Monday, June 23, 2014

The Floating Dolls, Talespinner Children's Theatre

Babies are helpless. So when they need something, it’s good that nature provides them with the vocal chords of an enraged screech monkey. 

The piercing wail of a crying baby can drive anyone up a wall and around the bend, so this Polish folk tale is certainly based on a real issue in people’s lives. And that’s a nice change from many kids’ stories told at Talespinner Children’s Theatre (you know, all those magic beans and etc.). 

This adaptation by Toni K. Thayer is charming, as Mama and Papa (Debbie Kepler and Ben Merold) try everything to quiet little Anatol, but they’re at their wit’s end. The crying is represented by actors beating the floor to a rhythm with their hands and other objects, which doesn’t exactly convey the mind-numbing pain of the real thing. 

Still, cue an old woman (Lauren B. Smith) who prescribes a nine-doll cure: The parents are supposed to make the dolls, give them secretly to others (or just throw them in the river), and the crying will cease. 

And it does, until other parents also learn about the cure and pretty soon dolls are flying and floating everywhere. 

The cast—which also includes Hannah Storch, Dan Rand and Richie Gagen—moves and dances with expressive glee under the direction of executive artistic director Alison Garrigan. 

And there are some very cute touches, including a Fosse-esque bunching of four actors into a lock-step unit of needy citizens (muttering “dolls…dolls…dolls…”) that is both arresting and amusing. 

It finishes with a lovely moral that might help the next time a baby goes on a crying jag in your house. Or not.

The Floating Dolls
Through July 6 at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, , The Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, 216-264-9680.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Thoroughly Modern Millie, Mercury Summer Stock

If the Broadway musical is a uniquely American art form, then summer stock is a distilled version of that genre. Marked by large casts composed of enthusiastic and mostly young performers, summer stock should be a high-energy, refreshing treat.

Mercury Summer Stock has this particular theatrical subcategory nailed, as they have for some years now. And their current production of Thoroughly Modern Millie is an unabashed treat from start to finish. Featuring some fine voices and a couple spot-on comedic turns, this show is a cure for what ails ya. Or, if nothing ails ya at all.

Based on the Julie Andrews movie, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Dick Scanlan, it’s all about Kansas rube Millie who moves to the Big Apple to seek a redo as a modern gal of the 1920s. To wit, she has her cloche hat set on finding a rich boss she can wed. But in her first moments on the street, she literally runs into Jimmy Smith, an apparently poor and snarky New Yorker, and immediately hates him. So you know where that’s going to end up.

In the title role, Caitlin Messer sings well and has plenty of innocence and verve as Millie, even though she could add some intensity to both her acting and singing. And Jason Goldston certainly has the pipes for Jimmy, but doesn’t quite have the full-on, street-smart edge that would give snap to his feisty relationship with Millie.

Some of the real pleasures in musicals such as this occur in smaller roles, and that's where this production really shines. As the office tyrant Trevor Graydon, Brian Marshall is a hoot, trilling the Gilbert & Sullivan-inspired “Speed Test” with ever-increasing rapidity. Then later, he is gob-smacked by Millie’s lovely friend Dorothy, and his duet (“Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life/Falling in Love with Someone”) with Amy Jackson as Dorothy is as pleasing to the ear as it is amusing.

Another standout performance is Hester Lewellen as the hotel manager Mrs. Meers—a former actress who is now working for a white slavery ring, feeding them nubile young women without families who come to her flophouse for cheap digs. Gleefully butchering her Chinese accent, Lewellen has the precise comic timing of a seasoned pro.

She is well supported by Jeremy Feola and David Petrovic as the Chinese brothers who reluctantly help Mrs. Meers kidnap her guests, aided by surtitles (look up) that translate their faux Chinese. Dan DiCello as a campy Miss Flannery and Kelvete Beacham as the jazz age doyenne Muzzy van Hossmere also add some smiles.

It is well staged by MSS director Pierre-Jacques Brault with snappy pacing and clever, small set pieces. The costumes by Colleen Bloom are a period delight, as is the choreography by Jens Lee.

Indeed, the entire large ensemble performs the song and dance numbers with high spirits, even when technical skills fail them a bit. But hey, this is summer stock. And you won’t find a better example of it than here at Notre Dame College.

Thoroughly Modern Millie
Through June 28, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at Notre Dame College, 1857 S. Green Road, South Euclid, 216-771-5862.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Possum Dreams, None Too Fragile Theater

In this play, novelist and short story writer Ed Falco tries his hand at a two-hander that travels some well-worn territory: marital discord, kinky sex, and drugs to name a few.

And it’s mostly an amazing, intense experience, thanks to his often deftly written script, two spectacular performances and the masterful direction of Sean Derry.

Walter and Jan have been married for 18 years, but it’s a relationship that is fraying around the edges in the opening moments of this 100-minute, real-time excursion. Walt is a professional writer and adjunct professor, worried about his college students’ lack of respect (echoing his successful book's lack of critical acclaim). He and Jan are also fretting about their twin daughters and their likely sexual activity at the up-coming prom.

Oh, and speaking of sex, he eventually admits to having an affair with a student in his class, a 20–year-old male-to-female transsexual and bizarre taxidermist/artist named Cassie. Turned on by those encounters, he introduces Jan to a whole new sex toy. This throws Jan into some serious soul searching accompanied by copious amounts of martinis and pot, and things get uglier from there (as in, road kill nailed to a wall).

Falco’s dialogue rings true, especially in the hands of Andrew Narten and Leighann Niles DeLorenzo. Tumbling over each other verbally and physically, this duo superbly constructs a tiny little nightmare relationship that is compelling to observe. The script has the messy, unfocused and often wildly contradictory nature of heated conversations between two strung-out partners. And Derry keeps the pace tight and relentless.

Sure, the pot smoking and alcohol are convenient crutches, and Falco takes too many hits on that particular playwriting bong. But that can almost be forgiven in the context of two flawed people who are as co-dependently addicted to each other as they are to hash and hootch.

One irritating fly in this bubbling stew of betrayal and resentment is the device of having the off-stage demon in the mix being a weird transgender person. Yeah, we get it, trannies are different. But to make Cassie the highly-sexualized fulcrum of this tale, immediately justifying with most audience members Jan’s shock and revulsion, is just a tad too easy for a writer of Falco’s skill.

Other than that, this is a rip-snorting piece that rivals the intensity (if not the byzantine complexity) of Albee’s George and Martha, and other renowned on-stage wedded disasters.

Possum Dreams
Through June 28 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Bricco Pub), 330-671-4563

Monday, June 16, 2014

My Fair Lady, Porthouse Theatre

(Eliza and friends, pre-transformation.)

There are few Broadway musicals that have as many killer numbers as My Fair Lady. This iconic Lerner and Lowe show, based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is a veritable feast of now-standard tunes—from “I Could Have Danced All Night” to “On the Street Where You Live” and from “Get Me to the Church On Time” to “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face.”

In short, this show about the Cockney ragamuffin Eliza Doolittle being transformed into a refined lady never gets old, as long as the performers are up to the task. And happily, this production at the Porthouse Theatre has two stellar performers in the key roles.

As Eliza, Porthouse regular Kayce Cummings spits and snarls as the roughhewn Eliza, setting the stage for her miraculous morphing at the hands of Professor Henry Higgins—played and sung with velvety panache by Greg Violand. These actors have appeared opposite each other before, and use their chemistry to fashion scenes that pulse with genuine feeling.

Even though Violand could stand to be more of a demanding martinet, as Higgins puts Eliza through her paces, there’s just enough edge to establish some believable conflict.

They are supported ably by Elliott Litherland as Freddy, crooning “On the Street…” with style and Lissy Gulick, who brings her adorable presence to Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce.

Geoff Stephenson as Colonel Pickering is fine, if a bit unfocused. And in the comic role of Alfred P. Doolittle, Rohn Thomas exhibits the perfect swagger and rowdy vibe of Eliza’s boozy dad. But some imprecision in his performance and singing tends to blunt the effect his character could have on the proceedings.

Once again, Porthouse is using two-piano accompaniment for this show, evidently due to budgetary and other restrictions. Unfortunately, this often gives the production the feel of a rehearsal run-through, no matter how hard music director Jonathan Swoboda and his piano partner Melissa Fucci pound on the keyboards.

This means the rich, full sound of an orchestra is missing when emotional points hit their peak, and this does a disservice to the magnificent Lerner and Lowe composition. But hey, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld’s take on the Iraq war, you do a show with the instruments you have, not with the instruments you might want.

Director Terri Kent, as always, manages to get the most out of her ensemble. And the costumes by S.Q. Campbell are spectacular, especially the ladies outfits in the Ascot Race scene—gorgeously inventive back & white confections.

Even with just pianos, the songs you love are here and they are still as “loverly” as ever.

My Fair Lady
Through June 28 at the Porthouse Theatre, Blossom Music Center campus, 1145 W. Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Stranded on Earth, Mamai Theatre Company and Theater Ninjas

Many lives can be divided into “before” and “after” phases, since there is usually at least one big event that marks a significant turning point in our meandering march of life.

And so it is in Stranded On Earth, a co-production of Mamai Theatre Company and Theater Ninjas now playing at the Pilgrim Church in Tremont. Written by local playwright Eric Coble, SOE is part of his “Alexandra Trilogy,” tracing the life of a woman from her 20s (A Girl’s Guide to Coffee), through her middle years (this play), and then on to her dotage in The Velocity of Autumn. The latter play was recently produced on Broadway.

In this one-hander, brilliantly performed by Derdriu Ring and directed by Jeremy Paul, Alexa is a 40-something visual artist who is discussing her life in terms of before and after. She is switching from reports of mundane daily tasks to sweeping, extended poetical ruminations on existence. It’s a daring format for a play, and while there are telling moments throughout, the entire piece seems a bit forced and often a tad trite.

Coble, who is a very successful playwright nationally, is a supremely witty, compassionate and intelligent writer (not to mention an affable and generous human being). He can craft sentences that bristle and heave with such lush imagery that you just want to take a few and cuddle up with them over a glass of brandy.

Unfortunately, he has a tendency to overload his text with so many bulging sentences jammed together that the human ear and mind cannot keep pace.

As Alexa teeters on the fulcrum of the life-changing event in this piece, we feel a soul in the throes of either a revelation or a breakdown. It starts with Alexa lamenting how the sky is always overcast, with the clouds coming lower and lower to Earth. This metaphor works for a while, despite its rather hackneyed “blue skies” foundation and the concluding conceit.

Hanging onto that image throughout, Coble shows how her mind works, and doesn’t, as she grapples with family issues and the more ethereal aspects of her imagination. But since half or more of the show happens inside her head, many of the mini-monologs feel like disconnected, random thoughts that exist in their own sphere apart from the real world.  Individually they are interesting, but taken together they can become dense and frustratingly mystifying.

As Alexa, Ring is splendid—as tight and intense as her pulled-back hair. She admirably conveys the need this woman has to make sense of an existence fraught with banal chores and life-shattering consequences.

If the script gave Alexa (and Ring) more room to breathe, thereby allowing the audience to more fully appreciate her situation, Stranded On Earth would not leave the audience so often on the outside looking in.

Stranded On Earth
Through June 22, produced by Mamai Theatre Company and Theater Ninjas at Pilgrim Church, 2592 W. 14th St.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Through Life, Cleveland Play House

If you’re lonely for the kind of polished and unabashedly sentimental lounge acts that Vegas is famous for, then you need to take a relaxing dip in Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Through Life, now at the Cleveland Play House.

Back in the day, the now 70-year-old Maurice was one-third of the tap dancing act Hines, Hines & Dad.  Maurice lived somewhat in the shadow of his younger and more famous brother Gregory, who died in 2003. But now Maurice is center stage, and he has the smooth patter and unctuous manner of a tried and true vaudeville performer.

Although the title of this touring show refers to dancing, the first hour is almost entirely made up of familiar American Songbook-style tunes, delivered by Hines in a warm, jazzy vocal style. He is backed by the all-female Diva Jazz Orchestra that swings energetically under the direction of Dr. Sherrie Maricle (who contributes a most inventive drum solo during “Caravan”).

The songs are loosely woven around Hines’ career trajectory, illustrated helpfully by photos from the past. There are a lot of predictable show biz stops (meeting Ella, meeting Frank, getting invited to sit on Johnny’s couch). These are handled with wide-eyed wonder, and he never shares any juicy behind the curtain tidbits.

Naturally, any African-American entertainer would encounter prejudice traveling around the country in those years, and this is touched on when the Hines troupe is not permitted to play the strip in Vegas. That is an effective, sobering moment in a show that relentlessly looks on the sunny side.

Finally, in the last half hour, tap dancing takes the stage as Hines proves his feet can still fly with the best of them. He is aided immeasurably by, appropriately, another brother team of tappers, John and Leo Manzari. Their aggressive and innovative steps inject a needed jolt of adrenaline to this mostly mellow production. They are joined by a 12-year-old tap dancer, Grace Cannady, who is invited to join the fun.

And it is fun. Even so, one wishes that Hines would be more forthcoming about some of the difficulties of his life. And he might even share some secrets of the demands of tap dancing, an art form most of us can’t even imagine trying to attempt.

But if you’re looking for a mellow, undemanding evening of entertainment, Maurice Hines is all that. And a bag of chips.

Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Through Life
Through June 29 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.