Thursday, December 13, 2018

Liberace, well, facsimile, thereof, coming to Cleveland’s Theatre in the Circle


David Maiocco is noted as being a tour-de force solo-performer, who is presently making a career of portraying “Mr. Showmanship,” the uniquely American icon, Liberace.

Maiocco, a child prodigy, started playing piano at 3.  Quite a feat since his parents were too poor to own a piano.   Young David would go to relative’s homes for Sunday dinner and play, by ear, the hymns she heard in the church.  He didn’t have a formal music lessons until he was nine. 

Once he started lessons, his happiness turned to fear when the shy young man found that at the end of the year he had to play in a recital.  He wanted to quit his lessons.
His father stated, “you are going to see it through and then you can quit.” 

To the delight of the audience, which had heard a series of classical compositions, by lots of aspiring little Mozarts, his “Pink Panther” received an ovation and resulted in a commitment to continue his lessons, with a dream of playing on Broadway.  He has not only achieved that goal, but has been recognized with MAC and Bistro awards as a performer and music director. 

Along the way, at age 15 he became a music director, finished his BA at the Boston Conservatory of Music where he was every music professor’s nightmare, as he only wanted to play show music, not classical arrangements.

He was working on his master’s degree when he was “discovered” by Tommy Femia, a Judy Garland illusionist.  Femia at first thought Maiocco, who was in his 20s, was too young to travel the circuit.  However, within two weeks of meeting and working with Femia on an AIDS benefit production of the off-Broadway Musical “Whoop Dee Doo!” David joined Femia on the road.

Included in his experiences is accompanying such other gender illusionists as Chuck Sweeney as Peggy Lee, James Beaman as Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall, Steven Brinberg as Barbra Streisand and Richard Skipper as Carol Channing.

Someone suggested that since he had a good ear for impersonating, was a top-notch pianist, played piano with flailing arms and excessive bodily movements, and had a physical resemblance to Liberace, rather than just accompany the gender illusionists, he should mount his own show. 

David eventually did develop a Liberace show, which opened an Alice Ripley concert, and the “pseudo” Liberace was born.   (Side note:  Tony Award winning Ripley is a Kent State University graduate.)

“Liberace!,” which will be staged at Theatre in the Circle, is not the script that Maiocco developed.  This version was written by Brent Hazelton, who, ironically Maiocco has never met. 

The show has been described as a “moving and highly entertaining tribute to a legendary performer famous for his charm, glitz and glamour.  It relives the highs (and lows) of Liberace’s prolific life, revealing the real person behind the persona. Interwoven with a rollicking piano score spanning classical and popular music from Chopin to "chopsticks" and Rachmaninoff to ragtime.”

As one reviewer stated, it is "A glorious tribute to the uncanny performer and gifted musician."

The musical has been performed in Milwaukee (where Liberace was born), as well as Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Connecticut by other performers. 

David first did “Liberace!” in Kalamazoo, Michigan.   It was there that the producers of Circle in the Square saw the production and contracted him to perform in Cleveland.

Recently, David was informed that he was nominated for Broadwayworld.com’s Detroit area best actor award, and the production was nominated for best costumes and lighting.  

The $20,000 costume collection for the show, which is owned by Maiocco, are exact replicas of Liberace’s performance costumes, with some having been built to evoke the Vegas heyday of his career.  The wardrobe is specific to Liberace and references to the clothing are written into the script.

Clevelanders can re-acquaint themselves with Liberace from February 14 thru 17, 2019 at The Theatre in the Circle. 

All performances are at the historic Judson Manor, 1890 E. 107th St, Cleveland, OH 44106. Curtain times are Thursday, Friday and Saturday @ 7:30 pm and Saturday and Sunday @ 2 pm.  Ticket cost:  Adults $20, Seniors $18, Judson/South Franklin Circle residents $15, Students $12. For tickets call 216-282-9424 or go to theatreinthecircle.com. There is free parking.

Monday, December 10, 2018

“Special” “Avenue Q” @ Blank Canvas


It has been said that dying is easy, farce is hard to do!  And, “Avenue Q,” the delightful, satirical, coming of age parable by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, is farce at its highest level.

