Friday, May 27, 2005

Chorus Line (Carousel Dinner Theatre)

Carousel's 'CHORUS LINE' grabs the gold ring!

So there is no question about the basis of this review: I am ‘A CHORUS LINE’ fanatic. I love the show! This affection carries with it a problem...I go into productions of the show, which I’ve seen probably 15 times, with the fear that the director/choreographer/actors are going to give me visual and emotional mind-burn. Fear not in going to the production of the show at Carousel Dinner Theatre. It is one of the best I’ve seen, including the three times I experienced it on Broadway.

‘A CHORUS LINE’ was originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, the recognized genius of theatre choreographers. It has music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban. The book was assembled by James Kirkwood (an Elyria native) and Nicholas Dante. After a successful Off-Broadway run, the show opened at the Shubert Theatre in 1975 and closed in 1990 after 6,137 performances, making it one of the Great White Way’s longest running shows.

‘A CHORUS LINE’ dominated the 1975 Tony Awards. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, one of the few musicals ever to receive that honor.

The setting is a Broadway theater. Young hopefuls are auditioning for a job in the chorus line of a musical. As each speaks, sings and dances we learn about their hopes, insecurities and dreams.

The script was not written by the traditional means of a writer scribbing a plot. ‘A CHORUS LINE’ began as a workshop "share" session. A group of dancers met after rehearsals for other shows to talk about their personal and professional lives. The sessions were tape recorded, written down, and a libretto was pieced together. Their combined work, guided closely by Bennett, resulted in a staging scheme that filled the songs and book with overlapping layers. A little known fact is that comedy writer Neil Simon was called in to do some uncredited book doctoring, adding some of the great one-liners.

When it opened in New York, ‘A CHORUS LINE’ was hailed as: “The best blending of all the elements of musical theatre yet achieved by a theatre artist.”

What helps make the show unique, besides the manner in which it was written, is Bennett’s choreography. Throughout his career he used a unique style of dance for each show. For ‘A CHORUS LINE,’ he incorporated what he called "cinematic staging." There is a constant "jump-cutting" as the audience's attention is shifted from one figure to another. This draws focus to the character by placing the visual spotlight on that person. Bennett also used a series of mirrors to spotlight performers and make them stand out bigger than life in the eyes of the audience.

Instead of a standard plot, the show has what might be called a "staging scheme." This allows for each character to tell us his or her story in verbal or musical form. For example, "I Can Do That" has Mike recalling his first experience with dance, watching his sister's dance class when he was a pre-schooler. "At The Ballet" is a poignant tribute to Sheila, Bebe, and Maggie who found escape in the beauty of ballet. "Sing" comically makes it cringe-ably clear that Kristine is tone deaf. In "Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love" all of the dancers share memories of their traumatic early teens. In “Nothing” Puerto Rican, Diana, recollects the affect on her resulting from a horrible high school acting class, and in "Dance Ten, Looks Three," Val explains that talent doesn't count for everything with casting directors.

The Carousel production, under the direction and choreography of Donna Drake, who was in the original Broadway show, is almost perfectly conceived. She wisely reproduces the original choreography of Michael Bennett and Bob Avian. She is aided by the fact that all but two of the actors have previously appeared in professional productions of the show. This meant that the four to six-day usual prep time given to Carousel directors were spent polishing, rather than creatiing. Most professional, and even amateur productions, rehearse four to six weeks before they open but due to financial constraints Carousel has a short rehearsal time and uses the first week of the run to polish the show which sometimes leaves the early performances a little ragged. Not so with this show.

The cast is generally excellent. Highlight performances were given by Kathryn Mowat Murphy whose Cassie was the best I’ve seen. That is saying a lot as I saw Donna McKechnie do the show several times. Murphy adds a special dimension to what many consider to be the overly long dance segment ”The Music and the Mirror.” Her fine acting, as well as her dancing abilities, help flesh out the pivotal character.

Scottie Gage, as Paul, stands on a dark stage in a solo spotlight and exposes his painful past in a heart rending monologue. It is one of the most challenging moments the musical theater offers an actor. Gage captivates the audience with a performance that is mesmerizing.

Elena Gutierrez has a wonderful singing voice and nails the role of the hispanic Diana. Jessica Goldyn’s “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” was a show stopper. (Little known local fact--Elyria’s Crissy Wilczak was in the original production of the show and often performed “Dance: Ten”.) Kristopher Thompson-Bolden lights up the stage as Ritchie.

The only flaw in the production was the staging of the speech preceding “What I Did for Love” in which the characters reveal why they are willing to put up with the stress and humiliation which is part of being a Broadway chorus member. The scene, which is supposed to be an interaction between the characters was, for some inexplicable reason, relayed directly to the audience. This forced characters to come forward, speak, and then backpedal into their original positions. Having the actors“talking to each other” would have been much more effective and believable.

More than a quarter century after its premiere, ‘A CHORUS LINE’ remains one of the ultimate expressions of what the musical theater can be, should be. This belief is affirmed by the fact that the show will soon be revived on Broadway. Members of the Carousel cast have been invited to try out for that production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Carousel's 'A CHORUS LINE' is a top level proffessional production of a great musical! See it!

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Ohio Ballet - Playhouse Square

Ohio Ballet presents overly-long generally pleasing program

Ohio Ballet’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Graham Hughes obviously has never heard the old adage, “The mind can absorb what the seat can endure.” If so, he would have realized that his recently conceived ‘SPRINGFEST PROGRAM,’ which was staged both in Akron and Cleveland, was much too long.

The program was so lengthy, that following the second intermission, there was a mass exit of the already sparse audience. It was a shame that many left as Hughes’ nicely conceived “Upon Rays of Light” wrapped up the program.

The evening started with Victoria Morgan’s staging of ‘PETER AND THE WOLF’ danced to the recorded music of Sergei Prokofiev. The piece is intended to teach children about the sounds of the various musical instruments. Morgan transformed the setting onto a school’s playground and included a basketball hero, a swim team captain and the school principal. Though the idea was clever, the effect was problematic. The scenery, mainly consisting of a jungle gym and blow-up swimming pool, restricted the dancing. In addition, the decision to read the narration and then dance it caused a doubling in length of the piece and made the dancing redundant. In addition, the choreography was not coherent. The interpretation lacked needed playfulness.

Sam Watson’s ‘HI JINKS,’ which was inspired by the TV variety and comedy shows of the 1950’s and 60’s, was delightful. Well paced and often danced with abandon, the dancers nicely exaggerated the moves and were aided by bizarre costumes and wigs. The highlight segment was “Fooling Around” as performed by Larissa Freud, Katie Keith, Eric Carvill and Seth Parker.

The ‘GRAND PAS CLASSIQUE’ was a presentation of classic ballet. Daniel Francois Aubert’s music was adeptly played by pianist David Fisher, though the solo piano’s sound failed to fill the auditorium. The tall and attractive duet of Eva Trapp and Toby George were quite adequate, though not of world class quality. Trapp’s toe work and circle turns were done with nice control. Though he had some trouble with some of his leaps and landings, George did a fine job of partnering. Cynthia Gregory’s elegant costumes created the proper visual illusion.

The 12 part uninspiring ‘MAZURKAS’ was too much of the same thing. Choreographed by Jose Limon the piece needed cutting. Highlights included a wonderful duet by Kristin Knapp and Brian Murphy. Alicia Pitts’ solo (Opus 30, no. 2 in B minor) was compelling. She displayed excellent body control, ease of movement, and appropriate facial expression. Brian Murphy, the company’s most talented male dancer, presented Opus 59, no 2 in A-flat, which was danced with the right dramatic tone and sure moves. Chopin’s music was well played by pianist David Fisher.

The evening eventually ended with the beautifully costumed and well-conceived ‘UPON RAYS OF LIGHT.’ Danced to recorded music of Ravi Shankar, the company was at its best in this piece. Kristin Knapp’s opening solo was beautifully interpreted. The second segment, danced by the entire company, showed disciplined body control, fine partnering and a nice parallel between the often exotic sounds of the music and movements of the bodies.

Talley's Folly (Ensemble Theatre)

‘TALLEY’S FOLLY’ gets good performance at Ensemble

The lights in the theatre are at full level. A male wanders onto the stage, looks around at what appears to be a fragmented old boat house, turns to the audience and tells us that the play we are about to see runs for ninety-seven minutes with no intermission. He relates that the story will unfold as a waltz, a valentine. “If all goes well,” he says, “the play will end with a romance.”

Thus, the tone is set for Ensemble Theatre’s production of ‘TALLEY’S FOLLY,’ Lanford Wilson’s two-person character study of one evening in the courtship of two unlikely lovers, Sally Talley and Matt Friedman.

