Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Beyond the Horizon," seldom seen classic at Ensemble

Each year, Ensemble Theatre selects a classic play to be part of their season offerings.  Last year it was “The Iceman Cometh,” which was recognized by the Cleveland Critics Circle for Superior Achievement for a Non-Musical Production.  This year’s choice is Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 Pulitzer Prize winning, “Beyond the Horizon,” the author’s first full-length work.

A review of the first staging of “Beyond the Horizon” called the play “the closest approach any native author has yet made to the great American play.”  O’Neill’s epic gave birth to the play category of “new American tragedy.” 

Ironically, the playwright used a take-off on the romantic story line to achieve his goal.  It was probably the formulaic romantic story line that led an opening night reviewer to write, "There can be no question that it is a work of uncommon merit and definite ability, distinguished by general superiority from the great bulk of contemporaneous productions. However, the play ‘is not quite a masterpiece.’”

The play centers on a slowly evolving portrait of the Mayo family.  Andrew and Robert are bound by brotherly love, but are totally different.  One is a pragmatist, the other a dreamer.   The brothers fall in love with the same girl.  Both wind up sacrificing what they really want out of life in order to do what they think may be better for the other, and, in the end, both lose out. 

“Beyond the Horizon” is a play about dreams.  Every character has clearly etched desires.  The father, James, wants a bigger farm with his older son accomplishing his vision.  Ruth yearns to have a husband.  Robert and Andy have opposite dreams.  Andrew wants to accomplish his father’s goal.  Robert, a poet and reader, envisions himself living out his romantic dreams of going “beyond the horizon,” going to “the far places of the world that beckon alluringly.” 

The script effectively walks the fine line between melodrama and prescription romantic saga.  In lesser hands the plot probably would have strayed from reality and into romantic fantasy.  But, fortunately, O’Neill is too proficient a writer to allow for that.

The script follows the format of a three-act play, so popular in the early to mid-twentieth century.  It makes for a long, over two-hour sit.

Ensemble’s production, under the direction of Celeste Consentino, develops the playwright’s intentions.  The pacing is languid, maybe a little too languid in places.  Tensions don’t always build to their climax. The acting mainly stays on the surface, actors not digging deeply beneath the surface level of the thoughts and feelings of their characters, a digging that often unearths deep pain and emotional feelings that aids the performer to illuminate the person they are portraying.

James Rankin generally gives a nice poetic dreamer quality to Robert.  His closing scenes are properly wrought with pain and the letting go of any hope for the life he dreamed he’d live.

Keith Stevens, as the hard working Andrew, develops a nice contrast to his escapist brother.  Robert Hawkes clearly creates a rough, determined father.

The technical aspects are unnerving.  Large electronic projections of fields and a house interior visually overwhelm in the small Ensemble venue.  The pictures of Mary, the young daughter, many times larger than an actual child, with an overpowering voice, makes the youngster surreal.  That might have been fine for horror movie,  but this is a realistic play.

Capsule judgment:  “Beyond The Horizon” is a Eugene O’Neill classic which gets few stagings.  The Ensemble production, in general, allows us to experience the beautiful writing of a master playwright. Ensemble is to be praised for continuing in its task to help keep the classics alive by producing this and other epic plays.

“Beyond The Horizon” runs Fridays and Saturdays (8 PM) and Sundays (2 PM) through May 18, 2013, at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the Coventry Building, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

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

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Compelling, humorous "Informed Consent" enlightens at Cleveland Play House

If you were carrying a genetic factor that, in the future, doomed you with Alzheimer’s, cancer, or some other disease, even if science didn’t have a cure for the ailment, would you want to know it?   Would you be willing to allow your blood, bone marrow, or a tissue sample, to be used in scientific experiments to determine genetic possibilities?   What is an experimental scientist’s obligation to reveal what they will do with the information gained from the consent of volunteers in a medical study?  

Sound like subjects right out of tales that are popping up daily in our newspaper?   Those probes are the foundation of “Informed Consent,” now on stage at the Cleveland Play House as part of the New Ground Festival.”

Plays by Deborah Zoe Laufer, the author of “Informed Consent,” recipient of the Helen Merrill Playwriting Award and a Lilly Award, have been called, “rapturously funny,” “poignantly redemptive,” “hilarious,” “engaging,” “funny as hell,” “touching,” and “weird and illuminating.”

Her “End Days,” which is receiving a staged reading by Interplay Jewish Theatre (http://interplaycleveland.com), as does “Informed Consent,” rips its topic out of the headlines.  The playwright exposes a dysfunctional family caught, in the aftermath of 911 attack, that is  trying to survive in a world hurtling toward Armageddon.  Only Stephen Hawking or Jesus can save them.

“Informed Consent,” like “End Days,” is a black comedy which centers on Gillian, an ambitious geneticist, who anxiously takes on a project to investigate why a Native American tribe is being devastated by diabetes.  Since diabetes is not her major interest, and also she wants to use the blood samples to probe into the genetic component of Alzheimer’s, her motives are not altruistic.  Her mother and other relatives have been the victims of the mind-ravaging illness and she would like to find a cure, not only for others, but to help herself and her daughter, who may also carry the errant gene that she suspects is the culprit. What to do?

Sound like a downer?  Not with the fertile imagination of Laufer.  The audience finds themselves in a conundrum of whether to laugh or cry, often doing both.

Is truth more interesting than fiction?  “Informed Consent” is based on a real event.  It takes on conflicts between cultural patterns, the roles of science and religion, the obligation of researchers to do their work with the weight of  governmental and university constraints.  The tale asks, among other questions, “just how much knowledge is too much?”

The Cleveland Play House production, under the insightful direction of Sean Daniels, is excellent.  The ninety-minute play, presented without an intermission, holds the audience with excellent pacing and allows the fine writing to develop both the drama and the comedy.

Jessica Wortham is superb as the scientist.  She creates a completely believable woman caught in a conflict between her obligation to the scientific process and protocol, self and child survival, and the need to be truthful, as well as her respect for cultural beliefs.

The rest of the cast, all of whom play various roles, Fajer Al-Kaisi, Larissa FastHorse, Gilbert Cruz, and Tina Fabrique, all are excellent, balancing the fine line between humor and drama with ease.  They get the laughs by playing real people, not caricatures.  What a wonderful assemblage of professionals.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  “Informed Consent” is a play for all theater-goers.  There is intellectual interest, mystery content, and humor, all rolled into one well-written script, which gets a superb staging!  This is a must see production!


“Informed Consent” runs through May 17, 2014 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com

Saturday, April 26, 2014

"American Idiot" rocks the Palace, but the hallow book thwarts over-all effect

In 1968 “Hair,” dubbed the American Tribal Love-Rock musical, exploded on Broadway.  It shocked the nation, but gave an accurate picture of a world rocked with chaos.  The Vietnam war raged, the peace movement flourished, draft cards were burned, rebellion against traditional values exploded.  ”Drugs, sex and rock and roll” became the mantra of the day and were clearly exposed on stage.  The show’s book was strong and the score was filled with top ten hits including “Aquarius,”  “Good Morning Starshine,” “I Believe in Love,” and “Where Do I Go?”  It became the seminal musical theatre offering illustrating “theater representing the era from which it comes.”

In 1996 RENT, opened on Broadway.  The rock musical, aimed at the MTV generation, was a reflection of the era’s turn of the century dilemmas including HIV/AIDS, regentrification, the coarseness of a nation torn apart by political turmoil, and the emerging gay pride movement.  It had a strong story, identifiable characters, and contained such mega musical hits as, “Light My Candle,” “Life Support,” “Another Day,” “Your Eyes,” “Santa Fe,” and “Seasons of Love.”  It is considered to be the seminal musical theatrical work for entering into 21st century America.

Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, who created “American Idiot,” seemingly tried to duplicate the success of “Hair” and “Rent” in reflecting the societal image of the mid-2010s by creating a musical based on high-octane rock guitar riffs, vigorous singing and dancing, and what they term “an evergreen narrative of teen rage, love and loss.”

Unfortunately, their creation, though it works on some levels, does not have the story line depth, the quality of music, and the stage presence of “Hair” or “Rent.”

The show is an adaptation of the concept album “American Idiot” by punk rock band, Green Day. 

The show opened on Broadway in April of 2010 and ran for a year, marking up 422 performances.

A road tour version of “American Idiot” is running at the Palace theatre for an abbreviated four performance run.

The musical is filled with energy, but the wafer thin story lacks emotional depth.  There is little to grab and hold the audience’s imagination.  In contrast to “Hair” and “Rent,” it is difficult to feel empathy or attachment for any of the characters.  

Though the show’s album won a Grammy, there isn’t a standout song.  In fact, after a while, all the songs sound somewhat alike….loud and guitar heavy.

The choreography, though filled with high level energy, is repetitious and helps little in developing the story.

The tale takes place “in the recent past,” and concerns three guy friends who plan to escape their suburban “wasteland.”  As they are about to part, one (Will)  finds out that his girl friend (Heather) is pregnant.  He decides to stay home, leaving the other two to go on their way. 

Life in the “big city” doesn’t turn out to be what the boys expected.  One (Johnny) wanders down the road to drug addiction (supplied by the snarly St. Jimmy) and sexual depravity (with Whatsername).  The other (Tunny) enlists in the army and goes off to fight in the much hated Iraqi war.   Tunny loses a leg, but falls in love with his nurse (The Extraordinary Girl).  Eventually, Johnny recognizes the error of his ways and returns to suburbia, as does Tunny and his love.  (Oh, yes, the plot is thin.)

The cast of the touring production is excellent, especially considering the group has little to no professional experience.   They are recent college grads who are displaying their talents in their hopeful march to fame and fortune. 

Lead characters are Jared Nepute (Johnny), Casey O’Farrell (Will), Dan Tracy (Tunny), Mariah MacFarlane (Heather), Carson Higgins (St. Jimmy), Olivia Puckett (Whatsername), and Taylor Jones (The Extraordinary  Girl).

As was the case on Broadway, the set and lighting are outstanding.  

There is a nice trend in recent touring shows.  Strongsville native and Baldwin Wallace graduate, Corey Mach, starred “Flashdance” on the Palace stage, and the “American Idiot” band includes the talented bass playing of Josh Sebo, son of Temple Tifereth Israel’s superb cantor, Kathy Sebo, and husband Rommie Sebo.

Capsule judgment:  “Green Day’s American Idiot” is a loud, brash musical which attempts to tell the tale of modern day America.   In spite of a well-performed and musically proficient  performance, the thin script and redundant musical sounds resulted in a quickly to be forgotten theatrical experience. 

“American Idiot,” a part of the US Bank Star Performance Series, run at the Palace Theatre form April 25th through the 27th, 2014.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

THE DROWNING GIRLS @ Cleveland Public Theatre


Hint:  Don’t read the program notes before “The Drowning Girls” at Cleveland Public Theatre

A person’s identity is based on the culture in which s/he was raised.  It has been the custom in many Euro-American societies to raise women with the attitude that they are not complete without a man in their lives.  Unmarried women have been identified as “old maids,” or “spinsters.”  The implication is that these women are less than their married gender mates.  Since many of our attitudes of self are based on the names we are called, the negative titles of those husbandless females perceive themselves negatively.  This phenomenon often leads to desperation to get married to whomever offers themselves for matrimony.

“The Drowning Girls,” by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic centers on the lives of three woman who became victims because of their perceived need to marry.  In these cases, they each unknowingly married a fiend, with little time to really discover his true self, until it was too late.

Alice Burnham, Beatrice (Bessie) Mundy and Margaret Lofty, the women in the story, all were what the general society of the day would call, “getting on in their years.’  Each perceived that they needed to be quickly married, each was convinced by the same man, using a different name for his relationship with each woman, to marry.  Each had a tidy sum of money, were talked into buying life insurance policies in their husband’s name, and all met an untimely death in the same manner.  Each was found dead in a bathtub.  Each, it was assumed, died from natural causes. 

The script is nicely developed, though it may have been dragged on a big too long by extensive repetition.  Crum,who is Cleveland Public Theatre’s 2013-14 Joan Yellen-Horvitz Director Fellow, creatively staged the show.  Interesting visual images abound with the use of three bathtubs on a platform, backed up by a clothing line.  The use of water for not only each character’s demise, but for anointing, creating of illusions and analogies is interestingly woven into the production.   Sam Fisher, the 2013-14 Kulas Composer Fellow, adds mood enhancing music.

Natalie Green (Alice), Sarah Kunchik (Bessie) and Jaime Bouvier (Margaret) are entirely convincing in their portrayals.  The meld together into a cohesive unit.  These are each very impressive performances.

Val Kozienko’s set design and Ben Gantose’s lighting design both help in creating the correct moods.  Fisher’s music aids in heightening and highlighting the moods.

Normally, I urge theatre-goers to read the program notes before the show.  In this case, I would urge to hold off until after the production.  Reading the “Note form the Director” and “Following the Story” reveal too much information and almost makes watching the play redundant.  It ruins the heightening of emotions and takes the mystery out of the production.

Capsule judgement: “The Drowning Girls” is an intriguing script which gets a fine staging at Cleveland Public Theatre.  Be warned:  reading the program notes before the play may take some of the excitement out of experiencing the production.

“The Drowning Girl” continues at Cleveland Public Theatre through February 24.  For tickets go to: 216-631-2727 or go to www.cptonline.org

CPT’s next show is ANCESTRA, May 22-June 7.  It is an intimate biography of a contemporary woman which was inspired by the 1853 National Women’s Rights Convention held in Cleveland Performed from March 6 to 22 in Gordon Square Theatre @ 7:30.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Musical Theater Project presents "Deconstructing Kurt Weill"

The wording on the gravestone of Kurt Weill comes from the song “A Bird of Passage” from his musical, “Lost in the Stars.”  It reads:  “This is the life of men on earth:  Out of darkness we come at birth.  Into a lamplit room, and then—Go forward into dark again.”

Weill’s life epitomizes that Maxwell Anderson poem.  Born into a secure Jewish-  German family in 1900, he grew to be one of the country’s more prominent and popular composers.  He, along with his equally well-know wife, singer Lotte Lenya, were forced into exile by the Nazis in 1933 because, not only were they Jewish, but held and espoused populist views. 

He emerged from the dark when he arrived in America, and assumed his place in American composing nobility by producing many well known works.

He felt so strongly about his expulsion from Deutschland, that he and wife, Lottie Lenya, decided not to speak German again, except in letters and conversations with his parents who had escaped to Palestine (now Israel).  They also Americanized the pronunciation of their name, using the “W,” rather than the Germanic “V” sound at the start of their last name.

His “American” compositions were a departure from his former work.  He wrote with an immediacy theme.  As he said, “I am writing for the masses.  Music they can sing, and music that deals with their problems.  That is the only significant form of composition nowadays.”

His massive music portfolio included stage and film works, cantatas, chamber music, piano music, orchestral works, and Lieder cycles/songs/chansons.  He is probably best known by the general public for “Mack the Knife,” from his “The Threepenny Opera,” which became a jazz standard via the Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin recording. 

The Musical Theater Project will present “Deconstructing Kurt Weill: The American Songs,” featuring narration by TMTP Executive Director Heather Meeker , input from Cleveland composer-arranger, Ty Alan Emerson, as sung by Fabio Polanco and Christine Fader, with music by guitarist Jake Fader and the instrumental trio “No Exit.”  

The concert centers on the theme, “How might Weill’s music sound if it were arranged and performed by contemporary artists?”   Emerson’s concept in arranging the music centered on his belief that “Weill became jaded by the Old World and wonderfully excited about becoming an American artist.  Where ever you turn in the songs, that colors his musical and dramatic choices.” 

“This composer embraced whatever sound he heard swirling around him—and in New York in the 1930s and 40s, those sounds included jazz, swing, the blues and pure Broadway ballads.”

Emerson also notes, in regard to Weill’s work, “I found that whether you’re a musical theater fan, opera or jazz musician, glam-rocker or indie-punk all-star, you can make Weill your own.”

Audiences will get their chance to experience Emerson’s interpretations of Weill on May 2 and 3 at 7 PM in the James Levine Theatre of Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.org.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

"As You Like It"-- comedic farce delights at Great Lakes Theater

What do the phrases, “all the world’s a stage” and “too much of a good thing” have in common?  They are both quotes from Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy “As You Like It.”  As is true of that genre, the play, which was written early in 1600, deals with shepherds and the rustic life, but, also concerns love, in its various forms.

“As You Like It” is  one of the Bard’s most famous works and, as presented at Great Lakes Theater, one that delights an audience.

The plot seems complicated, but, as is true of many of Shakespeare’s works of exile and romance, which are meant to entertain, there is a great deal of farcical slapstick, overly wrought lovers who find bliss by the time the final curtain falls, and what seems confusing is, in fact, simplistic.

The plot:  Frederick has taken over and exiled his older brother, Duke Senior.  The Duke’s daughter, Rosalind, has been allowed to stay in the castle to be a companion to her cousin Celia.  In a parallel plot, Orlando, whose wealthy father has died, is denied his part of his father’s estate by his older brother.  The stories join when Rosalind and Orlando fall in love, but their connection is broken when the Duke has a change of heart and exiles Rosalind.  Celia and Rosalind steal away to the forest where Duke Senior is ensconced with a group of his followers.  Rosalind, is dressed as a male, a common Shakespearean theatrical device of hidden identities.   Add a jester, a couple of sheppards, some chance encounters, some twists and turns, lots of farcical shticks, more music than is normal for Shakespearean play, and a happy ending.  Of course, to quote the Bard, “All’s well that ends well.”

