Wednesday, October 15, 2014

[title of show], Beck Center

(From left: Pat Miller, Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly, Amiee Collier and Will Sanborn)

When I was a creative director at advertising agencies, a rookie copywriter would occasionally propose a radio spot for a car dealer with this pitch: “See, it’s two ad agency guys sitting around talking about what would make a good radio spot for our car dealer. And as they talk and crack jokes, they cover all the copy points. When they’re done talking, the spot is over.”

Those well-meaning copywriters were sent back to their cubicles with their Dixon Ticonderogas tucked between their legs, because that is a too-easy, too-facile way to write an engaging spot. The same, it turns out, is true for the theatrical version of that gambit, which is [title of show], now at Beck Center.

This musical is centered on the creators Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) sitting around and talking about how to write a musical. They are joined by their gal pals Susan and Heidi, and soon they are riffing on all sorts of theatrical and cultural minutiae circa 2006, when the play was first produced.

No doubt, there were howls of laughter eight years ago as the script and songs poked fun at "stars"  such as Shields and Yarnell to Heidi Klum. But these pop references have not aged well. If fact, they are so squishy and soft there’s not a hard edge of contemporary wit in the entire piece. This is why the on-going satirical wonder Forbidden Broadway keeps remaking itself, rewritten more than a dozen times since 1982, so the jibes stay fresh.

The only jokes that work here, even a little bit, are the meta references. As when they mail their script off to a new play festival and one asks, “If the play is in the envelope, should we still be talking?”

Of course, being a meta show the writers flagellate themselves before critics have the chance, worrying that their material is “self-indulgent and self-referential.” And they’re right, especially now.

The cast of Will Sanborn, Pat Miller, Amiee Collier and Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly try their best under the direction of Scott Spence, with the on-stage accompaniment of Larry Goodpaster at the keyboard. All four sing well, and the women fare better than the men in terms of shaping their characters. Plus, the penultimate song, ”Nine People’s Favorite Thing,” is still a winner.

But you couldn’t revive this show with the world’s most powerful defibrillator. Though [title of show] won an Obie Award in 2006, it now needs to be taken behind the barn and shot—so Bowen, Bell and the rest of us can move on with our lives.

[title of show]
Through November 16 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Great Lakes Theatre

(Aled Davies as Falstaff, surrounded by admirers.)

A couple seasons ago, director Tracy Young lit up the GLT stage with a boffo reinterpretation of The Taming of the Shrew. And it was lauded by this reviewer for its outrageous and mostly successful, “balls out, imaginative” production.

Well, sometimes when you go balls out, you run the risk of getting something snagged in a zipper, as happens in the current modernized staging of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Sure, there are plenty of outrageous and off-the-wall moments in this exercise, often tumbling one atop the other.

But the supposed humor is consistently lacking in wit (a “cut the cheese” joke, followed helpfully by a fart reference, for the slow of mind) while the puns (“Hot venison for dinner?” “Oh, dear!”) feel carefully manufactured. You don’t have to be a Shakespearean purist to want something more than that, in a piece that dares to rewrite (or write alongside) the Bard.

This Wives is larded throughout with attempts at humor circa the late 1940s (although the set by Rick Martin evokes the clean, stark lines of a later time). The denizens of a small Wisconsin town are dealing with the personage of Mr. Falstaff, a Hollywood-style raconteur who is in town trying to reignite his career. He decides to put the moves on two local married women, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, using his ineffable charm and ample girth to win them over and gain access to their bank accounts.

Mr. Ford (a hyperventilating Lynn Robert Berg) goes nuclear with his jealousy when he learns about Falstaff’s plans, and they both share unfortunate encounters with a rolling dumpster.

There are still some of Old Will’s lines in the play, and they ring true and charming. But finding them amidst all the hee-haw of this bloated extravaganza becomes a rather odious task, like picking whole kernels of sweet corn out of a cow pie.

For silly stuff to work on stage, it has to have sharp and genuine wit, which is on display in plays such as Spamalot, Urinetown, and Avenue Q. Otherwise, it’s just a collection of old jokes lashed together loosely with mugging and forced gaiety. It's the "try to do something funny here" school of acting.

Besdies a lack of wit, genuine or otherwise, this version of Wives is bereft of any sense of control, which is necessary for humor to work effectively (and which was present in the much more successful Shrew). Young throws everything at the theatrical fan, including slapstick (yes, there’s a pie in the face), and funny dances and walks (but not funny like Monty Python).

