Saturday, October 27, 2012

Thought provoking A BRIGHT NEW BOISE at Dobama

Samuel D. Hunter, the author of A BRIGHT NEW BOISE stated, “The baseline of a lot of my plays is the struggle for meaning and also the struggle for connection between characters.  I think it’s also definitely a product of my--not to be pretentious about it--but my spiritual journey.”  And that is an excellent preview of his play that is now in production at Dobama.

To grasp any depth of meaning from Hunter’s play requires some knowledge of an apocalyptic Rapture.  Literally the term rapture means “to catch up” or “take away.”  In the Christian sense it refers to “being caught up,” such as “we who are alive and remain will be caught up in the clouds waiting to meet the Lord.”

In A BRIGHT NEW BOISE, whose action takes place in a dingy employee break room of an arts and crafts superstore in Boise, Idaho, and what appears to be a parking lot, we meet Will.  He is a middle-aged man who applies for and gets a job as a cashier.  His past is shrouded with mystery, which is revealed as he meets the dysfunctional store’s staff.

Each character seems caught up, suspended by their unusual pasts and uncertain futures, caught up in their own rapture.  Will, we find out, is fleeing from a scandalous situation in which the head pastor of a small fundamentalist church, in which Will held a leadership position, is responsible for the death of one of his young parishioners.  Will had a role in the boy’s interactions with the pastor and, though not accused of any crime, is racked with doubts and guilt.  He expresses his thoughts and feelings in an on-going blog.

Alex, an introverted teenage boy, an aspiring musician, suffers from seizures, and hides inside a hoodie, which takes on the role of his cocoon.   He’s constantly threatening to kill himself if he can’t control the world around him.  We find out that he is Will’s son, given away by his mother’s parents when their unwed daughter disappeared.  He has been taken in by an unstable family in Boise.   Alex’s rebellious “brother” Leroy, also works in the Hobby Lobby, and tries to protect the boy from his demons, while fighting his own.  

Anna, an attractive, but insecure single young woman drifts from job to job.  She hides amid the merchandise at the end of each day so she can spend time at night in the break room reading, since her father and brothers don’t approve of her being immersed in trashy books, in which she finds destruction of the heroine a positive story aspect.

Pauline, the store’s explosive manager, whose language is peppered with swear words, needs to be in control to protect against the demise of the store, which protects her from the loss of purpose in life.

Then there is the ever-on television monitor showing a satellite feed of two innocuous corporate talking heads, boosting the company’s products, except for interruptions when the weather conditions cause a switch to graphic live surgery of people caught between life and death.

Hunter’s writing examines themes within a format of social rituals, religious questions, and personal responsibilities.  The characters are not portrayed as stupid, just unable to understand why they are who they are and what their lives mean.  Each has a sense of meaninglessness, their own personal Rapture.   Will, in particular, is faced with whether he can rid himself of his guilt and loneliness, and move from his seemingly unshakable conviction that the Rapture is imminently approaching.   We are left with the man standing, pleading, “now,” “now,” “now,” waiting for some sort of sign.

Dobama’s production, under the focused direction of Nathan Motta, is compelling.  The cast is universally strong, the show well paced, and holds the audience’s attention.

Andrew Deike is marvelous as Alex.  This is an impressive performance which rips at the soul.  Confused, hiding in his hoodie, Alex begs for someone, anyone to make everything better.

Tom Woodward is Deike’s acting equal as Will.  Initially controlled to the point of a near void of affect, continually filled with angst, the performance reaches deep into the soul, exposing fear, tears and anguish.

Kim Krane shines as Anna, a wayward waif whose lack of worldliness is hidden in escapes from reality through reading and fantasizing.

Brian Devers makes Leroy clearly into a rebel with a cause, many causes. Unfortunately, none of them are focused enough to lead out of the Hobby Lobby.

Kristy Kruz’s Pauline, the driven store manager, is clearly both the laugh center written to relieve the play’s tension, and yet another person caught in the in-between.  She is character right!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Though the message, due to the abstract nature of the concept of Rapture and religious differences may turn off some viewers, Dobama’s A BRIGHT NEW BOISE, featuring superb acting and focused directing,  is a production well worth seeing!
A BRIGHT NEW BOISE runs through November 18  at Dobama.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

THE MISANTHROPE is delightfully performed by the CWRU/CPH MFA students

Jean Baptiste Poquein, better known to the theatre world as Moliére, was the seventeenth master writer of dark comedy and satire.  He, like such other noted scribes as George Bernard Shaw, skewered that which they thought was ridiculous.

Moliére’s subjects include hits on religion, the Catholic church in particular, and upper class society, especially the two-faced way in which they told one tale when a person was present, but another story behind the person’s back. 

An  attack on the two-faced nature of friendships and conversations is the topic of THE MISANTHROPE, which is now being produced by the Case Western Reserve/Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts students.

THE MISANTHROPE centers on Alceste, a so-called idealist who believes people are inherently dishonest hypocrites.  Alceste says what he believes, no matter the consequences, which include lawsuits for slander, conflicts with his lady love, and his decision to retire into seclusion.

Moliére is the master of satire.  This comes through clearly in Richard Wilbur’s English verse translation of THE MISANTHROPE.  The lines are filled with clever bon mots, sly comic innuendoes, and delightful verbal attacks.  One of the major challenges of the script is to stay true to the writing style while being sure to stress meaning within the poetic style.

Though written centuries ago, the ideas are still relevant. Moliére challenges each viewer to ask, “What is truth?”  “What is your truth?” 

He preaches that we each have to negotiate through lives filled with potential verbal land mines.  The question is how do we negotiate around them, or do we wage war by hurling blunt truths in the form of verbal hand grenades.   Do we tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?  Or, tell little white lies?  Or, speak “diplomatically?”  Or, ignore confrontations with the hope that they will go unnoticed and have little effect?  Whatever the choice, what are the consequences?

Case Western Reserve professor Donald Carrier’s direction of THE MISANTHROPE is generally on course.  He finely walks the tightrope between satirical farce and slapstick, except in one instance.  Why he decided to add a shtick of a man carrying too many suitcase, who stumbles and trips and throws them hither and yon, is beyond comprehension.  Did it get a laugh?  Sure, prat falls usually do, but what was the purpose regarding the story line and the expertly controlled farce elements of the rest of the production?

The cast is universally strong.  Stephen Spencer is correctly outrageously hyper as the moralistic Alceste.  He never goes over the line.  We laugh with him, not at him. 

Bernard Bygott is character correct as Alceste’s friend, Philinte.  TJ Gainley is fey-correct as the sonnet writing Oronte.  Though she sometimes stresses the rhythm and rhyme pattern of the writing, thus putting form before substance, lovely Therese Anderberg is acceptable as Célimène, Alceste’s love interest. 

Sarah Kinsey is wonderful as Eliante, Célimène's cousin.  The scene at the end of the play where she rejects Alceste’s advances was a show highlight and garnered just applause.  Christa Hinkley is bitch-perfect as the aloof Arsinoé.

Cameron Caley Michalak’s set design and Michael Boll’s lighting add to the visual elements of the production.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Programs’,  THE MISANTHROPE, is a delightful production of a historic classic.

THE MISANTHROPE runs through November 3 at the Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre (The Helen) on the lower level of CPH’s Allen Theatre.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Problematic THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED at Beck

The Cleveland area is in the throes of a parade of gay-themed plays. 
Cleveland Public Theatre is staging STANDING ON CEREMONY:  THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS; Blank Canvas is showcasing NEXT FALL; Ensemble is presenting THE NORMAL HEART; and Beck is enacting THE LITTLE DOG THAT LAUGHED.

Why the proliferation of homosexual theatrical vehicles?  Theatre represents the era from which it comes and right now this country is in the midst of the gay rights movement.  The armed forces have altered their stand on gays serving in the military, many states have approved or are considering  recognizing unions between same sex couples, the entertainment industry, especially television, is ever increasing the number of gay story lines.  The theatre, as a mirror of culture, is also reflecting on various homosexual issues.

Douglas Carter Beane’s THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED centers on Mitchell, a conflicted, closeted gay actor, who is at a cross-roads of his career.  Diane, his agent, wants him to star in a play written by a gay writer, about two homosexual men.  She thinks that Mitchell, being a “straight” actor would become a powerhouse in the industry by assuming the role, but has to be a straight playing a gay, not a gay playing gay. 

Mitch has a recurring case of homosexuality.  So he doesn’t have to face reality, he gets drunk and rationalizes his sexual experiences with male hookers.  Unfortunately he “rents” Alex, who turns out to be more than a trick.  Mitchell and Alex find some common ground and are soon acting more like lovers than john and hooker. 

Things get complicated when Alex’s best friend, Ellen, becomes pregnant, supposedly with Alex’s child.  What to do?  They turn to Mitchell for the money to get an abortion (why a $200 an hour prostitute needs to turn to someone else for $1500 doesn’t make sense, but that’s the story).  Diane has a better idea.  She perceives a scheme wherein Mitchell is to marry Ellen, have Alex as his “assistant,” and become a father.   Mitchell, in the eyes of the public, is a “straight” married man with a child, and, Mitchell and Alex get to continue their sexual liaison.  As it turns out, Diane, who in actuality is prostituting herself to sell her client’s talents, and Alex, who knows he is a man for sale, both, in a clever plot twist, get what they want.

The conclusion keynotes the play’s title, THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED, comes from the nursery rhyme, Hi Diddle.  The last lines read, “The little dog laughed to see such sport, and the dish ran away with the spoon.”  Yes, that’s what happens in the play!

Beane’s plot, though interesting, has a short shelf-life.  When it was written in 2006, there was still a tradition to hide the public life of actors who were gay.  It came from the long history of manipulating public opinion by matching homosexual actors with women so they could remain in the closet.  It resulted in such gay stars as Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Farley Granger and Richard Chamberlin being perceived as “straight.”  

Recently, that has not been the format.  Motion picture and television performers have been emerging from their closets, often flaunting their sexuality.  Openness, except in the field of athletics, is fairly the norm today.  Gays openly play straight roles (e.g., Neil Patrick Harris on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER), straight actors play gay (e.g., Brandon Routh, of Superman fame, in PARTNERS, Darren Criss, as Blaine in GLEE, and Eric Stonestreet as Cam on MODERN FAMILY). 

Audiences don’t seem to care who is portraying whom.  Coming out hasn’t affected the careers of stars. In fact, in many instances it has enhanced their following.  Think of Lance Bass, Ricky Martin and Harris.  Or, is ignored, as in the case of Ellen DeGeneris.

It is this breaking down of the walls of sexual identification that weakens THE LITTLE DOG THAT LAUGHED.  The premise of the show, the foundation of the actions, has crumbled.  This might not have been a problem if the powers that be had set the play in 1990, or even 2006, the time of the original production, but stating in the program “time: today” takes it out of the historical mindset and forces a 2112 mindset.  The premise does not hold up under that scrutiny.  It’s like staging HAIR as a 2012 era show.  The times, they have changed!

The Beck production, under the direction of Scott Plate, is quite acceptable.  The overall effect of the script, within the limits of the shaky foundational idea, holds up.   The actors make their characters into an identifiable people.

Laura Perrotta is bitch-right as Mitchell’s lesbian agent.  Her caustic tone is right, but she sometimes sounds automatic, rather than meaningful.   In some instances, her rapid pace causes difficulties in idea reception.  Her most effective instant is her revealing the plot twist to Alex, that sends the play to its conclusion.

Phil Carroll breathes conflicted life into Mitchell, though, at times, he seems to be acting rather than living the role.  He appears to be a little uncomfortable in the nude scenes.  (Yes, for the conservative among you, there is full-frontal male nudity, and some swearing as well.  Some may question whether the nudity pushes the plot along, but that was the decision the director made, so it was included.)

Brandyn Leo Lynn Day (that’s quite a mouthful for a marquee or program), is quite believable as Alex.  Both in and out of his clothes, he is able to portray a real person with faults and confusions.

Lindsey Augusta Mercer develops Ellen into a rather one-dimensional person. Part of this is development of her character in the script, part a seeming lack of clarity by Mercer on who Ellen really is.

Laura Carlson Tarantowski’s scenic design makes for a nice contemporary setting, but its layout creates some voice projection issues.

The theatre’s acoustics are not good, causing flatness of sound.  Added to that issue is the audience being seated on two angles of the stage.  This creates hearing problems.  When the actor is facing side A, side B can’t hear and vice versa.  This is not helped by stage movements which sometimes find performers tucked into one or the other side of the acting area, and/or sitting in the audience, increasing hearing difficulties.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED continues the recent trend of area theatres to probe into the gay phenomenon.  Though it is somewhat dated due to changing attitudes towards gays in the arts, it still makes for an interesting theatrical experience.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Browns finally win, so does THE KARDIAC KID at Cleveland Public Theatre

Sunday the Cleveland Browns won.  Later that day and carrying over to Monday, the city was abuzz.  No, the team hadn’t won the Super Bowl, the Browns had been victorious in the first game in their last eleven attempts.

Eric Schmiedl, a long time Browns backer, understands this city.  In fact, he uses the team in his play, THE KARDIAC KID as analogy for the people of Northeastern Ohio. 

He introduces and mirrors people who have endured living in the “mistake on the lake.”  They have lasted in an area noted for a burning river, the scorched hair of a mayor, weather noted for the “lake effect,” being dubbed the rust belt, and watching population and large corporations flee.  These incidents, along with the fumble, the Mesa, the interception, the loss of its football team, and the sneaky exit of its greatest basketball player, have been answered by hope, pride, and longing.  Hey, “we” won on Sunday.

The shortcomings have been overcome by producing an area with one of the country’s most vital theatre scenes, one of the world’s greatest orchestras, a fantastic art museum, some unique architectural buildings, several top rated world recognized hospitals, and unchallenged philanthropy.  And, “we” won Sunday.

Laugh at Cleveland, we laugh at ourselves!

Eric Schmiedl loves Cleveland, with all its wonders and warts.  In his self-written one man show, he journeys through the 1980-81 Brownie football season.  Yes, Brownie, for the symbol of the team at the time was a cute little elf in a football uniform.  It’s the kind of symbol that fits this city.  No.  Lions, tigers, bengals don’t fit. And, no, the dogs and the dog pound just won’t do!  A cute Brownie did the city just fine!

During his recounting the game-by-game season, he spotlights the lives and fortunes of a mixed-race girl abandoned to her Caucasian grandmother, a Roman Catholic priest and his enemy, the parish dog, a bookish tradesman from the near west side who thinks he has discovered the secret for insuring victory for the Browns, the man’s son, a New York bartender, a waiter turned cook, and other incidental characters.  They all have one thing in common…their love for the Browns. 

Schmiedl peppers his script with lots of local references.  We travel to Aurora, visit a Lawson’s, are reminded of The Cleveland Press, go shopping at Randall Park Mall, eat at Ponderosa Steak House and the Pewter Mug. 

Schmiedl takes us to January 4, 1981, and the last play of the playoffs.  It’s the old Cleveland Stadium, 36 degrees below zero wind chill factor.  The Browns are 2 points down, there are 32 seconds left in the game, the action begins and …  Schmiedl doesn’t ever finish the tale.  Why?  Who cares, we are Clevelanders, and whatever the outcome, we can endure.  We’ve lived through it before, we’ll live through it again, and again, and unfortunately, again.  Come on, this is Cleveland.

The Cleveland Public Theatre production is involving.  The animated Schmiedl, assisted by his trusty overlays and overhead projector, keep the audience’s interest for the entire 105 minutes (with intermission).
Capsule judgement:  You don’t have to be a Cleveland football fanatic, or even a Clevelander to enjoy Eric Schmiedl’s THE KARDIAC KID.  You don’t have to, but it helps.

THE KARDIAC KID runs through October 20.  Be aware that the curtain goes up at 7 PM.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to

Emotionally laden THE COLOR PURPLE at Karamu

There probably isn’t a friendlier theatre for audiences in town than Karamu.  Guests are greeted by the gracious Vivian Wilson, the theatre’s public relations director.  If you get to the theatre early, there’s always someone inviting you to sit down at their table and talk.  After the production, the cast lines up to thank you for coming. 

Karamu is the oldest African American-oriented theatre in the country.  They pick shows that fit their audiences.  This is not to say the theatre is black-centered, it’s not.  Audiences are almost always integrated, as are the casts.

THE COLOR PURPLE, which is now being produced at their Jelliffe Theatre, while based upon Alice Walker's novel.  The music was written by Marsha Norman with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray.

Walker was the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for the novel, THE COLOR PURPLE.  Her marriage to white and Jewish Melvyn Leventhal was the first recorded racially integrated union in Mississippi.  She coined the word womanist, which she defines as “a woman who loves other women sexually or non-sexually and men sexually and non-sexually.  A woman is to feminist as lavender is to purple.”

Obviously, her being African-American and the concept of being a womanist
are at the core of THE COLOR PURPLE.

The Broadway production of THE COLOR PURPLE earned eleven Tony Award nominations and ran 910 performances.  It is presently touring through the United States, making a Cleveland stop in March of 2008.

It’s rural Georgia in the 1930s.  Two young girls are singing the clapping game, Huckleberry Pie.  It quickly becomes apparent that though the girls appear happy, Celie, the 14 year-old, is pregnant.  She is the victim of her father’s incest for the second time.  Pa gives away both children, leaving Celie not only childless but unable to bare future babies.  Celie, as she does throughout the play, turns to God for a sign, for something that will let her know what is happening to her.  Eventually she is given to Mister, a man in need of someone to take care of his children, work as his “woman” and use her for sexual pleasure. Nettie, Celie’s sister comes to visit, sharing that their father is now attempting to have sex with her.  When Nettie attempts to stay with Celie, Mister tries to rape her and she runs away. 

Celie eventually finds self-pride and independence, Nettie befriends Celie’s children, who were taken in by a missionary family, and the horror and frustrations turn to reunited love.

The music and dancing are well integrated into the story, as are racism and sexism.  Though there are no classics in the score, the over twenty-five songs, effectively push the story along. 

The title of the play is an important symbol.  Celie is going through life with little ability to notice the beauty of life. The color purple, the color of bruises on her body from the continued rapes and beatings, transforms into the color of beauty, as the purple flowers of the field bloom as Celie heals and grows into a womanist.

The Karamu production, under the direction of Terrence Spivey is uneven.  The acting is generally excellent.  The lovely Coleen Longshaw is mesmerizing as Celie.  She has a fine singing voice, interprets songs well, and makes Celie go from a beat down girl to an inspired woman.  She is matched by Mikhaela LaShawn as Shug, Celie’s friend and guide, and Corlesia Smith as Celie’s sister, Nettie.  The gossiping Church Ladies (Layne Farr, Joyce Linzy and Andrenée Fant Priest) are a hoot.  Christina Johnson is properly overbearing as Celie’s friend, Sophia.

On the male side, Dyrell Barnett creates in Harpo an endearing soft-hearted, hen-pecked man.  Michael May is so abusive that if the audience hadn’t been so polite, they would have booed him, as well as the equally obnoxious Kenny Charles, Celie’s Pa. 

On the other hand, the pacing is too languid, there are too many pauses for awkward set changes, the sound system squeals and pops and is too loud, and though it plays well, the band often drowns out the singers.

The choreography by Angelique Richelle Lipford was creative and enthusiastic, but sometimes undisciplined.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE COLOR PURPLE, which is an appropriate selection for Karamu’s mission, gets a good, but somewhat flawed production, filled with some wonderful singing and acting.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Every era has its controversies.  Since theatre represents the era from which it comes, here in the United States, attitudes about the women’s movement were presented by feminist plays.  The Black movement found African American writers sending forth their messages.  Today, with the Gay rights movement in full swing, it is only logical that some of that community’s issues reach the forefront.

Same sex marriage, except in Islamic countries and the United States, is not a major issue.  Same sex marriages are legal in eleven countries (Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina and Denmark).  In addition it is legally recognized in Israel, Aruba, Curacao, Saint Maarten, Mexico and Brazil.  New Zealand passed legislature approving same sex marriage in August.

STANDING ON CEREMONY:  THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS, started in 2011 in Los Angeles as a series of fund raising events, when the issue of same sex marriage was in the news in an on-again, off-again legal fight for legalization in California. Money from the stagings was donated to marriage equality organizations.

The 90-minute play, as conceived by Brain Shnipper, is not an attempt to provide a balanced viewpoint on the issue, but is a celebratory look at gay marriage, complete with its humorous, touching, and controversial issues.

In LA and New York, it was presented as a staged reading with a rotating cast of celebrities taking the roles on any given night reading parts while standing behind podiums.   At Cleveland Public Theatre, where the show is presently running, there is a set cast and the scenes are acted out, with memorized lines, costumes, a set, and clever staging.

The script, which consists of nine playlets, is the work of writers whose accolades include the nominations and/or receipt of Pulitzer Prizes, Obies, Emmys, and Tonys.  Each presents his/her unique take on before, after and during the “I do.”

The first act consists of:
            •THE REVISION  Jordan Harrison’s amusing look at how two men go about writing their wedding vows to reflect the limited options available to a gay couple.
            •THIS FLIGHT TONIGHT  Wendy MacLeod asks if there can be any hope for happiness when a lesbian couple travels to Iowa to take their vows.
            •THE GAY AGENDA  Paul Rudnicks’ sad, yet hilarious appeal for restricting marriage to that between a man and a woman by an Ohio homemaker, who is a member of the extreme right wing religiously conservative, Focus on the Family.
            •ON FACEBOOK  Doug Wright takes on social media by following an actual Facebook thread chronicling a discussion on the subject of gay marriage, which starts out innocently and ends up as an all-out assault.
            •STRANGE FRUIT  Neil LaBute’s story of two women who want to get married in the “old fashioned way,” but are frustrated by reality.

The second act centers on: 
            •A TRADITIONAL WEDDING  Mo Gaffney gives a glimpse of a long “married” lesbian couple reminiscing about their “wedding.”
            •MY HUSBAND  Paul Rudnick gives a delightful glimpse into the machinations of an ultra liberal Jewish mother who is desperate to find a husband for her gay son.
            •LONDON MOSQUITOES  Moisés Kaufman’s poignant story of a man who, at his husband’s funeral, tries to make sense of the loss.
            •PABLO AND ANDRE AT THE ALTAR OF WORDS  José Rivera’s snapshot of two men who use their wedding vows to say the things that people never really say to each other.

            The CPT production under the creative and focused eye of Craig J. George, wrings out almost all of the humor and pathos of each of the scenes. The scenes are melded together by creative choreography.

            The cast, which includes Molly Andrews-Hinders, Maryann Elder, Dana Hart, Stuart Hoffman, Michael Silverstein and Beth Wood is universally excellent.

            Highlight segments are:  MaryAnn Elder’s sincere, but hysterically funny attempt to make the audience understand the conservative view against same sex marriage.  Elder also excels as the Jewish mother in her attempt to find a husband for her Jewish son because, “what will my friend’s think if you aren’t married?”  She is equally balanced in that playlet by Michael Silverstein as her son.  Dana Hart induces high pitched sadness in LONDON MOSQUITOES, as the husband left to grieve his husband.  Beth Wood is properly hyper-hysterical over the thought of gay life in IOWA in THIS FLIGHT TONIGHT.  

            The final segment is the weakest, having a feeling of being tacked on.  It doesn’t have the same writing quality or dramatic impact as the rest of the pieces.

Capsule judgement:  STANDING ON CEREMONY;  THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS is a must see production for anyone who has empathy toward the same sex marriage movement.  It should be required seeing for conservatives who don’t understand why there is a need for a “gay agenda.”

STANDING ON CEREMONY:  THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS runs though October 20.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Will Rogers shares wisdom at Actors' Summit 
William Penn Adair Rogers, known to millions of Americans as Will said, “When I die I want my epitaph, or whatever you call those signs on gravestones, to read:  I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn’t like.  I am so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved.”  Unfortunately, he got his wish on August 15, 1935 when the Alaskan bound plane he was flying in with aviator Wiley Post crashed.

Rogers, who is the subject of the one-man show, WILL ROGERS’ U.S.A., which is now on stage at Actors’ Summit Theatre, was probably Oklahoma’s favorite son.  What many don’t know is, this adored story teller, actor, writer and world-famous figure was born to a prominent Cherokee National family in the Indian Territory.
A leading Progressive Era wit, after many years in vaudeville, doing rope tricks and making humorous comments, he became the top-paid Hollywood star during the 30s.  He poked fun at gangsters, politicians, parents, teenagers, law schools, colleges, political conventions, Republicans, economists, and government programs in a way that didn’t offend.  (Wow, could we use his sage comments during the present vile political race.)  
He is widely known for his, “I am not a member of an organized political party, I am a Democrat.”  He marked among his friends, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Some of his other sage comments included:  “An ignorant person is one who doesn’t know what he has just found out, ” “Don’t gamble, take all your savings, buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it.  If it don’t go up, don’t buy it,” “Politics is the best show in the world,” “War is the only game that everyone loses. Why do we keep playing?” and “I have always noticed that people will never laugh at anything that is not based on the truth.”

These, and many other of Roger’s truthisms, are now being spoken by Neil Thackaberry, who is portraying the revered icon at Actors’ Summit.

It’s a difficult task to do a one-man show.  It is even more difficult when people have a visual image and know the vocal sounds of the person being portrayed.  Doing Rogers is further problematic as he was a quiet comedian, a story teller who didn’t raise his voice, didn’t swear, told  cute tales not hysterical jokes.  To make a play about his life that will hold attention his material needs to be incorporated into a song-filled, dance infused, and humorous script like the delightful WILL ROGERS FOLLIES, rather than to a 90-minute monologue.

