Thursday, November 08, 2018

“Willokommen” to a compelling “Cabaret” at BWU



In 1966, when “Cabaret,” the John Kander, Fred Ebb musical based on John Van Druten’s play, “I Am a Camera,” adapted from the short novel “Goodbye to Berlin“ by Christopher Isherwood opened at the Broadhurst Theatre, patrons were thrown off balance when, as they walked down the aisle toward their seats, a large out-of-proportion self-image was reflected back by a convex mirror on stage. 

As the musical proceeded three concepts of Epic Theater, Berthold Brecht’s concept of making the theatrical process became meaningful for the audience, became apparent.  The audience was wrapped in alienation, historification and epic. 

Alienation is keeping the audience aware that they are in a theatre. That this was a staged production.  The mirror, the exposed lighting instruments, the lack of realistic scenery, the actors often addressing the observers directly and wearing outlandish makeup that made them less than real, became readily apparent.

Historification concerns the story, in this case, Joe Masteroff’s book for the musical, showing historical concepts in a non-real setting.  This was reality, but not necessarily a real story.

Epic, the story is bigger than life and has huge consequences.  There is an important message being told.  Pay attention and apply the concepts to your life!

Yes, that well-describes the uncommon nature of the script and Hal Prince’s unusual staging.  

There was no overture.  Instead, a drum roll and cymbal crash led into the opening number. “The juxtaposition of dialogue scenes with songs used as exposition and separate cabaret numbers providing social commentary was a novel concept that initially startled the audience, but as they gradually came to understand the difference between the two, they were able to accept the reasoning behind them.”

The story, on the surface is easy to describe.  The setting is 1931 Berlin. Germany is in economic and political turmoil.   Adolph Hitler and his Nazis are rising to power.  At the seedy, decadent Kit Kat Club, the home to gays, political-deviants and those more interested in having a good time than being concerned about the world around them, we find English cabaret performer, Sally Bowes, an emcee who will set the Epic nature of the story in context, and Cliff Bradshaw, a bi-sexual American who is out to write the great novel, but has writer’s block.  The relationship between Cliff and the unpredictable Sally, Cliff’s landlord, Frau Schneider and her beau, Herr Schultz, and Ernst, who Cliff met on the train coming to Berlin, and is a member of the rising Nazi party, become the focal point of the storyline.

The club is a metaphor for the political developments of the country.  As the country tumbles into chaos, so does the Kit Kat Club and its clientele.

The original Broadway production became a hit, inspiring numerous subsequent productions, as well as the 1972 film of the same name. 

Both the original show and the film starred Cleveland-native Joel Grey as the emcee.  Both the 1993 London and the Broadway revival starred Alan Cummings.  The difference in the Grey and Cummings characterizations of the role spotlights the vast difference between the philosophy and effect of the interpretations.

Joel Grey was asexual, dressed in a tuxedo with rouged cheeks.  He was delightful, not giving us a hint of the true horrors of the rise of the Nazi party and what was to come.  The after effect was left to the audience.

Alan Cummings' portrayal was highly sexualized, as he wore suspenders around his crotch and red paint on his nipples.  Grey delighted, Cummings was decedent, placing a spotlight on the true story of what was to come and what did transpire such as the destruction of the Jewish community, homosexuals, Gypsies, political dissidents and the mentally ill in Germany.

“In the final scene, the Emcee removes his outer clothes to reveal a striped suit of the type worn by internee concentration camps; on it are pinned a pink triangle (denoting homosexual).”  This was our clue as to what was to come!

Baldwin Wallace’s “Cabaret” under the visionary direction of Victoria Bussert, creative choreography by Gregory Daniels and superlative musical direction of Beth Burrier, goes even further than Cummings’ version of the show.

The ending was so riveting that, as the lights snapped off, signifying the end of the show, the audience was absolutely silent, except for a number of audible sobs. 

It is a shame that the decision was not made to forgo a curtain call and let the audience sit in a minute or two of dark silence, allowing the vivid ending to sink in and become not only a tribute to the six-million or more who the Nazis murdered but the recent hideous Pittsburgh Squirrel Hill synagogue shootings.  The audience should not have been given the opportunity to applaud a eulogy.

In doing this script, the young cast of students were forced to see things they probably hadn’t even thought about.  Events out of their life time-line such as World War II, Kristallnacht, the rounding up of Jews and gays, the concentration camps.  Without that awareness, however, the entire production, especially the ending, would have rung hollow.

(The show is double cast.  The specific performance comments are about the “Cliff Cast” which appeared on opening night.)

Pencil-thin Charlie Ray started out rather mechanically as the Emcee, but as the show progressed Ray’s performance gained natural nuance and his playfulness, while shadowing to the final solution, gained creditability.  “If You Could See Her” was nicely developed, leading to appropriate silence rather than laughter at the end of the number.  His performance during the last scene was mesmerizing. 

Nadina Hassan did her own interpretation of Sally.  This was not a Liza Minelli imitation.  There was a hard edge, “don’t give a damn attitude” to her black lipsticked persona that might turn some off, but was consistent throughout and perfectly fit her vocal choices for her powerful rendition of “Cabaret.”

Zach Landes nicely textured the role of Cliff, making him a realistic and likeable character.  Too bad he only had a short singing segment in “Perfectly Marvelous” as he displayed a pleasant singing voice.

Forced to use students, not adults in the mature roles, Bussert made the decision not to “fake it”--no gray hair spray, no wigs, Herr Schultz (Sam Columbus) and Fraulein Schneider (Erin Niebuhr) assumed the roles and after the original awareness that they were twenty-somethings playing middle-aged people, the portrayals rang true. Their duet “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” was delightful, as was Niebuhr’s “So What.”

The Kit Kat Girls and Boys sang and danced well, nicely executing Daniels’ often difficult era-correct moves.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Cabaret” is an important epic musical theater script which gets a strong performance at Baldwin Wallace.  The ending of this production was one of the most horrifying and effective closing scenes ever performed on stage.   The long silence that followed it was a tribute to Bussert and her cast and crew.   

“Cabaret” is scheduled to run through November 18, 2018 on the Baldwin Wallace University campus through, 2018.  For tickets and information call 440-826-2240 or go on-line to http://www.bw.edu/tickets

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Musical Theater Project to feature the comedy of musical theater


What do “Avenue Q,” “Spamalot,” “Something Rotten” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum?” have in common?  They are all American Musical Theater comedies, meant to entertain and evoke laughter.

In addition to entire shows, there are songs within musicals that are intended for pure enjoyment.  “Springtime for Hitler” in “The Producers,” “Make an Omelette” in “Something Rotten,” “Putting on the Ritz” in “Young Frankenstein,” and “When You’re an Addams” from “The Addams Family,” come to mind.

Interested in learning more about the outrageous in musicals? To find out why we laugh at the performances or the material itself?

What better source to learn about the wonder of musicals than from The Musical Theater Project which was founded in 2000, and built on the principal that “Americans have an enduring love affair with Broadway and Hollywood musicals. It’s our very own art form, combining song and dance to express what we can be at our best.”

It is the purpose of Bill Rudman, the organization’s founder, and his merry bunch of entertainers, to “create personal connections with the songs, characters and themes of the American musical, document the lives of important American musical theater artists, explore the connections between the musical and the rich diversity of the American experience, and examine the relevance of musical theater in contemporary society.”

For this concert, TMTP will feature live performances and video clips as they present “Just for Laughs Comedy Songs from Musicals.” You’ll learn how, when we are exposed to comedy “we connect more deeply with our dreams, joys and frustrations. In short, our laughter brings us closer to ourselves.” 

The concert, which will be hosted by Rudman and Nancy Maier, will explore great comedy songs going back as far as Eddie Cantor's "Makin' Whoopee" (1928) and as far forward as John Cullum's "Don't Be the Bunny," written 83 years later for “Urinetown,” while featuring singers Douglas F. Bailey II, Ursula Cataan and Sheri Gross

The concerts will be @ The Solon Center for the Arts on November 14 @ 7 pm.  For tickets call 800-838-3006 or go on-line to www.MusicalTheaterProject.org.  A second performance will be at 3 pm on November 18 in the Hanna Theatre in Playhouse Square.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go on-line to www.PlayhouseSquare.org


Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Karamu’s “Day of Absence” loses its message due to misdirection


 
Karamu’s “Day of Absence” loses its message due to misdirection 
 
Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

As Douglas Turner Ward, the author of “Day of Absence,” explains it, “The time is now. The play opens in an unnamed Southern town of medium population on a somnolent cracker morning — meaning no matter the early temperature, it’s gonna get hot. The hamlet is just beginning to rouse itself from the sleepy lassitude of night.”

What follows is the revelation that all the black people in this imaginary Southern town have suddenly disappeared.

Ward continues, “The only ones left are sick and lying in hospital beds, refusing to get well. Infants are crying because they are being tended to by strange parents. The Mayor pleads for the President, Governor, and the NAACP to send him "a jackpot of jigaboos." On a nationwide radio network, he calls on the blacks, wherever they are, to come back. He shows them the cloths with which they wash cars and the brushes with which they shine shoes as sentimental reminders of the goodies that await them. In the end the blacks begin to reappear, as mysteriously as they had vanished, and the white community, sobered by what has transpired, breathes a sigh of relief at the return of the rather uneasy status quo. What will happen next is left unsaid, but the suggestion is strong that things will never quite be the same again.”

The play, when if applied to today, would be a Trump nightmare.  Yes, though Trump rages against minorities, how would he operate his hotels and resorts if all those people he hates and wants to expel, or not let into the country, disappeared?  Would Donald, Jr. be cutting the lawns at the golf courses?  Would Ivanka be changing the hotel’s bed linens?  Would son-in-law Jared be caddying? 

Yes, this is a play which not only targets Southern bigots and other nationalists, who use the services of minorities while condemning them, but also points to the reality of what would happen without the slave and low-paying members of the minority “working class.”

In talking about how the play should be produced, Ward states, “No scenery is necessary — only actors shifting in and out on an almost bare stage and freezing into immobility as focuses change or blackouts occur.  The play is conceived for performance by a Negro cast, a reverse minstrel show done in white-face. Logically, it might also be performed by whites — at their own risk. If any producer is faced with choosing between opposite hues, the author strongly suggests: “Go ’long wit’ the blacks — besides all else, they need the work more.  All props, except essential items (chairs, brooms, rags, mop, debris) should be imaginary (phones, switchboard, mikes, eating utensils, food, etc.).”

Not only did Karamu director Nathan A. Lilly ignore Ward’s advice on scenery and props but he failed to heed that the actors are “cautioned not to ham it up too broadly. It just might be more effective if they aspire for serious tragedy”

Lilly has played for laughs, ignoring that the play is a satirical farce.  In good farce, such as productions of such classics as “The Importance of Being Earnest,” actors play it straight. The audience should not be laughing at the ridiculousness of the performers as they overact and do slapstick, they should be laughing at the outrageousness of the situation and lines.  Otherwise, the message is lost. 

The cast tries hard. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, their efforts are lost as they look foolish due to “over-acting.”  The exceptions are a marvelous monologue, near the end of the play, presented by Robert Hunter, the mayor.  By playing it straight, Ward’s message rings clear.  The same could be said for Sherrie Tolliver, in her role as the TV announcer.

Capsule judgment: “Day of Absence” is a well-written play whose message rings loud and clear today in the era of “Make America White Again.”  Too bad some of the message is lost due to an emphasis on over-done acting rather than letting the farcical writing carry the day.
“Day of Absence” continues through, November 18, 2018 in the Arena Theatre at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.

Apollos Fire to present “O’Jerusalem! Crossroads of Three Faiths”



Jeannette Sorrell, Artistic Director of Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland-based Baroque Orchestra, started to study conducting and musical composition at age 16.  A trained pianist, the young lady, who has been called a “wunderkind” by “Audiophile Audition,” won first prize and the audience choice award in the 1991 Spivey International Harpsichord Competition, competing against 70 uber-talented international musicians.  

Sorrell’s path to developing Apollo’s Fire included an interview for the position of Assistant Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.  When the Maestro told her he would not give her an audition because she was a woman, the talented lady, who believes that a person must be true to yourself, replied that her first choice was to conduct baroque music on period instruments, rather than a symphony job. 

Proving that a woman could lead a world class orchestra, with seed-funding from the Cleveland Foundation, Sorrell has developed a musical assemblage that has sold out audiences in venues in London, Madrid, Washington, DC, New York, and, yes, at Severance Hall.

She always loved the beautiful and colorful sound of baroque music which she feels has universal emotional qualities, Sorrell indicated that this type of music has “Affekt,” a quality of emotional music common in the 17th and 18th centuries, but which, she feels, has been lost in the 19th and 20th centuries as people lost sight of the concept developed by rhetoricians, where the timing of the voice and timing of the sounds were stressed as important to appeal to the emotions.

The publicity for "O Jerusalem! – Crossroads of Three Faiths" describes the program as a "tour" (through music and poetry) of the 4 quarters of the old city of Jerusalem – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Armenian.  And that Sorrell felt “compelled to create this program because of the urgent need for peace and understanding in the world and how music can cross social divides and bring people together in times of conflict.” 

The concert takes a broad look at the people who have inhabited Jerusalem, allowing us to peek into a mosque, a synagogue and a cathedral…interweaving of the sounds and illustrating how they influence each other.   The concert often juxtaposes music from one source upon the other. 

The concert will show the music and poetry that all groups share.

She believes that “we all want to live with love and brotherhood.” To put this into action the concert includes “Israeli, Palestinian and Persian performers, a multi-cultural group who love each other and love making music together.”

Besides the music, Sorrell thinks people will also enjoy seeing some “cool” instruments on stage, including the Oud, a short-neck lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument, the Tanbur, a long-necked, string instrument originating in Mesopotamia, Southern or Central Asia, along with other middle eastern instruments, and a medieval harp.





"O Jerusalem! – Crossroads of Three Faiths” will be presented Saturday, November 10 at 8pm at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood; Monday, November 12, 7;30 pm @ St. Paul’s Episcopal, Cleveland Heights; Friday, November 16 ,8pm @ Fairlawn Lutheran Church; Saturday, November 17, 8pm @ Cleveland Institute of Music’s Kulas Hall; and Sunday November 18 @ 4pm at Avon Lake Church UCC.

For tickets and information call 26-320-0012 or go on-line to http://www.apollosfire.org/

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Creative staging, quality singing featured in Kent’s “Children of Eden”


When one thinks of Stephen Schwartz, the lyricist and composer of theater titles “Godspell,” “Pippin,” and “Wicked,” or the films “Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and “Enchanted” come to mind.  How about “Children of Eden”?  Probably not.

Yet, in 1991 Schwartz did pen that show.  Why isn’t it commonly identified with this prolific tunesmith award winner?  It was one of Schwartz’s few flops.

“Children of Eden” is a two-act musical, with a book by John Caird.  The first act is based on the Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel tales from the Book of Genesis.  The second act deals with Noah and the flood. 

Originally written under the title “Family Tree” for a production by Youth Sing Praise, a religious-oriented high school theater camp, it was later adapted into a full-length musical intended for commercial use, with its new “Children of Eden” title. 

It opened in January of 1991 and closed in April of that year in London’s West End.  Poor reviews sealed its fate.  Interestingly, though it has not been revived for professional productions, it has become a staple for community and educational theatres.

Though Schwartz’s music is fine, it’s the book that pales.  The first act is the better written of the two. 

The story generally holds the attention as God creates and then warns Adam and Eve not to be tempted to eat from the tree of life.   The all questioning Eve breaks the rules and the duo, along with their children, Cain and Abel, are sent from the Garden of Eden to wander in the wilderness.  Cain eventually kills Abel, is marked with the “sign of Cain,” and sin and destruction follow.

The second act tells of Noah’s building of the Ark and the killing off of those not thought worthy of continuing to inhabit the earth.  It is filled with many innocuous lines and situations that defy smooth story-telling.

Artistic director Terri Kent has let all her creative talents fly in staging The Kent State University School of Theatre and Dance production.  She is ably assisted by MaryAnn Black, whose innovative choreography helps create moving pictures.  Ben Needham's original scenic designs, three constantly moving steel pipe scaffolds, and building blocks whose sides are painted with pictures that depict various visuals as they are assembled and disassembled, create all the needed images from the ark, to animals, to the tree of life

The cast, under the musical direction of Jennifer Korecki, sings well.   The solos are strong and the choral blends are clearly in-tune.  The orchestra nicely underscores, rather than drowning out the singers, as is more and more common in many musicals.



In the first act, Fred Rose creates a strong yet loving Father (God).  He has a strong singing voice and nicely interprets his lines.   Devon Pfeiffer and Merrie Drees are charming as Adam and Eve.  Each has a fine singing voice and creates a realistic character.  Mason Henning shines as Cain.  The young man sings and moves with confidence, displaying strong talent.  His “Lost in the Wilderness (Reprise) is one of the show’s finest vocals.  Adam Kirk does a nice turn as Abel.

The first act ends with the show’s highlight, “Children of Eden.”

In the second act Clinton Owens develops a believable Noah.  Montria Walker whales as Mama Noah.  Her “Spark of the Skies” and powerful solo in “In the Beginning” are showstoppers.

