Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Christmas Story

Nostalgic ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY’ delights at Play House

Many Clevelanders think that ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY,’ whose stage version is now being produced by the Cleveland Play House, is set in Cleveland, and is written about life in the Forest City during the 1940s. In actuality, Jean Shepherd, whose books and stories the movie, and subsequently the play, was based on, sets the story in the fictional northern Indiana town of Hulman.

So what’s the Cleveland connection? As legend reveals, Cleveland was chosen as the site to shoot the film because the producers needed snow and a MidAmerican setting. Everything went well in the early shooting, except it didn’t snow. In fact, the famous Christmas parade scene in front of Higbee’s Department Store and the house and streets covered with snow, were an illusion. Fake snow was sprayed around to create the illusion of the real stuff. Finally, the production team packed up and left, going to Canada, where it was snowing, to finish the flick. But, all that withstanding, “A Christmas Story” is a Cleveland institution.

Today, at 3159 W 11th Street, on Cleveland’s near west side, stands the house that was used for the exterior shots. Its inside has been reconstructed to resemble the movie’s rooms which, in actuality, were built in a Canadian warehouse, and it is open for daily tours. A museum and gift store across the street sell the legendary leg lamps, Lifebuoy soap and action figures of Ralphie.

I have fond recollections of that film. I actually was an extra, who was cast in a serendipitous way. I was working for a television company and was dispatched to do an interview with Ralphie (Peter Billingsley). Peter and his mother had never been to Cleveland and I offered to take them around when he wasn’t shooting. So, the three of us, plus Scott Schwartz who was playing Flick, explored Cleveland. I was asked to appear in the film. Most of my footage wound up on the cutting room floor, but it was a fun experience.

The play centers on 9-year-old Ralphie Parker, who wants only one thing for Christmas – "an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle (BB Gun) with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time." Between run-ins with his younger brother Randy and having to handle school bully, Scut Farkus, Ralphie does not know how he will ever survive long enough to get the BB gun.

But, as in all good comedies, the ending is happy as Ralphie overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles to get the instrument which all of the adults of his life remind him, “you will shoot your eye out.” And, in the end, he almost does!

The CPH production, under the direction of Seth Gordon, is quite good. Of course, whenever you use child actors, there is going to be some variance from the requirements of professional theatre’s desire for concentration and discipline. In the main, except for difficulty in his articulation and speed in delivering lines which caused slurring, Kolin Morgenstern makes for a fine Ralphie. The super star of the kids, however, is Joey Stefanko, whose Flick, is delightful. His getting his tongue stuck on the light post and being bully Scut Farkas’s punching bag, were sheer fun.

Wilbur Edwin Henry, who looks remarkably like what you would perceive Ralphie looking like as a grown up, makes for a convincing Ralph, who serves as the narrator and reminds us of the nostalgia of growing up. Carole Monferdini is dead on as the uptight elementary teacher who demands “correct margins.”

In the roles they’ve played for the past four years, Charles Kartali as the Old Man (Ralphie’s father) and Elizabeth Ann Townsend (mother) are wonderful.

Michael Ganio’s set designs work well, as does David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes and Richard Winkler’s lighting.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH has found a cash cow in ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY.’ Even on a Thursday night of a school week, almost every seat in the Bolton Theatre was filled with adults and children. I’m not sure locals will ever get tired of seeing this wonderful piece of nostalgia. Thanks CPH for giving us a shot of remembering how good the simple life of the past was in days before the spoiling of imagination and making kids grow up too soon.

(P.S--I went home and went through my junk box which contains some of the “relevant” mementos of my past and “gosh darn it” I couldn’t find my Orphan Annie decoder ring! Maybe I can borrow Ralphie’s.)

David's Redhaired Death

Bang & Clatter’s ‘DAVID’S REDHAIRED DEATH’ leaves little after-effect

Every once in a while I leave a theatre and could care less about a show I’ve just seen. Unfortunately, that was my reaction as I wandered around the parking garage searching for my car, after seeing Bang & Clatter’s newest Cleveland theatre’s DAVID’S REDHAIRED DEATH.’

The lack of emotional or cerebral involvement wasn’t totally the fault of director Sean McConaha or the acting company. It was mainly the vehicle itself. Author Sherry Kramer, just doesn’t create characters who I cared about, who I could empathize with, or had lives or issues that made me want to care.

That opinion of Kramer’s writing is not shared by other critics. In its Washington, DC production reviewers stated, “All the scenes are interspersed foreshadowing of things to come, so there is a coiled, spiraled tension instead of the suspense of an ordinary linear plot and, ‘DAVID'S REDHAIRED DEATH’ is a stirring, annoying and difficult piece of work.”

Being married to a redhead, yes, a real redhead, I was expecting to get some insights into the personality of these unusual creatures. It was sure alluded to enough. Nope, nothing here turned me onto any real secrets of redheads, so I guess I’ll just have to continue to search for the key to my wife’s unique personality.

The tale is of a man named David's sudden and violent suicide. David, who we never meet, is etched for us by his sister Jean and her lover Marilyn’s words. And though David is supposed to be the center of the action, it is really the tale two people dealing with death and their struggle to form new relationships in the aftermath of a tragedy, that is in the forefront.
Told in a unique mixture of nonlinear monologues, and abstract dialogue, we are supposed to see how the two deal with the death from different perspectives. Supposed is the key word here, for I couldn’t get involved enough to perceive those reactions.

Faye Hargate’s Jean is well etched. She is a good actress who develops a clear character. On the other hand, Katelyn Cornelius plays at being seductive and coltish. I never believed she was Marilyn. She stayed on the surface most of the time, never digging into and living Marilyn. The interaction between them was not really interaction, as I felt little real connection between the actors. Even the kissing scenes lacked linkage.

Capsule judgment: Bang and Clatter’s ‘DAVID’S REDHAIRED DEATH’ just didn’t move or enlighten me. It didn’t pull me in. I like plays that have a clarity of message and are linear in development rather than truncated. On the other hand, that may be your thing. (For those who are smoke sensitive: Be aware that there is great deal of smoking onstage which drifts into the seating area.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Peter Pan

Uninspired ‘PETER PAN’ at Beck, but the Kid Reviewers liked it!

You can often get the unexpected from director Fred Sternfeld! He did not disappoint in his production of ‘PETER PAN’ at Beck Center.

Though the script centers on a little boy, the part of Peter is usually played by a female. The likes of Mary Martin (Peter in the 1954 Broadway premiere of the modern version of the show), Sandy Duncan and Cathy Ribgy are noted for portraying the role. Only one male, Jack Noseworthy, played Peter on Broadway, and he was an understudy. In the Beck production, Sternfeld selected John Paul Sato, a mature male, to play the role. In many ways, it was a wise choice.

The story of Peter becoming the subject of a musical has an interesting history. A short-lived 1905 musical version appeared on a New York stage. In 1924 Jerome Kern tried his hand at an adaptation with little success. In 1950 Leonard Bernstein wrote five songs for a stage version which starred Boris Karloff and Jean Arthur, but it wasn’t audience pleasing material. It wasn’t until 1945 that a hit was born due to the creativity of director Jerome Robbins, music by Mark Charlap and Jule Styne, and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It was a hit despite mixed reviews. The final push toward immortality for Peter was a television production of that Broadway staging which brought the Peter Pan story into many homes. And, of course, then there was the Disney film.

The musical is based on J.M. Barrie's 1904 tale of Peter Pan, a boy who didn't want to grow up and spent his life in Neverland. The tale recounts how he brings the Darling children (Wendy, John and Michael) to Neverland with him, the machinations of the Indians and the Lost Boys to confront pirates, and how Peter defeats his foe, Captain Hook, with the help of a crocodile.

The Beck production, in spite of having basically a good cast, fails to light up the stage. The show drags. Much of the humor doesn’t work. The fight scenes, which were poorly developed by John Davis, are flat and fake. The cast doesn’t seem to be enjoying themselves and so the audience doesn’t either. Even the music lacks the necessary exciting tempo needed to envelop the many youngsters in the audience and give service to the score.

For those who are used to seeing and hearing a sprightly and slight body and voice in the role, it takes a little bit of getting used to to accept Sato’s deep voice and muscular form in the green-tighted role. He wins us over with his animated face, though he sometimes overdoes the smirks and smiles. He has a good singing voice and “flies” comfortably. His “I Got to Crow” is delightful.

Kelly Smith is charming as Wendy. She has a very nice voice, the right attitude, and a good English accent. Lincoln Sandham (John) and Stephen Sandham (Michael) are quite acceptable in their roles, though their spoken lines were sometimes hard to hear.

Michael Mauldin was not believable as Mr. Darling and was never evil nor snarly nor funny enough as Captain Hook. In fact, much of the problem with the production centered on his performance as “meanest pirate of them all.” The same lack of characterization could be aimed at the pirates who are often the center of amusement in Pan productions. Bob Abelman came close to the right image, but the others were flat.

On the other hand, the Lost Boys were excellent. Each maintained his characterization well and their singing and dancing were quite good. The same could be said for the Indians.

Aimee Kliuber’s costumes were disappointing, especially the badly designed dog suit for Nana. Instead of cuddly and cute, the animal looked flea-bagged and molting. This left little visual room for Gregory White to create a delightful dog/nursemaid.

As I have done in the past with kid-friendly shows, I took the “Kid Reviewers,” my grandsons Alex (13) and Noah (11 1/2) to the production. They liked it a lot more than grandpa, giving the production thumbs ups of 7 and 8 out of ten.

Noah liked Ben Needham’s sets (grandpa totally agreed), the way the story developed (yep!) and the dancing (grandpa wasn’t totally enamored with some of the movements, especially “Mysterious Lady” and the dreadful “The Battle”).

Alex liked most of the singing, thought the music was well played, and believed that Peter was very good.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: I expect much from a musical directed by Fred Sternfeld and choreographed by Martin Cespedes. I was disappointed in their version of ‘PETER PAN.’ It wasn’t terrible, but it just wasn’t everything that it could and should have been.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


CPT’s ‘BOOM’--not your usual holiday fare

The stated mission of Cleveland Public Theatre, which is now staging Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s ‘BOOM,’ is to “develop new work and support emerging artists.” The company “seeks plays that challenge audiences and offer unique theatrical experiences.”

‘BOOM’ fulfills CPT’s mission well.

The play, according to its author, is about "this gay marine biologist who posts a Craigslist ad for what seems like casual sex, and what happens when a female journalism student answers the ad." What appears to be a casual date evolves into something far more momentous which includes Pampers, a baster, a broken leg, fish, Tampons, drums and chains.

The concept of Nachtrieb writing a play about this subject comes naturally. He had the unusual double-major of biology and drama. And the subject is real. As the writer says, "The scientist character is based on experiences I had off the coast of Panama, as a research assistant to a marine biologist. "We were on this spit of sand in an archipelago that's one of the least-populated places in the world. We just watched fish spawn for four months."

The format of the play is unusual. The audience finds themselves in a “museum” observing the acting out of a “play.” Barbara, the “stage manager,” who manipulates the entire experience, makes some changes in the format and the goings-on thrust out of a normal pattern. The question arises as to the reality or lack of reality, the truth or fiction of what we are viewing.
There is an almost science fiction feel. And, after the Bush/Chaney administration which appeared to be centered on leading the nation to doom, maybe the “do we have any control over our lives” is more real than we’d like to believe.

Reviews of the New York and Washington, DC productions used such phrases as, “grandly whacked-out apocalypse fantasy;” “literate, coarse, thoughtful, sweet, inappropriate;” and “wracked by existential anxiety.” One reviewer called it "essentially a dark-themed, light-toned allegory of survival and change."

The CPT production, under the direction of Beth Wood is as good as possible. The cast is excellent and the pacing is right, though the 90-minute intermissionless presentation seems much longer due to the talky script.

Kelly Elliott, she of mobile face and great vocal variety, is delightful as Barbara, She has a wonderful way of being both confused and “in charge” at the same time. Skinny and gawky Doug Snyder, is a born nerd! His Jules is pure scientist who doesn’t have the social graces to realize he is totally off-key to the rest of the world. Laurel Johnson, though often shrill, carries off the role of the Jo, the female reporter trapped in the play’s fantasy, with realism.

Capsule judgement: In spite of the critical raves of previous productions, this is not a play for everyone. The script contains too many words and too little action. It is abstract and leaves one asking, “What is this all about?” If you like Theater of the Absurd , this is for you! If not, go see David Sedaris’ ‘The Santaland Diaries’ which is being staged in CPT’s other theatre.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Theatre calender, Fall/2008

Exciting theatre season in the Cleveland area

This is the time of year when shopping, party-going and entertainment is at its peak. The local theatres are filling their auditoriums with many holiday goodies.

Cleveland Play House
November 28 - December 21, 2008
A Cleveland Play House tradition in its 4th year! 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!
Tickets: 216-795-7000

Cleveland Public Theatre
November 28 - December 20
The elf is back by popular demand! ‘THE SANTALAND DIARIES’ is told from the perspective of a 33-year-old slacker who takes a job as Crumpet, a Macy's Christmas elf.

‘BOOM’ by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
November 28 - December 20
In this hilarious new work, a female journalism student finds herself surrounded by bourbon, fish tanks and a bunch of scary levers. It's the end of the world as we know it and this is the date to end all dates!

December 4 - December 20
A quirky new comedy about an old house and Janice, a 12-year old girl with an unusual Christmas list.

Tickets for all CPT shows: 216-631-2727, x501

State Theatre, Playhouse Square

December 4-28, 2008
Features the Rockettes with their signature high kicks and precision choreography in multiple show-topping numbers including the legendary "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and "New York at Christmas."
Tickets: 216-241-6000 or go on line to

Beck Center
December 5, 2008 – January 4, 2009.
Based on J.M. Barrie's tale, this is a high flying musical story of Peter Pan, Wendy, John, and Michael and their adventures in Neverland. Good for audiences of all ages.
Tickets: 216-521-2540.

Workshop Players
44820 Middle Ridge Road
Now through December 14.
A church Christmas program spins out of control in this farce about squabbling sisters, a surly Santa, a vengeful sheep and a reluctant Elvis impersonator.
Tickets: 440-988-5613

Huntington Playhouse
28601 Lake Road
Bay Village, Ohio
November 28-Decemberber 21.
Hired by Macy's for the holidays, Kris Kringle believes he is Santa Claus. As events unfold, a small girl's belief in Santa and the magic of the season are at stake.
Tickets: 440-871-8333

Great Lakes Theatre Festival
November 28 through December 23.
Dickens’ classic tale of Scrooge and Tiny Tim performed at the Ohio Theatre.
Tickets: 216-241-6000 or

Karamu Theatre
2355 East 89th Street, Cleveland (free enclosed parking)
December 5 through December 28.
Langston Hughes’ gospel musical is Cleveland’s oldest theatrical holiday tradition.

Actors’ Summit
December 4, 2008 through December 21, 2008.
A heartwarming old-time country musical for the holiday season.
Tickets: 330-342-0800 or

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Talking Heads 2

Masterful acting highlights ‘TALKING HEADS 2’ at Beck

Dorothy Silver, who is appearing in ‘TALKING HEADS 2’ at Beck Center, is the reigning grande dame of Cleveland Theatre. Robert Hawks, who is also appearing in the show, is a competent actor. The duo are superb in this production.

Alan Bennett, the author of the Tony Award winning ‘THE HISTORY BOYS,’ which recently had a successful production at Beck, is also the author of ‘TALKING HEADS,’ a series of dramatic monologues written for the BBC. It has also been adopted for live theatre.

‘PLAYING SANDWICHES’ centers on Wilfred, a reformed pedophile living under a false identity and working as a much-praised maintenance man in a public park. However, as a superior begins to pressure him for bureaucratic historical information to include in his personnel file, the pressure causes Wilfred to resume his old ways with horrifying results. Incarcerated, he contemplates his condition, remarking, “It's the one part of my life that feels right... and that's the bit that's wrong.”

Robert Hawkes, who stars in ‘PLAYING SANDWICHES,’ is well directed by Curt Arnold. Hawkes sucks us in as we watch him fight against his tendencies, making us believe and even hope that he will be able to control his desires. As his resolve breaks down, however, we watch as Hawkes’ face and body virtually collapse. This is an excellent performance.

In ‘WAITING FOR A TELEGRAM,’ Violet, an elderly woman in a nursing home has been told she will soon be receiving a telegram from the Queen in honor of her one hundredth birthday. This news triggers in Violet a memory of a telegram which brought news of death on a battlefield, the death of her young lover. Violet gets even more confused when she finds out that her favorite nurse, a gay man has recently died of AIDS. Violet’s present is bleak, her future is bleaker.

Under the adept direction of Reuben Silver, Dorothy Silver completely captivates. This, and her performance earlier this year as Golda Meir in Actors’ Summit’s ‘GOLDA’S BALCONY,’ are two of the finest local female acting gigs of the year. Silver doesn’t act Violet, she is Violet. She brushes wisps of gray hair off her face, displays obstinacy as the world around her becomes frustrating, holds imaginary hands with her male nurse, pounds on the radiator with a spoon when she becomes confused. This is a superb performance.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘TALKING HEADS 2’ is one of those special evenings of theatre. In 90 minutes, including intermission, Hawkes and Silver give a lesson on what good acting is all about! This is a must see!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Legally Blonde

Cutesy ‘LEGALLY BLONDE, THE MUSICAL’ entertains at Palace

Some shows are just meant to be entertaining…no great message, no deep thoughts, nothing but joyous fluff. ‘LEGALLY BLONDE, THE MUSICAL,’ is such a script.

The musical, like the movie on which it is based, centers on Elle Woods, a blonde, seemingly ditsy California wealthy sorority girl whose fashion sense far exceeds her common sense. Well, that’s the illusion she gives off. When Warner, her boyfriend, dumps her for someone who is ‘serious,” Elle goes into action, and gets admitted to Harvard Law School (that’s where Warner is enrolled). Her eventual success, both in the classroom and the court room, are foregone conclusions. The lightweight plot takes us on her journey from blonde bimbo to blonde valedictorian.

Okay, maybe there is an underlying belly to the show…be true to yourself, stand up for your rights, and just because you are blonde doesn’t mean you are dumb.

The show was nominated for seven 2007 Tony Award nominations.

The touring production is directed and choreographed by Tony award-winning Jerry Mitchell (‘HAIRSPRAY’). The composer and lyricist are Laurence O'Keefe (‘BATBOY’) and Nell Benjamin (‘SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL’). The book was written by Heather Hach (‘FREAKY FRIDAY’).
The score, which includes “Ohmigod You Guys,” “Chip On My Shoulder,” and “Find My Way,” is catchy. Sprinkled in are some authentic show-stoppers including “The Harvard Variations” and “Bend And Snap.”

In an unusual move, while the show was running on Broadway, and before it went on tour, an MTV version of a taped live production from the Palace Theatre in New York was aired. The show reached more than 12.5 million viewers in its debut weekend. Carrying the connect with MTV further, a talent competition was held to find a replacement for Elle on Broadway. Several of the contestants are in this touring production.

The show has strong Cleveland connections in that Gina Vernaci, the Vice President of Theatricals for Playhouse Square, was involved in the evolution of the production. In addition, a group of ten local women partnered together to invest in ‘LEGALLY BLONDE, THE MUSICAL.’ They attended the Broadway opening of the show.

The touring production is nicely paced. The choreography is good. The sets and costumes are fine.

Becky Gulsvig, who plays Elle, and was the understudy on Broadway, is good, but the part requires more….more sparkle, a fuller voice, a more compelling presence. She isn’t bad, but not up to the level of controlling the show. Jeff McLean has the right pompous attitude as Warner and sings well. Natalie Joy Johnson is delightful as Paulette, the manicurist turned Elle’s friend. D. B. Bonds is top-notch as Emmett, who helps Elle succeed and eventually wins her love. Ken Land, who portrays Professor Callahan, isn’t swarmy enough as the lecherous instructor.

The real stars of the show, at least based on the amount of applause they received, are Frankie (Chihuahua) and China (bulldog), two dogs that were rescued from shelters. (BTW…each of the pooches has an understudy!)

The orchestra often gets carried away and drowns out the singers. That’s a shame as the words to the songs are well crafted.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you like light-hearted musicals with excellent music and some good singing and dancing, you’ll be pleased with this touring production of ‘LEGALLY BLONDE, THE MUSICAL.’

Raisin in the Sun

Outstanding ‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ at Play House

It seems ironic that the week that this country elected its first African American President, the Cleveland Play House opened ‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN, considered by many to be America’s number one Black-themed play.

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun?
This segment of the poem A Dream Deferred by Clevelander Langston Hughes is the underlying theme for Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN.’

On March 11, 1959, ‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ opened on Broadway. The play had already negotiated a long and troubled road just to find its way to the opening. It was the first major on-Broadway play by a Black female author. It thrust many of its rookie Broadway cast members into major entertainment roles including Cleveland-born Ruby Dee, and future superstars Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil.

No one could foresee that the play's imminent triumph would mirror the changing role of Blacks in this country and the role the play’s themes would play in African American culture in the years that followed. Though the restrictive covenants have been eliminated, even with Obama’s election, the hatred in the voices and words of some at the McCain-Palin rallies, still warns of racial hatred.

The New York Drama Critics Circle named the Hansberry play the best American play of 1959. Ironically, the play failed to receive either a Pulitzer Prize or a Tony for Best Play.

‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ relates the story of the Youngers, a Southside Chicago family trying to survive in cramped ghetto quarters. When Mama gets a $10,000 check from her husband's life insurance, they consider moving to a house in a white suburb. A suburb in which the residents warn that they don’t want a Black family as their neighbors.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ is somewhat autobiographical. Chicago, where Hansberry was born in 1930, was self-segregated along racial lines at the time. As a child, Hansberry's family became one of the first blacks to move into a white neighborhood. When their neighbors rebelled, both with threats of violence and legal action, the family defended themselves. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court where the Hansberrys prevailed, thus changing segregation in housing laws.

The Cleveland Play House’s production, under the watchful eye of director Lou Bellamy is superb. He delves into each deep corner, carefully guiding his cast to not over-play their roles. The production hits all the right notes. The humor and the pathos run in parallel lines. The mood is right…serious, but not depressing.

Franchelle Stewart Dorn is wonderful as mamma. She walks the fine line between family matriarch and mother figure with precision. Erika LaVonn is totally believable as Ruth. Young Aric Generette Floyd, who has recently given some excellent performances, continues to impress! This is one very, very talented kid! David Alan Anderson has the difficult task of playing Walter Lee. This is a part that can so easily be over-done. Anderson keeps his emoting in check. His drunk scene is masterfully done. Bakesta King gives a realistic quality to Beneatha. The rest of the cast is equally impressive. The only negative were some problems with projection and slurring, which caused some speeches to be unintelligible.

Vicki Smith’s scenic design adds to the era-correct feeling of the play. On the other hand, Mathew LeFebvre’s costumes are much too numerous and grand for a family living on the border of poverty.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Combine Hansberry’s superb script with a well thought out production, and the result is an impressive evening of theatre. If you haven’t seen ‘RAISIN IN THE SUN’ before, this is THE production to see. If you have, a return visit is well worth your time. Go! (Be aware that the production is close to three hours in length.)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Lar Lubovitch Dance, Verb Ballets (11/1/08)

Lar Lubovitch Dance captivates, Verb Ballets needs to ask itself some questions

Within the last several weeks, Cleveland’s dance enthusiasts were given several opportunities to see major dance companies. Lar Lubovitch Dance is one of America’s most highly acclaimed dance companies. Verb Ballets is recognized as a leading local company. They both danced at the Ohio Theatre a week apart.

Lar Lubovitch, the founder of the company which bears his name, is generally recognized as a staging super star. He has choreographed more than 100 dances for his New York based company, as well as directing Broadway shows. His background as a painter carries over into his choreography. He uses the bodies of the dancers to paint fascinating pictures. He also directs the costume designers and lighting technicians to enhance his visual images. The overall effect is captivating.

The program, sponsored by Tri-C Performing Arts and DANCECleveland, was performed to a near sold-out house. Their enthusiastic applause and verbal responses attested to their delight with the evenings’ offerings which included a mélange of ballet, modern, contemporary and ethnic dance.

“Allegro,” the opening segment of “Concerto Six Twenty-Two,” was a composition of flowing bodies costumed in white which incorporated lines and circles with a gymnastic center and humorous inserts. “Adagio,” which examined friendship, was totally charismatic. It featured the powerful lifts and intertwining of the bodies of Jay Franke and George Smallwood. “Rondo” had a wonderful “aw shucks” attitude.

“Jangle” was a brilliant interpretation of four Hungarian dances complete with hand slaps, bottle dance-like movements and other ethnic moves. There was a perfect parallel between the musical sounds and the movements.

“Dvorák Serenade” was a balletic interpretation of the music of Antonin Dvorák. Consisting of four segments, it captivated the audience with flowing movements and the creation of attractive visual images. Strong dancing by Mucuy Bolles and Scott Rink, a long-time company member, made the piece captivating.

Capsule judgement: Lar Lubovitch presented a wonderful evening of dance. This is a world class company. It can only be hoped that Tri-C and DANCECleveland will bring back this exciting ensemble.

As exciting as Lar Lubovitch was, that’s almost how disappointing Verb Ballets has been in their recent concerts. Verb has been one of my favorite local companies. In the past I’ve raved about the creative direction of the company. Unfortunately, in the last year or so, I’ve seen a deterioration of energy and creativity. There are seemingly multiple causes. The loss of two strong male dancers who were not replaced has led to the lack of a strong male presence. Company members seem distracted, not displaying enthusiasm, not excited by what they are dancing. The corps has traditionally danced in sync. There was a precision to the movements. This, too, has not been maintained.

“Verb Ballets All Stars!” was an interesting concept. The combining of three Ohio dance companies. The results was a pleasant, but not captivating evening of dance.

The opening piece, danced to Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” was staged by Hernando Cortez, Verb’s artistic director. A strong solo by Brian Murphy, one of the company’s strengths, was the highlight of the piece. The flowing movements, accented by flowing hands and tilted bodies, centered on the religious use of body positions which created illusions of the cross.

‘UNRESOLVED’ was a short piece by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, which examined conflicted lovers. The piece, which had a strong emotional center, was well received by the audience.

“RUBIES, originally choreographed by George Balanchine, was performed by the Cincinnati Ballet. It was a pleasant piece whose movements did not always parallel the music.

