Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Sweeney Todd, Blank Canvas Theatre

(Photo credit: Andy Dudik)

In most cases when you go see a big Broadway musical you’re held at arm’s length from the large stage, admiring the cast from afar. And that’s just fine. But if you’ve ever wondered how it feels to be up close and personal with the performers who are belting out show tunes from a big and ballsy musical, shuffle on over to Blank Canvas Theatre.

Thanks to the chutzpah of artistic director Patrick Ciamacco, BCT is willing to mount damn near any musical on their postage stamp-sized stage. And even when it feels like numerous cast members are squeezed into the playing area like a hockey team in full gear jammed into a used Yugo, there’s still an aura of excitement generated by having the singers literally an arm’s length away.

At times, such as in BCT’s recent production of Cabaret, everything works almost to perfection. Then there are other times when the result is a bit mixed, such as in the current production of Sweeney Todd. This dark musical about the demon barber of Fleet Street in London, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, usually needs a certain amount of physical expanse to let its songs and blood lust flow with full freedom.

Director Jonathan Kronenberger and the uncredited scenic designer have found ways to stage all the various elements of this show. This includes the infamous Barber Chair of Doom that ushers unsuspecting haircut customers into eternity as fillings for the rancid meat pies of Mrs. Lovett, one floor below. And when there are only a couple actors on stage at a given time, the scenes play out with extraordinary power. But when a chorus number is called for, there’s apparently no choreographer on hand to serve as traffic cop.

That said, there are splendid voices and performances in the mix in this Sweeney. In the two lead roles, Ciamacco and Trinidad Snider mesh nicely as the sociopathic duo, even though their accents (hers British, his not) don’t quite comport. But they join forces to cut a brutal swath through London gents desiring a bit of pomade in their hair.

Ciamacco conveys the hate boiling in Sweeney Todd, generated by the venal Judge Turpin (Brian Altman) who packed Todd off to jail so the judge could boff Sweeney’s wife. Snider uses her strong pipes and slightly goofy presence to offer a fresh counterpoint to Ciamacco’s intensity, bringing a charming psychopathy to Mrs. Lovett and her pastries from hell.

They are supported well, notably by Meg Martinez and Robert Kowalewski who play the love-smitten Johanna (Sweeney’s daughter) and Anthony Hope, who rescued Sweeney at sea. Their voices elevate their songs, as do John Webb’s renditions as the Beadle and Devin Pfeiffer’s as Tobias Ragg. And Ian Jones steps in with a hilarious turn as a competitive barber Pirelli, whose secret identity leads to his demise. In the small but choice role of the Beggar Woman (who also has a secret identity), Kristy Cruz dials up the weird way past 11 and loses the character’s full dimension.

As difficult as Sondheim can be to sing, these folks do all the songs justice, helped immeasurably by the nine-person band under the direction of Matthew Dolan. And even when the action on the tiny stage has all the elegance of 17 cats fighting in a sack, this Sweeney Todd is pungent enough to keep you involved and even moved.

Sweeney Todd
Through March 10 at Blank Canvas Theatre, West 78 Street Studios, 1300 W. 78 St., 440-941-0458,

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


The musicals of Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford will be celebrated at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

“We’ve never done this before, so I think it will be quite special.” Composer Nancy Ford is speaking about an intimate performance she and her longtime songwriting partner, lyricist Gretchen Cryer, will be experiencing in Cleveland.

And the fact that this is something new for them is also something remarkable, because these two women, who were the first female writing team to be produced in New York City, have certainly experienced a lot. They’ve written more than seven full-length musicals together, and they’ve garnered multiple awards because their music has proven to be both richly entertaining and topically groundbreaking.

On Sunday, March 11, this dynamic duo will join forces with The Musical Theater Project to present Old Friends: An Afternoon with Cryer and Ford. They will be joined on the stage of Mixon Hall at the Cleveland Institute of Music by producer and host Bill Rudman and singers Katherine DeBoer and Eric Fancher, under the musical direction of TMTP stalwart Nancy Maier.

Cryer and Ford (as they are known) are perhaps best known for their 1978 musical I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, which featured the tender and poignant song “Old Friends.” The show was originally produced by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival.

As Nancy Ford says, “Taking It on the Road has always been seen as an early feminist musical, since it focuses on one woman performer’s decision to focus her songs on the subject of women’s emancipation. At the time, Gretchen and I didn’t view it as feminist. It was just trying to speak truthfully about the relationships between men and women.”

The songs from that show, and all the others, have continued to resonate with women and men over the decades. And in this concert at CIM, songs from all their musicals will be performed—including pieces from the innovative The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, the anti-war musical Now Is the Time for All Good Men, and Shelter—a musical that played on Broadway in 1973 and dealt with the unhealthy obsession people have with their computers. How’s that for predicting the future?

In addition to those shows, the concert on March 11 will also include songs Cryer and Ford wrote years ago for the American Girl stores. At that time, they wrote “family musicals” to be performed in those doll stores, based on the historical American Girl doll characters. Ford notes, “That experience led Gretchen and I to write the musical Anne of Green Gables, which has toured many schools and is still available.”

It’s been an amazing career for Ford as well as Cryer, who has also written the books for all their musicals and whose son, John Cryer, is well-known as a movie and TV actor, garnering two Emmy Awards for his role in Two and a Half Men.

As Ford says, “Gretchen and I were actually a little surprised we got as many shows produced, back in the 1970s and 80s, as we did. Then it got a bit harder as the years went by.” But that body of work deserves a celebration, and the festivities will happen soon, right here in Cleveland.

Nancy Ford and Gretchen Cryer will also attend a VIP Meet & Greet at Nighttown on Friday night, March 9th. It's a $75 reception that includes a ticket for Sunday's concert, and the songwriting team will be there for some Q&A and to sing a couple of songs in a more intimate setting.

Old Friends: An Afternoon with Cryer and Ford
Sunday, March 11 at 3 PM, Mixon Hall, Cleveland Institute of Music, 11021 East Blvd. For tickets: Call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006 or visit
For the reception:

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

American Dreams, Cleveland Public Theatre

“It’s a game! It’s a show! It’s America!!”

And so begins the television game show that is also the current play at Cleveland Public Theatre titled American Dreams. When you get a ticket to be a member of the CPT audience, you also become part of the audience of this “TV production” that unrolls before your eyes.

This world premiere production features a core of touring actors augmented by local performers in small roles. It is written by Leila Buck, who also takes a lead role as co-host of the TV show, and it reaches out and grabs the audience through the familiar trappings of shows like Jeopardy! and The Price Is Right. Except in this instance the prize isn’t a new washer/dryer, it’s instant citizenship in the United States.

By taking some bold chances this 90-minute play, augmented by a great deal of audience participation, succeeds in throwing a spotlight on the values we supposedly hold dear—such as freedom and democracy. And while there are a few slow and somewhat predictable spots, this show can leave you with a visceral sense of how it must feel to be a person from another country yearning to live in America.

Hard as it may be for some to believe, U.S. citizenship is still a treasured commodity for those from what our President has elegantly dubbed “shithole countries.” And in this show the three contestants—Alejandro (Andrew Aaron Valdez), Usman (Imran Sheikh)  and Adil (Ali Andre Ali)—are from Mexico, Pakistan and Palestine. As we are told, the government has vetted each individual in the trio and they are now competing before a live studio audience (that’s you) to see which one will be granted citizenship.

The two game show hosts are played with smarmy goofiness by Buck and Jens Rasmussen (who collaborated on the script along with the three actors who play the contestants). The hosts welcome the audience before the show begins, warming up the crowd and even welcoming some by name. You see, when you enter from the lobby you pass through a metal detector, ease past a security guard, and are then required to fill out two forms—one of which asks for your name and place of birth along with some other questions about your personal lineage, as well as your opinion on what an immigrant should promise to do if granted citizenship.

This mildly intrusive pre-screening nicely sets the tone for what is to come. And after the TV show goes “on air” with nighttime aerial footage of downtown Cleveland, just like a Monday Night Football game telecast, the game commences. There are several different sections to the game, with titles such as “How America Works,” “America’s Favorites,” and “American Dreams.” During these segments, the three contestants are peppered with questions dealing with facts (Who is fourth in line for the Presidency?) and shared opinions (What is America’s favorite book? How about second favorite?).

There’s even a section dubbed “Aliens with Extraordinary Skills,” in which the three hopefuls show off the particular talent they would bring with them to their new country. Some of these segments work better than others. For instance, when Adil attempts to show off his culinary skills by creating a dish from the available contents of the show’s green room fridge, the show bogs as we watch him prepare a broccoli and grape salad. Where are the Today Show’s Kathy Lee and Hoda when you need them, swilling wine during a food bit?

Even though all aspects of this TV show don’t maintain a satirical edge, things get serious when, about an hour into the play, the contestants are put on the “Hot Seat.” This is when the hosts’ questions become more pointed, and even unfair, and some of the less savory aspects of each contestant’s backgrounds are revealed. It’s almost too bad that we don’t get to the “Hot Seat” questions sooner, so that some of the challenging issues around immigration could get a fuller and more emotional, exploration.

Still, before the audience finally votes on who will get citizenship, each of the contestants has been pretty well stripped of their privacy and pride.

Playwright Buck and director Tamilla Woodard (who also helped develop the material) are to be commended for the concept of American Dreams. By making the entire play follow the steps of TV show taping, including the breaks for commercials when the hosts and contestants meander around, grabbing a sip of water or checking with a technician, the subtext of the hoops we make immigrants go through never comes off as heavy handed.

Indeed, the constant presence of security guards on the set is obvious but not forced. And ultimately the joy of the “winner” is tempered by the fact that the other two hopefuls have been left out in the cold. As, indeed, many aspiring immigrants are these days, by the tens of thousands.

If a good play should make you think about an issue and make you a bit uncomfortable about your preconceived notions, then American Dreams does the job. And as usual, CPT presents it with professional polish and style.

American Dreams
Through March 3 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727,

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Riverdance 20, Playhouse Square

For some people, the only notable thing about the Riverdance franchise is how it reminds them of Molly Shannon. As you might remember, it was Shannon who played “the woman who wouldn’t swing her arms while walking” on an episode of Seinfeld. And it led to a memorable catfight between Shannon’s character and Elaine.

And yes, it’s true that the dancers in the many Riverdance iterations over the years often don’t move their arms either, giving their furious, highly-percussive tap numbers a unique look. But in this version, Riverdance 20, there’s a lot more going on with multiple arms often moving in all directions.

In addition to the male and female Irish dance troupe members, who flash their feet without betraying any facial expression whatsoever, there are dances from other cultures that are featured. These include a flamenco soloist, a Russian folk dance troupe, and even some spotlighted singers.

All in all, Riverdance 20 is more like a dancing and singing variety show, which may disturb some Riverdance purists. These are the folks who still worship at the shrine of founder Michael Flatley, who created, choreographed and was the principal dancer in the original Riverdance in 1994.

In this production, there are many highlights including a “Trading Taps” sequence when three of the traditional Irish tappers face off against two African-American tappers who are a lot more loose-goosey in their dance patterns. And the Russian dancers are astonishing with the terpsichorean calisthenics they are able to execute.

Everything is tied together by the musical director/percussionist Mark Alfred, who pounds out the beat behind his giant drum kit. Then he takes the stage later and ignites a devastating solo on the bodhran, the Irish one-sided hand-held drum.

While the evening builds to a powerful crescendo, there are some blips along the way. The stage set is basically static, with a single screen used to show various visuals that tend to be either predictable (stars, moon, sun) or boring (a drawing of a cottage). So much more could be done by making the entire stage come alive with projections. And while the singers are serviceable, the soprano soloist has a voice that is almost too fragile, and the baritone soloist can’t hit notes in the lower register.

But who’s complaining when rows of dancers are making their feet fly at warp speed, tapping out rhythms that trigger the pleasure component in our reptilian brain. And we smile.

Riverdance 20
Through February 18 at Playhouse Square, Keybank State Theater, 1615 Euclid Ave. 216-241-6000,

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Jelly Belly, Ensemble Theatre

(Mary Francis Renee Miller as Barbara and LaShawn Little as Mike)

Can you steal a show when you’re half asleep while you’re on stage? Normally, no. But in the case of Robert Hunter, who plays the drug-addled Bruce in Jelly Belly, now at Ensemble Theatre, that is exactly what he does.

Bruce is just one of the compelling elements in this drama by the acclaimed African-American Charles Smith that takes place on and around the front porch of a home in a downtrodden black neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. And thanks to an exceptional cast, under the direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz, and a darkly comic script by the playwright, there’s a real fire in this Belly.

The time is 1980, but it could be almost any other contemporary time when drugs are awash in lower income communities and African-American men are seeking ways to assert their pride without being swept up in illegal activities. The house belongs to Mike and Barbara, which Mike pays for through his low-level job for a construction firm.

Mike is also serving as a mentor, of sorts, to a young man named Kenny who is trying to learn the ropes of construction, coming up with architectural ideas for Mike’s house renovation. But they are all a bit skittish since the primo drug dealer in the area, Jelly Belly, is just out of prison and they know he will be making his presence known.

Weaving (literally) throughout the proceedings is Bruce, a one-man drug swamp who can barely walk down the street or lift his head. When Jelly Belly (a calm and chilling Greg White) shows up, everyone’s attitude changes. Mike becomes defensive, since he’s been benefitting from Jelly’s largesse when it comes to sampling drugs. And Kenny suddenly loses his early fear and gravitates to Jelly, fascinated by the stories and promises the older man spins.

It’s all a con game, of course, and playwright Smith deftly tells this depressing story with a fine and often humorous touch. And as in any con game, there's enough sad truth regarding Mike and Kenny's prospects that Jelly's offer of drugs does seem like a workable alternative. It is a cutting, subtly brutal portrait of what goes on in black communities where, if hope hasn't already taken the last train out of town, it's waiting at the station with its bags packed.

The performances for the most part are spot on. As Mike, Lashawn Little strikes just the right notes of fear, anger and vulnerability. Mary Frances Renee Miller is fierce and funny in her short time on stage. And Jabri Little is endearing for a while as Kenny, although his change in attitude regarding Jelly Belly seems a bit too pat.

Although he has the fewest lines, Robert Hunter is absolutely hypnotic as Bruce. While never drawing attention away from the story, Hunter manipulates his body and face in ways that convey just how screwed up Bruce is—slumping down for a nap against a fire hydrant, fluttering in terror before Jelly Belly, and bragging in a blurry way about his “strong mind.” It is a masterful portrayal with a minimalist touch, and it is worth the price of admission.

But then, so is the whole show. It is a wise and understated snapshot of some of the trouble this country is in, and why it is so hard to make it better.

Jelly Belly
Through February 25 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930,

Sassy Mamas, Karamu House

(From left: Jeanne Madison, Kimberly Sias, Rebecca Morris)

There’s nothing in Sassy Mamas by Celeste Bedford Walker that you haven’t seen in a variety of cable sitcoms. What we have are three African-American women friends of a certain age, living in the same luxury Washington D.C. apartment building, who find themselves on their own, relationship-wise. Instead of taking up scrapbooking, they decide they would like to explore the delights of younger black men--and we ain’t talking about their ability to shovel the driveway.

With that premise the jokes almost write themselves, and playwright Bedford doesn’t get in the way, keeping the dialog crisp, the punch line set-ups clear and the laughs plentiful. Even though there’s nothing really new here, sometimes it’s cozy to settle back into some familiar comedic territory and roll around in it for a while.

Happily, director Tony Sias has assembled nearly the perfect cast for this show. To be clear, that doesn’t mean these six folks are the best actors around. But it does mean that the three women (Kimberly Sias, Jeanne Madison and Rebecca Morris) and the three guys (Michael Head, Cameron Woods and Bryon Tobin) are ideally matched with each other.

The ladies are beautiful but they also credibly look their age—one is a recent widow, one a divorcee, and one a career woman (the President’’s National Security Advisor, no less). And the gentlemen are three interesting and quite different versions of the type known as seriously hot.

If you don’t have six people like that, this show isn’t getting off the ground. But beyond that, each of the performers is talented enough to bring out the humor of the script without losing track of their characters.

In short, it is a tight and enjoyable ride, augmented by a classy scenic design and drop-dead gorgeous costumes, all of which is designed by Inda Blatch-Geib.

So if you want to explore the land where cougars (er, “black panthers”) prowl, Sassy Mamas is just the ticket.

Sassy Mamas
Through March 4 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89 St., 216-795-7070,

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Boy, None Too Fragile Theater

(From left, Marc Moritz as Dr. Barnes and David Lenahan as Sam)

It’s terrible when what ought to be a hypothetical thought experiment actually happens in real life. Such an event happened back in the 1960s when one infant boy in a set of twins suffered an unimaginably horrific medical accident, having his penis virtually destroyed during a medically prescribed circumcision.  That boy, David Peter Reimer, was then handed off to Dr. John Money, who had a theory that gender identity was fungible, and that this boy could be taught to live as a girl.

It was an interesting theory that was soon proven totally wrong. And that is the basis for the play Boy by Anna Ziegler, now at None Too Fragile Theater.  And while the 85-minute play is performed with remarkable specificity and nuance by the five-person cast, under the direction of Sean Derry, there are many gender rocks this work neglects to upturn.

That’s unfortunate, since the core story is certainly one that resonates powerfully these days. Transgender issues continually occupy the headlines, whether it’s POTUS trying to ban trans soldiers from the military or trans people being assaulted and murdered at ever-increasing rates. But in this case, the person at hand never wanted his gender altered. It was done because an honored member of the medical profession decided, in his own mind, that gender identity could be learned, and changed, at will.

In the play, we meet a 20-something young man named Adam who is having an awkward, quasi-romantic encounter with Jenny at a Halloween party. With Adam dressed as Frankenstein and Jenny (a funny yet vulnerable Natalie Green) decked out as a sexy bunny in fishnets and heels, they flirt with each other but it goes nowhere. From there, the play flips from one flashback to another as we see how Adam, born as Samuel and then reborn as Samantha for all his pre-teen years, finally found his way back to his true masculine gender.

The scenes between Samuel/Samantha and Dr. Barnes, the Dr. Money character, are particularly effective. The actor David Lenahan embodies the wriggling, squirming presence of young Samuel so well—even as he encouraged to act like a little lady by his therapist (inviting the boy to cross his legs demurely and read Jane Eyre). Sam is much more connected to Luke Skywalker.  Contorting himself on his chair and rolling about on the floor as little boys are wont to do, Lenahan makes the drive to be oneself clearly visible.

As Dr. Barnes, Marc Moritz is calm and insistent in his pursuit of turning this boy into a girl, all to further his theory, Lurking in the background is also the practical consideration that it was (and still is) much easier to construct a functional vagina than it would be to fashion a working penis.

So as far as the doc is concerned, Samuel needs to be Samantha. This an opinion he shares with the parents, who seem bewildered but accepting, up to a point. As played by Pamela Harwood and Andrew Narten, it’s easy to empathize with their plight as they try to determine what is best for their child.

The playwright structures her piece in short scenes that hop around in time, and that can work against the impulse to dive deeper into some aspects of the characters. For example, we never see why Dr. Barnes is so insistent on forcing femininity, and even further surgery to create a vagina, on his very resistant patient. Is it all ego-driven, or is there a more humane impulse driving him.

More importantly, Sam’s disconnect with his doctor, his family and ultimately with himself is only touched upon, often in an almost clinical and fastidious manner. Living every day in the wrong gender is a particular kind of hell that one wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy, but Ziegler’s facile writing doesn’t allow the audience entry into that particular polar vortex of the soul.

Instead, we are left on the outside looking in, wondering how the relationship chairs will be arranged on the deck of this Titanic. Until Sam finally finds his voice and people are ready to listen, in his early teens, he is the ultimate stranger in a strange land.

Director Derry, as always, brings out evocative performances from his cast. But the overall effect would be tightened if each scene didn’t end in a blackout, some of which felt over-long. Sure, it’s easier to see the screen where the year of the next flashback happens, but it might have been more compelling just to see the actors move from scene to scene in the light.

The difficulty of knowing how to treat patients with intersex and other genital abnormalities is acknowledged. And even though its heart is in the right place, with Sam and Jenny finding each other at the end, it ain’t that easy. The real Sam, David Peter Reimer, tragically committed suicide at age 38. 

Through February 17 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547,