Sunday, March 29, 2015

Beck’s LEND ME A TENOR, farce at its funny best!

Some people go to the theatre to be educated.  Some go to see/listen to a pleasing combination of music and lyrics enclosed in a story.  Others go to just have a good time.  The latter group should run to their phones or computers right now and make reservations for LEND ME A TENOR.  Beck’s production is farce at its finest!

Ken Ludwig’s LEND ME A TENOR takes place in 1934 in a hotel suite in Cleveland.  The Cleveland Grand Opera Company is staging a celebratory event and has employed world famous Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, known as “Il Stupendo,” to sing Giuseppe Verdi’s OTELLO. 

Henry Saunders, the opera’s general manager, his much put-upon assistant, Max, and Maggie, Max’s girl friend and Saunders’ daughter, wait for his arrival in a plush art-déco suite.  Events unfold:  Morelli is late.  He arrives with his high strung and distraught wife who tags along to be sure that Morelli doesn’t get drunk and have affairs.  Morelli takes and is given too many tranquilizers in order to calm down, he passes out and is presumed to be dead.  Max agrees to substitute for Morelli. 

As Max admirably performs, Morelli awakes, puts on the same costume that Max is wearing, attempts to get into the opera house, has a confrontation with the police and returns to the hotel room about the same time as Max arrives back from his triumph.  The set doors keep opening and closing as a string of people, including a bellhop who wants to be discovered by Morelli, the opera’s soprano, who wants to have sex with him, and a member of the opera board, who is hero-struck, enter and exit. Two Otellos are charging around in costume, two women are running around in their undies, and chaos reigns.   (It’s SPAMALOT, and the skits of the CAROL BURNETT [TV] SHOW, and THE SHOW OF SHOWS relived.)

Farce, a light dramatic work with a highly improbable plot and exaggerated characters, is hard to both write and perform.   The writing must be so precise that the audience is led to laughter by the realism of the language imbedded in unbelievable situations.  The performances must be authentic, not beg for laughs, and the actions so broad that they require laughter.  Lots of door slamming, mistaken identifies, non-stop stage movements, and pure joy on the part of the audience are the keys to success. 

LEND ME A TENOR perfectly fits the bill.  It is one of modern America’s best farces.  It received nine Tony awards nominations, has appeared twice on Broadway, has been translated into sixteen languages and has produced in twenty-five countries.



The Beck production, under the adept direction of Scott Spence, is superb.  Laugh after laugh greets one improbable scene after another.  The cast has been melded into a unit that basically understands that, for farce to work, the actors must be totally real in their character development.  Their earnestness must come across.  These are “real” people caught in a series of ridiculous situations. 

Scott Esposito is wonderful as the put-upon Max.  His wide-eyed wonder look, his innocent demeanor and his great comic timing are enhanced by a marvelous tenor voice.  Yes, both Esposito and Matthew Wright do their own singing…no lip syncing here!  Bravo!

Matthew Wright is endearing as the drunken, hot-blooded Tito.  Wright’s singing voice is strong, his play with comedy excellent, and his consistency in character development admirable.  “Meraviglioso, come sempre!”

The pretty Emily Pucell Czarnota is charming as Maggie.  John Polk, as Saunders, is properly wrought. Leslie Andrews does a nice job of creating Diana, the company’s soprano who is hot for Tito, and Lissy Gulick is delightful as Julia, the chairperson of the Opera Guild.

Though Carla Petroski (Maria, Tito’s wife) and Zac Hudak (the bellhop) get lots of laughs, they both border on overdoing their roles, a cardinal “no-no” of good farce.  They could both step back a little and be more real and get even more laughs.  They need to be laughed with, not laughed at.

Welcome back Don McBride.  After a number of years of being away from Beck, McBride has designed a perfect art déco set consisting of two rooms, with numerous doors (that stand their ever continuing slamming).  The set is properly sophisticated and a perfect area for the farce staging.

If you like Ludwig’s writing you will shortly have a chance to experience it  again.  The Cleveland Play House will present Ludwig’s A COMEDY OF TENORS, the sequel to LEND ME A TENOR, as a reading as part of the New Ground Festival (May 9, 5-7 p.m.) and as the opening production of its 2015-2016 season.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  LEND ME A TENOR is one of the best modern day farces.  It gets a must-see production at Beck Center.  Farce is hard to do, but on the Beck stage, Scott Spence and his well-honed cast make it look exhausting, but easy.  Go, enjoy!

LEND ME A TENOR is scheduled to run through April 26, 2015 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sheri Gross to perform in Musical Theater Project’s “Behind the Musical: Hello, Dolly!”

Combine the talents of Bill Rudman, Artistic Director of The Musical Theater Project (TMTP), music director Nancy Maier, singers Ann Gilbert, Jared Leal, Jessica Cope Miller, Shane Patrick O’Neill, and the talents of Sheri Gross, with composer-lyricist Jerry Herman’s marvelous score.  The results?  “Behind the Musical:  Hello, Dolly!”  The production, co-sponsored by Chagrin Arts, will be staged on April 26 at 3 at Chagrin Falls High School Performing Arts Center.

As Rudman says, “We’ll be telling a darn good story,” which may surprise many because, in the words of Herman, “doing that musical [“Hello Dolly”]was the most difficult time in my career.”

Former New York actress Sheri Gross is the Artistic Director of Playmakers Youth Theatre, the award winning inclusive theater program sponsored by the Jewish Community Center.   The Rochester, New York native became involved in Playmakers in a serendipitous manner.  She came to the area when a fellow actor asked her to come with him while he did an acting gig at JCC.

She became friends with Elaine Rembrandt, then-JCC cultural arts director, who asked her to stay and help with the organization’s day camp.  Gross agreed, and the rest is history.  Now, almost twenty years later, married, with three children, she is “here to stay.”

Though noted locally as a director, she says, “My strength as a director is developing characters.  Staging was never my strength.”

She looks forward to her stint performing Dolly. “I haven’t done a lot of performing lately. Coming back to perform and also educate at the same time, is great!”

Gross, who has never performed as Dolly before, became involved in the project when Rudman called and offered her the role. 

Is she concerned that the audience will expect a Carol Channing characterization as Dolly?  In a recent interview she said, “hopefully audiences would understand that I am not Channing.”  In addition, she notes that this is not a fully blocked show, “it is a concert version and a testimony to some of the creative team.  There is talking about the show and its conceiver.”  “This is an opportunity to not only “see” the play, but to learn about it.”  “That somewhat takes the focus off Dolly.”

As for her favorite song in the score, “I really like ‘Before the Parade Passes By.’  It’s a great song for a belter.”  She also likes “Love is Only Love,” a ballad that was added to the movie version.

After so many years of being a director, is the switch to being a performer going to be a challenge for Gross?    She stated, “Bill uses multi-media, little staging, he stresses a lot of character development.  That lets me work on my own vocal and facial expression.”

If one of her students was playing the role of Dolly Levi, what advice would Gross give her?  “I think that the character has a lot of layers.  She’s not only comedic but filled with vulnerability.  She would have to dig for the emotions to play.  The character isn’t just a funny belter, there is a lot more to her.”

The Musical Theater Project is partnering with The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage which will offer a free screening of “Words & Music by Jerry Herman,” a PBS documentary on Sunday, March 29 at The Maltz.  (Call 216-595-0575 or visit MaltzMuseum.org for details.  The Mandel Jewish Community Center will present a free screening of the 1969 “Hello Dolly,” featuring Barbara Streisand on Sunday April 19 @ 2 pm in the Stonehill Auditorium.  Call 216-831-0700 X 1348 or email ideas@maddeljcc.org, for tickets.

To see Sheri Gross in “Behind the Musical:  Hello, Dolly!” on Sunday April 26 @ 3 call 216-245-8687 or go online to musicaltheaterproject.org.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Sir Isaac Newton wonderfully unmasked at convergence continuum; CPH 2015-16 season announced

One of the major issues in watching a historidrama is figuring out what is real, what is fiction, and what is fantasy.  This is especially the case in Lucas Hnath’s ISAAC’S EYE, now on stage at convergence-continuum.  Between the laughs and mumbles of “I didn’t know that,” “wow,” and, “no way,” it’s easy to get lost in  intrapersonal mumblings.

Before probing into Lucas Hnath’s play, there must be an understanding of what is meant by “scientific inquiry.”  The process starts with the development of a hypothesis which is a guess at what might be.  An experiment is carried out and a determination of validity is made.    Before being universally accepted as “fact” the experiment has to be replicated by other experts in the field.  If it can’t, it is not accepted by the scientific community.

In the early days of research, self-proclaimed “scientists” often came to conclusions with no controlled experimentation and lots of intuition.  Having a vivid imagination, and thoroughly convinced that his ideas were the direct messages from “God,” young Isaac Newton perceived “scientific” theories.   

Hnath's play is filled with “information” about Sir Isaac Newton.  Some of it may well be true, other narrations and statements are of questionable validity.  In fact, one may wonder if any of Hnath’s tale is valid.  But, in the end, that matters little, as the audience gets swept up in the mystery and the humor and takes it all in.

The play, developed in conversational twenty-first century language, tells a seventeenth century tale.  We are exposed to the height-challenged boyish Newton in his twenties before he became “Sir Isaac.” Yes, before he was credited with developing the theory of gravitation and the laws of motion.

The tale centers on Newton’s relationship with Catherine, a woman five years his elder, with whom he has had a life-long relationship.  Was there really a Catherine in his life?  We also are involved in an episode between Newton and Robert Hooke, curator of Experiments at the Royal Society.  Yes, the Robert Hooke of the “Hooke Law of Elasticity.” But, was he really part of Newton’s life? 

As the tale goes, Newton wants to get into the Royal Society.  Hooke is his latchkey for entrance.  If Newton can be convinced that Isaac’s theory of light particles is true, he’s in.  If not, he remains a dreamer on the outside.  Questions abound.  Did Newton really stick a needle in his eye and prove the theory? Will the blackmail that Newton has on Hooke be used to accomplish his goal?  What is Catherine’s role in all this?  Is all this truth or fantasy?


This is a cleverly written play filled with lots of meta-theatrical devices.  The language is filled with wit, humor and tension.  The tale is filled with “facts” and modern slang.  A well-conceived narrator keeps us apprised of the real versus the “it could be” or “it definitely is fantasy,” or “this is departing from the written record.”

We know for sure that Newton’s hair turned white at an early age, he invented calculus about the same time as a German did, and he did threaten to kill his parents and set their house on fire.  Hooke did discover combustion, petrifaction, the basic theories of mechanical engineering, and did experiments in which he made the lungs of dogs explode.  And then there is the other “stuff.”

The con-con production is cleverly staged by director Clyde Simon, with an emphasis on the humorous.  He well-paces the show, which keeps the audience‘s attention throughout. 

The cast is wonderful.   Jonathan Wilhelm is emphatic as the narrator, and does a fun side-track as a man dying of the plague.  (Remember this is 1765-66, when death stalked England.)  Wilhelm, writes everything we need to know in a meticulous handwriting on a series of blackboards, giving us a school room lesson of authenticity.

Bobby Coyne is a cherubic Newton.  He has the boyish charm, the uncontrolled enthusiasm, and the air of believability that twists us around his little pinky, and makes us believe.  He is the little kid who tells an obvious lie, but looks at you with innocent eyes and as says, “But it could be,” and you just have to believe him.   This is an endearing performance.

Robert Hooke creates a convincing and smarmy Robert Branch, a sexaholic, pedophile and a brilliant scientist. 

Amy Bistok Bunche lives the role of Catherine, the only character who seems like a reasonably mentally healthy person.

CJ Pierce’s lighting design effectively leads the audience through the actions.

Viewer alert:  The scientific uninformed need fear not, everything that is the least bit abstract is explained in plain English.

Capsule Judgement:  ISAAC’S EYE is one of those productions that if you don’t see it, you’ll be missing a very special theatrical experience.  Good job con-con!

ISAAC’S EYE runs through April 11 at 8 pm 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.

**********************************************************
Cleveland Play House 2015-2016 season

Cleveland Play House has announced its schedule of plays for the theatre’s 100th anniversary: 

Ken Ludwig’s A Comedy of Tenors
WORLD PREMIERE
Sept 5-Oct 3, 2015 • Allen Theatre

The Crucible
Oct 10-Nov 8, 2015 • Outcalt Theatre

Little Shop of Horrors
Jan 9-Feb 7, 2016 • Allen Theatre

The Mountaintop
Jan 23-Feb 14, 2016 • Outcalt Theatre

Luna Gale
Feb 27-Mar 20, 2016 • Allen Theatre

Mr. Wolf
Apr 2-24, 2016 • Outcalt Theatre

Steel Magnolias
Coming May 2016

A Christmas Story
Nov 27-Dec 23, 2015 • Allen Theatre

For play descriptions and ticket information go to: www.clevelandplayhouse.com

Monday, March 09, 2015

Plays about gay marriage have a successful return visit to Cleveland Public Theatre

In October of 2012, when Cleveland Public Theatre first staged, STANDING ON CEREMONY THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS, “same sex marriage was legal in nine states (Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington and the District of Columbia).”  At the same time, “30 states had added language to their constitutions banning same-sex marriage.”

On October 18, while the play was running, “The 2nd U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act, (DOMA), violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause.”

On March 5, 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, when STANDING ON CEREMONY THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS, opened for a return visit to CPT, same-sex marriage “has been legalized in 37 states, the District of Columbia, and 22 Native American tribal jurisdictions.”  “More than 70% of the population lives in jurisdictions where same-sex couples can legally marry.”  In addition, on April 28, 2015, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments as to whether a state may refuse to license same-sex marriage or to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions.  There is hope that before the end of the year,  marriage equality will an issue on the “to do” gay agenda.

As the old advertising statement declared, “We’ve come a long way baby.” 

As my review of the 2012 play stated, “Since theatre represents the era from which it comes, here in the United States, attitudes about the women’s movement were presented by feminist plays.  The Black movement found African American writers sending forth their messages.  Today, with the Gay rights movement in full swing, it is only logical that some of that community’s issues reach the forefront.”  STANDING ON CEREMONY is such a production.

“STANDING ON CEREMONY THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS, started in 2011 in Los Angeles as a series of fund raising events, when the issue of same sex marriage was in the news in an on-again, off-again legal fight for legalization in California. Money from the productions was donated to marriage equality organizations.   The battle was eventually won.

The 90-minute play, staged with an intermission, was conceived by Brain Shnipper.  

The offerings are not an attempt to provide a balanced viewpoint on the issue, but exposing humorous, touching, and controversial topics.

In LA and New York, it was presented as a staged reading with a rotating cast of celebrities taking the roles, reading parts while standing behind podiums.   At Cleveland Public Theatre, there is a set cast and the scenes are staged, with memorized lines, costumes, a set, and creative staging.

The script, which consists of nine playlets, is the work of writers whose accolades include the nominations and/or receipt of Pulitzer Prizes, Obies, Emmys, and Tonys.  Each presents his/her unique take on before, after and during the “I do,” and views of people for and opposed to marriage equality.

The first act consists of:
    •THE REVISION  Jordan Harrison’s amusing look at how two men go about writing their wedding vows to reflect the limited options available to a gay couple and the difficulty in or of finding the words to describe the process and the participants.
    •THIS FLIGHT TONIGHT  Wendy MacLeod asks if there can be any hope for happiness when a lesbian couple travels to Iowa to take their vows.
    •THE GAY AGENDA  Paul Rudnicks’ sad, yet hilarious appeal for restricting marriage to that between a man and a woman by an Ohio homemaker, who is a member of the extreme right wing religiously conservative, Focus on the Family and all the other organizations opposed to same sex union equality.
    •ON FACEBOOK  Doug Wright takes on social media by following an actual Facebook thread chronicling a discussion on the subject of gay marriage, which starts out innocently and ends up as an all-out assault.
    •STRANGE FRUIT  Neil LaBute’s story of two men who marry in California and go to Hotel Coronado on their honeymoon.   Tragedy strikes one of them when he goes out for cigarettes.