An adult take-off on “Sesame Street,” the catchy tune-filled show, puts a spotlight on porn, issues and anxieties associated with growing up, porn, homosexuality, puppet sex and porn.  Centering on the issue of being a generation that found they were praised for little effort, and being “special” with no need to prove it, the musical not only stars real people, but adult sized puppets, entertaining graphics and puppet nudity.

“Avenue Q,” which won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical, Best Book for a Musical and Best Original Score, has a score made up of such fun memorable songs as “Special,” “It Sucks to Be Me,” “If You Were Gay,” ”Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” and “For Now.”  (Hey, this is a farce, not “West Side Story.”

The story centers on Princeton, a recent college graduate, who is anxious to discover his purpose in life.  Reality sets in when he realizes that his degree in English is an open alley to no job skills, has no place to live, and is dependent upon his parents for money. 

His search for a place to live leads him to Avenue Q, in the low rent district, populated by an eccentric group of neighbors, including Kate Monster, an assistant kindergarten teacher; Rod, an up-tight closeted gay Republican banker; Nicky, Rod's slacker roommate; and Trekkie Monster, a recluse who surfs the Internet all day in search of porn.  They all agree that "It Sucks to Be Me.”

With advice from the Bad Idea Bears, Princeton makes some very bad choices, his neighbors attempt to navigate their rudderless lives and, as happens in all good fairy tales, all ends well “For Now.”

“Much of the show's ironic humor emerges from its contrasts with “Sesame Street,” such as illustrating the differences between innocent childhood and difficult adulthood. The storyline pre-supposes the existence of "monsters" and talking animals, and human actors who sing, dance and interact with puppets, both human and non-human in a light-hearted, quasi-fantasy environment.”

The original script was set on a fictional street in an “outer-outer borough” of New York.  The Blank Canvas version takes place in an unidentified neighborhood of Cleveland, allowing for references to the Terminal Tower, the Browns, moving “upscale” to Cleveland Heights, and wearing CLE clothes.

“Avenue Q” is the type of script that Blank Canvas Artistic Director Pat Ciamacco, does so well.  He knows exactly how to guide a cast to develop believable farce, adds humorous “shtick,” engages the audience, and milks laughs while keeping true to the intent and purpose of the author.  He also knows how to design and build marvelous puppets (along with Dave Haaz-Baroque)!

The cast is outstanding.  They not only smoothly operate the adult-sized puppets, but have developed personalities and voices that perfectly fit every character.  Wow!

Huzzahs to Shane Patrick O’Neill, Leah Smith, Scott Esposito, Trey Gilpin, Luke Scattergood, Anna Sylvester, Neda Spears, Brett DiCello, Katie Gucik, David Turner, Becca Ciamacco and Kate Michalski for forming an ensemble cast without a weak link.  They have great singing voices, do choreography with ease, and nicely texture their characterizations.

Matt Dolan and his raucous band have the difficult task of keeping the volume down in the small black box space and generally do it, while effectively rocking away.

The show is aided by smooth transitions from scene to scene, creative choreography (Katie Zarecki), effective lighting (Jeff Lockshine) and clever projections (Ciamacco and Noah Hrbek).


CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Avenue Q” is a well-conceived, delightful, must see production that shows how entertaining and purposeful a play can be with the right director and talented cast.  Most performances are sold out, but it’s well worth the effort to try and get a ticket!
“Avenue Q” runs through December 22, 2018, in the Blank Canvas west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.   For tickets and directions go to http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com/

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Choreography the highlight of less-than-well-conceived “Shrek” at Beck


Jeanine Tesori (music) and David Lindsay-Abaire (books and lyrics) developed the creative musical “Shrek” from DreamWorks Animation’s film and William Steig’s book of the same name.

The script, which tells the tale of Shrek, who on his seventh birthday is sent out by his parents into the “Big Bright Beautiful World,” knowing that the strange looking ogre, will encounter problems of rejection and bullying.

Shrek, in order to survive, isolates himself in a swamp.  Unfortunately, his safety and solace are destroyed when the evil Lord Farquaad of Duloc banishes Pinocchio, The Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, a Wicked Witch, The Big Bad Wolf, and about every fairy tale character in Western literature, from his lands and into Shrek’s swamp.  (How they all got to Duloc is never revealed.  But, remember, this is a fairy tale, so no exposition is needed.)

