Friday, June 28, 2019

World premiere of “33 1/3” at Dobama

Viewing a new theatrical production is always an intriguing experience.  This is especially true if the offering is a musical and has not had many workshops or readings.  It is in these venues that the material is tested and adjusted based on reviewer and audience reactions. 

33 1/3” has been seen once, in a workshop in Canada, but the presentation by Cleveland’s “off-Broadway” theatre, is the first full staging of the material.

In evaluating a production, a viewer of any musical has to take into consideration the material (story line, concept development, clarity and accomplishment of the author’s intent), the music and lyrics, as well as the staging, acting, musical presentation and technical effects.

33 1/3” with book, music and lyrics by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli is both a coming-of-age and coming-out tale.

As described in the public relations for the production, “It’s 1974 and Jules finds small-town existence stifling. He lives for listening to the latest records with his best friend Jill, but dreams of an exciting life in New York City. While Jules’ mother is in the hospital, his father is trying his best at home with his only son. Jules encounters Francis, an openly gay, Bowie-loving young man and romance begins to bloom as Jules slowly discovers and acknowledges his sexuality. Jules also encounters Victor, an angry young man from a troubled home who seeks relief by pounding on the drums in his basement. All four young people experience a tumultuous New Year’s Eve and younger Jules makes a decision that will change his life and all those around him.”

Jules decision is to go to New York, leaving Jill and Francis behind him.  (No big plot reveal here.  This action is obvious from the start.)

The narrator of the story is Jules, as an adult, who is looking back and explaining how he got to the place in his life where he presently emotionally and physically resides.

The coming out story has been told many, many times.  There is nothing extremely unique in this version of the tale. There are no big surprises, no extremely jolting harassment or rejection events that make us want to cheer for Jules to succeed.  In fact, even as his adult-self tells the story, we don’t see what real success he has had, other than being out of the small town and not feeling penned up.  That is progress, but not enough on which to build a compelling musical tale.

The characters are somewhat underdeveloped.  Jules is a nice guy who we like.  Jill is a math savant who is also likeable.  It’s pretty hard to figure out why Victor is even included other than to illustrate, as is the case of Jules and Jill, that people in quandary tend to find someplace to hide.  In this case, in recordings and the worship of musicians.  Francis is there as a lover and sexual guide for Jules and to provide a stereotyped gay flamboyant character.

Not a bad tale, just not a totally compelling one that keeps us on the edge of our seats waiting for what trauma or gleeful event is going to come up next.   It doesn’t have the holding power of such coming-out tales as “The Edge of Seventeen” or the charm of “Love Simon.”  

As for the music.  The songs tend to blend nicely into the story, as is the case with the newly developing genre of musical drama. 

In general, the music is unmemorable.  As I sit to write this, less than 12 hours after seeing the show, I can’t hum or even remember the sound of any of the songs, or the titles or their lyrics. Since my mind tends to be a trap for musical show tunes, this lack of cognition is not a good sign.  It might have helped if the titles of the songs were listed somewhere in the program.

I often found that the songs were too word-loaded, too complex to grasp a major idea. These are not of the quality of the music found in such recent musical dramas as “Dear Evan Hansen” or “Next to Normal.”

The lack of memorable music is a surprise as both Jay Turvey and Paul Portelli are award-winning authors.  Sportelli is also the Music Director of Canada’s Shaw Festival.

As for the production of Dobama’s “33 1/3,” director Matthew Wright keeps the slow developing plot moving along.

The cast puts out full effort.

Jim Bray gives an impressive nicely textured performance as both Older Jules, our guide to the story and also as Jules’ over-whelmed father. 

Handsome Benjamin Richardson-Piche is appealing as Jules, but often lacks the emotional depth to carry us on his journey.  He, as does Hanna Shykind (Jill), Tyler Tanner (Francis) and Jay Lee (Victor) perform rather than be.  They are actors, playing roles not real people.  All have pleasant, not Broadway ready voices.  

Holly Handman-Lopez has designed choreography that fits the era and the music.  As with the character development, the cast has some difficulty in making the moves look natural rather than planned and rehearsed.

The psychedelic electronic scenic effects visually set the correct moods. 

Mathew Dolan’s musical direction was generally good, though there were times when the vocals were lost because of the over-zealous pounding of the drums.  Musical’s sounds are there to back up the singers, not over-power them. 

33 1/3” is a work in progress. Few, if any musicals, make it out of the gate as finished products.  The American musical theater lore is filled with a number of shows that needed major or minor changes to help them become viable.  

The first performance of “If/Then” clocked in at over 4 hours, as was the case with “The Addams Family.”  They both had to be heavily pared down. “Fiddler on the Roof” became a hit when a new director came in after weeks of frustrating rehearsals and asked what the show was about.  When they decided it was about tradition and not about a milkman and his daughters, and inserted “Tradition” as the opening song, the show transformed from a march of members of the audience to the exits, into one of the genres greatest shows.  The same is true of “Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” when a pretty love song which was to be the opening number was pulled and “Comedy Tonight” inserted to set the right tone. 

Jules could use an “I want” song that tells his hopes and dreams and sets his character.  A “Noise” song in one or both acts would “wake” up the audience and texture the musical sounds.  A “Next to the Last Scene” acting or musical number would get the audience ready for what should be a stronger ending that wraps up the story.    

Hopefully the authors will take the feedback about the script and music and go back to the drawing board and make some needed changes.

Capsule judgment: “33 1/3,” in its world premiere at Dobama, is a work in progress.  It will be interesting to see what, if any changes the authors make as the piece moves forward.  You might want to see it here, so you can say “I saw it in its infancy.”

(Side note:  A percentage of the ticket sales from Dobama’s “33 1/3” will be donated to LGBTQ support causes.)

33 1/3” runs through July 14, 2019 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

Monday, June 17, 2019

“Ragtime The Musical” tells a story that must be heard @ Cain Park

It is entirely appropriate in this era of rising anti-immigrant feelings, the re-emergence of the White Supremacy movement, increased anti-Semitism, and having a President who believes in nationalism and Eugenics, that Cain Park revisit the historical foundations of this country via the musical “Ragtime.” 

The history lesson is based on E. L. Doctorow’s epic 1975 novel “Ragtime.”

The musical has a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and marches, cakewalks, gospel and ragtime music by Stephen Flaherty.

The Broadway production, which opened on January 18, 1998, and ran for two years, was met with mixed reviews, but still garnered 13 Tony nominations.  It introduced such up-coming super stars as Lea Michele, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald. 

The musical “tells the story of three groups in the United States in the early 20th century: African Americans, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; upper-class suburbanites, represented by Mother, the matriarch of a white upper-class family in New Rochelle, New York; and Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia.” 

All of these present a picture of this country when the phrase “I lift my lamp beside the golden door” meant that those who needed a place to escape, to look for their “golden medina” (Yiddish meaning promised land), were welcome.

Upper-class white Christian families had established a pattern of privilege and were secure in having their needs and wants met.  Blacks and the immigrants were subjected to prejudices and misunderstandings because they were not part of the “in-group.”  

“Ragtime” confronts the contradictions inherent in American reality: experiences of wealth and poverty, freedom and prejudice, hope and despair.

The tales and attitudes of real celebrities, such as J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, activists such as Booker T. Washington and fiery orator and union organizer Emma Goldman, and entertainers such as Harry Houdini are woven into the well-told tale. 

The score is powerful and is the tool that carries the story telling. 

Songs such as “Prologue: Ragtime” and “Goodbye, My Love,” foreshadow the story’s development.  “A Shtetl iz Amereke” sets the wishes and dreams of the new immigrants.  “His Name Was Coalhouse Walker” and “Getting’ Ready Rag” introduce the plight of Blacks, the only immigrants who didn’t have a choice about coming to this country, and their fears and frustrations. 

“Henry Ford” provides the picture of industrial America and its role in the development of the “American” way.   The powerful “The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square” placed a spotlight on the abuse of workers by the likes of Ford, and the need for unionization. 

The powerful “Justice” highlighted the oppression and abuse of Blacks by white nationalists. 

“Till We Reach That Day” is a moving anthem to the need for respect for all.  

“Sarah Brown Eyes” is an anthem to love, while “Make Them Hear You” is an appeal to the need for respect and tolerance.

Those who have been to the Alma Theatre in Cain Park will need to adapt their expectations as the entire theatre has been reconfigured.  The proscenium stage has been replaced by a center platform in an oval configuration, with the audience surrounding the elongated stage on two sides.  (Be aware that it can be a precarious adventure to navigate the uneven levels to get to some of the new seating.)

The present format allows the audience to be close to the action and become emotionally involved in the show.  This script was aided by the new stage.  

On the other hand, as is often a problem with stage formats where the audience surrounds the actors, hearing can be problematic.  In the case of “Ragtime,” the lack of sound balance between the orchestra and the singers meant that the sound battle often resulted in the loss of hearing the lyrics to the songs.  That’s too bad, because those words are vital to understanding the intent and purpose of the author.

Joanna May Cullinan’s focused directing helped develop the story line.  She was aided by a cast which could act, sing and dance with proficiency and purpose, and purposeful choreography by Imani Jackson.

Young Jake Spencer was delightful as Edgar, the little boy who acted as the show’s narrator and commentator.  Bridie Carroll was compelling as Mother, a woman ahead of her time.  Her “Goodbye My Love” and “Back to Before” were emotionally moving.

Mariah Burks presented a Sarah who sang and acted with clarity.  Her version of “Your Daddy’s Son” was exceptional.  “Wheels of a Dream,” which she sang with Coalhouse, was one of the production’s highlights.

Though at times he could have been more verbally and physically dynamic as an actor, Eugene Sumlin (Coalhouse), has a powerful vocal range and demanded attention and respect in “Justice” and “Make Them Hear You.”

Will Price was superlative.   I’ve seen this show a half-dozen times and he ranks as one of the best Mother’s Younger Brother that I’ve reviewed.

Kate Leigh Michalski didn't portray Emma Goldman; she WAS Emma Goldman!  Her performances in both “That Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square” and “He Wanted To Say” almost brought the audience out of their seats to march with her to support her cause.

Scott Esposito made Tateh into a compassionate and wise “mensch.”  He has a solid singing voice and was appealing in his presentation of “Gliding.”  “Our Children,” sung with Mother, was charming.

The rest of cast, especially the African American dancers, were excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Ragtime” tells an important tale that needs to be seen and heard.   Except for an over-enthusiastic orchestra and some audio balance problems, this production does the script justice.  It’s well worth the sit!

The show runs through June 30, 2019 in the Alma Theatre in Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park.   For tickets call 216-371-3000 or go to

Saturday, June 15, 2019

“Man of La Mancha” seeks and finds the impossible dream at Porthouse

On November 23, 1965, I entered New York’s ANTA Washington Square Theatre, which was built so the audience looked down upon the theatre-in-the round stage in a configuration that resembled a hospital surgical suite, to see “Man of La Mancha.”  The show had opened the night before. I knew nothing of the production.  Little was I aware that it would be one of the most mind-blowing experiences in my theater life.

“Man of La Mancha,” has a book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion, and music by Mitch Leigh.  It was adapted from Wasserman's non-musical 1959 teleplay “I Don Quixote,” which was, in turn, inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century novel.

The 1965 Broadway production ran for 2,328 performances and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. 

That production starred Richard Kiley, whose performance, in my opinion, was one of the greatest in professional musical theatre history. 

When the lights went off, after Kiley’s last speech, which was performed with pin spots on the actor’s eyes, which slowly expired as he exhaled his last breath, and the choral singing of “The Impossible Dream,” I sat frozen, unable to leave the image on stage and return to the real world.

That image remained so strong that when the touring production of the show came to the Hanna Theatre several years later, I walked into the lobby of the theatre, and made an instant decision not to see the show, as I did not want to erase that past memorable moment of wonder.

Besides Kiley, the original Broadway production starred Columbus-born Joan Dienar as Eldonza.  Her vocal range was so unusual that musical conceiver Mitch Leigh said: "Joan had a three-and-a-half-octave range. We tailored the music to her voice." 

The musical’s enthralling score includes such classics as "It's All the Same,” "Dulcinea"
 "I'm Only Thinking of Him,” "I Really Like Him,” "What Does He Want of Me?," "Little Bird, Little Bird," "Golden Helmet of Mambrino," "To Each His Dulcinea, and, of course, one of musical theater’s most memorable songs, "The Impossible Dream."

The tale, set in the late sixteenth century, relates the story of “a failed author-soldier-actor and tax collector, Miguel de Cervantes, who has been thrown into a prison, along with his manservant.  They have been charged with foreclosing on a monastery. Their fellow prisoners attack them, eager to steal the contents of the large trunk Cervantes has brought with him. However, a sympathetic criminal known as the Governor suggests setting up a mock trial instead. Only if Cervantes is found guilty will he have to hand over his possessions.  A cynical prisoner, the Duke, charges Cervantes with being an idealist and a bad poet.  Cervantes pleads guilty, but then asks if he may offer a defense, in the form of a play, acted out by him and all the prisoners. The Governor agrees.”

Thus, with makeup applied and in costume, we see Don Quixote, the knight-errant and his squire, Sancho Panza, go off on an adventure to fight the unbeatable foe, meet his
Aldonza, confront a four-armed giant, which in reality is a windmill, collapse, recover long enough to sing his final thoughts, and tell the tale of a quest well done and hope for the future.  

The priest sings a psalm for the dead.  Sancho is distraught at his friend's death. Aldonza tries to comfort him, saying that Alonso Quijano may be dead but the spirit and will of Don Quixote lives on.  Yes, as his words state, “And I know if I'll only be true to this glorious quest. That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I'm laid to my rest. And the world will be better for this, that one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove with his last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable star.”

What a message to be aware of in this, a world of chaos and misdirection, where decisions are often made “without question or cause!”

The Porthouse production, under the adept and sensitive direction of Terri Kent, is graced with the creative, distinctive, compelling choreography of Martin Céspedes, who, once again, proves why he is considered one of the best of the local choreographers and visionary of stage pictures. 

Céspedes, incidentally, was in a national touring production of La Mancha.

Kent and Céspedes have taken a different approach to the staging.  Instead of the common frenetic and often-laugh inducing presentation, the duo has chosen, instead, to take slow-down-the-action and sound, all the way from the music pace to the actor’s movements, to stress the underlying philosophical meaning of the script.  Their Don Quixote is delusional, in a quest to save the world, rather than a crazy man in search of an unknown foe. 

The slow, exaggerated dance and physical movements, much in the form of a slow-motion film, whether it be in the rape or taunting scenes, or the speeches, are purposeful. 

The artful lighting, effectively designed by Cynthia Stillings, accentuates what must be seen and aids in developing the intended moods.

The dancers are perfectly honed.  They move as a unit, developing the meaning.  Even the human horses help create the reality. 

The vocalizations are superb.  Meanings of lyrics are stressed.  It’s not only the sound that impresses, it is the clarity of concept development!
Johnathan Swoboda and his orchestra support the singers, rather than drowning them out, as is commonly done. 

Congrats to Parker Strong, the sound mixer, for nicely balancing the music and voices.

The costumes, especially those for the Knight of Mirrors scene, were era and attitude correct.

Patrick Ulrich’s impressively designed set, three dark-textured pillars, levels and a descending staircase, enhanced the visual appeal and aided in creating the right images.

Kudos to the cast for their authentic Spanish pronunciations, which added to the reality of the message.

Fabio Polanco created a sensitive and heart-felt Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote.  His was a realistic quest to fulfill the character’s impossible dream, rather than a theatrical gimmick-laden image.  His proficient singing voice, surety of character development and emotional involvement in creating the right image, was impressive.

Timothy Culver’s Sancho was that of a true believer, an admirer of his master’s blind search for truth, rather than the common development of the man as a buffoon.  Well done!

Genny Lis Padilla, she of fiery personality and superb voice, was mesmerizing as Aldonza.  Again, through clear directing concept, the role came to life as telling the tale that even a woman born in a dung heap deserves to be treated as a valued human.  Impressive!

Strong performances were also given by Brian Chandler (The Governor/Innkeeper), Cody Hernandez (The Duke/Dr. Carrasco/Knight of Mirrors), Zoe Dongas (Antonia), Jay White (Padre) and the Muleteers.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Terri Kent’s soul of humanness and Martin Céspedes’s creativity and visual perception are stamped all over this captivating production.  It is a “Man of La Mancha” for the 2019s.   It’s a musical drama which has an important story to tell.  GO!  Experience theater at is finest!

“Man of La Mancha” runs at Porthouse Theatre through June 29.  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE: “Tintypes,” the “Yankee Doodle Boy” Americana musical revue from July 4-20.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Audience taken on an emotional roller-coaster ride by superlative “DEAR EVAN HANSEN” at the Connor PalaceDEAR EVAN HANSEN

Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” ushered in the era of book-centric American musicals that have been designated as “musical comedies.”  The beginning, middle and ending structured stories normally contain singing, dancing, show stoppers, comedy, a few conflicts, and a satisfying ending, in a two-act format.

In the near recent-present shows like “Next to Normal,” “Come From Away,” “The Color Purple” and “Spring Awakening” have brought the genre to a new probing of sociological and psychological issues including schizophrenia, incest, rape, homosexuality and social responsibility, thus ushering in the format of the “musical drama.”  These scripts center on dramatic story-telling and less on glitz and spectacle.

“Dear Evan Hansen,” now on stage at the Connor Palace, as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series, places its spotlight on social anxiety, suicide, family angst, and teenage drug addiction as major plot issues.

“Dear Evan Hansen,” which opened on Broadway in December 2016 to universal rave reviews, was nominated for nine awards Tony awards, and won six statues, including those for Best Musical and Best Score.  The show is still running to packed-houses on the Great White Way.

The musical is loosely based on an incident that took place during the musical’s composer and lyricist Benj Pasek’s high school days, when a teenager invented an important role for himself, leading to credit that he did not earn and, therefore, did not deserve.

The show’s musical sound is that of pop-contemporary musical theatre, borrowing format elements from modern compositions.  It is art songs and narrative story-telling.  This is not the style of Rogers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe, but that of new voices, such writers as Jason Robert Brown (“Parade” “Last Five Years”), Jonathan Larson (“Rent”), Lin-Manuel Miranda {“In the Heights” and “Hamilton”), and Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”).  Their music uses pop and rock to tell provocative, boundary-pushing stories.

The story of “Dear Evan Hansen” centers on a teenager with social anxiety.  Upon the advice of his therapist, in order to expose himself to the positive parts of life, Evan writes letters to himself detailing what was “good” about each day. 

Besides Evan and his mother, Heidi, Jared, Evan’s only “friend,” and their attention-starved school-mate, Alana, the story-circle also includes Connor and Zoe Murphy and their parents, Larry and Cynthia.

Conner is a troubled teenage drug-user, with anger management issues.   Zoe is the girl that Evan crushes on from afar.  In spite of their wealth, the Murphy family is in major crisis and appears to be falling apart due to parental conflicts and Conner’s drug and conduct issues.

At school, one day, Connor makes fun of Evan’s awkwardness and knocks Evan to the ground.  Zoe apologizes for Connor’s actions. 

That same day Connor encounters Evan again, and unexpectedly offers to sign the cast on the boy’s broken arm.  Connor accidentally finds one of Evan's self-encouragement letter in the computer lab’s printer, reads it, becomes furious at the mention of Zoe, and storms out, taking the letter with him.

Several days later Evan is called to the principal's office and told that Connor has committed suicide.  Evan’s letter was found in Connor’s pocket, but it is assumed to be Connor’s suicide note addressed to “his friend Evan,” since it started, “Dear Evan Hansen” and was signed “Me.”

Evan is invited to the Murphy house to explain his supposed friendship with Connor.  Though he intends to "nod and confirm" to avoid making things worse, Evan, in a fit of panic, lies, pretending he and Connor had been best friends, emailing each other from a secret account. 

Thus the story spins into a tale of humorous and angst-laden misinterpretations, a growing closeness of Evan and Zoe, an on-line fund raiser to honor Connor, growing conflict between Evan and his mother, and Evan admitting his lack of friendship with Connor. 

The emotional tale ends as Evan writes himself a last letter, admitting to finally being at peace with who he is.

The touring production is generally mesmerizing.  From the opening number, “Anybody Have a Map?,” to Connor’s I want/am song, “Waving Through a Window,” to the emotion-draining “Requiem” and finally to the first act ending, the gut-wrenching “You Will Be Found,” which found many in the audience vocally sobbing, the first act is an emotional roller-coaster.

Though interesting, the second act is somewhat anti-climactic.  Part of the issue is that it lacks the humor and drama of the opening stanza.  Secondly, the pacing is slower, and finally, though the song “Finale” is affirming, much of the play’s final spoken speech, given by Jessica Phillips, as Evan’s mother, was lost in a low volume mumble.  It, unfortunately, was not the only speech that was lost due to poor modulation by the sound team, but, since it is the pivotal communication, leading to the play’s moral, the loss of hearing the words was upsetting.

Slender, stoop-shouldered, sensitive Ben Levi Ross, was spell-binding in his development of the socially inept Evan.  He gave his own spin to the role, totally immersing himself into the psyche of the ego-weak Evan.  He didn’t portray Evan, he was Evan!  He didn’t just sing songs, he presented meanings to the words of the score. 

(Side notes:  Having seen Tony winner Ben Platt on Broadway as Evan, local audiences can be assured that Ross’s interpretation, while different, is as effective.  Also be aware that the role is played by Stephen Christopher Anthony on Saturday and Sunday matinees.)
The rest of the cast was strong.  Ciara Alyse Harris, who stood in for Maggie McKenna who normally plays Zoe, was believable as the only member of her family that was emotionally on course.

Jared Goldsmith was delightful as Jared Kleinman, the sex-obsessed, computer nerd. 

Marrick Smith’s interpretation of Connor would have been aided by a clearer intensity and a more obvious development of the character’s mood swings.

Phoebe Koyabe was properly self-centered as Alana.

As the adults, Aaron Lazar (Larry), Christiane Noll (Cynthia) and Jessica Phillips (Heidi) all nicely textured their roles. 

For the younger generation, the extensive use of newsfeed, and computer and I-phone communication, will illuminate “life-as-it-is.”   Others might find the constant bombardment of visual stimulation to be over-load.  The changes aren’t a-comin’, they are here!  The growing use of computer generated sets and special effects, like the contemporary musical sounds, is part of what makes for the modern musical drama.


CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Dear Evan Hansen” is a mesmerizing evening of contemporary musical theater.  Complete with pop-contemporary music sounds, complete with art songs and narrative story-telling tunes, and a relevant story line, it is one of the finest examples of the new wave of musical dramas.  Don’t go expecting show-stoppers and an escapist plot, this is life as it is being lived, with all its angst and issues.  The touring production is excellent and is an absolutely must see!!  

“Dear Evan Hansen” runs through June 30, 2019 as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series.  To purchase tickets, visit, call 216-241-6000 or go to