Monday, October 27, 2014

A true “who done it” at Geauga Lyric Theater Guild

“And Then There Were None,” now on stage at Geauga Lyric Theatre, has had a fascinating theatrical history.  The story, originally written in book form by Agatha Christie, one of England’s greatest mystery writers, was published as “Ten Little Niggers.”  That identifier was used because of the inclusion of a British “blackface” poem which serves as a major plot device. 

When it was published in the US, due to concern for political correctness, the title was changed to “Ten Little Indians.” Later, at the insistence of the Christie estate, the title was again changed in 1943.  This time, “And Then There Were None,” the last line of the rhyme for which the book and play were originally named, was selected.

The story centers on ten strangers who have been invited to a get-together on an island off the coast of England.  After they arrive, a recorded voice accuses each of having gotten away with murder.  Due to weather conditions, they are trapped.  One one-by-one they die.  As each person expires, a statuette of little soldier boys on the mantel disappear or break. 

A English nursery rhyme says, “Ten Little Soldier Boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.”  It continues with references to sleeping, chopping up sticks, going out to sea, being hugged by a big bear and getting “frizzled up.”  The death patterns follow the words of the ditty.

Not only the title, but the plot went through transition.  When Christie was first asked to dramatize the book into a play, she refused.   She was aware that the ending would have to be changed as all of the characters in the book die.  She thought that to make the play successful, “I must make two of the characters innocent, to be reunited at the end and come safe out of the ordeal.”  She used the ending of the original rhyme to solve the issue.  It reads, “He got married and then there were none.”  Thus, she felt she could portray a different conclusion on stage than she wrote in the book.  Interestingly, the poem printed in the program does not use the wording to which Christie alludes.

The Geauga Lyric Theater production, under the direction of Deborah Cluts, develops the story and keeps the audience involved in the guessing game of who is killing the guests. 

Though British accents waver, and some of the performers act their roles rather than being the characters, each is believable enough to represent Christie’s ideas.

Strong performances included Bob McClure as Philip Lombard, Civia Wiesner as Emily Brent and Bob Kenderes as Sir Lawrence Wargrave.  

A believable set, effective lighting, and realistic sounds effects all aid in developing the production.

Capsule judgement:  “And Then There Were None,” is one Agatha Christie’s best known mystery books and plays.  The script gets an effective little theatre production at Geauga Lyric Theatre, holding the audience’s attention.

The show runs through November 2 at the Chardon Theatre, 101 Water Street, on the square in downtown Chardon.  For tickets call 440-286-2255 or go to

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dobama’s “The Norwegians,” an extremely odd bitter comedy

C. Denby Swanson’s “The Norwegians,” now on stage at Dobama Theatre, centers on Tor and Gus, two Minnesota Norwegians, who are hit men who offer to “whack” individuals who have “done others wrong.”  Olive, a former Texan, has been mistreated by her boyfriend. She meets Betty, who has hired Tor and Gus in the past to rid her of an ex- boyfriend.  She is out to “do in” another guy, but, for reasons which roll out later in the story, she doesn’t hire Tor and Gus to do the job. Betty shares the Norwegian Mafia’s information with Olive, who hires them,  and the tale is off and running.  

“The Norwegians” is billed as a “bitter comedy.” It can also be heralded as “extremely odd.”  But the best description may well be that it is a mash-up of Garrison Keeler’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

Keeler, in his humorous radio show, makes fun of such things as the Scandinavians’ lack of emotional displays, odd choices of food, sing-song accents, patterned way of living, and the liberal/conservative dichotomy regarding their life styles.  Many of the incidents and references in “The Norwegians” sound like they are right from “News from Lake Wobegon,” Keeler’s make-believe home town, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  That phrase has led to a psychological condition called, “The Lake Wobegon Effect,” defined as a human tendency  to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others.” 

Becket’s “Waiting for Godot,” as is typical of Theatre of the Absurd plays, is based on the existentialistic concepts of, “Why do we exist?  What is the meaning of life?  Why do we do the things we do?”  In “Godot,” people wait endlessly and in vain for the arrival of someone or something.  It exposes the audience to ritualistic aspects and elements taken from vaudeville, and often life in general.  

Questions abound.  Will Tor and Gus really kill Olive’s ex?  Are the duo suffering from “The Lake Wobegon Effect?”  

Queries continue.  What is this whole tale really about?  Is there a message, or are we waiting for Godot?  Is the script supposed to  be a laugh fest? Are we, the audience, while watching “The Norwegians,” a play with minimum action and little substance, also watching ridiculousness hoping for something of meaning and enlightenment to be exposed? 

Or, am I, the reviewer, trying to make more out the script than was intended.  Should I accept what is as is, accepting that, as Beckett once said about “Waiting for Godot,” “Why do people have to complicate a thing so simple.”

Director Shannon Sindelor, whose last staging Dobama was the well-praised and critically heralded “Kin,” doesn’t seem as well focused in “The Norwegians.”  It’s probably because the script isn’t as clear and effectively written as “Kin.”  

As is, the 70-minute play, with an intermission, is well paced and the acting is good, but one may question why an intermission was needed. 

Robert Ellis beautifully underplays the role of Tor. He sounded like he was right out of one of Garrison Keeler’s skits.  

Tom Woodward keeps his Norwegian “good” emotions under control as Gus, contrasted nicely with his “non-Norwegian” “bad” self.  

Christine Fallon twanged effectively as Olive, the Texas lass who wants payback.

Lara Knox, as Betty, gave a clear portrayal of a transplanted Minnesotan who blames her negative actions on the cold weather, rather than her inborn desire for revenge.

During opening night’s production, there were light and sound problems at the beginning of the show that caused Nathan Motto, Dobama’s Artistic Director, to restart the show several times.  Rather than being a negative, this may well have been an omen to the audience of the strange things that they were about to observe.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “The Norwegians” is the kind of script that some will like, some will dislike.  It gets a better production at Dobama than the material probably deserves.

“The Norwegians” runs through November 16 at Dobama Theatre and then will move to MOCA Cleveland for showings from November 20th through the 22nd.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

As part of their social service to the community, Dobama is selling flashlights, intended to throw a spotlight on cancer.  The project is in honor of Mindi Bonde, the company’s Administrative Assistant, who is out about her fight against breast cancer.  Flashlights may be purchased, or donations made, at each production of “The Norwegians,” or by calling the theatre.  Our positive thoughts are with you, Mindi!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Farcical “Blithe Spirit” @ The Fine Arts Association

Noël Coward, the author of “Blithe Spirit,” now on stage at The Fine Arts Association in Willoughby, is noted for his wit.  The author of over 50 plays, many of which he starred in himself, he was also a composer, actor, and singer.  His satirical song, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” which he often performed in his concerts, was classic Coward.  It made fun of the uptight Brits, their penance for following custom, and their love of the “empire.” 

Many of his plays, such as “Hay Fever,” “Private Lives, “Design for Living,” and “Present Laughter,” are considered classics of world theatre, produced over and over by professional, educational and amateur theatres.  They are all high comedies, often farces, many were domestic in nature, garnering the title, “drawing room comedies.” 

A closeted homosexual, he was referred to as a “congenital bachelor.” He often took on subjects which drove censors of the 20s and 30s mad.  He continued his playfulness well into the 60s, much to the delight of audiences. 

His works are British through and through.

“Blithe Spirit” centers on a series of incidents which some think is based on a combination of his own search to find out about the occult, his desire to write a play about clairvoyance, his wanting to make fun of writers, and a way to banner his views of marriage.

The storyline centers on Charles Condomine, a snobbish British socialite and novelist.  In his desire to write a book about clairvoyance, he invites his neighbor, the eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a séance at his home.  His present wife and two very British friends, a doctor and his wife, are present.  None are believers in mysticism, and make snide comments about the whole event. 

The séance gets out of control when Madame Arcati actually summons Elvira, Charles’ dead wife from the “in between.”  Only Charles can see or hear Elvira.  The often annoying and temperamental first wife attempts to destroy his marriage to second wife, Ruth.  As Charles talks to Elvira, Ruth takes his words as critiques and remarks about her.  When he finally tells Ruth that Elvira is present, she fails to believe him.  She becomes reluctantly convinced when Elvira brings her a vase of flowers, lifts and replaces objects, and causes general chaos.

Farcical incidents happen, an accident accidently kills Ruth, but she is soon back as a “ghost.”  Eventually, after Madame Arcati is able to rid the house of the two mirages, the tale seems to come to its merry end.  Seems to, but who knows?

“Blithe Spirit” is a British comedic farce.  This genre is very difficult to direct and perform.  The Brits have a way of putting things that doesn’t lend itself to American senses of humor.  They like overdone reality.  They require fidelity to realism, but exaggerate in a subtle way that makes for a less is more pattern that is often hard for non-Brits to achieve.  They make an art out of door slamming, over-exaggeration of the trivial, and saying biting things with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

In other words, Coward and his modern colleagues write plays that are very, very hard to present in a way that makes them as funny as they have to be. 

Many American amateur and even some professional companies stay away from Coward’s works because, even though they read well on paper, are nearly impossible to stage.  English accents must be exact, but not overdone, clear enough for the untrained Yank ear to understand.  The pacing must be alternately over and under done, depending on whether the scene is comical or farcical.  The characterizations must be realistic, real people, not being superficially presented as these people are perceived to be.  Gestures and facial expressions must be British.  Sometimes stoic, sometimes condescending, yet always in character, and natural, not faked.  This is a rough task. Why the powers that be at FAA selected such a difficult play is a mystery.

The director and cast of the Fine Arts Association’s “Blithe Spirit” try hard, but are over matched by the requirements of the script.  Congratulations to Nicole Alponat, Cami Blanchard, Justin Steck, Korbin James Lashley, Leah Smith, Marcia Mandell, Angela Savochka and director James Mango for a great effort.

Michael Roesch’s set design is excellent.  The accents were consistent, though a little overdone.  The pacing was generally good, but the production was slowed down by the extremely long blackouts between the scenes.  Some of the farce shticks worked, especially in the play’s last scene.

Capsule judgement:  “Blithe Spirit” is considered by theatre experts to be one of Coward’s greatest farces.  Though the director and cast at The Fine Arts Association give it a “pip, pip, hurrah” effort, they just can’t overcome the barriers created by picking a script with such high level of directing and performance requirements.

Tickets for “Blithe Spirit,” which runs through October 26, 2014 can be ordered at 440-951-7500 or online:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A haunting “Night of the Living Dead” @ Blank Canvas

Pat Ciamacco, Artistic Director of Blank Canvas Theatre, is audience friendly.  He wanted to find a script for the venue’s Halloween season.  Though there are a lot of movies that fit his liking, there were few to no plays.  So, true to Ciamacco’s nature, he decided to write one.  But, then he thought, why invent a new script when he could adapt a classic like the 1968 horror comedy cult classic indie film,  “Night of the Living Dead.”  And, to make matters even better, due to a glitch by the films producers, who forgot to register the rights to the script, the work is in the public domain.  In other words, no royalty has to be paid.

The film, which cost $114,000 to make has taken in nearly 30 million dollars and has a cult following.  Another plus for Ciamacco.  A built-in group of followers.   Stage it, and they shall come! 

The story concerns Barbara and Johnny, a brother and sister, who, each year make a visit to their father’s grave, in an isolated rural area.  Barbara is up tight over being in the graveyard.  So, of course, Johnny hides, jumps out and scares her, shouting, “They’re coming to get you.”  Little does he know how right he is.  In fact, “they,” the zombies, are coming to get everyone. 

Barbara runs when a “man” attacks and kills Johnny.  She finds an abandoned farm house with a mangled corpse inside.  She tries to flee, only to be confronted by another zombie.  She is saved by Ben, who is seeking gasoline as his truck has run out of fuel.  They return to the house, board up the windows and wait for “the attack of the creatures.”

Ben finds a gun in the house and proceeds to shoot some of the attackers.  In the meantime, a young couple, and a married duo whose daughter has been attacked by the zombies, are holed up in the basement.  When downstairs residents hear the sound from the radio which Ben has turned on, they emerge from down below.  A series of twists and turns, and a television broadcast, push the plot of the intermissionless one-hour tale to its gruesome conclusion. 

Getting the idea that this is not exactly the writing quality of “Hamlet?”  Well, as it turns out, it is a lot like the Shakespearean tragedy, as in the end, the stage is littered with dead bodies, good and bad characters, alike.

To the delight of the audience, each time someone is shot, red liquid squirts onto the patrons seated in the first two rows.  (If you don’t want to be part of the blood bath, make sure you are in the rear seating areas.)  A woman who saw the theatre’s even more bloody 2012 “Texas Chainsaw Musical” came into the theatre on opening night wearing a plastic raincoat with a hood, prepared for the spurting red showers.

The cast, garbed in bad wigs and over-stylized costumes, true to the melodramatic nature of the goings-on, play their roles with great seriousness, but with a tone of affected acting.  They take themselves seriously, in spite of the ridiculousness of the goings on, so the audience will both laugh at them as well as their surreal plight. 

Kudos to Matthew Ryan Thompson (Johnny), Amber Revelt (Barbara),  DeVon Settles, Jr. (Ben), Stephen Berg (Tom), Jonathan Kronenberger (Harry Cooper), Tasha Brandt (Judy Rose), Theresa Dean (Helen), Makenna Weyburne (Karen), Ian Atwood (Sheriff McClelland), and Will Crosby (Posse Member), plus a horde of Zombies, for being ridiculous in order to create the ridiculous.

Credit for the stage blood effects goes to Ciamacco and Chuck Klein.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  It’s the Halloween season, the traditional time of the year to pay homage to ghosts, goblins, and of course, zombies.  Pat Ciamacco and his merry band of performers give the audience a chance to wallow in stage blood, feign fear of the denizens of the dark, and enjoy themselves by watching the “Night of the Living Dead.”  Just remember, “Hamlet” this ain’t!

Tickets for “Night of the Living Dead,” which runs through November 1, 2014, can be ordered at 440-941-0458 or

Enjoyable “Making God Laugh” at Actors’ Summit

Families can be interesting to observe.  Take for example, the family who is the subject of Sean Grennan’s “Making God Laugh,” the 125th main stage production of Actors’ Summit. 

The quintet are functional, but with some over-arching problems, mainly centering on Ruthie, an obsessive-compulsive wife and mother.  Ruthie, who believes rules are rules, traditions are traditions, and none these are up for discussion or change.

Ruthie’s “absolutes” include serving her foul tasting and smelling Fantasia Dip on every holiday, the infallibility of the Catholic church, her drive for making everything “perfect,” and her harassing two of her three children. Only Thomas, the youngest, who, at the start of the play is a priest-in training, is exempt.  The oldest son, Rick/Rickie/Richard, an alcoholic “wanna be” playboy, whose life centers on “a guy told me” get-rich schemes, purchases of off brand and weirdly colored cars, such as a “pink” Gremlin, wears trendy clothing, and perceives himself as a woman’s man.

Then there is middle child, Maddie.  Insecure Maddie, a lesbian, would-be actress and sometime teacher, is the constant recipient of her mother’s attempts to get her married, bring forth grandchildren, and be the duplicate of “Ruthie’s former best “friend.”

Bill is a quiet, undemonstrative dad and enabling husband, who puts up with Ruthie’s manipulations and control, including sleeping in a separate bedroom, for no other reason than that he loves her.  But even that parameter meets its match when Ruthie finally goes too far.

This a family filled with unresolved issues, met and unmet dreams, and angst.  Yes, a family, like many families. The negatives come forward during the holidays.  Ah, yes, the holidays, which are supposed to be happy times, but often, as is true of other stressing situations such as weddings, turn from happy anticipation to intra-family squabbles.

As outsiders looking in, the audience can laugh at the idiocy, sigh as they relive similar personal comparisons, and feel the tug of heart strings as each family member changes before our eyes due to attitude changes, realizations, and physical and mental illnesses.

The play covers three decades, each accented by a holiday.  First, there’s Thanksgiving (1980)…the era of green and gold furniture, David Hasselhoff, polyester clothing, words like “cool,” and “Fantasy Island” on television. 

Then comes Christmas Eve (1990)…gas selling for $1.16 a gallon, Pinto autos, Tom Sellick, huge portable phones with bad reception, sideburns, and dudes in denim duds. 

Next, it’s New Year’s Eve, 2000.  Yes, the time of the Y2K prediction of the millennium bug, the impending apocalypse, changes in the Catholic church, the forecast of Google, the fall of Enron, and soy beans as the farm crop of choice. 

The last scene is Easter Morning, in 20??...sometime in the near future.  When reality sets in, the “children” have found their niches in life, the physical and psychological woes of the elders are apparent, “pleasant dementia” is on display, and a new reality and family dynamics have set in and need to be managed.

The dramedy’s title was inspired by a Woody Allen’s classic line, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”  This family had its plans and they make not only God, but the audience laugh, in the process of watching these plans followed, changed, accomplished, and fall apart.

“Making God Laugh” is formulaic, more television than theatre in its writing style.  It’s not Neil Simon or Woody Allen funny, more “Modern Family” cute.  It does have its “ah ha” moments and “aw isn’t that nice” inclusions.

The Actors’ Summit production is nicely paced by director Neil Thackaberry.  The natural farcical instances are stressed, the laughs are abundant.

MaryJo Alexander’s costume designs are era-exaggerated, especially carried out in Rick’s garb and hairstyles and Maddie’s wardrobe.

The cast, Chanda Porter (Ruthie), James Hill (Bill), Keith E. Stevens (Richard), Shani Ferry (Maddie), and Adam Klusty (Thomas) develop consistent characterizations.  These are theater characters, not real life people, and are portrayed as such with exaggerated facial expressions and body movements.

Capsule judgement:  “Making God Laugh” is one of those nice escapist evenings of theater that will induce laughter, cause nostalgic trips to yesteryear for the more mature members of the audience, and incite awareness of the fears of some as they look forward to the “golden” years.   
“Making God Laugh” runs at Actors’ Summit, located in Greystone Hall, 6th floor, 103 S. High Street, Akron, through November 2, 2014.  For tickets call 330-374-7568 or go to

Actors’ Summit’s next show is “Hound of the Baskervilles, the original Sherlock Holmes story, which runs from November 26-December 21, 2014.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Delightful "[title of show]," at Beck

Truth, well maybe the truth, can be stranger than fiction.  According to the show, itself, the musical “[title of show],” yes, that’s the title of the show, which is now appearing on stage at Beck Center’s Studio Theater, was conceived when one of the script’s authors received an announcement about a musical festival.  The New York Musical Festival, to be exact.  The NYMF was in search of new musical scripts. 

The duo, Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell (their real names and also the names of the characters in the script) decided that they could, in three weeks, accomplish the deed!  A script and four songs had to be written.  Bowen, who is a lyricist, supposedly wrote the words before any music was conceived.  Along with a couple of female friends, the duo wrote a script which was about them writing the script. 

Much to the amazement of all, “[title of show]” was accepted for production.  During the summer of 2004, the quartet (quintet if you count the piano player who has some spoken lines) performed three times at The Manhattan Theatre Source.  Their set?  Four office chairs on wheels, a telephone recording machine, an electronic piano, some sound equipment, a few posters, a couple of smartphones, and a lot of imagination.  In September of that year, they performed it again for six performances. 

Five new songs were written, a little conflict between the participants was added, some more short runs followed, and then the big break:  a limited off-Broadway run.  Then a bigger break:  a Broadway production in 2008 which ran 102 performances.  It won the 2009 Audience Award for Favorite Ensemble Cast.  And that wasn’t the end of the road.  In August of 2013, the show opened in London, numerous equity and non-equity local performances have followed, and the script was translated into Danish for a production in, you guessed it,  Denmark.

Not bad for a show conceived on a spur of a moment whim.

So, what’s the story?   You just read it.  Bowen and Bell tell the tale of how the script was written, how it got its first performance, and the stresses and joys of the writers and cast in developing the piece.

This is no great musical, no “My Fair Lady,” or “Chorus Line,” or even “Espresso Bongo.” (Did anyone but me see “Espresso Bongo?”) but, it makes for a delightful sit, especially for those who have knowledge of  the Broadway theatre and its many stars.  There are many “in theatre jokes” and celebrity name references that might roll right off the ears of non-theatre geeks. 

Does this mean, if you aren’t a member of the august community of theater aficionados, you won’t appreciate the show?  No.  There is enough charm to carry anyone to be intrigued about the toils and troubles of accomplishing the major task of creating a musical, even one without a name.

Clever songs include:  “Filing out the Form,” “Montage Part 2: Secondary Characters,” and “Change It, Don’t Change it/Awkward Photo Shoot.”  “A Way Back Then” is a tender offering.  BTW…want to hear a free song from “[title of show]?”  According to the Beck program, if you go to and enter the code Untitled you can get a free download from the original Off-Broadway cast recording. 

Director Scott Spence has conceived a production that is laid back and comfortable.  No big production numbers, no complicated sets, no attempts to make the show a classic. 

The cast also play rather laid back.  Though they are all talented, no attempt is made for anyone to be a diva.  Amiee Collier (Susan), Pat Miller (Jeff), Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly (Heidi), and Will Sanborn (Hunter), have all proven before on local stages that they are solid performers, with good voices, and concrete acting chops.  They use their skills well.

And, let’s not forget about Larry Goodpaster, the multi-award winning musical director, most people have never seen on stage, because he is usually in the orchestra pit, directing.  So, if for no other reason, here is your chance to see the cherubic Goodpaster, not only play the electric piano, but sling some clever lines and get lots of laughs.   Gee, he might trade in his baton for stage makeup.

Attention: “[title of show]” is advertised as “an adult” production.  Yes, some “F” bombs fly, masturbation is mentioned, gay sex and porn are alluded to, males are shirtless for brief interludes, and one of the girls removes her blouse, but not her bra.  You have been warned!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  During the performance, when the cast of “[title of show]” are reading the show’s opening night reviews, it is revealed that panned the show.  The Beck Center doesn’t have that problem.  This review (yes, it will appear on, one of the sources that carries my show reactions) will be stating, ”[title of show],” now on stage at Beck Center for the Arts, in Lakewood, Ohio,  is a delightful theatrical experience, that audiences should enjoy!”).

“[title of show]” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through November 16.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to

Friday, October 10, 2014

Impressive, must see "Les Miz" @ Great Lakes Theater

“Les Misérables” is a classic historical novel by Victor Hugo.  It is probably one of the most noted literary pieces of the 19th century. “Les Misérables,” Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s musical adaptation of the novel has become an epic of the musical theatre stage. 

The script is usually performed in grand style with large sets, a huge cast, a big orchestra.  The Great Lakes Theater’s production of “Les Miz,” as it is commonly called, takes a somewhat different approach.  The ingenious Victoria Bussert has reimagined the show as a smaller, more intimate, more personal offering. Bussert’s concept works wonderfully.  

The Hanna Theatre, GLT’s Cleveland home is a perfect venue for Bussert’s concept.  The audience is up close to the happenings, making every action, every emotional feeling, every nuance, observable.   The cast, the theatrical elements, and the musicians, don’t let the audience down.

Hugo was a commentator on the French condition during the 19th century.  He examines such topics as morality, the power and place of religion, the justice system, the role and format of the family, and the corruption of the times. 

His “Les Miz” gives a vision of the frustrations of the people with the royal system of the time.  It exposed the injustices of the legal system, where a man can get a long prison sentence for stealing bread, food intended for a starving nephew.  It tells of how, even after serving his sentence, the man must carry papers and a body signature that tattoo him for life as a convict.  It illustrates the frustration of a group of idealistic dreamers who wish to make changes, but lack the skills, the tools, and the support to exact alterations in a bad governmental system.

The musical version, a two-year labor which the writers call a period of “cutting, condensing and shaping,” resulted in a moving tale that parallels the book, and gives further light to Hugo’s message. 

When it opened in London, the show received mixed reviews.  Cameron Mackintosh, the show’s producer, who reported that he was in an “elevated state” due to the powerful emotion of the cast and audiences, as the preview period came to an end, was surprised by the reviews.   He said, “I couldn’t reconcile the sense of uplift and exhilaration I had witnessed in the theatre with these words [the reviews].”  The public seemed to take the reviews in stride, and besieged the box office for tickets.  The results have been astounding.

The show has been translated into 22 languages, has played in 42 countries and is still running in London.  The original New York show ran 6,680 performances, one of the longest runs on-Broadway. It was recently revived on the great white way.

The centerpiece of the story is Jean Valjean, a prisoner who serves his time, breaks parole, steals silver from a priest who was kind enough to take him in, is caught by the police, and released when the clergyman tells his captors that the silver was a gift.  Valjean transforms himself into a self-made successful, moral man, but is sought after by Inspector Javert, who obsessively perceives it his mission to catch convict 20641.  Valjean becomes wealthy, assumes responsibility for the daughter (Cosette) of a former worker [Fantine] at his manufacturing factory, who was slandered by gossip, cast out, turned to prostitution, becomes ill, and is visited in the hospital by Valjean who promises to raise Fantine’s daughter as his own.  The rest of the tale follows Valjean, Fantine and Marius, one of the student leaders of an attempted revolt to change the governmental system, as they live out their lives against the background of 19th century France.

Bussert has taken the serious underbelly of the tale, softened it with some humor, and fashioned a musical tale that clearly develops the story, stresses Hugo’s intentions, and presents the musical aspects in a glorious vision.  This is a masterful job of directing.

Instead of the usual massive set on a turntable and an impregnable barricade, scenic designer Jeff Herrmann, has given a fragmented, suggestive vision.  The barricade is made of regular household items—bed headboards, tables and chairs—things that would have been really used to create a makeshift structure.  They are staked from the floor and hung from the fly gallery to create an impression of what might have been part of the battle.  Houses, the sewer, walls, the ballroom are suggested in such ways that there is no question of where the scene is taking place.  The only slightly out of kilter visual was the illusion of Javert’s body falling into the water after he jumped off a bridge.

Musical director Joel Mercier and his orchestra present a lush and well interpreted sound that highlights the action and supports rather than drowning out the singers.  The individual and choral singing is excellent.

Esther M. Haberlen’s era-correct costume designs enhanced the production, as did Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting and Amanda Werre’s sound design.  Gregory Daniels choreography added to the show’s quality.

The cast is generally excellent.  Stephen Mitchell Brown displayed a well-trained voice in his portrayal of Jean Valjean.  He knows how to sing meanings, not just words so the songs resonated with the audience.  His “Bring Him Home” brought the show to a stop as a result of a screaming positive audience reaction.  His rendition of “Who Am I?” was another of the show’s highlights.

Jodi Dominick, as Fantine, was properly down trodden by life’s issues of having an illegitimate child, being abandoned by the child’s father, and being the brunt of unfair gossip.   Her role interpretation was excellent, her musical version of “I Dreamed a Dream” was emotionally tear inducing.

Brian Sutherland, as the obsessive Javert, displayed a solid singing voice. “Stars” was well interpreted.  He could have been more menacing, thus enhancing the emotional level of his dealing with Valjean. 

Kyle Jean Baptist displayed a strong voice and a powerful stage presence as Enjolras, the leader of the rebellious students. 

Though both were fine,Tracee Patterson (Madame Thénardier) and Tom Ford (Thénardier) could have had added even a little more farce to their roles.

Capsule judgement:  Director Victoria Bussert and her production team fashioned  a marvelous and impressive “Les Misérables.” Besides the quality of staging, it’s worth seeing the show, to experience Stephen Mitchell Brown’s ownership of the difficult role of Jean Valjean. The GLT production is an absolutely must see!

“Les Misérables” runs through November 2, 2014 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets go to: 216-664-6064 or

A “cool” “Motown, the musical” rocks the State Theatre

The State Theatre in PlayhouseSquare is rocking.  Rocking with sounds of the likes of Diana Ross, The Supremes, The Jackson Five, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.  Rocking with a full orchestra, a visually stimulating electronically enhanced production, and the story of Berry Gordy.

Berry Gordy, who is the central character of “Motown The Musical parlayed a loan of $800 into a mega-million musical composing, recording and producing business.  Gordy not only influenced the musical sounds, but found the entertainers who transformed America’s musical tastes, played a role in the civil rights movement, and helped hone an identity for black entertainers.  He did this in an era of segregation, white disc jockeys not willing to play “black” music, and the KKK on the march.

“Motown” is a jukebox musical.  It has a book which surrounds Motown’s catalog of hits.  It is based on Gordy’s autobiography “To Be Loved:  The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.”

The book for the show, which was written by Gordy, takes a journey from 1938, in the Gordy family home in Detroit, Michigan, to 1983 in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where an event is being held to celebrate the stars, hits and success of Motown.  The success which, between 1961 and 1971, had 163 singles in “Billboard Magazine’s Top 20,” including 28 songs that reached number one.  It was the most successful business owned and operated by an African American in the United States.

The musical premiered on Broadway in April, 2013.  Though the cast and the music was praised by critics, the script was generally called “light weight.”  The show went on to garner four Tony nominations, but none were for the book.

With choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams, and directing by Charles Randolph-Wright, the touring show, even with its one and a-half hour first act, zips right along.  The full orchestra, under the baton Darryl Archibald, blasts away, creating the right sounds, even if some of the older ears in the audience may have felt bombarded by the volume.  More than one person was seen popping in ear plugs while others were pulling out their hearing aids.

The show is all about music.  And, fear not that this is a touring production, the voices are superb, and the acting is right on target.

Some of the songs from the past, reproduced here, are “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “My Girl,” “What’s Going On?,” “My Guy,” “Dancing in the Street,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Do You Love Me?,” “I’ll Be There,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I‘m Yours.”

Clifton Oliver creates a Berry Gordy who is completely believable.  His ups, his downs are all fully developed.  Allison Semmes is Diana Ross.  Ross, Gordy’s lover.  Ross, the Supreme’s front lady. Ross, The Diva. 

Nicholas Christopher as Smokey Robinson and Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye are character correct.  Those old enough to have experienced Ed Sullivan were delighted by Doug Storm’s imitation of the crossed arms, over-articulating host of the top rated Sunday night TV variety show.  A show which bannered many of Motown’s biggest stars.

The rest of the huge cast, often playing various roles, were all excellent.  The vocal sounds and the blendings were all music to the ears.

Davis Korins’ scenic design, consisting mostly of a series of vertical and horizontal beams, which often slid into various configurations, and cleverly designed projections by Daniel Brodie, framed and illustrated the action.  The time sequences were illustrated by pictures and films, including Martin Luther’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his murder, the Dallas assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the slaying of his brother Bobby.  Freedom Marches, civil unrest, and the wars, were all vividly projected.

Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams created dynamic choreography which not only duplicated the moves of the boy and girl groups, but also set the right tone for the time period.  Esosa’s costumes were not only era, but character, correct.

Capsule judgment: If you like the Motown sound, dynamic singing, and a good history lesson, MOTOWN THE MUSICAL will be your “thing.”  It was definitely my thing!  As the silver-haired lady, standing several rows in front of me, jumping up and down and waving her hands from side-to-side, kept yelling during the curtain call, “That was cool!”

“MOTOWN THE MUSICAL,” a part of the Key Bank Broadway Series, the show runs through October 19 at the State Theatre.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Superb Aspen Santa Fe Ballet excites audience at E. J. Thomas Hall

Dance Cleveland opened its 59th season in spectacular style with a performance of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at E. J. Thomas Hall, on the University of Akron Campus.  The company, which was founded in 1996, has two official schools, one in Aspen, one in Santa Fe, and a year-round Mexican outreach program.

The huge audience, which filled the orchestra section of the auditorium, was enthralled by the eleven person company’s creativity and discipline.  They lived up to their advanced billing for adventurous dancing.  The style has been credited with “epitomizing the contemporary-classic genre.”

The program opened with “Over Glow,” choreographed by Jorma Elo, and performed to music by Felix Mendelssohn and Ludwig van Beethoven.  The composition was danced with precision, with three male clones and three females who could have been triplets in physical style and appearance.  The dynamic music was perfectly paralleled in mood and temperament by Elo’s dance designs. 

Combining classical ballet moves with modern movements, the body shifts, freezes, lifts, running, slides, spins, and jumps were a master class in combining the two styles.  The finely gym toned bodies of the dancers created enthralling visual and emotional pictures.

If “Over Glow” had been the sole offering on the program, the audience would have been satisfied, but it was only the appetizer.

“Return to a Strange Land,” set to four emotional pieces by Czech composer Leoš Janáček, and choreographed by Jiří Kylián, Czech contemporary dance choreographer, explored the limitations and capabilities of space, body parts, entrances, exits, and contrasts, with some humorous overtones.  The distinctive movements, which incorporated dancers running and sliding across the floor, combined classical ballet and modern dance.  With overtones of sadness and longing, the overarching feeling was that of hope.  

“Square None” was choreographed by Norbert De La Cruz III, a young Filipino-American.  Still in his twenties, the Julliard School graduate is noted for his creation of inventive and haunting characters.  Accented by creative lighting, the dancers thrust their limbs in and out of the squares of lights, parts of their bodies often seeming to disappear.  Constantly changing from intertwining patterns, to unison solo dancing, the performers seemed to be playing a game in which the musical notes set the pattern and tone for point and counter-point movements.   The overall effect was an audience-pleasing experience.

Capsule judgement:  Pam Young, executive director of Dance Cleveland has done it again.  Young has the ability to find dance companies that entertain and delight audiences.  Her selection of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet futher confirms her grasp of the national and international dance scene and makes sure that Cleveland area audiences experience the best.

Next presentation by Dance Cleveland is the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, presented through the sponsorship of the Cleveland Israel Arts Connection, a program of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, on Saturday, November 8 @ 8 PM and Sunday, November 9 @3 PM at the Ohio Theatre.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Farcical "The Merry Wives of Windsor," doesn't leave well enough alone @ Great Lakes Theater

“The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a version of which is now on stage at Great Lakes Theater, is considered by many literary critics to be one of Shakespeare’s “lesser” plays.  Not bad, just not up to the dramatic level of the great writer, though its farcical nature is often praised.

Nicholas Rowe, a Bard expert, indicates that the reason the play was written may account for its structure and format.  According to Rowe, Queen Elizabeth was pleased with the character of Falstaff in two parts of “Henry IV” so she commanded the writer “to continue him for one play more,” for a special occasion.  She wanted and got a fun farce which is intended to be a romp, delightful, and for audience enjoyment.

It is the opportunity for creative staging that should make this production excellent, since Tracy Young, the show’s director, is noted for her imagination.  In my review of “The Imaginary Invalid,” which she staged for GLT a while back, I stated, “Under director Young’s guidance, the cast has a wonderful time and so does the audience.  She directs with a broad brush, creating lots of easy to laugh at shticks.”

If only I could write that about “The Merry Wives.”

I’m not a Shakespeare purist.  I like a director with creativity, but the reinvention has to be purposeful.  From my perspective, Young tried to add message where it wasn’t needed.

The director explains in her program notes that the play is now placed in an era following the Second World War.  (Why?)  She has moved the place from Windsor, England to Windsor, Wisconsin.  (Why?)

The director refers to the late 1940’s era  as a time of “darker awareness of humanity,” and “tensions between ideals of community and individualism, transformations of accepted notions of status, and evolving expectations of traditional gender roles.”  Yes, some of these ideas are lightly hit upon in “Merry Wives,” but Shakespeare wrote the script as a farcical romp, not a “message play.” Yes, Madam Director, create broad farce, but why attempt to add a social/political message where none was intended?

The slight story centers on Falstaff, one of the Bard’s most beloved creations.  Falstaff, the boisterous, lively, funny and mischievous fat man gets himself into all sorts of trouble, thus delighting audiences.  In “Merry Wives” he comes to the city, broke, and desiring to get some quick money.  Young has imagined him as “a down-on-his-luck celebrity in exile from Hollywood.  Think Orson Welles plotting his come-back!”  (Why was that twist added?  Does that add humor?)

He thinks he can get cash by deceiving Mistresses Ford and Page, as they are “only” women.  As it turns out, the ladies turn the tables on Falstaff, resulting in his getting put into a trash container, dumped into the river, being forced into women’s clothing in order to escape the wrath of the ladies’ husbands, getting thrashed, and humiliated. 

In a subplot, three different men are trying to win the hand in marriage of the Page’s daughter, Anne.  The mother prefers Doctor Caius, a French physician. The father wants her to marry Mr. Slender.  Anne, herself, is in love with Mr. Fenton.  In the end, there is a festival as each of the men gets what he really wants.

Production questions arise:  Why do accents come and go?  Why is Dr. Caius unintelligible?  Why does Falstaff keep changing physical size?  What is the purpose of the costumes (Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts, safari clothing, modern day suits, varying eras of women’s fashions)?  Why the large contemporary set that makes movements on stage difficult?  What is the purpose of the group of children, who are at various times  Scouts, birdwatchers, and ballet dancers?

Fortunately, Young has inserted some great shticks.  The farce is at a high level. The pace zips along, though the ninety-minute first act is a long sit, followed by another, though shorter act.  Most of the acting is excellent.

Laura Welsh Berg and Jodi Dominick are delightful as Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page as are Lynn Robert Berg and Ian Gould as their husbands.  When he is allowed to go over the top in his performance, Aled Davies is fun as Falstaff, but too often he is bogged down by the film scenes and other sidetracks that are intended to develop the “plot.’  His getting thrown into the trash and impersonating of a woman scenes are what this script is all about!

Clare Howes Eisentrout is charming as Ann Page.  Sam Wolf (Fenton) shows some great dancing talent in the celebration scene.

Capsule judgement:  Opening night audience reactions to “The Merry Wives of Windsor” varied greatly.  Many of the spectators generally sat in stony silence, not even giving the show the traditional Cleveland standing ovation.  A group in the theatre’s rear section laughed constantly and stood at the curtain call.  A fellow reviewer left at intermission stating, “I’ve never walked out of a show before!” Me? Though there were some very entertaining segments, this was not one of my favorite evenings of Shakespeare.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” runs through November 2, 2014 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets go to: 216-664-6064 or