Thursday, February 20, 2003

42nd Street (Playhouse Square Center)


As one of the key songs of the show, ‘42ND STREET’ states, “Come along and listen to the lullaby of Broadway.” Come along and thoroughly enjoy ‘42ND STREET’ at the Palace Theatre in Cleveland.

‘42ND STREET’ is the third longest running American musical in Broadway history. In 1980, when it opened it ushered in the new age of theatrical spectacle with a cast of 54, 750 costumes and dozens of stage effects. Don’t expect to see such ambience on the Palace stage, but you won’t be disappointed. The touring show is first class. Due to a special contract arrangement with Actor’s Equity, the production company was able to mount a show with a huge cast, gorgeous costumes, wonderful sets, and a proficient orchestra. The end result is a feel-good evening of theatre which features fine voices, good acting, and exciting dancing.

As much fun as the show is, and as great a reputation as it has, its history is not happy. When original producer David Merrick tried to raise the money to mount the show, potential investors told him the project was doomed because of the costs of hiring the huge cast and paying for the huge production requirements. When it finally went into previews at the Kennedy Center in D.C. the show was met with a poor response. The director, Gower Champion, was too ill to recreate the production. When ‘42ND STREET’ came to Broadway it mysteriously went back into rehearsal. The opening date was set back, usually a sign that a production is in deep trouble. The night the show opened, Champion died. In spite of all its troubled past, the opening night reviews stated,"’42ND STREET’ Paved In Gold,""An Absolute Knockout!,” “The Unexpected Triumph of the Season!,” and “Virtually Nonstop Pleasures!.” The combination of the reviews and Champion's tragic death pushed the show into sellout status.

From the toe-tapping inspired overture, to its exciting conclusion it’s pretty hard to sit quietly in your seat during the show. With songs such as “You’re Getting To Be a Habit With Me,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “We’re in the Money,” “Lullaby on Broadway,” “About a Quarter to Nine,” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” the show has one of musical theatre’s greatest scores.

Based on the classic 1933 movie musical of the same name, ‘42ND STREET ‘ tells the story of a starry-eyed young actress named Peggy Sawyer who has come to audition for the new Julian Marsh musical that is about to open on Broadway. Unfortunately, Peggy can't seem to work up the nerve to walk through the stage door until it's too late--the audition is over. But Peggy soon catches the eye of the director, and when the chorus turns up one girl short, Peggy gets her big break. She can't seem to stay in the good graces of the show's ageing leading lady. The situation only gets worse, or better, on opening night, when another dancer accidentally pushes Peggy into the leading lady who falls and breaks her ankle. The furious director fires Peggy. Discouraged and ready to give up all her dreams of becoming a star, Peggy packs her bags and heads for the train station, but fate has other plans and Peggy turns out to be a star. Yes, this is the stuff of which Broadway dreams are made.

The touring production is blessed with some outstanding individual performances to go along with exceptional chorus dancing and singing. As Peggy Sawyer, Catherine Wreford displays a wonderful singing voice and is a superb dancer. She lights up the stage. Patrick Ryan Sullivan displays wonderful stage presence and powerful vocal abilities as Julian Marsh. Blair Ross carries off the difficult role as Dorothy Brock with ease. Patti Mariano is delightful as the supposed writer of the show. Dexter Jones controls the stage as the stage manager. Though Robert Spring, who portrays Billy Lawlor dances well, his singing and acting aren’t up to the level of the rest of the leads.

Capsule judgment: If you love old-time musicals; if you go to the theatre to have a good time if you want to see a quality level production, then, dance down to the Palace Theatre and join the crowds cheering “42ND STREET.”

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Robert Hawkes reviews the reviewer


Last Friday after the show, my wife and I were wondering out loud for some time what we thought of JEFFERY. I think your review hits the nail on the head.

Robert Hawkes

Sunday, February 16, 2003

Wild Plum Theatre Company Emerges (Wild Plum Theatre Company)

The Wild Plum Theatre Comany Emerges

Theatre companies come into being to satisfy a need. The local theatre scene has such companies. Karamu Theatre grew from the lack of a venue for the performance of plays about and written by blacks. Though many theatres now perform black-oriented plays, especially since the advent of Black history month, Karamu continues to fulfill its original purpose. Halle Theatre at the Jewish Community Center focuses on plays with Jewish themes or by Jewish playwrights. Other theatres produce plays of interest and about the Jewish scene, but Halle is still the consistent focus of that community’s ethnic and religious offerings. Red Hen sets forth a women’s perspective. Others do women centered plays, but Red Hen stands alone in its focused mission.

It is with a purpose that The Wild Plum Theatre Company has come onto the Cleveland scene. Cleveland has not, to date, had a venue offering gay and lesbian -themed or authored pieces. Several years ago Elephant Productions emerged. Their demise was brought about quickly when they produced several poorly performed and written shows. A lesson should have been learned from that experience. Though a venue was needed, if that organization doesn’t chose their vehicles wisely, and doesn’t do quality level productions, it will not last in spite of initial audience interest.

Wild Plum grew out the felt need that the gay-lesbian voice needed to be heard and there were those who were interested in listening. Fortunately for the fledgling group Cleveland Public Theatre set aside two months during their production year to make its facilities available to groups who needed a performance space. Wild Plum took them up on their offer and recently produced an evening of one-act plays. The results were a mixed bag. Despite a gallant effort, some acceptable acting, and appropriate directing, the lack of script quality created a problematic evening. In spite of this, the enthusiastic sold-out house on opening night cheered loudly. Obviously, given that enthusiasm, if presented with quality scripts and productions.

There are many fine gay-oriented plays and playwrights. ‘GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE,’ ‘THE NORMAL HEART,’ ‘ANGELS IN AMERICA,’ ‘JEFFREY,’ ‘THE SUM OF US,’ ‘LA CAGE AUX FOLLIES.’ ‘BENT,’ ‘THE LARAMIE PROJECT,’ and ‘THE CHILDREN’S HOUR,’ are only a few. Well know plays such as LOVE! VALOR! AND COMPASSION! have not had local productions. Newer vehicles such as ‘THE GENE POOL’ have been produced here.

It can only be hoped that Wild Plum will seek out quality scripts which will bring pride to the company and give a needed voice to the area’s gay and lesbian community.

Ragtime (Cassidy Theatre)

"RAGTIME' at Cassidy--the first national non-professional production

On January 18, 1998 ‘RAGTIME’ opened on Broadway. Stephen Flaherty, who wrote the music for the show, gave his writing partner, Lynn Ahrens a notebook containing the original song sketches and notations from the show. It is inscribed: “Ragtime is about America in transition, constantly bending, blending, adapting.” It is that, and so much more.

‘RAGTIME’ ranks with the great shows of musical theatre. It has been called “A brilliant work of musical storytelling, ”a near masterpiece,” and “one of those rare musicals that can be mentioned in the same breath as ‘SHOW BOAT,’ ‘PORGY AND BESS,’ and ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’.”

The story intertwines the lives of a Black American family, victims of brutal racism; a recently arrived Jewish father and daughter, impoverished, despairing; and an old New York family steeped in Victorianism. The play starts with our exposure to the characters.

It is New Rochelle, New York in 1906. There is a large Victorian house, the home of an upper middle class family. It is the home of Father, who has derived his wealth from the manufacture of fireworks, flags and bunting; Mother; their young son and Mother's brother, a genius at explosives who works in Father's fireworks factory.

In Harlem, crowds dance to the music of ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr..

America is filled with famous characters: escape artist Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, the wealthiest man in America, the radical anarchist Emma Goldman, and the chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit.

Tateh and his daughter arrive at Ellis Island, as part of the 1.2 million immigrants who flee from Europe.

As the families interact we are carried through an examination of the history of the era and the biases and prejudices of the population. This is told with a well-integrated story and wonderful music. Outstanding musical numbers are “YourDaddy’s Son,” “New Music,” “Heels of a Dream,” and the wonderous “Make Them Hear You.”

‘RAGTIME’ is a difficult show for any group to perform. For an amateur theatre it is a real stretch. The show requires a huge cast, a massive number of costumes, and a many scene set. The music is complicated.

Cassidy Theatre’s production, under the direction of David Jecman, is a credable amateur outing. Musical Director John D. Roberts has done an excellent job of bringing out the best in the cast’s voices. His orchestra is generally good but there are problems in the brass section and the underscoring is often too loud, thus drowning out some of the spoken lines. Choreographer Larry Braun has developed dances appropriate to the level of his performers. Scenic designer Mark Kobak has created a very functional set. Lester Currie’s costumes are excellent, but having Tateh wear a prayer shawl as a scarf was questionable. The lighting design was problematic. Many times performers were in the dark and light cues were sometimes late.

Geoffrey Short, as Coalhouse Walker Jr., and Trinidad Rosado, as his girlfriend, are each astounding. They both have outstanding voices, excellent acting skills and develop and keep their characters throughout. It’s worth attending this production just to see them light up the stage.

Beth O. Cubbison is fine as Mother. She has a lovely voice and wraps herself around the character. Michael Snider displays a wonderful singing voice as Mother’s brother. Noreen Lehmann develops a clear character as Emma Goldman.

Capsule judgement: ‘RAGTIME’ is a difficult show for any group to perform. For an amateur theatre it is a real stretch. The Cassidy production, under the direction of David Jecman, is a credable amateur outing.
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Six Degrees of Separation (Charenton)


In 1967 Harvard Social Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment that illustrated that everyone in the world can be reached through a short chain of social acquaintances. The Small World Phenomenon estimates that each of us is only 5.8 genealogical steps away from any other person in the world.

The Small World Phenomenon is the basis for John Guare’s play ‘SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION’. Guare, by his own admission, altered the theory as he didn’t feel that ‘5.8 Degrees of Separation’ would make a good play title. Guare’s play is now on stage at Charenton Theatre at Playhouse Square Center.

Guare is a musician and poet. This comes out in his writing with the creation of verbal librettos with melodic overtones. His plays are full of talk and the characters often tell extended stories much like those in the plays of Anton Chekov.

The majority of Guare’s protagonists are fixated on what they think will make them happy. Guare’s dramatic structure involves the use of twists and turns and allowing the audience to know what the characters do not know. All this makes Guare, a highly adventurous playwright.

The story concerns Fifth Avenue socialite Ouisa Kittredge and her purveyor of high-art husband Flan. They are pedigree parents of "two at Harvard and one at Groton." But the privileged insular world inhabited by the Kittredge family makes them easy prey for a consummate con-artist. One night, Paul, a young black man mysteriously shows up at their door - injured and bleeding- claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son and a close college crony of the Kittredges' children. Paul proves to be sharp-witted. He soon has the Kittredges loaning him money and putting him up for the night and taking satisfaction in his appraisal of their posh lifestyle. What follows is both a mystery and a challenging philosophical tale. Who really is Paul? Can the Kittridges’ liberal views stand up to the challenge of reality?

The play demonstrates how separate people are from one another, not how close, how little responsibility each feels for the other. The intruder is less a man than an emblem.

Charenton’s production is involving, if not captivating. Part of the difficulty centers on director Sarah May’s to decision start the production at a slow pace. This lulls the audience into a sense of complacency that allows ideas and Guare’s message to sometimes slip under their emotional radar. On the other hand, her creative staging has cast members rising from seats in the audience and creating clear characters.

The huge cast is talented and each develops a clear character. Sean Booker is outstanding as Geoffrey. He cons not only the characters in the play, but the audience as well. Jacqi Loewy creates a very believable Ouisa. Other quality performances are given by Jesse James Kamps, as the young man who teaches Paul what he needs to know in order to pull off the scam, James Savage Jr, who falls for Paul’s line with traumatic effect and Jennifer Clifford, as the Kittredge’s erratic daughter.

Capsule Judgement: 'SIX DEGREES OF SEPERATION' gets a fine production at Charenton.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

The Magic of Dance: Winter Program (Ohio Ballet)

Ohio Ballet celebrates the magic of dance

One of the cues to how effective a performance has been is to listen to the audience “buzz” as they exit after the final curtain. If the topics center on what’s just been experienced it usually means that the audience has had a moving encountered. That movement may have been either positive or negative, but, they have been effected. Unfortunately, the “buzz” after many of the Ohio Ballet performances has been missing.

Does this mean the performances have been bad? No. They just don’t distinguish themselves, excite the audience. They don’t bring prolonged applause, let alone a standing ovation. The company is acceptable if not outstanding. On the male side, there is no Raymond Rodriguez, no David Shimotakahara, though there is Brian Murphy, who comes close and youthful Eric Carvill seems to be coming into his own. The women are stronger, but still no Karen Gabey or Cynthia Graham. Jesica Salomon is developing into a potential star. Eva Trapp showed much promise in the winter program.

With that said, let’s examine ‘OHIO BALLET CELEBRATES THE MAGIC OF DANCE: WINTER PROGRAM.” The opening number, “Nell Amore E La Devozione” examines “in love is devotion.” Due to an injury changes were made in the partnering and the second segment was cut. The piece opened with “Canto Della Terra” which featured intricate partnering danced to soaring music. A beautifully performed solo piece followed. “Sogno” was the highlight of the set, featuring the excellent partnering of Alicia Pitts and Brian Murphy, though the frenetic choreography didn’t fit the classical music. “Tremo E T Amo was nicely danced by Larissa Freude and Eric Carvill, though, again, the choreographed movements didn’t always fit the mood of the music. “The Prayer” featured excellent female dancing but group movements were often not coordinated.

Danced to the dual pianos of Margaret Baxtresser and David Fisher,“Spring Waters”is
a revival of acrobatics in Soviet ballet. Choreographed by Asaf Messerer, the very brief piece featured nice performances by Amanda Cobb and William Hoppe.

“GHOST TOWN,” which features the music of Richard Rodgers, was staged as part of the National Centennial Celebration to the famous theatre writer of such shows as ‘SOUTH PACIFIC’ and ‘CAROUSEL.’ This is the only ballet music written by Rogers. Mary Beth Hansohn and Damien Highfield performed the piece as part of ‘SHALL WE DANCE--A DANCE TRIBUTE TO RICHARD RODGERS’ at the City Center in New York on October 21, 2002. For the Ohio Ballet’s winter program Brian Murphy replaced Highfield. Performed to the excellent live piano music of Margaret Baxtresser and David Fisher, this was a playful piece, featuring many gymnastic movements. Hansohn and Murphy were excellent.

The grand pas de deux from “Don Quixote,”was a company premiere which featured Alicia Pitts and Dmitry Tubolstev. The work debuted in 1869 at the famed Moscow Bolshoi Theatre. Pitts sparkled. Her performance featured fine toe work and excellent solo moves. Tubolstev is the company’s highest leaper and does an excellent job of executing flying circles. Unfortunately, his partnering skills are lacking and he draws attention to his technique rather than to his dancing. He postures, poses and feigns involvement instead of actually being involved in his performance.

The final number was the “Firebird Suite,” based on the music of Igor Stravinsky. The futuristic approach to the fairy tale which examines the contrast between desolation and hope, the conflict between machine and humankind. After a compelling opening, which featured flashlights, fog, a mechanistic set, and sensational light effects, the piece ground to a chaotic but technically compelling conclusion complete with snow and spectacular lighting. Part of the problem centered on using many young children from local dance schools. The youngsters just did not have the dancing skills to carry their load. The timing of the adult dancers was often off. The over-all concept was not defined enough to make for clarity.

Capsule Judgement: The Ohio Ballet’s winter program was an acceptable, if not outstanding evening of dance. It’s too bad the company hasn’t picked up the challenge and filled the void left by the Cleveland San Jose Ballet. Our area needs and deserves a world class ballet company.

Crumbs From the Table of Joy (Cleveland Play House)

Crumbs won't fill you up at CPH

A review of ‘CRUMBS FROM THE TABLE OF JOY,’ as produced in another city, stated that the production’s “engagingly brisk pacing and energetic staging keep this consistently tense production from lapsing into too much negativity. While the subjects are tough, and the emotions run high, he [the director] has kept the relationships true, the battles broad, the surprises unexpected, and the resolutions encouraging.”

Unfortunately, the Cleveland Play House production of the play, as directed by Chuck Patterson, cannot make that claim. This is rather surprising as Patterson’s deft hand crafted last year CPH’S ‘AMEN CORNER’ to be one of the highlight productions of that season.

For some reason Patterson decided to stylize the production and give it a slow methodical pace. This decision emphasized the very talky nature of the script. It also made his actors often appear to be charactures rather than real people, losing the reality that would allow us to truly imagine the writing of the author who has been said to write like a cross between Tennessee Williams and Lorraine Hansberry.

‘CRUMBS FROM THE TABLE OF JOY’ tells the story of a widower who moves from rural Florida to Brooklyn with his two nearly grown daughters. It’s the 1950s and we learn about the complexity of the post Second World War years when Black life changed with the Civil rights movement, integration, and the presence of charismatic religious leaders such as Father Divine, who pioneered integrated worship. The tale is told through the eyes and voice of 17 year-old Ernestine.

Ayanna Silveris’s Ernestine lacks the emotional involvement to aid us to understand the depth of her feelings. Instead of moving swiftly between narrator and participant, she has been directed to be hesitant and pensive. Zinab Jah, portraying Ernestine’s sister Ermina is a delight. Terry Alexander is much to pensive as their father Godfrey. Vivian Reed, as their aunt, is both entertaining and properly pathetic. She clearly allows us to know the conflict that is going on within her, though, at times, she too is the victim of the stylized directing. Meg Kelly Schroeder has difficulty with the required German accent and stays on the surface of the role of the caucasian woman who marries Godfrey.

Scenic designer Felix Cochren has created a functional set which allows for easy movement and helps set the proper mood. Robin Heath has selected music that aids in our understanding of the era.

Capsule Judgement: The CPH production of ‘CRUMBS FROM THE TABLE OF JOY,’ leaves too much of the joy on the table.

Sunday, February 02, 2003

Safmod Performance Ensemble


The dance scene in Cleveland, in spite of the departure of Cleveland-San Jose Ballet, is very healthy. There has been an explosion of small dance companies that have more than filled the void of no longer having a world-class production company in town. Two of the best are in-residence at Cleveland Public Theatre: SAFMOD Performance Ensemble and GroundWorks Dancetheater.

SAFMOD was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1991 by percussionist/composer Neil Chastain and dancer/choreographer Young Park. The company moved to Cleveland in 1993. The group is dedicated to multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural performances which strive to push the boundaries of dance, music, and visual artistry. Their multi-media approach has included the use of projected digital animation, aerosol art installations, dancers on stilts, spoken word poetry, audience involvement, trapeze work, and costumes often made from recycled materials.

SAFMOD’s recent performances at CPT were met by appreciative sold-out audiences.

The evening opened with “Temporal Tides,” a well-conceived piece which grapples with the forces of time. The dancers were huddled in a heap, mid-stage at the start. Each grew upward, upside down, feet first, then torsos, then heads. The slow, controlled movements continued throughout the piece. As is typical of the group, such props as tree limbs and ethereal lighting helped convey the message.

“Fionacci” was an astounding example of a perfect fusion of dance and music. The movements were so well synchronized to Neil Chastain’s music, which was specifically developed for this piece, and for Young Park’s choreographic and dance styles, that the two elements became one.

“(With In) Instrument” was a happy gymnastic-centered piece which had an almost Disneyesque quality. It featured the guitarist/singer Alex Alvarez performing an original song which choreographer Young Park transformed into a modern dance. The dancers conveyed convincingly the concept of people as bags of humanity who often bumped into one another.

“Ahimsa” was the weakest piece of the evening. Many segments of this attempt to portray some people’s inhumanity toward each other were to be acted as well as danced. It illustrated that proficient actors do not necessarily make proficient dancers. Many facial expressions and body movements were unrealistic. This was also the only piece in which the synchronization of dancers was weak. The stilt and masks created by Alison Egan and Alexandra Underhill were outstanding. Ezra Houser’s stilt movements were well done.

