Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Love’s Labour’s Lost, Great Lakes Theater

You’d think that a play that’s all about love would be fairly simple. But when it comes to Shakespeare, nothing is as simple as you might think, or might want.

In this Great Lakes Theater production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, a play filled with heightened language and topical references, it’s pretty easy for many details of the story to get lost. To remedy that, director Tyne Rafaeli has turned the whole thing into a fairly non-stop game of Chutes and Ladders. And much of it is diverting while not exactly serving the play’s story and theme.

Upon entering the theater, one is confronted with a large library, the towering shelves packed with books and sitting on a patch of Astroturf. The clever scenic design by Kristen Robinson nicely marries the two environments and moods of the play: the strict, by-the-book asceticism of the scholar and the freedom of nature and human impulse.

And it all progresses promisingly as four young men— Ferdinand, King of Navarre and his three attendants—join in a pact to study together for three years and decline the company of females. Of course, that oath lasts as long as it takes the women to show up, in the person of the Princess of France and her lovely retinue. Soon enough, the men are in full rut and eager to chuck the books aside.

This they do with relish, as Rafaeli has them climbing up and sliding down ladders and the bookshelves themselves, with books shoved out and falling to the floor—in the boys’ urgency to get close to one of the women.

Meanwhile the clown Costard (an appealing Juan Rivera Lebron) has been arrested for dallying with a dairy maid named Jaquenetta (an amusingly dour Maggie Kettering), so Constable Anthony Dull puts Costard in the custody of a loud-mouthed Spanish knight, Don Armando, who already has a secret passion for Jaquenetta himself. Why? Because it’s funny and Shakespeare is fishing for laughs, not a rational plot.

Obviously, many complications ensue as the four women tease the men, who have each been captivated by different gals in the Princess’s posse. Towards the end, surprises come fast and furious as the men dress as Russians to court the ladies (apparently a surefire turn-on back in the day), then the ladies disguise themselves to fool the randy dudes, then the simple folk put on a pageant (of course!), and then sobering news is delivered that the King of France is dead. So the Princess and her gals decide to book, telling the guys they should abstain from worldly pleasures for a year and then they’ll come back and leap into their arms.

In this production, only the broad outlines of the story are clearly presented since calisthenics take over the stage. With Rafaeli’s “Laff Factory” meets Benny Hill style of direction, it is devilishly hard to keep track of old Will’s somewhat tortured script.

The actors, who no doubt will be in excellent physical shape after this run, keep up as best they can. In the leading roles, Jonathan Dyrud as the King and Erin Partin as the Princess affect a royal presence while revealing their hidden lust. And Christopher Tocco and Laura Welsh Berg are entirely watchable as their key attendants.

But David Anthony Smith as Don Armando is never able to establish a comical chemistry with Robyn Kerr as Moth, his page boy. And their accents accents don’t help since they are often hard to decipher. Dougfred Miller and M.A. Taylor contribute some chuckles as, respectively, the schoolmaster Holofernes and his wingman Nathaniel. And in a pleasant switch, Tom Ford beautifully underplays his role as Constable Dull and winds up being the funniest one on stage. Go figure.

If you like a lot of activity and some laughs, this version of LLL may feel just right. But don’t expect to be bowled over by the story, since it’s mostly missing in action.

Love’s Labour’s Lost
Through April 24 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.

PREVIEW Here’s A Plum That’s Never Too Ripe—“Behind the Musical: The Fantasticks”

(The original cast of The Fantasticks.)

Try to remember a time when the show The Fantasticks wasn’t around, and you have to go back to before President Kennedy was elected. Weirdly, it almost closed quickly due to tepid reviews and poor ticket sales (the first nine weeks of the run lost $2000, a substantial sum back then). But once it got rolling it became a behemoth, racking up more than 20,000 off-Broadway performances through the years.

Its popularity has never waned due to the memorable songs and the charming story by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones—the University of Texas’ gift to musical theater. And soon, you’ll get an up-close look at this musical theater icon the best way possible: at a multimedia concert presented by The Musical Theater Project (TMTP). This is the sixth installment in their “Behind the Musical” series, and it promises to be just as informative and entertaining as all the others.

Co-hosted by TMTP’s artistic director Bill Rudman and associate artistic director/music director Nancy Maier, the two-day, two location show will feature songs from The Fantasticks along with the backstage anecdotes and trivia that only Rudman can provide. There will also be archival footage and interviews to enhance the event.

This concert will feature the singing voices of Shane Patrick O’Neill, Michelle Pauker and George Roth, with Fabio Polanco handling the stellar songs of El Gallo. And it will serve as a nice appetizer for the Great Lakes Theater’s full production of The Fantasticks opening May 13.

