Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Great White Hope, Karamu House

(From left, Peter Lawson Jones as Tick, Ursula Cataan as Eleanor, and Anthony Elfonzia Nickerson-El as Jack Jefferson)

While we are all unique individuals, it ‘s a fact that a few people are just a little more unique than all the rest. And that description definitely applies to Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing world champion—a man of such enormous size, talent and outrageousness that it virtually beggars description.

In The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler, now at Karamu House, a fictionalized version of Johnson (named Jack Jefferson) serves as the centerpiece of a play dealing with the virulent racism at the turn of the 20th century. But more than that, it traces the arc of a man who is fighting for his individuality against the restricting and conforming pressures of society.

This is a huge, sprawling production (20-some scenes, all in different locations, more than 40 cast members), executed through collaboration among Karamu, Ensemble Theatre, and Weathervane Playhouse. Director Terrence Spivey draws insightful performances from his leading players, but some awkward performances in a number of supporting roles serve to lessen the impact of this ambitious work.

Early on, Jefferson wins the heavyweight belt amid a cacophony of racist slurs offered up by whites in and out of the boxing industry. But, true to the actual person, Jefferson is a man with a huge ego, boundless confidence, and an absolute dedication to living his life as he sees fit. This includes cohabiting with a white woman, Eleanor Bachman, a decision that infuriates many whites and blacks.

As Jefferson, Anthony Elfonzia Nickerson-El exhibits a boxer’s ripped physique and the calm assurance of a man who knows exactly who he is. He and an excellent Ursula Cataan have great chemistry on stage, giving their relationship the depth it needs to keep Sackler’s script grounded. Even though the real Jack Johnson was much more of a “sporting” man than this play lets on, bedding scads of women through his years, Nickerson-El’s Jefferson is compelling and suitably larger than life.

About to be imprisoned on trumped up charges under the Mann Act (transporting females across state lines for amoral purposes), Jefferson sneaks out of the U.S. and begins a journey through many countries in Europe. A few years later, he lands in Cuba for a title defense that will write an end to his short reign as champion. This play is all about that journey, and Sackler wins big on points as he repeatedly hits on the issues of individualism and societal intolerance.

In the role of Jefferson’s trainer Tick, Peter Lawson Jones is solid, as is Colston (Skip) Corris as Cap’n Dan, a man who doesn’t believe a black man should be champ. And Rodney Freeman is eerily indomitable as the U.S. attorney who is Jefferson’s primary pursuer.

But there are moments when some supporting actors—employing too much volume, too many grand arm gestures, too much stogie waving and sucking, and excessively mangled foreign accents—tend to impair the flow of the story.

Also, since this production will be traveling to Weathervane in a few weeks, the set has been kept quite simple. But some of the foreign locales are hard to differentiate since the set cues are often quite spare.

Still, when the principals are on stage, all is well. And the fascinating tale of this singular man rings true and poignant.

The Great White Hope

Through March 14; produced by Karamu House, Ensemble Theatre and Weathervane Playhouse; at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th St.; 216-795-7077

Saturday, February 20, 2010

13, Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory (FPAC)

Mention eighth grade to most people and they will usually grimace and involuntarily shiver, remembering a time of incredible uncertainty, discovery, awkwardness and a lot of booger jokes. But in the musical 13, now at the Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory, this period of time is given an upbeat gloss thanks to an irresistible cast of young performers.

Under the spirited direction of Sean Szaller and aided by Bebe Weinberg Katz’s exuberant choreography, the production often attains an aura of professionalism. Along the way, many of the expected traumas facing kids that age—dating tragedies, hurtful gossip, shifting allegiances—are dealt with in one form or another.

But there are a few thorns among the roses, particularly in the book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn. When 12-year-old Evan moves from the hip environs of New York City to fly-over hell in Appleton, Indiana, after his parents’ divorce, he’s distressed about who will attend his bar mitzvah. He quickly bonds with sweet Patrice, but then tears up her invitation when he finds out that others, including school stud Brett, don’t like her.

Even granting the quicksilver nature of relationships in middle school, none of these attractions or conflicts is given enough explanation to make them resonate completely. The words in the songs (music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown) try to spackle the holes, but it’s a futile effort.

That said, Brown has a facility for writing some catchy tunes, and the FPAC cast delivers them with style. As Evan, Miles Sternfeld has an easy command of the stage, blending a touch of Woody Allen dorkitude with youthful resolve . And Dani Apple is ideal as the super nice Patrice, crafting her songs with an actor’s touch and, at time, belting with gusto.

The comic relief is Archie (Jordan Brown, in a nicely calibrated performance), a boy with a degenerative muscle disease who apparently has a short life span. Laughing yet? Well, you do, especially in the song “Terminal Illness” when Evan and Archie plan to use Archie’s disability to their advantage: “No one says no to a boy with a terminal illness…nothing’s too hard or a quest unendurable/As long as you’re sure you’re completely incurable.”

Blonde Kendra and dark-haired Lucy are this show’s Betty and Veronica, and Jessie Gill and Elle Vertes handle their respective roles of ditz and schemer with panache. And Dan Hoy is every bit the doltish jock as Brett.

But one of the standout moments in this production is when Malcolm (Aric Floyd) and Eddie (Daniel Sovich) indulge in a bit of soulful backup singing and dancing as their main guy Brett tries to cozy up to Kendra. Floyd and Sovich’s moves are loose, limber and downright hilarious. Later, they are also joined by Sam Welch and Kyle Cohen in the show-stopping “Bad Bad News.” Somebody’s got to put these bits on You Tube so they can go viral.

In sum, 13 is a flawed piece of material that is often spun into gold by the young talent at FPAC. Almost makes you want to go back to eighth grade and try it all again.

On second thought, ahh, no.


Through February 28, produced by the

Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory, at the

Mayfield Village Civic Center, 6622 Wilson Mills Road,

Mayfield Village, 440-338-3171

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In The Heights, PlayhouseSquare

(Kyle Beltran as Usnavi)

In the early moments of this urban musical, the young man who runs the family bodega mentions that his mostly Dominican clientele prefers their cafĂ© de leche on the sweet side. And that’s how In The Heights now at PlayhouseSquare is served. Even though a lot of the dance moves look badass, it’s a show with such a milky softness and a sugary glaze that it makes The Sound of Music look raw and hard-edged.

Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and lyrics, the show revolves around three storefront businesses in New York City’s Washington Heights hood. The bodega is run by 20-something Usnavi, a car service is operated by middle-aged Kevin and Camila Rosario, and Daniela’s hair salon is where she and her sassy stylists Vanessa and Carla hold court daily.

But the characters play second fiddle to the music and dancing, which virtually never stops and which, at its best, feels like a cresting wave that just carries you along, giddy in its own confidence. For example, the rap singing in the opening title song and a bit later in “96,000,” is so damn pneumatic and insistent it grabs hold and doesn’t let go.

As for the folks mentioned, they all have their dreams. Particularly Usnavi, who longs to return to the Dominican Republic with his grandmother Claudia. Meanwhile, the Rosarios beam with pride about their daughter Nina, who is a freshman at Stanford. But when they find out that Nina had dropped out some months before, due to financial difficulties, they are pretty sad (as sad as anyone gets in this upbeat evening).

The major turning point is when Usnavi (the origin of his name is hilarious, and will go unmentioned here) discovers that he’s sold a lottery ticket worth $96K. This sets everyone’s dreams on high, especially Benny (a tough yet tender Rogelio Douglas, Jr.)—a young African-American who works for the Rosario’s and is smitten by their daughter Nina.

As you may have guessed by now, all these dreams have a way of working out in the end, even if it’s not in the way one might have predicted. For instance, the Rosario's uneasiness with their daughter's cross-cultural hookup flitters away, as do most of the slight frictions that arise.

Along the way, there are some slower ballads that struggle for a musical foothold, but the good news is there’s always some more hip-hop gold waiting right around the corner: Graffiti Pete (Jose Luis-Lopez) boasts about his love life in one toe-tapping riff: “I got more ho’s than the phone book in Tokyo.”

In the role of Usnavi, Kyle Beltran raps with precision and has a lean and innocent look that adds a layer of unexpected vulnerability. Playing his younger cousin Sonny, Shaun Taylor-Corbett is an audience favorite as he cajoles his way into everyone’s good graces. As for Sabrina Sloan (Vanessa) and Isabel Santiago (Daniela), they show off their strong voices and fill their tight outfits quite admirably.

The book by Quiara Alegria Hudes is serviceable enough, but some of the dialog scenes feel slow and clumsily acted, particularly by Daniel Bolero (Kevin) and Arielle Jacobs (Nina).

Thus, it’s a good thing that music rules the day. In The Heights may not leave you with tunes ringing in your head, but you may have a slight windburn from the unstoppable spirit generated on the Palace Theatre stage.

In The Heights

Through February 21 at the

Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare,

1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Monday, February 8, 2010

Death of a Salesman, Lakeland Civic Theatre

(Maryann Elder as Linda and Mark Cipra as Willy)

Every minute we are alive, we each live in a collision of times (who we are, who we were, who we’re trying to be) and perceptions (no one experiences the same event exactly the same way). It’s all quite complex to disentangle.

And no play ever written has dealt with those dynamics quite as profoundly as Arthur Miller does in Death of a Salesman, which is playing now at the Lakeland Civic Theatre. In 1955, sixty-three-year-old Willy Loman is a shlub for the ages as he tries to grapple with his declining skills as a travelling salesman, his unrealized dreams and his tragically frayed family.

Rather than just assembling another fairly straight rendition of this familiar script, director Martin Friedman and set designer Trad A Burns attempt to re-imagine the play to some degree. They are to be credited for trying to find a new way through this material, but the results are definitely mixed.

The set features a fairly standard Loman home interior on one side of the stage, and its mirror image right next to it. The mirror image retains the outline of the complete home, but the walls are blasted away, with only thin strips of wood here and there to define walls, and doors. In addition, Friedman has double cast the parts of Willy’s wife Linda and their two grown sons Biff and Happy, so that when Willy drifts off into reveries of the past he interacts with different players in those roles.

Moreover, Willy’s involuntary forays into the past are played in shadows, with all the people he encounters dressed in black. These set and costume designs send a confusing message, since the past is where most of Willy’s joy resides. If anything, the present-day set should be cold and depressing, and the past pumped with a rosy glow.

In any case, the acting in this production is consistently superior, even in the smaller roles. As Willy, Mark Cipra fully embodies his slowly collapsing character, slipping easily from delight to rage with his sons, with his wife, and a frustrating inability to deal with the world in general. This is a fiendishly difficult role and, even though he gropes at times for his lines, Cipra crafts a Willy that is true to Miller’s intent.

As the put-upon but indomitable old Linda, an excellent and understated Maryann Elder is slump-shouldered from all the psychological abuse she has endured. But, wisely or not, she will not sacrifice her love for this man.

It is when we come to the two sons that another problem arises. With the brothers double cast, it’s hard to follow who is who as the action slips back and forth from reality to recollection. This isn’t helped by the fact that young Biff (Sean Cahill) appears to be larger than old Biff. This casting decision tends to impair the audience’s ability to fully experience how the boys’ relationship with their father has deteriorated over time, since we're always trying to process basic identities.

But Christopher Richards as old Biff and Joe Pine as old Happy deliver believable turns, effectively bouncing off each other as brothers and then battling with the hazy, often hostile relic their father has become. In addition, Robert McCoy registers authority as Uncle Ben, the man who went into the jungle at 17 and emerged a rich man at 21, and Stuart Hoffman is fine as the young, efficient boss who finally shatters Willy’s fragile hold on the last shreds of sanity.

Whether or not you buy the inventive production twists cited above, Miller’s story of a road salesman at the bitter end of his ultimate route still resonates. And leaves you with haunting echoes.

Death of a Salesman

Through February 21 at Lakeland

Civic Theatre, Lakeland College, Routes

306 and 90, Kirtland, 440-525-7526

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ain’t Misbehavin’, Cleveland Play House

(Rebecca Covington and Christopher L. Morgan)

As a composer and often comical piano performer in the first half of the 20th century, Fats Waller was never very good at “keepin’ out of mischief.” His delightfully infectious melodies, paired with sublime syncopated riffs and some sexually suggestive and culturally pungent lyrics (with lyrics often written by Andy Razaf), can make your toes tap and your brain dance.

Much of that magic is on display in Ain’t Misbehavin’ now at the Cleveland Play House. This production, co-developed with the Arizona Theatre Company and the San Jose Repertory Theatre, fairly bursts with energy from start to finish. However, that electrifying level of full-out performing turns out to be a mixed blessing.

Accompanied by a piano and a 7-piece orchestra, the five singers essay Waller’s well known tunes (the title song, “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’”) as well as many lesser-known ditties. And in each successive song—there is precious little dialogue—director Kent Gash never holds back, empowering his performers to mug, shimmy, bump and grind against each other, and bleed every number of every drop of sexual tension and easy laughs.

At times, this approach works quite well. Christopher L. Morgan is sensuously sinister in “The Viper Drag/The Reefer Song” lowered shirtless from above so he can sidle up to audience members and declare his love of the giggle weed: “I’m dreamin’ of a reefer five feet long.” And all the singers (including Rebecca Covington, Angela Grovey, Ken Robinson and Aurelia Williams) do a fine job with the challenging piece “A Handful of Keys” in which they vocally mimic the dynamics of a stride piano.

But other songs are just slightly off kilter, due to a reliance on excessive over-acting or an insistence on lapsing into American Idol-style, high-volume anthem singing, instead of just letting the songs dictate the mood. As a result, in even a great ballad such as “Mean to Me,” Grovey feels the need to spike the loudness needle when a simpler, more heartfelt approach might be more effective.

There are other times when the cast seems unable to fashion a quick mini-character for a novelty song. In “Yacht Club Swing,” Covington mistakes singing (way) off-key with creating a ditzy gal singer of the time, and Robinson never seems as truly offended as he should be by the enormous pedal extremities referenced in “Your Feet’s Too Big.”

But if you like explosions of energy on stage, this gang dances up a storm. And they execute one simply exquisite number when they all calm down, and form a line of chairs to deliver the haunting “Black and Blue.” That single song of racial pain (“’Cause you’re black, folks think you lack/They laugh at you, and scorn you too/What did I do to be so black and blue?”) may be worth the price of admission all by itself.

Ain’t Misbehavin’

Through February 21 at the

Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue,