Sunday, January 31, 2016

PURE SHOCK VALUE, absurd farce confounds at none too fragile

Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky, Co-Artistic Directors of none too fragile have, since its founding in 2010, established the venue as a major theater in the Akron-Cleveland area.   Dedicated to being an “adventurously-bold theatrical voice,” they choose “modern and relevant” scripts, that are “thought-provoking, heart-touching, and, at time, principle-challenging, character-drive stories.”   In other words, as they state on their blog-site, their goal is to do “Award winning Kick-a** Theatre!”

Having been awarded numerous recognitions by the Cleveland Critics Circle and Times Theatre Tributes, none too fragile has lived up to its goals.

Their latest production, PURE SHOCK VALUE, an absurdist farce, will challenge its audiences.  Filled with blunt language, ranting and raving verbal attacks, and numerous references to present and past Hollywood directors, performers and films, Matt Pelfrey’s script begs for clarity of meaning. 

What does the black comedic rant say?  In the true sense of theatre of the absurd, the author probes for what is the purpose of existence, what is living life all about, and what does it mean to exist.   Whether he succeeds in inciting the observer to either ask themselves the questions, or come to conclusions, is questionable.

The story concerns three “film makers,”  in actuality, Tex, a 29-year old man-child, Ethan, a 35-year old deliveryman, and Gabby, a Portuguese-American Kinko’s manager.  All of them live in the delusional world of their talents and abilities of being/becoming filmmakers.  Self-absorbed, they scheme, plan and plot to gain recognition for their fart-infested film, “Barking Spider.”

Their “epic” has been produced, thanks to $10,000 given to Gabby upon the death of her grandmother.  The trio has been unsuccessful in getting any major Hollywood film company to distribute the film.  They’ve tried, oh yes, they’ve tried about every contrived means possible to get the film “out there” so their “talents” can be appreciated.

Gabby has given oral sex to a young man who is affiliated with a film company, thinking he was going to be their entry ticket to the big time.  Unfortunately, they failed to vet their “perp,” who actually was a high school student doing an internship, with the end result of Gabby having expended her efforts with no result other than having committed statutory rape on a minor.

Tex, a fount of severe attitudes and self-worth, rants and raves about the success of “lesser” talents such as Angelina Jolie, Kevin Costner and Steven Spielberg.  He does not want to become part of the “99% who crash against the rocks.”

Ethan is a fairly laid-back, sexually driven African American who is in love with Gabby and easily manipulated by Tex.

Due to a bizarre incident, into their lives comes Julian Quintana director of the “well known” cult film, “Where the Rats Go To Die.”  He is found in their backyard doghouse, incoherent and non-communicative.  Eventually they get him alert enough to watch their film.  The results?  A scathing evaluation which sets off a series of events that bring the play to a shattering conclusion.

The none too fragile production, under the directorship of Sean Derry, is at times compelling, but also repelling and disturbing.  As is the case with much farce, the performances are over-the-top. 

Benjamin Gregorio is like the Eveready Bunny on speed. His Tex is a lesson in psychotic, self-absorbed behavior.  He rants, raves, runs around attacking things and people, both verbally and physically.  If he makes it through the run without losing his voice, it will be miraculous.

Alanna Romansky develops in Gabby a needy woman who seems to be carried along by Tex and Ethan’s enthusiasm for producing a film, but not really part of the process.  She does a nice job of retaining her accent throughout.  She has two soliloquies that get us into her soul, that are extremely well done.

Brian Kenneth Armour nicely develops Ethan, a fairly laid back guy who realizes that his life is on a track to no-where, and has little real understanding of how to find the right path.

Robert Branch is outstanding as Julian.  As required, he spends much of his time on stage realistically twitching and moaning.
Capsule judgement:  Though the production values are fairly high PURE SHOCK VALUE is an absurdist script that will confound many, offend some due to the language and sexual actions, and please others due to its gutsy ”in your face telling it like it is.” 

For tickets to PURE SHOCK VALUE, which runs Thursdays through Sundays until February 13, 2016, call 330-671-4563 or go to

none too fragile’s next show is Daniel Pearle’s A KID LIKE JAKE from March 11-26, a study of the harrowing process by which well-heeled New Yorkers scheme and scramble to win their children admission into prestigious schools.

CPH’s compelling THE MOUNTAINTOP places spotlight on Martin Luther King, Jr.

Katori Hall, who wrote the award winning play THE MOUNTAINTOP, which is in production at Cleveland Play House, in her script attempts to answer such questions as: What was Martin Luther King, Jr. like as a person?  With all the death threats that King received, what was his last night alive like?  What did he believe was going to be his ultimate role in the Black rights movement?

The play takes place on April 3, 1968.  It is a “what/if” imagining  of the night before King’s assassination.   King returns to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after delivering his soon to be famous speech “I've Been to the Mountaintop,” in which he stated, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now. . . . I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight that we, as people, will get to the Promised Land.”  Some have theorized that he was somehow prophesying his imminent assassination.

He’s exhausted, alone, out of cigarettes, and a storm rages outside.  He calls for room service.  A young lady (Camae) appears with coffee.  Since King was hinted to be a womanizer, Camae’s presence opens supposition of what might come.  He flirts with her, bums several Pall Malls, and drinks some of her whiskey.

As the extended one-act unfolds, she becomes the instrument by which King, at least in Hall’s vision, is forced to confront his destiny and his legacy.

Hall presents a real King, a chain smoker, the possessor of smelly feet, who swears, and, in spite of his bravado, has fears, including being terrified by loud noises.  This is a King who carries the burden of the civil rights movement and is weary from being away from his family for so long. 

Hall gives us a different figure than the powerful man who has become the bigger than life legend.  She puts the spotlight on “You are a man, not a God,” a real man, with real life problems.

Rather surprisingly, THE MOUNTAINTOP premiered in London, not in America.  It won the 2009 Olivier (the British equivalent of the Tony) Best New Play Award.  The play transferred to Broadway in 2011 with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in the leads.

At the Cleveland Play House, Director Carl Cofield has reimagined the Broadway production of the script.  The ending is much more visually powerful.  This is a production which gives a deep meaning to the King legend as an element in modern American history, rather than just the Black movement.  

The show is well-paced, the humor nicely keyed and the characters accessible. The director, with the author’s help, presents an unknown presence who gives us cause to pause and ponder whether Camae is real or a figment of the imagination.  Is she a vision that King imagined or a theatrical device for Cofield to tell her story?

Ro Boddie, who played King in “Freedom: an Ode to Bayard Rustin” at the La Jolla Playhouse and Kansas City Repertory Theatre,  gives us “King-like.”  He does not try and imitate the legend’s famous vocal sound or movements.  He wisely sticks to a speaking tone and pronunciation pattern that doesn’t mimic King’s preaching.   This is a strong and well-tuned performance which shows King’s strengths, weaknesses and humanity.

The beautiful Angel Moore is effective as a cross between a typical television smart-aleck African American character and a sassy street-wise lady.  Though, at times she goes into a squeaky soprano, that makes her nearly impossible to understand, she is effective in her sensuality and humor, and nicely transforms herself into an “angelic” self when a plot switch requires it.  Her lines, “Fuck the white man,” and “We are all scared, of others and ourselves,” brought strong audience reaction.

Wilson Chin’s huge set seems out of proportion for a cheap motel room, but the expanse of the setting makes sense when the walls explode for the final scene.  Dan Scully’s projections are effective in helping develop director Hall’s vision for the conclusion of the play.  Elisheba Ittoop’s sound and Alan C. Edwards lighting designs also helped in plot development.

Capsule judgement: THE MOUNTAINTOP is not an easy play to watch, especially since we know what is going to happen the next day on the balcony outside that motel  room.  That is not to say the play is depressing. It’s not. It is filled with vivid imagery and humor.  The Cleveland Play House reinvention of the script is a perfect Black History month offering and is a theatrical must see!

THE MOUNTAINTOP runs through February 14, 2016, at the Outcalt Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Next up at CPH:  Shakespeare’s THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program) at The Helen from February 10-20, followed by LUNA GALE from February 27-March 20 2016.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

SAME TIME NEXT YEAR, delightful “old time” comedy at Actors’ Summit

Bernard Slade.  Name sound familiar?  Probably not.  How about “Bewitched,” “The Flying Nun,” “The Partridge Family,” “Bridget Loves Bernie?”  Slade and all of those mid-1900 television shows do have a connection.  He developed, authored or worked on all of them!

The award winning Slade is also noted for such stage plays and films as TRIBUTE, ROMANTIC COMEDY and SAME TIME NEXT YEAR.  The latter is now in production at Actors’ Summit.

SAME TIME NEXT YEAR centers on George, a New Jersey accountant, and Doris, an Oakland housewife.  They meet at a North California Inn in February, 1951, are immediately attracted to each other, and have a one-night fling.  Both are married and have children, but, for the next 24  years, they meet once a year, at the same time and place.  They develop a deep emotional attachment for each other and feel free to discuss births, deaths, and marital problems.

Over the span of the play, which gives a flash of their one day of February get- togethers, every five years (1951, 1956, 1961, etc.).  We observe as they age, both in attitudes and looks, and share life events, both positive and negative.   Our last visit with them is in 1975. 

The play, which was nominated for a Tony Award and won the Drama desk Award for best New American play, opened on Broadway in 1975 and ran for close to 1,500 performances.  The  original cast was Ellen Burstyn and Charles Grodin.   It was transformed into a 1978 film starring Burstyn and Alan Alda.

The script is an early Neil Simon-level comedy.  It is filled with jokes, nostalgia, sweetness, gentle conflicts, and lots of laughs.  By today’s offerings it would be called “old fashioned.”  It  is much in the form and language and incidents of a television sitcom. 

The Actors’ Summit production, under the direction of Paula Kline-Messner, is well done.  The timing is excellent, the laughs nicely keyed, the character development clear.  The scenes are nicely introduced by Kevin Rutan’s era-correct musical segues which also broadcast the tone of the up-coming scene.   For instance, the opening scene is preceded by “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing,” Andy Williams’ mid-century hit.

Keith Stevens nicely textures his portrayal of George, the “up-tight” stereotypical accountant through his personality growth and life-cycles, which include California-west coast Esalen “touchy-feely” persona, to a conservative Republican, and then his mature years.

Natalie Sander Kern, focuses a laser spotlight on Doris as she moves from up-tight Catholic with limited educational background to swinging hippie, to an educated and mature woman.  

Capsule judgement:  SAME TIME NEXT YEAR is an old-fashioned comedy that is filled with tender and humorous lines.  It a perfect play choice for the Actors’ Summit audiences and gets a delightful production under the direction of Paula Kline Messner, with fine performances by Keith Stevens and Natalie Sander Kern.

For tickets to SAME TIME NEXT YEAR, which runs through February 7, 2016 , call 330-374-7568 or go to

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Funny, thought-provoking THE REALISTIC JONESES at Dobama

What do Tracy Letts (SUPERIOR DONUTS), Yasmina Reza (GOD OF CARNAGE), Amy Herzog (4000 MILES), and David Adjmi (MARIE ANTOINETTE) have in common.  Their names all appear on the best new contemporary playwrights’ lists.   Many also are names which, if you have been to Dobama during the past couple of years, you have seen their plays produced.

Will Eno, author of THE OPEN HOUSE, which won the 2014 Obie Award for Playwriting, and THE REALISTIC JONSES, which received a 2014 Drama Desk Special Award, also appears on those “best” lists.   His JONESES is now being staged at Dobama.

Eno tends to write characters, not plots.  His works are an actor’s dream.  He etches clear characters who speak both their conscious and unconscious ideas.  They don’t have the traditional strainers that most of people have been taught to apply.  His characters deliver lines like a top notch baseball pitcher throwing curve balls that surprise and have the batter swing and miss, and in Eno’s plays, the characters are basically unnerved with no logical comeback and just accept what is said as is.

An example of Eno’s dialogue takes place when Bob wanders into his neighbor’s home in the middle of the night.  John, the neighbor, catches him there.  In most plays, or in life, the home owner would call the police, and try to defend his territory with a baseball bat or gun.  Here?  The “guys” chitchat, contemplate the night sky, and when John looks up in Bob’s direction, the latter says, “No, I’m looking at this part, you look over there.”

Eno’s people don’t seem to know about not being blunt, not hurting someone else’s feeling, and the necessity to apply rules concerning political/ethnic correctness.  Whatever pops into their minds, they say.  Not quite the level of someone with Torrette Syndrome, but darn close.  Random things just come out of a character’s mouth.   Many are hysterically funny.  Others are profound.

That is not to say Eno’s plays are filled with swearing and insults.  They aren’t. But they are filled with honesty, bluntness and “this is the way I see it” statements.  They are also quirky and filled with morality, sadness and humor.

THE REALISTIC JONESES was commission by Yale Repertory Theater.  After being staged  at that venue, it opened on Broadway in 2014.

When the play opens, Bob Jones and his wife, Jennifer, are sitting in their tree-filled backyard.  A garbage can is knocked over off-stage.  A raccoon?  No. Their new next door neighbors, John and Pony Jones are coming for a visit.   We gain some information about both couples, but there appear to be issues below the surface.  What is the truth?  What are the secrets?

Through a series of “skits” which take place in such settings as a supermarket,  the couples’ homes and backyards, we learn of the loneliness, sadness, joys, illnesses and past histories of both couples.

The script does not have a traditional format.  There is no beginning, middle and ending here.  The ideas flow, the format is irrelevant, and there is no ending, per se.  No conclusion that ties up all the loose ends.  The speeches and actions are all left frayed, for each person to carry out of the theatre to weave an ending, if one is needed.

Director Shannon Sindelar, who directed Dobama’s much acclaimed OR, KIN and THE NORWEIGIANS, has again created an audience-appealing, well paced and staged show. 

Chris Richards (BFA—Kent State) displays charm and wit as John, a twenty-something, who has a secret to hide.  He nicely textures the characterization and displays a fine sense of comic timing and a mobile face that both telegraphs and hides thoughts and emotions.

Joel Hammer (BFA—OSU), a former artistic director at Dobama, clearly creates Bob as a man who faces his incurable degenerative disease by alternately pretending that “all is well” and then “kind of” facing reality. 

As always, Tracee Patterson (MFA—Kent State), is spot-on in her character development.  The Cleveland Critic Circle and Times Theatre Awards Best Actress recipient, reflects compassion, empathy and frustration as Jennifer Jones, a woman dealing with an ill husband who wants to be both “babied” and left alone.   This is another fine performance.

Though she is sometimes a little hard to hear, Rachel Zake clearly develops Rachel, John’s ditzy and vulnerable wife.

Laura Carlson Tarantowski’s multi-purpose set generally works well.  Her creating fissions in the ground, which continue up the soaring backdrop, much like the characters, are split and in danger of disintegrating.   Jeremy Dobbins nature sound effects, and Marcus Dana’s lighting, including a low level fireworks show, help enhance the action.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE REALISTIC JONESES is one of those scripts that, with poor direction and acting could be a disaster.  Fortunately, under the adept directing of Shannon Sindelar and stellar performances by Chris Richard, Joel Hammer, Tracee Patterson and Rachel Zake, the Dobama production is an absolute must see!

THE REALISTIC JONESES runs through February 14, 2016 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

Dobama’s next show is actor Jesse Eisenberg’s THE REVISIONIST, starring Cleveland legend Dorothy Silver, who will be reviving the role she played in a staged reading of the script last year by Interplay Jewish Theatre.  It runs from March 4-April 3, 2016.  Tickets for the show are selling quickly.  If you intend to attend, call for seats now.

Friday, January 22, 2016

It’s snowing in Cleveland, but look forward to spring and summer @ the Shaw Festival

The Canadian winds are whipping across Lake Erie!  Yes, the snow is on the ground, the weather is miserable, but soon the cold winds will subside and many Clevelanders will start their trek to the land of the maple leaf and cross one of the many bridges in their treks north to Canada for wonderful theater.

Many Clevelanders take the four-hour drive up to The Shaw, as it is called by locals, to participate in theater, tour the “most beautiful little city in Canada,” shop, eat at the wonderful restaurants, and take advantage of the very good exchange rate (as of January 21 $.70 U.S.=$1 Canadian).  Because of the good rate, charge everything as many of the stores give you dollar for dollar, while banks offer you the going rate.  If you pay cash, using the rate just quoted, you are losing 30-cents on every dollar you spend.

It’s a good idea to make theatre and lodging reservations early, especially for weekends.

Our home away from home is the beautiful and well-placed Wellington House (, directly across the street from The Festival Theatre, within easy walking distance of all the theatres and the home of Karen’s individually prepared delicious breakfasts.  

For information on other B&Bs go to

There are some wonderful restaurants.  My in-town favorites are The Grill on King Street (905-468-7222, 233 King Street) and Ginger (905-468-3871, 390 Mary Street).  Reservations are encouraged, even during the week.

The Shaw Festival is a tribute to George Bernard Shaw and his writing contemporaries and offers dramas, comedies and musicals.

This year’s Shaw theme is “Curiouser and Curiouser.”  The offerings include:

ALICE IN WONDERLAND based on the book by Lewis Carroll, adapted for the stage by Peter Hinton.  It is a musical tale of Alice’s adventures which attempts to make sense of the world of grown-up nonsense.  (April 27-October 16)—Festival Theatre

A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE by Oscar Wilde—Marriage, affairs, divorce, and, of course, the wickedly attractive and scandalously unmarried Lord Illingworth are all thoroughly discussed. (May 29-October 15)—Festival Theatre

SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, A MUSICAL THRILLER by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler—A darkly comic and brilliantly unsettling staging of one of Stephen Sondheim’s most celebrated musicals.  (July 17-October 16)—Festival Theatre

UNCLE VANYA by Anton Chekhov—A new version by American playwright Annie Baker gives a fresh look to a deeply human story of the collapse of the Russian aristocracy. (May 1-September 11)—Court House Theatre

MASTER  HAROLD AND THE BOYS  by Athol Fugard—Initially banned in South Africa the play speaks of inequality and injustice.  (June 30-September 10)—Court House Theatre

THE ADVENTURES OF THE BLACK GIRL IN HER SEARCH FOR GOD--adapted for stage by Lisa Codrington from a short story by G. B. Shaw—When a  young black girl is abandoned by her missionary for asking too many questions, she takes the phrase “Seek and ye shall find” a little too literally.  (June 10-September 11)—Lunchtime one-act in the Court House Theatre

OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder—Considered one of the five most important plays in the American lexicon, this Pulitzer Prize play examines life from birth to death.  (April 9-October 15)—Royal George Theatre

MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION by G. B. Shaw—As a daughter is about to strike out on her own, her mother thinks it is about time for her to find out about her mother’s profession.  (April 21-October 16)—Royal George Theatre

ENGAGED by W. S. Gilbert—A comic look at love, marriage and money from one-half of the team of Gilbert and Sullivan.  (June 15-October 16)—Royal George Theatre

THE DANCE OF DEATH by August Strindberg (in a new version by Conor McPherson)—A bleakly comic look at the travails of marriage.  (July 13-September 10)—Studio Theatre

For theater information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

Go to the Shaw Festival! Meet the nice Canadian people.

Don’t forget your passport as it’s the only form of identification that will be accepted for re-entry into the US.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

FRANKENSTEIN’S WAKE @ CPT, a thought-provoking reimagining of the Shelly legend

When the mention of the name Frankenstein is made, the common visual reference is that of Boris Karloff, who was a large green monster with screws in his head, as featured in the 1931 horror film.  Karloff, in fact, played Frankenstein’s monster, not Henry Frankenstein, the young scientist who created the being from parts collected from various sources, including the brain of a criminal, which was brought to life through electrical devices.

The film was based on FRANKENSTEIN or THE MODERN PROMETHEUS, a novel that was written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley when she was around 18 years old.  Infused with both Gothic and Romantic elements, it is considered to be the first English language science fiction novel.

In 1997, FRANKENSTEIN’S WAKE, a play with music, was performed off-off Broadway.  The one hour and 20 minute play included songs and was met with positive reviews. 

In his director’s notes to Cleveland Public Theatre’s production of FRANKENSTEIN’S WAKE, Raymond Bobgan states that the Shelley book was about longing.  He indicates that “we are all the child of someone.  We all come from somewhere and many of us can identify with the creature’s longing for connection with his maker.”  He further explains, “we all feel a sense of incompleteness.” 

Bobgan indicates that “a large portion of the text of FRANKENSTEIN’S WAKE comes from the classic novel by Mary Shelley.”  To that text, Bobgan and Holly Holsinger, who created and designed the production, have added the poem “Mutability,” written by Percy Shelley in addition to five songs.

This is by no means a musical in the traditional sense.  There are no dances, show stoppers, or actors breaking into song.  The music is in the background, sets moods and makes transitions.

Holly Holsinger, in a tour-de-force performance, is captivating.   Basically alone on stage during the entire performance, she transforms herself from a crazy sister of a wandering explorer/sailor into an ambitious scientist, to an abandoned soul desperate for companionship.   Changes are highlighted by costume, makeup and lighting alterations.  As characters die, thus increasing the character’s longing, they are wrapped in shrouds of white, and piled at the top end of the runway stage, building a mound of isolation.

The script and Holsinger restore Shelley’s original supernatural quality, rather than the sensationalized film’s interpretation.

The 50-seat Church Theatre, an alternative CPT space, is like a second character.  The runway stage, with the audience seated on either side, helps create an intimacy and has an aura that makes the actions vivid.

Caitlin Lewins’ musical performance and the singing of Chloe Mlinarick, Sarah Moore and Shannon Sharkey add positively to the over-all effect.

Capsule judgement: Raymond Bobgan, the director and the piece’s co-creator, concludes his program remarks by stating, “Perhaps, on this stage, we will reform the image of the monster made by humanity.”  Whether he and Holly Holsinger have done so depends on whether audience members are capable of grasping the duo’s intent and purpose.  Doing so is a challenge, but can be worth the effort.

FRANKENSTEIN’S WAKE, runs through January 30, 2016  at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to

Apollo’s Fire, Cleveland’s “other” internationally recognized orchestra presents “Sephardic Journey”

Apollo’s Fire, Cleveland’s “other” orchestra is credited with having built the largest audience in the nation for “early-music” (Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical).  Headed by Jeannette Sorrell, the orchestra is forging “a vibrant approach to the re-making of authenticity.”

Founded in 1992, Apollo’s Fire has not only developed a large Cleveland following, but has played to sold-out audiences in such U.S. venues as Tanglewood and The Aspen Music Festival, as well as in international settings including the cities of London, Madrid and Bordeaux.

To date, Sorrell and Apollo’s Fire has released over 20 commercial CDs, some of which have been bestsellers on the “Billboard” classical music chart.

Sorrell is noted for her creative programming.   Next up is “Sephardic Journey, Wanderings of the Spanish Jews,” which will weave the exotic sounds of Spanish Jews, who, after being expelled from their homeland in 1492 traveled and absorbed the musical accents and sounds of other cultures, including the tones of Italy, Turkey and North Africa. 

The program will interweave Sephardic folk songs and choral works, as well as the daily sounds of the rhythms of love and life, rejection, celebration and mystical prayers. 

Using authentic instruments such as the shawm, oud, harp, hammered dulcimer (zither) and exotic percussion, along with the 15-voice ensemble, the program will include the Hebrew choral work, “Songs of Solomon.”

Lead vocalists are Nell Snaidas, soprano (and guest co-director for this program), Karim Sulayman, tenor and Jeffrey Strauss, baritone.

A recent interview with Strauss, who now resides in Chicago, but considers Cleveland his “semi home,” due to his almost twenty year connection with Apollo’s Fire, has required him to spend a great deal of time in this area.  He commented that he is amazed by the “unbelievable changes” he has seen in Greater Cleveland.

A Buffalo native, he was exposed to music at a young age.  His mother was a high operatic soprano and a fine pianist who taught music to children.  Being a typical mid-century housewife, “she didn’t pursue her singing as much as her talent would have allowed,  but music, and musicians, were always in the house.” 

The talent and exposure paid off as not only Jeffrey, who sang with the Buffalo Philharmonic at age 17, but his sister Deborah too chose music as career.  She is a “renowned Klezmer violinist, who found her voice in old style Eastern European violin music.” 

As a boy, Jeffrey studied Hebrew and, because of the quality of his voice, received special training for his bar mitzvah by his Temple’s cantor.  When the Temple built a new building, and also retained their inner city facility, Jeffrey was asked to lead Sabbath services as cantor at the old building, learning to “daven” [pray] and wound up with his “first paying singing job.”   Though trained as a lawyer, his professional singing career includes concerts with renowned baroque groups in London and the U.S., including Apollo’s Fire.

The music to be used in “Sephardic Journey” may sound a little different to many Jews who attend the concert.  Most Cleveland area Jews are Ashkenazi, whose ancestors came from Central and Eastern Europe.  This group developed customs, pronunciation patterns and prayer rituals different from the other major group of Jews, the Sephardim, who lived mostly in Spain and Portugal and then migrated to Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe.

What is Jeffrey’s role in the “Sephardic Journey” concert?  He relates that “Jeannette is brilliant at constructing programs that have a narrative arc both on the page and as a concert experience.”  When she decided to do the “Journey” she asked Jeffrey for assistance in finding and translating Hebrew liturgical texts that could be used with the chant melodies she had chosen.  An Ashkenazi Jew, whose family came from Russia, Poland, and Germany, Jeffrey was not an expert in Sephardic folk music, so he did “a lot of reading and listening.” and even went to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York to experience a modern Sephardic Shabbat service first-hand. Jeffrey serves as the “cantor” and spiritual voice of the program, while Nell Snaidas is the featured voice in the Ladino songs of love, romance, and feasting.  Jeannette Sorrell served as the overall architect of the program, designing the arc and flow of the “journey” and arranging most of the music. 

“The program will offer a mix of traditional folk, ritual music from the synagogue and composed songs.  It’s an emotional journey interweaving daily life with sacred elements:  the music of the Temple and the songs of the Sabbath,” Jeffrey said. “The concert starts with the solo voice of a cantor [Jeffrey], using traditional call-and-response chant to  calling  the people to prayer and inviting them to return to Jerusalem—Yerushalayim—not necessarily the physical city, but the sacred place, a place we carry with us in our heart and soul.”  

This is followed by a Ladino tune celebrating the birth of Abraham (said to be a song the Sephardim sang as they left Spain following their expulsion in 1492).  A set called “The Temple” includes 17 th century vocal and instrumental art music by the famous Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, and liturgical prayers for Shabbat.  Other sets called “Love & Romance” and “Feasting & Celebration” include Ladino love songs, and it “ends with a wild ride with percussion, which will make everyone want to get up and dance.”

Jeffrey, who has been praised as an “authoritative artist,” considers himself to be “a storyteller, first and foremost,” and finds his cantorial role in “Sephardic Journey” to be true to his philosophy of music and singing style and his family’s spiritual tradition.

It is fitting that Sephardic Journey will be the first public professional concert to be given at the new Maltz Performing Arts Center, which for many years was the home of Temple Tifereth-Israel.

Apollo’s Fire’s “Sephardic Journey:  Wanderings of the Spanish Jews” will be presented on Thursday, February 4, 2016 at 7:30 pm at the Fairlawn Lutheran Church (Smith Road); on Friday, February 5 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (2747 Fairmount Blvd, Cleveland Heights) at 8 pm; Saturday, February 6 at 8 pm at the Maltz Performing Arts Center (1855 Ansel Road, Cleveland); and Sunday, February 7 at 4 pm at Baldwin Wallace University (275 Eastland Road, Berea).

For tickets or information go to:  216-320-0012 x 1 or

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Musical black comedy delights and could incite thinking at Cleveland Play House

How does the musical black comedy LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS fit into the Cleveland Play House’s 100th anniversary theme of paying homage to their history?  To find the answer requires going back to May, 1916, when the theatre staged THE DEATH OF TINTAGILES.   The avant-garde play starred marionettes created by Helen Haiman Joseph, who created Puppet Players Theatre at CPH in the mid-1920s. 

As anyone who has seen LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS knows, the central character in the comedy horror rock musical, composed by Alan Menken and written by Howard Ashman, is an innocent little (puppet) plant named Audrey II, which grows into a blood-thirsty monster.

Another instance of CPH paying homage concerns Amanda Dehnert, the director of "LITTLE SHOP", who in 2006 and 2007, staged the theatre’s MY FAIR LADY and MAN OF LA MANCHA.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is based on the cult-favorite, low budget film of the same name.  The stage show differs from the film in the ending, the dropping of several characters and some editing to the score. 

The musical’s 1960s rock and roll, do-wop, gospel, early Motown score includes such finger-snapping, body gyrating songs as “Skid Row,” “Grow for Me,” “Feed Me,” “Suppertime,” “Don’t Feed the Plants,” and, the title song, “Little Shop of Horrors.”

The story centers on Seymour, a nerdy, hapless orphan, who was taken in by Mr. Mushnik, who owns a down-and-out florist shop on Skid Row.  Seymour has a crush on the ditzy blonde, Audrey, his co-worker at the store, who is in an abusive relationship with an evil motorcycle-riding, black leather jacket-wearing sadistic dentist.  

One day Seymour, while visiting the wholesale flower district, buys what looks like a Venus Flytrap. As it turns out, Audrey II, as the plant is known, is not just an ordinary plant.  This leafy carnivore requires blood to survive.  Unusual in looks and size, people come to see it, buy floral arrangements, and want to interview and praise Seymour.

First, Seymour donates his own blood, but soon that supply wears out.  The sudden attention getting Audrey II demands more and more plasma.  Seymour likes his new-born fame and the attention from Audrey.  His desire for more accolades drives him to do horrendous things.

The script and musical score are creatively developed.  At the start, an off-stage voice, that later doubles for the sound of Audrey II, relates that “On the twenty-first day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence.  And this terrifying enemy surfaced—as such enemies often do—in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.”

The music creates characters and pushes along the story.  Audrey’s music is pretty and feminine, Seymour’s mainstream sounds intensify throughout the story as he changes from nerdy and meek to outlandish and evil.  Audrey II’s R&B sound also intensifies as it becomes big and more demanding.

The Urchins, an all-girl band, set the scene and act as a Greek chorus to fill in the back story.

The musical can be taken as an escapist piece of sci-fi tale of horror and romance and enjoyed on that level, or it can be thought-of as the authors’ attempt to send a values message. 

For the latter, realizing that the script was written during the Nixon presidency when the leader of the free world was concealing his unethical actions to insure his keeping the presidency may help to explain the writers’ moral theme.  It could lay the foundation for understanding Seymour’s reactions to fame, and the actions he undertook to insure his continued success.  Both Nixon’s and Seymour’s  ethical errors are taken to extremes and the consequences are great.  Menken and Ashman seem to be asking if the desire for achieving one’s dreams is worth the consequences of taking those unethical actions.

The musical premiered Off-Off Broadway in 1982 and moved Off-Broadway for a five-year run.  Early in 2003 a pre-Broadway production was staged in Coral Gables, Florida, starring Clevelander and Kent State grad Alice Ripley, as Audrey.  In spite of raves for her performance, after a shakeup in the cast and production team, Ripley did not appear in the October, 2003 Broadway production.

The CPH production is adeptly staged by Amanda Dehnert.  The director, choreographer and musical director’s touches are all over the re-invention of some aspects of the show.  Especially important is that the 3-person do-wop singers become the five-piece swinging Urchins [Hallie Bulleit (Bass), Brittany Campbell (Guitar), Kate Ferber (Keyboard I), Injoy Fountain (Drums) and Alanna Saunders (Keyboard II)]who sing, play instruments, and perform various roles with power and panache.

Ari Butler, he with the looks and mannerisms of Johnny Galecki (”Leonard” of TV’s  “Big Bang Theory”), is a little Geek-light, but is convincing as Seymour.  Lauren Molina is compelling as Audrey, both vulnerable and appealing, though her affected high–pitched speaking gets a little much at times.  Her rendition of “Suddenly Seymour” is endearing.  (To read a profile spotlight of Molina go to and scroll down to the story.)

Larry Cahn makes Mr. Mushnik live.  Joey Taranto creates an Orin, Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, who is evil incarnate.  Deep-voiced Eddie Cooper  both narrates and acts as the voice of Audrey II with strong positive effect.  Puppeteer Kev Abrams operates Audrey II with skill.

Philip Witcomb’s set design sometimes slows down the action due to the constant sliding in and out of the flower shop which also adds the distracting presence of stagehands moving the set.  The backdrops and bandstand are well conceived.  Josh Horvath’s sound design works well, especially in aiding in the creation of the menacing Audrey II.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS will delight audience members who are looking for an escapist evening of theatre, while giving the “thinking” audience an opportunity to consider the implications of the Ashman-Menken creation.  The show is well-conceived by director/choreographer/musical director Amanda Dehnert.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS runs through February 7, 2016, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Next up at CPH:  THE MOUNTAINTOP, January 23-Feburary 14 @ Outcalt Theatre, followed by Shakespeare’s THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Cleveland’s “Daddy Warbucks” comes home in ANNIE tour at Conner Palace Theatre

Gilgamesh Taggett has made a name for himself on the Cleveland theater scene in a variety of roles.  Two times he received praise for his portrayal of Oliver Warbucks on stage at Beck Center.  Taggett again finds himself playing Daddy Warbucks, but this time, in a touring production of ANNIE, now on stage at the Connor Palace.              

How did he transfer from local celebrity to national recognition?  As Taggett tells it, a friend, who was part of the casting team, gave him a call that the national tour of ANNIE was seeking a Warbucks.

He went to New York, met the casting directors, and tried out before Martin Charnin, who wrote the script’s lyrics, Charles Strouse, the music’s composer, and music supervisor Keith Levenson.  And, voilà, the fullback-sized, bald, Taggett, who has a large voice, a dynamic stage presence, and reeks of gruff kindness, found himself on the road in the role. 

The script is based on the long running Harold Gray comic strip, “Little Orphan Annie,” which premiered in the 1920s, and became one of the most widely read comics.

The musical is the result of Charnin receiving a copy of “The Life and Hard Times of Little Orphan Annie,” falling in love with the story, and obtaining the rights to transform it into a musical.  He enlisted Tony winning composer Strouse to write the music, and short story writer, Thomas Meehan, to fashion the book.

In 1976, after the script had been rejected by 23 producers, ANNIE was tried out at East Haddam, Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House, the incubator home to some of Broadway’s biggest musicals (e.g., MAN OF LAMANCHA and SHENANDOAH.) After numerous changes it opened in 1977 on Broadway. 

ANNIE went on to win 7 Tony Awards with a cast that included Reid Shelton (Warbucks), Dorothy Loudon (Miss Hannigan), and Andrea McArdle (Annie).  The canine who played Sandy became the “longest running dog on Broadway, and never missed a performance.  The show is now the 13 th longest running American musical in Broadway history and has been revived on Broadway twice (1997 and 2012).

The score, which is hummable and moves the plot along includes such classics as, “Tomorrow,” “Maybe,” “Little Girls,” “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” “N.Y.C,”  “Annie,” and “I Don’t Need Anything But You.”  It has such show stoppers as “Easy Street,” “We’d Like to Thank You,” and “A New Deal for Christmas.”

The musical is the back story of how Annie was left outside a New York orphanage during the depression and continues to hope that her parents will come back for here.  Spunky Annie resists the efforts of ill-tempered Miss Hannigan, the facility’s director, to break her will.  Annie escapes in a laundry bag, and wanders the streets of the Big Apple in an attempt to find her parents.  In the process she saves Sandy, a scruffy dog, from going to the kennels, hangs out with homeless people, and avoids attempts to catch her, but finally is brought back to the orphanage. 

Ironically, in an act of goodwill, Oliver Warbucks, the richest man in America, has sent Grace Farrell, his secretary, to bring an orphan to his Park Avenue home for the holidays.  Annie is the pick.  After an awkward start to their relationship, Warbucks falls in love with the red-headed darling and after some plot twists and turns, winds up adopting her.  

The touring company, directed by lyricist Martin Charnin, is a nicely conceived, though it has become somewhat tired and lacks spontaneity.   This is to be expected from a cast who has been on the road well for over a year and finds itself  shifting from theatre to theatre after very short stays.  The Cleveland stop is only 6 days.

The songs are delightful, the dancing adequately well executed but uncreative, and the sets (especially the cityscapes) nicely conceived.

Though the younger set has no point of reference for the comic strip, which stopped publication in 2010, the depression, and references to the likes of Francis Perkins, Bernard Baruch, Don Budge, Babe Ruth, and Mahatma Gandhi, based on the interest level of the cherubs around me, it seems to make little difference.

Taggett is excellent as Warbucks…he sings, he dances and he charms with ease.  Heidi Gray, who is fairly new in the role, doesn’t quite have the encompassing-presence needed for the making of a great Annie, but has the singing and dancing skills to pull off  the role.  Though seemingly on automatic pilot with every move and vocal sound down pat, Lynn Andrews is fun as the mean Miss Hannigan, Chloe Tiso is beautiful and appealing as Grace Farrell, Brendan Malafronte has fun as Bert Healy, and Garrett Deagon is properly slimy as Rooster.  The orphans are cute, but their major song and dance number, “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” was too formulaic and lacked dynamism.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  How can one not like a story about an orphan kid who finds herself being adopted by a billionaire, a stray dog who is saved from the pound, a billionaire with a heart, a bunch of singing and dancing orphans, and a female villain who gets her due  punishment?  Add fine singing, some fun comedy shticks, and clear characterizations.  Leapin’ Lizards, even if it’s a little tired, you’ll probably like seeing “ANNIE, ANNIE, ANNIE!”

Tickets for ANNIE, which runs through January 17, 2016 at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to

Monday, January 11, 2016

CPT’s INCENDIARIES HOUGH 1966, thought-provoking but problematic

July 18, 1966 is a day that will long be noted in the Cleveland community.  That hot, muggy day festered into what is now called “The Hough Riots.”

With the purpose of examining what happened, what caused the turmoil, what is the legacy of the burning and destruction, Cleveland Public Theatre and Ohio City Theatre Project, have developed and are staging the world premiere of INCENDIARIES HOUGH 1996.

The specific cause of the riots has never been established, but it appears that there were underlying social problems, as well as distrust for the police, over-reaction to minor incidents, racial hatred, and decades of disinvestment.

Cleveland’s Hough area had at one time been a vital, up-scale, prosperous area  in the vicinity of The Cleveland Art Museum, Severance Hall (the home of the Cleveland Orchestra), Western Reserve and Case Technology universities, a vibrant East 105 and Euclid entertainment district.  The homes, many of which were built in the mid-to-late 1920s and early 30s, were owned by white upward mobile families. 

The depression, the Second World War, development of inner-ring suburbs and forced busing resulted in white flight, producing a major shift in population. 

At the time of the riots, it is estimated that the area, which was by that time noted as one of the poorest in the city, was over 96% black.  Many single family homes had been divided into multi-family units, with absentee landlords, who lived outside the area.  The once world-class school system of Cleveland had deteriorated, the major food chains had abandoned the area, the small mom and pop stores were charging excessive prices for inferior products, and many of the recreational facilities had closed.

What set off the riots?  Several investigations lead to the possible spark.  The temperature and humidity were oppressive.  Many wanting to escape the heat congregated out-of-doors.  Supposedly, in order to keep non-payers to stay out, someone posted a sign outside the 79’ers Bar on the southeast corner of E. 79th and Hough, at the lower end of the neighborhood.  The message read, “No Water for Niggers.”  The white bar manager and bouncer patrolled in front of the bar with shotguns. 

When a black woman, who was later described as a prostitute, came in “seeking money for charity,” and a black male, who bought a bottle of wine and then asked for some water were forcibly evicted, a crowd gathered, the police arrived, brick-throwing erupted, gunfire followed, and rumors spread.

In the following days, a black mother of three was shot, James Rhodes, the same governor who called out the National Guard at Kent State, activated the 1600 local members of the Guard and sent them into Hough.  Arsonists attacked abandoned houses and white-owned enterprises.  A 38-year old black man was killed while going to help his friend protect his business. 

Before it was over the tension had spread to other near-by areas.  In “Little Italy,” 40-blocks away from the epi-center, a trio of white men shot a black man sitting in his car. 

Fortunately, heavy rains fell on July 24, which cooled off both the weather and human temperatures. 

The physical and property damage was excessive and even today there is little trust between the police and the black community.  Race relations in the city, especially on the east side, which is almost totally African American, in spite of massive efforts, is often close to incendiary. 

INCENDIARIES, a co-production between Cleveland Public Theatre and Ohio City Theatre Project, was conceived and directed by Pandora Robertson.  It is the kick-off piece of “Road to Hope,” a series of performing arts events that celebrates hope and honors Cleveland’s history.

The script recounts the generally agreed upon incidents of the riots…the now infamous “No Water for Negroes” sign, the various shootings, lootings, and police and National Guard actions.

Staged in a choreographed dance format, a table and chairs are used to create walls, doors, hiding places, cars and the various setting where the incidents took place.  The seven-person cast, two white, five African Americans, portray multi-characters. 

Robertson has chosen to incorporate much pounding and noise to help create the auditory sounds of riot, as well as build up the emotional level of the audience to be participants rather than observers.   It is an effective device, but, as sometime happens with a device, it becomes too much.  The sounds often drown out the spoken words.  Eighty or so minutes of screaming and pounding soon takes over the psyche.  It’s too much with no pauses, no texturing of the decibel levels.

The cast, Brittni Shambaugh Addison, Wesley Allen, Ashley Aquilla, Laprise Johnson, Daniel McNamara, Randi Renee, and Chris Walker, who helped in creating the piece, generally developed the intent of the endeavor.

Benjamin Gantose’s lighting design helped intensify the mood.

Following the staging, a discussion/talk back was conducted.  Those of us who teach about group discussion* know that for any hope of success, there must be a clearly stated purpose, and a structured format.  Unfortunately, this was not the case.

The coordinator, who stood on one side of the audience was not able to create the needed physical and emotional contact with the intended participants, and failed to clearly state the purpose of the after-show experience.  It was often difficult to hear those who spoke because there was only one microphone.  The idea was commendable, the execution was weak.

Capsule judgement: Cleveland Public Theatre and Ohio City Theatre Project should be praised for undertaking the showcasing of an era in Cleveland history that tells an important tale.  The overall effect, except for the talk-back session, was a good example of how theater can be a conduit for sharing historical and sociological information and creating insightful intra-thought.

INCENDIARIES HOUGH 1966, runs through January 23, 2016  at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to

*Personal disclosure:  I hold a doctorate in Human Communication and have facilitated, researched and written about group sessions.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

“Petite firecracker,” Lauren Molina, stars in Cleveland Playhouse’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

If you had asked Lauren Molina during her high school days in Detroit what she was going to be when she grew up, the self-described “brainiac,” would probably have answered, “A doctor or a vet.”  Though not thinking of a life behind the footlights, she did attend arts summer programs at Northwestern, Yale and NYU.

The daughter of a father who is the Assistant Principal Bass player with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and a mother who is a former dancer and is now a Professor at Marygrove College, Lauren finally decided that acting was “her thing” while attending the University of Michigan, which is noted for its top-tier musical theatre program. 

When she went to New York to “make it big,” she was lucky enough to be in the mix for a role in the revival of SWEENEY TODD.  The production required the performers who played musical instruments.  Fortunately, the role of Johanna was written for an actress who played the cello.  A trained cellist, Lauren was a natural for the role.  As she said in a recent interview, “Two years out of school and I had a major part in a Broadway show.  Wow!”

Since her debut, she has been in ROCK OF AGES (off and on-Broadway), TEN CENTS A DANCE (with Donna McKechnie), and THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE.  She was a feature singer at the LADIES WHO SING SONDHEIM CONCERT with Barbara Cook and Patti Lupone, was a soloist at the TRIBUTE FOR ANGELA LANSBURY with Tyne Daly and Christine Ebersole, and was a back-up singer for Sarah Brightman on her LaLUNA TOUR.

Lauren won the Helen Hayes Award (sponsored by Theatre Washington) for her portrayal of Cunegonde in CANDIDE, in which she was dubbed “a petite firecracker.”  The show is one of her favorite musicals.  She stated, “though the book has problems, the story is witty and meaningful.”  She was also named as “One of 30 Under 30” by

To what does she credit her success?  She said that she “tries to bring out whatever the role calls for.”  She realizes that she “is not in the field for praise or money, but for the love she has for the theatre” and her hope is that “she can inspire and make audience members think.”

Why is she doing THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS in Cleveland?  She stated, “You can’t do only New York theatre.  It’s important to do dream roles and playing Audrey is one of those roles.” “Though Audrey is physically and mentally abused, and not overly bright, she has a strong heart.”

“LITTLE SHOP is irreverent.  It is sweet and beautiful.” It sends a message “that someone can rise from nothing and gain great acclaim, even if it takes creativity and blood.”  “It’s a parody of the monster movies of the 50s.”  “The plant is representative of greed.”  There are three sub-themes: “society puts pressures on people, what is needed is love, and money can’t buy happiness.”

Besides her acting career, Lauren is a member of “The Skivvies.”  She and Nick Cearley are a duet who do “sexy explosion of satire and sultry.”

The duo met about thirteen years ago when they were doing a children’s theatre show.  They became best friends and decided they wanted to entertain together.  They decided “to take pop songs and strip them down musically.” 

The music features stripped down arrangements and, and so do their bodies.  He wears bikini briefs and she wears a bra and panties. 

They have been performing all over the world.  Sometimes the audience doesn’t get the clothing message.  For example, she stated, “It gets people to look at you.  Once they hear us, they will stay for the content.  A woman, however once said,  “You are so talented, you don’t have to take off your clothes.”  “They don’t get it.  Nothing is lewd or raunchy.  It’s like a big pj party.  It’s all about the music.”

Does she ever get self-conscious?   She paused and said:  “There is no room for me to feel self-conscious.  I believe that  no matter your shape or size, you can overcome the media’s message of being ashamed if you are not perfect.”

“The Skivvies” use a multitude of instruments, among them the  ukulele, and glockenspiel.  Why those?  “They are quirky instruments…everything on uke sounds happy or at least bittersweet…there is a playfulness to it…take rock, hip-hop…hard core rock on a uke…comedy, quirky sound.” 

Where does Lauren see herself in five years?   She would like to be doing Broadway, performing as “The Skivvies,” and in a variety sketch television show.  “Oh yes, and fostering kittens and living with my boyfriend.”

Lauren is very impressed with the Allen Theatre and PlayhouseSquare complex.  She looks forward to performing before local audiences and “making strong choices on stage” and “getting the character [of Audrey] to pop.”

Cleveland Orchestra’s stunning “All-Beethoven” Concert features Yefim Bronfman on piano

A recent trip to New York included a tour of Carnegie Hall.   As we entered the famous auditorium someone asked, “How are the acoustics?”  The seasoned tour guide answered, “they are good, but not as good as Cleveland’s Severance Hall.”  He went on to say, “Though this is a beautiful setting, it doesn’t compare to Cleveland’s Severance Hall.  This was followed, about ten minutes later by the comment, “The orchestras that play here are top-notch, especially the Cleveland Orchestra.”  Following the tour I asked if he was a northern Ohio native.  He responded that he wasn’t, but came to Cleveland at least twice a year to hear the orchestra and always attended their performances in the Big Apple.

As I settled into my seat for our Orchestra’s all-Beethoven program, I glanced around the grand Severance Hall and thought, “That guide was right.  This place is gorgeous.”  Our tour guide also would have been in music heaven on Thursday night when the orchestra brilliantly played Beethoven’s “String Quartet, No. 15, Opus 132,” “Piano Concerto No. 3,” and “Choral Fantasy.”

“String Quartet, No. 15, Opus 132 was written as a quartet (two violins, one viola and one cello), that is thought to be the second of Beethoven’s “late” writings for those instruments.  For this concert, the Orchestra’s musical director, Franz Welser-Möst, expanded the sound by adding string basses, and doubling the cello line an octave lower in many sections of the music.  

An examination of the human spirit and the passion of life, it contains the feelings of struggle, remembrance, and a search for  reenergizing.  The mostly soothing sounds vary from loveliness, to marching, to dancing, to renewal.  No sound overpowers the senses, but carries the listener on an enveloping journey.

“Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Opus 37” found Yefim Bronfman at the piano.  The Russian-Israeli-American is noted for his commanding technique and exceptional lyrical playing.  A bear of a man, watching him play almost contradicts the sounds that his large fingers and hands are expected to produce.  Even when he is attacking the keyboard, the sounds are light and airy.  The experience of hearing him interpret the Beethoven work is breathtaking.

The piece is a classic reminder that Beethoven composed his piano concertos for himself to play.  This not only gave him attention as a great composer, but as a master pianist. 

Piano Concerto No. 3 starts as a strings and select brass and winds rendering, without piano accompaniment, followed by the pianist interacting with the instruments.  A series of piano runs then grab and hold the audience.  Bronfman did not disappoint.  His technique mesmerized the near sold-out audience.  The orchestra responded in-kind by doing what it does best—“put on a musical feast of near perfection.”

“Choral Fantasy, Opus 80” combined the skills of Bronfman on the piano, the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and the Orchestra.  The composition, which music critics claim was the forerunner to Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” and the “Ode to Joy,” is “an expression of humanity’s indomitable strength.”

The ever-changing sounds ranged from light to sprightly to full grandeur, to a finale of emotional power.  The composition, the playing, and the singing combined into a compelling experience which concluded with the audience leaping to its feet in a vocal and physical explosion of approval. 

The chorus was under the direction of Robert Porco.

Before the concert the orchestra’s Musical Director, Franz Welser-Möst paid tribute to his long time friend, Pierre Boulez, who passed away on January 5.  The audience stood as Welser-Möst read a poem of remembrance.

Capsule judgment:  Beethoven once said, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”  If he had been present to hear his trio of pieces played by the Cleveland Orchestra and pianist Yefim Bronfman, he probably would have smiled and nodded in approval.  Bravo! 

The “All-Beethoven” concert was repeated on Saturday, January 9, with only the first two sections being played at the Friday morning concert. 

Future Cleveland Orchestra performances:
Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, January 14 and 15.
Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Concert, January 16
Ravel and Debussy, February 4, 5 6
Mitsuko Uchida’s Mozart, February 11, 12, 13
Family Dance Concert—“Gotta Dance,” February 26

For tickets call 216-231-1111 or go to