Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Steady Rain

Fine acting & powerful script make A STEADY RAIN a must see at Dobama

On the surface, Keith Huff's A STEADY RAIN tells the story of two lifelong friends, who, while serving as policemen, experience several harrowing days that forever change their lives, and the lives of those with whom they have contact. That description is only the tip of the depth and impact of the script and Dobama's riveting production.

The specifics regarding the emotionally wrenching tale concern a series of events which center on friendship, alcohol and drug use, family discord, abuse, mistaken decisions and what happens when two lives spin out of control. Part of the tale is loosely based on the events surrounding cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and one of his victims.

The story rolls out in the unusual writing device of alternating monologues and present-moment dialogues. It allows the viewers to become intimately involved in the lives of Joey and Denny and to view the unpeeling of the story and the motivations of each man.

Joey is single and lonely. He has spent a life being abused and neglected and has retreated to alcohol as an escape. Desperate for friendship, he has turned himself over to Denny to set the course of his life. Joey has allowed Denny to physically and verbally abuse him. Abuse him until…. (you'll have to see the play to finish that sentence).

Denny is married with children. He is a hate-filled bigot, who, though stating over and over that he does what he does for the sake of his family, allows his misguided thinking and judgments to dictate his warped decision making. Abuse, stealing, drug use, having affairs and running roughshod over rules, are only part of his issues. The results are a gun assault on his home, the murders of a prostitute, a black youth and a pimp, the near death of his child, and a startling ending to the play which brought gasps from the audience.

The play has been called “a gritty, rich, thick, poetic and entirely gripping noir tale." The writing has engendered such evaluations as 'provides [the actors] with enough fiery, superbly rendered, often deeply poetic speeches, enough mood shifts, enough emotional cataclysms and action-packed storytelling to keep this hallucinatory roller-coaster ride in motion.”

The award winning play opened on Broadway in 2009 with a sold-out 12-week engagement which starred Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig.

Dobama's production, under the focused direction of Joel Hammer, is mesmerizing. Filled with many thought-provoking scenes, actors Scott Plate and Jeremy Kendall wrench emotional fidelity from almost every scene. Different in approach, physicality and demeanor, both men develop clear characterizations.

Plate is introspective as the emotionally thwarted Joey. He gives us a man whose life has been filled with frustration and has learned to escape from his hell through alcohol, false love and loyalty. Except for some accent shifts and the need for a little more emotional texturing near the end of the play, this is an excellent portrayal.

Kendall, who has several monologues which are as close to nervous breakdowns as you'll see on stage, is relentless in his maniacal character development. It's worth attending A STEADY RAIN just to see this performance. You'll come out of the theatre both hating and feeling sorry for Denny.

Marcus Dana's lighting and Richard Ingraham's sound effects help build the tensions and take us on the journey.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Fine acting, intriguing script…..'go….go…..go….see Dobama's A STEADY RAIN!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Jerry Springer the Opera

JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA incites reaction at Beck

Operas are noted for making epics of slight stories, and are often staged with great bravado and enormous pomp. This fits what's going on at the Beck Center.

The award winning JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA is on stage in the facility's Studio Theatre. Outside, on opening night, members of America Needs Fatima, an action-oriented Catholic group which protests against works it views as blasphemous, were trying to dissuade theatre-goers to forsake the show.

Why the picketing? As one of the protestors, who hadn't seen the play stated, “The show is profane.” It might be if anyone could agree on what the abstract word “profane” means. That minor point aside, the protest seems to have backfired. Instead of discouraging attendance, the publicity has insured a sold-out first three weeks and the strong possibility of the show's extension.

As Beck's Artistic Director, Scott Spence, summarized it, “We have the right to express ourselves. They have the right to picket.” And, he could have added, “Thanks, we couldn't have bought better or more publicity!”

So, what's all the shouting about? JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA is a British musical written by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee. It is a fictional depiction of Springer's TV show, which sensationalizes society's extremes and misfits. Such subjects as cheating lovers, overdone plastic surgery, adults wearing diapers, and cross dressing are displayed through such devices as wrestling women and a troupe of tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan members. Oh, and yes, there is an archangel, the devil, Adam and Eve, Jesus (oh, my!).

