Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Tempest, Great Lakes Theater

(J. Todd Adams as Caliban)

To begin with, allow me to quote from the elegant program notes of Drew Barr, the director of The Tempest, now at Great Lakes Theater: “The Tempest explores a paradox of human consciousness: awareness of one’s self in the world can prevent one from feeling connected to the world.”

How true. That statement, among many others in the program, goes a long way to explain the magic that resides in this script. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Mr. Barr, awareness of one’s self in the play can prevent the audience from feeling connected to the play.

In other words, it seems that the design and creative team were so caught up in shaping a new concept that they give short shrift to Shakespeare’s story. It is a lovely one involving a shipwreck, brotherly betrayal, young romance, sly comedy and the essence of justice—all overlaid with mysterious sounds and unexpected doings.

Prospero, the man who can make magic, has been banished to an island, along with his daughter, by his bro Antonio (Jonathan Dyrud), who took over as Duke of Milan. Feeling hissy, Prospero conjures up a storm so that Antonio and his sea-bound entourage, including King Alonso (Dougfred Miller) and his son Ferdinand, are swept ashore. Then Prospero’s assistant Ariel, “an airy Spirit,” reports that all the people are safe.

Of course, Ferdinand (Patrick Riley) and Miranda fall in love, as was Prospero’s plan. But there is skullduggery afoot, and Prospero and Ariel use their supernatural wiles to make it all come out dandy.

You will be forgiven if you’re not aware the characters are on an island (in the mind, or otherwise), since the muscular set design by Russell Metheny is long on metal and short on palm fronds. (BTW, are we nearing the end of the scenic design infatuation with industrial scaffolding and huge metal structures? Can a sister get a painted flat up in here?)

That said, Metheney’s structure serves to make the actors on stage dance and distort in the reflections coming off the transparent plastic panels, creating an aura of shifting shapes that enhances the story. Augmented by Rick Martin’s detailed lighting design, the air on stage is alive with sparks and flashes.

D.A. Smith does his best as Prospero, using his considerable chops to give the proceedings some drive and heft. But it doesn’t help that Katie Willmorth as Miranda delivers her lines at an unvarying high volume instead of projecting them with some degree of nuance.

The play makes a screeching U-turn about an hour into the first act when another event, the Stefano & Trinculo Show, takes the stage. Looking and feeling like they dropped in from another another entertainment entirely, the butler and cook from the wrecked ship run into Caliban, Prospero’s hybrid human-fish-tortoise slave, and begin raiding the stores of wine.

At this point, the audience is hungry for some comedy relief and they laugh long and loud at the buffoonery of the three inebriates. Unfortunately, the play is turned on its head and becomes a vaudeville show with a strange and sometimes inexplicable story attached to it like a barnacle.

One has to admire Tom Ford as Stephano. For not only does he act his drunken character broadly (he vomits on the head of Trinculo), he actually is spelunking to find the absolutely lowest common denominator of oafishness. While it often grates, Ford’s effort is noted and we look forward, with some trepidation, to his reports from the depths.

As Trinculo, mugging Dustin Tucker seems like an ambitious apprentice to Tom Ford—playing a pratfalling Eve Harrington to Ford’s slapstick Margo Channing—and Tucker shows every evidence of being a splendid student.

Of course, when attempting to capture a magical sense of mysticism on a strange island, sometimes things can go awry. And so they do when three sparkly 10-foot-tall tubular silver shapes walk on during a betrothal masque to honor Ferdinand and Miranda. These ambulatory phalluses, combined with a couple of the guys in large white plastic wedding dresses, make the latter part of Act Two look like a bizarrely-themed gay marriage gone tragically wrong.

If you’re looking for interesting moments, there are these: As Caliban, J. Todd Adams paints his face like Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight, while contorting his body in ways that seem to defy anatomical logic. And Ryan David O’Byrne skulks somewhat menacingly as Ariel, often bedecked in what looks like a shredded shower curtain for a skirt. You’d think, with all those fantastical skills at his command, he could conjure up a nice chiffon number.

Give credit to GLT for trying something new in this interpretation of The Tempest. But when the story gets camouflaged in a torrent of design flourishes and jarring tonal switchbacks, the audience has to work even harder to find Will’s real magic.

The Tempest
Through April 26 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., , 216-241-6000.


Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Cleveland Play House

The idea of taking the despair of the Russian novelist Chekhov (represented by the first three character names in the title), and pushing it through a very American spin on comedy (represented by the last name in the title) is a dandy one. And playwright Christopher Durang is to be saluted (as he has been, with a Best Play Tony) for his clever conception.

But while there are laughs in V&S&M&S, it often feels like a play that thinks it’s funnier than it actually is. The characters each live inside their respective stereotypes until some rather unbelievable breakthroughs towards the end of this almost 2½ hour excursion. And it features one spotlight role that, not to put too fine a point on it, seems racially insensitive.

It all starts with promise, as sour Sonia and passive Vanya stare out at a lake from the patio of their well-appointed home (crafted by scenic designer Bill Clarke) in the cushy enclave of Bucks County, PA. They are siblings, each collapsed into his or her own futility, as they have spent their lives taking care of their aging theater-loving parents, the ones who gave all their kids Chekhov-insipred names. Dad and mom are gone now, but Vanya and Sonia are still stuck—without jobs and being supported in their comfy yet dreary lifestyle by sister Masha, a B-list movie star and gold-plated bitch.

Once Masha arrives, towing behind her a young male co-star named Spike (a ripped but rather bland Gregory Isaac Stone)  who is clearly her boy-candy, things get a bit complicated—but not complicated enough. Sure, Spike starts to get a rise out of the semi-closeted Vanya, and Masha makes noises about selling the house out from under Sonia and Vanya. But these potentially  promising diversions and/or threats never gain any heft.

Instead, Durang is focused on launching one-liners from the safe confines of the bunkers into which each of these characters have barricaded themselves. And yes, Durang certainly has a way with punch lines and comical scenarios—including a costume party they all attend (!), at which Masha plays Snow White, enlisting Vanya and others to be her dwarves. But it all seems a bit too easy in the absence of any real consequences, be they romantic, residential or otherwise.

As Sonia, Toni DiBuono is believably frumpy, landing many of Durang’s zingers with style. And when she refuses to be one of Masha’s dwarves and costumes herself as Maggie Smith “on the way to the Oscars,” it’s a nice bit of one-upmanship.

John Scherer is not quite as focused as Vanya, so it’s hard to determine whether his passivity is depression, disinterest or something else. Unfortunately, he is at the center of the play’s most ineffective moment—when the plot stops and everyone decides to read a play written by Vanya. This surreal play, with visiting teen hottie Nina Maren Bush) playing a molecule, ends with another interruption. It's a seemingly endless rant as Vanya goes off on the evils of modern technology and expresses his fond memories of Ed Sullivan and the splendid culture of the 1950s. Huh? 

In the role of Masha, Margaret Reed pushes the idea of a stuck-up Hollywood star a bit too hard, her artificiality feels like artifice, and she never really creates a character we can love to hate. At the end, her reach for an emotional denouement feels more ordained by the clock than the characters.

And speaking of revisiting ‘50s culture, there’s an African-American character: She’s a maid called Cassandra who constantly predicts doom, talks sassy, and uses a voodoo doll to inflict punishment on Masha. As Cassandra, Danielle Lee Greaves at least is not made to feast on a watermelon, but let’s not give them any ideas.

In sum, this play with so many conjunctions in its title never fully engages with its characters, or with its ideas. There are interesting, and intelligently humorous, things to be said about sibling rivalry and our society's current lack of a shared culture, but they aren't said here. As directed by Bruce Jordan, Vanya (and etc.) leaves us with lots of slickly manufactured, TV sitcom laughs, but little of the tragic-comic relevance that Chekhov mastered.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Through April 26 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.









  

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Deliciously Wicked, North Coast Men’s Chorus

No matter how many Broadway musicals you’ve attended, there’s one thing you’ve probably never experienced: Hearing about 80 men sing some of your favorite stage tunes, imbuing those songs with the stunning power and rich nuance that can only come from a well-practiced chorus.

Well, you can correct that deficiency in your life this weekend by attending Deliciously Wicked, A Broadway Revue, the latest offering by the North Coast Men’s Chorus. This group describes itself as “Northeast Ohio’s largest gay chorus,” but within that circle they are remarkably diverse in terms of age and other demographic markers.

Of course, what they share most of all is a passion for singing. And when that passion is applied to tunes from Wicked, Kinky Boots, Les Miz and many others, the effect on a lover of Broadway can be truly transformative, as it was in the rehearsal I attended.

As you might expect of a chorus, the multiple tiers of dudes often simply stand and deliver, such as in the powerful anthem “Into the Fire” from The Scarlet Pimpernel. There’s something about the power of this many voices—more than in most church choirs outside of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir—that creates a visceral stirring in your gut.

But these guys also have a sense of humor, which is shown in some of the clever choreography crafted by Lora Workman. In the opening number, “Magic To Do” from Pippin, a squad of guys peel off from the chorus to support the rich-toned soloist Brandon Bowman with some smooth moves. Several other men make solo appearances, and the NCMC specialty ensemble, a sextet called The Coastliners, croon a couple featured ditties including the irrepressible “Hello” from The Book of Mormon.

There are also some surprises, with some of the guys showing up in heels for one number and wielding magically appearing canes in another.

Under the baton of artistic director Richard Cole and accompanied by Robert Day on the keyboard, with some percussive help in the shadows, Deliciously Wicked is a rare treat. So if you love Broadway musicals and choral singing, you best haul your pert buns to Notre Dame College in South Euclid tonight or tomorrow afternoon. (It’s a big auditorium, they’ll fit you in.)

Not only is the music wonderful. It’s a way to share space with people who have found meaning and a sense of belonging in a group that is dedicated to sharing its talents with the community. And that alone is worth the price of admission.

Deliciously Wicked, A Broadway Revue
Tonight and tomorrow, April 11 at 8 PM and April 12 at 3 PM, produced by the North Coast Men's Chorus at the Regina Auditorium at Notre Dame College, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid. Tickets available at the door. For more information, visit ncmchorus.org.



Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rosalynde & the Falcon, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

Shayla Gordon as Rosalynde and Valerie C. Kilmer 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.