Monday, December 15, 2014

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, Cleveland Public Theatre

Here are the 12 Days of a Conni Christmas, jammed into 5 days because there are only 5 more days to see this amazing, delicious compendium of insanity before it goes away forever.

On the fifth day of Christmas, Conni gave to me: A naked doctor running through the audience and mushroom and pumpkin-ricotta tartines. Served by the actors, who talk to you, weirdly.

On the fourth day of Christmas, Conni gave to me a woman holding a goose and a “Bus That Table” Contest among the patrons. And a carrot-ginger soup that’s so good you will be tempted to trample small children to get seconds. (Okay, mid-sized children.)

On the third day of Christmas, Conni gave to me Four helpful nurses and a deer shot before the salad course, which consists of a herbed fennel and apple salad. Yum.

On the second day of Christmas, Conni gave to me a Q & A with Mrs. Robinson, who is of course an English dude who will likely exchange clothes with a woman in the audience, or do unspeakable things with a hand mixer. Or he might be the one serving you the main course of roasted turkey breast with cranberry compote (or a veggie option), with maple-glazed Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes.

On the first day of Christmas, Conni gave to me Goodi Two-Shoes and Sue James and Messerschmidt and Shihu Shallnotbenamed and Chance Gunner and Little Drummer Boy. And a drunken pumpkin bundt cake with whipped cream. Lots of whipped cream. God knows where that whipped cream will end up.

You have five more days: this Wednesday through Sunday the 21st. Tarry not. You’ll never experience anything else like this again, and also end up with a full stomach and a nice buzz (You also get table wine with your ticket.) And there are plenty of surprises. So, you know, what’s not to love?

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant

Through December 21 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

High Fidelity, Blank Canvas Theatre

(Leslie Andrews as Laura and Shane Patrick O'Neill as Rob.)

This is a show about a vinyl record store, the freaks who shop there, and the equally obsessed owner Rob. There are also “Top Five” lists galore, so let’s start with the,,,

 Top Five Things I Like About High Fidelity, now at Blank Canvas.

One, it’s a musical adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel and the Stephen Frears film, both hilarious, and a lot of that humor is evident in this production.

Two, Shane Patrick O’Neill sings well as the record store owner Rob, even though O’Neill could make his supposedly dweeby character a bit more dorky. And his hot-and-cold romance with Laura is funny, especially when it’s cold.

Three, Patrick Ciamacco is nicely acidic as the music snob Berry, the Jack White role in the film, and as always his direction of the production is brisk and effective.

Four, the varied rock songs by Amanda Green and Tom Kitt hold up well. And thanks to Kate Leigh Michalski who plays Liz and Leslie Andrews as Laura, the tunes are mostly a treat.

Five, Rob’s Top Five exes show up in person and repeatedly, to detail his faults. In short, one of any guy’s Top Five Nightmares.

On the other hand, here are…

A Couple Things I Don’t Like About High Fidelity

One, the gaggle of record nerds starts out pleasantly weird, but by the end they all get pressed and washed and a couple fall in love. Including the defiantly dorky Dick (Pat Miller) who falls for a female fan of John Tesh! Even the Most Pathetic Man in the World ends up rockin’ out in a band.

Two, on stage, the funeral of Laura’s dad in Act Two feels pasted on and not convincing, a plea for emotional heft that isn’t deserved.

But overall the show works. Plus, the audience can go on stage and buy some vinyl records off the set for $1.00 each. I love me some vinyl, and I came away with eight new (old) LPs. So High Fidelity immediately soars to the Number One position on my list of Top Five Plays That Allow Me to Shop On Stage During Intermission.

High Fidelity
Through December 20 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458.


Monday, December 8, 2014

American Falls, Cleveland Public Theatre

(Adam Seeholzer as Samuel)

Every playwright who has ever put pen to paper (or finger to computer key) has wanted in some way to encapsulate the mystifying contradictions of the human experience in these United States: love, rage, hope, despair, compassion, betrayal, etc. This is a noble and just calling, and we who observe their works are, generally, the better for it.

Trouble is, by trying to do everything in a single script, many playwrights succeed in doing nothing much at all. American Falls by Miki Johnson, now at Cleveland Public Theatre (and seen by this reviewer at a preview performance), lands where most of these highly ambitious plays end up—in the mushy middle ground between memorable and forgetable.

There are seven adult characters on stage (and one young boy, played by Anthony Sevier, who only appears briefly), and they have stories to tell about their lives. They are inhabitants of the eponymous town, a name for both the play and the town that is an almost-too-perfect summation of the theme at hand. The actors remain onstage for the duration of the 90-minute show, but they rarely interact with each other as they occupy little silos of light deftly designed by Jakyung Seo.

On the plus side, playwright Johnson and director Raymond Bobgan craft two really extraordinary characters, embodied in a couple riveting performances. Samantha is a worn-out woman who has boozed and fucked her way through life but, you know, not in a good way. As she says, “None of my kids turned out,” comparing them to failed Easter eggs. Despite almost Kabuki-level dollops of aging makeup, Chris Seibert is darkly comical and compelling as Samantha, mastering a raspy Marlboro growl and a defeated mien that feels like a festering, pulsing bruise on a tired soul.

Equally attention-getting is Adam Seeholzer as Samuel, a man who is so distraught by recent events that he turns himself inside out and into a new person. Seeholzer beautifully underplays this role, maintaining a steadily dark through-line that feels weirdly lyrical.

There are two other major roles that come across with varying degrees of success. Darius Stubbs plays the American Indian, Billy Mound of Clouds, and garners some of the biggest laughs as he discusses his job at Payless Shoe Store and his ability to intuit the future through his discount kicks. Stubbs lands these humorous asides with quiet style, but it’s hard to get hold of what Billy’s mindset really is.

This may be a problem with the script, since Johnson also underwrites the role of Lisa, who is dead after having committed suicide. The captivating acting talent of Faye Hargate is largely wasted in this character, since Lisa is called upon to deliver monotone, “Our Town-lite” faux-philosophical commentaries from the afterlife, without fully coming to grips with her actual life.

Three other characters, played by P.J. McCready, Ryan Edlinger and Dionne D. Atchison have shorter stories to tell as they gather in a bar. But none of these lives gain any traction and feel like an unnecessary digression from the four main characters. Sure, there are interconnections, but they are a bit faint and flimsy as portrayed here.

In this production, director Bobgan hews closely to the script, without his trademark layerings of movement and sound. And that is a wise choice, since Johnson is a playwright who manipulates words with panache. But a clearer focus on the really interesting characters would make American Falls a more satisfying journey.

American Falls
Through December 20 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.






Sunday, December 7, 2014

Clara & The Nutcracker, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

Little kids are supposed to go see The Nutcracker at the holidays. It’s a rule. Even if tots don’t really comprehend what’s going on, heck, people are jumping around and there’s music.

But if you want to show the kids the story without all that ballet folderol, take them to Clara & The Nutcracker, now at Talespinner Children’s Theatre. In this clever adaptation by local actor and writer Anne McEvoy, the focus is on the yarn about Clara and her fantastical relationship with a kitchen appliance dressed up as a soldier.

It all begins in a surprising manner, with “stagehands” in white jumpsuits being called upon at the last minute to fill in for a ballet company that got stranded in a snowstorm. Happily, they’re all wearing Nutcracker costumes under their jumpsuits (as all stagehands do…don't ask), and soon, true to this company’s moniker, they’re spinning the tale.

Under the skillful direction of Alison Garrigan and thanks to an inventive cast, it’s easy to follow the plot as Uncle Drosselmeyer (Michael Regnier) gifts Clara (Tania Benites) with the nutcracker (Ryan Christopher) and she sails off on her adventure.

Charles Hargrave delights in various roles as Clara’s brother Fritz, the Mouse King and the Snowflake King, and Elaine Feagler is a hoot as a non-traditional Sugar Plum Faerie.

As always with TCT, there are puppets and masks. These work well, especially when gaggle of mice is represented by Sarah Moore as the Mouse Queen puppet and a couple other actors play mice with additional mice strapped to their heads. There is also lots of audience participation (“Be a ticking clock!” “Be a scratchy mouse!”) that keeps the small patrons on their toes.

This is fun stuff for kids, and there are enough witty asides in McEvoy’s script to keep adults amused (one character threatening the Nutcracker: “You’ve cracked your final filbert!”).

As seems to be true with many TCT plays, the littler audience members seem to reach their attention span limit at about 50 minutes. So the last ten minutes of many productions, including this one, feel a bit dicey as the kids squirm.

Clara is a sure-fire winner for families with small children. And it’s especially fun to see the kids meet the costumed actors up close and personal, immediately after the performance. If you like to see those little eyes light up, haul ‘em over to Talespinner this month.

Clara & The Nutcracker
Through December 21 at the Talespinner Children’s Theatre, The Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, 216-264-9680.






Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, PlayhouseSquare


There are gobs of traditions connected to the holidays, and for many the 1954 film White Christmas is one of them. It’s easy to get swept away by that glorious Technicolor flick, especially at the conclusion when a battalion of soldiers shows up to help aging General Waverly hang onto his inn in Vermont. Hell, I cry every time.

The promotional image for this musical version of that film, now at PlayhouseSquare, is a snow globe, and that is actually a very accurate representation of the show itself. It’s gorgeous to look at (and the songs are enjoyable to listen to), but the emotions that the film generates are absent, sealed under the glossy surface of a show that has plenty of eye candy but not enough heart.

As you probably know, two World War II army buddies Bob and Phil (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in the movie) take their singin’ and dancin’ act on the road after the war and become big stars. One night, as a favor to another friend from their platoon, they watch a sister act featuring Betty and Judy Haynes (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in the flick), and they are smitten. Soon, they all find themselves on a train going north, as the women are booked into holiday gig at a Vermont inn, and the boys follow along.

There are many occasions for set changes, and the scenic design by Anna Louizos is always satisfying. Combined with costume designer Carrie Robbins’ wonderful period duds, the train and the inn and the nightclub scenes all feel perfectly polished.

Of course, there are Berlin songs galore, all handled with professional expertise, including faves from the movie such as “Snow” and “Blue Skies.” Some of the tunes come complete with big tap dance routines, such as the show-stopping “I Love a Piano” (not in the film) that opens Act Two.

There’s a nice local connection in the cast since Cliff Bemis, who plays The Snoring Man and Ezekiel, was one of the four cast members of the musical Jacques Brel...back in the 1970s. Brel was instrumental in saving PlayhouseSquare, so it’s fitting that Bemis can trod these boards again. And happily, he’s quite funny in both his parts.

Trouble is, the leads are competent but they never make an emotional connection with the audience. As Bob, James Clow sings well but has almost negative personal magnetism on stage. Jeremy Benton is more lively as Phil, and you keep waiting for him to capture some of the zany Kaye-like vibe, but it never happens. As the sisters, Kaitlyn Davidson as Judy dances up a storm and Trista Moldovan as Betty croons prettily, but neither resonate as distinctive characters.

And since this script never sets up General Waverly as a fully-involved character, the excellent Conrad John Shuck can do little but pose and posture when the emotional climax of the story should take place. In short, my tissues remained firmly ensconced in my purse.

But there’s no denying how gorgeous the stage looks, especially at the end when the audience is literally enveloped in a postcard-perfect snowy scene. That’s something you’re not likely to see at any other theater in town, which is why PlayhouseSquare is always a wonderful gift—at the holidays or any other time.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Through Dec. 14 at PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Top Dog/Underdog, None Too Fragile Theater

(From left, Robert Grant III as Lincoln and Brian Kenneth Armour as Booth)

It’s such an obvious crowd-pleaser, it’s hard to believe the National Rifle Association hasn’t yet sponsored it: a shooting gallery where people can recreate the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

In Top Dog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, now at the None Too Fragile Theater, that bizarre bit of interactive amusement is at the core of this two-brother drama. The African-American bros, named Lincoln and Booth by their father as a joke, are frozen in a world composed of lies and dreams.

And this production, directed by Sean Derry, generates laughs even as you see the two men sinking under the weight of their own misperceptions.

Lincoln spends his days working at playing Honest Abe, in a stovepipe hat and whiteface, while customers plug him with their fake guns. Lincoln (the man, not the President) used to be a master of the three-card monte street hustle, but now his brother Booth wants that gig. Trouble is, Booth is a better common thief than he is a card trickster, and he wants Lincoln to show him the three-card monte ropes.

Confined in Booth’s small, no-efficiency apartment (sans bathroom or running water) the confrontationally-named siblings chafe against each other in frequently comical ways. But there is always a current of anger and resentment beneath their actions, the familial source of which is brought out in Act Two.

Although Parks' script (a Pulitzer Prize winner) is long and repetitive, the two excellent actors on stage often make it sing believably. Brian Kenneth Armour moves slow and easy, but each of his movements is laden with intent. So the audience quickly learns to fear what might happen when he gets too agitated.

As Lincoln, Robert Grant III is an endearing fellow, wearing his scraggly fake beard and honestly trying to improve his performance so he can keep his “job with benefits.” But when he shows his brother some real card shuffling skills, Booth realizes his dream of mastering that con game, like his dream of reuniting with his girlfriend Grace, is totally illusory.

Together, Grant and Armour spin a web of iron that leaves neither any escape. And even though there are long stretches when the pace could be picked up a bit, the performers keep you riveted until the inevitable but shocking conclusion.

Sure, this play could be done in a shorter time than this production’s almost three-hour run time with one intermission. But then, you’d spend less time in the company of these two magnificently flawed and doomed characters. And that would be a shame.

Top Dog/Underdog
Through November 29 at None Too Fragile Theater,
1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), nonetoofragile.com, 330-671-4563.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Tingle Tangle, Theater Ninjas

“What I love is the taste of transience on the tongue, every year might be the last.” In that quote, German film and theater actor and director Max Reinhardt was speaking about the fragile Weimar Republic.

And if you’ve ever wondered what Weimar-like transience felt like, it is on full display in Tingle Tangle, now being produced by Theater Ninjas. The Weimar Republic existed in Germany like a fragile flower between the two 20th Century world wars. And for a brief moment, the arts that flourished in that time were rather astounding in their candor and confrontation.

In this production, conceived by Ray Caspio and directed by Jeremy Paul, the audience is swept back to that time when Germans partied hearty and gleefully trampled established  cultural boundaries. The cabarets that popped up after WWI often featured nudity and acts loaded with sexual innuendo.

The material in this variety show of songs and vignettes is all-American, however, touching on various personal remembrances of the cast members dealing with gender identity and sex. It is unabashed, unapologetic and often uproariously hilarious.

Caspio, gay and married, talks about his personal journey and current conflicts, since he lives in Ohio, a state that doesn’t recognize his loving relationship. A talented and riveting performer, Caspio uses his lean body to great effect whether delivering his monologues or just moving and dancing in place on the small stage. And his second act schtick as the aged and bigoted Uncle Toots, a character Caspio initially created on You Tube, is a flat-out hoot.

He is supported by five other actors and live accompaniment provided by Eric M. C. Gonzalez. One standout in the company is Amy Schwabauer, who does a spot-on rendition of a high school coach teaching a sex education class, employing a witty mixture of flaming ignorance and an earnest desire to communicate. Schwabauer is also excellent in her personal reminiscence about her, um, adventurous sex life.

The other performers include Katie Beck, Valerie C. Kilmer, Dan Rand, and Ryan Lucas, who each have their moments as Tingle Tangle weaves its own spell of frank honesty and simmering rage at the absurdities of society today.

Sure, there are some bits that don’t exactly work, and the singing of some of the period songs is more often off-key than on. But this all fits the raw and gritty vibe that the show is shooting for. By not taking itself seriously, the show lowers barriers and compels the audience to take some of the issues raised very seriously.

It is all staged in the basement of the Guide to Kulchur bookstore, owned by the esteemed poet RA Washington, and it is the perfect space. Tucked into a corner and surrounded by books, it feels as if you’ve been let into a secret club that requires a password to enter.

The small venue means only about 40 people can experience this remarkable show at any one time. So don’t tarry. If you’re in the mood for a fascinating trip that will have you laughing out loud multiple times, get a zesty taste of gender and sexual transience in Tingle Tangle.

Tingle Tangle

Through November 16, produced by Theater Ninjas at the Guide to Kulchur bookstore, 1386 W. 65th St., www.theaterninjas.com.