Monday, October 21, 2002

Social Security (Cassidy Theatre)

Cassidy's SOCIAL SECURITY offers side splitting laughter

Cassidy Theatre is one of the oldest and strongest community theatres in the area, and they do not disappoint in the uproariously funny, 'SOCIAL SECURITY.' Andrew Bergman's script is not for the prudish - there is plenty of sexual terminology (not innuendo) in this one.

The story is of two adult daughters of widow Sophie. Barbara and David are art gallery owners in Manhattan, very wealthy and happy by all appearances. Her sister Trudy is a housewife who cares for her boring accountant husband Martin and her "difficult" mother in the suburbs. When Trudy and Martin declare they are visiting Barbara and David, which is very rare, they know something is wrong. Apparently, their Trudy and Martin's 18-year-old daughter, away at college, is in a "sexual crisis", described in vulgar detail by the timid Martin, and they need to leave immediately to help her. With mom in the car, they plan to drop her off for three weeks while they "save" their daughter. One thinks that Barbara is going to have a heart attack, as she has not lived with mom in "20 years", as she tells us. From the moment when Sophie noisily enters with her walker, we know that the lives of Barbara and David will never be the same.

What ensues is hilarity. There were times when you could not hear the dialogue as the audience was laughing so hard.

Sophie turns out to be a very interesting character, and Barbara introduces her to Maurice, a 98-year-old painter, who takes a fancy to Sophie. Bergman is a good writer, once crowned "the unknown King of Comedy" by New York Magazine in 1985.

With a good script and good casting by director Dan Harper, this play is great fun.

The set could was very sparse and could be dolled up to look more like a wealthy Manhattan loft, but the quality of the script and the acting far supercede any concern about the set.

Particularly noteworthy are performances by Marcia Mandell as the incorrigible, "dumb as a fox" Sophie, Marybeth Orr as the neurotic Barbara, and Nancy Helmrich as Trudy, as the spartan, guilt filled caretaker, whose facial expressions were well crafted and sparse. Don Krosin as Maurice Koenig, the nearly 100-year-old painter, was charming as ever.

Capsule judgement: In Act II, Sophie says to Barbara, "there is no reason to analyze anything," as she listens to her neurotic daughter's analysis of every little thing. Go see this play, and don't analyze. As Sophie would say, "Just enjoy!"

'TOSCA' (Cleveland Opera)

Cleveland Opera's TOSCA Sizzles with Passion:

One attending the opera knows to leave their reality-based thinking at home. Opera is supposed to be entertaining, larger than life, a spectacle to behold, melodramatic or comic, but definitely schmaltzy.

Cleveland Opera's TOSCA fulfills those expectations in Puccini's TOSCA. From the moment the curtain goes up, we see the lavish and detailed sets borrowed from the Seattle Opera and hear the brilliant music of Puccini sung beautifully by the cast. It is simply an excellent production.

Based on historical fact and a play by Victorien Sardou, and libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, the story begins with an escaped prisoner from the Battle of Marengo, Angelotti, who seeks refuge in a church. He meets the painter, Cavaradossi, who is the lover of the opera singer, Tosca. Their conversation is interrupted by the passionate, beautiful and ever-jealous Tosca, and Cavaradossi agrees to meet her that night. He resumes plans to help Angelotti and hides him at his villa.

The Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia, is searching for Angelotti and uses Tosca's jealousy to find him and her lover, Cavaradossi. Scarpia wants Tosca for himself, and poor Tosca has to endure the screams of her lover being interrogated. She reveals the hiding place of Angelotti to save her lover, not knowing that Scarpia will kill him anyway. Scarpia invites her to save her lover by giving herself to him. She pretends to do so, but stabs him instead. Scarpia had promised to do a "fake shooting" of Cavaradossi, but secretly he decided to really shoot him.

Tosca had planned to live happily ever after with Cavaradossi, but realizing he is dead and she has been duped, is not given a chance to grieve as soldiers come for her after discovering she killed the Scarpia. Her last words before jumping from the parapet to her death are: "Oh, Scarpia, the Lord will judge."

Throughout the play, the church is always in the background, and sets up many of contrasts in the story. One audience ember told me that she is amazed by the contrasts in this opera.

In Act I, the contrast between the material life and the spiritual life is evident. Tosca is described as a pious woman who attends church frequently and at one point says to Cavaradossi "not in front of the Madonna" and a few minutes later is kissing him right there! Scarpia, who exudes selfishness, lust and greed from the moment we meet him, is seen lying prone on the ground during prayers at the end of Act I, an act of great piety, and an excellent directorial moment for Mr. Bamberger.

In Act II, when Scarpia is trying to bargain with Tosca for her body, lovely sacred music is heard in the background drowning out his negotiations. Another contrast: Tosca laughs after she kills Scarpia, then slowly walks to get the cross and candles to place by his dead body. Act III opens with beautiful, floating clouds and the clear, sweet soprano of a local shepherd, another contrast to the tragic ending.

One of the most painful moments for Tosca, and a reflective one for the audience, has to be when she is faced with giving her body to the evil Scarpia to save her lover, or to let him die. She prays to the Madonna, and begins to question her faith. "I lived for art. I lived for love.... why do you repay me this way." How many of us have asked God that same question when faced with a tough decision.

There are moments of comic relief, the most poignant one at the end of the play when Tosca is fantasizing about her life with Cavaradossi after the "fake execution" when she shows him how to fake falling after he is shot. Perhaps the author felt the audience needed laughter before the impending tragedy of the death of both lovers.

The performances of all the leads were strong, particularly Antonio Nagore as Cavaradossi, Victoria Litherland, who replaced Elizabeth Byrne at the last moment as Tosca, and Stephen West as Baron Scarpia. There were times when the orchestra drowned them out, but their performances and the music of Puccini allowed the audience to ignore the imbalance.

Capsule judgement: Mr. Bamberger knows how to create a spectacle, and Tosca leaves us wanting more great opera performed in Cleveland.

Sunday, October 20, 2002

Parade (Cassidy Theatre)

'PARADE' enlightens at Cassidy

Cassidy Theatre is noted as a community theatre which tends to play it safe. It produces the likes of Neil Simon comedies and pleasant Broadway hit musicals. That’s what its generally conservative audience wants, and the audience is composed of local taxpayers who financially support the theatre.

But every once in a while the theatre goes out on a wing. They are doing that now with the musical 'PARADE.' They are, in fact, one of the first nonprofessional theatres in the country to tackle this controversial piece. The show has two major blocks to success. The production requires a huge cast, in Cassidy’s case, over 35 bodies. The players must be talented enough to both act and sing their way through a script that requires high drama and good voices. Secondly, the story is very serious, not normally the basis for audience enjoyment.

In 1913, Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jew living in Georgia, was put on trial for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a factory worker under his employ. Though innocent, he is guilty in the eyes of everyone around him who. They don’t like that he is Jewish, a northerner, and rich. His only defenders are a governor with a conscience, and his assimilated Southern wife who finds the strength and love to become his champion.

'PARADE' tells the story pretty accurately, even including actual words spoken by the real-life characters. Its goal is to educate people about the tragedy of prejudice. It is successful in doing this. As one critic said, "I left the theatre shaking, horrified at what I'd just seen, moved to tears. Real life dramas are hard enough, but stories this tragic are just shattering." The show won two Tony Awards.

Cassidy is fortunate that its former artistic director David Jecman has returned to take on the production. Jecman has a clear sense of purpose for the staging. He also knows the limits of his amateur cast and has not sugar-coated the material. Don Irven portrays Leo Frank with well-measured compassion. Maggie Wirfel gives a polished performance as Frank’s wife. Jecman, in contrast to most directors, has paid much attention to the supporting players and the effort shows. The highlight of the show is the well-honed trial segment.

Is the production perfect? No, the choreography is weak, some of the acting is very amateurish, several performers over act, and the required southern drawls come and go. But this is a community theatre and an amateur production that has undertaken the staging of a tough show.

In spite of Jecman and the cast’s work, and the high quality of the script, some audience members vocally indicated they didn’t "enjoy" the production. This, of course, was not the universal reaction.

It is ironic that in the area of Cuyahoga county which has had much publicity regarding its lack of openness to minorities, some people would reject their being educated to the horrors of prejudice. People like the woman who vocally complained as she marched down the aisle at intermission, "I didn’t come to the theatre to see stuff like this," ought to realize that not all life’s experiences are meant to be "enjoyed!"

Capsule judgement: This is a show worth seeing!

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Gisselle (American Ballet Theatre)

American Ballet Theatre brings top stars to dance 'Gisselle'

My first exposure to ballet was seeing the Bolshoi Ballet Company dance 'GISELLE' in the Soviet Union. It is therefore, with great anticipation, that I look forward to the American Ballet Theatre bringing 'GISELLE' to Cleveland’s State Theatre from October 30 through November 3. The storybook ballet will be performed by ABT’s stop stars including principal dancers Nina Ananiashvili of Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet and Irina Dvorovenko, who performed with the National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Kiev, Russia. Xiomara Reyes, who danced with Cuba’s national Ballet and the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium will be featured as Giselle.

To appreciate Ballet, the viewer is wise to understand that the first half of the 19th century in Europe was known as The "Romantic Movement" period. Painting, music and literature were swept up in Romantic ideals: questioning the rules of the past, stressing individual expression and experimentation, and moving away from classic themes to the inclusion of more local color, supernatural beings and melodrama.

Ballet was a latecomer to the Romantic style, led by 'GISELLE,' a ballet conceived by Theophile Gautier. The music was composed by Adolphe Adam. The ballet was first performed at the Paris Opéra in 1841. The piece was a success on all levels, gaining critical and public acclaim for the choreography, music, designs and the dancing of all. The strongest endorsement was the fact that a style of hat and a type of fabric were named after the ballet.

Capsule judgement: 'GISELLE' offered audiences an escape to a world of mystery, beauty, danger, and death, a vision that stirred the imagination. What secures its place as the apex of romantic ballet is that in place of the usual happy ending, in which virtue is rewarded, a tragic death followed by a ghostly resurrection is substituted.


Ohio Ballet opens seasonwith 'DRACULA'

When the Cleveland San Jose Ballet exited the Cleveland area it left a void in local dance. This is especially evident in full-length story ballet. Only touring companies such as American ballet theatre staged these often audience-pleasing pieces. Up stepped Ohio Ballet to fill the void. Last season they performed the delightful 'PETER PAN' followed by the less successful, but enjoyable 'HAMLET, THE BALLET.' Their 2002 2003 season started with 'DRACULA,' which turned out to be an inconsistent piece.

The ballet is based on the Gothic tale of Count Dracula, a blood-thirsty vampire which was written by Bram Stoker. The ballet is set to the music of Verdi, Rossini, Bizet, Rachmaninoff and Debussy and was conceived by Stuart Sebastian. It premiered in 1990 with a performance by the Dayton Ballet.

The story lends itself to a grand production. The OBT 12-member company made the production intimate. This “little” performance was even intensified due to the massive stage and auditorium space at The University of Akron’s E. J. Thomas Hall stage. It appeared that Barbara Pontecorvo who staged the production tried to compensate by having her performers give bigger-than-life gestures and movements. It caused the dancers, especially the males, to appear melodramatic and comedic rather than dramatic. This was especially true in the performances of Dmitry Tubolstev, William Hoppe and Eric Carvill. Damien Highfield danced very well, but lacked the evil and grandeur needed to convey the horror of Dracula. Brian Murphy was his usual excellent self, but one must question why the choreographer decided to make his madness look like monkey movements. Amanda Cobb, Kristin Knapp and Alicia Pitts worked as a unit as the Vampire wives. Mary Beth Hansohn, Jesica Salomon, and Larissa Freud danced well. Hansen’s toe-work was outstanding.

The massive amount of music was almost overwhelming. From requiem masses, to piano and organ solos, from nocturnes to preludes, the music changed constantly, yet the choreography often did not parallel the alterations. The fact that the music was recorded also caused ear-jarring changes as the modes and instruments altered.

Capsule judgement: Ohio Ballet needs to be praised for trying to offer the community full story-line ballets. On the other hand, they must be aware of the abilities of their dancers and the small size of the company.

Saturday, October 12, 2002

Laughter in Three Languages (Ensemble)

The Silvers shine at Ensemble

Dorothy and Reuben Silver are the crown jewels of Cleveland theatre. They recently donated their services for a series of benefit performances to raise funds for Ensemble Theatre. Their program LAUGHTER IN THREE LANGUAGES: ENGLISH, YIDDISH AND “YINGLISH” delighted the audience.

Capsule judgement: It was a unique and entertaining evening of reading by the master storytellers.

Man of La Mancha (Jewish Community Center)

'MAN OF LA MANCHA' gets a dream production at Halle

In the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition, the poet Cervantes created Don Quixote, his alter ego, an errant-knight who dares “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” Through the writing device of a play-within-a-play we watch as Quixote, aided by his sidekick, Sancho, and his "lady" Dulcinea, go forth on a quest “to fight the unbeatable foe, to reach the unreachable star,” and to see life, not as it is, but as it ought to be. During the play when questioned about his absurd valor Quixote replies, "I hope to add some measure of grace to the world." It is this premise that was used as the lynchpin by the musical’s script writer Dale Wasserman, musical writer Mitch Leigh and lyricist Joe Darion as the basis for the amazing musical MAN OF LA MANCHA.