There are also bad French accents (often unintelligible mash-ups of Pepe Le Pew and Inspector Clouseau—but not as cute as the former or as hilarious as the latter). Tom Ford as Dr. Caius and Tracee Patterson as Madame Quickly are saddled with the task of hauling those accents around, and unfortunately the works shows.

As for the Wives, Jodi Dominick as Mrs. Page and Laura Walsh Berg as Mrs. Ford over-emote as the concept dictates, leaving the sly humor Shakespeare intended floundering in the wake of hissing catfights and such.

Of course, the rotund Falstaff is at the center of this melee. But Aled Davies, a most accomplished actor, seems like an unsuspecting fellow who stumbled into the wrong party. He always seems a bit too natty and uptight for the carousing and impulsive drunkard. For instance, his scene climbing out of the dumpster garbage should be a howl, but instead it just feels a little pathetic. Instead of cackling at the foolish plight of this adorably pompous ass, you want to help clean him up, straighten his tie and hand him his briefcase.

All that said (and still leaving a lot unsaid, as we won’t go into detail about the Magic Trick! Canned Laughter! Food Fight!), Young and GLT should be thanked for trying to breathe new life into Shakespeare. Taking risks is what good theater is all about. Because, done right, an audacious adaptation of Shakespeare can work just fine. This time, however, their Merry Wives is a witless spit-take.

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Through November 2 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theater, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.

Anna Christie, Ensemble Theatre

(Greg White as Chris and Katie Nabors as Anna)

Even though labels can often be misleading, sometimes they are dead-on accurate. And so it is with two labels connected to Anna Christie, now at Ensemble Theatre.

The first label is the Pulitzer Prize label, which this play by Eugene O’Neill was awarded in 1922. Although perhaps a bit melodramatic by contemporary standards, Anna Christie is a work of amazing force. Sure, it’s waterlogged with a flood of “dat ol’ davil sea” references and the happy ending feels pre-Disney-ish. But this play earns that award with distinct characters who never fail to intrigue.

And the second accurate label is Ensemble Theatre, since the acting assemblage under the direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz is tight and admirable, meshing together to craft an engrossing story.

Old Swedish salt Chris Christopherson sent his daughter Anna away to live with relatives in Minnesota, to get her away from the sea that has ruled his life. And now, grown-up Anna, who had been working as a prostitute inland, comes back to meet her dad and wash herself clean in the same seawater that bedevils papa.

But when a shipwreck survivor, Mat Burke, comes on board, the personal dynamics shift and there are plenty of rough seas ahead.

The company of actors is strong from top to bottom. As Anna, Katie Nabors counters her physical beauty with enough behavioral rough edges to convincingly portray this whore with a heart of, if not gold, than a nicely polished brass.

Greg White, in a wonderful example of non-traditional casting, is a reflective and often amusing Chris, conveying the look of a crusty seaman while trying to overlook his daughter’s seedy past. White exudes a personal warmth that floods the stage, much as the ever-present fog. And while Michael Johnson as Mat defaults a bit too often to a smirking sort of arrogance, his spot-on Irish accent and focus helps his character play effectively in all his scenes.

In a small role in the first act, Mary Alice Beck trots out a splendid turn as Marthy, Chris’ blowsy dockside squeeze, a veteran boozer herself. Stephen Vasse-Hansell does a neat job as Larry the bartender while Allen Branstein and Kyle Huff fill out other roles nicely.

Sure, we might wish that director Hinz had tried to infuse a bit more nuance into the smiley-face ending. But this is a production that gleams brightly throughout, so we won’t sweat the ending that much.

Anna Christie
Through October 19 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Loki & Lucy, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

(Bryan Ritchey as Loki and Melissa T. Crum as Lucy)

It’s always best if a children’s theater piece is also amusing to the adults who are accompanying the little ones. After all, they deserve something for bringing the tykes to the show, paying for their tickets, and keeping track of their shoes, etc.

And this play, a Norse myth adapted for the stage by Michael Geither, has plenty for kids and adults to enjoy. Geither’s script is quite charming, and the performance by the five cast members, under Alison Garrigan’s energetic direction, is often hilarious.

Lucy is a young girl who is fascinated by a man whom she knows is in the tree outside her home. And when she goes to sleep, the tree comes to life as the impish Loki ushers her through a dream world populated by a lot of people with too many consonants in their names.

One of these is Thorbjorn Horabrudr, and Nate Miller is wonderful in the part, using his infinitely expressive face to register all sorts of Norwegian emotions. It’s hard to take your eyes off him, he’s so consistently amusing.

