Sunday, November 24, 2013

PRELUDE TO A KISS,a romantic fantasy at Ensemble

“If you hear a song in blue
Like a flower crying for the dew
That was my heart serenading you
My prelude to a kiss”

These are the lyrics which Duke Ellington wrote as the first stanza to his 1938 torch song, “Prelude to a Kiss.”  It is this song which supposedly inspired Craig Lucas to write and title his romantic comedy of the same name.

Lucas’s 1988 script, which has been critically dubbed, “a whimsically inept piece of high kitsch—a TWILIGHT ZONE for yuppie soft-heads” and was credited as being “packed with cheap sentiment and puerile romanticism,” also was dubbed, “a charming sentimental fable about the importance of loving the essence of a human being, not the package it happens to come in.”  Yes, that’s the kind of script and production which will probably engender a variety of reactions to viewers of the present staging at Ensemble Theatre.

PRELUDE TO A KISS basically tells the story of a pessimistic, liberal, free-spirited young lady who earns her living as a bartender, who meets a conservative manager of a Chicago scientific publishing house.  They quickly fall in love, get married, kiss to affirm their wedding bows, and are confronted by a series of bizarre events after an old man kisses the new bride.  

While on their honeymoon, husband, Peter, begins to feel that new wife, Rita, is not the same person that he married.  As the tale unfolds, the author leads the audience down a supernatural path that includes the Old Man and Kelly having switched personas.  In other words,  Rita is now inside the Old Man’s body, and he in hers.

The assumption was made at the time the play was first presented that there was more to the story than Lucas examining whether the strength of commitment to each other can survive drastic changes to a person. 

To understand this premise, it must be realized that when Lucas wrote the play, the AIDS epidemic was in full rage with no definitive knowledge of its cause or how it was being passed on. 

To some, the act of love/sex, including maybe even kissing, was changing people.  The young were becoming old before the eyes of the onlookers.  Would these physical changes make for bonding changes?  As one critic stated, “So while it ends as fairy tales tend to, PRELUDE TO A KISS is steeped in the ache of loss and sorrowful awareness that life’s joys can be as fleeting as its grief are unavoidable.”

In light of present day circumstances, the play is most likely to be regarded as an  examination of the limits of love and the meaning of obligation to one another.

The play starred Alec Baldwin and Mary-Louise Parker in its well-received off-Broadway staging and Timothy Hutton and Parker in its 440-performance Broadway run.  It was nominated for a best play Tony Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.   A generally negatively reviewed movie version starred Baldwin and Meg Ryan.

The Ensemble production, under the direction of Martin Friedman, is a rather neutral experience.  The play hasn’t worn well over time.  With the AIDS issue generally under control, the writer’s underlying message is no longer relevant.  The concept of a kiss causing a cosmic bodily exchange is hard, even in this era of vampire, werewolf and supernatural movies and television shows, for realists to accept.

Nothing is wrong with the production, but nothing is really compelling.  There is a leisurely pace, the acting is acceptable, the musical interludes pleasant, the projections place the settings, move the storyline along.

Aaron Elersich gives a nice interpretation to Peter.  Cute Kelly Strand, though perfectly acceptable, could have been more quirky and dynamic as Rita.  There was little performance evidence of her change from youthful malcontent to dying old man.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Ensemble Theatre’s PRELUDE TO A KISS is one of those plays and productions, that while a perfectly acceptable evening of theatre, quickly fades from memory.

PRELUDE TO A KISS runs Thursdays through Sundays through December 15, 2012, at Ensemble Theatre, housed in Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

To see the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to:

Thursday, November 14, 2013

ONCE, a tender little Irish love story musical, gets lost in the Palace Theatre

About half an hour before the start of ONCE, the touring version of the musical which is now appearing at the Palace, the audience is invited on stage for beer, music and dancing.  It turns out to be a big Irish jam session.   An intermission hoe-down is also included in the staging.  Come early.  Join in.  Have fun!

Many of today’s Broadway musicals have large casts, grand sets, impressive  engineered graphics, and big orchestras in the theatre’s pits which play lush music.  ONCE is not such a work.  It is a tender little musical love story, which basically takes place in a Dublin pub.

The minimalistic set is transformed into various places by adding a few tables and chairs and some strategic lighting.  Though the songs are often dynamic, there is no rock and roll, no hip hop, and no show stoppers. 

The cast members are proficient triple threat performers who act, sing, dance and play the musical instruments which make up the orchestra.  They play such tunes as the depressing “Love,” the pretty and plaintive “Falling Slowly,” the beautiful “Gold,” and the dance-inducing “North Strand.”  There’s nothing that will make the hit parade of great songs.  It’s emotional Irish “woe-is-me” music.

ONCE is the story of an Irish musician (Guy) and a Czech immigrant (Girl) who become emotionally linked.  As the musical starts, Guy, a thirty-something busker, is singing a ballad of unrequited love.  He is in despair over the loss of the-love-of-his-life who left him and went to America.  Girl is watching, listening, and approaches him.  Posing personal questions, she finds out that he is giving up music because singing songs of unrequited love is just too difficult.   Seem like an extreme reaction?  Not if you remember that the Irish are noted for their extreme emotions, the acting out of their angst, and the expression of those feelings in songs, poetry and staged drama.

Of course, the two develop an emotional relationship, but are confronted with the barrier that Girl is married to a man who has left her and their daughter, but may return.  Over the period of one week, the duo, with the help of various friends, create a CD of raw, emotional, music.  A vacuum cleaner, a piano, a recording studio, hope, laughter and Irish anguish and frustration all play into the tale.  The expected happy ending may or may not take place, depending on how you interpret the touching final scene.

ONCE is based on John Carney’s 2006 film of the same name.  The book was written by Enda Walsh, and many of the film’s songs, which were written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, have been retained.

The musical premiered on Broadway in 2012 and received eleven Tony nominations.  It won eight, including being named Best Musical.  It is now on stage in London and continues its Broadway run.

Having seen the Broadway production, while watching the local showing, it became obvious that the intimacy of the musical is the bane of the touring production on the Palace stage.  The conversations are quiet, the relationships intimate, much of the music quietly heartfelt.   This worked in the Broadway theatre in which small comedies and dramas are usually staged, but in the Palace, which is almost three times the size of the Big Apple’s facility, both in stage and auditorium size, the intimacy disappeared.  At the Ohio or Hanna the show might have worked well, but the revenues so necessary to support touring productions would not have been as great, so big had to be used.

As is, between the Irish and Czech accents, and the quiet interactions, much of the dialogue is lost.  The sound designer and technicians had the difficult job of keeping the miked speaking voices soft enough for the intimacy, but loud enough to be heard.  Unfortunately, they were often unsuccessful.  Many of the comments at intermission centered on audience members complaining that they were not able to hear or understand the dialogue. 

Both Dani de Waal (Girl) and Stuart Ward (Guy) have excellent singing voices, and well interpret both their roles and the lyrics.  Unfortunately, there is seemingly an emotional disconnect between them.  Whether this is the vast stage and the separation from the audience, or a lack of real chemistry, it gets in the way of the necessary believability.

Strong performances are put in by Donna Garner as Baruska, Evan Harrington as Billy, Benjamin Magnuson as the Bank Manager, and Alex Nee as Andrej.

The entire cast impressed with their musical performances.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The touring production of ONCE is well staged, has strong musical appeal, but fails to grab and hold as it should.   It  is an intimate musical which loses much of its charm due to the vast Palace stage and auditorium size.  Here’s a case of the right show in the wrong setting.

Tickets for ONCE , which runs through November 24, 2013 at the Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to

Monday, November 11, 2013

Broadway's BIG FISH, a tale of a fantasy life, to close in late December

Broadway’s BIG FISH, a tale of a fantasy life, to close in late December

What do you do when your life doesn’t live up to your dreams?  If you are Walter Mitty or Hans Christian Anderson or Edward Bloom, you invent a fantasy life.  Mitty, of film fame, was a daydreamer who escaped his anonymous life by disappearing into a world of heroism, romance and action.  Anderson imagined fairy tales with lessons of virtue and resilience in the face of adversity.  Edward Bloom, the main character in BIG FISH, the John August (book) and Andrew Lippa (music and lyrics) musical, spins a series of stories which may or may not be true.

Bloom, a traveling salesman, tells what may be tall tales for the amusement of his wife, son and friends.  All is well until his pragmatic son, Will, about to have a child of his own, challenges whether the stories are true.  His quest for reality forces him to look beyond the words and into what really did happen and determine whether his father is fact or fiction.

Questions abound.  How much of Bloom’s tales are real?  How much are fantasy?  Was he a high school football star?  Did he actually have an encounter with a witch?  Were the tales he told of confronting a giant true?  Did he travel with a circus?  Why was his name on a deed for a house purchased by his high school sweetheart?  Did he actually hatch a plan to save a town that was about to be submerged? 

Based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel and Tim Burton’s 2003 film, Broadway’s BIG FISH is filled with special effects, creative imagery, and delights in some ways and stumbles in others.

Susan Stroman’s direction is basically on target, but a bigger than life show needs much more flights of the imagination in actions and character creation.   Performers often seemed held back, too reserved.  BIG FISH is a fantasy.  To create that fantasy requires more pizzazz, more than just nice.

Norbert Leon Butz gives what will probably be a Tony nomination performance, but there were times when he was just too controlled.  His ability to spin a vivid tale was hampered, to a degree, by his reserved nature. 

Ciara Renée, as the witch, displayed a fine singing voice, but was too restrained in her character development.  Having seen Renée, a recent graduate of Cleveland, Ohio’s Baldwin Wallace University’s top ranked Musical Theatre program, in numerous roles, I know she can control a stage.  That quality was somewhat missing here.

Zachary Unger as Young Will, Krystal Joy Brown as Josephine, Edward’s wife, and Bobby Steggert as Will Bloom were excellent in the more realistic roles.

The musical score carries the story along, but fails to have a show stopper song which allows the audience to leave humming its sounds long after the final curtain closes.  As with the rest of the show, the music was nice, not filled with the wonder of make-believe.

Following the trend of recent Broadway shows much of the setting and illusions are electronic projections.  Fields and fields of daffodils, a forest, a town and much of what is seen are Benjamin Pearcy’s creative illusionary designs.

The producers of BIG FISH have recently announced that the show will be closing on December 29, 2013.  It will have played 34 previews and 98 performances by the time it drops its final curtain.   There is still time to see it at the Neil Simon Theatre.

Capsule judgement:  BIG FISH is a pleasant show, which gets a pleasant production.  As a fantasy it needed more dynamics, more creativity in music as well as staging.  As is, it makes for a nice diversion from real life, but could have been so much more.

VENUS IN FUN, seduction without sex at the Cleveland Play House

A psychiatrist, who is credited with naming the act of sadomasochism, stated, “I feel justified in calling this sexual anomaly “Masochism,” because the author Sacher-Masoch frequently made this perversion, which up to his time was quite unknown to the scientific world as such, the substratum of his writing.”   Yes, this is the same Leopold Sacher-Masoch who is the author of VENUS IN FURS, which is the subject of David Ives VENUS IN FUR, now in production at the Cleveland Play House.

The play within a play centers on Thomas Novachek, a newbie playwright and director, who has adapted Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 book into a script and his attempts to cast the role of Vanda.  His tryouts have been a disaster as one overacting or clueless woman after another has wasted his time.  As he is packing to leave the door opens and in bursts a blonde fireball named Vanda Jordan.  Yes, Vanda.  (Hmm, first coincidence.) 

She is harried, disheveled and carries a large cotton bag.  She begs to let her read for the role.  She lets loose a tirade of swear words, seems to take over the tryouts and he falls victim to her machinations.  (Second coincidence.)  

She proposes to read Dunayev [Vanda] to his Severin von Kushemski.  As soon as she starts, she transforms into the story’s Vanda, complete with perfect accent.  As the reading continues, she displays uncany understanding of the author’s intent as well as facts about his personal and love life that astound him.  (Third coincidence.)  And, from her bag produces costume after costume that perfectly fit the script’s needs.  (Fourth coincidence.)

She states, “basically it’s S&M porn.”  He responds, “VENUS IN FURS is a serious novel.  It’s a great love story.”  How has she developed such a complete understanding of a script she was just given to read?  (Fifth coincidence.)

Eventually, the actress establishes total dominance over the writer, teasing, seducing, having him grovel at her feet, change her shoes, and even allowing her to tie him to a pole.  He becomes her play toy.  Seduction takes places without a kiss.  Without bodies even touching.

Ives has a great touch with extended comedy and he knows how to pull out all the sexual stops, short of acting them out.  Though, after a while, the game playing becomes a bit overdone, the audience seemed spellbound. 

Questions abound.  Since Vanda, in the play within the play, is often compared to Venus, and Thomas’s personal life seems to follow some of the play’s plot, is the evasive Vanda really Venus come to life?  How does Vanda know so much about Thomas and his fiancée?  Is the gamesmanship real or is meant to be a parallel to the original Sacher-Masoch story?  What are Ives’ real thoughts of male-female domination?

VENUS IN FUR opened off-Broadway in 2011, moved to Broadway in 2012 and received two Tony Award nominations.  Nina Arianda won the best actress  award that year for her performance as Vanda. 

Roman Polanski made a French film version of the play in late 2012.

CPH’s production, under the focused eye of new Artistic Director Laura Kepley, grabs and holds the audience’s attention.  Staging the script in a runway theatre  design, with the audience on both sides of the stage, aids in creating the intimacy needed for this type of production.  Kepley wisely made sure the actors continued to move positions to insure their lines were heard on both sides of the stage, and opened the actors up so that their facial expressions could be seen.

Her approach worked well as evidenced by the lack of coughing and wiggling, and the rapt attention interspersed with laughter, and a few sighs which could have been fantasy lust.

The lighting and special rain effects aided in creating reality, a much needed component.

Vanessa Wasche is delightfully sultry as the evasive Vanda.  She has a wonderful touch with comedy, uses her facial and physical beauty to create a seductive and wise character.  It is obvious that she had little trouble convincing the real director to cast her in the role.  (BTW….be sure to read Kepley’s “Art of the Audition” in the program to gain an understanding of the casting process.)

Handsome Michael Brusasco makes Thomas Novachek his.  He doesn’t portray the role, he becomes Novachek.  He completely succeeds as the seducer and the seduced.  A young woman was overheard saying to her acquaintance as they exited the theatre, “that guy should be playing Christian in the movie version of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.”

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   VENUS IN FUR is good kinky fun.  It will send many home to a night of fantasy.  Be aware, that if you are the kind of theatre-goer who likes clear endings to your plays that wrap up the action and makes the author’s meaning clear, you’ll probably be frustrate with VENUS IN FUR. 
VENUS IN FUR, which is being performed in the Second Stage in the Allen Theatre complex, has been extended due to strong ticket sales beyond the original November 24th announced closing date. For tickets and information call 216-241-6000 or go to

Sunday, November 10, 2013


NEWSIES THE MUSICAL delights with impressive dancing and a melodic score

Have you every wondered if the second time you see a production of a Broadway show it can live up to the first viewing?   Or, whether, after a show runs for a while, does it get stale, loses its spontaneity? 

Having seen NEWSIES just before it officially opened, I followed the “rules of the critic”…never review a show in previews.  So I was curious if, when I saw it for the second time, it would be as dynamic, emotionally charged and high flying as the first seeing.

The answer is a resounding “YES!”

NEWSIES is the Disney produced musical that was inspired by the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899 in which a group of ragtag ruffian youth, who were the breadwinners for their impoverished immigrant families, stood up to the powerful Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the owners of New York’s major newspapers.

Much like the musical URINETOWN, NEWSIES is a tale of the struggle against corporate greed.  URINETOWN took on the control of water, while NEWSIES illuminates the tale of publishing tycoons who try to raise the price of the papers bought by the boys and sold for meager profits in order to increase the tycoons’ larders at the expense of child labor and greediness.   Though the musical embellishes the facts of the real strike, it makes for a first-rate good show, which gives good guys to root for and highlights how the upright can triumph over the gluttonous.

NEWSIES opened on Broadway as a limited engagement offering on March 29, 2012.  Because of strong critical accolades, and a cult group of followers of the 1992 screen version, a movie which ironically garnered negative reviews, it is now in an open-ended run.

The show has catchy, toe-tapping music by Alan Menken, which lends itself to dynamic choreography by Christopher Gattelli.  Jack Feldman’s lyrics and Harvey Fierstein’s book give director Jeff Calhoun a chance to do much creative staging and play for both laughs and pathos. 

In the mold of the traditional musical, the songs are melodic, the two-act format ends with the first act leaving the audience with a cliff hanger regarding whether good guy Jack or the bad guy tycoons will prevail, and offers a satisfying ending. 

The score includes ballads, marches, and toe tapping/tap dancing inducing sounds.   “Santa Fe” is a song of longing, the show-stopping “Seize the Day” is a choreographic explosion of determination, “The Bottom Line” illustrates greed and corruption, “Brooklyn’s Here” shows the power of solidarity of purpose and how enemies can form a bond when it comes to forging change,” and “Something to Believe In” is an illustration of love and inspiration.  It’s almost impossible to leave the theatre without one of those songs repeating itself in your mind.

Corey Cott lacks some of the dynamism of Jeremy Jordan who was the original Jack Kelly.  Jordan left the cast to become a character in the television series, SMASH.  Cott, however, is believable as Jack, the leader of the Newsies, the tough guy with a tender underbelly.  He has a strong singing voice and is a skilled dancer. 

Beautiful Kara Lindsay charms as Jacks’ love interest and defiant daughter of Joseph Pulitzer.  Cott and Richardson’s rendition of “Something to Believe In” is one of the show’s highlights.

John Dossett was so convincing as the nasty Pulitzer, much in the tradition of reactions to the bad buys in a melodrama, he earned him a chorus of “boos” in the curtain call. 

Andy Richardson tugs at the heartstrings as Crutchie, the crippled orphan.  Young Joshua Colley charmed as Les, a youngster forced to work with Davey, his older brother, the brains behind the Newsies, when their father loses his job.  The kid knows how to steal a show.  Ben Fankhauser develops a believable Davey. 

The highlight of the production, however, is the choreography.  Flips, somersaults, line dancing, tapping, contemporary moves, balletic perfection explode on the stage, resulting in prolonged cheers, applause and demands for reprisals.   Wow!  This is Broadway dance at its very best.  What’s even more impressive, these guys can sing effectively as well as dance.

If some of the dancers look familiar, any viewer of television’s SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE will hone in on familiar faces.

Ken Travis’s set design and Sven Ortel’s projections helped create the right moods, as did Jeff Croiter’s lighting.

Capsule judgement:  NEWSIES THE MUSICAL is Broadway at its best.  A story based on a real tale of good versus evil, a love connection of opposites attracting, a multi-textured melodic score, and dynamic choreography, add up to a wonderful evening of theatre!   To date, unfortunately, no plans have been announced for a touring show, so it’s see it on Broadway, or probably not at all.  Hopefully the powers that be will change their minds and realize that this is a show that would sell on the road!

NEWSIES THE MUSICAL is in production at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W 41st St, New York, NY.

LUCE, a compelling, thought-provoking probe into reality

Lincoln Center is the largest contiguous performing arts center in the United States.  Included in the complex are concert, dance, education, commercial and theatre spaces.  The newest venue is the Claire Tow Theatre, a two-story, 23,000 square-foot space built on the roof of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.  The space includes the theatre, rehearsal and office space, and a lobby that opens onto an outdoor terrace surrounded by a new green roof with views of the rejuvenated Lincoln Center Plaza.

The Tow is an 112-seat proscenium space, which is home to LCT3, Lincoln Center’s initiative to produce the work of new artists and engage new audiences.  LCT3 tickets are priced at $20. 

The intimate space works well for small shows.  The seating is comfortable but doesn’t completely take sight lines into consideration.  Seats at the ends of the first several rows in the straight line configuration face the proscenium walls rather than being angled toward the stage, thus making for problematic viewing.

The play is receiving its initial staging as part of LCT3.  This is author JC Lee’s first New York production.  Lee is also the writer of LOOKING, a new HBO series.

LUCE probes such issues as the meaning of truth, whether blind love can be destructive, the roles of both negative and positive prejudices on insights, and if early life experiences can set someone on a life’s path which later nurturing cannot overcome.  

The date is today in an American suburb.  We are introduced to Harriet, a teacher of cultural studies at an affluent charter school, Amy and Peter, parents of Luce, a high school athlete and honor student who was adopted at a young age from an African nation in the midst of civil war, and Stephanie, an Asian teenager. 

Harriet has given her students an assignment to think “out of the box” about a historical figure.  Luce writes about a European 1970’s terrorist in vivid detail.  Without his knowledge Harriet, who has become suspicious that Luce may be harboring terrorist thoughts, inspects his locker and finds three large firecrackers.  Theses are devices capable of large destruction.  She shares her findings with Amy and gives her the essay and the explosives.  Amy does not confront Luce, but puts the items in a place where she used to hide the boy’s Christmas presents.

As the story develops, the liberal parents find themselves questioning Luce’s honesty and Harriet’s intentions.  Amy confronts the shy Stephanie, who supposedly has been harassed because of her heritage and finds out additional secrets that Luce has never shared. 

Finally, after not wanting to accuse Luce of transgressions, his parents confront him with their observations.  He has seemingly logical explanations for each incident.  All seems under control until Luce is chosen to give a speech about the effect of culture on individuals and presents a treatise that opens new issues.

A cliff hanging  conclusion in which an explosion at the school and the disappearance of the essay and firecrackers, leads to an unsettling ending.

Some may be upset that Lee does not tie up the play with a clear “he did it or didn’t do it” ending.  As is, we are left with doubts and much fuel for long discussion after the curtain falls.

Okieriete Onaodowan is convincing as Luce.  His easy demeanor, likeability and realistic character development aid in confusing the audience as to whether he has been so damaged by his youthful past that he is a devil in honor student/star football player guise or is a victim of circumstances.

Marin Hinkle presents an Amy who, true to her loving liberal nature, wants to trust her son, no matter the consequences.  Her powerful final scene, of a mother now filled with doubt, is extremely effective.

Neal Huff develops Peter into a man who, though liberal in his views, is a realist.  Is his son a terrorist or not?    Huff convincingly sways in the wind, never breaking, but bending under the pressure of evidence and reality.

Sharon Washington gives a defensive bend to Harriet that makes one wonder whether she is Luce’s friend or foe.  It is that edge which helps bring doubts into the minds of the audience.

Olivia Oguma easily takes on the role of the texting, afraid, Stephanie.

Capsule judgement:  JC Lee’s LUCE is a thought provoking script which gets a nicely textured performance under the direction of May Adrales as part of the LCT3 program at Lincoln Center.  It is a show which should get lots of productions on college and small theatre professional stages.  Lincoln Center is to be commended for developing a space and providing the funding for the development and staging of new works.

Performance:  Claire Tow Theater, 150 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center, (212) 239-6200,, Through Nov. 17. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

FIRST DATE on Broadway

Delightful, well-staged, cast-right FIRST DATE on Broadway
How do singles meet, find that perfect “forever,” or at least, their “right” now?  In this age of electronics, Craigslist, J-date, and E-Harmony, dot com offer a wide avenue to traverse.

Of course, who can tell if any of the on-line information is accurate?   As “The One,” the opening song in FIRST DATE, Broadway’s small cast musical explains, weight, age and about anything else listed could be one big lie!

The safest of the bunch is personal contact.  The duo gets to see and exchange information.   Hanging around popular bars, joining single’s groups or trolling the health food sections of super markets are also options.  And then, there is the blind date.

In FIRST DATE the audience is allowed to eavesdrop on the meeting of Aaron and Casey, New Yorkers of very different temperaments and life styles, who have been set up by his friend and her sister.  Why the matchmakers ever thought that this duo were candidates to be the one for each other is a mystery.  But, without the mismatching, there would be no plot!

FIRST DATE, with book by Broadway newcomer Austin Winsbend and music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, also Big Apple newbies, is a delightful old-fashioned musical with a modern twist.  It harks back to the days of SHE LOVES ME and PROMISES, PROMISES, musicals with obvious story lines of love and misunderstanding and hummable scores, sprinkled with witty lines, solvable conflicts, and feel-good endings.

Tall, dark, whippet thin, handsome Zachary Levi is character-perfect as Aaron.  Aaron, the geeky, awkward, self-doubting, jilted at the altar guy, blind date virgin, who has been reluctantly dragged, with uncertainty and trepidation, into this fixed-up meeting. 

Levi, who is making his Broadway debut, is best known as the computer nerd lead character in the television show CHUCK.  In the musical he adds the dimension of displaying a fine singing voice, which he uses well to create meaningful musical thoughts.  His “In Love With You,” is hilarious, while “The Things I Never Said,” a song version of a letter left to him by his mother shortly before her death, is heart wrenching. 

The duet, “First Impressions,” which Levi sings with Krysta Rodriguez, Casey, his blind date, creates the perfect exposition for understanding these seemingly disparate people.

Rodriguez, noted for her portrayal of Ana Vargas in the Broadway-themed television show, SMASH, and Broadway performances in THE ADDAMS FAMILY, IN THE HEIGHTS and SPRING AWAKENINGS, shines as Casey, an in-your face, street wise, oft-hurt young lady.  Commenting on everything from his clothing to his career and manners, Casey seems to insure that this date is going no-where.  Some of her badass veneer cracks when she sings “Safer.”

Their differences are highlighted in the very funny, “The Girl for You,” a reaction of Casey revealing she’s a “shiksa,” a non-Jewish woman, who is not for a nice Jewish boy like Aaron.   Sara Chase regales as the guilt inducing Grandma Ida.

The rest of the score also helps clarify the duos personas.  Included are such plot pushers as, “The Awkward Pause,” “That’s Why You Love Me,” and “The Check.”

Is there hope?  This is a musical comedy, so, of course, the moon glows brightly as the duo seems to resolve many of their differences and go happily into this good night.

The rest of the cast, who appear in multi-roles are spot on, as is the creative direction of Broadway newcomer, Bill Berry.   In lesser hands the light script might have become soppy, but Berry has done an excellent job of keeping things on course, cueing the laughs, and making sure that the characterizations are consistent.

Kristoffer Cusik is fey-fun as the flamboyant Reggie, whose assignment is to call Casey so she can exit from the blind date.   His “Bailout Song”—all three versions of it---delight.

Blake Hammer adds humor as the waiter/impresario of the restaurant in which the blind date takes place.  His “I’d Order Love,” is fun.

Bryce Ryness and Kate Loprest are excellent in multi-roles.

Capsule judgement:  FIRST DATE is charming and fun.  The audience leaves happy and humming the music, having had a good time.  Both Zachery Levi and Krysta Rodriguez are delightful and the supporting cast is excellent.

The producers of FIRST DATE have announced that the Broadway show will close after the January 5 performance. It will have played 34 previews and 174 regular performances at The Longacre Theatre.  Too bad, I really liked it!

Monday, November 04, 2013

BLACK CAT LOST, a thought provoking experience at Theatre Ninja

Theater Ninja is a nomadic theatre company which has no permanent home and appears in store fronts, art spaces, and churches.  It was founded in 2006 with the goal of developing innovative, nontraditional theatrical experiences.   As founder Jeremy Paul explains, “We are a risk-taking company.”

Erin Courtney, the author of BLACK CAT LOST, Theatre Ninjas most recent offering, fits perfectly into the mold of Ninja’s targeted scripts/devised theatre.  The play, which centers on the impermanence of life and the pain of loss, uses esoteric language and Zen poetry, to examine conflicting memories of events jointly experienced, and the viewing of death and the unseen. 

Using the controversial concepts of Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross’s stages of grief and dying: denial (often accompanied by isolation), anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, the multi-scene play accentuates the idea of seeing each event twice.  First it is experienced, and then it is relived as a memory. The questions arise, “Are our memories accurate?”   “Can any two people have the same memory experience?”  “Can individuals experience and then move on?”  These issues can become intense as people attempt to re-experience someone who has died.

Though somewhat obtuse, the script does invoke thoughts of an individual’s own mortality and how we remember those who have passed through our lives and are no longer with us.

Director Jeremy Paul uses his actors and the intimate Waterloo Arts space well.

Ray Caspio, Lauren Joy Fraley, and Sarah Moore are all convincing in their portrayals.

BLACK CAT LOST is preceded by the REFRAIN, a short devised presentation conceived and directed by Paul, which features Tania Benites, Caspio and Moore.  The piece was first performed as part of AT-TEN-TION SPAN 2012, Cleveland Public Theatre’s , 10-minute play series.  It is described by its conceiver as, “a highly rhythmical sequence of movement and voices — a pseudo opening band” for Black Cat Lost.” 

It is composed as a non-linear connected series of lines, with no clear story.  It is performed by Benites, Caspio and Sarah Moore.

The final segment of the evening was TANGLE, TANGLE, a developing concept play performed by its writer Caspio, with accompaniment by composer Sean Ellis.  It is billed as “a queer performance of songs and stories, a microcosm challenging hate.” The segment presented, much in the vein of, ‘I Am What I Am,” from the musical LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, examines masculinity and femininity.  It includes concepts explained by American Psychologist Sandra Bem in her Gender Schema Theory.

Capsule judgement:  THE BLACK CAT LOST, THE REFRAIN and TANGLE, TANGLE, are the type of theatrical experiences that the cult followers of Theater Ninjas’ expect.  It is an evening of offerings that are probably too abstract for the traditional theater-goer, but will be of interest to the philosophical and contemporary thinker.

BLACK CAT LOST will be staged at Summit Artspace in Akron on November 7th, 8th and 9th.  For information go to

Roe Green is honored by the Dramatists Guild Fund in NY gala

On October 10, at the Dramatists Guild Fund annual gala at the Edison Ballroom in New York, Cleveland’s Roe Green, Founder and President was honored for her patronage of the arts.  The event was hosted by television and Broadway actor Michael Urie, and featured such legendary theatre elite as Stephen Schwartz, Ben Vereen, Bernadette Peters and Stephen Sondheim. 

The Dramatists Guild Fund is the public charity arm of The Dramatists Guild of America. Its mission is to aid and nurture writers for the theater, to fund non-profit theatres producing contemporary American plays and to heighten awareness, appreciation and support of theatre across America.

Ms. Green,  a graduate of Beachwood High School, noted for her contributions to such organizations as Kent State University, where she built the Roe Green Center, sponsors a visiting director’s series, and serves on the Porthouse Theatre Board.   She serves as a member of the Board of the Cleveland Play House and is the honorary producer of the Fusion Fest.  She was the recipient of the 2009 Ohio Arts Council’s Governor’s Arts 
Patron Award.