Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cleveland's Groundworks and Inlet Dance


When, eleven years ago, Cleveland San Jose Ballet, due to poor artistic and financial management, snuck out of town to become the San Jose Ballet, the doomsayers predicted that that was the end of dance as a Cleveland area art form. Nothing was further from the truth.

No, the area has no large ballet company, but that void was replaced by some small, vibrant modern and contemporary dance groups. Included in the list are Verb Ballets, Dancing Wheels, GroundWorks Dance Theater, Ohio Dance Theatre, Greene + Medcalf Movement Project, and Inlet Dance. The latter two just had very different, but outstanding programs, so, not to slight any of the others who will get future coverage, here is a quick view of Groundworks and Inlet.


Founded in 1998, GROUNDWORKS DANCETHEATER is the creative child of David Shimotakahara, who serves as the company’s Artistic Director. The excellent five person company (Felise Bagley Damien Highfield, Gary Lenington, Sarah Perrett and Kathryn Taylor), along with Artistic Associate Amy Miller and Music Director Gustavo Aguilar, have made it their goal to not only create creative and proficient programs, but make the entire Northeastern Ohio area their home.

GROUNDWORKS has no home of its own, but performs in various venues, going to the people, rather than having the people, per se, come to them. Performances have been held at Trinity Cathedral, dancing on a stage erected between the gothic spires, The Akron Ice House, performing in the vast vertical space that once served as an ice block and storage site, Cleveland Public Theatre, in a black box space, and the Cleveland Botanical Gardens.

Under the banner, Imagination you can see, the company enters its second decade, having been called “one of Cleveland’s cultural gems,” “one of the country’s leading contemporary dance companies,” “one of the year’s 25 to watch in the dance world,” and, “a company that is setting the standard for small dance ensembles in Northeastern Ohio.”

Beyond performances, the company does education outreach to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, connecting to over 1000 students each year. Outreach and Educational Coordinator Mark Otloski was recognized with the Yaneo 2010 Sunshine Award in recognition of his commitment to arts education in the community.

The company’s next public presentation will be Groundworks at Breen Center on February 3 and 4. The program will include the world premiere of a commissioned work by Ronen Koresh, and Hindsight, Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s homage to Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. Breen Center is located at 208 West 30th Street in Cleveland.


Founded in 2001, Bill Wade’s INLET DANCE THEATRE, operates under the goal of “creating life affirming new work, often pulling our topic based choreography from the communities we serve.” They are also a company without a permanent home, reaching out to the community by performing in schools, parks and dance festivals.

The company works with such community organizations as The Nehemiah Mission, which, based on the biblical Nehemiah who rebuilt Jerusalem, has the purpose of rebuilding the lives and homes of the physically and fiscally challenged of Cleveland by bringing in over 1000 volunteers per year to complete around 100 projects in private homes and churches.

Wade’s company, which has two of the area’s best male dancers (Joshua Brown and Justin Steintz) has fine female company members, Makenzie Clevenger and Elizabeth Pollert, an apprentice, Dominic Moore-Dunson, and six trainees.

Several years ago the company did a dance exchange with the residents of Easter Island (a commonwealth of Chile), one of the most remote islands of the world. The Inlet company traveled to Chile to learn dances and customs of the Rap Anui people and several members of that culture travelled to Cleveland. The local company created a series of dances, which were performed to authentic music and costumes designed to imitate the cultural pattern of the island residents.

Wade’s philosophy embodies a longstanding belief that “dance viewing, training and performing experiences serve as tools to bring about personal growth and development.”

Inlet’s education programming includes teaching dance at The Music Settlement, an annual Summer Dance Intensive, which attracts students from as far away as Central America, and residencies throughout Ohio as part of the Ohio Arts Council’s Artist in Residence Program.

Inlet’s next performance will be at 7 pm on Friday, February 24. Entitled An Intimate Evening with Inlet Dance Theatre, it is a fundraiser to be performed in the third floor ballroom of a South Park Boulevard landmark home. Attendance is limited to 40. For information go to

Yes, dance is alive and well in the Cleveland area.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Internationalist

Convergence continuum’s THE INTERNATIONALIST is a linguistic challenge

There’s Spanish, German, Hebrew and Italian. Now there is Washburnspeak.

Much of The Internationalist, a play now in production at convergence continuum, is spoken in a language that is alien to the ear, yet has a strange familiar authenticity. Every once in a while a Yiddish, English or French word pops in making the listener assume that what is being said makes sense. Forget it. It’s author Anne Washburn’s linguistic invention. To make matters even more interesting, or frustrating, depending on your point of view, is that there are no super-titles.

The wisp of a plot centers on Lowell, an American on a business trip. We don’t know what the business is, where he is, or why he is there. In fact, by the time the play is over, depending on your imagination, you might not even know why you went to see this play.

Lowell is met at the airport by Sara, a beautiful assistant from the company he is visiting. After spending a night of supposed amour, the real adventure starts. The task is figuring out what’s going on. Is their internal robbery, international espionage, insider trading, terrorism? Who knows. As it turns out, who cares.

Originally conceived as a one-act, cc’s production is a newer two-act version which takes about one-and-a-half hours with a ten minute intermission. It matters not. The play misses out on a wonderful chance to take on the typical American who goes to foreign lands with little or no knowledge of the verbal and nonverbal customs of the area and expects the natives to adjust to the ego-centered American. Or, possibly to show the difficulty of communication. Washburn doesn’t accomplish either of those goals. If you want to see that well-developed, go to New York and see CHINGLISH.

The convergence cast is good. Especially considering that most of their lines are gibberish. It’s hard to take cues when the lines don’t make sense, or play off each other when the understanding is missing. Tom Kondilas (Lowell), Laurel Hoffman (Sara), Geoffrey Hoffman, Laura Starnik, Ray Caspio, and Robert Hawkes all try hard to make sense of what they’ve been given, and put up a valiant but unfortunately losing fight.

Capsule Judgement: Convergence-continuum’s Artistic Director Clyde Simon is noted for often picking off-the-wall plays. THE INTERATIONALIST is way off. So much so, that one can only ask what, except its obtusenesss, Simon saw in this script.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


TRYING, a fine history lesson woven into an interesting story

What happens when a man noted as a national and world leader faces the reality of his demise? This is the premise of Joanna McClelland Glass’s TRYING, now in production at Cesear’s Forum.

TRYING is based on the real story of Francis Biddle, the Attorney General under Franklin D. Roosevelt and Chief Judge at the Nuremberg trials which examined the evils of individual Nazis following World War II. The play was based on Glass’s own experiences as Biddle’s personal secretary from 1967 through 1968.

Biddle, is a traditional prep school, Ivy league educated conservative Republican until he presides over a case of the coal unions in Pennsylvania. He moved by the experience and does a complete about face and declares, “I’ve come to right a wrong. That’s why God invented Democrats.” From there on he championed liberal causes.

We meet Biddle as a sharply cantankerous, ailing 81-year-old, who has become fussy, overbearing and impossible to live with. He is trying to everyone he deals with. He hires and fires secretaries on a regular basis. That is, he fires the ones who make it through the first day of working for him without running out in tears. In desperation, his wife finds a 25 year-old Canadian girl, whose life has been hard and has caused her to learn not to take abuse from anyone. The duo spars as they try to learn how to communicate with each other and gain mutual respect and a binding connection.

The play was originally produced in Chicago and then moved to Off-Broadway in 2005. Both in the Windy City and New York, it starred Tony Award winner Fritz Weaver and Kati Brazda.

Glass’s writing is natural and real, not theatrical or overblown. It gives the illusion allowing the audience to of peek in on a real place, with real people, with real consequences.

The production, under the direction of Greg Cesear, is nicely textured. The performances are first rate. We watch Glenn Colerider, as Judge Biddle, take his stubborn stands, but begin to wilt as the strain of aging and illness take over his mind and body. Though there are a few line flubs here and there, this is a fine performance. Tricia Bestic is completely real as Joanna. She even has the pregnant walk down pat. Colerider and Bestic play off each other with compassionate fidelity.

Capsule Judgement: TRYING is a fine script which shares historical knowledge woven into a nicely textured story. It gets a fine production at Cesear’s Forum.

St. Nicholas

Dana Hart shines in Conor McPherson’s ST. NICHOLAS at Ensemble

The Irish are noted as vivid and imaginative writers (think Bram Stoker, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, Sean O’Cassey and Brian Friel). They are also noted as being verbose in their creations, as well as being prodigious drinkers, spinners of tall tales, philosophers and womanizers.

Conor McPherson is one of the new breed of Irish writers who creates in his heritage’s tradition. In 1990, The Dublin born McPherson’s THE WEIR, won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play. His 2004 play, SHINING CITY, prompted the London Telegraph to describe him as "the finest dramatist of his generation.” THE SEAFARER, which opens this week at Dobama Theatre, opened in London and New York to rave reviews. Both SHINING CITY and THE SEAFARER were Tony nominees.

It should come as no surprise that McPherson, the author of ST. NICHOLAS, now in production at Ensemble Theatre, writes a rather long diatribe about a hard drinking writer who spins a preposterous tale of vampires, women, drinking and finding redemption. And, much in the Irish tradition of the likes of G.B. Shaw, McPherson asks, "Vampires or theater critics—which are more repellent? Tough call when they’re bloodsuckers, the lot of ’em.” (And, the man got great reviews in spite of skewering us critics.)

The play takes us on a journey with a jaded Irish theater critic who is mesmerized by a beautiful young dancer/actress from the famed Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Following the young actress to London, the critic is drawn into a world of big-city “vampires” – a world that is elegant, sophisticated, and in the end, soulless. It is a tale of self-discovery, in the typical overly dramatic Irish way, that assaults modern culture, where greed and self-gratification are paramount and where the “vultures” try to suck the life right out of us.

Dana Hart is outstanding as the lone-actor in this two-act almost two-hour show. There are hundreds of lines, a subtle Irish brogue, a necessary twinkle in the eye, the need to portray a drunk who is not slapstick or maudlin, being able to confront the audience directly and play for the seriousness and mirth of the ideas, while making us question whether the goings on are real, or Irish blarney. Hart does is all with ease. This is a tour-de-force performance!

Director Sarah May has worked with Hart to create a believable story-telling realism, while transporting us to a philosophical world of illusion.

Is this a Christmas tale as might be assumed from the play’s title? There is one Christmas tree on stage, but it is neither referred to in the dialogue or gets paid any attention. The holiday’s name gets mentioned once in the script, but again, for no particular reason. The title? As is the Irish custom of creating illusion, McPherson has given each of the viewers a wonderful gift from St. Nick, a holiday present in the form of this play!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ST NICHOLAS is an actor’s show. In this case, actor Dana Hart gives a performance that deserves to be seen and appreciated.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Cleveland’s Ensemble Theatre, prediction of demise, premature!

When both Lucia Colombi-Cosentino and her twin-sister Licia Colombi, the founders of Cleveland’s Ensemble Theatre died, the prediction was for the demise of the theatre as well. Well, the pall bearers were wrong. Instead of fading away, Ensemble is back, and not only stronger than ever, but looking for a larger part in the area’s theatre firmament.

The theatre’s new Artistic Director, Celeste Cosentino, is the daughter of Lucia. As she puts it, “Ensemble was my incubator.” She was often brought to the theatre, which was then located in the Civic in Cleveland Heights. Her babysitters were the theatre’s actors and technicians. She intends to keep her heritage not only alive, but thriving.

After 18 years at the Civic in Cleveland Heights, the rental cost was raised beyond what the theatre could afford. The troupe became a tenant of the Cleveland Play House. This year, with CPH moving into their new home at the Allen Theatre in downtown Cleveland, the old facility was closed, and Ensemble was homeless.

Recently, Ensemble made an arrangement with the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education to rent space in the closed Coventry Elementary School. They retrofit a thrust theatre into the former gymnasium space. The present lease goes until the end of December and plans are to sign another 2-year agreement. According to Cosentino, if a long term arrangement can be worked out, the theatre plans to go on a capital fund raising project to further develop the facilities and expand their programming.

Ensemble has a history of proving 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. It is under that umbrella that Cosentino, and her newly constituted board, are looking forward to continuing to produce vital and important theatrical works.

Their recent production of Clifford Odets’s 1930 labor play, WAITING FOR LEFTY, is a script that is as relevant today as it was back then in light of the attacks on labor unions by some state governments and governors. As part of their WAITING FOR LEFTY production, talk back discussions were held to discuss Ohio issue 2, which proposed to eliminate the anti-union bill voted in by the state legislature. The attendance was excellent and the play received positive reviews.

What’s in the future? Cosentino hopes that Ensemble will continue their present programs, such as Stagewrights, a group of writers and interested people who meet on Wednesdays of each week to create and develop new works. In addition, there are plans to continue their children and youth workshops. There will be a New Plays Festival (the scripts will be those developed by the Stagewrights) and talks are underway to develop interactive relationships with other theatre companies. There is a desire to develop Ensemble into an all-inclusive arts facility, much like Beck Center and Lakeland Center for the Arts to not only do theatrics, but also reach out to the other arts.

The 2011-2112 productions will include: ST. NICHOLAS (Conor McPherson); A SONG FOR CORETTA (Pearl Cleage), lower ninth (Beau Willimon), THE COLOMBI NEW PLAYS FESTIVAL (DANCING WITH N.E.D. by Tyler Whidden, DESTROYING THE LIGHT by Sasha Thackaberry, GROUNDS FOR DISMISSAL by Cindy Dettelbach); and GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES (Rajiv Joseph). Joseph is the author of Ensemble’s highly praised spring production, HUCK AND HOLDEN.

Cosentino believes that theatre has, through words, the power to make change. She intends to guide Ensemble to be a vehicle to help make that change.

For information about Ensemble Theatre go to:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Ya Mama!

NINA DOMINGUE, superb actress, proficient author!

The Cleveland area has many fine actresses. One of the area’s female theatrical gems is Nina Domingue. She has proven over and over her versatility and ability to mesmerize an audience.

In YA MAMA! Domingue not only fills the stage with a multiple number of characters, but has written an emotional biopic as well.

In the extended one-act YA MAMA!, Domingue, with the help of director Cathy Hartenstein, showcases the pain and joy of being Nina. The action is up close and personal in Cleveland Public Theatre’s Storefront Studio where no seat is more than three rows from the performer. And, for the run of the show, there was almost never an empty seat.

Domingue takes her viewers on a journey from her New Orleans birth place, through the suicide of her mother, a victim of Post Partum Syndrome, to a short period of living in Cleveland with her mother’s family, back to New Orleans when her father remarries, to the abusive treatment at the hands of her step-mother, to her return to Cleveland where she finally finds a place of acceptance, and flashbacks to what happens when Katrina hits the Big Easy. We experience the birth of her three children, and her burgeoning career as an actress and a mother. Though the play is not quite as polished as her performance, it’s quite a ride.

The set is simple. A series of stools. On each surface a symbolic item is placed. As the plot unfolds, items like the bottle of Drano that her mother drank to kill herself, an apron, and a strap, are picked up as symbols of the items of importance in the actresses life.

Domingue a master of facial, body and vocal expression. At the blink of an eye she transforms herself into a child, her four-year old son, Nina as a mommy, and a victim of abuse. She gives a masterful performance.

Capsule judgement: YA MAMA! is a short evening of revelation and self-discovery presented by one of the area’s most proficient performers. Ya Nina!

La Cage Aux Folles

Disappointing LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at Palace

When LA CAGE AUX FOLLES opened on Broadway in 1983, the gay rights movement was in its infancy. Harvey Fierstein’s book and Jerry Herman’s lyrics and music brought the subject of long term gay relationships, drag queens, societal attitudes toward same sex couples, and homosexual parenting to the fore. The show, which received nine Tony Award nominations, was, in the minds of some, very controversial and opened many topics for discussion and action.

The times, they have changed, and now the subject matter carries little, if any debate, but the themes are still significant. Most gays accept the philosophy of the song, I Am What I Am, which has become the homosexual communities’ unofficial national anthem. The song is a defiant statement of the need for self pride: It's my world, That I want to have a little pride, My world, And it's not a place I have to hide in, Life's not worth a dam, Till I can say, I am what I am.

LA CAGE focuses on a gay couple in a committed, long term relationship. It’s Saint-Tropez, France. Georges, the manager of a nightclub featuring drag entertainment, and Albin, the star attraction, must deal with their son Jean-Michel’s impending engagement. The boy, George’s biological son, the result of a drunken tryst, has been mothered by Albin. What to do when the fiancĂ©e’s father is an ultra-conservative politician, and has insisted on meeting the parents. Of course farcical situations ensue, interlaced with moving emotional moments.

The show’s melodic and memorable score includes A Little More Mascara, With Anne on My Arm, Look Over There, The Best of Times, and the title tune.

I like musicals with a message, and, since LA CAGE is filled with vital themes for life including the need for positive self-esteem, the stand against narrow minded thinking, and homophobia, it ranks as one of my favorite shows.

Therefore, the version now on stage, being presented as part of the Broadway series, was a major disappointment.

On the positive side, Christopher Sieber’s Albin is top notch. Sieber has a great voice, sings meaning just not words, plays both comedy and drama to the hilt, and creates a consistent characterization. Billy Harrigan Tighe gives a nice textured performance as Jean-Michel. Allison Blair McDowell is a charming Anne. Petite Gay Marshall adds a lot personality to the proceedings as restaurant owner Jacqueline. The orchestra is good, with special attention to trumpet player Bill Dowling.

On the other hand, in the original production the Les Cagelles, were a gorgeous line of dancers whose gender was guessed at until they removed their wigs at the end of the show. Not so in this whittled down production. The six dancers were masculine and played for laughs rather than creating illusion. This is typical of Terry Johnson’s directing. He seems more interested in farce and slapstick than in the show’s meaningful themes.

Jeigh Madjus knows no restraint as Jacob, the family’s “maid.” He goes so overboard that he becomes a caricature who blows the natural humorous lines by overdoing the fey.

Lynn Page’s choreography was uncreative and generally plodding, even in the usually spectacular birdcage number.

The biggest flaw in the production, was the wooden performance of George Hamilton as Georges. He displayed about as much charisma as his cardboard cutout in the theatre’s lobby. It’s a wonder that Sieber could develop such a fine Albin playing opposite a performance which made so little attempt to build rapport between the two.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In spite of a wonderful script, great music, and a fine performance by Christopher Sieber, LA CAGES AUX FOLLES is a disappointment. The barebones production lacks the dynamic soul to make it a meaningful and fully entertaining evening of theatre.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Mountaintop

THE MOUNTAINTOP opens questions about Martin Luther King, Jr.

What was Martin Luther King, Jr. like as a person? With all the death threats that King received, what was his last night alive like? What did he believe was going to be his ultimate role in the Black rights movement?

Katori Hall, a playwright and performer from Memphis, Tennessee, who wrote the award winning play HURT VILLAGE, attempts to answer these questions in THE MOUNTAINTOP, which is now getting its Broadway showing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. It is a thought provoking, but not an epic script.

The play takes place on April 3, 1968. It is a “what/if” reimagining of the night before King’s assassination. King returns to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after delivering his soon to become famous I've Been to the Mountaintop speech.

He’s exhausted, alone, out of cigarettes, and a storm rages outside. He calls for room service. A young lady (Camae) appears with coffee. Since King was hinted to be a womanizer, Camae’s presence opens supposition of what might come. He flirts with her, bums several Pall Malls, drinks some of her whiskey and, affectionately uses the n-word.

As the short one-act unfolds, she becomes the instrument by which King, at least in Hall’s vision, is forced to confront his destiny and his legacy.

Hall presents a real King, a chain smoker, the possessor of smelly feet who wears a sock with a hole in the toe, and, who, in spite of his bravado, has fears. This is a King who carries the burden of the civil rights movement, is weary from being away from his family and his church for so long, and is getting a cold. She gives us a different figure than the powerful man who has become the bigger than life legend.

Director Kenny Leon does a good job of keeping the show well-paced and the characters accessible. He isn’t going for epic here, he’s going for understanding a real man, with real life problems. He also, with the author’s help, presents an unknown presence who gives us cause to pause and ponder whether Camae is real or a figment of the imagination.

Samuel L. Jackson gives us King-lite. Only at the end, when King is preaching, do we see the bigger than life person. Jackson wisely sticks to a speaking tone and pronunciation pattern that doesn’t attempt to mimic King’s preaching.

Angela Bassett is effective as a cross between a typical television smart aleck African American character and a sassy street-wise lady. Interestingly, when the Broadway opening was announced, Halle Berry was confirmed as Camae. It is interesting to conjecture how the role would have been interpreted with Berry in the role.

Capsule judgement: THE MOUTAINTOP is not an easy play to watch, especially since we know what is going to happen the next day on the balcony outside that room. That is not to say the play is depressing. It’s not. It is filled with vivid imagery, humor and some preposterous ideas. It is well worth seeing.

Freud's Last Session

FREUD’S LAST SESSION a fascinating look at belief or lack of belief

The badge on my jacket says, “I’ve had a session with Freud!” Yes, that Freud…Sigmund. Wait, he’s dead. How did I have the session?

Sigmund Freud founded the discipline of psychoanalysis. His concepts centered on sexual drives, parental influences, transference, dream interpretation and unconscious desires. Known as an atheist, he was not without religion. He was an assimilated secular Jew.

C. S. Lewis was a novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian and Christian apologist who wrote such works as The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia. At age 15 he declared himself an atheist. At 32 he returned to the Anglican Communion and fervently re-embraced God and Christianity.

What would have happened if these two men had met to discuss their conflicting ideas? To find out you need to see FREUD’S LAST SESSION, a two-character "what-if" play now on stage at New World Stages in New York.

It’s also where, if you happen to have been in the theatre on the day they were collecting donations for Broadway Fights Aids you could purchase the chance to try out Freud’s famous couch and get a picture with the great man himself. Well, a prop version of the sofa and his acting substitute.

The play is based on the best selling book The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. Playwright Mark St. Germain became intrigued with Freud's meeting with an unnamed Oxford don. Was this unnamed visitor really C.S. Lewis?

The setting: Freud’s study in his London house. It’s September 3, 1939, and, as the room’s radio informs us, the war between England and the fatherland is about to break out. As the two debate, air raid sirens wail and Freud, a life long smoker, is pain-ripped due to mouth cancer which requires him to wear an uncomfortable oral prosthesis.

Freud purported that those who believed in God were suffering from obsessional neurosis.

Lewis thought that human existence depended on the belief in a supreme being. A lively, contentious yet joke-filled debate takes place, and though they approach ideas quite differently, they find themselves bonding in ways they might not have expected.

Hanging over the end of the play is whether Freud will, as he has indicated, destroy himself before the cancer can do it. We do know, in fact, that two weeks after the date of the play, Freud, assisted by his doctor, did end his own life. This adds to the intrigue of the play as Freud tells Lewis that if Lewis is right about his belief in the afterlife, he can tell Freud about it in heaven, but if Freud is right, then neither of them will ever know the truth.

The 90-minute intermissionless production, which is mainly talk with little action, is excellent.

Tyler Marchant’s direction keeps the dialogue moving right along. Martin Rayner, not only looks like Freud, but he speaks with a slight Viennese accent, and is totally believable. Mark H. Dold makes C. S. Lewis very real. The duo play well off each other.

Brian Prather’s well-appointed set, a reproduction of Freud’s Vienna office, is finely detailed and makes for a perfect setting for the action.

Capsule judgement: FREUD’S LAST SESSION is fascinating theatre for anyone who is interested in a philosophical thought laced drama with laughter and fine acting.

Monday, November 07, 2011


Mesmerizing WARHORSE brings new dimensions to the stage

World War I, the war to end all wars, was a bloody battle in which an estimated 10 million soldiers lost their lives. An overlooked fact is that, since the conflict was highlighted by cavalry battles, eight million horses were slaughtered. The mighty steeds were cut down as the weapons of warfare, including barbed wire, machine guns, cannons and armored tanks, became the weapons of destruction. Animals were no match for these instruments.

WARHORSE, now on stage in at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at New York’s Lincoln Center, is the story of the bond between Albert, a British farm boy, and Joey, his magnificent horse. It is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, as adapted by Nick Stafford.

The plot travels from the English countryside to the fields of France and Germany. Joey, a colt, which was bought by Albert’s father in a drunken bidding contest, has developed into a prized horse. At the start of the war, the father, enticed by money, sells the animal to the British military. Distraught, underage Albert enlists in an attempt to search out and save his steed. Through a series of searing battles we see how horse and boy eventually are reunited.

WARHORSE won 2011 Tony Awards for best play, directing, scenic design, lighting and sound design, plus a special award for Handspring Puppet Company for creating all the realistic animals. Every one of those citations was well deserved.

The visual elements of the production are finely honed. The battle scenes are realistic. The death and carnage of humans and animals is engrossing. Projections and physical elements, barbed wire, bomb explosions, poison gas attacks and tanks fill the thrust stage. Birds fly, a goose cavorts, weather changes, people and animals die.

Nothing is more impressive than the life-sized puppet horses. They are magnificent creatures which are ridden, change in physical size as they become malnourished, whinny, display unique personalities, and become living creatures before our eyes.

Even the musical interludes, which help tell the story, are focused and encompassing.

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr’s direction is flawless. Not a detail is missed. The staging is mind-boggling.

The cast is excellent. Seth Numrich makes Albert so real that his agony becomes ours. Alyssa Breshahan as Rose Narracott, Albert’s mother, personifies a woman caught between her love for son and the need to find a way to live with her often drunk and sullen husband. Matt Doyle is fine as Albert’s cousin, who is forced to go off to war by his controlling father. Kat Pfaffl, as Song Woman and Liam Robinson, as Song Man create numerous emotional moments with their music. In the huge cast, there is not a weak performance.

The audience appreciation was evident by the resounding curtain call. The human actors were applauded, the horses got an extended standing ovation, and even the goose got screams of approval.

Capsule judgement: Filled with amazing puppetry, stirring music, a riveting story, compelling graphics, and fine acting, WARHORSE is mesmerizing theatre. It is a once in a lifetime theatrical experience.

The Book of Mormon


THE BOOK OF MORMON is an irreverent look at all things holy. It is the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the conceivers of the animated television comedy, SOUTH PARK. Add to the mix, Robert Lopez, who co-wrote and composed the Tony Award winning AVENUE Q, and the result is a script that takes on organized religion and traditional musical theatre.

Why did they do the take off on Mormonism? According to the creators, they have a lifelong fascination with the religion. And, as becomes apparent in the script, they found a lot of subject matter to make fun of within the structure of the Latter Day Saints, including the golden tablets, the door-knocking missions of the clean scrubbed males of the clan, and the fervent attempt to convert the world populace to believers.

THE BOOK OF MORMON centers on the story of two young Mormon missionaries who are complete opposites. Elder Price, is a poster boy for the religion. He’s a clean scrubbed, pious, over-achiever. Elder Cunningham is a chubby misfit who has a flaw…he makes up imaginative tales when it strikes his fancy. Instead of being assigned to Orlando, Florida, where Price prays to be, the boys are sent to a remote village in northern Uganda, where a brutal warlord is threatening the local population. The natives are worried about staying alive, famine, poverty, and AIDS, while the Mormons are interested in saving their souls and making them converts. That’s not a good match for success.

So the stage is set for some of funniest songs since MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT. The song list includes: You and Me (But Mostly Me), Hasa Diga Eebowai (the translation is unfit to print), Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, Joseph Smith American Moses, and All American Prophet. These, and others, are contained in the best selling Broadway cast album in over four decades.

After nearly seven years of development, the show opened on Broadway in March 2011 to rave and vivid reviews. It was called, "the filthiest, most offensive, and—surprise—sweetest thing you’ll see on Broadway this year,” and “quite possibly the funniest musical ever.” Amen!

To say I loved the show is an understatement. I howled at the take offs on THE LION KING, THE KING AND I, WICKED, and all the other less-than-subtly inserted slams at Broadway shows. The irreverent Mormon inclusions from the Adam Smith-God tableau opening, to Christ’s commentary, to Elder Cunningham’s imaginative relating of principles of The Book of Mormon, are priceless. The song lyrics are clever. The music is catchy and ear pleasing.

The cast is marvelous. Josh Gad (Elder Cunningham) is hilarious. He is a bouncing bundle of hyper-active glee. Angelic looking Andrew Ranells (Elder Price) properly makes pious sincerity look like a burden to bear. He has a marvelous singing voice and develops a clearly defined character. Nikki James won the Tony for her role as Nabulungi, a young Ugandan girl, and well deserved it. The rest of cast is also excellent.

Casey Niholaw’s choreography is creative, using African movement, combined with rock infusion and tap dancing, to wow the audience.

If you are going to see THE BOOK OF MORMON there are some givens: (a) if you are an uptight religious zealot, you are probably going to be driven right out of the theatre, (b) if four letter words make you nutsy, you are probably going to go totally bonkers, (c) if you have a sense of humor, you may lose control of your bladder from laughing, and (d) if you love delightful music you are going to dig the score.

Capsule judgement: THE BOOK OF MORMON is one fun ride that takes on religion, the Broadway musical, life and strife, and comes out the winner. It’s a precious laugh delight.


Ch’ing•lish delights while probing cultural differences

The Sapir-Whorf Principle theorizes that we are the language we use, that our beliefs, attitudes and values all center on our ability to use verbalization. Misunderstandings are created when there is a clash of languages used by communicators.

Tony winner David Henry Hwang’s Ch’ing•lish, now on stage in New York’s Longacre Theater, is a delightful and insightful proof of Sapir-Whorf.

Chinglish refers to spoken or written English that is influenced by the Chinese language. It is commonly applied to ungrammatical or nonsensical English in Chinese contexts.

"Be careful not to slip and fall” in English translates to “slip carefully” in Chinglish. “False Alarm!” becomes “The Siren Lies!,” “Don't Feed the Birds!” is stated as “The Fowl Cannot Eat,” and “quiet please“ is translated as “no noising!” Want to know how well you understand Chinglish? Go the play’s website and take a test:

In the play’s opening scene, Cleveland businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes) is giving a presentation to fellow Ohio entrepreneurs about his experiences in obtaining a contract in a small Chinese city.

As we observe, a series of scenes portray the difficulty of overcoming the Chinese-English language barrier and customs, including the concept of guanxi (the social networks that operate in the Chinese business world). Interestingly, the production is presented in a mix of spoken English and Mandarin with the use of subtitles flashed on the scenery. This is surely a first in the history of Broadway.

The production, under the direction of Leigh Silverman, is delightful. The opening scene is nothing short of hilarious, as are all those segments in which the Chinese interpreters attempt to translate what Cavanaugh is saying. The chaos that results cannot be described, it has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Wilmes is believable and develops a textured character. Stephen Pucci, as Cavanaugh’s so-called business consultant, is excellent as he transforms from aide to fake. His breakdown scene is a laugh riot. Jennifer Lim, as Cavanaugh’s adversary turned lover and help-mate, gives a fine performance. The rest of cast is equally strong.

David Korin’s set design is intriguing. It’s fascinating watching the set pieces flow seamlessly on a turntable and wagons to form numerous settings.

Capsule judgement: Ch’iNg•lish is a fascinating and delightful study of the clash of cultures based on the languages we use.