Friday, June 28, 2002

The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue (Berea Summer Theatre)

'WILL ROGERS FOLLIES' a creative delight at Berea Summer Theatre

Every once in a while a theatre-goer has a very special evening in the theatre. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. It takes place when the script, the music (if it’s a musical), the directing concept and the talent all come seamlessly together. Such was the case at Berea Summer Theatre when it opened its summer season with 'THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES: A LIFE IN REVUE.'

The musical takes us on a delightful and sometimes touching ride through the life of Will Rogers, one of America’s folk favorites. Famous for such lines as “Never met a man I didn’t like” and “live your life so that when you lose, you are ahead,” Will Rogers rose from school dropout to being one of the most respected political philosophers of his day. His philosophical renderings appear in six books, scores of magazine articles and 4,000 syndicated newspaper columns. He performed in 71 movies where he seldom learned the script, preferring to ad lib. He is probably best known for his nightly chats with the audience as part of the Ziegeld Follies. Drawled comments like "We'll be the first nation in the world to go to the poor house in an automobile," displaying the disparity between rich and poor during the Great Depression, endeared him to audiences. Sometimes called the “Poet Lariat” based on his ability to perform outstanding rope trips while talking to the viewers, he won a slot in the GUINESS BOOK OF RECORDS.

Though the show’s individual songs are not memorable, the score won a Tony Award for writers Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolf Green. THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES: A LIFE IN REVUE was awarded the Tony as the best musical of 1991. The show played to more than four million persons during its first two years on Broadway and three companies that toured the United States and Canada.

Under Lora Workman’s leadership, THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES: A LIFE IN REVUE is a very professional amateur production. There are no stars next to the names of the performers, stars that represent membership in the Actor’s Equity Association, but there are stars all over the stage. Workman , acting as both director and choreographer, is not only creative but obviously a perfectionist. The kick lines were polished, the splits well executed, the cartwheels twirled as they should, the patter moves were met with extended applause, the stage pictures exciting, and the enthusiasm was caught by the entertained audience. The entire cast obviously understood the show’s concept and learned and polished the many complicated and enthusiastic dance numbers. Workman did what many directors don’t do..she paid attention not only to the leading performers, but to the acting and dancing choruses.

The technical aspects of the BST production support the show. Scene designer Ron Newell’s red, white and blue leveled set worked well. Gina Leone’s lighting helped create the varying moods. Jeffrey Smart’s massive number of costumes were creative. The only technical flaws centered on sound glitches when performers’ mikes did not work.

Steve Higginbotham was inconsistent in his Will Rogers characterization. His first act performance was partally surface. Forced facial expressions, overly articulated diction, difficulty with the Oklahoma speech cadence and surface emotions were present. The veneer vanished in the second act when he seemed to transform himself into a natural Rogers. This was especially true in a long emotionally-charged soliloquy. He sings well and dances with ease.

Kimberly Lauren Koljat who portrayed Rogers wife, Betty Blake, has a nice voice and an infectious smile. Amanda Folino was wonderfully ditzy as Ziegfeld’s Favorite. She is a polished dancer, a fine song stylist and has a fine sense of comic timing. Chuck Burneson, a professional roper, received extended applause for his rope tricks. The Rogers kids, portrayed by Kyle Branzel, Jenny Sherman, J.P. Gagen and Richie Gagen were engaging. The singing and dancing choruses were amazingly adept.

Capsule judgement: 'THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES: A LIFE IN REVUE' at BST is one of the finest productions in the theatre’s history. If you want a pleasurable evening of summer entertainment go, see, enjoy and as the BST motto states, “And tell your friends!”

West Side Story (Cain Park)

Frantic 'WEST SIDE STORY' at Cain Park

In 1949 Jerome Robbins brought together composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents to work on a modern musical version of 'ROMEO AND JULIET.' Originally called 'EAST SIDE STORY,' it was about a Jewish boy’s star-crossed romance with an Italian Catholic girl set against the clashing street gangs on New York’s lower East Side. Eventually, Polish was substituted for Jewish, Puerto Rican replaced Catholic, and the setting was moved to the west side. A 27 year-old lyricist by the name of Stephen Sondheim was brought onto the production team to participate in his first Broaway show. A master musical and many legends emerged.

The show concerns Tony, a second generation Polish-American who once was the leader of the Jets street gang. He becomes committed to peaceful coexistence between the “Americans” and the “Puerto Ricans” when he meets and falls in love with Maria at a high school dance. The star-crossed lovers run into complications, when, in spite of his best efforts at avoidance, Tony kills Maria's brother, who has killed Tony’s best friend in a rumble gone awry. Eventually total tragedy hits when Tony is murdered. The show contains such memorable songs as “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “I Have a Love, and “Tonight.”

'WEST SIDE STORY' was one of the first Broadway shows I ever saw. I was entranced by the powerful dancing, the integration of story and song, the quality of the music and the depth of the performances. I have seen many productions of the show since. Each, of course has its own interpretation. I must admit, however, I have never seen an interpretation quite like the one conceived by Victoria Bussert. The concept can best be described as “frantic.”

It must be realized that Bussert is generally working with a group of theatrical amateurs. In the main, these are not Actors Equity performers. These are mostly college and high school kids who give their time and effort free of charge. Even so, there were many talented thespians on stage, enthusiastic performers who put forth full-effort throughout the show.

The usual competent and wise Bussert chose to pace the show at a breakneck speed. Maybe she did this because her cast are mainly suburban intelligent clean scrubbed kids whose life experiences don’t parallel to inner city gangs. By pacing rapidly she may have been trying to substitute excitement for emotional intensity. It didn’t work as well as one might hope. Some dramatic scenes didn’t have time to develop, emotions were shown by shouting and screeching, songs were often sung at a rapid pace that didn’t allow the audience to understand the words. Even the delightful “Officer Krupke” got few laughs because the words were swallowed.

Janiece Kelley-Kiteley’s fine choreography was often turned into speed dancing. In spite of great physical effort of the dancers the overall effect was often chaos. Larry Hartzell’s orchestra must have been gasping for breath as they plowed rapidly through song after song, sometimes drowning out the singers. Even the set changes were done as marathon dashes.

The show does have fine moments. The fight scene in which Bernardo and Riff are killed was masterfully done. Tony and Maria’s meeting at the dance was finely honed. The famous balcony scene was both touching and humorous, filled with the youthful joy of first love.

Many of the performances were also on key. Trista Moldovan, a recent Baldwin Wallace grad, who is New York bound following this show, was excellent as Maria. She has a fine voice and her character development was clear and consistent. Joelle Graham smoldered her way through the part of Anita. Her eyes flashed, her intensity light up the stage. Kevin David Thomas, who earlier this year took the part of Tony for Baldwin Wallace College’s production of 'WEST SIDE STORY,' sings well but was inconsistent in his character development. Ryann Green was right on target as Bernardo.

Capsule judgement: One patron as she was exiting the theatre said, “I’m exhausted.” Too bad, she should have been exhilarated, not exhausted.

Saturday, June 08, 2002

2 OF 2 (Groundworks Dancetheatre)

Groundworks dances to perfection at CPT

David Shimotakahara is the inspiration behind GROUNDWORKS DANCETHEATER. In January, 2002 he and his company were named as “One Of The Year’s 25 To Watch In The Dance World” by the prestigious Dance Magazine.

Anyone who has attended a dance concert choreographed and danced by Shimotakahara knows why. He is a creative and perfecting choreographer. He is a well-conditioned, well-trained and exacting dancer. Combine the two and you have greatness. The Ohio Arts Council agrees as they have awarded him a fourth consecutive Individual Artist Fellowship this year.

'2 OF 2,' now being staged at Cleveland Public Theatre, which the company calls home, is a combination of a duet of dance pieces and a set of two musical selections. The latter are the works of resident Composer Gustavo Aguilar who has worked with Shimotakahara since 1994 in developing the nucleus of the company’s growing repertory. As the choreographer states, their newest collaboration explores “the limitations placed upon us by external forces, and those which we place upon ourselves.”

MIGRATION is about things in flux, the motion of change. It asks the question, “How far can we journey and still be connected to a place, to each other?” It was premiered in 2001.

The piece starts with tinkling bells, then a blending of lighted color appears, then silhouettes, followed by movements behind two suspended blue curtains, shadow dancing, and finally the appearance of a male and female dancer. He (David Shimotakahara) and she (Felice Bagley) are dressed in sarongs shading from green to purple. He bare chested, she in a tank top.

The dance that follows is a synergy of flying movements, both powerful and athletic. The entire piece was accomplished with little touching and static facial expression. The interweaving of bodies, the sliding behind suspended curtains, often appearing as shadows, creates a searching to connect but having barriers that forbids it. The sheet of sweat which covered and shimmered off Shimotakahara’s muscular body, while Bagley remained emotionally cool added to the total effect. The choreographer’s ability to perfectly blend music and dance was evident throughout. Both dancers were in perfect sync during the entire presentation.

'ONETWOONE SO 2' and 'ONETWOONE SHEKERI 2001' were the two musical pieces centered between the dance selections. SO2 was an improvised tenor sax and live computer processing piece well-performed by Robert Reigle and Phil Curtis. SHEKERI 2001 featured composer Javier Alvarez in a solo for live electro acoustic and shekeri (a musical instrument which looks like a large jar covered with colored beads). Though rather long due to the repeated sounds, it was well performed and haunting.

In 'HEART AND VINE' the choreographer “employs the inherent implications of physical action, reaction and inaction as metaphors for attempts at moving forward, letting go, and finding rest.”

The piece featured Felice Bagley, Amy Miller, Brian Murphy, and Shimotakahara.

Dressed in dark colors, the dancers performed a series of single, duet and quad- danced segments in a cacophony of sound and fast angular and dipping movements. The piece was athletic, stylish and strong. The stage was full of multi-emotions ranging from the sensual intertwining of bodies in a segment by Bagley and Shimotakahara to abandonment of control during a highlight BeBop segment by Miller and Murphy, which ended to rousing applause.

It was exciting to see Murphy finally be given the chance to display his outstanding talent. As a dancer with the Ohio Ballet he was held back by having to conform to the abilities of the weaker male corps members. Here, under the guidance of Shimotakahara, and working with other talented performers, he was allowed to use his athleticism, strong body control, and powerful movements to their fullest. Coupling with the extraordinary Amy Miller allowed for a full exposure of his abilities.

Danced to music provided by the ARC Libre Trio, who moved through the dancers as they played, the piece was both exhilarating and exhausting, if a little long. Shortening it would add to the intensity.

The small but appreciative audience saw a production in which the dancing and music were outstanding. The producers might want to consider putting an intermission between the musical pieces. Breaking the music into two sections would allow each segment to stand on its own and not blend together into a very long interlude.

Capsule judgement: GROUNDWORKS DANCETHEATER is a growing entity that needs to be nourished and treasured. The community needs to back this troupe so that it can become what it should be...a nationally recognized company.

Saturday, June 01, 2002

Rivercan’t or The Traficanterbury Tales or A Humorless Celtic Dance Company Made Us Change the Title (Second City--Cleveland/14th Street Theatre)

SECOND CITY opens new home in Cleveland

What do Alan Arkin, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, John Belushi, John Candy, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, George Wendt, Shelley Long, Jim Belushi and Chris Farley have in common? They are all former members of The Second City. What do George Pete Caleodis, Cody Dove, Coleen Doyle, Jack Hourigan, Quinn Patterson and Dana Quercioli have in common? They too are members of The Second City. Except, instead of their having cut their teeth in Chicago, at the company’ s original home, the latter group is here in Cleveland at the newest setting for the famed comedy organization.

Second City has been called “A Temple of Satire” by Time Magazine. The New York Times stated that, “the entire recent tradition of American satire can be summed up in three words: The Second City.”

Recently opened in the Hanna Building in the heart of Playhouse Square, the Cleveland venue is the fifth location in North American to feature a Second City troupe. Other cities include Chicago, Detroit, Las Vegas and Toronto. The local performance space is a newly built contemporary large black box theatre, which seats 300. Patrons sit at tables in comfortable chairs in an arrangement which makes for easy viewing. Food and drink are available at moderate prices. Acoustics are adequate though it was sometimes hard to hear some of the members when the music was played as they spoke.

The show consists of two-40 minute acts interspersed with 30 to 45 minutes of improvisation in which cast members create scenes based on suggestions from the audience. (Think the TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”) The shows, which will change about every three months, are written by the cast and the director.

The opening production, is entitled “Rivercan’t or The Traficanterbury Tales or A Humorless Celtic Dance Company Made Us Change the Title of Our Show.” The latter segment of the title refers to complaints by Riverdance organization over the show’s original title, “Burning Riverdance or The Traficanterbury Tales.” The title is a little misleading. There was a takeoff on Riverdance, but the Traficant reference is misleading, as there was only one reference to the errant Congressman.

In fact, the Cleveland connection, as a whole, was not very well developed. There were references to Mayor Jane Campbell, Halle Berry and Art Modell but there is so much more that makes up the humor of this area.

The improv segments didn’t work as well as should be expected. The cast didn’t seem swift enough to fully develop clever concepts. Hopefully their skills will improve with experience.

During the scripted segments some cast members and the production were inconsistent. Cody Dove and Jack Hourigan were wonderfully funny and totally involved in their presentations. The other cast members varied greatly in their comedy abilities. Again, hopefully this will improve with experience.

Show highlights included a hysterical game of “Pictionary” where gender roles were exposed; the audience’s participation as high school band members; the dancing wheels which was performed while sitting on office chairs; a visit to the psychiatrist; and the sounds of Riverdance.

Weaker sections were the firefighter segment, a high school graduation ceremony, a space walk, a stripper scene, and a chaotic final number which attempted to take the audience on a drive around the area.

Capsule judgement: Here’s hoping that the troupe continues to do what it does well and grows in their presentational abilities. If that happens, Second City will become an exciting place for Clevelanders to go on a regular basis.