Capsule judgment: “Children of Eden” gets a strong production due to creative staging, innovative choreography, fine singing, and an effective set design.  The production, which far exceeds the mediocre book, is an excellent showcase for the Kent State musical theater program students.

“Children of Eden” runs in the E. Turner Stump Theatre on the Kent State University main campus through November 11.  For tickets call 330-672-ARTS or go on-line to http://www.kent.edu/theatredance

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Touring LES MIZ Les Okay at the Connor Palace



From the very first time I saw “Les Miserables,” shortly after its opening in London, to the New York production, and through the various touring shows, I have been a fan of the show.  Not just a fan, a fanatic fan!

Interestingly, when “Les Miz” first opened in London in 1985 the production was generally met with tepid reviews.  This was a musical about greed, child abuse, revolution and cruelty.  It contained thwarted idealism, frustration and the seeming defeat of good by evil. 

This is a musical with the word “miserable” in the title, has physical beatings and numerous onstage deaths, and lacks a typical happy ending.  Is this the stuff musicals are made of?  Not usually.  But, there is no reason that serious subjects cannot be treated in the musical form.  Les Miz proves that contention, as does “Next to Normal” and “Dear Evan Hanson,” and proves it well.

There is also no reason that strong emotions about death cannot be visualized as “empty chairs at empty tables,” or hope cannot be expressed as, “there is life about to start, when tomorrow comes,” or, that infatuation cannot be explained as “a heart full of love,” or the future can’t be prophesized as, “I dreamed that love would never die,” and a powerful story can’t be summarized with the musical’s ending lyric, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  Yes, these are all lyrics conceived by Herbert Kretzmer and set to the emotionally charged music of Claude-Michel Schönberg.  These are the thoughts of a potentially great musical.

“LES MISÉRABLES” is an epic 1862 French tale by Victor Hugo, one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century.  Though long and complex, the basic story line centers on a period in the early nineteenth century, which culminated in the unsuccessful June Rebellion.  This is not the larger French Revolution of 1788 that overthrew the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons and the system of aristocratic privileges, as many assume. 

The story revolves around Jean Valjean, who was caught when he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew.  Imprisonment, frustration and moral awareness are pivotal ideas of the story.  It is played out in front of the history of France’s politics and what is meant by the concept of justice. It is fiction broadly entwined within factual and historical events.

In 1987, the musical debuted on Broadway. After 6,680 performances spanning sixteen years, it closed on May 18, 2003, making it one of the longest running Broadway shows.  Revivals and a movie followed that run. 

The advanced publicity for this touring show indicates that the production has been reconceptualized.   The music has been reframed, some of the songs reinterpreted, there is new staging and reimagined scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo.  In addition, it is noted that the attitude is more somber, more dramatic.

I wish I could say that I was as enamored by this staging as those I have seen in the past.   Though I still found it fascinating, I also perceived that the energy level was not the same as in the past. Maybe it’s because the show has been on the road since September, 2017 and the cast is exhausted or on auto-pilot.  Maybe it’s all the darkness.  Not the seriousness of the story, but the overly somber heavy set and dim lighting.   Maybe it was the sometimes languid pace.

Even the usually ridiculous, over-the-top “Master of the House” and “Beggars at the Feast,” which are “noisy numbers” inserted usually in mid-first and second acts to excite the audience and keep their attention, didn’t render their usual farcical joy.

The cast generally sings well though some of the vocal-blendings appeared off.  Thankfully they interpreted the lyrics rather than just singing words.  The company’s “One Day More” was a show stopper. 

Nick Cartell, who is believable as Jean Valjean, sings the role with a full voice and adds a youthful presence not always found in the actors who are cast in the taxing role.  His “Who Am I” and “Bring Him Home” were excellent. 

Mary Kate Moore (Fantine) grabbed the emotions of the audience with “I Dreamed a Dream.”  Paige Smallwood was compelling as Eponine and received an extended ovation for her well-nuanced “On My Own.” Josh Davis was evil incarnate as Javert.

Locals might have noted that Gabe Brown, a University Heights resident and Baldwin Wallace musical theatre graduate, played a prominent chorus role.  They might even get to see him as Marius if Joshua Grosso, who charmingly plays the role, is out for a performance or two.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   LES MIZ! Les Okay!   The touring version is not as compelling as other productions, but still a captivating piece of musical theater.


For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.