Monday, July 22, 2019

Nicely conceived "Chess" production enhances a weak script at Near West


Most musicals follow the tried and true pattern of being written in a format that it is expected to be examined and redone through a series of readings, rewrites, staged readings, rewrites, previews, more rewrites, and, if lucky, a full-staged production.  As the process continues the script and score are improved to attempt to ensure that they are well-integrated.

Unfortunately, from the developmental perspective, “Chess” was first a concept album, then there was an attempt to develop a stage musical.  This is not totally unusual.  Other shows, such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita” followed this format and did fairly well, but most shows, whose names you don’t know because they never “made it,” haven’t fared so well.

Why would a writing and producing team choose to break the mold, when the odds are against the venture being successful?  Usually it is because they don't have the capital to go through the usual process, so they figure that selling the album will raise the money to mount a production.

In the case of “Chess” the concept album was released in the autumn of 1984.  The recording was such a hit that, even when the show itself received such reviews as being described as "a suite of temper tantrums, [where] the characters ... yell at one another to rock music," and that "Chess” assaults the audience with a relentless barrage of scenes and numbers that are muscle-bound with self-importance," the West End production ran three years.  The same fate did not greet the much-altered US-version premiered on Broadway in 1988, which barely survived for two months.
 

The script tends to be contrived. The music may work well as a concert piece, but is not totally appropriate for a musical.  And the production was rudderless as illustrated by the fact that the first preview on the West End “ran 4 hours with a 90-minute intermission.” 

Opinions vary as to why the show was never a real hit.  The easiest description was that the book for the story line was never well-developed and the music /lyrics never fit smoothly into the story.  As such, in trying to make the show better, many different versions of the show have been put on over the years, featuring modified plots, different selections of music, and various casts of characters.
 

Though the musical plays out as a chess match, inspired by some of the political machinations surrounding the 1972 Fischer-Spassky World Championship competition, the script basically tells of a love triangle between two chess playing grandmasters and a woman who serves as a manager to one of the players but falls in love.  

Oh, if it were only that simple.  All sorts of other disparaging themes emerge including the Hungarian revolution against the Soviet Union, the personal eccentricity of the reclusive American chess aficionado, the Cold War political posturing between the US and Russia, the rocky marriage of the Russian chess player, and am attempt at political asylum, just to name a few of the side trips.


Despite the fact that the musical itself could never seem to settle on a single format that worked, the music from “Chess” composed by Benny Andersson and Björn of the pop group ABBA, (the same ABBA whose tunes are used in the juke box musical “Mamma Mia”) with lyrics by Ulvaeus and Tim Rice, has remained popular. 


“Tim Rice admitted that after the comparative failure of “Chess,” his all-time favorite, he became disillusioned with theatre." He commented, "It may sound arrogant, but “Chess” is as good as anything I've ever done. And maybe it costs too much brainpower for the average person to follow it."

Or, maybe if time had been spent developing a solid story and book before shoe-horning in pre-written songs that often have nothing to do with the plot, the result would have been different.

The question may well be raised as to why Near West Theatre chose to do “Chess.”  Maybe, part of the answer lies in the theatre’s mission.

“Near West Theatre builds loving relationships and engages diverse people in strengthening their sense of identity passion, and purpose, individually and in community through accessible, affordable and transformational theatre arts experiences.  Near West is an open and affirming organization.”

Though many of their shows are of high production quality, the organization’s social service mission, making sure that those who participate, on and off stage, are in a safe zone, are respected no matter their race, religion, ethnicity, body shape, sexual orientation or age, holds paramount. 

To carry out their inclusive nature shows tend to have large casts, putting Equity actors on stage is not a priority and human process is as important as theatrical product.   In addition, shows are often chosen to aid the mostly tween and teenagers to learn history and sociological lessons.  “Chess” does exactly that.

Near West’s production, under the direction of Kelcie Nicole Dugger, has some excellent, textured performances, e.g., Grant Bell (Anatoly Sergievsky) and Sarah Farris (Florence Vassy) both develop very believable personas and have excellent voices.  Unfortunately, others tend to posture and act rather than react, scream rather than develop intense emotions. 

Many of the chorus admirably stay in character, listening and reacting to the dialogue, while others draw attention to themselves, upstaging the speeches and song lyrics of the soloists through over-wrought gestures and over-done facial expressions. 

Scott Pyle’s musicians play well, though sometimes they get a little overly enthusiastic and drown out the vocals.

The interestingly designed choreography by Josh Landis insured that all the members of the chorus were given the chance to perform.

Todd Plone’s scenic design sets the correct moods, and were intensified by Adam Ditzel’s lighting.  Melody Walker and Lady Jen Ryan did an excellent job of designing period correct costumes.

(Side-comment:  Congrats to Trinidad Snider, a Near West Theatre alum, and one of the area’s premiere musical theater performers, on her appointment as NWT Artistic Director.)

 







Capsule judgment: “Chess” is not a well-conceived script.  The Near West Theatre’s production was, generally, more effective than the material.

" Chess" runs through August 4, 2019.  For tickets 216-961-6391or go to http://www.nearwesttheatre.org/tickets

Saturday, July 20, 2019


“Tom at the Farm,” now on stage at convergence continuum, unfolds with blurred boundaries between lust and brutality, truth and fiction.  It blends psychological-thriller elements as it moves toward an unsettling plunge into a nightmare of fear, intolerance and fantasy.


Written by Michel Marc Bouchard, a Canadian playwright, the 2011 script was adapted into film in 2013.
 

The tale centers on Tom.  Following the death of Guillame, his lover, who was killed in an accident, Tom goes from Montreal to the Quebec countryside for the funeral.  He knows little of the family, and they know nothing of him.

The late boyfriend’s mother thought Guillame had a girlfriend in the big city.  When happening upon Tom, who lets himself into their house, she’s displeased that it is not the “girlfriend” who is there to go to the funeral.
 

The mother is unaware of Guillame’s homosexuality, but it is not a secret to his older brother, who killed his sibling’s high school lover rather than let the word get out about their relationship.  Word, that, in this small religious town, would have been scandalous.

Francis, the brother, taunts and tortures Tom, while showing sexual interest.  The arrival of Guillame’s “girl-friend,” in an unexplainable plot twist, adds to the obtuseness of the story line.  The ending, which is out of right-field, adds yet another level of both intrigue and preposterousness to the tale.
   
The con con production is strong. The directing by Tom Kondilas fulfills the writer’s desires.  The acting is of high quality. 

Kudos to Mike Frye (Tom), Daniel McElhaney (Francis) and Madelyn Voltz (Sara) for nicely texturing their performances.  Laura Starnik is exceptional as Agatha, Guillame’s mother.

Be aware that the set, which consists of three different acting spaces, spreads the entire length of the acting space, making clear-seeing difficult for anyone except those who sit in the center section facing the stage. 

