Sunday, January 31, 2010

Blue Door, Dobama Theatre

(Rod Lawrence, who plays multiple roles, and Geoff Short, who plays Lewis)

If you ever wondered what an African-American version of A Christmas Carol would look like, you may have it in Blue Door by Tanya Barfield, now at Dobama Theatre. It’s an ambitious piece that features flights of lyricism, along with some joy and lots of pain, but the script has some stumbling blocks that impair the overall effect.

Ebenezer Scrooge in this play is a middle-aged black man named Lewis, and instead of being a nasty skinflint he’s a man who’s lost his identity. Having achieved middling success as a professor of the Philosophy of Mathematics, and having authored a book about time and math, Lewis’s credentials as a seriously heady nerd are fully established.

But he faces passive-aggressive racism at the university and strife at home: his white wife has just left him, supposedly because Lewis wouldn’t attend the Million Man March. Suffering from insomnia, Lewis complains, “I don’t know who I am, I don’t know what I am.” And that’s the cue for (primarily) three ghosts to show up from the Lewis family tree, to guide him to a new understanding of his place in his clan, his race, and in the sweep of history.

These specters share the recollections of great-grandfather Simon, who was sexually molested by his slave owner’s son; grandfather Jesse who was lynched and burnt for his effrontery in trying to vote; and Lewis’s deceased brother Rex, who is more aggressive and angry about the plight of black men in society than Lewis ever dreamed of being.

These are all interesting (if somewhat familiar) tales, and they are delivered with electrifying charisma by Rod Lawrence, who shifts easily from one character to another. Possessing magnetic stage presence, young Mr. Lawrence owns the stage whenever he’s on it, and he also sings well when called upon to deliver a period tune.

Geoff Short, who plays poor lost Lewis, is faced with a less showy but more daunting acting task. And his problem is complicated since playwright Barfield seems too eager to get to the ghost stories. By skipping quickly over the divorce that evidently triggered Lewis’s insomnia, we never get a sense of why Lewis married a white woman, why she was so concerned about his black identity, what their relationship was like (apart from the breakup), and why he selected the career path he did.

Without that information, Lewis is forced to be more of a one-dimensional whiner than a deeply troubled, fully realized character. We do learn that Lewis had a distant and demanding father who sometimes tried to “beat the black” out of him, but even that back story is thin and borderline cliché.

As a result, the many profound lessons that can be drawn from the historical narratives, including the shattering disintegration of Simon’s family at the hands of the slave owner, lack the deep current context they need. That missing context would let us know how those lessons might affect Lewis and perhaps change his direction in life.

Nonetheless, director Scott Plate maneuvers his two actors well across the (very) spacious Dobama stage, and helps them define the small beats that make even some of these well-known moments from black history throb with passion, sorrow and a certain kind of hope.

As for Lewis, we are left with a question mark because, sadly, we hardly got to know him.

Blue Door

Through February 21 at Dobama Theatre,

2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights,


Friday, January 15, 2010

Lost in Yonkers, Cleveland Play House

(Rosemary Prinz as grandma.)

No matter how warm and cuddly a grandma is with her grandkids, there’s always a little bit of fear attached for the little ones. After all, from a child’s perspective, grandparents tend to be rather badly wrinkled and often use strange expressions like “darn tootin’.”

In Lost in Yonkers, now at the Cleveland Play House, playwright Neil Simon confronts two teenage brothers with the Grandma from Hell. But it’s the clashes between granny and her grown daughter Bella that truly resonate in this often comical drama.

The boys, Jay and his younger brother Arty, have been installed in Grandma Kurnitz’s home by their dad Eddie (a rather bland John Plumpis), so he can travel and make some money. The time is mid-World War Two and, since their mom recently passed away, there’s no one left to care for them. But the boys are terrified of the old lady, having heard many stories about her fearsome swinging cane.

The other occupant of the home is Eddie’s sister Bella, a slightly mentally challenged woman in her 30s who has a warm heart but an often tenuous grasp on reality. There are two other grown siblings in the family: tough Louie (nicely rendered by Anthony Crane), who runs with gangsters, and gasping Gert (Patricia Buckley), who apparently held her breath so much as a child, in fear of her mother, that she now has a chronic breathing problem.

This character landscape offers Simon plenty of comic potential, and he mines it as only he can. But while it is true that many people use humor to deal with difficult situations, the two boys in Yonkers often come off as mini-Jerry Seinfelds, always ready with a tightly polished quip. Still, it must be said that Alex Wyse as Jay and Maxwell Beer as Arty handle these lines with professional aplomb.

While the boys’ brief run-ins with Grandma are used mostly for yucks, it is Bella’s relationship with her mother that gives the play the heft it yearns for. Having been squashed under her mother’s unrelenting gaze for her whole life, Bella is struggling to break free and live her life, even within the constraints of her mental handicap.

Sara Surrey is excellent as the slightly off-center Bella, generating plenty of laughs with her non-sequiturs and other verbal gaffes. But when she actually locks horns with mom in Act Two, Surrey tends to float a bit too much above the history of hurt that she is trying to overcome.

