Friday, September 24, 2004

Cats (Carousel Dinner Theatre)

‘CATS’ acceptable, but less than purr-fection at Carousel

During the Smithsonian Museum’s symposium ,“The Actor’s Role in the Musical,” an original cast member of the New York production of ‘CATS’ was asked why the show with no plot and few memorable songs had become the longest running musical in Broadway history. His response centered on the belief that the audience became so entranced by each actor “becoming” the cat he or she was portraying, that the viewers were transported into the world of cats. He went on to say that the costumes and the makeup were also important elements.

It’s too bad that Marc Robin, the director and choreographer and costumer Dale Dobermardo of the production of ‘CATS’ at Carousel Dinner Theatre didn’t attend that lecture. Though Carousel’s production is perfectly acceptable the show lacks the magic needed to transform it into a wonderful experience.

Cats are amazing creatures. Each breed is distinct. Each cat has a personality all its own. They are independent beings, refusing to be trained. In order to transform this onto the stage, each actor must transmute him or herself into a particular cat. A Siamese is different from a Persian who is different from an alley cat. As audience members we must instinctively gain that from the actions of the performers. They must remain in that mind-set for the entire show, not just when they are solo performing. In a well-honed production of ‘CATS’ you should always believe that you are in the presence of a welter of individual cats. Unfortunately, this was not true in the Carousel production. The twitches, the back arches, the posturing, and the face cleaning came and went.

The Carousel cats are dressed in representative costumes. No one will believe they are actually cats. Even identifying the breed becomes difficult. Too bad. It was another missed opportunity to help capture the audience.

‘CATS’ has no plot, per se. It is a series of vignettes based on T. S. Eliot’s “OLD POSSUM’S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS.” Act I starts. It is midnight...not a sound from the pavement. An explosion of lights and music fills the theatre, revealing an abandoned tire plant. One by one, the curious cats emerge. Tonight is the one special night each year when the tribe of Jellicle Cats reunites to celebrate who they are. But the cats are not alone. Humans (the audience) are present in the cats' private world. The cats are at first reluctant and suspicious to include others in their domain. Gradually, the cats not only sing to the audience, but prowl into their presence. The Jellicle Ball allows the humans to gain an understanding of the various types of cats and their habits.

The only song from the show that has become well known is the haunting“Memory,” though “Old Deuteronomy” and “Mr. Mistoffelees” should sound familiar.

Production highlights include “The Old Gumbie Cat” and its nicely performed tap dancing, and the reprise of “Memory” which is well sung by Molly A. Curry and Christine Mild.

The actors in the Carousel production are young, enthusiastic and generally acceptable, but none are standouts. Many sing words, not meanings. Since they are presenting poetry and the words carry the entire understanding of the show, this is a major faux pas. The strongest singing performances were those by Kate Fahrner, Stephanie Youell, Emily Loftiss, Christine Mild and Molly Curry. Dancing highlights were presented by Johnathan Owen and Ben Franklin.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Carousel’s ‘CATS’ is an acceptable presentation. Most audience members will be positively impressed. If, however, the director was willing to spend time teaching total characterization and the need to interpret lyrics, and some adjustments were made in costuming, this could be an excellent production.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Jack Wingett reviews the reviewer

Roy...thanks (once again) for a delightful review of Our Town....I thought that I knew the play and always find new info., thanks to you....I was particularly interested in the Harlowe Hoyt quote...I researched Hoyt and he was my dissertation topic at Kent State when they had Ph.D.
program...Thanks again...

Jack Wingett, Baldwin Wallace College

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

By Jeeves (Beck Center)

‘BY JEEVES’ fun, fun, fun at Beck

Sometimes it’s good to go to the theatre and just smile, laugh, even howl. If that’s what you are in the mood for, rush right over to Beck Center to see their creatively staged and well-performed ‘BY JEEVES.’

The musical ‘BY JEEVES’ has had a checkered past. Alan Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber of “Phantom of the Opera” fame, first wrote the musical in 1975. It became the only flop on either's record at that time. They served up a fully revised version in London 20 years later, after both had reached theatrical stardom. In 1996 it arrived on Broadway after some out of town tryouts, but fell flat.

In reality, it’s not surprising that the show doesn’t work well in a traditional professional setting. The script calls for a small, intimate space. Broadway and London theatres tend to be large. But the Beck Center is a cozy British musical hall size setting that is absolutely perfect for the work.

Another requirement for the script is an understanding of farce. Americans, in general, don’t do farce well. But, again, Beck has a plus going for it. Director Michael Rogaliner has a feel for the pacing of farce which he has conveyed to the cast.

Based on characters created by P. G. Wodehouse, the plot is a convoluted musical within a musical. Basically, the story centers on Bertie being invited to play his banjo at a church fund-raiser. Just before the concert is to begin, it's discovered the instrument has been stolen. To stall for time until a new one can be obtained, the audience has to be pacified. Out of his desperation -- and Jeeves' inspiration --a tale of mistaken identity, thwarted romance and the triumph of true love is portrayed. It all builds up to a finale with the entire cast dressed as characters from "The Wizard of Oz." Yes, Dorothy, the yellow brick wall, the scare crow. Honest. Would I make this up?

The show depends on the audience not only believing what is going on, but being swept up in the ridiculousness. Feigning doesn’t work well with farce, reality does. Again, Beck wins here. Dana Hart makes for a fine Jeeves. He plays the master manipulator with proper aloofness. He also sings well.

Larry Nehring plays the role of Bertie with a Danny Kaye flair. He not only looks and sounds like Kaye, but uses his face in very Kaye-like ways.

The rest of the cast is equal to the challenge. The production skips right along, carrying a giggling audience right with them.

Lloyd Webber's music is well played by a small orchestra led by musical director Larry Goodpaster. Those used to Webber’s plush musical sounds might be surprised by the fun, cute, clever, hokey music in this show. How can a musical with songs entitled, “It’s a Pig,” “The Hallo Song” and “Travel Hopefully” not be a delight?

Don McBride’s scenic design doesn’t add much to the proceedings but Jeffrey Smart’s costumes are fine.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: How can a show that is based on the broadest of British farce, formulated by a director who has a total understanding the format, and has a talented cast that has perfect timing, not be fun? ‘BY JEEVES’ is a go see by jove!

Monday, September 20, 2004

Our Town (Ensemble)

Classical 'OUR TOWN' shines at Ensemble

I was once asked what was my favorite play. My mind scrolled through ‘DEATH OF A SALESMAN,’ ‘GLASS MENAGERIE,’ ‘DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, and ‘AH, WILDERNESS.’ But, when my mouth opened the response was ‘OUR TOWN.’ ‘OUR TOWN,’ Thornton Wilder’s brilliant play which has become one of the most performed and studied plays in the English language and garnered the author the coveted Pulitzer Prize as the best play of the 1938 season.

On the surface the play appears to be a rendition of the daily activities found in small town America in the first third of the twentieth century. In reality, it is a tribute to basic humanistic views of life. Each time I see, direct, teach or have appeared in the play I bask in the after-glow and find myself a better person.

Wilder, who was brought up in Hong Kong and China, was imbued with the Asian perfectionist attitude. His education at Oberlin and Yale centered on the classics. These influences are deeply imbedded into the ‘OUR TOWN’ script. The stage manager represents the classical Greek chorus and the guide in Asian theatrical forms. The direct speeches to the audience create a theatricalism that stops the viewers from transferring their thoughts to the play’s characters and focuses their thoughts on themselves. He is exact in his descriptions of the sun rising and setting and where stores and houses are placed on the stage.

Interestingly, the exactness is misleading. Wilder states that Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, where the play takes place, is located at 42 degrees, 40 minutes latitude and 70 degrees, 37 minutes. Exact? Hardly. That would place the city somewhere in the middle of the Arctic Belt. In another scene, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs are stringing beans. Sorry, but beans don’t grow in New Hampshire in May. Why does Wilder do this? He wants the play to carry a universal message. This is not about the existence of those in Grover’s Corners, it is about all of us, all of our lives.

