Friday, March 28, 2008

Groundworks (Danceworks Festival 2008)

GROUNDWORKS sparkles at Danceworks Festival

Groundworks Dance Theater, which is presently performing as part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Danceworks Festival, is David Shimotakahara’s sparkling modern dance company. It is about to enter its tenth year of existence. It looks like it will be a year of excitement and possible change for the company.

Next spring they will be performing in New York, allowing the Big Apple folk to find out what North Coasters have known for a long time….this is a very special and talented company with a talented and special Artistic Director.

There are questions, however. Company member Mark Otloski, who is presently injured, will fade permanently from the dance floor and spend full time on the company’s outreach program. That leaves only Shimotakahara and Damien Highfield as the ensemble’s male dancers. As good as they both are, they are of the age when it starts to get difficult to continue the hectic and physical pace required by modern dance. For example, both of them performed in three pieces in the present program. That would be a challenge for twenty year-olds.

So, the question must be raised, “Wither goest thou Groundworks?” New company members? Cutting down on the length and number of productions? A change in company philosophy? Only the next year will tell.

Their present program consisted of four highly entertaining pieces. ‘FOR THE LIFE OF ME,’ a world premiere choreographed by Artistic Associate Amy Miller, combined six pieces of music which had no apparent theme and used a blend of contemporary bumps, lifts, flowing arms, and fast moves to create a cheerful collage. Maybe with a view of self-revelation, the choreographer used Amy Borkowsky’s comedy routine parody, “Where’s Amila?,” based on her mother’s over-possessiveness, as the highlight segment.

‘SWEET,’ a Cleveland premiere choreographed by Shimotakahara, used Gospel music as the center for sensual exploration. Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield skillfully intertwined bodies and melded together to create a wonderfully danced and interpreted number.

‘SEVERAL TRUTHS DUET, choreographed by Gina Gibney, who has done a number of creations for Groundworks, used pansonic and micizoscopic music to create a powerful piece which displayed unusual lifts, static interactions and compelling leaps and turns. Miller and Shimotakahara, two movement perfectionists, interpreted the concept with skill. Ironically, just before the dance came to its climax, a dark piece of gel floated out of a light above the stage and gently floated down in perfect time to the music. It was a wonderful addition to the composition. Too bad that accident of theatricality can’t be added on a regular basis.

The program ended with one of my favorites, ‘LATITUDE.’ Developed to the music of Hal Walker, who plays a series of instruments in his live accompaniment, the piece takes on different attitudes according to Walker’s musical instrument and style. County music, twanging sounds, hand slapping, Eastern European folk songs, clinking balls and mouth organ reverberations, all were interpreted into appropriate movements which examined people in transition and the soul’s search for a place and the need for connection.

Capsule judgement: Groundworks is a gem of a company. If you haven’t seen them in performance you should! Yes, you definitely should!

The Color Purple

‘THE COLOR PURPLE’ slightly off hue at The Palace

When ‘THE COLOR PURPLE,’ which is now being presented at The Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square, opened on Broadway, it was greeted with mixed reviews. Comments included ‘the first act was quite good, but the second act slowly subsides into a mess of molasses,” “it is often moving,” and, “The disheartening lack of quality in the material dilutes the quality of feeling and makes the meanings behind it look questionable as well."

In spite of the less than stellar evaluations, the show, which opened in 2005 ran until 2008, clocking up a respectable 910 performances.Playhouse Square Center,

How did this happen? Two strong concepts seemed to push the box office. First was that one of the show’s producers was Oprah Winfrey who continued to plug the show on her syndicated show. The second was the positive vibe of the 1986 Steven Spielberg film that earned eleven Oscar nomination for the adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel.

Set in Georgia, the family saga spans the era from 1910 to the 1940s. It relates the story of a Black woman who, through sheer will, carves out her unique place in the world. The victim of incest and spousal abuse, the put-upon Celie stumbles upon role models who expose her to other ways to live and help convince the shy and appeasing woman to take a stand, and blossom into a self-confident person.

The music and lyrics, written by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, are not memorable. In contrast to many Broadway shows, none of the songs has become well known. That doesn’t mean the score is bad, it just doesn’t have any outstanding numbers. You will not go out whistling or humming any of the tunes.

The touring company does an acceptable job of working with the script. However, the pacing was lackadaisical. Since the production has been on the road for a while, the cast may have just gotten into a groove and is operating on automatic pilot or maybe they just hadn’t adjusted to the scourge of touring shows, rushing from one city to another with no time to settle in.

The general topic of conversation at intermission was the difficulty people were having hearing and understanding the spoken and sung words. As happened with the recently closed ‘WICKED,’ the sound system simply was not well tuned. There were buzzes, sometimes performers spoke and their microphones weren’t on, and the general balance levels were poor. There were also some problem in the timing of the lighting effects.

Though the choreography often lacked creativity, there were several staging highlights, including “Hell No!,” which examines the roles of husbands and wives; “Push Da Button,” and “Any Little Thing.”

The cast was generally good. Jeannette Bayardelle, who portrayed Celie, has a strong voice. Her “I’m Here” was the show’s musical highlight. Through vacant looking eyes, she well developed the put-upon young lady. Her physical transformation into a confident woman later in the show was masterfully done.

The audience favorite was Felicia Fields as the take-no-prisoners, outspoken, domineering Sofia. The Church Ladies, who often over-acted, brought gales of laughter. Shaker Heights native Rufus Bonds, Jr., was appropriately obnoxious as Mister, Celie’s despicable husband.

It was interesting to observe the differences between the African American and Euro American audience members. Used to the answer-back style of oratory, in which audience members shout out agreement with a speaker or preacher, many of the Black members of the audience responded verbally to the play’s lines and reacted to the treatment of various characters. In contrast, white audience members often seemed startled by the audience participation and some even attempted to “shush” those who were verbally reacting.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Don’t go to ‘THE COLOR PURPLE’ expecting to experience a classic musical theatre production. This is definitely not ‘WEST SIDE STORY,’ ‘CHORUS LINE,’ or even ‘WICKED.’ But, go to experience a culture-specific story, somewhat adequately developed and performed.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Not Exactly DanceWorks

‘NOT EXACTLY DANCEWORKS’ delights audience

‘NOT EXACTLY DANCEWORKS,’ which recently completed its run as part of Cleveland Public Theatres’ ‘DANCEWORKS’ program, was not your typical dance concert. No tights, tutus, high lifts, classical music or choreographed movements here. Instead, knives, lighted juggling balls, fire, devil sticks, hats, a whip and jokes prevailed.

Yes, it was definitely, not exactly, danceworks! It was, instead a tribute, a tribute to Zoe Schultz. Schultz, who recently died of cancer, was the guiding force behind SAFMOD, a performance group which combined many forms of movement into creative concerts.

SAFMOD was supposed to be part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s ‘DANCEWORKS’ series. To cancel the troupe’s performance was not an option according to its members, so Aaron Bonk and Sora Sol stepped forward. Bonk is a premier juggler/stiltist/fire dancer/guitarist/singer/comedian. Sol’s specialty is trapeze and aerial silk/fabric/tissue performance (think Cirque d’Soleil).

The duo totally entertained the enthusiastic audience who were eager vocal and physical participants in Bon’s antics which included bull-whipping the head off a rose being held in the teeth of the theatre’s policeman, making choreographed audible sounds as Bon juggled all sorts of objects, and being foils for his jokes. Sol’s outstanding aerial feats were also well received.

Capsule judgement: Thanks to Aaron Bonk and Sora Sol for making sure that the legacy of Zoe Schultz was not let down. She may not have been there physically, but her presence and spirit were definitely in the house for “NOT EXACTLY DANCEWORKS.’

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Fantasticks

‘THE FANTASTICKS’ pleases at Ensemble, but is that its total purpose?

‘THE FANTASTICKS,’ which is now being staged at Ensemble Theatre, has the honor of being the longest running show in musical theatre history. It opened off-Broadway in 1960 and ran until 2002, 17,162 performances. Not bad for a show that opened to generally blah reviews. Its investors received a 19,465% return on their original $16,500 investment.

Written by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, the show features such classics as "Try to Remember," “They Were You,” and "Soon It's Gonna Rain."

The show is normally observed as a coming-of-age story featuring a starry-eyed teen female (Luisa) whose view of life has been honed by reading romance and swashbuckling novels and her equally naïve but self-proclaimed “worldly” boyfriend (Matt) who believes his college experiences have taught him all there is to know. Throw in two matchmaking fathers who scheme to get their children together, a suave rogue (El Gallo), a has-been Shakespearean actor and his “Indian” sidekick, a mute who plays a wall, and a prop person, and the play appears to be a slight bit of fluff, whose purpose is solely to delight audiences. Well, ‘taint so!

Yes, the first act is fluff…delightful fluff. And, in the Ensemble production, that segment, under the adept direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, is delightful. Brault leaves out no shtick in order to please the audience.

The second act, however, is a totally different matter. As reality of love and life set in, the girl’s fantasies are challenged. The disillusioned boy goes out to find the “real” world. The fathers argue. The question arises: as we each go round and round in the world, what is reality? Can we cover our eyes and escape from the truth of life simply by putting on a mask?

It is in the second act that the Ensemble production stumbles. When El Gallo, the mature worldly-wise swashbuckler, assumes the role of mentor and takes Luisa out of her walled-in world to see the real world, with all its faults, we need to truly gain an understanding of Schmidt and Jones’s existential message. The effect of the show basically centers on the staging and musical interpretation of the song “Round and Round.” We must see Matt, who has gone on his adventure, stumble and fall and come to a realization of life as it really is. We must share with Luisa her angst of not being totally able to put on her mask to hide the realities of existence….wars, famine, torture, cruelty.

In this production, the staging of “Round and Round” is one dimensional. Matt hangs as the Christ figure on the cross, never acting out the illusions of the song. The vocal and visual interpretation fail to stress the meaning of the words. The music fails to build to climax, thus avoiding the heightening of the needed tension. We never see Luisa gain awareness.

As the young lovers, Paul Rawlings (Matt) and Emma Ruck (Luisa) are basically charming. Rawlings often swallows the endings of words when he sings in the lower registers and Ruck sometimes gets a little shrill, but, in general, they both do a nice job. (BTW…at one point in the show’s long run off-Broadway, local actor and BW graduate Rex Nockingust played Matt.)

Mark Cipra (the boy’s father) acts well, but his voice is a shallow. Dan Call has strong vocal qualities, but sometimes forgets that he needs to blend, not dominate in duets.

The star of the show is George Roth as the Old Actor. He glows, dominating the stage in every entrance. His performance is luminous. He is ably supported by Dustin Jesberger as the non-Indian Indian who specializes in dying. Jon Gellott does everything he needs to do as the Mute.

Unfortunately, though he tries hard, Joe Monaghan is miscast as El Gallo. He needs to be suave, sensual and have worldly maturity. Monaghan just doesn’t control the stage as, for example, Jerry Orbach did in the original production. He also doesn’t have the vocal chops to belt out “Round and Round” and to create emotional illusions in “Try to Remember.”

I understand that Brault’s original concept for the show was to cast two males in the leading romantic roles. The idea was, I’ve been told, vetoed. Too bad, it would have been appropriate to the theme of the play, to see their “real” world through the eyes of gay lovers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble’s ‘THE FANTASTICKS’ should delight most audience members. However, if they are interested in gaining the message of the Schmidt and Jones musical, they won’t get it from this production.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The History Boys

‘HISTORY BOYS’ gets an A at Beck

Snow wiped out the first two performances of ‘THE HISTORY BOYS’ at Beck Center, but when the curtain finally went up for Alan Bennett’s six-time Tony Award winning play, the audience quickly knew that it was worth slogging through the snow.

As one British reviewer stated about the play in its initial performance, “If I had to single out the season's most intelligent, exhilarating evening of theater, Alan Bennett's idea and humor rich play would win hands down.” I tend to agree with him.

The setting, a grammar school in England during the 1980s. Grammar schools in Britain are the equivalent of U.S. public high schools. The students, like American seniors are concerned about getting into a prestigious university. The question arises, at what cost?

The story follows a group of male students who are being prepared for their Oxford entrance exams by three teachers, each with contrasting styles. Irwin, a young hotshot, teaches the essay style of generalities flavored with some facts and quotes. He basically believes the truth is irrelevant. It parallels the way the author, himself, learned to prepare. Hector, a senior member of the faculty, teaches knowledge with a bent toward English Literature with an eye on on a well-rounded education. Exams are the enemy of all that he stands for. Mrs. Lintott has taught the boys the basics of history and is unconcerned about the approach of their writing, only that they know history.

The play blends both comedy and tragedy, with multiple layers and themes, including the subtleties of growing up, the purposes of education, teaching philosophies, homosexuality, and the English education system.

The play opened in London in 2004 in a limited engagement and played to sold out audiences. It reopened in 2005, again to packed houses. It came to Broadway in 2006 and swept the Tony Awards. The script was transformed into a movie which featured the original stage cast.

Just as American scripts are often hard for the English to produce, British material is difficult for American actors and directors. Not only are the accents daunting, but the tone and pacing of the material is often hard to develop.

Director Sarah May grasps the underbelly of the play and has worked with the actors to develop clear and consistent characters. Whether they are speaking, being “other” students in the classroom, or interacting with each other, the boys uniformly develop individual personalities. The pacing is appropriate, the conflicts well pitched, the humor nicely developed.

Dana Hart (Hector) and Dan Folino (Irwin) are excellent as the teachers with conflicting views of the world of education. As with the students, they develop clear and consistent characterizations. Dede Klein (Mrs. Lintott) is excellent as the fulcrum between the opposing forces of her fellow faculty members. Michael Regnier perfectly portrays Felix Armstrong, as the up-tight Headmaster.

All of the students deserve hurrahs. Matthew Martin Thomas is impressive as Posner, who is undersized, Jewish and gay and in search of self-identity. Stuart Hoffman (Rudge) continually looks like he is appropriately in a state of confusion as the “dumb” jock. Adam Day Howard effectively develops Scripps, the pianist and religious moralist. Eric Fancher is totally believable as Dakin, the charismatic, sexual mastermind of the group, who uses his powers to overwhelm his classmates, the young female school secretary, as well as the occasional teacher.

There is an excellent attention to detail in the production that is reflected not only in the performances but in Trad A. Burns’ set and lighting.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘THE HISTORY BOYS’ is one of those productions that must be seen. Do so before it becomes history on March 30.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Doubt: A Parable

Compelling ‘DOUBT’ is at Cleveland Play House

John Patrick Shanley’s ‘DOUBT: A PARABLE,’ now in production at the Cleveland Play House, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony for Best Drama, as well as the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play of the season.

There is much anticipation concerning the movie version, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is presently in production.

Not only is the script well crafted, with the right direction and casting, the results can be compelling theatre. Fortunately for Play House patrons, Seth Gordon, who directed the show, proves once again he is a master at his craft. The show is well-paced and hits all the emotional chords. Both the laughs and the dramatic tensions are highlighted. This is professional theatre as its best!

On Broadway, all four members of the cast were nominated for Tony Awards. I saw the show shortly after it premiered and that ensemble had nothing on the CPH group.

The 90-minute play runs without intermission. This is a wise choice, because any break in the constantly building tension would ruin the over-all effect.

The story is housed in a Catholic elementary school presided over by Sister Aloysius, a traditional no-nonsense nun who wears her habit as armor against modernism and change. She is in a battle for the hearts and minds of her pupils with a young priest who believes the clergy should be accessible to the parish and be thought of "as members of their family." These divergent thoughts are accented by the Sister’s “feelings” and “instincts” that the priest is molesting the schools’ only black student. Aloysius confronts Flynn with her suspicions.

To give away any more of the plot would eliminate the doubt of the conclusion and thwart the “second act,” which probably takes place as theatre-goers travel homeward, discussing their doubts about the priest’s innocence or guilt.

Barbara Andres is appropriately unbending and scary as Sister Aloysius. The women sitting next to me, a product of Catholic schools, moaned, “Oh my God, she’s my old principal, every Catholic school kid’s nightmare!” Early-on Andres wisely underplays the vocal aspects of the role so that when she needs her verbal power, it becomes even more emphatic than if she had over-projected through out.

Michael Frederic is convincing as the Priest. He makes us want to believe him. But, are we intentionally led by his charm and demeanor to make us assume his innocence, or are we being tricked by a master manipulator?

Jennifer Ruffner, noted for her performances on local stages, hits all the emotional right notes as Sister James, a dynamic but naïve young teacher who is caught between the opposing forces of the Sister and the Priest.

Cherene Snow, who received extended applause as she made her exit after a tense but pivotal scene, is compelling as the mother of the Black student who understands the realities of life as they relate to her son.

Russell Parkman’s set and Trad Burns’ lighting enhance the production.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Seth Gordon and his CPH cast deserve accolades for their compelling production of ‘DOUBT: A PARABLE.” If you don’t see this production you will miss one of the highlights of the local theatrical season!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Colder Than Here

Dobama’s ‘COLDER THAN HERE’--a must see fun, thought provoking tour-de-force!

Laura Wade, the author of ‘COLDER THAN HERE’ now in production by Dobama Theatre, is quite unusual. Between February, 2005 and March 2006 she had three plays in production in London. She was the winner of the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright of 2006 and the recipient of Pearson Playwrights Best Play Award. All this, and she has only been writing full-time for less than three years.

‘COLDER THAN HERE’ is the story of Myra, a mother in her mid-50's suffering from advanced secondary bone cancer. Since she only has about six months to live, she sets about planning her funeral with the same energy one might expend on organizing the perfect wedding. She picks out and assembles the cardboard coffin, which she decorates with clouds and stars, even deciding that she wants to be placed in the box on her side, because that’s the way she sleeps. She illustrates her plans in a Power Point computer presentation so her family can follow the directions.

In between trips to scout out prospective eternal resting places, Myra tries to build up the self-esteem of youngest daughter Jenna, who seems to have settled for unhealthy romantic relationships. As Myra says, "While I'm still here, I can help. After I kick it, you're on your own." She also confronts her own marital problems, highlighted by years of separate bedrooms, and tries to mend the emotional distance between family members.

Is she bizarre, a woman lost in sorrow? Not so, according to playwright Wade who believes that “Grief needs to be occupied, and organizing the funeral is one way of doing that.” Her research for the play brought her into contact with the Natural Death Movement, which aims to rescue funerals from the high-cost funeral directors and gives people control over their own dead bodies. It's an approach Wade thinks we would do well to follow. (Incidentally, this is a growing trend in England, where this play is set.)

Sounds like a downer. It’s not. There is humor, tenderness and even beauty. Most of all, there is reality. I defy anyone in the audience not to be thinking about their own approach to death and the rituals which surround it.

Dobama’s production, as has been the case so often, is right on target. Artistic Director Joyce Casey has again chosen a script of merit and turned over the forging of it to director Joel Hammer, who paces the production well, creates all the correct moods and has molded the cast into a quality team.

Anne McEvoy takes on the difficult task of Myra. She does an outstanding job of walking the fine line between humor and drama. This is a masterful performance.

We laugh and are amazed at Jenna, the self-obsessed daughter. In the role, Heather Lea Anderson Boll, the only equity member of the cast, effectively traverses the tight rope between being “ditzy,” “confused” and “pathetic.” It would be so easy to go overboard with the characterization, but Boll doesn’t.

Liz Conway, is right on target as Harriet, the sensible daughter.

Robert Hawkes gives a stellar performance as, Alec, Myra’s husband, the typical English male…self contained, distant and practical.

Ben Needham’s multi-scene set works well, as does Michael Boll’s lighting design and Richard Ingraham’s sound.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Bravo to Dobama for continuing it’s string of outstanding productions. ‘COLDER THAN HERE’ is a must see presentation that deserves community support.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


Dear Mr. Berko,

I recently recieved your certificate of recognition for my role in Nine, and I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate being recognized by someone of your stature. I am truly greatful and honored.

Your friend always,
Aric Generette Floyd
(Little Guido)

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The King and I

Lush ‘KING AND I’ pleases at Carousel

There is a saying among theatre-goers that it’s never a good sign when one exits the theatre talking about the production’s sets and costumes. Well, in the case of Carousel Dinner Theatre’s ‘THE KING AND I,’ the likely departure conversation will be about the glorious sets and the magnificent costumes. That’s not to say the acting, dancing and singing are bad, they are all quite good, it’s just that the technical aspects of this particular production are so outstanding.

Artistic Director Sean Cercone has let loose big time on the production budget. Scenic Designer Robert Kovach and Costume Designer Dale DiBernardo have very successfully taken up the challenge and created striking visually images.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were the kings of musical theatre in the 1950s and 60s. They wrote more classics for that genre than any other creative team. The list goes on and on, ‘OKLOHAMA,’ ‘SOUND OF MUSIC,’ ‘FLOWER DRUM SONG,’ and ‘CAROUSEL’ are only a few. Many consider ‘THE KING AND I’ to be one of their best shows.

‘THE KING AND I’ is based on the book ‘ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM’ by Margaret Landon. The plot was actually taken from a story by Anna Leonowens who was a school teacher to the children of King Mongukut, the King of Siam, in the early 1860s. Though the story is supposedly autobiographical, there are numerous questions about the accuracy of the story.

The Broadway production which starred Yul Brenner and Gertrude Lawrence, opened in 1951, ran over twelve-hundred performances and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The script was made into a film in 1956 starring Brenner and Deborah Kerr. Since Kerr was not a singer, Marne Nixon, the diva of voice stand-ins, did the singing.

The story starts with the arrival of Anna Leonowens, a widow from Wales and her son Louis, into Bangkok. She has been hired to teach the children of the King of Siam in the “scientific ways” of the Western world. In the process of her stay there are conflicts over her housing, the King’s “barbaric” control over his people, a visit from the British who may be considering taking over the country as a colony, and eventually the death of the king. All this encased within a glorious musical score that includes, “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,’ and “Shall We Dance?”

R&H’s shows contain messages of societal ills. The theme was highlighted by a major song. In the case of “THE KING AND I,’ it is ‘A Puzzlement,” during which the King questions his role in bringing Siam into the “new” world, his ability to adapt to the changes and whether what is going on in the outside world is good for his people.

Carousel’s production is well served by its cast, which is the largest company ever to appear on the theatre’s stage.

Though he takes a little getting used to, due to a lack of strong physical presence, Francis Jue gives his own spin to the role. That interpretation generally works.

Jennifer Hughes is a fine Anna, though her speaking voice was occasionally a little high pitched, and she lacks some of the needed warmth that would have made the character more appealing. She sings well.

Jonelle Margallo (Tuptim) and JP Moraga (Lun Tha), both have nice voices and develop authentic characters as the young lovers.

Catherine Cheng Jones (Madam Thiang) does an excellent vocal rendition of “Something Wonderful.”

Both of the young boys, Jacob Rummell (Prince Chululongkorn) and Matthew Hemminger (Louis) have difficulty developing realistic characterizations.

Director Stephen Bourneuf and choreographer Vince Pesce do a nice job of creating the proper atmosphere and add some creative touches to the happenings.

The major flaw with the production is the overzealous orchestra who often drowned out the vocalists and the sound technician who often cranked the musical volume to an ear-splitting level.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE KING AND I’ is a musical theatre classic which gets a very good production at Carousel Dinner Theatre.