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,