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)