Sunday, August 21, 2005

You Can't Take It With You (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU’ somwhat disappoints at GLTF

I’ve had a personal love affair with the play, ‘YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU’ since high school, when it was presented as my senior class production. I found it then and now both delightful and insightful.

Since it opened in 1936 to universal raves, including being granted that year’s Pulitzer Prize, it has become one of the most produced American plays. Unfortunately, due to its massive cast-size, it is most often done in amateur settings, such as high schools and community theatres where concern about how to pay the cast is not an issue. Therefore, it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s professional production.

Unfortunately, the Thursday night I saw the production, the presentation was lethargic. The timing and the pacing were off. It lacked the spark, the enthusiasm, the zaniness that makes for good comic-farce. Most surprising is that GLTF, since Charles Fee became its Artistic Director, has made zany out of plays that shouldn’t have been. So, why did director Drew Barr’s production not enthrall me?

Theatre is ephemeral. The very fact that it is live makes it fleeting. One night’s production may not be the same as another. The mood of the cast members, the varying reactions and size of audience, even the weather, can affect the timing and the concentration. I am going to give GLTF the benefit of the doubt and assume that on another night, when they haven’t had a couple of day’s lay-off and the play was on a roll, it probably would have been a better production. However, I have to critique the production I saw, and, unfortunately, that one was lacking. Not bad, just lacking.

‘YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU’ was the third collaboration by the most important 1930s comedic/political playwrights, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Its stage success resulted in a 1938 film which won an Academy Award for best picture.

The play relates the humorous encounter between the Kirbys a conservative upper class family and the eccentric household of Grandpa Martin Vanderhof. Grandpa's collection of idiosyncratic individualists amuse with their energetic physical antics and inspire with their wholehearted pursuit of happiness. The play requires a stage full of chaotic activity from beginning to end. One character continually dances around the stage, the maid’s boy friend charges in and out of the house at will. Another “guest” hates everything as he rants against the Soviets. Government agents enter and leave on various quests. A woman writes plays because a typewriter was accidentally delivered years ago. A fireworks manufacturing plant in the house’s basement explodes. Cookies packed in boxes with anti-government slogans are produced. And, in the midst of this chaos, Grandpa, who many years ago just got up and walked out of his successful business because he wasn’t having “any fun,” spends his life looking at his stamp collection, ignoring income tax bills, going to commencement speeches and generally enjoying life.

This is a play of witty one-liners and visual theatricalism, is a perfect example of the well-constructed play. And, although it is undeniably escapist theater which prompts immediate enjoyment, it brings up strong questions of what’s the best way to live and what should be the role of the government in people’s lives.

GLTF’s production is housed in a beautifully designed set by Gage Williams. The huge stained-glass windowed room is filled with a garage sale shopper’s dream of odds and ends. The curtain rose to an ovation for the set.

There are many positive aspects to the production. Times Tribute winner Wayne Turney was born to play Martin Vanderhof. He gives a low-key performance in which every twinkle in his eye adds to the merriment. He places himself clearly in the center of the wheel on which the rest of the cast should be supportive spokes.

Another Times Tribute winner, Andrew May, is given full reign to produce maniacal and hysterical rage. His Boris is what the rest of the cast should attempt to be....a farcical instrument who keys in on the character and plays it for all he can. It’s worth seeing the production to watch May do a full body attack on stuff-shirt Dudley Swetland in a hysterically funny wrestling scene. Nina Domningue’s Rheba is also on key. Meg Chamberlain is a hoot as the drunken actress who spends most of one act lying under a blanket on the floor and the rest on her back with open-legs straddling a piano bench. Dudley Swetland (Mr. Kirby) is fine when he pontificates.

On the other hand, some of the other actors simply don’t infuse the right tone in their characters. Lynn Allison doesn’t have the necessary ditsy quality needed for Penelope. George Roth, as her husband, and Marc Moritz as their son-in-law, walk through their roles without establishing any definable characterizations. Kathryn Chrasaro spends so much time concentrating on her faux dancing that she forgets to make meaning of her lines. Anne McEvoy (Mrs. Kirby) isn’t upper class matronly enough as the intended mother-in-law. Elizabeth Davis (Alice) fails to develop the charming characterization needed for the young female love interest. There seems to be little love-magic between her and Jeff Cribbs, who plays Tony.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Maybe my expectations were too high but I found the production of GLTF’s ‘YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU’ lethargic, missing the needed finite characterizations to make this wonderful play delightful and insightful. Maybe I just saw it on an off night.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Margaret Holden reviews the reviewer

Thanks for writing this review (CHICAGO)--I really liked the capsule remarks about Clevelanders with their standing ovations. I have often witnessed this. And wondered why they do it. But then when there is a really good performance they do not stand.

Again thank you for all the reviews you give--they are right on target.

Margaret Holden, clevelanddancetheatre

Monday, August 01, 2005

Songs for a New World (Cain Park)

Cain Park’s ‘SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD’ wows audience

"Hear my song-- It'll help you believe in tomorrow Hear my song-- It'll show you the way you can shine Hear my song-- It was made for the time When you don't know where to go Listen to the song that I sing You'll be fine"

These words set the tone for ‘SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD,’ now on stage at Cain Park.

TONY award winner Jason Robert Brown, the show’s author, is one of a new breed of American musical theatre conceivers. The writer of the critical smash, ‘PARADE,’ is often compared to Stephen Sondheim because of his stylish, clever, dramatic and often funny lyrics and broad range of musical sounds.

‘SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD’ is not your “usual” musical theatrical fare. In fact, it defies classification. It has no plot, the songs do not fit a mold of sound, the performers don’t consistently create a single character, so it’s not a musical comedy or drama. It’s not a series of songs based on a theme, so it’s not a musical review. It is probably best described as a “theatrical song cycle.”

Brown says of his first work, “It’s about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.” In the work, he transports the audience with musical vignettes (there is not a spoken word in the entire production) from a 1492 Spanish sailing ship, to a woman on the ledge of a building threatening to commit suicide, to a man caught in a corporate corruption scandal, to a woman about to give birth, to the horrors of war, to people at a school reunion, to a couple about to reunite. Each segment is a playlet in itself.

First produced in 1995 the show ran for only 28 performances in New York. That doesn’t mean it was a flop. That is the maximum performance run of shows at the WPA Theatre. It has since been performed by hundreds of college and community theatres to generally favorable reviews, depending on the cast.

There is no question about the quality of the Cain Park cast. The quartet can all sing. Not just sing, but sing very, very, very well. They not only fit their voices perfectly to every piece of music, they dramatically interpret each song. They sing meanings, not just words. They vary their facial and body movements to fit the mood. THIS IS PERFORMANCE AT IT’S HIGHEST LEVEL! They are well aided by music director Nancy Maier and her fine band, Janiece Kelley-Kiteley’s inventive choreography and Carol Dunne’s “right on” directing.

Except for the fact that the cast isn’t multi-ethnic, which was the way the show was intended to be, there isn’t a flaw in the production. The lack of an African American male performer lessens the effect of a scene in which a young ghetto dweller shares his dreams of escaping from his personal hell by using his basketball skills. And even that glitch, in the great plan of things, doesn’t take the sheen off a wonderful theatrical experience.

Mitch McCarrell (Man 1), Neal Mortimer (Man 2), Hannah Laird (Woman 1) and Tracee Patterson (Woman 2) are marvelous.

McCarrell, a Times Tribute Theatre Award winner for his amazing portrayal in Cain Park’s ‘BAT BOY,’ has a powerful voice, interprets songs well, dances with ease, and lights up a stage. His “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship” portrays the proper angst and yearning of the search for the unknown. His “King of the World” is a show stopper. “Flying Home” was mesmerizing.

Neal Mortimer also has a fine voice and acting skills. His “The World Was Dancing” was well interpreted as was his duet, “I’d Give It All For You” with Hannah Laird.

Laird has a big and well-pitched voice. “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” was sung with an edge of vulnerability that perfectly fit the song.

Multi Times Tributes Award winner Tracee Patterson did what has come to be expected from her--she gave a powerhouse performance. In the perfectly interpreted “Just One Step” she held a note so long that the audience was gasping for breath. She emotionally tore up the audience with her rendition of“The Flagmaker, 1775.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In this town where standing ovations automatically follow every show, no matter the quality, the audience’s jumping to their feet and screaming praises finally meant something. The Cain Park version of ‘SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD’ is one of those special evenings in the theatre. The power of this show are the performances. YOU MUST SEE ‘SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD!”

Fran Heller reviews the reviewer

I enjoyed your reviews of Merry Wives and West Side Story-- well-balanced, well-written, very informative, in-depth analysis....and most important of all, they mirror some of my exact sentiments! Thanks for sharing....
Until the next show!

Fran Heller, Theatre Reviewer
Cleveland Jewish News