The banishment is because they are freaks.  The fact that Farquaad is a dwarf, and he fits his own definition for those who should be cast out, doesn’t seem to come into his awareness.  (Hmm, is there some resemblance here to a 2018 tale of a President and his biased blindness?)

Shrek decides that being surrounded by whining, noisy fairytale folk is not to his liking, so he sets out to convince Farquaad that he has to take this motley crew back. 

On his way Shrek rescues a talkative donkey from some of Farquaad’s guards, thus gaining his first real friend. 

What follows is a tale of Shrek making a deal with the Lord to bring him Princess Fiona, who is trapped in a castle surrounded by boiling lava and guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, so Farquaad can become King since he will be married to Princess.  

The rescue, of course, is filled with many overly dramatic twists and turns, including our finding out Fiona’s secret, Farquaad’s lineage (“Hi Ho, Hi Ho” oops, that’s another tale) and Fiona and Shrek finding true love.  (I told you this was a fairy tale and didn't have to be logical.) 

The keys to making “Shrek The Musical” into a truly enchanting show is for the lead character to have an underbelly of lovability, the show to be a triumph of imagination with a “heart as big and warm as Santa,” an unbridled spell of wackiness, and be a gag-fest of creativity with a wink of satire.   (All the story and musical elements are there to make this a reality.)

Unfortunately, except for Martin Céspedes’ creative and inventive choreography, which is filled with a variety of diverse dance styles including a knee-high kick line and borscht-belt shenanigans, and a fun portrayal by Remell Bowens who does a fine Eddie Murphy-take on the part of Donkey, the show is fairly static.

The dances explode, creating all the right moods, to be followed by acting scenes which lack the needed whimsy and creativity.

Though he has a fine voice, and obvious quality acting chops, as displayed in his portrayal of Daddy Warbucks, in the road tour of “Annie,” G.A. Taggett Gilgamesh displays little charm as Shrek, missing the lovability factor.   

Brian Altman (Farquaad) and Antonio DeJesus (Pinocchio) come close to creating the story book farce, but needed directing-help to fully develop the needed images.  Natalie Steen makes for a lovely Fionna, and, at times, show flashes of the needed quirkiness, but, as with almost everyone in the cast, needed guidance in understanding that this is wackiness, farce at its highest.

The rented costumes, Brittany Merence’s projection designs and the dragon design by Jim Gough and Russ Borski all contributed to the correct visual images.

At the conclusion of the opening night show many in the audience, which was composed of friends and family of the cast, gave the production an undeserved standing ovation.  Standing ovations are meant as the highest form of compliment that a member of the audience can give a production.  Its saying this is a special performance.  If the gesture becomes an automatic response, it lessens its value.  What do you have when you see a production that is really outstanding?
   
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Shrek The Musical’ should be an irresistible mix of adventure, laughter, romance and zaniness.  In spite of creative appropriate choreography, and at least one standout performance, the production is less than it should be. 

“Shrek The Musical” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through January 6, 2019.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org 

Friday, December 07, 2018

Imaginative “Around The World in 80 Days” by Shahrazad Theatre Company



Shahrazad Theatre Company was formed late in 2016 with “the purpose of performing shows that were important and valuable contributions to today’s Cleveland theatre scene.” 
Their home base is in Cleveland Heights’ Ensemble Theatre, where the company is an “incubator,” with Ensemble’s staff acting as their fiscal agents and guiding them in show production.

The three company co-founders, who met while students at Hiram College, are Kyle Huff, Kayla Davis and August Scarpelli.

Shahrazad’s latest production is “Around the World in Eighty Days,” based on the classic Jules Verne novel of the same name.

The play, which loosely follows the novel’s story line, centers on Phileas Fogg and his newly employed French valet, Passepartout.  Based on a wager, the duo attempts to circumnavigate the world in 80 days, a major task in 1872, when air transportation didn't exist, train lines were few, and ship travel was perilous.

Fogg, with mathematical precision, figures that the task can be accomplished as a new railway section in India has been opened, which makes the connections to various parts of the world possible.

With Passepartout accompanying him, Fogg departs from London by train at 8:45 p.m. on 2 October.  In order to win the wager, he must return to the club by this same time on 21 December, 80 days later..

Their planned itinerary is London to Suez, Egypt, Suez to Bombay, India, Bombay to Calcutta, India, Calcutta to Victoria, Hong Kong, Hong Kong to Yokohama, Yokohama to San Francisco, San Francisco to New York City, and New York to London.  Their planned means of transportation includes rail and steamer.   Of course, many complications along the way endanger their not accomplishing the task and losing the wager.

The challenge for the Shahrazad Theatre is how to envision the trip so that the audience is a participant on the voyage.

The major means for the imagination is a world map which covers the entire Playground Theatre’s floor, allowing for a clear picture of the path and a padded surface for pratfalls, lots of slapstick, overacting, gender bending and imagination.  Creative shadow puppets add to the illusion.

The cast, Hannah Storch, Kyle Huff, Becca Moseley Davis, Andrew Keller, Valerie Young and Santino Montanez put out full effort.  The show is nicely directed by August Scarpelli.

Kyle is especially effective as Passepartout, flinging his slight body around like a rag doll and overdoing the French accent and outrageous situations just to the right level.

Capsule judgment: “Around The World in 80 Days” is an inventive, enjoyable and family-friendly little show.  To truly go along for the ride one has to abandon theatrical etiquette and let loose and have a good time and participate in the involving audience experience.


“Around The World in 80 Days” runs until December 16, 2018 on Fridays and Saturdays @ 7 pm, Saturdays @ 3 pm and Sundays @ 2 at Ensemble’s Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

Monday, December 03, 2018

Relevant “Rapture, Blister, Burn” intrigues at convergence continuum 



The anti-sexual assault and women’s empowerment movements #MeToo and Time’s Up have brought new relevance to the public conversation about women’s issues surrounding the obstacles women encounter in their personal and professional lives.

Since theatre, like all art forms, represents the era from which it comes, exposing present day theories concerning women and such topics as feminism, marriage, pornography, male-female relations, non-marrying females, child-rearing, and media depiction of women, a script such as “Rapture, Blister, Burn” which is now on stage at convergence-continuum, should incite interest. 

The sold out opening night audience, and the discussions at intermission and after the production, seem to support that theory.  As is the fact that the script was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Gina Gionfriddo, the author of “Rapture,” is noted for crafting “sharp-witted dialogue, developing full-felt characters who fling themselves into dramatic extremities, and delving into disappointment and its aftershocks.  She is a spokesperson for feminism.”

Of her script “Rapture, Blister, Burn,” Gionfriddo states, “This is not the play I sat down to write. I wanted to write a play about Internet pornography. I didn't have a coherent position on the subject, but I felt the tug of an important question, and that's how I like to begin a play. What I did (and do) believe is that Internet porn is a massive generational game changer.” 

Pornography, though a topic dealt with in the play, is not the central issue.  Relationships, both male-female and female-female, goal setting and personal expectations are front-and-center.

The story line centers on Catherine, a New York college professor who makes regular television appearances and is the author of several top selling books.   During summer break, she comes back to her home town to care for her mother who has recently had heart problems.

She is hired by a local small college to teach a seminar on feminism in the 20th century.  The class of two, which includes her former college roommate who dropped out of school to marry Aaron, Catherine’s former boyfriend, and, Avery, an eager young lady. 

Catherine rekindles her relationship with Aaron, causing difficulty within his married, and eventually, confusion for her. 

Marriage issues, deep discussions, and awareness of gender politics in the wake of 20 th century feminist ideals unfold.

Con-con’s production, under the competent direction of Geoffrey Hoffman, nicely develops the author’s intent and purpose.

The acting is basically good, highlighted with strong performances by Laurel Hoffman, as Catherine, Madelyn Voltz as Avery, and Anne McEvoy as Alice, Catherine’s mother.

Clearly hearing some of the lines is sometimes difficult for those sitting on the extreme ends of the long thin stage arrangement.   A recorded speech, near the end of the production, is impossible to comprehend.


