Saturday, December 5, 2009

Gutenberg! The Musical!

(Dane Castle and Chris Richards)

Clearly, we are deep in the era of meta-musicals, those shows that wallow in self-referential, inside-the-biz jokes. Whether it’s Uninetown, Spamalot or the ultimate example called simply [title of show], the gags built around how musicals are created are becoming a tired convention all their own.

In Gutenberg! The Musical!, now at Dobama Theatre, authors Scott Brown and Anthony King lean on the meta aspects of two musical theater nerds (picture any two cast members from the TV show Glee) who are auditioning their play before supposed Broadway producers in the audience. And the result is a frenetic, high-energy exercise that, while funny in spots, lacks the sharp wit and satirical snap one might desire—especially when compared to the similar shows mentioned above.

The two players here, Dane Castle and Chris Richards, represent Bud and Doug, two friends who have thought up this show about the inventor of the mechanical printing press. Swept away by their passion for their script, they begin acting it out on a bare stage even though, in reality, the production they imagine would call for many more bodies and some elaborate set design.

Helpfully, they keep their characters straight by wearing baseball hats with the person’s name or chief observable trait (“Old Black Narrator,” “Anti-Semite”) in big type on the front—much like the lids scuzzy Frank Rossitano wears on 30 Rock. Then, the duo presents the songs and dialog from their show, interspersed with asides from the writers to the invisible producers in the seats.

This structure keeps Bud and Doug hustling, and they generate some laughs as they lay out their “historical fiction” which, in their opinion, means “fiction that is true.” So their fictionally true Gutenberg is a wine merchant who decides to turn his wine press into a printing press when he realizes that no one in his town can read, evidently because there are no books available. In this pre-Steven King time, that means: no bibles.

Gutenberg has a love interest, appropriately named Helvitica, and a nemesis in the evil Monk who wants to keep God’s word from being disseminated to the masses. And, for gravitas, the boys throw in some foreshadowing references to the Holocaust.

All of this is played loud, brash and fast, which is about the only way it could be done. Director Marc Moritz keeps the scenes whizzing by as Bud and Doug work their way through a collection of songs that have brutally amateurish lyrics (part of the joke, you see). For instance, Helvetica croons in “I Can’t Read,” “His brain is bigger than my brain/ He can spell and count by two’s/He’s so smart and good and stuff/And all I have is boobs.”

This kind of college-level humor is funny for a while, but eventually the running jokes (every building features “a roof made of dirty thatch”) begin to get winded. And the hilarity particularly starts to decline in the second act, which feels like it has nowhere to go.

However, little of the blame can be laid at the feet of Castle and Richards, who play their various roles with every ounce of gusto they can muster. Castle, who facially looks like a cross between young Albert Brooks and (dare we say it?) Steve Gutenberg, is endearing as Bud and makes a fetching Helvetica. But his nasty Monk is never quite the wacked-out figure he should be; his Monk needs a large dollop of the Brother Theodore vibe. Richards is equally appealing as Doug and aptly heroic as Gutenberg, but his singing voice tends to grate after a while.

If you have a generous tolerance for silly, brash and stupid, Gutenberg! does not disappoint. But if you want something a tad more sophisticated, this show may not be quite your, um, type.

Gutenberg! The Musical!
Through January 2 at Dobama Theatre,
2340 Lee Road, 216-932-3396

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mamma Mia!, PlayhouseSquare

(The Crayola-garbed Mamma Mia! cast in mid-frolic)

There are some shows that defy critical comment, because the sheer energy of the production and the effusive love coming back from the audience overwhelms rational thought. And sometimes, that’s not all bad.

Mamma Mia! now playing the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare is just such a phenomenon, a musical stitched together around the songs (by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) ,of the sizzling 1970’s group ABBA. Viewed from one perspective, Mamma Mia! is a cheese-fest of monumental proportions, featuring pop songs and an unbelievable book by Catherine Johnson in a candy-colored setting. Then again, the songs have beats that are as immediately infectious as H1N1, and since the show doesn’t take itself seriously it is virtually immunized against carping words.

20-year-old Sophie is getting married on the idyllic Greek isle where she lives with her ex-rocker mom Donna, who owns a small taverna. But Sophie doesn’t know who her dad is, so she invites three dudes Danna apparently bonked back in the day (thanks to a fast jaunt through mom’s old diary) and they all show up.And the aging boys interact with Donna's old gal pals, Rosie and Tanya, who were once her back-up singers.

This sit-com storyline really only exists to allow the assembled to sing almost a couple dozen ABBA songs such as “Dancing Queen,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and “Take a Chance on Me.” Some of the tunes are integrated well into the proceedings, while others are a forced fit. But most are genuine toe-tappers, accompanied by the low rumbling of audience members who are singing along without missing a beat.

On this opening night, stand-in Rachel Tyler sang the central role of Donna with power, ably supported by Kittra Wynn Coomer as stocky Rosie and stand-in Katy Blake as sexy Tanya. As Sophie, Liana Hunt has a rather fragile and wispy singing voice, even for an ingénue. And her main squeeze ,Sky, was played by yet another stand-in, Bradley Whitfield, a young fellow with a better physique than stage charisma.

But as was said, none of this really matters once the songs start working their insistent magic. And by the time the post-curtain call mini-concert of reprised songs is done, you’ll probably be standing and clapping along with all the other Mamma Mia! acolytes. Don’t fight it; it’s bigger than you.

Mamma Mia!
Through November 15 at the
Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare,
1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Proper Murder, Theater Ninjas

(Emily Pucell as Marie and Sebastian Hawkes Orr as Woyzeck)

The alienation and ultimate destruction of a man who wants to be rational and moral sounds pretty contemporary, especially these days as the tea baggers and birthers shout down anyone who pauses for a moment of actual thought. But Georg Buchner, a German dramatist, got there way back in the 1830’s with his play Woyzeck, a fragmentary and impressionistic tale of, as the Theater Ninjas call it, A Proper Murder.

It’s a devilishly difficult script to bring to life, as it has very few right angles or traditional scenes that come to neat conclusions. This requires the audience to engage the material with an open mind and a sense of adventure. And if you do, you find yourself rewarded by a tight and energetic production under the direction of Jeremy Paul.

Woyzeck (an tortured Sebastian Hawkes Orr) is a barber who is trying to get a grip on his life. But those in the upper classes, such as a Captain and a Doctor (Elaine Feagler and Katelyn Cornelius respectively, who each play additional roles), continually beat Woyzeck down. The play abounds with animal imagery and it often seems that horses are more valued by society than those grubbing about in the lower class, like Woyzeck.

Progressively dehumanized, Woyzeck begins giving in to his hallucinations and snaps when he sees his mistress Marie (a self-loathing Emily Pucell) coming on to a drum major (Val Kozlenko). And that leads to the violent confrontation mentioned above.

While there are some telling lines—Woyzeck in his delusion sees the place where he sliced Marie and says, “Why is that red thread around your neck?”—the power of the play is abstract. And it probably will remain so for many.

This is the kind of play that one wishes was presented as “Rehearsing Woyzeck,” for it would be fascinating to hear director Paul as he guides the actors through this dense work. Failing that, this one-hour production is a dandy workout for your cerebellum, and an early example of the kind of theater that later playwrights would delve into with gusto.

A Proper Murder
Through Nov. 21 by the Theater Ninjas at
Asterisk Gallery, 2393 Professor Avenue,
Tremont, 216-539-0662

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Yellowman, Karamu Performing Arts Theatre

(Kristi Little as Alma and Kyle Primous as Eugene)

As a white rookie teacher in an all-black school in Cleveland, way back in 1968, I was wary about how my skin color would be accepted in my six overcrowded classrooms. But I was shocked to learn that color tensions were readily apparent among the students themselves—with even the smallest hallway dust-ups peppered with barbed taunts about this boy’s blackness or that girl’s fairer skin.

It was surprising that such intra-racial bigotry existed , and many of those jolts are incorporated in Yellowman, now at the Karamu Performing Arts Theatre. Written with poetic precision and an almost primal sensuality by Dael Orlandersmith, this script offers two actors the chance for side-by-side tour-de-force performances. And this Karamu duo, under the tight direction of Fred Sternfeld, accomplishes exactly that.

As we watch Alma and Eugene grow up in a small South Carolina black community, we see how their respective colors and physiques (he’s “high yellow,” she’s darker and a bit hefty) influence their self-perceptions as well as their relationships with family and friends. Alma’s alcoholic mother berates her daughter at every turn, and Eugene develops a festering hatred for his duskier skinned father who seems to despise Eugene for the “pretty” skin tone he inherited from his mother.

Written in alternating monologues with intermittent passages of dialogue, the playwright fashions indelible descriptions of black women working the fields, sweating in the dresses they wear to preserve a shred of femininity. (But the dresses only succeed in making them look larger.) And later, when Alma moves to New York City, she describes how she walks differently in a place filled with new and seductive rhythms spilling out of nightclubs.

Somewhere in the middle of the play, one begins to chafe at the constant references to color—don’t these people have any other conflicts or issues in their life? But then it becomes clear that Orlandersmith is using the repetition as a poet or a jazz musician does, to play variations on a thematic issue that has a powerful and often insurmountable impact on the characters' psyche and outlook. And this is universal, since who among us hasn’t been rendered vulnerable in some way by how we look, and how we are perceived. Using that foundation, the play builds to a shattering conclusion that, while a tad overwrought, has its own undeniable strength.

As Eugene, Kyle Primous is amusingly believable as a goofy grade schooler and compelling as a young man harboring a roiling discontent. Kristi Little brings to Alma a shattering sense of personal emptiness, having been hollowed out by her mother’s constant carping. And together, they leverage each other’s neediness to create a sexual chemistry and a fierce bonding that threatens to torch Richard H. Morris, Jr.’s handsome wooden platform set.

Director Sternfeld, the maestro of the massive musical uber-production, here is working with about 76 fewer actors than usual. But he keeps every beat change razor sharp and brings out poignant dimensions of these two beautifully written characters.

This is a magnificent production, with nary a stick of furniture or a single set change to distract from performances that will stick in your mind for a long time to come.

Through November 22 at the
Karamu Performing Arts Theatre,
2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7077

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Inherit the Wind, Cleveland Play House

(Scott Jaeck as Drummond interrogates Ed Dixon as Brady)

It is literally impossible to imagine the star power that was on hand when Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan duked it out in the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial. Their intellectual jousting is captured in Inherit the Wind, a revival of the 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee now at the Cleveland Play House.

This is just the kind of show the Play House should knock out of the park, and it does thanks to two stellar performances in the lead roles, supported by a phalanx of local acting talent. And while a couple of director Seth Gordon’s decisions can be parsed, there is little room for kvetching. This is a primo evening of engrossing theater.

Of course, the Scopes Trial was all about the evolution debate—a contretemps that continues, sadly, to this day. But this clash of titans that took place in the super-religious south featured two larger-than-life personalities. Darrow (called Henry Drummond in this fictionalized account) was a precursor of colorful attorneys to come such as F. Lee Bailey, Johnnie Cochran and Melvin Belli. An avowed agnostic and sharp-tongued wit, Drummond has the best lines in the play.

Bryan is represented on stage as Matthew Harrison Brady, a famous lawyer who nearly won three presidential elections and served as Secretary of State. But he is also a devout Christian and Bible scholar, and he is in town to prosecute high school teacher Bertram Cates for violating state law, and the scriptures, by presenting Darwin’s theory of evolution to his students.

As Brady, Ed Dixon has the stout physicality and resonant voice to convey an intimidating presence. But Scott Jaeck's Drummond is every inch his match, walking and sitting with a slouch but rising in indignant fury when he sees individuality and rationality being trampled by what he sees as backwards religious dogma.

Everything culminates in the second act courtroom confrontation, when Drummond—having had all his scientific witnesses disallowed—calls Brady to the stand to answer questions about the Bible. Director Gordon has the two play this as a virtual comedy routine, with Drummond repeatedly getting the punch lines. This approach generates lots of laughs, but by downplaying the inherent drama it weakens the credibility of Brady’s disintegration in the moments after the jury verdict, in which Cates is found guilty (as, of course, was Scopes).

Scott Plate as E.K. Hornbeck handles the role of the cynical visiting journalist from Baltimore (the H.L. Mencken character) with arrogant good humor bordering precariously on parody. And Mark Alan Gordon, as the local preacher Reverend Jeremiah Brown, is a dour and unmoving religious dinosaur. However, his act one fire and brimstone sermon might have been more riveting had he not been positioned upstage, where he’s far away from the audience and we can only see the backs of his adoring crowd, not their rapt faces.

Sarah Nedwek has a number of telling moments as the conflicted Rachel (she’s fond of Cates, but the daughter of the Reverend), and Tom White makes Cates himself a believable scapegoat in this tussle of church and state separation.

After watching it all again, you may be amazed and bewildered that some states and local school districts are still trying to ban the teaching of evolution. That fact, ironically, may be one piece of evidence against Darwin’s theory: some people, apparently, remain fossils forever.

Inherit the Wind
Through November 15 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

Friday, October 16, 2009

Young Frankenstein, PlayhouseSquare

(Shuler Hensley as the Monster and Roger Bart as Frankenstein)

In stage musicals, there’s a fine line between a send-up and a pop-up. When you attempt to poke fun at a collection of Broadway styles and schtick, as Young Frankenstein, now at the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare, seeks to do, you can either succeed in piercing those hoary pretensions (Spamalot wittily accomplished this) or trammel them into mush, as this parody of a parody sadly does.

Comedic genius Mel Brooks wrote the music and lyrics, and co-authored the book with Thomas Meehan, all based on the movie of the same name Brooks wrote with Gene Wilder. But there is more bland filler and floor sweepings in this elaborately staged production than in a truckload of Walmart wienies.

In brief, the story follows Frederick Frankenstein as he returns to his family home in Transylvania to claim the spooky castle he has inherited. In quick order he meets the weird castle servants including the humpback Igor and Frau Blucher. With the help of lab assistant Inga, Frankenstein (again, as in the flick, he insists on “Fronkensteen”) sets about to reanimate the dead, and off we go.

Trouble is, instead of a spirited romp we are led on a forced march through various Great White Way musical genres—a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan here, a bit of Sondheim there—which all feel formulaic and not terribly funny. As directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, the entire enterprise seems rather worn and not at all surprising.

It’s unusual for a touring production to feature a couple leads who played those same roles on Broadway, but here we have Roger Bart reprising as Frankenstein and Shuler Hensley as the Monster. This is not totally good news. Bart performs with the loose effortlessness of a late-afternoon lounge singer in an off-the-strip Las Vegas casino. He knows show biz, babe, and he knows what he’s doing. So he’s not about to expend any unnecessary energy on your behalf.

Also, by continually winking at his character and his own performance, Bart eliminates the straight man from this comedy formula, so that the really weird characters like Igor, Blucher and the Monster have no one to lean against and ignite sparks. Hensley does well with his duties as the freshly animated monster. But Cory English as Igor is only amusing in micro-bursts, and Joanna Glushak’s Frau Blucher is just dull in those few moments when her guttural accent is understandable.

It’s a shame that people, one of whom created The Producers and the other who directed The Lion King would come up with such a tiresome cavalcade of worn out burlesque bits, predictable gags and seen-it dance numbers. Just goes to show, you have be careful about the monsters you create.

Young Frankenstein
Through October 25 at the Palace Theatre,
PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue,

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Twelfth Night, Great Lakes Theater Festival

(David Anthony Smith as Malvolio, in the midst of a punking by Sir Toby Belch and his cohorts.)

If you enjoy a play with a substantial number of gecks* and coistrels**, along with lovers, jokers and a drooling and farting drunkard, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is your cup o’ mead.

And in this admirable production by the Great Lakes Theater Festival, director Charles Fee has nicely balanced the humorous, romantic and musical aspects of the play to fashion an evening of untrammeled enjoyment.

Complete with gender-bending tricks and outright practical jokes, Twelfth Night is one of Will’s most fanciful romantic comedies. And GLTF has plunked it down in an imaginary Persian-Moroccan setting of Illyria replete with tiled floors, elaborate screen walls and up-tempo scene change music that makes you want to get up and start whirling. But it’s best to restrain yourself, since the aisles are constantly filled with actors zipping on and off stage as this story of mistaken identities and yearning for love plays out.

On the romantic side of the equation, shipwrecked Viola disguises herself as young lad named Cesario, to avoid getting hit on. She is soon in the employ of Duke Orsino, who directs him/her to take his love notes to the lovely Countess Olivia. But Olivia is in a prolonged state of mourning over her brother’s death, so she’s not up for making whoopee with the Duke or anyone.

