Sunday, July 30, 2006

Sunday in the Park With George (Lakeland Theatre)

A pleasant ‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE’ at Lakeland

Painter Georges Seurat and musical theatre composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim have much in common. Though noted as being successful in their fields, both
had personal and career highs and lows.

Seurat, who is the subject of Sondheim’s ‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE,’ like Sondheim was revered and disliked because of his penchant for breaking out of the lines.

Seurat broke from traditional realism and embraced a style of painting based on dabs, rather than brush strokes. Using his scientific knowledge, he placed the dots in such proximity to each other that they created light, shadow and color. The technique, entitled “pointillism,” was disliked by traditional painters of his time. Seurat was considered an
outcast and was refused participation in the major art shows of his day. Seurat, it is rumored, did not sell a single major painting while he was alive.

Sondheim is also controversial. With few exceptions his works are intellectual, not intended only to entertain, but also to enlighten. Often they contain a negative-toned woman, who, like Sondheim’s own mother, is all-controlling. Think Mamma Rose in ‘GYPSY’ and the Wicked Witch in ‘INTO THE WOODS.’

Sondheim also doesn’t write songs that can be easily removed from the script and be placed on the top hits lists. He writes songs for his characters to sing that fit completely into the dialogue, reveal something about the person, or helps develop the plot. Though popular among theatre performers, the vast amount of his work is unknown to the general public.

Though Sondheim, like Seurat, is assumed to be a total success (‘GYPSY,’ ‘SWEENEY TODD,’ ‘COMPANY,’ ‘WEST SIDE STORY,’ ‘FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM”), this assumption is not true. He had
minor successes such as ‘ANYONE CAN WHISTLE’ and ‘PACIFIC OVERTURES, ‘and outright flops like ‘SATURDAY NIGHT’ and ‘MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.’ After ‘MERRILY’ Sondheim quit the theatre. He was, however, lured back by James Lapine, with the idea of writing a musical based on the life of Seurat and his painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Though the musical never achieved greatness, it did run for almost a year and a half and has some wonderful songs.

In ‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK’ Sondheim wrote music in the artistic style of Seurat. As one critic put it, "Sondheim’s work has such reach, there is so much emotional resonance, that many observers take it personally and become as fascinated with the artist as with the art.”

He won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for ‘SUNDAY IN THE PARK,’ though Jerry Herman's ‘LA CAGE AUX FOLLES,’ a traditionally formatted show, was selected by the Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Score.

The first act takes place in nineteenth-century France. Georges struggles with his art and his personal life. He is completely engrossed in his artwork and not with his pregnant girlfriend/model, Dot. She leaves him to find a more supportive man. The act introduces the audience to many of the subjects in the painting (a fisherman, nurse, old
lady, American tourists, teenage girls and Dot).

Act Two, is set in New York and Paris in 1984. Georges' great-grandson, George, is struggling to find inspiration in his artwork. He is helped when the spirit of Dot returns with some wise words as he visits La Grade Jatte.

The first act is stronger than the second. In fact, the final act was finished only days before the show opened on Broadway and failed to receive the polishing needed.

The musical is a difficult undertaking for any theatre. Considering that Lakeland’s production has only one equity performer (young Emma Wahl), and she does not have a major role, the production is impressive. Much credit goes to Martin Freedman, the show’s director and Sondheim devotee.

Amiee Collier is excellent as Dot and later as George’s grandmother. She has a strong singing voice and interprets meanings, rather than just singing words. This is imperative in a Sondheim show. She also develops clear characterizations. Mary Jane Nottage is endearing as the “old lady.”

Andrew Tarr puts out a yeoman’s effort into developing the roles of Georges and George but he does not have the acting or the vocal prowess to pull off the roles. One only had to have seen Mandy Patinkin in the Broadway production or listen to his vocalizations on the CD of the show to hear the complexity of the music and of the character.

Keith Nagy’s sets and lighting designs add much to the production as does the musical direction of Larry Goodpaster. Unfortunately, the theatre’s poor sound system caused vocal distortions.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Seurat contended that a painting is composed of design, order, composition, light and harmony. The same can be said of a musical. Lakeland
should be proud of its artistic composition.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Shaw Festival, a review

SHAW FESTIVAL brims with superb offerings

The Shaw Festival, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada is the only theatre in the world that specializes in plays by G. B. Shaw and his contemporaries. The plays of that era are often excellent and challenging. Fortunately, for this year’s audiences, this is a stellar year for the Shaw. With few exceptions, play after play is exceptional.

‘THE CRUCIBLE’ gets a brilliant production

Arthur Miller, one of America’s greatest modern playwrights, penned ‘THE CRUCIBLE’ as a protest against Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt for Communists in the government and entertainment industry during the early 1950s. The country was in hysteria for fear of Russia and its emergence as a major power. McCarthy fed on that hysteria, much like the religious fanatics of Massachusetts colony set upon so-called witches because of the hard times facing the people of the late 17th century.

This play is relevant today as the Bush administration, using the hysteria of 9-11, has conducted witch hunts and taken away citizen civil rights. Much of this philosophy centers on a line right out of Miller’s play, “You are either with us or against us.” The play also reflects attitudes of the present day religious right, who, much like the Salem religious fanatics, hunt out those not agreeing with their interpretation of what is right and wrong. They attack homosexuals, those who believe in abortion, and those who champion stem cell research, for “poisoning” the “good” folk.

The story concerns an accusation against Goode Proctor by a teenaged girl who, after having a sexual affair with Proctor’s husband, John, accuses Goode Proctor and others of being witches. The chief magistrate, much like Joseph McCarthy, or today’s right wing judges, closes his eyes to facts and is swayed by his own agenda. In the process, the question of one’s reputation comes center stage. Proctor, after standing up for those who are being killed in the name of “righteousness,” cries out, after refusing to sign a document in which he would falsely agree that he has seen the devil, “My name, I must have my name.”

The Shaw production is brilliant. This is the finest staging of ‘THE CRUCIBLE’ that I have ever seen. It is flawless. The acting, the pacing, the staging, the tension are all perfectly honed.

Director Tadeusz Bradecki has created a scary, yet true illusion. Peter Hartwell’s set design enhances the visual and emotional imagery.

Benedict Campbell is brilliant as John Proctor, as is Kelli Fox (sister of Michael J. Fox) as Elizabeth. Jim Mezon is scary as the closed minded “holier than thou” Deputy Governor. Charlotte Gowdy, as Abigail Williams, the lying teenager, is so real, she is spooky with her total disregard for the truth. The rest of the cast is equally superb.

The audience sat in shocked silence at the conclusion of the play...a perfect tribute to as perfect a theatrical experience as one might ever experience.

It is a shame and a blessing that a play like ‘THE CRUCIBLE’ has to exist. However, as witch-hunts continue, the theatre must have a voice like Miller’s to protest the taking away of rights. And, if such messages must be given a life, then they should be presented as brilliantly as the Shaw production!

‘THE HEIRESS’ gets as perfect a theatrical production as one will experience The year is 1850. The setting is a well-appointed parlor in New York’s very fashionable Washington Square. We are introduced to the Sloper family--an embittered doctor who lost his wife in childbirth, his widowed sister, and his extraordinarily shy daughter (Catherine). This is a family in which civility, a lack of feelings, and frustrations are ever-present. Into this setting comes a handsome young bachelor (Morris), a potential suitor for Catherine. Is the penniless man a fortune-hunter after Catherine’s money or does he really love her? Only the startling conclusion reveals the answer.

Director Joseph Ziegler has created a well-thought out production. The play is well paced, clearly builds the tensions, is perfectly acted, and leads the audience to a collective verbal gasp at the conclusion.

The sets and costumes are elegant.

The drama and humor are perfectly keyed. Michael Ball creates a totally believable embittered Dr. Slopes. Tara Roisling is flawless in her portrayal of the tortured Catherine. Her transition in the closing scene of the play is an acting tour-de-force. Mike Shara is such a cad as Catherine’s suitor that several audience members booed as he came out for his curtain call, unable to separate the actor from the role. As in ‘THE CRUCIBLE,’ the supporting cast is superb.

Shaw’s ‘THE HEIRESS” is as perfect a theatrical piece as one will experience.

The words “Anton Chekhov” and “funny” are not usually found in the same sentence. Chekhov, the theatrical voice that predicted major changes in Russia in the early 1900s, is credited with being the foremost arts commentator on the cracks in the veneer of the aristocracy of the pre-Soviet Union. As one of the fathers of the realistic movement in the theatre, his writing is often philosophical and is dramatic with occasional humorous overtones. What many people don’t know is that Chekhov was a popular faceur. Interspersed between his “THREE SISTERS’ and ‘THE CHERRY ORCHARD’ there were short plays with hilarious glimpses of love and courtship, and about peoples’ foibles beyond political and social lessons.

Two of Chekhov’s Russia-lite pieces are ‘THE BEAR’ and ‘THE PROPOSAL,’ which have been coupled by the Shaw Festival into a 50-minute noon-time delight entitled, ‘LOVE AMONG THE RUSSIANS.’

Plot lines are really irrelevant here. The important matter is that Director Eda Holmes has created two hysterically funny, audience-loving, enjoyable tidbits. Only a person totally devoid of humor could leave the tiny Court House theatre after seeing ‘LOVE AMONG THE RUSSIANS’ and not have had a wonderful time. As a woman behind me said to her friend as we exited, “I laughed so hard, I think I wet my panties.” Her friend responded, “I don’t have to think about it, I know I did!” What better commentary can I give to this delightful production?

‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ done as a delightful farce
A director of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ has a decision to make. Should the play be staged s a comedy or as an outright no-holds barred farce? The former approach allows Shaw’s lines to carry the humor and create the message. The latter requires that the audience be primed to laugh at what is happening on stage, in other words, to laugh at the outlandishness of the actors, the setting, and even the costumes. The message then sneaks in.

Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw’s Artistic Director, has decided to present ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ as a no-holds-barred farce.

The characters are so much bigger than life that they are totally unbelievable. The lines are so broadly presented that everything short of holding up “laugh now” signs are present.

Even the costumes are overdone and outlandish. The flamboyant military uniforms are brilliant red and decorated with numerous metals and braid. The brightly colored female costumes are harem dancer-influenced, though the play takes place in Bulgaria.

The sets are also overdone. A huge library, supposedly the only library in the country, contains less than ten carefully placed books. Even the set changes are overdone.

This is a production played for laughs, which highlight Shaw’s usual messages including women’s rights (“People don’t live up to their ideals.”), the ridiculousness of the upper classes (“Everything I think is mocked by everything I do.”), the stupidity of war (“War is a sham, like love.”), and the absurdity of existence (“Life’s a farce.”).

The story, into which the messages are encased, concerns Raina, the wealthy young daughter of a rich nobleman and her relationships with a pompous weak-minded yet extremely handsome military bumbler as well as the “Chocolate Soldier,” an intelligent, charming mercenary who is befriended when he sneaks into her bed chamber in order to avoid being killed by her countrymen. Through a series of unbelievable and silly incidents, which is what farce is all about, everyone and everything turns out exactly as it should.

The production is a laugh-loaded delight. Don’t go in looking for the message, arrive ready to have a good time and you’ll enjoy the goings-on. If you don’t like the outlandish, the over-the-top plea for laughs, and slapstick comedy, you’ll be utterly frustrated. If you trust Maxwell and her cast and you’ll have fun and might accidentally learn something.

‘DESIGN FOR LIVING’ is Noel Coward at his best

Noel Coward is the crown prince of sophisticated comedies.

As a life-long friend of Alfred Lunt and his wife Lynn Fontainne, often considered the most famous acting couple in the English-speaking theatre, ‘DESIGN FOR LIVING’ has a somewhat historical glow of the menage-de-trois bisexual relationship between the trio.

The play opened at the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland on January 2, 1932 to rave reviews before going to Broadway, where the reaction was not quite as positive.

The show is a laugh delight as the trio trades partners, insults and generally causes havoc in the society and art worlds of New York, Paris and London.

The sets and costumes are wonderful. The production qualities are of equal excellence. The cast is well-balanced, play well off each other, and create a grand-old-time for the audience.

‘HIGH SOCIETY’ misses the production mark
‘HIGH SOCIETY’ is the musical version of Philip Barry’s play and George Cukor’s movie ‘THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.’ A romantic love story, which uses cleverness to hide darkness and underlying pain, concerns a wealthy family’s attempts to find happiness in all sorts of configurations. Don’t get the idea that this is a great script. It’s not. It fails to live up to its birth sources.

Cole Porter is the crown prince of clever musical theatre lyrics. He writes outrageously fascinating rhyme schemes. In a unique twist, this musical’s score wasn’t really written for this script. In 1997, long after Porter’s death, Arthur Kopit, who wrote the book, was given permission by the Porter estate to draw freely from the composer’s songbook in his quest to develop the story. If necessary, words were allowed to be adapted to help the song-script union. This unusual composing development permits songs to be dropped in, rather than integrated into the story. The musical sounds often don’t fit seamlessly into some of the scenes into which they have been transplanted. The result is a very choppy show.

