Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Twelve Angry Men

‘TWELVE ANGRY MEN’ gets superlative production at Palace

In the program notes for ‘TWELVE ANGRY MEN,’ now on stage at the Palace Theatre, Gina Vernaci, Vice President of Theatricals for Playhouse Square Foundation writes, ’TWELVE ANGRY MEN’ reminds us that a fair trial by our peers is among our essential rights as Americans.” In these days of reduction of our civil rights by the Bush administration, the issue is probably as relevant, if not even more significant, than it was in 1954, the year in which the play was set.

Vernaci also comments that the play raises the issues of a jury made up of 12 white male jurors deciding the fate of a minority offender. Though not as common these days, since women and minorities have been added to juries, the problem of being “judged by our equals” is still an issue in some jurisdictions and parts of the country. The O.J. Simpson murder trial is a case in point.

TWELVE ANGRY MEN’ was originally written as a teleplay which was shown in 1954 on ‘STUDIO ONE.’ It became a major motion picture starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Ed Binns, Martin Balsam and Jack Klugman. The script was rewritten into a stage play in 1964 by Reginald Rose. In 2006, Roundabout Theatre Company opened the first New York production of the script. It was such a success that it was extended seven times, finally running 32 weeks. The success of that production inspired the touring version.

The story centers on a jury meeting to decide the fate of a black delinquent teenager. It appears that a guilty verdict will be quickly decided upon until a juror raises the possibility of “reasonable doubt.” From that point on, the happenings take strange and unexpected twists and turns.

The touring production is flawless. The acting, the directing, even the set add up to make an exciting evening of theatre.

Under the direction of Scott Ellis, a play that could be static, sizzles. From the very start, as we hear the off-stage voice of the judge giving the jury their instructions, the oppressive heat in the room, both the temperature and the temperaments, are crystal clear. The conflicts and even the humor are well developed. Each character is purely etched.

Richard Thomas, probably best know for his role as John Boy on ‘THE WALTONS,’ has an impressive theatrical background that takes him far beyond his media fame. He is the perfect catalyst for questioning the youth’s guilt, underplaying the role to get maximum effect.

Kevin Dobson (Juror Ten), who is best known for his role as Telly Savalas's partner in the 1970s crime drama ‘KOJAK,’ is impressive.

Julian Gamble (Juror Three) is the epitome of self hatred as the angriest of the jurors. Mark Morettini (Juror Seven) is excellent, as is Alan Mandell (Juror Nine) as the old man with an understanding of the angst of life. In fact, there is no weak cast member.

Capsule judgment: ‘TWELVE ANGRY MEN’ is an impressive production that should capture and keep the attention of audiences, even if they’ve seen the film or the play before. Applause! Applause!!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

THE NUTCRACKER (San Jose Ballet)

‘NUTCRACKER’ returns as Ballet San Jose comes home

On December 12, 1979, The Cleveland Ballet premiered its version of ‘THE NUTCRACKER.’ Twenty-three hundred people attended the production at Cleveland Public Music Hall. Much has happened to the ballet scene on the north coast since that momentous day.

In 1986 a group of California Silicon Valley benefactors offered a partnership to the Cleveland Ballet. Productions would be staged both in San Jose and Cleveland. With this new arrangement the local ballet company, which was co-founded by Ernie Horvath and Dennis Nahat, was able to offer the dancers added performing exposure and would provide each community a great company for a moderate, shared investment.

Much to the chagrin of Clevelanders, Nahat, much like Art Model, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, took “our” creation and left town. Thus, in 2000 Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley was born. The reasons for the “failure” of the local company are numerous, and lots of finger-pointing followed. Over-spending and lack of constraint by Nahat, the exodus of large corporations from the Cleveland area which eliminated funders, and poor management by the ballet’s board, have all been blamed.

Whatever the past, a sold out house was present for the opening night of ‘THE NUTCRACKER’ at the State Theatre. In contrast to the negative greetings given even the mention of Model’s name, the audience gave loud applause to Nahat’s initial appearance as Godfather Drosselmeyer (a part which he trades off with local favorite Raymond Rodriguez).

‘THE NUTCRACKER’ is a fairy tale-ballet in two acts with music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It is based on “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice,” a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann. It was first presented in 1891.

The story concerns a young girl who dreams of a Nutcracker Prince, a fierce battle against a Mouse King and the romantic adventure in which she is taken on a journey by a handsome prince. In their travels they experience a snowstorm, and journeys to Muscovy, The Land of the Shifting Sands, and the Land of the Ivory Pagoda.

Production highlights include the Dance of the Snowflakes and The Dance of
The Sugar Plum Fairy (actually a performance by the Trsarina and Tsar).

Since the story is set around the holidays, productions usually are staged during the Christmas season.

Except for the overly long opening scene, which contains a lot of walking and little dancing, the choreography is excellent. Nahat uses that exposition scene to add some of his signature attempts at humor.

Because the production has seven alternating principal casts, who you see in the lead roles of Maria, the Nutcracker/Prince Alexis and the Tsarina Tatianna and Tsar Nikolai is a matter of chance.

Fortunately, on opening night Karen Gabay, a long time local favorite and artistic director of Point of Departure, which is in local residence during the summers, danced the Tsarina. As always, she was radiant and commanded the stage. Maykel Solas (Tsar) partnered Gabay well.

Maria Jacobs was our Maria. She is petite, lovely and moved with ease. Her point work was excellent and she floated in her leaps. Her Prince was danced by Ramon Moreno whose small stature was a perfect match for Jacobs. His circle turns and partnering were well done and elicited much applause.

The sets were beautiful as were the costumes, though I prefer the snowflakes in tutus rather than long skirts,

Capsule judgment: Ballet San Jose’s ‘THE NUTCRACKER’ is one of the better stagings of the ballet. It is nice to see classical ballet in a local venue. It can only be hoped that Gabay and Rodriquez will be able to develop their POINTE OF DEPARTURE into an all year company and allow us to get the bad taste of the departure of The Cleveland Ballet out of our psyche.

We Got Bingo

‘WE GOTTA BINGO’ an interactive happening that encourages the audience to “let loose.”

Don’t go to see Bingo, now on stage at the 14th Street Theatre in Playhouse Square, expecting to see a great theatre epic. What you’ll participating in is a free-wheeling, interactive, mostly adlibbed experience, filled with playing Bingo, polka music (what else?), dancing, being dragged up on stage to participate in shenanigans, and winning prizes such as a fake stuffed turkey or a used sweater or sitting on a throne if you are lucky enough to actually achieve a bingo.

The “plot,” and I’m using the word in the broadest sense, centers on the decision to combine an Italian Catholic parish with an Irish one (let the bickering and insults begin). By mistake, the wrong church is destroyed by the wrecking company, so a fund-raiser has to be held to get the money to redo the building. Far fetched? Of course, that’s what leads to the ridiculousness of the double sexual inuendos, the entrance of the archbishop (who was sitting next to you just two minutes ago in normal clothing), and the mad racing around by the cast. It’s also what caused one of my tablemates to fake a leg injury so he didn’t have to do the Chicken Dance.

Performed in the vein of the long running ‘TONY N’ TINA’S WEDDING,’ ‘WE GOTTA BINGO,’ which is being performed both here and in St. Paul, places you in a German beer garden. The “meal” consists of Bruschetta San Dominica,
Insalata del Lotto, homemade lasagna, warmed garlic bread and an
assortment of Wunderbars. Now, don’t get the idea this is gourmet food. It’s served on paper plates, you eat with plastic forks, and the bread comes wrapped in aluminum foil. Think, Ladies Auxiliary food served in a church basement!

Many names familiar to local audiences are in the cast including Eileen Burns (who sings up a storm), Liz Conway, Paul Floriano (as his usual ill-tempered curmudgeon), Patrick Carroll, Lissy Gulick (the lady can actually play the bass), June Lang (who portrayed Mrs. Vitale in ‘TONY & TINA’S WEDDING) and Dan Marshall (who looked fetching at the conclusion in a fishnet off-the-shoulder outfit). And, Paul Hupalowsky, from where else than Parma, playing the accordion. The affair is guided by Resident Director Jacqi Loewy and Director Ross Young.

Capsule judgment: The cast seems to be having a good time. The audience, depending on an individual’s possessing the ability to let loose and just let things happen, including being a willing or unwilling participant in the shenanigans, leaves smiling. (This would make a great holiday party occasion. Groups of 16 or more get priority seating and special ticket prices.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007


‘CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS’ is ridiculous beyond belief!

Michel de Ghelderode, the author of ‘CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS OR (DID YOU SAY SPHERE?),’ the play now being performed by Cesear’s Forum, was a Belgian playwright who reached his writing peak between 1930 and 1945. He was quite prolific. In fact, no one is sure exactly how many plays he wrote. He gained an international reputation because of the controversial 1938 Paris production of ‘FASTES D'ENFER’ (“Chronicles of Hell”), which explored the heights of religious exaltation. At the opening night it is reported that there was a near riot in the theatre.

His plays resound with violence, demonism, holy madness, and off-the-wall humor. Often it seems like the actors are ad-libbing their lines and the actions seem spontaneous. Most plays can be classified as dramas or comedies or musicals. Ghelderode’s works defy classification. Theatre of the absurd? Well, much of what goes on is absurd, but that’s not really the definition of “absurd” as it applies to “theatre of the absurd.” Absurd in that form of play script means out of sync, not ridiculous. It explains the works of Edward Albee and John Paul Sartre, not Ghelderode.

How about vaudeville? Maybe, kinda of. As the public relations for the play states, “a satirical vaudevillian farce.” I’ll buy that. Kind of.

Story line? You kid! There isn’t any storyline, per se. Christopher Columbus and his attempt to prove the world was not flat. Kind of. We do learn that Chris, who stumbled upon the Americas, did so supposedly trying to escape from the “erratics” of his age . As Ghelderode states, “Columbus has always tried to escape.” Make no sense? Don’t worry about it. Don’t look for the production to make sense. Just go to see ‘CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS OR (DID YOU SAY SPHERE?)’ to have a good time. And, be sure that you go with the attitude of having a good time. A Three Stooges, Monty Python, Marx Brothers good time.

The Cesear’s Forum production, under the directorship of Greg Cesear, pulls out all the stops. John Kolibab, he of Zero Mostel mobile face and body, is hysterical as Columbus. His lines flow as if he is making them up on the spot. He is often as surprised by what he says as is the audience.

Jean Zarzour, known locally as the owner of LIPSCHTICK, lets out all the stops as The Woman. The woman who, as the show biz terms states, “eats the scenery” (destroys everything in her path) as she dances, sings and acts like someone one-step away from being deranged. She is hilarious.

The rest of cast tries hard, can’t keep up with Kolibab and Zarzour, but, again, it matters not as the entire happenings are so outrageous, it’s hard not to laugh at about everything that takes place.

Capsule judgement: If you are in the right mood (manic) and appreciate comedy (way out comedy) and the ridiculous (really ridiculous) you’ll fall off your chair laughing at ‘CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS OR (DID YOU SAY SPHERE?).’ On the other hand, if you want a plot, and aren’t in the mood for mental chaos, you’ll not be a happy theatre-goer.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Phantom of the Opera (Baldwin Wallace College)


Baldwin Wallace’s Music Theatre Program is consistently recognized as one of the finest educational experiences for students interested in musical performing arts. Under the sage leadership of Victoria Bussert, graduates have gone on to successful careers in various phases of the theatre including starring on and off-Broadway.

It is no wonder, with the reputation of the program, when there was an investigation to designate several schools to do the first amateur productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA,’ that BW was chosen.

The show deservedly ran from November 6 to 18, to sold out houses. Performed by two different casts, this dual approach gave more students a chance to perform major roles. In addition, due to the vocal difficulty of the score, it allowed for conservation of the voices in training.

‘ THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA’ is based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. The music was composed by Webber, with lyrics by Charles Hart and additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe.

The story focuses on Christine DaaƩ, a beautiful young performer who becomes the obsession of a mysterious, disfigured musical genius known as "The Phantom of the Opera," who terrorizes the Paris Opera. It was a smash hit in London and New York.

Normally, I do not review college performances, but since the BW production was a world amateur debut, I am breaking the pattern.

Phantom is a difficult show. It has a very complex score. It requires massive sets, numerous special effects, many period costumes and a large and very talented cast. It is a challenge for professionals, let alone the limits of a college budget and on and off stage talent.

Bussert wisely altered the script so that some of the special effects could be eliminated. The famous crashing to the stage floor of the chandelier was modified and the boat floating on water was eliminated. It mattered little. The overall effect was positive. This was a very, very good production.

Emily Leonard, who played Christine ,was enchanting. Pretty and petite, her voice was radiant. Her acting was believable, even when saying Webber’s over-stylized lines. This young lady is Broadway ready!

Handsome Paul Rawlings portrayed Raoul, Christine’s lover. He has a fine voice and a dashing air that fit the role well.

Erin Childs belted out the role of Carlotta, the opera diva who Christine has replaced. She properly overdid the role. Why Bussert had Childs and several other members of the cast present their lines to the audience, rather than directing them at the person to whom they were speaking, is a mystery. Kate Merrick was excellent as the ballet mistress who has a special relationship with the Phantom.

Unfortunately, Javar Parker, who played the role of the Phantom the night I saw the show, was not as strong as needed. He has a pleasant voice, but the role requires more vocal abilities than he displayed. His acting stayed on the surface and he was often difficult to hear, in spite of being miked.

The singing and dancing choruses were excellent. The choreography by Janiece Kelley-Kiteley and Associate Choreographer Martin Cespedes was excellent.

The orchestra, under the direction of Stuart Raleigh, was superb. There was a full sound, and the complicated musical arrangements were easily handled.

Jeff Herrmann’s scenic and lighting designs were outstanding. Charlotte Yetman’s costumes, which were era correct, were amazing in their detail.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: BW’s ‘THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, though not of professional level, was much more than anyone would expect from a college production. Bravo!!!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Spotlight on Pierre-Jacques Brault

Profile: Pierre-Jacques Brault—theatre founder with an eye on the future

In this age of diminishing corporate support for the arts, the tight economy, limited theatre venues and a competitive market for audiences, what would motivate a young college graduate and some of his friends to create a professionally based, not-for-profit community supported stock theatre?

The odds obviously didn’t phase creative and dedicated Pierre-Jacques Brault and his life-partner, Brian Marshall. In 1998, they dedicated themselves to providing entertaining, enlightening and high quality premiere or rarely performed works for the audiences of Greater Cleveland. Ten years later, while other well-intentioned theatrical venues have come and gone, Mercury Summer Stock (MSS) is alive and well.

How and why did MSS come into being? In a recent interview, with eyes flashing and an endearing smile creasing his handsome face, Brault, a 1997 Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin graduate, related the story of a stage struck Beachwood kid, with a dream to create theatre. He started at age 8, being the only child in the Music School Settlement’s ‘AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITOR.’ He continued to perform under the guidance of Jill Koslen and Laura Gee, the artistic directors of the Beachwood and the Heights Youth Theatres. He even found himself on stage with his mother in Solon Player’s production of ‘MAME.’ It was only natural that he gravitated to Baldwin Wallace, with its nationally recognized musical theatre program headed by Vicky Bussert.

During their freshman and sophomore years, Brault and Marshall wanted a new challenge. They realized that Cleveland had no musical summer stock company. Borrowing seed money from friends and family, the dynamic duo, produced ‘FALSETTOS’ in the Ensemble Theatre space in the Civic in Cleveland Heights. They continued to use the venue through 2001 after which Ensemble had to abandon the space when the building was sold.

Brault, who has directed and taught at Stage Door Manor, the well-known Catskill Mountain summer theatre camp for aspiring theatre students (grads include Natalie Portman, Zach Braff and Jon Cryer), directed at the Virginia Musical Theatre, Chagrin Valley Little Theatre and Willoughby Fine Arts. He also was involved in productions of the Repertorie Theatre of St. Louis and the Great Lakes Theatre Festival, where he was the assistant to Choreographer Janet Watson for ‘GYPSY,’ which starred Donna McKechnie.

Kids often recognize Pierre-Jacques for his run in ‘BLUES CLUES.’ Broadway? Well, close. He appeared in the off-Broadway show, ‘IN MY DREAMS I’M SURROUNDED BY NAKED MEN. (“Yes,” he said, with a sly grin and a slightly red face, “I was a naked man!”)

Since MSS found a home at Parma Little Theatre, it has grown its audience by 47%. The patrons include young families, adults ranging from 25-45 and a strong senior citizen following (about 40% of the audiences.) Braunt feels the theatre is having an impact on the west-side of Cleveland, Parma, Parma Heights and Bedford Heights.

The future for Mercury Summer Stock? For its 10th anniversary MSS will present revivals of ‘HONK,’ ‘BLOOD BROTHERS,’ and a premiere production of ‘THE UTTER GLORY OF MORRISEY HALL.’

The future for Pierre-Jacques Brault? Next spring he will be directing ‘THE FANTASTICS’ for Ensemble Theatre and the summer will find him directing at Cain Park. He and Marshall, who is presently appearing in the Hanna Theatre’s ‘FORBIDDEN BROADWAY,’ have been out and partnered since their freshman year of college and are house looking. The duo who graduated from Baldwin Wallace in 2001, have “a healthy jealousy” and “challenge and learn from each other.” “I’m looking for a place to do my masters.” “I’d like to direct in New York.” “I’d like to …! “You know, anything is possible!”

Yes, for this special and talented young man, anything is possible!

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Weak Inge play gets equally weak production at Ensemble

‘A LOSS OF ROSES,’ now on stage at Ensemble Theatre, was William Inge’s least successful plays. In contrast to such hits as his Pulitzer Prize winning ‘PICNIC,’ ‘COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA,’ ‘BUS STOP’ and ‘DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, which many consider to be his most significant play, ‘A LOSS OF ROSES’ was a failure on Broadway. It ran only 25 performances and earned the nickname, “A Loss of Grosses.”

Inge, who was a troubled soul, was one of the three most heralded modern era playwrights who dominated the dramatic theatre scene in the 1950s and 60s. Arthur Miller asked, “What’s the best way to live?” Tennessee Williams showcased people who found themselves in places and situations they didn’t understand and in relationship with people who didn’t understand them. Inge looked for the shadows and darkness of life.

‘A LOSS OF ROSES’ is a poignant story, but, unfortunately, it touches on so many themes that it doesn’t develop any of them well. It is talky, unfocused and drenched with symbolism and metaphoric layers. The motivations of its characters are often unclear. Part of this may have been Inge’s own psychological confusion. A closeted homosexual, he fought his “demons” for years, finally committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1973 at the age of 60.

The story concerns a relationship between a mother (Helen), whose husband drowned trying to save their son Kenny, and the son. She claims to love him, but wants to have him become more independent. He wants to give her everything, but resents her authority and feels tied down. When Lila, an actress and the boy’s former baby sitter, comes to stay, a new factor enters the equation. Kenny is boiling with unbridled hormones, and Lila is beautiful, open and charming. The darkness in each of them hangs over their heads and the ending leaves each disappointed.

Ensemble’s production, under the direction of Bernard Canepari, doesn’t do much to help the script’s weaknesses. The pacing is slow, the tensions not totally developed, and many of actors have difficulty developing clear characterizations.

Only Jason Markouc, as the son, textures his character well. His angst, frustration, confusion and rudderless existence are clear. Amy Pawlukiewicz as Lila, the actress and former baby sitter, has some good moments, but just isn’t consistent. Her scenes with Markouc lack sexual tension. In fact, the major kissing scene between the two found no smolder, their lips not even squarely meeting and their bodies unengaged.

Julia Kolibab, as Helen, has some good moments, but at times loses her believability. Robert M. K. Daniels, as the next door neighbor and Douglas Kusask, the supposedly domineering “bad guy,”never develop clear characterizations and are unbelievable. Dorothy Canepari does well in a brief appearance as a faded actress.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Between a weak script and very amateur production qualities, Ensemble’s production of ‘A LOSS OF ROSES,’ is a less than satisfying theatrical experience.

High School Musical

‘HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL’ leaves kids reviewers, tweens and teens screaming at The Palace

On the way out of ‘HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL,’ the touring show which is now on stage at The Palace Theatre, an adult male, who was accompanying a fellow reviewer said, “I really enjoyed that. I didn’t know anything about it beforehand.” I’m not sure what planet he’s been on, but he must not have a television set, know or be related to any tweens or teens, or read the entertainment section of a newspaper.

’HIGH SCHOOL MUSCIAL’ is BIG! The story is typical after-school boob-tube fodder. Troy Bolton, super stud captain of the East High basketball team, and Gabriella Montez, a pretty, shy transfer student who excels in math and science, try out, and against the odds, beat out the school’s drama queen, Sharpay and her twin bother Ryan, for the lead parts in their high school’s musical. Despite other students' attempts to thwart their dreams, Troy and Gabriella resist peer pressure and rivalry, inspiring others along the way to “be everything they can be.” (Okay, as a former junior high school counselor, I’m a sucker for plays with a healthy moral!) And, of course, it all ends with a kiss and a great curtain call production number.

First released as a telefilm in January, 2006, it was not only the most successful of Disney Channel’s original movies, but it spawned an entire industry. ‘HIGH SCHOOL MUSCIAL 2’ was released in August of 2007, an ice show version is touring and there is a casting call out for “3,” which will be released to movie theatres in 2009. The merchandise sales are booming, all the way from pink boa pens to key chains in the form of basketball shoes to “I love Troy” t-shirts. Disney has released the script for high school and student productions which will bring in even more bucks through royalty fees.

