Tuesday, July 18, 2017

City of Angels, Beck Center

Putting on the musical City of Angels is a daunting task: Present a show that explores the dark side of Hollywood screenwriting in the 1940s by mashing two different stories together—the script as it’s being written and the “real life” of the screenwriter and those around him. And lets do the former story in film noir-ish black & white and the latter story in full color, with singing, dancing lots of double-casting to handle both stories, and a shitload of scene changes. And make it funny!

That’s a full plate of theatricality to handle, and the Beck Center team under the direction of Scott Spence makes a lot of it work. It helps to have a clever script and in this case they do. Indeed, the words, as penned by the book writer Larry Gelbart for the musical City of Angels, are one of the unalloyed pleasures of this production at the Beck Center.

The clever lines come so fast and furious in this show, it’s almost impossible to catch them all. We’re watching a private eye named Stone start his week in his small Los Angeles office, and listening to his hard-bitten thoughts as they’re typed out by a guy named Stine who’s writing his character in this Sam Spade-style script.

Stone has a grudging appreciation of the la-la-land weather (“There’s enough sunshine to lay some off on Pittsburgh.”) But he’s depressed in general, saying to himself, “Was it only Monday? Can your whole life roll over and play dead, turn bad-side-out in just seven days?”

Gelbart, the iconic comedy writer, has wit and style that other writers only dream of possessing. And that’s good, because there are several aspects of this show that never quite come together in the same superb way as his wry words for Stone, Stine and a couple other characters. And one of them is the overly complex plot that drags in a galaxy of subplots and characters (32!), all of whom have names and something to say. The mind reels.

The music by Cy Coleman with lyrics by David Zippel offer a couple enjoyable moments, such as the Act One closer “You’re Nothing Without Me,” when writer and his fictional creation face off. And then Act Two opens with “You Can Always Count On Me” as one performer, Brittni Shambaugh Addison, plays two put-upon women—Oolie and Donna—and does both justice. But many of the songs reach achieve a sort of period authenticity at the expense of being rather dull musically.

Jamie Koeth is believable as the schlub writer Stine, and he sings great—including an ability to hold the concluding note of a song so long it seems like he rented another lung. And Rob Albrecht, as his doppelganger Stone, snaps off his witty lines with style. But not as much style as Greg Violand employs in the dual role of Stine’s real studio boss Buddy and the screenplay’s fictitious Hollywood producer Irving. Violand knows his way around the stage and he chews the scenery like a gourmand, devouring his many comical moments with relish and inviting the audience to share in his bounty.

Other strong performances are handed in by Leslie Andrew as Gabby and Bobbi (Stine’s wife and Stone’s lover), Carlos Antonio Cruz who plays Vargas and Munoz (the first in Hollywood, the second in the movie), and Sonia Perez as Alaura and Carla (Stone’s wealthy client and, oh…never mind).

The hard-working cast isn’t helped by Jordan Janota’s scenic design, which features a towering and unmoving set of letters spelling out “Hollywood.” Aside from being obvious, this gargantuan presence on the stage impedes many of the projections from being fully seen. In addition, it gets in the way of the color changes that lighting designer Trad A Burns uses to differentiate the scenes. As a result, the visual impact of this production is far less powerful than it might have been.

Hats off to Beck and Spence for taking on this challenge, and to the performers who damn near make it all work. But as Gelbart’s Stone might say of City of Angels, “This plot hopped on the wrong crowded train, grabbed some shuteye, and woke up two stops past Deadtown.”

City of Angels
Through August 13 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org











La Cage Aux Folles, Mercury Theatre Company

(Pierre-Jacques Brault as Geroges and Brian Marshall as Albin)

When a show has a surplus of heart, it proves that other problems are greatly minimized. Take La Cage Aux Folles, now being produced by the Mercury Theatre Company in South Euclid. With great songs by Jerry Herman and a witty book by Harvey Fierstein, it has all the elements necessary for success.

Still, it needs to be infused with talent on stage, and there are a number of off-notes and missed opportunities in this particular production. Even so, the entire enterprise is saved and even elevated by a genuine fondness for the characters and indomitable energy for which MTC has become famous.

As most people know, it’s the story of two gay men who run a gay nightclub in France, front man Georges and flamboyant Albin, who performs as the glorious Zaza. Their lives are idyllic until Georges’ grown son from an incidental encounter with a woman 20 years before shows up. The son is engaged to Anne, and he wants his dad and Albin to butch it up for a visit from his gal’s parents. Anne’s dad, in particular, is so anti-homosexual he makes Mike Pence look like a gay maitre d’ at a –wait, Mike Pence does look like a gay maitre d’…

Anyhow, let’s focus on what’s right with this show. The drag queens of Les Cagelles are a refreshing change from the standard troupe of fellows who are trotted out in often bulky, overdone femme outfits and then proceed to pose prettily and flutter their false eyelashes.

The boys in this crew are often stripped down to some skimpy, girly outfits and they are focused on executing the athletic moves laid out by choreographer Melissa Bertolone. Even when there are some stumbles, the boys go for it and take no prisoners. They are: Christian Flaherty, Nathan Hoty, Brian Lego, Austin Rubinosky, Brandon Santana, and Jake Washabaugh. And they are bee-yoo-tee-ful!

Of course, the major reason to see this La Cage is to see the theater co-founders, Pierre-Jacques Brault and Brian Marshall, play the lead roles of, respectively, Georges and Albin.  Brian is a constant and welcome presence on the MTC stage, and although he doesn’t exactly knock this role out of the park, he lands the moments that count. In particular, his rendering of “I Am What I Am” is quite touching.

One the other hand, Brault rarely performs since he usually directs all the shows, as he does here. His performance, although loaded with charm, could have benefited from a director (other than himself) who might have goosed his characterization a bit.

Fortunately the leads are backed up by some solid actors in smaller roles—Jennifer Myor as Jaqueline, the owner of a cafĂ©, Andrew Nelin as Jean-Michel, the grown son of Georges, and Rachel Marie Smith as Jean-Michel’s fiancee Anne. Almost as important as any of the people on stage are the dazzling and sometimes daring costumes designed by DW.

There are some aspects of the production, however, that seem to suffer from Brault’s divided attention. In the featured comedy role of Jacob, Georges and Albin’s butler and wannabe maid Jacob, Antonio Brown relies on a few isolated schticks and doesn’t find a strong character hook or consistent through-line, leaving a lot of laughs un-chuckled. And some aspects of the plot get short shrift due to unspecific staging decisions.

But damn, this show has got tons of heart, and the energy to display it without compromise.

La Cage Aux Folles
Through July 22, produced by the Mercury Theater Company, Notre Dame College, Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatercompany.org






Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ain’t Misbehavin’, Porthouse Theatre

There are some undeniably great tunes in this show, which is a compendium of songs written by the incredible Fats Waller, a man who could play jazz piano like no other. But since there is no book to tie the tunes together, it falls to the director and cast to keep the energy and momentum at a peak level.

This production at Porthouse Theater is only successful part of the time, and the strain to keep it all working starts to become evident along the way.

It seems that the two gentlemen who conceived the show, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz, probably sat down one morning, wrote out a list of Fats Waller songs, declared the show completed and then broke early for lunch.  Oh sure, there are a few lines of dialog to set up certain pieces, but there is no through line of information about the composer. And that is a damn shame, since Mr. Waller was quite an interesting presence in the jazz era during the first half of the 20th century.

Another wrinkle is that, although there are 30 songs in the production, only a few of them rise to the level of greatness. It’s hard to miss with the title song and other ditties such as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” and the classic novelty piece “You Feet’s Too Big.” But many of the other numbers just kind of lay there.

This problem can be ameliorated to some degree by performers who invest the material with unique energy. And that does happen at times. Jim Weaver is a sly and sinuous presence in most of his songs, and he particularly glows in “T’Ain’t Nobody’s biz-ness If I Do” and in the slow and sensual “The Viper’s Drag.” And Tina Stump uses her excellent pipes and undeniable stage presence to make “Squeeze Me” and other tunes leap off the stage.

The other three performers—Chantrell “Channy” Lewis, Aveena Sawyer and Eugene Sumlin—each have moments that work fine. But they are ultimately done in by the sparsely written show and never develop characters that fully resonate.

Director Eric van Baars keeps his actors in constant motion, and that becomes a problem all its own since there are so many exits and entrances the stage at times appears to be a concourse in a train station.

Of course, dazzling costumes might help but the costumes in this show disappoint. The men wear slick period suits but costume designer Susan J. Williams puts the women in the same style dress, in three different colors. And they don’t even change frocks after intermission, just add a bit of sparkle to the Act One duds. Emphasis on dud. In a similar way, the scenic design by Patrick Ulrich features a large scalloped art deco fan assemblage that captures the era but never evolves into anything more interesting.

One undeniable star onstage is the music director and pianist Edward Ridley, Jr., who pounds out the tunes with unstinting enthusiasm and skill. It’s actually too bad he and his two band-mates aren’t given their own featured slot, other than the short entr’acte.

This show has become a reliable chestnut for many theaters, but it still needs fresh energy and risk-taking to make it come alive. The Porthouse production sparks to life at times, particularly in the wonderful “Black and Blue” number that reveals the hurt behind the jazz and jive. But in general, Ain’t Misbehavin’ ain’t misbehavin’ enough.

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Through July 22 at Porthouse Theatre, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, 3143 O'Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884, https://www.kent.edu/porthouse


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

As You Like It, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

(Ryan Zarecki as Orlando and Tess Burgler as Rosalind)

If you don’t like change, especially with theater companies fussing around with updated interpretations of Shakespeare, then you’ll love the work of the Ohio Shakespeare Festival. Under the guidance of co-artistic directors Terry Burgler and Nancy Cates, pretty much nothing ever changes.

In As You Like It, their current production, the story hasn’t been re-imagined as a contemporary corporate retreat in the woods. There are no tweets or karaoke woven into the text to keep young folks interested. But even while using the same old period costumes and same old reliable two-stairway set, OSF manages to once again light up the woods with delight.

It all begins a half-hour before the curtain with a “Greenshow” of music and japery, an audience warm-up that will definitely get you laughing and clapping. Two features of the pre-show are the singing and strumming by Jason Leupold (who does likewise in the play) and a mano-a-mano battle between Ryan Zarecki and Joe Pine. This tightly choreographed displau is highlighted by an entangled wrestling move where they throw each other onto their feet, in turn, over and over again.

The play is as intensely engaging as the pre-show, offering a volley of its own pleasures. In a bow to some contemporary instincts, director Terry Burgler implements some cross-gender casting, with Katie Zarecki playing Frederick, brother of Orlando (an adorable Ryan Zarecki, Katie’s husband, who literally swings from the balcony as he plants love poems to Rosalind in the forest). And Tess Burgler (Terry’s daughter) plays a feisty Rosalind, at times crossdressed as Ganymede, while Tess’s husband, Joe Pine, plays the wrestler Charles. As you can see, OSF is a family affair in some convoluted ways that would no doubt please the Bard.

Old Will would also be pleased by the director’s deft handling of the performance, with actors often making eye contact with the audience and bringing them into the action on (and off) the stage. As a result, this fun-filled romance clips along at a merry pace, augmented by Trevor Buda as a particularly pathetic and love-torn Silvius, hilarious Lara Mielcarek as the romantically misdirected Phebe, and Andrew Gorell’s amusing turn as the clown Touchstone. Sarah Coon as Roz’s gal pal Celia adds some dimension to the proceedings, as does Geoff Knox, who delivers the iconic “Seven Ages of Man” speech as melancholy Jaques with specificity and precision.

The Ohio Shakespeare Festival is a treat—sitting out by the lagoon at Stan Hywet Hall and being serenaded by bullfrogs as evening turns to night. Just make sure you’re planted in your seat a half-hour before show time!

As You Like It
Through July 16 at Ohio Shakespeare Festival, Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 100 S. High St., Akron, 888-718-4253, ohioshakespearefestival.com






Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How To Be A Respectable Junkie, Dobama Theatre

We’re Number One, We’re Number One!! Yes, the state of Ohio is at the top in the nation…when it comes to deaths from opioid overdoses (Ohio Department of Health, 2014). Abuse of opioids, those drugs derived from opium, has become a way of life for many here in Buckeye land. So it’s appropriate that a play addressing that particularly horrific and confounding problem should have its world premiere here.

Although it’s sometimes wise to steer clear of plays that have an obvious healthcare or public service message, local playwright Gregory Vovos has crafted a powerful piece of theater in How To Be A Respectable Junkie. This one-person, 90-minute piece is a journey through the woes of a white-collar fellow who’s become hooked and can’t (or won’t) give it up.

Brian is a 30-something dude who lives in his mother’s basement because he wants to spend every dime of his salary on the drugs he lives for. But he’s coming to the end of his rope, so he’s decided to share his hard-won knowledge, expressed in the title, on a video recorder he’s recently stolen.

As he talks and rants to the camera, he exchanges “dialog” with his dog Hope, given to him by his mother on the off chance a pet might alter his doomed trajectory. We never see the yapping dog, which is kept in a crate covered with blankets, but we see plenty of Brian as he decomposes before our eyes.

Playwright Vovos clearly knows his way around this territory, and the details he uses to explain how druggies shoot up, avoid detection, and deal with relatives is brutally precise. The amazingly talented actor Christopher M. Bohan brings Brian to painful life, as Brian confesses his weaknesses and rages at “earthlings” for not understanding how difficult it is to fight this addiction.

The play is nearly perfect right up until the last ten minutes, when Vovos surrenders to that bugaboo of many playwrights: over-explaining. As a result, the show limps to a conclusion as the eventually healthy Brian delivers a mini-seminar on how he has a new purpose in life, all to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

The ending, well-meaning though it is, is way too pat. But most of Junkie is right on the mark, showing us earthlings how it feels to be stuck on the business end of those deadly needles.

How To Be A Respectable Junkie
Through July 2 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org


Monday, June 19, 2017

Rock of Ages, Cain Park

Sometimes, a show comes along that will just not be denied. No matter how much you want to dislike it for a cavalcade of minor offenses—from desperately unfunny gags to a plotline that predictably creaks and groans—the damn show eventually wins you over.

Based on the 2012 film, the jukebox musical Rock of Ages is, let’s face it, a mess on several fronts.  As created by book author Chris D’Arienzo and Ethan Popp, who arranged and orchestrated the mid- to late- ‘80s rock tunes made popular by established artists (ie. Bon Jove, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, etc.), the play is a rock concert with a storyline stapled clumsily to it.

But the performers under the dazzling direction of Joanna May Hunkins are so balls-to-the-wall energetic, you eventually set aside your carping and go with the flow—from the blinding stage lights to the equally blinding hairdos.

It’s all based on a love story between wannabe rocker Drew and Sherrie, a gal from Kansas who just landed on Sunset Strip looking for stardom. Their love match is contrasted with the dastardly Hertz Klinemann (Kevin Kelly, deploying a hilarious, borderline impenetrable German accent) and his swishy (but not gay!) son Franz (a campy David Turner). The Germans want to turn The Strip into a strip mall for profit, gutting the Bourbon Room where all the rockers hang out.

It’s the krauts vs. the kidz and if you can’t guess who wins you need to have your brain bleached and teased until it resembles the big hair that traipses across the Alma Theatre stage.

Even though the plot is threadbare and the jokes are lame (some names of bands playing the club are called Concrete Balls and Steel Jizz. Um, really? The book author couldn’t even nail the “funny band name” gag?), the show works because it never lets up in its desire to be liked. It tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to make fun of itself at times. But the things that really work are the songs, performed by a talented band under the direction of Jordan Cooper and a talented cast of singers and dancers.

Shane Lonergan and Lauren Ashley Berry kick out the jams as Drew and Sherrie respectively, sharing one thankfully tender moment in a park with wine coolers. It is all narrated by Lonny, a relentlessly entertaining Douglas F. Bailey II, who pulls the storyline along like dragging a dead elephant seal across wet sand.

For a while, Sherrie is attracted to the visiting rock icon Stacee Jaxx, played with arrogant hauteur by Connor Bogart O’Brien—when the lead singer isn’t barfing his guts out from his latest excesses with various substances. And Neely Gevaart as Regina (It’s pronounced to rhyme with vagina…stop, you’re killing me) and Trinidad Snider as the sultry strip club madam Justice each add kickass singing and clever character portrayals to the mix. The cleverest twist in the show is when Lonny and club owner Dennis (Phillip Michael Carroll) discover each other in “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”

To tell the truth, when it comes to rock/jukebox musicals “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” But if you want a show to “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and give it to you “Any Way You Want It,” just “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Rock of Ages at Cain Park is a big, juicy slice of “Cherry Pie.”

Rock of Ages

Through June 25 at Cain Park, 14591 Superior Road, Cleveland Heights, 800-745-3000, cainpark.com

The Taming of the Shrew, Cleveland Shakespeare Festival

Ever since the original Shakespeare companies used boys and young men to play women’s roles, the layering and twisting of gender has been a substantial part of old Will’s entertainments. But it’s doubtful even The Man himself ever considered having the key men’s roles in The Taming of the Shrew played by women—since the dominant and submissive roles among men and women were so set in stone in the 17th Century. And (ahem) still are, in many ways.

But women do play men in the lively production of Shrew, now touring around Cleveland and northeast Ohio under the banner of the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. This hardy troupe, now celebrating their 20th season of presenting free Shakespeare al fresco, has taken this classic play and turned it on its head. As director Lisa Ortenzi notes in the program, “I wanted to see how Shrew would play out if mostly women took on the male roles.”

How does it work? Well, it depends how you look at it. Since women also play the main female characters, the gender switch is only half complete. From one perspective, it’s fascinating to watch capable female actors spout the words of the sexist Petruchio (a boisterous and entirely dominating Kelly Elliot), comical Tranio (Grace Mitri, continually swiveling and posturing), elderly Gremio (Samantha Cocco, adopting an old man’s manner and gait), and blue-balled Hortensio (a coiled and eager Hannah Storch).

But from another perspective, the gender flip can seem a bit of a gimmick, like having women play Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple. Ever since Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in a prose version of that play in 1899, we’ve been intrigued by the idea of women playing men. (God knows we’ve had enough of the reverse). But those examples—Glenn Close playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan along with countless other gals playing Peter himself, Laura Welsh Berg playing the title role in Hamlet in this year’s Great Lakes Theater production—don’t readily come to mind. The reason for that should be the subject for another treatise.

In any case, this CSF production is often witty and quite enjoyable. That is the case, even though actors in a few of the roles need to be zapped with a taser to chill out a bit and consider the value of throwing a line away now and then.

All CSF plays are free, all you have to do is bring a blanket or a low-slung chair and plug into the fun. Their second and final production of the summer, Macbeth, begins July 21. Presumably with a male in the lead role…although you never know.

The Taming of the Shrew

Through July 2 at various outdoor venues, consult the schedule at cleveshakes.com