Sunday, November 30, 2014

“The Nutcracker”—orchestra and chorus superb, short version and dancing proficient

From 1981 until about 2000, Cleveland audiences were enchanted with Dennis Nahat, the then artistic-director of Cleveland Ballet, later the Cleveland San Jose Ballet’ s version of “The Nutcracker.”  Often starring the wunderkinds of the company, Karen Gabay and Raymond Rodriguez, the production was filled creativity, gorgeous costumes and scenery, enveloping story telling, and general wonder.

Since the departure of the company to San Jose, California, the holiday season offering of the epic “The Nutcracker,” adapted from the E.T.A. Hofmann tale, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” with magnificent score by Tchaikovsky, which has become one of the most famous compositions in the western lexicon of music, has been filled by touring productions.  Companies such as the Pennsylvania Ballet and Winnipeg Ballet have performed.  Though competent, they did not compare with the Nahat version, nor meet the dance levels of his performers.

The newest guests are the Joffrey Ballet.  The company has performed during the summer at Blossom with mixed results.  Sometimes their performances have been breath taking, at other times pedestrian. 

Joffrey’s production, staged for seven performances, is drawing large crowds.  Little girls, dressed in their holiday finest, are seen joyously prancing through the lobby, with visions of Nutcrackers, princes and sugarplums in their heads and smiles on their faces.

The Joffrey production was conceived and directed by Robert Joffrey, with choreography for “Waltz of the Snowflakes” and “Waltz of the Flowers” by Gerald Arpino. 

The Joffrey version, as is traditional, is set in Germany on Christmas Eve. (The Winnipeg production was set in Canada, and started out with a hockey match, proceeding the march of guests coming to the family celebration. 

Two children if the house, Clara and Fritz Stahlbaum, and their cousins and guests, enjoy the lovely party.   Clara and Fritz’s godfather, the toymaker, Herr Drosselmeyer, gives the children gifts.  Clara receives a large nutcracker doll, which unfortunately is broken by Fritz and mended by Drosselmeyer.  When the children are sent to sleep, Clara dreams of her nutcracker and his adventures fighting The Mouse King and going on a journey to an enchanted forest where the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the presents, who have been brought to life, perform traditional dances of various countries.

This presentation is an adapted version, cutting out about eight minutes of the traditional staging, cuts which took away some of the visual wonder from the “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” have Drosselmeyer, rather than the nutcracker prince accompany Clara on her journey, and doesn’t have her return to her home to realize she has been dreaming, but, instead, she floats away in a hot air balloon, thus leaving the tale incomplete.  It changed the fairy tale love by almost eliminating the story of Clara and her prince, and instead had her spending time with Drosselmeyer.  

Traditionalists will not be enchanted by these changes, though the shorter sit time is wonderful for children, as was the decision to start the evening performances at 7 o’clock so that parents didn’t have to carry sleeping young children out of the State Theatre.

On opening night the dancing was generally fine.  It was not world class, but acceptable.  Some of the staging confounded.  Why, in the second act, was Drosselmeyer allowed to distract attention from the dancers, upstaging them, by repeatedly waving his arms, wandering among them, rearranging his cloak while sitting, and talking to Clara, was confounding. 

The large number of local children who were incorporated as “supernumeraries,” was exciting, especially since they were excellent, thanks to Gladisa Guadalupe, their rehearsal director.

The sets, costumes, and special effects were beautiful.

The highlights of the evening were the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra’s Children’s Chorus.

Under the baton of Tito Muñoz, the orchestra created a sound that virtually engulfed the audience with a clarity and style that made the music live.  Even though they were in the pit, which often muffles the sound, the tones were full and articulate.  The chorus, under the direction of Ann Usher, perched in the mezzanine level boxes on both sides of the theatre, created pitch perfect sounds that added illusions of delight and beauty. 

The combined sound of the orchestra and chorus was acknowledged when on opening the audience, who gave the dancers a polite round of applause, leapt from their seats as Muñoz came onto the stage, gestured toward the orchestra, and the lights came up on the choir.  Bravo!

Capsule judgement:  It has been an interesting experience to see a variety of companies come into the area in and attempt to fill the void of not having a local company to satisfy the “The Nutcracker” tradition.  None of these groups has yet reached the level of the rendition by Dennis Nahat and Cleveland Ballet.  The recent presentation, which combined the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus with the Joffrey Ballet, was entertaining, with the music and singing superb, and the dancing quite proficient, but not compelling. 

The performances conclude with performances at 2 and 7 on November 30, 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG affords a conflicted look at the African American male@ none too fragile

Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer Prize for her script “Topdog/Underdog,” now in production at none-too-fragile theatre.  She also won the MacArthur “Genius Grant” Award for the play.   The script is an existential trip asking, “What is it like to be a black male in modern America?”

Being a student of James Baldwin, African American powerhouse writer, when she was a student at Mount Holyoke College, afforded Parks a model for delving into the Black experience, especially the male experience.

“Topdog/Underdog” showcases how two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, deal with women, poverty, racism, and their troubled upbringing.  They came from a home where the mother abandoned the family, the father named them Lincoln and Booth as a joke, and also split from the boys when they were teens, and the duo has struggled to find a constructive place in society.

The setting is a depressing, small apartment in an unnamed urban area.  The  brothers have a relationship based on a thin line of being brothers, but brothers of a very different ilk.  Lincoln graduated from high school and has been employed with odd jobs.  His latest is being a stand-in for Abraham Lincoln at an arcade, where the patrons pay to assassinate honest Abe, much like John Wilkes Booth did near the end of the Civil War as he watched a production of “Our American Cousin” in Washington D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre.  In the role he is painted with white makeup and given a lower wage than his white predecessor.  With little compassion, he is fired and replaced by a wax figure.

Lincoln walks through life in a coma.  He was married, but his wife left because his life centered on making money by conning tourists while performing a three-card Monte game.  When his partner was killed, he left the “business.”  He sleeps on a recliner in his brother’s apartment, which, he pays for with his arcade job.  He spends most of his time drinking, lying in the chair, and hanging out.  After his firing, he turns back to a life of shilling, with eventually bitter results.

Booth, a high school dropout with no prospects for any type of income, spends his time trying to emulate his brother’s success as a card dealer, telling fantasy success tall tales about his carnal life with Grace his “fiancé,” stealing , and fantasizing about sex.

As the prospects for their futures become more and more tenuous, a psychological battle between Lincoln (topdog) and Booth (underdog) escalates.   Eventually, Booth shoots Grace and, as their names indicate, a confrontation between the brothers brings to a climax the tale of Lincoln and Booth.

The none-too-fragile production, under the direction of Sean Derry, though overly long, grabs and holds the audience’s attention.  The quality of the acting is excellent.  Both Brian Kenneth Armour as Booth and Robert Grant III as Lincoln are totally natural and don’t act the parts, but become the characters.   Short, chunky Armour reeks of a frustrated boy-child with no realistic future, so he must invent a reason for respect and purposefulness.  Tall, handsome, Grant wants desperately to escape from his frustrating trap of a life, but doesn’t have the skills or tools to see daylight.

Capsule judgement:  “Topdog/Underdog” is one of those well directed, acted and written plays that should be seen by anyone interested in the plight of the Black man in America.  On the other hand, with nearly one in three 20-29 year-old African American males under some form of criminal justice supervision, whether imprisoned, in  jail, or on parole or probation, it is frustrating to realize that the situation may be hopeless and there appears to be no way to solve the problems.  Sad, so sad.

For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to

Sunday, November 23, 2014

“The story is told in verse, densely packed with rhyme, which has to be spoken so that it sounds like natural language.“  “Much of the play concerns a battle between angels and demons.”  “There is little action in the play, just a series of monologues.”  The descriptions are vivid, “fingernails pierce an eyeball and drain it of fluid, a knife slices into a woman while she’s having sex.  A body implodes beneath the tires of a truck.”  “The play is filled with vivid, vulgar verse.”

Most theatre’s artistic directors, reading those descriptions, wouldn’t even conceive of producing such a script.  But fear not local theater-goers looking for the unusual in the theatre, know that Clyde Simon, the chief guru of congruence-continuum, is turned on by such imagery.  He knows that his niche audience will flock through the doors of his postage stamp-sized theatre to see how he stages such visuals as a police chase of a stolen truck, the sex and beating scenes, and an attempted abortion with a pointed broom handle.

Irish writer Mark O’Rowe, who is noted for writing about thugs and lowlifes who have fits of savagery, has penned “Terminus,” a vivid play in which all of the action takes place in the theatre-goer’s imagination, rather than on stage.  In other words, he has written a movie script for the listener’s mind.

He does this by using vivid language to create the imagery.   Rather than dialogue, which places the actions on stage between people, he has his three actors speak monologues directly to the audience, forcing the listener to take the words and experience them.

Why the monologues?  O’Rowe says, ““The monologue is somewhere in the middle of theater, stand-up, and the novel.  You can’t look away, because everything that’s said is already inside your head.’’

Why this story and format?  The author states, ““The truest thing I can say is I’m indulging my inner 16-year-old, who loves films about blowing [stuff] up,’’
The storyline centers on three people, “A,” “B” and “C.”  “A” is a former teacher who is now working on a suicide hotline.  She is a mother who is estranged from her daughter.  “B” is a young pregnant girl, who is in the clutches of a powerful lesbian pimp.  “C” is a murderous, socially incompetent male psychopath, who has seemingly made a deal with the devil.  

The trio’s lives intersect in a series of violent confrontations. 

While on the hotline, “A” receives a call from a former student who is threatening to abort her 9-month fetus.  When she turns into a sleuth in order to track the young lady down, she ends up dipping her toe into the gritty Dublin underworld of lesbian gangs, abortions in backroom bars, physical beatings, and death.

Lucy Bredeson was born to play “A.”  She gives a vivid, performance.  Her eyes flashing, she tells her part of the tale in a direct, flat tone that is chilling!

Rachel Lee Kolis portrays “B,” telling her part of the tale consisting of searched after affection, and a near-death encounter with an otherworldly creature, with attention-demanding clarity.

Dana Hart, portrays “C,” an oddball with no conscience, who has supposedly sold his soul to the devil.  He is often compelling in his tall telling. Unfortunately, on opening night, some of the power of his last scene was diminished by some line stumbles.

Jim Smith’s set design, a series of three-step platforms on different parts of the stage, a modified crane, and graffiti covered walls, works well, as does Jeremy Allen’s music choices, which underlie many of the scenes. 

Dialect coach, Chuck Richie, has masterfully perfected each of the actor’s Irish lilts. 

Capsule Judgement:   Though compelling, “Terminus” is definitely not a play for everyone.  The language is rough, the vivid descriptions often unnerving, and the closeness of the actors to the audience can be off-putting.  On the other hand, the performances, the experience of listening to the impressive poetic writing, and the opportunity to experience intense emotional involvement, may stir the right audience to attend.

“Terminus” runs through December 20, 2014 at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"A Chorus Line” is “one singular sensation” at BWU

Baldwin Wallace is a powerhouse in providing talent to the Broadway stage.  In the past year, over a dozen of the program’s grads have listed, “a proud graduate of Baldwin Wallace” in their Great White Way “Playbill” resumes. 

What’s the secret?  A selection system that picks only the best applicants, fine training in dancing, voice and acting, and good counseling in the art of trying out and obtaining an agent.  The student’s culminating activity is participating in a New York showcase during the student’s senior year that exposes their talents to directors, casting agents and Broadway movers and shakers.

Two of those grads, and incidentally Aurora, Ohio residents, Chris McCarrell (class of 2013) and Caitlin Houlahan (2014) will be appearing in NBC TV’s “Peter Pan Live,” on December 4 at 8 PM.  McCarrell, fresh off his Broadway debut as Joly and Marius’s understudy in this year’s revival of “Les Misérables,” will play Nibs, one of the lost boys, while Houlahan, who lit up the stage in this year’s “Carrie“ at Beck Center, will be Jane.

The students got to hone their tryout and performance skills by staging “A Chorus Line,” which showcases a group of dancers auditioning.  Each dancer is showcased as s/he tries to win a spot in the chorus line.  The production was staged by the program’s director Victoria Bussert, with musical direction by David Pepin, and Gregory Daniels restaging the original choreography.

A Chorus Line,” the 1975 Broadway show, which won twelve Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett.  The role of Cassie was portrayed by Donna McKecknie, a character based in great part on hers life, as was the role of Maggie. 

McKecknie, a Tony Award winner, was a close associate with Bennett, who she later married. McKecknie was brought in to work with the BW students as they rehearsed for their staging of “A Chorus Line?”  

Yes, the students not only got to work with Victoria Bussert, but with a star from the original production, who is also an expert on Bennett’s demanding choreographic style. Exposure to Broadway power players is part of the BW program.

BWU’s “A Chorus Line” featured two alternating casts during its 10 performance run (November 13 through November 23). 

I saw the Cassie cast perform.  And what a performance it was!  It was difficult to realize that these weren’t experienced professionals. 

The very physically and psychologically demanding dancing was finely carried out by the youthful performers.

The cast was almost universally excellent, with many displaying Broadway-ready skills.  Standouts were Michael Canada as Paul, whose monologue about coming to terms with his sexuality, was emotionally stirring.   Genna-Paige Kanago as Cassie had the difficult task of dancing the demanding “The Music and the Mirror.”  She carried it off impressively.  Victoria Pippo portrayed the role of the bitchy and sexy Sheila with just the right attitude, not going over board and begging for laughs.  Mackenzie Wright stopped the show with her vocalization of “What I Did for Love.” Annalise Griswold was delightful as Val, whose version of “Dance Ten, Looks:  Three,” often referred to as “Tits and Ass,” was a show highlight.

Side notes:  Elyria native, Lorain County Community College and Kent State graduate, Crissy Wilzak, had a long run as Broadway’s Val.  She also played Vicki and Judy in the show’s run.  And, Elyria High School grad James Kirkwood won a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for co-writing the book for “A Chorus Line.”

If you missed seeing “A Chorus Line,” you will have the opportunity to see some of the students from the BWU program at Beck Center when the theatre presents “Dogfight” from February 6 through March 15, 2015.  The show, based on the musical film of the same name, centers on three young Marines, who, in 1963, before the night of their deployment, learn the power of compassion.  For tickets call 216-521-2540 or for information and/or tickets, go to

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Previews and Quick Reviews: CWRU/CPH, Groundworks, KIBBUTZ CONTEMPORARY DANCE COMPANY, THE NUTCRACKER: Joffrey Ballet/Cleveland Orchestra

“Three Sisters” @ CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program

Eight students are accepted each year to be part of the Case Western Reserve/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program.   The purpose of the program is to combine educational and professional theater experiences to prepare students for theatre careers.

Their latest production, staged in the Helen Theatre in the Allen Complex in PlayhouseSquare, was Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” 

Chekhov was a Russian realist writer who is often referred to as the literary predictor of the twentieth century Russian Revolution.

“The Three Sisters” centers on the Prozorov sisters who relocated from their beloved Moscow to a provincial Russian town with their late father.  They wish to return to the refined life in Moscow, but fail to do so and their dreams recede further and further.
The production, under the direction of Ron Wilson, is slowly paced and thoughtful.  The acting is generally proficient.  Standouts in the cast are Nick Barbato as Andrei, the frustrated brother of the three sisters who was moving swiftly toward being a professor before he was wrenched from Moscow to live in the provinces,  Kathryn Metzger as Olga, is the matriarchal and spinster sister, Megan King as Masha, who is involved in a disappointing marriage, and Katie O. Solomon as Irina, the youngest sister, who believes her love is in Moscow and she must go there to find happiness. 
The images are nicely showcased in a fragmented set, enhanced by traditional Russian music, and era correct costumes.
The production runs through November 18, 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or

The next performance by the CWRU/CPH MFA program will be Phillip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story” from February 25th through March 7th, 2015 in the Helen.

GroundWorks Dance Theater, Fall Concert @ the Allen Theatre

Bannered as “imagination you can see,” GroundWorks dance has been critically celebrated as an “artistically significant” ensemble.  The company, which was founded in 1998, spreads its creative wings by performing in challenging settings including an ice house, cathedrals, libraries, outdoor venues, often with live musicians on stage.  In its 16 years it has commissioned 23 premiers from national and international choreographers, as well as 30 new works by its Artistic Director, David Shimotakahara, and 10 by Artistic Associate, Amy Miller.

Earlier this fall the company presented its third annual concert series at the Allen Theatre in partnership with Cleveland State University as its professional dance company in residence.

The nicely balanced program introduced GroundWorks newest company member, Troy Macklin, a welcome addition.  His youth and dynamisms fit well with the precision, athleticism and discipline demanded by Shimotakahara.

The program included “Always” choreographed by Gina Gibney to the music of Patsy Cline, centering on story telling, often about relationships.  The pulse and rhythms of the music were well integrated into the movements.  The second offering was the world premiere of “wait. now. go now.” by choreographer Johannes Wieland, which combined theatre and dance centering on how others see us and we see ourselves.   The concluding piece, “CoDa,” choreographed by Ronen Koresh, was a display of high level emotions, which featured the concept of focus as illustrated by strong physical and static movements.

GroundWorks next public presentations, The Winter/Spring Concert will be March 5 & 6 at EJThomas Hall in Akron and March 20 & 21 at The Breen Center,
2008 West 30th Street, Cleveland.


A joint production of the Cleveland-Israel Arts Connection, The Jewish Federation of Cleveland and Dance Cleveland, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, presented “If At All,” choreographed by Rami Be’er, at the Ohio Theatre.

The 65-minute piece, presented without intermission, was a dance/theatrical piece which centered on interpersonal relationships by using literal and abstract movements, mainly the forming and breaking of circles.  The constant motion, and the expanding and contracting physical space, created a feeling of the altering dynamic of individuals and groups sometimes interacting, sometimes being static, other times being alone.

Though the choreography was often repetitive, the overall effect was positive. The well trained and disciplined dancers, especially, the males, were dynamic in their explosive movements. 

Dance Cleveland’s next offering is the creative Pilobolus ( on Saturday, January 31 @ 8 PM in the State Theatre.  For tickets, which run $20-55, call 216-241-6000 or go on line to


The holiday season is upon us and nothing seems to signal it more clearly than a performance of “The Nutcracker.”  And what could be more exciting than hearing Tchaikovsky’s distinctive score, being performed by The Cleveland Orchestra, one of the world’s great musical assemblages, and danced by the famous Joffrey Ballet?   Great music, choreographic excellent, brilliant costumes, larger than life scenery, all showcased in a tale for all times.

When?  November 26-30, 2014.  Tickets:  $20-99.  Where:  State Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. 

Please note:  Children under two years of age are not permitted.  Everyone, no matter their age, must have a ticket and be seated with an adult.

For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Monday, November 17, 2014

Classic, “The Great Gatsby,” at Ensemble

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby,” which many consider one of the greatest American novels, is the writer who, more than any other, painted a literary vision of the American Jazz age.  It was the 1920s, the era of decadence, mob violence, prohibition, flappers, dance crazes, high fashion, loose women,  powerful men, love and lust.

Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise,” “The Beautiful and Damned,” and “Tender Is the Night” were all classics, but nothing grabbed and still holds the public’s attention more than “The Great Gatsby.”  The novel was so compelling that at least five movie versions have been made.  The latest was in a 2014 which directed by Baz Luhrmann and featured Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire.

Fitzgerald wrote in his novel, “The Rich Boy,” “Let me tell you about the rich.  They are different from you and me.” Jay Gatsby, the central character in “Gatsby,” a stage adapted version by Simon Levy, which is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre, should have taken Fitzgerald’s statement into consideration in dealing with Tom Buchannan and his wife Daisy.  As it turned out, nouveau rich Gatsby was no match for the depths to which the old-money wealthy Tom would go to keep Daisy.

Jay Gatsby, the play’s flawed protagonist, lives in a large mansion in a fictional section on Long Island.  Many secrets circulate about the man who throws lavish parities for the rich and famous and how he obtained his wealth.  As the tale unfolds we learn that “Jay Gatsby” was born on a farm in North Dakota, befriended by a millionaire who taught him the skills of making massive amounts of money, met Daisy while in officer training school, fell in love with her, and spent the rest of his life in pursuit of the Louisville debutant.

Daisy Buchanan, who, after meeting Gatsby during World War I, promised to wait for him, also craves wealth and power.  When Tom Buchanan, who has both, proposes to her, she dismisses her promise to wait for Gatsby, and accepts.

Years later, after Gatsby has achieved his fortune, for the sole purpose of getting Daisy, the duo are reunited after much manipulating on Gatsby’s part.  Daisy agrees to leave her husband.   But the woman, who is subject to mood and decision swings is incapable of making a break from her philandering husband.

In the tale, Nick Carraway, who acts as the story’s narrator, is a young man from Minnesota, who fought in World War I, and goes to New York to learn the bond business.  He moves to Long Island, living in a small cottage next to the opulent estate of  secretive, wealthy Jay Gatsby.  As a cousin of Daisy Buchanan, Nick is encouraged by Gatsby, who has befriended the Midwest transplant, to arrange for a meeting between Daisy and Gatsby.  Little does Nick know that he is partaking in rekindling a romance between the two, a romance that will lead to psychological and physical destruction.

The story’s antagonist, Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s wealthy husband, is a self-centered, arrogant bully.  He is a true image of Fitzgerald’s “The Rich Boy” quote about the ways of the rich.  He beds who he likes, including the pretty but shallow Myrtle, the wife of a local service station owner.  It is this relationship which is the catalyst that brings “The Great Gatsby” to its emotional ending.

Simon Levy’s stage version of “The Great Gatsby, is an encapsulated version of the original Fitzgerald manuscript. This writing completes what he calls his Fitzgerald Trilogy, in which he adapted “Tender Is the Night,” and “The Last Tycoon” into stage plays. The compressed format lends itself to a streamlined play, with fragmentary scenery, a small cast, and the bare essentials of the story.

Ensemble’s production of “The Great Gatsby,” under the direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz, accomplishes Levy’s goal of giving a snapshot version of the tale of Gatsby, Daisy, Nick and the decadence of the Jazz era.

Hinz has made an ingenious choice in casting Kyle Carthens in the Jay Gatsby role and Greg White as Meyer Wolfsheim.  Both actors are Black.  This not only takes the interpretation of the play in a different direction than the movie versions, which cast White actors in the roles, but highlights the racial and religious prejudice of the 1920s.  It makes Nick’s obvious deep seated hatreds sizzle even more.  He not only despises Gatsby for his desire for Daisy, but highlights Nick’s underlying racial prejudices.  It also puts a spotlight on Nick’s dislike for Meyer Wolfsheim, usually played as a Jewish gangster, and Wolfsheim’s being Gatsby’s benefactor. 

James Rankin nicely textures his performance as Nick Carraway, the play’s narrator.  He, more than anyone in the cast, comes across as real, not feigning emotions and motivations.

One of the production’s weaknesses is missing out on creating the required opulence of the Gatsby estate and the high level of visual elegance needed to live up to Fitzgerald’s descriptions in the book and Hollywood’s ability to create the proper illusion in their pictorial visions of the manuscript.  This was very noticeable in the costume designs, especially the male costumes, which were highlighted by inexpensive, ill-fitting suits, which were often era incorrect.  The required upscale image of the natty clothing of Gatsby, for example, and his famous pristine cream colored suit, were missing.

Capsule judgment:  “The Great Gatsby” is the illuminating tale of the Jazz Age, a time of the pursuit of money for the pursuit of money, with no moral base.  Neither the play version itself, nor the Ensemble production, is a perfect rendition of Fitzgerald’s classic book, but both do develop the basic  story and give an illusion of the America that was.  It’s worth a viewing.

“The Great Gatsby” runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through December 14, 2014.  For tickets go to or 216-321-2930

Next at Ensemble:  “The Never-Ending Story’ adapted by David S. Craig, based on the novel by Michael Ende, directed by Ian Wolfgang Hinz, January 8-18, 2015.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mesmerizing “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time” is a must see!

Christopher, age 15, the character at the center of “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time,” has Asperger’s Syndrome.  AS is one of the five classifications of the Autism Spectrum Disorders, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” (DSM).

Asperger’s is characterized by “severe deficits in social interaction and communication.”  It is fairly common for those with the syndrome to display inconsistent eye contact when speaking to others. They often lack the ability to pick up appropriate topics for discussion, usually interrupting when they want to say something, paying no attention to the needs of  others. 

Another common sign is sensitive to being touched or of having their space invaded.  There is also a tendency to be obsessive compulsive, making sure things are in the order which they perceive as “correct”  and setting up routines that must be followed.  If their rules are broken, they act out with loud noises, physical aggression, or huffily retreating.  Those with AS are often physically clumsy.

Asperger’s kids are sometimes nicknamed “little professors,” as they tend to have above average intelligence, and are commonly skilled in a particular subject, such as mathematics..

It’s 1998 in Swindon, England.  Christopher stands over the dead body of Wellington, a large dog owned by his neighbor.  This incident takes the fifteen-year old boy out of his comfort zone and he overreacts by attacking the policeman who comes to investigate the killing when the law enforcement agent attempts to touch him.  Christopher has difficulty conveying his ideas and starts yelling when the policeman questions him.  His movements are flailing and jerky. 

The story is told in the form of a narrator reading a book that Christopher has written about his life as part of a school assignment.  The tale is acted out by Christopher, his father, his estranged mother, his neighbors, and others he meets on his path of investigation and discovery of not only who killed the dog, but who Christopher really is. 

The tangled plot includes several infidelities, Christopher’s desire to take the A-level math exam for which he is too young to be eligible, and his discovery of reveling letters that leads him to distrust his father.  Pushing against his strong desires for security and order, Christopher undertakes the daunting task of leaving his neighborhood, taking a train to London, and searching for his mother.  There is a reconnection with his mother, a return to Swindon, readjusting to his father, and his sitting for the A-level test,.  As Christopher has promised the audience, he gets his A grade, “the best possible score.” 

We learn from the tale that as Christopher says, “I have been very brave.”  Yes, he has solved the mystery of Wellington’s murder, conquered the trip to London, found his mother, and writing a book that tells the tale!

The production under the guidance of director Marianne Elliott is mesmerizing.  The story grabs and holds attention.  The pacing is crisp and involving.  The acting is superb.  The technical aspects amaze.

Finn Ross’s video design is awesome.  Electronically, the audience is carried inside Christopher’s mind, tracing his thought processes as he solves problems, and follows street maps as he wends his way.  The viewers vicariously fall off subway tracks with him.  The entire stage, which is a large electronic light box, is like a large computer game which takes on the aura of being an additional character.

Alex Sharp, a recent Julliard graduate, makes his Broadway debut as Christopher.  Sharp doesn’t portray Christopher, he is Christopher.  Eyes blinking, hands flailing, reacting to being touched, avoiding eye contact, losing physical control, shrieking--he lives the life of a boy with Asperger’s.

The rest of the cast, each of whom play multiple roles, are all excellent.  They mold together to create the people in Christopher’s life.

During one scene, Christopher starts to explain to the audience how he solved one of the problems on his A-level math test.  He gets carried away with details.  The narrator explains to him that the audience probably isn’t interested in all the details, but anyone who is can stay after the play is over and Christopher can then explain the details in three minutes.  With a plan set, he is willing to stop the discourse.

After the traditional curtain call, the actors start leaving the stage.  Sharp suddenly turns, transforms himself back into Christopher and, arms swinging, hands flailing, eyes blinking, voice going into a high pitch, yells, “Wait, I forgot to tell you how I solved the problem.  It will only take three minutes.”  The audience froze in place. He proceeds, as the stage clock counts down the time, and the electronics illustrate his thinking process.  And, as promised, he finishes in exactly three minutes, smiles, and awkwardly runs off the stage!

Capsule judgement:  The production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is outstanding on every level.  Well written, creatively staged and exceptionally acted, it is a highlight of the Fall, 2014 season.  It well-deserved the screaming standing ovation it received.  To add to the excitement, Alex Sharp gives a Tony Award winning performance!

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is in an open-ended run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, New York

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sting’s music launches a compelling “The Last Ship” on Broadway

What do you do if you lived an unhappy childhood in a forlorn town in England’s industrial north?  If you are Sting, you leave, become a famous musician, win 16 Grammy awards, write a memoir (“Broken Music”) and then create a moving theatrical musical.  A musical which was inspired by the haunting landscape from which Sting fled, and inspired him to “try to put right what went wrong in the past.”

“The Last Ship” is not a light, fun, escapist musical.  It’s more “Les Misérables” than “On The Town,” more “Sweeney Todd” than “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

This is a musical with a serious message that exposes the underbelly of abuse, the need to escape reality, the frustration of attempting to go home, and a discovery of what could have been if a person did go back.  This is not a “happy ever after” tale, even if there are some laughs along the way and a glimmer of hope as the final curtain falls.

The story, written by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, centers on Gideon, who returns to Wallsend, England, after his father died.  Its has been 15 years since he fled the working class, shipbuilding town, to see what the world had to offer.  He not only left his father, but Meg, his girl friend, with a promise to come back and get her.  Upon his return he discovers that Meg has a son (Tom), a fiancée (Fletcher), and the town is in despair over the proposed closing of the ship yard.

Gideon becomes involved with the ship workers who desire to build one last ship before the yard is officially closed.  With the help of Father O’Brien, the community’s priest, and his “reapportioning” of the church’s contingency funds, the money for the ship is raised and the task is undertaken.

Gideon tries to renew his relationship with Meg, but though she still has strong feelings for him, the reality of a secure life with Fletcher wins out.  Complications set in when Gideon discovers that teenaged Tom, Meg’s son, is his child.  The play concludes when the “last ship” leaves the dry dock with Gideon and Tom aboard, in what may result in a satisfying ending to the tale.

The show features a score by Sting that includes original material, as well as three previously-written songs.  Fitting the plot, most of the music is serious in tone, some songs, are actually dirge-like.  The score is generally contemporary rock, with some tonal ballads.

The tale is not uplifting.  Neither is the music, and that’s a good thing, as it helps cement the theme to the story’s mood. The overall effect is positive for those willing to accept that musicals can, as many dramas do, have messages that require a serious tone.

Life, and lyrics to musical theatre songs are not always, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” nor, “Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels.”  Sometimes, appropriately, the words are, “And whatever you’d promised, whatever you’ve done, And whatever the station in life you’ve become.  In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, And whatever the weave of this life that you’ve spun, On the Earth or in Heaven or under the Sun, When the last ship sails.”

The production, under the adept directing of Joe Mantello, is visually compelling.  The shipyard, the building process of the ship, and the final launching, with the ship visually slipping into the sea, all grab and hold attention.

The pacing is appropriate to the material, generally intense and brooding.

David Zinn’s sets, consisting of scrim drops, scaffolding, fragmentary props, and electronic graphics are extremely effective, as is Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design.

Steven Hoggett’s creative choreography, containing much stomping and strong muscular moves, fits the score and the psyche of the mood of the ship workers and town folk.

The cast is excellent.

Michael Esper  has a strong singing voice and the physicality, that when added to his macho attitude and compelling presence, makes Gideon live.

Rachel Tucker is totally believable in her creation of the vulnerable, yet strong-willed Meg.  Her “August Winds,” sung with her younger self, Dawn Cantwell, effectively pushes the tale along.  Esper and Tucker’s “It’s Not the Same Moon,” is a well-performed, emotionally poignant ballad.

Collin Kelly-Sordelet creates a believable Tom.  He clearly comes across as an angst-driven teenager, in the mold of Gideon and maybe even Sting, himself, who needs to spread his wings.

Fred Applegate steals the show as the foul-mouthed, outspoken Father O’Brien.  Applegate is a master of the well-timed humorous line, accompanied by a twinkle in the eye.

The zaftig Shawna M. Hamic delighted with her second act curtain-raiser, “Mrs. Dees’ Rant.”

Sting indicates that writing the score was like “projectile vomiting.”  The characters were within him, “wrestling to get out.”  He found the experience to be “cathartic” as he exposed, “dislocated people railing against failure as they face tough choices.”  He summarizes the experience’s purpose for him by stating, “Maybe it’s over now.  Maybe I’ve exorcized all the ghosts.”

Capsule judgement:  Those willing to put aside preconceived ideas of the role of musical theatre to be escapist, not confronting dark and real issues, should find “The Last Ship” to be an emotional experience, as it probes the need to escape from certain realities of life, and the angst that flight can cause.  The powerful music, meaningful lyrics, emphatic dancing, and the sheer grandeur of the visual effects of “The Last Ship,” makes the production an exciting addition to the Broadway musical theatre lexicon.

“The Last Ship” is in an open-ended run at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

“The Country House,” humorous, thought-provoking dramedy on Broadway

Donald Margulies’ “The Country House” is a play of warmth, compassion and wit.  It is also a script of angst and frustrations.  Capping off the tale with a surprise ending, Margulies has created an old-fashioned drawing room play which tells a tale with humor and pathos. 

Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his “Dinner With Friends,” has a way with words.  His characters, much like those of Anton Chekhov, carry on conversations filled with natural, rather than esoteric and poetic phrases.

Even though “The Country House” is filled with many supposed stage and television personages who often speak “theater talk,” the characters are not fake or forced.  They are real people, with real issues affected by their careers, life’s ups-and-downs, and confusing relationships.

“The Country House” takes place in the comfortable home of Anne Patterson, a well known, aging actress.  She is the grandé dame of a family bound by experiences and secrets, including tales of lovers and ex-lovers, who are united in mourning the recent death of Anne’s talented and revered daughter.

In the four-day span, the extended family wrestles with their personal and interpersonal issues. 

Susie, Anne’s granddaughter, resents that her father, a well-known theatre and film producer, has brought his girlfriend to her mother’s former home.

Handsome Michael, a long time family friend, who is appearing at the nearby Williamstown Theatre Festival, has been invited to stay at the Keegan compound.  His reputation as a lothario, adds an element of sensual struggle among the women. 

Elliot, Anne’s brother, a “failed” son and frustrated actor turned playwright, adds his personal drama to the goings on, as does Anne, herself.

The performance is nicely staged and paced by director Daniel Sullivan.  As secrets are revealed, and bonds are attacked, created, recreated, and broken, both humor and drama reign supreme, creating the needed interest to grab and hold the audience’s attention.  A series of individual sexually charged incidents concerning Susie, Anna and Nell, all with Michael, are delightfully conceived.  Especially effective is the play’s emotional ending.

The transition between scenes is well choreographed, bridging the parts together, creating a whole, rather than segmented parts.

Technical aspects aid in developing the story.  A storm, complete with realistic thunder, lightening and rain, effectively places the right emotional dampness on the actions.  John Lee Beatty’s New England comfortable rustic living room, with a view of the outside, puts the action in the required realistic setting. 

On her first entrance Blythe Danner received an ovation.  Interestingly, in the curtain call, the major applause was given to Sarah Steele and Eric Lange.  It wouldn’t surprise if both get best supporting actor Tony nominations.

That’s not to say Danner is ineffective.  The two-time Tony winner is excellent, but her role doesn’t have the emotional highs and lows that draws attention to the performer, no matter her skill level.  As written, Anna is a self-centered woman whose career is fading and who has lost her favorite child to cancer.  She has endured a year of grief and has chosen to live her real life in a controlled way, deciding to release her emotions on stage in her upcoming stage role in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.”  Danner’s performance walks the line between awareness and depression with skill.

Steele has a fine sense of both comedic and dramatic timing.  She creates Susie into a sensitive young lady, far wiser than her young years.  The character is the fulcrum on which the play balances and Steele carries the load with creative effectiveness.

Lange shows great depth of angst as the self-and-other put-upon Elliot, who has turned to alcohol and drugs in his attempt to dull his insecurities.  His performance, especially in the final scene, is multi-textured and compelling.

Daniel Sunjata, who is known for his portrayal of the charismatic, often sinister undercover FBI agent, Paul Briggs, in television’s “Graceland,” handles the role of the sex-symbol celebrity, Michael, with ease and style.  Supposedly noted as a womanizer, he is, in fact chased by women, rather than visa versa.

David Rasche, as Anne’s son-in-law, and the husband of the recently dead Kathy, and Kate Jennings Grant, as his finance, Nell, give convincing performances.

Capsule judgement:   With its fine cast, including two potential Tony best supporting actor performances (Sarah Steele and Eric Lange), a Broadway legend (Blythe Danner), and a nicely textured story line, “The Country House” is a play well worth seeing. And, with its interesting story, single set, small cast, and good roles, it will get lots of productions at community theatres.

 “The Country House,” is playing at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 131 West 55th St (between 6th & 7th Avenues), through November 23, 2014.

Mind-chilling “Disgraced” compels on Broadway

As the final curtain fell on “Disgraced,” the audience sat transfixed.  At the start of the curtain call, there was light applause.  People seemed unable to transition from the play’s emotional ending to reality.  But then the audience, almost as a unit, jumped up, clapping and orally shouting praise for the presentation. 

What had just been experienced was a mind-boggling, frightening, upsetting, enlightening, depressing, thought-provoking production.  A play which showcases the present day psyche regarding race, religion, human relationships, friendship and marriage. 

“Disgraced,” set in 2011-12, focuses on Amir, an American lawyer who is a lapsed Muslim.  He is questioning, among other things, the interpretation of the “Koran” by fundamentalists, which he perceives as rules appropriate for dessert dwellers many centuries ago, but not applicable to today’s society.  He is especially aware of the prescribed ways women should be treated, and how morals and values should be confronted. 

Amir’s life becomes affected when his long-time friend, Abe, asks the lawyer to be the legal counsel for an Imam who is being questioned about his possible terrorist connections.  With his wife’s encouragement, Amir gives some advice.  A newspaper article pinpointing Amir’s assistance to the Imam, which includes a reference to the legal firm for which he works, helps thrust Amir’s life into free fall.

To add to the state of affairs, Amir’s modes of operation often parallel the “worst” of the teachings he supposedly abhors.  This dichotomy becomes exposed when his job performance, marriage, and patterns of friendship become the center of action at a fateful dinner party in Amir’s plush condo, attended by his wife, Emily, friend (Isaac), and Isaac’s wife (Jory), a colleague in Amir’s law firm.

Dinner was to be a celebration announcing that Emily’s Islamic-influenced art was being included in an exhibition sponsored by Isaac, an art dealer, as well as Amir being considered for partnership in the law firm.

The results are anything but celebratory.  Amid attacks and counter attacks. His friendships and career are trashed, Emily and Amir’s marriage is destroyed, and the audience is confronted with philosophical challenges.      

If one of the major purposes of theatre is to provoke thought, “Disgraced” is a banner-waver of accomplishment.  It would be impossible for any thinking person to see a production of “Disgraced” and not be moved to examine what is going on in society and, in some cases, challenge one’s belief system, and even, personal life patterns.

It is ironic that the day “Disgraced” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Boston Marathon bombings took place and, on the opening day of the play in London, two Muslims murdered and tried to behead a British soldier. 

“Disgraced” is Ayad Akhatar’s first play.  The material was influenced greatly by the author’s having grown up in a Pakistani Muslim family.

Akhtar has stated that Muslims face an especially precarious place in American Society in the aftermath of September 11.  He has also indicated that natural fears have resulted in profiling and surveillance of Muslims, not unlike that which African Americans and Jews, historically, have experienced. 

The production, under the focused direction of Kimberly Senior, is compelling.  The staging, the character interpretations, and the building of tensions leads to grabbing and holding attention. 

Everything from John Lee Beatty’s upscale condo set, to Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s costume designs, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting, work to create the appropriate images and attitudes.

The performances are focused and effective.  Hari Dhillon, who appeared in the show’s London production, gives a Tony nomination-level performance as Amir.  Uptight, perfectly coifed and dressed, pained, and driven, the characterization and the person blend into one.  Dhillon doesn’t portray Amir, he is Amir.

Beautiful Gretchen Mol, known to many as Gillian Darmody in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” makes the emotionally-under-control character of Emily a real person.  There is no acting here, just reaction to well-crafted lines, which she creates into a well-developed character.

Josh Radnor may surprise some with his intense portrayal of Isaac, after being exposed to the actor’s nine-season run as the erratic Ted Mosby in CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother.”  The accomplished performer handles both the comedic and the explosive lines of the art dealer and adulterous, Isaac, with understanding and effectiveness.

Karen Pittman as Jory, the African American lawyer, married to a Jewish white man, gives a strong understated performance. 

Danny Ashok as Abe, Amir’s Muslim young friend, creates a believable characterization of a man who may, or may not, be a real or potential terrorist.

“Disgraced” has a Cleveland connection.  The show’s major producer is The Araca Group, founded in 1997 by three west side Clevelanders,  Hank Unger, Mathew Rego and Michael Rego, who also produced “Wicked,” “Urinetown,” “Cinderella,” “Lend Me A Tenor” and “Rock Of Ages.”

Capsule judgement:  The Pulitzer Prize winning “Disgraced” is an exceptional script which gets a gripping production under the keen direction of Kimberly Senior.  The writing, acting and the technical aspects should earn the show a number of Tony nominations.  It is a must see show for anyone who appreciates though-provoking theater.

See “Disgraced” @ Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, New York

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The “Whack” HOW WE GOT ON, is “dope” and “fresh” at Cleveland Play House

“The Urban Dictionary,” the ultimate source for the meaning of all words modern, defines rap as a music genre in which the ability of the performer to express himself/herself  is prime.  Specifically, “it’s like poetry with attitude.”  The source goes on to say that “It is hated by many people who believe in the stereo type that only blacks make rap and it’s always about shooting cops, drugs, money, [degradation of women], and sex.”  

Seeing the compelling HOW WE GOT ON, now on stage at Cleveland Play House, may open the eyes of many whose understanding of “rap” adheres to negative aspects of “The Urban Dictionary” definition.

In the 1980s, in some parts of the country, there was a migration of upper mobile blacks and Hispanics from the inner city to the suburbs.  In HOW WE GOT ON, we are taken to an inner ring Midwest suburb known as The Hill.  The spotlight shines on three talented high school kids who break with their fellow students’ fascination with hip hop and the inner city version of rap, and experiment with “suburban rap.”  They developed a kind of poetry, set to a series of sounds and music, which, Luann, one of the trio, explains as, “Just dumping out, but your lips must have joy.” 

Hank, Julian and Luann carry-on their war of words by dueling with verbalized poetry in parking lots and school stages, dubbing background sounds on a boom box, or by “beatboxing” [“creating vocal percussion sounds”]. They establish that “no two rappers can be in the same place at the same time [in experiences and words].”

As a disk jockey acts as the narrator, the lives of the three kids are looped together as they “discover the power of harmony over discord,”  and the synchronization not only of sound, but of life, itself.   

The CPH production is extremely well-conceived and staged by Jaime Castañeda.  Lauren Helpern’s scenic design, even envisioning a believable water tower, Brian Sidney Bembridge’s lighting designs, Mikhail Fiksel’s sound designs, and Shammy Dee’s musical concepts, taking us back to the sounds of the ‘80s, all work to enhance the 90-minute intermissionless production.

The cast is outstanding.  Not only can the trio rap, they can dance, and create perfectly honed characterizations. 

Eric Lockley is mesmerizing as the compact Hank, a young man with a vision and unbridled creativity and energy, who learns early that he is a better suburban rap writer than a performer.  He puts on the character of Hank and wears him throughout with fidelity. 

Kim Fisher is physically and charismatically perfect, as Julian, the handsome kid whose father wants him to be a basketball player, but who has performance talents to be a prime rapper, even though he is short on the ability to create the rhyme.  Fischer transforms himself into Julian!

Cyndii Johnson, in a post-show conversation, shared that she had some poetry slam experience but had no rap background before getting the role of Luann.  There was no way of knowing that as she was totally into the moves and sounds of a pro wrapper.  “YO!”

Portia portrays not only the Selector (narrator), but all the adults in the kids’ lives.  She is delightful, captivating and appealing in her various roles, using language of the day, humorous inserts, and parental vocalizations and nonverbal facial expressions and stances to add texture to the show.

This is a production that could not have been nearly as successfully staged in CPH’s previous venue where all the stages were traditional proscenium spaces.  Sitting in the Outcalt’s black box environment which has been transformed into a thrust stage configuration, where the action was right in the center of the audience, made this a special and encompassing experience. 

Come early, have a drink at the bar set up center stage, and then stick around and schmooze with the members of the affable cast after the final bows!

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH’s production of HOW WE GOT ON is, in the jargon of the ‘80s, “dope” [good].  It opens the door to a “fresh,”[new and acceptable] understanding of suburban rap.  It takes the audience on a journey to view a “whack” [unconventional] side of music and modern poetry that many have not experienced.   In other words, this is an educational, enjoyable, enlightening, and well conceived production!  Yes, it’s a must see experience!

HOW WE GOT ON runs through November 16 in the Outcalt Theatre in the Allen complex at PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to