The Shaw’s production is not bad, it just isn’t great. The show has a Canadian form of aloofness which is not the same as New England sophistication. (Think Katharine Hepburn as an illusion of what the lead character should be.) This is a play of polite cleverness rather than out-and-out US American bite and edge.

The singing voices are good, the visual illusions are fine. There is a degree of slapstick that doesn’t fit the Porter, Barry or Cukor concept which bother my sensibility, but probably won’t get in the way of many enjoying the production.

Melissa Peters steals the show as a youngster, wise beyond her years, who manipulates the adults like a master puppeteer.

THE INVISIBLE MAN’ suffers from special effect lite

H. G. Wells perceived the future through a set of eyes that saw images of what was going to be. Many much of his scientific and sociological visions have come true in one form or another. In his book ‘THE INVISIBLE MAN,’ Wells created a situation in which a man could take a drug and become invisible. Though this hasn’t been achieved yet, per se, such devices as x-rays, MRIs have been developed to allow us to see into the interior of humans.

The Shaw production gets waylaid by a series of happenings. Special effects in movies and on-stage have become so vivid and real that anything less than real and spectacular leave much to be desired. Staging the show in such an intimate theatre also makes faking the needed illusionary effects impossible. In addition, Michael O’Brien’s script is not well conceived. The actions and ideas often don’t flow clearly. Adding to the problem is the size of the Royal George Theatre’s tiny stage. Everything seems cramped and actors have to dodge around each other, creating awkward stage pictures.

Of all the plays I saw at Shaw this season, ‘THE INVISIBLE MAN’ was the weakest script and production and the one which received the least applause from the audience.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Shaw soars this season! Of the plays I saw, I’d strongly recommend ‘THE CRUCIBLE,’ ‘THE HEIRESS,’ ‘LOVE AMONG THE RUSSIANS, ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ and ‘DESIGN FOR LIVING.’

Side note: Be aware that the days of low cost due to the high value of the American dollar against the Canadian dollar, are over. The exchange rate is almost equal, dollar for dollar. (If you are interested in info about the whole theatrical season, which runs well into November, and where to stay, what to do and where to eat, go to and search in the 2006 review summaries for the Shaw listings.)

Our Town (Porthouse Theatre/KSU)

‘OUR TOWN’ is effectively and uniquely staged at Porthouse

I consider ‘OUR TOWN,’ which is now being performed at Porthouse Theatre, on the grounds of the Blossom Center, to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. It not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, has become one of the most performed and studied plays in the English language.

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

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

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

Wilder writes exact stage directions in the script. No scenery, the lines say, but some suggestions are made. Usually two trellises, two ladders, and chairs and tables are used. The New England dialect is another specific device. The “ay yehs” and other area sounds are on the printed page. It is here that you must be warned about the ‘OUR TOWN’ at Porthouse. Matthew Earnest, the show’s director, has thrown much of the traditional Wilder devices to the wind. No ladders, no trellises, no New England accents. He has given the show a whole new feel. Instead of slowly paced, the actors and scene people charge around the stage, the stage manager is a theatre stage manager, not a town spokesman, per se. He plays for laughs, but doesn’t lose the pathos.

If you are a Wilder traditionalist, it’s going to take you a while to adjust to Earnest’s concept. I wiggled through much of the first act as the barefoot actors ran hither and yon. But then I found myself fascinated by how the interpretation, instead of ruining my experience, heightened it. I finally concluded that this production worked, and worked well!

Wilder divided the play into three segments, each with a clear title: Act I: Daily Life, Act II: Love and Marriage, and Act III: Death. Earnest has highlighted the differences by pacing them to fit the specific actions of the act. Again, very creative.

The cast is excellent. Monica Bell and Elizabeth Ann Townsend are superlative as Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb. Rohn Thomas has the right touch for Doc Gibbs. His father-son talk with his son George (Ryan Stutz) was a delight as was the scene between George and his father-in-law (Christopher Seiler). Lenne Snively was endearing as Mrs. Soames, the town busy-body.

John Woodson gave a whole new interpretation to the role of the Stage Manager. He did it effectively with creativity and confidence.

Emily Pote was physically picture-perfect as Emily and did a creditable job, though I would have preferred a less cocky attitude. Her “goodbye to life” speech in the third act was a little fast, not getting the emotional feel out of the scene. This is one of the most plaintive scenes in American theatre. How can anyone not be touched by her plaintiff question, “Do people ever really appreciate life when they’re living it?” Or, the answer, “Some, saints and poets, maybe.”

Stutz was very good as George, though he didn’t fit Wilder’s description of a “great gangling thing;” but, his acting was right on and his boyish innocence worked nicely.

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

I was disappointed in the lighting by well known designer Severn Clay. There were dark spots on stage and actors sometimes were in the dark or partly in the dark for no theatrical reason. This was very apparent in Act III.

S. Q. Campbells’s costumes were era correct, though all the white was sometimes distracting.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you’ve ever seen a traditional production of ‘OUR TOWN,’ you are going to have to leave your pre-conceptions at the theatre’s entrance or you’ll fight with the interpretation. Just sit back, take director Matthew Earnest’s concept as a legitimate alternative, and you’ll enjoy it. If you haven’t seen the play before, and need a good shot of appreciation for life, go see the Porthouse production.

Buddy (Carousel Dinner Theatre)

‘BUDDY’ rocks the Carousel

If I didn’t know better, I’d assume Buddy Holly was presently performing at Carousel Dinner Theatre...but more about that later.

The musical, ‘BUDDY: THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY,’ which is basically a rock concert overlaid with a biographic story line, tells of the rise and tragic death of rock-and-roll superstar Buddy Holly. It was written by Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson.

Holly was born Charles Holley in Lubbock, Texas. He had a love for music and was a local bluegrass entertainer until 1955 when, after seeing Elvis Presley sing, he turned to rock-and-roll. After an appearance on the same bill as Bill Haley & His Comets, Holly was offered a contract with Decca Records, who not only changed the spelling of his name to “Holly” but tried to get him to return to his bluegrass roots. The young man, who once said, “Buddy Holly does things his way,” refused and was dropped by the record label.

Shortly afterwards, Holly, drummer Jerry Allison, and bass player Joe Mauldin formed the band “The Crickets.” They cut a record at a small studio in Clovis, New Mexico, entitled, “That’ll Be the Day,” and the rest is history. Songs such as “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday,” “Not Fade Away,” ”Oh Boy,” “Raining in My Heart,” “Rave On” and “Johnny B Good” followed.

Holly's musical sounds and lyrics were quite sophisticated for their day and led to his being a primary force in the evolution of rock-and-roll. He bridged the gap between white and black rockers. Paul McCartney cited Holly as a primary influence on the Beattles. Even the band's name was later chosen partly in homage to Holly's Crickets. The Rolling Stones also fell under the influence of Holly’s style.

In 1959, Holly split from the Crickets and began a solo tour with other notable performers, including Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper").
Following the February 2 performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy Holly chartered a small airplane to transport Valens, Richardson and himself to their next gig. The plane crashed shortly after take-off, ending Holly’s short but meteoric career.

The Carousel production, under the able direction of Victoria Bussert, though a little long, is right on target. The show is generally well cast. Steve Parsons’ musical direction is tone right. Paul Black’s lighting and Russ Borski’s set all work to enhance the production.

John Rochette, as drummer Jerry Allison, is a terrific musician as is base player Tobia D’Amore (Joe Mauldin). Michael Busillo lights up the stage as the hip wiggling Ritchie Valens and Ryan Dunkin does a great enactment of the Big Bopper. The musical backups and character actors are all excellent.

The success of this production, however, depends entirely on the believability of the actor playing Holly. And, fortunately, Canton born Pat McRoberts doesn’t portray Holly, he lives Holly, he sings Holly, he dances Holly and he musically is Holly. McRoberts is Holly in every nuance. This is an amazing performance! Repeat....THIS IS AN AMAZING PERFORMANCE!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Are you a rock-and-roll fan? Do you appreciate the music of Buddy Holly? Do you like a well put-together production? If so, you’ll love ‘BUDDY: THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY’ now on stage at Carousel. Even if you don’t love rock-and-roll, I defy you not to wind up dancing in the aisles during the curtain call.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Verbs Ballets (Cain Park)

Verb Ballets presents another sold-out concert

No, it wasn’t a rock group or a nationally known entertainer at Cain Park. It was Verb Ballets presenting a dance concert. As has become the pattern at the company’s presentations, it was sold out.

Featuring the well-conceived choreography of Hernando Cortez, and the well disciplined dancing of his company, Verb has established itself as the “in” large dance company of Cleveland.

The Cain Park program, which had no overall title, was composed of four selections. The evening opened with ‘PRELUDE AND SIX EASY PIECES’ danced to the music of Jonathan Sheffer as recorded by pianist Michael Schneider. A quiet and lovely piece, the modern moves to the classical sounds was more soothing than compelling. The highlight segment was the “Prelude” duet by blonde and statuesque DeAnn Petruschke and powerful Mark Tomasic. “Prelude after Chopin” received a lovely interpretation by Catherine Meredith and Anna Roberts.

“SPEED (The Icarus Project)” is a delightful crowd pleaser based on the ‘SPEED RACER’ kid’s television show. It features Tomasic as Speed/Icarus and Danielle Brickman, Catherine Meredith and Anna Roberts as Wings/Trixie. The audience thoroughly enjoyed the piece.

‘BOLERO,” danced to the music of Ravel, and choreographed by the late Heinz Poll was created in 1996. The version presented was restaged by Amy Miller of the Groundworks company. The precise movements, done with closed eyes, found the performers dancing basically in place as their bodies moved to the sensual music. It was a brilliant presentation whose conclusion was met with a screaming response from the audience.

The first time I viewed ‘TWO HOURS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD,’ Cortez’s tribute to 9/11, I thought it failed to fully get the desired impact. Again, this time around, I found my mind wandering as the piece failed to command my full attention. My views appeared not to be personal as the audience’s response was polite applause.

In spite of its reputation, Verb Ballets may be at a crossroad. Their female company is excellent, but, their male corps is lacking. Except for Mark Tomasic, who it is rumored may soon be retiring, the company has no strong male dancers. Jason Ignacio is a good dancer, but because of his short stature, he is limited in the roles he can undertake. In the recent program, Christopher Morgan was brought in. Morgan does not fit well with the company’s style. He lacks the power and precision for Cortez’s choreography. It can only be hoped that Cortez will seek out some excellent male dancers. With the apparent demise of Ohio Ballet, there may be some of their corps, in particular the excellent Brian Murphy, who could fill the void.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Groundworks (Cain Park)

GROUNDWORKS expands repertoire at Cain Park

David Shimotakahara is unique among dance company artistic directors. He is not only a perfectionist when it comes to developing precise dance numbers, and is a superb dancer, but he is also willing to take risks. He schedules his company into various venues...churches, public buildings, parks, traditional theatres and botanical gardens with an eye for reaching out to various publics. He also stretches his company by inviting new works by other choreographers, and has a stable of exciting musicians whose creations become new dance pieces.

The company’s recent performances at Cain Park’s Alma Theatre, which is a perfect venue for a company whose work invites close proximity, was a fine evening of entertainment.

‘IRON LUNG,‘ the opening piece, was the least crowd appealing. Choreographed by Kelly Garfield whose work has been described as “crazy smart, poetically subversive and brutally fun,” ‘IRON LUNG’ examines loss and recovery. It was not unified, often failing to flow together. The movements did not parallel the words of the music by Aqualung. It also failed to play to the company’s strengths...the ability to have controlled and meaningful movements. This was definitely not the same quality as Shimotakahara’s conceptions. Though well-danced, the company did not display its usual emotional involvement.

‘ELEVENELEVEN ,’ a world premiere dance choreographed by Artistic Associate and company member Amy Miller, with music by wonderkindt Ryan Lott, saw bodies flowing in parallel to the creative music. Exploring connectedness, there was a nice feeling created by the dancers working as one. The powerful ending brought a positive reaction from the audience. Like Miller herself, the piece was powerful and was greatly aided by Dennis Dugan’s well designed lighting.

Shimotakahara’s newest work, ‘LATITUDE,’ was a total audience pleaser. The ending was met with screaming praise and a standing ovation that continued well after most displays of appreciation. The movements, which fit the creative music of Hal Walker, were perfectly executed. Walker, who was on stage during the performance, and was even incorporated into the dancing itself, searches out and uses varying non-traditional instruments. He alternately and sometimes even simultaneously played the concertina, harmonica, Jews harp, and several instruments which defied definition. This was a delightful piece which found the dancers adding to the musical sounds by hand/thigh slapping. The company would be well-advised to have Walker conceive more music for them to develop into dances to add to their repertoire.

Damien Highfield added his talent to the company’s four unbelievably competent dancers: Felise Bagley, Amy Miller, Mark Otloski and David Shimotakahara. He fits well into the controlled meld of the others. Also dancing was Jennifer Lott, who has been with the company in recent performances. Lott, though she has developed under Shimotakahara’s coaching, still does not have the power of Miller or the grace of Bagley. Her style needs more honing to match the other company members.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: GroundWorks Dancetheater once again proved, in its Cain Park presentation, that it is the area’s premiere small modern and contemporary dance company.