“Behind the Musical: The Fantasticks” will be performed Saturday, April 30 at 7 PM at the Stocker Arts Center at Lorain County Community College in Elyria and Sunday, May 1 at 3 PM at Regina Auditorium at Notre Dame College in South Euclid.

Stocker Arts Center is located at 1005 N. Abbe Road in Elyria on the campus of Lorain County Community College. Adult tickets are priced at $15.  Student (age 18 and under) tickets are priced at $10. Tickets are available through the Stocker Arts Center Box Office at 440-366-4040 or www.StockerArtsCenter.com.

Notre Dame College is located at 4545 College Road in South Euclid. General tickets are priced at $25. TMTP Member tickets are priced at $20. Tickets are available through TMTP’s Box Office at 216-245-8687 or www.MusicalTheaterProject.org.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


                     “The most exciting part for me is the surprises. I can’t wait to see how our audiences respond to these amazing shows!”

So said Gina Vernaci, Executive Producer of Playhouse Square, after yesterday’s big launch of their upcoming 2016-2017 KeyBank Broadway Series. Last night, the Connor Palace was packed with theater geeks (er, devotees) who were awaiting the gifts of touring shows that Vernaci was announcing.

And the fans weren’t disappointed, because Vernaci unwrapped a fantastic new season of seven shows that will delight anyone who’s been following Broadway for the past couple years, or the past seven decades.

Here’s a quick look at the line-up starting in October:

Fun Home
Based on the graphic (meaning cartoon) memoir by Alison Bechdel, this 2015 Tony Award winner for Best Musical explores the author’s awakening as a lesbian and her relationship with her gay dad. The wonderful music is composed by the gloriously talented Jeanine Tesori.

Finding Neverland
November brings us this musical that tells the story behind Peter Pan. It seems the people who make theater never tire of this story (see: Peter and the Starcatcher), but this show, as originally directed by Tony winner Diane Paulus, promises to offer some real stage magic.

Into the Woods
This is the only title on the list, slated for January 2017, that doesn’t immediately sparkle. After all, the wonderful James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim show has been done around our town for many years. But there may be more “surprises” in store, since this will be the inventively stripped-down Fiasco Theatre production that recently garnered raves in New York.

The King and I
Yes, the bald dude and the feisty teacher are back next February, reprising the show that opened on Broadway in 1951 with Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence. This is a Rogers and Hammerstein classic, featuring a sumptuous set and lavish costumes. Oh, yeah.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
It’s based on a great book, and word has it the play is completely engrossing. It whirls around a teenager with massive smarts and some social issues who’s suspected of killing a neighbor’s dog. (The video clips of the show look astounding.) Scheduled for exactly a year from now.

Something Rotten!
A Broadway comedy romp featuring two brothers from the 1500’s who want to write a play but are intimidated by some guy named Shakespeare. So they invent the musical! What? People start singing? For no reason?! (April-May, 2017)

An American in Paris
The songs of George and Ira Gershwin set in Paris after World War II. Plus romance! How can you miss? (June-July, 2017)

The other big news is that each show will have a full three-week run, up from the current two weeks. This puts the Cleveland tour stop on the level of the big cities. And no wonder, since Playhouse Square has led the nation in season ticket holders (32,000) for three years in a row. With the expanded schedule, that means there will be 56 more shows during the season and potentially 100,000 more visitors to the Cleveland restaurants and stores.

As Vernaci notes, “Next season will be historical for Playhouse Square in more ways than one. Along with the great Broadway Series, the Ohio Theater will re-open to show off its spectacular $5.3 million renovation—all based on the architect’s original drawings."

Once again, Playhouse Square is doing its share in leading the way in downtown Cleveland.

Playhouse Square

For subscription information about the KeyBank Broadway Series 2016-2017, call 216-640-8800.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The 39 Steps, Blank Canvas Theatre

(From left: Joe Kenderes as Richard Hannay, Kevin Kelly as Clown #1, Michael Prosen as Clown #2, and Rachael Swartz as Annabella Schmidt...and others.)

In most two-act plays, you rely on the second act to deliver the real goods, whether it’s the concluding heft of a drama or mystery, or the resolving laughs in a comedy. But in The 39 Steps now at Blank Canvas Theatre, many of the laughs and amazing stage effects are crammed into the first act. And that first act is worth the price of admission, all by itself.

This madcap, frenzied play is a spoof on the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name, based on a novel by John Buchan. In this adaptation by Patrick Barlow, nothing is played for the chills that Hitchcock was so good at conjuring. Instead, three of the four actors play multiple roles, too many to count, in fact, as many of the Hitchcockian tropes are trotted out.

Clueless man swept up in intrigue? Check. Mysterious femme fatale? Check. The ever-present blonde? Check. Plus, there are fleeting references to many of Hitch’s movies that fly by if you’re not paying attention.

But that hardly matters, since this is all about laughs, which come fast and furious before the intermission. The story revolves around Richard Hannay, a mellow British chap who is bored with his predictable existence. Ha! Soon, he is embroiled in the murder of the sultry Annabella Schmidt, which he is blamed for, and he’s on the run. He discovers that the murder had something to do with ”the 39 steps,” and he has to ferret out the answer to save his life.

Most of the multiple characters he encounters are played by Clown #1 and Clown #2, in the persons of Kevin Kelly and Michael Prosen. Switching from entertainers to traveling salesmen to Scottish rustics, Prosen and Kelly craft a volley of distinct and interesting characters. Prosen is a stitch in several of these roles, nicely integrating his schtick with Kelly. But most of the heavy comedy lifting is done by Kelly, a clown par excellence, and he delivers laughs whether he’s bellowing or whispering, finding unique ways to move and comport himself in all his various male and female guises. He’s a freaking hoot.

The beauteous Rachael Swartz plays some (but not nearly all) the women roles, switching smoothly from one accent to another as her multiple characters tweak and tempt Hannay. Joe Kenderes handles his straight man duties as Hannay capably, but he often seems to indicate he’s in on the joke, revealing faint smiles as he’s being chased and tormented. Granted, it’s hard to keep a straight face when confronted with Kelly’s comical gyrations, but it’s necessary to make the comedy snap properly.

From a staging perspective, there’s a spectacular and witty scene in the first act when the performers fashion a train out of four wooden boxes. The projections, designed by Perren Hedderson, turn the stage into a steaming locomotive and then, in a flash, Hannay is dangling from the railroad tracks on a bridge over a river. Director Patrick Ciamacco, who doubles as the set designer, gets full credit for this jaw-dropping sequence.

Strangely, however, the second act feels several steps short of the wacky brilliance shown in the first part. The scenes seem overwritten and there isn’t the manic energy that earlier drives the show gloriously over the edge.

That said, it’s hard to find a whole show that’s as funny and engaging as the first act of The 39 Steps. It’s a treasure trove for Hitchcock fans, and everyone else for that matter.

The 39 Steps
Through March 19 at the Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458.

The Revisionist, Dobama Theatre

(Dorothy Silver as Maria and Andrew Gombas as David.)

You would think that any play about the Holocaust would have a lot going for it, since the subject matter is so compelling. However, that isn’t entirely true when it comes to The Revisionist by Jesse Eisenberg, now at Dobama Theatre. The script, written by the young Hollywood star and Broadway actor/playwright, frequently veers away from dealing with serious issues.

But there is one overwhelming reason to see this interesting if sometimes flawed script, and that is the presence of Dorothy Silver. Ms. Silver has been lauded over the decades for her theatrical accomplishments in Cleveland, and rightly so. But her performance as Maria, in this tale of an old woman trying to make a connection with one shred of her distant family, is truly a gem that must be seen and treasured. From the moment David, Maria’s young American cousin, arrives in her flat in Poland, Silver is in full command of the story and the stage.

And that’s a good thing, because in lesser hands this shaky effort might topple over. Callow David is trying to rework his second book of science fiction, and he’s come to Poland to find a quiet refuge at the home of his much older cousin, where he can concentrate on his task. But Maria thinks he has come to visit with her and share family stories. She is desperate for this kind of connection since, as we learn during the span of the 105-minute play, her immediate family was killed by the Nazis during in Germany during World War II.

It’s a potentially intriguing mixture of cultures and generations, and the playwright has a deft way with humorous jibes. But he often steers the conversations into shallower waters. Relying on easy comedy set-ups—Maria and David sharing some cut-up cubes of tofu, David sneaking puffs of his bedroom stash of ganja—the play continually dodges around more significant discussions. And that’s too bad, since the subjects at hand, including the importance of family and the need to make human contact, are powerful indeed.

In this production, the talented director Leighann DeLorenzo clearly wants to make the autobiographical David (a role the playwright played in New York) an unsympathetic creep who is also somehow endearing. And Andrew Gombas as David works diligently to find the right balance for his character, somewhere between sweetness and snark. John Busser, in the small role of Maria’s Polish-speaking friend Zenon, also brings some lightness to the proceedings.

But after Maria reveals her guilty secret, there are some wrenching and non-credible switcheroos at the conclusion of the play. This includes David’s reaction to Maria’s big secret, a response that feels completely tone-deaf, even for a self-centered writer twit such as David. Any author with even the slightest bit of imagination—or just a human being with a scrap of soul—would be shocked and riveted by Maria’s revelation. Instead, he just reverts back to his petty concerns.

In addition, the very last scene feels clumsily constructed by the playwright to generate surprise and confusion in the audience. A good play should always end with questions, but those should not be questions that seem unsupported by the characters.

Despite those glitches, the play does the great favor of shaping the delicious role of Maria. And fortunately for the audience, DeLorenzo enables Silver to do her thing, crafting every word and gesture with the specificity, intelligence and wit that have long been the trademark of her performances.

You must see The Revisionist for that reason, since any other reasons pale in comparison.

The Revisionist
Through April 3 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Into The Woods, Lakeland Civic Theatre

Into The Woods, now at the Lakeland Civic Theatre, has won and been nominated for multiple awards because of the wonderful music by Stephen Sondheim and the intriguing book by James Lapine. After all, who can resist a mash-up of fairytale characters who decide to ditch their traditional stories and head off into a forest. Plus, once it gets going, some intricate ideas are trotted out—including the downside of realizing one’s dreams—by familiar characters such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack (the beanstalk one).

In this production directed by Dr. Martin Friedman, there are specific characters and scenes that definitely earn plaudits. Amiee Collier is a perfect witch, both before and after her transformation, and does a dandy job with her solo “Witch’s Lament.” The two princes, played by Eric Fancher and Daniel Simpson, deliver a solid rendition of “Agony,” although their scenes together aren’t as playful and sharp-edged as they might be.

Some of the other actors have their moments, while others lack sufficient stage presence. But the show is negatively affected by a decidedly slow pace, with dialogue scenes played out with pregnant pauses between many of the lines. Playing beats is necessary, of course, but there are enough extended pauses and beats here for four or five plays. This not only makes the play seem longer and less witty than it is, it’s hard to keep track of the somewhat complicated story.

The clever scenic design by Trad A Burns features tall letters that spell out words and comprise the forest into which all the characters disappear. And thanks to his lighting design, those towering letters often cast interesting and sometimes ominous shadows. But the downside is that the visual palette never changes and, even though the words are moved around frequently, it all basically looks the same and eventually gets a bit tiresome.

Director Friedman has mounted this play before at Lakeland, in 2003, but this time it feels a bit static, and at times almost feels like a concert version of the show. Still, Friedman is continually staging compelling scripts and evocative musicals with talented players, and for that we are truly grateful.

Into The Woods
Through February 28 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, 440-525-7134, Lakeland Community College Campus, just south of Rt. 90 and Rt. 306 in Kirtland.

Monday, February 15, 2016

In The Heights, Beck Center

Now that composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda has commandeered the attention of the world with his gigantic Broadway hit Hamilton, it seems a good time to revisit his first hit show. And happily, the Beck Center production of his In The Heights is everything you could hope for, carrying this often saccharine-sweet musical over the finish line in a blast of effusive salsa, hip-hop and several kick-ass performances.

Set in a Dominican-American neighborhood in New York City called Washington Heights in the heat of summer, the story swirls around a bodega owned by a bashful young man named Usnavi, a taxi business run by a husband-and-wife team, Kevin and Camila, and a beauty salon where the sassy owner Daniela and her stylists Vanessa and Carla hold court. As we quickly learn from the exposition-laden title song, “Everybody’s got a job/Everybody’s got a dream.”

And while there are ups and downs in this colorful little corner of urban America, the downs don’t stay down for long—because here comes another upbeat and infectious song that makes everyone dance in the streets! Sure, Kevin and Camila’s daughter Nina has dropped out of college. And sure, Benny’s budding romance with Nina is frowned upon by her parents. And yes, Usnavi’s stand-in grandmother Claudia dreams of going home, before those plans are suddenly ended. Even Usnavi’s hyper cousin Sonny is a constant irritant. But the cafĂ© de leche is sweet and optimism rules the day.

What keeps this all from being too cloying is the pneumatic energy of Miranda’s songs and the electric performances of the cast, many of whom are students at Baldwin Wallace University, under the effusive direction of Victoria Bussert. In the lead role of Usnavi, Ellis C. Dawson III is a big guy with a heart that pumps pure raspberry syrup—the kind that the piragua pushcart guy squirts on snow cones. Dawson provides a strong center for the show to revolve around.

As Claudia, Jessie Cope Miller sings with quiet passion, which is a distinct contrast to Michael Canada’s Sonny, who quivers amusingly like a just-struck tuning fork for much of the proceedings. Also excellent are the sultry Christiana Perrault as Vanessa, strong-voiced Livvy Marcus as Nina, and Isabel Plana as the no-nonsense Daniela. Indeed, there is not a significant off-note struck in the entire cast, even with a few suspiciously white-looking actors taking on some of the Dominican roles.

An important element in this production’s success is Gregory Daniels’ irresistible choreography, made even more appealing since it is executed with laser-like precision by the talented ensemble. And the tight band under the direction of David Pepin keeps the momentum tripping right along.

This is a hopeful play, right down to the plot point involving a lottery winner. Of course, we all know that lottery dreams are the stuff of fantasy for 99.999% of the population. But in this show, hope springs…and raps…eternal.

In The Heights
Through February 28 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.