Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Romeo and Juliet, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

Could there be anything lovelier than seeing Romeo and Juliet in a gorgeous outdoor setting by a couple of ponds as an accomplished Shakespearian troupe presents the richly romantic and tragic story of those star-crossed lovers? After all, the Ohio Shakespeare Festival has been churning out exceptional productions of Shakespeare’s works on the grounds of the Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens for many years. So how could it miss?

Well, this is theater and things happen. And in this instance, many decisions made by director Nancy Cates wind up making this R&J substantially less memorable than it ought to be.

But before we get to that, there’s a substantial sliver of good news. In the role of the Nurse to Juliet, Lara Mielcarek is both hilarious and quite touching as she tends to the needs of her teenage charge. Mielcarek takes this character and finds every nook and cranny of interest, enabling the character to blossom in all the right ways.

This is exactly what doesn’t happen with the title roles. Joe Pine (Romeo) and Tess Burgler (Juliet) are long-term OSF company members, and they each have been brilliant in the past, in multiple shows. But in this production, directed by Nancy Cates, they’ve taken these two teens (Juliet is supposed to be 13 and Romeo a few years older) and turned them into wisecracking, very adult-seeming creeps in the first act.

Sure, it’s great if you can make a Shakespeare play accessible, and have fun with the characters. But it’s hard to find any innocence in these two, as portrayed by actors (especially Pine) who don’t exactly look like tender young folks. The bald-headed Pine has developed a reputation for being strong willed and self-possessed on stage, two qualities that don’t work so well for exploring Romeo’s swoony vulnerability.

Tess Burgler is an equally powerful presence on stage, but in this play she rattles off Juliet’s lines in the first act like a smartass 30-year-old divorcee with a drinking habit. It’s virtually impossible to look at this characterization and find any of the tenderness and delicacy of a middle-school girl in the late middle ages thrown into a romance for the ages.

Of course, this all has to change in Act Two when things start getting serious, but that turn is never made satisfactorily. This leaves the tragic final scene much less affecting than it should be.

What we are seeing here is, possibly, the “Greenshowing” of OSF’s work. For quite a few years, some of the less-featured members of the company have presented delightful songs and parodies in the Greenshow that precedes each performance. These bits poke fun at Shakespeare and are often a hoot. But now, it seems that cavalier, go-for-broke Greenshow attitude is being applied to the actual play. And if Romeo and Juliet is an example, it isn’t working very well.

This is seen clearly in the performance of Ryan Zarecki as Romeo’s trusted friend Mercutio. Zarecki has also had many wonderful moments on the OSF stage in the past. But here, he is working so hard to cadge laughs from the audience that his character’s persona is bulldozed in the process.

Indeed, when Mercutio lays down his life for Romeo in a duel with Tybalt, we don’t get the sense of the deep loyalty Mercutio feels. And that softens the impact of the rest of the play, as doom descends. Sadly, once Mercutio is dead we can’t watch Zarecki do any more hair-flipping—a talent that he has mastered, rivaling the storied hair-flips of Justin Bieber and Anna Camp.

This time around, even the Greenshow itself feels a bit shopworn. And it isn’t helped by OSF’s current fascination with (and borderline fetishizing of) hyper-realistic stage combat. Sword fights are featured in the Greenshow, and in the play itself, and are becoming as boring as well-choreographed pro wrestling takedowns.

Perhaps it’s natural for a theater company to take what has worked well in the past and then overdo it as time goes on. The solution is very simple: Go back to exploring the characters, and telling their story with creativity and passion. I call it the Lara Mielcarek Rule.

Romeo and Juliet
Through July 15 at the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 100 S. High St., Akron, 888-718-4253, ohioshakespearefestival.com

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Memphis, The Musical, Cain Park

There are a few good reasons to see Memphis, the Musical now at Cain Park. But none of them have to do with the story and how it rolls out. This is not to say that the tale of a white man who actively promoted African-American “race music” in the 1950s isn’t interesting. It is quite intriguing, since it’s based on the real story of a man named Dewey Phillips, a Memphis disc jockey.

It’s just that his story, along with that of Felicia Farrell, a dazzling young black singer, is related in such a predicable manner you could write it in your sleep. And that may be what Joe DiPietro did, who also co-wrote the lyrics, since every dramatic curve and plot turn can be seen coming from a mile away.

But none of that was enough to keep Memphis from winning the 2010 Tony for best musical, and it shouldn’t be enough to stop you from visiting the Alma Theater on the Cain Park campus and delving into this professional, virtually airtight production directed by the estimable Joanna May Cullinan.

The original music composed by David Bryan, keyboard player for Bon Jovi, is a blessed relief from so many of the jukebox musicals that are often employed to tell the story of the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll. While not every one of his songs is memorable, there are certain pieces that definitely rock the house. But more importantly, the entire score deftly captures the essence of how black rhythm and blues songs were “sped up” and became what we know as rock music.

It all begins in a Beale Street dive, owned and named after a black man named Delray that is frequented by many in the Memphis black community. And in walks Huey (who is the Dewey character. There is no Louie, sadly.), and this unassuming white guy stands out like, well, a white guy in a black bar. Remember, this was the early-to-mid 1950s, a time when racial separation was the rule of the day.

After some initial resistance, Huey warms up the patrons by singing “Music of My Soul,” a tribute to the black music that is overwhelming the bland white music dominating the pop charts at the time. Soon, Huey wrangles his way into a temporary gig at a local radio station, a white music station sitting securely in “the middle of the dial.” (Note to young people: who listen to music on their phones: Radios once had dials that you turned to select different stations. And the primo stations were in the middle of that dial. What’s a radio? Oh, forget about it.)

Along the way, Huey meets and is smitten by Felicia Farrell, Delray’s sister and one of the featured singers at the club. The white man’s attentions and intentions are noted by Delray and others in the bar, much to their consternation. But Huey is not a man who is easily put off.

That idea comes through with powerful clarity due to the performance of Douglas F. Bailey II as Huey.  Sporting a posture that is best described as a perpetual slump and a speaking voice that makes every sentence sound like a whiny question, Bailey’s Huey always seems like a mangy dog that has just been beaten and left out in the rain. But as this whole show demonstrates, you shouldn’t judge people by how they look. It turns out that Huey has a will of iron when it comes to defending the music he loves and pursuing the woman of his dreams.

After Huey sneaks some black music onto a white radio station, and the phones are jammed with positive white reaction, the storyline progresses just as you would expect. But that’s okay since Bailey is a kickass rock singer who is matched and then exceeded by Nicole Sumlin who plays Felicia.

Of course, Felicia has most of the good songs, but Sumlin turns each of them into gleaming gems. This is particularly true with “Someday,” the song she sings live on Huey’s radio show, at the moment when she and Huey bond and the black music takes over the Memphis airwaves. Huey’s radio show is soon number one in the market, and his relationship with Felicia is soon also #1 with a bullet. But that won’t last, as you knew it wouldn’t.

Bailey and Sumlin are supported admirably by a large cast and stellar performances in key roles. Among those are Anthony Savage-Williams as Delray, the fearsomely energetic Elijah Dawson as Huey’s black friend Bobby, and Chris Richards as Mr. Simmons, the white owner of the radio station who is won over by the money Huey’s black music is bringing in. Also, music director Jordan Cooper and choreographer Leilani Barrett keep the energy pumping—even through a second act that isn’t nearly as compelling as Act One.

Yes, eventually the familiarity of the story wears thin, particularly in the final moment of reconciliation between Huey and Felicia. But never mind, the performances are king in this show, and those are spectacular.

Memphis, The Musical
Through July 1 at Cain Park, Alma Theater, Superior Road between Lee Road and South Taylor Road in Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000, ticketmaster.com.

Soho Cinders, Mercury Theatre Company

Okay, sure, Jerry Lewis did it first in Cinderfella, turning the Cinderella story on its head and switching genders of the poor little heroine. But as inventive as Lewis was, he could never have anticipated Cinderella being turned into Robbie, a young gay man who is having an affair with a married (to a woman) mayoral candidate, James Prince, in London, England while diddling a Lord Bellingham on the side.

That’s the essence of the musical Soho Cinders now being produced by the Mercury Theatre Company. Robbie shares his confusion with his girlfriend Velcro during their frequent meetings at the local laundrette, Sit and Spin. And that relationship actually turns out to be the most affecting and resonant one in the show

The music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe range from acceptable to downright wonderful. Although the book by Drewe takes some enormous leaps of logic, eschewing reality when it comes to a political candidate having such dalliances.

As with Cinderella, the story comes to a climax during a ball, when the three men meet awkwardly. Robbie has managed to get to the fancy-dress affair despite the shenanigans of his evil stepsisters Dana and Clodagh.

Under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, the cast is quite competent with a couple standout moments. The duet between Mason Henning as Robbie and Kennedy Ellis as Velcro is drop-dead gorgeous. And Amiee Collier and Kelvette Beacham as the sisters spare no calories in making the women as nightmarish as possible. That comes to a head in the song “I’m So Over Men” which, as you might expect, is so wrong.

As Prince (who is, you know, the “Prince”), Brian Marshall dials back the attitude he often brings to character roles, playing a fairly straight (though gay) character with a bracing degree of honesty.  And Joe Monaghan as Prince’s campaign manager adds a dash of sarcastic edge to the proceedings.

Even though the overall pace of the show seems a bit lethargic, and the British colloquialisms and accents are incomprehensible at times, the music shines forth. That makes Soho Cinders a must-see for those who relish new musicals that are willing to take chances.

Soho Cinders
Through June 23 produced by Mercury Theatre Company, Notre Dame College, Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatrecompany.org.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Cleveland Play House

It’s hard not to like a Hershey Felder show. Like a friendly and incredibly persistent Scotch terrier, Felder’s shows hump your leg with gusto until you’re forced to give them your full attention.

Such is the case with Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, which is another in Felder’s long lineup of one-person shows about famous composers and songwriters. That list includes Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.  And the staging is usually always the same: Felder playing the piano and singing (when appropriate) while narrating a dutiful accounting of the person’s life, musical and otherwise.

Felder is an accomplished pianist and vocalist, so those aspects of the show are always handled with professional skill. As a result, we are gifted with parts of many of Berlin’s songs including his breakthrough hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and his monumental “White Christmas.” All the songs aren’t represented, since the industrious Berlin penned about 1500 of them, but you get the idea that this Russian immigrant was a pillar of American music.

What you don’t quite get a sense of is what kind of person Irving Berlin really was. As good as Felder is at the piano and singing, his skills at writing (the book is his, as always) and acting are less than stupefying. In about two hours Felder tries to touch on every substantial milestone in Berlin’s life, which is the format he generally employs.  But this Wikipedia approach, while comprehensive, never takes the time to slow down and really explore the triumphs, fears and anxieties of such a towering talent.

And even if the words were there, it’s not clear that Felder could convey them, given his rat-a-tat acting style, which is always eager to move on to the next song, the next biographical tidbit. There certainly are aspects of Berlin’s life that would be rich sources of further analysis, such as his long relationship with his wife, the upper-crust Ellin Mackay and his boundless wit (“Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” and “Puttin’ On the Ritz”).

The fact that this poor Jewish immigrant became an avatar of American patriotism (“God Bless America”) and the creator of two of the most popular tunes relating to a religion that wasn’t his (“White Christmas” and “Easter Parade”) is a testament to his heft as a musical creator, but that depth is never plumbed. He even wrote a heart-wrenching song inspired by the lynching of a black man (“Supper Time”) sung by Ethel Waters, that conveyed the tragedy of race relations at the time in a very personal manner.

But those potentially interesting moments go by in a flash, and the result is a profile of Berlin that is a mile wide and an inch deep. That said, Felder is a talented and determined performer and he creates a tuneful, diverting show. Why quibble when we can just take Mr. Berlin’s advice: “Let’s Face the Music and Dance!”

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Through June 24 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

My Son Pinocchio, Mercury Theatre Company

Mercury Theatre Company, now celebrating its 20th anniversary in Cleveland, has a long history of selecting exceptional shows. And they have usually produced them extremely well, such as their dazzling Camelot in 2015 and last year’s La Cage Aux Folles. Even when the show selections aren’t particularly interesting, director Pierre-Jacques Brault usually finds a way to bring snap and wit to the proceedings.

However, their current production of My Son Pinocchio fails to deliver on most of those points. With a limp book by David Stern and mostly forgettable music by Broadway vet Stephen Schwartz, this show may only be appropriate for small kids. And undiscriminating kids, at that.

This Disney product is devoid of many of the Disney touches that make some of their other stage musicals soar. Instead, this Pinocchio, told from the point-of-view of the woodcarver Geppetto, is a rather joyless and overly didactic exercise in bullying kids to be good and “follow their conscience.”

We need not review the Pinocchio story here, but suffice to say not much extra is offered in this rendition. It even manages to turn Jiminy Cricket, who was a snappy little dresser for an insect, wearing an orange vest and a blue top hat in the 1940 Disney animated film. Here, Jiminy is all green and kind of a scold as voiced and manipulated by Kelly Monaghan.

Yes, the one difference in this show is that some of the characters are portrayed as puppets, some of them larger-than-life including Gerppetto and a couple others. Monaghan and Jonathan Bova as Geppetto do what they can with these puppetry duties, but since the puppets themselves don’t open their mouths while talking or singing, the effect is a bit surreal and off-putting. Bova and Bill Wetherbee as Pinocchio never develop a clear and emotional relationship, which undercuts any possibility of bonding with the audience.

Brian Marshall attempts to bring his signature snark to his role as The Fox, but the part is so woefully underwritten it’s never clear if he’s a villain, a good guy, or just a passerby.  And eventually you wish that The Blue Fairy (Claudia Zalevsky) had declined Geppetto’s wish to turn Pin into a boy and leave him as a doorstop or a paperweight.

Schwartz’s songs (he does both music and lyrics) are quite formulaic, with only “I’ve Got No Strings” and “Give a Little Whistle” emerging as more than vaguely intriguing. Indeed, the best song in the show is one not written by him—it’s the classic “When you Wish Upon a Star” by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington.

As always, the MTC performers as directed by Brault deliver all the energy you could ask for. But the material is so lame there’s really no saving it. In addition to the constant lessons being fired at the youngsters in the audience, there is precious little humor in the proceedings to keep adults distracted. (One exception, a clever way that shows Pinocchio’s nose growing.) This lack of amusing asides is odd, since the coin of the realm for these kinds of shows it having comic relief in the form of a wisecracking donkey or a smartass meerkat.

No, everybody is playing this story pretty straight. And as they say, all lessons and no jokes make this Pinocchio a dull boy.

My Son Pinocchio
Through June 24 at Mercury Theatre Company, Notre Dame College, Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatrecompany.org.

Monday, May 28, 2018

White Guy on the Bus, None Too Fragile Theater

Sometimes, one of the best things about certain shows is the title. In this case, with None Too Fragile Theater’s production of Bruce Graham’s White Guy on a Bus, the title has the desired effect of staking out two sides of the conflict to come.

Driving around town, we’ve all seen the people who are waiting for the bus, and they are predominantly African-American. These are people with low wage jobs that can’t afford personal transportation. So when the wealthy Caucasian financial advisor Ray starts riding the bus to the local prison late at night on the weekends, and repeatedly chats up an African-American woman who is a trainee nurse at the facility,  you begin to wonder what he’s up to.

These are the thoughts that go through Shatique’s mind, as a black woman who has to ride the bus out of necessity. And their shared rides lead to the surprising climax of a play that, most of the time, doesn’t earn its own earnestness about racial tensions, identity and privilege. The problems here are due both to the honest but overly obvious script and some decidedly vague performances.

Before Ray and Shatique meet, we are introduced to Ray’s wife Roz, who is a teacher at an inner city school and who wears her cynicism like a badge of honor (recounting the numbers of times she’s been called “white bitch” by her charges). But hidden under her smartass comments about her minority students beats a heart that really cares.

However, this doesn’t come forth when Roz is debating racial issues with her daughter Molly, who’s a teacher at a cushy private school. Nor with Molly’s fiancĂ© Christopher, who, it just so happens, is an academic fellow working on a study of African-American and Asian males in advertising.

For his part, Ray is a guy who says he wants to sell his house—no, he wants to sell everything—and move to an island somewhere. But those dreams of sitting on a beach end when a tragic event changes his intentions, and not in a good way.

The issues the playwright raises are powerful ones, especially in today’s world, and Graham is to be commended for being totally honest about the racial divide that exists in America. But his incessant hammering on these issues, while neglecting a more believable character-driven approach, eventually sabotages his own work.

In some cases, the performances don’t help this situation. As Ray, Joseph Bonamico remains stuck in a casual, hands-in-pants-pockets style of acting that never clarifies what’s going on in Ray’s mind. As a result, the later actions of this troubled man fail to ring true. As his wife Roz, Dede Klein has some sharp exchanges with other family members. But the scenes between Ray and Roz, even when they’re showing affection for each other, feel generic and stiff.

As for the smaller roles, they also don’t ignite much interest. Tony Zanoni’s off-handed reading of Christopher doesn’t come across as an earnest young man pursuing his doctoral dissertation. And the excellent actor Rachel Lee Kolis appears hemmed in by Molly’s fairly unbelievable innocence about how the world works for people of different races.

Emerging most unscathed in this production is India Nicole Burton, who manages to fashion a character in Shatique that feels genuine and worthy of exploration.

With its non-realistic furniture (gray boxes, mostly) and its attempt at realistic dialog, this NTF show is a mixed bag that director Sean Derry never quite gets a grip on. One hopes that NTF finds a way to give Derry (who also designed and helped build the set and is involved in most management aspects of the theater) a break. If he can offload some of his many duties, including having a guest director more frequently, it will help this talented man recharge his impressive creative battery.

White Guy on the Bus
Through May 26 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Panther Dancer, Playwrights Local

(From left: Andrea Belser and Corin B. Self)

A show about the Jackson Five? That isn’t a jukebox musical? And that’s funny? How can you miss?

Those questions and more are answered in The Panther Dancer, written by Logan Cutler Smith and being produced by Playwrights Local till the end of this week. As directed by Jimmie Woody, it’s a wild rush of mini-scenes, sort of in the style of the vaudeville play-turned-movie Hellzapoppin’, relying on a frenetic pace and constant role-switches to feed the entertainment value.

The story, of course, centers on The Gloved One, Michael Jackson, as we see his pathway from the youngest member of his family’s singing group to the King of Pop. The basics of that story are known to most of us, and the show feeds of that familiarity with inside jokes that long ago came outside. These include the terrible, bullying nature of father Joe Jackson and some of the particulars regarding Michael’s siblings.

This work, that had its first exposure at the NEOMFA Playwrights Festival at Convergence Continuum Theater, has a number of witty lines. But over the course of two hours, the jokes fall into similar patterns and become predicable and eventually tiresome. And the playwright spends too much time exploring small facets of the MJ story that will seem arcane and off-point to most observers.

Of course, there are more “celebrities” in this show than in the “We Are the World” video, along with movers and shakers such as Berry Gordy of Motown, Michael’s lawyers, and pretty much anyone else who came within an arms length of the Jackson clan.

Director Woody employs his substantial skills in staging the piece so that those flaws don’t drag everything down. And he’s partially successful, thanks to some yeoman work by the cast. Andrea Belser is a standout, both as Michael Jackson and as the moody, purple-robed Prince and Robert Branch lends his quirky take to many different characters. Corin B. Self, when portraying daddy Joe, is truly fearsome, and Anthony Velez is a whirling fount of dancing energy when he mimics Jackson’s famous panther dancer video. Although she doesn’t quite dazzle like the others, Kim Simbeck often plays the necessary straight man to the frantic activities of the others.

Trouble is, the script is an overly detailed chronology of Michael Jackson’s stormy life, and it has no point of view. It swings wildly from poking fun at “Wacko Jacko” to weeping over his demise at age 50.

Instead of a two-hour show with one intermission, this play cries out to be a 75-minute nonstop race to the finish that would make The Complete Works of William Shakespeare look like a particularly slow-moving episode of Murder She Wrote. Now that would be a thriller.

The Panther Dancer
Through May 26, produced by Playwrights Local, the Creative Space at Waterloo Arts, 397 E. 156 St., 216-302-8856, playwrightslocal.org.