Monday, February 25, 2008

Brooklyn Boy

Appealing ‘BROOKLYN BOY’ at JCC

‘BROOKLYN BOY,’ now being performed in a joint production between the Jewish Community Center and Cuyahoga Community College Eastern Campus Theatre Arts programs, harkens back to the days when Jewish-themed plays were a main staple of Broadway theatre. Those days are long gone. The Jewish experience, that which centered on the Eastern European immigrant seeking to assimilate into the Euro-American scene is basically history. So, plays investigating anti-Semitism, trying to adjust to the land where the streets are paved with gold, and the overbearing mother or emotionally-absent father, complete with “Yiddish” accents, are seen less-and-less on the present day stages.

However, there must still seems to be a sizeable number of people who want to examine that experience. The opening night of ‘BROOKLYN BOY’ had a very sizeable house. And, in 2005 a staged version starring Adam, had a successful run in the Big Apple.

Written by Donald Margulies, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his ‘DINNER WITH FRIENDS,’ the story centers on Eric Weiss, a novelist whose most recent work has made the New York Times Best Seller’s List. The story, an autobiographical novel, has brought both fame and financial success to the boy from Brooklyn. The Brooklyn from which he has psychologically tried to divorce himself. He has turned from his religion, distanced himself from his family and friends, but mostly has hidden from himself.

We observed, as Weiss visits his father, a patient in Maimonides Hospital, Brooklyn’s “Jewish” Hospital. His father, who spent his entire life as a shoe salesman, absent from family, was never a warm man. His near impending death has not improved his disposition. While in the hospital Weiss runs into Ira, his former “best” friend. Ira, now an Orthodox Jew, tries unsuccessfully to reach out by offering the obviously unhappy Weiss, a serving of help through faith. Weiss’s frustrating attempt to seduce a young woman who comes to one of his book signings, his conflicts with his Hollywood agent, and finally a denouement after his father’s death, complete the scripts investigative cycle.

Though the script was not well received by the New York critics because of its so-called “trite” plot and that it deals with a “a standard son-trying-to-earn-his-father's-approval story line,” I think local audiences will like the concept. It’s filled with experiences and “hamish” (warm and familiar) ideas, and enough comedy and pathos to make for a positive evening at the theatre.

The JCC/CCC production, under the adept direction of Brian Zoldessy, gets every nuance out of the script. The cast understands their characters, playing them with just the right touch…not over the top, not overly dramatic, not pleading for laughs. The acting is universally top notch. Ben Needham’s turntable set is impressive and becomes an integral part of the action, highlighting the play’s structure of a series of six scenes in six different settings. Trad Burns’ lighting enhances the action and moods. Stan Kozak’s musical interludes are mood correct.

Charles Kartali’s Eric Weiss is so natural, it is easy to forget that he is acting, not the real Weiss. His development of the last scene of the play is so emotion-laden that silence proceeded the appreciative applause.

Bernard Canepari effectively develops Manny, Weiss’s father. It would have been easy to overplay the role, but Canepari uses the correct restraint to develop a man whose life was spent running away, hiding from honest feelings.

Noah Budin is both humorous and appealing as Ira, Eric’s former boyhood friend, while Dawn Youngs hits the right notes as Weiss’s “shiksa” (non-Jewish) wife, whose jealousy over her husband’s success destroys their fragile and childless marriage. Jane Conway as the girl in the hotel, Maryann Elder as the agent and Ron Cuirle as an actor who wants to play Weiss in the movie version of the book, are all excellent.

Is the play autographical? While contending that it is a work of fiction, Margulies does not deny that many of the characters and incidents do, in fact, relate to his life.

Capsule judgement: ‘BROOKLYN BOY’ should be favorably received by those attending the production. This is a “nice” play, written in a comfortable way, that gets a great production at JCC/CCC. I’d strongly recommend a “go see it!”

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Breakup Notebook: The Lesbian Musical


For a show that has only been staged at three venues (Los Angles, New York and San Diego), the ‘THE BREAKUP NOTEBOOK: THE LESBIAN MUSICAL,’ which is now on stage at Beck Center, has engendered a lot of national press and attention.

The show, whose sold-out opening night audience included the author, Patricia Cotter, musical originator and lyricist, Lori Scarlett, and the creator of the show’s additional music, David Manning, received an enthusiastic welcome.

It’s the kind of show that should have strong cult appeal to a target audience…lesbian women. That’s not to say others wouldn’t appreciate the often fine music and some clever lines, but there is a definite identification with the lesbian dating scene and life style that will allow for a kinship to grow with the material that might not be bridged with those not in on the many “in-jokes” that populate the script.

The story centers on Helen Hill, a thirty-three year-old who has been dumped by her long time girl friend. Helen is heart-broken, bitter and obsessed. Moving on is difficult. With the help of her friends (a bevy of stereotype lesbians and her gay fey confidant Bob), she attempts to get back into the dating scene, with disastrous, oft-hysterical results. In her path toward happiness, she faces alcoholic line dancers, an S&M leather dyke, a commitment phobic biker, and a kooky lawyer. Even a “Ms. Perfect,” who turns out to be less then perfect.

The music is more endearing than the book. The mainly pop songs poke fun at lesbian life, the meaning of love, how dyads choose songs to represent their couplehood, and the difference between lesbians and gay men.

Beck’s production, under the direction of Victoria Bussert, is somewhat on target. One has to question the dichotomy between Russ Borski’s comic book set and the production. With walls covered with comic strip cells, many with clever bubbled speeches, the tone is bigger than life, thus putting the audience into a farcical mind set. The production starts the same way…over the top with the song, “Ghost of My Ex-Girlfriend.” Then, someplace during the first act, the show settles into a light comic tone, losing its outrageousness. By the second act, it’s more comic drama, then comic farce.

The cast is generally good. Though Jodi Dominick effectively develops the role of Helen, her voice is thin on the high notes and, even though she is miked, doesn’t have the necessary power. This is especially true when drummer Joey Scale lets loose like this is a rock concert, drowning out much of the vocals. Let’s hope, that as the play settles in, the band will tone down and allow the lyrics to shine through.

Tracee Patterson gives Frances, the “almost perfect girl-friend, but…,” the right look and edge. Her “What Do You Want From Me?/Your Way of Loving,” co-sung with Dominick, is one of the show’s musical highpoints.

Kayce Cummings, who, along with much of the ensemble, is dual-cast, is totally hot in “I’m on Fire.”

Eric Van Baars has such a good time, and is so natural in playing Bob, that he appears to be adlibbing rather than speaking memorized lines.

When Helen, after avoiding the issue for a long time, finally picks up a call from her mother, a side-splitting scene results. Alison Garrigan accurately portrays every lesbian’s worst nightmare, a mother who attempts to be “understanding” while being clueless to the reality of sexual orientation.

The rest of the cast does a nice job of developing their characterizations.

The show’s over all highlight is Martin Cespedes’s choreography. His creativity adds to the visual illusions of the script, and stresses the exaggerations with overstated poses and facial expressions that mirror the moods of the music being interpreted.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘THE BREAKUP NOTEBOOK: THE LESBIAN MUSICAL,’ is the kind of production that many will love, while others will like. Don’t be surprised if, in the future, the script gets an extended off-Broadway production.

Side comment: Congrats to Scott Spence and the staff at Beck for embracing scripts like ‘THE LESBIAN MUSICAL.’ They throw caution to the wind when they pick a script which may be outside their traditional audience and reach out to a broader community. Keep it up!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Two Rooms

Compelling, outstanding ‘TWO ROOMS’ at Charenton/CPT

‘TWO ROOMS,’ now in joint production by Charenton Theatre and Cleveland Public Theatre, is both a love story and a debate. Set in the turbulent 1980s, author Lee Blessing’s taut psychodrama was deservedly named by Time Magazine as "Best Play of the Year" in 1988.

The action switches between two stark rooms. One is the windowless cubicle in Beirut, Lebanon where hostage Michael Wells, a history professor at that city’s American University, lies blindfolded as a captive of an unknown militant Islamic group. The other room is Michael’s study in the United States. As months turn into years and her husband's fate hangs precariously, Mike's wife, Lanie, strips the room to the bare walls in order to feel closer to him and his plight. For her, a thin mat she has dragged into his office represents "all the corners of the room," and where she imagines she can speak with, and even touch, her missing husband.

In this staging, the same space serves for both rooms and is the locale for not only the imaginary conversations between the hostage and his wife, but also for the real talks between Lanie, a reporter and a State Department official.

Walker is the reporter. At the start he appears to be someone who hopes to develop the situation into a major personal accomplishment, maybe a journey to a Pulitzer Prize. Bby the end, we are not sure. Ellen is a coolly, efficient, dispassionate, State Department representative whose task is to keep Lanie off-balance and uninformed of the political machinations which include using her husband as a pawn.

Eventually, the wife speaks out against the government policy and in so doing triggers a series of events that brings the play to its unnerving conclusion.

The script is penetrating and powerful in examining the perspective of individuals , of the public, and of the government. In the end there are no winners, only losers, and the sense of futility and despair that comes when we realize that logic, compassion and fairness are meaningless when dealing with those who would commit barbarous acts with a totally different definition of what it means to be ethnical, and a government that apparently has no conscience or morals of its own.

Charenton’s production, under the keen directorial guidance of Jacqui Loewy, is outstanding. The deliberately slow pace makes the pain of not knowing excruciating. The cast is clear in their motivations, the messages of the story are well etched. Everything, from Michel Ostaszewski’s projections, to Nathan Tulenson’s sound effects, to the sparse set, works.

Jeffrey Grover is chilling in his controlled characterization of Michael. As the play progresses Grover’s eyes become deader and deader. By the end, when he matter-of-factly explains his fate, his eyes are hollow and lifeless.

Sarah Morton, as Lanie, holds her emotions in perfect check. The characterization develops clearly and her frustration and angst are well honed. In the hands of a lesser actress the believability level would have been destroyed as it would have been so easy to overact the role.

Mary Alice Beck is chilling as the State Department official who shows no emotion, is programmed to act like a robot, and is so loyal to the government that she almost appears to be brainwashed.

Though he is quite acceptable as Walker, Jason Markouc sometimes loses contact with the character. Some of his lines sound automatic, rather than meaningful.

The production is being staged in Cleveland Public Theatre’s newest performance space, the former bookstore next to CPT. Though the space is intimate and very appropriate for ‘TWO ROOMS,’ it also has several handicaps. The street noises come through the entrance doors, the applause and laughter from the adjoining theatres leak through, and the sound of patrons coming to and exiting from the second floor Levine Theatre is distracting.

Capsule judgement: Charenton/CPT’s two hour production of ‘TWO ROOMS’ is one of the local season’s highlights. The production deserves sold out houses. Because of the subject matter, don’t assume the show is depressing. It will stimulate the senses and reveal a great deal of the “real” world of politics and the present state of the world.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Gee's Bend

CPH’s ‘GEE’S BEND,’ production exceeds script

Gee’s Bend, Alabama, the physical setting for Elizabeth Gregory Wilder’s ‘GEE’S BEND,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, is a real place. It came into prominence because of the discovery and museum displays of the quilts made by the women of the community. Those quilts are not only pieces of art, but they represent the very fabric of the community.

Wilder’s 90-minute intermissionless play basically tells the story of one of the quilting families. But, in reality, it opens the lens to the entire community.

According to Wilder, this is the first play she has written that isn’t solely born of her own imagination. She interviewed many of the quilting women and felt an obligation to tell about their miraculous journey of community.

Wilder's drama weaves the history of Gee’s Bend into the dialogue. We discover that following the Civil War there was an opportunity for the slaves to flee, but they didn’t leave as they had no place to go. In the 1930s, the Farm Administration gave the community the opportunity to own their own land, and they took advantage of the offer. In the 1960s, Gee’s Bend gained the attention of civil rights leaders because it was one of the few communities where all of the negroes owned their own land. Then, in 2002, came national attention when the quilts were discovered.

It’s interesting that the overall effect of the CPH production exceeds the quality of the play. The script, in many instances, is quite sophomoric in its structure and language. For example, the play ends several times. The audience broke out into strong applause at one point, thinking the show was over, only to be surprised when another scene, supposedly needed to wrap up the story, started. Due to the added “everything turns out wonderful” ending, the final applause was not as strong as the original outburst.

The cast is generally strong, though Shirley Jo Finey’s directing often makes the consistent development of characterizations inconsistent. For example, Shanesia Davis, who portrays the unmarried sister, is wonderful in early scenes, but when she becomes older, she does a shuffle like a character in the old-time minstrel shows and her voice makes her sound retarded rather than old.

Erika LaVonn, does an excellent job of creating a real person as Sadie, the “intelligent” sister who marries young and lives in an abusive relationship until she gains the courage to break out. The money she makes from selling her quilts allows her to become an independent woman.

Wanda Christine is moderately successful doing double duty as the mother and Sadie’s daughter.

Wendell B. Franklin, as Sadie’s husband Macon, gives a creditable performance.

The play works well in the reconfigured Baxter Stage’s 3-sided stage. The new layout makes the space less confined.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘GEE’S BEND’ tells a nice story, but it is far from a well written script. In spite of the weakness of the writing, the message of the play, and the tenacity of the women of Gee’s Bend, comes through.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Monsieur Chopin

Hershey Felder & Fryderyk Chopin hit the right notes at CPH

For the last several weeks, a visit to the Cleveland Play House would have allowed you to meet George Gershwin in performance. This weekend, it’s Fryderyk Chopin. Well, actually, it’s not Gershwin or Chopin, its Hershey Felder, portraying each. No, not portraying, inhabiting the theatrical body and piano talents of both men.

Felder, who is a classically trained pianist with an interest in musical composers, has delved not only into the music of various composers, but into their personal lives. As a result he has developed a three-movement theatrical series, ‘THE COMPOSER SONATA.’ It consists of ‘BEETHOVEN,’ the dramatic, architectural, deeply thoughtful and emotional first movement; ’MONSIEUR CHOPIN,’ the lush and beautiful expression of soul, the second movement; and, ‘GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE,’ the dance-like, extroverted, and joyous third movement.

In ‘MONSIEUR CHOPIN,’ Felder exposes personal information of the bi-polar Polish composer, who reached his height of popularity in Paris after departing his beloved country because of political unrest. Musically, Chopin is noted for his compositions for the piano, an instrument which was newly perfected during his life time. As for his private life, the major event was that for ten years he was in an often tumultuous relationship with writer George Sand. He died at the age of 39. Interestingly, though his body is buried in Paris cemetary, his heart was taken to Poland where it is enshrined in a church crypt.

For the production, Felder takes on the role of Chopin as he was in life, a teacher and composer. He speaks to the audience in a subtle accent which often comes and goes. He introduces us to Chopin’s love, classical music, with a Polish tilt, including the Polonaise and Mazurka. He continues to remind us that “you make beautiful music because you are an artist, not to please someone else.”

Felder, who showed good piano abilities in his Gershwin piece, really shines in the Chopin exercise. He is a much better performer of classics than modern tunes.

Through the first part of the program, the scripted segment is quite interesting and a good lesson in music history. It is in the second, the ad-libbed segment, in which Felder shines. He takes questions from the audience and responds as if he were Chopin. The results were both funny and impressive. He really knows the ins-and-outs of Chopin’s life and music.

As with ‘GEORGE GERSWIN ALONE,’ Scenic Designer Yael Pardess has created a beautiful and appropriate setting and Michael Gilliam’s mood lighting creates the right atmosphere, heightened by pictures and illusions.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘MONSIEUR CHOPIN,’ as was ‘GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE, was both an educational and artistic success. Hershey Felder has the ability to teach music appreciation in such a way that one could only hope that professors could do as well. If you missed either show, you missed a wonderful experience.


Wonderful ‘WICKED’ wows but is almost drowned out by orchestra

‘WICKED,’ that wonderful, often wacky Broadway smash hit is back at the State Theatre. The touring company went through town in June of 2006 and played to sold out audiences. This version should also pack the place.

One of the fears of seeing a retreaded tour is that it will be a wattered down version. Do not be concerned. This is a full-blown, Broadway level production with impressive sets and a professional cast that wowed the audience. Wowed, in spite of the fact that during the first act on opening night, the orchestra drowned out composer Steven Schwartz’s oft-clever words. The sound techie must have been on the rebound from a rock concert and didn’t realize that, in theatre musicals, the words of the performers must be heard. Someone must have gotten to him during intermission, because the second act was under decibel control.

The show has everything to make for a hit! Great music and lyrics, creative staging, and a delightful yet philosophical story line with a message which includes comments which could be applied to the Bush administration’s diminishing of personal rights, and what happens when a small group of zealots determines what is “best for everyone,” and tells lies to get their way.

‘WICKED,’ is the “behind the story” tale of two young women, Glinda and Elphaba, in the ‘WIZARD OF OZ’ story. You know them better as the good and the wicked witches.

The script also reveals “truths” about Oz. Do you know how Dorothy got the red slippers? Are you aware of how the tin woodsman, the cowardly lion or the scarecrow came to be? Think that the wicked witch really was melted by a bucket of water? All of these questions are answered in the Stephen Schwartz, Winnie Holzman musical which is based on a novel by Gregory Maguire.

The sets are amazing. They include a dragon whose wingspan is the same as a Cessna 172. There is enough electrical current on stage, according to the show’s press release, to supply twelve houses with power. Monkeys fly, Glenda appears and disappears in a magical bubble, large gears grind, bubble machines spray rainbows and 175,000 pounds of scenery cover the stage.

Carmen Cusack, slathered in green makeup, gives a lustrous performance as Elphaba, generally known as the “Bad Witch.” Bad, as we find out, she isn’t.

Katie Rose Clarke as Glinda, the blond, air-headed “Good Witch,” is also wonderful. She glows on stage. Cliffton Hall, he of pumped up body and an Elvis-hairdo, has a nice singing voice and effectively develops the role of Fiyero, the playboy whose goodness shines through.

Canton’s Lee Wilkof disappoints as the Wizard. He just doesn’t have the pixie-yet-evil quality of Clevelander Joel Gray, who was in the Broadway production. Alma Cuervo starts fine, but loses her characterization as the evil Madame Morrible, the brains behind the evil goings on (think Dick Chaney in drag).

The show has a strong Cleveland connection. Matthew Rego, Michael Rego and Hank Unger are the ARACA Group, one of the shows producers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘WICKED’ is wonderful and worth seeing. If you missed it the first time around, go! If you saw it before, go!

Sunday, February 03, 2008


'4ISH' disappoints

On the way out of the Saturday morning production of ‘4-ISH,’ Alex Berko (12), the oldest of the “Kid Reviewers” who accompany me to child-friendly productions said, “I’d give them a 7 out of 10, but they could have been much better.” He went on to explain that he thought “the dancing was great” and the “inline skating fun,” but there was “a lack of cohesion to the program.” He also thought the “humor was over-the-heads of the younger kids in the audience.” His brother Ian (8) chimed in that he “liked a lot of it, but he thought there were too many pauses and that lost his attention.” As a karate kid he liked the kung fu.

From my perspective, the boys were right on!

‘4-ISH,” is advertised as a pulse-racing show which fuses extreme sports with hip-hop dance that creates a new breed of entertainment. The group, which is from Amsterdam, does perform spectacular feats on the two giant quarter pipes. This added to kung fu action and dancing roller skaters with electrified wheels, which create a whirling light show on a pitch black stage, opens the possibility for a spectacular show. However, there appears to be a disconnect between all the action and how it is formatted into a program.

On Friday night the performance was attended by high school students and some twenty-somethings. Following the concert there was a get-together for the attenders where the cast taught break-dancing and interacted with the party-goers. It was probably a better fit between performers and audience than the mostly very young kids and their parents and grandparents who attended the Saturday morning show.

In past years, 4ISH has been in a teaching residence at Play House Square, but this is the first time that they have been featured as performers. Since there was no printed program, I don’t know who is responsible for the development of the presentation, but whoever it is, should probably ask what he wants the audience to take away from the show. It would also be wise for the host agency to make sure that young children are not brought to performances.

Capsule judgement: ‘4-ISH’ had the potential to excite and delight an audience. As is, it was entertaining, but not up to its potential.

Mark Morris Dance Group

Sold-out Mark Morris Dance Group’s performance excites!

The Mark Morris Dance Group proved in their recent Play House Square performance why they are one of the world’s most prolific dance companies. Not only does Mark Morris have over 100 works in its repertory, and is the only modern dance company with its own permanent music group, but the company has a unique and identifiable style.

Morris, who is meticulous in his choreography, takes a piece of music and creates a movement for each note of the composition. These moves center on swinging arms, powerful jumps, flowing physicality, unexpected movements, interesting body angles and contorted fingers.

Morris centers on music interpretation, not storytelling. He shows no favor for harmonic style. This program included contemporary, modern, classical and atonal compositions. The live music, whether solos or combinations of cello, piano, violin and piano, was all well performed.

The company’s dancers, seasoned professionals, are excellent. No stars here. This is a company that dances as a unit with interchangeable parts.

Capsule judgement: Dance Cleveland and Cuyahoga County College should be congratulated for their selection of the Mark Morris Dance Group for inclusion in their modern dance program. The sold-out audience responded with a joyous outburst of appreciation at the conclusion of the program.

All Things Being Equal

Sholiton play at Notre Dame College

Cleveland playwright Faye Sholiton’s newest script, ‘ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL,” is in production at Notre Dame College’s Tolerance Resource Center. The student-faculty project, which was directed by Peter Manos, addresses the tension of a “reverse discrimination” lawsuit in which a suburban Cleveland school board is confronted with having to lay off a social science teacher due to budgetary cuts. The teachers, one white and the other black, were hired the same day, so the first in-first out union rule does not hold. The script adroitly probes into prejudices, how one’s history forms who a person is, and the legal aspects of discrimination.

The play, which won a 2007 Ohio Arts Council grant, and several honors in national competitions, is presented as a staged reading and lasts about 90 minutes.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: This is a well-written, thought-provoking script. The performance is followed by a question-and-answer session with the writer and cast.

The production, which is free of charge, will be presented on Saturday, February 9 at 7:30 PM and Sunday February 10 at 2 PM in the Little Theatre at Notre Dame College, 4545 College Drive, South Euclid. No reservations are necessary. For further information go to:

‘WALK, DON’T RIDE’ at Cleveland Play House

Also of interest from the Tolerance Center of Notre Dame is ‘WALK, DON’T RIDE,’ which will be presented at the Cleveland Play House on February 12 at 7 PM, immediately preceding CPH’s ‘GEE’S BEND.’

Written and directed by Peter Manos, Artistic Director of Bodwin Theatre Company, the production recalls seminal moments in our nation’s history when heroes endured brutality and injustice for the radical idea that race does not determine the worth of a human being.
For information go to:

Friday, February 01, 2008

Review of the reviewer (Claire Biel)

Hi Roy,

We saw this remarkable production [‘I HAVE BEFORE ME A REMARKABLE DOCUMENT GIVEN TO ME BY A YOUNG LADY FROM RWANDA'], last night at Maltz. It was an incredible theatrical experience. As I reread your words, I realized how on target you were with the rave review. Thanks for calling it to our attention.

Claire [Biel]