Sunday, June 20, 2010

Review of the Reviewer's Reviews: Tom Kuby

Always have praise and appreciation for your thoughtful, cogent reviews; they always influence whether we go or not. I join the many others - vocal or not - thanking you.

Tom Kuby


Hysterical, compelling ‘ROMANCE’ at None Too Fragile theatre company

David Mamet, the author of ‘ROMANCE,’ which is now being staged by None Too Fragile Theatre, is an American author, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and film director. He is known for his clever, terse, sometimes vulgar dialogue and exploration of masculinity.

Though ‘ROMANCE’ is billed as a comedy, and believe me it is funny, it is also an exploration of the American judicial system, and the world’s lack of ability to live in peace. It showcases the underlying hatred of people, even well-meaning ones, which comes out in times of high stress.

Though the audience is unaware of it, Mamet's style of writing dialogue gives clear messages to the director and actors of his scripts, on exactly how to interpret the lines. He illustrates his often edgy language with italics and quotation marks to highlight particular words. His style often finds characters interrupting each other and leaving ideas unfinished. Mamet has criticized writers, including himself, for “writing pretty at the expense of sound and logical plots.” He is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and several Tony nominations.

‘ROMANCE’ takes place in a courtroom. Present are a Jewish chiropractor, a Catholic defense lawyer, a fey prosecutor, a pill-popping judge, and a black bailiff. As a Middle-east Peace Conference convenes nearby, an ambiguous court case is side-tracked by domestic squabbles, ethnic slurs, and a hallucinating adjudicator. Chaos reigns as Mamet asks, “Why can't we all just get along?”

We are challenged to consider whether “Shakespeare was Jewish”, “Christ was a fag,” and whether “picking a gentile lawyer is like going to a straight hairdresser.”

The None Too Fragile Theatre, which is an outgrowth of the now defunct Bang and Clatter, presents another top-notch production. Director Sean Derry has selected a talented cast and has formed them into a cohesive whole. The cast, as well as the audience, leaves the play exhausted from the super-speed speaking and the physicality of the staging.

Jim Viront is hysterical as the pill-popping sexually perverted judge. The uptight prosecuting attorney, who is a closeted gay man living with a flamboyant boyfriend, is perfectly developed by Richard Worswick. Ryan McMullen is delightful as Bunny, the prosecuting attorney’s “wronged” lover who flounces around in bikini underwear and high-heeled shoes. Gabe Riazi , is on target as the Jewish defendant who, after concocting a ploy which his gentile lawyer won’t buy, states, “Why did you go to law school if you don’t want to lie?” Robert Samuel Grant III is fun as the light-fingered bailiff who plies the judge with drugs. Dane Lee is not quite believable as the defense attorney and Eric Wagner makes little of his cameo appearance as a doctor.

The 90-minute play, done without intermission, is hysterically funny, but also broaches many thought provoking topics.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Mamet’s ‘ROMANCE’ gets a great production at None Too Fragile Theatre. It’s worth the drive to Cuyahoga Falls to view this production.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Creative ‘JOSEPH’ at Mercury Summerstock

“Way way back, many centuries ago, not long after the Bible began,” Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, becomes he pride-and-joy of the Pharaoh, and is reunited with his siblings when they come to Egypt for food during a famine. This is how the tale of ‘JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT’ develops. The script is filled with all sorts of musical treats ranging from western to calypso, to laments, to ballads, and includes such great songs as “Any Dream Will Do,” “Poor, Poor Joseph,” “Close Every Door,” and “You Are What You Feel.”

A version of the Joseph legend is now on stage at the Brooks Theatre of the Cleveland Play House, under the sponsorship of Mercury SummerStock, Cleveland’s summertime theatre, that much like the Jews of old, keeps wandering in the desert (urban desert, that is) in search of a home. Their latest camping site, Parma Little Theatre, was lost due to budgetary cuts in the city’s schools. So, for a short time, Mercury is making a sojourn into the oasis called, Cleveland Play House, before it goes off looking for its promised land.

The script for ‘JOSEPH’ has an unusual history. It was originally conceived by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber to be a short school skit. It eventually grew into a series of songs that were sung as a concert. It was never intended to be a staged musical. In fact, there is no actual script, just a series of songs. There are no spoken lines and the authors have given no directions for the staging. Because of this, every production of the play has a personality all its own.

Mercury’s Artistic Director, Pierre-Jacques Brault’s vision is a black-and-white early Hollywood movie. As Brault explains it, “Set on an MGM soundstage in the Golden Age of cinema, Cecil B. Demille’s latest epic ‘Joseph,’ is fixed to star the iconic characters that made headlines through the 1920’s and 1930’s. Rudolph Valentino, W. C. Fields, Mae West, The Little Rascals, Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers are all on hand to playfully spin the Old Testament tale.”

And, in general, that’s what we see on the Brooks’ stage. The costumes are almost all black and white, the old time stars are generally recognizable, and most of the machinations fit into the songs. But the rub is that Brault doesn’t always pay attention to the words which the musically gifted cast is singing.

We are told Joseph’s coat is composed of over 30 different colors. Well, Joseph’s cutaway is basically black with a few other colors, but definitely not “azure, and lemon and russet and gray.” Nor, does it ever get “ripped up.” In “Those Canaan Days” we see a delightful Charley Chaplin depiction of his balloon “shtick” (nicely done by Brian Marshall). Cute, yes, but the song is about the brothers being so hungry that “no one comes to dinner now, we’d only eat them anyhow.” Hmm? Okay, so Joseph and his brothers finally reunite, supposedly after Joseph “hands them sacks of food” (oops, those are orange crates which easily reveal that he has “planted a cup in Young Benjamin’s sack.” And, then there’s the big climax when “Joseph went to meet him [Abraham] in his chariot of gold.’ (Nope, Abraham walks over to Joseph.) Am I being picky? Probably, but words to songs are written for a purpose and must be adhered to, especially in a show that is totally depended on the meanings of the words of the songs.

So, do these deviancies from the author’s intentions ruin the production? Not really. The show is generally audience pleasing, which was evidenced by the screaming ovation at the end of the show the night I saw it. But, were they listening to the words?

The cast is filled with excellent voices and some good actors. Brault’s dividing up the role of the narrator gives each of the cast members solos. Nice idea to show off their individual talents.

Going against type, Jonathan Ramos portrays Joseph. The part is usually portrayed by a singer with a big voice and stud body. The slightly built Ramos has a pleasant sound, with a limited range. He adds a cute vulnerability to the role, which may not be what we want in a Biblical hero, but it works in its own way.

The cast has some difficulty carrying out Brault’s creative choreography because there are just too many people for the postage stamp-sized stage. Less bodies in the dance, or using the aisles might have helped the dancers from bumping into each other and allowing Brault’s choreography to be clearly displayed.

Musical Director Eddie Carney goes a great job of keeping his well-tuned orchestra under control so they back up, rather than drown out the singers.

Margaret Ruble’s black and white costumes are creative and lend credence to the old movie theme.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Mercury’s ‘JOSEPH’ is audience pleasing, in spite of some lapses in words versus image issues. Most people attending will enjoy it, and it’s a good production for the whole family to see. So, “Go, Go Joseph.”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Fiddler on the Roof

Harvey Fierstein fashions his unique take as Tevya in ‘FIDDLER’ at the Palace

‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’ is unique and generally considered a classic in the musical theatre genre. Harvey Fierstein, who stars as Tevya in the production which is now on stage at the Palace Theatre as part of the Broadway Series, is also unique, and is likewise considered a classic. The duo meet head on in this production, billed as 'FIDDLER ON THE ROOF': THE FAREWELL TOUR.’

‘FIDDLER,’ a Tony award winning musical, is based on the stories of Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, which were published in 1894. With music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein, its memorable score includes such rousing and emotionally laden songs as, "Tradition," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," "If I Were A Rich Man" and "Sunrise, Sunset."

It is Tsarist Russia in 1905. Tevye, the father of five daughters, attempts to maintain traditions while outside influences encroach upon century-long patterns. His three older daughters each make life changing decisions, which moves them further from customs of their faith, and an edict from the Tsar, that evicts the Jews from their village, further destroys life as Tevye has known it. This is a tale of humor and pathos that can have universal identification.

The original Broadway production of the show, which opened in 1964, was the first run of a musical to surpass the 3,000 performance mark. In spite of original doubts that it would only be of interest to Jewish audiences, the show has been extraordinarily financially profitable and well received. Critically, the original production was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning nine, spawned four Broadway revivals, a 1971 film adaptation, and countless international, community and school productions.

The show’s title stems from the painting "The Fiddler" by Marc Chagall, one of many surreal paintings he created of Eastern European Jewish life. The fiddler, which is often found in Chagall’s works, is a metaphor for survival, through tradition and joyfulness, in a life of uncertainty and imbalance. Chagall’s art was also the inspiration for the original sets for the show.

Zero Mostel was the first Broadway Tevye. Others nootables who have played the pivotal role in one of the shows many productions show are Herschel Bernardi, Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy, Paul Lipson and Chaim Topol. Topol opened the 'FIDDLER ON THE ROOF': THE FAREWELL TOUR’ in January of last year. He left the tour in November due to torn muscles in his arms. Enter Harvey Fierstein, who had played Tevya in the 2005 Broadway revival of the show.

Fierstein is noted as the writer and lead actor in the Tony Award winning ‘TORCH SONG TRILOGY.’ He also wrote the book for ‘LA CAGE AUX FOLLES,’ which won the Tony Award in 1983 and was again recognized at the recent Tony ceremony. Fierstein won an acting Tony Award for the role of Edna Turnblad in the original Broadway production of ‘HAIRSPRAY.’

Your reaction to Fierstein’s portrayal of Tevya will depend on your perception of the script and how much you like Fierstein and his techniques. One thing is for sure, he does not do an imitation of Mostel. His gravely voice, which often sounds like he has both laryngitis and is in the midst of teenage puberty vocal change, adds a humorous texture to Tevye which serves well in the comic sense, but doesn’t help set up the pathos scenes. Fierstein has a great sense of comedy which he develops by the use of extended pauses, eye rolls and sighs. To some it may appear he is begging for laughs, to others, it is part of his comedic charm.

Genius Jerome Robbins laid the foundation for ‘FIDDLER’ through his faithfulness to Jewish traditions (having actors kissing the mezuzah on door frames, adherence to Hebrew pronunciation in prayers, and using the cantorial sounds of the music as the basis for his choreography). Though the present touring production holds to the original choreography, some of Robbins’ touches have been modified. Not so that ‘FIDDLER’ newbies will notice, but apparent to those who saw the original or reenactments of the dancing.

There is a cadence to the way Yiddish is spoken. It is not an accent, but a rhythm. Much of that is void in this production. Yenta (the matchmaker) and Golda (Tevya's wife), for example, sound like they are from modern day New York, rather than the shtetl of Anateva. Accents need not be used, but the cadence is necessary to help create the “tam,” the taste of the script.

Matthew Marks (Fyedka), Jamie Davis (Hodel) and the chorus are excellent vocally. Zal Owen is delightful as Motel, the tailor. The dancing is strong. Highlight numbers include “Tradition,” which sets the mood of the show, “Sabbath Prayer,” and “Do You Love Me?”

The use of the fiddler in this production adds an interesting dimension to the goings on. His presence, as the center of the traditions, and his dismissal as the traditions are broken, adds to the story development.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: 'FIDDLER ON THE ROOF': THE FAREWELL TOUR,’ doesn’t carry all of the emotional impact of many productions of the show, but there is an extended humor level that many will enjoy. If you delight in Harvey Fierstein, you’ll love this production.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Sweeney Todd

Music drowns out well conceived SWEENEY TODD at Cain Park!

‘SWEENEY TODD,’ the 1979 Tony Award winning musical, that has music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler (‘A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC,’ ‘CANDIDE.’ ‘PACIFIC OVERTURES,’ ‘MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS’), is now on stage in Cain Park’s intimate Alma Theatre. It is based on Christopher Bonds’ 1973 play of the same name.

It tells the story of Benjamin Barker, aka Sweeney Todd, who returns to London from Australia after spending fifteen years in prison on false charges. When he learns from his former landlady, Mrs. Lovett, that his wife poisoned herself after being raped by the Judge who wrongly imprisoned him and who took Barker’s daughter to be his ward, Barker, as Todd, vows revenge. The plot, full of twists, turns, gore and more gore, is not the stuff from which musicals are usually crafted.

The score, which contains some of Sondheim’s most memorable music, includes “Johanna,” “Pretty Woman,” the repulsively hysterical “A Little Priest,” and the brilliant, “Not While I’m Around.”

Cain Park’s small Alma Theatre creates problems for staging the play. ‘SWEENEY TODD’ is not an intimate play. It is bigger, much bigger than life itself. Many special effects are needed to make the visual images real. It also is not an easy space for a musical. Since it is basically open aired, the vocal sounds often float out into trees and open spaces and the sounds of the street sometimes invade the performance space. The speaker system is far above the heads of the audience, making hollow spaces in the first half dozen rows, even though the cast wears microphones. The humidity also absorbs the sounds.

In such a setting, a musical director must be careful to tone down the orchestra. Unfortunately, Jodie Ricci does not take into consideration that her orchestra is not the center of the universe, the words to the songs are, and her having the instruments playing at full blast drowns out the voices. Since Sondheim’s vocals carry the meaning of the play, this leaves the audience frustrated in trying to grasp the ideas.

Ricci’s lack of control of the musical sounds basically ruins a focused directing job by Paul Gurgol and mars the strong singing abilities of the cast.

Since the play’s style is based on the French Grand Guiginol melodramatic structure , which centers on a violent plot and terrifying stage effects, consistent melodrama is needed. If this is done, the visual horror of the play subsides and almost a humorous reaction results from the violence. Unfortunately, there is some inconsistency on the cast’s part in whether the play is realistic or melodramatic.

Benjamin Czarnota is properly brooding as the bloodthirsty-for-revenge Sweeney Todd. He has an excellent singing voice. He often makes distracting facial expressions and, like many in the cast, seems so concerned about his British accent, that some of his lines are unintelligible.

Valerie Reaper sings well and physically fits the role of Johanna, Todd’s long lost daughter. Chris McCarrell also sings well, but does not have the physical presence needed as Anthony Hope, Johanna’s suitor and savior.

Nick Koesters’ is lecher-right as Judge Turpin, the deviant official who sentenced Todd to exile and has taken Joanna to be his ward. He is evil incarnate.

Patty Lohr lacks the underlying humor often present in Mrs. Lovett, who lusts after Todd, but she is consistent in her characterization.

Bob Russell does a good job developing The Beadle, a pompous public official. Max Joseph adequately develops the role of Tobias, a waif who is taken in by Mrs. Lovett and Todd. Unfortunately, his version of the beautiful and haunting “Not While I’m Around” lacks concept. He sings words, not meanings.

Aimee Collier clearly develops the pathetic Beggar Woman.

Strong points of the production include the opening number, “Pretty Woman,” “Epiphany, and “The Letter.” “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and “A Little Priest” needed to be much more fun.

Russ Borski’s set and lighting designs are excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If an effort is made to tone down the orchestra so that the words to the numerous songs could be clearly heard, Cain Park’s ‘SWEENEY TODD’ could be a positive experience. As is, unless you already know the score, you won’t grasp much of the meaning in spite of some good acting and singing.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Porthouse’s SPELLING BEE is “f-u-n”

At the start of opening night of Porthouse Theatre’s ‘THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE,’ four members of the audience were called onto the stage. As the production proceeded, they were asked to spell words such as “astrobleme,” “Hasenpfeffer,” “origami, “Weltanschauung” and “Cenacle.” For the privilege of being a spelling bee failure, these people were singled out because of their relationship to Porthouse personnel (for example, Charles Kent, director Terri Kent’s father) or gave a $100 donation. Upcoming spellers include arts patron Roe Green and “kid reviewer” Alex Berko.

SPELLING BEE, which is based on ‘C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E,’ an original improvisational play created by Rebecca Feldman, is one of those fun musicals, with some underlying messages, including tolerance, teen angst, and parenting styles. But, most of all, it’s just plain out and out joy.

The show has music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin. It centers around a fictional spelling bee set in the Putnam Valley Middle School gym. Six quirky adolescents and three adults, who are as much children as the contestants, compose the cast.

The musical treats the audience as if they were at the bee. Cast members single out attendees and, in some cases, talk directly to the assemblage, sometimes with hysterical results. For example, last year’s “winner,” Chip Tolentino (Eric Tsuchiyama), who is in the throes of testosterone-gone-wild, is distracted by an attractive female audience member, resulting in a physical reaction and a misspelling. (Yes, though older kids will like this show, be aware that there are a few sexual overtones. My 14, 13 and 10 year old grandsons saw the recent Beck Center production, and loved it.)

Originally conceived as a one-act, 90 minute production, the Porthouse version has a break in the middle. Having seen the show in a single sitting in New York, I think the local production’s format works better.

Do any of the non-actors turned spellers do well? Usually they make it through one or two rounds, but when Katharine Close, the 2006 winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, was invited to be a guest speller, she survived 14 rounds.

The Porthouse production, under the direction of Terri Kent, is fun. Some of the characterizations could have been broader, but that should come as the cast starts reacting to and playing more with the audience and each other.

Highlight performers included Danny Lindeberger, as the eccentric Leaf Coneybear. His rendition of “I’m Not That Smart,” was tender and delightful. Maren Ritter as Olive, whose mother is on a world quest to “find herself” has a fine voice and her “The I Love You Song,” was well done. Though he still could make the character broader, Dane Castle gives a nice shine to the “foot speller,” William Barfee. “Magic Foot” is a show highlight. Sandra Emerick, as the former spelling bee winner and “mother superior” of the contest, sings well and developed a believable characterization. Marc Moiritz (Vice Principal Panch), Rumi Oyama (Marcy), Casie Rea (Logainne), and Jason Samuel (Mitch) all do their part to add to the fun.

Happily, Eric van Baars’ choreography is pleasant and Jonathan Swoboda keeps his musicians under control so that the singers’ words can be heard.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: If you want to smile and have a good time, and see some talented young people sing and dance, pack a picnic basket, go early, sit at one of the many tables with multi-colored umbrellas on the theatre’s lawn, and see Porthouse’s ‘THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE.’ It is a pleasant evening of summertime theatre.