Saturday, February 28, 2015

MY HEART IS THE DRUM gets staged premiere at Kent State

One of the major purposes of collegiate musical theater programs, besides teaching acting, singing and dancing skills, is to expand student knowledge of not only traditional, but new scripts.  Kent State is offering its students such an opportunity by presenting MY HEART IS THE DRUM.

Though the Jennie Redling (book), Phillip Palmer (music and original concept) and Stacey Luftig (lyrics) musical has been workshopped three times in the last couple of years, this is the first completely staged version.

The time is 2000.  Dealing with such subjects as the lack of educational opportunities for women, arranged marriages, AIDS, superstition, and Ghana gender traditions, the script aims to illustrate the country’s third world mentality regarding health issues and male and female societal roles.

Efua Kuti, an intelligent young lady who lives in Kafrona in rural Ghana, is encouraged by her teacher to attend university.  Efua’s father, who needs her to pick and sort cotton so the family can eke out a living, opposes her educational advancement. 

When Efua’s cousin, Balinda, is given in an arranged marriage to a “wealthy” jewelry merchant in Accra, the country’s capital, where a university is located, Efua accompanies her.  The duo confronts the issue of sexual slavery when Caesar Nabuto, the merchant, turns out to be a man who sells his product by supplying women to his wealthy patrons.  Both Efua and Balinda are trapped into working for Caesar.  Efua fights off the advances of the man to whom she is given. Balinda is not as fortunate.

Edward, who is in love with Efua, and who has been betrothed to her in an arranged marriage forced upon her by her father in an attempt to control her and keep her in Kafrona, follows the girls to Accra and frees Efua and Balinda.

Brought back to Kafrona, Efua is determined to get her education, and Balinda, who has acquired AIDS, dies and follows her Nana into the spirit world of her ancestors.

The script is not well developed.  It bridges segments with a lack of clarity.  The music, though often poignant, generally lacks true African cadence and vividness.  The words to the songs are often trite.  This lack of material fidelity makes it difficult for the student cast, under the direction of Terri Kent, to create real characterizations.

Samara Costa displays a nice voice and her Efua is as believable as possible with the lines she is given.  Alex Echols is also on point as Balinda, but, as with Costa, is limited in her character development by unreal sounding conversational language and a lack of plot fidelity.  David Holland has a nice voice and is delightful as the fearful Edward.  His “What’s Possible” is the comedy highlight of the production.

Colleen Longshaw has a fine voice and creates a nice characterization as Nana, the guiding spirit of the Kuti family.   Her “Your Heart is the Drum” is poignant.
Kirk Lydell displays strong dancing abilities. 

Musical Director Jonathan Swoboda wisely has his orchestra underscore rather than overshadow the performers. MaryAnn Black’s choreography tries to add Afro beat dancing but is somewhat limited due to the musical score. Benjamin Williams has created a clever scenic design centering on ever-moving curved set pieces with African motifs.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Kent State’s Musical Theatre Program should be commended for exposing their students to a new theatrical experience in MY HEART IS THE DRUM.  Though the material is generally obvious and often trite, the message of third world naivety, when it comes to curing diseases such as AIDS, the plight of women in a patriarchal society, and the dependence on tradition and superstition, comes through.

MY HEART IS A DRUM runs from February 20-March 1, 2015 at Kent State University. 

Kent State’s Porthouse Theatre, located on the grounds of the Blossom Center, will present A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, June 11-27, VIOLET, July 9-25, and HAIRSPRAY, July 30-August 16.   Single tickets go on sale May 26 at 330—672-3884.  For more information go to

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

DOGFIGHT fails to live up to Beck-Baldwin Wallace past productions

Beck Center for the Arts and Baldwin Wallace’s Musical Theatre Program have, for the past four years, collaborated to produce some outstanding productions.  CARRIE, SPRING AWAKENING and NEXT TO NORMAL all received Cleveland Critic Circle and Times Tribute recognitions. 

Unfortunately, this year’s offering, DOGFIGHT, probably won’t get such attention.  It’s not that the production is bad, but it is cursed with a weak script, with lines that seem forced and unnatural, and an inconsistent, often repetitive musical score which includes five reprises.

DOGFIGHT, the musical, is based on the 1991 Warner Brothers film of the same name.  It concerns a group of young marines who are in San Francisco on the eve of their deployment to Vietnam.  Their goal is having fun, partying, and getting sex. 

The highlight of their exit into war is to be a dog fight, a contest where each of the marines brings a “dog,” an ugly girl, to a bar for a contest to judge who is the ugliest. The guy who brings the “winner” gets a cash prize.

In his search, Eddie Birdlace comes upon Rose, a nerdy, plain-Jane, sweet young lady working at a diner.  He asks her on a “date” without revealing that she is going to be his candidate in the “dog fight.” 

The tale becomes complex when the contest takes place. Rose realizes that rather than being on a date, she is a victim of a hoax.  Eddie recognizes his cruelty and tries to make it up to Rose by taking her on a real date, which ends with the duo going to bed together.  In the morning, as he leaves for duty, he promises to write Rose, but fails to do so, because his buddies taunt him.

The story is revealed in a flash-back/flash-forward format, in which the broken and disillusioned Eddie returns 4 years later, searches for Rose, reveals his feelings for her, and relates that his buddies were killed in battle.

The soap-opera like book was written by Peter Duchan.  The major flaw is the lack of natural speech he affords the cast to speak.  The script tends to be composed of forced and trite language, rather than a natural flowing vocabulary. 

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have written some nice songs, but they are sometimes shoe-horned into the script, often without purpose.  Highlight songs are “Nothing Short of Wonderful,” “Pretty Funny,” “Before It’s Over,” and “Come Back.”

The Beck/BW production, under the direction of Victoria Bussert, flows well and has some nice moments. 

Besides the problematic script, the young students simply don’t seem to be real, to be natural in characterization development.  They generally act the roles, rather than creating real characters.  They aren’t bad, just not up to the usual BW Musical Theatre standards.

Colton Ryan has a nice boyish look and sings well as Eddie Birdlace.  Unfortunately, he seems to stay on the surface, feigning, rather than being absorbed in creating the needed conflicts between machismo, sensitivity, and remorse.  Eddie seems to be more Colton, than Eddie.

Keri René Fuller has a fine singing voice, and develops a most consistent and real person as Rose.  She appears to be the most advanced person in the cast in the race to Broadway.  (Over a dozen BW grads appeared on the Great White Way this past season.)

Zack Adkins is consistent in development of the smarmy Boland, but his overacting becomes taxing after a while.  There is little texturing, just a lot of snarling and yelling.

Micky Ryan stays on the surface as Bernstein.  Gabriel Brown has a chance to show off his gym-sculpted body and fine dance moves as Stevens .  Jamie Koeth sings well as the Lounge Singer.

The choreography is mainly stomping and marching, done with various degrees of quality.  The singing is generally good, but some of the cast sing words, rather than meanings.  Musical Director Dave Pepin keeps the orchestra under control so that they nicely underscore rather than drown out the singers.  

Scenic Designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski had the difficult task of creating a set that constantly was switching locales.  She did a masterful job in cramming all those settings into the postage sized space of Beck’s arena theatre.

On the night I saw the show there were numerous squeals and popping sounds in the sound system.  One might question why, in such a small space, there was even a need for microphones, and why, after two weeks of performances there were still sound issues.  

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The production agreement between Beck Center and the Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre program has produced some outstanding productions.  Though it is not bad, DOGFIGHT is not of the quality of the duo’s previous stagings.

DOGFIGHT is scheduled to run through March 15, 2015  at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or  

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Elements series concludes with FIRE ON THE WATER at Cleveland Public Theatre

FIRE ON WATER is the fourth play in Cleveland Public Theatre’s Elements Cycle, plays about the environment.  According to Artistic Director, Raymond Bogban, the plays were not created “to preach or propagandize.  We wanted to make plays that explored our ongoing efforts to understand and transform our relationship with the world.”  The presentations have done that, with varying degrees of artistic success.

Most of the efforts were “devised theater,”  productions which have no playwright, per se, but are conceived by the performers and other theatre staff.

In the case of FIRE ON WATER, the production is a partnership with other west-side theatres:  Blank Canvas, Ohio City Theatre Project, Talespinner Children’s Theatre and Theater Ninjas.  “Each of the five theatres involved sought to create plays about sustainability and the burning of the Cuyahoga [River].”

The collaboration is both the strength and weakness of the evening.  The fourteen playlets, plus some transitions, made for over two hours of performance, plus the intermission.  Listening to the stories of the burning of the river over and over made for redundancy and a very long sit.  Some of the tedium was relieved because the offerings moved from the stage units at both ends of the main theatre, to smaller platforms and tubs of water, distributed through the space. 

In a creative staging device, the audience members were each seated in their own plush wheeled office chair and were silently directed by cast members where to skootch.  It was almost like being on the Dodgem Bumper Cars at an amusement park, but the object here was not to run into your fellow audience members.  Some attenders made the movements into a game by spinning around on their chairs as they moved.  This may have been facilitated by the availability of beer, which was allowed into the acting arena.

Segments covered the historical settling of what is now referred to as Greater Cleveland, how the river was named [Native American for “crooked river”], how it got polluted, the role of such companies as Standard Oil in the destruction of clean water, how fire and water can work together or can counter each other, what happens to fish when the river gets polluted, the role of the Clean Water Act in attempts to clean up the sludge and oil, the numerous times the river caught on fire (there were at least 12 occasions that were recounted), the Hough riots, the successes and failures to pass laws to help the environment, and the citizen flight from this area.

The devices used to convey the ideas varied from spoken words to sung and played music.  There were puppets of varying sizes and materials, projections, an ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET television show reenactment, a scuba diving probe into the dark river waters, swimming in large tubs of water, and acrobats swinging like Peter Pan over the heads of the audience.

According to Bobgan, “This is truly homegrown theatre that acts locally with a global vision.”   To this he added “how we act in this world is a mater of choice and belief.” After participating in this adventure, a strong feeling of the need for action became apparent.

The large cast worked as a well functioning unit to portray the ideas developed.  

Capsule judgement: Cleveland Public Theatre, with its Elements series, continues to use theatre to not only entertain its audience, but to act as an arts device to alert people to the needs and wants of society, as well as teach civic and social responsibility.  FIRE ON WATER, though overly long and redundant, is an interesting piece of devised theatre, that, as the rest of the Elements series, illustrates the fragility of the world in which we live.

FIRE ON WATER, runs through April 6  at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to

Magical PIPPIN almost finds its “Corner of the Sky,” at Connor Palace

PIPPIN, the Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Roger O. Hirson (book) magical show is now on stage at The Palace Theatre.  It tells a modern version of the mythical tale of Pippin, the oldest son of King Charlemagne, and his search for purpose and identity. 

The clarion song of the show, and one of my favorite tunes from any Broadway musical, is “Corner of the Sky” which tells of the desire of many people who strive to find their purpose in life. They yearn to find safety, security, and satisfaction and strive to find the place “eagles can fly” because, as our hero sings, it’s where “my spirit can run free.”

The original 1972 version of the show starred Ben Vereen as Leading Player, the emcee and guide of the action, and Jonathan Rubinstein as Pippin.  That production centered on the singing, dancing and charisma of Vereen.  The story line was almost secondary.  Since that time many productions have altered focus and highlight Pippin and his mission. 

The 2013 Broadway revival, conceived by Diane Paulus, which won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, and garnered a Best Actress in a Musical for Patina Miller as Leading Player, added circus performers and acrobats, thus creating the “Magic to Do.”  It had Pippin, Grandma Bertha, and the Leading Player joining in the exciting athletic displays.

The touring production carries much of the image of the latest Broadway staging. The acrobats and circus performers are present, the emphasis is on Pippin and his search, and the show visually dazzles. But those who saw the original or are familiar with the score, may be thrown by some of the changes that have been made to the lyrics and the altered arrangements.  (I have seen the original and recent Broadway production, about 10 other productions, and directed the show.  My son, who was sitting next to me on opening night, has portrayed both Pippin and Theo.  We had a wonderful time debating the changes.)

Sam Lips, who understudied the role on Broadway, is now Pippin.  Lips has a boyish charm and nice youthful enthusiasm.  He is good looking, has a nice singing voice (especially in the higher registers), and has the acting chops to pull off the role.  He dances well and his acrobatics add nicely to the role.  His “Corner of the Sky” and “Morning Glow” passed my very high level of expectations.

John Rubinstein, yes, the same guy who played Pippin in the original Broadway show, is now King Charles.  He has a wonderful time playing the role, adding delightful shticks with his mobile face.  It’s too bad they altered some of the words to, “Welcome Home,” because Rubinstein would have delighted with some of the omitted lyrics.

Priscilla Lopez almost steals the show as “Grandma” Bertha.  She not only gets all the requisite laughs from “No Time At All,” but stopped the show with her agility as a gymnast!

Molly Tynes is properly conniving as Fastrada, who wants nothing more than to have Charles’ crown pass on to Louis so she can brag, “My son the king.”

Kristine Reese makes for a convincing Catherine.  Her “Love Song,” with Pippin, is charming.

Sasha Allen displays a marvelous voice as Leading Player.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t compare to either Patina Miller, or Baldwin Wallace University grad, Ciara Renée, who replaced Miller on Broadway.  Allen doesn’t do much in the way of gymnastics, walks and poses rather than dances, and has some difficulty with spoken and sung line interpretation.  

The sets, special effects, and the musical accompaniment are all Great White Way quality.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The touring production of PIPPIN, in spite of some minor flaws, is mainly magical.  It nicely carries out the story’s theme and should delight those who are seeing the show for the first time, or are seeing the new and reconfigured edition of the show. From my perspective,  it would be worth seeing the show just to hear “Corner of the Sky” and “Morning Glow.”

Tickets for PIPPIN, which runs through February 15, 2015, at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to

Sunday, February 01, 2015

PILOBOLUS, Dance Cleveland’s gift to area aficionados; area dance previews

PILOBOLUS is noted for adding both physical and theatrical elements to dance presentations.  They have been credited, in their 44 years of performances, to have added a new way for audiences to look at dance.

Nothing cements the company’s unique style more then what was on display before the start of their recent State Theatre nearly-sold out concert.

Upon entering the auditorium, the audience found the proscenium curtain open and the dancers warming up.  It was a preparation not usually seen.  No barre work, stretching, or practicing of couple-lifts here.  Instead, the performers were doing jumping jacks, handstands, tossing each other around, running in undisciplined patterns, doing frog leaps, executing cartwheels, and doing pushups.  Just before curtain went up, they formed a football huddle, arms entwined behind each other’s backs, swayed, talked, laughed, broke the togetherness, and wandered off stage.  They were ready!  So was the keyed up audience.

The program featured five numbers, each of which varied in technique and effect.  Incorporating gymnastics, power strength movements, balancing on circular mini-platforms, combining sensual actions with whimsy and whirlwind with exquisite calm, the dancers created compelling art.

PILOBOLUS’s dances aren’t meant to convey a clear message.  They are often  abstract visions of actions which allow for personal interpretation.  Yet, they prresent well-disciplined and choreographed displays. 

The choreographers avoid gender roles.  Males and females share the heavy lifting and often are dressed in the same costumes.  The company’s performances integrate graphics, films, impressive lighting and special effects. 

Whether doing dance versions of the famous Tim Conway old man from his days on the Carol Burnett Variety Show, or taking on such serious topics as young love and it’s issues, they seamlessly weave together attention-sustaining actions.

As part of the program, the company challenged the audience to name their newest piece, presently entitled, UNTITLED 2015.  After viewing the door-slamming, body endangering number, my suggestion is ANGST!

There is no way to clearly recreate PILOBOLUS in words.  This is performance that must be seen. 

Capsule judgement: It can only be wished that Pam Young and her Dance Cleveland staff do not wait too long before they bring PILOBOLUS back to the area, so that those who missed their recent performance get a chance to experience the creativity and joy the company shared.

Side note:  Cudos to Donald Rosenberg for an excellent “Dance Matters” column in the program, which gave a wonderful preview of what was to be experienced by the audience.

Next up for Dance Cleveland, on, is, COMPAGNIE KÄFIG on March 7, 2015, 8 PM, Ohio Theatre, which combines Brazilian acrobatics and hip-hop dance.


The Cleveland area has some strong dance companies. How about going to local offerings? They need your support.  Some upcoming performances include:

Ohio Dance Theatre

6:00 pm Friday, February 13, 39 South Main Street, Oberlin
“Blood Stripe”—world premiere of a ballet inspired by a personal witnessing of the challenges of choreographer Denise Gula and her family as they struggled with the long term effects of PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).
Tickets: 440-774-6077

March 20 & 21, 2015, 7:30 PM
Breen Center, 2008 W. 30th Street, Cleveland
The Cleveland premier of two new works, one choreographed by Robert Moses and the other a collaboration with Aeolus Quartet. 

Inlet Dance

April 23-25, 2015--CPT Danceworks '15

Verb Ballets

“Ballet Uncorked”—guest appearance with Ohio Dance Theatre
6:00 pm Friday, February 13, 39 South Main Street, Oberlin
Tickets: 440-774-6077

February 21, 2015 at 8:00pm
Breen Center, 2008 W. 30th St., Cleveland

February 28, 2015 at 8:00pm
Olmsted Falls Performing Arts Center, 6941 Columbia Rd.. Olmsted Falls 

March 21, 2015
NEOSonicFest, Baldwin Wallace, 96 Front St., Berea 

April 16-18, 2015 at 7:00pm 
Cleveland Public Theatre DanceWorks’15. 6415 Detroit Ave, Cleveland
Tickets: or 216.631.2727 ext. 501