That is, until she lays eyes on Cesario, and soon Olivia flips over this slight blond dude. As Cesario, Sara M. Bruner cuts a rather dashing figure and executes some amusing double-takes as she sees Olivia swooning in her direction. Jodi Dominick convincingly portrays Olivia in the throes of sadness, but she doesn’t allow Olivia’s quickly evolving love for Cesario to play across her face as much as she might.

On the comedic side, Olivia’s besotted uncle Sir Toby Belch and his buddy, the flouncing and shallow Sir Andrew Aguecheek, show up to swill wine and party until the dawn. Always on the lookout for a new prank, Belch encourages Aguecheek to pursue his hopeless dream of wooing Olivia. He is joined in this sport by Olivia’s mischievous gentlewoman Maria and the clown Feste.

As Belch, Andrew May is a super-saturated souse from his red nose to his stumbling feet, and he generates plenty of laughter without tipping over (so to speak) into sheer burlesque. Ian Gould is equally amusing as Aguecheek, posing in mock grandeur when not cowering at the slightest hint of conflict or confrontation. Laura Perrotta’s Maria serves as an incisive, clever counterpoint to those two buffoons, while Eduardo Placer speaks and sings the role of Feste with gusto.

But some of the biggest guffaws come from David Anthony Smith, who makes Olivia’s priggish steward Malvolio a deserving butt of everyone’s jokes. His scene, when Malvolio tries to suss out the meaning of a fake love letter from Olivia, is a comedic gem as Smith sensuously chews every syllable like it was a slice of Corbo’s cassata cake.

Twelfth Night, properly done, should feel like a party, just like the Christmas holiday for which it is named. And this production by Great Lakes is a bash you shouldn’t miss.

* idiots
** scoundrels

Twelfth Night
Through November 1 at the Great Lakes
Theater Festival, PlayhouseSquare, at the
Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th Street,

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Man Who Came to Dinner, Ensemble Theatre

(James Kisicki as Sheridan Whiteside, David Hundertmark as Mr. Stanley and Marcia Mandell as Mrs. Stanley)

When Lucia and Licia Colombi, the twin sisters who founded Ensemble Theatre, died within months of each other earlier this year, the fate of the theater was in question. After all, the Colombis had guided the group through 29 years of productions at various locations, with passion, skill and determination.

Well, some new principals players have emerged, including Martin Cosentino as Managing Director and Bernard Canepari as Artistic Director. And under their leadership, Ensemble opens its 30th season with an old comedy chestnut: George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner.

This 1939 tale of an irascible radio star, Sheridan Whiteside, who is forced to spend weeks recuperating in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley in Mesalia, Ohio has delighted generations of theater audiences and movie fans. It features a galaxy of quirky roles and a non-stop downpour of inventive insults from the guest of honor.

Of course the material is a bit mildewed; many references to Whiteside’s celebrity friends will soar over the heads of anyone less than 40 (or 50?) years old. So it rests on capable comedic actors refining their timing and creating memorable characters to carry the day.

Under the spirited direction of Brian Zoldessy, the results for the Ensemble cast are mixed, with some superior performances dimmed slightly by other less successful efforts. But overall this Man is quite entertaining, even if it’s not the rib-cracking laugh fest it could be.

The biggest plus of the production resides exactly where it should, in the role of Whiteside himself. Longtime local commercial voice-over talent James Kisicki wallows happily in the snarky lines Kaufman and Hart provide. Although not imposing in stature, Kisicki has a booming voice and immense stage presence, making Whiteside both fearsome, hilarious and at some moments even cute.

Kisicki’s character is matched, ego point for ego point, by Greg Violand’s Beverly Carlton, an over-the-top Hollywood actor and singer modeled on Noel Coward. Although he’s only on stage for one scene, Violand is a stitch, and he’s so funny he even manages to overcome his dull and ultimately nonsensical song solo, “What Am I To Do” (a donation to the playwrights from Cole Porter—beware of songwriters bearing gifts).

Also excellent is Zoldessy doing double duty as Whiteside’s buddy Banjo, a hyperactive skirt-chaser clearly fashioned in the likeness of Harpo Marx. And Bobby Thomas (another veteran of area recording booths) does a splendid job as the relentlessly upbeat yet hapless Dr. Bradley, who is trying to shove his voluminous autobiography under Whiteside’s nose.

Virtually every other member of the large cast has a stellar moment or two, but there are enough flat deliveries and missed beats to undercut the delicate comedic momentum this play relies upon. So the last couple scenes, which should be riotous, come off as curiously sedate.

But in total this is a fine re-start for Ensemble Theatre. And the hope is that, with other theaters closing their doors, the Ensemble group can stay open and keep producing the fine fare they have in the past.

The Man Who Came to Dinner
Through October 25 produced by the Ensemble Theatre,
at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue,

Friday, October 2, 2009

Dixie’s Tupperware Party, PlayhouseSquare

(Dixie, dressed for success in the Tupperware world.)

If you’ve ever wanted to be instructed by a drag queen on how to keep your fingers dry when extracting an olive immersed in a liquid-filled container, this is the show for you.

Dixie’s Tupperware Party, now being presented by PlayhouseSquare at the 14th Street Theatre, is exactly what the title suggests. Yes, you can actually buy some of the “Tupperware-branded crap” that is displayed and discussed in the show. Yes, it’s a party, filled with loads of drinking references, a couple allusions to drugs, and mild-to-racy double entendres. And finally yes, Dixie is played by a man, Kris Andersson, who wrote this one-man show with Elizabeth Meriwether.

Of course, in the world of home-based retailing, Tupperware parties have been trumped by parties featuring exotic massage oils and tubular, battery-powered massaging devices. But Dixie is an old fashioned gal, a single mom with questionable (and perhaps felonious) parenting skills, a potty mouth and a non-stop Tupperware riff.

It’s the underlying honesty of the pitch that makes this show fun (even though it does go on a bit too long). Dixie/Kris is, in actuality, a Tupperware salesperson, and she/he genuinely loves these products. She’s not making fun of them, or of anyone who would want to buy plastic tumblers with seal-tight lids featuring a hole for a straw that “closes up like a vagina” when the straw is removed, to prevent spills.

Dixie’s from Alabama, so she speaks in a rapid-fire southern drawl, often repeating phrases over and over, and intentionally slurring words or phrases that she finds too long or boringly complicated. And while the show is scripted, much of the fun comes from audience participation as a couple lucky attendees win a raffle and go on stage to collect their prize and/or verbal tweaking.

Dixie also covers the history of Tupperware, from the inventive inspiration of Earl Tupper to the marketing genius of Brownie Wise, an average housewife who thought up the parties in the first place and became a Tupperware executive. Even amid the guffaws, the playwright’s fondness for Brownie as a pioneering female in business, back in the patriarchal 1950s, comes through loud and clear.

Also, every audience member is given a Tupperware catalog and an order form, and Dixie installs herself in the lobby after the show to pose for pictures and take orders. (I told you she was serious about this.)

On a bare stage with only a table full of plastic products and an overhead screen to show Tupperware close-ups and some less-than-effective brief video clips, Dixie rules the evening. And you’ll come away with a smile on your face and, maybe, some Tupperware arriving on your porch in the near future.

(By the way, you keep your olive-picking fingers dry by using the Tupperware Pick-A-Deli®, which employs a lift-up strainer to raise the slippery little buggers out of the fluid.)

Dixie’s Tupperware Party
Through October 18, presented by
PlayhouseSquare at the 14th Street Theatre,
2037 East 14th Street, 216-241-6000

(photo: Bradford Rogne)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fiddler on the Roof, Beck Center

(George Roth as Tevye and Adina Bloom as Golde)

There are many ways to slice a production of a well-known show, such as Fiddler on the Roof. You can emphasize the comedy in the first act, or turn up the volume on the drama of the second act. You can make it a star vehicle for the actor playing Tevye or you can focus on the ensemble scenes and dances.

This production at the Beck Center is a comfortable melding of all those elements, but it lacks the memorable high points that often accompany such a classic piece.

Over the past 45 years, the book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick have taken up residence in our collective consciousness. Songs such as “If I Were a Rich Man, “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “Matchmaker” can unspool instantly in our cranial iPod.

Director Paul Gurgol brings out the humanity of Fiddler, working with a cast that never soars when either speaking or singing, but which always has a clear fix on their characters and the sad arc of Jewish life in Tsarist Russia at the turn of the 20th century.

As Tevye, George Roth delivers a sweet and nuanced performance. A remarkably generous actor (I don’t mean he tips heavily at Around the Corner) and a capable singer, Roth’s milkman blends easily with both family members and friends in the tiny town of Anatevka. Without the gargantuan comedic chops of Zero Mostel, who played the role originally on Broadway, or the age and authenticity of Chaim Topol, who is scheduled to appear as Tevye at PlayhouseSquare next June, Roth succeeds by making Tevye tender and fully committed to his family and his God.

In the role of Golde, Tevye’s wife, Adina Bloom sings very well but doesn’t have quite enough attitude to engender Tevye’s boot-shaking trepidation, when he imagines telling her bad news about their daughters’ marital exploits.

The voices in the rest of the cast range from good to merely adequate, so that none of the songs reach the heights one might expect. But the choreography by Lisa K. Lock is energetic, with a stirring ensemble dance in the opening “Tradition.” And scenic designer Russ Borski and lighting designer Trad A. Burns conjure some lovely tableaux.

While not a Fiddler for the ages, this production sends you away with a warm feeling of hope even as Tevye's world collapses around him. And that’s no small achievement.

Fiddler on the Roof
Through October 18 at the Beck Center,
17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood,

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Great Lakes Theater Festival

(Aled Davies leads the troupe in Edwin Drood)

DIY is very big these days, what with the recession inspiring or forcing all of us to save money and do things for ourselves. While do-it-yourself may work out fairly well for minor faucet repairs and income tax preparation (hey, it’s a snap when you have no income), it might be a dicey prospect when it comes to writing the ending of a musical.

But that is one of the interesting aspects of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, now at the Great Lakes Theater Festival. Written top to bottom by Rupert Holmes—yes, the guy who wrote the aggravatingly memorable Escape (The Pina Colada Song)—Drood is based on Charles Dickens’ last, unfinished novel. And the audience is called upon to help the actors finish the story at the point Dickens had laid down his pen and, after a devastating stroke, began his dirt nap.

This makes sense in context, since in this telling the Drood play is being mounted by a Victorian music hall troupe that is eager to please the audience, no matter what. This is a motley crew whose dancers double as ladies of pleasure and whose master of ceremonies, the redoubtable Mr. William Cartwright, pauses the action of the play to introduce popular actors as they appear on stage and toss off terrible jokes (“The church bell won’t ring tonight, because the vicar’s got the clapper!”). The play structure results in every GLTF actor playing two parts: the actor in the troupe along with his or her assigned role in the mystery.

As for the mystery itself, Edwin Drood, played by the English troupe’s famed male impersonator Miss Alice Nutting, is engaged to sweet song thrush Rosa Bud. But the swarthy and villainous John Jasper, Rosa’s music master, has designs on Rosa. And so does Neville Landless, an immigrant from Ceylon who has landed in England along with his exotic sister Helena.

Along the way, we meet the Princess Puffer, doyenne of an opium den which Jasper patronizes and where some clues are dropped about the imminent disappearance of Drood. We know these are clues because Cartwright stops the action and helpfully points them out.

As directed by Victoria Bussert, and under the astute musical direction of Matthew Webb, this is a lively and engaging free-for-all, and the GLTF cast handles it with an abundance of cheerful, tongue-in-cheek exuberance. Utilizing precise timing for takes and double takes, and having fun with the cheesy effects the troupe employs (an arm can be seen throwing fake snow into an open doorway, and the actors wave their own coats and gowns to suggest a blast of wind), the production is spirited throughout.

In the linchpin role of Cartwright, Aled Davies maintains firm control of the sometimes anarchic proceedings, and milks his various asides for all the laughter possible. As Jasper, Jonas Cohen has an appropriate dark and brooding look, and enough of a singing voice to carry his tunes. His fast-paced duet with Cartwright, “Both Sides of the Coin,” is a show highlight.

Sara M. Bruner is swaggering and confident as Drood (although her hissy fit as Alice Nutting could stand a bit more attitude), while Emily Leonard As Rosa trills nicely in her solo “Moonfall.” Other standouts include Ian Gould, who plays frustrated stand-in Mr. Phillip Bax, and Eduaedo Placer, whose Cheshire grin almost swallows his face as the volatile Neville Landless.

The excellent actor Laura Perrotta does what she can with Princess Puffer, but the role really requires a woman with more physical and vocal heft. And although Matthew Wright holds his own as Reverend Crisparkle (Neville and Helena’s sponsor), one wonders what hilarity might have ensued had GLTF stalwart David Anthony Smith been in the role.

In all, Drood is light as fluff and thoroughly enjoyable. And we assume this will hold true no matter which ending your audience votes for.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Through November 1 at the Great Lakes
Theater Festival, 2067 E. 14th Street,

Friday, September 25, 2009

Private Lives, Lakeland Theatre

(Emily Pucell and Sebastian Orr are dazzling as Amanda and Elyot)

It might seem that producing an airy, feather-light comedy would be a rather easy task. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, such light bits of fluff are demanding on both actors and director, since the timing, pace and characterizations must be close to perfect lest the meringue fall flat into a gooey lump.

Private Lives by Noel Coward, wickedly witty and gaily mischievous, is just such a delicate creation. And the current production at the Lakeland Theatre, on the Lakeland Community College campus, turns out to be a frothy meringue of the first magnitude.

Although there are five cast members in this show, it is essentially a two-person prizefight between Elyot and Amanda, two upper class English folk with enough time and money to focus all their attentions—both cuddly and snarky—on each other. And under the pitch-perfect direction of Martin Friedman, actors Sebastian Orr and Emily Pucell deliver a thoroughly polished, completely delightful rendition of this whirling hate-love-hate-love-hate-love relationship.

Having divorced each other before the show begins, Elyot and Amanda each show up on adjoining balconies at the French Riviera with their new spouses, Sibyl and Victor. It doesn’t take long for Elyot and Amanda to share a glance, then a cocktail, and then fly off to Paris to restart their tumultuous life together.

From the start, Orr is every inch the dapper yet mercurial Elyot. Coming across like a slim, elegant David Niven, Orr makes this essentially over-the-top character remarkably believable and, always, a joy to behold. And the lovely Pucell is his equal in all ways, snapping off Coward’s pithy bon mots (“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”) with charming precision.

Orr and Pucell’s time together on stage (and it is ample) covers all the bases—from tender cooing to physical blows. And it all works sublimely well, with the transitions employing stretches of silence that magnify both the tension and the comedy. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence doing it much better in the original stage production back in 1931.

Among the supporting characters, Alison Bencar picks up the Coward vibe and handles the irritating role of the uber-feminine Sibyl with style. But as dull Victor, Joshua D. Brown emanates a drabness that is less "dowdy Brit all at sea" and more middle manager at Avery Dennison. However, Brown rallies a bit in the final act when Victor and Sibyl get into their own spat. As the maid Louise, Christina Dennis handles the French accent but can’t quite find her comedic hook.

Still, this is one play where the two leads must carry the day. And in this production, Orr and Pucell are so good you want to pack them up and take them home with you.

Private Lives
Through October 11 at the Lakeland Theatre,
Lakeland Community College, Rt. 306 and Rt. 90,
Kirtland, 440-525-7526

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fabulation, or the Re-education of Undine, Karamu

(Like the "Queen of Mean" Leona Helmsley, Undine is an arrogant businesswoman brought low.)

Whether it’s the infinite incarceration of Bernie Madoff or the New England Patriots losing (any time), we all enjoy seeing the high and mighty brought down to earth. And that’s what happens to an arrogant 37-year-old African-American woman in Fabulation, or the Re-education of Undine by Lynn Nottage, now at the Karamu Performing Arts Theatre.

Undine is a hard-charging, self-made phenom who runs her own celebrity PR firm with a sharp tongue and an iron fist. But all that changes early on when her accountant informs her that her jet-set Argentine husband has absconded with all her money. And on top of it all, she’s pregnant.

The bulk of the play then deals with Undine’s journey back to her roots, to her family in the Brooklyn projects that she hasn’t visited in 14 years. That’s the family she thought she had left behind for good—even intimating to one interviewer that they all died in a tragic fire some years before.

But her past is all there, including a grandmother who pretends to be a diabetic to hide her heroin addiction, a brother Flow who is continually fashioning rap rhymes, and some old friends who have moved on in their own ways.

Structured around various cultural and ethnic stereotypes, Fabulation is studded with many witticisms and clever insights. And the production, directed by Caroline Jackson Smith, comes very close to capturing the right tempo and vibe of what should be a fast-paced comedy of contemporary manners.

But everything plays a beat too slowly, turning scenes that could have been crisp and piercing into something more blurred. This is seen in the performance of Kimberly May as Undine. At the start, May shoots for the breezy bitchiness of Leona Helmsley but can’t quite capture the smooth, unimpeded selfishness that’s required. As a result, her “decline and fall” doesn’t feel as precipitous or as compelling as it might have.

But May has some good moments, particularly in a scene in a rehab counseling session where Undine (who was arrested while helpfully buying smack for granny) makes up a personal drug history and then sort of laments the fact that she never lived that colorful life. That is just one of the twists Nottage throws into the mix, twists that make Fabulation almost fabulous.

Among the supporting actors, who play multiple roles, there are some who succeed in crafting the fast, easily recognizable characters the script demands. Brenda Adrine is perfect as a high-attitude inmate Undine meets after the arrest, and Joseph Primes is solid as Undine’s rigid father and as Guy, a recovering addict who falls for the revamped Undine.

Stacey Malone is sharp as Undine’s friend Allison. And she and Andrea Belser share a nice scene as Undine’s “Double Dutch” pals from school. While Tony Zanoni does a fine job as the first confessional addict in the group session, his drug dealer character is unintentionally comical due to a wacky walking style.

Some productions are largely dependent on finding and maintaining a presentation style that teeters on a knife-edge, between too broad and too safe. Fabulation came close to getting that balance right on opening weekend, and it is hoped it will only improve as the run continues.

Fabulation, or the Re-education of Undine
Through October 11, at Karamu Performing Arts Theatre,
2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7077

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beethoven, As I Knew Him, Cleveland Play House

(Hershey Felder as Gerhard von Breuning, a friend of Ludwig van Beethoven )

It’s always fascinating to explore the lives of geniuses, for their minds work in ways most of us (who are still trying to figure out how a Slinky works) can never imagine. This is why Hershey Felder has achieved some renown by dealing with famous composers--George Gershwin, Frederic Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven--in his self-written, one-man shows.

The third leg of Felder’s composer troika, Beethoven, As I Knew Him, is now on the Cleveland Play House stage. And while it has some fine moments it doesn’t have the zest and lilt of the pianist-actor’s tribute to George Gershwin, which played the Play House two years ago.

Part of this no doubt is due to the subject matter. It must have been dark inside Ludwig’s mind, what with his troubled childhood, marked by outrageous physical abuse by his father, and Ludwig’s descent into deafness as an adult.

The high points of Felder’s performance all consist of his piano playing; he is a sensitive keyboard artist who is clearly devoted to his subject matter. So when he essays the Moonlight Sonata or bits of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, the music has the power to transport.

But Felder is less able as a writer. The high (and often the low) points of Ludwig’s life are laid out, as the title suggests, by Gerhard von Breuning, the son of a man who was Beethoven’s close friend. But the facts seem clumsily stitched together, as if from a Wikipedia profile. Felder the playwright never pauses long enough to allow us to examine what really made Beethoven tick, and so the narrative part of the play feels like a clever lecture by an inventive professor—not a transformative performance by a theatrical craftsman.

This impression is reinforced by Felder’s less-than-consummate skills as an actor. Employing a variety of German accents, some of which border on Mel Brooks’ borscht belt-style burlesque, Felder plays a variety of different people without clearly defining anyone. And more than a few words and sentences are lost in the guttural barrage.

What does come across is the sad life Beethoven led. Much of this darkness is captured in the set, originally designed by the Arizona Theatre Company, and in the lighting by designer Richard Norwood. Felder is surrounded by blackness for all of the 100-minute show, with the only supporting visuals being some eerie images projected on a large book-shaped screen behind the grand piano.

But we never glimpse the ray of light that pierced Beethoven’s tortured existence, the beam of inspiration that clearly illuminated his stunning musical genius. And that makes this journey into the world of Beethoven more like a glib drive-by—it whets the appetite but does little more.

Beethoven, As I Knew Him
Through October 4 at the Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hi-Fi Concert Club

(Dan Folino as Hedwig)

When by the mighty hand of Jove
It was the sad story/How we became
Lonely two-legged creatures
It’s the story of/The origin of love

Yes, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is back in town. The text by John Cameron Mitchell and the punk-rock music and lyrics by Stephen Trask are still perfectly attuned to this story about a search for wholeness. But since it’s now occupying the small stage at the Hi-Fi Concert Club in Lakewood, the show has an even more intense vibe than it had in its previous incarnation at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Hedwig starts life as Hansel, an East German girlyboy, but he wants to run off with an American GI, Luther Robinson. So Hansel and his mother decide to arrange for a sex change operation, with ghastly results:

A one inch mound of flesh with a scar running down it/
Like a sideways grimace/On an eyeless face/
Just a little bulge/It was an angry inch.

Back in the title role he created at CPT, Dan Folino captures the screeching pain of Hedwig in that song. But he also finds much of the humor, be it light-hearted or mordant, which drives both Hedwig and this show. (At one point, Hedwig starts to light a cigarette, looks at the “No Smoking” symbol on the wall of the club, and slaps on a nicotine patch.)

And when it’s time to be self-reflective, Folino nails the sweet lyricism of “Wig in a Box:”

I put on some makeup/And some Lavern Baker/
And pull the wig down from the shelf/
Suddenly I’m Miss Beehive 1963/
Until I wake up/And turn back to myself.

When Hedwig sets off to support himself with his band, the Angry Inch, he meets young Tommy Speck and they write some songs together. Later, using the stage name that Hedwig gives him, Tommy Gnosis goes on to soaring fame while Hedwig is stuck playing to a few people in seedy dives.

Folino’s virtually non-stop 90-minute performance features still another transition of Hedwig: into his object of love-hate, the very same Tommy Gnosis. This rich collection of morphing identities and stunted love is supported by a tight four-person rock band led by music director Dennis Yurich.

Director Alison Garrigan keeps the pace brisk without rushing any beats, and she doubles as Yitzhak, the Jewish drag queen whom Hedwig routinely abuses physically and mentally. Her moment of new-found freedom, when Hedwig/Tommy finally lifts the boot off her neck, is lovely and magical.

Considering the tight quarters, this Hedwig still manages to pull off some impressive lighting effects, and just enough theatrical pizzazz—thanks to some clever semi-animated slides and a fake print ad for Hedwig’s fantasy perfume line called Atrocity—to give the evening the sizzle it requires.

If you don’t feel quite whole without the lyrics to “Midnight Radio” whirling in your head…

And you’re shining/Like the brightest star/
A transmission/On the midnight radio/
And you’re spinning/ Like a 45 ballerina/
Dancing to your rock and roll

…now’s the time to wrap your arms around Hedwig once again.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Through October 3 at the Hi-Fi Concert Club,
11729 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood,

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Me and My Girl, Mercury Summer Stock

(Jennifer Myor as Sally and Brian Marshall as Bill)

If you like the idea of a lustrous red robe trimmed in “vermin” and a man who, when beset by assorted tribulations, cries out: “Infamy! You all have it infamy!” then your pun ship has docked. It’s Me and My Girl, the 1937 musical that is being given a delightful, if occasionally uneven, production now at Mercury Summer Stock in Parma.

Set in 1930’s England, in an upper-crust manse and a some low-end dives, this send-up of class warfare British style is sort of a My Fair Lady for the opposite gender. It seems that a pickpocket from the mean streets of Lambeth, Bill Snibson, has been determined to be the heir to the title of Earl of Hareford. So Duchess Maria and Sir John Tremayne are saddled with the task of tutoring brash Bill in the ways of proper etiquette and such, so that he can glom onto his inheritance.

Of course, we’ve seen this all before, but the book and lyrics (L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber) and the music (Noel Gay) turn what could be a period snoozer into much more than that. And the MSS production, under the crisp direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, has such an infectious sense of joy that it melts all defenses.

A major reason for the evening’s success is that the central role of Bill is played by Brian Marshall, a performer who seems electrically charged from the moment he hits the stage. Whether he’s dancing, executing pratfalls, or mangling the King’s English, Marshall is confident and in total control. Even though his singing is a bit weak, Marshall knows how to make a tune succeed even when the notes are a bit faint or slightly off key.

He is matched nicely by Jennifer Myor as Bill’s heartthrob Sally, another denizen of the streets who is due for a makeover. Myor’s vocals, especially on “Once You Lose Your Heart,” are well crafted and deeply felt. Also excellent is Hester Lewellen as the uptight Maria.

Smaller roles are a bit of a mixed bag. As Sir John, the man who surreptitiously helps Sally clean up her speaking style, Jon Fancher never seems to find a clear attack, so the humor that could be generated by this character is muted. The young couple of nobility, Jacquie and Gerald, are given a sharp turn by hot-to-trot Bailey Carter Moulse and a spectacularly tight-assed Brett Parr. And as the virtually mute Sir Jasper Tring, Joseph A. McIntyre has a comically blank stare that is oddly hypnotic.

Although a few of the songs are quite forgettable, there are a couple musical highlights. In one, “The Family Solicitor” trills about his role to the cadence of Gilbert and Sullivan, In his role as attorney Herbert Parchester, Dan CiCello lands some amusing verses even though he appears near exhaustion at times. And the Act One showstopper, “The Lambeth Walk,” is performed by the entire company, on stage in the aisles, with such exuberance that it’s hard to remain seated and not join in.

Excellent costuming, a hard-working bare-bones keyboard orchestra, and some ambitious set design effects (the animated portraits almost work) contribute to the overall sense of a theater company going all out to deliver a great show. And while this Me and My Girl may not be great in every sense, it’s sure to send you on your way smiling and humming “The Lambeth Walk.”

Me and My Girl
Through August 22, produced by
Mercury Summer Stock, at
Parma Little Theatre, 6285 W. 54th Street,
Parma, 216-771-5862

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Pippin, Cain Park

(Corey Mach as Pippin and Jessica L. Cope as Leading Player)

Coming of age stories are irresistible for writers of all stripes, from short story scribblers and novelists to those who construct musicals. Indeed, one of the most popular musicals of all time, The Fantasticks, is about how a young man travels from innocent naivete to the beginnings of worldly wisdom.

And so it is for the title character in Pippin, now playing at Cain Park, the story of the son of Charlemagne who graduates from college and sets out to find fulfillment. The book by Roger O. Hirson and the 1970s-style pop music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz trace a fairly predictable arc, but this production brings them to life in some surprisingly electrifying, as well as a few off-putting, ways. Thanks to Victoria Bussert’s energetic direction and the something-borrowed, something-new choreography of Martin Cespedes, the entire evening has more hits than misses.

Dominating the landscape Pippin occupies is the Leading Player, who employs her troupe of kinkily-clad actors to introduce the young man to the ugly realities of tyranny, war, family strife and shattered dreams. Along the way, Pippin seeks shelter with his beloved grandmother Berthe and ultimately with a widow Catherine (a game Devon Yates), her son and their mundane life.

This is a lot of territory to negotiate in a little over an hour and a half, but the Cain Park company manages it well, for the most part. In the role of the Leading Player, usually a man, Bussert has cast Jessica L. Cope. Looking like Doris Day from the neck up (platinum hair and page boy bob) and Cher from the neck down (circa “If I Could Turn Back Time”), she exerts a menacing force on the budding Pippin. Even though Cope doesn’t have complete control of her voice in some of the more demanding songs, she sells them all.

As Pippin, Corey Mach sings with passion, bringing a youthful sense of striving to “Corner of the Sky” and “Extraordinary.” But his costume by Production Designer Russ Borski sends him off in the wrong direction. Dressed in contemporary style with a sleeveless shirt revealing his guns and his underwear waistband peeking out over his jeans, Mach seems swaggering and hip instead of earnest and innocent. As a result, his moments of catharsis, such as when he confronts the grisly carnage of war, don’t register as powerfully as they should.

Chris McCarrell, who’s as thin as a fireplace match, burns hot as he lends an aura of androgynous menace to Lewis, Pippin’s brother, while Maryann Nagel as Berthe battles a hideous outfit and her overly-uplifting song “No Time At All” to a draw. Jay Ellis sings well as Charles, Pippin’s father, but doesn’t take any chances with his portrayal of this conflicted character.

The real stars of this production are the group numbers, with some mesmerizing participants such as Antwaun Holley and Jens Lee. As the ensemble dances with flash and flashlights, and a snarl hidden by smiles, they try to lead Pippin to his ultimate fate, his perfect “Finale.” And that’s what makes this Pippin pop.

Through August 23 at the
Alma Theatre,
Cain Park,
corner of Lee and Superior,
Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Annie Get Your Gun, Porthouse Theatre

(Left to right: Marc Moritz, Fabio Polanco, Kaycee Cummings, and Dick Reiss as Buffalo Bill)

If you’re looking for a musical evening with killer songs such as “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “The Girl That I Marry,” and “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning,” then you should definitely find your way out to the Porthouse Theatre. Because Kaycee Cummings and Fabio Polanco deliver those time-honored hits with solid professional assurance and life-affirming gusto.

Just remember, this is far from a perfect show. Considering it’s one of the iconic works in the American musical theater canon, Annie Get Your Gun is remarkably threadbare when it comes to interesting characters. It seems that, once Irving Berlin got done writing a gaggle of hit songs for the original Annie Oakley, Ethel Merman, there was little energy left over for anything else.

The 1946 book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields was adapted a decade ago by Peter Stone for a revival, dropping the gloriously un-PC song “I’m an Indian, Too.” But the storyline is so thin as to be almost transparent. It focuses on Ohio crack shot Annie Oakley, who joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, where she encounters worldwide fame, a somewhat fleeting fortune and a stud named Frank. It’s really Frank and Annie’s show since, surprisingly, there are no secondary characters that offer much more than a mild chuckle now and then.

Still, director Terri Kent does what she can with the material at hand. Much of the richness of this evening emanates from the performances of Cummings as Annie Oakley and Polanco as her sharpshootin’ rival and main squeeze Frank Butler.

Cummings channels more of Reba McIntyre than either Merman or Bernadette Peters (to note three of the more famous Annies in the past), as she swaggers and struts through her paces. She toggles nicely between tough girl (“You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun”) and gob-smacked romantic (“I Got Lost in his Arms”). And if she had just a bit more easy-going fun with Frank during their flirting forays, her characterization would be approaching perfection.

Polanco is not your typical leading man, with his semi-swarthy look and bald head, but he oozes testosterone with every step and glance. And when he opens his mouth to sing, you feel privileged to just be within earshot. He rounds out the phrasing of “The Girl That I Marry” with delicate precision, and plays fine counterpoint during the dueling rounds of “An Old Fashioned Wedding.”

Among those relegated to handling the underwritten supporting roles, Robert Ellis gets some laughs as Sitting Bull and Marc Moritz plays rodeo agent Charlie Davenport with wry offhandedness. The usually wonderful MaryAnn Black seems a bit lost as nasty Dolly Tate, unsure how much of her take-no-prisoners cuteness she should unleash on this character.

The young ensemble handles their duties well and, even with a few eminently forgettable tunes, this Annie hits the target more often than not.

Annie Get Your Gun
Through August 9 at the
Porthouse Theatre, Blossom
Music Center, 1145 W. Steels Corners
Road, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-929-4416

Monday, July 20, 2009

Mary Poppins, PlayhouseSquare

(Ashley Brown as Mary and Gavin Lee as Bert)

Some people say it’s wrong to gild a lily. Well, that may be true, if you like a lily just as it is. But if what you really want is a gilded lily, for whatever reason, then you’ve done exactly the right thing.

The same goes for theater. If you want maximum dazzle and high-caloric eye candy for your ticket dollar, you’ll be wading waist-deep in glorious glitz when you attend Mary Poppins, the high-powered Disney/Cameron Mackintosh musical that has now taking PlayhouseSquare by storm. Magnificent color-suffused sets, stunning lighting effects, lavish costumes and jaw-dropping special effects combine to make this show a visual extravaganza.

But what this mega-cruise ship of a musical doesn’t have is compelling characters or, to be frank, heart. Indeed, if Poppins had half the soul of the wise and wistful program note written by Gina Vernaci, the PlayhouseSquare VP of Theatricals (in which she gently muses on the meaning behind the lovely “Feed the Birds” song from the show), this gargantuan production would register much higher on the emotional scale. As it is, the charming story at the heart of the musical feels mechanical and manipulated.

