Monday, September 28, 2009

Fiddler on the Roof

Beck’s FIDDLER is white bread, not challah

‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF,’ now in production at Beck Center, is one of those perfect musicals. Based on a meaningful story, with a pointed message, it contains memorable music, vivid characters, and perfectly fits the model for the well-made musical. The music, dance and script all meld into a combination that, no matter the production level, audience’s like.

‘FIDDLER’ is based on a compilation of Yiddish humorist and story-teller Sholem Aleichem’s stories, including “Tevye and his Daughters.”

It is 1905, and life for Jews in the fictional “shtettle” (village) of Anatevka, someplace in the Russia-Polish pale, is as precarious as a fiddler on the roof; yet, through their traditions, the villagers endure.

Yes, traditions. Traditions that for generations have told Jews how to live, including what to eat, what to wear, who should marry who and how to live the righteous life. It has been those traditions that have held the Jewish people together in the great Diaspora, which spread them across the world after being expelled from Palestine. It is still the thread that holds Jews together, whether pious believers or not.

We meet Tevye, a poor milkman, who has five daughters, and not enough dowry to match them with the cream of Anatevka’s men. Tevye tries to uphold the traditions to the best of his ability, but the times are changing and the old ways of doing things come under repeated questioning. Will he remain steadfast or bend or even break?

With music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein, when ‘Fiddler’ had its first out-of-town try-out in Detroit, there was debate over whether the show would ever have the mass appeal to make it to Broadway. How wrong were a reviewers who predicted a quick open and close on the Great White Way. The show opened on September 22, 1964, ran until July 2, 1972, logged over 3000 performances, and set a record as the longest running musical. A record which stood for ten years.

The original production starred Zero Mostel, Beatrice Arthur , Bert Convy, Julia Migenes, and later, Bette Midler.

In Jewish tradition, the challa, an egg-twist bread is eaten on the Sabbath. It, unlike white bread, has a special “tam” (taste). Both nourish, but one has a special purpose and pleases more than the other.

Beck’s production, under the direction of Paul Gurgol, though serviceable, is missing the “tam.” There is a cadence to Yiddish speech, there is an indefinable spirit that underlies the likes of Tevya and his fellow villagers, there is a vibrancy to living the traditions, in spite of the limitations that it places on life. That’s what is missing in the Lakewood production.

This is not to say that audience’s won’t like it. As witnessed by the near standing ovation the night I saw the show, the Beck audience will eat up what they see and hear. But, of course, many haven’t been brought up with the tradition and the “tam” and won’t miss it. White bread is fulfilling enough.

Many of the traditions are included. The mezuzah, a piece of parchment in a decorative case inscribed with Hebrew verses from the Torah and placed on door frames are kissed upon entering buildings, the males wear “tsitsahs” (the fringe on prayer shawls) and cover their heads at all times. Tzeitel and Motel get married under a “chupah” (marriage canopy) and the symbolic stomping on a glass is done by the groom.

However, mistakes in Orthodox tradition run rampant. Major among the blunders is the scene in which men and women mingle together in a Jewish bar and eventually dance together. No, no, no! The women wear “shaetles” (wigs) in the wedding scene but, they should have been wearing them throughout. The wigs are not dress-up accessories, they are part of Bibical commandments. Motel’s costume during the wedding was incorrect. He needed to be wearing a “kittel’, a white robe. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Why all the emphasis on the exactness needed to make the production authentic? It is the obligation of a director, choreographer and costumer to research the traditions of a culture in order to produce a play about that culture. There were just too many flaws caused by their lack of knowledge.

As for the cast. George Roth gives his own twist to Tevya. This is not a Zero Mostel imitation. There are times when his cadence gets off, when he loses the characterization, but in general, Roth is on course. Adina Bloom gets the singing right, but her Golda lacks the motherly warmth which has to be the underbelly behind the shrillness. She should nag, but nag with love. “Do You Love Me,” as performed by Roth and Bloom is charming.

Tim Allen, (Motel the tailor), Kyle Downing (Perchik, the revolutionary) and Andy Weyenerg (Fyedka, the Russian who falls in love with Chava, one of Tevya’s daughters) are all excellent. Morgan Greene (Tzeitel), Patricia O’Toole (Hodel) and Dani Apple (Chava) are good as the oldest daughters. Amiee Collier’s vocals gives the dream sequence a special tone.

Lisa Lock’s choreography goes wanting. Most of the dancing was walking and stepping in time to the music. With few exceptions, she appears to have been blessed with a cast that is dance –ability deprived, but even so, there are ways of getting around that.

Russ Borski’s set is quite clever. His use of walls of blooming flowers and living corn stalks, which transform to dead growth, is an excellent device to show the changes of seasons. The rest of the many settings are nicely handled by multi-sided buildings on moving platforms.

Larry Goodpaster’s musical direction was excellent. His orchestra underscored the singers, allowing for the words to the glorious score to be heard.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’ is a serviceable production. Much too white bread for my taste, but I’m not the only one eating, and many of those who are, will probably like the staging.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Finn in the Under World

It’s another one of “those” shows at convergence continuum

At the conclusion of ‘FINN IN THE UNDERWORLD,’ at convergence –continuum, the woman sitting next to me said, “Yep, this is another one.” What she was referring to was that before the show she said, “I keep coming back here because you never know what you are going to see and hear. A lot of their stuff is weird, yes, just plain weird.”

Jordan Harrison has written what is billed as “an erotic thriller.” ‘FINN’ has been called “a cocktail of sex and suspense to attract and titillate audiences, but with less comforting implications about human nature.”

The plot line concerns a pair of sisters who go back to their family home to divide and pack up their parent’s belongings. The house has an intriguing history. A subterranean air raid shelter was built there during the cold war scare. A neighborhood boy was found dead in the basement. Cause of death? Asphyxiation. It could have been self-induced or murder. Owwww…murder??? Is this house haunted by ghosts? Owwww…ghosts? Who is that guy who appears, but is supposedly dead?

As a clock with a projected face gives us a minute-to-minute update, and moves forward and backward to accommodate the play’s time jumps, we watch as the sisters, Rhoda and Gwenn, bicker with other, while Gwen’s 20-year old son, Finn, plays sex games with a creepy neighbor (Carver) in the shelter. The games turn into a “boy” and “daddy” scenario, and seems to parallel a relationship between Carver and the neighbor boy who was found dead. Owwww…was his death asphyxiation with a sexual twist?

The major problem is that ‘FINN’ really isn’t that well written. It promises more than it delivers and comes off as more pointless than genuinely affecting. Nothing wrong with making audiences leave the theater scratching their heads and wondering, “What the heck was that?,” but aside from its attempt at a “naughty” shock factor, it’s pretty thin.

The convergence production, under the direction of Geoffrey Hoffman, is presented in a two-act version, instead of the original script’s 90-minute format. The reason is unclear as nothing is gained by the pause.

Hoffman keeps the pacing on target, most of the actors fulfill what the script gives them, especially the always bizarre and creative Lucy Bredeson-Smith as Gwen, she of pill popping and manic mood swings. Scott Gorback gives a nice tone to the hormone-guided Finn.

Unfortunately, the sexual titillation, a key element in Harrison’s intent, is kept to a minimum by Hoffman’s awkward direction of the sex scenes between Gorback and Clyde Simon (Carver). Neither of the actors seems comfortable with the goings on. In addition, the faking of interactions leaves the audience unengaged and confused. Because of convergence’s intimate theatre, the faking of the sex doesn’t work. The audience is too close to be fooled. Hoffman should have committed to either being explicit or going to blackouts after the implications are out there. Not that this would have helped the plot, but it might have given some of the audience Harrison’s erotic intent.

Capsule Judgement: ‘FINN IN THE UNERWORLD’ is not a well-written script and gets a minimally satisfying production at convergence.

Ten More Minutes From Cleveland

Dobama moves into new home and presents a new play at a gala event

Dobama is fifty years old. The theatre company celebrated its birthday by moving into its long awaited new home on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights with a gala sold-out fund-raising event that found many of the area’s theatre people rejoicing in the birth of an arts venue.

As is befitting of Dobama, whose previous abodes have been a bar in a hotel, a converted bowling alley and nooks and crannies in various buildings, other theatres and churches, their new digs are the former swimming pool of an old YMCA building, which is connected to a library. It is a wonderful black box theatre that will serve this wonderful theatre well, thanks to yeoman work by a dedicated board, chaired by Bill Newby, Managing Director, Dianne Boduszek, Artistic Director Emeritus, Joyce Casey and Artistic Director, Joel Hammer.

There are many myths, many of them wrong, about how the theatre company came into being and got its name. Here’s the skinny…the real story. How do I know? I was there, the second that the idea came out of Don Bianchi’s mouth. I was there when the plan was further developed. I was there when the first production took form.

Spring, 1959. The setting? The gymnasium/auditorium of Euclid Shore High School, the home of Euclid Little Theatre. A rehearsal of William Inge’s ‘PICNIC,’ with Don Bianchi as the Director. Don left the practice to go before the ELT board with his proposal for the next season. Fifteen minutes later he came storming back. Don was livid. He came in shouting, “Okay, that’s it! We’re out of here! I’m going to set up a theatre where we don’t have to get permission to do any kind of play we want to do. We don’t have to have tryouts!” We sat down on the floor of the gym and started to toss out ideas. ‘PICNIC’ was presented and we never looked back. A meeting was held within the next several weeks in the Bianchi’s dining room and DO (Don), BA (Barry Silverman) and MA (Mark Silverberg), gave their names to the endeavor. No, Dobama doesn’t mean anything in Swahili or any other language. It was simply named for the artistic director, the key actor and p.r. guy, and the major financial backer. Some other people who were in on the formation include Shirley Singer, Marilyn Bianchi, Glenn Beurkel, Ivan Wolpaw, Rhoda Koret, Lee Zinner, Marv and Fran Buffington, and myself. We opened the first show at Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, moved to Quad Hall Hotel’s bar, and then to the bowling alley on Coventry. Then, the community became the theatre’s home. And, now, Nirvana!

As for the opening show at the new facility? It’s a farcical often self-loathing look at Cleveland, the city we love to hate. It’s our city, the city that award-winning playwright Eric Coble now claims as his home, and the setting for his latest script, ‘TEN MORE MINUTES FROM CLEVELAND.’

Coble offers a view of the city in 10 different venues, with each segment taking about ten minutes. He keeps the scenes glued together by concentrating on two characters. One, a life-long resident, who during the course of the goings-on, attempts to search for his Cleveland security, his “blankie” of remembrances…going back to his family’s Catholic church, visiting Patterson’s Fruit Farm the site of childhood pleasures, stopping in at the coffee shop at CWRU, his alma mater where he met his wife.

The other lynch pin of the play is a young lady who has recently come to town to house sit and work on a temp job assignment as a p. r. consultant. Since she is geographically challenged, she runs into all sorts of problems finding her way to her place of employment. In the process she finds out about all the rules and regulations of Shaker Heights, where she is living. (Did you know that you can get fined for front lawn grass over two inches and there are strict rules about what are considered recyclables and how to pack them?) Her ride on the Euclid Corridor HealthLine, with miles of Cleveland Clinic buildings, weird fellow passengers, and her attempt to find someone in the vast wilderness, void of people, which is known as Public Square, add to her frustrations. She runs into a group of perpetual tailgaters at the Municipal Parking Lot, finally arrives in Little Italy, where by some immaculate intervention she finds a parking space on Mayfield Road (now you know this is a fantasy/farce) and eventually gains an understanding of the “mistake on the lake,” “the best location in the nation,” and “the city on the burning river.”

The quality of the script is inconsistent. Some scenes are well written and delightful, such as “Shaker Heights,” “Little Italy” and “Cleveland Heights.” On the other hand, “City Hall,” and “Municipal Parking Lot” just don’t hold together well.

The acting is appropriately over-the-top. Joel Hammer lets his performers play around because as is his mantra, “This is only a play.” Realism has no place here.

Nick Koesters, is hysterical, as the man who searches for security after losing his job, and becomes more and more maniac as the “plot” unravels. Carly Germany is wonderful as the newcomer who exposes us to a view of the city from someone who hasn’t been taught to be happy in misery. Maryann Elder, Laurel Brooke Johnson, Nathan Lilly and Michael Regnier, add to the insanity.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you are looking for reality, a well-integrated script, and are uncomfortable by gross exaggeration, ‘TEN MORE MINUTES FROM CLEVELAND,’ isn’t going to be your thing. On the other hand, if you can just sit back, accept that this is a piece of writing that attempts to make fun of, while trying to explain why we, the locals, put up with the weather, the embarrassment of our athletic teams, and the flaws of our politicians, you’ll have a good time.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

All's Well That Ends Well

ALL’S WELL doesn’t end well for CWRU MFA program

Last season Case Western Reserve’s MFA Acting Program presented a fine production of ‘AUTOBAHN.’ This season they undertook Shakespeare’s ‘ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL.’ Unfortunately, the results were not as positive an experience.

The plot concerns Hellen, a lowborn beauty, who serves in the household of the Countess of Rousillion. Hellen is secretly in love with Bertram, the Countess’s son. Bertram goes off to serve the king, who is terminally ill with a peptic ulcer. Helena’s late father, a physician, has left her his potions. Hellen goes to the King, gives him a drug which cures him and gets, in return, her choice of marrying any male in the King’s court. Of course, she chooses Bertram, who under pressure reluctantly marries her, but before the marriage is consummated he runs off to Italy supposedly to fight in a war. While in Italy, he writes Hellen that, "When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband." That message causes great angst, plot twists result, and eventually everything is resolved as supposedly, all’s well that ends well.

There is no evidence that ‘ALL'S WELL’ was popular in Shakespeare's own lifetime. It has remained one of his lesser-known plays, in part due to its odd mixture of fairy tale logic, supposed realism and its chauvinistic attitude.

Hellen's love for the seemingly unlovable Bertram is difficult to explain. With the right production, however, one in which Bertram, at the start appears to be naïve, and, in the end apologetically comes to his senses, it might be fathomable. That’s exactly what happened in the fine Canadian Shakespeare Festival’s production I saw several seasons ago. But, unfortunately, that is not the tack taken by either director Geoff Bullen nor Tom Picasso, who plays Bertram. The scowling Picasso introduces Bertram as a bully, ends him as a bully, and that is one of the reasons this production stumbles.

It appears, in spite of an impressive resume, that Bullen isn’t sure where the script should go. There is farce, comedy, melodrama inconsistently all mixed into one. Even the music he selected as backup is often off-putting, especially the melodramatic inserts.

As for the cast, Leigh Williams, who was so wonderful in ‘AUTOBAHN,’ seems awash in the role of Hellen. The same for Tom White, who also stood out in last season’s production. His King is right on the surface, showing no depth of characterization. Picasso spends most of the play displaying exaggerated facial expressions and making little sense of his lines. On the other hand, Catherine Albers (a widow who befriends Hellen) and Sarah Nedwek (her daughter) are excellent.

Jeffrey Van Curtis’s costumes and Jill Davis’s set designs are era right and effective.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: A combination of poor directing, some misguided acting and producing one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays resulted in a CWRU MFA Acting Company production that was less than a satisfying experience.

Beethoven, As I Knew Him

‘BEETHOVEN, AS I KNEW HIM’ hits most of the right notes at CPH

Last season Hershey Felder performed ‘MONSIEUR CHOPIN’ and ‘GEORGE GERSHWIN, ALONE’ to sold out houses at the Cleveland Play House. CPH decided to open this, its 95th consecutive season, with another of Felder’s creations, ‘BEETHOVEN, AS I KNEW HIM.’

Felder is a talented playwright, pianist, actor and singer. This time, rather than writing a script in which he portrays a well-known composer directly, he decided to use a more dramatic format. Portraying both Beethoven and a man whose father was a friend of the composer, Felder weaves a tale which exposes us to not only the life, but the very personality of the man who is considered one of the world’s greatest creators of music.

From ages 12 to fourteen, Gerhard von Breuning not only took piano lessons from the composer, but made sure that the great man ate. Beethoven, it appears, got so involved in feeding his need to create music that he forgot to feed his body. Felder’s script melds Von Breuning's personal recollections, recounts stories told by his father, and material published years after Beethoven's death.

We are exposed to Beethoven’s abusive father, difficult relationships with his brothers, failed romances, and the hearing loss that began in his late twenties which was, in part, responsible for his aggressive personality. We learn of Beethoven’s role in changing the course of western music and get a good dose of music history and theory.

Part concert, part lecture/demo and part dramatized play, the production works, on many levels, stumbles slightly on others.

While the ideas flow well, some of the specifics get lost due to a blend of Felder’s difficult to understand German accent, his not opening physically to the whole audience and a finicky sound system which squealed and muffled the spoken word. A combination of some questionable choices of recordings, which were not always of the highest quality, and the poor acoustics of the Bolton Theatre, caused some aesthetic problems.

Francois-Pierre Couture’s setting was both visually attractive and created a perfect mood. Using what appeared to be a large book on the rear of the stage, the ever changing pages, created through rear projections, were pen-and-ink drawings which visually explained creations of Beethoven’s mind, as well as pictures of real people who populated his life. Richard Norwood’s dim stage lighting design added to the somber mood.

I normally take my grandson Alex (one of the Kid Reviewers) to a production to evaluate whether he perceives the show to be kid friendly. In this case, however, I took him as my music evaluator. A talented pianist and award winning composer, the thirteen year old gave an over-all evaluation of 8 1/2 out of ten to the production. He said he gained a great deal of personal knowledge about Beethoven and thought that Felder’s piano playing was “really good.” However, he was aware that in Mozart’s “Requiem,” Felder came in late at the start of the piece, and “he made a couple of notation errors in other selections.” In addition, both he and I questioned why there was text tacked on after the natural ending of the production-- the playing of “The Ode to Joy” from the composer’s greatest masterpiece, “The Symphony No, 9 in D minor. “ Especially since this was Beethoven’s last complete work and was a symbolic summary of his life.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘BEETHOVEN, AS I KNEW HIM,’ should please most audience members. Though not as engaging as either ‘MONSIEUR CHOPIN’ or ‘GEORGE GERSHWIN, ALONE,’ it is a great lesson in music history and a commendable evening of theatre.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

GroundWorks (Akron Ice House 9/13)

GROUNDWORKS presents Tenth Annual Concert at Akron’s Ice House

The Akron Ice House, where GroundWorks Dancetheater is performing its tenth annual production, is not the ideal setting for most arts performances. But the rough brick and cement walled, high ceilinged 1870 ice factory and storage unit, works well for this dance company, which thrives on audience intimacy and unusual settings. Groundworks has no home, per se. The community is its abode. The community of Trinity Cathedral, Cain Park, the Botanical Gardens, an outdoor stage in Lincoln Park. They all work for Groundworks.

GroundWorks’ mission is to develop and perform new works. Many are created by David Shimotakahara, the company’s artistic director, who for many years danced regularly with the company, but now makes less frequent appearances on stage. Others are created by emerging choreographer Amy Miller, who is also a company dancer and its Artistic Associate, and by guest choreographers.

The present evening of dance consisted of three pieces. The selections were each based on a theme and joint creations between choreographer and dancer(s) and/or musicians.

‘TIPPING POINT’ found Felise Bagley, Amy Miller, Sarah Perrett, Kelly Brunk and Damien Highfield, mainly seated on the floor, exploring isolation and group mind interactions, with little physical contact. Costumed in brown pants and blue tops, the ensemble jerked and twitched forward and back, from side to side, sometimes athletically lifting their bodies off the ground, and, on rare occasions, upright and moving around. Julie Keenan and Dennis Dugan’s lighting design allowed for odd-shaped shadows to appear on the roughly plastered side wall, developing a counter visual image to the dancers. The exhausting piece, which may have been a bit too long, was choreographed by KT Niehoff, with music composed and recorded by Sarah Murát.

‘VALANCE,’ in its world premiere, was choreographed by Amy Miller. Like Miller, the dance was athletic, powerful, and full of focused movement. Incorporating strong use of arms and body, there were unusual visual combinations of physical entanglements and out-of-the norm lifts and carries. The under-tow sound of running feet was often created visually, with both the piece’s starting and ending, consisting of actors in motion, first in a circle and then randomly. The “music,” which was composed and recorded by Peter Swendsen, was more electronic sound combined with human and mechanical interjections, than traditional music. As the program notes indicated, “’VALENCE’ began as an exploration of how dance could be music and music could become dance.” With this as the fulcrum for creation, the final outcome was a total integration of the two mediums. Miller’s choreography had the corps moving consistently in sync to the sounds.

The closing selection, Shimotakahara’s OPEN SEATING, from the company’s repertoire, creatively used four chairs positioned inside a square. The dancers moved over, under, on top of and beneath the seating to create a number of illusions. Basically five segments, it ranged from the powerful, to the operatic, to jazz, to the sensual and the nonsensical. Typical of Shimotakahara’s choreography, creativity and movement cohesion dominated. It was a nice conclusion to a fine evening of dance.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT; GroundWorks Dancetheater, is one the area’s best dance companies. Its talented and well-trained corps work as a cohesive group, displaying total awareness of the needs of contemporary dance to create segment after segment of audience pleasing performances.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Dan Folino a powerhouse in ‘HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH’

The Hi Fi Concert Club is a perfect venue for ‘HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH.’ A grungy rock ‘n roll club, with dark walls, movable chairs, a blasting sound system, an open cash bar amid the wafting odor of stale beer. It so much better fits that mood and the lines of the script than the Cleveland Public Theatre stage where last we saw the multi-talented Dan Folino premiere the piece eight years ago.

‘HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH’ is a rock musical based on a fictional, but somewhat real person, who was author John Cameron Mitchell’s babysitter. The setting was Junction City, Kansas, where Mitchell’s father was stationed as an Army Major General.

The story concerns a band fronted by Hedwig, who is an East German transgender singer. Hedwig has spent her life looking for her soul mate. She finds him in the body of an adolescent who she baby sits. We observe Hedwig rant as he realizes that Tommy, her protégé, has become a major star and she is left to play in dumps like The Hi Fi Concert Club. Occasionally Hedwig opens the stage door and we hear Tommy's concert which is playing in an adjoining venue. Eventually the two concerts meld into one.

The song "The Origin of Love," according to the writer, is based on a speech in Plato’s ‘SYMPOSIUM,‘ which explains that human beings were once two-headed, four-armed, and four-legged beings. Angry gods split these early humans in two, leaving the separated people with a lifelong yearning for their other half. Hedwig believes that Tommy is her soul mate and that she cannot be whole without him. She feels driven to either reunite with Tommy or destroy him.

The title derives from, as Hedwig shares, “My sex change operation got botched; my guardian angel fell asleep on the watch; now all I got is a Barbie doll crotch; I've got an angry inch! “

The stage show premiered Off-Broadway in 1998 and has been performed throughout the world in hundreds of productions. A 2001 American film based on the play won several awards at the Sundance Film Festival.


The local production centers on the talents of Dan Folino and the band, The Angry Inch (Dennis Yurich, Brian Hager, Jason Giaco, Derek Poindexter and Allison Garrigan).
One of the issues with the production is that the lyrics to the songs are drowned out by the loud thumping rock sound and the overly loud electronics. That, of course, comes from a theatre-goer who thinks that words to show songs carry the meaning of the writer, and if I can’t understand the words, the character could just be singing nonsense rhymes. But, that obviously isn’t the attitude of others in the audience who screamed and yelled after every song. Guess this is a generational issue.

Folino, as he normally does with every role he takes on, develops a total character. Sometimes crying through his spatula applied makeup, sometimes scratching at his chest which leaves deep red marks, Folino holds nothing back. I prefer his tender, quieter songs, but admire his ability to wail the rock songs.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH’ is not for everyone. If you are easily offended, have sensitive ears to highly electrified thumping music, you will probably be less than enamored with the show. On the other hand, if you are turned on by big rock and roll music, it’s worth going to see and hear Dan Folino and his band in action.