Sunday, February 1, 2015

Thurgood, Ensemble Theatre

(Greg White as Thurgood Marshall)

Some people just deserve having plays written about them, and one such person is Thurgood Marshall. As the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, appointed in 1967, he became an instant icon for equal rights in this country.

But as this piece by George Stevens, Jr. shows in the 85 minutes before he ascends to the highest court in the land, Marshall fought for people’s rights long before he donned those esteemed robes. His monumental win in “Brown v. Board of Education” 13 years earlier transformed the landscape of race relations, even though court battles continued.

Actually, Marshall always had a fondness for his first court victory when, as a young lawyer, he revealed the absurdity of "separate but equal" education and won the right for a black student to attend the segregated University Of Maryland law school.

These stories are told in a cozy, conversational manner in this one-person show with Greg White as Marshall. White is able to embody the passion of the man while scaling his aura down to a relatable size. As directed fluidly by Sarah May, White is always interesting and at times compelling.

Adding to the experience are photos, some of them incredibly evocative, that play across a panoramic screen that fills the back wall of the stage. Designed by Ian Hinz, these visual help the audience find their time and place as Marshall relates his various tales.

Unfortunately, playwright Stevens decides not to share many of Marshall’s less attractive character traits, which would give us a more three dimensional view of the man, Sure, he notes that Marshall enjoyed drinking and he touches on the fact that he was probably a workaholic and probably an often absentee husband to his wives. But any deeper flaws that might affect his behavior as a lawyer and a judge are well hidden, leaving us with more of a hagiography than a penetrating portrait.

Still, this Ensemble production is smooth and seamless. And it leaves you wishing a giant such Marshall was still sitting on the Supreme Court of the U.S. this very day, instead of a few of the moral pygmies and sycophantic toadies that now occupy some of those seats.

Through February 22 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Five Guys Named Moe, Cleveland Play House

It’s big, flashy and loud. It features six performers who can sing and dance with skill. And it presents a whole bunch of songs by Louis Jordan, the renowned hit-maker and sax star from the 1930’s to the early ‘50s. Plus, critics like this show because they can drag out all their tired “Moe” puns, But Moe about that later.

So, what’s not to like? Well, if you’re an energy junkie this is your show. As the five Moe’s emerge from a radio to help sad-sack alcoholic named Nomax find his way in life, they kick into a galaxy of songs and patter that has the basic sound of that African-American R&B kingpin Jordan .

In this co-production between the Cleveland Play House and Arena Stage, many of the songs have been reimagined by music director Darryl Ivey into a contemporary boy band groove. That will please some and distress others who loved the original groove just fine.

The original conceit is still in place, as poor, downtrodden Nomax laments his life, his lost girlfriend, and seeks comfort in a bottle of whiskey. At his low point, the five Moes show up to sing him out of his blues. This storyline by Clarke Peters is thinner than a Motel 6 bath towel, but it serves to set up one song after another.

While granting director Robert O’Hara and Ivey their absolute right to retool this 1990 show, it is still incumbent on the production to bring more than a workmanlike energy to the stage. After a startlingly powerful rendition of “Early in the Morning” by Keith McAllister as Nomax, the show quickly hits an air pocket when Sheldon Henry as Big Moe essentially walks through the juicy ditty “Beware, Brother, Beware,” missing much of it’s humor.

From there on, the show works in fits and starts. As No Moe, Johan Parker-Namdar has oleaginous charm and grinds a half-pound of coffee with his swivel hips on “Messy Bessy,” while Clinton Roan as Little Moe could still have a lot more nasty fun with “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That.”  Four-Eyed Moe (Travis Porchia) screeches, mostly unintelligibly, through “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” but Paris Nix as Eat Moe sings and steps with style, then delivers a nice version of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.”

These fellows certainly have the singing and dancing chops to do what this show requires: present five distinctive and interesting Moe characters that each influence Nomax in a unique and entertaining manner.

God knows, the material is there, with witty songs such as “Safe, Sane and Single,” “Caledonia,” and “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (If You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again).” And the set is certainly working hard to do its part, with blinking staircases and a gigantic backlit “MOE” sign that never changes, whether they’re in the Funky Butt Club or not.

Clearly, we have to put up with the corny audience participation conga line (hey, I’m white and if I never see another average white person dance in a conga line again, it’ll be too soon).

But if you like your funk on the hoof, these six guys have Moe than enough for you.

Five Guys Named Moe
Through February 15 , at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Karamu House

(Left to rightL Cornell H. Calhoun, III as Seth Holly, Butch Terry as Bynum Walker, and Phillia Thomas as Molly Cunningham)

There is powerful poetry afoot in this play by August Wilson, involving the individual songs that define specific people as well as the sweeping orchestral movements that embody masses of people on the move, trying to find a home.

Set in 1911, Joe Turner is a massively ambitious play masquerading at times as a very simple story about a, African-American boardinghouse in Pittsburgh and the folks who pass though its doors. And this production, directed with spot-on specificity by Terrence Spivey, tells that story with skill.

Seth Holly and his wife Bertha own the building, with rooms for guests in the front and Seth’s metal working shop in the back. Seth is a gruff tyrant of his domain, and Cornell H. Calhoun, III snarls with the best of them. But he also shows Seth’s tender side. As Bertha, Tonya Davis—despite some softness on lines early on—creates a sympathetic portrait of this woman who truly loves her man.

That solid relationship is central to the play, which is happening only 50 years after the slaves were freed. That means that many black people are still wanderers without a home, trying to find a foothold in a country that seems large and forbidding.

One man who has found that footing is Bynum Walker, a mystical man who performs weird daily rituals in the garden outside. Seth doesn’t appreciate the pigeon blood being spilled out there, but he and Bynum share a mutual respect. And Butch Terry brings Bynum to life with warmth and a dash of wit.

A frequent visitor to the Holly house is Rutherford Selig, heir to slave traders and now a "finder” who can track down sheet metal for Seth’s mini-industry or find missing persons. Rich Stimac is perfect in this role, relishing his negotiating prowess while always finding a way to cadge another dollar out of a prospective client.

Among the other guests who wander through are Jeremy Furlow, a manual laborer and guitar player who hits on every pretty young thing who comes through the door. As Furlow, Prophet D. Seay is a delight, using his smooth patter to weave a spell around his female targets. Those include both Mattie Campbell (Kennetha Martin), a woman who is waiting for her man to come back, and Molly Cunningham (Phillia Thomas), a woman who doesn’t want a man around to impede her path through life.

But the most compelling of the guests is Herold Loomis, who arrives with his young daughter Zonia in tow. He is initially a taciturn man who is looking for his wife Martha. But as the play progresses, Loomis blooms into a fascinating and tragic figure, powerfully rendered by Michael May. Loomis lost seven years of his life, unfairly consigned to the chain gang of Joe Turner (who was immortalized in the blues song), and it has distorted his life in significant ways. There are intense and magical forces at work in Loomis—and in everyone else, to be truthful—and this production hits them all.

Even when Zonia (Zamani Munashe) and a slightly older boy Reuben (Kali Hatten) get together, their scene of first kiss is tender and affecting.

Once Selig is put on the trail of Loomis’ Martha, it feels like something important will happen, And it does, when Selig brings Martha (Laprise Johnson) back to Loomis. His transformative reaction, leading to the play’s conclusion, feels right and fully earned.

Joe Turner is a masterwork by one of American’s finest playwrights, and this Karamu production does it full justice, with distinct characters etched in clear detail. Even at more than 2 1/2 hours with intermission, it’s a compelling theatrical experience.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Through February 15 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.

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.