Sunday, August 02, 2015

A Clevelander’s view of the Shaw Festival—2015

Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director, states, “I have always found that theatre is at its best when the audience spans several generations – a guarantee that the story being told on stage is being taken in and reacted to in a variety of ways, enriching the experience for all.” 

Maxwell’s belief is well-developed in the Shaw Festival’s 2015 season.  “Peter and the Starcatcher” is a magical adventure for people of all ages.  “The Lady from the Sea,” invites the serious mature theater-goer to revel in one of the first realistic plays ever written.  Tony Kuschner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” is a provocative exploration of society and celebration of humanity.  And the list goes on.

The  Shaw is one of two major Canadian theatre celebrations, the other being The Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.  Both are professional, high quality venues.

The Shaw Festival is a tribute to George Bernard Shaw, his writing contemporaries,  and contemporary plays that share Shaw’s provocative exploration of society and celebration of humanity.  


Many Clevelanders take the four-hour drive up to “The Shaw,” as it is called by locals, to participate in theatre, tour the “most beautiful little city in Canada,” shop, and eat at the many wonderful restaurants.

   You can even play golf and go on a rapid ride on the Niagara River.

It’s an especially good year to go, as I found out on my recent visit.   The U.S. dollar value is high against the Canadian currency, making the trip, at the time I went, about one-quarter lower than might be.  And, this season’s offerings are generally excellent.

It’s a good idea to make both theatre and lodging reservations early, especially with the B&Bs on weekends. Our home away from home is the beautiful and well-placed Wellington House (http://www.wellington.house@sympatico.ca), directly across the street from The Festival Theatre, within easy walking distance of all the theatres, where the breakfasts are great and the furnishings lovely.  For information on other B&Bs go to www.niagaraonthelake.com/showbedandbreakfasts


There are some wonderful restaurants.  My in-town favorites are The Grill on King Street (905-468-7222, 233 King Street) and Ginger Restaurant (905-468-3871, 390 Mary Street).

Having just returned from the Festival, I offer these capsule judgments of some of the shows:

“The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures”—runs through October 10--Director Eda Holmes has honed “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” into a  well acted, well staged production that grabs and holds an audience’s attention.  This is a thinking person’s play, not aimed at the “I go to the theatre to have a good time and get away from my troubles and that of others” crowd.  (Be aware that it is a 4-hour show.)

“Light Up The Sky”--runs through October 11--Recognizing that at its best, the theatre can elevate and maybe even change the beliefs of an audience, “Light Up The Sky” is filled with farcical slapstick, ironic comedy, great character sketches, and funny twists and turns.  As a script it is moving as well as funny and to add to the mix, it gets a superlative production at The Shaw.

“Peter and the Starcatcher”—runs through November 1--“Peter and the Starcatcher” is a delightful fantasy of imagination and  growing up that gets a farcical, creative and wonderfully enjoyable production under the direction of Jackie Maxwell and scenic design by Judith Bowden.  It’s  a must see for anyone, child or adult, who can turn themselves over to experiencing the wonderment of imagination.

“Sweet Charity”—runs through October 31-- Most of the audience, who may be unaware of the style of Bob Fosse, of the brash New York attitude needed for shows like “Sweet Charity” and “Guys and Dolls,” will probably find the Shaw production a source of entertainment. For those in the “know,” the production is just too nice, too bland, lacking in “cheek.”

“The Divine”—runs through October 11--“The Divine” is a well-constructed and compelling play that gets a first rate production.  The cast is universally strong, the technical aspects well-conceived, the pacing attentio- grabbing and holding, which adds up to a must see, standing ovation, theatrical experience.

“The Lady from the Sea”—runs through September 13--“The Lady from the Sea” gets an extremely strong production at The Shaw.  For those who like serious thinking person’s theater, and are interested in seeing a show that is a forerunner of the  modern day contemporary realistic play, the staging is definitely worth seeing.

“You Never Can Tell”—runs through October 25--“You Never Can Tell” is a disappointing production which spends way too much time begging for laughs and too little time developing the social messages that Shaw alludes to in the script. Those who are interested in laughing at ridiculous will probably enjoy the show.  Those interested in fidelity to the intent and purpose of the author will be less than delighted.

“The Twelve-Pound Look”—runs through September 12--“The Twelve Pound Look” is a perfect device to prove that with a focused purpose and a clear outline, it doesn’t need to take hours to make a statement.  The meaningful script gets a delightful and well conceived production.  What a lovely way to spend a  35-minute lunch break.

To read the complete reviews of these shows go to:  http://www.royberko.info

Shows I didn’t see, but are part of the season are:  “Pygmalion”—May 31-October 24 and “Top Girls”—May 23-September 12.


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

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

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

Must see ‘Hairspray” leaves ‘em dancing in the aisles Porthouse Theatre

The farcical yet message-loaded “Hairspray” is the type of musical that in a bad production falls flat, but in a good production leaves the audience energized and dancing in the aisles.  Fortunately the must see production at Porthouse Theatre is dynamic, creative, full of joy!

The stage musical based on the 1988 John Walters movie with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan is a cry for integration in 1960s segregated Baltimore. 

The story focuses on “zaftig” Tracey Turnblad, who has three desires in life:  dance on the “Corny Collin’s Show” (think Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand”), have “every day, Negro day,” and meet Link Larkin, the show’s “stud” male.

Tracey keeps getting sent to detention at her school because of her well-sprayed huge hair (the Jackie O signature style of the era) .  The detention room is populated by African Americans who expose the liberal-minded Tracy to “black” dancing.  After Tracy gets selected to be on the show, against the wishes of Velma von Tussle, the show’s prejudiced producer, she launches a campaign to integrate the show.  

Of course, all hell breaks loose including picketing, a riot, a jail lockup, a jail breakout, white kids singing and dancing in 'Balmur’s all black North side, the coming out of Tracy’s agoraphobic, plus-sized mother, love affairs between Link and Tracy as well as that of Penny, Tracy’s white best friend and Seaweed, the son of black dj and vocalist, Motormouth Maybelle. 

The 2002 Broadway production won eight Tony Awards, ran over 2500 performances, has had numerous foreign and community theatre productions, and was made into a film in 2007.

Director Terri Kent has molded a group of professional and college students into a mighty musical theatre force.  The audience was rockin’ and screamin’ from the first song, “Good Morning Baltimore,” through the closing infectious “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”  The reprise of that song found the sold out performance on their feet, dancing, singing, clapping and screaming for more.

Katey Sheehan, she of chunky cheeks, darlin’ dimples, big voice, and dancing feet, was Tracy-terrific.  She has an infectious stage presence that well fit the role.  Talia Cosentino, who has “a Broadway future star” written all over her, was “Gidget”-cute as Tracy’s best friend Penny.  Chuck Richie (in drag) was endearing as Tracy’s mother and Rohn Thomas was charming as Tracy’s dad.

Sandra Emerick was evil incarnate as the prejudiced, self-centered Velma von Tussle, and Lindsay Simon was mini-evil incarnate as Velma’s daughter, Amber.

On opening night, Colleen Longshaw (Motormouth Maybelle) almost achieved the impossible deed of stopping the show for a standing ovation after her wailing, infectious rendition of the gospel-rock “I Know Where I’ve Been.”  The ovation was cut short by too quick a light fade and musical interlude.  (I understand that this was adjusted by the second night and Longshaw was properly rewarded!)

Jimmy Ferko was appropriately affected as Link Larkin, but got a little too automatic at times.  Jared Dixon’s Seaweed was a dynamo of dancing and singing perfection.  Bria Neal was delightful as the full spirited dynamo, Little Inez.  Ian Benjamin was good, but could have been a little more over-the-top as Corny Collins.  Dance captain Kirk Lydell “killed” with his dancing skills!  Shamara Costa, Alex Echols, and Eveena Sawyer were song and style-right as a Supremes-like trio.

Song highlights were:  “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” “Velma’s Revenge,” ”Welcome to the ‘60s,” and “Big, Blonde & Beautiful.” 

In “I Can Hear the Bells,” the singing was fine, but I couldn’t hear the bell sounds, as instead of bells, lame special effect lights were used.

“Run and Tell That” displayed choreographer, John Crawford’s, creativity in using a small space with great effect.

Audience favorites were “You’re Timeless to Me,” which got a reprise, and “I Know Where I’ve Been.” 

Musical Director Jonathan Swoboda, and his band, Alex Berko, Jennifer Korecki, Dave Bans, Jean Wroblewski, Craig Wholschlager, Jim Lang, Ryan McDermott, Jeremey Poparad, Don Day and Bill Sallak rocked the sounds, but wisely underscored rather than drowned out the singers.   That is a difficult task as the music lends itself to be blasted.

The costumes were generally fine but the women’s wigs needed better selection and attention.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Director Terri Kent pulled out all the stops, added tons of shticks and gimmicks, has a rocking band, creative and well performed choreography, and a focused cast, which  resulted in a wonderful, “this you must see” theatrical experience.  

 
“Hairspray” runs July 30-August 16, 2015 at Porthouse Theatre. Curtain times are 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Blossom open 90 minutes prior to curtain time.  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to www.porthousetheatre.com.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Ibsen’s well-conceived “The Lady from the Sea” examines women’s issues at The Shaw

“Women have to unlearn the false good manners of their slavery before they acquire the genuine good manners of their freedom. ”  (G. B. Shaw) 

As the era of Romanticism in the theatre faded away in nineteenth century Europe, it was replaced by Realism.  Realism, the attempt to look at the issues of the day with discerning eyes and an invitation to examine what was going on, and if change was needed.  One of the most important issues was the role of women.  For many years, females were to assume the role of dutiful wife and, if unmarried, dutiful daughters.  There was little opportunity for unwed women to enter into productive career other than a few restrictive “old maid” positions. Careers such as being a nanny or a nurse. 

Henrik Ibsen was a major Norwegian playwright who was largely responsible for the rise of the realistic play.  He is often referred to as the "father of modern drama." Ibsen is one of the most important playwrights of all time, generally revered in western world literary circles.

Ibsen’s plays were considered scandalous to many of his era, when Victorian values of family life and propriety largely held sway in Europe and any challenge to them was considered immoral and outrageous.   Ibsen set a goal to upset those narrow attitudes.

Victorian-era plays were expected to be moral dramas with protagonists pitted against darker forces.  The serious plays of the times were expected to result in a morally appropriate conclusion, thus goodness brought happiness, and immorality pain.  Ibsen challenged the required format.

Ibsen was interested in examining the world with an eye to a realistic, rather than a morally idealistic conclusion.  He wanted to make the playgoer think about the world and decide what needed to be done to make it a more fulfilling and rewarding place.

 “The Lady From the Sea” is a typical Ibsenian tale of examination.  The script concerns marriage, freedom, and a woman’s right to make decisions for herself.

Filled with symbolism, the story centers on Ellida, who lives where the fjord meets the open sea.  She is married to Doctor Wangel, a widower who has two grown daughters (Bolette and Hilde).  Ellida had a son who died as a baby.

Ellida and the doctor’s marriage is filled with angst.  Part of this centers on the fact that Ellida had been engaged to a sailor who was accused of murdering his captain, and fled, leaving Ellida unfulfilled.  When the sailor returns to claim her, she must make a choice between staying in her marriage or leaving with the sailor.  Dr. Wangel releases her and [spoiler alert] much to his delight, she chooses to stay with him.

The Shaw production, under the direction of Meg Roe, is true to the intent and purpose of the author.  The show, which is all dialogue and little action, could become tedious, but the pacing, the music and sound, and the acting grab and hold attention.

The cast is universally strong, with excellent performances by Moya O’Connell as Ellida and Ric Reid as Doctor Wangel.  Both create characters who not only assume their roles, but become the character’s persona.  This is important as the play is one of the first in the era of Modern Realism, thus requiring total character integrity.

The starkness of the lighting and set work well, but at times, the huge cliff in the middle of the small acting area, causes movement difficulty and blocks some of the audience from viewing the performers.

Capsule judgement:  “The Lady from the Sea” gets an extremely strong production at The Shaw.  For those who like serious thinking person’s theater, and are interested in seeing a show that is a forerunner of the  modern day contemporary realistic play, the staging is very worth seeing.


What: ”The Lady from the Sea”
Where:  Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre
When:  April 30 to September 13, 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or http://www.shawfest.com/

YOU NEVER CAN TELL misses the mark at Shaw

"Don't fall in love:  be your own, not mine or anyone else's."  (G. B. Shaw)

George Bernard Shaw once described his play, “You Never Can Tell,” as “a pleasant play about love as ecstasy and as terror.”   Valentine, a desperate for affection dentist, states in one of his speeches that he is in a “duel of sex,” which contains, “urgent questions about the unequal power of men and women as lovers and as parents.” 

Whatever, the 1897 four-act play is a comedic farce which, like many Shavian writings, deals with such issues as women’s rights, the British education and political systems.  It is filled with stimulating thoughts and there is natural humor in the writing.

Inspired by Madame Sarah Grand’s novel, “The Heavenly Twins,” the play finds the participants at a seaside town in August, 1896.  Mrs. Clandon and her three grown children have just returned to England after an extended stay in Madeira. 

The undisciplined and creative twins, Dolly and Phillip, who have no idea of who their father is, meet him by chance and invite him to a family lunch.  To add to the potential confusion, Valentine, a dentist with a meager practice, has fallen in love with Gloria who has come to his office.  Gloria, a modern woman, has no intention of accepting his love-sick advances, let alone marrying any man. 

Ah, yes, this is a Shavian comedy of errors with strong farcical overtones, which means mistaken identities, wisdom dispensed with the titular phrase, “You never can tell,” and an overly obvious plot line.

The Shaw production, under the direction of Jim Mezon, flails mightily. 

Mezon states, “to me this play is about acceptance. All of his [Shaw’s] characters must learn to accept what they neither sympathize with nor understand.”  He thus, appears to think that the people are real and the message is real.  Therefore, it is confusing that he built the play into a bizarre series of shticks, overblown people and overdone sets.

Rather than allow the comic elements of the play to emerge naturally, he turned to extended absurdity.  Farce is difficult to perform.  It requires direction that takes the ridiculousness of the writing and plot, and works with the actors to play their parts with great honesty.  This is not the tack of Mezon’s performers, many of whom overdo their personas to the extreme.

Peter Millard as William, the waiter, our narrator and spreader of Shaw’s philosophical views, is spot on in his portrayal.  He states his lines, draws attention to what he is saying, and gains his share of natural laughs. 

Julia Course overdoes her haughtiness as Gloria with excessive facial mugging and stiff body, but comes close to reality in her oral presentation. Gray Powell is likeable as the dentist with designs on Gloria.  Tara Rosling is right as Mrs. Clandon, the mother who left her marriage to become an independent woman.

The twins, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as  Philip, and Jennifer Dzialoszynski as Dolly, are so far out that they lose touch with reality.  As Phillip, Jackman-Torkoff overly minces and preens.  Dzialoszynski screeches and overacts. They become caricatures to be laughed at, rather than characters to be laughed with.  The same may be said for Jeff Meadows as an overplayed Bohun (in bad makeup) and Patrick McManus excessively mugs as Crampton.

Even the overdone settings and oft-garish costumes draw distracting attention.

Capsule judgement: “You Never Can Tell” is a disappointing production which spends way too much time begging for laughs and too little time developing the social messages that Shaw alludes to in the script. Those who are interested in laughing at ridiculous will probably enjoy the show.  Those interested in fidelity to the intent and purpose of the author will be less than delighted.


What: ”You Never Can Tell”
Where:  Shaw Festival, Theatre
When:   April 26 to October 25, 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or http://www.shawfest.com/


Thursday, July 30, 2015

Thought provoking, revealing THE DIVINE, is compelling at The Shaw

“I have my own soul.  My own spark of divide fire.” (G. B. Shaw)

As related in the program notes for “The Devine,” now in production at the Shaw Festival, “In the beginning of the 20th century the Catholic Church . . . occupied a predominant space in Quebec society.  More than the government, more than the business world, the church organized Quebec society, determined its outlook on the world and fed its imagination.”

That control of Quebec extended into every aspect of the culture…the arts, education, financial system, and social service institutions.  The conservative church, and therefore its clergy, were all powerful. 

Into this atmosphere came Sarah Bernhardt, noted as the most famous actress the world had ever known. Bernhardt became so famous that she was nicknamed, “The Divine Sarah.”

Her acting style was a natural approach in which the actor does not demonstrate passions, but internalizes them.  This form of performance evolved into what is known today as “the method.”

Though records vary as to the total veracity of the complete account, when Bernhardt, on a Canadian tour, came to Quebec for a three-day run in December, 1905, she was denied permission by the church to perform. 

The reasons for the decision may been that she was considered a Jew and the church was extremely anti-Semitic.  Though she was the daughter of a French Jewess, Sarah was Baptized and attended Catholic school.  In spite of this, she was still considered a Jew, because of the Jewish belief that a child is Jewish if the mother is Jewish.

Banning of the productions could have been due the choice of plays.  One of the scheduled shows, “Adrienne Lecouvreur,” was a French tragedy, which praises adulterous love and ridicules a man of the cloth for going to Parisian salons, direct affronts on values of the church.

Another reason for the censorship could have been that the run included a Sunday Christmas performance, which was against church regulations. 

Still another reason for the rejection might have been that the divine Sarah was noted as having had a child out of wedlock. 

As for the Shaw production of “The Divine:  A Play For Sarah Bernhardt,” Michel Marc Bouchard wrote the script under a commission of the Shaw Festival, where it is getting its world premiere.  On opening night, Bouchard logged a first.  He is the first playwright to have ever watched one of his own plays premiered on a Festival stage.

The story centers on two young men studying to become priests.  Michaud, the son of the province’s Minister of Finance, is a theatre lover and is excited about the coming visit of The Divine Sarah.  Talbot, who has a deep secret, arrives at the seminary on the day of Bernhardt’s arrival.  He and Michaud are given the task of delivering a letter to the actress informing her of the church’s dictum that she cannot perform in the city.  Following their presentation to Ms. Bernhardt, they each are thrust into different directions as they deal with a series of revelations.

The play not only tells of the difficulty of Bernhardt’s attempt to perform, but also has a modern twist by adding  subplots that deal with child labor, dangerous industrial working conditions, pedophilia, and homosexuality among the clergy.

A powerful speech by Bernhardt previews the climax of the play when she defiantly speaks about, among other things, the marginalizing of women.

Everything about the Shaw production is superb.  The script is well constructed.  The directing by Jackie  Maxwell keeps the action flowing, the characterizations are clear, and the mood correct. 

All of the acting is top notch.  Wade Bogert-O’Brian gives a sensitive, focused and well-textured portrayal as Talbot, the newest priest-in-training.  Ben Sanders makes fine transitions as Michaud, another seminarian, who goes through a series of edifying experiences.

Martin Happer creates a Brother Casgrain who is both compelling and disgusting.  Ric Reid is properly despicable as the shoe factory owner.  Kyle Orzech is totally believable as Talbot’s young brother who is forced to work in the shoe factory under horrendous conditions.  Mary Haney creates a realistic Mrs. Talbot, who gives up her health and existence to try for a better life for her children.

Fiona Reid does Sarah Bernhardt proud by not portraying the divine one, but by becoming her.  This is a well-conceived and effective multi curtain-call deserving portrayal. 

Capsule judgement: “The Divine” is a well-constructed and compelling play that gets a first rate production.  The cast is universally strong, the technical aspects well-conceived, the pacing attention grabbing and holding, which adds up to a must see, standing ovation, theatrical experience.  


What: “The Divine”
Where: Royal George Theatre,  Shaw Festival
When:  July 5-October 11 , 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or http://www.shawfest.com/

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

SWEET CHARITY entertains @ The Shaw, but . . .

“As long as you do not know the future you do not know that it will not be happier than the past.  That is hope. (G. B. Shaw)
 
Until about 1943, the entity now known as the American musical, consisted mostly of songs, dances and occasionally, a story line.  Then came Rodgers and Hammerstein and their integrated book musical, “Oklahoma.”  For about the next twenty years, most American musicals followed the pattern of having a clear story into which the singing and dancing were seamlessly blended. (Think “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady.”) 

In the mid-sixties, experimental type musicals such as “Hair” started to emerge.   This followed the age-old tenet that the arts represent the era from which they come.  In other words, as U.S. society started to question traditions, this was reflected in the changing form and content of theatre.

“Sweet Charity,” with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and book by Neil Simon,  a version of which is now on stage at the Shaw Festival, is loosely based on Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” which placed the spotlight on Italian streetwalkers.  The Fellini film centered on the ups-and-downs of an ever hopeful prostitute.

“Sweet Charity” centers on Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer in a New York dance hall.  A brassy but sweet young lady, she, as the Fellini lead character, has a goal. Charity yearns for one thing—romantic love which will result in true happiness.  The format of the musical harks back to the traditional book musical.

Hers is a story of a journey that is sad and unhappily hopeless as she searches, but fails to find her true self.  And, as was the case in “Nights of Cabiria,” Charity gets caught up in the merry-go-round of life and can’t get off.

As the story unfolds, Charity meets Oscar, a shy moralist.  She believes her luck has changed, but (spoiler alert) when he finds out about her job and her past, things turn sour.  But Charity, true to her persona, stays hopeful that someday her yearnings will materialize.

Bob Fosse, who directed the 1966 production of “Sweet Charity” on Broadway, was an energetic, dynamic choreographer, with a creative style of dance filled with jazz hands (elbows locked in place, fingers wiggling quickly with the hands tilted out to the sides and the wrists not moving), bent knees, turned out feet and slanted bodies, and edgy moves.  The effect is the creation of a dynamic tension, a ready to explode attitude.  The music is hard and driving, the angst obvious, adding up in clear picture of tension and frustration. 

It is in regard to the Fosse stamp on the show that the Shaw production falters.    Director Morris Panych and choreographer Parker Esse fail to develop the needed edginess, the New York attitude of fast-paced and driving attitude, that the script requires.

The show is not blunt enough. Adding a few “Nu Yawk” sounds does not a New Yorker make.  The script is filled with pizzazz, in your face language, jazzy musical sounds of brass and sass, lyrics that create clear attitudinal pictures of the characters. The line interpretations and choreography fail to invoke the needed tension.

The score is outstanding, filled with memorable tunes including “You Should See Yourself,” ”Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” and “I’m the Bravest Individual.” 

The music, as written,  fits Fosse’s energetic and creative style is too languid performed under the direction of Paul Sportelli.

Panych is not alone in not interpreting American musicals as intended.  Just as American directors and actors have trouble with British and Canadian farces, Canadian directors often don’t add the needed edge to many below-the-border musicals.

Adorable Julie Martell tries hard as Charity.  She has a nice singing voice and an acceptable stage presence.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the needed chutzpa.   She blanches in comparison to Gwenn Verdon and Shirley MacLaine who played the role on Broadway and in the film version.  It’s like seeing Julie Andrews playing Mamma Rose in “Gypsy” instead of Ethel Merman.

Kyle Blair is on target as the shy Oscar Lindquist.    His “caught in an elevator” scene with Martell is absolutely delightful.  Farce at its finest.

Melanie Phillipson (Helene) and Kimberley Rampersad (Nickie) do a nice job of attempting to create two of the dance hall trollops, but, as with Martell, they lack the sass.

Charlotte Dean’s costumes and Ken MacDonald’s set designs work well.


Capsule judgement:  Most of the audience, who may be unaware of the style of Bob Fosse, of the brash New York attitude needed for shows like “Sweet Charity” and “Guys and Dolls,” will probably find the Shaw production a source of entertainment. For those in the “know,” the production is just too nice, too bland, lacking in “cheek.”

What: “Sweet Charity”
Where:  Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre
When:  April 17-October 31, 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or http://www.shawfest.com/

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Frenetic “LIGHT UP THE SKY” exposes the world of theater @ The Shaw

“The theater is not so much a profession as a disease.”  (Moss Hart)

Moss Hart, the author of “Light Up the Sky,” now in production at the Shaw Festival, is a comic genius as a writer, and a recognized superstar as a director and producer.   His list of hits is awesome.  The plays he wrote solo, or with a collaborator, include “You Can’t Take It With You,” which was awarded the 1937 Pulitzer Prize, “Man Who Came to Dinner,” and “Light Up the Sky.”  His film directing included “Gentleman’s Agreement,” “Hans Christian Anderson,” and “A Star is Born.”  He was the original director of “My Fair Lady,” for which he received the Tony Award, and also “Camelot.”

Who, then, would be better equipped to write a script about the highs and lows of business of theater?   The play, which is often moving, and continuously funny, is a cynical portrait of the theater, highlighting the fragile egos, fickleness, desperate for praise performers and producers who revel in over-wrought dramatic interludes. 

The play centers on a group of theater professionals trying out a play in Boston.  The script is written by a first time playwright, but stars a cast of seasoned veterans.  They all believe the script and production is wonderful, until they are so filled with self doubt, that they believe the show is everything other than brilliant.

The curtain rises on the flower-filled Boston hotel room of Irene Livingston, a temperamental Broadway diva, just prior to the opening night performance.  Present are the star’s sarcastic mother, the lowbrow producer, his wife, who is a sharp-tongued former professional ice skating show star, the truck-driver playwright, and the high strung director. 

They toast the show, leave for the performance and return in a state of hysterical panic, thoroughly convinced, based on the audience’s reactions, that the production is a major flop.  Their previous glee turns into vicious personal attacks.  No one is spared the barbs.

Two factors affect the outcome.  First, the audience was composed of many drunk Shriners, and secondly, the reviewers unanimously give the show rave reviews. 

The Shaw production is a fun-filled romp.  Director Blair Williams understands farce, and he pulls out all the shticks and gimmicks to make the fast-paced staging work.  He is blessed with a cast who understand that for farce to work, every part must be over-exaggerated, but realistic.  As such, we laugh with the actors, not at them.

William Schmuck’s lush hotel set design creates the perfect attitude, as does Louise Guinand’s warm lighting.  Marek Norman’s original music enforces the farcical mood.

Thom Marriott, though he sometimes screams his lines so that they become incomprehensible, is properly offish as Sidney Black, the wealthy overpowering producer.  Claire Jullien effectively creates Irene Livingston as an overindulged diva who must be the center of attention.  Steven Sutcliffe is properly hysterical as Carleton Fitzgerald, the play’s melodramatic director. 

Charlie Gallant is totally believable as the idealistic novice playwright, the one person who has a realistic grasp on the real world, not having been spoiled by the “theatricality” of the whole “all the world’s a stage” venture. 

Kelli Fox as Sidney Black’s wife and Laurie Paton, as Irene’s mother, form a card playing duo that is long on chutzpa and short on tact.  Shawn Wright is right on target as the wealthy Elkhart, Indiana theatre-struck Shriner, who naively pushes the plot along by trying to buy into the “failed” show. 

Graeme Somerville is believable as Owen Turner, a successful playwright who has weathered these opening night hysterics before, as is Kelly Wong who plays it straight as Irene’s uptight stockbroker husband, and Fiona Byrne as Miss Lowell, who is a ghost writer for Irene’s biography.

Capsule judgement:  Recognizing that at its best, the theatre can elevate and maybe even change the beliefs of an audience, “Light Up The Sky” is filled with farcical slapstick, ironic comedy, great character sketches, and funny twists and turns.  As a script it is moving as well as funny and to add to the mix, it gets a superlative production at The Shaw.


What: “Light Up The Sky”
Where:  Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre
When:  June 25 to October 11, 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or http://www.shawfest.com/

Monday, July 27, 2015

The brief but poignant THE TWELVE-POUND LOOK delights and edifies @ Shaw

“The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they cant find them, make them.” (G. B. Shaw)

J. M. Barrie’s one act drama, “The Twelve-Pound Look,” which is now in production at The Shaw Festival, is a funny, poignant, strong strike for the women’s movement.  It is a quick view (35-minutes) of how a woman can take control of her destiny, break traditional bonds, and lead a worthy life.

In the late 1800s only three major occupations were available to British women:  being a governess, dressmaker or a wife and mother. 

In 1910, when  “The Twelve Pound Look’ opened, based on the encouragement of such writers as G. B. Shaw and J. M. Barrie and early women’s activists, the idea that women could leave the security of being a wife and venture into the world of work was being debated.  But societal  patterns were starting to  recognize that maybe women wanted something more than being an “object d’art” and to be an equal in a marriage.  As a quick study of modern history will reveal, for better or worse, women have come a long way.

When the proverbial curtain goes up on “The Twelve Pound Look,” wealthy Harry Simms is practicing for the ceremony in which he will become a knight.  He is a success!  His finely coiffed and dressed wife’s attempts to insert her ideas into the process are summarily rejected.  She is, of course, “just a woman.” 

A typist is brought in to answer the messages of congratulations which have already started to arrive.

Much to “Sir” Harry’s consternation, the typist turns out to be a woman.  Not just any woman, but his former wife, Kate.  Kate, who, fed up with his controlling ways, demeaning attitudes about women, and view that women are decorations and chattels of men, saved 12 pounds, bought a typewriter, and left him to fend for herself.

In contrast to Harry’s new wife, the beautiful and cowed “Lady” Sims, Kate, has grown into a self-satisfied woman, full of humor and confidence.  How long will it be before wife number two decides to take a stand and no longer be the slave to Harry’s macho control?  Probably not very long, as before Kate leaves, “Lady” Simms asks the price of a typewriter!

Under the focused direction of Lezlie Wade, the Shaw lunch time production is an edifying delight.  From the manly furnished and decorated living room designed by William Schmuck, to the costumes which show the differing attitudes of the two Mrs. Sims, the production is perfectly conceived.  The musical prelude “If Eve Had Left the Apple on the Bough,” a comic opera song by Victor Herbert and Henry Blossom, sets the perfect comic  and ironic attitude.

Neil Barclay is properly filled with pomp and circumstance as Tombes the butler who also acts as the narrator.

The beautiful Kate Besworth is perfectly dressed and coiffed as the cowed Lady Sims.  Her delivery of the play’s final line, the most important utterance of the play, is presented with just the right tone of foreboding doom for Harry and his controlling ways.

Patrick Galligan has the proper air of arrogance and entitlement to make him the villain of the well-conceived piece.

Moya O’Connell makes for a perfect Kate.  Dressed in a business suit, displaying the carriage of a self-respecting woman, she makes it clear that she has achieved her goals in life…becoming an independent woman and living a worthy life!


Capsule judgement:  “The Twelve Pound Look,” is a perfect device to prove that with a focused purpose and a clear outline, it doesn’t need to take hours to make a statement.  The meaningful script gets a delightful and well conceived production.  What a lovely way to spend a  35-minute lunch break.

What: “The Twelve Pound Look:
Where:  Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre
When:  June 11 to September 12, 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or http://www.shawfest.com/



Creative, delightful “Peter and the Starcatcher” @ The Shaw

“Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage:  it can be delightful.”  (G. B. Shaw)

Mention J. M. Barrie, and the immediate thought is Peter Pan.  Peter Pan, the tale of a boy who refused to grow up, has become a cottage industry.   Dolls, movies, a musical play, coloring books, cartoons, Halloween costumes, a non-musical play, and books quickly come to mind. 

Did you know that there has even been a prequel written about Peter and the boys?  Yes, a subsidiary of Disney, published, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a 2004 book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, which provides a back story, an explanation of what happened before the J. M. Barrie popular tale, “Peter Pan.”

A play with music, with book by Rick Elice and music by Wayne Barker, was adapted from “Peter and the Starcatcher.” It debuted in 2009 at La Jolla Playhouse.  It was restaged in 2011 for an Off-Broadway production, and opened on-Broadway in 2012.   It is now on stage at the Royal George Theatre of the Shaw Festival in a delightful production directed by Jackie Maxwell. 

Act 1 takes place at sea.  We sail on ships which evolve before our eyes.  Act Two finds us on an island.  

We find out how an orphan called Boy evolves into a lad named Peter.  The tale reveals how he and two friends meet Molly, confront a band of pirates led by Black “Stache,” and how a crocodile got a taste for the pirate leader.  We share with the cast how Peter protects a trunk of “star stuff,” and the mischievous Tinker Belle comes to be.   The action ends as Molly and her father return to the real world, while Peter and the Lost Boys remain on the isle of Neverland, with a promise to visit Molly sometime in the future.  

For those in the know, we realize that Peter, will use the “star stuff” to fly to a home in England, where Molly (Darling) now lives with her children Wendy, John and Michael.  And, of course, Peter will take the trio on a flight to Never Neverland where Wendy will become, at least for a short time, the “mother” of the lost boys and have an adventure which includes a croc with a taste for Captain Hook, a band of pirates, some Indians, and, well….you get the idea!

The farce is performed with imaginative staging that enhances the fantasy nature of the work.  It is, as the program says, “deliriously foolish.”  The production elements, as evidenced by the howling and giggles emitted from both adults and children alike, is meant for everyone.  Only a true grouch wouldn’t be entertained.

Filled with ropes which become waves of water, doorways, devices for levitation and Peter’s near drowning and flight, the simple effects work well.  Hanging sheets of filmy gauze create sails, but are also used as devices for mermaids to hang from and swim their way through the sea.

Each member of the cast is character correct.  Kate Besworth, is the fearless tomboy, Molly, with enough lady-like characteristics, to see her as a future proper mother.  Charlie Gallant delights as Peter, the orphan boy who doesn’t want to grown up, but obviously needs a mother so he can become a true “leader.”

Andrew Broderick (Ted) and James Daly (Prentiss) take on the roles of Peter’s friends with wonderful boyish hellion qualities. 

Jonathan Tan morphs into Smee, Black Stache’s bumbling henchman, with a nice farcical quality.  Martin Happer doesn’t scare the little ones as the “fiercesome” Black Stache.  Instead, he takes on a rather cherubic bad guy veneer.  


Capsule judgement:  “Peter and the Starcatcher” is a delightful fantasy of imagination and  growing up that gets a farcical, creative and wonderfully enjoyable production under the direction of Jackie Maxwell and scenic design by Judith Bowden.  It’s  a must see for anyone, child or adult, who can turn themselves over to experiencing the wonderment of imagination. 

What: “Peter and the Starcatcher”
Where:  Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre
When:  April 8 to November 1, 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or http://www.shawfest.com/

Tony Kushner's "iHo"--a long play that captivates at Shaw

“Revolutionary movements attract those who are not good enough for established institutions as well as those who are too good for them.”  (G. Bernard Shaw)

The Mandate of the Shaw Festival is to “produce plays from and about his [Shaw’s] era and contemporary plays that share Shaw’s provocative exploration of society and celebration of humanity.”   Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” is a perfect example of a contemporary script that fulfills that mission.

The title was inspired by Shaw’s pamphlet, “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.”  Though it doesn’t try to explain or build on Shaw’s pamphlet, the publication’s topics of socialism and capitalism are central to the play’s core.

The rest of the title alludes to “Science and Health” the book written by Mary Baker Eddy, which serves as the central text of the Christian Science religion.  The teachings of Eddy, and the book itself, though not central to the play, are alluded to in the script.

Kushner’s plays often center on Judaism, politics, gay rights and the metaphysical world.  A declared liberal, he often examines social justice.  “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,” which is referred to by The Shaw as “iHo,” contains references to all of the usual Kushner themes.

Kushner received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play “Angels in America:  A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”  The openly gay playwright and scriptwriter, has also received The National Medal of Arts, as well as several Tony Awards and an Emmy. 

Kushner in a 2011 interview indicated that the title of his almost four-hour play centers on the intrusion of the spiritual into the political and economic world.  He indicated that not this, nor any of his plays, is meant to be politically illuminating though his works contain many references and speeches about these topics.  (To hear the interview go to: http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Writers+and+Company/ID/2273993459/
“Writers and Company”  September 25, 2011.)

“Iho” is saga about a big American family in 2007.   A big Italian American family which contains lesbians, homosexuals, an African American, an Asian, a laborer, teacher, lawyer, former nun, and a theology professor.  This dysfunctional family unit is headed by the patriarch, Gus Marcantonio, a former longshoreman and  union organizer with strong left-leaning tendencies, has been behaving oddly.   

At the stage where we meet him, Gus is disillusioned, confused and defeated by the 21st century.  He is aware of his feeling of having lived false dreams, of seeing his life and that of his children, caught in a conundrum of historical forces not being on his or their side.  He questions revolutions, the consequences of compromise, evolutionary socialism (a movement advocating political, religious and/or economic reform), though he has lived his life dedicated to the accomplishment of change.

Into his Brooklyn brownstone converge his sister, a former nun, who has been staying with him for a year, his three children and their spouses, ex-spouses and lovers.  Questions abound:   Should he sell the brownstone?  How are the various factions within the family dealing with infidelity and conflicting political and religious views?  Can they or should they stop Gus from committing suicide?

The dark comedy uses humor and exposition to examine the various aspects of a family unit and what happens when individual needs conflict with group process.  It probes a world of abandoned dreams.  It showcases political fantasies and what happens when those dreams come up against life’s realities.  Kushner seems to propose the idea of the perfectibility of the world as being a religious concept, not a political one.

The staging is creative.  Pairs and trios square up to verbally slug it out.  The whole stage often explodes in talk and counter-talk, overlapping rants.  It seems that no one is listening to anyone else.  That is, no one except the mesmerized audience! 

The cast is excellent.  Jim Mezon puts on the persona of Gus Marcantonio at the start of the production and wears it throughout.  The character is complex, requiring complete reality and sensitivity to the motivations that cause someone to contemplate and attempt suicide.  Mezon accomplishes that completely.

Steven Sutcliffe is pathetically convincing as Gus’s gay, oldest son, Pill, caught in his obsessive needs for a young prostitute and the requirements of being married to a man who has given up so much for him.   Andre Sills effectively portrays Paul, Pill’s husband. 

Empty, Gus’s labor lawyer lesbian daughter, gets a strong focused presentation by Kelli Fox.  Her pregnant partner, Maeve, is clearly developed by Diana Donnelly.

Both Gray Powell, as Vito, the youngest son, and Julie Jasmine Chen, as his wife, are completely believable.

Fiona Reid, as Clio, Gus’s pacifistic sister, is physically and verbally absent, making her right on target as the former nun. 

Thom Marriott (Empty’s ex-husband) and Julie Martell, as Michelle, the wife of Gus’s former union member, play their vital roles with a clear focus.

Peter Hartwell’s complex era correct set works well.

One of the hallmarks of the audience’s involvement in a production are the discussions which take place during intermissions.  At “IHo,” the time was spent by many discussing the play:  Good sign!

Capsule judgement:  Director Eda Holmes has honed “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” into a  well acted, well staged production that grabs and holds an audience’s attention.  This is a thinking person’s play, not aimed at the “I go to the theater to have a good time and get away from my troubles and that of others” crowd.

What: “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures”
Where:  Shaw Festival, Studio Theatre
When:  July 11-October 10, 2015
For tickets or information:   1-800-5111-Shaw or http://www.shawfest.com/

Monday, July 20, 2015

A lovely night at Blossom: Michael Feinstein entertains and educates

The evening was warm, the crickets in full voice, the pavilion almost filled, the lawn covered with bodies, blankets, bottles and baskets, sounds wafting from the big band musicians, melodic words, and a spoken and sung pleasant voice entertaining and educating.   It was the program,  “Michael Feinstein A Big Band Tribute to Frank Sinatra” at the beautiful Blossom Center.

Diminutive Michael Feinstein’s musical career started at age 5 in Columbus, Ohio.  The young Michael started to play piano by ear, developed into a piano bar celeb, came to New York, was introduced to Ira Gershwin, composer of “I Got Rhythm,” “Love is Here to Stay,” and “’Swonderful,” became his assistant for six years, met the elite of the music business, and transformed himself into “The Ambassador of the Great American Songbook.” 

Feinstein has transcribed, arranged, catalogued and performed a vast collection of American musical standards.  His personal connection with such musical greats as Rosemary Clooney, Sammy Davis Jr., Cole Porter and Liza Minnelli opened the door to a knowledge of music that turned him into an anthropologist and archivist.  In 2007 he founded the Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, dedicated to celebrating the art musical form and preserving it through educational programs, competitions, and making the songs available to the public.

Feinstein, who has won two Emmy Awards, is also a song stylist who presents over 200 shows each year.

You don’t go to a Feinstein concert to hear imitations of the singers whose songs he presents, but to hear the compositions presented in the style of those artists.  You don’t go expecting a performer who captivates the audience like Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler or Edina Menzel.  You go to hear a pleasant evening of personal tales, revealing information, and classic songs.

His July 18, 2015 Blossom concert was a tribute to Frank Sinatra.  Feinstein revealed how he met and became friends with “old blue eyes.”  How Sinatra was instrumental in expanding the young man’s musical contacts, and personal stories about the man who is considered to be one of the greatest interpreters of American songs.

Starting with “Luck be a Lady” from the musical, “Guys and Dolls,” to probably Sinatra’s mantra,  “New York, New York,” the evening flowed easily from song to song, from tale to tale.  There was humor, pathos, name dropping and a little gossip.

Songs included “Time After Time,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” which was written as a waltz, but was reinterpreted by Sinatra, and “It’s Alright With Me.”  Other songs were “Just One of Those Things,” which Feinstein indicated Sinatra viewed as the saddest lyrics ever written, and “Night and Day, “one of the great man’s favorites.  Others presented were “Someday,” “My Kind of Town,” written specifically for Sinatra by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn for inclusion in “Robin and the Seven Hoods,” and “Fools Rush In,” the kind of song which was sung with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of Scotch in the other.  “All the Way” was followed by a medley of songs from the Sinatra songbook including “Come Fly With Me,” “It’s Witchcraft,” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.”

The appreciative crowd gave Feinstein a much deserved standing ovation and left humming their favorite song from the encyclopedia of music they had just heard.

Future pop Blossom presentations include: 

“Broadway Divas,” a program including songs from “Wicked,” “Les Miz,” “Cabaret,” “My Fair Lady,” and “Chicago.” (August 2)

“The British Invasion:  The Music of the Beatles, The Stones, The Who,” and more.  (August 16)

“Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis” (August 29)

For tickets to these and other Blossom concerts call 216-231-1111 or 800-686-1141, go the Severance Hall Ticket Office, or Blossom Box Office, or go online to http://www.clevelandorchestra.com

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Groundworks Dance Theater captivates at Cain Park

As the capacity audience was settling in on opening night of Groundworks Dance Theatre’s summer concert in Cain Park’s Alma Theatre, there was a loud electronic sound stage right.  As the eyes shifted in its direction, a lawn mower was pushed on stage.  This was followed by a series of other sounds and actions of everyday occurrences including playing golf, sunbathing, and living in suburbia. 

“House Broken, as choreographed by Rosie Harerra is a series of everyday songs such as “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones, “So Happy Together” by the Turtles, “Little Boxes” by Pete Seeger, and “Cranking and Old Lawnmower,” by Million Dollar Sounds,” which, when blended together, created a zany picture of modern life via dance.

Each well executed crossroads piece between theatre and dance highlighted the skills of the newly constituted Groundworks company.   The composition, which was premiered in 2014, was well executed and delightful.  New dancers are Lauren Garson, former member of the Houston Metropolitan Dance Company and Parson Dance.  You may have seen her on the launch of Microsoft XBOX 360. Michael Marquez is a 2015 graduate of The Julliard School, who has premiered a series of new creations by such choreographers as Monisa Bill Barnes, Emery LeCrone and Kyle Scheurich.  The duo blended well with company veterans Felise Bagley, Annika Sheaff and Damien Highfield.

“Remora,” in its world premiere, was a superb showcase that demonstrated the physical skills of the company.  The piece was complex and demanded and received perfect timing. 

Synced to the repetitive cadence of the music created by composer Michael Wall, the non-narrative performance exploded on stage with gymnastic exertions, controlled moves, fine lifts and meaningful body contact between the dancers.   Dennis Dugan’s lighting enhanced the mood and movements.  Two highlight segments were Annika Sheaff’s solo and Damien Highfield and Felise Bagley’s duet.  The audience response was explosive.

“Boom Boom,” created by Groundworks Artistic Director David Shimotakahara in 2009, is a highlight piece in the company’s repertoire.

The number pays tribute to the essence of the blues.  As stated in the program about that musical form, “For all its pain and suffering it is also full of life.  There is loneliness and endless journey, but here is also an attitude about survival.”

The musical sounds, sometime plaintive, sometimes playful, sometimes lively, sometimes haunting, were well echoed in the dancing.

The musical score included:  “Sitting on Top of the World,” “Today I Sing The Blues,” “When the Train Comes Along,” “Hound Dog,” and “Got My Mojo Working.’

Capsule Judgement:  GroundWorks Dance Theater’s “At Cain Park’s Alma Theater” was a well danced and an entertaining evening of theatre.  The newly constituted company has a vitality and proficiency that maintains the integrity and artistic significance of David Shimotakahara’s mission of fine dancing and imagination. 


Presentation dates:  July 17-19, 2015

Upcoming GroundWorks performances:

Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival
July 31 and August 1 @ 8:45 pm
Glendale Cemetery, Akron

Arts in August
August 14, 2015 @ 8:30 pm
Tremont’s Lincoln Park

Fall Performance Series
October 16 & 17 at @ 7:30 pm
The Allen Theatre, PlayhouseSquare

For information about GroundWorks go to http://www.groundworksdance.orgor call 216-751-0088.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Green Day’s “American Idiot” is a mixed bag at Beck

Local theatres each tend to have a niche audience based on the venue’s play selection.  Dobama leans toward intellectual contemporary which are having their local premiers.  convergence-continuum tilts toward off-beat writers and plots, many with homosexual themes. Cleveland Public Theatre thrives on a diet of creative, often devised theater offerings.  Beck Center for the Arts is noted as the place for family offerings and scripts that appeal to the more conservative tastes of its older patrons (e.g., “Mary Poppins,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “She Loves Me.”)

In his attempt to attract new and younger audiences, Scott Spence, Beck’s artistic director, has sometimes staged contemporary musicals in their small Studio Theatre.  Musicals like “Altar Boy,”  “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “Reefer Madness,” and “Evil Dead The Musical.”

This summer, hoping to entice large groups of younger audience members, who are turned on by the music of  Green  Day, a punk rock band, Beck is staging the group’s rock opera, “American Idiot,” in the venue’s large Mackey Theatre.  (Yes, Green Day, the creators of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Holiday,” “Jesus of Suburbia,” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”)

A version of the musical toured into PlayhouseSquare in April of 2014 for a very short run.  As I noted in that review, Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, who created “American Idiot,” seemingly tried to duplicate the success of “Hair” and “Rent” in reflecting the societal image of the mid-to-late 2000s by creating a musical based on high-octane rock guitar riffs, vigorous singing and dancing, and what they termed “an evergreen narrative of teen rage, love and loss.”

Unfortunately, their creation, though it works on some levels, does not have the story line depth, the quality of music, or stage presence of “Hair” or “Rent.” We care little about the self-centered characters, who aren’t acting out for a cause, but out of self-centered egotism.

The tale takes place “in the recent past,” and concerns three guy friends, Johnny, Will and Tunny, who plan to escape their suburban “wasteland.”  As they are about to part, Will finds out that his girlfriend is pregnant.  He decides to stay home, leaving the other two to go on their way.  

Life in the “big city” doesn’t turn out to be what the boys expected.  Johnny wanders down the road to drug addiction (supplied by the snarly St. Jimmy) and sexual depravity (with Whatsername).  Bored Tunny enlists in the army and goes off to fight in the Iraq war.  

Tunny loses a leg, but falls in love with his nurse (The Extraordinary Girl).  Eventually, Johnny recognizes the error of his ways and returns to suburbia, as does Tunny with his new love.  The plot is thin, with no moral, no big causes to defy, and is basically rudderless.

The musical, which is overly long and filled with repetitive music, screams along on one emotion…angst!

In Beck’s production, under the musical direction of Bryan Bird, the music was high decibel and frenetic, not even mellowing out for the ballads.  The drummer, who created an over-powering presence, seemed to struggle at times with the beat and sometimes slipped up when changing tempo.  The score, which is synchronized to the beating heart, causes audience exhaustion.

The sung words are basically screamed and incomprehensible, which is probably not important in a rock concert, but are necessary when you are trying to tell a story.  The sound system seemed pushed to its capacity, resulting in muffled clarity. 

The high point of the production is the choreography of Martin Céspedes.  The dancers in the touring production spent a lot of time in static simulated marching in place, or stepping forward and then freezing in place.  That was not the case with Céspedes’s dancers.  Using grunge and rock movements, gymnastic based actions, pony prancing, and creating some new choreographic vocabulary, the high energy movements worked.   The segment with the cast moving around the stage, on a simulated trolley car, was extremely creative.

The metal scaffold set design, basically a duplicate of the Broadway and touring show, worked well.  Trad Burns’ pulsing lighting helped set the frenetic pace.

Dan Folino created a one-dimensional Johnny who was on a seeming high at the beginning of the show, and collapsed as a burnt out druggie heap at the end.  His usually powerful voice was so strained from all the shouting that when he got to the ballad “When It’s Time” he sounded gravelly.   (It’s a good thing that Folino and the other leads have understudies as it would be amazing if they each didn’t get laryngitis during the show’s run.)

Of the leads, Jonathan Walker White was best able to create a textured character as Tunny. 

Riley Ewing, who has a nice singing voice, spent the entire production seemingly sulking.

Joseph Virgo was properly snarly as the drug dealing St. Jimmy.

It is hoped that Spence’s strategy works and funnels much needed cash into the theatre’s coffers.  Saturday night’s open week audience was composed of the theatre’s usual gray-headed attendees, some of whom sat through the intermissionless show with their hands covering their ears, and pockets of “Green Day” groupies, who cheered mightily.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Devotees of Green Day should be turned on by Beck’s “American Idiot.”  It is a loud, brash musical which attempts to tell the tale of youthful disgust with modern day America.   The cast puts out full energy, the choreography is well designed and executed.   But, the thin one dimensional script, nearly impossible to understand lyrics, and redundant overly amplified music, will make this a less than a stellar theatrical experience for many.
“American Idiot” is scheduled to run through August 16, 2015 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org  

“Violet” blossoms at Porthouse Theatre

Musicals can, among other things,  be loud and brassy (think “Gypsy), filled with high drama (“Les Misérables), emotionally wrenching (“Carousel”), delightful (“Something Rotten”), filled with romantic, lush music (“An American in Paris”), farcical (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”), political (“Cabaret”), or historical (“1776”).  

“Violet,” the musical by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Brian Crawley (lyrics and book), which is now on stage at Porthouse Theatre, is none of these.  It is a gentle story, with music that is not memorable.  And though it isn’t the type of show that wins Tony Awards, it is the kind of show, with the right directing and cast, that can provide a wonderful theatrical experience.

Fortunately for the audiences that should flock to see the Porthouse production, Director Steven C. Anderson has conceived a well-crafted and creative show, which is engrossingly performed by a very strong cast.

“Violet” is based on “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” a short story by Doris Betts.   It examines personal perceptions and the effect of our society’s pressures to look “perfect.” 

Violet was scarred when an ax wielded by her father “accidentally” sliced her face from nose to ear (“The scar that cuts a rainbow clear across my cheek…”).  She becomes obsessed by her vision of herself as ugly, unattractive to everyone.  Violet becomes obsessed with a televangelist who she believes offers her last chance to be cured.  She sets out on a bus ride from Spruce Pine, a small town in the hills of North Carolina, to Tulsa, Oklahoma in order to be healed.   During the trip she comes upon two soldiers, Flick, who is African American, and Monty, who is white, who seem unaffected by her scars and fight for her love.  

The storyline has enough twists and turns and suspense to hold the audience’s attention.  The staging keeps the show riding along smoothly, adding some interesting visualizations, and overcoming much of the trouble usually presented by Porthouse’s thrust stage where the audience members sitting in the side sections, may have difficulty hearing.   A lot of the sound floats into the woods which surround the open theatre, making the sound system almost useless.  Expect to lose some of the spoken words, and even some song lyrics.  It may be distracting, but the story line will remain obvious.

Questions abound. “What is meant by beauty?”   “Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?”  “Can someone find love even if they are physically scared?”  “Can a person’s attitude about themselves be changed by unconditional love?

The music integrates the twangy flavors of gospel, country, bluegrass, Memphis blues, and honky-tonk rock.  Though there is no single memorable song in the score, the overall musical sound fits the multi-moods of the story, etching the characters and effectively pushing the plot along.

Amy Fritsche is completely believable as Violet.  She transforms herself into the character, never leaving any hint that she is acting.  Her singing voice is strong.  Her renditions of “Lay Down Your Head,” “Raise Me Up,” and “On My Way” are all enveloping.

Talia Consentino, as Young Violet, is wonderful.  A rising Junior at Kent State, the young lady, who easily passes for a tween, has a fine singing voice and stage presence.  Her, “Look at Me,” a duet with Fritsche, is well performed.

Jared Dixon shines as Flick, an African American army sergeant, who, like Violet, suffers emotional scars from living in the Deep South in segregated 1964.  Dixon gives a finely tuned interpretation to the role.   His duet, “Promise Me, Violet,” sung with Fritsche, is compelling as is his “Let It Sing.”

Ian Benjamin’s “aw shucks” attitude is perfect for the character of Monty, the gum chewing, tall, lanky, self-confident paratrooper.   His “Question and Answer” duet with Dixon was one of the show’s comic delights.

Shamara Costa wailed as the Gospel Soloist and Paul Floriano developed well the disillusioned Preacher.

Musical Director Jennifer Korecki and her band, Ryan McDermott (Guitar/Banjo), Don T. Day (Bass), William Sallak (Percussion) and Michael Houff (Violin/Fiddle) did an excellent job of setting the proper musical tone as well as supporting and not drowning out the singers.

“Violet” premiered off-Broadway in 1997 and was selected by the Drama Critic’s Circle as Best Musical.  It opened on Broadway in 2014 with Sutton Foster playing Violet.  

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: While “Violet” does not have the components of a classic musical production it is a special evening of theatre resulting from a clear directing concept by Steven C. Anderson, fine instrumental performances, excellent vocalizations by the entire cast, and excellent acting.

“Violet” runs until June 27, 2015 at Porthouse Theatre.  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to www.porthousetheatre.com.

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE: “Hairspray” from July 30-August 16.  Curtain times are 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Blossom open 90 minutes prior to curtain time.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

A preview: Gays, Lesbians, Transgenders and the American Musical: Musical Theater Project

What do “Avenue Q,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “A Chorus Line,” “Fun Home,” “The Color Purple,” “Kinky Boots,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “A Man of No Importance,” “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Spring Awakening,” and “Victor/Victoria” have in common?  Yes, they are all musicals.  They also  contain Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and/or Transgendered characters or themes.

William Goldman in his book, “The Season,” states that “the Broadway musical would not exist without LGBT involvement.”  Yes, themes about those various lifestyles abound.  And people who identify themselves LGBT have had strong influences and involvement in the musical theatre art form.  From composers like Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein and Jerry Herman, to performers such as Harvey Fierstein, Nathan Lane, Lea DeLaria, Neil Patrick Harris,  Jane Lynch, and Lilly Tomlin, the LGBT community has been a power in musical theater.

The field probably attracted and still attracts so many LGBTs because it provides a safe place for participation.  Rather than entering a hostile corporate world, the choice is to go into a theater community which is more accepting, less prejudiced, allowing talent rather than sexual orientation to be the evaluator of who is successful.  The rainbow ceiling tends to be porous in the wonderful world of show business.

As an art form, the Broadway musical probably “came out” in 1983 with the opening of Jerry Herman’s “La Cage aux Folles,” which contained not only a love story between two mature gay men, but bisexuality, cross-dressing, a drag queen, confronting of homosexual prejudice, and the song, “I Am What I Am,” considered to be the “national anthem” of gay men.

The newest “LGBT” musical hit is the multi-Tony and Drama Desk winning “Fun Home,” the adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about herself (a lesbian) and her father (a closeted gay man).  It’s the first mainstream musical about a young lesbian.

The Musical Theater Project will, on August 13, present, “I Am What I Am:  Gays, Lesbians, and the American Musical,” at 7 pm in the Alma Theater of Cain Park.  It will look at the “coded” songs of Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart in the 1920s to the breakout musicals of the post-Stonewall 1970s.  The performance will be co-hosted by Scott Plate and Bill Rudman, and feature Molly Andrews-Hinders, Katherine DeBoer and Jared Leal.

For tickets call 216-245-8687 or go online to musicaltheaterproject.org or to Cain Park, 216-371-3000 or go to http://www.cainpark.com/


(Footnote:  some material in this article is based on “Musical Theater” http://www..glbtq.com/literature/musical_theater.html)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

A preview: DANCECleveland and Cain Park Co-Sponsor David Parsons Dance to Celebrate National Day of Dance

New York City based David Parsons Dance will kick off DANCECleveland’s 60th Anniversary Season with dancing for the whole family.  The summer performance, co–sponsored by DANCECleveland and Cain Park will
take place at Cain Park’s Evans Amphitheater on July 25 at 8 p.m.

Events on schedule for The National Day of Dance include picnic options,
wine tastings, free ballroom and line dance classes, and the chance to see local dance students perform before the show.

Advanced dancers over 16 years of age can participate in a free dance master class in the morning with David Parsons himself at 11 a.m. on the Evans Amphitheater stage. RSVP is required by emailing sarah@dancecleveland.org. Limited space is available.

Performance tickets range from $20- $25 and are now on sale at www.dancecleveland.org, or call 216-371-3000. Tickets can also be purchased in person at the Cain Park Ticket Office, or by visiting www.cainpark.com. Discounts for groups of five or more are also available by calling DANCECleveland at 216-991-9000. For more information on the David Parsons Dance, visit: http://www.parsonsdance.org

Abstract “The Train Play” confounds at convergence continuum

Liz Duffy Adams, whose play, “The Reckless Ruthless Brutal Charge Of It, or The Train Play” is now on stage at convergence continuum is noted for being an American abstract writer.  The word “abstract” may be the key to confronting “The Train Play.”

The play may well represent “the derailment of American dreams and apocalyptic nightmares,” as it was described by a San Francisco reviewer, or it may be, “a meditation on time, history and apocalyptic anxiety during an all-night journey to the end of the world,” as explained by another reviewer. 

Or, it might just be an attempt by the writer to convince intellectuals that she is actually saying something of great philosophical sense and purpose, when the whole effort is to try and duplicate the concept developed in television’s “Twilight Zone,” and tease the viewer into believing that what is being said is greatly profound, when, in fact it is nothing but a device to confound.  

So, what’s it all about?  We find ourselves observing a group of people entering and becoming seated on a train to some unannounced place.  The announcer abstractly and humorously, announces that we are about to go on a journey. 

We are in the company of Gabriel Angelfood, who appears to be a deranged young man who babbles incessantly about angels and other topics as he scribbles away in his notebook.

There is Leopard-Girl, a twelve-year old who goes through life reliving antics of comic book characters.  She seemingly believes that she can make herself invisible, freeze time, and look into the future.    There is a female Scientist who is running from something or escaping to something.

Paul is writing a travel book, and is also in a flight to or from.  Gaia is an older woman who is in a flight of fancy and trying to avoid the boredom in which she lives, and there are three Russian brothers who are touring the United States in search of something, who sing of their former lives.

Yes, these are lost souls who appear to be on an absurd journey, searching the cruel world, trying to “outrace their creative confusion, festering memories, delusions of grandeur, and dogged compulsions.”  They eventually confront a metaphorical apocalypse.   Sound abstract?  It is!  Sound like the work of a playwright who could have spent her time in a better pursuit?  It is!

The con-con production, under the guidance of Clyde Simon, gets what it can from the abstract script.  Wonder what would have happened if the director had overdone the acting and pushed a farcical approach.  Marcia Mandell, noted for doing ditzy women, is the comic relief of the production.  She has some wonderful over-blown moments as Gaia.  Maybe an entire cast of overblown characterizations would have at least made the play worth sitting through by infusing laughter into the goings on.

As is, Cody Zak was properly possessed as Gabriel Angelfood.  Sweating, red cheeked, mumbling to himself, he clearly displayed signs of both craziness and guilt.

Taylor Tucker, though a little to old to be playing a twelve-year old, effectively emerged herself into portraying characters from her fantasy comic book world.  

Lauren B. Smith was uptight as the Scientist.  Her sex scene with Beau Reinker (Sergei) was well done.

Tim Coles did a nice job of creating Paul, a man in conflict with himself and the world. 

The three Russians, Mikhail, Sergei and Dmitri are well played by Robert Branch, as the older and “wiser” brother, Beau Reinker as the cute, seductive, musical Sergei and Jack Matuszewski as the poet Dmitri, who has a nice make-out scene with Cody Zak (Gabriel Angelfood). 

Capsule Judgement:   “The Reckless Ruthless Brutal Charge Of It, Or The Train Play,” should appeal to con-con audiences who attend in their search for off-beat theatre.  If you are looking for a play with a message, it should be easy to use your imagination and conjure up a lesson to be learned from the abstractions and pseudo-philosophical pontifications which flow from the mouths of the actors.  

“The Reckless Ruthless Brutal Charge Of It, Or The Train Play,” runs through July  18 2015 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.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Opinions differ on TRIASSIC PARQ THE MUSICAL at Blank Canvas

--> As I sat shaking my head in disbelief of what I was seeing and hearing on the Blank Canvas Theatre stage, those around me were howling with uncontrollable laughter.  What I was seeing was ridiculous, unbelievable, and basically poorly performed.  I’m not sure what was making my audience-mates laugh so hard,  but I heard one of the young ladies behind me confide that she had just wet her pants and then I got sprayed by a shower of beer that came forth from her companion’s nose as he exploded in laughter.

We are all being exposed to TRIASSIC PARQ, THE MUSICAL (“a musical 65 million years in the making”), winner of the best musical at the 2010 New York Fringe Festival.  That’s TRIASSIC PARQ, not JURASSIC PARK, the 1993 movie or its 2015 sequel. 

We had been told at the start of this epic that the authors of the musical, (book and lyrics by Marshall Palet, Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo), even though this story, as does the movie, takes place at a theme park centering on dinosaurs, they  couldn’t use the “other name” because they would get sued. 

Believe me, from my perspective, the developers of the musical could well be sued for unusual and cruel punishment to my psyche and fractured ear drums, but, that’s just my opinion.  An opinion obviously not shared by most of the rest of the audience.  Maybe it’s a generational thing.  “They” were all in their upper-teens and twenties, not a gray head in the place.  I, on the other hand, was around when the dinosaurs roamed the earth.

The advance billing indicates that TRIASSIC PARQ follows a group of cloned dinosaurs as they unearth the very foundations of their existence.  Morality, faith, science, gender identity, and interspecies fornication are all explored, and sung about by the narrator who talks of love, loss, and resurrected reptiles.  The only thing missing from that explanation is the indication that right before our eyes two of the female dinosaurs grew penises, and there is lots of high decibel rock music blaring and simplistically rhyming lyrics sung at full volume, often off-key. (Music by Marshall Palet).

Why the blaring music had to be amplified in the tiny Blank Canvas Theatre, I’ll never know.  It overrides the singing voices, so the actors could be intoning nonsense syllables, for all the meaning that they projected.

It’s the next day, and my ears are still ringing.  My daughter, an audiologist, is ministering to more and more twenty and thirty year-olds who are basically deaf due to attending loud concerts and blasting their iPods into their fragile ear area, and going to venues like this that think more volume is better.

The show tells the story of the film JURRASIC PARK from the stand point of the dinosaurs.  As one of the authors states, "It is completely bonkers. We all know what happened to the humans in the movie, but in TRIASSIC PARQ we find out what the dinosaurs in the movie were so pissed off about."  The “what” behind the dinosaur revolt is spontaneous sex change.  The author continues, “It’s not supposed to be a parody. It's a genuine attempt to create a parallel story about science, faith and acceptance with anthropomorphized singing-and-dancing dinosaurs in a glam/punk rock setting.”

We are informed that the dinosaurs in the Parq were created all female so they wouldn’t breed, but do have a small percentage of frog DNA which means they can switch gender.  Suddenly, the Parq’s inhabitants become confused when a T. rex develops a mysterious new front appendage and a strong compulsion to mate with young velociraptor.  From here on, all hell breaks loose as dinosaur’s try to escape, are killed, and mate.  (I swear.  I couldn’t make this stuff up.)

The Blank Canvas cast works exceedingly hard.  The fact that the theatre only has three rows which wrap around the thrust stage allows for up-close and personal views of the sweat flowing off the performers.  The voices go all the way from Kate Leigh Michalski’s full blown diva power to several cast members who are constantly vocally flat.  The highpoint numbers are ‘Love Me As A Friend,’ by Michalski (T-Rex 1) and Neely Gevaart (T-Rex 2), and the rap number “Science” intoned by Eryn Reynolds.

The acting, like the singing ranges from excellent to bland.  Michael Crowley did a nice job as the narrator. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: As evidenced by the response of the audience present when I saw the production, it’s obvious that director, Pat Ciamacco succeeded in pulling out all the shticks to make this absurdity work.  His targeted audience of young, hip, lovers of off-beat stuff should love TRIASSIC PARQ.  The rest of us will have to try and remember what it was like to be young and naïve about what good story plots with music that backed up, rather than drowned out the singers, and singers who sang lyrics that helped move the plot along, were all about.

Blank Canvas’s  TRIASSIC PARQ runs through June 27, 2015 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website.  (My GPS was of little help).  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.  It’s an adventurous battle. For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvasthetre.com

Blank Canvas’s next show is Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN, the script that many believe is the greatest of all American plays.  Ciamacco has assured me that this production will be true to the author’s intent and purpose.