Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Little Shop of Horrors


Several weeks ago ‘EVIL DEAD THE MUSICAL’ opened at Beck Center. My capsule judgement of the show stated: “If you want to go to the theatre and have a great old time and escape from reality, see ‘EVIL DEAD THE MUSICAL.”
My view wasn’t alone…the show has become a cult hit with viewers returning again and again. Its run has been extended once again. (For ticket info and dates call 216-521-2540.)

I wish I could have the same enthusiasm for Beck’s present production, ‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS,’ but I can’t. First, in spite of the show having won several awards, I don’t like the script. It just isn’t as far-out as it could be considering the creative concept. Second, the music, though at times delightful, is not of consistent quality. The history of the show proves this. The original cast album omits the songs "Call Back in the Morning", and "Somewhere That's Green" (reprise), and only had abridged versions of "Now (It's Just the Gas)," "Mushnik and Son," and "The Meek Shall Inherit." “Call Back” isn’t even in Beck’s production. This tinkering with a show, after it has opened, doesn’t happen in a well scored show.
‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’ is a rock doo-wop musical by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman, about a hapless and geeky florist shop worker who raises a plant that feeds on human blood. As the plant demands (yes, it talks) more and more blood, the plot thickens.
The musical, which is based on the low-budget 1960 black comedy film of the same title, premiered on May 6, 1982 in an off-Broadway theatre, and never moved uptown. It closed on November 1, 1987, after 2,209 performances, making it one of the longest running off-Broadway shows.
I saw the show in its off-Broadway run and wasn’t overly impressed. Four or five additional viewings in various venues still hasn’t made me a fan.
My evaluation of the Beck production must be tempered by the fact that I saw a dress rehearsal and not a full-fledged production. What I saw was pleasant enough, with a promise for improvement when the cast settles in and has audience reaction experiences.
Director William Roudebush has appropriately pushed for farce. Again, as the cast gets comfortable with the material, I assume they will totally let loose and just play for fun, which is what the concept requires.
Tim Allen plays Seymour, the “conceiver” of Audrey II, the blood devouring plant. As he admits in the program, he is a natural nerd and a socially inept romantic. He, of very skinny body, awkward gait, and thin voice, is perfect for the role. Meg Maley, who plays Audrey, the stereotypical dumb blond, looks the role, but was often difficult to hear in her vocals and the screeching speaking wears on the nerves at times. Her walk is “Judy Holliday” perfect. Connor O’Brien, Audrey’s dentist boyfriend, is not snarly enough as a sadistic abuser. The Urchins, a doo-wop vocal trio consisting of Katrice Monee Headd, Tonya Broach and Taresa Willingham, are talented and fun. Their versions of the “Prologue/Little Shop of Horrors” set a nice opening tone. I would have liked a more commanding playfulness from Darryl Lewis, the voice of Audrey II.
Larry Goodpaster’s musical direction and Michael Metcalf’s choreography were fine. After the show runs for a while maybe the set moving crew will master the intricacies of Don McBride’s scenery. During the preview, they had a lot of trouble getting the pieces moved in time for the next scene. No credit was given for who created Audrey II, but whoever did deserves a special round of applause.
Is it youth friendly? My 13 year-old grandson Alex, the “Kid Reviewer,” was not overly enthusiastic. He didn’t think there was enough fun to hold a tween’s attention, but did recognize that things could improve as, “we only saw a rehearsal and you can’t expect it to be perfect.” His remarks concluded with, “This was not my favorite show.”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS’ is not a great script. From my preview viewing perspective, it is getting an acceptable production at Beck.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Groundworks 6/09

Groundworks great at Cain Park!

Groundworks has, since its inception 11 years ago, continued to prove that it is Cleveland’s premiere small troupe dance company. Their programs continue to be focused, challenging and well-performed. If possible, they outdid themselves in their recent Cain Park three-peat performance.

The Cain Park program consisted of three top notch works. ‘Allow,” choreographed by Artistic Associate Amy Miller, which, like Miller, was strong, purposeful and powerful. Initially performed with little physical interaction and touch , the dancers used static and gymnastic moves to eventually blend together, effectively executing lifts, and flying bodies to create an exhausting gymnastic number that well paralleled the atonal sounds of Dennis Dugan.

Choreographed by Alex Ketley, to the music of Bon Iver and Phillip Jeck, “For You,” was a flowing, interactive, audience pleasing creation. Really two dances of different style and purpose, the first segment was high powered, the latter a emotional section which was tenderly danced by Miller and Kelly Brunk. The ending was met with a screaming reaction of approval from those in attendance.

Shimotakahara’s “Boom Boom,’”in its world premiere, is a wonderful new addition to Groundworks’ repertoire. Danced to eight different musical pieces, each developed a unique perspective of jazz sounds and interactions between people. Highlight segments found Shimotakahara vertically dancing on the side of a wall in “Black Mattie.” Sarah Perrett and Damien Highfield climbed on, over and beneath each other while interpreting “Sitting on Top of the World.“ In “Today I Sing the Blues,” Felice Bagley and Brunk performed the entire piece without losing contact with the theatre’s back wall…quite a dance accomplishment.

When it has been necessary to “restock” his company, Artistic David Shimotakahara has an eye for picking new performers that fit the perfectionist mold of the troupe. His latest find is Kelly Brunk. Tall and handsome, with a sparkling personality that lights up the stage, the lanky blonde is in control of his body at all times. His lifts, gymnastic moves, gestures and eye contact, are well performed and purposeful. He’s a wonderful addition to Groundworks, as was Sarah Perrett, a short time ago.

Capsule judgement: Danceworks’ Cain Park 2009 performance was a total delight. What a treat! It was dancing and choreography at its best! Bravo!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pangs of the Messiah

Sadness and frustration greet final curtain at JCC’s ‘PANGS OF THE MESSIAH’

As the stage went dark at the Brooks Theatre following JCC’s production of ‘PANGS OF THE MESSIAH,’ I was struck with a feeling of sadness. Having been an active member of the Jewish Community Center’s theatre program, both acting and directing plays on the stage of the Halle Theatre, and it’s predecessor, the storefront on Lee Road, I was struck with the realization that the days of “Jewish” theatre in Cleveland was probably coming to an end.

When the Mandell JCC was built without a theatre, and the Mayfield JCC was destroyed by the wrecking ball, and the staff members of the theatre program were let go, the end was in sight. Now, unless there is an unexpected about face, the end is here. How sad that the voice of Jewish oriented plays has been snuffed out.

My other feeling after PANGS ended was frustration. Watching a play about a peace potential in Israel, and the prospective consequences of following the paths available, and realizing that all of the hopes and dreams of those who desire a true peaceful homeland for the Jewish people, may potentially be leading to another holocaust, is not a pleasant thought. On the way to our car, my wife and I talked about the play and what may well be a hopeless situation. As we drove home, we fell into a pall of silence as we were consumed by what appears to be a problem with no ideal solution or maybe not even a hopeful solution.

‘PANGS OF THE MESSIAH,’ a play by Israeli playwright, Motti Lerner, was originally written in 1986 and performed in Tel Aviv. Its English translation premiered at Theatre J in Washington, in 2007. It had a staged reading in Cleveland.

Set in 2012 amidst the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, the script is an apocalyptic yet human drama which centers on a group of religious West Bank Jewish settlers pitted against an Israeli leadership they feel betrayed by. The family not only finds itself torn between fighting to stay in their settlement, but obeying their government’s decision to dismantle it. In addition, they are caught between realism versus philosophy.
Lerner doesn’t attempt to provide answers to the unanswerable. This may frustrate some, but it is reality. He avoids the temptation to demonize, leaving us with frustration and a sorrowful meditation on how it might all end. “Questions are over,” Shmuel (the rabbinical leader of the community) says early on. “Maybe there’ll be some answers.” Yes, maybe, but we come to the conclusion that the answers may not be the ones that those who are interested in the welfare of the Jews of Israel, and the state itself as a homeland for the Jewish people, want. The play is not for those wanting escapist theater. This is reality. It is scary and provocative.

The JCC production, under the direction of Scott Plate, is generally well done. It is apparent that the time the production team spent with the playwright, rabbis and Jewish consultants, has helped in using the correct rituals and understanding the plight of those living on the West Bank. What makes this most impressive is that many members of the cast are not Jewish.

Laura Carlson Tarantowski’s scenic design and Amber Michalak’s painting of the background sets a correct mood. Stan Kozak’s sound effects, especially the sound of the barking dog and the Kol Nidrah chanting at the conclusion, enhances the effect.

One might ask why several characters use accents since it seems apparent that everyone is speaking in Hebrew, though we hear them in English. This stage effect becomes even more frustrating as the accents come and go.

Strong performances are put in by Charles Kartali as Shmuel, Jean Zarzour as his wife, Karon Sabo as his daughter-in-law, Amy Pawlukiewicz as his daughter, and Ryan Jagru, as Shmuel’s conflicted son-in-law. Ethan Rosenfeld is outstanding as Nadav the autistic son whose simplistic obsessive mannerisms mirror the narrowness of the situation, yet mirror the breath and frustration of the conflict. On the other hand, Neal Poole is a overly whinny as Benny’s father and Mark Mayo’s characterization of Avner (Shumuel’s oldest son) comes and goes.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: And, so, it appears we say goodbye to the Jewish Community Center’s long running theatre program. At least it will be remembered for closing with a thought-provoking well conceivedproduction.

(Thanks to Roe Green for her continued generous support for the JCC arts program.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A fun, “A FUNNY THING’ lights up Porthouse Stage!

From the time I saw ‘A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM,’ several days after its 1962 opening, it’s been my “feel good” musical. Whenever I need a happy fix, I put on the cd. Just hearing Steven Sondheim’s music and lyrics to “Comedy Tonight,” “Free,” “Lovely,” and “Pretty Little Picture,” makes even the most overcast day glow.

‘A FUNNY THING’ is now on stage at the Porthouse Theatre. Though not a perfect production, nothing that director Terri Kent and her cast do, diminishes my love of the show.

Inspired by the farces of ancient Roman playwrights, its a bawdy story of a slave named Pseudolus and his attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master woo the girl next door. In this case, the girl next door isn’t a sweet innocent, but a virgin prostitute (go figure). The show contains all the elements of farce. Yes, there are lots of double sexual entendres, slamming of doors, mistaken identities, unrealistic plot twists, and the freedom for actors to just let loose and do vaudeville shticks.

The Broadway production won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Book. It ran nearly 1000 performances and has had many revivals and evolved into a successful movie.

Broadway legends about the show include that the show's creators originally wanted Phil Silvers in the lead role, but he turned them down, allegedly because he would have to perform onstage without his glasses, and his vision was so poor that he feared tripping into the orchestra pit. Milton Berle also nixed the project. Then, along came Zero Mostel, who not only was the show’s star, but became a Broadway legend for not only this show, but for his Tevya in ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.’

This was Sondheim’s first Broadway attempt at writing both words and music and opened the doors for another star to emerge.

Porthouse’s production is delightful. Nick Koesters makes the role of Pseudolus his. This is not a Mostel imitation. He plays with the words, the lyrics, the audience.

Eric van Baars’ creative choreography helps with the quick pace, visual hysteria and general fun mood as did Rayna Middleton’s costume designs.

Koesters is well supported by J. P Makowski as Hysterium, who lives up to his hysterical character name, and Marc Moritz as Senex, a hen-pecked husband. Sarah Roussos, she of beautiful face and glorious voice, as Philia, the virgin, adds the right touch of fun with her wide-eyed stupidity. The male dancers were great, as was Mark Monday, as the old man in search of his lost children. He got cheers for doing nothing more than stumbling across the stage and counting the number of times he “walked around the city.”

On the other hand, though he has a great voice, Brian Keith Johnson, didn’t totally sell his uber-machoness as Miles Gloriosus, the Roman general. Melissa Owens wasn’t shrewy enough as Domina and Brian Duncan, who has a very pleasing voice, wasn’t beguiling enough as Hero, giving a surface level performance. Jonathan Swoboda’s musical direction was highlighted by some squealing brass, especially in the overture.

In spite of the minor flaws, the results are so fun-making that a woman behind me moaned, between howls, “I think I just wet my pants from laughing.” My 13 year old grandson was grinning from ear to ear as he watched the hysterics.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM’ is a great summer entertainment and the production calls out for going to the theatre and having a good time! It’s worth attending for no other reason than seeing Nick Koesters, do his “thing.”

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Creative ‘CINDERELLA’ at Mercury Summer Stock

Mercury Summer Stock, which is now staging Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘CINDERELLA,’ lists itself as “a professionally based, not-for-profit, and community-supported theatre. Located in Parma, it basically serves the west side communities by offering low-cost plays, which are usually family friendly.

Recently, MSS added a “My First Musical Program” to its program. It is intended to make the theatrical experience open to children who, because of financial and other issues, would not normally be exposed to live stagings. As evidenced by the young lady, who, at a special Wednesday early evening performance, spent most of the second act of ‘CINDERELLA’ hanging onto the edge of the stage and who immediately followed Cinderella and Prince Charming down the aisle at the close of the show as they exited to the lobby to spend time interacting with the audience, the concept worked!

‘CINDERELLA’ is the only Rodgers and Hammerstein musical written for television. It was originally broadcast on March 31, 1957 as a vehicle for Julie Andrews, who played the title role. It is based upon the fairy tale of the same name, which concerns a young woman forced into a life of servitude by her cruel stepmother. With the help of her Fairy Godmother, Cinderella is transformed into a Princess and finds her Prince. The stage musical contains all the elements that make for a dream-like fantasy, including a prince, a pumpkin which becomes a carriage, a glass slipper, and a fairy god mother. And, of course, there is the must have “happily ever after” ending.

The melodic score includes: “The Sweetest Sounds,” “In My Own Little Corner,” “Impossible; It’s Possible,” “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful,” and “A Lovely Night.”

The Mercury Summer Stock production, under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, with musical direction by Eddie Carney (who accompanies the singers on the piano), is quite creative. Brault has a nice flair for the bizarre and uses the piano, which is set center stage, as the stage coach, uses puppets for the mice who become the coach’s horses, adds ingenious costumes, and incorporates extensive physical and verbal farce.

I saw the show during a special staging aimed at children. This affected the performance. For example, Rob Gibb, who plays the cross-dressing wicked step mother, and Brian Marshall, who portrayed the Herald (court jester) were quite tame during the performance. This, according to Brault, was intentional as he was afraid the children wouldn’t get the extended farce. In reality, I thought the duo should have over done what they normally did in performance, as the kids giggled with delight when something was over-exaggerated, such as the actions of the wicked step sisters.

As is my pattern, since this show was child friendly, I took the “Kid Reviewers,” my grandsons Alex (13) and Noah (12), to see the production. They liked the farce, thought that the singing voices were generally okay, but that almost all of the performers needed to project more. (We were in the third row and often couldn’t hear the words.) “Maybe,” said Alex, an accomplished pianist and member of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Children’s Chorus, “the pianist should have played more softly, but it’s really the responsibility of the cast to sing loud enough.” Both boys thought that in the movie version, the special effects helped make the production more visually appealing, but realized that the special effects couldn’t be done on stage. They both would have liked the stepmother and the Herald to “play around more.” Noah, in particular, thought the choreography was excellent. They liked the step sisters “a lot.” Alex gave the show a 7 on a scale of 10, Noah a 6, with the recommendation that the story was mainly aimed at those 8 and under, and was of interest “mainly to girls.” From my perspective the boys were right on.

Nicholas Varricchio has the right physical attributes to be Prince Charming. He has a nice singing voice, but was often difficult to hear. Emily Grodzik was generally charming as Cinderella, but had vocal projection problems. Kelvette Beacham and Jennifer Myor were delightful as the bickering stepsisters. Their plastic wigs in the ballroom scene, were a hoot and their ‘Stepsister’s Lament” duo was fun.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Mercury’s ‘CINDERELLA’ is a very pleasant evening of summer theatre, well tailored to children. Be sure to read both the adult and children’s versions of the program. The latter is delightful. Who knew that Brault was an ‘ALICE IN WONDERLAND’ expert, Prince Charming wants to be a Dalmatian when he grows up, and the Herald wants to grow up to be a French fry.