Tuesday, February 27, 2018

SWEENEY TODD, Sondheim at his most complicated @ Blank Canvas

Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics for “Sweeney Todd:  The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which is now in production at Blank Canvas, is noted as a brilliant lyricist.  Interestingly, that is not the way he sees himself.  He is well-trained as a musical composer, having, from a young age, been the prodigy of Oscar Hammerstein II.  Yes, the composer of such mega hits as “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific” and “Sound of Music.”

Sondheim was in his mid-twenties when he wrote the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.”  He quickly gained a reputation for writing pure rhymes, clever twists on phrases, and character-describing songs that fit perfectly into the plot.
“Sweeney Todd:  The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” or, as it is better known, “Sweeney Todd” was written in 1979.  Known as a musical thriller, is based on a 1973 play by Christopher Bond and won the Tony Award for Best Musical Play.

The score, probably one of Sondheim’s most complex, is filled with intriguing harmonies and counterpoint.  Because most of the dialogue, about eighty percent, is sung, many consider the piece as an opera.  “Never before or since in his work has Sondheim utilized music in such an exhaustive capacity to further the purposes of the drama.”

The brilliant list of musical numbers includes the beautiful “Johanna,” the delightful “The Worst Pies in London” and the heart wrenching “Not While I’m Around.”

The story, centering on obsession, tells the tale of Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker), who was exiled to Australia by Judge Turpin, a ruthless judge who lusted after Todd’s wife.

It is now 1846, many years after the now renamed Sweeney Todd’s exile. 

We meet young Anthony Hope and Todd on a London pier.  Todd has recently rescued Hope at sea and befriended him.  The duo is confronted by a crazed Beggar Woman.   Todd wanders into a meat shop, below his former barber shop, hoping to find out the whereabouts of his wife and daughter. 

Mrs. Lovett, noted as the maker of the worst pies in London, tells about the “death” of his former wife.  She relates that Judge Turpin, who also has taken their daughter, Joanna, as his ward, raped Todd’s wife.  Todd threatens revenge against Turpin and his henchman, Beadle Bamford.  Thus, the plot is laid for a tale of murder and revenge.

Blank Canvas never ceases to amaze.  Performing on a postage-size stage, tucked away on the 2nd floor of the former American Greeting Card warehouse, operating on a shoe-string budget, Artistic Director Patrick Ciamacco and his merry band of performers draw in sold out houses producing off-beat musicals (e.g., “The Wild Party,” “Silence,” “Triassic Parq” and “Reefer Madness “), folded into such classics as “Our Town” and “Of Mice and Men.” The theatre often garners Cleveland Critics Circle and BroadwayWorld-Cleveland awards for excellence.

“Sweeney Todd” is yet another one of those winners.  

Director Jonathan Kronenberger has used every inch of space to keep the well-paced and intense drama moving along to its blood-drenched conclusion. 

Patrick Ciamacco’s scene design works well to enhance the action.  The vocal sounds and music, under the guidance of Matthew Dolan, are well conceived.

Ciamacco, with his strong singing voice and well-textured acting, makes Todd both grief-driven and revengeful.   “Pretty Woman,” a duet with Brian Altman (Turpin) was nicely sung.

Though he lacks the macho leading man presence, Robert Kowalewski is appealing as Anthony Hope.  His rendition of “Johanna” is masterful. 

Trinidad Snider delights as Mrs. Lovett.  Her “Not While I’m Around,” sung with Devin Pfeiffer (Tobias), is emotionally draining, while “A Little Priest” is laugh-inducing.

Lovely Meg Martiniez (Johanna) has a fine singing voice.  The rest of the cast is excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Sweeney Todd” gets a strong and meaningful performance and should please even the most critical of Sondheim aficionados.
“Sweeney Todd” runs through March 10, 2018, in the Blank Canvas west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.   For tickets and directions go to http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com/

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Unnerving, compelling “The Invisible Hand” at Cleveland Play House

Several years ago, when I saw the Broadway production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Disgraced,” I was totally impressed by the creative plot, the quality writing, and how relevant the subject matter was of modern day issues surrounding Islam. 

When I returned home I sent messages to several local theatres encouraging them to produce the play when it became available for staging. 

The Cleveland Play House didn’t grant me my wish, but it is staging Akhtar’s “The Invisible Hand,” an equally unnerving and compelling script.

Akhtar is the son of Pakistani immigrants.  He was brought up in the 1980s in suburban Milwaukee, as one of the only Muslim families in the area. 

The award winning playwright has been compared to Shaw, Brecht, and Miller for his ability to write compelling dialogue and attack contemporary issues.

“The Invisible Hand” centers on American futures trader, Nick Bright, who has been captured in Pakistan when local terrorists mistake him for his boss who the captors think would be worth up to ten million dollars. 

Nick, in order to secure his release, offers to teach Bashir, his captor, and his Imam, who supposedly are trying to affect positive change for the local citizens and to manipulate the futures market in order to raise money.

As the tension increases, questions of position, loyalty and honesty emerge, finally culminating in a dramatic conclusion.

The play, which probes the philosophy of capitalism, Islamic fanaticism, the greed of those who purport to be at the “honor” end of the ideological spectrum, opened to widely positive reviews in all of its productions.

The title centers on the economic theory that “He who controls the currency controls the “power;” thus, the unknown controller is the “invisible hand.”

The Cleveland Play House production is blessed with an outstanding cast.  Max Woertendyke is totally believable as Max, the American captive.  His actions and reactions help create an air of realism which leads to strong empathy.  We emotionally cheer for him to be released safely and not become a television image of yet another beheaded captor.

Louis Sallan portrays the role of Bashir with the right level of emotional on-the-edge terrorist, but his English accent is so heavy that he is often difficult to understand.

J. Paul Nicholas captures the right edge as Imam Saleem.  Nik Sadhnani is effective as Dar, a guard.

Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh creatively develops the tension and perfectly paces the action, building the tension.  That anxiety is strongly accented by sound designer Daniel Perelstein’s intense sound and music, which, between each scene, jars the audience into the feeling of being captured behind slamming, confining jail doors. 

One must wonder why Yousefzadeh and scenic designer Mikiko Suzuki Macadams decided to set the play in a runway configuration, with the audience on both sides of the stage.  Yes, being close to the action intensifies the audience’s emotional involvement, but the long set made the cell appear to be huge, rather than the needed feeling of insufferable confinement, and the large space creates echoes, which blunted the sharpness of the speech and caused periods of dialogue lapses.   Also, being able to see people reacting in the opposite audience was distracting, often breaking the mood.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: In spite of some technical issues, “The Invisible Hand” is an unnerving and compelling production at CPH.  The tale of how the economy works and can be manipulated, as well as placing the spotlight on Islamic terrorism, makes this a vital contemporary play.  The cast is outstanding and the pace and tone are tension-inducing.  This is a production which is required seeing by anyone interested in fine acting and the reality of the world around us.

“The Invisible Hand” runs through March 11, 2018, at the Outcalt Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Next up at CPH: Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July,” as performed by the CWRU/CPH MFA students (March 28-July 7), followed by “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” (April 14-May 6).

Monday, February 19, 2018

He’s Back…Andrew May returns in a shocker at GLT

When Great Lakes Theater Festival announced in June, 2009, that it’s Associate Artistic Director, Andrew May, was no longer going to be part of the company, many CLE theatre-goers were shocked. 

Yes, our Andrew May, who had been an artistic associate at Cleveland Play House, and starred in 40 productions, before moving down Euclid Avenue to be part of GLTF.  The multi-talented Andrew May, who played farce, comedy, drama and tragedy with equal skill.

May had no choice but to flee.  The divorced father of two teenagers needed a gig that payed a regular salary.  CLE had only two professional theatres at the time and he couldn’t make enough free-lancing to remain.  In addition, as May said in an interview, “I think it might be about time to take the next step in my career.  He continued, "It's a gamble to just suck it up and do it, move to New York or Los Angeles, but this whole stupid career is a gamble."

So, gamble he did.

He went out into the big wide scary world and achieved.  Maybe not to the degree he wanted.  He never became the leading Hollywood actor or a household name on Broadway, but he had a leading role in the touring production of the award-winning WAR HORSE, which, ironically, had a run in Cleveland. 

His film and television credits included "Big Love" for HBO, "Duet" and "227" for FOX, “Striking Distance,” Columbia Pictures, and "Shades of Gray" and "The Babe Ruth Story," both for NBC.  He received the Joseph Jefferson Citation in Chicago for his portrayal of William Shakespeare in "A Cry of Players."

But fortunately for locals, May has decided to return and is now starring in GLT’s “Misery.”  He will also will be in “Macbeth” in March, and word is out that he will also be around for the fall repertoire productions later this year. 

For the sake of his many fans, it is hoped that he will again become a regular on local stages.

As for “Misery,” it’s a psychological horror thriller based on Stephen King’s 1988 novel, which was made into a 1990 film credited with being one of the most recognized “scare” flicks of all time, and for which Kathy Bates won an Academy Award as best actress.

The book was also made into a London performed play and a “feel bad” musical.

The American stage production, by William Goldman, was performed in New York in 2015 as a limited run production.  It starred Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf and ran about four months.  Metcalf was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, while Willis’s performance was termed by one Big Apple critic, as being “vacant.”

The story centers on Paul Sheldon, a noted writer of Victorian-era romance novels involving Misery Chastain. 

Sheldon, a man of habit, always finished his novels at a quaint, out-of-the-way inn in Colorado, smoking one cigarette and having a glass of Dom Perignon.

Unfortunately for Sheldon, he decides to take a drive, runs into a snow storm, loses control of his car and winds up in an off-the road crash.  He is “saved” by Annie Wilkes, a local who is the writer’s “number one fan.” 

One can only wonder if Wilkes forced him off the road so she could claim him to be her own, or whether it was an accident.

Whatever, Annie, a former nurse, pries open the car door, brings Sheldon back to her isolated home, sets his broken legs, plies him with pain killers, nurses him back to health and makes him a captive. 

When Annie finds out that Sheldon has killed off Misery Chastain, Annie’s favorite character in the just released book, she goes ballistic, demanding that he write a follow-up and bring Misery back to life. 

In the process of his confinement Sheldon realizes that psychotic Annie has no intention of letting him go.

What follows, which includes the famous crippling of Sheldon by a sludge-hammer wielding Annie, is an exciting ending which leaves the audience unnerved.

The acting quality of the GLT production, under the direction of Charles Fee, is outstanding.  Kathleen Pirkl Tague is deranged-perfect as the Annie.  You would not want to find yourself in a dark alley with Tague.  She is one crazy, scary, nut-case.  In other words, Tague is terrific!!

Nick Steen is believable as Buster, the local sheriff, who pays dearly for being too inquisitive.

It’s wonderful to see Andrew May on a local stage.  He is totally believable as the hobbled, pain-ridden Paul Sheldon.  He nicely textures the performance, even getting a few painful laughs in the process.  Welcome home Andrew!

The staging itself has some production issues.  Gage Williams’ set well fits the visual requirements of the story, but it creates practical issues.  One wonders how Sheldon manages to move from the upper to the lower level and visa-versa in a wheel chair.  Also, since we are told over and over about the vast amount of snow, the outside area of the house is void of any of the white stuff during the entire show.  As for the sound and lights…the sound of thunder is aptly terrifying, but lightning and thunder during a snowstorm?  The sound of the cars’ arrivals and exits are not consistent.  Then there is the questionable trajectory of the blood following the gun shot.

Capsule judgement:  In spite of some technical issues, “Misery” is well worth seeing!  The acting is of the highest level and it’s nice to see Andrew May on a CLE stage once again.
“Misery” runs through March 11, 2018 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Saturday, February 17, 2018

“Sassy Mamas” -- laughs, laughs and more laughs @ Karamu

Sometimes theater is high drama.  At other times it’s for learning about history or philosophy.  “Sassy Mamas,” now on stage at Karamu, is on stage for one purpose only…to create outlandish laughter.  

If you are lucky enough to get a ticket to “Sassy Mamas,” yes, “lucky enough” because even though the show just opened, ducats are tough to obtain, you are in for a great time.

A sold-out house, mainly populated by African American women “of a certain age,” found much to entertain them.  From the first laugh, which hit about two lines into the show, until the screaming standing ovation ending, the ladies and the cast were part of a love/laugh in.

Celeste Bedford Walker’s script centers on three successful single friends who decide that, “why should males have all the fun.”

The trio are Jo Billie, a widow trying to break out of the doldrums after her husband, the love of her life, died; Wilhemina, a member of the President’s cabinet and a confirmed “single” (think Condoleezza Rice); and a divorcee, Mary, who was blind-sided by her husband leaving her for a younger woman.  Each is attractive and financially comfortable. 

They decide that maybe the “cougar” life might not be so bad.

Multi-award winning playwright, Celeste Bedford Walker, knows women, especially African American women.  She creates characters who are believable, not stereotypes, have emotional depth, and whom we love from start to finish.

Kimbely Sias is character-perfect as Jo Billie who covers up her grieving with wisecracks and sensuous moves.  Jeanne Madison nicely creates Wilhemina as a self-conceived ice cube who purportedly doesn’t need or want a man in her life.  Mary, Rebecca Morris’s alter-ego, is an up-tight-woman who has turned to HGTV buying as an emotional outlet for her reaction to her husband’s abandonment. 

These are three wonderful actresses who have a wonderful time playing wonderfully-written roles.

Walker matches each woman with a different kind of guy, adding to the fun.  

Jo Billie’s hunk of choice is LaDonte, with a body covered with tattoos, thrusting hips that make Elvis’s moves amateur by comparison, and is totally without scruples.  He’s perfect for a-renta-toy to use and throw away when he’s no longer needed.  The totally uninhibited Cameron Woods plays “sexy, sexy” with ease.  One of the audience of uninhibited audience-ladies wished out loud that she had a dollar to shove into his tight fitting jeans.  

Classy Wilhemina gets involved with Wes, a journalist assigned to do a story on her, who turns out to be charming, tall, dark and handsome.  When Michael Head, who plays Wes, appeared on stage shirtless, a steamed up woman sitting behind me bellowed, “That is one hunky piece of guy man,” to the delight of her high-fiving “gal” friends.

Up-tight Mary lights upon Colby, a gardener who has come to help her groom her African greenhouse garden.  Very young Bryon Tobin turned on the “mommy instincts” of the ladies in the audience, one of whom moaned, “That is one damn pretty child,” with the word pretty divided into five syllables, with the first held for a five count, followed by a “u-hmm.”

Yes, the audience was having fun!  (At times it was as much fun listening to the audience as the actors.)

Not only does Walker know her characters and her audience, and Karamu’s sassy mammas know how to ply their acting trade, but director Tony Sias knows how to pace a comedy, build hysteria through double takes and extended pauses, and tickle the audience’s funny bones.

Costumer Inda Blatch-Geib creates a fashion show of high fashion, African designed patterns, and marvelous hats.  Her set design of three different rooms also carries out her strong aesthetic talents.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Karamu’s “Sassy Mamas” has the right balance of laughs, pathos, visual excitement and empathy to delight.  It’s a fluffy romantic comedy that fully satisfies!  Huzzahs!
“Sassy Mamas” continues through March 4, 2018 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

“RIVERDANCE 20” delights with its blend of dance, music, and telling of tales

Mention the name “Riverdance” and the general thought of many is Michael Flatley.  Yes, Flatley, the Irish dance champion and the theatrical show consisting of mainly Irish music and dance, are synonymous. 

Flatley and his partner, Jean Butler, were featured as an interval performance during the 1994 Eurovision contest and immediately became sensations. 

The seven-minute act became a full-length show with some signature elements.  Even today, 20 years later, most of the songs have not changed since that original production.  Once you’ve seen a staging, you will get an opening of a foggy stage and haunting flute solo, the telling of Irish tales, Gaelic musical interludes, and traditional Irish and international dancing. 

The show can be credited for transforming what was a chaste, reserved, traditional dance, with its own specific movement vocabulary, into an international favorite and identifiable performance form.

Rooted in baroque-influenced music, rock rhythms, Irish legends, and Irish “jig” dancing, the production has reached the level of being a legend.

No, Flatley is no longer a member of the show, having left in 1995 after a contract dispute.  Maybe because of that there have been some adjustments in the program, especially featuring more of the dancers, with less emphasis on it being a one-man show. 

The concert has become more international.  A Russian Folk Troupe, Flamenco soloist, and American Tappers are part of the goings-on.

In fact, the highlight of “Riverdance 20” was “Trading Taps,” a competition between two African American tappers and three of the company’s principle male dancers. 

Other audience favorites were “The Russian Dervish,” highlighted by high kicking Soviets and “American Wake,” a square dance with Irish dance steps.

Will you miss the flamboyant Flately?  Opening night the lead male dancer was handsome, charismatic Callum Spencer.  He danced with high proficiency and, as demonstrated by the screaming at curtain call, he won the admiration of the crowd.  His dance partner was the talented Maggie Darlington.

Capsule judgment: “Riverdance 20” is an innovative and exciting blend of dance, music, and telling of tales that well-deserves the large audiences flowing into the Key Bank State Theatre. 

The show runs through February 18.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.


Dance Cleveland and Tri-C
March 17, 2018, 7:30 PM, Ohio Theatre
“Che Malambo,” 14 powerful Argentine Gauchos stomping, drumming and dancing.
Tickets:  Call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org

Danceworks 2018 @ Cleveland Public Theatre
Inlet Dance Theatre—April 10-12
Double-Edge Dance and Travesty Dance Group—April 17-19
Anateus Dance and Bones Performance Group-- April 24-26
Verb Ballet—May 1-3
Info:  http://www.cptonline.org/

Cleveland Ballet
“Alice in Wonderland”
May 11 (1 pm & 11 pm), May 12 (11 am)
Ohio Theatre
Tickets:  https://cleveland-ballet-alice-in-wonderland.ticketsw.com/?lbl=bing-ex

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Fascinating investigation of a world that many don’t know at Ensemble

The South Side of Chicago is noted for its gritty streets, drug dealers, drive by shootings and pressure for Black men and boys to not only protect their turf, but be “prideful” and not allow themselves to be slave to the ways of the “massa” (the white bosses).

Charles Smith, the Distinguished Professor of Playwriting at Ohio University, where he also heads the Professional Playwriting Program, writes gritty poetic language with a black man’s soul.

In “Jelly Belly,” Smith’s script which is in performance at Ensemble Theatre as part of Black History month, the author offers an “unremittingly bleak portrait of inner-city life and the enormous pressure on working-class black men to be gangstas.”

We meet Jelly Belly, the drug kingpin of the neighborhood, who is just out of jail.  He obviously doesn’t have much fear of returning to prison for his first task is to entice Kenny, a young man who was a former “salesman” to return to working for him.  The youth is caught between his hopes for prosperity through hard “legit”work and the opportunistic life of a drug pusher.

Jelly Belly also tries to convince Mike, a married man with a child, who has been working construction to “be a man” and not work to become a tool of the white establishment. 

Smith depicts his tale of complex issues in a single afternoon presented on a plain front porch.  He makes clear the difficult path of someone like Mike, with no education but lots of work experience, who has recently been passed over for a supervisor’s job by a young white college graduate.  A “boy” who Mike is going to have to train to do the job.

The production, under the steady hand of Ian Wolfgang Hinz, is well-cast and justifiably can be a shock to audience members who are not used to the everyday pressure of drugs, guns and the underbelly of society.

Greg White is properly slimy as Jelly Belly.  He makes the character easy to hate through his smooth presentation and confident ways.  White continues to impress as one of the area’s top actors.

Lashawn Little (Mike) gives a nicely textured performance as the family man whose wife and family have given him a reason to persevere against the pressures of his neighborhood and societal patterns.

Mary Francis Renee Miller is rock solid as Barbara, a no-nonsense woman whose purpose in life is to make a strong stand for family, husband and son.

Last year Jabri Little was selected by both the Cleveland Critic’s Circle and BroadwayWorld-Cleveland as a “RISING STAR” (a promising newcomer).  His portrayal of Kenny proves the critics were correct.  This is one talented young man.

Robert Hunter’s portrayal of the drug-zoned-out Bruce, brings laughter, laughter which brings tears as a symbol of everything bad that can happen to a black, uneducated man who has been manipulated into walking through life as a dead, worthless soul.

Walt Boswell’s simple set design works well.

Capsule judgment: The 90-minute play sends out chilling messages on the grim reality of drugs, guns, and the plight of the American Black man in the modern world. This is a production which commands to be seen!  It’s not a pleasant sit, but it is definitely one worth the effort!

“JELLY BELLY” runs through February 25, 2018 on Thursdays through Sundays at Ensemble’s 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 production is The 2018 Colombi New Play Festival, March 9-25, followed by “Angels in America Part Two:  Perestroika,” April 27-May 20.

“Boy” -- truth is stranger than fiction at none too fragile

Truth can often be stranger and more compelling than fiction.  Such is the case of David (Bruce) Reimer and his identical twin brother, Brian, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

In 1966 the boys were analyzed with a minor medical problem involving their urination.  A urologist decided that the best way to fix the issue of the eight-month boys would be circumcision.  He worked on David first.  The doctor botched the operation, accidentally cutting off virtually all of the boy’s penis.

Dr. John Money of Johns’ Hopkins University, a psychologist, sexologist and one of the world’s most recognized authors on sexual identity and biology of gender “believed a person’s gender identity was determined by an interaction between biological factors and upbringing.  That represented a break from past thinking, in which gender identity was largely believed to be caused only by biological factors.”

Money proposed to the Reimer family that they “bring David up a girl as, at that time, constructing a penis was almost impossible, but surgically, and with the aid of hormones and psychological treatment, Bruce as ‘Brenda,’ would live a “normal” life.”  It was planned that “Brenda” would never be told he had been biologically been born a male.

Money would work with the family, cover financial costs, and would be given rights to publish his findings. 

Bruce underwent an operation to surgically remove his testicles, and it was planned that later the “girl” would go through a procedure to create an artificial vagina. 

Money wrote a number of professional papers on how well the process was going.  However, “David’s case came to international attention in 1997 when an academic sexologist started to probe into what appeared to be some questionable conclusions.  Later research by others in the field brought even more questions about the “validity” of Money’s claims.  

In addition, reports of questionable ethical practices including Money’s encouraging “sexual rehearsal play” between Brenda and Brian emerged. 

The “John/Joan case,” as the situation would eventually be known, questioning sex reassignment and surgical reconstruction and Money’s methods and reported results, emerged.  It was determined that “Money was lying. He knew Brenda was never happy as a girl.”  

Academic sexologist, Milton Diamond, later reported that Bruce/Brenda's realization he was not a girl crystallized between the ages of 9 and 11, and he transitioned to living as a male at age 15.

On July 1, 2002, Brian was found dead from an overdose of antidepressants.  On May 4, 2004, David committed suicide by shooting himself.  “The boy’s parents stated that Money’s methodology was responsible for the deaths of both of their sons.”

Sounds like a tale which would make for a compelling play?  A production of “Boy” by Anna Ziegler, a fictionalized version of the tale, with names and some of the details altered, is now in production at none too fragile.

Ziegler’s play stays close to the surface.  The motivations of “Dr. Wendell Barnes” [paralleling Dr. John Money] are not well developed and give an impression that the man may have been a pedophile, which is not reality.  In addition, the parents seem to be so easily led by Barnes that they are almost unreal.  In spite of this the story holds interest.

Director Sean Derry has selected an excellent cast and keeps the action moving quickly along. 

Young David Lenahan (Adam/Samantha) masterfully develops the dual role…switching nicely between the male and female enactments, as well as the age progression.  It’s worth seeing the play just to see the emergence of this fine young actor.

Natalie Green is believable as Jenny, who eventually turns out to be adult- Adam’s girlfriend.  Marc Moritz nicely textures Dr. Barnes within the parameters of the author’s writing.  Pamela Harwood and Andrew Narten, again restricted by the script, do a good job of portraying the parents.

Capsule judgment:  The script is not as gripping as it might be.  In spite of that, the topic and the production are compelling.  For many, unaware of the true “Joan/John case,” the play probably seems like unreal fiction, but, in reality, the story on which Ziegler’s script was based is real…very real!  This is a production well-worth seeing.

Personal disclosure
:  While living in Baltimore in the early 1990s I was a counselor at a center whose mission was the evaluation, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, emotional and behavioral health issues, specifically those dealing with “evaluation and treatment of sexual and gender identity concerns in children, adolescents and adults.” “Research and theory on the nature of human sexuality, love maps, sexual orientations and gender identities,” were a major part of the practice.  Some of the staff had worked with Dr. Money, were his former students, and he served as their mentor.  His influence hung heavy on the center.

For tickets for “Boy,” which runs through February 17, 2018, call 330-671-4563 or go to nonetoofragile.com

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Talent- filled “HAIR” rocks at Beck


In December, 1968, about 50 Lorain County Community College students flew to New York.  Some in the clean-scrubbed conservative group, coming from a campus void of political turmoil, had never traveled as far-a-field as downtown Cleveland.

The first play they saw on their Big Apple adventure was “Hair:  The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” 

Yes, “Hair,” the James Rado, Gerome Ragni, Galt MacDermot hippie, counterculture, sexual revolution musical that introduced rock and roll to Broadway, and shocked many theatre-goers with nudity, swearing, anti-Vietnam protest, sexuality, drug usage, and irreverence for the American flag. 

The students were seated in the first couple of rows of the theatre and received lots of attention from the young actors and were invited onto the stage for the “Be-In” finale, which found them dancing on a Broadway stage.

When the tour of the show came to Cleveland, some of the students were at the April 25, 1971 performance of the show when a bomb exploded in front of Cleveland's Hanna Theatre.  Yes, “Hair” was a controversial show.

“Hair” is often referred to as the ending bookend of the era known as the Golden Age of Broadway.  The first true book musical, “Oklahoma” (1943) set the format for what is known as the American Musical, and the Age of Aquarius musical (1968) ushered in major changes to that format, showcased by a racially integrated cast, taking on a serious topic, and adding rock music to the genre’s lexicon. 

The script was time-specific, furthering the concept that theatre is representative of the era from which it comes.  “Hair” is the 1960s, a time of political activity, flower children, drugs, long-haired hippies, bohemian life style, free love, tie-dyed shirts and polyester bell bottom pants, rebellion against tradition family values and conservative beliefs, and the preaching of making love/not war. 

“Hair” tells the tale of friends Claude, Berger and Sheila and their “tribe” as they struggle to balance their youthful lives, with rebellion against the Vietnamese War and draft conscription.  It is also a reflection of the tidal waves of change that were ripping the country apart.

Even the theatrical staging was a change from tradition with caffolds to climb, nudity, breaking of the third wall with cast members flowing over the apron of the stage to interact with the audience, and dance and sing down the aisles.  A Be-In with cast and audience dancing together on and off-stage were nightly occurrences.  This was definitely not “Oklahoma,” “My Fair Lady,” or “Annie Get Your Gun.”

The score was eclectic and electric.  “Aquarius” placed the “world” in a dream-like/flower power state.  “Sodomy” gave words to free love. “Hashish” introduced the topic of drugs.  “Colored Spade,” Black Boys” and “White Boys” put black oppression front and center.  “Hare Krishna” assaulted western organized religion.  “Where Do I Go” showcases the angst of growing up in the era.  “The War” shocks reality, while “Good Morning Sunshine” opens new paths. And, on and on, it goes…selling its ideas, confronting realities, challenging what was, and making a case for what might be.

The Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace Music Theatre Program production, is vital, dynamic, and has talent overload. 

It is well directed by Victoria Bussert. 

Choreographer Martin C├ęspedes wisely has the large cast mostly moving, rather than doing complex coordinated choreography.  His visual creations fit the music and create the desired effects.  It’s so exciting to see real dancers on stage, well instructed.

The vocalizations are outstanding.  The chorus sounds full and engulfing.  Impressive is that the entire cast stayed in character throughout the production, creating the needed reality.

Sam Columbus (Woof) nails “Sodomy,” Chandler Smith (Claude) plays “Manchester, England” for appropriate tongue-in-cheek laughs.  He, Olivia Kaufmann (Sheila), Veronica Otim (Dionne) and the chorus put the right emotion into “Eyes Look Your Last.” MacKenzie Wright (Jeanie) nicely interprets “Air,” singing meanings not just words.  Courtney Hausman (Crissy) is “geek” delightful in her rendition of “Frank Mills.”

At times there are some strays from the show being era correct. “Fu*k Trump,” “Black Lives Matter,” “No Way Sanctuary,” and “Build Kindness Not Walls” signs, videos and chants may be an attempt to make the issues, issues of today, but modernization is not the purpose of “Hair.”  The high-energy music interpretation, more 2018 than 1960, sometimes takes over and sets a jumping up and down, rather than an intense, flower power rock sound.  Not using 60s clothing and hair styles distracts, but aren’t major issues.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT See “Hair?”  Of course! The overall effect will leave you “Walking on Air,” asking “What a Piece of Work is Man!” and cause you to exit humming, “I Believe in Love.”  Bravo!

“Hair” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through February 25, 2018.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org  

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Charming “Love Letters” @ Theatre in the Circle

What happens when you present a charming script and add two of Cleveland’s most beloved actors?  You get five sold out houses and calls with attempted bribes to get in the door.

The play, A. R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.”  The performers, Cleveland’s first lady of the theater, Dorothy Silver and much lauded and awarded actor, George Roth.

Oh, what a special night it was!

George Roth sits at a desk.  Beside him, Dorothy Silver sits at a companion desk.  They are seated in front of a large, beautifully painted canvas of what looks like a wealthy, refined woman, in the recently redecorated ballroom in the Judson Manor, home of Theatre in the Circle, where Mark and Bill Corcoran’s  Theatre in the Circle performs.

They read letters written by Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Roth) and Melissa Gardner (Silver), wealthy and positioned childhood friends.  Their lifelong correspondence began with required birthday party thank-you notes and then summer camp postcards.  Their parents thought they were likely candidates for a life-long romantic commitment.

Through many years we follow the duo through boarding school and college years.  Andy goes off to Yale and great success.  Melissa flunks out of a series of private schools.  Alex goes off to war.  Melissa marries, but Andy still remains as her first and only real love. 

He marries, becomes a lawyer.  She becomes a semi-successful artist.  The letters continue.  He gets involved in politics.  She gets divorced and becomes estranged from her children and turns to alcohol.  She and Andy have a brief affair, but it’s too late for either of them to commit to one another.     

“Andy's last letter, written to her mother after Melissa's untimely death, makes it eloquently clear how much they really meant and gave to each other over the years—physically apart, perhaps, but spiritually as close as only true lovers can be.”

This is a unique piece of theater.  As the author states, “it needs no theatre, no lengthy rehearsal, no special set, no memorization of lines, and no commitment from its two actors beyond the night of performance."

Capsule judgement:  Silver and Roth are spirited, evocative, humorous, touching, and, of course brilliant in milking meaning for Gurney’s words and grabbing and holding the audience’s attention.  If you didn’t get a chance to experience this special evening of “must see” theater, it’s a shame!
“Love Letters’ played from February 8-11, 2018 at Judson Manor in Cleveland.


Next up at Theatre in the Circle:  ”Nunsense A-Men:  The little Sisters of Hoboken grow a pair,” from May 10-13, 2018 (Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and Saturday and Sunday at 2).  For tickets go to theatreinthecircle.com or call 216-282-9424.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

“Celebrating Black History” by Verb Ballets a study of two choreographic styles

Verb Ballets chose to highlight two young Black choreographers for its “Celebrating Black History” recent program at the Breen Center before a near sold-out performance.

Using the same company of dancers, Antonio Brown, Cleveland native and former Cleveland School of the Arts student was paired with Tommie-Waheed Evans to create the program.  Though none of the selections was particularly Black in story or music, the evening did show a difference in choreographic styles.

“Continuum (2011)” and “Passing By (2012),” both created by Brown, were upbeat, high energy pieces, danced to the choreographer’s remix, with lighting by Trad A Burns.  Both were like abstract modern paintings, had no unifying themes, storyline or a consistent dance vocabulary.  The dancers were constantly moving with energetic explosions.  Because of the pace, the performers were not always in sync, lines were sometimes staggered and movements not always precise.  The overall effect was acceptable, but not exceptional.

Evans’ pieces, both theme centered, were coherent and audience pleasing.  “Surge, Capacity, Force (2017)” based on the cry “But why, I just want to be here,” offered “a reflection on the human dimensions and increasing complexity of national security, including the physical and psychological borders we create, protect and cross in its name.” 

Evens created a vocabulary of modern dance, superimposed on balletic and gymnastic movements which translated into a dynamic explosion of creative yet disciplined movement, danced to patriotic and folk music and a webfeed of spoken words.

“Dark Matter,” the program’s highlight, told the philosophical ode of “love is not so much lost when it was never found for it to be love you must be willing to fight for it and not let it pass you by otherwise it is just a fantasy a yearning of your heart for what you’re not ready to grasp for.” 

A powerful piece, with disciplined moves, with compelling effects created by Trad A Burns lighting, it brought the audience to its feet for an extended curtain call.  Especially appreciated was the dynamic solo dancing of Omar Humphrey.

Next up for Verb:
“Havana Nights,” Friday, April 20, 2018, a benefit gala celebrating the company’s return from its residency in Cuba. 

“Spring Series,” April 27, 2018, 8 PM, E.J. Thomas Hall, Akron University.

“Dance Works 2018,” May 17-19, 2018, 7:30pm, Cleveland Public Theatre

For information and tickets go to:  verbballets.org or call 216-397-3757.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

“Merrily” proves a flop can become a hit @ Lakeland Civic Theatre

In its initial run on Broadway, Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” was met with negative reactions.  Fortunately, that hasn’t discouraged some theatrical artistic directors to shun producing the musical.  A case in point is Lakeland Civic Theatre’s staging the script with wonderful results.

 “Merrily We Roll Along” is a musical adaptation of legendary George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s comedy of the same name.   The book is by George Furth and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the same duo who gave us “Company.”

The story centers around Franklin Shepard, a talented composer of Broadway musicals, who, through egotism, greed, and a series of bad choices in relationships, has abandoned his friends and profession to become a shallow Hollywood producer.

The musical, like the play, is presented in a backwards order.  This initially confused many a critic and audience member.  The score also uses the unusual device of the chorus singing reprises of the title song to transition the scenes (and remind us of the year of the segment).  The musical sound of these reprises mirrors the moods of Shepard’s life, a creative device which some construed as making the song redundant and over-used. 

After 52 preview performances, the Broadway show ran only 16 performances, thus creating one of few Sondheim “flops.”

The initial production had problems from the start.  The cast consisted of unknown teenagers with little performance experience. Changes in the choreographer, the leading man, moving back of the opening night and the backward to forward plot line resulted in audience members walking out and bad reviews.

The story of the problems encountered in the original production is related in a documentary, “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.” It is directed by Lonny Price, who played a major role in the original musical.

Fortunately, for local audiences, Lakeland director, Martin Friedman, a Sondheim expert and devotee, has chosen a talented cast and staged an engaging production.

Handsome Eric Fancher charms as Franklin.  His strong vocalizations and effective acting make the character live.  Trey Gilpin gives the right balance to his portrayal of Charley, Franklin’s best friend and writing partner.  He does comedy and “put-upon” with nice ease and balance.  Amiee Collier, Franklin and Charley’s closet female friend, is convincing as a woman with a life-long crush on Franklin. In spite of becoming a successful writer, she turns to alcohol as an escape from her emotionally pain from unrequited love.

Highlight musical numbers include “Old Friends,” “Franklin Shepard, Inc.,” and such classics as “Not a Day Goes By,” “Good Thing Going” and “Our Time.”

From Austin Kilpatrick’s setting, consisting of a back wall of crumpled sheets of play scripts and movable set pieces, to lighting designer Adam Ditzel’s mood setting lighting, to Jordan Cooper’s musical direction, almost everything works.  The exceptions are the uncreative choreography and confusing costume designs where some performers wear the same clothing during all the transitional years, while others are in and out of numerous costumes.

Capsule judgment:  It may have been a flop on Broadway, but “Merrily We Roll Along” is a hit at Lakeland Civic Theatre.  It’s definitely a must see!!!

“Merrily We Roll Along” runs Friday and Saturdays at 7:30 and 2 on Sundays through February 18 at Lakeland Community College, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland. For tickets call 440-525-7134.  (The college is only 10 minutes from the 90-271 split and worth the short drive!)