Sunday, March 27, 2005

Restoring the Sun (Cleveland Play House)

‘RESTORING THE SUN’ in world premiere at CPH

On March 23, 1989, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced their discovery of "cold fusion." It was the most heavily hyped science story of the decade, but the awed excitement quickly evaporated amid accusations of fraud and lack of a provable scientific process. When it was over, Pons and Fleischmann were humiliated, their reputations ruined, and they dropped out of sight. "Cold fusion" and "hoax" became synonymous.

Despite the scandal, laboratories in at least eight countries are still spending millions on cold fusion research. This work has yielded a huge body of evidence, which has remained virtually unknown because most academic journals adamantly refuse to publish papers on the subject. According to many scientists, cold fusion, the process that would eliminate the world’s dependence on oil and other fossil fuels for energy, remains a colossal conspiracy of denial.

Playwright Joe Sutton seized upon the Pons/Fleischmann/Cold Fusion story and has developed it into a play which is receiving its world premiere at the Cleveland Play House. The script, which was featured in last season’s “Next Stage Festival of New Plays,” was originally commissioned and developed by The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science and Technology Project.

The subject is fascinating, the play is not. That is not to say audiences will be bored. They won’t. The subject matter insures that the viewer is going to be interested. It is just that the script needs work, especially when comparing it to ‘COPENHAGEN,’ another story of scientists which is tightly written and lends itself to a strong performance, such as that at Actors’ Summit last season.

The play’s dialogue is often forced and unnatural. In some cases, language is manipulated rather than being natural. For example, characters explain what they have just experienced to other characters who have also had the same experience. Also, in most plays we quickly learn the necessary character names and information about the situation. Not in this script. The exposition wanders throughout the entire first act. In addition, some of the staging devices are forced. People step in and out of scenes with no motivation, appearing in doorways for no reason, inserting themselves into conversations with no incentive.

Director Connie Grappo doesn’t help matters by pacing the production slowly . She also seems to have failed to probe deeply into character motivations with her cast.

Joseph Adams, who plays Professor Stevens, lacks cunning. Here is an unknown academician who hooks his star to an old, but respected scientific researcher in order to gain notoriety, but seems relaxed and unscrupulous throughout. Daniel Cantor, who portrays a public relations opportunist, stays on the surface, not revealing his underlying motivations. Keira Naughton, who portrays a journalist who is suspicious of the process, underplays the role to the degree that one wonders about her incentive. Stephen Bradbury is unconvincing as the University President who encourages the work of the two scientists. Only Geddeth Smith, as the old scientist who wants so much to make real his “pet theory,” is totally believable.

This is not to say the performances are bad, they aren’t. They just lack texturing and the nuances necessary to portray real people with real agendas. Part of this is caused by the script, part of it is the directing.

Side note: As has happened with most of the productions in the poorly conceived Baxter Theatre, ‘RESTORING THE SUN’ isn’t aided by the configuration. It can only be hoped that new CPH Artistic Director Michael Bloom will recognize the folly of the space and not use it in the future.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The Cleveland Play House should be applauded for producing a new play. It should also be applauded for presenting a vehicle which probes a fascinating topic. Unfortunately, neither the script nor the production live up to their potential.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

On the Town (Beck Center)

‘ON THE TOWN’ gets lost at Beck

‘ON THE TOWN,’ the production now on stage at Beck Center, is a musical-comedy extension of ‘FANCY-FREE,’ a ballet with choreography by Jerome Robbins and music by Leonard Bernstein.

Like ‘FANCY FREE,’ ‘ON THE TOWN’ tells the story of three sailors during World War II and their amorous adventures on a 24-hour shore leave in the Big Apple (”New York, New York”), but expands the development of the characters and comic situations.

This show introduced to Broadway two creative geniuses who would make vast contributions to the American musical theatre. This was Leonard Bernstein's first musical theatre score and Jerome Robbins' first assignment as choreographer in musical comedy. It also opened the door for two other soon-to-be-Broadway heavyweights-- Betty Comden and Adolph Green. When it opened on Broadway in 1944 ‘ON THE TOWN’ was an instant hit and ran for 436 performances.

Interestingly, when MGM acquired the film rights Louis B. Mayer, the studio’s chief executive disliked Bernstein's score so much that he replaced almost all of it. If you see the movie and stage versions you will find two different scores. The movie, which went on to win an Academy Award, starred Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Jules Munshin,
Ann Miller and Judy Holliday.

The New York Times called the stage version, "One of the freshest musicals to come into town in a long time." The review went on to say that “Its breathless pace and feeling of excitement was maintained from opening curtain to the finale.”

Unfortunately, in the Beck version, the breathless pace, the feelings of excitement and the wackiness are generally missing. After staging super hits like RAGTIME and MAN OF LA MANCHA at JCC, Fred Sternfeld, one of the areas best musical theatre directors, seems to have lost his way in this show. He decided to use shticks and gimmicks to help develop the delight of the show instead of using the natural aspects of the show. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work.