The musical is a challenging task for any theatre to undertake. The music is difficult to play and sing, the cast is large, a strong men’s chorus is a necessity, the lead male must be outstanding, and fine technical features are needed to enhance the cast. The Halle Theatre production, under the masterful directing hand of Fred Sternfeld, the musical direction of Larry Hartzell, and the choreography by Martin Cespedes, is outstanding! Keith Nagy’s lighting and scenic designs and Alison Hernan’s costumes amplify the happenings.

The intimacy of the Halle Theatre aids the production. As in its original New York staging at the now-gone ANTA Theatre, the production is “right in your face.” It makes the happenings intimate and involving.

The Halle cast is generally strong. Tom Fulton leaves nothing to be desired in his performance as Cervantes/Don Quixote. His voice is powerful, his stage presence striking, his acting skills character-focused. David Robeano is delightful as Sancho, but his constant cuteness becomes wearing after a while. Tracee Patterson, who sings adequately well, fails to make a real harlot out of Eldonza at the start of the production, thus robbing the audience of the true depth of her transformation to the pure Dulcinea pictured by Don Quixote, a center theme of the story. R. Scott Posey displays an impressive singing range as The Padre. Scott Spence as the Barber and Kevin Joseph Kelly as the Governor/Innkeeper are also strong. The men’s chorus is vocally outstanding, as was the orchestra.

Capsule judgement: MAN OF LAMANCHA is a well-thought out, impressive production. This, along with the stagings of PARADE at Beck Center and Cassidy, give further evidence that the musical theatre is alive and very well in Greater Cleveland’s local venues.

Notwithstanding the excellence of this production one must ask, as the program notes do, “So what’s a theater with a mission of producing plays on Jewish themes doing opening its season with MAN OF LAMANCHA?” In spite of dramaturg Faye Sholiton’s well-written and impassioned attempt to explain, the question is not answered. Halle Theatre plays a role very different from other local theatres. It is subsidized by and is an important part of the Jewish community. It has an obligation to do what other local theatres do not do...present exclusively Jewish-themed plays. When they stray from that, they betray the mission of the theatre.

Saturday, October 05, 2002

Lost Highway (Cleveland Play House)

'LOST HIGHWAY' reveals Hank Williams at CPH

Fifty years after his death Hank Williams is still a country music icon. 'LOST HIGHWAY: THE MUSIC AND LEGEND OF HANK WILLIAMS' reveals his life and legacy, a legend which included such enduring hits as "Your Cheatin’ Heart," "Honky Tonk Blues," "Jambalaya," "Lovesick Blues," "Hey, Good Lookin’," and "Lost Highway." It was a life that included a dysfunctional marriage, alcohol and drug abuse, and a premature death at age 29. It’s a tale worth telling.

Authors Randal Myler and Mark Harelik have developed what might be called a review with dialogue that traces Williams from childhood through death. The play works well until the ending. As written, the script actually has three endings: Williams’ death, his musical resurrection with the song "Your Cheatin’ Heart," and then a tacked on "I Saw the Light." Why the duo decided to go beyond the logical ending is a mystery. They could have saved the two songs for a curtain call if they felt the audience needed to hear these two Williams hits.

Jason Petty, is not only a Hank Williams look-alike, but a Williams sound-alike. He totally captures the man. It is amazing to watch him physically transform himself from the young, dynamic Williams, to the conflicted, withered Williams. Petty is backed up by a gifted group of performers who not only effectively sing and play the instruments of his backup group, the Drifting Cowboys, but are also proficient actors. Cleveland favorite, Mike Hartman, clearly develops Williams manager. Michael W. Howell’s bass voice captivates as a blues singer who influenced Williams in his early years. Margaret Bowman is fine as Williams’ mamma. Only Tertia Lynch fails to develop a believable portrayal as Williams’ wife.

Capsule judgement: If you like Hank Williams you’ll appreciate 'LOST HIGHWAY.' The show is drawing a non-traditional CPH audience. Some attendees were decked out in cowboys shirts, hats and boots. Even some big-haired ladies appeared.

