Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cleveland Ballet now the resident ballet company of PlayhouseSquare



The “new” Cleveland Ballet, under the artistic leadership of Puerto Rico-born Gladisa Guadalupe, a former member of the “old” Cleveland Ballet, the Dennis Nahat-led company which left CLE for San Jose, California, has been officially named the Resident Ballet Company of Playhouse Square.   

Guadalupe, along with the ballet board’s CEO and Chair, Michael Krasnyansky, have developed a company which intends to “cultivate a world-class resident professional ballet company.”

If their recent Ohio Theatre “Les Sylphides,” the three-part program is any indication, they are well on their way.

The woman-dominated company displayed fine technique and clear purpose as they opened the program with “Les Sylphides,” a half-hour non-narrative ballet with original choreography by Michael Fokine and music by Frederic Chopin.   Danced in traditional costumes and classic moves, the dance was performed to live piano music played by Ralitsa Georgieva-Smith.  The piece was staged by Russian-born ballerina, Aygul Abougalieva.

Filled with lovely moves, nice toe-work and elegant freezes, the “romantic reverie” was filled with poetic meaning. 

“A Collage of Frank Sinatra Songs” took the dancers in another direction…contemporary ballet with an “old blue eyes” twist. 

While still on toe and using effective movements, the dancers took on a guise of relaxed body postures and modern dance freedom of form and flow.  The highlight segment was “Saturday Night” in which Rainer Diaz-Martin instantly became the audience’s favorite, with his floating turns, powerful leaps and complete body control. 

“Saturday Night,” which highlighted Luna Sayag and Victor Jarvis and ‘I’ve Got the World On a String,” were also crowd pleasers.

“Concerto,” the world premiere, choreographed by Gladisa Guadalupe, closed the program.  Danced to Johan Sebastian Bach’s Piano Concerto in D minor, with live music played on dual pianos by Ralitsa Georgieva-Smith and Sophie Van Der Westhuizen, the sound and dance form of the three-movement piece melded well. 

Cleveland Ballet is an up and coming company.  They need more strong male dancers to balance off their very proficient women’s corps de ballet.

Next up: “Nutcracker Suite and Nutcracker Tea Festivities” (with a special appearance of the Singing Angels), December 15-17, 2017.  (Tickets:  playhousequare.org)

For information about the School of Cleveland Ballet which takes students 10-22 years of age call 216-320-9000 or go to http://www.clevelandballet.org/



Sunday, October 15, 2017

“Marjorie Prime” is prime offering at Dobama



Local theater-goers are familiar with the outstanding performance work of Dorothy Silver, often called “the first lady of Cleveland theater.”  Many are also aware of the creative writings of Jordan Harrison from his script development of the television hit, “Orange is The New Black.”  The two merge in Dobama Theater’s masterful “Marjorie Prime.”

Eighty-six-year old Marjorie (Dorothy Silver) sits stage left in an overstuffed recliner chair, which appears out of place in the contemporary sleek living space.  It is a chair obviously placed there for Marjorie’s convenience.

Her grayish wispy hair neatly combed, dressed in a bathrobe and high Ugg-like slippers, she is in conversation with “Walter.”  Walter (Nicholas Chokan), her dead husband.  Walter appears to be in his young thirties.  Walter moves rather stiffly and his voice sounds somewhat mechanical. 

As we find out, Walter is a “prime,” a computerized version of her husband who has been programmed to help Marjorie uncover the intricacies of her past, a necessity, as the woman has started to slide into dementia. 

Marjorie’s memory state confounds her daughter, Tess (Derdriu Ring), with whom she seems to have a contentious relationship.  Marjorie now lives with Tess and her supportive husband, Jon (Steve Sawicki).

The tale takes audience on a twisting, thought-provoking journey, complete with exposure to artificial intelligence.   To reveal any more of the actual story would ruin the experience for those who will be seeing the play.

The ninety-minute intermission-less exploration is almost existentialistic in its pursuit of asking questions.  Queries like: What does it mean to be human in the digital age?  Can technology replace humans?  Is rebuilding past memories really advantageous or is moving forward void of the past better, less painful?  If we had choices, what would we remember and what would we chose to forget?   And, probably the most important inquiry--What are my attitudes toward memory, mortality and the prospect of future life and decline?

Yes, Jordan Harrison explores the mysteries of human identity and the limits, if any, of what technology can replace.

Dobama’s production, under the wise direction of Shannon Sindelar, is superlative.  The cast, the pace, the line interpretation, grab and hold the audience from the fraught, frustrated opening comments and movements of Marjorie, through the introduction of the concept of a prime, to the growing frustrations of Marjorie and Tess, to the heart breaking conclusion.  It’s quite a journey.

Dorothy Silver, as we have come to expect, gives a compelling performance as Marjorie.   Every move, every line, every frown, every flick of her wrist, is meaningful.  It’s such a privilege to be in the spell of this bright, talented and alert octogenarian.

Derdriu Ring again displays her well-honed acting chops.  She doesn’t portray Tess, she is Tess.  It’s hard to believe that Silver and Ring (both Cleveland Critic Circle and Broadwayworld.com-Cleveland Best Actress award winners) aren’t really mother and daughter, simply presenting themselves in a public space.

CLE newcomer, Steve Sawicki, is a welcome addition to the local acting pool.  He gives a nicely textured performance as Jon.

Nicholas Chokan takes on the difficult task of portraying a “prime.”  He easily transfers from a motionless automaton to a life-like robot with amazing ease.

Jill Davis’ realistic contemporary set is playing area correct.  Sound Designer Erik T. Lawson has wisely placed a subtle “Twilight Zone” sound underlying the entire production, taking the audience into an other-world-like space.  (It’s either there, or I was transported to imagine the sound.)

Capsule judgment: “Marjorie Prime” is one of those special theatrical occurrences that allows the audience to experience both a thought-provoking script and a superbly acted and directed staging.  This is theater at its finest!  Go see!  Must see!

“Marjorie Prime” runs through November 12, 2017 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama: Local playwright Eric Coble’s adaptation of “Sherlock Holmes:  The Baker Street Irregulars,” from December 1-30, 2017.

Friday, October 13, 2017

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (MUSICAL) rings in at Great Lakes Theater


What do “Beauty and The Beast,” “The Lion King,” “Tarzan,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” and, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” have in common?  Yes, they are all animated Walt Disney Studio films.  The first five also transformed into Broadway hits.  Though “Hunchback” received Disneyfication, it never made it to the Great White Way.
 

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” which is now on stage at Great Lakes Theatre, which has music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Peter Parnell, is based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel of the same name which was transformed by Disney into an animated film in 1996.

The musical debuted at California’s LaJolla Playhouse in October of 2014.  In March of 2015 it played at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse.  Both venues have hosted shows on their way to Broadway.  However, after the Paper Mill production closed, it was decided that “Hunchback” was not Broadway material.
 

The question as to why the script has been released for non-Broadway theatres without getting a Big Apple trial has been a subject of conjecture.

Casting a crystal ball into the producers’ mind, here is some conjecture.


In contrast to most previous Disney tales transferring film to stage, Hunchback’s subject matter doesn’t center on princesses, animals or fairy book characters who end up with happy-ever-after lives.  Instead, the Hugo tale concerns physical and emotional malformation, negative observations about the church and its leadership, as well as prejudice about a cultural group, in this case, Gypsies. 
 

The ending is anything but happy.   The audience does not leave humming lovely ditties, they don’t joyfully exit with positive thoughts and feelings.  The subject doesn’t lend itself to joyous musical sounds and lyrics.
 

Then there is the case that “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is dark, both in staging and in message.  Its hero is not heroic in the traditional sense.  He does not reach a happy ending, problems solved.  He starts as a troubled, misshapen child and ends as a troubled, misshapen adult.
 

The script, with the play’s topics of gothic architecture, religion, politics and  immigration, are not exactly the subject of Disney musicals.
 

Successful Broadway musicals aren’t all sunshine and roses.  Think “Next to Normal,” “Ragtime,” and “Spring Awakening.”  But these didn’t start out as animated movies, products of Disney Studios.
So, what’s the tale? 


The story centers on Quasimodo, a bastard and deformed child who is being raised by his uncle, Dom Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre Dame.  The youth grows to manhood hidden away in the church’s bell tower with only the gargoyles as friends.  Gargoyles who come to life only in Quasimodo’s presence.
 

One day Quasimodo overcomes his fears and, against Frollo’s commands, decides to go to a festival.  There he is humiliated when he is offered as a contestant in the “ugliest man competition” by Esmerelda, a well-meaning Gypsy.  He wins, but is attacked in the riot which follows.  A riot started by Frollo’s men mainly because of the archdeacon’s hatred of the Gypsies.  He is freed by Esmerelda, goes back to the tower, but pines for the gypsy girl.
 

What follows are a series of events which eventually lead to a heartbreaking ending.  An ending which leads to a curtain-closing speech about bodies found years later in a burial vault in Notre Dame, a vault in which “two skeletons, one of which held the other in a singular embrace.”  The spine of one of the skeletons was crooked, “the head depressed between the shoulders, and one leg was shorter than the other.”   When the skeletons were touched, they disintegrated into dust.
 

After a slow, often tedious first act filled with lots of exposition, the second act exploded into strong, often captivating theatre.  The second act also contained stronger music.
 

The music, most of it based on clerical, heavy sounds that fit in Notre Dame, but aren’t exactly Broadway riffs.   “Entr’acte,” the first song of the 2nd Act was mesmerizing.  Esmeralda and Phoebus’s “Someday” is one of Stephen Schwartz’s signature “message” songs, such as “Corner of the Sky” from “Pippin,” which creates memorable meaning for a character and their dreams and wishes.
 

The GLT production, under the direction of Victoria Bussert, gets a lot out of what the conceivers give her.  There are many meaningful and impressive segments and performances.
 

The cast has a definite Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre program slant.  Among others, in name roles, Dan Hoy (Jehan Frollo, the Archdeacon’s younger brother), Alex Syiek (Clopin Trouillefou, King of the Gypsies), Olivia Kaufmann (Florika), Jon Loya (Phoebus De Martin), Corey Mach (Quasimodo) and Keri René Fuller (Esmeralda) are all BW grads or students.  Ironically, in both the LaJolla and Paper Mill productions, Esmeralda was performed by 2013 BW grad, Ciara Renee (who appeared on Broadway in “Big Fish” and the revival of “Pippin.”  
 
The cast was strong.  Alex Syiek, with his deep set dark eyes, sunken with makeup, was excellent as the swarthy King of the Gypsies.  He is a strong presence on stage.
 

Cory Mach’s strong singing voice and acting skills gave Quasimodo a sad but charming presence, though on occasion, he had some difficulty consistently maintaining the gimpy walk and stammering speech.  Mach has appeared on Broadway in “Hands On Hardbody,” and “Godspell,” and in the national tours of “Flashdance (The Musical),” “Wicked” And “Rent.”
 

Keri René Fuller sang Esmeralda beautifully.  She could have displayed a little more seductive fire as the beguiling Gypsy and center of Quasimodo’s infatuation. 
 

When Tom Ford came out for his solo curtain call he was soundly booed.  That’s quite a compliment for the believability of his nastiness in developing the maniacal archdeacon of Notre Dame.
 

The choral singing was beautifully executed by the Baldwin Wallace Choral Studies Program Choir and the orchestra was excellent under the conductorship of Joel Mercier.
 

Jeff Herrmann’s scenic design aided in setting the somber mood, as did Mary Jo Dondlinger’s somber lighting.  
 

Capsule judgement: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is not a typical Disney stage creation.  It is a dark, brooding musical and probably not appropriate for children.  While the first act is rather slow, the second act is strong.  It is well worth seeing.
 

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” runs through November 4, 2017 at the Hanna Theatre in repertoire with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Monday, October 09, 2017

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” delights at Great Lakes Theater



In his program notes to Great Lakes Theater’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the show’s director states that the play allows the audience to “sympathize with the joy and pain of being in love; the mystery of attraction, the intoxication of loving fiercely and not having love returned and how deeply the anguish is felt when quick bright things come to confusion.” 

Believe it or not, he is describing one of Shakespeare’s “most joyous comedies.”

The fantasy story centers on three couples and six amateur actors, all unknowingly controlled by a group of fairies.

The settings are Athens and a nearby forest.  The major event is the impending marriage of Theseus, Duke of Athens, to Hippolyta, the former queen of the Amazons. 

While the festivities are being planned, Egeus, an Athenian nobleman, comes to court with his daughter, Hermia, and two young men, Demetrius and Lysander. Egeus wishes Hermia to marry Demetrius, but Hermia is in love with Lysander and refuses to comply.   

Theseus warns Hermia that disobeying her father’s wishes could result in her being sent to a convent or even executed.  

Young love is powerful and Hermia and Lysander plan to escape Athens the following night and marry. They confide in Hermia’s friend, Helena, who was once engaged to Demetrius and still loves him.  Hoping to regain his love, Helena tells Demetrius of the plot.  And, of course, chaos ensues.  Love potions, a man turning into an ass, hooking up of wrong lovers, and a terrible play within a play takes place.

Sound confusing?  It’s not.  The obvious tale of mixed love, the bumbling of the good intention of the fairies, and the final conclusion when all’s well that ends well, is all part of a delightful evening of Shakespeare and Great Lakes Theater at their very best.

“Dream” is filled with many of the Bard’s oft-repeated lines including “Lord, what fools these mortals be” and “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind."  Then, there is “The course of true love never did run smooth,” A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s most important theme.

Other themes are: The wonder of magic to embody the supernatural nature of love, and as a device to create a surreal world.  There is also a spotlight on the contemporary ideas of ambiguousness of sexuality, with some overtones of homoeroticism and lesbianism, as well as statements about feminism.  All this is a script written in the late 1500s.  A comedy, at that.

The GLT production, under the discerning direction of Joseph Hanreddy, is superb.  The laughter is primed just right, the farce is well-keyed and the slap-stick is held in check so that it is fun because it is well done, not over-done, as is the tendency in many of the stagings of the Bard’s comic works.

The cast is consistently excellent.  Corey Mach delights as the mod-hip, endearingly outrageous gum-chewing Lysander.   He is matched by Hermia, his lady love, in the personage of Michelle Pauker, who personifies well the Bard’s line, “And though she be little, she is fierce.”

Nick Steen reigns as both Theseus and the King of the Fairies.  Jillian Kates is regal as both Queen of the Amazons and Queen of the Fairies.  M. A. Taylor does himself proud as Puck, and Keri René Fuller delights as the much put-upon Helena.  David Anthony Smith almost steals the show as Nick Bottom, the weaver turned ass, turned weaver.

Scott Bradley has taken a traditional Globe theatre set and added shades of teal and netting to create a charming play area for the lovers.  Rachel Laritz’s modern-day costumes work well with the gentle updating of the Bard’s words and the mod interpretation. 

Capsule judgement:  Those who are afraid of seeing Shakespeare because of the oft abstract language and confusing plot twists should fear not.  This production is a total delight, with a nice mash-up of comedy and outlandish farce, mixed in with a little lover’s stardust.  It’s definite must see!

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” runs in repertoire with “The Hunchback of Notre Dame The Musical” through November 5, 2017 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Farcical, slapstick “The Rocky Horror Show” fun at Blank Canvas



On June 20, 1973 I had one of my mind-blowing experiences in a theater.  I was in London, the theater broker couldn’t get a ticket for the show I wanted and offered a ducat for a newly opened show.

I knew nothing about the musical, but, upon arriving at the Royal Court Theatre, I realized that I was in for a wild ride.   Instead of entering the lobby, those with tickets were queued-up, single file.  One-by-one, we were ushered into a blackened auditorium, led by an usher with a narrow-beamed flashlight.  Some of the audience members were given rain ponchos.  He led me down the aisle, pointed to a seat, I sat.

Suddenly a spotlight on stage revealed an usherette who gave a short speech.  Then a spot appeared on a platform raised above the audience at the rear of the theatre and we watched as Brad proposed to Janet.  The duo got into a car, the motor was heard starting, along with deafening thunder.  Lightning flashed and a “roadway” was seen, “rain” started falling, splashing onto the rain-coated people sitting along the runway that ran down the center of the performance space toward the stage.  There was the sound of a tire blowing out, Janet and Brad, with rain falling on them ran down the ramp, the stage became illuminated with more lightning and we were looking at an old scary castle with massive doors.

Yes, I was about to experience the bizarre “The Rocky Horror Show.” 

Yes, that musical.  The phenom which would become the cult movie. 

Yes, the show that introduced the world to Riff Raff, the live-in butler, his sister Magenta, the maid, Eddie, an unlucky delivery boy who fell victim to unfortunate circumstances, Rocky, the super-stud creation of Dr. Frank N. Furter, a pansexual, cross-dressing mad scientist, who plaintively tells us, in song, that he is "a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania."   Oh, and “The Time Warp,” the show's signature dance number.

During the ridiculousness, both nerdy Brad and virginal Janet are seduced by Frank "N"Furter, the mystery of aliens is revealed, Rocky turns out to be a sweet monster, Phantoms run wild, and poor Eddie gets mangled by an electric saw (relax, we only see the blood spattering). 

“The Rocky Horror Show” is a musical with music, lyrics and book by Richard O'Brien.   It is a bizarre tribute to the science fiction and horror B movies of the mid-1900s.

The original London, England showing was staged at the Royal Court Theatre (Upstairs) on 19 June 1973, and ran for a total of 2,960 performances.  

The 1975 Broadway debut at the Belasco Theatre was met with terrible reviews and ran only forty-five showings. (Yes, I saw that bomb as well.)

Fortunately (?) it was adapted into the also badly reviewed 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  In spite of the reviews, it became a cult hit, with Saturday night midnight showings.  Showings at which customers dress as story characters yelling out lines and follow-ups to the sexually suggestive lines, squirting each other with water during the rain storm and leaping from their seats to dance “The Time Warp.”  (Interested?  The Cedar Lee Theatre on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights has regular showings.)

You have to go into the 90-minute gag-fest with the right attitude.  This is over the top, farcical, slap-stick material presented with over-acting, audience involvement, and no semblance of purpose or message.

As the program states, “when sharing the Rocky experience, the idea is to have fun!’  participants are encouraged to: 
•DRESS UP: Everyone has a right to wear whatever you wish. We encourage you to come dressed as your favorite character or just come casual. It’s up to you!  

•CALLBACKS: Callbacks are encouraged and allowed. They should be used to add to the Rocky experience. Don’t try to shout down other people. They might know better lines than you do!   (A number of brave souls yelled out frequently.)
•THE TIME WARP: You can stand and dance with the cast. Just stay off the stage, please. Doing the “Time Warp” is essential, but it’s easy because they just tell you how to do the dance in the song! You’re set!
•PROPS: You can bring approved props or buy an audience bag at the theater. Some of the standard items are not required for the LIVE version of the show and others just are not allowed in our theater due to safety and cleanup.”

“The Rocky Horror Show” is a perfect script for Patrick Ciamacco, the “curmudgeon-in-charge” (Artistic Director) of Blank Canvas Theatre.  He loves shtick, he revels in slap-stick, he lives for the ridiculous.  He also knows his loyal audience, who have his same tastes, and has told his cast to let loose, and they do. 

Kevin Kelly camps to excess as Frank “N” Furter, Jonathan Kronenberger does a perfect Alfred Hitchcock as the Narrator, Danny Simpson makes us relive the glory days of Peter Loree as Riff Raff, and Amber Revelt is appropriately seductive as the alien Magenta. 

Mark Vandevender, he of gym-toned body, shows off his muscles clothed only in gold lamé short shorts, with a 9-inch appendage hanging out, while Ken-doll, Eric Fancher (Brad) and Gidget-cute, Meg Martinez (Janet) display vocal and acting skills (especially when reaching the heights of their sexual releases) as the star-crossed lovers.

The band (Zach Davis, Jason Stebelton, Keith Turner and Mark Bussinger), under the conducting of Bradley Wyner, gets a little out of hand at times, drowning out the singers, but neither the score nor the lyrics are Tony Award caliber, so the excess doesn’t get in the way.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  If you are in the right mood, and can let loose of your inhibitions, and take “The Rocky Horror Show,” for its intended purpose—a screwball musical comedy, you’ll have a blast!  This is not “Next to Normal” or “Bridges of Madison County,” just some” The Time Warp” fun!

Blank Canvas’s “The Rocky Horror Show” runs through October 28, 2017, in its near west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website. Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvastheatre.com

Next up at BC: “Urinetown The Musical” from December 1-16, 2017.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Compelling, must see “Well” @ Ensemble


Lisa Kron, who is best known for writing the lyrics and book to the musical, “Fun Home,” for which she won both the Tony Award for Best Original Score and for Best Book for a Musical, says of her play, “Well,” which is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre as the opening show in its 38th consecutive season, “It is a theatrical exploration?  That is … it's a very hard play to describe."  

Yes, the script is hard to classify.  Comedy?  Drama?  Biography?  It is all of these. 

“Well” is ostensibly an investigation of relationships between mothers and daughters, and the meaning of the word, “wellness,” but, it is so much more.

The creative, captivating, inventive journey is based on the author’s real relationship with Ann, her mother, in the Lansing, Michigan neighborhood in which she grew up with her chronically unwell, hypochondriac, social activist- parent.

Kron says that she “felt like an outsider even in her own family because she, her parents and her brother David were the only Jews.  And, one of the few white families in the neighborhood, as her non-Jewish born mother insisted on living in an integrated environment.

As the play unfolds, Lisa tries to explain her past, but Ann keeps correcting the narrative and other characters talk with Ann about her life and themselves.

Part of the time Lisa is speaking to the audience in intense, often humorous, sometimes heart-wrenching monologues.  Part of the time she is speaking to her mother.   In other instances, she interacts with neighbors, hospital personnel and members of the cast who break out-of-character to express their opinions about Lisa, Ann, both the characters and the actors who are portraying the duo, as well as themselves.  The exposition follows no time line, jumping easily back and forth. 

Yes, definitely not the typical modality of a play.

All in all, though it sounds confusing, the concept and the production are brilliant and easy to follow.

Director Celeste Cosentino has a clear understanding of Kron’s intention and has been blessed with a superlative cast who make the entire production seem like a first-time conversational experience.  No acting here.  Just real people, speaking well-written, believable lines.

It is hard to conceive that Lara Mielcarek is not Lisa Kron.  She perfectly inhabits the role.  Incidentally, in the New York production of “Well,” the author played herself.

Laura Starnik is Mielcarek’s equal as Kron’s mother.  Old and addlepated one minute, charming and funny the next, Starnik is Ann-perfect.

The rest of the cast, April Needham, Maya Jones, Brian Kenneth Armour and Craig Joseph, playing various roles of people in Lisa’s life, as well as themselves, are all up to the task. 

Bryanna Bauman’s lighting design aids in assisting the audience to adjust to time lines and the “acted” versus the “live” scenes. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “Well” is one of those special scripts and performances that showcases the message of what theater is all about.  It’s a must see experience.
“Well” runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Saturdays @ 2 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm through October 22, 2017 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  (BTW--there is no performance on 10/7 and an Industry Night on 10/9.)  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

Ensemble’s next production is Eugene O’Neill’s socially relevant, “The Hairy Ape” being staged from November 17-December 10, 2017.

To see the views of other Cleveland area theater reviewers about this production, go to:  clevelandtheaterreviews.com

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Musical Theater Project presents “The Impact of OKLAHOMA!”


March 31, 1943 is a key day in American theatrical history.  It is the date that is often credited with introducing the world to the “book musical,” a form of theatre in which songs and dances are fully integrated into a well-conceived story.  A story that evokes emotions by incorporating themes and motifs that connect all parts of the production.

That March day, “Oklahoma!,” the first musical written by composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II opened and set the theatrical world on its proverbial head.

Taking Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which is set in the Oklahoma Territory, before the birth of the state to be known as Oklahoma, it looks at a small Okie town in 1906.  It showcases the plight of the territory to become part of the USA and the love stories between Curly McLain and Laurey Williams and that of Will Parker and Ado Annie.  Pathos and humor abound.

“Oklahoma!” was the first true book musical.  “Showboat” and “Porgy and Bess” had story lines, but all the parts, the music, book and dance, were not well integrated.  Songs and dances could be dropped or added and the story would continue. “Of Thee I Sing,” (1932) won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the first “musical” to do so, but, again, all the pieces-parts were not tightly woven together.

“Oklahoma!” set the structure that was followed by most productions during the Golden Age of the American Musical (1943 to 1959):  a story into which dance and music are melded into the plot, an overture, a first act that ended with a conflict that would be solved in the second act, and a rousing production finale.   Gone were the days of the totally escapist, plotless reviews, spectacles and vaudeville.  Now, and forever more, the story holds sway.

The musical, with captivating choreography by Agnes De Mille, ran for a then record 2,212 performances.   Numerous revivals and national tours followed and it became an Academy Award-winning film (1955).

The show also highlighted some Rodgers and Hammerstein patterns which are found in their future collaborations.  Almost all of their musicals are about community, the formation and/or sustaining of a community.   Many of their songs have an Eastern European cantorial musical sound which is highlighted by “exaggerated abrupt shifts of key, tempo, and style—that dramatize the progression from sorrow to joy and vice versa, as well as small melodic ‘cells,’ that are combined like building blocks to create tunes.”

R & H plots often have two levels of relationship (e.g., Curly and Laurey/Will Parker and Ado Annie in “Oklahoma,” Billy and Julie/Mr. Snow and Carrie in “Carousel,” Nellie and Emile/Lt. Cable and Liat in “South Pacific”).  There is always a song which carries the duo’s social message (e.g., “The Farmer and the Cowman” -- “Oklahoma!,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — “Carousel” and” You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”— “South Pacific.”

Ready to hear more about Rodgers and Hammerstein III and hear their songs?  On Saturday, October 14 @ 7, The Musical Theater Project will present “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ The Impact of Oklahoma!,” at Lorain County Community College’s Stocker Arts Center, 1005 Abbe Road, Elyria (for tickets call 440-366-4004 or go on line to stockerartscenter.com).  The program will be repeated on Sunday, October 15 @ 3 PM in the Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square (tickets:  216-241-6000 or playhousesquare.org)

The program will be hosted by Bill Rudman and Nancy Maier and will feature Ursula Cataan, Lindsey Sandham Leonard, Joe Monaghan, Shane Patrick O’Neill and Fabio Polanco.

For information about the Musical Theater Project go to http://www.musicaltheaterproject.org/

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Mesmerizing, emotion-laden “Last of the Boys” at none too fragile



It is ironic that the same weekend that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War” started screening, none too fragile theater brought up the lights on its intimate stage to showcase Steven Dietz’s Vietnam memory play, “Last of the Boys.”

An award-winning playwright, Dietz is one of the nation’s new breed of writers who are noted as being “prolific and versatile” and in search of showcasing modern problems.  With his mastery of language and ability to create complex and dynamic characters and tell stories, he could qualify as the Arthur Miller or William Inge of the twenty-first century.

As for “Last of the Boys,” Dietz says, “though the play reflects on the events of the Vietnam era it is not a historic play.  This is about a world in which the same hard choices keep presenting themselves.” 

Those hard choices include asking:  What are the toxic results of horrific experiences of fighting in a war?  Should we blame others for their urging us to make certain life changes?  Can we forgive the mistaken beliefs of others that have an effect on our lives?  How long do fearsome memories haunt a person?  And, can we hide from our past?

The story centers on Ben, a Vietnam war vet who lives in a California trailer park situated on a toxic wasteland, and his war buddy, Jeeter, a hippy, modern age college professor, who is obsessed with the Rolling Stones and follows them around the world on their concert tours. 

Though the war is forty years in the past, much of the duo’s relationship and identity center on the haunting effects of their battle experiences, especially on Ben, who has nightmares and sees illusions of military men and Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, at the time of the conflict.

Jeeter comes for his annual visit, accompanied by Salyer, his new girlfriend.  The couple goes to Ben’s father’s funeral, which Ben does not attend.  (The reason rolls out as the play develops).  Shortly after the funeral, Lorraine, Salyer’s alcoholic mother, shows up.

What ensues is an examination of identities, angst and revelations, including the 1967 incident outside of Dak To which changed Ben and Jeeter’s lives forever, and why Salyer encases her entire body in a layer of black clothing.

As has become the pattern at none too fragile, the production is compelling.  Director Sean Derry hits all the right vocal and blocking notes in developing the story and highlighting Dietz’s razor sharp language.

Skinny, balding, pinched faced, with hollow vacant eyes, Rob Branch is the requisite image of the PSTD remains of the human once known as Ben.  His tortured-being shines through.

Paul Floriano makes Jeeter a physical and emotional being stuck in the 1960s.  He seeks peace, literally and figuratively, through reliving the flower-child era in his life style and attitudes, unable to move forward.

Rachel Lee Kolis is appropriately angst filled, having been forced to live a life of lies created by her alcoholic, pathetic mother (Anne McEvoy) who, like the others, refuses to face reality.

Nate Homolka effectively develops the role of the phantom soldier, appearing as needed to help fulfill fantasy.

Capsule judgement:  War is hell and, as highlighted in “Last of the Boys,” its aftermath is often worse.  Kudos to Sean Derry and his cast for creating a compelling evening of theater.  This is must see theater for anyone interested in fine acting and a more real than life picture of the outcomes of combative and emotional wars on human beings.

 “Last of the Boys” runs through September 30, 2017 at none too fragile theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron.  For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to nonetoofragile.com

The next none too fragile show is Keith Huff’s “A Steady Rain” from October 27-November 11.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Cleveland Play House opens 2017-2018 with entertaining “Shakespeare in Love”


Lee Hall, the Tony Award winning musical book writer for “Billy Elliott the Musical,” once wrote, “The point of theatre is transformation:  to make an extraordinary event out of ordinary material right in front of an audience’s eyes. What matters is the power of theatre to move and to change people.  That is what “Shakespeare in Love” is about.  It is about a place which can allow a common player to be a Queen, boys to be girls, where we make the miraculous out of the mundane” and include a part for a dog.

The adaptor of the film “Shakespeare in Love” into play form, which is now on stage at Cleveland Play House, Hall might have added, “and where we can watch as a very talented man, creates poetic words and idea-inciting plots that will live forever.”

The play’s program states, “We invite you to join us in the lusty, bawdy, adventurous world in which Shakespeare lived loved, and wrote.  A world where sex and history combine for a punchline, where desires of the body go hand-in-hand with those of the soul, and where a good disguise can go a long way.”  And, it could have added, to a question posed in the script, “Yes a play can be about true love.”  And, yes, as Elizabeth I demanded in all the plays of her era, there is a dog!

Those who watched the recent television series, “Will” will be glad to add to their pseudo-history knowledge of The Bard by participating in yet another of the hot-blooded Shakespeare’s infidelities in this production.

A combination of farce, comedy, drama, tragedy and historification, “Shakespeare in Love” allows us to view a penniless youthful Shakespeare go from a 1593 playwright with writer’s block to a “phenome” churning out hit plays after he meets the fair Viola, who inspires him to write the likes of “Romeo and Juliet” and lay the foundation for many of his other masterpieces (which often include a dog.)

Because of the blending of acting styles needed to perform the various genres of the script, the complexity of the plot and the need for a perfectly trained dog (yes there is a dog), the material is difficult to perform.

Worry not.  Director Laura Kepley has the entire mélange in hand.  The farce and slapstick are well developed, comedy lines nicely cued, the tragedy focused and the entire production zips right along.

Lex Liang’s sets and costumes, Russell H. Champa’s lighting design, Jane Shaw’s sound design and compositions add the right moods to the staging.  The fights, the choreography and the music, thanks to Drew Fracher, David Shimotakahara and Nathan Motta are well conceived.

The cast understands the necessary changes needed to accent the writers’ intent and play their multi-roles with aplomb.

Charlie Thurston looks like the sketches we have seen of Shakespeare, and nicely makes Will into a love sick charming rogue as well as a talented poet and playwright.  Marina Shay inhabits the role of the both cunning and lovely Viola.

Donald Carrier delights as Henslowe, a debt-ridden theater owner, Andhy Mendez well interprets Marlow, Shakespeare’s playwriting rival, Brian Owen blusters effectively as Burbage, the owner of a rival theatre, and Evan Zes delights as the uptight Fennyman, the money lender.  And of course, there is Nigel the dog, who brings many laughs as Spot. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   A combination of farce, comedy, drama, tragedy and historification, “Shakespeare in Love” delights.  It makes for a joyful start to CPH’s 2017-2018 season.  And, yes, there is a dog!

“Shakespeare in Love” runs through October 1, 2017, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Next up at CPH is “The Diary of Anne Frank” from October 21-November 19 in the Outcalt Theatre.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Finely performed “Simply Simone” jazzes up Karamu


Mention the name Nina Simone and your mind probably conjures up jazz.  Yes, Nina, the jazz superstar and writer/performer of such powerhouse songs as “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”  But, were you aware that the terms child prodigy, civil rights activist, political exile and the Legend Queen of Black Classical music also apply?

Simone, whose given name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was the child of a preacher who was emotionally absent and an uptight religious mother. 

Born in the deeply segregated South, she showed early talent as a pianist and, under the tutelage of a white piano teacher, and the financial backing of both blacks and whites of Tryon, North Carolina, Eunice, who wished to be the first black major concert pianist, was accepted at Julliard School of Music. 

She was later denied entrance into the prestigious Curtiss Institute of Music in Philadelphia, in a slightly veiled act of race and gender bias.  Two days before her death, the rejection was set aside when Curtiss gave her an honorary doctorate degree.

In order to avoid the wrath of her mother, who detested the “devil’s music”, Eunice changed her name to Nina Simone.  Thus, she started to play “cocktail piano” and sing, in her contralto voice, at venues in Atlantic City, wrote her own songs, and made herself into the diva of classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel and pop.  Before she was done, she produced more than 40 albums.

“Simply Simone the music of Nina Simone” is a biographical review which uses song to illustrate the turbulent life and rich artistic legacy of this American musical diva.

The songs, presented by four different African American women, all performing Nina at various stages of her life, illustrate the many moods of the woman, as well as the important people in her life.

We experience Eunice’s upbringing, early piano lessons, youthful successes, marriage and relationship failures, friendships with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lorraine Hansberry, Leroy Jones and Langston Hughes, as well as her exile from the country for tax evasion, refusal to return for the funeral of her father, her relationship with her daughter, and the rises and falls of her career.

To be successful, a production of “Simply Simone” requires four supreme actresses with stellar voices and a wailing band.  Fortunately, Karamu has all the bases covered.

In its regional premiere, and the opening of the theatre’s 2017-2018 season, the outstanding cast features Sheffia Randall Dooley (the Earth Mother image of Simone), Afia Mensa (youthful image), Corlesia Smith (sophisticated Nina) and Mariama Whyte (the edgy and powerful façade).  Each woman plays the singer as a person or as a part of the legend.

Ed Ridley’s band, featuring his keyboard playing, the percussion of Elijah Gilmore, Brad McGee on guitar and bass player Kevin Byous, excel, expertly backed up without drowning out the singers. 

The scenic and costume design of Inda Blatch-Geib, lighting by Prophet Seay, sound by Rob Peck and choreography by Adenike Sharpley all enhance the production, which is under the adept direction of Caroline Jackson Smith.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  If you like the sounds and music of Nina Simone, enjoy well played, sung and performed jazz, gospel, blues, folk, R&B, and pop music, and want to know more about the Diva of Jazz, Karamu’s “Simply Simone” should be your entertainment destination.

“Simply Simone” continues through October 8, 2017 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street. In contrast to a pervious announcement, the entire theatre season will be performed on the Karamu campus.  Free parking in a guarded lot is available.  For ticket information call 216-795-7070 or go on line to www.kramuhouse.org

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Irreverent “Book of Mormon” delights in return visit at State Theatre


One of the major concerns in attending a return visit by a Broadway touring show is that the production will be a lesser version.   Those planning on attending “Book of Mormon,” now on stage at the State Theatre, should have no fears.  This reincarnation is equally good as any of the other versions that have trucked into town.  In fact, it is probably better than some of the others.

After writing five reviews about the show, what more is there for me to say about the plot?  Not much, so here’s a blend of some of the former reviews and some added comments about this production.
 

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the long-time writers of “South Park,” are satirical comics extraordinaire.  Their writing marriage to Robert Lopez, the co-creator of the Tony Award winning “Avenue Q,” is a union made in heaven (or at least in the Broadway version of heaven). 
 

“The Book of Mormon” is a satirical musical filled with lots of explicit language.  It lampoons organized religion and, in its own way, follows the format, but mocks traditional musical theater. 
The script tells the story of two naïve and optimistic Mormon missionaries (Elder Price and Elder Cunningham) who are sent to a remote village in northern Uganda.  A brutal warlord is threatening the locals.  While the duo is trying to sell the locals on Mormon scripture, the people are more concerned with famine, poverty, female circumcision, war and AIDS.  Oh, what to do, what to do?
 

How did the duo get to Uganda or even get matched together?  Elder Price is the poster boy for the Ken doll, clean cut, and striving for perfection Mormon missionary.  Elder Cunningham is a rotund, friendless nerd, who relies on half-truths and a vivid imagination to get by.  They were cast as a duo through total serendipity, an act of heaven, and some clever comic writers, to go out and ring the doorbells of the world.

As Elder Cunningham, who admits never having read the mythical Book, makes up fantastic tales, which, in reality, aren’t far from the actual imaginative tales of Adam Smith, Brigham Young, the golden tablets, and the migration of the Mormons from upstate New York to Salt Lake City, and he wins over converts. 
 

After he baptizes the entire town, the church’s elders come to witness the miraculous success.  The villagers share their understanding of the Cunningham version of their new religion in a reenactment, which parallels in form to “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” in the “King and I,” with illusions to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from “The Sound of Music.”  Of course chaos results, everything turns out fine, and, after a standing ovation, the audience leaves the theatre singing, “I Believe.”
 

The touring show is spectacular.  It plays visually and emotionally on all the senses.  From its giddy opening number (think the “Telephone Hour” at the start of “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” to its mocking use of four letter words, to its bigger than life melodrama, to the over-the-top mythology (often paralleling the belief system to “Star Wars”), we are sucked into the idea that, as one of the words to the many delightful songs states, “tomorrow is a doper, phatter latter day.”  (I won’t even go into the concept of the song “Ma Ha Nei Bu, Eebowai!” [“F _ _ _You Heavenly Father”], you just have to experience it to experience it!)
 

The settings, music, costumes, lighting effects, perfect comic timing of the cast, and creative choreography all work.
 

With shiny perfect teeth flashing, Gabe Gibbs hits all the right notes as Elder Price.  Conner Peirson steals the show as Elder Cunningham, the “creative liar.” Maha’la Herrold is enchanting as Nabulungi.  Oge Agulue is both hysterically funny and evil incarnate, as General Butt-F _ _ king Naked, the war lord.  The rest of the cast also shines. 
 

Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker’s direction is spot on.  Farce, especially musical farce, is hard to accomplish due to its required spoken and sung controlled abandonment, but these guys guide their cast with laser perfection.  Nicholaw’s choreography is fun and well-executed.  Ever thought you’d see a dancing kick line of Mormons?
 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you haven’t seen “The Book of Mormon,” or need a new shot of irreverent satire which skewers anyone and everyone, this is an absolute go see production. If you are a language prude, religious fanatic, or aren’t in the mood for ridiculous delight, stay away.  It’s everything a modern musical that is meant for pure entertainment, with a sip of philosophy, should be!
 

Tickets for “The Book of Mormon,” which runs September 17, 2017, at the State Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Janáček’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” to open The Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th season




The Cleveland Orchestra is on the verge of reaching its centennial.  In celebration of this momentous milestone, the innovative made-for-Cleveland stylized opera production of Leoš Janáček’s “The Cunning Vixen” will grace the Severance Hall stage.  

The production, complete with music provided by one of the world’s great orchestras, under the baton of music director, Franz Welser-Möst, and featuring the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, the Children’s Chorus and a dozen-plus vocalists, along with animation by the Walter Robot Studios, projections and lighting by Jason Thompson, costumes by Ann Close-Farley and masks by Cristina Waltz, will come forth for three performances. 


“The Cunning Vixen,” which was conceived around 1921, is the tale of a clever fox, who, accompanied by other wildlife as well as a few humans, has a series of adventures while traversing their life cycles. 

The libretto for the comic opera/tragedy, which was adopted by the Czech composer from a serialized novella, incorporates Moravian folk music and rhythms.  

First performed by the Cleveland Orchestra in May of 2014, it is credited with returning the composition to its opera roots.  It features hole-in-the wall carnival cutouts to place the singers’ heads on the animated bodies of the animal characters.

The opera is noted for breaking from traditional forms of that musical format, by adding ballet, mime and orchestral interludes. 

Though the piece contains the vixen’s death at the end of the piece, it is the lightest of the author’s operas.  The sound is often compared to that of the French composer Claude Debussy.

It is noteworthy that at the composer’s request, the final scene from the opera was performed at his funeral.


“The Cunning Little Vixen” will be staged on September 23, 24 and 26 at Severance Hall.  Tickets may be obtained by calling (216) 231-7300 or going on line to https://www.clevelandorchestra.com

Monday, September 04, 2017

Apollo’s Fire, Cleveland’s award winning Baroque orchestra, opens new season with “Israel in Egypt”


After selling out concerts at Tangelwood, in Madrid, Spain and BBC programs in London, Apollo’s Fire comes home to open its 2017-2018 season with “Israel in Egypt.”

“Israel in Egypt” Handel’s Oratorio vividly traces the Israelites’ escape from Egypt.  Filled with sumptuous music, the adaptation by Jeanette Sorrell, the orchestra’s musical director, will feature Apollo’s Singers as well as performances by soprano Erica Schuller, countertenor Daniel Moody, tenor Ross Hauck and baritone Jeffrey Strauss.

Fitting nicely into the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper season, the concert continues the tradition of showcasing Jewish themes by the orchestra which previously performed “Sephardic Journey,” which, in its recorded version, made Billboard’s Top 10 list. (To read a review of the “Sephardic Journey” concert and a bio of soloist Jeffrey Strauss, go to www.royberko.info, and enter Apollo’s Fire in the search box in the upper right side.)

The orchestra, which is named after the classical god of music and sun, was founded in 1992 by Sorrell with a grant from the Cleveland Foundation.  The musical director envisioned an ensemble dedicated to the baroque ideal that music should evoke the passions of the listeners through drama and rhetoric.  She has succeeded!

The group, whose recordings are often best sellers, frequently broadcast on National Public Radio and can be heard throughout North America and Europe. 

Using period instruments, the ensemble includes a pool of music specialists and singers who create a unique sound and features innovative programming.

Besides their sneak peek and regular concerts, the orchestra presents “Music Alive,” a series of free concerts at the Akron Art Museum, under the sponsorship of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Their “Israel & Egypt” sneak peek will be held on Sunday, October 1 at 3:00 pm in the Gallery.

The group will make its Carnegie Hall, New York, debut on March 22, 2018 and then travel to Boston for a Boston Early Musical Festival on March 24.

Apollo’s Fire dedication to nurturing the next generation of musical appreciators and performers is highlighted by an intimate artistic learning experience, which centers on free family concerts, a Treble Youth Choir and a Young Artist Apprentice Program.


Performances of “Israel in Egypt” are: Thursday, October 12, 7:30 pm @ St. Paul’s Episcopal, 1361 West Market Street, Akron; Friday, October 13, 8 pm @ First Baptist Church, 3630 Fairmount Boulevard, Shaker Heights; Saturday, October 14, 8pm @ The Temple-Tifereth Israel, 26000 Shaker Boulevard, Beachwood; and, Sunday, October 15, 4pm @ Avon Lake Church, UCC, 32801 Electric Boulevard, Avon Lake.

 
Information about Apollo’s Fire and tickets may be purchased at http://www.apollosfire.org/ or by calling 216-320-0012.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Opening night standing ovation for Dobama’s “brownsville song (b-side for tray) well-deserved


Those familiar with the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn think of such words as “ghetto,” “murder,” “rape” and “crime.”  It’s the kind of place that only makes the news when bad things happen. 

It’s an area where elderly black women find themselves on television dabbing their eyes as they are interviewed after a grandson, who they are bringing up, has been killed as a result of gang or drive-by violence.

Kimber Lee, the author of the social drama “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” which is now in its regional premiere at Dobama, based her drama on a 2012 murder in Brownsville.  It centers on twenty-year old student athlete and amateur boxer, Tray Franklin Grant, who was killed during a gang conflict in which he had no role. 

Lee says she first read about Grant on the blog of Sarah Deming, a writer and one-time boxer who'd tutored him.  "She said he didn't want to talk about his struggles," Lee recalls. "She felt it would make him seem like he was complaining. Yes, Tray had problems, one of which was losing his father—in the same way he'd die, actually.  But he felt like, 'You know what, I have a good life.' He had a quiet strength. That just stayed with me."

In an interview before the show premiered at Louisville’s Humana Festival, the first big production of one of her scripts, she indicated that time moves when you experience grief and loss.  “Yes,” she stated, “The play is about loss and grief, but it is really about the vibrant relationship between members of the family.”

The script, which flows easily from past to present and back again, is written with a lyrical tone.   Lee, in the play’s preface, gives the actors and director this advice, “The aliveness of the play lives in the rhythm and flow of the language, which includes the syncopation of the pauses and silences. Those spaces should be just as full and driving forward with the need of the characters as the words.”

She continues, “Because the story pivots around a deep loss, there may be a tendency to sink into that emotion, but this should be resisted. The scenes, even the ones after Tray’s death, must drive forward, as we all must do in life even in the midst of heartbreak.”

Ms. Lee’s argues, in almost rap song sounds, against treating the next neighborhood death as just one more statistic, but the need is to understand the tragic loss of a whole generation of young black men to death and/or the prison system. (“Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 37% of prison inmates.”  “One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.” “Forty percent of African-American males 15-34 who died were murdered, making it the highest cause of death for this group.”)

The story centers on Tray, a spirited biracial young man.  He is estranged from his Korean-American mother, Merrill (Cindy Chang), being raised, along with his nine-year old sister, Devine (Logan Dior Williams), by Lena (Lisa Louise Langford), his African American grandmother.  He is a “good” boy.  He is hard working, gets good grades, has been accepted to college and is a protective father-figure for his sister.

Merrell slinks along the edges of their lives, having lost them due to her on-going battle with sobriety.   After more than one dive into rehab, it appears that she is finally getting her life together.

Unfortunately, we watch in horror as a shining light of what black young men can be is destroyed in yet another senseless black on black murder. 

Dobama’s production, under the guidance of Jimmie Woody is in many ways superlative.  

The show starts with a heart breaking, mesmerizing monologue, by Langford.  Throughout she continues to develop a textured, meaningful image of a woman fighting for a world that should be, needs to be fair, but unfortunately isn’t.  She doesn’t portray Lena, she is Lena. 

Though he sometimes substitutes yelling for deep emotional feelings, which would be better served by underplaying and pauses rather than loud projection, Cleveland School of the Arts senior, Jabri Little, is excellent as Tray.  He displays a nice glow of vulnerability and instinctive intelligence that helps create a meaningful character.

Chang molds a nice touch of vulnerability with desperation in making Merrell real. 

Both young Ms. Williams and Kalim Hill, in the dual roles of Junior and BC student, are believable.

The technical aspects of the production are superlative.  Scenic designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski has taken a script which calls for multiple settings and created sliding screen and set pieces on wagons, that flow in and out to the well selected music by sound designer Cyrus O. Taylor.  The staging is accented by Marcus Dana’s lighting design.  T. Paul Lowry’s impressive projections transport us out of Cleveland into Brownsville and East Flatbush, New York.  The entire world of “brownsville song” is played out before an impressive painting on the theatre’s back wall by Contributing Artist, John “Skyline” Davison.

Ms. Lee includes in the preface of the play the words of James Baldwin (“Nothing Personal”), “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” It is a fitting memorial to the sad tales of the Trays of the world!

Capsule judgment: Dobama, Cleveland’s fine off-Broadway professional theatre, opens its 2017-2018 season with a mesmerizing production of Kimber Lee’s “must see” script.  Generally well-directed, often superlatively acted, this is drama at its finest!  The opening night standing ovation was well-deserved.

“Brownsville song (b-side for tray)” runs through September 24, 2017 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama:   Cleveland’s grand lady of theatre, Dorothy Silver, stars in “Marjorie Prime” from October 13-November 12, 2017.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

“Rhinoceros” challenges the audience to place a spotlight on the absurdity of life today @ con-con



Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee are Theatre of the Absurd playwrights.  Unlike modern-movement writers like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and William Inge, who wrote realistic plays which included solutions to problems or resolved situations, the Absurdists based their plays on Existentialism, asking, “Why do we exist?” but giving no answers.  Their writings are full of questions to ponder and probe. 

Absurdist plays show people and a world out of kilter.  They shine the spotlight on the ridiculousness of life and situations.  Their plays are often confusing, hard to understand and challenge an audience to think.

Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” which is now on stage at convergence continuum, is a classic play of the genre.

The story, which centers on Bérenger, tells the tale of a man who is criticized for his drinking, tardiness and laid back life style.  We see him slide into paranoia and obsession as first one, then a herd of rhinoceroses, take over the town.  The herd, in reality, are those people who surround Bérenger and who fall for the “myth” of the rhinoceros as they become pawns to rumors and exaggerations.

Late in his life, Ionesco, the son of an ultra-nationalist Romanian father and a Jewish Sephardic mother who converted to Calvinism to fit into French society, indicated that the script was biographical.  Ionesco, who considered himself ethnically a Jew, though he didn’t practice the religion, found himself questioning how the Romanians had become so anti-Semitic, and how the Germans allowed Hitler to come to power.

The script is peppered with references that should easily stir present day viewers.  There are lines like, “Journalists are all liars,” and “Racism is one of the great problems of our times” as well as allusions to disdain for intelligent people, references to what are now termed “alternate facts,” negative allusions to immigrants, attacks against humanism, and illustrating the “great lie theory,” which states that if a lie is told over and over people start to believe it is the truth.

All of the characters, except Bérenger, talk in clichés, which are short, cryptic, use over-exaggerated adjectives which often lack proof, much like today’s tweets by Donald Trump.

Ionesco looks at reasoning and absurdity by exposing the limitations of logic and what motivates and explains the forces of the universe.  He uses the Rhinoceros allegory to ask, “what was the mentality that allowed a nation to succumbed to Nazism?”  In modern terms, why did many people succumb to the ethnic slurs and “Make America Great Again” sloganeering of Trump?

He uses the rhinoceros as a symbol of man’s inherent savage nature, while asking how humans are so absurd that they would allow the barbarity of World War II, or, in modern terms, why more didn’t rise up more strongly as Trump does not condemn the alt-right.

Yes, “Rhinoceros” was written in 1959, but has become one of the most produced scripts today as it examines the absurdity of the US in 2017.  Kudos to con-con’s artistic director Clyde Simon for putting such a relevant play on this year’s production schedule.

Staged in a black and white set and costumed in the same hue of colors, the play’s image is vivid.

Director Jonathan Wilhelm’s blocking is often creative, and the use of overlapping lines by characters on various parts of the stage adds to the absurdity.  Many lines were neatly primed for laughter, including, “How can it happen in this country?” which got an extended guffaw from the audience.

The cast, Tom Kondilas, Mike Frye, Kayla Gray, Joseph Milan, Natalyn Baisden, Rocky Encalada, David L. Munnell, Jeanne Task and Kim Woodworth, are uneven in their character development, sometimes stumbling over lines and not picking up their cues quickly enough.  This hopefully will right itself during the play’s run.

Capsule Judgement:  The con-con production, under adept directing by Jonathan Wilhelm, is a very long sit, but can be worth the effort.  Don’t go expecting a clear plot with a nicely wrapped-up solution.  This is an absurd play which is intended to make you uncomfortable and forces you to be introspective and examine the world around you as you ask, “Why do we exist?”
 


“Rhinoceros” runs through September 16, 2017 at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to http://www.convergence-continuum.org/
 

Next up at con-con:  Israel Horowitz’s “Spared,” a one-person show performed by Robert Hawkes, from September 28 through 30, 2017.  It is followed by Siegmund Fuchs’ “In The Closet” from October 13-November 4.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Superb “Equus” filled with passion at Blank Canvas



In the early 1970s, master wordsmith and playwright Peter Shaffer read a small news story, with little details, about a boy who had blinded six horses at a stable in Sussex, England.  The writer’s imagination went into full gear.  He created a script which included a family background for the obsessed young man, an image of a troubled but successful psychiatrist, and wove them into a compelling play which he named “Equus.”

The story centers on Alan Strong (Antonio DeJesus), a teenager, living in a small town in England and Martin Dysart (Russell B. Kunz), the psychiatrist who treats him after Heather Saloman (Amiee Collier), a compassionate magistrate, pleads with Dysart to take Alan as a patient. 

From the opening scene, in which Alan tenderly hugs Nugget, a horse, to the emotional closing, Shaffer’s two-and-a-half-hour script grabs and holds the viewer’s attention. 

With Dysart as the narrator, we meet Frank (Andrew Narten), Alan’s atheistic, hypercritical father, and Dora (Claudia Esposito), his enabling school teacher mother.  We learn how Jill Mason (Sarah Blubaugh), a young woman introduces him to stable owner Harry Dalton (Chris Bizub) who hires the boy.  We observe as Jill attempts to introduce the virgin boy to sex.  We observe Alan connect to the stable’s horses (Daryl Kelley, Jason Falkofsky, Zac Hudak, Evan Martin, Anthony Salatino and David Turner), who Alan loves, yet is the subject of his maiming.

We observe Alan change from a boy who chants advertising jingles in order to protect himself from human contact, to revealing a little of his past, to finally coming to an understanding of why he acted as he did, with the possibility of his becoming normal.  “Normal.”  Whatever that means.

Alan is not the only one with high angst.  Dysart is in a loveless, sexless marriage, is living an unfulfilled existence, and finds himself having severe nightmares about being a destructive chief priest in Homeric Greece.

The tale is told in retrospect. Dysart, as the narrator, takes the audience to various times and places as fits the tale, rather than making the story sequential.

“Equus” is a tale of passion, religion, sexuality, pain, blame, and freedom.  Alan, a boy in pain, is obsessed with horses from first coming in contact with one on a beach when he was young.  He creates Equus into a Christ-like figure.  Even his first attempt at sex takes place in his “church,” the horse stable, where he is unable to perform when the horses whinny, sending a message of his wrong doing.   Dysart, as does the audience, tries to figure out if Alan’s problems, including his need for freedom, are his own doing or those created by his parents, and whether he is freeing the horses from their confinement and pain by blinding them.

“Equus” is a difficult play to stage.  For the script to work requires two superb actors, a strong supporting cast, creative staging, a meaningful vision for the horses, subtle and appropriate English accents, and a set that enhances the action.

Fortunately, director Patrick Ciamacco has found the cast and has the originality gene to make the near impossible possible.

At an open tryout, Ciamacco found boyish looking twenty-year old Antonio DeJesus.  DeJesus lives up to the English interpretation of his last name, which is “of God,” as Alan. DeJesus gives what has to be one of the most enveloping, highly-textured performances by a male the local theater season.  Kudos!  Bravo!

Russell B. Kunz creates a believable, well-conceived, tortured Martin Dysart.  He is a great match for DeJesus.

Aimee Collier, Andrew Narten, Claudia Esposito, Chris Bizub and Sarah Blubaugh are all prime in their roles.

Noah Hrebek and Patrick Ciamacco’s horse fabrications, and Ciamacco’s set design, which takes us into a barn, complete with Alan’s pit of Hell, enhances the production.


Be aware that the production includes full frontal male and female nudity.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Equus” is not only one of Blank Canvas’s finest productions, but one of the best stagings of the script I’ve seen.  This is required attendance for anyone interested in experiences of marrying a well-written script with a superb staging.  If for no other reason, go to the theater to experience the marvel of Antonio DeJesus.

Blank Canvas’s “Equus” runs through August 26, 2017, in its near west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website. Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvastheatre.com

Next up at BC is their annual fund-raiser on September 1 and 2. “Chess,” is a concert version of the tale of a politically driven, Cold War-era chess tournament between two men—an American grandmaster and a Soviet grandmaster—and their fight over a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other.  It has music by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus of Abba, and lyrics by Tim Rice.

October 6-28:  The stage version of the cult-rock movie “The Rocky Horror Show.”

Friday, August 04, 2017

2017 Fall Cleveland Theater Calendar


Here’s a list of some of the offerings of local theatres through the fall season (September-December, 2017).

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL THEATERS! 



You can track my reviews on http://www.royberko.info/, or contact me to get on my direct review list.  You can see a synopsis of the local reviewers’ comments about the plays at http://www.clevelandtheaterreviews.com/



BECK CENTER 
  216-521-2540 or http://www.beckcenter.org
8 p.m. evenings, 3 p.m. matinees


September 15 – October 8
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST--“Crazy” McMurphy, a charming rogue, is placed in a ward at a mental institution ruled by the terrible Nurse Ratched.  It’s a battle of wills!

October 6 – November 5
WAITING FOR GODOT—Beckett’s Existential epic “mystery wrapped in an enigma” which examines the hopeless destiny of the human race. Especially significant in this “reign of Trump.”

December 1 – December 31
Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID—A return visit of the 2016 award winning production tells the timeless fairy tale of Ariel, a mermaid princess, as she dreams of the forbidden land above.

BLANK CANVAS  

440-941-0458 or http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com/
Thursday, Friday and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm

October 6-28
THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW—The 1950s science fiction rock musical in which Brad and Janet run into car trouble, go to a creepy castle for some help and find Dr. Frank N. Furter.  (Contains adult language and content.)

December 1-16
URINETOWN THE MUSICAL—In a Gotham-like city, a terrible water shortage causes the government to enforce a ban on private toilets.  Watch in delight as this musical satire exposes social irresponsibility, bureaucracy, corporate mismanagement and capitalism at its worst.


CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE  
216-241-6000 or go to http://www.playhousesquare.org
7:30 PM Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 PM Saturday and Sunday

September 9-October 1
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE—The Academy Award-winning romantic comedy comes to the stage, complete with sword fights, secret trysts, and backstage drama.

October 21-November 19
THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK—Anne’s compelling words come alive and urge viewers to stand up for one another in the face of intolerance, fear, and hate.

November 24-December 23
A CHRISTMAS STORY—Yes, it’s back again…one boy, one holiday wish, The Old Man, Santa at Higbee’s Department Store and the glowing-leg-lamp.  A play for the whole family.


CLEVELAND PUBLIC THEATRE
  216-631-2727 or go on line to http://www.cptonline.org/

September 9
PANDEMONIUM 2017:  UNLEASH—CPT’S annual fundraiser transforms the CPT campus into a labyrinth of theatre, dance visual and performance art on every corner.

October 5-7 & 12 (previews), October 13-28 (official run)
THE FAMILY CLAXON—World Premiere of Cleveland Heights award winning writer Eric Coble’s tale of Andrew Claxon who wants to help Grandad Claxon celebrate his birthday but chaos reigns all around the town.

October 5-7
TEATRO PUBLICO NEW PLAY FESTIVAL---A workshop series of new scripts and scenes created by local Latino artists. 

October 26-28 & November 2 (previews), November 3-18 (official run)
THE ART OF LONGING--World premiere of Lisa Lanford’s play that follows the lives of six “third-shift” people who are awake when the rest of the city sleeps.

November 2-5—Y-HAVEN THEATRE PROJECT—An original theater production by the members of Y-Haven, a homeless men’s facility, centering on their life stories.

November 24-26 & 30 (previews), December 1-17 (official run)—
THE LOUSH SISTERS GET HARD FOR THE HOLIDAYS (YIPPIE-KAI-YAY MOTHER LOUSHERS)-- Holly and Jolly Loush return to CPT in this world premiere of a bawdy, boozy, over-the-top holiday cabaret in which they battle villains and attempt to avert disaster. 


convergence continuumconvergence-continiuum.org or 216-687-0074
Thursday-Saturday @ 8


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August 25-September 16

RHINOCEROS—Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd play which places a spotlight on history possibly being replayed by the Trump presidency.

September 28-30

SPARED—A man and two women meet after attending a funeral, a time when so much needs to be articulated and understood. And yet, somehow, they cannot bridge the gulf of self-consciousness that separates them. 




October 13-November 4

IN THE CLOSET—Sigmund Fuch’s tale find’s four men trying to confront each of his own humorous, awkward or heart breaking reason for being himself.



November 16-18

CAMP BEACOUP CONGA—World premiere of a play by Clevelander Jonathan Wilhelm.



December 1-16

THE CHASTE GENIUS AND HIS DEATHRAY GUN—a world premiere of Chirstopher Johnston’s tale of strange freaky inventor Nikola Tesla.

DOBAMA
 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org
check the theatre’s blog for performance times

September 1-24
BROWNSVILLE SONG (B-SIDE FOR TRAY)—The Cleveland premiere of Kimber Lee’s story of the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn where life is often tragically cut short.

October 13-November 12
MARJORIE PRIME—Stars Cleveland legend Dorothy Silver as an 85-year-old woman with a handsome new companion which explores what it means to be human in the digital age.

December 1-30
SHERLOCK HOLMES:  THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS—It’s December on the streets of London, Sherlock Holmes is missing, and a young girl’s grandfather has been abducted.  Who will save the day?  The game’s afoot.


ENSEMBLE THEATRE
  216-321-2930 or http://www.ensemble-theatre.com
Fridays and Saturdays @ 8, Sundays @ 2

September 29-October 22
WELL—Lisa Kron, the Oberlin grad who wrote the book and lyrics for the award-winning FUN HOME, writes about a mother who has the extraordinary ability to heal a changing neighborhood despite her inability to heal herself.

November 17-December 10
THE HAIRY APE—Eugene O’Neill’s epic expressionist play about a brutish, unthinking laborer who searches for a sense of belonging in a world controlled by the rich.

December 1-17
THE LITTLE PRINCE—A play with music tells the tale of a world-weary and disenchanted Aviator whose sputtering plane strands him in the Sahara Desert and his meeting a mysterious “little man.”

GREAT LAKES THEATER
  http://www.greatlakestheater.org or 216-241-6000
Wednesday-Saturday @ 7:30, Saturdays @ 1:30, Sundays @ 3

September 29-November 4
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (A SOARING MUSICAL EPIC)—Victoria Bussert directs the Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, Peter Parnell musical tale of Quasimodo, a deformed bell-ringer, who becomes an unlikely hero.

October 6-November 5
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM—Shakespeare’s comic tale of madness, mistaken identity,  mismatched lovers and mischief-making fairies.

November 25-December 23
A CHRISTMAS CAROL—Dickens’ classic tale of one man’s ultimate redemption.



INTERPLAY JEWISH THEATER   http://interplayjewishtheatre or 216-393-PLAY

Play readings at Dobama are free, but reservations are required. 

November 18
Special event—details to be announced!


KARAMU HOUSE  216-795-707) or www.karamuhouse.org
Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Check the theater’s website for exact times and dates


September
SIMPLY SIMONE:  THE MUSIC OF NINA SIMONE—a musical chronicling the life and career of the songstress.

October-November
THE LAKE EFFECT—Cleveland Heights native Rajiv Joseph’s tale about estranged siblings who reunite at their father’s restaurant in an evening of memories and family secrets.  (Produced in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre.)

December
TBA--An original world premiere of a jazz review featuring holiday classics from Cole Porter to Gershwin.


LAKELAND CIVIC THEATRE
  440-525-7134 or http://lakelandcc.edu/academic/arts/theatre/index.asp
Productions are staged at Lakeland Community College

October 11 & 12 @ noon, October 13 & 14 @ 7:30 PM

A GUIDE’S GUIDE TO LAWNFIELD—Local playwright Faye Sholiton’s play about an 18-year old history geek and unabashed fan of James A. Garfield. While leading a tour of the late president's Mentor home, he encounters a visitor who is particularly adamant that he gets the story right.

NEAR WEST THEATRE
   216-961-6391 or nearwestheatre.org

September 22-October 1
XANADU (Youth Production, ages 9-15)-- a musical comedy based on the 1980 cult classic film of the same name

November 17-December 10
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Intergenerational Production (Ages 7 and up)—A musical based on the Disney film of the same name which tells the story of a cold-hearted prince who has been transformed into a creature as punishment for his selfish ways. To revert into his human form, he must earn the love of a beautiful young lady.

none-too-fragile theatre   330-671-4563 or http://www.nonetoofragile.com


September15-30
LAST OF THE BOYS—Steven Dietz’s serio-comedy about a Vietnam vet which examines identities and memoires of the past.

October 27-November 11
A STEADY RAIN— With a plot similar to a real-life event that involved Jeffrey Dahmer, it focuses on two Chicago policemen who inadvertently return a Vietnamese boy to a cannibalistic serial killer who claims to be the child's uncle.

OHIO SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL  www.ohioshakespearefestival.com
 (Winter and Spring Home:  Greystone Hall, Akron)
103 S. High Street, Akron 44308

September 22-October 8
THREE MUSKETEERS:  AN ADVENTURE WITH MUSIC—An OSF Family Theatre production of Alexander Dumas's classic tale of friendship, daring, romance, and intrigue...with music!  Curtain—7 PM-Thursday-Saturday and 2 PM on Sunday.

December 1-17
CAMELOT—Lerner and Loewe’s “one brief shining moment” musical tells the legend of King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table. Thursday-Saturday @ 8, Sunday @ 2.


PLAYHOUSESQUARE
   216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org

See the website for dates and times

September 12-17
THE BOOK OF MORMON—The award winning outrageous musical comedy which follows the misadventures of a mismatched pair of Mormon missionaries sent halfway across the world to spread the “Good Word.”

September 29-30
MARTIN LUTHER ON TRIAL—A new original play about Martin Luther on Trial.  A trial in the afterlife, and the prosecutor is the Devil.

October 17-November 5
WAITRESS—This ground-breaking show, with an all-female creative team, with music and lyrics by 5-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles, is an empowering musical about a woman whose dreams come true.  (The national tour will be rehearsed and start in CLE.)—Key Bank Broadway Series.

November 8-December 3
WICKED—a return visit of the Broadway sensation that looks at what happened in the Land of Oz long before Dorothy arrives.  Key Bank Broadway Series.

December 5-23
ON YOUR FEET! —Emilio and Gloria Estefan’s musical story of their breaking barriers to become crossover sensations at the very top of the pop music world.  Key Bank Broadway Series.

THE MUSICAL THEATER PROJECT  
http://www.MusicalTheaterProject.org or 216-529-9411 for tickets and information

(productions staged in review format with narration)



October 14 @ 7 PM-Stocker Center, Lorain County Community College,
October 15-3 PM-Ohio Theatre, Playhouse Square
OH WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNIN’: THE IMPACT OF OKLAHOMA! —75 years after its
Broadway premiere the first truly book musical reaffirms the strength of our national character.  Featuring Bill Rudman, Nancy Maier, Ursula Cataan, Lindsey Sandham Leonard, Joe Monaghan, Shane Patrick O’Neill and Fabio Polanco.

December 15—8 PM, December 16—2 PM—Stocker Center, Lorain County Community College
December 17 and 18—7 PM—Night town Restaurant, Cleveland Heights
A CHRISTMAS CABARET—Several dozen songs about the holidays which will please the entire family.  Featuring Nancy Maier, Joe Monaghan, Bill Rudman and Sandra Simon.