Saturday, September 29, 2007

Arsenic and Old Lace

‘ARSENIC AND OLD LACE’ farces it up at Great Lakes Theater Festival

A major decision any director who is to stage ‘ARSENIC & OLD LACE’ must make is whether to present the material as a black comedy, letting the lines of the play develop the macabre humor and carry along the plot; or as a farce, in which exaggeration is used to heighten the hilarity; or as an enhanced farce, in which a lot of shticks and gimmicks enhance the already farcical situations and lines.

Drew Barr, the director of Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s ‘ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, has definitely decided to use the enhanced farce mode. There is nary a line or movement which does not scream, ‘Laugh at what I am doing, what I am saying.” This approach will probably delight most attendees as it makes for a funny, funny evening. Others may plead that the play can stand on its own and doesn’t need all that “unnecessary stuff” to make it joyful.

The script, a clever combination of the farcical and the ghoulish, centers on two elderly sisters. In their Brooklyn neighborhood they are noted for their charitable gifts and are beloved by the police and neighbors alike. What is unknown is that the “sweet” duo’s works of charity include poisoning lonely old men who come to their home looking for lodging. Their family home is also the residence of a nephew who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt. They are often visited by another nephew, Mortimer, a theatre critic who eventually discovers that the aunts are hiding the corpses in the window seat until Teddy can take the “yellow fever” victims to be buried in the Panama Canal (graves dug in the basement.) A third nephew, who has a resemblance to Boris Karloff, appears after having escaped from a mental institution. What eventually happens? I’m not telling. All I can say is that the ending is obvious, but never the less a laugh delight!

Originally written by Joseph Kesselring, the script was adapted for its New York production by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse. Interestingly, when Kesselring taught at Bethel College, he lived in a boarding house, and many of the features of its parlor are reflected in the play’s description of the Brewster’s living room, where the action of the play is set. The murderous old lady plot line may have been inspired by events that occurred in a house in Windsor, CT where an older woman took in boarders and allegedly poisoned them for their pensions.

The play opened its New York run in January of 1941. Its form was perfect for the mood of the time. Playgoers were looking for some entertainment to take their minds off the war in Europe and the growing fear that America would be pulled into it. The production became an immediate critical and popular success, running for 1,444 performances. In 1944, Hollywood released a film version directed by Frank Capra, which stared Cary Grant. The film was a box office success.

The GLTF production goes all out for laughs, and laughs it gets. The performers bump into doorways, trip over sofas, chase each other around like the Keystone Cops, and showcase over-exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. The overall effect is exhausting, and depending on your sense of humor and love of slapstick, either delightful or overdone.

This interpretation is perfect for mobile faced, double-take expert Andrew May. He is hysterical as Mortimer, the theatre-hating reviewer who appears to be the only member of the Brewster family who has any semblance of sanity. If you like May as an off-the-wall character, you’ll love his performance.

Lynn Allison makes for a sweet Abby Brewster. She plays the part more for realistic comedy than for farce. On the other hand, Laura Perrotta, sounding and looking like the late-Judy Holliday on hallucinogenic drugs with a stiff neck, is way over the top. She is an excellent actress who didn’t need to overdo everything to get laughs.

David Anthony Smith is perfect as Teddy. He not only looks the part, but sounds like Roosevelt. Dougfred Miller is properly evil as psychopathic Jonathan. Most of the rest of the cast follows the director’s lead and are over the top.

Russell Metheny’s set is excellent, as are Charlotte Yetman’s costumes.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘ARSENIC AND OLD LACE’ isn’t a message play. It is a device to entertain the audience, and entertain the GLTF production does. One wonders, however, if the same enjoyment could have been engendered with a little more restraint.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Forbidden Broadway-Special Victims Unit

‘FORBIDDEN BROADWAY’ delights at Hanna

“That was fun,” “The ‘LES MIZ’ part was hysterical,” “I didn’t get all the in-jokes but that didn’t matter, I still loved it.” Those were some of the comments I overheard as I was exiting the Hanna Theatre after the reviewer’s night of ‘FORBIDDEN BROADWAY—SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT.”

In January of 1982, out-of-work actor Gerald Alessandrini, who needed a way to showcase his talents, assembled some musical parodies, and made them into a night club act. The result was a critical and audience praised production which morphed itself into ‘FORBIDDEN BROADWAY,’ now the Big Apple’s longest running musical comedy revue.

Alessandrini nicely skewers shows, stars, playwrights, lyricists, choreographers and producers. He has an endless supply of new material as each Broadway season proceeds through its production year. As long as Broadway exists, there is potential for more Forbiddens.

Updated regularly, ‘FORBIDDEN BROADWAY’ has had several editions, countless revisions, national and international tours, and thousands of special performances.

The show being staged in Cleveland, ‘FORBIDDEN BROADWAY—SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT,’ is not as complete as other productions of the script. Thinking that local audiences will not have seen the latest Broadway hits, parts of the goings-on have been dropped. The result is delightful, but I wish that Alessandrini and Director/Choreographer William Selby had had a little more respect for North Coast audiences and given us the authentic material.

Alessandrini supposedly centers this reincarnation on a format of TV’s ‘LAW AND ORDER.” The idea is that heinous crimes are being perpetrated against hapless victims…those who attend the Broadway theatre by reviving old shows and keeping productions running well beyond when they should have.

As does the TV show, FB-SVU starts out with Jerry Orbach (Greg Violand) and B.D. Wong (Brian Marshall) investigating a murder. In this case it’s the gunning down of aged, cigarette-smoking Annie (Tricia Bestic), while standing center stage in her classic red dress and curly mop of hair, singing her signature tune “Tomorrow.” Well, in this case, it’s "I'm thirty years old/Tomorrow, Tomorrow.”

Unfortunately, the concept of the investigation of other crimes is never again specifically addressed as the show goes merrily along with the Special Victims Unit stars never again appearing. But, this is a review, not a well-written play, so this “minor” oversight can be forgiven.

Most of the shows that are referred to have toured Cleveland. A segment from ‘LION KING,’ in which the actors complain about the discomfort of the costumes and masks, is delightful. ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST,’ as well as many other Disney shows, are mocked. A fight for who is a better actress centers on the two female stars of ‘WICKED.’ Greg Violand convulses the audience in his take on ‘MONTY PYTHON.’ Violand, in great voice, also does a delightful bit mocking “THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.’ Brian Marshall is properly miffed because night after night he has to portray a feline, complete with flees, in ‘CATS.’ An argument between Chita Rivera (Carmen Keels) and Rita Moreno (Tricia Bestic), set to music from ‘WEST SIDE STORY,’ was an audience pleaser. A segment from ‘RENT’ also got extended laughter and applause.

Outstanding individual performances abounded. Violand did a fun take on ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’ entitled ‘FIDDLER WITH NO JEWS’ complete with a Harvey Fierstein in drag take-off. Marshall brought forth an updated version of ‘CABARET,’ while Keels did a great Julie Andrews shtick. Bestic mocked Liza Minnelli and Ethel Merman, while Keels skewered Sarah Brightman.

The cast, composed of Cleveland performers, Tricia Bestic, Brian Marshall, and Greg Violand and New Yorker Carmen Keels is excellent. They all have fine voices and confident stage presence. Director Selby keeps the show moving swiftly along.

Often referred to as “A Cleveland treasure with at least three hands,” Marge Adler serves with wonder as the Musical Director, Pianist, and part-time performer.

Side note: It would have been helpful if the songs and/or shows were listed in the program in their order of presentation.

Capsule judgment: ‘FORBIDDEN BROAWAY-SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT’ will be a delight for all those familiar with Broadway shows and personalities. But what about the non-theatre regulars? I asked the couple sitting next to me, who confessed that they are not “theatre people,” their views of the production. Their answer? “We loved it! We’re going to bring friends to see it.”

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Dale Wasserman reviews the reviewer

Dear Roy Berko,

I enjoyed your review of my LA MANCHA, even though it caused twinges of pain in the esthetic regions. The twisted concepts of "concept" directors diminish and damage a play which has very precise aims and intentions. Your Cleveland production is a poor imitation of the Court Theatre's Chicago production to which I gave my blessing in agreement that it was a valid vision, even if it differed from my original intent. Your Cleveland production simply plays tricks to be different--the differences warping the play as written.

My memories of Cleveland go all the way back to the Jelliffes of
Karamu House whom I knew very well. I have a new play about Haiti,
AN ENCHANTED LAND, born of the time I spent in sad, sad Haiti, while
I was manager of the Katherine Dunham Company which headquartered
there. I premiered this play in London, but it hasn't yet been seen
in this country, and I think it would be ideal for Karamu. May I
send you a copy to see if you agree?

With my very good wishes,

Dale Wasserman
(author to the book of 'MAN OF LA MANCHA")

Friday, September 21, 2007

Man of La Mancha

Is the Play House “different take” on ‘MAN OF LAMANCHA’ for better or worse?

(This review was altered from its original distribution following an email from Dale Wasserman, the author of the book for 'MAN OF LAMANCHA' which clarified some factual information.)

While visiting New York in 1965, a friend said he had tickets for a new show being staged at the ANTA Theatre that had opened several days before. He knew nothing about the play, but asked whether I was willing to attend. Always the theatre adventurer I said, “Sure.” The show? ‘MAN OF LA MANCHA.’ My reaction? I sat transfixed as Richard Kiley and Clevelander Joan Diener rolled out what has since been dubbed the “right the unrightable wrongs” musical. It was one of the greatest nights I have ever spent in the theatre. So great, that for many years, I refused to go to see any other production of the show. I didn’t want to ruin the “perfect” experience.

‘MAN OF LAMANCHA’ centers on Miguel de Cervantes, an aging failure in his varied careers as playwright, poet and tax collector, who has been thrown into a dungeon to await trial by the Inquisition for the offense of collecting taxes from the Catholic Church. Fellow prisoners attempt to steal his possessions, including an uncompleted novel entitled "Don Quixote." Seeking to save the manuscript, he proposes to tell the tale as a play to entertain his self-appointed convict jury.

Through such songs as "The Impossible Dream," "I Really Like Him," and "Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote)," the play celebrates the human spirit. In this present age of depletion of personal freedoms, a misguided march into another country for “their own good,” of certain religious groups attempting to set their agenda for all, the concept of individual human sprit is as relevant today as when it was originally written.

"MAN OF LA MANCHA" was conceived as a non-musical teleplay. Writer Dale Wasserman did not do an adaptation of the famous novel, but focused on a major theme, "Only he who attempts the ridiculous may achieve the impossible."

Years later Wasserman was requested to turn the idea into a musical. With lyrics by Joe Darion and music by Mitch Leigh, it opened in 1964 at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. Rex Harrison was offered the lead, but the musical challenges dissuaded him. Enter Richard Kiley, whose career soared after portraying the dual roles of Cervantes and Don Quixote.

The Big Apple production won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical and best actor for Kiley. It was revived on Broadway in 1972, 1977, 1992 and 2002.

It was with positive anticipation that I went to see the Cleveland Play House’s production. Since it was being staged by Amanda Dehnert, who directed last season’s remarkable ‘MY FAIR LADY’ at CPH, I expected to be blown away. I was not blown away. In fact, though I think many of those who see the production will react positively, there were just too many gimmicks, and moving off-center of the story line, to make for my loving the production.

Dehnert has reinvented some of the script, the music and the concept. I am not opposed to innovation if it enhances the over-all effect and doesn’t move from the author’s intent and purpose. I remember sitting at the original production, eyes welling, awed by the pinspots of light on Kiely’s face as he sang the “The Impossible Dream.” I remember sitting in my seat at the end of the show, unable to move. At CPH, there was no emotional high. I left, basically psychologically unmoved.

This is supposed to be an intense, intimate and emotional theatrical piece. In spite of the small theatre space which was ideal for the staging, I found the intimacy largely lost. Many of the songs were sung directly to the audience, rather than aimed at the person on stage to whom the lyrics are aimed. I question the casting of a man to play the housekeeper in drag. It was distracting. It got a laugh, but how did it move the plot along? There was a lack of choreography which had enveloped me in previous productions. I missed being carried on the quest when Don Quixote and Sancho “rode” into the battle. The ending in which Cervantes says goodbye to the corpse rather than Sancho left me confused. The rape scene was lacking the needed intensity. The scene was rushed, the horror not totally developed, the attack was brutal but not evil enough. The explicitness was necessary as we realize later that Quixote’s effect on Aldonza is so complete that even the horrific rape does not erase the respect for self that he has instilled in her. That he has, in fact, achieved the impossible dream, at least as it relates to her.

The production does have many positive aspects. Philip Hernandez is very credible as Cervantes/Don Quixote. He makes “The Impossible Dream” his own, not doing an imitation of those who proceeded him in the role. “Knight of the Woeful Countenance” gets an excellent interpretation. Rachel Warren is Aldonza. Her final scene is excellent as is her interpretation of “Aldonza.” Jamie La Verdiere is delightful as Sancho. His “I Really Like Him” was so pure of innocence and belief that it told the whole story of why some people do what they do, purely out of loyalty. The clarity of the spoken word by the entire cast helps the audience understand the story.

The musicians are good, though, at times, they got a little carried away and drowned out the vocals. Some viewers might be distracted by the musicians doubling as cast members. The question, again must be raised as to what that device did to further the plot.

Some of Dehnert’s “new” production elements, which are touted in the public relations and the program, aren’t that original. We’ve seen cast members playing musical instruments in the recent Broadway restagings of ‘SWEENEY TODD’ and ‘COMPANY.’ And, doing this script as a one-act/intermission-less show, has been done before, as has gender role reassignment.

Capsule judgement: I predict that most audience members will enjoy and have a positive experience at CPH’s ‘MAN OF LA MANCHA.’ My concern is that sometimes in the guise of being innovative, the message of the writer and the emotional responses of the viewer are set aside for the sake of gimmicks and for trying to be part of a new wave.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rounding Third

Actors’ Summit hits homer with ‘ROUNDING THIRD’

When our son was six he participated for the first time in Little League baseball. During his initial game a player on the other team dropped a fly ball. When the kid came off the field his father charged over to him, yelled, “What in the *#&% did you do out there?,” and smacked the kid. Our son, his eyes wide with wonder said, “Do I have to play Little League?”

With kids no longer having the freedom to play pick-up games, but participate in sports organized by adults, questions are often raised. “Is the game for parents or the kids?” “Are parents living out their dreams through their son or daughter?” “Is this supposed to be fun or is it competition for winning which teaches that “life is not fair and you’d better learn that right now!”?

Richard Dresser’s comedy is a journey of two Little League coaches from their first meeting to the climactic championship game. The audience is the stand-in for the team, so the coaches speak directly to the viewers about competition, character, punctuality, and the importance of wearing the right equipment.

Don is a blue-collar, macho, win-at-all-costs veteran coach whose son is the star pitcher. Michael, a corporate executive, has always been the odd-man out, the last picked for any team. He believes that the job of a coach is to shield the kids from the intense pressure of competition and make sure they have a good time. Obviously, they are going to conflict. The results are hilarious, touching and thought provoking.

By the end of the play, both of the coaches’ lives and attitudes have changed and the audience leaves asking, “Whose philosophy is right?” And, incidentally, “What is my philosophy concerning winning, losing and life in general?”

Dresser is a good writer. His lines are real people speaking. Male viewers will easily see their neighbors, relatives and maybe even themselves in the well etched characters. Women might see the men in their lives.

Actor’s Summit’s production, under the adept direction of Constance Thackaberry, is on target. She has a good grasp of Dresser’s concept and has a keen understanding of the workings of the male mind. Maybe directing her husband (Keith Stevens) has something to do with that.

Stevens (Don) fully develops the win-obsessed baseball coach. He is consistent in his guy talk, interpretation of male friendship and womanizing. He reflects the highs and lows of his life with clarity.

Daniel Taylor (Michael) is not quite as consistent as Stevens , but does a good job of making Michael real. The character’s motivations seem clear, but Taylor sometimes loses the flow of conversation and some of his actions seem forced.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘ROUNDING THIRD’ is both a delightful and thought provoking script. It gets a very good production at Actors’ Summit. This is definitely a “Yes, go see!”

Groundworks @ The Icehouse

GROUNDWORKS blends dance and music at Icehouse

Groundworks Dance is like the little engine that could. It is a small company which selects unusual places to perform its programs and succeeds in making each its psychological home. For nine seasons, since its inception, the company has performed in Akron’s Icehouse. The Icehouse was, as its name indicates, a storage site where blocks of ice from the river were brought and kept in the cavernous building. Later, when refrigeration was invented, ice was made and stored there. Now the facility is in the midst of an area which is becoming Akron’s arts center. It is an unusual place for a dance company with its pillars, high ceiling and dank atmosphere. But use it Groundworks does. And, they use it well.

For this year’s two weekend residence, David Shimotakahara, Groundworks’ Artisitic Director, decided to present a two dance and musical interlude program.

The first selection, ‘NANO,’ was in its Akron premiere. The piece was performed to a composition by Gustavo Aguilar, the company’s musical director, using only the sound of a snare drum. As is typical of Shimotakahara’s choreography, the moves perfectly fit the music. Though overly long, it showcased Aguilar’s skill in producing sounds from a single instrument. ‘NANO’ found the dancers creatively bumping into each other, pushing and lifting their own and other’s bodies, while gliding, turning, twisting and sliding. Arms were in constant motion. Amy Miller, the epitome of bodily control, did an audience-pleasing solo segment. A sector by Felise Bagley, Mark Otloski and Sarah Perrett was compelling. Dennis Dugan’s lighting helped highlight the dancing by casting moving shadows on the Icehouse’s dark and deeply scarred walls.

‘MUSIC INTERLUDE’ featured a trio of musical compositions created by John Luther Adams and performed by the Akros Percussion Collective. The musical sounds were supplemented by a dance segment performed with creative competence by Amy Miller and video images by Tug Video. The percussion music, using bells, marimba and gongs, was intriguing but overstayed its welcome. Each segment could have been shortened to heighten the overall effect.

‘ANNIE REDUX’ was a creatively devised piece by choreographer David Parker to the recorded music of Irving Berlin’s ‘ANNIE GET YOUR GUN.’ Interestingly, instead of using the well-known singing versions by Ethel Merman (Broadway’s first Annie Oakley) or that of Betty Hutton (who portrayed the sassy female wild west gunslinger in the film version), vocalizations by Judy Garland were used. Garland, who was originally cast in the film role, either dropped out or was fired, depending on which version you wish to believe. However, she had recorded the songs before departing from the filming. Like the recent Broadway hit, ‘MOVIN’ OUT,’ which was choreographed by Twyla Tharpe to the music of Billy Joel, the viewer needs to listen to the music, but accept that the words they hear are not going to develop the story of each song. Once that separation is accomplished, the piece becomes pleasurable. Consisting of some unusual lifts and captivating movements, the dancing parallels the sounds of the music. A wonderful simulated tap dancing without taps highlighted “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” In an interesting take, the role of Annie was danced by Miller, Bagley, Perett and David Shimotakahara. Bill was danced by Shimotakahara, Damien Highfield, Otloski and Perett. Each used his/her distinctive style to develop the character. All in all, this was a positive experience, especially for musical theatre buffs.

Capsule judgement: Shimotakahara is not afraid to take risks. His inclusion of a musical interlude sandwiched between dances was a different take on dance concerts. As always, the overall effect of the evening was positive, but several segments tested the theory that the mind can absorb what the seat can endure, and two of the segments definitely tested the audience’s endurance limits.

Reflections (Peggy Sings Leiber and Stoller)

Underwhelming REFLECTIONS at Beck

Frank Sinatra once said of Peggy Lee, who is the subject of ‘REFLECTIONS (Peggy Sings Leiber and Stoller)’, now on stage at Beck Center, that "Her wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists; her regal presence is pure elegance and charm."

Norma Deloris Egstrom, better known to the world as Peggy Lee, was born in 1920. Her mother died when she was young. Her alcoholic father abandoned the family, leaving the children to be brought up by a verbally and physically abusive step mother. Eventually, Norma Deloris left home to pursue a musical career. Her march toward fame took off when she was offered a singing gig by band leader Benny Goodman. Lee, who is often recognized as one of the "classy" vocalists of the century, alongside Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, was noted for her soft, sensual and cool singing style.

She was not only a stage and night club singer, song writer and recording artist, but appeared in numerous films including ‘PETE KELLY’S BLUES’ for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. She contributed to the score and was heard in the soundtrack of Disney’s cartoon feature ‘LADY AND THE TRAMP.’

Lee’s life was not a bed of roses. Besides her miserable childhood, her marriage to guitarist Dave Barbour, the one man she really loved, ended in divorce, as did several other marriages. In an attempt to hide from her pent-up emotions she became a workaholic and in the 1950s the intense work load took its toll. She suffered a long period of illnesses. In spite of her poor health she continued to perform into the 1990s, often seated in a wheel chair. She died in 2002, at the age of 81, of complications of diabetes.

‘RELFLECTIONS’ is not the first play that has been written about her. In the early 1980’s she appeared in ‘PEG,’ which was a flop.

Over the years, Lee, noted for her perfectionism, repeatedly used the same songs over and over. This tended to make her shows predictable. Her laid-back sexuality and teasing neuroticism eventually became, in the opinion of one critic, “underwhelming.”

The Beck show is also “underwhelming.” In spite of a fine performance by Laura Theodore, who has perfected Lee’s vocal and oral sounds, there is a flatness to the evening. Much of the problem is the script which glosses over and underplays the trials of Lee’s life. Yes, Lee was self-contained, rolled with the punches, and that doesn’t necessarily make for good theatre. So, maybe Lee wasn’t the best choice about whom to develop a musical drama. Maybe a musical review highlighting her many hit songs would have been a better decision. As is, there is little in the way of drama, little to no comedy, and little to any action in ‘REFLECTIONS.’.

The exclusive use of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s music, is also problematic. Much of the music, at least in the arrangements used, tends to sound very much alike. The orchestrations, even to such songs as “I’m a Woman” and “Is That All There Is?” are understated.

The script, by Tom Fulton and Laura Theodore, is sometimes confusing and lacks texture and fails to create the needed emotional levels to engage an audience. There is a lack of emotional highs and lows, a lack of the needed creation of empathy. Time jumps back and forth. Conflicts are glossed over. Even death is understated.

The use of multi-media often distracts the flow of ideas. To add to the problems is that the quality of the videos is sometimes poor. The sync between the spoken word and the visual image is occasionally off. Our attention is unnecessarily drawn away from the stage by the inserted audio-visual.

The sound of Larry Goodpaster’s orchestra is outstanding. Martin Cespedes’s choreographed segments provide some of the few exciting segments of the production. Bravo to dancers Jose Ayala and Devon Shriver.

The cast is good. Given the weakness of the script, they do extremely well. Jeff Grover is fine as Dave Barbour. Erin Bunting is properly nasty as the stepmother. Tween-aged Lisandra Stebner makes for a believable young Peggy. Don Irven is a pathetic father.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck should be praised for attempting to mount a world premiere production. Unfortunately, the script, or maybe it’s the subject matter, just doesn’t allow for the quality production that we have become used to at Beck. The experience isn’t bad, but one must ask, in the words of one of Ms. Lee’s signature songs, “Is That All There Is?”

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Magic Fire

THE MAGIC FIRE’ burns out at Ensemble

‘THE MAGIC FIRE,’ which is now in production at Ensemble Theatre, is a semi-autobiographical saga by actress and playwright Lillian Garrett-Groag. It centers on the life of her immigrant relatives (both the Italian and the assimilated Jews from Austria) who have moved to Argentina to escape the Nazi onslaught in Europe. The play itself takes place in Buenos Aires in June and July of 1952, during the reign of Juan and Eva Peron.

The family had perceived Argentina as a land of hope, freedom and unbridled entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, the rise of Peron, much like the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini, destroyed that illusion.

The family tries to insulate itself from reality by turning to the arts. They discuss opera, classical music and drama. They listen constantly to the waltzes of Johann Strauss and soaring arias of Giuseppe Verdi. In spite of blocking out the sounds and sights around them, reality eventually hits home.

Beyond the family’s protective cocoon, Eva Perón, referred to by family members as “that woman,” lies dying, and police sirens disrupt the night and innocents are dragged away, never to be heard from again. The family is spared because of the protection of their neighbor, General Fortannes, who is a high-ranking member of the Peron regime.

The play, which examines family ties and the effect of politics on the individual, asks whether art and culture are necessarily opposed to political struggle? Eventually, we see that “art separated from life withers and dies, or enters the sterile service of the elite.”

The script is overlong and riddled with clichés and abstract musical illusions. Only in a fast-paced and well-envisioned creation will the audience be captivated. Unfortunately, the Ensemble production is plodding and poorly conceived by director Licia Colombi. It is almost painful to watch the quality actors in the cast struggle to keep their heads above water due to poor blocking, lack of clear character development and misplaced accents which come and go or are never there. No one seems to completely understand what’s going on. There’s a lot of emoting, with little underlying meaning coming through.

All is not lost. Lee Mackey, one of the dowager empresses of Cleveland theatre, is delightful as the old Italian grandmother who insists that she was kidnapped by her husband (spit, spit) and brought to this country where “even the cows are too big.” She keys many of the play’s laughs.

Tween-aged Sarah DeGirolamo, gives the right tone to Young Lise, whose acid tongue and incessant questions (e.g., “What’s a foreskin?”) is a perfect metaphor for youthful naïveté. (She alternates with Camille Rekhson in the role.)

Annie Kitral, as the frustrated old maid Paula, has some wonderful moments.

The rest of the cast tries hard, but never quite hits the right pace or allows the audience to feel the feelings of the people they are portraying.

Capsule judgement: ‘THE MAGIC FIRE’ is not an easy sit. Between the talkiness of the script and the lack of concept by the director, there is little to grab and hold attention. The magic is missing. The fire doesn’t burn.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Barbara Stuckey reviews the reviewer

Mr. Berko,

With great enjoyment I just read your review and insights from
interviewing Martin. Having performed with him in Le Cid and having seen some of his productions and rehearsals, I consider him a directorial genius. His interpretations always surprise or delight me; I go to his work, and to him as a person, knowing that "this" will be as powerful as the time before.

From you particularly the praise ranks very high. You know what
performers have to do: the work behind the curtain must produce the suspended moment for the audience. You not only hold the community to that demand, but you know it when you see it and say so. I admire your standards and abilities to articulate them and who achieves them. I'm so glad you have seen and said the magic Martin makes.

(Barbara Stuckey is a Washington DC dancer.)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Pump Boys and Dinettes

Tepid ‘PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES’ at Carousel

Sean Cercone, the Artistic Director of Carousel Dinner Theatre, and director of the venue’s present production, ‘PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES,’ states in the program that on one-hand, PBD is a “fun musical revue about a group of mechanics and waitresses with wonderful music abilities.” He also states that others will see the show as “a high energy concert with a variety of musical styles.”

To be honest, I don’t like the script because of its attempt to make a story out of songs that really don’t fit cohesively together. So, I think the best way to review the production is to examine it using Cercone’s explanations.

“With wonderful music abilities.” Yes, yes, yes, the Carousel cast play instruments with talent and zeal. On the other hand, the singing was not of the same quality. Many of the vocal blends were off and several songs were misinterpreted.

“Fun.” The Carousel production is short on the fun aspect. The pace is too slow. The jokes often don’t work. Attempts to engage the audience generally failed. Part of this is due to the size of the theatre, which discourages interaction unless the cast roams the aisles. In addition, Canton’s Pat McRoberts, who was so brilliant in Carousel’s ‘BUDDY: THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY,’ just doesn’t have the stand-up comedian style to pull off the adlibbing and high-jinks needed for the requisite fun. A great singer he is, but a comedian, he isn’t. Many of the other performers had the same lack of comic timing.

“A high energy concert.” High energy? Nope. Those who saw PBD at Porthouse earlier this season saw high energy, and by the way, also the fun aspect, but Carousel’s production, at least on opening night, was flat. The tepid applause at the curtain call was evidence to that. On the other hand, the encore segment was high energy and the audience responded to that segment with enthusiasm. Too bad the rest of the show wasn’t on a “Red Bull” high.

“A variety of musical styles.” Yes, the musical score covers rock, country, ballads and many more styles. The musicians did an excellent job of varying the sounds so that each mode became distinctive.

High points of the production included “Mamaw,” a plaintive song performed by Pat McRoberts, and ”Be Good or Be Gone” by Kate Margaret. A nice tap dancing interlude in “Drinkin’ Shoes’ brought sustained applause.

On the other hand, T.N.D.P.W.A.M. (“The Night That Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine”) lacked the necessary plaintive feeling of loss. The always amusing “Farmer Tan” failed to delight. Both of these songs were performed by Steven Ray Watkins. He plays a mean piano, but didn’t let loose in the songs meant to add “fun” to the show.

Kate Margaret wailed and commanded the stage in each of her presentations. Her voice was so strong that she drowned out the small vocal sounds of Sarah Nischwitz who lacked needed dynamism.

The impressive set by Robert Kovach was well conceived, but the massive size of the stage, with all the real gas pumps, cars and realistic diner, overwhelmed the small cast.

One of my favorite theatre professors, Kent State’s Bill Zucchero, once said, “You should not come out of a musical whistling sets and costumes.” Interestingly, as I was walking out of the theatre, the people who I exited with were talking about the set and not the quality of the staging or the music.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Hopefully, as ‘PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES’ runs at Carousel, the pace will pick up, Pat McRoberts will play more with the audience in a comfortable and natural way, and Steven Ray Watkins will let loose and enjoy himself and make his songs more fun. If that happens, PBD will be a delightful experience.