Friday, April 23, 2010

A Soldier’s Tale, Cleveland Play House

(Robert Ellis, center, as the General)

Sometimes, a hearty stew tastes like mush because all the individual flavors have melded together into one incomprehensible blob. Then again, there's zesty fare like A Soldier’s Tale, now part of Fusion Fest at the Cleveland Play House.

Employing a challenging and intriguing composition by Igor Stravinsky, based on a Russian folk tale, a septet from the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Tito Munoz sets the musical stage. Then, four actors share the Baxter Theater space with dancers from GroundWorks DanceTheater as they fashion a compelling story of a real soldier from World War II, Private Eddie Slovik, who was executed for desertion.

This historic collaboration of three honored local arts institutions is reason enough to see this remarkable production. But there are even more delights in store than superbly rendered music and dance. The libretto written by Kurt Vonnegut is wonderfully playful, featuring an impish use of rhyme, but is also brutal and often profane in places. This is more than appropriate for a wartime scenario that also involves a “ballet with lice” as the dancers and actors, in uniform, itch as they hoof.

Under the direction of Seth Gordon, this engrossing mélange also leverages some interesting and amusing projections, including a WWII pin-up gal and a violin-playing devil (a reference to the original tale of a soldier who loses his soul to the devil in trade for his fiddle).

Justin Tatum is engaging as Slovik, but almost pushes his character’s devil-may-care goofiness a bit too far (after all, Slovik didn't want to die and eventually pleaded for clemency, a fact not conveyed in this piece). Robert Ellis is nicely conflicted as the General and Lindsay Iuen, steams things up as a sexy Red Cross gal.

In the preceding work, Catch and Release by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the dancers (Amy Miller, Felise Bagley, Kelly Brunk, Damien Highfield and Sarah Perrett) perform to music that in many ways echoes Stravinsky’s piece. Ranging from lighthearted—there are faint flickers of Gershwin now and then—to more somber, this 20-minute composition is accompanied by lighting effects and videos thrown onto the dance floor.

As the only American soldier to be executed by the U.S. military since the Civil War, Slovik has been condemned for cowardice by some and honored for his courage by others. And so goes humanity’s eternal struggle with just one of the many horrors of war.

A Soldier’s Tale

Through April 25 as part of Fusion Fest,

at the Cleveland Play House,

8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Eat (It’s not about food.), Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory

(From left, Alexis Floyd, Doug Kusak and Nina Domingue)

In theater, as in life, the road to hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. And to be honest, the good intentions at work in this 70-minute play are profound and deeply felt. But the resulting production is about as subtle as taking a shovel to the back of the head, and roughly as entertaining.

Penned by Linda Daugherty, and performed by about a dozen young people, along with a handful of adult actors (some of whom have distinguished performing credentials), Eat, now being produced by the Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory, is an indigestible lump of statistics, lecturing and half-hearted storytelling. And that’s too bad, because the subject of eating disorders is certainly important and deserves a better treatment.

Drenched with earnestness, Daugherty’s script often sounds like bullet points about anorexia and bulimia gleaned from Wikipedia. In a series of fragmented scenes, kids and adults act out a couple poignant moments (Juliette Regnier as a crippled ex-ballet dancer is one). But mostly, these are curiously isolated glimpses from the lives of those beset by eating disorders, along with their underlying psychological issues such as anger, low self esteem, etc.

All the actors play multiple roles, with so many multiples in play that it’s hard to ever develop a bond with any of them. The one exception is Amy, a teenager who is first complimented by her friends for her sleek figure, but who then spirals down. Alexis Floyd does what she can with this barely two-dimensional character, while Nina Domingue and Doug Kusak seem at sea as her woefully underwritten parents.

There isn’t sufficient character development or dramatic tension to sustain even a production this short. And that disconnect lessens the impact when sad or tragic things happen. This problem was exacerbated on opening night by some technical glitches (music drowning out dialogue, other recorded inserts too faint to hear) caused by a computer malfunction.

This well-meaning production, directed by Fred Sternfeld, is sponsored by several medical centers involved in treating eating disorders. And one hopes that those who attend will gain insights from some of the facts in the show, as well as from the talk-backs scheduled after each performance.

But solely viewed as theatrical fare, this dish needs to be sent back to the kitchen.

Eat (It’s not about food.)

Through May 2, produced by the Fairmount

Performing Arts Conservatory, at the Mayfield

Village Civic Center, corner of SOM Center

and Wilson Mills Blvd, Mayfield Village

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

August: Osage County, PlayhouseSquare

(Estelle Parsons as Violet, standing, and the rest of the clan.)

Her delivery is as dry as a dust cloud sweeping across an Oklahoma plain—gritty and coarse and dangerous. And if you don’t treat yourself to the experience of seeing Estelle Parsons as the redoubtable Violet Weston in August: Osage County, now at PlayhouseSquare, then there really isn’t much hope for you.

This monumental play about family carnage, written by Tracy Letts, has won most awards in sight, including the Tony and the Pulitzer. But that’s less important than the journey it takes each audience member on, as Violet orchestrates a family gathering into a cacophonous collapse that is laugh-out-loud hilarious, consistently obscene and emotionally devastating, all at the same time.

After an opening scene in which the family patriarch and Vi’s hubby, Beverly, declares his love for alcohol and literature (in that order), he disappears from the family’s stately home outside Tulsa. After some days go by, Violet pushes through her pill-induced haze to convene her sister Mattie Fae, her three grown daughters, and their assorted immediate kin to come offer support.

And that’s when the fun begins, as each of these Westonites begin to reveal their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, under the scouring gaze and brutal—no, let’s make that abusive—honesty of Mama Violet. Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro craft incisive portraits of each of the 11 family members, and one never quite knows whether to stop laughing and start crying, or vice versa.

Swallowing an unending stream of muscle relaxants and downers, Parsons’ Violet is a five-foot-tall black hole of familial devastation. At 82 years of age, Parson has the bearing and energy of four 20–year-olds put together, but with the benefit of acting chops one only gathers over decades. She throws away pungent lines to remarkable effect, making Violet’s snark seem even more treacherous, as it is delivered with an off-handed casualness.

Parsons (yes, she won the Oscar for playing Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde) is ably backed up by actors in the other parts, and some are superb. As Violet’s eldest daughter Barbara, Shannon Cochran elicits many rueful chuckles as she battles with her now-separated husband Bill (an excellent Jeff Still) and her two siblings. At one point, she complains about the "greatest generation" noting: "They were poor and hated Nazis. Who didn't hate the Nazis?" As daughter Karen, Amy Warren is believably, goofily sweet, dragging along her fiancĂ© Steve, who is played to the clammily uncomfortable hilt by Laurence Lau.

The third daughter is Ivy, and while Angelica Torn handles the task well, she appears younger than her character’s 44 years which throws off different vibes, especially as she begins to fall for her young first cousin “Little” Charles (Steve Key). Libby George and Paul Vincent O’Connor create a functionally dysfunctional couple as Mattie Fae and Charlie Allen. And Emily Kinney is properly distracted and whiny as Bill and Barbara’s 14-year-old pothead daughter Jean.

But oddly, one of the best scenes is the first, when Beverly, played with exhausted nobility by Jon DeVries, interviews a young Cheyenne woman, Johnna, to be hired as cook and housekeeper. In those few minutes, DeVries allows the audience to internalize the sad desperation Beverly feels, and he remains a part of the show even though he never again appears.

In any show this expansive (it runs 3 ½ hours with two intermissions), there are bound to be some missteps. As Johnna, DeLanna Studi often seems awkward or forced, especially in a strange moment when she swings a frying pan at Steve, making it look like she’s playing badminton, badly. And Marcus Nelson as the Sherriff brings a new level of stiffness to the role of a flatfoot.

But performance pleasures abound on Todd Rosenthal’s glorious three-story set, making August: Osage County a primary destination for anyone who gives a damn about great theater.

August: Osage County

Through April 25 at the Palace Theatre,

PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue,


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bat Boy:The Musical, Great Lakes Theater Festival

(Mitch McCarrell, top, as Edgar attacks Lynn Robert Berg as Dr. Parker)

If a bat is the least cuddly of all animals, and it is (Hey, a rat with wings? Nothing else comes close), then it stands to reason that a half bat-half boy would be equally revolting. But in Bat Boy: The Musical, now at the Great Lakes Theater Festival, that reasonable thinking is put to the test as the audience grows to know and love this sharp-=toothed, winged adolescent.

This is admittedly a risky show choice for GLTF, a mainstream group that usually traffics in Shakespeare, not in raucous musicals based on sensational tabloid stories. But that’s where Bat Boy got its start, as a front-page headline in the Weekly World News, complete with an artfully patched together photo of the supposed freak of nature.

Set in Hope Falls, West Virginia, and peopled largely by down-home hillbilly types with double digit IQs, the show is supposed to be a blood-drenched, southern gothic take on the struggle of an outsider to gain acceptance. But some of the major players never quite catch the vibe of the show, declining to take enough chances with the material, and as a result this Bat Boy never manages to soar.

Once the pointy-eared boy is found in a cave, he is taken in by veterinarian Dr. Parker and his family, named Edgar, and eventually is taught to speak the King’s English (thanks to BBC tapes). It seems he might be destined to join the human race. But the town’s cows are thin and dying, and the drooling rabble suspect that the Edgar has been helping himself to bovine blood cocktails.

The book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, and music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe channel other Broadway musicals (such as My Fair Lady and The Lion King) and offer plenty of chances for actors to make this funny-ghastly story all their own. But some of the actors don’t seem to buy into this outrageous concept and appear to be vamping until A Midsummer Night’s Dream gets started in rep, in a couple weeks.

A happy exception to this is Mitch McCarrell, who fully embodies Edgar in every gesture and facial expression, while delivering his songs with snap and strength. Some of the secondary townspeople also have some hilarious moments, including Dane Agostinis as Rick, Lorraine and others, and Eduardo Placer as Bud, Daisy and others.

The authors and director Victoria Bussert have fun with this double casting, as characters whip off a trucker hat to reveal a wig as they instantly change characters and genders. And among those playing multiple roles, Fabio Polanco hits the highest note as Reverend Billy Hightower, leading the company in a great Act Two opener “A Joyful Noise.” Also, the choreography by Marin Cespedes kicks the show in gear during most of the musical numbers.

But Lynn Robert Berg is a snooze as Dr. Parker, missing scads of opportunities to crank up the volume of his character’s mendacity and really cut loose. Similarly, Lynn Allison is too bland as the doc’s wife Meredith, the woman who defends Edgar against the predations of the townspeople. This lack of pizzazz seems to run in the family, because Erin Childs as the Parker’s daughter Shelley never makes her teenage crush on Edgar seem as agonizingly inappropriate as it should. And none of them sing with the necessary flair or assurance.

Those tepid performances seem to reflect the static , unimaginative set designed by Jeff Herrmann, a pair of staircases in a half-hearted hillside decorated by overly plump (for this show, at least) plastic cows.

The result is a mixed bag: moments of high camp and hilarity interspersed with arid patches. And that’s too bad, because when done right, BB:TM can be a bloody riot.

Bat Boy: The Musical

Through May 16 at the Great Lakes Theater Festival,

Hanna Theatre, 2067 East 14th Street,


Sunday, April 4, 2010

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Beck Center

(Devon Meddock as Olive and Patrick Ciamacco as William Barfee)

The dweebs are back, and they’re letter-listing for their lives in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, now at the Beck Center.

This ever-popular musical is an ode to all the misfits who ever competed in those sweat-drenched spelling competitions. And this Beck production does the show justice, even though it doesn’t quite nail each of the student characterizations.

Aided by Trad A. Burns gymnasium set that evokes the clammy claustrophobia of high school, the bee plays out in the normal format, one word per student until all but one are eliminated. Along with the cast members, four pre-screened audience members also participate in the spell-off.

The music and lyrics by William Finn are consistently pleasing, and the book by Rachel Sheinkin has a blast with brief speller introductions (a middle-aged woman is described as “one bad relationship away from having 30 cats”). And unlike a normal contest, the word definitions and sentence usages are all played for maximum giggles.

The key to masking this show fly is to make sure each of the six primary spellers can develop an earnest, human side to match their quirky characteristics. This challenge is met brilliantly by Robin Lee Gallo, who turns the overachieving Marcy Park into a formidable opponent, especially in her featured song “I Speak Six Languages.” And Patrick Ciamacco has a fiercely defiant take on the sinus-troubled William Barfee (that’s Bar-fay, to you), although he doesn’t have as much fun with his “Magic Foot” ditty as he might.

The other students all get passing grades, but none make the Dean’s List. Kelly Smith as lengthily named Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere is cute, but allows her character’s lisp to render her ”Woe Is Me” song less than decipherable. In the role of Chip Tolentino, a boy whose spontaneous erection on stage causes him much distress, Jude McCormick doesn’t quite register the depth of embarrassment this event would cause.

As isolated Olive, whose mother is on a spiritual quest in India, Devon Meddock plays it too safe—both in her appearance and in her performance. As a result, even though she sings well we never fully relate to Olive, and her tender “The I Love You Song," when she is accompanied by her absent parents, never captures the tender wistfulness that’s intended. Goofy Leaf Coneybear is given a confusing rendition by Timothy Allen, who turns a fidgety, insecure kid into a strange, loosey-goosey mash-up of Don Knotts and the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

As for the adults, Tricia Bestic is nicely congealed as the MC Rona Lisa Perretti, and Jonathan Kronenberger fully embodies the slouch and deflated career expectations of Vice Principal Panch. The excellent Kyle Primous is essentially wasted in the role of “Comfort Counselor” Mitch Mahoney, although his Act One-ending R&B “Prayer” is a highlight.

Director Scott Spence keeps the pacing tight and, though a few of the characters never achieve comedic gold, there are plenty of laughs in this reliable material.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Through April 25 at the Beck Center,

17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood,