Saturday, April 30, 2011

Passing Strange

PASSING STRANGE showcases BW students at their best!

Baldwin Wallace College is noted for having one of the country’s premiere musical theatre programs. No more proof is needed than seeing PASSING STRANGE, now on stage for a short run in the 14th Street Theatre. This is a perfect choice to showcase these talented stars in the making. The characters are their age, the parts require unabashed showmanship, and the music is of their era.

Cudos to Victoria Bussert, the inspiration behind the college’s program and Gina Vernaci, the dynamo Playhouse Square’s Vice President for Theatricals, for conceiving the collaboration between the two institutions, which is now in its fourth year. Past shows have included BROOKLYN THE MUSICAL, [TITLE OF SHOW], and CHESS: THE LONDON VERSION. All were quirky scripts that gave the students a chance to spread their wings and perform in a professional venue. They are also the type of shows that Bussert does best…small creative wonders.

PASSING STRANGE is a musical with lyrics and book by Stew and music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. It examines part of the life of a black musician (the Youth), who finds himself, in the late 1970s, as a teenager, rebelling against his middle class upbringing, including rejection of the church, his mother’s teachings, and trying to pass as something he is not, as he traverses through Amsterdam and Berlin. These experiences open him to drugs, sex and rock and roll, while forcing him into introspection.

The title of the play not only highlights Youth’s passing from teenager into early manhood, but harkens to the term “passing” as used in Black English to indicate “passing as white, being someone you are not, as well as the passage of time.”

The play’s history is quite different than the usual path that shows take. Stew, a popular New York club performer, was commissioned by The Public Theatre of New York to develop a story of a young bohemian who charts a course for his life. After tryouts in California and Off-Broadway, the show opened on Broadway in 2008, ran 165 performances and was made into a film directed by Spike Lee. The original production starred Stew, himself, as the narrator, who weaves the tale together.

Ironically, as the show was in local rehearsal, Stew (Mark Stewart) and his band, The Negro Problem, were performing at the Cleveland Play House’s Fusion Festival. Stew and the band hung out with the BW cast and sat in on rehearsals. The experience, as explained by the students in the opening night after show talkback, was “mind opening.” They not only gained an understanding of the story, which is a biodrama based on Stew’s life, but found the where-with-all to transform the message not into a black experience, but into a universal one.

This opportunity to come in contact with professionals is just another aspect of what makes the BW-PHSquare collaboration so valuable.

The production is double cast. I saw the “Stew Cast” which featured Rod Lawrence as the Youth and Alex Syiek portraying three roles.

Lawrence is an exceptional talent. He has a fine voice, moves with ease and has a stage presence which is often hypnotic. His face shows great introspection, he feels and taps into the emotions of the character he portrays. Tears rolled down his face during a striking eulogy near the play’s ending.

Syiek transfers nicely into his various roles…playing swishy, macho and straight with conviction. Adrianna Cleveland (Mother) has a strong singing voice and a nice stage presence. Ciara Renée compels when she is on stage. She sings well, is beautiful, and develops clear characterizations. Jessica Dyer, and Jude McCormick also are excellent in various roles. Sara Budnik, as the band’s vocalist, displays a nice singing voice. Jay Ellis (Narrator) has a strong singing voice and interprets lines well. Unfortunately, he sometimes shouts rather than developing power with nuance.

Ryan Fielding Garret, the show’s musical director, and his band (Kevin Johnson, Rob Chase and Dylan Hayden), are excellent. They fade under spoken lines and allow the singers’ words to be heard, while developing the rock, spiritual and blues score.

Not only do the BW students get a chance to have a professional experience, but the Arts Management’s majors get to work with the Playhouse Square staff in marketing, education and operations. This is another advantage of the collaboration.

Capsule judgement: Unfortunately, the wonderful PASSING STRANGE is only onstage through May 1. It’s a shame. This could have been a long running show that would have built a cult audience. Bravo to the outstanding cast and let’s hope that the BW-PHSq collaboration continues!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Jew Grows in Brooklyn

You don’t have to be Jewish or from Brooklyn, but it “vouldn’t hoit”

The family of Jake Ehrenreich went from being one of the wealthiest in Poland to laborers in the work camps of Siberia. Doesn’t sound like the stuff that entertainment is made from, but Ehrenreich, who is now on stage in his solo show at the Hanna Theatre in A Jew Grows in Brooklyn, succeeds in taking us on a trip filed with pathos, comedy and some awakening.

Ehrenreich, who is 55, has appeared on Broadway in DANCIN, BARNUM and They're Playing Our Song. He has also performed in Songs of Paradise and The Golden Land, off-Broadway shows written in Yiddish, the language of the Jews of central and Eastern Europe.

He is a good singer, actor and musician. A proficient drummer, he once was considered for inclusion in the band KISS, which ironically numbers among its members, two children of Holocaust survivors.

Performing with a live band, and using multi-media video and photos, Ehrenreich takes the audience on a journey through childhood, the Catskill Borscht Belt days, to his mother’s and sisters’ early Alzheimer’s disease, and to his present day life as husband and father. He paints a picture which reveals the underbelly of who he is and how he got there.

Hanging over the entire evening are the living and dead members of his family. Though it may sound maudlin, there is enough balance of exposition and joy to make the evening an interesting experience.

One of the show’s highlights is a selection of Yiddish songs including Romania, which is considered by some to be the Yiddish national anthem. I wonder if Ehrenreich knows that both Mickey Katz, and his son Joel Grey, who both made that song important parts of their repertories, are Clevelanders.

As for the production, which starts slowly and contains a lot of redundancy, its pretty hard not to appreciate Ehrenreich’s experiences. His life, which is not unlike that of many children of Holocaust survivors, including the silent parents who hid their suffering behind closed emotions, makes for good theatre. Is the message universal? Maybe, maybe not. And, will it affect you if you aren’t Jewish or from Brooklyn? It’s not a requirement, but, of course, it vouldn’t hoit.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: A JEW GROWS IN BROOKLYN is a pleasant evening of theatre. The writing could have been a little sharper and more textured, and the opening a little more emotionally moving, but the shticks work, and the singing and story telling accomplish the production’s ultimate goal of sharing the whys of Ehrenreich’s life.

Monday, April 25, 2011

insomnia the Waking of Herselves

Insomnia and dreams come vividly to life at CPT

Dreams are successions of images, ideas, emotions and sensations occurring involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep. Though the meaning of dreams is not truly understood there has been a great deal of speculation on their meanings.

Sigmund Freud peaked interest in scientific study of the field of dreams (oneirology) when he attempted to ascertain the relationship between dreams and the development of personality.

INSOMNIA THE WAKING OF HERSELVES, now in its world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre, is a joint writing collaboration between Holly Holsinger and Chris Seibert, who appear in the production, and Raymond Bobgan, the play’s director.

We are ushered into the world of dreams and insomnia in the attic of a home. One woman, then two and finally three appear. We are unsure of who these people are, whether they are, in fact real, alive or figments of our imaginations and whether we are viewing reality or have been ushered into someone’s dream. As the story unfolds we find that one of them has insomnia and when she does sleep, her fitful dozing is filled with dreams of her insecurities and past and present yearnings. It is only at the end that we gain some understanding of who is real and who is an invention of the imagination.

English neurologist John Hughlings Jackson once wrote, “Find out all about dreams and you will find out all about insanity.” Is one or more of these women insane? Is she or they fighting to figure out who she is? What clues are in the dreams?

INSOMNIA is a challenging theatrical experience. Though there is little physical action, the story is riveting as the audience attempts to use the often bizarre clues to establish exactly what is going on. Songs, limericks, role plays and games hint, enhance, confuse and enlighten.

The acting quality is outstanding. This is one fine and talented cast. The characters are each carefully etched and remain engrossing throughout. Bravo to Holly Holsinger, Christ Seibert and Anne McEvoy. It’s worth attending the production just to see these three in action.

Bobgan’s directing is precise, the pacing excellent. Thoughthere are places where the script could be tightened, for a first production, there is much more positive then negative.

Joan Horvitz’s attic design is excellent. Maybe a little more clutter was needed, making the visual attic feel more realistic.

Capsule judgement: CPT’s INSOMNIA THE WAKING OF HERSELVES is blessed with flawless acting and is well paced. Anyone who is interested in good acting and a challenging theatrical experience should go to this production.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Circle Mirror Transformation

CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION fails to reach its potential at Dobama

Watching a group of want to be actors, all of whom have troubled lives, taking a class on how to become actors, sounds like a strong plot idea with a potential for drama, revelation and even possible fun. That’s the situation at Dobama, which is presently staging Annie Baker’s CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION.

The Obie Award-winning play centers on an acting class being offered in a small Vermont town’s community center. Marty, the instructor, rather than using play scenes, employs improvisational concepts to help the creative process. The techniques include both imaginative and absurd activities for the class of five, which includes a flirty former actress, a pouty 16-year-old, a divorced carpenter and Marty's husband.

The students pose as trees, beds and baseball gloves. They create human statues portraying their families. They invent scenes using only the words goulash and ak-mak. They pretend to be one another and write dark secrets on scraps of paper and read them out loud.

The New York Times called Baker’s play, “absorbing, unblinking and sharply funny.” Unfortunately, Dobama’s production is anything but absorbing and there is practically nothing funny going on. The problem is that the extremely slow pacing, blackout after blackout, and lack of full blown interactions, turn the evening into an exercise similar to watching paint dry…not much going on.

Not all of the problem is caused by director Juliette Regnier. She is given a script that is a series of 30-second to 5-minute scenes. Unfortunately, Regnier has inserted blackouts between the segments that are often as long, if not longer, than the scenes. Yes, maybe between the supposed week-long separations between classes, a little more time is needed for costume changes, but, as is, the audience spends more time in the dark than they do in the light. Also there is too much introspection rather than out-and-out physical and verbal angst going on.

The cast is generally fine. But the blend between them falls short because Regnier doesn’t take advantage of the free form of the script, which would have allowed for their true quirkiness and the internal conflict and potential fun to come forth.

The role of Marty, the deeply troubled instructor, who experiences night tremors due to an early life experience, is nicely developed on a surface level by Molly Cornwell, but the depth of her hurt isn’t always apparent.

Bob Ellis, portraying Marty’s quirky husband, James, needed a more troubled and bizarre tone so that the audience could understand his problematic personality.

Joe Milan is properly pathetic as Schultz, the recently divorced and lonely man looking for some physical connection. Again, a little more angst and desperateness would have fleshed out the underlying torture he is experiencing.

Leighann Niles DeLorenzo has the right spark as Theresa, the supposed New York actress who has returned to the small town to get away from her boyfriend. There is a deeper story behind that escape. DeLorenzo needed even more extremes of character portrayal to allow for insight into this troubled lady.

Allison Bencar as Lauren, the product of a troubled home, gave the illusion of the conflicted teen, but there was much below the surface that needed to come out.

Sounds like we need more drama? No, just clearer character development which would have led to more emotional and bizarre interplays between the personalities.

Mark Kopak’s clean line dance studio, complete with mirrors that could have been used more to allow the characters to really see each other, and the audience to see themselves in blurred visions of reality, would have helped. The word mirror is in the title for a reason.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION is a long sit. There are just too many long blackouts and a lack of playing off the author’s clear characters to get the full effect of the script.

PS…within the last several months Dobama has lost several of its historically important figures. We say a sad farewell to Peggy Buerkel and Everett Dodrill. Without their efforts and dramatic skills Dobama would not be the fine theatre it is today.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Legacy of Light

LEGACY OF LIGHT illuminates science and women at CPH

“Everything changes, but nothing is lost.” This is the mantra of Karen Zacarias’ LEGACY OF LIGHT, now on stage at the Cleveland Play House. It is also the last line of the last play that will be performed by CPH at its present location. In the fall, the venerable company moves into their new digs at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.

LEGACY OF LIFE, won the Steinberg/ATCA Award for best play of the year that premiered outside of New York. The selection is made by the membership of the American Theatre Critics Association.

The script was commissioned by The Arena Theatre in Arlington, VA and, according to the author, went through fifteen rewrites before it opened. The play’s success can be illustrated by the fact that it is being done by numerous theatres. In fact, according to the author, there are two other productions being done simultaneously with the one at CPH.

The script confronts the issue of how women attempt to balance a passionate yearning for learning with a maternal instinct. The viewer is introduced to two women living 260 years apart, and juxtaposes their stories, as each fulfills her passion for advancing science. Zacarias uses the overlapping writing device to equate the laws of physical science with that of human love. We watch as the women who not only hunger for human continuity but also lust for knowledge, and are driven to exhaustion “to do something that matters.”

One of the women is the real 18th century scientist, Émilie du Châtelet, a married woman who was Voltaire’s lover, the leading light of the Age of Enlightenment. Châtelet has been credited with translating, interpreting and challenging Isaac Newton's monumental works regarding gravity.

The tale also introduces us to the modern-day Olivia, a fictional scientist, who is supposedly on the verge of discovering a new planet. One of the parallels between the two, of course, is the thread of Newton and the concept of gravity. Another connection is child bearing. One dies as the result of birthing, the other comes to life because of it, but, as we find out later, there is an additional connection which is revealed late in the goings-on.

The CPH production, under the direction of Bart DeLorenzo, is slowly paced. There is some humor, some drama, and much exposition about the Age of Enlightenment. The intertwining stories are not easy to follow, but with a moderate amount of concentration, the ideas become clear. In addition, the script does not contain much physical action, so some may find the experience less than stimulating.

Cerris Morgan-Moyer as Emilie is charming, developing a clear picture of a woman driven by her motives to succeed and make a difference. Michelle Duffy is excellent as the Olivia, who finds herself torn between her desire to be a scientist of importance, while questioning her role of being a wife without a child. Amelia Pedlow is a delight as Millie, the young, free-spirited, Olivia’s surrogate.

Lenny von Dohlen, who looks eerily like the real Voltaire, starts slowly, but builds into the role. His portrayal may give the idea that Voltaire was somewhat of an airhead, which weakens the image of the Father of Enlightenment. The rest of the cast is very acceptable in their character developments.

Takeshi Kata’s set design, composed of sliding screens and trees with the requisite apples which fall on cue, Matthew Richards’ lighting design, and David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes, all add to the experience. Tiffany Goff’s original music helps in mood development.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Cleveland Play House brings down the curtain on the facility that has been its long-time home, with a pleasant and thought provoking production. They might have wanted to transfer to their new home with a return to stage of some of their stars from the past and a splashier play, but LEGACY OF LIGHT is an acceptable send-off.

Roe Green gives grant to FusionFest

Roe Green gives large grant toward FUSIONfest

It was announced before the opening night curtain of LEGACY OF LIGHT that Roe Greene, arts patron and community activist, who serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the Roe Green Foundation, has made a new three-year commitment to FusionFest in the amount of $500,000. In addition to the financial gift, The Roe Green FusionFest Award, will be presented annually to a mid-career American playwright. The prize will provide an honorarium of $7,500 to the winning playwright as well as support for the development process of a new script. The selected playwright will spend a week in residency at CPH during FusionFest, over which time she or he will oversee rehearsals and a reading of the work and engage in workshops and master classes with young theatre artists from the region.

Green, a graduate of Beachwood High School, where she got her first taste of the theatrical life as a prop person, also endowed the $13 million Roe Green Center for the School of Theatre and Dance at Kent State University.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two Gentlemen of Verona

GLTF’s TWO GENTLEMAN OF VERONA--where is Tom Hanks when we need him?

In 1978, the Great Lakes Theater Festival produced TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, one of Shakespeare’s lesser comedies. It may be a lesser comedy, but that season a young man named Tom Hanks had his first professional starring role in the show. His Proteus, one of the two lead roles, resulted in Hanks being selected by the Cleveland Critics Circles as the best actor of the year. (I proudly cast my vote for him and have watched in pleasure as he became a megastar!)

Don’t go to see the present production of TWO GENTLEMEN expecting to see another Tom Hanks on stage, nor to see the same quality of production as was staged in Lakewood High School’s auditorium, then the home of GLSF. (The theatre later changed its name from Shakespeare Festival to Theatre Festival in order to widen its offerings.)

Not that the present production is bad, it isn’t, It’s just flat, lacking in the special dynamics, creativity and performance quality that make a show more than acceptable.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA is believed to be one of the Bard’s earliest works, probably penned around 1590. It may well have been his first play. Though many literature experts consider it to be a minor work, it does contain some devices that Shakespeare would later use in his other plays, including a girl dressed as a boy, the use of clownish servants, love conflicts that work themselves out in the end, infidelity, and best friends who engage in conflict. On the other hand, it pales in comparison to the style and humor level of such comedies as ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, THE TAMING OF THE SHREW and THE COMEDY OF ERRORS.

In Verona, Proteus and Valentine (the two gentleman of Verona) discuss the qualities of love. Valentine announces he is leaving for Milan. Valentine's servant reports to Proteus that Julia, his love, gave no response to his letter to her. At Julia's house, her servant, after some delay, gives her Proteus' letter. Although Julia tears it up and refuses to read it, she eventually pieces it together and shows her desire for Proteus. And thus we start down a path of twisted tales, true and false love, lovers thwarted, lovers united, and a happy ever after ending.

Highlights of the GLTF production include: Jodi Dominick and Sara Bruner who beautifully sang the music by Nick Drake, Ingrid Michaelson, Zion and Regina Spektor and played by Matthew Webb and Andrew Pongracz. Russell Metheny’s metal sculpture set adds an airy feel to the goings on. Lee Stark makes for a charming Julia, the beloved of Proteus. And the audience favorite, Mojo, the large shaggy dog, steals every scene in which he appears.

It is surprising that Director Charles Fee, noted for his ability to dig deep into the humor well, restrained both M. A. Taylor (Speed) and David Anthony Smith (Launce), the two servants who usually are the play’s comic reliefs. In the lead male roles, both Neil Brookshire (Valentine) and Paul Hurley (Proteus) fail to ignite the characterizations, presenting them as one dimensional beings. Nika Ericson doesn’t create a clear vision of Silvia, the beloved of Valentine. Eric Perusek (Eglamour) and Robert Williams ((Panthino) are difficult to understand and present their lines in near-monotone. We should expect better from a GLTF cast.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA may not be a great Shakespearean script, but there have been some excellent productions of the work, including a local version some years ago that was an award winner. The present TGoV misses the humor and creativity mark.

Monday, April 11, 2011


The creative RIOULT Company, which was brought to the area in a co-sponsorship between DANCECleveland and Playhouse Square, recently performed at the Ohio Theatre. Anyone who missed the program missed an awesome evening of dance.

Choreographer Pascal Rioult challenges his dancers to high levels of creativity. The program opened with VIEW OF THE FLEETING WORLD, based on Bach’s The Arts of Fugue. The nine-part piece was accented by Monet type illusions and mood altering lighting.

WIEN, danced to the music of Maurice Ravel’s LaValse, is a visual message created by swirling bodies which transcends from beautiful waltz to chaotic violence and humiliation, complete with despair and fatalism. It is a visual image of bizarre dance movements which symbolized triumphant evil. The overall effect was riveting!

Ravel’s BOLERO, an exercise in building a crescendo by repeating musical sounds and movements over and over, creates an increasing emotional pitch. The music is a four-phrase theme which mesmerizes. By repeating and altering, the choreographer creates visual images, builds anticipation and then breaks the pattern, with jarring results!

A Spring Fling Thing


Greene + Medcalf Movement Project is the area’s newest contemporary dance company. It kicked off its formation with a benefit, A SPRING FLING THING: an evening of live music and dance.

The event introduced Terence Greene and Michael Medcalf, the company’s choreographers and dancers. The award winning duo are Cleveland natives who met and worked together at the Cleveland School for the Arts. Each went their separate ways, learning their craft and dancing with some of the countries’ leading companies. They have decided to reunite and use this area as their home base. Greene was recently appointed as resident choreographer for Verb Ballets. Medcalf, the former leader of Cleveland Contemporary /Dance Theatre, is pursuing an advanced degree, but will be returning to the area for rehearsals and performances.

The evening consisted of SATCHIDANADA, a balletic/gymnastic piece danced by Medcalf with slow controlled movements, displaying high levels of balance and grace. REFLECTIONS OF, an homage to teachers, was choreographed by Greene. It found the duo intertwining and playing off each other, playing off their physical size differences with magnetic control. Greene used a repeated movement to feed and draw symbolic knowledge out of Medcalf. The final dance, FULL CIRCLE, was a collaborative piece in which the duo improvised movement based on the singing of Reggie Kelly and the music of Hubb’s Grove. Kelly, the musical sounds of Robert “Hubb” Hubbard Jr., Tony Watson Jr., Walter Barnes Jr., Stephen Fowler, guitarist Robert Sharpe, and the dynamic singing and scatting of Chimera Wilson, were program performers.

The evening was filled with joyousness. The large, mainly African American audience, fully participated through call-and-response interactions between the audience and the performers, and interjected appropriate standing ovations.

Capsule judgement: A SPRING FLING THING was a great kickoff to GREENE+MEDCALF MOVMENT PROJECT which promises to be an exciting addition to the Cleveland dance scene.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Excavation

You’ve Got to See It To Believe It: THE EXCAVATION at Theater Ninjas

Anyone who has ever been to a Theatre Ninja’s production knows that Jeremy Paul, the theatre’s guiding force and Artistic Director, doesn’t like “normal” theatre. He doesn’t pick plays or develop the ordinary. Being inside Paul’s head must be like being in a labyrinth of a fun house. Weird visions must swirl around and around. The results of Paul’s creativity are usually fascinating and confounding theatre. THE EXCAVATION, Ninja’s latest invention, is no exception.

Now consider this. Theatre Ninjas “home” is part of a floor of rooms in an old abandoned industrial building. The building has been transformed into a home for the arts. The area that the Ninjas use is basically a wreck. So, if you are Paul, what do you do? You, of course, excavate the space to see what’s there. What’s there, in Paul’s mind, is Pompeii. I kid you not.

The Roman city of Pompeii was completely buried during the eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius over a span of two days in 79 AD. The city disappeared in about 6 yards of ash. It remained hidden until about 1600 when excavations gave the modern world insight into life at the height of the Roman Empire.

Paul, clipboard in hand, and a group of “guides” take the audience, who are divided into self-formed groups, each going through different experiences, to celebrate the life, death and re-discovery of Pompeii. The “guides” are rhetoricians, scientists, puppeteers, dead bodies and science fair addicts, who lead us from room to room in a labyrinth of exhibits and galleries dedicated to the doomed city. As Paul explains, “blending live action, music and visual art, this interactive museum examines the way people reveal themselves when digging into the past.” (Okay, if he says so.)

The format takes us back to the happenings of the 1960s, blended with fantasy flicks, as they intersect with the Discovery and History channels.

At times the production is not an easy sit. Well, most of the time the audience is not sitting, but following the performers from place to place, being active participants in a weird adventure as they traverse through the museum shop (yes, artifacts are sold), the Main Gallery, Via Donotorem, the Catacomb entrance, the Amphitheater, Shrine, Tomb, House of Mysteries and the Observatory.

I actually learned a great deal about volcanos (eg., when Mentos are mixed with soda, explosions occur), the history of Pompeii (or Paul’s version of it), how long I can stand while shifting my weight from foot to foot, and how much fun a classic Punch and Judy show can be.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: It must be quite an experience to live inside the head of Jeremy Paul. You can get a glimpse of by attending THE EXCAVATION. It’s an evening of invention, humor, and the bizarre.

Saturday, April 09, 2011


FEVER/DREAM mildly off-setting at CPT

FEVER/DREAM, now on stage at Cleveland Public Theatre is an appropriate show for our time. It skewers corporate America while addressing the dreams and realities of these uneasy economic times.

Woolly Mammoth, one of my favorite theatres in the Washington, DC area, is to DC what Cleveland Public Theatre is to our area. It willingly takes on message plays not normally produced and puts them on stage. It is, therefore, appropriate that WM did the first production of Sheila Callaghan’s FEVER/DREAM.

Callahan, a New York based writer, is part of the Regional Alternative Theatre movement of the 1990s. The writers are noted for their bizarre use of language and using storytelling structures in developing their works. Callaghan's writing has been described as "comically engaging,” “subversively penetrating,” "completely contemporary,” and "downright weird.” If you see FEVER/DREAM, you will quickly become aware of these qualities, especially the “downright weird” description.

FEVER/DREAM is a reinvention of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's 1635 play, LIFE IS A DREAM. Calderón wrote of the human situation and the mystery of life while stressing the difference between free will and fate.

The contemporary script centers on Segis Basil, an employee at an American mega-corporation who is literally chained to his desk in the basement of a huge skyscraper, answering customer service questions on the telephone. Unknown to Segis, he is the son of the company’s all powerful CEO. Segis, we find out, was born on Black Monday, the day of a famous stock market crash, and his mother died in childbirth. This, of course, leads his superstitious father to lock Segis away. (Remember the description of Callahan’s writing as being “weird’?) The father decides that he needs to step down as CEO and places his son in charge. Of course, the uninformed dolt fails. He is returned to his basement hell.

Okay, that’s enough, you’ll have to see the play to experience the unreal fairy tale ending.

The CPT production is creatively directed by Beth Wood, but needs more oomph. Unfortunately, not all of the actors are up to the stylish demands of the script. On the positive side, Christian Prentice is believable in both of his Sergis personas: the chained up customer service phone answerer in his basement hell and the floundering newly appointed CEO. Annie Hickey is a hoot as the temp from heaven, who follows each of her directives as if they are words from on-high. The robotic Associates, Margo Chervony, Melissa Crum, Stuart Hoffman and especially the rad Val Kozlenko, are total delights.

On the other hand, as the two heir apparents to the CEO throne, Nathan Ramos (Aston) seems lost and Laurel Johnson (Stella) feigns a character. The rest of cast is acceptable, but fail to ignite Callahan’s bizarre language.

Trad Burns lighting is excellent. His set design generally sets the right tone, but the second level crawl space is a little off-putting. Richard Ingraham’s sound effects work well.

Capsule judgement: FEVER/DREAM will not be on my list as the best productions of the year, but it is a thought provoking piece.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

An Evening With Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball flounders at 14th Street Theatre

AN EVENING WITH LUCILLE BALL: THANK YOU FOR ASKING, which is now on stage at the 14th Street Theatre, is billed as “a touching, funny and uplifting one-woman play.” Yes, is it a one-woman show. Unfortunately, it not touching, funny or uplifting.

I am confounded as to how Suzanne LaRusch (who is the one-woman in the show) and Lucie Arnaz (Lucille Ball’s daughter), could take the life and material of one of the funniest women in television history, and make it into such a boring and contrived production.

I LOVE LUCY is an iconic piece of U.S. cultural folklore. Lucille Ball is an iconic personage of U.S. cultural folklore. If LaRusch and Arnaz wanted to give us the Lucy we know and love, inserting snippets from the famous wine stomping and candy stuffing scenes and television interviews of the great woman, within the historical life information, might have made for a happy evening of nostalgia. Instead, the authors developed a contrived question-and-answer interview scheme, in which recorded voices of so-called audience members asked questions that most often got flat, uninteresting bits of information in response from LaRusch (whoops, Lucy).

Yes, LaRusch batted her eyes and pursed her Lucy lips, but there was little connection to the audience. Her attempts to sing Boy With a Bugle from the Ball’s negatively reviewed film, MAME, and Hey Look Me Over, from her short-lived Broadway production of WILDCAT, only stressed the performer’s poor singing abilities. (Was this her voice or was she trying to mock the vocally challenged Ball?)

Yes, there were “never-before-heard personal recollections about her life,” but that alone does not a fascinating or entertaining piece of theatre make.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: AN EVENING WITH LUCILLE BALL was a poorly conceived, contrived and tedious evening of theatre. ‘Nuff said.

Les Miserables

LES MIZ, les marvelous at Palace

From the very f
irst time I saw LES MISERABLES, shortly after its opening in London, to the New York production, and through the various touring shows, I have been a fan of the show. Not just a fan, a fanatic fan! Therefore, I went to see The New 25th Anniversary Production, now on stage at the Palace Theatre, with some trepidation.

The advanced publicity indicated the show had been reconceptualized. The music has been reframed, some of the songs reinterpreted, the sets changed, and the attitude was more somber, more dramatic. So? I was as mesmerized with the new as I had been with the old. The story, with its recurring themes, the music, with its recurring themes, the new sets based on Victor Hugo's paintings, all worked and worked well.

When it first opened in London in 1985 the production was generally met with negative reviews. This was musical about greed, child abuse, revolution, cruelty. It contained thwarted idealism, frustration and the seeming defeat of good by evil. This is a musical without dance routines, has the word “miserable” in the title, has 29 onstage deaths, no escapist production numbers and lacks a typical happy ending. Is this the stuff musicals are made of? Not usually. And, though there is nothing wrong with light and frothiness, there is no reason that serious subjects cannot be treated in the musical form. Les Miz proves that contention, and proves it well.

There is no reason that strong emotions about death cannot be visualized as “empty chairs at empty tables,” or hope cannot be expressed as, “there is life about to start, when tomorrow comes!,” or, that infatuation cannot be explained as “a heart full of love,” or the future can't be prophesized as, “I dreamed that love would never die,” and a powerful story can't be summarized with the musical's ending lyric, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Yes, these are all lyrics conceived by Herbert Kretzmer and set to the emotionally charged music of Claude-Michael Schonberg. These are the thoughts of a great musical.

LES MISÉRABLES is an 1862 French tale by Victor Hugo, which is one of the greatest novel of the nineteenth century. Though long and complex, the basic story line centers on a seventeen-year period in the early nineteenth century, which culminated in the unsuccessful June Rebellion. The musical revolves around Jean Valjean, who was caught when he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. Imprisonment, frustration and moral awareness are pivotal ideas of the story. It is played out in front of the history of France's politics and what is meant by the concept of justice. It is fiction entwined within factual and historical events.

The English version of the musical opened in 1985. In spite of tepid reviews, the show, which almost closed in its first week, is still on stage in London, and holds that country's record as the longest running musical of all time. In 1987, the musical debuted on Broadway. To date, the show has been seen by nearly 60 million people.

The touring show is visually stunning. The representational sets are enhanced by lush graphics. The costumes are period correct. The lighting and sound effects work well. The large orchestra, which unfortunately sometimes drowns out the lyrics, has a lush sound.

The cast sings well and interprets the lyrics rather than just singing words. The leads and the chorus fill the large Palace space with full sound. The company's One Day More was a show stopper. Ron Sharpe makes for a believable Jean Valjean and sings the role with a full voice. His Who Am I and Bring Him Home were excellent. Betsy Morgan (Fantine) grabbed the emotions of the audience with I Dreamed A Dream. Chasten Harmon was compelling as Eponine and received an extended ovation for her well-nuanced On My Own.

Andrew Varela sang the role of the evil Javert well, but should have been more menacing. Colin DePaula was wonderful as Gavroche, the young boy. Justin Scott Brown (Marius) and Jenny Latimere (Cosette) were excellent as the young lovers.

Locals might have noted that Cole Burden, a Baldwin Wallace musical theatre graduate, played a prominent chorus role.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: LES MIZ, Les Marvelous! As of opening night, less than 400 tickets remained for the entire run of the show. Those who were lucky enough to order tickets early will see one of the highlight productions of this or any other season!

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Underpants

THE UNDERPANTS don’t quite stay up at Beck

Steve Martin, author of THE UNDERPANTS, now in production at The Beck Center for the Arts, is known as a comedian and outrageous funnyman. His writing in THE UNDERPANTS is true to Martin: daffy, ridiculous and overdone.

It is ironic that DIE HOSE, the play on which the Martin script is based, was a controversial play by Carl Sternheim. Sternheim was one of the leading writers in the German Expressionism movement, which many credit with laying the foundation for modern theatre. When it opened in 1910, DIE HOSE was so controversial that it was banned by the German government and, eventually led to Sternheim permanently leaving the country. Sternheim's purpose in writing the script was to satirize the government, middle class morality and conformity.

According to a German commentary, DIE HOSE “centers on a married German couple and the scandal that follows after the wife's underpants fall down in public, as they wait to see the king passing by in a parade. The incident embarrasses the usually inattentive husband and makes the wife an unwitting object of desire. In fact, shortly after the parade, two men come to the couple's home, ostensibly to rent a room, but are really interested in wooing the wife.”

The Martin plot is basically the same, except that he has turned the satire into a full-blown melodramatic farce. Everything is overblown. Matthew Earnest, the director of the Beck production, builds upon the modern author's concept and lets loose with bizarre accents, melodramatic double takes, prancing actors, and feigned emotions and gestures. All that's missing is the mustached villain and impending death on the railroad tracks that were so common in old time melodramas and non-talky films.

Katie Nabors is sweet as the frustrated wife whose underwear falls. We never find out which country and when the play takes place, though Martin does indicate that this is “a spoof of the American middle class.” To add to the confusion, at least in this production, the accents, setting and clothing are anything but American middle class.

Female members of the audience, at least during the production I saw, vocally hissed at the many chauvinistic lines which stressed traditional male views concerning the role of women as housekeepers and order followers. They laughed at pronouncements of what makes for a “real” man.

Greg Violand carefully overdoes the role of Theo, an uptight government employee, to the degree that he is hysterically funny. We laugh with him, not at him, the sign of a good farcical performance. Sally Groth, as the interfering upstairs maiden lady, picks up Violand's tone, and makes the role into a show highlight.

Unfortunately, the other members of the cast aren't up to Violand and Groth's level and stay on the performance surface, often faking their performances. Kevin Charnas, flounces around the stage as Benjamin Cohen, a Jewish barber with an accent that sometimes sounds New Joisey, sometimes mock Eastern European and at other times is unidentifiable. His character development is as schizophrenic as his accent. Randy Muchowski adequately portrays a young artistic poet, but misses out on both laughs and emotional development due to his inconsistent character concept, while Mark Seven, as the scientist Klinglehoff, never does establish a clear identity.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE UNDERPANTS will amuse some and frustrate others. The fact that the farce/melodrama development doesn't always work is a combination of the lack of abilities of some of the cast and the inconsistency in directorial concepts.