Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Philadelphia Story, Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program

(Alec Hynes as Dexter and Kathryn Metzger as Tracy Lord)

If you’re a lover of chocolate or coconut cream pie, you’re keenly aware that an upper crust is not only unnecessary but something of a blight on an otherwise tasty treat.

Some might say the same thing about the upper crust in society, that amalgam of 1 percenters who live off inherited wealth and swan gracefully from drawing room to sitting room all day long. These are the folks who populate The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry, and happily this upper crust doesn’t turn soggy under the sharp direction of Jerrold Scott (who also doubles amusingly as Uncle Willie).

This 1939 play, which was famously adapted for Hollywood, combines sophisticated and screwball comedy to a fare-thee-well. And Barry is a master of the rat-a-tat, knife-edge dialogue that fueled so many comedies of that era.

Of course, the set-up is custom-tailored for laughs. The arrogant and feisty heiress Tracy Lord, who is anticipating her marriage the next day to stuffy George Kitteredge, is suddenly confronted by both her suave ex-husband Dexter and a sly reporter, Macauley. Soon, Tracy’s well-cosseted hormones are flying in all directions and it’s unclear where they’ll eventually perch.

The witticisms come at you fast and furious, but they usually reward careful listening. As when George says: “But a man expects his wife to—“ and Tracy completes the sentence: “Behave herself. Naturally.” To which Dexter appends, “To behave herself naturally.” That little pause, or lack thereof, makes all the difference.

The cast, made up primarily of CWRU students, handles this precious wordplay well. The rapid delivery feels a bit forced in the first act, but once the performers get their feet under them, their pace begins to fit the script quite nicely.

In the linchpin role of Tracy, Kathryn Metzger has both the arch rectitude and the sliver of anarchic spirit that Katherine Hepburn displayed on stage and screen. As Macauley, Jeremiah Clapp has the lean look of a young Fred Astaire (minus the fancy footwork), as he pursues Tracy. And Alec Hynes lends some Cary Grant-style suavity to Dexter, smoothly circling the comical chaos and planting tender memories until he’s ready to make his move.

Also entertaining are Megan King as Tracy’s teenage sister Dinah, she of the impetuous gestures and repeatedly mangled syntax, Katie O. Solomon as snarky paparazzi Elizabeth, and Erin Bunting as the girls’ matronly mom. Not so successful are Nick Barbato, who never quite embodies pater familias Seth Lord, and Rickie McDowell’s indifferently rendered George.

It’s a shame the theatrical versions of this show don’t include the famous prelude to the film—Tracy breaking Dexter’s golf club over her knee, Dexter responding by pushing her down with his open hand to her face. Sure, it ain’t PC, but boy is it funny.

However, thanks to Cameron Caley Michalak’s lush set and Jeffery Van Curtis’ tasteful costumes, the play looks as good as it sounds. And thanks to Barry’s clever words (”I would sell my grandmother for a drink, and you know how much I love my grandmother”), this Philadelphia Story is a yarn worth hearing again.

The Philadelphia Story
Through March 7 at PlayhouseSquare, the Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre, 1516 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Dogfight, Beck Center for the Arts

(Keri Rene Fuller as Rose and Colton Ryan as Eddie)

There’s nothing wrong with a musical having a distasteful premise. God knows, it seems many musicals in recent years have had at least one stomach-churning aspect (looking at you Violet, now at Lakeland Civic Theatre, whose main character is facially disfigured by an axe).

The ugliness in Dogfight almost as literal, since it involves a bunch of Marines who, on the night before they are shipping out to the Vietnam War, make a bet. They compete to see who among them can bring the ugliest girl “date” to a bar, where the winning guy will be awarded a cash prize.

Yes, it’s a nasty set-up, but once the shock of it subsides, you settle in for a confrontational Neil LaBute sort of musical. Unfortunately, the book by Peter Duchan doesn’t have the courage of it’s own initially misogynistic convictions. And the songs by Benj Pasek and Austin Paul are unfailingly pleasant, but several of them begin to sound undifferentiated and bland.

This is the latest collaboration between Beck Center and the esteemed Baldwin Wallace University Music Theatre Program. They have put together some extraordinary productions in the past, but this one suffers from flawed material and other issues.

Directed by Victoria Bussert and based on an indie film of the same name, Dogfight bristles with foot-stomping testosterone after a mellow opening,. A Marine named Eddie Birdlace, just back from Vietnam in 1967, is on his way to San Francisco. He has a tattoo of three bees on his arm, symbolic of his friendship with fellow Marines named Boland (an intense Zach Adkins) and Bernstein (Micky Ryan).

Then, we flash back four years earlier as Eddie and some other “jarheads” prepare to get their macho freak on in ‘Frisco. Thanks to energetic, kick-ass choreography by Gregory Daniels, the rowdy song “Some Kinda Time” launches the show with muscularity and purpose.

But in a matter of minutes, another song titled “Hey, Good Lookin’” mirrors the same energy level and content of “Some Kinda Time.” This repetition and predictability is rife throughout Pasek and Paul’s material.

Eddie tracks down his “dog” for the evening, a girl named Rose who is a waitress in a restaurant he visits. But it’s clear that Eddie and Rose will not continue to be prankster and stooge. And sure enough, sometime during their first date, on the way to the bar, Eddie falls for Rose.

Trouble is, we never sense that transition in Eddie’s thoughts since Colton Ryan, as Eddie, permits precious few nuances to emerge through his determined Marine scowl. This undercuts the chemistry development between him and Rose, and their fraught love affair never takes on the weight of a real romance.

As Rose, Keri Rene Fuller breathes life into her role of the shy, supposedly homely girl who loves folk music and noodles out songs on her guitar. Fuller brings a lovely vulnerability to the role and she does what she can to make the central love match work. She sings beautifully throughout the show and lends some otherwise forgettable tunes a bit of heft.

As for climactic scene in Act One, when the girls are to be judged on their relative homeliness by the soldiers, it all gets lost in a roundelay of dancing. Without showing us the brutal nature of the boys’ vile game, which is hinted at in Laura Carlson Tarantowski’s moody urban scenic design, the contrast of Eddie and Rose’s budding fondness is frittered away.

The contest is apparently won by Marcy, a hooker who has been contracted by Boland to dress up homely by faking some missing teeth. As Marcy, Victoria Pippo is a convincing hard case and she performs the duet “It’s A Dogfight” with Rose. But Pippo pushes a bit too much sending her voice into a borderline piercing zone.

Some of the female ensemble players craft interesting cameos as the ugly girls. Adrian Grace Bumpas as Ruth Two Bears, is a stiff native American lass who looks like she had a whole-body botox treatment. And Laura Perrotta’s go-for-broke biker chick is a hoot.

The second act is devoted to seeing how Eddie and Rose develop into lovers. The hesitant moment when they first share a bed in Rose’s bedroom is one time where their relationship actually feels genuine. But it seems like too little, too late.

After that, four years of war are represented by a strobe and smoke battle scene before Eddie finds himself back in ‘Frisco, a sadder and perhaps wiser young man.

On opening night, the young cast of predominantly BW students was pumped with adrenaline. That over-zealous energy will probably settle down a bit during the run, and that will only help this production find its optimal pacing.

Through March 15 at the Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Violet, Lakeland Civic Theatre

(Neely Gevaart as Violet and Eugene Sumlin as Finch)

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who allow for a bit more diversity. Well, both kinds should go and see Violet, the Jeanine Tesori musical, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, now at the Lakeland Civic Theatre.

As one of Crawley’s lyrics posits, “There are two kinds of people in the world/Some say yes and some say no.” And this show works at sorting them out after beginning with a horrific accident.

Thirteen-year-old Violet is walking through her backwoods yard in North Carolina when her dad’s axe head flies off the handle in mid-swing and slices a jagged scar across her face. Even though the accident is all mimed and the scar is never physically visible, it is omnipresent as Violet struggles to accept herself and others.

Composers and lyricists continue to defy logic and write musicals about the strangest and, on the surface, most unpleasant topics. And this one may top the list, at least until someone writes a singin’ and dancin’ epic about irritable bowel syndrome.

In any case Violet, now all grown up and on her own in 1964, is understandably obsessed with her appearance. So she is on a pilgrimage to see a televangelist faith healer in Oklahoma to make everything cosmetically (not to mention psychologically and spiritually) right. This journey rings absolutely true even though it may seem fanciful to some. In fact, I knew a fiercely intelligent woman, beset with multiple sclerosis, who went to see a “healing” preacher in Akron. Even her well-honed, skeptical mind was won over by the apparition of hope.

So is Violet’s, and as she travels she encounters two soldiers on the bus who each are attracted to her in somewhat different ways. Monty is a good ol’ boy who just wants to get in Violet’s pants while Flick, an African-American, seems to bond with her on a deeper level.

The story is fascinating and the music is lush and varied, combining gospel, country and blues into a beguiling quilt that is stitched together much more delicately than Violet’s face. Director Martin Friedman and musical director Jordan Cooper bring out the best in this talented cast.

As Violet, Neely Gevaart is absolutely wonderful, belting out the songs that need it and then tenderly handling a quiet piece, such as when she croons to Monty as they lie in bed in “Lay Down Your Head.” Gevaart looks and feels the part, providing enough edge to her role so that the disfiguring accident doesn’t come across as just a handy framing device.

Eric Fancher makes Monty a character who is more than just a lug who wants to get some, and Eugene Sumlin displays honesty and compassion as Finch, even though his singing voice isn’t as powerful as some others. In featured roles, Nicole Sumlin employs her rafter-shaking pipes to great effect in “Raise Me Up” and as the preacher, Robert Pierce is a pompous pompadour until he, also, shows a different and interesting facet.

Indeed, the characters and the music in Violet are both complex and believable, creating a seamless work that is fully satisfying. As Violet and Finch grow closer, two people being judged by their outward appearance, the play concludes by saying “Yes” to a happy ending that feels fully earned.

Through February 15 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, 440-525-7034
Lakeland Community College Campus, just south of Rt. 90 and Rt. 306 in Kirtland.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Thurgood, Ensemble Theatre

(Greg White as Thurgood Marshall)

Some people just deserve having plays written about them, and one such person is Thurgood Marshall. As the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, appointed in 1967, he became an instant icon for equal rights in this country.

But as this piece by George Stevens, Jr. shows in the 85 minutes before he ascends to the highest court in the land, Marshall fought for people’s rights long before he donned those esteemed robes. His monumental win in “Brown v. Board of Education” 13 years earlier transformed the landscape of race relations, even though court battles continued.

Actually, Marshall always had a fondness for his first court victory when, as a young lawyer, he revealed the absurdity of "separate but equal" education and won the right for a black student to attend the segregated University Of Maryland law school.

These stories are told in a cozy, conversational manner in this one-person show with Greg White as Marshall. White is able to embody the passion of the man while scaling his aura down to a relatable size. As directed fluidly by Sarah May, White is always interesting and at times compelling.

Adding to the experience are photos, some of them incredibly evocative, that play across a panoramic screen that fills the back wall of the stage. Designed by Ian Hinz, these visual help the audience find their time and place as Marshall relates his various tales.

Unfortunately, playwright Stevens decides not to share many of Marshall’s less attractive character traits, which would give us a more three dimensional view of the man, Sure, he notes that Marshall enjoyed drinking and he touches on the fact that he was probably a workaholic and probably an often absentee husband to his wives. But any deeper flaws that might affect his behavior as a lawyer and a judge are well hidden, leaving us with more of a hagiography than a penetrating portrait.

Still, this Ensemble production is smooth and seamless. And it leaves you wishing a giant such Marshall was still sitting on the Supreme Court of the U.S. this very day, instead of a few of the moral pygmies and sycophantic toadies that now occupy some of those seats.

Through February 22 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Five Guys Named Moe, Cleveland Play House

It’s big, flashy and loud. It features six performers who can sing and dance with skill. And it presents a whole bunch of songs by Louis Jordan, the renowned hit-maker and sax star from the 1930’s to the early ‘50s. Plus, critics like this show because they can drag out all their tired “Moe” puns, But Moe about that later.

So, what’s not to like? Well, if you’re an energy junkie this is your show. As the five Moe’s emerge from a radio to help sad-sack alcoholic named Nomax find his way in life, they kick into a galaxy of songs and patter that has the basic sound of that African-American R&B kingpin Jordan .

In this co-production between the Cleveland Play House and Arena Stage, many of the songs have been reimagined by music director Darryl Ivey into a contemporary boy band groove. That will please some and distress others who loved the original groove just fine.

The original conceit is still in place, as poor, downtrodden Nomax laments his life, his lost girlfriend, and seeks comfort in a bottle of whiskey. At his low point, the five Moes show up to sing him out of his blues. This storyline by Clarke Peters is thinner than a Motel 6 bath towel, but it serves to set up one song after another.

While granting director Robert O’Hara and Ivey their absolute right to retool this 1990 show, it is still incumbent on the production to bring more than a workmanlike energy to the stage. After a startlingly powerful rendition of “Early in the Morning” by Kevin McAllister as Nomax, the show quickly hits an air pocket when Sheldon Henry as Big Moe essentially walks through the juicy ditty “Beware, Brother, Beware,” missing much of it’s humor.

From there on, the show works in fits and starts. As No Moe, Johari Parker-Namdar has oleaginous charm and grinds a half-pound of coffee with his swivel hips on “Messy Bessy,” while Clinton Roane as Little Moe could still have a lot more nasty fun with “I Like ‘Em Fat Like That.”  Four-Eyed Moe (Travis Porchia) screeches, mostly unintelligibly, through “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” but Paris Nix as Eat Moe sings and steps with style, then delivers a nice version of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.”

These fellows certainly have the singing and dancing chops to do what this show requires: present five distinctive and interesting Moe characters that each influence Nomax in a unique and entertaining manner.

God knows, the material is there, with witty songs such as “Safe, Sane and Single,” “Caledonia,” and “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (If You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again).” And the set is certainly working hard to do its part, with blinking staircases and a gigantic backlit “MOE” sign that never changes, whether they’re in the Funky Butt Club or not.

Clearly, we have to put up with the corny audience participation conga line (hey, I’m white and if I never see another average white person dance in a conga line again, it’ll be too soon).

But if you like your funk on the hoof, these six guys have Moe than enough for you.

Five Guys Named Moe
Through February 15 , at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Karamu House

(Left to rightL Cornell H. Calhoun, III as Seth Holly, Butch Terry as Bynum Walker, and Phillia Thomas as Molly Cunningham)

There is powerful poetry afoot in this play by August Wilson, involving the individual songs that define specific people as well as the sweeping orchestral movements that embody masses of people on the move, trying to find a home.

Set in 1911, Joe Turner is a massively ambitious play masquerading at times as a very simple story about a, African-American boardinghouse in Pittsburgh and the folks who pass though its doors. And this production, directed with spot-on specificity by Terrence Spivey, tells that story with skill.

Seth Holly and his wife Bertha own the building, with rooms for guests in the front and Seth’s metal working shop in the back. Seth is a gruff tyrant of his domain, and Cornell H. Calhoun, III snarls with the best of them. But he also shows Seth’s tender side. As Bertha, Tonya Davis—despite some softness on lines early on—creates a sympathetic portrait of this woman who truly loves her man.

That solid relationship is central to the play, which is happening only 50 years after the slaves were freed. That means that many black people are still wanderers without a home, trying to find a foothold in a country that seems large and forbidding.

One man who has found that footing is Bynum Walker, a mystical man who performs weird daily rituals in the garden outside. Seth doesn’t appreciate the pigeon blood being spilled out there, but he and Bynum share a mutual respect. And Butch Terry brings Bynum to life with warmth and a dash of wit.

A frequent visitor to the Holly house is Rutherford Selig, heir to slave traders and now a "finder” who can track down sheet metal for Seth’s mini-industry or find missing persons. Rich Stimac is perfect in this role, relishing his negotiating prowess while always finding a way to cadge another dollar out of a prospective client.

Among the other guests who wander through are Jeremy Furlow, a manual laborer and guitar player who hits on every pretty young thing who comes through the door. As Furlow, Prophet D. Seay is a delight, using his smooth patter to weave a spell around his female targets. Those include both Mattie Campbell (Kennetha Martin), a woman who is waiting for her man to come back, and Molly Cunningham (Phillia Thomas), a woman who doesn’t want a man around to impede her path through life.

But the most compelling of the guests is Herold Loomis, who arrives with his young daughter Zonia in tow. He is initially a taciturn man who is looking for his wife Martha. But as the play progresses, Loomis blooms into a fascinating and tragic figure, powerfully rendered by Michael May. Loomis lost seven years of his life, unfairly consigned to the chain gang of Joe Turner (who was immortalized in the blues song), and it has distorted his life in significant ways. There are intense and magical forces at work in Loomis—and in everyone else, to be truthful—and this production hits them all.

Even when Zonia (Zamani Munashe) and a slightly older boy Reuben (Kali Hatten) get together, their scene of first kiss is tender and affecting.

Once Selig is put on the trail of Loomis’ Martha, it feels like something important will happen, And it does, when Selig brings Martha (Laprise Johnson) back to Loomis. His transformative reaction, leading to the play’s conclusion, feels right and fully earned.

Joe Turner is a masterwork by one of American’s finest playwrights, and this Karamu production does it full justice, with distinct characters etched in clear detail. Even at more than 2 1/2 hours with intermission, it’s a compelling theatrical experience.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Through February 15 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, Cleveland Public Theatre

Here are the 12 Days of a Conni Christmas, jammed into 5 days because there are only 5 more days to see this amazing, delicious compendium of insanity before it goes away forever.

On the fifth day of Christmas, Conni gave to me: A naked doctor running through the audience and mushroom and pumpkin-ricotta tartines. Served by the actors, who talk to you, weirdly.

On the fourth day of Christmas, Conni gave to me a woman holding a goose and a “Bus That Table” Contest among the patrons. And a carrot-ginger soup that’s so good you will be tempted to trample small children to get seconds. (Okay, mid-sized children.)

On the third day of Christmas, Conni gave to me Four helpful nurses and a deer shot before the salad course, which consists of a herbed fennel and apple salad. Yum.

On the second day of Christmas, Conni gave to me a Q & A with Mrs. Robinson, who is of course an English dude who will likely exchange clothes with a woman in the audience, or do unspeakable things with a hand mixer. Or he might be the one serving you the main course of roasted turkey breast with cranberry compote (or a veggie option), with maple-glazed Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes.

On the first day of Christmas, Conni gave to me Goodi Two-Shoes and Sue James and Messerschmidt and Shihu Shallnotbenamed and Chance Gunner and Little Drummer Boy. And a drunken pumpkin bundt cake with whipped cream. Lots of whipped cream. God knows where that whipped cream will end up.

You have five more days: this Wednesday through Sunday the 21st. Tarry not. You’ll never experience anything else like this again, and also end up with a full stomach and a nice buzz (You also get table wine with your ticket.) And there are plenty of surprises. So, you know, what’s not to love?

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant

Through December 21 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.