Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Tale of the Name of the Tree, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

There can never be enough children’s theater. Because this is how we teach little ones the difference between birthday party balloon-twisting clowns and performers of another ilk.

That’s why everyone with rug rats in their home should celebrate the opening of Talespinner Chidren’s Theatre. Located in a spacious and comfy theater on Detroit Road, this venture under the artistic direction of multi-talented theater veteran Alison Garigan promises to provide both children and theater people new and challenging opportunities.

Their first production, The Tale of the Name of the Tree, is a Bantu tale adapted by local playwright Michael Sepesy. And while it’s not airtight in all respects, this inaugural offering has plenty to recommend it—for sippy-cup users as well as those who chauffeur the young lads and lasses to their various entertainments.

It seems that a number of different animals in the jungle are losing their food sources. And it is rumored that a lion has a huge fruit tree, but it will only release it’s goodies when someone can intone the mysterious name of the tree.

The five inventively-masked actors who play the animals are thoroughly engaged and continually try to connect with their young audience members. Ray Caspio is a wonderfully nervous ostrich and Elaine Feagler ambulates with purposeful intent and the adorable, slow moving turtle.

As the meerkat, Nathaniel Leeson with his mask on looks weirdly like David Spade, and he’s equally as funny. His whip-sharp head turns and lack of short-term memory create laughs for people of any age.

As the cheetah, Stephanie Wilbert works admirably hard but never quite lands on a feline personality that clearly resonates. And James (Jack) Hunt has some nice (okay) moments, but fails to make his elephant as accessible as he might.

Sepesy includes a number of subtle jokes for the adults in the audience, always a thoughtful touch. And he sneaks in some mildly political fodder. But the play spends a lot of time travelling through an imaginary jungle and could benefit from a clear and tangible villain (kids love villains!) who might add both humor and tension.   

By featuring some African-inspired music and dance, director Garrigan has fashioned an hour-long live theater experience that all your back seat riders will enjoy.

The Tale of the Name of the Tree
Through July 8 at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, The Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Ave., 216-264-9680.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Damn Yankees, Porthouse Theatre

(MaryAnn Black as Lola and Michael Glavan as Joe Hardy)

A year after the 1954 Cleveland Indians were swept in the World Series by the Giants, no one would have described them as hapless. That’s why it was the Washington Senators who were dubbed to be the miserable team at the center of Damn Yankees.

If only the show creators—Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (words and music) and George Abbott and Douglas Wallop (book)—had known what lay in store for our “beloved featherheads:” 57 years and still counting in the search for a world championship.

But no, in this show now at the Porthouse Theatre, couch potato Joe Boyd makes a deal with the Devil to become a young stud ballplayer and help the Senators win.

And once again this classic show delivers the goods, thanks to the spot on direction of Terri Kent and some winning performances. This is much more a love story than a baseball yarn, and director Kent brings out the poignancy of the relationship between Joe and Meg, the wife he temporarily abandons while pursuing his dream.

Once Joe strikes a deal (with an escape clause) with fiendish Applegate, old Joe turns into ripped Joe Hardy, a baseball phenom. But conniving Applegate has a secret weapon, the 172-year-old yet eternally young vixen named Lola, who has seduced men down through the ages. Trouble is, she’s never come up against an average Joe from Hannibal, MO.

Marc Moritz and Michael Glavan play old Joe and young Joe, and their interactions with Mary Anne Prevost as Meg resonate through songs such as “A Man Doesn’t Know and “Near to You.”

The Satanic business is handled with aplomb by Eric van Baars as Applegate, making lit cigarettes appear in an instant and leering with devilish intent. Still, at this geriatric point in the show’s lifespan, Applegate is a juicy role that begs to be embellished even further.

Longtime Porthouse stalwart MaryAnn Black gives her all to Lola, dancing and strutting her charms in “Whatever Lola Wants.” She has the required mix of sensuousness and geeky charm that makes this role click. But one has to squint just a bit to believe Black is the ageless and nubile temptress indicated in the script.

The production is tied together with excellent dance numbers choreographed by John R. Crawford and a chorus of ballplayers (male and female) who are energetic and sharp in every scene. Particularly effective are Jack O’Brien as the mentally meandering Smokey and Rohn Thomas as Coach Van Buren, who leads them all in the anthem “(You Gotta Have) Heart."

While it may be another few decades before our (yes) hapless Indians win a World Series, shows like Damn Yankees at Porthouse make summer downright enjoyable.

Damn Yankees
Through June 30 at Porthouse Theatre, on the Blossom Usic Center campus, 1145 W. Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls, visit:

Cats, Mercury Summer Stock

(Brian Marshall as Gus, the Theater Cat and Angela Bruzina as Jellylorum)

There is no more enduring punch line in all of theater than Cats. This Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has had more crap dumped on it in the last 30 years than a desert full of kitty litter.

Mocked for being unsophisticated, plot-less claptrap aimed at pre-teen girls, theater rubes and burnt-out Asian businessmen, one can tend to forget that the show has undeniable strong points. And although this production by Mercury Summer Stock is raw in parts and lacking in vocal depth, the staging is nicely detailed and at times even captivating.

Based on whimsical poems by T.S. Eliot in his book "Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats," the show links a series of feline profiles and a study of an intricate society made up of “jellicle” cats. Salted with British language and slang, it is a mostly sung-through and entirely danced-through show.

This, of course, requires performers who can sing and dance, and sing after dancing, and dance after dancing, and sing and dance after prowling around like cats on all fours. And then do it all again and again. No wonder cats always look so pissed off.

Anyhow, some of this large troupe are up to those tasks while others clearly aren't.

Also, since MSS is a small budget operation, the sheer spectacle that lifted the Broadway version of Cats to popular heights is absent. In addition, Mercury's threadbare five-piece orchestra can’t fill in the rather substantial auditory gaps.

That’s a big hunk of challenge to take on, which talented director/choreographer Pierre-Jacques Brault happily shoulders. And his cast is so well disciplined many of the scenes play remarkably well. This is especially true with the large dance numbers when pit singers can be used to add heft to the soundscape.

Among the specific scenes that work is “Gus: The Theater Cat,” featuring Brian Marshall as an old cat actor recalling his glory years. Stephen Robert Carder captures the rock star vibe of Rum Tug Tugger, and Tasha Brandt is amusing as Jennyanydots.

The signature song, “Memory,” is given a poignant turn by Kelly Monaghan as Grizabella, although she can’t hit the high belt notes.

The rented costumes are professional, giving the production necessary visual zing. However, the uncredited and monumentally busy set design is a bit of a mystery, as it features toys and games from childhood such as Play-doh and Chutes & Ladders as opposed to the usual junkyard setting. This domesticates the cat population and does them a symbolic disservice.

Still, there are pleasures to be had in this Cats, thanks to a hard-working cast that pounces on this material with feline delight.

Through June 30, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at the Regina Auditorium, Notre Dame College, 1857 S Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862.