Capsule Judgment: “Tom at the Farm” fulfills the theatre’s mission of “expanding human imagination and extends the conventional boundaries of language, structure, space and performance.”  This is the kind of play with sexual overtones and the bizarre that turns on the typical con-con loyalist.  Overall, in spite of strong production, the play leaves us wanting since we don’t develop strong feelings of connection with any of the characters and the contrived nature of the plot.
 

“Tom at the Farm” runs through August 3, 2019, 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/

Next up at con-con: Two by Pinter: “A Slight Ache” and “Landscape” (August 8-10) followed by “Shakespeare’s R&J,” a play set in a boys boarding school.  Four students discover a forbidden text of a Shakespeare play and secretly enact the script in a deluge of adolescent agitation, terror, and fierce desires that parallel their own lives.  (August 30-September 21, 2019)

Monday, July 15, 2019

Kids and choreography enhance MATILDA @ Beck Center



What do “James and the Giant Peach,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “George’s Marvelous Medicine” all have in common?  They were all written by Roald Dahl. 

The British author’s short stories, many of which were written for children, are known for their unexpected endings, dark comic mood, and villainous adult enemies of the child characters.

His 1988 “Matilda” has been adopted by Dennis Kelly, as a stage musical.  It has music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, and is now on stage at Beck Center. 

“Matilda The Musical” is the story of a 5-year-old girl with extraordinary powers.   She is the daughter of a self-centered father who calls her “boy” because he didn’t want a girl, and a ditzy mother whose life centers on dance contests and an infatuation with her Latino dance partner. Matilda finds refuge in books.  She reads the books and acts them out for the school’s librarian.
   
School is a nightmare for the child.  Between the students who resent her superior intellectual abilities and Miss Trunchbull, the hunchback sex-neutral head mistress who believes “Children are maggots,” her only refuge is her kind and caring teacher, Miss Honey and the school librarian.

We watch with pleasure as Matilda stands up against the adults in her world, and in doing so, discovers her own remarkable powers.

Matilda’s bravery teaches Miss Honey and her classmates an important lesson -- that even though life can be hard, “nobody but me is going to change my story” so “sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.”

The musical script is a compilation of various Matilda stories, which I found out from the adorable pre-tween brother and sister sitting behind me opening night.  They knew all the stories and delighted each other by whispering, “Do you know what is going to happen next?”  And, then, of course, relating the happenings.  Ah, the joys of children and children-oriented theater.

“Matlida The Musical” opened on the West End in London in 2011, winning the prestigious Olivier Award for best new musical in 2012.  The show won the 2013 award for best musical on Broadway, where the show ran for 1,555 performances.

Having seen both the London and Broadway productions, and not being particularly enamored by either, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by the Beck Center production. I enjoyed the nicely paced second act, the marvelous kids, and Martin Céspedes’ choreography.  



Nine-year-old Sophia Tsenekos was delightful as Matilda.  (She trades off the role with Ella Stec, who I did not see portray the role.)  Sophia lights up the stage whenever she appears.  This is a triple-threat little Thespian who can sing, dance and act at high levels.  Watch for her name to appear in local, and possibly national playbills.  Yes, she is that good!

Finn O’Hara captivates as the awkward Bruce.  His “eat the whole cake” scene was a total delight as were his physical education class hijinks.

Samantha Lucas has a fine singing voice and was totally realistic as Miss Honey.  Her “My House” was lovely.

Neda Spears shines as Mrs. Phelps, the librarian.  Her interplay with Matilda was endearing.

Grace Mackin delights as Lavendar, Matilda’s friend.

Portraying Miss Trunchbull, Trey Gilpin made the wise decision to tone-down the overacting which was present in both the London and Broadway productions.  The character is evil enough as-is and overdoing the role makes him ridiculous rather than pathetic. 

Timothy Allen’s Mr. Wormwood displayed the typical Brit bar-pub exaggeration.  His between-acts routine, however, needed better farcical timing.  Maybe even elimination as Americans don’t often understand or go in for that kind of “entertainment.” 

Olivia Billings and Joey Carmello were a big over-the-top, as the mother and Rudolpho, though their dancing, especially Carmello’s hip movements, were well-conceived.
   
The kids (both the young ones and the more mature variety) were universally outstanding.  They acted and sang with high quality results.  Their stage movement/dancing was very impressive. 

Choreographer Martin Céspedes proved once again that he has a knack for being able to get anyone to look like talented dancers.  He appears to be a master in difficult task of working with children.  I thought this show’s choreography was, in some ways, more impressive and creative than the professional productions I saw. 

Unfortunately, the decision was made for the cast to use British accents.  It’s hard enough for American ears to understand Brits who speak the language naturally.  But, with Beck’s terrible sound system, which makes echoes out of spoken and sung words, adding the accents made understanding the words almost impossible.  Thank goodness I had the kids behind me telling the tale, or I would have been totally lost.

(Side note:  Beck has spent a great deal of money on a projection system that has paid off in wonderful effects in not only this show, but in recent musicals.  Why the powers that be do not realize that good efforts is being under-mined with bad acoustics and a malfunctioning sound system is beyond comprehension!  (Don’t blame the sound people.  They do the best with what they have been given.)

Musical Director Larry Goodpaster honed his singers and musicians well, Trad Burns scenic designs enhanced the production as did Burns and Jason Taylor’s projections.

Huzzah to Scott Spence on directing his 100th show at the Beck Center.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Matilda The Musical” is the kind of show that many will like, especially kids who have read the book.  Wonderful performances by the kids in the cast and creative choreography make the show a pleasant sit, in spite of not being able to understand much of the dialogue due to the poor sound system and English accents.
   
“Matilda The Musical” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through, 2019.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org  

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Toxic Avenger--a slapstick, double entendre farcical delight at Blank Canvas


Blank Canvas has a niche audience.  They love slasher, off-the-wall, ridiculous plotted plays, especially musicals.

The nerdy group that calls this theatre their home away from home, will find “The Toxic Avenger” well within their scope. 

Yeah, this is “The Toxic Avenger,” the rock musical based on Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman’s 1984 cult-film about the attempt of a sweet young man to clean up a New Jersey town, with death-filled results.

The musical, written by Joe DiPietro (who was born in Teaneck, New Jersey and was responsible for “Memphis,” “All Shook Up” and “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”), with music by David Bryan, and lyrics by the same duo, contains songs with titles such as, “Get the Geek,” “Kick Your Ass,” “Thank God She’s Blind” and the ever popular, “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore.”  Really!  (Could I make this up?)

If you are not a regular BC attender, before you come to the conclusion that “The Toxic Avenger” is a definite “do not see,” be aware that it’s impossible for anyone with a sense of humor, who likes outrageous slapstick, cross-dressing, soft rock music, and has an affinity for the bizarre, not to enjoy themselves. 

So, what’s all the fun about? 

Once upon a time in Tromaville, New Jersey, there was a corrupt Mayor-lady (who resembles former-Governor Chris Christy in many ways), who with her henchmen (bullies, mobsters and crooked politicians) controlled the city and used it as their personal piggybank, caring little for the environment or the population. 

In the same town was Melvin Ferd the Third, a geeky aspiring scientist, who loves Sarah, the blind librarian.  Melvin wants to clean up the town’s toxic waste dump and also dump the mayor.  For his troubles he is thrown into a vat of sludge and comes out a hulking green monster named “Toxie.” 

Toxie becomes a superhero to many as he fights city hall and sleazy politicians and businessmen whose greed have made the correctly named Tromaville unfit for human inhabitation.   

In the process, the hysteria is flamed by the blind librarian tripping over every pebble and crack, men and women dressing in drag, lots of quick costume changes, and some bad puns.  Also on stage is a singing and dancing nun, water cannons squirting the audience, a splatter zone where audience members get sprayed with water and other substances and, of course, Toxie, running wild.  Oh, and there are some good zingers aimed at POTUS.

Add a wailing, but subtle rock score, several nice ballads, fun attempts at coordinated dancing, extended farce, and lots of slapstick, and you have “The Toxic Avenger.”

Patrick Ciamacco, the one-man crew at Blank Canvas--he directs, designs and builds sets, does special effects, makes the popcorn sold before and at intermission, while personally financing the whole shebang, adds to his chores for this show.  He admirably plays Toxie, the lead role.  The hulking hulk, he of green and molting skin and a hanging eyeball, has a powerful singing voice and great comic timing. 


For this production Ciamacco relinquishes the directorial reigns to Molly Claassen, who does a smash up job keeping the mayhem constantly moving and the creative juices flowing.  It is amazing to see what the BC thespians do with little space, littler money, “chutzpah,” and a lot of imagination. 

Musical Director Rachel Woods generally controls her players so that most of the dialogue and lyrics can be heard.

Noah Hrbek (White Dude) and Sydney Smith (Black Dudette) are a hoot as they change sexual orientations, accents and costumes with ease.  “Hey, waddya tink,” dis is ‘posed to be fun an’ dees two helps-uh-lot.”

Leslie Andrews, she of “zaftig” cleavage, makes the most of her assets (the physical and vocal ones) to create a nasty Mayor Babs.  She also hits the stage as Ma Ferd and the nun.  She even plays two people at once.  Talk about being multi-talented.

Pat Miller is adorable as the love-struck Melvin, a man with a mission to save New Jersey from itself.

Pretty Madeline Krucek stumbles around the stage as the blind Sarah, singing with a fine voice and nicely developing her role.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “The Toxic Avenger” isn’t great theater, but it is lots of fun for those inclined to enjoy the bizarre and are willing to laugh at the slapstick shticks that make this production a wonderful summer escape. 


 
“The Toxic Avenger “runs through July 25, 2019 at Blank Canvas, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.   For tickets and directions go to http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com/

Next up at Blank Canvas is “Lobby Hero,” which asks what happens when emotions come in conflict with principles.  The script was written by the 2017 Oscar-winning author of “Manchester by The Sea.”

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Emotional, humorous, heroic “Come From Away” is a must see at the Connor Palace



When I saw “Come From Away” on Broadway I was totally blown away!  As the lights faded on the last scene I shot out of my seat to give a standing, yelling salute.  Yes, me, the person who doesn’t believe in standing ovations unless the show is an A+ was totally “in” on awarding this exceptional musical drama and its immersing experience.

And, yes, I was on my feet again at the ending of the Key Bank Broadway version of the show, now on stage at the Connor Palace. 

“Come From Away” is from the new genre of musical dramas, that seamlessly integrates music and story together so that the spoken words and lyrics are one and the same. “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Next to Normal” are prime examples of this genre.  These musicals don’t have dance interludes.  The staging incorporates movement and what would normally be termed as dance, together.  No show stoppers here, just story telling.

“Come from Away” is a Canadian musical with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. 

The musical, which is the result of visits by the authors to Newfoundland and numerous interviews with local and international participants, spotlights the true stories of the generosity and kindness of the people of Canada following the 9/11 tragic events as it relates to thousands of people of various nationalities and religions.


The action takes place on the island of Newfoundland — thousands of miles away from New York City’s World Trade Center, Washington D.C.’s Pentagon, and Pennsylvania’s Somerset County, where on that iconic day three terrorists hijacked and crashed planes, thus changing the course of modern world history.


The Federal Aviation Agency immediately closed the United States’ airspace following the attack and Canadian air traffic control stepped in to help planes coming to the US.


As part of “Operation Yellow Ribbon,” they landed 38 jumbo jets and four military flights at Newfoundland’s Gander International Airport — the nearest sizable available airport on the continent.
As a result of the detour, 6,759 passengers and airline crew members, plus 9 cats, 11 dogs, and a pair of endangered apes, arrived at the small northeastern town and nearly doubled its population of 9,651.


(To put the mind-boggling event in perspective, realize that Gander is about the physical size and population of Vermillion, Ohio!)


The musical drama opened to rave reviews when it was first produced at Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada.  It went on to record-breaking runs at four other venues in the United States and Canada before it opened in New York in 2017, to extremely positive critical reviews and resounding box office success.  The show has been playing to standing-room-only audiences on the Great White Way ever since.

The Key Bank Broadway touring show is meticulously directed by Broadway’s Christopher Ashley with creative staging by Kelly Devine and scenic design by Beowulf Boritt.  The staging centers use of just a dozen or so chairs, a couple of tables and a lot of imagination, creating visual depictions of airplanes, buses, a bar, a school, a skating rink and the great outdoors.

The compelling music for the tour is supervised by Ian Isendrath.

Starting with the powerful “Welcome to the Rock” through “38 Planes” and “I Am Here,” to “Me and the Sky” and “Stop the World” to “Somethings Missing” there is not one moment of let-down.  Humor, pathos, empathy and drama reign supreme.


The cast is universally outstanding.  Each takes on numerous roles, changing accents and personas, with ease and conviction.  Each gives a textured, believable performance, displaying humor and dramatic depth-of-character development.  


Special hurrahs to soloists Andrew Samonsky (“Prayer”), Danielle K. Thomas (“I Am Here”), Kevin Carolan (“Screech In”), Becky Gulsvig (“Me and the Sky”) and Chamblee Ferguson and Christine Toy Johnson (“Stop the World”).


Don’t plan to run for your vehicle at the conclusion.  The Canadian hoe-down that is part of the curtain call is, by itself, worth the price of admission.  (I dare you not to stomp, hoot and clap your way through that experience.)


CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Come From Away” is a special musical that creatively tells a heart-wrenching story of compassion, caring and a display of the best of humanity with humor and pathos.  It makes for one of those special moments in the theater.  The touring production is beyond excellent and is an absolutely must see!!  

 
 
“Come From Away” runs through July 28, 2019 as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series.  To purchase tickets, visit playhousesquare.org, call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Cannons, fireworks, a bird @ Blossom & previews of "different" upcoming events


Where can you sit in a covered amphitheater, with near-perfect acoustics, surrounded by the wonders of nature, be startled by cannon shots and see a wonderful fireworks show while listening to one of the greatest orchestras in the world?  The answer:  Blossom Musical Festival!

The venue’s July 5 and 6 program, RHAPSODY IN BLUE, showcased the extraordinary conducting skills of Roderick Cox and featured SYMPHONIC SUITE from “On the Waterfront,” RHAPSODY IN BLUE, the SUITE from THE FIREBIRD (1919 revision) and FESTIVAL OVERTURE:  THE YEAR 1812.

Written by Leonard Bernstein, the score for “On the Waterfront” has the gritty sounds of conflict and an intensity of tension.  It’s the world of prize fighters and dockworkers, the violence of gangs with the underbelly of a love story. 

Strains of Bernstein’s “On The Town” and “West Side Story” pepper the audience engaging score.

Handsome young conductor Roderick Cox became so physically engaged in the music to the degree that the intensity of score emanated from his tall muscled body.

RHAPSODY IN BLUE, a jazz-style concerto, a work for piano solo and jazz band plus strings, was beautifully interpreted by the orchestra and award-winning pianist Aaron Diehl, whose delicate touch and emotionally involving playing brought a deep depth of feeling to the piece. 

Barely caressing the keys, the light fingering of the difficult score, brought about strong audience response. He rewarded the assemblage’s extended standing ovation with a very seldom seen mid-concert encore.

Just before the piece started, a yelp from the stage and sudden movement revealed that a bird had tried to land on the shoulder of a violinist.  She jumped ,the bird tumbled to the ground, rolled to the lip of the stage, was quickly scooped up by a patron in the front row, eliciting cheers from the audience.  The quick thinker carried the avian over to an usher who gained more applause when he set the bird in flight.  Only at Blossom!

The program ended with the enthralling SUITE from the FIREBIRD, Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score, based on a Russian folk tale, which had been arranged as an orchestral suite to be performed without dancers.


The program ended with cannons firing, fireworks shooting into the air during and after Tchaikovsky’s FESTIVAL OVERTURE:  THE YEAR 1812, and the audience shrieking well-earned approval. 

Tchaikovsky once said of the piece, a musical commemoration of the victory of Russian forces over Napoleon at the gates of Moscow, “It will be loud.”  And he was absolutely right!  Loud, in the best sense of the word.

Capsule judgment:  Cleveland Orchestra’s July 5 and 6 concert was an encompassing delight.  The orchestra performed masterfully under the disciplined baton of Roderick Cox.  Aaron Diehl brilliantly interpreted Gershwin’s RHAPSODY IN BLUE and the cannons and fireworks ended an evening of memorable music.

ENTERTAINMENT OFF-THE-BEATEN PATH

Besides the more traditional theatres, there are offerings that should be considered for your summer enjoyment.  How about . . .

BLOSSOM MUSIC FESTIVAL
800-1141 or clevelandorchestra.com

SOUTH PACIFIC (August 25—8 PM) – Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic Broadway show presented in concert in collaboration with Baldwin Wallace University’s Music Theatre Program.  Performed by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Andy Einhorn and staged by Victoria Bussert.

CAIN PARK

FOR GOOD:  THE NEW GENERATION OF MUSCIALS, VOL.4 (July 17 Alma Theatre) -- In partnership with The Musical Theater Project--From the cutting edge BE MORE CHILL to the contemporary KINKY BOOTS, musicals produced since 2000 have awakened audiences to new possibilities for America's great art form.  Hosted by Nancy Maier and Sheri Gross the production features singers Bridie Carroll and Eric Fancher.

THE LAST FIVE YEARS (July 25-27 Alma Theatre) -- Jason Robert Brown’s classic musical about love, loss and the moments we wish we could do over. (Presented by The Passion Project.)

IMMERSIVE THEATRE

SHADOW OF THE RUN Chapter 1:  WanderLust (July 25-28 and Aug 1,3,4 show times begin at 6pm and starting every 20 mins with the last group starting at 10pm)

A 90-minute immersive experience in which audience members are put in the middle of the action where their experience is determined by the choices they make. With 19 Actors and only 14 audience members per show it's a very unique approach.
Takes place in and around historic downtown Bedford (meet at 50 South Park Street)
Length: 90 minutes.  Restrictions: 18+ (16+ if accompanied by a parent)
Note:  The performance takes place over multiple buildings that require standing, walking and use of staircases.
Cost: $40  Tickets must be purchased in advance online at www.shadowoftherun.com.  There will be no door sales.

CLEVELAND SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
Free admission
For times and places go to http://www.cleveshakes.com

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (July 19-August 4) -- A respectable nobleman lives in the idyllic Italian town of Messina.  He shares his house with his lovely young daughter, his playful, clever niece, and his elderly brother. What ensues is Shakespeare at his creative best!

OHIO SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens (outdoor performances)
714 N. Portage Path, Akron
ohioshakespearefestival.com or 1-888-718-4253 opt.1

MEASURE FOR MEASURE (July 26-August 11) -- Intrigues, disguises, and amorous plots propel this twisted, comedic adventure to its unexpected conclusion.

PORTHOUSE
On the grounds of Blossom
http://www.porthousetheatre.com or 330-929-4416 or 330-672-3884



THE MUSIC MAN (July 25-August 11)— The “Seventy-Six Trombones” musical story of a fast-talking salesman who arrives in River City, Iowa to con the townspeople and hurry off with their money, but he doesn't count on falling for the town librarian in the process.  (See this classic at Porthouse before its scheduled fall Broadway revival.)

convergence continuum
convergence-continuum.org or 216-687-0074
Thursday-Saturday @ 8


TOM AT THE FARM (Jul 12-Aug 3) -- After the sudden death of his lover, Tom travels from the city to a remote farm for the funeral, and finds a religious family who know nothing of his existence. Tom is threatened by the deceased’s brother and is drawn into a brutal, sexually-charged game.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

“Tintypes” plays a patriotic tune at Porthouse





It is reasonable, with the Cleveland Orchestra playing its annual “Salute to America” at Blossom, just yards away, and POTUS going through what appears to be his childhood dream of having tanks, planes and fireworks light up the nation’s capital for its birthday, that Porthouse Theatre get into the mood by staging “Tintypes,” a musical revue with almost fifty patriot songs.

The Mary Kyte, Mel Marvin and Gary Pearle musical is a tuneful, high-level composite of popular songs from 1890 to 1917, the highlight period of American immigration.  It’s the era often called “America’s last age of Innocence.”  It’s the era when the newbies were taught the American way through song, dance and razz-ma-tazz musicals.

The 1917 cut-off date is significant as it was in that year that the U.S. Congress enacted The Literacy Act, the country’s first widely restrictive immigration law. 

This was reinforced with the passing of the Immigration Act of 1924 whose purpose was to “distinguish the United States as an autonomous political community.” The term often serves to explain efforts to reinforce the national identity and stress self-determination of national and international affairs. 

That legislation, strongly backed by “nationalists,” who strongly believed in “nativism,” “perceived Jews, Muslims, [Asians], agnostics and naturalized citizens as something less than truly American.”

(Side note:  it is this same type who believe that to be an American means to be “white, Christian and male” and, therefore, today are strongly in favor of legal and physical walls being built to exclude Latinos from immigration.) 
 

The musical tells the story of pre-anti-immigration times.  It’s the era that changed the cultural and ethnic makeup of the nation. “The transcontinental railroad and Carnegie Hall were built, electricity and the telephone were introduced to homes, cowboy Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States, automobiles joined horse-drawn carriages on city streets, and children worked in factories for twenty-five cents a day.”
 

The score features works by George M. Cohan, John Philip Sousa, Scott Joplin, and Victor Herbert.  It’s quintessential Americana at its most glorious flag-waving apex. 
 

Starting with the immigrants, who thought to be “The Yankee Doodle Boy” was the goal for every new arrival to “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the revue showcases the dreams and aspirations of the country at the turn of the century. 
 

The tale shifts to investigating growth and industrial creativity as “Electricity” and “The Factory” are sung.
 

The bully attitudes of Teddy Roosevelt, the joys of being, as expressed in “The Ragtime Dance” and the power of the country as showcased in “I Want What I Want When I Want it” flow rapidly and climaxes in a fireworks of patriotism highlighted in “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and a repeat of “The Yankee Doodle Boy.”  

The revue ran for 137 performances in its off-Broadway presentation and then another 93 performances when it was moved to a Broadway theatre.

The Porthouse production, nicely directed and choreographed by Eric van Baars, with fine musical direction by Jennifer Korecki, is a cornucopia of enthusiasm. 

On opening night, the production was aided by a loud 4th of July fireworks display at the conclusion of the national birthday celebration by the Cleveland Orchestra, which shares the grounds with the theatre, which paralleled the finale of the play.

The cast all had strong voices, interpreted the meanings of the songs, had the right patriotic attitude and nicely performed the creative choreography.

Highlight numbers included “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” “What It Takes to Make Me Love You—You’ve Got It,” “Shortnin” Bread,” “The Ragtime Dance,” “Then I’d Be Satisfied With Life,” “When It’s All Goin’ Out and Nothing Comin’ In,” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

Devin Pfeiffer, he of expressive face and boyish charm, was delightful as Charlie, the immigrant.  He has a nice sense of comic timing and dances with joy and skill.

Beautiful Shamara Costa is a talented singer and actress. She who developed a Susannah who lit up the stage each time she appeared.

Mavis Jennings made for a bully good Teddy (Roosevelt).

Samantha Kennett had the right attitude and voice to portray the firebrand known as Emma Goldman, the union organizer and voice of the people. 

Josy Soriano delighted as the manipulative Anna Held. 

Ryan T. Patterson’s set, consisting of a back wall illumination of the lower east side of New York, and a cobblestone painted thrust stage, nicely set the mood.  Susan J. William’s costume designs were era correct.

The show is a little long, and would have been helped by cutting or eliminating the vaudeville scene, which at best, was mildly humorous.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Tintypes” is a musical revue which reminds of the desires, values and worth of immigrants.  It reinforces the idea of why the less fortunate of the world are willing to risk their very lives in their desire to live the American dream. In its own way, it highlights the present battle over immigration. 

“Tintypes” runs at Porthouse Theatre through July 20, 2019  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to http://www.porthousetheatre.com/.

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE: “The Music Man,” Meredith Wilson’s delightful “Seventy-Six Trombones” tale of
con-artist Harold Hill who learns that love can lead to unexpected endings. (July 25-August 11)

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Friday, June 28, 2019

World premiere of “33 1/3” at Dobama







Viewing a new theatrical production is always an intriguing experience.  This is especially true if the offering is a musical and has not had many workshops or readings.  It is in these venues that the material is tested and adjusted based on reviewer and audience reactions. 

33 1/3” has been seen once, in a workshop in Canada, but the presentation by Cleveland’s “off-Broadway” theatre, is the first full staging of the material.

In evaluating a production, a viewer of any musical has to take into consideration the material (story line, concept development, clarity and accomplishment of the author’s intent), the music and lyrics, as well as the staging, acting, musical presentation and technical effects.

33 1/3” with book, music and lyrics by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli is both a coming-of-age and coming-out tale.

As described in the public relations for the production, “It’s 1974 and Jules finds small-town existence stifling. He lives for listening to the latest records with his best friend Jill, but dreams of an exciting life in New York City. While Jules’ mother is in the hospital, his father is trying his best at home with his only son. Jules encounters Francis, an openly gay, Bowie-loving young man and romance begins to bloom as Jules slowly discovers and acknowledges his sexuality. Jules also encounters Victor, an angry young man from a troubled home who seeks relief by pounding on the drums in his basement. All four young people experience a tumultuous New Year’s Eve and younger Jules makes a decision that will change his life and all those around him.”

Jules decision is to go to New York, leaving Jill and Francis behind him.  (No big plot reveal here.  This action is obvious from the start.)

The narrator of the story is Jules, as an adult, who is looking back and explaining how he got to the place in his life where he presently emotionally and physically resides.

The coming out story has been told many, many times.  There is nothing extremely unique in this version of the tale. There are no big surprises, no extremely jolting harassment or rejection events that make us want to cheer for Jules to succeed.  In fact, even as his adult-self tells the story, we don’t see what real success he has had, other than being out of the small town and not feeling penned up.  That is progress, but not enough on which to build a compelling musical tale.

The characters are somewhat underdeveloped.  Jules is a nice guy who we like.  Jill is a math savant who is also likeable.  It’s pretty hard to figure out why Victor is even included other than to illustrate, as is the case of Jules and Jill, that people in quandary tend to find someplace to hide.  In this case, in recordings and the worship of musicians.  Francis is there as a lover and sexual guide for Jules and to provide a stereotyped gay flamboyant character.

Not a bad tale, just not a totally compelling one that keeps us on the edge of our seats waiting for what trauma or gleeful event is going to come up next.   It doesn’t have the holding power of such coming-out tales as “The Edge of Seventeen” or the charm of “Love Simon.”  

As for the music.  The songs tend to blend nicely into the story, as is the case with the newly developing genre of musical drama. 

In general, the music is unmemorable.  As I sit to write this, less than 12 hours after seeing the show, I can’t hum or even remember the sound of any of the songs, or the titles or their lyrics. Since my mind tends to be a trap for musical show tunes, this lack of cognition is not a good sign.  It might have helped if the titles of the songs were listed somewhere in the program.

I often found that the songs were too word-loaded, too complex to grasp a major idea. These are not of the quality of the music found in such recent musical dramas as “Dear Evan Hansen” or “Next to Normal.”

The lack of memorable music is a surprise as both Jay Turvey and Paul Portelli are award-winning authors.  Sportelli is also the Music Director of Canada’s Shaw Festival.

As for the production of Dobama’s “33 1/3,” director Matthew Wright keeps the slow developing plot moving along.

The cast puts out full effort.

Jim Bray gives an impressive nicely textured performance as both Older Jules, our guide to the story and also as Jules’ over-whelmed father. 

Handsome Benjamin Richardson-Piche is appealing as Jules, but often lacks the emotional depth to carry us on his journey.  He, as does Hanna Shykind (Jill), Tyler Tanner (Francis) and Jay Lee (Victor) perform rather than be.  They are actors, playing roles not real people.  All have pleasant, not Broadway ready voices.  

Holly Handman-Lopez has designed choreography that fits the era and the music.  As with the character development, the cast has some difficulty in making the moves look natural rather than planned and rehearsed.

The psychedelic electronic scenic effects visually set the correct moods. 

Mathew Dolan’s musical direction was generally good, though there were times when the vocals were lost because of the over-zealous pounding of the drums.  Musical’s sounds are there to back up the singers, not over-power them. 

33 1/3” is a work in progress. Few, if any musicals, make it out of the gate as finished products.  The American musical theater lore is filled with a number of shows that needed major or minor changes to help them become viable.  

The first performance of “If/Then” clocked in at over 4 hours, as was the case with “The Addams Family.”  They both had to be heavily pared down. “Fiddler on the Roof” became a hit when a new director came in after weeks of frustrating rehearsals and asked what the show was about.  When they decided it was about tradition and not about a milkman and his daughters, and inserted “Tradition” as the opening song, the show transformed from a march of members of the audience to the exits, into one of the genres greatest shows.  The same is true of “Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” when a pretty love song which was to be the opening number was pulled and “Comedy Tonight” inserted to set the right tone. 

Jules could use an “I want” song that tells his hopes and dreams and sets his character.  A “Noise” song in one or both acts would “wake” up the audience and texture the musical sounds.  A “Next to the Last Scene” acting or musical number would get the audience ready for what should be a stronger ending that wraps up the story.    

Hopefully the authors will take the feedback about the script and music and go back to the drawing board and make some needed changes.

Capsule judgment: “33 1/3,” in its world premiere at Dobama, is a work in progress.  It will be interesting to see what, if any changes the authors make as the piece moves forward.  You might want to see it here, so you can say “I saw it in its infancy.”

(Side note:  A percentage of the ticket sales from Dobama’s “33 1/3” will be donated to LGBTQ support causes.)

33 1/3” runs through July 14, 2019 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org/ for tickets.

Monday, June 17, 2019

“Ragtime The Musical” tells a story that must be heard @ Cain Park


It is entirely appropriate in this era of rising anti-immigrant feelings, the re-emergence of the White Supremacy movement, increased anti-Semitism, and having a President who believes in nationalism and Eugenics, that Cain Park revisit the historical foundations of this country via the musical “Ragtime.” 

The history lesson is based on E. L. Doctorow’s epic 1975 novel “Ragtime.”

The musical has a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and marches, cakewalks, gospel and ragtime music by Stephen Flaherty.

The Broadway production, which opened on January 18, 1998, and ran for two years, was met with mixed reviews, but still garnered 13 Tony nominations.  It introduced such up-coming super stars as Lea Michele, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald. 

The musical “tells the story of three groups in the United States in the early 20th century: African Americans, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; upper-class suburbanites, represented by Mother, the matriarch of a white upper-class family in New Rochelle, New York; and Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia.” 

All of these present a picture of this country when the phrase “I lift my lamp beside the golden door” meant that those who needed a place to escape, to look for their “golden medina” (Yiddish meaning promised land), were welcome.

Upper-class white Christian families had established a pattern of privilege and were secure in having their needs and wants met.  Blacks and the immigrants were subjected to prejudices and misunderstandings because they were not part of the “in-group.”  


“Ragtime” confronts the contradictions inherent in American reality: experiences of wealth and poverty, freedom and prejudice, hope and despair.
 

The tales and attitudes of real celebrities, such as J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, activists such as Booker T. Washington and fiery orator and union organizer Emma Goldman, and entertainers such as Harry Houdini are woven into the well-told tale. 

The score is powerful and is the tool that carries the story telling. 

Songs such as “Prologue: Ragtime” and “Goodbye, My Love,” foreshadow the story’s development.  “A Shtetl iz Amereke” sets the wishes and dreams of the new immigrants.  “His Name Was Coalhouse Walker” and “Getting’ Ready Rag” introduce the plight of Blacks, the only immigrants who didn’t have a choice about coming to this country, and their fears and frustrations. 


“Henry Ford” provides the picture of industrial America and its role in the development of the “American” way.   The powerful “The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square” placed a spotlight on the abuse of workers by the likes of Ford, and the need for unionization. 


The powerful “Justice” highlighted the oppression and abuse of Blacks by white nationalists. 


“Till We Reach That Day” is a moving anthem to the need for respect for all.  


“Sarah Brown Eyes” is an anthem to love, while “Make Them Hear You” is an appeal to the need for respect and tolerance.


Those who have been to the Alma Theatre in Cain Park will need to adapt their expectations as the entire theatre has been reconfigured.  The proscenium stage has been replaced by a center platform in an oval configuration, with the audience surrounding the elongated stage on two sides.  (Be aware that it can be a precarious adventure to navigate the uneven levels to get to some of the new seating.)


The present format allows the audience to be close to the action and become emotionally involved in the show.  This script was aided by the new stage.  


On the other hand, as is often a problem with stage formats where the audience surrounds the actors, hearing can be problematic.  In the case of “Ragtime,” the lack of sound balance between the orchestra and the singers meant that the sound battle often resulted in the loss of hearing the lyrics to the songs.  That’s too bad, because those words are vital to understanding the intent and purpose of the author.


Joanna May Cullinan’s focused directing helped develop the story line.  She was aided by a cast which could act, sing and dance with proficiency and purpose, and purposeful choreography by Imani Jackson.


Young Jake Spencer was delightful as Edgar, the little boy who acted as the show’s narrator and commentator.  Bridie Carroll was compelling as Mother, a woman ahead of her time.  Her “Goodbye My Love” and “Back to Before” were emotionally moving.


Mariah Burks presented a Sarah who sang and acted with clarity.  Her version of “Your Daddy’s Son” was exceptional.  “Wheels of a Dream,” which she sang with Coalhouse, was one of the production’s highlights.


Though at times he could have been more verbally and physically dynamic as an actor, Eugene Sumlin (Coalhouse), has a powerful vocal range and demanded attention and respect in “Justice” and “Make Them Hear You.”


Will Price was superlative.   I’ve seen this show a half-dozen times and he ranks as one of the best Mother’s Younger Brother that I’ve reviewed.


Kate Leigh Michalski didn't portray Emma Goldman; she WAS Emma Goldman!  Her performances in both “That Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square” and “He Wanted To Say” almost brought the audience out of their seats to march with her to support her cause.


Scott Esposito made Tateh into a compassionate and wise “mensch.”  He has a solid singing voice and was appealing in his presentation of “Gliding.”  “Our Children,” sung with Mother, was charming.


The rest of cast, especially the African American dancers, were excellent.


CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Ragtime” tells an important tale that needs to be seen and heard.   Except for an over-enthusiastic orchestra and some audio balance problems, this production does the script justice.  It’s well worth the sit!

 
The show runs through June 30, 2019 in the Alma Theatre in Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park.   For tickets call 216-371-3000 or go to http://www.cainpark.com/

Saturday, June 15, 2019

“Man of La Mancha” seeks and finds the impossible dream at Porthouse



On November 23, 1965, I entered New York’s ANTA Washington Square Theatre, which was built so the audience looked down upon the theatre-in-the round stage in a configuration that resembled a hospital surgical suite, to see “Man of La Mancha.”  The show had opened the night before. I knew nothing of the production.  Little was I aware that it would be one of the most mind-blowing experiences in my theater life.

“Man of La Mancha,” has a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh.  It was adapted from Wasserman's non-musical 1959 teleplay “I Don Quixote,” which was, in turn, inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century novel.

The 1965 Broadway production ran for 2,328 performances and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. 

That production starred Richard Kiley, whose performance, in my opinion, was one of the greatest in professional musical theatre history. 

When the lights went off, after Kiley’s last speech, which was performed with pin spots on the actor’s eyes, which slowly expired as he exhaled his last breath, and the choral singing of “The Impossible Dream,” I sat frozen, unable to leave the image on stage and return to the real world.

That image remained so strong that when the touring production of the show came to the Hanna Theatre several years later, I walked into the lobby of the theatre, and made an instant decision not to see the show, as I did not want to erase that past memorable moment of wonder.

Besides Kiley, the original Broadway production starred Columbus-born Joan Dienar as Eldonza.  Her vocal range was so unusual that musical conceiver Mitch Leigh said: "Joan had a three-and-a-half-octave range. We tailored the music to her voice." 

The musical’s enthralling score includes such classics as "It's All the Same,” "Dulcinea"
 "I'm Only Thinking of Him,” "I Really Like Him,” "What Does He Want of Me?," "Little Bird, Little Bird," "Golden Helmet of Mambrino," "To Each His Dulcinea, and, of course, one of musical theater’s most memorable songs, "The Impossible Dream."

The tale, set in the late sixteenth century, relates the story of “a failed author-soldier-actor and tax collector, Miguel de Cervantes, who has been thrown into a prison, along with his manservant.  They have been charged with foreclosing on a monastery. Their fellow prisoners attack them, eager to steal the contents of the large trunk Cervantes has brought with him. However, a sympathetic criminal known as the Governor suggests setting up a mock trial instead. Only if Cervantes is found guilty will he have to hand over his possessions.  A cynical prisoner, the Duke, charges Cervantes with being an idealist and a bad poet.  Cervantes pleads guilty, but then asks if he may offer a defense, in the form of a play, acted out by him and all the prisoners. The Governor agrees.”

Thus, with makeup applied and in costume, we see Don Quixote, the knight-errant and his squire, Sancho Panza, go off on an adventure to fight the unbeatable foe, meet his
Aldonza, confront a four-armed giant, which in reality is a windmill, collapse, recover long enough to sing his final thoughts, and tell the tale of a quest well done and hope for the future.  

The priest sings a psalm for the dead.  Sancho is distraught at his friend's death. Aldonza tries to comfort him, saying that Alonso Quijano may be dead but the spirit and will of Don Quixote lives on.  Yes, as his words state, “And I know if I'll only be true to this glorious quest. That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I'm laid to my rest. And the world will be better for this, that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable star.”

What a message to be aware of in this, a world of chaos and misdirection, where decisions are often made “without question or cause!”

The Porthouse production, under the adept and sensitive direction of Terri Kent, is graced with the creative, distinctive, compelling choreography of Martin Céspedes, who, once again, proves why he is considered one of the best of the local choreographers and visionary of stage pictures. 

Céspedes, incidentally, was in a national touring production of La Mancha.

Kent and Céspedes have taken a different approach to the staging.  Instead of the common frenetic and often-laugh inducing presentation, the duo has chosen, instead, to take slow-down-the-action and sound, all the way from the music pace to the actor’s movements, to stress the underlying philosophical meaning of the script.  Their Don Quixote is delusional, in a quest to save the world, rather than a crazy man in search of an unknown foe. 

The slow, exaggerated dance and physical movements, much in the form of a slow-motion film, whether it be in the rape or taunting scenes, or the speeches, are purposeful. 

The artful lighting, effectively designed by Cynthia Stillings, accentuates what must be seen and aids in developing the intended moods.

The dancers are perfectly honed.  They move as a unit, developing the meaning.  Even the human horses help create the reality. 

The vocalizations are superb.  Meanings of lyrics are stressed.  It’s not only the sound that impresses, it is the clarity of concept development!
 
Johnathan Swoboda and his orchestra support the singers, rather than drowning them out, as is commonly done. 

Congrats to Parker Strong, the sound mixer, for nicely balancing the music and voices.

The costumes, especially those for the Knight of Mirrors scene, were era and attitude correct.

Patrick Ulrich’s impressively designed set, three dark-textured pillars, levels and a descending staircase, enhanced the visual appeal and aided in creating the right images.

Kudos to the cast for their authentic Spanish pronunciations, which added to the reality of the message.

Fabio Polanco created a sensitive and heart-felt Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote.  His was a realistic quest to fulfill the character’s impossible dream, rather than a theatrical gimmick-laden image.  His proficient singing voice, surety of character development and emotional involvement in creating the right image, was impressive.

Timothy Culver’s Sancho was that of a true believer, an admirer of his master’s blind search for truth, rather than the common development of the man as a buffoon.  Well done!

Genny Lis Padilla, she of fiery personality and superb voice, was mesmerizing as Aldonza.  Again, through clear directing concept, the role came to life as telling the tale that even a woman born in a dung heap deserves to be treated as a valued human.  Impressive!

Strong performances were also given by Brian Chandler (The Governor/Innkeeper), Cody Hernandez (The Duke/Dr. Carrasco/Knight of Mirrors), Zoe Dongas (Antonia), Jay White (Padre) and the Muleteers.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Terri Kent’s soul of humanness and Martin Céspedes’s creativity and visual perception are stamped all over this captivating production.  It is a “Man of La Mancha” for the 2019s.   It’s a musical drama which has an important story to tell.  GO!  Experience theater at is finest!


 
“Man of La Mancha” runs at Porthouse Theatre through June 29.  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to http://www.porthousetheatre.com/.

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE: “Tintypes,” the “Yankee Doodle Boy” Americana musical revue from July 4-20.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Audience taken on an emotional roller-coaster ride by superlative “DEAR EVAN HANSEN” at the Connor PalaceDEAR EVAN HANSEN


Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” ushered in the era of book-centric American musicals that have been designated as “musical comedies.”  The beginning, middle and ending structured stories normally contain singing, dancing, show stoppers, comedy, a few conflicts, and a satisfying ending, in a two-act format.

In the near recent-present shows like “Next to Normal,” “Come From Away,” “The Color Purple” and “Spring Awakening” have brought the genre to a new probing of sociological and psychological issues including schizophrenia, incest, rape, homosexuality and social responsibility, thus ushering in the format of the “musical drama.”  These scripts center on dramatic story-telling and less on glitz and spectacle.

“Dear Evan Hansen,” now on stage at the Connor Palace, as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series, places its spotlight on social anxiety, suicide, family angst, and teenage drug addiction as major plot issues.


“Dear Evan Hansen,” which opened on Broadway in December 2016 to universal rave reviews, was nominated for nine awards Tony awards, and won six statues, including those for Best Musical and Best Score.  The show is still running to packed-houses on the Great White Way.


The musical is loosely based on an incident that took place during the musical’s composer and lyricist Benj Pasek’s high school days, when a teenager invented an important role for himself, leading to credit that he did not earn and, therefore, did not deserve.
 

The show’s musical sound is that of pop-contemporary musical theatre, borrowing format elements from modern compositions.  It is art songs and narrative story-telling.  This is not the style of Rogers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe, but that of new voices, such writers as Jason Robert Brown (“Parade” “Last Five Years”), Jonathan Larson (“Rent”), Lin-Manuel Miranda {“In the Heights” and “Hamilton”), and Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”).  Their music uses pop and rock to tell provocative, boundary-pushing stories.

The story of “Dear Evan Hansen” centers on a teenager with social anxiety.  Upon the advice of his therapist, in order to expose himself to the positive parts of life, Evan writes letters to himself detailing what was “good” about each day. 


Besides Evan and his mother, Heidi, Jared, Evan’s only “friend,” and their attention-starved school-mate, Alana, the story-circle also includes Connor and Zoe Murphy and their parents, Larry and Cynthia.
 

Conner is a troubled teenage drug-user, with anger management issues.   Zoe is the girl that Evan crushes on from afar.  In spite of their wealth, the Murphy family is in major crisis and appears to be falling apart due to parental conflicts and Conner’s drug and conduct issues.
 

At school, one day, Connor makes fun of Evan’s awkwardness and knocks Evan to the ground.  Zoe apologizes for Connor’s actions. 
 

That same day Connor encounters Evan again, and unexpectedly offers to sign the cast on the boy’s broken arm.  Connor accidentally finds one of Evan's self-encouragement letter in the computer lab’s printer, reads it, becomes furious at the mention of Zoe, and storms out, taking the letter with him.

Several days later Evan is called to the principal's office and told that Connor has committed suicide.  Evan’s letter was found in Connor’s pocket, but it is assumed to be Connor’s suicide note addressed to “his friend Evan,” since it started, “Dear Evan Hansen” and was signed “Me.”
 

Evan is invited to the Murphy house to explain his supposed friendship with Connor.  Though he intends to "nod and confirm" to avoid making things worse, Evan, in a fit of panic, lies, pretending he and Connor had been best friends, emailing each other from a secret account. 

Thus the story spins into a tale of humorous and angst-laden misinterpretations, a growing closeness of Evan and Zoe, an on-line fund raiser to honor Connor, growing conflict between Evan and his mother, and Evan admitting his lack of friendship with Connor. 


The emotional tale ends as Evan writes himself a last letter, admitting to finally being at peace with who he is.


The touring production is generally mesmerizing.  From the opening number, “Anybody Have a Map?,” to Connor’s I want/am song, “Waving Through a Window,” to the emotion-draining “Requiem” and finally to the first act ending, the gut-wrenching “You Will Be Found,” which found many in the audience vocally sobbing, the first act is an emotional roller-coaster.

Though interesting, the second act is somewhat anti-climactic.  Part of the issue is that it lacks the humor and drama of the opening stanza.  Secondly, the pacing is slower, and finally, though the song “Finale” is affirming, much of the play’s final spoken speech, given by Jessica Phillips, as Evan’s mother, was lost in a low volume mumble.  It, unfortunately, was not the only speech that was lost due to poor modulation by the sound team, but, since it is the pivotal communication, leading to the play’s moral, the loss of hearing the words was upsetting.



Slender, stoop-shouldered, sensitive Ben Levi Ross, was spell-binding in his development of the socially inept Evan.  He gave his own spin to the role, totally immersing himself into the psyche of the ego-weak Evan.  He didn’t portray Evan, he was Evan!  He didn’t just sing songs, he presented meanings to the words of the score. 

(Side notes:  Having seen Tony winner Ben Platt on Broadway as Evan, local audiences can be assured that Ross’s interpretation, while different, is as effective.  Also be aware that the role is played by Stephen Christopher Anthony on Saturday and Sunday matinees.)
The rest of the cast was strong.  Ciara Alyse Harris, who stood in for Maggie McKenna who normally plays Zoe, was believable as the only member of her family that was emotionally on course.

Jared Goldsmith was delightful as Jared Kleinman, the sex-obsessed, computer nerd. 

Marrick Smith’s interpretation of Connor would have been aided by a clearer intensity and a more obvious development of the character’s mood swings.

Phoebe Koyabe was properly self-centered as Alana.

As the adults, Aaron Lazar (Larry), Christiane Noll (Cynthia) and Jessica Phillips (Heidi) all nicely textured their roles. 

For the younger generation, the extensive use of newsfeed, and computer and I-phone communication, will illuminate “life-as-it-is.”   Others might find the constant bombardment of visual stimulation to be over-load.  The changes aren’t a-comin’, they are here!  The growing use of computer generated sets and special effects, like the contemporary musical sounds, is part of what makes for the modern musical drama.


 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Dear Evan Hansen” is a mesmerizing evening of contemporary musical theater.  Complete with pop-contemporary music sounds, complete with art songs and narrative story-telling tunes, and a relevant story line, it is one of the finest examples of the new wave of musical dramas.  Don’t go expecting show-stoppers and an escapist plot, this is life as it is being lived, with all its angst and issues.  The touring production is excellent and is an absolutely must see!!  

 
 
“Dear Evan Hansen” runs through June 30, 2019 as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series.  To purchase tickets, visit playhousesquare.org, call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org