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.



Sunday, September 25, 2022

AMERICAN MARIACHI @ Cleveland Play House

 



Music, humor, empathy--AMERICAN MARIACHI hits all the right notes @ CPH
 
Roy Berko
 
“Mariachi is a genre of regional Mexican music that dates back to at least the 18th century.  It is usually played by a male group who play violins, trumpets and a guitar.  All of the players take turns singing lead and do backup vocals.”  The songs they sing celebrate their struggles, joys and growth.
 
A telenovela is a Mexican Soap opera.  The scripts are filled with overly-dramatic and stereotypical characters, obvious and transparent plots, and melodramatic acting. (Think television’s “Ugly Betty,” which not only followed the formula format, but was presented as a telenovela within a telenovela.)
 
Mariachi and telenovela are central to the present Cleveland Play House’s 20222-23 season opener, AMERICAN MARIACHI.
 
Lucha spends her days caring for her ailing mother, but longs to shake up her home life. When a forgotten record album sparks her mother’s memory, Lucha and her cousin strike upon a radical idea: to create an all-female mariachi band.  But it’s the 1970s, and girls can’t be mariachis … or can they?  
 
Lucha and her spunky cousin hunt for bandmates, uncover the strong machismo attitudes of Hispanic men, reveal wife battering, run into disapproving relatives, and expose a hidden family story, while dealing with her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease.  
 
Will the band come together? Will an odd-combination of women overcome societal attitudes and their personal angst?  Will they get help from unexpected sources?
 
Sound like a melodramatic epic?  Yes, it is a one hour, forty-minute telenovela, filled with mariachi music!
 
In comments of other productions, the reviews stated, “A vibrant ode to music and memory!”  “It is all about familia, amor and tradición.” “What we come away with, after laughter and even tears, is a warm feeling of familia and a greater appreciation of Mexican American pride, culture, and music!” “It's that rare show that brings tears and laughter, while using musical tradition to deal with modern issues.”
 
The live Mariachi music is well played and infectious.  It is expertly performed by Diego Lucero (guitarrón), Daniel Ochoa (vihuela), Ayan “Yaha” Vasquez-Lopez (violin) and Ricardo Vejar (trumpet).
 
Two of the songs were written by José Cruiz González, the script’s author.
  
There are original musical arrangements by Cynthia Reifler Flores.
 
The production is creatively directed by Henry Godine.  The use of Spanish at various times, adds a touch of authenticity.
 
Many members of the proficient cast performed in productions of the script at the Goodman Theatre Center, Alabama Festival and Dallas Theater Center.
 
Capsule judgment:  AMERICAN MARIACHI allows audiences to experience a telenovela, a Hispanic story-telling technique, and be exposed to mariachi music, while sharing a tale of universal angst.  The CPH production is well staged and performed.  This is a fine evening of theatre. 
 
AMERICAN MARIAHI runs through October 9 at the Allen Theatre. For tickets 216-400-7000 or go on-line to clevelandplayhouse.com

 



Monday, September 19, 2022

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS cult followers will be devoured by Great Lakes production



 “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 was transformed into a low-budget 1960 black comedy film named LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.  Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (lyrics and book) transformed it into a musical, which is now on stage at The Great Lakes Theater.

The film, and later the off-Broadway musical, developed cult followings.  It was so popular that when it moved from off-off Broadway to off-Broadway, it had a five-year run. 
When it closed, it was the highest-grossing production in Off-Broadway history.

Since then, it has had many, many reincarnations including a 2019 smash revival which starred Jonathan Groff, who appeared in Great White Way’s SPRING AWAKENING and HAMILTON, as well as TV’s smash hit GLEE.

Filled with rock and roll, doo-wop and early Motown, the musical’s catchy score, which includes “Skid Row” “Somewhere That’s Green, and “Suddenly Seymour” often evoke singing from those in attendance, and cult followers sometimes bellow out imitations of the “Feed Me” sounds of Audrey II, the blood thirsty plant who plays a major part in the story’s warped plot.  In its full glory, attending it is a lot like going to a staging or screening of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. (Side note: the staid GLT audience displayed few of the cult-followers tenacity.)

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 opens with a trio of street urchins named Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon setting the 1960’s mood and foreshadow the tale, singing the title song and then acting as our Greek chorus, explaining the plot.  

We meet Seymour Krelborn, a geeky young man who was taken as a child 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 buys a mysterious plant that looks like a large Venus flytrap.  Since Seymour is secretly in love with Audrey, he names the plant Audrey II.

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 a lot of other weird “stuff” happens.  Unless you are into “sadistic,” you’ll probably go home and toss out all your greenery.

The GLT production, under the spot-on direction by Victoria Bussert, Baldwin Wallace University’s Director of Music Theatre, and who has served for 36 years at Great Lakes, will delight the many LITTLE SHOP cult-nerds.  

Andrew Faria is geek perfect as Seymour.  He squeaks, physically stumbles, acts nerdy and endears himself in the process.  His “Grow for Me,” charms.  His scenes with the air-brained Audrey, delightfully performed by Sara Masterson, are comic classics.  Her rendition of “Somewhere That’s Green” evokes endearing sympathy for the character. 

Aled Davies fully develops the role of Mr. Mushnik.  Alex Syiek, a former Cleveland Critics Circle Best Actor in a Musical winner, is properly obnoxious as the sadist dentist.  Sydney Alexandra Whittenburg, Savannah Cooper and Kris Lyons sing, swing and dance with outright glee as the street urchins. 

Elijah Dawson steals the show as the voice of Audrey II.  Chad Ethan Shohet, the puppeteer, makes Audrey II scarily real.

Nancy Maier’s musicians, Jaclyn Miller’s choreography, and Jeff Herman’s scene design, Trad A Burns lighting design, and Danae Iris McQueen’s costumes all added to the quality of the production.  Too bad David Gotwold was not capable of balancing the voices with each other and the singing voices with the orchestra so that each voice could be clearly heard.  Many lyrics were lost due to sound problems.

Capsule Judgment:  LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS 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.  The GLT production is as good as you are going to get.  It solidly hits all the comic and horror notes.  It’s a must see for the script’s fans!

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS runs through October 2, 2002 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets https://www.greatlakestheater.org/or call (216) 241-6000


Monday, September 12, 2022

BUYER AND CELLAR puts Beck at the delightful center of the gay world




Barbra Streisand’s career started in the gay nightclub, The Lion, located in New York’s Greenwich Village.  Her films and music have amassed huge support, especially from the gay community.  She, and her works, are larger than life, leading to her being selected by “Out Magazine” as one of the “12 Greatest Female Gay Icons of All Time.”  

 
Many drag and gay entertainers have taken on the Streisand persona, singing her songs and acting out their idealization of her.  None, probably has placed a more interesting spotlight on Barbra than Jonathan Tolins in his one-man comedy, BUYER AND CELLAR, now on stage at Beck Center for the Arts.
 
The play premiered on April 2, 2013 at the Rattlestick Playwrights in NYC. The production starred out gay actor, Michael Urie, best known known for his performances on television’s UGLY BETTY and YOUNGER.
 
The play follows Alex More, a struggling gay actor who is down on his luck after being fired from Disneyland because of his impatience with the annoying kids at the Magic Kingdom.  He lands a job keeping the basement shopping mall in Barbra Streisand’s Malibu home clean, organized, as well as servicing the customers – of whom there is only one – Ms. Streisand, herself. “He comes to learn there are few bigger or more spoiled kids in the world than those with privilege and money.”

In the play, after assuring the audience that the entire play is about a fictional person, working in a fictional location, for a celebrity so popular she is almost fictional herself, we are introduced to Barbra’s secretary, who administers the shopping center and its one employee.  More fantasizes about meeting the real icon.  At first he does not meet her, but eventually Streisand comes to peruse her collection, and the two strike up a friendly relationship. 

Side comments:  Streisand did construct a series of Main Street storefronts beneath the barn on her Malibu property, inspired by the Winterhur Museum in Delaware, where she houses her dolls and “tchotchkes” (brick-a-bracs), which are written about in Streisand’s 2010 coffee table book “My Passion for Design.” 
 
Also be aware that the script is liberally laced with Yiddish words and phrases.  Though not a requirement, “farshteyn” (understanding) Yiddish helps in grasping some of the humor. 
 
Winner of the 2014–2015 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show, the playwright “ruminates with delicious wit and perspicacity on the solitude of celebrity, the love-hate attraction between gay men and divas, and the melancholy that lurks beneath narcissism.” 


This seriously funny slice of absurdist whimsy creates the illusion of a stage filled with multiple people, all of them with their own droll point of view
 
Reviews for productions of the 90-minute play state: “Hilarious!” “Beyond brilliant.” “This show will go down like butta'!” and “Fantastically funny.”
 
Beck’s production features multi-talented Scott Esposito, who has received recognition for his acting skills by Cleveland Critics Circle and Broadwayworld.com.  He has been seen locally in productions at Seat of the Pants Productions, Cain Park, Ensemble Theatre, French Creek Theatre, Lakeland Civic Theatre, Blank Canvas, Beck Center and Dobama.
 
Esposito has memorized and speaks hundreds of lines as the sole performer, portraying not only Alex More, but More’s boyfriend, Streisand, Sadie (Streisand’s alter-ego), and the great one’s secretary.
 
He handles all of the characters with consistency of sound and mannerisms.  He has a nice approach to comedy and his timing is excellent.
 
What is really impressive is not only Esposito’s grasp of all of the lines in this production, but that several weeks ago he portrayed the leading role in OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD at Seat of the Pants Productions, in which he also had many, many lines to memorize.
 
The show was creatively staged by director Jamie Koeth.
 
CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  BUYER AND CELLAR is a show that will delight gay audiences who will be able to laugh at themselves, as well as appreciate their perceived hero-worship of the world of divas, but should be a fun experience for the uninitiated into all things gay.  Scott Esposito gives a finely tuned performance in this well-conceived play. So, “bubalah,” If you want to escape from the world of covid and political stress, go see B&C, you may get “verklempt.”  
 
BUYER & CELLLAR runs September 9-October 9 in the Studio Theater of the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood. For tickets call 216-521-2540 or go on line to beckcenter.org

Monday, August 15, 2022

FROZEN--Key Bank Broadway Series

 


As I exited the opening night of FROZEN, part of the Broadway Series, which is now on stage at the Key Bank State Theatre, I was surrounded by hundreds of little girls in their “princess” dresses and tiaras, happily dragging their parents, grandparents and reluctant brothers toward the counters selling the show’s memorabilia.  Listening to their conversations, they were less interested in the story, the score and the lyrics then in “How did they make it snow on-stage?” “How did they make all those icicles?, and “How did Elsa’s dress change so fast?”  
 
There is an old theatre adage that states, “When you see a musical, you should come out humming the music, not commenting on the sets and costumes.”  Disney, the producers of FROZEN, obviously hadn’t heard that concept.
 
Well, maybe they did.  In transferring the show from film (the 2013 flick of the same name which, to date, is the top grossing animated film of all time), to the stage version (2018), as “30% of the show was rewritten between the tryout and the Broadway opening.  As the writers indicated, “with the musical taking a deeper dive into the characters psyches and aimed at a more adult audience.”
 
So, grandparents and parents, be aware that this musical, whose underlying message of being true to yourself and fully embracing who we are, may not enchant your “princesses.” 
 
FROZEN, the musical with music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and book by Jennifer Lee, premiered on Broadway in March 2018 to very mixed reviews. Typical of the professional evaluations is, ‘FROZEN doesn’t entirely go wrong, but it does evidence signs of the struggle to establish a consistent, unifying tone and to settle on a center in a story inherently bifurcated by having two heroines kept apart for most of the action. It ends up being merely adequate, a bland facsimile when it should have been something memorable in its own right.” Others stated, "fun but not transporting, and "rousing, often dull, alternately dopey.”
 
Is the stage version the same as the film?  In transferring it, the writers augmented their score for the original film, which featured just eight songs to 20 songs in the stage version.  It is also probably why, both the two young boys in front of me and the trio of female tweens sitting behind, all were over-heard saying, “This isn’t like the film.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Broadway production closed on March 11, 2020, after 825 regular performances.  When pandemic restrictions were eliminated, it was decided that the show would not open again on Broadway, but tour instead.
Locals were not thrilled by the Broadway no-up, as Baldwin Wallace University Musical Theatre grad Ciara Renée had assumed the lead role of Elsa, less than a month before the covid shutdown.  
 
So, what’s it all about?
 
A Greek Chorus introduces serious Princess Elsa of Arendelle and her high-spirited younger sister, Princess Anna.  While the family knows about Elsa's magical powers, it is kept a secret from the people of Arendelle. One night, Elsa and Anna build a magical snowman and name it Olaf.  In their excitement, Elsa accidentally injures Anna in an icy magic rage. Their parents, call for the aid of a colony of hidden folk.  For their own protection, The King isolates the princesses within the castle.”

Years pass. The king dies.  The day before Elsa's coronation as Queen of Arendelle, Anna asks if there is anything she can do for her sister. Elsa, her room coated in ice, refuses to open her door out of fear of hurting Anna again.  

The day of the coronation Anna meets and falls in love with Hans.  He asks to marry her. (As we find out later he has a sinister reason for the proposal.) The couple asks for Elsa's blessing. She objects because the two have only known each other for a day. 

After intense questioning from Anna about shutting her out of her life, Elsa accidentally unleashes her icy powers before the court.
 
Elsa flees to the North Mountain without realizing that her magic has engulfed Arendelle in an eternal winter.

Thus, we enter into a world of ice, a compassionate reindeer, Olaf becoming a living snowman, Anna falling in love again, a revelation about Hans, and, of course, a happy ending.

During the goings on, we hear a rather uninspiring score consisting of such songs as “Hans of the Southern Isles,” “Dangerous to Dream,” “Reindeers are Better than People,” “Hygee” and “Colder by the Minute.”  On the other hand, “Love Is an Open Door” is cute and catchy.

The visual effects are astounding.  Anna’s costumes are breathtaking.  The lighting effects, which help create Elsa’s magic, are confounding.  The full-body costume to represent the reindeer, Sven, (Colin Baja inside holding stilts in his hands and walking on tiptoe) is impressive, as is the puppet of Olaf (F. Michael Haynie) the snowman.  They are much in the realm of the compelling horses in WARHORSE.

The entire cast has impressive voices.  Lauren Nicole Chapman delights as Princess Anna.  She displays a wonderful sense of comic timing.  Beautiful Caroline Bowman, is perfect as Elsa, the Ice Princess/Queen. Her “Let It Go” is the show’s musical highlight.  Handsome Ryan McCartan is both charming and evil as Hans.  Zach Trimmer is macho-right as Kristoff, Anna’s nice-guy second love.  

Capsule judgment:  Disney has created some of Broadway’s most memorable musicals including THE LION KING, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, MARY POPPINS and NEWSIES THE MUSICAL.  FROZEN, unfortunately, does not deserve to join that exalted list. It’s not terrible, but kids will probably not be enchanted, adults should be adequately interested, and  all will be awed by the special effects and lighting.  

FROZEN runs through September 11 at the Key Bank State Theatre.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to 
www.playhousesquare.org

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Kent and Céspedes join forces for exceptional WEST SIDE STORY at Porthouse

  


In the fall of 1957, I had a mind-blowing experience.  I saw the newly opened Broadway production of WEST SIDE STORY.  At the time, all I knew about the show was that it was based on ROMEO AND JULIET and it had opened to positive reviews two days before.  
 
I left the show with aching hands from clapping and clapping and clapping during the extended curtain calls.  I became a WEST SIDE STORY junkie, seeing the show time-after-time on the Great White Way before it closed, then the revival, and many other performances since.  
 
WEST SIDE STORY had an interesting road from concept to Broadway.  
 
In 1974 Jerome Robbins conceived the idea of a contemporary musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET.  His concept was to center the focus on the conflict between an Irish Catholic family and Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan set during the Easter-Passover season.  The Catholic “Jets” and the Jewish “Emeralds” were “gangs” in conflict.  
 
Originally titled, EAST SIDE STORY, Bernstein proposed an operatic musical score.  Difficulty with the book, music and lyrics eventually caused the idea to be dropped.  
 
A number of years later, the idea re-emerged as WEST SIDE STORY. The story is set in New York in the mid 1950s.   Sharks came from Puerto Rico, and the Jets, are a collection of white working-class hoodlums. Tony, one of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, with disastrous results.  
 
As the score and script developed, tension and comic relief increased, leading to the powerful impact of the play’s tragic ending.   Effort was made to ensure that the show would be a musical drama, not a musical comedy, thus making it different from the Broadway shows of the day. 
 
It is a musical with a serious theme, sophisticated music, extensive dancing and an investigation of social problems.  The memorable score includes Something's Coming, Maria, America, Somewhere, Tonight, I Feel Pretty, and A Boy Like That.
 
Cast members, especially the dancers, were treated as actors and singers, not just as bodies to be choreographed, which opened a new way for chorus members to be treated, and laid the foundation for such shows as A CHORUS LINE.  
 
In 2007, Arthur Laurents decided it was time to adjust the script. His “new” WSS opened on March 19, 2009.  The production wove Spanish lyrics and dialogue into the English libretto. The show had an attitude adjustment, more serious, with some of the lightness eliminated.  The characters were made more authentic.  

The Porthouse production, under the adept direction of Terri Kent, is filled with the right attitudes, especially the emotionally wracked ending.

The right tone to the music, which is a highlight to Bernstein’s brilliance, was well performed by Jonathan Swoboda and his large orchestra.  The sounds are full and lush where they should be and powerful when appropriate.  It also underscored the performers, allowing Sondheim’s lyrics to be heard clearly.  The vocals were generally strong.

The choreography of Martin Céspedes, as has become expected from this multi-award winner, is the cement that holds the show together.  The dancers are well-honed and show a discipline not often displayed on any but Broadway stages.  

Céspedes avoids copying the Broadway dance patterns and invented new ways to stage the numbers, centering on the abilities of his performers.  Especially effective were “The Dance at the Gym,” “America,” and “Ballet Sequence.”  

Strong performances are given by Alexa Lopez (Maria), Victoria Mesa (Anita), Maya Galipeau (Anybodys), Zachary Mackiewicz (Riff), Rasario Guillen (Bernardo), Kirstin Angelina Henry (Rosalia), Steven Scionti (Schrank) and Rohn Thomas (Doc).  Each developed a clear character.  Impressive vocals include: “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” “A Boy Like That,” “One Hand, One Heart,” and “Jet Song.”  
 
I wish that the dialogue between the Puerto Ricans was in Spanish, but it isn’t.  The difficulty of finding the number actors needed to do that is great, so this void is understandable.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  WEST SIDE STORY is near the top of my list of all-time great musicals. The creative choreography and solid character development of the Porthouse production did nothing to dissuade my love for the show.  Bravo!!!  I look forward to more shows produced by the Terri Kent and Martin Céspedes dynamic duo!
 
The show runs through August 13.  Due to a week of covid cancellations there may be additional performances added.  Check the theatre’s website https://www.kent.edu/porthouse/west-side-story.  Call 330-672-3884.