Monday, May 26, 2014

"Voodoo MacBeth" misses its performance mark at Ensemble

During the great depression of the 1930s the U. S. government attempted to stir up the economy by creating various works projects.  One of the organizations developed was the Federal Theatre Project.  It hired directors, actors and technicians to produce theatrical productions that charged low to no-cost for admission.  Many of these were new scripts, and employed out-of-work and emerging artists to participate in the shows. 

Popular theatrical names that emerged from the FTP included Arthur Miller, John Houseman and Elia Kazan.  Also emerging was a young Orson Welles, whose “Voodoo Macbeth” is considered one of the movements most important works. 

Wells’ script and production was part of a FTP’s African American Project, which had a unit in Cleveland.  AAP provided entry paths into the theatre for black actors and stagehands, and attempted to raise community pride among blacks for not only creating contemporary works, but classics.

In 1936, Wells used an all black cast to transfer Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” from medieval Scotland to a fictional Caribbean island, probably Haiti, noted for its witchcraft and voodoo-believing population.  

The show was not only a box-office sensation, but is regarded as a classic due to its innovative interpretation.  It secured for Wells, at age 20, an early place on the list of theatrical geniuses.

The exchanging of Scotland for Haiti was accomplished by making the “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble witches” into voodoo conjurers and changing the queen of the witches into a bullwhip-snapping medicine doctor.
Much of the Shakespearean cast appears in Wells’  play.  Macbeth, commits murder to become king and fulfill his wife’s ambition for power.  There is Lady MacBeth, who has blood on her hands that she can’t wash off.  There is the rest of the royal extended family who get killed or eventually become the new royalty.  The play retains its reputation as the tragedy of tragedies!

Wells’ production became a sensation not only due to the creative script, but due to the quality of the performances.  It takes amazing actors to develop the complex roles of “Voodoo MacBeth.” 

Unfortunately, except for Carly Germany, who portrays Lady Macbeth, the cast tries hard, but isn’t completely capable of conveying the depth of Shakespeare’s characterizations.  It’s not totally their fault.  The material is just too deep and taxing for less than the most skilled of actors to portray. 

The Ensemble production has some performance highlights besides Germany’s.  Stephen D. Hood gets laughs as the Porter.  Kyle Carthens (Macduff) , Leonard Goff (Duncan), Robert Hunter (Malcolm), Joseph Primes (Hecate) and Jimmie Woody (Macbeth) have some good moments.

Some of the “voodoo” elements are missing due to the lack of Caribbean sing-song accents, and confusing costuming and makeup.  Some of the projections, a technique which Ensemble has adopted as their main means of scenery in most of their recent productions, also is island inconsistent and sometimes size-overwhelming.

Capsule judgment:  “Voodoo Macbeth,” a production of Ensemble Theatre in collaboration with The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival is an ambitious project of a historically important theatrical script. 
 The play requires a level of acting that is beyond the training and talent of most of  the cast, thus the experience is less than it could have been. 

“Voodoo Macbeth” runs Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays (8 PM) and Sundays (2 PM) through June 8, 2014, at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the Coventry Building, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

"We've come a long way baby,"--no, not quite...ANCESTRA @ CPT

Watching Cleveland Public Theatre’s ANCESTRA is both an enlightening and a depressing experience.  Depressing in that the play adds yet another layer to the still on-going tale of the fight for women’s equality in what was and in many ways still is a conservative white man’s world.  In spite of progress, such issues as gender equity, equal pay for equal work, women’s health care and reproductive rights are still lagging.  Yes, women now have the right to vote, own property, aren’t regarded legally as possessions, and can get advanced collegiate degrees (even though some fields are still generally closed to females).

Enlightening, especially to those who know little about the rights movements in this country,  the rights of women, blacks and homosexuals/transgendered persons.   Unfortunately, those who really needed to get the edification probably won’t attend the play.  It would be too threatening to their closed minds and unbending beliefs. 

The National Women’s Rights Convention was a series of annual meetings that brought visibility to the women’s rights movement in the United States.  The first convention was held in 1850, in Worcester, Massachusetts.  That session attracted men and women who were advocates for temperance, abolition and suffrage for women.

As one of the speaker’s stated, “I conceive that the first thing to be done by the women of this country is to demand their political enfranchisement. Among the ‘self-evident truths’ announced in the Declaration of Independence is this – ‘All government derives its just power from the consent of the governed.’”

“Ancestra,” which is now in production at Cleveland Public Theater, is a play by Holly Holsinger, Chris Seibert, Renee Schilling and Sally Groth that was inspired by the 1853 National Women’s Rights Convention held in Cleveland.

At that convention, in a letter read aloud, the Reverend William Henry Channing, a leader of the Christian socialism movement, suggested that “the convention issue its own Declaration of Women’s Rights and petitions to state legislatures seeking woman suffrage, equal inheritance rights, equal guardianship laws, divorce for wives of alcoholics, tax exemptions for women until given the right to vote, and the right to trial before a jury of female peers.”

The authors have creatively woven flashes from the past with instances of the present to create an effective portrayal of their message “to celebrate those who came before and champions of current efforts to achieve dignity and justice.”

Interesting to locals, who tend to be proud that Oberlin College was the first institution of higher learning to admit women, is a segment which indicates that their education afforded women was not parallel or equal to those given to men.  The women were restricted as to the courses they were allowed to take, how they were treated, and the need to hide in the woods to be able to speak their minds and just not be sponges in the classroom. 

The play is well staged by Holly Holsinger in a creative setting designed by Aaron Benson.  An inner proscenium consisting of twigs and trees, with platforms for portraying various places, providing a pleasing and practical acting space.  Having those from the past always in the background, and vise versa added much to creating the image of the past as it affects the present.

The cast is excellent.  Special kudos to Chris Seibert as Cora, a modern day reporter who fights to continue the assault on tradition to make for continued changes to help the cause of women through the power of activism. 

Anne McEvoy does a nice transition from the stern administrator at Oberlin to Cora’s caring mother.  Rhoda Rosen, as the emblem of elderly women, is endearing.  Katy Lynn Patterson is excellent as the educationally frustrated Lucy.

As is often the case in the CPH theatre, being able to hear the actors is a problem.  The high ceiling, open fly gallery and distance between the audience and the stage makes for echoes and a loss of projection.  Since the production I saw was a preview, I don’t know if several of the females, who were very difficult to hear due to a lack of projection, improved during regularly scheduled productions.

Capsule judgement:  “Ancestra” is a well written play that gets an excellent production at Cleveland Public Theatre.  It is a story that needs to be told.  It should be seen by everyone who assumes that the rights movements…the march for equality for women, blacks and homosexuals, have completed their tasks.  Kudos!

 “Ancestra” runs through June 7, 2014  at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Baldwin Wallace Music Theatre Program's Ciara Renée makes it big on Broadway

On April 1, Ciara Renée strutted on stage at the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street as The Leading Player in PIPPIN.  She became one of seventeen Baldwin Wallace Music Theatre Program graduates to appear in a Broadway, Off-Broadway or National Touring company during the 2013-2014 season.

Yes, tiny Baldwin Wallace University, in Berea, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, has become a powerhouse in providing polished theater performers for professional stages.

As Victoria Bussert, the program’s director states, “It is the goal of the BWMTP to create working professional artists.  The team (Scott Plate, Gregory Daniels, David Pepin—the new Music Director who joined the program straight from “Wicked” and “Kinky Boots”  and myself,  combine our professional and academic careers to create a special environment for our students.”

As Ciara said in a recent interview, “The BW program builds a community and we support each other and we are always trying to help BW, which 15 years ago wasn’t even on the national map.”  “The program has a curriculum that changes to make learning relevant, teach each student how to be professional, and how the business works.” 

The results are obvious.  Ciara relates, “Last spring’s showcase (an event in New York where students perform before Broadway directors, agents and managers), every student was prepared, was ready to show our talents, ready to work at a high level.”  “I was totally prepared and jazzed for it.”  Every student left with an agent or a manager.  “A month or two in, I tried out for “Big Fish.”

On October 6, 2013, Ciara opened as the witch in “Big Fish.”  Though the show ran only 34 previews and 98 regular performances, Ciara got positive reviews and after going through the tryout route again, thanks to her agent “being on top of what’s going on,” she was selected to replace Tony Award winner, Patina Miller, as Leading Player in the mega smash revival of Stephen Schwartz’s  PIPPIN.

That “tryout routine included a six-hour call back, and a 3 or 4 day wait until I got the good news.”  Between “Big Fish” and “Pippin,” she worked as a fitness instructor.

Her entry into “Pippin” included “watching Patina’s performances, rehearsing every day, learning about the character, and molding it all into a structure.”

Besides singing and dancing, Ciara has to do aerialist tricks.  She had to go through special instruction at the Circus Warehouse (a training facility in New York where circus stars, Broadway performers and the public come to train in acrobatics), learning how to do the tricks incorporated into the show.  “The cast, old and new, rehearse and rehearse.”  Ciara indicated she “started to hit the gym and become more muscular” to be able to do the routines. 

“Pippin” is scheduled to come to Cleveland as part of the 2014-2015 Key Bank Broadway Series.  In the past, Clevelanders’ Michael Cavanaugh who was appearing in “Moving Out,” and Tony Winner, Alice Ripley, who was in “Next to Normal” took breaks from their shows to return “home” to do their Broadway Series shows.  Any chance of Ciara doing that?   “That’s not in the plans.”  Her “Pippin” contract runs until September and then “some other projects are coming up.”

In response to the comparison to Broadway’s original “Pippin,” which starred Ben Vereen and Jonathan Rubinstein, which Ciara was too young to see, she indicates that people comment that “this one is so different.”  There is the entire circus/acrobatics addition.  Lots of “magic to do.”  But, she indicates, in spite of “lots of stuff going on,” the beauty and meaning of the songs “Corner of the Sky,” and  “Morning Glow,” aren’t diluted. “Nothing crazy goes on during those numbers.”

What advice would she give any kid with Broadway stars in their eyes?  Ciara said, “it’s not easy, not glamorous, you have little social life, you have to put yourself out, be fearless, not look stupid, there is so much to learn, be nice to people, being talented and nice adds up.  It’s hard work!”

She obviously practices what she preaches.  As Bussert said, “Ciara was always an amazing student -- very intelligent, focused and passionate about her work. She got her equity card doing DREAMGIRLS at Cain Park the summer after her sophomore year.  She played a wide variety of roles at BW including Kate in THE WILD PARTY, Emma in LIZZIE BORDEN and Phyllis in FOLLIES.”  “She is truly special.”

Ciara, and the other BW students banner their training in their program bios by including the phrase, “A proud graduate of Baldwin Wallace.”  Grads from other schools don’t necessarily do that.    Why the BW tribute?  What is so special about the BW program?   As Ciara stated, “The focus is on each person individually.  We all have our differences and we are taught not to look at another person, don’t compare yourself, don’t be jealous.”

Having seen Ciara in all of her BW performances, and both BIG FISH and PIPPIN, I can attest to her talent, stage magnetism, and dedication.  Look for the name Ciara Renée, “a proud graduate of Baldwin Wallace,” to appear on lots of Broadway playbills in the future!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Cleveland area summer theatre and dance 2014 calendar

The Cleveland area has a full schedule of summer theatre entertainment.   Here are some of the upcoming stagings:


PORTHOUSE THEATRE  Kent State University’s summer theatre, performed on the grounds of Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, will present
•MY FAIR LADY, June 18-28 (two-piano musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s PYGMALION),
•STARMITES, July 3-19 (musical adventure fantasy in which humans and heroes conquer the sinister inhabitants of Innerspace),
•OLIVER, July 24-August 10 (musical classic, based on Charles Dickens’ novel).  Curtain time is 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds open 90 minutes prior to curtain time. 
For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to

CAIN PARK  Cain Park, located in Cleveland Heights offers
•FROGS, July 31-August 17, Alma Theater,  (a comedy written in 405 B.C. by Aristophanes, freely adapted by Nathan Lane, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.)
For tickets call 216-371-3000 or go to

BLANK CANVAS  Pat Ciamacco’s little theatre that “could and does” presents •LAUGHS OF FUTURE PAST, May 30-31, June 6-7 (A 90-minute sketch comedy and improv with beer, wine and humor),
•ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, July 18-August 2 (captures the radical and anti-establishment mood of the 1960s),
•HAIR, August 29-September 13 (the 1960s Love-Rock musical)
For tickets and directions go to

MAMAI THEATRE COMPANY  The area’s newest equity agreement theatre, now in residence at The Pilgrim Church in Tremont, presents
•STRANDED ON EARTH, June 5-22 (Clevelander Eric Coble’s script contemplates the exchange between personal freedom and putting down roots against the backdrop of personal tragedy.
•James Joyces’s ULYSSES IN NIGHTGOWN, benefit for Mamai (for details go to the website)
•ARCADIA, July 17-August 3 (Tom Stoppard explores the way the past is interpreted through the lens of the present.)
For tickets go to

Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare—Allen Theatre
•MAURICE HINES IS TAPPIN’ THROUGH LIFE, May 30-June 29 (Tap dance legend Maurice Hines stars in this explosive world premiere production.)
June 7 @ 5:30pm - 11:00pm
For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

•SEMINAR, May 30-June 29 (a comedy in which four aspiring young novelists sign up for private writing classes taught with recklessly unorthodox instruction.  Tensions arise, romances develop, and the wordplay is not the only thing that turns vicious.)
•YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, July 11-August 17 (a musical re-imagining of the Frankenstein legend based on Mel Brooks' parody of classic horror films, the story follows bright young Dr. Frankenstein as he attempts to complete his grandfather's scientific work and bring a corpse to life.)
For tickets:  216-521-2540 or

•STRANDED ON EARTH, June 5-22 (This is Eric Coble’s one-woman show, starring Derdriu Ring.  Co-produced with Mamai Theatre Company. 
For tickets and information:

•BACK TO BACHARACH AND DAVID, JUNE 12-JULY 20 (The hits of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, including “Alfie,” “Walk on By,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” and twenty more.
For tickets: 330-374-7568 or go to

convergence continuum
A MAN OF VIRTUE, June 20-July 12 (An unlikely friendship that derails into a quiet, pitiless nightmare.)
AMAZONS AND THEIR MEN, August 8-20 (Inspired by the life and work of Leni Riefenstahl (Hitler’s cinematographer) who recruits a Jewish man to play her lover in acting out a scene in the Trojan war.)
For tickets: or 216-687-0074

For information about the summer offerings call 440-775-8169


(All presented at Cain Park.  For program details and tickets call 216-371-3000 or go to:

Thursday-Saturday, June 12-14, 7pm, Alma Theater
$25 advance, $28 day of show
GroundWorks will reprise two audience favorites from its extensive repertory, "Hindsight" by Lynn Taylor-Corbett, a tribute to Akron-born rock legend Chrissie Hynde, and "All I Do" by David Parker, a whimsical and intricate invention set to music from the American film classic “Singin’ in the Rain. ” The series will also feature a World Premiere by GroundWorks' Artistic Director David Shimotakahara.

Wednesday, July 30, Kids Matinee, 1-2pm. Evening performance Thursday, July 31, 8pm, Evans Amphitheater. FREE

Friday, July 25, Kids Matinee, 1-2pm. Evening performance Saturday, July 26, 8pm, Evans Amphitheater
Kids Matinee: $5/child, $8/adult general admission
Evening: $25/20 advance, $28/23 day of show

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"The Bridges of Madison County," well conceived musical that deserved a better fate on Broadway

Some musicals are filled with flash, glitter, large production numbers and massive choruses.  “The Bridges of Madison County” is not one of these.  It is a well-conceived, tender, and low-keyed experience.  It is a “little” musical, much in the realm of “She Loves Me.”

Adapted from the novel “The Bridges of Madison County,” by Robert James Waller, is a story  based on the author’s desire to expand on his belief that some people experience “a special love that happens just once in a lifetime—if you’re lucky.” 

“I don't want to need you, 'cause I can't have you.” “I realize love won't obey our expectations, its mystery is pure and absolute.” “Things change. They always do, it's one of the things of nature.” “And in that moment, everything I knew to be true about myself up until then was gone. I was acting like another woman, yet I was more myself than ever before.” These lines, spoken by Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson, the script’s love-struck lovers, appear to be excerpted from a Harlequin romance novel.   But they aren’t.  They are part of a script that is exceedingly well-crafted, has a solid emotional foundation, a fine score and a meaningful libretto.

The story centers on Francesca, an Italian-American unfulfilled house wife, who met her husband-to-be while he was serving in Italy during World War II.  She is quickly swept off her feet, marries, and is whisked off to Iowa.  Flat, unexciting Iowa, very unlike her beloved Italy.  A place filled with corn and little culture, but good caring folks.

Unexpectedly, into Francesca’s  life wanders Robert Kincaid, a “National Geographic” photographer, in the area to take photos of the renowned bridges of Madison County.  It’s the summer of 1965, and her husband and teenage children are at the Illinois state fair.  Robert is having difficulty finding one of the fabled structures, stops for directions at her family’s farm, and a tale of infidelity, love, unfulfilled experiences, and then the inevitable need to make a pivotal decision that will not only affect the lives of Francesca and Robert, but her entire family. 

Those who read the best selling novel may be disappointed with the changes made in the staged version.  The musical is contracted and the ending changed to fit both the time restraints and cutting down on the Harlequin nature of the original material.  For those who have not read the book, the differences, of course, matter little.

Jason Robert Brown’s music is nicely tucked into and enhances Marsha Norman’s understated book.  The songs grow out of the story, not, as is often the case of musicals, placed in to highlight a character or change the mood. 

The opening number, “To Build a Home,” lays the exposition for understanding the life and ways of Iowa.  “Home Before You Know It,” sets up Francesca’s being left alone while the rest of the family goes to the fair.  “Look at Me,” shows the blooming love between Robert and Francesca. “Falling Into You” brings their relationship to a climax. “Almost Real,” sets up the inevitable separation. “Always Better” brings the story to a forlorn ending.  The music and the book flow seamlessly together.

The staged production, under the deft direction of Bartlett Sher, is compelling.   Michael Yeargan’s fragmented sets move on and off the stage in a beautifully choreographed flow.  Donald Holder’s lighting design enhances the moods.  The orchestra sound is lush, and helps develop a clarity of mood in the songs, nicely underscoring the performers singing.

Kelli O’Hara (Francesca) and Steven Pasquale (Robert) have a wonderful chemistry that makes the joy of their meeting, and sadness of their parting, heartfelt.  They both posses fine singing voices, sing meanings not words, and create characters that live.

Seldom during most musicals, other than for preplanned showstoppers, do audiences respond with overly extended applause.  Not so in “Bridges.” So excellent is the music and the singing that four times during the production the audience showed extreme adoration for the performances by O’Hara and Pasquale.  

Cass Morgan is delightful as Marge, Francesca’s next door neighbor.  Hunter Foster is totally believable as Francesca’s well meaning husband, Bud.  His “Something as a Dream,” is well sung.  Caitlin Kinnunen (Carolyn) and Derek Klena (Michael) are spot-on as the angst-filled Johnson teenagers who mature before our eyes.

Much to the dismay of many, and the frustration of this reviewer, in spite of four Tony Award nominations, including one for O’Hara as Best Actress in a Musical and Best Original Score, the producers of “The Bridges of Madison County,” announced that the show will close after the Sunday, May 18 staging, its 137th performance.

Why the early closing?  One of the issues may well we that this is a “little” show.  It doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle of a “Pippin,” the farcical underpinnings of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” nor the realistic depth of “Lady Day at Emerson’s.”  In a smaller, more intimate theatre, maybe an off-Broadway space, the show may have showcased better.  This is similar to last year’s charming “First Date,” which met a similar, shorter than it should have, run. 

This is the type of script that will quickly be optioned by professional and non-professional theatres in the hinterlands, and have a long life. 

Those theatres will have to wait, however, as the producers have announced that a touring production, under the direction of Sher, will be mounted for the Fall of 2015.

Capsule judgment:  “The Bridges of Madison County,” is one of those special, intimate, meaningful, well-conceived and performed shows that deserved a longer shelf-life than it is getting.  It will be interesting to see how the show runs on the road as a touring production. 

“The Bridges of Madison County,” is running at the Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th Street, New York, through May 18, 2014.

Monday, May 12, 2014

"Bathroom Humor" flushes as Blank Canvas

Before the lights went up on Blank Canvas’s production of “Bathroom Humor,” the couple sitting to my right and I carried on an animated conversation about which they thought were their favorite Guest Artist Theatres in the area.  A Guest Artist Theatre is “a theatre which has an agreement with Equity, whose productions normally include one or more Equity members, and/or who pay all or some their actors in a performance or supply their actors with a stipend.” 

The duo proposed none too fragile, whose “On The Line” was chosen as the best non-musical production of 2013, Ensemble, whose “The Iceman Cometh” was recognized for superior achievement, and Blank Canvas, whose “Twelve Angry Men” also was recognized for its superior achievement, as their choices.  We were in for a treat, right?  Wrong!

Blank Canvas mixes creative audience-delighting shows, such as “The Texas Chainsaw Musical,” “Psych Beach Party,” “Debbie Does Dallas,” and “Hell Cab,” with traditional shows such as “Godspell” and ”Working,” with exceptional stagings, such as “Next Fall” and “Of Mice and Men.”

Usually, the creative and dedicated Pat Ciamacco can find some way to save even the silliest and slightest of scripts.  Add blood to spatter the audience, cut off a few legs and arms and juggle them, there has to be a way.  Unfortunately, he met his match in Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore’s ineptly conceived, poorly written, plot-light farce, “Bathroom Humor.”

Set in a bathroom in a house during a party, the play centers on bad bathroom humor, fat jokes, who cares gossip, urinary problems, affairs between the party goers, alcohol and drug trips, falling out and climbing in windows, hiding behind the shower curtain, penis enlargements, party games, and well . . .who cares.

If you are at all interested, the “story,” (note the quotes around the word story) centers on Laura, who is married to Arthur, who is having an affair with Sandy, one of Arthur’s employees.  Sandy is attempting to get a raise from Andy, who is trying to have an affair with Babette.  Stu is a degenerate whose goal is to consume as much drugs and alcohol as possible.  Peg is overweight and has a negative self image.  The Big El is a totally untalented Elvis impersonator who is the party’s entertainment, and he falls for Peg.  Peg’s elderly father, who has bladder incontinence keeps coming into the bathroom, but never at the right time to use the toilet, and…you lost? Doesn’t matter, nothing of much importance happens. 

Oh, there is one hysterical scene when Peg can’t zip up her overly tight jeans and winds up on the floor trying to put them on. 

The publisher bills the play as recommended “for dinner theatre, community theatre, and summer stock audiences.”  Believe me, no self respecting theatre should be interested in producing this bottom-feeding schlock.

Farce is hard stuff to do, even if it is well written. Believe me, “Bathroom Humor” is not well written.  The cast tries hard, but there is little of value to work with.  In order to protect the innocent, I’m not even going to list their names.  During the run of the show, if I were in the cast, I’d wear a paper bag over my head, so no one would recognize me.

Ciamacco is usually capable of coming up with some way to save any lemon.  In this case, even he couldn’t create lemonade!

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: As we exited the theatre after “Bathroom Humor,  my next-to-seat neighbor said, “Oh well, it is what it is, and I’m not sure why it was!”  ‘nuff said.

Blank Canvas’s “Bathroom Humor” runs though May 24, 2014 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

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A magnificant Audra McDonald channels Billie Holiday in Broadway's "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill"

What could be better than having Audra McDonald singing for an hour and-a-half?  How about McDonald channeling the singing style and interpretative abilities of the late, great Billie Holiday?  McDonald doesn’t portray Holiday, she slips into Holiday’s persona and becomes the jazz singer, with a blues soul.

Holiday, the granddaughter of a slave, endured much success in her life, but also was the victim of overt racism, poor choice in mates, and dependence on drugs and alcohol.

Near the end of her life, the woman who was considered “the world’s greatest jazz singer,” had lost so much of her public appeal that she appeared before an audience that was reported to be seven people.

Lanie Robertson, the author of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” reports that in 1959 a boyfriend of hers saw, “The Duchess,” as Holiday was often called, in a “little dive” about three months before she died.   The boyfriend reported that Holiday “was obviously high, carrying her little Chihuahua, Pepi, whom she introduced to the audience.”  He further reported that she had “a water glass which was filled and refilled with booze.”  She sang ten to 12 songs and “staggered out.”

The image of this, one of America’s icons of music, having imploded , “so undervalued at the end of her life and career was an image that has always haunted me” [Robertson].  It was this reflection that inspired her to write, “Lady Day.”

The song list is a tribute to Holiday’s career.  The score includes “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Somebody’s on My Mind,” “Easy Livin’” and “Deep Song.”

Included is the song that many consider Holiday’s anthem, “God Bless the Child.”   Holiday never had any children, which was a personal regret.   The unnerving song, and its haunting presentation, is a message that trumpets her life of fame and angst.

Of the play, McDonald said, “It’s about a woman trying to get through a concert performance, which I know something about, and she’s doing it at a time when her liver was pickled and she was still doing heroin regularly. . . I might have been a little judgmental about Billie Holiday early on in my life, but what I’ve come to admire most about her –and what is fascinating in this show – is that there is never any self-pity.  She’s almost laughing at how horrible her life has been.  I don’t think she sees herself as a victim.  And she feels an incredible connection to her music – she can’t sing a song if she doesn’t have some emotional connection to it, which I really understand.”

McDonald is nothing short of mesmerizing.  She enters as Holiday, performs as the tortured soul, getting more and more drunk as the show goes on, staggers off stage for a few minutes, and returns not only with her dog cradled in her arms, but one glove pulled down, with needle tracks clearly showing on the bare arm.  She continues the show in a stupor, babbling about her personal life, and finally stumbles out.

The production is meticulously directed by Lonny Price.  The pace, blocking and character interpretation are perfectly designed.

Shelton Becton, who serves as the conductor/pianist for the production, also proficiently fills in as Holiday’s pianist and protector.   His band, consisting of Clayton Craddock (drums), and George Farmer (bass), play “mighty fine.” For an extra treat, get to the theatre early and listen to the trio conduct a jazz concert before the play’s performance.

Pepi, the dog that McDonald cuddles with for a segment of the show, is a rescue dog named Roxie, who was trained to be in “Legally Blonde,” and then was cast in “Lady Day.”

McDonald has proven that she is not only a singer, but a fine actress.  She has  starred  in a range of Broadway shows such as “Ragtime,” “Master Class,” “Carousel,” and “Porgy and Bess.”  She has won five Tony Awards and is nominated for yet another for her performance in “Lady Day.”  She starred in a television version of “A Raisin in the Sun,” after winning a Tony for the stage production.  She won the 2008 Emmy  for her performance.  

It has been reported that she will star, alongside Oprah Winfrey, in a Broadway revival of Marsha Norman’s “‘night Mother,” during the 2015-2016 season.

Capsule judgment:  “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is an amazing way to not only learn about Billie Holiday, get a lesson about the overt prejudices against Blacks during the mid-twentieth century, be exposed to jazz, but be captivated by Audra McDonald.  Yes, as one of the show’s songs says, “Somebody’s On My Mind.”  Actually two somebody’s:  Billie Holiday and Audra McDonald!

“Lady Day  at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” opened at the Circle in the Square, West 50th Street, on April 13, 2014, for a limited run which is scheduled to end on August 10.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Reuben Silver, the crown prince of Cleveland theatre, remembered

The State Theatre marquee lights were dimmed on Saturday evening, May 10, from 8 to 8:15 in memory of Reuben Silver, who died on Thursday, May 8.  Reuben was 88 years old.

Reuben Silver was a brilliant actor, director and educator, but most important, he was a kind and caring human being.  His impish smile and twinkling eyes could make a character live on stage, and calm and encourage those who he came in contact with off-stage.

He was the artistic director of Karamu from 1955 to 1976, and professor and Chair of the Theatre Department at Cleveland State for 17 years.  He awed audiences with his performances on such stages as Dobama, Great Lakes Theatre, Ensemble, Cleveland State, and Actors’ Summit.

He and his wife, Dorothy, to whom he was married for 64 years, were deservedly Cleveland theatrical royalty.  

They were the consummate team. He often appeared with Dorothy on stage.  In some productions each would director the other.

The Silvers were recognized in 1984 with a Special Citation for Distinguished Service to the Arts.  In 2012 they were recognized by the Cleveland Critics Circle for their “Outstanding Body of Work.”

Reuben’s presence will be missed by those of us who knew, admired and loved him for being such a special person, performer and friend! 

There is one less star in the local theatre community sky, and tears in many eyes, with his passing.

The details of a service celebrating Reuben’s life will be announced at a later date.

For an excellent article about Silver's life and career go to:

Saturday, May 03, 2014

"Kin" is a special experiece at Dobama

Every once in a while a play comes along that, without histrionics, searching for laughs or mystery plot twists, resonates with the human connection.  “Kin,” now on stage at Dobama, is such a script.

Bathsheba Doran, the play’s author, has a wonderful sense of language selection, creates scenes that are clear in their intent, puts forth interactions that allow for understanding of the motivations of the speakers, and blends mostly two-person dialogues into a cohesive whole.

Take director Shannon Sindelar’s precise direction, add a creative set design by Tiffany Scribner, meaningful lighting by Marcus Dana, era and character right costumes by Jenniver Sparano, appropriate musical bridges by Richard Ingraham, and put them on stage with a superlative cast.   The result is an engaging evening of theatre.

“Kin” centers on Anna, a Texas-bred army brat and young Ivy League poetry scholar, who is having difficulty finding both her path to academic success and a person with whom to share her life. 
In her search for career success, she writes a magnum academic opus with the deadly title: “Keats’s Punctuation.”  The issue becomes--how does one get such a tome published?

For someone to of share her life, after being harshly rejected by her egotistical collegiate mentor, she turns to internet dating sites.  Lo and behold a total mismatch, an Irish physical trainer, comes onto her screen and into her life. 

What follows is a web of interactions which takes the viewer from the US to Ireland, and the intertwining of multiple relational stories that include mother-son, daughter-father, lover-lover, and husband-wife connections, as well as  forays into infidelity, rape, alcoholism, agoraphobia, and cancer.

On the surface this is a soap-opera type plot, but in the hands of a wordsmith like Doran, the result is an attention getting and keeping experience.

The landscape of the modern world and the meaning of kin and kinship sparkles.   The elusiveness of true human connection is probed.  The effect of family is examined.  There’s drama, there is pathos, and there are laughs.

Over a period of seven years and across two continents, we pleasurably watch a collage of interlocking lives come together for better or for worse.

Elena Kepner puts on the persona of Anna, and creates a real person who carries the weight of her past, hidden and exposed secrets, loyalties and confusion.  This is a nicely controlled performance that rings of character understanding.

Geoff Knox as Sean, Anna’s mismatched boyfriend, fully creates a character filled with a sense of gentleness and sensitivity, which, in spite of the odds, overcomes a lost-love and an upbringing filled with angst.

Lenne Snively, who along with Knox perform with consistent, understandable,  Irish accents, is superb as the agoraphobic Linda, Sean’s maligned, near alcoholic  mother.  There is a wonderful natural sense of being in her characterization.

Rachel Lee Kolis well-develops the role of Rachel, Anna’s boarding school friend.  This is a real Rachel, a ditsy, fragile young lady, desperate for attention, at all costs.

Pete Ferry is properly military-uptight as Anna’s father.  The rest of the cast all develop persons who are real and help move the story nicely along.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: KIN is one of those special scripts that happily gets a superb production at Dobama.  It’s a play for everyone, whether the viewer is looking for thoughtful moments, humorous interludes, or fine acting.  KIN is a must see evening of theater.

KIN runs through May 25, 2014 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

"Murder Ballad" continues high quality collaboratin between BW & PhSquare

PlayhouseSquare and Baldwin Wallace’s renowned music theatre program and the school’s arts management program, have come together for seven consecutive years to present an opportunity for the students to interact with professional theatrical figures in a real world unique way.

The theatre students get an opportunity to work in the second largest arts complex in the country.  The arts management students get to collaborate with the PhSq professional market wizards.   What better educational experience could a student ask for?

This year the theatrical production moved from the cramped space, formerly known as the 14th Street Theatre, to the Allen complex’s Helen Stage.  The Helen is a black box facility which allows for as many configurations as the mind can conceive.  For MURDER BALLAD, the audience was partially seated three-quarters of the way around a rectangular performance area.  The remaining patrons were seated at tables.  Against one walls the band was placed.  A pool table and a long bar were intermingled among the tables.  The design of the theatre space made the performance appropriately up-tight and personal.

MURDER BALLAD is a “sexy and dangerous” rock musical which played a five-week limited engagement in 2012 off-Broadway.  Reviewers called it, “hot and sweaty,” “energetic and intriguing,” “rough and ragged,“ “sexy and explosive,” and “sultry.”  In spite of generally positive reviews, the preview run ended earlier than scheduled. 

The story centers on a love triangle gone wrong.  Sara, an Upper West Sider seems to have it all...handsome and devoted husband, a healthy child, and a life of luxury.  Unfortunately, she can’t rid herself of her desire for bad-boy bartender, Tom. 

We luxuriate in a strong musical score, listening to such melodies as “Troubled Minds,” “Turning into Beautiful,” “Mouth Tattoo,” “My Name,” “Built for Longing,” and “You Belong to Me,” as the plot leads us through the complications of love, the compromises that people make in the name of amour, and the betrayals that love can generate in people, while undoing them.

“Murder Ballad,” is the type of script that Victoria Bussert directs so well.  It requires creative staging, a fine sense of story development, and a talented cast.  Bussert is more than capable of the former duo, and has a treasure trove of “Vickie’s Kids”—the musical theatre students at Baldwin Wallace University.  As a survey of Broadway casts over the recent years proves, she picks,  trains and sends out the cream of the crop.

The four performance run of “Murder Ballad” showcased two different casts.  I only saw the “Spades” cast, so my comments will be narrowed to their performances.  What wonderful performances they were!  I can say, however, that I have it from a “knowledgeable source,” who was seated next to me at Moko Café between the two Saturday shows, that the “Clubs” cast was, ”also good.”

The role of Michael, Sara’s husband, was portrayed by tall and matinee idol handsome Anthony Sagaria.  He’s much in the mold of Strongsville High and BW grad, Corey Mach, who recently was in town playing the lead role in “Flashdance.”  He has a strong singing voice, excellent stage presence and good acting chops.  His duet, “I’ll Be There,” with Narrator Nyla Watson, was one of the show’s highlights.

Watson, of powerful voice and imposing presence, controls the stage when she is belting!  She had some wonderful comic asides that added needed light moments to the heavy theme.

I would not like to meet Zachary Adkins, Tom, the bartender, in an alley.  At least not the Adkins who made Tom and his menacing baseball bat into a potential weapon of mass destruction.  He displayed a nice singing voice and developed a clear character.

Keri René Fuller, a red haired vixen, populated the role of Sara.  Sensual, sexy and seductive, she had both characters, Tom and Michael, wrapped around her little finger.

Musical Director and BW student Andrew Leslie Cooper, and his band nicely walked the musical line between the needed rock intensity and underscoring the singers.  Special kudos to Jesse Stephen Penfound, the percussionist, for realizing that this wasn’t a rock concert and a very heavy foot and pounding hands weren’t necessary to get the needed effect.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT”  It’s no wonder that Bussert commented in the program that “she loves her job!”  Being able to unearth the right script, to  put her unique touch on a production, and having a dream team of talented students to work with, would make anyone happy to go to work.  Standing “O” to all connected with ‘Murder Ballad.”  My only regret was that the show only ran four performances.  It could have developed a cult following and run for a long time!  Oh well, there’s the PhSq/BW production to look forward to next year!

“MURDER BALLAD” ran April 25th through the 27th, 2014.