Sunday, May 18, 2003

Grease (Playhouse Square Center)

‘GREASE’ slides through Cleveland

Audience members who came to the Palace Theatre to hear Frankie Avalon recreate his film portrayal of Teen Angel in the film version of ‘GREASE’ got their money’s worth. He not only appeared briefly during the show, but did a Las Vegas stand-up act during the curtain call.

Those who came to see a classic production of ‘GREASE’, the rock and roll musical that captured the true picture of the ‘50s, should have been disappointed. Should have been, but probably weren’t upset because many in the audience didn’t have any idea of what the 50s were all about.

The audience, mostly made up of teens, probably weren’t aware of the lack of era correctness. The costumes were not really those of the poodle skirts, no turned up cuffs on the Levi 501s, no black or white t-shirts with cigarette packs rolled up the sleeves. They didn’t realize that the music had been transposed to make it lose its mellow and true rock sounds. They didn’t realized that the disk jockey didn’t sound like Bill Randall, Phil McLean or Alan Fried, but was a jiving 2003 incarnation.

Those who did know, like the mature lady sitting in front of me who, during the precurtain music was clapping and jumping in her seat with anticipation of the reliving of her youth, knew. As the play went on she sunk further and further into her chair. At the curtain call, when the kids rose screaming to their feet, she sat, clapping, politely, but unenthusiastically.

Director Ray DeMattis has supposedly directed ‘GREASE’ on numerous tours. Why he decided not to capture the roots of the show which gave birth to such Fifties craze productions as the classic ‘AMERICAN GRAFFITI’ film, and the top-rated ‘HAPPY DAYS’ television show, is beyond understanding. The film version of ‘GREASE’ which added some songs, but duplicated the clear picture of the ‘50s, was the top money making musical film ever, even surpassing ‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC’. Why did he decide to throw away that tradition? Who knows.

Before the show a group of high schoolers, who had obviously just performed their version of the show were in the Palace Theatre’s grand lobby. There they were with their duck-tailed haircuts and poofed hair, dressed in what must have been their production’s costumes, looking like and acting like what they were expecting on stage. “Who’s playing me,” the Danny Zuko-look alike asked? Unfortunately, no one really played the youth. From what I saw and heard in the lobby, I would have preferred seeing their production.

Capsule judgement: The quick in-and-out five performance schedule for this the umpteenth touring production of the show is now gone. It’s publicized “hottest ride in town” turn out to be a slide through a script and music that was not given its due.

Picnic (Actors' Summit)

‘PICNIC’ fine at Actors' Summit

In the mid-nineteen fifties and for the next decade, three playwrights dominated the U.S. dramatic scene: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and William Inge. Known as the Modernists, since their writing examined real people and real issues of the post World War II modern era, they each left their mark on American theatre.

Miller constantly asked, “Is this the best way to live” while centering his plays along the eastern seaboard. Think of ‘DEATH OF A SALESMAN,’ ‘ALL MY SONS,’ ‘THE CRUCIBLE,’ and ‘THE PRICE.’

Williams, the southerner, continued to observe women who found themselves in societies which didn’t understand them, and which they didn’t understand. Think of Blanche DuBois in ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE” and ‘Amanda Winfield’ in ‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE.’

Then there was William Inge, the troubled midwesterner who explored the darker recesses inside each person. His plays often reflected his depressed state which finally lead to his committing suicide. His autobiographical “DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS” and his classic “COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA’ are but two of his probing inquiries. Many critics, including this one, consider his1955 play ‘PICNIC’ to be his signature work. It won the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Circle Award, and the Theatre Club Award.

The action of the play is set in a small Kansas town outside the home of Flo Owens, a middle-aged widow who lives with her two daughters and a spinster boarder. When drifter Hal Carter arrives in time for the town’s Labor Day celebration the women’s lives are disrupted and transformed.

On the surface ‘PICNIC’ appears to be a simple play to produce. Everything needed to develop clear characters is present in the script, and the setting is a backyard with a single house as the backdrop. ‘PICNIC’ is anything but simple to stage. Based on Inge’s midwestern quiet voice a production requires a director and cast who are aware of the power of underplay. This is not a play of great emoting. It is a play that requires clear character etching, as Inge is a person writer, not a plot developer. Too many productions are ruined by not understanding the need for midwestern restraint.

It was with daunting task that Neil Thackaberry and his Actors’ Studio cast staged ‘PICNIC.’ They did a very, very creditable job. In spite of some minor glitches, such as some line flubbs and the inexplicable use of southern accents by some of the cast, this is one of the theatre’s best productions. The director and cast were in harmony on their interpretation, understanding of Inge, and grasp of the right nuances make the play work.

Though not completely the right physical types for the lead roles, Constance Thackaberry and Keith Stevens well developed their characters. Hal’s total charade of life would have been better developed if Stevens, in earlier scenes, had displayed a little more braggardness in his speech and swagger, but, as is, this was a creditable performance. Thackaberry needs to show a little more depth of vulnerability for being a physical trophy rather than appreciated as a person; but, again, this was a respectable performance.

Ellen Rankin was properly pathetic as Helen Potts, the next door neighbor. Eryn Murman’s tomboyish Millie was on target. MaryJo Alexander gave one of her best career performances as Flow, Millie and Madge’s mother. Scott Espositio was physically and performance close to perfect as Alan.

One of the most difficult scenes in American modern theatre is the “Rosemary and Howard scene” in which Rosemary, a matron school teacher begs in beau, Howard, a milktoast-type store owner, to marry her. Too many times the scene is overacted and played for laughs. The test of any production is whether the audience sits in stunned silence during the scene. The opening night Actors’ Summit audience stopped breathing and was held in rapt silence by the stunning performances by Lucy Bredeson Smith and Bob Keefe. This was one of the very best presentations of this scene I have ever experienced. Bredeson-Smith is perfection in all of her scenes.

Capsule judgement: Once the cast gets settled into their roles, and the line stumbles and exact characterizations are developed, ‘PICNIC’ at Actors’ Summit should be one of the theatre’s very best presentations to date.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

A..My Name Will Always Be Alice (Jewish Community Center)

Pleasant “A...MY NAME...” at Halle/JCC

Watching ‘A...MY NAME WILL ALWAYS BE ALICE’ at the JCC’s Halle Theatre is like eating Chinese food. It’s filling while you are experiencing it, but shortly afterwards you are left with an empty feeling. The strength of the production is also its weakness. It’s a nice, safe, mildly messaged review type musical. It doesn’t go out on a limb and take strong stands, it will offend no one, most of the musical numbers are pleasant, but none stands out. You smile, clap, and then leave the theatre.

Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd, the play’s creators, seem to have assumed the mission of teaching the viewers what it’s like to be a woman. Unfortunately, most of the pieces aren’t edgy enough to do that. The closest are “Friends” which takes a short journey from two teenagers daily talking on the phone to their still daily talking on the phone as they traverse into old-age and “Nonbridaled Passion” about a woman coming to the reality of an unfulfilled life.

The cast, consisting of Tiffany Gates, Paula Kline-Messner, Maryann Nagel, Tina D. Stump and Casandra Vincent are all excellent. They sing, act and dance well. Highlights include a very funny sequence of poetry readings by the very talented Nagel; a plaintiff “I Sure Like the Boys” sung by Tiffany Gates; Nagel and Kline Messner’s “Welcome to Kindergarten, Mrs. Johnson” and “Friends;” Gates’ “Nonbridaled Passion;” and Vincent and Nagel’s “Hot Lunch.”

Director Douglas Farren, Choreographer Eric van Baars, Musical Director Marc Baker, Costumer Alison Hernan and Scenic Designer Tony Kovacic have all done their things efficiently. All of the technical and aesthetic aspects work.

Capsule judgement: ‘A...MY NAME WILL ALWAYS BE ALICE” is a pleasant evening of theatre. If you go to experience “entertainment-light” you’ll appreciate the production.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Sincerely Yours (convergence-continuum)

Outstanding production outshines script at convergence-continuum

In the late 1960’s and early to mid-70s the big thing in theatre were plays which investigated the “whys of being.” Often based on asking“why do we exist?” these often wordy, esoteric and thought-bending scripts were aimed at that fringe audience who wanted to go to the theatre to think, to be challenged, to experience the out-of the-ordinary. Such a script is Mac Wellman’s ‘SINCERELY YOURS’, now being staged at convergence-continuum.

Convergence-continuum is a small professional theatre tucked into a storefront in Tremont. ‘SINCERELY YOURS’ is its third production. Obviously Artistic Director Clyde Simon and Executive Director Brian Breth have decided that the likes of Neil Simon are not their thing and that Cleveland needs a totally alternative drama center. They intend to make convergence-continuum just that. They have assembled a talented group of actors who share their vision.

Mac Wellman, the most prolific writer you’ve probably never heard of is a former Clevelander. He grew up when this area was dubbed "The Mistake by the Lake." This Cleveland often populates Wellman’s writing, including his signature piece, “Cleveland.” The Poetry Project Newsletter said, "Mac Wellman continues his exploration. . .of a low-rent rural America, festering in the backwater pollution from the urban environment. Wellman's astonishing Ohio-like world has been tagged by some theatre-goers and critics as 'Macland,' a world peopled by cantankerous, wistful, confused and frightened people who have lost parts of their body, their minds and their souls to the perpetual machine of the American dream."

Wellman writes audaciously deconstructive and rambling text. It is often based on the concept that the whole modern view of the world lies in the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. He purports that “It is not interesting at this point in human time to portray the real world as it seems to be in its own terms; but it is interesting to unfold, in human terms, the logic of its illogic and so get at the nut of our contemporary human experience.”

Director Clyde Simon is creative in his staging, most of which takes place in the front seat of an old car, centered in the theatre’s 50-seat, 12 by 20 foot theatre. He is blessed with an outstanding cast. Nina Domingue, as JH--the stranger with a heavy suitcase, is amazing. Her long, curtain closing speech, is riveting. Brian Breth, Lara Mielcarek, Geoff Knox and Josh Spencer shine. The rest of cast is well-focused. Even the pre-show music by Eskimo Taylor is on-target.

The production of ‘SINCERELY YOURS’ is outstanding. It far surpasses the quality of the wordy play. This is a must see for people interested in experiencing fantastic acting, a creatively-staged show, and are willing to wade through a 90-minute intermissionless experience to get Wellman’s obvious message that society is all messed up.

For tickets to “SINCERELY YOURS’ which are a reasonable $12 for adults and $9 for students CALL 216-687-0074. Due to the small audience capacity, early reservations are encouraged.


The woman seated behind me leaned over to her companion about two-thirds of the way through the Cleveland Play House’s production of ‘THE BLUE ROOM’ and sighed, “This is tedious.” The luke warm applause at the conclusion of the production attested to her judgement. ‘THE BLUE ROOM’ David Hare’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘LA RONDE’ lacked the spark, creativity and variance needed to keep the audience’s attention.

Through a series of vignettes, ‘THE BLUE ROOM’ tells a circular story of seduction in which ten different couples seek intimacy, love and connection. Each of their encounters, however, brings emptiness, unraveling their illusions and leaving them yearning for something more. Two actors play all of the roles which range from a prostitute to an actress, a cab driver to an aristocrat.

Schnitzler was strongly influenced by his friend Sigmund Freud who, in a 1922 birthday card wrote to Schnitzler, “Your preoccupation with the truths of the unconscious and of the instinctual drives in man, your dissection of the cultural conventions of our society, the dwelling of your thoughts on the polarity of love and death; all this moves me with an uncanny feeling of familiarity." If only Hare’s adaptation and Edward Payson Call’s direction reached those lofty goals.

Hare recognized the possible tedium of the concept when he indicated when adapting the story line that he felt challenged by the potential fatal flaw of the repetitiousness of scene after scene.

When the play opened it became an instant hit. A hit not based on the script or the production, but on the titillation provided of briefly seeing Nicole Kidman in the buff.

In the local production, Bradford Dover and Emily Frankovich perform their roles adequately well. They attempt to give different images to each of the people they portray. Accents, hairstyles, costumes, gestures, and facial expressions vary appropriately. The weakness of the production is not totally theirs.

Besides the same-old, same-old of the stories, Edward Payson Calls’ direction centers on finding a clever gimmick and then beating it to death. Each scene change, and the scene changes are many and long, is accompanied by humorous visualized messages about love, marriage and sex from the likes of Mae West, Bette Davis, Oscar Wilde, Willie Nelson, Dorothy Parker and Shakespeare. At first, this is clever. After a while I stopped looking up to the screens suspended above the stage. In addition, each sex act was accompanied by a slide telling the length of time it took for the coupling to take place. Again, ten time alerts was too much. The number of laughs decreased to silence before the last notification.

Capsule judgement: ‘THE BLUE ROOM’ brings to a close The Cleveland Play House’s mediocre season which was highlighted by two outstanding productions. Let’s hope that next season brings more of the likes of ‘DIRTY BLOND’ and “PROOF’ to the audiences of the nation’s oldest professional theatre. If not, in these times of economic tightness, CPH could be in serious trouble.