Sunday, July 25, 2004

Nine (Cassidy Theatre)

Challenging 'NINE' performed at Cassidy

Cassidy Theatre, known for years as Greenbrier Theatre, is tucked away in Parma Heights. The city not only encourages the theatre, but gives it financial backing. In the Greater Cleveland area, where public subsidization of the arts is almost nil, this governmental support is a wonderment. Soon, the Cassidy theatrical family will be moving into its new home at Claire’s Folly, a state of the art facility, with a forty-foot fly gallery and state of the art sound and lighting systems. There are many laughs at the sake of this white socks, polyester wearing blue-collar community, but they sure are more into backing of its local theatre than almost any other of its more affluent suburban neighbors. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned here!

In many ways Cassidy is like the little engine that could. It keeps taking on challenges that are beyond its capabilities. It was the first theatre in the area to stage ‘PARADE’ and it now is the first to undertake the challenge of doing the musical ‘NINE’ since its recent Broadway rebirth.

‘NINE,’ made its original debut in 1982. The production won five Tony Awards. It had a very successful revival in 2002.

The show’s book was written by Arthur Kopit, known for his aloof, often abstract plays. The music and lyrics is by Maury Yeston who also penned the less than memorable score for the musical ‘TITANIC.’

The story, which was inspired by the 1963 Federico Fellini film ‘8 1⁄2’, revolves around Guido Contini, a film director in the Fellini mold. The plot is slight enough to easily boil down to: Guido is stalemated in his personal and professional life, unable to commit fully to a relationship or summon the creative energy to make his next movie. This leads to disorienting fantasies (including suicide) from which he's rescued by his nine-year-old alter ego.

In spite of its moderate success, neither the original version nor the revival of ‘NINE’ went critically unscathed. A good deal of negative was pointed at Kopit's failure to create a book that was emotionally satisfying and was too moody and lacking in warmth.

Yeston's unmemorable score is a mix of musical genres -- solo ballads ("My Husband") and duets ("Unusual Way") as well as a whole comic opera sequence ( "Grand Canal "). This is not the kind of music you go out of the theatre humming.

What made the Broadway shows run were the casts. In the 1982 version, the multi-talented Raul Julia played Guido Contini, the film director. In the revival, as one Big Apple critic put it, “The revival of ‘NINE’ owed much of its almost instant hit status to Antonio Banderas whose acting and singing talent plus good looks made for an ideal, matinee idol.

Before examining Cassidy’s production, let’s examine Cassidy Theatre. This is an amateur theatre, no equity contacts, no paid performers. These are performers who perform for the love of performing. Any evaluation of their productions must take that into consideration. The yardstick for measurement can’t be the same as that used for a Broadway touring production, or even the likes of Great Lakes Theatre Festival or the Cleveland Play House. This is theatre right out of the Andy Hardy movies: “Hey kids, here’s a performance space, let’s put on a play.”

With that said, The Cassidy production of ‘NINE’ is credible. This is a compliment considering the difficulty of the vehicle they chose to confront. The show requires a charismatic, sensual, fine singing, superlative actor to play the lead. It requires one talented eight-year old boy and thirteen actresses who can sing and act. Few, if any theatres could pull that off with aplomb.

Director Lester Currie has done a fine job of staging the play. He uses his performers like chess pawns, moving them to the most advantageous places to accent ideas. He is also the costume designer of some of the finest and most appropriate clothing seen on a local stage.

Bob Stroesser, who portrays Guido is definitely no Raul Julia or Antonio Banderas. He lacks their sensuality. He often feigns emotions, overacting and making distracting facial expressions to express feelings. His inconsistent accent sometimes makes understanding him difficult and may be the cause of his acting difficulties. He has a fine singing voice which he uses well in interpreting songs.

The women, who are like an ever-present modern Greek chorus who step in and out of Guido’s life, are generally acceptable. Their acting and singing varies, as is often the case in amateur theatre. On the high end is Megan Grimes as Guido’s wife, Beth Cubbison as his mother and Linda Kindsvatter as one of the women in Guido’s life.

David Dettloff’s orchestra did a nice job of backing up the singers rather than drowning them out, which is often the case in local theatrical productions where the musical director sometimes forgets that this is not a concert, but the purpose of the music is to aid the performers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘NINE’ is a very difficult theatrical undertaking. The Cassidy production was well-received by the sold-out house, and that, when you get down to it, is what theatrical entertainment is all about.

Lysa Balmer reviews the reviewer

Dear Mr. Berko,

I am not one to write letters. Especially to theater critics. I have been a working actor, choreographer, technician, etc. in the Cleveland area for a long time - and have lived through most of the self-serving critics that Cleveland had to offer, and, as a rule - have not taken much stock in what they had to say.

I would just like to say THANK YOU for your review of NINE. The Cassidy (and will it have a third name in it's new space? I'm still having a hard time not calling it the Greenbrier....) is a community theater, and you reviewed it as such. WOW. You identified it as to what it was, and gave a review that reflected that. How refreshing to have a critic respect the effort, and not use the same banal criteria that the other reviewers use for every production, regardless of the environment it is presented in.

With new admiration,
Lysa Balmer

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Guys and Dolls (Porthouse Theatre-KSU)

Maryann Black makes 'GUYS AND DOLLS' worth seeing at Porthouse

‘GUYS AND DOLLS’ is a problematic musical. It is one of the few modern musicals in which the score was completed long before the book for the show was written. Frank Loesser, so the story goes, wanted to do a musical based on the short stories of Damon Runyon’s mythical New York City, the Big Apple, a city filled with vivid characters. Loesser finished the score and no less than a dozen writers attempted to craft the book. Finally, humorist Abe Burrows and his side-kick Jo Swerling wrapped a quasi-story around the music. As such it is really a serikes of vignettes featuring various caricatures of characters, blended into a unified kind-of plot. This lack of clarity causes difficulty for directors, actors and choreographers.

The nature of the caricatures is the second challenge. This is New York...the frenetic, “Nu Yawk,” the loud and brash and unreal-peopled Gotham. The characters have to be bigger than life, yet believable. The actors have to understand the sound, the walk, the need be over-exaggerate the honest motives of the people they portray. Actors can’t feign being these characters, they have to be the personalities.

In the main, ‘GUYS AND DOLLS’ is the combination of the tales of Nathan Detroit, a small time gambler who runs the “oldest established floating crap-game in New York” and Adelaide, his doll; the high roller Sky Masterson’s gambit of winning a bet by talking the up-tight missionary doll, Sarah Brown, into going to Havana with him; and, the multiple character studies of the likes of Harry the Horse, Nicely-Nicely, Benny Southstreet, Big Julie.

The wonderful score includes such classics as “I’ll Know,” “If I Were a Bell,” “My Time of Day,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” and “Marry the Man Today.”

The Porthouse production has many things going for it including MaryAnn Black, Timothy M. R. Culver, MaryAnn Black, Bil Pfuderer, MaryAnn Black. And, did I mention, MaryAnn Black? Get the idea that MaryAnn Black carries the show? You are right. Without her right-on portrayal of Adelaide, the production would be a bust. Her “A Bushel and a Peck,” “Take Back Your Mink” and “Adelaide’s Lament” are all show stoppers.

Culver adds dimension by developing a perfect Nicely-Nicely. He is one of the few on stage who appears to be in total control of his character’s soul and has a good singing voice to top it all off. Bil Pfuderer as Arvide Abernathy, the head of the Save A Soul Mission, has a wonderful brogue and his version of “More I Cannot Wish You” was wonderfully touching.

Jim Weaver and Yolanda Christine Davis as Sky and Sarah, lack any charismatic connection. It is hard to believe them as a couple. They never look, kiss or touch as if they meant anything to one-another.

Weaver’s youth and gentleness make it hard to believe that he is THE Sky Masterson, gambler extraordinaire. But. he has a beautiful pop singing voice and is consistent in his interpretation of the role.

Davis appears miscast as Sarah. She has a beautiful singing voice, but it does not fit the show’s songs. She sings words, not meanings, and her shallow acting makes the character unbelievable.

Rohn Thomas comes close to the Nathan role, but misses the mark. He just doesn’t have the underlying New Yorkese needed for the role.

Terri Kent, the director, appears stuck between a rock and a hard place. She, because of the nature of the youthful casting resources available at Porthouse, has clean scrubbed suburban youth playing New York mobsters and cabaret dancers. In the main, they feign facial expressions, lack the sounds and the attitude needed, thus are unbelievable.

Kent is also not aided much by John Crawford, her choreographer, who has failed, with two exceptions, to create exciting movements. It may have been that he realized the limited hoofing abilities of his cast and low-keyed it, but the music encourages so much more. Dance highlights were the tap number by Black and the female chorus and Culver’s delightful “Sit Down, you’re Rockin’ the Boat.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: It’s worth seeing ‘GUYS AND DOLLS’ just to see MaryAnn Black in action. As she proved in Porthouse’s ‘OKLAHOMA,’ and again in ‘GUYS AND DOLLS,’ she’s a local superstar!

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Constance Thackaberry reviews the reviewer

Dear Mr. Berko:

It was most interesting to read your review of GLTF's most recent production. I follow the Cleveland theater scene by reading reviews.

I just wanted to let you know that I found your review most witty and was laughing out loud as I read it. As a bit of a Shakespeare traditionalist myself, I fear for the future of Shakespeare at GLTF!

I hope you are well and I look forward to reading more of you reviews.


Constance Thackaberry

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Miss Saigon (Beck Center)

'Miss Saigon" triumphs at Beck Center

In the last couple of years The Beck Center has been establishing itself as a major production house in the Cleveland area. This march continues as the theatre has undertaken to stage the very difficult ‘MISS SAIGON’ as its summer production. It is a difficult show to stage because it requires superb singing voices, a charismatic connection between the lead performers, complicated set changes, and the need for a great number of male actors. The Beck production succeeds on most of these levels.

Set in 1975 during the final days leading up to the American evacuation of Saigon, the multi-award winning show is from the hands of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg who also wrote ‘LES MISÉRABLES.’‘

It is the story of two young lovers torn apart by the fortunes of destiny and held together by passion and the fate of a small child. As one of the authors said, “We have an epic tale still to tell, but we also hope that when we focus on the passionate longing of a woman for her lover, and her unconquerable love for her son; when the Saigon pimp hurls himself demonically into action; when we are with real people: spurned lover, helpless children, the ones who matter - then the surroundings are put into perspective.”

The score contains "The Heat is On in Saigon," "The Movie in My Mind," "Why God Why?," "Sun and Moon," "The Last Night of the World,""I Still Believe," "Bui-Doi," and "The American Dream."

The Beck production, under the able direction of Scott Spence is impressive. The show moves quickly, builds in all the right emotional levels, and leaves the audience fulfilled.

The most important elements in the production are the astoundingly good singing voices of the cast. Everyone from the leads to the male chorus is impressive. Especially talented are Robin Lee Gallo as Kim, the Vietnam girl who falls in love with Chris, an American GI. She is matched in her vocal abilities by Connor O’Brien, whose singing of “Why God, Why?” was among the show’s highlights. Gallo and O’Brien are totally believable and convey an interpersonal charisma that is captivating. Their renditions of “Sun & Moon” and “Last Night of the World” were wonderful.

Also vocally strong are Ian Atwood, as Chris’s friend John and Maggie Stahl-Wirfel as Chris’s wife Ellen and Paul Floriano who is quiet good as the sleezy Engineer.

Choreographer Martin Cespedes does his usual excellent job and musical director Larry Goodpaster’s orchestra not only played well, but backed up the singers rather than drowning them out.