Given the challenge, Thackaberry, who bears little physical resemblance to the lanky Rogers, and doesn’t possess the political philosopher’s natural audience connection, does a nice job.  Thackaberry sends forth the many, many lines with ease, getting smiles from the audience, and creating a nice atmosphere.  He even delights the audience with a couple of rope tricks.   Two segments highlights were his discussion of corsets and Calvin Coolidge.

The set is a blank stage with a desk and chair way upstage.  Why the decision was made to put the desk so far away from the audience is a mystery.  Each time Thackaberry wandered to it, he broke his connection to the audience.  That connection is the heart of the show.

 CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Will Rogers was a great American humorist and philosopher.  His understated humor is sage wisdom, but does not make for compelling theatre, in spite of a nice presentation by Neil Thackaberry at Actors’ Summit.  

This Actor’s Summit production is dedicated to the memory of Ira Sherman, Board member, Set Builder, and Friend!

Monday, October 08, 2012

Farcical THE IMAGINARY INVALID should delight many at Great Lakes Theatre

Farcical THE IMAGINARY INVALID should delight many at Great Lakes Theatre

Jean Baptiste Poquelin, better known to the Western world as Moliére, was a seventeenth century French dramatist who wrote penetrating satirical comedies. In an era when the theatre mostly centered on pastoral plays, divertissements, and neoclassic tragedies, he upset many by taking on social and societal issues and groups, such as health care, the upper class, the clergy, doctors, and anti-women’s groups.
When he died in 1673, in what turned out to be a scandal over whether he was poisoned by the court composer with whom he had recently had a falling out, the church leaders refused to officiate or grant his body formal burial.  It wasn’t until seven years later, when the ban was lifted by the King, that he was forgiven and honored by having the French national theatre, The House of Moliére, named after him.
His plays include THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES, THE MISER, THE MISANTHROPE and THE DOCTOR IN SPITE OF HIMSELF.  His last, and probably one of his most popular scripts was THE IMAGINARY INVALID.
As originally conceived, THE IMAGINARY INVALID was a comedy-ballet, with dance sequences and musical interludes.  It concerns Argan, a hypochondriac afraid of all diseases, and the possessor of all disease.  Moliére himself played the main role in the first staging, coughing up real blood during the show’s fourth performance, and dying later that evening.
In its revised version, now on stage at Great Lakes Theatre, as created by director Tracy Young, playwright Oded Gross and composer Paul James Prendergast, the script becomes a farcical, 60s pop culture romp. 
In this version, Argan is still a hypochondriac, afraid of all diseases and the  treated by quacks, but, according to the director, instead of just focusing on medical issues, it encourages viewers to “ask how do we each chose to live.” 
Incorporated into the action is commedia staging, which is free form physical antics.  This type of farcical theatre is associated with slapstick, running into walls and doors, and broad and unrealistic characters and characterizations.
The story concerns Argan, his doctors, uninhibited maid, unfaithful wife, unscrupulous lawyer, two daughters, the older daughter’s suitor and her arranged for fiancé, and his brother.  There’s also lots of singing and dancing, much of which doesn’t fit smoothly into the plot.  That’s part of the design, since, except for its slight message, this isn’t supposed to be finite story telling.   It is intended to be entertainment, for entertainment’s sake.
Under director Young’s guidance, the cast has a wonderful time and so does much of the audience.  She directs with a broad brush, creating lots of easy to laugh at shticks.  Reality is not the issue, getting guffaws is and nothing works better than the narcoleptic lawyer’s constant passing out each time he tells one of his many lies, resulting in falling upside down from a ladder, running into doors, and smashing to the floor with regularity.
The show’s first act is very long and drags.  The second act is much more fun and has better focus.  For those used to Moliére’s comedy style, adjusting to the outlandish farce, which begs for laughs, takes a little getting used to.
Tom Ford’s Argan is a mash-up of Nathan Lane, Paul Lynde and Truman Capote.  He’s outlandishly dear and fun! 
Sara Bruner as Toinette, his impudent servant, is a total joy who makes Argan into a perfect foil for their Abbott and Costello-like routines. 
Lovely Kimbe Lancaster is ingénue-right as Angelique, Argan’s youngest daughter, while Jodi Dominick rings laughs as the hunchbacked older daughter (Louison).  Her scenes with pot-bellied nebbish Thomas Diafopirus (portrayed by Ian Gould), Angelique’s intended suitor, are hilarious.
David Anthony Smith (Argan’s brother, Beralde) plays with the audience with direct interactions, including creating a song based on the input of a first row audience member. 
Lynn Robert Berg begs for laughs as Doctor Purgon, one of the manipulating physicians.  Juan Rivera Lebron carries off the role of Cleante, a florist and Angelique’s other suitor, well.  If J. Todd Adams (Monsieur De Bonnefoit, the lawyer) makes it through the play’s run without seriously hurting himself for all his falling and wall smashing into, it will be a wonder.
Kent Roht’s choreography, though not overly creative, works adequately well, as does Paul James Prendergast’s original music.  Christopher Acebo’s art moderne set and costume designs fit the mood and era.
Capsule judgement:  Tracy Young’s direction and the efforts of her cast pay off in a presentation of THE IMAGINARY INVALID that, from the reactions of the opening night audience, pleased many.  On the other hand, Moliére purists, and those who think comedy is comedy and not farce, will probably not be overjoyed.
An excellent Teacher Preparation Guide has been prepared by Daniel Hahn and Kelly Schaffer Florian to aid teachers in leading discussions about THE IMAGINARY INVALID.  For information or copy send an email to

Sunday, October 07, 2012

ANYTHING GOES, dynamic dancing, fanciful farce and great music at The Palace

Cleveland may not have great athletic teams, but it is a pennant contender when it comes to theatre.  The local area is one of the top subscription sales stops on the Broadway series tour.  Often the shows start their treks to other venues by opening here.  Such is the case with ANYTHING GOES, which unleashed its 25 city tour last Friday at the Palace Theatre.

You’ve seen ANYTHING GOES before?  Well, maybe yes, maybe no, depends on where and when you did the viewing.  No less than four official versions of the Cole Porter show exist.  The original 1934 version, a 1962 revision,  and a 1987 revival which further altered both the story and the score.   In 2011 another face-lift was done with songs cut, other reassigned to different scenes and/or given to different characters to sing.  Porter songs from other shows were added.  (The newest revival starred Sutton Foster and Cleveland native Joel Grey.) It’s the latest version of the script that is lighting up the stage at The Palace.

Interestingly, even before the show opened in New York in its original form, changes had to be made.  The initial plot involved a bomb threat on an ocean liner, a shipwreck, and fun and games on a desert island.  A couple of weeks before the show’s opening a fire broke out on the cruise ship SS Morro Castle, which caused the deaths of over one hundred passengers.  Obviously, that was not a good time to use an ocean disaster as a plot for a light-hearted musical.   So, the idea was scrapped and the new story line developed. 

Since shows of the day were escapist, not like the well-made musicals of today where storylines drive the plot, and songs and dancing meld flawlessly, making the change was no big deal.

ANYTHING GOES takes place on an ocean liner bound from New York to London.  Handsome, young Billy Crocker stows away in order to pursue his attempt to win over his love, Hope Harcourt, who is engaged to uptight Brit, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh.  Also on board is Moonface Martin who is Public Enemy #13, Reno Sweeney, a nightclub singer and “evangelist,” two Chinese sinners, a “minister,” four “angels,” an airheaded floosy, Crocker’s wealthy boss, and lots sailors and passengers.

The story?  Billy pursues Hope, whose mother wants her to marry Oakleigh for his money, while Reno pursues both Billy and Oakleigh, the passengers want to sail with celebrities and are thrilled when they find out Public Enemies # 1 (well, not really) and #13 (for real) are on board. 

Get the idea that this is just fun stuff that requires no thinking and little will be learned?  You are right.  And you are along for one heck of a fun ride, while listening to such great Porter classics as I Get a Kick Out of You, You’re The Top, Easy to Love, It’s De-lovely, All Through the Night, and The Gypsy in Me.  Yes, all these are part of this version of this script.

But, that not all. The first act show closer, Anything Goes, explodes into an exciting long tap dance number that brought the audience to its feet.  To add to the enjoyment, early in Act Two Blow Gabriel, Blow becomes a prayer meeting song and dance extravaganza that caused so much excitement that the show actually had to pause because the audience wouldn’t stop clapping.

The touring show is dynamically directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall.  She misses no chances to excite and delight the audience.

Tall, beautiful, talented Rachel York makes Reno into a singing and dancing marvel.  This is one talented performer playing a role that appears to have been written for her. The dynamic York played Fantine in LES MISERABLES on Broadway, and Marguerite in the second Broadway version of THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL.  In a one-on-one interview, York, who declares that she is “a perfectionist,” shared that she finds that “touring, and living out of a suitcase is going to be an adventure” as she is a new mother and will be bringing her child on the tour. She finds that “every opening night in each city is a major challenge. The different audiences and new venues present an interesting challenge.”

Fred Applegate convulses the audience as Moonface Martin.  He is the consummate stage comedian, with a mobile face and light-up-the-stage presence.  His version of Friendship, sung and mugged with York, is one of the show’s many highlights.

Leading man handsome Erich Bergen has the right boy next door presence, sings and acts well, but appears a little dance challenged, finessing some of his moves.

Alex Finke makes for an adorable Hope, Sandra Shipley is properly uptight as her mother, and Edward Staudenmayer is a total delight as Lord Oakleigh.  Dennis Kelley, makes for fun, as Eisha Whitney, Billy’s near blind boss.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  ANYTHING GOES is a total delight and a must see!  You’ll come out of the theatre thinking of the show that “It’s De-lovely,” that “I Get a Kick Out of You” because “You’re The Top,” and so “Easy To Love.”  

Saturday, October 06, 2012

NEXT FALL, emotionally challenging, thought provoking at Blank Canvas

When Blank Canvas opened its doors in a funky hard to find near-west side arts building, the question was whether artistic director Pat Ciamacco’s underfunded endeavor of love would make it.  The first show, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MUSICAL, was an artistic smash hit.  It was followed with critically acclaimed OF MICE AND MEN and then HELLCAB. 

Their newest offering, NEXT FALL, is an emotionally challenging, thought provoking drama which continues the theatre’s “wow” streak.

Geoffrey Nauffts’s NEXT FALL opened off-Broadway in 2009 to extremely positive reviews.  Sold out shows resulted in three extensions and then a move to a successful Broadway run.

Termed as “artful and thoughtful and very moving,” and “humorously absorbing and touching,” and “the funniest heartbreaker in town,” it concerns
Adam, an older, gay, neurotic atheist, and his relationship with Luke, an impulsive, closeted gay actor who is a devout Christian. 

This is a match that defies the odds.  Luke prays before meals, after sex, and won’t reveal his sexuality to his traditional Southern Bible-belt family.  Adam is a hypochondriac, who doesn’t believe in heaven, The Bible, or the power of prayer.  They prove the adage that sometimes love conquers all. 

Their five-year relationship seems to be hitting a road bump when, while Adam is out of town, the taxi Luke is riding in is involved in a horrendous accident, leaving Luke in a vegetative state.  Adam, and Luke’s family and friends, are forced to deal with life, death and challenges to their individual belief systems.

The play, which starts with a loud crash ends with the audience in a state of emotional angst, should leave even the most emotionally void members of the audience reaching for Kleenex and questioning their own convictions.

The Blank Canvas’s production, under the adept guidance of Patrick Ciamacco, is absorbing.  The cast doesn’t portray the characters, they live their individual roles.  Motivations are clear, with each performer so well texturing their roles that each person becomes transparent.  Wisely, there is an avoidance of the fey physical and vocal affections that are often woven in the creation of gay characters.

Slight Timothy J. Allen’s Luke is believable as the obsessed young man who clings to religion to make his world work.  He cannot and does not waver from Jesus-centered path in spite of the fact that his intransigency leaves him in a quandary regarding his life style, and may end his relationship with Adam. 

Curt Arnold, as Luke’s lover, Adam, creates a clear daddy figure who allows Luke to live his gay life in New York, while hiding his sexual identity from his family.  Arnold clearly establishes both the character’s theological ambivalence and emotional bonding to Luke, with an underlying insecure hysteria.

Anne McEvoy, with a southern accent highlighting her history of drug and non-conventional life decisions, is both humorous and pathetic as Luke’s biological mother, who abandoned him early in his life. 

Lindsay Pier, as Luke and Adam’s friend and candle store employer, creates a focused character, as does Jason Elliott Brown as Brandon, Luke’s closeted friend.

Jeffrey Glover captivates as Luke’s explosive Bible thumping, homophobic father.

The play takes place in a series of settings, which, because of the limited size of the venue’s thrust stage, creates crowded areas.  Though it is possible to figure out where each scene is taking place, reference to the program’s scene settings list is often needed.

Time eras, which cover 2007 to 2012, are identified by musical bridges.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  NEXT FALL continues the Blank Canvas’s streak of well conceived productions of challenging scripts.  Though viewers may have to set aside their own individual beliefs in order to buy into the play’s ending, this is an overall positive theatrical experience and very well worth seeing.
NEXT FALL runs through October 21 in its theatre at 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website.  (My GPS was of little help).  Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  It’s an adventurous trip, but worth the effort. For tickets and directions go to

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

 Sold out crowd well entertained by Al Jarreau and The Cleveland Orchestra

Known as “the voice of versatility,” seven time Grammy Award winner Al Jarreau joined The Cleveland Orchestra, under the baton of Larry Baird, to energize and please a Severance Hall audience on Sunday evening.

The 72-year old Jarreau, who has been heralded as “one of the world’s greatest natural resources,” and “the greatest jazz singer alive,” scatted, crooned, used his voice as a musical instrument, held conversations with the orchestra, shuffled around the stage, involved the audience in sing-alongs, and generally had a great time as he let forth with many of his best selling songs and some Broadway tunes.

Though sometimes hard to hear due to some mic problems in the first act, and his tendency to speak quietly, it mattered not to his avid fans. 

Smiling, with a perky beret perched on his head, he sang stylized versions of Bess and Summertime from PORGY AND BESS.  He did his own take on a medley of songs from WEST SIDE STORY, including Something’s Coming, Tonight, Maria, I Feel Pretty and America.  He added his salute to Broadway by adding songs from THE SOUND OF MUSIC. 

Other selections included Everything in Time and God Bless America.

Baird, with flowing blond hair, and a suede cowboy style jacked, looked more the leader of a band, rather than a world famous orchestra.  His informal style well fit the Jarreau style.

The orchestra members, who seemed totally delighted with Jarreau’s presentation, a departure from their usual repertoire, played with their expected proficiency, often playing back up to the band, consisting of the talented Larry Williams (piano), Mark Simmons (drums), and Chris Walker (bass).

Jarreau even added his political views by commenting that he needed to talk to “Barack” to make sure that we keep music in the schools.

Capsule judgement: All-in-all,  the evening was a love-n between Jarreau, The Cleveland Orchestra, and the sold out audience.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Review of the Reviewers Reviews--Marilyn Bennett

Roy dear, Murray and I want to thank you for sending us to The Normal Heart....your review was so on the money.....we are still reeling from the  impact of the subject, the acting as you said was not studied but they were the actual human, suffering, neglected beings that we as a whole should be ashamed of ignoring out of stupidity.....Our money is riding with your reviews, you never let us down ....This was the most "realisitic" theater I have ever attended......sincerely