Friday, March 26, 2004
Every once in a while we meet a very special person. My life has been made better by having known Marji Dodril. Marji was a woman of beauty, charm, kindness, talent and class. Marji died on March 17. A memorial will be held at 6 p.m. April 4 at Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights.
It is only fitting that Marji should be memorialized at Dobama. That theatre was a major part of her life. It, ironically, was also where I met Marji.
Dobama’s second play was Benjamin Levy’s ‘RAPE OF THE BELT.’ Dobama had no permanent home, so they borrowed the performing space at Chagrin Falls Little Theatre. I was the public relations director for Dobama at the time, and I loved to just hang around and watch Marji, her husband to-be, Ev Dodrill, and Mary Jane Nottage cavort. She was wonderful in that play and in everything else in which she performed.
Whenever I saw her, I could count on a smile and a hug. Even when cancer was raging in her body she was radiant. Her last performance, was a commercial in support of Issue 31, a proposed arts tax which was recently on the ballot. She had little strength, but she needed to do what she could for a cause for which she had great enthusiasm. That was Marji.
Marji may have made her last entrance and exit in this life, but she will long be remembered by those of us who loved and respected her. Applause! Bravo! Curtain down!
Cespedes pulls off another coup with 'FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE'
Musical reviews are hard to make into good theatre. They are a bunch of songs usually held together by a thread of a script. It takes real creativity to do something other than have the singers stand around singing and maybe dancing around a little. Well, fortunately for The Beck Center, they have that creative director/choreographer. His name is Martin Cespedes.
Those who saw Beck’s ‘SMOKEY JOE’S CAFÉ’ which won a Times Tribute Award last year for both the production and it’s director/choreographer, know what a wonder that production was. Well, Cespedes has done it again with his production of ‘FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE,” He lets out all the stops as he takes on a musical journey based on the music of Louis Jordan. He does it so well that at the curtain call on Sunday afternoon, which was filled with “mature” citizens, the audience was on their feet screaming for more.
In the hands of a lesser director/choreographer, cast, and musical ensemble, this could have been a long and lethal experience. The story is trite, some of the musical sounds repetitive, but it matters little, you won’t even think about it.
It’s not even worth relating the so-called story. It’s more important that you know the show contains such songs as “Messy Bessy,” “I Know What I’ve Got,” “Caledonia,” and “Is You Is.” The music covers the spectrum of sound. There’s a little jazz, a little rock, a little Calypso, a ballad or two, and great harmony songs. You’ll be delighted by “I Like Them Fat Like That!” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”
The cast is uniformly excellent. Lester Currie, Devon Settles, Geoffrey Short, Aric Calhoun and Lawrence Maurice all have a great time, sing well, and move to some creative dance steps. Kyle Primous, as No Max, the participant supposedly not a member of the Moe singing quartet, is phenomenal. He dances, he sings, he acts, he mimes—all extremely well.
As an audience member you just won’t sit and watch. You may find yourself on stage getting sung to by members of the cast. You might “volunteer” to join a Congo line that snakes through the theatre. (Okay, here’s one flaw…that segment was way too long!)
Cespedes ignites the stage with creative and disciplined choreography. David Anthony Williams, the musical director, has these guys wailing. His orchestra doesn’t hit a sour note. Don McBride’s scenic design, consisting of floating radio dials, makes a perfect setting for the goings on. Sharon Stark’s costumes are a hoot! Erik Seidel’s lighting and Casey Jones’ sound design add a strong positive dimension to the show.
Hurrah Martin! Hurrah cast! Hurrah crew!
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you miss ‘FIVE GUYS NAMED JOE’ you’ll be very, very sorry as it’s one of this theatre year’s highlights!
Kalliope Stage, the North Coast's new musical theatre
It’s always a dangerous undertaking to start a new theatre. It is even more tenuous in these times of economic wariness. In spite of the odds, the Cleveland area has seen the birth of several new theatrical enterprises in the last year or so. The newest is Kalliope Stage which has settled into a space at the corner of Lee and Cedar Roads, diagonally across from the Cedar Lee movie theatre. Kalliope has a unique role in the area…it is the only venue dedicated exclusively to the American musical.
The American musical, for all practical purposes is the child of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. They conceived ‘OKLAHAMA!’ the first true book musical, in which the music, the lyrics and the storyline all melded into one. In contrast to previous musicals, the dancing, the singing, the spoken lines of ‘OKLAHOMA’ were all integral to the story, which cannot be told if any of the elements is missing. The Rodgers and Hammerstein scheme gave birth to works by Lerner and Loewe (e.g., ‘MY FAIR LADY’), Steven Sondheim (‘FOLLIES’), Stephen Schwartz (‘PIPPIN’), Leonard Bernstein (‘WEST SIDE STORY’) and a number of others.
It is only fitting that Kalliope Stage open its doors with a tribute to the fathers of the American musical. Their production of ‘A GRAND NIGHT FOR SINGING’ is a review which blends together songs from such hit shows as ‘CAROUSEL,’ ‘THE KING AND I,’ ‘SOUTH PACIFIC,’ and ‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC.’ The title comes from the song “It’s a Grand Night For Singing, written for ‘STATE FAIR’ the only movie musical the duo wrote.
Kalliope’s theatre is a spanking brand new, intimate space, consisting of about 50 comfortable seats, placed in three rows. The audience is right up front and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. The box office personnel, ticket taker, ushers and theatre staff are warm and welcoming. They even hand out chunks of home made chocolate “thingies” to every patron.
It would be wonderful to say that Kalliope Stage’s opening production was superlative. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, but it was entertaining. It was extremely well sung. The music was well played. The production is filled with some very fine moments. But, there are also some problems.
On the plus side, all five cast members individually sing extremely well. Unfortunately, because they are all essentially soloists, the choral sounds were not as blended as they could have been.
The women, both in their acting and singing, were fine. Lisa Spinelli was a total delight flashing her sparkling eyes and playing perfectly the fallen innocent in “I Cain’t Say No.” She captures the stage as soon as she makes an entrance.
Joan Ellison’s “Something Wonderful” was wonderful. She does a nice job of altering her presentational style to fit the mood and ideas of each song.
Allison Hedges has a beautiful voice but needed more glee in “A Wonderful Guy” and more passion in “If I Loved You.” Joan and Allison did a delightful version of “Stepsisters’ Lament” from ‘CINDERELLA.”
Robert Burian has a full and powerful voice. Unfortunately, has not learned to visualize images of the things he is singing about. When he sings a love song, he has to feel the love, we have to see it in his eyes and observe it in the way he looks at and touches his partner. Often he sings off in space, eyes blank, his gestures automatic, not powered by emotion. It’s too bad because he has a gorgeous voice. His ‘We Kiss In A Shadow” for example, had a wonderful vocal sound.
Though he doesn’t have Burian’s vocal abilities, John Paul Boukis does have a pleasant voice. Unfortunately, as with Burian, he seldom makes emotional contact with the person with whom he is singing. His finest moments were during “All At Once You Love Her” and “Maria.”
Reviews often get bogged down in song after song with little variation. Paul Gurgol, the show’s director, made sure this didn’t happen by adding some very creative moments to the show. Having males sing traditional female songs and vise versa was a nice touch. “Kansas City” was delightfully staged as was “It’s Me.” Unfortunately, some of the “schticks” were over-the-top. The twister game in “Don’t Marry Me” put singers in positions where singing was nearly impossible. The constant moving of the hay wagon/table was distracting. In fear of falling into the “bogged down trap,” he over directed, trying to make too much of songs that may have done with less trappings.
Technically, the lights and set were nicely conceived. Especially effective were the trees, with trunks in the form of human bodies and branch like arms reaching out to enfold the audience. On the other hand, Kim Brown’s costume designs detracted rather than added. The costumes often drew attention to the clothing rather than assisting the performer to develop his or her character.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Kalliope Stage is a welcome addition to the Cleveland theatre scene. It takes guts and determination to give birth to a new theatre. The theatre’s directors, John Paul Boukis and Paul F. Gurgol, can only be wished the very best. Their ‘A GRAND NIGHT FOR SINGING’ was a pleasant way to start the season.
Wednesday, March 24, 2004
QUICK COMINGS AND GOINGS: VERB BALLET, INLET DANCE, ANTAEUS DANCE, ABT
One of the problems with short run productions is that before the word can get out, they are gone. This is especially true with many of the performances of local dance companies, which usually run one weekend. A case in point is the Cleveland Public Theatre’s “Dance Works ’04.” Some of the area’s finest choreographers are being showcased. Unfortunately, each group gets a one weekend three-performance slot. Since you can’t get to see what has been, maybe you can get ready for what’s going to be. If you see that these companies are presenting, go before they are gone once again.
Cleveland is blessed with some wonderful choreographers and company artistic directors. Three of the very best are being showcased in the “Danceworks ‘04” series. Two have already had their works presented: Hernando Cortez of Verb Ballets, and Bill Wade of Inlet Dance. Here are mini-reviews of what was presented.
The company’s ‘CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS COLLECTION 04’ was a wonderful and creative evening of dance. The dancers worked with assurance and displayed a complete understanding of each the choreographer’s works. Mark Tomasic and Tracy Vogt were superb in “In Passing.”
Dancing on boxes, in ballet shoes on toe, “The Last Sun” showcased wonderful dancing by Meghan Haas and DeAnn Petruschke. Unfortunately, Robert Wesner’s affected movements and lack of body control were distracting.
“The Envelope” was an absolutely delightful piece centering on the passing of an envelope from dancer to dancer. The melodramatic music and quick short moves delighted the audience.
“A Twist of Fate” was brilliant! It was a powerful, unsettling piece, accomplished with wonderful shadows projected onto the back scrim by lighting designer Cheanult Spence.
“Mozart Piano Trio in C Major” was danced to the fine live accompaniment of Eric Ziolek and Sara and Jeffrey Schimpelfenig. The classical music and contemporary stylized movements blended to give a sprightly conclusion to a wonderful evening of dance.
All in all, this was an entertaining, eclectic evening of dance. As a patron said as he walked out, “I could see that again.” I agree!! For information about Verb Ballets and their next performances call 216-397-3757.
Inlet Dance is at its very best when the company is performing to the ingenious choreography of Bill Wade. This was well-illustrated in their “Dance Works ‘04” program. Every one of Wade’s staged pieces was compelling. The works of the other choreographers left much to be desired.
Wade’s “B’roke,” danced to a Vivaldi violin concerto, was beautifully presented. He created involving stage pictures through the inter-twining of bodies. Each physical move perfectly fit the musical underscoring. Jennifer Lott lit up the stage. Marget Ludlow, M. Leila Pelhan and Devon Schlegelmilch were outstanding in this and each piece in which they performed.
“Doppleganger” was the evening’s highlight. Featuring 16-year old African American twins, Bryan and Ryan Peoples, who helped develop the choreography, the dancers displayed amazing physical strength and body control and blended into a co-joined tandem of gymnastic dance movements. Wow!!
“ImPAIRED” saw Leila Pelhand and Christopher Whitney impressively performing the entire piece blindfolded. The slow gymnastic movements were beautifully executed. This was a powerful piece, well conceived and well executed.
Less effective were “Tides and Solitude” which Sally Wallace choreographed using long poles which were used by the dancers to propel themselves across the stage. The effect worked for a while but the extended music and repeated movements became tedious and the piece called for cutting.
Jennifer Lott danced her own choreographed piece, “Duet” competently. The single dancer partnered with a square of light. The choreography failed to captivate.
“Dante’s First Night,” staged by Leilani Barrett, failed to coordinate the tone of the music with the dance movements. The repetitious music and lack of group unity hurt the piece. Interestingly, it was the performance of the choreographer that was most responsible for the lack of precision.
Steve Rooks’ “You Are Now Connected” missed the mark. The dancers, though they valiantly tried, were not capable of interpreting the rap music’s intent.
For information about Inlet Dance call 216-382-0201 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
ANTAEUS DANCE COMPANY
Starting with a series of bangs and cymbal clashes, choreographers Dough Lodge and Joan Meggitt’s “Moments of Repose” had an impressive beginning. But, as the piece went on and on, repeating and repeating the same musical tones and movements, the audience lost interest. It was too much of the same. Supposedly inspired by Frank Gehry’s Peter B. Lewis Building on the campus of Case-Western Reserve, the piece should have, like the building, flowed, flashed, attracted emotional attention, brought about strong emotional reaction. It didn’t. After a while more attention was paid to Greg D’Allessio’s solo manipulation of the musical instruments than to the dancers. The female dancers—Jenita McGowan, Sherri Mills, Latifa Sage, Beth Salemi and Shanna Sheline--were all very proficient.
A shortened piece, programmed with something of a different feeling, would have made the evening much more satisfying.
For information about Antaeus Dance Company call 216-486-2874.
AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE
Performing as part of the Ballet Series at Playhouse Square Center, American Ballet Theatre proved why it is a world class company. The program, danced to a full orchestra, opened with “Raymonda,” a classical piece with folkloric overtones. Well staged, it featured Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky in lead roles. Maxim and Carlos Lopez’s high scissors leaps and the precision dancing and toe work of Erica Cornejo were the piece’s highlights.
“Pillars of Fire,” was a somber, beautifully danced piece which combined traditional movements with modern staging. The result was a moving choreographic concept in which the moods of the dance and the music became one.
“Within You Without You: A Tribute to George Harrison” was the lesser segment of the evening. Though it was interesting to see the former Beattle’s music set to dance, there was a lack of consistency in interpreting many of Harrison’s lyrics to the movements. This was especially true in “Something.” “I Dig Love,” with its interesting lift patterns and inter-weavings of bodies, was more on target as was “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” which featured powerful gymnastic movements. “Isn’t It a Pity” consisted of a series of countermoves created by having the dancers work in lines. “Within You Without You” evoked little emotional feeling, while “My Sweet Lord” was a high spirited gleeful dance.
All in all, if you missed ABT, you missed a dance season highlight. They will undoubtedly be returning to the area. Make sure to see them.
Sunday, March 21, 2004
Miss Gulch attempts to bribe a critic!
Halfway through his one-person performance of ‘MISS GULCH RETURNS!’ Nick Vannello was explaining to the audience that the reason Miss Gulch, Dorothy’s nasty, dog-snatching, basket-wielding spiteful spinster-next-door neighbor of ‘WIZARD OF OZ’ fame had been overlooked was because of the critics. Vannello contended that the critics played up Dorothy and that “damn dog” Toto and left Miss Gulch high and dry. He then sneered, “Are there any critics in the audience?” No one responded. He then said, “I know Roy Berko is here!” He knew exactly where I was. That had been arranged by placing my press kit on the table, front and center in the cabaret setting! The next thing I knew a huge piece of chocolate cake had been thrust into my hands. Vannello then skipped off saying, “Well, that should insure I don’t get another bad review.” The audience and I were hysterical! Vannello didn’t have to waste the money on the cake. I would have given him a favorable review without it.
Let’s get one thing straight, Vannello is not the all-around super performer…his voice doesn’t quite have the necessary finesse, his acting is sometimes a little automatic, he could have let loose a lot more with feeling rather than feigning emotions. However, he does have what this one-person show requires..he knows how to play an audience! He teases, he sidles up unsuspecting victims, he doesn’t take himself seriously, and he does a great double entendre. The result is our really, really liking Vannello, which parleys into a really, really good time for the audience.
‘MISS GULCH RETURNS!” is the brainstorm of Fred Barton who gives us an endearingly demented look at Dorothy’s next door neighbor, Agnes Gulch, who later in the movie becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. You know, the one with the horrid monkeys. Barton has written a score of comedy numbers much in the style of Cole Porter. The rhyming patterns are cute and obvious. As Gulch says as a side-comment during the song “I’m a Bitch,” “Oh, come on now, what else rhymes with witch?” The sold-out audience howled.
The score also included the beautiful ballad, “Everyone Worth Taking, Part 2,” the hysterical “Pour Me A Man” and “Give Me to the Blonde” during which a handsome blonde waiter appeared to fill Gulch’s martini glass, much to the delight of the audience and the leering Vannello.
Charles Eversole provided the musical accompaniment and a few interactions with Vannello and the audience. The production was directed by Lora Workman.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘MISS GULCH RETURNS’ is a fun evening of theatre for the right nitch audience. Vannello doesn’t have the late Margaret Hamilton’s compelling presence (Hamilton, a Cleveland native, played Miss Gulch in the movie version of ‘THE WIZARD OF OZ’), but he does have the ability to lead the audience on a fun-filled voyage, and that’s the whole purpose of this show.
Saturday, March 20, 2004
NUNSENSE less than hysterical
If those who attended ‘NUNSENSE, the 20th ANNIVERSARY ALL-STAR TOUR’ were expecting a hysterically delightful repeat of the long running Hanna Theatre production of ‘LATE NITE CATECHISM,’ they must have been disappointed. The “play” is based on the ridiculous premise that Sister Julia Childs, the convent’s head cook, had accidentally poisoned most of the order’s nuns. Since there wasn’t enough money to bury all of the sisters, some of were placed in the freezer and we (the audience) were supposedly attending a fund-raiser to bury the remaining souls. Yeah, sure, okay, you get the point! Twenty-five years of stirring hasn’t improved the piece.
Most people, I assume, came to see the old time stars, rather than be enthralled by the goings-on. Well, even that was disappointing as Georgia Engel was off shooting an “Everybody Loves Raymond” episode and Mimi Hines was ill. That left Cleveland’s own, the delightful Kaye Ballard, the “I can still belt-out a song” Darlene Love, and “I was Miss America” Lee Meriwether to carry the load.
Capsule Judgement: It was a slightly entertaining evening. There were some laughs, there was some okay singing, and there was some presence of Ballard’s statement for the reason for the show…”We are here to prove that nuns are fun.” Okay, I’ll accept her word for it, but at $52.50 a ticket, there should have been more fun!
Script overshadows production at Karamu
For many years Karamu Performing Arts Center was a crown jewel in the Cleveland theatre scene. This, the oldest African-American cultural arts center in the country, has produced the likes of Langston Hughes, Ron O’Neal, Gilbert Moses, Diane McIntyre and Mel Stewart. It brought Reuben and Dorothy Silver, the reigning king and queen of local theatre, to the area to produce and direct the company’s shows for many years.
Unfortunately, the recent past has not been a period of shining light at Karamu. Recently, Terrence Spivey was brought on board to revitalize this important center as the true local voice for Black theatre. Spivey’s first season is entitled, “The Season of the Woman.” His latest offering is ‘BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE’ by Thomas Gibbons.
The story concerns Shelita Burns, a young black New York editor who travels to the south in search of seventy-two year old Libby Price, the author of the award-wining Bee-Luther-Hatchee, meaning “the next stop after hell.”
(Side note: If you are planning on seeing the production stop reading now as I have to include the plot twist in order to talk about the production).
Okay, for those of you still with me… ironically, Libby Price turns out to be a white male. Interestingly, the play’s author Thomas Gibbons is also a white male who has authored a play centering on the lives and history of Black Americans.
The play is very well written and has captivating questions: Do you have to be a member of a cultural group to write about that group, to identify with the feelings of that group? Can a male really empathize with a woman? Can a Catholic view a Jewish-themed play with any compassion? Extending it further, can I (this white male reviewer) have empathy for a play centering on the female African American experience? I, and the white male character in the play say “Yes.” Shelita, the black female doesn’t agree.
As thought-provoking as the play is, the production doesn’t live up to the challenge. There are many positives. Renee Matthews-Jackson captivates as Libby Price. Richard Morris, Jr. has created a wonderful workable set consisting of levels which appropriately look like volumes of books. Spivey uses the stage well. Scenes flow together seamlessly. The problems are the tedious pacing and the mediocre level of acting. Most of the cast is simply not believable. They fail to create real people. There is too much acting and not enough reacting. There is a lot of emoting and little feeling of the intent of the words. Gestures are phony, pantomiming is poor. It’s too bad as they had a wonderful vehicle with which to work.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In spite of the weaknesses of the production, the play is worth seeing. It evokes thinking and forces the viewer to ask questions about himself/herself. That’s not a bad thing for a play to do, not bad at all.
Friday, March 12, 2004
Cleveland Play House drops its ‘UNDERPANTS’
Steve Martin is one of the crown-princes of off-the-wall comedy. He leaves no schtick unturned to get a laugh. It is no surprise, therefore, that when he came upon Carl Steinheim’s 1910 farcical play, ‘THE UNDERPANTS’ he thought, “Here’s a cabbage right for slawing.”
The story centers on an incident when a woman's underpants fall down in public while she is attending a parade for the king. The result is newfound fame for the woman and over-blown frustration for her husband. It also is an opening for Martin to pick up the play’s underlying themes of German excess and go with it. He probes German inflexibility and prudishness, anti-Semitism (one character insists that his Cohen named is spelled with a “K” and that kosher is spelled with a “C”), the male attitude of superiority over women, and a false Germanic sense of propriety.
When the jokes are bawdy, the play is reminiscent of the Steve Martin we know from ‘THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS.’ When at its most ironic, flashes of his recent hit movie ‘CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN’ appear. Martin uses the original story to make leaps into both the ridiculous and academic when he mocks the very fabric of marriage and society, at least Germanic nuptials and society.
To make this play work takes a keen sense of comedic timing, consistency of characterizations, and presenting lines so believably that they become farcically hysterical. It is in these elements that the Cleveland Play House production is lacking. Under the often ill-conceived directing of Peter Hackett, accents (one can only wonder why they were used at all), come and go. Actors change pacing and characterization in mid-sentence. The constant screaming becomes ear piercing. The pacing varies from hysterical to languid. Laughs are lost due to poor line interpretation. The results? The play which a New York critic called “The funniest play in town” becomes less than could be expected. That’s not to say this production lacks laughs. Some are there. Just not as many as there could have been, nor in a format that grabs and holds the whole audience.
Chaz Mena, as the husband, yells his way through the first part of the play and then has a total character change for the second segment. His German accent vanishes, then returns, then vanishes again. Tanya Clarke, as his wife Louise, never seems involved in the goings on. Johanna Morrison is absolutely wonderful as the interfering neighbor. She, along with Brad Bellamy as Cohen, one of the men who is infatuated by Louise, are the production’s highlights. Sam Gregory, as one of the other renters, begins well and then seems to get lost in who his character is, what he represents.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The CPH production of ‘THE UNDERPANTS’ is less than could be desired. As the man sitting next to me kept saying to his wife, as he squirmed in his seat, “When is this thing going to end?”