Saturday, July 28, 2018

History changing “Oklahoma!” charmingly ends Pothouse’s 50th season

March 31, 1943 was a pivotal day in theatre. “Oklahoma!,” the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical opened.  The American musical theater was never the same.

For many years the “musical” was vaudeville, reviews, star vehicles, and attempts at telling stories with music and dance thrown in. 

Using Lynn Riggs’s book, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” about young love in the of Oklahoma territories, the area’s desire for statehood, and the conflict between the cowboys and the farmers for control of the land, Rodgers and Hammerstein developed a format to be dubbed “the book musical,” which set a pattern for the Golden Age of the American Musical (1943-1968).

“Oklahoma!” had a cohesive plot, the songs furthered the action of the story, the spoken words seamlessly segued into the songs, the lyrics and dancing advanced the plot and developed the characters, the first act curtain, rather than displaying a bevy of chorus girls, started with an off-stage voice singing words that forecast what was to happen, the first act ended with a conflict that needed to be resolved in the second act, the language and pronunciation fit the setting.

The results?  Not only was it the first theatrical blockbuster Broadway show, which ran 2,212 performances, but it set the pattern for all musical shows to come. 

It gave musical creators the idea to develop themes.  Rogers and Hammerstein went on to preach social issues including the need to build community.  Lerner and Loewe centered many of their scripts on describing the ideal time, ideal place and ideal love story (e.g., “Camelot,” “My Fair Lady,” “Gigi.”)   It allowed Stephen Sondheim the latitude to examine the grittier sides of life (e.g., “Sweeney Todd” and “Assassins.”)

“Oklahoma!” takes place outside Claremore, in the Oklahoma Territory, in 1906.  It tells the tale of a farm girl, Laurey, and her courtship by two rivals, the wholesome, clean-cut Curly and the sinister, frightening farmhand, Jud Fry.  As is the case in the Rogers and Hammerstein book musical mode, there is a secondary plot, in this case, impetuous cowboy Will Parker and flirtatious (“I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No”) Ado Annie.

Of course, before the obvious happy ending, there are complications, humor and lots of singing and dancing.

“Oklahoma!” is the kind of show that Porthouse audiences love and artistic director Terri Kent, stages so well. 

Kent has taken an interesting tack with this production.  She has cast “young.”  While most stagings use mature performers for the leading roles, this production has age-appropriate actors.  This gives the show an authenic, rather than a theatrical look and feel.

Matthew Gittins is natural and charming as the love struck Curly.  Rather than playing the role “macho” and “conceited,” Gittins is somewhat awkward and real.  He uses his excellent voice to develop ideas, rather than singing just words.  “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” sets the right tone for the entire show and his duet “People Will Say We’re in Love” and its reprise, sung with Rebecca Rand, delightfully developed their characters.

Lenne Snively didn’t portray Aunt Eller, she was Aunt Eller.  She had just the right levels of love and gumption.

Though she has a beautiful singing voice, on opening night pretty Rebecca Rand showed little of the underlying tenderness needed to make Laurey appealing.  Maybe opening night jitters caused some overacting.  Hopefully, she will show more depth than the one dimensional “ornery” as the show runs.

Samantha Russell, though delightful as Ado Annie, screamed her way through her opening scene, and didn’t visually and orally play enough with the usually delightful “I Cain’t Say No.”  She relaxed in the second act and was much more playful in “All Er Nuthin.”

Christopher Tuck was endearing as Will Parker.  He showed talent as a singer, dancer and comedian.  ‘Kansas City” and “All Er Nuthin” were show highlights.

Joey Fontana delighted as Ali Hakim, and Sam Johnson was so menacing as Jud Fry, that during his curtain call bow, he actually got “boos,” one of the greatest compliments that can be given to a villain.  His “Lonely Room” was well interpreted.

Jennifer Korecki’s large orchestra played well, Cynthia Stillings’ lighting and Nolan O’Dell’s creative set added to the production quality. 

John Crawford-Spinelli’s choreography was creative.  Though the dances of Agnes DeMille, the cornerstone of the original “Oklahoma!” were brilliant, new approaches are welcome if they are appropriate for the storyline and develop the proper mood.  Crawford-Spinelli’s well-conceived ballet and his enthusiastic “The Farmer and the Cowman” were welcome creations.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Porthouse ended its fiftieth season on a high note with the well-conceived “Oklahoma!.”  The Kent State professional summer theater should look forward to more years of audience-pleasing shows under the stewardship of Producing Artistic Director Terri Kent and Executive Producer Eric VanBaars.

Side-note:  Before the opening night performance a representative of Actors’ Equity presented the theatre with a proclamation in honor of their 50th anniversary which included praise for not only Porthouse and Kent State University, but for Terri Kent, who has been leading the endeavor for 18 successful years.  The words praised the venue for not only setting high professional theatrical goals, but for being a place where support, encouragement and respect is stressed.

“Oklahoma!” runs at Porthouse Theatre through August 12.  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to

Friday, July 20, 2018

Creative “Hamilton” is a master class in contemporary musical theater

The story goes that while on vacation from performing in his hit Broadway show “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda read a copy of the biography, “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow.
Miranda perceived the story as a musical and started to write what was then entitled “The Hamilton Mixtape.”  

An Obama White House invitation led to him performing what would later be the first song of the opening number of “Hamilton.” 

Thus was laid the foundation for what is one of the most successful musicals in theatrical history.
The sung and rapped “Hamilton” centers on the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers.  The musical styles include R&B, pop, rap and traditional style show tunes.

 “Hamilton” is not the first musical based on American history or political figures.  “1776,” like “Hamilton” is set in Revolutionary times, specifically, showcasing the Continental Congress during the summer of 1776, and reveals the founding fathers’ lively debates. 

“Benjamin Franklin in Paris” gives an account of Franklin arriving in Paris in an attempt to raise money for the colonial revolution against England. 

“Fiorello!,” one of nine musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, showcased the life of Fiorello LaGuardia, the colorful mayor of New York.

Each of those shows, follows the format of the well-conceived book musical, as modeled by Rogers and Hammerstein in “Oklahoma” and used by most shows from the mid-1940s until “Hamilton.”

They had a format that included dialogue leading into songs, often leading into dancing.  The first acts ended with a conflict that needed to be resolved in the second act.  The language was grammatical English prose.

From a stylistic standpoint, “Hamilton” gives us something new.  It’s a contemporary rap musical which tells the story in a series of scenes in which the movements are choreographed to not only develop visual ideas, but to help create characterizations and move set pieces, and songs that seamlessly tell the tale and give clear insight into each of the characters who sing them. 

The casting includes a racial mixture of actors as the Founding Fathers and other historical figures.

Even the conclusion is different.  Most modern day musicals end with a splashy showstopper that brings the audience to its feet for a resounding curtain call.  Not “Hamilton.”  An low-key composition closes the show, emotionally wrapping up the story of a man and his quest.  Wow!

The touring production is brilliantly directed by Thomas Kail.  The impressive choreography, which adds new vocabulary to the world of Broadway dance, is by Andy Blankenbuehler.  The music supervision and orchestration is the impeccable work of Alex Lacamoire.

Some potential attendees worry that they will be unable to grasp the words because they are mainly in rap form.  Not true.  A discussion with audience members in varying parts of the auditorium at intermission and after the show indicated that if the listener didn’t gain ever word, they shouldn’t be concerned.  The structure of the scenes, the movement, and the reinforced ideas will allow the understanding. 

(Listening to the show’s score while reading the libretto before going to the show can help as will watching some of the “Hamilton” sources on YouTube.)

The functional stage set is a duplicate of that on Broadway.

The cast is excellent.  Nik Walker sparkles as Aaron Burr.  Marcus Choi commands as George Washington.  Joseph Morales is totally believable as Alexander Hamilton.  Kyle Scatliffe adds humor to his joint roles as Thomas Jefferson and Marquis De Lafayette.  Jon Patrick Walker delights as the pompous put-upon King George.  The sub-leads and the Ensemble are all on target.

To read my review of the Broadway show go to: - editor/target=post;postID=3373828163004437926;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=21;src=postname

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Hamilton” is a special theatrical event and experience.  The script is riveting, the music involving, the choreography creative, the production superb.  The touring production is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to participate in one of those special once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  This is one show that definitely deserves its standing ovation.  Bravo!
“Hamilton” runs through August 28, 2018 at the Key Bank State Theatre.  There are tickets available for select performances as well as lottery tickets available for each performance.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Production of “And All the Dead Lie Down” better than script at con-con

“The purpose of a workshop production is to provide a preview staging of a new work in order to gauge audience and critical reaction, following which some parts of the work may be adjusted or rewritten before the work's official premiere.” 

Seeing Harrison David Rivers’, “And All the Dead Lie Down,” which is getting its local premiere before the scripts national world premiere later this year, resulted in an interesting conundrum.  The script, which is getting its third workshop here, actually gets a better production than the work, itself, seemingly deserves.

In publicity, the story is described as “Alvin and Foss spend Saturdays together. That’s the rule. That’s the routine – no work, no phone calls and no leaving the apartment. But when an unexpected call from Foss’s delinquent brother upsets the couples’ usual balance, the day becomes a minefield of long suppressed resentments and hurt feelings. The fact that one of them is HIV+ and the other is negative, just exacerbates the situation.  “And All the Dead Lie Down” is a portrait of a couple at a crossroads, a couple pondering the questions – Is love enough to sustain us… And is it worth the risk?”

The tryout material describes the lead characters as: 

“Alvin, male, 30’s-Mid-40’s, gay man in a committed, long-term relationship with Foss; he is HIV-. A playwright. Cerebral. From a wealthy family, he grew up with privilege. Experiencing block – both in writing and in his relationship. They’re trying to figure out how to make it work. There is nudity.” 

Foss, male. 20’s-30’s. African American, Gay man in a committed, long-term relationship with Alvin; he is HIV+. A teacher. Playful, fun – a counter to Alvin’s sometimes stuffed shirt. Raised more blue collar and poor – wrong side of the tracks. Close to his brother – who he bails out financially. There is nudity.” 

In addition, there is Danny, Foss’s elder brother.  He is a “player” who drifts, seemingly without purpose.  He has an air of menace about him.   

Usually, at a workshop, the author is present so that they can judge audience reaction and have an opportunity for some feedback.  In this case, Rivers was not in attendance, so the idea of the play being workshopped seems like an oxymoron.  Why workshop a play when the very purpose of doing so, improvement of the script by the writer getting feedback, is eliminated?

If Rivers were here, he probably would have been exposed to comments such as, “the play is too long, especially the first act, which is filled with redundancy and too much exposition.”  “The upbringing tale of brothers Alvin and Danny and their overbearing father unnecessarily gets repeated over and over.”  “Alvin’s numerous statements of endearment get clawing after a while.”  “The language is often unnatural and doesn’t always give the actors a chance to develop meaningful feelings and reaction.”  On the other hand, “though the unnatural language continues, the second act is more focused and purpose driven.”

The con-con production exceeds the script.  Ismael Lara’s direction milks everything it can.  The show is well-paced, the cast (MJ Mihalic, Brenton Sullivan and Anthony Lanier) are focused, and the actors nicely texture their lines. 

Clyde Simon’s contemporary set fits the lines of the play’s description and becomes a fourth character.

Capsule Judgment:  If you’d like to see a play in the process of development, then “And All the Dead Lie Down,” could be your thing.  It is not a well-crafted script, but the directing and acting are excellent.

“And All the Dead Lie Down” runs through July 28, 2018, at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to

Next up at con-con: “The Casual Tree Ward,” a world premiere of local actor and playwright Robert Hawkes’s look at The goddess Freyja (or is she?) is tending Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree (or is it?) Trying to protect it from increasing drought.  Does the world really depend on this single tree?  Hmmm.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Beck’s “Gypsy” not everything it should or could be

“Gypsy” is a 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents, which starred Ethel Merman on Broadway. 

The script is loosely based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous striptease artist, and focuses on her mother, Rose, whose name has become synonymous with the ultimate intrusive show business mother.

The show’s legendary score includes: “Let Me Entertain You,” “Some People,” “Small World,” “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Together Wherever We Go,”  

Every once in a while, a theatre stages a script that allows it to showcase that it is, hopefully, a quality venue.  “Gypsy” was a chance for Beck Center for the Arts to spotlight that it deserves to be the professional theatre that it has recently become.  Yes, Beck is now playing with the “big boys,” rivaling Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theatre and Dobama, all equity houses, for a display of excellence.

“Gypsy” is considered by many American musical theater experts to be one of the most perfectly structured scripts.  It has a strong human story, vocal lyrics flow out of the spoken lines, the dance numbers aren’t thrown in to be show-stoppers but to enhance the story, the humor is generated by the human condition, the characters are real, and the conflicts caused by human needs and wants. 

One thing that makes “Gypsy” stand out for any theatre aficionados is “Rose’s Turn,” the closing number which, like the brilliant “Soliloquy” in Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” reveals the “I Want,” “I Am,” and the “Realization” of a central character. 

In the case of Mama Rose, this is the moment that she recognizes that instead of her having been the fierce stage mother for her girls, she was doing it for herself, trying to live her desired life as a performer through her daughter’s stage presentations.  Ideally, at the play’s closing, as she stands alone in a single spotlight, we should see Rose, both defeated and aware, realizing she, like Willy Loman, in “Death of a Salesman,” has lived her life as a failed dream. (Pause…slow fade to black!  Pause.  Tumultuous applause.)

Was Beck up to the “Gypsy” challenge?   On the positive side, Martin C├ęspedes’ choreography was spot on.  He did the original Broadway choreographer, Jerome Robbins, proud by keeping the intent of the great Robbins’ dance numbers present, but not imitating or restaging them. 

Larry Goodpaster’s orchestra and musical direction generally developed the needed dynamics and mood changes, though at times some members of the cast sang lyrics rather than the meaning of those lyrics. 

Aaron Benson’s set design and Trad Burns lighting helped enhance the story.  And, always an unexpected treat at Beck, the sound system worked well.   Congrats to Angie Hayes.

On the other hand, the cast, which was generally strong, needed guidance on how to develop the subtleties of some of the characterizations and how to effortlessly segue from spoken word to sung lyrics.  As is, there were often awkward pauses, breaking the mood and idea development. 

Strong performances were turned in by Allen O’Reilly as Herbie, Rose’s long frustrated suitor and Emmy Brett as Louise.   Enrique Miguel (Tulsa), June’s eventual boyfriend, was the dance sensation of the cast, displaying a confidence of movement and stage-commanding appeal.

Natalie Bialock’s Rose, an Ethel Merman reincarnation…big and brassy, worked well for most of the show.  Merman was a great personality and songsmith, but not a fine actress.  Her “Rose’s Turn” left much to be desired, as did Bialock’s.  The final Beck scene was not helped by Rose and Gypsy’s arm and arm exit, wiping out the meaning of Rose’s realization.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Gypsy” is one of the classic scripts in the lexicon of American Musical Theater.  It gets an acceptable, but definitely not a great staging at Beck.  The show’s highlight was the choreography.  The production will entertain some people, but could have been so much more.

“Gypsy” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through August 12, 2018.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning musical “Next to Normal” compelling at Porthouse

On April 15, 2009, “Next to Normal” opened on Broadway.  It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony for Best Musical and to become part of a small group of musicals including “Rent,” “Spring Awakening,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Come From Away,” “The Band’s Visit” and “Hamilton” which would change the nature of the American musical from pure entertainment to “message musicals,” which tell tales of significant social relevance including examining such topics as mental and physical illness, rape, political intrigue, historical conflicts and suicide.

The Broadway production starred Kent State grad, Alice Ripley, who won the Tony Award for her portrayal of a woman with bipolar disorder.  Ripley also starred in the show’s national tour which had a CLE stop.

“Next to Normal” is not typical Porthouse escapist summer fare.  There are no sprightly songs, dynamic dancing, nor escapist plot.  What there is, is a well written, dramatic tale, filled with angst.  The music helps carry the thought-provoking mood, and the lyrics and dialogue tell a powerful tale which “addresses the issues of grief, suicide, drug abuse, ethics in modern psychiatry and the underbelly of suburban life.”

The script, which many theater experts rank among of the greatest of American musicals, has had numerous international productions, has been the topic for mental health conferences and workshops on the treatment of bipolar disorder, including the use of drugs, psychotherapy, and ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy), as well as discussions regarding the classification of the disease Diane displays.

In general, mental health experts agree, “Bipolar I is a mood disorder that is characterized by alternating periods of depression [lows] with episodes of mania [highs].”

The show’s song list is extensive and impressive.  Almost 40 songs carry the message, including “Just Another Day,” “Who’s Crazy,” “It’s Gonna Be Good,” “I’m Alive,” “Wish I Were Here,” “You Don’t Know,” “Maybe (Next to Normal)” and “Light.”   This is not a score which the audience goes out of the theatre humming, but melds into a cacophony of sounds and words that build a long remembered message.

How did the audience respond to this thought-provoking musical?  The Porthouse production easily passed the “C-W-R test. When viewing a show, if the participants aren’t totally involved there will be a series of Coughs, lots of Wiggling and be Restless (leaving mid-show to go to the lavatory or run for the exits as soon as the final curtain drops).  This crowd was absorbed, rising as a whole at the conclusion to cheer the production.  (This, in spite of the fact that on opening night a sold-out audience was screaming its way through a rock-rap concert at the Blossom Pavilion, within easy hearing distance.)

The response was not only a tribute to the script itself, but to the quality of the production. 

Jim Weaver’s direction was intelligent, developing every nuance of the writer’s intent.  The cast was superb.  Each actor developed a clear characterization.  They did not play characters; they were the people.  They each sang meanings, not simply words, in well-trained voices. 

Jonathan Swoboda’s musicians (Wanda Sobieska, Linda Atherton, Jeremey Poparad, Don T. Day and Mell Csicsila) balanced the singers so that the lyrics were easy to understand and set the proper, ever-changing moods of the psychological swings. 

Patrick Ulrich’s contemporary set was functional, while the technical aspects each helped develop the writer’s concept.

Amy Fritsche (Diana) created a mentally delusional Diana who was totally believable.  Her mood swings had clear transitions, her suffering was crystal clear, her attempts at reality well-displayed.  This was a masterful portrayal.

Thom Christopher Warren (Dan), as Diana’s well-meaning but shell-shocked husband, displayed a clear vision of hurt, confusion and frustration.  

Andy Donnelly (Henry) and Madelaine Vandenberg (Natalie) played well off each other as the angst-driven teens who needed each other for support as the rest of the world had seemingly abandoned them. 

Madison Adams Hagler was appealing as the “ghost” of Gabe.  It was fascinating to observe as the cast, except for Frische, looked through him, as he was only present and real for his grieving mother.

Jim Bray gave nicely textured performances as both psychiatrists who were treating Diana.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Next to Normal” is one of the great scripts in the lexicon of American Musical theater.  It gets a superb staging at Porthouse.  The direction, performances and technical aspects are all right on target.  This is a must see production that should not be missed!
“Next to Normal” runs at Porthouse Theatre through July 21.  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE: “Oklahoma,” which is celebrating its 75th anniversary, closes out Porthouse’s 50th season.   The Rogers and Hammerstein classic will be on stage from July 26-August 12, 2018.