Saturday, February 29, 2020

Relevant yet unfulfilling “BREAKOUT SESSION” @ Cleveland Public Theatre

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association & Cleveland Critics Circle)

Award winning Nikkole Salter, the author of “BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE),” which is getting its world premiere on stage at Cleveland Public Theatre, has written 8 full-length plays.  Her works have appeared in over 20 Off-Broadway, regional and international theatres.

In “BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE),” which was commissioned by CPT with funding from the National New Play Network (NNPN), the author intends to cast a spotlight on racism, bias and violence.  Her goal is to ask, “Can a society legislate a change of heart?”  It was “inspired by Cleveland’s Consent Decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, which required the Police Department to go through anti-bias training.” 

Director Beth Wood, in her program notes states, “This play is about blind spots due to our unconscious bias.”  She goes on to state, “We all have blind spots and we must interrupt them—but how?  How do we know when our automatic associations are hurting other people?”  

Raymond Bobgan, the theatre’s Executive Artistic Director further states, “To believe another’s perspective, there must be trust.  How can we build two-way bridges of trust between us with all of our history—with all that’s happening in the present?  Can society legislate a change of heart?  Can we mandate cultural change?”

He goes on to state, “Theatre nurtures a hunger for connection and has the potential for greatness when it deals with complexity.”  “Nikkole Salter is a true artist.  She is able to guide audiences down the path of self and social examination, while moving us to laughter and tears and asking us to consider and value perspectives different from our own.”  

Those views set high levels of anticipation for BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE) to be a mind-shattering, new and insightful experience.

In spite of a nicely honed production, the over-all effect is unfortunately, not that impactful.
We find ourselves in a training session with three Cleveland police people, an African American male and female and a Hispanic male.  The session is conducted by a seemingly unequipped Caucasian, with an acting degree, who is supposed to follow a preset lecture/power point presentation.  She fails to hold the attention of the trio, so she diverts from the research-oriented, statistic-centric format, much to the consternation of her female African American supervisor.  

Conflicts over teaching style, experiential role-plays and activities and interjections by a bat scientist, mantis shrimp, crocodile magician and catfish comedian, are intended to highlight the author’s “Bias Bubble” diagram.  

The bias concept centers on our conscious experiences leading to perceptions, from which we make unconscious associations that lead to judgements, biases and beliefs, which revolve into actions.

Nikkole Salter’s concept of bias is not unique.  The idea is commonly espoused in social science literature and has even been musically expressed in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” in “SOUTH PACIFIC” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” in “AVENUE Q.”

I wish I could say that Salter has added some new dialogue to the stage in her BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE),” but she hasn’t.  

The use of real incidents that led to the consent decree, the showing clearly how the biases develop through actual examples, the effective use of the teaching model to make the audience think of their own experiences, and a plan of action to actually help the police, all would have helped make the experience more meaningful.   

As for CPT’s production.  The cast (Jess Moore, Nicole Sumlin, Jimmie Woody, Tina D. Stump, Enrique Miguel and Beau Reinker) puts out full effort and are believable in their roles. With a single exception, they are easy to hear.  

The technical aspects are well conceived.  Inda Blatch-Gelb’s mantis shrimp costume is outstanding.

Director Beth Wood keeps the action zipping along and gets all she can from the problematic script.

Capsule judgement: BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE)” has an important purpose with lofty goals.  Unfortunately, the play’s format and subject development does not satisfy the need to truly explain, “something is not working, people” and teach the “Bias Bubble”reality.

BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE),” runs through March 14, 2020.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to

Monday, February 24, 2020

 “PARADE” showcases Southern anti-Semitism and political corruption on stage at Kent State 

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

It is totally appropriate in this era of increased activity by White Supremist groups and rising anti-Semitism, that Kent State University’s Musical Theatre program stage “PARADE,” with book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.

The musical dramatizes the 1913 trial of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank, who was accused and convicted of raping and murdering a thirteen-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. The trial, sensationalized by the media, spotlighted anti-Semitic tensions in Georgia. 

When Frank's death sentence was commuted to life in prison by the departing Georgia governor, due to his exposing problems with the trial, Frank was transferred to a prison in Miledgeville, Georgia, where a lynchingparty seized him.

Frank was taken to Phagan's hometown of Marietta, where he was hanged from an oak tree. 

The events surrounding the investigation and trial led to two groups emerging: the revival of the defunct KKK and the birth of the Jewish Civil Rights organization, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). 

Ironically, even after the revelation of lying, witness tampering, and Franks’ lynching, it was not until 1986 that the state of Georgia posthumously declared him innocent. 

The script was crafted by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry, both Southern Jews.  Ironically, Uhry’s great-uncle owned the pencil factory run by Leo Frank, which is the lynch pin of the story.

The Broadway production won Tony Awards for both the book and the musical score.  The story, much like Uhry’s “DRIVING MISS DAISY,” illuminates not only his keen story-telling ability, but his knowledge of the South and its long history of anti-Semitism.

The music is very much in the vein of Brown’s trademark rhythmically dynamic and harmonically unconventional melodic style and contains pop-rock, folk rhythm and blues and gospel music.  

The emotionally charged play, which is based on a tale which normally wouldn’t be considered ideal for a musical, highlights political corruption and ambition, highlighted by the corrupt prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, who later became the governor of Georgia and a judge, and anti-Semitic Tom Watson (later elected a U.S. senator). 

The KSU production, under the direction of Fabio Polanco, who was recognized as best actor of 2019 by Broadway World for his astonishing performance in Porthouse Theatre’s “MAN OF LAMANCHA,” clearly develops the story line.

Polanco’s program notes state that his goal for the production “is to show how art can lead spectators to think, question and learn about the social conditions exhibited in the work, and consider parallels between the past and the present and engage in civic discourse.”  

The production is slowly paced, with special care to highlight the angst, corruption and Southern manners traditionally stressed.  Though the cast varies greatly in their southern drawls and accents, there is little variance from highlighting the play’s southern setting, with a southern belle floating through many of the scenes to illustrate that, in spite of the Civil War, the “old” south still exists.  

KSU Freshman Matthew Hommel shines as the high strung, obsessive Leo Frank.  His fine singing voice and riveting stage presence bode well for his theatrical future.  

Devin Pfeiffer is slick and smarmy as over-zealous, politically motivated Hugh Dorsey.  Terence Cranendonk displays a nice singing voice as governor John Slaton.  

Though some of the choral sounds were not well-blended, the cast generally displayed strong singing voices.  Jonathan Swoboda’s orchestra did a nice job of not only playing the difficult music well, but underscored the cast, thus allowing for the important words of the vocals to be easily heard.

Tamara Honesty’s scenic design, as well as Caleb Stoller’s sound design and Sierra Walker’s lighting all worked to enhance the production.  The costumes, unfortunately, were not consistently era correct.  The choreography was often static and uncreative and not always well-performed. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Parade” tells a wrenching tale of hate and corruption that highlights the worst in people.  It is told in a well-conceived story with strong musical messages. The KSU production is a solid college production.

PARADE” is scheduled to run at Kent State University through March 1, 2020.  For tickets and information call 330-672-ARTS or go to www.kent.ed/

Sunday, February 16, 2020

“SLEUTH”—a mystery with lots of twists, turns and humor, intrigues at @GLT

Author Anthony Shaffer once said of “SLEUTH,” the play which is now on stage at Great Lakes Theater, that it was “partially inspired by one of his friends, composer Stephen Sondheim, [the master musical theater composer of such works as “WEST SIDE STORY,” “COMPANY,” “GYPSY” and “FOLLIES”], who has an intense interest in game-playing.” 
And, yes, “SLEUTH” is a comic mystery composed of intriguing game-playing.
Shaffer is the identical twin brother of writer and dramatist Peter Shaffer, author of such award-winning plays as “FIVE FINGER EXERCISE" and "EQUUS."
The dramatic opening music for the GLT production sets a mood of impending doom.  Lightening flashes and an eerie feeling invade the large, ornate, Tudor mansion set.  Yes, there is mystery afoot. (Woo!)
The play is set in the manor house of Andrew Wyke, a successful mystery writer. His home reflects his obsession with inventions and deceptions of fiction and his fascination with games and game-playing. 
Wyke lures his wife's lover, Milo Tindle, to the house and convinces him to stage a robbery of her jewelry while dressed as a clown.  (Really, a clown?)
Tindle has a misadventure.  (Wow!)
An inspector arrives to check out a series of supposed noises, which may have been a series of pistol firings.  
The inspector and Wyke participate in a game of their own.  
The play ends with the blue lights of an arriving police cruiser flashing into the windows of the mansion.  (Shudder!)
Need more details?  (Sorry, no spoiler alerts here to ruin the experience for those who wish to attend!)
The GLT production, under the adept direction of the theater’s artistic director, Charles Fee, in spite of a long first act which contains a great deal of teasing exposition, is compelling.  The twists and turns are well highlighted, as is the humor, especially in the sit-on-the-edge of your seat intriguing second act.
The program indicates there are five characters, with special attention drawn to David Anthony Smith, who gives all the correct attitudes as mystery writer, Andrew Wyke, and talented Jeffrey C. Hawkins, as Milo Tindle.  Lynn Robert Berg, who serves as Text and Accent coach), Nick Steen (Fight Director) and Aled Davies are also highlighted in the cast list.
Gage Williams’ sumptuous three-level authentic set is well-appointed with appropriate prop pieces.  Jess Klug adds intrigue with his lighting effects.  Josh Schmidt accents scenes with an intriguing sound design. Lee Ernst deserves a separate curtain call for the makeup, as is true to whoever was responsible for creating the laughing puppet.  (Hmm…what’s that all about?)
Capsule judgement: “SLEUTH” should be a delight for theater-goers.  Go!  See!  Enjoy! (But don’t tell anyone the secret of the cast, the gun shots or the ending!)

SLEUTH” plays at Great Lakes Theater through March 8, 2020.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or going to

Sunday, February 09, 2020

BW/Beck’s “THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS,” is both compelling and uneven

The Scottsboro Boys were nine African-American teenagers, ages 13 to 20, falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white-women on a train in 1931.

The incident started when the women got off a train and accused the African American teenagers of rape. It resulted in the boys being arrested, put in jail, and assigned an incompetent lawyer.  In spite of the fact that there was no evidence that the youth had committed any crime, all but a 13-year-old were convicted of rape and sentenced to death.  

An appeal, due to a rushed trial, an all-white jury, and no attempt to mount a defense, followed.  Even though at the retrial one of the women recanted her accusation, the verdict was the same. Numerous other appeals and trials, mounted with the help of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a dedicated Jewish pro-Bono lawyer, were lodged.  

Eventually, all but three of the boys were released.  But it wasn’t until November 21, 2013, that the Alabama parole board voted to grant posthumous pardons to the three who had not been pardoned.  What happened to each of these young men, could be the basis for another pathos-filled epic.

The case has been explored in many works of literature, music, theatre, film and television. 

"THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS," the musical, has the basic framework of a minstrel show, with a company that, except for one person, the Interlocutor, consists entirely of African-American performers. 

The book is by David Thompson, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, the collaborators on such shows as “CHICAGO,” “CABARET” and “KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN,” all of which were based on societal injustice.  

The show was the last collaboration between Kander and Ebb.

The show opened Off-Broadway and then moved to Broadway in 2010.  Despite receiving twelve Tony Award nominations (it won none), it ran only two months.  It is theorized that the reason the show didn’t run longer was that “people did not know how to deal with it.”  It is not a show for everyone, especially those who want to see escapist shows, rather than musical dramas.

The Big Apple production was not without controversy. On November 6, 2010, about thirty people gathered at the Lyceum Theatre, where “THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS” was playing, arguing that "the use of minstrelsy and blackface were racist."  

The production team said the minstrel show is "not meant to demean or degrade anybody," but rather that it "houses the story we’re trying to tell."  That view was affirmed by TV personality Whoopi Goldberg who said, “The people who are protesting this show, 90% of the people have not seen it. ... People are protesting saying that it shouldn't be a minstrel show, this is too serious. What people don't understand is that you have to bring information to people in a most invigorating way.”

The present day staging of the script, based on the attack-attitude of POTUS, the rise of White Nationalism, the attack on young black men by some police, racial profiling, rising anti-Semitism, and the overlooking of blacks, women and Asians in entertainment awards and economic positions, is quite justified.

Besides its social message, “THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS” is a rare opportunity for African American male performers, as almost all of the cast is portrayed by blacks.  The Beck production is also an opportunity for Baldwin Wallace Music Theatre students as they, plus one alum, make up the cast.  

(Spoiler alert, there are two women and a white man in the show.  A female for no apparent reason plays one of the “boys,” and another female plays The Lady, whose presence in the last scene adds a mind-blowing wrap to the author’s message.  Non-BW student, Greg Violand, serves as the show’s Interlocutor).

The college has had its foot on the stage of the show since the beginning.  Derrick Cobey, a 2001 grad, originated the role of Andy Wright in the Broadway staging.

The psychological effect of “THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS” is moving.  It is impossible to watch the action and not want to scream about injustice.  

Unfortunately, the production, itself, under the direction of Jon Martinez, is uneven. 

Many of the performances are excellent, filled with clear characterizations and emotionally felt lines, others were surface-level presentations with words, rather than meanings, being presented.  

The musical vocalizations, especially “Go Back Home,” considered to be one of the best mournful ballads-of-longing written for a musical, were nicely done.

The choreography, which includes some intricate tap dancing, was generally creative, but not always precisely presented.

Many of the young actors seemed to lack an understanding of the minstrel show and “Yazza-boss” attitudes that degraded black men.  Mimicking vocalizations, overdone facial and eye movements, demeaning side-comments, and put-down jokes are part of the over-done sounds and images that needed to be created.  This was not always the case.

Matthew Webb’s orchestra had the right sounds to help the cast create the needed mind-set and, wisely, underscored rather than drowned out the performers.  

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS” is a powerful piece of historical theatre whose message must be heard, especially in these days of the continuance and rise of racial and religious prejudice.  The Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace Music Theatre Program production itself was inconsistent in its overall effect, but is still a staging worth seeing. 

THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through February 23, 2020.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to   

Next up for the BW Music Theater Program: “FREEDOM SUMMER,” which follows the crusade for equality as activists navigate racism, corruption, and violence in the 1964 Jim Crow south. Music by Charlie H. Ray & Sam Columbus, Lyrics and Book by Charlie H. Ray, Directed by Dana A. Iannuzzi.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Visually dazzling “ANASTASIA” pleases at Connor Palace

“ANASTASIA,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Terrence McNally, based on the 1997 of the same name, is now on stage at the Connor Palace, as part of the Key Bank Broadway series.

The musical, which opened to mixed reviews on Broadway in April, 2017, ran for over 800 performances. 

Is she, or isn’t she?  Ever since the early twentieth century and the overthrow and deaths of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and his court, there has been a question of whether one of the Romanoff children weathered the family holocaust.   Books, films and plays have been written with various theories about the “Anastasia” rumors.  

“ANASTASIA” looks at one of the many theories of whether Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, could have escaped the execution.  

In this version of the tale, Anya, a young lady with amnesia, falls prey to two con-men who wish to take advantage of her lack of clear memory and plant seeds of information that will allow her to go before the Dowager Empress Maria, who was in Paris when the Russian Revolution took place, and is one of the few people who could identify the real Anastasia, to prove her royal identity.

The saga starts in 1906 when the Dowager Empress, who is leaving for France, gives Anastasia a music box as a parting gift.  In quick order we flash forward to 1917 when the Bolsheviks invade the palace and kill the family.

It is now 1927 and Gleb Vaganov, a general for the Bolsheviks, and the son of one of the hordes that killed off the Czar’s family, announces that the once glorious Saint Petersburg has been renamed Leningrad, and has a promising bright future. 

Present are Dimitry, an ex-member of the Imperial Court, and Vlad, a charming young scoundrel, who decide that they are going to try to get money from the aging Dowager by “returning” Anastasia to her.
The duo selects Anya as their “Anastasia” and, much like Henry Higgins in “MY FAIR LADY,” set out to make the transition.  And, much like Eliza, Anya has an “I Think She Got It,” moment, when supposed thoughts-from-the-past, including her ability to speak fluent French, become present realities.
This, by the way, isn’t the only script segment that harks to other musical theatre pieces. There’s Anya learning to dance in a gender reversal of “Shall We Dance?” from “THE KING AND I,” when the girl learns to both waltz and polka.  
That’s not the end of musical theatre parallels.  Gleb, who is obsessed with finishing the work of his father by killing off the rest of the Romanoff’s, tracks after Anya, much like Javier’s maniacal hunts for Jean Valjean in “LES MISERABLES.”
A train escape from Russia, a journey to Paris, a developing love affair between Dimity and Anya, a series of Anastasia examinations by the Dowager Empress, some humorous scenes between Countess Lily, the Dowager’s lady in waiting, and Vlad, a confrontation between Gleb and Anya, and a revelation regarding the girl’s identity, bring the musical to a close.
Is Anya, Anastasia?  (Sorry, no spoiler alert here!)
The touring company’s production is stunning.  Aaron Rhyne’s projection-designs brings the art of set construction and setting images to a new dimension.  In a simple set of arches, the audience is visually taken from a sumptuous palace, to an explosive revolution, to the streets of Leningrad, on a harrowing train ride, to the Eiffel Tower, and inside the Paris Opera House.  
It’s worth going to see the show just for the special effects and the sumptuous costumes, as designed by Linda Cho, as well as Donald Holder’s lighting and Peter Hylenski’s sound designs.
The cast is excellent.  Petite, lovely and talented Lila Coogan sparkles as Anya.  She has a lovely voice and a pleasing stage presence.  Her renditions of “In My Dreams,” “A Secret She Kept” and “Everything to Win” were all well sung.

Jake Levy nicely develops Dimitry, as the rogue who falls in love with Anya.  His version of “Everything to Win” is very-well vocalized.
Edward Staudenmayer (Vlad) delights with his comic abilities.  His scenes with the equally talented Alison Ewing (Countess Lily) are comic show-stoppers.  
Jason Michael Evans could have been a little more cunning as Gleb.  As is, he was villain-light.  His “Still” and “Land of Yesterday (reprise)” were well sung and interpreted.
Stephen Flaherty’s music, which spans traditional Russian sounds, French musical tones and typical Broadway lush measures is encompassing and well-performed by the pit orchestra.
Capsule judgment:  There is an adage in theatre that after seeing a musical one should not leave talking sets and costumes.  In the case of the touring company of “ANASTASA” however, that’s exactly what the audience was doing.  Yes, this is not a great musical.  The plot is obvious and the music pleasant, not memorable.   However, the production values are outstanding and the cast excellent, so, all in all, what we have is a pleasant, if not spectacular,  evening of theatre.
ANASTASA” runs through February 23, 2020, as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series.  To purchase tickets, visit, call 216-241-6000 or go to

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

IF/THEN, in spite of a wonderful score, is frustrating

IF/THEN is a musical with score by Tom Kitt and libretto by Brian Yorkey who also collaborated on the multi-award winning NEXT TO NORMAL, which laid the foundation for a major change in the American musical theatre—the development of musical dramas.  IF/THEN is now on stage at Lakeland Civic Theatre.

I was in the fourth-row center on opening night in National Theatre, Washington, D.C., on November 5, 2013 when IF/THEN opened its preview run before going to Broadway.  

My reaction to the show was that Idina Menzel, the star of RENT and WICKED, who was playing the leading role, was mesmerizing.  I found the music meaningful, the sets creative, and the electronic visuals attention-getting. Anthony Rapp, of RENT and YOU’RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN fame, played dual roles with musical and dramatic strength, and the rest of the cast was excellent.

However, the production was too long—almost four hours.  It was also hard to keep the separate storylines in focus as a woman leads parallel lives simultaneously, surrounded by a group of friends who play a part in each of her lives. The second act, except for the ending, is clearer than the first, which lays out the extended exposition.

The show opened on Broadway to mixed reviews on March 5, 2014.  In spite of the critiques, the production ran 401 performances, almost a year.  The box office surge was credited to Menzel and Rapp being in the cast, not to the vehicle.  

The story centers on newly divorced 38-year old Elizabeth, an urban planner who moves back to New York for a fresh-start.  As the musical begins, she meets with her friends, Lucas, a community organizer, and Kate, a kindergarten teacher, in Madison Square Park. 

Kate suggests that the “new” Elizabeth start over by using the name “Liz.”  Lucas urges her to go back to being called “Beth,” which she used in college.  This is the first of the choices that Elizabeth has to make regarding the two paths she might choose to follow.  

As we watch, the parallel lives of Liz and Beth develop.  

Liz is approached by Josh, an Army doctor returning from his second tour of duty.  She rebuffs him, but “accidentally” they meet several times again, and love is in the air.  The question of where choice and chance collide becomes a major factor in the plot development.  A professorship, relationship, pregnancy, marriage, redeployment, death, and more life-decisions follow.

Beth, on the other hand, meets up with Stephen, an old friend and colleague, who offers her a job.  Beth and Stephen work together, become close friends, but part because he is married.  Beth calls Lucas, and they spend the night together.  Beth gets pregnant, doesn’t tell Lucas, and has an abortion.  She dedicates herself to work and wins planning awards and becomes a noted activist.  After a near death experience while on a business trip, she rekindles her relationship with Lucas.  Stephen gets divorced and comes to her to express regrets that he didn’t pursue a relationship and offers her a job in state government. Beth refuses and decides that she must go on without him.

As the play comes to a close, Beth, Lucas and Kate are having coffee in the park, Josh returns home from his third tour of duty, he approaches her and she lets him buy her some coffee. (Fade to black…)

Lakeland’s production, under the direction of Martin Friedman, is well done, but despite the focused staging, the convoluted story just can’t be overcome. 

The cast is universally strong.  Sandra Emerick as Elizabeth/Beth/Liz displays a powerful singing voice, does a nice job of singing meanings, and creates a real person.  Her “Always Starting Over” is compelling.

Michael Knobloch, though a little young for the role of Lucas, sings and performs with conviction.  His “You Don’t Have to Love Me” was well-done.

Michael Snider is macho/charming as Josh.  His “Hey Kid” creates wonderful images.  “I Hate You,” a duet with Liz, is endearing.

Braelin Andrzejewski (Kate) and Jacqueline DiFrangia (Elana) and Nick Hribar (David) are basically convincing in their characterizations.

The creative fragmented set by Trad A Burns, duplicates the plot by using reflective segments of panels, a dual-imaged NY skyline, and multiple doorways for entrances and exits.

Musical Director Matthew Dolan does a nice job with the choral blending, working with the leads to create meaning to the words of the songs, and keeping the orchestra under control so they don’t drown out the vocalists.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: IF/THEN has a wonderful score.  Too bad somewhere in the show’s development, the confusing plot and excessive length weren’t dealt with. 

Tickets for IF/THEN, which runs through February 16, 2020 at Lakeland Community College, can be ordered by calling 440-525-7134 or going on line to

Monday, February 03, 2020

Compelling “INTIMATE APPAREL” at Ensemble

Lynn Nottage is an African American multi-prize-winning playwright.  A rare and important theatrical voice, she is noted for her lyric and powerfully expressive use of language and her examining the plight of marginalized people.  

“She's an actor's gift with sly one-syllable humorous punch words; poetic paintings of physical and emotional landscapes; dramatic conflict that pulls no punches and is not afraid to make sympathetic characters unsympathetic; and an intimate knowledge of loneliness and passion.”

Her writing style is well-showcased in “INTIMATE APPAREL,” now on stage at Ensemble Theatre.  It is a turn-of-the-century “feminist lament of intelligent, talented women defined and controlled by men,” and is based on the real life experiences of her grandmother.
The time is 1905, the place is the tenement district of New York City. Esther, a plain-looking talented black seamstress, lives in a boarding house for women.  She sews intimate apparel for clients who range from wealthy white patrons to black prostitutes.
With a desire to open a beauty parlor to cater to African American women who have no place to relax and recover from their daily drudgery, Esther has squirrelled away a sizable amount of money, which she keeps hidden in a patch-work quilt on her bed.  
She notes that many of the boarding house patrons marry and move away.  They are not as talented as her, and probably not any more attractive, which leads to her frustration in not finding a husband, thus insuring a different future.
By way of a church acquaintance, she begins to receive letters from a lonesome Caribbean man named George Armstrong who is working on the Panama Canal. 
Esther is illiterate, so one of her white patrons not only reads the letters to her, but also respond.  The letters flow back and forth and soon George has persuaded her that they should marry, sight unseen. 
In reality, Esther has become attracted to a Hasidic shopkeeper from whom she buys fabric, but the impossibility of the match is obvious to them both, and Esther consents to marry George. 
When George arrives in New York, it becomes readily apparent that he is not the man he presented himself to be and is using Esther as a means to enter this country and to finance his whoring, drunken ways.  
After a short period of time, in order to get rid of him, Esther gives him her hard-earned money, returns to the boarding house where her journey started determined to use her gifted hands and her sewing machine to “refashion her dreams and make them anew from the whole cloth of her life's experiences.”
The Ensemble production, under the meticulous direction of Sarah May, is spell-binding.  The performances are nicely textured and the pathos wells to the surface.
Kimberly L. Brown gives a tour-de-force performance as Kimberly.  We feel deeply for the woman because, not only from the way in which the part is written, but because Brown fashions a real person with real feelings and emotions.  Bravo!
Leilani Barret is slimy-right as the smooth-talking George, a well-honed manipulator and player!  
Craig Joseph was tender and charming as the shy Mr. Marks.  Zyrece Montgomery was on-point as the prostitute.  Both Reva Golden, as Mrs. Dickson, and Diana Frankhauser, as Mrs. Van Buren, did a nice turn in developing real women.
Ian Hinz’s set, light and projections help develop the right visual effects.
Dialect coach Chuck Richie did an excellent job of working with the actors in perfecting the needed vocal characterizations without having accents so heavy that they could not be understood.
Capsule judgment: “Intimate Apparel” is a well-honed script which gets a superior production under the adept direction of Sarah May.  This is a play well-worth seeing!

INTIMATE APPAREL” runs through February 16, 2020 on Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2.  Ensemble is 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 ‘KINDERTRANSPORT” featuring Dorothy Silver, Cleveland’s first woman of the stage, and Laura Perotta Ford, from March 6-29, 2020.  Tickets will go fast, so call now and reserve your seats!

“CLUE” is a farcical delight at Cleveland Play House

CLUE” is a stage play of murder and blackmail, based broadly on the Hasbro board game, and the Paramount motion picture of the same name, has gone through several adaptations.  The latest, by Sandy Rustin, with additional material by Hunter Foster and Eric Price, is now on stage at Cleveland Public Theatre.  

Since this is the first staging of this version, Clevelanders have the honor of seeing a world premiere.

The tale takes place in 1954 in the Boddy Manor, a house of epic proportions and terrifying secrets, located in a remote area of New England. 

Six guests, Colonel Mustard (John Treacy Egan), a pompous, not too bright military man, Professor Plum (Michael Kostroff), an academic self-styled Casanova, Mr. Green (Alex Mandell), a timid, rule-follower who is a bit awkward and very anxious, Miss Scarlet (Eleasha Gamble), a DC madam who seems more interested in secrets than sex, Mrs. Peacock (Kathy Fitzgerald), a batty church-going wife of a U.S. Senator, and Mrs. White (Donna English), a woman with lots of dead former-husbands, have been invited for an unusual dinner party.  

A meal with murder and blackmail on the menu! 

Also present are Wadsworth (Mark Price), an uptight butler, the cook (Mariah Burks), a threatening presence, an FBI agent, a cop, Mr. Boddy (Graham Stevens), and Yvetta (Elisabeth A. Yancey), a sexy French maid.

Add a rope, candelabra, wrench, pipe, knife, gun, a falling chandelier, a trap-door, many mistaken identities, a pile of dead bodies, lots of farcical actions and improbable incidents, and you have the makings of a joyous evening.

Farce is hard to do.  Most actors and directors think that playing the lines for laughs creates the right mood.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  To be successful, the lines and actions must be so realistic that the audience laughs at the writing and the interpretation, and not the over-done actions.  That takes skill and talent!

Fortunately, CPH’s production is blessed with director, Casey Hushion, who totally understands how to create credible visual and language farce and shares her vision with a talented cast who each inhabit their role.  The effect is engaging and creates one laugh after the other and a series of “ah-hahs” as the audience is led on a merry chase of solving the mystery.

Lee’s Savage’s creative set design gives Hushion a perfect playground to lead us on our march of delight.  Ryan O’Gara has the blackouts, lightening-flashes, and fade outs down pat.  Michael Holland’s original music adds to the intrigue and nicely under-scores the action, Jeff Human adds scary sounds, and Jen Caprio’s costumes are era-correct.

A conversation with CPH personnel and other producers, including The ARACA Group, a NY production company operated by Cleveland area expats, indicates that representatives from various national theatres are coming to see “CLUE”, and the script, and maybe even this production, may have life after this staging.

Even if the show doesn’t go national, the script will eventually be grabbed up by many community theatres and produced.  

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: If entertainment is your theatrical pleasure, head to the Cleveland Play House where the finely directed and performed “CLUE” is a must see!

For tickets to “CLUE,” which runs through February 23, 2020, call 216-241-6000 or go to