Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Panther Dancer, Playwrights Local

(From left: Andrea Belser and Corin B. Self)

A show about the Jackson Five? That isn’t a jukebox musical? And that’s funny? How can you miss?

Those questions and more are answered in The Panther Dancer, written by Logan Cutler Smith and being produced by Playwrights Local till the end of this week. As directed by Jimmie Woody, it’s a wild rush of mini-scenes, sort of in the style of the vaudeville play-turned-movie Hellzapoppin’, relying on a frenetic pace and constant role-switches to feed the entertainment value.

The story, of course, centers on The Gloved One, Michael Jackson, as we see his pathway from the youngest member of his family’s singing group to the King of Pop. The basics of that story are known to most of us, and the show feeds of that familiarity with inside jokes that long ago came outside. These include the terrible, bullying nature of father Joe Jackson and some of the particulars regarding Michael’s siblings.

This work, that had its first exposure at the NEOMFA Playwrights Festival at Convergence Continuum Theater, has a number of witty lines. But over the course of two hours, the jokes fall into similar patterns and become predicable and eventually tiresome. And the playwright spends too much time exploring small facets of the MJ story that will seem arcane and off-point to most observers.

Of course, there are more “celebrities” in this show than in the “We Are the World” video, along with movers and shakers such as Berry Gordy of Motown, Michael’s lawyers, and pretty much anyone else who came within an arms length of the Jackson clan.

Director Woody employs his substantial skills in staging the piece so that those flaws don’t drag everything down. And he’s partially successful, thanks to some yeoman work by the cast. Andrea Belser is a standout, both as Michael Jackson and as the moody, purple-robed Prince and Robert Branch lends his quirky take to many different characters. Corin B. Self, when portraying daddy Joe, is truly fearsome, and Anthony Velez is a whirling fount of dancing energy when he mimics Jackson’s famous panther dancer video. Although she doesn’t quite dazzle like the others, Kim Simbeck often plays the necessary straight man to the frantic activities of the others.

Trouble is, the script is an overly detailed chronology of Michael Jackson’s stormy life, and it has no point of view. It swings wildly from poking fun at “Wacko Jacko” to weeping over his demise at age 50.

Instead of a two-hour show with one intermission, this play cries out to be a 75-minute nonstop race to the finish that would make The Complete Works of William Shakespeare look like a particularly slow-moving episode of Murder She Wrote. Now that would be a thriller.

The Panther Dancer
Through May 26, produced by Playwrights Local, the Creative Space at Waterloo Arts, 397 E. 156 St., 216-302-8856, playwrightslocal.org.


Friday, May 18, 2018

Passing Strange, Karamu House

(From left: Justin C. Woody, CorLesia Smith and Joshua McElroy)

In this musical the coming-of-age story is oh-so familiar and there are so many excesses it would take five columns to list them all, There is no scenic design to speak of. And often, the narrative arc of the storyline is muddled beyond comprehension. And to top it off the music, which weaves itself intricately into the dialogue, is frequently challenging.

And yet, this is the most exciting show on any stage right now, and maybe the most involving one that has appeared in some time. You will be a poorer person if you don’t find a way to see it before it closes on June 3.

It’s Passing Strange at Karamu House, featuring music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, with book and lyrics by Stew.  Jammed with full-tilt energy and invention, the rock musical “goes there” in virtually every scene and every moment, and it’s a freaking rush.

In this autobiographical journey of Stew’s we follow the Youth, a young African-American man and music-maker who starts off by barely tolerating his mothers’ church in south central Los Angeles. After reaching an epiphany of sorts by smoking week with the pastor’s son, the Youth decides to find himself and “the real” by going on a drug and sex tour of Europe.

Segueing from hash to acid and from punk rock to psychedelic, the Youth spend his youth on a search for himself. Meanwhile, his mother pines for him back home, connecting with him intermittently over the phone.

If this all sounds like a tired old story format to you, the presentation is anything but tired. Right from the start, when the Youth’s mom switches back and forth from a cartoonish black woman dialect to a more nuanced voice, you know you’re in for something different.

In the demanding role of the Youth, Justin C. Woody sings with both poignancy and passion, and he keeps the whole enterprise humming with his infectious energy. As the Youth travels from Amsterdam to Berlin, Woody conveys his character’s wide-eyed innocence and desperate desire to find, you know, something.

He is well matched by Darius J. Stubbs, who plays and sings the narrator as the older and more temperate man who was the Youth. But Stubbs is also capable of kicking out the jams, as he does in the rock anthem “Work the Wound.”

Those performers are supported in glorious style by Treva Offutt, who is hilarious and touching as the Mother. And the four-person chorus—Carlos Antonio Cruz, Joshua McElroy, Mary-Frances Miller and CorLesia Smith—each add stellar cameo characterizations that are so sharp you could cut yourself if you’re not careful. Specifically, keep an eye out for Cruz’s decadent-to-the-max Mr. Venus, Smith’s insightful Desi, Miller’s spot-on punk rocker Sudebey, and McElroy’s vulnerable Terry.

The entire cast handles the singing with aplomb, backed by the fine vocalist Chantrell Lewis and a four-person, kickass band led by Ed Ridley, Jr. Director Nathan A. Lilly has taken this material, which is surprisingly witty and wise (as one character says, “Life is a mistake that only art can correct.”), and ignited his cast so they inhabit a galaxy of characters with different accents and attitudes.

Passing Strange covers a lot of years, a lot of miles, and many musical genres. And the 2½ hour show doesn’t have a single boring minute in it. Anywhere. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss any of those minutes.

Passing Strange
Through June 3 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89 St., 216-795-7070, karamuhouse.org.


Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Beehive, The 60s Musical, Great Lakes Theatre

There’s a reason why booking agents don’t create some of the best stage musicals. It’s because…they’re booking agents. In defiance of that logic, Great Lakes Theater has decided to grace their stage with a musical created by booking agent Larry Gallagher, and it lives up to what you might expect from a guy who spends his days arranging tours and planning events for his clients.

Titled Beehive, the 60s musical, the show is a chronological tour of music from the 60’s as recorded by women—singles and groups. With all the creativity it takes to buy the rights of other people’s songs, and then add snippets of flimsy connecting narration that probably took all of two hours (including lunch) to write, the show is a lazy pastiche that would get shrugged off as lame entertainment on most discount cruise ships.

But here it is, at the prestigious Great Lakes Theater, featuring a cast of young performers from Baldwin Wallace University under the guidance of BW faculty members Victoria Bussert (director) and Gregg Daniels (choreographer). And it all couldn’t go much farther wrong than it does.

In the first short (45 minute) act, the girls croon tunes from the early 60s about heartbreak and such. And while it isn’t offensive, there’s little to recommend it. The cast—Adrianna Cleveland, Annalise Griswold, Shelby Griswold, Christiana Perrault, Camille Robinson, Hannah-Jo Weisberg—all sing acceptably well. Each of the performers is given character names for no apparent reason, since we learn virtually nothing about these “characters.”

It’s all about the songs, which are staged by Bussert and Daniels with little imagination on the almost bare stage, backed by some less-than-dynamic backlit panels that—wait for it—sometimes change colors! The women go through their 60s paces, from “It’s My Party” to “My Boyfriend’s Back,” lining up this way and that, swinging their arms languorously and throwing in some hip rolls for good measure.  In short, it ain’t exactly galvanizing. And in a show desperate for some eye candy, costume designer Esther M. Haberlen’s soft pastel, below-the knee dresses are changed midway through the act for…almost identical soft pastel dresses.

After an extended and unnecessary intermission, in a futile attempt to give the brief play the time-span heft of a more fulsome production, the women reappear in snappier outfits representing the end of the miniskirt 60s. In this even shorter 25-minute act, the performers are called upon to impersonate some famous singers of the time. Robinson, Perrault and Cleveland do pretty well with this as Tina Turner and others.

But it all comes apart during an extended feature segment when Shelby Griswold is called upon to impersonate Janis Joplin. Eschewing the soulful gravel of Joplin’s voice for loud volume, Griswold shreds the magic that Joplin created on stage. And wearing a faux tie-died pants suit from Marshall's while sucking from a bottle of Southern Comfort doesn’t make it right.

If you can’t do a kickass Joplin impression (which was done in this Hanna Theatre building more than ten years ago by the remarkable Katrina Chester and later by the exceptional Mary Bridget Davies starring in Love, Janis), then don’t make it a spotlight segment. Just sing the songs Gallagher stapled together and be done with it.

As talented as the kids from BW can be, you’d think GLT could find some quirky end-of-the-season show that could employ their stable of talented and experienced professional actors.  That would be a treat. And we could let Larry Gallagher get back to setting up banjo act gigs in Altoona.

Beehive, the 60s musical
Through May 20 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14 St., 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

My First Time, Beck Center

To call My First Time a half-hearted attempt at theater is to insult all the half-hearted theatrical ventures that actually have a good (if partial) heart at the core.

My First Time is actually a cynical, slapdash attempt to profit off of people’s understandable interest in sex. And it appears to be working, at some level, for creator Ken Davenport’s checkbook.

Warning: You won’t get a boner, theatrical or otherwise, from watching this fragmented, fractured exercise in terminal tedium.

Why? Well, there’s a reason you don’t collect random thoughts from people on the Internet, glom them together, and call them a play.

My First Time is 80 minutes long, which is easily 72 minutes longer than it should be.

It’s about the first sexual experiences of people.

There’s nothing new, and nothing even vaguely interesting, here.

It’s all expressed by four actors playing way too many “characters.” They spout the words from a website where all these comments were collected starting in1998.

In isolated thoughts.

Repeatedly and often in single words.

Awful.

The experience manages to be banal, weirdly clinical and depressing at the same time.

Everyone who has had a first sexual experience is represented—even for a nanosecond—including heterosexuals, gays, the disabled, those who were sexually abused, and 42-year-old virgins.

Well, not everyone. There are no S&Mers, no furries.

Sound sexy?

It’s not. It’s about as sexy as watching four people masturbate, separately, for 80 minutes and then never climax.

How is the acting? Lost in a welter of coy glances, cooing and sly looks. (Did I mention they’re talking about sex? Tee-hee.) One hopes these four people—Heidi Harris, Miguel Osbourne, Chris Richards, Victoria Zajac—are being well paid.

How is the direction? Aimless, by Scott Spence. Four actors, four stools, lots of words on a screen above. Not his fault: What can you do with a script from hell? His fault: He picked the script.

Audience participation? Sure, if you fill out a card. Some of those are read during the show. Don’t get your hopes up.

Is there one moment of real human connection in the entire show? Ummm…let me think…uhhh…no.

If you remember your “first time” as a sticky, embarrassing and unsatisfying mess, this play comes close to recreating that feeling.

Without, you know, the good part.

My First Time
Through April 29 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org.


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Sweeney Todd, Blank Canvas Theatre

(Photo credit: Andy Dudik)

In most cases when you go see a big Broadway musical you’re held at arm’s length from the large stage, admiring the cast from afar. And that’s just fine. But if you’ve ever wondered how it feels to be up close and personal with the performers who are belting out show tunes from a big and ballsy musical, shuffle on over to Blank Canvas Theatre.

Thanks to the chutzpah of artistic director Patrick Ciamacco, BCT is willing to mount damn near any musical on their postage stamp-sized stage. And even when it feels like numerous cast members are squeezed into the playing area like a hockey team in full gear jammed into a used Yugo, there’s still an aura of excitement generated by having the singers literally an arm’s length away.

At times, such as in BCT’s recent production of Cabaret, everything works almost to perfection. Then there are other times when the result is a bit mixed, such as in the current production of Sweeney Todd. This dark musical about the demon barber of Fleet Street in London, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, usually needs a certain amount of physical expanse to let its songs and blood lust flow with full freedom.

Director Jonathan Kronenberger and the uncredited scenic designer have found ways to stage all the various elements of this show. This includes the infamous Barber Chair of Doom that ushers unsuspecting haircut customers into eternity as fillings for the rancid meat pies of Mrs. Lovett, one floor below. And when there are only a couple actors on stage at a given time, the scenes play out with extraordinary power. But when a chorus number is called for, there’s apparently no choreographer on hand to serve as traffic cop.

That said, there are splendid voices and performances in the mix in this Sweeney. In the two lead roles, Ciamacco and Trinidad Snider mesh nicely as the sociopathic duo, even though their accents (hers British, his not) don’t quite comport. But they join forces to cut a brutal swath through London gents desiring a bit of pomade in their hair.

Ciamacco conveys the hate boiling in Sweeney Todd, generated by the venal Judge Turpin (Brian Altman) who packed Todd off to jail so the judge could boff Sweeney’s wife. Snider uses her strong pipes and slightly goofy presence to offer a fresh counterpoint to Ciamacco’s intensity, bringing a charming psychopathy to Mrs. Lovett and her pastries from hell.

They are supported well, notably by Meg Martinez and Robert Kowalewski who play the love-smitten Johanna (Sweeney’s daughter) and Anthony Hope, who rescued Sweeney at sea. Their voices elevate their songs, as do John Webb’s renditions as the Beadle and Devin Pfeiffer’s as Tobias Ragg. And Ian Jones steps in with a hilarious turn as a competitive barber Pirelli, whose secret identity leads to his demise. In the small but choice role of the Beggar Woman (who also has a secret identity), Kristy Cruz dials up the weird way past 11 and loses the character’s full dimension.

As difficult as Sondheim can be to sing, these folks do all the songs justice, helped immeasurably by the nine-person band under the direction of Matthew Dolan. And even when the action on the tiny stage has all the elegance of 17 cats fighting in a sack, this Sweeney Todd is pungent enough to keep you involved and even moved.

Sweeney Todd
Through March 10 at Blank Canvas Theatre, West 78 Street Studios, 1300 W. 78 St., 440-941-0458, blankcanvastheatre.com.





Wednesday, February 21, 2018

PREVIEW: ONE AFTERNOON, TWO CAREERS, AND PLENTY OF MUSIC

The musicals of Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford will be celebrated at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

“We’ve never done this before, so I think it will be quite special.” Composer Nancy Ford is speaking about an intimate performance she and her longtime songwriting partner, lyricist Gretchen Cryer, will be experiencing in Cleveland.

And the fact that this is something new for them is also something remarkable, because these two women, who were the first female writing team to be produced in New York City, have certainly experienced a lot. They’ve written more than seven full-length musicals together, and they’ve garnered multiple awards because their music has proven to be both richly entertaining and topically groundbreaking.

On Sunday, March 11, this dynamic duo will join forces with The Musical Theater Project to present Old Friends: An Afternoon with Cryer and Ford. They will be joined on the stage of Mixon Hall at the Cleveland Institute of Music by producer and host Bill Rudman and singers Katherine DeBoer and Eric Fancher, under the musical direction of TMTP stalwart Nancy Maier.

Cryer and Ford (as they are known) are perhaps best known for their 1978 musical I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, which featured the tender and poignant song “Old Friends.” The show was originally produced by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival.

As Nancy Ford says, “Taking It on the Road has always been seen as an early feminist musical, since it focuses on one woman performer’s decision to focus her songs on the subject of women’s emancipation. At the time, Gretchen and I didn’t view it as feminist. It was just trying to speak truthfully about the relationships between men and women.”

The songs from that show, and all the others, have continued to resonate with women and men over the decades. And in this concert at CIM, songs from all their musicals will be performed—including pieces from the innovative The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, the anti-war musical Now Is the Time for All Good Men, and Shelter—a musical that played on Broadway in 1973 and dealt with the unhealthy obsession people have with their computers. How’s that for predicting the future?

In addition to those shows, the concert on March 11 will also include songs Cryer and Ford wrote years ago for the American Girl stores. At that time, they wrote “family musicals” to be performed in those doll stores, based on the historical American Girl doll characters. Ford notes, “That experience led Gretchen and I to write the musical Anne of Green Gables, which has toured many schools and is still available.”

It’s been an amazing career for Ford as well as Cryer, who has also written the books for all their musicals and whose son, John Cryer, is well-known as a movie and TV actor, garnering two Emmy Awards for his role in Two and a Half Men.

As Ford says, “Gretchen and I were actually a little surprised we got as many shows produced, back in the 1970s and 80s, as we did. Then it got a bit harder as the years went by.” But that body of work deserves a celebration, and the festivities will happen soon, right here in Cleveland.

Nancy Ford and Gretchen Cryer will also attend a VIP Meet & Greet at Nighttown on Friday night, March 9th. It's a $75 reception that includes a ticket for Sunday's concert, and the songwriting team will be there for some Q&A and to sing a couple of songs in a more intimate setting.

Old Friends: An Afternoon with Cryer and Ford
Sunday, March 11 at 3 PM, Mixon Hall, Cleveland Institute of Music, 11021 East Blvd. For tickets: Call Brown Paper Tickets at 1-800-838-3006 or visit www.MusicalTheaterProject.org.
For the reception:





Tuesday, February 20, 2018

American Dreams, Cleveland Public Theatre

“It’s a game! It’s a show! It’s America!!”

And so begins the television game show that is also the current play at Cleveland Public Theatre titled American Dreams. When you get a ticket to be a member of the CPT audience, you also become part of the audience of this “TV production” that unrolls before your eyes.

This world premiere production features a core of touring actors augmented by local performers in small roles. It is written by Leila Buck, who also takes a lead role as co-host of the TV show, and it reaches out and grabs the audience through the familiar trappings of shows like Jeopardy! and The Price Is Right. Except in this instance the prize isn’t a new washer/dryer, it’s instant citizenship in the United States.

By taking some bold chances this 90-minute play, augmented by a great deal of audience participation, succeeds in throwing a spotlight on the values we supposedly hold dear—such as freedom and democracy. And while there are a few slow and somewhat predictable spots, this show can leave you with a visceral sense of how it must feel to be a person from another country yearning to live in America.

Hard as it may be for some to believe, U.S. citizenship is still a treasured commodity for those from what our President has elegantly dubbed “shithole countries.” And in this show the three contestants—Alejandro (Andrew Aaron Valdez), Usman (Imran Sheikh)  and Adil (Ali Andre Ali)—are from Mexico, Pakistan and Palestine. As we are told, the government has vetted each individual in the trio and they are now competing before a live studio audience (that’s you) to see which one will be granted citizenship.

The two game show hosts are played with smarmy goofiness by Buck and Jens Rasmussen (who collaborated on the script along with the three actors who play the contestants). The hosts welcome the audience before the show begins, warming up the crowd and even welcoming some by name. You see, when you enter from the lobby you pass through a metal detector, ease past a security guard, and are then required to fill out two forms—one of which asks for your name and place of birth along with some other questions about your personal lineage, as well as your opinion on what an immigrant should promise to do if granted citizenship.

This mildly intrusive pre-screening nicely sets the tone for what is to come. And after the TV show goes “on air” with nighttime aerial footage of downtown Cleveland, just like a Monday Night Football game telecast, the game commences. There are several different sections to the game, with titles such as “How America Works,” “America’s Favorites,” and “American Dreams.” During these segments, the three contestants are peppered with questions dealing with facts (Who is fourth in line for the Presidency?) and shared opinions (What is America’s favorite book? How about second favorite?).

There’s even a section dubbed “Aliens with Extraordinary Skills,” in which the three hopefuls show off the particular talent they would bring with them to their new country. Some of these segments work better than others. For instance, when Adil attempts to show off his culinary skills by creating a dish from the available contents of the show’s green room fridge, the show bogs as we watch him prepare a broccoli and grape salad. Where are the Today Show’s Kathy Lee and Hoda when you need them, swilling wine during a food bit?

Even though all aspects of this TV show don’t maintain a satirical edge, things get serious when, about an hour into the play, the contestants are put on the “Hot Seat.” This is when the hosts’ questions become more pointed, and even unfair, and some of the less savory aspects of each contestant’s backgrounds are revealed. It’s almost too bad that we don’t get to the “Hot Seat” questions sooner, so that some of the challenging issues around immigration could get a fuller and more emotional, exploration.

Still, before the audience finally votes on who will get citizenship, each of the contestants has been pretty well stripped of their privacy and pride.

Playwright Buck and director Tamilla Woodard (who also helped develop the material) are to be commended for the concept of American Dreams. By making the entire play follow the steps of TV show taping, including the breaks for commercials when the hosts and contestants meander around, grabbing a sip of water or checking with a technician, the subtext of the hoops we make immigrants go through never comes off as heavy handed.

Indeed, the constant presence of security guards on the set is obvious but not forced. And ultimately the joy of the “winner” is tempered by the fact that the other two hopefuls have been left out in the cold. As, indeed, many aspiring immigrants are these days, by the tens of thousands.

If a good play should make you think about an issue and make you a bit uncomfortable about your preconceived notions, then American Dreams does the job. And as usual, CPT presents it with professional polish and style.

American Dreams
Through March 3 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org.