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 clich├ęs. 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