Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas Is Comin' Uptown, Karamu House

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is sort of like a theatrical Mr. Potato Head, with adaptors sticking new elements onto it to fit into various cultural motifs. And why not? Chuck is long dead and the story of redemption for Scrooge (picture Dick Cheney, but with a heart) is always a crowd pleaser. 

In this take now at Karamu, with music by Garry Sherman, lyrics by Peter Udell and book by Philip Rose and Udell, the scene is urban and Scrooge is an African-American slumlord who is due for a comeuppance. That all works fine and there are some clever moments in the script, such as when a transformed Scrooge wants to buy food for the Cratchit family and the only places open are a Chinese restaurant and a Jewish deli. 

The songs, however, are mostly forgettable, a fact that is not enhanced by some sketchy performances. At this performance, stand-in Miguel Osborne played Scrooge and he threw himself into the proceedings, although his vocals went flat fairly often. Jacqueline Lockett tears it up a bit as Sister Hopkins, and Glenn Burchette as Christmas Future generates some laughs as the Little Richard-inspired character flouncing through his Act 2 numbers. 

Director Richard H. Morris Jr. manages the large cast well, but allows a plethora of slow patches to slacken the pace of the show.
Christmas Is Comin' Uptown, at Karamu House through Dec. 29, 2355 East 89th St., 216-795-7077, karamuhouse.org.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead, None Too Fragile Theater

Mix festering rage with edgy wit and you have a powerful formula for theatrical success. And playwright Eric Bogosian captures a lot of that pissed-off magic in Pounding Nails In The Floor With My Forehead, now at the None Too Fragile Theater.

With Sean Derry as the sole actor, this is a revisiting of the performance Derry did some years ago as part of the Bang and Clatter company. And it once again highlights many of Derry’s significant strengths: his go-for-broke commitment to the scuzziest of characters, his precise comic timing, and his willingness to engage and confront an audience.

Under the smooth direction of Alanna Romansky, the two-act show glides from character to character as Bogosian unwraps various forms of male bile—from odd sexual predilections (one involving Dame Judi Dench fucking him in the ass while pounding on his head with a wooden mallet) to various macho frustrations with feminist excesses, suburban sell-outs and people who drive Honda Accords at the speed limit.

It is a tribute to Derry that he can still ignite jokes from some damp, dated material. In “Medicine,” the script pokes fun at all the side effects from some drugs. This was written long before the TV ads that dominate these days, with descriptions of side effects that are truly terrifying and funnier, in a ghastly way, than anything Bogosian could imagine.

While Derry has perfected his vocal presentation over the years, developing his deep guttural rasp into a kind of narrative music reminiscent of Tom Waits, this “fried” voice has its limitations. One is that it’s harder to delineate different characters since they all sound like variations of one guy.

But when that one guy is Sean Derry, you are in for one whale of a ride. And you’ll find yourself laughing in spite of yourself.

Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead
Split run: 11-24, 11-25, then 12-5 through 12-8, None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron (Enter through Bricco Pub), 330-671-4563.



Doug Is a D-Bag, Cleveland Public Theatre

Face it, we’re now all one click away from doom—personal or professional—since our misdirected texts or elegantly composed crotch shots can be sent worldwide in a nanosecond.

This is the modern technological rat’s nest that is addressed in Doug Is a D-Bag now at Cleveland Public Theatre. Written and directed by Renee Schilling, it’s basically a knock-off of the TV show The Office with one huge innovative twist: audience members are encouraged to leave their smart phones on and use the texting function during the show.

This becomes immediately apparent when the house lights go down and many faces in the audience are lit up by their screens as phone chirps and dings float in the air. It’s kind of like being in an electronic meadow at dusk.

Set in the office of Re-Imaginate, Inc., a human resources management firm, the play tracks the fraught relationship between co-workers Doug (a nicely underplayed Matt O’Shea) and Lorie (Emily Pucell, turning a thin character sketch into a sympathetic person). Corporate buzzwords and phrases pile up as a gaggle of other workers, as well as the firm’s founder and his wife, try to resolve their own HR storms.

Accident-prone Steven (Davis Aguila) and passionate Rose (Katelyn Cornelius) are bumping uglies in the stock room while Wallace (Michael Prosen doing a respectable Dwight Schrute send-up) irritates everyone. It’s all overseen by office manager Richard (John Busser), who always has his rules and uplifting success-poster aphorisms to fall back on.

Throw in the company founder Martins (an amusing, new age pretentious Doug Kusak) and his dominatrix-clad wife Monica (smoldering Carrie Williams), along with a very self-aware omniscient narrator (Peter J. Roth), and you have a lot of characters to handle in a 75-minute show.

Taken as an experiment, Doug seems like a mixed bag. It certainly explores the idea of audience participation via smart phone. And there are some very clever moments in Schilling’s script, amid some more predictable palaver.

But it’s not clear how the audience texts impact the show, other than distracting the texters themselves from the action on stage. And while the characters are often preoccupied with their texts, it’s hard to see how that functions as a new dramatic tool of any lasting consequence.

But it’s all interesting enough to justify further exploration. Let’s text!

Doug Is a D-Bag
Through December 14 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727



Adventures in Slumberland, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

(Left to right: Annie Perusek, Valerie C. Kilmer and Tim Pringuangkeo)

Winsor McCay, the originator of the “Little Nemo” comic strip that ran in newspapers in the early 1900s, was an acknowledged genius of the form. He inspired many artists to follow him, including Walt Disney, R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman.

Indeed, his story would make for a fascinating play for adults. But this play, written by David Hansen and based on McCay’s characters, is meant for kids. And it’s quite a treat.

As soon as Nemo (which means “no one” in Latin) nods off at night, his bed launches him into many adventures populated by the Princess of Slumberland, an Imp who speaks in a non-identifiable foreign tongue, and Flip, a fellow who keeps trying to wake up Nemo and interrupt the boy’s nocturnal travels.

Director Alison Garrigan knows her audience and keeps the action fast-paced and funny. Valerie C. Kilmer is ideal as Nemo, reacting with surprise and delight as the adventures unfold. Annie Perusek is endearing as both Nemo’s mom and as the Princess, and Tim Pringuangkeo makes Flip both a thorn in Nemo’s side and an eventual ally.

Other roles are well-animated by the angular and amusing Bryan Ritchey, Lauren B. Smith as the irrepressible Imp and Christopher Walker as King Morpheus and Santa, among others.

It’s a colorful and high-energy 45-minute show that works just fine. But one can only imagine what TCT could do with a bigger budget and an ability to show some of McCay’s jaw-dropping and often hallucinatory art.

Anyhow, at the end Nemo finds that he is not “no one,” he is most definitely someone. And that’s a lesson we can all take to heart.

Adventures in Slumberland

Through December 22 at the Talespinner Children’s Theatre, The Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, 216-264-9680

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Carousel, Baldwin Wallace University

Many people have a love-hate relationship with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. While multitudes adore the rich music and enduring tale that those two geniuses produced, others are repelled by the sexism and casual acceptance of abuse that pokes through. Not to mention a plot that lurches uncomfortably at times.

Whatever camp you’re in, this dazzling production will likely make you a lover. Directed with passion and precision by Scott Plate, the ever-spinning circles—life and death, romance and rejection, misdeeds and redemption—whirl into a most memorable event.

Adapted by R&H from a play set in Budapest, this iconic musical takes place on the Maine seacoast in 1904. Scenic designer Jeff Herrmann’s in-the-round set features a central, circular wooden deck bleached by sun and salt water, where the locals cavort. The set functions splendidly on several levels. It offers the performers ample room to dance, since Gregory Daniels’ muscular and often sensuous choreography requires some serious elbowroom.

But viewed symbolically, the circle with two attached runways neatly overlays the two gender symbols for man and woman , joining them at the shared circle. This allows the women to head off one way, flouncing through their kitchen door, and the men to romp the opposite way, up onto the rigging of a ship’s mast. Freud could have had a field day with this set.

And it comes to life, gloriously, in the opening “Carousel Walttz,” an overture complete with clever mini-vignettes and a human carousel that earns it’s own applause even before the prologue is complete.

Since this is a BWU production, four major roles are double cast to provide more opportunities for their preternaturally talented students. On this night, Kyle-Jean Baptiste and Caroline Murrah played the star-crossed lovers Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan.

Baptiste creates a brash and brawling Billy, and his tender/tough rendition of the surpassingly intricate “Soliloquy” is enough to bring you to your feet. Murrah handles the subtler role of Julie with a deft touch, enabling us to relate to her character’s sweet passivity as an artifact of the time (or at least, we wish it were so).

As for the other two double-cast performers, Mary Mondlock infuses Carrie Pipperidge with sprightly energy and Anthony Sagaria evolves her main squeeze Enoch Snow from a taciturn stud to a rigid pain in the ass.

Among the permanent cast members, Brandyn Day is alternately amusing and scary as Billy’s snarky buddy Jigger Craigin. And Lissy Gulick is just adorable as Nettie Fowler, crooning “You’ll Never Walk Alone” so melodically, Jerry Lewis must be somewhere weeping. As Mrs. Mullin, the vindictive owner of the carousel, Sara Zoe Budnik is fine although she could add a bit more edge and orneriness.

The voices of all the performers range from very good to exceptional, as one has come to expect from the B-W Department of Theatre and Dance and the Conservatory of Music. They are accompanied in this production by just two grand pianos, played with admirable nuance by music director Andrew Leslie Cooper and music supervisor Nancy Maier.

Even if some of the plot points are curious (When exactly did Billy and Julie get married? A posthumous good deed absolves all the crap you did when you were alive? Really?), this production sweeps you away with its spirit.

Indeed, it’s a play with so many perfect moments along with a handful of off-notes that it’s impossible to get all of it right all the time. But this production comes damn close.

Word has it that the short run is completely sold out. However, if someone offers you a couple tickets they bought and you’re getting married that night, postpone the wedding. You can get hooked any day, but you’re not likely to see a performance of Carousel as wonderful as this anytime soon.

Carousel
Through November 24, produced by the Baldwin Wallace University Department of Theatre and Dance & the Conservatory of Music, Kleist Center for Art and Drama, bw.edu/theatre









Sunday, November 10, 2013

Hansel und Gretel, Oberlin Opera Theater and Cabaret, The Academy for the Performing Arts

(Karen Jesse as the witch in Hansel ind Gretel.)

