Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Blue Sky Transmission: A Tibetan Book of the Dead


Every once in a while a very special event takes place in a theatre. It usually entails a theatre undertaking a subject or a script that takes the audience on a mythical journey into thought and introspection. It also requires that the production live up to the performance levels demanded by the script. Such an experience will be encountered by those lucky enough to get tickets to 'BLUE SKY TRANSMISSION: A TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD' at Cleveland Public Theatre

Don’t let the title throw you. You don’t need to know about Tibetan Buddhist death processes. You just need to be open to see another view of life and death. You need to recognize that each process of dealing with death and understanding death is neither right nor wrong, it’s just different.

This is an intelligent probing into a sacred text that leads us to understand a soul seeking enlightenment. Don’t get the idea that you will understand everything. You won’t, but it will matter little. The whole is more important than the parts. As the script states, “Do not judge, do not try to understand.” It goes on to say, “Everything lies in the journey so don’t grasp at the destination.”

Raymond Bobgan, the director, who also served as the primary playwright, has honed a 90-minute intermissionless engaging experience. He has created a seamless production. He blended his cast, Lisa Black, Tracy Broyles, Kishiko Hasegawa, Holly Holsinger, Brett Keyser, Amy Kristina, Karin Randoja, Sophia Skiles, Rebecca Spencer, and Chi-wang Yang, into a coherent unit.

The entire production is supported by Hamlim El-Dabh’s music. Michael Guy-James has created a flower-like canopy that covers the stage which is surrounded on four sides by seats that stretch to four rows. The configuration allows each viewer to become part of the experience.

Capsule judgement: Near the end of the play several lines summarize the thought-invoking effect of the production. These include: “Do not waste the life to come” and “You are so lucky your pain is so much less than the world’s.”
Following its run in Cleveland the show will move to New York’s La Mama Theatre, ETC. for a four-week run. This is significant as CPT’s Executive Director James Levin began his theatrical career at La Mama and has modeled the local theatre after La Mama’s dedication to social justice issues and innovative live performances.

Stomp (Playhouse Square Center)

'STOMP' stomps the audience

What else can be said of an all-engrossing show that has won the Olivier Award for Best Choreography, the Obie Award, the Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatre Experience?

What else can be said about a show that has been playing to sold-out crowds for over nine seasons and continues to pack them in world-wide?

What else can be said about a show which is the longest-running show in Off-Broadway history and has been called “a sensory delight,” “amazing,” “a romp” and “a sure fire crowd pleaser.”?

‘STOMP’ which recently appeared on the stage of the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square for eight performances, uses trashcans, plastic bags, plungers, hubcaps, brooms, water, poles, sand, mop heads, hatchet handles, and hammers, among others, to make sounds that inspire dancing feet, clapping hands, and an audience that scream for more.

Capsule judgement: If you missed the show in its latest return to the area, you missed a fun, exciting and amazing evening. Too bad...it was well worth your being there! Hopefully it will return again.

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Weapons of Mass Destruction (Second City)

The Second City matures well!!

The first show presented by Cleveland’s The Second City several years ago was an acceptable, if not totally satisfying production of improvisation and scripted humor. Their latest show, ‘NO SHIRT, NO SHOES, NO WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION, is much, much, much better.

The title may indicate that you’ll be hearing a lot of anti federal administration put downs. And, though that group in DC deserves it, they only get a small bashing. Most of the humor is aimed at Cleveland, but not the local politicians, with the exception of our own presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. Too bad the cast wasn’t in tune with local goings-on like the convention center fiasco; Queen Jane’s do-nothing reign; the three stooges, otherwise know as the county commissioners; the pitiful Indians; the score-nothing Browns and the pre-LeBaronCavs. TV newsman Ted Henry did get his due, however.

What is presented is mainly funny stuff. Highlights included the group getting stuck on the elevator during the blackout, Giant Eagles push for getting people to sign up for bonus cards, being fixed-up on a date by one’s ever-present mother, life with a windup girl friend, the birth of a baby and his desire to return to the womb, the chat room date, the metrosexual, and an all guys weekend at a cabin minus the much needed beer.

Several weak segments slowed down the proceedings including a lame skit about a personal trainer, a totally misguided piece centering on a pool noodle which continued to surface in an attempt to get some laughs from the bad idea, a portion about an accountant, and a misguided smoking segment.

Only one of the original Cleveland cast remains. And, that one, Cody Dove, is still the strongest member of the ensemble. He frowns, grimaces, and looks spaced-out in the best of comedic ways. He delivers lines with the right punch. Don’t be surprised if you see him appear on “Saturday Night Live” where such Second City alumni as Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Rick Morani and Martin Short eventually emerged. Yes, he’s that good. Lauren Dowden is also excellent. She adjusts well both physically and verbally to the goings-on. The rest of the local cast (Kiff Vanden Heuvel, Katie Caussin, Randall Harr, Nathan Cockerill) is fine, a long step up from most of the original local neophytes.

The first two acts of semi-scripted material is normally followed by an audience participation unit. It was disappointing that on opening night, that latter, popular and potentially funny segment, was omitted. This is where the viewers really find out, who is a quick thinker, who can hold his or her own in the midst of potential disaster. It can only be hoped that at future productions the improv segments are returned.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you were disappointed by previous productions, it is now time to return to THE SECOND CITY CLEVELAND and see the new, better version. If you liked past shows, you’ll love this one!

Sunday, September 21, 2003

And The World Goes Round (Actors' Summit)

Actors' Summit presents pleasureable, but unpolished review

What do ‘THE HAPPY TIME,’ ‘ZORBA,’ ’‘CHICAGO,’ ‘THE RINK,’ ‘KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN,’ and ‘CABARET’ all have in common? Didn’t know the answer? Well, that’s not surprising. They are all musicals written by the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the best known musical writing team that you’ve probably never heard of. John Kander and Fred Ebb not only are one of the greatest songwriting teams on Broadway, but they presently are the longest-running music-and-lyrics partnership in Broadway musical history. Unfortunately, their names do not trip off the tongue like Rogers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, and Lerner and Loewe.

Their works have been blended together into the musical review, ‘AND THE WORLD GOES ROUND,’ now on stage at Actors’ Summit. This is a difficult review to get right. Kander and Ebb write complicated music. Many of their songs don’t do well out of their original plot-driven context and don’t seemlessly fit into the review context. Often their songs are long and strain the musical abilities of the singers. And their songs often require gimmickry, such as singing, dancing and acting while on roller skates, the hallmark of their ‘THE RINK.’

Actors Summit, the professional theatre located in Hudson, has put together an acceptable if unpolished production. Most of the cast just isn’t strong enough to carry the vocal requirements of the songs. Singers need full-ranges to sing the likes of “Colored Lights,”“Maybe This Time,” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” There is a vocal and physical sizzle that needs to be present in “All that Jazz.” “Marry Me” needs a special appealing approach. Unfortunately, these elements weren’t present. There was a need for masterful vocal blendings for ensemble numbers. Musical Director Michelle Makhlouf needed to spend more time working on vocal sounds and timing.

On the other hand, some things worked well. The songs “Coffee In A cardboard Cup,” and “The Grass is Always Greener” were delightful. Mary Jo Alexander’s set is beautiful.

Sasha Thackaberry, the show’s choreographer, wisely used mostly cross-over steps and wandering, with a limited kick-line thrown in. The attempts for more complicated and stylized movements were thwarted by the limited dancing abilities of the cast. The highlight of the movements was a rollerskating sequence from “The Rink.”

Director Neil Thackaberry has incorporated some clever staging gimmicks into the production. He also has added many set and props changes which slow down the flow of the show.

