Sunday, December 22, 2013

TIMES THEATER TRIBUTES--2013

Greater Cleveland is blessed with a vital theatre scene. It is the purpose of the TIMES THEATRE TRIBUTES to recognize theatrical experiences that, in the view of this reviewer, were excellent and deserve recognition.

Only shows performed in 2013 which I reviewed were considered.  With the exception of Best National Touring Production, selections were limited to locally produced stagings though actors, directors and technicians who were imported by local theatres for their productions were considered.  No community or educational theatre recognitions are included.  Actors are separated by gender, but not equity or lack of union affiliation, or leading or supporting roles.  Names are listed in alphabetical order, not in rank order.
   
2013 BEST NON-MUSICAL PRODUCTIONS

COCK, Dobama
FREUD’S LAST SESSION, Actors’ Summit
GOOD PEOPLE, CPH
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, GLT
ON THE LINE, none too fragile
RICHARD III, Great Lakes Theater
THE ICEMAN COMETH, Ensemble Theatre
THERE IS HAPINESS THAT MORNING IS, CPT
TIME STANDS STILL, Dobama
TWELVE ANGRY MEN, Blank Canvas
VENUS IN FUR, Cleveland Play House
WHITE PEOPLE, none too fragile

2013 BEST MUSICAL THEATRE PRODUCTIONS

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Porthouse
NEXT TO NORMAL, Lakeland Civic Theatre
SPAMALOT, Beck Center
SWEENEY TODD, Great Lakes Theater

2013 BEST DIRECTOR OF A NON-MUSICAL

Beth Wood, THERE IS HAPPINESS THAT MORNING IS, CPT
Corey Atkins, COCK, Dobama
Joel Hammer, THE BIG MEAL, Dobama
Laura Keply. GOOD PEOPLE, Cleveland Play House
Laura Keply, VENUS IN FUR
Nathan Motta, TIME STANDS STILL, Dobama
Patrick Ciamacco, TWELVE ANGRY MEN, Blank Canvas
Sean Derry, ON THE LINE, none too fragile
Sean Derry, WHITE PEOPLE, none too fragile
Sharon Ott, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Great Lakes Theater

2013 BEST DIRECTOR OF A MUSICAL

Eric van Baars, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Porthouse
Martin Friedman, NEXT TO NORMAL, Lakeland Civic Theatre
Scott Spence, SPAMALOT, Beck Center
Victoria Bussert, SWEENEY TODD, Great Lakes Theater

2013 BEST CHOREOGRAPHY IN A THEATRE PRODUCTION

John Crawford, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Porthouse
MaryAnn Black, SOUTH PACIFIC, Porthouse
Martin Céspedes, ANNIE, Beck Center
Martin Céspedes, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Great Lakes Theater
Martin Céspedes, SPAMALOT, Beck Center

2013 BEST PERFORMANCES BY A MALE IN A NON-MUSICAL
Andrew Gombas, COCK, Dobama
Brian Zoldessy, FREUD’S LAST SESSION, Actors’ Summit
Chris Richards, SONS OF THE PROPHET, Dobama
Jonathan Wilhelm, SORDID LIVES, convergence continuum
Lynn Robert Berg, RICHARD III, Great Lakes Theater
Matthew Wright, THERE IS A HAPPINESS THAT MORNING IS, Cleveland Public Theatre
Robert, Branch, ON THE LINE, none too fragile

2013 BEST PERFORMANCES BY A FEMALE IN A NON-MUSICAL

Christine Howey, LIKE A DOBERMAN ON A QUARTER POUNDER, Cleveland Public Theatre
Derdriu Ring, THERE IS HAPPINESS THAT MORNING IS, Cleveland Public Theatre
Dee Hoty, RICH GIRL, Cleveland Play House
Heather Anderson Boll, TIME STANDS STILL, Dobama
Kate Hodge, GOOD PEOPLE, Cleveland Play House
Liz Conway, SORDID LIVES, convergence continuum
Tracee Patterson, MEDEA, Mamaí
Vanessa Wasche, VENUS IN FUR, Cleveland Play House

2013 BEST PERFORMANCES BY A MALE IN A MUSICAL

Chris Cowan, SWEENEY TODD, Great Lakes
Chris McCarrell, NEXT TO NORMAL, Beck Center/BW
Dougfred Miller, SPAMALOT, Beck Center
George Roth, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Porthouse
Gilgamesh Taggert, ANNIE, Beck Center
Hershey Felder,  MAESTRO:  LEONARD BERNSTEIN, Cleveland Play House

2013 BEST PERFORMANCES BY A FEMALE IN A MUSICAL

Aimee Collier, NEXT TO NORMAL, Lakeland Civic Theatre
Aimee Collier, SHE LOVES ME, Beck Center
Anna  Barrett, ANNIE, Beck Center
Miche Braden, THE DEVIL’S MUSIC, Cleveland Play House
Rebecca Pitcher, SHE LOVES ME, Beck Center
Sara M. Brunner, SWEENEY TODD, Great Lakes Theater

2013 BEST SCENIC DESIGN OF A NON-MUSICAL OR MUSICAL

Linda Buchanan, RICHARD III, Great Lakes Theater
Patrick Ciamacco, Andy Dudik and Noah Hibek, WORKING, Blank Canvas
Russ Borski, HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES, Beck Center
Todd Krispinsky, THERE IS A HAPPINESS THAT MORNINGS IS, Cleveland Public Theatre
Trad Burns, NEXT TO NORMAL, Lakeland Civic Theatre
Wilson Chin, RICH GIRL, Cleveland Play House

2013 BEST MUSICAL DIRECTION

Jennifer Korecki, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Porthouse
Joe Korecki, THE DEVIL’S MUSIC, Cleveland Play House
Larry Goodpaster, SHE LOVES ME, Beck
Nancy Maier, NEXT TO NORMAL, Beck/Baldwin Wallace

2013 BEST SOUND DESIGN IN A NON-MUSICAL OR MUSICAL

Dana Duke, Big Twig Studio, Brian Caiazza, Brett Keyser, video/sound/photography, STRUCK, CPT
Shane Cutlip, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Porthouse

2013 BEST COSTUME DESIGN IN A NON-MUSICAL OR MUSICAL

Charlotte Yetman, SWEENEY TODD, Great Lakes Theater
David Kay Mickelson, BELL, BOOK and CANDLE, Cleveland Play House
Esther Haberlen, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Great Lakes Theater

2013 BEST LIGHTING DESIGN IN A NON-MUSICAL OR MUSICAL

Marcus Dana, COCK, Dobama
Trad Burns, NEXT TO NORMAL, Lakeland Civic Theatre

2013 BEST NATIONAL TOURING PRODUCTION

Matthew Bourne’s SLEEPING BEAUTY

SPECIAL RECOGNITION

Trad Burns for continued excellence in scenic and lighting design

Cleveland Critics Circle for creation and support for Clevelandtheaterreviews.com

Roe Green for continued financial and participatory contributions to the Cleveland area theatrical scene (Cleveland Play House, Kent State University, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Sean Derry/none too fragile, continued excellence in selection of small format, thought provoking, well staged scripts

Miles Sternfeld and Sean Szaller for THE WHO’S TOMMY, Broadway Fights AIDS fundraiser

If any names are spelled incorrectly or there are errors in identifications please let me know so I can change the permanent record on www.royberko.info.

If you would like to read any of my reviews for the year, please go to www.royberko.info, enter the blog and click on “2013 Reviews” or click on the name of the producing theatre and scroll through their performances. Reviews from previous years may also be accessed.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

"Alas For You," GOODSPELL is at Blank Canvas

GODSPELL is one of the biggest musical theatrical successes of all-time.  Based on the “Gospel According to St. Matthew,” the musical tells the story of the last seven days of Christ's life. The parables have been contemporized, and Christ's followers are free spirits who sing the likes of "Day By Day", "All Good Gifts", and "Turn Back, O Man."

The show is perceived to be the creative child of Broadway super-author and composer Stephen Schwartz, the conceiver of such hits as PIPPIN and WICKED.   ‘Taint so.  Schwartz was a late-comer to the project. 

The story goes that in 1970, while attending college in Pittsburgh, John-Michael Tebelak went to church on Easter Sunday.  A theology student before he decided he wanted to be a theatrical director, he found the service to be devoid of feeling.  Afterward the long-haired Tebelak was stopped by a policeman and searched for drugs.  (Remember, this was the era of student protests, hippies, draft card burning, and those “dangerous” peaceniks.)   Tebelak confided that this experience provided him the inspiration for GODSPELL.  He produced the show as his senior project at Carnegie Mellon University.

The original score consisted of a song written by a cast member and old Episcopal Hymns, played by a rock band.  To this point, Schwartz had nothing to do with the project. 

John Michael left school without graduating.  The show was eventually staged at the off-Broadway Cafe La Mama Theatre.  A producer saw the production and said he would finance it if it had a new score.  Enter Stephen Schwartz, who wrote all the songs in 5 weeks.  (The only tune to remain from the original production is "By My Side"). The newly conceived show  opened Off-Broadway on May 17, 1971.  Tebelak was 22 years of age!  GODSPELL moved onto Broadway where it ran for 2,124 performances.  Hundreds of professional and amateur productions of the show continue to be done.

Besides the Schwartz connection to the project, another fact that is generally overlooked is Tebelak’s Cleveland connection.  He is a Berea product.   As related by Bill Allman, the former producing director of Berea Summer Theatre, “John-Michael cut his theatrical teeth at Berea Summer Theatre where he acted, designed scenery and directed.  In 1980 he returned to his roots when he directed a revival production of GODSPELL.” 

The show’s other connection to the area is that in August of 1971, before it became a mega-hit, GODSPELL was produced at Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, the predecessor to Great Lakes Theatre Festival, which, at the time was housed in Lakewood High School’s auditorium.   The show’s director was non-other than Tebelak, himself.   

The show is not without controversy.  It has been called blasphemous.  Religious leaders have stated, “Surely no Christian who believes the Bible would approve of the perversion of GODSPELL.”  The Wexford Pennsylvania School Board banned a production of it after “complaints about its religious message.”

Any director of GODSPELL has a number of choices to make.  First, there is no script for the show.  Everything is part of the score and there are no stage directions for staging the show.  It has been done as a series of segments in which comic characters are the center of attention.  It was staged as children in a Sunday school class.  It has been done as a religious sermon in a church setting.  Pat Ciamacco, Blank Canvas’s director, has opted for a dream sequence. 

Another issue is the tone of the piece.  Should the production center on the religious message, forsaking the humor or take Tebelak to heart and make this a production of joy.  Ciamacco tends to lead toward the serious side, overlooking many of the comic elements, though not forsaking all of them.

Usually Jesus is garbed in a Superman t-shirt and his followers clothed to fit the humor theme.  True to his more traditional theme in this production, Jesus is garbed all in white, his followers in various clothing, randomly picked off the costume rack.  He has updated some of the language and nonverbal gestures.

All in all, this is an acceptable production that avoids the peachiness that can come from the song and story development.  It conveys the message to “be careful not to make a show of your religion before man.”  It also invokes thought as to why some followers of Christ preach hatred against others instead of following the dictum, “Ye shall love thy neighbor as thyself.” 

The cast is mixed in their vocal and acting abilities.   Especially effective was Eric Thomas Fancher whose “Light of the World” was dynamic and the strongest vocal solo.  Kate Leigh Michalski, she of mobile face, did a nice vocal in “Learn Your Lessons.”  Shane Patrick O’Neill did a good interpretation of the meaning in We Beseech Thee.”  The vocal blends were often quite good.

Noah Hrbek has the handsome good looks of many of the paintings of Jesus.  He has a pleasant voice, but failed to develop the charisma that would be necessary to reap fanatic followers.  His “Save the People,” had a nice musical sound.

Isreal Spain failed to ignite the pivotal character of John the Baptist and often lacked clarity of idea development.

Lawrence Wallace’s musical direction was excellent, playing backup rather than drowning out the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  It’s been done time and again, but with a good production  ‘GODSPELL’ can still be a fine theatrical experience, even if you aren’t into the religious message.  Blank Canvas’s production isn’t a sure winner, but it will hold your  attention and expose the audience to the quality of Tebalk’s creativity and Stephen Schwartz’s music.

(Thanks to John Nolan, theatre buff extraordinaire and a member of the 1980 Berea Summer Theatre “GODSPELL” cast for background material used in this review.)

The show runs through December 21, 2013 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website.  (My GPS was of little help).  Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  It’s an adventurous battle. For tickets and directions go to http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com

ANNIE again lights up Beck Center for the holidays

She’s Back! 

ANNIE, the redheaded comic strip heroine, is back at Beck Center.  The musical, which was showcased in the past at Beck, is making yet another appearance in Lakewood.

The show gives us cute orphans, a dog, a funny orphanage director, con-men, a billionaire, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Christmas.  And, yes, lots of memorable songs including Tomorrow, Hard Knock Life, Little Girls, I  Think I’m Going to Like it Here, N.Y.C., Fully Dressed, and I Don’t Need Anything Else But You. 

It must be realized by parents that this is not a show filled with prat falls and the awe factors that will hold the attention of little ones.  Most children have never seen an ANNIE comic strip, there is no ANNIE TV program.  They know little about orphans and orphanages or the depression.  The show is filled with references well beyond the level of the children, and many adults.  Al Capone, J. Edgar Hoover, Gandhi and Calvin Coolidge are all 1930s personages.  The new deal, Communism, and politics aren’t part of a kid’s world.  Many of the words to the songs aren’t kid friendly. No prince and princesses here, or fast action.  This was clear with the amount of crying and restlessness of the youngsters during the Sunday matinee I attended.

ANNIE, with book by Thomas Meehan and lyrics by Martin Charnin, is based on Harold Gray’s LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE comic strip.  The strip debuted in 1924, became a radio show in 1930, films in 1932 and 1938, and a Broadway musical in 1997.  It  was reprised this year and is running parallel to the Beck production.   The comic strip was cancelled in June of 2010.

The musical centers on eleven year-old Annie who was left at the Municipal Girls Orphanage in New York by her depression-poor parents.  The orphanage is run by the alcoholic Mrs. Hannigan.  Annie longs for the return of her parents.  She runs away, saves a dog (Sandy) from the animal warden, is caught by the police, is returned to the orphanage, is taken to the home of billionaire Oliver Warbucks for a Christmas visit, the two develop a loving relationship, she has a scare when her “real” parents show up, but, as happens in all good musicals about kids, a dog and billionaires, they all live happily ever after.

For the show to work requires an adorable Annie who can sing, dance and act, and a cast who can play comic strip characters.  The Beck production stumbles a little on the comic book level, but, fortunately, the production, under the guidance of Scott Spence, is blessed with performers who can pull it off.

Anna Barrett, who has played the role before at Beck, has a nice singing voice, dances and moves well, is adorable and totally natural as Annie.  Riley-Marie Haley is delightful as Molly, one of the orphans.  Elise Pakiela, Jade McGee, Maggie Devine, Erin Eisner, and Natalie Welch all are cute as mature orphans. 

Lenne Snively has a wonderful time playing Mrs. Hannigan, as does the audience watching her. Molly Huey is fine as the airheaded Lily St. Regis, Rooster’s sidekick.  Matthew Ryan Thompson has calmed down his previously much overly exaggerated performance as Rooster, creating a more acceptable persona.  Sometimes actors must realize that more is not always best and subtlety can work.

Gilgamesh Taggett is picture perfect as Daddy Warbucks.  Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly sings well and gives the right air to Grace, Warbucks’ assistant.  Leslie Feagan does a fine FDR imitation.

The highlight of the show is the dancing.  Choreographer Martin Céspedes integrates tap, probation era steps, stylized hand moves and air punches to accent Charles Strouse’s jazzy music.  He has upgraded the well-conceived Easy Street and Hard Knock Life, insuring that each would be a sure show-stopper.

Larry Goodpaster’s band, especially the horns, had some difficulties with the overture, but did well backing up the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As corny and overdone as ANNIE is, with a good performance it can delight. With its tuneful music, strong cast and super choreography, Beck’s production makes for a nice theatrical experience, but maybe now it’s time for the theatre to move on and find a new holiday show.

ANNIE is scheduled to run through January 5, 2014 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go to http://www.beckcenter.org

Monday, December 09, 2013

Compelling THE BIG MEAL @ Dobama

Dan LeFranc’s THE BIG MEAL is a ninety-minute comedy-drama about life, death, meeting, dating, marriage, child-rearing, the importance of casual comments and interactions, and the quickness of existence. 

Nicole is a waitress in a non-descript restaurant someplace in America.  Sam enters, they interact, go on a date in which she informs him that she isn’t into commitment and “I don’t really wanna’ know about your life, and I don’t want you to know much about mine.” 

Things quickly happen.  In less than five minutes of stage time, Sam produces a wedding ring, the non-commitment becomes a bonded relationship, they form a family.  We are set into a pattern of flow in which five generations of a family are revealed, from a flirtation to a final goodbye, in one setting…the restaurant in which Nicole and Sam originally met.   

The play is an extraordinary story of an ordinary family whose tale turns out to be events to which others can easily identify.  It’s pretty hard to watch without thinking of your family’s meals, who was there, and what went on.

The eight actors play all of the reincarnations of members of the family that ultimately grows from the union between Sam and Nicole.

The average theatre-goer usually knows little about the format for scripts or the challenges that directors face in staging certain plays because of the dictates of a play’s author.  Usually, this maters little.  In the case of THE BIG MEAL, now on stage at Dobama, having this knowledge adds to the appreciation of what director Joel Hammer and his talented cast confronted in performing the play.

Play scripts are usually vertical pages onto which the name of a character is printed followed by his/her lines.  Then another character’s name, followed by her/his lines.  The format continues throughout the script with the assumption that one line will follow another.  That works for most plays.  It doesn’t work for THE BIG MEAL.  LeFranc has two, three or more characters talking at the same time.  That’s a normal life pattern, especially at mealtime.  The flow here is not one speaks, another speaks.  It’s usually lots of people talking at the same time. 

The problem for LeFranc was how to indicate these constant overlaps on paper to clue the director and actors.  A man of the 21st century, he turned the page on the side, used a spread sheet, and had the names of the characters along the top of each column and their lines below.  Sounds easy?  Yes, to format, but the challenge for director Joel Hammer was, “How do actors know when to speak, how to react to the cacophony of words, how to convey that they are often a person who in one scene was a daughter or son and is now the son or daughter or mother or father of the person he/she just was?”

Hammer and his cast miraculously found the key.  The process is so natural, so well conceived and developed, that the play becomes a series of reality scenes rather than theatrical stagings.

Hammer also needed to clue audiences as to when one character died without having death scenes.  He eliminated the use of all food, except in rare instances.  The “angel of death” delivers real food meals only to a person who is about to die. 

The cast is universally excellent.  Bob Goddard is exceptional portraying all the older men.  He is especially effective as Sam, now in advanced stage dementia, staring off into space with blankness on his face and unresponding eyes.

Anne McEvoy clearly develops each of the older women. As the aged Nicole, we emotionally experience her meeting her newest great grandchild before succumbing to life’s final stage.

Tom Woodward is clear in his two incarnations, texturing each to make for clarity of characterization.

Ryan Vincent and Emily Kenville each are given the difficult the task of portraying all of the children…from young, through tweens and teens.  Each does so with complete professionalism and realism.

Derdriu Ring portrays each of the mid-range women with conviction and clarity of character.

Geoff Know and Llewie Nuñez, the original Sam and Nichol, transfer personages effectively making it clear that they have taken on new personas.

Scenic designer Laura Carlson’s restaurant set works well.  Rob Peck’s lighting design helps isolate scenes and helps move the plot along. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  THE BIG MEAL is one of those special theatrical events when the script, the directorial concept, and the acting effectiveness all blend together to make for a “must see” theatrical experience.  BRAVO!
 

THE BIG MEAL runs through January 5, 2014  at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Wonderful WICKED wows 'em again at the State

How good is the production of WICKED which is now appearing at the State Theatre?  In 2009 when I took my then 14-year old grandson, known as the Kid Reviewer because I take him along to give the teen/tween view of shows, he gave it a 9.5 out of 10 on his “rate the play scale.”  Why only a 9.5? He said he’s reserving the 10 for the most unbelievable show he’s ever seen. But, he indicated “’WICKED’ was GREAT!” Why? “It had everything. Great story, outstanding production qualities…sets, costumes, lights, special effects. The music and the performances were awesome.” His advice: “Go see this show! It’s appropriate for kids and their parents.”

It’s 2014 and the kid reviewer is an 18-year old multi-award winning composer.  His evaluation of this, the 2nd National Tour of WICKED?  He gave it a solid 9.75!  Yes, he thinks it was even better than when he saw the show “as a kid!

‘WICKED,’ an alternative view of the ‘WIZARD OF OZ,’ tells the “true” story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, and her relationship with Glinda, the Good Witch. It has all the elements of the original tale, but packages them in a different way. We find out about how the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin man came to be. How Dorothy got the red (in this version silver) slippers. And, most importantly, what really happened to Elphaba. (Ah, yes, in a quirky ending, there is a happily-ever after story.)  We also become aware of the power of gossip and rumors.

The music and lyrics, by one of my favorite theatre composers, Stephen Schwartz, includes such beautiful and delightful songs as “Popular,” “I’m Not That Girl,” “Defying Gravity,” “As Long as You’re Mine,” and Alex’s favorite, “For Good.”

The production qualities of this touring show are outstanding and impressive. There is a dragon hanging over the proscenium arch that has a wingspan the same as a Cessna 172 airplane. They use 200 pounds of dry ice every show for smoke effects and enough power in a single production to supply twelve houses with electricity. There are 175,000 pounds of scenery. This is not a stripped-down touring show, it’s a full-blown Broadway extravaganza.

The cast is strong.  No, it’s not the unbelieveable Idina Menzel (Elphaba), Christine Chenoweth (Linda) and Clevelander Joel Gray (as the Wizard), but, realistically, who can top that amazing trio?  (BTW—Menzel is on the way to Broadway in IF/THEN, which I saw in an-out-of-town preview in DC.  The show needs cutting, but Menzel is her usual mesmerizing self).

In the touring production, Jennifer DiNoia glows gloriously green as Elphaba. She hits the vocal high notes with ease and creates a clear characterization. Haley Podschun is properly bubbly as the “popular” Glinda.   She sings beautifully and carries the role well.  David Nathan Perlow is excellent as the self-centered Fiyero, who falls in love with Elphaba.   BTW…did you know that Adam Lambert, the AMERICAN IDOL runner-up and actor on GLEE was the understudy for Fiyero in the Los Angeles production of WICKED?

Alex Wyse is character-right as Boq.  If the name sounds familiar, it should.  Wyse is a very talented Clevelander who showcased his talents on local stages for many years.

Talking about Clevelanders, besides Gray and Wyse, the name ARACA on the program should ring some bells.  ARACA, (http://www.araca.com) the theatrical production company founded by Michael and Matthew Rego and Hank Miller, all Clevelanders, are the producers of WICKED.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  When asked what I should write in my capsule judgement Alex said, with enthusiasm, “Tell them if they didn’t see WICKED yet, go see this show!  If they did see it before, “Go see it again, it’s that good!” Grandpa totally agrees!!!!

WICKED runs through January 5 2014 at the State Theatre in downtown Cleveland.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org

Friday, December 06, 2013

A CHRISTMAS STORY somewhat disappoints at Cleveland Play House

 In January of 1983, as the on-air entertainment reviewer for Continental Cable, I was assigned to interview Peter Billingsley, the lead child actor in a forthcoming movie which was being filmed in Cleveland. 

I not only did the interview, but stood in as an extra on Public Square with fake snow being sprayed because the real stuff didn’t fall in the two weeks of filming in this area, was a grouchy man on the porch of a house on Cleveland Street (really West 11th) a couple of addresses down from what is now known as “The Christmas House,” and took Peter (Ralphie), his mother and Scott Schwartz (Flick) on a tour of Cleveland because the producers of the film hadn’t made any arrangements for anything for the kids to do between shooting their scenes.

The front porch scene was left on the cutting room floor, and after a dozen viewings I still can’t find myself in the crowd scenes, but the memories remain and the  interview was aired.

Like so many other Clevelanders, I consider A CHRISTMAS STORY to be “our” film.  In reality, most of it was shot in Canada, the city in which it is set is in Indiana, and the house and backyard which have been created into a shrine, was only used for a couple of outside shots.  But, who cares.  The weakly reviewed film has become a movie classic and when friends come in from out of town, they ask to see where Ralph almost shot out his eye, and where his friend’s tongue got stuck to the pole. 

Who am I to break the illusion?  It’s part of Cleveland lore, like the mayor who set his hair on the fire,  the river that went up in flames, and the horrors of being a local sports fan.

Unless you don’t have a television which displays the movie version over and over this time of year, you know the tale of A CHRISTMAS STORY. 

A newly envisioned stage version of A CHRISTMAS STORY is now at Cleveland Play House’s Allen theatre.  A new cast, set, and director are on display.

Based on the short stories and semi-fictional anecdotes of author, story teller and radio personality, Jean Sheperd, the movie, play and musical are based on his book IN GOD WE TRUST, ALL OTHERS PAY CASH, along with some ideas from WANDA HICKEY’S NIGHT OF GOLDEN MEMORIES. 

Narrated by “grown up” Ralph, we revel in the story of nine-year-old Ralphie, who dreams of getting a “Red Ryder BB Gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.”  It’s in the era before television, computer games, smart phones, ipods and ipads, which might be a culture shock to the children who attend. 

Ralphie sets out to convince the world that the bb gun is the perfect gift.  But, along the way he runs into opposition from his parents, his teacher and even good ‘ol Santa Claus.  We meet little brother, Randy, who oinks like a piggy when he eats, the school bully, Scott Farkas, The Old Man, a pack of wild dogs who hound poor old dad, clinkers in the furnace, and new-old cars that don’t start.  We are exposed to the “triple-dog dare!,” learn why Ralphie should “drink his Ovaltine,” why he loathes lifeboy soap, and what happens when he realizes the consequences of, “Only I didn’t say ‘Fudge.’ I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the F-dash-dash-dash word!”   

It’s a cute story filled with childhood nostalgia for those of the “mature” generation, and a chance to experience the “olden days” by the younguns.

CPH’s production, under the direction of John McCluggage, doesn’t quite have the charm and dynamics of past stagings.  It’s just “too Hallmark bland,” lacking the needed texturing and farcical overtones.  The Old Man isn’t as angst filled.   Scut Farkas isn’t as fearsome as could be.  Even Schwartz getting his tongue caught on the metal pole isn’t drama-filled.  Randy’s wails that he has to go “wee-wee” aren’t pathetically funny.  

Everything is okay, but the missing edge that makes the whole thing farcically funny isn’t there.   Overplay, rather than underplay is needed to make the production zing along on its merry way. 

Especially disappointing is the Higbee’s Santaland set.  With all the attention being given to the flexibility of the Allen’s new stage, the cheaply assembled igloo, without the visible long slide and Higbee holiday trees and decorations, just doesn’t cut it. A bucket of coal to scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan.  He seemed so obsessed with playing with his revolving stage, that he forgot the needed visual wonderment of the pivotal Santa scene.

The cast is pleasant.  Jeff Talbott is spot on as Ralph, showing the right levels of enthusiasm and nostalgic recreating.  Matthew Taylor is cute as Ralph, Carisa Tanner is adorable as “love struck” Esther Jane, Cameron Danielle Nelson is a proper know-it-all as Helen, Cole Emerine is the strongest of the boys as the much maligned Flick, and Maggie Lacey does a good imitation of a bland Donna Reid as Mother. 

Michael Hentzman is acceptable as The Old Man but needed to overplay rather than underplay the role in order to get the farcical responses.  Laura Perrotta is fine as Miss Shields, but could have used a little more school-marmish dynamics.  Cute Lee Greene needs to project more as Schwartz as most of his lines were left at the edge of the stage.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: A CHRISTMAS STORY holds a special place in the hearts of many Clevelanders.  The present staging, under the direction of John McCluggage, while engaging, misses out on some of the farcical and endearing dynamics needed to make this a totally wonderful holiday present.  It’s not bad, just not everything that it could be or has been.

A CHRISTMAS STORY runs through December 22, 2013 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Monday, December 02, 2013

2014 WINTER/SPRING CLEVELAND THEATER CALENDAR


CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE
216-241-6000 or go to www.clevelandplayhouse.com

Jan 10-Feb 2—Allen Theatre
YENTEL
Based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story YENTL THE YESHIVA BOY it is a tale of a young woman who defies convention and the laws of her people to fulfill her dream.

February 14 - March 9--Allen Theatre
BREATH AND IMAGINATION
Based on the life of African-American tenor, Roland Hayes, this musical tale of faith, hope, and family traces a remarkable journey from rural Georgia to Carnegie Hall and Buckingham Palace.

March 21 - April 13--Allen Theatre
CLYBOURNE PARK
A follow-up to RAISIN IN THE SUN, this feisty and funny play asks, “Neighborhoods change, but do people?”

April 25 - May 18--Second Stage, Thrust Configuration
INFORMED CONSENT
Based on a true story, the play takes us into the personal and national debate about science vs. belief and whether our DNA is our destiny.

May 30 - June 22--Allen Theatre
MAURICE HINES IS TAPPIN' THRU LIFE
Tap dance legend Maurice Hines stars in this celebration of his life as the premiere tap dancer of his era.

DOBAMA
216-932-3396 or dobama.org

Jan 24 – Feb 23
THE ALIENS
A modern day WAITING FOR GODOT, this award winning play is a compassionate meditation on art, friendship, loss, and a generation of young Americans trying to find their place in the world.

March 7 - April 6
MADE IN AMERICA
Esther, a savvy sales rep, and Barry, a buyer for a manufacturing company, finally meet to “seal the deal” after months of negotiating over the phone. They begin a cat and mouse game that falls into dangerous territory.

April 25 – May 25
KIN
Traveling great distances and spanning many years in the lives of its nine characters, KIN is a love story between Anna, an Ivy League poetry scholar, and Sean, an Irish personal trainer – an unlikely but somehow perfect match.

PLAYHOUSESQUARE
216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.

Jan 7-12—Palace Theatre
CHICAGO
The “All That Jazz” award winning Kander and Ebb musical about the Prohibition age, with such songs as “Me and My Baby,” “Mr. Cellophane,” and “Razzle Dazzle.”

Jan 14-Feb 2—Hanna Theatre
MENOPAUSE THE MUSICAL
A musical parody, with tunes from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s of four women at a lingerie sale with nothing in common but a black lace bra, memory loss, and host flashes.

Jan 17-Feb 1—Second Stage Theatre
LAST CALL CLEVELAND
The sketch comedy troupe with a terrible name brings their unique mix of live and taped sketches, songs and audience interaction back to Playhouse Square.

Jan 24-25—The Palace
ROCK OF AGES
A five-time Tony winning feel good story which features 28 classic rock tunes in a show about dreaming big, playing loud and partying on!

Feb 4-16—The Palace Theatre
PORGY AND BESS
This re-envisioned Broadway production of the Gershwins' classic operetta includes such legendary songs as "Summertime,: "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "I Got Plenty of Nothing," played by a 23-piece orchestra.

March 4-16--
Palace Theatre
JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT
Retelling the Biblical story of Joseph, his eleven brothers and the coat of many colors, this magical musical is full of unforgettable songs including “Those Canaan Days,” “Any Dream Will Do” and “Close Every Door.”

March 5-15—The Helen Theatre
TOO TRUE TO BE GOOD
Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program’s production of G.B. Shaw’s tale of a rich young woman who catches a pair of burglars in her bedroom and takes them on a course of self-discovery.

March 14-15—Ohio Theatre
CS LEWIS’s THE GREAT DIVORCE
A dantesque celestial journey from hell to Paradise is filled with funny characters and wit and wisdom.

March 19-22--
NOT BY BREAD ALONE—Ohio Theatre
Direct from Israel, eleven deaf-blind actors take the audience on a magical tour of the districts of the inner world, the world of darkness, silence and bread.

March 27-28—The Palace Theatre
TYLER PERRY’S HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE A WOMAN SCORNED
Tyler Perry’s newest play centers on his belief that, “You can’t score a woman and think you’ve achieved accomplishment.” 

April 1-13--Palace Theatre
FLASHDANCE
Tells the inspiring and unforgettable story of Alex Owens, a Pittsburgh steel mill welder by day and bar dancer by night with dreams of one day becoming a professional performer.

May 6-18--State Theatre
JERSEY BOYS
The story of how four blue-collar kids became THE FOUR SEASONS, one of the greatest successes in pop music history.

BECK CENTER

216-521-2540 or http://www.beckcenter.org

Feb 7-March 9
CARRIE, THE MUSICAL—Main Stage
(In collaboration with the BW Musical Theatre Program)
A gripping tale of Carrie, the product of an overprotective mother, who is a misfit at school.  She discovers she has a special power and, if pushed too far, she is willing to use it!

March 21-May 4
‘NIGHT MOTHER—Studio Theatre
Marsha Norman’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize play will star Dorothy Silver and Laura Perotta.  It explores the last hours of the life a woman who has decided that life isn’t worth living.

May 30-June 29
SEMINAR—Studio Theatre
A biting comedy in which four aspiring novelists sign up for a writing class that results in their fighting over their writing, their relations and their futures. 

ACTOR'S SUMMIT

330-374-7568 or go to www.actorssummit.org

Jan 16-Feb 2
PHOTOGRAPH 51
Biology, ethics, women’s equality, anti-Semitism…all play a role in this true story about Rosalind Franklin who may have missed receiving the Nobel Prize because her standards were too high.

Feb 20-March 9
BUS STOP
William Inge’s tale about a group of travelers who seek shelter in a diner in the middle of a snow storm.

March 27-April 13
HANDLE WITH CARE
A new comedy about a young woman from Israel, who, while desperately trying to find her grandmother, finds love.

May 1-May 25
RING OF FIRE
Johnny Cash’s life story, his songs, and struggles are played out with “A Boy Named Sue,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” and, of course, “Man in Black.”

CLEVELAND PUBLIC THEATRE
216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org

January 9 - January 25
EXACT CHANGE
A one-person staging of the personal story of noted Cleveland actor, journalist, and theater critic Christine Howey (formerly Dick Howey). 

January 30 - February 15
AIR WAVES
 (Part Three of the Elements Cycle)
Explores the powerful effect humanity has had, and can have, on the very air we breathe.

March 6 - March 22
TITUS: A GRAND AND GORY ROCK MUSICAL
Shakespeare rolls over in his grave as his bloodiest, most horrifying script gets a total makeover as a rock musical.

March 27 - March 29
SISTERS (workshop)
A workshop/reading that envisions Shakespeare's witches before they encountered "The Scottish King."

April 10 - April 26
A KILLING GAME
A staging by Dog & Pony DC, a quickly rising ensemble company from Washington DC, known for their quirky and wild productions that involve everyone in the fun.

April 17 - May 3
THE DROWNING GIRLS
Alice, Bessie and Margaret surface from the still waters of their bathtubs to deliver their post-mortem testimony and tell how they were wooed, wed, insured, and murdered.

May 2 - May 3
DECONSTRUCTING KURT WEILL: THE AMERICAN SONGS


When Kurt Weill fled Nazi Germany and settled in New York City in the early 1930s, his American musicals proved nearly as provocative, tackling the most serious of social and political issues.  (Co-produced with The Musical Theatre Project)

May 15 - May 31
THIS IS NOT THE PLAY
Imagines a black playwright trying to write a play about white people.  The problem is that the characters seem to have minds of their own.

May 15 - May 31
LEFT IN INK
A devised documentary performance about people who have memorial tattoos for suicide victims.

May 22 - June 7
ANCESTRA
Tells stories of heritage, sisterhood and overcoming adversity by combining traditional and original songs with spoken-word poetry and movement to remind of those who came before and the power of possibilities for the future.

ENSEMBLE THEATRE
216-321-2930 or http://www.ensemble-theatre.com

January 31st - February 23rd
KNOCK ME A KISS
A fictional account inspired by the actual events surrounding the 1928 marriage of W.E.B. Du Bois’s daughter Yolande to one of Harlem’s great poets, Countee Cullen.

April 18th-May 11th
BEYOND THE HORIZON
This winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama explores what happens when two men love the same woman and the compromises each will make to have her.

GREAT LAKES THEATRE

http://www.greatlakestheater.org or 216-241-6000

Feb 21-March 16—Hanna Theatre
DEATHTRAP
When a Broadway playwright struggles to overcome a dry spell that’s resulted in a string of flops his fortunes turn when one of his students shares a brilliant new script.  He conceives of a trap to snare the script and take credit for its creation.

April 4-19—Hanna Theatre
AS YOU LIKE IT
Shakespeare’s romantic comedy in which a clandestine, gender-bending courtship results in changing unexpected lovers in this timeless and transcendent romantic comedy.

none-too-fragile
www.nonetoofragile.com or 330-671-4563

February, 2014
LOVE DRUNK
Delves into the combative nature of seduction between strangers, age and the lies people tell themselves and others.

March/April, 2014
IN A FOREST DARK AND DEEP
Neil LaBute unflinchingly explores the dark territory beyond "the lies you tell yourself to get by."

May/ June, 2014
GIDION'S KNOT
Plunges the audience into a deceptively simple situation -- a parent teacher conference. However, this encounter is anything but simple.

KARAMU
www.karamuhouse.org or 216-795-7077

Jan 31-Feb 23
CEREMONIES IN DARK OLD MEN
Lonnie Elder’s poignant story of a family in 1950s Harlem.

March 14-Apirl 6
THE ELABORATE ENTRANCE OF CHAD DEITY
A serious-minded comedy about wrestling, geopolitics and raisin bread.

May 23-June 15
THE COLOR PURPLE
A revival of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel and 1985 film, is an inspiring family saga of a woman who, through love, finds the strength to triumph over adversity.

BLANK CANVAS

440-941-0458 or www.blankcanvastheatre.com

TBA

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Sam Shepard's FOOL FOR LOVE at convergence-continuum

Sam Shepard, the author of FOOL FOR LOVE, which is now in production at convergence continuum, described the script as “a very emotional play and in some ways embarrassing for me to witness but somehow necessary at the time.”  The time was shortly after breaking up his marriage to be with another woman. 

Much like the other plays in his Family Trilogy series, which is actually a collection of five plays (BURIED CHILD, CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS, TRUE WEST, A LIE OF THE MIND, and FOOL FOR LOVE) Shepard creates an allegory for his own loss and love, complete with a manic depiction of ill-fated passion.

His characters often reflect his family and personal life.   He started to work on a ranch as a teenager to support his mother and brother when his father lost their farm.  The father Shepard described as “a drinking man dedicated to being an alcoholic.” His dysfunctional relationship with his father is often front-and-center in his writing.

In FOOL FOR LOVE, which takes place in a run-down motel in the Mojave Desert, May is hiding out.  She has fled from Eddie,  her childhood friend, old flame and half-brother.  Theirs is a love-hate relationship in which they are bound to each other out of desperation. (May knowingly shouts at Eddie, “you are like a disease to me.”) May left their trailer home and proportes that she wants to start a new life,  A life without Eddie.  But, they simply cannot break their destructive cycle.  As they conflict, their father watches over them, commenting on the actions, challenging the stories told and their interpretations.

As is true in most Shepard plays, the characters, rather than the plot, is of greatest importance.  There are no issues that will be resolved, no happily ever after solution. In fact, as the play ends, Martin, May’s new “guy” watches out the window as Eddie’s truck and horse trailer go up in flames and May flees, but there is no clarity as to where or from what?

Watching a Shepard play is an experience in emotional tumult where identity is vague, truth and lies blur, and the characters pasts haunt their present.  Memories are altered to suite the needs of the dreamer telling the tale and are often idealized.

FOOL FOR LOVE had its off-Broadway premiere in 1983 and moved to a Broadway theatre later that year with a cast of Ed Harris and Kathy Baker.  A 1985 film version starred Shepard himself with Kim Basinger.

Shepard is extremely prolific.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for BURIED CHILD, an Academy Award for Best Supporting actor in THE RIGHT STUFF, a Tony Award in Playwrighting for BURIED CHILD, and an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in DASH AND LILLY.

The fifty-five minute con-con production, under the direction of Amy Bistok Bunce, creates a surface level glance at Shepard’s world. Shepard has said of his characters, and this is true in FOOL FOR LOVE, that he doesn’t expect an audience to identify with his characters.  These are not real people, they are unidentifiable fragments of Shepard’s life and imagination.

Rachel Lee Kolis is believable as the almost psychotic May, who finds herself unable to come to terms with reality and move to save herself from a life of chaotic frustration.

Clint Elston stays close to the surface as Eddie, never totally encompassing the nuances of the character. 

Robert Hawkes rocks away on his chair, drinking booze, on a platform overlooking the action, and comments with ease on the machinations of May, Eddie and his own life.

Stuart Hoffman well develops Martin, May’s possible suitor, as an innocent-simple who gets overwhelmed by stepping into a situation beyond his understanding.
 
Capsule Judgement:  Sam Shepard is noted for taking audiences on illusionary trips.  FOOL FOR LOVE is yet another example of con-con asking the audience ”to extend the conventional boundaries of language, structure, space and performances that challenge the conventional notions of what theatre is.”  It’s a production steeped in Shepard writing Shepard, which is missing some of his intended nuance.

FOOL FOR LOVE runs through December 21 at 8 pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. For information and reservations call 216-687-0074.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

PRELUDE TO A KISS,a romantic fantasy at Ensemble


“If you hear a song in blue
Like a flower crying for the dew
That was my heart serenading you
My prelude to a kiss”

These are the lyrics which Duke Ellington wrote as the first stanza to his 1938 torch song, “Prelude to a Kiss.”  It is this song which supposedly inspired Craig Lucas to write and title his romantic comedy of the same name.

Lucas’s 1988 script, which has been critically dubbed, “a whimsically inept piece of high kitsch—a TWILIGHT ZONE for yuppie soft-heads” and was credited as being “packed with cheap sentiment and puerile romanticism,” also was dubbed, “a charming sentimental fable about the importance of loving the essence of a human being, not the package it happens to come in.”  Yes, that’s the kind of script and production which will probably engender a variety of reactions to viewers of the present staging at Ensemble Theatre.

PRELUDE TO A KISS basically tells the story of a pessimistic, liberal, free-spirited young lady who earns her living as a bartender, who meets a conservative manager of a Chicago scientific publishing house.  They quickly fall in love, get married, kiss to affirm their wedding bows, and are confronted by a series of bizarre events after an old man kisses the new bride.  

While on their honeymoon, husband, Peter, begins to feel that new wife, Rita, is not the same person that he married.  As the tale unfolds, the author leads the audience down a supernatural path that includes the Old Man and Kelly having switched personas.  In other words,  Rita is now inside the Old Man’s body, and he in hers.

The assumption was made at the time the play was first presented that there was more to the story than Lucas examining whether the strength of commitment to each other can survive drastic changes to a person. 

To understand this premise, it must be realized that when Lucas wrote the play, the AIDS epidemic was in full rage with no definitive knowledge of its cause or how it was being passed on. 

To some, the act of love/sex, including maybe even kissing, was changing people.  The young were becoming old before the eyes of the onlookers.  Would these physical changes make for bonding changes?  As one critic stated, “So while it ends as fairy tales tend to, PRELUDE TO A KISS is steeped in the ache of loss and sorrowful awareness that life’s joys can be as fleeting as its grief are unavoidable.”

In light of present day circumstances, the play is most likely to be regarded as an  examination of the limits of love and the meaning of obligation to one another.

The play starred Alec Baldwin and Mary-Louise Parker in its well-received off-Broadway staging and Timothy Hutton and Parker in its 440-performance Broadway run.  It was nominated for a best play Tony Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.   A generally negatively reviewed movie version starred Baldwin and Meg Ryan.

The Ensemble production, under the direction of Martin Friedman, is a rather neutral experience.  The play hasn’t worn well over time.  With the AIDS issue generally under control, the writer’s underlying message is no longer relevant.  The concept of a kiss causing a cosmic bodily exchange is hard, even in this era of vampire, werewolf and supernatural movies and television shows, for realists to accept.

Nothing is wrong with the production, but nothing is really compelling.  There is a leisurely pace, the acting is acceptable, the musical interludes pleasant, the projections place the settings, move the storyline along.

Aaron Elersich gives a nice interpretation to Peter.  Cute Kelly Strand, though perfectly acceptable, could have been more quirky and dynamic as Rita.  There was little performance evidence of her change from youthful malcontent to dying old man.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Ensemble Theatre’s PRELUDE TO A KISS is one of those plays and productions, that while a perfectly acceptable evening of theatre, quickly fades from memory.

PRELUDE TO A KISS runs Thursdays through Sundays through December 15, 2012, at Ensemble Theatre, housed in Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

To see the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to:  clevelandtheaterreviews.com

Thursday, November 14, 2013

ONCE, a tender little Irish love story musical, gets lost in the Palace Theatre

About half an hour before the start of ONCE, the touring version of the musical which is now appearing at the Palace, the audience is invited on stage for beer, music and dancing.  It turns out to be a big Irish jam session.   An intermission hoe-down is also included in the staging.  Come early.  Join in.  Have fun!

Many of today’s Broadway musicals have large casts, grand sets, impressive  engineered graphics, and big orchestras in the theatre’s pits which play lush music.  ONCE is not such a work.  It is a tender little musical love story, which basically takes place in a Dublin pub.

The minimalistic set is transformed into various places by adding a few tables and chairs and some strategic lighting.  Though the songs are often dynamic, there is no rock and roll, no hip hop, and no show stoppers. 

The cast members are proficient triple threat performers who act, sing, dance and play the musical instruments which make up the orchestra.  They play such tunes as the depressing “Love,” the pretty and plaintive “Falling Slowly,” the beautiful “Gold,” and the dance-inducing “North Strand.”  There’s nothing that will make the hit parade of great songs.  It’s emotional Irish “woe-is-me” music.

ONCE is the story of an Irish musician (Guy) and a Czech immigrant (Girl) who become emotionally linked.  As the musical starts, Guy, a thirty-something busker, is singing a ballad of unrequited love.  He is in despair over the loss of the-love-of-his-life who left him and went to America.  Girl is watching, listening, and approaches him.  Posing personal questions, she finds out that he is giving up music because singing songs of unrequited love is just too difficult.   Seem like an extreme reaction?  Not if you remember that the Irish are noted for their extreme emotions, the acting out of their angst, and the expression of those feelings in songs, poetry and staged drama.

Of course, the two develop an emotional relationship, but are confronted with the barrier that Girl is married to a man who has left her and their daughter, but may return.  Over the period of one week, the duo, with the help of various friends, create a CD of raw, emotional, music.  A vacuum cleaner, a piano, a recording studio, hope, laughter and Irish anguish and frustration all play into the tale.  The expected happy ending may or may not take place, depending on how you interpret the touching final scene.

ONCE is based on John Carney’s 2006 film of the same name.  The book was written by Enda Walsh, and many of the film’s songs, which were written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, have been retained.

The musical premiered on Broadway in 2012 and received eleven Tony nominations.  It won eight, including being named Best Musical.  It is now on stage in London and continues its Broadway run.

Having seen the Broadway production, while watching the local showing, it became obvious that the intimacy of the musical is the bane of the touring production on the Palace stage.  The conversations are quiet, the relationships intimate, much of the music quietly heartfelt.   This worked in the Broadway theatre in which small comedies and dramas are usually staged, but in the Palace, which is almost three times the size of the Big Apple’s facility, both in stage and auditorium size, the intimacy disappeared.  At the Ohio or Hanna the show might have worked well, but the revenues so necessary to support touring productions would not have been as great, so big had to be used.

As is, between the Irish and Czech accents, and the quiet interactions, much of the dialogue is lost.  The sound designer and technicians had the difficult job of keeping the miked speaking voices soft enough for the intimacy, but loud enough to be heard.  Unfortunately, they were often unsuccessful.  Many of the comments at intermission centered on audience members complaining that they were not able to hear or understand the dialogue. 

Both Dani de Waal (Girl) and Stuart Ward (Guy) have excellent singing voices, and well interpret both their roles and the lyrics.  Unfortunately, there is seemingly an emotional disconnect between them.  Whether this is the vast stage and the separation from the audience, or a lack of real chemistry, it gets in the way of the necessary believability.

Strong performances are put in by Donna Garner as Baruska, Evan Harrington as Billy, Benjamin Magnuson as the Bank Manager, and Alex Nee as Andrej.

The entire cast impressed with their musical performances.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The touring production of ONCE is well staged, has strong musical appeal, but fails to grab and hold as it should.   It  is an intimate musical which loses much of its charm due to the vast Palace stage and auditorium size.  Here’s a case of the right show in the wrong setting.

Tickets for ONCE , which runs through November 24, 2013 at the Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Broadway's BIG FISH, a tale of a fantasy life, to close in late December

 
Broadway’s BIG FISH, a tale of a fantasy life, to close in late December

What do you do when your life doesn’t live up to your dreams?  If you are Walter Mitty or Hans Christian Anderson or Edward Bloom, you invent a fantasy life.  Mitty, of film fame, was a daydreamer who escaped his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of heroism, romance and action.  Anderson imagined fairy tales with lessons of virtue and resilience in the face of adversity.  Edward Bloom, the main character in BIG FISH, the John August (book) and Andrew Lippa (music and lyrics) musical, spins a series of stories which may or may not be true.

Bloom, a traveling salesman, tells what may be tall tales for the amusement of his wife, son and friends.  All is well until his pragmatic son, Will, about to have a child of his own, challenges whether the stories are true.  His quest for reality forces him to look beyond the words and into what really did happen and determine whether his father is fact or fiction.

Questions abound.  How much of Bloom’s tales are real?  How much are fantasy?  Was he a high school football star?  Did he actually have an encounter with a witch?  Were the tales he told of confronting a giant true?  Did he travel with a circus?  Why was his name on a deed for a house purchased by his high school sweetheart?  Did he actually hatch a plan to save a town that was about to be submerged? 

Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and Tim Burton’s 2003 film, Broadway’s BIG FISH is filled with special effects, creative imagery, and delights in some ways and stumbles in others.

Susan Stroman’s direction is basically on target, but a bigger than life show needs much more flights of the imagination in actions and character creation.   Performers often seemed held back, too reserved.  BIG FISH is a fantasy.  To create that fantasy requires more pizzazz, more than just nice.

Norbert Leon Butz gives what will probably be a Tony nomination performance, but there were times when he was just too controlled.  His ability to spin a vivid tale was hampered, to a degree, by his reserved nature. 

Ciara Renée, as the witch, displayed a fine singing voice, but was too restrained in her character development.  Having seen Renée, a recent graduate of Cleveland, Ohio’s Baldwin Wallace University’s top ranked Musical Theatre program, in numerous roles, I know she can control a stage.  That quality was somewhat missing here.

Zachary Unger as Young Will, Krystal Joy Brown as Josephine, Edward’s wife, and Bobby Steggert as Will Bloom were excellent in the more realistic roles.

The musical score carries the story along, but fails to have a show stopper song which allows the audience to leave humming its sounds long after the final curtain closes.  As with the rest of the show, the music was nice, not filled with the wonder of make-believe.

Following the trend of recent Broadway shows much of the setting and illusions are electronic projections.  Fields and fields of daffodils, a forest, a town and much of what is seen are Benjamin Pearcy’s creative illusionary designs.

The producers of BIG FISH have recently announced that the show will be closing on December 29, 2013.  It will have played 34 previews and 98 performances by the time it drops its final curtain.   There is still time to see it at the Neil Simon Theatre.

Capsule judgement:  BIG FISH is a pleasant show, which gets a pleasant production.  As a fantasy it needed more dynamics, more creativity in music as well as staging.  As is, it makes for a nice diversion from real life, but could have been so much more.

VENUS IN FUN, seduction without sex at the Cleveland Play House

A psychiatrist, who is credited with naming the act of sadomasochism, stated, “I feel justified in calling this sexual anomaly “Masochism,” because the author Sacher-Masoch frequently made this perversion, which up to his time was quite unknown to the scientific world as such, the substratum of his writing.”   Yes, this is the same Leopold Sacher-Masoch who is the author of VENUS IN FURS, which is the subject of David Ives VENUS IN FUR, now in production at the Cleveland Play House.

The play within a play centers on Thomas Novachek, a newbie playwright and director, who has adapted Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 book into a script and his attempts to cast the role of Vanda.  His tryouts have been a disaster as one overacting or clueless woman after another has wasted his time.  As he is packing to leave the door opens and in bursts a blonde fireball named Vanda Jordan.  Yes, Vanda.  (Hmm, first coincidence.) 

She is harried, disheveled and carries a large cotton bag.  She begs to let her read for the role.  She lets loose a tirade of swear words, seems to take over the tryouts and he falls victim to her machinations.  (Second coincidence.)  

She proposes to read Dunayev [Vanda] to his Severin von Kushemski.  As soon as she starts, she transforms into the story’s Vanda, complete with perfect accent.  As the reading continues, she displays uncany understanding of the author’s intent as well as facts about his personal and love life that astound him.  (Third coincidence.)  And, from her bag produces costume after costume that perfectly fit the script’s needs.  (Fourth coincidence.)

She states, “basically it’s S&M porn.”  He responds, “VENUS IN FURS is a serious novel.  It’s a great love story.”  How has she developed such a complete understanding of a script she was just given to read?  (Fifth coincidence.)

Eventually, the actress establishes total dominance over the writer, teasing, seducing, having him grovel at her feet, change her shoes, and even allowing her to tie him to a pole.  He becomes her play toy.  Seduction takes places without a kiss.  Without bodies even touching.

Ives has a great touch with extended comedy and he knows how to pull out all the sexual stops, short of acting them out.  Though, after a while, the game playing becomes a bit overdone, the audience seemed spellbound. 

Questions abound.  Since Vanda, in the play within the play, is often compared to Venus, and Thomas’s personal life seems to follow some of the play’s plot, is the evasive Vanda really Venus come to life?  How does Vanda know so much about Thomas and his fiancée?  Is the gamesmanship real or is meant to be a parallel to the original Sacher-Masoch story?  What are Ives’ real thoughts of male-female domination?

VENUS IN FUR opened off-Broadway in 2011, moved to Broadway in 2012 and received two Tony Award nominations.  Nina Arianda won the best actress  award that year for her performance as Vanda. 

Roman Polanski made a French film version of the play in late 2012.

CPH’s production, under the focused eye of new Artistic Director Laura Kepley, grabs and holds the audience’s attention.  Staging the script in a runway theatre  design, with the audience on both sides of the stage, aids in creating the intimacy needed for this type of production.  Kepley wisely made sure the actors continued to move positions to insure their lines were heard on both sides of the stage, and opened the actors up so that their facial expressions could be seen.

Her approach worked well as evidenced by the lack of coughing and wiggling, and the rapt attention interspersed with laughter, and a few sighs which could have been fantasy lust.

The lighting and special rain effects aided in creating reality, a much needed component.

Vanessa Wasche is delightfully sultry as the evasive Vanda.  She has a wonderful touch with comedy, uses her facial and physical beauty to create a seductive and wise character.  It is obvious that she had little trouble convincing the real director to cast her in the role.  (BTW….be sure to read Kepley’s “Art of the Audition” in the program to gain an understanding of the casting process.)

Handsome Michael Brusasco makes Thomas Novachek his.  He doesn’t portray the role, he becomes Novachek.  He completely succeeds as the seducer and the seduced.  A young woman was overheard saying to her acquaintance as they exited the theatre, “that guy should be playing Christian in the movie version of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.”

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   VENUS IN FUR is good kinky fun.  It will send many home to a night of fantasy.  Be aware, that if you are the kind of theatre-goer who likes clear endings to your plays that wrap up the action and makes the author’s meaning clear, you’ll probably be frustrate with VENUS IN FUR. 
VENUS IN FUR, which is being performed in the Second Stage in the Allen Theatre complex, has been extended due to strong ticket sales beyond the original November 24th announced closing date. For tickets and information call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

NEWSIES THE MUSICAL

NEWSIES THE MUSICAL delights with impressive dancing and a melodic score

Have you every wondered if the second time you see a production of a Broadway show it can live up to the first viewing?   Or, whether, after a show runs for a while, does it get stale, loses its spontaneity? 

Having seen NEWSIES just before it officially opened, I followed the “rules of the critic”…never review a show in previews.  So I was curious if, when I saw it for the second time, it would be as dynamic, emotionally charged and high flying as the first seeing.

The answer is a resounding “YES!”

NEWSIES is the Disney produced musical that was inspired by the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899 in which a group of ragtag ruffian youth, who were the breadwinners for their impoverished immigrant families, stood up to the powerful Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the owners of New York’s major newspapers.

Much like the musical URINETOWN, NEWSIES is a tale of the struggle against corporate greed.  URINETOWN took on the control of water, while NEWSIES illuminates the tale of publishing tycoons who try to raise the price of the papers bought by the boys and sold for meager profits in order to increase the tycoons’ larders at the expense of child labor and greediness.   Though the musical embellishes the facts of the real strike, it makes for a first-rate good show, which gives good guys to root for and highlights how the upright can triumph over the gluttonous.

NEWSIES opened on Broadway as a limited engagement offering on March 29, 2012.  Because of strong critical accolades, and a cult group of followers of the 1992 screen version, a movie which ironically garnered negative reviews, it is now in an open-ended run.

The show has catchy, toe-tapping music by Alan Menken, which lends itself to dynamic choreography by Christopher Gattelli.  Jack Feldman’s lyrics and Harvey Fierstein’s book give director Jeff Calhoun a chance to do much creative staging and play for both laughs and pathos. 

In the mold of the traditional musical, the songs are melodic, the two-act format ends with the first act leaving the audience with a cliff hanger regarding whether good guy Jack or the bad guy tycoons will prevail, and offers a satisfying ending. 

The score includes ballads, marches, and toe tapping/tap dancing inducing sounds.   “Santa Fe” is a song of longing, the show-stopping “Seize the Day” is a choreographic explosion of determination, “The Bottom Line” illustrates greed and corruption, “Brooklyn’s Here” shows the power of solidarity of purpose and how enemies can form a bond when it comes to forging change,” and “Something to Believe In” is an illustration of love and inspiration.  It’s almost impossible to leave the theatre without one of those songs repeating itself in your mind.

Corey Cott lacks some of the dynamism of Jeremy Jordan who was the original Jack Kelly.  Jordan left the cast to become a character in the television series, SMASH.  Cott, however, is believable as Jack, the leader of the Newsies, the tough guy with a tender underbelly.  He has a strong singing voice and is a skilled dancer. 

Beautiful Kara Lindsay charms as Jacks’ love interest and defiant daughter of Joseph Pulitzer.  Cott and Richardson’s rendition of “Something to Believe In” is one of the show’s highlights.

John Dossett was so convincing as the nasty Pulitzer, much in the tradition of reactions to the bad buys in a melodrama, he earned him a chorus of “boos” in the curtain call. 

Andy Richardson tugs at the heartstrings as Crutchie, the crippled orphan.  Young Joshua Colley charmed as Les, a youngster forced to work with Davey, his older brother, the brains behind the Newsies, when their father loses his job.  The kid knows how to steal a show.  Ben Fankhauser develops a believable Davey. 

The highlight of the production, however, is the choreography.  Flips, somersaults, line dancing, tapping, contemporary moves, balletic perfection explode on the stage, resulting in prolonged cheers, applause and demands for reprisals.   Wow!  This is Broadway dance at its very best.  What’s even more impressive, these guys can sing effectively as well as dance.

If some of the dancers look familiar, any viewer of television’s SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE will hone in on familiar faces.

Ken Travis’s set design and Sven Ortel’s projections helped create the right moods, as did Jeff Croiter’s lighting.

Capsule judgement:  NEWSIES THE MUSICAL is Broadway at its best.  A story based on a real tale of good versus evil, a love connection of opposites attracting, a multi-textured melodic score, and dynamic choreography, add up to a wonderful evening of theatre!   To date, unfortunately, no plans have been announced for a touring show, so it’s see it on Broadway, or probably not at all.  Hopefully the powers that be will change their minds and realize that this is a show that would sell on the road!

NEWSIES THE MUSICAL is in production at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W 41st St, New York, NY.

LUCE, a compelling, thought-provoking probe into reality

Lincoln Center is the largest contiguous performing arts center in the United States.  Included in the complex are concert, dance, education, commercial and theatre spaces.  The newest venue is the Claire Tow Theatre, a two-story, 23,000 square-foot space built on the roof of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.  The space includes the theatre, rehearsal and office space, and a lobby that opens onto an outdoor terrace surrounded by a new green roof with views of the rejuvenated Lincoln Center Plaza.

The Tow is an 112-seat proscenium space, which is home to LCT3, Lincoln Center’s initiative to produce the work of new artists and engage new audiences.  LCT3 tickets are priced at $20. 

The intimate space works well for small shows.  The seating is comfortable but doesn’t completely take sight lines into consideration.  Seats at the ends of the first several rows in the straight line configuration face the proscenium walls rather than being angled toward the stage, thus making for problematic viewing.

The play is receiving its initial staging as part of LCT3.  This is author JC Lee’s first New York production.  Lee is also the writer of LOOKING, a new HBO series.

LUCE probes such issues as the meaning of truth, whether blind love can be destructive, the roles of both negative and positive prejudices on insights, and if early life experiences can set someone on a life’s path which later nurturing cannot overcome.  

The date is today in an American suburb.  We are introduced to Harriet, a teacher of cultural studies at an affluent charter school, Amy and Peter, parents of Luce, a high school athlete and honor student who was adopted at a young age from an African nation in the midst of civil war, and Stephanie, an Asian teenager. 

Harriet has given her students an assignment to think “out of the box” about a historical figure.  Luce writes about a European 1970’s terrorist in vivid detail.  Without his knowledge Harriet, who has become suspicious that Luce may be harboring terrorist thoughts, inspects his locker and finds three large firecrackers.  Theses are devices capable of large destruction.  She shares her findings with Amy and gives her the essay and the explosives.  Amy does not confront Luce, but puts the items in a place where she used to hide the boy’s Christmas presents.

As the story develops, the liberal parents find themselves questioning Luce’s honesty and Harriet’s intentions.  Amy confronts the shy Stephanie, who supposedly has been harassed because of her heritage and finds out additional secrets that Luce has never shared. 

Finally, after not wanting to accuse Luce of transgressions, his parents confront him with their observations.  He has seemingly logical explanations for each incident.  All seems under control until Luce is chosen to give a speech about the effect of culture on individuals and presents a treatise that opens new issues.

A cliff hanging  conclusion in which an explosion at the school and the disappearance of the essay and firecrackers, leads to an unsettling ending.

Some may be upset that Lee does not tie up the play with a clear “he did it or didn’t do it” ending.  As is, we are left with doubts and much fuel for long discussion after the curtain falls.

Okieriete Onaodowan is convincing as Luce.  His easy demeanor, likeability and realistic character development aid in confusing the audience as to whether he has been so damaged by his youthful past that he is a devil in honor student/star football player guise or is a victim of circumstances.

Marin Hinkle presents an Amy who, true to her loving liberal nature, wants to trust her son, no matter the consequences.  Her powerful final scene, of a mother now filled with doubt, is extremely effective.

Neal Huff develops Peter into a man who, though liberal in his views, is a realist.  Is his son a terrorist or not?    Huff convincingly sways in the wind, never breaking, but bending under the pressure of evidence and reality.

Sharon Washington gives a defensive bend to Harriet that makes one wonder whether she is Luce’s friend or foe.  It is that edge which helps bring doubts into the minds of the audience.

Olivia Oguma easily takes on the role of the texting, afraid, Stephanie.

Capsule judgement:  JC Lee’s LUCE is a thought provoking script which gets a nicely textured performance under the direction of May Adrales as part of the LCT3 program at Lincoln Center.  It is a show which should get lots of productions on college and small theatre professional stages.  Lincoln Center is to be commended for developing a space and providing the funding for the development and staging of new works.

Performance:  Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center, (212) 239-6200, telecharge.com, lct3.org. Through Nov. 17. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

FIRST DATE on Broadway


Delightful, well-staged, cast-right FIRST DATE on Broadway
How do singles meet, find that perfect “forever,” or at least, their “right” now?  In this age of electronics, Craigslist, J-date, and E-Harmony, dot com offer a wide avenue to traverse.

Of course, who can tell if any of the on-line information is accurate?   As “The One,” the opening song in FIRST DATE, Broadway’s small cast musical explains, weight, age and about anything else listed could be one big lie!

The safest of the bunch is personal contact.  The duo gets to see and exchange information.   Hanging around popular bars, joining single’s groups or trolling the health food sections of super markets are also options.  And then, there is the blind date.

In FIRST DATE the audience is allowed to eavesdrop on the meeting of Aaron and Casey, New Yorkers of very different temperaments and life styles, who have been set up by his friend and her sister.  Why the matchmakers ever thought that this duo were candidates to be the one for each other is a mystery.  But, without the mismatching, there would be no plot!

FIRST DATE, with book by Broadway newcomer Austin Winsbend and music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, also Big Apple newbies, is a delightful old-fashioned musical with a modern twist.  It harks back to the days of SHE LOVES ME and PROMISES, PROMISES, musicals with obvious story lines of love and misunderstanding and hummable scores, sprinkled with witty lines, solvable conflicts, and feel-good endings.

Tall, dark, whippet thin, handsome Zachary Levi is character-perfect as Aaron.  Aaron, the geeky, awkward, self-doubting, jilted at the altar guy, blind date virgin, who has been reluctantly dragged, with uncertainty and trepidation, into this fixed-up meeting. 

Levi, who is making his Broadway debut, is best known as the computer nerd lead character in the television show CHUCK.  In the musical he adds the dimension of displaying a fine singing voice, which he uses well to create meaningful musical thoughts.  His “In Love With You,” is hilarious, while “The Things I Never Said,” a song version of a letter left to him by his mother shortly before her death, is heart wrenching. 

The duet, “First Impressions,” which Levi sings with Krysta Rodriguez, Casey, his blind date, creates the perfect exposition for understanding these seemingly disparate people.

Rodriguez, noted for her portrayal of Ana Vargas in the Broadway-themed television show, SMASH, and Broadway performances in THE ADDAMS FAMILY, IN THE HEIGHTS and SPRING AWAKENINGS, shines as Casey, an in-your face, street wise, oft-hurt young lady.  Commenting on everything from his clothing to his career and manners, Casey seems to insure that this date is going no-where.  Some of her badass veneer cracks when she sings “Safer.”

Their differences are highlighted in the very funny, “The Girl for You,” a reaction of Casey revealing she’s a “shiksa,” a non-Jewish woman, who is not for a nice Jewish boy like Aaron.   Sara Chase regales as the guilt inducing Grandma Ida.

The rest of the score also helps clarify the duos personas.  Included are such plot pushers as, “The Awkward Pause,” “That’s Why You Love Me,” and “The Check.”

Is there hope?  This is a musical comedy, so, of course, the moon glows brightly as the duo seems to resolve many of their differences and go happily into this good night.

The rest of the cast, who appear in multi-roles are spot on, as is the creative direction of Broadway newcomer, Bill Berry.   In lesser hands the light script might have become soppy, but Berry has done an excellent job of keeping things on course, cueing the laughs, and making sure that the characterizations are consistent.

Kristoffer Cusik is fey-fun as the flamboyant Reggie, whose assignment is to call Casey so she can exit from the blind date.   His “Bailout Song”—all three versions of it---delight.

Blake Hammer adds humor as the waiter/impresario of the restaurant in which the blind date takes place.  His “I’d Order Love,” is fun.

Bryce Ryness and Kate Loprest are excellent in multi-roles.

Capsule judgement:  FIRST DATE is charming and fun.  The audience leaves happy and humming the music, having had a good time.  Both Zachery Levi and Krysta Rodriguez are delightful and the supporting cast is excellent.

The producers of FIRST DATE have announced that the Broadway show will close after the January 5 performance. It will have played 34 previews and 174 regular performances at The Longacre Theatre.  Too bad, I really liked it!

Monday, November 04, 2013

BLACK CAT LOST, a thought provoking experience at Theatre Ninja

Theater Ninja is a nomadic theatre company which has no permanent home and appears in store fronts, art spaces, and churches.  It was founded in 2006 with the goal of developing innovative, nontraditional theatrical experiences.   As founder Jeremy Paul explains, “We are a risk-taking company.”

Erin Courtney, the author of BLACK CAT LOST, Theatre Ninjas most recent offering, fits perfectly into the mold of Ninja’s targeted scripts/devised theatre.  The play, which centers on the impermanence of life and the pain of loss, uses esoteric language and Zen poetry, to examine conflicting memories of events jointly experienced, and the viewing of death and the unseen. 

Using the controversial concepts of Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross’s stages of grief and dying: denial (often accompanied by isolation), anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, the multi-scene play accentuates the idea of seeing each event twice.  First it is experienced, and then it is relived as a memory. The questions arise, “Are our memories accurate?”   “Can any two people have the same memory experience?”  “Can individuals experience and then move on?”  These issues can become intense as people attempt to re-experience someone who has died.

Though somewhat obtuse, the script does invoke thoughts of an individual’s own mortality and how we remember those who have passed through our lives and are no longer with us.

Director Jeremy Paul uses his actors and the intimate Waterloo Arts space well.

Ray Caspio, Lauren Joy Fraley, and Sarah Moore are all convincing in their portrayals.

BLACK CAT LOST is preceded by the REFRAIN, a short devised presentation conceived and directed by Paul, which features Tania Benites, Caspio and Moore.  The piece was first performed as part of AT-TEN-TION SPAN 2012, Cleveland Public Theatre’s , 10-minute play series.  It is described by its conceiver as, “a highly rhythmical sequence of movement and voices — a pseudo opening band” for Black Cat Lost.” 

It is composed as a non-linear connected series of lines, with no clear story.  It is performed by Benites, Caspio and Sarah Moore.

The final segment of the evening was TANGLE, TANGLE, a developing concept play performed by its writer Caspio, with accompaniment by composer Sean Ellis.  It is billed as “a queer performance of songs and stories, a microcosm challenging hate.” The segment presented, much in the vein of, ‘I Am What I Am,” from the musical LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, examines masculinity and femininity.  It includes concepts explained by American Psychologist Sandra Bem in her Gender Schema Theory.

Capsule judgement:  THE BLACK CAT LOST, THE REFRAIN and TANGLE, TANGLE, are the type of theatrical experiences that the cult followers of Theater Ninjas’ expect.  It is an evening of offerings that are probably too abstract for the traditional theater-goer, but will be of interest to the philosophical and contemporary thinker.

BLACK CAT LOST will be staged at Summit Artspace in Akron on November 7th, 8th and 9th.  For information go to http://theaterninjas.com

Roe Green is honored by the Dramatists Guild Fund in NY gala

On October 10, at the Dramatists Guild Fund annual gala at the Edison Ballroom in New York, Cleveland’s Roe Green, Founder and President was honored for her patronage of the arts.  The event was hosted by television and Broadway actor Michael Urie, and featured such legendary theatre elite as Stephen Schwartz, Ben Vereen, Bernadette Peters and Stephen Sondheim. 

The Dramatists Guild Fund is the public charity arm of The Dramatists Guild of America. Its mission is to aid and nurture writers for the theater, to fund non-profit theatres producing contemporary American plays and to heighten awareness, appreciation and support of theatre across America.

Ms. Green,  a graduate of Beachwood High School, noted for her contributions to such organizations as Kent State University, where she built the Roe Green Center, sponsors a visiting director’s series, and serves on the Porthouse Theatre Board.   She serves as a member of the Board of the Cleveland Play House and is the honorary producer of the Fusion Fest.  She was the recipient of the 2009 Ohio Arts Council’s Governor’s Arts 
Patron Award.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Engrossing, impressive, compelling COCK @ Dobama

Definitions for the word cock include: an arrogant person, an adult male chicken who often controls a territory, a device for regulating flow, a hammer in the lock of a firearm that insights action, to tilt to one side, and is slang for a penis.  All of these explanations are relevant to the development of Mike Bartlett’s brilliantly conceived script, COCK, which is now being performed at Dobama Theatre.

The story centers on John, ironically the only person in the script who actually has a name, though he is also the only person who does not have the ability to identify who he is.  John is in a long term relationship with M, but seemingly doesn’t know why.  He meets W, a divorced woman who is willing to accept his bisexuality.  This creates a love triangle, with John as the fulcrum, which has to be dealt with.  But John is paralyzed by indecision, and becomes a self-volunteered pawn in a battle for his affections.  His conflict is not over whether he is gay, straight or bisexual, but who of, “Who am I?” Interestingly, we don’t know enough about John’s background to understand why he becomes frozen when self-responsibility and decisions have to be made.

As the characters are revealed, the title of the play becomes clear.  M, John’s arrogant stock broker partner, controls the roost, his expensive condo.  He regulates all within that territory, including John.  M incites reactions in John by belittling his handsome boy toy and playing on John’s lack of ability to make decisions that would change the status quo.  Everything is tilted in M’s direction, including their love making.  Controlled, that is until W enters their lives.

Bartlett sets up the play as a battle. Corey Atkins, the play’s director, takes that lead and places the action in a theatre-in-the-square, with the audience on all four sides, much as in a boxing match.  The characters each sit at a corner of the stage, like fighters about to enter the ring.  Both M and W often circle John and each other, sparring for an attack position, hoping for a knockout. 

Atkins’ direction is meticulous.  He understands the script as well as how to bring out its concepts and undercurrents.  Each character is clearly etched, the play is well paced, and pauses are wisely used to highlight the action and inaction.   He creates scenes where nude observation and even copulation take place while the participants are fully dressed and don’t even touch each other. 

Handsome Andrew Gombas is both physically and emotionally perfect as John. At one point in the action, W asks John what is his best feature.  He answers, “my eyes.”  Yes, Gombas’s eyes are amazing.  When he is unable to make a decision, he is like a deer caught in the headlights.  His huge eyes become blank, unmoving.  He stands frozen, unblinking.  He becomes completely mesmerized.  His mouth freezes in a straight line, unable to open and speak.  His anguish becomes the audience’s anguish.  When he does speak, there is strain and anguish in his voice.  This is a very impressive performance.

The dark haired, sensual Drew Kopas, as John’s lover, M, gives a textured performance.  Slightly effeminate in his actions, his underlying attack dog emotional swings, of strong negative devices to control John, balanced by his desperate desire to hold on to the boy for whatever reason—pride, needing someone to control, love--are fascinating to observe. 

Lara Knox, as W, is appealing and creates a woman who is compassionate, yet, one can only wonder what motivates her to want a man unable to make a decision or a commitment.  Is she, in fact a female cock?

Bob Keefe creates in F, John’s liberal and affirming father, a man who has M’s best interests at heart, but may, as W points out, have an ulterior motive in wanting John around.

Their clothing is ingeniously integrated into each character’s persona.  The whippet thin M wears high fashion skin tight shirt and jeans, creating not only the picture of a well-dressed gay man, but one who desires to create the perfect image that is reflected in his condo and his beautiful boyfriend.  John’s clothing, on the other hand, is bland, slightly oversized, creating an illusion of someone who desires to draw no attention to himself or his body, who wants to be swallowed up. 

W’s sensual red dress, accenting her physical endowments, parallel’s M’s wardrobe in an attempt to create a character of sensuality.  F’s tweedy appearance enhances his liberal professorial persona.

Though vivid language is used throughout the show, it is so integrated and necessary for the development of Bartlett’s themes, it becomes “words that create meaning,” and nothing more.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  COCK, Mike Bartlett’s compelling script, under the meticulous and creative direction of Corey Atkins, and some of the very best acting seen on a local stage, is an absolutely must see production.  It’s an A+ experience.   
COCK runs through November 23 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.