Capsule Judgment: “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is a very relevant play in this #MeToo age. The writing is good and the production clearly develops the author’s intent and purpose.   



“Rapture, Blister, Burn” runs through December 15, 2018, at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to http://www.convergence-continuum.org/

Saturday, December 01, 2018

“Ella” less than “Enchanted” at Dobama


Gail Carson Levine, author of the modern-take on a children’s fairy tale, “Ella Enchanted,” started her career as an illustrator.  “After taking a class in writing and illustrating for children, she discovered she enjoyed writing far more than illustrating.  Thus in 1987 she began penning tales.  Over the next nine years, all of her manuscripts were rejected. 

April 17, 1996, she recalls, “was one of the happiest in my life."  It was that day that her book “Ella Enchanted,” was signed.  It was published in 1997, and the next year it received a Newbery Medal, a literary award given by the Association for Library Service to Children, “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." 


She says, of the process that lead up to “Ella,” “I was starting a new writing class and needed an idea, so I thought maybe I could expand a fairy tale. Cinderella is such an important tale, it's the first one I thought of. But when I considered it, I realized I didn't like Cinderella or understand her. She's so disgustingly good! And why does she take orders from her horrible stepmother and stepsisters?” 


She continues, “It's hard to write a book about a character who annoys and puzzles you. I was in trouble until I thought of the curse of obedience. Then I got it.  Ella has to do as she's told, and she takes revenge whenever she can.” 


The story centers on a girl who is given the “gift” of obedience at birth. As she grows up, the girl must defeat her evil stepmother, hungry ogres, and the troublesome curse to find her own voice.  In the process she finds her own voice and can live as her true self.


The book has been adapted into a musical play by Karen Zacarías with music by Deborah Wiks LaPuma. 


Zacarías is a Latina playwright who was the winner of the National Latino Playwriting Award.  She states, " My strongest playwriting lessons have come in trying to create stories that will resonate with young people—it is a rewarding, hilarious and heartbreaking endeavor to create plays in which kids really see themselves on stage."  


Wicks La Puma is a composer, music director and orchestrator. 

In order for a modern musical to be successful, it not only has to have a story that grabs and holds the attention, but music that not only helps develop the story, but is memorable.  


In the case of “Ella Enchanted The Musical,” after a strong start, the story becomes repetitious, a one-themed repeated idea, that of Ella not being able to resist her curse and overcome the commands for her to act against her natural will. 


The music is unmemorable, no song stands out, no melody lingers after one leaves the theatre.  The only part of the score that holds attention is the “ad lib” curtain call, when the tone changes and rock takes over.  It is here that the cast and the audience get involved and have some fun.


Dobama’s production, under the adept direction of Nathan Motta, exceeds the script and score.  Motta has let loose with all the theatre’s technical creativity.  


Marcus Dana’s lighting design helps create the proper moods. T. Paul Lowry’s projection designs are enchanting, the best seen this season on local stages.  Jeremy Dobbins’ sound design creates the proper illusions. Robin Vanlear’s puppet designs are impressively creative.


The cast is generally strong.  


Petite Natalie Green is charming as Ella.  She has a pleasant singing voice and creates the right child/adult image for the frustrated young lady held, against her will, to be a follower, rather than a leader.  


Tina D. Stump wails and delights as “de” fairy god mother. Amy Fritsche plays nice and then nasty as the mother and then step-mother. Neely Gevaart does air-head with double-take efficiency.  Kelly Elizabeth Smith is evil step-sister prime. 


The rest of the cast, Eugene Sumlin (Sir Peter), Joshua McElroy (Prince Charmont), Madeline Krucek and Arif Silverman are effective.


Capsule judgement:  In spite of getting a fine production, “Ella Enchanted, The Musical” fails to be everything it should.  Too bad.  It’s the “fa la la la la” time of year and a better red-bow theatrical present would have been nice.

“Ella Enchanted the Musical” runs through December 30, 2018 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama:  Alice Birche’s “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again” a grouping of vignettes that ask how to revolutionize language, relationships, work, and life while bursting at the seams of conformity,” from January 25 through February 17, 2019.