Thursday, September 23, 2010

The 39 Steps

Farcical THE 39 STEPS delights at the Cleveland Play House

THE 39 STEPS, now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, is best known as a 1935 British film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which was loosely based on a novel by John Buchan. Though the play closely follows the film, Patrick Barlow's stage adaptation, leaves the thriller aspects behind and stresses the fun of the piece. Fun spelled f-a-r-c-e.

Patrick Barlow is a believer in “self-reflexive thought theatre.” The concept recognizes that what is happening on the stage is taking place in a theatre, before an audience. The audience knows it. The actors know it. So, let's not hide the obvious, but use devices and exaggeration to have fun. His concept uses little to create a lot-a few set pieces, some props, and very few actors. In fact, in THE 39 STEPS, 4 actors play over 140 characters. Yep, 1-4-0.

Farce, in the form of double takes, things going deliberately wrong, actors coming out of character, exaggerations, visual images that are created by ladders and a fan turning into a airplane, people walking up and down stairs when no stairs are there, dives off a bridge that isn't there, into water that isn't there, costumes being torn off and others put on before our very eyes, and hats being switched at such a speed that even the actors can't keep track of them. Yes, this is fun stuff.

The stage version started in 1995 when the show toured small villages and tiny theatres in England, It was brought to London in 2005, opened in Boston in 2007, came to New York in 2008, won two Tony Awards, and is still running.

The story concerns Richard Hannay, a Canadian who has come back to England. He is bored, so he goes to a music hall. As he is watching a demonstration of the superlative powers of Mr. Memory, shots are fired. Into his box comes a mysterious woman who talks him into taking her back to his apartment. There, she tells him that she is a spy, being chased by assassins, and that she has uncovered a plot to steal vital British military secrets, masterminded by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers. She mentions the "thirty-nine steps." but does not explain its meaning. And so, we start on our madcap romp, complete with dramatic music each time the 39 steps are mentioned!

The Play House production, as directed by Peter Amster, gets it mostly right. Amster and his cast know how to create farce, and, except for some lag spots, they hit all the right tickle bones.

Rob Johansen and Joe Foust, as Clown 1 and 2, are amazing. Their quick changes in costumes, vocal sounds, accents and physicality are engrossing. Nick Sandys is character right as Richard Hannay, and Sarah Nealis plays all the women (except when one of the clowns is playing a woman) with panache.

Linda Buchanan's scenic, Michael Lincoln's lighting, Victoria Toy DeIorio's sound designs enhance the production.

Alex, my teen age grandson, who is known around town as “The Kid Reviewer” as he opens the window of how tweens and teens will react to shows, had very positive words of wisdom. He was “really” delighted. He agreed with grandpa about the lull segments-the end of act I, the hotel segment in the room, and the final scene. He found himself laughing with glee at the “shticks” and appreciated the talent needed to portray “all of those parts.” He thought kids and their parents “will really enjoy the show,” especially all the “really funny parts.” (He's a teenager who likes the word “really.”)

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Seeing farce done well is a rarity. The Cleveland Play House, during the run of THE 39 STEPS, is an excellent place to experience farce done right! Go! Laugh! Enjoy!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Fair Lady

Audience pleasing 'MY FAIR LADY' at Beck

The musical MY FAIR LADY, which is now on stage at Beck, is based rather literally on George Bernard Shaw's PYGMALION. Though it is considered by many critics to be the “perfect musical,” it almost never got to the stage. At first, Shaw refused permission for his play to be made into a musical fearing that his messages relating to his disdain of the English class system, the poor educational opportunities afforded the lower classes, the treatment of women by men, and his strong belief in voting rights for women, would get lost in the tendencies of the musicals of his day to be purely entertainment.

After Shaw's death, many attempts were made to transform the play into a musical, with little success. Even Rogers and Hammerstein failed. Finally, a script written by Alan Jay Lerner, with music by Frederick Loewe, was successful. The duo's key centered on basically inserting songs into the original dialogue, even using the dialogue as song lyrics.

The story concerns Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl who is cajoled into taking speech lessons from professor Henry Higgins, a phoneticist, so she can pass as a “proper lady.” Complications, of course set in, including Higgins' falling in love/like with Eliza, her father's flirtation with being sober and becoming a “gentleman,” and her successful transformation.

The story follows the format of Lerner and Loewe's general theme of the perfect place, time, and love story. Think BRIGADOON and CAMELOT.

The Broadway production, staged by Moss Hart, opened on March 15 1956 with Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle and Stanley Holloway as Alfred P. Doolittle. The show ran for 2,717 performances making it the longest running musical up to that time. It has received several Big Apple revivals. The show won every major theatrical award including The New York Drama Critics Circle Award, The Outer Critics Circle Award, and Tony Award for best musical.

The 1964 hit movie, which was directed by George Cukor, starred Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn (vocals dubbed by Marni Nixon), with Stanley Holloway reviving his role as Doolittle.

The show's glorious score includes: “Why Can't the English,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Without You,” and “I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

Beck's production, under the direction of Paul Gurgol, is pleasant, but not compelling. The entire production needed a faster pace and some song and characterization adjustments. The show, however, has many fine features.

George Roth is a total delight as Alfred P. Doolittle. He is a charming rogue with a twinkle in his eye and a bit of larceny in his soul. “Get Me to the Church on Time” is one of the show's visual highlights. Dana Hart makes for a believable Colonel Pickering, Higgins' sidekick with a heart. He nicely textured his performance.

Valerie Reaper makes the difficult transition from being Liza, the uneducated flower girl, to Eliza, the lady, with believability. She has an excellent singing voice, which was well displayed in “Just You Wait” and “Wouldn't It Be Loverly.” The chorus, though limited in numbers, sang well, but didn't have the people power to fill the theatre. Hester Lewellen was an appealing Mrs. Pearce. The Cockney Quartet had a nice sound.

Benjamin Czarnota (Freddy Eynsford-Hill) has a wonderful singing voice, but sings words rather than meanings, thus losing the impact of “Street Where You Live.” Bob Russell's take on Henry Higgins is somewhat problematic. Higgins must be egocentric, but must also have a vulnerable underbelly. Russell displayed the former, but when it came to the latter, he fell to melodrama. The back of a hand to the forehead, much like those used in silent films, was used to feign vulnerability. He also missed some of the charm needed to make us have a love/hate relationship with him as he dealt with Eliza. His talk-singing, ala Rex Harrison, was quite good.

As has become his custom, Larry Goodpaster, assembled an excellent group of musicians and backed up rather than drowning out the singers. A faster musical rate might have helped the languid pace of the show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As evidenced by the Sunday afternoon assemblage, Beck's MY FAIR LADY is a potential audience pleaser. Hopefully the languid pace and some characterization issues will be settled as the show goes through its run.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Meet the perfect boyfriend…the son of Satan, at convergence continuum

We've all heard the old joke about someone going on a date with a person who turns out to be the son of Satan. Well, in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's play, ‘SAY YOU LOVE SATAN,’ now in production at congruency-continuum, the premise is taken to the “reality” level. Well, reality, if you buy the premise. And, in the author's imagination, the devil is, "Evil incarnate, has a six-pack, shoulders this wide and zero percent body fat."

The script has been bannered as, “…a smart, hip comedy, and “up-to-the-millennium commentary on the all-too-human impulse to dabble on the dark side.” It's also been stated, “Aguirre-Sacasa doesn't quite know where he wants to take us. First, we're charmed with a satirically clever, gay romantic romp replete with campy characters. Then he flirts with a few serious scenes before falling back into comedy.” He just gives up at the end and stops the action without it making much sense other than that the nice cute guys get back to being boyfriends.

The story concerns Andrew, a graduate student hiding out at the laundromat rather than facing his saintly boyfriend, Jerrod, who is just too nice for Andrew, who is full of insecurities. Between the rinse and spin cycles, Andrew meets Jack, he of the perfect physique and mystical charm. Now Jack has a"666" mark hidden on his forehead (oh ho!), and a limp that starts when the sun comes up (more oh ho!), but those signs sneak right past our naïve Andrew. You know, some people always fall for the bad boy.

This is the kind of script that cc's artistic director Clyde Simon loves. It's full of sexual innuendos, allows for almost all the male cast to cavort in nearly no clothing, and appeals to a cult audience, in this case a mainly gay audience. It also has fun lines such as, '"Are you a Satanist?" Andrew asks Jack. "No," he replies sheepishly. "But my father…he's the Devil."

Scott Gorback is properly geeky as the naïve Andrew. Lauren Smith (Bernadette), she of purple hair, serves well as the fag-hag. Stuart Hoffman (Jerrod) is very, very sweet as the good boyfriend. Zac Hudak inhabits the flaming gay bad boyfriend role.
Tyson Rand guards the gay night club as the pot-bellied bear of a bouncer. Tony Thai appears in various roles, including being a male stripper.

Then there is handsome Lukas Roberts, evil incarnate, with a sculpted body, who spends much of the play in nothing except various colored very brief form fitting tighty-whities. (That sentence alone ought to guarantee cc sold out houses of gay males.)

What's Aguirre-Sacasa trying to say? Beats me. How about, don't get mixed up with the devil? Or, carry a canister of salt in case your date starts acting weird and grows horns? How about, you're judged by the friends you keep? Or, is the message, “I know how to get a bunch of gay guys into the theatre…put hunky Lukas Roberts in tiny briefs that leave nothing to the imagination."

Capsule Judgement: Go to see SAY YOU LOVE SATAN with the right attitude. This is not a great script. The production is not great. But, you can have a good time if you aren't expecting to see a play that says much and teaches less.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Walworth Farce

A challenging THE WALWORTH FARCE at Dobama

Humans are storytellers. We use stories to pass information about cultures, persons and families. We use stories to create our reality. The Great Lie Theory purports that if we tell a story over and over we can convince ourselves that our fantasies are our realities. THE WALWORTH FARCE, now in production at Dobama Theatre, is a showcase for the power of stories as a protective and manipulative tool.

Enda Walsh is a writer from the contemporary Irish theatre school. He emphasizes characters and situations to showcase the “new” Ireland. He uses words, in story form, to allow characters to articulate their lives.

Don't go to see The WALWORTH FARCE expecting a hysterically funny play full of prat falls, hidden identities and funny incidents. Yes, there is some cross-dressing and exaggerated humor, but this is more a modern tragedy than a farce. Dinny, the father, is more Willy Loman of DEATH OF A SALESMAN, than Buster Keaton. He is a misguided soul trying desperately to create a rewrite of his frustrating story.

The play concerns a play within a play in which three men perform a skit with a complicated plot that involves a dead mother, an inheritance, a brain surgeon and his wife, a younger brother, two sons and money. Reality mixes freely with the fantasy. Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which. And, that's the challenge for the audience and the power of the writing.

A New York review stated, “For the first few minutes of this ripping, warped family portrait, you're apt to feel that you've walked in on a Hibernian Three Stooges routine.” You need to let the whole process sink in. It may not hit you until the second act of how powerful the story is.

Questions abound as the show evolves. Why the wigs, the dresses, the bellowing, the rage over the chicken being replaced by a sausage, the mock coffins, the Monopoly money? Why are the boys confined to their environment on the 12th floor of an elevatorless London building on Walworth Avenue? At the end, in the midst of the horror, the whole bloody thing makes sense.

One thing is for sure, “if there were a prize for creating the most dysfunctional family ever presented on stage Enda Walsh would undoubtedly win it.”

The Dobama production, under the direction of Mark Moritz, is well paced and finely acted. There are questions however, as to whether the cross dressing, absurdist early actions should have been broader, so that when reality sets in there would have been a clear separation of the play within a play and the play itself. Though the overall effect of the acting is excellent, there is also questions of whether texturing the performance of Bob Goddard (Dinny, the father), so that he didn't start out yelling, might eliminate any doubt of his being maniacally driven, rather than having mood swings of reality versus self-imposed fiction. Is Blake (the younger brother) dull-witted or just scared of life? Daniel McElhaney's character development though dynamic, never clearly lets us know.

On the other hand, Andrew Cruise, who has quickly proven that he is one of the finest actors in the area, was nothing short of brilliant as Sean, the only family member with any semblance of reality. The bodily ticks, stuttering speech, and panicked glances, all are right on target. This is an exceptional performance, as is that of Carly Germany, as the grocery clerk who gets sucked into the gory tale. Her terror is deep in her body, not on the surface. She totally inhabits the character.

The entire cast is consistent in their Irish accents.

Ron Newell's set develops the appropriate visual elements.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE WALWORTH FARCE is not an easy sit, but it is worth the effort if you are interested in storytelling, culture, and good acting.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Joffrrey Ballet/Cleveland Orchestra 9/10

Orchestra shines, but disappointing Joffrey Ballet at Blossom

Last year my review of the Joffrey Ballet/Cleveland Orchestra program read: “Combine the world-class Joffrey Ballet, with the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra, and place them in the lush Blossom Center on a crisp August evening. The results? A very special experience.” Not so this year. The dancers seemed distracted, lacking in precision and vitality, and, in spite of several highlight moments, generally were disappointing. The orchestra, on the other hand, was marvelous.

How can dancers, when accompanied by the finely tuned sounds of the world famous Cleveland Orchestra, be so flat and lax?

A man who I talked to at intermission said, “I don't know anything about ballet but when the dancers are in lines, aren't the lines supposed to be straight; and, in group movements, aren't the arms supposed to be moving together; and, aren't the dancers supposed to jump and land in tandem?” Yes, he was right on all counts. This is a world-class company. What we saw, at least on opening night, was not world-class dancing.

The evening opened with 'REFLECTIONS,' danced to the “Variations on a Rococo Theme' by Piotr Tchaikovsky, featuring the thrilling sounds of Cleveland Orchestra cellist Mark Kosower. It is neoclassical in the Arpino style, consisting of high lifts, a fast pace and traditional balletic beauty. Though the dancers seemed uninspired, with weak synchronization of corps movements, the piece was adequately interpreted.

'AGE OF INNOCENCE,' performed to the music of Philip Glass and Thomas Newman, which was more tonal than most of Glass's works, told a story of societal repression. Again, the corps timing was off with crooked lines and out of sync movements, especially by the male dancers. Compelling Christine Rocas and athletic Mauro Villanueva were excellent in the “First Dialogue” segment, while Victoria Jainai and Fabrice Calmels were convincing and dynamic in “Obey Thee.”

'TARANETLLA,' a sprightly southern Italian folk dance characterized by a fast upbeat tempo, was adequately, but not spectacularly danced by Yumelia Garcia and Derrick Agnoletti. There are so many occasions for the dancers, especially the male dancer to shine, but there was little enthusiasm or showcased talent expressed by Agnoletti.

The highlight number of the evening was the “PAS DE DEUX FROM LE CORSIARE.' Set to music by Adolphe Adam, with new music by Riccardo Drigo, the number is loosely based on Lord Byron's poem, “Corsair.” It featured lovely music, well played by the Cleveland Orchestra, and was nicely danced by Victoria Jaiani and Miguel Angel Blanco, who displayed good partnering, with fine toe work and excellent circle jumps. Finally, the audience saw what the entire evening should have been!

'PRETTY BALLET' was set to “Symphony No. 2” by Bohuslav Martinu. The highlight was Movement II in which Valerie Robin and Fabrice Calmels flowed as one to create a cohesive piece. Again, when the full cast was present in Movement IV, the sync was off.

The tell-tale clue to the audience's reaction was that the usual “mandatory” Cleveland standing ovation was missing at the end of the performance and many left well before the evening was concluded.

Capsule judgement: Joffrey Ballet's latest trip to Blossom paled by comparison to last year's performance and other showings that I have seen. It was almost like the powers that be sent in a secondary set of dancers who were seemingly neither prepped for, nor enthused about, this appearance. We deserved more from this world-class company!

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Groundworks Dancetheater at The Akron Ice House

GROUNDWORKS says goodbye to Amy Miller in strong Ice House program

In 1998, Amy Miller was the first dancer asked to join Groundworks, David Shimotakahara's fledgling dance company. She also served the company as its Artistic Associate. She and Shimotakahara have been the backbone of the company since. Unfortunately, for the company, and the audiences who have come back again and again to see the ensemble, Miller is moving to New York City. She will continue to have creative ties with Groundworks, probably in the form of choreography, but her physical presence will be missing and missed.

Nothing could more exemplify Shimotakahara and Miller's bond, than the last 30 seconds of 'DnA,' which received its world premiere at the company's latest concert at Akron's Ice House. The duo piece, co-choreographed by Amy and David to music by Mark Hollis and Marc Mellits, was a tribute to the strength and depth of relationships. Obviously a reference to the choreographers' strong bond, it highlighted how “connections are tested over time and recognizes the miracle of finding friendship.” The piece ended with the duo facing each other, looking intently into each other's faces, sharing years of joint ventures and what appears to be a lasting emotional relationship. It was a tribute to the connection that comes from two very talented individuals who melded into a powerful artistic force to give joy to both each other and audiences. Bravo!

Groundworks is noted for placing dance in unexpected places. Their venues are churches, parks, museums and the Akron Ice House. For eleven years the company has used the former site where blocks of ice were stored, starting in 1870, for use by the residents of the Tire City. This is not an ideal place to present dance. The lack of a raised dance floor, poor sight lines and lack of raked seating, cause problems. The venue became even more cramped when an overflow of people appeared for the Friday night performance. Fifty chairs had to be crammed in between the already seated audience and the stage, causing sight blockage. In spite of this, the appreciative assemblage got what it came for...a fine evening of dance.

The opening number, the world premiere of choreographer Jill Sigman's 'SPLIT STITCH,' was set to original music by Gustavo Aguilar. Dressed in white fragments of material created by costumer Kristin Davies, the dancers, displaying fine body control, effectively interpreted Sigman's desire to display the “splits and tensions within ourselves, our culture and our country.”

Each of the four-part movements, found the dancers displaying a different set of emotions. Coordinated and segmented moves, interaction, lack of interaction, lyrical and static bodily actions, all highlighted by Dennis Dugan's lighting which cast shadows and moved in coordination and discordance with the dancers, created a series of illusions. The last segment, which found Felice Bagley, standing mid-stage, repeating the same movement over and over as she mumbled incoherent phrases, climaxed a thought provoking piece.

The final piece, 'JUST YESTERDAY,' in its Akron premiere, was a recreation of a Dianne McIntyre choreographed number, that the company has performed before. It is a series of vignettes, based on stories being told by the dancers, which are recreated in movement. Nostalgia, joy, sadness, personal traditions as they related to food, hijinks, fads, movies, family, and people who touched the dancers' lives, flowed forth. Though sometimes hard to hear because of the poor acoustics, the over all effect was strong. The piece is highlighted by the live guitar presence of Phillip Smith and Dan Wilson who are choreographed into the movement. All in all, this is a fascinating selection, which got a wonderful performance

Capsule judgement: With the loss of Amy Miller, Groundworks moves to a new challenge, of continuing its high level of dance performances without its Associate Artistic Director. The company said goodbye to Miller with a fine evening of dance at The Akron Ice House.