Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Love Never Dies, Playhouse Square

If you’re a dewy-eyed romantic and if you reach for a fainting couch at the very thought of two accomplished singers applying their vocal chops to tunes fairly dripping with maudlin sentimentality, there’s a show in town that will delight your throbbing heart. It’s Love Never Dies now at Playhouse Square, the Andrew Lloyd Webber sequel to his enormously successful Phantom of the Opera which opened in 1986.

However, if you seek anything more from a musical theatrical experience—such as well-developed characters, understandable lyrics, a varied and complex score, and a soupcon of wit—you may find this Phantom redux a very hard slog. The producers have fashioned a dazzling, dizzying production in the service of material that is so banal and predictable the Phantom himself might be tempted to entirely cover his half-masked face and go completely incognito.

It all begins inauspiciously with the Phantom sitting morosely behind a scrim, often facing upstage, and singing the dirge-like “’Till I Hear You Sing.” Meanwhile, a single cold spotlight is trained on the audience, as if we’re in an interrogation room and our lawyer hasn’t showed up yet.

After that, there are plenty—nay, gobs—of color and lights swirling and spinning across the stage, thanks to the set and costume design by Gabriela Tylesova.. But the story, such as it is, never gets off the ground.

When we last saw the mysterious composer guy known as The Phantom, he had disappeared from his underground lair at the Opera Populaire, the Paris opera house. His love and muse Christine had just hustled out of there with her lover Raoul, with Christine-wannabe Meg holding the Phantom’s mask in her hand.

Fast-forward ten years to this play, set in 1915, where the same characters convene in, wait for it, Coney Island. That’s where The Phantom, mask back in place, is operating a circus-cum-amusement park called the Phantasma. And he has maneuvered Christine, Raoul and their young son Gustave to visit America, in hopes of rekindling his torrid, fog-drenched romance with Christine and her voice that made his songs come alive.

Are you tearing up yet? Well you will be, and probably for all the wrong reasons. Composer Webber and his creative team, including Glenn Slater (lyrics) and Ben Felton (book co-writer along with Webber, Slater and Frederick Forsyth) make a half-hearted feint at storytelling and instead focus all their attention on getting Phantom and Chris to sing loudly and frequently at each other. And boy, do they sing! Gadar Thor Cortes as The Phantom has a bountiful and powerful voice, as does Meghan Picerno who plays Christine. They are wonderful.

Trouble is, the songs are mostly flat, agonizingly repetitive, and hard to follow. Even though they’re singing in English, it would help if the lyrics were projected onstage somewhere since words and phrases are often buried under an avalanche of weepy, seepy orchestrations.  There are a couple exceptions, such as Christine’s Act Two showstopper of the title song, staged in a profusion of gorgeous peacock feathers.

Sean Thompson as Raoul and Mary Michael Patterson as Meg, each extremely talented, also suffer from the same problems. Although at the beginning of the second act, they share a scene in which the lyrics are actually distinct and understandable in “Why Does She Love Me?” That is in part because some of the words are spoken, not sung.

Another critical problem with Love is that it tales itself way too seriously. Minus the sultry mystery that infused the original Phantom, this show desperately needs a bit of humor to lighten the load. Indeed, there are no laughs in the entire 2½ hour show, if you don’t count the titters occasioned by the final death scene that plays with all the credibility of Sofia Coppola’s unintentionally hilarious demise in Godfather III.

A trio of circus geeks is on hand to try and provide some levity. But thin and creepy Gangle (Stephen Petrovich), fat and creepy Squelch (Richard Koons), and short and creepy Fleck (Katrina Kemp, who is a Little Person) are not so much funny as, well, creepy. And one wishes that Gangle and Squelch would leave poor Fleck alone, as they are constantly lifting her up and swinging her about as if she were a hand prop instead of a real person.

Under the direction of Simon Phillips, the show is a misbegotten attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Phantom franchise. Too bad they didn’t follow their own advice as spelled out in “Why Does She Love Me?” That’s when Meg counsels Raoul, “You should have never come to America/It’s not a place for people like you and Christine.” Amen to that.

Love Never Dies
Through January 28 at Playhouse Square, Keybank State Theater, 1615 Euclid Ave. 216-241-6000,

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Holiday Jazz Revue, Karamu House

Evidently, the “War on Christmas” is now in full effect, since this show opts for “Holiday” in its title, the word some Fox News wackos love to hate. While the alt-right fumes at this choice, the rest of us who prefer acknowledging the existence of multiple religions can sit back and enjoy some festive song frolics.

The idea of a Holiday Jazz Revue is great, and this two-hour show at Karamu House delivers well, especially when the emphasis in on jazz interpretations of favorite Christmas songs, some of which have been made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and others. Working with just a three-person band, the show fairly glows when jazzy interpretations of faves, such as “Jingle Bells,” fill the air.

However, the voices in this eight-person company  (Sean Dubois Day, Eric Floyd, Joshua McElroy, Molly McFadden, Mary-Francis Renee Miller, Rebecca Morris, Miguel Osborne, Clarissa Walker) tend to work better when singing as a group, since there are some vocal flaws with most of the soloists.

Conceived by Tony F. Sias, Nicole Sumlin (who doubles as music director) and Nathan A. Lilly (who doubles as musical stager), the highlights include a nice basso profundo take on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by Osborne, a lovely “Lo, How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming” by Miller, and McFaddden’s “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” The gentlemen also do a respectable job with an acapella turn on the 17th Century Catalan carol “Fum, Fum, Fum.” And as mentioned, the choral pieces are just fine.

But if Karamu decides to do this Revue in the future, they might want to consider drafting some stronger solo voices and rethinking a couple of the staging decisions. In particular, turning “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” into a glancing sexual harassment situation tarnishes the naughty-but-nice attitude of that song. And if you’re going to do a reading of “The Night Before Christmas,” it might be advisable do more with it than a bland, traditional reading from a book. (Think of the John Malkovich classic on SNL. Or, you know, think of something).

In any case, the performers are warm and welcoming, and it’s the holidays! So chug another spiked eggnog and have a blast!

Holiday Jazz Revuew
Through Dec. 23 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89 St., 216-795-7070,

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Urinetown, Blank Canvas Theatre

Is it juvenile? Yes. Is it Silly? Of course. And is it universal? Well, there’s nothing more all-encompassing, never mind your ethnicity or politics, than the need to pee. And while it may seem farfetched that the government would like to stop some people from peeing where they wish (transgender people may chuckle ruefully here), this show is a hoot.

Urinetown has been making a splash for some years, and now Blank Canvas Theatre is giving it a go on its tiny stage—and succeeds for the most part. Under the direction of Patrick Ciamacco, who also quadruples as set/lighting/sound designer, the 19-person cast conveys the problem of peeing-for-a-price with gusto.

It helps that there are strong performers taking on the major roles.  The dystopian songfest is narrated with smug arrogance by Rob Albrecht as Officer Lockstock (always accompanied by Officer Barrel, played by Jason Salamon). As the man in charge of enforcing the town’s draconian law, instituted for supposed ecological reasons due to a crushing drought, the large and in charge Albrecht gives the show a strong core.  He reels off efficient and meta narration as he sort of explains the need to ban private toilets to Little Sally (a wide-eyed Dayshawnda Ash):: “You’re too young to understand it now, Little Sally, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”

He is matched nicely by John J. Polk as Caldwell B. Cladwell, president of Urine Good Company and the guy who owns all the public toilets. And Polk is gifted with one of the most enjoyable songs in recent musicals, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” which carries a warning for those who get bulldozed by the powerful entities of big business and a government that punishes people who are poor and weak (“You’re born to power/You’re in the money…don’t be the bunny!”).

These pee police don’t go unchallenged since Bobby Strong (a forthright and upstanding Daryl Kelley) takes on the role as the leader of the forces rebelling against the law.  And his romance with Hope Cladwell (an achingly na├»ve Stephanie Harden), the daughter of the pee magnate, registers effectively.

In the role of Penelope Pennywise, the harridan who runs an amenity in the poor part of the city, Bernadette Hisey sings well but never becomes the hateful presence she must be to give the show its gut punch. Pennywise is on the front line of the pee ban, so she needs to be a real badass. If Cladwell is the Gordon Gekko of pee, she must be the Terminator.

The ensemble offers great support—Trey Gilpin and Kristy Cruz in particular—and the small band under Matthew Dolan’s baton delivers solid accompaniment. And the music soars particularly in the up tempo “Run, Freedom, Run,” which features a harmonizing choir of singers.

The premise of this show makes no sense, of course, since people could always find a way to pee on the sly. Plus, the idea of a government stopping people from peeing makes about as much sense as giving tax breaks to the rich while raising taxes on the poor. Like that could happen.

Through December 16 at Blank Canvas Theatre, West 78 Street Studios, 1300 W. 78 St., 440-941-0458,

Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars, Dobama Theatre

Every parent is always is always in search of appropriate and fun entertainment for their kids. So it’s good news that Dobama is presenting the family-friendly show Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars. It’s a fun show for children, since it features lots of running around, some wonderfully-staged action sequences, and just enough Message to give it some feel-good heft.

Local playwright Eric Coble has based his script on the eponymous graphic novels by Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood, about a gaggle of kids who worship Mr. Holmes and take it upon themselves to protect Victorian London against evil-doers in his absence.

And damned if scenic designer Ben Needham hasn’t brought that “comic book” look to the stage, using dramatic silhouettes and other graphic tricks to mimic the cartoonish elements of the source material. For example, a scene where a good guy and a bad guy are fighting on the roof of a speeding train is exhilarating, thanks to splendid projection design by the wizard of those things, T. Paul Lowry.

This is all great stuff for any rug rats in attendance. However, by jamming together a couple different story lines the plot is hard to follow, requiring the detective brilliance of, say, Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, even though his name leads the title, Holmes is mostly missing from these proceedings. You see, he and his arch enemy, the dastardly Moriarty, plunge over a waterfall at the very start, supposedly to their joint demise.

This leaves the show in the hands of a rotating cast of six kids, who display varying degrees of potential. On this night, among the most accomplished were Colin Frothingham as Wiggins, the Holmes-like leader of the Irregulars and Elise Pakiela as Pockets, the crew’s expert pickpocket.

The others Irregulars (Patrick Hensel as Chen, David Gretchko as Tiny, Adler Chefitz as Ash and Miranda Leeann as Eliza) have nice isolated moments. But overall the young actors, try as they might, aren't able to keep the pace of the dialog clipping along as rapidly as that train. The result is a lot of pregnant pauses that slowly seep the energy out of the show.

The five adults in the cast do what they can to keep the production humming. Among them, Christopher M. Bohan turns in a steady job as both Dr. Watson and Sherlock, and Ray Caspio is a snarly study in nastiness as two different villains, Morris Wiggins and Moriarty himself. It’s just a shame these two fine actors don’t have more juicy scenes together.  As the clueless Inspector Lestrade, Ananias J. Dixon nearly devours the impressive scenery on Dobama’s vast stage, drooling and chomping into each of his lines to cadge some laughs. Hey, you can’t blame him.

In short, this Sherlock is a sure lock for kids and their parents.  For everyone else, deductive reasoning might suggest a different entertainment choice.

Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars
Through December 30 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396,

The Lyons, Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

If you like your comedies dark, they don’t come much blacker than Nicky Silver’s The Lyons. And this production in the River Street Playhouse, part of the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre complex, gives this nasty script a nice ride.

The set-up couldn’t be starker: Old Ben Lyons is in a hospital bed dying of cancer and his wife, Rita, is sitting bedside planning a renovation of their home.  If that sounds cruel, it is—that’s who these people are. There are plenty of zingers darting back and forth, and most of the humor lands with a wince.

Once their two grown kids Lisa and Curtis arrive, things don’t improve much, since Lisa  (Catherine Remick) is a barely recovering alcoholic and Curtis (Sean McCormick)  is a closeted gay man with daddy, mommy and sister issues.

This production, under the direction of Yvonne E. Pilarczyk, starts off well as a bitter John Q. Bruce as Ben and a sharp-tongued Mary Jane Nottage as Rita spar with each other, each trying to draw blood from the rock their longtime spouse has become. But as the first half of the show progresses, the pace bogs down since the three ambulatory characters in this hospital room aren't blocked to reflect their respective attitudes, giving the first act a static feel. It should feel like a 3D chess match where the players are armed with knives and bedpans.

The proceedings pick up steam in the second act, when we’re thrown into an entirely new setting where Curtis flirts with real estate salesman Brian (Justin Steck). After that encounter ends on an unexpected note, we’re back in the hospital,where things have changed. And eventually, some rays of hope shine forth.

Overall, the performances are on point, even in the smallest role of the nurse, played with appropriately exhausted good will by Lisa Lee Lazarczyk. As she says at one point, “The way I see it, there are no answers. Some people are happy, and some people are just lonely, mean and sad. And that’s the world.” Indeed.

The Lyons
Through December 9 at the River Street Playhouse, Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, 40 River Street, Chagrin Falls, 440-247-8955.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Steady Rain, none too fragile theater

(Tony Zanoni as Denny and Chris Richards as Joey)

Sometimes good actors can help mediocre material survive. But when half the cast is missing in action, that fact reduces the chances of something good developing on stage.

In the formulaic A Steady Rain by Keith Huff, two cops are serving a conversation back and forth over a cop-drama net that has been wilted by too much familiarity. Doing a good cop/bad cop routine on the audience, Denny is the hard ass with questionable morality while Joey, his life-long pal from school days, is a recovering alcoholic who has a crush on Denny’s wife.

As the two guys plod dutifully through their respective stories, it becomes apparent that even the lurid details of their histories won’t save this play from itself. And since most of it happens in the past, there is no immediacy and no spark.

As Joey, Chris Richards is believable and does what he can to craft a functioning character. Trouble is, he’s playing off Tony Zanoni as Denny, and Zanoni fails to match Richards’ performance. By latching for dear life onto a Joe Pesci-like accent, minus the menace, Zanoni’s serial monologues lack the shape and depth that Richards exhibits.

In another play with more characters, this would not be a big problem. But this two-hander requires two performers who are equally weighted and continually complementary, like two acrobats.

Indeed, as the play ground on to its sad conclusion, it was hard not to wish that the director Robert Ellis, a fine actor with the heft that is missing here, had cast himself in the role of Denny. That might have been magical. Instead, A Steady Rain is just as waterlogged as it sounds.

A Steady Rain
Through November 11 at none too fragile theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547,

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Caucasian Chalk Circle, Shahrazad Theatre Company

All plays have some sort of message they want to convey, but some messages are more obvious than others. This is a fact some people choose to reject: As movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn once said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” (For those under age 30, Western Union used to be a telegram delivery company. What’s a telegram? Go to your room.)

Of course, if you’re playwright Bertolt Brecht, you wear your message emblazoned on a sign hung around your characters’ necks. This he does in the prologue of Caucasian Chalk Circle, now being performed by a new troupe named the Shahrazad Theatre Company. Focused on creating immersive theater that dissolves the fourth wall between performers and audience, STC hopes to produce more works in the future with the fostering assistance of the well-established Ensemble Theatre.

The post-prologue plot outline is quite simple. A peasant girl in the Soviet Union named Grusha rescues the Governor’s abandoned baby boy, falls in love with a soldier, named Simon, and eventually has to battle for the right to keep the child when the Governor’s wife returns to claim him. But true to Brecht, there are countless other characters added to this mix as he trots out his pointed political satire and flair for the absurd. The bottom-line message of the prologue and the play clearly represent Brecht’s socio-political stance: That all things should belong to those who would do well by them. (Try to get that one through Congress.) And that there’s a difference between justice and the law for poor and rich alike, with actual justice arrived at only by chance.

This production is an uneven but determinedly earnest attempt at corralling the Brechtian style and messaging. And that is more than faint praise, since this is no easy script to harness and get moving in the same direction. The multiple characters in the piece, played by 11 actors who all take on multiple roles, range from naturalistic portrayals to highly stylized, often grotesque and masked cartoon figures.

It’s a conglomeration that sometimes works very well under the direction of Kyle Huff, and at other times gets bogged down in an effort to make every character, even small ones, throb with comical or dramatic intent. This is particularly the case in the first act of the play before intermission. Kayla Davis as Grusha is a solid but not particularly compelling presence as she hikes through the mountains with the infant, although her dalliance with Simon (a sweet August Scarpelli) does have its own charm.

The second act is crisper and funnier, as the focus shifts to the drunken lout Azdak (Robert Hawkes, who also earlier plays the Governor), who is now sitting as a judge. Hawkes uses his fine comic timing to cadge many laughs from his performance, although he is at times almost too much in control for this unhinged character. Other engaging performances are turned in by James Rankin as the singer/narrator and as Shauwa, Azdak’s assistant; Valerie Young in several roles showing off well-defined and amusing characters; Katelyn Rotuno as the harridan Governor’s wife; and Steve Vas-Hansell and Allen Branstein as a pair of “iron shirt” soldiers in the mode of Abbott and Costello.

Although there are no more shows currently planned for STC, it is hoped that they can find a way to continue their theatrical efforts. Like, for instance, with Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Talk about timely!

Caucasian Chalk Circle
Through November 12, produced by the Shahrazad Theatre Company fostered by Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights,