Saturday, January 14, 2023

The farcical ghostly BEETLEJUICE, THE MUSICAL, that will delight many and confound others, is on stage at Connor Palace

 



As the run of the awe- inspiring HAMILTON draws to a close at the Playhouse Square’s State Theatre, BEETLEJUICE, the cult-followed farcical ghostly show appears next door at the Connor Palace.  

The opening is ironic since the curtain-up Cleveland production of the Eddie Perfect (music and lyrics)/Scott Brown and Anthony King (book) parallels the final curtain falling on the show’s Broadway run.  

Yes, BEETLEJUICE, THE MUSICAL, which opened on the Great White Way on April 25, 2019 and closed, due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 10, 2020, and reopened on April 8, 2022 permanently closed its Broadway presence on January 8, 2023.

The long-run surprised many.  Though the 1988 movie version was a huge hit, the Broadway musical’s reviews were mediocre.  Comments included, “This show so overstuffs itself with gags, one-liners and visual diversions that you shut down from sensory overload,” as well as BEETTLEJUICE, THE MUSICAL, was crafted from a group of creative minds who clearly love the source material, though not all of it works,” and, “the blithe, dizzily antic spirit of the movie was suffocating under the weight of sophomoric, phallic gags.”  

It is thought that the praise for Alexander Michael Brightman, who is best known for his work as Dewey Finn in the musical adaptation of SCHOOL OF ROCK musical  which earned him Tony Awards nomination for Best Actor, and again as the title character in BEETTLEJUICE, THE MUSICAL, as well as the success of the movie, was responsible for the long run.

What about locally?   The show, which is part of the KeyBank Broadway Series, is already a success, as there is very limited ticket availability for the entire run.  
Advanced publicity states, “The best option for many patrons looking to purchase may be to get individual scattered single seats around the theater instead of trying to find a group or pair together. “  

What’s all the hullabaloo about? 
 
The play opens with a group of people in a graveyard mourning the passing of Emily Deetz. Emily's daughter, Lydia, reflects on the death of her mother and her own inability to be noticed by her father, Charles.  

A millennia-old demon named Beetlejuice appears and mocks the idea of living life to the fullest, as it will all be worthless once death comes. 

Beetlejuice then addresses the audience directly, explaining that, as a demon, he is invisible to all beings unless he gets a living person to say his name three times. He reveals that he has a plan to accomplish his recognition.

Beetlejuice then introduces Adam and Barbara Maitland. They are a “normal” married couple who desperately want to start a family.  As the Maitlands reason to themselves why they are not ready for a child, they fall to their deaths from electric shocks received from a series of power chords randomly draped around the house.  (Remember this is a farce…no reality required.) 

When the Maitlands awaken and realize that they are dead, Beetlejuice reveals himself and offers to help them adjust to the Afterlife by intoning the song, “The ‘Whole Being Dead’ Thing, Pt. 2." (Yes, there are also parts 1 and 3.)  

He reveals to the Maitlands that a new family, the Deetzes, have bought their house and that in order to remain living there, they will have to scare the newbies away.  

Thus, we enter that into a tale of non-realistic incidents in which ghosts, the living, and the ridiculousness blend together in a tale that will delight many and turn others off.

Justin Collette, who is a master of improv, and has had a successful career of playing exaggerated parts on Broadway, such as Dewey, the lead in SCHOOL OF ROCK, takes on the Beetlejuice role.  Young Isabella Esler, a recent high school graduate, shines in her professional debut as Lydia.   Will Burton and Britney Coleman well-develop Adam and Lydia Maitland as they, and the rest of the cast, do due-diligence in serving as foils for Beetlejuice’s antics.

The story, which works hard at getting the audience to laugh at jokes and schticks that serve basically as escape devices doesn’t carry a message, but does induce laughs and many groans of delight.

The score includes such unmemorable songs as “The Fright of Their Lives,” “No Reason,” “Say My Name,” “Barbara 2.0” and “Ready, Set, Not Yet.”  (None of which were being hummed on the way out of the theatre.)

Will you “like” the show?  Depends on your affinity for farce and ability to set aside the lack of any real message.
  
CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  If you are a MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, ADAMS FAMILY, and THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW fan, you, like the duo of guys sitting near me, who were dressed in costumes which paralleled Beetlejuice’s stripped outfit, sang along with the songs, and found the exaggeration and slapstick hysterical, will become “Bettlejuicers.”  If NEXT TO NORMAL, RENT, WEST SIDE STORY and SPRING AWAKENING are your thing, you’ll probably find the whole thing trite and ridiculous.

BETTLEJUICE THE MUSICAL, THE MUSICAL, THE MUSICAL runs through January 29, 2023 at the Conner Palace.  Remaining tickets for the run can be purchased here.  

Next up:  HADESTOWN (January 31-February 19, 2023).  Winner of eight 2019 Tony Awards®, including Best Musical, HADESTOWN is a hopeful theatrical experience that grabs you and never lets go.”

 




Friday, December 09, 2022

"HAMILTON" AS COMPELLING IN LOOK 4 AS IT WAS THE FIRST TIME



Some musicals change the very nature of the genre. "Oklahoma" gave birth to the book musical in which story, dance and lyrics blended together perfectly. "Chorus Line" brought the concept of the dance-centered musical. "Hair" encouraged societal topics and mores to be probed. "Rent" introduced the stage to 21st century ideas and issues. Then, along came "Hamilton" which opened the door to singing, rap and movement blending into fine-tuned story telling.

"Hamilton" was inspired by the 2004 biography, "Alexander Hamilton" by historian Ron Chernow. It has book, music and lyrics by Lin Manuel Miranda, who perfectly honed each element to clearly represent our Revolutionary fathers. 
How did this "exhilarating," and "sublime" musical come to be? The story goes that while on vacation from performing in his hit Broadway show "In the Heights," Lin-Manuel Miranda read a copy of the biography, "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow. 

Miranda perceived the story as a musical and started to write what was then entitled "The Hamilton Mixtape." 

An Obama White House invitation led to him performing what would later be the show's opening song. 

"Hamilton" is not the first musical based on founding of this country history or its political figures. 

"1776," like "Hamilton" is set in Revolutionary times, specifically, showcasing the Continental Congress during the summer of 1776, and reveals the founding fathers' lively debates. 

"Benjamin Franklin in Paris" gives an account of Franklin arriving in Paris in an attempt to raise money for the colonial revolution against England. 

From a stylistic standpoint, "Hamilton" gives us something new. It's a contemporary rap musical which tells the story in a series of scenes in which the movements are choreographed to not only develop visual ideas, but to help create characterizations, seamlessly tell the tale, and give clear insight into each of the characters who sing them. 

The casting includes a racial mixture of actors as the Founding Fathers and other historical figures, paying no attention to their real gender, race, or age.

Even the conclusion is different. Most modern-day musicals end with a splashy showstopper that brings the audience to its feet for a resounding curtain call. Not "Hamilton." A low-key composition closes the show, emotionally wrapping up the story of a man and his quest. 

The story tells the tale of Alexander Hamilton, who was born out of wedlock in the West Indies. He comes to the American colonies at age 19 and seeks out revolutionary patriot, Aaron Burr, who advises the young and enthusiastic youth to "talk less; smile more." This is advice Hamilton did not take, and helps set the stage for a life-long set of philosophical battles between the men, and eventually contributes to Hamilton's death.

The people of Hamilton's life, the Marquis de Lafayette, the Schuyler sisters, George Washington, Charles Lee, James Madison, and John Jay, flow by in song, rap, movement, and spoken words. 

The tale of the Revolutionary War, the birth of the nation, Hamilton's developing the country's financial system, the death of his son in a duel, and his own demise in a shootout with Aaron Burr, all transpire in compelling fashion, under the adept direction of Thomas Kail and precision choreography and movement by Andy Blankenbuehler.  

During the present touring production of "Hamilton," there were several huge shoutouts during the production. Upon the entrance of Marquis de Lafayette and again when Thomas Jefferson made his first entrance the applause and shouts rang out. Why? 


Warren Egypt Franklin, who played both roles, is a Clevelander who is also a graduate of Baldwin Wallace's esteemed Musical Theatre program. 

Victoria Bussert, Chair of the BW program states, "He graduated in May 2018 and landed "Hamilton" one month later. He actually did "What'd I Miss" for his senior showcase number!!!" (Side note: I was in NY with the BW students for that showcase and we were immediately made aware of the agents and casting director's interest in Warren Egypt, including the casting director of "Hamilton."). Besides "Hamilton," he is appearing on tv's "Grown-ish."

On media night the role or King George was delightfully played by Neil Haskell, but starting December 19, and for the rest of the run, Clevelander, Rory O'Malley, a St. Ignatius grad, who was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Elder McKinley in Broadway's "The Book of Mormon," will be playing the role.


The cast of "Hamilton" is superb. The quality of the singing, acting and dancing is universally amazing. Don't wait for a local theater to do the show as no one has the talent to reach the high level of performance quality to do the show justice.

Those who want to see the show, but are cash strapped, should be aware that there will be a 40-seat lottery for each performance. To participate in a drawing prospective ticket-buyers must download the official "Hamilton" app on their IOS or Android device. Winners will be notified between 1 and 4 a.m. of the opportunity to purchase up to two tickets for a performance between December 6 and 12. (luckyseat.com). Lotteries for subsequent weeks will operate on the same schedule, opening every Friday and closing Thursday. A person must be 18 or older to enter. Regular tickets are priced at $35 to152 at playhousesquare.org

Capsule judgment: The question asked to many who see "Hamilton" is whether it is worth the investment of time and money? This reviewer's answer, "Absolutely!" I've seen it four times and this staging was as compelling as the first!

'Hamilton" runs through January 15, 2023 at the Key Bank State Theatre.

Thursday, December 08, 2022

Dobama produces THE LAND OF OZ, the world premiere of locally written Oz tale


Since 1959, Dobama Theatre has been dedicated to premiering important new plays by established and emerging playwrights in professional productions of the highest quality.  THE LAND OF OZ, is a good selection for them to undertake. 

Dobama’s multi-talented Artistic Director, Nathan Motta, has incorporated his training as a music composer, with his directing experience, to aid George Brant to undertake the development of THE LAND OF OZ, a musical intended to expose local audiences to yet another view of the L. Frank Baum’s world of enchantment.  In this case, the plot is based on the second book in the “Oz” series, THE MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ.

As is the case with all of Baum’s books, its themes are both timeless and relevant to the modern world. 

Motto’s score for THE LAND OF OZ features songs in a variety of American popular music styles.

Brandt, who is a member of the Dramatists Guild, has had his works produced internationally and nationally.  Local stagings have been presented at the Cleveland Play House and Dobama.

The story of THE LAND OF OZ centers around a young orphan boy named Tip who is the ward of an evil witch. When he escapes, with the help of a magical new friend, Tip sets out on an adventure to the Emerald City.  Along the way he encounters the Scarecrow, Tin Man, a woogle bug and a rebel army on their way to take over Oz! (No, there is no Dorothy, Toto, Aunt Em, or even the Wizard.)

The tale examines friendship, loneliness, good overcoming evil, discovering where one comes from and why they are where they are, and the wonder of finding help in a path to the future (whether one is on the yellow brick road, or not).

Dobama should be praised for undertaking the development of a new theatre piece.  Such a task is daunting.  Creating a musical is an awesome job. Not only does the writer have to select a source for the plot (a former play—think PYGMALION as it morphs into MY FAIR LADY), a film (THE LION KING as it is transformed into LION KING, THE MUSICAL), comic strips such as LITTLE ABNER and SUPERMAN being reinvented as musicals, or a writer or writers creating new stories, such as developing DEAR EVEN HANSEN or A CHORUS LINE. 

The score has to be composed to develop the right mood, fit into the story and develop the characters.   This is harder than it appears.  The wrong music can curse a show.  Several of the American musical theatre’s major hits were almost doomed by their opening songs.  

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF found audiences walking out during its out-of-town tryouts.  When Jerome Robbins replaced the original director/choreographer, he sat through the performances, called the writing team together and asked, “What’s the show about?”  After comments such as, “Life in Europe in the early 20th century,” and “A milkman and his daughters,” someone suggested, the traditions of the people that allow them to exist and endure.  

Robbins is purported to have said, “Then someone write a song to start the show that tells the audience what the show is about and gets the audience ready for that message.” Get rid of the present opening, “The Village Our Grandparents Grew Up In.” That theme won’t get and hold the attention. Thus, the song “Tradition” was written and the script and music were reformatted to fit that theme. 

The opening number of FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, originally the pretty, but bland, “Love Is In the Air,” became the frothy, delightful, somewhat sexy, “Comedy Tonight.”  Audiences knew they were going to see a funny show, were given the direction to enjoy themselves, and they did!

If not for the change, FIDDLER would never have been the first Broadway musical to run over 3000 performances and you wouldn’t even had heard of FORUM.

The first act to THE LAND OF OZ drags--lots of audience wiggling and lack of attention.  Maybe the writing team should ask, “What’s this musical about?” and write an opening song that teases us into the tale and sets the emotional mood.

In a traditional musical, the central character, early in the show usually sings an “I want” song in which they tell the audience what they need.   That wish is keystone to develop the plot. Think, “Maybe” in ANNIE—she wants parents or “I Hope I Get It” from CHORUS LINE—each dancer wants a job in the chorus.  

Tip, does have such a song, but is it strong enough to let the audience know that this is going to be the theme of the show? 

Sitting in a dark theatre can be tiresome.  Usually about twenty minutes into each of the acts, in a two-act show, there is a “noisy number,” a show stopper, which wakes up the show and the audience.  What are the noisy numbers in THE LAND OF OZ?  I’m not sure.  Maybe that is why the first act seemed to drag on and on.

The analysis could go on and on, but….  

It is through the production team going through the writing and staging process---write, critique rewrite, read, critique, rewrite, stage, critique, restage, perform before a non-biased audience, gage their interest, perform again, and keep assessing and making appropriate changes.

The same can be said for the staging of any show.

The Dobama production features Jordyn Freetage (TIP), Lana Sugarman (GLINDA/ JELLIA/ LIEUTENANT), Trinidad Snider (MOMBI), Eric Fancher (JACK), Fabio Polanco (SCARECROW), Jason Eno (TIN MAN), Neely Gevaart (JINJUR), Dar’Jon Bentley (LION/ GUARDIAN), Trey Gilpin (WOGGLE BUG), Tim Keo (WINKIE/ DOOR/ THRONE).

They all should be proud of their efforts.  Each night the show should get better as the performers acknowledge new insights into their characters.  With the help of an attentive director and self-awareness on the  part of the actors, they will grow as characters.

The creative team for the production includes Music Direction by Matthew Dolan, Choreography by Gregory Daniels, Scenic and Projection Design by T. Paul Lowry, Lighting Design by David Stoughton, Sound Design by Richard Ingraham, Costume Design by Tesia Benson, Props Design by Vanessa Cook, Puppet Design by Mike Horner, and Technical Direction by Marcus Dana. The band will consist of Rachel Woods (Keyboard), Justin Hart (Drums), Jesse Fishman (Guitar), Tim Keo (Bass), R.J. Rovito (Reed). 

Developing a new musical is hard work.  It is not for the sensitive, the egotistical, those who can’t admit that the show wasn’t perfect with the first effort, the second effort, or even the tenth redo.

Capsule judgment:  Dobama’s THE LAND OF OZ should be seen as a work in progress.  It is quite good, for a new piece.  It will be a better experience for the audience after it is put through more tests.

The show which runs December 2- 31, 2022, runs time of two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.  For tickets:  www.dobama.com or call 216-932-3396.

Want to know more about how musicals are developed and staged?  Read the delightful and eccentric Mark Steun’s BROADWAY BABIES SAY GOODNIGHT:  MUSICALS THEN AND NOW.

 

Sunday, December 04, 2022

THE MOST FABULOUS STORY EVER TOLD will offend some, delight others at con-con

 


A stage manager indicates the opening light and sound cues, calls places for the actors, and we are off on a lesson of Biblical history.  That is, comedy writer Paul Rudnick’s version of Biblical history.  
 
There is God or god or G-d, or no God.  
 
He, she, or it created gay Adam and Steve and Jane and Mabel.
 
In this version of the great book, homosexuality was normal before heterosexuality.  
 
Adam and Steve navigate the centuries together, with a few kinky side-trips. They encounter odd characters, including gay animals on Noah's ark, a crippled lesbian rabbi, and a flamboyant pharaoh. There is birth, marriage and attacks on traditional marriage. There is a celebration of Christmas, with or without virgin birth, and Hannukah getting in the way of Xmas festivities.  And, on and on it goes!
 
Hey, this is the writing of Paul Rudnick, who has been described as “line by line, may be the funniest writer for the stage in the United States today..."   
 
There have been protests when the show has been scheduled in various venues. 
 
At a production at the University of California-Santa Cruz, Jerry Falwell and members of the Westboro Baptist Church, condemmed the production, making such comments as “This fiasco at UC Santa Cruz is just one more symptom of the deadly disease encompassing this land.” And, “they have institutionalized sin and we're going to face the consequences.’”  An Oklahoma state representative claimed it was a "direct frontal attack" to Christians. In Dallas, America Needs Fatima protested another production. America Needs Fatima also protested a production in Atlanta.
 
Worry not, there was no protest at con-con, only laughter and extended applause at the conclusion of the show.
 
Just to be clear.  The script is no great work of literature.  The authors of ANGELS IN AMERICA, BENT, BOYS IN THE BAND, THE NORMAL HEART, TOURCH SONG TRILOGY, JEFFREY, LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION!, and GROSS INDECENCY:  THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE, need fear not about being replaced on the list of best gay-centric plays by THE MOST FABULOUS STORY EVER TOLD.
 
With a good production, the overly long and somewhat trite script can be entertaining.  And, at con-con what they get is exactly that. 
 
For those open to the biblical onslaught and possessing the right attitude, an audience member can cackle, roll-their eyes and think of all the Evangelicals who would be upset and uncomfortable being exposed to this “smut.”  
 
Director Denise Astorino keeps the action moving right along.  She has inserted some creativity into the staging.  Along with costumer Kate Smith, she has handled the nudity issue, maybe to the disappointment of some con-con regulars, with green jockstraps and vines, and Neil Sudhakaran’s projections adds in interesting set changes and visual Biblical references.
 
Alex Strzemilowski (Adam) and Noah Pigza (Steve) are geeky charming as Adam and Steve.  Lucy Turner is Dyke-correct as Mabel and Grace Mitri (Jane) makes for a perfect lipstick Lesbian.  David L. Munnell, proves again that he is the king of “fey.”  The rest of the cast, Haley Johnson, Rick Quintana, Amanda Rowe Van Allen, and Katelyn Cornelius are fine in playing multiple roles. 
 
Capsule judgment:  THE MOST FABULOUS STORY EVER TOLD will delight con-con regulars and intentionally upset the religious up-tight.  But, as Rudnick stated about detractors, "tell them I spoke to God personally and he said they're wrong."
 
THE MOST FABULOUS STORY EVER TOLD runs at con-con through December 17, 2022.

Thursday, November 10, 2022

THE WILD PARTY

THE WILD PARTY--BW’s Music Theatre Program reaches levels of excellence that far exceeds those of college students

 
The Wild Party is a musical by Andrew Lippa, based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem of the same name.
 
The Wild Party is a musical by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe based on the same poem.  The poem was a sensation.  It was considered so lascivious that it was banned in many places when it was published in 1928.  In spite of the shunning, the poem was a success.  Ironically, the only success of March’s writing career.
 
To add to the confusion, both versions of The Wild Party opened during the 1999-2000 season, one on Broadway (the LaChiusa/Wolfe creation), the other off-Broadway (the Lippa concept).
 
The versions differ in format, but still contain the same story line of decadence, bathtub gin, uninhibited sexual behavior, and people who engender little reason to be liked.  The LaChiusa/Wolfe version is presented as a series of vaudeville acts.  Each segment is introduced by signs with titles of what “act” will be performed.  The Lippa version is a more conventional theatrical story with a beginning, middle and end. 
 
The Lippa version is now being staged by Baldwin Wallace’s nationally recognized Musical Theatre program.
 
According to the writer, the story is “about the masks we wear culturally and the removal of those masks over the course of the party [life].   Unfortunately, the characters illicit no reason to be liked.  They lead unproductive, rudderless lives, with seemingly no redemptive qualities.  They are self-centered to the degree that we really don’t care what happens to them.  There are no “good guys” to root for, no protagonists, only antagonists.
 
Victoria Bussert, the Queen of the BW program of the play, states in Director’s Welcome, “THE WILD PARTY is one of those true gems in the musical theatre catalog—a show filled with wildly eccentric characters set in the roaring 1920s with an extraordinary jazz score.”  (The score is dynamically played by Matthew Webb’s well-tuned jazz band, suspended high above the heads of the audience.)
 
She goes on to state, “Jeff [Hermann] and I decided to recreate the space [that we had develop for our 2009 edition of THE WILD PARTY at BW] but added more opportunities for an immersive experience.”  The stage design is a runway that is placed between segments of the audience seated on both sides of a long narrow stage, which creates no emotional space between the actors and the viewers.  (The effect is electric.)
 
Another change from the 2009 production was to use a slice from the LaChiusa/Wolfe version of the script, and have the leads perform their vaudeville act.  (A wonderful chance to give student actors expand on the usual acting experiences of the student actors.)
 
Bussert continues, “THE WILD PARTY is filled with dance, so choreographers Greg Daniels and Lauren Tidmore spent many hours creating totally original numbers filled with 1920/s physical abandon.”  (These are some of most sensual and abandoned dancing you will ever see on stage.) 
 
Featuring Costume Designer Charlotte Yetman’s see through, lots of skin-exposing glitz encrusted clothing that leave no question of cross-dressing, gym cut, sexual trasitioning/transitoned, impressively toned bodies.
 
The over-all effect is everyone being invited to a wild, wild party!
 
The story centers on Queenie, a well-known party giver and purveyor of bathtub gin and drugs, and her relationship with Burrs, a “clown” with a violent streak. 
 
They live a decadent life style that March indicates was the way the “in” Hollywood crowd lived during the swinging 1920s, the era of prohibition, speakeasies, uninhibited sex, orgies, eccentricism, acceptance of various sexual life styles, and wild parties.  (Obviously, the attendees, cannot be Evangelical prudes, as the goings-on, will cause that crowd to quickly run for the doors.)
 
During one of the parties, Mr. Black, a well-dressed, handsome, suave, seemingly wealthy man of impeccable manners appears.  Queenie falls hard for him, and incites Burrs into a jealous rage, with a tragic outcome.
 
(Note:  BW double-casts its shows so the students can have as many educational experiences as possible.  The comments here are for the Queenie cast which includes the talented Queenie (Mia Soriano), her equally talented playmate Burrs (Ricky Moyer), Mr. Black (Praise Oranika) and sensational Kate (Alexa Lopez).  Others in this assemblage are Bella Serrano, Jaedynn Latter, Eileen Brady, Noah Wohlsen, Mack Hubbard, Trey Milcowitz, Noah Rodriques, Zach Mackiewicz and Kate Day Magocsi.  
 
Special notice to Trevor Gill-Snow for his sensational dance interpretation of “Jackie’s Last Dance.”  
 
CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  If watching decadence is your thing, you’ll be turned on by The Wild Party.  If you prefer being in the presence of characters who have redeeming values so you can feel empathy, this is not going to be your show.  The singers, actors, dancers, and the musicians are top-notch.  They reach levels of excellence that far exceed those of college students.  But, what else can you expect?  They are part of the respected and oft-revered Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre Program.  Bravo!
 
(Added note:  THE WILD PARTY brings down the curtain on the Costume Designing career at BW of the brilliant, multi-award-winning Charlotte Yetman.  She, and her costumes, will long be remembered!!!)
 
THE WILD PARTY runs through November 19.  For tickets https://www.bw.edu/events/theatre-dance/

Sunday, November 06, 2022

THE GREAT LEAP


 

THE GREAT LEAP at CPH is a slam dunk!
 
Roy Berko
(Member---Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association)
 
Lauren Yee, the author of THE GREAT LEAP, the Cleveland Play House production, which is now on stage in the Outcalt Theatre in the Allen complex, states of her play, “This is a play about basketball, but it is also a basketball play. The game is reflected not just in the subject matter but the rhythm, structure, language, and how the characters move through space. We also should have a sense that someone is always watching. We may or may not see any actual basketballs on stage.”
 
The play she is describing is the tale of an American basketball team traveling to China for an exhibition game.  It is 1989. There is stress between the countries. For two men with a past and one teen with a present and future, the game is a chance to claim personal victories on and off the court. 
 
Underlying the game is an exploration of the cultural and political risks of both raising one’s voice and standing one’s ground.
 
“Not everyone in San Francisco’s Chinatown may think that Manford is the best point guard to play the game of basketball, but Manford does. And he is relentless.”
 
“Not everyone may realize that Saul, the men’s basketball coach at the University of San Francisco, is washed up. But Saul can see the writing on the wall, and coaching his team to victory in a rematch of a 1971 game against Beijing University is his last chance to prove himself.”
 
“Not everyone in China knows that Wen Chang, a former translator and current coach of the Beijing basketball team, doesn’t really want the apartment, the air conditioner or any of the perks associated with a Chinese man of his stature. But Wen Chang knows, and it makes him afraid.”
 
When Manford--a Chinese-American high school student with a chip on his shoulder and fine basketball skills, Saul---a foul-mouthed, washed-up coach of the University of San Francisco’s men’s basketball team, who credits himself with introducing the game of hoops to China, and Wen Chang—the observant and efficient coach of Beijing University’s men’s basketball team, come together in Beijing for the big game in 1989, they discover their meeting is about far more than basketball. 
 
“One finds a mother, one finds a son, and all of them find courage.”
 
The CPH staging, under the direction of Esther Jun, is not only well-staged but clearly focused.  The characterizations are finely etched, the pacing nicely ebbs and flows with the energy of the writing, and the technical aspects are perfectly sewn into the production.
 
The creative use of Scenic Designer Yu Shibagaki’s meticulously created basketball court, makes each audience a member of the staging.  You are at a basketball court, not only cheering for a player and involved in the strategy of the game, but entwined in the lives of four people…three who appear on stage and one whose existence catapults the plot.   
 
Michael Boll’s lighting enhances the action as do the sounds created by Melanie Chen Cole and projections of T. Paul Lowry.
 
Eric Cheung is captivating as Manford, the under-sized powerhouse point-guard, who has a maniacal desire go to China to play in a grudge basketball during the Tiananmen Square Protests.  His is a quality performance!
 
Amanda Kuo, is totally believable as Manford’s “cousin.” 
 
David Mason clearly conveys the frustration and maniac drive of a man compelled to succeed, whether as a basketball coach and human being, but falling short on all levels.
 
Reuben Uy beautifully creates a Wen Chang, who displays the emotional control demanded by his culture, but which results in a life of frustration and unfulfilled personal satisfaction.
 
CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  THE GREAT LEAP is a well-written, thought-provoking play that gets a slam dunk production at CPH!  This is a must-see that uses the Outcalt stage configuration in epic ways.
 