In the linchpin role of Grandma, Rosemary Prinz is a bony little knuckle of a woman, reflexively turning away from any kisses or affection from her family and handing out only harshness and unfair punishments. As Grandma gradually mellows, just a bit, Prinz maintains a tight hold on her character, keeping her credible (against some tough challenges posed by the sentimentally-inclined Simon) right up to the final curtain.

This co-production, with two other theaters, is directed with skill and a light touch by Michael Bloom, and benefits from a gorgeous period set, designed by Michael Schweikhardt, that feels lifted straight from memory—as it should.

All in all, Lost in Yonkers is an engrossing and enjoyable evening even though, due to an excess of predictable plot turns, it probably won’t linger in your mind very long afterwards

Lost in Yonkers

Through January 31 at the Cleveland Play House,

8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chicago, PlayhouseSquare

It’s a good thing for all of us that sex and jazz never go out of style. And that’s why Chicago, which is creeping up on its 40th anniversary, still manages to delight and titillate.

This version of the John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics) musical, now at PlayhouseSquare, has plenty of splendid moments, although the overall effect is dimmed by a couple shortfalls.

The book by Ebb and original director/choreographer Bob Fosse revolves around the shooting by Roxie Hart of her lover. Hauled off to the hoosegow, Roxie meets up with an assortment of other murderous broads—all dressed in heels and a variety of black lingerie which, as you know, is de rigeur in Windy City prisons—in the spicy “Cell Block Tango.”

Roxie shares space in the big house with Velma Kelly, an acrobatic sister-act vaudeville performer who murdered her husband and sis when she caught them doing a double twisting flip mount on each other in her bed. As publicity hounds, Roxie and Velma put Paris and Lindsay to shame, and Roxie ups the ante for headline chasing when she claims to be pregnant.

When alone in the spotlight, Bianca Marroquin and Brenda Braxton are excellent as, respectively, Roxie and Velma. Marroquin has a fetching mix of sexuality and innocence, and Braxton is pretty much just pure lithe sensuality. But they oddly don’t light much of a spark as rivals, so we don’t feel them surging against each other as much as we should.

A key character is Billy Flynn, Roxie’s no-holds-barred lawyer who connives to get her acquitted, but Tom Wopat (of The Dukes of Hazzard fame) mails it in. Wopat is about a quart-and-a-half low on oil and grease, never locking onto this character’s slimeball core. Sure, we understand it’s a shame line readers like Wopat can’t pick up guest star slots on The Love Boat and Murder She Wrote any more, but that doesn’t mean he has to take it out on us.

Everything else in this production is totally up to snuff, including Carol Woods as “Mama” Morton (her rendition of “When You’re Good to Mama” is delicious) and Tom Riis Farrell as the hapless Amos, doting husband of firebrand Roxie. And the company delivers the still astounding Fosse choreographic moves with style and precision.

This hot and libidinous Chicago is a kick to watch, even though the lawyer should be sued for malpractice.


Through January 24 at the Palace Theatre,

PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue,


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Jerry’s Girls, Ensemble Theatre

(Left to right: Holly Feiler, Adina Bloom's arms and hair, Jamie Finkenthaler-Has, Lindsay Pier, and Kristin Benner)

At first glance, it would seem that you couldn’t miss with an evening of songs penned by composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, whose Broadway show tunes have graced such memorable hits as Mame, Hello Dolly! and La Cage Aux Folles. Ah, but that may be why God invented second glances.

Regrettably, this production of Jerry’s Girls by the Ensemble Theatre is lacking in almost all ways, turning what could have been a melodic and amusing romp through the Herman oeuvre into a forced march across a parched terrain of off-key singing and uninspired characterization.

Truth be told, it’s damn difficult to do a show like this well, since each song is missing its context—the storyline of the show from which it was lifted. That makes it mandatory for the performers to create sharp mini-characters within the melodic boundaries of the songs, and then do it again and again all night long.

Instead, what we have here is a cast of five women who vary in singing ability—from Adina Bloom , Lindsay Pier and Jamie Finkenthaler-Has, who share a tendency towards predictable phrasing but who have isolated moments of competence, to Kristin Benner and Holly Feiler, each of whom often grope for the right key and have no strength in the lower registers.

This shaky vocal talent is further hampered by the terrible acoustics of the Cleveland Play House Studio One Theatre (a small and very tall space) and a set design that gives maximum prominence to a sketchy three-piece combo while squeezing the singers into a smallish area in front. Since the performers aren’t amplified, many of Herman’s glorious and often witty lyrics disappear into the rafters unheard.

Director Frank J. Lucas opts for a number of cornball staging gimmicks to accompany the songs, such as all the women coming out in the same flamboyant hat and “fighting” for the right to sing “Hello, Dolly!” But since none of the cast members evidence any particular aptitude for comic invention, supposedly amusing moments are frittered away.

Indeed, the entire production lacks pace, momentum and a unifying joy for the material that should suffuse such a proceeding. All of which contributes to a paltry return on the investment of two hours.

Jerry’s Girls

Through January 31, produced by the Ensemble Theatre,

at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue,


Sunday, January 3, 2010

2009 “Best of Cleveland Theater” Awards

Once again, this princely virtual trophy is being given to those who scaled the pinnacle of theatrical achievement in the last calendar year.

The awards categories this year include: Ten Best Productions, Ten Best Individual Performances, Best Director and Most-Missed Extinct Company.

Get your rosin bag out for those sweaty palms, and here we go!


(listed in alphabetical order)

As You Like It, Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet

Another wonderful interpretation of old Will’s material by Terry Burgler’s great troupe. This show felt like euphoric time travel back to the Globe Theatre, when the crowd was totally wired into what the performers were doing—and every joke clicked to perfection.

Crave, Theater Ninjas

This wild ride penned by Sarah Kane was an exhilarating collection of memories and realizations, brought together by the brilliant director Jeremy Paul.

Cut To Pieces, Cleveland Public Theatre

A wildly imaginative play, co-written by director Raymond Bobgan and sole performer Chris Seibert, it had a vital, inventive spirit that Seibert’s often understated performance served well.

God’s Trombones, Karamu House

Mixing free-verse sermons (the title referred to the preachers), gospel music and African dance, this stirring ensemble production thrilled almost from start to finish.

Grey Gardens, Beck Center

Bursting with color and exotic strangeness, this Victoria Bussert-directed production featured some outstanding musical numbers and a spot-on feel for the two eccentric creatures at the center.

Heddatron, Theater Ninjas

Written by Elizabeth Meriwether, it was a continually surprising take on Hedda Gabler that also involved robots, Strindberg and a monkey. It was funny, weird and thoroughly irresistible.

Inherit the Wind, Cleveland Play House

Two outstanding performances by Ed Dixon and Scott Jaeck as the evolution-arguing Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan avatars carried this show to the heights.

Ouroboros, convergence-continuum

This time-warp excursion, performed backwards and forwards on successive nights during the run, kept the audience and actors on their toes. Enjoyable throughout, it made some telling points about our temporal existence.

Spring Awakening, PlayhouseSquare

A fresh and frank exploration of puberty in its many forms, this indie-rock musical set in the 19th century was both tender and raw. Controversial to some, it touched on real feelings as it developed a sizzling new twist on musical theater vocabulary.

Twelfth Night, Great Lakes Theater Festival

Director Charles Fee mounted a well-balanced and deliriously comical telling of this gender-bending romp, and hilarious turns by David Anthony Smith, Andrew May and Ian Gould added tons of fun.


(listed in alphabetical order)

Lucy Bredeson-Smith, The Mineola Twins, convergence-continuum

Comically creepy as both of the twins (picture Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane), she found more variations on crazy than are listed in DSM-IV.

Terence Cranendonk, Crave, Theater Ninjas

His incessant yearning and and unblinking focus in this whirling theatrical experience provided a necessary foundation for a challenging production.

Dan Folino, Sweeney Todd, Lakeland Theatre

Burning brightly in this plum title role, Folino breathed fire and ice into each moment of the bloodiest musical ever written.

James Kisicki, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Ensemble Theatre

Wallowing happily in all the great, acidic lines written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Kisicki made larger-than-life Sheridan Whiteside both terrifying and hilarious.

Nick Koesters, Blasted, Bang & Clatter Theatre

In this unbelievably unpleasant play by Sarah Kane about our numb acceptance of violence, Koesters was shatteringly vulnerable and occasionally even amusing. Quite a feat.

Kristi Little and Kyle Primous, Yellowman, Karamu House

These two actors made sparks fly as two people caught up in brutal intra-racial stereotyping and abuse. Directed by Fred Sternfeld, their seamless performances (they count as one awardee, if you’re keeping track) were shattering.

Fabio Polanco, Annie Get Your Gun, Porthouse Theatre

With his bald head and smoldering look, he wasn’t your typical leading man. But he radiated testosterone (in all the good ways), and his singing voice was simply luxurious.

Emily Pucell and Sebastian Orr, Private Lives, Lakeland Theatre

Thoroughly polished and completely delightful, these two (again, counting as one awardee) duked it out with blissful elegance as Elyot and Amanda, playing both their lines and the silences between lines like maestros.


Jeremy Paul, Theater Ninjas

Mounting challenging plays with style and panache, Jeremy Paul at Theater Ninjas scored with Heddatron, Crave, and A Proper Murder. It may be impossible for Paul to fashion an intellectually bland evening of theater.

Finishing a close second is Clyde Simon at convergence-continuum, whose work on The Mineola Twins, Big Love and Ouroboros was consistently outstanding.


The Bang & Clatter Theatre Company

This past year, Bang & Clatter succumbed to the harsh financial realities of producing theater, and it will be sorely missed. Sean McConaha and Sean Derry, the co-founders and creative leaders, furnished a much-needed spark of ingenuity and fearlessness to the Cleveland theater scene. We only hope they can get involved in other shows at other venues in the months to come.

As for 2010, in the immortal words of George W. Bush, bring it on!