Saturday, July 11, 2015

Camelot, Mercury Theatre Company

Around the year 1960, two Camelots opened to acclaim on the east coast: one in Washington DC and the other on Broadway. While JFK and family were getting ensconced in the White House and beginning to create their heralded “Camelot era,” the Lerner and Lowe production of Camelot was raising the curtain in New York City.

This tuneful show, based on the King Arthur legend and not nearly as funny as Spamalot, is now on stage at the Mercury Theatre Company. It’s a huge and gangly piece of work (the original out-of-town tryout back in the day ran more than four hours), and it still has vestiges of too many words, too many stories. But the Mercury troupe under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault manages to wrestle it to a draw while finding bits and pieces of the magic that has enthralled many audience members for decades.

The musical is a love triangle wrapped up in courtly manners and the idealistic dreams of uncertain Arthur, a King who wants to revamp the code of knighthood so that might serves right. He is about to be married to Guenevere, a girl who prefers a plain and simple life herself. They’re an odd couple for sure, but their path to a happiness is complicated when Lancelot, a French stud with a huge ego, appears and immediately turns off Guenevere. But after Lancelot defeats three knights in jousting and then appears to bring one back to life, she reconsiders her affections and starts getting chummy with Lance.

Lathered with the wonderful Lerner and Lowe tunes (“If Ever I Would Leave You,” “C’est Moi,” “The Lusty Month of May,” and the title song), the show is a treat for the ears. In this staging, the actors play all the instruments, with three pianos doing yeoman duty. And that works well for the most part, even though there are more than a few squeaky off-notes as some of the actors try to negotiate their choreography while blowing into horns and plucking guitars.

In the role of King Arthur, Roderick O’Toole is a rather thin and fidgety King, which works fine for this conflicted character at times. But he lacks the vocal and physical presence necessary to put Arthur at the center of all the action. Instead, attention swings towards Taylor Short, a fine singer who fashions a lusty Guenevere, and Robert Head, who comes on strong and alpha-dominant as Lancelot.

Much of the humor is provided by Brian Marshall, who makes King Pellinore, an old friend of Arthur’s family, into a hilarious old coot. The villainy, such as it is, is supplied by Tyler Coy as Mordred, Arthur’s scheming illegitimate son. In this version, Mordred’s partner in evil, his sorceress aunt Morgan le Fey, has been dispensed with, along with a couple of songs.

With most of the action centered on a raked platform, Brault has brought the grand spectacle of the Arthurian court down to an economy size. And as seen at the final dress rehearsal, this more intimate focus, with the jousting scenes done in silhouette with toy horses, seems to capture some of the wit and magic of this familiar legend.

Curiously, both Camelots ended in 1963: one with flagging ticket sales and the other in a burst of bullets. That left us all wishing and hoping for a real Camelot where "there's a legal limit to the show here," and where armies would actually use their might only for just causes. Ah, if there were only such spot…as Camelot.

Through July 25 at Mercury Theatre Company, Notre Dame College, 1857 S. Green Road, South Euclid, 216-771-5862,

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Reckless Ruthless Brutal Charge of It, or The Train Play; convergence-continuum

Perhaps you’ve mused, from time to time when on a bus or other public conveyance, that every anonymous person around you must have an interesting story to tell. And if you could only go up to each one and ask them, you’d be swept away by their unique experiences and perspectives.

Well, you can forget that, based on the stories that are unloaded during The Reckless Ruthless Brutal Charge of It, or The Train Play by Liz Duffy Adams. Far less exciting than other train-centric yarns such as Strangers on a Train or The 3:10 to Yuma, and a good deal less profound than Thomas the Train, this trip is on a one-way track to Pretensionburg—with rest stops at Obfuscationville and West Whatthefuck. Of course, this train isn’t just any old train, it’s a chug-chug metaphor for all of our shared journeys to meaning, relevance, immortality, or a quickie in the last row.

Each of the characters hauls around a one dimensional persona that they are then challenged to make entertaining. The con-con cast under the direction of Clyde Simon often does a remarkably good job at that. Laurn B. Smith as the scientist who wants to be a bird (or just get laid) is hot-wired and focused. Taylor Tucker shows promise as the 12-year-old wanna-be superhero, the Leopard-Girl (although her moniker often sounds like “Leper-Girl,” which would be a whole different thing). And Jack Matuszewski is a hoot as one of three Russians who are traveling to support world peace. His Jim Nabors-like switch from his fey, scarf-twirling sighs to his basso profundo voice when he sings is most amusing.

Cody Zak is a bit too torqued as the torturously named Gabriel Angelfood, and Robert Branch never quite releases his compelling stage presence as another Russian. As Gaia, the Earth Goddess with a potty mouth and a gun, Marcia Mandell deploys an amorphous accent that shifts, intentionally or not, from England to Back Bay to Fairview Park—but somehow it works.

As for the plot, well, never mind. Each of the characters just gets up, riffs for a while about random topics—angels, humanity, yadda yadda—than sits down again. For a theater that used to employ video in almost all their shows, that technique is oddly absent here when it could be used to great effect as a moving backdrop for the train. Instead there aren’t even train windows on the back wall.

There are laughs at times, but this is a train that one should board with some caution. Hell, it almost makes one long for Starlight Express, in which the toy train cars come to life and roll around on skates. At least that show’s dime-store philosophizing had some movement.

The Reckless Ruthless Brutal Charge of It, or The Train Play
Through July 18 produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, Tremont, 216-687-0074,

Treasure Island, Oberlin Summer Theater Festival

If Robert Louis Stevenson never imagined his novel, about an innkeeper’s son who happens upon a map of buried treasure, as a stage play, he certainly should have. Because this production mounted by the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival earns a rating of “ARRR” for maximum pirate-y swashbuckling.

Treasure Island, as adapted by Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo) is family fare. That is, if your family can handle some cartoonish violence (including a suspiciously bouncy decapitated head) and multiple stabbing homicides. Hey, these pirates mean business as Jim Hawkins (played by Colin Wulff with a resonant voice that sounds a lot more mature than that of a barely post-pubertal lad) learns early on.

Undaunted by the carnage surrounding him, Jim sets sail with a crew led in secret by Long John Silver, the very paragon of the stereotype pirate. Bedecked with a pegleg and a parrot (who seems as dead as the famous bird in the Monty Python sketch), Neil Thackaberry displays his professional acting talents while inserting curiously languorous pauses between beats. Still, one manages to get the whiff that some skullduggery is in the works, as he sidles up to Jim while plotting to nab the treasure.

Presented on a lumber-intensive set designed by director Paul Moser, the component pieces of a huge wooden ramp are frequently split apart to form the basic elements of other scenes, including a hut on Treasure Island itself.

Among the very capable cast are David Bugher as the impulsive Squire Trelawney, David Munnell as the amusing (and almost overplayed) marooned island inhabitant Ben Gunn, and Shane Lonergan in the dual role of Billy Bones and Calico Jack. Director Moser wisely keeps the adventure racing forward, so that you can almost feel a youngster avidly turning the pages of Stevenson’s iconic coming-of-age book.

This is the first of three offerings at the OSTF this summer, with the other two shows—Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well and Crumbs From the Table of Joy by Lynn Nottage—playing in rep through August 8th. And best of all, it’s free of charge.

Treasure Island
Through August 8 at the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival, Hall Auditorium, 67 N. Main St., Oberlin, 440-775-8169, (tickets are free, but reservations are suggested).

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Godspell, Cain Park

This show, consisting of biblical parables and the lyrics of hymns set to rock and pop melodies, has been around for almost half a century. Still, many people never tire of it, probably because of the infectious energy with which it is usually presented.

Some naysayers might call it “spiritual Gruyere” (slightly pretentious cheese for the religiously inclined), or a cult training workshop (the wild-eyed devotion to a single individual’s every utterance, even Jesus Christ, can begin to feel a tad creepy at times). But naysayers be damned! (Not literally, of course.) This staging of Godspell at Cain Park’s Alma Theatre offers plenty of enjoyment along with the bite-size nuggets of behavior tips gleaned from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

It’s essentially a loose jumble of scenes that glide from one Gos-pearl of wisdom (“If a man steals your shirt, give him your coat.”) to another (“Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also.”). But once the simple lessons are put to the music of Stephen Schwartz, it all takes on a patina of youthful innocence and universal love. We’ll leave our cynicism at the door, and pick it up again on our way out.

Co-directors Ian Wolfgang Hinz and Joanna May Hunkins throw everything into this mix—from audience participation via Pictionary and charades to non-stop running and dancing choreographed by Katie Nabors Strong. With some of the performers slipping down a half-pipe slide and dropping down on a fire station pole, the air is filled with smiling, amped-up performers who generate a definite feel-good vibe. To be honest, some of the parables are so inventively presented, the chopped up stories get a bit lost in the muddle of hyperkinetic staging.

It’s all led by Warren E. Franklin III as Jesus, clad in a “We are a Colony” t-shirt, in honor of Jim Brennan, the popular owner of Brennan’s Colony tavern in Cleveland Heights, who was killed one year ago in a robbery. Franklin is lean, limber and charming, with a warm singing voice. But his projection fades at times when speaking dialogue.

Each of the actors playing his apostles deliver stirring performances at times, even though they all wear pretty much the same Heaven’s Gate, true-believer grins from start to finish.

Among them, Douglas F. Bailey II generates some clever Jack Black-ish laughs, Treva Offut nails the mellow “By My Side,” and Eric Fancher pumps a lot of zazz into several of his characterizations. Scott Esposito lends his powerful baritone voice to the role of Judas, and Colleen Longshaw provides a reliable vocal foundation for show-stopping numbers such as “Bless the Lord” and “We Beseech Thee.”

It’s hard to resist the calories these actors are expending, supported by an able crew of musicians under the direction of keyboardist Jordan Cooper. And why bother to try? After all, as some say, a religion is just a cult with a century or so of history behind it. So relax, take in the up-with-people messaging, and ride the wave of these reliable tunes.

Through June 28, presented by the City of Cleveland Heights at Cain Park, corner of Lee and Superior roads in Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

A Little Night Music, Porthouse Theatre

(Left to right: Fabio Polanco as Fredrik, Terri J. Kent as Desiree and Jim Weaver as Count Carl-Magnus.)

There’s a lot of hanky-panky going on in this lush Stephen Sondheim musical, with an elegant and witty book by Hugh Wheeler. Set in Sweden around the turn of the 20th century, it’s surprising that all these cool Nordic types are so hot to trot given the perpetual summer sun at this elevated latitude.

The talented Porthouse cast, under the direction of Sean T. Morrissey, gives this production a glossy texture that serves the material well. This includes an appearance by Terri J. Kent, producing artistic director of Porthouse, in the linchpin role of Desiree Armfeldt.

Suffice to say that pretty much every character in this upper-class Scandinavian community is eager for romance and the boffing that goes along with it. They’re all so focused on fitting their naughty parts into each other, it eventually feels like a horny Ikea assembly party, with lots of singing.

Here are the convoluted relationships in a big, messy nutshell: The older Fredrik is married to the 17-year-old virgin Anne, who is still virginal after 11 months of marriage, so blue-balled Fredrik visits Desiree, his former lover who offers him a pity boink. Frederick’s uptight son Henrik falls in love with his teenage step-mom while Anne herself is being schooled by her maid Petra, who’s been on Henrik’s tail, and then Desiree’s current man-toy Count Carl-Magnus gets wind of the relationship between Desiree and Fredrik while the Count’s acid-tongued wife Charlotte prods Anne to confront her hubby and Petra shares some time with the servant Frid and launches into her own fantasy.

As the night repeatedly smiles on these folks, love finds a way.  It’s all overseen by Desiree’s aged mother, Madame Armfeldt (Lenne Snively), who mostly sneers at the goings-on from her wheelchair.

Clear now? Of course not, and it really doesn’t matter that this is all a bit confusing. That’s because Sondheim’s glorious music is there to lubricate the proceedings, including the popular “Send in the Clowns.” Even if it takes you a while to plug into all the randy stuff, swathed in yards of luxe period costumes designed by S.Q. Campbell, it’s a journey you should be happy to take.

Standouts in the cast include Fabio Polanco, who struts his powerful vocal wares as Fredrik, a nubile Lucy Anders as Anne, and Kent in an often-affecting turn as Desiree. Shamara Costa is earthy as Petra and Jim Weaver postures pompously as the Count. Most of the laughs come from Amy Fritsche, whose Charlotte is a constant snarky delight.

Indeed, it’s a strong production from first to last, including the quintet that begins each of the two acts on a wave of Greek chorus-style singing, accompanied by conductor Jonathan Swoboda’s small but excellent string orchestra.

A Little Night Music
Through June 27 at Porthouse Theatre, Blossom Music Center campus, 1145 W. Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Triassic Parq, Blank Canvas Theatre

There are two things most young boys are immensely interested in: dinosaurs and their own penises. And evidently, most males never completely lose their focus on those two objects of affection.

This is especially true with Triassic Parq, the Musical, now at Blank Canvas Theatre.  This almost-parody of the Jurassic Park movies delves into the dino culture of a similar fictional theme park, populated by all-female, test tube creatures (so there will be no unauthorized reproduction). But thanks to a wild strand of frog DNA, T-Rex 2 grows a penis, and the show goes off fully “cocked.”

Indeed, you might as well call this show “Triassic Phallus,” considering how dick-obsessed it is. The play’s grown-up boy creators—music by Marshall Pailet, book and lyrics by Pailet, Bryce Norritz and Steve Wargo—have a definite hard-on for “dude sticks.” And it’s all funny in a junior high locker room way, for a while.

But oddly enough, the whole enterprise loses some steam when it ventures into deep thinking. The dino leader, Velociraptor of Faith (Aaron Patterson), collides intellectually with the Velociraptor of Science (Eryn Reynolds), while the Velociraptor of Innocence (Weley Allen) gets confused in the process. Eventually, Innocence is boinked by the newly equipped T-Rex 2 (Neely Gevaart), a former female who now exhibits distressingly masculine traits.

If you laugh uncontrollably and repeatedly at dick jokes and chicks wearing strap-ons, this is the show for you. Just understand that the music is often of the nursery rhyme variety, and the lyrics are pretty basic. As T-Rex 2 laments (or celebrates?): “My beard will grow/I have no flow.”

As always, director Patrick Ciamacco keeps the pace sprightly and gets a lot out of his cast. Kate Leigh Michalski as T-Rex 1 and Gevaart have powerful singing chops. But Patterson is often hard to hear when speaking and Michael Crowley could do more to generate laughs as both the Mime-a-saurus and a putative Morgan Freeman narrator. Allen is a performer with immense magnetism and focus, and he almost makes you care about Innocence. But his singing voice too often veers into uncomfortable nasal regions. And at times, the ensemble singing is pretty brutal.

There are some stellar moments, such as two characters providing a remarkably concise definition of chaos theory, a cow dinner-on-a-string, and then there’s the staging of an orgasm that looks absolutely orgasmic. But this thinly-plotted Parq has a few too many one-note gags to remain fully erect for 80 minutes.

Triassic Parq, the Musical
Through June 27 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, Cleveland Public Theatre

(Kalim Hill as Dontrell)

Family legacy is a biggie for some clans, especially when their history has been as tortured as it has been for African-Americans. The result of this can be seen in most cities and towns in America, where some young black men clearly have a hard time connecting to the more inspiring stories of their forebears.

That is not the problem for the title character in Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, an interesting and evocative play by Nathan Davis. Dontrell Jones III is a high-achieving young man on the brink of going to Johns Hopkins University on a full ride. But he has become entranced by the dream-story of his ancestor who jumped to his death off a slave ship. And he wants to pursue that dream, so he can experience and understand it as viscerally as possible.

This production by CPT offers stunning images thanks to Todd Krispinsky’s scenic design, featuring weathered planks and a Transformer-like set change, and luxurious, pulsing lighting design by Benjamin Gantose. And the seven-person cast, under the direction of Megan Sandberg-Zakian, is consistently superior, crafting distinct characters from Davis’ words.

As Dontrell prepares for his sojourn into the briny deep, he asks his cousin Shea (a pitch-perfect Laprise Johnson) to find him some scuba gear. Then he decides to teach himself how to swim by throwing himself into the deep end of a nearby pool. Fortunately, he’s rescued by a white lifeguard, Erika, who has family issues of her own. We learn about these in a scene that feels a bit forced, a “trust game” that she and Dontrell play before they get busy under the stars.

Back at home, the Jones family and one longtime buddy (Robby, played by an amusing Johnathan L. Jackson) are at various stages of confusion regarding Dontrell’s plans. His sister Danielle (Shayla Gordon) is snarky but loving, while his mom Sophia is stupefied and worried. The dad, Dontrell Jr., is mostly occupied watching TV, but he participates enough in the family discussions to give Dontrell plenty to think about.

As the parents, Sheffia Randall Dooley and Joseph Primes hit all the right notes, with Dooley getting all up in her son’s face about his crazy notions and Primes bellowing like a wounded lion from his den. His speech defending his wife for her protective nature towards their son gets a maximum “5-goose bump” rating.

As Erika, Rachel Lee Kolis does well with a part that feels underwritten and a bit rushed in its overly-efficient reveals of her past. Kalim Hill is exceptionally affecting as Dontrell, capturing the innocent desire of this young man to connect with his past. But due to some inconsistent enunciation and hurried passages, a few of his lines disappear into the ether.

For all the trappings of a new age theater—minimal set pieces, interesting aural design with actors providing many sound effects, fluid movement and even dance—this is for the most part a traditional “kitchen sink” play. The domestic situation is one any of us can relate to, especially when Dooley and Primes go at each other in a heated argument.

Towards the end, when Erika helps make Dontrell’s dream come true and the stage transforms, it’s a magical moment. Too bad that glow is dulled somewhat by some repetitive actions and aimless dialogue before the glorious, uplifting conclusion.

Indeed there are still some wrinkles to be worked out in this show, which is a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere—the play is being produced in roughly the same time frame in multiple cities by different local theater companies. It’s an exciting way to foster the growth of emerging playwrights, and Dontrell is a play well worth your time.

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
Through June 6 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.