Great Lakes Theater’s production, under the direction of Edward Morgan, is entertaining, but doesn’t seem to fulfill Morgan’s director’s notes.  He has reinvented the play, he contends, by changing its setting to America, which he feels, “gives the text new resonance.” 

Morgan writes that the play starts in New England, in the midst of the second Industrial Revolution, not long after the start of the 20th century.  “The Forest of Arden is in the foothills of the Adirondack mountains.  The villains are greedy, thriving Industrialists.”  “Rosalind and Orlando are the new Americans.”  “Rosalind becomes a kind of metaphor for American womanhood.”  The Elizabethan songs have been replaced “with tunes that echo these themes through Yankee sentiment and syncopation.”

Though he philosophizes those goals, starting the play with a metal grinding scene, does not an industrial revolution make.   How are we to know that is his intent?  None of the language of Shakespeare’s script carries the “industrial revolution” message nor any implication of the villains as “greedy Industrialists.”

The music insertions, though many create the right mood, do not all fit the time period described.

Rosalind, rather than being a metaphor for the liberated woman, follows the historical, tried and true path of putting a man (Orlando) above all else and gets her desire, not a career, but a marriage.

If Morgan wanted to really reimagine the play he needed to add dialogue that makes his message clear.  He would not have been the first to add to, or delete the Bard’s words.

All theorizing aside, the production delights.  Martin C├ęspedes’s choreography, which is evident throughout, is creative and brought applause from the audience.  Especially endearing is the soft-shoe tap dance of Touchstone (Dustin Tucker), the court fool.  Also creative is the dance at the end of the play in which C├ęspedes has developed character identifying moves for each couple.

The pacing, the visual images, the Borsht-belt shticks, and the performances are all top notch. 

The petite and talented Betsy Mugavero, makes for a radiant Rosalind.  Though she doesn’t really look like the “man” she is supposed to play during her “disguised” segments, she is right for the Shakespeare habit of sex switching.  (Interestingly, during the Bard’s time the task was easy, as young boys played the female roles.)

Handsome and gym-toned Torsten Johnson is a physically strong, yet gentle Orlando.  Johnson and Mugavero have a wonderful interpersonal chemistry that makes their love-in-bloom scenes engaging.

Dustin Tucker, who has a remarkable resemblance to old vaudeville performer Red Buttons, delights as the Court Fool.  He does slapstick exceedingly well.

The rest of the cast develops appropriate characterizations.

Russell Metheny’s set designs and Rick Martin’s lighting help in developing the story.  Kim Krumm Sorenson’s costumes often confuse.  They don’t always develop the era depicted.  Her backwoods inhabitant’s costumes, however, are character right.

Capsule judgement: Great Lakes Theater’s “As You Like It,” though it doesn’t
fully develop director Edward Morgan’s philosophical objectives, is delightful.  The many students who will attend should go away with a very positive concept of the Shakespearean comedy at its best.


“As You Like It” runs from April 9-14, 2014 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets go to: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Monday, April 07, 2014

Reviewer of the Reviewer's Review--Sean Derry

Hi Roy,

I just wanted to personally thank you for your kind words, time travelled, insightful critique, and continued support of none too fragile. Your reviews go a very long way in encouraging attendance among the public. Please know, you are respected and greatly appreciated by Alanna and I. We look forward to seeing you at "Possum Dreams" June 13th.

Sincerely,

Sean [Derry, Artistic Director, none too fragile theater]

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Actors' Summit..HANDLE WITH CARE, it's mostly Hebrew to me

Picture this:  on a Thursday night, an American theatrical comedy, one-third of which’s dialogue was spoken in Hebrew, was viewed by an audience composed primarily of Hebrew speaking Israelis.  The setting:  Actors’ Summit in Akron.  Yes, Akron, Ohio!

How did this occurrence come to pass?  A group of Israeli teenagers were in the United States on an exchange program.  They were spending time in Cleveland, their hosts became aware of the production of Jason Odell Williams’ “Handle With Care,” and brought the Israeli students, and the students at Beachwood’s Akiva (Jewish) High School to the play.

Being in the audience with the students added a dimension to the theatrical experience.  During the show there was an underlying stream of comments.  One of the patrons thought the Israeli students were being disrespectful until it was pointed out that the sounds being heard were interpretations from English to Hebrew by the Akiva students.  The Israelis were as lost in the English as most of the rest of the audience was in the Hebrew spoken segments.

There was laughter from the students when Hebrew was being spoken, which was absent from the English speaking audience, and laughter when the English was being spoken from the rest of the audience, but not from the Israelis.  The subsets were reacting to what they understood, which was not available to the other group.

During the question and answer session, members of the cast, none of whom knew any Hebrew before their appearance in the play, were curious as to their ability to correctly pronounce the words they were speaking.  The Israeli students laughed as they explained that like any language, there are differences in pronunciation  in Hebrew.  They came to the conclusion that the accent being used was Russian-Hebrew (former Russians who emigrated to Israel, learned Hebrew, but pronounce it based on their Russian language pronunciation).  Not surprisingly, Oudi Singer, who acted as the Hebrew coach for the cast, speaks Russian-Hebrew.

Williams’ play is a pleasant comedy which has a feel good sit-com format.  It is one of those plays where the outcome becomes obvious about one-third into the goings-on.

Loosely following some aspects of the film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” complete with a bumbling “guardian angel” and lots of happy coincidences, it’s the kind of script that will probably be produced by Jewish theatres and temple drama groups.

The story centers on a trip to America by grandma Edna, on an undisclosed mission, and her granddaughter, Ayelet, who has recently broken up with her boyfriend.  As we come upon Ayelet, in a rundown motel in backwoods Virginia, she is hysterically yelling in Hebrew at Terrence, an air-headed delivery man.  We eventually find out that grandma Edna had died and her body was placed in a box for shipment back to Israel for burial.  (How the body got put into the box, doubtfully handled by Jewish ritual, which requires special preparation and the body never be left alone, is a mystery.) 

The body was “lost” when Terrence left the keys in his delivery truck and the vehicle was stolen while he made a 7-ll food stop.  Into the chaos enters Josh.  He’s a high school friend of Terrence’s, one of the few Jews in the area, and, of course, Terrence assumes that because of his religion he will be able to communicate with Ayelet.  The non-observant and Hebrew-illiterate Josh is of no help.  (But, as the audience figures out, he’s there for a plot-purpose.)

Josh’s wife died a few years ago.  Hmm….the plot unfolds.  Ayelet and Josh are both nice, Jewish, unmarried, and open for love!

The body is found, and grandma Edna’s belief in the “beshert” (Yiddish for “meant to be”) comes true.

A 2013-2014 off-Broadway production of “Handle With Care,” starring Carol Lawrence (of “West Side Story” fame), ran 112 performances and was called “fearlessly adorable” by the “NY Jewish Review.” 

The Actors’ Summit production, under the direction of Constance Thackaberry, who is a friend of the playwright, is quite pleasant.  The performances are very good.  Natalie Sander Kern undertook the daunting responsibility of learning hundreds of lines in a language she didn’t know.  She also had to learn to pronounce the words, and make dramatic sense of them.  She was outstanding, and, according to one of the Israeli students, “made me laugh.”

Keith Stevens was charming as the befuddled Josh.  Arthur Chu (who some in the audience knew as the very successful contestant on the nationally televised  “Jeopardy”) added with his southern-accented interpretation of the dim-witted Terrence.  Marci Paolucci made a nice “Savta” (Hebrew for grandmother), with a surprising past.

Capsule judgment: “Handle With Care” isn’t a great script, but makes for a smiling evening of theatre.  Seeing the show with a group of Israeli, Hebrew-speaking students, added a dimension of understanding of culture and language.

For tickets to HANDLE WITH CARE, which runs through April 13, 2014, call 330-374-7568 or go to www.actorssummit.org

Saturday, April 05, 2014

GIDION'S KNOT @ none too fragile theater

Last year, none too fragile theater’s ON THE LINE was honored by the Cleveland Critics Circle as being the “Best Non-Musical Production of 1913.”  Their production of GIDION’S KNOT establishes itself as a candidate for the award this year!

Johnna Adams’ brilliantly written script, given a superb production, is riveting, disturbing, and emotionally wrenching.  Ironically, it is also funny at times.   Yes, sometimes you have to laugh through your tears.  Adams knows this and gives the needed moments of catharsis so as not to make the experience more than the audience members can emotionally bear.

Usually on the ride home after leaving a theatre, my wife and I have a lively discussion about the play we have just seen.  On the way home from GIDION’S KNOT, we sat in silence.  We were both in an emotional after-shock.  Talking would have taken us out of the mood. 

As I sit here writing this review, 12 hours after experiencing the production, I can still hear the lines and visualize its physical images.   The angst remains within.

The play’s title is an allusion to the legend of the Gordian Knot, in which Alexander the Great was challenged with the task of untying an intricate knot created by King Gorgius.  In modern terms, it relates to the question of how to deal with a complicated seemingly insoluble problem. 

Adams could not have picked a more perfect take-off on that legend as a title.  There is no way to untie, unknot the tale about Gidion and his complex problem and the resulting issues.

I can’t explain the story or my thoughts about it.  That would untie the knot for me, not for you.  It’s an unfair burden and for me to undertake.

On the surface, this is a telling of a meeting between an elementary school teacher and the mother of a young boy, Gidion, who has just committed suicide.  In reality, it is a series of questions: Is the disturbing story the boy wrote as a homework assignment that of an imaginative writer, an Edgar Allen Poe, or the exposition of a disturbed child who may some day turn out to be a mass murderer like Seugn-Hui Cho, who wrote murderous fantasies before shooting thirty-two people at Virginia Tech?

It further probes:  What are the responsibilities of schools regarding a student?  Should a teacher, or society, impose its ethical rules on others?  What is the “right” way to grieve? When does the fear of a law suit override the responsibilities of leadership?  Are we responsible for the way our actions affect others?  How do we recognize depression in others?  Should it be the child's, the mother's, or the teacher's perspective, that influences and informs the narrative for the child’s life?

The play offers no answers, it just lays bare the issues.  This may disturb those that want clear cut answers.  But, in reality, life doesn’t always offer clear cut answers.  In fact, the process of life usually provides more paths to inquiry.  The author wisely realizes this conundrum and leaves it to each person to untie the knot of her characters lives, if s/he desires, and has the psychological desires and abilities to attempt the task.

The none too fragile’s production, under the precise and insightful direction by Sean Derry, is spell-binding.  It is exquisitely paced, the actors develop real emotionally fragile people.  No acting here.  Each lives the character, leaving no doubt of the reality of the situation and internal chaos.  Nothing gets in the way of the well-crafted play.  Nothing gets in the way of getting the audience involved in the cerebral, yet emotional sense of the author.

Jen Klika is superlative as Corryn, the grieving mother.  This is performing at its highest level.  She rides the roller coaster of emotions with perfection, controlling the normal tendency of yelling to show strong emotions.  She uses pauses, stress highlighting, and nonverbal signs to convey Corryn’s deep hurt, guilt and chaos.

Alanna Romansky as Heather, the teacher, creates a multi-leveled woman whose own questions, doubts and insecurities become clearly evident.  At times her projection falls off, making her hard to hear, but these lapses of dialogue actually intensify Heather’s angst and choked up conflicted feelings.  Her final scene is wrenching.

This is among the saddest and thought-provoking plays I’ve ever seen.  It exposes so many raw nerves.  It seems ironic, but the experience was so perfect that  I would not want to see the play again because I don’t want to disturb the image, the keen emotional reaction of this experience.

I would ask the director to consider not having a curtain call, but letting the audience sit in the dark for a short period after the final line, so they can get the full impact of the play.  I was brought out of the emotional mood too quickly by the lights flashing on.  Yes, the actors should be recognized for their brilliant performances, but the deep silence would serve that purpose, and a gradual bringing up of the lights to indicate the play was over, would help cement the experience.

Capsule judgement:  If it is the purpose of theatre to have a life-awakening experience and to get the audience so emotionally involved that they forget they are in a theatre, then none too fragile’s GIDION’S KNOT fully fulfills that goal!   This is theatre at its finest and is an absolute MUST see.  Please avail yourself of the wonder of this  fine theatrical offering!  Bravo!

GIDION’S KNOT runs through  April 19, 2014 at none too fragile theater which is located in Bricco’s Restaurant, 1841 Merriman Road, Akron.  Use the free valet parking, as car space is limited.  For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to http://www.nonetoofragile.com

Friday, April 04, 2014

Local actor, Corey Mach, turns on the audience in "Flashdance" at the Palace

 
On opening night, when Corey Mach made his first appearance on stage in “Flashdance The Musical,” the audience, after being prepped about his entrance by Gina Vernaci, Senior Vice President of Theater Operations, greeted him with a lengthy ovation.  During the curtain call, the audience exploded in vocal and physical adoration when Mach came on stage.  Then, when the 2006 Strongsville High School and 2010 Baldwin-Wallace alum put on an Indian’s baseball cap, the Palace Theatre literally shook with unbridled excitement.  Yes, this was a glorious “welcome home Corey” celebration.

