Saturday, February 28, 2009

Grey Gardens, Beck Center

(Patrick Janson as Gould and Maryann Nagel as "Big Edie" Beale.)

It’s too bad Extreme Makeover: Home Edition wasn’t on the air back in the early 1970s, because they could have had a blast with one dilapidated, cat- and rabid raccoon-infested property in East Hampton, New York.

That was the home, for 50 years of the Beales—Edith “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Beale. As the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, respectively, the Beale women were born and bred in the highest strata of society, with their peak in the 1940s.

But as the decades progressed, the Edies retreated into isolation in their 28-room cottage-style mansion, called Grey Gardens, where their rather sizable eccentricities had room to grow unimpeded by outside influences. This led to a compelling 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers and, a couple years ago, a musical adaptation of that story.

Both works are titled Grey Gardens, but this theatrical version, now at the Beck Center, manages to capture all the exquisite weirdness of these two women while couching their story in a believable and fascinating context (something the film couldn’t or didn’t do). And thanks to a spectacular production, directed flawlessly by Victoria Bussert, the entire evening works even when by all right it shouldn’t.

The material at hand—book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie—has many brilliant moments but also suffers from stretches of predictable fare.

In the first act, set in the then-fabulous mansion in 1941, Big Edie is a larger-than-life Aunty Mame character who continually embarrasses her 24-year-old daughter Little Edie by continually singing at social occasions. Big Edie is also possessive, and isn’t on board with her daughter’s impending marriage to young Joe Kennedy (yes, that would be John, Bobby and Teddy’s older brother), so she sabotages it by sharing Little Edie’s rather loose history as a party girl.

But much of Act One is taken up with watching Big Edie trill songs, accompanied by a gay pianist and hanger-on, George “Gould” Strong (the excellent Patrick Janson). These ditties delight two youngsters on hand, little Jackie Bouvier and her sister Lee (who later was Lee Radziwill), as Big Edie’s father J.V. Bouvier (George Roth) rumbles and rants about all this frivolous folderol. Little Edie (Jillian Kates Bumpas) tries to keep her life together and moving forward, but the familial forces are too strong for her to overcome.

Once Act Two begins, we are inside the mansion in 1973 and everything has changed. It’s just the two Beales, along with a teenage boy, Jerry, who wanders in now and then to hang out and grab a bite to eat. And this is where the play really gains traction, as the now almost bed-ridden Big Edie and the sartorially whacked out Little Edie pursue their dead-end existence.

On the surface, large swaths of the Beales’ life might not sound all that interesting, and it wouldn’t be if not acted by Maryann Nagel and Lenne Snively. Nagel turns in yeoman work, as she is both the stylish and self-possessed Big Edie in the first act and Little Edie in the second. As Big Edie, Nagel is electric and delightful while establishing her strong relationship with her daughter. This is absolutely necessary, so we can believe Little Edie would still stick around after the events unfold.

Snively doesn’t really have much to do until after the intermission, but then she totally embodies the elderly Big Edie, carping at her daughter and cooing to Jerry as he does her small favors.

Indeed, it’s hard to remember two stronger musical numbers to begin a second act than the one-two punch provided by Nagel and Snively in this show.

Nagel strikes first with “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” a jocular trip through Little Edie’s goofy wardrobe decisions: “The best kind of clothes for a protest pose/Is this ensemble of pantyhose/ pulled over the shorts, worn under the skirt/that doubles as a cape.” And yes, it looks just as strange when you see her. (Check out this fashion show by the real Little Edie, it's the last three minutes of the four-minute cut, after a minute of Big Edie.)

Then Snively chimes in with “The Cake I Had,” as Big E. justifies her response to people who always told her you can’t have your cake and eat it too. As she sings, “What good is cake you have but never eat?/I never could deny myself a sweet/So I sliced my life and licked my knife/And ate the cake I had.”

Those two performers are given strong support by those already mentioned, plus Jonathan Walker White who doubles as a wonderfully believable Joe Kennedy and as slacker Jerry, and Darryl Lewis as two generations of household help. Annie Kostell and Natalie Welch are also sweet as the little Bouvier girls.

And it’s all brought together by director Bussert, who stages each of the many musical numbers with individual flair and a proper sense of time and place. She even has some of the cast portray a few of the more than fifty cats that inhabited the mansion in the later years. And it all works, if some of the folks have less-than-perfect Hampton’s accents.

The Beck production of Grey Gardens is a burst of color and exotic strangeness that has something to say about following your own drummer, even if he’s beating on an empty tin can.

Grey Gardens
Through March 29 at the
Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Road,
Lakewood, 216-521-2540

Friday, February 27, 2009

Militant Language, Bang & Clatter/Cleveland

(These Iraq War fighters are significantly more believable the soldiers in this Bang & Clatter play.)

News Flash: The Iraq War is long and difficult and it’s going to be hard to resolve it to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s the nugget of startling wisdom at the heart of Militant Language, the longest 70-minute play you’re ever likely to see that’s now occupying space at the Bang and Clatter Theatre in Cleveland.

Primary blame for this theatrical misery goes to playwright Sean Christopher Lewis, who apparently misunderstood the term “topical play.” While most of us believe that term refers to a play ripped from today’s headlines, Mr. Lewis evidently took it to mean superficial, as in a topical application of ointment. And he spreads some thin, greasy, platitudinous stuff around pretty generously in this piece.

Set at a construction site somewhere in Irag, five soldiers (four male, one female) are guarding the site and killing time by engaging in rape, gay sex, and endless pontificating about religion, the destructiveness of war and the inability to communicate. Onto the scene comes Huda, an Iraqi woman who is looking for a local teenage boy who has disappeared.

Did I mention that sand continually falls from the sky? And that the female soldier finds an infant in a straw basket whom she names Moses?

Caught somewhere between magical realism and Full Metal Jacket, this play has no idea where it’s going. And the characters are so clumsily drawn, the platform-footed grunts in Toy Story seem shatteringly profound by comparison.

Perhaps this all might have gone a bit better in different hands, but director Daniel H. Taylor is at a loss to help his mostly college student cast make sense of it all. Soldier Wallace, played by Scott Thomas, is all over the place—starting as a wise-cracking southern hick, morphing into a sensitive gay boy and then finishing as a psycho with murder on his mind. That’s an arc that perhaps could be covered given another two hours of script, a capable playwright, and Edward Norton in the role.

As Captain Crane, Rick Bowling shouts a lot but without the context of any definable character. And Raina Semivan as the female soldier Beed swallows her lines when she isn’t speeding through them.

On the oh, so slender plus side, talented Michael May does what he can for the introspective soldier Goop, but his speeches are stunning in their sappy grasping for some sort of wartime or personal truth. While not as focused as May, at least Joshua Davis as soldier Jacks and Jocelyn Roueiheb as Huda don’t fully embarrass themselves.

Just like the Iraq War itself, Militant Language is poorly thought out, lamely executed, and numbingly depressing to endure. But long as it seems, the play is a hell of a lot shorter than the real thing.

Militant Language
Through March 21 at the
Bang and Clatter Theatre,
224 Euclid Avenue, 330-606-5317

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Crave, Theater Ninjas

(Counter-clockwise from the left, Terence Cranendonk, Layla Schwartz, and Lucy Bredeson-Smith, and the back of Val Kozlenko's head.)

One minute, it seems like the our world is playing out in predictable and even boring ways, one day linking to the next like obedient elephants shuffling along in a line. The next minute, that same world seems like a torrent of whirling gibberish interrupted, if we’re lucky, by moments of affection, or love, or insight.

Our understanding of life is all about perspective, and how that perspective can change from one moment to the next. And in Crave by Sarah Kane, now being produced by Theater Ninjas, the world is reduced to four people who use words and thoughts like machetes to cut their way through the enveloping clutter of existence.

Free of plot and virtually absent any definable characters, Crave is a one-hour ride on an intensely theatrical Wild Mouse roller coaster, sending the audience into tight U-turns and generating plenty of intellectual G-forces. The only viable approach for the viewer is to expect nothing, absorb everything, and emerge with the rosy glow of having experienced a truly unique work.

Playwright Kane, who tragically took her own life at age 28, has become known for her plays that are drenched in violence and psychological torment. But in Crave, she takes a different approach and simply has four actors, two men and two women, deliver snatches of memories and spontaneous realizations as they briefly interact with each other and then separate, each into his or her own splendid isolation.

The words weave and writhe together, much as the actors do in this production’s art gallery setting, and we are left to pluck out the moments and the meanings as we will. Director Jeremy Paul gives this frenetic piece an odd yet effective shape and format, often keeping his actors in constant motion that has little or no relationship to what’s being said.

Among the actors who play unnamed characters, Terence Cranendonk stands out simply because of his laser focus and a yearning need to figure something, anything, out. His mini-monolog, in which he describes his relationship with a woman, is a brilliant if fleeting bit of amusing candor. Lucy Bredeson-Smith matches Cranendonk’s intensity, her face alight at different times with both grief and happiness, but mostly shadowed by confusion.

Energetic and athletic Val Kozlenko provides a helpfully visceral counterpoint to all the word gamesmanship, and Layla Schwartz offers a tenderness that seems in short supply elsewhere.

The script features puns, clich├ęs and some quasi-profound parallelism: “You’re never so powerful as when you know you’re powerless.” But there are sentences that distinctly cut through and land a punch: “Sometimes what I mistake for ecstasy is simply the absence of grief.”

But in the end it is the whole cloth here that is remarkable, the word quilt that Kane stitches together and that the Theater Ninjas deliver with telling skill and force.

Through March 8, produced by Theater Ninjas,
at the Asterisk Gallery, 2393 Professor Avenue,
Cleveland, 216-539-0662

Rent, Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory

("La Vie Boheme" in full flight.)

One of the great advantages of being high school students is thinking you can do anything. Of course, they’re usually wrong, especially when they think they can perform a demanding sung-through show such as Rent.

But the students of the Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory fought the odds at their opener on Saturday, battling a screwed up sound system to turn in a fine ensemble effort with a few outstanding individual turns.

This “school edition” of Rent is edited a bit, but is still chock full of as much adult content as a Jerry Springer show on HGH—with drug use, gay lovers, kinky sex and free-floating obscenities. Let’s face it, Rent is no Oklahoma! or Guys and Dolls. And Jonathan Larson’s score, which veers from hard rock to “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Boheme, is studded with myriad places that can trip up even the most experienced singers.

Still, under the skillful direction of Sean Szaller the FPAC production often hits the right emotional chords and retains much of the punch and swagger of the show that took Broadway by storm in 1996.

Mark and Roger are about to be evicted by their new landlord/former roommate Benny for not paying their rent. And while they fight that battle, Roger hooks up with Mimi, a drug addict and sex club dancer who lives in the same building. Out on the street, mugging victim Tom Collins is befriended by a drag queen named Angel. And two lesbian performance artists, Maureen and Joanne, are negotiating their turbulent relationship while planning a protest concert.

This is a story of love on many levels, and it needs intelligent and committed players who are unafraid to embody these young strivers and outcasts.

In the highlight role of Roger, Andrew Parmelee sings well and creates just enough chemistry with the chemically-woozy Mimi, played by Sarah Konish, to make that duo ring true. Unfortunately, Konish’s head mic was fried at this performance, so it was hard to hear let alone enjoy her singing.

But the most touching love connection is fashioned by Joel Furr and Carlos Cruz, who play Tom and Angel respectively. Cruz looks great in his drag outfits, but is most successful and believable in his less flamboyant and more tender moments. Furr ‘s touching reprise of “I’ll Cover You” in the second act is extremely affecting.

As Joanne, Nikki Leavitt loosens up nicely in the second act to realize more of her character’s nuances. But Codie Higer dazzles as her outrageous partner Maureen. Displaying some of the renegade energy of Sandra Bernhard (except a lot younger and cuter) in her solo “We’re Okay,” Higer takes the time to make this weird performance art piece both involving and amusing. And although he has no objet d’amour, Jesse Markowitz invests Mark with plenty of passion in his role as narrator.

Although the sound system was fuzzy, when it wasn’t bellowing audio feedback like a pre-orgasmic manatee, the ensemble songs came through load and clear. And the Act Two signature song, “Seasons of Love,” delivers every goose bump and then some.

Through March 1, produced by the
Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory,
Mayfield Village Civic Center, 6622 Wilson Mills Road,
Mayfield Village, 440-338-3171

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fifty Words, Bang and Clatter/Akron

(The folks in Fifty Words aren't the first married couple to spend a lot of time arguing in their kitchen, but the Honeymooners were lighted better.)

If you think it’s hard to be in a genuine, loving relationship in real life—with all its hidden resentments, overt physical attractions, and subtle gamesmanship—try capturing all that on stage. In about an hour.

That’s the task set forth in Fifty Words, now at the Bang and Clatter Theatre in Akron. And while the play by Michael Weller rings with authentic dialogue and believable, if sudden, shifts of tone, this two-person performance only hits about half the notes right. And that’s not nearly enough in a play this brief, intense and delicate.

It all takes place in a Brooklyn kitchen where architect Adam and novice Internet entrepreneur wife Jan have their first weekend night alone in six years. Their son Greg has been shipped off to a sleepover, and now mom and dad have some free time to concentrate on themselves. And that’s the bad news.

As Adam tries to casually seduce Jan, pouring wine and compliments in equal quantities, Jan is preoccupied with her new Internet marketing business. She’s frustrated by some faulty data she has purchased, trying to resolve it all for an important meeting in a couple days.

The tensions ebb and flow as Adam serves up some home delivered Chinese food and tries to coax his honey upstairs. But issues involving Greg’s problems at school and Adam’s failing business keep intruding. And it culminates in the most predictable nuclear bomb of all marital spats.

This is pretty familiar fare for most married couples with children, especially on stage. But there still are dramatic flashpoints if the director and players are on the same page. Unfortunately, director Sean McConaha doesn’t fully enable his actors to ride the dips and swells of this rocky relationship, and it all comes across as more detached and banal than intimate and incendiary.

The two actors, Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky, have done spectacular work together in the past. But here, each seems not able to offer what the other needs, whether they’re cooing or lashing out.

As Adam, Derry tries to soften his familiar, hard-ass stage persona, but he never seems totally comfortable in a romantic mode. Trouble is, we have to believe Adam can be that guy, if the dynamics of this couple are to be fully realized. Ultimately, Derry’s emotional shallowness doesn’t help bring Romansky’s Jan out of her persistent crouch, as she hunkers over her laptop and keeps batting away her husband’s advances.

There are moments when Jan seems warm and approachable, but they flicker away too quickly. If the lovable parts of Adam and Jan could be sensed more completely, the whole play would shift 90 degrees. And that would allow the playwright’s acidic take on the complexities of love to be fully realized (as Adam says, there should be 50 words for love, as the Eskimos have for snow).

There are other negative factors working against this production. The scenic design of the small kitchen is done almost all in black, with black cabinets and walls predominating. This would be OK, if the lighting wasn’t so atrocious. Lit dimly and with shadowy dead spots, most of the stage is bathed in a blue light like those fake night scenes from 1950s flicks.

It’s unlikely that there is one kitchen in America bathed in faint blue light, outside of an aging hippie’s basement pad somewhere near Haight-Ashbury. Even so, there’s enough light to see that these talented B&C actors need more help to make Fifty Words riveting and engaging.

Fifty Words
Through February 28 at the
Bang and Clatter Theatre, 57 E. Market St.,
Akron (behind the parking lot next to Crave
Restaurant), 330-606-5317

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sweeney Todd, Lakeland Theatre

(Dan Folino as the barber from hell.)

While some regard Sweeney Todd as a Grand Guignol musical featuring homicidal slashings and buckets of plasma splashed across the stage, it could also be viewed as an instructive lesson in how to engineer a successful merger.

Take one revenge-obsessed madman who manufactures corpses, and partner him with a woman who makes meat pies and needs a constant stream of carcasses. Voila! They make a more efficiently scabrous team than Cheney and Rumsfeld at their peak. And in this largely sublime production at the Lakeland Theatre, there are performances that glisten even more brightly than the geysers of blood that flow from freshly opened necks.

Since opening on Broadway in the 1970s, Sweeney has stood as the touchstone for over-the-top operatic melodrama that eventually verges on farce. Almost entirely sung, to the words and music of Stephen Sondheim, the play takes a real serial killer from British history and turns him into a melodic cross between Mad Max in The Road Warrior and Jeffrey Dahmer.

The incredibly demanding score, crafted with awesome skill along with a dash of compositional grandstanding, is a fiendish challenge for any cast. But this group of singers and actors, under the direction of Martin Friedman and the baton of Larry Goodpaster, wins virtually all the battles.

Recently released from prison, Sweeney Todd (whose real name was Benjamin Barker, a barber by trade) wants to get back at the vile and lecherous Judge Turpin. The judge sent Todd away to begin with, on trumped up charges, then raped Todd’s wife, who subsequently tried to poison herself, and took their daughter Johanna as his own. That’s enough motivation for three Charles Bronson movies right there.

Todd goes back to the site of his former barbershop, where he encounters Mrs. Lovett, who runs the worst meat pie shop in London, on the ground floor. She has kept his set of silver-handled razors safe for him, since she’s more than a bit smitten by our tonsorial anti-hero. Once reunited with his razors, Sweeney declares himself complete and conspires with Lovett to maneuver the judge and his flunky Beadle Bamford (Thomas Love) to the shop for a quick trim & puncture of their carotid arteries.

The most challenging role, from both a singing and acting perspective, is the title role. And Lakeland is fortunate to have Dan Folino as Sweeney. Partially hidden behind a prison beard and under a mop of stringy hair, Folino’s eyes are like coals—initially cold and dead and then sparked into furious heat—and he sings with an urgency born of soul-deep loss. His song “Epiphany,” after missing a chance to kill the judge, is a searing testimony as Sweeney dedicates himself to free-range carnage: “We all deserve to die/Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why/Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief/For the rest of us, death will be a relief.”

As the scummy Mrs. Lovett, a rather pristine-looking Alison Garrigan handles the comic aspects of her role well, garnering laughs as she imagines her new meat pie partnership with Sweeney in “A Little Priest” (that’s a pie ingredient, not a short vicar). But the pathos of Lovett isn’t delineated as clearly, especially in the relationship with new shop assistant Tobias (an excellent Brian Altman).

The two young lovers, Johanna and sailor Anthony Hope, aren’t given such juicy material, which poses a problem for the actors. Lindsey Sandham sings sweetly but never registers as a dimensional person, largely due to the thin book by Hugh Wheeler. And as Anthony, an earnest and eager Connor O’Brien sings with a voice that draws more attention to its finely trained aspects than to the character at hand.

In smaller roles, Douglas Collier is decadently swinish as the judge and Josh Theilan stands out as the oily street barber Pirelli, who loses a hair-cutting and tooth-pulling contest to Todd. And the Shakespearean surprise ending involves a beggar woman (Nicole Groah) who weaves through the story for a very good reason.

Director Friedman and scenic designer Trad A. Burns have opted for a stripped down look to this production; there’s no slide to transport Sweeney’s victims down to the meat grinder in the basement. According to program notes, the set is intended to suggest London’s Old Bailey court, but the mundane brown paint job on the flats looks more like the interior of a live bait shop in Wisconsin. Most of the 23 players sit in two alcoves when they aren't involved in the action, watching like a silent jury.

The good news is that one stellar performance, several fine ones, well-paced direction, stirring choral work by the company, and some wonderfully energetic blood-lettings easily carry the day. As a result this Sweeney is a rich and memorable evening, for those who aren’t easily grossed out.

Sweeney Todd
Through February 22 at the
Lakeland Theatre,
Lakeland Community College,
7700 Clocktower Drive,
Willougby, 44094, 440-525-7526

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mahalia: A Gospel Musical, Cleveland Play House

(NaTasha Yvette Williams and C.E. Smith)

Q. When is a musical play not a play?
A. When it’s a concert.

And that is the best definition of Mahalia, A Gospel Musical, now at the Cleveland Play House. If you’re a fan of gospel music, there are a couple dozen Mahalia favorites sung by the supremely talented NaTasha Yvette Williams.

But if you’re a fan of theater that explores character and deals with personal conflicts and such, you’re out of luck. As written (?) by Tom Stolz, the book has as much depth as a Highlights Magazine “Black History Month” profile.

Sure, we’re used to bio-plays being shallow, and usually featuring a lot of bead-stringing as the author dutifully ticks off the milestones of a famous person’s career. But in terms of meaningful substance that we haven’t heard before, Mahalia is thinner than the Cleveland Browns’ Super Bowl scrapbook.

None of that should obscure the fact that Williams absolutely nails the gospel songs she sings. Using her beautifully-controlled contralto voice to dig deep into the lower notes (on, say, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”) as well find the higher pitches, Williams does justice to all the tunes including a stirring rendition of Mahalia’s signature song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

While she doesn’t capture the unique quality of Jackson’s voice that made her the “Queen of Gospel Music,” Williams has her own strengths that soon make that disparity irrelevant.

But the sad part is we never get much of a clue about Mahalia the person, aside from her spirituality. Neither of Mahalia’s two marriages becomes a dramatic factor in this show. Indeed, according to this production, Jackson was solely a gospel singer dedicated to singing and going to church, with no personal life outside of some mildly joshing interactions with her pianist Mildred (overacted broadly by Terry Burrell).

Other secondary characters, such as gospel composer Thomas Dorsey, are portrayed in fleeting moments by C.E. Smith, who also renders a perfunctory and rushed reading of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That crops up because Mahalia sang “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” at the March on Washington. A fourth actor, Jmichael (not a typo), plays a not terribly necessary character named Francis.

So if you’re up for an evening of great gospel singing by one person, and a concluding choral version of “Move On Up a Little Higher” by a local choir (that changes at every performance), Mahalia is just your ticket. But if you want more meat than that, it looks like you’ve been ‘buked.

Mahalia: A Gospel Musical
Through February 22 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000