Sunday, December 16, 2012

Annie, Beck Center

Among all the “fingernails-on-a-chalkboard,” cringe-inducing songs of all time, certainly “Tomorrow” ranks right up there. But that may be just because it’s so damn memorable.

Far from a slam, the status of the song that honors the day that will never come may actually may be a compliment to Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin who wrote the music and lyrics for Annie.

This is a show that can win you over, with the right performances and production, and Beck Center hits many of the right notes even if there are a couple less than stellar elements.

This is a major endeavor for Beck, and a sure-fire lock for many sold-out houses due to the hordes of pre-teen girls and their families who will troop in. And they’re being treated to some admission price-worthy theater.

As Annie, the embodiment of the cartoon orphan who leads FDR out of the Depression, Anna Barrett does a fine job. She displays solid stage presence and a singing voice that, while not exactly stripping the paint of the walls (a la Broadway’s original, Andrea McArdle), is certainly up to the task.

She is backed up by The Orphans, the other little girls who animate their hand-me-down rags with plenty of chutzpah and capable singing on “Hard Knock Life.”

Daddy Warbucks is played by Gilgamesh Taggett with some much appreciated underplaying, throwing away lines that become even funnier as a result. And his strong vocals add to the luster of the proceedings.

A standout in a smaller role is Matthew Ryan Thompson as the con artist Rooster. Moving with sinuous intent as he crafts a greasy, unctuous character with the moral depth of a fruit fly, Thompson almost singlehandedly makes “Easy Street” the showstopper it should be.

Unfortunately, his task is not aided greatly by a rather stiff Molly Huey as his henchwoman Lily. And as for Miss Hannigan, the usually reliable Lenne Snively has wonderfully nasty moments but doesn’t quite knit together a whole character that feels as strong as some of the others.

And it must be said that Leslie Feagan has just the right jut of chin to play FDR, along with the clenched Hyde Park accent.

Director Scott Spence and choreographer Martin Cespedes use the voluminous Beck main stage to excellent effect as they maneuver their battalion of actors through Trad A Burns’ many sets and scene changes.  

This Annie is a worth successor to Beck other recent holiday blockbusters, and is sure to make the little girls you know sing “Tomorrow” for many more tomorrows to come. Hey, relax, it’s why God invented aspirin.

Through January 6 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Carol for Cleveland, Cleveland Play House

 (Stephen Spencer, at rear, and Charles Kartali)

Imagine this: A new holiday play is built around the shared flashback structures of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. It features an omniscient narrator, a curmudgeonly/desperate central character, and many carbon copies of other characters from those two iconic works, including one mash-up—a wise-beyond-his-years little boy with a lame leg who is a pint-sized Clarence with a Tiny Tim impairment.

Gentle reader, you would be forgiven if you suspected that this was a set-up for a wild, no-holds-barred parody of Christmas clichés. But no, this is all played with a straight face and nary a burp of genuine wit in A Carol for Cleveland, now at the Cleveland Play House.

Written by two local luminaries (script by Eric Coble, based on a novella by Les Roberts) the play is 90-minute slide down a razor blade of treacly sentimentality and tone-deaf lunges at a tale of redemption.

It’s enough to make Santa abandon his toyshop and go out back to suck down a bottle of Wild Turkey and pass out in a reindeer stall.

As a transplanted Clevelander, Coble has achieved much success as a playwright, with productions blossoming all over the country and a couple more pending on and off Broadway. And I say huzzah for him! But that doesn’t excuse the watery, un-spiked eggnog that he’s serving up in this dreadful concoction.

Set in the late 1970s, Ed Podolak is an unemployed steel worker from Pennsylvania who is looking for a job in Cleveburg. And we see in flashbacks how Ed’s happy life progressed through marriage and children until the economy hit the skids.

Now, Ed is alone on Public Square on Christmas Eve, and he steals some cash from a Salvation Army bucket. But little Charlie Torbic sees what he does, calls him on it, and then invites Ed to dine with his parents and sister.

Even a not-too-bright eight-year-old can guess where all this is going, so I won’t burden you with the obvious. The entire enterprise lacks a shred of dramatic tension, and on top of that it is spoon-fed to the audience by a narrator, dubbed This Guy (a game Stephen Spencer), who tries to capture the folksy vibe of the Stage Manager in Our Town.

But here the trick doesn’t work, coming off more like a playwright's crutch. So This Guy becomes a narrator/stalker, hanging around the fringes of scenes and peering in through windows. And the identity of This Guy, which is meant to be the curtain-closing surprise, will only be so for those who have never seen a movie or play before, in their entire lifetimes.

Coble’s script doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve, it blows chunks of it in your face. A jolly fellow nicknamed Fez (because on his head he wears a…oh, never mind) actually says, “I make life better for those around me.” Okay, Fezziwig, thanks for the clue.

And a jolly Mr. Torbic presides over a jolly dinner while his jolly African-American neighbors George and Daisy and their daughter Ann establish themselves as the whitest black family to ever stride across a stage.

Indeed, everyone is jolly in this Christmas clusterfreak, except for the temporarily grumpypants Ed. And even though Charles Kartali gives his all in that role, he is never able to squirm out of the stereotyped hammerlock that Coble forces on him.

The same is true of director and CPH Associate Artistic Director Laura Kepley. One hopes she is soon give another play to direct that isn’t filled to overflowing with the theatrical equivalent of high fructose corn syrup.

Sentiment is enriching and enlightening when it is earned, as it is in those works that C for C leans so heavily upon. When it isn’t earned , it grates. Sorry, Zuzu, even though recorded bells are pealing at the end of this one, no angels are taking flight.

A Carol for Cleveland
Through December 23 at the Cleveland Play House, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Monday, December 3, 2012

Magic Flute, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

(Lauren B. Smith and Troy Bruchwalski)

There is wonder afoot on the west side for children as Magic Flute spins its web around everyone, from toddlers on up, at Talespinner Children’s Theatre.

Adapted from the Mozart opera by Anne McEvoy, this one-hour production features all kinds of kid-pleasing elements: audience participation, colorful costumes, captivating performances, inventive set pieces and a story that’s pretty easy to follow.

In this much condensed and child-friendly telling, the bird catcher Papageno is talked into portraying a prince by the three ladies who attend the nasty Queen of the Night. When Papageno is confronted by the Queen, she makes him go through tests (much against her sensible husband’s Sorastro’s wishes) until, with the aid of his flute, he wins the day. And the Queen discovers happiness.

Under Alison Garrigan’s lilting direction, the actors find many ways to entice and attract their youthful audience. Troy Bruchwalski is handsome and quite funny as Papageno, aided at times by his dedicated gal pal Papagena (an adorable Lauren B. Smith).

Michael Regnier lends heft to the wise Sorastro and the three ladies (Elaine Feagler, Tania Benites and Charles Hargrave) chirp and mince about with amusing deftness. The only character that doesn’t quite come across clearly is Monostatos (Hargrave again), Sorastro’s aide of sorts.

But all is saved by Heather Stout’s Queen, a sneering stack of grimaces and complaints until Papageno’s magic flute tames her serpent and she mellows out in bliss.

It’s a happy ending that is well earned, and one that should please all little kids (and their wranglers) who attend this fanciful flight.

Magic Flute
Through December 23 at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, the Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Ave., 216-264-9680

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Santaland Diaries, PlayhouseSquare

 Yep, every adult’s favorite elf named Crumpet is back again in this David Sedaris vehicle. Santaland Diaries is a holiday cartful of cynical laughs that has become as reliable a part of the season as Santa himself.

This time there’s a new actor, Allan Byrne, starring in this Cleveland Public Theatre production, staged at the Playhouse Square 14th Street Theatre. And while the balding, satchel-eyed Bryne brings much-appreciated maturity and layers of neurotic baggage to the part, the one-person show lurches a bit fitfully under the direction of Eric Schmiedl.

Written originally by the humorist Sedaris when he was 33, the role has been played by actors of many different ages. And that is one good reason to change the age of the person in the script—especially these days when so many people in their 40s, 50s and older are forced to pick up demeaning jobs just to pay the bills.

Bryne doesn’t look like he’s in his early 30s, and that’s a good thing. Slumped over and a bit defeated, he fits this irreverent character in every other way possible.

And he definitely has some high points in his performance. His explication of “Santa Santa,” the weirdly committed Santa actor at Macy’s, is hilarious. As is Bryne’s fractured rendition of Billie Holiday singing “Away in a Manger.” It’s just a shame it’s over so soon.

In other ways, director Schmiedl doesn’t give Bryne the help he needs. At the start, Bryne never really connects with the audience, so we are left trying to catch up to him as he takes his journey through the nasty bowels of Santaland. And many of the vignettes run together too much, without the necessary clarity when introducing new characters in the story.

Both actor and director could take more chances with this intriguing version of Crumpet, and find even more poignant resonance when the narrator comes to discover some Christmas magic himself.

Santaland Diaries
Through December 22 at PlayhouseSquare, 14th Street Theatre, 216-241-6000

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

How His Bride Came to Abraham, None Too Fragile Theater

(NTF chooses not to provide production photos of their shows and this blog chooses to place images at the start of each review.'s a photo that makes sense, sort of, once you read what follows.)

It’s no revelation that the large religious and cultural divisions in the Middle East always come down to personal stories and individual moments of either beauty or tragedy. But it never hurts to be reminded.

And in How His Bride Came to Abraham by Karen Sunde, now at None Too Fragile Theater in Akron, those hostilities are embodied in two people: a male Israeli soldier and a female Palestinian terrorist. They meet war-cute in the Israeli zone of southern Lebanon.

That obviously sets us up for massive fireworks, but the play slips a gear right at the start. First, Sabra, the young woman is helping Abraham limp into a hiding place she had established earlier. Then, they fight each other. And immediately after that, Sabra is gently tending to Abraham’s injured foot.

These fast switchbacks, within a few minutes, never let the audience fix on the mindsets of these two stressed out young people. And that makes the ensuing dialogue—ranging over all manner of inflicted injuries and atrocities, hopes and dreams—less compelling than it might be if we really understood who these two were from the start.

The complex relationship between the two eventually gets intimate before the inevitable tragedy that ends the talk for good. And there are some telling moments, as when Abraham says, reflecting on his family’s tortured past, “How can I keep death alive inside me?”

Meanwhile, the playwright reaches for political balance, showing how innocent young people are dragged into these conflicts when their individual inclinations might take them somewhere else entirely.

It’s a big task. And while the play does raise important points about the connections these two have with their countries and their families (Abraham’s grandmother’s voice is heard from time to time), the resulting “peaceful” fusion they create feels less monumental than the playwright intends.

As directed by Sean Derry, the two actors handling this ambitious material are starkly believable, even when the scenes are less so. Leighann Niles Delorenzo is wiry and focused as Sabra and Gabriel Riazi matches her intensity while adding a charming layer of naïveté. Grappling with each other on a mound of sandy dirt on the small NTF stage, each turns in an admirable portrayal.

But the oversimplification of what it takes to quell conflicts like these undermines a promising script. If playwright Sunde had not tried to wrap everything up so neatly, the play might resonate more clearly in a world where solutions are sought more than achieved.

How His Bride Came to Abraham
Through December 8 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1841 Merriman Road, Akron, 330-671-4563

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Follies, Baldwin Wallace University

 The clueless former Senator of Alaska Ted Stevens once described the Internet as “a series of tubes” sending information from one place to another. He was wrong about the Internet, but he may have stumbled on a metaphor that works for Baldwin Wallace University’s musical theater department.

It seems that this program has a series of tubes that sends talented young performers directly to the Broadway stage. And the reason for that is on full display in Follies, the iconic James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim musical now at the Kleist Center on the BW campus.

This haunting play, studded with glorious Sondheim tunes, takes place on an old Broadway stage that’s ready for the wrecking ball. But first, a reunion is held for the old performers, many of whom appear in ghostly forms.

It’s a challenging and daunting work, brought to vibrant life by a huge cast under the direction of Victoria Bussert. When Bussert is on her game, as she is here, there is no one who can stage a production with more grand scope and yet maintain a craftperson’s attention to detail.

The show revolves around two couples whose marriages have faded into irrelevance. Buddy & Sally and Phyllis & Ben are now on in age, lamenting past decisions, infidelities and missed opportunities.

These roles are double cast among BW’s talented students. The older versions of this foursome on the second night of the run—Clare Hoews Eisentrout (Sally), Ciara Renee (Phyllis), Alex Syiek (Ben) and James Penca (Buddy) all performed with clarity and specificity.

The only missing element was the middle age of the characters, inaccessible to these young performers, that informs so much of Sondheim’s lyrics and Goldman’s book. But these remarkable young actors maximize every other aspect of their portrayals. And it’s quite likely that the students who share these characters on other nights do exactly the same.

The sprawling cast also includes several BW faculty members, who turn in sparkling cameos. But the overwhelming impact of this production is often due to the elegant set design by Jeff Herrmann, the sumptuous costumes by Charlotte Yetman and lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger’s evocative touches.

This Follies is a feast for the eyes and ears, staged with a gloss and professionalism that few theaters in the region can match. And you can include the touring Broadway shows in that mix.

Through November 18 at Baldwin Wallace University, Kleist Center, 95 Bagley Road, Berea, 440-826-2240.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Beauty and the Beast, PlayhouseSquare

(Hilary Maiberger as Belle and Darick Pead as Beast)

No matter how you do Beauty and the Beast, you’re bound to attract an audience. Especially those height-challenged folks (kids, to you) who are treated to this Disney theatrical production.

And the youngsters won’t be disappointed by this touring show, even though they may squirm a bit as it lumbers along for almost three hours, with intermission.

Adults, however, could find entrancement hard to come by in a production directed with children’s theater broadness by Rob Roth. Indeed, there’s so much mugging going on around him that Darick Pead in his Beast costume seems positively understated.

Fortunately, he and Hilary Maiberger as Belle have ideal voices for these fine songs, and Pead finds some pathos in the Beast who is desperate to find a true love before his hirsute and be-fanged fate is sealed.

Maiberger is less successful in conjuring an interesting personality to go with her sterling pipes. She never quite captures the feisty, eccentric spirit of this girl who is considered a book-reading oddball in her little town.

In the hugely comical role of Gaston, Jeff Brooks has guns that won’t stop and a powerful voice. But he never fully dominates the stage as Gaston should, leaving a hole at the center of the feud that leads to the final confrontation with Beast.

As for the mansion’s servants who are all on their way to becoming household furnishings under the enchantress’s spell, it’s a mixed and mostly ungratifying bunch. Hassan Nazari-Robati exudes plenty of energy as Lumiere, but he lacks variety in his various candle lighting moments, relying on the same grins no matter what the situation.

Mrs. Potts, as portrayed by Erin Edelle, doesn’t offer the ample maternal quality that makes this character memorable, and Edelle’s rendition of the title song is thin and unaffecting. Jessica Lorion tries to have fun with the maid Babette but comes up short, as does an over-the-top Shani Hadjian as Madame de la Grande Bouche. 

Instead of playing characters, these actors all seem to be diving for the closest and easiest laugh. And that begins to wear out one’s patience.

As for the set design by Stanley A Meyer, it seems equally overdone, sporting lots of fairy tale book foliage and super-cutesy little cottages. This approach proves distancing, never allowing the audience to fully buy into the story itself.

Even so, much of the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman/Rim Rice music shines through, giving kids and oldsters a familiar rush. With this show, that’s always the beauty part.

Beauty and the Beast
Through November 18 at the palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Monday, October 15, 2012

Next Fall, Blank Canvas Theatre

(Curt Arnold as Adam and Timothy J. Allen as Luke)

In the abstract, building a show around a hospital deathwatch might seem way too Grey’s Anatomy for the stage. And indeed, Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts, now at the Blank Canvas Theatre, does fall prey to some of that TV drama weepiness.

But on the way to a questionable ending, this is one of the most genuinely warm and funny scripts in recent memory. And the talented cast, under the compassionate and assured direction of Patrick Ciamacco, misses very few beats in telling this story of love and loss.

Luke, in his early twenties, is in a New York City hospital , having been grievously injured in a car accident. His divorced parents, burly Butch and chatty Arlene, have flown in from Florida, joining Luke’s friends Holly and Brandon in the waiting room. Then 40-year-old Adam arrives, Luke’s partner of four years.

In flashbacks, we see the progression of Adam and Luke’s relationship, from meeting cute in a Heimlich hug at a catered event to their eventual sharing of an apartment. We see them joke about some of their differences, age among them, but there is one divide that seems to grate on both.

While Luke is a devout Christian, saying grace before eating anything and fully believing in the afterlife, Adam is a confirmed agnostic. Try as he might, Luke can’t bring his lover over to the other side of belief.

This conflict is exacerbated in the hospital where Luke’s parents, clueless about their son’s homosexual lifestyle (or are they?), try to deal with Adam’s emotional state.

Using a play structure that intersperses scenes from the tense present day hospital situation and the past, playwright Nauffts carves out distinct characters that are fully realized by the Blank Canvas players.

Lindsay Pier and Jason Elliott Brown, as Holly and Brandon, handle their supporting roles skillfully, finding interesting facets that could easily have been left unplumbed.

As the parents, Jeffery Glover is gruff and entirely believable, casually tossing off bigoted comments while also showing his loving, vulnerable side. As brassy Arlene, Anne McEvoy resists turning her character into a cartoon, thereby succeeding in shaping a woman who feels out of her element but trying to adapt.

The pair of lovers could hardly be better. Timothy J. Allen as Luke shows his devotion to his lover and to his religion in many small ways. These add up to a powerful conflict. And Curt Arnold finds the sweet spot as Adam, modulating his unease with religiosity while trying to advance their relationship.

It is only at the end when one may feel a bit manipulated by the script, as we witness deathbed emotions and an apparent conversion. But before then, it is quite a ride—funny, tender and populated by wildly different people honestly trying to figure out how to live among and with each other.

Next Fall
Through October 21 at the Blank Canvas Theatre, 1305 W. 78th St., #211,

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Kid Simple: A Radio Play in the Flesh, convergence-continuum

( Layla Schwartz as Moll, reclining, and Tom Kondilas as the Mercenary)

It’s been said that radio dramas are the “theater of the mind,” since it is all auditory. And that definition rings true when the plays, such as Orson Welles’ famous Martian invasion broadcast, actually create another world one can enter.

On the other hand, there are radio stories, complete with sound effects, that don’t quite deliver the goods. Call it the “theater of the never mind.” And that is the case with Kid Simple by Jordan Harrison, now at convergence-continuum.

Centered on a most intriguing concept, the play veers off into uncharted territory. And that could be a good thing. But due to one less than inspired performance and fuzzy direction by Geoffrey Hoffman, the whole enterprise basically (sfx: bowling ball dropped into a box of wet mud).

Yes, sound effects are the one constant element in this “radio play,” with two Foley artists (Lisa L. Wiley and sade wolfkitten) operating a variety of noisemakers to provide an aural medium for the action in front of them. And while some of their sounds are quite inventive (a squeaky balloon for erotic impulses), many are more mundane and, what’s worse, ill-timed.

These sfx are in the service of a story that gets short shrift. Moll is a young student saddled with the usual half-ass parents who has invented “The Third Ear” for her science fair project. It can hear sounds that are un-hearable, such as grass growing and hearts breaking. Cool.

But instead of following that interesting thought where it might lead, the playwright goes all Boris and Natasha with the idea, having a mercenary spy intrude on Moll’s space and then two shadowy figures stealing the invention. As a result, Moll goes off to rescue her Third Ear, accompanied by Oliver, a teenage virgin.

This is played in counterpoint with another radio drama called “The Death of the Music Teacher” featuring another hostile figure, a foreign baddie named Wachel (a properly sinister Robert Hawkes).

Sure it’s all weird and fun. And it might work given a more adventurous production. But this con-con effort plays it safe where it shouldn't.

In the key role of Moll, Layla Schwartz never takes chances to deliver on the eccentric intelligence of a young prodigy. Drifting through her scenes, using her constant smile as a replacement for more appropriate facial expressions, Schwartz doesn’t challenge assumptions or engage her character in any interesting way.

Much better is Clint Elston as Oliver, reeking with flop sweat. And Tom Kondilas is a treat as the mercenary in his many disguises, including impersonating Moll herself.

True to the form, there is a narrator played by Laura Starnick, and she handles her duties with panache, including some meta references to herself.

But director Hoffman doesn’t knit all the sound effects seamlessly into the action. This is particularly evident towards the end, when the sounds are meant to replace words in the dialog. That demands precise timing that is just absent, as if a week of rehearsals went missing.

Kid Simple is a promising play in search of a tight, precise and imaginative production. And while there are some interesting performances, a vacuum at the center makes it all go (sfx: water gurgling down a drain).

Kid Simple: A Radio Play in the Flesh
Through October 27 at The Liminis, produced by convergence-continuum, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074

The Color Purple, Karamu House

There are so many good things in this ambitious production of The Color Purple at Karamu House that it almost seems churlish to point out a couple major problems. Trouble is, those problems affect the overall impact of the piece, and that’s most unfortunate.

This musical interpretation of the famous and heart-rending Alice Walker novel is expansive, covering four decades and the lives of black women who find challenges at every turn in their homes, in the community and in the South.

Many people are familiar with Celie, the much put-upon “ugly” woman who gradually emerges as a strong and defiant person capable of fending for herself. Then there’s her sister Nettie who goes off to Africa, Celie’s friend and blues singer Shug Avery, and Mister—Celie’s violent and mean husband who eventually turns over a new leaf.

There’s a lot of story here, and the good parts of this production, directed by Terrence Spivey, are really extraordinary.

Colleen Longshaw as Celie is tremendously affecting as she continually picks herself up and continues her journey. And she sings with deep passion even when the right notes tend to evade her.

She is matched in intensity by Michael May as Mister, throwing his weight around in terrifying ways. And May makes the transition of Mister, from brute to softie, almost believable.

Mikhaela LaShawn is perfect as boozy Shug, at first a stone cold bitch and then showing her more tender side. And standing out in a small role is Christine Johnson as Sophia, belting her songs and providing an imposing presence on stage.

Plus, the singing and dancing under the direction of musical director Ed Ridley and choreographer Angelique Lipford, is spirited and immensely moving.

Unfortunately, the play moves at glacial speed, with scenes dragging out way too long and scene changes taking so long one is tempted to curl up for a short nap. Perhaps this is improving as the play is performed, but the lethargic pace is almost torturous.

There are also moments when the singers are over-amplified, lending a screech to the songs that doesn’t help matters.

Still, this is a fantastic story with very capable performers throughout. If and when they goose it up a few notches, it will be a thorough delight.

The Color Purple
Through October 28 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th Street, 216-795-7070 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

On An Average Day, None Too Fragile

(Some brother combinations do great things, like the Wright Brothers above. Then there are the brothers in this play,)

Thank goodness there’s an endless supply of dysfunctional people in the world, and even more in our imaginations. So we’re assured of never running short of the kind of brothers who are featured in On An Average Day by John Kolvenbach, now at the None Too Fragile theater in Akron.

Even though there are plenty of edgy plays about unsteady people living in squalid conditions, this script is a more well written example of the genre, with dialog that often crackles with mordant wit.

Squatting in his rundown family house, in a kitchen piled with old newspapers, Bob is a hot mess. But his brother Jack has arrived to help. Or has he?

As the two argue over beers grabbed from an odiferous fridge while listening to a bathroom shower that turns on at random moments, we learn a bit about their family’s history.

It’s not until the second act that more details come into focus, with a clever and unique turn that almost makes the script work splendidly.

The production benefits from two fine performances by co-directors Sean Derry and Mark Mayo. It’s nice to have Derry (co-founder of the defunct Bang and Clatter Theatre) back on an area stage, even though he’s playing his umpty-umpth slouching, mumbling derelict. Using his well-honed naturalistic delivery to splendid effect, Derry fully embodies the mentally tormented Bob.

And Mayo’s Jack, a supposedly more grounded adult than his squirrely bro, provides solid counterpoint to Derry’s rants. In the second act, Mayo hits cruising speed with a diatribe about their father that is totally gripping.

But this is far from a perfect script or an ideal production. Playwright Kolvenbach omits many details about the brothers’ lives, including virtually no mention of their mother or how they existed in their teens.

And while actors Derry and Mayo are often brilliant, overlapping their lines in a manner that feels true and honest, they also occasionally disconnect from the audience and the material.

While the overlapping dialogue is done to perfection, it eliminates the need for the characters to hear and bounce off each other. This lessens the tension and becomes tedious at times. Also, there are many moments when speeches are delivered into the middle distance, instead of at each other. Perhaps a director who wasn’t acting in the scene at the time could have corrected some of this.

Even with the glitches, there is snap in much of Kolvenbach’s material, and a second act turn that perfectly justifies the title. And that makes this first work by the newly reborn None Too Fragile theater a flawed but feisty winner.

On An Average Day
Through October 20 at the None Too Fragile Theater, 1841 Merriman Road (in the back room of Pub Bricco), Akron, 330-671-4563.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Anything Goes, PlayhouseSquare

At the beginning of every new theater season, we are reminded of how lucky we are to have Broadway touring companies docking at our splendid PlayhouseSquare venues.

For indeed, there are particular pleasures that can only be attained by watching sumptuously costumed professionals do their thing on a stage replete with three-level sets and monstrous banks of lighting. On the other hand, there are some glitches that these touring shows often trip on, from time to time.

A ton of the good and a faint smattering of the not-so-good are on display in Anything Goes at the Palace Theatre.

This production, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and winner of Tonys in 2011 for Best Revival and Best Choreography, is a visual delight. From the first scene in a cozy Manhattan bar to the deck of the luxurious ship crossing the Atlantic, you’re bathed in a bygone world of cosseted consumption. (Bygone that is, except for the 1%,.)

But the star of the show is, as always, the timeless tunes featuring music and lyrics by Cole Porter, the master of the dry musical quip. Those songs—“It’s De-lovely,” “Friendship,” and “I Get a Kick Out of You” among them—are sufficient for any show to be a success.

As for plot, suffice to say it’s a grab bag of casual happenstances, mistaken identities and romantic dust-ups. These swirl around Reno Sweeney, an evangelist turned nightclub singer and Billy Crocker, a young Wall Street hotshot who’s smitten by Hope Harcourt who happens to be engaged to wealthy Brit and twit, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh.

The strong cast sings Porter’s numbers with the right amount of 1930s panache. And the whole company hoofs a couple rousing ditties—the Act One closer “Anything Goes” and the Act Two opener “Blow, Gabriel Blow”—with astounding precision and verve.

And the script, penned by a gaggle of fine humorists over the years and through several revisions, offers a rich mother lode of cringe-worthy japes and time-tested zingers.  

In the central role of Reno, Rachel York exudes supreme confidence and dances well enough to keep director Kathleen Marshall’s ambitious and rousing choreography on track. Erich Bergen is a tall, handsome and affecting Billy, pursuing his love while impersonating a celebrity criminal.

Edward Staudenmayer has plenty of fun with the Lord Evelyn character, botching American slang (“I say, anyone have hot pants for a game of shuffleboard?”) at every turn. And speaking of hot pants, Joyce Chittick as Erma is a one-woman sailor relief program as she cuts a sensuous swath through the ship’s crew.

The small glitches show up when sturdy pros wind up mailing in some of their scenes. This is particularly true with Fred Applegate in the featured role of Moonface Martin, “Public Enemy No. 13.” In his “Friendship” duet with Reno, and at other times, you can see him consciously hitting his marks instead of being fully absorbed in the part.

Applegate is experienced enough to nail his laugh lines with exacting timing, but his casual approach at other moments bespeaks the downside of “touring company” mentality. Since this is the first stop on the show’s 25+ city tour, maybe he’s saving himself.

Anyhow, this is another chance to see and hear those great Porter songs, and another opportunity to see ensemble tap dancing that virtually lifts you out of your seat. And should be worth a ticket in anyone’s budget.

Anything Goes
Through October 14 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Kardiac Kid, Cleveland Public Theatre

Wherever that couch is, there is still a dent in the cushion left by my leaden butt after Red Right 88 ended our dreams of a Browns’ Superbowl appearance in 1981. I don’t think I moved for hours, maybe days, stupefied. Food had to be brought to me, as if I was bedridden. And comatose.

I say this for those who weren’t around at the time, so they know exactly how devastating that loss was. Playing the endless loop of the wayward end zone pass that landed in defender Mike Davis’ hands instead of Ozzie Newsome’s. With less than a minute left! With the ball on the opponent’s 13 yard line, in easy range for a winning field goal!

This is important, because the one-man production The Kardiac Kid, by playwright and performer Eric Schmiedl and now at Cleveland Public Theatre, treads on sensitive and depressingly sacred ground. If he doesn’t get the vibe right about this event, then the whole play lands like a leaden Mike Phipp’s incompletion.

Happily, Schmiedl approaches the tragedy with the proper amount of gravitas, inching up on it as he takes us through the entire 1980 Browns’ season. Diagramming plays and showing photos on an overhead projector (a nice ‘80s touch), he captures the essence of the Browns team under coach Sam Rutigliano and quarterback Brian Sipe.

But the playwright and director Bill Hoffman do much more than that, by following four different storylines of fans who were affected by the eventual cataclysm. Teenage girl Abigail, the Catholic priest Father Carey, tool & die man Eddie (along with his magic Browns knit cap) and busboy-turned-assistant-chef Henry are each living their lives while intertwined with the fate of their city’s beloved team.

As a writer, Schmiedl has a pointillist’s eye for telling details, taking the time to observe how Abigail treasures her new school clothes, how the priest relates to his sly old hound Stanley, and relishing the aroma of west side Eddie’s chicken paprikash.

And as a performer, Schmiedl is enormously warm and folksy without being cloying. Speaking primarily as a narrator, he leads us through the tale of woe with a gangly, softly modulated honesty that always rings true. At times, he feels like the Cleveland version of Will Rogers, calm and affable, except in those moments when his temper flares over The Pick or our hated rivals in Pittspuke, er, burgh.

Interestingly, Schmiedl doesn’t simmer in the rancid juices of that play, he just steps up to it and then stops. This may be frustrating for those who don’t have a profound, visceral memory of what happened that day more than 30 years ago.

And the playwright makes a couple stutter steps in the wrong direction, especially when he drags in maudlin scenes involving Henry’s love life and a kitchen mishap. Plus, he can’t resist a thematic summing up at the end that undercuts the subtlety he has employed throughout.

Still, The Kardiac Kid is a poignant love letter to the Browns, to the city and to those who suffer to this day in our orange and brown knit caps. With a pom pom on top.

The Kardiac Kid
Through October 20 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Winter’s Tale, Great Lakes Theater

If you don’t know what’s coming in The Winter’s Tale, now at Great Lakes Theater, you may feel you wandered back after intermission and were transported into a different play.

After a chilly first act filled with jealous rages and tyrannically callous rulings, culminating in deaths, the second act opens on a storybook land of happy people, singing and dancing, and general merriment. Say what?

Welcome to the fractured world of this Shakespearean “problem” play, where magical thinking and mystical happenings rule the day. And while there are definite pleasures to be had in this production, director Jesse Berger hangs first-time observers of this confusing play out to dry.

In Sicilia, King Leontes, proud father of young son Mamillius, is all bro-mantic with longtime friend and guest, King Polixenes of Bohemia. But soon fevered Leontes thinks he detects some hanky-panky between his pregnant wife Hermione and his old buddy.

So the innocent Polixenes (a strong Lynn Robert Berg) books and Leontes confines his queen and son to a dungeon where she gives birth to a girl, whom Leontes orders be banished and left to expire in nature (thinking it is Pol’s  kid). Later, Leontes learns that Hermione and his beloved son have both died under his repressive rule, hectored along the way by Paulina, Hermione’s close friend.

After all that sturm and drang, the second act opens 16 years later in Bohemia, a happy land where the baby Perdita, rescued by a Shepherd and his son, has grown into a lovely young miss in love with Prince Florizel, the son of Polixenes.

The lovebirds eventually make their way back to Sicilia, where a happy reunion occurs, a statue of Hermione is unveiled, and magic happens.

The first act ripples with anger, mostly due to David Anthony Smith as Leontes. Trouble is, his outrage is so sudden and florid, it seems comical at times, recalling many of Smith's funny performances at exactly the wrong time. Lise Bruneau does what she can with the inhumanely noble and passive Hermione, willingly going off to her hubby’s slammer even though she is blameless.

Some of the sharpest riffs are delivered by an excellent Laurie Birmingham as Paulina, who is the only one in the court with sufficient balls to tell Leontes he’s a jerk.

When the baby is left on a shore to fend for herself, the servant who put her there, Antigonus, is chased and eaten by a bear (calling up the famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a Bear.”).

Once in the hippy haven of Bohemia, Perdita and Lorizel show off their fondness with great warmth, in the persons of Kimbre Lancaster and Miles Gaston Villanueva. But the comic relief supposedly afforded by the Shepherd and his son is undercut by predictable schtick cranked out by, respectively, M.A. Taylor and Juan Rivera Lebron.

But that’s nothing compared to the over-the-top antics of Tom Ford as the rogue Autolycus. Assaulting the stage like Rip Taylor on speed, Ford stretches his admittedly adept comic skills until they snap and unravel. After all, directorial indulgence of an actor’s whims should observe some limits.

There are many fascinating themes in this piece involving the salving effects of time, the conflict between art and nature, and the destructive power of jealousy.

But many of these intriguing ideas are buried under the difficult structure of the play itself. There should be some way to help the uninitiated through this welter of confusion, but it isn’t provided by director Berger.

That said, it must be noted that the scenic design by David M. Barber is entirely enthralling. The costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti, however, often look like the scene after a particularly nasty explosion in a costume shop.

And the bear, while large and astounding, seems more suited to another play. As do several of the performances themselves.

The Winter’s Tale
Through November 4 at Great Lakes Theater, 2067 E. 14th Street, 216-241-6000

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Proof, Lakeland Civic Theatre

(Mitchell Fields as Robert and Elizabeth Conway as Catherine)

Just as it’s impossible for us to realize we’re on a planet that is spinning at 1000 miles per hour, while we’re standing still, it’s often difficult for a mentally imbalanced person to recognize their condition.

That is only one of the myriad concepts that arise in Proof by David Auburn, a fascinating play being given a superb production at the Lakeland Civic Theatre. Revolving around a father and daughter, both of whom are gifted but troubled mathematicians, the play peels back layers of both science and humanity—but in a continually entertaining and deeply affecting way.

Auburn’s skill as a playwright is shown from the first scene, which ends with a surprising revelation. And that information fuels the rest of the play, a story that involves heady discussions of mathematical proofs and proof of authorship—not to mention professional ethics and familial trust.

The father, Robert, was a renowned professor of math at the University of Chicago, but his latter days are dogged by a mental decline. His daughter Catherine is also a math whiz but fears she may also share her father’s mental difficulties since she is often depressed and confrontational.

When an astounding mathematical proof is found, Catherine claims authorship but her sister Claire doubts it and Hal, one of Robert’s students, also has his doubts. The interweaving of these four characters is masterfully handled by playwright Auburn, and delivered with professional assurance under the sensitive direction of Martin Friedman.

As Hal, Aaron Elersich is completely natural and affecting as the nerdy Hal, nurturing his growing interest in Catherine while clinging to his inbred skepticism as a scientist. Although a bit too brittle at first, Laurel Hoffman eases effectively into the difficult role of Claire, a balanced woman with a successful life who feels so apart from her sibling and her dad.

Mitchell Fields is brilliant as Robert, displaying both warmth and the core resolve that drive him in his careet. His later scene when he realizes how far his mental capabilities have deteriorated is quietly, profoundly devastating.

And major kudos must go to Elizabeth Conway, who brews up a rich portrayal as Catherine. Walking many fine lines while never overstepping or going for the easy choice, Conway is utterly convincing as this troubled woman endowed with a genius mind. Plus, she’s funny at times, giving the play a much-needed breath of relief now and then.

Proof won a Pulitzer and a Tony for good reason. And this production displays all the reasons why it’s an experience not to be missed.

Through October 7 at the Lakeland Civic Theatre,
Lakeland Community College, Rt. 306 and I-90, Kirtland, 440-525-7134

Monday, September 17, 2012

Xanadu, Beck Center

 When it comes to light and frothy musicals, the froth doesn’t get much airier than it is in Xanadu, the jukebox musical now at Beck Center.

Featuring the 1980’s era pop stylings of Olivia Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra, with many parody references to the film of the same name that bombed (and then became a cult fave), the play is a self-aware festival of harmless schlock and a bushel of meta jokes at its own expense.

For the uninitiated, the muse Clio, renamed Kira, has come down from Mt. Olympus—disguised as an Australian girl wearing roller skates and leg warmers—to help Venice Beach chalk artist Sonny realize his life’s ambition: opening a roller disco.

So they approach a hot shot real estate agent, Danny, who is also a failed clarinetist. See, he was inspired years before by Clio (in another guise), but he chose the path of making money and shunned the arts. Losing Clio’s heart in the process.

Two of Clio’s six muse sisters, Melpomene and Calliope, try to sabotage her efforts by making her fall in love with Sonny and thereby forcing her to lose her standing as a goddess.

Of course, silliness ensues, all in the service of familiar soft-rock songs such as “Strange Magic,” “Evil Woman,” and the title ditty.

Goofy as it is, that doesn’t make it easy to play. The tendency with this kind of fluff is to overdo the shtick until the play is stuck is a death spiral of actors straining to hard to nail every song and kill with each gag.

This production directed by Scott Spence exhibits some of those unfortunate traits, with several familiar tunes screeched instead of sung, and a few punch lines punched so hard they go cross-eyed.

But the nine-person cast develops a workable vibe thanks in part to Martin Cespedes’ tongue-in-cheek choreography, much of which would fit nicely into a Partridge Family TV reunion special.

In the central role of Kira, Kathleen Rooney has the requisite blonde good looks and a strong voice, although her obvious attempts at singing with an Aussie accent sometimes go awry. As Sonny, Sam Wolf has the blank expression of a clueless ‘80s dude and happily underplays some of his lines.

The comical combo of Melpomene and Calliope is portrayed by Amiee Collier and Leslie Andrews with varying degrees of success. When they relax into their characters, they’re very funny. But when they’re forcing the jokes, it feels like you’re being jabbed in the ribs once too often.

Greg Violand lends his smooth singing as Danny, although it’s too bad there’s no clarinetist in the band to give voice to his character’s licorice stick.

The other four sisters dance and sing backup. Kathleen Ferrini and Maggie Stahl handle their duties with style but most of the laughs go to the cross-dressed Ben Donahoo and Matthew Ryan Thompson (who also turns in a smooth tap number as young Danny).

This Xanadu, while not exactly a pleasure dome throughout, is often diverting and certainly looks handsome on Trad A Burns’ set featuring Greek columns with disco lights inside.

Through October 14 at the Beck Center, 11801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Merchant of Venice, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

(Robert Hawkes as Shylock, brandishing his flesh extractor.)

Everyone loves a good courtroom scene where clever arguments are launched, the tables are turned and the bad guy comes up a loser. And with all due respect to Perry Mason and the books of John Grisham, nobody has ever done it better than Shakespeare, in his climactic scene in The Merchant of Venice.

Shylock argues, persuasively if not compassionately, for his “pound of flesh” from Antonio, and Antonio’s lawyer (Portia in disguise) at first agrees with Shylock and then attacks with telling legalities. And it’s all done with style in this Ohio Shakespeare Festival production, directed with brisk assuredness by Terry Burgler.

Trouble is, it’s not very easy to identify who the real bad guys are, in the court or elsewhere. And that’s a good thing. Indeed, nothing about this play has ever been easy, since it’s a romantic comedy in which the most compelling character, the Jewish usurer Shylock, is written as a monster with what many have claimed are definite anti-Semitic touches by the playwright. Are you laughing yet?

In the keystone role of Shylock, Robert Hawkes is the anti-Pacino, portraying a soft-spoken man with slumped shoulders and gentle gestures, but hardened by a spine composed of hardened, annealed anger. Hawkes’ Shylock is wedded to the hate he has developed over years of religious discrimination in Venice, and he wears it comfortably. And that makes his stubborn insistence on vengeance, by legally carving up Antonio, even more disturbing than if he were ranting and foaming.

Meanwhile, the humorous side of the play is handled with dispatch. As Portia, the rich heiress who is continually auditioning potential mates, Lara Knox is as enticing as she is clever. She is attended by Nerissa (Tess Burgler), a woman who adds her own layer of witty commentary. The scene when two hapless prince/suitors (Derrick Winger and Mark Stoffer) try to select the right treasure chest and thereby win the hand of Portia is a delight. 

The merchant in the title, Antonio, is given a solid if not particularly magnetic treatment by David McNees, and Joe Pine makes Bassanio a very sympathetic suitor for Portia.

Inevitably, the comedy and drama sometimes clash—it’s hard to chuckle about the "missing ring" lark after Shylock has been divested of his money and property and forced to become a Christian(!). Especially if you view him, justifiably, as more victim than perp.

It all just gives you more to haggle about on your trip home from Stan Hywet. But make sure, on your trip there, to leave early enough to see the Greenshow, directed by Ms. Burgler, that starts a half-hour before curtain. This time, the featured piece is a mash-up of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, complete with finger cymbals. It’s a hoot.

The Merchant of Venice
Through August 19, produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 714 N. Portage Path, Akron, 330-673-8761,