Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rosalynde & the Falcon, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

Shayla Gordon as Rosalynde and Valerie C. Harper as Rusty)

If you’re an adult, see if you can get a child you know to take you to this show designed for kids. Because it is one hilarious romp from start to finish, thanks to a charming and whip-smart script by local playwright David Hansen and a cast that is having so much fun, you begin to bemoan the fact that it will ever stop.

But it does stop, after 50 minutes, and it leaves you with that floaty feeling you get when stepping off a roller coaster. By the way, all the little ones in the audience loved it too.

Based on an English folktale, young Rosalynde (a charming  and feisty Shayla Gordon) is under the thumb of her evil uncle, the King (the imposing Christopher Walker who also doubles later on as various women). The big meanie is forcing his niece to clean out the filthy stables…with a teaspoon! So she runs away from her royal prison and meets up with three thieves in the forest. These robbers look suspiciously like the Marx Brothers, right down to Groucho’s bushy mustache and Harpo’s curly wig and many-pocketed trench coat.

Named after the brothers’ birth names, Charles Hargrave as Julius does a nice deadpan turn as Groucho and Tim Pringpuangkeo as Leo has loads of fun as Chico. The Harpo character is named Rusty (not Adolph, Harpo's real birth name), for a reason to be revealed later, and Valerie C. Kilmer is an absolute stitch. She whips all sorts of props out of her coat, including the ever-present horn, and fixes the audience with that Harpo stare and smile. The thieves offer to help Rosalynde and she adopts a disguise as the Robin Hood-like Falcon, the savior of the poor.

Lithe and non-ambiguously fey Devon Turchan is a comic goldmine as Roland, the King’s son and Rosalynde's longtime pal and cousin. Leaping across the stage like a graceful, slightly less demented Ed Grimley, Turchan’s Roland is unfailingly optimistic but endearingly daft, and you literally can’t take your eyes off him.

Thanks to Hansen’s wit, the script manages to entertain young and old alike with a clever merging of various storylines, along with contemporary references and meta-gags. Director Alison Garrigan keeps the show motoring at a sugar-rush pace, with the help of movement coach Stephanie Wilbert. And Garrigan adds her signature masks and puppetry, aided by designer Melanie Boeman.

If you haven’t sampled Talespinner yet, this is the perfect show to take your kids to see because they’ll have a blast, especially when they find out what's hiding under Rusty's top hat. And you may want to sneak back to see it again for yourself, just to make sure you caught all the jokes.

Rosalynde & the Falcon
Through April 19 at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, the Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, 216-264-9680.






Saturday, March 28, 2015

Twelfth Night, Ensemble Theatre

(Left to right: Tess Burgler as Olivia, Kate Leigh Michalski as Maria/Feste and Hillary Wheelock as Viola)

If you’re fond of pranks and mistaken identities, then Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a veritable bonanza. What with one young woman disguised as a man so that her twin brother is mistaken for her by the countess who falls in love with her as a him, and a pompous prig scammed into dressing like a fool (for love), this comedy is a wonderful romp.

And in this version directed by Aaron D. Elersich, the emphasis is on having a good time with the Bard’s elegantly articulated script. Staged in Ensemble’s smaller performance space, as part of their TheaterCLE season, this truncated 12N offloads some wordy baggage and combines a couple characters to keep the whole affair under two hours.

But that’s time enough for plenty of fun to ensue. Viola and her twin bother Sebastian are shipwrecked, with Viola rescued and deciding to masquerade as a boy, Cesario, to protect herself. Soon, she lands a messenger boy gig with Duke Orsino (an upright Eric Fancher), who uses Cesario to send his love notes to countess Olivia. As Viola, Hillary Wheelock is pretty convincing in her adopted role as a young dude. And she’s a nice visual match with a bemused Trey Gilpin, whose Sebastian also shows up and is mistaken for Cesario by the love addled Olivia (a well-focused and ultimately gob-smacked Tess Burgler).

Olivia is attended by her steward Malvolio, a stiff moralist who harbors a passionate love for his employer. To pop his pretentious balloon, a couple local drunks—Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek—plot with Olivia’s scheming maid Maria to send him a fake love note from Olivia. It contains hints as to Olivia’s supposed fondness for styles of clothing and behavior she actually detests, sending Malvolio reeling off in entirely the wrong direction.

Robert Hawkes brings a nice sense of snarky, inebriated playfulness to Belch, along with a much-appreciated ability to throw away some laugh lines. As Aguecheek, Sean Seibert works hard, but often harder than he needs to. And Doug Kusak turns pomposity into buffoonery as Malvolio. In smaller roles, Zachary Olivos holds his own as Olivia's servant Fabian and Tim Young rushes a bit too fast through many of his lines as the sea captain Antonio.

Tying it all together is Kate Leigh Michalski in the combined role of Maria and the clown Feste, and she accompanies herself on guitar as she sings a couple of Will’s ditties, including the lovely finale “The Wind and the Rain.”

Done in modern dress, the fictional setting of “Illyria” seems much closer to the all-too-real Elyria in our neck of the woods. But this tidy version manages to capture some of the magic.

Twelfth Night
Through April 4 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-202-0938.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Swing’s the Thing!, The Musical Theater Project, the Joe Hunter Trio, the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra

(Erin Keckan and Tony Sias)

Bill Rudman loves the American musical with a reckless passion that might be deemed felonious if it were applied to any other object of affection. And he shares that passion on a regular basis through the concerts produced by his organization, The Musical Theater Project.

This is where a review might usually say the TMTP is a wonderful secret that few people know about, but that would be wrong. TMTP is wonderful, indeed, but lots of people know about it, since their concerts often sell out.

That was the case for Swing’s the Thing! recently at the Ohio Theater in PlayhouseSquare and co-produced by TMPT and the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra. This salute to the heart of the swing era—from the mid-1930s to the end of World War II—features great live music provided by the Joe Hunter Trio and a few horns from the CJO.

Handling the vocals are a pair “girl and boy singers,” as the big bands used to dub their crooners. The superb Erin Keckan handles her songs with effortless, spot-on professionalism. And Tony Sias exudes loads of cool, especially on a song from “Street Scene” by Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes. Even though Sias occasionally drifts off key, the charm of the production is never tarnished.

Of course, much of that charm comes from Rudman himself, who always narrates these journeys into our musical past. Rudman’s mellifluous voice poses a metaphorical challenge: It isn’t just a velvet glove—it’s more like a velvet glove nestled inside a cashmere mitten and wrapped in a vicuna shawl.

And Rudman uses that voice to share arcane tidbits and interesting insights about the tunes, just as he does in his show, “On the Aisle,” which is on the SiriusXM “On Broadway” channel,

In this concert, he is also joined in his narration by pianist Joe Hunter and trombonist Paul Ferguson, the associate artistic director of CJO. Aided by some interesting film clips from the time, the show is a treasure for anyone who loves this kind of music. And they provide an avalanche of songs, from familiar ones such as “Pennies From Heaven” and “Old Devil Moon” to curios (“The Shorty George,” “Mutiny in the Nursery”).

And good news: they’re doing Swing’s the Thing! again next month in Lorain. So you’d best get your tickets soon.

Swing’s the Thing

April 11, 2015, Hoke Theatre, Stocker Arts Center, Lorain County Community College, for tickets call 440-366-4040. For more information about The Musical Theater project and their future concerts, go to MusicalTheaterProject.org.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Mighty Scarabs!, Karamu House

(From left: Rodney Freeman as Johnny Dollar and Prophet Seay as June Bailey)

Some local playwrights have tried to write a definitive “Cleveland play” in the past, but many of those efforts have just dissolved into a welter of forced local references lost in a plotless landscape.

With the newly-revised version of The Mighty Scarabs! by Cornell Hubert Calhoun III, now at Karamu House, that string of unsuccessful attempts has come to a resounding halt. Based on the awesome high school basketball teams that East Tech spawned in the 1950s, this tight ensemble production rings true at virtually every moment. And it features at least three performances you really need to see.

In this telling, a fictional East Tech “Mighty Scarabs” team had won the Ohio high school championship in 1955 (they actually won it in ’58 and ’59). Now it’s 13 years later and the stars of that team are still in their Central neighborhood, around E. 55th. With a couple relegated to run-of-the-mill jobs and a couple others immersed in the urban cultures of drugs and gambling, the stars that shone so brightly before graduation have dimmed considerably.

Calhoun’s script shines brilliantly, etching clear and entertaining portraits of people who once shared something great. Director Christopher Johnston, in addition to shaping scenes that pop off the stage, has also cast the show adroitly.

Two key roles are played by Karamu veterans, and they have never been better. Prophet Seay plays June Bailey, an actual member of the Might Scarabs and the person to whom Calhoun has dedicated the play. Seay uses all of his impressive performing talents to create a fully dimensional character—funny and sly, foolish and insightful—that anchors the play beautifully.

As June continually seeks the magical big payday by hitting the numbers, the older numbers runner Johnny Dollar is there to dole out the often unexpectedly meager winnings. As Johnny, Rodney Freeman is a hilarious force of nature, sliding through the neighborhood in his too-tight snakeskin shoes and color-matched outfits, uttering his personal catch phrase, Goodnight Irene!” with different inflections to fit any meaning he chooses.

Just as good as Seay and Freeman is Katrice Headd as Girlena, the former squeeze of team star Fast Eddie, who was recently killed. Both sensuous and sensible, Headd’s Girlena is an inner-city queen who still dresses in yellow, Fast Eddie’s favorite color.

Indeed, all these characters are living in the past to some degree, and who can blame them? They were celebrities and, more than that, purveyors of pride and hope to their neighborhood. That’s a high anyone would have a hard time coming down from.

The other ex-players each contribute to the team, er, ensemble. Tyrell Hairston is sadly amusing as a coke-head, nodding off during a card game, and Titus Covington as Ricks and Michael Head as “Six-Five” have the look of athletes gone to seed.

In addition, young Caris Collins handles her part as Girlena’s daughter well, especially a rapid-fire play-by-play of the championship game’s culminating moment. And Lauren Sturdivant is both lovely and apparently doomed as the streetwalker Jamaica.

For anyone who was around Cleveland in the ‘60s, references to Giant Tiger and Sealtest, plus many others, will certainly resonate. But it’s the characters that glow most brightly in The Mighty Scarabs! And while one might wish for a bit more information about how that team functioned on court, the work on stage by Freeman, Seay and Headd is like a smooth dribble weave ending in a slam dunk.

The Mighty Scarabs!
Through March 29 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.


Friday, March 6, 2015

The Pianist of Willesden Lane, Cleveland Play House

Simplicity is powerful.

For proof, you need look no farther than this one-woman show now at the Cleveland Play House. Mona Golabek, an accomplished concert pianist, tells the story of her mother Lisa Jura, who at age 14 escaped Nazi Germany in 1938, leaving behind her parents and two sisters.

This show, which is touring many cities, is a tight and captivating package highlighted by Golabek’s entrancing talents at the keyboard of her Steinway grand piano. The piano is not only the key set piece on the mostly black stage, it is absolutely central to Golabek’s life.

As Golabek tells it, in a script adapted from the book she co-authored with Lee Cohen, “The Children of Willesden Lane,” her mother Lisa and her grandmother were also pianists. Once it became clear that the Nazi’s were coming for all the Jews, Lisa’s parents spent the father’s gambling winnings for a single ticket on a Kindertransport train that eventually led to a safe refuge in England.

Golabek is a better pianist than actor, so she and adaptor/director Hershey Felder wisely choose to tell her heart-wrenching story directly and without any manufactured emotional overtones. Occasionally adopting different character voices, including her mother’s, Golabek charmingly relates her mother’s time in England, returning time and again to the piano where both she and her mother clearly find such comfort.

The span of the show takes Lisa from age 14 to 21, and there are triumphs (a piano scholarship, a romantic connection with a French soldier) and more tragedies along the way. Of course, there is the biggest question of all: What has happened to the rest of Lisa’s family? The answers are forthcoming, and the elegant simplicity of how they are delivered makes them all the more meaningful due to the restraint employed.

The music Golabek plays ranges from “Clair de Lune” to “These Foolish Things,” and they all gather added resonance since they are placed in this remarkable context. Adding immensely to the texture of the performance are photos (of the family, artwork, etc.) and some war footage, projected inside four gilt frames on the back wall.

As Lisa’s mother told her daughter as the young girl boarded the train, “Hold on to the music.” In this show, the music gives everyone in the audience a new and compelling hold on a story that must always be told: how humanity can overcome evil.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Through March 22 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.








Dirty Dancing, PlayhouseSquare

Hey, it happens to the best of us. Eddie Murphy, once one of the most innovative comedians and comic actors, shows up at the SNL anniversary show laminated and almost embalmed inside his own gigantic self-regard. So sad.

The same can be said, in a different way, about Dirty Dancing the musical version of the much-loved flick that is now occupying the Connor Palace stage at PlayhouseSquare. That 1987 low-budget rom-dram won everyone’s hearts (not to mention a couple other boy parts) thanks to the performances by slinky Jennifer Grey as Baby and studly Patrick Swayze as Johnny, her dance instructor at a summer resort in the Catskills in 1963.

The film has some tender and personal moments that feel honest, even with all the dancing exertions. But the this glitzy and glossy stage extravaganza almost suffocates the simple story with an avalanche of big dance numbers and bigger stage effects. The result is a shiny theatrical mechanism without much of a human pulse. 

The book by Eleanor Bergstein, a slight adaptation that hews closely to her own film script, is so fragmented and clipped that it’s virtually impossible to connect with the characters. This is true for the two main roles and even more so with the secondary characters, including Baby’s family, Johnny’s regular dance partner Penny (an amazingly lithe Jenny Winton), and assorted resort folks.

Sure, the show reaches for some kind of gravitas by dragging in references to social issues and personal dramas, including a botched abortion. But it all feels tacked on—especially a rendition of “We Shall Overcome” that seems cringe-worthy in this context.

Abandoning the low-budget look, the stage is filled with gigantic visuals as projections of all kinds are thrown onto towering panels while various sections of the panels open and close to reveal an elevated on-stage band, a revolving bed and other gimcracks not found in most Catskills resorts. But what the hell, this is a Broadway-style musical, so let flow the eye candy and back-arching choreography designed by Michele Lynch and Kate Champion.

Trouble is, DD is not exactly a musical in the traditional sense, since the actors don’t always sing the big numbers. Those tasks are often given to two performers, Jennlee Shallow and Doug Carpenter, who each have character names with “singer” appended to them. Usually, this designation isn’t required for musicals. But it’s understandable here, since they frequently just appear and start belting without any apparent connection to the story.

They both are fine, but Ms. Shallow is outstanding, even when singing the abbreviated snatches of songs that are allowed in this production. At times, one wishes that everyone else would just exit stage right and allow her to sing through those songs, and rest of the show for that matter.

But no, there is a love/dance match to fashion between Baby and Johnny. As Baby, Gillian Abbott registers a sweet and shy vibe but she never steams it up enough once she gets her dancin’ mojo working. On this night, Johnny was played by understudy Josh Drake, and while he has a buff bod and dances well, he exudes virtually no charisma in this role that should send hearts aflutter.

Dirty Dancing is a hybrid musical that gives you more than your money’s worth in terms of visual and auditory pizzazz. And, you know, it has the iconic bits: "(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life" and the swan dive lift. But if you’re looking for the unvarnished heart of the original, you can find that on Netflix.

Dirty Dancing
Through March 22 at Connor Palace, PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.




Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Philadelphia Story, Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program

(Alec Hynes as Dexter and Kathryn Metzger as Tracy Lord)

If you’re a lover of chocolate or coconut cream pie, you’re keenly aware that an upper crust is not only unnecessary but something of a blight on an otherwise tasty treat.

Some might say the same thing about the upper crust in society, that amalgam of 1 percenters who live off inherited wealth and swan gracefully from drawing room to sitting room all day long. These are the folks who populate The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry, and happily this upper crust doesn’t turn soggy under the sharp direction of Jerrold Scott (who also doubles amusingly as Uncle Willie).

This 1939 play, which was famously adapted for Hollywood, combines sophisticated and screwball comedy to a fare-thee-well. And Barry is a master of the rat-a-tat, knife-edge dialogue that fueled so many comedies of that era.

Of course, the set-up is custom-tailored for laughs. The arrogant and feisty heiress Tracy Lord, who is anticipating her marriage the next day to stuffy George Kitteredge, is suddenly confronted by both her suave ex-husband Dexter and a sly reporter, Macauley. Soon, Tracy’s well-cosseted hormones are flying in all directions and it’s unclear where they’ll eventually perch.

The witticisms come at you fast and furious, but they usually reward careful listening. As when George says: “But a man expects his wife to—“ and Tracy completes the sentence: “Behave herself. Naturally.” To which Dexter appends, “To behave herself naturally.” That little pause, or lack thereof, makes all the difference.

The cast, made up primarily of CWRU students, handles this precious wordplay well. The rapid delivery feels a bit forced in the first act, but once the performers get their feet under them, their pace begins to fit the script quite nicely.

In the linchpin role of Tracy, Kathryn Metzger has both the arch rectitude and the sliver of anarchic spirit that Katherine Hepburn displayed on stage and screen. As Macauley, Jeremiah Clapp has the lean look of a young Fred Astaire (minus the fancy footwork), as he pursues Tracy. And Alec Hynes lends some Cary Grant-style suavity to Dexter, smoothly circling the comical chaos and planting tender memories until he’s ready to make his move.

Also entertaining are Megan King as Tracy’s teenage sister Dinah, she of the impetuous gestures and repeatedly mangled syntax, Katie O. Solomon as snarky paparazzi Elizabeth, and Erin Bunting as the girls’ matronly mom. Not so successful are Nick Barbato, who never quite embodies pater familias Seth Lord, and Rickie McDowell’s indifferently rendered George.

It’s a shame the theatrical versions of this show don’t include the famous prelude to the film—Tracy breaking Dexter’s golf club over her knee, Dexter responding by pushing her down with his open hand to her face. Sure, it ain’t PC, but boy is it funny.

However, thanks to Cameron Caley Michalak’s lush set and Jeffery Van Curtis’ tasteful costumes, the play looks as good as it sounds. And thanks to Barry’s clever words (”I would sell my grandmother for a drink, and you know how much I love my grandmother”), this Philadelphia Story is a yarn worth hearing again.

The Philadelphia Story
Through March 7 at PlayhouseSquare, the Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre, 1516 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.