Mach is Broadway leading man material.  He’s tall, dark, handsome, with a strong singing voice, great acting chops, and a charming “Midwest wholesome” personality.  Mach’s credits already include the international tour of “Rent,” as well as the role of Fiyero in the touring production of “Wicked,” and the Broadway revival of “Godspell.”

When I reviewed Mach in the 2010 BW/Playhouse Square production of “Chess,” as staged by BW Musical Theater faculty member, Victoria Bussert, I commented that he was “sincere and sensitive.”   In another commentary I tagged him as “ready for Broadway,” and as having “star quality.”   Yes, he’s another one of Bussert’s “kids” who is making good!

The touring version of “Flashdance The Musical” is part of the Key Bank Broadway series.  The national tour, which started in January of 2013, has four more stops, ending in Toronto (May 27-June 8).

The show is based on the 1983 romantic film, “Flashdance,” which was written by Tom Hedley and Clevelander, Joe Eszterhas.

Though the flick opened to negative reviews, it went on to be a surprise box office success.  It was the third highest grossing film of 1983 and has become a cult favorite, having brought in more than $100 million dollars in worldwide box office sales.  The sound track included “Maniac” and “Flashdance…What a Feeling” which have become pop standards. 

The musical stage version, which was billed as “an unmistakably unique musical about holding onto your dreams and love against all odds,” premiered in the UK, and toured that country.  The oft-promised Broadway opening is up-in-the-air.  Originally the show was announced as opening on the Great White Way in August of 1913.  That date has been set back, and now is in limbo again because the producers say, “The postponement is due to a lack of theaters.”

Both the stage and film versions center on Alex Owens, an eighteen-year-old small town girl who moves to Pittsburgh in order to pursue a career in dance.  She has no formal training and winds up working as an exotic dancer by night and a welder in the Hurley Steel Mill by day.  In the musical, into her workday life saunters Nick Hurley, the grandson of the mill’s owner.  Their on-and-off romance, her overcoming her lack of dance self-confidence, complications caused by issues of her co-workers at both the bar and the steel mill, and her need to learn the meaning of love, fuel the story. 

Of course, as happens in all feel-good, plot obvious musicals, only a “Maniac” wouldn’t know that in the “Steeltown Sky,” the girl will realize “It’s All in Reach,” as “Here and Now,” she understands that this is “Where I Belong,” and she learns to “Hang on,” so she finally can realize, “What a Feeling” it is to get her dancing dreams and a wealthy, nice, and studly guy.

The musical and book don’t exactly follow the same plan.  Sixteen songs have been added for the stage version, Grunt, the lovable dog of flick fame, is gone, lots of characters are cut and others added, the name of the dance conservatory has been changed, the character of Jeannie, an ice skating friend of Alex, has been modified, the character of Nick’s ex-wife is gone, and Alex doesn’t trash Nick’s apartment.  What is left is an obvious “I told you that’s the way it would turn out” ending of boy meets girl, girl rejects boy, boy pursues, girl finally realizes that he is prince charming!

The touring production is pure entertainment, centering on dancing, dancing and more dancing, plus singing, singing and more singing.  It sweeps up the audience, not with the story but with the choreography, musicality, and the abundant use of electronic graphics.

The role of Nick Hurley is a perfect vehicle for Mach.  He puts on the character and wears it with complete confidence and talent.  He makes Clevelanders proud to call him “ours.”

Tiny and adorable Sydney Morton has the right cocky, yet insecure persona as Alex.  Her singing and acting are excellent, her dancing not up to the required level.  Her highlight number, when she tries out for dance school, though perfectly adequate, doesn’t compel as it should.

Alison Ewing and Dequina Moore delight as exotic dancers, the dance chorus is high octane excellent, and the orchestra, though sounding rather shrill due to an over-dependence on the electronic keyboard, develops the multi-musical sounds.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  “Flashdance The Musical” is one of those musicals that delights audiences, while not being a well-written show.  It has strong music, great choreography and Corey Mach, local kid making good.  That ought be more than enough to please the Cleveland faithful.
“Flashdance The Musical” is scheduled to run through April 13, 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org

Add-ons
•Prepare to be dazzled on May 2, when the $16-million upgrade of Playhouse Square becomes a reality…four welcoming gateways, video boards, marquees, a 48-foot Playhouse Square sign atop the Cowell & Hubbard Building, and the world’s largest outdoor chandelier will all be set ablaze.

•Congrats to the subscribers to the Key Bank Broadway series.  The 29,266 of you hold membership in the largest subscriber series in the U.S.!