Of course, we all know about Mary and the Banks family from the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. But this version has new songs, written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, to add to the familiar score (“A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”) by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. And there are some new characters, including a competing nanny, Miss Andrew, who decades earlier warped father George Banks’ personality, and Mrs. Corry, the owner of a “talk shop” where people, ah, talk.

Labored puns aside, what’s lost in this updated Poppins is the core family drama. George and Winifred Banks seem like extraneous accessories in their own home, a fact not particularly aided by Karl Kenzler’s wooden rendition of George (Note: One can portray a rigid and uptight person without actually being rigid and uptight on stage). As Winifred, Megan Osterhaus is stuck with bland reactions and can do little to invest her part with a pulse.

The kids, Jane and Michael, are as irritating and cute as ever (with four young actors rotating in the roles), but they are not central to the major conflict of daddy losing his job at the bank. As a result, George’s sacking and ultimate re-hiring is more dependent on wise investing than on the magic of laughter (as in the film). This makes the current version more realistic but far less charming.

This touring show is unusual in that it features the two leading performers from the original Broadway cast, with Ashley Brown as Mary and Gavin Lee as Bert. Brown sings well and invests Mary with ramrod certainty. She is at her funniest when giving free rein to her boundless self esteem (Jane, on the rooftop, looks up at the stars and says, “It all makes you feel so insignificant.” Mary Poppins replies sharply, “Speak for yourself.”). But you never feel any real warmth or zest for life from Brown’s Mary as she glides through each scene in almost ethereal isolation.

Lee, a fine singer and lithe dancer, seems more grounded as Bert, except for his astounding proscenium-circumnavigating dance sequence in the show-stopping “Step In Time.” But even this supposedly lovable chimney sweep seems to hold the audience at arm’s length. And there's never a tuppence worth of chemistry between this Mary and Bert.

Strangely, the character that comes on strongest is Miss Andrew (a wickedly delicious Ellen Harvey), who actually seems more committed to her profession, warped though her approach is, than Mary herself. Also excellent is Mary VanArsdel, who handles the aforementioned “Feed the Birds” with passion and precision.

If you enjoy the spectacle of a full Broadway show, then Mary Poppins will blow your socks off, especially Mary’s final umbrella-borne exit. Just don’t expect the kind of emotional connection that the film generates.

Mary Poppins
Through August 9 at PlayhouseSquare,
State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue,

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Shadow Box, CSU Summer Stages

It is a Buddhist concept that, in order to live each day fully, one must consciously carry an awareness of death. While that may seem like a bummer to most of us, it can actually be oddly freeing. This perhaps explains why so many people with terminal illnesses profess that they have never felt so alive.

That is one of the many truths lurking in The Shadow Box by Michael Cristofer, now playing at CSU Summer Stages. Written in the 1970s, and the winner of both a Tony and a Pulitzer, the play has not aged particularly gracefully.

Compared to contemporary works about this morbid topic, the characters here often seem too conveniently predictable and the dialog at time almost painfully didactic. But a talented director, Everett Quinton, and a more than capable cast manage to wrest the play from some of the playwrights less than felicitous structures and phrasings.

There are three groups of people in residence at a hospice in the woods for terminal cancer patients. Their sharing of a common fate is expressed nicely in the set, which has them walking through each other’s rooms and spaces while only interacting with their own friends and loved ones.

In one cabin, blue collar Joe is welcoming the arrival of his wife Maggie and teenage son Steve (Charles Hargrave), who have come to stay with him in his declining days (although Steve knows nothing of the seriousness of his dad’s condition). In another, garrulous and philosophical Brian and his younger partner Mark are living out his last days when Brian’s wild and crazy ex-wife Beverly arrives. And in the third, elderly, crotchety Felicity and her grown daughter Agnes are bickering and hanging on.

Some of these folks are interviewed by a hospice staffer, who seeks information about their feelings and so forth. This rather plausible construct unfortunately provides the playwright an opportunity to ramble on at length about his life-death philosophies, many of which have been stated better and more succinctly elsewhere.

However, the play crackles with energy when the characters are allowed to bounce off each other. Ursula Cataan is marvelous as Maggie, a down-to-earth gal who just can’t accept the fact of her husband Joe’s imminent demise. Equally fine is Tom Woodward as Joe, and their scenes together are the highlight of the show.

As Brian and Beverly, Greg Violand and Story Comeaux show off their acting chops. But director Quinton allows them to torque their attacks a half turn too far, so that Brian seems a bit too joyful and vibrant for a man in his condition, and Beverly goes over the line from free-spirited to free-to-all-comers. Mark (a mostly believable Randy Muchowski) fills in his back story as a prostitute who fell in love with his trick Brian. This trio’s climactic scene, a confrontation between Beverly and Mark, seems a bit overdone and needlessly melodramatic.

Felicity and Agnes are the quietest pairing, and Agnes is subjected to an exquisite bit of mental torture when the interviewer (Justin Steck) forces her to face a truth about her actions. Lydia Chanenka is a mess of hostility and delusion as Felicity, and Denise Astorino suffers with passive grace as Agnes.

Although there are better, more elegant plays about death and dying (to wit, Wit), The Shadow Box still has things worth saying. And this production, for the most part, says them with style.

The Shadow Box
Through August 9 (or so),
1833 East 23rd Street,

Friday, July 17, 2009

Return to the Forbidden Planet, CSU Summer Stages

When you set out to have some campy fun on stage, it’s a good idea to hark back to the 1950’s, when damn near everything was hilarious. And that’s what CSU Summer Stages is doing with their production of Return to the Forbidden Planet.

A jukebox musical based on the 50’s flick Forbidden Planet, Return was written by Bob Carlton and is being given a furiously energetic production at the CSU Factory Theatre. Even though there are singing and other glitches evident throughout, the manic staging by director Michael Mauldin eventually wins one over.

With the playwright borrowing liberally from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (on which the original flick was based) and his other works, the dialogue in Return ranges from elegant to glibly idiotic. And since it’s all played for maximum fun and minimum reflection, it all seems appropriate.

Cast members interact with the audience pre-show, checking their programs as if they were boarding passes and warning about tray tables and such. And once the “starship” takes off, the audience is also called upon to help with certain functions, such as helping to reverse the polarity of, well, something.

Clearly, the large cast has a blast with this fluffy material about a journey to a planet inhabited by a reclusive wizard and his beauteous daughter. It is also studded with many familiar pop hit songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s. However, the musical content cuts both ways in this staging, since a few of the younger actors have some trouble carrying a tune.

But they are helped enormously by those who can, specifically Tracee Patterson as Gloria who rips it up with “It’s a Man’s World” and “Go Now,” Greg Violand as Prospero who brings surprising gravitas to “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and John Paul Soto as a robotized Ariel, whose “Who’s Sorry Now?” features a semi-comatose turn by Patterson that is a marvel of rubber-limbed dexterity. Also, Lawrence Charles as Cookie turns in a purposeful rendition of "She's Not There."

Thanks to director Mauldin’s inventive staging, there is hardly a dull moment, as at least a few of the actors (inevitably) try out their William Shatner impressions and plenty of them get to dance, run and fall down a lot. But this frenzy of action sometimes gets a bit too loose, and the show at times takes on the appearance of an acting improvisation rather than a tightly-knit camp parody.

And some small details are not attended to. For instance, when the male crew members back up Captain Tempest (a nicely dim Lew Wallace) in one song, their casual approximation of back-up group moves doesn’t do comedic justice to the precision of, let’s say, the Pips.

Naturally, there is only so much of wacky fun that one can tolerate in a show like this. And at more than two hours with an intermission, Return to the Forbidden Planet stretches that limit to the breaking point. But it’s hard not to like a show where Prospero reappears later as Ghoulardi (even without a single “Stay sick, knif!” or “ Ova-dey!”) to lead the company in a gloriously irrelevant version of “Monster Mash.”

Return to the Forbidden Planet
Through August 9 (or so),
CSU FactoryTheatre,
1833 E. 23rd St., 216-687-2113

Monday, July 13, 2009

Little Shop of Horrors, Beck Center

(Timothy Allen as Seymour, holding the not-yet-gigantic Audrey II, along with the Urchins, left to right: Katrice Monee Headd, Taresa Willingham, and Tonya Broach.)

