Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lizzie Borden

LIZZIE BORDEN an intense evening of theatre at the 14th Street Theatre

“Lizzie Borden took an ax, gave her mother forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one.” That line from a caustic poem not only attempted to describe the 1892 murder of Borden’s parents, but became a limerick used gleefully by girls for jumping rope.

The grizzly murder, which, much like the modern day O.J. Simpson case, was sensationalized. And, like Simpson, Lizzie, with a clever defense, was acquitted.

The trial revealed the tale of a girl who might have been molested by her supposed miserly father, emotionally put upon by her step-mother, and might have been involved in an ongoing affair with her female next door neighbor. Even today, curiosity over the case has amateur sleuths searching for the truth.

Doesn’t sound like the basis for a musical, does it? Well, in the hands of music and book conceivers Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer, Tim Maner and Alan Stevens Hewitt, it turns out to be a fascinating topic. Add to that the dynamic talent of Baldwin Wallace College’s musical theatre students, and the creative and focused direction of Victoria Bussert, place the whole thing in the intimate 14th Street Theatre, and you have one hell of an exciting evening of theatre.

The score, composed of traditional and modern rock, as well as several ballads, carries the burden of the script. Few lines are spoken. The pounding music highlights the moods of the characters as well as beating the audience into psychological submission. The viewer is carried away emotionally with the unending intensity.

This is the kind of script that Bussert does so well. It’s quirky, allows for creativity in staging and character interpretation, and is well written.

The four-woman cast has been well-honed by Bussert. They are emotionally present at all times, never wavering from their excitement of telling the tale. The story is often visually gruesome, yet, there is comic relief. Lizzie, for example, pulverizes her father and step-mother’s skulls by her whacking away at pictures of the duo attached to watermelons. Audience members in the first few rows are given plastic ponchos in order to avoid the flying melon inners. Some appropriately overdone scenes add sadistic mirth.

In order to give students the needed live theatre experience, there are two casts. I saw the “Axe” group, so my comments can only describe that cast.

Shannon O’Boyle is pretty, innocent looking, and a perfect Lizzie. She doesn’t appear to be capable of such a heinous deed, but when she lets loose vocally and emotionally, you can believe that she whacked away. Her Maybe Someday/Gotta Get Out of Here was well-sung, foreshadowing what was to come.

Sophie Brown, as Bridget Sullivan, the family’s maid, played the role to the hilt. Her overdone butch demeanor helped create comic relief. Her The Fall Of The House of Borden was excellent.

Beautiful Ciara Renée, with her flashing eyes, menacing voice and severe body movements, gave a clear indication of the inner negative thoughts of Emma, Lizzie’s older sister. Sweet Little Sister, which was sung with O’Boyle, was beautifully interpreted.

Pretty Rachel Michelle Jones, as the Borden’s next door neighbor, and possibly Lizzie’s love interest, was convincing as Alice Russell. Will You Stay, sung with O’Boyle, was a beautifully interpreted love song.

The voices were universally wonderful. These young ladies are Broadway ready!

If there was one flaw in the production, it was the musical direction of Matthew Webb. Though the band was excellent, Webb failed to keep the musicians in check. Often the heavy sound of the music drowned out the performers. This is not a rock concert. We need to hear the words of the singers in order to grasp the meaning. In addition, he often upstaged the performers with his dancing while directing.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: LIZZIE BORDEN was yet another of those special productions resulting from the collaboration of PlayhouseSquare and BW. It’s too bad that the show was only presented for 4 performances, because this is the type of production that would have built a cult following. Bravos for Vickie Bussert and her BW students for a rocking evening of fine entertainment.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review of Reviewer's reviews--Tom Kuby

Always look for and rely on your excellent judgment and recommendations. Have never been disappointed.

Tom Kuby

The Velocity of Autumn

Eric Coble’s script + Dorothy Silver’s performance = captivating theatre at Beck

According to the US Census Bureau, the elderly are the fastest growing population in the United States. At present those 65 and older number 35 million and their presence is increasing by 12 percent a year. Many of these people find themselves in precarious situations. One of the major issues is where should they live? Historically, as a person aged, they were absorbed into the on-going family unit. But, those times have changed. More and more elderly are warehoused in nursing and retirement homes, often against their will. They are disrespected as their senses start to diminish, family members want to cash in on expected inheritances, and caring for the old is too much of a burden.

What happens to 78-year old Alexandra is the topic of Eric Coble’s poignant play, THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN, now in production at Beck Center.

Alexandra, a former painter and arts lover, sits in the living room of her Brooklyn townhouse surrounded by bottles of flammable film developer which have been rigged to be pyres of fire. The doors have been barricaded and all but a second story window have been locked. That window, her opening to the world, has been left ajar so she can see a beloved tree, which she has fought most of her adult life to insure is not cut down, and provides a place for birds to sit and chirp.

Alexandra does have slips of memory, her knees and back hurt, she can no longer hold a paint brush, but she is a vital woman who reads, talks on the phone to her friends, and is sharp enough to know that she doesn’t want to leave her home and go to an extended care facility to die. She thoroughly believes, ‘There are good and bad ways to die.”

Alexandra hasn’t lost either her sense of the ironic, or sense of humor. She quips, “You know you are getting old when you start making sounds for your body,” and refers to her children, who want to “put her away” as “over reacting because they have a screw loose.” She doesn’t mind being alone. In fact, she states, “I’m good at it.” She contends that “there can still be beauty as a person comes apart.”

In through the partially open window climbs Chris, the youngest of her three children, and unequivocally her favorite. He’s a person much like her. He presently lives in New Mexico, has difficulty with attachments, and constantly runs in search of the unknown. He is also gay, which caused some family issues.

At first the duo spars, but soon their emotional bridge allows for a connection. As she relates stories of the past, and shares their racing around the curved staircase at the Guggenheim Museum, he tells the tale of Native Americans creating beautiful sand sculptures in the desert, which are then swept away. Swept away, like much of the beauty of life as it nears the end.

Coble, who spent part of his youth on American Indian reservations uses that background to develop this poignant story. The concept of the inclusion rather than exclusion of the elderly in the Native American culture, the respect for the aged, the love of nature, the importance of real family ties, the need for the old to teach the young and share their wisdom, are all part of the tale of THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN.

The Beck production, under the meticulous direction of Eric Schmiedl, is emotionally wrenching, yet humorous. Well paced, the 90-minute of intermissionless time, speeds by.

In the hands of lesser actors the script might not have come to life in the way it did. Coble seems to have written the play for Dorothy Silver, Cleveland’s Uta Hagen/Helen Hayes/Jessica Tandy. Silver is Alexandra, Alexandra is Silver. This is not acting, it’s being. There is a possibility that the script is headed for a New York production, and no one is more deserving of playing the role than Dorothy Silver! The world needs to know what a gem resides in our area!

David Hansen, as Chris, is excellent. Hansen shows a natural flow. He neither over nor under dramatizes the role. He and Silver play well together.

Scenic Designer Todd Krispinsky’s fragmented Brooklyn row-house fits the mood and concept of the play. As with Alexandra, its slightly off-set, showing some age, but still very serviceable.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Seeing THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN is one of those special evenings in the theatre. Dorothy Silver is enthralling, David Hansen is right on target, and Eric Coble’s poignant yet humorous script allows for a much needed look at the plight of the aging in this sometimes heartless culture. This production is an absolutely must, must, must see!

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Cleveland Play House’ s RED, everything theatre should be!

If you’ve ever gone into an art gallery and seen a canvas with a large square within another square on a solid background, or a strip of color vertically slicing through a sea of solid color, you’ve been exposed to what may be classified as a painting of the anti-figurative aesthetic segment of the Abstract Expressionism movement. One of the most important painters of that school of art was Mark Rothko.

Playwright John Logan’s RED illuminates a short period of time in Rothko’s life when he was commissioned to create a series of paintings for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. It illustrates through drama and humor Rothko’s fanatic belief that art matters. It also gives a glimpse into the complexity of the man and his bi-polar personality. One minute he is a gentle philosopher, the next a maniac tyrant. The play illuminates the being of an artist and his creations.

Russian born Rothko (Marcus Rothkowitz) was a product of the Realistic movement of art, but he moved quickly away from that. He, along with some other painters formed a group called The Ten, joining together on a mission “to protest against the reputed equivalence of American painting and literal painting.”

Rothko and success did not meld easily. After receiving acclaim, he became almost paranoid over the views of critics, curators and the public, in general.

In order to display his art in the way that he thought proper, he built The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, a holy space that is open to all faiths, but belongs to none. In it he placed his works, including those that were intended for the Four Seasons Restaurant, but which he refused to place inside the fabled eating establishment because, after visiting the space, he decided that it was not a proper setting for seeing and appreciating his work.

Logan’s RED has Rothko hiring Ken, a young art student, to be his assistant. At first Rothko’s strong personality almost overwhelms Ken, but gradually, they develop a working agreement. Not a friendship, not Rothko acting as a father figure or teacher, but two artisans working together in an unequal balance. That connection lasts until Ken finally says what he needs to express. Ken is fired, but has learned a great deal about art, himself, Rothko, and the color red.

The play is filled with mentally and emotionally inciting lines. Included are: “You can’t be an artist until you are civilized.” “Most painting is thinking.” “A picture lives by companionship.” “Not all art is psychodrama.” “Silence is accurate.” “Black swallows red.”

It’s impossible to sit through the show and be passive. There is just too much going on that excites the mind.

Director Anders Cato has molded the production into a compelling study of art history and the mind of an artist, at least Rothko as artist. The show is well paced, holds the audience’s attention for the 90-minutes of dialogue, and brings out excellent portrayals by both actors.

Bob Ari, who is probably best known for his being Nixon in FROST/NIXON, is the consummate professional. He is totally believable as the explosive Rothko. His every word and movement are meaningful. The passion of Rothko is the passion of Ari.

Young Randy Harrison, is probably best known for making many gay men his admirers as the handsome Justin in Showtime’s QUEER AS FOLK and picked up another slew of fans for his portrayal of Boq in the musical WICKED. Harrison is completely natural and believable as the apprentice who endures the mood swings of Rothko. He accomplishes what is so difficult to do on stage…listening effectively. He watches every gesture, observes every word of Ari with total concentration. He gives a master class of being in, deep in a role.

Ari and Harrison play well off each other. The emotional and physically exhausting scene where the duo primes a blank canvas with reddish paint is enthralling.

Dan Kotlowitz’s lighting design helps create the right moods and, like good choreography does to music, follows the flow of the words to develop the right moods and textures.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Must see RED is special—great acting, a fine script, thought provoking dialogue, educational—everything theatre should be!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ballet Memphis


Memphis emphatically basically moved to the Cleveland area this month. PlayhouseSquare presented the Broadway smash MEMPHIS, THE MUSICAL at the Palace Theatre to large and enthusiastic audiences. Then, DANCECleveland brought BALLET MEMPHIS to town for what turned out to be a delightful evening of ballet at the Ohio Theatre. The large appreciative audience experienced an honest performance by some fine young dancers.

BALLET MEMPHIS is a mid-sized dance company noted for performing full-length story pieces. No, it is not a world class company. However, their young and enthusiastic dancers were up to the task of telling the tales and showing off their city’s culture and historical base: being the hometown of Elvis, performing as a major influencer of rock-and-roll, housing the famous Beale Street, hosting the slave markets and civil rights battles, and where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

The program consisted of BEING HERE WITH OTHER PEOPLE, danced to the classical music sounds of Beethoven’s Concerto in D Major for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 6, which stressed the natural capacity of people to experience joy. CURTAIN OF GREEN, danced to the atonal music of Phillip Glass, was an interpretation of southern icon writer Eudora Welty’s short story, which is a glimpse of love, fear, and madness. S'epanouir centered on a woman who was in the depths of an emotional crisis until her community aids and lifted her to a transformation.
The program ended with IN DREAMS, performed to a grouping of passionate Roy Orbison songs.

Capsule judgement: With no professional ballet company in Cleveland, it was a nice diversion to see the balletic dance form presented by BALLET MEMPHIS in what turned out to be a very pleasant program.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Of Mice and Men

OF MICE AND MEN compelling at Blank Canvas

There is a new theatre in town…Blank Canvas. Founder Patrick Ciamacco explains that this is a professional theatre which pays designers and actors for their services. He states that the organization’s staff is “dedicated to providing a positive working environment and want to show loyalty and investment in actors.”

Ciamacco states, “it is our goal to create a new love for theater in people who might not usually see a show. That was why we opened with The Texas Chainsaw Musical. We saw a large number of non-typical theater people. We'll always have one show in our season that fits this criteria. We want to create a versatile season that appeals to many different people.”

The company’s opening show, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MUSICAL, was well received. Their latest staging is OF MICE AND MEN.

John Steinbeck’s novella, OF MICE AND MEN, which was written in 1937, is required reading in many high schools. Not in all, however, because some religious zealots believe that the “offensive” language of the book, is not fit for teenagers. Too bad for those who miss out because it is a well-written and meaningful piece of literature. The play version follows closely the book’s plot.

Steinbeck knew well the migrant laborers of the depression days. Mainly white, poor, and solitary, they travelled the country seeking work. The men were mainly frustrated over their working conditions and often dreamed of having a small place of their own, where they didn’t have to work for someone else and take orders from bosses who were often as miserable as themselves. Steinbeck worked on a company-owned ranch, so he writes from personal experience.

OF MICE AND MEN basically tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, who wander California in search of work. They dream of getting enough money to buy a small ranch site they know is available. Much like the Robert Burns poem “To A Mouse,” which reads, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, often go awry,’ the men’s plans often get destroyed.

George and Lennie are best friends. George is smart, not from book learning, but filled with common sense. Lennie is anything but the small stature his last name indicates. He is large, has great strength, but limited intelligence. A creature of emotional drives, he is childlike in his obsession for touching soft things. When he touches softness, whether it be mice, rabbits, puppies or cloth, he can lose rational control. The living things he touches often, because of his strength and uncontrolled emotions, wind up dead.

George attempts to protect Lennie from the world around him. Lennie makes George’s life meaningful by giving him someone who needs him.

The duo finds works at a ranch, working under the supervision of the ill-willed Curley, the boss’s son. Just when the duo’s hopes for getting their little farm seem to be within reach, Curley’s beautiful, but unhappy wife, becomes the innocent victim of Lennie’s compassion, and true tragedy strikes on several fronts.

Presented on a thrust stage surrounded by only three rows of seats, the entire staging is close and personal. For this closeness to work, the production must be realistic. Under the careful direction of Patrick Ciamacco, the Blank Canvas’s production is compelling. Everything from the realistic fight scenes, to the clear character development, is on-target. Laughter or emotional gasps from the audience at key moments, clearly reflect the quality of the show. More than one handkerchief was pulled out at the concluding blackout.

Ciamacco, who not only directs, has designed the sets, serves as technical director, created the program, and conceived the poster design, makes Lennie live. This is not a portrayal, this is a case of immersing yourself into a part so much that you become the person. He walks the fine line between being childish and child-like with precision. He creates a man-child who the audience wants to cuddle and save from himself.

Joe Kenderes as George, is Ciamacco’s equal. He is totally believable in creating a man who says that he would be better off alone, but who cares so greatly for Lennie that he would do about anything to save the hulking man of limited abilities from pain.

Tim Tvcar as Candy, the old man who lost his hand in a ranch accident, sees no personal future, Noah Hbrek, as the hateful insecure Curley, Betsy Kahl, Curley’s lonely wife who finds herself isolated and wanting only “someone to talk to,” Daniel Bush, as a rational mule man, Lucas Scattergood (Carlson), William Goff (Whit), John Polk (The Boss), and Marvin Mallory (Crooks), are all excellent. Even Riley, who portrays Candy’s aged dog, has great stage presence.

The set, the location changes, and the incidental music all add greatly to the performance.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Blank Canvas’s OF MICE AND MEN is a compelling piece of theatre. This is an absolutely must see production filled with fine acting and focused staging.

The Hyacinth Macaw

Mac Wellman’s THE HYACINTH MACAW confounds at con-con

Clyde Simon, the Artistic Director of convergence-continuum has a thing for Mac Wellman. As Simon states in his director’s note for THE HYACINTH MACAW, now in production at con-con, “Wellman’s plays have been particular favorites of mine.” Simon goes on to explain that he was a resident director and actor at The Flea, Wellman’s off-Broadway theatre.

Simon finds Wellman’s work “the kind of plays truly suited to our company’s artistic outlook, acting styles and intimate environmental staging.”

THE HYACINTH MACAW is the sixth of Wellman’s works that the theatre has done. I find it the sixth of the writer’s works that have confounded me! I tend to agree with a reviewer who stated, when a local theatre in his city presented Macaw, “There are thousands of words in Hyacinth Macaw. Unfortunately, one word is missing: ‘stop,’ as in ‘Stop this nonsense IMMEDIATELY.’”

Simon isn’t the only person who has a thing for Wellman. The writer is considered by some to be the icon of American experimental theatre. He has written over 40 plays, and is the winner of three OBIE citations.

Wellman states that Macaw is one of “four plays that taken together tell a story about a young woman adrift and alienated in a world essentially gone mad…populated by corporate thieves and religious maniacs and desperate losers of all kinds.” In this space in time, with ponzi schemes, the fanatical religious right in full political bloom, and bank foreclosures on houses, we could use such a play to reflect our society. I’d love to believe that’s what he is saying, but I have trouble digging that out from his continued stream of doublespeak.

How the actors remembered their lines is a wonder. Try these on: “What is real has no name.” “What happens when the casket doesn’t fit in the hole?” “Invisible college of devils.” “Adolescent episodes of theatrical dementia.” So, you’re saying, “These are taken out of context, that’s why they don’t make sense.” Nope, there isn’t much context from which they were removed. It’s more like a group of people with Tourette’s syndrome, streaming gibberish.

Try this on: a stranger appears in a family’s backyard in Bug River (state unidentified). He carries a suitcase which, we find out much later, contains the dying moon. (I kid you not.) He calls a teenager an orphan, gives her mother a letter, informs the father/husband he is a fake and has to leave his family. (End of Act 1.) Act 2: The stranger gives dad a snake, dad leaves, everyone sings Battle Hymn of the Republic, the stranger is now the new dad, mom talks to Mad Wu, a Caucasian-Chinaman with ever-changing accents, the daughter and the new father bury the moon and she caw-caws like a macaw (the world’s largest flying parrot), while listening to the new dad inform her that they are now all orphans. Black out!

Okay, life is illusionary. I get that. English is a language of many, many words. I also get that. But, randomly stringing them together in the guise of making sense, is not, in my opinion, good theatre. But, as the play says, “never doubt your ignorance.”

The fact that the cast could try and make us believe that what they are saying makes any sense, is a wonderment. Yet, they do. Hurrah to Lucy Bredeson-Smith, Lauren B. Smith, Michael Regnier, Clyde Simon and Michael Prosen for having the chutzpah to try.

I guess I’m from the school that says a play must be purposeful and the audience has to understand what is going on. In other words, the script has to tell us what the playwright wants from us. Yes, some plays are abstract, that’s not the issue. WAITING FOR GODOT and NO EXIT aren’t for the non-thinking, but at least when they are done, I have a pretty clear inkling of what Samuel Beckett is trying to tell me. Same goes for Pinter and Albee. Sorry, but I can’t say the same for Mac Wellman.

Capsule Judgement: Mac Wellman’s THE HYACINTH MACAW is not theatre for everyone. If you like abstract doubletalk and want to sit and pretend you are an intellectual who understands what the author is trying to say, this will be your thing. I’ll wait and hope I better appreciate the theatre’s next production DEVIL BOYS FROM BEYOND, the tale of a journalist who investigates reports of flying saucers in the swamplands of Lizard Lick, Florida.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Winter's Tale


The graduating class of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program closed out their third year with a production of Shakespeare’s THE WINTER’S TALE. Their training is basically over and what’s next place for these students are tryouts, getting an agent, and going forth into the world of professional theatre.

Previous graduates of the program are now appearing both on and off-Broadway shows, cast in network television shows, and as cast members of Cleveland Play House productions.

Since the troupe has been working with visiting artist Geoff Bullen, the associate director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and has been involved in a three-week Shakespeare Text Intensive, it was rather disappointing that some of THE WINTER’S TALE cast had difficulty in developing clear and meaningful characterizations.

THE WINTER’S TALE is a comedy, though it is perceived by some literary experts as one of Shakespeare’s late romances, while others tag it as a problem play because it is filled with conflicts, which result in a conflict solving ending.

The story concerns the jealous King Leontes who believes that his wife is having an affair, and that her soon to be born child was fathered by King Polixenes, his childhood friend. As a result, one is poisoned, another imprisoned, and the newly born baby exiled. Doesn’t sound like a comedy? In the creative hands of Shakespeare anything is possible.

Because of its clear characters, comic twists and turns, and unity of plot, the play is an audience favorite. The script gets many, many professional and amateur productions.

A recent New York staging of the play was described as, “Scalding jealousy, hunger for revenge, young love in rapturous bloom, the soul-corroding sorrow of regret: all are evoked in the saturated colors.” Unfortunately, few of these words can be used to describe much of the CWRU/CPH MFA production.

Director Geoff Bullen’s staging is marked by some fine character development and clever gimmicks, but also by excessive shouting, languid pacing, and much surface level acting. Sly use of the Teddybear’s Picnic Song highlights a fine comic segment. The blocking keys much of the dramatic and comic action. But all is not well in either Sicilia, where the play is set, nor in the Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre, where the production is being staged.

Andrew Gorell, who has been excellent in previous productions, continues to be fine in comedic scenes, but loses his believability in dramatic moments. Dan Hendrock seems to believe that acting means yelling with little character texturing. French born Yan Tual is very difficult to understand. If he plans to work in U.S. theatre, he needs to work of American English pronunciation. Michael Herbert has matinee idol good looks, but doesn’t display the acting chops to go with his physical presence.

The females of the company are all strong. Kim Krane, Eva Gil and Kathryn Metzger are excellent, while, Kelli Ruttle is outstanding. Each appears to be ready for their entrance into the professional world.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: A WINTER’S TALE is a disappointing production. So much more should be expected from a group of actors who have spent three years polishing their craft under excellent guidance.

Poor Little Lulu

POOR LITTLE LULU, Theatre of the Absurd at Cleveland Public Theatre

POOR LITTLE LULU, Matthew Earnest’s play, which is getting its world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre where it is being produced in association with The Lunar Stratagem, is a classic Theatre of the Absurd creation. The absurd movement, which was at its high during the turbulent mid-to-late twentieth century, centered on the existential question, “why do we exist?” Plays by Edward Albee and Eugene Ionesco put individuals in absurd situations, where the ridiculousness and horrors of life, and of the decisions made, were paramount.

Earnest has taken the words of Frank Wedekind, who wrote PANDORA’S BOX (1904) and EARTH SPIRIT (1895), controversial plays which examined women under siege, and developed a work that allows for seeing a group of people who are depraved, selfish and foolish. People, who clearly are acting out the meaning of existence.
Placed in a stark white setting, with harsh glaring lights, the work takes on the look of absurdist art, often letting the viewer figure out what is being portrayed and its meaning.

The script is as relevant today as it was at the turn of the century, maybe even more so because of the constant availability of electronic media. Vitriolic conservatism in the present day has broadened the field. Religious fanatics, their political spokesmen, and right wing media moguls attack anyone that doesn’t agree with their narrow views by name calling, verbal, and litigious assault. Women, gays, liberals and humanists, among others, are castigated as the enemy and attacked.

Lulu, in Earnest’s play, is doing what she has been taught to do. She is a femme fatale, the only route open to her. As Earnest, who is also the play’s director states, “We were interested in her as a blank canvas that everyone in her life felt free to paint on whenever they liked, even to the point of renaming her at their pleasure. Renaming her by calling her names and alluding to her in vulgar terms.

Earnest paints not only on Lulu, but on the entire stage. Men are dressed in revealing women’s underwear doing “womanly activities,” such as moving furniture, moving daintily through lives, changing characters to fit the needs of others. The real is often not presented as real. Actors change characters so often that keeping track of who is who becomes an exercise in futility.

The cast of POOR LITTLE LULU seems to understand their purposes. Some, of course, carry out their mission more proficiently than others. Katie Nabors (Lulu) moves easily from mood to mood, role to role. Karl LaMarca, is cute, effeminate and believable as Alva Schön. The rest of the cast has high and low moments, sometime feigning roles that require believability.
Benjamin Gantose’s lighting design and Will Bezek’s set design add to the absurdity of the production.

Capsule judgement: POOR LITTLE LULU is not a play for everyone. It is abstract and existentialistic in nature, which makes it a niche production which will attract those who like the Theatre of the Absurd and enjoy verbal gymnastics.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Gina Vernaci, a feature story

Gina Vernaci, the guiding light behind the Broadway Series and lots more

You’re sitting in the Palace Theatre in Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare district. The lights dim, the overture starts, and the curtain rises on the likes of MEMPHIS, NEXT TO NORMAL or THE MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. Have you ever asked yourself how that show got on that stage or what it takes to make this local hub of professional theatre tick?

Lots of people are responsible for putting a touring Broadway show together--writers, producers, directors. They get the show ready for the tour. Locally, the person most responsible for getting that exact show, on that exact stage, at that exact time is the PHSquare’s Senior Vice President of Theater Operations.

As you can imagine, this is one massive stress-centered task! It takes one heck of a dynamo to get it done, and done well. That person is (drum roll) Gina...the petite, creative, dependable, personable Gina Vernaci.

The product of a small town just outside of St. Louis, she’s responsible for programming the shows, working with the organization’s large paid staff, coordinating 1600 volunteers, managing a 30-million dollars in gross sales, coordinating the sales, education, and marketing, dealing with the laborers who put up and take down the sets, bring in the local musicians, and even hire and supervise the people who sell the refreshments and the tickets.

She makes sure that the 21,000 Broadway series subscribers, who compose the third largest group of advance ticket buyers in the country and all the individual purchasers, get the best that Broadway touring shows have to offer. Cleveland is only outnumbered by the subscription totals of Los Angeles and Seattle.

Planning the season starts about three years out. Yes, the 2012-13 season was basically thought about in 2008, and finalized by last November. On March 27, next season’s offering will be announced. Vernaci is now working on the 2013-14 schedule.

How are the shows picked and signed? She indicates that quality of the production is the most important item. She has to know the capabilities of each of the producers since she has to work so far into the future that many of the shows aren’t yet being performed. She knows the producers personally, so many of the contacts and the deals are forged by personal interactions.

Cleveland is a very desirable market, so her phone is constantly busy. Producers want to bring their shows here. According to Vernaci the city has an unusually high ratio of subscribers relative to the market size which speaks directly to the high interest in the arts in this community. It is also accepted that the area provides discerning appreciative audiences. The physical quality of the theatres also attracts the producers. In contrast to many cities, such as Columbus and Cincinnati, which depend on outside bookers to bring in productions, PlayhouseSquare itself brings in all the Broadway series showings.

What about the other shows that appear on the 10 PhSq stages? Some are produced by resident companies such as Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theater, Cleveland State, DanceCleveland, and Cuyahoga Community College, as well as a PhSq-Baldwin Wallace College connection.

In addition, producers of music, comedy and niche audience shows, rent theatre spaces. In total there are over 800 performances annually. This usage is a great financial boon to the area, rendering tax income, restaurant usage, and hotel occupancy, among other stimuli to the economy.

Vernaci, who is member of the Theatre Wing and Broadway League, is a voting member for the Tony Awards. (Yes, she gets to go to the ceremony.) These memberships are only granted to about 800 members on an invitation and elected basis. Her connections with Broadway movers and shakers gives her a leg up on getting prime shows here, usually early in their tours.

Gina is aware of the needs of her subscribers and ticket purchasers. She tries to answer all the emails and phone messages she gets. She listens and takes the comments into consideration. This is a woman with not only great business skills and theatre-awareness, but a people-person who knows all about the importance of relationships.

So, next time a curtain at the Palace or Ohio or State or any of the other venues goes up, think about Gina, the slightly over five-foot dynamo who is the force behind the scenes!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Mousetrap

THE MOUSETRAP gets rare professional production at Great Lakes Theatre

During the pre-talk of the opening night production of THE MOUSETRAP, Charli Fee, Great Lakes Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director, shared that when the company was designing the 2011-2012 season, they wanted to add a different dimension to their offerings. The show selected had to take a diverse approach to the usual offerings, but retain the theatre’s classic tradition.

When someone suggested Agatha Christie’s THE MOUSETRAP, the play that opened in 1952, and is still running in London, making it the longest running theatrical production in the history of modern theatre, everyone laughed. It’s an old warhorse that everyone has seen. Not quite. When a poll was taken of the laughers, all theatre experts, not one had ever seen a professional production of the show. And, no one had seen a movie version of the script. Of course not. The permission agreement states that no movie will be made until the show ends its London run. Interest was peaked and a decision was made to produce the show. Easier said then done.

As Fee found when he tried to get only one professional production a year is authorized. But, since it is the 60th anniversary of the show, which was originally written as a radio play in 1947, in honor of Queen Mary’s 80th birthday, the producers are allowing 60 world-wide professional stagings. GLT was fortunate to get one of the agreements.

Several other interesting tidbits surround the history of the show. Christie’s grandson was born on the day the play opened. As a birth present the author granted him full royalties to the script. That means that all of the pounds and dollars in income that have been made, have gone to the future millionaire in swaddling clothes. That’s one great present from gram!

THE MOUSTRAP, which was originally entitled THREE BLIND MICE, was a bold play for its time. It was not only a fascinating who-done-it, with a great twist at the end, but it is a well crafted piece in which clues are dropped continually that lead to the revelation of the murderer. It is a mystery that probes what fear does to people and what happens when people are crowded together. It is also a play that, because it was not written to be performed, but read on radio, has dialogue that is often hard to act. It has its own texture and word puzzles, and the action has to be created by the director to make it visual rather than imagined.

At the start of the play, a woman is killed by someone whose identity is shrouded by a hat, coat and scarf. Who is this killer?

The scene shifts to Monkswell Manor, outside of London, where a group of supposedly randomly assembled people gather. Those present are the proprietors of a newly opened English guest house, five visitors, and a detective who arrives in order to protect the residents from the London killer who, it is reported, has a connection to one or more of those at the manor. Hmmm!

A snow storm rages outside so no one can come or go. The telephones stop working. One person is killed. There is fear for the death of more. The audience spends its time trying to grasp the clues as to the identity of the murder!

Who did it? Since there is no butler, that option is erased. I know, but I’m not telling. You won’t either if you attend the GLT production. At the end of the show you will be sworn to secrecy, just as all audiences have in the 60 year run of the script. What happens if you tell the untellable? No one knows, but, are you willing to tempt the fates?

The GLT production, under the direction of Drew Barr, is generally good. The pacing is a little slow, the set is somewhat disconcerting with the entrance areas confusing and a room filled with unexplained radios which dominates the stage, is a distraction. On the other hand, the acting is excellent, the sound effects add to the mystery, and the incidental music and lighting effects help build the tension.

David O’Byrne steals the show as the flighty, affected Christopher Wren. He is a total delight. Laura Perrotta makes the uptight, complaining Mrs. Boyle, a former judge, a figure to be reckoned with. Fine performance here! Sara Bruner, as the mannish Miss Casewell; Aled Davis, as the attentive Major Metcalf; Jodi Dominick, as Mollie Ralston, the owner of the manor; Tom Ford as Mr. Paravicini, he of fake Italian accent (hmm!); Dan Lawrence, as intense Detective Sergeant Trotter; and Paul Hurley as Mollie’s suspicious husband, are all excellent.

Capsule judgement: THE MOUSETRAP is a classic British murder mystery that gets a good performance at Great Lakes Theatre and deserves to be seen. It is one of your only opportunities, unless you go to London, to experience the creative genius of Agatha Christie’s script in a professional setting.

Thursday, March 01, 2012


Hockadoo MEMPHIS rocks the Palace

Bannered as “The essence of what a Broadway musical should be,” there is no way of experiencing MEMPHIS, the David Bryan and Jo DiPietro musical, now on stage at the Palace Theatre, without shouting “Hockadoo!”

Yes, this is a Hockadoo, “Yay!” and “Whoo hoo!” kind of show. It’s wonderful! It bursts on stage with the Underground opening number and keeps on going through the curtain call with explosive dancing, exciting songs and a tale of forbidden love.

The musical takes us back to the 1950s. It’s the segregated South where the mixing of blacks and whites is not only unacceptable, it’s illegal. This is Memphis, Tennessee, where the Klan holds sway, blacks “know their place,” and “negra” music isn’t sung or appreciated by whites.

An eccentric white guy bursts into a black underground dance club. He’s out of kilter with both the white and black communities. He’s a drifter who can’t find his nitch in life, but somehow perceives the idea of a white radio DJ who plays black music. And before he’s through, many rules of the Memphis culture are altered.

Though billed as a rock musical, it really mixes gospel and rhythm and blues with foundational rock music. Included in the great score are the dynamic The Music of My Soul, the heartfelt Ain’t Nothing But a Kiss, and the beautiful Someday. It’s the kind of sound that gave birth to the likes of Elvis.

The production captivates. To cap it all off, the goings on are based on actual events which highlight disc jockey, Dewey Phillips, here named Huey, who burst on the scene by being unafraid, out of kilter with the norm, and having a vision of what should be. He falls in love with a black club singer and brings her first to local and then to national attention.

MEMPHIS opened on Broadway on October 19, 2009 and went on to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. It is still running on Broadway.

The touring production is as good as the Broadway version. Felicia Boswell, as Felicia, Huey’s love interest is dynamic. She was the cover for the part of Felicia on Broadway and grabs and holds the audience with her vocal dynamics. Bryan Fenkart, who was the stand-by for the lead male role in New York, is nothing short of compelling as Huey. Both have great singing voices and create clear characterizations. There is real magnetism between the two.

Quentin Earl Darrington (Delray) powers his vocals. He is one talented singer. Julie Johnson (Mama) is delightful. Her Change Don’t Come Easy was a show stopper. Rhett George wails Say A Prayer. The rest of the cast is equally as talented.

The dancers are dynamic and the chorus sounds blend well. The band is tunefully great. The sets, lights and costumes all work.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: MEMPHIS is one of those special handclapping, cheer inducing, wonderful evenings of theatre. This is a must see!!