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 entrĂ©e.

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