Wednesday, September 28, 2016

My Fair Lady, Great Lakes Theater

(Tom Ford as Henry Higgins and Jillian Kates as Eliza Doolittle)

One of the pleasures of seeing a classic Lerner and Loewe musical such as My Fair Lady is in seeing how it can be restaged, or even reimagined, some 60 years after it opened on Broadway. In this Great Lakes Theater production, directed by Victoria Bussert, very few liberties are taken with the material. And that’s a good thing, since the material is so damn good all by itself.

Of course, back in the day other Broadway teams took a run at musicalizing George Bernard Shaw’s story of Pygmalion—including Rogers and Hammerstein. Richard and Oscar worked on it for more than a year before giving up, What threw them was the lack of a strong romantic through line, since the stern taskmaster, phonetician Henry Higgins, and the poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle never seem to really hit it off.

In this production, Eliza is played by Jillian Kates, and she handles her chores with professional aplomb, even though the “r” sound is barely noticeable in her tender rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” Still, she is a properly rough and tumble gal as the early Eliza, joking and dancing with the other denizens of the gutter. And she shows some real spirit in “Just You Wait,” her rant against the dominating presence of ‘enry ‘iggins. When Eliza is transformed as a proper lady, Kates shows off her powerful singing voice in the amusingly repetitive “I Could Have Danced All Night.” But once this Eliza gets her rap together, her character becomes a bit too flat, the spirit refined out of her.

As Higgins, Tom Ford brings a tense, rapid-fire, no-nonsense approach to a role that was made famous by Cyril Richard’s talk-singing profundity and slow burn. Ford’s take is quite amusing throughout, especially in “I’m An Ordinary Man,” but it sacrifices something in the connection that is supposed to grow between Higgins and Eliza. Since Ford’s machine-gun nastiness seems reflexive rather than inspired by the specific presence of the Cockney lass, it makes his eventual softening towards her less personal, and thus less meaningful, than it might otherwise be.

There are particular delights in the smaller roles. M.A. Taylor has never been better than he is as Eliza’s scoundrel father Alfred P. Doolittle. His takes on “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” augmented by energetic dance numbers choreographed by Gregory Daniels, are little gems. And Colton Ryan as Freddy loads plenty of yearning into “On the Street Where You Live,” making his reprise laugh-out-loud funny. And Laura Perrotta manages to cadge some laughs from the rather drab role of Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mom.

The scenic design by Jeff Herrmann is to drool for, with simple rotating panels indicating the locations and a virtually monochromatic color scheme of whites and off-whites giving the production a lush feel. The orchestra under the direction of Joel Mercier is spot on.

My Fair Lady is a treasure and this production does it full justice.

My Fair Lady
Through October 29 at the Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.









Tuesday, September 27, 2016

All The Way, Cleveland Play House

(Steve Vinovich as President Lyndon Baines Johnson.)

Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the more fascinating characters to ever populate the halls of Washington D.C., since he combined the raw, crotch-grabbing energy of a good ol’ boy from rural Texas with the liberal leanings of a man who deeply cared about the disadvantaged. Try finding a mixture like that in today’s polarized political landscape.

And in All The Way by Robert Schenkkan, the colliding aspects of LBJ’s personality are displayed in clear and sometimes devastating detail. Set in the mid-1960s after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and just a year before the next presidential election, the play offers an almost blow-by-blow description of how Johnson horse-traded and bullied congressional leaders to pass his Civil Rights Act.

It all plays out on Robert Mark Morgan’s breathtakingly simple set, composed of grandstand-like levels encircled by a curving wall where photos are displayed. With a large circular shape hovering above, the scenic design provides the feel of the halls of government without ever getting too specific. And these halls are populated with all the people who made that time so wrenching, triumphant and memorable.

As LBJ, Steve Vinovich bears a striking resemblance to the “accidental president” as he browbeats and strokes Hubert Humphrey (a nicely quivering Donald Carrier), a liberal senator from the north whom Johnson clearly enjoys tweaking at every opportunity.  An expert at manipulation, LBJ does this with most people oiling inflated egos here and sticking a shiv in there—whatever the situation calls for. In this way, he maneuvers around his old pal Senator Richard Russell (a sly Stephen Bradbury), rabble-rousing Governor George Wallace (Greg Jackson) and Dr. Martin Luther King (stately Jason Bowen).

Vinovich’s Johnson displays this bifurcated approach even with his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, whom he often dismisses rudely even as he seems to clearly care for her. As Lady Bird, Laura Starnik captures the look and feel of this woman who put up with a lot from the man she loved.

The first act of All The Way (those words are taken from the chant that accompanied Johnson during his own campaign for the presidency), is quite compelling as Johnson cajoles multiple D.C. players as he finds a way to sell the Civil Rights Act to both southern racists and black militants. In the second act, when LBJ is running for the presidency against Barry Goldwater, the issues are not as stark and the momentum of the play gets tangled up in some arcane negotiating around seating African-American delegates at the Democratic Convention.

There are also some characterizations that seem to fall a bit short. As the intense Stokely Carmichael, Biko Eisen-Martin doesn’t exhibit the live-wire energy of this man who headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And Lou Sumrall doesn’t leave much of an impression as Secretary Robert McNamara. But some of this has to do with a play that attempts to touch a few too many bases, leaving several characters dangling with not enough lines to establish their personalities.

Still, this is a play about one man. And the wildly contrasting aspects of LBJ’s persona are brought out powerfully, thanks to Vinovich’s performance and the crisp direction by Giovanna Sardelli. For those who wonder how our government ever got anything done, this show offers a revealing look at how power can be used to achieve something good. It’s a thought worth contemplating in these days when compromise is seen as treason by many in Congress.

All The Way

Through October 9 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Jersey Boys, Playhouse Square

I’ve just seen Jersey Boys for the fifth time, at the State Theatre at Playhouse Square. So in honor of that milestone, here are five reasons why I love this damn show about the singing group The Four Seasons.

1.   It’s a jukebox musical adorned with cartoon graphics about four singers from New Jersey. And it begins with one of their hits, “Oh, What a Night!” being sung in rap style—in French—to show how far their influence traveled. Not bad for kids who were stealing hubcaps and knocking over cigar stores a few years before.
2.   The music of The Four Season never gets old because, let’s face it, if it isn’t old by now it never will be. Lead singer Frankie Valli is about 137 years old, and he’s still performing live all across the world.
3.   The show does a great job of ticking off all the stages of the group’s growth, leading up to their breakthrough hit “Sherry.” It was a long and tangled journey with some weird stops such as singing with a guy dressed up in a monkey suit. Sure, it’s a familiar yarn, but it reminds you that there aren’t many overnight successes in showbiz.
4.   This touring production does the show justice, in most respects. Keith Hines channels the downbeat Nick Massi quite well, squeezing some laughs out of lines that aren’t that funny. As the pop musical genius Bob Gaudio, Cory Jeacoma is effective although he doesn’t give this interesting character as much dimension as actors in other productions have done. Matthew Dailey is excellent as tough guy, gambling addict and wanna-be group leader Tommy DeVito. And Aaron De Jesus, who looks like a slightly chunkier clone of Valli, handles the songs well. Sure, his falsetto sometimes slides a bit too high, getting into the ear-bleed zone. But his rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is a showstopper.
5.   Some of the smaller roles shine, such as Barry Anderson as the talented and just barely closeted producer Bob Crewe. His fey moments on stage are a delight. And David LaMarr kicks off the evening in style as the kick-ass French rapper.

So, it’s still a great show. Am I a bit depressed that I’ll have to wait a while to see Jersey Boys again? Sure, but then I remember: “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”

Jersey Boys

Through September 25 at the State Theatre, Playhouse Square, 216-241-6000.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Last Five Years, Lakeland Civic Theatre

It’s pretty hard to connect with a love story, or a break-up story, when the two principals never engage in intercourse (I mean the talking kind). But that’s exactly what happens in The Last Five Years, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown.

It’s a bold device, having a man and a woman look at their relationship and their lives from two different time perspectives. At the start, Catherine is lamenting the end of her marriage to Jamie in the powerful tune “Still Hurting” while Jamie, in his separate solo songs, begins with his excitement at first meeting Catherine, his “Shiksa Goddess.”

They meet briefly halfway through the 90-minute show in “The Next Ten Minutes,” but other than that they’re two people—he an emerging writer and she a struggling actor—going different directions, in more ways than one.

The songs by Brown are often affecting. In “Climbing Uphill,” Brown sketches out the trauma of an audition, obsessing about her shoes and then instantly segueing into other matters, “I can go to Crate and Barrel with mom and buy a coach/Not that I want to spend a day with mom/But Jamie needs a space to write/Since I’m obviously such a horrible, annoying distraction to him.”

Sure, some of the melodies start sounding similar after awhile. And the fact that we hardly ever see these two individuals react to each other in the moment ultimately feels manipulative.

Faced with these challenges, Jason Leupold and Neely Gevaart manage to make the play work. Each has a strong and distinctive singing voice, and each does well with their hot numbers (Leupold with “The Schmuel Song” and Gevaart with “A Summer in Ohio”). The last song features the lyric one often hears as a promotion on the Sirius Broadway channel: “But it wouldn’t be as nice as a summer in Ohio/With a gay midget playing Tevye, and Porgy.”

But Leupold never quite latches onto the hard edge of Jamie’s rampant ambition, and Gevaart doesn’t fully embody her character’s vulnerable romanticism.

The Last Five Years gets major kudos for taking chances, and for its sly knowledge of the entertainment business. And director Martin Friedman wisely lets his actors take charge of the stage, even though pushing a couple multi-tiered bookcases around the space didn’t noticeably enhance the proceedings. And it’s a shame that a huge screen, which is lowered into place at the start and then raised before the end, wasn’t used for something more than some faint color spill.

The Last Five Years

Through October 2 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, Lakeland Community College, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland, 440-525-7134.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Bloodless Jungle, Ensemble Theatre

The theory behind Ensemble Theatre’s THEATRECLE season, which features plays different from their main stage series, is to give Cleveland artists the opportunity to “play” around. And that’s a great idea, as long as those artists are willing to take risks and really play with the form.

In the first offering of the CLE Season, we have The Bloodless Joungle written by Cleveland political and arts luminary Peter Lawson Jones. By bringing his insider knowledge of how politics is plays, Jones script has the advantage of verisimilitude. But it doesn’t expand the form or take enough chances to really be considered either “play” or play.

Ethan St. John is an Ohio state senator who is talked into running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. From the first moment and throughout the play, every character makes it clear that St. John is really a saint, with virtually no character flaws. There’s the first problem for this play, since no one actually believes there are people like that. And if there are, then half the population probably hates them because of their policies and beliefs. Welcome to politics circa 2016.

Playwright Jones just ignores the current context and proceeds with the story of how St. John’s best pal from high school is causing problems because of his conviction for rape. That’s certainly a nasty piece of business, but the script never deals with it in a compelling manner.

Instead, we have extended scenes between St. John (a far too tame Robert Hunter) and his wife (Eva Rodriguez), discussing her traumatic past, and seemingly extraneous moments between St. John and his football buddy from college, Cyrus, who’s now his (of course) kick-ass campaign manager.

If director Terrence Spivey has talked with Jones about the length and meandering thrust of his play, it doesn’t show in this production. Eventually, we get tired of everyone buffing St. John’s ego knob till it glows and yearn for some real ball crushing political insider stuff. As the hard-nosed pol H. Henderson Hill, Greg White delivers some of that vibe, but far too little as it turns out. The one character who actually stands out is the aide to St. John, Malik, played by an animated and interesting Anthony Lanier.

Sometimes, the title of a play inadvertently captures its essence. And that is the case here, in a play that seems drained of its blood, and guts, in exchange for soft soap and pablum.

The Bloodless Jungle
Through October 2 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.







The Bigfoot Letters, Blank Canvas Theatre

There is an honored place in the canon of American theater for the outrageous and silly. Without these kinds of plays, our lives would be much duller.

With that in mind, there is pleasure to be had in The Bigfoot Letters by Nancy Nixon and Russel Stich, now at Blank Canvas Theatre for a brief two week run. This is part of the BCT Factory Series of new plays, and this one definitely generates a lot of energy.

It’s based on a Bigfoot hotline that Sheila calls to get some help with a furry creature she’s encountered. Actually, she ran down the mother Sasquatch with her car and now she’s adopted the baby Bigfoot.

This is exciting news for the fur-nerds who run the hotline, and they dispatch themselves to the burg where Sheila lives. But soon, their activities are complicated by a Bible-spouting pastor, a dim sheriff, and other local wastrels.

Nixon and Stich stitch some clever lines into this goofy assemblage. When the existence of a Bigfoot is questioned, one character notes that, “There’s more evidence of Bigfoot than anything in the Bible.” And when panic grips the town, one woman chills noting, “I don’t have to forage for food, I have a Costco membership.”

Stich directs his cast with vigor and keeps the momentum going. But much of the humor is of the Hee Haw variety, long on corn and short on wit. And some of the very short scenes could probably be compressed so that there are fewer blackouts for chairs and tables to be rearranged. Indeed, it might work better with no blackouts and no set at all. The faster this goes, the better it plays.

Co-author Stich, who doubles as director, and other members of the local improv group Something Dada throw themselves into this material with gusto. Barb Dragony has fun with her role as the foster mom of the hairy infant, and Beth Gaiser as down home Stella and Ronnie Thompson as the uptight Pastor add some laughs.

If you’re into fast-paced silliness and crypto-zoology, this is the show for you.

The Bigfoot Letters
Through September 24 at Blank Canvas Theatre, at the West 78th Street Studios, 440-941-045.





PREVIEW: ROCK ON, 1937-STYLE...THE MUSICAL THEATER PROJECT PRESENTS THE CRADLE WILL ROCK

It was written by Marc Blitzstein, directed by Orson Welles, produced by John Houseman, and at the opening night preview it was censored by the government. The doors of the theater were padlocked by the WPA. The reason? Most guessed it was because the play was too radical, calling for everyone to join a union.

But that didn’t stop the production. The audience was invited to walk 21 blocks to a different theater, where the full show was performed, memorably, by the actors who sat in the audience with the patrons.

In short, this is the play that rocked the theater (and political) world back then. And The Musical Theater Project (TMTP) is performing two in-concert presentations of The Cradle Will Rock on September 21 in Lakewood and on September 25 at Kent State University. This is an outstanding opportunity to see a bit of theater history and marvel at how the sentiments and passions of that play resonate today. Today, many conservative politicians are eager to kill off unions, just as some were doing 80 years ago.

The production will be directed by Terri Kent, theater professor at Kent State, and includes a brief multimedia presentation prior to the show itself. The event will feature performer Joe Monaghan and members of the Kent State University Musical Theatre Program, under the musical direction of Nancy Maier. It will be hosted and narrated by Bill Rudman, founder and artistic director of TMTP.

As New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson said of the original production: “It raises a theatergoer’s metabolism and blows him out of the theater on the thunder of the grand finale.”

The Cradle Will Rock
Produced by The Musical Theater Project
September 21 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue.  Call 216-245-8687 or visit MusicalTheaterProject.org.
September 25, Kent State University. Call 330-672-2787 or visit kent.edu/theatredance.