Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Chorus Line, PlayhouseSquare

(Nikki Snelson as Cassie and Michael Gruber as fashion victim Zach)

For any group of performers, there are few more surefire ways to guarantee receiving audience applause than breaking into a high-kick dance line. Audiences always clap and scream, like Pavlov’s mutts, whenever three or more humans lift their legs at roughly the same time in a linear formation. Indeed, if in the middle of Death of a Salesman, Willy, Linda, Biff and Happy suddenly linked arms and executed a kick line, the audience would probably ignore the rather curious plot turn and applaud wildly.

The reason for this odd reaction is probably buried somewhere in the warp and weft of our lizard brain, but its power has been used to great effect for the past three decades in A Chorus Line. This play, a musical excursion into the psyches and hamstrings of a group of twenty-some dancers auditioning for eight places in a chorus line, has always benefited from the raw emotions of the individuals involved. But in this production at PlayhouseSquare’s Palace Theatre, the emotions feel soft-boiled, yielding a mushy interpretation of what should be a galvanizing, goose-bumpy show.

Created by Michael Bennett, who choreographed and directed the original production, the book and songs were based on interviews with real dancers who endured the punishing ritual of dance auditions. As the tension develops between captivating personal stories off stage and the need for mindless synchronicity on stage, the show can often soar beyond some of the pop-predictable music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban.

However in this touring presentation, directed by Bob Avian, there is little immediacy in the acting or the dancing. Even though the director Zach (a fairly robotic Michael Gruber who is costumed in a tragic football field hash-mark sweater) pokes and prods the dancers to reveal truths about themselves, these actors respond with the detached air of people discussing the life situation of a close friend rather than themselves.

This difficulty is encapsulated in Paul, who tells a gut-wrenching story about growing up gay and then being observed dancing in a drag show by his parents. Kevin Santos never digs believably into his character, ticking off Paul’s sad history like someone checking off items on a shopping list, and then dissolving into plastic tears at the conclusion.

And in the signature role of Cassie, the former lover of Zach and a woman who had achieved individual stardom before falling on hard times, Nikki Snelson is mostly forgettable. Telegraphing her emotions instead of experiencing them, she never captures the complicated motivations of this dancer who sees her career coming full circle. And her supposedly show-stopping solo dance, “The Music and the Mirror,” feels only like a promising recital performance.

The comical song “Sing!” is burdened by a Kristine (Jessica Latshaw) and Al (Colt Prattes) who try a bit too hard to exude the vibe of lovers and who don’t quite master the fast-paced snap required by their duet. Even the sure-fire tits & ass song, “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” seems surprisingly boring in the hands of this Val (Natalie Elise Hall).

There are a few glimmering bright spots. Clyde Alves is an energetic Mike in “I Can Do That.” And as coldly sardonic Shiela, Emily Fletcher breaks off some brittle comebacks, even though the more vulnerable subtext of the character is largely missing.

In a show that pays tribute to the hardworking people who submerge their personalities and individual dreams to operate in perfect unison, there is precious little personality in this Chorus Line. And that ain’t much of a kick for the audience.

A Chorus Line
Through October 26 at the
Palace Theatre, PlayhoouseSquare,
1518 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland,

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Into the Woods, Great Lakes Theater Festival

The wolf (Derrick Cobey) makes his move on Little Red Riding Hood (Erin Childs)

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
-- Albert Einstein

It wouldn’t seem to make sense, on the face of it, that reading and knowing stories of pure fantasy, populated with one-dimensional characters, could lead to increased brain power. But these tales have resonated over centuries, indicating that something is going on that we really don’t fully understand or appreciate.

This is the world that is expanded and explored in the endlessly fascinating musical Into the Woods, now being given an often magical production by the Great Lakes Theater Festival. In this play, Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) mash up different fairy tales—Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk—adding a couple new characters to boot.

But their real mission is to turn fairy tales inside out, challenging the audience to see those well-worn stories from a fresh perspective. For instance, the giant’s wife comes down to Earth, mourning her dead hubby who crashed after Jack chopped down the beanstalk, but she’s understandably pissed and looking for revenge. And the handsome prince skips out on his, um, fairy tale marriage with Cinderella and has a fling with a baker’s wife (as he helpfully explains, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”)

There’s also a witch who is transformed into a beauty (but she loses her magical powers in the process) and a Little Red (Erin Childs) who is as bloodthirsty for wolf carcasses as Sarah Palin, but not nearly as dim. Replete with the requisite number of devourings, spells, tragic accidents and magic beans, the intersecting stories are tied together by a narrator (a smoothly avuncular Marc Moritz) and a volley of songs that benefit from the witty Sondheim touch. When the wolf is chatting up Lil’ Red, he croons deliciously to himself, “There’s no way to describe how you feel/When you’re talking to your meal.”

The intimate new GLTF digs help make Into the Woods a special experience, as the audience is cozied up to the thrust stage like kids listening to an enthralling storyteller. The set designed by Jeff Herrmann is appropriately make-believe, with gnarly trees that rotate to reveal secondary playing areas. And the cast under the finely-tuned direction of Victoria Bussert largely succeeds in finding fresh ways to make these characters burst vividly to life.

As the wicked witch, Jessica L. Cope has a powerful voice that is put to superb use in the “Witch’s Lament” in which she reflects on her (stolen) daughter Rapunzel’s wayward ways: “Children can only grow/From something you love/To something you lose.” Tom Ford is an endearing presence as the baker, who is on a scavenger hunt in the woods so that the childless spell he and his wife are under can be lifted.

Derek Cobey is excellent both as Cinderella’s vain Prince and as the wolf—in the latter role his hairstyle and demeanor recall a young Rod Stewart on the prowl. And he has a delectable, preening duet with Phil Carroll, as Rapunzel’s Prince, when they sing of their “Agony” in connecting with the objects of their affection. Plus, Emily Krieger sings like a lark as Cinderella and manages some dandy pratfalls.

Although she works hard, Maryann Nagel never quite discovers a comedic hook as Jack’s mother, her rants about his stupidity (“You sold a cow for some beans?!”) never coalescing into a clear portrait. And as the baker’s wife, Jodi Dominick seems a bit under-whelmed when she is swept off her feet by Cindy’s Prince.

Sure, this script is a bit overwritten, and there are too many instances of overt didacticism “(Now I’ve learned something I’ve never known before!”). But it’s all worth it for the many moments when the music and the inspired idea of Into the Woods merge, reviving the awe and wonder we first felt when we heard these weird and wonderful stories. And adding a whole new set of moral issues to ponder.

Into the Woods
Through November 8 at the
Great Lakes Theater Festival,
Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th Street,
Cleveland, 216-241-6000

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Noises Off, The Cleveland Play House

(The cactus attack. From left: Christopher Kelly, Timothy Gregory and Linda Kimbrough)

At first glance, it would seem that a pants-dropping sex farce, such as Noises Off by Michael Frayn, would be a lark to stage. The actors just have to run around dropping trou and doing silly things and people will laugh, right? Well, yes, but they may not laugh as loudly and helplessly as they might.

In fact, farce is one of the most demanding theatrical forms to master, requiring actors who have the stamina and agility of athletes. This is necessary so they can execute the many and varied pratfalls, near misses and door-slamming chases that are required. And while the Cleveland Play House cast exerts all the effort one could expect, a lack of sharp characterization and pinpoint timing turns what should be a non-stop laugh-fest into just a mildly amusing diversion.

In this play-within-a-play, an English touring theatrical company is rehearsing a doleful sex romp called Nothing On, with a troupe of actors beset by serious memorization problems, convoluted romantic entanglements, alcoholism and the occasional nosebleed.

Since there is double the exposition to accomplish, the first act is a real challenge for the players and director David H. Bell. And they only partly succeed. One difficulty is that the play being rehearsed, dreadful though it is, must be allowed to proceed so that the audience can recall that plot line in the second and third acts. Thus, it is up to the actors to carry the comedy with their individual (and mostly dual) characterizations before the real fireworks are ignited.

After the rather desultory first act, things pick up when the set is turned around and we see the same section of Nothing On during a “real” performance, from a backstage perspective. The timing of much of the slapstick--involving misdirected flowers, booze and a fire axe-- feels a bit too measured and choreographed (to be great, slapstick has to feel exuberantly and even riskily spontaneous). But the cast performs on James Leonard Joy’s impressively massive set with unstinting energy.

And the third act, which presents the final touring performance of Nothing On from the audience point of view, sees the fictitious actors collapse into a stew of their own personal peccadillos.

The most important character in Frayn’s very funny script is Dotty Otley, an aging actress who plays the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett. This was the Carol Burnett role in the Americanized movie version and it demands a refined level of talent since Otley, although forgetful and a bit of a lush, is also supposed to be somewhat enticing sexually (she is having affairs with two of the younger actors, Garry and Frederick).

That’s a tricky package and Linda Kimbrough only masters part of it. As Mrs. Clackett, she gets her share of laughs padding around the large set in search of plates of sardines, a snack that is continually being misplaced. But she lacks the regal mien of Dotty, a fading actress who still has enough game to play grab-ass with younger studs. As a result, Garry’s jealous passion in act two simply doesn’t track.

As the almost equally memory-challenged Garry, Christopher Kelly has am adorably dense manner that encourages others to finish his sentences for him. And Donald Carrier plays nervous and nosebleed-y Frederick with a style vaguely reminiscent of Charles Nelson Reilly (that’s a good thing).

Even though Summer Naomi Smart as Brooke has a figure (clad in only her underwear) that would slow Carnegie traffic to a crawl, she doesn’t have enough fun with her ditzy character. The same is true with Timothy Gregory, who plays director Lloyd with a vague sense of exasperation rather than a more intense, and more comical, approach. In addition, his romantic attraction to Brooke seems rote rather than randy. Frank Kopyc gives soused actor Selsdon a dash of inebriated nobility, even when he reliably misses his cues to come on as the burglar.

It all amounts to an evening of frequent chuckles, but not the rib-snapping, screaming guffaws that this play can generate when performed to farcical perfection.

Noises Off
Through October 26 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Ensemble Theatre

(From left: Robert Hawkes, Ursula Cataan, Sebastian Hawkes Orr, Carla Petroski)

“Whoa, the games people play now,
Every night and every day now,
Never meanin’ what they say now,
Never sayin’ what they mean.”

That catchy tune written by Joe South was popular in the 1960s, and it would serve as an excellent theme song for the Edward Albee play from that time, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

After the play was made into a stunning movie starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the venal and combative George and Martha, it became a challenge for any theater company to approach the material. Who can match the inspired, boozy perfection of that casting, including the hapless young couple who wander into the party from hell?

Well, Ensemble Theatre, for one. Even though one actor begins in an extremely rocky and overblown way, she gets it under control and joins a simply wonderful presentation of a play that never seems to age a day.

Associate history prof George, a middle-aged intellectual non-entity, is locked in a marriage of desperation to Martha, a woman with a big mouth, a braying style, and a taste for blood when it comes to interpersonal relations. And since her pop is the head of the university, she is more than a little ambitious for her husband, who apparently couldn’t care less.

After a faculty get-together, George and Martha invite a young couple, Nick and Honey, over to their house for a drink. And once that door closes behind the four, the sparks start to fly for an engrossing three hours. Playing vicious, non-Parker Brothers games such as “Humiliate the Host,” “Hump the Hostess,” “Get the Guests,” and the biggest one of all (let's call it “Where Is Sonny?”), the four are engaged in a psychological dance to the death.

The Ensemble cast under the agile and nuanced direction of Licia Colombi, is, eventually, simply superb. But it doesn’t start too well, with Carla Petroski as Martha substituting broad acting for acting like a broad. As the party gets rolling, Petroski’s beat changes are wooden and obvious, and her initial scene with Robert Hawkes as George don’t convey the right amount of tension.

In addition, Petroski gets too drunk too soon, even given the fact the characters were swilling booze earlier. These are professional lushes; they don’t start slurring their words until they start tipping the second fifth. And then, magically, she seems to sober up later in the act.

Happily, the first act is largely saved once Nick and Honey arrive. Ursula Cataan is worth double the price of admission in the role of Honey. As the fragile, giggly, totally naïve Honey, Cataan is spot on from the moment she steps on stage, without ever condescending to her character and making her a stereotype.

And once the second act starts, everyone seems to be on the same page and the rollercoaster ride is officially in progress. So strap yourself in. Hawkes convincingly etches a portrait of George, the softly wrinkled and abused man who still harbors the strength to lash back at his tormentors. And lash he does, with a quiet ferocity that is terrifying in its methodical ruthlessness.

Sebastian Hawkes Orr (Nick) lays low until Nick and George get into their own slow motion duel. This sequence is highlighted by Orr’s spectacular, tipsy discussion of his wife’s minister father and Honey’s hysterical pregnancy. As he slaloms through the curves and moguls of Albee’s entrancing language, he builds a portrait of a man trapped in a marriage he can’t escape, just like George.

Once Petroski starts to follow the Zen Rule of Acting (To own a line, you must throw it away), her Martha galvanizes as a figure of profound complexity. Loving George and yet compelled to lacerate him, she locks onto Hawkes with her eyes and the pair of combatants keep stinging like two scorpions trapped in a velvet bag, until exhaustion finally ends the match.

It’s a damn shame this show closes after just its second week on Sunday, October 5 (opening week was cancelled due to a cast member injury). But if you can get there, for chrissakes get there.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Produced by Ensemble Theatre at the
Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue,