Saturday, August 25, 2007

Spotlight on Martin Cespedes


Who is the best theatre choreographer in the Greater Cleveland area? If awards and critical acclaim are the measuring stick, Westlake resident and Lorain Admiral King graduate Martin Cespedes could well be the correct answer.

The forty-six year old Cespedes is the recipient of nine Times Theatre Tributes Awards. He was nominated by Northern Ohio Live for their Theater Award in 2005, 2006 and again this year. He was named by Scene Magazine as Cleveland’s Best Choreographer of 2006. He was highlighted for his theatrical work by Bravo magazine.

Cespedes’s creativity has recently been seen in Cain Park’s ‘NINE’ and ‘OLIVER,’ and Beck Center’s ‘EQUUS’ and ‘JEKYLL AND HYDE.’ He directed and choreographed ‘SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE’ and ‘FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE’ at Beck and ‘AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ and ‘MY WAY (the music of Frank Sinatra)’ at Weathervane Playhouse.

Born in New York, Cespedes is a first generation American. His mother, who was a professional singer, is Puerto Rican. His father is Spanish.

When did he become interested in theatrical dance? He says, “Though I lived in New York, as a child I never had seen a Broadway show. When I was 7, I saw the movie ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ on television and was hit by a lightening bolt. We were quite poor and lived in a building with a fire escape and I spent a lot of time out there reliving that musical.”

He started to gain his dance knowledge when, in fifth grade, he was selected to participate in the elite Jacques d’Amboise’s National Dance Institute in New York City’s PS 161 Program. He was active in that group until, after his parent’s divorce, he moved to Lorain to be near his mother’s family.

During his Admiral King days, he danced in and choreographed local shows and was selected to appear on Cleveland TV’s ‘DANCE FEVER’ and NBC’s ‘WEEKDAY FEVER.’ After graduation he continued his training as an apprentice at the Denver Dance Theatre. While studying there, he saw a casting call for a professional western area tour of ‘GUYS AND DOLLS.’ He tried out, was selected, dropped out of the Denver company, and his professional career was underway.

He went on to appear in the national tours of ‘MAN OF LA MANCHA’ with Jack Jones, ‘THE KING AND I’ with Hayley Mills, ‘SOUTH PACIFIC’ with Robert Goulet and ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ with Bebe Neuwirth. He danced in opening acts for “Earth, Wind and Fire” and the “Bee Gees.”

Cepedes worked as John Kenley’s assistant, and performed and ran dance rehearsals, during the legendary producer’s last several seasons in Akron. He recently served as associate choreographer and fight captain for the PBS production of ‘LE CID’ with Placido Domingo. He has also choreographed for Great Lakes Theatre Festival, Cleveland Opera and University of Akron Opera Department.

In addition to choreographing, Cespedes has taught dance for the School of the Cleveland Ballet and at Beck Center.

What is Cespedes’ choreographic style? He states, “Dancing original choreography of musical theatre classics has helped me forge my own craft and made me somewhat of a hybrid choreographer.”

His personal life? As he states, “I have none. Between touring and long rehearsal times I not only don’t have time for socialization, but I even miss important family events like weddings and holidays. Sometimes people in the shows I’m working on don’t understand why I don’t go to cast parties or out with them after rehearsals. They don’t understand that my personal privacy is very important to me and sometimes I just need to be alone.”

What’s in the future? Having just been inducted into SSDC, the national union for directors and choreographers, Cespedes feels he is “at the point where I am ready to break out.” Does this mean he will leave Cleveland? Though locals may hope not, it is going to be hard to keep this talented man in the area if Broadway or other prestige venues call.

Whatever happens in the future, the contributions Martin Cespedes has made to the local theatre scene will never be forgotten!

(The factual information for this article was supplied by Martin Cespedes.)

Theatre calender, Fall/2007

An overview of some local Fall ’07 theatre offerings

Around this time every year I’m asked, “What should I see this fall?” I can’t tell you what to see, at least not until I’ve seen the productions, but I can tell what’s scheduled at some of the local theatres and give a quickie preview of what each show is about.


October 9-14
A razzle dazzle musical tale of sin and celebrity.