“AFTERIMAGE,” was choreographed by Verb’s Hernando Cortez. It was an investigation of being human and was performed by combination of Verbs Ballets and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company members. The first segment, “Afterimage,” was adequately danced by Sydney Ignacio, but lacked dynamism and precision. Brian Murphy gave a strong and controlled performance in “Dark Wood.” Hershel Deandre Horner III of the Dayton Company, was very effective in “A Moment More.”

The final segment, 'VESPERS, was performed by Verb Ballets and choreographed by Ulyssses Dove and restaged by Dawn Carter. It was danced to the music of Mikel Rouse. The physically exhausting piece, was generally well danced. The fast movements from chair to chair paralleled the passions and spirtuality of women who have a faith and belief in God that allows them to race physically and emotionally from place to place, life problem to life problem. The only weakness was the consistent breakdown of timing from the middle of the straight lines. One of the dancers was always too early or too late in her movements, thus causing a lack of visual unity.

Capsule judgement: The idea of bringing three major Ohio dance companies together was an excellent scheme. It would be a good idea to duplicate this effort in the future. As for Verb appears that the company’s leadership needs to ask itself how it can regain its past path, because lately the magic is gone.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Nixon's Nixon

‘NIXON’S NIXON’— a probe into the past at ACTORS’ SUMMIT

Russell Lees' ‘NIXON’S NIXON,’ now on stage at Actors’ Summit, is a historical docudrama which imagines the conversation that might have taken place when then-President Richard Nixon summoned Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the White House on August 7, 1974. This was the night before Nixon resigned from the Presidency due to the Watergate scandal. Though no one, except the two men knows the content of their conversation, Lees imagines that the duo relived past glories, conjured up their political legacies, and wrestled with their personal insecurities.

The ninety-minute play, performed without an intermission, is at times compelling, while at other times gets a little tedious. At times it is humorous, at times humorless.

We see a Nixon who alternates between being desperate, shrewd, paranoid, but, most important, utterly baffled by the situation in which he finds himself. How could his “friends” be demanding his resignation? How could his loyal public not come to his side, like Napoleon’s former warriors did when he returned from exile? This is a man who is on the brink of a total psychological melt-down. No sooner does one thought come into his head than another arrives before he has fully articulated the first. His language is obscene. His always inept smile, his inability to see reality, is present.
Kissinger, who starts off as a statesman who sees reality, but soon falls prey to his ego and desire to continue to be at the hub of the US foreign policy, starts conceiving illogical plots to save the duo. His fertile imagination includes various "Dr. Strangelove"-like possibilities including starting a war on the Russian-Chinese border.

Unfortunately, Lees fails to build all the needed tension of the high-stakes poker game he’s set up. The script often meanders.

Though both A. Neil Thackaberry (Nixon) and George Roth (Kissinger) are generally excellent, there are times when the portrayals need some polishing and a reality check. For example, Roth continually hides his head in his hands looking very child like. This would work if his actions following this departure from his usual logical control, were more keyed. His accent comes and goes. Thackaberry often misses the maniacal look that Nixon had, foreshadowing one of his deceptive actions. His body, complete with the traditional almost cartoon like gestures, sometimes loses the image. The “tricky Dickey” is only there part time.

The production yells for a keen eye to detail and the needed frenetic pacing to highlight Nixon’s closeness to being totally out of touch with reality and Kissinger’s near desperation, the qualities that garnered critical claim in its New York run.

Things are not helped by director Constance Thackaberry’s direction. Part of the problem may be the director’s youth. As she indicates in the program, the era and the characters were a historical discovery for her. Maybe someone who had lived through the Nixon days might have had a clearer awareness of the almost bipolar swings of the man and the tension of the era. And, her lack of directing background may also come into play here as the eye for detail is often missing.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “NIXON’S NIXON’ is a good exposé of the Nixon era. The production, though sometimes slow, is interesting, if not compelling, and is worth a go-to for those interested in historical events and political intrigue.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Goldstar, Ohio

Emotionally draining ‘GOLDSTAR, OHIO’ at CPT

Being in the audience opening night at the world premiere of ‘GOLDSTAR, OHIO’ at Cleveland Public Theatre was a surreal experience. Many of those in the sold out crowd were wearing pictures or badges with the facial images of members of the 325th Marine unit who were killed in the Iraq war during the first week of August, 2005.

‘GOLDSTAR, OHIO’ is a play based on interviews conducted with the families of the fallen marines. Four families continued to speak to Michael Tisdale, the interviewer and author of the play for two-and-a-half years after the original in-take of information. They are the center of the script. The result is an in-time and personal revelation which, at times, becomes emotionally draining.

The first act lays the foundation of what happened. The second act, reveals reactions to and experiences following the killed Marines bodies arriving home.

Unfortunately, the play is at least forty-five minutes too long. It’s too bad that most of the excess is in the second act. But, it is also there that the words of families twist the heart. Jill Levin speaks words which rip into George W. Bush and his failed policy of taking the country into a senseless war which has resulted in over 4000 American deaths and multiple mental and physical injuries. I can’t perceive anyone sitting through that speech and not be repulsed by the actions of this administration and all those who support and supported the Iraq war. As the script states, “The casualties and fatalities of war will affect our communities for years to come.”

The cast, who play numerous roles, is universally excellent. This is a unit cast performing as a unified team. Applause to Jill Levin, Anne McEvoy, Dana Hart, Justin Tatum, Sarah Marcus, Bob Goddard, Casey Spindler, and Chuck Tisdale for a job well done.

Some might fear that the play may be too graphic. Be aware that there are no events that show the actual deaths. In addition, there is comedy that relieves the stress.

Kudos to Director Andy Paris, who, in his initial directing experience, did a masterful job. His stage pictures were involving. The creative use of the set was symbolically strong. Bows to Trad Burns for both the set and lighting design.

Capsule judgement: “GOLDSTAR, OHIO,’ in spite of its excessive length, is a compelling and meaningful presentation. It’s a go see!

Thursday, October 16, 2008



So there is no question about the basis of this review: I am ‘A CHORUS LINE’ fanatic. I love the show! This affection carries with it a problem...I go into productions of the show with the fear that the director/choreographer/actors are going to give me visual and emotional mind-burn.

Unfortunately, the touring production of ‘A CHORUS LINE,’ now on stage at the Palace Theatre, is a major disappointment! It lacks energy. It lacks the quality of acting, dancing and singing that makes the show a theatrical feast.

The results are very surprising considering that the tour has only been on the road since the beginning of May, so there is no reason for the general look of exhaustion from the cast. It is directed by Bob Avian, who was the co-choreographer of the original show which opened on-Broadway in 1975, won nine Tony Awards and ran for nearly 15 years, and closed in 1990 after 6,137 performances. This can’t be the show that opened in a Big Apple revival to rave reviews in 2006 and was billed as “exhilarating,” “endearing,” and “a masterpiece.”

‘A CHORUS LINE’ was originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Michael Bennett, the recognized genius of theatre choreographers. It has music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban. The book was assembled by Elyria native James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante.

The script was not written by the traditional means of a writer conceiving a plot. ‘A CHORUS LINE’ began as a workshop "share" session. A group of dancers met after rehearsals for other shows to talk about their personal and professional lives. The sessions were tape recorded, written down, and a libretto was pieced together. Their combined work, guided closely by Bennett, resulted in a staging scheme that filled the songs and book with overlapping layers.

The final result was a story set in a Broadway theater. Young hopefuls are auditioning for a job in the chorus line of a musical. As each speaks, sings and dances, we learn about their hopes, insecurities and dreams. And eventually, their individuality becomes blurred as they become part of the chorus line, blending together into a unit of one…a chorus line.

What has always stood out in the show was Michael Bennett’s amazing choreography. Unfortunately, in the touring production Baayork Lee, who restaged the moves, didn’t demand Bennett’s perfectionism, the use of what he called “cinematic staging.” The Bennett signatures of slanted bodies, tilted heads, precise hand and arm movements, the flick of the wrist that turns the hats, aren’t there in total harmony.

Bennett used a constant "jump-cutting" so the audience's attention is shifted from one figure to another. This draws focus to the character by placing the visual spotlight on that person. Bennett also used a series of mirrors to spotlight performers and make them stand out bigger than life in the eyes of the audience. This production lost many of those qualities.

The cast is uneven. Gabrielle Ruiz’s (Diana) “Nothing” was well interpreted, but her “What I Did for Love” ” failed to capture the mood and meaning of the song. Hollie Howard (Maggie) has a great voice, Derek Hanson (Don) has the Bennett dance attitude and moves, and Emily Fletcher has the right attitude as Sheila. Kevin Santos hits Paul’s emotional self-revealing monologue right on, not only bringing tears to his eyes but to the eyes of many in the audience.

On the other hand, Nikki Snelson doesn’t display the dancing, acting or singing skills to pull off the pivotal role of Cassie. Elise Hall (Val) fails to get the necessary humor from “Dance; Ten; Looks: Three). She doesn’t compare with Elyria’s Crissy Wilzak, who played the role during part of the original Broadway run.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The touring production of ‘A CHORUS LINE’ misses the mark of being a “singular sensation,” which it should have been. It’s not, as a line from the show says, “nothing,” but it should have been so much more!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Noises Off

‘NOISES OFF’ at Cleveland Play House is entertaining, but…

‘NOISES OFF,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, is a farce. In fact, it is considered to be one of the best written of the modern farces.

