Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Shrek, Mercury Summer Stock

(Patrick Ciamacco as Shrek and Justin Woody as Donkey)

Everyone needs a little (make that a huge) ogre in their lives, and you won’t find a better one than the big greenie played by Patrick Ciamacco in this lively production.

Yes, the artistic director of Blank Canvas Theatre is moonlighting as the title character in this musical that feels a lot like Beauty and the Beast with attitude. Shrek is an ugly outcast who keeps others at arm’s length with sarcastic putdowns, until a princess pierces his defenses.

Director and choreographer Pierre-Jacques Brault has not spared the horsepower on costumes and scenery, and the young cast performs with unflagging spirit.

Even though some of the scenes and dance numbers go a bit flat, Brian Marshall as the height-challenged Lord Farquaad is always there to brighten the proceedings. Stomping about on his stumpy legs, Marshall’s Farquaad is a pint-sized terror, and consistently hilarious.

Sara Masterson handles all the duties of the princess-with-a-secret with a sure hand, from the farting and belching contest with Shrek to her songs such as “Morning Person.”

As Shrek’s donkey/sideman, Justin Woody can conjure laughs from the simplest lines, although his singing range is not nearly as wide as his infectious grin.

The fairy tale characters who are thrown out of the Lord’s kingdom all look their parts, but many of their lyrics are inaudible. And the inflatable balloon nose on Pinnochio goes distressingly limp when he’s not lying, leaving a thin string of rubber that flops around and gets in the way of a promising performance by Danny DiMarino.

Dan DiCello and Kelvette Beacham offer some sharp cameos, with Beacham coming on strong as the fearsome dragon.

But most importantly, Ciamacco is throughly amazing, mastering the Shrek voice we’ve come to expect and singing his songs with professional pizzazz and feeling. And when his Shrek and Fiona embrace at the end, it’s enough to make ordinary humans green with envy.

Through June 29 at Mercury Summer Stock, Regina Hall, Notre Dame College, Green Road between Mayfield and Cedar Roads, South Euclid, 216-771-5862

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Cleveland Shakespeare Festival

(Joseph Dunn as Valentine and Kyle Huff as Proteus)

Sometimes resembling a track meet, and at other times a wrestling match, The Two Gentlemen of Verona produced by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival is a mostly untrammeled pleasure.

This comedy, directed with inventive flair and a great sense of pure fun by Pandora Robertson, is now making the repertory CSF tour around town, paired with Measure for Measure (which will be reviewed here next week).

This light story of Valentine and Proteus, and their entangled romances, is a splendid platform for various kinds of hijinks. And a consistently on-the-mark cast delivers Shakespeare’s wry musings while fulfilling their daily aerobic allotment—marching and running around and through the audience during the entire 1½-hour piece.

Verona pals Val and Pro (who initially is in love with Julia) turn out to both be in love with Silvia, and so is the foolish Thurio (Steven Schuerger). They’re all bunched up in Milan trying to sort out their various passions and are eventually joined by Julia, disguised as a page and trying to track down her Proteus.

Meanwhile, Silvia’s dad, the Duke, is huffing and puffing, attempting to get control of the uncontrollable hormone hurricane that has hit his court. Of course, this being a Shakespeare comedy, all the problems are untangled and happiness reigns.

Joseph Dunn as Valentine and Kyle Huff as Proteus have the good looks and stage presence to essay these two love muffins, while Hillary Wheelock’s Silvia exudes a nice combination of come-hither sexiness and aloofness.

As the Duke, Allen Branstein gets some laughs from his splay-footed stride, and he exhibits a powerful, although not always well-modulated, vocal presence.

Much of the humor comes from Andrea Belser, who adds much comic flair to Val’s page Speed, and Arthur Chu does the same as Proteus’ servant Launce (accompanied by Molly, a Rottweiler/hound mix jobbed in from Avon Lake).

As the outcast but eventually rewarded Julia, Justine Kunstler has fun with her cross-dressed role. Also turning in fine performances are Corey Knick as Eglamour, the knight who has love in his name, and Tina Tompkins as Julia’s aide Lucetta.

This is free theater, all you have to do is show up and sit down (on the lawn chair or blanket you brought). And that makes for a damn fine summer evening.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Through August 4 at various outdoor venues, check schedule at cleveshakes.com

Sunday, June 23, 2013

John Henry, The Lantern Theatre

(From left: Bill Hoffman, Bobby Williams, Terrell Richardson, Jr.)

Are you sorry you never got to see plays put on in a barn, the ones like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney always launched?

Well fret not. There’s a big red bard in Valley View that is the site of a lovely 45-minute production, perfect for the whole family.

It is John Henry written by accomplished Cleveland playwright Eric Schmiedl, and it’s happening at The Lantern Theatre at Canal and Tinker's Creek Roads, just a few pedal pumps away from the Towpath bike trail.

This theater, now in its second summer of operations, is housed in a barn built in 1905, and features a 40-foot-high room that once served as a hayloft.

Now it’s a stage for a tidy production focusing on the legend of the title character, the famous steel-drivin’ man. It opens with a couple period folk tunes strummed out by Bobby Williams, who plays the title role, and Bill Hoffman who plays Hopper, John Henry’s pal and “shaker.”

The story is narrated by Elijah (a wide-eyed Terrell Richardson, Jr.), who also interacts with the other two as a young man eager to “do something” and not just go back to school.

The play showcases the playwright’s impish sense of humor, as the tunnel diggers eat beans and rhapsodize about other food they’ve had (peach cobbler, chow-chow, etc.)

And more laughs are added when the curmudgeonly Hopper instructs Elijah in the ways of being a shaker, the guy who holds the metal spike so John Henry can pound it with his big sledgehammer. Hoffman’s affect is perfectly suited to this rough-hewn man

We’re watch John Henry on his last tunneling assignment, and thanks to Williams’ evocative performance chops and presence we get in touch with this blue collar laborer—in a way that is both entertaining and contains a good message for the little ones.

Not only is the play a delight, kids are able to see a real old-fashioned Wisconsin-style barn up close. And the actors are happy to pose for pictures with everyone after the show.

During the Q&A session at the end, ask the performers to pluck out a rendition of the song John Henry, if they haven’t already played it. It seems particularly resonant after watching the play.

Whether you drive to the theater or include it as part of a family bike hike and picnic, it’s a very special treat.

John Henry
Through July 28 at the Lantern Theatre, Saturdays at 1 and 3 PM, Sundays at 2 PM, at the corner of Canal Road and Tinker’s Creek Road in Valley View, 216-401-5131

The Emperor’s Ears, Talespinner Children’s Theatre


When a gaggle of country folk are given a looking glass, you’d think they’d be happy. Turns out, not so much—in the delightful children’s play The Emperor’s Ears, now at the Talespinner Children’s Theatre.

This adaptation of a Serbian folktale by Michael Sepesy has plenty of humor, heart and audience participation, so that even the slow spots don’t mar the charming story it presents.

Once the townspeople start seeing themselves in the mirror, they are horrified to see that they’re really ugly. Says one to the peddler who brought the glass, “How dare you depress us with the sight of our own faces!”

To mollify them, the peddler (an enthusiastic Katelyn Cornelius) tells them the title story, about an emperor’s son who was born with goat ears.

The Prince (Ben Merold) gets upset when people mention his ears, so he throws them in a pit. That strategy works fine until he is left alone and learns he has to find another way to deal with his unusual appearance.

It’s a story about finding one’s inner beauty that’s perfectly suited for kids—with some added chuckles provided by Sepesy that only the adults will get.

At one point, one of the town’s rubes explains a nonsensical action by saying, “We’re simple country people. Nothing we do makes any sense.” All parents who have read countless fables to their tiny tots should nod in appreciation.

As directed by Alison Garrigan, the six-person ensemble performs with verve and specificity. These also include Andrew Gombas, Carrie Williams (perfect as a particularly snarky “mean girl”), Daniel Grambow and Cathleen O’Malley as the girl who can only tell the truth.

While not as visually stimulating as some TCT productions, Ears is well-structured and keeps the story uppermost, a good thing so that the youngest patrons can stay connected to the action.

Talespinner is a marvelous entertainment resource for kids of all ages, and their theater should be packed. So bring your kids, grandkids and their friends to experience some stage magic live and in person.

The Emperor’s Ears
Through July 6, produced by Talespinner Children’s Theatre at the Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Ave., 216-264-9680

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Smokey Joe’s Café, Cain Park

If you’re under 40 years of age and you see Smokey Joe’s Café, now at Cain Park, you might think the 1950s were a time of blissful racial sharing and tolerance. Indeed, the six African-American and three white performers hug and kiss and croon to each other as if they never even heard of Strom Thurmond.

But hey, every musical doesn’t have to wrestle with real issues. And a good way to do that is to plug into the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the rock mavens of the ‘50s who penned such timeless tunes as “Stand By Me,” “Love Potion #9,” “Kansas City.” and the title song.

This show, directed by Scott Plate, is all about the music and dancing (there are about four lines of dialogue), and the nine talented cast members give their all. The sweet-faced Ellis C. Dawson III croons “Love Me/Don’t” with fragility yet strength, and Eugene L. Sumlin lends his flashing smile and tender voice to “Loving You” (making a woman in the first row blush in the process).

Julia Rose Hines is the most accomplished dancer, weaving a magical spell in “Spanish Harlem,” and she heats up the stage in the “Trouble” duet with Nicole Sumlin. Kelly Autry is featured in “Jailhouse Rock,” although he can’t show off his dance moves in that number since he’s handcuffed to the set.

Many of the Leiber/Stiller songs call for a deep bass voice, and that is handled well by Darryl Lewis in songs such as “Charlie Brown.” For contrast, Malik Victorian leads the company with verve in “D.W. Washburn” and he digs deep in the sorrowful ballad “I (Who Have Nothing).”

Nyla Watson scores in “Fools Fall in Love” while Katherine DeBoer appears, fresh from starring in Next to Normal at Beck Center. She proves she can lend her singing and acting chops to “Pearl’s a Singer,” a song about failed dreams.

While the performers work immensely hard under the adept musical direction of Nathan Motta, the show is not perfect. Among the many big nits are a gaggle of tunes that never received much airplay back in the day. And for good reason. The beauty of a compendium show like this is that you can dump your C and D material into it and leave it to the production company to try and make it work.

Chorographer Gregory Daniels provides countless imaginative moves and dance steps for his troupe, but at times it all becomes almost hyperactive and you just want these people to stand still and sing for a spell.

And the scenic design by Trad A Burns, using corrugated metal sheets, a metal staircase and backlit "skylight" panels, suggests a rusty warehouse-type setting that never makes total sense with Tesia Dugsan Benson’s sometimes lush costumes.

But it’s neat to see black and white folks together, singin’ and dancin’ their hearts out. Especially when that happened so rarely back in the Eisenhower era.

So if you’re looking for a pleasant diversion on a summer evening, you’d better put this show on your menu. But if you prefer musicals to have meaning and substance, this show may just seem like just so much “Yakety Yak.”

Smokey Joe’s Café
Through June 30 at the Cain Park Alma Theatre, corner of Lee and Superior in Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

South Pacific, Porthouse Theatre

(Tim Welsh, center, as Luther Billis,surrounded by other gobs.)

There has never been a more perfect pairing of glorious songs and meaningful messages in one musical than the double whammy delivered by South Pacific.

Now on display at the Porthouse Theatre in Cuyahoga Falls, this Rogers and Hammerstein classic has all the songs you’ve grown to love for more than 60 years: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Cockeyed Optimist,” Bali Ha’i,” and tons more.

But at the core of this tune-fest is a strong stance against racial prejudice that must have been shocking when the show opened on Broadway in 1949. With two plotlines involving entrenched racism and miscegenation, it’s not a subject that can easily be avoided by any audience member.

And when the show first toured Atlanta in 1953, this iconic work, with book help by Joshua Logan, was denounced in the Georgia statehouse. One representative stated, “ Intermarriage produces half-breeds…in the South we have pure blood lines and we intend to keep it that way.”

Even now, with just such a “half-breed” serving as President of the United States, such attitudes still abound. And that’s why South Pacific should always be seen by new audiences, again and again.

Happily, this Porthouse production does the rich material justice, for the most part. Under the direction of American musical guru Terri Kent with choreography by MaryAnn Black and music direction by Jonathan Swoboda, this version has a splendid blend of fine voices along with romance, slapstick, and the aforementioned cultural relevance.

The central love-struck roles of Emile de Becque and Nellie Forbush are handled with style and elegance by Greg Violand and Kayce Cummings. The ultra-suave Violand spins a lush tropical spell with his voice, turning “Some Enchanted Evening” into a song you wish would go on forever.

And Cummings plays the “hick from the sticks” with a refreshing dose of honesty and feistiness. Her renditions of “Cockeyed Optimist” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” are light and delightful. But when it comes time to show her bigoted Little Rock roots, after she learns Emile’s kids are the result of intermarriage, you feel the grind of inbred racism.

This is also brought home in the song “You Have to Be Carefully Taught,” sung by Lt. Joseph Cable, who is wrestling with his own demons after he falls for the Tonkinese lovely Liat (an angel-faced Kaishawn Thomas). As Cable, Jake Wood sings well and delivers the message of that instructive tune, crooning that you have to be carefully taught “Before you are six or seven or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate.”

However, Wood struggles to establish a love bond with Liat, woodenly embracing the young girl and never quite allowing the audience to share his in both his passion and torment.

No such problems afflict Colleen Longshaw, who spits fire as Bloody Mary, mother of Liat and inveterate hustler. Longshaw generates laughs with her in-your-face attitude, and she delivers the goods in her songs “Bali Ha’I” and “Happy Talk.”

Most of the chuckles, however, are triggered by Tim Welsh, whose Luther Billis is a sailor in the weasely tradition of Phil Silvers as the similarly-named Sgt. Bilko. Selling grass skirts and seasick remedies, Welsh’s Billis is a loose (and, okay, flabby) cannonball that never misses its mark. His drag belly dance during “Honey Bun” is a jiggly hoot and a half.

Supported by fine and precise work by the ensemble in dance numbers, particularly in “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” this South Pacific is a trip to a little bit of paradise.

South Pacific
Through June 29 at Porthouse Theatre, on the Blossom Music Center campus, 1145 W. Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Telephone, Theater Ninjas

(Holly Holsinger as Babette)

Whether you communicate for a living or not, the essence of connection is always in question. Did you hear what I said? If you heard, did you understand? If you understood, did you care?

Communication is a vexing process, loaded with wrong turns, misapprehensions and often only scattered, partial victories. This basic difficulty is, of course, multiplied when technology is introduced.

That’s where the aptly named Telephone, now being staged by Theater Ninjas, finds its starting place: Alexander Graham Bell calling to Watson over his acoustic telegraphy machine. From there, we meet also meet a schizophrenic woman and then listen in on a couple dozen “calls.” The last two sections are adapted from the challenging philosophical tome The Telephone Book by Avital Ronnell.

Even though it is oblique and mysterious at times, the production walks the fine line between accessibility and confusion, never entirely sliding into incomprehension. And teetering on that thin wire is exactly where this piece belongs.

For this event, the gypsy Theater Ninja troupe has landed in a downstairs room of the Masonic Temple in Ohio City. And it is a splendid physical space, the wood floor shared by actors and audience, accented by a beamed ceiling and pillars with carved decorations. Four almost-parallel seating areas are interspersed among the set’s furniture and trunks of props, creating an intimate yet oddly isolated feel.

In the first segment, Ryan Lucas is Bell and Ray Caspio is Watson, navigating their world-changing invention in their own ways. This is a witty and electrifying dialogue as we see that even the first telephonic communication was beset with confusion. Watson thinks Bell said, “Come here, I want you.”  (not “I need you.”), with all the subtext that the word “want” implies.

But Bell isn’t pinging emotionally, at one time speaking in binary code. Interacting with a wide range of technologies, from hieroglyphics to an iPad, Lucas and Caspio are a tight fit, and their celebration after the World’s First Call is a gem of choreography and timing.

In the second segment, we meet Miss Saint, or Babette, who is a patient in an asylum, suffering from telephones within her and surrounding her. Modeled on a patient of Carl Jung, Babette is a fast-flowing stream of alienation, communicating like crazy but never being understood, and repeating phrases (“Speech is silver, silence is golden”) to keep a grip on her mind.

Even though this monologue eventually seems overly long, the enthralling performance by Holly Holsinger manages to keep it compelling by never overplaying her character’s mental difficulties. Babette just sees herself as a normal person who is Socrates and is the triple owner of the world—and why can’t anybody understand that?

In the third section, we listen to snatches of calls between disembodied lovers, and others, as various modern and recently obsolete technologies murmur and crackle at us in the darkness.

This remarkable play, directed with inventive skill and sharp pacing by Jaime Bouvier, is more of an experience than a conventional theater piece. And like Rusted Heart Broadcast , which opened a couple days ago at Cleveland Public Theatre, it is difficult to do it justice in a review.

As for Telephone, among other things it asks how technology is attached to human pathology, and what altered states will emerge as technology relentlessly advances. That is a call we should answer.

Through June 15, produced by Theater Ninjas at the Ohio City Masonic Temple, 2831 Franklin, make reservations at: http://telephone.brownpapertickets.com/

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Rusted Heart Broadcast, Cleveland Public Theatre

Aside from the ten-minute blackout that starts the second act, you’re not likely to find a more stimulating production than the world premiere of Rusted Heart Broadcast, now at Cleveland Public Theatre.

This work of devised theater, created by director Raymond Bobgan and his nine-person ensemble, engages both the eye and the ear as seemingly spontaneous movement combines with layered music and chants to weave a fairly hypnotic spell over the proceedings.

This is all in service to a storyline that is not nearly so easy to perceive. But in brief, a Clevelander named Kaysha is on a quest, analogized to a search for a secret pearl guarded by a monster.

Kaysha is headed to Hollywood, where she auditions to be a spokesperson for Softnet, a company that connects people to the Web without any hardware. But there is a deadly virus attached to that technology, and Kaysha must escape the monster corporation, evade succumbing to the virus and, you know, save humanity.

That story is glimpsed in the many spinning and tumbling folds of movement, dance and music that are wound into the warp and weft of this production. Utilizing a number of original musical creations by Bobgan and others, the production teases, surprises—and at time frustrates—as you try to follow the flow.

It makes for an involving experience that, if you open yourself to the possibilities, can be remarkably rewarding. These aren’t the usual rewards of a more conventional theater piece, but the unexpected gifts provided when your senses are tweaked in new and different ways.

The cast is led by the focused and determined Faye Hargate as Kaysha. She is surrounded by others who compose the ever-shifting yet admirably precise ensemble: Molly Andrews-Hinders, Dionne D. Atchinson, Carly Garinger, Sally Groth, Jeremy P. Lewis, Adam Seeholzer, Chris Seibert and Darius J. Stubbs.

Adding immeasurably to the visual richness of the show’s palette is the lighting design by Benjamin Gantose, continually carving out vivid playing areas on CPT’s Gordon Square stage that is set up like an amphitheater.

By maintaining a connection, however tenuous at times, to a storyline, RHB avoids the trap of self-involvement that often plagues devised works. And even though the theme of saving humanity is grandiose, this production earns its right to overstatement through a disciplined and relentlessly vigorous approach to the material.

Rusted Heart Broadcast
Through June 15 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727

Crowns, Karamu House

Just when you think women’s hats are going out of style, here comes a royal wedding in England and the most outrageous chapeaus appear, some of them even defying gravity.

Of course, there are some communities where glorious hats are always front and center, such as African-American church-going women. And that is the group celebrated in Crowns by Regina Taylor, now at Karamu House.

This is a rocking, foot-stomping gospel music tribute to the importance of an item of clothing that might appear trivial to some. But hats have deep meaning to these ladies. And although this production fizzles in places, the performers under the opulent headgear are, for the most part, immensely appealing.

The wafer-thin plot involves a young woman from Brooklyn, Yolanda, whose brother has been killed in a shooting. She has gone to live with her grandmother in South Carolina, and is soon immersed in the hat culture and arch “hattitude” of the ladies who invest blood, sweat and tears in their millinery.

Studded with gospel songs throughout—from “If I Could Touch the Hem of His Garment” to “I’m On the Battlefield for My Lord”—the Karamu stage often throbs with the infectious glory of that music. And the seven-person cast of singers lend these tunes a rich ferocity that makes you want to stand up and dance.

Equally appealing are the stories playwright Taylor weaves about the importance of hats to these women.  One has hard and fast rules about hats: don’t sneak up on me from behind, don’t hug, don’t touch. And another has more than 200 hats, taking up every surface in her home and almost driving her husband out.

And when the women demonstrate how they greet each other, twisting and arching their backs so their elaborate hats don’t touch, it’s both hilarious and affecting. The specifics about church services are also fascinating, describing the ever-present fans in the sweltering churches: a piece of cardboard with a picture of Martin Luther King on one side and a funeral parlor ad on the other.

But the hats themselves are more than decoration and frippery. They represent a connection to God and devotion, and they also symbolize the sacrifice it took to acquire these luminous lids. This serious side of hats is expressed in a couple stories of the fathers and husbands who appreciate the hats their women wore.

However, the energetic music often overwhelms the speaking voices, so the audience loses some of the wonderful details comprising Taylor’s captivating stories. And after about an hour has passed (it’s a 110-minute show without an intermission), the momentum of the fragmented piece begins to disintegrate.

Happily most of the performers, under the direction of Terrence Spivey, could not be more appealing. Joyce Linzy is a radiant Mother Shaw, grandma to Yolanda. And her bevy of friends played by Christina Johnson, Cherie McElroy-Burch, Nina Respress and Lauren N. Sturdivant are each distinctive in their own ways.

Nathan A. Lilly is the lone male singer/actor on stage, and he lends a strong vocal presence to the proceedings. As Yolanda, Imani Jackson sings well but she keeps her head down so much we can rarely share her character’s experience as she evolves from numb outsider to a proud member of the hat brigade.

A couple of lithe dancers are included the mix but, despite their evident talents, they don’t add much to the heart of this show. It’s all about hats and the women who wear them. And when the production focuses on that, without excessive ambient noise, this production truly soars.

Through June 16 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077