First produced in 1979, the Broadway production, which starred Judd Hersch, won the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, and the Brandeis University Creative Arts Award. It was well received by critics and audiences and is considered one of Wilson’s most hopeful and affirming plays.

Wilson is noted for his Talley Family series. The first play, FIFTH OF JULY,’ takes place in 1977 and examines the changing mood of the country regarding war and capitalism. The second script, ‘TALLEY’S FOLLY’ was written by Wilson as an afterthought. The story goes that when the actress playing Sally in the original production of ‘FIFTH OF JULY’ asked Wilson for help in understanding her character. He wrote ‘TALLEY’S FOLLY’ to show how Sally and her husband Matt became a couple in 1944. Two years later Wilson added a third episode to the story, ‘TALLEY & SON.’

‘TALLEY’S FOLLY’ is a character, rather than a plot-driven play. It is a conversation, not an action saga.

Matt is a Jewish accountant. He is an immigrant whose early life consisted of changing countries, losing family members, and horrific emotional episodes from which he needs to protect himself. The experiences are so painful that when he does reveal them it is in allusions rather than directly relating the truth.

Sally is white, Methodist, wealthy, and reasonably attractive, but does not fit in with her family or community because she does not embrace the capitalism that has secured her family’s fortune. She has been fired as a Sunday school teacher for encouraging her students to think positively about labor unions. Perhaps most scandalous to her family, Sally is still unmarried at thirty-one.

As the play unfolds the duo reveal the painful secrets of their lives. Matt’s alienation and Sally’s desire to retain family ties are logically tied to Wilson himself. Born in Lebanon, Missouri, the town in which he set the Tally series, Wilson’s had few real roots. His parents divorced when he was five years old, and although he has described his youth as a happy time, he never had what he created for the Talley family: a permanent home with a stable extended family. Wilson is noted as never having really “fit in.”

The Ensemble production, under the direction of Lucia Colombi, is nicely paced. Thought talky, it maintains attention. Elizabeth Ann Townsend is excellent as Sally. She clearly creates a character caught with a secret she is compelled to hide. The character’s standoffishness, yet vulnerability are clearly developed.

Miller has more difficulty with his role. Forced to use an accent which comes and goes, he often gives the impression of still getting used to the lines and the characterization. His over-articulation and surface level awkwardness make the character unreal and wooden at times. If he drops the forced “sound” the character should grow as he becomes more comfortable with the lines.

A question arises for both the director and Miller. Was Miller’s wearing a wedding band an oversight? As the play developed the question arouse as to whether his “secret” was that he was really married or had a wife who died. Since it was neither, the ring was a major distraction. While on the subject of distractions, why were fake cigarettes used? If the actors were uncomfortable smoking, then drop the charade. There was no dramatic reason for the smoking and it added a dimension of unreality to a real situation.

Ron Newell’s shabby boat house set was excellent. On the other hand the lighting was distracting. The stage was much too dark. And the inconsistent band sound from across the lake often created confusion.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘TALLEY’S FOLLY’ is an interesting play which gets a nice production at Ensemble, greatly due to Elizabeth Ann Townsend’s fine performance. It is a production worth seeing.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Secretaries (Cleveland Public Theatre)

‘THE SECRETARIES’--good production, qualities, bad play at CPT

Every once in a while I see a theatrical production that evokes many questions. The Five Lesbian Brothers’ play ‘THE SECRETARIES,’ now on stage at Cleveland Public Theatre is such an offering. As I watched the play, and on the way home, I was filled with inquiries. My mind probed to find answers to “Why did CPT pick such a script?” “What inspired the authors to write such a piece?” “Why would a talented cast and an equally talented director want to spend their time presenting that material to an audience?”

As you can tell, I am not a big fan of the play. In fact, I come close to agreeing with a fellow playgoer who stated on the way out, “That was the worst play I’ve ever seen.” Well, not quite the worst play, because the production was actually quite good, but it did come close to being one of the worst scripts. I’m not alone in that opinion. A New York review stated that the play grossed out the audience within the first five minutes of the show.

Who are the Five Lesbian Brothers? They are Maureen Angelos, Babs Davy, Dominique Dibbell, Peg Healey, and Lisa Kron, a group of actresses and playwrights . Their stated purpose in writing and performing is to promote affirmation of lesbianism through hilarious plays.

Before I go any further....the play did win the Obie Award in 1995. I’m not sure what the criteria or the competition was, but there must have been something that brought about that recognition. So, I turned to an expert on the subject. A Cornell University Professor who used the play as part of her dissertation on the radical lesbian movement may have some clues. She indicates that “by focusing on violent acts perpetrated by women, rather than violent acts suffered by or inflicted upon women, this work examines the ways in which bodily injury serves as both an indicator of and a response to political and institutionalized oppression.”

She comments that “The Five Lesbian Brothers’ ‘SECRETARIES’ underscores the fact that terrorism is primarily an aesthetic phenomenon, a political performance, and that the most powerful weapon is “camp.” From their sexy publicity posters, such as the bikini-clad, gun toting, afro-sporting “We Recruit” revolutionary, to their mass public kiss-ins, the Lesbian Avengers understand the erotics of resistance.”

Randy Rollison and his cast all do their best with what they’ve got. Rollison paces the production well, has his characters go over the top in order to wring all the intended comedy and pathos from the script.

Ali Hernan makes for one wicked tyrant, complete with costumes right out of the Victoria Secrets meets porno leather shop. Liz Conway transforms from sweet innocent to blood thirsty monster with a vengeance. Meg Chamberlain’s portrayal of a lesbian and a lumberjack were convincing. Sheffia Randall plots and schemes with purpose. Denise Astorino chows down like food is going out of fashion.

Trad Burns scenic and light designs are excellent, Esther Montgomery’s costumes help create the proper images.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: My hang-up with the play is not the lesbian activity, the simulated sex or subject matter. The bottom line is I found the script neither funny nor edifying. The tepid applause at the conclusion of the production seemed to indicate the audience was watching with the same eyes as I was, but maybe you might not.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

To Know Him (Jewish Community Center)

‘TO KNOW HIM’--a fitting production for the closing of the Halle Theatre

The drama program at the Jewish Community Center has a unique mission. It was founded to showcase dramatic, musical and comedy scripts that either have a Jewish theme or were written by Jewish playwrights. It has accomplished this mission well for many years. First in whatever venue they could find, then in a store front on Lee Road and then at the “new” theatre in the Mayfield JCC, which was called the Halle Theatre in honor of the donors who gave the money to build the performing arts space. The decision has been made to sell the facility and it will soon become rubble as it is replaced by condominiums. This leaves the JCC with no performing arts center. (If you know of a donor who would like to have his or her name inscribed on an arts facility, I’m sure that the board of the JCC would listen with an open ear.)

The theatre produced Yiddish and American plays until Yiddish became a language understood by fewer and fewer members of its audience. For the last number of years the offerings have been those written in English.

It is only fitting that ‘TO KNOW HIM,’ the final production at Halle, is being directed by Dorothy Silver, stars Brian Zoldessy and Reuben Silver and is produced by Fred Sternfeld. For many years Dorothy was the artistic director of the J’s drama program. The JCC’s playwriting competition is dedicated to her in honor of her many years of service. Her husband, Reuben, has appeared in and directed many of the “J’s” plays. By the way...the duo was recently inducted into the Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame in a State House ceremony in Columbus.

Zoldessy, who is Director of Theatre Arts at Cuyahoga Community College, Eastern Campus, was instrumental in allowing the JCC drama program’s rebirth, after a year of hiatus, to perform its outstanding production of ‘RAGTIME, THE MUSICAL’ last year. Sternfeld not only directed ‘RAGTIME’ but was also the guiding hand behind ‘MAN OF LAMANCHA’ and other J productions and will be directing their fall production of ‘SOUTH PACIFIC.’ Zhe serves as the organization’s Theatre Consultant.

‘TO KNOW HIM,’ written by Albi Gorn, was the 2002 winner of the Dorothy Silver Playwriting Contest. It is the story of Rick, a gay man dying of AIDS, who receives an obligatory visit from Penny, a student in her last stages of preparation for the rabbinate. Her final assignment is to do visitations to hospital patients. Her enthusiasm and zealousness butt up against the Jewish, but agnostic Rick, a college professor of film, who wants none of her ministering. To add to the mix is Rick’s father, a traditional man who said “kaddish,” the prayer for the dead when he found out his son was homosexual. The two have been alienated for many years. Penny encourages prayer and reconciliation. Rick responds, “When you have heard kaddish said for you, what else is there to pray for?”

The plot of ‘TO KNOW HIM’ is obvious, but it matters little. The overall effect is quite palatable. It makes its statement about prayer, forgiveness, the Jewish philosophy “Tikun Olam” (repairing the world), and how life can be meaningful if there is someone in it to share both your joys and sorrows.

Director Silver has paced the show well and has honed a nice cohesiveness in the cast. Brian Zoldessy’s Rick not only looks the part of a sick man but conveys the difficulty leading to death well, including a phlegm-sounding rasp. Zoldessy needs not go too far to get the motivation for the role. He, himself, has been in precarious health for a period of time, so much of his psychological memory is immediate. His is an excellent performance.

Alicia Kahn as Penny has some strong moments. During her opening scene she shows proper angst, but overdoes it to the point that she is almost unbelievable as a real person and especially one who has come this far in her rabbinical training. As the play develops she becomes more real and grows as the character grows.

Reuben Silver doesn’t make his entrance until the second act. Not only was he met with applause, but an elderly man sitting behind me loudly pronounced, “Finally, there he is already.” Silver knows how to milk each line for meaning. He suffers verbally and physically, he mumphers to perfection. He makes the father, Harry, completely believable. Reuben Silver is Reuben Silver...what greater tribute can be given an actor?

Tony Kovacic’s set is excellent. The hospital room’s back wall is a scrim which allows us to see a backdrop composed of large movie posters from many of the films discussed in the bantering between movie buff Penny and film expert Rick.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘TO KNOW HIM’ is an appropriate tribute to the history of JCC. It is a play worth seeing and this is your last chance to feel the warmth of the venue and emotionally touch and feel the history that has taken place there. Personally, having done much of my early theatrical performing in that facility, I dread seeing the wrecking ball destroy one of my “theatrical homes.”

Friday, May 06, 2005

Oklahoma (Playhouse Square Center)

Joyous ‘OKLAHOMA!’ sweeps into Palace Theatre

The historical role of the musical ‘OKLAHOMA! is well-known. When it opened on March 31, 1943 it became the first book musical play. It not only had a meaningful story line that swept throughout the entire play, but the lyrics and the dancing all integrated into the story. Before then, with the exception of SHOW BOAT, which was really an operetta, no musical show had really used this technique.

Besides the integration,, ‘OKLAHOMA!’ laid the structural foundation for musical plays that would follow it. There was a major love story (in ‘OKLAHOMA!’ Curly and Laurey, in ‘CAROUSEL,’ Billy and Julie, in ‘ANNIE GET YOUR GUN,’ Frank and Annie) supported by a couple who served as the comic relief (in ‘OKLAHOMA!’ Will and Ado Annie, in ‘CAROUSEL,’ Mr. Snow and Carrie, in ‘ANNIE GET YOUR GUN,’ Tommy and Winnie).

It also set the format for the first act to end with a conflict that the audience wouldn’t find out the results of unless the audience came back for the second act. For example, in ‘OKLAHOMA!’ the dream ballet, the question is: Would Laurie’s fantasy that her two suitors would have a conflict with one of them killed come true? In “MY FAIR LADY,’ would Eliza be found out to be a fake when she made her societal debut?

Another Rogers and Hammerstein contribution as developed in ‘OKLAHOMA!’ was the major theme of the musical being highlighted by a key song. In ‘OKLAHOMA!’ it’s “The Farmer and the Cowman” which outlines the formation of the future of the territory becoming a state and the need for universal understanding. In ‘SOUTH PACIFIC’ it’s “You Have to Be Carefully Taught,” the song that explains the basis for prejudice. In ‘THE KING AND I,’ “It’s a Puzzlement” is an inquiry into the differences between cultures.

Other interesting facts surround this culture changing musical. Its original backers saw a 2500% return on their investment. It received not only a Pulitzer Prize, but two Academy Awards, induction into the Grammy Awards Hall of Fame and a special Tony Award. It’s original touring production lasted ten-and-a-half years and encompassed every State in the Union while being seen by over 10 million people. It was the first Broadway musical to be commemorated in a U.S. postage stamp and is the only Broadway show with a tune that became a state song.

A little know fact is that the show’s original title was ‘AWAY WE GO!’. The name ‘OKLAHOMA!’ was substituted a week before the show opened when the song “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” which was intended to be a duet between Curly and Laurey, was dropped from the second act, and a choral number was added. The name of the choral number? Yes, “Oklahoma.”

The production which is now appearing at the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square is a non-union staging. This traditionally has meant bad news for local attenders of the Broadway series. Fortunately, this cast makes up for its lack of experience with enthusiasm, good voices, focused acting and some wonderful dancing.

Show highlights include a raucous staging of “Kansas City,” a fine version of “Many A New Day,” a playful “The Farmer and the Cowman” and a brilliantly conceived “Out of My Dreams.” The latter is the plot advancing ballet in which Ginger Thatcher has recreated choreographer Susan Stroman’s dance moves to include the lead actor and actress performing the dream sequence. (In Agnes DeMille’s 1943 choreography a pair of dancers stepped in to represent Laurey and Frank). This new interpretation makes the dance much stronger as we actually experiencing the foreshadowing of what is to come in the climactic conflict scene near the end of the play.

Julie Burdick makes a spunky and charming Laurey. She has a beautiful voice and dances well. Jeremiah James’s version of Curly is a little to down-home twangy and automatic, but he has a big voice. J. Michael Zygo is a dancing and gymnastic machine who makes Will Parker a delight. Carrie Love tries hard as Ado Annie, but she is just too much style and little true substance. She falls far short of the interpretation of the role by local dancer/actress Mary Ann Black in a Porthouse production of the show a couple of seasons ago.

Ready for a trivia question? Who played Ali Hakim in the original production of ‘OKLAHOMA!’ and what was his Cleveland connection? The answer.......Joseph Buloff. Buloff was a well known Yiddish theatre actor who went on to star in ‘THE UNTOUCHABLES’ television show. He often made appearances in productions at the Jewish Community Center of Cleveland. He directed their productions of ‘FIFTH SEASON’ and ‘THE WALL.’

Sorah Wadia, who plays Ali in this production is a total delight. Pat Sibley, who is a little young to be portraying Laurey’s Aunt Eller, generally does a nice vocal and acting job. Andre Loban is properly understated as the menacing Jud Fry. The dancing and singing choruses are excellent.

The small orchestra, which is supplemented by electronic support, lacks the full orchestra richness that the Rogers and Hammerstein music demands, but it is adequate.

The sets, costumes and lighting all work well.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Every once in a while a theatre-goer needs a shot of Rodgers and Hammerstein to make the world seem like a better place or allow newbies to gain an appreciation of what true musical theatre is all about. The production now on stage at the Palace is a fine way to relive good past experiences or lose your R and H virginity

Marty Simonsen reviews the reviewer

It was so refreshing to read such an insightful and educational theatre review. I especially enjoyed the historical perspective. Keep up the good work!

Marty Simonsen

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Battery (convergence-continuum)

Convergence-continuum attempts to electrify audience

A student in a playwriting class that I taught turned in a script that consisted of line after line of idioms referring to the game of baseball. This was the 1970s, the era of “hip” theatre, happenings, in your face language and messages, going against the grain, letting the audience figure it out for themselves. After the class had digested and commented on the manuscript, I asked the student, “Are you more interested in playing word games then in getting a message across?” He sat for a few moments, a sly grin stole across his face and he said, “I really love baseball!”

Daniel Therriault, the author of ‘BATTERY’ presently on stage at convergence continuum, Cleveland’s avant garde theatrical space, must really love electricity. As with my student, I found Therriault’s script to be mostly affect with an emphasis on language rather than story effect.

‘BATTERY’ has been described as “...a psychological tour of tortured souls.” It has also been called as “as much a multidimensional rap symphony as it is a play.” Further comments include, “Overly long and at times maddeningly redundant." Commentary also referred to “the playwright's excesses and twisting thought line.” One production was described as "Incredibly funny and totally disgusting.”

The play’s overriding metaphor is "A battery is two or more cells placed in a common container; one dominant." Set in Rip's Electric, a home appliance repair shop in Chicago, the play juxtaposes Rip (Brin Metzendorf) and Stan (Tim Coles). Rip is not only the dominant cell in his relationship with Stan, he also dominates Brandy (Meg Cavanaugh), who functions as little more than a sex toy to him to “set his electricity flowing.” Rip gives homemade shock treatments to his manic-depressive assistant, but when the treatment takes effect, the assistant yearns for his own independence and encourages the master’s battered girlfriend to do the same. In the end, Rip is left alone surrounded by his electrical repair equipment and worn out appliances, his opposing source of electricity gone.

As always, Clyde Simon’s direction is on course. There is no major problem with the production. His actors each develop a consistent characterization. The play is properly paced.

Jim Smith’s set design works well. No credit is given in the program for who collected the overwhelming number of electrical appliances and gadgets. The masses of Apple IIE computers, burned out toasters and out-dated vacuum cleaners would make a junk collector drool.

Those of you who are regular readers of my reviews know that I often find myself in an intellectual battle with convergence-continuum’s Artistic Director Clyde Simon over his play selections. He often picks scripts that I find obtuse, more flash than substance, more affect than effect, such offerings as Mac Wellman’s ‘7 BL*WJ*BS’ and “SINCERELY YOURS.’ On the other hand, he also picks what I would consider wonders like “HOT N THROBBING” and “QUILLS.” Okay, he wants to choose scripts that others in the area are afraid to select because of box office appeal and that’s good. But to pick abstraction for the sake of abstraction baffles me; but, it’s his theatre and his financial investment so he can do what he wants. I just hope that the niche audience he is aiming at continues to buy tickets as it would be a shame for the area not to have a “different” type of theatre.

Capsule Judgment: Daniel Therriault’s ‘BATTERY’ doesn’t say much to me. I was neither entertained nor repulsed, neither elated nor bored, neither electrified nor short circuited. Whether you will like the play depend on your tolerance for the over extended metaphor and the Twilight Zone-like subject matter.

Bad Dates (Cleveland Play House)

Where did they get all those shoes for CPH's BAD DATES?

‘BAD DATES,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, isn’t so much a bad date as it is an unmemorable one. On the way home from the theatre I could remember laughing at the goings-on of the main character who is a restaurant manager, shoe connoisseur, mother and frustrated divorced woman named Haley Walker. What I laughed at, or why I was neither bored nor entranced, weren’t part of my active memory bank. What is there is the image of all the shoes in Haley’s apartment, and all the footwear piled in the closets of the other apartments pictured and wondering, “Where did they get all those shoes?”

If the major thing I can remember is the shoes, then something had to be off-kilter. It’s not usually the purpose of a play to leave a single visual. That is, unless it’s a play about Imelda Marcos and we learned that the footwear were signs of her extravagance while the peasants didn’t have enough food. Or, trying to get us to accept that ‘SEX AND THE CITY’ is now in reruns and we’ll never hear Kerry Bradshaw moaning afresh about paying $400 for Manolo Blahnik’s latest footwear designs.

Okay, Roy think hard...what did you learn as Haley related a series of tales from her past as she tried on shoes, changed clothes, and had one-sided conversations with her daughter? Let’s see, I learned that there is a bizarre social ritual between men and women that is the basis for the continuation of the human species. I learned that hearing about some else’s bad dates is better than having to experience them myself. I learned that Haley’s path toward finding Mr. Right was littered with encounters with colorful suitors such as Cholesterol Man and Bug Guy. I gained insight into how women fret about the “perfect outfit” and despair over a poorly-fitting pair of Chanel pumps. I gained a new insight into Joan Crawford and her famous “do me” pumps. And, I was exposed to the concept that “Maybe men and women were not put on this earth to torture each other. Maybe they were put on earth because they need each other.” Hey, maybe there was a message, but what was it?

Hawking, the solo performer, established a rapport with the audience by addressing us with a welcoming smile and attitude. Though adept at delivering the author’s dryly witty observations about human interaction, she is also capable of holding attention in the most serious moments. In spite of this, at times she seems a little more actress than person, especially when she isolates syllables in words and over-articulates words and phrases.

Narelle Sissons has provided an attractive New York apartment, while Miranda Hoffman's wide array of costumes clearly represents Haley at each point in the play's roller coaster of events.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: There is nothing really great or terrible about CPH’S ‘BAD DATE.’ That’s both the good news and the bad news. Well, for me there is some bad news…I’m still wondering why nowhere in the program are thanks offered to the source of all that footwear. Well, I guess I did get fixated. Too bad it wasn’t whatever message there was in the play.

FOOTnote (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun): And so the curtain drops on the Peter Hackett era at CPH. ‘BAD DATES’ is the last of the plays selected by the departed CPH Artistic Director. As had been the case in recent past seasons, this year’s script choices were problematic. It is now time to forget the past and move forward. Next season’s offerings are the brain-child of Michael Bloom, the new Artistic Director. I look forward to next season with renewed hope for The Cleveland Play House.

