Tuesday, June 19, 2012
CATS prowl as Mercury Summer Stock finds new home
Like many local theatres, Mercury Summer Stock, has experienced a vagabond existence. Founded by Pierre-Jacques Brault and Brian Marshall, the summer theatre seems to finally have found a permanent home in the Regina Auditorium at Notre Dame College in South Euclid. The large venue, with a huge stage, lends itself to the free wheeling choreography and staging by Artistic Director Brault.
Along with a change of venue, the organization has altered its mission. Previously billed as a professional theatre, though they seldom had more than one equity performer appear in any production, that aspect of its theatrical explanation has been dropped, opening the door for evaluating the shows based on expectations for their usual high school and young college student performers.
A new home, new performance schedule (the addition of Sunday matinees), and a new goal statement which includes ”advancing theatre as a means of educating, challenging and inspiring through family-friendly programming rarely seen” are all part of the changed vision for the company.
Mercury’s 2012 opening production is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS. Based on OLD POSSUM’S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS by T. S. Eliot, the show is a series of poems set to music. There is a loose story line about a tribe of cats called the Jellicles and the night they make the choice of who will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to new life.
The only memorable song in the score is Memory, whose lyrics were written by Trevor Nun, based on the Eliot poem, Rhapsody on a Windy Night. It was made famous by Betty Buckley, who played Grizabella in the original Broadway production.
The show originally opened in London in 1981 and ran for 21 years. The Broadway production, which opened in 1982, ran for eighteen years, and was performed 7485 times, making it the second longest continually running show in history. (THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which is still going in New York, is the extended-run leader.)
CATS is a difficult show to produce, even for professionals, let alone for a group of high school and college students who are just learning their craft. Almost every song requires a production number, so the key element of the staging is dance. In addition, the score has shades of opera and is difficult to sing. Another major issue is that since there is little drama or no humor, holding the audience’s attention is difficult.
As evidenced by the three tween girls who were sitting in front of me, wiggling, slumping in their seats, and generally showing boredom, this is not a show for children and may be a challenge for adults.
The Mercury production, directed and choreographed by Brault, has some high moments, but these are eclipsed by some issues.
On the positive side, Brault’s choreography is creative. He has cast some good dancers. Especially strong is Jake Washabaugh who appears well trained in ballet and controls the stage when his long thin body whips high turns, does flexible leg kicks, and executes powerful lifts. Also strong are Zach Pfeil, Katlyn Dessoffy, and Taylor Bryan.
Traditionally, the action takes place in a junk yard. For some inexplicable reason Brault decided to switch that to a child’s room, complete with board games, a toy car, balls and building blocks. Nothing in the show references such a setting. Maybe he thought making the whole thing into TOY STORY would help. It only confuses. Why would 20 cats be prowling a child’s room?
Brault’s costume designs are clever. He suggests cats, rather than creating authentic cats. The same is true of the cast. They did not consistently become cats, they represented them, with a minimal number of cleaning, preening and stretching gestures.
Eddie Carney’s orchestra puts out full sound, but, unfortunately, the large playing space gobbled up the five pieces, making the sound slight. This was not helped by the squealing sound system, and weak projection by some of the cast. Blinking lights at weird times also didn’t help.
Staging highlights included The Old Gumbie Cat, The Jellicle Ball, and Mr. Mistoffelees.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: CATS was not all that could have been hoped for as an opening show in Mercury’s new venue, but, considering the difficulty of the show, and the developing abilities of the cast, Brault and company can be commended for a “nice try.”
Sunday, June 17, 2012
AVENUE Q, X-rated fun at Cain Park
What can be said about a delightful, thought provoking, Tony award winning, Sesame Street for adults? How about, it’s fun and you should go see it!
AVENUE Q, a production now on stage at Cain Park’s Alma Theatre, is an often hilarious and heartfelt story about Princeton, a bright-eyed college grad who comes to New York with his hopes, little money, and a trusting soul. He moves onto Avenue Q, a place populated by weird and wonderful characters that are part puppets and part human.
Through song, dance and humor we follow Princeton as he and his new found group of twenty-something friends, struggle to find jobs, dates, but most importantly, their ever-elusive, purpose in life. Among others, there’s Kat Monster, Christmas Eve, Trekkie Monster, and Gary Coleman, all searching for purpose and making commentary on education, politics, human sexuality, and life in general.
Winner of the triple crown of Tonys—Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book—the show has music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty. The satire is high, as represented by such songs as It Sucks to be Me, What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?, Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist, The Internet is for Porn, and I’m not Wearing Underwear Today. Doesn’t sound like the score from they typical musical theatre piece? Well, this is not the typical musical theatre script or score.
The Cain Park production, under the wise direction of Russ Borski, milks the script for all it is worth. The characterizations are generally clear, the staging crisp, songs are mostly well sung, most of the actors are easily understood, the orchestra backs up rather than drowns out the singers, and the dancing is delightful.
The wonderful puppet designs and fabrication are a local effort, executed by Terry Pieritz and Russ Borski, with the aid from puppet consultant Larry Nehring. After a while the stuffed-beings and their live partners meld into single beings.
Cherubic faced Jesse Markowitz is adorable as Princeton. He has a wonderful singing voice, moves well, and lights up the stage with his effervescent smile, twinkling eyes, and believable presentation. His rendition of Purpose is endearing. This is one very talented young man!
Patty Lohr gives a nice quality to Kate Monster. Her drunk scene is delightful. Sean Szaller adds humor as Nicky. John Paul Boukis, with his huge eyes flashing and high-pitched voice of fear, is nothing short of sensational as the closeted Rod. Todd Hancock, as the porn addicted Trekkie Monster, almost steals the show. Michelle Berkowitz and Zachary Lamb are properly mischievous as the Girl and Boy Bad Idea Bears. Dan DiCello (Brian) makes for a good, bad stand-up comedian. Joanna May Hunkins personifies every kid’s nightmare as Mrs. T, the kindergarten teacher.
Be aware, if you are a prude, that there is a vivid sex scene (yes, puppets having intercourse), lots of four-letter words, and some unpolitically-correct stereotyping. For the rest of us, those scenes and language, just add to the overall delightful outlandishness of the production.
(The show is dedicated to the memory of Paul Gurgol, who was to co-direct the show but died shortly before the start of rehearsals.)
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The award winning AVENUE Q, Sesame Street for adults, gets a well-honed production at Cain Park. Show highlights include spot-on performances by Jesse Markowitz, John Paul Boukis and Todd Hancock. This is a must see for the more liberal minded.
DAMN YANKEES…an enjoyable evening of escapist theatre at Porthouse
Probably the golden age of musical theatre in the US was from 1950 to 1960. Great scripts like King and I, My Fair Lady, and West Side Story were staged. Also produced were such flops as SALAD DAYS, ZULEIKA, ANKLES AWAY, THE VAMP, SHANRI-LA, SHNBONE ALLEY AND FREE AS AIR. Most shows were of the neither great nor flop variety. These included the likes of CALL ME MADAM, GUYS AND DOLLS, PAINT YOUR WAGON, CAN-CAN, WONDERFUL TOWN, FANNY and THE PAJAMA GAME. Also included in that list is DAMN YANKEES, now on stage at Porthouse Theatre.
With a book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop, and music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, it is a modern retelling of the Faust legend which takes place in the 1950s in Washington, DC. It’s an escapist piece that makes no attempt to make a philosophical point nor give a snapshot of the real world.
The story concerns Joe Boyd, a long suffering fan of the Washington Senators’ baseball team. He fantasizes that the Senators will beat the hated New York Yankees. He also has a secret desire to be an all-star who plays for his favorite team. As the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for.”
The devil, in the form of red-sock-wearing, horned-headed Mr. Applegate, mysteriously appears to offer Boyd a chance for his desires to come true. The only hitch is that Joe has to give his soul to the devil when the season ends. Boyd, in desperation, agrees.
As the Senators’ fortunes soar, Joe realizes he’s losing his beloved wife (Goodbye Old Girl) and looks for a loophole. Enter temptress Lola (Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets), a charter member of the Home Wreckers Hall of Fame who surprisingly turns out to be his ally. What will happen? Will the devil prevail? Come on now, this is a musical comedy.
The show’s track to success was not easy. The 1955 Broadway opening was met with mixed, mostly negative reviews. The next day the writing team got together, cut one number, switched another from the second act to the first, cut twenty minutes of dialogue, and rewrote the ending. The changes went in that very evening. An invitation to the reviewers brought them back to the theatre and garnered much more positive comments. This was enough to make the show a modest 1019 production run. By comparison, MY FAIR LADY’s original Big Apple run was 2717 showings.
DAMN YANKEES is a good script choice for the Porthouse audience who tends to like folksy musicals, with lots of dancing and fantasy. They do not tend to be the NEXT TO NORMAL, RENT or SPRING AWAKENING crowd. Give them patter, humor and happy endings and they seem content to stand and cheer the final curtain.
The production, under the sprightly direction of Terri Kent, moves along quickly, has dynamic production numbers, and pleases. Kent is fortunate to have MaryAnn Black and Eric van Baars, Kent State faculty members and Porthouse favorites, to cast.
Black, who defies age, high kicks, struts her stuff, and wiggles her fanny with the best of them. While contemporaries, the likes of Gwen Verdon, who played the role of Lola in the New York production, have faded, Black continues to entrance audiences. This is one talented lady who knows how to control a stage. Her versions of A Little Brains, a Little Talent and Whatever Lola Wants were show stoppers.
van Baars, who often comes front and center when Porthouse needs a character to do shtick, inhabits the role of Mr. Applegate, made famous by Ray Walston on Broadway, with ease. While there are times when there could have been a little more devil-like scheming, as a whole, sported by hysterically appropriate devilish costumes, he makes us believe the devil is amongst us. His Those Were The Good Old Days was fun.
As Joe Hardy, the reinvention of Joe Boyd, boy-next-door handsome Michael Glavan, is typecast perfect. He looks and acts baseball jock in an unassuming and “aw schucks” folksy way. He has an excellent singing voice, moves well, and gives a nice texturing to the role. His A Man Doesn’t Know was charming.
Mary Anne Prevost develops a clear character as Boyd’s wife. Lenne Snively and Lissy Gulick are hoots as two ditzy baseball-addicted fans, Marc Moritz has some nice moments as Joe Boyd, and Rohn Thomas is believable as the Senator’s manager. Each of the chorus of baseball players develops a unique character, singing and dancing with vigor and ability.
Highlight numbers included: The Game, Two Lost Souls, Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO, and Heart.
John Crawford’s choreography fits the mood of the production. Jonathan Swoboda’s musical direction is on target. His musicians support rather than drown out the singers. Ben Needham’s turntable set works well. Jan Evans’ costumes, especially those designed for van Baars, help create the proper mood.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: DAMN YANKEES is not a great script, but quality singing and dancing, and a solid cast, headed by MaryAnn Black, Eric vanBaars and Michael Glavan, create an enjoyable evening of summer entertainment.
Monday, June 11, 2012
BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON rocks at Beck
Several weeks ago a study listed George W. Bush among the worst presidents of the United States. Also on that list was Andrew Jackson. However, in contrast to Bush, Jackson was also on the roll of the best presidents. That dichotomy is well noted in BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, now rocking the Studio Theatre at The Beck Center for the Arts.
Jackson, known as the common man’s President, unified the country. He did so through a bloody reign of terror in which he slaughtered and dealt devilishly with his hated enemies: the Indians (who killed his parents), the British, the Spanish and the Washington politicians. He was a drunk, bigamist, and undisciplined man. He has sometimes been noted as the American Hitler due to his maniacal obsessions.
After being denied the presidency by the Supreme Court after winning the popular vote, in an incident similar to the Bush-Gore saga, Jackson became possessed. Four years later Jackson founded the Democratic party and could not be denied. He took over the White House, opened its doors to the multitudes, turned the lawns into grazing areas for livestock, and generally ruled in organized chaos.
BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, as written by Alex Timbers, with words and music by Michael Friedman, is an audacious, irreverent rock musical which was a hit off-Broadway, and paints the picture with modern references, including the presence of electronics (cell phones, Ipads, head sets), lots of hard rock music, imaginative if not always accurate historical references, and lots of swearing, blood and guts. Though there are some weaknesses in the script, the production more than compensates for that.
Director Scott Spence puts aside all inhibitions and gives free range to filling the stage with visual and audible pyrotechnics.
Choreographer Martin Céspedes uses the foot stomping dance moves of the prairie as the basis for his creative choreography. Like Jackson himself, the dancing is not coordinated, but a creative use of impromptu movements. Céspedes incorporates a sequence of dynamic fight moves, has the musicians high stepping, and creates a dervish of visual treats. The song The Corrupt Bargain leaps off the stage.
Larry Goodpaster and Dennis Yurich’s musical direction is the foundation on which the production is built. The band, Yurich, Ingrid Lang and Jason Giaco, supported by various cast members, is musically dynamic. They would have made a great rock concert in and of themselves.
Trad Burns’ set design, an amalgamation of old suitcases, picture frames, newspapers, guns, and levels, creates the perfect working space for the actions.
The cast is multi-talented. At one point all of the assemblage plays guitars, sings and dances, with proficiency and abandonment.
Dan Folino, in the title role, is nothing short of perfection. He sings with full voice, his rock style is well honed, he creates a clear character, and transitions well between segments. It’s worth seeing the show just to experience the Folino magic in action.
Hester Lewellen is a hoot as the old lady storyteller, zipping around the stage in a battery operated wheel chair. Trey Gilpin is delightful as a fey Martin VanBuren. Chris McCarrell, playing one mean guitar, displays a great vocal in Second Nature. Gilgamesh Tagget has some great moments as the Indian chief, Black Fox. Elliot Lockshine is endearing as Lycoya, Jackson’s adopted Indian son. The chorus is vocally and performance strong.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Though not for everyone due to the pounding music and uncensored language, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, is one exciting and well conceived show. In my mind, it’s a sure MUST SEE!
Sunday, June 10, 2012
Disappointing SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM at Hanna Theatre
In the self-revealing probe of his life, principles, writing philosophy and revelations about musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim, in both of his recently published books, FINISHING THE HAT and LOOK, I MADE A HAT explains that “content dictates form,” “less is more,” and that “theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung.” He illustrates how a writer’s philosophy, life experiences and beliefs are revealed in what he writes about and the way in which he expresses his ideas.
Stephen Sondheim, with few exceptions, writes musical dramas. He usually takes on serious subjects—the inability to make commitment (COMPANY), revenge (SWEENEY TODD THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET), false illusions (FOLLIES), world issues (PACIFIC OVERTURES), haunted souls (SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE), misguided motivations (ASSASINS).
What’s surprising about Sondheim’s approach is that he was a protégé of Oscar Hammerstein II, who was among the kings of musical theatre. His productions often had an undercurrent of comedy, while stressing homey community centered themes, with a philosophical message. These are not Sondheim's techniques.
Early in life, following the divorce of his parents, and his mother’s realization that she did not want to be a parent, Stephen was turned over to Hammersteins, who were family friends, for tutelage. Hammerstein, according to Sondheim, taught him most of what he knows about music and musical theatre.
With this background in mind, I went to see the co-produced PlayhouseSquare and Great Lakes Theatre, SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM THE REVIEW OF A LIFETIME, with great anticipation. It would make the written words of the Sondheim books live….make the lyrics soar, make the story vivid by hearing the great man in his own words, supported by a professional cast of singers and dancers.
In general, what a disappointment. Yes, Sondheim was there. But, instead of the chronological development of his books, the ideas jumped around with no organizational format, sometimes repeating themselves. The staging lacked the dynamic quality of Sondheim’s ideas. The singing was mediocre. The vocal blendings were sometimes off. The orchestra often drowned out the words to the songs…words that we must be able to clearly hear. The choreography was often flat. The cast sometimes looked like they were walking through their numbers with little joy or pizzazz. They often sang words, not meanings. Articulation was sometimes mushy. Hopefully I saw the show on an off-night and during the rest of the run some of these issues don’t rear their ugly heads.
There were some high points, beyond hearing Sondheim explain himself and his works. Production numbers such as A Weekend in the Country, The Best Things That Ever Happened, and Losing My Mind were successful. The humor highlight was a YouTube compilation of various people, from the famous (Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Liz Taylor) to unknowns, doing their renditions of Send in the Clowns. The setting, a series of white levels, lent itself well to the free flowing staging. A number of gold frames were effectively used to place visual borders around the action and to create a screen for the Sondheim video clips.
But these were balanced off by the indistinguishable lyrics in Getting Married Today, the questionable interpretation of Happiness, and the less than funny, usually hysterical, Comedy Tonight.
How could this be? Thirteen months was spent putting the script together and getting permissions to produce the piece. It incorporated the work of James Lapine, long time Sondheim collaborator. There were all the hours of Sondheim interview tapes. Over 1200 performers were auditioned in Cleveland and New York. Victoria Bussert, the reigning local queen of musical theatre directors and a nationally recognized theatrical wizard staged the show. Matthew Webb, an accomplished musical director was on staff. Gregory Daniels, who has a proven record as a choreographer, planned the dancing.
As a friend who I spoke to following the show stated, “I was bored and frustrated with the level of performances and lack of focus.” Whatever the reason for the derailment, it led to a less than standout evening of theatre.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, in its regional premiere, was a major disappointment. I wanted so much to be involved, to be excited, to gain a further appreciation of the “amplifications, dogmas, harangues, anecdotes and miscellany” that makes Sondheim Sondheim.
Saturday, June 09, 2012
AKARUI [Bright] confounds at Cleveland Public Theatre
Cleveland Public Theatre’s mission is to raise consciousness and nurture compassion through ground breaking new, adventurous work. Under the guidance of Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan, the theatre challenges audiences mainly strong works. Included in the winners have been this season’s ANTELBELLUM, and past offerings such as DARWINNI, THE COMUPPANCE OF MAN, BLUE SKY TRANSMISSION: A TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD, and INSOMNIA THE WAKING OF HERSELVES. Some other offerings have confounded more than excited.
Unfortunately, AKARUI [Bright], which closed the 2011-2012 season, tends to fall into the less than successful offerings category.
The overly long and over-staged work transports the viewer to a rave cave (scenic designer Todd Krispinski’s effective metal scaffold set) at the supposed end of the world. Akarui, a disk jockey, spins songs that summon the lost and the desperate to examine their transitions.
Yes, all things are in transition. Transsexuals, transition from one gender to another. The dead find themselves in the nether world after their demise. Those who commit crimes against others are caught changing as their guilt develops. In evolutionary terms, fish transition from swimming to crawling to standing erect humans. The butterfly is the result of a transition from being a larva. Scientists develop theories and change as their successes and failures mount.
AMENT, AN EVENING OF W. B. YEATS’ E BOOK OF GRACE
These are all situations which writer Jen Silverman rolls out in AKARUI. These are the images that director Raymond Bobgan places before the viewer.
Silverman’s writing is often poetic. She proposes that until transgender people complete their process of transition, they are only “half done.” That people “climb out of their nightmares.” And, “you slap girls but you punch boys.” Her script is filled with allusions and metaphors. These often combine to make the obvious abstract. Though the author’s concept is clear, the continued repetition of the same idea, makes for a long sit.
The same could be said for Bobgan’s staging. The oft repeated stomping choreography, drumming and chanting just became too much after their original impact, stretching the production to a tedious level. A combination of editing of both script and actions would have aided to make this a more audience-friendly production.
The cast includes some excellent performances. Beth Wood as Baba Yaga, the doctor/witch, James Alexander Rankin as Joshua, a youth brutally killed who finds himself in the nether world, and Molly Andrews-Hinders, as DC, who is transiting from female to male, show understanding of their roles. David Aguila’s transition from fish to human is visually mesmerizing. The chorus carries out Bobgan’s intentions well.
Benjamin Gantose’s lighting and Michael Roesch and Raymond Bobgan’s sound designs work well.
Capsule judgement: AKARUI [Bright] brings to an end another theatre year for Cleveland Public Theatre. Though a challenging concept, the play and production just didn’t have the same positive effect as some other offerings by CPT.