‘OUR TOWN’ appears to be so simple to stage because it requires almost no props or sets. What a good production requires is adherence to Wilder’s brilliant words, and that is often difficult for some theatres.

Ensemble Theatre, which has grown so much in its transition to the Cleveland Play House setting, has produced another winner with their version of ‘OUR TOWN.’ With the exception of her decision to combine acts two and three and some questionable use of accents, director Lucia Colombi displays a fine understanding of the play.

Wilder divided the play into three segments, each with a clear title: Act I: Daily Life, Act II: Love and Marriage and Act II: Death. He did this with purpose. Why Colombi decided to wipe out the emotional bridge from love and marriage to death, is inconceivable. In addition, consistent accents are mandatory in order to maintain the finite development of the script. These are people who lived their entire lives in the same place. Their sound much be a consistent New England twang.

The Ensemble cast is generally excellent. Ron Newell is wonderful as the Stage Manager. His easy attitude and New England practicality come through loud and clear. In major roles, Julia Kolibab as Mrs. Webb, Tom Kondilas as George Biggs, Robert Hawkes as Dr. Biggs, and Ron Miller, as Mr. Webb are rock solid. Unfortunately, Valerie Young’s Kathryn Hepburn imitation distracted from the reality of Mrs. Webb.

Bernadette Clemens seemed too old and aloof as the young Emily of Act I, but she grew beautifully into the role as the play developed. Her “goodbye to life” speech in the third act was superlative. How can anyone not be touched by her plaintiff question, “Do people ever really appreciate life when they’re living it?” Or, the answer, “Some, saints and poets, maybe.”

Harlowe R. Hoyt, in his review of a production of ‘OUR TOWN’ at the Jewish Community Center, stated in the April 25, 1958 Plain Dealer, “The burgeoning of love at the soda fountain between Ilene Latter and Roy Berko is one of the most delightful scenes of the play.” Of Tom Kondilas and Bernadette Clemens enactment of the same scene I say, “ditto!”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you’ve never seen ‘OUR TOWN,’ or if you need a good shot of appreciation for life, go see the Ensemble production. You won’t be sorry!

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Ears on a Beatle (Dobama)

Dobama's 'EARS ON A BEATLE' fascinating glimpse at history

Jon Wiener, a professor of History at the University of California, spent 14
years fighting to gain access to the FBI's secret files on John Lennon. These are the files that inspired Mark St. Germain to write the play ‘EARS ON A BEATLE,’ now on stage at Dobama Theatre.

First produced in 2003 as part of the Berkshire Festival, it received its Off-Broadway premiere in March of this year. Ironically, it stared Dan Lauria of TV’s “The Wonder Years” fame who is presently appearing at The Cleveland Play House in “LEADING LADIES.”

The play is a dark comedy that follows two surveillance agents assigned to monitor the personal, professional and political activities of former Beatle, band member and anti war activist John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono during the 1970s.

Though not truly a docudrama, as St. Germain plays somewhat loosely with facts and adds devices to develop his plot, it encourages much thought About the role of government intrusion into our lives, and how facts can be manipulated. It inspires thoughts about assassinations, plots and playing with the truth

The story centers on two agents, Howard Ballantine (Joel Hammer) a disillusioned cynic and Daniel McClure (Andrew Tarr) an eager neophyte who is the son of a Viet Nam army officer. The author has fashioned his two protagonists as a couple of ordinary guys dealing with relationship troubles and other everyday concerns. As they proceed with their job of watching, documenting, and reporting on the life of someone else, one asks the other whether he ever feels that he's not really living his own life. Often they are not, but are instead bystanders to history, unable to effect change even when they want to do so. This is evidenced when, as McClure becomes disillusioned and asks, “What is my job? Just digging deeper and deeper into people until I find the worst in them?

Though the script is too formulaic, St. Germain has some sharp observations on the conspiracy theories and the failure of idealism. He does a nice job of blending the melodramatic with the dramatic and with the humorous, and develops characters that give the play’s director, Charles Kartali, a chance to use his creativity and the actors’ talents to develop interesting characters.

‘EARS ON A BEATLE’ is not a docudrama; rather, St. Germain focuses on the questions that plague the national imagination in relation to the assassinations of world leaders and celebrities from Kennedy to Lennon. It asks where you draw the line between coincidence and conspiracy. The playwright suggests that even the characters may not know -- and, if they do, they're not telling each other.

Director Kartali has a grasp on the meaning of the script and helps develop the ideas. His staging, however, becomes a little chaotic by overuse of set changes. As much audience time is spent watching two very hard working stage hands move set pieces as participating in listening to lines. The stage hands deserved a curtain call as much as the actors.

Richard Ingraham has done a wonderful job of patching together the complicated sound design which blends together music, voice-overs, and segments from historical speeches and media performances.

Joel Hammer is excellent as Ballantine. He is consistent in his characterization. His cynicism, his walking the fine line between blind political loyalty and realistic frustration is finely developed. Andrew Tarr, who adds a nice naivety to his role, is acceptable as McClure, but does not have the acting depth to make the role totally believable. His characterization often waivers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Dobama’s ‘EARS ON A BEATLE’ is well worth seeing. As evidenced by the reactions of the opening night audience, the intermissionless play holds the audience's interest due to its compelling subject matter -- which includes some surprising revelations -- and a solid performance from Joel Hammer.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Importance of Being Earnest (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

Audience loves 'IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST' at GLTF, but...

Each director of a play enters into his production tasks with a philosophy. As Charles Fee, the Producing Artistic Director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival stated in his curtain speech on opening night of the company’s ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, “I tend to like the broad.” It is his directorial broadness that will either endear or turn you off to his interpretation of the Oscar Wilde masterpiece.

Fee pulls out all the gimmicks, shticks, and buffoonery he can invent to get the audience to laugh. He does this, in my opinion, at the expense of not letting Wilde’s wonderful words and ideas play for themselves. It’s a matter of interpretation and degree.

Too much of the pure brilliance of Wilde’s writing is lost in all the gimmickry. There is just too much begging for laughs. Holding books upside down, visual double takes, a bow-legged butler who looks like he has been riding a horse for too many years, over-blown entrance music, a handshake routine that appears to be taken from a Marx Brother movie, inconsistent’s just all too much for my take on Wilde. BUT, the audience loved it…they guffawed at all of the exaggerations. And, pleasing the audience is what Fee is about.

Oscar Wilde was considered to be a wild man in many ways. His life style, his writing style, his clothing style, his politics were all causes for gossip and clamor. The upper classes of Victorian England were taken aback by Oscar Wilde’s attacks on their frivolous way of life and meaningless existences. Since, as only Wilde could do, the plays were hysterically funny, and he had political connections, he got away with it.

Most critics agree that ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST’ is Wilde at his best. His tongue is sharp and his quills piercing as he attacks French drama, the British upper-class, honesty, education, relatives, dentists, newspapers, names, truth, Australia, vegetarians and even the writing of fiction.

The play centers on a suitcase, two men named Earnest, who aren’t named Earnest at all, a cigarette case, an imaginary brother, and the mysterious Bunbury.

Many theatre experts believe that in farce, the characters need to be so real that we laugh with them as they find themselves in improbable situations and at them as they mumble through to the overdrawn conclusion. In Fee’s rendition, the characters become caricatures.

The GLTF cast is generally good, but there is inconsistency. Douglas Frederick as John (Earnest) Worthing, is right on. He looks, acts and is believable in his role. On the other hand, David Anthony Smith as Algernon (Earnest), John’s friend/brother, appears too old for the role and charges through the part like a bull in a china shop. Wayne Turney is delightful as the Reverend as is Nan Wray as Miss Prism, the tutor. Aled Davies, playing Lady Bracknell in drag, has some fine moments, but, in general, he/she throws lines to the wind while overdoing the role. She comes across closer to Edna in HAIRSPRAY than Lady Bracknell. The usually hysterical scene where she interviews John as a potential husband for her daughter, became a police interrogation. Again, a device for laughs rather than letting Wilde’s humor come through. Laura Perrotta makes for a wonderful Gwendolen, texturing the role perfectly. On the other hand, Kelly Sullivan’s Cecily comes across as an airhead. The fact that her English accent comes and goes does not help.

Gage Williams’ sets, Kim Krumm Sorenson’s costumes and Rick Martin’s lighting design are all excellent and add the right era-correct feel to the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Judging by the opening night audience, most of those who go to see GLFT’s ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST’ will love it. Those of us who like Wilde “au naturale” will leave somewhat frustrated.

Side note: For teachers of school groups who will attending ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST’ be advised that the director has prepared an excellent teacher preparation guide. It can be obtained by contacting the theatre.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Leading Ladies (Cleveland Play House)

Hysterically funny 'LEADING LADIES' at Cleveland Play House

Few contemporary authors are experts in writing farce. Ken Ludwig is not one of those. The two-time Tony Award nominee and recipient of the Laurence Olivier Award for playwriting has proven his abilities as the author of ‘LEND ME A TENOR’ “SULLIVAN & GILBERT” and “MOON OVER BUFFALO.’ ‘LEND ME A TENOR’ is one of the most popular comedic pieces of the past decade and has received more than 200 productions worldwide.

Ludwig’s newest script, ‘LEADING LADIES’ is receiving its world premiere as the opening show of the Cleveland Play House’s 2004-2005 season. The script was workshopped last year as part of the Play House’s annual New Stage Festival of New Plays. In addition to having written the play, Ludwig is directing the CPH production.

On the surface writing, directing and performing in farce seems an easy task. There is usually little plot development, the characters are broadly crafted and bigger than life, and the performers just need to let loose and make the audience laugh. Anyone believing this myth has only to see a badly developed production to see how awful farce can be when poorly crafted and presented.

The difficulty with this theatrical form is that the characters must be real enough to be believable, but broad enough for the audience to both laugh with and at. The direction must let loose the creative, but be restricted enough to allow the author’s lines to be the center of the fun. If the show is too gimmicky, the audience loses the show and gets involved in the effects.

Ludwig, as writer and director of ‘LEADING LADIES,’ has found the perfect balance. The production is a total delight.

Basically, as the program notes indicate, “It’s 1955, in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, Jack and Leo are performing second-rate Shakespeare at a Moose Lodge...a nightmare gig for the two classically trained British actors. A chance encounter on a train leads to an opportunity to put themselves back on their feet and make some money in the process.”

Plot aside, just think of ‘LEADING LADIES’ as ‘SOME LIKE IT HOT’ collides with ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST’ and ‘CHARLIE’S AUNT.’

Ludwig has infused the production with just enough shtick, just enough creativity, just enough frenetic pace. He is blessed with an amazing cast. There is not a weak link in the acting chain.

Brent Barrett and Christopher Duva as Leo and Jack, are natural farce actors. They have mobile faces, a wonderful sense of timing, and each displays a delightful vulnerability. They are believable, yet unbelievable....a perfect combination..
Erin Dilly and Lacey Kohl as Leo and Jack’s love interests are wonderful. Dilly shines as the beautiful Meg. Kohl, a Judy Holliday-look and act alike comedian, is the quintessential Ado Annie of ‘OKLAHOMA’ and Adelaide of ‘GUYS AND DOLLS.’
A signature device of many farces is the bad or overbearing character...think Lady Bracknell in ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST.” Mark Jacoby, is great as the bad guy minister, who evokes the audience to want to “boo” when he makes his entrances.

Dan Lauria, who many will remember as the father on the TV hit series, ‘THE WONDER YEARS,’ makes a perfect foil for Jane Connell, as the aged aunt, who the audience will immediately recognize for her many appearances as a daft old lady in numerous television shows. Connell’s hysterically funny “death” scene is a theatrical “must see.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you want to laugh, to enjoy yourself and leave the “real world” outside, the Cleveland Play House’s ‘LEADING LADIES’ is your thing. This is not a play for those who need a profound message, who have no sense of humor, whose favorite line is “Bah, humbug.” I defy anyone to sit through ‘LEADING LADIES’ and not have a wonderful time! As one patron said as she departed the theatre, “I laughed so hard I think I wet my undies.”