Sunday, February 17, 2002

Sumida River Dance Company (Cleveland Public Theatre)

Cleveland Public Theatre's exciting dance program continues with Sumida River

Cleveland Public Theatre has become one of the most exciting entertainment settings in the area. Under the guidance of Artistic Director James Levin and Producing Director Randy Rollison the theatre is not only almost single handled reviving the Detroit Avenue and West 65th Street area, but it is giving the community exciting theatre, dance and entertainment. After completing its most expansive project, the refurbishing of the Gordon Street Theatre, there is no telling where this group will venture next. They have entered Lorain County with its ELYRIA-Y PROGRAM which focuses on spoken words as a means of expression through weekly classes.

With the demise of the Cleveland San Jose Ballet only sporadic dance programs are available to the community. CPT stepped in with their DANCEWORKS 02 which allows audiences to examine tap, hip hop, contemporary, modern and international dance. Much appreciation to the staff, and in particular Jeff Syroney, co-producer of the DANCEWORKS 02, for making a major contribution to the local entertainment scene.

SUMIDA RIVER offers a different view of dance than is usually experienced by local audiences. The program is based on a 15th century Noh Japanese play, SUMIDAGAWA, which tells the story of the tragedy of a mother who has lost her child, and the difficult inner journey of the woman.

Denise Fujiwara, the sole dancer, was in total control of her body during the program. Every movement, every facial expression, every gesture was a well thought out vehicle for conveying meaning.

This was not a program for everyone. The Japanese are noted for their ability to very slowly and meticulously develop a concept. The Fujiwara Dance Inventions style follows that prolonged movement concept. This is definitely not contemporary in your-face dance. It is slow, almost ponderous. A viewer must accept the almost mesmerizing small, intricate movements or the experience can be tortuous. The style does have its following. One audience member had driven here from Pittsburgh specifically to see the performance he had previously experienced in Toronto. A Fujiwara Dance Inventions’ groupie!

Proposals (Beck Center)

Beck's 'PROPOSALS' entertains

Some plays are perfect fodder for community theatres. Neil Simon’s 'PROPOSALS,' getting its Cleveland premiere at Beck Center for the Arts, is that kind of script. It has everything to delight audiences. There is a plausible story line, lots of funny one-liners, conflicted love, and a wonderful voice from the dead.

Neil Simon is the crown prince of American comic theatre. His 30 plays have almost all been hits...hits with the public if not always with the critics. 'PROPOSALS,' in the vein of 'BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS' and 'LOST IN YONKERS' is not only entertaining, but renders a message.

The story concerns the Hines family and their last summer together at their summer home in the Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania. We are carried back to the 1950’s by Clemma, the African American cook, housekeeper and nanny of the family. Acting much like the Greek chorus, she introduces us to the setting and the characters, and steps in and out of her role as tour guide and participant in the action. This format is unique for Simon as he expands beyond his usual pat writing format. He uses a narrator, an African American lead character, and the play takes place outside of New York City.

Beck’s production, under the guidance of director Sarah May, is a little slowly paced. In spite of that the actors sometimes stomp on laugh lines and/or don’t cue the lines to assure audience response.

The cast is uneven. Joyce M. Meadows is nothing short of outstanding as Clemma. It’s worth going just to see this woman dominate a stage.

Joe Bandille as Burt Hines, the father/husband, and Jennifer Clifford as his daughter Josie are also excellent. James Seward, as Clemma’s estranged husband, hits the right emotional notes. Joel Nunley as Vinnie, a Mafia-clone, just isn’t broad enough in his characterization. He loses many lines as his accent comes and goes. He is also not helped by wearing a costume totally “unMafiosso.” Kellie McIvor, as the airheaded model, again, was played much too seriously. The other cast members tend to act rather than react to the goings-on which leads to surface level performances.

Don McBride’s set is could smell the woods, feel the dampness coming off the lake. Casey Jones 1950’s musical selections had the audience singing along as Doris Day and friends filled the auditorium.

Capsule judgement: With a wonderful production 'PROPOSALS' could totally enrapture an audience. Though Beck’s production falls short of that, it is still very entertaining.

Sunday, February 10, 2002

Kaeja d'Dance (Cleveland Public Theatre)

Cleveland Public Theatre presents award winning Kaeja d'dance

The Cleveland Public Theatre often goes where other local entertainment centers dare not tread. The theatre had the nerve to present the likes of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH. It allows its facilities to be used to present a play where all the actors wind up nude. And, now, they present an innovative dance series that runs through March 3.

Unfortunately, programs are only scheduled for short runs. For example, Kaeja d’Dance was only presented for three performances this past weekend. It’s too bad there wasn’t time for word to spread about this creative, innovative, fascinating Canadian company. This award winning dance ensemble is led by Allen Kaeja, a Jewish choreographer. His ethnic background and family experiences gave birth to his powerful piece Resistance which chronicles the Jewish struggle that took place against the Nazi. Composed of gymnastic, synchronized, powerful movements, the performers use four benches which are so synchronized into the patterns that they often take on the role of dancers. The furniture pieces are slammed, stacked, balanced on, swung, and spun to create awesome effects. The variety of musical accompaniment spans pinging beats, Hebraic melodies, plaintive pitches and the roar of engines. The movements are perfectly choreographed to fit the tone and feeling of the music. Though it may be difficult for the uninitiated to understand the connection of the piece to the Holocaust, the overall effect of violence, intimacy and reflection are crystal clear. The dancers are suburb. They work as a well polished machine to create a highly emotional performance.

The opening piece was an improvisation in which the dancers were randomly chosen to perform, with and without music, with no rehearsal and no theme. Working like a perfectly honed machine the company created an exciting experience for the audience.

Capsule judgement: The only regret of the evening was that so few people attended this enticing dance program. Let’s hope that in the future CPT asks this wonderful company back.

The Infinite Regress of Human Vanity (Cleveland Play House)


When I first saw 'THE INFINITE REGRESS OF HUMAN VANITY' when it was workshopped at the Cleveland Play House as part of the 1999 Next Stage Festival of New Plays, I called it “one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen.” In its present enactment I still think it is one of the funniest plays I’ve seen, but I’ll also add that along with its deep humor the playwright has imbedded a very thought-provoking message. It’s a toss-up as to which is most pleasurable about the play.

The story supposedly concerns Nathan Pine, a playwright who comes to see his new play presented at a play festival, not unlike the experience of writers who are invited to have their plays showcased at the CPH New Play Festival. Pine who has a history of unusual experiences in the theatre, including having killed a producer when the man was accidentally shoved off a theatre balcony by an upset Pine, again runs into strange theatre people and the roadblocks placed in the way of a show going from script to stage.

Author Murphy Guyer, who is the CPH’s Associate Artist, has a wonderful way with words. He throws out one-liners like Neil Simon. But, unlike many of Simon’s shows, Guyer bases his scripts on a set of philosophical principals and questions. In this play Guyer states, “Self interest is the essence of life itself” and “Our vanity is our mind’s immune system.” That philosophical bent makes 'THE INFINITE REGRESS OF HUMAN VANITY' more than just a comedy, but a very funny play that makes an important point.

Cleveland is blessed with many fine actors. Andrew May is one of them. May is wonderful in this production. No one has a more mobile face than May, no one can look as pained as May, no one can key a laugh with an open-eyed expression as May can. He is perfect in his role. Liz Hazel as the women’s libber dramaturg is hysterical. Christie Butter, as the beautiful young assistant, is engaging.

Unfortunately, some of this cast isn’t as convincing as the workshop production. Jonathan Partington doesn’t quite convince as the playwright in the play within the play, Ben Nordstrom skims the character’s surface as the young hip kid, and Paul Floriano doesn’t break the emotional plane as the producer.

Capsule judgement: Go to see 'THE INFINITE REGRESS OF HUMAN VANITY' expecting to laugh. Go to see 'THE INFINITE REGRESS OF HUMAN VANITY' expecting to be moved to think about about self interest and the ego. Go see 'THE INFINITE REGRESS OF HUMAN VANITY' because, as the script says, “A true comedy is funny to the very end.” Go to see 'THE INFINITE REGRESS OF HUMAN VANITY.'

Thursday, February 07, 2002

Beauty and the Beast (Playhouse Square Center)

'BEAUTY AND THE BEAST' delights at Allen Theatre

There are some critics who damn the Disneyfication of the American musical. They believe that the Disney organization has made the theatre into a place of formula plots and overblown productions. I am not one of them! I think the arts, theatre included, has to appeal to many different types of people on different levels for it to fulfill it’s mission.

It was exciting on opening night of 'BEAUTY AND THE BEAST' to see a near capacity audience made up of young children, teenagers, Generation Xers and the Geritol set. They came in spite of the fact that this is not the first time the show has been in Cleveland. They came, they were excited about being in the theatre, and they enjoyed themselves. Many of these people would not come to see the likes of 'PARADE,' 'BLOOD BROTHERS' or 'CHESS,' but they came to see the fantasy, the magic, the farce, the inventive sets, and the wonderful costumes of this show. This mass assemblage wanted to enjoy themselves, to have some cotton candy for the mind and cherry cokes for the soul. Hurray for Disney for finding a way to draw these people into see live theatre.

Did the Disney studios actually reinvent the musical? No! The 'BEAUTY AND THE BEAST' plot line follows the tried and true formula set up by Rogers and Hammerstein in the 1940s. The first act lays the foundation for the plot, the last incident of the act makes us want to come back to find out how the story ends. It’s the same as what we experience in Lerner and Loewe’s 'MY FAIR LADY.' The question at the end of the first act is, “Will Eliza be able to fool everyone and be perceived as a lady of breeding?” The question in 'BEAUTY AND THE BEAST' is, “Will Beauty be able to teach the Beast how to love and thus break the wicked spell?” In both cases the answer, of course, is “yes.” That’s the stuff of which fantasies are made.

The production on stage at the Allen Theatre is everything one could ask for. It’s been that way since 1993 when the musical previewed in Houston and 1994 when it opened to its long run on Broadway. It’s been that way as it has worked its way across the world and thrilled people in such places as Sydney, Toronto, Vienna, Osaka, Mexico City and London.

This is a full-scale beautifully mounted production which will enchant children of all ages. But, be warned, it may also scare the little ones as the Beast roars, the shadows and fog fill the stage, and wolves chase Beauty. (As one sweet 3-year old, all dressed up in her pink ruffles said, “I don’t like this movie, it scares me.” Her parents snuggled her in, reassured her, and she remained transfixed for the rest of the show.

The cast is wonderful. Danyelle Bossardet is a Snow White-like Beauty with a warm and charming voice. Grant Norman’s voice fills the theatre as it did when he played the lead in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and in London. Marc Dalio creates a Gaston who is perfectly overblown. Gerard McIsaac is a perfect slapstick fool and punching bag for Gaston.

Capsule judgement: Over 17 million people worldwide have seen and loved 'BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.' I challenge anyone except the reviewer-Grinch to not love this production. 'LONG LIVE' the Disneyfication of the musical! Ba, humbug to the sourpusses who look down at making people laugh, smile and want to come to the theatre!

Sunday, February 03, 2002

Constant Star (Dobama)

'CONSTANT STAR'--an effective history lesson at Dobama

Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King, Ida B. Wells. While the first four names may be familiar, the last one, Ida B. Wells probably is not. Those who have taken US history classes, even those that attempted to give a voice to African American achievements and concerns, were probably not introduced to Wells. Playwright Tazewell Thompson’s desire to right the historical wrong gave birth to 'CONSTANT STAR,' now in its Ohio premiere at Dobama Theatre.

Operating under the motto, “I was put on this earth to agitate,” Wells, who was born in Mississippi in 1862, was a slave for the first six months of her life and spent the rest fighting for the rights of free blacks and justice for all. Maybe the lack of historical attention was due to her style. She operated under an umbrella of no compromise and not pulling punches. Her mother had left her with the motto, “Remember, girl, no one is better than you.” Ida B. Wells seemed to wholly embrace that philosophy. Her disdain for Frederick Douglas, who she considered an “Uncle Tom” and for the NAACP, which she felt “accomplished nothing” were not popular stands.

Wells pursued her beliefs in earnest. She sued a railroad for their attempt to force her to sit in the smoking car in spite of the civil rights laws that guaranteed black passage in first class. As a journalist she conducted a lifelong campaign against lynching and she led a boycott of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition when she felt it lacked highlights of African American achievements. She led Blacks to believe they could defend themselves. She didn’t believe in turning the others cheek. She once challenged a group of whites by stating, “If I go down, some of you will go down with me.” This was a woman of arrogance, self-centeredness and determination. In spite of her activity, maybe another reason for her lack of historical note was that she has no specific accomplishment to which her name is tied. She has no “I Have a Dream” speech, no attitude changing bus boycott, nor a March on Washington.

Thompson’s play is powerful, but talky. It is repetitious, too long and needs heavy cutting to make it compact and effective. The musical interludes, which take us from one scene to another are well-conceived and effective.

Dobama’s production is well-honed by director Margaret Ford-Taylor. Her cast of five African American women, playing interchangeable parts as Wells at various times in her life, as well as supporting characters, were generally fine. Though there were some line lapses, the ideas flowed well. Especially effective was Yolanda Davis, a junior at Kent State, who commanded the stage whenever she spoke. There was a glint in her eye and an edge to her voice that were both powerful and compassionate. J. Elaine Linzy also stood out.

Capsule judgement: CONSTANT STAR has an important message for all audience members, no matter their race. It is a play to be seen, thought about, and talked about.