Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Barking Dog

Cleveland playwright asks lots of questions at CPT

Eric Coble, one of the area’s most prolific and award winning playwrights, who often asks more questions than he answers, is at it again. In the past, Coble has inquired, “How far would you go for your child?” BRIGHT IDEA. “In this plugged-in world of email, text-messaging and camera phones, do a bride and groom really need to be in the same country to go on a honeymoon?” FOR BETTER. What happens when someone goes where they shouldn’t?” GOLD IN THE BONES. “Will the collapse of civilizations be heralded by 7 words: "Human Resources wants to meet with you?" HR. And, “Is the world sliding towards apocalypse?’” NATURAL SELECTION.

This time, in MY BARKING DOG, which is getting its world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre, Coble asks, “Can we balance control and chaos in a way that allows and encourages life?”

The theatre is publicizing the show with the statement, “Two lonely people's lives take a dramatic turn for the bizarre when a starving coyote starts appearing at their doorsteps.” Yes, that’s the short of it, but there is so much more.

Toby (Nick Koesters) is an out of work lonely man who spends his days searching the internet for a job. He’s been out of work for 9 months and is quickly coming to the conclusion that he has unremarkable skills and is running out of financial and emotional resources. His neighbor, Melinda (Heather Anderson Boll) lives alone, works alone and has little purpose in her life. The two meet when they discover that a coyote, who supposedly lives in a park near their dwelling, visits their back apartment stoops. Melinda starts feeding the animal. The duo spends inordinate amounts of time in their shared venture of waiting for and observing the creature. Reality transitions into fantasy as they both seemingly become obsessed with the animal, nature and the paradox of the options that life offers.

This is a perfect script to be staged by the imaginative Jeremy Paul, who has established himself as one of the area’s most gifted directors. The quirky nature of the material and the need to look beyond the script for motivations and sense-making is perfect for Paul, and he does not let the audience down. The experience is often mesmerizing. Of course, the fact that he is blessed with two superlative actors does not hurt.

Nick Koesters does not portray characters, he inhabits them. His construction of Toby is just another of his outstanding creations. Unfortunately for Cleveland audiences, in July he leaves the area to become part of the resident company of the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia. It’s too bad that Koesters has to go elsewhere to ply his trade, while professional companies, such as Great Lakes Theatre Festival and the Cleveland Play House go outside the area in search of talent, and abandon locals, forcing them to look elsewhere. (The area also lost the talented Dan Folino to Barter.)

Heather Anderson Boll compels in her transition from the shy, routine-oriented Melinda, to the woman with a blinding and incendiary obsession. This is one talented lady!

Richard Ingraham’s sound design and Scott Chapman’s lighting design add the right tones to the production.

Capsule judgement: MY BARKING DOG may be too abstract for some, too bizarre for others, but it is worth going to see if for no other reason then to enjoy two totally professional actors ply their immense talents.

Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg

EIFMAN BALLET OF ST. PETERSBURG, proficiency personified

Standing in the lobby of the State Theatre on opening night of the world famous EIFMAN BALLET OF ST. PETERSBURG’s was like being in a Russian performance hall. The echo of the sounds of the Russian language pervaded the space.

Many of the audience members were former residents of the Soviet Union. Hugs, kisses and zdravstvuj (the Russian word for greeting someone with whom you’re on an informal/friend-basis) and dobryj vyechyer! (good evening) filled the space. At the curtain call, as is the custom in Russia, many audience members flowed toward the stage, shouting to the performers. The large, local, fairly-recent Russian immigrant population had come to see each other and welcome their cultural arts heritage. It was quite an experience.

Also quite an experience was watching the Eifman Ballet in action. Appearing in Cleveland for the first time in nine years, the extraordinary company is noted for revolutionizing dance and for its creative blend of traditional balletic moves within a contemporary dance modality, to create dance dramas. There is an adventurous and innovative feel to the movements.

DON QUIXOTE has been transformed from the normal setting to being placed in an insane asylum, and renamed FANTASIES OF A MADMAN. Choreographer Boris Eifman has created an interesting twist on the famous Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’ tale of an idealist who takes on all opponents as he dreams the impossible dream of curing the world of its ills.

We watch as the company uses pails, a hula hoop, balls, and a balloon to tell the tale with pathos and whimsy. Eifman combines the traditional with the modern as dancers on-pointe dance besides those using gymnastic and modern dance moves. Traditional classic lifts and partnering combine with marching and bull-fighting movements. There is a marvelous pas de deux as well as trust leaps.

Capsule judgement: Viewing the Eifman Ballet is a treat. Not only is the company grande and fun, but it is an opportunity to see classic ballet in a city without a true ballet company. Spasiba (thank you) to Gina Vernaci, Vice President of PlayhouseSquare Theatricals for bringing in this world class company.

Inlet Dance/CPT DanceWorkd '11

INLET DANCE THEATRE continues to prosper

Inlet Ballet is in the midst of its tenth season! The past has seen the company perform and educate, their two missions. The recent recipient of financial grants, a new phenomenon for the company, has put Bill Wade’s troupe on strong financial ground, and while other companies entrench due to the nation’s financial situation, Inlet looks to grow.

Their present program, part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s DanceWorks ’11, explores various aspects of human relationships while sharing repertory from their history. They also premiere WATER, the first movement of a four element series based on the personality types developed by Laurie Beth Jones, whose THE FOUR ELEMENTS OF SUCCESS has become a major thought force for Wade.

The evening includes WONDROUS BEASTS, a gymnastics-centered piece in which insect-like creatures, individually and collectively co-existence, serves as “metaphors for informing and inspiring choices for life journeys.” This is one of my favorite company selections.

DREAM OF SLEEP is based on sleep studies by Dr. Kingman Strohl. Bodies move in various sleep states from calm reflection through twitches and nightmarish uncontrolled body reactions to create a fascinating look at what humans do as they slumber.

WAR EFFORT EVES, which was created as a reaction to 911, showcases a USO performer, a Hollywood dancer/actress from the big musicals era and Rosie the Riveter. The performance, the evening’s weakest, lacked unity, intensity and dynamics.

OFFAXIS, an exploration of character, showcased Joshua Brown, one of the area’s finest dancers, as he found himself leaning outside the box of cultural norm. Flowing movements and powerful bodily control were highlights of this well-conceived offering.

MEMORITE highlighted the message, “Human life is valuable,” by focusing on the issues facing the elderly and their care-givers. Ryan Lott’s score, composed of verbal sound bites from interviews and the sounds of life, was a sounding board for looking at Parkinson’s, little old ladies in tennis shoes, pain and loss.

The only new piece on the program, WATER, is a pretty but uninspiring composition. Consisting of lifts, carries, and rolling (like waves), there was a lack of a focal center in the attempt to view the aqua personality type. Hopefully WATER is a work in progress and not a final product as it needs more development.

Capsule judgement: Inlet Dance’s Danceworks 11 program is an excellent introduction to their proficient skills.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Fresh Inventions

Verb Ballets presents FRESH INVENTIONS

For the last several years Verb Ballets has used their Cleveland Public Theatre’s DANCEWORKS presentation time to do some inventing and innovating. Last year they selected new works by local composers and matched each selection to a local choreographer. Given a short period of preparation and rehearsal time, and the use of any or all of the company of dancers, the presentations were an opportunity for local dance aficionados to see new works invented.

This year Verb tried a different approach. Couple a member of the dance company and a piece of sculpture and see what happens. The results were very mixed. But, it must be remembered that the pieces were works in progress, not complete and tested dances.

The evening opened with Brian Murphy’s choreography of WAR ELEGY, based on music of the same name by Katharine O’Connell, and played live by talented cellist Regina Mushabee. The melancholy musical score and dance were inspired by a series of grotesque sculpture pieces which were pictured in the program. Though generally well danced, the piece lacked the clear story line needed to make a strong emotional impact.

RECALLING TENSIONS OF MIND was choreographed by Stephanie Krise to music by Stephen Smith and played by a live string quartet. Using sculptural poses and tandem movements, the movements fit the abstract music.

BREACH, choreographed by Erin Conway Lewis, was performed to Michael Leese’s Klavierst├╝ck. Played on a synthesizer by Nicholas Underhill, the music had a strong undertone that was reflected in the movements. Unfortunately, there was errant coordination and a lack of precision among the dancers.

The only piece that did not fit the company choreographer/company dancer theme/sculpture piece was NOUMENON MOBILUS, a 2010-2011 season company premiere, which was originally conceived in 1953. It was choreographed by Alwin Nikolais, who also wrote the music and did the lighting concept. The futurist selection was performed by Kara Madden and Rebecca Nicklos, who were each encased in a Mylar-material bag. Sitting on and moving around stools, the duo moved by stretching the materials in cadence to the music. The overall effect was audience pleasing.

ECHOES OF SILENT SCREAMS was performed without music. Voices related the stories of seven people who had been interviewed by choreographer Antwon Duncan. The conceiver’s intent was to “spread awareness and courage to all the unheard screams out there.” Though the idea was well intentioned, the overall effect was lacking. A bad sound system made the stories almost unintelligible and the piece was way too long and repetitious.

The highlight of the evening was Terrence Greene’s CALLIGRAPHY work in progress. Set to various musical selections, the constant feeling of ribbons floating in space were visualized by the hand and body movements of the dancers. Rebecca J. Nicklos and Brian Murphy effectively represented Ernestine and Malcolm Brown, local art benefactors who were being honored.

Guest dancer Mariano Moreno Albano did little to add to the male members of the company. He appeared to lack concentration and was late in many of his corps movements.

Capsule judgment: FRESH INVENTIONS was another in the series of introducing local audiences to new ideas and choreography. The idea has merit, but doesn’t always reach high levels of performance. This can be expected since these are works in progress.

Huck and Holden

Go See the Delightful HUCK AND HOLDEN at Ensemble

What happens when an Indian student (Indian from India, not a Native American) comes in contact with an American culture that challenges all of his values, traditions and plans for life? That conundrum is at the core of Rajiv Joseph’s HUCK AND HOLDEN.

Joseph, who was born and raised in the Cleveland area, is a graduate of Cleveland Heights High School, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, wrote the third season of TV’s NURSE JACKIE, and is the author of BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO. Tiger is now playing on Broadway in a production staring Robin Williams. He is the author of numerous plays. HUCK AND HOLDEN was his first work.

According to the author, HUCK AND HOLDEN is based on his father's experiences in coming to the States. It is also about his being of mixed race. His mother is of French and German ancestry and his father emigrated to the States from India. Joseph states, "Being mixed-race has always been a part of my identity. You are never fully one thing or the other. You always feel a little apart, a little bit of an outsider, even when you are with your own family. That's an interesting perspective for looking at the world." He takes that perspective and, in HUCK AND HOLDEN, creates a delightful piece of theatre.

Navin, an Indian student attending an American university, is the dutiful son of traditional Hindu parents. He’s been brought up to believe in arranged marriages, virginity until matrimony, being a serious student and reincarnation.

His path toward accomplishing his life goals is interrupted when in his required English lit course, the professor gives the assignment, “Write an essay comparing and contrasting Huck and Holden’s respective journeys and how society informs their characters and affects their feelings of self worth.” Who are Huck and Holden? What is “self worth?” What does this have to do with his success as an engineering student? Navin’s life is about to change.

Off to the library goes our hero. He meets Michelle, a free spirit music major, who knows less about Huck and Holden than Navin, but she is sassy, beautiful, African American and obsessed with the Kama Sutra. Not a stranger duo could the fates have brought together.

Things are complicated, but with the help of his imaginary friend, a former schoolmate named Singh, a Sikh whom Navin admired during school days for his audacity and coolness, Navin pursues Michelle despite his hesitation and guilt. The path is aided, or made more complicated by the appearance of Kali, the black Hindu goddess of internal energy. The results are a hysterical series of scenes in which the sweating, stumbling, babbling, pineapple-and-onion addicted pizza eater, discovers sex and personal freedom.

Why the title? Holden Caulfield of CATCHER IN THE RYE and Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s novels, share the qualities of being adolescents, runaways from society, seeking independence, growth and stability in their lives. Navin, in fact, is following the same path. Huck and Holden both encountered tests for them to pass on their way to adulthood, and so does Navin.

Under the spot-on direction of Celeste Cosentino, the Ensemble production is wonderful. Every element of the production works.

Daniel Caraballo is a total delight as the mumbling, confused, frustrated Navin. He has an expressive face, puppy dog eyes and possesses a great feel for comedy timing. It’s worth going to the production just to see this talented young man in action!

Kristi Little makes Michelle a real person, filled with gut-level reactions to life’s issues. Like Caraballo, her comic timing is right on target. The duo seems born to play these roles.

Ammen Sulieman is on target as Singh, Navin’s Jiminy Cricket, but in this case his anti-conscience and guide. Neda Spears is a hoot as the multi-armed goddess Kali, complete with a necklace of simulated baby’s heads. Kyle Carthens, as Michelle’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, does a show stopping hysterical scene in which he teaches Navin the facts of life including a move called waxing the booty. I assure you, this one isn’t in the Kama Sutra, especially when done with the help of a pizza box!

Joseph Mitchell’s set design is wonderful, adding to the whimsy. Charles Ritchie has done a fine job of working with the Puerto Rican Caraballo, to create a very acceptable Indian accent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble’s HUCK AND HOLDEN is a well performed, quirky, charming, modern comedy that is a total delight. This is a go see! (Caveat: if you are up-tight, the simulated sex scenes and references might not to be your liking. And, this is definitely not a play for the kiddies.)

Thursday, May 05, 2011

West Side Story

A new version of WEST SIDE STORY is at Palace

In the fall of 1957, I had a mind blowing experience. I saw the newly opened Broadway production of WEST SIDE STORY. At the time, all I knew about the show was that it was based on ROMEO AND JULIET and it had opened to positive reviews two days before. I left the show with aching hands from clapping and clapping and clapping during the extended curtain calls. I became a WEST SIDE STORY junkie, seeing the show time after time on the Great White Way before it closed, as well as many other stagings since!

The original production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, starred Larry Kert as Tony, Carol Lawrence as Maria and Chita Rivera as Anita. That staging ran for 732 performances, toured, and then returned to Broadway in 1960 for another 253 performances. Of course, I saw it in its return engagement.

In 2007, Arthur Laurents decided it was time to adjust the script. His “new” WSS opened on March 19, 2009. The production wove Spanish lyrics and dialogue into the English libretto. The show had an attitude adjustment, more serious, with some of the lightness eliminated. The characters were made more authentic. The choreography was altered and the orchestrations adjusted.

The music for WEST SIDE STORY is by Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It is set in New York in the mid-1950s and centers on the rivalry between two teenage street gangs. The Sharks came from Puerto Rico, and the Jets, are a collection of white working-class hoodlums. Tony, one of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, with disastrous results.

This is not a light hearted show. It is a musical with a serious theme, sophisticated music, extensive dancing and an investigation of social problems. The memorable score includes Something's Coming, Maria, America, Somewhere, Tonight, I Feel Pretty, and A Boy Like That.

Interestingly, the WSS on stage at the Palace Theatre has little resemblance to the show that was originally planned. Historical legend indicates that in the late 1940s Jerome Robbins approached Bernstein and Laurents about collaborating on a contemporary musical adaptation of ROMEO AND JULIET. He proposed that the plot focus on the conflict between an Italian American Roman Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, during the Easter–Passover season, and be titled EAST SIDE STORY. Eventually it was perceived that a different tack was needed and the present theme and title emerged.

The touring production, directed by Arthur Laurents, has many high points and some effects that didn’t work so well.

On the positive side, Joey McKneely’s reproduced and reinterpreted choreography is dynamic and well executed. The interspersing of Spanish, used when the Puerto Ricans speak to each other, or are upset, is a fine realistic touch. The sets work well. The costumes allow for stylistic character identities. (The Jets’ orange bandanas is a clever gang identifier.) The cast is generally young and fit the long established images of the characters.

Michelle Aravena sizzles as Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. German Santiago was on target as Bernardo. The role of Maria is triple cast. On opening night Ali Ewoldt portrayed the role. Though her acting was on target, especially in establishing a strong emotional bond with Cary Tedder, portraying Tony that night, her high pitched voice and carriage made her almost too sophisticated. Tedder, has a nice vocal sound and a acting believability, but, as with most of the Jets, he was too boy next door in looks and manners. These are inner city New Yorkers hoods, not soccer playing suburban kids.

The show ended abruptly, before the emotional impact of what had transpired could fester, followed by a quick curtain raise for the curtain call, which added to a feeling of “okay, we’re done, now go home!” Why the original ending in which the gangs blend to help carry the now dead Tony off-stage was dropped, I can’t figure out.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: WEST SIDE STORY is near the top of my list of all-time great musicals. I liked many of the adjustments that have been made in the script (except for the ending), the adjustments in the musical scoring, and the newly interpreted choreography, but I don’t think the production I saw on opening night, was the show at its finest. Many of the audience comments I heard on the way out of the theatre, echoed my thoughts.

Monday, May 02, 2011


COMPANY is go see theatre at FPAC

As Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics for Company, which is now on stage at Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory, stated of the musical’s story, “A man with no emotional commitments reassesses his life on his thirty-fifth birthday by reviewing his relationships with his married acquaintances and his girlfriends. That is the entire plot.”

COMPANY is unlike most modern musicals, which follow a clearly delineated plot. It is actually a concept musical composed of short vignettes, presented in no particular chronological order, linked by a birthday party.

COMPANY was among the first musicals to deal with adult problems through its music. For example, Bobbie confronts the five couples. He asks, “Why get married?” “What do you get from it but someone to smother you and make you feel things you don't want to feel?” In spite of his arguments, which seem more for himself than for his listeners, he comes to the conclusion, in the emotional curtain-closing song, that he, in fact, needs someone to share his life with, someone to help and hurt and hinder and love, someone to face the challenges of Being Alive.

The show opened on Broadway on April 26, 1970 and ran for 705 performances in spite of mixed reviews. Numerous revivals have been undertaken, often tweaking the script, the staging and the score. The latest was a recent New York Philharmonic Concert whose all-star cast included Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby and Craig Bierko, Stephen Colbert, Jon Cryer and Patti LuPone.

The Fairmount production, under the adept direction of Fred Sternfeld, is excellent. Simple staging, creative choreography by Bebe Weinberg-Katz, Trad Burns turntable set, and Benjamin Gantose’s lighting design, all add to the quality of production. Musical director Jonathan Swoboda’s orchestra plays well and underscores rather than drowning out the performers. The choral blends are very good.

The cast is universally strong. Standouts include Ursula Cataan (Amy) whose fast-paced doubletalk Getting Married Today is a showstopper. Natalie Green’s (Marta) plaintiff Another Hundred People is another highlight. Tracee Patterson (Joanne) gave just the right drunk, tourchy, vibrance to her characterization and the plaintive The Ladies Who Lunch.

Connor O’Brien (Robert) has a well-trained operatic voice which he uses well in the thoughtful Someone Is Waiting, the delightful Side by Side and the powerful Being Alive. His acting is not of the same level as his vocalizations, as he often feigns facial expressions and emotions. He acts, rather than reacts, thus sometimes giving a superficial feel to the role.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: COMPANY is a go-see production! The quality of staging and performances gives good service to this Sondheim adult musical.

Review of the Reviewer's Reviews: Bonnie Barenholtz

hi roy,

manny and i had a fabulous evening last
nite.....thanx to you. we called it our "new York
Nite in cleveland".....

we had cocktails and apps at the bar at blue point, and
then headed for PASSING STRANGE....... this play
was amazing !!!! what energy, what stage presence,what talent,
what life, and what a wonderful story....... it was ALL you
said it was in your review. ......which is the ONLY
reason we went to see it.

for the reviews you send us. they are "right on"......even
when some of my favorite actors do not receive your

bonnie b.