Sunday, June 24, 2018

Hyper-realistic must see “On the Grill” compels at Dobama

Last summer Dobama presented Greg Vovos’s “How to Be a Respectable Junkie,” which starred Christopher Bohan, in what was praised by local critics as “absolutely must see theater,” “nearly perfect,” and “powerful.”

This summer, Cleveland’s professional Off-Broadway theatre is showcasing the equally compelling “On the Grill” in its American premiere. 

Dror Keren, author of “On the Grill,” which is on stage with support from the Cleveland Israel Arts Connection and the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, is a noted Israeli performer.  He is a 3-time winner of the Israeli Academy of Film and Television prize for best actor. 

Israeli born, he is a graduate of the Mountview Academy of Theatre of London and is an important performer at the dynamic Carmeri Theatre of Tel Aviv, one of many prospering venues in arts-supporting Israel.

The play, entitled “Grilling” in its Hebrew language version, has been authentically translated into English by Michael Ezrachi, complete with a language cadence which is authentically Hebraic.  It lends itself beautifully to the slight Israeli-English accents of the cast, and easily creates a Sabra-like presence of the hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the inside reputation of the people of the promised land.

Keren gives the actors vivid, clearly stated, compelling language to use for developing his realistic tale which provides American audiences with a new view of present day Israelis, and adds to the historical perspective of the immigrants who inherited a land of dust, poverty and conflict and through pure guts and will-power created a land of milk and honey.  A people who have fought war-after-war to create a sliver of land, surrounded by enemies, into a modern democracy where the dessert blooms, the health and scientific achievements astound, and is a destination for Jews who wish to “return” home.

Keren’s characters are both those who founded Israel and the newer generation.  The former appears to accept that the angst and conflict have been on-going and will continue to be so.  The “newbies” want things to change.  Obviously, this conflict means that the country is no longer unified and the generations “aren’t together anymore.”

It’s Memorial Day and Independence Day when the play takes place, a time for reflection and visiting the graves of those fallen in battle as well as a celebration of the creation of the State of Israel. 

We find ourselves in the backyard of a kibbutz home of a veteran and his wife, whose son, as required by law, served his army duty, returned with PTSD, and has escaped to Germany, the birth place of his beloved grandmother.  Grandmother Gizela, a Holocaust survivor who was smuggled ashore just before the UN’s mandate creating Israel, and who lives out her life with memories of meeting her now-deceased husband is wracked by thoughts of what happened in her life time.  She is present with Raja, her Sri Lankan aide.

Her daughter, Rochale, her son-in-law, Zvika, and neighbor, Avinoam, wait for grandson, Mordi and his non-Jewish German girlfriend, Johanna, to wake up after their flight from Berlin.  Also present is Tirtza, a neighbor, whose son, Gilad, is in the army and could be in the forces that may be going into combat.  Soon to arrive is Alona, who, along with Mordi and Gilad are childhood friends.    

As the tension builds, as jets roar above, and fireworks explode, they watch TV and wait for phones to ring, and family conflicts, neighborly resentments and generational differences collide.

Leighann Delorenzo’s meticulous directing keeps the action real and involving, and the quality of the performances by the entire cast (Dorothy Silver, David Vegh, Juliette Regnier, Andrew Gombas, Arif Silverman, Emily Viancourt, Rocky Encalada, Nicholas Chokan, Michael Regnier and Olivia Scicolone) is so real that it seems we are eavesdropping, not sitting in a theatre watching a play.

“Grilling,” which was selected as the Best Israeli Play of 2015, is still running.  It is a play of exploration, tension, angst and hyper-realism.  It is a look at Israel not usually presented in plays about that country. 

As revealed in the talkback with the author, following an opening weekend staging, it was developed, much like the American musical, “A Chorus Line,” by collecting stories from the original cast of 10 actors regarding real personal and family experiences, which were then melded together by Keren, to produce this, his first play!

Capsule judgement: “On the Grill” takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster. It is a superb script which gets a superb performance.  This eye-opening delving into Israel, its joys, fears and projections into the future of the Jewish homeland, is an evening of theatre not to be missed.  It can only be hoped that the show will be presented in other venues, including a New York production.  This is theater at its finest!

“On the Grill” runs through July 8, 2018 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

For Dorothy Silver groupies:  Annie Baker’s “John” will feature Dorothy, the first woman of Cleveland theater, from October 1-November 11, 2018 on the Dobama stage.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Homecoming, renovations and “Letters from Zora” @ Karamu

In September of 2015, when Tony F. Sias was appointed as President and CEO of Karamu, the country’s oldest African-American theatre, the organization was at its lowest point.  In financial trouble, having slipped in the quality of its arts programs and seemingly rudderless, the future looked bleak.

Now, three years later, the organization, which was founded in 1915 by two white Oberlin College grads, Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, has revitalized its theater offerings, finished a construction project which renovated the 200-seat Jelliffe Theatre, and has plans to renovate their Arena theatre, add a restaurant and an outdoor patio, redo the lobby and other parts of the facility and add a gift shop and retail space.  The once bleak future now looks bright.

Sias states, “The Jelliffe renovation maintains the traditional proscenium layout with a permanent apron [minimal thrust], but now includes an orchestra pit stage left that can also be used for additional seating.”  The auditorium has been heavily raked, making sight lines excellent.  There are new seats and the entire area has a warm and comfortable.

The opening coincided with the induction of “National Living Legend” Vanessa Bell Calloway into the 2018 Karamu Hall of Fame and the regional premiere of her award-winning one-woman show, “Letters from Zora.” 

Calloway, who has earned eight NAACP Image Awards for her role as Zora Neale Hurston, has been seen in such films as “South Side With You,” “Coming to America,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” and “The Inkwell.”   She is currently starring in Bounce TV’s “Saints and Sinners.”  She has also been seen in numerous stage productions.

Calloway says, “I’m so very proud of my Karamu roots!  This playhouse was the beginning of my career and it taught me so much about the Arts.  I am delighted to return home.”

“Letters from Zora,” a two-act one-woman show, presented without intermission, was written by Gabrielle Denise Pina and directed by Dashiell Sparks.

The story is based on letters written by prolific novelist Zora Neale Hurston, a self-proclaimed “early cougar.”  Her correspondences have been fused with a fictional narrative which illuminates the highs and lows of Zora’s life, her years as a literary giant who offered a new creative expression in the arts to deeply influence culture, and her contributions to the American literary canon.

The actions are supported by a soundtrack which, by incorporating the musical styles of Hurston’s life, including blues guitar and harmonica sounds, creates the moods of the deep south as well as the pulse of the Harlem Renaissance and Zora’s role in one of the highlight times for Black arts in America.

Though a little long, the story teaches a history lesson to those unaware of the complexity of the life of the Negro in the south during the late 19th and early to mid-twentieth century.
Ms. Calloway’s performance is a tour de force.  Alone on stage for almost an hour-and-a half, she weaves the tale with sass, power, inflection, and a compelling presence. 

Capsule judgment:  Karamu enters mid-2018 with a bright future.  Considering that only a few years ago it was rumored that the nationally important African American institution was on death’s doorstep, this is an amazing success story.  Their recent Homecoming celebration is a welcome sign that there is much to come from “the joyful gathering place.”

Letters From Zora” continues through, June 24, 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.

Monday, June 18, 2018

HOCKADOO! “Memphis” enjoyably rocks Cain Park with its music and poignant message

The 1950s was a period of racial stress in much of the south.  Lynchings, school segregation, separate lunch counters and drinking fountains, blacks to the back of the bus, laws against black and white mixing.  Even separate black and white radio stations was the custom, as were black and white musical styles.  Patty Page, Perry Como and “nice music” was the white style.  Rock and Roll was for blacks. 

Memphis, Tennessee was no exception.  That was until “Huey Calhoun,” a somewhat slow, naïve and black music-loving white disc jockey popped onto the Memphis scene.  (The show is loosely based on real-life Dewey Phillips.)

One night, Huey, who coined the non-defined word “Hockadoo!” wandered into an underground black Rock and Roll bar.  He was probably the first white man, other than the police looking to collect payoffs, to invade the premises.  The patrons made for the exits, suspicious of Huey’s presence.  After a few more visits, the well-meaning pseudo-redneck, became convinced that the music he was being exposed to, Rock and Roll (Negro blues on steroids), needed to be heard by the white community.

Legend has it that Huey made a deal with a local department store owner that if he could sell 5 records by playing music over the store’s speakers, he could have a music sales job.  Huey supposedly played a rock & roll song and sold 29 records in five minutes.  Unfortunately, the store owner reneged on his deal because he was incensed at the “black” music. 

Huey later conned his way into a white radio station, commandeered an on-air mike, played a rock and roll record, was about to get thrown out by Mr. Simmons, the owner, when a burst of phone calls demanding more of “that” music, took place. 

Simmons agreed to give him a two-week trial, and if he was successful, he'd get hired full-time. That opportunity, and his adlibbing of a beer commercial (he couldn’t read so he made up the wording), and inserting his signature “Hockadoo!,” led to Huey’s march to becoming the number one disk jockey in Memphis.

Adding to the tale is the love affair between Huey and Felicia, a black singer, her rise to fame, his decline into becoming a down and out, end-of-the-dial disc jockey, his prejudiced mother, Felicia’s over-protective brother, and societal laws and barriers.

“Memphis” is a musical by David Bryan (music and lyrics) and Joe DiPietro (lyrics and book).  It played on Broadway from October 19, 2009 to August 5, 2012 and won four 2010 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Musical selections include “Music of My Soul,” “Scratch My Itch,’ “Everyone Wants to Be Black on a Saturday Night,” “Someday,” “Say A Prayer,” “Tear Down the House,” and “Love Will Stand.”

Great White Way opening night reviews stated, "An exuberant musical with classic values: catchy songs, heaping spoonsful of inspirational moments,” "It's nice to know a new musical can actually surprise you,” and "I guarantee you a rambunctious good time.”

The Cain Park version, under the adept direction of Joanna May Cullinan, choreographer Leillani Barrett and musical director Jordan Cooper is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. 

The high energy cast is generally excellent.  The singing is strong and though the choreography often challenges some of the dancers, the over-all effect is very positive.

The Cain Park production is blessed with two dynamic lead performers. 

Though he is a little over-the-top on selling the character’s eccentricity at the start, Douglas F. Bailey II soon settles into a realistic pattern, and develops Huey’s uniqueness.  He wails with a big, on-tune voice and deserved the screaming opening night ovation during the curtain call.

Nicole Sumlin is electric as Felicia.  Captivating the audience with her stage presence and marvelous singing voice, she doesn’t portray Felicia, she is Felicia.

Chris Richards does a nice turn as Mr. Simmons, Elijah Dawson convinces as Bobby, Cynthia O’Connell is redneck-right as Mama.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Memphis,” Cain Park style, is a total delight.  It’s a must see for anyone who likes well sung and preformed rock music, is interested in a well-conceived juke box musical and wants to relax in the Alma Theatre’s “in nature” setting.  HOCKADOO!

The show runs through July 1 in the Alma Theatre in Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park.   For tickets call 216-371-3000 or go to

Saturday, June 16, 2018

“Anything Goes” delightfully sails at Porthouse

The fiftieth anniversary season of Porthouse Theatre is a perfect representation of the history of musical theatre.  The opening show, “Anything Goes” is a typical 1930s escapist mélange of songs and dances enfolded in a slight story.  It is Cole Porter’s fancy word patter and farcical interludes, with a score that includes “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’d Be So Easy to Love,” “You’re the Top,” “Friendship,” It’s De-lovely,” “Blow Gabriel Blow,” and the title song, “Anything Goes.”  No thinking here, just joy.

“Oklahoma,” the season’s closing production, is the show that introduced the well-made musical.  Song, dance and plot-line are so enmeshed that everything blends together to tell a clear story.  The Rogers and Hammerstein 1943 classic resulted in what is known as the Golden Age of Broadway Musical Theater.

The center show of the season is the thought-provoking Pulitzer Prize winning “Next to Normal,” a musical drama exposing the underbelly of living with mental illness.  It helped develop the contemporary era of “real issue musicals,” such as “Rent,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Come From Away,” “The Band’s Visit” and “Hamilton.”  Kent State grad, Alice Ripley, starred in the Broadway production, winning the 2009 Tony Award for her portrayal of a woman with bipolar disorder.

“Anything Goes” is a 1934 musical with music and lyrics by the prolific Cole Porter.  The original book was by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse.  Yes, original book, as the show has been revised numerous times   At last count there are four different “approved” versions.  Even the show’s name has gone through alterations (“Crazy Week” and “Hard to Get” among others).   In the process, the score has been altered, some songs cut and others moved to different scenes and sung by different characters, and compositions from other Porter shows have been added.

As is true of escapist era musicals, the plot plays second or even a third level of importance to the singing and dancing.  A well-made musical, this is not!

The “story” centers on the antics which take place on an ocean liner sailing from New York to London.  The various characters include Billy Crocker (Matthew Gittins), a nerdy young stockbroker who is in love with heiress Hope Harcourt (Liz Woodard).  He stows away with the hope of stopping her from marrying Evelyn Oakleigh, a British Lord (Eric van Baars). 

Also on board is Nightclub singer/Evangelist Reno Sweeney (Sandra Emerick), who in in love with Billy, public enemy #13 Moonface Martin (Christopher Seiler), Erma (Kelli-Ann Paterwic), his “doll,” two Chinese “reformed” gamblers (Antonio Emerson Brown and Adam Graber), Hope’s mother (Jess Tanner), her former lover, Elisha Whitney (Rohn Thomas), who is Billy’s boss, the Angels (Felicity Jemo, Abby Morris, Kaetlyn Cassidy, Luna Cho, Falyn Mapel), and a whole bunch of sailors.

“Anything Goes” is the type of musical that Porthouse Artistic Director Terri Kent does so well.   Her staging of the farcical romp is highlighted by a stress on the slapstick, double entendre, and character misidentifications.  It showcases MaryAnn Black’s sprightful choreography highlighting crowd-pleasing tapping, line and jazz dancing and show-stopping movements.

Sandra Emerick sparkles as Reno Sweeney, singing, dancing and mugging with professional delight.  She was born to play the role!  She is surrounded by a cast of competent performers who play the farce for all it is worth, dance well and sing with gusto. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Anything Goes” is a perfect summertime escapist farcical musical that will please audiences.  Sandra Emerick delights. She is supported by an enthusiastic cast of Equity actors and college students who are enmeshed in outright escapist fun, dynamic songs and creative choreography.

“Anything Goes” runs at Porthouse Theatre through June 30.  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE: The must-see multiple Tony Award winning “Next to Normal” from July 5-21.