Saturday, May 27, 2017

“Massacre (Sing to Your Children) challenges at convergence continuum

There is darkness.  Suddenly there is screaming and yelling from off-stage, the stage lights snap quickly up, bright red, casting eerie shadows.  A door bursts open, 7 people come stumbling through the doorframe, each covered with blood, and wielding an instrument of destruction…knives, screwdriver, rake, machete.  Someone wedges a chair under the doorknob.  They all look and sound energized, out of control, on a high. 

Thus starts Jose Rivera’s “Massacre (Sing to Your Children),” now on stage at convergence continuum

Jose Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico, comes from a family of storytellers.  His family moved to mainland USA when he was 4.  He is noted for incorporating his life experiences into his plays with the spotlight on his Puerto Rican and small town New York experiences as well as focusing on family, sexuality, religion, spirituality and the occult.

He has written for the stage and television, but, he is probably best known for his adaptation of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which led, in 2005, to his being the first Puerto Rican to be nominated for an Oscar in the category of” Best Adapted Screenplay.”

“Massacre (Sing to Your Children)” is said to be, “A Rorschach Tests-of-a-play whose narrative loopiness, supernatural meanings and political allegory will haunt and confound each audience member in a different way.”

Rivera exposes the audience to a group of “everyday” people, living in a small town, who appear to have their sights set on the revenge of Joe, an outsider who came to town, gained power and authority, and has, in the view of these citizens,  used it to control mistreat others.  

The blood-covered townsfolk are people who are filled with hatred and want retribution for the destruction of the society they had known.  They speak of having endured rape, child molestation, murder, blackmail, concentration camps, sacrifices, and bad faith.

All “these things” happened after Joe came to town five years ago.

Using abstract poetic language, which is often interlaced with swearing, Rivera veers off into undeveloped and underdeveloped ideas, causing confusion over what is real and what is made up.  

If the script hadn’t been given its first staging in 2007, it would be easy to assume that Rivera was writing an allegory, placing a focus on the Donald Trump and Fox News world of alternate facts.  Several times the line, “Did we deserve this?” is asked.  It is a question that those opposed to the present DC administration ask on a regular basis.

The con-con production, under the direction of the theater’s artistic director, Clyde Simon, is vivid, well-paced and often confusing. 

The cast varies in their acting depth.  Some lines sound flat, a memorized flow of words with little attempt to create meaning, and characterizations replace character development.  On the other hand, at times the speeches mesmerize. 

Brian Westerley immerses himself in Joe.  He nicely textures the role.  Lucy Bredeson-Smith’s hollow eyes, are the key to Vivy, a school teacher who is confused and lost.  Kelsey Rubenking is believable as a lost soul whose outlet to her feelings is in writing somewhat childish songs.  She displays a nice singing voice.

The rest of the cast consists of Wesley Allen, Dennis Burby, Jamal Davidson, Beau Reinker, and Hillary Wheelock.

Capsule Judgement: “Massacre (Sing to Your Children)” is an abstract play whose meaning will depend on an individual’s views of the world, and their willingness to search for the author’s intent and purpose.  This is a script and production for playgoers who like to probe for ideas with no need for clarity of ideas or outcomes.

“Massacre (Sing to Your Children)” runs through June 10, 2017, at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s gentrifying Tremont neighborhood.  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to

Coming up at con-con:
“Illuminated” a world premiere by Katie O’Keefe (June 22-23)
”Neighbors” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Terrence Spivey (July 7-29)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Cleveland reviewer goes to Broadway at Tony time, 2017 (capsule summaries)

Several times a year I go to review what’s on stage on Broadway.  This spring, at the time the Tony Award nominations were announced, I had the chance to see some excellent nominees. 

Seeing local talent on stages on the Big White Way adds to the excitement.   During this and last season about twenty Baldwin Wallace University grads (Berea, OH, a CLE suburb), which recently was named as the best musical theatre program in the country, were appearing in the Big Apple.  Many of them are still on stage, as well as some newbies. Included are Caitlin Houlihan, “Waitress,” Steel Burkhardt, “Aladdin,” Shannon O’Boyle and Kyle Post in “Kinky Boots,” Cassie Okenka, “School Of Rock,” and Colton Ryan, “Dear Evan Hansen.”

In addition, the talented Chagrin Falls native Corey Cott, A Carnegie Mellon grad, has the lead in the Cleveland-centric “Bandstand.”

On the business side, Matthew and Michael Rego and Hank Unger, of The Araca Group are one of the producers of Tony nominated “Groundhog Day.” They formed their very successful production team in 1997 and have been involved with such hit shows as “Urinetown,” “Wicked,” “’night mother,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and “Rock of Ages.”   (Honesty disclosure:  Mike, Matt and Hank met when they were involved in a production of “The Music Man” which I directed some years ago.)

Here are capsule judgments of four new shows, all of which received Tony nominations.  To read the whole review of each, go to, scroll down to find show of choice.

What: “Groundhog Day”
Where:  August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street
Capsule judgment:  Though it doesn’t reach the comic levels of the film version of the tale, “Groundhog Day The Musical” delights.  It’s the kind of show that will entertain Broadway audiences and be a hit when the sure to come national tour hits the road. 

What: “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”
Where:  Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street
Capsule judgment:  The total effect of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” is breathtaking.  The traditional music, dress, stylized acting, and Josh Groban’s booming voice add to the over-arching effect. Yes, this is more than a musical, it is a spectacle of enormous proportions. 


What: “Bandstand—The New American Musical”
Where:  Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street

Capsule judgment: “Bandstand” isn’t a great musical, but the well-conceived production has the music, story line, dancing and patriotism to make the show a touring company favorite when it hits the hinterlands.  In the meantime, it deserves a healthy run on the Great White Way.

What: “Sweat”
Where:  Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street
Capsule judgment: Theater represents the era from which it comes, and “Sweat” clearly and shockingly tells the depressing tale of what went on during the financial downturn of this country and the resulting hysteria and desperation by a group of people who felt they had been disenfranchised by big business, betrayed by their government, and sold out by their union and political leaders.  It is an important play which fulfills the educational obligation of the arts.  It’s a script that is sure to be produced by many theatres as soon as its Broadway run concludes.

The much Tony nominated “Falsettos” which opened last spring, opened too late for the 2016 recognitions, but you can read its review on my blog.

Other new multi-Tony nominated shows which I did not see, but deserve attention are: “Come From Away,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Oslo,” “Indecent,” “War Paint,” “Anastasia,” and “Doll’s House Part 2,” as well as the revival of “Hello Dolly” (starring Bette Midler) and “Miss Saigon.”

“Groundhog Day The Musical” delights on Broadway

“Groundhog Day The Musical” has had a somewhat rough path to Broadway.  The show, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, and book by Danny Rubin, which is based on the hit 1993 film by Rubin and Harold Ramis, opened in 2016 in London and all went well.  Reviews were good, attendance was solid, and it seemed like the legend of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who holds the secret of whether those in the eastern US will have a short or long winter, was going to have smooth sailing into its Broadway burrow.

That prognosis was wrong!  The first scheduled preview in New York had to be stopped because of technical difficulties in getting the revolving stage to work.  Then, on the April 14 preview night, Andy Karl, who was reprising his leading man role from the English production, tore his anterior cruciate ligament during one of the show-stopping numbers.  He hobbled through the rest of that performance with the aid of a cane and was replaced by his understudy for the rest of the previews.  Rumors ran rampant that the show would close before it opened.  But, true to the old adage, “The show must go on,” Karl returned on opening night to positive reviews. 

Things seemed to right themselves after that and the musical, which has been praised as “So much fun it should be illegal,” has gone on to garner seven 2017 Tony Award nominations, including one for Karl as the Best Performance in a Musical, as well as recognition for best musical, book, direction, original score, choreography and scene design.

“Groundhog Day The Musical” basically follows the plot of the Bill Murry, Andie MacDowell hit movie which, in 2006, was added to the United States National Film Registry as the #8 in the top ten greatest films in the fantasy genre.

The story centers on weatherman Phil Connors (Andy Karl).   Phil, he of good looks, an attitude of self-importance and unbridled egotism, finds himself assigned, by his Pittsburgh based TV station, to go to Punxsutawney, PA to do a special report on the annual Groundhog Day Ceremony. 

He reluctantly arrives, checks into a B&B, and goes to bed.  From there on any semblance of normality in his life ends! 

Phil wakes up the next day, drinks some terrible coffee, goes to Gobbler’s Knob, where the ceremony is to take place, and meets Larry (Vishal Vaidya) the cameraman and Rita (Barrett Doss) his newbie producer.  He does his lack-luster recap of the event, goes to eat lunch, finds out that a snowstorm is blocking his return to Pittsburgh, and stays the night at the B&B.  The next day turns out to be a duplicate of yesterday, and the following day turns out to be the same as the day before, and the following day . . ..  Phil is caught in a time warp, with no escape.    

As happens in all romantic fantasy musical comedies, Phil and Rita fall into lust and love.  A transformation takes place when he becomes a nice guy helping townsfolk, does a positive promo about the town and its festival, and even though the route has finally cleared to return, he spends the day with Rita and watches the sun rise on the next day.  As one of the show’s songs states, “There Will Be Sun.”

The show, under the astute direction of Matthew Warchus, who has directed such Tony award winning shows as “Art,” “Boeing, Boeing” and “Matilda,” delights with imaginative staging.

One of the shows highlights is a car chase in which a car is built before the audience’s eyes, then transforms into a mini-remote control auto which dashes around the stage.  The audience reaction was explosive delight.

The cast is strong, singing and dancing and performing with great skill. 

Andy Karl lives up to his advance billing as Phil.  Still operating with a leg brace due to that rehearsal injury, he surprisingly moves and dances freely.  His voice is strong and sense of comic timing excellent.  His displays of self-love are hilarious, and his double takes, charming.  His Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical is well earned.

Barrett Doss inhabits the role of Rita.  She sings, dances and performs with certainty and believability. 

It’s always an added treat when, as a Cleveland-based reviewer, there is a CLE connection to a Broadway production.  In the case of “Groundhog Day,” the hook is Matthew and Michael Rego and Hank Unger, The Araca Group (  They formed their production team in 1997, producing shows, selling theatrical merchandise and staging live entertainment and theatrical events on Broadway and around the world.  They have been involved with such hit shows as “Urinetown,” “Wicked,” “’night mother,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and “Rock of Ages.”   (Honesty disclosure:  Mike, Matt and Hank met when they were involved in a production of “The Music Man” which I directed some years ago.)
Capsule judgement:  Though it doesn’t reach the comic levels of the film version of the tale, “Groundhog Day The Musical” delights.  It’s the kind of show that will entertain Broadway audiences and will be a hit when the sure to come national tour hits the road. 
Where: August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street
Open ended run
Matinees: Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday
Evenings:  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Monday, May 22, 2017

“Sweat” tells an emotional tale of the fall of the American working middle class and its effect on the nation

In 2011, steel industry-centrific Reading, Pennsylvania topped the national census’s poverty list.  The city’s residents were battered by the closing down of rust belt industries as companies packed up and moved to countries with lower worker wages, and low-cost steel from China’s government-subsidized plants flooded the market.

Economic inequality and economic insecurity raised their ugly heads, not only in PA, but other industrial states, resulting in a surprise election result as the usual Democratic voters became desperate for scapegoats and easy cures for their woes. 

Lynn Nottage, who has been called “as fine a playwright as America has,” started to craft “Sweat” in 2011, just before the height of the national malaise, but not before Reading and similar areas were hit by layoffs, plant closings, and general angst.  The playwright honed in on the national problem and succeeded in writing a raw, disturbing and illuminating script that won the 2017 Pulitzer for Drama.

Most of the eight-year story takes place inside and outside a bar in Reading, where the employees of the nearby steel mill hang out. 

In the early segments, the bar visitors are in a positive mood.  Hours, pay, and working conditions are good.  One of the women, an African American, is promoted to a management position and there is general pride in her advancement.  Then downsizing and a strike to protect wages takes place.  The bartender warns, “You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico.”

As his prophecy becomes reality, as de-industrialization takes place, attitudes of the “friends” change.  Inner group squabbles emerge, hatred toward scabs who cross the picket line become strong, as scapegoats for the changing economics are needed, racial and ethnic differences become causes for arguments and physical abuse.  Matters get even worse when the plant closes.  

The script clearly reveals the frustration of the white blue collar middle class, who, in their desperation to regain self-respect and hope for financial stability, are willing to put aside their respect for truth and start to believe “alternative facts,” to replace logic with acceptance of emotional shim-sham, and accept that they need to make America “white” again as a combination of Hispanics, blacks and Asians have become the majority population.  Slogans and insults became their truth and they became Trump voters.

The script is effective, though the first act could lose about ten minutes and not endanger the exposition that leads up to the compelling second act.

The explosive drama is nicely directed by Kate Whoriskey.  It is well-paced, the dynamics finely keyed, and the characterizations well-etched.

The acting is top-notch.  Lance Coadie Williams (Evan), Khris Davis (Chris), Carlo Albán (Oscar), Michelle Wilson (Cynthia), James Colby (Stan), Alison Wright (Jessie) and John Earl Jelks (Brucie) all create nicely textured and fleshed-out characters. 


Will Pullen (left in photo), who epitomizes the angry white male who has lost not only his financial base, but self-respect, excels as the explosive Jason.  

Tony nominee for Best Featured Actress in a Play, Johanna Day, effectively creates Tracey into the model for the woman who has lost all as a result of the economic whirlwind that hit Reading and much of the industrial heart of the country.

“Sweat” received two 2017 Tony Award nominations: Best Play and Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

Capsule judgement: Theater represents the era from which it comes, and “Sweat” clearly and shockingly tells the depressing tale of what went on during the financial downturn of this country and the resulting hysteria and desperation by a group of people who felt they had been disenfranchised by big business, betrayed by their government, and sold out by their union and political leaders.  It is an important play which fulfills the educational obligation of the arts.  It’s a script that is sure to be produced by many theatres as soon as its Broadway run concludes.


What: “Sweat”

Where: Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street

Open ended run

Matinees: Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday

Evenings:  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Spectacular “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” mesmerizes

In 1811, a comet officially known as C/1811 F1 was visible to the naked eye for a record 260 days.  The huge comet, which is often call the Comet of 1812, became a fascination for artist and writers who painted it and wrote stories with it as the focus.  One of the best know literature usage was in Leo Tolstoy’s epic, “War and Peace.”

In the Tolstoy novel, he describes Pierre observing this “enormous and brilliant comet.”  He went on to indicate it “was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world.”  From the standpoint of the Russians, the prognostication became true as the invasion of Russia by Napoleon (Patriotic War of 1812) took place.

C1811 F1 has appeared again.  This time it is shaking up the Broadway theatrical world with the opening of Dave Malloy’s adaptation of “War and Peace,” as a musical entitled, “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”

When asked why the comet made it into the title of the show, Malloy stated, “for cosmic epicness.” 

Yes, the show” is proving itself to be an epic as evidenced by the fact that it became the most Tony-nominated show of the 2017 season, garnering 12 recognitions including that for best score, book and orchestration, as well as best direction, choreography, actor, actress, featured actor, scenic, costume and lighting design.

The power and grandeur of the show hits the audience upon entering The Imperial Theatre’s auditorium.  It has been totally transposed for the production. The proscenium stage has been replaced by a raked series of platforms that extends to the theatre’s back wall and ceiling.

Weaving staircases allow the actors to wander from one level to another, attenders to be seated in nooks and crannies on stage to get to their viewing platform, and musicians to be placed in varying places, including a circle in the middle of the stage area which contains a grand piano.

The entire theatre becomes a performance space as the orchestra, mezzanine and balcony have platforms that allow for performance pieces to be done immediately next to seated audience members.

The theatre’s walls have been draped with heavy maroon material, with varying antique framed photos and decorative art pieces hung on them.  It is as if one is in a grand Russian villa of old.

The wonder of the set is not the only thing The Comet has going for it.  The Malloy well-written music combines traditionally played ethnic, folk, classical, indie rock with EDM.  The sound of accordions, violins, tambourines, balalaika, and wood blocks, as well as piano and synthesizer, give the score a unique, not often heard on Broadway, sound.

Malloy’s book and lyrics, like Russian literature, is filled with great angst, over-exaggerated emotion and melodrama.  Wisely, the author has avoided the Russian tradition of each person having numerous full names plus diminutives.

The tale is set in Moscow in 1812.   Pierre (Josh Groban), a middle-aged aristocrat, is living an existential life, often influenced by an over-abundance of alcohol.  Into his sphere of life comes Natasha (Denée Benton), a beautiful young lady, who is visiting the Russian capital, while her fiancé, Andrey (Nicholas Belton) is at war.  She is seduced by Anatole (Lucas Steele), an attractive and manipulating married man.  Her social standing is ruined.  Her only hope lies with Pierre using his influence to save her reputation.

As can be expected in a Russian saga, Pierre helps Natasha gain her sense of self.  Afterwards, almost as a payment for his good deed, he experiences a moment of enlightenment as he sees the Comet of 1812 in the night sky.

The physical setting is impressive.  The musical presentation, grand.  The vocalizations, mesmerizing.  The stylized acting, character correct.

Tony nominee for Best Actor, Josh Groban’s voice is everything one would expect from the uber-talented performer.  His aria “Dust and Ashes” captivates.  His duets “Pierre & Anatole,” with Lucas Steele, is compelling as is his “Pierre & Andrey,” sung with Nicholas Belton and “Pierre & Natasha,” a duet with Denée Benton.


The gorgeous and talented Benton is charming as Natasha not only singing well, but creating a vulnerable young woman who is charmed into a seduction.  She well deserves her Tony nomination as Best Actress in a Musical.

Steele is Iagoesque as the innocent looking but evil villain, who takes away Natasha’s innocence.  He moves with arrogant ease, smiling with manipulative pleasure, while displaying no remorse.  His is another well-deserved Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. 

Those outside of Gotham, who wait for hit Broadway musicals to come to their city, may be disappointed.  Trying to replicate the theatre’s interior may be cost prohibitive and impossible to achieve in some of the venues in which touring shows perform.  A watered-down version of the grandeur of the Great White Way performance probably will not have the same effect, even though the story and music will be the same.  Maybe this is a good time to go to New York.

Capsule judgement:  The total effect of “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” is breathtaking.  The traditional music, dress, stylized acting, and Josh Groban’s booming voice add to the over-arching effect. Yes, this is more than a musical, it is a spectacle of enormous proportions. 

What: “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Where:  Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street
Open ended run
Matinees: Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday
Evenings:  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday
(Note:  Josh Groban will not perform 5/4 through 5/9, 5/16, 6/13, 6/20 or 6/27.  He will play his final performance on 7/2.  Okieriete Onaodowan begins performing as Pierre on 7/3. 

Broadway’s “Bandstand” a swinging love-affair with Cleveland

“Bandstand—The New American Musical,” the Broadway hit musical, is Cleveland-centric.  It not only tells the tale of a post-World War II band which was founded in CLE, includes dialogue containing such area references as the Ohio Theatre, Halle’
s Department Store, “The Plain Dealer,” Public Square, and The Cleveland Limited train which ran to New York, but also stars an area native. 

It’s 1945. G.I.s are returning home.  Many are having troubles due to what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorders including depression, memory loss, and obsessive compulsivity.

Danny Novitski (Corey Cott), a jazz pianist, comes home to Cleveland, and like many others, can’t get back into his previous life pattern.  In his case, as a local club piano player.  Danny has survivor guilt.  His best friend died because Danny took the pin out of a hand grenade, accidentally dropped it into their fox hole, couldn’t retrieve it in the rain, jumped out of the hole, and the explosive device killed his long-time buddy.

Danny finds out about a national contest, centering on forming a musical group of veterans who will write and perform an original song and compete in a competition held in New York with a prize of fame and fortune.

Johnny puts together a group of psychologically wounded vets.  In a promise to his dead friend, he contacts his friend’s bereaved widow, who happens to be a church choir singer and poet.  As is the case in all feel good musical love stories, she joins the band, they win the Cleveland contest and then the qualifying round, and the two fall in love.  The contest results are part of a clever plot twist that leaves the audience feeling pleased and standing on their feet and cheering.

With a nicely conceived book by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker, who also wrote the lyrics, and Oberacker’s swing, bebop and jitterbug musical score, the show earns its’ “The New American Musical” subtitle.  It is a musical based on the tradition of the golden age of Broadway, but with a modern feel. 

The production, directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler (“In The Heights” and “2016 Tony Award winner for his choreography of “Hamilton”) explodes with brassy music and dynamic choreography, while telling the tale with strong acting, dancing and singing.

Laura Osnes (Julia Trojan, the widow of Johnny’s friend), Beth Leavel (Julia’s mother) and Corey Cott, have been with the development “Bandstand” from the script’s September, 2014 initial New York workshop, through the October, 2015 Paper Mill Playhouse (Milburn, New Jersey) previews, to its April 26, 2017 Broadway opening. 

Osnes has a strong singing voice and creates a charming and realistic Julia.  Her “Who I Was” is emotionally touching, her first presentation of “Love Will Come and Find Me Again” is beautifully presented, and the “rewritten” version, which is the band’s contest performance, stopped the show with its high-level emotional words and presentation.  This is a two-hanky song!

Leavel has a nice touch with humor and pathos.

Chagrin Falls native Corey Cott is talent-perfect as Tommy.  Cott, who is dark and handsome, though not the stereotype Broadway leading man, tall and buff, is successfully making a career of playing sensitive young men.  He was the lead for two years in the much praised “Newsies” and then went on to star opposite Vanessa Hudgens in the revival of “Gigi.”  He was born to play Tommy.  A trained jazz pianist, he has an impressive singing voice and range, and is totally convincing in the role.  He, as well as all the members of the veterans’ band, actually play their musical instruments on stage. 

Director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler deserves his 2017 Tony nomination for the choreography.  It is innovative, era correct and helps create the proper mood and tone for the script. 

Paloma Young must have had a wonderful time reaching back and creating the 1950s era costumes.

The orchestrations by Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen are enervating and well-nuanced and properly deserved its Tony nomination.

Capsule judgement: “Bandstand” isn’t a great musical, but the well-conceived production has the music, storyline, dancing and patriotism to make the show a touring company favorite when it hits the hinterlands.  In the meantime, it deserves a healthy run on the Great White Way.  

What: “Bandstand”
Where: Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street
Open ended run
Matinees: Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday
Evenings:  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday

Monday, May 15, 2017

“Things As They Are” examines poet Wallace Stevens @ Playwrights Local

“Things As They Are” explores the life of Wallace Stevens, the American modern poet who was often called “aloof” and “uptight,” has been classified as “meditative and philosophical,” and as “a poet of ideas.”   Those ideas often confounded and confused his readers.

Stevens once wrote, “We approach reality with a piecemeal understanding, putting together parts of the world in an attempt to make it seem coherent. To make sense of the world is to construct a worldview through an active exercise of the imagination. This is no dry, philosophical activity, but a passionate engagement in finding order and meaning.”
Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize of 1955 for his “Collected Poems.” 

Stevens, who lived from 1879-1955, is a perfect subject for a thoughtful drama based on his interpersonal relationship breakdowns, his mood swings, his marriage to Elsie Kachel who his social-conscious parents thought was “lower-class,” his breaking off all contact with his family, Elsie’s mental illness, an on-going crisis with his daughter, and his Robert Taft-like conservative political views.

His “Key West, Florida,” arguments with Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway are legendary, as were the details of his troubled marriage, and short-termed friendships.

This was a man of great contradictions and insights, of varying vocations and avocations.  During his life he was a successful poet, lawyer and insurance executive.

“Things as They Are” is a multimedia work written by David Todd.  It features an impressive original music score performed and conceived by Ben Chasny

Though Stevens is interesting, and well deserves to be immortalized on stage, the play is much too long and the script, as conceived, seems overly-ambitious and not clearly focused.

Due to stimulus overloud, it’s sometimes difficult to pay attention to the story line.  The need for all of the music, electronic images, dancing and Commedia dell’Arte is questionable.  Also up for examination is the weak presentational quality of some of the elements.

Kudos to director Anjanette Hall for attempting to get the pieces-parts all blended together.

Robert Hawkes nicely textures his performance as the Mature Wallace Stevens.  His final acting scene was very effective.  Laura Starnik and Tessa Hager create meaningful women as Elsie (wife) and Holly (daughter).  The rest of the cast, Jason Markouc, Robert Branch, Kenzie Critzer, Jeanne Task, Marco Liguori and Liam Stilson are generally effective.

Ben Chasny and John Elliott create a strong musical presence.  Unfortunately, the sound system is such that most of the off-stage reading of Steven’s poetry was drowned out by the underscoring music.

T. Paul Lowry’s projection design was well-conceived as was Jonathan Maag’s lighting.

Capsule judgment:  As a play in process, “Things As They Are” needs to be reexamined with an eye for sharpening and tightening the dialogue and ascertaining whether all the visual and audio stimuli are necessary to tell the tale.  For those who like to see new works, to discuss and add in-put into the development process, Playwrights Local and this play offer that opportunity.

Playwrights Local, a development and production center, is dedicated to fostering diverse talents and presenting locally written theatrical works.  “It strives to increase the impact of original theater on the community and to raise the profile of area playwrights both within Greater Cleveland and beyond.”

“Things As They Are” is being performed at Reinberger Auditorium on Cleveland’s near west side.  There is a parking lot adjacent to the building.  For information and ticket orders go to:

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

“Forever Plaid,” a pleasant Jukebox musical @ Great Lakes Theater

What do “Motown the Musical,” ”Beautiful, the Carol King Musical,” “American Idiot,” “Jersey Boys” and “Mamma Mia” have in common?  They are jukebox musicals; stage shows that use previously written songs as its score.  The songs are folded into a story-line.   

“Forever Plaid,” now on stage at Great Lakes Theater is one of the most popular of this ilk of musical theater, and has been produced over and over by professional as well as amateur theatres since it was first performed off-Broadway in 1989.

The show is a flashback to the close-harmony, “guy” groups of the 1950s.  Noted for their matching costumes, in-sync hand and body movements, they epitomized the clean-cut scrubbed wholesome boys of the era.  Think of The Four Freshman and The Beachboys. 

The “story” in “Forever Plaid” centers on four high school nerds (members of the AV Club), who dream of having matching plaid jackets, recording a hit album and becoming part of the “in” crowd. 

Their fame came to a screeching halt when, on the way to their first gig, their car was slammed into by a bus filled with virginal Catholic schoolgirls on their way to see The Beatle’s American debut on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” 

We meet the Plaids when, by some quirk of fate, they return from the after-life and find themselves on the stage of the Hanna Theatre in Cleveland, OH.  They are here to have one opportunity to finally fulfill their musical dream.

They sing harmony renditions of such classics as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Moments to Remember,” “No, Not Much,” “Sixteen Tons,” “Perfidia,” “Cry,” “Heart and Soul,” “Shangri-La,” “Rags to Riches,” and “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing,” songs which the silver-haired oldies in the audience were singing along with.

The two-act, very short show (about an-hour-and-a-half with intermission), has musical and vocal arrangements by James Raitt, with book by Stuart Ross.  It was made into a movie in 2009, and a sequel, “Plaid Tidings,” with holiday songs, was written by Ross in 2002.

Playhouse Square had a long run of “Forever Plaid” from 1994-1996.  It was staged by the original conceivers.  Stewart Ross directed and musical direction was by James Raitt.  It stared Rex Nockingust, a stellar local singer/actor, a graduate of Baldwin Wallace College, and performer at many CLE theatres, who went on to play Matt in “The Fantasticks,” the longest running off-Broadway musical. 

The show has a strong Baldwin Wallace Musical Theater program connection.  It is directed by Victoria Bussert, the program’s director, who is celebrating her thirtieth year as GLT’s director of musicals, and a cast made up of BWU grads—Mack Shirilla (Francis), Andrew Kotzen (Sparky), Mickey Patrick Ryan (Jinx) and James Penca (Smudge).  Even the musical director, Matthew Webb, choreographer, Gregory Daniels, and many of the design team, are connected to BW.

The pleasant production’s singing is prime, the movements vintage, and the musical backup allows for the words to be easily heard. 

A former theater student cornered me during intermission and asked, “I thought Great Lakes billed itself as Cleveland’s Classic Company.  Why are they doing this show that I’ve seen at lots of community theatres?”  Hmm…Yes, its’ been around since 1989, but does that make it a “classic?”  Interesting question.

Capsule judgement: “Forever Plaid “is an escapist evening of theater, which is a pleasant trip back to yesterday, when clean-scrubbed boy singers waxed beautifully about the angst of young love, trips of fantasy and the mini-stresses of life.  If you like that kind of thing, this is a show for you.
“Forever Plaid” runs through May 21, 2017 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Well-written and performed “Salvage” fascinates at none-too-fragile

As the lights come up on George Brant’s “Salvage,” being performed on none-too-fragile’s tiny thrust stage, two women frantically search through a huge pile of boxes.  Boxes which contain the remnants of the life of Danny Aspern, their son and brother, who recently died in a car-bike accident and was buried earlier in the day. 

A storm is coming, with promises of mass flooding.  Assuming that their basement will be inundated by water, the question is what of hoarder Danny’s “treasures” should they save?  There are 40 years of stuff as the man/boy never moved out of his mother’s house and used the basement as his play and storage room. 

As the duo decides that they will save only a small number of Danny’s favorite music albums, Amanda Graham (Derdriu Ring) enters.  Amanda, Danny’s high school sweetheart, left him supposedly to go to college.  Her leaving left a void in the seemingly emotionally weak Danny, that was never filled.  He went through the rest of his hapless life rudderless, frustrated and unfulfilled. 

Mother, Roberta (DeDe Klein) and Amanda spar.  It quickly becomes apparent that both Danny and his younger sister, Kelly (Kelly Strand), were victims of their mother passing on her insecurities to them.  A mother, much in the vein of Amanda in Tennessee William’s “Glass Menagerie,” cannot see that her enabling is the major cause of her children’s issues.

Amanda has written a best-selling book with a plot centering on her relationship with Danny.  Roberta hates her for “using” Danny.  Kelly is awe-struck by Amanda’s success. 

Filled with deception and verbal game playing, the compelling play storms to a surprise conclusion, as Amanda’s “secret,” the real reason for her coming to Danny’s funeral, Kelly’s future, and a major decision by Roberta, consume the trio.  Questions abound:  What effect do we have on others?  What is the difference between love and need?  Can anything be salvaged from these lives?

Brant is a fine playwright.  Among others, he was awarded a Lucille Lortel Award, an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, the David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center, the Keene Prize for Literature, and a Scotsman Fringe First Award. 

His scripts have been produced locally at Cleveland Play House and Dobama Theatre. 

“Salvage” was commissioned by Theatre 4 in New Haven, Connecticut and received its premiere there.

The none-too-fragile production, as has become the expected habit at this theatre, continues their reputation for excellence.  None-too-fragile was recognized by as the Outstanding non-musical production of 2016, Director Sean Derry was named the best Director of a non-musical, and Dedriu Ring was named as co-recipient of the outstanding female performer.  The Cleveland Critics Circle recognized “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and Ring for Superior Achievement.  “Salvage” should also receive such accolades.

The cast is universally outstanding.  Each actress develops a clear and textured real living character.  So much so that after a while, the play becomes a life experience, with the audience peeking in on the real lives of three tortured women in turmoil.   The performers make Brant’s realistic language live with vivid imagery.

Capsule judgement: “Salvage,” continues none-too-fragile’s history of outstanding theatrical presentations as it takes George Brant’s well-crafted script from page to stage, with clarity and vividness.  This is a must see experience!  Believe me, Clevelanders, it’s worth the drive!

For tickets to “Salvage” which runs through May 20, 2017 at none too fragile theatre, located at 2835 Merriman Road in Akron, call 330-962-5547 or go to

The next none too fragile show is “An Impending Rupture of the Belly,” Matt Pelfrey’s odd-ball, black comedy of a couple expecting their first child and an impending disaster, a global struggle against threats to our security, both real and imagined.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Well performed “The North Pool” at Ensemble

Is Khadim Asmaan a terrorist?  Is he selling drugs at his public high school?  Is he responsible for the suicide of a talented flutist?  Why was the boy expelled from a private school?  Is he responsible for the on-going vandalism at this institution?  Why is he friends with a noted school delinquent?  What is he planning on doing with the items that have been found in his locker?  Why are his parents visiting Saudi Arabia? 

These are some of the questions raised by Pulitzer Prize finalist and Cleveland Heights native Rajiv Joseph in his “The North Pool.” 

Joseph has authored such plays as “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which starred the late Robin Williams on Broadway, “Huck and Holden,” “Animals Out of Paper,” “Gruesome Playground Injuries” and “Guards at the Taj,” many of which have been staged at Ensemble.

The setting is the office of Assistant Principal, Dr. Danielson, at Sheffield High, a public school in what appears to be a fairly typical suburban area.   It’s the afternoon of the start of spring vacation.  Khadim has been called in to discuss the details of his past and present, which appears to include his operating an underground business of selling various merchandise and what could be bomb making materials found in his locker, and also the suicide of a female friend.

The conversation includes twists and turns that reveal a great deal about both Danielson and the Arabic student as the participants unload material about each other.  In the process it is revealed that there are a series of passages, which were built into the school during the cold war era, that contain a shelter called “the North Pool” which was to protect the school community in case of a nuclear attack.

Though often compelling and disturbing, the intended impact of the script is somewhat vague.  After a while the question, “Where is this going?” rears its head.  What is the author trying to say?  What are we to carry from the experience?  Yes, racial profiling, sexual discretion, dealing with the aftermath of suicide, and school terrorism are all brought up, but for what purpose?

The one-and-a-half-hour Ensemble production, done without an intermission, under the competent direction of Celeste Cosentino, is well developed. 

David Vegh is focused and nicely textures the role of Dr. Danielson. 

Though he looks too old to be playing a high school student, and doesn’t fit the physical description of a cross-country runner (changing the sport to football or rugby would have been more appropriate), Santino Montanez is convincing as Khadim.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  While the production is well-conceived and holds attention, “The North Pool” is somewhat unsatisfying as a thoughtful piece of play crafting.  The script leaves us wanting more, a clearer message to carry from the theatre.

“The North Pool” runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Saturdays @ 2 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through May 21, 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

Monday, May 01, 2017

“Lizzie,” the grizzly musical, rocks the Ohio

“On a sweltering summer morning in 1892, in a small New England city, a prominent businessman and his wife were brutally axed to death in their home. Their daughter, Lizzie Borden, was the prime suspect. Lizzie’s trial was a coast-to-coast media sensation, and her story has become an American legend.

Yes, that’s the Lizzie of the poem: “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty-whacks.  When she saw what she had done, gave her father forty-one.”

The grizzly tale just finished a run on stage in the Ohio Theatre courtesy of Baldwin Wallace College’s Musical Theater Program in coordination with Playhouse Square.  Interestingly, this not the first go-around for the duo’s production of the script.  In 2012 the same team worked together to sell out the now shuttered 12th Street Theatre.

“Lizzie” is a rage, sex, betrayal, and bloody murder, set to a blistering score presented by four women fronting a six-piece band.

Rock tunes which scream lesbian heat and incest, interspersed with grisly humor make up the score with such heavy metal tunes as “Forty Whacks,” “This is not Love,” “Why are all these Heads Off,” “What the Fuck now, Lizzie,” “Will You Lie?” and “Into Your Wildest Dreams.”

“Lizzie” began life in 1990 as a four-song experimental theater/rock show created by writer/director Tim Maner and songwriter Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer. 

A few years later, they wrote six new songs.  After several more years of tinkering, 2012 brought the co-production by Baldwin-Wallace College and Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare (directed by Victoria Bussert).

Most recently, earlier this year, Bussert directed a production in Denmark (in Danish) and in the UK (in English).

The present version is being staged with two casts, each staring for two performances.  The Friday and late Saturday productions featured the “Blood” cast and will be commented on in this review.  The other stagings featured the “Axe” cast (Olivia Kaufman, Emily Brett, Kelsey Baehrens and Amy Keum).

As evidenced by the enthusiastic Ohio Theatre audience, the show, which is as much a rock concert as musical theater, has strong appeal to the Millennials, those born from 1990 until 2000 and the 2K’s, those born after 2000.  They were on their feet screaming and stomping after many of the songs, often imitating the hair-whipping, body angled, hand gesturing stylized movements of the cast members.  The elders in attendance didn’t seem to be “with it” in the same frenzied way.

The BW cast was excellent.  They exhibited strong voices, great enthusiasm and consistent awareness of their roles and the over-all mood of the piece.  However, for those who like to hear and understand the words to the songs being sung, the excessive screaming and high decibel music, along with the loud pounding beat of the band, there was frustration.  Many of the words were lost to the volume of both voices and the music. 

Kailey Boyle exhibited a powerful voice with a large range.  Her saucer eyes helped create the often manic mood swings of Lizzie.  Her rock persona, displayed in many of the songs, was captivating to watch.

Veronica Otim has an electric stage presence.  She also displayed a diva voice, but often her words, both spoken and sung, were unintelligible due to excessive yelling. 

Livvy Marcus was properly introverted as Alice Russell, Lizzie’s female lover. She displayed good vocal ability and nice song interpretation.

Emily Wronski has a nice sense of comic timing and was convincing as Bridget Sullivan.

Matthew Webb’s band rocked, Gregory Daniels’ choreography rolled, and the entire production was murderous!

Capsule judgment: “Lizzie,” the rock musical, based on the Lizzie Borden murder mystery, is as much rock concert as theatre, represents the movement in musicals to take on modern trends in music, e.g., rock and rap, and appeal to a younger, modish audience. 

This production was staged at the Ohio Theatre from April 28-30, 2017.