Saturday, November 30, 2019

Brilliant EVERY BRILLIANT THING is a must see @ Cleveland Play House

If you saw ‘AN ILIAD” at Cleveland Play House earlier this year, you are aware of the brilliance of actress Tarah Flanagan.  She is a master at interacting with an audience and creating empathy and reality onstage.  Fortunately for CLE audiences, Artistic Director Laura Kepley has found another vehicle to showcase the extraordinary talents of Ms. Flanagan.
Duncan MacMillan’s “EVERY BRILLIANT THING” is a humorous, joyous, tender, emotional play about depression, suicide and living life, solo-piece, with active audience participation.
Words like joyous and humorous usually don’t appear in the same sentence with depression and suicide, but in the hands of a fine playwright and a brilliant performer, they meld nicely.
First produced by Paines Plough and Pentabus Theatre Company at Britain’s Ludlow Fringe Festival in 2013, the script later was later broadcast on HBO.  The television performance was fine, but this hour-long show is best experienced live, where the audience can be up-front and participating in the experience.
CPH again illustrates why it moved from its previous home in the Hough area to Cleveland downtown.  The show, which is being performed in the Helen Theatre is the perfect intimate black box space for “EVERY BRILLIANT THING.”  On a proscenium stage the emotion of the piece would be lost, as it was on the television screen.
As they enter, many theater-goers are given slips of papers, or are whispered to by the stage manager or the performer.  The slips hold numbers and words and phrases.  The whispers share information that audience members will need to know when they are called on to engage in the production. 
For the shy…don’t worry.  You will not be embarrassed or put on the spot to perform against your will.  The entire concept, as developed by the writer, performer and director (Laura Kepley) is relaxed and non-threatening.  The communal sharing, as is the case in self-help suicide and depression support groups, allows an anonymous crowd to become theatrical comrades, an ad hoc ensemble united by a total stranger’s story, while learning the value of sharing grief and fears and working toward mental health awareness.
The numbered slips contain terms such as “ice cream,” “water fights,” “staying up past your bedtime,” and “being allowed to watch TV.”  The terms are part of a list, born out of a child’s fantasy for rescuing her/his mother from her suicidal depression.  The whispering helps some of the participants to help the performer as his/her father, intimate friend, counselor, professor.
Her/his? Depending on which production you see, the role is played by either Flanagan (a female) or Alex Brightwell (a male).  [Since I saw Flanagan, my comments will be about her performance.]
As the performer shares with us, “There are so many reasons to want to live, if only my mother’s clouded mind could be awakened to everyday delights.”  How better to do this than to illustrate all the wonders of the world.  Thus, the list.
To be effective in the roll of the child, later the adult, requires quick thinking, ad lib skills, a warmth and supportive caring nature.  Flanagan has all of these qualities in spades.  This is an amazing actress with natural charisma.
Kudos also to Maryann Morris, the stage manager and Nick Drashner, the sound designer.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “EVERY BRILLIANT THING” is a brilliant and absolutely must-see production.  Mental illness and its impact on a family, mortality and existential despondency are central themes. These are heavy subjects but, ironically, the approach is almost frolicsome and totally mesmerizing.

“EVERY BRILLIANT THING” which runs ninety-minutes without an intermission, can be seen in CPH’s Helen Theatre through December 22, 2019.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Impressive, startling, educational “LIVE BODIES FOR SALE” @ Playwrights Local

Human trafficking doesn’t just take place somewhere else.  It is a CLE problem as well. 

Interestingly, the horrific act, wasn’t recognized nationally as a crime until 2000, with the passage of the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act.  That law recognized two types of trafficking:  labor and sex.  The former is “using a person for labor or services through force.  Yes, it is a form of slavery.  

The latter requires “a commercial sex act or sex exchange for money, food, shelter or anything that has commercial value” and “some form of force, fraud or coercion perpetrated by what we call a pimp or trafficker.”

In Ohio, which was the first state in the Union to prohibit slavery, human/sex trafficking wasn’t recognized until 2010.  Yes, only nine years ago.  And even then, the actual law prohibiting it didn’t go into effect until 2012.

Playwright Christopher Johnston spent eight years researching human trafficking.  He met with individuals who were trying to help the victims, as well as agency and governmental representatives who were working to end the practice and support those who were brutalized.  His purpose was to gain the necessary information to write the compassionate, moving, and startling “LIVE BODIES FOR SALE,” a real local story of sex trafficking.

“The play is based on in-depth interviews with women forced into prostitution, exploited and rescued” and is based on his book, “Shattering Silences:  Strategies to Prevent Sexual Assault, Heal Survivors, and Bring Assailants to Justice.”

Johnston’s script is now in its world performance premiere at Playwrights Local in Waterloo Arts.

The stories, as told and acted out, are compelling and upsetting.  They speak to the very worst in people, as well as the best in those who try and help, and those who survive.  Sometimes encouraging, all the stories have an undercurrent of horror.

The cast, under the direction of Terrence Spivey, is excellent.  They inhabit their roles so completely that the presentation does not appear to be a theatrical work, but a demonstration by the actual victims, perpetuators, and those who try and help those who have been abused. 

Rocky Encalada, Arien Hodges, Stephen D. Hood, Hayley Johnson, Rochelle Jones, Joseph Milan, Juliette Regnier and Emily Taylor, in a talk-back following the opening night sold out presentation, revealed that, besides doing extensive research, they each met individually with the person they portrayed in order to have first-hand knowledge of their lives and what led to their being dragged into the trafficking or becoming an advocate for the victims. 

The setting, lighting, costumes and sound effects are minimal.  The words and actions are front and center.  This is an involving experience that rips at the heart and bombards the mind with questions, as well as feelings of helplessness and rage.

One positive part of the revelations is gaining knowledge about the Cleveland area Renee Jones Empowerment Center, a nurturing safe place where those who have survived being trafficked or sexually assaulted can rebuild their lives. (A portion of the proceeds from this production will benefit the Renee Jones Empowerment Center.)

Capsule judgment: “LIVE BODIES FOR SALE” is a powerful and compelling exposition that grabs and holds attention, not only because of the stories told, but also because of the well-conceived performances.  This is an absolutely must-see experience which shows the power of theater to teach and persuade.  (Side note:  Talkbacks are held after performances.)

“LIVE BODIES FOR SALE” runs November 22-December 15 at Creative Space at Waterloo Arts, 15605 Waterloo Road, Cleveland.  There is a free parking lot next to the performance space.   For tickets go to or call (216) 302-8856

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Spectacular KINKY BOOTS delights at Baldwin Wallace

KINKY BOOTS, the Harvey Fierstein (book) and Cyndi Lauper (music and lyrics) award-winning musical, is based on the true story of a men’s shoe factory in England.

The tale, which was made into a 1999 British TV special, then a 2005 film, centers on Charlie Price, who is left a man’s high-end shoe company in Northampton, England, by his father, and Lola, a she-male who has a fascination with shoes, but especially with red, spike-heeled boots.  

The duo forms a partnership when Charlie’s factory is faced with bankruptcy, causing the potential laying-off of his loyal employees, and Lola, a drag queen/entertainer who, along with her dancing Angels, keeps breaking the heels on their poorly made boots.  It’s a match made in heaven, except for the prejudices against Lola, and the financial and personal pressures pressed on Charlie.

Take the story, which stresses that to be happy in life you must “accept someone for who they are,” add some pop, funk, new wave music, lyrics that are perfectly drawn, humorous situations, and dynamic choreography, and you have a show which garnered 6 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score.

Baldwin Wallace University’s KINKY BOOTS, which is the first collegiate production of the Tony and Olivier Award-winning musical, is spectacular!

Victoria Bussert’s spot-on directing, Gregg Daniels' dynamic and creative choreography, Matthew Webb’s note-perfect musical direction, and Charlotte Yeman’s costume designs, complete with an array of spectacular hand-made boots, all make this a special production.

Of course, there are the BW Music Theatre students, who pull-off a well-deserved standing ovation production.  

The quality-quotient is not surprising, since the program has been recognized by OnStage Magazine as the “#1 Bachelor of Music, Music Theatre program in the country.”  Yes, as the motto for the program states, “That must have had something to do with it.”

The BW family has a long history with KINKY BOOTS.  Kyle Post, a BW ’07 grad, played one of the dancing Angels for the duration of its 2,500-performance, seven-year Broadway run, dancing and singing in his 6-inch heels.  

Post wasn’t the only one of Bussert’s “kids” who appeared in the show.  Cory Mach (BW ’10) was in the Broadway show as was Shannon O’Boyle (’12).  Ryan Fielding Garrett (BW ’12) was the associate music director and played in the pit and toured as the show’s musical director.  The touring company also included Patty Lohr (’08), as well as Zach Adkins (’15) and Jennifer Noble (’10).

Unusual for so many students from one school to be in a show?  Not, for BW. The KINKY BOOTS program contains a two-page spread listing 42 other program grads who have appeared in one or more Great White Way productions.  This, plus the number appearing in professional theatres around the country, teaching in various educational institutions, plus working in other aspects of the technical and business end of theatre (another 2-page program spread), is responsible for the great attention that BW, the Cleveland area’s crown jewel incubator of musical theater, receives nationally. 

The BW production is a two-cast show for the leading roles.  One group, the Lola cast [Nick Drake (Lola), Charlie H. Ray (Charlie), Nadina Hassan (Nicola) and Kailey Boyle (Lauren)] performs 8 shows, while the Charlie Cast [Gordia Hayes (Lola), Andrew Faria (Charlie), Caroline Didelot (Nicola) and Sydney Howard (Lauren)] has four opportunities.  (I saw the Lola cast, so the review’s name mentions are from that group.)

Nick Drake creates a complete character as Lola.  He puts on the role and wears the glorious costumes and high heels with confidence and pathos.  His singing, dancing and acting ensure a long list of potential New York agents at this April’s BW senior’s showcase, panting to sign this talented young performer.  Don’t be surprised that in next year’s fall campus show’s program, you see his picture and a credit for a Broadway or touring show. 

Charlie H. Ray has the handsome youngish-male, big voice, dancing and performance charm that have taken many of his fellow Bussert-trained performers to Bright White Way attention (think Colton Ryan, Chris McCarrell and Corey Mach).  His Charlie is charming, yet has an under-current of insecurity and determination.  His renditions of “Step One” and the powerful “The Soul of Man,” were among the show’s highlights.

Kailey Boyle, as she proved in her Great Lakes Theatre’s MAMA MIA! and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and Playhouse Square’s LIZZIE THE MUSICAL is Broadway ready.  Her Lauren had just the right levels of humor and charm.  Her “The History of Wrong Guys” was delightful.

Nadina Hassan was “bitch”-right as Nicola.

The Angels (Mateus Cardoso, Nick Cortazzo, Kyle Elliot, Nic Hermick, Charles Miller and Lee Price) were as good as the dancers in the three other productions of the show that I’ve seen.  Congrats to Gregg Daniels and dance captain Charles Miller for molding the group into a dancing machine.

The entire cast learned to walk and dance in stilettos…a daunting task.  The final number and the curtain call are a show case of wonder as the entire group flaunts around the stage in their 6-inch heels!   

Highlight numbers include such show-stoppers as “The Land of Lola,” “Sex Is in the Heel,” and “Everybody Say Yeah.”  

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  KINKY BOOTS is the kind of musical where seeing it once is just not enough. The music, the storyline, the humor and the stage excitement make this a very, very special theatrical experience. BW’s must-see production is worth multi-visits. 

Tickets for “Kinky Boots,” which runs through November 24, 2019, can be obtained by calling 440-826-2240 or going to

Thursday, November 07, 2019

“The Band’s Visit” is an emotionally seductive slice of life musical drama

It’s “1996, the  Alexandria [Egypt] Ceremonial Police Orchestra, just arrived in Israel, and are waiting in Tel Aviv's central bus station. They expect to be welcomed by a representative from a local Arab cultural organization, but no one shows up. 

The group's leader, the quiet Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, decides the group will take the bus and instructs Haled, a younger officer to purchase the group's bus tickets. At the ticket booth, Haled asks the clerk for a ticket to the city of Petah Tikvah, but due to his Egyptian accent, she misunderstands him and sells him tickets to the isolated desert town of "Bet Hatikva," far away from the Jerusalem suburb where the concert is to be held.

Sounds like an interesting tale, but, not necessarily one that would provide a plot for a movie and a musical.  But, it actually is the basis for a well-reviewed Israeli film, and a Broadway musical which won the 2017 Obie Award, the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Musical, and won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The Band’s Visit,” which is now on stage at the Connor Palace, in Playhouse Square for a three-week run, opened in November, 2017 and ran through April 7, 2019, racking up a solid 589 performances.  While most Broadway musicals hope to break even, the producers of this “small, touching show,” announced in September, 2018 that it had recouped its initial investment of $8.75 million, and was on its way to be a major profit maker.  
The Key Bank Broadway production is one of 27 stops that the touring company will make in its trek across the U.S.
The show has been called "exquisite", noting that Itamar Moses (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics) have "created a small, touching show [with] character depth and strong sense of place."  It has been labeled, “a Broadway rarity seldom found these days outside of the canon of Stephen Sondheim: an honest-to-God musical for grown-ups." It was also praised for its "remarkable and boundlessly compassionate humanism.”

Most definitive is the advice giving statement, “All it asks is that you be quiet enough to hear the music in the murmurs, whispers and silences of human existence at its most mundane — and transcendent.”

Don’t go to “The Band’s Visit” expecting show stoppers, production numbers, a chorus of singers and dancers.  This is a musical drama much in the mold of “Next to Normal” and “Dear Evan Hansen” that tells a story woven together by spoken and sung words, as well as music. 

Don’t go expecting a discussion of Arab-Israeli issues and problems.  This is a play about people, not political conflicts.  It’s about real people, not politicians or heroes or villains.

The show probes ordinary problems of ordinary people living ordinary lives. Non-events. There is angst. Some real.  Some dramatically perceived.  There are no earth-shattering moments.  No solutions.  Just an opportunity to examine the human condition within the context of intimate conversations and some well-perceived and memorable music

The cast is excellent. The Egyptian band all play their own instruments.  (Don’t run for the exits at the end of the show as there is a wonderful short concert performed by the band after the curtain call.)

Chilina Kennedy inhabits the role of Dina.  Sasson Gabay displays just the right character smarts as Tewfiq, the leader of the band.  Mike Cefalo, as the Telephone Man, sings the plaintive “Answer Me” with wonderful tenderness.  Joe Joseph adds some delightful comic moments as Haled.  

Be aware that this is an intimate show which would play better in the cozy Allen or Hanna Theatres where the audience could feel they were eaves-dropping, rather than in the cavernous Connor Palace, but economics doesn’t allow for that option. 

No stars?  No, this is not a star vehicle.  Regular people playing regular people.

Cleveland connection:  The show’s producer, Orin Wolf is a 1997 University School graduate.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “The Band’s Visit” is a slice of life, character-centered show, woven together with spoken and sung words and music, that is filled with caring humanism.  

The Band’s Visit” runs through November 24, 2019, as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series at the Connor Palace.  To purchase tickets, call 216-241-6000 or go to

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Dynamic, must see “HAIR” commemorates Kent State Massacre of 1970

On May 4, 1970, over a period of 13-seconds, nearly 70 shots were fired upon Kent State University unarmed students by the Ohio State National Guard.  The students, and their supporters, were protesting against the bombing of Cambodia by the United States, part of the ill-conceived Vietnam incursion.  Forever after, to be known as “The Kent State Massacre,” the attack killed four and wounded nine others.

It is entirely appropriate, as the university prepares for the 50th anniversary of that event, they do so with the staging of “Hair:  The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” 

The James Rado, Gerome Ragni, Galt MacDermot’s hippie, counterculture, sexual revolution musical that introduced rock and roll to Broadway, shocked the nation with nudity, swearing, anti-Vietnam protest, sexuality, drug usage, and irreverence for the American flag.  It is a perfect example of theatre representing the era from which it comes and how to teach history through the arts.  

Hair” is often referred to as the ending the bookend of the era known as the Golden Age of Broadway.  The first true book musical, “Oklahoma” (1943), set the format for what is known as the American Musical, and the Age of Aquarius musical (1968) ushered in major changes to that format, showcased by a racially integrated cast, taking on a serious topic, and adding rock music to the genre’s lexicon.  

The script is time-specific, furthering the concept that theatre is representative of the era from which it comes.  “Hair” is the 1960s, a time of political activity, flower children, drugs, long-haired hippies, bohemian life style, free love, tie-dyed shirts and polyester bell bottom pants, rebellion against tradition family values and conservative beliefs, and the preaching of making love/not war.  

“Hair” tells the tale of friends, Claude, Berger and Sheila, and their “tribe” as they struggle to balance their youthful lives, with rebellion against the Vietnamese War and draft conscription.  It is also a reflection of the tidal waves of change that were ripping the country apart.

Even the theatrical staging of the original was a change from tradition with scaffolds to climb, breaking of the third wall with cast members flowing over the apron of the stage to interact with the audience, and dance and sing down the aisles.  This was definitely not “Oklahoma,” “My Fair Lady,” or “Annie Get Your Gun.”

The score is eclectic and electric.  “Aquarius” placed the “world” in a dream-like/flower power state.  “Sodomy” gave words to free love. “Hashish” introduced the topic of drugs.  “Colored Spade,” Black Boys” and “White Boys” put black oppression front and center.  “Hare Krishna” assaulted western organized religion.  “Where Do I Go” showcases the angst of growing up in the era.  “The War” shocks reality, while “Good Morning Sunshine” opens new paths. And, on and on it goes… confronting realities, challenging what was, and making a case for what might be.

The KSU production is brilliantly and intelligently directed by Terri Kent.  It wisely does not try to bring the story to the 2000s, but emphasizes it as a historical piece of reality, complete with its Kent State connection, which is creatively developed with pictures of the campus massacre emblazoned on a parachute, similar to those that were used to drop the US military-forces onto foreign soil.

Choreographer Martin CĂ©spedes has re-imagined the original movements to make the cast into a dancing, singing, story-telling machine.  The performers respond to the staging with enthusiasm and power.  His visual creations fit the music and create the desired effects.  It’s exciting to see dancers on stage, well instructed and inspired.  Bravo!

The vocalizations are outstanding.  The choral sounds are full and engulfing.  Impressive is that the entire cast stayed in character throughout the production, creating the needed reality.  They weren’t acting, they were being.

The cast is universally excellent.  There is not a weak-link.  

 Ben Richardson-PichĂ© (Woof) nails “Sodomy.” The strong voiced Brian Hirsch (Claude) plays “Manchester, England” for appropriate tongue-in-cheek laughs, and textures his role with wise performance choices.  “Eyes Look Your Last,” led by Sami Kennett (Sheila), was transfixing.  Lexie DiLucia (Jeanie), Hallie Walker (Crissy), and Sy Thomas (Dionne) nicely interpret “Air,” singing meanings not just words.  Hallie Walker is “child-like” endearing in her rendition of “Frank Mills,” while Aylah Mendenhall wails with delight throughout. 

Music Director Jennifer Korecki and her orchestra are note perfect, setting the right rock tone.

The technical aspects, especially the visual images and lighting, enhanced the production.

I dare you to sit impassively through the last scene without eyes welling, thinking back to the slaughter of innocents on the KSU campus, and not wanting to rage against war, especially the Vietnam debacle.  

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   This production will make you aware of the changes that took place in this country by the reactions to the Vietnam War, including bringing about the Kent State Massacre, while illustrating that theater can not only entertain, but shine a mirror on history.  See “Hair?”  Absolutely! It is a powerful and well-conceived production!  The Terri Kent-Martin Cespedes combination, as was evidenced in “Man of La Mancha” at Porthouse this summer, sparkles again.  Bravo!

Hair” is scheduled to run at Kent State University through November 10, 2019.  For tickets and information call 330-672-ARTS or go to www.kent.ed/