A farce, as the CPH program states, is “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, typically including crude characterizations and ludicrously improbably situations.” As anyone who has ever attempted to direct or act in a farce knows, it is hard work. It is probably the most difficult of theatrical formats to do well.

Though they try hard, the cast and director of ‘NOISES OFF’ just don’t get it totally right. Not that the production is bad, it’s not, it is quite entertaining. But it is not of the quality, for example, of the great production I saw in London of this show.

Maybe seeing a British play requires the British to do it. The accents, the natural over-exaggeration, the bigger than life characters, need that special Anglo touch.

The original staging opened in 1982 in London to rave reviews. A version of it opened in New York in 1983, starring Dorothy Loudon. It had moderate success, running 553 performances. A film version was made with Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve and John Ritter. Good cast, bad flick. A well respected critic wrote that the film was "one of the worst ever made."

The plot to ‘NOISES OFF’ centers on a play within a play. The fictional ‘NOTHING ON’ is a sex comedy which finds the cast often running around in their underwear, running in and out of doors, with no real purpose.

The ‘NOISES OFF’ segment finds us viewing three acts. The first, a rehearsal the night before opening with the cast still fumbling with entrances and exits, missed cues, misspoken lines, and bothersome props, most notably several plates of sardines.

Act Two portrays a performance one month later which reveals the deteriorating personal relationships among the cast that have led to offstage shenanigans and onstage bedlam.

In Act Three, we see a performance near the end of the ten-week run, when personal friction has continued to increase and everyone is bored and anxious to be done with the play. It contains one of the most delightful death-defying down-the-stairs falls you’ll ever see.

Much of the comedy should emerge from prat falls and general on and off-stage chaos. There should be a sharp contrast between players' on-stage and off-stage personalities.

The CPH version, under that direction of David Bell, tries hard for the slapstick. But, because of inconsistent pacing, some of it doesn’t work as well as possible. As for the on-stage/off-stage personalities, the cast generally fails. The personalities generally blend into one.

The play’s success depends, to a great degree on the set. Here, the CPH production shines as James Leonard Joy has created the perfect setting. In fact, the set is so effective that the audience universally sat in their seats at the set change between the second and third act. Unfortunately, after giving the viewers a taste of how the set would be altered, the curtain was dropped and the rest of the change hidden from view. Bad choice. The audience moaned and there were actually a couple of boos when the curtain closed. They wanted to see the stage hands do their thing.

Standouts in the cast are Christopher Kelly who is quite good as the mumphering Garry/Roger and Linda Kimbrough as Dotty/Mrs. Clackett, the maid.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The CPH production of ‘NOISES OFF’ is quite entertaining, but doesn’t reach the level of farce needed to really get the audience into a hysterical mood. As the play runs, maybe the cast will pick up the pace and separate the on-stage from the off-stage characterizations.

Into the Woods

'INTO THE WOODS' delights at Great Lakes Theater Festival

Have you ever asked yourself what happens following the “and they lived happily ever after” at the conclusion of most fairy tales? Do you think everything is rosy for the prince and his beloved, or for Jack and his mother after they get the hen that lays the golden eggs? Well, after watching ‘INTO THE WOODS’ at Great Lakes Theatre Festival, you might change your mind.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical, which was inspired by Bruno Bettelheim's THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT, intertwines the plots of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales in the first act and then explores the consequences of the characters' wishes and quests in the second act. The main characters are taken from “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel,” and “Cinderella,” tied together by a story involving a Baker and his wife and their quest for a family.

‘INTO THE WOODS’ premiered on Broadway in 1987. Bernadette Peters' portrayed the Witch, and Joanna Gleason was the Baker's Wife. It won Tony Awards for Best Score, and Best Book in a year dominated by ‘THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.’

This is one of Sondheim’s most beautiful and accessible scores. It includes the poignant “No More,” “No One is Alone,’ and “Children Will Listen.” The music lingers in your mind long after the production.

As proven by Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s ‘MACBETH,’ which opened last week and now ‘INTO THE WOODS,’ GLTF is on a roll. It might be their new refurbished home in the beautiful Hanna Theatre, or it may be a change in attitude; but, whatever it is…audiences are in for a treat.

Director Victoria Bussert and choreographer Martin Cespedes create ever-involving stage pictures, which are framed by Scenic Designer Jeff Herman’s creative set. (Be sure to look for the faces and figures cleverly interwoven into the trees, which overlook the happenings.) Charlotte Yetman’s costumes, Norman Coates lighting and Stan Kozak’s sound design help complete the illusion.

Musical Director John Jay Espino and his well-tuned orchestra generally do a good job of backing up rather than drowning out the singers.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Jodi Dominick sings well and creates the right empathy as the Baker’s wife. Tom Ford, he of sad and mobile face, is excellent as the Baker. Jessica L. Cope has a compelling singing voice and creates a Witch who is delightfully witchy. Derrick Cobey makes for a great wolf, but overacts and postures too much as Cinderella’s Prince. Maryann Nagel is a fine fuss-budget as Jack’s mother. Tim Try is perfectly nerdy as Jack. Mark Moritz does a nice job of transitioning between being the Narrator and the Mysterious Man. Emily Krieger creates the right image as Cinderella, but is often difficult to hear during her songs.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: GLTF’s ‘INTO THE WOODS’ is a delightful production which entertains completely. It’s a go see!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Macbeth (Great Lakes Theater Festival)

‘MACBETH’ highlights new GLTF home at the refurbished Hanna

‘MACBETH,’ the first production in The Great Lakes Theater Festival’s new 14.7 million dollar new home, shows off all the elements of the refurbished Hanna Theatre. From the very first drum beat, director Charles Fee uses the intimate facility to its maximum effect. Electronic platforms make actors and set pieces rise and fall from the thrust stage area. Special light effects, possible with the enhanced illumination system, are ever present. The audience is brought into the action by actors passing within inches of them as the performers charge up and down the aisles.

For those concerned about what happened to the Hanna, worry not. In spite of the change in seating patterns, the balcony, a favorite viewing area for many, still exists, complete with its ornate plaster front decorations. In fact, all of the colorfully painted ornateness is still there. The wonderful auditorium ceiling, the proscenium arch and the decoration on the side boxes have all been retained. Only the paint color on the walls has been adjusted. A bland beige has been used to cover the original color.

One of the wonders of the theatre is the acoustics. No mikes are needed for the actors to be easily heard throughout the theatre. No mike squeals or uneven balance between actors’ spoken words. Hurrah! This is theatre as it should be.

Yes, the initial attention on opening night seemed to center on the trappings, the new bar area, the spacious and more comfortable seats, the wider aisles. But, the attention soon shifted to the stage, where Fee has created a wonder-filled production.

‘MACBETH,’ which is among the best-known of Shakespeare's plays, is loosely drawn on the historical account of King Macbeth of Scotland. Originally conceived in four acts, it tells of the dangers of the lust for power and the betrayal of friends.

The main action centers on Macbeth, whose wife, Lady Macbeth, hatches a plan to murder the king and secure the throne. Although Macbeth raises concerns about the regicide, Lady Macbeth eventually persuades him, by challenging his manhood, to follow her plan. Unfortunately, the prophecies of three spirits that Macbeth encounters in the woods, who state that his heirs will not inherit the throne come true. They tell him to "beware Macduff", but that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth." These actions carry forth the plot.

The play is filled with great scenes including the one in which Lady Macbeth, racked with guilt from the crimes she and her husband have committed, sleepwalks and tries to wash imaginary bloodstains from her hands, all the while speaking of the terrible things she knows.

There are many superstitions centered on the belief that the play is somehow "cursed", and many actors will not mention the name of the play aloud, referring to it instead as “The Scottish Play.” Great Lakes was not immune from the curse. Associate Artistic Director Andrew May, who was to portray Macbeth, was injured prior to production and had to be replaced.

As for the GLTF staging, Fee has been nothing but creative. He utilized on-stage percussionists performing Japanese taiko drumming; reconceptualized the witches into spirits who transform themselves into blackbirds, trees and images; remolded the play into two acts, thus shortening it without losing any impact; used a Japanese flavor which influenced not only the startling set but the costumes and stage movements; underplayed rather than overacted Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s famous speeches; and, called on general American pronunciation which makes for ease in understanding.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Questions can be raised. Did Dougfred Miller (Macbeth) and Laura Perrotta (Lady Macbeth) give great performances? Bottom line, both are quite adequate and do not detract from the overall effect. Should the actor’s speeches be given to each other rather than directed to the audience? Probably yes. Do the drum sounds lose their effect after a while? I didn’t find that true though some members of the audience seemed to think so. Were Phil Carroll and Tim Try strong enough as Duncan’s sons? No.

Some factors are clear. The witches, Sara Bruner, Laura Welsh Berg and Cathy Prince are outstanding. Drummers Seth Asa Sengel and Matthew Webb grab and hold attention. David Anthony Smith (Macduff), Dudley Swetland (Porter), Aled Davies (Duncan, King of Scotland) and Lynn Robert Berg (Banquo) are excellent.

Kudos to Scenic Designer Gage Williams, Costume Designer Star Moxley, Lighting Designer Rick Martin and Fight Choreographer Ken Merckx, who incorporate Kabuki-like movements and gymnastics into the fighting, for creating the technical aspects which enhanced the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: GLTF’s new home is spectacular and their opening production does the venue proud! This is a ‘MACBETH’ which should be seen in a facility that should be enjoyed.

Sidenote: An excellent ‘TEACHER PREPARATION GUIDE’ has been prepared by Daniel Hahn, Kelly Schaffer Florian and Cherly Kleps to be used by instructors who are bringing their students to see the play. They can be obtained by contacting Hahn at 216-241-5490.

Main-Travelled Roads

Charming ‘MAIN-TRAVELLED ROADS’ at Actors’ Summit

‘MAIN-TRAVELLED ROADS,’ now on stage at Actors’ Summit, is a charming musical penned by Richard Rodgers Award winners Dave Hudson and Paul Libman.

It is based on the short stories of Hamlin Garland, whose tales of American rural life is said to have inspired such writers as John Steinbeck and Theodore Dreiser.

The musical is set in turn-of-the-century Wisconsin, and portrays Midwestern farm life and the struggles of young lovers as they come in contact with the area’s various cultures and traditions.
The story revolves around several young couples. One duo, Will and Aggie, split up over a misunderstanding caused by a broken wagon wheel. As a result, Will leaves town and Aggie marries someone she is not in love with because she wants to escape the emotional pain of the loss of Will. Unfortunately, she finds herself in an abusive relationship. Then there is the “creamery man” who is looking for a wife and has his eyes on a wealthy young woman, who is not interested in him. Meanwhile, Nina, a Dutch woman has eyes for the “creamery man” and they eventually wind up together.

This is a light, happy musical, so all’s well that end’s well. So, after a six-year absence, Will shows up on Aggie’s doorstep. He professes his undying love. And they run off to New England, where he is now a wealth young business tycoon. And, of course, the creamery man and Nina live happily every after.

The plot might sound a little complicated but the show is easy to follow as the well-integrated songs bridge the segments together. Whether lighthearted, serious, or silly, each musical interlude gives a slice of each character’s personality, hopes and dreams. Such songs as “Small Town Telegraph” and “Creamery Man” bring smiles and “You Can’t Come Home” makes the eyes well.

Though she has over-directed several of the scenes, distracting from the words by drawing attention to movements, the Actors’ Summit production, under the direction and choreography of Sasha Thackaberry generally works well.

The four actors slip in and out of their 11 characters easily. The vocal sounds are generally good, the musical accompaniment by Evie Morris, is excellent.

Kathleen Culler sparkles as Aggie. She has a fine singing voice and lights up the stage. She does an excellent job of creating and maintaining her characterizations.

C. J. Bonde has some delightful moments as Nina and shows good tenderness as Delia, an understanding town folk.

Keith Stevens is charming as Will and has some excellent musical moments. His role as the mop-coiffed, cross-dressing Mrs. Haldeman (Nina’s mother) brought prolonged laughter in each of his appearances.

Stephen Brockway is properly nasty as Dave (Aggie’s husband) and charming as the “creamery man.”

Special notice: Paul Libman and David Hudson, the shows authors, will be in attendance at the Saturday night, October 4 performance of ‘MAIN-TRAVELLED ROADS.’ Besides viewing the show, Actors’ Summit’s Artistic Director, A. Neil Thackaberry, will discuss with them the possibility of producing the duo’s new musical based on the works of John Steinbeck.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘MAIN-TRAVELLED ROADS’ is a charming musical which gets an excellent production at Actors’ Summit. If you want to spend a pleasant evening at the theatre, see this show

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Caroline or change

Dobama & Karamu unite for a “go see” ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGE’

On the surface, ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGE,’ now being co-produced by Dobama and Karamu at the Karamu Performing Arts Center facility, is a glimpse at a personal childhood experience of author Tony Kushner.

The musical centers on Caroline Thibodeaux, a divorced, middle-aged African-American, $30 a week maid, who works for a Jewish family in the suburban enclave of Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1963. Caroline is resistant to the sweep of change she sees around her. She seldom talks, and almost never smiles, even to her own children or friends. She appears to be protecting herself from an explosion of rage or tears.

The Gellmans' young son, Noah, who is feeling abandoned due to the death of his mother, the emotional withdrawal of his father, and the insertion into his life of a well-meaning but rigid stepmother, is enamored with Caroline, even though she doesn’t reciprocate. In order to teach Noah responsibility, his stepmother tells Caroline that she should keep the change Noah carelessly leaves in the pockets of his clothes which are given to Caroline to wash. Caroline is loathe to take money from the child, but her own children desperately need food and clothing. The status quo goes awry over a $20 bill, which Noah received as a Hanukah present and leaves in his pants pocket, causing a rift between Caroline and the Gellmans. But, as with all aspects of this well-crafted script, that’s only the obvious reason.

The play’s title has at least a four-pronged implication. The obvious is the change that Noah leaves in his pockets and its ramifications. What should be done with that change? Second, America in the 1960s is filled with a change in racial relations and rage over the murder of JFK and MLK. How should/does Caroline react? She also finds herself in the middle of conflict among the Gellmans as they try to make changes in their family dynamics. What possible change does this mean for Caroline? And, there are the changes she faces as her daughter takes stands that challenge the patterns of the past forcing Caroline to decide how to manage not only the changes in own her life but those of her family.

In 2003 the off-Broadway production of ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGED’ opened. Due to its success it was moved to Broadway, where it had a disappointingly short 136 performance run, but still was nominated for 6 Tony Awards.

The script, like all of Kushner’s works, such as ‘ANGELS IN AMERICA’ and ‘HOMEBODY/KABUL,’ is thought provoking and has strong social and political messages. Jeanine Tesori's score is melodic, vibrant and ranges from neo-operatic to R & B to Klezmer. It is very unlike her ‘THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE’ score.

The Dobama/Karamu production, under the direction of Sarah May, is often compelling, and always interesting. May understands that the underbelly of the script is the angst of the leading characters and has conveyed this to her cast. This script is a very difficult undertaking and May did a masterful job of guiding the production.

Sheffia Randall Dooley is compelling as Caroline. She has a fine voice, wraps herself into the role and lives the part. She is Caroline! Her underlying rage and sadness are always present on her face, in her body, and portrayed by her voice. Bravo!

Christian Flaherty’s Noah is a bundle of internal chaos. Noah is a sad little marionette whose strings often just don’t work right. Flaherty’s plaintive singing voice and nerdy movements all are character right.

Katherine DeBoer is quite acceptable in her portrayal of Rose, Noah’s stepmother. The rest of the members of the Gellman family don’t fair as well as there is a surface level quality to their performances.

In supporting roles, talented Aric Generette Floyd lights up the stage as Jackie, one of Caroline’s children. His real-life sister Alexis sings well and makes Emmie, Caroline’s daughter, into an authentic person.

Colleen Longshaw gives a fine performance as Caroline’s friend Dotty.

The musical supporting cast are all excellent, especially Rebeca Morris as The Moon and Ayeshah Douglas as the Washing Machine.

Musical Director Ed Ridley and his band are wonderful…underscoring rather than over powering the singing and playing the ever-changing musical genres with ease.

Richard H. Morris Jr. has designed a functional set which doesn’t get in the way of the action.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGE’ is not a show that will appeal to everyone as it is not an escapist musical with a happy ending. However, it is a must-go-to for anyone interested in the theatre and seeing a well-honed production. Thanks to Karamu and Dobama for giving Clevelanders a chance to experience CAROLINE, OR CHANGE.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Glass Menagerie


‘GLASS MANAGERIE,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, was Tennessee Williams’ first successful professional play. In spite of the fact that theatre critics are often maligned, Williams’ career as one of America’s greatest modern playwrights may never have taken place if not for two determined Chicago reviewers.

When ‘MENAGERIE’ opened in Chicago in December of 1944, due to bad weather and the lack of a well known author, the play had such low pre-sales that the producers considered closing the show after the first week. Critics Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens were so enamored with the play they actually pleaded with readers to attend. Their efforts were successful and resulted in not only a successful Chicago run, but also inspired a New York production. The end result was the birth of one of America’s great plays. It also allowed Williams to have successful productions of such masterpieces as ‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,’ ‘THE ROSE TATTOO,’ and ’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.’

From a local perspective, it is interesting to note that the year before “MENAGERIE’ opened in the Windy City, The Cleveland Play House presented the world premier of Williams’ ‘YOU TOUCHED ME,’ a play based on a story of D. H. Lawrence, which is little remembered.

