Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I CALL MY BROTHERS challenges and confounds at Cleveland Public Theatre

It’s no wonder in this age of xenophobia, racial profiling and baiting, irrational interpretation of regulations, police brutality and alternate facts being spewed, that when a car bomb goes off in the center of a large American metropolis, a Muslim young man would become paranoid.

I Call My Brothers, multi-award winning author Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s play, which is now in production at Cleveland Public Theatre, takes the audience on a journey through the mind of Amor, a 20-something Muslim, as he suffers through 24-hours filled with angst, pain and fear.

The idea challenges what is real, is fiction, are actual events and what are fantasies.

We share with Amor his attempt to return a replacement head for a drill, talking almost non-stop on the phone, revisiting a relationship with the woman of his dreams who rejected him, conversing with his dead grandmother, confronting the police, having an extended conversation with a call center operator and attempting to “walk like a person who isn’t think about walking.”  The issue is, which of these events, if any, really did happened? 

Much of the paranoia comes from the realization that the Boston Marathon happened, that 911 took place and Arabs and Muslims have had a bullseye painted on their backs ever since.  Will Amor, with his Arab looks, carrying a backpack in crowded New York, be the next subject of profiling?

On the surface the play would seem to be a strong candidate for a thrilling theatrical experience.  Unfortunately, that is not true.

The author is Swedish.  The play has been translated into English by Rachel Willson-Broyles.  Whether it is the author’s not being an American or the translation, the script doesn’t always hold up well. 

From Amor traversing Times Square, which is a vast, very well-protected area in a major US city (not like a small Swedish village), to his attempt to return the drill head to a Home Depot-like store, of which there are none in New York’s theatre district, to his description of where he is, there is a lack of authenticity.

Performed in a very creative set designed by Douglas Puskas, which has many car parts suspended against the back wall, depicting the remains of the car bomb explosion, the set speaks to the play’s theme.  Wes Calkin’s lighting, Alison Garrigan’s costumes and James Gillen Kosmatka’s sound designs all work to effectively aid the production.

But there are some issues with CPT’s production. The pacing seems hurried. The swiftness results in lines often becoming unintelligible and scenes not being allowed to gel, thus robbing the audience of a complete experience.
Salar Ardebili puts full effort into his portrayal of Amor.  He is like the Energizer bunny, non-stop movement.  Unfortunately, his articulation lacks precision, so many of his lines are lost in a blur of unintelligible sounds. 

The rest of the cast, Abdelghani Kitab, Andrea Belser and Rocky Encalada
playing multiple roles, fair better vocally. 

Capsule judgement:  The intention of I Call My Brothers is well justified.  Unfortunately, the script and the production do not totally accomplish the author’s goal.

I Call My Brothers runs through March 4, 2017 at Cleveland Public Theatre. For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Well done Barbecue lights up Cleveland Public Theatre

Addiction, whether it's alcohol, drugs, sex, racism, obsessive compulsion or eating, is no funny matter. That is unless it's in a play written by playwright Robert O'Hara.

Robert O'Hara, a native of Cincinnati, is a master at writing comedic and satirical scenes and lines, often in relationship to what it means to be a black gay man in America. He probes into identity, social injustice, and attempts by blacks to live the American dream.

The winner of the Oppenheimer Award for best New American Play (Insurrection: Holding History), Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play (Antebellum) and Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Drama (Bootycandy), his works are often met with very strong positive or negative reactions as he does not shrink away from bold and daring themes and language.

Barbecue centers around a severely dysfunctional family in which every member has one or more addictions. Even the "healthy" member of the family is afflicted.

The family has come together in sister Barbara's favorite haunt, a picnic area in a secluded park, to stage an emergency intervention. Barbara is drug addicted, and raises money for her habit through various nefarious means.

The question, of course, is why, in this family of "sickies," is Barbara being picked out to be "saved?"
To complicate the matter, there is not only one family, but two of them! One white, one black.
Of course bickering, spilling family secrets, accusations, bitching, and backwoods and Ebonic colloquialisms flow forth as chaos reigns. The dialogue is filled with both funny and pathetic phrases. The characters are extremes, but that's a requirement for a farcical examination of addiction, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity.

For the sake of those who go to see the show, that's the end of spoiler alerts, other than to say surprise after surprise, including an Oscars Awards ceremony take place and a best-selling book is written.
Cleveland Public Theatre's serving of the play is well paced and nicely developed by director Beth Wood who again proves she has a way of getting high comedy from all sorts of scripts.

The actors cavort in a realistic fenced in park setting, complete with grass, hills, a barbeque, benches, street light and a symbolic gnarled dead tree, creatively designed by Ryan Patterson. Benjamin Gantose's lighting nicely illuminates the goings one.

The play zings right along, teeter-tottering between ridiculous and asking "who are these people and what are their stories?" O'Hara challenges each of us to probe what makes and affirms identities. He challenges us to consider what is truth and what is fantasy.

The cast is strong. Examining each of them would reveal some of the creativity of O'Hara's creative plot devices. It will have to suffice that there are some standout performances, but all the characters are well etched. Congrats to Jill Levin, Teresa DeBerry, Ray McNiece, MaryAnn Elder, Sally Groth, Katrice Monee Headd, Tonya Broach, Scott A. Campbell, Pamela Morton and Ashley Aquilla.

Capsule judgement: Barbecue is the type of script that some will love, others abhor. It is farce, which means broad, overplayed written and portrayed characters, which again, will turn some on, others off. I found the evening funny, thought provoking, creative and effective, while recognizing its use of writing gimmicks and overly broad characterizations. It's worth the time to see this show!!!

(Side comment: While in the Gordon Square arts district, explore the exploding restaurant and other venues which surround CPT.)

Barbecue runs through March 11, 2017 at Cleveland Public Theatre. For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ensemble hits a hole-in-one with Radio Golf

 August Wilson is considered not only one of the greatest of African American playwrights, but of all theatrical writers.  His themes of self-identity, racism, loyalty, religion, deception, love, gentrification and historical verification form the centerpiece of his well-received “Century Cycle” about black life in Pittsburgh.

Radio Golf, which was completed only months before Wilson’s death in 2005, is the last installment in his ten play cycle.  It is set in the Hill District of the steel city, an area which is undertaking gentrification, as the once all-white area transitioned to primary African American, and now is trending back.  It is an area which, in its recent past, had no retail stores and is now experiencing the likes of Starbucks, Whole Foods and Barnes and Noble.

The script came to life in 2005 in a production at Yale Repertory Theatre.  It opened on Broadway in 2007 after a short run of 64 performances.  Ironically it played at the Cort Theatre, where Wilson’s first Broadway play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was staged in 1984.

The script won the 2007 New York Drama Critics Circle’s Award for Best Play, and was nominated for a Tony Award.

The play, with strong melodramatic overtones, contains a vocal tone that is almost poetic in its flow.  It’s a sound of the past which linguists report “can be heard only faintly now.” 

Wilson, in contrast to the earlier plays in the cycle, gives glimpses of the rise of the black man into the “American dream,” which had been reserved for the white man.  This is the world of financial investments, real estate, politics and golf, which generally has taken place at segregated country clubs, and played by those of the privileged leisure class.  Golf, in which Tiger Woods, whose picture holds a prominent place in the office of Wilkes Realty, along with a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr., has made symbolic inroads into the white world.

The story centers on Harmond Wilkes, who, along with his friend, Roosevelt Hicks, are intent on redeveloping the Hill District for civic pride and financial profit. 

Wilkes, an Ivy League educated man, is seemingly on a roll.  He is touted to be a candidate for mayor, and would be the city’s first black leader.  His wife, Mame, is in line for a major state-level consulting job, and the realty company he had inherited from his father is about to break ground on the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Project, which includes apartment buildings and high-end chain stores. 

The project becomes complicated when, Elder Joseph Barlow, an eccentric derelict, claims that a house at 1939 Wylie (a residence which has played major roles in former Wilson plays) has been illegally taken from him. 

As the plot develops, Wilks is caught between loyalty to Hicks, his friend and co-investor, his wife Mame and his conscience. 

On the day the house is to be demolished, Wilks, in a surprising, but satisfying ending, leaves his office to join a group of Hill residents to protest the demolition of 1839 Wylie.  This action brings the Pittsburgh Cycle to a significant and final conclusion. 

The Ensemble production, under the adept directing of Terrence Spivey, is outstanding.  Well-paced, using the authentic “Pittsburgh black American sound” balanced with the educated language and pronunciation of the emerging black community, and well-textured characterizations, the staging holds the audience’s attention.


Rodney Freeman shines as Elder Joseph Barlow, the seemingly odd elderly man who turns out to be a rebel with cause.  This is a finely developed characterization. 

Though he stumbles over numerous lines, Theodore M. Snead makes Harmond Wilks live.  Kristi Little nicely creates Mame Wilks as a supportive yet success-driven wife.

Leilani Barrett, properly creates Roosevelt Hicks as a dislikable, self-centered cad.

Darryl Tatum nicely portrays handyman and ex-convict, Sterling Johnson, who in many ways is the fulcrum on which the plot turns.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  August Wilson, who is one of the most important contemporary playwrights, shines a well-focused spotlight on the history and conflicts of the African American community.  Ensemble’s production of Wilson’s Radio Golf is a well-conceived tribute to the man and his message.  It is a must see!

Radio Golf, whose first act runs 1 hour and 35 minutes and second act is one hour with a ten-minute intermission, runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 7 pm and Saturdays @ 3 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through February 26, 2017 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

Ensemble’s next fully staged production is Cleveland Heights’ playwright Rajiv Joseph’s The North Pool opening April 28th, running through May 21st, 2017.

To see the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to:  clevelandtheaterreviews.com

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Well-conceived The Bridges of Madison County @ Lakeland Civic Theatre

The capsule judgement of my review of the Broadway production of The Bridges of Madison County stated, ““The Bridges of Madison County” is one of those special, intimate, meaningful, well-conceived and performed shows that deserved a longer shelf-life than it is getting.”

The show opened to tepid reviews.  Why?  It’s not “filled with flash, glitter, large production numbers and massive choruses.  It is a well-conceived, tender, and low-keyed experience.”  It is a “little” musical, much in the realm of “She Loves Me.”  Those qualities are not the elements of which present day Broadway shows are made.

As I predicted, the show closed its Broadway run quickly.  Now it is released for hinterlands’ productions. 

Fortunately for Cleveland area theatre patrons, Lakeland Civic Theater, located on the campus of Lakeland Community College, acquired production rights, and under the adept direction of Martin Friedman, it had a healthy run.  (Disclosure:  I was out of the country during much of the show’s staging and returned just in time to see the last performance, thus this late review.)

The musical is adapted from Robert James Waller’s best-selling “The Bridges of Madison County.”  It, as was the book, is based on Waller’s homey belief that “some people experience a special love that happens just once in a lifetime—if you’re lucky.”

The score, which won the Tony Award, is beautiful.  It is filled with tender ballads, country twanging and good old fashioned 1950-60’s sentimentality.  It would have made Rodgers and Hammerstein proud.

The story, which some will think is way too Harlequin romance novel sentimental, centers on Francesca Johnson (Trinidad Snider), an Italian who was brought to Iowa after World War II by nice guy, low-keyed “Bud” Johnson (Scott Esposito).  She leads a quiet life on a desolate farm with one close neighbor, Marge (Amiee Collier) with whom she can share her homesickness for Italy, and discuss issues of her marriage and children, Michael (Frank Ivancic) and Carolyn (Anna Barrett).

It’s 1965, and into Francesca’s life comes Robert Kincaid (Shane Patrick O’Neill), a “National Geographic” photographer, who has come to take pictures of the famed covered bridges of Madison county.  He stops for directions to find a bridge he can’t locate, Francesca’s family is at the state fair, they quickly fill a need in each other, a love affair results and he offers to take her away from her “unfulfilled” life.

It’s a tender tale of infidelity, love, unfulfilled experiences, and then the inevitable need to make a pivotal decision that will not only affect the lives of Francesca and Robert, but her family. 

Friedman’s direction is spot on.  The show is well-paced, the human interactions real, and the overall effect is emotionally wrenching.  (The woman sitting next to me sobbingly used two packets of Kleenex during the closing scenes.)

The cement of this production is the totally convincing relationship developed by Snider and O’Neill.  Every touch, kiss, and extended eye contact screamed, “this is real love.”  Very seldom do you see such real interconnectedness on stage.  Bravo!

The rest of the cast, Scott Esposito, Frank Ivancic, Anna Barrett, Aimee Collier, Brain Altman and Amanda Tidwell, all develop real people.

Jordan Cooper’s musical direction, Trad A Burns set design, and Tesia Benson’s lighting design were all well-conceived and helped make this a special production.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  It may be cliché and overly dramatic, but The Bridges of Madison County makes for a fine evening of theatre.  The Lakeland production was stellar.  Applause, applause, applause! 

The Bridges of Madison County ran from February 2-19 at the Lakeland Civic Theatre located on the campus of Lakeland Community College.

WAIT UNTIL DARK underwhelming at Great Lakes Theater

Over the last number of years Great Lakes Theater has cobbled together seasons consisting of Shakespearean classics, musicals and mystery plays.  The combination has proven to be very successful, with many award winning productions and audience pleasing shows being produced.

Presently at GLT is Frederick Knox’s Wait Until Dark, the stage version of the 1967 film of the same title, whose climactic scene has been ranked as tenth on the list of Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.”

The melodramatic story centers on the Greenwich Village apartment of Sam and Susy Hendrix.  She is blind, which turns out to be a key ingredient of the script. 

While on an assignment, Sam was persuaded by a woman to transport a doll across the Canadian border into the United States.  He is unaware that packets of heroin have been sewn into the toy. 

A con man and his ex-convict associates connive their way into the Hendrix apartment with the intent of finding the doll.  A deadly game of cat and mouse develops in which Susy’s blindness, the help of a young neighbor, a couple of murders, and some convoluted plot twists carry the play to a dramatic ending.

The play, with a cast of Robert Duvall and Lee Remick, who was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Actress, ran on Broadway for 374 performances in 1966.

The GLT production, part of its 55th consecutive season, opens with tense music which sets a proper mood for what should be coming. 

Unfortunately, in this era of visually dynamic movies and hyped television crime shows, the dated and often contrived script does not grab and hold attention as it did in the 60s. 

The first act is long and often tedious, overly slow in its development.  The second act, which does picks up the pace, fails to have the startling effect that the ending deserves. 

There is too much that doesn’t ring true in the production.  Whether this is result of Joseph Hanreddy’s direction, the acting, or the difficult to stage climactic scene, the overall effect is not compelling.

Scott Bradley’s set is appropriate, Rick Martin’s lighting, which is the key to the effectiveness of the last scene, has some flaws, and the sound effects by Lindsay Jones help develop the right mood.

The cast, Nick Steen (Mike Talman), David Anthony Smith (Sgt. Carlino), Arthur Hanket (Harry Roat, Jr), Jodi Dominick (Susy Hendrix), Jonathan Dyrud (Sam Hendrix), Elise Pakiela (Gloria), Laura Welsch Berg and Lynn Robert Berg (policepersons) are all quite acceptable in their portrayals.

Capsule judgement:  Wait Until Dark continues the GLT tradition of producing a mystery as part of its season offerings.  Those who love murder mysteries may well be enthused, but both script and production do not reach the level of effectiveness of previous shows of this genre.

Wait Until Dark runs through March 12, 2017 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Dynamic choreography lights up the stage in Beck Center’s Bring It On: The Musical

Mention Lin-Manuel Miranda and the musical sensation Hamilton comes to mind.  If not, then, In the Heights, which had a run at Beck Center last year, is noted.  Few know Miranda also wrote both the music and lyrics, along with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green for Bring It On:  The Musical, with book by Jeff Whitty, which is loosely based on the 2000 film of the same name.  The script centers on the competitive world of cheerleading, with side stories about bullying, teen angst and determining what’s important in the world.

The story centers on Campbell Davis (Kailey Boyle) who has achieved her goal of being elected captain of the Truman High School co-ed cheerleading squad.  Through manipulation of the school district boundaries by the mother of Eva (Abby DeWitte), a devious sophomore, Campbell and her friend Bridget (Shelby Griswold), who can’t make the cheer squad because of her heft, are transferred to Jackson High, a predominately black school, with (horror of horrors) no cheerleading squad.

In her exile, Campbell leaves behind, Steven (Jonathan Young), her studly boyfriend, her chances at a national cheerleading championship and her role as “queen bee.”

As must happen in tales of teenage angst, Campbell and Bridget win over the originally hostile students at their new school, forms a cheerleading squad, and go on to compete in the national competition. 

Though the outcome is not what “after school specials” are usually made of, the conclusion is pleasing, the moral well honed. 

If the standing ovation and tween girls who were seated in front of me, who sat on the edge of their seats, often jumping up and down with squeals of excitement, are representative, the audience will love this show in spite of its soap opera tale.

Bring It On: The Musical opened on Broadway in August, 2012 and closed in December of that year.  Termed “a high-energy stage spectacle,” it opened to generally positive reviews, with special praise for its dance numbers.  It was also praised for Manuel’s “sassy libretto.” It was nominated for Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Choreography.

The power of Beck/Baldwin Wallace College’s staging is Martin Céspedes’ spot-on choreography and Mary Sheridan’s cheerleading stunts which take the show to a high level of pleasurable excitement.

Céspedes creatively lets loose.  Constant motion rocks the stage with hip hop, poppin’, breakdancing, freestyle moves, isolations, jerkin’, krumping and freezes being showcased.  This is a lesson in modern street dancing vocabulary and forms. 

What’s compelling is that the moves are being performed by music theatre majors, not trained cheerleaders and free form dancers.  The BW cast are performing dangerous human pyramids and athletic movements which normally take years to perfect and do safely, and dancing which requires years to learn the body control to achieve the moves. 

Director Will Brandstetter keeps the show moving swiftly along and has done a nice job of helping the large cast develop realistic characterizations.

The cast, Baldwin Wallace University musical theatre majors, is excellent.  They are well trained as performers, and it shows in their performances.

Shelby Griswold (Bridget) has a wonderful sense of comic timing. Her mobile face and line interpretations light up the stage.  David Holbert (Twig, Bridget’s boyfriend) also displays strong comic chops.

Kailey Boyle not only looks like the stereotype blond, cute cheerleader, but is convincing in creating a real Campbell.  Shayla Brielle effectively wails and dances up a storm as Danielle, the leader of the “Queen Bees” of Jackson High.  Mike Cefalo is appealing as Campbell’s new boyfriend.

Michael Canada’s convincing and humorous cross-dressing performance La Cienega made him an audience favorite.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Bring It On: The Musical is not a great script, but with a talented cast, high energy dancing, creative choreography, compelling gymnastics, and a dynamic musical score, Beck appears to have another cash cow on its hands as large audiences should fill up the theatre.

Bring It On: The Musical is scheduled to run until February 26, 2017 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org
Next at Beck: The regional premiere of A Great Wilderness tells the tale of a gay conversion therapy camp in the remote Idaho woods. (March 3-April 9, 2017)