Then there’s muscle-bound but not-too-bright Thor, who wields his thunder hammer with relish in the person of Nicholas Chokan. And Brittany Gaul plays Lucy’s mom and the fiendish, fox-like Fenrir with gusto.

Bryan Ritchey as the tree-man Loki is remarkably agile, entirely personable, and quite a kidder: “Pull my finger!” And Melissa T. Crum captures the girlish enthusiasm of Lucy when she finds herself in that magical world.

Garrigan utilizes dance, inventive movement, puppets, masks, and a huge blue lobster to keep things interesting for the kiddies.

However, there’s a lot of unnecessary exposition jammed into the script, with a number of names and other details that get lost in the telling. This is possibly an attempt to be true to the source material, but the actors still make this hour-long journey a fun and often laugh-out-loud ride.

Loki & Lucy
Through October 12 at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, The Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, 216-264-9680.

August: Osage County, Lakeland Civic Theatre

(From left: Diane Mull as Barbara Fordham, Courtney Nicole Auman as Ivy Weston and Debbie Jenkins as Karen Weston)

It’s a good thing Norman Rockwell never had Thanksgiving dinner at the Weston household, or that famous painting of his would have turned out a lot different.

The Westons, for the uninitiated, are the folks who populate this play by Tracy Letts, and they are a hot Oklahoma mess. Embodying all of the seven deadly sins and then adding a couple more, this is a family that would make a damn fine reality show.

And in this production at Lakeland College, featuring a cast of notable local actors, the sparks fly especially bright in the second act—after a first act that slips its gears a few too many times to be fully effective.

Family matriarch Violet Weston is married to her long-time husband Beverly, and they have an agreements that boils down to, as Violet says, “He drinks, I take drugs.” Violet is given to “telling truths” about her family, and that occasion arises when Beverly goes missing and the family is summoned from near and far.

Among the ruined people in this wreck of a family are older daughter Barbara, who is separated from her husband Bill. He still comes along, with their sullen teenage daughter Jean. Barbara has two sisters, weak and wan Ivy, who lives at the homestead, and Karen who lives with her fiance Steve (she will be his fourth wife) in Florida.

Then there’s Violet’s sister Mattie-Fae Aiken, her husband Charlie and their son, the fully-grown Little Charles. And this menagerie is watched over by the Native-American woman, Johanna (Caitlin Post), who was hired as a housekeeper by Beverly before he disappeared. Another outsider is Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Michael Vitovich), who shows up with bad news.

This is a long and monumentally demanding show, and director Martin Friedman finds the bones of this script by having his actors dig hard. In the prime role of Violet, Anne McEvoy is a shattered collision of a human being, but she continually pulls herself together long enough to torment anyone within earshot.

Although he disappears soon, Robert Abelman as Beverly doesn’t obviously telegraph the situation, speaking convivially with Johanna during her job interview. But his steady drinking and his haunting singsong exit line, “Here we go ‘round the prickly pear…” suggests darkness to come.

Diane Mull as Barbara takes on the most emotionally complex role in the play and handles it well, although some of Barbara’s twists and turns at the end feel a bit choreographed. As for the other two sisters, Courtney Nicole Auman is a sad package as Ivy, and she implodes powerfully when she absorbs the brunt of the play’s most shocking revelation. Debbie Jenkins as Karen doesn’t quite find the through line of her Act Two opening scene, but she gets stronger as the play continues.

Andrew Narten is solid as Bill and Natalie Welch is properly irritating as Jean. Rose Leninger and Jeffrey Glover are well matched as the longtime bickering couple Mattie Fae and Charlie. And Aaron Elersich as sleazy Steve and Jeremy Jenkins as Little Charles contribute crisp and telling scenes.

The first act seems to build tension a bit too slowly, with the actors often tucked up stage in little corners of Keith Nagy’s necessarily complex set. But the second act is mostly a downhill rush to destruction, with the actors and the audience hanging on for dear life.

August: Osage County
Through October 5 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, 440-525-7034
Lakeland Community College Campus (just south of Rt. 90 and Rt. 306) in Kirtland.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Edward Albee’s OCCUPANT

No, it’s not Occupant by Edward Albee. The playwright’s name comes first in this title, which may indicate a slight insecurity with the material, a desire to make sure everyone knows the writer is that icon of American theater and not some schlub off the street.

Even though his name is above the title, marquee-wise, this play is not an ego-driven work. Instead it is an almost gushing tribute to Russian-born, groundbreaking sculptor Louise Nevelson, a long-time friend of Albee and a figure of imposing importance in the art world.