Tricia Bestic displayed a nice Liza Minelli-style voice and mannerisms. Her “And the World Goes Round” was very well done, as was “Isn’t this Better?.” Dana Hart won the audience with his rendition of “Mr. Cellophane” which was properly pathetic and endearing. Thomas R. Cummings and the audience had a ball chomping on “Sara Lee.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you attend ‘AND THE WORLD GOES ROUND’ at Actors’ Summit expecting a polished, well-sung, well-danced review, you’ll be disappointed. If you go to just listen to some of the best music that has come from Broadway, you will have a pleasant time.

The Fix (Beck Center)

Astounding ‘FIX’ at Beck Center!

Several years ago I saw the Washington, D.C. Signture Theatre production of John Dempsey and Dana Rowe’s political musical, ‘THE FIX.’ The production won 10 Helen Hayes Awards, the DC area Tonys. I thought the production was very good, the script somewhat wanting.


In ‘THE FIX,’ the pillars of democracy are ready to collapse. These columns literally teeter as politicians, strategists, and mafioso scramble to win at any cost.

‘THE FIX’ follows the Chandler family, whose members seem to be a composite of the Kennedy dynasty and the Clinton clan. Before the musical has time to get past its first few notes, Reed Chandler, a front-runner for the White House, dies--while in the throws of having sex with his mistress.

We follow Chandler’s wife and brother as they plot to place Chanlder’s son, the wayward, pot-smoking son Cal, in his place. Cal surprises few by continuing to be the baddy, but gets away with it because of charm and “honesty.” The ending is right out of “The Sopranos.” The musical’s seriousness and the overblown premise doomed the musical when it was done last year in London.

The score could be called contemporary eclectic, drawing its inspiration from a variety of sources. There’s rock, pop, gospel, country and show-biz flash. Many of the songs are excellent.

Director Scott Spence has pulled out all the stops to make this a polished production that overshadows the quality of the writing. He is blessed with an astounding cast with singing voices that far exceed what is heard in local productions. There is not a bad voice in the ensemble.

Dan Folino, who found local fame, and won a Times Tribute Award as the lead character in ‘HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH’ at Cleveland Public Theatre, is amazing as the son, Cal. This young man is everything you’d expect of a star...a phenomenal singing voice, acting finesse, good looks, and a sparkling personality. His may well be THE local musical theatre performance of the year!

The rest of the cast are also splendid. Paul Floriano as Cal’s crippled uncle is totally compelling. Watch for the name Matthew Wright in future local performances. This area newcomer plays Cal’s father. He has a powerful singing voice and acting ability to match. Jessica Cope has a dynamic voice and is completely believable as Tina, Cal’s mistress. Tracee Patterson is properly loathsome as Cal’s Lady Macbeth-like mother.

Don McBride’s excellent set design helps develop the plot. One can feel the pillars about to tumble around us.

The newsreel inserts which feature the likes of local newsman Adam Shapiro, added greatly to the realism of the show. Alison Hernan’s costumes aided in creating just the right visual images.

Larry Goodpaster has done a wonderful job as musical director. The vocal blends are excellent and the orchestra plays well and does not drown out the singing.

Unfortunately the lighting and sound didn’t work as well as the rest of the show’s elements. There were many dark spots on stage and the follow spot work was inconsistent. There were distracting audible thuds and fading in and out while lines were sung and spoken.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE FIX’ is an outstanding production of a less than perfect script. Go see it to hear the wonderful voices, see the fine acting, and experience a wondrous performance by Dan Folino.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Frankie and Johnny (Ensemble)

'FRANKIE AND JOHNNY' an outstanding, must see at Ensemble

Last year one of the biggest Broadway hits was a revival of Terrance McNally’s ‘FRANKIE & JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE’. It was produced by the wunderkinds of producers, Cleveland’s Hank Unger, Matt Rego and Mark Rego. The show starred Edie Falco (of “The Sopranos”) and Stanley Tucci. The original 1987 off-Broadway production featured Kathy Bates and Bruce Weitz in the title roles. A 1991 film adaptation called ‘FRANKIE AND JOHNNY’ starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino. None of these stars has anything on Charles Kartali and Julia Kolibab, who are portraying the roles in Ensemble Theatre’s production.

‘FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE’ is a simple show about simple people in complicated times. In this age of bigger than life plays, movies which center on explosions, car chases, space shots and super heroes, this story of “little” people with real problems, is a totally different entertainment experience.

This is the story of a short-order cook and a waitress who purge their loneliness with a night of casual sex. When the sexual act is over, Frankie just wants to eat a cold meatloaf sandwich and go to sleep alone. However, Johnny would rather "bask in the afterglow" and spends the wee hours of the morning trying to convince Frankie that they have something special together. The resulting conflict contains laughs as well as dialogue that allows the audience to examine their own perceptions of loneliness, sex, love and what it means for people to connect.

This is a dialogue show, not one of action. In order for a production to work both characters have to be played with strength, control, correct timing and clarity. The director must have a complete understanding of the plays’ nuances. All of these are present in the Ensemble Theatre production.

Kolibab and Kartali are so comfortable and charming in their portrayals that audience members cannot help but empathize with them, feeling their pain and joy.

Kartali (Johnny)is absolutely endearing as he verbally and physically leaps from emotion to emotion, ever babbling, ever cajoling. He is totally natural, totally believable. This is a flawless performance.

Kolibab (Frankie) is his match. You feel her hurt, you feel her joy, you understand her motives. She adds a vulnerable reality to a performance that makes her and the character one.

Licia Colombi’s direction is probably the finest she has done. She understands the script, and her actors, and weaves the fine line between comedy and drama. The show is perfectly paced and the script well interpreted.

The set, as designed by Stephen Vasee, is totally functional, though the television set in the center of the stage did block some audience members view of the bed, on which much of the action takes place. Corby Grubb’s sound design is well conceived and helps develop a very necessary segment of the production.

Capsule judgement: Ensemble’s production of ‘FRANKIE & JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE’ is one of those special nights of theatre that makes us know what theatre should be all about. It is one of the finest productions seen at a local theatre. It should be noted that this show contains sexual situations, adult language and nudity by both actors.

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Cleveland Repertory Project/Verb Ballets (Cain Park)

Cleveland Repertory Project (a.k.a. Verb Ballet) wonderful at Cain Park

One of the problems with viewing dance at venues such as Cain Park is that the presentations are for one night only. They are here, they are good, the word needs to get out as to the excitement of attending such productions, and they are gone before the support can build. This has been the case with all three of the local dance companies reviewed this summer at Cain Park. Groundworks Dance, Pointe of Departure, and most recently, Cleveland Repertory Project. All received standing ovations, positive commentaries, and left their audiences wanting more.

The positive side is that the Cleveland area, even in the midst of the financial famine, has been able to nurture such companies, though barely. They all hang on by a financial thread and the donations of local dance aficionados. Another positive is that with the hole left by the demise of Cleveland San Jose Ballet Company, and the less than thrilling productions by Ohio Ballet, there is still good dance to attend.

Cleveland Repertory Project is in its sixteenth season. It is considered one of the premiere modern dance groups in the area. It has been blessed with a wonderful new Artistic Director in the person of Hernando Cortez. His works and programming show creativity, precision and exciting variations.

“Planet Soup,” the opening number, featured an enchanting melange of dances to world music. Filipino folk dances, Irish reels, African ritual dances and Indian traditional forms were all displayed. Beautifully costumed by Edward Sylvia, the bare-chested, tie dyed skirted males and sarong draped females created exotic images. The dancers, who obviously were enjoying themselves as much as the audience, spun, partnered, flowed and performed with exhausting and cohesive movements. The highlight of the piece was Jason Ignacio’s blind-folded step-dancing between clapping poles.

For long-time local dance attenders it was like a shift back into time with the presentation of the second number, 'Laura’s Women.” The contemporary ballet was choreographed in 1975 by the late Ian Horvath, who was a co-founder of Cleveland Ballet. Danced to the music of Laura Nyro, with copies of the original costumes by Ginger Shane and using the original lighting design of Jennifer Tipton, the piece flowed beautifully. Kallie Marie Bokal, Elizabeth Flynn and Shannon Mulchay made the composition their own.

"Speed" (2003) was Cortez’s humorous approach to a comic-strip-in-dance. A smile piece from beginning to end, tiny Jason Ignacio was the exact image of the TV character Speedracer. Along with his living “wings,” composed of three female dancers, he flew threw the number taking the audience on a delightful journey. This is no great number, but it is fun to watch normally staid dancers let loose and do it so well.

Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” is a beautiful and haunting piece of music. It lends itself well to dance interpretation. Originally choreographed and costumed by the renowned Martha Graham, the piece was reconstructed by Diana Gray and Gary Galbraith for local presentation. The story-ballet centers on a celebration by a man and a woman who build a house in the wilderness with joy, love and prayer. They are helped on their journey by a revivalist and his followers and a pioneering woman who dreams of the Promised Land. The piece was given a meticulous production. Every character was clearly developed. Tall and powerful Mark Tomasic was properly stern as the Revivalist. Catherine Meredith was enchanting as the bride. Gary Galbraith, who was part of the revival team, effectively danced the Husbandman. Elizabeth Flynn was strong as the Pioneering Woman. This was a wonderful reincarnation of a very important piece of modern dance.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Call 216-397-3757 and request a schedule of Cleveland Repertory Project’s season brochure and attend one or more of their presentations. You won’t be disappointed. They will be repeating “Appalachian Spring” in their November program.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Kimberly Akimbo (Dobama)

Dobama's ‘KIMBERLY AKIMBO’ is funny but misdirected

Progeria is a rare genetic condition characterized by an appearance of accelerated aging in children. About one in 8 million newborns are born with the disease. Since it was described in 1886 about 100 cases have been identified in the world. The child, who quickly races into adulthood at about the rate of seven aging years per single real year. It affects both sexes equally and all races. Characteristics include dwarfism, baldness, a pinched nose, small face and jaw relative to head size, delayed tooth formation, aged looking skin, stiffness of joints, and cardiovascular problems.

Dobama Theatre has chosen to open its 44th season with David Lindsay-Abaire’s play ‘KIMBERLY AKIMBO’ which investigates a girl/woman going through life rapidly with Progeria. This is, you might surmise, an afternoon special, illness of the week, weepy play. Wrong! This is a comedy! Now, you are probably saying, “How can a play be funny when we see the sixteen-year-old victim near death?” Well, in the hands of Lindsay-Abaire it is possible.

The play exposes us to Kimberly Levaco and her dysfunctional family who flee one New Jersey city for another under dubious circumstances. We watch as Kimberly evaluates her life while contending with a hypochondriac mother, a rarely sober father, a scam-artist aunt, her own mortality and the possibility of first love.

On opening night the audience was convulsed in laughter for much of the play. Unfortunately, don’t confuse that with the production being well developed and performed. Part of this is an issue with director Walter Eugene Grodzik’s take on how the play should be interpreted, part is the fault of the play itself.

Grodzik seems to confuse the words “comedy” and “farce.” Rather than let the many, many funny lines develop on their own, he has directed his cast to go over the top. The constant yelling, over-acting, double-takes, and almost begging the audience to laugh, takes away from the true wit of the play. In spite of the hyper-hysterical pace and acting, some of the performers shine. Sean Fitzgerald is wonderful as the nerdy Jeff. One can only imagine how wonderful he would have been if he had been allowed to use his natural sense of timing, instead of imitating a windmill with arms flailing, and a super high-pitched voice. Paula Duesing walks the fine line between teenager and aged adult with precision. John Kolibab has a wonderful scene at the start of the second act in which his desperate, short-lived sobriety comes ringing clear. Unfortunately, in most of the play he over does it. The rest of the cast is over the edge. We laugh at the actors, not with the characters.

In Lindsay-Abaire’s defense is the fact that the author has not given the director a totally good script with which to work. Reviews of previous productions state: “The play doesn’t entirely come together as a play” and ‘KIMBERLY AKIMBO ‘is somewhat problematic and unpolished, and “The characters are broadly painted, and maybe three-quarters defined, as if Lindsay-Abaire had to cram a lot of quirkiness and exposition into the already svelte running time of 105 minutes.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Many audience members will find ‘KIMBERLY AKIMBO ‘ to be an evening of laughs and appreciate the fact that a severely depressing subject can be dealt with in a humorous manner without mocking the disease. On the other hand, the play and the production are not wonderful theatre.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Pointe of Departure needs your help...a commentary

Wonderful dance company, Point of Departure, needs your help!

With the demise of The Cleveland-San Jose Ballet several years ago, the area was left without a major ballet company. This is a major missing link in the arts chain of excellent in Greater Cleveland. The Cleveland Symphony and Cleveland Museum of Art symphony have international reputations. The Playhouse Square area is renowned for its theatres. The Cleveland Play House is the oldest theatre of its type in the country. The Great Lakes Theatre Festival is in the midst of a wondrous rebirth. The Cleveland Opera and many smaller theatres such as Dobama and Cleveland Public Theatre have given the area a solid performance reputation. Without a ballet company, however, Cleveland can’t be considered a complete arts center.

The two wonders of the CSJB, dancers Karen Gabay and Raymond Rodriguez, Clevelanders by choice, want to do something about filling the void. There is a love affair between Gabay, Rodriguez and Cleveland ballet audiences. We have seen them grow from wunderkindts to mature dancers and Gabay into a creative choreographer. This was clearly seen at their recent appearance at Cain Park. The applause was great. In the talk-back following the program, accolades from the audience pored forth.

Point of Departure is what the area needs. So, what’s the problem? The answer: $$$$$$. Without money the company can’t exist.

Point of Departure been living on a subsistence since it was conceived. Dancers are jobbed-in. They want to come here and run a complete season. The area has a fine reputation and Gabay and Rodriguez reek from talent, drive and dedication. Why can’t the company get the likes of $45,000 to stage shows like that done at Cain Park? They aren’t extravagant. They don’t throw money around like the CSJB did. They perform without sets and a culled-down production staff, yet the productions are glorious.

Where have the CSJB donors gone? Why aren’t local businesses giving the needed funds? Why has no local production venue offered their home to Point of Departure? Yes, there is a recession going on. Yes, companies have left the area. Yes, all of the arts organizations need funds as was displayed by the number of theatres last year who had to cut their seasons short and the disappearance altogether of the Berea Summer Theatre and the Halle Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. But, there are still very wealthy people around and very productive companies. Average folks can help by giving small donations, but that’s not enough.

The window of opportunity for Pointe of Departure is closing fast. Gabay and Rodriguez are near the end of the their dance careers. They will move on to other activities if the local area doesn’t come through. This is not a threat, it’s real. They each want to settle down someplace and produce their art. If it is not here, and they get funding elsewhere, they will go elsewhere and do their thing. It will be this area’s lose.

Some person or persons or group needs to step forward and fund this fledgling organization. No one better deserves this support than Karen Gabay and Raymond Rodriguez, the co-artistic directors of Point of Departure. If you have a check to write, a suggestion of who might be the angel to give the area its ballet company, contact Point of Departure at 216-881-0353 or write Gabrod, Inc. at P.O. Box 719, Lakewood, OH 44107 or go on-line to www.pointeofdeparture,com.