Monday, February 24, 2014

"DEATHTRAP"--twists, turns and humor excite at Great Lakes Theater

Overheard at intermission of “DEATHTRAP” at Great Lakes Theatre:  “I never expected that to happen!”  Response:  “I’ve seen this before and what’s coming up in the second act is even more surprising!” 

Yes, “DEATHTRAP” may be a somewhat dated script but it still grabs and holds an audience.  In spite of references to dial telephones, the Merv Griffin TV show, the Great Kreskin, such plays as “SLEUTH,” and “WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION,” and people like Hal Prince, David Merrick and George Abbott, the humor and intrigue of the 1978 script hold up.

The material is masterfully written by Ira Levin. Yes, the same person who crafted “ROSEMARY’S BABY,” “THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL,” and “STEPFORD WIVES.” It holds the record for being the longest running comedy-thriller on Broadway.  It was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play and was made into a classic movie.

Picture this:  A famous mystery playwright (Sidney Bruhl) has run into a dry spell.  His writer’s block has resulted in financial and marital problems.  A former student (Clifford Anderson) has sent him a script entitled ”DEATHTRAP,” which is ready for production.  Sidney jokingly suggests to his wife that he murder the student and have the play produced on his own.  When he finds out that there is only one copy of the script, Sidney invites the student to his Westport, Connecticut home.  The student arrives and . . .

Come on, you don’t expect me to blow the many plot twists and turns and ruin the surprises for those who haven’t been exposed to Levin’s devious mind.   Just be aware that there is a clairvoyant, a handsome student, a wife with hidden money, pain, lots of knives, a crossbow, a fireplace, some guns, a double desk with locking drawers, a lightening storm, a lawyer, and a couple of blackouts.

The Great Lakes production, under the direction of Charles Fee, is well paced.  Rather than over-exaggerating, Fee wisely lets the script’s finely written lines play on their own.  The laughter emanates from the words, rather than from pratfalls and tomfoolery.

Tom Ford well develops the role of Sidney Bruhl.  He fully inhabits the role.

Nick Steen makes Clifford Anderson a real person.  He has the handsome good looks of Christopher Reeve, who played the role in the movie, and the muscular stature to make the physical exertions of the role believable.

Local actress Tracee Patterson, who was spotlighted by the Cleveland Critics Circle in 2013 as the Best Actress in a Non-musical, is totally believable as Bruhl’s excitable wife.

Lynn Allison has the difficult task of making Helga Ten Dorp, the psychic, into a person who is laughed with, not at.  The part is often over-played, making the character farcical.  In Allison’s hands, the many laughs wisely result from her subtle character development.

Aled Davies is fine as Porter Milgrim, Bruhl’s lawyer.

The technical aspects of the show do much to enhance the quality of the production.  Russell Metheny has created an interior of a lodge that creates a perfect visual setting.  Rick Martin’s lighting is spot on.   Richard Ingraham’s musical interludes nicely highlight the mystery aspects and the storm sequences create the perfect storm.

 Capsule judgement: “DEATHTRAP” is a fun mystery filled with plausible twists and turns that incites the curiosity of the audience in their attempt to figure out what’s going to happen next.  The GLT’s production, under the direction of Charles Fee, brings out the best in the script and is a must-see for anyone interested in a delightful escapist theatre experience.

DEATHTRAP runs from February 21-March 16, 2014 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets go to: 216-664-6064 or

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"BREATH AND IMAGINATION" enlightens at Cleveland Play House

Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson.  While Robeson and Anderson are probably names that many Americans can identify, Hayes probably is not. 

Robeson was a football player, political, and civil rights activist, who, because of his criticism of the US government and communistic  leanings, was blacklisted during the McCarthy witch hunts.  He was a star of movies and Broadway and an international singing sensation, thus garnering public name recognition.

Anderson, not only was a world renowned singer, but became a cause celeb when, in 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission for her to sing to an integrated audience in Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall.  With intervention from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, her performance was transferred to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where she sang before a crowd of more than 75,000 and a radio audience in the millions.  Her role in the Civil Rights movement is well documented.

Roland Hayes preceded both Robeson and Anderson, but received little public recognition in the United States.  He had an understated personality and did not demand attention.  At the height of his fame, well before the Civil Rights movement, little attention was given to the plight of the Negroes and the virulent prejudice against them, especially in the south, so his story did not get the spotlight.

Hayes, born in Curryville, Georgia in 1887, was the son of a fanatically religious mother who was a freed slave, and a father who was part-Native American. His maternal great-grandfather was a Côte d’Ivoire chieftain in Africa, who was captured and shipped to America.  Hayes’ father died as a result of an accident while working in a factory.  When taken to a local hospital, he was refused treatment because of his skin color.  

In that era of hate, against great odds, Hayes rose from being a young boy singing spirituals in a church founded by his mother, to became the first world-renowned African-American classical vocalist.  His fame resulted in his singing before kings and queens and being a favorite on the European continent.

His unique vocal style, which combined classical precision with the passion of Negro spirituals, resulted in nuanced dark tones to his presentations, making him unique among classical singers of his day.

Though some of the historical details have seemingly been altered for dramatic effect, Daniel Beaty’s "BREATH AND IMAGINATION" combines narrative sketches, comments to the audience, and song selections, into a bio-drama, a play with music, that tells the remarkable tale of this gentle yet powerful and talented man.

We travel Hayes’ life path as he discovers the sound of operatic music via a recording by Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, is exposed to languages and music by a white church organist, is accepted into Fisk University though he only had a 6th grade education, received training through the financial support of a teacher who without his knowledge paid for his education, attempts to find venues in which to perform, has a sold-out performance in Boston’s Symphony Hall with the aid of local Black churches, travels to major cities of the American north, and embarks on a European tour.  In 1923, when he returned to America, he became the first African-American soloist to appear with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. 