It's no surprise that Little Shop of Horrors, now at the Beck Center for the Arts keeps showing up on stages here and there, since it features a man-eating plant, a sadistic dentist, and a nerd who finds success by becoming the meat-procurer for said botanical fiend. Hey, what else do you need for a successful theatrical evening?

Even though the book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and the music by Alan Menken is uneven, with some songs like “Da-Doo” being quite extraneous, the singing in this production is more than passable. Indeed, whether crooning in the style of Motown or presenting their stereotype parts, the Beck players do their jobs well individually. But the evening as a whole lacks comic cohesiveness due to beats being rushed or not adequately shaped. As a result, the fun seems scattershot and, when it happens, a bit threadbare.

Seymour is the nerd who works side-by-side with hot Audrey in Mr. Mushnik’s florist shop. But the dork rises suddenly to local fame when a plant he’s been tending, named Audrey II, starts to draw the attention of passersby, along with the media.

Trouble is, his ferocious fern has a hankering for fresh plasma instead of Miracle-Gro. And once his fingers have been drained, he has to look elsewhere for Audrey II’s dinner. That’s when the (human) Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, leather-clad and pain-freak dentist Orin, enters the picture as a potential entrée.

Timothy Allen is the very embodiment of a dweeb, looking like a taller Woody Allen and somehow affecting a posture that seems to be in a perpetual cringe. He's in love with Audrey, played by Meg Maley with just the right amount of blonde ditz mixed with tenderness. And as Orin, Connor O’Brien breaks out of his usual bland leading man box to craft a laughing sadist (he sniffs his own nitrous oxide) with a thick overlay of Elvis. O’Brien takes some chances with his over-the-top role, most of which succeed.

Unfortunately, director William Roudebush allows too many scenes to play flat. This kind of comedy demands sharp beat changes, some extended pauses for comic effect, and energetic interchanges. In this production, too many moments—such as the first appearance of Orin and the first cry for food from Audrey II—pass by with little edge.

The centerpiece of the show, literally and figuratively, is Audrey II. And while the puppet created for the role here is (eventually) impressive in size, it lacks enough flexibility to really take advantage of many potentially humorous opportunities. As the voice of the plant, Darryl Lewis could also inject more personality into his songs and patter.

One constant positive are the singing urchins, modeled after The Supremes. Katrice Monee Headd, Tonya Broach and Taresa Willingham sing powerfully and addsome zip to scenes that need it.

In sum, this Little Shop is several well-crafted performances in search of a tighter and more finely honed production.

Little Shop of Horrors
Through August 2 at Beck Center,
17801 Detroit Avenue,
Lakewood, 216-521-2540

Sunday, July 12, 2009

As You Like It, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

(Joy Marr as Rosalind and Ernie Gonzalez as Touchstone. Photo by Phil Kalina.)

If you’ve ever wished that a Shakespeare production could somehow be outfitted with annotations and footnotes, to help you understand what’s going on at every moment, there’s a much easier (and more enjoyable) alternative. Just sit in the audience while the Ohio Shakespeare Festival is performing.

As supervised by artistic director Terry Burgler, each OSF outing is a marvel of clarity and precision, rendering even the most obtuse digressions by Will suddenly comprehensible. The result is a kind of euphoric time travel in which one feels transported back 400 years to the Globe Theatre, relishing all of the bard’s words with immediate glee just as his audiences did then.

As You Like It is the most recent example of OSF magic, splendidly directed by Jason Marr who also takes the lead part of Orlando. Buoyed by one of Shakespeare’s wittier scripts, and anchored by the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech, this staging nicely captures the playwright’s satirical take on the “nobility” of country life (take that, Sarah Palin) and the sublime vagaries of romantic love.

Rosalind and Celia, being the daughters of battling brothers Duke Senior and Duke Frederick respectively, form the keystone of this play. Joy Marr is exceptional as Rosalind, both as close girlfriend and confidant of Celia, and when disguised as a boy out in the Forest of Arden. She is almost matched by Tess Burgler, whose Celia is not as simple and innocent as she is often portrayed.

In another feisty brother act, Orlando chafes under the rule of his elder brother Oliver, until Orlando’s unexpected victory in a wrestling ring with Oliver’s goon sets him on a liberated course. Jason Marr fashions a delightful Orlando that is by turns combative, perplexed and swooning with love for Rosalind. His second act scene with the cross-dressed Rosalind is a gem of verbal thrust and parry.

The fool Touchstone is played by Ernie Gonzalez, an actor who can do no wrong with the audience. Speaking in a plain manner that suits his down-to-earth character, Gonzalez triggers much laughter with deft stage business and an expressive face that speaks volumes when he is silent. Terry Burgler adds to the fun as the melancholic Jacques, who aspires to be a fool, and Geoff Knox as the ambiguously fey Le Beau. Also excellent are Eric Lualdi as Sylvius, the love-struck shepherd, and Amelia Britton as Phoebe, his reluctant objet d’amour.

Employing a lot of eye contact with the audience, an OSF trademark, the players coax even the most reluctant audience members into the Shakespearian fold. And they are held there by the company’s insistence on crafting even the smallest characters with detail (to wit, Henry C. Bishop’s amusing shepherd Corin and Courtney Vatis’s lusty wench Audrey, the apple of Touchstone’s eye).

As it happens, the outdoor lagoon setting on the Stan Hywet estate is the perfect setting for love in the woods, making this As You Like It a play you simply must experience.

As You Like It
Produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at
the Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 714 North Portage Path,
Akron, 330-315-3287

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Winter’s Tale, Cleveland Shakespeare Festival

(Front and center, Allen Branstein as Autolycus.)

There’s a saying that “time heals all wounds,” along with its comic corollary “time wounds all heels.” Both would seem to be true in the romantic The Winter's Tale, that combines tragedy and silliness while spanning a couple decades until a happy ending is earned for all.

In some Shakespeare plays, you have to work your way up to climactic moments and profound emotions. But in this somewhat haphazard work, now being shown around town for free by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, the heavy stuff is mostly front-loaded. The CleveShakes company handles the significant challenges posed by this play with dexterity, although there are blips in an otherwise smooth production.

Early on, King Leontes gets his Sicilian panties in a bunch because he thinks King Polixenes of Bohemia is boffing Leontes’ wife Hermione. True to the playbook for paranoid and jealous husbands everywhere, Leon won’t listen to reason or even an oracle who gives everyone a pass. So Leontes puts Hermione on trial and she’s sent to jail, pregnant with what Leontes thinks is the other king’s child.

The king and queen of Sicilia are well served by Camillo (Steven Madden), a nobleman who refuses to poison Polixenes when Leontes orders it, and Paulina (a sharp and stalwart Reagan Kendrick), the fierce friend of Hermione through thick and thin.

As Leontes, Aaron Elersich has a nice brooding look and, dressed in contemporary garb, he has the lean and brooding appearance of Jerry Orbach during his Law & Order phase. But Elersich’s line readings, often either forced or flat, aren’t able to bring dimension to the depths of his character’s free-range nihilism. In the smaller role of Polixenes, Eric Perusek is strong and Cassie Neumann makes Hermione a sympathetic figure, right up to her apparent death.

Meanwhile, the child Hermione bore, named Perdita, has been rescued from a Leontes-ordered death by a kindly shepherd (played with masterly aplomb and lovely vocal precision by Larry Seman) and Clown, his son. (Here’s a tip: If you decide to name your son Clown, chances are he will turn out to be a buffoon, but probably not nearly as funny as Nathan Miller’s version.)

Of course, as our old buddy Will is famous for, there are more confusions in store and sure enough, after that aforementioned passage of time, Perdita (Liz Jones) and Polixenes’ son Florizel (Jack Matuszewski) fall in love. This all happens in fantastical Bohemia, where a cutpurse named Autolycus (Allen Branstein in full and frenzied wack-a-doodle mode) keeps the audience laughing.

This is the cue for the magic to take hold, as Leontes reunites with his kid and Hermione turns from a memorial statue back into herself, reuniting with a chastened Leontes. Director Tyson Douglas Rand pumps up the comedy, which works nicely, but the two halves of this oddly constructed play never quite jell.

But it’s still a damn fine way to spend a summer evening.

The Winter’s Tale
Through August 2 at various
outdoor locations, see their
Web site for details: