Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Santaland Diaries and The Loush Sisters: Making the Yuletide Gay (We’ll Pass on the Fruitcake), PlayhouseSquare

(Kevin Joseph Kelly as Crumpet)

The Santaland Diaries is the most accidental of Christmas traditions. The author of the original material, renowned essayist and humorist David Sedaris, never wanted his words to be rejiggered for the stage. Still, it happened, with Joe Mantello doing the adaptation, and the rest is history.

That history is now being revisited once more at PlayhouseSquare in the 14th Street Theatre. This time around, Santaland is sharing the stage with The Loush Sisters as a second act treat, both directed by Elizabeth Wood and produced by Raymond Bobgan and the Cleveland Public Theatre..

In Santaland, Sedaris writes about his tenure as a paid elf named Crumpet at Macy’s during the holiday season. This is not a happy elf, mind you, but an elf that wallows in all the excesses and absurdities of his job dealing with aggressive parents. vomiting kids, and an array of dysfunctional Santas.

There have been several iterations of Crumpet the Elf in these parts, but nobody has come close to matching the elfin-voiced charm and subversive edge that Curtis Proctor brought to the role more than ten years ago.

Nobody, that is, until Kevin Joseph Kelly, who is the sole performer in this production. Even though Kelly is large both physically and vocally, not exactly typecasting, he works from the neurotic characteristics of the narrator to create this cynical, acid-tongued gnome from hell. And he’s frequently hilarious.

From the initial job interview process to his final “Christmas miracle” moment of insight, Kelly smoothly delivers these gaily-wrapped goods (emphasis on the “gay”). When not pining after his co-elf heartthrob Snowball (plus a couple gentlemen in the audience), Kelly’s Crumpet is on target. And he deftly handles all the choppy moments in a script that sounds more like a real diary than a polished monologue.

After intermission, The Loush Sisters arrive in the persons of Liz Conway and Sheffia Randall Dooley. This fast-paced half-hour of mangled Christmas carols, weirdly appropriate pop songs and snappy dialogue is a nice follow-up to Kelly’s one-man show.

Written by Conway, Wood and musical director Michael Seevers, Jr., this is essentially a throwaway piece of holiday hoo-hah. But Conway and Dooley make you glad they throw it your way.

The two performers adopt a hybrid version of the overlapping conversation style made famous by the two SNL ladies in the NPR cooking show parody “The Delicious Dish.” (Here’s their famous holiday time “Schweddy Balls” skit.) But they amp it up to 10,000 rpm as they strafe the audience with rapid-fire song medleys and a fractured storyline about their mom (the aforementioned Kelly, now in drag).

It all makes no sense whatsoever but it works because Conway is a hot-wired, surefire presence on stage—probably funnier right now that any other woman in the current SNL cast except for Kristen Wiig. And Dooley holds her own, generating chuckles and using her better singing voice to anchor the duets.

All in all, it’s a blast of an evening that should become its own tradition.

The Santaland Diaries and The Loush Sisters: Making the Yuletide Gay (We’ll Pass on the Fruitcake)

Through December 17 at PlayhouseSquare, the 14th Street Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., Cleveland, 216-241-6000

Friday, December 2, 2011

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, Cleveland Public Theatre

(Mrs. Robinson, about to do things with an electric mixer that would make Betty Crocker faint face-first into her apple cobbler.)

Yes, it has landed again: the weirdest, tastiest and most depraved group dining experience since Caligula stopped serving piping hot virgins to his dinner guests.

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, is back for its second year of elegantly calibrated insanity. It’s a show accompanied by a five-course dinner served by nine actors, but that doesn’t come close to describing the overall impact of this experience.

This year there are a couple new personnel additions to the Conni cabal. But clearly, no one among the returning cast has mellowed in the past 12 months. And that's a good thing.

The New York City-based performing company comes in to provide this crazed concoction, presenting a volley of set pieces interspersed with continuous interaction with the audience.

If you like up close and personal theater, this is just the ticket. On opening night, Mrs. Robinson (a male British rocker) swapped pants with a female patron. And that probably isn’t the most intimate exchange between audience and cast that took place. (What happens in Conni’s Restaurant, yadda yadda…)

No actors are identified by their actual names in the program, and every audience member is invited to choose a fake name-tag (ie. “Not-So-Tiny Tim,” etc.) that protects their identity as well. With anonymity firmly in place, everyone can just relax and plug into the subversive energy of this four hour wack-fest.

Songs are performed, sung particularly well by the exotic-looking Mr. X and restaurant general manager Sue James (probably not her real name, but who knows?). She also does a mean "dance of the seven kitchen utensils."

Each course of food is introduced via one form of hilarious mock-pageantry or another, then served family-style at long tables. The grub itself, cooked on the premises, ranges from wonderful (curried butternut squash soup) to filling (thick slabs of turkey with cranberry compote). Also served are foccacia appetizers topped with ricotta, honey and pumpkin seeds; a roasted brussels sprouts salad; side dishes of mashed potatoes and sugared carrots; and a drunken chocolate bundt cake for dessert.

In between the noshing, a pregnancy is transferred from one young woman to another, a pants-less doctor and his volley of nurses provide questionable medical assistance, and a good ol’ boy bartender runs a “Bus Your Table” contest where customers compete to win a champagne-drenched “palate cleansing” interlude. Yeah, don't ask.

Frankly, there are far too many elements in this borderline psychotic extravaganza to enumerate here. Suffice to say you have never experienced anything like it. You will laugh, except when your jaw is hanging agape in amazement. And you will not leave hungry--for food (taking seconds are encouraged), or for wine (three bottles allocated for each ten-person table), or for an ample quota of certifiable strangeness.

And once you do attend, you will pine for the return of CAGR next year like a three-year-old waiting for Santa Claus.

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant

Through December 18 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Daddy Long Legs, Cleveland Play House

There’s a full-tilt, nail-down-the-furniture charm offensive going on at the Cleveland Play House, and woe betide anyone who dares say no. Daddy Long Legs, a recent musical adaptation of a popular century-old play (not to mention a renowned Fred Astaire film), is so darn winning it makes your molars throb.

Sure, the music is repetitive, the characters are often just two-ply and it all goes on about 40 minutes too long. But Paul Gordon (music and lyrics) and John Caird (who wrote the book and directs this two-hander) simply will not take no for an answer.

Based on a 1912 novel by Jean Webster and set at that time, the story is as simple as a silent film script. An orphan girl, Jerusha, is befriended by what she believes is a tall, aged, anonymous benefactor (she glimpsed him once from afar) who puts her through college. He only requests that, in return, she send him letters detailing her life.

But the academic sugar daddy, named Jervis, turns out to be a wealthy, cosmopolitan young man who eventually visits the college and meets up with Jerusha without revealing who he is. After that, she continues to send letters to her benefactor, sharing personal thoughts about this young man she met, without realizing they are the same person.

At this point, you can hear the anguished screams of all the young women who have had their secret diaries and love letters read by others. But this play saves that confrontation for the end.

Meanwhile, the play meanders from the college to Jerusha’s summer farm retreat and then off to the big city. Along the way, there is very little conflict, hardly any eye contact between the two actors on stage, and many treacly references to meadows ‘n’ frogs ‘n’ the moon rising over yonder. It feels sort of like a musical version of The Waltons—without John-boy’s edgy, hell-for-leather rebellious streak.

There are couple dozen sweetly descriptive songs that are mostly taken from Jerusha’s letters, sung by both characters, that sound vaguely similar in pace and tone. While pleasant to the ear and often sporting some witty lyrics, the tunes begin to drone as this almost 2½ hour show (with intermission) progresses.

In the role of Jerusha, Megan McGinnis is a treasure, as she employs her simple good looks and crinkly-cute expressions to fashion a young woman it’s easy to care about. She’s feisty, but still laboring within the tight social confines of the era. And McGinnis has such a bright, clear voice, she brings surprising depth to a number of fairly pedestrian songs.

As Jervis, Robert Adelman Hancock has some amusing moments, venting his frustration when Jerusha won’t dance to his tune. And he blends his crisp tenor voice nicely with McGinnis during their duets. But he is never able to give Jervis any interesting facets that would allow us to see why he is compelled to play this essentially awful trick on the young woman.

And that is why the conclusion of this soft-focus musical, a touring production with an eye on making it to Broadway or its environs, rings so hollow. Honest emotions on both sides are steamrolled by the happy ending everyone knows is coming. So you might as well give up and enjoy it. Resistance is futile.

Daddy Long Legs

Through Nov. 13 at the Cleveland Play House, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Monday, October 10, 2011

Cabaret, Great Lakes Theater Festival

First, we need to establish a couple facts. Great Lakes Theater Festival is an enormously talented company of theater professionals that has produced many fine shows, especially in recent years under the artistic direction of Charles Fee. And Victoria Bussert is a splendid director, the equal of anyone in this region.

Okay, now remember that first paragraph as we delve into their current production of Cabaret. Because for some reason known only to the cruel theater gods, those gifted people are staging a production that is so sublimely flawed, it almost beggars description. But describe it we will.

This Kander and Ebb musical, with a book by Joe Masteroff, is a gem that takes place in decadent Berlin just as Hitler is rising to power. Focusing on Sally Bowles, a goodtime gal and Kit Kat Klub star, the show is meant to show the tension of a society being torn apart, along with the lives of those caught in its unforgiving machinery. From the iconic title song to the slyly mercenary “Money,” this should be a sexy romp with a sobering kick of impending doom.

Instead, this production is dark, confusing and mostly unpleasant—but not unpleasant in the way the authors intended. The problems start with Jeff Hermann’s fixed set, featuring a five-piece band installed on a platform above a wall with three doors, sort of like a shrunken version of Let’s Make a Deal, but without Monty Hall out front and a Cadillac Eldorado behind door #3. These simple doors are evidently meant to designate different locations, with a light above each door that glows when the action takes place in that setting. At least, I think that’s the idea.

Strangely, a gaily-illuminated curtain of shiny Mylar strips is partly visible when those doors are open. This comes perilously close to making sense when the setting is the Klub, although why the performers aren’t doing their act in front of that curtain instead of three doors is anyone’s guess. But when the glistening curtain is glimpsed outside the door to Sally’s rundown room, one is only left to imagine a misguided but secretly festive boardinghouse owner who mounted a super-fabulous wall treatment in his scummy hallway.

(Okay, go back and read the first paragraph before continuing. I know I am.)

Musically and otherwise, the show revolves around Sally and the Master of Ceremonies at the nightclub. The MC should personify the sleazy sexuality and distorted morals of Germany, but Eduardo Placer takes very few chances and makes no interesting choices. Sure, he wears makeup and dresses scandalously, but so does your average weekend crossdresser and no one is paying money to see him. Unfortunately the costume is the most interesting element in Placer’s characterization, as he continually purses his lips and flings his arms skyward in an attempt to seem debauched.

The MC works with the Kit Kat Girls who are dressed unaccountably in a riot of monochromatic beige (and later black) panties and bras that look like they were snatched out of their respective grandmothers’ bureaus. If this is sexy Weimar Germany, give me the Golden Girls.

As Sally, the fiery performer Jodi Dominick is woefully miscast. Her singing ability ranges from serviceable to disastrous (especially in the final, sadly butchered rendition of “Cabaret”). Meanwhile, sharp-edged Dominick can’t come close to capturing the impish, fun-loving spirit of Sally that is necessary to make the whole show click. Instead, she seems a little pissed off that she has to pretend to be flighty and whimsical.

(Please revisit the first paragraph, one more time.)

The choreography by Gregory Daniels is a collection of improbable poses interspersed with faux-Fosse steps, executed with intermittent synchronicity.

Remarkably, even the entr’act music is screwed up by (you guessed it) audience participation, in which Placer brings up a man and a woman separately from the audience to dance with him. This cheap gimmick, a fixture of the corny stage productions at every theme park in the world, feels pitiful in this show. And it’s made even worse since Placer, breaking the almost non-existent character he’s created, cracks the same lame jokes with both people.

Director Bussert does not manage to squeeze one believable moment out of the interactions between Sally and fellow boarder, the clueless bisexual American Cliff (played by a bland Neil Brookshire).

The only time real emotion shows is when Laura Perrotta, occasionally overacting as Fraulein Schneider, falls in love and croons sweetly along with old Herr Schultz (a basically non-descript John Woodson).

Ultimately, in a last-minute bid for gravitas, the surprise ending reaches for a level of tragic resonance that the production up to then has not earned. So it feels forced and a tiny bit embarrassing.

To sum up, when Schneider and Schultz are the flawed highlight of Cabaret, it’s time to pack up your garter belts and run for the border.


Through October 30, produced by the Great Lakes Theater Festival at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th Street, 216-241-6000

Saturday, October 1, 2011

With Love and Respect: An Evening to Celebrate the Naming of the Donald A. Bianchi Theatre

On October 2, 2011, Dobama Theatre will name the theatre space after its beloved founder, Donald A. Bianchi.

6:30 p.m. - Wine and hors d’oeuvres reception

7:30 p.m. – Presentation and naming of the theatre space

8:00 p.m. - A special production of VARICOSE VANITIES

Written by Mr. Donald A. Bianchi

Directed by Ms. Joyce Casey

Starring Jeanne Task and Tim Tavcar

9:00 p.m. - A tribute to Dobama Theatre’s Artistic Director

Tickets for the event are $50 ($25 tax-deductible).

Please click here to purchase tickets online, or call (216) 932-3396.

The proceeds from the evening will be directed to Dobama Theatre’s new Endowment Fund. This will mark the beginning of the fund and this contribution will be in Don’s name.

For more information or if you have any questions, please call Dobama Theatre at 216-932-3396.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Richard III, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

(The multi-tasking Terry Burgler)

It’s always fascinating to see how a director and actor approach the title role in Richard III. This bent and misshapen man is so fully evil and malevolent, he can conjure interpretations that echo Nazi Germany (such as in the Royal National Theatre’s production starring Ian McKellen that then became a movie). Under artistic director Terry Burgler, the Ohio Shakespeare Festival doesn’t fiddle with such contemporary spins and pirouettes, and that hewing to original time and place is to their credit.

But in this production, Terry Burgler is also the person playing Richard. And as an accomplished actor, he should be picketing outside Stan Hywet Hall, protesting the fact that his director never once watched him do a single scene in rehearsal. Perhaps this demonstration would shake the resolve of that immensely talented director, Terry Burgler.

While many productions opt for making Richard a gleeful and even charming psychopath, Burgler swings the other way with Richard underplaying many of his speeches and scenes. It is rather bold choice to portray the banality of evil, if that is his aim. Of course, this choice runs the risk of simply delineating the banality of banality. The second level of banality might have been eliminated had Burgler not been directing himself.

That said, Burgler the actor adopts a fine, dark look for his menacing character, with his shoulder hump firmly in place. And some scenes register with chilling overtones, as when Richard verbally seduces Lady Anne (played by Tess Burgler, Terry’s daughter, the pair thus executing a Freudian/thespian double back flip with aplomb).

But Burgler’s casual and at times off-handed demeanor blunts the edge of other scenes, while much of the violence is also soft-pedaled. As a result, this Richard doesn’t slice so much as shove and buffet—resulting in a kinder, gentler rendition that is interesting but not compelling.

Excellent performances are turned in by several individuals in the large cast. Anne McEvoy brings her riveting stage presence to the role of Margaret, who has been pushed aside following the death of her husband. If you ever want to cuss somebody out but don’t want to do it yourself, definitely give Ms. McEvoy a call.

Derrick Winger seems entirely at ease as Hastings, which makes his later fate ,when he joins the pile of off-stage bodies, even more affecting. Robert Hawkes is deliciously craven as Buckingham, Richard’s doomed flack, conning the populace and the court as his boss machetes his way to power. And Lara Knox simmers and snarls with style as Queen Elizabeth.

By making Richard defiantly non-charismatic, Burgler the director takes a big chance. Unfortunately, Burgler the actor does not have the wise counsel of a director who is observing these dynamics during rehearsals and then suggesting different and possibly more rewarding attacks on this juicy material.

Richard III

Through August 14, produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens, 714 North Portage Path, Akron, 330-673-8761

Friday, June 17, 2011

Dr. Dolittle, Mercury Summer Stock

(Pierre-Jacques Brault as Dr. Dolittle, with non-puppet versions of his on-stage pals)

Although most pet owners already fancy themselves capable of engaging their domestic creatures in conversation, talking to animals has always been troublesome beyond the basic statements: “Sit,” “Fetch,” and “Oh, God, not my cashmere sweater!”

That’s why the Dr. Dolittle story, originally written in a series of children’s books by Hugh Lofting, has the ability to entertain youngsters and all the rest of us still in touch with our childlike selves. And this production by Mercury Summer Stock has plenty of fun in store for the little ones, although it may be a tougher slog for those who have advanced past puberty.

The musical features book, compositions and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, the renowned collaborator with Anthony Newley on The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd and Stop the World—I Want to Get Off. But aside from the famous “Talk to the Animals” there are precious few toe-tappers. Indeed, some of the melodies seem strained and a bit random.

Still, the fun here resides with the animals and the presentation, in the form of hand puppets and a two-person costume (the Pushmi-pullyu), is charmingly simple. This makes the animals less a technological marvel, as in The Lion King, and more accessible for the kids.

As for the slim plot, Dr. D is brought up on charges of murdering a woman by throwing her off a cliff into the sea. He claims it was a seal and he was just following the seal’s clearly stated wish to rejoin her seal hubby in the waters up north. Of course, the judge is less than accepting of this explanation, and soon most of the animals in town, from plow horses to mice, enlist in Dolittle’s efforts to free himself.

Mercury artistic director Pierre-Jacques Brault plays the title role, which turns out to be a mixed blessing. Brault exudes great charm on stage and sings well enough. But since Brault and Brian Marshall (who plays Matthew Mugg) share staging duties, some directorial details go unattended.

Brault never quite builds the good, animal-whispering doc into a full-blown character. Instead of the befuddled goodness this man should embody, we sense in Brault’s Dolittle an unfocused distraction. This is shown at various times when Brault is smiling at moments when his character should be registering another expression entirely.

As Mugg, Marshall shows off his singing chops but seems to be playing himself more than the rough and tumble, hard-drinking Irish palooka that his character name implies. Dolittle’s love-hate relationship with a local lady goes well, thanks to Jennifer Myor’s crisp, well-sung portrayal of Emma Fairfax.

The puppets, provided by PJ’s Puppets, are mostly adorable in their unaffected construction, and a couple are quite funny (an enthusiastic dog, a pig gifted with super olfactory senses). One exception is Polynesia, the 200-year-old parrot who is doc’s animal linguistics coach. This puppet is virtually expressionless and barely opens its mouth, problems that may stem from the puppet or from the puppeteer.

Dan DiCello and Neely Gevaart nibble freely on the scenery in their stint as circus owners who fall head(s) over heels for the Pushmi-pullyu. And Kelvette Beacham shines in the second act as Straight Arrow, the surprisingly erudite inhabitant of a floating island where an on-the-run Dolittle eventually lands. Her song, “Save the Animals,” is a huge highlight and one only wishes Beacham had a much bigger role.

While some musicals do fine with only piano accompaniment, this production feels quite threadbare musically, even with music director Ryan Neal’s best efforts.

In all, this is a doctor visit the kids are sure to enjoy. As for the adults, watching the kids’ faces light up is a treat in itself.

Dr. Dolittle

Through July 2, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at the Brooks Theatre, Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-771-5862

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Next to Normal, PlayhouseSquare

(Alice Ripley as Diana.)

Her voice at first has the smooth gloss of a Broadway star. But it isn’t long before another vocal quality becomes apparent. This voice sounds as if it’s been extruded, pushed through the remorseless calendar-die cross-sections of daily life. A voice both blessed and tortured. And the finished product housing that voice, although polished to look at, is brittle and liable to shatter under stress.

This is Diana as played by the magnificent Alice Ripley, who won a Tony for her performance in the original Broadway production of Next to Normal, now at PlayhouseSquare. It is a portrayal that cuts through a bold rock music score to plant an indelible impression of bipolar trauma. With a pounding and exuberant score by Tom Kitt, and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, this is a production that dives feet first into a delicate subject area and emerges triumphant, although simultaneously downbeat.

Diana is a suburban mom in every jot and tittle, except for the fact that she has a not-easy-to-diagnose mental disturbance. Showing aspects of manic depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior, Diana is a trial to her loving family: husband Dan and children Natalie and Gabe.

Following a familiar pattern, Diana decides to stop taking her pills, encounters a talk therapist, and then spirals down into more serious issues and more extreme outcomes. And, as we learn the trigger for Diana’s troubles, more layers are added to this intense family drama.

If all that sounds like heavy lifting for the audience, fear not. This muscular production directed by Michael Greif is thoroughly captivating from start to finish.

In addition to Ripley’s tour-de-force performance, she is abetted by actors who sing powerfully and contribute clear and convincing characters. Asa Somers as Dan holds his own as the supportive spouse who is entirely out of his depth. Emma Hunton manages a nice mix of empathy, frustration and scorn as she deals with a mother who is rarely there for her. And Curt Hansen’s Gabe floats through the proceedings, always jabbing Diana with his inescapable presence.

In smaller roles, Preston Sadleir is amusing as Natalie’s improv piano playing boyfriend and Jeremy Kushnier renders both doctors with style.

Indeed, the often-enervated casts of the last two Broadway Series productions (especially West Side Story) should sit in this audience and observe how a touring company should perform: with passion and immediacy.

Adding to the powerful overall effect is the set by Mark Wendland that features an industrial three-tiered structure where the rock musicians and the actors do their thing. Accented by projections of house’s bland siding, and a woman’s face, the many lights on the spare crossbeams gleam and are extinguished like the uncertain synapses in Diana’s brain.

And on top of all that, there are trenchant thoughts that glitter amidst the dark turbulence of Diana’s struggles. Such as, “Most people who think they’re happy just haven’t thought about it long enough.” And, “The price of love is loss, but still we pay.”

If the subject matter gives you qualms, overcome them. There’s a reason why Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama plus a Tony for the original score. This is a complete theatrical treat, stimulating and profound, and it is not to be missed.

Next to Normal

Through June 19 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

West Side Story, PlayhouseSquare

(Michelle Aravena as Anita and Ali Ewoldt as Maria in their dazzling duet)

Some ideas just never outlive their original power. And when it comes to West Side Story, we can happily report that the juice is still worth the squeeze.

Now at PlayhouseSquare, this is the touring production of the 2009 Broadway revival that was directed by original book-writer Arthur Laurents. The story of the Sharks and the Jets is well known, as is the retelling of Romeo and Juliet from the perspective of two gangs on the mean streets of 1950s New York City. But with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, this is one piece of theater that will likely live forever.

While much of the staging and dance moves are the same, one new twist is the partly bi-lingual presentation: Some dialog and lyrics are delivered in Spanish by the Puerto Rican Sharks. This works beautifully, since many in the audience will be able to translate these very familiar words in real time.

Even if you can’t, the meaning behind the scenes is never obscured. And there is a resulting credibility that lends a raw energy to this street conflict between two cultures.

The one soft spot in this staging centers around the two leads. The touring company apparently has three women and three men who respectively share the roles of Maria and Tony. On opening night, Ali Ewoldt fashioned a girlish and pert Maria, and applied her muscular soprano to her songs. Indeed, this is a voice that could cut steel ingots like butter.

But her Tony for that evening, Cary Tedder, was virtually trampled by her vocal chops. Looking more like a grown-up Opie than a street-tough kid, Tedder also seemed tentative in his singing, not coloring his held notes and failing to fully act his lyrics. As a result, the chemistry between the two never developed.

Although she’s no Chita Rivera (and who is?), Michelle Aravena provides plenty of laughs and sparks as Anita, and her duet "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" with Ewoldt in the second act soared. Also, the "almost rape" scene in Doc’s candy store, where Anita is cornered, still chills to the bone. As Riff, Joseph J. Simeone has a good look but his voice sounded tired in places.

Action (Drew Foster) and the Jets have fun with “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and the Shark gals dance up a storm in “America,” even though their words at times were hard to understand over the orchestra.

The biggest visual treat is when the stage transforms to the under-the-highway site of the pivotal rumble, with the highway descending and a chain link fence lowered to cover the entire proscenium. The symbolism of these kids trapped in the cage of their own tangled destinies is vital and memorable.

With a stronger love match between Tony and Maria, this show could be marvelous. As it may be, at times, during the remainder of the run.

West Side Story

Through May 15 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Monday, May 2, 2011

Underneath the Lintel, Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

If you have a mystery to solve, who’s the first person you call? A librarian, of course! Well, maybe not. But the librarian in Underneath the Lintel, now at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, turns out to be a super sleuth who tracks his prey all the way back to the crucifixion.

This play by Glen Berger is loaded with a dense thicket of clues about the borrower of a library book that is 113 years overdue, a density that could defeat lesser actors. But Robert Hawkes is nearly flawless in this one-man performance, playing the script and his audience like a virtuoso.

Our hero is a Dutch librarian who is addressing a gathering in a rented hall, a man afflicted with all the petty concerns the stereotype of his occupation suggests. He has issues with his co-workers, especially when they mooch some of his lunch. But he saves his ultimate scorn for those who drop off books without paying their dues. So you can imagine his feelings when he finds a book past due by more than a century.

Pursuing the slimmest of clues, including a laundry ticket, he relates how he pursued this scofflaw from China to Germany and from the United States to Australia. Ultimately, he entertains the theory that the person he’s hunting is actually the Wandering Jew of legend, who was doomed to walk the Earth until the second coming of Christ.

Hawkes unfolds this intricate story with immense patience while keeping the audience riveted at every moment through deft pacing changes and thrown-away laugh lines. Whether we believe the librarian's story, or if we decide he's just imagining it all, the impact is the same. He and director Susan Soltis develop a character beset not just with obsessions but with a desire to explore the meaning of life beyond daily rituals and, yes, the Dewey Decimal System.

After watching this production, you may want to discuss the ideas lurking behind the simple expression “I was here.” But whether you do or not, you will know you were in the presence of an actor functioning, gloriously, at the peak of his craft. And that’s worth a good deal more than the price of this ticket.

Underneath the Lintel

Through May 14 at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, River Street Playhouse, 56 River Street, Chagrin Falls, 440-247-8955

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two Gentlemen of Verona, Great Lakes Theater Festival

While love and friendship are two very desirable conditions, when they conflict with each other the participants can get seriously bent out of shape. That’s what happens to the four principals in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, now at the Great Lakes Theater Festival.

This early play by Shakespeare is a fairly slight affair, as young Will was still trying out the dramatic techniques he would use later in his career with such skill. Therefore, either the staging or the performances have to fill some gaps to make this play soar. And even though this GLTF production has some pleasant moments, it never really catches fire.

The two gents in question, Valentine and Proteus, fall in love with Silvia, with Proteus leaving his former gal Julia in the lurch. But Julia decides to disguise herself as a page and is assigned by Proteus to woo Silvia on his behalf. Of course, there are more complications intertwined until the happy and strangely abrupt conclusion.

Lacking much of the dense beauty found in other Shakespeare plays, this piece begs for imaginative staging or actors who can bring something extra to their roles.

Initially, it seems that director Charles Fee is on the right track with a clean and modernistic set designed by Russell Metheny. Plus, Fee utilizes two singers and a small combo to introduce scenes with snatches of indie music, such as the haunting tunes of Nick Drake, the moody “bleak” rocker circa 1970.

As it turns out, however, that faint window dressing can’t make up for a staging that feels flat and perfunctory. Fee approaches the material as if it requires deep respect, not as a loose and spirited comic romp. Although Fee has been chided in the past for taking too many liberties, here he errs in the opposite direction.

The situation isn’t helped by individual performances that range from bland to capable. Neil Brookshire is a handsome cipher as Valentine and Paul Hurley neatly skates around many opportunities to turn Proteus into something more than a pain-in-the-butt grind.

As Silvia, Nica Ericson exudes a dark and threatening sexuality but never builds that into anything interesting. Only Lee Stark as Julia, among the four leads, ever generates any sparks, especially in her cross-dressed moments when she interacts with Silvia..

Reliably, David Anthony Smith comes riding to the rescue as Proteus’ servant Launce. His scenes with his faithful mutt Crab are funny and endearing, perhaps even more so in this arid landscape. And Sara M. Bruner, Jodi Dominick and Robert Williams add some fun as the second act outlaws.

Overall, however, these Two Gentlemen are much too mannerly to make this play crackle with anything approaching comedy delight.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Through April 23, produced by the Great Lakes Theater Festival at PlayhouseSquare, the Hanna Theatre, 2067 East 14th Street, 216-241-6000

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Excavation, Theater Ninjas

It seems that if you were buried under many feet of volcanic ash, it would be a mystifying and horrific event. And that’s one reason why The Excavation, now being produced by Theater Ninjas, is such an absorbing, if almost indescribable, experience.

By exploring the burial and subsequent excavation of Pompeii, this original work of theater is actually an ambulatory encounter. The audience breaks into smaller groups and then reassembles, as various guides and Pompeian “experts” expound on the tragedy that befell that Italian city back when years had just two numbers.

It starts off with three different lectures that take place simultaneously and are repeated twice. In one, the female presenter is analyzing the erotic art of Pompeii while riffing on her personal relationship that just went south. Another lecturer offers nonsensical descriptions of non-artifacts from Pompeii, including a plastic water bottle.

But you don’t have time to see all three, a process of fragmentation that only accelerates until the final gathering around a floor map of the doomed city. This means that everyone encounters this play in a different way, visiting rooms and observing “scenes” that another audience member doesn’t.

Serious musings (about the meaning of life, the sudden permanence of death) mix helter-skelter with low comedy of all sorts (human statues with enlarged genitalia, a raucous puppet show, and a lab manned by two horny scientists).

Some of the broad humor is forced and a tad juvenile, and you may find yourself trapped in one room while you hear people laughing in another, wishing you were over there. But these moments don’t last long and there is always something else coming your way, literally around the next bend.

During the 90-minute piece, you cover quite a bit of territory on the second floor of this factory/loft building, sometimes pausing to sit or stand, depending on the material being presented. I could tell you all the things I witnessed, but then you might not ever see them.

Directed and devised by Ninja honcho Jeremy Paul, The Excavation is something you need to immerse yourself in, even if you won’t be quite sure what it was after it’s over. And in that way, I suppose, we can say it’s kind of like life itself.

The Excavation

Through April 23, produced by Theater Ninjas at the 78th Street Studios, 1300 W. 78th St., Cleveland, 216-245-3514

Thursday, April 7, 2011

An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking, PlayhouseSquare

One-person shows built around impressions of famous people (such as Mark Twain, Harry Truman, the list goes on) are always popular entertainments. After all, we like to get a little peek into the real lives of celebrities who have a body of work we respect and cherish—and no, Charlie Sheen, we’re not talking about you.

These elements would seem to be aligned perfectly for a solo riff on Lucille Ball, the much-adored movie and TV comedy queen of comedy from the 1930s to the 80s. Unfortunately, the script for An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking, now at PlayhouseSquare, is a hot mess. As co-written by the performer Suzanne LaRusch and Lucy’s daughter (and the play’s director) Lucie Arnaz, this monologue brings a whole new meaning to the term tepid.

It’s as if Reader’s Digest and the AARP got together to write a show, and then had it buffed to rose-tinted shine by Ned Flanders.

It starts out with a labored introduction that tries to establish that the performer will not be recreating Lucy’s famous bits—the chocolate candy assembly line, the Vitametavegamin schtick, etc. Then, once “Lucy” takes the stage, she actually does do versions of those skits.

Awkwardly arranged as a fake Q&A with the audience (all the questions are pre-recorded by actors, no questions are taken from live patrons), the show lumbers from one anecdote to another, assisted occasionally by still photos and home movies. While certain Lucy devotees may appreciate LaRusch’s physical similarity to the older Lucy, and her ability to replicate a couple of the star’s mannerisms, the gap between the two performers is enormous.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than when a short clip of the real Lucy doing the Vitametavegamin pitch is shown. Lucille Ball was a comic genius, which is shown as she gets hammered, first sipping a spoonful and then tipping the bottle and draining the inebriating concoction.

For some reason, the script performed by LaRusch focuses on the actual bad taste of the elixir, with “Lucy” making the extraordinary comment that she was glad it tasted awful so she didn’t have to act(!). Even if the real Lucy did say that at some time, it totally misses the point, as does the attempt to teach the audience how to correctly pronounce the V-word. The fun, as the real Lucy knew, was in woozily mispronouncing that jumble of letters.

At another moment, “Lucy” talks about the importance to an actor of learning pantomime, then does a long and fairly boring mime of sewing up a rip in a pair of slacks (the real Lucy could have made this hilarious). At another juncture, LaRusch even stuffs her mouth with chocolate candies, echoing that famous episode, but manages to do it in a perfunctory and remarkably unfunny way since there’s no context.

Topics not touched on are Lucy’s stormy relationship with husband Desi Arnaz (all we hear is that he was “the love of her life”), her brush with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 50s, and any bumps or failures in her long career.

It’s understandable that Lucie Arnaz would want to paint her mom and dad in the most glowing colors, but that doesn’t make for a very interesting production. Especially when the sole performer is far less talented than the woman she is portraying. If you love Lucy, look up the real thing on You Tube.

An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking

Through April 17 at the 14th Street Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 216-241-6000

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Les Miserables, PlayhouseSquare

(Andrew Varela as Javert)

Once again, the epic musical Les Miserables has landed at PlayhouseSquare, this time in a much-ballyhooed new production directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell. This 25th Anniversary tour of the Cameron Mackintosh blockbuster should be cause for rejoicing, but not so fast.

First of all, the story doesn’t change. Frenchman Jean Valjean, freed from the slammer for heisting a loaf of bread, decides to become a thief but is snatched from that life by the kindness of a bishop who gives him cover. Changing his name, Valjean becomes a wealthy business owner and mayor of a town.

After saving the prostitute Fantine from the streets, and watching her die in his care, he wrests the woman’s daughter Cosette from the clutches of two scummy innkeepers and raises her as his own. As time passes, Cosette falls in love with Marius, a leader in the June Rebellion, while Inspector Javert hunts down Valjean with an obsessive fervor.

Instead of the well-known rotating turntable, a mainstay of past productions, the new staging features projections of some of original author Victor Hugo’s paintings on a screen at the rear of the stage. This I know from the production’s souvenir program, since I didn’t see it in person.

From my perspective in a seat at the extreme left end of the second row, roughly 20% of the stage was blocked by a hefty light tower, one of two stationed at the corners of the proscenium. As a result, I saw nothing that happened far stage right and could only glimpse a sliver of the screen where the projections were shown.

Sadly, then, I cannot report on some of the more telling moments in Les Miz. I don’t know whether the young boy Gavroche dies on stage or off; I certainly didn’t see it happen. I didn’t see Valjean carry Marius through the sewers of Paris. And while I saw Inspector Javert jump from the bridge in his suicide scene, he then quickly disappeared behind the light tower. (I assume he died, like all the times before.)

Although denied the visual sweep of the show, I can say that many other scenes were fully visible, and all of it was easily heard. And that turns out to be a mixed blessing.

While the cast nails all the money notes—the quiet finishes of some songs and the boisterous full-chorus anthems—many songs are performed with less resonance and precision than one might expect.

As Fantine, Betsy Morgan struggles with the lovely “I Dreamed a Dream,” becoming a bit shrill at times. And Jenny Latimer, playing the grown-up Cosette, goes thin with some of her songs before nailing pitch perfect endings.

But beyond singing glitches, the company displays a bigger problem. I wouldn’t say the cast mailed it in, but it would be fair to say they copied us on a previous e-mail that they sent to someone else, hoping we wouldn’t notice.

When actors perform by relying on memory and technique, instead of creating their characters fresh every night, you get what was on the stage at the Palace opening night: Lots of big gestures and bravado without a real core inside. And that broad approach does no favors to a show that is already florid and melodramatic.

As Jean Valjean, Ron Sharpe (who has replaced the originally cast African-American actor Lawrence Clayton) has a fine set of pipes, but he never seems to engage fully with his character’s plight. Andrew Varela, as Valjean's tormentor Javert, hits all the marks vocally and burns with an intensity that would register more fully in a better ensemble performance. Together, they do not create the antipathy, the anti-chemistry, which must fuel the play’s trajectory.

In her solo "On My Own," Chasten Harmon as love-starved Eponine actually sniffles when she sings "I love him," helpfully cueing us to the fact that she's, um, sad. The comic duo of M. Thenardier (John Rapson) and his wife (Shawna M. Hamic) push their nasty innkeeper roles to the brink, coming across as more cartoonish than vile and threatening. And that, oddly enough, makes them less engaging in the context of the show.

One hopes that the touring assistant director will get the actors back on the ball, so that ensuing performances have the immediacy and depth this magnificent show deserves. And if you end up in one of the far outside seats near the stage, remember to buy the souvenir program. In those pages, it certainly appears to be a very handsome production.

Les Miserables

Through April 17 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1519 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

(Rob Albrecht as Lawrence and Trey Gilpin as Freddy)

The plus side of being a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist is that life often presents you with happy surprises. And one of those nuggets of joy reside in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels now at CVLT, where two actors in the leads make this con artist musical come to hilarious life.

The performances of Rob Albrecht and Trey Gilpin as the competitive con men Lawrence and Freddy, on the make in the south of France, bring out all the fun of this show. With clever lyrics (and often forgettable music) by David Yazbek and a fairly predictable book by Jeffrey Lane, Scoundrels is a piece yearning for just the right people in the two major roles.

Director Martin Friedman hits the comedy target almost perfectly with his duo. Albrecht plays the dapper grifter Lawrence with smooth condescension and a handy grab bag of Euro accents. Plus, he uses his rich baritone voice to excellent effect in his songs, particularly the second act “Love Sneaks In.”

But the featured role is Freddy, the common, two-bit hustler who first is tutored by Lawrence and then competes with him to see who can fleece the supposed American heiress Christine Colgate. Gilpin slides into this character with enormous physical ease, then proceeds to craft a few laugh-out-loud set pieces, including a stint as Lawrence’s offensive “brother” Ruprecht.

Although relying a bit too often on the gag of pulling or emitting various unpleasantries from different bodily orifices, the rumpled Gilpin can throw away a laugh line with the best of them. And that results in a performance that consistently delights from start to finish.

Playing the mark Christine, Heather Hersh has a gawky and gangly innocence that works well for her character, although she wrestles with her songs—losing three out of four falls in the process.

Sharon Lloyd as the rich Muriel Eubanks and Eric Oswald as the malleable local gendarme Andre have fun with their tryst in the second act, especially in their ditty “Like Zis-Like Zat.” And Libby Merriman kicks up some laughter in her musical tribute to Oklahoma: “Not a tree or a Jew/To block the lovely view.”

While the production feels a bit arthritic in the larger scenes where the ensemble is called upon to perform, this Scoundrels soars on the wings of its two leads. And that makes for an often giddy ride.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Through April 16 at Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, 40 River St., Chagrin Falls, 440-247-8955

Friday, March 25, 2011

Present Laughter, CWRU at the Cleveland Play House

(Dan Hendrock as Garry and Kelli Ruttle as Liz)

If Present Laughter is the last full production to occupy the venerable Brooks Theatre stage at the Cleveland Play House, consider it a blessing. The Brooks’ intimate brick-walled, wood-floored space has been home to countless shows. And this crisp and thoroughly delightful work mounted by the Case Western Reserve University MFA program comes across as a love letter both to the Brooks and to the Play House in general.

The self-deprecatory romp authored by Noel Coward is a heaping serving of luscious, urbane and oh-so-witty dialog. And the young performers from CWRU handle it all with sophistication and dexterity under the finely-tuned direction of Jerrold Scott. Although not perfect (and what, my dears, is?), this is an evening not to be missed by anyone who hungers for something suave without the unpleasant Sheen often evident in our current crass culture.

The play revolves totally around a Coward avatar named Garry Essendrine, a renowned British actor of romantic comedies who has just crossed the 40-year-old threshold. That milestone gives this bountifully theatrical person one more reason to flagrantly lament his cosseted existence and throw fey insults at anything that moves.

And there are plenty of people orbiting around Garry’s self-fueled and, um, flaming sun. His ex-wife Liz (a wonderfully wry Kelli Ruttle) is happy to be living separately but still loves the guy and runs interference for him. And since Garry is planning a six-week tour of Africa, there’s a lot going on.

Some of that activity involves the young actresses who “lose their latchkeys” and wind up at Garry’s door for succor. First, there’s Daphne (Caroline Santa) and later the aggressively amorous Joanna (Eva Gil). Joanna is intimately acquainted with Garry’s professional pals Morris (Yan Tual) and Hugo (Michael Herbert), and they all figure in one of the tangled subplots that send Garry reeling (although it doesn’t take much).

Among Garry’s household staff, Kim Krane as his secretary Monica is a deadpan treat, delivering each of her putdowns with acerbic bite and a nice twist of the knife. And always without ever changing her expression. In a broader bit of buffoonery, Erin Bunting turns the sour Miss Erikson into a chain-smoking apparition who shuffles about in her own cigarette haze.

Although he has few lines, TJ Gainley manages to make Fred the valet a sweet and sympathetic person as he faithfully attends to everyone’s needs. And many laughs are generated by Andrew Gorell who plays an offensive young playwright Roland Maule who won’t take “No!” or “Get out!” as useful directives.

In the key role of Garry, Dan Hendrock is amusing in all the right ways, dropping his character’s acidic bon mots with deft assurance and prowling his environs like a silk-clad jaguar. However, there are moments, particularly in the first act, when he seems trapped into speed-reading some long speeches. These are juicy soliloquies that should be milked rather than rushed.

There’s also a rather sad subtext to Garry’s character that goes largely unexplored: the actor who is so often “on” that he has no way to turn himself off.

That said, this production is delicious—from the lush set designed by Jill Davis to Kristine L. Davies’ elegant costumes. The Brooks is going away, theater lovers, and this show is a very fond and hilarious farewell.

Present Laughter

Through April 2 at the Brooks Theatre, Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000