It's an opera because the story line is almost all sung and everything is bigger than life. Actually, it's bigger than bigger than life. This is a farce, it is a parody, and, for those with a sense of humor and who don't take life overly seriously, it can be fun.

The show ran for 609 performances in London and then toured the UK. It won four Laurence Olivier Awards including Best New Musical. And, yes, even in the UK there were pickets and protests! (Gee, there appear to be zealots around the world who think it is their duty to influence the way everyone should think and act.)

In the US, the show has been performed in Las Vegas and at Carnegie Hall in New York. And, yes, there were pickets there as well. It has now moved on to productions at small professional theatres, along with the expected “Honk for Jesus” sign wavers.

Beck's production doesn't light up the stage. As with any director of farcical satire, director Scott Spence had to make a vital decision…do the play as extreme exaggeration or make it so serious that it becomes outrageous on its own. He decided to take the middle ground, thus losing much of the ridiculousness, and resulting in a slowly paced, overly long show. There are some very funny parts, but, as a whole, much of the production is emotionally flat.

The cast, with a few exceptions, have excellent singing voices. Diana Farrell, a trained opera singer, hits all the high notes as the adorable Baby Jane. Darryl Lewis, in the dual role of the diaper-wearing Jesus and Montel, sings well, and generally hits the characterizations. Ryan Bergeron is a hoot as Tremont, a cross dresser whose tube top keeps falling down and the Archangel Gabriel (yes, he also appears). Gilgamesh Taggett is the devil incarnate as Satan (boo!). Lissy Gulick, who is creationing a career of playing eccentric old ladies, makes for a delightful purse swinging mother of a wanna-be pole dancer. Joanna May Hunkins has pitch problems as Shawntel and Eve. Mathew Wright's talent was basically wasted as Springer, who doesn't sing or dance in the show, mainly playing straight man to the drama queens.

Probably the funniest segment of the evening was Satan and Jesus's duet, F*** You Talk in which the only word, in what is about five minutes of constant singing, was the repetition of the F word.

Bryan Bird's orchestra sounded fine, supporting rather than drowning out the singers, but the vocal blendings were often off. Martin Céspedes' choreography was creative, but, unfortunately, due to the postage stamp-sized stage, tons of set pieces, and some uncoordinated cast members, didn't always work. The movement highlights were in the action curtain call.

Trad Bruns' scenic and lighting designs worked well, as did Jenniver Sparano's costumes and Jerry Sgro’s visual graphics.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck's JERRY SPRINGER, THE OPERA, is a less than exciting production which will appeal to a nich audience. Hopefully, as the show runs, and it should have a long run due to the publicity garnered by the ill- focused pickets, the cast will let loose and have more fun, which will result in the anticipated gales of laughter.


RENT compels at Baldwin Wallace

Baldwin Wallace College is doing an American first. For the very first time in history, RENT and LA BOHEME are being performed in repertory.

RENT is Jonathan Larson's rock musical which is broadly based on Puccini's LA BOHÈME, but, is not a translation of that epic opera. It is a reimagining, a view of Larson's 1996 today. It puts the spotlight on the physical and psychological temperature of New York at that time.

The title was chosen because Larson was looking at how, from his viewpoint, traditional society was thwarting the hopes and dreams of the MTV generation. He chose the term rent, because it means tearing apart.

RENT takes place in New York's Lower East Side, before gentrification, when the old buildings and warehouses were home to the bohemian and drug worlds.

The story covers about a year in the life of roommates Mark and Roger, who live in a condemned building, and their friends. Roger, is HIV positive and is numb to life, trying to write a song which has only one musical line that he keeps repeating over and over on his electric guitar. Mark is trying to capture life on film, but may, in fact be using his camera as a tool to steal himself away from life itself. They are intertwined with an exotic dancer/drug addict, a cross dresser, an hiv+ philosophy professor, an ex-friend who has married for money, and Mark's ex-girlfriend and her lover. Together the group deals with love, loss, AIDS, and everyday existence.

The musical is somewhat autobiographical. Larson, who lived in the Big Apple for many years as a starving artist, sacrificed a life of stability for his art, and shared many of the same living conditions, hopes and fears as his characters.

The dynamic score includes the illuminating Light My Candle, the plaintive I Should Tell You and the stirring Seasons of Love.

Much like the storyline, the musical's very existence was met with problems. On January 25, 1996, the morning after the show's final dress rehearsal, coincidentally 100 years to the day of the debut of Puccini's opera, Larson died from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm. The first preview was canceled and instead, friends and family gathered at the theater where the actors performed a sing-through in Larson's memory. He never knew that the show would be a smash hit and go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

The BW production, with a few minor issues, is outstanding. I've seen the show on and off Broadway, and in several other venues and this version holds up well against the others. The staging by Victoria Bussert and choreography by Gregory Daniel are exciting and exacting.

The show is being done with two casts. I saw the “Mark” cast, so all my comments will center on those actors. Seeing the “Roger” cast might garner a different viewpoint.

Jon White is outstanding as Roger. He has an excellent voice, moves well, and developed a real and textured characterization. Chris McCarrell is spot on as Mark. He has just the right balance between geek and heartfelt persona. Kyra Kennedy as Joanne, the girlfriend of Mark's ex, has an excellent voice and develops a nice lesbo vibe. Andrea Leach is a total hoot as Maureen. Her performance piece, Over the Moon, was a show-stopper. Jason Samuel, as professor Tom Collins, left no eye unfilled with tears with his segment of the eulogy, Goodbye Love.

On the other hand, Jillian Kates Bumpas did not ignite the role of Mimi. She had upper range singing issues and failed to develop the sensuality of the role. Fortunately, her duet, Without You, sung with Jon White, left a positive impression. Antwaun Holley seemed uncomfortable playing the cross-dressing Angel. Since so much of the second act centers on the character, Holley's lack of dynamic warmth somewhat chilled the effect of his death on the story development. But, as someone near me said, “S/he sure does look good!”

The chorus was outstanding. Not only did they sing well, but they were in character throughout and created meaningful stage pictures. Highlight supporting vocals were performed by Jessica Waddle and Adrianna Cleveland in Seasons of Love.

Jeff Herrmann's scenic and light designs, Charlotte Yetman's costumes and DJ Jankura's sound designs all added to the production.

My grandson, Alex Berko, a gifted musician, who I often bring along to give a teenagers' view of a show and comment on the melodic aspects, was ecstatic, giving the show a near perfect score. He thought the leads' voices, with one exception, were excellent. He liked the staging, thought the choral work was outstanding, though he noted that there were a few instances when the band was out of sync with the singers, especially in Seasons of Love. He commented, and grandpa agreed, that the music, under the direction of Ryan Fielding Garrett, was well played, but, at times drowned out the words to songs making it difficult to understand the words.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: BW's RENT is a production well-worth seeing. It will probably be more appreciated by young adult audiences rather than the senior set, but everyone should be impressed by the talent of the students and the quality of the staging.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Becky's New Car

Birthday present makes for fun theatre at Actors' Summit

When his wife, who was approaching her 60th birthday, said she wanted something special for a present, what do you think Seattle's Charles Staadecker did? Buy her a large diamond? Make plans for an around the world cruise? Had Vera Wang design her an original ball gown? Nope. Staadecker commissioned prolific playwright Steven Dietz to write and dedicate a play in wife Benita's honor. Not a play about her, but a comedy. The results: BECKY'S NEW CAR, now in production at Actors' Summit.

The Staadeckers were in attendance at the opening night of the Actors' Summit production of their play. They revealed that they have seen the show around 60 times. As each theatre company, and there have been around 20 productions, opens its stagings, the Staadeckers traipse off to see it.

BECKY'S NEW CAR, is the story of Becky. Becky, who, picks up after her adult son, a grad student who is still living at home. She does her usual household chores and interacts with her kind, but boring husband. She goes off to work as an employee at a car agency. There she is forced to listen to a depressed salesman who has not gotten over the loss of his wife. She finds herself wishing for another life, a second chance. Well, as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

Into Becky's life come a rich suitor who mistakenly believes she's a widow. That results in a story of twists and turns which finally ends with Becky's literally accelerating out of her control.

BECKY'S NEW CAR is funny and will offend no one. It's a script of irony, which is a little corny and gets close to the ridiculous in plot construction. At the obvious end of the show the audience applauded, waiting for the curtain call, and then there was an unnecessary final scene. Why Dietz decided to add a 30-second add-on scene is not clear.

Under the direction of Constance Thackaberry, the AS production generally works. Because it is too languidly paced, some of the tension and laugh lines are missed, but hopefully, as the cast melds together, the show will pick up speed.

There are lots of clever shticks. Becky talks to the audience, involves them in getting her chores done, allows theatre-goers to help make some decisions about the play's format, and even uses three of them to form a wall while she changes costumes.

Paula Kline-Messner is delightful as the first bored, then panic stricken Becky. Kline-Messner has a nice touch with comedy and her face is a roadmap of emotions.

Mark Leach as son Chris, does a great job of portraying the pscyh major who drives his parents crazy by constantly diagnosing them and everyone else with various disorders. Casey Novak is realistic as Chris's girlfriend with a surprising secret and Anne McEvoy effectively develops the role of an over-the-hill debutant who has recently lost her inheritance. Tony Zanoni is properly kvetchy as the car salesman, who simply can't get over his wife's death, until a magic incident occurs.

Both Bob Keefe as Becky's husband, and Rich Goodwin as Becky's wealthy suitor, have some good moments, but their characterizations come and go.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Actors' Summit has transitioned nicely into its new home in the Greystone Hall in Akron. BECKY'S NEW CAR is a good choice for its target audiences and makes for a fun evening of theatre.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Free Man of Color

FREE MAN OF COLOR offers revelations at Ensemble

Why was Roderick J. McDavis, the president of Ohio University, sitting in the Notre Dame College's Performing Arts Center on a Thursday night? As he explained in his between-acts comments at FREE MAN OF COLOR, he was in attendance to pay tribute to OU professor Charles Smith, who wrote the award prize winning play. In addition, he wanted to recognize John Newton Templeton, the play's protagonist, who in 1828, 35 years before the end of slavery, became one of the first black men in the nation to graduate college.

FREE MAN OF COLOR is a two-act play which examines the life of Templeton, a freed slave, who developed a close and unique relationship with Reverend Robert Wilson, the third President of OU, and his wife, Jane. Wilson hand-picked Templeton to be the first leader of what was to become the country of Liberia, which was selected by a group of ministers to be the place where US freed slaves could return to Africa and live in freedom.

Although Templeton excels in most areas of study, he turns out to be quite different from what Wilson had wanted, needed, and expected. A great deal of his education takes place outside of the classroom in conversations with Jan Wilson, which covered such topics as the rights of women, what it really means to be free and being true to one's self.

Smith's play, which was a wise choice for Ensemble Theatre to stage during Black History month, probes how Reverend Wilson was forced to reevaluate his abolitionist views and Templeton is forced to examine the reasons he was chosen to be the "first," while asking whether a freed slave is really free? It reveals a complex human being struggling with competing moral obligations of gratitude and principle, with individual morality and collective responsibility.

Interestingly, when playwright Smith began hunting through Ohio University's archives for details of Templeton's life, he found only a few documents. It took a great deal of detective work to flesh out the details. As he states, "Templeton's story is a critical piece of history. I hope the audience will think about things in ways they had never thought about before." From this writer's standpoint, that hope is fully realized.

Ensemble's production is under the direction of Tony Sias. Though there is some distracting staging, such as characters not facing each other in interactions, and some distracting lighting effects, which make the actors look like they are playing hopscotch from one light spot to another, the author's intentions come across.

The acting is generally good, though the needed southern accents keep coming and going. Tall, willowy Antuane Rogers is excellent as the young John Newton Templeton. His strain and pain, including one scene where his tears flow freely, is clearly present.

Diane Mull, who, at times, becomes too shrill in displaying the frustrations of Jan Wilson, seemed to grow into the role. She develops a meaningful characterization in the second act, after a weak first stanza.

Jeffrey Grover (Robert Wilson) tries hard, but lacks nuance. At times he probes into the character, but much of his mood swings and realizations don't seem internally motivated. This is a character of zeal, of purpose, and, at the end, a man who is forced to face that he can't enslave Templeton and make him into a servant who acts based on Wilson's dictates. That dawning reality, which is vital to the play's dénouement, isn't clearly developed.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: FREE MAN OF COLOR is a play well worth seeing. It gets an acceptable production at Ensemble Theatre.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Trip to Bountiful

TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL is a marvelous journey at CPH

Take a well crafted play by one of America's best down-home writers; produce it under the guidance of a masterful director who understands the script and its nuances; add a cast, each of whom adds a textured performance; and interject meaningful musical underscoring and lighting that sets the right mood in every scene. The results: THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL at the Cleveland Play House.

On the surface, BOUNTIFUL is the story of an elderly woman with a heart condition, who is determined to escape her son's cramped Houston home and return to the small town where she was born and raised. But, in reality, it is about the search for self, the meaning of roots, the importance of self-dignity, nostalgia, and the desire to be an independent person.

To understand the nuances of the play, it helps to be in touch with Horton Foote, Jr., the play's author and his style of writing. Pulitzer Prize winning Foote, who died several years ago, was born in the small Texas town of Wharton. His life experiences in that setting were the basis for many of his writings. He creates the well-made play which has a clear flow from beginning to end. There is a gentleness, a celebration of the quiet life of rural Americans in his plays' fictional small towns. Probably best known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for the 1962 film TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, he is correctly cited as one of America's most beloved dramatists. He's not as well known to the general public as Williams, Miller, Inge, Albee or O'Neil, but he is a theatre icon to those in the theatrical know who appreciate his understated and focused style.

THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL was originally a 1953 television show, which stared Lillian Gish, with appearances by Eileen Heckart and Bowling Green State University grad Eva Marie Saint. A movie version was delayed because Foote insisted that Gish play the lead role and those in Hollywood, who controlled the production rights, refused to cast her. The script also had a short run on Broadway with Gish. Finally, in 1985, a film was made with Geraldine Page in the lead.

The CPH production, under the masterful guidance of Timothy Douglas, is meticulous in detail and nuance. It was Douglas's idea to make a major alteration in the way the script has been performed in the past. Previous stagings have always had Caucasians in the major roles. Douglas, who has a great deal of respect for Lizan Mitchell, who plays the lead in this production, wanted to work on a project with the actress. Knowing that there were few roles for “women of a certain age” [mature], he started to look for a script. He suddenly realized that there was no reason that one of his favorite plays, THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, had to have a white cast. The message is universal, the accents and sound of the play are small town Texas, which was populated by both white and black folk. He contacted Foote's daughter, who controls the rights to her father's plays. She immediately gave permission. The rest, as they say, is history….history which is now unfolding on the CPH stage.

We should be grateful to Douglas for his insight. The script works perfectly with no adjustments in dialogue. In fact, those who don't know that it was not written to be performed by blacks will be astounded to find out that this is not a script like those of Lorraine Hansberry (e.g., A RAISIN IN THE SUN), which are specifically written for black performers and there is no way to switch races.

Lizan Mitchell gives a bravo performance as Carrie Watts. This is a textured, deeply motivated, clearly conceived presentation. With a smile, a wink, a frown, or a scowl, she creates depth of characterization. Her face is like a road map to her feelings. She has several mesmerizing soliloquies that are acting lessons on how those speeches should be performed. She glistens, she shines, she makes the audience laugh and cry!

The rest of the cast is equally as impressive. There is not a weak link in the emotional chain. Chinai Hardy, is “bitch” incarnate as the insecure and self-centered Jessie Mae, Carrie's daughter-in-law. Howard Overshown, as Carrie's son, Ludie, shows all the signs of being psychologically whipped by his wife and made uncertain by his lack of self-confidence. When, as he does in the final scene, stands up to Jessie Mae, several members of the audience audibly cheered. Jessica Frances Dukes as Thelma a young woman who Carrie meets on a bus while trying to escape from her confining hell, is sweet and tender and convincing. Lawrence Redmond as the sheriff, and Doug Brown, in various roles, give credible performances.

Lighting designer Christopher Studley leads our visual senses through the moods of the play by masterfully developing the early scenes in dark tones, mimicking Carrie's frustrated frame of mind. When she finally returns to where she wants to be, the lights brighten, mimicking the clear burst of light that has come into her life.

The musical underscoring is right on pitch in creating the moods of the script.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL is a tender, moving and sometimes delightful script, which gets a wonderful production at the Cleveland Play House. It's a go to, must see, theatrical experience. Finally, a production that got a mandatory Cleveland standing ovation, and deserved it.

Sunday, February 06, 2011


Lakeland does a very credible job with Sondheim's ASSASSINS

What do Samuel Byck, Guiseppe Zangara, John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Sara Jane Moore, Lynnette Fromme, John Hinkley, Leon Czolgosz, and Lee Harvey Oswald have in common? They are the main characters in Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS, a musical being performed by the Lakeland Civic Theatre. Why are they the subject of a musical drama? These are men and women who have attempted (successfully and not) to assassinate presidents of the United States.

The musical, which opens with the lyrics, "Everybody's got a right/To their dream” in this case, the dream of killing an American president, is not the stuff that musicals are usually made of. But this is not a traditional musical. First, it is a serious topic. There are laughs, many of them reactions of embarrassment, or outrage, of hearing ideas that to normal people make no sense. Secondly, as is true of Sondheim's works, very little of the music is memorable. In fact, though the show won numerous theatre awards, few of the songs are even recognizable to most people. When was the last time you hummed, Gun Song, How I Saved Roosevelt or The Ballad of Czolgosz? How about Unworthy of Your Love?

Sondheim conceived the musical while reading a play by Charles Gilbert who had submitted a script to a play writing contest about a fictional presidential assassin. Sondheim found the play itself problematic, but was fascinated by the material Gilbert had compiled of letters and anecdotes from actual people who plotted to kill US presidents. Those sources became the bones of ASSASSINS.

The musical opened Off-Broadway in 1990. In 2004 a Broadway production , which featured Neil Patrick Harris as The Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald, won five Tony Awards. Because of both its serious theme and lack of audience recognition, the musical is seldom staged.

The play reflects Sondheim's picture of “the decay and sickness lurking at the core of our society which causes fragile people to do desperate things.” For lost souls, Sondheim composes Another National Anthem, which reveals the nightmarish underside of the American dream.

The tale is extremely relevant in today's world. It concerns guns, broken promises, assumptions about entitlement, and the rethinking and restructuring of our values and behaviors, This is highlighted in the last scene when the assassins restate their motto, Everybody's Got the Right, and fire their guns at the audience.

As written, the opening scene takes place at a carnival shooting gallery where figures move by on a conveyor belt. One by one, a collection of misfits enter the stage, where the Proprietor of the game entices them to play, promising that their problems will be solved by taking shots at a President.

Director Martin Friedman, a Sondheim admirer, moves the setting onto a series of steps, looking much like the stairs in front of the Capitol Building, and uses the levels to create a series of tableaus that remind us of the paintings in the rotunda of that building. It works well.

With Friedman's clear direction, appropriate pacing, and some excellent voices and acting, attention does not wander.

The cast, which does not contain an equity member, is quite good. The acting develops some clear characterizations. Especially strong are Scott Esposito (John Wilkes Booth) and Brint Learned (Samuel Byck). Highlight scenes include Learned's soliloquy, as he stands dressed in a Santa Clause suit ranting about getting a plane to crash into the White House and kill Richard Nixon; the conversation between the eccentric Sara Jane Moore (portrayed well by Amiee Collier) and the Charles Manson inspired Lynette Squeaky Fromme (a nice performance by Neely Gevaart), who both made bumbling attempts to kill Gerald Ford; and the convincing of Lee Harvey Oswald (a believable Curt Arnold) to murder John F. Kennedy.

The vocal work, with the exception of Aaron Elersich (the Balladeer), was quite good.

Unless you are a history buff, get to the theatre early and read the excellent program notes concerning each of the assassins.

John Krols' musical direction, his excellent orchestra, and Trad Burns lighting all enhance the show.

Capsule judgement: Overall, Lakeland's ASSASSINS is a very good production, well worth seeing.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

South Pacific

Disappointing, emotionally static SOUTH PACIFIC at Palace

When I heard that the Tony Award winning revival of SOUTH PACIFIC was part of Cleveland's Broadway Series, I was overjoyed. Unfortunately, the opening night production was a let down. It was uninspiring and emotionally flat.

Maybe it was the cold and icy weather outside, but it was probably more likely Director Bartlett Sher's emotionally controlled interpretation and some rigid acting. Now, don't get me wrong, the music, as played by the large well-tuned orchestra was glorious, the singing voices were full and well nuanced, and the mutli-leveled story line was there. Unfortunately, the interpretation didn't play on the dual level of serious problems (a war and prejudice) and the humorous underbelly, mainly stressing the former and forsaking the latter.

SOUTH PACIFIC is Rogers and Hammerstein's interpretation of James Michener's Pulitzer Prize winning book, TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC. The musical, which opened in 1949, is considered by many to be one of the great American musicals. It was a box office hit, running nearly 2000 performances, and then went on to be a beloved film. The original Broadway cast included Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. This, the Lincoln Center Theater production, is a reworking of the original script.

The story takes place on a South Pacific island during World War II and centers on Nellie, a young Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, who becomes romantically involved with Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner who has fathered two mixed-race children. Lieutenant Joe Cable arrives with the intent of conducting a dangerous spy mission which is crucial to the outcome of the war. He wants de Becque to accompany him to neighboring island which will allow for spying on the Japanese. A side plot develops when Cable falls in love with Liat, a young Polynesian girl. Unfortunately, both Nellie and Cable become the victims of their own prejudices. Cable and de Becque go off on their mission, and, as happens in musicals, there is a seemingly happy ending, at least for several of the characters.

A plot device of many musicals of the 1950-era was dual story lines. A serious one…think Billy and Julie in CAROUSEL; and a humorous duo…Carrie and Enoch Snow in the same show. In SOUTH PACIFIC we have Nellie and Emile as the main story line characters and Bloody Mary, a resident of Bali Ha'I, a near-by island, who plots to make money, and Luther Billis, a wheeler dealer Navy seabee, who goes through life joyously getting in trouble because of his many schemes, as the humorous duo.

As is the habit of Rogers and Hammerstein, there is an underlying social message, which is developed both in the storyline and a key song. In this case, prejudice and its cause, are explained in You Have to be Carefully Taught. Other highlight songs are the glorious Some Enchanted Evening, the beautiful Bali Ha'i. the lovely Younger Than Springtime, and the poignant That Nearly Was Mine all of which move the serious side of the plot along; while, There is Nothin' Like a Dame, Happy Talk and Honey Bun are intended to add humor.

David Pittsinger (Emile) has a glorious voice. On the other hand, he is rigid as an actor, often glowering, making it hard to believe that he has any real emotional attachment to Nellie. In their duo scenes there is a void of connection. Carmen Cusack, who sings beautifully, lacks the cockeyed optimist attitude that is supposed to be Nellie. She misses the fun and naivety that is used to describe the character in song and spoken words. She is severe in facial expression, hair style, body movement and mannerisms.

Anderson Davis (Cable), sings well. It's too bad that he couldn't show some textured feelings. The closest either Davis and Cusack come to being natural is in their duet, My Girl Back Home, which was not in the original Broadway production, but was added to the score for the movie and added to the revival script.

Jodi Kimura delights as Bloody Mary, Sumie Maeda is a lovely Liat, Timothy Gulan tries to be Billis, but he just doesn't have enough fun with the role. For example, his Honey Bun didn't have the needed joyousness.

Much of the stage movement and choreography almost seemed like move-by-numbers. Like robots, the cast knew where to go, moved there automatically, did their thing, and moved on to their next stage position. There was a feigning of, not real spontaneity, especially in There is Nothing Like a Dame and I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.

The audience's reaction probably best describes the production. The mandatory Cleveland standing ovation lacked enthusiasm. People stood haltingly, applauded politely, and didn't shout the usual bravos that bring closure to almost every Broadway series offering, whether deserved or not.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Unfortunately, the touring production of SOUTH PACIFIC didn't live up to its advance building. It's a shame. In the midst of this terrible winter, and the collapse of our professional athletic teams, we needed something to cheer and get excited about.