Monday, May 31, 2004

The Sweepers (Ensemble Theatre)

‘THE SWEEPERS’ leaves much under the rug at Ensemble

It is both ironic and appropriate that on the weekend that the memorial dedicated to those who gave their lives in World War II, Ensemble Theatre opened their run of the Cleveland premiere of ‘THE SWEEPERS.’ The play centers on the final weeks of World War II.

John Picardi’s script is the first in a proposed series of ten plays focusing on the Italian American experience in the USA. He plans to write one for each of the decades in the 20th century.

In ‘THE SWEEPERS’ Picardi examines the problems created by the war and the effect on three life-long Boston Italian-American friends. Each of the ladies must face not only the trio’s relational issues and upholding the “Italian way,” but her own troubles. Dotty (Tracey Field) must deal with a husband in a mental hospital and her son at war. Mary (Meg Kelly Schroeder) must adjust to living life alone while her husband and son fight on the front lines in the Pacific. Bella (Jean Zarzour) fights her battles at home, dealing with her half-Irish lawyer son (James Savage Jr.) and the upper-crust Italian young woman (Jennifer Clifford) he has chosen to marry.

‘THE SWEEPERS’ is not a great play. Its plot twists are predictable, its characters too formulaic, and the writing leaves the viewer out of the loop...never sucking us into the action. In spite of this Picardi does give a glimpse into Italian American traditions and the binding relationships brought about by life-long friendships.

In its Off-Broadway run the play received favorable reviews. The plaudits were for the performances more than for the vehicle. Unfortunately, the Ensemble production misses the strong acting aspects.

Director Lucia Colombi doesn’t get her cast beyond surface level performances. The characters are not real. They need to be real. They need to be true Italian Americans, true people living a series of experiences. Emotions were feigned, not experienced. We need to feel with them and for them. Not so!

This is one play that requires each of the performers to have a clear verbal sound. These are people who have a deep connection with Boston and the Italian culture. There is a sound cadence that is required to create the reality. Not one member of the cast consistently had it.

On paper this was an ideal cast. Three of the actresses are members of Equity, the professional actor’s union. The others have extensive experience. It can only be assumed with proper directing they should have been able to make this, in spite of the script, a compelling evening of theatre.

Applause to Ray Beach and Stephen Vasse-Hansell for their excellent set design and Melanie Guzman on her period correct costumes.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: It’s a shame that Ms. Columbi couldn’t pull off the play with more professionalism. She’ll get another chance next year when Ensemble does the second of Picardi’s plays. Let’s hope the results are better.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Menopause (14th Street Theatre)

Clevelands have a better 'MENOPAUSE' than the Big Apple

“Seeking -- Iowa Housewife: mezzo, must be able to sing D below middle C to a high A. General information: Women should be over 42 and size 12-plus. Choreography is not difficult but they need women who can move well.” That definitely is not the traditional casting call for a Broadway musical. But, ‘MENOPAUSE, THE MUSICAL” is not a traditional show. There are no chorus cuties. There are no prancing guys. There is just a lot of fun, good singing, and an audience who knows from experience what it’s all about.

I’ve gone through menopause three times. In my home where my wife kept turning on the air conditioning during the winter and shedding clothing quicker than Gypsy Rose Lee. I also experienced it in New York with the original cast of the musical. But, sorry dear, undoubtedly, my best encounter with the “change” was at Cleveland Playhouse Square’s new venue, the 14th Street Theatre.

‘MENOPAUSE THE MUSICAL’ is a musical parody about the meeting of four women at a lingerie sale at Bloomingdale's. The four are a power professional, an aging soap opera star, an Iowa housewife, and a lost-in-the-sixties ex-hippie.

The quartet sings twenty-eight "re-lyricked" songs from the '60s and '70s which comprise the score, including "I Heard It Through the Grapevine, You'll No Longer See 39" and "Stayin' Awake, Stayin; Awake."

According to the show’s author Jeanie Linders she was inspired by "a hot flash and a bottle of wine." She contends the show is a celebration of a passage that launches women into an exciting new phase of their lives. "Most women know intuitively that every other woman is experiencing memory loss, night sweats or hot flashes," states Linders. "But when they are in a theater of 400 women – not just a few friends who are sympathetic by nature – and all 400 are laughing and shouting ‘That’s me!’ then they KNOW that what they are experiencing is normal. They aren’t crazy. It becomes a ‘sisterhood.’"

