Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Alabama Story, Ensemble Theatre

Perhaps our country will be saved by bunnies.

A few months ago, John Oliver on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” brought out an adorable children’s book that promoted good things such as love and acceptance. It was titled “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo,” and was a send-up of another bunny book, “A Day in the Life of the Vice President,” written by Mike Pence’s daughter Charlotte.

In that first book the real-life pet of the Pence family, Marlon Bundo, is the star as he follows daddy Pence around the White House. In the second book, Marlon is re-imagined as a gay bunny that falls for the dashing bunny-stud Wesley. This jab at VP Pence’s anti-LGBTQ stances has been very successful, outselling the original Bundo book by miles.

But these weren’t the first bunnies to be involved in political dust-ups. Back in 1958, illustrator Garth Williams wrote “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” a charming little kids’ tome about a love affair and marriage of a black male bunny and a white female bunny. Within a year, it became a huge point of controversy with Alabama State Senator Edward Eddins claiming the book was promoting interracial relations.

And that brings us to the current play at Ensemble Theatre, Alabama Story, in which playwright Kenneth Jones relates the real-life controversy through the eyes of chief librarian for the State, Emily Reed. In this telling, Reed locks horns with a Senator Higgins, while a secondary story involving a young white woman, Lily, and her black pal Josh from years ago plays out simultaneously.

In all, this is an admirable and well-intentioned effort. But the script by Jones, while sweet and compassionate, is often far too instructive and didactic. It also gets tangled up in unnecessary factoids about Reed’s life and career, unable to shake off the urge to share all the jots and tittles of his Wikipedia research.

This problem is not helped by the production, under the direction of Tyler Whidden, that can’t decide what acting style is appropriate. As Reed, Anne McEvoy gives a solid and sensible portrayal of a woman fighting for literary freedom. And she is nicely matched by Cody Kilpatrick Steele who plays her faithful assistant Thomas Franklin.

Things go downhill from there. The side story of Lily and Josh is meant to provide a human face to the issues of integration and intermarriage. But Adrienne Jones and Eugene Sumlin never crack the code on this section of the play, floundering in a haze of interpersonal discomfort that doesn’t feel intentional.

But there are other characters that fare even worse under Whidden’s supervision. As the Senator, here renamed Higgins, the fine actor Joseph Milan portrays the southern lawmaker as a cross between Gov. George Wallace and Foghorn Leghorn. It is a burlesque interpretation that doesn’t match the other performances in style.

The most egregious overacting is turned in by Craig Joseph, who plays the author/illustrator Williams in addition to other characters. For some reason, director Whidden allows Joseph to turn what should be a sly, rueful speech by Williams into a fulsome, spittle-spewing rant. And some of his other small characters—an overly crippled State representative, in particular—are too showy to merge easily with the others.

So it would be a good idea to vote for library tax levies and to read “The Rabbits’ Wedding” to your little ones (it’s still in print), as well as the endearing “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo.” But you may find “A Day in the Life of the Vice President” and this Ensemble Theatre production a tad less satisfying.

Alabama Story
Through September 30 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Don Quijote, New World Performance Lab

There are many ways to tell a story, ways that extend far beyond the usual scripted dialogue and blocking that you find in most theaters.

For the past 25 years, the folks at the New World Performance Lab have been exploring those off-the-beaten-path ways of storytelling. And now, in their production of Don Quijote, many of those pathways are on full and delightful display.

This is a bilingual adaptation based on a version by Patricia Suarez, but the stories are easy to follow for anyone willing to plug into their childlike spirit and experience a visceral performance that is both engrossing and amusing. The story of Don Quixote (our English spelling) is familiar to most of us, thanks to The Man of La Mancha and many other renditions. Those stories have inspired many of us to tilt at our own personal windmills from time to time, even though failure was almost assured.

The things that draw us to this story of the “knight of the woeful countenance,” the man with a pure heart and an indomitable spirit, are energetically portrayed on NWPL’s arena stage, occupied by six talented performers and one guitarist (Adam Keeler). As the director James Slowiak states in his program notes, it is a story of theater and lunacy, of clowns and caballeros, of life and death.

The different stages of DQ’s story unfold at a brisk pace, with the actors only a couple feet away from the audience. And all the emotions are worn on everyone’s sleeves—the boundless joy when Don connects with people, the sadness when they remove Don’s books in order to make him “sane,” and the victory he achieves even in death.

The cast is led by Jairo Cuesta in the title role, and he has a magnetic presence on stage, making even the smallest poses and gestures feel suffused with meaning. As he proceeds on his adventures, he is accompanied by the other performers who employ dance, song, mime, masks, and fart jokes. Plus, there’s a rolling platform with shelves that carries colorful costumes (designed by Inda Blatch-Geib and Dred Geib) and props that are employed at a moment’s notice.

Members of the ensemble include Jamie Hale as Don’s faithful sidekick Sancho Panze, and Justin Hale as several riveting characters including Death. Debora Totti is concise and specific in all her character iterations, including a most demonstrative monkey.  Also on the animal front, Chris Buck fashions a quite believable horse, without any exotic WarHorse-style accoutrements, while Rosilyn Jentner contributes a number of other compelling characters.

In short, this 90-minute production, which is an encore presentation by the NWPL, demonstrates flashes of multiple theatrical traditions, living up to the Lab part of their name. But this is a Lab that you’ll be happy to spend some time in, accompanied by original Spanish songs arranged for guitar by James Marron.

So if you’re a Clevelander who doesn’t stray far from the home turf when considering a night out, give your GPS a new challenge and take a seat in the Lab. It may help you make your own kind of discovery.

Don Quijote
Through September 29, produced by the New World Performance Lab at the Balch Street Theater, 220 South Balch Street, Akron, 44302, nwplab.com, 330-867-3299.



Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Little Night Music, Lakeland Civic Theatre

“Musicals continue to be the only art form, popular or otherwise, that is publicly criticized by illiterates.” That comment by composer Stephen Sondheim certainly hits close to home, however I’m forced to agree with him. Most theater critics, myself included, don’t have the musical training to be qualified to render fully informed judgment on these works.

And yet, here we are. Fortunately for me, ever since I began reviewing shows about 20 years ago, Martin Friedman has been directing musicals at Lakeland Civic Theatre. And that has made my job both more enjoyable and easier, since his unabashed love for the “art form” and his scrupulous attention to detail in rendering Sondheim’s glorious ouvre, often carries the day.

This is happily the case with Lakeland’s current production of A Little Nigh Music, the elegant and droll musical with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, this show is the rare example of a Sondheim show with a happy ending.

From the vocal overture sung by a five-person chorus to that rom-com conclusion, this production directed by Friedman (his 50th at this theater!) is a nearly constant delight. Without going into details over which I have no firm grasp, suffice to say that Sondheim’s waltz-inspired music is an auditory feast. And thanks to Jonathan Cooper’s sensitive musical direction, the dozen musicians in the orchestra perform most admirably.

For a show about love and flirtation at the turn of the 20th century in Sweden, Night Music feels remarkably contemporary and witty. As the characters jockey for position emotionally, and frequently amusingly, the music envelops their efforts in a cloud of effortless pleasure.

Friedman has assembled a most talented cast for this second staging of ALNM during his tenure. As Fredrik, the middle-age man who is married to the jejune 18-year-old virgin Anne, Rob Albrecht is a bundle of confusion as he tries to plan an amorous foray with the youngster by reading something to her (“De Maupassant’s candor/Would cause her dismay/The Brontes are grander/ But not very gay/Her taste is much blander/I’m sorry to say/But is Hans Christian Andersen/Ever risqué?”)

Anne is, as promised, a gaggle of squeals and giggles, and Sarah Clare is both charming and irritating, as she should be. Meanwhile, Fredrik’s intense son Henrik (an excellent Eric Fancher) is longing for Anne and waiting agonizingly for his life to begin.

Much of the drama swirls around Desiree Armfeldt, a renowned actress and Fredrik’s former lover. Trinidad Snider has a deft touch with this woman whose sardonic take on life eventually results in the hit song, “Send in the Clowns.” Snider makes that familiar tune ache with longing, eschewing the drier and more world weary tone that most singers employ.

Adding immensely to the enjoyment are Ian Atwood as the pompous Count Carl-Magnus, Neely Gevaart as his ever-snarky wife Charlotte, and Mim Goloboff in the role of Desiree’s mother Madame Armfeldt, the matriarch of her family who is also possessed of a sharp tongue.

A Little Night Music is a richly satisfying production, and a fitting marker of Friedman’s ever-building legacy at Lakeland. May the music play on, for us illiterates and others, for a long time.

A Little Night Music
Through September 30 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Dr., Kirtland, 440-525-7134, lakelandcc.edu.


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Jane Eyre, Cleveland Musical Theatre

When is a work of art just the right size? That is a question that comes to mind when watching the remarkable production of Jane Eyre, the musical with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and book, with additional lyrics, by John Caird.

This production is billed as a “world premiere revised version” since it has taken the sizable show that opened on Broadway in 2000 and cut the cast and orchestra rather significantly. What we have now are ten performers, seven of whom portray multiple characters. The cast is a mix of Broadway and local Cleveland actors, and they acquit themselves splendidly in this tale of the young woman from the eponymous Charlotte Bronte novel.

The goal of the producers is to craft a show that is a manageable size, a chamber version that could more easily be attempted by small to medium-sized theater companies. That goal would appear to have been attained, since the play is a fast-moving affair thanks to the lean and inventive direction by Miles Sternfeld.

Still, the original novel presents challenges aplenty since it covers many years but not a lot of visible action. Poor Jane makes her way from one miserable situation to another while she burns, internally, for freedom from the stultifying confines of being female in 19th century England. Since most of Bronte’s most glorious work happens inside Jane’s head, it doesn’t afford opportunities for brash and bold staging.

Sternfeld and the creators amp up the wattage by having the ensemble of actors share the narration which came originally from Jane herself. And thanks to the near-constant stylized movement fashioned by choreographer Martin Cespedes, there is a sense of things happening all the time when in reality it’s pretty static.

The play is blessed with two immensely strong performers in the leads. In the title role, Andrea Goss cranks a powerful voice from her small frame, and while she isn’t as homely as Jane Eyre was said to be, one feels her vulnerability as she tries to forge a life for herself against all odds. As the wealthy Edward Rochester, Matt Bogart invests each of his songs with rich nuance that sometimes isn’t present in the words and notes.

About the music: While the show isn’t sung-through, it is often in recitative mode, and this can become a bit repetitive at times as it follows the dips and swells of a composition that, while beautiful, eventually becomes overly familiar. This situation improves in Act Two when some more distinctive songs—a humorous turn in “The Gypsy” and the equally diverting “Slip of a Girl”—drop in to break the pace.

The supporting cast does yeoman work with multiple roles as Alison England, Laura Perrotta and Gregory Violand change characters with swift assuredness. The outstandingly talented group also includes Fabio Polanco, Cody Gerszewski, Lauryn Hobbs, Emma McLelland, and Genny Lis Padilla.

What works particularly well in this production is the highly coordinated ensemble movement that often end in a variety of tableaux with well-honed body lines or gestures that convey the mood of the moment. It is fascinating to watch.

What works less well is the music when it settles into its comfortable groove and doesn’t seek out surprising new avenues to pursue. This is particularly noticeable in the three duets featuring Jane and Rochester that, while sung skillfully and with passion, never rise musically to the distinctive level one might desire. When you find yourself paying more attention to the vocal craftsmanship rather than the soaring emotion, there’s a problem.

The missing element, it seems, is some way to dramatize Jane’s inner conflict and burning desire for personal liberty while staying true to the period. Once that is in place, the mundane geography of Jane’s journey can become a battlefield (#MeTooJane), and the play will truly take flight.

“Jane Eyre” is a romance tucked inside a not-so-quiet feminist screed, down to the well-known crazy woman in the attic. Back then, the words had to be softer and the attacks more oblique back when Bronte wrote them. But this production shows a clear path to making Jane Eyre, the new revised musical version, an outstanding theatrical experience for years to come.

Jane Eyre

Through September 9, produced by the Cleveland Musical Theatre in association with Cuyahoga Community College East, Simon Rose Mandel Theatre, 4250 Richmond Road, Highland Hills, 216-584-6808, Clevelandmusicaltheatre.org.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Bloomsday, None Too Fragile Theater

Oh, if we could only talk to our younger selves and give them advice on how to handle their affairs, romantic and otherwise. How wonderful our lives might have turned out!

Every life is full of lots of things, but it’s usually regret that leads the way. What if I hadn’t decided to be a proctologist? What if I had bought Google stock the first week it was available? And, of course, what if I had hooked up more meaningfully with that person I found so damned attractive when I was in my twenties?

Those “what ifs” have been powerful fodder for all kinds of stories, movies and plays for eons. And so it is in the inventive Bloomsday by Steven Dietz, now at None Too Fragile Theater. One couple’s story is spun around and through the warp and weft of the dense novel Ulysses by James Joyce. And just as in the novel, chronological time is considered merely a playground where a person can conduct conversations with himself, herself, and others at any time in their history.

In less skillful hands, this premise could become grindingly precious, but Dietz is a deft wordsmith and his dialogue is immediately accessible (unlike many of Joyce’s convoluted phrasings) and quite pleasing. And the cast, under the well-tuned direction of Katia Schwarz, fashions a lovely, wistful “what might have been” romance.

It begins with the 50-something Robert looking at Cathleen when she was 20, leading a tour through Dublin on Bloomsday, the day when Joyce freaks dress up in period costume as characters from his enormous tome. It’s named after Leopold Bloom, one of the story’s protagonists who rides a stream-of-consciousness wave on a single day in Dublin.

Robert is a professor who teaches Ulysses, reluctantly, since he considers it a mountain of over-praised drivel. But once he spies young Cathleen, standing a few feet away just as she was when he was also young, he is mesmerized. And so are we, as Robert and Cathleen begin to communicate: He speaks ruefully, knowing how things eventually turned out; she chats innocently, in the glow of her ignorance of the future.

As Robert notes, the words in Ulysses are meant for the ear rather than the eye. Joyce’s interminable sentences, often connected nonsensically by colons, are feasts of words that are both fulsome and fucking impenetrable. Happily, Dietz’s take on all that goes down much easier.

This game of hide and seek is played across two acts, and it maintains its hold thanks to some wonderful performances. As Robert, Tom Woodward is amusing and as he registers his distaste for Joyce’s masterwork (he refers to the opus as a “debauchery of run-on sentences”). But his deep fondness for Cathleen shines through that cynicism, and you ache for the longing he feels when he met that girl on that one, singular day.

As young Cathleen, Brooke Turner finds the core of her character’s naïve essence and turns it into irresistible charm. Particularly in the second act, Turner’s delightful reactions to young Robert (who at that time was known as Robbie) and his descriptions of his car are properly giddy.

The older version of Cathleen, called Cait, is played by Derdriu Ring with the dry snap and sass that comes with old older age. Her well-earned cynicism about relationships comports fittingly with Robert’s dark view of Ulysses in particular and life in general.

What works especially well in this production is the way Turner and Ring find a way to match their portrayals, so that we totally believe that each are different versions of the same person. Those differences are stark, and yet the actors create so many attitudinal and postural through-lines that it seems perfectly believable that they share identical DNA.

The fourth character in the play is Robbie, Robert’s younger self, and Nicholas Chokan has some effective moments with this somewhat under-written role. He is properly awkward and at a loss, when dealing with Cathleen, and that feels real.

But Chokan never quite  captures the younger version of Robert—the body energy and sly wit—as crafted by Woodward. This is apparent in Act Two when Robbie clearly falls ass-over-teacup for Cathleen. That is the time when we yearn to see how budding love is transporting Robbie in ways that will inform and haunt his future years. But Chokan plays Robbie’s stiff cluelessness a bit too long, and the love connection never feels fully sealed.

Still, director Schwarz makes most of the scenes work with precision and deep empathy. This is particularly true at the end when Robert and Cait, dressed in turn of the 20th century garb, share a table as strangers while their more passionate younger selves cavort in the background. It is a fitting tableau that ends this play on precisely the right note. It indicates that our lives are often ruled by choices that we might have made differently, if only we could see the results of our decisions without that persistent bugaboo of time getting in the way.

Bloomsday
Through September 1 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com.





Wednesday, August 1, 2018

All’s Well That Ends Well, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

The ending of All’s Well That Ends Well, now being produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, has been charitably called problematic by many through the years. This play, often cited as one of Shakesp[eare’s “problem plays,” concludes with an ending that works only if you suspend everything you know about human nature.

But setting that aside, there’s a bigger issue afoot here involving the OSF approach to staging plays, which goes beyond whether this “comedy” about deceit and self-deception actually works. For 17 years Ohio Shakes has been in summer residence on the grounds of Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens. And the co-artistic directors Terry Burgler and Nancy Cates have taken care to present Shakespeare plays in a specific manner: Always in period costume and always performed in a highly accessible way.

Combine that approach with the lovely outdoor setting, and you had a sure thing for anyone who loves the glorious words spun by Old Will. But in recent years, there’s been a shift away from the characters at OSF productions and towards acting shtick that is guaranteed to get a rise from the audience, the script be damned. The delicate balance that once kept acting gimmicks under control now seems to have been removed, while Shakespeare’s words are often spouted in a rush.

This is keenly disappointing to those of us who loved how director Burgler, in the past, would help shape and contour the speeches so that virtually every moment was clear and definitive. Now, it seems that those words are only filler until we get to the next comedy routine faintly disguised as a character.

In this production, we see the return of Ernie Gonzalez as Lavache, a clown who often comments on the action. Gonzalez, who now lives in Los Angeles, is a gifted comedian who knows how to elicit laughs from an audience with his sly triple-takes and adorable mannerisms. Trouble is, the play virtually stops while he’s doing his bits. Most of the audience couldn’t care less, but when the balance between his cute riffs and the play itself tilts off-center, the play suffers.

Similar distractions are provided by another enormously talented performer in the company, Ryan Zarecki, who plays the cowardly Parolles in All’s Well. In recent productions, Zarecki usually plays Zarecki, and he does it brilliantly. Again, the audience loves him. But he bypasses many character markers in his effort to be endearing and lovable on stage, and once again that works to the ultimate detriment of the play itself.

There are other OSF actors who are doing their character work diligently in this piece. But Geoff Knox as the Lord Lafeu, Tess Burgler as Helena, and Trevor Buda as Bertram—among others—can’t compete with the “Laugh-In” style comedy fostered by Gonzalez and Zarecki.

As a result, All’s Well doesn’t end, or begin, particularly well. One hopes OSF decides to return to their former glory, when characters ruled, long speeches were journeys of discovery and not interminable strings of sounds, and the shtick was added as an accent to the dish, not the dish itself.

All’s Well That Ends Well
Through August 5 at Ohio Shakespeare Festival, Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 100 S. High St., Akron, 888-718-4253, ohioshakespearefestival.com.





Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Mercury Theatre Company

When it comes to musicals that ought to be re-imagined, there are few better choices than Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. This warhorse created by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) has been a constant presence in the theater community for 50 years. Thanks to countless productions at various schools and community theaters, the story of Joseph from the Bible is as familiar to most of us now as one of Grimm’s fairy tales.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. While familiarity with a show such as Joseph may not breed contempt, it does encourage a certain level of skepticism, since the focus is on the particular production in front of us.

In this case, the talented director Pierre-Jacques Brault has attempted a reworking of Joe and his Book of Genesis pals, setting them in 1930’s Hollywood and telling the story of a guy who’s out to bring color and flash to the black and white cinema world. This involves bringing in a variety of performers from that era including W.C. Fields, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and etc.

Of course, once you take that step you have to deliver on those goods, and this is where Mercury’s Joseph falls short. In theory, it would be fun to have those old-time movie stalwarts chiming in to tell this yarn which is originally about a young man who is rejected by his brothers and enslaved in another country before his triumphant return.

But that would require some spot-on impersonations to make sure we know who we’re looking at. Unfortunately, you’d have to put the character names on the back of their costumes to identify most of them. Indeed, the Marx Brothers almost sneak past unnoticed, which is damn near impossible, since the performers playing them, and all the others, never succeed in achieving anything close ro impersonation.

Since the program doesn't connect any of the actors to the roles they play—except for Brandon Schumacker who plays Joseph, and quite well at that—it’s impossible to give those folks the, um, credit they deserve. But it may not be their fault, since Mercury is producing this show in rep with Caroline, or Change, which opens in just a few days. Those are two huge shows and some acting niceties might be suffering due to the time demands on Brault and others.

In another change the starring role of the Narrator, often sung by a woman, has been dispersed among a dozen actors. This deprives the play of its central, unifying storytelling structure and will confuse those, especially younger audience members, who haven’t seen the show repeatedly over the years.

That said, the music of Joseph is as entertaining as ever, featuring songs that swing from a comically morose French ballad to country-western and many other genres. And the cast delivers the songs with reasonable flair and polish, thanks to Eddie Carney’s musical direction. Plus, Brault’s choreography adds flashes of fun.

But when you’re going high-concept with a production, it’s best to make sure you have the time and the acting resources to nail the reinterpretation. From that perspective this Joseph, in 1930s parlance, is a broken-down flivver.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Through August 12 produced by the Mercury Theatre Company, Notre Dame College, Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatrecompany.org.