Monday, September 25, 2017

The Musical Theater Project presents “The Impact of OKLAHOMA!”

March 31, 1943 is a key day in American theatrical history.  It is the date that is often credited with introducing the world to the “book musical,” a form of theatre in which songs and dances are fully integrated into a well-conceived story.  A story that evokes emotions by incorporating themes and motifs that connect all parts of the production.

That March day, “Oklahoma!,” the first musical written by composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II opened and set the theatrical world on its proverbial head.

Taking Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which is set in the Oklahoma Territory, before the birth of the state to be known as Oklahoma, it looks at a small Okie town in 1906.  It showcases the plight of the territory to become part of the USA and the love stories between Curly McLain and Laurey Williams and that of Will Parker and Ado Annie.  Pathos and humor abound.

“Oklahoma!” was the first true book musical.  “Showboat” and “Porgy and Bess” had story lines, but all the parts, the music, book and dance, were not well integrated.  Songs and dances could be dropped or added and the story would continue. “Of Thee I Sing,” (1932) won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the first “musical” to do so, but, again, all the pieces-parts were not tightly woven together.

“Oklahoma!” set the structure that was followed by most productions during the Golden Age of the American Musical (1943 to 1959):  a story into which dance and music are melded into the plot, an overture, a first act that ended with a conflict that would be solved in the second act, and a rousing production finale.   Gone were the days of the totally escapist, plotless reviews, spectacles and vaudeville.  Now, and forever more, the story holds sway.

The musical, with captivating choreography by Agnes De Mille, ran for a then record 2,212 performances.   Numerous revivals and national tours followed and it became an Academy Award-winning film (1955).

The show also highlighted some Rodgers and Hammerstein patterns which are found in their future collaborations.  Almost all of their musicals are about community, the formation and/or sustaining of a community.   Many of their songs have an Eastern European cantorial musical sound which is highlighted by “exaggerated abrupt shifts of key, tempo, and style—that dramatize the progression from sorrow to joy and vice versa, as well as small melodic ‘cells,’ that are combined like building blocks to create tunes.”

R & H plots often have two levels of relationship (e.g., Curly and Laurey/Will Parker and Ado Annie in “Oklahoma,” Billy and Julie/Mr. Snow and Carrie in “Carousel,” Nellie and Emile/Lt. Cable and Liat in “South Pacific”).  There is always a song which carries the duo’s social message (e.g., “The Farmer and the Cowman” -- “Oklahoma!,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — “Carousel” and” You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”— “South Pacific.”

Ready to hear more about Rodgers and Hammerstein III and hear their songs?  On Saturday, October 14 @ 7, The Musical Theater Project will present “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ The Impact of Oklahoma!,” at Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center, 1005 Abbe Road, Elyria (for tickets call 440-366-4004 or go on line to  The program will be repeated on Sunday, October 15 @ 3 PM in the Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square (tickets:  216-241-6000 or

The program will be hosted by Bill Rudman and Nancy Maier and will feature Ursula Cataan, Lindsey Sandham Leonard, Joe Monaghan, Shane Patrick O’Neill and Fabio Polanco.

For information about the Musical Theater Project go to

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Mesmerizing, emotion-laden “Last of the Boys” at none too fragile

It is ironic that the same weekend that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War” started screening, none too fragile theater brought up the lights on its intimate stage to showcase Steven Dietz’s Vietnam memory play, “Last of the Boys.”

An award-winning playwright, Dietz is one of the nation’s new breed of writers who are noted as being “prolific and versatile” and in search of showcasing modern problems.  With his mastery of language and ability to create complex and dynamic characters and tell stories, he could qualify as the Arthur Miller or William Inge of the twenty-first century.

As for “Last of the Boys,” Dietz says, “though the play reflects on the events of the Vietnam era it is not a historic play.  This is about a world in which the same hard choices keep presenting themselves.” 

Those hard choices include asking:  What are the toxic results of horrific experiences of fighting in a war?  Should we blame others for their urging us to make certain life changes?  Can we forgive the mistaken beliefs of others that have an effect on our lives?  How long do fearsome memories haunt a person?  And, can we hide from our past?

The story centers on Ben, a Vietnam war vet who lives in a California trailer park situated on a toxic wasteland, and his war buddy, Jeeter, a hippy, modern age college professor, who is obsessed with the Rolling Stones and follows them around the world on their concert tours. 

Though the war is forty years in the past, much of the duo’s relationship and identity center on the haunting effects of their battle experiences, especially on Ben, who has nightmares and sees illusions of military men and Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, at the time of the conflict.

Jeeter comes for his annual visit, accompanied by Salyer, his new girlfriend.  The couple goes to Ben’s father’s funeral, which Ben does not attend.  (The reason rolls out as the play develops).  Shortly after the funeral, Lorraine, Salyer’s alcoholic mother, shows up.

What ensues is an examination of identities, angst and revelations, including the 1967 incident outside of Dak To which changed Ben and Jeeter’s lives forever, and why Salyer encases her entire body in a layer of black clothing.

As has become the pattern at none too fragile, the production is compelling.  Director Sean Derry hits all the right vocal and blocking notes in developing the story and highlighting Dietz’s razor sharp language.

Skinny, balding, pinched faced, with hollow vacant eyes, Rob Branch is the requisite image of the PSTD remains of the human once known as Ben.  His tortured-being shines through.

Paul Floriano makes Jeeter a physical and emotional being stuck in the 1960s.  He seeks peace, literally and figuratively, through reliving the flower-child era in his life style and attitudes, unable to move forward.

Rachel Lee Kolis is appropriately angst filled, having been forced to live a life of lies created by her alcoholic, pathetic mother (Anne McEvoy) who, like the others, refuses to face reality.

Nate Homolka effectively develops the role of the phantom soldier, appearing as needed to help fulfill fantasy.

Capsule judgement:  War is hell and, as highlighted in “Last of the Boys,” its aftermath is often worse.  Kudos to Sean Derry and his cast for creating a compelling evening of theater.  This is must see theater for anyone interested in fine acting and a more real than life picture of the outcomes of combative and emotional wars on human beings.

 “Last of the Boys” runs through September 30, 2017 at none too fragile theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron.  For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to

The next none too fragile show is Keith Huff’s “A Steady Rain” from October 27-November 11.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Cleveland Play House opens 2017-2018 with entertaining “Shakespeare in Love”

Lee Hall, the Tony Award winning musical book writer for “Billy Elliott the Musical,” once wrote, “The point of theatre is transformation:  to make an extraordinary event out of ordinary material right in front of an audience’s eyes. What matters is the power of theatre to move and to change people.  That is what “Shakespeare in Love” is about.  It is about a place which can allow a common player to be a Queen, boys to be girls, where we make the miraculous out of the mundane” and include a part for a dog.

The adaptor of the film “Shakespeare in Love” into play form, which is now on stage at Cleveland Play House, Hall might have added, “and where we can watch as a very talented man, creates poetic words and idea-inciting plots that will live forever.”

The play’s program states, “We invite you to join us in the lusty, bawdy, adventurous world in which Shakespeare lived loved, and wrote.  A world where sex and history combine for a punchline, where desires of the body go hand-in-hand with those of the soul, and where a good disguise can go a long way.”  And, it could have added, to a question posed in the script, “Yes a play can be about true love.”  And, yes, as Elizabeth I demanded in all the plays of her era, there is a dog!

Those who watched the recent television series, “Will” will be glad to add to their pseudo-history knowledge of The Bard by participating in yet another of the hot-blooded Shakespeare’s infidelities in this production.

A combination of farce, comedy, drama, tragedy and historification, “Shakespeare in Love” allows us to view a penniless youthful Shakespeare go from a 1593 playwright with writer’s block to a “phenome” churning out hit plays after he meets the fair Viola, who inspires him to write the likes of “Romeo and Juliet” and lay the foundation for many of his other masterpieces (which often include a dog.)

Because of the blending of acting styles needed to perform the various genres of the script, the complexity of the plot and the need for a perfectly trained dog (yes there is a dog), the material is difficult to perform.

Worry not.  Director Laura Kepley has the entire mélange in hand.  The farce and slapstick are well developed, comedy lines nicely cued, the tragedy focused and the entire production zips right along.

Lex Liang’s sets and costumes, Russell H. Champa’s lighting design, Jane Shaw’s sound design and compositions add the right moods to the staging.  The fights, the choreography and the music, thanks to Drew Fracher, David Shimotakahara and Nathan Motta are well conceived.

The cast understands the necessary changes needed to accent the writers’ intent and play their multi-roles with aplomb.

Charlie Thurston looks like the sketches we have seen of Shakespeare, and nicely makes Will into a love sick charming rogue as well as a talented poet and playwright.  Marina Shay inhabits the role of the both cunning and lovely Viola.

Donald Carrier delights as Henslowe, a debt-ridden theater owner, Andhy Mendez well interprets Marlow, Shakespeare’s playwriting rival, Brian Owen blusters effectively as Burbage, the owner of a rival theatre, and Evan Zes delights as the uptight Fennyman, the money lender.  And of course, there is Nigel the dog, who brings many laughs as Spot. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   A combination of farce, comedy, drama, tragedy and historification, “Shakespeare in Love” delights.  It makes for a joyful start to CPH’s 2017-2018 season.  And, yes, there is a dog!

“Shakespeare in Love” runs through October 1, 2017, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Next up at CPH is “The Diary of Anne Frank” from October 21-November 19 in the Outcalt Theatre.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Finely performed “Simply Simone” jazzes up Karamu

Mention the name Nina Simone and your mind probably conjures up jazz.  Yes, Nina, the jazz superstar and writer/performer of such powerhouse songs as “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”  But, were you aware that the terms child prodigy, civil rights activist, political exile and the Legend Queen of Black Classical music also apply?

Simone, whose given name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was the child of a preacher who was emotionally absent and an uptight religious mother. 

Born in the deeply segregated South, she showed early talent as a pianist and, under the tutelage of a white piano teacher, and the financial backing of both blacks and whites of Tryon, North Carolina, Eunice, who wished to be the first black major concert pianist, was accepted at Julliard School of Music. 

She was later denied entrance into the prestigious Curtiss Institute of Music in Philadelphia, in a slightly veiled act of race and gender bias.  Two days before her death, the rejection was set aside when Curtiss gave her an honorary doctorate degree.

In order to avoid the wrath of her mother, who detested the “devil’s music”, Eunice changed her name to Nina Simone.  Thus, she started to play “cocktail piano” and sing, in her contralto voice, at venues in Atlantic City, wrote her own songs, and made herself into the diva of classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel and pop.  Before she was done, she produced more than 40 albums.

“Simply Simone the music of Nina Simone” is a biographical review which uses song to illustrate the turbulent life and rich artistic legacy of this American musical diva.

The songs, presented by four different African American women, all performing Nina at various stages of her life, illustrate the many moods of the woman, as well as the important people in her life.

We experience Eunice’s upbringing, early piano lessons, youthful successes, marriage and relationship failures, friendships with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lorraine Hansberry, Leroy Jones and Langston Hughes, as well as her exile from the country for tax evasion, refusal to return for the funeral of her father, her relationship with her daughter, and the rises and falls of her career.

To be successful, a production of “Simply Simone” requires four supreme actresses with stellar voices and a wailing band.  Fortunately, Karamu has all the bases covered.

In its regional premiere, and the opening of the theatre’s 2017-2018 season, the outstanding cast features Sheffia Randall Dooley (the Earth Mother image of Simone), Afia Mensa (youthful image), Corlesia Smith (sophisticated Nina) and Mariama Whyte (the edgy and powerful façade).  Each woman plays the singer as a person or as a part of the legend.

Ed Ridley’s band, featuring his keyboard playing, the percussion of Elijah Gilmore, Brad McGee on guitar and bass player Kevin Byous, excel, expertly backed up without drowning out the singers. 

The scenic and costume design of Inda Blatch-Geib, lighting by Prophet Seay, sound by Rob Peck and choreography by Adenike Sharpley all enhance the production, which is under the adept direction of Caroline Jackson Smith.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  If you like the sounds and music of Nina Simone, enjoy well played, sung and performed jazz, gospel, blues, folk, R&B, and pop music, and want to know more about the Diva of Jazz, Karamu’s “Simply Simone” should be your entertainment destination.

“Simply Simone” continues through October 8, 2017 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street. In contrast to a pervious announcement, the entire theatre season will be performed on the Karamu campus.  Free parking in a guarded lot is available.  For ticket information call 216-795-7070 or go on line to

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Irreverent “Book of Mormon” delights in return visit at State Theatre

One of the major concerns in attending a return visit by a Broadway touring show is that the production will be a lesser version.   Those planning on attending “Book of Mormon,” now on stage at the State Theatre, should have no fears.  This reincarnation is equally good as any of the other versions that have trucked into town.  In fact, it is probably better than some of the others.

After writing five reviews about the show, what more is there for me to say about the plot?  Not much, so here’s a blend of some of the former reviews and some added comments about this production.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the long-time writers of “South Park,” are satirical comics extraordinaire.  Their writing marriage to Robert Lopez, the co-creator of the Tony Award winning “Avenue Q,” is a union made in heaven (or at least in the Broadway version of heaven). 

“The Book of Mormon” is a satirical musical filled with lots of explicit language.  It lampoons organized religion and, in its own way, follows the format, but mocks traditional musical theater. 
The script tells the story of two naïve and optimistic Mormon missionaries (Elder Price and Elder Cunningham) who are sent to a remote village in northern Uganda.  A brutal warlord is threatening the locals.  While the duo is trying to sell the locals on Mormon scripture, the people are more concerned with famine, poverty, female circumcision, war and AIDS.  Oh, what to do, what to do?

How did the duo get to Uganda or even get matched together?  Elder Price is the poster boy for the Ken doll, clean cut, and striving for perfection Mormon missionary.  Elder Cunningham is a rotund, friendless nerd, who relies on half-truths and a vivid imagination to get by.  They were cast as a duo through total serendipity, an act of heaven, and some clever comic writers, to go out and ring the doorbells of the world.

As Elder Cunningham, who admits never having read the mythical Book, makes up fantastic tales, which, in reality, aren’t far from the actual imaginative tales of Adam Smith, Brigham Young, the golden tablets, and the migration of the Mormons from upstate New York to Salt Lake City, and he wins over converts. 

After he baptizes the entire town, the church’s elders come to witness the miraculous success.  The villagers share their understanding of the Cunningham version of their new religion in a reenactment, which parallels in form to “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” in the “King and I,” with illusions to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from “The Sound of Music.”  Of course chaos results, everything turns out fine, and, after a standing ovation, the audience leaves the theatre singing, “I Believe.”

The touring show is spectacular.  It plays visually and emotionally on all the senses.  From its giddy opening number (think the “Telephone Hour” at the start of “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” to its mocking use of four letter words, to its bigger than life melodrama, to the over-the-top mythology (often paralleling the belief system to “Star Wars”), we are sucked into the idea that, as one of the words to the many delightful songs states, “tomorrow is a doper, phatter latter day.”  (I won’t even go into the concept of the song “Ma Ha Nei Bu, Eebowai!” [“F _ _ _You Heavenly Father”], you just have to experience it to experience it!)

The settings, music, costumes, lighting effects, perfect comic timing of the cast, and creative choreography all work.

With shiny perfect teeth flashing, Gabe Gibbs hits all the right notes as Elder Price.  Conner Peirson steals the show as Elder Cunningham, the “creative liar.” Maha’la Herrold is enchanting as Nabulungi.  Oge Agulue is both hysterically funny and evil incarnate, as General Butt-F _ _ king Naked, the war lord.  The rest of the cast also shines. 

Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker’s direction is spot on.  Farce, especially musical farce, is hard to accomplish due to its required spoken and sung controlled abandonment, but these guys guide their cast with laser perfection.  Nicholaw’s choreography is fun and well-executed.  Ever thought you’d see a dancing kick line of Mormons?

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you haven’t seen “The Book of Mormon,” or need a new shot of irreverent satire which skewers anyone and everyone, this is an absolute go see production. If you are a language prude, religious fanatic, or aren’t in the mood for ridiculous delight, stay away.  It’s everything a modern musical that is meant for pure entertainment, with a sip of philosophy, should be!

Tickets for “The Book of Mormon,” which runs September 17, 2017, at the State Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Janáček’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” to open The Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th season

The Cleveland Orchestra is on the verge of reaching its centennial.  In celebration of this momentous milestone, the innovative made-for-Cleveland stylized opera production of Leoš Janáček’s “The Cunning Vixen” will grace the Severance Hall stage.  

The production, complete with music provided by one of the world’s great orchestras, under the baton of music director, Franz Welser-Möst, and featuring the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, the Children’s Chorus and a dozen-plus vocalists, along with animation by the Walter Robot Studios, projections and lighting by Jason Thompson, costumes by Ann Close-Farley and masks by Cristina Waltz, will come forth for three performances. 

“The Cunning Vixen,” which was conceived around 1921, is the tale of a clever fox, who, accompanied by other wildlife as well as a few humans, has a series of adventures while traversing their life cycles. 

The libretto for the comic opera/tragedy, which was adopted by the Czech composer from a serialized novella, incorporates Moravian folk music and rhythms.  

First performed by the Cleveland Orchestra in May of 2014, it is credited with returning the composition to its opera roots.  It features hole-in-the wall carnival cutouts to place the singers’ heads on the animated bodies of the animal characters.

The opera is noted for breaking from traditional forms of that musical format, by adding ballet, mime and orchestral interludes. 

Though the piece contains the vixen’s death at the end of the piece, it is the lightest of the author’s operas.  The sound is often compared to that of the French composer Claude Debussy.

It is noteworthy that at the composer’s request, the final scene from the opera was performed at his funeral.

“The Cunning Little Vixen” will be staged on September 23, 24 and 26 at Severance Hall.  Tickets may be obtained by calling (216) 231-7300 or going on line to

Monday, September 04, 2017

Apollo’s Fire, Cleveland’s award winning Baroque orchestra, opens new season with “Israel in Egypt”

After selling out concerts at Tangelwood, in Madrid, Spain and BBC programs in London, Apollo’s Fire comes home to open its 2017-2018 season with “Israel in Egypt.”

“Israel in Egypt” Handel’s Oratorio vividly traces the Israelites’ escape from Egypt.  Filled with sumptuous music, the adaptation by Jeanette Sorrell, the orchestra’s musical director, will feature Apollo’s Singers as well as performances by soprano Erica Schuller, countertenor Daniel Moody, tenor Ross Hauck and baritone Jeffrey Strauss.

Fitting nicely into the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper season, the concert continues the tradition of showcasing Jewish themes by the orchestra which previously performed “Sephardic Journey,” which, in its recorded version, made Billboard’s Top 10 list. (To read a review of the “Sephardic Journey” concert and a bio of soloist Jeffrey Strauss, go to, and enter Apollo’s Fire in the search box in the upper right side.)

The orchestra, which is named after the classical god of music and sun, was founded in 1992 by Sorrell with a grant from the Cleveland Foundation.  The musical director envisioned an ensemble dedicated to the baroque ideal that music should evoke the passions of the listeners through drama and rhetoric.  She has succeeded!

The group, whose recordings are often best sellers, frequently broadcast on National Public Radio and can be heard throughout North America and Europe. 

Using period instruments, the ensemble includes a pool of music specialists and singers who create a unique sound and features innovative programming.

Besides their sneak peek and regular concerts, the orchestra presents “Music Alive,” a series of free concerts at the Akron Art Museum, under the sponsorship of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Their “Israel & Egypt” sneak peek will be held on Sunday, October 1 at 3:00 pm in the Gallery.

The group will make its Carnegie Hall, New York, debut on March 22, 2018 and then travel to Boston for a Boston Early Musical Festival on March 24.

Apollo’s Fire dedication to nurturing the next generation of musical appreciators and performers is highlighted by an intimate artistic learning experience, which centers on free family concerts, a Treble Youth Choir and a Young Artist Apprentice Program.

Performances of “Israel in Egypt” are: Thursday, October 12, 7:30 pm @ St. Paul’s Episcopal, 1361 West Market Street, Akron; Friday, October 13, 8 pm @ First Baptist Church, 3630 Fairmount Boulevard, Shaker Heights; Saturday, October 14, 8pm @ The Temple-Tifereth Israel, 26000 Shaker Boulevard, Beachwood; and, Sunday, October 15, 4pm @ Avon Lake Church, UCC, 32801 Electric Boulevard, Avon Lake.

Information about Apollo’s Fire and tickets may be purchased at or by calling 216-320-0012.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Opening night standing ovation for Dobama’s “brownsville song (b-side for tray) well-deserved

Those familiar with the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn think of such words as “ghetto,” “murder,” “rape” and “crime.”  It’s the kind of place that only makes the news when bad things happen. 

It’s an area where elderly black women find themselves on television dabbing their eyes as they are interviewed after a grandson, who they are bringing up, has been killed as a result of gang or drive-by violence.

Kimber Lee, the author of the social drama “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” which is now in its regional premiere at Dobama, based her drama on a 2012 murder in Brownsville.  It centers on twenty-year old student athlete and amateur boxer, Tray Franklin Grant, who was killed during a gang conflict in which he had no role. 

Lee says she first read about Grant on the blog of Sarah Deming, a writer and one-time boxer who'd tutored him.  "She said he didn't want to talk about his struggles," Lee recalls. "She felt it would make him seem like he was complaining. Yes, Tray had problems, one of which was losing his father—in the same way he'd die, actually.  But he felt like, 'You know what, I have a good life.' He had a quiet strength. That just stayed with me."

In an interview before the show premiered at Louisville’s Humana Festival, the first big production of one of her scripts, she indicated that time moves when you experience grief and loss.  “Yes,” she stated, “The play is about loss and grief, but it is really about the vibrant relationship between members of the family.”

The script, which flows easily from past to present and back again, is written with a lyrical tone.   Lee, in the play’s preface, gives the actors and director this advice, “The aliveness of the play lives in the rhythm and flow of the language, which includes the syncopation of the pauses and silences. Those spaces should be just as full and driving forward with the need of the characters as the words.”

She continues, “Because the story pivots around a deep loss, there may be a tendency to sink into that emotion, but this should be resisted. The scenes, even the ones after Tray’s death, must drive forward, as we all must do in life even in the midst of heartbreak.”

Ms. Lee’s argues, in almost rap song sounds, against treating the next neighborhood death as just one more statistic, but the need is to understand the tragic loss of a whole generation of young black men to death and/or the prison system. (“Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 37% of prison inmates.”  “One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.” “Forty percent of African-American males 15-34 who died were murdered, making it the highest cause of death for this group.”)

The story centers on Tray, a spirited biracial young man.  He is estranged from his Korean-American mother, Merrill (Cindy Chang), being raised, along with his nine-year old sister, Devine (Logan Dior Williams), by Lena (Lisa Louise Langford), his African American grandmother.  He is a “good” boy.  He is hard working, gets good grades, has been accepted to college and is a protective father-figure for his sister.

Merrell slinks along the edges of their lives, having lost them due to her on-going battle with sobriety.   After more than one dive into rehab, it appears that she is finally getting her life together.

Unfortunately, we watch in horror as a shining light of what black young men can be is destroyed in yet another senseless black on black murder. 

Dobama’s production, under the guidance of Jimmie Woody is in many ways superlative.  

The show starts with a heart breaking, mesmerizing monologue, by Langford.  Throughout she continues to develop a textured, meaningful image of a woman fighting for a world that should be, needs to be fair, but unfortunately isn’t.  She doesn’t portray Lena, she is Lena. 

Though he sometimes substitutes yelling for deep emotional feelings, which would be better served by underplaying and pauses rather than loud projection, Cleveland School of the Arts senior, Jabri Little, is excellent as Tray.  He displays a nice glow of vulnerability and instinctive intelligence that helps create a meaningful character.

Chang molds a nice touch of vulnerability with desperation in making Merrell real. 

Both young Ms. Williams and Kalim Hill, in the dual roles of Junior and BC student, are believable.

The technical aspects of the production are superlative.  Scenic designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski has taken a script which calls for multiple settings and created sliding screen and set pieces on wagons, that flow in and out to the well selected music by sound designer Cyrus O. Taylor.  The staging is accented by Marcus Dana’s lighting design.  T. Paul Lowry’s impressive projections transport us out of Cleveland into Brownsville and East Flatbush, New York.  The entire world of “brownsville song” is played out before an impressive painting on the theatre’s back wall by Contributing Artist, John “Skyline” Davison.

Ms. Lee includes in the preface of the play the words of James Baldwin (“Nothing Personal”), “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” It is a fitting memorial to the sad tales of the Trays of the world!

Capsule judgment: Dobama, Cleveland’s fine off-Broadway professional theatre, opens its 2017-2018 season with a mesmerizing production of Kimber Lee’s “must see” script.  Generally well-directed, often superlatively acted, this is drama at its finest!  The opening night standing ovation was well-deserved.

“Brownsville song (b-side for tray)” runs through September 24, 2017 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

Next up at Dobama:   Cleveland’s grand lady of theatre, Dorothy Silver, stars in “Marjorie Prime” from October 13-November 12, 2017.