Sometimes, when the schedule allows, it’s good to take a break and see what’s happening regarding live performances at the high school and college level. And based on what I’ve seen this weekend at opposite ends of the Cleve-burg region, it’s clear that the kids are all right.

And if you hurry, you can catch one of them since their final performances are this afternoon.

Hansel und Gretel, Oberlin Opera Theater
For a story about kidnapping, murder and the cannibalism of little kiddies, this sure is a pretty opera. The bounteous musical material by composer Engelbert Humperdinck is immensely pleasing, performed with precision and verve by the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra and sung by a raft of talented students (some about to graduate college and a couple not yet out of grade school).

It is performed in German, with the English translation helpfully displayed on a screen above the stage.

The first act, comprising two scenes, shows H&G battling with each other at home, yearning for food as their mother and father scrap for sustenance. Once out in the woods, the kids fall asleep and wake up amidst angels.

At this performance (and in today’s), Nicole Levesque as Hansel and Emily Hopkins as Gretel sing with clarity and power, even as they poke and torment each other.

But when they met up with Hexe, the witch in Act Two who lives in a cake and candy house, the kids’ dreams of the world’s biggest sugar buzz are trampled. As Hexe, guest artist and 2004 Oberlin grad Karen Jesse sings with ferocious sweetness in her multi-colored outfit. And she’s very creepy, kind of like John Wayne Gacy in drag.

As directed by Jonathon Field and conducted by Raphael Jimenez, this Hansel und Gretel is thoroughly delightful, and sometimes quite witty. Right up to the moment when Hexe gets baked in her own oven and the children are rescued.

Cabaret, The Academy for the Performing Arts
As the TV show Glee proves, it’s al lot easier to go through high school when you’re in your twenties (and for some cast members, almost in their thirties). But when you’re 17 years old, or younger, there are a lot more issues.

That said, the talented high school cast of Cabaret does some amazing things under the direction of Tom Fulton, director of the Academy. Drawing from several schools, the Academy offers a two-year college prep program for juniors and seniors, preparing them for success in the performing arts—in college and beyond.

In this significantly de-sexualized production (a nod to the tender age of the performers, and to avoid heart attacks among the parents), fine performances are turned in by Dan Hoy (who doubles as choreographer) as the Emcee and Emily Wirthwein as Sally Bowles. Hoy’s dance with the gorilla in “If You Could See Her” is spot-on, including the original and chilling lyric at the end.

Jon Loya sings with deep resonance as Cliff Bradshaw, and R. Brendan Hall brings a surprising level of humor and understanding to his role of the aged Herr Schultz.

Even though the dialog in some scenes proceeds at a fairly glacial pace, these young actors maintain their discipline and manage to conquer this complex musical.

Ah, to be 17 again and learning theater from someone as talented and perceptive as Tom Fulton.

Hansel und Gretel
Through today, Nov. 10, at Hall Auditorium, Oberlin
College campus, 67 N. Main St., Oberlin, 440-775-8169

Cabaret
Through today, Nov. 10, at the Chagrin Falls High School campus, 400 E. Washington St., Chagrin Falls, 440-715-4004



Monday, November 4, 2013

Cut Flowers, Karamu House

(From left: Prophet Seay as Ronnie, Dyrell Barnett as Kevin and Greg White as Paul)


We all know, thanks to the movies, that African-American men like to talk smack in the barbershop. But who knew such verbal jousting was happening in the back room of florist shops?

It’s stems that are being cut, and not hair, in Cut Flowers by Gavin Lawrence, now at Karamu House. This well-intentioned and frequently well-written script also features a bounty of missteps and wrong directions. And it is unfortunate that director Terrence Spivey chooses to amp up the melodrama whenever he can.

Still, there is an undeniable spirit to these proceedings that rescue it from disaster. And a few performances shine brightly, making the production a mixed bag of treats and disappointments.

Six black men are working in the cut flowers department of a florist shop owned by a white family. As they snip and organize their blooms, we learn about the back stories of each worker, from Kyle, the tight-ass supervisor down to Paul (Greg White), a quiet alcoholic who keeps sneaking sips from his pint bottle.

As Kyle, the talented Kenny Parker plays the single note of anger and frustration far too often, turning the first act into a repetitive grind. This is lightened to a large degree by some of the other actors, who engage in all sorts of verbal byplay and sexual teasing (about cunnilingus, primarily).

Chief among them is Prophet Seay as the loose and constantly joking Ronnie. He is a delight to behold on stage, even when Ronnie suffers a personal tragedy later on. Also strong is Anthony Brown as the beleaguered Mark, a man who is being physically abused by his wife but won’t hit back for reasons that are slowly revealed.

And Michael May turns in a glowering turn as Brian, the hardest worker in the shop who has a bundle of his own problems. The sixth man is Kevin (Dyrell Barnett), a militant young college educated man who keeps challenging his co-workers to think and feel.

An unseen receptionist Rhonda (Tonya Broach) interacts with the men over the intercom—a theatrical device that is rarely used, and for good reason.

The second act works better, thanks to a clearer set of conflicts punctuated by a drawn pistol. But the playwright’s tendency to lecture, especially through the voice of Kyle, takes the edge off of his more successful characterizations. Lawrence tries to work the central metaphor—you have to cut flowers to help them live longer—but the cutting of these people never seems equally beneficial.

Spivey helps his cast develop some strong characters, and with a stronger script and less melodramatic overstatement (be quiet Kyle), the downbeat ending would work like a charm.

Cut Flowers
Through November 17 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Black Cat Lost, Theater Ninjas


(From left: Ray Caspio, Lauren Joy Fraley and Sarah Moore)

We’ve all experienced that weird feeling when our car zips over a small rise in the road and our stomach floats and then starts to fall. It’s kinda fun, if it lasts for a second or two.

But when we experience the death of someone close, that feeling of gut-fall and disconnectedness lasts for hours, days, months. Years. And that’s not much fun at all.

In the interesting and always challenging play Black Cat Lost by Erin Courtney, now being produced by the Theater Ninjas, that feeling is expressed in a multitude of overlapping and intersecting moments.

Structured around Zen death poems (written by audience members as they enter, or provided by the cast), the extremely non-linear play both obsesses and frolics around all the ways we try to engage, and mostly avoid, such monumental loss.

What’s a Zen death poem? Well, it’s usually short, three lines, but not a haiku. Such as: “Forever…/I pass as all things do/Dew on the grass.” It tries to engage the mind just before death which, you know, could be any time for any one of us.

Sure, you can make fun of this stuff. If you just read the last five words of the above poem, it’s a Third Grade thigh slapper: “…do/Dew on the grass.”

But there are telling thoughts in Courtney’s piece. In one vignette, a woman relates how she visited her young son’s elementary school class and observed him, through a window. struggling with his nap-time blanket. She notes, “Is this how death feels? To see the complexities and not be able to act?”

You may find moments that resonate with you; there are plenty of them.

This play is paired with The Refrain, a brief work devised by Jeremy Paul, the director of both plays. It also deals with loss in a similar overlapping, sensory manner.

The performers—Tania Benites, Ray Caspio, Lauren Joy Fraley and Sarah Moore—deliver crisp, sometimes amusing and often intriguing turns that include some singing and dancing (or at least movement).

The take-away from this hour-long production is a window into how we all experience life and loss. Remembering little, understanding less, but still willing to fight the good fight.

Note: This production is being staged at three different venues, so if you plan to go be sure you have the right place and the right day. For details, go to theaterninjas.com

Black Cat Lost
Through Nov. 9 produced by Theater Ninjas at various locations. Details at: www.theaterninjas.com

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Bald Soprano, Ohio City Theatre Project

(From left: Courtney Nicole Auman, Stuart Hoffman, Christine McBurney, Robert Hawkes)


A sensible person might ask why a critic would review a play after its performance schedule has been completed. Such is the case with The Bald Soprano, which closed its brief two-week run last night.  After all, what’s the point of a review when no one can respond to a favorable notice by buying tickets?

The answer, of course, is that local theaters, especially new ones such as OCTP, need more than ticket sales. They need financial support. And since we appear to be between government shutdowns for the time being, this would be a fine time to consider a donation to OCTP.

The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco is a marvelous example of the theater of the absurd, as two couples, a maid and a fire chief (!) trade non sequiturs (no, make that anti-sequiturs) as they inch their way through another deplorably banal day.

The often hilarious production, directed by Sarah Greywitt, was performed with exquisite timing, down to the smallest tongue-clicks and head turns. Robert Hawkes and Christine McBurney were especially delicious as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a married pair who alternately vex and delight each other for no apparent reason. And for every reason in the world.

They are visited by dinner guests the Martins, played with wide-eyed innocence and a complete lack of short (or long) term memory by Stuart Hoffman and Courtney Nicole Auman. Cassie Neumann as Mary the maid and Benjamin Gregg as the Fire Chief, also contributed sharp miniature characterizations.

As performed, it was a nonsensical parody of the way we converse, set against a rather grisly landscape of pointless human existence. In other words, it was rather sublime.

This is a theater group that clearly deserve support. With luck, they might even decide to explore more of the absurdist genre. In any case, put them on your play-dar (radar for theater buffs), maybe send a check, and keep an eye out for their next production.

Ohio City Theatre Project
Connect with OCTP at www.ohiocitytheatreproject.com

Friday, October 18, 2013

All This Intimacy, Ensemble Theatre

(From left: Katie Simon Atkinson, Laura Rauh, Jeremy Jenkins, Natalie Green, Ryan Edlinger, Kay Rommel)

If you Google the word “smirk,” you will find definitions revolving around the idea of offensive smugness. And that’s a pretty good capsule description of All This Intimacy by Rajiv Joseph. It’s now at Ensemble Theatre as part of their Second Season of shows in their smaller studio theater.

Joseph, the gifted playwright from Cleveland Heights who penned the marvelous Huck & Holden and the much-acclaimed Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (and whose Animals Out Of Paper is still playing Ensemble's main stage), here pounds out a symphony of wrong notes.

While director Aaron Elersich crafts a few scenes that work quite well, and the ending is thankfully downbeat, the two hours getting to that point are a hard slog.

Ty is a young-ish poetry phenom who had a collection of his verse hit the best-seller list. It was about a man who had a super power enabling him to turn anything into a complicated maze.

So now Ty is a poetry professor on the make and, as we learn in the first scene, has impregnated three women: his next-door neighbor, married adoptive mom Maureen; his poetry student Becca; and his girlfriend Jen. He's created a labyrinth with no way out, just like his poetry protagonist, get it?

This is all meant to set up a climactic second act where, just like a contrived episode of I Love Lucy, all the women are nonsensically invited by Ty to a dinner where he will announce his fatherhood to all assembled. Hoo-boy, Ty, you got some ‘splainin’ to do! Of course, this is all splained by the playwright in excruciating detail early on, so there are no surprises.

Having quickly dispensed with any sort of mystery or sense of discovery, Joseph then proceeds to force-feed the audience simplistic truths about making bad choices and self-centeredness. Ty’s supposedly introspective moments (“Where did I go wrong?”) are overwhelmed by a testosterone-fueled smirk that runs through the whole script.

This isn’t helped by Ryan Edlinger, who plays Ty with an almost continual toothy smile that is his default facial expression for every emotion. This makes it almost impossible to get a true reading on Ty’s inner emotional journey (if there is one) and eventually just becomes grating and tiresome. But he does provide one breakthrough: Who knew you could smirk while grinning?

The talented actor Jeremy Jenkins doesn’t fare much better as Ty’s best pal Seth, starting off in mid-hysteria and then mugging for most of the show. Thankfully, as his sharp-tongued fiancee Franny, Katie Simon Atkinson puts together a wickedly funny character.

And the other three women mostly hold up their end of this bad bargain. Kay Rommel exudes Freshman spunk as Becca, Laura Rauh is a believable Maureen, and Natalie Green survives as Jen in an underwritten part that should be more interesting than it is.

But lets face it, Joseph isn’t as interested in the women as he is in celebrating the spooge-fest that smug Ty is orchestrating. And even though his comeuppance eventually comes up, it’s a long and obvious trip getting there.

All This Intimacy
Through October 27 ay Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Texas Chainsaw Musical, Blank Canvas Theatre


If you like blood and body counts in your play-going experience, but aren’t that into Shakespeare, then consider a trip to a gory patch of Texas back country in Texas Chainsaw Musical. Blank Canvas Theatre is revisiting this gore-fest, which was their fledgling company’s first show a year or so ago.

And thanks to director Patrick Ciamacco and his rowdy band of Blank Canvas players, every homicide is a splatter-drenched comical treat. It all centers on Eddy (otherwise known as “Leatherface”), a tuneful sociopath who gleefully kills any living thing within reach.

Based on the movie of almost the same name, the book by Christopher T. Minori features a fairly lame subplot about a “pantywaist” named Steven, and the music and lyrics by Cory Bytof are nothing very special.

But the gore and laughs spill out practically non-stop as Eddy and his eventual partner in crime Lucretia (Kate Leigh Michalski) off everyone from Eddy’s mom to a pregnant census taker to the UPS guy.

The blood-soaked cast includes Neely Gevaart as innocent Kristy, an object of Eddy’s blood lust, and Leslie Andrews as a nun who rocks the joint in “The Gospel According to Steven.” Kim Escut also stands out as a couple different mothers with serious family issues.

In the role of Eddy, Perren Hedderson is a quivering, twitching mass of psychopathologies—lighting his pet cat on fire before he moves on to his bipedal prey—and he’s hilarious.

Weirdly, in a production with so many gory special effects (anyone in the first two rows gets sprayed with blood, guaranteed), the quiet moments are some of the funniest. And the supporting cast, many of whom play multiple roles, wade into the carnage with cheerful abandon.

Best advice: Grab some of those fun-size candy bars from your plastic Halloween pumpkin bowl and have a blast with this irreverent, song-infused bloodbath.

Texas Chainsaw Musical
Through November 2 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Insomnia: The Waking of Herselves, Cleveland Public Theatre


Some say dreams can be interpreted and provide information about yourself, reveal your hidden desires and maybe even ferret out some unknown strengths.

Of course, others claim dreams are nothing more than random memories and imaginary flights stitched together haphazardly by a mischievous brain that is off duty and has some time to kill.

Whatever you believe, Insomnia: The Waking of Herselves at Cleveland Public Theatre is a dream sequence that will keep you awake and riveted. This is an encore world premiere production, since the show was first mounted at CPT in 2011.

Written by Holly Holsinger, Chris Seibert and director Raymond Bobgan, this version of the show feels more amusing and at times even more poignant than the original.

The three performers are the same, as Anne McEvoy plays Evelyn, a middle-age woman beset by voices in her head that keep her awake at night. (Or is she asleep and they are her dreams?)

So she visits her attic to discover Ev (Holsinger), a younger version of herself, and Zelda (Seibert), a playful scamp who seems like a core identity of the other two. In various combinations, the three “herselves” interact, play games, sing songs and explore this woman’s identity.

Weaving music (some original and some standards) into the piece, this creative team fashions a play that is never linear but always accessible. McEvoy’s Evelyn is firmly rooted in her frustration at not being able to sleep, and her dry and wry delivery generates many laughs.

As Ev, Holsinger is always compelling as she dares to broach the boundary of the attic and eventually “go downstairs.” And Seibert is the imaginary friend we all would love to have, eager to engage in any game we want and playing her roles, such as a guy from a 1930s-era movie, with élan.

Director Bobgan keeps the action streamlined and cohesive so that this very internal play never lapses into navel-gazing (or frontal lobe-gazing). The result is a production that is tight, witty and often quite powerful—encouraging all of us to make friends with the moon voices and fanciful spirits that speak to us in the dead of night.

(To see my review of the original staging of this play, go to: http://www.clevescene.com/cleveland/no-doze/Content?oid=2467367)

Insomnia: The Waking of Herselves
Through Octomber 26 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Kardiac Kid, PlayhouseSquare

(Eric Schmiedl, diagramming loss and hope for Browns fans.)


And so, the torture of Cleveland Browns’ fans goes on. Just when we think we have a quick-thinking quarterback with a fast release, Brian Hoyer tears a ligament and is out for the season. So it’s back to the drawing board.

That drawing board has been getting some serious abuse over the 49 years since the Browns last won a league championship. And one of those years is captured in a very human way in The Kardiac Kid, written and performed by Eric Schmiedl.

He and director Bill Hoffman are longtime Clevelanders and Browns fans, and their passion for our beloved football elves oozes from every pore of this encore Cleveland Public Theatre production (its world premiere happened a year ago). Now located at Kennedy's Down Under at PlayhouseSquare, the play is running concurrently with a couple weekends of the Browns season

Once again, Schmiedl spins stories about several fans as the star-crossed 1980 season of the team dubbed the Kardiac Kids wends its way to the tragedy of Red Right 88. That play ended the Browns’ hopes for a championship and crushed the spirits of many who have never fully recovered. Even to this day.

Playwright Schmiedl does a fine job of sketching portraits of these fans, which include a priest, a love-smitten busboy, a superstitious tool & die man, and a teenage girl who comes out of her shell thanks to the team she adopts.

These everyday characters are the heart of this play (it's not about Sam Rutigliano and company, aside from a couple brief play diagrams) and Schmiedl clearly has a deep fondness for all such Browns backers. His larger intent is to reveal the soul of this much–put-upon city and its hardy, ever-hopeful denizens. Studded with detailed local references from that year (the Pewter Mug salad! Ponderosa Steak House!) the memories of that time resonate as these individuals ride the roller-coaster season as their own lives proceed in various directions.

The performance by Schmiedl feels as comfortable as a screen pass to Jim Brown: you just relax, knowing it will turn out fine. As an actor, Schmiedl has an affable nature and this bathes his character studies in a warm glow. While one might wish for a bit more variety in the delivery, Schmiedl enfolds the audience in his own brand of stage magnetism.

However, there is a visual disconnect that eventually begins to work against the play itself. The small stage at Kennedy’s is emblazoned with sheets of paper bearing the numbers of the 1980 team, and the numbers are repeated to create a wallpaper effect.

Yes, the numbers are important, especially in a sport where fans can never really see their helmeted and face-masked heroes. But it is a strangely sterile black-and-white environment for this quiet yet passionate presentation about people who bleed brown and orange.

One yearns, especially in this second viewing of the show, for shelves and tables loaded with Browns memorabilia—the knit hats, the Sipe jerseys, the bobble-heads and garden gnomes and Pez dispensers—that fans have clung to through the death-march of the past five decades.

Would it look messy and cluttered? Yep. And that is what defines the life of a Browns fan now, and for oh…so…many days in the past.

Still, a battered sort of hope springs up again every Fall on the lakefront (Weeden will process information in the pocket faster! He will, he will! Won't he?). And Schmiedl and Hoffman’s play captures a lot of that hope, from a fan's perspective, in arresting and unexpected ways.

The Kardiac Kid
Through October 12 at Kennedy’s Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000









Thursday, October 3, 2013

Sleeping Beauty, PlayhouseSquare


Usually in the theater, words are king. But it is possible to tell an involving story without any spoken words, if you know how to manipulate movement in divinely expressive ways.

And that’s what director and choreographer Matthew Bourne does in his stunning New Adventures production of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, now at PlayhouseSquare. This two-act ballet tells the story of princess Aurora and her century-long catnap. But in this telling, there are gothic shadows and vampires afoot, making it feel very contemporary.

Aurora seems blessed by a happy life, but she has been cursed by the evil sorceress Carabosse. So on her 16th birthday in the early 1900s, Aurora pricks her finger and is sent into a 100-year sleep. It appears that her boyfriend, the gamekeeper Leo, will be left behind, decades-wise.

But he gets an immortality-bestowing vampire hickey from Count Lilac, setting up a confrontation between Leo and Carabosse’s brooding son Caradoc that takes place in contemporary times.

This is a luxurious production, with every scenic detail precisely executed. And although the music is recorded, that fact never detracts from the magnificent dancing on display. 

Bourne also uses a number of interesting and witty devices to enhance the proceedings. In the Prologue when Aurora is a baby, the doll is animated by black-clad puppeteers who turn the child into an amazingly adroit rugrat. The baby not only bites the shins of the adults, she even climbs the drapes at one point.

Also, several dance scenes feature slow moving conveyor belts  that carry the dancers, adding a different aspect of movement to a presentation already bursting with muscular and graceful activity.

On this night, Hannah Vassallo gave Aurora a vital and spirited interpretation, and Adam Maskell danced the dual roles of Carabosse and Caradoc with a dark and threatening aspect.

This story of good and evil, and of love, is clear in its broad strokes but many details and nuances may be missed by those not well-versed in either the story or ballet itself. And the happy ending, while pleasant, never reaches the kind of soaring, emotional climax that one might expect.

Still, that hardly matters when you are presented with a production of such skill and precision. Every movement of the dancers, from the grandest leap to the smallest twitch, is done with an exactitude that is marvelous to watch. And the eye-pleasing scenic design—which ranges from an ornate bed chamber to a misty birch tree forest to a pulsing nightclub bathed in red—keep one engaged throughout.

Sleeping Beauty
Through October 13 at PlayhouseSquare, Palace Theater, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

From My Hometown, Karamu House



Dreams of musical stardom always abound, which is why the singing competitions on TV always grab huge ratings. The same was true back in 1980 when From My Hometown, now at Karamu, is set.

As conceived by composer and performer Lee Summers, and co-written by himself, Ty Stephens and Herbert Rawlings, Jr., three young hopefuls arrive in NYC to audition at the Apollo Theatre. Each is from a different city (Philadelphia, Detroit and Memphis) with its own rhythm and blues heritage.

The three guys start as rivals but then join forces to become Unity, a three-man group that, after the usual bio-pic tribulations, conquers the music business.

This show is all about the music, featuring more than 30 songs. That is both a good and a bad thing, since the performers have to nail a lot of familiar songs like “Me and Mrs. Jones” and “(Sittin’) On the Dock of the Bay”, which they only succeed at part of the time.

As Memphis, Miguel D. Osborne is the most accomplished performer, exuding charisma, and showing some stellar pipes, especially in the low range.

Tyrone M. Gordon as Phillly and Joel S. Furr as Detroit each have fine moments, but their voices are not up to all the demands of the songs. Gordon has a sweet falsetto but it’s nearly inaudible (even with a mic). And Furr tends to get lost in the melodies of his solo songs.

In addition, the choreography (uncredited) is fairly repetitive—lots of spins and struts—and the set design (uncredited) is literally a collection of brick walls for almost the entire show. This show cries out for more visual stimulation.

Director Nathan A. Lilly finds some humorous turns in the paper-thin storyline in between the tunes. But the back stories of these characters are not all that interesting and a bit forced, as they discover they’re all related as cousins.

With top-flight voices and razor sharp choreography, this could be a memorable musical treat. As it is, this production of Hometown is an R&B dream that never quite comes true.

From My Hometown
Through October 13 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.


Monday, September 30, 2013

Richard III, Great Lakes Theatre

(Lynn Robert Berg as Richard III)


It has been observed that corporate CEOs (okay, some of them) share a disturbing number of traits with sociopaths. Both groups tend to be narcissistic, care little to nothing about the fates or feelings of others, and are able to, um, kill people with impunity.

This comparison is brought home with powerful clarity in Richard III at the Great Lakes Theater. It features a gleaming, contemporary set comprised of glass and steel that any corporation could easily move into at a moment’s notice. And the power brokers vying for dominance in these halls are conniving and vicious.

None more so than the crippled “rudely stamp’d” King Richard, who prowls the bloody halls of England’s ruling class, eliminating his competition with a ruthless efficiency that has immediate bottom-line results.

Directed by Joseph Hanreddy, this production literally drips with blood. Queen Margaret, the widow of King Henry VI, pours a few gallons of plasma off the balcony into a waiting tub every time another person is dispatched.

It’s a stylish way to handle the gore, reflective of a production that is slick and entertaining from start to finish. The cast is led ably by Lynn Robert Berg as Richard, limping about on his twisted legs as he coos and snarls to put people in their place. It is a masterful and often witty performance that never becomes tiresome.

As Richard’s doomed henchman the Duke of Buckingham, David Anthony Smith cadges some chuckles along the way before his demise. And Laurie Birmingham as Queen Margaret almost out-does Uzo Aduba, the “crazy eyes” convict in TV’s Orange Is the New Black, flashing her haunted orbs as she looks daggers at Richard while lathering him with insults.

The double-cast J. Todd Adams is excellent as both hapless George, Duke of Clarence and as Richard’s merciless capo, Sir William Catesby. And Tom Ford uses his wry delivery to fine effect as Lord Hastings.

The production ends with a teeth-rattling battle scene that ends Richard’s brief tenure in the corner office. If only CEOs could be dislodged as easily.

Richard III
Through November 2 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theater, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000

Monday, September 23, 2013

Boeing, Boeing, Lakeland Civic Theatre

(From left to right: Beth Lee, Tess Elizabeth Burgler, Brian Zoldessy, and Jeffery Grover)


If humor is based on truth, then it’s probably not a good idea to build a comedy around a concept such as: Airline schedules are infallible! These days, the arrival and departure times for airplanes are more like rough estimates scrawled on a cocktail napkin that are easily amended or crumpled up entirely.

Not so back in the 1960s, when the French playwright and farceur Marc Camoletti wrote Boeing, Boeing. In this production at the Lakeland Civic Theatre, directed by Martin Friedman, fulltime lothario Bernard relies on the clockwork precision of airlines so that he can rotate three stewardess “fiancées” through his Paris flat without any of them being the wiser.

Once you accept the show’s premise as a charming anachronism, the stage is set for lots of door-slamming hijinks. And that does happen at times.  But the over-long and repetitive script, as translated by Beverly Cross and Francis Evans, eventually wrings a lot of the humor out of what should have been a sprightly romp.

Bernard is busy romancing an international goulash of stews: Gloria from TWA, Gabriella from Alitalia and Gretchen from Lufthansa. So feel free to duck as the stereotype characterizations and jokes, um, fly fast and furious. A complicating element is added when Bernard’s old pal Robert, a dweeb from Wisconsin, stops by for a quick visit and then decides to stay.

The suave Bernard is intent on educating Robert in his technique of engaging but never marrying women—two of whom who are flying to all parts of the world while he’s boffing the third one who’s on the ground. He is aided in this carousel of carnality by crusty Bertha, his aging maid with a nasty attitude.

The script, however, is quite creaky. There is so much repeated exposition of Bernard’s game plan early on that you want to scream, “Get on with it, already!” But it doesn’t, and we are past the one-hour mark of this 2½ hour piece before any comical sparks start flying.

During that time, there is a lot of set-up palaver between Bernard, Robert and Bertha that never ignites. As Bernard, a smooth and assured Jeffery Grover firmly establishes Bernard as a master of his universe. But he is so cool early on you never feel the passion of this man outside of his cringingly-intense, Al Gore-style kisses when a couple of the stews arrive.

The role of snarky Bertha calls for an actor who can create her own comedy magic (as Thelma Ritter did in the movie version). But Beth Lee makes Bertha unpleasant without being particularly funny, a rather deadly combination for this kind of farce.

Katie Nabors is cute and amorous as Gloria. But her momentary infatuation with Robert is based on a quirk that doesn’t track (and that isn’t worth repeating at the play’s conclusion).  Nancy Telzerow does the hot-tempered Italian thing as Gabriella. But neither her nor Nabors’ roles allow them to vent in more interesting ways

A couple of elements of this production work splendidly. As Robert, Brian Zoldessy is a limp, human sock-puppet of a man and, after the stultifying early scenes, he’s often hilarious. Using his bespectacled, sad-sack face and slumped posture, Zoldessy is a sight gag without even saying a word.

Benefitting from one of the best-written roles, Tess Elizabeth Burgler makes Gretchen a Teutonic tower of uncompromising need. Bossing Robert around before a surprising turn of affection, Burgler is a treat. And her scenes with Zoldessy crackle with the perfect pacing for fluff of this sort.

There are laugh-out-loud moments in Boeing, Boeing, but not nearly as many as one might desire. Cut out an hour of the scripting fat, and this could be a fast-paced one-act comedy sprint. But that’s as much of a dream as hoping, these days, for an on-time flight.

Boeing, Boeing
Through October 6 at the Lakeland Civic Theatre, Lakeland Community College Campus (Just south of Rt. 90 and Rt. 306 in Kirtland), 440-525-7034.


Friday, September 20, 2013

Woody Sez, the Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, Cleveland Play House

(David M. Lutken as Woody Guthrie)


If a combination of folk music and liberal politics (remember those?) sounds perfect for you, then you best hustle down to see Wooody Sez at the Cleveland Play House.

While the production is unsatisfying in some respects—acting being one of the primary shortcomings—the four talented musicians display a range of songs that have the potential to amuse, enlighten and even shock.

In a linear and dutiful manner the show tells the story of Woody Guthrie, the iconic songwriter and performer known for penning classic songs such as “This Land Is Your Land.” Finding his true voice during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, Guthrie sang and composed songs that fought for the rights and the pride of the common men and women who are often trampled by society.

The piece is devised by David M. Lutken (with director Nick Corley and others) who also plays Guthrie and triples as the music director. In his Woody persona, Lutken has a comfortably rumpled down-home style of delivery that works well for the most part. And when he slows down to present a powerful song, such as “Dust Bowl Disaster,” you can feel the dirt and sand creeping into your pores.

The other three musician/actors are all fine as they smile a lot and expertly play a variety of instruments from fiddles and guitars to a dulcimer and a couple soup spoons. And the songs, from the lovely "Pastures of Plenty" to the rollicking "Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,"are often thoroughly entertaining. But Helen Jean Russell, David Finch and Leenya Rideout never succeed in creating memorable minor characters who interact with Guthrie.

This throws all the responsibility onto Lutken, who manages to charm the audience for most of the show. Of course, the script suffers from the same old problem of many such musical bios: in trying to cover all the Wikipedia high points, it never takes the time to explore its subject in any depth.

And there is a lot of depth to be had, since Guthrie lived through many challenges including service in World War II and his family history of Huntington’s disease.

Absent a more penetrating perspective, we are left with a pleasant and well-executed raft of songs, which makes for a fine folk music concert. But as a theatrical piece Woody Sez doesn’t say nearly enough.

Woody Sez, the Life and Music of Woody Guthrie
Through October 6 at the Cleveland Play House, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000