It has made household names out of Zac Efron, who plays Troy Bolton in the tv versions, and Vanessa Hudgens, the portrayer of Gabriella Montez. They are now the king and queen of gossip magazine front pages.

Not only has the show caught on with tween age girls, it is a big hit with junior and senior high school kids of both sexes. At the Palace production there were numerous males, some dressed in Albuquerque East High Wildcat basketball jerseys (another product of the Disney product blitz).

With the youth audience in mind, I took my “kid” theatre reviewers Alex (12 and a talented pianist) and Noah Berko (a 10 year-old jock), to critique the show. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), they gave the production a “9 1’2”(Alex) and “8 1/2” (Noah). Reasoning: “There were some real clever special effects.” (They especially liked the staging of the winning shot of the championship basketball game.) “There was more humor in the play than the movie.” “It was more interesting watching real people dancing and singing, than seeing it on a screen.” “The play tryout scene had some funny parts.” “The scene in detention was hysterical. The worm was a riot.” (Dante Russo, doing an inch-worm dance, was a stitch and brought laughter and applause.) “I liked watching the clever way they changed the scenery.” “The quality of the singing and dancing was good.” “The ending was dynamic.”

From an adult perspective: The stage version, which follows the story of the movie, and adds two new numbers, is every bit as good as the film, and in many cases better. (Yes, I’ve seen both tv productions!) Seeing the characters in real life is more engaging. . The singing is professional quality. The casting is right-on. I especially liked John Jeffrey Martin (Troy), a tall athletic looking and engaging young man who adds a more real quality to the character than the aesthetically perfect Zac Effron who didn’t have the “jock” aura. Arielle Jacobs (Gabriella) is totally engaging. The duo has nice interpersonal chemistry. Chandra Lee Schwartz (Sharpay) is properly repulsive as the drama queen, while Bobby List, a terrific dancer, gives a nice sensitivity to Ryan, Sharpay’s henpecked twin. Ellen Harvey is delightful as Ms. Darbus, the diva drama teacher. The rest of the cast is also excellent. The choreography is creative and nicely executed. The orchestra is excellent.

There are some locals in the show. Ashley Campana, who is in the ensemble, was born in Elyria and raised in Vermillion and Westlake. Guitarist Joe Parker is from Lyndhurst, and bass player Paul Reich is from Akron, as is Dan Bailey, the show’s Associate Conductor.

Capsule judgment: The touring company of ‘HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL’, which is composed of many Actor’s Equity performers, is an audience pleasing production. It’s a wonderful way of introducing tweens and teens to the world of live theatre.

Side-note: I hate to be a grouch, but it is annoying to be the victim of a mother of the three and five-year olds, who sat behind me, explaining everything in her “outside” voice to her cherubs. Much to the irritation of those around her, who paid $67.50 for each of their premium seating tickets, she did little to control the three-year old’s crying through the last ten minutes of the show. (Maybe a minimum age of 7 would be appropriate for evening performances of shows that last over two hours.) Also, don’t be surprised when the wrappers of the candy bought at the concession stands, are ripped open mid-song and empty soft drink cups are thrown on the floor and roll noisily down the raked auditorium floor. (I know, Play House Square makes lots of money from the concession sales, but how about restricting food inside the theatre?)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Chosen

Play House’s ‘THE CHOSEN’—a thought provoking, near perfect production

On stage, at the start of ‘THE CHOSEN,’ now being performed at the Cleveland Play House, are two desks, each in its own pool of light. A volume of the same book lies on each desk. Two scholars scan the books. Though they live but five blocks away, they live in different worlds and the wisdom and insights they gain from reading THE TALMUD (the book of rabbinic commentary pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history) is also totally different.

Set in 1944, writers Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok use the strife between opposing Jewish viewpoints of the Orthodox (adherent Jews) and the Hasidim (those who maintain the highest standard of religious observance) to probe into the social issues of communication, friendship and education. The script also displays a political underbelly, probing into the controversy of the founding of Israel, the Holocaust and the role of modern thinking

Danny is the son of Reb Saunders, a Hasidic rabbi. Reuven comes from a more liberal Jewish family. The two find friction, and then common ground through baseball and a shared fervor for scholarship and debate. They struggle to reconcile their fathers honed beliefs and find their own paths, separate from those that their elders envision for them.

The concept of silence permeates the goings-on. From the very first word of the play ("Silence"), ‘THE CHOSEN’ explores the difficulties, and eloquence, and blessedness of silence. Danny tells Reuven that "you can listen to silence; it talks to you… sometimes it cries." These are the lessons taught to him by what appears to be a distant father. On the other hand, Reuven's abba (father) has taught him to "learn to listen behind the words, to that which is not spoken." And, in the end, Reb Saunders teaches both boys that "the heart speaks through silence."

Potok’s book ‘THE CHOSEN’ was published in 1967. It was made into a movie starring Robby Benson and Rod Steiger in 1981. The play script was first performed in 1999. A musical version had an abbreviated eight performance run off-Broadway in 1988. Potok, who wrote ‘THE PROMISE’ as a sequel to ‘THE CHOSEN,’ died in 2002.

The CPH production, under the keen eye of director Seth Gordon, is near perfection. Local actor, George Roth gives a sensitive, nuanced and intelligent performance as David Malter. Adam Richman, as the adult Reuven Malter, the play’s narrator, involves the audience with his comfortable and direct manner. Jeremy Rishe makes Young Reuven live. He has a real and natural manner that breathes honest life into the role. Andrew Pastides takes Danny from a rigid and stiff youth through his journey to awareness with introspective understanding.

Though he inhabits the character of Reb Saunders, Kenneth Albers fails to produce the cadence, rhythm and texture of speech and gestures that permeated the communication of older Jewish men who came from eastern Europe. It is a physical and verbal sound that I heard over and over from my grandfather and his friends. It created them, it was them. It gave them "taam," their flavor and essence. Albers was missing that “taam.” I’m not sure those unfamiliar with those sounds and mannerisms will know that they should have been present, but for those who are aware, it will make a difference.

Michael Lincoln’s lighting design and James Swonger’s sound design added dimension to the production. Michael Raiford’s set was practical and impressive though the overuse of candles which dropped from “heaven” became a bit much after a while.

Capsule judgement: ‘THE CHOSEN’ is a must see production. Don’t be afraid that if you are not Jewish, you will be lost in the language or the philosophy. The script explains all and Gordon has paced the production so the ideas come through with clarity. (The program does an excellent job of defining terms and concepts…get there early enough to read it.)

Monday, November 05, 2007

Martha Graham Dance Company

MARTHA GRAHAM DANCE COMPANY pleases its audience!

Martha Graham is considered by most dance aficionados to be the queen of concert dance. Along with George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham, she laid the foundations for non-balletic dance in this country. Years after her death, her works still glow and inspire.

Her company recently performed in Cleveland under the sponsorship of Dance Cleveland, Cuyahoga Community College and Playhouse Square Center. The two concerts each had a different set of offerings. Opening night consisted of ‘ERRAND INTO THE MAZE,’ ‘ARDEN SONG (REDUX),’ ‘DIVERSION OF ANGELS’ and ‘ACTS OF LIGHT.’ With the exception of ‘ARDENT SONG’ each segment was well conceived and performed.

Using Graham’s powerful, athletic, gymnastic forms, which utilizes the floor as well as the space above it, ‘ERRAND INTO THE MAZE’ complete with robotic moves, created a power illusion in which every movement was in perfect sync with the musical notes of Gian Carlo Menotti. It was masterfully danced by Miki Orihara and Tadej Brdnik.

The actual choreography of Graham’s ‘ARDENT SONG’ has been lost, so Susan McLain reconceived the movements. While using many of Graham’s tools (powerful and sensual movements, gymnastic leaps and writhing on the floor) ,the piece missed the expected power of the original conceiver. The conclusion was met with courteous applause by the sold out audience.

‘DIVERSION OF ANGELS,’ using geometric patterns of movements, successfully explored mature, erotic and adolescent love.

‘ACTS OF LIGHT,’ based on the Emily Dickinson poem which states, “Thank you for all the acts of Light which beautified a summer now past to its reward,” was a three-part creation which creatively examined a conversation of lovers, a lament, and a ritual to the sun.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Martha Graham Dance Company lived up to its world class reputation and advanced billing. Dance Cleveland and CCC are to be commended for bringing major dance companies to the area. It must have been gratifying for the sponsors to see a sold out house for the opening of the season.