Wednesday, December 7, 2016

How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Musical, Playhouse Square

Yeah, I know it sounds like a play about president-elect Trump (ack!, ack-ack! sorry). But it isn’t. It’s actually a musical with live human beings, based on the wonderful animated feature that plays every year on the tube at this time.

Although the cartoon version has loads of charm, thanks to the drawings inspired by Dr. Seuss, that master of the deft stroke—be it with drawn lines or rhyming words—this touring production is big and glitzy and captures a lot of what the show on TV offers. And it’s major fun for all the tykes in the audience, of whatever age.

Phillip Bryan stands out, of course, as the nasty, wasty Grinch who doesn’t want Christmas to come. His pilfering of all the gifts and goodies in Whoville is staged with dynamic fun, and ultimately his sleigh is loaded with a mountain of purloined stuff.

Also excellent is Bob Lauder as Old Max, the dog, who narrates the story. Most importantly, he does a finejob with the killer song of the show, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch!” Somehow he actually sounds a bit like Thurl Ravenscroft who sang the original with his basso profundo voice. Also amusing is Andreas Wyder, who shakes his hind leg convincingly as Young Max.

Plus, the costumes designed by Robert Morgan are a hoot, particularly the Grinch’s bilious green fur thing with hands and fingers that look like two spider plants gone evil. And all the broad-beamed Whos in Whoville appear warm and cuddly, even though they all are badly in need of some Spanx.

All in all, this is a show that will help your heart grow at least two sizes, maybe even more.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Through December 16 at Playhouse Square, Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Light the Lights, Ol’ Moses CLE. Cleveland Public Theatre

Here in Cleveland, we suffer from what might be called “Holiday Show Derangement Syndrome.” The symptoms of HSDS fall into three basic categories: theaters that repeat the same shows year after year (after year), riding those cash cows till their udders scrape the ground; theaters that ignore the holidays and risk not selling as many tickets as their counterparts because patrons are desperate for “holiday” cheer (especially this fucking year!); and theaters that whip up their own original shows in hopes of landing a fresh take on a predictable time of the calendar.

This year, that final category is represented by the awkwardly titled Light the Lights, Ol’ Moses CLE at Cleveland Public Theatre. Subtitled “A Wild Holiday Romp,” this overly earnest and lead-footed show is about as far from a romp as a Trump cabinet nominee is from the bread line. Clearly, much time and effort has gone into assembling this random collection of vignettes, songs and skits, but their efforts are mostly for naught.

In each of the two acts, there are four pieces that are named and credited in the program, and they are surrounded by other usually smaller efforts that try to form some sort of connective tissue for the entire enterprise. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hang together. That fact is granted in the program note from co-directors Raymond Bobgan and Beth Wood when they say, “We look to you (the audience) to tie these scenes together.”

Well, that’s a daunting task since these scenes include references to Moses Cleveland, the biblical Moses, Dr. Faustus, the glories of binge drinking, Lebron James (several different times), an abusive husband and father, and historical references to Christmas and other holidays which are dragged in kicking and screaming from Wikipedia.

The things that don’t work in this show are many and varied. A “Cleveland Line Dance” that could be witty but isn’t—due to tired jabs at Parma (Really? Still?), the Indians and other worn-out Cleveburg icons. There’s a woman hosting the whole shebang who encourages the audience to drink but seems far too sober herself (at one point she says “What the frig!” Really? Frig?). There’s two angels doing a juvenile rendering of Christmas Carols that have words with a sexual connotation (ie. “Come all ye faithful”), which is hilarious if you’re still in the Fourth Grade. Or maybe if you’re completely wasted on the wine and beer CPT is selling at the cabaret-style tables.

But there isn’t enough wine and beer in all of CLE to make this stuff work. Almost every one of the vignettes goes on too long, which adds up to a show that pushes past 2½ hours with an intermission. And when the show tries to get serious, it trots out over-emotional tripe such as: “We try to live life as fully as possible with the ones we love.” That banal thought would have gotten you fired at American Greetings 50 years ago.

There are a couple pieces that have a certain fleeting charm. The Act One closer is a song, “A Call to Midnight,” written and performed by Molly Andrews-Hinders that is pleasantly diverting, even though excessively lengthy. And a playlet by John Busser, in which some kids’ letters to Santa get delivered to Satan because the kiddies get the letters wrong, is mildly amusing. It also plays long, but it ends in a carnal embrace between those two red-suited icons that is properly arresting.

The hardworking 13-person CPT cast gives it their all, but there just isn’t anywhere to go when attempts at humor lack wit and when forays into emotional connection quickly spiral into maudlin sentimentality. Bobgan and Woods are both accomplished theater professionals, but this show (and to some degree in their other holiday property, The Loush Sisters), proves they need to take a break from trying to create a holiday show from scratch and just do their own version of a classic. Now that might be worth a toast or three.

Light the Lights, Ol’ Moses CLE
Through December 18 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

The Knife Is Money, The Fork Is Love, convergence-continuum

“An idealist is one who, on noticing that roses smell better than cabbage, concludes that it will also make a better soup.” H.L Mencken, the journalist and satirist, wrote that a long time ago. As is true for many of Mencken’s trenchant quotes, it applies today. In particular, it helps explain why The Knife Is Money, The Fork Is Love, now at convergence-continuum, is more attractive in contemplation rather than in actuality. In other words, it ain’t soup yet.

Local playwright Jonathan Wilhelm is a man possessing a fecund and prolific mind, and he unloads many interesting ideas and promising digressions in the course of this often-stimulating play. Trouble is, Wilhelm seems so interested in every new thought that flutters by that the play eventually tangles itself in knots, leaving the story in the dust.

The play is set in the 1930s and central to the plot is a real pulp magazine, “Black Mask,” which was founded by Mencken and the drama critic George Jean Nathan. It’s where Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was serialized, and it’s the magazine that sets young Tobias off on a search for a secret society, in an attempt to discover the identity of his father.

Right from the start, new ideas are brought in as the actors comment and question what they’re doing. This meta approach is at first interesting, but it gradually begins to wear thin and then becomes rather irritating, since it interrupts the flow of the story. And that story has some compelling elements, including references to the hobo codes that those American vagabonds, many uprooted from their lives by the Depression, would use to communicate with each other. Indeed, the stage is ringed with some of these symbols.

Tobias’s search for members of the secret society, and a code that can help him understand who he is, takes plenty of side roads, and some of those are populated by characters we wish we could get to know better. Rob Branch plays three different roles, including hobo Shoefly Joe, who tosses Tobias from the boxcar where they had been riding, and Leander, a mysterious fellow with connections to the people Tobias is seeking. However, Branch’s crisp characterizations fly by a bit too quickly.

The same is true for Amy Bistok Bunce who plays both a schoolteacher Miss Everson and Theodora, a rural lass who wants to hook up with Tobias. Along the way there are repeated references to the “antediluvian nitpickers” who are causing so many problems. David Thonnings gives Tobias an appropriately confused and fuzzy mien, and Lucy Bredeson-Smith is arresting as Tobias’s mother Maggie and as the Snake Lady (don’t ask).

However, at the risk of being considered an antediluvian nitpicker, it seems that this script needs a strong shake or two, to see what loose parts might fall out and could be eliminated, and which promising but thin areas could be enhanced. Director Geoffrey Hoffman does wonders with this overly-abundant material, adding some nice staging touches (the run that Thonnings makes to catch up with the boxcar, while nothing is moving, is inspired).

Clearly, playwright Wilhelm is interested in tinkering with the conventional theatrical format, bringing a new perspective to how the audience and the performers relate to each other. And that’s fine, as long as we don’t get thrown out of the play’s boxcar and land in a field somewhere, dazed and confused.

In an ideal world, a play could contain as many elements as the playwright could envision, and we could all keep pace. But that’s not how it goes in real life. By focusing more on the story, (as all good noir mysteries do), and downplaying the meta aspects, this play cold be less of an enigma for the audience and live up to its wonderful title.

The Knife Is Money, The Fork Is Love
Through December 17, produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074.

Sister Act, Karamu House

George S. Kaufman once said, “If you get the audience in the first two or three minutes, you have them for the whole of the first act.” And if he was right, that’s where this generally strong production of the musical Sister Act goes wrong.

Just like the movie, it’s about Deloris Van Cartier (nee Delores Carter) who is a disco singing star n the environs of Philadelphia in the 1970s. But when she witnesses the nasty hoodlum Curtis (an imposing A. Harris Brown) murder a guy in his gang, she goes underground in a convent thanks to the kindly help from a detective named “Sweaty” Eddie (because he, you know, sweats a lot).

The first act feels a lot longer than it should because, during those first minutes when Deloris and her two backup singers are delivering “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous, Baby!” there is a serious shortfall of glitz and sass. As written by Alan Mencken (music) and Glen Slater (lyrics), along with the book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, this is the set-up for the whole show. We need to see Deloris killing in the club before she sees Curtis kill someone else for real.

But the bland, non-club-style lighting and the rather tepid performances early on don’t serve to establish Deloris as a musical force of nature. This sucks most of the helium out of the lighter-than-air balloon that this show should be. Indeed, things really don’t start elevating until almost the end of the first act, when the stage comes alive with “Raise Your Voice.” At that moment, when the new “nun” Deloris instructs the clueless choir sisters as to the basics of singing and performing, the fun really begins.

Even so the show, as seen at a preview performance, demonstrated some strong performances that can overcome the slow beginning. As Deloris, Colleen Longshaw has all the vocal power and stage presence she needs to make this take off. Teresa DeBerry stands out as a no-nonsense Mother Superior, and the show resonates well when she’s on stage especially in the more energized second act when she sings the witty “I Haven’t Got a Prayer.”

Some other members of the convent and the gang make help Sister swing, including infectiously grinning Dayshawnda Ash as Sister Mary Patrick and Christina Johnson as sharp-tongued Sister Mary Lazarus. Katelyn Cornelius creates an interesting character as wimpy Sister Mary Robert, but she had a bit of a hard time finding the right notes in her solo “The Life I Never Led.” The same is true with Matt F. Gillespie and his solo that morphs into a production number, “I Could Be That Guy.” And three of Curtis’s gang members—Richard Moses as TJ, Nate Summers as Joey and Gideon Patrick-Lorete as Pablo—have a blast with “Lady in the Long Black Dress.”

Director Sheffia Randall Dooley handles the traffic well in this complex production with a large cast. Once the performers settle in and keep the pacing tight, a lot of the jokes will land with more snap. And if the start of the show finds a way to get a charge of adrenaline it will be, well, a godsend.

Sister Act
Through December 30 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Rasheeda Speaking, Karamu House

Right off the bat, there’s a lot to like about any play set in a workplace. These are environments all of us are familiar with, and we know how some of the power games are played. So in Rasheeda Speaking, when a doctor asks his loyal secretary to help him find evidence so he can fire another secretary he doesn’t like, we all nod our heads knowingly. Yes, we are familiar with dick-heads like that.

But when the doctor and the favored secretary are white and the targeted secretary is black, the stakes suddenly become more significant. In this play, the author Joel Drake Johnson attempts to bring up a raft of touchy racial subjects as they apply to employment, and many of them resonate quite well. But he loads so much on this almost-two hour one act that it eventually loses its momentum and crawls to a conclusion.

The white employee, Ileen, has been working for the doc (an effectively passive-aggressive John Busser) for eight years, and she’s just been promoted to office manager. But the boss in the white coat doesn’t care for Jaclyn, an African-American woman who had recently been promoted from elsewhere in the medical facility to this position. As if to prove her unfitness for the job, the doctor has his stethoscope in a twist because Jaclyn took off five days because of “toxins in the air” that she and her private doctor claim are damaging her health.

From that premise, we watch as Jaclyn and Ileen dance around each other like scorpions packing file folders, trying to one-up each other. Mary Alice Beck as Ileen nicely balances her characters sweetness with a definite focus on doing her boss’s bidding. Meanwhile, Treva Offutt as Jaclyn shows both sides of this black woman, making it difficult to fully root for anyone in this office standoff.

Many issues are brought up, including the difficult home lives of some black families and the offensive things white people say to each other about blacks when they think no one is listening. But every time the play tries to open itself up and depart from the office tug-of-war, it loses energy and starts to sabotage its own compelling premise.

Indeed, the playwright trods the same ground one (or two or three) too many times, with a variety of cutbacks and mind games, some of which are baffling. And then, unaccountably, he lurches past the perfect ending, when Jaclyn delivers a drop-the-mic moment referencing the name in the title.

But director Sarah May coaxes interesting performances out of her cast, which includes an adorable Rhoda Rosen as an elderly patient who is fought over by Ileen and Jaclyn like a chew toy. And Ben Needham’s carefully detailed set lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings.

There’s a sharp, funny and often startling script laying inside Rasheeda Speaking, but its voice is dimmed by the playwright’s tendency to overstate things that have already been said.

Rasheeda Speaking
Through November 20 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sex With Strangers, Cleveland Play House

News flash: People of different ages react differently to the digital age we live in, with older people clinging to their analog past while younger folks snap up the latest apps like mice encountering fresh crumbs of cheese. And, this just in: Young people and oldsters often have differing views on sex and personal relationships.

These are a couple of the central themes in Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason, now at the Cleveland Play House. And if you responded with “No, duh!” to either or both of those facts stated above, then this play may be less than stimulating for you. In a script that flogs those two thoughts until they can barely move, Eason states and restates the obvious while the CPH two-person cast works their buns off to ignite passion around the edges.

Once-published novelist Olivia is hanging out at a b-and-b in snowy rural Michigan when the successful Internet-based author Ethan shows up knocking at her door to find a warm place out of the blizzard. The almost-40 Olivia is busy proofing her new manuscript while Ethan, a bundle of energy and about ten years her junior, paces the floor and rattles off his resume.

It seems he’s well known for his latest opus, a book that carries the same title as this play, which chronicles his exploit of bedding a different woman every week for one year. Meanwhile Olivia has been licking her wounds from some unfortunate reviews of her first book, and she can’t abide the snarky troll comments that pop up on websites discussing her writing.

However, Ethan glories in the pans his work receives, and he’s turned that sex-drenched book into a dandy little cottage industry online. Unfortunately, the storm and the remote location of this cabin have eliminated Internet service, leaving Ethan frustrated and unable to text or tweet for minutes on end(“People will think I have died!”).

The playwright works hard to leverage the age difference of these two people into something dramatic. Eason has some clever and cute lines sprinkled throughout (when Ethan claims his book was on the New York Times best seller list for five years, Olivia registers some doubt, to which Ethan smirks: “Don’t you wish you could look it up?”).And there is some genuine sexual tension in the first act, as the two dance around each other and eventually start making out.

Monette Magrath as Olivia and Sean Hudock as Ethan find their moments of attraction in between their playful chatter about technology and such. And their brief sessions of kissy-face and grab-ass are convincingly portrayed. But Magrath doesn’t really convey the bearing and attitude of an “older woman,” so her eventual sexual release is less than liberating. For his part, Hudock has all the nervous-energy mannerisms of a guy on the make, but not quite enough of the inner through-line of this supposedly live-wire character.

There’s finally a bit more conflict in the second act, which takes place in Olivia’s Chicago apartment, as we see how each of these people is trying to use the other for their own purposes. Still, there seems to be little at stake in these proceedings other than better press clippings and bigger paychecks. And the ending lands with a surprisingly dull thud.

The actors aren’t particularly helped by Chelsea M. Warren’s admittedly handsome scenic design, which features a vast space for both the cabin and the apartment. Indeed, you could install a handball court in the open space provided by Warren, which leaves the actors to wander around and try to connect with each other.

There’s a desire here to explore how two people from two different generations pursue their ideas of success and their own identities. But because of a few production wrinkles, the finished product is a bit like a promising, but not exactly stupendous, first date.

Sex With Strangers
Through November 13 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Silence! The Musical, Blank Canvas Theatre

(Kelly strand as Clarice and Brian Altman as Hannibal.)

If you’re a fan of the Jodi Foster/Anthony Hopkins flick The Silence of the Lambs, you will no doubt have a blast with this no-holds-barred parody, Silence! The Musical, now at Blank Canvas Theatre. Of course, you really don’t need any history with that movie to enjoy this often clever and frequently rude tribute to the story about two serial killers and one plucky FBI agent who is assigned to deal with them.

But first, let’s cut to the chase. There’s a remarkably offensive word in an early song in this show that, I would wager, has never been sung in any other musical. Ever. And that’s probably a good thing. Not only is it sung once, it is reprised a couple minutes later and then repeated in the second act.

The word refers to the private area of the female anatomy, a word that even Donald Trump has so far declined to use in public, starts with “c” and the full title of the song is “If I Could Smell Her C_ _ _.” This is not an entirely gratuitous reference, since there is a similar wish alluded to by the evil Hannibal Lecter in the movie.

The manner in which this play’s creators (music and lyrics by Jon Kaplan and Al Kaplan, book by Hunter Bell) use that word illustrate what is right with this show, and also where it goes off the tracks. The gleeful offensiveness of that word picks up on the vibe The Book of Mormon and it’s off-color ditties. That’s fair game. But it is repeated so often it begins to dull the senses, as do some other tropes used by the writers and BCT director Jonathan Kronenberger.

Still, this show is paced perfectly by Kronenberger, allowing the jokes to fly by fast and furiously, as they should. And the talented performers give it their all. As Clarice Starling, the young FBI agent, Kelly Strand is appropriately solid and straightforward while mimicking and exaggerating Jodi Foster’s lateral lisp and southern accent. However, whatever humor content that resides in that slight speech defect is beaten within an inch of its life by repetition. Clarice’s first song is titled “Thish Ish It” and the lisp even appears in words on the two screens hovering over the stage.

As the sociopathic Hannibal Lecter, Brian Altman employs a smooth and unctuous delivery to capture some of Anthony Hopkins’ skin-crawlingly creepy vibe. And even though it goes on far too long, his rendition of the “C” song is both stupefying and raunchily amusing. Joe Virgo is also a standout as Buffalo Bill, the gender-confused serial killer they’re hunting for who captures plus-size women, keeps them in a pit, makes them soften their skin with lotion, and then kills and skins them so he can crawl inside their epidermis. Fans of the movie know all this, so the play focuses on other things, such as Buffalo Bill’s song “Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket.”

In smaller roles, Dawn Sniadak-Yamokoski sings up a storm as Senator Martin, whose daughter Catherine has been abducted by Buffalo Bill. And Tonya Broach and Trey Gilpin add amusing cameos among the multiple roles they play. It is all supported by a chorus of white-wigged lambs who sing and dance and keep the plot moving forward.

While often offensive, juvenile and excessive, Silence! qualifies for its exclamation point through the kind of sharp, disciplined performance standards that BCT has often featured, under the artistic direction of Patrick Ciamacco.

Silence! The Musical
Through November 5 at Blank Canvas Theatre, at the West 78th Street Studios, 440-941-0458.