Monday, December 15, 2014

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, Cleveland Public Theatre

Here are the 12 Days of a Conni Christmas, jammed into 5 days because there are only 5 more days to see this amazing, delicious compendium of insanity before it goes away forever.

On the fifth day of Christmas, Conni gave to me: A naked doctor running through the audience and mushroom and pumpkin-ricotta tartines. Served by the actors, who talk to you, weirdly.

On the fourth day of Christmas, Conni gave to me a woman holding a goose and a “Bus That Table” Contest among the patrons. And a carrot-ginger soup that’s so good you will be tempted to trample small children to get seconds. (Okay, mid-sized children.)

On the third day of Christmas, Conni gave to me Four helpful nurses and a deer shot before the salad course, which consists of a herbed fennel and apple salad. Yum.

On the second day of Christmas, Conni gave to me a Q & A with Mrs. Robinson, who is of course an English dude who will likely exchange clothes with a woman in the audience, or do unspeakable things with a hand mixer. Or he might be the one serving you the main course of roasted turkey breast with cranberry compote (or a veggie option), with maple-glazed Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes.

On the first day of Christmas, Conni gave to me Goodi Two-Shoes and Sue James and Messerschmidt and Shihu Shallnotbenamed and Chance Gunner and Little Drummer Boy. And a drunken pumpkin bundt cake with whipped cream. Lots of whipped cream. God knows where that whipped cream will end up.

You have five more days: this Wednesday through Sunday the 21st. Tarry not. You’ll never experience anything else like this again, and also end up with a full stomach and a nice buzz (You also get table wine with your ticket.) And there are plenty of surprises. So, you know, what’s not to love?

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant

Through December 21 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

High Fidelity, Blank Canvas Theatre

(Leslie Andrews as Laura and Shane Patrick O'Neill as Rob.)

This is a show about a vinyl record store, the freaks who shop there, and the equally obsessed owner Rob. There are also “Top Five” lists galore, so let’s start with the,,,

 Top Five Things I Like About High Fidelity, now at Blank Canvas.

One, it’s a musical adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel and the Stephen Frears film, both hilarious, and a lot of that humor is evident in this production.

Two, Shane Patrick O’Neill sings well as the record store owner Rob, even though O’Neill could make his supposedly dweeby character a bit more dorky. And his hot-and-cold romance with Laura is funny, especially when it’s cold.

Three, Patrick Ciamacco is nicely acidic as the music snob Berry, the Jack White role in the film, and as always his direction of the production is brisk and effective.

Four, the varied rock songs by Amanda Green and Tom Kitt hold up well. And thanks to Kate Leigh Michalski who plays Liz and Leslie Andrews as Laura, the tunes are mostly a treat.

Five, Rob’s Top Five exes show up in person and repeatedly, to detail his faults. In short, one of any guy’s Top Five Nightmares.

On the other hand, here are…

A Couple Things I Don’t Like About High Fidelity

One, the gaggle of record nerds starts out pleasantly weird, but by the end they all get pressed and washed and a couple fall in love. Including the defiantly dorky Dick (Pat Miller) who falls for a female fan of John Tesh! Even the Most Pathetic Man in the World ends up rockin’ out in a band.

Two, on stage, the funeral of Laura’s dad in Act Two feels pasted on and not convincing, a plea for emotional heft that isn’t deserved.

But overall the show works. Plus, the audience can go on stage and buy some vinyl records off the set for $1.00 each. I love me some vinyl, and I came away with eight new (old) LPs. So High Fidelity immediately soars to the Number One position on my list of Top Five Plays That Allow Me to Shop On Stage During Intermission.

High Fidelity
Through December 20 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458.

Monday, December 8, 2014

American Falls, Cleveland Public Theatre

(Adam Seeholzer as Samuel)

Every playwright who has ever put pen to paper (or finger to computer key) has wanted in some way to encapsulate the mystifying contradictions of the human experience in these United States: love, rage, hope, despair, compassion, betrayal, etc. This is a noble and just calling, and we who observe their works are, generally, the better for it.

Trouble is, by trying to do everything in a single script, many playwrights succeed in doing nothing much at all. American Falls by Miki Johnson, now at Cleveland Public Theatre (and seen by this reviewer at a preview performance), lands where most of these highly ambitious plays end up—in the mushy middle ground between memorable and forgetable.

There are seven adult characters on stage (and one young boy, played by Anthony Sevier, who only appears briefly), and they have stories to tell about their lives. They are inhabitants of the eponymous town, a name for both the play and the town that is an almost-too-perfect summation of the theme at hand. The actors remain onstage for the duration of the 90-minute show, but they rarely interact with each other as they occupy little silos of light deftly designed by Jakyung Seo.

On the plus side, playwright Johnson and director Raymond Bobgan craft two really extraordinary characters, embodied in a couple riveting performances. Samantha is a worn-out woman who has boozed and fucked her way through life but, you know, not in a good way. As she says, “None of my kids turned out,” comparing them to failed Easter eggs. Despite almost Kabuki-level dollops of aging makeup, Chris Seibert is darkly comical and compelling as Samantha, mastering a raspy Marlboro growl and a defeated mien that feels like a festering, pulsing bruise on a tired soul.

Equally attention-getting is Adam Seeholzer as Samuel, a man who is so distraught by recent events that he turns himself inside out and into a new person. Seeholzer beautifully underplays this role, maintaining a steadily dark through-line that feels weirdly lyrical.

There are two other major roles that come across with varying degrees of success. Darius Stubbs plays the American Indian, Billy Mound of Clouds, and garners some of the biggest laughs as he discusses his job at Payless Shoe Store and his ability to intuit the future through his discount kicks. Stubbs lands these humorous asides with quiet style, but it’s hard to get hold of what Billy’s mindset really is.

This may be a problem with the script, since Johnson also underwrites the role of Lisa, who is dead after having committed suicide. The captivating acting talent of Faye Hargate is largely wasted in this character, since Lisa is called upon to deliver monotone, “Our Town-lite” faux-philosophical commentaries from the afterlife, without fully coming to grips with her actual life.

Three other characters, played by P.J. McCready, Ryan Edlinger and Dionne D. Atchison have shorter stories to tell as they gather in a bar. But none of these lives gain any traction and feel like an unnecessary digression from the four main characters. Sure, there are interconnections, but they are a bit faint and flimsy as portrayed here.

In this production, director Bobgan hews closely to the script, without his trademark layerings of movement and sound. And that is a wise choice, since Johnson is a playwright who manipulates words with panache. But a clearer focus on the really interesting characters would make American Falls a more satisfying journey.

American Falls
Through December 20 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Clara & The Nutcracker, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

Little kids are supposed to go see The Nutcracker at the holidays. It’s a rule. Even if tots don’t really comprehend what’s going on, heck, people are jumping around and there’s music.

But if you want to show the kids the story without all that ballet folderol, take them to Clara & The Nutcracker, now at Talespinner Children’s Theatre. In this clever adaptation by local actor and writer Anne McEvoy, the focus is on the yarn about Clara and her fantastical relationship with a kitchen appliance dressed up as a soldier.

It all begins in a surprising manner, with “stagehands” in white jumpsuits being called upon at the last minute to fill in for a ballet company that got stranded in a snowstorm. Happily, they’re all wearing Nutcracker costumes under their jumpsuits (as all stagehands do…don't ask), and soon, true to this company’s moniker, they’re spinning the tale.

Under the skillful direction of Alison Garrigan and thanks to an inventive cast, it’s easy to follow the plot as Uncle Drosselmeyer (Michael Regnier) gifts Clara (Tania Benites) with the nutcracker (Ryan Christopher) and she sails off on her adventure.

Charles Hargrave delights in various roles as Clara’s brother Fritz, the Mouse King and the Snowflake King, and Elaine Feagler is a hoot as a non-traditional Sugar Plum Faerie.

As always with TCT, there are puppets and masks. These work well, especially when gaggle of mice is represented by Sarah Moore as the Mouse Queen puppet and a couple other actors play mice with additional mice strapped to their heads. There is also lots of audience participation (“Be a ticking clock!” “Be a scratchy mouse!”) that keeps the small patrons on their toes.

This is fun stuff for kids, and there are enough witty asides in McEvoy’s script to keep adults amused (one character threatening the Nutcracker: “You’ve cracked your final filbert!”).

As seems to be true with many TCT plays, the littler audience members seem to reach their attention span limit at about 50 minutes. So the last ten minutes of many productions, including this one, feel a bit dicey as the kids squirm.

Clara is a sure-fire winner for families with small children. And it’s especially fun to see the kids meet the costumed actors up close and personal, immediately after the performance. If you like to see those little eyes light up, haul ‘em over to Talespinner this month.

Clara & The Nutcracker
Through December 21 at the Talespinner Children’s Theatre, The Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, 216-264-9680.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, PlayhouseSquare

There are gobs of traditions connected to the holidays, and for many the 1954 film White Christmas is one of them. It’s easy to get swept away by that glorious Technicolor flick, especially at the conclusion when a battalion of soldiers shows up to help aging General Waverly hang onto his inn in Vermont. Hell, I cry every time.

The promotional image for this musical version of that film, now at PlayhouseSquare, is a snow globe, and that is actually a very accurate representation of the show itself. It’s gorgeous to look at (and the songs are enjoyable to listen to), but the emotions that the film generates are absent, sealed under the glossy surface of a show that has plenty of eye candy but not enough heart.

As you probably know, two World War II army buddies Bob and Phil (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in the movie) take their singin’ and dancin’ act on the road after the war and become big stars. One night, as a favor to another friend from their platoon, they watch a sister act featuring Betty and Judy Haynes (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in the flick), and they are smitten. Soon, they all find themselves on a train going north, as the women are booked into holiday gig at a Vermont inn, and the boys follow along.

There are many occasions for set changes, and the scenic design by Anna Louizos is always satisfying. Combined with costume designer Carrie Robbins’ wonderful period duds, the train and the inn and the nightclub scenes all feel perfectly polished.

Of course, there are Berlin songs galore, all handled with professional expertise, including faves from the movie such as “Snow” and “Blue Skies.” Some of the tunes come complete with big tap dance routines, such as the show-stopping “I Love a Piano” (not in the film) that opens Act Two.

There’s a nice local connection in the cast since Cliff Bemis, who plays The Snoring Man and Ezekiel, was one of the four cast members of the musical Jacques Brel...back in the 1970s. Brel was instrumental in saving PlayhouseSquare, so it’s fitting that Bemis can trod these boards again. And happily, he’s quite funny in both his parts.

Trouble is, the leads are competent but they never make an emotional connection with the audience. As Bob, James Clow sings well but has almost negative personal magnetism on stage. Jeremy Benton is more lively as Phil, and you keep waiting for him to capture some of the zany Kaye-like vibe, but it never happens. As the sisters, Kaitlyn Davidson as Judy dances up a storm and Trista Moldovan as Betty croons prettily, but neither resonate as distinctive characters.

And since this script never sets up General Waverly as a fully-involved character, the excellent Conrad John Shuck can do little but pose and posture when the emotional climax of the story should take place. In short, my tissues remained firmly ensconced in my purse.

But there’s no denying how gorgeous the stage looks, especially at the end when the audience is literally enveloped in a postcard-perfect snowy scene. That’s something you’re not likely to see at any other theater in town, which is why PlayhouseSquare is always a wonderful gift—at the holidays or any other time.

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Through Dec. 14 at PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Top Dog/Underdog, None Too Fragile Theater

(From left, Robert Grant III as Lincoln and Brian Kenneth Armour as Booth)

It’s such an obvious crowd-pleaser, it’s hard to believe the National Rifle Association hasn’t yet sponsored it: a shooting gallery where people can recreate the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

In Top Dog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, now at the None Too Fragile Theater, that bizarre bit of interactive amusement is at the core of this two-brother drama. The African-American bros, named Lincoln and Booth by their father as a joke, are frozen in a world composed of lies and dreams.

And this production, directed by Sean Derry, generates laughs even as you see the two men sinking under the weight of their own misperceptions.

Lincoln spends his days working at playing Honest Abe, in a stovepipe hat and whiteface, while customers plug him with their fake guns. Lincoln (the man, not the President) used to be a master of the three-card monte street hustle, but now his brother Booth wants that gig. Trouble is, Booth is a better common thief than he is a card trickster, and he wants Lincoln to show him the three-card monte ropes.

Confined in Booth’s small, no-efficiency apartment (sans bathroom or running water) the confrontationally-named siblings chafe against each other in frequently comical ways. But there is always a current of anger and resentment beneath their actions, the familial source of which is brought out in Act Two.

Although Parks' script (a Pulitzer Prize winner) is long and repetitive, the two excellent actors on stage often make it sing believably. Brian Kenneth Armour moves slow and easy, but each of his movements is laden with intent. So the audience quickly learns to fear what might happen when he gets too agitated.

As Lincoln, Robert Grant III is an endearing fellow, wearing his scraggly fake beard and honestly trying to improve his performance so he can keep his “job with benefits.” But when he shows his brother some real card shuffling skills, Booth realizes his dream of mastering that con game, like his dream of reuniting with his girlfriend Grace, is totally illusory.

Together, Grant and Armour spin a web of iron that leaves neither any escape. And even though there are long stretches when the pace could be picked up a bit, the performers keep you riveted until the inevitable but shocking conclusion.

Sure, this play could be done in a shorter time than this production’s almost three-hour run time with one intermission. But then, you’d spend less time in the company of these two magnificently flawed and doomed characters. And that would be a shame.

Top Dog/Underdog
Through November 29 at None Too Fragile Theater,
1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco),, 330-671-4563.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Tingle Tangle, Theater Ninjas

“What I love is the taste of transience on the tongue, every year might be the last.” In that quote, German film and theater actor and director Max Reinhardt was speaking about the fragile Weimar Republic.

And if you’ve ever wondered what Weimar-like transience felt like, it is on full display in Tingle Tangle, now being produced by Theater Ninjas. The Weimar Republic existed in Germany like a fragile flower between the two 20th Century world wars. And for a brief moment, the arts that flourished in that time were rather astounding in their candor and confrontation.

In this production, conceived by Ray Caspio and directed by Jeremy Paul, the audience is swept back to that time when Germans partied hearty and gleefully trampled established  cultural boundaries. The cabarets that popped up after WWI often featured nudity and acts loaded with sexual innuendo.

The material in this variety show of songs and vignettes is all-American, however, touching on various personal remembrances of the cast members dealing with gender identity and sex. It is unabashed, unapologetic and often uproariously hilarious.

Caspio, gay and married, talks about his personal journey and current conflicts, since he lives in Ohio, a state that doesn’t recognize his loving relationship. A talented and riveting performer, Caspio uses his lean body to great effect whether delivering his monologues or just moving and dancing in place on the small stage. And his second act schtick as the aged and bigoted Uncle Toots, a character Caspio initially created on You Tube, is a flat-out hoot.

He is supported by five other actors and live accompaniment provided by Eric M. C. Gonzalez. One standout in the company is Amy Schwabauer, who does a spot-on rendition of a high school coach teaching a sex education class, employing a witty mixture of flaming ignorance and an earnest desire to communicate. Schwabauer is also excellent in her personal reminiscence about her, um, adventurous sex life.

The other performers include Katie Beck, Valerie C. Kilmer, Dan Rand, and Ryan Lucas, who each have their moments as Tingle Tangle weaves its own spell of frank honesty and simmering rage at the absurdities of society today.

Sure, there are some bits that don’t exactly work, and the singing of some of the period songs is more often off-key than on. But this all fits the raw and gritty vibe that the show is shooting for. By not taking itself seriously, the show lowers barriers and compels the audience to take some of the issues raised very seriously.

It is all staged in the basement of the Guide to Kulchur bookstore, owned by the esteemed poet RA Washington, and it is the perfect space. Tucked into a corner and surrounded by books, it feels as if you’ve been let into a secret club that requires a password to enter.

The small venue means only about 40 people can experience this remarkable show at any one time. So don’t tarry. If you’re in the mood for a fascinating trip that will have you laughing out loud multiple times, get a zesty taste of gender and sexual transience in Tingle Tangle.

Tingle Tangle

Through November 16, produced by Theater Ninjas at the Guide to Kulchur bookstore, 1386 W. 65th St.,

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How We Got On, Cleveland Play House

Plays about young people finding their artistic identities can be fascinating for older folks, since we enjoy seeing that the kids of today are just as screwed up and confused as we were.

And that is what How We Got On by Idris Goodwin attempts to do, as it follows three 15-year-old black and Hispanic teens through their attraction to hip-hop music, which was emerging in the late 1980s.

But the production at the Cleveland Play House, as directed by Jaime Castaneda, is about as non-hip as you can get, and just forget about the hop.

If rap music is anything, it is a continual flow of words tumbling over each other in a giddy frenzy of rhymes and startling images. Unfortunately, How We Got On never “gets it on,” as the performance is shot through with countless long pauses and contemplative silences, as if this was Death of a Salesman or something.

The script by Goodwin is serviceable enough, touching on the innocence of the young people, their fleeting rivalries and friendships, and at times capturing the repetitive wordplay that rap employs.  And God knows there’s enough of the “Just chill…ain’t no thang…that’s dope…” stuff to last you for a while. But the characters are drawn perilously thin, meaning that the momentum of the production itself must take up the slack.

Unfortunately, it feels like director Castaneda was thinking too much about the typical gray-haired CPH audience, slowing everything down to a crawl so the cane-and-walker-crowd could keep up. Also, the play attempts to explain some of the technology behind the rap sound, using visual aids in the manner of an Army training film. It's doubtful anyone in the audience is interested in the particular equipment Grandmaster Flash used, or the difference between a turntable crossfade and a drum loop.

The talented cast that plays the teens— Eric Lockley, Kim Fischer and Cyndi Johnson—is never allowed to cut loose. They are overseen on stage by the Selector, a DJ/narrator who often steps in to play other roles including the kids’ parents. The one-named actor Portia tries to spark some energy into the proceedings but she often seems bored herself as she observes the glacial staging.

Oddly, the most compelling moment in the play is when the gorgeous, evocative poem by Robert Hayden, "Those Winter Sundays" is read. In just a few quiet words, Hayden lifts one's spirit in a simple and profound way. 

How We Got On
Through November 16 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

[title of show], Beck Center

(From left: Pat Miller, Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly, Amiee Collier and Will Sanborn)

When I was a creative director at advertising agencies, a rookie copywriter would occasionally propose a radio spot for a car dealer with this pitch: “See, it’s two ad agency guys sitting around talking about what would make a good radio spot for our car dealer. And as they talk and crack jokes, they cover all the copy points. When they’re done talking, the spot is over.”

Those well-meaning copywriters were sent back to their cubicles with their Dixon Ticonderogas tucked between their legs, because that is a too-easy, too-facile way to write an engaging spot. The same, it turns out, is true for the theatrical version of that gambit, which is [title of show], now at Beck Center.

This musical is centered on the creators Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) sitting around and talking about how to write a musical. They are joined by their gal pals Susan and Heidi, and soon they are riffing on all sorts of theatrical and cultural minutiae circa 2006, when the play was first produced.

No doubt, there were howls of laughter eight years ago as the script and songs poked fun at "stars"  such as Shields and Yarnell to Heidi Klum. But these pop references have not aged well. If fact, they are so squishy and soft there’s not a hard edge of contemporary wit in the entire piece. This is why the on-going satirical wonder Forbidden Broadway keeps remaking itself, rewritten more than a dozen times since 1982, so the jibes stay fresh.

The only jokes that work here, even a little bit, are the meta references. As when they mail their script off to a new play festival and one asks, “If the play is in the envelope, should we still be talking?”

Of course, being a meta show the writers flagellate themselves before critics have the chance, worrying that their material is “self-indulgent and self-referential.” And they’re right, especially now.

The cast of Will Sanborn, Pat Miller, Amiee Collier and Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly try their best under the direction of Scott Spence, with the on-stage accompaniment of Larry Goodpaster at the keyboard. All four sing well, and the women fare better than the men in terms of shaping their characters. Plus, the penultimate song, ”Nine People’s Favorite Thing,” is still a winner.

But you couldn’t revive this show with the world’s most powerful defibrillator. Though [title of show] won an Obie Award in 2006, it now needs to be taken behind the barn and shot—so Bowen, Bell and the rest of us can move on with our lives.

[title of show]
Through November 16 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Great Lakes Theatre

(Aled Davies as Falstaff, surrounded by admirers.)

A couple seasons ago, director Tracy Young lit up the GLT stage with a boffo reinterpretation of The Taming of the Shrew. And it was lauded by this reviewer for its outrageous and mostly successful, “balls out, imaginative” production.

Well, sometimes when you go balls out, you run the risk of getting something snagged in a zipper, as happens in the current modernized staging of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Sure, there are plenty of outrageous and off-the-wall moments in this exercise, often tumbling one atop the other.

But the supposed humor is consistently lacking in wit (a “cut the cheese” joke, followed helpfully by a fart reference, for the slow of mind) while the puns (“Hot venison for dinner?” “Oh, dear!”) feel carefully manufactured. You don’t have to be a Shakespearean purist to want something more than that, in a piece that dares to rewrite (or write alongside) the Bard.

This Wives is larded throughout with attempts at humor circa the late 1940s (although the set by Rick Martin evokes the clean, stark lines of a later time). The denizens of a small Wisconsin town are dealing with the personage of Mr. Falstaff, a Hollywood-style raconteur who is in town trying to reignite his career. He decides to put the moves on two local married women, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, using his ineffable charm and ample girth to win them over and gain access to their bank accounts.

Mr. Ford (a hyperventilating Lynn Robert Berg) goes nuclear with his jealousy when he learns about Falstaff’s plans, and they both share unfortunate encounters with a rolling dumpster.

There are still some of Old Will’s lines in the play, and they ring true and charming. But finding them amidst all the hee-haw of this bloated extravaganza becomes a rather odious task, like picking whole kernels of sweet corn out of a cow pie.

For silly stuff to work on stage, it has to have sharp and genuine wit, which is on display in plays such as Spamalot, Urinetown, and Avenue Q. Otherwise, it’s just a collection of old jokes lashed together loosely with mugging and forced gaiety. It's the "try to do something funny here" school of acting.

Besdies a lack of wit, genuine or otherwise, this version of Wives is bereft of any sense of control, which is necessary for humor to work effectively (and which was present in the much more successful Shrew). Young throws everything at the theatrical fan, including slapstick (yes, there’s a pie in the face), and funny dances and walks (but not funny like Monty Python).

There are also bad French accents (often unintelligible mash-ups of Pepe Le Pew and Inspector Clouseau—but not as cute as the former or as hilarious as the latter). Tom Ford as Dr. Caius and Tracee Patterson as Madame Quickly are saddled with the task of hauling those accents around, and unfortunately the works shows.

As for the Wives, Jodi Dominick as Mrs. Page and Laura Walsh Berg as Mrs. Ford over-emote as the concept dictates, leaving the sly humor Shakespeare intended floundering in the wake of hissing catfights and such.

Of course, the rotund Falstaff is at the center of this melee. But Aled Davies, a most accomplished actor, seems like an unsuspecting fellow who stumbled into the wrong party. He always seems a bit too natty and uptight for the carousing and impulsive drunkard. For instance, his scene climbing out of the dumpster garbage should be a howl, but instead it just feels a little pathetic. Instead of cackling at the foolish plight of this adorably pompous ass, you want to help clean him up, straighten his tie and hand him his briefcase.

All that said (and still leaving a lot unsaid, as we won’t go into detail about the Magic Trick! Canned Laughter! Food Fight!), Young and GLT should be thanked for trying to breathe new life into Shakespeare. Taking risks is what good theater is all about. Because, done right, an audacious adaptation of Shakespeare can work just fine. This time, however, their Merry Wives is a witless spit-take.

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Through November 2 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theater, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.

Anna Christie, Ensemble Theatre

(Greg White as Chris and Katie Nabors as Anna)

Even though labels can often be misleading, sometimes they are dead-on accurate. And so it is with two labels connected to Anna Christie, now at Ensemble Theatre.

The first label is the Pulitzer Prize label, which this play by Eugene O’Neill was awarded in 1922. Although perhaps a bit melodramatic by contemporary standards, Anna Christie is a work of amazing force. Sure, it’s waterlogged with a flood of “dat ol’ davil sea” references and the happy ending feels pre-Disney-ish. But this play earns that award with distinct characters who never fail to intrigue.

And the second accurate label is Ensemble Theatre, since the acting assemblage under the direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz is tight and admirable, meshing together to craft an engrossing story.

Old Swedish salt Chris Christopherson sent his daughter Anna away to live with relatives in Minnesota, to get her away from the sea that has ruled his life. And now, grown-up Anna, who had been working as a prostitute inland, comes back to meet her dad and wash herself clean in the same seawater that bedevils papa.

But when a shipwreck survivor, Mat Burke, comes on board, the personal dynamics shift and there are plenty of rough seas ahead.

The company of actors is strong from top to bottom. As Anna, Katie Nabors counters her physical beauty with enough behavioral rough edges to convincingly portray this whore with a heart of, if not gold, than a nicely polished brass.

Greg White, in a wonderful example of non-traditional casting, is a reflective and often amusing Chris, conveying the look of a crusty seaman while trying to overlook his daughter’s seedy past. White exudes a personal warmth that floods the stage, much as the ever-present fog. And while Michael Johnson as Mat defaults a bit too often to a smirking sort of arrogance, his spot-on Irish accent and focus helps his character play effectively in all his scenes.

In a small role in the first act, Mary Alice Beck trots out a splendid turn as Marthy, Chris’ blowsy dockside squeeze, a veteran boozer herself. Stephen Vasse-Hansell does a neat job as Larry the bartender while Allen Branstein and Kyle Huff fill out other roles nicely.

Sure, we might wish that director Hinz had tried to infuse a bit more nuance into the smiley-face ending. But this is a production that gleams brightly throughout, so we won’t sweat the ending that much.

Anna Christie
Through October 19 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Loki & Lucy, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

(Bryan Ritchey as Loki and Melissa T. Crum as Lucy)

It’s always best if a children’s theater piece is also amusing to the adults who are accompanying the little ones. After all, they deserve something for bringing the tykes to the show, paying for their tickets, and keeping track of their shoes, etc.

And this play, a Norse myth adapted for the stage by Michael Geither, has plenty for kids and adults to enjoy. Geither’s script is quite charming, and the performance by the five cast members, under Alison Garrigan’s energetic direction, is often hilarious.

Lucy is a young girl who is fascinated by a man whom she knows is in the tree outside her home. And when she goes to sleep, the tree comes to life as the impish Loki ushers her through a dream world populated by a lot of people with too many consonants in their names.

One of these is Thorbjorn Horabrudr, and Nate Miller is wonderful in the part, using his infinitely expressive face to register all sorts of Norwegian emotions. It’s hard to take your eyes off him, he’s so consistently amusing.

Then there’s muscle-bound but not-too-bright Thor, who wields his thunder hammer with relish in the person of Nicholas Chokan. And Brittany Gaul plays Lucy’s mom and the fiendish, fox-like Fenrir with gusto.

Bryan Ritchey as the tree-man Loki is remarkably agile, entirely personable, and quite a kidder: “Pull my finger!” And Melissa T. Crum captures the girlish enthusiasm of Lucy when she finds herself in that magical world.

Garrigan utilizes dance, inventive movement, puppets, masks, and a huge blue lobster to keep things interesting for the kiddies.

However, there’s a lot of unnecessary exposition jammed into the script, with a number of names and other details that get lost in the telling. This is possibly an attempt to be true to the source material, but the actors still make this hour-long journey a fun and often laugh-out-loud ride.

Loki & Lucy
Through October 12 at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, The Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, 216-264-9680.

August: Osage County, Lakeland Civic Theatre

(From left: Diane Mull as Barbara Fordham, Courtney Nicole Auman as Ivy Weston and Debbie Jenkins as Karen Weston)

It’s a good thing Norman Rockwell never had Thanksgiving dinner at the Weston household, or that famous painting of his would have turned out a lot different.

The Westons, for the uninitiated, are the folks who populate this play by Tracy Letts, and they are a hot Oklahoma mess. Embodying all of the seven deadly sins and then adding a couple more, this is a family that would make a damn fine reality show.

And in this production at Lakeland College, featuring a cast of notable local actors, the sparks fly especially bright in the second act—after a first act that slips its gears a few too many times to be fully effective.

Family matriarch Violet Weston is married to her long-time husband Beverly, and they have an agreements that boils down to, as Violet says, “He drinks, I take drugs.” Violet is given to “telling truths” about her family, and that occasion arises when Beverly goes missing and the family is summoned from near and far.

Among the ruined people in this wreck of a family are older daughter Barbara, who is separated from her husband Bill. He still comes along, with their sullen teenage daughter Jean. Barbara has two sisters, weak and wan Ivy, who lives at the homestead, and Karen who lives with her fiance Steve (she will be his fourth wife) in Florida.

Then there’s Violet’s sister Mattie-Fae Aiken, her husband Charlie and their son, the fully-grown Little Charles. And this menagerie is watched over by the Native-American woman, Johanna (Caitlin Post), who was hired as a housekeeper by Beverly before he disappeared. Another outsider is Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Michael Vitovich), who shows up with bad news.

This is a long and monumentally demanding show, and director Martin Friedman finds the bones of this script by having his actors dig hard. In the prime role of Violet, Anne McEvoy is a shattered collision of a human being, but she continually pulls herself together long enough to torment anyone within earshot.

Although he disappears soon, Robert Abelman as Beverly doesn’t obviously telegraph the situation, speaking convivially with Johanna during her job interview. But his steady drinking and his haunting singsong exit line, “Here we go ‘round the prickly pear…” suggests darkness to come.

Diane Mull as Barbara takes on the most emotionally complex role in the play and handles it well, although some of Barbara’s twists and turns at the end feel a bit choreographed. As for the other two sisters, Courtney Nicole Auman is a sad package as Ivy, and she implodes powerfully when she absorbs the brunt of the play’s most shocking revelation. Debbie Jenkins as Karen doesn’t quite find the through line of her Act Two opening scene, but she gets stronger as the play continues.

Andrew Narten is solid as Bill and Natalie Welch is properly irritating as Jean. Rose Leninger and Jeffrey Glover are well matched as the longtime bickering couple Mattie Fae and Charlie. And Aaron Elersich as sleazy Steve and Jeremy Jenkins as Little Charles contribute crisp and telling scenes.

The first act seems to build tension a bit too slowly, with the actors often tucked up stage in little corners of Keith Nagy’s necessarily complex set. But the second act is mostly a downhill rush to destruction, with the actors and the audience hanging on for dear life.

August: Osage County
Through October 5 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, 440-525-7034
Lakeland Community College Campus (just south of Rt. 90 and Rt. 306) in Kirtland.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Edward Albee’s OCCUPANT

No, it’s not Occupant by Edward Albee. The playwright’s name comes first in this title, which may indicate a slight insecurity with the material, a desire to make sure everyone knows the writer is that icon of American theater and not some schlub off the street.

Even though his name is above the title, marquee-wise, this play is not an ego-driven work. Instead it is an almost gushing tribute to Russian-born, groundbreaking sculptor Louise Nevelson, a long-time friend of Albee and a figure of imposing importance in the art world.

The structure of the piece is simply an interview, a historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of la Nevelson is asking questions of the admittedly long-dead artist. They both seem mildly amused by that situation, but they then launch into a Q & A that covers the entirety of Nevelson’s colorful life.

Everything, it seems, is touched on: her hard-working immigrant family, her unpleasant marriage, her sexual dalliances, her son, and finally her art.

With apologies to Mr. Albee, the best thing about this production is the acting. Under the precise direction of Greg Cesear, the two actors spin a sublimely hypnotic world. George Roth plays the sometimes challenging, often fawning interviewer with just the right touch of deference and devotion.

And as Nevelson, Julia Kolibab is a dark eyed force (Nevelson was famous for wearing multiple sets of sable eyelashes), dispensing truths and fictions about her existence with the same assuredness. Kolibab is a stunning presence, and you wish she’d go on talking for much longer.

This is not exactly a flawless production, however, since the script often seems like a glorified Wikipedia entry, albeit written with the wit and deft conversational feints that only Albee can concoct. And the insights, such as they are (“If you’re lucky enough, you become the person you are inside.”) are not exactly Earth-shaking.

And one wishes that more time was spent on the struggle of this inspired woman to work her way through the male-dominated art scene, and on her particular artistic vision.

Ah well, we’ll take what we can get. On a handsome set design by Laura Carlson Tarantowski, replete with Nevelson-like artifacts featuring detailed monochromatic black and gold boxes, the show manages to retain one’s attention throughout.

Ms. Nevelson would have appreciated that.

Edward Albee’s OCCUPANT
Through October 12 at PlayhouseSquare, Kennedy’s, 1516 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000..

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Forever Plaid, Beck Center

(Plaids L to R: Brian Altman as Smudge, Shane Patrick O'Neill as Frankie, Josh Rhett Noble as Sparky, and Matthew Ryan Thompson as Jinx)

Time was, four clean-cut young lads could sing “Heart and Soul” in close harmony and make teenage girls scream and swoon. Sixty years before One Direction, groups such as the Four Aces and the Hi-Lo’s were laying out young female audiences with their lyrical takes on classic songs.

And the evergreen show Forever Plaid, now at the Beck Center, brings back that era of crooning post World War II innocence. As directed and choreographed by Martin Cespedes, this is an entertaining and endearing representation of the Plaid franchise, even if some of the songs don’t fly as high as they might.

The conceit of the book, written by Stuart Ross, is that the four high school vocalists were snuffed out by a school bus before their career took off. So through a cosmic harmonic convergence, the heavens have opened and brought them back to life to perform the concert they never performed in real life.

Each of the Plaids has his own little quirks, and these are brought to life nicely by Brian Altman (nerdy Smudge), Josh Rhett Noble (lively Sparky), Shane Patrick O’Neill (focused Frankie) and Matthew Ryan Thompson (fragile Jinx). Despite having names that sound like Snow White’s backup team of dwarfs, the boys get their act together in short order.

The song list is hefty and includes old-time faves such as “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Catch a Falling Star.” And the comedy bits, such as a 3-minute mash-up of all the acts that used to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, come off without a hitch. Even if you weren’t around for the original, it never gets old seeing jugglers and stupid dog tricks—even if it’s a stuffed dog being tossed through a hula hoop.

Of course, the music is the reason for this show to exist, and the four performers fashion some sweet blends. However, the exacting demands of close harmony forces them to lower their volume on a number of songs. As a result, the glorious soaring notes many remember when the Four Aces crooned “Love Is a Man Splendored Thing” are not there.

Sure, many of the dance moves are just as they were when Ross directed and choreographed the original production of his show in 1990. And they can get repetitive (lean left, lean right, move the floor mic in a circle, etc.) Still, Cespedes and musical director Bryan Bird compose a crisp and nicely-paced production that keeps its foot on the pedal of musical memories.

As you might expect, there is precious little edgy material here, unless you get a tingle when one of the boys, in marketing mode, innocently says, “We’d like to work your private functions.” And that is true to the era when rock and roll was just beginning. Indeed, people back then were so clueless that pioneer rocker Bill Haley and His Comets’ first albums were called “foxtrots with vocals,” perhaps to appease the old folks.

But everyone knew what those masters of harmony in guy and girl groups were up to. And this Forever Plaid is a fitting tribute to that music of the Eisenhower years.

Forever Plaid
Through October 12 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Henry IV, Part I, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

It’s hard for a father to watch an apparently wayward son find his way in life, and that parental angst forms the personal core of the “history play” Henry IV, Part One.

That is the problem King Henry faces as he muses on his son, the wastrel “Prince Hal.” Hal spends his time drinking with the dissolute Sir John Falstaff and thinking up pranks to play. His dad wishes he were more like the son of his rival Thomas Percy (Ross Rhodes), the hot-blooded, laser-focused young “Hotspur.”

HIVPI is a long play loaded with all kinds of political details, but as usual the talented Ohio Shakespeare Festival company manages to sort it all out.

As the two sons, Andrew Cruse and Joe Pine draw clear distinctions, as Hal and Hotspur. Each is intense in his own way and yet oh so different, and both display a clarity of diction that is immensely satisfying. Cruse is aided by an energetic Geoff Knox as Hal’s wingman (okay, gentleman-in-waiting) Poins, and Pine finds succor in the arms of his wife Lady Percy (Tess Burgler in a small but impactful turn).

In the title role David McNees frets nobly, and convincingly shows this man’s political acumen and his vulnerable personal side. Also, Derrick Winger is appropriately full of himself as the gasbag Owen Glendower.

Once the fighting starts, Ryan Zarecki stars in two roles: as the Likes-To-Fight–Guy, the Scottish Earl of Douglas, and as the fight director. These aren’t the tippy-tappy fight scenes you’re used to, as the actors often seem to swing for the fences with their axes and such.

In the highlight role of Falstaff, director Terry Burgler offers a mostly comfortable version of this boozy whore hound. It’s an audience pleaser, but his interpretation doesn’t delve very deeply into Falstaff’s clear and present contradictions. Still, Burgler is amusing in a fat suit that seems lifted from Martin Short’s intrepid celebrity interviewer, Jiminy Glick.

As for the introductory greenshow, a long send-up of Cymbeline as done by the Disney Studios has its moments, but overall the concept seems funnier than the execution. This observer missed the shorter pieces, with one usually tweaking a selected Shakespearean trope. Still, the greenshow—directed by Tess Burgler with Jason Leupold as music director—is not to be missed. It starts a half hour before the main event. “Huzzah!”

Henry IV, Part One
Through August 17, produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 714 N. Portage Path, Akron, 330-673-8761.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Wedding Singer, Mercury Summer Stock

(Left to right: Dan DiCello as Sammy, Will Sanborn as Robbie, and Brian Marshall as George)

Some decades are easy to identify at a glance. And once you see a mobile phone the size of a shoebox, you know you’re in the 1980s. (As the TV commercials said at the time, “It weighs only two pounds!”)

Well, that phone and lots of other ‘80s detritus is on display in The Wedding Singer, now being produced by Mercury Summer Stock. This song-heavy adaptation of the Adam Sandler flick features music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and a book by Tim Herlihy and Beguelin. None of those individuals is credited in the program—either an unforgivable oversight or a detestable decision.

Of course, the trouble with adapting an Adam Sandler movie is that you don’t have Adam Sandler to carry the comedy load. And that becomes evident as Will Sanborn takes on the unenviable task of doing the title role as Robbie Hart. He’s a singer who’s been jilted at the altar by his party-hearty fiancĂ©e Linda (a sizzling Michelle Ireton), and starts taking his frustrations out on his two band members and any of the subsequent weddings he’s booked into.

Sanborn has a nice boyish quality and sings reasonably well, but his occasional attempts at channeling a Sandler-esque delivery fall well short of the mark. As a result, we never quite warm up to Robbie and his marital plight.

However, there are other cast members who are ready and willing to pick up the slack. One of Robbie’s band members is Sammy, a hefty and sweaty fellow played to the hilt by Dan DiCello. And the other guy is (Boy) George, a flamingly gay Brian Marshall who shows off a rather coquettish falsetto singing voice in “George’s Prayer.”

After Robbie’s dreams are shattered, he falls in love with wedding reception waitress Julia (Melissa Sills in an endearing and very well-sung turn). But she’s engaged to marry Glen (Jimmy Ferko), a junk bond broker who covets only money.

And so, the stereotypes abound as the play lurches from one derivative meme to the next. But once you look past that, several of the songs are quite catchy, such as Robbie’s lovesick anthem “Casualty of Love” and Glen’s tribute to bucks in “All About the Green.” Plus, Cindi Verbelun as potty-mouth grandma Rosie and Dani Apple as Julia's cousin Holly chip in with some laughs.

Placed on a Let’s Make a Deal set featuring three curtains, the large and pumped-up ensemble performs admirably under the guidance of director and choreographer Pierre-Jacques Brault and music director Eddie Carney. In short, the show steamrolls over all the material’s inherent bumps and turns this sack of fluff into an enjoyable (if overlong, at 2½ hours) summertime fling.

The Wedding Singer
Through August 16, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at Notre Dame College, 1857 S. Green Road, South Euclid, 216-771-5862.