October 16-28
A musical comedy with tons of laughs and the most 2006 Tony Awards of any musical that opened last year on Broadway!

Hal Holbrook in ‘MARK TWAIN TONIGHT’
November 3
Samuel Clemens returns to the banks of the Cuyahoga River when Hal Holbrook comes to Playhouse Square.

November 13-18
Disney Theatrical Productions have created an exciting stage version of the phenomenal Disney’s High School Musical!

November 27 –December 9
What seems like an open-and-shut murder case becomes a twisted puzzle of prejudice and intrigue.

Tickets: 216-0241-6000 or 1-800-766-6048 or online at


September 12-December 2
The latest version of the inventive and scathing production that pays homage to Broadway’s biggest shows and brightest stars.
Performance times are Wednesday through Friday evenings at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 5:00 pm and 8:30 pm and Sunday at 2:00pm.

Tickets: 216-241-6000 or 1-800-766-6048 or online at


August 17th - September 9th, 2007

A Tony-award winning play in which a major league baseball player announces that he is gay. Dobama’s impressive production explores character, friendship, and what it means to be a man. (Note: The show contains full-frontal male nudity) For a review of this show:

Presented at Cleveland State Factory Theater, East 24th Street and Chester Avenue

For tickets call 216-932-3396 and leave a message. Tickets will be held for you at the performance. Or go on-line at


September 27 - October 21 2007

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Based on the play THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT by Jean Giraudoux, it asks, “Who will save Paris from greedy oil tycoons determined to blow it up in search of black gold?” Enter a madcap rescue team of bohemians who believe poetry, love and idealism conquer all.

Box Office: 216.321.0870 or


‘PURLIE VICTORIOUS’ (Classic Comedy) by Ossie Davis
September 28 - October 21
Newly ordained preacher, Purlie Victorious Judson, returns to his family’s sharecropper cabin to reacquire the local church and ring the “Freedom Bell.”

‘BLACK NATIVITY’ (Gospel Musical) by Langston Hughes
December 7 -30
Black Nativity is focused on the religious and spiritual aspects of the Christmas story. It is performed with gospel music and colorful costuming within a dance context.


‘ARSENIC AND OLD LACE’ by Joseph Kesselring
A drama critic learns that his beloved maiden aunts are homicidal and that insanity runs in his family. Bodies in the window seat, murder as an act of kindness and Teddy Roosevelt leading a charge. Let the fun begin!

‘MEASURE FOR MEASURE’ by William Shakespeare
One of the Bard’s problem plays, often classified as a comedy, in which the Duke of Vienna leaves the government in the hands of a strict judge who is known to be a hard-liner on matters of sexual immorality. Let the conflicts begin!

‘ are presented in repertory from September 21-October 21

‘A CHRISTMAS CAROL’ by Charles Dickens
November 23-December 23
Tiny Tim, Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Let the holiday season begin!

Tickets” 216-664-6064 or


September 14 – October 7
WORLD PREMIERE…A kaleidoscope of beautiful love songs, hilarious send-ups of Broadway, haunting tunes of days gone by, and reflections of the pure joy of living.

‘DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’ by Linda Woolverton, Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice
November 30 – December 30
The Beck continues its holiday tradition with this third and final production of the classic Disney musical with many of the same cast. Fred Sternfeld again directs.

‘HOLY GHOSTS’ by Romulus Linney
September 28 – October 21
A tale of a Smokey Mountain sect blends both drama and dark comedy which builds to a startling climax.

‘ALL THE GREAT BOOKS (ABRIDGED)’ by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor
November 16 – December 16
CLEVELAND PREMIERE…a wild evening concerning everything you didn't get around to reading in high school and college!

Tickets: 216-521-2540


‘THE DEAD GUY’ by Eric Coble
September 21-October 21
You have one million dollars to spend in seven days. At the end of that time, the audience decides how you are going to die!

’BUG’ by Tracy Letts
November 2-December 2
Things are going well for a waitress with a fondness for cocaine and a soft spoken Gulf War drifter, until her abusive ex-husband is released from prison.

December 7-December 30
A one-man show that delivers searing commentary on topics from panhandlers to barbecue-crazed millionaires.

