Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Greater Cleveland is blessed with a vital theater scene.  It has been the purpose of the TIMES THEATER TRIBUTES, now known as BROADWAYWORLD-CLEVELAND REGIONAL PROFESSIONAL THEATER TRIBUTES (BWW-Cle Theater Tributes), to recognize theatrical experiences that, in the subjective view of this reviewer, were excellent and deserve recognition.

These awards are separate and distinct from the Broadwayworld.com awards which were open to public nominations and voting.

Only shows performed in 2016 which I reviewed were considered.  With the exception of Outstanding National Touring Production, selections were limited to local presentations though actors, directors and technicians who were imported by local theatres for their productions were considered.  Actors are separated by gender, but not equity or lack of union affiliation, or leading or supporting roles. 

Nominees designated by a * indicates my recognition as the most proficient in that category.  In rare cases more than one person is designated as “most proficient.”  Special recognition designees are listed in alphabetical order, not in a rank order.
*THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, none-too-fragile
ALL THE WAY, Cleveland Play House
ANNAPURNA, none-too-fragile
LINES IN THE DUST, Cleveland Public Theatre
LUNA GALE, Cleveland Play House
           RICE), Playwrights Local
SANS MERCI, none-too-fragile
SEX WITH STRANGERS, Cleveland Play House
THE MOUNTAINTOP, Cleveland Play House
THE WHIPPING MAN, none-too-fragile


*MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
FOOTLOOSE, Porthouse
IN THE HEIGHTS, Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace University
RING OF FIRE, Porthouse


*Sean Derry, THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, none-too-fragile
Austin Pendleton, LUNA GALE, Cleveland Play House
Beth Woods, LINES IN THE DUST, Cleveland Public Theatre
Celeste Cosentino, THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL, Ensemble Theatre
Donald Carrier, CLYBOURNE PARK, CWRU/CPA MFA Acting Program
Giovanna Sardelli, ALL THE WAY, Cleveland Play House
Joanie Schulz, SEX WITH STRANGERS, Cleveland Play House
Katori Hall, THE MOUNTAINTOP, Cleveland Play House
Leighann Delorenzo, THE REVISIONIST, Dobama
Sean Derry, ANNAPURNA, none-too-fragile
Sean Derry, THE WHIPPING MAN, none-too-fragile
Shannon Sindelar, THE REALISTIC JONESES, Dobama

*Victoria Bussert, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Amanda Dehnert, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, Cleveland Play House
Nathan Motta, THE TOXIC AVENGER, Cain Park
Scott Spence, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Steven C. Anderson, RING OF FIRE, Porthouse
Terri Kent, FOOTLOOSE, Porthouse
Victoria Bussert, IN THE HEIGHTS, Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace University


*Martin Céspedes, Billy Elliot, Beck Center
Greg Daniels, IN THE HEIGHTS, Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace University
Gregory Daniels, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Martin Céspedes, HEATHERS the musical, Beck Center
Martin Céspedes, RUTHLESS!, Beck Center
Martin Céspedes, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
MaryAnn Black, FOOTLOOSE, Porthouse


*Geoff Knox, THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL, Ensemble Theatre
Andrew Gobmas, THE REVISIONIST, Dobama
Chris Richards, THE REALISTIC JONESES, Dobama
Jeffrey Grover, ANNAPURNA, none-too-fragile
Keith Stevens, TALLY’S FOLLY, Actors’ Summit
Michael Mauldin, MARGIN OF ERROR, Ensemble Theatre
Ro Boddie, THE MOUNTAINTOP, Cleveland Play House
Sean Booker, LANDFORD WILSON:  TAKE 5, Cesear’s Forum
Sean Hudock, SEX WITH STRANGERS, Cleveland Play House
Skip Corris, LINES IN THE DUST, Cleveland Public Theatre
Steve Vinovich, ALL THE WAY, Cleveland Play House

*Derdriu Ring, THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, none-too-fragile
*Dorothy Silver, THE REVISIONIST, Dobama
Carly Germany, MARIE ANTOINETTE @ Dobama
Derdriu Ring, ANNAPURNA, none-too-fragile
Holly Holsinger, FRANKENSTEIN’S WAKE, Cleveland Public Theatre
Juliet Brett, MR. WOLF, Cleveland Play House
Maya Jones, HARBOR, convergence-continuum
Monette Magrath, SEX WITH STRANGERS, Cleveland Play House
Nicole Sumlin, LINES IN THE DUST, Cleveland Public Theatre
Rachel Lee Kolis, A KID LIKE JAKE, none-too-fragile

*Matthew Wright, RUTHLESS!, Beck Center
Ellis C. Dawson III, THE TOXIC AVENGER, Cain Park
Jason Leupold, THE LAST FIVE YEARS, Lakeland Civic Theatre
M. A. Taylor, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Paul Schwensen, FOOTLOSE, Porthouse
Tom Ford, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater

*J. R. Heckman, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
*Calista Zajac, RUTHLESS!, Beck Center


*Natalie Green, THE TOXIC AVENGER, Cain Park
Calista Zajac, RUTHLESS!, Beck Center
Colleen Longshaw, SISTER ACT, Porthouse
Jillian Kates, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Katharine DeBoer, BILLY ELLIOT, Beck Center
Kathleen Rooney, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Neely Gavaart, THE FIRST FIVE YEARS, Lakeland Civic Theatre
Trinidad Snider, INTO THE WOODS, Lakeland Civic Theatre


*Philip Whitcomb, THE GOOD PEACHES, Cleveland Play House/Cleveland
Douglas Puskas, LINES IN THE DUST, Cleveland Public Theatre
Douglas Puskas, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Jeff Herman, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Michael Schweikardt, LUNA GALE, Cleveland Play House
Robert Mark Morgan, ALL THE WAY, Cleveland Play House
Russell Metheny, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, Great Lakes Theater
Timothy R. Mackabee, MR. WOLF, Cleveland Play House
Trad A Burns, HEATHERS the musical, Beck Center
Trad Burns, INTO THE WOODS, Lakeland Civic Theater


*Larry Goodpaster, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Jennifer Korecki, SISTER ACT, Porthouse
Joel Mercier, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Jonathan Swoboda, FOOTLOOSE, Porthouse
Jordan Cooper, INTO THE WOODS, Lakeland Civic Theatre
Jordan Cooper, THE TOXIC AVENGER, Cain Park
Larry Goodpaster, HEATHERS the musical, Beck Center
Travis Smith, RING OF FIRE, Porthouse

*Beau Reinker THE KNIFE IS MONEY, THE FORK IS LOVE, convergence
Carlton Guc, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Daniel McNamara, LINES IN THE DUST, Cleveland Public Theatre
James C. Swonger, THE GOOD PEACHES, Cleveland Play
 House/Cleveland Orchestra
Jeremy Dobbins, THE REALISTIC JONESES, Dobama
Joe Court, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, Great Lakes Theater
Josh Horvath, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, Cleveland Play House
Kevin Rutan, SAME TIME NEXT YEAR, Actors’ Summit
Richard Ingraham, MARIE ANTOINETTE, Dobama
Trad A Burns, INTO THE WOODS, Lakeland Civic Theatre


*Charlotte M. Yetman, MY FAIR LADY, Great Lakes Theater
Andrea Hood, LOVE’S LABOURS LOST, Great Lakes Theater
Anne Medlock, FOOTLOOSE, Porthouse
Tesia Dugan Benson, MARIE ANTOINETTE, Dobama

*Jeff Hermann, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Kevin Ozan, THE WHIPPING MAN, none-too-fragile
Marcus Dana, MARIE ANTOINETTE, Dobama
Rick Martin, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, Great Lakes Theater

*Adam Zeek, THE LITTLE MERMAID, Beck Center
Ben Gantose, INCENDARIES, Cleveland Public Theatre/Ohio City Theatre
Dan Scully, ALL THE WAY, Cleveland Play House
Dan Scully, THE MOUNTAINTOP, Cleveland Play House
Mike Tuta and Jeremy Dobbins, MARIE ANTOINETTE, Dobama
Perren Hedderson and Zac Hudak, THE 39 STEPS, Blank Canvas
Val Kozlenko, 44 PLAYS FOR 44 PRESIDENTS, Cleveland Public Theater


*FUN HOME, Play House Square
KINKY BOOTS, Play House Square
WRESTLING JERUSALEM, Cleveland Public Theatre


David Frazier, the beloved stage performer who appeared in more than 150 Cleveland productions, made his earthly curtain call on March 13, 2016.


Cleveland Play House and the Cleveland Orchestra on their impressive world premiere production of THE GOOD PEACHES.

Playwrights Local for creating a venue for local playwrights to develop their works.

Raymond Bobgan on the occasion of his 10 years of creative leadership at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Victoria Bussert on her 30th anniversary with Great Lakes Theatre.

Near West Theatre for its commitment to empowering children, teens and adults through transformational arts

If any names are spelled incorrectly, or there are errors in identifications, please let me know so I can change the permanent record on www.royberko.info.

If you would like to read any of my reviews for the year, please go to www.royberko.info, enter the blog and click on “2016 Reviews” or click on the name of the producing theatre and scroll through their performances. Reviews from previous years may also be accessed.

Friday, December 16, 2016

KNIFE/MONEY FORK/LOVE intrigues, convergence continuum at a life/death crossroads

Theaters such as Blank Canvas, Cesear’s Forum, Ensemble and congruence continuum are the creation of one or two people who invest their own money, lots of time, and emotional energy in creating a performance space. 

One such entity, Actors Summit, the labor of love of Mary Jo Alexander and Neil Thackaberry, recently went belly-up.   The duo had a long run thanks, in part, to not only their own efforts, but their supportive family.  But, soon, enough was enough and last December, the final curtain fell.

Blank Canvas, Cesear’s Forum and Ensemble, the “love children” of Pat Ciamacco, Greg Cesear and Celeste Cosentino, are hanging in there. 

Congruence-continuum, the one-man business of Clyde Simon may be almost near the end of the road.  It isn’t the lack of an audience.  Simon has cultivated a loyal group of niche followers as evidenced by the near sold-out audience, on a below-zero snowy Thursday night, for a performance of Jonathan Wilhelm’s The Knife is Money, The Fork is Love.

Con-con’s issue is performance space.  Tremont, where the theatre is located, is in the midst of active gentrification.  The area immediately adjacent to The liminus, the building in which the theatre performs, is in the midst of being developed with up-scale condos.  The land on which the theatre stands is valuable.

The campaign, “Save The liminis” has raised $116,000 of the needed $130,000.   If $14,000 more isn’t raised by the end of the year con-con may be in danger of going out of business. (If you’d like to help the cause, go to http://www.convergence-contiuum.org/ click on “support” and follow the links to “Save-The-liminis-Theatre).

As for The Knife is Money, The Fork is Love it fits the con-con mode d’operation. 
The play is billed as, “It's 1932, and Tobias, a young man enamored with radio serials and pulp fiction, receives a package which leads him on a search for the members of a secret society. It’s also present day in the theater, where the actors are trying to work out Tobias’ strange story.  Confusion, and much comedy, ensues as they try to untangle the tale for us.”

Wilhelm, who is an actor, playwright and theatre executive, is very creative, with a wonderful sense of humor and irony.  (Personal disclosure:  Jonathan is a former student who I’ve not only taught, but directed in several productions.) 

George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neil and Arthur Miller all explained in side-notes to their script’s potential directors and actors the playwrights “hints” on how a show should be staged and acted.  These notes were on the written page, not shared with the audience.  Wilhelm, though not yet in a writing level with Shaw, O’Neil and Miller, does them one better.  He writes the directions into the script, to be emoted by the actors so the audience knows what the performer is doing, and often why.  The technique is a little off-putting until you get used to it.  Once you catch on, the device incites fun.  Especially so when the actors argue over whether the playwright is right and whether the performer is capable of carrying out the dictates.

Another writing device is that events are not always in chronological order.  In fact, the play’s first scene is actually one of the concluding scenes, which leads us to jump back to the beginning and then, eventually repeat the scene in its correct place in the logical order of the goings on.  Sounds confusing.  It’s not.  When it happens on stage, the whole thing makes good sense and adds to the “creativity” factor.

Con-con’s production is adeptly directed by Geoffrey Hoffman.  The cast, who, with the exception of David Thonnings, whose sole task is portraying the boy-to-young man Tobias, play various roles and are all excellent. 

Thonnings is delightful as he changes voices, body postures, and uses his mobile face and boyish charm to convey astonishment, awareness and knowledge.

Talented Lucy Bredeson-Smith, con-con regular, transitions nicely from obsessive and secretive mother to “Snake Lady,” a central character in the cult that Tobias is searching out in hopes of discovering the identity of his father. 

Rob Branch, who not only explains the stage directions, but portrays Bill, a detective, Shoefly Joe, a hobo who gives advice to Tobias, when the boy hops a freight train in his journey from the east coast to California, instructs about the symbols painted inside of the railroad car in which the duo travels, as well as the meaning of the “purple hand.”  Branch also takes a turn as Leander, a member of the cult.  He does all with ease and believability. 

Amy Bistok Bunce performs with conviction as the well-meaning Miss Everson, Tobias’s teacher, Theodora, a promiscuous young woman who Tobias meets on his journey in search of self, and a cult member.

Beau Reinker, the sound designer, does an outstanding job of picking mood-setting background music that fits the 1930s mystery radio show mood of the work.  Terri Wachala does a nice job with the lights.

Capsule Judgement:  Consider making a contribution to “Save the liminis” and keep congruence-continuum, the off-off-Euclid theatre, which produces “way out scripts” that other local theaters don’t stage, in business.  As for The Knife Is Money, The Fork is Love, it’s a work in progress that has some fine fun segments in a creative noire model of theater and makes for fun viewing. 

THE KNIFE IS MONEY THE FORK IS LOVE runs through December 17, 2016, 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 http://www.convergence-continuum.org

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Compelling and relevant Clybourne Park by CPH/CWRU

This country is in political and social turmoil.   There is a President-elect who appears will win the Electoral College endorsement, while losing the election by a reported 2-million plus votes.  There is a rise of xenophobia, the Alt-right, the presence of hate groups, possible destruction of the health care system, while the liberal-left pleads for protection against sexual imposition, women and gay rights, and clean air.

It is only appropriate, therefore, since theater represents the era from which it comes, that the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program, stage Clybourne Park, a script which highlights under-the-radar communication about racial, sexual and gender attitudes.  Bruce Norris’s play won both the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play.

Clybourne Park is a follow-up to Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, which looks at a house in the fictional Chicago urban area, before and after the Younger family moved in. 

Hansberry’s play, titled after Cleveland poet Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred,” was the first script by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway.  It starred Sidney Poitier, Cleveland native Ruby Dee, Louis Gassett, and Claudia McNeil as Lena “Mama” Younger, the woman of the family, who decides to invest the payment from her dead husband’s insurance into the purchase of a house in Chicago’s all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood in order to allow the family to have a better life.  The play won the 1969 Tony Award for best play.

Raisin in the Sun was based, in part, on Hansberry v. Lee (1940), a court case that centered on a class action suit by Lorraine’s father and the NAACP against Chicago’s restrictive covenants against Blacks living in certain areas of the city.

Hansberry wrote of the situation and the lawsuit: “That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house. ... My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."

Norris, who is white, portrays fictional events, based on his imagination of what happened when, after the Clybourne Park neighborhood became almost all black due to white flight, and then became an “in-place” for young white “liberal” families to buy and restore, or wreck and replace properties in the now gentrified area, complete with a Whole Foods.

This is not the first play to be based on Raisin in the Sun.  In 2013, Kwame Kwei-Armah wrote Beneatha’s Place, the tale of one of the Younger daughters who becomes the Dean of Social Science at an unnamed California University, after a period of time in Nigeria.

Clybourne Park introduces Bev and Russ, who are in the process of packing to move out of their recently sold home in Chicago’s Clybourne Park neighborhood in September, 1959. 

The house is filled with negative memories.  Kenneth, their son, a Korean War depressed vet, who was accused of slaughtering civilians, hung himself in the home’s attic.  The neighbors, rather than befriending the couple, shuns them.

In Raisin in the Sun, when the neighborhood association finds out that the  house at 406 Clybourne Street has been sold to “negroes,” in order to save the community’s property values because of extrapolated black in-flight, the association sends Karl Lindner to make an attempt to bribe the Younger family to not move.  The pay-off is rejected.

In Clybourne Park, about an hour after Lindner went to the Younger apartment, he comes to the Clybourne Street house to plead with Bev and Russ to consider the neighbors and the property values.  Who the house was sold to and the attempt to call off the sale was unknown to owners.

Arguments, the history of Bev and Russ’s conflicts with the neighbors and their need to move ensue.  Their black housekeeper and her husband, who has come to take her home from work, become involved, a trunk containing Kenneth’s mementos is buried in the backyard, and the exposition for what is to be the riveting second act is laid.

The setting for the second act of the play is exactly fifty years later in the same 406 Clybourne Street house as the first act.  Now it is dilapidated.  The wall paper is ripped, windows boarded up, the wooden floor streaked with water stains.  Six people are present.  An African American couple, the wife, who we find out is the great niece of Lena “Mama” Younger, a young white couple who are planning on building a grand new house on the property, and several lawyers.

There is underlying tension.  Yes, the planned replacement house doesn’t fit the building code requirements, and there are problems over the wording of the deed, but there are unspoken issues.  After much running around in verbal circles, racial, gender and sexual orientation issues emerge, full blast.  Offensive jokes, accusations, and insults abound.  

During the mayhem, a workman, who is preparing the ground for the excavation for the new house’s foundation, enters.  He brings in the buried trunk, which is eventually opened.  The contents lead to the emotional climax of the play.

The CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program production is meticulously directed by Donald Carrier.  The humor and pathos are well refined.  The pacing, the setting, and the cast are all on target.

The cast, Lavour Addison, Paul Bugallo, Mariah Burks, Kyle Cherry, Sarah Cuneo, Randy Dierkes, Peter Hargrave and Megan Medley, all of whom play dual roles, are focused and create real and believable people.  They don’t act, they are.  Past members of the program have gone on to very successful careers in professional theatre.  The members of this class should tread the same path to positive curtain calls.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   Clybourne Park is a special evening of theater.  The Pulitzer Prize play is well written and relevant.  The production is well-conceived and acted.  This is an absolute must see production.

Clybourne Park runs through December 17, 2016, in the Helen Theatre in the Cleveland Play House complex of PlayhouseSquare.   For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

The CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program’s next presentation is Oliver Goldsmith’s SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER from March 15-25, 2017.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Applause, but no standing ovation for CABARET at Blank Canvas, but big time accolades for Allen Cumming in Concert

Cabaret.  It’s 1931 in Germany, a country of unrest.  We find ourselves at the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy cabaret, a place of decadence and emotional abandonment.  Hanging over the entire scene is the aura of the growth of the Nazi party and the impending reign of terror.

Cabaret.  An award-winning musical based on John Van Druten’s play I Am A Camera, which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye To Berlin, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb.

Cabaret.  A glimpse at Sally Bowles, an English cabaret singer, her seedy life as a performer, her doomed relationship with American writer Cliff Bradshaw, and a strong subtext of another doomed relationship between German boarding house owner Fraulein Schneider and her suitor Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor.  Not to be overlooked is the Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, who oversees the entire affair, not aware that he is also on a doomed path.

Cabaret.  A version of which is now on stage at Blank Canvas.

Cabaret opened on Broadway in 1966.  Upon entering the theatre, the audience was struck by the difference between this and other shows.  The curtain was up, a large convex mirror reflected each person back at themselves, out of proportion, as they walked down the aisle. 

Lights up, the theatre’s brick side and back walls were all exposed.  Ironically, the staging was reflective of exiled German Jewish playwright Bertolt Brecht’s theory of theater: “alienation” (awareness that you are watching a theatrical production), “epic” (that which was presented is bigger than life), and “historification” (a message from the past, which the viewer is to bring into the present, and learn from the experience).

The original cast included award winning Clevelander Joel Grey as the Emcee.  Grey went on to also star in the 1972 movie version which featured Liza Minnelli as Sally.

In the London revival of 1993, under the direction of Sam Mendes, the show took on a new persona.  The emcee morphed from an asexual, malevolent character to a highly sexualized homosexual (brilliantly portrayed by Allen Cumming) who, at the end of the play, along with all the other “decadents”—Jews, Communists, physically disabled—are taken off to the concentration camps.  

Reference was added to Cliff's bisexuality, including a scene where he kisses one of the Cabaret boys.  A 1998 Broadway revival, which also starred Cumming, further refined the script, added wandering musicians to bring out the alienation and identified each character with a musical sound.

Basically using the Mendes rewrite, the Blank Canvas production, under the direction of Patrick Ciamacco, works on some levels, stumbles on others. 

The staging creates many illustrations of the impending horror.  On the other hand, some questionable casting, a potential horrific ending was so fast in developing that the effect was lost, and some questionable costume choices, all added up to a less than stellar production.

On the positive level, young, angelic looking and sounding Colin Myers’ “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is a haunting prelim to the horror that is to follow.  The reprise by Kimberly Eskut was emotionally haunting.

Bernadette Hisey is properly pragmatic and tender as Fraulein Schneider, whose purpose in life is to survive at all costs.  John J. Polk is wonderful as Herr Schultz, the Jew who thinks he is a German and naively assumes that the forces that are coming will assume the same.  The duos’ versions of “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married” were charmingly tender.  Hisey‘s “What Would You Do?” was wrenching.

David Turner (Bobby), with a snarl and a sneer, makes for a proficient Kit Kat male dancer and Cliff’s former lover.  Stuart Hoffman (Ernst) is properly despicable as a scheming Nazi.  Kimberly Eskut is spot on as Fraulein Kost, Fraulein Schneider’s roomer, who offers sexual favors for pay to numerous sailors.

Tricia Bestic does the near impossible.  She not only doesn’t do a Liza imitation, but actually sings the meaning of “Cabaret.”  This is a song of great emotional depth, not a cutesy pop tune as is often the style in which it is presented, which gives the final clue to both Sally and Germany’s impending destruction.  Her beat down, rather than up-beat Sally Bowles, adds a unique dimension to the character.

Katie Zarecki’s choreography helped set the right decadent and sensual mood.

On the other hand, Devon Turchan tries hard, but winds up posturing at being the Master of Ceremonies, using surface vocal and physical gimmicks, in his failed attempt to imitate Allen Cumming.

Handsome Noah Hrbek, who has a nice singing voice, doesn’t get beyond the surface as Cliff.  

Luke Scattergood’s costumes were era correct but failing to put yellow Star of David on Herr Schultz’s jacket in his exit scene and avoiding using the pink triangle on the Emcee’s coat before he is hauled off to the furnaces, may have robbed the audience of the needed visual images that lead to the emotionally wrenching last scene.

The heavily brassed orchestra wailed the score.

Capsule judgement:  Cabaret gets a serviceable, yet flawed production at Blank Canvas.  The very fact that the production I saw received applause, not a Cleveland automatic standing ovation, gives a message that the show did not get the most out of the script.

Cabaret continues until December 17, 2017 in its near west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website. Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvastheatre.com

Endearing Allen Cumming in concert

It’s ironic that the same weekend as Cabaret, one of the shows for which he is best known opened at Blank Canvas Theatre, Allen Cumming appeared live in concert at the Connor Palace Theatre.

The talented Scotsman, not only gained fame from his sensual award-winning portrayal as the MC in three productions of the Kander and Ebb tale of the rise of Nazism in Germany, but for being Eli Gold in television’s “The Good Wife.”  His performance resume, which includes classical as well as musical theatre, television, commercials and writing, runs deep!

What few know is that Cumming has a commanding full, mellow, singing voice, is a delightful story teller, and has a magnetic personality, which, even in the cavernous confines of the Connor Palace, allowed him to grab and hold the attention of the audience.  In truth, the performance was better suited to a cabaret venue.

Using personal experiences and show business inside stories, Cumming even set up and coaxed the audience into giving him an extended curtain call.

Accompanied by a pianist, drums and a carbonite cello, his tales included his misguided decision to get his then-boyfriend’s name tattooed on his right hip.  The story of its removal and then the introduction of the now replaced lover, was highlighted by the appearance of the man, who is now a Clevelander, who displayed Cumming’s first name inked on his hip.

A Lisa Minelli tear-jerker, but fake tale, delighted, as did the story of doing a condom commercial, the review his penis got when he wore tight leather pants on stage, and his search for information about his mother’s father, all added to the audience’s delight.   

Cumming became emotionally wrought when he sang a song about his abusive father, bringing not only himself, but the audience to tears.

The only thing missing from the very entertaining evening was a rendition of at least one of the songs from Cabaret.  Oh well, you can go to the Blank Canvas production of the show to hear the songs.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Natalie Weiss will perform at Music Box concert and teach in a Cleveland Music Theatre intensive education program

Cleveland Music Theatre (CMT), the brainchild of native Clevelanders Miles Sternfeld and SeanPatrick, was created to provide exceptional education for the Cleveland community and beyond through reimagined, innovative musical theater productions and workshops. Broadway, national, and local artists collaborate to create a dynamic synergy, fostering successful professional careersand development in the theatre. The organization has presented the critically praised shows The Who’s Tommy (2013) and Aida, in July (2015). 

To date, CMT’s major thrust has been to present well-attended intensive training by providing opportunities for local students to explore the realities of what it means to be a modern working theater professional.  The intensive classes are taught by working Broadway professionals, national and local artists, including Tony Award winners, and cover every aspect of the business including the role of the performer, casting directors, agents, directors, music directors, choreographers, conductors, producers, and composers.

Intensive presenters have included Alice Ripley (Tony Award winner for Next to Normal), Shoshana Bean (Broadway:  Wicked and Hairspray), Christina DeCicco (Broadway:  Evita, Sister Act), Paige Faure (Broadway, Cinderella), Morgan James (Broadway:  Godspell, Wonderland, Motown), John Leggio (Broadway:  Cats, My Fair Lady, Showboat), Kathleen Marshall (Three-time Tony Winning Director/Choreographer), Patina Miller (Tony Award winner for Pippin), and Jared Zirilli (Broadway:  Lysistrata Jones, Wicked).

Local theatre professional instructors have included:  Victoria Bussert (Director of Musical Theatre, Baldwin Wallace University), Martín Céspedes (award winning choreographer), Jacqui Loewy (Director of Theatre, Notre Dame College), Fabio Polanco, (Professor of Acting, Kent State University), and Brian Zoldessy (Cleveland Critic Circle and Times Theatre Tributes award-winning actor).

CMT’s next offering will find Broadway performer, Natalie Weiss, doing double duty, teaching in the Cleveland Musical Theatre’s “Pop/Rock Intensive,” as well as starring in the organization’s Music Box Supper Club concert.   The venue is located at 1148 Main Avenue, on the West Bank of the flats.

Weiss, who graduated from Pennsylvania State University, was a season 4 semi-finalist on “American Idol,” was the understudy for Elphaba in Wicked, and spent two-and-a-half-years with Les Miserables.  She was also an understudy in Sherie Rene Scott’s Everyday Rapture.  Her videos, “A New World” and “Spark of Creation,” preceded her breakaway YouTube hit “Breaking Down the Riffs.”   She is noted for her impressions of Celine Dion and Britney Spears.  For more information on Weiss go to http://www.natalieweiss.net/

CMT alums Christina Ciofani, Dani Apple and Grace Hunt will also appear on December 18 at the 7:30 concert. 

The “Pop/Rock Musical Theatre Intensive” runs from December 16-18, 2016 at Cuyahoga Community College-East.  It will not only have Weiss on the faculty, but also features Martin Céspedes (choreographer) and Rob Kovacs (composer and music director).  The curriculum will include breaking down riffs, singing coaching, teaching auditioning techniques, and demonstrating original Broadway choreography.  Participants will also sing live in Natalie’s concert.

For information for both the intensive and the concert go to http://www.clevelandmusicaltheatre.org

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Delightful THE LITTLE MERMAID @ Beck Center

One of the difficulties of doing the Disney Theatrical, The Little Mermaid, is how to do the underwater scenes.  Yes, much of the story of Ariel, the daughter of King Triton, the master of the sea, in her search for “a world in which I feel truly realized in my own terms,” takes place, as the songs states, “Under the Sea,” in contrast to “The World Above.”  

Beck Center, with the aid of Projection Designer, Adam Zeck, from the University of Cincinnati, and a very expensive new projection system, solved the water problem by adding water motion, fish, underwater plant images, and a realistic storm.  The addition of undulating gossamer cloth, which created waves, added to the visual imagery. 

Scott Spence and his design team did everything except reverting to the Broadway use of “merblades,” wheeled footwear to allow the mermaids and fish to “float” across the stage, to making the whole fantasy aspect of the show work well. 

Then, Spence cast a wonderful blend of professional and amateur actors and singers, and turned the movement and dance over to award winning choreographer Martin Céspedes, to complete the visual and aesthetic delight.

The Little Mermaid is based on the 1989 Disney film of the same name, which brought to the big screen Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of a mermaid who dreams of wanting to be her true self.  In contrast to many Disney heroines, Ariel’s desire goes beyond finding Prince Charming, though, as is the case in most fairy tales, she does find and marry a Prince. 

The script made its Broadway debut in January of 2008 and ran 685 performances and fifty previews.   The Beck show is an interpretation developed in 2012 which strongly stresses that Ariel’s ambitions are bigger than the search for a man to complete her, moving Disney into the more modern era.

As the tale starts, Ariel (Kathleen Rooney), her side-kick, Flounder (J. R. Heckman), her sisters, the fish and crustations of the sea, frolic through the “Overture” and “The World Above.”  Meanwhile, Prince Eric (Shane Patrick O’Neill) and his adviser, Grimsby (Brian Pedaci) are aboard a ship at sea and discuss in the song, “Fathoms Below,” the mythical merfolk who live under the sea. 

Much to the delight of King Triton (Darryl Lewis), the court composer, Sebastian (Wesley Allen), a fuss-budgeting crab, has the Mersisters, Triton’s daughters, minus the always daydreaming Ariel, sing “Daughter of Triton.”

Eric, aboard ship, hears a lovely voice, is immediately captivated by the sound, thus laying the groundwork for his eventual pursuit for the source of the music.  It, of course, is Ariel.

A storm, Eric being saved by his yet unrecognized lady love, Ariel, who is fascinated by the “real” world, the plotting by Ursula to play revenge on Triton for taking away her “deserved” inheritance as the equal controller of the seas, the conflict between King Triton and Ariel for her breaking the rule against contact between merfolk and the human world, a deal between Ariel and Ursula in which the young beauty exchanges her singing voice for legs to replace her mermaid tail thus becoming a human, Ariel and Eric spending time together, (spoiler alert!) a conflict between Ariel, Triton and Ursula in which the magic seashell is broken and the bad aunt is destroyed, Eric proposing marriage, the declaration of peace between humans and the merfolk, and, as in all good fairy tales, the royal joining in marriage of Ariel and Eric takes place. 

The stage version, much to the frustration of some of the little ‘uns in the audience, one of whom was heard whining, “That’s not the way it was in the movie!” makes some changes from the film.  The main alterations include that an initial shark chase was dropped, more emphasis on the conflict between King Triton and his exiled sister, Ursula, and Ursula’s spying on Ariel, instead of being via the magic seashell, is done by her henchmen, Flotsam and Jetsam.  In a  major change, Ursula’s ultimate destruction, thus freeing Ariel from a nasty spell, is completed when the magic seashell is destroyed.  It was the latter that elicited the whine from the chiffon dressed little stickler for the movie’s version of happenings.

The Beck production is well conceived, creative and a delight for young and old.  The staging is magical, the visual elements far above anything done on local theatre stages due to the encompassing electronic visuals.  Martin Céspedes has outdone himself with creative, stimulating choreography which covers calypso, ballroom, soft-shoe, line dancing, and some balletic moments.

The cast is point-on.  Lovely Kathleen Rooney, a hometown girl and Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre grad, was born to play a Disney heroine, which she has done on professional stages.  She has a lovely presence, a well-trained singing voice, and acts and dances with complete believability.

Sean Patrick O’Neil makes for a charming Prince Eric.  Well known for his many appearances in Musical Theatre Project concerts, he has a strong voice well displayed in “Her Voice” and “One Step Closer.”

Natalie Blalock knows how to play bad, and her Ursula is bad to the core.  Her version of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” made her an enemy of everyone in the audience.  Even in the curtain call she was growling at the audience, scaring the little kids in the first couple of rows into utter panic.

Darryl Lewis, he of huge voice and physical presence, was King Triton right-on.  Zachary Vedermann (Scuttle), Wesley Allen (Sebastian) and Robert Pierce (Chef Louis) delighted the audience.

J. R. Heckman, winner of the 2016 Playhouse Square’s Dazzle Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance of Donkey in Solon High School’s Shrek the Musical, is an especially talented young performer who sings, dances and acts with total competence.  His Flounder was absolutely charming.  Watch for this kid’s name in Broadway lights.

Alan Menken’s music was lushly played by Larry Goodpaster and his large orchestra.

Douglas Puskas is not only an excellent scenic designer, who created a set for this complicated musical, but must be a master logo practitioner.  The Beck stage has no backstage, wing space or fly gallery.  How he managed to fit and figure out how to move the stage pieces in place with ease and proficiency is impressive.

Jeff Herrmann’s lighting added many specially needed effects and, for the first time in many a musical, the sound system, this time designed by Carlton Guc, actually made the performance audible, with no squeaks, squeals or dead spots. 

The costumes, provided by Music Theatre Wichita, were outstanding.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The Little Mermaid is a total delight and absolutely a  must see for anyone who likes well-performed and conceived fantasy musicals.   What a wonderful evening of theater for audiences of all ages.

THE LITTLE MERMAID is scheduled to run through December 31, 2016 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Cleveland Orchestra sublime, The Nutcracker uninspired

When the Cleveland Ballet left this area for San Jose, California, in 2000, it is rumored that the organization was over one-million dollars in debt.  Lots of fingers were pointed as to why the deficit existed, but one thing is for sure, there will always be, it the minds of those who saw it, one lasting legacy of Dennis Nahat and his reign as the company’s Artistic Director.  From its 1979 debut, when it sold out every night of its two-week run, until its escape to the west coast, Nahat’s THE NUTCRACKER reigned supreme.

Since that departure, many venues have attempted to fill the void by bringing in alternate companies to perform Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s THE NUTCRACKER, based on E. T. A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”  Dance groups from Russia, Canada and varying parts of the U. S. have come here to dance the wonders of The Snowflakes, and the exploits of The Sugarplum Fairy, Marie, and The Nutcracker. 

Unfortunately, and the present production staged by the Pennsylvania Ballet included, none have been able to duplicate the sheer joy of watching the then “wunderkinds,” Karen Gabay and Raymond Rodriguez, dance Marie and The Nutcracker.  No one has entranced and delighted a “Nutcracker” audience as Nahat, himself, performing Herr Drosselmeier, complete with magic tricks and giving the gift of the nutcracker to our heroine.

Nahat’s opulent production told the story as a dream-come-true.  It had a clear beginning, middle and end.  It had visual beauty, real dancing, not just dancers walking around and falling into poses.  The second act pas de deux was breathtaking, filled with high twists and leaps, marvelous toe work, there was an exciting battle between the rats and the wooden soldiers, and delightful interludes.  The dances of the nations were filled with country-specific choreography.   The costumes, the growing Christmas tree, the falling snow, the scenery, all of which was a major part of the cause of the Ballet’s deficit, may have broken the financial back of the organization, but it delighted the eye and made the soul soar.

One thing Nahat’s version didn’t have was the Cleveland Orchestra, under the direction of Brett Mitchell, playing Tchaikovsky’s glorious, pulse-increasing music.  The Pennsylvania Ballet was blessed with the sound of the world-class musicians, normally housed in Severance Hall or taking much-praised journeys to Miami Beach and Europe.  Nahat also didn’t have the angelic voices of the Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus, to create the vocal segments of the score.  Yes, the musical segments of the evening were sublime, gorgeous.

George Balanchine’s choreography of THE NUTCRACKER, the version presented by the Pennsylvania Ballet, lacks the panache and storytelling of the Nahat version.  The tale has no clear beginning, middle and end.  Much to the delight of the many parents and grandparents in the audience, the stage is filled with many children, in this case, “Children Supernumeraries,” who came from across Northeast Ohio to audition, rehearse and appear in the production.   Many appeared to be quite talented in walking around the stage, dancing a little, and staying in character.  The few Pennsylvania Ballet’s company members were quite competent, but none were truly outstanding. 

In this version of the tale, Marie doesn’t dance, and The Nutcracker/Little Prince has one segment where he re-explains the Rat-Wooden Soldiers battle, in over-wrought pantomime. 

Capsule judgment:  Those who hadn’t seen the Nahat choreography of The Nutcracker should be perfectly happy with the Pennsylvania Ballet version, as evidenced by the reluctant, but eventual standing ovation of many in the very crowded theatre.  It is worth going to hear the Cleveland Orchestra play the score, take in the familiar tale, or what there is of it, and be thankful that there is, at least, an attempt to bring this, the greatest holiday ballet in the lexicon of the Western world, to a PlayhouseSquare stage.
Ohio Dance Theatre and Verb Ballets
The Nutcracker, December 16-18, 2016 at the Stocker Arts Center on the campus of Lorain County Community College 1005 N. Abbe Road, Elyria, OH
Tickets:  440-366-4040 or verballets.org
Dance Theatre of Harlem, January 21, 2017--3 and 7:30 PM at Ohio Theatre

Jessica Lange Dance, March 4, 2017—7:30 PM at Ohio Theatre

Ballet Biarritz presents Cinderella—April 1, 2017 @ 7:30 PM and April 2, 2017 @ 3 PM at Ohio Theatre

Tickets:  216-991-9000 or dancecleveland.org

On January 27, 2017, A Celebration of Dance and Music returns to the Hanna Theatre.  The program, a remounting of the company’s October 11, 2016 successful program, includes original dances choreographed by Artistic Director Gladisa Guadalupe and Ramon Thielen.
Tickets:  playhousesquare.org