The 1945 Broadway production of ‘MENAGERIE,’ which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, starred Laurette Taylor, who had been a star in the 1920s and 30s, but had withdrawn from the theatre scene due to sever alcoholism. Her portrayal of the mother, Amanda, received outstanding reviews and ushered in a comeback. Other notables who have played the role include Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris and Maureen Stapleton.

The story centers on Tom, who narrates a tale of his memories of his past. Much as a traditional Greek chorus, he introduces characters and comments on the action. We meet his mother, Amanda, a faded southern belle who has been abandoned by her husband, and is living in the past while trying to navigate in the present. One wonders, are her tales real or is she living the great lie, clinging to her sanity by telling stories over and over until even she isn’t sure if they are real or illusions of her imagination. He introduces us to Laura, his physically and emotionally fragile sister who has magnified a slight limp into a major ailment to use as a device to cut herself off from reality. A reality that centers on an escape into a small animal glass collection which includes a unicorn, which much like Laura is different because of its horn. And, finally we meet Jim, a former high school acquaintance who now works at a shoe factory with Tom, who is brought home in hopes that he will marry Laura. Tom, who sat next to Laura in school choir, and with whom she has been in love her entire life.

As with many of Williams’ scripts, it concerns escape, escape from reality, from the harshness of life. It contains a signature southern deluded female who finds herself in a society that doesn’t understand her and which she doesn’t understand (think Blanche in ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’). It contains much symbolism. The fire escape, which is the only means of escape from the life in the oppressive apartment; the victrola and glass animals, which Laura uses for her escape from reality; the magic show and films, Tom’s means to escape from a life he hates; and the gentleman caller, Amanda’s hope for Laura to escape her present life.

The Cleveland Play House production, under the direction of Michael Bloom, is a good representation of Williams’ work. As with any production, the director’s vision sets the play’s attitude and the character interpretations. Bloom has a clear vision of the role of the characters, and since this is a character, not a plot driven script, that sets the tone.

His Amanda, as portrayed by the talented Linda Purl, is delusional, often comic, causing the audience to laugh at her, rather than feeling empathy and pathos for her. That approach adds a lightness and a humor level to the show, not usually seen. Purl consistently carries through Bloom’s interpretation. Personally, I feel about Amanda as I do of Blanche in “STREETCAR.” They are women forced to live in circumstances which are so beyond their control and recognition that they became psychotic. They are pathetic not humorous. But, that’s my view, and I’m not the director of this production. Bloom is.

Alison Lani often stays on the surface of Laura. She has some brilliant moments, as when she realizes that the Gentleman Caller is not going to return and her life, like the broken horn of her beloved unicorn, is not going to be repaired, saved. Yet, at other times, she seems to be feigning the character…overusing her “misshapen” hands, contorting her face rather than letting internal motivations set her expressions.

Daniel Damon Joyce is right on target as Tom. He is totally believable. He balances his internal and external rage with ease. (Having played the role twice, I am aware of the difficulty of making what appears to be a straightforward role into a tour-de -force performance.)
Sorin Brouwers gives Jim, the Gentlemen Caller, a nice edge of cockiness combined with vulnerability. His is a nicely texture performance.

Michael Lincoln’s lighting gives the right glow and darkness to the goings on. This is a play with lots of psychologically dark corners and Lincoln helps create them. Michael Roth’s underscoring music is effective, though at times it gets lost in the action. Susan Tsu’s costumes were not only period correct, but helped create the proper image for each character. Robert Mark Morgan deviated from Williams’ set description, but created a workable stage.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE’ is one of America’s great modern plays. For those who have not seen it, they will get a vision of not only the work of a great playwright, but an interesting interpretation at CPH. For those who are familiar with the play, Bloom’s interpretation, especially his concept of Amanda, should be good fodder for conversation.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Urinetown, 2008

Beck’s revival of ‘URINETOWN’….is flushed with success!

‘URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL’ graced the stage at Beck Center three years ago. The results were packed houses and joyous laughter. Scott Spence, the theatre’s artistic director, decided to revive the show this season, with basically the same cast and production team.

The idea for the play came to author Greg Kotis when he visited Luxembourg and was confronted with having to use the city's pay-per-use toilets. He, along with his friend Mark Hollmann, developed the show.

Theatrical producers took one look at the title and subject matter and wouldn’t take on the project. Luckily, Kotis and Hollmann happened upon three of Cleveland’s own, who at that point in their careers were fledgling New York want-to-be legends. Westsiders Matt and Mark Rego and Hank Unger had produced ‘VAGINA MONOLOGUES’ and were ripe for another hit. They optioned the script, mounted an off-Broadway production, and, against the odds, they became the Big Apple’s new “wunderkinds.” They have gone on to produce the likes of ‘WICKED.’

Don’t think of the show as a light bit of escapism. It is fun, in fact, a total delight, but it also has a serious underbelly. This is a tale of greed, corruption, love and revolution in a city where water is worth its weight in gold. Messages pervade, such as what happens when big business is given the right to control our lives. Think of the pharmaceutical and medical companies and their stranglehold over our health. What happens when citizens have their rights taken? What is it like to be lied to continually in an attempt to push a political and economic agenda (Think Bush and Chaney)? Think of the missiles of mass destruction hoax, resulting in the Iraq war, and the amount of money being made by the oil and military-industrial complex and influential public officials. Think of the rape of the environment caused by loosening the clean air act and the attitude of “drill, drill, drill.” The fantasy of the situation described in ‘URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL’ has become reality.

Beck’s’ production is delightful! Scott Spence pulls out all the stops to completely capture the necessary farce without losing meaning. He controls the temptation to go overboard with shticks.

Choreographer Martin Cespedes has reconceptualized the dancing. His new approach works well. He is lucky to have Zac Hudak’s dancing feet to anchor the choreography. Larry Goodpaster gets a nod of approval for this musical direction even though some of the music under the spoken scenes was too loud and drowned out the actors. Don McBride’s scene design, parallels the Broadway sets. Alison Garrigan did her usual “run to the thrift store” to find the right grubby clothing.

The cast is excellent...not a weak link in the chain. Matthew Wright is delightful as Officer Lockstock, the narrator. He builds a wonderful rapport with the audience and can do a double take with the best of them. Betsy Kahl (Little Sally) is terrific as his foil. Whether singing or whining her lines, she is delightful.

Colin Cook, who has a strong singing voice, bulked up since the last production and has lost some of his boyish charm. He interacts effectively with Maggie Stahl (Hope), his love interest, who is the daughter of the tyrant who controls the local urinals. Stahl’s’ rendition of “I See a River” is a show highlight. “Privilege to Pee,” “What is Urinetown,” “Snuff That Girl,” and “Run, Freedom, Run” are all choreographic gems.

Greg Violand, who normally plays the mature love interest in productions, takes a turn at being a bad guy in this show. He does it well with a big dynamic vocal range and strong acting talents. His version of “Don’t Be a Bunny” is hilarious.

The choral sounds are excellent, especially in several a capella segments.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck Centers ‘URINETOWN’ is as strong this time as it was the last go around. If you haven’t seen it before, do so now. If you have seen it, go again> It’s as much or more fun the second time. Beck not only succeeds, but should be justly proud of being flushed with success!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Fall 2008 Theatre Calendar


The leaves will soon be falling, and local theatres’ curtains will soon be rising. Here’s what’s coming up:

Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540 An encore production of the uproarious Tony Award-winning comedy, ‘URINETOWN THE MUSICAL,’ opening on the Mackey Main Stage September 12 and running through October 12, 2008. This show, which critics called the “must see” production of 2005, will feature the return of the original cast and creative team from Beck’s production.

Workshop Players, 44820 Middle Ridge Road, Amherst, 440-988-5613
‘LYING IN STATE,’ a spoof of politics and funerals. September 11-28. For information go to

The Bang and Clatter Theatre, 224 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, 330-606-5317 or www.bnctheatre,com
The Ohio Premiere of ‘THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE’ by Martin McDonagh, which has been called a cunningly constructed, deeply and intensely felt, bitterly blood curdling and breathtakingly funny.” Runs September 5 through October 11, Thursdays through Sundays.

Playhouse Square, 216-241-6000 or online at
The electrifying, bashing, crashing, banging, kicking, joyous ‘STOMP’ returns to Cleveland for four performances, October 3 -5, 2008. The return of the percussive hit also brings some new surprises, with some sections of the show now updated and restructured and the addition of two new full-scale routines, utilizing props like tractor tire inner tubes and paint cans.
‘A CHORUS LINE’ October 14-26, 2008, Palace Theatre. Winner of nine Tony Awards, including “Best Musical” and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, this singular sensation is the longest-running American Broadway musical ever. This is the musical for everyone who’s ever had a dream and put it all on the line. Come meet the new generation of Broadway’s best.

Dobama Theatre/Karamu co-production, Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th Street, 216-795-7077 or 216-932-3396,,
Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s groundbreaking musical ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGE’ revisits the early 1960’s, a period of sweeping change in race relations as it affects two families, one Southern Jewish and the other African American. The Gelman's son, Noah, worships Caroline, their dignified African American domestic, as a surrogate mother figure. Their tentative and touching relationship is at the heart of this powerful story, infused with an exhilarating mix of music: classical, R&B, Motown, Klezmer, and Negro spirituals. September 19-October 12.

Great Lakes Theatre Festival, Hanna Theater (the new home of GLTF),, 216-241-6000
Fall repertory September 24-November 8. ‘MACBETH’ and ‘INTO THE WOODS.’ See politics and magic meld in Shakespeare’s unforgettable masterpiece and also experience Stephen Sondheim’s bewitching collection of classic fairy tale characters as they romp though a “once upon a time” kingdom in a magical Broadway musical.

Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, 216-795-7000,
Tennessee William’s semi-autographical masterpiece, ‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE,’ on stage from September 12-October 5, followed by the hysterical British farce ‘NOISES OFF’ being staged from October 3rd to the 26th, then Lorraine Hansberry’s classic tale ‘ A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ from November 7-30, followed by a revival of ‘ A CHRISTMAS STORY’ from November 28-December 21.

Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit, Cleveland, 216.631.2727, x501
GOLDSTAR, OHIO’ is a new play by Cleveland native Michael Tisdale that tells the stories of the 22 Marines from the Brook Park, Ohio based 325 Battalion who lost their lives in Anbar Province, Iraq. The play is a work of non-fiction created from transcripts of interviews with the families of the fallen Marines. October 16 - November 8.

Ensemble Theatre, Studio One Theater of the Cleveland Play House, 216-3421-2930
From Sept. 19 - Oct. 5, Edward Albee’s Theatre of the Absurd ’WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?’ This existentialistic masterwork from the 1960’s revolves around the conflictive marriage of George & Martha. A biting and timeless American classic! From Nov. 21-Dec. 7 in Brooks Theatre, Beth Henley’s ‘THE LUCKY SPOT’ will be on stage. This is a whacky comedy set in a depression dance hall in Louisiana which asks, “what hope might be found by the hopeless?”


Monday, August 18, 2008

Altar Boyz

‘ALTAR BOYZ’ entertaining at Beck, but…

The recently concluded run of ‘ALTAR BOYZ’ at Beck Center was met with sizeable crowds and good word of mouth. That’s the positive part. The other aspect is that the show, both the script and the production, though entertaining, were somewhat lacking.

Yes, the show received numerous awards, and has brought younger audience’s into the theatre, but what is it intended to be? It’s not really a spoof, or a satire or a parody. It’s a ‘NUNSENSE,’ ‘FOREVER PLAID,’ and ‘GODSPELL’—kinda’ thing. It pokes fun at boy bands and brushes Christian/Catholic positions on evolution, homosexuality, and unwed mothers, among others, and, of course, turns the other cheek when necessary. But, for what purpose? As one out-of-town reviewer said, “It’s amiable, but its also aimless.” And, being a message guy, that’s my problem with the script.

The show, for those who didn’t see it, is a supposedly real-time concert, in fact the last concert of the Altar Boyz “Raise the Praise” tour. The five-member group sing, have some lines that bridge the songs together, dance, and try and get the audience to repent. Their level of success is measured on a “sinner’s meter” which keeps track of those in the audience who are still on their way to hell. Finally, we are down to four hold-outs. And, no surprise, they are members of the Altar Boyz. All the members except the Jewish kid. Yep, one of the Catholic Altar Boyz is Jewish. Why, I’m not sure, but I’m certain that Kevin Del Agula, the script’s writer, figured he could use the yarmulke wearing kid for some laughs and use him as the only one who doesn’t “sell out.” there a religious message here?

The show had its debut in September of 2004 at the New York MusicaTheatre Festival and opened Off Broadway in March,2005 and has had a prosperous run.

The show's music and lyrics were written by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker and the idea was hatched by Ken Davenport and Marc Kessler.

As for the Beck production. It was an enjoyable experience, but could have been much more. Now, to be fair, I saw the last show, a matinee mainly populated by senior citizens. There was mild response to the requests for participation and some audience members seemed lost in the material. One lady sitting near me was offended by the “sacrilegious” nature of the material. Since this is the kind of show that requires reaction from the audience, this might have been the reason for some flatness.

The obvious “star” of this production was John Riddle, who portrayed the fey Mark to perfection. He minced and over-gestured with panache. He has an excellent singing voice and appeared to be the only real dancer on stage. His “Epiphany” was delightful.

John Rhett Noble, who has portrayed Gaston in the numerous recreations of Beck’s ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST,’ gives an adequate performance as Matthew, the leader of the group. He lacked the necessary vocal and personality dynamics to control the stage. His “Something About You” was well done.

Connor O’Brien who portrayed Abraham had some projection problems. Part way through the show he ripped off his microphone, losing his head covering in the process, and did the ending with no electronic aid. His articulation needed work as many of his lines were lost. His character development was not always believable.

Dan Grgic, portraying the less than bright southerner Luke, overdid the accent causing comprehension problems and portrayed a characterization rather than a character.

Ryan Jagru was appealing as the Hispanic Juan, but often overdid the accent and at times lost the characterization.

Hernando Cortez’s choreography was creative and purposeful. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the dancers to execute the polish and perfection which Cortez demands of his Verbs Ballet company.

Scott Spence’s direction was basically on course, but there were times when there needed to be more life, more enthusiasm, more naturalness from some of the cast members.

Larry Goodpaster’s musical direction was excellent, but one could have wished that he had worked with the cast on better pronunciation. Some song lyrics were garbled.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘ALTAR BOYZ’ was an enjoyable theatrical experience. A listening to the off-Broadway cast CD gives an idea of what the show could have been with a little more abandonment and dynamics.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Charming, tender HAROLD AND MAUDE at Cain Park

Yes, ‘HAROLD AND MAUDE, AN INTIMATE MUSICAL’ is based on the cult 1971 film ‘HAROLD AND MAUDE.’ Devotees of the film will have to accept that the musical not only changes the plot a bit, but softens up the chilly, darkly comic mood of the original. This is with good reason. A movie distances the viewer from the reality, theatre doesn’t allow for this. The insertion of music also changes the flow of the production. In addition, when one media is transformed into another, changes naturally take place. A classic example is the comedy film version of ‘THE PRODUCERS’ versus the musical version.

Does this mean that ‘HAROLD AND MAUDE, AN INTIMATE MUSICAL’ is a great piece of theatre? No. But, it has personal values that make for a charming and tender evening of theatre. And, if the reaction of the audience the night I attended is any indication, then there is much to like about Victoria Bussert’s staging and interpretation.

The plot line centers on an attention-starved young man so fascinated with death that he attends strangers funerals, frequently fakes his own suicide and decapitation, but eventually finds love and self-respect in the presence of a 79-year old bohemian Holocaust survivor who sees the world as a place to explore and appreciate rather than view through a prism of rules and frustration.

Tom Jones (“THE FANTASTICS”) and newcomer Joseph Thalken have written an often smart, funny, irreverent, tuneful score. Again, the movie-obsessed will complain because the period-and mood-defining Cat Stevens soundtrack has been replaced. Again, so what!

As for the Cain Park production. Are Corey Mach (Harold) and Maryann Nagel (Maude) the parallels to Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon of film fame? No. And, I, for one, am glad. They don’t attempt to duplicate those performances. (Just as Nathan Lane doesn’t do a Zero Mostel imitation in ‘THE PRODUCERS.’)

Yes, Nagel, with her beautiful complexion and youthful voice isn’t 79. After a short while, it matters little. Her charm and naturalness shine through, and with her wonderful singing voice, she enfolds us in the character’s philosophy of life. Her renditions of “Two Sides of a River,” “The Real Thing,” both sung with Mach, and “The Chance to Sing,” her plaintive solo, are all fine!

Tall, lanky and talented Mach is very believable as Harold. The opening scene, in which he sings a suicide note, climbs on a stool, puts his neck into a noose and steps off into the air and hangs there as his mother walks in, glances dismissively at the hanging body a few times, and reacts in horror with the line, "White socks with brown shoes!" is hysterical. He does a fine job of making the transition from an emotionally dead youth to a sensitive young man who seems to have found a purpose in life, thanks to Maude.

Jacqueline Cummins generally misses the mark as Harold’s mother. Yes, she is creating a caricature, but she does so inconsistently with little reality.

On the other hand, Devon Yates and Patrick Janson, who portray all of the other characters, are delightful. It’s worth the price of admission to watch Yates, as Sunshine, an off-the-wall performer, sing and act out the hysterical ‘Montezuma.”

Bussert paces the show well, and though there were some opportunities for even more delight, she does well in keeping the audience involved. Jodie Ricci’s musical direction is right on key!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: I found ‘HAROLD AND MAUDE, AN INTIMATE MUSICAL’ full of endearing melodies, quirky-humor and uplifting charm. For those who wanted this is to be a reenactment of the film version, get over it!