Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Spitfire Grill, Beck Center

(From left: Kate Leigh Michalski as Shelby, Lenne Snively as Hannah and Neely Gevaart as Percy)

Maudlin sentimentality is acceptable when toasting your 90-year-old grandmother on finishing her first 3K. That's because it’s quite an accomplishment and we should happily allow the tears to flow. But such effusive emotionalism is less tolerable in a musical about a convicted murderer who killed her abusive husband in his sleep (defensible as that choice might have been).

Yet that is the journey we are asked to take in The Spitfire Grill, now at the Beck Center for the Arts. Listen, musicals involving homicide are fine, whether you prefer the grisly in-person violence of Sweeney Todd or the campy botanical carnage in Little Shop of Horrors. But when you lean on the emotions as hard as James Valcq (music and book) and Fred Alley (lyrics and book) do in Spitfire, in an effort to make nearly every song an anthem to personal growth and tearful redemption, you need to get a clue.

Percy is a young woman just released from prison for murdering her man, and she winds up in the backwater town of Gilead, Wisconsin. Soon, thanks to the intervention of kindly cop Joe (a quite affable Shane Patrick O’Neill), she’s working at the only restaurant in town, owned by a predictably ornery old coot named Hannah. 

This is all based on the tearjerker flick of the same name, but the play doubles down on the melodrama by adding music to the story. But not just any music. These songs are mostly repetitive A-B-C-B rhyme schemes tacked onto Sesame Street-simple tunes, making one yearn for even a moment of Sondheim-like complexity. One after another, the songs beat you up with their intense desire to wrench moisture from your eyes. Indeed, earnest sincerity drizzles off this show like bacon grease off a slow-cooked, pan-fried pork fritter on Hannah’s menu. 

From “A Ring Around the Moon” to “The Colors of Paradise,” and from “Come Alive Again” to “Shine,” the incessant and weepy musical pummeling doesn’t stop. Along the way, Percy’s journey from con to cook to a better life is sprinkled with unlikely events, such as a contest where people send in $100 and an essay about why they want to own the Spitfire Grill. The winner gets the joint, you see, since Hannah is ready to move on after she injured herself in a fall.

Of course, there is a gruff grill regular, Caleb, who is bummed by the quarry closing, his dishrag of a wife Shelby, who becomes Percy’s best friend, and the town’s post office mistress and pathological gossip Effy. Also, lurking in the woods is Hannah's son (Derrick Winger),  who has his own troubled past. Does it all end happily for everyone? You'll never guess (and I'll never tell...shh!)

As Caleb, the excellent performer Dan Folino fails to find the second ply in his cardboard character, and shows off his powerful pipes almost to a fault. Kate Leigh Michalski as Shelby looks suitably morose during her well-sung solo “When Hope Goes,” and Lissy Gulick's Effy is adorably nosy.

In the lead roles, Neely Gevaart sings beautifully as Percy and snarls effectively a couple times. And Lenne Snively as Hannah provides a few dashes of much-appreciated sarcasm amidst the lollipops and moonbeams. Indeed, the actors do their jobs well under the direction of William Roudebush. But the whole thing is so drenched in sugary syrup that they should have hot showers in the lobby for audience members who need to rinse off the treacle.

The Spitfire Grill
Through October 18 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.

The Happy Sad, convergence-continuum

(From left: Hillary Wheelock as Annie, , Monica Zach as Alice ands Ellie St. Cyr as Mandy)

Open sexual relationships are certainly a vein worth mining in a theatrical setting, since people involved in those ever-changing couplings no doubt have potentially interesting stories to tell.

Of course, that would require the talents of a playwright who could dive into such tender erotic territory and escape with a play that resonates on more than one level. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case with Ken Urban, because his slight effort The Happy Sad is just about as richly revealing as the title itself.

In it, we find one New York City couple, Annie and Stan, who are just splitting up after six months of dating because Annie needs a break and she has some sick parent issues. Then there’s Aaron and Marcus, who are finding their relationship a bit rocky since Marcus wants to screw around on the side while Aaron wants to settle down with some adopted kids.

So far, so good. Except that playwright Urban then decides to play fast and loose with these folks. Annie meets free spirit Alice (Monica Zach) in a steam bath and decides to try the lesbian thing, while Stan suddenly goes trolling for a gay guy on the Internet. Who knew a failed heterosexual pairing is actually a sexual gateway into an at least partially gay lifestyle?

Not only that, Annie is also seeing David, a struggling standup comic while Annie’s pal Mandy (Ellie St. Cyr), a school teacher, decides to have a platonic friendship with Alice. But you know where that’s heading. Oh, and did I mention the characters break into off-pitch songs now and then, to express their feelings?

This could all be dizzying and delightful with the right script. And to give him his due, Urban has a nice touch with some of the snarky dialog that no doubt passes for communication among young people who are mostly interested in hooking up. But the conversations—pre- or post-coital—never rise to the level of being even vaguely interesting.

Director Tyson Douglas Rand and his cast are hamstrung by forced words and situations. At one moment, all these folks meet cute at a subway stop, a situation a witty writer could mine for some awkward fun. Instead, they mostly yell a lot and then wander off. At another moment the comedian David (Ryan Christopher Mayer), dying in front of an audience with his awful comedy material, tries to do the real thing and drown his head in an aquarium (which, as we all know, is standard equipment on any comedy club stage).

Against all odds, Hillary Wheelock as Annie and Ryan Edlinger as Marcus manage to find some believability in their cardboard characters, making their scenes play entertainingly. But Nate Miller as Stan overdoes his look of startled surprise, making it hard to track his character’s real emotions. And Jack Matuszewski lands some genuine laughs as Aaron but then relies on dewy, puppy-dog eyes instead of registering his emotions in a more convincing manner.

There’s a running joke in the show about a parent who speaks in greeting card clich├ęs, poking fun at such manufactured banalities.  However, with its relentlessly shallow depiction of these horny young folks, The Happy Sad makes any rack of American Greetings cards seem as nuanced and steamy as Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus.

The Happy Sad
Through October 24 at convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, Tremont, 216-687-0074.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Dreamgirls, Karamu House

It’s almost hard to believe that Dreamgirls, the story of the rise to glory of The Supremes, is now about 35 years old. While the creators Tom Eyen (book and lyrics) and Henry Krieger (music) have always denied any such connection to Diana Ross and pals, so the authors won’t get hauled into court, the parallels are obvious.

It’s a juicy story filled with some dynamite songs, and this Karamu production manages to dazzle at times. But there are too many flat notes sung and too few transformative moments to make this Dreamgirls a dream worth remembering for long.

In this show, The Dreams are a young R&B girl group from a big city that experiences a rush to fame when they hook up with the headliner James “Thunder” Early as backup singers. The Dreams eventually swap out lead singers, to become more popular as crossover performers, and when the deposed lead singer complains, she is dropped and replaced by another. Sure, that all happened with The Supremes, but it’s probably just a coincidence, right?

Anyhow, the book revolves around Effie, the replaced lead singer and a woman with a powerfully overwhelming voice. In this production that linchpin role was handled by TiaMarshae Sanford. While she was able to deliver the goods in some songs, such as “I Am Changing,” her Act One ending anthem “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” was choppy and soft, not the soaring tribute to perseverance that it should be.

The other members of her trio are composed of Deena, the new lead singer who has a softer sound that is believed to be more commercially viable. As Deena, Randi Renee has a pleasant singing voice but doesn’t display the star quality that would make her a likely headliner of this group. Actually, Lauren Sturdivant, in the role of the third Dream in the trio, Lorrell, actually demonstrates more personality and star attitude than any of them.

However, the undisputed star of this production is Miguel Osborne, who makes Jimmy Early the walking, talking and singing embodiment of star power. His relaxed confidence, spilling over into arrogance time and again, gives the show a burst of energy and unpredictability whenever he’s on stage.

Among the supporting cast members, Nathan Tolliver stands out as CC, Effie’s brother and advisor to the group. As the manager of the group, Devon Settles, Jr. is believable as this sly hit-maker, but his singing fails him in “You Are My Dream,” his duet with Renee.

Staged by director Terrence Spivey in front of a fairly bland set design that features large representations of LP records (not 45s?), the show clips along during the ensemble numbers. But that energy isn’t maintained at all times, making the show seem to play longer than it actually does.

Now in the midst of their centennial celebration, Karamu House has a lot to be proud of, including an unbroken history of shows created largely by and relevant to the African-American community here in Cleveland. Here’s hoping that all the Karamu shows this season contribute to that incredible Karamu tradition.

Through October 11 at Karamu, House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.

The Secret Garden, Great Lakes Theater

The dead people are singing up a storm in this haunting yet often pre-fab musical. With book and lyrics by Marsha Norman and music by Lucy Simon, The Secret Garden is built around the eponymous novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. And while Great Lakes Theater employs many fine voices in this production, directed by Victoria Bussert, the repetitive songs and the predictable, largely humorless script eventually serve to wear down any audience members seeking a bit more nuance.

Most of the aforementioned ghosts are in the head of young Mary Lennox, a girl who lost her parents and many other friends to a cholera epidemic in India. So she’s moved back to England to live with her uncle Archibald Craven, a man afflicted with a hunchback who’s mourning the loss of his own wife Lily a decade before.

Sure, it sounds depressing, but the show would benefit from hewing a bit closer to the even darker original story. That book details how self-centered and nasty Mary’s parents were, and how that turned Mary into a pint-sized hell on wheels when she arrived at her uncle’s estate. All that is soft-pedaled in this musical, with Mary pouting prettily at the start until a trio of jovial and perceptive servants (are there any other kind?) bring her out of her mini-funk. And then, to top it all, she manages to rescue Archibald’s son Colin from his own chronic illness.

Mary is guided by her chummy chambermaid Martha (Sara Masterson), Martha’s brother Dickon (Colton Ryan), a lackey on the estate who teaches Mary how to talk to the animals, and old Ben (Dougfred Miller), the gardener who spouts rural wisdom and knows about the secret garden that Lily used to tend. And that is where Mary is headed, to save herself and some others, including the ghosts who are finally allowed to stop singing and proceed with their dirt naps. Depending on your tolerance for fantasy, this is all wonderfully touching or insufferably twee.

As Mary settles into her new life, a Greek chorus of white-clad ghosts meander about: singing songs, walking with measured steps and casting knowing glances over their shoulders. It’s lovely enough, and the singing by Jillian Kates as Lily is stunning. But the symbolism—referring to the memories we all carry with us—becomes a bit obvious and tiresome.

While the material itself can get on some nerves, the performances under the direction of Bussert are blameless. As Archibald, Stephen Mitchell Brown sings beautifully and captures a fragment of the magic he manufactured in last year’s Les Miserables. Indeed, it seems he’s about to do the world’s first trans-character transition, from Archie to Jean Valjean, during “Where in the World,” a very Les Miz-sounding ditty.

Playing the kids, Giovanna A. Layne is more than downbeat than downright rotten as Mary, which makes her transition a bit less dramatic. But she does an admirable job overall, as does
Warren Bodily as sickly Colin. And Tom Ford hisses effectively as Dr. Neville Craven, scheming to take over his brother’s estate.

All the villains and good guys are neatly delineated in this piece, which makes it fine for kids but a bit less than engrossing for adults. In fact, when a nasal Cassandra Bissell shows up as Mrs. Winthrop later on, it’s a treat. Even though she’s a stock character in a brief scene, the harsh schoolmarm finally brings out the worst in Mary and the audience applauds—relieved from the avalanche of all that heart-string plucking.

Still, the music is splendidly performed, the period costumes by Charlotte M. Yetman are handsome, and scenic designer Jeff Herrmann’s entrance into the garden glows like a pathway to heaven. It all may make you want to go out and work in the dirt—not such a bad idea, after all.

The Secret Garden
Through October 31 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Finn McCool, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

(Left to right: Devon Turchan as Sean, Christopher Walker as Finn, and Leah P. Smith as Siobhan)

Finn McCool sounds like a very hip urban street name, until you jump on Wikipedia and find that it’s actually the way we Americans pronounce “Fionn mac Cumhail.” He was a mythical hunter-warrior in Irish mythology, and he’s the central figure in this play, adapted from those very myths by Christopher Johnston.

Turns out, there are a number of myths swirling around Mr. McCool, and they each have the potential to delight the kids who attend this Talespinner production. In one story, McCool (Christopher Walker) wants to catch the Salmon of Knowledge, a fish who became all knowing, and as he grapples with the fish he cuts his thumb on the hook. From that point on, whenever Finn needs a spark of smarts, he just sucks his thumb. This is the best news thumb-suckers have had for a long, long time.

In another tale, the gigantic Finn is at home with his wife Oona (Margie Herwald Zitelli) and he impersonates a baby (yay, thumb-sucking!) to avoid the fearsome strongman Cucullin. And there are still more stories woven into this 70-minute production involving a Faerie Queen, a leprechaun, and other icons of the Irish culture.

With the use of puppets, masks and music, director Alison Garrigan once again creates a stage world where little imaginations can run and play. And the cast helps enormously with the fun. Sean Seibert serves as the guitar-strumming balladeer Arnie McBlarney, who introduces the McCool storyline, and Leah P. Smith and Devon Turchan play the synchronous brother and sister Sean and Siobhan who take the mythical journey with the audience.

But it is John Busser, leaving no item of the scenery without a tooth mark, who creates much of the delight. He’s quite the fishy sight, bedecked in goggles as that intelligent salmon, and his Cucullin is a boffo beastly creation, lumbering about like an off-the-chain Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Adaptor Johnston amplifies the most understandable threads of these often complicated Irish folktales, so that kids can enjoy them. But it’s still hard to tell when one story begins and another starts. Maybe vaudeville title cards would help to separate the stories in shows such as this: “Finn McCool & the Salmon of Knowledge,” etc.

In any case, the Talespinner troupe once again demonstrates the explosive acting energy and clever staging invention they’ve become known for. And that’s a darn good thing.

And remember:
If you like kids' plays 
where they innovate,
Vote yes, yes, YES on Issue 8!

Finn McCool
Through October 11 at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, 216-264-9680.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Lakeland Community College Civic Theatre

(Molly McGinnis as Martha and Gregory Violand as George)

As we all know by now, the territory Edward Albee plops his four characters into, in this venom-spewing play, is the equivalent of a 40-acre pit of quicksand. The harder they try to struggle free, the deeper they sink. Until dawn comes and everyone skulks off to try and reestablish the lies they live by, day to day.

Yes, Virginia Woolf is all about the fibs we tell ourselves, and each other, and what would happen if we could no longer wrap ourselves in their comfortable folds. Seemingly placid George and his wife, the sexy and braying Martha are the ultimate pairing of tarantula and scorpion, stripping each other of their protective lies and dragging their young guests, Nick and Honey, down with them.

The thrust and parry games that Albee invents in this play, lubricated with much alcohol and fueled by fantasies, are always fascinating to watch. And it is equally interesting to see how four actors can bring these deliriously flawed characters to life, for it is no small challenge.

In this production, George and Martha are portrayed by Gregory Violand and Molly McGinnis, and they have moments where the sparks truly fly. The gray-bearded Violand exudes a sort of exhausted disinterest as this college professor whose career has stalled completely. But he is brought to battling life after Martha keeps prodding him with insults and ultimately reveals their one closely-held secret. Violand gets stronger and more nuanced as the play goes on.

As Martha, McGinnis is suitably hard-edged and even quite vulnerable at times, but she doesn’t radiate the Earth Mother sensuousness that her character requires. Indeed, there is a rather sterile quality to many of George and Martha’s interchanges. Martha is driven by the lack of success of her husband, at the college where her father is the president, and that is galling to her. That rage, combined with their complicated issues on the offspring front, should fuel more bile and viciousness from her.

Their guests at this late evening psychological death match include the delicate and frequently upchucking Honey (Katie Nabors in blonde ditz mode) and her long-suffering husband Nick (a well-modulated Daniel Simpson), who also teaches at the college. As a couple, they have their own secrets that George and Martha exploit with relish.

It must be noted that all the actors are facing an obstacle in the minimalist scenic design created by Kristen Nicole and director Martin Friedman. In his program notes, Friedman mounts a defense of this approach, which eliminates almost all the trappings of a typical mid-level professor’s house in favor of several platforms at different levels and precious few set pieces or props. These include a small bar with bottles, ice bucket and glasses, along with a few books, pillows, shoes and other domestic detritus left artfully disarrayed around the stage.

While this bare bones approach can work with some shows, Virginia Woolf is different. We need to see the “stuff” of their life to get a sense of how completely stuck they are in their cosseted, dead-end misery. And just for practicality sake, it helps to have items on the set so that actors can move from one place to another for a reason (to sit in an easy chair, to look at a picture) instead of just roaming back and forth and sitting wherever.

Plus, with the actors often speaking to each other from different levels and across a wide expanse of stage, the intimacy of the play is reduced and the pressure the actors can exert on each other is thereby softened. It would have been better to have a full, detailed scenic design or go totally minimalist—just four stools on a small section of the stage—instead of splitting the difference.

That said, Friedman is a deft and insightful director, helping his cast to cadge some shivers of revulsion from this classic play. And as always, Albee’s words carry the day, taking us on a fraught journey through an evening of barely civilized confrontation, showing us how our illusions can either protect us or destroy us.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Through October 4 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, Lakeland Community College Campus, just south of Rt. 90 and Rt. 306 in Kirtland, 440-525-7134.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

In a Forest, Dark and Deep, None Too Fragile Theater

Playwright and screenwriter Neil LaBute is fond of throwing hot, often untouchable cultural issues onto his theatrical table and then watching his audiences squirm. For instance, the brutal misogyny at the heart of his film In the Company of Men can be absolutely breathtaking.

In his play In a Forest, Dark and Deep, now at the None Too Fragile Theater in Akron, LaBute trots out some more misogyny for audience to chew over. And by throwing in some not-so-subtle feints at incest and disquisitions on Truth, there are clearly many bases he wants to touch in this piece.

This two-hander puts us in a remote cabin where Betty has asked her brother Bobby over to help her move out some of the possessions of her former boyfriend. Betty is separated from her husband and living apart from him and their two kids while she works at a liberal arts college as a dean. Bobby is decidedly blue collar and has little patience with Betty’s uppity vocabulary and the boyfriend who apparently reads The New Yorker.

Soon, the brother-sister bickering starts, and we learn that Betty has been free with her sexual favors for many years, even back into high school when she was caught giving a hummer to one of her teachers. Bobby is righteously offended by this, even though he’s not exactly a morally upright citizen himself. As Betty spins her lies and Bobby slowly unwinds them, we see how truth can take many forms and how family relationships can be torturously fraught.

Trouble is, LaBute is so enamored of his own writing he over-embellishes many scenes, leading to a one-act running time of nearly two hours. More importantly, he never makes it clear what either of these characters has at stake. When the plotting reveals become ever more serious, as the conclusion approaches, we see the electric conflict between these two. But it feels like static electricity, due to the absence of a back-story that could fill in some details about their lives. Lacking that, it seems like she’s a slut, he’s a jerk, and that’s that. So when they eventually bond, it seems a trifle convenient and just a bit forced.

That said, the performances of Sean Derry as Bobby and Leighann Niles Delorenzo as Betty are powerful. They smoothly interweave and overlap their conversations, as siblings would, while building a sense of dread along the way. Director Andrew Narten has a good sense of the pulse of this relationship, even though some of the beats could be turned more crisply.

Even though In a Forest isn’t one of LaBute’s best, it deals with actual issues and isn’t just another collection of dysfunctional people who show up in the same place. And for that we can be truly grateful.

In a Forest, Dark and Deep
Through September 19 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron(enter through Pub Bricco), nonetoofragile.com.