funny.