The second act centers on: 
    •A TRADITIONAL WEDDING  Mo Gaffney gives a glimpse of a fourteen year relationship.
    •MY HUSBAND  Paul Rudnick gives a delightful glimpse into the machinations of an ultra liberal Jewish mother who is desperate to find a husband for her gay son.
    •LONDON MOSQUITOES  Moisés Kaufman’s poignant story of a man who, at his husband’s funeral, tries to make sense of the loss.
    •PABLO AND ANDRE AT THE ALTAR OF WORDS  José Rivera’s snapshot of two men who use their wedding vows to say the things that people never really say to each other.

The CPT production, again under the creative and focused eye of Craig J. George, wrings out all of the humor and pathos of each of the scenes. The segments are melded together by creative choreography centering around rearranging the chairs, and appropriate music.

The cast, which includes Molly Andrews-Hinders, Maryann Elder, Dana Hart, and Beth Wood from the 2012 cast, and newcomers Val Kozlenko, Matt O’Shea, and Wesley Allen, are universally excellent.

Highlight segments include MaryAnn Elder’s impassioned attempt, in THE GAY AGENDA, to explain the conservative view against same sex marriage.  Elder also excels IN MY HUSBAND as the Jewish mother/liberal professor’s attempt to find a husband for her son because, “what will my friends think if you aren’t married?”  Dana Hart induces impassioned sadness in LONDON MOSQUITOES as the husband left to grieve his long-time gay companion.  Beth Wood is properly hyper-hysterical over the thought of gay life in Iowa in THIS FLIGHT TONIGHT.  

The final segment, PABLO AND ANDREW AT THE ALTAR OF WORDS, is the weakest scene.  Weakly written, it seemed tacked on, rather than being a culminating segment.

T. Paul Lowry has adapted Russ Borski’s original set to include screens on which electronic media are played to represent locations as well as significant film footage of events.

Capsule judgement:   STANDING ON CEREMONY THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS is a must see production for anyone who has empathy toward  same sex marriage movement.  It should be required seeing for conservatives who don’t understand why there is a need for a “gay agenda.” It’s also of value to return attendees as a second viewing exposes subtle materials not previously grasped, the set is new, and there have been some positive cast changes.
STANDING ON CEREMONY THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS runs though March 21, 2015.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

BECKY SHAW, comedy of bad manners, marvelous at Dobama

Gina Gionfriddo, the author of BECKY SHAW, now on stage at Dobama Theatre, is one of the new breed of playwrights who reflect topics relevant to today, cleverly construct their writings, and uses language that shimmers with naturalism.  They don’t use stage language or formats like Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill, or the oft-present symbolism of Tennessee Williams, nor the existential philosophy of Edward Albee.  Gionfriddo, along with such modernists as Neil LaBute and Rajiv Joseph, push the envelope, using real people interacting to highlight their foibles and weaknesses.

Gionfriddo’s BECKY SHAW finds a group of people in a tangled tale of love, sex and ethics, in what might be called a comedy of manners, bad manners.  The play has been described as being “like a big box of fireworks, fizzing and crackling across the stage.” 

Four of the characters are self-centered, dysfunctional, disingenuous manipulators.  Each is determined to get what s/he wants by playing with the feelings of others in order to get personal gain, and not being concerned about how they may be destroying others. 

We quickly find in BECKY SHAW that Max Garrett, the “adopted” son in the Slater family, is a straight-talking, blunt, arrogant, power controlling, financially successful thirty-something.  Single, he seems emotionally attached to only one person, his “sister,” Lara.  He has little success in the dating world, having had only one relationship that lasted more than three months.

He has been set up on a blind date with Becky, by Lara and her husband, Andrew.  Becky, who works with Andrew, shows up overdressed for what is supposed to be a casual dinner, and immediately conflicts with Max.  Only angst can follow!  And, how it does!

Andrew, who seems to have a fetish for vulnerable women, has already “saved” Suzanna and is presently enabling Becky. 

Toss into the mix Susan Slater, Suzanna and Max’s needy mother, who is engaged in a “rent-a-boy” relationship and there are all the ingredients for a biting, entertaining evening of theatre.

Dobama’s production,  under the steady direction of Donald Carrier, is well paced, the characters clearly etched, the production totally effective.  Aided by the excellent dialogue, his believable characterizations key the audience to laugh at the pain of others, and then realize they should be embarrassed at that which is causing the laughter.

Geoff Knox’s Max is so realistically arrogant, complete with thrust out jaw, so clearly self-centered, that one can only admire his “chutzpa,” while wanting to hit him up-side his egotistical head.  Showing off his gym toned body in a skin tight latex shirt is as natural to Max as is his lack of realizing that his comments to others are mean-spirited and more destructive than constructive.

Lara Knox creates a Suzanna who is so needy that one only wonders what she has learned in her studies as a doctoral student in psychology.  Her emotional highs and lows could serve as a classic case study in bipolar behavior.

Laura Starnik is completely natural and real as the self-aware and self-centered Susan.  She believes she deserves her version of happiness, and nothing, including diminished wealth and MS, is going to stop her from having it.

Andrew Porter so perfectly creates Ryan, a person so good, so in emotional control that one can only wonder what the real Ryan must be like, when he is not on self-induced mental tranquilizers.

And then there is Becky Shaw!  Anjanette Hall doesn’t just portray the needy and manipulative, she is Becky.   She delivers lines with such ease that she sucks the audience in, makes us feel sorry for her, then slams us with reality statements that make us aware that we’ve been “had.”  What an adorable vixen Hall creates.

Scenic designer Cameron Caley Michalak created a play with numerous settings in basically a one-set space.  He creates different places through the use of well painted, framed illustrations of the specific places in which the scenes take place.  Thus we are transported from New York to Philadelphia to Richmond to a coffee shop by having a spotlight shine on the painting which illustrates where we are.   Clever!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ah, if only every night at the theater could be like this!
Gina Gionfriddo has written a play that is both fun and thought provoking.  It gets a marvelous production at Dobama.  This is theatre at its best.  The director, the cast, and the technical staff all deserve kudos!!!


BECKY SHAW runs through March 29 2015 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Compelling THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE at Cleveland Play House

It is the intent of theater to educate and entertain, and, in the case of some special offerings, enrapture.  Such a piece of theater is THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE, now on stage at Cleveland Play House.

THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE, adapted and directed by pianist and musicologist Hershey Felder, tells the tale of Lisa Jura, mother of renowned pianist Mona Golabek, and overcoming great trauma to achieve her artistic goals. 

Educate:   The Kindertransport was a rescue mission which, over a period of nine months, prior to the outbreak of the World War II, allowed about 10,000, mainly Jewish children from central Europe, to go to England and be housed in foster homes, hostels, schools and farms.  As it turned out, these youth were some of  the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust. 

Lisa Jura was denied continuing piano lessons under the tutelage of her piano professor when the Nazis declared that Jews should not be educated by non-Jews.  Deportation of “Juden” from Vienna was escalating, Jewish places of business, including Lisa’s father’s tailor shop, were destroyed.  While gambling to make money to feed and keep his family, her father won a ticket for the Kindertransport which allowed one of his three daughters to escape to freedom. 

At age 14, musically talented Lisa was the child chosen to leave. This action not not only gave her the opportunity to continue her musical journey, but saved her life.

Just before Lisa got on the train, her mother said, “You must promise me that you will hold onto your music.  It will be the best friend you ever have. I will be with you every step of the way when you’re playing that music.”  How prophetic she was!

Entertain:  Golabek, in a one-woman presentation, plays the piano and portrays not only herself but Lisa, who relates, in a first-person narrative, the tale of escape, adjustment to a new culture, and how she continued to develop her piano skills.  We share Lisa’s relationships, attempts to keep in contact with her parents, and pass on the family’s history, as she marries, has children, and not only teaches them to play the piano, but ties the music of the great composers to her life story.

Enrapture:  Mona Golabek’s ability to emotionally connect to the audience, to grab and hold attention, and to perform superbly, makes for a mesmerizing evening of theatre.  She masterfully incorporates the works of Chopin, Beethoven and Debussy into telling the tale of the lives of her mother and herself.  This is not only a play, but a fine concert.

Director/adapter Hershey Felder, has been seen on stage at CPH performing his one-man shows including GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE, BEETHOVEN, AS I KNEW HIM and MAESTRO BERNSTEIN, in which he combined acting and piano performance.  He has developed in THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE, a show that flows easily, is well paced, and fills the 90-minutes with fascinating tales and musicals delights.

Some advice:  You might be sure to bring some Kleenex along to wipe away the tears!

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE is a special theatrical and musical event.  An absolute “must see,” the script and the production educate, entertain and enrapture!  Kudos to  Mona Golabek and Hershey Felder for creating an experience that viewers will long remember.
THE PIANIST OF WILLESEN LANE runs through March 22, 2015, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Next up at CPH:  VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, April 3-26.  To read my Broadway review of that show go to:  http://www.royberko.info, on the right side of the page scroll to Broadway shows, click on the link, scroll down to find VANYA, AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE.

Friday, March 06, 2015

DIRTY DANCING THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE disappoints at the Conner Palace Theatre

DIRTY DANCING, THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE, which is now in production at the Connor Palace transports the audience back to the summer of 1963.  As is the custom of many well-to-do Jewish New York City families of that time, the Housemans have escaped for the summer to the Catskill Mountains, home of the Borscht Belt.  It’s a summer away from the sweltering city.  It’s a time for fun and games, and summer romances.  

Frances “Baby” Houseman is planning to attend college, join the Peace Corps, and “save the world.”  In the course of the summer she grows up quickly when she falls in love with Johnny Castle, the camp’s dance instructor.  He’s a handsome, studly, smooth talker, from the other side of the tracks. 

As the summer flows along, Baby asks her father to give her money, as it turns out to pay for an abortion for Johnny’s dance mate, secretly becomes Johnny’s new partner, enters into a sexual relationship with Johnny, gets her father to aid in correcting the botched abortion, and finally, to the emotionally stirring, ”(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” the curtain falls on the tale.  

DIRTY DANCING was a movie destined for failure.  Made for about $6 million dollars, it opened to negative reviews.  Jennifer Grey was called “ugly,” Patrick Swayze was panned as too old for his role.  The story was perceived as too obvious.  But word of mouth, the sizzling connection between Grey and Swayze and their compelling dancing, resulted in first month sales of $24 million.  To date, the film has grossed nearly $214 million.

Locals should be proud of Grey’s Cleveland connection.  Mickey Katz, a native Clevelander who was a famous Yiddish musician/comedian, made appearances, among other places, in the Borscht Belt.  He was the father of Cleveland-born Joel Grey, who started his climb to fame as a Curtain Puller  at the Cleveland Play House, and became world famous as the Master of Ceremonies in both the Broadway and Hollywood versions of CABARET.  He is the father of Jennifer Grey.  Probably, her greatest role was opposite Patrick Swayze in DIRTY DANCING.  Her role as Baby, won her a Golden Globe nomination.

The stage version of the film follows closely the pattern of the movie, with some scenes and music added.  The usual musical theater format of the characters breaking into song to help push the plot along is not followed.  In fact, the leads don’t sing at all.   Yes, Baby and Johnny sing not a word. 

The songs, sung by a couple of on-stage performers, but mainly off stage or via recorded tracks, are basically a lexicon of the pop songs of the era.  An original song in the film, (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life, by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, won an Oscar.  Added songs for the stage version are, “Save the Last Dance” and “This Magic Moment.”

Eleanor Bergstein, the author of the script, is an outspoken liberal Democrat, who spent much of 2012 knocking on doors in Cleveland for Barack Obama.  She has freely taken ideological stands in the play, which spouts liberal politics of the time.  It’s the era of Martin Luther King, Freedom Marches, The Peace Corps, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and mounting troubles in Vietnam. 

The touring version, unfortunately, doesn’t have Grey or Swayze.  The leads on opening night, Josh Drake (Johnny), who was a fill-in for Samuel Pergande, who had injured his hand, and Gillian Abbott, who had just ascended to the role of Baby, had no emotional connection.  Both basically walked through their parts, sans charisma.  Their dancing lacked power and accomplishment.  What should have been the emotional climax, the famous silhouette lift scene, used to advertise the show, was slow and awkward.

Drake and Abbott weren’t the only fill-ins.  In baseball, there is an old expression that you can’t tell the players without a program.  The touring production’s opening night was about the same.  There were many understudies and “newbies,” which may have caused the lack of proper pacing, and community theater level performances.
 
The show’s highlights were provided by Jennlee Shallow and Scott McCreary.  Don’t get all excited, this is not The Scotty McCreary who won American Idol, but this kid does sing very well!

Many of the sets for the show are supplied by electronic media.  The effect is quite good. 

The orchestra is excellent.  Michelle Lynch’s choreographer is adequate, but not as compelling as should expected for what many consider to be a “dance” show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you go to see DIRTY DANCING THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE expecting the emotional and sensual overload that many experienced from the film, you will be very disappointed.  The only way to watch this touring production is to sit back, take the unspectacular staging, the mediocre acting and dancing, and soap opera story for what it is.  The opening night audience slowly got to its feet as the curtain call proceeded.  Was the show that good?  No, but take into consideration this is Cleveland.  Cleveland, the home of  polite people who stand at the end of almost every show, deserving or not.

Tickets for DIRTY DANCING, which runs through March 22, 2015, at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Monday, March 02, 2015

DIAL “M” FOR MURDER, another exciting murder mystery at GLT

Mystery books are the second highest money-making genre in literature, only exceeded by Romance/Erotica.  They are the highest rated television demand topic. 

Building on the desire of readers and viewers, Great Lakes Theater has included a “who done-it” in each of their last two seasons.  Both DEATHTRAP and THE MOUSETRAP met with audience approval.  Their present offerings, DIAL “M” FOR MURDER, should do the same.  Finding a cash cow topic, the theater has announced that Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is being staged in the 2015-2016 season.

As explained in GLT’s excellent “Teacher Preparation Guide,” DIAL “M” FOR MURDER is filled with “Deception, betrayal, passion and greed.”

The plot centers around Tony Wendice, a recently retired British tennis player, his wife, Margot, who Tony married for her money, and Max Halliday, a New York mystery writer, who is visiting in London, and may or may not be having an affair with Margot. 

Tony, wanting to inherit Margot’s money, develops a “perfect crime” plot, which includes his hiring a hit man.  The problems start when Margot, during the attempt to kill her, accidentally kills her attacker and is sentenced to death.  Will Tony inherit the money?  Will Max be able to save his love?  Will Inspector Hubbard see through the charade and save Margot? 

DIAL “M” was originally created by Frederick Knott as a BBC television production.  Both the play and the screen script were also written by Knott.  The 1954 Warner Brother’s film starred Ray Milland and Grace Kelly, was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and was filmed in 3D, a new innovation in cinema filming.

Knott was noted for writing material that focused on women who innocently became victims of sinister plots.

Great Lakes production, under the focused eye of Charles Fee, is well paced, builds efectively to the creative and mind boggling conclusion, and grabs and holds attention.

The cast is universally excellent.  Beautiful Robyn Cohen makes for a believable Margot, the potential murdered wife.  She gives a convincing portrayal of a rich, perfectly coifed woman, who transitions into the potential victim.

Nick Steen, has become GLT’s choice for the handsome leading man in their murder mysteries.  He follows up his outstanding portrayal in DEATHTRAP with another believable characterization as Max, Margot’s lover.

Aled Davies, is accent and action perfect as Inspector Hubbard.  He seems born to play the wise policeperson who can and will solve all cases in a clever manner.

Jonathan Dyrud as Tony, has the lithe body need to make for a believable tennis player and the Iago good looks to give an air of innocence.

