Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Steady Rain, Dobama Theatre

For my review of A Steady Rain, please go to Cleveland Heights Patch:

Sunday, February 20, 2011

La Boheme and Rent, Baldwin Wallace College

(Chris McCarrell and Jon White as Mark and Roger in Rent.)

Big events don’t happen all that frequently on the local theater scene, but one is most definitely in progress in Berea, Ohio. That’s where Baldwin-Wallace is mounting, in repertory, the Tony-award winning rock opera Rent and the classical opera that inspired it, La Boheme. This is the first time this has ever happened, anywhere, since Rent opened off-Broadway in 1996.

Under the direction of Victoria Bussert, director of music theater at B-W, these two productions not only soar individually, they create a wonderful symbiosis when you see them on succeeding days.

Or even on the same day, as I did. Let’s put it this way: there aren’t a lot more engrossing and thrilling ways to spend a Saturday or Sunday—at least with your clothes on.

La Boheme

This work by Giacomo Puccini is one of the most performed operas in the world, and small wonder. In a fairly short span it encompasses the hopefulness and unfettered joy of youth along with unspeakable tragedy.

Marcello the painter and Rodolfo the poet are shivering in their loft, pursuing their respective arts and, more importantly, trying to stay warm. After Marcello leaves with a couple of their buddies, Schaunard and Colline, Rodolfo meets up with sickly neighbor Mimi (she has TB, and a conveniently non-functioning candle), sparking the love story and the ultimate tragic ending.

Puccini’s glorious music is delivered beautifully by a 38-piece orchestra under the baton of guest conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos (who also conducted a Broadway version of La Boheme).

In the two leading male roles, B-W conservatory of music graduates James Dickason and Jared Leal give Rodolfo and Marcello powerful yet nicely-nuanced vocal presences. And they have plenty of fun in the lighter scenes, dancing and pratfalling with their buddies. This provides a telling contrast when events turn dark.

Four of the key roles—Mimi, Schaunard, Colline as well as the flirty and risqué Musetta—are double cast with student performers taking turns. In this day’s staging, Jessica Waddle created a fragile and evocative Mimi while Lindsay Espinosa brought out the feisty spirit (and eventual heart of gold) of Musetta.


There are many similarities between this show and La Boheme as it swings an emotional arc from a celebration of youthful exuberance to the ravages of a disease (in this case, it’s AIDS, not TB).

Set in the lower east side slums of New York City in the late 1980s, instead of Paris in the 1800s, the music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson kick the La Boheme story into a contemporary context with the pair of male artists, Mark and Roger, now being a guitarist-songwriter and a video documentarian.

The love stories are a bit more complex here, as Mark’s ex-girlfriend, the performance artist Maureen, is now in a relationship with her on-the-fly producer Joanne. Meanwhile, just like in La Boheme, Roger meets up with a candle-challenged Mimi. In a third romantic subplot, Roger and Mark’s pal Tom Collins meets up with the fierce, crossdressing Angel.

This show is also double cast in key roles which included, at this matinee showing, Chris McCarrell and Jon White as Mark and Roger. As Mimi, Jillian Kates Bumpas sizzled as the pole dancer and junkie who falls for HIV-positive Roger. Kyra Kennedy and Andrea Leach also ignited love-hate sparks as Joanne and Maureen.

In two of the permanent roles, Antwuan Holley is a magnetic (if sometimes less than melodic) Angel, while Jason Samuel as Tom Collins nails his tender and hopeful song “Santa Fe.”

Shared Thoughts

Since the two plays are directed by one person, Ms. Bussert, there are similar strengths that make these productions stand out.

One is specificity. In addition to the rotating leads, each play has a large supporting cast, and each person on stage is remarkably adept at finding clear, exact ways to be involved in each scene. For instance, in a crowd scene in Rent, a young woman junkie far off to the side of the stage is inspecting the festering red wound on her arm, the site of her injections. Even though she is a small cog, she clearly has a back story that is quickly implied.

This kind of telling detail happens across the stage in both plays, giving the entire production a credibility and resonance that doesn’t happen when crowds on stage just gather together and mimic each other.

Another clear strength is commitment. Not a commitment to a character, which is fairly easy to achieve, but a commitment to each moment. By not looking ahead and allowing each ensuing event to happen fresh, the cast members enable these plays to grab the audience by the lapels and bring them into that time and place.

Other invaluable assets at work in Berea are a magnificent metal superstructure set and subtly flexible lighting by Jeff Herrmann, entrancing period costumes by Charlotte M. Yetman, and muscular and inventive choreography (especially in Rent) by Gregory Daniels. All the above are professors at B-W, which makes one want to be a college freshman in theater arts all over again.

La Boheme and Rent

Through February 27 at Baldwin-Wallace College, Kleist Center, 95 E. Bagley Road, Berea, 440-826-2240

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Jerry Springer: The Opera, Beck Center

(Gilgamesh Taggett as Satan, lording it over Matthew Wright as Jerry Springer)

Most of us have known people who use variations of the word “fuck” not just as a verb or a noun, but also as an adjective, adverb, preposition and conjunction. However, for those who swim in a slightly more elevated gene pool, you can get a crash course in fuckology from Jerry Springer: The Opera, now at the Beck Center.

But obscenities are just the tip of sleazy iceberg that lurks just below. Replicating the odious TV talk-show-cum-wrestling-match run by the former mayor of Cincinnati, there is a predictable parade of disturbed cultural outliers—from chicks with dicks to the KKK and from pole dancers to a hefty dude in a diaper.

This extravaganza of deviance, all sung-through as an opera with arias and such, is raucously hilarious early on. But it ultimately tries to wrench out some life truths through a pointed hazing of religious hypocrisies, and that’s a difficult pearl to rescue from the steaming pile of excreta that’s come before. While you may not buy the forced moralizing, you will experience an exhilarating ride through the underbelly of our society, accompanied by a few excellent performances and voices.

This wildly ambitious endeavor features a fulsome operatic score by Richard Thomas, with book and lyrics by Thomas and Stewart Lee. Thomas, by the way, is the librettist for another culture-vulture opera, Anna Nicole, that is now playing the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

If you’ve ever seen The Jerry Springer Show, you know that the audience is a major part of the turmoil. And so it is here as an on-stage scrum of trailer park bottom-feeders yell out insults, taunts and random iterations of “fuck you” to anyone who appears on stage. And as for hand gestures, there are more flipped birds on stage than at a winner-take-all chicken burn-off.

In the second act, the action turns more religious and symbolic as Jerry, after being attacked earlier, is forced by Satan to do a hellfire version of his show so Satan and "little-bit-gay" Jesus can Springer-ize their dicey relationship. (Note: This is the part of the production that inspired the pissed-off Christian demonstrators who were picketing the theater before the curtain.)

Happily, there are trained singers in the cast who turn Thomas’s music into some lovely moments. That is, if you can believe it’s lovely when diaper man Montel (Darryl Lewis) sings lilting lyrics such as: “Some like to eat their lunch off a whore’s beaver/I just like to shit my pants.”

In two substantial roles of Peaches (a cheated-upon wife) and Baby Jane (a female counterpart to Montel), Diana Farrell employs her well-trained pipes to beautiful effect. Also excellent vocally are Leslie Andrews as Zanda and Mary (yes, that Mary), and Shelley Thorpe as Andrea and Archangel Michael.

Other members of this large 23-person cast have some bright moments, while the rest basically hang on for dear life. Only Joanna May Hunkins as pole-dancer Shawntel and Eve (yes, that Eve) finds herself in vocal areas she should probably avoid.

As the ringmaster Jerry Springer, Matthew Wright brings a sense of slightly baffled bewilderment to the role. And that feels spot-on, since the real Jerry never knows what any show’s topic or guests are until he shows up on stage. Wright is balanced perfectly by Gilgamesh Taggett as both Jerry’s lickspittle warm-up man and later as a devilishly intense, red-suited Satan.

Director Scott Spence and choreographer Martin Cespedes forge a tight ensemble production that ripples with energy. That spark keeps things burning when the on-going tsunami of swear words and strange behavior threatens to extinguish the bonfire ignited in the first act.

Jerry Springer: The Opera

Through March 27 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Trip to Bountiful, Cleveland Play House

(Lizan Mitchell as Carrie Watts)

Home is where the heart is. Unless it also happens to be down the road a piece and it looks like you can’t get back there from here. We all have attachments to the place we grew up. And whether those memories are pleasant or not, they often color our daily lives.

In The Trip to Bountiful, now at the Cleveland Play House, playwright Horton Foote uses everyday language and mundane events to explore the mystical pull the idea of “home” can exert on a person. And while this production isn’t stellar in all ways, it connects frequently enough to make one reflect on these very personal issues.

Set in the 1940s, Carrie Watts is an elderly lady who wants more than anything to return to Bountiful, the bug-sized Texas town where she was reared. However, she’s stuck in Houston in a small apartment with her protective son Ludie and his brittle and imperious wife Jessie Mae.

We learn that Ludie and Jessie Mae have to keep retrieving Carrie from train and bus stations, to keep her from journeying back home. This aspect of the play has heightened tension in this staging, since the largely African-American cast brings in potential conflicts (a black woman traveling alone in the south) that aren’t present in the original film version.

However, Carrie manages to live out her dream, and that journey and her ultimate realization are what make this play so resonant.

In the lead role of Carrie (for which Gerladine Page won an Oscar in 1985), Lizan Mitchell is a compelling and occasionally amusing presence. Whether sitting stolidly on her rocker in Ludie’s home or quick-stepping through the hallway, Mitchell creates a Carrie we care about.

As the trip unfolds, however, there is less of a cohesive build in Carrie’s character. And some of the extended dialog scenes (particularly a bus ride with new friend Thelma, played by Jessica Frances Dukes) tend to cruise blandly rather than drive towards the ultimate destination.

As Ludie, Howard W. Overshown exudes tenderness towards his mother and a cringing sort of deference to his strong wife. Chinai Hardy has some effective moments as Jessie Mae, but by rushing a number of beats early on, she misses the opportunity to truly flesh out this conflicted woman.

Director Timothy Douglas fits Foote’s lovely and gentle script easily into an African-American context. The result is a production that, while not entirely gripping throughout, finishes strong and serves up a substantial helping of Horton Foote's unique theatrical magic.

The Trip to Bountiful

Through February 27 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

Monday, February 7, 2011

Assassins, Lakeland Civic Theatre

In the history of slogans, the U.S. Army’s misbegotten “Army of One” tagline never really caught on, at least with the military. But it was quickly co-opted by domestic terrorists after Timothy McVeigh set off his truck bomb in Oklahoma City. Echoing that thought, presidential assassins seek to be an “Electoral Majority of One” when they take down our country’s leaders.

In the mordant musical Assassins, now at the Lakeland Civic Theater, Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and John Weidman (book) attempt to dissect the mentality and cultural significance of nine very different historical lunatics. Even though the material itself is flawed in multiple ways, this production directed by Martin Friedman makes it all work remarkably well, with several spot-on performances.

Friedman and scenic designer Trad A Burns decide to eschew the original carnival shooting gallery setting, opting instead for a wide concrete stairway that evokes the U.S. Capitol building. This monolith of gray seem initially oppressive and limiting, but as it turns out it allows Friedman to move his players vertically as well as horizontally, giving the production a unique visual style.

The play itself is a jumble of scenes, some spoken and some sung, that jump back and forth in time as we encounter famous killers (John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald) and wannabes (John Hinckley, Sara Jane Moore, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Guiseppe Zangara, and Samuel Byck). Less well known assassins include Charles Guiteau (he killed James A. Garfield) and Leon Czolgosz (he offed William McKinley).

However, without any serviceable dramatic through line, the script continually has to re-start itself with each scene, and that becomes tedious. But thanks to some deft acting work, the whole 90-minute one-act hangs together surprisingly well.

After an ironically up-tempo opening song “Everybody Has a Right (to Be Happy),” the lineup starts appropriately enough with assassin #1, John Wilkes Booth. Scott Esposito brings an appropriate veneer of arrogance to his character, and he sings well in “The Ballad of Booth.”

After that, the leapfrogging begins and it’s hard to find any rhyme or reason why the scenes are arranged as they are. Still, Neely Gevaart and Amiee Collier (would-be Gerald Ford assassins)combine to fashion an amusing pas de deux in their scene, with Collier finding just the right mix of middle class blandness and bone-deep psychosis. As Guiteau, Kevin Joseph Kelly is nicely controlled as he manages to trigger laughs without losing his character’s troubled essence.

Kevin Becker is properly spooky as the loner Hinckley while Trey Gilpin as Zangara and Brian Altman as Czolgosz have a couple incisive moments. But the most affecting performance is turned in by Brint Learned as Byck (this wacko dreamed of flying a 747 into Nixon’s White House). Dressed in a homeless man’s Santa suit, Learned crafts a clearly deranged loser who is still close enough to reality to send a chill up anyone’s spine.

JFK’s assassination concludes the play, as Oswald (a fairly non-descript Curt Arnold) is talked into shooting the Prez by the entire rogues’ gallery. This is the one scene where Friedman doesn’t use the stairs to the script’s advantage, as Oswald moves all over the staircase instead of inexorably towards his deadly perch. Thus, the tension that should build towards this final act of insanity is dissipated.

The authors try to tie this all together with a balladeer, a thankless role handled by Aaron Elersich with as much élan as he can summon. Also an afterthought, in this staging, is the Proprietor (James J. Jarrell). Since there is no shooting gallery to be the proprietor of, he is relegated to peddling his guns out of a suitcase.

As uneven as the script is, Friedman and his actors create a substantial evening of theater. One that rings with particular poignance given the recent tragedy in Tucson, Arizona.


Through February 20, produced by the Lakeland Community College Arts and Humanities Division, at the Lakeland Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland, 440-525-7526

Thursday, February 3, 2011

South Pacific, PlayhouseSquare

There are some singing voices you hear and others you listen to intently. But it’s rare in a Broadway musical to encounter a voice you can almost literally bathe in, a voice so deep and warm that you feel you have to check your fingertips for wrinkling after emerging from its embrace.

Such is the voice of David Pittsinger, who plays Emile de Becque in PlayhouseSquare’s sensational revival of South Pacific. From the first syllable of “Some Enchanted Evening,” Pittsinger weaves emotional clarity throughout Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic love song. And he nearly tops himself in “This Nearly Was Mine” later in the second act.

In between, the show directed by Bartlett Sher manages to bring a new sense of energy and discovery to this reliable old war horse. Set in the South Seas on a Naval base, the book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan (based on a James A. Michener novel) deals in two ways with the issue of racial prejudice. The thrust of that story, although still relevant in these times, has lost some of its controversial punch.

But you will rarely hear this iconic score performed any better than this. Backed by a 25-piece orchestra, all the songs feel rich and luscious to the ear. And in the role of Nellie Forbush, Emile’s heartthrob, Carmen Cusack is refreshingly realistic.

Eschewing the paranormal perkiness that Mary Martin exhibited in the original, Cusack feels more like a genuine product of Little Rock, Arkansas—in both good and bad ways--which is as it should be. Cusack holds her own with Pittsinger in their duets and has plenty of fun with her featured songs “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.”

In supporting roles, Anderson Davis mixes macho and arrogance nicely as Lt. Cable, the Philadelphia mainliner who falls for a native girl, Liat ((Sumie Maeda), the daughter of the redoubtable Bloody Mary. Their doomed romance echoes the difficulties Nellie has with the two little children Emile had with his former wife, a Polynesian woman.

While music is the undeniable star of this touring show, the comic moments don’t work quite as well. As the resident conniver Luther Billis, Timothy Gulan works hard but never seems to catch the vibe of a military huckster on the prowl (Sgt. Bilko he ain’t). And Jodi Kimura’s Bloody Mary feels more of a cipher than a tropical earth mother with a deep vein of corruption. And the staging of “There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame” comes off more like calisthenics than a sweaty ode to sexual deprivation.

But those are small quibbles given this production’s lush, postcard sets by Michael Yeargan, and the songs that will melt even the coldest, deep-frozen Cleveland heart.

South Pacific

Through February 13 at the Palace Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1516 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000