There are a few problems with the show. Don McBride’s sets didn’t work well. He usually has a clear concept. This time the set was a series of disjointed platforms the vital helicopter effect was missing. No, we don’t have to actually see the machine hovering above the stage but we must hear it, we must know of its presence. The few flashing lights didn’t work. As one of the authors states, “The helicopter, which plucks Chris away from Kim as it pulls the last Americans from Vietnam, stands as a symbol for all those irresistible forces that rend nations apart and split one individual from another. Our musical asks you to consider the countless small tragedies which have been imposed on millions of ordinary people by governments whom we like to think we control, but who seem locked into a constant spiral of hostility. The story ends tragically, but I hope what will endure after the curtain falls are the things that matter: love, honesty, determination, self-confrontation, courage, energy, life.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In spite of some minor flaws, The Beck production of ‘MISS SAIGON’ is powerful staging with a strong emotional effect. This is not light, escapist theatre. It is a meaningful and important story that is well told, well, sung and well acted. It deserved the standing ovation it received.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Pete 'n' Keely (Kalliope Stage)

‘PETE 'N' KEELY’ closes Kallliope's season

When an artistic director of a theatre picks a play to be presented there is a reason. Sometimes it fits the theatre’s avowed purpose. Think Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival choosing to do ‘HAMLET’. Often it’s because the script has something important to say such as ‘DEATH OF A SALESMAN’ and ‘DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS. Maybe it’s because the show’s writer insures great audience attendance. Neil Simon or Steven Sondheim come to mind. It could be that the theatre has the personnel who fit the script or a special star is available. Think Bernadette Peters as the lead in ‘ANNIE GET YOUR GUN’ or Bette Midler as Mamma Rose in ‘GYPSY.’ On occasion, the play fits the theatre’s space well. Whatever the reason, there usually is a rationale behind the selection.

Paul Gurgol, the Artistic Director of Kalliope Stage, Cleveland’s only venue completely dedicated to doing musicals, chose ‘PETE ‘N’ KEELY’ to close the theatre’s first season. Yes, it does fit two criteria, it is a musical and the two person cast fit well the intimate confines of the 50-seat Cleveland Heights theatre. Besides that, it’s difficult to figure out why Gurgol made the choice.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the production isn’t terrible. It just begs the question, “Why spend time, effort, talent and money on such an endeavor?”

Okay, let’s examine the story. The plot centers on a reunion between a former husband and wife as stars of a “bring ‘em back together” TV show. (Kind of the Sonny and Cher reunion.) The music is a hodge-podge of mostly pop songs from the ‘60s with a few weakly conceived new works thrown in. Musical numbers include “Lover,” “Besame Mucho,” “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” and “Too Fat to Fit.”

The script is by James Hindman with original music by Patrick Brady and lyrics by Mark Waldrop. Hindman, who is a fairly well-know New York actor is making his virgin attempt at writing a play. It includes many lame lines including the likes of “age is a number and mine is unlisted.” The writing tries too hard to be witty and suave but fails to grab and hold the audience’s attention. (Ask the woman in the front row who slept through both the first and the second act.)

The Kalliope production is blessed with Kathryn Kendall who has a strong voice and good stage presence. Christopher Vettel also has a nice singing voice, but has some upper range flatness and a distracting habit of singing out of the side of his mouth, which contorts his face and creates a humorous look during some serious songs. Unfortunately, as well as they sing, there appears to be no on stage charisma between the performers and their vocal blends are not always aesthically pleasing.

Gurgol, who directs the production, has incorporated some clever visual and choreographic moments. “The Cross Country Tour” is a wonderful musical collage, “That’s All” is presented in a nice “scat” style and “”Have You Got A Lot To Learn” was very creatively staged.

The musical accompaniment is excellent, keeping in mind that the musicians are back-ups to the singers and their purpose is not to drown out the lyrics of the songs.

Capsule Judgement: If you like review type shows in an intimate setting, want to support a new local theatre, and enjoy songs of the 50s, ‘PETE ‘N’ KEELY’ might be to your liking.

Anything Goes (Carousel Dinner Theatre)

ANYTHING GOES’ sails merrily into Carousel Dinner Theatre

If your illusion of a dinner theatre is an old clapboard building, greasy food in steamer trays and a poorly produced musical, then you haven’t been to the Carousel under new Artistic Director Sean Cercone. Cercone has many fine plans for the theatre, and many have already been put into effect.

The theatre itself looks like a sumptuous Las Vegas show room. Beautifully decorated in red, with linen coverings and candles on every table, the tiers of tables and booths allow for good stage sight lines. The servers are young, polite and cooperative. In fact, we were so delighted with Chris Hendricks, our waitperson, that we changed her title in the program from Assistant Head Front Server to CHIEF Head Server.

The menu has 9 appetizers, 18 entrees and 10 desserts and a full offering of wines, alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks. Favorable comments were overheard about the quality of the food.

And, now to the show, itself. ‘ANYTHING GOES’ is a classic 1930s musical. The story is silly and predictable and the music doesn’t always fit into the plot. You will never mix this up this with ‘CHORUS LINE,’ ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’ or ‘WEST SIDE STORY.’ But, who cares. If you are in the right mood for farce and good dancing and ready to hear clever and wonderful lyrics to songs, you’ll probably go out singing, “I Get a Kick Out of You.” And, as one of the songs states, it is “Easy to Love.” The music and lyrics are by the wonderfully gifted Cole Porter and includes “All Through the Night,” “It’s DeLovely,” and “Goodbye Little Dream.”

The Carousel production has three strong elements going for it. First and foremost, Kirsti Carnahan, playing Reno, is the consummate Broadway star. She is beautiful, is a powerful singer, sparkles in every scene she is in, and has a wonderful sense of comic timing. If you go see the show for no other reason than to see Carnahan, it’s worth the price of admission.

Second, Rob Donohoe is a delight as Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #12. “Friendship” a duet by Donohoe and Carnahan was absolutely delightful.

And, Janiece Kelley-Kiteley’s choreography sparkles. The tap routines in “Anything Goes” and the show stopping “Blow, Gabriel Blow” are gems.

The plot, if that’s what you’d like to call it, centers on the premise that boy falls in love with girl, girl’s mother arranges for a marriage to an older man on a cruise ship, boy stows away on the ship, boy wins girl after many twists and turns in the story.

Director Victoria Bussert has added just the right level of farce to the staging to insure that the laughs are present and the production moves right along. Her only stumble was the casting of Dominic Roberts as the show’s hero Billy Crocker. Roberts failed to develop a believable character, flatted in many of his songs and lacked the polish to appear opposite the likes of Carnahan and Donohoe. Others in the cast, however, are quite good. Jenn Goodson, a Marilyn Monroe look alike, sings and dances up a storm in “Buddy, Beware.” Brian Ogilivie is a standout dancer and Katherine Wilfong has a nice singing voice as does Marc Moritz.

The musical sounds and the technical aspects of the show were excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If ‘ANYTHING GOES’ is any indication of what’s to come, going to Carousel Dinner Theatre will give you a complete entertainment package...good food, in a wonderful setting, with an above average production.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Mama Mia (Playhouse Square Center)

'MAMA MIA' leaves 'em dancing and clapping in return visit

Saw ‘MAMMA MIA’ last time it was in Cleveland or in New York or Toronto and think you don’t want to see it again, because you don’t want to wipe out that great experience? Forget it! The touring production of ‘MAMMA MIA,’ which hit the State Theatre for a 2-week limited engagement, is every bit as good as any production you’ve seen before.

Haven’t seen the show? Well, you’d better get your dancing feet down to Playhouse Square because when this show hits the amateur circuit it isn’t going to be nearly as good. It’s just too difficult a show for lesser talents to undertake. The casting requires three middle-aged women who can sing, dance, act and do ‘60s girl group moves, and 3 dancing, singing and acting middle-aged men and a strong male dance chorus. ‘Taint easy to find that in community theatres.

If you’ve been living under a rock somewhere and don’t know what the ‘MAMMA MIA” mania is about you need a modern history music lesson. Here it is:

The place: Brighton, an English coastal town. The date: Saturday, April 6, 1974.

The event: The Eurovision Song Contest. The results: A Swedish group named ABBA was declared the winner.

ABBA, named after the first initial of the group’s member Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyndstad, has sold over 350 million records worldwide. Songs such as “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance On Me,” and “The Winner Takes It All” have become number one on top-ten lists.

Then, ABBA entered a new phase...the professional musical theatre. Playwright Catherine Johnson created a play consisting of three love stories: a young girl about to be married, her mother who has to confront her past, and an audience about to jump out of their seats with joy. The ideas came from the lyrics of ABBA’s songs. The musical incorporates 20 of ABBA’s best known songs including “SOS,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “The Name of the Game,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” and, of course, “Mamma Mia.”

This is not the first major hit to follow the “songs first, story line later” format. Lyricist Frank Loeser wrote the music for ‘GUYS AND DOLLS’ and then a dozen or more books writers attempted to put a story around it until Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows finally succeeded.

On April 6, 1999 MAMA MIA! opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in London. At the curtain call the audience rose and began singing and dancing in the aisles. The same thing happens nightly, even in staid Cleveland, Ohio.

The touring cast is wonderful. Lauren Mufson plays the lead role of Donna with talent, vitality and a powerful voice. Her side-kicks are hysterically and professionally portrayed by Lori Haley Fox and E. Faye Butler. The men in Donna’s life are all strongly portrayed by Michel Butler Murray, Bill Austin and Sam Carmichael, who has a wonderful singing voice. Though Sara Kramer, as Donna’s daughter has a pretty voice, it is thin in the higher registers and fades at times. Jared Zeus is adequate as her boyfriend. Gerard Salvador, as one of the islanders lights up the stage with his fantastic dancing.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If they’d let me come to all 16 performances of the present Cleveland run of ‘MAMA MIA’ I’d be there singing and dancing and clapping in the aisles during the curtain call! As the show says, “THANK YOU FOR THE MUSIC.”

Hot N Throbbing (convergence-continuum)

Convergence-continuum stays its course with 'HOT N THROBBING'

Convergence-continuum theatre has built its reputation by doing controversial, thought-provoking plays that most other theatres in this area wouldn’t touch. And, they tend to do them very well, especially when Clyde Simon is at the directing helm. Their newest staging, Paula Voegel’s ‘HOT N THROBBING’ is exactly this theatre’s cup of tea. It is somewhat abstract, appeals to a certain nitch audience, and fits well into its 50-seat venue.

‘Hot N Throbbing’ tells the story of a dysfunctional family fighting its way to destruction. Charlene, who writes women's erotica to support her 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, is both attracted to and repelled by her ex-husband Clyde, who can't seem to leave her alone despite a restraining order. The play also offers two other voices: a woman whose dialogue represents Charlene's inner thoughts and a man who represents a variety of characters, including the male part of Charlene and the fears that Clyde has instilled in her.

But the play’s purpose is more than what appears on the surface. In reality, the script delves into the connections between sex, power and domestic abuse. As the director of a recent production in Washington, DC comments, "This is a dangerous and exciting play that is both screamingly funny and deeply devastating.”

Even the title evokes comments. The DC director stated, "I think that the title is a comment on the relationship between sex and violence and how we are very mixed up about those two topics in our society. We love to be titillated, but we chastise those who titillate us. We have one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, sex industries in the world, and the highest level of violence. I think that Paula Vogel wants us to go through that twist, to hear the title and get kind of excited, giggly, and then to realize that it is a play about domestic violence."

Vogel has been accused of being a cerebral and inaccessable writer. ‘HOT N THROBBIN’ is that. But, it does give one a chance to think, and that’s a purpose that most theatrical pieces don’t do.

The convergence-continuum has a strong cast who clearly understand their roles. Times Tribute Award winner Lucy Bredeson-Smith, who doesn’t know how to be ineffective on a stage, has the right tone and and gives a multi-textured performance as Charlene. John Regan’s Clyde is just too slimy for words. He is appropriately unkempt, pathetic and obnoxious. Geoffrey Hoffman’s slouching, slumping, geeky peformance is right on key. Though Jovanna Batkovic isn’t always believable, she pulls off the part of the teenage rebellious Leslie Ann. Sheila O’Toole, especially when she is acting out scenes from Charlene’s writing, is excellent. Cliff Baily is inconsistent as the male voice.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The question that winds its way through every scene in ‘HOT N THROBBING’ seems to be, “What happened to the human elements of tenderness, affection and a shared experience?” You won’t get the answers in the convergence-continuum production, but you will continue to think about possible answers long after you’ve left the theatre.