Monday, August 08, 2022

OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD @ Seat of the Pants Productions

 

The Seat of the Pants Productions’ mission states that “Our hope is to create theater that challenges minds, moves hearts, and mobilizes hands and feet - in both performers and patrons.”

 
Its choice of British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker’s OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD, based on Thomas Keneally’s novel THE PLAYMAKER, well fulfills the company’s goal.  
 
OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD, which won the 1988 Laurence Olivier Award for Play of the Year, was nominated as Best Play for the 1991 Tony Award, and won the 1991 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the Best Foreign Play, concerns a group of Royal Marines and convicts in a penal colony in New South Wales in the 1780s.
 
“The convicts and Royal Marines were sent to Australia to set up the first penal colony in what we now know as Australia. The area was selected as it was far from England, the convicts would no longer be a menace to the ‘civilized’ people of the isle, and the territory would become yet another possession in the far-reaching British Empire.”
 
“The play shows the class system in the convict camp and discusses themes such as sexuality, punishment, the Georgian judicial system, and the idea that it is possible for ‘theatre to be a humanizing force’.”
 
Most of the characters in the play are based on real people who sailed with the First Fleet though some have had their names changed. 
 
As the play evolves, we find a lieutenant being tasked with putting on a play to celebrate the king's birthday. The catch? His cast members are the English convicts. Few of them can read, let alone act, and the play is being produced against a background of food shortages and barbaric punishments. Some of the convicts are violent, some are prostitutes banned from England because of their immoral life styles, others are petty criminals sent away for pick-pocketing or speaking against the crown, while others are mentally ill.  They, of course, continue to act out while incarcerated.
 
To make matters worse, several of the soldiers are masochistic sadists, bent on punishing the convicts through starvation and beatings. Others soldiers have compassion for the convicts.  The factions conflict.
 
The cast of ten, Abraham Adams, Scott Esposito, Jeannine Gaskin, Benjamin Gregg, Natalie Sander Kern, Daniel McKinnon, Brett Radke, James Rankin, Meriah Sage, and Lana Sugarman, portray 22 different characters, some playing both convicts and officers. 
Esposito, alone, develops a single character, the pivotal, 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark, a compassionate soul who directs the play within the play, and finds a humanness in each of the convicts who take roles in the production.
 
Craig Joseph effectively directs, with scenic design by Micah Harvey, costume design by George McCarty II, lighting design by Ayron Lord, sound design by Megan Slabach, and properties design by Lisa L. Wiley. Intimacy direction is by Casey Venema and fight direction is guided by Ryan Zarecki. Voice and dialect coaching is by Chuck Richie. 
 
While a captivating topic, exposing the viewers to a part of history to which few Americans have been exposed, the experience is generally positive, but not without problems.  
 
While the cast is excellent, most of the portrayals are believable, and the staging creative, the constant moving of the boxes which made up the set pieces, became very distracting and dragged out the play’s length.
 
The script, as written, is over 2-and-a-half hours, with an intermission.  Heavy script cutting not only would have shortened the sit, but brought a clearer focus. 
 
The director is to be praised for insisting on authenticity in accents, but the unfamiliar sounds were often impossible to understand.  As is often done in Shakespeare plays intended for American audiences, it might have been wise to lighten the intonations.  
 
Be warned: Reinberger Auditorium, at least the night I saw the show, was like a frozen tundra. The wearing of warm clothing would have been helpful.   
 
The pre-publicity and program warn: “OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD contains several instances of physical violence and menace related to incarceration, colonialism, and corporal punishment, including discussion of - but no portrayal of - death by hanging. There is also discussion of - but no portrayal of - non-consensual sexual intimacy.”  Don’t let that detour you. There are “horrors,” but not vivid enough to cause strong reaction.
 
Capsule judgment:  OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD exposes the viewer to a part of history not well known to many.   The overly-long script gets a creditable staging by Seats of the Pants Productions.  It is worth the sit for anyone interested in probing theater.
 
OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD runs Friday and Saturday nights @ 8 and Sundays @ 2 through August 21 at Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland.  For tickets:  https://www.eventbrite.com/e/our-countrys-good-by-timberlake-wertenbaker-tickets-373024525397

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Cain Park’s SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is a visual and lyrical love song to the “Father of the modern American Musical”

 



 
Stephen Sondheim is generally credited with being the “father of the modern American musical.”  
 
