Sunday, December 28, 2008

2008 "Best of Cleveland Theater" Awards

(This handsome, virtual "Best of Cleveland Theater"Award Trophy will look fetching on the winners' virtual mantels.)

Hey, it's time to stop whining about your 401(k) already.

Let’s look on the bright side—at least you didn’t have the misfortune to run into Bernie Madoff at a golf outing.

And to make you feel even better…here are Rave and Pan’s "BEST OF CLEVELAND THEATER" AWARDS, for the calendar year 2008.

It was another splendid annum, filled with memorable performances and productions. We can only hope that these theaters will continue to produce such fine work in 2009, as we slide into a daunting economic future that will test everyone’s mettle, perseverance, and bladder control.

So cue the orchestra, and let’s open the envelopes!

The Blacks: A Clown Show, Karamu Performing Arts Center

This theatrical tour de force, directed with riveting energy and hip-hop choreography by Terrence Spivey, turned Jean Genet’s absurd look at race into an unforgettable evening. Featuring spot-on performances by a talented ensemble, this tone poem was lyrically cruel and tantalizing from start to finish.

I Hate Hamlet, Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet Hall

Director Nancy Cates took this witty Paul Rudnick script and turned it into a bright and witty summer treat. From John Barrymore’s ghost, ably played by Daren Kelly, to precisely crafted smaller roles (notably Lara Mielcarek’s daffy Felicia), this production kept the laughs flowing in Stan Hywet’s lovely lagoon setting.

Caroline, or Change, co-produced by Dobama Theatre and Karamu

Bristling with fierce intelligence, this “race relations” musical by Tony Kushner makes a liar out of anyone who says musicals are air-headed. And thanks to a nearly flawless cast (see Best Actress—Musical) and superb direction (see Director of the Year), this was theater of the kind you dream about: exciting, unpredictable, amusing, and absolutely engrossing.

Laurel Johnson

In the excellent black comedy Freakshow at convergence-continuum, Johnson played the limbless Amalia, a woman who parlayed her shocking physical deformity into a universal truth. And she almost topped herself in Boom at Cleveland Public Theatre, turning a hot-to-trot Jo into a person filled with outrage and a relentless urge to live.

Also, a deep bow to Anne McEvoy who turned in splendid performances in Colder Than Here produced by Dobama as well as in Two Plays by Gao Xingjian and Goldstar, Ohio at Cleveland Public Theatre

Robert Hawkes

As Alec in Colder Than Here, by Dobama, Hawkes was the picture of wry frustration as he faced the impending death of his wife. And in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Ensemble, Hawkes’ was a put-upon non-entity who ultimately lashed back with quiet and terrifying ferocity.

Sarah May and Terri Kent

Following a terrific staging of The History Boys at Beck Center, where she managed to corral a lot of boyish energy, Sarah May hit a grand slam with Caroline, or Change (Dobama/Karamu). Her ability to find the precise dramatic fulcrum of each character, and then stage each production with vitality and imagination, is simply awe-inspiring.

If you want a classic American musical done right, give it to Terri Kent and her team at Porthouse Theatre. Anything Goes was a light diversion made giddily intoxicating by Kent’s direction (and MaryAnn Black’s choreography). And then Kent’s staging of The Music Man featured sweet precision in the group numbers (a great “Rock Island” opener) and sizzling individual performances.

Jason Dixon, The Blacks: A Clown Show, Karamu Performing Arts Center

Prowling the stage like a decadent cougar, Dixon was the leader of an acting troupe that created a symphony of voices from the black culture. And Dixon never relented, whether he was talking to other characters on stage or making an audience member cringe. You literally couldn’t pry your eyes from this stellar performance.

Ursula Cataan, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Ensemble Theatre

Cataan was worth double the price of admission as fragile and naïve Honey, trembling like a leaf in the psychological windstorm generated by George and Martha. By never lapsing into a stereotype, Cataan made this easy-to-dismiss role as funny (not to mention as poignant), as playwright Edward Albee could ever want.

Other fantastic performances were turned in by Dorothy Silver as Violet in “Waiting for the Telegram” in Talking Heads 2 at Beck Center, and by Andrea Belser as Juliette in I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda, produced by Dobama.

Doug Snyder, Boom, Cleveland Public Theatre

As Jules, a nerdy scientist with foreknowledge about the end of the world, Snyder never hit a wrong note. Comedy doesn’t get much blacker than it is in this show, but Snyder seemed perfectly natural as he tried to manipulate a woman he lured to his survival bunker. By turns creepy and oddly sweet, Snyder’s Jules was a revelation.

Rachel Spence, My Favorite Year, Beck Center

Sure, it’s technically a musical comedy, but Spence was terrific as Alice the 1950s era TV comedy writer. Combining a comically apt voice with a deadpan visage, Spence nailed her punch lines and stopped the show with her song, “Professional Showbizness Comedy.”

Michael Mauldin, Peter Pan, Beck Center

In the dream role of Captain Hook, Mauldin never missed a chance to chew the scenery, and it was hilarious. This sissy-pirate was a hoot as he luxuriated in his pronunciation of every syllable as he haplessly chased Peter, often creating laughs with just a glance or a single sound.

Sheffia Randall Dooley, Caroline, or Change, Dobama and Karamu

Even though her character could curdle milk at 20 paces, Dooley’s Caroline showed the vulnerable underside of this African-American woman who worked for a southern Jewish family. And when she sang the blues, you felt it down to your shoes.

Lou Bellamy, A Raisin in the Sun, Cleveland Play House

This show demands a great ensemble performance, and that’s just what Bellamy provided. By paying precise attention to the small beats that create a powerful production, Bellamy brought the audience into the hopeful world of the Younger family, and to a bigoted time in our country that never imagined Barack Obama.

Beth Wood, Boom, Cleveland Public Theatre

Keeping the pace brisk but never hurried, Wood gave this black Armageddon comedy a rush of laughter that ended in some sober reflections on life. This rather intricate mind game of a play could have come across as pretentious, but it never did thanks to Wood’s light touch and firm control.

Pierre-Jacques Brault, Blood Brothers, Mercury Summer Stock

This stylish production put its focus where it belonged, thanks to Brault, and as a result it was charming and witty throughout. The story about twins who were separated at birth was larded with melodrama but it played like a dream with Brault’s crisp and purposeful direction.

The Crucible, Narelle Sissons, Great Lakes Theater Festival

Sometimes, simpler is better. And sets don’t come much simpler or starker than Sisson’s bare plywood sheets that composed much of the playing area for this show. Almost painful in its rawness, the wood and exposed fluorescent lights were an ideal frame for this classic story of mass hysteria. Visually, it was a production that left splinters in your soul.

The God of Hell, Bang and Clatter Theatre

Rippling with muscularity and an undimmed rage, this Sam Shepard play didn’t give an inch as it expressed the fury many felt regarding the Bush administration. Director Christopher Johnston ratcheted up the tension, blending Shepard’s black humor with a bleak perspective of the “new” fascism.

Tom Hayes, Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber, convergence-continuum

Yeah, it’s another gay cowboy story. But in Hayes’ telling the cowboys manage to address some eternal questions about identity while making those meditations ridiculously amusing. Hayes’ oblique writing style kept the audience guessing, and laughing, all the way along.

Two Plays by Gao Xingjian, Cleveland Public Theatre

“Between Life & Death” was a monologue, “The Other Shore” was a dance, of sorts. And each was confounding and compelling in its own way. This was a dazzlingly theatrical evening directed, respectively and brilliantly, by Holly Holsinger and Raymond Bobgan.

Harold and Maude, Cain Park

This cult film about a May-September affair makes a damn good stage musical, at least when it’s brought to life by director Victoria Bussert. Although lacking the subtext of the Vietnam War, this smoothly professional production was sweet and often hilarious.

George Roth, The Fantasticks, Ensemble Theatre

Turns out, there really are small roles. But when you bleed them for as much fun as Roth did as
The Old Actor, you kinda wish all roles were this tiny. His dusty and wrinkled thespian made even the simple act of stepping off a stool a moment of comic joy.

Lucy Bredeson-Smith, Freakshow, convergence-continuum

Year in and year out, Bredeson-Smith fashions some of the most memorable characters in local theater. But her performance as Judith, caretaker of the limbless Amalia, was something special. Working around a snaggle-tooth oral appliance, she delivered a soul-wrenching monologue detailing her abuse at the hands of her freakshow proprietor. We still have goosebumps.

Jersey Boys, PlayhouseSquare

The visceral reaction generated by this rousing musical was something to behold. Telling the story of the 1960s hit-making machine called the Four Seasons, this production ripped the roof off the State Theatre and had boomers dancing (okay, shifting from foot to foot) in the aisles.

The Gamblers, produced by the Cleveland Museum of Art

This one-hour romp of a 19th century play by Nikolai Gogol felt as contemporary as Mamet, due to an excellent adaptation and direction by Massoud Saidpour. The stylized performances fit the material perfectly and the result was a humorous meditation on money-grubbing human beings. And thus, we come back full circle to Bernard Madoff.


Friday, December 12, 2008

In a Dark, Dark House, Bang and Clatter/Akron

(The brothers in this play didn't grow up quite like Wally and The Beav.)

It’s not all that hard to say shocking things. All you do is take an agreed upon truth and say the opposite. This happens every time someone writes an article that says global climate change is a fantasy, that our oil supplies will never dry up, and that Sarah Palin is a brainiac.

On stage, the current master of this kind of shock doctrine is playwright Neil LaBute. His play—In A Dark, Dark House, now at Bang and Clatter in Akron—features his usual formula involving tormented people and some fast reversals and twists before the final curtain. And the subject matter of child abuse, child sexual molestation and the attendant question of adolescent innocence, couldn’t be more incendiary.

While there are elements of this play and production that work exceedingly well, the character contortions that populate the third and final scene are so convoluted that it throws the entire play into a baffling ball of confusion.

Terry, a tense and aggressive security guard, is visiting his affluent 35-year-old younger brother Drew at a psychiatric hospital where ex-lawyer Drew is receiving treatment for drunk driving after an accident. Drew wants Terry to talk to the doctors about Drew’s past, particularly the unseemly activities imposed upon him as a child by a charming man named Todd, so Drew can get back to his stately home and family.

It’s clear Terry doesn’t want to be there, saddled once again with another of Drew’s addiction problems, and Terry keeps challenging Drew to be honest with him. As Terry, Sean Derry once again delivers a compelling version of his favorite and oft-seen stage persona: a long-haired, beard-stubbled, grubbily-dressed redneck with a short fuse. But this character begs for a different approach, a person more tightly controlled, even down to his personal appearance.

Still his scenes with Stephen Skiles as Drew crackle with fraternal authenticity as they wrestle verbally and physically with their relationship and the sordid history that haunts them both. Skiles is loose and affable, as many upscale lushes are, and his affected use of juvenile language such as “Dude” and “whatever,” while enraging his brother, seems completely natural.

After a tense if repetitive first scene between the brothers, we follow Terry to a putt-putt course where he engages in conversation with the 16-year-old manager Jennifer. Her identity and the reason for Terry’s presence there aren’t revealed until the last scene. Perhaps due to the fact that the role of Jennifer was being played at this performance by substitute Erika Rylow, this pivotal scene lacked the necessary tension and sexual subtext the play requires.

In that concluding scene, an emotional roller coaster, Terry and Drew confront each other again, this time on the grounds of Drew’s luxurious home during a party. This is when LaBute reveals his shocker involving Terry and a few other fast spin moves that leave the audience in the dust.

This production, co directed by Sean McConaha and Skiles, has a very stripped down feel, since there is virtually no set save for a (broken) bench and the barest suggestion of a miniature golf course. This aspect gets a pass, since B&C has only recently occupied their new space behind Crave restaurant (actually, it’s directly behind the parking lot next door).

In a Dark, Dark House Through Dec. 20 at the
Bang and Clatter Theatre,
behind the parking lot
next to Crave restaurant at
57 E. Market Street,
Akron, 330-606-5317

boom, Cleveland Public Theatre

To see my review of boom, please go here.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Peter Pan, Beck Center

(Michael Mauldin as Captain Hook and John Paul Soto as Peter Pan)

For the past few seasons, Beck Center has celebrated the holidays with a superlative production of the Broadway musical Beauty and the Beast. And while it featured spot on acting performances and stylish choreography, one of the keys to its success was outstanding singing.

This year the Beast has shuffled off the Beck holiday stage, it’s place being taken by a flying boy and a trio of English children named Darling who follow him to the stars. The good news is that this version of Peter Pan is very well acted and sublimely designed and staged. But the lack of superior singing voices, like the ticking croc that stalks Captain Hook, spells the show’s ultimate doom.

This oft-seen musical, with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh and music by Mark Charlap, rolls out the fanciful James Barrie story about Peter Pan, a boy who won’t grow up. This concept may not seem like much of a stretch and not all that charming, especially to the legions of women who have to deal every day with adult males who act like overgrown boys. However, Peter at least has the good sense to play all his eternally boyish games with his little buddies in Neverland, a testosterone fantasyland filled with snarling pirates, marauding Injuns, and lots of running, jumping and fighting.

These are the parts that come across with freshness and verve under the direction of Fred Sternfeld. Managing a large and very young cast, he succeeds in making the scenes with the lost boys and the pirates snap with excitement and spontaneous energy.

This is helped along in no small way by the casting of John Paul Soto as Peter. In a role that is often taken by a woman, who then has to try to butch up, Soto is naturally all-male and he brings a startlingly direct and unabashedly macho perspective to Peter. In other words, this Peter never seems to be boy who’s a bit light in his leafy loafers.

Unfortunately, Soto’s singing just doesn’t match his acting chops, and he has most of the important songs throughout the play. Even though he gets by, barely, in two early songs (“I’ve Got to Crow” and “Neverland”), the demanding evening grinds down Soto’s vocal chords until, by the final reprise of “Neverland,” he’s croaking out any note at all to finish his assignment. For those who recall Mary Martin, or any number of other performers who have played this part, the musical aspect of this Peter Pan will be tough sledding.

But apart from that, this production fairly sizzles with professionalism, in the air and on the ground. The inventive choreography by Martin Cespedes is even better than his usually stellar work, turning often ho-hum dance interludes, such as the first appearance of the Indians, into must-watch sequences. And director Sternfeld knows how to nail the beats so they the story never loses focus and even the smallest kids in the audience can follow the plot and remain engrossed for the three-hour running time (including two intermissions).

The star of the show, however, is Michael Mauldin as both uptight Mr. Darling and snarky Captain Hook. Chewing the scenery with such maniacal delight that he may require extensive dental work after the run, Mauldin luxuriates in every syllable of Hook’s lines and spoken "songs." Putting his own fey twist on the Johnny Depp sissy-pirate trope, and sampling ever so subtly from Cyril Richard’s original performance back in the 1950s, Mauldin often creates laughs with just a glance or a single sound.

Mauldin is ably supported by Brendan Sandham as his first lieutenant Smee. Thin as a bent wire coat hanger, Sandham has perfect timing as he grovels and flinches under the gaze of his captain. Indeed, all the pirates as well as all the lost boys acquit themselves well and with unrelenting vigor. And as Tiger Lilly, the agile leader of the Indians, Alexis Generette Floyd is athletic and adorable.

Even though the show tends to unravel a bit in the third act, during a shipboard fight that is beset by a plethora of awkward moments, this Peter Pan hangs together well in terms of pacing. But musicals are about music, and that’s the part of this review that’s, um, a Pan.

Peter Pan
Through January 4 at the Beck Center,
17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood,

Friday, December 5, 2008

Your Jolly Christmas Show Sampler

(Rockettes as rag dolls in Santa's workshop)

Are you looking for a way to start brimming with joyous holiday spirits? Start by filling your wassail cup to overflowing (3 parts Rum, two parts eggnog—oh hell, forget the eggnog). And then program the song “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings” by the Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan (the coolest carol ever) on an endless loop. Presto, you’re almost an elf already!

Hey, even if the glow this year is dimmed a bit by the fact that our jobs and savings are circling the drain (ho, ho, freaking ho), it’s time to celebrate the season and haul yourself out to the holiday theatrical productions around town.

For the third time in recent years, PlayhouseSquare is presenting the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes of legendary high-kicking fame. The evening is a loose collection of singing and dancing vignettes emceed by none other than Santa, and it’s a cornball extravaganza that will dazzle the little ones and even amuse crotchety oldsters.

Although this version of the Rockettes has only 22 women, as opposed to the traditional line of 36, these leggy gals operate with a degree of precision that is astounding to behold. This blog has, in the past, made sport of audiences who clap like Pavlov’s pooches every time two or more people do a series of high kicks on stage. But in this show, the volleys of applause are well earned.

Whether they are tapping their tails off in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” or kicking up a storm as a matched set of rag dolls, the Rockettes perform with such synchronicity it looks computer generated. And when they execute the slow motion backwards collapse that concludes the amazing “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” a bit that has been performed every year since the troupe’s founding in 1933, you recognize the true definition of a show stopper.

The Rockettes are joined by more than a dozen other singers and dancers, as well as four little people who play elves, dancing baby teddy bears and dancing snowmen. If all this sounds a bit twee for your tastes, the rockin’ Rockettes always manage to bring the show back into focus.

There are several less than sterling elements, including a Santa (Scott Willis) who is a bit too young and too thin (even with padding) to convey the true essence of Old St. Nick. And the Christmas-ornament backdrops now and then look a bit tacky, like discount Christmas card artwork.

Another tradition of this show is the final scene depicting a “Living Nativity,” complete with camels, sheep and a massive crèche. While this rather somber scene is costumed to the hilt, it seems overly didactic (yeah, we get it, the real meaning of Christmas), complete with scrolling copy on a screen that is also delivered by voice-over. The earnestness is admirable, but it doesn’t exactly send the audience out humming a tune.

Of course, there are other Christmas shows in production, just like every year. But unlike every other year, this reviewer is not filing specific reviews of those shows this season. Fact is, I’ve run out of things to say, after reviewing them over and over.

But if you’re unfamiliar, or you need a memory jog, here’s a capsule look:

A Christmas Story at the Cleveland Play House
This stage version of the sweet and wittily nostalgic movie (Ralphie and his “You’ll shoot your eye out!” air rifle) is a sure-fire treat. And Charles Kartali as Dad has steadily improved his ability to swear without ever saying a definable cuss word, as he grapples with his beastly coal-fired furnace.

A Christmas Carol at the Great Lakes Theater Festival
It’s a stellar production that embodies all the humor, fright and ultimate moral lesson of the Dicken’s novel. While the production is different than the classic Alastair Sim movie, accomplished actor Aled Davies will no doubt bring a new approach to Scrooge, a role handled in previous years by Dudley Swetland.

Black Nativity at Karamu House
As directed and choreographed by Terence Greene, this show is a rich, boisterous and often profound retelling of the birth of Christ. The gospel music and the dance sequences alone are worth the price of admission.

The Santaland Diaries at Cleveland Public Theater
Yes, Crumpet the Elf is back, this time in the guise of Sean Booker. But all the David Sedaris witticisms are still in place as we experience what it feels like to be Santa’s helper in Macy’s Christmas fairyland. (And let’s not mince words, fairies are involved here.)

Enjoy…and have a great HOLIDAY! (Eat it, Bill O’Reilly.)

Radio City Christmas Spectacular, through Dec. 28 at the State Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

A Christmas Story, through Dec. 21 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

A Christmas Carol, through Dec. 23 at the Ohio Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, produced by the Great Lakes Theater Festival, 216-241-6000

Black Nativity, through Dec. 28 at Karamu House, 2355 east 89th Street, 216-795 7077

The Santaland Diaries, through Dec. 20 at the Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727