Sunday, March 31, 2019
In 1906, San Francisco had an intense earthquake and resulting fires. Little did my newly immigrant grandfather know that when he went to build “shacks” in the city by the bay, that he would be part of what has recently become a new trend—building “Little Houses.” He constructed many 200 square feet or less temporary homes, some of which became permanent residences.
Grandpa appreciated the necessity of building small, quick and inexpensive because of the need to provide living places for displaced people.
On the other hand, as a man who escaped from the shacks of the shtetls, he probably would think the whole “new” trend of tiny house was “meshuga.”
“Tiny Houses,” Chelsea Marcantel’s Roe Green Award winning play, which was originally presented as a staged reading in Cleveland Play House’s 2018 New. Theatre. Festival., is now in its world premiere at CPH, as a fully staged production.
The play, like my grandfather’s little houses, is purposeful. In this case it is part of the existential question of whether tiny living spaces, existing with few creature comforts like running water, and few possessions, leads to a better life.
It’s the backyard of a large home in rural Oregon. Center stage is a flatbed truck platform which is eventually to be the foundation of a 200-square-foot house.
What will transpire is the construction of the structure by four young adults (with the help of a small assemblage of stage hands).
The purpose of the dwelling is to find out if the trend toward minimalism is practical and whether it will result in happiness for two young people, in a four-month relationship, who have given up their up-scale jobs in New York. Well, she (Cath) has given up her well-paying career, to come to his (Bodhi’s) home area, to live out his Thoreau-like dream.
Building the house in the backyard of Ollie, who was Bohdi’s college roommate, turns out to be a series of amusingly misguided, awkward stumbles, missteps of relationships and construction.
“Will living small be a huge mistake?”
Besides the house construction, there are a group of idiosyncratic characters, each, looking for a place to physically and psychologically call “home.”
Besides the young lovers, Cath and Bohdi, there is Ollie, a South African, Bodhi’s college roommate, whose profession is selling haunted dolls, on line. Yep, haunted dolls!
Jevne, Bohdi’s long time next-door neighbor and girlfriend, has a huge following for her on-line sharing of tales intended to put people to sleep through use of her “soothing” voice. She appears, with the intention of helping out and rekindling her relationship with the Bohdi, the man of her dreams. (The plot thickens.)
Jeremiah, a local resident who left the area in search of self, has returned. He has a knowledge of construction which becomes a necessity for the amateur builders. As it turns out, his interest in the project, besides picking up some cash, soon turns to his attachment to Cath. (The plot thickens further.)
Yep, the plot twists and turns, and the underlying hanky-panky make this comical farce a real attention grabber (and holder).
The wonder of the theatrical enterprise is watching as an actual little house, complete with roof, windows and solar panels, is built during the 90-mimute play with no intermission.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design, Technical directors Davin Gallo and Liam Roth and the Tiny House carpenters, Cayla DeStefano, Andy Rowland and Kaleb Yandrick all deserve their own curtain call for the design and construction. (And think of this—they not only have to build the house each night, but have to dissemble it and get the pieces-parts ready for rebuilding at the next performance!)
Director Laura Kepley’s direction is spot on. The pacing is swift, the laughs constant, the fascination with the construction of the house impressive and the overall effect wonderful.
The cast is a perfect blend of eccentrics and “normals.”
Michael Doherty delights as Ollie, the free spirt fascinated with haunted dolls. Though we know little about how he wound up in a huge house in Oregon, or why he is entranced with the eerie figurines, Michael Doherty creates a character that is creatively etched.
Pretty Kate Eastman is believable as Cath, caught up in an adventure which had many unexpected twists and turns. Eastman leads us on a path of discovery that is both revealing and satisfying.
Studly Peter Hargrave, who played Bohdi in the staged reading, is a grad of the Case Western Reserve University/CPH MFA Acting program. He develops a real and conflicted character whose dreams are bigger than his realities, whether it’s building a tiny house or raising free range chickens.
Cutesy Nandita Shenoy delights as the seemingly air-headed Jevne. At times her soft voice becomes hard to hear, but, in the main, her sense of comic timing wins out, as does her character’s quest for Bohdi.
James Holloway gives a realistic performance as Jeremiah.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Tiny Houses” is one of those special pieces of modern theater that both delights and causes audiences’ to think. Is tiny better? Is minimalism good for society and individuals? Can we live deliberately? Was Thoreau all wrong, “a nut job,” in his search for authenticity? Whatever, go, see, be delighted, and learn how tiny houses are built!
“Tiny Houses” runs through April 14, 2019 in The Outcalt Theatre in the Allen Complex of PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.
Saturday, March 30, 2019
Cleveland Height resident Eric Coble is the area’s most prolific and successful contemporary playwright. His scripts have been produced locally, as well as on- and off -Broadway, and at a significant number of national theaters.
Coble’s “The Velocity of Autumn” had its Broadway premiere at the Booth Theatre. It starred Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella. “Fairfield”, “Southern Rapture”, “Bright Ideas”, “The Dead Guy”, “My Barking Dog”, “A Girl’s Guide to Coffee,” and “The Giver” have been produced Off-Broadway. Not bad for a stay-at-home dad who served on the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education.
To make matters even more interesting, Coble was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised on the Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado, “playing with rocks, sticks, seeing 1940’s serials at the movie theatre thirty miles away, and wandering the desert with his friends trying to avoid cactus until he was 15 years old.”
He notes that “moving off the reservation led to acting in high school, which led to majoring in English at Fort Lewis College (Colorado) before winging it to Ohio University for an MFA in Acting.” Along the way “he started writing plays, which were well-received enough to spur him on.”
“The Velocity of Autumn” swirls around “Alexandra, an 80-year-old artist in a showdown with her family over where she’ll spend her remaining years. In Alexandra’s corner are her wit, her passion, and the fact that she’s barricaded herself in her Brooklyn brownstone with enough Molotov cocktails to take out the block. But her children have their own secret weapon: estranged son Chris, who returns after 20 years, crawls through Alexandra’s second-floor window and becomes the family’s unlikely mediator.”
The 90-minute one-act play centers on their confrontation, during which long-simmering issues rise to the surface. It’s a vision of onset senility, the indignities of aging and the realistic intra and interpersonal conflict of what happens when the mind and body start to betray us. It also confronts the issue of homosexuality and the value of art.
“The Velocity of Autumn” has been produced locally at Beck Center and now is on stage at Karamu. The Dobama staging featured Dorothy Silver, the grand-dame of CLE theater. It opened to glowing reviews. This was not the case in all of the other venues where the story has been told. One reviewer thought the play “uneasily alternates between jokey, one-liner filled banter and such dark moments which lead to an expected conclusion.”
Maybe it’s 440/216 pride, but I thought the pathos, the humor, the interplay between the mother and the only one of her children whom she really likes, because he is most like her because of his artistic temperament, was realistic. The ending is obvious, but what did you expect? This is not a tragedy. The building was not going to explode and this spirited woman was not going to go flaming off into this good night.
The Karamu production features Jeanne Madison as Alexandra, the aging artist, Imani Khiry, as Chris, her son and is directed by Nathan Lilly.
Though not up to the level of the Dobama production, the intent and purpose of the author are adequately developed.
The lovely Ms. Madison is much too young to be playing an over-eighty-year-old. In order to add the appearance of aging she often feigned difficulty in walking and getting out of a chair. In spite of these obvious ploys, her lines were sharp and pointed and the characterization is clear. Along with Khiry, she will be helped by simply running the play before an audience, as some of the comic timing was off.
Khiry played Christopher on the surface. It was often difficult to feel the depth of his love for his mother, the real feeling of distress with his siblings and his interpersonal angst, though his lines said those things.
Director Lilly seemingly needed more time and insight into truly developing his actors to undertake this emotionally laden topic-relevant script.
The long, narrow arena theatre was too set-heavy for this sensitive show. Though well designed and nicely decorated, the space overwhelmed the play. Performing in a smaller three-quarter round configuration would have helped both the actors and the audience to get closer to the action.
Capsule judgement: “The Velocity of Autumn” gets an acceptable production. Audiences should leave having both enjoyed themselves and come in contact with the issue of aging and its consequences.
For tickets to “The Velocity of Autumn,” which runs through April 21, 2019 call 216-795-7077 or go to http://www.karamuhouse.org/
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
Having seen Audra McDonald’s Tony Award winning Broadway performance of Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” I went to see the Beck production of the show with trepidation.
I should have feared not. As it turns out Nicole Sumlin, in the lead role, and Ed Ridley portraying Jimmy Powers, Holiday’s musical director and jazz pianist-extraordinare, were more than up to the challenge.
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is a jukebox bio-musical by Lanie Robertson which loosely recounts some of the life of Billie Holliday, an American jazz singer whose career as the first-lady-of-jazz spanned over thirty years.
Known for her seminal influence on jazz and pop singing, as well as her manipulation of phrasing, tempo and improvisational skills, the talented Eleanora Fagan, better known as Billie Holliday, had little formal music education and training.
The child of unwed teenagers, she had a turbulent childhood and became a hit at Harlem nightclubs and brothels at an early age.
Her life and career were marked with many unwise love affairs, brush-ups with the law, which included jail and prison sentences, and singing with Count Basie. Basie once said, of Holliday’s tenacity, "When she rehearsed with the band, it was really just a matter of getting her tunes like she wanted them, because she knew how she wanted to sound and you couldn't tell her what to do.”
Her life was also filled with incidents in which she found herself at odds with the “white’s only” policy of many nightclubs, business, hotels, hospitals and restaurants.
Holiday is noted for many songs but her two biggest hits were “God Bless the Child,” which she supposedly wrote as a tribute to her mother, and “Don’t Explain,” written after she caught her husband, Jimmy Monroe, with lipstick on his collar.
She appeared in a number of films including ”New Orleans,” which also featured Woody Herman and Louis Armstrong.
Drug usage and alcohol consumption paid their toll. In 1947 she was arrested in her New York apartment for possession of narcotics and was sent to Alderson Federal Prison in West Virginia.
Unfortunately, after her release, in-spite of a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert attended by over 2700 fans and a musical entitled “Holiday on Broadway,” which ran three weeks, she was again arrested on drug charges.
Thus we find ourselves in Emerson’s Bar and Grill, her favorite Philadelphia haunt, obviously drunk, singing and recounting the highs and lows of her life.
This is a withered Holiday, the lows of her life having taken over, in what was probably going to be one of her last performances.
The Beck production is compelling. Nicole Sumlin is spot on as Holiday. The signature phrasing, the flow of ideas filled with hurt, the sultry jazz sound, are all present. Sumlin has put on the Holiday aura and wears it with fidelity throughout.
She is brilliantly supported by Ed Ridley, the master of the keyboard, who also portrays the role of Jimmy Powers, Bradford McGhee, a very talented bass player, and Leonard Goff, as the Emerson’s bartender.
Cameron Michalek’s simple set, a small stage surrounded by tables, Trad Burns’ lighting and Carlton Gur and Angie Hayes’ sound designs all enhanced the production. Scott Spence directs.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Nicole Sumlin is superb as Billie Holiday, Ed Ridley plays one mean piano and Bradford McGhee plucks a happy tune. The result is a special evening of musical theater! This is an absolutely must see!
“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through April 14, 2019. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org
Sunday, March 17, 2019
In this era, confusion and uncertainty are the present trend in many cutting-edge plays by a new breed of playwrights that Dobama is using as its writing stable.
Following this trend, the theater’s play selections have landed on the side of intellectual thought-provoking scripts that often leave the audience confounded and with few answers to the many questions asked by the playwrights.
“The Nether” is another one of those scripts.
As can be expected, the directing, technical aspects and acting are top-notch.
The audience is confronted with a sci-fi “crime” drama written by American playwright Jennifer Haley. Haley is noted for delving into the ethics of virtual reality and the impact of technology on our human relationships and identity.
The time is “soon” and the setting jumps from an interrogation room to the “Hideaway.”
“The internet has evolved into the Nether, a vast network of virtual reality realms. Users may log in, choose an identity, and indulge any desire. When Detective Morris investigates a realm called The Hideaway where pedophiles may live out their fantasies involving children, she brings its creator in for interrogation. They discover they have made emotional attachments in his realm that blind them to the greater questions of ethical behavior, both in the imagination and the outside world.”
Recent psychological studies have raised the question of whether being able to “act out” needs and fantasies, through game playing and simulations, relieves a person from performing deeds and actions in reality.
Is the need to act sexually through rape and sexual imposition reduced by having vicariously watched pornography reduce the need for actual sex and control?
Does having killed and maimed via the play of X-box games taken away the desire to actually pick up a gun and shoot a real person?
Or, as proposed in “The Nether,” does the ability to role play pedophilia suppress the desire to really perform the act?
Or, as Nathan Motta the Artistic Director of Dobama asks in his program notes, “What happens when we are able to completely immerse ourselves in a world without consequences? Is it accurate to say that there are no consequences in a virtual world?”
Shannon Sindelar’s direction of “The Nether” is flawless, as is the performance of Matthew Wright as Sims/Papa, the facilitator into the pedophilia-world of the Nether. Wright creates a clear character, who justifies his not acting on his child-centered desires, by being above the philosophical fray by participating in a make-believe world. His is both an illuminating and psychologically chilling character portrayal.
Young Calista Zajac as Iris, a child avatar, whose purpose is to welcome and satisfy the “guests” in Papa’s Nether Hideway, proves herself to be one of the few child actresses in the area, capable of being an equal of the professionals with whom she is surrounded. Hers is an amazing performance.
Equally excellent are the character developments of Sarah Durn as the investigator who is trying to ascertain the value or harm of the Hideway, and Joe Pine and David Peacock as participants in the on-line experience.
T. Paul Lowry’s projections, displayed within Patrick Rizzotti’s set design, add to the smooth transition from scene to scene.
Side comment: It is interesting to note that following the staging I saw, a number of audience members, knowing I was a reviewer, asked, “what is all this about?” That can be a positive evaluation of the play as it shows that it inspired the viewers to think, or it can be perplexing in that the intent and purpose of the author wasn’t clear. Hmm.
Capsule judgement: “The Nether” is a thought-provoking, disturbing script which gets a fine production. It is not for those who go to the theater to escape from the real world, but for those who wish to probe into ideas and are willing to look for the consequences of the decisions we make, whether they be in real life or a fantasy world.
“The Nether” runs through March 31, 2019 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights. Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.
Next up at Dobama: Melissa James Gibson’s “THIS” an un-romantic comedy which captures the uncertain steps of a circle of friends backing their way into middle age, staged
from April 26 through May 26, 2019.
Friday, March 08, 2019
What happens when a musical film earns over $131-million on a $35-million-dollar investment? If you are Andrew Lloyd Webber, you buy the rights and turn it into the musical SCHOOL OF ROCK with lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Julian Fellowes.
What happens when you take a bunch of adorably geeky fifth-graders who are singing, dancing and musical instrument playing phenomes, and add to the mix the rock musical sounds of Andrew Lloyd Webber? It becomes SCHOOL OF ROCK, THE MUSICAL.
In contrast to his usual scheme of things, Britain’s Webber opened the show in New York rather than in London. Why? Child labor laws are more relaxed in the United States than in England. In addition, the subject matter better fit Broadway than London’s West End. But, most importantly, the American schools “produce the sort of kids required to actually perform the show.”
The capsule judgement of my Broadway review of “School of Rock” stated that it “is a fun-filled show with a nice moral base. The music rocks. The cast entertains. It’s the kind of show that audiences love, will do well as it tours the country, and should have a long Broadway life!”
It did have a long Broadway life. It made its Broadway debut and world premiere on December 6, 2015 and ran through January 20, 2019. The tour opened on September 30, 2017 in Rochester, New York, and is now making a three-week stop at the Connor Palace.
So, what’s it all about? As was the film, the plot centers on rock singer/guitarist Dewey Finn. There is, however, a lot more emphasis on the kids and their parents than in the flick, which was basically a vehicle for comedian Jack Black.
The musical starts with a performance by the No Vacancy band. Finn, who has an A.D.D. personality, has difficulty pulling back his exuberance and keeps upstaging the lead performer. Enough is enough, and he is kicked out of the group.
With no income, he moves in with and mooches off Ned, his long-time easily manipulated college band-buddy, much to the irritation of Patty, Ned’s domineering girlfriend.
When a call comes for Ned to substitute at Horace Green, a prestigious prep school, Dewey sees a chance for some much needed money by posing as Ned.
Despite the initial doubts of Rosalie, the uptight principal, he gets the gig.
The kids are wary of him, especially the uber-organized brainiac, Summer.
He has to confront the problems of Tomika, the extremely shy daughter of gay men, who turns out to be a superstar singer; Zack, the son of an uptight businessman who doesn’t realize his son is a musical prodigy; Lawrence, who has no confidence, but is a keyboard wizard; Freddy, who everyone thinks is intellectually slow, but once he gets a pair of drum sticks in his hand, he shows how talented he really is; Billy, who is flamboyant, has an interest in fashion design, but is not appreciated by his macho father.
Each of the other kids has untapped talent which the creative Dewey brings out through non-traditional means.
Dewey decides to enter them in the Battle of the Bands. They get to the tryouts after sneaking out of school, but they are too late to play. Summer tells the casting director that all the children have “stickittothemanis,” (a made-up “disease”), pleads for some mercy, and the heartbroken manager lets the kids perform. Of course, they get into the competition.
What follows is a series of manipulations, implausible coincidences, and some out and out stretching of dramatic license. The result? Farce and hysteria run wild and the audience has one heck of a good time. Do they win the Battle of the Bands?
That’s not important. What is significant, is that Dewey and the kids find love and self-respect. The musical score, though it includes iconic songs from the film, adds many well-crafted additional theatrical melodies. Among the show stoppers are, “You’re in the Band,” “Stick it to the Man,” “In the End of Time,” “Math is a Wonderful Time,” and “School of Rock.” Throw in “If Only You Would Listen” and “Time to Play,” and you have the makings of a very good score. The cast is generally excellent.
Though he is properly hyper and often compelling, Gary Trainor, who played Dewey on press night (he alternates with Merritt David Janes), lacked the needed spontaneity. His actions seemed preplanned and lacked authenticity.
Layne Roate nicely creates an awkward, hen-pecked Ned, yearning to put on skin-tight banger-leather pants and let loose.
Most of the kids are excellent. Camille De La Cruz stopped the show with her wailing rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Special credos to Cameron Trueblood, Mystic Inscho, and Julian Brescia.
Unfortunately, one of the lead lasses kept breaking character, looking at the audience, upstaging others. Normally this could be over-looked, but this is a professional production and these kids are getting equity pay.
Director Laurence Connor has molded together a cast of kids and adults, created the right attitude for the farcical staging, and hit the right emotional notes. The choreography is creative. John Rigby, the music supervisor, nicely incorporated the kids on-stage musical performances with the pit orchestra.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: I didn’t find the touring production to be as dynamic as the Broadway show, but few patrons are going to leave not entertained. Come on, the stage is filled with talented kids, loaded with shticks and gimmicks, a dynamic score enfolded in an easily follow feel-good story. What’s not to like?
“School of Rock” runs through March 24, 2017 as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series. To purchase tickets, call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.
Saturday, March 02, 2019
Musicals come in different forms. Musical comedies, such as “Cinderella” and “School of Rock” intend to entertain. Musical dramas--think “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Come From Away,” and “Hamilton,” relay thoughtful ideas in words, song and dance. The musical tragedy, such as “Sweeney Todd” and “The Kiss Of The Spider Woman,” which is now on stage at Blank Canvas, finds a “victim” in a society which doesn’t understand or appreciate them, resulting in dire consequences.
“Kiss of the Spider Woman,” with music by Oberlin grad, John Kander, and his writing partner, Fred Ebb, the conceivers of “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” is based on Manuel Puig’s novel “El Beso de la Mujer Araña.” The musical won the 1993 Tony Award for Best Musical.
In “Spider Woman,” Luis Alberto Molina, an Argentinian, has been sentenced to an eight-year jail term for corrupting a minor. The fey homosexual former window dresser, who has a mother fixation, lives in a fantasy world as a means of escaping the horrors of prison. His obsession is movies which featured Aurora, a sultry diva, who starred in bigger-than life telenovela soap-opera films of high emotion.
In one of her movies, Aurora, as a spider woman, kills her lovers with the kiss of death.
Molina has learned to live with the taunting and sexual impositions of the prison guards, but one day his world is rocked when a new prisoner, Valentin, a handsome Marxist political revolutionary, is cast into his cell.
Valentine, who has been severely tortured, is nurtured back to health by Molina. In order to block out the cries of other tortured prisoners, Molina talks non-stop. He shares his history, his love of movies, his obsession for Aurora.
At first the duo clashes. Valentin draws an imaginary line down the middle of the cell with an understanding that Molina will stay on his own side. Eventually, however, Molina starts to win over Valentin with his story telling and humorous charm.
Valentine is again severely tortured.
Molina again nurses him back to health. In a show of faith, Valentin shares information about his personal life and his revolutionary activities.
In an attempt to get Molina to relate the vital information the warden offers to free him so he can go home to his “ill” mother.
The relationship between the cellmates deepens. Molina is forced to make a decision of whether or not to share the evidence that Valentin has secretly shared, while the “kiss of the Spiderwoman” hangs over the lives of the men.
“Kiss of the Spider Woman” is a difficult musical to produce. It requires two exceptional actors to create the roles of Molina and Valentin. Director Patrick Ciamacco was fortunate enough to find the perfect duo.
Scott Esposito develops a Molina who gives just the right level of fey, while not going over-the-top. He is real, accessible, allowing the audience to feel his emotional pain. He has a fine singing voice, which is beautifully showcased in “She’s a Woman” and “Mama, It’s Me.” “Only in the Movies” is a showstopper. His is an exceptional performance.
Michael Snider creates a well-textured macho, yet sensitive, Valentin. His developing affection toward Molina unfolds in a shroud of reality. The duo’s affection has an air of authenticity. His strong vocal talents are showcased in “Over the Wall III” and “The Day After That.” “Anything for Him,” sung with Esposito and Rachel Maria Ines (Spider Woman/Aurora) was powerful. The emotional arching between Snider and Esposito was extremely believable, a necessity for the “realness” of the story development.
The male chorus sings exceptionally well. Their “Morphine Tango” was engaging. The men’s dancing generally has an air of clumsiness and lack of spontaneity which adds to their macho, rather than chorus boy image.
Rachel Maria Ines does not have the stage dynamics needed for Spider Woman/Aurora. Though she sings well, and her aerial work is intriguing, she fails to spotlight the firepower to be the subject of Molina’s obsession.
Musical director, Bradley Wyner, needs to rethink some of his musical choices. Often, such as in “The Day After That,” the singers had to fight with the music to be heard. In general, the heavy handed keyboard pounding was over-the-top. The purpose of the music is to support the singers, not drown them out.
Patrick Ciamacco’s metal spider-webbed design is functional and works well to keep the action moving along, as does his precise and nicely-conceived stage movements.
Jenniver Sparano’s costume designs, especially as they relate to Spider Woman/Aurora helps develop the image of the character.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Kiss of the Spider Woman” is a haunting musical drama which generally gets a fine performance. The stellar performances by Scott Esposito and Michael Snider is a master class in musical theater performance. It is a production very well worth seeing!
“Kiss of the Spider Woman” runs through March 16, 2019 at Blank Canvas, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland. For tickets and directions go to http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com//