The show runs through November 20, 2022.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to:  www.clevelandplayhouse.com

Next up at CPH: I’M BACK NOW--Sara travels to Cleveland to meet her birth mother. As she strives to reconcile the legacy she thought she knew with her actual origins, Sara discovers that she is a descendant of the last woman prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act.                February 4-24 @ the Allen Theatre


Friday, November 04, 2022

Ensemble’s DESCRIBE THE NIGHT is a lesson in Russian conspiracy theory with modern day implications

 



DESCRIBE THE NIGHT, which is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre, is Cleveland Heights native Rajiv Joseph’s 2018 Obie Award winner for Best New American Play.  Joseph was named a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play BENGAL TIGER AT BAGHDAD ZOO which starred the late Robin Williams in its Broadway run.  Many of his plays have had Ensemble productions.
 
Joseph is noted for his keen skill of writing about contemporary and historical events.  He is credited for his “having an ear for the heartbeat of the moment.”  
 
Using a technique referred to as “ecstatic truth.” DESCRIBE THE NIGHT is a play about stories.  It begins with a historical fact and then spins outward, “like a fractal pattern with the truth as its seed but something grander than plain truth.”  It is fascinating, while often being confusing due to its’ covering an extreme length of time, with little help in keeping ideas organized. 
 
Set in Russia over the course of 90 years, the play weaves the stories of seven men and women connected by history, myth and conspiracy theories.  Much like the typical Russian classic novel, the epic tale is filled with many names, references to historical events and places, and leaves ideas hanging.
 
The stories include references to many people, famous and unknown, including writer Isaac Babel, a Jewish Russian, a shy young man with dreams of being a successful writer, but traumatized from the Polish-Russo war, in which he served as a wire service journalist—a job he took in order to experience something in life he could write about. 
 
Also noted is Nikolai Yezhov, a violent man, who in 1937-40, is the Head of Stalin’s Secret Police and his wife, Yevgenia.  
 
Vova is a KGB agent In 1999-2010.  He is a politician of enormous stature. Deeply self-assured, yet terrified of the world. 
 
Urzula, who in 1989, is an immigrant, living in Dresden. She is the grand-daughter of Yevgenia.   Mariya is a Russian, who is a journalist for a state-run newspaper. He was born and bred in Moscow and Mrs. Petrovna, a 70-year-old Russian, is the owner of a laundromat. 
 
These characters are woven into a historical time line that includes such events as The Great Purge, the consolidation of the power of Joseph Stalin, the murder of Leon Trotsky, and The Katyn Massacre, a mass shooting of prisoners of war during World War that was a cold-blooded act of political murder. Despite overwhelming evidence of Soviet responsibility, Moscow blamed the Germans, and for the rest of the war Washington and London officially accepted the Soviet countercharge. When the Polish government-in-exile in London demanded an international inquiry, Stalin used this as a pretext to break relations between Poland and the Soviet Union. Also referred to is The Smolensk Plane Crash in which a plane carrying Polish president Lech Kaczyński crashed, causing Poland to lose a large sum of the country’s leadership. It happened at a time where Russia and Poland were starting to acknowledge Russian responsibility for the Katyn Massacre. 
 
Without a knowledge of the events referred to in the play, it is often difficult to follow the story.  A series of visuals alerting to the year(s) and location might help keep the audience on-track.
 
Ensemble’s production, under the adept direction of the theatre’s Artistic Director, Celeste Cosentino, leads the audience on an interesting historical experience.  Though at times frustrating, the over-all effect is a fascinating.
 
The cast, Joe Pine, David Vegh, Laura Perrotta Ford, Aaron Elersich, Katie Wells, Kyle Huff, and Laura Rau, form a unified unit.  Each develops their characters effectively. 
 
Capsule judgment:  This journey of myth, loss, power, and pain leaves a message of how historical facts, rumor and subterfuge tells a story that opens the door to the present day, which evolves from experiences of the past.  Anyone interested in history and philosophy should be captivated by this tale. 
 
Ensemble’s DESCRIBE THE NIGHT runs through November 13, 2002 at Notre Dame College, 4545 College Road, South Euclid.   For tickets call 216t-321-2930 or www.ensembletheatrecle.org



Monday, October 31, 2022

Reprised BREAKOUT SESSION Misses Opportunity to be Meaningful @ Cleveland Public Theatre

 


Nikkole Slater, BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE), was commissioned in 2020 by CPT, with funding from the National New Play Network (NNPN).  It was the intention of funding to have the author write a play that cast a spotlight on racism, bias and violence.  Her goal was to ask, “Can a society legislate a change of heart?”  It was “inspired by Cleveland’s Consent Decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, which required the Police Department to go through anti-bias training.” 

It is as relevant today as it was several years ago.  Maybe more, as the controversy over the Cleveland decree is still in the headlines.

Director Beth Wood, contended back then that “This play is about blind spots due to our unconscious bias.”  She went on to state, “We all have blind spots and we must interrupt them—but how?  How do we know when our automatic associations are hurting other people?”  

Raymond Bobgan, the theatre’s Executive Artistic Director, at the original opening stated, “To believe another’s perspective, there must be trust.  How can we build two-way bridges of trust between us with all of our history—with all that’s happening in the present?  Can society legislate a change of heart?  Can we mandate cultural change?”

He went on to state, “Theatre nurtures a hunger for connection and has the potential for greatness when it deals with complexity.”  

Those views set high levels of anticipation for BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE to be a mind-shattering, new and insightful experience.

As I said in my original review, “In spite of a nicely honed production, the over-all effect is unfortunately, not that impactful.”  

I had hoped that the revival would be improved and be more meaningful than the 
original rendering.

In the play, we find ourselves in a training session with three Cleveland police people, an African American male and female and a Hispanic male.  The session is conducted by a training firm that has hired a Caucasian, with an acting degree, who is supposed to follow a preset lecture/power point presentation.  She fails to hold the attention of the trio, so she diverts from the research-oriented, statistic-centric format, much to the consternation of her female African American supervisor.  
 
Conflicts over teaching style, experiential role-plays and activities, and interjections by a “bat scientist,” “mantis shrimp,” “crocodile magician” and “catfish comedian,” are intended to highlight the author’s “Bias Bubble” diagram. 
 

The Bias Bubble concept centers on our conscious experiences leading us to social psychological perceptions that we make unconscious associations that lead to judgements, prejudices and beliefs, which evolve into ideas which evoke actions.  

Frogorse centers on the concept that two people can see the same incident, or piece of art, and perceive different things. A drawing of a horse may be perceived as a turtle, depending on the angle at which we see it or our pre-conceived attitudes.

Nikkole Salter’s use of the concept source of bias is not unique.  The idea is commonly espoused in social science literature and been musically expressed in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” in SOUTH PACIFIC and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” in AVENUE Q.

I wish I could say that Salter has added some new dialogue to the stage in his edit of BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE), but she hasn’t.  
 
The use of real incidents that led to the consent decree, the showing clearly how the biases develop through actual examples, the effective use of the teaching model to make the audience think of their own experiences, and a plan of action to actually help the police, all would have helped make the experience more meaningful.   
 
As for CPT’s production.  The cast (Jess Moore, Nicole Sumlin, Joshua McElroy, Tina D. Stump, Joey Florez Jr. and Troian Soo) puts out full effort and are all very believable in their roles. 

Beth Wood, doing double duty as director and actress, is outstanding as Sara, the well-meaning but ill-equipped trainer, the white workshop leader, with wonderful intentions, but poor understanding of the reality of prejudice.  

As the director she keeps the action zipping along and gets all she can from the problematic script. 
  
The technical aspects, especially the electronic media effects, are well-conceived.  Inda Blatch-Gelb’s mantis shrimp costume is outstanding.
 
Capsule judgement: BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE) has an important purpose with lofty goals.  Unfortunately, the play’s format and development do not satisfy the need to truly explain, “something is not working, people” and teach the reality of the “Bias Bubble.”  I wish that the director had taken the comments from reviews of the first staging and made the necessary changes to make the follow-up performance more meaningful.  Both CPT and Salter wasted a marvelous opportunity to make this a really important play!  So sad, such a wasted opportunity.

BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE), runs through November 12, 2022.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to http://www.cptonline.org/.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

INSURRECTION: HOLDING HISTORY

 



INSURRECTION:  HOLDING HISTORY less than it should be at Con-Con

Roy Berko

(Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association)

Is it true that in order to understand your present, you must understand your past?  If you understand the past, and could insert yourself into the events happening, could you change your present?  Could you actually change the course of history? 

Those and other esoteric questions are at the base of Robert O’Hara’s INSURRECION:  HOLDING HISTORY, now on stage at convergence-continuum.

The plot centers on Ron, a gay, black student, who attends a family reunion to celebrate his great-great-grandfather T.J.’s 189th birthday. 

Despite the fact that T.J. can’t move, hear, or speak, T.J., given voice by a spirit of a relative, long dead, convinces Ron to take him back to his old home in Virginia. 

Fracturing the space-time continuum, they arrive on the eve of Nat Turner’s doomed 1831 uprising. 

Encouraged by the facts of the historical rebellion, the desperation of the slaves that encouraged them to face certain death with little chance of success, and the historical pattern of being gay, Ron gains a grasp of his past.  This leads him to an understanding of his present, and that how the authenticity of history unfolds depends on the perception of the storyteller.  He realizes that his frustration with his thesis is based on the concept that his writing will only make sense when he accepts that he is the product of his history.

Jeannine Gaskin, the director of the play, did not seem to grasp the concept of the satire in the script, and staged the show as a realistic drama.  This was unfortunate as that approach eliminated the whimsy and creative writing that was described by one critic of a previous staging as “remarkably exciting, deeply provocative, [and] comically profound.”

There was no humor in the cc production, thus fracturing much of O’Hara’s writing and seemingly confounding the audience, thus making for a long sit.

The cast, which featured Andrew Pope, Chelsea Anderson, Isaiah Betts, Kadijah Wing, Laprise Johnson, Matthew Raybeam, Mike Frye, Sydney Smith, and Wesley Allen, put out full effort.

Capsule judgment: Insurrection, will confound many, satisfy some, gets a less than effective production at con-con.  

Insurrection: Holding History opened Friday, October 14 and runs Thu-Sat at 8 p.m. through November 5, at convergence-continuum’s Liminis Theater, 2438 Scranton Rd., Cleveland. Tickets and information are available at www.convergence-continuum.org and 216-687-0074.



Friday, October 14, 2022

LES MIZ! still Les Okay, in its tour kick-off at the Key Bank State Theatre


 

 
When LES MISERABLE last came to CLE in November of 2018, in part I wrote:
 
From the very first time I saw “Les Miserables,” shortly after its opening in London, to the New York production, and through the various touring shows, I have been a fan of the show.  Not just a fan, a fanatic fan! 
 
Interestingly, when “Les Miz” first opened in London in 1985 the production was generally met with tepid reviews.  This was a musical about greed, child abuse, revolution and cruelty.  It contained thwarted idealism, frustration and the seeming defeat of good by evil.  
 
This is a musical with the word “miserable” in the title, has physical beatings and numerous onstage deaths, and lacks a typical happy ending.  Is this the stuff musicals are made of?  Not usually.  But, there is no reason that serious subjects cannot be treated in the musical form.  Les Miz proves that contention, as does “Next to Normal” and “Dear Evan Hanson,” and proves it well.
 
There is also no reason that strong emotions about death cannot be visualized as “empty chairs at empty tables,” or hope cannot be expressed as, “there is life about to start, when tomorrow comes,” or, that infatuation cannot be explained as “a heart full of love,” or the future can’t be prophesized as, “I dreamed that love would never die,” and a powerful story can’t be summarized with the musical’s ending lyric, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  
 
Yes, these are all lyrics conceived by Herbert Kretzmer and set to the emotionally charged music of Claude-Michel Schönberg.  These are the thoughts of a great musical.
 
Those not aware of the tale of musical theatre, may be surprised that all of the dialogue is sung, This format is the way of British musicals, based on the strong history of operas in that country.
 
“LES MISÉRABLES” is an epic 1862 French tale by Victor Hugo, considered as one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century.  Though long and complex, the basic story line centers on a period in the early nineteenth century, which culminated in the unsuccessful June Rebellion.  This is not the larger French Revolution of 1788 that overthrew the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons and the system of aristocratic privileges, as many assume when the word revolution is used in a French story. 
 
The plot revolves around Jean Valjean, who was arrested when he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew.  
 
Imprisonment, frustration and moral awareness are pivotal ideas of the story.  It is played out in front of the history of France’s politics and what is meant by that era’s concept of justice. It is fiction broadly entwined within factual and historical events.
 
In 1987 the musical debuted on Broadway, after having played in London. After 6,680 performances spanning sixteen years, it closed in the Big White Way on May 18, 2003, making it one of the longest running Broadway shows.  Revivals, tours, and a movie followed that run.  
 
This CLE production is where the current tour starts.  It is probably why it is so fresh and the cast is energized.
  
The present three-week stay at the State Theatre mirrors the 2018 production, which eliminated the original production’s two turntables, reframed the music, reinterpreted some of the songs, added electronic visuals, such as our experiencing Jean Valjean crawling through the sewers as he saves Marius and Javert falling off a bridge into the raging river below.  
 
There is less vividness.  The battle scene, minus much of the extreme pile of household goods isn’t as dramatic, the marching to the barricades isn’t as vivid.  The lighting is darker, much as the paintings of the period which tended to be painted with less vivid oil colors.  This darkness invades the entire production.
 
Some things are the same.  I still find the reference to “this one’s a Jew and that one’s gay,” to be unnecessary and offensive.  I never have been a lover of “Master of the House” and “Beggars at Feast,” which I know fulfills the musical theater formula of being “noisy numbers,” inserted mid-first and second acts to excite the audience and keep their attention.  
 
The changes, in the scheme of things, don’t change the overall power and effect of the show.  No one is going to argue with the conceivers and stagers of a show which has been seen by over 70 million people. 
 
Both the solos and choral work is outstanding. Thankfully the cast interpreted the meaning of the lyrics rather than just singing words. This was obvious, for example, in “One Day More,” the sure-thing show stopper, which was mesmerizing.  
 
Nick Cartell, who played the role of Jean Valjean in the last tour, is back again.  He still portrays the role with a full musical voice and compassion.  His youthful presence has matured, giving more texture to the role.  His “Who Am I and Bring Him Home were compelling.
 
Halley Dortch (Fantine), making her touring debut, grabbed the emotions with the plaintive “I Dreamed a Dream.”  Christine Heesun Hwang was captivating as Eponine and received an extended ovation for her well-nuanced “On My Own.” Gregory Lee Rodriguez gives an appealing earnest quality to Marius.  His “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was one of the show’s emotional highlights. 
 
Harrison Fox was adorable and captivating as the spunky Gavrache.  His middle finger salute to Javert after the over-zealous policeman is exposed as a traitor to the student rebels, brought cheers and laughter from the audience.
 
On the other-hand, Preston Truman Boyd, who displays a strong singing voice, was not evil and overpowering enough as Javert. We need to really hate him for his obsession in making life a living hell for Jean Valjean.  We need to cheer when his guilt gets the best of him and motivates his jumping to his death.
 
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   LES MIZ!  It is still captivating and is a major piece of the musical theater tapestry which gets an excellent staging at the start of its newest national tour.  If you haven’t seen it before or need a refresher, get to Playhouse before “One Day More,” and get “A Heart Full of Love.”
 
For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.  LES MIZ runs through October 30, 2022.



Sunday, October 09, 2022

Dobama’s THE THIN PLACE, a pseudo-intellectual play that confuses rather than clarifies

  


Out-of-town published comments about THE THIN PLACE, now on stage at Dobama, include: “a Horror Drama that You Think You’ll Forget, Then Won’t.” “It’s a story about storytelling that defies your ability to tell a story about it.” And, it’s a twisty tale that throws you off the scent and doubles back behind you.” 
 
Other comments about the play states that it is a “sort of elusive, atmospheric piece.”  And, “it bristles with disquieting suggestion, probing the most timeless questions about reality, the impressionability of the mind, and the omnipresence of death as we float through life. Ever gifted at taking the pulse of the world around him, Hnath matches these universals with a timely resonance, distilling collective feelings of national chaos—and our political and spiritual vulnerabilities therein—to a chillingly personal scale.”  Sound like double-talk?  It, like the play, is!

Exiting the theatre, the most common comment heard was, “What was that all about?”  “Did I miss what the author was trying to say?”
 
Yes, the touted Lucas Hnath’s THE THIN PLACE seems to avoid the purpose of a play--that of having a purpose.
 
Guess I’m still living in the modern era of theatre, the Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neil, William Inge, Tennessee Williams times, when a play had a clear story to tell and left a moral, or a lesson, or a challenge to accomplish.  This play is definitely not part of that era.
 
“THE THIN PLACE is the story of two women, Hilda and Linda. Linda communicates, professionally, with the dead, who are still here, just in a different part of here, in the "thin place." She can make those who believe that they hear their departed, offering the remaining soul peace and closure and meaning. Hilda, a keen listener and observer who’s grappling with loss, takes a great interest in Linda’s abilities. She befriends the veteran medium, seeking answers that lie across the fragile boundary between our world and the other one.”
 
The Dobama production, under the direction of Colin Anderson, is effectively staged.  

That is, if you can avoid the problems that the powers that be have created by imposing a stage area in which there is probably no good seat.  The long narrow performing area makes it often impossible to hear, or in some cases see the action. This is especially true when the performers are extreme stage right or left.   (But, that is for another column, this one if about the other misguided issue, THE THIN PLACE.  Wait, that could be that name for the performance space.  Woops, I digress.)

The cast is strong.

As expected, multi-Cleveland Critics Circle and BroadwayWorld best actress award winner, Derdriu Ring, is dynamic as Linda, the skilled con-artist, who has learned the art of giving people what they want, a taste of the unreal, that meets their self-centered needs.

Kelly Strand creates a Hilda whose thin voice and halting language appears to be very needy, but may, in fact, be a bigger con-artist than Linda.

Anjanette Hall’s Sylvia is a wealthy young woman, who uses the world and its people as her play things.

Jerry (James Rankin) seems to have no rhyme or reason to be included in the cast.  One can only wonder why the author included the character.  But, again, Hnath’s motives are often unclear.

Capsule judgment:  THE THIN PLACE is a disappointing script that gets a better-than- deserved production at Dobama. If you are a true theater- buff and like trying to figure out if an author has an intent and purpose, while observing good performances, this may be a show for you.

THE THIN PLACE runs through October 30, 2023 at Dobama. For tickets call 216-932-3396 or go to: https://www.dobama.org/tickets

Monday, October 03, 2022

 


THE CURIOUS INCIDENT is well-conceived at Beck, but…
 
Roy Berko
 (Member:  American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
 
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, which is now on stage in the Senney Theater in the Beck Center complex, is a play by Simon Stephens which is based on British writer Mark Haddon’s book of the same name, which, in turn was based on the 1892 short story ‘The Adventure of Silver Blaze.” 

The story centers on Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old autistic math prodigy.  Although Christopher's condition is not stated, per se, a blurb in the book refers to Asperger syndrome, which today would be described as a physical/psychological disorder.   

In July 2009, Haddon wrote on his blog that "The Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger's...if anything it's a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way, and that he, Haddon, is not an expert on the autism spectrum or Asperger syndrome.”

Christopher lives in Swindon, England, with Ed, his “widowed” father.  The boy was told that his mother, Judy, died of a heart attack two years prior to the events of the story. 

One day, Christopher discovers that his neighbor Mrs. Shears’ dog, Wellington, of whom Christopher was fond, has been fatally speared with a garden fork. 

As Christopher mourns over Wellington’s body, Mrs. Shears calls the police, thinking he is the murderer. 

A policeman, unaware of Christopher’s condition, grabs Christopher by the arm.  (Note: Many of those on the autism spectrum abhor being touched.)  Christopher panics and hits the Bobby, resulting in him being arrested for assaulting a police officer. 

After being released, Christopher decides to investigate the dog's death.  As is the case with those on the spectrum, he is obsessive with his task.  He chronicles all the information he receives in a notebook, which eventually forms the basis for this play.

During his investigation, he meets the elderly Mrs. Alexander, who informs Christopher that his mother had an affair with Mr. Shears, a neighbor, and the two moved from the area.

Thus, we enter into an adventure of Christopher’s obsessive search for his mother, discovering who killed Wellington, deciding whether to take his mathematics A-level, and whether he can again have a relationship with his father.

The play gained high praise in professional productions. It ran for over 5 years in London, winning the Oliver Award.  It won the 2015 Tony Award for its Broadway staging.

The Beck production, under the direction of William Roudebush is effective, but missing some of the elements that made it so compelling in its professional productions. 
 
The cast is universally strong.  Maurice Kimball IV, a nondivergent actor, adds authenticity to the role of Christopher.  


The director states, “Working with this gifted Neuro-diverse actor, Maurice Kimball, has been an unfolding, surprising revelation for me, as a director. He continues, “Maurice quietly teaches me more and more each day of rehearsal. He informs the telling of this bountiful story. The rehearsal process challenges me every day and I'm as intimidated as I am excited to walk into that rehearsal tonight and learn how to tell this story of surviving life from his uniquely different, deeply human perspective.”

The rest of the large cast, some of whom play multiple roles, create believable people.  Kudos to Khaki Hermann (Siobhan), Terence Cranendonk (Ed), Katherine DeBoer (Judy).

The pacing holds the attention.    

On the other-hand, Joe Burke’s projection designs and the supporting sounds are interesting, but fail, as those in the London and New York productions did to truly get the viewer into Christopher’s head so we experience what it is like to be autistic.  

Dialect Coach Chuck Richie has done an excellent job of teaching the cast a creditable and consistent British-English pronunciation pattern.  The only issue is that the American ear is not used to the sound and there are times when the word meanings are lost.

And, the decision not to use the short scene after the curtain call, in which Christopher reappears to brilliantly solve his "favourite question" from the mathematics exam, eliminates one of the best and endearing play endings.

Capsule judgment:  THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME is a brilliantly written play.  Neuro-divergent actor, Maurice Kimball IV is compelling in the lead role.  The Beck production catches most of the script’s effectiveness, but stumbles on some technical and directing decisions.  Even with those issues, this is a production well-worth seeing. 
 
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT runs September 23-October 16, 2022 in the Senney Theatre @ Beck Center.  For tickets:  Beckcenter.org or call 216-521-2540.
 






Monday, September 26, 2022

Compelling and relevant Clybourne Park by Ensemble Theatre

 


 
 
Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park is now on stage as the opening play in Ensemble Theatre’s debut year in its residency at Notre Dame College.  The play highlights racial, sexual and gender attitudes.  It won both the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play.
 
Clybourne Park is a follow-up to Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, which looks at a house in a fictional Chicago urban area, before and after the Younger family moved in to it.  
 
Hansberry’s play, titled after Cleveland poet Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred,” was the first script by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway.  It starred Sidney Poitier, Cleveland native Ruby Dee, Louis Gassett, and Claudia McNeil as Lena “Mama” Younger, the woman of the family, who decides to invest the payment from her dead husband’s insurance into the purchase of a house in Chicago’s all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood in order to allow the family to have a better life.  The play won the 1969 Tony Award for best play.
 
Raisin in the Sun was based, in part, on Hansberry v. Lee (1940), a real court case that centered on a class action suit by Lorraine’s father and the NAACP against Chicago’s restrictive covenants against Blacks living in certain areas of the city.
 
Hansberry wrote of the situation and the lawsuit: “That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house. ... My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."
 
Norris, who is white, portrays fictional events, based on his imagination of what happened when, after the Clybourne Park neighborhood became almost all black due to white flight, and then later became an “in-place” for young white “liberal” families to buy and restore, or wreck and replace properties in the now gentrified area, complete with a Whole Foods. 
 
Clybourne Park introduces Bev and Russ, who are in the process of packing to move out of their recently sold home in Chicago’s Clybourne Park neighborhood in September, 1959.  
 
The house is filled with negative memories.  Kenneth, their son, a depressed Korean War vet, who was accused of slaughtering civilians, hung himself in the home’s attic.  The neighbors, rather than befriending the couple, shuns them.
 
In Raisin in the Sun, when the neighborhood association finds out that the house at 406 Clybourne Street has been sold to “negroes,” in order to “save the community’s property values” because of extrapolated Black in-flight, the association sends Karl Lindner to attempt to bribe the Youngers to not move into “their” neighborhood.  The pay-off is rejected. 
 
In Clybourne Park, about an hour after Lindner went to the Younger family’s apartment, he comes to the Clybourne Street house to plead with Bev and Russ to consider the neighbors and the property values and cancel the sale.  
 
Conversations reveal that Bev and Russ turned over the sale to a realty company, so they did not know anything about who bought the house.  They refuse to revoke the sale to the Youngers.
 
Arguments, the history of Bev and Russ’s conflicts with the neighbors and their need to move, ensue.  
 
Their black housekeeper and her husband, who has come to take her home from work, become involved, when a trunk containing Kenneth’s mementos, which was buried in the backyard, are unearthed.  This lays the foundation for the riveting second act.
 
The setting for the second act of the play is exactly fifty years later in the same 406 Clybourne Street house as the first act.  Now it is dilapidated.  Present are an African American couple, the wife, who we find out is the great niece of Lena “Mama” Younger, a young white couple who are planning to demolish the house and building a grand new house on the property, and several lawyers.
 
There is underlying tension.  The planned replacement house doesn’t fit the building code requirements, and there are problems over the wording of the deed, but, most importantly, there are unspoken issues.  
 
After much running around in verbal circles, racial, gender and sexual orientation issues emerge, full blast.  Offensive jokes, accusations, and insults abound. What hasn’t been said, is now vividly addressed.  
 
During the mayhem, a workman, who is preparing the ground for the excavation for the new house’s foundation, enters.  He brings in the buried trunk, which is eventually opened.  The contents lead to the emotional climax of the play.
 
The play’s humor and pathos are nicely refined.  The cast (Brian Pedaci, Mary Werntz, Jailyn Sherell Harris, Christian Achkar, Nnamdi Okpala, Dan Zalevsky and Hannah Storch), except for some projection issues by several performers, are on target.  They generally don’t act; they realistically are the person they are representing.  
 
In the past, Ensemble has been noted, and received awards for their use of electronic media to create proper illusions.  It is too bad that they didn’t use their skills to better represent the house as it transforms from a nice facility in act one to a run-down hovel seen in act two.  We needed to see the ripped wallpaper, boarded up windows and wooden floor streaked with water stains, not a map of the area.  That visual effect would have helped complement and complete this strong production.
 
CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   Clybourne Park is a unique evening of theater.  The Pulitzer Prize play is well written and relevant.  The production is basically well-conceived by director Celeste Consentino.  This is a go see production!
 
Clybourne Park runs through October 9.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go to https://www.ensembletheatrecle.org/
 
Special note:  After many years in the former Coventry Elementary School in Cleveland Heights, has emerged from the pandemic as the resident theatre partner of Notre Dame College, located in the Performer Arts Center of the campus located at 4545 College Road in South Euclid.  There is free parking in a lighted lot, adjacent to the theatre entrance.