Tickets: 330-606-5317


November 16 - December 2
Based on the Academy Award winning animated feature.
Plays performed at St. Patrick’s Club Building, 3606 Bridge Avenue,.

Tickets and information call 216-961-9750


‘MAN OF LA MANCHA’ by Dale Wasserman
Drury Theatre, September 14 – October 7
Winner of five Tony Awards, the “Dream the Impossible Dream” musical, is an adventure narrated by a prisoner who recounts a fable of righting all wrongs and winning the heart of one’s true love.

A mystery featuring the world’s greatest detective, the King of Bohemia, a notorious photograph, a kidnapping, and of course, Holmes’ great nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

‘THE CHOSEN’ by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok
Drury Theatre, November 2-25
Set amid the intellectual and religious turmoil of the 1940’s in America, the play dramatizes the universal challenges of coming of age and a heartfelt path to understanding and reconciliation.

‘A CHRISTMAS STORY,’ adapted by Philip Grecian
Bolton Theatre, November 29 – December 23
Based on the movie filmed in Cleveland in 1983, this classic holiday comedy is a funny and sweet tale of growing up in the 1940s. Suitable for ages 5 and up –back by popular demand!

Tickets: 216-795-7000

New at CPH: Sweetwater Restaurant Group, operated by Gary Lucarelli, will operate a public restaurant in the space formerly occupied by The Cleveland Play House Club. The new restaurant, Stages at The Cleveland Play House, opens in mid- September.


‘ROUNDING THIRD’ by Richard Dresser
September 13-30
The tumultuous journey of two Little League fathers, with different philosophies of life and winning, who co-coach a team to the climactic championship game.

‘MEDEA’ by Euripides, translated and adapted by Robinson Jeffers. October 18-November 4
Having saved her husband’s life, Medea is spurned by him when he re-marries for political power. She wreaks aweful and awful revenge on him.

‘A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS IN WALES’ adapted to the stage by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell
November 29-December 23
Dylan Thomas’s boyhood memories of Wales.
Tickets: 330-342-0800. Mail orders can be sent to Actors' Summit, 86 Owen Brown Street, Hudson, OH 44236, and email orders may be sent to:


Oct. 11- 27: ‘AT-TEN-TION SPAN: A FESTIVAL OF 10-MINUTE PLAYS.’ An evening of work by local and national writers.

An original work created and performed by the Men of Y-Haven based on their personal experiences.

David Sedaris' hilarious retelling of his days as a Macy’s elf.


Oct. 18 – Nov. 3: ‘Osama the Hero” by Dennis Kelly. In this angry, explosive, controversial new work, garages are blowing up all over the neighborhood and vigilantes hunt down someone to shoulder the blame. Ohio and regional premiere

Nov. 8 –18: “LITTLE BOX’
A series of staged readings modeled after the successful Big Box series but on a smaller scale. Designed to foster works by local playwrights and producers at an earlier stage of development.

Nov. 29 – Dec. 22: ‘PULP’ by Patricia Kane, music by Amy Warren and Andre Pluess, lyrics by Patricia Kane.
A sexy and over-the top all female musical comedy takeoff of the lesbian pulp fiction of the 1930’s through the 1950’s. Ohio and Regional Premiere.

Tickets: 216.631.2727 or go to

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Michael May reviews the reviewer's review

Hi, Mr. Berko.

This is Michael May from the show "Take Me Out". I'm writing to thank you for your attendance and review of the show. I'm very glad that you enjoyed it. Thank you for recommending it to your readers.

Thank you, also, for your suggestions for the improvement of it. You were very fair and accurate in your comments. The importance of articulation was something that our director was consistently on us about. Particularly, because of the type of space we were performing in, we needed to be, and still need to be, mindful of that.

I don't have much else to say. I just wanted to say "Thank you", so "Thank you".

Best wishes to you,
Michael May

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Seussical! The Musical

Entertaining ‘SEUSSICAL! THE MUSICAL’ at Mercury Summer Stock

Pierre-Jacques Brault, the founder and Artistic Director of Mercury Summer Theatre, which is now staging ‘SEUSSICAL! THE MUSICAL,’ has a difficult task. He is working with a company that has a shoe-string budget, performs in a Parma theatre with little stage space, and needs to locate performers and technicians who are willing to spend long rehearsal hours for little or no pay.

In spite of these drawbacks, Brault finds a way to stage audience-pleasing productions. The talented, enthusiastic and ever-smiling Brault, has accomplished this by building a group of loyal disciples who follow the person who, one of his advocates describes as, “The heart and soul of Mercury” and “who I’d do anything for.”

Now, make no grandiose assumptions. Mercury’s productions are not shows that compare with stagings by the area’s professional theatres, but that’s not the mission of Mercury. They want to “serve the community by entertaining, enlightening and celebrating the best of human spirit through art.” And, with all their limitations, they do a nice job.

Mercury’s final production of their 2007 season is ‘SEUSSICAL! THE MUSICAL.’
The show, which is based on the books of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, had its debut on Broadway in 2000. During the Broadway run, such luminaries as Rosie O'Donnell and Cathy Rigby played the role of the show’s narrator, The Cat in the Hat.

The play's story is an amalgamation of many of Seuss' most famous books.
The lynch pin of the show is Horton, the sweet and naive elephant, who endeavors to protect the people of Who-ville while sitting on an abandoned bird’s egg.

Lynn Ahrens and Steven Flaherty’s music and lyrics include such delights as “Alone in the Universe,” “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think!” and “It’s Possible.”

Brault’s staging is generally cute and clever. His choreography fits the level of the dancers. The cast, as is the case with most community theatre amateur productions, is uneven.

Daniel Marshall switches personas easily as the Cat In The Hat. Though his singing quality is inconsistent, he is endearing. Dan Dicello, is appealing as the lovable Horton, though he is also erratic in his vocalizations.

Molly Richards is absolutely delightful as Gertrude McFuzz. Her “The One Feather Tail of Miss Gertrude McFuzz” is a show stopper. Kelvette Beacham wailed as Sour Kangaroo.

Noah Weinstein and Annie Hickey were right on as Thing One and Thing Two while Miles Sternfeld had some nice moments as Jojo. Brian Marshall and Danielle Renard were wonderful as the Mayor of Who and the Mayor’s wife.

As is the case when a play is child-appealing, I took a member of my “kid’s reviewing squad” to ‘SEUSSICAL!.’ Eleven year-old Alex Berko gave the show an 8 1/2 on a scale of ten. He loved the comedy elements, but thought the singing was “not as good as it should have been.” He thought the Cat, who was one of his favorites, made every joke work. He loved Gertrude McFuzz and thought Jojo was “really good.” He felt the show started slowly, but said, “I guess they had to tell the audience who everyone was, because not everyone has read the Seuss books, but it did slow things down.” As a musician (he’s a talented pianist), he thought the orchestra sounded a “little tinny.” The show’s messages? “A person’s a person no matter how small” and “we all need someone to believe in.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Mercury’s ‘SEUSSICAL! THE MUSICAL,’ is a pleasant theatrical experience. Smaller kids may have a little trouble sitting through it as the story doesn’t follow each Seuss tale in order or detail. But, in general, they should do fine and adults will enjoy themselves as well.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Take Me Out

Dobama hits a home run with ‘TAKE ME OUT’

Homophobia, racism, the meaning of masculinity, and the search for identity are at the very core of ‘TAKE ME OUT,’ Richard Greenberg’s drama with comic overtones, now being performed by Dobama .

‘TAKE ME OUT,’ which opened off-Broadway in 2003, became an instant success and was transferred on-Broadway later that same year. It ran for 355 performances and garnered the Tony Award for Best Play.

Professional sports is a world unto itself. There are written and unwritten rules, not only on how to play the game, but how to protect the “men’s club” that has been perpetuated in the world of athletics. For example, to date, no male major league baseball, football or basketball player has openly declared his homosexuality while being an active participant. The closest was Glenn Burke, the creator of the “high five” gesture, who played with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics from 1976 to 1979. He was out to his teammates and team owners, but not to the general public.

In ‘TAKE ME OUT,’ Greenberg uses the precedence to ask the question,’ “What would happen if an active major league player did come out?”

Darren Lemming, a mixed-race star for the Empires (a Yankee-like team) is at the top of his career. He has a spotless reputation. For some unexplained reason he decides to "out" himself during a press conference. The result is a series of incidents which exposes how his relationships with teammates, media and fans changes.

While Lemming is the central character in the play, Greenberg uses another player, Kippy Sunderstrom, as the narrator to describe the action. As he leads us, we watch games unfold, locker room interactions, behind the scenes problems develop. We see how Lemming’s admission affects the team and individual relationships.

The situation reaches its climax when Shane Mungitt, a southern, uneducated, unworldly, new “phoneme” relief pitcher is asked a question at a press conference. Not knowing the “rules,” he goes off about “spics, gooks, niggers” and even the “faggot” he has to shower with after the game. In reality, his answer is not unlike that given by John Rocker, a former Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indian’s relief pitcher, who caused a ruckus with is description of New York City in a Sports Illustrated article in January 2000. He said, "Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark, looking like you're riding through Beirut, next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids.” The result, much like that in the play, was a public outcry and Rocker’s eventual suspension.

Dobama’s production, under the wise direction of Scott Plate, is outstanding. The acting is consistent, the pacing is generally excellent. The exception was the startling ending of the second act which was rushed and did not allow the audience to truly experience the extent of the havoc which they have just seen. A slow fade and holding the lights out at the end of the scene would have added to the tension. But, considering everything, that’s a minor issue.

Michael May evoked the necessary positive personal self-confidence and slightly below the surface vulnerability to make Lemming a real person.

Phil Carroll was attitude-perfect. He made it easy to understand why the intellectual and personable Kippy was the team’s leader, soul and conscience.

Caleb Sekeres was nothing short of astounding as Mason Marzac, a physically slight, nebbish-like gay financial planner, who was thrust upon Lemming after the star came out and the “big financial guns” didn’t want to be tainted by dealing with the now tarnished player. Sekeres not only falls in love with Lemming, but the game of baseball. His monologue when he exclaims, “Baseball is better than democracy--at least democracy as practiced in this country,” was a show highlight. It’s worth going just to experience Sekeres’s performance.

Fred Maurer, complete with ticks, spitting, confused look and verbal slurring, makes Shane Mungitt so very, very real. It’s a hard part to develop as Mungitt must be made to be sympathetic while being despicable. Maureer succeeds. Again, one of those special performances!

A combination of general poor articulation and disproportionate screaming in a key scene, made David Lemoyne (Davey Battle) often difficult to understand. He could have shown the same emotions without the excessive theatrics and yelling.

The rest of the cast was very proficient with each developing a consistent characterization. Adding to all of the usual character development issues was the need to feel comfortable while nude in several locker and shower scenes. There was no apparent discomfort on the part of the audience because the actors appeared at ease with their nudity and Plate had directed the scenes as a natural part of the entire locker room experience.

‘TAKE ME OUT’ is an intimate play. Jeff Herrmann’s set and Jeff Lockshine’s lighting helped establish the proper mood. Though the theatre in the square configuration sometimes led to not being able to hear some lines, depending on where the audience member was sitting, this was generally not a major problem. Aimee Kleiuber’s costumes were excellent. The mood of each scene was well set by sound designer Richard Ingraham’s selection of the different versions of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as they play progressed.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘TAKE ME OUT’ is another of those outstanding productions that has become the hallmark of Dobama. It is a must see for anyone interested in baseball, social issues or just good theatre!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Some Girl(s)

‘SOME GIRL(S),’ another Neil LaBute play at BANG AND CLATTER

Bang and Clatter, North Coast’s creative little theatre, is now staging Neil LaBute’s ‘SOME GIRL(S). LaBute is the red-hot playwright who penned such gems as ‘IN THE COMPANY OF MEN,’ which became a hit movie; ‘THE MERCY SEAT,’ which was one of the first major theatrical responses to the September 11, 2001 attacks; and ‘FAT PIG,’ which was given a compelling staging earlier this year by B&C.

LaBute, who is noted for writing “revenge plays,” in which women get even with a man who has wronged them, again skewers a man in ‘SOME GIRL(S).’

The story centers on Guy. We watch, well, kind of eavesdrop on him in various hotel rooms, as he revisits five major ex-girlfriends—as well as several others we don't see—prior to his forthcoming marriage. According to Guy, his motive for the visits is to apologize and make up for the breakups. In reality, he is acting out a much deeper psychological problem...his obsessive love ‘em/leave ‘em/feel no regrets way of life.

As the plot develops we start asking about Guy’s real intentions. Is he a “good guy” trying to make amends, or, is he a “bad guy” looking for new material for a tell-all story like the one he recently published, and with which some of the girls were not thrilled.

As is true of LaBute’s writing, each woman we meet has a highly individual language and personality. Eventually, true to LaBute’s theme, each repays Guy in her own way as reconciliation turns into retaliation, one with a slap, another through seduction, a third via guilt, a fourth via humiliation, and the fifth walking out when he expresses deep love for her.

The play opened for a professional run in 2005 in London with David Schwimmer of TV’s ‘FRIENDS’ playing the lead. When the show was transferred to NY in 2006, Schwimmer had another commitment so he was replaced by Eric McCormack of ‘WILL AND GRACE’ notoriety. The off-Broadway cast also included Fran Drescher (“THE NANNY’), Judy Reyes (‘SCRUBS’) and Maura Tierney (‘ER’). The play, in both productions, was a smash hit.

The Bang and Clatter production is quite acceptable, but not sterling. Its pace is too languid in many scenes, in fact most of the first act. Some of the tensions and laugh lines are lost due to the lack of keying of lines. The audience was forced to work too hard to grasp LaBute’s message and keep involved in the action.

Daniel McElhaney, though he tries hard, as can be witnessed by the cascades of sweat pouring down his face, isn’t totally up to the role of Guy. He does not have the charisma or physical appeal of Schwimmer nor the good looks or quirkiness of McCormick. It is rather difficult to believe that McElhaney was able to attract and bed all of these women. To be a “chick magnet” he needs to have some deep appeal, charisma and warmth. What is McElhaney’s? As for his acting, many of his lines, especially in the important ending of the play, seem undeveloped, without a concept of understanding nor clarity of meaning.

Sam (Margaret Morris), was Guy’s high school sweetheart whom he left with no explanation. She is now in an unfulfilling marriage and saddled with multiple children. Morris conveys an attitude of being properly angry, but much of her angst is displayed with contorted facial expressions that detract.

Tyler (Rachel Roberts) is a free spirit, nonintellectual and promiscuous. She and Guy enjoyed some kinky sex, and their breakup apparently suited her just as much as him, but she, too, makes him pay! Roberts physically fits the role of the beautiful Tyler, but seems a little uncomfortable with the demands of the part. This is the most talky scene, which seems to drag on and on.

Reggie (Lisa Siciliano) was twelve when eighteen year-old Guy kissed and inappropriately touched his best friend’s young sister. She was both confused and enthralled by the action. Johnson shows all the signs of someone in deep conflict, conveying the mood swings that are the results of the conflict between desire and guilt.

In Boston, where Guy was a college instructor, he had a clandestine adulterous affair with Lindsay (Laurel Johnson), an older colleague who was married to another academic. When their carryings-on were discovered, Guy fled and left her to face the humiliation alone. Johnson is excellent as the wronged Lindsay. She embodies the role and seems to have the clearest understanding of the whys of the revenge she plots.

Finally, in Los Angeles, there is Bobbi (Alanna Romansky), another who was loved and left. She may have been Guy’s real love, but he was unable to rid himself of his love ‘em but leave ‘em past. Romansky develops her role well and is generally believable.

Sean Derry’s set design and the set changes by the female members of the cast are quite clever. As Guy stays in hotels of the same chain, the rooms in which the encounters take place are marked by the same furniture, but through slight shifts of the scenery, they become superficial like Guy.

Capsule judgement: ‘SOME GIRL(S)’ is a thought provoking play with an interesting premise. Though acceptable, the production needed a leading man who more fit the physical and personality needs of the role, and who also understood the underlying motivations of the character. As is, it’s a show worth seeing, but is far from what it should be.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Lion King

Spectacular ‘LION KING’ roars into State Theatre

When it was proposed that the film ‘THE LION KING’ be transformed into a stage musical, there were many nay-sayers. How could animated animals be successfully portrayed by real people? How could the stage include such vast and sweeping elements as the rolling African savannah and the plot-necessary wildebeest stampede?

Enter Julie Taymor. She not only conceived the concept for the production, but directed the show, devised the costumes, co-designed the masks and puppets, and wrote additional lyrics to supplement those used in the Disney movie. The result of her creative genius is a spectacular visual and artistic production.

The stage version opened in New York October 1997. It was an instant success, going on to win Tonys for Best Musical, Best Scenic Design, Best Costume Design, Best Lighting Design, Best Choreography (Garth Fagan) and Best Direction of a Musical (Julie Taymor).

The story line centers on the animal kingdom of the African veldt. Simba, a young lion prince avenges his father's murder by his treacherous uncle. In the process he ventures into the jungle, discovers new and eccentric friends, finds his true love, and discovers his destiny. The message? “You can run from your past, or learn from it.”

One of the concerns of attending a touring show, especially of a production that has already been around in its original traveling version, is that there will be a watering down of theatrical elements. Fear not. The production appearing on the State Theatre stage is every bit as vibrant as the Broadway production. The sets, the costumes, the masks, the special effects, the musical sounds, the acting talent---they are all on our local stage.

Appearing on that stage are over 200 puppets; 25 kinds of animals, birds, fish and insects; 12 bird kites; 18-foot giraffes; 39 hyenas; 52 wildebeests and a 13 -foot elephant. It takes two 48-foot semi-trailers to transport the production’s puppets from city to city. There are 143 people directly involved in each production, including 53 cast members, 21 musicians, 17 wardrobe people, 5 hair/makeup artists, 3 puppet craftsmen, 13 carpenters, 10 electricians and 3 sound people.

Right from the parade of the animals at the beginning of the show when the human/puppets traverse down the aisles, it is apparent that this is an audience pleasing epic. The applause and “ohs” and “ahs” started immediately and continued throughout the show, climaxing in a screaming ovation as the curtain fell.

Those familiar with the movie version, which has music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, will be reacquainted with such songs as: “The Circle of Life,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” and “Hakuna Matata.” Added are pieces from “The Rhythm of the Pride Lands,” a recording inspired by the film, which sets a sound and mood of South Africa.

There are no well known names in the cast, but each performer is excellent. No second rate, “making their acting debut” performers here, which is often the case in some touring shows.

Since my “kid’s point of view” assistants, grandsons Alex and Noah Berko, are at sleep away camp, I was curious about how children were reacting to the show. Between the dark moments, the scary hyenas, the death of the lion king and the explosions, I was wondering how little ones were affected. Most parents of those four and above indicated the kids were thrilled, except for the fact that “it wasn’t like the movie.” Cries of terror during certain scenes indicated that some of the littler ones weren’t faring as well. Anyone planning on taking young children should be aware that the show is long and that there are some scary parts. Watching an animated character die on television is not the same as seeing a real person expire or get attacked so it is essential to evaluate the emotional sensitivities of your child.

Capsule judgment: If you are going to see ‘THE LION KING’ in its full glory, you need to get to the State Theatre and see this, the final official touring production. Though local theatres may attempt to stage the script, it will be nearly impossible to reproduce the spectacle elements!


‘NINE’ is the right number at Cain Park

‘NINE, THE MUSICAL,’ which is now on stage at the Alma Theatre at Cain Park, is a challenging undertaking. The script requires a director who not only understands the personality and idiosyncracies of Federico Fellini, the famous film director upon whom the story is based, but also has a fine command of stage techniques. There is a demand for an extraordinary choreographer, a cast of 14 very talented women, a male lead who has to control the stage, and a young boy who carries a great deal of the play’s meaning on his tiny shoulders.

Local theatre-goers need not worry. The Cain Park production is not only up to the task, but far exceeds expectations. The show is in the competent hands of director Vicki Bussert, choreographer Martin Cespedes and musical director Nancy Gantose-Maier. It stars Fabio Polanco, who is surrounded by a remarkable set of talented performers.

‘NINE, THE MUSICAL’ has a book by Arthur Kopit. Kopit, is probably best known for his 1960 play, ‘OH DAD, POOR DAD, MAMA'S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I'M FEELING' SO SAD.’ An avant-garde writer, his style has been dubbed “pseudoclassical tragifarce.” He was a perfect choice to write about Federico Fellini, whose life was much like an absurdist comedy/drama. Fellini was a genius who ad libbed his way through many of his often abstract, but critically acclaimed films. He was also a man who seemingly had little understanding of long term personal or professional commitments. As Guido Contini (Fellini’s name in the play) sings, “I wouldn’t be lonely if I could be only with you…and you…and you.”

It’s early 1960. Contini (Fellini) is facing his fortieth birthday and is in the midst of a midlife crisis which is blocking his creative impulses. In addition, he is entangled in a web of difficulties involving his wife, a producer, his mistress, a protege, and his deceased mother.

Through a series of daydream sequences, often interrupted by Guido's waking thoughts, the audience gets a look into the mind and creative process of a man who many consider to be not only a genius, but a troubled soul. As deadlines and relationship problems fill his thoughts, Guido retreats deeper into his reflections until the past and present become a single blend of love, hurt, comedy, and drama.

The Broadway production, directed by Tommy Tune and starring Raúl Juliá, opened in 1982 and ran for 729 performances. It won five Tony awards, including best musical. A 2003 revival ran for 283 performances, won two Tony awards, including that for best revival of a musical. The cast included Antonio Banderas, Mary Stuart Masterson, Chita Rivera and Jane Krakowski.

Vicki Bussert has a talent for making the “small” play into a great piece of theatre. Such past Cain Park productions as ‘BAT BOY,’ ‘tick, tick...Boom!’ and ‘SIDE SHOW’ were all examples of fine, fine theatre. She knows how to use intimate spaces like the Alma Theatre to get the audience totally involved in the goings on. She makes ‘NINE’ a must see production.

Bussert is aided by Martin Cespedes, the premiere choreographer on the Cleveland theatre scene. The winner of numerous Times Theatre Awards, Cespedes has a talent for seeing choreographic possibilities that fit both the dancers, no matter their level of talent, while fulfilling the needs of the script. His staging of “Folies Bergeres” is nothing short of spectacular. It’s worth going to see the show to experience this one number.

Musical director Nancy Gantose-Maier and her orchestra were in fine tune. Ross Borski’s scenic and lighting designs were excellent and Terry Pieritz’s black and white costumes set a perfect tone.

And, then there was the cast. Even though the show has clear leading roles, it is, in reality, an ensemble vehicle which requires every performer to be of top quality. This cast is of top quality!

Fabio Polanco was properly obsessively driven as Contini. He has a strong singing voice and acting skills to match. He does not portray the Fellini character, he occupies it.

Maryann Nagel, the grande dame of Cleveland musical theatre, was her usual excellent self as Lilliane LaFleur, Contini’s producer. She was the soul of the spectacular “Folies Bergeres” number, walking down the runway of life with confidence and a flair.

Tracee Patterson, another local acting celeb, was compelling as Luisa, Contini’s long suffering wife. Her “Be On Your Own,” was emotionally wrenching, while “My Husband Makes Movies,” was well interpreted.

Trista Moldovan (Carla) gave a fine sensual rendition of “A Call From The Vatican;” Cassandra Goldbach (Sarraghina) sang a powerful “Ti Voglio Bene/Be Italian;” and, though she often feigned Claudia by posing and posturing rather than experiencing the feelings and thoughts of the character, Joan Ellison effectively sang “A Man Like You.”

Aric Generette Floyd almost stole the show with his performance as the young Guido. Aric has a mobile face, stayed in character throughout the production, and performed his lines with meaning and clarity. This is one talented young man.

Only “The Grand Canal Film” sequence was questionable. The film, which was produced by Kasumi, was overly long. Though it attempted to duplicate the choppy, segmented feel of Fellini, it failed to do so. It was overly repetitive and missed it’s mark by being more comic than absurd.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Cain Park’s “NINE, THE MUSICAL’ is a must see for anyone wanting to experience thoughtful musical theatre at its finest. Those wanting pure entertainment would be better guided to Play House Square’s ‘LION KING.’ For the rest...’NINE’S the right number!