Groundworks at St. Peter Church (Groundworks Dancetheatre)

GROUNDWORKS DANCETHEATRE continues to grow its reputation

David Shimotakahara, the founder and Artisitc Director of Groundworks Dancetheatre, is one of the world’s truly nice people. He is also a genius choreographer and an equally proficienct dancer. He founded the company to "develop and present a new choreography that encourages collaboration with ohter art disciplines." He is also dedicated to bringing the dance to various settings and right in the face of the audience. Groundworks has no permanent home. Like the gypsys, it finds the right places to spread its art. Their latest performances were done at the magnificent St. Peter Church near downtown Cleveland. This is a church that has dedicated itself to a minimalist setting and a maximum purpose. The church stripped itself of ornateness and has become a community religious and arts center.

It is appropriate that Dancetheatre performs in such a venue. The audience sits close up...surrounding the stage, sitting from 3 to no more than 10 feet from the dancers. They experience the dance...hear the shoes squeek on the floor, experience the heavy breathing and see the sweat on the performer’s bodies. They are no passive viewers, they are active, involved.

Shimotakahara’s own choreography, and the guest dance directors that he has invited to particpate, lend themselves to this format. The stress is on dance and the blending of the physical with original music and creative lighting. Sets or costumes aren’t featured.

The recently completed program included four dances and two musical interludes. "Several Truths," danced by Amy Miller and Shimotakahara was a perfect blending of power, flexibility and emotion. The dancers intertwined, rolled, swirled, and gyrated in perfect sync with the atonal music. A metaphor for the many stages of sadness "Tristeza" featured the wonderous Amy Miller in a solo piece set to soaring music which was enchanced by the high domed cathedral. "The Garden," choreographed by Shimotakahara, was presented in its world premiere. Though rather long, the methaphor of the garden’s plants paralleling the creation of life, the wilting and disappearance of those growing flowers as three dancers became two, then one and finally none, worked well. Felise Bagley, Amy Miller and Xochil Tejheda de Cerda grew and departed as one. The piece was well lit by Dennis Dugan and the live music well played by Phil Curtis and Roger Zahab. The last dance segment, "Circadian," also choreographed by Shimotakahara, deals with "the rhythms associated with the earth’s rotation affecting our behavior and biology." The dancers, Mark Otloski , extremely slender and well over 6 feet tall and Felise Begley, petite and just barely 5 feet were, well matched. Their intertwinings and their contrasting sizes helped convey the feeling of free yet attached movements as they flowed in circles and patterns of separtness yet togetherness. The only problem, if there is one, is that all the dances have the same heavy feel. A little frivolity here and there would be welcome.

Capsule judgement: Groundworks Dancetheatre is a Cleveland treasure. They need your attendance at performances. They need your financial donations to keep the company afloat. We don’t want to lose this gem!

The Proudcers (Playhouse Square Center)

Touring version of 'THE PRODUCERS' convulses audience

If you like Mel Brooks’s comedic flair, if you love farce, slapstick, flashy dancing, creative staging and catchy music, you’ll love THE PRODUCERS THE NEW MEL BROOKS MUSICAL. Obviously New York loved the show. It won a record 12 Tony Awards and 11 Drama Desk Awards, and is still playing to sold out houses. Cleveland audiences anticipated loving it. Before opening night 80% of the tickets were sold. And love it they did. The intermission buzz indicated the audience was delighted. As one person yelled, "I’m having the time of my life. This is wonderful!"

What could not be wonderful? There are a chorus line of old ladies dancing with walkers, flapping pigeons singing backup, spouting water fountains, smoke and light effects, a chorus line of convicts, and a wonderful cast. This is funny stuff concocted in the mind of a genius comedic madman.

The musical is based on Brooks’ Academy Award winning 1968 film, THE PRODUCERS. It centers on the fortunes of Max Bialystock, an unsuccessful theatrical producer, and Leo Bloom, a nebbish accountant. They dream-up a scheme to raise money, produce the world’s worst musical staged by the world’s worst director, close the show quickly, and run off with the profits. The problem? Their choice, "Springtime for Hitler" turns out to be a smash hit and they wind up going to jail. "Springtime for Hitler?" That title’s offensive! Well, the entire production can be offensive if you don’t have a sense of humor. Brooks’ has written a play that is an equal opportunity political correct nightmare. He insults everyone...gays, Jews, Swedes, old ladies, World War II vets, hillbillies, blacks, and the Irish, just to name a few. But, it’s all done with overdone comedy and is hillarious.

Capsule judgement: Don’t be afraid that Cleveland is getting a "second rate" cast on the tour. People who saw and loved Nathan Lane and Mathew Broderick in the original cast say that Lewis Standlen and Don Stephenson are every bit as good, if not better. Standlen, who has a long history of being one of the best known of the "unknown" stars of Broadway, has appeared in many hits. Stephenson has an equally impressive record. They are good, very good.