The Cleveland cast is wonderful. They work together well, obviously a labor of love. As the power woman, Tina Stump wails and shakes her “bootie” to the screams of the audience. June Lange, as the Earthmother (you’ll remember her as the widowed mother in the long running ‘TONY & TINA’S WEDDING)’ quickly became the audience favorite. The lovely and talented Maryann Nagel portrays the Soap Star with her usual dramatic flair and powerful voice. Dyan Beder doesn’t quite reach the heights of the others, but is so full of charm and enthusiasm that she blends in well.

The 90-minute show, which is performed without an intermission, contains take-offs filled with double entendres of such hits as ‘Chain of Fools,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon” (which becomes “Puff, My God, I’m Drag ‘in”), “Lookin’ For Love in All the Wrong Places” and “Stayin’ Alive.”

The show climaxes (excuse the pun) with the audience being invited on stage to share the “experience.” Many of them do!

According to the producers, the show’s few glitches are being taken care of. The band is being toned down. At times it was impossible to hear the clever words over the overly loud pounding beat of the musicians. The miking and speakers are being adjusted. And the order of the song titles in the program are being relisted as audience members were complaining that they wanted to know what song was being sung and the random title arrangement didn’t help.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: It’s a “Sign of the Times” that I developed a “New Attitude,” while getting “Good Vibrations“ from the wonderful cast. Pick up your fans, pop your pills, grab a bunch of your friends (even men will do) and strut your way downtown to see this hysterically funny, well done show. The production is in an open run and deserves to be held over and over and over!

Cookin' at the Cookery (Cleveland Play House)

'COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY' pleasant evening at CPH

Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Janis Joplin, Lena Horne, Alberta Hunter. You probably have heard of the first five, but who was Alberta Hunter? Interestingly, before any of the other divas on the list, there was Alberta Hunter.

Hunter was a super star! So, why haven’t you heard of her? Once a star of Broadway, the Casino de Paris, and the London Palladium, Hunter gave it all up at the age of 60 to become a nurse. She surprised everyone when, at the age of 82, she made a comeback in 1977 at Greenwich Village's THE COOKERY. Thus, the title of the show.

Now, more than a decade after her death, Hunter has made yet another comeback, this time as the subject of an award-winning Broadway play ‘COOKIN' AT THE COOKERY.’ The musical is told "in the key of the blues" by two actresses and four musicians performing soul-shaking renditions of Hunters' classic blues and jazz tunes including "Rough and Ready Man," "I'm Having a Good Time," "Down Hearted Blues" and "The Love I Have for You."

The show is a demanding vehicle for the two actors in the show. The duo playsnumerous characters from the singer, to her mother, to Hunter as a young girl, to Barney Josephson (the owner of the Cookery), and the legendary Louie Armstrong.

Gail Nelson, who sings and acts the lead role, and Carla Woods who plays the majority of the character roles, both have good voices and develop believable characterizations.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY’ is a pleasant evening of theatre. There is not enough drama to make this a great play, not enough challenge to make it outstanding theatre, but the singing is nice and the story is pleasant enough.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Nickel and Dimed (Cleveland Public Theatre & Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

'NICKEL AND DIMED' pays big dividends for CPT & GLTF

Randy Rollison, Artistic Director of Cleveland Public Theatre and Charles Fee, the Producing Artistic Director of the Great Lakes Theatre Festival, stood center stage in the Gordon Square Theatre, welcoming the opening night full house to their jointly produced ‘NICKEL AND DIMED.’ Thus ushered in yet another exciting recent Cleveland innovation...a joint production between two local theatre companies.

There have been others, but this one is unique. In these times of tight dollars, to blend subscribing audiences, to run a jointly-produced show for a run that will last a month, is a gutsy move. It is the kind of creativity that has been the hallmark of Cleveland Public Theatre since the team of Rollison and Executive Director James Levin teamed up.

It has also been the practice of Fee, since coming to the area a short time ago, to look for alternative ways of doing theatre. In yet another of Fee’s moves, GLTF will revert back to its roots this year and produce a summer season of shows in rotating repertory, to be followed by a fall repertory and a holiday program. This is exciting stuff!

As to the show itself...millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join their forces. She set out to find out how anyone can survive, let alone prosper, on the minimum wage, on six to seven dollars an hour.

Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She discovered that every job required exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.

The theatres’ joint production of Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘NICKEL AND DIMED’ is superlative. In spite of some opening night stumbles, the production, the acting, the setting all work perfectly. It far surpasses the script, which lectures a little too much and makes the director, technicians and actors work too hard to get the message across. The cast, under the creative direction of Melissa Kievman is flawless. Each character is clearly developed. There is never a moment when the audience’s attention isn’t anywhere but on the stage.

Nan Wray, Sheffia W. Randall, Nina Domingue, George Roth, Tracee Patterson each play a multitude of parts, with a multitude of accents, and a multitude of costumes and props. Jill Levin portrays Barbara. This is an ensemble piece that defies separating out the performers. One weak link and the entire chain fractures. There is no weak link. Applause, applause!

Todd Krispinsky has created a series of set piece which wheel on and off the stage with precision and ease. The running crew deserves a special curtain call. Trad Burns light, Alison Hernan’s costumes and Peter John Still’s sound design all work to perfection.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: After seeing “NICKEL AND DIMED,’ you will never see a motel bathroom or a eat a restaurant meal in quite the same way again. You’ll think twice before you shop at Wal-Mart. You’ll think twice before stiffing a waitress. ‘NICKLE AND DIMED’ is not just a theatrical experience, it is a life altering experience. This production isn’t just a see...IT’S A MUST SEE!!!

The Last Five Years (Dobama)

'THE LAST FIVE YEARS'--Dobama finds musical that fits its mission

When it opened Off-Broadway in March of 2002, Jason Robert Brown’s ‘THE LAST FIVE YEARS’ was met with superlative reviews. It was termed “compulsively enjoyable. ”The lyrics were called “accomplished, clever, tender, and arching in feeling.” Mr. Brown was lauded as “a leading member of a new generation of composers who embody high hopes for the American musical.”

Brown is the author of superlative musical drama, ‘THE ‘PARADE,’ the well-received ‘SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD,” and the critically panned “URBAN COWBOY.’ His music is not easily categorized, as is say, the writing of Andrew Lloyd Weber, where everything, after a while, all sounds the same. He writes in the mold of Steven Sondheim. His music is dramatic, often witty, always intellectual, yet with shades of wit and sincerity.

‘THE LAST FIVE YEARS’ chronicles a young couple's romance in an interesting way. Her story starts at the end of their relationship; his begins on the day they met. The show captures the heartbreaking and universally felt moments of modern romance.

Dobama is noted as “Cleveland’s Contemporary Stage.” Very seldom will you find a musical in the theatre’s offerings. However, every once in a while the artistic director finds the right fit of theatre and musical. ‘THE LAST FIVE YEARS’ is a wise choice. It has a contemporary message to tell and it tells it well.

The strength and the weakness of Dobama’s production is the cast. As with Sondheim, it takes special performers to get Brown’s work “right.” The two-person cast must not only be superlative singers, but superlative actors to get the numerous textures from the lyrics, and sing what are often difficult musical arrangements.

The Off-Broadway cast was lauded for “making beautiful music together.” Unfortunately, this is not consistently the case at Dobama.

On one hand, Scott Plate is wonderful. He is a superb actor and has developed into quite a singing talent. He commands the stage when he is present. He understands that Brown’s lyrics need interpretation and texturing. He pulls it all off with a well honed performance.

Unfortunately, Emily Krieger did not fare as well in her role as Cathy. Miss Krieger has neither the real life nor stage experience to undertake a role that fits the likes of Audra McDonald. She is a good college level performer, but didn’t quite have the whole package to pull off the quality of performance needed.

Vickie Bussert creatively directed the production which moved smoothly along and was visually interesting. If she knew that Krieger was going to assume the role of Cathy, she needed to work more on polishing her acting skills and working with her on character development.

The show’s musicians Nancy Maier, Morgan Scagliotti and Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir were excellent in both playing proficiently and backing up rather than drowning out the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE LAST FIVE YEARS’ is a well-conceived musical. The Dobama production, at least the one I saw, does not live up to the level of the script, score and lyrics. Not having seen Sandy Simon I can’t say whether the production would have worked better with the equity actress in the role, but based on her ‘SIDE SHOW’ and ‘MUSIC MAN’ performances at Cain Park, I could assume that she does a fine job and that would have made a major difference.

Cinderella by Houston Ballet (Playhouse Square Center)

Charming ‘CINDERELLA’ by Houston Ballet

The Houston Ballet is recognized as one of the premiere companies in the U.S. Their recent production of ‘CINDERELLA,’ which was the closing show of the University Hospital’s Health System’s Ballet Series at Playhouse Square Center, clearly illustrated the showmanship. The sumptuous costumes, well conceived scenery, the full-orchestra, and generally fine dancing made for a charming evening of dance.

The opening night cast featured the lovely and talented Mireille Hassenboehler as Cinderella. Her strong toe-work, fine dramatic interpretation of the role, and radiant smile made her truly a fairy-tale princess. Her Prince Charming was Andrew Murphy. Though he displayed strong partnering skills, his dancing showed some weaknesses, especially in his leaps. Illya Kozadayev captured the audience with his athletic split jumps and effervesence as the Jester. Julie Gumbinner was fine as the Fairy Godmother, as were the fairies. Audience favorites were Dominic Walsh and Phillip Broomhead, playing the stepsisters in drag. Their exaggerations and facial maneuvers brought gales of laughs from the many children in the audience.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘CINDERELLA’ was a perfect way to end what turned out to be an inconsistent season of ballet in the Playhouse Square Center. Without a company of its own, the area has to turn to outside sources for major dance entertainment. When the American Ballet Theatre or the Houston Ballet are the choice, the evening is fine. On the other hand, the performance of The Pennsylvania Ballet left much to be desired.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Long Day's Journey Into Night (Ensemble Theatre)

‘LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT’ gets good performance at Ensemble

On July 22, 1941, on the 12th anniversary of his marriage, Eugene O’Neill wrote this letter to his wife: “Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play.”

The play he was referring to was ‘A LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT,’ now on stage at Ensemble Theatre.

The history of the script is fascinating. In the summer of 1939, at the age of 50, O'Neill began work on an autobiographical masterpiece that confronted the truth about his own family. He completed the work in 1941, but said the play was not to be produced until 25 years after his death.

His wife, however, knowing of the power of the work, released it for production in 1956, three years after O'Neill's death. It won a Pulitzer Prize and has often been hailed as O'Neill's greatest play, even being called the greatest American play of all time.

Though the names have been changed, O'Neill gives an account of his explosive home life. James Tyrone is an aging actor and a miserly skinflint. His wife, Mary, has been a morphine addict since the birth of their youngest son, Edmund. Their eldest son, Jamie is an alcoholic, unable an unwilling to find work on his own. Edmund, (Eugene O’Neill himself) who has been away as a sailor has returned home sick and awaits the doctor's diagnosis. Each of them is so self-centered, and self-pitying, that they cannot help one-another as they sink further and further into despair.

During his sanitorium confinement for consumption O'Neill studied voraciously. He devoted special attention to the playwrights Ibsen and Strindberg. His plays reflect these authors’ stark realistic styles.

The 1920 Broadway production of ‘BEYOND THE HORIZON’ marked the start of O'Neill's ascent to fame. He won the Nobel Prize in 1936, the first American playwright to receive the honor. O’Neill’s classics include ‘THE ICEMAN COMETH,’ ‘THE EMPEROR JONES,’‘ANNA CHRISTIE,’ ‘THE HAIRY APE,’‘DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS,’ ‘AH WILDERNESS,’ and ‘A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN.’

An award winning 1962 film version of ‘LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT’ starred Dean Stockwell , Jason Robards, Ralph Richardson, and Katharine Hepburn.

‘LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT’ is a very hard play to perform. It is very long, talky and depressing. Ensemble’s production, under the direction of Licia Colombi, is a very creditable staging.

The handsome and slight Andrew Curse is a perfect Edmund. His body wracks with deep-lung coughs, he perfectly portrays O’Neill’s valiant fight for sanity in an addictively dysfunctional family.

In portraying O’Neill’s mother, Annie Kitral takes on one of the great women’s stage roles. As with actresses who portray Blanche in ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,’ Amanda in ‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE,’ and Martha in ‘WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF,’ she confronts a major challenge. And, she wins the battle. This is a finely honed performance. She clearly carries us deeper and deeper into her depression as she attempts to escape from reality through drugs.

Robert Hawkes gives a good performance as the drunken and misguided father. He might have textured the role more to give a clearer picture of the character’s mood swings as his frustration with life builds and we see that, as with most alcoholics, he goes from drug induced rage to depression.

John Kolibab has some fine moments near the play’s ending when he purports both his love and hate for his younger brother while wallowing in a drunken haze. He, as with Hawkes, needed more clearly defined moments of rationality and psychological clashes.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: A classic nine word review of the play once stated, “ ‘A LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT’--yes, it was!” Fortunately for local audiences Colombi has cut almost an hour off the overly-long script and has molded her cast into an effective unit. Ensemble’s production is a fine way to experience the power of O’Neill.