Thursday, July 19, 2012

Once Upon a Mattress, Mercury Summer Stock

Sometimes, bad things happen to good theater companies. And this is the case with Once Upon a Mattress, now at Mercury Summer Stock.

At best, the musical that made Carol Burnett famous is a vehicle for a gifted comic actress, who plays the role of the super-sensitive Princess Winnifred who can feel a pea way down there under a stack of Sealys.

At worst, the music by Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer is often meandering and vaguely unpleasant. And the book by the troika of Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Barer is not much better. There are lots of “filler” scenes and songs that attempt to plump up a simple story that can be told in one sentence: “Princess feels pea, Princess marries prince."

What is required is a tight production with sharp comic actors in key roles. And despite the many minor miracles that this talented company often pulls off, here they struggle to make the play work at all.

Dialogue scenes are often poorly paced, with little character delineation, and the dance numbers struggle for a charm that is often lacking. Part of the problem may be that the talented director, Pierre-Jacques Brault, is playing a major role As Queen Aggravain.

Brault does a competent although not particularly varied job channeling Cruella DeVil in this role, and he cuts a fine form in an off-the-shoulder dress. But his ministrations are clearly needed in his usual (and exclusive) directorial role.

Brian Marshall as the Minstrel adds some punch to the weary script with contemporary references to Tom Cruise's marital difficulties and such. And Dan DiCello has a couple of clever moments as Prince Dauntless, the mama’s boy who falls for Winnifred.

As Winnifred, Kelvette Beacham labors long and hard to wring some antic humor from the part. But she is hampered physically and vocally from making this star turn as memorable as it should be.

In addition, the set design of the show is un-credited, and fortunately so. In this, the second MSS show at Notre Dame College, the set is fixed and mostly unchanging: a collection of ornate, empty picture frames.

Sure, the actors stand behind them now and then to mug for the audience. But this is a sad trend at the new home of MSS, as the set is more reminiscent of a static concert stage rather than a theatrical design. This lack of variety, with no ability to place different scenes in different locations, detracts from the storytelling.

However bad the set design is for the show, it offers a telling metaphor for a production that is below Mercury’s usually high standards. This one is, sadly, is an empty picture frame.

Once Upon a Mattress
Through July 21, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at Notre Dame College, 4545 College Road, South Euclid.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Mamma Mia!, PlayhouseSquare

 There is an understandable urge to resist shows that give off the aura of being entirely irresistible.

Take Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical of tunes spun by the pop- rock group ABBA, which is now at PlayhouseSquare. It’s so cheerful and bright, and packed with infectious tunes, that you find yourself smiling and tapping your foot even when you’re trying to ignore the temptation.

Better to give in: ABBA is bigger than all of us, even though they haven’t recorded or performed as a group for 30 years. But no matter, Mamma Mia! will run forever, giving middle-aged actors the chance to dress in 1970's rock drag, and middle-aged audience members the opportunity to remember when they could boogie with the best of them.

The music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus is as bulletproof as always, and the direction by Phyllida Lloyd has been frozen in amber since the show's 1999 debut.

In this iteration, the older women are led by slim Kaye Tuckerman, who gives taverna owner Donna a wired, slightly hyper presence. Although Tuckerman can’t hit the low notes with much oomph, she nails “The Winner Takes It All” near the end of the second act.

As her back-up rock group now gone to seed, Alison Ewing is a nicely jaded and breast-enhanced Tanya. Mary Callanan plays Rosie with a sweet affect that could stand to be a little earthier and more edgy. But they both sing well and look appropriately out of place in their glam-rocker outfits.

As for the old dudes who used to date Donna, one of whom might be the father of her daughter Sophie, it’s a mixed bag this time around. Paul Deboy handles the “head banger” role of Harry Bright with good-natured ease, and John-Michael Zuerlein has a couple interesting moments as the Aussie.

But Christian Wheelan never quite connects as Sam Carmichael, the guy Donna clearly has the most current vibes for, both positive and negative. And his singing feels forced, as if he’s stretching every neck tendon to hit his notes, which is a less than attractive way to approach most love songs, be they ballads or soft rock.

Among the young tikes (the 20-sometings), Chloe Tucker is fun and endearing as Sophie, and the aptly named Happy Mahaney plays her fiance Sky with a nearly permanent smile that warms rather than irritates.

The book by Catherine Johnson blissfully ignores simple resolutions to the problems set forth (paternity tests? hello?), but all the confusions are eventually resolved in a welter of more songs.

And that’s just what the audience wants, ending with a mini-concert that sends everyone off humming and waiting for the next touring company of Mamma Mia! to roll through town.

Mamma Mia!
Through July 22 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 216-241-6000. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The World Goes ‘Round, Porthouse Theatre

(Lisa Kuhnen leading the Cabaret crew.)

There is something slightly perverse about building a stage show around songs collected from a particular composer’s oeuvre.

Since those songs were all intended to further the storytelling of the play they were written for, isolating them in an entirely different environment is a bit like leaving your child on a strange street corner and then driving away. (Okay, it’s not like that at all, but you take my point.)

Still, these shows exist and as the genre goes, The World Goes ‘Round now at Porthouse Theatre is a particularly enjoyable example of the species. Featuring the melodies and lyrics by, respectively, John Kander and Fred Ebb, it features ditties from their blockbuster shows such as Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

A phalanx of more than 30 songs is performed by this summer’s collection of Porthouse young people—college-age actors singers and dancers who often demonstrate talents that belie their tender years.

Overall, these kids are being taught well, as each approaches his or her songs with a clear intent to tell a story, not just hit notes and navigate cascading trills. Even though the results are sometimes mixed, this cast has their priorities correctly ordered.

For instance, Lauren Culver kicks things off with a powerful rendition of the title song. And Jennie Nasser shines throughout, particularly on ”How Lucky Can You Get” from Funny Lady and “A Quiet Thing” from Flora, The Red Menace.

Likewise, Lisa Kuhnen delivers on all fronts with humor (in “The Grass Is Always Greener” with the comical Anastasia Arnold) and in a capable (although not particularly decadent) version of “Cabaret.”

Lucy Anders turns in an affecting “My Coloring Book” and Mackenzie Duan does what she can with “Isn’t This Better,” a lame song out of its Funny Lady context that is performed concert-style with “Maybe This Time” (Culver) and “We Can Make It” (Samuel Rohloff). Duan fares better in the funny “Class,” swilling drinks with a plotzed Culver as they lament (urp!) the lack of sophistication around them.

The men also have their moments although they have notably fewer solos. For example, Kyle Kemph gets lip-smacking laughs with an ode to “Sara Lee,” and later he raises a few neck hairs with his stirring “Kiss of the Spider Woman. ”

But the talented Jack O’Brien isn’t fragile enough to make the lovely “Mr. Cellophane” evoke the right amount of compassion—even with a clever ending. Michael Glavan, Parke Fech, and Nathan Mohebbi (who does an excellent mute version of The Fonz in “Arthur in the Afternoon”) all contribute mightily to the ensemble numbers.

And one of those, “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,” is a verifiable showstopper. But don’t come late, it’s the third song.

Director and choreographer Sean Morrissey has tutored his charges well, and come up with some inventive staging twists that keep things interesting. The result is a plethora of musical delights, just right for a summer evening.

The World Goes ‘Round
Through July 21 at the Porthouse Theatre, Blossom Music campus,
 1145 W. Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls,