Sunday, February 17, 2019

Plot twisting “Witness for The Prosecution” compels at Great Lakes Theater

Agatha Christie, the “Queen of Crime,” was a British writer of murder mysteries, noted for creating plays, books and short stories.  They not only contained intriguing plot twists, which centered on scandalous murders, elaborate twists and turns, but revealed basic “truths” that are not what they seem.

Her “The Witness for the Prosecution,” now in production at Great Lakes Theater, is a typical intriguing Christie script.  In this work, however, instead of a death or deaths taking place on stage and a search taking place for “who did it,” the murder has already occurred, and the police have already arrested a solid suspect.”

Prosecution” was originally published as a short story, and later, after supposedly laying in a drawer with other manuscripts for years, was transformed into a play.

A review of the initial production stated, “The author has two ends in view, and she attains them both.  She takes us into the Old Bailey during an exciting trial for murder, into chambers where the human reactions of the lawyers engaged in the case may be studied; and when the trial is over and there seems no more to be said, she swiftly ravels again the skein which the law has confidently unraveled, and leaves herself with a denouement which is at once surprising and credible."

The tale begins with a conversation between Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Q.C., a lawyer, and Leonard Vole, a handsome young man who is accused of the murder of Miss Emily French, an elderly, wealthy, woman who Vole recently befriended.

The young man seems honest to the core.  He states he is innocent, but is soon arrested by the police.  

The quickly evolving plot is pushed along when Robarts takes the case. 

The majority of the rest of play, with the exception of one pivotal scene, takes place in the courtroom where the details of the murder, Vole’s relationship with his “wife,” and what really happened, unfolds.

Christie creatively leads us down one path, changes directions, throws other possibilities out, and then, as good writers of mysteries do, taunts us once more.  In the end, a sudden twist, or in this case, several plot turns, leaves not only no doubt of “who did it,” but exhausted from the chase.

The Great Lakes production, under the solid direction of Artistic Director Charles Fee, quickly grabs and holds attention.  The drama, humor and clever plot construction are finely tuned.

Gage Williams’ meticulously constructed court room set, with the jury stage right and the visitor’s gallery stage left, the judge presiding over the hearing, stage center, creates a perfect setting. 

Rick Martin’s lighting effects help transfer us out of the courtroom for several scenes.  Esther M. Haberlen’s period-correct costumes aid in creating the needed reality and point to the personalities of the characters. 

The acting is all top-notch.  Aled Davies nicely creates Robarts as a strong, dedicated lawyer.  Taha Mandviwala plays naïve well as the accused Leonard.  Jodi Dominick’s Romaine Vole, Leonard’s “wife,” is chillingly iceberg-cold and manipulative.  David Anthony Smith is delightful as the judge, Mr. Justice Wainwright.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: With fine acting, clear directing, impressive technical aspects, and encompassing writing, “Witness for the Prosecution” makes for a wonderful theatrical experience. Go.  See.  Enjoy!

The show runs through March 10, 2019 in the Hanna Theatre.  Tickets can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to

Next up at GLT: “The Taming of the Shrew,” Shakespeare’s fun-filled battle of the sexes from March 29 through April 14.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Shaw Festival’s 2019 season

It’s still cold and snowing, especially in the eastern provinces of our neighbors to the north, but things are heating up in Niagara-on-the-Lake, home of Canada’s Shaw Festival.  It’s getting closer to “curtain up, light the lights at Shaw Festival 19.

Many Clevelanders take the four-hour drive up to “The Shaw,” as it is called by locals, just to participate in theater.  Others tour the “most beautiful little city in Canada,” eat at the many restaurants and go shopping for Canadian goods.  Some take a side trip to Niagara Falls to see the world’s water wonder or to gamble.  Other go to shoot-the-rapids on the Niagara River.  Some go for a round or two of golf.  Whatever, The Shaw is a wonderful spring, summer or fall adventure.


It’s a good idea to make both theater and lodging reservations early, especially on weekends. 

Our home away from home is the beautiful and well-placed Wellington House (, directly across the street from The Festival Theatre, where Karen, and her fabulous breakfasts and immaculate rooms, holds forth. For information on other B&Bs go to

There are some wonderful restaurants.  My in-town favorites are The Grill on King Street (905-468-7222, 233 King Street), Ginger Restaurant (905-468-3871, 390 Mary Street) and Niagara’s Finest Thai (905-468-1224), 88 Picton Street, with Old Winery, (2228 Niagara Stone Road/905-468-8900), a worth-while ten-minute ride from downtown.

Tim Carroll says, of the varied play choices in this, his third season as The Shaw’s Artistic Director, “I could afford to be bold in my [play] choices, because of the incredible Ensemble there.”

The season, which opens on April 6 and runs through December 22, has audiences experiencing musicals, passion, crime, laughter, pure escapism, and romance. 

Here are his 2019 theater offerings:

THE HORSE AND HIS BOY—C. S. Lewis’s family friendly tale of four runaways—a boy, a girl and their horses, who are called upon to rescue Narnia.  (Recommendation:  Strongly consider a pre-show workshop that is filled with an exposition of the magic that happens on the stage.  A great fun and educational delight for adults and children.  April 6-July 21.

BRIGADOON—Lerner and Loewe’s charming musical, which contains such songs as “Almost Like Being in Love” and “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” asks, “What would you give up for love?”  May 5-October 13.

THE LADYKILLERS—Based on the beloved Alex Guinness film, this comedy is set in post-World War II London where five oddball crooks find out how hard it is to kill a little old lady who is getting in the way of their heist.  June 11-October 12.

MAN AND SUPERMAN WITH DON JUAN IN HELL—G.B. Shaw’s script which states, “There are two tragedies in life.  One is not to get your heart’s desire.  The other is to get it.”  Only 17 performances.  August 27-October 5.

ROPE—A gripping psychological thriller about two friends who commit a murder and host a party for the victim’s friends with his hidden body as the center piece.  April 12-October 12.

GETTING MARRIED—Shaw’s witty comedy which claims, “Married people should take holidays from one another if they are to keep at all fresh.” May 10-October 13.

THE RUSSIAN PLAY (lunchtime one-act)—A small-town flower girl falls for a gravedigger in Stalinist Russia.  What can go wrong?  About everything! (mature content) June 8-October 12.

CYRANO de BERGERAC—The tale of Rostand’s swashbuckling 17 th century swordsman who can do anything—except tell the woman he loves, how he feels.  July 27-October 20

THE GLASS MENAGERIE—Tennessee Williams’ classic autobiographical play which asks if we can ever truly escape the life we have been given.  May 22-October 12.

SEX—Margy LaMont, a quick-witted prostitute in Roaring Twenties Montreal, is looking for a better life.   This comedy drama got its author locked up for “corrupting the morals of youth.”  June 21-October 13.

VICTORY—A controversial play set in the aftermath of Charles II’s Restoration on the thrown of England.  The play may enrage you, but it won’t leave you!  (Warning: “VICTORY is deliberately offensive.  It is not for the squeamish as it contains very strong language.”)  July 14-October 12.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL—Ebenezer Scrooge is back. ”Bah, humbug!”   November 13-December 22.

IRVING BERLIN’S HOLIDAY INN—Fun loving, tap-dancing, romantic comedy with such classic songs as “Cheek to Cheek,” “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.”  November 16-December 22.

For theater information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets
and senior matinee prices.

The Shaw’s social consciousness is clearly stated in their statement: “We acknowledge and honour the land upon which we gather as the historic and traditional territory of First Nations peoples.  In particular we recognize and thank the Neutral Nation, the Mississauga and the Haudenosaunee for their stewardship of these lands over the millennia.  

Go to the Shaw Festival! Find out what lovely hosts Canadians are, and see some great theater! 

Don’t forget your passport as it’s the only form of identification that will be accepted for re-entry into the US.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Seeing BW/Beck’s wonderful “Once,” once, is not enough

“On Stage” recently announced that Baldwin Wallace University's Music Theatre program has risen to number one calling it "a top destination for any student wanting to study musical theatre."

The honor is no wonder as around twenty of Victoria Bussert’s thespians have graced Broadway for each the last several years.  This, along with all those who are staring in professional productions, such as Great Lakes Theater, Idaho Shakespeare Festival and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival have brought much attention and prestige.

If you need personal proof, and you haven’t seen productions by the collegiate group at BWU or Play House Square, get over to Beck Center, where the students are appearing in “Once,” the Edna Walsh (book), Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglová (music and lyrics) Tony Award winning musical, based on John Carney’s 2006 film of the same name. 

As “Once” starts, Guy, a busker, is singing a ballad of unrequited love.  He is in despair over the loss of the-love-of-his-life who left him and went to America. 

Girl is watching, listening, and approaches him.  Posing personal questions, she finds out that he is giving up music because singing songs of love is just too difficult.  

Seem like an extreme reaction?  Not if you remember that the Irish are noted for their strong display of emotions, the acting out of their angst, and the expression of those feelings in songs, poetry and staged drama.

Of course, the two develop an emotional relationship, but are confronted with the barrier that Girl is married to a man who has left her and their daughter, but may return.  Over the period of one week, the duo, with the help of various friends, creates a CD of raw, emotional, music. 

A vacuum cleaner, a piano, a recording studio, hope, laughter and Irish angst all play into the tale.  The expected happy ending may or may not take place, depending on how you interpret the touching final scene.

Jordan Janota’s minimalistic set is transformed into various places by adding a few tables and chairs and some strategic lighting. 

Though the songs are often dynamic, there is no rock and roll, no hip hop, nor show stoppers, leading to a laid-back feeling, not often found in musicals. 

The cast members are four-level performers who act, sing, dance and play instruments.  They present the depressing “Leave,” the pretty and plaintive “Falling Slowly,” the beautiful “Gold,” and the dance-inducing “North Strand.”  There’s nothing here that will make the hit parade of great songs.  It’s mainly emotional Irish “woe-is-me-music.”

This is the kind of script that BW’s Music Theatre Director, Victoria Bussert, does so well.  It is full of pathos, needs creative staging and a firm understanding of the subtle, as well as the importance of blended dancing, good vocals, strong acting and a comfortable pacing.  Bussert and her BW “cherubs” make it a “wee “grand experience. 

The choreography, which is well-performed staged movement, is nicely designed by Gregory Daniels.  The vocal blends and musical sounds are impressively conceived by Matthew Webb.

The entire cast impresses with their musical performances, proficient singing and clear characterizations.

Kelsey Brown is Broadway ready!  Her nicely textured creation of Girl grabs and holds the audience.  She has a good take on subtle comedy.  Her singing voice and acting talents are well-honed.  Her Czech dialect, developed under the coaching of Matthew Koenig, was clear, crisp and easy to understand.  Her piano playing added a special dimension to her performance.

Jake Slater grows nicely into the role of Guy as he transforms from depressed, even by Irish standards, to having a positive outlet for life.  He has a nice singing voice and displays good guitar skills.

The rest of the strong ensemble cast was impressive, displaying clear Irish dialects, thanks to Brennan Murphy’s guidance, and excellent singing blends and solos.  Their character development and playing of instruments impresses. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   The Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace Music Theatre Program production of “Once,” is vibrant, and has talent overload.  This production rivals the Broadway staging and is much superior to the touring show which was part of the Key Bank Series.  It’s the kind of production that you might be tempted to go back and see again!  Go. You will enjoy!
“Once” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through February 24.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to  

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Farcical “Robin Hood” delights at Cleveland Play House

Ken Ludwig's first Broadway play, “Lend Me a Tenor,” has been called "one of the two great farces by a living writer.”   It won three Tony Awards.  He has gone on to win another other Tony Award, two Helen Hayes Awards and the Edward Award.  It is no wonder, therefore, that plays by the "the purveyor of light comedy has been performed by almost every regional theatre in America.”

Ludwig’s major works include “Leading Ladies,” “Moon Over Buffalo,” “The Game’s Afoot,” “Baskerville, The Sherlock Holmes Mystery” and “A Comedy of Tenors.”  His musicals include “Crazy for You” and “An American in Paris.”  Many of these have been seen on CLE stages.

Ken Ludwig’s “Sherwood the Adventures of Robin Hood “is a romp full of swashbuckling and romance, and it’s also a moving tale of a young man’s discovery that everyone has a responsibility to care for his fellow man." 

Of course the script, which is set in Sherwood Forest and the town of Nottingham, England, around 1194, is peopled by Greedy Prince John (Price Waldman) and his bad henchmen-- Sir Guy of Gisbourne, The Sheriff of Nottingham, and the good guys-- the dashing “outlaw” Robin Hood, the band of Merry Men (and women) the lovely Maid Marian, Friar Tuck. Little John, Deorwynn (Andrea Goss) and King Richard the Lionheart. 

Knowing a little about England in the twelfth century helps to understand the conflicts that evolve.  A quick picture shows that “English society is a feudalist one with a king and royal family at the top, countless peasants and serfs at the bottom and knights and nobles in between.”

About a hundred years before this tale enfolds, William the Conqueror, a Norman descendent of the Vikings, earned his title by conquering England. His success set up an on-going battle between the Normans and Saxons.  (An excellent abbreviated explanation is contained in the CPH program that is well-worth reading before the play.)

As is the case with Ludwig’s other plays, farce and slapstick runs wild.  Add sword fights and arrows flying around the stage, direct involvement of the audience, and lots of chaos, and you have the possibility of delight.

To make farce work, a creative director and a disciplined cast is needed.  Having an inventive set designer also helps.

Fortunately for the audience, CPH has all the necessary requirements.

Director Adam Immerwahr, has a long resume of directing shows that are “wildly funny and full of heart.”  His local directing includes well-reviewed productions of “The Games Afoot (Or Holmes for the Holidays),” “A Comedy of Errors,” and “Baskerville; A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.”

Immerwahr pulls out all the stops for “Sherwood.”  Shticks, gimmicks and slapstick abound.  Swords clang, actors fly around stage with abandonment, sexual innuendoes erupt, ramparts are attacked, actors fall off buildings and are pummeled with glee. It’s all in good fun.  Farce at its very best.

Misha Kachman’s impressive set, complete with a massive tree, platforms, and a revolving center stage which is cleverly used for moving set pieces, fight sequences and acting stunts, becomes as much a performer as a visual delight.

 J. Allen Suddeth’s choreographed fight scenes are obviously staged, but delight with their well-executed movements.  The sequences often not only evoke laughter, but prolonged applause.

The cast is universally strong.  The good guys are pure and innocent, and the bad guys are evil to the core.  The audience got into the mood of the piece by cheering on our heroes and booing the evil-doers.

Handsome Zack Powell is Robin Hood, swashbucklingly perfect, displaying an impish quality that made the character endearing.  

Amy Blackman as his lady love, Maid Marian, nicely textures her acting and shows masterful physical moves as the “#Times Up” modern woman before her generation. 

As Little John, the physically imposing Jonah D. Winston got laughs on his entrance and got more and more guffaws as the show developed.  Our “narrator,” Doug Hara’s Friar Tuck, led the audience on a delightful journey. 

Josh Innerst is so successful in developing Sir Guy of Gisbourne as a bad guy that he got well-deserved “boos” on his curtain call entrance.  And Steven Rattazzi is delightfully pseudo-evil as The Sheriff of Nottingham.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Sherwood” is for those who love to laugh at the ridiculous and see a well-written farce performed at the highest level.  The staging, the acting, the technical aspects are superb.  Go…laugh…escape from the ridiculousness of what’s going on in this country and the world, and have a good time!!!

“Ken Ludwig’s Sherwood the Adventures of Robin Hood” runs through February 24, 2019 at Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Next up at CPH:  March 23-April 14, 2019) “Tiny Houses,” a world premiere comedy in which a couple builds a 200-square foot tiny house to create a “simpler” life.  (Outcalt Theatre)

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Lakeland Civic Theatre’s “Freaky Friday” is missing the freaky!

“Freaky Friday” is a musical based on the 1972 book by Mary Rodgers.  Yes, the daughter of Richard Rodgers, composer of such classic musicals as “Oklahoma” and “Carousel.”  Others are aware that she collaborated on the musicals “Once Upon a Mattress” and “The Mad Show.” Some might know that she is the mother of Tony Winning composer, Adam Guettel (“The Light in the Plaza”).  

Her endearing book was made into 1976 and 2003 films.

As in the book and film version, the storyline centers on Katherine, the overworked, obsessive-compulsive, stressed-out mother of Ellie, a sarcastic, self-involved, angst-driven teenager, who lives life in constant emotional self-imposed “drama queen” hell. 

Through a quirk of fate, the duo switches bodies, and then has one day to put things back. 

Yes, it’s one day before Katherine’s wedding, and both females are about to find out what it’s like to live life in the other’s body surrounded by wedding plans, school stresses, a runaway kid, burgeoning love, mistaken identities, and the loss of the device which “caused” the biological time-switch to take place. 

The musical was produced at the Cleveland Playhouse in April, 2017, with Broadway’s Heidi Blickenstaff and Emma Hunton in the lead roles.  Of that production, I wrote, “if you don’t go see “Freaky Friday” you are going to miss out on a special event.” 

I wish I could say the same thing for the Lakeland production, but I can’t.

“Freaky Friday” is a farce. Okay, not a totally well-written one, but it is still a farce.  Farces are meant to delight the audience.

Things started well as the psychedelic set designed by Aaron Benson created the right off-kilter mood. 

The overture and “Just One Day” did a good job of developing the exposition, getting us ready for the “delight” that was supposed to come. 

Matthew Dolan and his orchestra did a masterful job of underscoring, rather than drowning out the performers.  They played the pop-rock score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey well. (The mediocre score includes “What You Got,” “Oh, Biology,” “Busted,”” Just One Day,” and “No More Fear.”)

To make the script display its farcical level, requires letting out all the slap-stick, over-done physical and humorous stops.  This, of course is dependent upon the director building in shticks and gimmicks and the cast being able to pull off all the exaggeration, making each character a caricature.

Director Martin Friedman has given us some great theater. His Sondheim productions usually are top-tier and his recent production of “The Bridges of Madison County,” was an award winner.

Somehow, Friedman seems to have missed the key to “Freaky Friday.”  The needed cartoon characterizations, emphasis on the ridiculous, and creative staging were missing.  The performance seemed under-rehearsed and not well thought-out.

The director needed to make his cast aware of the qualities of farce.  As is, many acted, rather than reacted to the material.  Preset gestures and fake facial expressions, signs of bad performance, peppered the stage.

In spite of what was going on around her Trinidad Snider, as has come to be expected from this very talented woman, gave a stellar performance as Katherine/Ellie.  Her version of “After All of This and Everything” was beautiful. “Today and Ev’ry Day,” her duet with Alley Massey (Ellie) was nicely done.  Massey consistently sang well.

Rick McGuigan nicely developed the role of Mike, Katherine’s fiancé.

Jay Lee had the right touch as Adam, the high school hunk who Ellie lusts after.  “Women and Sandwiches” was delightful.  Several of the female high school students were on track.

The static and mechanically performed choreography didn’t help much to create the right mood.  The same could be said for the costumes, which were often ill-fitting and lacking in the needed visual polish.  In one scene, a lead actress came on stage with her dress inside out…label and seams exposed.

Capsule judgment: “Freaky Friday” is a farce which should delight an audience.  As is, except for the audience member on opening night who thought he was at a football game, and kept loudly cheering “way to go” and “good job” after each song and scene, the production should disappoint many.  Too bad!

“Freaky Friday” runs Friday and Saturdays at 7:30 and at 2 on Sundays February 1 through 17 at Lakeland Community College, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland. For tickets call 440-525-7134.  (The college is only 10 minutes from the 90-271 split!)