Monday, October 28, 2013

Engrossing, impressive, compelling COCK @ Dobama

Definitions for the word cock include: an arrogant person, an adult male chicken who often controls a territory, a device for regulating flow, a hammer in the lock of a firearm that insights action, to tilt to one side, and is slang for a penis.  All of these explanations are relevant to the development of Mike Bartlett’s brilliantly conceived script, COCK, which is now being performed at Dobama Theatre.

The story centers on John, ironically the only person in the script who actually has a name, though he is also the only person who does not have the ability to identify who he is.  John is in a long term relationship with M, but seemingly doesn’t know why.  He meets W, a divorced woman who is willing to accept his bisexuality.  This creates a love triangle, with John as the fulcrum, which has to be dealt with.  But John is paralyzed by indecision, and becomes a self-volunteered pawn in a battle for his affections.  His conflict is not over whether he is gay, straight or bisexual, but who of, “Who am I?” Interestingly, we don’t know enough about John’s background to understand why he becomes frozen when self-responsibility and decisions have to be made.

As the characters are revealed, the title of the play becomes clear.  M, John’s arrogant stock broker partner, controls the roost, his expensive condo.  He regulates all within that territory, including John.  M incites reactions in John by belittling his handsome boy toy and playing on John’s lack of ability to make decisions that would change the status quo.  Everything is tilted in M’s direction, including their love making.  Controlled, that is until W enters their lives.

Bartlett sets up the play as a battle. Corey Atkins, the play’s director, takes that lead and places the action in a theatre-in-the-square, with the audience on all four sides, much as in a boxing match.  The characters each sit at a corner of the stage, like fighters about to enter the ring.  Both M and W often circle John and each other, sparring for an attack position, hoping for a knockout. 

Atkins’ direction is meticulous.  He understands the script as well as how to bring out its concepts and undercurrents.  Each character is clearly etched, the play is well paced, and pauses are wisely used to highlight the action and inaction.   He creates scenes where nude observation and even copulation take place while the participants are fully dressed and don’t even touch each other. 

Handsome Andrew Gombas is both physically and emotionally perfect as John. At one point in the action, W asks John what is his best feature.  He answers, “my eyes.”  Yes, Gombas’s eyes are amazing.  When he is unable to make a decision, he is like a deer caught in the headlights.  His huge eyes become blank, unmoving.  He stands frozen, unblinking.  He becomes completely mesmerized.  His mouth freezes in a straight line, unable to open and speak.  His anguish becomes the audience’s anguish.  When he does speak, there is strain and anguish in his voice.  This is a very impressive performance.

The dark haired, sensual Drew Kopas, as John’s lover, M, gives a textured performance.  Slightly effeminate in his actions, his underlying attack dog emotional swings, of strong negative devices to control John, balanced by his desperate desire to hold on to the boy for whatever reason—pride, needing someone to control, love--are fascinating to observe. 

Lara Knox, as W, is appealing and creates a woman who is compassionate, yet, one can only wonder what motivates her to want a man unable to make a decision or a commitment.  Is she, in fact a female cock?

Bob Keefe creates in F, John’s liberal and affirming father, a man who has M’s best interests at heart, but may, as W points out, have an ulterior motive in wanting John around.

Their clothing is ingeniously integrated into each character’s persona.  The whippet thin M wears high fashion skin tight shirt and jeans, creating not only the picture of a well-dressed gay man, but one who desires to create the perfect image that is reflected in his condo and his beautiful boyfriend.  John’s clothing, on the other hand, is bland, slightly oversized, creating an illusion of someone who desires to draw no attention to himself or his body, who wants to be swallowed up. 

W’s sensual red dress, accenting her physical endowments, parallel’s M’s wardrobe in an attempt to create a character of sensuality.  F’s tweedy appearance enhances his liberal professorial persona.

Though vivid language is used throughout the show, it is so integrated and necessary for the development of Bartlett’s themes, it becomes “words that create meaning,” and nothing more.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  COCK, Mike Bartlett’s compelling script, under the meticulous and creative direction of Corey Atkins, and some of the very best acting seen on a local stage, is an absolutely must see production.  It’s an A+ experience.   
COCK runs through November 23 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

CWRU/CPH MFA production of TWELFTH NIGHT goes somewhat awry

TWELFTH NIGHT, now on stage in the Helen Theatre in the Allen Theatre complex of PlayhouseSquare, is the last ensemble presentation of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program’s class of 2014.  The program intends to give the students a chance to work with America’s leading theatre artists, appear on a professional stage, and, during their last year, journey to New York to showcase their talents.

The CWRU/CPH program has produced the likes of Rich Sommer (MFA ’04) who was in last year’s Broadway production of HARVEY and is a co-star on TV’s MAD MEN.  Another grad is 2012 Tony nominee, Elizabeth Davis (MFA ’06), for her starring role in the musical ONCE.

TWELFTH NIGHT, otherwise known as WHAT YOU WILL, is a comedy with farcical overtones that was originally developed to celebrate the Christmas season, though it contains no holiday references. The play, which was written in about 1601, uses devices such as musical interludes and farcical disorder, as well as traditional text to accomplish Shakespeare’s purpose.

It is one of the Bard’s three “mature comedies.”  The others are MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and AS YOU LIKE IT.  It contains traditional elements of Elizabethan romantic comedy including mistaken identity, separated twins, gender-crossing disguises, and obstacles that must be overcome in order to discover “true” love.  It goes beyond the norm by adding references to insanity as well as the madness of love.

The plot centers on Viola, a wealthy young lady who is shipwrecked, disguises herself as a boy to gain employment, and gets in the service of Orsino, a bachelor Duke of Illyria.  Orsino is in love with Olivia, a wealthy countess who is in self-imposed long-term mourning due to the death of her brother.  Unbeknownst to Viola, her twin brother, Sebastian, who was also on the ship, has been saved and is in Illyria.  Olivia falls in love with Viola, thinking she is a male.  Viola falls in love with Orsino.  A court jester, Olivia’s drunken uncle and his henchmen, a pompous rich gentleman who courts Olivia, and an assortment of other locals, add to the merriment and the march toward a happy ending.

This is Shakespearean merriment at its best.  Well, that’s the intent, but, unfortunately, under the direction of Guy Stroman, all does not necessarily go well.

The director has cut some of the play’s initial dialogue and actions, making the initial entrance of Viola and her actions, unclear.  Anyone not already familiar with the story might well be confused as to what is going on.

Stroman has also changed the setting from Illyria, on the Dalmatian coast in Europe, to the Mississippi Delta area of America’s Deep South.  As he explains, “My desire [was] to make the work accessible, passionate, truly funny, and well, human.”  He continues,  “The setting needed to be near water because of the shipwreck that separates twins Sebastian and Viola.”  He further states, “I felt that Shakespeare’s words would work great with the sound of the Delta blues.”  

There is nothing wrong with changing the setting if there is a clear purpose, but that change requires some obligations.  The deep south of the US has a distinctive vocal sound…accenting of words, use of a drawl, and language variations that are unique to the area.  Stroman made the setting changes that obligate him, as the director, to insure the performers and technical designers understood and bought into the concept.  He also needed to guide them to develop the concept.  It is here that Stroman seems to have stumbled.

The cast varied greatly in their “southern sounds,” from much to none.  Of course Sebastian and Viola are not of the area, so their pronunciations needed to be parallel, not like those who are residents of the newly created “South” Illyria.   While Olivia’s suitor, Malvolio, did the old South proud, Olivia spoke like a Midwesterner.  Sir Toby Belch twanged away, while Orsino drawled not.  Feste, the fool, sang and played the music of the Delta with verve and authenticity, but many in the cast didn’t follow suit.  After a while the southern setting’s vocal requirements became a detriment.  This was definitely not the actors’ fault, but the lack of consistent directorial decisions.

The black box performance space was set up as a very elongated thrust stage, with the audience seated on three sides.  It is often difficult for some in the audience to clearly hear lines in thrust staging due to the actors having their backs or profiles to some part of the audience at all times.  To alleviate the problem requires having the actors constantly change positions so they face the various sides of the audience on a rotating basis.  But the director did little to adjust to the thrust and added to the problems by having actors often speak directly to the back wall, making it difficult for all the audience to hear the lines and see their facial expressions.

The set design, which included constant moving of settings on and off the stage slowed down the action.  This script needs fast pacing, especially during the farcical segments.   The play does not need realistic settings.  A chair or a bench would have sufficed, rather than having constant interruptions as stair units, semi-walls and porches were brought on and off the stage.  Scenic Designer Tiffany Scribner’s back wall, consisting of Southern greenery interspersed with photo frames, and windows which are cleverly used for farcical interludes, works well.

Some of the performances were outstanding.  Stephen Michael Spencer has been excellent in all of his CWRU/CPH outings.  His guitar playing, singing of meanings rather than just words, his comic timing, facial dexterity and consistency of character development, was impressive in his creation of Feste, the jester/fool.

In spite of her lack of a southern accent, Christa Meyer developed a clear character as Olivia.  This is another of the company who has consistently been excellent in her performances.

Therese Anderberg was charming as Viola, though she could have “butched-up” her Cesario, to create a more realistic “boy” image.

Bernard Bygott has a nice touch with farce.  He is at his best when he is playing the exaggerated joker or drunk.  His Sir Toby Belch was the performance’s comic highlight.  TJ Ganley was excellent as the foppish Malvolio, nicely balancing affectation with comic style.

Sarah Kinsey did a nice turn as Maria, the mischievous maid, but why was she also cast in the role of Antonio, a male, with an obvious fake beard, is a mystery.  The role is not one of false identity.

Maureen Patterson’s lighting design works well, especially in creating the storm at the start of the play.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  The Case Western Reserve/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program’s class of 2014 has some excellent actors who should do well in their professional pursuits.  Their production of TWELFTH NIGHT has some performance highlights, but the students appear to have been done a disservice by what could be declared a misdirected version of TWELFTH NIGHT.  Maybe they can use the experience to learn the necessity of consistency of intent and directing execution.

TWELFTH NIGHT runs through October 26, 2013 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

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Funny farcical musical blood bath at Blank Canvas

As audience members smilingly walked out of Blank Canvas’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MUSICAL! covered with spatterings of stage blood, I could only think that something appears to have gone off-course in Cleveland theatre.  On stage at local venues are the blood revenge musical, SWEENEY TODD, as well as the story of the maniacal murderous RICHARD III.  Then there is the burning up of a boy and the live burial of his mother in LILIES at convergence continuum.  Now, I had just seen a psycho killer who uses a chainsaw, knives, hammers and baseball bats to bludgeon his victims.  Victims who sing gleefully about their demise.

I know it’s just before Halloween, but things are getting excessively morbid and bizarre.

Cary Bytof and Christopher Minori’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MUSICAL! is a parody of the cult classic horror film, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. 

As director Patrick Ciamacco explains, ”In the musical, Eddy Gee has been tormenting the residents of Plainfield, Texas since he was a child. After killing his mother, Eddy snaps and goes on a rampage, but things get problematic when he falls in love with one of his intended victims. Over-the-top humor, absurd but authentic characters, and catchy tunes lead us through the lives of the four main characters as they trip over each other toward an unexpected and shocking ending.” 

Just the titles of the songs reveal the depths of creative depravity that takes place on stage.  Songs such as, “Your Son is Very Strange,” “Steven the Pantywaist Runt,” “Let’s Hear You Scream,” “Easy to Be Cruel,” and “Cold Cuts.”

A reading of the authors’ bios explains their weird sense of life, its lessons, and why they are the perfect duo to have written this bizarre script.  Bytof explains, “Born a pauper in Appleton, Wisconsin, to an upper middle-class family, I moved to Florida and embarked on a long, painful journey of beatings and humiliation at the hands of my schoolmates, as well as the little girl down the block.”  Minori states, “I have displayed many different talents, including being an unemployed actor, unsuccessful director, frustrated writer, and scantily clad carwash employee (on weekends).”

To truly appreciate Blank Canvas’s production, an understanding of director Patrick Ciamacco is helpful.  Ciamacco founded Blank Canvas on the back of his limited credit card, a small gaggle of volunteers, in a setting that is almost impossible to find, and where a previous theatre had failed.  Due to his creativity and acting skills, the theatre has gained positive reviews, awards, a cadre of followers, and is actually thriving.  

As for this show, the cast is generally good, the singing is adequate, the band plays so loudly that it is often difficult to hear the words, the actors are wearing mikes but sometimes can’t be understood.  Most importantly, the production is a hoot.

Perren Hedderson (Eddy), has a big voice, which, after he kills his mother is used to sing the very funny, “Lullaby to Momma.”   Kate Leigh Michalski (Eddy’s equally blood thirsty girl friend, Lucretia) wails “Paradise Lost” when she realizes Eddy has fallen in love/lust with the innocent air-headed Kristy.  Eric Thomas Fancher often sings on key as the nerdy Eddy, who has a crush on Kristy and follows her to Plainfield, with shocking results.  He does a nice version of the pretty, “Lullaby to Kristy.”  Leslie Andrews makes for one swinging nun and rattles the rafters in “The Gospel According to Steven.”

The audience was laughing throughout, even those who were soaked with the fake blood.  BTW…yes, the first two rows, stage center and right, are marked off as the blood spatter zones, but, even in the third row, the female theatre reviewer sitting next to me had a red streaked face by intermission and her husband’s tan pants had red polka-dots.  But, getting spattered is part of the fun.  Ask the couple who came in just as the lights were going up for the first act, sat in the front row, and were startled when they got hit by a blood bath a few seconds later. They were totally soaked by intermission and laughed all the way to the bathroom to clean up.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MUSICAL is a fun evening of theatre, as long as you have a sense of humor, aren’t uptight and appreciate absurdity.  Others better stay away!   Me, I kept asking myself, “Why am I laughing hysterically at all this gore?” The answer?  The whole thing was just so bizarre and the epitome of well done farce!
There will be a special midnight show on October 26 and a Halloween show on October 31.

Blank Canvas’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MUSICAL! runs though November 2, 2013 in its west side theatre, 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 battle. For tickets and directions go to

Monday, October 14, 2013

LILIES, a tale of misguided love at convergence continuum

French Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s LILIES, with the subtitle “the Revival of a Romantic Drama,”  is a moralistic melodrama which is now in production at convergence-continuum.  The author’s best known work, it was recognized in 1992 as the best Canadian play.  It was transformed into the movie LILIES, which won the Genie (the equivalent of the American Oscar) for the best film of 1996.

Set in 1952, in the church of a prison where the jailed Simon Doucet has requested his boyhood friend, Jean Bilodeau, who is now a Bishop, come to hear his confession.  In reality, what Bilodeau is to participate in, is a re-enactment of an event that took place on an Autumn evening in 1912, when Bilodeau caused the death of Count Vallier De Tilly, Simon’s male lover. 

In acting out the happenings, Simon is hoping that Bilodeau will confess his role in Vallier’s demise, which resulted in Simon’s wrongful imprisonment. 

The play within the play, and the play, itself, comes to a climax which, as in most melodramas, allows for the “bad guy” to come to some level of awareness and repent.

The play, typical of much gay theater, tells a morally simplistic story in overwrought terms.  Simon and Vallier, as the gay young lovers, are meant to be interesting, because they are going against the grain of socially acceptable manners of the day, not because they are fascinating people.  The many town folk are stereotypically homophobic, causing the plot to evolve.  There is no surprise ending as the outcome is obvious from the start.  It includes the almost obligatory full frontal male nude scene.

The format of the play forces men to take the parts of the women, as the only actors available are the prison inmates, and younger actors to portray the roles of Simon, Bilodeau and Vallier, as youth.

Con-con’s production, under the direction of Tyson Douglas Rand, is true to the intent of the script.  Rand keeps the cast under control, making sure the males who play females aren’t overly flamboyant in their approaches, and makes the characters as rational as the script allows.

Both Bobby Coyne (young Simon) and Jack Matuszewski (young Vallier) create appealing characters.  They have a nice sensual connection. 

Clyde Simon controls the tendency to be overwrought and affected as psychotic Countess de Tilly and creates a sympathetic character.  Though he has a tendency to be overly effeminate, Eric Sever develops the younger Bilodeau into a despicable jealous and revengeful teenager.  The rest of the cast is effective.

Capsule Judgement: LILIES is the type of script that should appeal to con-cons niche audience.  The production works well in the small intimate theatre and is nicely directed by Tyson Douglas Rand.

LILIES runs through November 2 at 8 pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. For information and reservations call 216-687-0074.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Beethoven and ALS cross paths in the thought-provoking 33 VARIATIONS

One of the major questions musicologists have asked for years is why the brilliant Ludwig van Beethoven devoted four years of his life to writing 33 variations of what is considered to be a very mediocre waltz by Anton Diabelli.  

Answers range from Beethoven’s need for money, that he perceived that the waltz piece was musically greater than it was credited with being, that he wanted to out-do Bach, who wrote The Goldberg Variations which numbered 30,  or, that as his hearing moved toward deafness he wanted to create a piece that would be forever remembered.

ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a progressive degenerative illness that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, and eventually leads to whole body paralysis.  It is often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, named after the great New York Yankee who brought world attention to the illness when he retired from baseball after contracting the sickness.

What do Beethoven and ALS have in common?  They are joint topics of Moisés Kaufman’s poignant 33 VARIATIONS, now on stage at Beck Center for the Arts. 

The script examines the creative process, the differences between obsessive and non-focused minds, how illness affects people, what the differences are between friendship and love, how the past and present can overlap, the meaning of genius, and how making variations in either music or life can bring about awakenings.

The story examines how Beethoven, in his later life, created a major musical masterpiece, and the journey of Katherine Brandt, a musicologist, as she attempts to discover why Beethoven was so possessed with writing The Diabelli Variations.

We simultaneously view Beethoven losing his hearing, losing his rationality, and Brandt’s desire to complete her work before ALS freezes her body and eventually kills her.

Using a creative format, Kaufman creates parallel and overlapping universes.  We are in Vienna, Austria, in 1819 and again in 1823, and simultaneously in New York and Germany in the present.  Beethoven is stressfully creating music, Brandt is researching and writing what will be her last position paper, using information from Bonn’s Library, which is the major depository of Beethoven’s papers, letters, diaries and manuscripts.

Beethoven struggles to write and cope with his problems, Brandt struggles to not only find an answer to why Beethoven undertook to write the 33 variations, but to work out problems with her daughter and face inevitable death.  In an emotionally charged final scene, we learn whether Brandt was successful in solving the Beethoven riddle.

The play opened in New York in 2009 with Jane Fonda portraying Katherine, in her first Broadway appearance in forty-six years.  Both the play and Fonda received Tony nominations.

The Beck production, under the focused direction of Sarah May, is creatively staged.  Seeing several different places at once allows for the hundred year time variance, and creates an intriguing effect.

The acting is universally strong.  Each performer creates a clearly identifiable person.  Dana Hart rants and rages as Beethoven.  He crawls under the piano, ear against a leg of the instrument, so that his body can vibrate to the feel of the piano, because his deafness disallows for his hearing the music he has fashioned.  He clearly creates irrationality as he castigates Anton, his ever vigilant assistant, while being dependent on the man.

Maryann Nagel withers before our eyes as her ALS attacks Katherine’s body.  She puts down Clara, her daughter, for not being focused, but suffers because of her obsessive nature.  Her fight for completion of her goal of determining Beethoven’s motives is clearly etched.

Debbie Keppler’s Clara is a nicely developed character, as is Matt O’Shea’s Mike, Katherine’s nurse and Clara’s socially awkward boyfriend. Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, the curator of the Beethoven memorabilia collection, who, at the start reluctantly helps Katherine, is clearly created by Mary Alice Beck.  Both Brian Pedaci (Anton Disabelli) and Trey Gilpin (Anton Schindler) nicely portray their characters.

Pianist Stuart Raleigh interprets and performs the selected variations with strong musical ability.

Trad Burns simple set, which is nicely fleshed out by Ian Hinz’s scene setting projections, works well.  Angelina Herin’s costumes clearly delineate each character’s era.

As my pianist and composer grandson, Alex, one of the kid reviewers who often accompany me a play in order to give a different generational view of the offering, commented, “The play held my attention, while teaching me new insights into Beethoven, and how variations can not only be a part of music, but also make for alterations in life.”  He praised Raleigh for not only playing well, but for being able to sustain the quality while performing such a long and fragmented composition.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  33 VARIATIONS is an intriguing theatrical experience.  The well written script is effectively interpreted by director Sarah May and well performed by an excellent cast.  You don’t have to know anything about music, Beethoven, or the research process to enjoy the multi-messaged work. You should leave with a new appreciation of the musical process, gain an understanding of ALC, and be aware of the fragility of life’s journey.

 33VARIATIONS is scheduled to run through NOVEMBER 17 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or  

Friday, October 11, 2013

RICHARD III and SWEENEY TODD--an impressive duo of bloodbaths at Great Lakes Theater

When Great Lakes Theater’s Artistic Director, Charles Fee, sat down to select the Fall 2013-2014 season, he was either in a laughing bad mood or he decided that what Clevelanders needed, besides watching our pathetic athletic teams, was to have an exposure to blood, manipulation, a reign of terror and a few laughs.  Thus, he chose to bless the north coast with a repertoire of RICHARD III and SWEENEY TODD.

RICHARD III is a historical play by William Shakespeare.  It was believed to be one of the Bard’s early works, supposedly written while he was in his 20s.

The tragedy is part of his First Folio of plays, all of which are based loosely on history, but not necessarily factual.   Due to its length, only exceeded by Hamlet, it is rarely performed in its entirety.  The Great Lakes production has wisely been pared down to about two-and-a half-hours.

The play centers around Richard, a victim of scoliosis and other bodily deformities, including a large facial skin blotch, who is an embittered, power hungry tyrant, with seemingly little or no conscious.

The play is set in the time following the War of Roses, a long civil war in which the York’s gained the throne of England.  There has been a period of peace under King Edward IV.  Richard resents Edward’s popularity and power and will do anything to ascend to the throne, including killing anyone who directly or indirectly gets in his way.

The opening scene finds Richard relating to the audience the pattern of accession to the throne. He explains, in what has become one of Shakespeare’s most quoted speeches, “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York; and all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried . . ..”  By the conclusion of this monologue the audience recognizes Richard’s envy, and the deception and political manipulation his path will take.

Before Richard gains the throne, he murders or has had killed, his older brother, the husband of the woman he wants to marry, King Edward, his two nephews, and the list goes on and on.

Eventually, his bad deeds catch up with him.  And, in the end, as he pleads for, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” he, as do most classic tragic characters, seems to recognize his evil ways and that he must pay for his sins.  

All is not blood and guts.  The Bard inserts, as he does in many of his tragedies, some comic material.  It’s not the glee displayed in his comedies or farces, but it does counteract some of the angst.

Shakespeare flows philosophical as he uses the central theme of fate, especially as it relates to the tension between free will and fatalism.  And, since the Bard wrote for the groundlings who stood around the thrust stage in London’s Globe Theatre, he has Richard speak directly to them [in Great Lakes’ case, the audience], making us co-conspirators in his plotting.

One of the central themes of Richard III is the idea of fate, especially as it is seen through the tension between free will and fatalism as revealed by Richard's actions and speeches.

The Great Lakes production, under the direction of Joseph Hanreddy, is a compact, quickly moving, audience grabbing staging.  The actors use traditional Shakespearean dialogue, but break the rhythm pattern by speaking meanings rather than rhyme, thus making the oft-difficult for Americans to understand dialogue, clear. 

The horror of all the deaths is tempered by placing most of them off stage and using a clever pouring of blood from the upper balcony into a container below, and changing the stage lighting to red hue, to highlight the murders. 

Richard is effectively portrayed as deranged, projecting erratic emotional highs and lows, rather than making him into a complete lunatic.  This adds reality to the play and the man.

Modern touches such as the use of cell phones, texting, and a mix of eras in the costumes may upset Shakespeare purists, but will definitely appeal to the many students who will attending the productions.

The major flaw is a directing problem that causes difficulty for the patrons sitting to the right and left of the thrust stage.  I was sitting in the first row, two seats from the proscenium wall, and most of the first act I was viewing the actors’ backsides and not hearing lines as the projection was to stage center.  After I moved to the center for the second act, I heard the dialogue and could watch the faces of the actors.  Moral?  Directing a play in a thrust theatre requires certain adjustments in  blocking.

The huge cast is universally strong.  Lynn Robert Berg made a superb Richard III.  His mood swings were realistic and he was totally convincing.  He was so convincing as the “carnal cur” that when he came out for his curtain call on opening night, many in the audience booed the “villain.”

Laura Welsh Berg, in spite of wearing an outlandish dress that resembled something plucked from a bad rack of prom frocks, was compelling as Lady Anne, the widow of Edward (son of King Henry VI).  Also giving strong performances were Darren Matthias as King Edward IV, Lenne Snively as the Duchess of York, Laurie Birmingham as Queen Margaret, and David Anthony Smith as Duke of Buckingham.

Chris Richards and Eric Damon Smith, as the murderers, and Alex Syick as Henry, were also excellent.

Linda Buchanan’s steel and glass dual level set worked well. Michael Chybowski’s lighting design highlighted the ever changes moods. Martha Hally’s costume designs didn’t work as well.  Mixing contemporary and traditional was not the problem, it was the quality of the craftsmanship of the clothing and some distracting style choices.

Capsule judgement: RICHARD is a finely crafted production and is a perfect compliment  to SWEENEY TODD as the partners of the “ maniacs gone wrong” duet that comprises  Great Lakes Theatre’s fall 2013-2014 season. Go see both!

RICHARD III runs through November , 2013.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Impressive SWEENEY TODD shashes its way into the emotions at Great Lakes Theater

The recent release of a list of the 100 greatest musicals of all times has brought about much controversy in the theatre community.  Though there has been conflict created by the plays on the list, there was no controversy over who was the best composer.  Stephen Sondheim was the only writer/lyricist/composer who had five selections in the top sixteen.  GYPSY placed number one, SWEENEY TODD 3rd, WEST SIDE STORY 8th, COMPANY 15th and SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE was 16th.

Stephen Sondheim, whose SWEENEY TODD is now on stage at the Great Lakes Theater, has been dubbed by many experts as “possibly the greatest lyricist ever.”

As a youth, Sondheim became friends with James Hammerstein, the son of Oscar Hammerstein, the co-author of such Broadway wonders as OKLAHOMA, CAROUSEL and THE KING AND I.  This surrogate father had a profound influence on Sondheim.  He also was exposed to Robert Barrow, a teacher and musicologist, who made him realize that “all my romantic views of art were nonsense.”  Sondheim’s musicals often reflect that disdain for the traditional emotional view of love by having love go wrong.

Sondheim’s scores are complex.  They often rely on counterpoint and angular harmonies, overlapping singing, and strong muscular musicality that make his works more akin to opera than traditional Broadway.  Sondheim’s music doesn’t mirror the beautiful and hummable melodic sounds of Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe (MY FAIR LADY) or Steven Schwartz (PIPPIN).

The winner of an Academy Award, eight Tony Awards (more than any other composer), eight Grammy Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize, Sondheim has been described as, “the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theatre.”

Does this make him a universal favorite?  No. Far from it.  Broadway productions of his works sometimes lose money.  The average theatre-goer often complains that due to the complexity of the music, and the difficulty of singing his songs, the words often get lost, and that his stories are often too abstract.  Sondheim, himself, has described SWEENEY TODD as “a black operetta in which only about 20% of the show is spoken.” 

Other complaints are that his work is too dark.  SWEENEY TODD, for example, explores the psyche of a mad murderer, a social outcast, and is filled with killings, rape, judicial corruption and visual mayhem. 

The tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street takes place in London in 1846.  Anthony Hope, a young sailor, arrives on a ship accompanied by Sweeny Todd,  who he rescued during a storm at sea.  The aloof, embittered, uneasy Todd has a secret of a past life that will soon unfold.  The duo is confronted by a mad Beggar Woman who seems to recognize Todd who is returning to England after fifteen years of unjust incarceration in an Australian penal colony.  Todd has revenge in mind, for not only the unfair banishment, but for having lost his wife due to the machinations of a corrupt judge.  What follows is a series of bizarre events in which Todd returns to his former barber shop to be told by a pie-shop keeper that he has a daughter who is now the ward of the judge and that his wife is dead.  Through a series of plot twists, some funny, others appalling, revenge is extracted and some semblance of justice is reached.

SWEENEY TODD opened on Broadway in 1979.  It is based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond.  An instant hit and Tony Award winner, it has been revised several times on Broadway, had a long run in the West End in London, and was made into a film. 

Great Lakes Theater’s production, under the focused direction of Victoria Bussert, is mesmerizing.  The staging is creative, the characterizations clearly etched, the intensity builds to a heart-thumping conclusion.  

Jeff Herrman’s scenic designs and Mary Jo Doninger’s lighting create the right dark and ominous feel.  Charlotte Yetman’s costumes are era correct.

The cast is universally excellent.  Though he seems to overly scowl, Tom Ford makes for an uneasy, hell-bent-on-revenge Sweeney Todd.  He has a strong singing voice that has the right menacing sound.  This is a tormented man, who exudes his angst.  His well nuanced The Barber and His Wife clearly develops the exposition for the tale. 

Sara Bruner is hilarious as Mrs. Lovett, the pie shop owner who has her romantic hooks set for Todd.  Her intent is absolutely consistent, she knows how to play for laughs, and that more than compensates for the fact that she is sometimes a little hard to understand.  Her musical versions of The Worst Pies in London and By The Seas delight.

Young Chris Cowan is pitch and performance perfect as Tobias, the shop clerk
of limited intelligence.  His Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir is delightful, and his rendition of Not While I’m Around is an emotional show stopper.

Zach Adkins creates Anthony into an appealing suitor for Todd’s daughter, Johanna.  His rendition of Johanna is poignant.  Clare Howes Eisentrout sings the role of Johanna well.

Darren Matthias is properly evil as Judge Turpin and M. A. Taylor builds a clear character as The Beadle. 

Jodi Dominick makes for a believable Beggar Woman, Todd’s wife, who has been shocked into insanity.

Unfortunately, musical director Matthew Webb doesn’t keep the orchestra under control and often their sounds drown out the singers.  Since the lyrics are so important to the understanding of the plot, and some of the songs, such as A Little Priest are so clever, it’s a shame that they can’t easily be heard.  Some listeners may also have a little trouble cutting through the necessary Brit accents.  In spite of these hiccups, the story line is easy to follow.

Capsule judgement:  Great Lakes Theater’s SWEENEY TODD is a spell binding production of a Stephen Sondheim masterpiece.  Those turned off by violence, or who aren’t Sondheim aficionados, may not appreciate the show, but anyone interested in hearing complex music, well sung, encased in a well-honed script that is finely performed, will be turned on by this must see production.
SWEENEY TODD runs through November 2, 2013.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or

SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE to perform at State Theatre during national tour

Since its premiere in 2005, SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE, has been a television sensation.  Created by Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe, the show, which is an eleven-time Primetime Emmy Award winner, has sparked the nation’s interest in dance and produced some top-ranked performers.  Many have gone on to professional careers, including a number presently appearing in Broadway’s NEWSIES.

A panel, in a process similar to AMERICAN IDOL, selects 20 dancers to appear in a competition.   Judges do the initial selections, and then whittle the number down to a final 10.  The jurists, plus votes by viewers, then select a male and a female winner.

The performers, who come from a variety of  dance styles, including classical, contemporary, ballroom, hip-hop, street, jazz, tap and musical theatre are forced to perform all the genres on their march toward stardom.

The 10th season winners were a duo of 19-year olds, Amy Yakima of Northville, Michigan and Du-Shaunt “Fik-Shun” Stegall of Las Vegas, Nevada, who each danced off with $125,000 and a magazine cover photo.  Jasmine Harper and Aaron Turner were the runners-up.

The quartet will appear with the other top 10 finalists at the State Theatre in Cleveland on October 15 at 8:00 p.m..
The tour started in East Lansing, Michigan on October 1.   The morning of that show I interviewed 25-year old Turner, whose specialty is tap.  Ironically, he was not selected to be in the top 10, but due to an injury to a finalist, he was given a reprieve.

Turner, who is a dance instructor at the Bunker Dance Center and performer in Las Vegas, was encouraged to try out for SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE by his father, a Vegas performer, others in the family and his students.  He is a University of Nevada-Las Vegas graduate in Business/Music Management. 

He started to dance at age 8, and like all young male dancers put up with teasing because the activity is considered a girl’s world.   Undeterred, he kept up his lessons and performances.

The most difficult challenge for Turner was having to dance outside of his tap-dance-centered comfort zone.  Tapping is not one of the genres in which the SYTYCD perform, so tappers never get a chance to spotlight their strongest moves. In addition, he was learning the dance routines in only seven hours, which put additional pressure on him. 

During the evolution of the show the judges often commented on how Turner was capable of going beyond what tappers usually do.

Turner admitted to be surprised by his success.  “Maybe,” he admitted, “it was an advantage that he wasn’t originally picked, as I was perceived as an underdog.”

According to Turner, the dancers form a family.  “You get close to the people you live and work with daily, and it is hard when your friends are eliminated.”

How are the dancers matched into the couples which form the basis for much of the competition?  The requirements center on the partners not having the same dance style or training and their height.  “We have choice in the selections.”

Turner’s future?  He wants to “reach out and look for opportunities.”  His goals are to act, dance, sing and be involved in the arts.  He anticipates record deals where the songs he writes and sings will be performed.

His advice to aspiring dancers is, “don’t give up, and be you, don’t put on a face or an act.”

To get tickets to see Turner and the rest of the 2013 SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE top ten, go to: 216-241-6000 or

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Brilliantly conceived and performed SLEEPING BEAUTY @ Palace Theatre

When the list of productions for the 2013-2014 Key Bank Broadway series was announced, many predicted that the number of season tickets holders would drop.  There was no new blockbuster, no WAR HORSE or BOOK OF MORMON, even a couple of shows that have previously had their Cleveland runs, and a ballet.  Just like the predictions of the demise of Cleveland Play House due to its move to the Allen complex on Playhouse Square, the doomsayers were wrong. 

Gina Vernaci, Senior Vice President of Theater Operations, once again seems to have selected an offering of shows that is aimed to please.  Last year’s record for season ticket sales has been exceeded.  As of opening night of this season’s first show, SLEEPING BEAUTY, 27,600 patrons have bought the series, making it one of the largest group of advance purchasers in the country.  (And, by the way, Cleveland Play House is doing a booming business.)

Matthew Bourne’s SLEEPING BEAUTY A Gothic Romance, is a ballet.  Yes, a show with all dancing, no singing, no lines.  But it’s like no ballet you’ve ever seen or might see.  There isn’t a tutu, leotard or toe shoe in sight.

What there is, is an exciting, well conceived, brilliantly performed story filled with laughter, intrigue, gothic overtones, and wonderful costumes, which flows from Edwardian to modern times in a swirl of breathtaking visual wonder.

Matthew Bourne is a choreographic genius.  Since 1992 when he staged THE NUTCRACKER, to SWAN LAKE, his 1995 international hit, the name Bourne and sold out audiences have become synonymous.

Bourne is fearless.  He refashioned SWAN LAKE, a story about a serious search for love and what people are willing to do for it, into a humor-filled modern ballet with a flocks of swans, who are usually portrayed by delicate females, into a corps of bare-chested men in feathery breeches.  All this to the delight of audiences and critics.

Who says ballet has to be high-brow?  Bourne stresses the original once upon a time story, reinventing it where necessary, adding humor and intrigue and arranges the dance movements to be real and not affected.  For example, an  infant, which is usually a motionless doll, is portrayed by a stick manipulated puppet, similar to the horses in WAR HORSE.  The results were, “ohs,” “ahs,” and titters of glee from the audience.

Instead of a prince, with no connection to the princess, who he kisses and brings out of her long sleep, the girl’s childhood commoner boy friend turns out to have the secret weapon lips. 

Add gothic vampires, flying monkeys, a poisoned black rose, and a treadmill that carries dancers across the stage so they appear to be floating without leaving the ground, and you have a fascinating evening.

SLEEPING BEAUTY is the story of Aurora, a young princess, cursed because of an agreement gone bad between her parents, who were unable to conceive, and the dark fairy.  When the dark fairy is scorned, Aurora is cursed. The original story was turned into a ballet in 1800 by Marius Petipa and staged to the gorgeous music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. 

Bourne’s places his story in the fin-de-Siècle period when fairies, vampires and affluence created a gothic image.  He adds the intrigue of Caradoc, the secret son of the dark fairy, who desires to seek revenge via a poisoned black rose.

Following the very specific time line laid out in the original tale, the story jumps ahead from Aurora’s christening (1890), to 1911, when we find Aurora, now living in the uptight Edwardian era.  Not only has the child grown into a young woman, and the clothing styles changed, but the choreographer leaves behind the old style of dancing, and creates movement which echoes the dance crazes of the new era.  Through the machinations of Caradoc, the princess pricks her finger on the poisoned black rose and falls into a deep permanent sleep. 

We are transformed to 2011.  Costumes (contemporary jeans), scenery (a disco with mod neo lights), and attitudes have changed.  So does Bourne’s choreographic style, with modern body and hand moves, many echoing contemporary choreographers’ styles.  There’s a little Bob Fosse, a little Michael Kidd, and a lot of current Michael Bourne!

Don’t worry about following the storyline.  The tale is explained with a series of lettered graphics projected onto the front curtain during the overture, and at each time change.  If you are really interested in understanding all the subtleties, get to the Palace early and read Bourne’s excellent notes in the program.

Petite Hannah Vassallo is glorious as Aurora.  She moves like her feet aren’t  touching the floor, her face and body project every mood, her footwork is meticulous, her leaps are incredible.  This is one very, very talented dancer and actress.

Dominic North is charming as Leo, Aurora’s boyhood friend and eventual “prince charming.”  He moves with confidence and ability, displays the right balance between boyhood and manhood, and is totally convincing.  His lifts, carries and catches are precise.

Adam Maskell is evil incarnate as both Carabosse, the dark fairy and Caradoc, her son.  The Adam Lambert (of AMERICAN IDOL fame) look-alike, captures the stage with his powerful and convincing movements.

The rest of cast is impressive.  These are well trained, effectively choreographed dancers. 

Lez Brotherston’s costumes, Paule Constable’s lighting, and Paul Groothuis’s sound designs all enhance the production.

Cleveland is the last stop on the company’s short American tour, before it moves to New York City Center for a late October staging. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   Matthew Bourne’s SLEEPING BEAUTY: Gothic fairy tale, is a ballet not only for the ballet aficionado, but for the person who knows nothing about the dance form, but wants to see a well told tale, marvelously performed, as one will probably never see it again.  As a male acquaintance, who only went because he had subscriber’s tickets said to me the day after the performance, “I never thought that I’d go to a ballet, but would say that it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen on stage.”  Yes, this is an absolute MUST SEE!

Tickets for Matthew Bourne’s SLEEPING BEUATY A GOTHIC ROMANCE , which runs through October 13, 2013 at the Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Laura Kepely, new artistic director of Cleveland Play House

A new era has begun at the Cleveland Play House!  Laura Kepley was recently appointed to be the ninth Artistic Director in the 98-year history of CPH.

Who is Kepley and what can the community expect from the organization’s former Associate Artistic Director?

Kevin Moore, CPH’s Managing Director states, “Her passion for theatre and for engaging with our community through powerful productions and innovative education programs is a joy to be around and support.” 

Based on my recent interview with Kepley, in her brightly lit windowed office, which reflects her effervescent smile and open communication style, her passion, enthusiasm, and desire for a collaborative work environment were evident.

Michael Bloom, the former Artistic Director, was responsible for selecting the offerings of the 2013-2014 season.  We’ll know more about what’s in the future for CPH when Kepley announces the 2014-2015 season.  She indicated that the selecting of the season will be based on her philosophy that centers on “stories that are relevant, smart, entertaining, and provocative.”  

She gravitates towards work that “makes the viewer see the world in a different way” and that incites dialogue long after the viewing is over.  She cites such recent CPH productions as THE WHIPPING MAN, GOOD PEOPLE, and RICH GIRL as those types of shows.

She likes plays that ‘display a diversity of voices, especially plays with strong female characters.’  She is “not afraid of new, bold, provocative shows, which open audiences  to surprises.”  Kepley thinks “Cleveland is the kind of city that is open to that type of challenge.”

How will she know whether a play has succeeded?  Kepley likes to wander the lobby at intermission and after the production, meeting people, having dialogues, and listening to the buzz.  She also admits to reading reviews of the company’s shows.

There have been comments and complaints that in the past several years CPH has become, at least in part, nothing more than a site for touring shows.  In response to whether this trend is going to continue, Kepley indicated that “though CPH is 98 years old, in some ways we are only 3 years old as that is how long we have been downtown. 

The new facilities in the Allen complex open new possibilities.”  She says that “the company is getting new audiences, which are younger and more diverse,” and “part of the challenge is that we need to introduce and reintroduce our unique identity.” 

 She thinks the challenge is “to do a variety of work while making sure audiences know that they are watching a CPH show.”  It is her concept that, “going forward, we will be more clear on how we tell stories.”

After being, for many years, a totally Cleveland based theatre, complete with a resident company, CPH has recently mainly depended on actors from Chicago or New York.  Is there any role in the future for the corps of local performers?   Kepley indicated that “Right now, since moving downtown, 25% of the actors have been local.”  It was our goal to cast CAROL FOR CLEVELAND with a total local cast.  Unfortunately, some of the people we offered parts to had day jobs and other obligations that restricted them from accepting casting.”  She went on to say that, “We [the Northeastern Ohio area] have great actors, and part of our challenge is to find out how we can make sure they are in a position to do the work they want to do.”

Kepley describes her management style as “collaborative.”   She attempts to set everyone up for doing the best possible work, to encourage and to inspire. “I don’t have to have the best ideas in the room.  I have to create an atmosphere, and know which ideas are best.”

She thinks last year’s New Grounds Theatre Festival, an annual showcase which presents a variety of new work from nationally recognized artists, and includes The Roe Green Award which brings a leading American playwright to develop a new project, is an important aspect of CPH.   She hopes that “the activities will be a springboard to our main stage as new work is fundamental to what we do.”  She also is interested in doing collaborative works with other local theatres, especially in regard to the centennial season.

Her goals include bringing in new audiences, especially young audiences, and has created a campaign that is bannered, “Reach Out, Enrich, Mobilize.”  One of the new engagement programs allows any person under 35 to get a ticket to see any show for $25.  There will also be a party for the “under 35s” on Friday, November 1st in conjunction with VENUS IN FUR.

On the whiteboard behind Kepley’s work table are the words, “artistry, innovation, community and ensemble.”  These are the objective goals on which the Cleveland Play House was founded.   It is Kepley’s challenge is to retain those goals and determine “how to make CPH into a 21st century manifestation of these ideals.”

It appears that the new CPH Artistic Director is well equipped both in training and attitude to lead CPH to confront the challenges and make a plan for success.