“The Playground” was a total delight. Not only did the audience love it, but the performers appeared to be having a wonderful time. The segment starts with a chorus of nine drummers beating on blue buckets. It segued into a playground with a trapezoid-shaped metal structure which was moved to allow the dancers/gymnasts to play at ease. A combination of routines similar to Olympic gymnastic routines combined with swinging and flipping brought the audience to gasps and prolonged applause.

Capsule Judgment: Safmod presented a wonderful evening of dance!

Anything Goes (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

‘ANYTHING GOES’ delights at Great Lakes

Take a typical 1930’s musical full of obvious plot twists and extended slapstick gags and give it a creative, no-holds barred production. The results: Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s delightful and audience-pleasing ‘Anything Goes.’

‘Anything Goes’ was first envisioned by its producer while hiding out aboard a fishing boat in the Gulf of Panama after fleeing the country to escape creditors. His idea was based on the premise of an ocean liner facing the threat of a possible shipwreck. He returned to New York, assembled a production team and started rehearsals. Unfortunately, the S.S. Morro Castle sunk off the coast of New Jersey. How could he open a happy go-lucky musical based on a ship wreck? So, the task of quickly rewriting the show was undertaken. The basic idea was retained, but the shipwreck was eliminated and a plot of hidden identities and unrequited love was substituted. Think ‘Importance of Ernest’-lite. The very title refers to the desperation with which the show was put together. Any and everything was tried to save the initial investment and make sure that the show went on.

The show, even in a recent rewrite which was used in the staging of this production, is long on music and short on plot. What is not wanting is the music of Cole Porter. Porter is a wordsmith of the highest order. His rhyming patterns and erudite language are unique among song writers. His songs require that you listen carefully in order not to miss a single word or clever phrase.

Porter’s background was unique among American popular composers of his era in that he was born to wealth, and that his apprenticeship took place not in Tin Pan Alley but in the playgrounds of Europe. Most Broadway writers of the era were immigrants, such as Irving Berlin, with little formal education. Porter’s schooling included Yale and the Schola Cantorum in Paris.

‘Anything Goes’ opened in November of 1934 and, in spite of the book, turned out to be the fourth longest running musical of the 30’s. Much of the credit for the success was not only Porter’s words, but Ethel Merman portraying an evangelist become night-club singer and singing such Cole Porter delights as "Blow, Gabriel Blow," "You're the Top," and "I Get a Kick Out of You". It’s pretty hard for anyone familiar with musical theatre to listen to those songs and not hear Merman belting them out. In 1987, the show was revised and revived.

The main action takes place on a luxury liner sailing from New York to Southampton and includes gangsters, evangelists, sailors and a whole lot of singing and dancing. Songs include such standards as, "All Through the Night," "It’s De-lovely,” “Easy to Love” and the title song, “Anything Goes.”

The Great Lakes production is blessed with the creative, let-loose directing of Victoria Bussert, creative choreography by Janet Watson and right-on musical directing by Steven Gross. John Ezell’s set adds to the effervescent feeling of the show, but the midstage turntable caused production problems, with the continued presence of stage hands moving the turntable and walking around backstage and some turning difficulties.

It was worth the price of admission just to see Steve Routman’s portrayal as Public Enemy number 12, Moonface Martin. He not only looks like Buster Keaton, but also has Keaton’s deadpan expression. He is a master of the ad lib as displayed several times when his covering of set mishaps and line fluffs brought extended applause from the audience.

Nancy Hess made the role of Reno Sweeney, the night club evangelist her own, choosing not to do an Ethel Merman imitation as often happens with those who portray this role. She has a pleasant voice and a nice perky acting style.

Hunter Bell, who has neither the physical or facial requirements of Broadway males who usually portrays leading man roles, nevertheless makes a creditable, if not outstanding, Billy Crocker.

Capsule Judgment: All-in-all ‘Anything Goes’ at Great Lakes Theatre Festival continues the thus far excellent year under new Producing Artistic Director Charles Fee.