Anyone Can Whistle (Willoughby Fine Arts)

‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE’ gets vaiant try at Willoughby Fine Arts

When the Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Lareunts musical ‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE,’ which is now on stage at Willoughby Fine Arts Association, opened on Broadway in 1964 it was an instant flop. It was met with devastating reviews. The New York Times said, "There is no law against saying something in a musical, but it's unconstitutional to omit imagination and wit.” The show ran only 9 performances.

The musical was Sondheim's second solo effort. After being so successful with ‘A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM,’ and having been hailed as Broadway’s new “wunderkindt” for his work on ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ and “GYPSY,’ the negative reactions to ‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE’ were extremely surprising.

Sondheim's score is a quirky blend of dissonant music which is hard to perform and sing and often hard for the audience to listen to. His musical choice was probably to parallel the discordant thoughts and idea of the characters. Unfortunately, since the plot doesn’t work well, neither does the music.

Sondheim is noted for having one marvelous song in each of his shows. Think “Send in the Clowns” from ‘A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC’ or “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from ‘GYPSY.’ There is no such song in ‘WHISTLE.’ The score contains such unremembered tunes as "Me and My Town", "Everybody Says Don't", and "With So Little to Be Sure Of." Interestingly, “There Won’t Be Trumpets’ which became a big cabaret favorite, was part of the original score, but was cut before the show opened. (The WFAA production has reinserted the song.)

Despite the flop status, there is a cast album of the show. Goddard Lieberson, who had optioned the rights to the cast album, felt that it was an important work and decided to proceed with the recording. Over the years, its popularity has continued to endure thanks to the talents of the original cast which starred Angela Lansbury, Harry Guardino and Lee Remick.

Even Sondheim admitted the show has serious flaws, despite what he considers “its considerable charm and humor.” The plot which basically asks the question of who the loonies really are, those in the asylum or those outside, much in the vein of ‘THE CURIOUS SAVAGE ,’ has an unconventional and often satirical, cartoonish and overly obvious plot. It tells the story of a town that's gone bankrupt because its only industry is manufacturing something that never wears out. In order to revive the economy Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper and her town council fake a miracle -- water flowing from a rock -- to attract tourists. When patients at the local mental hospital, the Cookie Jar, escape and mix with the townspeople and tourists, chaos ensues. Of course there is a love story which develops between J. Bowden Hapgood, a psychiatrist who isn't really a psychiatrist, and Fay Apple, a nurse at the Cookie Jar who disguises herself as a miracle verifier sent from Lourdes.

This brings us to the Willoughby Fine Arts Association production. WFAA is a community theatre housed in a wonderful facility. As with many community theatres it has a limited pasture of talent from which to cast shows. Many of those who try out are of school age with a mixture of well-meaning adults. It would be difficult for professionals to pull off a palatable production of ‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE,’ let alone a group of children, teens and a couple of equity actors. One must ask why Artistic Director Fabio Polanco thought he could save what the likes of Broadway director Arthur Laurents and actress Angela Lansbury couldn’t.

Palanco pulled out all the shticks and gimmicks he could. In order to make the proceedings absurd he has a preteen play a psychiatrist, a teen play the city’s comptroller, and even adds a reversal of the Hollywood 1930s dance number showcasing Shirley Temple/Bill Robinson (African American child and White man). The effort is valiant. The cast tries hard but just can’t overcome the vehicle.

The casting of professionals Larry Nehring (J. Bowden Hapgood) and Gina Shmukler (Fay) may have seemed like a good idea, but, in the end, all it did was show the lack of stage maturity of the rest of the cast. Both Nehring and Shmukler are excellent, though Nehring, with his Danny Kaye looks and flair for exaggerated comedy, might have been better cast as the Comptroller.

Paul Gatzke’s set is wonderful and Kristen Buchs lighting works well. Though Sondheim’s music is hard to play, Matthew Webb’s small orchestra basically accomplishes the task and in contrast to many local theatre pit orchestras wisely does not drown out the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The opening lines of the show’s theme song state, “Anyone can whistle, that's what they say, easy. Anyone can whistle, any old day, easy. It's all so simple: Relax, let go, let fly! So someone tell me, why can't I?” The answer to anyone planning on staging ‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE,’ and probably the advice that WFAA should have followed is, “It’s not easy when you have a bad vehicle and a limited talent source.”