In spite of his international renown, when, in 1942, he returned to Georgia with his wife and daughter, they were arrested and beaten for sitting in the white-only section of a shoe store.

CPH’s production, under the direction of May Adrales, is a fascinating journey that exposes the audience to the reaches of prejudice and the difficulties placed on people by those who hate and perform acts of cruelty for no other reason than that they can.  The production is nicely paced, and the characters are clearly developed, but Adrales should have paid attention to sight lines and hearing difficulties caused by scenes being placed in the back segment of the stage.

Cleveland native, Elijah Rock, a University School grad, with Cleveland Institute of Music, Singing Angels, Karamu and Lyric Opera Cleveland training, has a fine singing voice, the acting skills and the ability to create a very believable Roland.  Though some may question his pure operatic skills, the arias he presented incited strong positive audience reactions.  

Daphne Gaines finely creates in Angel Mo’, Roland’s mother, a woman who has grown from slave to strong freed woman, filled with habits and beliefs.  She adds the right levels of determination and humor to make Angel Mo’ into a memorable person.  Gaines well follows the mantra of her character, “Keep your focus.”

Tom Frey not only is a fine pianist, who plays the entire score, but portrays a Jim Crow policeman, preacher, Roland’s male and female music teachers, and King George V.  This is a taxing role, which Frey does with skill.

Rachel Hauck’s set design consists of a huge wire tree and gauze formed leaves which arches over the entire stage, encompassing Roland’s entire life.  Placing some of the scenes far upstage, however, makes for difficulty in hearing spoken and sung segments in this microphone-less production.

Jeff Nellis’s lighting design effectively highlights designated performance areas.

Though script purists may question the play’s present, past, interactive asides to the audience format, Beaty has concocted a way of telling the tale, so that the ideas flow well and hold the audience’s attention for the hour and a half intermissionless performance.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: "BREATH AND IMAGINATION" is an ideal offering for Black History month.  It exposes the audience to an African-American who deserves recognition, spotlights the horrors of racism, highlights musical sounds not commonly seen on theatrical stages, while illustrating a script developmental scheme that allows for history to be portrayed in a non-traditional mode.   This is a show well worth seeing!

"BREATH AND IMAGINATION" runs through March 9, 2014 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Inlet Dance educates in collabration with Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Bill Wade, Artistic Director and Founder of Inlet Dance, is first and foremost an educator.  His unique approach to dance, and his role as a choreographer, are clearly evident at his rehearsals.  As an observer, I was quickly swept up between the difference between Wade’s approach and that of the traditional choreographer.  Instead of operating as the total authority and developer of a dance number, as is the pattern of most choreographers, Wade is an advocate of collaboration.

The approach is based on his philosophy of “utilizing the art form of dance to bring about personal development in the lives of individuals through training and mentoring.” He uses “dance as a vehicle to speak creatively about life and the issues we all face.”

Thus, rather than telling his dancers what to do, he has established a format of safety and security where the performers feel free to make suggestions about everything from dance moves, to costumes, to hair styles, and props, in order to allow the group to work toward a final product that is theirs, not his.

It takes a secure person to allow ideas to be questioned and to turn over control to others.  Wade is a model of compassion and purposefulness and creates a safe and probing place for his dancers.  They feel comfortable to make suggestions, solve problems as individuals or in groups, and even disagree.  The rehearsals are classrooms for learning creativity, problem solving, and a systems approach to developing the arts.

Wade founded Inlet after working as an artist in residence for the Cleveland School of the Arts where he founded the award winning YARD—Youth at Risk Dancing.  He was recognized with the Coming Up Taller Award
at the White House by the National Endowment for the Arts and the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities for his efforts. 

Prior to his eleven year CSA residency, Wade served as Artistic Director and dancer with Footpath Dance Company, a more traditional dance organization.

NATURE DISPLAYS, the company’s recent dance concert, was developed in collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  It reflects the museums current display, “Nature’s Mating games:  Beyond the Birds and the Bees.”  The exhibition was created with evolutionary biologists and animal behavior experts by the Natural History Museum in London, and offers a fascinating look at animal reproductive behavior.

Like the exhibit, Inlet’s program was a combination of beauty, humor and creativity, which combined selections from the company’s repertory with a display inspired piece.  

Several of the repertory pieces had to be reimagined as one of the company’s lead dancers, Justin Stentz, recently left to pursue a career as a Physician’s Assistant.  This meant incorporating other company members into those roles previously portrayed by Stentz. 

“BALListic” is a delightful piece which finds the blue unitard-dressed dancers bouncing on, and rolling over and under large red balls.  This was an audience favorite.

“DOPPELGANGER,” one of the first pieces developed by Inlet, is a composition which examines “the miracle of gestation, whether the creation of a unique individual, a work of art, or an organization.” As in any act of multi-participants, it requires a perfect balance of the parts to make for a functioning whole.  It’s a display of physical power, with gymnastic and body-controlled movements, which was impressively performed by Taran Brown and Dominic Moore-Dunson.

“WONDROUS BEASTS” uses structure and metaphors to “symbolize the challenges individuals face when disparate characters come together for a time and grow via new challenges and situations.”  The multi-racial and gendered group used agile moves and slow actions to represent the challenges and changes that take place on their life journeys.

“imPAIRed” grew out of an Inlet-Cleveland Sight Center 2003-2004 experience where the company conducted residencies for visually impaired and blind students.  A duet of blindfolded dancers partner in a trust pas de deux.  The compelling dance, performed to haunting music composed by Ryan Lott, was extremely well performed by Joshua Brown and Elizabeth Pollert.

The program concluded with NATURE DISPLAYS, a world premiere. Consisting of strong segments, some weaker interludes, and long pauses for costume changes, the composition is a work in progress.   Effective segments included “Desire,” “RAMbunctious (size matters),” and “Birds in a Field.”  Less successful were “Mouse Connections” and “Frog Tango.”  As a whole, though it was intended to mimic the multi-segments of the museum’s displays, there was a choppy, lack of smooth transitions, and no clear encompassing theme.  This is in contrast to Inlet’s usual clarity of purpose and organization approach.

Inlet can next be seen as part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s DANCEWORKS '14, on April 10 -12 at 7:30 at the Gordon Square Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland.

Capsule judgement:  Bill Wade’s INLET DANCE COMPANY uses dance to educate and enlighten.  His proficient and creative dancers, and collaborative approach to performance, makes it one of the most exciting of Cleveland’s dance companies.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Musical Theatre Project looks behind the scenes of "FIDDLER'

In September, 1964, Broadway welcomed what was to become one of the major musical theatre events.  With a score highlighted by “Sunrise Sunset,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” and “Matchmaker,” “FIDDLER ON THE ROOF” opened to rave reviews, sold out houses, and unbridled praise.

The path to that September day was not easy.  It was marked with many naysayers who thought the plot was “too ethnic” and “lacked popular appeal.”  Who wanted to hear about a poor milkman, in the now destroyed “shtetl” (town) of Anatevka?  Who would be interested in words of Sholem Aleichem, a writer of tales from the “old country?”  Why would modern Americans want to know of archaic traditions? 

The obvious answer, in retrospect, was “lots of people.”  The show has been produced in 32 countries and translated into 16 languages.

When Joseph Stein, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock joined forces to write “FIDDLER ON THE ROOF,” they did so “in order to create an homage to our heritage. “ A heritage which included hundreds of years of Jews in eastern Europe, whose lives and way of life had been destroyed by pogroms (uprisings), forced evacuations, and ultimately by the “final solution,” the Holocaust. 

This was a life spent where they developed a culture of traditions, which included the way they prayed, ate, dressed, did business, got married, and interacted not only with each other, but those non-Jews who controlled the politics of the regions.  They spoke Yiddish, a language that not only held words which carried their traditions, but had a spoken identifiable cadence. There was music (the haunting cantorial sounds and Klemzer melodic beats), as well as literature, and artistic styles.

These traditions are the guts of “FIDDLER ON THE ROOF,” for, as Tevya, the central character, indicates, “without these traditions these people had no guidelines for how to live their lives.”  

There is controversy, however, over whether FIDDLER is a story of a specific group of people or whether it is a universal story.  If the former, then fidelity must be paid to developing the cadence of the language, and the realism of the traditions.   If the latter, re-imagining is appropriate.

George Roth, who has a long history of portraying Tevya, has some views regarding many aspects of the musical and his portrayal of the role in the upcoming concert version to be presented by Bill Rudman, artistic director of The Musical Theater Project, and the cast (Jacqi Loewy, Sheri Gross, and Jessica Cope). 

As a youth, Roth played the role at his high school in Potomac, Maryland which was staged with some of the original sets and costumes from Broadway.  He played it again in a “re-imagined” production at Beck Center several years ago.  Of that staging he says, “I didn’t think the show needed to be re-imagined.”  (One reviewer commented that the show was more “white bread” (the bread of non-Jews) rather than “challah” (the special bread eaten by Jews on the Sabbath.)  This past summer Roth played Tevya at Porthouse.  The latter performance won him the Cleveland Critics Circle Best Actor in a Musical Award, in the main because of the authenticity.

He compared Zero Mostel’s portrayal, where the role was played with “shtick,” with that of Luther Adler, who didn’t manufacture the actions but went with the guts of a Yiddish theatre actor who understood the motivations. (Mostel was Broadway’s first Tevya, in 1975. Adler replaced him when Mostel left the cast due to a contract dispute.)

Roth states in regard to the universality of the script, “’FIDDLER’ is really the story of the Jews of the pale.  What traditions were they singing about?  The traditions that kept the Jewish people together as one.  If you don’t portray authentic traditions I don’t know what the traditions are.”

Roth, the product of Holocaust survivors, finds a great love in playing the role.  He stated in a recent interview, “Actors like to be given words that expresses themselves.  Tevya feels like coming home...the warmth, the humor, the writing, suit me.”  “I can get the rhythms, I can grow around the sound, the authenticity, it’s satisfying.”

“My inspiration for playing Tevya starts with love.  Theatre is a celebration of imagination and love and good story telling.  Sholem Aleichem is a great story teller and “FIDDLER” is a great story to tell.  Tevya loves his family.  He wants what is best for them.  He copes with life’s issues with a sense of humor.  He is a wise fool who is trying to do the best he can.  There is humor and heart that is fully realized.”

“In order to get the right balance between comedy and tragedy, I need to get out of the way.  There is wonderful text and music.  I’m an actor/singer, not a singer/actor, so I need an emotional hovercraft to circle over the emotion and music.”

How will the concert production be as fulfilling to the audience as seeing a fully staged production?  “It’s not going to be the same.  It’s an intellectual production that celebrates a great musical.  It’s a different animal.”

To see and hear a full discussion and presentation of the making of “FIDDLER,” complete with a video commentary by Sheldon Harnick, attend the performances on March 9, @ 2 and 7 PM, Tri-C Eastern Campus (tickets 216-245-8687 or; or March 16 @ 2 PM, Stocker Arts Center, Lorain County Community College, 440-366-4040 or

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Upcoming Events (Feburary 13-March 22, 2014)

February 13
Cleveland Museum of Natural History
1 Wade Oval Drive, Cleveland
Inlet world premieres a work based on the Museum's newest exhibit, Nature's Mating Games: Beyond the Birds and the Bees in a concert of nature inspired works!
Call 216-231-1177 or

February 20th (Fairlawn Lutheran Church), 21st (St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cleveland Heights), 22nd (The Temple-Tifereth Israel), 23 (Rocky River Presbyterian Church), and 24th, 2014 (The Temple-Tifereth Israel)
Cast out of Spain, Sephardic  Jews traveled the world in search of a place to call home, and in the process acquired a unique musical history.  This program will weave Sephardic folk music, and Monteverdi-like Hebrew choral work with the mystical prayers of Shabbat.
Go to or 216-320-0012 for ticket information


The program will feature Broadway legends Donna McKechnie, Jodi Benson and Doug LaBrecque.  The trio, along with Orchestra director Carl Topilow, will not only perform, but share their past experiences with the recently deceased Hamlisch.

February 22nd
The Breen Center
2008 W. 30th Street, Cleveland
The program includes a world premiere ballet by William Anthony of Denmark choreographed to Bach music. Then, the choreography is repeated to African drumming led by Linda Thomas Jones.  Also on the docket is the world premiere of a work by Richard Dickinson set to a country western theme.  $28 and $23, student discount with ID.  Tickets:  1-888-71-Tickets


March 8th—8 PM
PlayhouseSquare - Ohio Theatre
Last chance to see the legendary Trisha Brown Dance as the company embarks on its final year of touring and public performances.
Tickets: $20 - $70
  Tickets:  216-241-6000 or


March 9th (2 and 7 PM),Tri-C Eastern Campus, March 16th (2 PM), Stocker Arts Center-Lorain County Community College
The behind-the-scenes story of how the musical was created.
Tickets:  216-245-8687 or (Tri-c productions); 440-366-4040 or (LCCC production)


March 22nd
Dancing with The Stars Gala
Oberlin Inn, Oberlin, Ohio
For information go to:

Saturday, February 08, 2014

CARRIE: THE MUSICAL captivates and compels attention at Beck

From the heavy beating musical sound at the start, through the exciting powerful opening dance, to the exposition presented in the song, “In,” through the  compelling story filled with well designed twists and turns, to the startling conclusion, “CARRIE:  THE MUSICAL,” now on stage at Beck Center, captivates the imagination and compels attention.

The musical is based on Steven King’s novel, “CARRIE.”  It centers on Carrie White, a shy, misfit teenager who attends Chamberlain High School in a small town in Western Maine.  Her mother, a religious fanatic, dominates her life with Bible rules and fear tactics, setting the girl up to be a social misfit.  

Bullied and teased by the “in” crowd for her traditional clothing and hairstyle, her lack of knowledge of the ways of sex, and her inability to break through her awkwardness, makes life hell for Carrie.  When she discovers she has telekinetic powers, things change. 

These powers result in her taking revenge when she is asked to the prom by Tommy Ross, the school’s most popular boy, as a result of a plan concocted by his girl friend Sue, to help Carrie to emerge from her shell.  What appears to be a great idea turns bad when Carrie is humiliated at the high school dance and wreaks havoc on everyone.  The conclusion is a stunner, which leaves the audience limp.

CARRIE:  THE MUSICAL has had a blundering path to the stage.  The show opened on Broadway on May 12, 1988 to a mix of cheers and boos during the opening night curtain call, scathing reviews, and, in spite of sold out houses, the investors pulling their money from the show.  It closed after only 5 performances, making it one of the most expensive disasters in American theatre history.  It earned the “honor” of inspiring the title of Ken Mandelbaum’s book, “NOT SINCE CARRIE:  FORTY YEARS OF BROADWAY FLOPS.”

So, why the production at Beck?  In 2012 a limited run revival was mounted in the Big Apple.  The script and score had been reworked and re-imagined.  The purpose was to “rescue CARRIE from oblivion and to give her new life.”  As evidence by the Beck production, the rewriting worked.

“CARRIE:  THE MUSICAL,” is the type of show that Vickie Bussert, resident director for Great Lakes Theatre and Director of Music Theatre at Baldwin Wallace, does best.  It is a script that is edgy, avails itself to her using her very talented and well trained students, and demands creative and inventive staging.  It’s the likes of “SPRING AWAKENING,’ for which Bussert won the Cleveland Critics Circles’ Best Director of a Musical in 2012, and such other non-traditional shows as “LIZZY BORDEN:  THE ROCK MUSICAL,” “BAT BOY: THE MUSICAL,” “GREY GARDENS,” “THE BREAK UP NOTEBOOK:  THE LESBIAN MUSICAL and ‘BROOKLYN, THE MUSICAL,” which are on her vast resume.

The BW alumni and student cast is outstanding.  Petite Caitlin Houlahan is so convincing as the conflicted Carrie, that knowing of the character’s powers, I’d hate to cross her.  Houlahan doesn’t portray Carrie, she is Carrie!  This is a standing “o” performance.

Sara Masterson is totally convincing as Sue Snell, the haunted witness and tour guide of the story.  As she struggles to recount the incidents leading up to the tragic prom night, the audience is compelled to listen attentively to her tale.

Colton Ryan has both the looks and “aw shucks” good boy personality that makes Tommy Ross, Sue’s boyfriend and Carrie’s prom date, believable.  He has a nice singing voice.  Masterson and Ryan have a real connection which makes their “a couple” performance so acceptable.

Genna-Paige Kanago doesn’t portray nasty girl Chris, she embodies the snarky character.  Sam Wolf flexes his muscles, smiles his sly smile and is properly obnoxious as the teenage-male with hopping hormones and no conscience. 

Katherine DeBoer is truly scary as Carrie’s religiously obsessed, psychologically scared mother.  She makes Bible pounding and fanaticism into an art form. 

Musical director Nancy Maier does a great job of having her orchestra support rather than drown out the performers.  The ensemble got their own, well-deserved curtain call for their fine in-tune performance.

The dancing was outstanding.  Gregory Daniels used gymnastic, modern and contemporary movements to create a whirling dervish of compelling sights.

Russ Borski’s lighting, especially during Carrie’s telekinetic channeling, created the perfect moods.  Jordan Janota’s set design used Beck’s limited stage and off-stage space to provide clear locations.  The only things missing were the much discussed prom decorations.

Aimee Kluiber’s costume designs were era and attitude correct except for the prom scene.  After all the build up about prom dresses and tuxedos, the dance clothing was both disappointing and a disconnect.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “CARRIE:  THE MUSICAL” sizzles with fine performances, great dancing, well tuned singing, compelling illusions, and an emotionally encompassing attitude which is so relevant in this era of school bullying.  This must-see production deserves to result in sold-out houses.

CARRIE:  THE MUSICAL is scheduled to run through March 9, 2014 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to  

Reviewing the reviewer--Betsy Sampliner

I have to tell you that, until last night, I thought that I was a "Porgy and Bess" purist and resisted seeing this production.   However, after reading this review, I dragged Jim to see the play, and we were both overwhelmed.  It was truly magnificent,  Thank you for the impetus in getting us to experience this memorable evening.

Betsy Sampliner

Thursday, February 06, 2014

PORGY AND BESS enthralls at the Palace

It might surprise many to find that the original 1935 Broadway production of “PORGY AND BESS” ran only 124 performances.  The reasons were many including the all Black cast, some of the overtones of the script were perceived by some to be “too Negro,” the opera format was considered “not Broadway,” while some railed that it “had racial overtones.”  Other suppositions were that the heavy dependence of a strong story line was not a familiar format during the era of escapist comedies, follies and vaudeville.  Not to be overlooked was the fact that the production lasted four hours, with two intermissions.

The intent of George Gershwin, who wrote the now revered classic music for the show, was to create an “American folk opera.”  Because it was first performed on a Broadway stage, the “opera” recognition had to wait until 1976 when it was staged by the Houston Grand Opera, a “legitimate opera company.”  The final step toward operatic recognition was achieved in 1985 when the piece was presented by the Metropolitan Opera of New York.

The 2012 two and a half-hour Broadway revival, which carried the name “THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS,” was a major remaking of the original, with an eye on appealing to a contemporary audience.  It ran 322 performances, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance for Audra McDonald as Best Actress in a Musical.

The revival was not without its nay-sayers.   Steven Sondheim criticized the new title because, “it took credit away from DuBose Heyward,” the author of the novel, “PORGY,” who also wrote the libretto and co-wrote the lyrics with Ira Gershwin.  Sondheim, the reigning king of the contemporary Broadway musical,  said the changes had “disdain toward the [original] work.”  He was not alone in his reaction.  Critics all praised McDonald, but were divided on the “success of the adaptation, staging and setting.”

It is a touring company, performing the 2012 version, which is now on stage at the Palace Theatre.

What’s the show about?  PORGY AND BESS tells the tale of Porgy, a disabled Negro beggar who lives in Catfish Row, an impoverished Black area of Charleston, South Carolina.  Porgy falls in love with Bess, a prostitute who is being controlled by her violent and possessive lover, Crown, and is beholden to Sportin’ Life, her drug dealer.

The power of the show is the amazing musical score which includes “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”  Be aware that Gershwin’s underlying music has been eliminated.

The touring production sizzles.  From the dynamic “Summertime,” which sets the show’s tone, to the plaintive “I’m on My Way,” everything works well.  Diane Paulus’s direction and Ronald K. Brown’s choreography develop the right mood.  The pacing, acting, dancing, singing, choral work, musical sounds, sets and lighting all work.  The costumes are glorious, maybe too upper class for these poor folk, but they add to the luminosity of the production.

Alicia Hall Moran, who alternated with and understudied Audra McDonald  on Broadway,  makes Bess a multi-leveled woman, driven by sexual desire and drug dependency, with a strong need to be wanted.  She makes the character both despicable and appealing.  She has a wonderful singing voice, avoiding the often distracting soprano quivering vibrato.  She nicely sings meanings, not just words.

We feel both sorry and uplifted by Porgy, as sensitively portrayed by Nathaniel Stampley.  When he departed in his search for Bess, sounds of “don’t go,” echoed through the audience.   The duet, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” was a show highlight

Physically imposing Alvin Crawford is properly evil incarnate as Crown.  Kingsley Leggs, with his flashy clothes and smooth ways, is effectively snarky as Sporting Life.  Dannielle Lee Greaves gives the right earth mother image and feeling to Mariah.  Denisha Ballew gives a special plaintive sound of loss to “My Man’s Gone Now.”

The rest of the cast has high quality voices and acting abilities, while the orchestral sounds fill the large theatre without drowning out the performers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  For those concerned because some touring companies aren’t as good or the productions as grand as Broadway shows, worry not with the road performance of THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS.  It is, as its title says, “The Broadway Musical.”  For anyone who wants to see and hear a fine staging of a very important classic, this is it!

Tickets, for the show that runs through February 16, 2014,  can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

CEREMONIES IN DARK OLD MEN introduces Black History month 2014 @ Karamu

Karamu, the nation’s oldest African-American theatre, opened its Black History month celebration with “CEREMONIES IN DARK OLD MEN” by Lonne Elder III.  The play and its author are both noted for their strong place in the reflections of Blacks in this country.

Black history month, celebrated yearly in February, became a national tradition in 1976.  It is meant as a time to celebrate historic events from 1865, when the thirteenth amendment of the American constitution officially abolished slavery in the U.S..  Dr. Carter Woodson, thought there was need to give a voice to African-Americans who were wrongly represented and treated in early times.  He selected February because it contained the birth dates of both Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves, and abolitionist Fredrick Douglass, who was a great orator and living counter-example to slaveholders who believed that Negroes did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens.

Lonne Elder and his play, “CEREMONIES IN DARK OLD MEN,” is a wise selection by Karamu for Black History month.  Elder won the Drama Desk Award for Most Promising Playwright for CEREMONIES.  In 1973 he became the first African American male to be nominated for an Academy Award for “SOUNDER.”

“CEREMONIES,” along with Lorraine Hansberry’s “RAISIN IN THE SUN,” are considered forerunners for setting a high bar for scripts authored by Black writers.

The play concerns the ceremonies acted out by African-American men as they fight for their individual roles in life.  The matriarchal structure of the Black family which goes back to slave days when males were removed from the family unit, forcing the women to carry an unbalanced share of the work load, creates a unique cultural role for males. 

The three men of the Jenkins family, who live in the Harlem section of New York, were first supported by their wife and mother, and now by their daughter/sister.  Russel Parker owns a barber shop with few clients.  His sons, Bobby and Theo, live a life of slackness and crime.  All claim to be unable to get jobs because of the white-controlled financial community.  

Into their lives come William Jenkins and Blue Haven.  Jenkins finds sanctuary playing checkers with Russel.  The duo has created a ceremony that allows for insulation from a society in which they have failed.  Blue Haven is a con man, who finds out that Theo has a recipe for making tasty liquor, which he produces in the basement of the barbershop.   Blue sets up an illegal business which finds Theo doing most of the work, while Blue makes most of the profit.

Russel, William, Bobby and Theo survive, bond, develop patterns of self-deception, display intrafamily allegiances, and model Negro manhood of the time.  Blue completes the pattern of ceremonies by showcasing a scenario where Blacks take advantage of other Blacks. 

Elder’s message is an encouragement for Blacks, especially Negro men, to break free of the ceremonies and challenge the myth that “the social, political, and economic plight of Black America rests in the hands of the white people, and assume the role of defeating futility, corruption, and internal disruptions that result from efforts to undermine and define African Americans’ worth and selfhood.”

Karamu’s production, under the direction of Christopher Johnston, though a little long, is engaging and well-conceived.  Johnston understands the author’s intent and holds a tight fist on not overdoing what could be a farcical or overly-tragic story.

Former county commissioner Peter Lawson Jones well-develops the role of Russel Parker, the father and barber.  He creates a person who is very real.

Katrice Monee Headd, nicely textures Adele, the daughter and sister who is forced to hold the family together after their mother dies, thus giving up her life for that of her father and brothers.

Prophet Seay (Theo) and LaShawn Little (Bobby) are so real that one might feel like slapping them “ upside their heads” and wake them up to the necessity to take responsibility for themselves.

Kenny Parker is appropriately snarly as Blue.  Some of his lines are difficult to understand due to his constant chewing on an unlit matchstick.  The technique sets a character-right tone, but becomes a detriment as it is overdone and is problematic.

Cornell Calhoun III develops Mr. Jackson into a clear image of an older black man who has learned to play the role of “Negro” and doesn’t know how to escape from the shackles.

Richard Morris, Jr.’s barbershop/house set design works well to allow for the needed stage action.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “CEREMONIES IN DARK OLD MEN” is an important play in the history of Black American arts.  It gets a very strong production at Karamu.

“CEREMONIES IN DARK OLD MEN” continues through February 23, 2014 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, guarded and lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.

Monday, February 03, 2014

An interesting tale of truth and fiction at 'KNOCK ME A KISS" at Ensemble

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural movement which spanned the period from about 1919 to 1929.  It was the literary era when members of the Great African American Migration, Negroes who had moved into the U.S. Northeast and Midwest, asserted themselves in art, poetry, literature and theatre.  Participants included James Wendell Johnson,  Cleveland’s Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. 

Parallel to the Renaissance was the Niagara Movement, which stressed civil rights, increased political representation, and integration.  A rollout of this was the NAACP, and growth of the African intellectual elite.  These were Negroes who were graduates of Harvard, NYU and other prestigious universities.  They included the likes of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois.

Du Bois was a sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author and editor. He was the first African American to earn a PHD.   He received the degree from Harvard, a school he attended with the financial help of the integrated membership of the Massachusetts church he attended.  As an earlier supporter of the Harlem Renaissance, and a believer in proper etiquette and ethical actions, he insisted that “artists recognize their moral responsibilities and remember that a black artist is first of all a black artist.”

In spite of his fame, not much is factually known about the poet, Countee Cullen.  He was a man of great definitive poetry, but revealed little about himself in his writing or speaking.  Some reliable information about him emerged after 1918 when at about age 9 he was adopted by Reverend and Mrs. Cullen.  The circumstances of the adoption were always veiled with questions about the Reverend and Countee’s relationship.  His poem, “The Shroud of Color,” is considered to be the landmark of the Harlem Renaissance.

Cullen’s marriage to Yolande Du Bois in 1928 was the Negro social event of the decade.  They divorced in 1930 in a shroud of secrecy.  It was rumored that Cullen was homosexual and his relationship with Harold Jackman, “the handsomest man in Harlem,” was a major factor in the divorce.  Another cause may have been Yolande’s friendship with Jimmy Luncfore, a leading Harlem bandleader who, along with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, drew mass crowds of whites to the Cotton Club.  Noted for the Luncfore two-beat rhythm, he was long rumored to be involved with Yolande.

Charles Smith’s semi-fictional “KNOCK ME A KISS,” which is now being staged at Ensemble Theatre, melds the lives of W. E. B. Du Bois, Cullen, Yolande Du Bois, and Luncfore, with the Harlem Renaissance.  Taking  place in the Harlem home of Du Bois in 1928, the story discusses the on-going African American conflicts of the time, the courting and marriage of Cullen and Yolande, as well as Yolande’s relationship with Luncfore.

The production, under the direction of Caroline Jackson Smith, is effective.  The story unfolds well.  Ron Newell’s realistic setting helps develop the plot. Peg Parish’s costumes are era correct.  The acting is generally on-target.

Emily Terry develops in Yolande De Bois a clear image of a young woman who is driven by her devotion to her famous and fastidious father, but is conflicted between her personal desire for a relationship.  First there is the flashy Luncfore.  The alternative, her father’s choice , Cullen.  Marriage to the latter will create a desirable blending of negro politics and the arts.

Dyrell Barnett is excellent as the reticent, yet talented Countee Cullen.   He walks the fine line between honesty and half-truths with skill.

Kyle Carthens reeks “playah” as the lustful Jimmy Luncfore.  He gives just the right levels of sensuality and driven-desire, to create a real person.

Both Tonya Broach as Lenora, Yolande’s best friend, and Pamela Morton, as Nina Du Bois, Yolande’s mother, are effective.

Edward Swan, portraying W. E. B. Du Bois, gives a surface level performance, stumbling over lines and never creating a real personage.

Capsule judgment:  “KNOCK ME A KISS” is a well- conceived script that gives a revealing view of the Harlem Renaissance and the changing picture of American Negroes in the early 1900s.  It gets an effective and involving performance at Ensemble.

“KNOCK ME A KISS” runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through February 23, 2014.  For tickets go to or 216-321-2930

Special treat:  From 6:30 to 7 :30 at the Friday and Saturday performances of “KNOCK ME A KISS,” "Harlem Jazz Receptions" & Open-Mic Poetry! sessions will be held.  They are free to ticket holders.

Roy Berko selected as one of the top 10 "BroadwayWorld" Regional Editors

2/3/2014:  “BroadwayWorld would be nothing without its team of talented Regional Editors who work tirelessly, offering countless opinions, reviews, interviews, special features and more. It truly take a village. While all 260+ of our Regional Editors have helped make our BroadwayWorld go 'round, this year, we'd like to recognize the Top 10 standouts who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, and who have been an integral part of the success of BroadwayWorld.

Top Midwest Editor 2013: Roy Berko, Cleveland, OH”

For the whole story go to:

Sunday, February 02, 2014

"AIRWAVES" completes "THE ELEMENTS CYCLE," at Cleveland Public Thestre

Cleveland Public Theatre’s “THE ELEMENTS CYCLE” examines the value of water, earth and air to humans.  It is an existential series which asks such questions as “is this the best way to live?,” “what is the purpose of existence?,” and attempts to inspire “new ways to think about and incite conversation about the elements.”

The three-part series uses mythology, reality, and creation to examine the earth, its inhabitants, human cruelty, insensitivity, willful ignorance, greed, desire, short human shelf life, and love.  

The cycle, which is being completed with CPT’s production of “AIR-WAVES,” uses the devised theatre format, sometimes referred to as magical-realism, rather the usual theatrical pattern of a playwright penning a script, the script being tested through readings and minimally staged productions, a director formatting an understanding of the written piece, and then working with actors and technicians to bring the writer’s words and ideas to life.

Devised theater, instead, encourages collaborative creation, which may take the form of spoken dialogue, poetry, mime, music, dance, and electronic illusion as conceived by director(s), writers and performers.  The process involves selecting a theme and then extracting ideas from that central axis. 

This is not improvisatory theatre.  There is a script, with suggestions for actor ad libs during production, so that audience experiences from night to night are fairly parallel.  But, it is also not the traditional theatre of Shakespeare, Wilde or Williams.  It is often abstract, doesn’t follow the well-made format of beginning (exposition), middle (story development), and conclusion (dénouement).  That lack of traditional format may be off-putting to some, while exciting to others.

The first of the series, “WATER WAYS (Part One of the Elements Cycle)” examined the existence and power of water and humans deep connection to water.

The second offering, “EARTH PLAYS (Part Two of the Elements Cycle)” provoked the viewers to reconsider their relationship to the very ground they walk on, and remember the beauty and joy of our environment.

The third offering, which is the most clearly story-driven of the trio, invites the viewer into the lives of George, Janette and Kim.  George and Janette, brother and sister, are parted when Janette, an asthmatic,  dies.  George has deep regrets and wishes to be reunited.  He is confronted by Kim, an entrepreneur who is behind a city-wide initiative to buy the air over people’s houses in order to then resell the sparse commodity.  She offers him the opportunity to have three wishes granted in return for selling his air rights.  The rest of the story flows from his wishes.

Audience members experience the exposition sitting at tables.  They interact with cast members who lead discussions about what is important, and what single act of history they would most change if they had the ability to do so.  These discussions lead the participants to literally be led through the stairways, halls, and stage areas of  CPT to see and hear various story-revealing vignettes.

Though the cast is universally effective, special recognition goes to Faye Hargate as the dynamic, hard selling Kim, Cassie Neumann, as Jeanette, the character most personally affected by the quality of the air which surrounds her, and Adam Seeholzer as the conflicted George.

Those who have walking issues, are in wheel chairs or use walkers, be aware that this production is not handicapped-friendly.

Hearing can be problematic as CPT’s main performance space has a high ceiling and hard walls, which causes echoes and dead spots.

Capsule judgement: Of the three pieces in the “ELEMENTS CYCLE,” “AIR-WAVES” is the most message- clear.  The CPT directors have seemingly come to terms with the need to add clarity of purpose to the devised theatre process.  Though not as abstract as the two previous offerings, those wanting a traditional story line of clear beginning, middle, and end will still be somewhat frustrated.  

“AIR-WAVES (PART THREE OF THE ELEMENTS CYCLE)” continues at Cleveland Public Theatre through February 15.  For tickets go to: 216-631-2727 or go to

CPT’s next show is the world premiere of TITUS A GRAND AND GORY ROCK-MUSICAL.  Shakespeare’s bloodiest, most horrifying script, gets a total makeover as a rock musical with limbs torn off, tongues cut out and lots of singing!  Performed from March 6 to 22.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

'LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA" glows brightly at Lakeland Civic Theatre

Adam Guettel, co-author of “THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA,” comes to writing musicals from a strong hereditary background.  His grandfather is Richard Rogers, one of the “fathers” of the modern American musical.  Yes, the co-writer of “OKLAHOMA,” “CAROUSEL,” and “THE KING AND I.”  His mother is Mary Rogers, author of “ONCE UPON A MATTRESS,” “WORKING,” “THE MAD SHOW” and “FROM A TO Z.”

A viewing of “LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA” reveals that the score has little relationship to the musical theatre tradition of Guettel’s grandfather and mother.  His are not always pretty sounds, but are more the neo-romantic classical music chords, much like opera, operetta and Steven Sondheim.  There are unexpected harmonic shifts.  The singing fits perfectly into the story, not inserted for musical effect and audience entertainment.

In contrast to many present day musicals, “PIAZZA” doesn’t have a show stopper, or exploding dance segments.  In fact, it has no dancing.  There is a chorus, but it’s a Greek chorus, rather than a chorus line.

The musical chords and melody are often counterpoint, they don't always parallel each other.  The music being played by the orchestra, and the tones being sung aren't the same, so the resulting sound may be perceived as discordant.  People won't go out of the theatre humming the music or singing the songs.  There aren't any Lerner and Loewe or Stephen Schwartz songs in this show.  It's a different type of musical-theatre animal.

There is no complex story, no big curtain-dropping song that encourages the audience to jump to its feet in wild applause.  The ending, like most of the show, is fairly simple.  It concludes the story as it should, in a quiet thought-inducing manner.

Guettel relates that Pizza’s story is that of “a mentally challenged girl [Clara] whose mother [Margaret] takes her to Florence on a vacation and, when the daughter falls in love with a handsome young Italian [Fabrizio], decides to flout convention by letting her marry.”  He explains, “The secret of the story is the balance between the daughter’s innocent yearnings and the mother’s history of failed emotions.  If you haven’t gotten what you’ve wanted out of life and you figure your only chance of healing from that is to let your daughter have a chance, then why not let it happen.”  He also indicates, “The best part of love is that it is the opposite of innocence.”

The 2005 Broadway production ran 504 performances.  The cast included Matthew Morrison, now of television’s GLEE fame.

Interestingly, on June 15, 2006, shortly before its closing night, the show was broadcast on PBS television’s “LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER,” drawing more than two million viewers and setting in motion a national touring production.  The tour was an unusual event for a show that was not a major hit in the Big Apple.

Lakeland’s glorious production is perfectly honed by director Martin Friedman.   He lets the story unfold without any gimmicks.  No forced comedy, no attempts at bad Italian to get guffaws, no melodramatic acting.   He lets his talented cast perform as the script and score demand…in a straight-forward manner, with fine southern American, Italian, and Italian-English sounds.

Trad Burns’ artistic set, consisting of long streamers of natural colored muslin painted with ancient Italian motifs, and straight-forward lighting, enhance the simple  beauty of the show. Jordan Cooper‘s musical direction allows the vocals to overpower the orchestra sounds, thus placing the words front and center.

The score contains no songs that have become well known although “The Beauty Is,” “The Light in the Piazza,” and “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” are all beautiful.  In “Hysteria” Guettel writes a discordant tune that perfectly parallels Clara’s chaotic inner feelings and hysterical outburst as she gets physically lost and emotionally confused.

The Lakeland cast is universally superb.  Lindsey Sandham Leonard  creates in Clara a woman/child who, after being kicked by a pony at her childhood birthday party, is forever stuck in the emotional state of a preteen, yet she has matured into a physically beautiful woman.  She is completely believable when she gets disoriented, doesn’t get her way, or falls quickly in love and wants to get married without thinking of consequences.  Leonard possesses a well-trained singing voice.  Hers is one of the best recent musical performances on local stages.

Shane Patrick O’Neil creates a Fabrizio so bound up in young love, that we believe he can overlook Clara’s difficulties and take care of her, thus creating an almost fairy tale conclusion.  He has a powerful and expressive singing voice.  His Italian, as with all of the cast, is accurate and consistent.  There is a compelling emotional connection between Leonard and O’Neil.

Sandra Emerick, as the up-tight southern belle of a mother, makes us believe that she has her daughter’s best interests at heart as she fights through life with a controlling husband.

Rob Albrecht is excellent as Fabrizio’s father and Liz Huff excels as the young man’s mother.  The rest of cast is equally excellent.

Capsule judgment:  Lakeland Civic Theatre’s THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA is a special night of musical theatre.  To appreciate the show, the viewer must put aside any attitude of what a musical should look and sound like and embrace this creatively “different” approach.  I, for one, loved the story, the music and the production, and would declare it a MUST SEE!

“THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA” runs through February 16, 2014.  For more information or to purchase tickets, visit 440-525-7134 or