The structure of the piece is simply an interview, a historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of la Nevelson is asking questions of the admittedly long-dead artist. They both seem mildly amused by that situation, but they then launch into a Q & A that covers the entirety of Nevelson’s colorful life.

Everything, it seems, is touched on: her hard-working immigrant family, her unpleasant marriage, her sexual dalliances, her son, and finally her art.

With apologies to Mr. Albee, the best thing about this production is the acting. Under the precise direction of Greg Cesear, the two actors spin a sublimely hypnotic world. George Roth plays the sometimes challenging, often fawning interviewer with just the right touch of deference and devotion.

And as Nevelson, Julia Kolibab is a dark eyed force (Nevelson was famous for wearing multiple sets of sable eyelashes), dispensing truths and fictions about her existence with the same assuredness. Kolibab is a stunning presence, and you wish she’d go on talking for much longer.

This is not exactly a flawless production, however, since the script often seems like a glorified Wikipedia entry, albeit written with the wit and deft conversational feints that only Albee can concoct. And the insights, such as they are (“If you’re lucky enough, you become the person you are inside.”) are not exactly Earth-shaking.

And one wishes that more time was spent on the struggle of this inspired woman to work her way through the male-dominated art scene, and on her particular artistic vision.

Ah well, we’ll take what we can get. On a handsome set design by Laura Carlson Tarantowski, replete with Nevelson-like artifacts featuring detailed monochromatic black and gold boxes, the show manages to retain one’s attention throughout.

Ms. Nevelson would have appreciated that.

Edward Albee’s OCCUPANT
Through October 12 at PlayhouseSquare, Kennedy’s, 1516 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000..

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Forever Plaid, Beck Center

(Plaids L to R: Brian Altman as Smudge, Shane Patrick O'Neill as Frankie, Josh Rhett Noble as Sparky, and Matthew Ryan Thompson as Jinx)

Time was, four clean-cut young lads could sing “Heart and Soul” in close harmony and make teenage girls scream and swoon. Sixty years before One Direction, groups such as the Four Aces and the Hi-Lo’s were laying out young female audiences with their lyrical takes on classic songs.

And the evergreen show Forever Plaid, now at the Beck Center, brings back that era of crooning post World War II innocence. As directed and choreographed by Martin Cespedes, this is an entertaining and endearing representation of the Plaid franchise, even if some of the songs don’t fly as high as they might.

The conceit of the book, written by Stuart Ross, is that the four high school vocalists were snuffed out by a school bus before their career took off. So through a cosmic harmonic convergence, the heavens have opened and brought them back to life to perform the concert they never performed in real life.

Each of the Plaids has his own little quirks, and these are brought to life nicely by Brian Altman (nerdy Smudge), Josh Rhett Noble (lively Sparky), Shane Patrick O’Neill (focused Frankie) and Matthew Ryan Thompson (fragile Jinx). Despite having names that sound like Snow White’s backup team of dwarfs, the boys get their act together in short order.

The song list is hefty and includes old-time faves such as “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Catch a Falling Star.” And the comedy bits, such as a 3-minute mash-up of all the acts that used to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, come off without a hitch. Even if you weren’t around for the original, it never gets old seeing jugglers and stupid dog tricks—even if it’s a stuffed dog being tossed through a hula hoop.

Of course, the music is the reason for this show to exist, and the four performers fashion some sweet blends. However, the exacting demands of close harmony forces them to lower their volume on a number of songs. As a result, the glorious soaring notes many remember when the Four Aces crooned “Love Is a Man Splendored Thing” are not there.

Sure, many of the dance moves are just as they were when Ross directed and choreographed the original production of his show in 1990. And they can get repetitive (lean left, lean right, move the floor mic in a circle, etc.) Still, Cespedes and musical director Bryan Bird compose a crisp and nicely-paced production that keeps its foot on the pedal of musical memories.

As you might expect, there is precious little edgy material here, unless you get a tingle when one of the boys, in marketing mode, innocently says, “We’d like to work your private functions.” And that is true to the era when rock and roll was just beginning. Indeed, people back then were so clueless that pioneer rocker Bill Haley and His Comets’ first albums were called “foxtrots with vocals,” perhaps to appease the old folks.

But everyone knew what those masters of harmony in guy and girl groups were up to. And this Forever Plaid is a fitting tribute to that music of the Eisenhower years.

Forever Plaid
Through October 12 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540