Part of the problem isn’t Sternfeld’s. ‘ON THE TOWN’ is a dated show. To make the production work, it needs a cast who understands the movement, the speech and the dance styles of the1940s. Sternfeld’s assemblage, which consists mainly of teenagers, just can’t place themselves in that era.

In addition, this is a dance show. It requires that almost everyone in the cast be a superb dancer. Choreographer Martin Cespedes does his usual creative job of staging the movements. But, even the talented Cespedes can’t make dancers out of a cast, many of who whom aren’t dancers. Some of the numbers look rag-tag with the performers trying their best but not always succeeding.

To add to the difficulty is Bernstein’s music. The score is hard to play and harder to sing. The musicians, under the direction of Larry Goodpaster, needed to have a big band sound. They, as with the cast, try hard, but there is a “little” sound rather than the fullness of the music of the era. Vocally, the choral sounds, a key to success with Bernstein, were often missing appropriate blendings.

Colin Cook sparkles as Chip, the sailor who only wants to see the sights. The scene (“Come Up to My Place”) in which he is seduced by a female cab driver (Amiee Collier) was delightful. He sings well and has a clear concept of his role.

Sean Szaller is properly gawky as Gabey, complete with farm boy charm. Joseph Fronadel, as the hopping-hormoned Ozzie misses the mark on several levels. He lacks the acting polish and the vocal talents to pull off the role.

Katelyn Blockinger dances and sings well, but lacks the acting depth needed to pull off the role of Ivy, Gabey’s love interest. Maggie Stahl never develops a consistent characterization at Clair De Loone. There should be a Judy Holliday daffiness to the role. Paul Floriano, the production’s only Actors Equity performer, is fine, but seems wasted in a small role.

Abram Hegewald and Linda Mementowski are wonderful in a classical ballet segment which comes directly from ‘FANCY FREE.’ These are two talented kids!

All is not lost. The opening night audience was seemingly enthralled. The two high school kids sitting next to me applauded and laughed consistently and were amazed by “the awesome dancing” and the “unbelievable talent of my friends in the cast.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘ON THE TOWN’ is a dated and very difficult show to stage. In spite of a valiant effort, the Beck cast simply isn’t up to the task.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Beauty And The Beast - Carousel Dinner Theater

'BEAUTY AND THE BEAST' at CAROUSEL more beauty than beast, but...

'DISNEY'S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST,' which is now on stage at Carousel Dinner Theatre, tells a "tale as old as time." It was originally conceived as a story in 1740. It was a tedious, dark and scary tale which in 1756 was later transformed into the popular version. In 1992 Disney released a version of the story which became the first animated feature to be nominated for the Academy Award's Best Picture. (It lost to 'THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.') In 1994 Disney transformed the script into an award winning Broadway musical which is now the sixth longest-running show in Broadway history. The show has been in presented in15 countries and in translated into 7 languages. It is estimated that over 24 million people have seen the live version of the show.

The story concerns a prince who, because he has no love in his heart, is transformed into a hideous beast by an enchantress. To break the spell, the Beast must learn to love another and earn their love in return. If not, he will be doomed to remain a beast for all time.

Of course, as in all fairy tales there has to be a happy ending, so enter Belle, a beautiful young woman who lives with her eccentric father in a small town near the Beast's castle. Belle longs for a life of adventure like those that she reads of in her books. Her father gets lost in the woods and wanders into the Beast's castle, where he is imprisoned. Upon finding her father in the Beast's clutches, Belle offers herself to the Beast in return for the release of her father. And...well, you can guess the rest. Yes, the Beast learns kindness and love, it is reciprocated by Belle, and we all go out of the theatre singing the likes of "If I Can't Love Her," "A Change in Me," "Be Our Guest," and the title song, "Beauty and the Beast."

Carousel's production, under the direction of Marc Robin, has some shining moments, but fails to create the potential magic of the show. Part of the problem lies with Robin's direction. As in Carousel's 'CATS,' early in this season, he fails to imbue in some of his cast members the necessity to "be" the characters they portray instead of feigning the characterizations. He also paces the show in a meandering pattern. It lacks vitality. His choreography also fails to light up the stage.

The show lacks polish. This may be because, as one member of the cast indicated, "We only had five days of rehearsal before we opened." He said this in wonderment that the production was able to get staged in such a short period of time. I would hope as the production runs, it might meld better.

Another factor in the lack of sparkle is the restriction placed on Carousel by Disney and Music Theatre International, which own the rights to the show. The theatre is not permitted to copy the original Broadway or animated feature designs. Because of this the images which audience members are used to are missing. As good as Dale DiBernardo's costume designs are, there is a visual element missing. Robert Kovach's set designs don't help the matter. They tend to lack creativity and sometimes cause staging problems.

The performance qualities vary greatly. Julia Krohn is a charming Belle. Even though she was sick on reviewer night, her voice still was excellent. She light up the stage. Curt Dale Clark sings the role of the Beast well, though in the early scenes his Beast was not menacing enough.

James Patterson is delightful as Lumiere, the candlesticks. The fact that he has played the role on Broadway and in the touring company shows. John Reeger is wonderful as Cogsworth, the clock, as is Paula Scrofano as Mrs. Potts. Another performance highlight is that of Benjamin Brooks Cohen as the much maligned, punched and tossed LeFou though he often slips into a characture rather than being the character. By overdoing the slapstick he draws away from the delight and we laugh at him rather than with him. As the dresser, Arlene Robertson is delightful.

On the other hand, Matt Stokes feigns the role of Gaston, Belle's boorish muscle-bound suitor. He, of bad wig, is all shticks and gimmicks and no characterization. He dances poorly and his lines lack believability.

The dancing, with few exceptions, is weak. There were times when it actually looked like they were counting their steps. The male chorus lacked the necessary vocal dynamics.Capsule Judgment Carousel's 'BEAUTY AND THE BEAST' isn't a bad show, it just lacks polish, dynamism and the special quality that makes the movie and Broadway productions so wonderful.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Herbal Bed - Actors' Summit

Fine production of 'THE HERBAL BED' at Actors' Summit

Did you know that William Shakespeare had a daughter named Susanna who sued a man who had slandered her? Were you aware that Shakespeare's son-in-law, Dr. John Hall, was responsible for developing a proper treatment for scurvy? Well, these and many other revelations unravel in Peter Whelan's THE HERBAL BED, now on stage at Actors' Summit.

History recounts that in June of 1613 Shakespeare's elder daughter, Susanna, was publicly accused of having a sexual liaison with a married neighbor, Rafe Smith, as well as having a sexually transmitted disease. On July 15th she sued Jack Lane, the tale teller, for slander in the court of Worcester Cathedral. Lane, a well-born but dissipated young student of Dr. Hall's was upset because of his rejection by both the wife and the doctor and while drunk poured forth the gossip. Susanna's husband, desperate to clear her name and protect his practice, gives her his full support. Arching over all of this is the truth that the neighbor was seen secretly leaving their herbal garden one night when the doctor was on a call.

The title of the piece refers to the fact that John Hall, is a physician whose practice, according to the knowledge of the age, relied on herbal medicines grown in his home garden. The "bed," in 'THE HERBAL BED' therefore, has a double meaning - sexual and horticultural.

The script has been described as "a gripping play, written with a kind of fiery calm, ...a love story, a courtroom drama and a moral thriller, " "...a scrupulously crafted work, thoughtful, often funny, moving and always engrossing," and "A first rate drama with interesting moral issues of truth and expediency." On the other hand, it was also reviewed in more negative terms, "If the prospect of sitting through a play loaded with ...moral philosophy seems unbearably dull to you, you're probably a lot like most people."

The Actors' Summit production is excellent. Though much of the play is low-keyed, it is none-the-less compelling. The love scene between Sally Groth (Susanna) and Nick Koesters (Rafe) is finely tuned and emotionally compelling. Interestingly, in other productions, the scene contained nudity. In the AS production, though Koesters loses his shirt, Groth remains totally clothed. The implied interaction is as strong as if a costume malfunction had taken place and may be even stronger as the audience is unsure of what really did happen that fateful night. And, the final line of the play (which will not be revealed here for sake of ruining the ending of the production) was so cleverly written and so well-delivered by Jen Clifford, portraying a servant, that the audience chuckled all through the curtain call.

A. Neil Thackaberry's directing was on target. The slow pace, clearly developed emotional keying and avoiding forced English accents all worked well.

The cast is generally excellent. Alex Cikra was properly stiff, pious and priggish as Dr. Hall. Groth was exceptional as Susanna. She showed the character to be intelligent, forceful and sensual. Nick Keosters' Rafe was clearly emotionally tortured and love struck while being emotionally conflicted. Jen Clifford was delightful as the servant. William Frederick's portrayal of Bishop Parry was fine.

No one plays pompous better than Thackaberry, who not only directed but portrayed the holier-than-thou Vicar-General. Young Erica DeRoche made for a sweet Elizabeth, the Hall's young daughter.

Only Scott Shriner failed to live up to the rest of the cast. Jack Lane, the accused slanderer, must be coarse and amoral. He must be loathsomely melodramatic yet realistic villain. Unfortunately, Shriner lacked the depth of role development and played the character rather than being the person.

Side note: Often at the conclusion of historical films there are statements concerning what happened to the characters following the ending of the script. As I drove home I was wondering, What really happened between Susanna and Rafe? Was Jack Lane telling the truth or simply a resentful lie? What was the underlying nature of Susanna's relationship with her husband, and with Jack Lane himself? A quick on-line search didn't give me any answers! Oh well....

Capsule Judgment Interested in a history lesson? Want an evening of philosophical drama with low key intrigue? Want to see some fine performances? If so, see 'THE HERBAL GARDEN' at Actors' Summit

Araca Group (Feature Story)

Broadway's ARACA GROUP makes their homewtown proud

Twenty years ago years ago while was I directing ‘THE MUSIC MAN’ at Huntington Playhouse three young men, Matt Rego, Michael Rego and Hank Unger were involved in the production. Little did I realize that they would someday be the “wunderkinds” of Broadway producers.

Today, the three make up the Araca Group, an independent production company that has been responsible for on-Broadway productions of ‘WICKED,’ ‘URINETOWN THE MUSICAL,’ ‘’FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE,’ ‘MATCH,’ ‘NIGHT MOTHER,’ and ‘THE GOOD BODY.’ Their off-Broadway shows include ‘DEBBIE DOES DALLAS,’ ‘THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES,’ ‘THE LARAMIE PROJECT,’ and ‘SKYSCRAPER.’ That would be a career total for most producers, but Araca achieved this in 8 years. Not bad for three guys who range in age from 34 to 36.

Matt and Michael, who are from Rocky River, are members of the family who founded the Rego supermarket chain. Matt graduated from the Western Reserve Academy in 1988. Mike is an ‘86 St. Ignatius grad. Unger went through the Bay Village schools and graduated in 1986.

They all got their theatre shoes wet at the Beck Center’s Children’s School. They also appeared on stage at Lakewood Little Theatre, Berea Summer Theatre, Huntington Playhouse, and Bay, Magnificat and St. Ignatius High Schools.

The Araca Group’s name is not a series of secret letters. It was the surname of the Rego’ s grandfather, Charlie, a Sicilian immigrant. Like the trio he was a gambler who parlayed $300, which he won in a game of craps, into a supermarket chain. The young men are not only gamblers, but have lots of guts. With limited initial success for their theatrical ventures, they continue to plot and plan and have succeeded beyond normal expectations.

I recently did a telephone interview with Unger from his New York office. We covered the trios past hits, present activities and future aspirations.

‘WICKED,’ their most recent smash hit is still running on Broadway. It is the untold story of the witches of Oz, made famous in ‘THE WIZARD OF OZ.’ It features music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (‘GODSPELL,’ ‘PIPPIN,’ Academy Award winner for ‘POCAHONTAS’ and ‘THE PRINCE OF EGYPT’) and book by Winnie Holzman (TV’s ‘MY SO CALLED LIFE,’ ‘ONCE AND AGAIN’ and ‘THIRTYSOMETHING’). ‘WICKED’ is directed by 2003 and 2004 Tony Award winner Joe Mantello.

According to Unger, ‘WICKED’ is “the first musical in many years that was born on Broadway.” He also indicated that, “The longer it runs the longer people want to see it.” It has a 30-million dollar advance sale so it appears that this is going to be a long running show in the Big Apple. The touring production is in a sold-out run in Toronto. It will then go to Chicago, where “tickets sales are also excellent,” and then to LA.

Is Cleveland on the ‘WICKED’ tour? Contracts haven’t been signed, but “hopefully it will appear on the North Coast sometime in 2006.”

Since ‘WICKED’ opened, ARACA has produced Eve Ensler’s ‘THE GOOD BODY,’ which had a short run. Ensler, who is the author of ‘VAGINA MONOLOGUES,’ is discussing a national tour. ‘NIGHT MOTHER,’ which starred Edie Falco, had a successful limited season run. Their show ‘MATCH’ ran last spring and “received good reviews.”

The ARACA team is working on a movie of ‘DEBBIE DOES DALLAS’ as well as a film version of ‘WICKED.’ They have several other projects under development.

As for their personal lives, Mike is getting married in the Fall, Matt is married, and Hank is “having a good time.” Most importantly, being well brought up midwestern guys, “We are trying to keep our lives in balance.”

Yes, in balance and yet streaking toward the head of the pack as successful Broadway producers, and making Clevelanders proud.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Peter Pan (Playhouse Square Center)

PETER PAN’ flies happily through the Palace Theatre

James Barrie’s Peter Pan character has had a long and prosperous life. He was the central character in a play which was published in 1904, adopted in 1912 into a book called “Peter and Wendy,” a musical in 1950, a Disney full-length animated film in 1953, a Sony feature film (entitled ‘HOOK’) in 1990, an A & E television production in 2000, a second Sony film in 2003 and ‘FINDING NEVERLAND,’ a 2004 film which starred Johnny Depp and was nominated for several Academy Awards. Peter was also the central character in a ballet, which received a fine local production by Ohio Ballet. He has even been the basis for The Peter Principal, a psychological theory regarding why certain men refuse to mature emotionally. That’s a long journey for a boy who refuses to grow up.

Peter has been portrayed on stage by the likes of Maude Adams, Marilyn Miller, Eva La Gallienne, Jean Arthur, Mary Martin, Sandy Duncan and most recently by Cathy Rigby. Interestingly, the role of Peter has not been played in a major production by a male.

Rigby, the former Olympic gold-medal gymnast, first appeared in the role in the 1988 national tour of the musical. She received a Tony nomination in 1991 for the Broadway 35th anniversary production of ‘PETER PAN.’ Interestingly, most people think of Rigby solely as an athlete, not knowing that she appeared in professional productions ‘SEUSSICAL THE MUSICAL,’ ‘ANNIE GET YOUR GUN,’ ‘MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS,’ ‘SOUTH PACIFIC, ‘PAINT YOUR WAGON,’ ‘THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG, and ‘THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN.’

A major question to ask is why Peter and his lost boys, his search for a mother, Tinker Bell, Nana the nursemaid dog, and Peter’s conflicts with Captain Hook has remained so continuously popular? Theories abound including that he speaks to each of us through spectacle and fantasy, especially the thrill of flying. He allows children and adults alike to live those fantasies about friendship, fighting the evil doers, and bonding to special people in our lives. It allows adults to rekindle the magic of when they were children and the roles they play in the lives of children. And, of course, in the musical versions we are there carried along by the wonderful songs and dancing.

Cathy Rigby and Peter Pan have almost become synonymous. In the minds of many, especially the younger generation, she is Peter Pan. Rigby has made the role into a family business. In the present touring production of the play, now on stage at the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square, not only Rigby, but her daughter, son, mother-in law, sister, brother, sister-in-law, nephew and husband are all part of the act.

It took nothing more than watching the children around me on opening night to experience anew the magic of the play. One little girl, all dressed up in her finest clothes, complete with black patent leather shoes and a frilly pink dress, sat on the edge of her seat through the whole production, smiling, jumping with glee, clapping loudly when Peter appealed to the “kids” in the audience “to believe” so that Tinker would be saved, booed loudly when Captain Hook appeared for the first time, and cheered when Captain Hook fell overboard. Two children sat perched on their father’s lap with their lobby-purchased telescopes securely attached to their eyes, watching each and every moment. No sleeping for these kids though it was close to 10 when we finally exited the theatre.

Rigby sings with gusto, the cast has a wonderful time singing and dancing to the fine music, the flying is still magical even though the wires are clearly seen. Rigby somersaults while suspended, swinging madly from side to side high above the heads of the audience. Howard McGillin is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful as Captain Hook, and Patrick Richwood is delightful as Mr. Smee, the bumbling pirate.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The sets and costumes are getting a little frayed from the long road tour, the production is getting a little stale, but the overall effect is magical. This is Rigby’s last appearance in the role, so if you and your children are ever to see the legend in action, this is it. It’s worth a trek through the snow to be entranced once again by Peter Pan.

American Ballet Theatre's 'Swan Lake' (Playhouse Square Center)

Americam Ballet Theatre pereforms 'SWAN LAKE' at State Theatre

‘SWAN LAKE,’ now on stage at Playhouse Square’s State Theatre, is among the most revered of classical ballets. Interestingly, the score and balletic components did not appear in a blaze of glory. Early recorded critical comments called the choreography “weak in the extreme” and “is this not torture?” The music was credited with being ‘undanceable’.

Even the exact origins of the ballet are uncertain. What has been gleaned reveals that ‘SWAN LAKE’ was Tchaikovsky’s first attempt at a composition for the art form. He was commissioned by the Russian Imperial Theatre in Moscow to write the score in 1875 for the sum of 800 rubles.

It is also known that the ‘SWAN LAKE’ most balletophiles have seen is not that which was originally performed. For example, The Petipa/Ivanov version of the ballet, which is considered the "standard" for its staging, was not created until after Tchaikovsky’s death. And, even many traditional features of the choreography, such as the beautiful White Swan pas de deux, are revisions of the Petipa/Ivanov version.

The story itself is of a prince finding his true love in the forest, finding out that she is cursed to remain a swan until a virginal prince saves her, how seduction and fate makes it impossible for the prince to break the spell, which leads to the lovers self-imposed death.

The swan connection centers on many legends about women who are turned into birds. The graceful swan was particularly favored as it is considered womanhood at its purest.

Tchaikovsky was not alone in picking a legend as the basis for his creation. According to modern psychologists the popularity of “love gone astray” legends may be based on the concept that when we are not loved as we need to be loved, we often survive the deprivation through fantasy, our own making or perhaps a more universal fantasy we share with other persons searching for acceptance and love. Tchaikovsky's "SWAN LAKE" fits this theory through a story of love searched for, love unrequited, and love's redeeming power.

The version of ‘SWAN LAKE’ being performed by ABT is that of its Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie based on the work of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. McKenzie’s conception incorporates much walking, posing and posturing encased in grandeur. It does not have the creativity or psychological impact of Matthew Bourne’s recent Broadway production, but it does satisfy those interested in seeing a “close to the original” version.

This is a stunning production. The costumes, the sets and the special effects are grandiose, all the way from the Monet-like lake scene on the front curtain, to the sun rising at the end of the production.

The first and second acts dragged. Though proficiently performed, the initial segments lacked passion and spark. But the orchestra and the company seemed to adopt to the stage and the third and fourth acts were excellent.

Julie Kent as Odette-Odile, the swan, after a less than inspired start, blossomed. She has wonderful body control, her point is strong, her fluttering swan-like moves accented her long, thin body. The only missing factor was facial expression to help us feel her angst, and the final frustration that led to her leap to death.

Jose Manuel Carreno failed to convey any true feelings as Prince Siegried. He spends too much time posing and posturing and feigning emotion. There were no signs of emotional connection between the Prince and Odette. He is handsome and a proficient dancer, but lacks the extra quality to make him a great dancer. In fact, he was outshone by Herman Cornejo portraying Benno, the prince’s friend. Cornejo’s leaps, which carried him well above the stage floor and his rapid flying leaps, were much superior to Carreno’s. Cornejo showed emotional involvement and joy in his dancing, traits missing from Carreno.

The Pas de Trois danced by Erica Cornejo, Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo was charming. The Act III dances of nations was a show highlight. Especially strong were the Czardas and the duet of Carlos Lopez and Craig Salstein.

Jesus Pastor was properly sensual and evil as von Rothbart, the evil sorcerer.

Note: The lead dancers in the various productions will change, so Kent and Carreno may not be the principles seen at other stagings.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: After a slow start on opening night the ABT staging of ‘SWAN LAKE’ proved why the company has its strong reputation. For those who are uninitiated in the ballet this is a good production to cut your eye teeth on. For the seasoned ballet attender it gives the opportunity to see a modification of the Petipa/Ivanov choreography.

Tom & Susana Evert (Museum of Contemporary Art)

Tom & Susana Evert

Since 1986, when Tom and Susana Evert founded their dance company, they have been enveloping their audiences with dance that fits their mission of "enlightening and energizing the human spirit through the creation and performance of original dance/theatre works." What the Everts do is not done by others. Theirs is a personal approach to movement based on their own backgrounds and physiques.

In their recent performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, they held the audience's attention with six varied pieces.

"Bliss/The Conversation," saw the beautiful Susana, dressed in a filmy, flowing gown, sprightfully move to pleasant music in a state of bliss. Then Tom entered in a monk like robe and the dynamics changed. They interacted without touching, then touched, parted, conflicted and combined as one. The segment was both athletic and powerful, if not sometimes overly dramatic.

"Ego Act" was a solo piece in its Cleveland premiere. It was both choreographed and danced by Tom. In the center of the stage, holding two huge rubber band-like pieces of material connected to the top and bottom of the walls on both sides of the stage, he was the fulcrum of two huge triangles. Moving creatively against the strength of the bands he contorted his body while stretching the material. He interwove his body while standing on, being surrounded by, and finally being encompassed by the fabric. The entire exhausting exercise was done to shrill fingernails-on-the-blackboard music which increased the tension of the experience.

'Once More...Not" found Susana on the floor clothed in combat boots, a flack helmet and fatigue pants. After several rounds of firing an imaginary rifle, to the sounds of music by The Mars Volta and Squarepusher, she took us through the throughs of death, the stripping off of her clothing of war, and dancing in an out of body experience with a strand of prayer beads.

"True Water" is a sensual composition in which Susana writhes nearly naked on a mat in the center of the dance space. She does not rise during the entire piece, using her torso, not her legs as her dance medium. Her beautiful body moved in time to the music creating a sexual energy that, as the program indicated, "is a discipline that should be mastered by means of a fully responsible solitary exercise, without the physical, emotional, mental and physical factors that are introduced by entering into sexual activity with another."

"Olivido" (Oblivion) was a short duet creation which conveyed an interaction between two ordinary hispanic people. It was the slightest of the offerings.

The evening ended with "Satsange" a dance set to the music of Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar. It was a segment filled with harmony and joyfulness. It creatively developed the meaning of "satsang," Sanskrit for, "true or right relationship" and brought a very interesting evening of dance to a purposeful close.

The evening may have been somewhat flawed by people sitting in the rear of the performance space as neither the seating nor the floor was raked, so those seated beyond the second row had difficulty seeing the on-the-floor actions. In the future, MOCA might consider using a portable raised platform similar to the one used by Danceworks in their performances.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Rounding Third (Cleveland Play House)

ROUNDING THIRD’ examines what's important in life through "guyspeak"

What’s the purpose of Little League baseball? Is the goal to win or to teach sportsmanship? Is it a game for the kids who play it or for the egos of the men who coach it? On the surface, these may be conceived as the queries that playwright Richard Dresser had in mind when writing ‘ROUNDING THIRD,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House.

The play premiered in Fall 2002 at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, IL. It then moved off Broadway where it ran for 24 previews and 72 regular performances.

In ‘ROUNDING THIRD’, Michael and Don are two sides of the same Little League coaching coin. They disagree about everything from the rules of the game to the rules of fatherhood to the rules of when to change socks. Don is a beat-‘em-at-all-costs kind of guy who is a veteran of many little league campaigns. Michael is a loner, unschooled in the game of baseball, who has a hidden-agenda behind why he volunteers to coach. Don's son, the star pitcher, is his perceived future, while Michael's son is someone with whom he wants to bond. The two men square off in a battle of differing philosophies, and the team is the inadvertent beneficiary of their confrontations.

The play was supposedly inspired when the author’s son Sam came home from Little League practice and announced that his coaches had provided the team with a new strategy for the upcoming play-offs. When one of the slower kids on the team got on base, he’d receive a signal which meant that upon reaching the next base, he should slide and pretend to be injured. That way, the coaches could take him out of the game and replace him with a faster runner. When Sam said, “Coach, isn’t that cheating?” the coach replied, “No, Sam, that’s called strategy.” This started Dresser down a path that first favored the thinking of Michael and later to embrace that of Don, and finally to a compromise. It’s the compromise with which the play concludes.

Besides the literal view, the play can be looked at at a different level. To do that you have to understand “guyspeak.” As linguists have ascertained, guys don't often talk about their feelings, at least not directly. They come at things sideways, with lots of euphemisms. So, if you listen between the lines of ‘ROUNDING THIRD’ you’ll hear what the characters are really saying to each other. They are talking about loyalty, meaning, and even love. These are repeated themes of ‘ROUNDING THIRD,’ assuming you understand “guyspeak.”

The Cleveland Play House production is directed by Jane Page, a woman. It may account for why there are times in the play when there is a feeling of “disconnect” to the interactions. They are paced and presented like women might speak, not guys. This is not to say Page’s direction is way off, but this play might have been better served by a male director who understood the communicative nuances.

The CPH cast is quite good. Michael David Edwards as Michael, effectively portrays the
good-natured guy who gives inspirational speeches to the kids, telling them to enjoy themselves because winning or losing is secondary to the learning experience. Edwards, who looks like a young Mike Nichols, is totally believable in his role. There is an absolutely endearing soliloquy near the end of the play--“please God let my son catch the fly ball.” Edwards nails it for a homerun.

Tony Campisi is good, but he isn’t as quite as Neanderthal as he might be. He barks commands in a less than terrifying manner, so while the lines show a total difference between the men, Campisi’s characterization makes the differences a little shallow. This may be the fault of a woman director interpreting guyspeak. This doesn’t mean the audience should hate Don for being a villain, but we have to clearly see a beer guzzling, lightly educated, “I’m an adult but Little League baseball is my entire life,” high school hero-gone-sour guy.

Bill Clarke’s set design, complete with a real van, works nicely. James C. Swonger’s choice of music is wonderful. From the time you enter the theatre, through scene changes and even after the show, you’ll hear baseball songs that you didn’t know existed. The use of Cleveland Indian’s announcer Tom Hamilton to do the “please turn off your pagers and cell phones” announcement was a wonderful idea. Why, however, was an announcement by New York’s Mel Allen used during the show? That’s not a wise choice in Indian territory!

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘ROUNDING THIRD’ is a small but insightful play. Dresser's script isn't as simplistic or formulaic as it might first appear. Most people will enjoy the goings-on because of his humor even if they don’t delve for a deep message. Go- you’ll circle the bases and have a good time.

Susana Weingarten reviews the reviewer

Dear Roy,

Thank you very much for sending your review of Friday's performance at MOCA.

It is a thrill and a wonderful surprise to see writers like you working on our-art form, and being constructive, positive, passionate, and mostly informing people of this terrific art-form that implies such hard work and dedication, and that many people have no knowledge of it.

Much luck with all your projects.

Much Peace...

Susana Weingarten
(Everett Dancers)

Thursday, March 03, 2005

4 Minutes to Happy (Cleveland Public Theatre)

Morton exposes personal bout with depression at CPT

As a mental health professional I have often had clients report persistent sadness, anxiety, or feeling “empty.” Others report feelings of hopelessness, pessimism, guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness. Everyone knows what it's like to feel sad, down, or "blue" from time to time, but when these feelings continue for two weeks or more, and are accompanied by certain other physical and mental symptoms, the condition is classified as a Major Depressive Disorder, commonly known as depression.

Depression is a serious medical illness that is reported to affect over 14 million people a year in the United States. It is thought to be caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals. It can happen on its own or can be triggered by a stressful or traumatic event. The good news is that depression can be successfully treated. The general process is to prescribe an anti-depressant in tandem with short-term psychotherapy.

Unfortunately, only 1 in 10 depressive people seek the professional help they need -- often because they don't know the symptoms, think depression will go away on its own, or are embarrassed to talk about how they're feeling.

So, what does this have to do with ‘4 MINUTES TO HAPPY,” now on stage at Cleveland Public Theatre? Sarah Morton, who serves both as the author and the solo performer, has based the story on her life, the life of a person with depression. We watch Morton go through the throes of agoraphobia when she refuses to leave her apartment, goes to a doctor but refuses to take the medicine, breaks up a relationship but is not sure why, applies for the Peace Corps as an attempt to get away from her reality, and, in a final act of desperation contemplates suicide. She is supposedly “saved” by a mood change brought about by hearing Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray.”

There is good and bad news in Morton’s script. She seems to have faced her depression and through this writing come to an understanding of her illness. She also brings attention to the topic of depression. In addition, the program and lobby information alerts the audience to the extent and seriousness of the topic.

On the other hand, viewers may perceive that the curative process for depression is simple...listen to the right music and voila, you’re cured. If anyone who is depressed thinks this is the case, there could be some serious repercussions.

Morton’s performance is excellent. She is totally natural and believable. We see her go through the throughs of the illness as she exposes us to not only her dark moods, but the roles played by the people in her life. She makes us want to reach out and grab her off the window ledge as she contemplates suicide.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Morton’s script, using humor and drama, is a good device for exposing an audience to the subject of depression. Her performance skills effectively develop her life experiences.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Long Day's Journey Into Night - Ensemble Theater

'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 (the father), 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 and 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 difficult 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 Cruse is a perfect Edmund. His body wracks with deep-lung coughs, he convincingly 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 Judgment 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.

Little Shop Of Horrors - Playhouse Square

‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’ wonderful fun at the Palace

‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’ is a true, unadulterated slapstick, potentially in-your face, laugh inciting farce. Farce is hard to do, for both actors and directors. If it’s a farcical musical, it’s even harder. I’ve seen lots of bad, very bad productions of “LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’...they get eaten alive. (Pardon the pun.)

FEAR NOT...the professional production of the musical, now on stage at the Palace Theatre, is so good that it even brightens up the overcast, windy fall weather in Cleveland.

The musical version of ‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS," is based on a grade-B non musical movie of the 1960s. With lyrics and books by Alan Menken and music by Howard Ashman, the stage version originally opened off-Broadway and gained a cult following which resulted in a 2,209 performance run. It was transposed into a 1986 musical film which starred Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Vincent Gardenia, Jim Belushi, Bill Murray and John Candy. In 1991 it appeared as an animated television series, ‘LITTLE SHOP,’ and then, in 2003 there was a smash Broadway revival which laid the foundation for the present touring production, which has been on the road for over a year and will continue to perform through April.

Audrey II moans "Feed me, Seymour. Feed me." So, what does Seymour Krelbourn, a meek foundling who has been taken in by a skid row florist do? Of course, he feeds Audrey II because if he does he’ll become famous and maybe be able to wrest his true love, Audrey (a real person) from a sadistic dentist. And what does Seymour feed Audrey? Blood! Audrey II wants blood? Well, it might help for you to know that Audrey II is a hungry blood drinking, people eating plant from outer space. In his desperation, Seymour makes a Faustian pact with the plant and as it needs more and more blood, and more and more people are sacrificed for the cause. Eventually, Audrey II looks like a venus fly trap on steroids. So much so that people in the theatre’s front rows started to get nervous about whether one of the plants’ tentacles would reach out and sweep them into the plant’s mouth.

This is obviously not ‘ASSASSINS,’ or ‘CHESS,’ or even ‘MISS SAIGON.’ The script is no great musical epic, but it sure can be fun. In the hands of this talented professional cast under the superb direction of Jerry Zaks, this production is a hoot!

The show is punctuated by musical commentary delivered by a Supremes-style trio that bounces around the flower shop's inner-city neighborhood. The trio, which sings, dances and cops just the right attitudes is composed of Iris Burruss, Badia Farha and Latonya Holmes. Their versions of the opening song, “Little Shop of Horrors,” “”Da Doo” and “The Meek Shall Inherit” were wonderful. Side note: If during the run here one of these superstars has to take a night off, Hathaway Brown and Shaker Heights/Warrensville Heights native Marsha Lawson will take her place.

Jonathan Rayson made Seymour a geek extraordinare. His singing voice and development of the character from meek to strong was right on target. If you want to see Rayson’s performance, you’ll have to do so before Tuesday, November 15. On that night Daniel C. Levine takes his place. (Levine sat in front of me during the opening night production and not only looks the role, but it was delightful watching him mouthing the words to the songs and dancing in his seat. As the good luck theatre saying goes, “Break a leg, Daniel!”)

Tari Kelly is right on target as the ditsy blond Audrey. Her version of “Suddenly Seymour,” was totally charming. You’ve never quite seen a kissing scene like that performed by Kelly and Rayson. Her version of “Somewhere That’s Green” was delightfully touching. Kelly also leaves the cast on the 15th, to be replaced by Liz Pearce.

Michael James Leslie (the Voice of Audrey II), and Anthony Asbury, Michael Latini and Marc Petrosino (the manipulators of Audrey II) deserve high praise. They wisely received “in-person” curtain calls.

Darin DePaul was disappointing as Seymour’s boss Mr. Mushnik. He mispronounced some of his Yiddish dialogue and did not have the right “New Yawk attitude” needed to make the role real. James Moye wasn’t quite sleazy enough as the dentist--the “bad guy.” I never felt like booing when he came on stage. If I had done so, he would have been fulfilling his role as the true villain. He did better in all of his other roles.

The sets, costumes, special effects and musical accompaniment were all top-notch.

Capsule Judgment Sometimes it’s just fun to go to the theatre and giggle, laugh and have a good time. If that’s what you want, then this production of ‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’ is your thing. As for me, I loved it! (Hey, producers, can I go back and see it again with the “new” leading cast members? Aw, please!)