Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Book of Mormon, Playhouse Square

If you haven’t yet seen The Book of Mormon, shame on you. Go stand in the corner, and I’ll tell you when you can leave. But before you do that, give Playhouse Square a call and see if you can glom some tickets before this show leaves after this coming Sunday.

This outrageous carnival of musicality, wit and offensiveness—created from the fertile and possibly felonious minds of Trey  Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone—is back in town in a touring production that sizzles from start to finish. This particular troupe has been touring for a while, but you’d never know it from that sharp, energetic and engaging performances all around.

As you probably know, it’s all about a comical and irreverent take on the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and while it is certainly rude and distasteful  (for some), it is also flat out hilarious and really quite sweet. Two featured missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, are shipped off to Uganda to convert the locals.

And that challenge is illustrated in a send-up of “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King. In this version, the poverty-stricken, AIDS-beset, warlorf-domoinated Ugandans sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” which is translated as “Fuck You, God.” Just to make their feelings clear, the song is punctuated frequently with the middle-finger salute.

This production benefits from outstanding performances in the lead roles. As Elder Price, the fellow who dreams of spending eternity in Orlando, Gabe Gibbs is a toothy force of nature as he nails songs such as “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” and “I Believe.” The latter song illustrates how the creators meld real Mormon facts with parody as he sings: “I believe the Lord God sent me here/And I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people.”

He is matched by Conner Peirson as the schlubby Elder Cunningham, a wannabe missionary who never read the Book, so he makes up his own version of the religion—featuring Star Wars characters and other random bits—to bring his flock some peace of mind. And he is particularly adorable when he romances—er, baptizes—the lovely young Nabulungi (Myha’la Herrold, who possesses way more voice than should be allowed in a person that small). They bond, even though Cunningham never gets her name right, calling her at various times Neutrogena, Netflix, Nagasaki and Nakatomi Plaza.

Also outstanding are PJ Adzima as the not-so-ambiguously gay Elder McKinley, Johnny Brantley III as the ever smiling local doctor with maggots in his throat, and Sterling Jarvis as the town’s leader Mafala.

The visual aspects of the production are also outstanding, including a scene of Mormon hell pulsing with crimson fire and populated by Jeffrey Dahmer, Johnnie Cochran and cups of Starbucks coffee (tea and coffee are forbidden to Mormons).

In short, this show is a hoot and a half, and it is performed with superb professionalism by this touring company. Something that is not always true when a show visits for just a short time. So go, laugh, smile. You deserve it.

The Book of Mormon
Through September 17 at Playhouse Square, Keybank State Theater, 1615 Euclid Ave. 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.com.


Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Doll’s House, Mamai Theatre Company

(Anjanette Hall as Nora and Abraham Adams as Thorwald)

Great theater often comes alive in the details, and there are gorgeous details aplenty in the outstanding production of A Doll’s House now at Mamai Theatre Company. This talented troupe has taken an adaptation by Thornton Wilder of the Henrik Ibsen script and turned that old Norwegian play into a fresh and compelling look at a restless and unfulfilled woman in a confining marriage.

But, oh, the details! Take the line “I can’t spend the night in a strange man’s house.” Those words are uttered by Nora, later in the play, when she decides to leave her husband of eight years, Thorwald, much to his surprise. And it sums up, in an instant, the profound disconnection between these two remarkable characters.

In this production, those two characters are given precisely crafted interpretations by Anjanette Hall as Nora and Abraham Adams as Thorwald. Hall’s role has a sweeping trajectory—from childlike “doll” to a self-realized young woman—and Hall brings each aspect of this woman to life with the exactitude of a pointillist. And Adams provides an equally fascinating portrayal of a man who is often rendered as a two-dimensional dufus. Indeed, there are often times when you feel great affection for Adams’ Thorwald, which makes the play resonate even more powerfully.

They are supported in splendid style by four other players. Rachel Lee Kolis is beaten but unbowed as Christina Linden, Nora’s less fortunate gal pal. She shares secrets with Nils Krogstad (a determined yet vulnerable John Busser), a functionary in the bank run by Thorwald. And Tim Keo makes the most of his turn as Dr. Rank. In his scene with Nora, when she entices him with her silk stockings, you can feel the tension ripple through his yearning and unmoving body. Like I said: details.

Director Christine McBurney has found exactly the right pace for this material, and it grabs hold of you from the first lines all the way to the end, some 2½ hours later.  The design team has also done exceptional work, from the multi-level scenic design by Don McBride to the subtle lighting design by Marcus Dana. Kristine Davies’ period costumes are spot-on, and equally effective are Richard Ingraham’s sound cues, capturing party sounds from a floor above, and Monica Plunkett’s specific and appropriate props.

A Doll’s House created a furor back in the day, with a wife and mother willing to forsake her duty to husband and children to assert her own individuality. It’s an early sketch of the feminist mindset, and it is given a stellar production by Mamai that is hugely satisfying from the smallest details to the largest themes.

A Doll’s House
Through August 27 at Mamai Theater, The Helen Rosenfeld Bialosky Lab Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, mamaitheatreco.org.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Music Man, In Concert; Cain Park

It’s been a few years since the gorgeous Evans Amphitheater at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights has played host to a full production of a Broadway show, and that’s a damn shame. This park has been known for years for its artistic credentials, of all kinds, and it seems like a fully-staged musical in the big theater, not just in their small Alma Theater, should be an annual part of that mix. (God knows, those of us who live there pay enough taxes to maybe swing one such production per year. Ahem.)

Anyhow, I suppose the next best thing is to have a concert version of a show. And so we now have The Music Man, in concert, which has a brief two performance run that opened last night and closes this afternoon.

This Meredith Willson musical about an itinerant con man is a treasure of the American musical form, and it is given a sumptuous aural treatment thanks to the talents of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra under the direction of Liza Grossman. More than 45 musicians strong, this young but highly skilled orchestra provides a lush symphonic arrangement for the classic tunes. That part of the show is a triumph.

Other high points of this tune-fest include some notable performances. The barbershop quartet is manned by an existing singing foursome, and the voices of Fred Locker, Chris Folsy, Mike Sabo and David Hipp blend quite well. Chris Richards as reformed travelling salesman Marcellus, Jim Bray as the anvil salesman Charlie Cowell, and Jeanne Task as the Mayor’s wife add some well-timed humorous touches.

In the lead roles, Nicole Sumlin sings superbly as Marian, the skeptical librarian who is wary of Prof. Harold Hill’s arrival in town. As Hill, Eric Fancher also sings well, and he’s off-book while others carry their scripts. But he never quite seems to find the spark of a con man who is reveling in his element among the hicks of River City, Iowa. Sure, it’s a bit unfair to critique the acting in a concert version, but it seems Fancher could amp up Harold’s energy a tad.

As for the rest, director Joanna May Hunkins plays traffic cop to a cast of more than 60 (that’s in addition to the orchestra). And with so many performers doing so many things, the amplification of individual voices is not consistent.

But this is a true community event, with many participants, including very little ones, who are on stage for the first time. So here’s a 76-trombone salute to Cain Park and everyone involved in this production. Let’s hope this wedges open the door for an actual big-stage musical production in the future!

The Music Man, In Concert

Through today at 2 PM at Cain Park, 14591 Superior Road in Cleveland Heights, cainpark.com

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

City of Angels, Beck Center

Putting on the musical City of Angels is a daunting task: Present a show that explores the dark side of Hollywood screenwriting in the 1940s by mashing two different stories together—the script as it’s being written and the “real life” of the screenwriter and those around him. And lets do the former story in film noir-ish black & white and the latter story in full color, with singing, dancing lots of double-casting to handle both stories, and a shitload of scene changes. And make it funny!

That’s a full plate of theatricality to handle, and the Beck Center team under the direction of Scott Spence makes a lot of it work. It helps to have a clever script and in this case they do. Indeed, the words, as penned by the book writer Larry Gelbart for the musical City of Angels, are one of the unalloyed pleasures of this production at the Beck Center.

The clever lines come so fast and furious in this show, it’s almost impossible to catch them all. We’re watching a private eye named Stone start his week in his small Los Angeles office, and listening to his hard-bitten thoughts as they’re typed out by a guy named Stine who’s writing his character in this Sam Spade-style script.

Stone has a grudging appreciation of the la-la-land weather (“There’s enough sunshine to lay some off on Pittsburgh.”) But he’s depressed in general, saying to himself, “Was it only Monday? Can your whole life roll over and play dead, turn bad-side-out in just seven days?”

Gelbart, the iconic comedy writer, has wit and style that other writers only dream of possessing. And that’s good, because there are several aspects of this show that never quite come together in the same superb way as his wry words for Stone, Stine and a couple other characters. And one of them is the overly complex plot that drags in a galaxy of subplots and characters (32!), all of whom have names and something to say. The mind reels.

The music by Cy Coleman with lyrics by David Zippel offer a couple enjoyable moments, such as the Act One closer “You’re Nothing Without Me,” when writer and his fictional creation face off. And then Act Two opens with “You Can Always Count On Me” as one performer, Brittni Shambaugh Addison, plays two put-upon women—Oolie and Donna—and does both justice. But many of the songs reach achieve a sort of period authenticity at the expense of being rather dull musically.

Jamie Koeth is believable as the schlub writer Stine, and he sings great—including an ability to hold the concluding note of a song so long it seems like he rented another lung. And Rob Albrecht, as his doppelganger Stone, snaps off his witty lines with style. But not as much style as Greg Violand employs in the dual role of Stine’s real studio boss Buddy and the screenplay’s fictitious Hollywood producer Irving. Violand knows his way around the stage and he chews the scenery like a gourmand, devouring his many comical moments with relish and inviting the audience to share in his bounty.

Other strong performances are handed in by Leslie Andrew as Gabby and Bobbi (Stine’s wife and Stone’s lover), Carlos Antonio Cruz who plays Vargas and Munoz (the first in Hollywood, the second in the movie), and Sonia Perez as Alaura and Carla (Stone’s wealthy client and, oh…never mind).

The hard-working cast isn’t helped by Jordan Janota’s scenic design, which features a towering and unmoving set of letters spelling out “Hollywood.” Aside from being obvious, this gargantuan presence on the stage impedes many of the projections from being fully seen. In addition, it gets in the way of the color changes that lighting designer Trad A Burns uses to differentiate the scenes. As a result, the visual impact of this production is far less powerful than it might have been.

Hats off to Beck and Spence for taking on this challenge, and to the performers who damn near make it all work. But as Gelbart’s Stone might say of City of Angels, “This plot hopped on the wrong crowded train, grabbed some shuteye, and woke up two stops past Deadtown.”

City of Angels
Through August 13 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org











La Cage Aux Folles, Mercury Theatre Company

(Pierre-Jacques Brault as Geroges and Brian Marshall as Albin)

When a show has a surplus of heart, it proves that other problems are greatly minimized. Take La Cage Aux Folles, now being produced by the Mercury Theatre Company in South Euclid. With great songs by Jerry Herman and a witty book by Harvey Fierstein, it has all the elements necessary for success.

Still, it needs to be infused with talent on stage, and there are a number of off-notes and missed opportunities in this particular production. Even so, the entire enterprise is saved and even elevated by a genuine fondness for the characters and indomitable energy for which MTC has become famous.

As most people know, it’s the story of two gay men who run a gay nightclub in France, front man Georges and flamboyant Albin, who performs as the glorious Zaza. Their lives are idyllic until Georges’ grown son from an incidental encounter with a woman 20 years before shows up. The son is engaged to Anne, and he wants his dad and Albin to butch it up for a visit from his gal’s parents. Anne’s dad, in particular, is so anti-homosexual he makes Mike Pence look like a gay maitre d’ at a –wait, Mike Pence does look like a gay maitre d’…

Anyhow, let’s focus on what’s right with this show. The drag queens of Les Cagelles are a refreshing change from the standard troupe of fellows who are trotted out in often bulky, overdone femme outfits and then proceed to pose prettily and flutter their false eyelashes.

The boys in this crew are often stripped down to some skimpy, girly outfits and they are focused on executing the athletic moves laid out by choreographer Melissa Bertolone. Even when there are some stumbles, the boys go for it and take no prisoners. They are: Christian Flaherty, Nathan Hoty, Brian Lego, Austin Rubinosky, Brandon Santana, and Jake Washabaugh. And they are bee-yoo-tee-ful!

Of course, the major reason to see this La Cage is to see the theater co-founders, Pierre-Jacques Brault and Brian Marshall, play the lead roles of, respectively, Georges and Albin.  Brian is a constant and welcome presence on the MTC stage, and although he doesn’t exactly knock this role out of the park, he lands the moments that count. In particular, his rendering of “I Am What I Am” is quite touching.

One the other hand, Brault rarely performs since he usually directs all the shows, as he does here. His performance, although loaded with charm, could have benefited from a director (other than himself) who might have goosed his characterization a bit.

Fortunately the leads are backed up by some solid actors in smaller roles—Jennifer Myor as Jaqueline, the owner of a cafĂ©, Andrew Nelin as Jean-Michel, the grown son of Georges, and Rachel Marie Smith as Jean-Michel’s fiancee Anne. Almost as important as any of the people on stage are the dazzling and sometimes daring costumes designed by DW.

There are some aspects of the production, however, that seem to suffer from Brault’s divided attention. In the featured comedy role of Jacob, Georges and Albin’s butler and wannabe maid Jacob, Antonio Brown relies on a few isolated schticks and doesn’t find a strong character hook or consistent through-line, leaving a lot of laughs un-chuckled. And some aspects of the plot get short shrift due to unspecific staging decisions.

But damn, this show has got tons of heart, and the energy to display it without compromise.

La Cage Aux Folles
Through July 22, produced by the Mercury Theater Company, Notre Dame College, Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatercompany.org






Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ain’t Misbehavin’, Porthouse Theatre

There are some undeniably great tunes in this show, which is a compendium of songs written by the incredible Fats Waller, a man who could play jazz piano like no other. But since there is no book to tie the tunes together, it falls to the director and cast to keep the energy and momentum at a peak level.

This production at Porthouse Theater is only successful part of the time, and the strain to keep it all working starts to become evident along the way.

It seems that the two gentlemen who conceived the show, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz, probably sat down one morning, wrote out a list of Fats Waller songs, declared the show completed and then broke early for lunch.  Oh sure, there are a few lines of dialog to set up certain pieces, but there is no through line of information about the composer. And that is a damn shame, since Mr. Waller was quite an interesting presence in the jazz era during the first half of the 20th century.

Another wrinkle is that, although there are 30 songs in the production, only a few of them rise to the level of greatness. It’s hard to miss with the title song and other ditties such as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” and the classic novelty piece “You Feet’s Too Big.” But many of the other numbers just kind of lay there.

This problem can be ameliorated to some degree by performers who invest the material with unique energy. And that does happen at times. Jim Weaver is a sly and sinuous presence in most of his songs, and he particularly glows in “T’Ain’t Nobody’s biz-ness If I Do” and in the slow and sensual “The Viper’s Drag.” And Tina Stump uses her excellent pipes and undeniable stage presence to make “Squeeze Me” and other tunes leap off the stage.

The other three performers—Chantrell “Channy” Lewis, Aveena Sawyer and Eugene Sumlin—each have moments that work fine. But they are ultimately done in by the sparsely written show and never develop characters that fully resonate.

Director Eric van Baars keeps his actors in constant motion, and that becomes a problem all its own since there are so many exits and entrances the stage at times appears to be a concourse in a train station.

Of course, dazzling costumes might help but the costumes in this show disappoint. The men wear slick period suits but costume designer Susan J. Williams puts the women in the same style dress, in three different colors. And they don’t even change frocks after intermission, just add a bit of sparkle to the Act One duds. Emphasis on dud. In a similar way, the scenic design by Patrick Ulrich features a large scalloped art deco fan assemblage that captures the era but never evolves into anything more interesting.

One undeniable star onstage is the music director and pianist Edward Ridley, Jr., who pounds out the tunes with unstinting enthusiasm and skill. It’s actually too bad he and his two band-mates aren’t given their own featured slot, other than the short entr’acte.

This show has become a reliable chestnut for many theaters, but it still needs fresh energy and risk-taking to make it come alive. The Porthouse production sparks to life at times, particularly in the wonderful “Black and Blue” number that reveals the hurt behind the jazz and jive. But in general, Ain’t Misbehavin’ ain’t misbehavin’ enough.

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Through July 22 at Porthouse Theatre, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, 3143 O'Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884, https://www.kent.edu/porthouse


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

As You Like It, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

(Ryan Zarecki as Orlando and Tess Burgler as Rosalind)

If you don’t like change, especially with theater companies fussing around with updated interpretations of Shakespeare, then you’ll love the work of the Ohio Shakespeare Festival. Under the guidance of co-artistic directors Terry Burgler and Nancy Cates, pretty much nothing ever changes.

In As You Like It, their current production, the story hasn’t been re-imagined as a contemporary corporate retreat in the woods. There are no tweets or karaoke woven into the text to keep young folks interested. But even while using the same old period costumes and same old reliable two-stairway set, OSF manages to once again light up the woods with delight.

It all begins a half-hour before the curtain with a “Greenshow” of music and japery, an audience warm-up that will definitely get you laughing and clapping. Two features of the pre-show are the singing and strumming by Jason Leupold (who does likewise in the play) and a mano-a-mano battle between Ryan Zarecki and Joe Pine. This tightly choreographed displau is highlighted by an entangled wrestling move where they throw each other onto their feet, in turn, over and over again.

The play is as intensely engaging as the pre-show, offering a volley of its own pleasures. In a bow to some contemporary instincts, director Terry Burgler implements some cross-gender casting, with Katie Zarecki playing Frederick, brother of Orlando (an adorable Ryan Zarecki, Katie’s husband, who literally swings from the balcony as he plants love poems to Rosalind in the forest). And Tess Burgler (Terry’s daughter) plays a feisty Rosalind, at times crossdressed as Ganymede, while Tess’s husband, Joe Pine, plays the wrestler Charles. As you can see, OSF is a family affair in some convoluted ways that would no doubt please the Bard.

Old Will would also be pleased by the director’s deft handling of the performance, with actors often making eye contact with the audience and bringing them into the action on (and off) the stage. As a result, this fun-filled romance clips along at a merry pace, augmented by Trevor Buda as a particularly pathetic and love-torn Silvius, hilarious Lara Mielcarek as the romantically misdirected Phebe, and Andrew Gorell’s amusing turn as the clown Touchstone. Sarah Coon as Roz’s gal pal Celia adds some dimension to the proceedings, as does Geoff Knox, who delivers the iconic “Seven Ages of Man” speech as melancholy Jaques with specificity and precision.

The Ohio Shakespeare Festival is a treat—sitting out by the lagoon at Stan Hywet Hall and being serenaded by bullfrogs as evening turns to night. Just make sure you’re planted in your seat a half-hour before show time!

As You Like It
Through July 16 at Ohio Shakespeare Festival, Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 100 S. High St., Akron, 888-718-4253, ohioshakespearefestival.com