Wednesday, October 31, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cleveland Play House production, under the adept direction of Laura Kepley, is even better than the Broadway show.  Not only has Kepley captured every nuance of the finely written script, she has developed a cast whose textured performances make the characters live.  Their depictions are so real that every pain, every emotional crack in their lives, become our pain.

The production is helped by the thrust stage of the Outcalt Theatre which forces the audience to be up-front and personal with the action, thus proving the wisdom of moving the CPH productions from the outdated, three proscenium stages of their former home into the freshly adaptive Allen complex.

Each of the unit cast of Jack Berenholtz (Jason), Brooks Brantly (Chris), Xavier Cano (Oscar) Nehassaiu deGannes (Cynthia), Robert Ellis (Stan), Robert Barry Fleming), Evan (Robert Barry Fleming), Nancy Lemenager (Tracey), Chris Seibert (Jessie) and Jimmie Woody (Brucie) is flawless.  Special huzzahs to Lemenager, Berenholtz and DeGannes.

It is so nice to see many Cleveland area professional performers in this production.  It adds a special touch to CLEVELAND Play House.

Capsule judgement: Theater represents the era from which it comes, and “Sweat” clearly and shockingly tells the depressing tale of what went on during the financial downturn of this country and the resulting hysteria and desperation by a group of people who felt they had been disenfranchised by big business, betrayed by their government, and sold out by their union and political leaders.  It is an important play which fulfills the educational obligation of the arts.  THIS IS AN ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE PERFORMANCE!

“Sweat at runs at CPH through November 4, 2018.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

“Everything is Okay” focuses the spotlight on Millennials @ Cleveland Public Theatre

American Musical Theater has transitioned from the follies and vaudeville days of the early to-mid-1900s to its Golden Era of the 1940s through 1960s, starting with “Oklahoma,” the story musical, where the book, music and dance all blended together to tell a cohesive story.  “Hair,” the “hippie” rock musical, brought major alterations to the format by showcasing the changing political and societal attitudes of the 60’s.  “Rent” transported the musical theater world into the new millennium by showcasing the emerging “younger” generation who celebrated life in the face of the AIDS crisis with the use of rock-pop music, breaking the barrier between rock music and theatre music, and show-casing the reality of the tough, gritty life that that generation was facing.

Cleveland Public Theatre is now staging “Everything is Okay (and other helpful lies).” It is a musical written by Melissa Crum and Caitlin Lewins about the Millennium generation. 

Millennials, born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, are marked by an increased use and familiarity with communications, media, and digital technologies.  They are a generation who have been taught to ask themselves, “What’s wrong with me?”  They search for “what it is to be normal.”  They are “much-maligned as entitled, self-absorbed snowflakes.”   

As the program to the musical states, “Everything is Okay” is a generation’s harmonized laugh- ‘til-we-cry plea to sit in the discomfort of the big questions, rise above them, and keep fucking going.”  “They’ve gown-up with violence, racial divide, globalization, the Right, The Left, the conflicting worlds of fascistic religiosity, and a bankrupt system of morality, gender fluidity, queer revolution, rampant teenage suicide, technology that prohibits space and time and permission for self-reflection.” 

As was the case with “Rent,” the script is generation-specific and now easily misunderstood by those who are not actively living the lives of that specific group.  The show probably won’t be appreciated by “older” generations, who might ask, “What’s with all these self-centered characters, self-indulgent songs, and morbidity?”

At intermission I turned to a twenty-something young lady sitting next to me and asked, “How are you reacting to the production.”  She indicated that it represented a lot of what she and her friends were feeling and the ways they coped with the world around them.  She referenced the misbelief in killings of Jews in Pittsburgh and the words used by the President in basically condoning what went on in the 1917 Charlottesville, Virginia White Supremacist Rally.  She said many of her friends are disheartened and full of angst.

Yes, that’s the disjointed message of ““Everything is Okay (and other helpful lies).”

Yes, the musical is disjointed, not a clear storyline like we are used to in musical comedies and dramas.  The songs don’t hook together clearly.  The script has no clear beginning, middle and end.   The motivations between songs aren’t developed.  We have no clear identification of who is who as the characters often blend into each other.   The musical sounds are often discordant, out of balance. The music jumps from style-to-style…rock, country, ballads squish together.

All of those “complaints” are what makes the show so millennial!  This is not intended to be “The Sound of Music” or “Hamilton.”  It is the story of a specific -generation in angst.

Even the titles of songs carry that up-tight, lost feeling: “No One I Love is Gonna Die Today,” “Eulogy Song,” “Hey I’m Sorta Into You,” “Alone,” “Learned a Little,” “Shitty Sad Luau Song,” “Masturbation Song,” “Shame,” ‘Slut Song,” “Falling Apart,” and “Smile Song.”  The lyrics contain bad jokes, sexual allusions, swearing, statements of frustration, morbid ideas and escapist ideas.

The cast (Melissa Crum, Madelyn Hayes, Caitlin Lewins, Joshua McElroy, Matt O’Shea and Jerry Tucker) are young and filled with determination.  They have good voices.  They execute the shallow choreography with gritty determination.  They interact with each other as friends, rather than performers, allowing the audience to be part of their “in-jokes” and stories. 

Capsule judgement: “Everything is Okay (and other helpful lies)” is not a show for everyone.  It, in fact, could be an uncomfortable sit for some.  For Millennials, and those willing to open themselves to seeing a “new” style musical, based on a specific generation’s angst, it provides an interesting experience.

Coming up at CPT: “Outside The Mirror,” the 2018 CPT/Y-Haven Theatre Project.  November 8-11.  

For tickets to any CPT show call 216-631-2727 or go on line to

“East of Eden” finds a clear direction at Ensemble

John Steinbeck is one of America’s great authors.  His realistic and imaginative writings, which contain a strong social perception, are dramatic and humorous, look at the downtrodden, and generally have everyman protagonists. 

Many of his 27 books, including “Cannery Row,” “Of Mice and Men,” and” The Grapes of Wrath,” which has sold more than 14 million copies, are considered literary epics.

His “East of Eden,” has been adapted for the stage and is now being performed at Ensemble Theatre.  

“East of Eden” harkens broadly back to the Biblical Cain and Able story.  In this case, it’s the tale of twin boys, born to Adam and Cathy Trask.  Shortly after the boys were birthed, Cathy, a former prostitute, abandons the family and returns to her old trade.  The twins are told their mother died and are brought up by the solitary and silent Adam and his Chinese houseman. 

Adam and his family move to the city, from their farm.  It’s the tumultuous time leading up to World War I, a period of speculation and adjustment. 

Adam, in an impetuous act, attempts to develop a method of refrigerating California produce to ship to the east coast where fresh lettuce, for example, is not available during winter months.  The experiment fails and he loses much of his money.

Aron, the favorite son, falls in love with Abra, a local girl, and seems destined to fulfill the dreams of his father by going to college.  Caleb, the other brother, wants to gain his father’s admiration and borrows a small amount of money, speculates on a crop of beans, and makes a small fortune.

Caleb, aware of his mother’s existence, goes to see her.  Afterwards, he offers his profits to Adam to make up for the refrigeration loss.  When the father refuses to take the money the boy, in an act of defiance, takes the naïve Aaron to see their mother.  Traumatized, Aaron, acting out of shock and panic enlists in the army. 

The refusal, act of defiance and the enlistment prove tragic for all three Trask men.

“East of Eden” is an ambitious, over 600-page novel, which has been nicely-adapted by Frank Galati into an effective stage play.  Though long, three acts, with two intermissions, there is enough action and intrigue to hold the audience’s attention.

The play is well-directed by Ian Wolfgang Hinz.  The pacing is languid, but appropriate for the subject matter.  The acting is generally of a high level.  The characters are nicely etched and develop the intent and purpose of the material.  The era-correct set works well for quick and effective scene changes.

Scott Miller sulks and is introspective, well-developing Adam.  This is a man torn by guilt, filled with self-pride, and feeling the result of rejection by his ill-selected wife.  Dana Hart is effective as Sam Hamilton, Adam’s friend.  Jill Levin is properly stoic as Cathy, the mother who has rejected her children and is most comfortable being a madam.  Both August Scarpelli (Aron) and Kyle Huff (Caleb) have some fine moments, but sometimes fail to fully texture their performances, acting rather than reacting.  Leah Smith is believable as Abra.

Capsule judgment: ”East of Eden” is a classic Steinbeck novel which has been adapted into an excellent stage play.  The production, though long, is effective and is a theater piece well-worth seeing!

“East of Eden” runs through November 11, 2018 on Friday through Sundays at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

Ensemble’s next production is “Around the World in 80 Days,” an adaptation of Jules Verne’s class adventure.  It is an interactive adaptation for the whole family.  It will be performed from November 30-December 16 in Ensemble’s Playground Theatre.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Shallow script hampers “This Much at convergence continuum 

Clyde Simon, the Artistic Director of convergence continuum, often referred to as con-con, knows his potential audience well.  His tiny Tremont theatre draws a diverse group who tend to like off-beat shows, from out of the norm authors.  This is not the home of Arthur Miller, William Inge or Edward Albee.  More like the abode for Alexi Kaye Campbell, Athol Fugard and Nick Payne (authors who are having their scripts performed next year at the venue). 

Many of his patrons are gay, or are gay supporting, so Simon usually peppers his seasons with a couple of explicit homosexual scripts.  That can create a problem.  After the epic “Angels in America” and the classic “Boys in the Band” and the staples like “Jeffrey,” “Love! Valour! Compassion,” “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” “Beyond Therapy” and “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me,” the quality of scripts falls-off. This often leaves Simon scampering for material.  Sometimes he uncovers a gem, other times the scripts are, at best, adequately conceived.

A case in point is the theatre’s present production, “This Much (or An Act of Violence Towards the Institution of Marriage).”

The play is described as, “Gar can’t decide between the man who plays games and the man on one knee with a ring. In fact, Gar can’t decide on anything because every choice seems like a compromise. Everyone wants answers but nothing lives up to the image he has in his head. Facades start crumbling into a violent mess as the world implodes around him but Gar just wants to dance with his friends,” while contending “I don’t want to be a parody of a straight family.”

Sounds promising.  It could be an exploration of how we define relationships or the role of traditions on marriage.  Or, since Gar is obsessed with wearing a white wedding gown, how clothing choices affect marriage ceremonies.  Or, the difficulty of gay marriage is another possible theme.   

Unfortunately, “This Much” is not the quality of writing of such out-gay playwrights Tony Kushner or Christopher Durang who dig into the gay psyche, leaving clear and strong messages through drama and humor.

As is, the script does not probe deeply into the backgrounds, histories and motivations of characters, thus failing to give the actors the sociological background to use in developing motivations to make their characters real. 

Daryl Keley (Anthony), Maximillian Winer (Albert) and Wesley Allen (Gar) do their beginning and ending and dance with style and smooth moves, but develop characters who stay on the surface.  We don't know much about them.  Thus it is difficult to feel much empathy and care what happens to any of them.

The Liminis Theatre’s small space, with its runway configuration, places the audience within close proximity to the performers, maybe too close for the male frontal nudity and simulated sex acts, but that’s what draws some of con-cons audiences to the theatre.

Capsule Judgment: “This Much” is a rather shallow script, which gets an acceptable production at con-con, is filled with forced dialogue and contains little about the true life of gay dating and marriage, and why we should care about these particular characters.


“This Much” runs through November 3, 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: ”Rapture, Blister, Burn,” Gina Gionfriddo’s unflinching comedy about gender politics from November 30-December 15.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Dobama’s “John,” too much to do about nothing

Annie Baker is the author of “The Flick,” which had an award-winning production at Dobama last March (e.g., Cleveland Critics Circle and recognitions).  That script was clever, thought-provoking and generally mesmerizing.  

Baker is noted for her ability to seek out the minutiae in the way people speak, act and relate to one another and write about “the humor, absurdity and tragedy that result from the limitations of language and our fraught search for more meaningful human connections.”

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Obie Award for Playwriting, and numerous other accolades, her works have been done by over 150 theatres.  She is one of the new breed of “it” script authors.

Anyone going to see Dobama’s production of “John,” expecting another sure fire winner like “The Flick,” is likely to be disappointed.  While last year’s show grabbed and held the attention, “John” meanders on for three long acts, two intermissions and a between acts monologue, teasing, but never bringing about the needed spark.  That is, with the exception of the monologue.

Elias and Jenny stop at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, not far from the Civil War battle sites.  It quickly becomes obvious that they are in a troubled relationship.  The duo is greeted by Mertis Katherine Graven, the owner of a period home filled with antique dolls, toys, figurines and other Victorian tchotchkes. 

It’s late at night, there is a strangeness to the house and to the seemingly airheaded hostess.  Ghost stories, cookies, unaccounted for music, the tale of a husband who may or may not be alive, bickering between Elias and Jenny, a visit from Genevieve, Mertis’ blind and elderly friend who tells the tale of John her abusive ex-husband, revealing childhood traumas, incantations, mistrust, tales of infidelity, strange cell phone interjections, and impending doom ensue.

On the surface, it sounds like a compelling tale.  Unfortunately, Baker goes on and on, for almost three hours and much of the impending doom and excitement never unfold.   

That is, except for the dialogue.  Between the second and third act, Dorothy Silver, the grand dame of Cleveland theatre, saves the night with a compelling direct speech to the audience.  

Portraying the blind Genevieve, Silver slowly feels her way out from behind the front curtain, and gropes her way to the edge of the state.  She greets us, “Hello. Hello.”  She teeters almost falling.  She continues, “Don’t go yet.  I’m going to tell you a story but I’m going to do it in under five minutes.” 

And, then Silver captivates with a tale of how she “went mad in seven stages!”  She relates how dreamt of scorpions every night for a month, heard a name over and over in her head, woke to the sensation of the bugs now in her head, knowing God was doing an experiment on her, her breasts shrinking and a penis growing between her legs, the scorpions disappearing replaced by the knowledge that tiny men were colonizing her brain, being aware of “a deep connection with the soul of every person and every object that ever existed,” and finally realizing that she was in a godless world.

She concludes, “Sometimes I just lie in bed in the morning and think about nothing. Imagine that.  Sitting in the center of your own life with no thoughts at all about what other people are thinking.  They can think whatever they like.  You can all think whatever you like about me.”

The conclusion of the speech was met with tumultuous well-deserved applause.   It’s probably the best five minutes of theatre one could experience.

Silver’s is not the only outstanding performance.  Catherine Albers is obtuse, scatter-brained and on-target as Mertis.  She orchestrates the performance, opening and closing the front curtains, fussing over the minutia, all while acting as the mysterious caretaker of the B&B.

Both Luke Werner (Elias) and Kat Shy (Jenny) talk to each other, rather than projecting loud enough for the audience to hear their words, thus many of their speeches lack clarity.   

(The late Don Bianchi, the founder of Dobama, when directing, would place himself in the furthest seat from the stage during rehearsals would scream, “I can’t hear you” when an actor failed to project.  The young actors needed Don’s admonishment!)

Cameron Caley Michalak’s scenic design and IBG Designs:  Dred Geib, have created a perfect setting.  The tones, accents and set pieces are impressively era correct.  

Capsule judgement:  In spite of several outstanding performances, Dobama’s “John” is overly long and too slowly paced.  The author misses the opportunity to develop the potential of the core concepts of the tale.  It is worth the long sit, however, to experience the astounding five-minute between acts monologue by Dorothy Silver!


“John” runs through, November 11, 2018 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Superb “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” @ Beck Center

Edward Albee, author of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” now in production at Beck Center for the Arts, is one of the best known Theatre of the Absurd American writers.  This form of theatre, which was at its apex shortly following World War II, is based, in part on philosophical existentialism, which asks “what is the purpose of existence?”  

Absurdist playwrights create instances in which the characters are caught in hopeless situations and repeat meaningless actions.  The stories often highlight individuals who seem to have no purpose in life and are caught where their communication breaks down. 

Albee, who was adopted at an early age, led a life of luxury, but was seemingly denied love by parents who didn’t really know how to raise a child.  They gave him the opportunity to go to the finest schools, but never bonded with him.  His background is often credited with his hostile view of society and loving relationships.

Albee’s writing career has been filled with highlights.  He received three Pulitzer Prizes for drama--“A Delicate Balance” (1967), “Seascape” (1975), and “Three Tall Women” (1994), which recently completed an award winning revival on Broadway. 

Interestingly, his “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” considered to be his greatest work, was not honored with a Pulitzer.  It was selected for the award by the drama jury, but the advisory committee, with no explanation, overruled the selection and gave no award that year.  Rumor was that Albee’s open gay life style was repugnant to the conservative board.   It is interesting that Albee, himself, states “I am not a gay writer.  I am a writer that happens to be gay.”

Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is a classic example of absurdist writing.  It contains biting dialogue highlighting the dysfunctional relationship between two people who seemingly have only one purpose…the psychological destruction of each other.

The play centers on Martha and George.  He is a seemingly inept professor at the small New England college whose President is Martha’s father.  The duo has been married for many years, use alcohol to escape from their miserable existence and play word games to torture not only themselves, but anyone else who enters their chaotic home. 

One evening, after a faculty party, a young couple, Nick, a new Biology instructor, and his wife, Honey, are invited by Martha, to come over for drinks (and “games”).  Little do they know the verbal torture session that is about to take place. 

Alcohol flows freely, secrets are exposed, and the result is an emotional bloodbath.  Each horrific episode is keyed or ended with George and/or Martha’s repetition of the words, “who is afraid of Virginia Woolf” chanted to the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” from Disney’s “Three Little Pigs.”  

Written in 1962, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” has three fairly long acts.  

The first act entitled “Fun and Games,” lays the foundation for what is to come through a series of verbal, physical and emotional expository revelations.  The writing of the first act is often “hailed as some of the greatest in all of the American theatre.” 

The second act, “Walpurgisnacht,” takes its theme from the night that witches meet and Satan appears. 

In the final stanza, “The Exorcism,” takes place through the evicting of demons and other spiritual entities from a person or area through an elaborate ritual.  In this script, a ritual of verbal blood-letting.

The Beck production is superbly and sensitively directed by Donald Carrier.  The staging, the pacing, the development of uncomfortable humor, and the acting, are all well-focused.  The tension often gets nearly unbearable. 

The audience laughs and wonders why they would be expressing such a positive emotion to such terrible verbal destruction.  The ending leaves both the audience and the actors exhausted.

At the final blackout, the audience was totally quiet, in shock and fatigue.  Finally, a first person clapped.  Then the extended applause was thunderous.

Uta Hagen, who played Martha in the original Broadway production, indicated that playing the role of Martha was like having a nervous breakdown every night.  In fact, the strain was so much on the actors, that a separate cast played the matinees.

Having seen the original cast, on the first night of my honeymoon, no less, I can attest to not only the brilliance of Hagen, and her costar, Arthur Hill, but to the utter emotional high of the experience.  (My wife, on the way home from the Beck performance said, “It’s been 55 years and I still can picture every instance of that production.”)

The role of George is usually a tirade of strong emotion.     Michael Mauldin does not take that approach.  He is like a sword fighter, jabbing and thrusting to take advantage of his opponent’s weaknesses.  He is a stealth of power who puts on the role of George and never takes it off.

Derdriu Ring, one of the area’s premiere actresses, embodies the sexy boozed Martha.   She spews venom, creating a Martha to be reckoned with.  A viper whose every bite carries poison.  This is an emotionally-injured-women who takes out her angst on everyone in her presence.   

Handsome Daniel Telford is excellent as Nick, the young professor who was coerced into marriage by a “pregnant” Honey, she of wealth and beauty.
When Martha attempts to seduce him, in spite of his having “the physical potential,” Telford displays deep vulnerability due to his lack of ability to sexually perform.

Becca Ciamacco is appropriately emotionally and physically fragile as Honey.  She performs well the role of the hypochondriac with obvious issues.

Aaron Benson‘s well-executed unkempt living room set helps enhance the psychological messiness of George and Martha.

Capsule judgment:  Kudos to Don Carrier for his bullseye direction of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”  This is about as perfect a production as the script could receive.  If you have never seen the Albee masterpiece on stage, see it now!  You won’t have another chance to experience such a wonderfully crafted piece of theater.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” runs Friday through Sundays through November 4, 2018 in Beck’s Studio Theatre.  For tickets call 216-521-2540 or go to

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Less than clever “Cannibal! The Musical” raw @ Blank Canvas

As Blank Canvas’s program notes states, “Before South Park.  Before “The Book of Mormon.  There was “Cannibal! The Musical!” 

Yes, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of one of television’s cult shows and a long running musical, as college students, put their genius together and produced a three-minute trailer for a film class.  They then raised enough money and produced the full-length black comedy horror musical, “Cannibal! The Musical.” 

Originally a flop, after the success of their television and Broadway shows, the film became a cult-favorite.

Oh, if the film, turned into a stage show, was any way as clever as their later works!  As is, it is holds a slight telescope to view the “sense of humor” of the duo.

The process of developing the project was written about in the book, "Shpadoinkle: The Making of Cannibal! The Musical," which chronicles all aspects of the creation and how the film became a cult phenomenon.

The tale it tells is loosely based on a true story of a man an accused of cannibalism (thus the title). 

Alfred Packer, in “real life” led a group of five men from Bingham Canyon, Utah, through the Colorado Territory, in search of the city of Breckenridge, where gold had supposedly been found.  Only Packer survived the trip.  Supposedly, he made it by eating his fellow travelers. 

The tale tells how Packer and his trusty horse, Liane, set off on what should be a three-week journey.  The travelers include Shannon Bell, an aspiring Mormon priest; James Humphrey, who was forced by his father to go on the journey; Frank Miller, a cynical butcher; George Noon, a horny teenager hoping to meet girls; and Israel Swan, an optimist.  

Getting lost, getting more lost, meeting up with some native Americans and a group of trappers, wandering in the Rockies, getting further lost, and Packer arriving alone in the town of Saguache without the rest of his party, and his eventual arrest for cannibalism, follows.  

The show includes a series of scenes, with over-wrought dialogue, chopped together into a script with such musical numbers as “It’s A Shpadoinkle Day,” which gets an unneeded reprise, well, in fact, two reprises.  Also included are “Don’t Be Stupid,” “When I Was On Top of You,” “Let’s Build a Snowman,” (yep it gets a reprise), “Swan’s Swan Song” and the ever popular, “Hang the Bastard.”  Oh, and there’s “Packer’s Dream Ballet.”  (Honest, I couldn't make this stuff up!)

Patrick Ciamacco, the Artistic Director of Blank Canvas states, ‘’I have been wanting to direct and produce this show for some time now.”  (Oy, why?)

To his credit, Ciamacco has a wonderful sense of humor and has proven over and over his ability to take way-out material and make it at its best, hysterical, at its lowest level, palatable.  He’s successfully staged the likes of “Debbie Does Dallas,” “Psycho Beach Party,” “Hellcab,” and “Silence, the Musical.”)   He often selects scripts that no other theatre in the area would.  He loves blood splatter-zones, ear shattering music, and ridiculous farce.

The cast tried hard, the band played with enthusiasm, but, unfortunately, with “Cannibal! The Musical,” Ciamacco appears to have met his unsaveable challenge.
Even with all the farcical shticks, double-takes, over-blown stylized acting, blood and urine sprays, bloody bodily pieces parts, including an erect penis and bloody testicles, the show is not funny, not even gross, just stupid.

(Side note:  if you do attend, unless you want to leave covered with fake blood and urine, don’t sit in the first row yellow seats.   A couple, whether intentional or not, wore white t-shirts and jeans and left in red and yellow attire!  (It’s washable, but . . .)

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Blank Canvas pulls out all the stops in order to make “Cannibal! The Musical!” palatable, but from my stodgy old view-point, it just doesn’t succeed.  Some of the theatre’s die-hard regulars, including the guy sitting next to me who clapped and howled throughout the goings on, may be thoroughly amused, but consider this:  even the usual automatic standing ovation of CLE productions, was missing.

Cannibal the Musical!” runs through October 28, 2018, in the Blank Canvas west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.   For tickets and directions go to

Next up at Blank Canvas is irreverent, fun filled “Avenue Q,” running from December 7-22, 2018

Monday, October 08, 2018

Beautifully crafted “Pride and Prejudice” at Great Lakes Theater

Great Lakes Theater has found a perfect combination of scripts to start its 57th season.  The fun, escapist juke box musical, “Mamma Mia!,” had the audience excitedly on its feet for the extended curtain call.  “Pride and Prejudice,” the epic     story of class-stratification and misunderstanding feelings in 19 th century England, also had the audience on its feet at the end.  This time, instead of dancing and singing, it was applause for a well-directed and performed staging. 

Jane Austin, the author of the romantic novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” is noted for her abilities to write narration, create lush locations, present ideas in the form of letters exchanged by the story’s characters, and write long complex sentences.  These all work fine in a novel, but cause major problems for anyone attempting to transform her works into plays. 

Confronted with the task of adapting one of Austin’s most famous books, Joseph Hanreddy, who also serves as director of Great Lakes Theater’s production, built on the volume’s dynamic dialogue and simplified the need for many settings and costume changes by using a minimalistic approach.  He did so masterfully.  The play flows, the tale unfolds, the use of sliding panels and period furniture placed on stage through ingenious choreography, the simple addition of hats and shawls make the costume changes effortlessly simple. 

The story centers on Elizabeth Bennet, the attractive, intelligent, out-spoken second daughter of Mr. Bennet of the Langbourn estate. 

Bennet, the father of five daughters, finds himself in the position of being a member of the “upper” class, but almost impoverished because his property is “entailed,” meaning none of the girls can inherit it. 

Five daughters with no dowries makes them undesirable pawns on the marriage market.   Having a near hysterical wife, doesn’t make matters easier.  Oh, what to do? 

The 1813 tale, as is the case with many of the author’s works, looks at “the importance of environment and upbringing in developing young people’s character and morality.”   It exposes not only the folly of the British class system, the error of making hasty judgments, the difference between superficial and essential, and the “lies in the depiction of manners, education, marriage and money in the British Regency period.”  

Elizabeth is twenty, witty and opinionated and full of unbending pride.  She meets and verbally spars with the Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, a wealthy, seemingly distant, moody and prideful man.  The two must confront their prejudices in order for their spiral into love for each other. 

Surrounding Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s love story are others who fumble, through a series of almost Oscar Wilde-like overblown humorous, ridiculous situations related to love, family squabbles, and parental and societal stumbles.

Hanreddy’s fine directing keeps the play moving along at a nice clip, stressing the story while incorporating a light and laugh-filled attitude.  What many could perceive as a dry meander through an “old time” trite tale becomes a fun-filled romp.

The cast is totally immersed in developing the balance between the almost melodramatic drama and high comedy.

It’s so nice to have Andrew May back in town doing what he does best—using his mobile face and wide range of acting skills to get laughs by overplaying roles with the right amount of farce.  He steals the show as the put-upon Mr. Bennet.

Carol Healey comes close to matching May as his angst-ridden “daughters must get married at any cost” wife, who is always one step away from hysteria.

In the lead roles, Laura Welsh Berg (Mary Bennet), and Nick Steen, (Mr. Darcy), are character perfect.  

Berg gives the role just the right amounts of disdain and sweetness, displaying the needed pride and prejudice.   Steen has the correct levels of aloofness, but allows for his kindness to peek through.  They both create characters who, by the end of the play, make the viewer happy for their bliss. 

Other standouts are Jillian Kates (Elizabeth Bennet), Courtney Hausman (Mary Bennet), Daniel Millhouse (Mr. Bingley), Eric Damon Smith (Mr. Collins) and Lynn Allison, as the over-blown, pompous Lady Catherine de Bourgh. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The adaptation of novel-to-play is finely done. The directing is inspired.  The acting is finely tuned. The technical aspects are outstanding.  This is a must-see production which shines a spotlight on Great Lakes Theater at its finest. 

Tickets for “Mamma Mia!” and “Pride and Prejudice,” which run in tandem through November 4, 2018 can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Hello Dolly @ Connor Palace (Key Bank Broadway Series)

“It Only Takes a Moment” to know that “Hello Dolly,” Betty Buckley and the audience are having a musical theater love affair

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

It was apparent on reviewer’s night of “Hello Dolly,” which is starting its national tour in Cleveland, that many of the audience, which was awash in red clothing, had heard of the “wear David Merrick red” to productions of this script.  David Merrick red? 

Merrick was often referred to as the “Abominable Showman.”  One of Broadway’s greatest producers, he often came up with gimmicks to get attention for his shows. 

Supposedly, Merrick replaced the front curtain of the theatre in which his “Hello Dolly” was to play with a red one of a particular rouge hue.  In addition, the lead character, Dolly, in her most spectacular scene of the show, makes an entrance coming down a staircase in the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant wearing a red gown, a dress which became the traditional costume choice for all future Dolly’s.  

There have been lots of famous women who have played Dolly including Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman, Bette Middler, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Phyllis Diller, Molly Picon, Eve Arden, Ann Southern, Michelle Lee, Lanie Kazan, Tovah Feldshuh and, even Betty White, who appeared in Ohio’s Kenley Players production in the summer of 1979.  Barbara Streisand played Dolly in the film version of the show

The newest Dolly is Betty Buckley, who leads the staging in Cleveland, the starting site of the show’s newest reincarnation and the kick-off point for its national tour.

Buckley, won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Grizabelle in “Cats.”   Her rendition of “Memories” is a classic of the American Musical Theatre.  She also played Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” and appeared in “Triumph of Love,” “1776,” “Pippin,” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”  For a number of years, she starred in the ABC-TV series “Eight is Enough.”

Buckley is so perceived to be such a national draw that her name appears in the program and advertisements above the title of the show, an honor rarely bestowed upon a performer.

“Hello, Dolly!,” which has lyrics and music by Jerry Herman and a book by Michael Stewart, is based on “The Matchmaker,” a 1954 play by Thornton Wilder, a rewritten version of his 1938 play “The Merchant of Yonkers.”  The musical was first produced in 1964, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Interestingly, though most think of Carol Channing as Dolly Levi, the role was originally written for Ethel Merman, who decided not to do the part.  The role was then offered to Mary Martin, who also declined.  Eventually, Channing was hired and made the role not only hers for life, but made the show an international hit.

You’d never know it due to its amazing long-running Broadway runs, revivals, and local and international productions, but the show had rocky out-of-town tryouts.  Major changes were made to the script and score.  Even the name of the show was changed.  Originally entitled “Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman” and then,” Call on Dolly. “Merrick finally settled on "Hello, Dolly" and musical theater history followed.

The story centers on a meddlesome widow who, out of need for money, and her natural exuberance for controlling others and searching for a satisfying life, turns to matchmaker, striving to bring romance to others as well as herself.

The memorable score includes such hits as It Takes a Woman, Put on Your Sunday Clothes, Before the Parade Passes By, Elegance, and It Only Takes a Moment.  It is filled with joyous dancing and lots of audience pleasing show-stoppers notably “The Waiters’ Gallop” and the title song.

The touring production, under the direction of Jerry Zaks, who directed the recent Bette Midler Broadway version of the show, is very enjoyable, with many highs and few okays.  

The scenery, mainly colorful curtain drops, which are needed to facilitate easy moving from theatre to theatre on the tour, set the right moods.  A full-operational massive horse and carriage and a locomotive brought extended applause.

Santo Loquasto’s costumes are period correct and spectacular, adding appropriate visual stimulation to the goings on.

Warren Carlyle’s choreography is creative, often spectacular, though, at times, seemingly a little repetitious with repeated dance movements.  

From her first entrance, which was met with thunderous applause, Buckley “had” the audience.  She delighted, playing much of the show toward the viewers, and waving and teasing people close to the stage apron.  Her voice was strong, her movements appropriate for the choreography she was given.

Though at times Buckley seemed to show some signs of being tired, she went on singing and dancing.  One can only wonder what will happen during the long, arduous city-to-city trek and multiple performances a week.
Lewis J. Stadlen, as Horace Vandergelder, the focus of Dolly’s matrimonial interest, was excellent in the role.  He displayed just enough huff and puff and underbelly vulnerability.  

Nic Roleau, who recently finished a long run in “The Book of Mormon,” delighted as Cornelius Hackl, the 33-year old boyish clerk in Vandergelder’s store.  He has a lanky, free-moving, charming Tommy Tune-like image.  

Many probably saw Jess LeProtto (Barnaby Tucker) on “So You Think You Can Dance.”  He has a long theatrical resume including Broadway’s “Newsies” (in which I found him commanding many of the dance routines in the show).   He sings, dances and clowns with infectious ease.
Analisa Leaming was charming as Irene Molloy, Vandergelder’s intended, who winds up with Cornelius.   Kristen Hahn was adorable as Minnie Fay, Irene’s shop assistant.   

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  The sold out opening night audience got what they came for:   Betty Buckley, enthusiastic dancing and singing, spectacle in the form of wonderful costumes and special effects, some laughs, and lots of wonderful music!  Not all theater is intended to tell philosophical and meaningful ideas.  Sometimes it is just nice to go and enjoy, feel warm and happy, and appreciate the joys of life! See “Hello Dolly.”

Part of the Key Bank Broadway series, “Hello Dolly” runs through October 21, 2018 in the Connor Palace, in the PlayhouseSquare complex.  Next up in the series is a newly conceived version of “Les Miserables” from October 30-November 18, 2018.

For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to


Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Finely built “Fences” @ Karamu

August Wilson is considered one of the most prolific sources for documenting the twentieth century African-American experience.  His ten-play cycle, basically set in Pittsburgh’s Hill district, started with “Gem of the Ocean,” representing the 1900s and ended with “Radio Golf,” shining the spotlight on the 1990s.  “Fences,” which is now on stage at the newly renovated Jelliffe Theatre at Karamu, was the 1950s representative.

Like all of the "Pittsburgh" plays, “Fences” explores the evolving African-American experience and examines race relations, among other themes. The play won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play for its picture of damages to Black manhood as well as the conflicts which arise between family members based on the way they see the past and what they want to do with their future as well as the coping methods used to survive from being caught up in a cycle of stagnation.

Troy is a 53-year old a hard drinker, former convict, and one-time player in the Negro Baseball League.  He never got to play in the Major Leagues because of the color barrier.  He ekes out a living in a low paying barrel-lifter job because his race restricts his rise through the work ranks.  Finally, as a symbol, he becomes the Jackie Robinson of the company when he becomes the first black truck driver. 

Troy lives in his own home, with his wife Rose and son Cory.   His brother Gabriel is a former soldier who was injured in the war and suffers from psychological damage.  He lives in a rented room, but spends much time at Troy and Rose’s home. Troy also has a son, Lyons, the product of an earlier marriage, who is a some-time musician who weekly borrows money from Troy, and is a recipient of his father’s verbal abuse.

Troy and his work buddy, Bono, spend lots of time drinking and talking. 

As the story evolves, infidelity, conflicts between the rigid Troy and frustrated Cory, the birth of a baby, a conflict between Rose and Troy, Cory’s leaving home, and death become a part of the fabric of the family.  

The major allegory in the plot is a fence.  A physical barrier, built over many years, defines Troy’s property.  In addition, in a telling speech, Troy fantasizes that death, in the form of the Grim Reaper is coming, and the fence is his defense against his demise.  Troy also builds a psychological fence, cutting himself off from his sons. 

The philosophical base of the play comes from such prophetic lines as such as, “What law says I have to like you?” “A man has a duty to take care of his family.”  “I planted myself inside you.” “You got to take the crooked with the straight.”

Karamu’s production, under the astute direction of the organization’s President and CEO, Tony Sias, is compelling.

The acting is top notch.  Darryl Tatum creates reality with his smoldering portrayal of Troy.  This is a flawed man who creates angst for others through his rigid and self-protective view of life.  Colleen Longshaw inhabits the role of Rose, clearly showcasing the strength and level-headedness of the woman.

Dyrell Barnett (Lyons) and Dar’Jon M. Bentley (Cory) give strong performances as the put-upon sons.

Prophet D. Seay, steals the show with his accurate portrayal of the physical and emotionally wounded Gabriel.

Peter Lawson Jones carries the weight of the world on his shoulders as Bono, a man stuck in a quicksand-life.

Young Logan Dior Williams was delightful as Raynell.

Capsule judgment:  As is the case in all of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle plays, “Fences” is both a revealing history lesson and a snapshot of the black experience in this country.  It is a well-performed, important play, which deserves attendance by not only African American but also white audiences.  

“Fences” continues through October 21, 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.

Next up at Karamu is Douglas Turner Ward’s “Day of Absence” on stage from October 25 through November 18, 2018.

Monday, October 01, 2018

GLT’s “Mamma Mia” leaves audience singing & dancing in the aisles

Mamma Mia!,” now on stage at Great Lakes Theatre, as has been the case on Broadway and in its many local tour stops, is a thoroughly entertaining theatrical experience.  The audience was on its feet for the extended curtain call, dancing, clapping, and singing.

BTW…don’t run for the exits as soon as you think the show is over.  It’s not.  There is a remix of lots of the songs, some new dance moves, and an interactive love affair between the dynamic cast and the audience.

Mamma Mia!” is a unique script.  Most story-line stagings have a lyricist, composer and book writer who work together to develop the script.  This show doesn’t follow that pattern.  “Mamma Mia!” is one of a genre of shows called a “juke box musical.”  The songs were all developed before there was any thought of a musical play and then a story was written, incorporating the songs.

The music and lyrics, by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with additional songs by Stig Anderson, were all originally performed by ABBA, the Swedish pop-rock group, in their concerts and albums.  Catharine Johnson loosely wove a story around the songs.  The surprising result is a delightful, basically well-integrated musical.   The songs and spoken lines generally flow together to develop a cute “chick-flick” story.

For the few uninitiated:  On an unnamed island in Greece, Sophie, a twenty-year-old, is about to get married to Sky.  Her single mom, Donna, who owns a small island resort, has never revealed the identity of Sophie’s father. 

Sophie unearths her mother’s diary from the year before Sophie’s birthday.  Romances with three different men are revealed.  Any of them could be “daddy.”  Sophie wants to be given away by her dad, so, without her mother’s knowledge, she invites all three to the wedding, hoping to find out the sperm donor. 

Other wedding guests include Tanya and Rosie, Donna’s former 60s girl-group members, and Ali and Lisa, Sophie’s buds.

Through humorous twists, pseudo dramatic instances, and some great music, The Winner Takes All.   Along the line the audience is rocked with such songs and production numbers as "Dancing Queen," "Does Your Mother Know," "I Have a Dream," "Our Last Summer," "Super Trouper, "and "Voulez-Vous," leaving the audience shouting, "Thank You for the Music." 

There is no way you aren’t going to leave the theatre without singing one or more of the score’s great songs on the way to your car.

Director Victoria Bussert has let out all stops, going for shtick and audience enjoyment.  Bussert, head of Baldwin Wallace’s nationally recognized musical theatre program, has wisely peppered the cast with many talented BW alums and students.   

Matthew Webb has his musicians well-tuned and keeps the high octane music rocking and wisely under control so that the singers are not drowned out.

Choreographer Jaclyn Miller does a nice job of reinterpreting the dance numbers, though a little more island moves and fewer contemporary dance routines would have been appreciated.  The songs are well sung, with word meanings being stressed. 

The cast is excellent.  Pretty Kailey Boyle gives the right strong yet vulnerable image as Sophie. Shayla Brielle G. (Ali) and Amy Keum (Lisa) shine as Sophie’s best friends. 

Jillian Kates makes Donna, Sophie’s mom, live.  As her former girl group buds, Jodi Dominick (Tanya) is character right, while Laura Welsh Berg almost steals the show as the husband-seeking (Take A Chance on Me) Rosie.  

Jake Slater (Sky) and the island guys, Warren Egypt Franklin, Mack Shirilla, Eric Damon Smith and Tré Frazier, sing and dance with playfulness and vigor.

Studly Nick Steen (Sam), Crocodile Dundee-like Alex Syiek (Bill) and, Eric Damon Smith as gay Brit, Harry, are excellent as the three candidates for “who’s my dad?”  They are especially delightful in the curtain call.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   MAMA MIA! is once again an audience pleasing delight.  If you haven’t seen it before, go!  If you have, go again!

Tickets for “Mamma Mia!,” which runs through November 11, 2018 at the Hanna Theatre, in repertoire with “Pride and Prejudice” can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to