His recent death has encouraged theatres to do commemorative productions of his plays.  Locally, Lakeland Theatre will do FOLLIES this fall, Porthouse is now presenting WEST SIDE STORY, and Cain Park is staging SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM in its intimate Alma Theatre.
 
Stephen Joshua Sondheim was an isolated and emotionally neglected child.  His parents d
ivorced when he was about ten.  He detested his mother who blamed him for her failed marriage and once wrote him a letter saying that the only regret she ever had was giving birth to h
im.  His animosity was so strong that when she died in the spring of 1992, Sondheim did not attend her funeral.  It is said that one of his most poignant songs, “Children Will Listen,” was his message to the world about the effect his mother’s words had on him.  

 
His saving grace was forming a close friendship with James Hammerstein, son of lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein. (Yes, that Oscar Hammerstein, the co-author of such block-buster musicals as OKLAHOMA, CAROUSEL, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and THE KING AND I.)  The elder Hammerstein became Sondheim's surrogate father, influencing him profoundly and developing his love for musical theater.
 
It was at the Hammerstein’s that Sondheim was introduced to Arthur Laurents, who told him he was working on a musical version of ROMEO AND JULIET with Leonard Bernstein.  Laurents indicated that they needed a lyricist.  Sondheim held a degree in composing and was reluctant.  He turned to Hammerstein who supposedly said, "Look, you have a chance to work with very gifted professionals on a show that sounds interesting, and you could always write your own music eventually. My advice would be to take the job.”  
 
Sondheim took the job and wrote the words to WEST SIDE STORY.  He fulfilled Hammerstein’s forecast, when in 1962 he wrote both words and music for A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.  The show ran 964 performances and won six Tony awards.  And, as the trite saying goes, “The rest is history.”  
 
SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is a revue which incorporates both visual clips of media and journalistic segments of actual interviews with Sondheim, interwoven with songs from all 19 of his musicals which appeared on Broadway stages. These range from the beloved to the obscure including “Something’s Coming” from WEST SIDE STORY, "Finishing the Hat" from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, "Being Alive" from COMPANY, and "Send in the Clowns" from A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC to “The Gun Song” from ASSASSINS and “Opening Doors” from MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.

The show enforces the composer/lyricist’s role as having reinvented the American musical with shows that tackled "unexpected themes that range far beyond the [genre's] traditional subjects" with "music and lyrics of unprecedented complexity and sophistication.” His shows often addressed the darker, more harrowing elements of the human experience, with songs often tinged with ambivalence about life.
His songs reveal that Sondheim used “angular harmonies and intricate melodies.” And that he rejected the traditional image of the Western world typically presented in Broadway productions, and instead depicted it as "predatory and alienating."

It also illustrates that his works acquired a cult following with gay audiences.  This gay connection is somewhat misleading as Sondheim, who was often described as introverted and solitary, didn’t open up about his homosexuality until he was in his 40s, didn’t enter a relationship until he was in his 60s, and didn’t get married to Jeffrey Scott Roley, a digital technologist, until 2017.
As a kind of thank you to his being mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II,  Sondheim returned the favor, saying that he loved "passing on what Oscar passed on to me.”  Included in the stable of those he aided were Adan Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, Jonathan Larson, who wrote TICK, TICK… BOOM! and RENT, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who Sondheim asked to work with him on a planned Spanish version of WEST SIDE STORY. Miranda, in turn, approached Sondheim to aid with his HAMILTON. 

Cain Park's production, which was directed by Joanna May Cullinan, has music direction by Jordan Cooper and choreography by Monica Olejko.   It features Amiee Collier, Mario Clopton-Zymler, Andrea de la Fuente, Trey Gilpin, Frank Ivancic, Kate Klika, Connor Stout, and Nicole Sumlin with Cameron Olin, Adam Rawlings, Danny Simpson, and Amanda Tidwell. 
 
The excellent production featured prime singing, well-conceived song interpretations and creative staging.
 
Capsule judgment:  SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM is a theatre-lovers dream.  It is an in-depth look at one of America’s musical theatre greats presented in his spoken words, his musical sounds, and creative lyrics.  It is a must see for anyone who admires his work or is interested in finding out more about Sondheim!
 
For tickets, to the show, which runs until August 13, call (216) 371-3000 or visit https://tinyurl.com/ye2b2zzu
 




Friday, August 05, 2022

The Musical Theatre Project goes live with FOR GOOD: THE NEW GENERATION OF MUSICALS


After a two-year COVID hiatus, The Musical Theater Project returns to live performances, “For Good:  The New Generation of Musicals.”   The August 20, 21 and 27 offerings will feature narrators Nancy Maier and Sheri Gross and vocals by Jessica Cope Miller and Eric Fancher. 

 

Long time TMTP followers are used to hearing stories and songs from the Golden Era of the American musical.  In contrast, the material in the “For Good,” offerings will generally be picked from the scores from contemporary American musicals.  

 

The Golden Age lasted from the early 1940s through the end of that century.  The seminal OKLAHOMA, Rogers and Hammerstein’s ground breaking musical, set a template for most of the musicals that followed it. 

 

Keynotes of those offerings were a story line, usually developed via a double set of tales, one featuring the major love interests, the second, a comedy relationship.  Think Julie and Billie and Carrie and Mr. Snow in CAROUSEL or Annie and Frank and Winnie and Tommy in ANNIE GET YOUR GUN.  

 

Identifying parts of the format included two acts, the first ending with a problem, the solution to which would only be revealed if the audience came back for act two. For example, at the end of the initial act in THE KING AND I, the British are coming to Siam to determine the fate the country.  The issue:  Will Anna be able to aid the King to thwart off the potential take-over? 

 

Another stylistic factor of the Golden Age musical was the “I Want” song in which the lead character tells of their needs and desires.  “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from MY FAIR LADY fulfills that requirement.

 

Among other key stylistic factors were an overture, show stopping production numbers and dance interludes.

 

The modern/contemporary era of musicals, which is the key to TMTP’s FOR GOOD series, was basically ushered in by Jonathan Larson’s RENT.  It broke most of the formulaic patterns and took on more of a story with music.  The songs are part of the dialogue, not a break from it.  The shows often contain no dancing.  The topics are more serious, for example, mental illness is probed in NEXT TO NORMAL.  Race is the keynote in CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, teen angst is the fulcrum of DEAR EVAN HANSEN and lesbian and gay coming out highlight FUN HOME. 

 

In a recent interview with Sheri Gross, who in real life serves as the Director of Arts, Culture, and Creative Programming at Gross Schechter School, is the theatre reviewer for the Cleveland Jewish News, and is serving as both a narrator and script developer for THE NEW GENERATION OF MUSICALS, it was revealed that this was the sixth TMTP show in which she has been involved.  She originally sang in productions, then started to write and then narrate.  

 

For this program, shows to be covered were agreed upon, songs selected from each, and the performers rehearsed their songs with music director Nancy Meier.

 

The format will center on behind the scenes info of the shows and the singing of lyrics.  Productions, from which songs have been selected, include MOULIN ROUGE, MR. SATURDAY NIGHT, A STRANGE LOOP, CAROLYN, OR CHANGE, SIX, GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY, FLYING OVER SUNSET, FUN HOME, and the revival of FUNNY GIRL.

 

Gross indicated that, as a performer and director of shows from the Golden Era, much of the material to be presented was new to her.  She finds that the present-day musicals show greater risk taking in topic selection, many of the songs have harmonies and musical patterns that are edgier, and that the story-lines reflect the issues in modern society.  She thinks much of this is thanks to Stephen Sondheim and this willingness to challenge tradition and be creative and edgy.  The program will include a special tribute to Sondheim.

 

The music from at least one of her favorite scripts, THE MUSIC MAN, will be included in this program.  Other favorite shows include FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.

 

FOR GOOD will be staged at the BOP STOP, 2920 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, on Saturday, August 20th (7:30 PM) and 21st (2 PM) and on Saturday, August 27th (7:30) at French Creek Theatre, 4540 French Creek Road, Sheffield).  Tickets are $35 and can be ordered online at MusicalTheaterProject.org or by phone 216-860-1518 ext. 710.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Lead-up to unexpected ending makes ANGRY FAGS worth seeing at con-con


A catalog description of ANGRY FAGS, the Topher Payne play, now on stage at convergence- continuum, cautions that the script contains “alcohol, gunshots, intense adult themes, strong language, nudity/partial nudity and smoking.”  What it doesn’t alert you to is the unexpected and shocking ending!

Payne explained of his writing, "If you can make someone laugh, they listen. And they lean in and they want to hear more. And once you have that level of engagement, then you can start layering in a message that you want them to take away.”
 
ANGRY FAGS originally premiered at 7 Stages in Atlanta, GA in February.  A revised version of the work was developed.  It is this version that is on stage at con-con.

A review of an earlier production of ANGRY FAGS bannered the show as an “uncompromising Oscar Wilde-meets-Fight Club fantasia."  Another stated, "A gay gentleman's guide to love and murder [...] Filled with tension but laced with moments of black humor and rigged with unexpected twists and turns."  Still another writer indicated, “Vicious, deliciously subversive, brutal and breathtakingly funny, this dystopian revenge tragedy pushes every button.”

So, what’s the show about?  
 
“An out lesbian state senator is up for re-election. Her female opponent is an [African American] moderate conservative who’s aligned herself with right-wing extremists. They’re locked in a tight race in which each side dog-whistles to its base and any event can become instantaneously politicized.
 
When a gay man is bashed with a baseball bat and left to die, his ex-boyfriend, a campaign aide for the incumbent senator, is enraged. But it’s the unwillingness of his boss to label it a hate-crime that tips him over the edge. Teaming up with his best friend, the two men embark on a vendetta of sabotage and assassinations, reasoning that if gays aren’t respected enough to win equal justice and rights, fear will achieve what good intentions and politics cannot.”
 
The con-con production, under the direction of Scott Zolkowski, is compelling at times, missing its humor, pace and dynamics at others.  Greatly missing is the author’s promise of the “moments of black humor. “
 
The story line is nicely developed and effectively sneaks up on its surprising, even shocking ending.   
 
The cast is uneven in their talents and abilities to develop clear and consistent characters.  Some of this is the lack of theatrical experience of some of the performers, some due to the director’s inability to get the actors to project and understand the motivation behind their actions.
 
Handsome, sensual Adam Harry swings from calm to hysterical, from clothed to unclothed, with scary ease.  His Cooper Harlow effectively shows tendencies of a drama queen, while also being a dedicated, if unhinged, friend.
 
His “partner in crime,” slight David Lenahan, as the easily manipulated Bennett Riggs, has some difficulty walking a consistent line between showing the character’s desires and his actions.  
 
Valerie Young, as she has proven in the past, does a creditable job of developing the role of Dierdre Preston, an on-air newscaster.
 
Joan Jankowski (Senator Allison Haines) and Amanda Rowe-Van Allen (Kimberly Phillips, Senator Haines’ Assistant) are believable in their role developments.
 
Jack Matuszewsk (Adam Lowell, Senator Haines’ Campaign Director, Bennett’s lover and XXX...can’t reveal this or it blows the plot open) makes the character’s swing of personas with surprising ease, though some of his lines sound read rather than spoken.
 
Natalya Duncan puts out full effort, but never makes a real person of Peggy Musgrove, the Republican senatorial candidate.
 
Neil Sudhakaran’s projections aid to clarify the multiple settings needed to flesh out the show.
 
The floor design, bannering the issues of the day, were creatively conceived and executed by Cory Molner and Scott Zolkowski.
 
Don’t get all worked up by the fact that the program lists an Intimacy Director as part of the production staff. Yes, there are some male-male kisses, and Adam Harry flounces around in nothing but a pair of black bikini-briefs, and two of the guys appear in towels wrapped only around the lower parts of their nude bods, but sex is not on the docket.
 
Capsule judgement:  Con-cons cult audience will be pleased by the presence of lots of male partial nudity, a non-traditional story, and the gay theme.  Others will be intrigued by the author’s ability to lead down one path and throw a curve ball into the action and then surprise with a startling ending.  All in all, even with some of the weak performances, this is a production worth seeing.
 
The show runs from July 8-30 at Cleveland’s up-close and OUT there Theatre.  For tickets go to www.convergence-continuum.org
 
Up next:  NEIGHBORHOOD 3:  REQUISION OF DOOM by Jennifer Haley from August 26-September 17.  “Haley’s suspenseful play displays cautionary messages about inattentive parents of teenagers addicted to online video games.”

Thursday, July 14, 2022

If you love The Temptations, you’ll be on “Cloud Nine” and “Shout” about AIN’T TOO PROUD


AIN’T TOO PROUD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS
, which is now on stage at the State Theatre as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series, is a 2018 jukebox musical with music and lyrics by The Temptations and book by Dominique Morisseau.  

Jukebox musicals are stage shows in which songs were written with no preconceived connection to the script.  The genre includes JERSEY BOYS, BEAUTIFUL---THE CAROL KING STORY and BUDDY-- THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY, which follow the life experiences of a well-known performer.  Other jukebox musicals, such as MAMA MIA, ROCK OF AGES and PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, have pre-written music, but are not a real story.  The tale is concocted and the songs are dropped into the script.

AIN’T TOO PROUD is based on the history of the musical group known by many names in their development, but once they became part of Motown, and finally developed a persona, their signature dance moves and unmistakable harmonies, they were named The Temptations and took off on a career which included 42 top ten hits with 14 reaching number one and were named, in 2017, as the greatest R&B group of all time by Billboard Magazine.

The group was noted for pioneering psychedelic soul music and was significant in the evolution of R&B and soul music.  Distinct harmonies, creative choreography and their stylish clothing were imitated by many groups.

The musical illuminates how and why the group was founded, the ever-changing membership, the group’s interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts, their role in the civil rights movement and the nation’s politics and war, the stress on individual performers which resulted in life and marriage problems.  This is a tale of brotherhood and loyalty, as well as betrayal.

Do The Temptations still exist?  The musical doesn’t answer this question, but the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”  In the Fall of 2021, they released two singles, "Is It Gonna Be Yes or No," featuring Smokey Robinson, and "When We Were Kings," as part of their upcoming album, “Temptations 60.” So the history goes on.

AIN’T TOO PROUD is the opportunity to hear over thirty of the group’s greatest hits including “Just My Imagination,” “Get Ready,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” ‘Gloria,” “Shout,” and “For Once in My Life.”

The musical was first staged at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California, then was presented in a series of regional venues.  Songs were added and dropped, and story threads adjusted.  In March, 2019 the production opened on Broadway.  It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, but only got a statue for its choreography.

The touring company tells the tale well.  Though too long, it is nicely staged by director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo.  Cutting several songs, which were not integral to the story, would have helped the tedium factor that became evident as the show went on and on.  (Side comment:  I would assume if I were a fanatic follower of the group, which I am not, I wouldn’t have minded the extra songs.)

The local staging was somewhat hampered, on opening night, by the absence of Marcus Paul James, who usually portrays the lead role of Otis Williams, the founder and central cog of The Temptations.  Michael Andreaus, one of his understudies stepped in. 

Andreaus was quite good, but he was sometimes slightly out of sync in the complicated dance movements and lacked some of the needed charisma needed for the role.  Also added to this production was Antwan Holley, who stepped in as Barry Gordy, the role that Andreaus usually plays.

The cast was excellent, often playing more than one role. 

The costuming was impressive.  Each performer wore multi high-styled and fashioned colored costumes. 

The stage band was loud and rocking, which was to be expected.

Capsule judgment:  It is always interesting, whether or not you are a fan of a person or a group, to see and hear their story in a juke box musical.  AIN’T TOO PROUD gives the viewer an inside view of how The Temptations were founded, developed and performed.  The touring show did the history proud.  If you love the Temptations, you’ll be on “Cloud Nine” and “Shout” about AIN’T TOO PROUD.  If not a fanatic, it is still worth seeing it

The show is at the KeyBank State Theatre at Playhouse Square through Sunday, July 31st. Tickets are available for all performances, and can be purchased by clicking here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

“Alas For You,” GODSPELL is in fine production at Porthouse


 

GODSPELL, which is now on stage at Porthouse Theatre, is based on “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” The musical tells the story of the last seven days of Christ's life. The parables have been contemporized, and Christ's followers are free spirits who sing the likes of "Day by Day", "All Good Gifts", and "Turn Back, O Man."

The show is sometimes perceived to be the creative child of Broadway super-author and composer Stephen Schwartz, the conceiver of such hits as PIPPIN and WICKED.   ‘Taint so.  Schwartz was a late-comer to the project. 

The story goes that in 1970, while attending college in Pittsburgh, John-Michael Tebelak went to church on Easter Sunday.  At the time, he was a theology student.  Tebelak found the service to be devoid of feeling.  On the way home, the long-haired Tebelak was stopped by a policeman and searched for drugs.  (Remember, this was the era of student protests, hippies, draft card burning, and those “dangerous” peaceniks.). Tebelak later confided that these combined experiences provided him the inspiration for THE GODSPELL

He originally used the archaic English spelling for “gospel” which means good news.   The “THE” was dropped from the title before the show’s Off-Broadway opening

Tebelak produced the show as his senior project at Carnegie Mellon University.  Ironically, John-Michael left school without graduating. 

The original score consisted of a song written by a cast member and old Episcopal Hymns, played by a rock band. 

The show was eventually staged at the off-Broadway Cafe La Mama Theatre.  A producer saw the production and said he would finance it if it had a new score.  Enter Stephen Schwartz, who wrote all the songs in 5 weeks.  (The only tune to remain from the original production is "By My Side").    

The newly conceived show opened Off-Broadway on May 17, 1971.  Tebelak was 22 years of age!  GODSPELL moved onto Broadway where it ran for 2,124 performances.  A filmed version was made, and hundreds of professional and amateur productions of the show have been done. 

"Beautiful City" was written in 1972 as part of the film version of the script and has been added to stage versions.

Besides the Schwartz connection to the project, another fact that is generally overlooked is Tebelak’s Cleveland connection.  He is a Berea product.   As related by the late Bill Allman, the long-time producing director of Berea Summer Theatre, “John-Michael cut his theatrical teeth at Berea Summer Theatre where he acted, designed scenery and directed.  In 1980 he returned to his roots when he directed a revival production of GODSPELL.” 

The show’s other connection to the area is that in August of 1971, before it became a mega-hit, GODSPELL was produced at Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, the predecessor to Great Lakes Theatre, which, at the time, was housed in Lakewood High School’s auditorium.   The show’s director was non-other than Tebelak, himself.   

The show is not without controversy.  It has been called blasphemous.  A conservative religious leader stated, “Surely no Christian who believes the Bible would approve of the perversion of GODSPELL.”  The Wexford Pennsylvania School Board banned a production of it after “complaints about its religious message.

There has also been some controversy over the lack of a resurrection scene. This criticism notably mirrors similar criticism leveled at the 1970 rock opera JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR which also did not depict the resurrection.

Schwartz has made a note of this in the script, saying: “Over the years, there has been comment from some about the lack of an apparent Resurrection in the show. Some choose to view the curtain call, in which Jesus appears, as symbolic of the resurrection; others point to the moment when the cast raises Jesus above their heads. While either view is valid, both miss the point. GODSPELL is about the formation of a community which carries on Jesus' teachings after he has gone. In other words, it is the effect Jesus has on the others which is the story of the show, not whether or not he himself is resurrected.

Any director of GODSPELL has a number of choices to make as there is no script for the show.  Everything is part of the score and there are no stage directions for how it should be staged.  It has been done as a series of segments in which comic characters are the center of attention.  It was also staged as children in a Sunday school class.  It has been done as a religious sermon.  It has also been performed as a dream sequence.  The Porthouse production is set in a church.

Another issue is the tone of the piece.  Should the production center on the religious message, forsaking the humor, or take Tebelak to heart and make this a production of joy.  Porthouse choses the latter approach.

How to costume the show can also be a conundrum.  Often Jesus is garbed in a Superman t-shirt and his followers clothed to in a hippie/tie-dye theme.  In the Porthouse version, true to the more traditional theme in this production, Jesus is garbed all in white, his followers in various clothing.  Director/choreographer Dylan Ratell has wisely updated some of the language and nonverbal gestures.

All in all, this is a generally compelling production.




Ben Piché has the handsome good looks of many of the paintings of Jesus.  He has a pleasant voice, but, unfortunately failed to develop the charisma that would be necessary to reap fanatic followers.  His “Save the People,” had a nice musical sound and his “On the Willows” was beautifully interpreted.

Show highlights include “Day by Day” as sung by Jennie Nasser, the choreography for “All for the Best,” the vocals for “All Good Gifts, which featured Charlie Kadair, who has a nice approach to humor, “By My Side” sung by Jocelyn Trimmer, and “We Beseech Thee” joyously sung by Evan Waggoner.

Alexandre Marr’s musical direction was excellent, supporting, rather than drowning out the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  A good production of GODSPELL can still be a fine theatrical experience, whether you are or are not into the religious message.  Though the ending did not have the emotional effect that could be created, the Porthouse staging pleased the audience.

The show runs through July 23, 2022.  For tickets:  330-672-3884 or www.porthousetheatre.com


Sunday, July 10, 2022

Welcome to the Renaissance—choreography is highlight of delightful SOMETHING ROTTEN @ Beck



Theater history books refer to THE BLACK CROOK, which opened in 1866 in New York, as the first musical.  However, according to Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, the conceivers of SOMETHING ROTTEN!, now on stage at Beck Center for the Arts, that honor should go to “OMELETTE.”

Never heard of OMELETTE? Unless you’ve seen the hysterically funny “SOMETHING ROTTEN!” you don’t realize that OMELETTE is an in-joke at the center of a farcical plot that exposes how the Bottom brothers outsmarted the Elizabethan era’s literary rock star, William Shakespeare, in producing the world’s first musical. 

 

Nick and Nigel Bottom, an ego-centric actor and his naïve playwright-poet brother, live in the theatrical shadow of the Bard of Avon.  They desire to take some of the attention away from (insert horn tribute) Will. 

 

How to do it?  (Easy), they pay a soothsayer, a maybe-relative of the famous Nostradamus, to look into the future.  His predictions?  Shakespeare’s greatest hit is going to be OMELETTE and the next big trend in theatre is going to be musicals, where the actors sing many of their lines.   So (of course) the duo starts to one-up Will by writing a musical play about fried eggs.

 

Their efforts result in a kick line of dancing eggs, a very funny story line, and ridiculous farcical actions.  The musical numbers, “It’s a Musical “and “Make an Omelette,” rank with “Springtime for Hitler” from “The Producers” as one of the funniest dances in musical history choreography, especially in the creative of choreographic mind of Martin Céspedes. (And, of course, the show-stoppers get tumultuous applause from the appreciative audience.)

 

We observe Shakespeare as "a hack with a knack for stealing anything he can,” who swipes not only the title, but plot devices and lines from the naïve Nigel, which turn out to be “Will’s” “HAMLET.” (Oh, “HAMLET,” not “Omelette!”)  As the soothsayer says, to audible groans, laughter and applause at the final curtain, “Well, I was close!”

 

From its opening, the creative “Welcome to the Renaissance,” to the “Finale,” the musical is classical theater gone awry, complete with show-stoppers, encore after encore, ridiculous sight gags, double entendres, cross-dressing, sexual allusions, and many male costumes with huge codpieces, which are often used as pockets (with delightful effect).

 

There are numerous references to the Bard’s plays and Broadway musicals. Anyone not familiar with either of these topics might not get all the subtext,  though they get waving playbills with the titles of the shows being referenced to help them.

 

How can a show with a score which contains “The Black Death,” “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top,” and “To Thine Own Self” be anything but filled with ridiculous delight?

 

Farce is hard to perform well because of the need for broad realism where the audience laughs with the performers, not at them.  This cast, with a few stumbles in direction, makes the difficult look easy. 

 

The singing and dancing ensemble is outstanding.   



Scott Sumerak amuses as Shakespeare, flitting around the stage, the obvious superstar of the Renaissance, (and the only one with a heavy British accent).

 

Eric Fancher is excellent as the up-tight obsessive Nick Bottom whose mission in life is to out-bard the Bard.   Ian Stewart is charming as the shy poet-writer, Nigel Bottom.  Eileen Brady is lovely and sings well as the Disney-like princess, Nigel’s’ lady love.


 

Brian Altman swishes with gleeful ease as Brother Jeremiah.  Theresa Kloos is women’s lib-correct as Nick’s put-upon wife, and Tim Tavcar gives new understanding to Shylock (yes, that MERCHANT OF VENICE, Shylock).

 

Matthew Wright delights, giving an award-winning performance, as the bumbling Nostradamus.  (Standing “O”, for Matthew.)

 

Larry Goodpaster’s musical direction is right on key.  The songs are well interpreted and the large orchestra doesn’t drown out the performers.

 

Kudos to Ben Gantose for his lighting design and Angie Hayes for the sound.

 

The talented supporting performers all dance and sing with talent and enthusiasm thanks to energetic, farce-filled choreography.  (Insert to the sound of trumpet trills….) Martin Céspedes again proves that he is one of the area’s best choreographers. 

 

(Hmm…) Wonder why there was no song list in the program?

 

(Another question…) Though the “omelette number” worked well with the egg shells, why was that approach taken rather than the award-winning Broadway costume design of dancing omelettes, since the entire plot leads up to that production number?  Only the director and costume designer know the answer. (And, speaking of costumes, why is there inconsistent use of Renaissance period design?)

 

Capsule judgment: “Something Rotten” is a theatrical treat. This is an absolutely must see for anyone who loves musical theatre and/or wants to experience a wonderful evening of dance, song and side-splitting laughter. It is actually worthy of a standing ovation!)

 

For tickets go to beckcenter.org or call 216.521.2540 x10.




Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Porthouse Theatre's LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS features creative directing and fabulous choreograph

 

 



LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, the horror comedy rock musical which is now on stage at Porthouse Theatre, is the kind of show that many love to hate while others love it.  The topics of abuse and drug use, which are not in the wheelhouse of musicals, sometimes turn people off, as does the phy-sci-centered plot.

Filled with rock and roll, doo-wop and early Motown music, it has a strong cult following who gleefully singalong with the shows catchy “Skid Row” “Somewhere That’s Green, and “Suddenly Seymour” and imitate the “Feed Me” sounds of Audrey II, the blood thirsty plant who plays a major part in the story’s warped plot.

The Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (lyrics and book) stage show, is loosely based on the low-budget 1960 black and white film of the same name.

The plot based on the story, “The Reluctant Orchid,” a tale of a humble florist who uses a man-eating plant to get rid of his enemies and raise his own status.

Howard Ashman, who wrote the lyrics and book, in the introduction to the acting edition of the libretto, states that the show "satirizes many things: science fiction, "B-movies, musical comedy itself, and even the Faust legend."

The musical premiered Off-off Broadway in 1982, then moved to Off-Broadway for a five-year run. When it closed, it was the highest-grossing production in Off-Broadway history.

The tale starts with a trio of street urchins named Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon setting the 1960’s mood and foreshadow the tale, singing the title song.  We meet Seymour Krelborn, a geeky young man who was taken from an orphanage by Mr. Mushnik, the owner of a failing florist shop located on skid row.  Also present are cranky Mr. Mushnik and Audrey, a pretty blonde who is in an abusive relationship with Orin Scrivello, a sadistic dentist. 

Seymour finds a mysterious plant that looks like a large Venus flytrap.  Since Seymour is secretly in love with Audrey, he names the plant Audrey II in her honor.

Though Seymour takes very good care of it, the plant does not thrive in its new environment. He accidentally pricks his finger on a rose thorn, which draws blood, and Audrey II's pod opens thirstily. Seymour realizes that Audrey II requires blood to survive.

Thus starts the farcical tale of how Audrey II’s blood-needs are met, the florist shop becomes famous because of Audrey II, the abuser gets “done-in,” Seymour finds a way to be with Audrey, and lot of other weird “stuff” happens.

The Porthouse production, under the creative direction of Terri Kent, is delightful. 

Morgan Mills (Seymour), is appealing and sings well.  It would have been nice if he was a little-more “geekier.”  

Abby Stoffel has the right looks and attitude for Audrey.  Her “Somewhere That’s Green,” was the show’s emotional highlight.  A little less screeching while speaking, would have been appreciated. 



The street urchins, Chiffon (Jocelyn Trimmer), Crystal (Israeljah Aylah Khi-Reign) and Ronette (Hannah Hall), who act as a Greek Chorus, commenting on the action, are top-notch.  Their singing, dancing and acting are show-stoppers.

Tim Culver’s Mr. Mushnik is “kvetch” (whiner) perfect.

Martin Cespedes’s choreography, especially in the scenes with the street urchins, was creative and visually compelling. His use of authentic 1960 dance moves, such as the Frug, Pony, Swim, Twist, Paso Doble and the ageless Hora, added a special choreographic aesthetic.

Jennifer Korecki’s musicians, Brad Bolton (guitar) Don Day (Bass) and Scott Thomas (Percussion) were boppin’-right, underscoring, rather than drowning out the singers.

The set, lighting, props and costumes all helped “flesh out” the production.

No credit is listed in the program for who made the crowd-pleasing Audrey II puppets.  Since productions receive designs for building the puppets as part of the rental scripts and scores, which are based on the original Martin P. Robinson designs, the plant may have been locally produced, may have been rented from another theatre who did the show, or rented from a professional prop company.  Kudos to Robert Miler, the Audrey II Puppeteer, and Tyrell J. Reggins (Audrey II’s voice).

Capsule judgment:  Porthouse’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is well directed by Terri Kent, creatively choreographed by Martin Cespedes, and musically on-key by Jennifer Korecki and her musicians.  Audiences should enjoy themselves with the spirited production, but may return home and get rid of their house plants.

Ending notes: 

Eric van Baars Porthouse’s Executive Producer, will be retiring at the end of this season.  

In her pre-curtain speech on June 19th, Producing Artistic Director, Terri Kent wished me “Happy Birthday,” and recognized my presence in the audience.  Though greatly appreciated, I had to admit that the charming and thoughtful Terri was about a month early.  The banter that pursued got a good laugh from the audience.  THANKS TERRI! (The correct date is July 10 and I will be in the audience that day seeing GODSPELL.)

Tickets are available at 330-672-3884 or www.porthousetheatre.com