Wednesday, April 29, 2015

BENGAL TIGER--a mental and emotional challenge at Ensemble

In BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, Cleveland Heights native Rajiv Joseph’s, surreal dark play, ghosts roam the streets of Baghdad in 2003.   Ghosts of soldiers, citizens, zoo animals, a son of the former ruler of the country.  These ghosts are part of the vivid display of the madness of war, and what it means to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As the play opens, we are confronted by a fragmented cage with a “tiger” pacing inside.  The tiger is one of the few animals left in the once magnificent zoo.  The others have been killed by the war, or they have escaped, only to be shot as they followed their natural instincts to forage for food. 

The tiger isn’t wearing a tiger suit.  This is not a farcical play or a Disney production.   He is a man, a self-proclaimed tiger, wearing dirty clothing, speaking to the audience without any “animal” imitation or overtones.  This is a production requiring the willing suspension of reality, allowing the animal, the ghosts, the illusions, to become real.  It allows us to consider the search for sanity, the attempt at redemption, and why a man would risk his life for a golden toilet seat. 

The play, which was nominated for a 2010 Pulitzer prize, finds two marines guarding what is left of the Baghdad zoo and its animals.  Tom, helped attack one of the palaces of Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday.  He found and took a gold plated toilet seat and a golden gun.  Tom, in attempt to feed the animal, is bitten by the tiger. He is shipped home.  After rehab, with a prosthetic hand, he returns to claim his golden treasures. 

Kev, the other marine, is a bi-polar psychotic, tortured by the goings-on around him.

There is Musa, a troubled Iraqi gardener, who tended the topiary at Uday’s palace where Hussein’s son seduced and killed Musa’s young sister. 

In the desert there is an elderly leper. 

Together, these living and dead souls, lead us on a horrifying journey with humorous under-tones.  These are the remnants of the one time cradle of civilization where the theory of laws and mathematics were developed.  A place now living by laws of the jungle.

Joseph’s play is not a traditionally plot-driven script.  It is rather shapeless, not sequential, per se.  It is more a collection of experiences of each of the characters woven loosely together by the question, “Is violence an intrinsic part of our nature or is it something that we learn? 

Though oft-praised, the Broadway production opened to mixed reviews.  The Ensemble production, is saddled with the same loosely structured script, which in spite of its dark-comedy billing, doesn’t deliver on the comic part.  Maybe it needed Robin Williams, who played the Tiger on Broadway, to present the humor.

That is not to say that Michael Regnier, who played the tiger, was not effective.  He was, but he played the role straight, adding to the depressing feeling and  hopelessness of people caught up in the cycle of war and destruction.

The other members of the cast were also effective.  Daniel McElhaney (Kev), Leilani Barrett (Tom), Tom Kondilas (Musa), Juliette Regnier (Leper), Mike Faddoul (Iraqi man), Assad Khaishgi (Uday) and Justine Zapin (Hadia).  Accents were excellent and line interpretations carried Joseph’s intent.

Director Celeste Consentino has paced the play well, kept the two-act, two-hour production focused.  Ian Hinz’s projections, Angelina Herin’s costumes and Andrew Eckert’s lighting designs all work to enhance the over-all production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble should be commended for attempting such a monumental work as Rajiv Joseph’s BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO.  The play is not for everyone.  It is filled with depressing thoughts, which hit probably too close to home for many Americans, who, almost non-stop from the 1960s, have been participants in conflict after conflict, and misguided war after misguided war. 

BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO runs Thursdays through Sundays through May 17 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former  Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Dobama’s SUPERIOR DONUTS, dessert for both the laugher and the thinker

Tracy Letts, the author of SUPERIOR DONUTS, now on stage at Dobama, is an accomplished playwright, actor, and screenwriter.  He was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his play AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY.  He won a Tony Award for his portrayal of George in the recent Broadway revival of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?.  He wrote screen adaptations for his plays:  BUG and KILLER JOE, as well as AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY and has been nominated for two Screen Actors Guild Awards for his portrayal of Andrew Lockhart in Showtime’s HOMELAND.

Much like his writing heroes, Tennessee Williams and William Falkner, his characters struggle with moral and spiritual problems set in a format of the well structured play.

Considered one of modern America’s great playwrights, Letts writes works which are multi-leveled.  For those seeking laughs, he presents a story filled with laughter.  These viewers can enjoy themselves and leave as fulfilled audience members.

For those who like to dig beyond the surface, they can find a vivid social conscience being exposed.  He often writes of the present and past ills of society.  SUPERIOR DONUTS exposes the underbelly of such issues as the questionable purpose of the Vietnamese war, the motivations of the draft-dodgers of the era, outward and inward prejudice against Blacks, the feeling of African Americans for the white majority, the difficulty of the immigrant experience, and the plight of the homeless.  

SUPERIOR DONUTS centers on Arthur Przybyszewski, a second generation Pole, whose father opened what is now one of the last donut shops in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.  The shop barely has any customers, which is fine with Arthur, who prefers to hide in silence, sharing little with those who come into the bakery.

A homeless woman, Lady, comes in daily for her “deserved” donuts for her ability to sense happenings and act as an oracle.  The police stop for their coffee and snack.  Max, the Russian owner of the adjacent electronics store, stops regularly to try and convince Arthur to sell his property so Max can expand. 

Arthur’s world is interrupted by the entrance of Franco, a black teen, who can hardly contain his enthusiasm and creativity as he talks the donut man into hiring him.  Hidden in Franco’s schemes is a dark secret which eventually changes both the youth’s and Arthur’s lives.

Max leads us through the tale by acting much like the chorus in a Greek play, using monologues to comment on what has just happened and foreshadow what is to come.

Comments such as “Is anyone paying attention in America?” is an invitation to the audience to be stimulated to think and reflect on what they are seeing on stage and how they are living their lives. 

The Dobama production is well formed by director Nathan Motta’s keen understanding of the levels of Letts’ writing.  The laughs are all there, but so are the sociological underpinnings.  He allows the audience to react on their own levels, but makes sure that both the enjoyers and the thinkers can satisfy their needs.

The role of Arthur seems written specifically for Joel Hammer.  Hammer is Arthur, Arthur is Joel.  The lines flow effortlessly from Hammer.  The contained feelings, the stifled emotions, the fear of being hurt once again, are all present in this well textured performance.

Robert Hunter bursts onto the stage as Franco, keeps the momentum going and makes a fine transition as the role takes a sharp emotional turn.  He and Hammer play off each other.  No “acting” here.  He reacts to the lines, the feelings, and the implications.   Hunter has a fine sense of comic timing, while also building dramatic intensity.  

Mary Jane Nottage, with matted red hair, eyes flashing, and confused facial expression, nails the role of Lady.  Her finest moment is near the end of the play.  With tears flowing, she displays the character’s awareness of what is to come of her failed life, as she wanders out of the donut shop, her few possessions in plastic bags.  (Note:  The youthful looking Nottage is the only actress still performing on the Dobama stage from the earliest era of the company.  She appeared  in the company’s third show, some fifty years ago.

On opening night, Alan Byrne took the stage to perform the role of Max with less than a week of rehearsal.  Brian Zoldessy was to play the role, but became ill and had to be replaced.  Byrne, complete with a fine Russian-American accent and some Russian dialogue, masterfully performed the role with great comic timing, walking the fine line between comedy and farce with the ease of a high wire artist.

Amy Fritsche and LaShawn Little, portraying Chicago’s finest, were both excellent in developing strong supporting characters.

Aaron Benson designed an authentic worn-out donut shop, complete with era-correct appliances and a vintage cash register.  The ever present display and replacement of donuts added to the required authenticity.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: SUPERIOR DONUTS is a well written, well directed, well acted play.  It is a play that will delight both the theatre-goer who desires theatre of entertainment, as well as the audience member wanting to probe into the underpinnings of a play with a social message.  Dobama ends its 2014-2015 season with another fine season, their first as a full-time Equity House and the area’s only full- time Small Professional Theatre. 

SUPERIOR DONUTS runs through May 24, 2015 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

Brilliant IN A WORD @ Cleveland Public Theatre

What are the feelings of a husband and wife when they want to conceive a child, but can’t?  What are the ramifications for that childless family when they are given the opportunity to adopt the “perfect” child?  What is it like when that family becomes aware that their child is autistic?  How do parents cope with a child who screams when he becomes frustrated and doesn’t have the words to express his needs or habitually follows a pattern over and over, such as reading the same book again and again, or can’t socialize with others?  What emotionally happens to that family when that child disappears? 

Those are the questions that are dealt with in Lauren Lee’s thoughtfully written and emotionally wrenching IN A WORD.

Beth Wood, the director of Cleveland Public Theatre’s IN A WORD, sets the psychological tone of the play when she states in the program’s “Director’s Notes,” “A moment, a beat, a breath can change us forever.”  She is referring to the disappearance of a young autistic boy from his mother’s car.  But, in reality, Fiona and Guy’s lives have been a series of moments, beats and breaths, just like those instances in everyone else’s lives.

What do people do with life’s instances?  Without knowing it, each experience is logged in the cortex of the brain.  Each is stored, remains, and is sometimes recalled.  In the case of Fiona, we see her storage process as she places a word or a series of words in individual glass mason bottles, screws on the top of each, and places them on shelves.

The playwright uses the bottles as a visual device to show Fiona’s brain in action.  Often in life something stimulates Fiona to fetch a bottle, open it and expose the contents.  As each incident happens, she literally goes through the searching and retrieving process. 

Questions arise.  Is the boy alive or dead?  Was he murdered?  Was he kidnapped?  Did he wander off in a haze of confused thoughts?  Will he ever return?  Are Fiona and Guy’s lives better off with him gone?

Watching Fiona expose the stages of psychological trauma, a type of psychological death, is frustrating, disheartening and fascinating. 

CPT’s production, under the focused direction of Wood is compelling.  The staging is perfectly paced, keeps the action focused, and is eerily realistic.

The cast is flawless.  Liz Conway as Fiona, takes us on a journey of emotional discovery.  She literally has a nervous breakdown before our eyes.  She is not portraying Fiona, she is Fiona.  No acting here, living Fiona.  Wow!

Matt O’Shea, as the boy, understands the mind and body set of an autistic child.  He, like Conway, becomes the boy, lives the boy, is the boy.  Bravo!

Mark Rabant completes the perfect circle of performers as Guy.  His strong underplay of the husband/father role makes the outward emotional portrayals of Conway and O’Shea’s even more powerful.

Benjamin Gantose and Wood’s fragmented set frames the exact mood needed to parallel both Fiona’s and the boy’s minds.  Gantose’s light design focuses and highlights the action.

IN A WORD is Cleveland Public Theatre’s first production in their affiliation with NNPN (National New Play Network), an organization of theatres dedicated to new theatre.  Rolling World Premieres, a project of NNPN, supports the idea that a play often needs more than one reading or production to fully flesh out storylines and dialogue. Over the course of a year, four different theatres across the US will produce the same play, with the author in attendance to work with each production.

Capsule judgement: IN A WORD is one of the top area presentations of this season.  Anyone who is interested in well written, compelling scripts, directed and performed in an almost not-to-be-believed level of brilliance, has to see IN A WORD.  A standing ovation doesn’t even give the necessary praise this piece of theatrical wonderment deserves.

IN A WORD runs though May 2, 2015 at 7:00 p.m. in the James Levin Theatre at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets ($12-28) call 216-631-2727 or go on line to

Saturday, April 18, 2015

BAD JEWS, bad title, bad script at Actors’ Summit

Shortly into Actors’ Summit’s production of BAD JEWS, several things become obvious.  The off-setting title was not only a turn-off for many, but was misleading.  Secondly,  author Joshua Harmon, self-admitted stumbler into the world of playwriting, may need a re-thinking about his career. 

On the surface, the play has been described as a black comedy about family, faith and legacy.  It definitely is about family.  More specifically about the role of egocentricism and attempts to control other family members through manipulation for personal gain.  As for the faith and legacy, those are questionable.

The action centers on three cousins, and the girl friend of the oldest cousin, Liam, who are forced to share an efficiency apartment in New York, to commemorate the death of their beloved grandfather, “Poppie.”  A Holocaust survivor, he went through much of his concentration camp survival, as the tale is told, hiding a gold “chai” under his tongue. 

“Chai,” is a combination of two Hebrew letters, “Chet” and “Yod,” which represent being  alive or living, and has been made into a visual symbol, usually a gold amulet worn on a chain around the neck.  It can be worn by both men and women, as a symbol of the word of God and for good luck. It  also represents the number 18, a good luck number in Hebrew tradition.

Two cousins, Daphna and Liam, both want Poppie’s “chai.”   Daphna, who purports to be the “most  Jewish” of the cousins, has studied the religion, practices and traditions of the faith, is supposedly moving to Israel after she graduates from college.  Liam has spent most of his life distancing himself from his cultural traditions, including getting an advanced degree in Japanese culture, and dating numerous non-Jewish girls.  He shows disdain for family by going skiing in Aspen rather than attending Poppie’s funeral and showing up with his Christian girl friend to sit “Shiva” (the mourning period for the dead). He wants the “chai” to use as a substitute for an engagement ring, much as Poppie did when he asked their grandmother to marry him.

The third cousin Jonah, is passive (or maybe, passive aggressive), wanting not to get involved in the family feud.   He has nothing to gain from the “chai” battle.

The action centers on a constant war of attack and nasty accusations between Daphna and Liam, as each displays their insecurities.  Two selfish people in a fight for dominance.

It is from this conflict, while fighting over an symbol of their religion, and a family heirloom, that the duo become “bad Jews.”  Jews behaving badly. 

Tradition and family are two of the most important Jewish values, and these are thrown to the wind in the war for dominance and satisfying selfish desires.

The Actors’ Summit production is burdened with a poorly conceived script. Many of the lines are written in “written,” rather than “spoken” English, making the characters caricatures rather than theatrical characters, not real people.  The plot which is cellophane, easily seen through, and not very compelling.  Even the “startling” ending, doesn’t evoke much feeling.  The laughs are there, but in comedies the humor is often used to relieve stress or define the characters.  Except in the case of Jonah, BAD JEWS laughs don’t do this.

Director Constance Thackberry keeps the action moving right along and gets what she can from the script.

Nate Miller stars as Jonah.  Miller has a mobile face, a nice touch with comedy timing and plays “defeated” with the best of them.  He not only looks like Johnny Galecki, Leonard, of television’s GREAT BANG THEORY, but displays the same whipped dog face and body gestures. 

Brittany Gaul does her best to make Daphna self-centered, manipulative and a teller of white lies.  Her oral presentation of choppiness of word flow, and awkward line interpretation, becomes annoying after a while.  It’s not clear as to why she, or the director, decided to take this presentation approach.

Kyle Huff stays right on the acting surface as Liam.  He often sounds unreal, saying words, not meanings.  Whether it’s the writing or the acting, I really didn’t care who won the battle of the “Chai.” I didn’t like either Daphna or Liam as characters or people.

Gabi Shook gives a creditable performance as the shallowly written Melody, who, as conceived, raises deep questions over why someone on his way to a doctorate would be interested in this Barbie-doll.  But maybe that’s the point.

The set, a well conceived New York efficiency with a view of the Hudson river, aids in setting the right mood.

Capsule judgement:  BAD JEWS is a poorly conceived play with a title that is a put-off for many and may well be misleading.

There are after-production discussions following some performances.  Check the theatre’s website for dates and panel members!

For tickets to BAD JEWS, which runs through May 3, 2015, call 330-374-7568 or go to

Roy Berko's commentaries and reviews appear on,, with selected reviews posted on and  To subscribe to his blog go to and follow the directions in the right hand column: 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

THE TEMPEST brews up a storm at GLT

William Shakespeare is considered by most experts on English language theatre as being the greatest of all writers.  His vast folio of plays, consisting of tragedies, comedies, histories and dramas have lasted for over four hundred years.  He is one of the few writers who has theatres, let alone festivals, dedicated exclusively to his works.

One of his last solo-written plays was THE TEMPEST, now on stage at Great Lakes Theater, which some consider the Bard’s farewell to the stage.  Ironically, it concerns a great magician ending his career, which may have been Shakespeare’s vision of himself giving up his magical years as a writer.  

THE TEMPEST is one of the Bard of Avon’s shortest and most simply constructed plays, which leads to the belief that he was fading out and didn’t have the desire or fortitude to develop a play as complex as MACBETH, HAMLET or his multi-leveled comedies.

A product of the early seventeenth century, the plot is probably entirely original.  He doesn’t evoke real historical characters, but may, in some ways, suggest the tempest of storms unleashed on ships sailing from Europe in search of a pathway to what we now know as Asia.  Specifically, there was a wreck off Bermuda and another account of a fleet being destroyed on a sailing from what is now known as Plymouth to a port in Virginia.  In both cases, survivors were washed up on an island.  There, they found Native Americans, who they referred to as “Cannibals.”  It is probably not by accident that Prospero, the magician of the story, referred to his man servant as “Caliban,” an anagram of the word “Cannibal.”

Generally performed on a fairly bare stage, the play lends itself to the description of those who returned from some of the voyages to “the Americas” as being barren.   This does not mean it is not filled with special effects for which Shakespeare is famous.  His plays are filled with fantasies such as humans becoming animals, fairies, and witches and wizards who perform magical tricks.  THE TEMPEST is no exception.

The story centers on Prospero, the Duke of Milan, who was stranded for twelve years on an island after Prospero’s brother, Antonio, deposed him and set him adrift with his child, Miranda.

Prospero is maniacal in his desire to restore his daughter to her rightful place in society.  Prospero has no magical powers other than the ability to persuade others.  He uses those verbal skills to persuade Ariel, a spirit, to conjure a storm (the tempest.)  Ariel, acts as requested because he is beholden to Prospero as the former King freed the spirit from captivity in a tree in which he was placed by Sycorax, a cruel witch.  The storm wrecks the ship of Prospero’s brother, Antonio, his son Ferdinand, and the complicit King Alonso of Naples, and their company of travelers.  The group is washed up on the island, and the tale unfolds. 

Prospero is successful in achieving his goals by having Miranda marry Ferdinand, reconciling with his brother, and freeing of Ariel from his spell, thus rendering a happy ending.

As in all Shakespeare plays, there is a philosophical message.  As Drew Barr writes in his directorial notes, “That which makes us human, as Shakespeare shows us time and time again, is our struggle to reconcile the enormity of our dreams with the exquisite vulnerability of our beliefs.”  He continues, “THE TEMPEST dares us to open our hearts and minds fully enough to drown with all the world in the deluge of our senses.”

The GLT production is well conceived by Barr. The play itself is not as well developed as many of Shakespeare’s works, which causes some segments to fail to be clear in their purpose in developing the plot.  For example, a long farcical section seems inserted as an attempt for humor, for the sake of humor, with no great reason or purpose for plot development.  As for the production, to accomplish the sought after laughter, an even stronger “Three Stooges” approach was needed.  If there is going to be slapstick, it needs to be done with full abandonment.

The cast is excellent.  D. A. Smith rants effectively as Prospero.  Ryan David O’Byrne develops fully the role of Ariel.  Dustin Tucker delights as Trinculo, a drunken cook.  J. Todd Adams, looking much like Alan Cummings portraying the M.C. in the latest Broadway staging of CABARET, is eerily effective as the savage Caliban.  Dougfred Miller (Alonso) and Jonathan Dyrud (Antonio), do justice to their character development.  Patrick Riley is on target as the youthful Ferdinand.

Though he gets laughs, it appears that Tom Ford (Stephano, a butler) has played the role of the fool once too often and falls back on using the same physical and vocal devices to the detriment of originality. 

Though her voice sometimes goes into too high an octave range for pleasant listening, Katie Willmorth creates a pleasant Miranda.

Scenic Designer Russell Metheny has conceived a set that is creative, but at times distracting.  The light instruments shining and the shimmering effects off the plastic panels, which dominate the grid set, became distracting and the reflections sometimes temporarily blinded members of the audience.

Kim Krumm Sorenson’s costumes are often intriguing, but the use of plastic and other stiff materials cause crackles as the performers move, and make static-like sounds, drowning out lines.

Capsule judgement:  THE TEMPEST, reported to be Shakespeare’s last solo dramatic writing, is not one of the Bard’s great plays, but there is enough fantasy and intrigue to allow for a pleasant evening of theater.  The GLT production does justice to the script.

THE TEMPEST runs through April 26, 2015 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or


As the lights came up at the start of Cleveland Play House’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, the audience is exposed to a comfortable large morning room, backed up by a piano area, and stairs to an upstairs.  On stage left is a patio, on stage right the house’s entrance.  Were in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in a home situated on a lake. 

A man (Vanya) enters carrying a cup of coffee.  He is comfortably attired. He sits in an overstuffed chair, and looks out.  Shortly, he is followed by a woman (Masha) in a worn bathrobe.  The duo spars, like a long-time married couple because the usual morning routine of her bringing him his coffee has been broken by Vanya having poured himself his java.  Masha becomes incensed, stomps into the piano room and tosses the extra cup against the wall.  It appears that we are about to observe a domestic battle. 

Soon, however, its is revealed that Vanya and Sonia are brother and sister, well, adopted sister, and have remained for their entire lives in their family home, taking care of their parents who eventually died.  The duo stayed put.  They seldom leave the house,  have no friends, and spend their time waiting for, or discussing the impending arrival of a blue heron.  Soon, a third sibling, Masha,  arrives with a surprise guest, and the uneasy tranquility is threatened.

Masha is an actress who has made her fame in a series of slasher cult films.  The guest is her boy toy, Spike, her mid-life crisis prize for yet another failed marriage and a fading career. 

A costume party, the possibility of selling the home, failed attempts to reconcile the family, the appearance of a young next door neighbor, Spike’s infidelity, a tirade by Vanya, a play reading, a strip tease, Voodoo, an attack on societal change, and a surprise ending, all highlight this comedy of missed opportunities

The conversations, the setting, the format of the story and the language are all “American Chekov.”  As with the great Russian writer, who is sometimes called the literary father of the Russian revolution, the script is filled with references to family, societal collapse, the uncalled for sticking to traditions, the ignoring of financial problems, and the need to take personal responsibility. 

Author Christopher Durang, who penned this commercial and artistic success, and won a Tony Award for Best Play and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, has taken up the mantle of writing a well-conceived modern, realistic play, and added a layer of humor that makes for an endearing evening of theatre.  The Broadway production recouped its $2.75 million dollar investment in under four months, an outstanding feat brought about by rave reviews, strong word-of-mouth, and quality performances.

The Cleveland Play House production, under the directorship of Bruce Jordan, almost reaches the show’s potential level of excellence.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t totally practice what he preaches in his “Director’s Notes,” about actors understanding why a certain word in a line has to be stressed, or why they have to get to the end of the line quickly.”  He loses laughs and comedy angst through slow pacing and having two cast members who simply don’t perform as required to achieve the best effect.

On the plus side, John Scherer is excellent as the gay, reclusive, intellectual Vanya, who has wasted his talents and any hope of a personal life, by spending most of his life taking care of his parents and sharing time only with his sister.  There is a kindness, vulnerability and complacency that flow forth from Scherer, equalizing the fine Broadway performance of David Hyde Pierce.

Toni DiBuono is wonderful as the frustrated Sonia, the adopted daughter who was taken out of foster care by two intellectual professors, who named all their children after characters in Chekov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD, and set them on paths of insecurity and self-doubt.   She parallels the performance of Kristine Nielsen, who was nominated for a Tony for her Big Apple portrayal of Sonia.  DiBuono is totally natural, creating a sensitive, self-questioning, insecure woman, with a lovely soul.

Danielle Lee Greaves as Cassandra, the cleaning woman who fancies herself a practitioner of Voodoo, complete with making dire prophesies which often come true, is properly farcical in the role.  She does not overplay, but gets many reactions as we laugh with her, not at her.

As Nina, who is a guest at the house next door, Maren Bush, is properly star-struck and adorable.  Nice reality here!

Young Gregory Isaac Stone lacks the acting chops and sensual complexity to fully develop Spike, a role which appears to be one dimensional, but takes a depth of performance abilities.  Billy Magnussen, was nominated for the Tony as Best Featured Actor for his portrayal of the role in the Broadway production.   Magnussen had the charisma to not only look like the gym-sculpted stud who had trouble keeping his clothes on, but to subtly tease Vanya, do a sensual strip tease, entice a response with a sly smile and flash of his huge eyes, but to play comedy as a serious exercise.  Stone, on the other hand, is “Spike-lite.”

Director Jordan describes Masha as someone who says “some rather vitriolic stuff, but there has to be something in the person who plays the role and in the performance that allow us to see that this is not a bitch, this is somebody who’s a little insecure.”  Oh, if only Margaret Reed had played her that way. 
To picture the woman and the right performance, think of Wendie Malick portraying Victoria Chase on television’s HOT IN CLEVELAND.  Malick makes the viewer like her and laugh by wearing a crust of arrogance while Victoria’s insecurities eat away at the surface.  Reed, starting with her first entrance, has the effect of pricking a balloon and letting out all the air of humor and believability of the other performers.  She acts, doesn’t react, she feigns rather than being real.

Bill Clarke’s set is outstanding.  Filled with family heirlooms, the realism enhances the performances.

Area alert:  Christopher Durang thanked his husband, John Augustine, in his Tony acceptance speech.  Augustine, is a Canton native and Baldwin Wallace graduate. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is a well-crafted play filled with comedy and tenderness.  It well deserved its Tony Award.  Though the CPH production does not live up to the Broadway production, some fine performances overcome some questionable directorial decisions in actor selection and character development, and make this a positive, but not great theatrical experience.

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE runs through April 26, 2015, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Friday, April 10, 2015

KINKY BOOTS will “Raise You Up” at the Conner Palace Theatre

To resounding applause, Gina Vernaci, the Executive Producer of Playhouse Square, the woman responsible for cobbling together each year’s Key Bank Broadway Series, announced at the local KINKY BOOTS’ press opening, that Cleveland’s 32,000 subscribers constituted the largest body of audience for any of the toured Broadway cities.  What she didn’t share was that almost all the tickets for the local run of KINKY BOOTS are sold out.  If you expect to see the show, run, don’t walk to your computer or phone and order now (216-241-6000 or  Not later, now!
If you are lucky enough to have or get a ticket, you will see a creative, well sung, finely acted and exceptionally danced dynamo of a show, which not only entertains, but has several poignant messages.

KINKY BOOTS is a musical, with music and lyrics by Tony, Emmy and Grammy-winner, Cyndi Lauper, with book by her friend, Tony-winner Harvey Fierstein, author of such scripts as LA CAGE AUX FOLLIES, TORCH SONG TRILOGY and NEWSIES. 

It is based on a true story of a men’s shoe factory in England which, when the cheap mass produced Asian knock-offs invaded the market, wiping out the handmade products, transitioned to producing for a niche market…cross-dressing men who needed a sturdy boot that the Asians couldn’t produce.

The story, which was made into a 1999 British TV special, then a 2005 film, centers on Charlie Price, who is left a man’s high end shoe company in Northampton, England, by his father, and Lola, a she-male who has a fascination with shoes, but her eyes are set on red, high-heeled boots.  The duo form a partnership when Charlie is faced with bankruptcy, causing the layoff of his loyal employees, and Lola, a drag queen/entertainer who, along with her dancing Angels, keeps breaking the heels on their poorly made and designed boots.  It’s a match made in heaven, except for the prejudices against Lola, and the financial and personal pressures pressed on Charlie.

Take the story, which stresses that to be happy in life you must “accept someone for who they are,” add some pop, funk, new wave tango music,  add lyrics that are perfectly drawn for each character, add humorous situations, and dynamic choreography, and you have a show which was given 13 Tony nominations and garnered 6 Tony wins, including Best Musical and Best Score.

Having seen both, I can assure you that the touring production is as good as the original Broadway production. 

Handsome  Darius Harper lights up the stage as Lola. He has a strong singing voice, athletic dance moves, and the outward charisma that makes Lola appealing, while showing vulnerability.   He is a drag queen extraordinaire.  His “Land of Lola,” sung with the Angels, is a showstopper. 

Steven Booth can belt with the best of Broadway male stars.  As Charlie, he  displays a personal vulnerability and insecurity that perfectly fit the character’s underpinnings, yet, the strength to act with conviction when needed.  He doesn’t portray Charlie, he is Charlie. 

Booth’s “Soul of a Man “ and “Not My Father’s Son,” his duet with Harper, are emotional tear-jerkers that carry two of the script’s messages. 

Lindsay Nicole Chambers is charming as Lauren, the girl who has a history of making bad choices as expressed the well sung “The History of Wrong Guys.”

As Don, Joe Coots makes the transition from macho lug to charmer with ease as he takes to heart the idea of “accept someone for who they are!,” the center piece of Fierstein’s bid for tolerance and acceptance.

Director and choreographer, Jerry Mitchell, has paced the show well, created many exciting dance numbers including “Everybody Say Yeah,” and the curtain closer, “Raise You Up/Just Be,” and created an endearing production.

As is becoming the pattern, several Baldwin Wallace graduates are in this Broadway touring production.  Patty Lohr (class of 2008) understudies several roles, while also being a swing, while Ryan Garrett (2012) is the Associate Conductor.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  KINKY BOOTS is the kind of musical that seeing it once is not enough.  The music, the storyline, the humor, the stage excitement makes this a very, very special theatrical experience.  The touring production of the show is as good as the Broadway show.  This is one staging that deserves a standing ovation, not just the automatic polite Cleveland one, but a real, well-deserved one.  Bravo!

BTW…get to the theatre in time to read Gina Vernaci’s “Program Note.”  It’s a wonderful verbal picture of the show, but it also says a lot about the lady who “puts the Broadway stuff” on our local stages!

The few tickets that remain for KINKY BOOTS, which runs through April 19, 2015, at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to