Dougfred Miller creates Captain Lesgate, Tony’s former college acquaintance,  as a perfect cad and a fine potential killer.

Russell Metheny’s fragmented set design allows for a clear view of the action, both on and off stage.  His incorporation of a large picture window on the second level, cleverly serves as a screen for Lucy Mackinnon’s projections.  The films of the receivers of telephone calls add to the visual dimension of the production, which is more effective than just hearing the voices of the participants, which is the standard way of staging the interactive scenes.

Rick Martin’s lighting design and Joe Court’s sound all aid in developing the mystery aspects of the script. 

Capsule judgement:  Great Lakes production of DIAL “M” FOR MURDER makes for a wonderful escapist evening of theatre.  Anyone liking murder mysteries, good acting, and good staging will enjoy this production.  As to the theatre’s evolving pattern of staging a mystery each season, as long as they continue in the vein of their DEATHTRAP, MOUSETRAP, and DIAL “M,” let’s have some more!


“Great Lakes Theater Teacher Preparation Guide for Dial ‘M’ for Murder, as prepared by Kelly Schaffer Florian and David Hansen, is a available from GLT’s Education Outreach program. Kflorian@greatlakestheater.org


DIAL “M” FOR MURDER runs through March 22, 2015 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Saturday, February 28, 2015

MY HEART IS THE DRUM gets staged premiere at Kent State

One of the major purposes of collegiate musical theater programs, besides teaching acting, singing and dancing skills, is to expand student knowledge of not only traditional, but new scripts.  Kent State is offering its students such an opportunity by presenting MY HEART IS THE DRUM.

Though the Jennie Redling (book), Phillip Palmer (music and original concept) and Stacey Luftig (lyrics) musical has been workshopped three times in the last couple of years, this is the first completely staged version.

The time is 2000.  Dealing with such subjects as the lack of educational opportunities for women, arranged marriages, AIDS, superstition, and Ghana gender traditions, the script aims to illustrate the country’s third world mentality regarding health issues and male and female societal roles.

Efua Kuti, an intelligent young lady who lives in Kafrona in rural Ghana, is encouraged by her teacher to attend university.  Efua’s father, who needs her to pick and sort cotton so the family can eke out a living, opposes her educational advancement. 

When Efua’s cousin, Balinda, is given in an arranged marriage to a “wealthy” jewelry merchant in Accra, the country’s capital, where a university is located, Efua accompanies her.  The duo confronts the issue of sexual slavery when Caesar Nabuto, the merchant, turns out to be a man who sells his product by supplying women to his wealthy patrons.  Both Efua and Balinda are trapped into working for Caesar.  Efua fights off the advances of the man to whom she is given. Balinda is not as fortunate.

Edward, who is in love with Efua, and who has been betrothed to her in an arranged marriage forced upon her by her father in an attempt to control her and keep her in Kafrona, follows the girls to Accra and frees Efua and Balinda.

Brought back to Kafrona, Efua is determined to get her education, and Balinda, who has acquired AIDS, dies and follows her Nana into the spirit world of her ancestors.

The script is not well developed.  It bridges segments with a lack of clarity.  The music, though often poignant, generally lacks true African cadence and vividness.  The words to the songs are often trite.  This lack of material fidelity makes it difficult for the student cast, under the direction of Terri Kent, to create real characterizations.

Samara Costa displays a nice voice and her Efua is as believable as possible with the lines she is given.  Alex Echols is also on point as Balinda, but, as with Costa, is limited in her character development by unreal sounding conversational language and a lack of plot fidelity.  David Holland has a nice voice and is delightful as the fearful Edward.  His “What’s Possible” is the comedy highlight of the production.

Colleen Longshaw has a fine voice and creates a nice characterization as Nana, the guiding spirit of the Kuti family.   Her “Your Heart is the Drum” is poignant.
Kirk Lydell displays strong dancing abilities. 

Musical Director Jonathan Swoboda wisely has his orchestra underscore rather than overshadow the performers. MaryAnn Black’s choreography tries to add Afro beat dancing but is somewhat limited due to the musical score. Benjamin Williams has created a clever scenic design centering on ever-moving curved set pieces with African motifs.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Kent State’s Musical Theatre Program should be commended for exposing their students to a new theatrical experience in MY HEART IS THE DRUM.  Though the material is generally obvious and often trite, the message of third world naivety, when it comes to curing diseases such as AIDS, the plight of women in a patriarchal society, and the dependence on tradition and superstition, comes through.

MY HEART IS A DRUM runs from February 20-March 1, 2015 at Kent State University. 

Kent State’s Porthouse Theatre, located on the grounds of the Blossom Center, will present A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, June 11-27, VIOLET, July 9-25, and HAIRSPRAY, July 30-August 16.   Single tickets go on sale May 26 at 330—672-3884.  For more information go to http://www.porthousetheatre.com

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

DOGFIGHT fails to live up to Beck-Baldwin Wallace past productions

Beck Center for the Arts and Baldwin Wallace’s Musical Theatre Program have, for the past four years, collaborated to produce some outstanding productions.  CARRIE, SPRING AWAKENING and NEXT TO NORMAL all received Cleveland Critic Circle and Times Tribute recognitions. 

Unfortunately, this year’s offering, DOGFIGHT, probably won’t get such attention.  It’s not that the production is bad, but it is cursed with a weak script, with lines that seem forced and unnatural, and an inconsistent, often repetitive musical score which includes five reprises.

DOGFIGHT, the musical, is based on the 1991 Warner Brothers film of the same name.  It concerns a group of young marines who are in San Francisco on the eve of their deployment to Vietnam.  Their goal is having fun, partying, and getting sex. 

The highlight of their exit into war is to be a dog fight, a contest where each of the marines brings a “dog,” an ugly girl, to a bar for a contest to judge who is the ugliest. The guy who brings the “winner” gets a cash prize.

In his search, Eddie Birdlace comes upon Rose, a nerdy, plain-Jane, sweet young lady working at a diner.  He asks her on a “date” without revealing that she is going to be his candidate in the “dog fight.” 

The tale becomes complex when the contest takes place. Rose realizes that rather than being on a date, she is a victim of a hoax.  Eddie recognizes his cruelty and tries to make it up to Rose by taking her on a real date, which ends with the duo going to bed together.  In the morning, as he leaves for duty, he promises to write Rose, but fails to do so, because his buddies taunt him.

The story is revealed in a flash-back/flash-forward format, in which the broken and disillusioned Eddie returns 4 years later, searches for Rose, reveals his feelings for her, and relates that his buddies were killed in battle.

The soap-opera like book was written by Peter Duchan.  The major flaw is the lack of natural speech he affords the cast to speak.  The script tends to be composed of forced and trite language, rather than a natural flowing vocabulary. 

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have written some nice songs, but they are sometimes shoe-horned into the script, often without purpose.  Highlight songs are “Nothing Short of Wonderful,” “Pretty Funny,” “Before It’s Over,” and “Come Back.”

The Beck/BW production, under the direction of Victoria Bussert, flows well and has some nice moments. 

Besides the problematic script, the young students simply don’t seem to be real, to be natural in characterization development.  They generally act the roles, rather than creating real characters.  They aren’t bad, just not up to the usual BW Musical Theatre standards.

Colton Ryan has a nice boyish look and sings well as Eddie Birdlace.  Unfortunately, he seems to stay on the surface, feigning, rather than being absorbed in creating the needed conflicts between machismo, sensitivity, and remorse.  Eddie seems to be more Colton, than Eddie.

Keri René Fuller has a fine singing voice, and develops a most consistent and real person as Rose.  She appears to be the most advanced person in the cast in the race to Broadway.  (Over a dozen BW grads appeared on the Great White Way this past season.)

Zack Adkins is consistent in development of the smarmy Boland, but his overacting becomes taxing after a while.  There is little texturing, just a lot of snarling and yelling.

Micky Ryan stays on the surface as Bernstein.  Gabriel Brown has a chance to show off his gym-sculpted body and fine dance moves as Stevens .  Jamie Koeth sings well as the Lounge Singer.

The choreography is mainly stomping and marching, done with various degrees of quality.  The singing is generally good, but some of the cast sing words, rather than meanings.  Musical Director Dave Pepin keeps the orchestra under control so that they nicely underscore rather than drown out the singers.  

Scenic Designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski had the difficult task of creating a set that constantly was switching locales.  She did a masterful job in cramming all those settings into the postage sized space of Beck’s arena theatre.

On the night I saw the show there were numerous squeals and popping sounds in the sound system.  One might question why, in such a small space, there was even a need for microphones, and why, after two weeks of performances there were still sound issues.  

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The production agreement between Beck Center and the Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre program has produced some outstanding productions.  Though it is not bad, DOGFIGHT is not of the quality of the duo’s previous stagings.

DOGFIGHT is scheduled to run through March 15, 2015  at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or http://www.beckcenter.org  

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Elements series concludes with FIRE ON THE WATER at Cleveland Public Theatre

FIRE ON WATER is the fourth play in Cleveland Public Theatre’s Elements Cycle, plays about the environment.  According to Artistic Director, Raymond Bogban, the plays were not created “to preach or propagandize.  We wanted to make plays that explored our ongoing efforts to understand and transform our relationship with the world.”  The presentations have done that, with varying degrees of artistic success.

Most of the efforts were “devised theater,”  productions which have no playwright, per se, but are conceived by the performers and other theatre staff.

In the case of FIRE ON WATER, the production is a partnership with other west-side theatres:  Blank Canvas, Ohio City Theatre Project, Talespinner Children’s Theatre and Theater Ninjas.  “Each of the five theatres involved sought to create plays about sustainability and the burning of the Cuyahoga [River].”

The collaboration is both the strength and weakness of the evening.  The fourteen playlets, plus some transitions, made for over two hours of performance, plus the intermission.  Listening to the stories of the burning of the river over and over made for redundancy and a very long sit.  Some of the tedium was relieved because the offerings moved from the stage units at both ends of the main theatre, to smaller platforms and tubs of water, distributed through the space. 

In a creative staging device, the audience members were each seated in their own plush wheeled office chair and were silently directed by cast members where to skootch.  It was almost like being on the Dodgem Bumper Cars at an amusement park, but the object here was not to run into your fellow audience members.  Some attenders made the movements into a game by spinning around on their chairs as they moved.  This may have been facilitated by the availability of beer, which was allowed into the acting arena.

Segments covered the historical settling of what is now referred to as Greater Cleveland, how the river was named [Native American for “crooked river”], how it got polluted, the role of such companies as Standard Oil in the destruction of clean water, how fire and water can work together or can counter each other, what happens to fish when the river gets polluted, the role of the Clean Water Act in attempts to clean up the sludge and oil, the numerous times the river caught on fire (there were at least 12 occasions that were recounted), the Hough riots, the successes and failures to pass laws to help the environment, and the citizen flight from this area.

The devices used to convey the ideas varied from spoken words to sung and played music.  There were puppets of varying sizes and materials, projections, an ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET television show reenactment, a scuba diving probe into the dark river waters, swimming in large tubs of water, and acrobats swinging like Peter Pan over the heads of the audience.

According to Bobgan, “This is truly homegrown theatre that acts locally with a global vision.”   To this he added “how we act in this world is a mater of choice and belief.” After participating in this adventure, a strong feeling of the need for action became apparent.

The large cast worked as a well functioning unit to portray the ideas developed.  

Capsule judgement: Cleveland Public Theatre, with its Elements series, continues to use theatre to not only entertain its audience, but to act as an arts device to alert people to the needs and wants of society, as well as teach civic and social responsibility.  FIRE ON WATER, though overly long and redundant, is an interesting piece of devised theatre, that, as the rest of the Elements series, illustrates the fragility of the world in which we live.

FIRE ON WATER, runs through April 6  at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.

Magical PIPPIN almost finds its “Corner of the Sky,” at Connor Palace

PIPPIN, the Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Roger O. Hirson (book) magical show is now on stage at The Palace Theatre.  It tells a modern version of the mythical tale of Pippin, the oldest son of King Charlemagne, and his search for purpose and identity. 

The clarion song of the show, and one of my favorite tunes from any Broadway musical, is “Corner of the Sky” which tells of the desire of many people who strive to find their purpose in life. They yearn to find safety, security, and satisfaction and strive to find the place “eagles can fly” because, as our hero sings, it’s where “my spirit can run free.”

The original 1972 version of the show starred Ben Vereen as Leading Player, the emcee and guide of the action, and Jonathan Rubinstein as Pippin.  That production centered on the singing, dancing and charisma of Vereen.  The story line was almost secondary.  Since that time many productions have altered focus and highlight Pippin and his mission. 

The 2013 Broadway revival, conceived by Diane Paulus, which won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, and garnered a Best Actress in a Musical for Patina Miller as Leading Player, added circus performers and acrobats, thus creating the “Magic to Do.”  It had Pippin, Grandma Bertha, and the Leading Player joining in the exciting athletic displays.

The touring production carries much of the image of the latest Broadway staging. The acrobats and circus performers are present, the emphasis is on Pippin and his search, and the show visually dazzles. But those who saw the original or are familiar with the score, may be thrown by some of the changes that have been made to the lyrics and the altered arrangements.  (I have seen the original and recent Broadway production, about 10 other productions, and directed the show.  My son, who was sitting next to me on opening night, has portrayed both Pippin and Theo.  We had a wonderful time debating the changes.)

Sam Lips, who understudied the role on Broadway, is now Pippin.  Lips has a boyish charm and nice youthful enthusiasm.  He is good looking, has a nice singing voice (especially in the higher registers), and has the acting chops to pull off the role.  He dances well and his acrobatics add nicely to the role.  His “Corner of the Sky” and “Morning Glow” passed my very high level of expectations.

John Rubinstein, yes, the same guy who played Pippin in the original Broadway show, is now King Charles.  He has a wonderful time playing the role, adding delightful shticks with his mobile face.  It’s too bad they altered some of the words to, “Welcome Home,” because Rubinstein would have delighted with some of the omitted lyrics.

Priscilla Lopez almost steals the show as “Grandma” Bertha.  She not only gets all the requisite laughs from “No Time At All,” but stopped the show with her agility as a gymnast!

Molly Tynes is properly conniving as Fastrada, who wants nothing more than to have Charles’ crown pass on to Louis so she can brag, “My son the king.”

Kristine Reese makes for a convincing Catherine.  Her “Love Song,” with Pippin, is charming.

Sasha Allen displays a marvelous voice as Leading Player.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t compare to either Patina Miller, or Baldwin Wallace University grad, Ciara Renée, who replaced Miller on Broadway.  Allen doesn’t do much in the way of gymnastics, walks and poses rather than dances, and has some difficulty with spoken and sung line interpretation.  

The sets, special effects, and the musical accompaniment are all Great White Way quality.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The touring production of PIPPIN, in spite of some minor flaws, is mainly magical.  It nicely carries out the story’s theme and should delight those who are seeing the show for the first time, or are seeing the new and reconfigured edition of the show. From my perspective,  it would be worth seeing the show just to hear “Corner of the Sky” and “Morning Glow.”

Tickets for PIPPIN, which runs through February 15, 2015, at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

PILOBOLUS, Dance Cleveland’s gift to area aficionados; area dance previews

PILOBOLUS is noted for adding both physical and theatrical elements to dance presentations.  They have been credited, in their 44 years of performances, to have added a new way for audiences to look at dance.

Nothing cements the company’s unique style more then what was on display before the start of their recent State Theatre nearly-sold out concert.

Upon entering the auditorium, the audience found the proscenium curtain open and the dancers warming up.  It was a preparation not usually seen.  No barre work, stretching, or practicing of couple-lifts here.  Instead, the performers were doing jumping jacks, handstands, tossing each other around, running in undisciplined patterns, doing frog leaps, executing cartwheels, and doing pushups.  Just before curtain went up, they formed a football huddle, arms entwined behind each other’s backs, swayed, talked, laughed, broke the togetherness, and wandered off stage.  They were ready!  So was the keyed up audience.

The program featured five numbers, each of which varied in technique and effect.  Incorporating gymnastics, power strength movements, balancing on circular mini-platforms, combining sensual actions with whimsy and whirlwind with exquisite calm, the dancers created compelling art.

PILOBOLUS’s dances aren’t meant to convey a clear message.  They are often  abstract visions of actions which allow for personal interpretation.  Yet, they prresent well-disciplined and choreographed displays. 

The choreographers avoid gender roles.  Males and females share the heavy lifting and often are dressed in the same costumes.  The company’s performances integrate graphics, films, impressive lighting and special effects. 

Whether doing dance versions of the famous Tim Conway old man from his days on the Carol Burnett Variety Show, or taking on such serious topics as young love and it’s issues, they seamlessly weave together attention-sustaining actions.

As part of the program, the company challenged the audience to name their newest piece, presently entitled, UNTITLED 2015.  After viewing the door-slamming, body endangering number, my suggestion is ANGST!

There is no way to clearly recreate PILOBOLUS in words.  This is performance that must be seen. 

Capsule judgement: It can only be wished that Pam Young and her Dance Cleveland staff do not wait too long before they bring PILOBOLUS back to the area, so that those who missed their recent performance get a chance to experience the creativity and joy the company shared.

Side note:  Cudos to Donald Rosenberg for an excellent “Dance Matters” column in the program, which gave a wonderful preview of what was to be experienced by the audience.

Next up for Dance Cleveland, on, is, COMPAGNIE KÄFIG on March 7, 2015, 8 PM, Ohio Theatre, which combines Brazilian acrobatics and hip-hop dance.

DANCE OFFERINGS IN THE CLEVELAND AREA

The Cleveland area has some strong dance companies. How about going to local offerings? They need your support.  Some upcoming performances include:

Ohio Dance Theatre

6:00 pm Friday, February 13, 39 South Main Street, Oberlin
“Blood Stripe”—world premiere of a ballet inspired by a personal witnessing of the challenges of choreographer Denise Gula and her family as they struggled with the long term effects of PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).
Tickets: 440-774-6077

Groundworks
March 20 & 21, 2015, 7:30 PM
Breen Center, 2008 W. 30th Street, Cleveland
The Cleveland premier of two new works, one choreographed by Robert Moses and the other a collaboration with Aeolus Quartet. 
Tickets: http://groundworksdancetheater.ticketleap.com/groundworks-spring-series-at-breen-center/

Inlet Dance

April 23-25, 2015--CPT Danceworks '15
Tickets: http://www.cptonline.org/box-office/

Verb Ballets

“Ballet Uncorked”—guest appearance with Ohio Dance Theatre
6:00 pm Friday, February 13, 39 South Main Street, Oberlin
Tickets: 440-774-6077

February 21, 2015 at 8:00pm
Breen Center, 2008 W. 30th St., Cleveland

February 28, 2015 at 8:00pm
Olmsted Falls Performing Arts Center, 6941 Columbia Rd.. Olmsted Falls 
Tickets: olmstedperformingarts.com

March 21, 2015
NEOSonicFest, Baldwin Wallace, 96 Front St., Berea 
Tickets: neosonicfest.org

April 16-18, 2015 at 7:00pm 
Cleveland Public Theatre DanceWorks’15. 6415 Detroit Ave, Cleveland
Tickets:  cptonline.org or 216.631.2727 ext. 501

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ensemble’s THURGOOD is a perfect Black History Month treat

Thurgood Marshall has been called the “greatest lawyer of the 20th Century,” “Mr. Civil Rights,” and is credited with doing “more than any other American to lift the burden of racism from our society.”   

It is only appropriate that his life and judicial story be told during Black History month.  Ensemble is doing exactly that by presenting multi-award winner George Stevens, Jr.’s THURGOOD.

Marshall, who was born in Baltimore, was the great-grandson and grandson of slaves.  Against great odds, including being rejected by the University of Maryland’s law school, he became a lawyer.  He graduated from Howard, an all-black university in Washington, D.C..   After being in private practice, he became active in the National Association for Colored People (NAACP) and went on to plead many cases before the Supreme Court regarding segregation in public schools and universities.   He is best known for pleading and winning Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, the basis for the elimination of the policy of “separate but equal” in public schools.  He won 29 out of the 32 cases he pleaded before the Supreme Court. 

He was appointed by John F. Kennedy to a seat on the US Court of Appeals, by Lyndon B. Johnson to be US Solicitor General, and, in 1967, Johnson selected him for a seat on the Supreme Court.  Marshall was the first African American to hold the position.

Steven’s script encapsulates Marshall’s life into a two-act presentation.  We find Greg White in a one-person audience lecture (with the inserted voices of Kirk Brown as Chief Justice Earl  Warren, and Kyle Huff as the Clerk of the Supreme Court).  It is a lesson about a great American, an important Black American, and the foibles of the political system, especially in the prejudiced South.

Ensemble’s production is well staged by director Sarah May.  She succeeds in creating stage business that holds the audience’s attention.  She also choreographs the use of many props to help in creating the reality of the court cases.

May is greatly aided in developing the story by the projections conceived by Ian Hinz, which not only lead the audience to seeing where each scene is set, or of a place that is being referred to, but aids visualization by use of photos of the people that Marshall mentions.  Without these excellent visuals, the illusions and people would not have been as vivid.  This was the best use of electronics that Ensemble has presented in their productions.

In the opening night presentation, White was properly laid back as Marshall, who was noted for his reasoned use of words, and emotional control as he presented his cases.  At times, however, more physical and verbal dynamics would have enlightened the proceedings.  As White becomes acclimated with the script’s words, and the audience’s reactions, he should find himself more comfortable and real.  He must take on the awing “aura” of Marshall, as well as relaying his words.

One audience reaction tool that White needs to take into consideration is the use of “call outs.”  Traditional in many black churches is the congregation verbally reacting to the sermon.  Shouts of “right on,” “uh-huh,” and “tell ‘em brother,” are common in that setting.  The verbalization carries over when individuals get involved in plays or even movies.  Since THURGOOD is a script and subject matter that will attract African Americans, as evidenced by the almost equal numbers of blacks and whites in the Ensemble audience, the “call outs” should aid in adding the heightening of emotions in the play.   White will need to adjust to those and take them as a tribute to his becoming Marshall.  Those not used to “call outs,” will have to learn that the vocalizations show praise for the actor and the message and are not the “bad manners” of breaking-the-silence-tradition which some think of as the protocol of theatre-goers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  THURGOOD is a well-conceived script, which receives a solid production.  The message is a lesson well needed for black and whites alike. It should be a “must see” for junior and high school students, their parents and grandparents so that the story of the ever present issue of granting civil rights becomes a cause-célèbre and all people are treated with respect and dignity.

THURGOOD runs Thursdays through Sundays through February 22 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former  Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

Of special interest:  Talkbacks are scheduled after the productions of:  2/1 (Judge C. Ellen Connally, Greg White and Sarah May), 2/8 (Peter Lawson Jones), and 2/15 Subodh Chandra). 

To see the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to:  clevelandtheaterreviews.com

Thursday, January 29, 2015

FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE, story light, musically big at Cleveland Play House

Cleveland Play House has in its recent history included small cast musicals in its offerings. Those shows included TAPPIN’ THROUGH LIFE (Maurice Hines), BREATH AND IMAGINATION (Roland Hayes), WOODY SEZ;  LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHRIE (Woody Guthrie), THE DEVIL’S MUSIC:  THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BESSIE SMITH (Bessie Smith), and ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN (Janis Joplin).  Each told a story about the person through their own words, their music, or from the mouths of those who knew them.  Often they have been tied to Black History Month.

Do not expect any personal or history patterns in FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE, a musical by Clarke Peters, which features the great hits of Louis Jordan,  but does not deal with Jordan’s history or life tale.   Nor is there a direct tie to Black History month.

Jordan is noted as the 1940’s bandleader who pioneered a blend of jazz and blues, which centered on swinging shuffle rhythms, sometimes referred to as “jump blues” or “jumpin’ jive.”  His music appealed to both blacks and whites, thus he become the first successful crossover artist of American popular music.  He is sometimes referred to as the “Grandfather of Rock n’ Roll.”

What could be better than an evening of the music of Louis Jordan and his influential “jumpin’ jive” that paved the road through the blues to hard R&B and rock ’n’ roll?  Nothing if you love that style or music.  A lot if you wanted to know about the man who wrote and played the tunes or the derivation of some of the songs.

FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE is a jukebox musical.  It’s a review, with a razor thin plot that mainly serves as a device to bridge the songs together.  The little bit of dialogue does not develop a real story line, such as is found in PIPPIN, KINKY BOOTS or DIRTY DANCING, which will soon appear on Playhouse Square stages.  It is basically irrelevant as can be spotlighted by deviances from the script, which take place during the ad lib and audience inclusion segments of the staging.

The present version of the show is an update of the 1992 Broadway musical written by Clarke Peters which ran 445 performances and was nominated as Best Book of a Musical.  It lost to FALSETTOS.

The audience enters the Allen Theatre to find the proscenium curtain closed, music playing, supposedly from an old tube model radio placed center stage.  Nomax (Kevin McAllister) wanders on stage, in what proves to be a drunken stupor, sings “Early in the Morning,” relating how his “woman” has rejected him due to his drinking and irresponsibility.  As he wallows in his self-pity, the Moes: Big Moe, Little Moe, Four Eyed Moe, No Moe, and Eat Moe, “jump” out of the radio.  Actually the curtain opens to reveal the singers, orchestra, and an eye appealing set consisting of two lighted staircases with a bridge between them, and a large electronic “MOE” sign.

The quintet try to convince Nomax to, “Beware, Brother, Beware,”or he will permanently lose his lady.  Songs such as “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That” and “Messy Bessy” don’t do the convincing, but they are entertaining.  Other songs include, “Knock Me A Kiss,” “Push Ka Pi Shi Pie (with a Calypso beat and a Congo line of audience volunteers), “Safe, Sane and Single” (a definite audience favorite), “Let the Good Times Roll” (featuring tap dancing), and “Caldonia (more audience participation).

The cast was universally good.  The individual singing of Sheldon Henry (Big Moe), Jobari Parker-Namdar (No Moe), Travis Porchia (Four-Eyed Moe), Clinton Roane (Little Moe) and Paris Nix (Eat Moe) was on key and the quintet’s vocal blends were excellent.  Nix excelled in his song styling and dancing, and his splits awed the audience.

Kevin McAllister, he of bloodshot eyes, drooping lips, and stumbling step was delightful and in consistent character as Nomax.  He probably has the best voice of the singers.

Robert O’Hara directed, Darryl G. Ivey was the musical director, Byron Easley choreographed, Clint Ramos conceived the set, Dede Ayite designed the costumes, Alex Jainchill created the lighting plan and Lindsay Jones was the sound designer.

To keep with the era, the cast wears classic clothing and sings into old time microphones.

FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE     is a co-Cleveland Play House and Washington, DC’s Arena Stage production.  According to Laura Kepley, CPH’s Artistic Director, CPH personnel, including her, went to DC to work on the staging and design of the production.  The band at the local staging, with the exception of the musical director, is made up of Cleveland performers.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  If you like the jazz and blues musical stylings of Louis Jordan, you’ll enjoy FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE.  If, on the other hand, you desire a musical with a storyline, with songs and productions numbers that develop that tale, then you will probably join those who left at intermission.  Me, I’m a storyline kind of guy! 

FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE runs through February 15, 2015, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Monday, January 26, 2015

JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE helps celebrate 100th anniversary of Karamu

On June 15, 2015, Karamu, the country’s oldest continuously performing Black Theatre, will celebrate its 100th birthday. 

As part of the celebration year, the theatre is reviving some of its most notable productions.  Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that August Wilson’s personal favorite play in his “The Pittsburgh Cycle,”  JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE, be performed.

Wilson was one of America’s best known African-American playwrights and is well remembered for writing 10 plays about blacks in Pittsburgh, his hometown.  He wrote one play for each decade.  Two of the scripts received Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.

JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE takes place in Seth Holly’s boarding house in 1911.  It provides a glance into African American patterns of the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century of  blacks trying to find “their song.”  They were attempting, after many years of slavery where they were controlled by the “massa,” to identify where to live, what to do with their freedom, and what family structure they should form. 

Many blacks, as they wandered around seeking of their “song,” and to avoid the continued discrimination of the South, came North, and stayed for short periods of time in boarding houses.  The Holly House was an example where they claimed as a short term home.  It was a place to have a bed to sleep in, breakfast and dinner, for about $2 a week.

The play’s title is based on the popular blues song, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” a W. C. Handy tune, which tells the tale of Joe Turner, a plantation owner, who illegally enslaved blacks for a period of seven years in order to physically and psychologically beat them down, destroy their families, and continue the patterns of slavery. 

Herald Loomis was one of those captured by a “Joe Turner.”  When he returned after his “sentence,” his wife and child were gone.  Loomis starts a search for them. He locates his daughter at his mother-in-law’s home.  Unable to find his wife, Martha, he continues his tracking to the North.  He arrives in Pittsburgh, one of the border line cities, to which the ex-slaves fled.

The plot follows a liner line, exposing each of the characters who populate or visit the Holly House.  We meet Seth and Bertha Holly who run the establishment.  There is Bynum Walker, a practitioner of voodoo and conjuring, who shares a tale of meeting a “Shiny Man” who taught him his “song.” 

Selig, a white peddler who travels the countryside, brings Seth Holly metal to be made into pots and pans, stops in to share gossip and pick up his products. 

Others come and go, including Jeremy, a young “playah’” who strums the guitar and jumps from job to job and from woman to woman.  There is Herald Loomis, a menacing looking man in a long black coat and lifeless eyes, Zonia, his pre-tween daughter, and Mattie Campbell who needs Bynum’s help to find the man who has run out on her. 

We also meet Reuben Scott, a teenager who befriends Zonia, and Molly Cunnigham, who has missed her train, needs a place to stay, and hints of making money by befriending men.

Each of the characters is in search of identity. They must learn to be human beings, rather than objects to be sold, traded, or controlled by others.

Playwright Wilson is a master at creating dialogue which clearly defines each character.  Their use of language and dialect clearly sets them apart.  Loomis is a man of the south as his Southern words and dialect illustrate, while Seth Holly has a twang of Pennsylvania, the symbol of a free man of several generations in the north.

The Karamu production is basically well conceived by director Terrance Spivey.  The massive set fills the arena theatre.  The pacing is well done, with lots of physical action interspersed to keep the action moving along.  

Several things distract.  Why are all the meals a biscuit and a partially filled cup of coffee?  Even when grits are referred to, a biscuit is served.  Why are some of the windows void of glass panes?  No programs were given out, robbing the audience of such necessary information as the play’s date, setting and the background of the performers.

The cast is exceptional.  There is not a weak performer on the stage.  Michael May excels as Herald Loomis, a frustrated man who has been beaten into submission and voided of his manhood.  His eyes change from flatness to flashing anger and back again, his powerful body writhes in pain and explodes in powerful attack, then retreats.  The last scene, when he threatens himself and the others, is mesmerizing. 

Tonya Davis shows a depth of restraint and character as Bertha Holly.  Butch Terry is delightful as Bynum.  Prophet D. Seay portrays Jeremy with a devilish charm.  Zamani Munashe is lovely as Zonia.  Both Kennetha Martin and Phillia Thomas create real people as Mattie and Molly. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE is a perfect script choice for both Karamu’s 100th anniversary and Black History month.  The script is a classic and the production is one of Karamu’s better offerings.  For those who want a good history lesson, to be exposed to the writing of one of America’s greatest playwrights, and see a well performed show, JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE is a good choice!
JOE TURNERS COME AND GONE continues through February 15, 2015 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, guarded and lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.