Friday, July 25, 2014

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Blank Canvas Theatre

Interesting, how time changes our perceptions. Back in the 1960s, when Ken Kesey wrote the book on which this play is based, mental institutions were an accepted fact of life. Sure, they were probably awful, but at least there were places to put people suffering from mental deficits of one sort or another. 

Now, in the enlightened 21st century, we let many people with severe mental disorders live amongst us, in communities that are rife with firearms. And we’ve wept through some of those consequences. 

Still, the denizens of this particular mental hospital, in Dale Wasserman’s adaptation, seem remarkably passive and medicated. Until the outrageous and extroverted Randle P. McMurphy shows up and starts to roil the waters, angering the day room dominatrix, er, Nurse Ratched. 

Things don’t start well in this production, as the first act is larded with so many long pauses, lingering beats and languorous low-volume line readings (other than McMurphy) that one begins to feel drugged. 

But the second act snaps into shape nicely under the direction of Patrick Ciamacco. As McMurphy, Daniel McElhaney opts for a lot of grinning and yelling early on. But he finds more variety as the show progresses, ultimately shaping a character to care about. Underplaying her role well (at times almost too well), Anne McEvoy gradually compiles a fearsome presence as Ratched. 

Among the strong supporting actors, Perren Hedderson is exquisitely frail and damaged as the stuttering Billy Bibbit and Aaron Patterson is solid as Chief Bromden (even if the staging of his pre-recorded interior monologues feels clumsy). Plus, Michael N. Herzog as Martini crafts a mostly silent portrait of hallucination that is at once amusing and deeply touching.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Through August 2 at the Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Romeo and Juliet, Cleveland Shakespeare Festival

(Miranda Coble as Juliet and Cody Kilpatrick Steele as Romeo)

If you’ve ever watched a production of Romeo and Juliet and thought that the lead actors really didn’t look the age of their characters (13 for Juliet, maybe 16 or 17 for Romeo), then this staging by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival should be a treat.

Chronological purists will appreciate that Miranda Coble, a soon-to-be high school senior, plays Juliet and the not-much-older Cody Kilpatrick Steele is her main squeeze Romeo. Their evident youth gives the play a raw, adolescent quality that brings a freshness to the familiar yarn of a terminal teenage crush, even if their line readings sometimes tend to be a tad abrupt and un-nuanced.

Older actors handle most of the other parts, such as Robert Hawkes as the helpful yet conflicted Friar Lawrence and Carol Laursen as a fairly one-note, grumbling Nurse.

But director Tyson Douglas Rand allows his actors to bulldoze many beats, squashing many familiar moments. Indeed, the beloved balcony scene virtually disappears in a rush of hurried emotional turns. And other scenes are read by the assembled actors more dutifully than meaningfully.

Hillary Wheelock is a spitfire as Romeo’s devoted pal Mercutio. But she seems to have visited this outdoor stage from another play entirely, sporting a hell-for-leather attitude that doesn’t quite jibe with the rest of the production.

One witty touch in this modern dress version is glowering Ryan Edlinger’s appearance as the Apothecary, er, drug dealer in a hoodie.

On this night, there were also issues with the sound amplification that made some of the early scenes hard to hear. But regardless of quibbles, CleveShakes offers free Shakespeare, an outdoor setting, and cool CSF t-shirts for cheap. That should be enough to recommend a visit.

Romeo and Juliet
Through August 3, produced by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. Go to for details.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sunset Boulevard, Mercury Summer Stock

(Helen Todd as Norma Desmond)

The shallowness of Hollywood in its heyday is exposed in Sunset Boulevard, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical now playing at Mercury Summer Stock.

And thanks to ingenious and imaginative staging by director Pierre-Jacques Brault, this musical rendition of the famous 1950 movie starring Gloria Swanson (“I AM big, it’s the pictures that got small!”) and William Holden is a feast for the eyes and ears. Even though there is one significant performance element missing, this is a show that compels attention at all times.

Norma Desmond is a washed up silent movie star who now lives a secluded life in her Sunset Blvd. mansion, attended by her devoted servant (and former director) Max von Mayerling. When down-on-his-luck, cynical screenwriter Joe Gillis is trying to avoid car repossession thugs (because, in L.A., “You lose your car, it’s like getting your legs cut off.”), he ducks into the garage of the Desmond estate, and both of their lives change in dramatic ways.

The production is handsome and riveting in a number of ways. Brault keeps the large ensemble of actors on stage for most of the piece, using them as supporting characters as well as walls and stairways. To wit, since there is no staircase on this stage, Brault creates one by having Desmond enter for the first time (and again at the end) by walking on a line of wooden chairs with the other actors providing their arms as a continuous railing.

Also, Brault employs cinematic touches, such as “extras” moving in the background of some scenes when only two people are talking. And the costumes (uncredited) are stunning, especially Desmond’s long and flowing robes of various opulent designs.

Continuous projections, designed by Rob Wachala, dance on the proscenium and on the side walls. These include clips from an actual silent movie, and these close-ups and graphics are totally mesmerizing. By reshaping the stage space with actors and fabric panels, Brault maintains an open feel that can instantly become claustrophobic with the use of lighting, strobes and fog.

As Gillis, Brian Marshall bites off his character’s lines with appropriate bitterness, although he lacks the age and/or dissipation to really come off as cynical and downtrodden as he should be. And, as always, he handles his songs with professional aplomb.

Jackie Komos brings some feisty zest to her role as Betty, Joe’s gal pal at the studio, and adds her capable singing voice to the duet “Too Much in Love to Care” with Marshall. Although Jonathan Bova starts out shakily in his Act One song “Greatest Star of All,” he regains his foot later in a reprise of “New Ways to Dream.”

Of course, the major role in this show is Desmond, and Helen Todd contributes a well-trained, rich voice to her songs, particularly on “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” But Todd never takes enough chances in portraying Desmond’s advanced state of self-delusion. Moving about with a placid-face and noble sort of grandeur, Todd doesn’t convey the crumbling fa├žade of this woman’s psyche until very late in the second act. And that void creates a vacuum at the center that can’t be filled.

Another disappointment, given the production’s many remarkable visual flourishes, is the absence of an effective nod to the most famous image from the original movie: a body floating face down in a pool.

That said, this show features a wonderful score by Webber, with lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black. When you add that to the acrid whiff of unhinged ambition, and Brault’s impressive staging, you’ve got one fine show.

Sunset Boulevard
Through July 26, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at Notre Dame College, 1857 S. Green Road, South Euclid, 216-771-5862.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Twelfth Night, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

(Anand Nagraj as Duke Orsino and Tess Burgler as Viola/Cesario)

Laughs abound in this rowdy production of Shakespeare’s boffo comedy involving crossdressing, practical jokes, mistaken identities, failed courtships, and an uptight prig who gets his comeuppance.

In short, this one is engineered as a crowd pleaser, and that it does, featuring a juicy turn by Geoff Knox as the pompous Malvolio. But this time, the uber-talented OSF company comes perilously close to crossing the line between audience engagement and audience pandering.

Siblings Sebastian and Viola are in a shipwreck, Viola thinking her brother perished. So she decides to disguise herself as Cesario and work as a manservant of Duke Orsino, who is hot to romance Countess Olivia (the elegant yet amusing Lara Knox). But when he gives his mash notes to Cesario, to deliver to Olivia, Olivia tosses aside the Duke’s messages and falls for Cesario instead.

Of course, further complications arise as Olivia’s cousin Sir Toby Belch—in cahoots with Olivia’s clever assistant Maria and the fool Feste--carouses while plotting various pranks: One on the dim-witted Sir Andrew Aguecheek, another of Olivia’s suitors, and a second on the put-upon Malvolio.

You know the rest, including the reappearance of Sebastian (Kevin Glass). And if you don’t, it really doesn’t matter since Will’s convoluted plot lines eventually work themselves out pretty clearly amid much merriment and song.

The performances range from workmanlike to wonderful. As Duke Orsino, Anand Nagraj uses his mellifluous voice to fine effect. Also excellent are Tess Burgler as Viola/Cesario and Holly Humes as Maria.

OSF is known for their remarkable audience contact, often nailing specific patrons with a fixed gaze while addressing their lines to them. This often works splendidly well, creating the kind of intimate experience one imagines the original productions in Shakespeare’s day might have had.

But there’s a tendency to get carried away with this approach, leaning too hard on the audience for reactions and thereby swerving away too much from the words and action. That is the moment when engagement becomes pandering, and it happens now and then with Geoff Knox, funny though he is, and with Joe Pine’s spirited Feste.

Two key roles don’t quite contribute their full complement of comedy. While Derrick Winger’s Sir Belch and Jason Leupold’s Sir Aguecheek generate some chuckles, neither manages to craft the kind of full-bodied comic character that would make for a truly memorable Night. Winger is kind of a one-note inebriate and Leupold a bit too bashful to facially and physically explore Aguecheek’s profound intellectual dysfunction.

Still, there’s more than enough humor in this glorious script to make up for small quibbles. And a splendid pre-curtain “greenshow” is worth the price of admission by itself, highlighted by a priceless ode to iambic pentameter led by the effusive Pine (where else can you go to see that!).

And it’s all performed outdoors, by the Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens lagoon. Bullfrog serenades are provided at no extra charge.

Twelfth Night
Through July 20, produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at the Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 714 N. Portage Path, Akron, 330-673-8761.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Come Back, Little Sheba, Oberlin Summer Theater Festival

(Karen Nelson Moser as Lola and Matthew Wright as Doc)

On one hand, this play by William Inge (who also wrote Bus Stop and Picnic) feels like a melodramatic relic from the 1950s.

But there’s another hand, wielded by director Paul Moser, and that hand paints a compelling portrait of a loving and deeply flawed relationship that was common in the ‘50s, and not all that unusual to find these days.

Lola and Doc have been married a long time, and they’ve each given up a lot so their marriage can stay intact. Doc gave up a career as a full-fledged doctor (he’s now a chiropractor) due to Lola’s pregnancy. The child later died, leaving Lola unable to have any more children, and that has haunted the pair ever since.

Doc sought comfort in the bottle but now, as the play opens, he’s been sober for a year. But there are torrents of passion and need surging under the apparently calm surface, as Lola chats up every young man who enters the house, including the milkman and the postman, trying out her coquettish charms that are long past their expiration date.

Meanwhile, Doc is busy idealizing their young boarder Marie, until she proves herself soiled goods when he finds evidence that she’s been shacking up with her college boy pal Turk. This sends him back to the bottle, setting up an Act Two meltdown that is terrifying to behold.

As Doc, Matthew Wright is nicely compartmentalized early on, hewing to routine and being overly solicitous to his wife and Marie. But when the dam breaks, Wright’s Doc explodes with a wrath that is raw and dark.

Karen Nelson Moser is effortlessly natural as Lola. And although she doesn’t explore a broad range of emotions, her fiercely controlled reactions tell their own kind of tragic story.

They are supported by a strong cast, particularly Annie Winneg as the opportunistically carnal Marie and Colin Wulff as the buff Turk.

This show is one of three during the OSTF rep season, which also features As You Like It and The Secret Garden. All performances are free, but reservations are suggested.

Come Back, Little Sheba
Through August 2, produced by the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival, at Hall Auditorium, 67 N. Main St., Oberlin, 440-775-8169.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Million Dollar Quartet, PlayhouseSquare

(From left: John Countryman as Jerry Lee Lewis, James Barry as Carl Perkins, Tyler K. Hunter as Elvis Presley, and Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash)

Yes, the awesome foursome is back in town, celebrating the harmonic rock/country convergence when Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins convened at the Sun Records studio in Memphis.

That occurrence in 1956 didn’t exactly cause a rip in the space-time continuum, since the careers had yet to fully blossom, but it was a gathering heard round the world. Especially now, thanks to this jukebox musical tribute build around a flimsy book by Colin Scott and Floyd Mutrix.

At first glance, this production feels almost like a Muppet Babies version of the show, since the actors are shorter (and a couple of them wider) than the originals, who were all six feet tall (or more) and pretty lean in those early days.

But hey, it’s hard enough to cast four guys who look and sing like their icons while also accompanying themselves on the appropriate instruments.  And from the performance standpoint, this group acquits themselves well.

The songs are the thing in this show, and the 90 minutes pass with a number of familiar hits being given the star treatment. As Carl Perkins, James Barry has a mean sort of backwoods snark to his aura, and he plays a mean git-tar.

Scott Moreau has that Johnny Cash bass thing working, doing a scorching version of “I Walk the Line.” As the loose cannon Lewis, John Countryman pounds the upright piano with skill and force, using both his hands and feet. But his character’s wild child wackiness seems forced at times.

In the key role of Elvis, Tyler K. Hunter has the hair and the snarl down pat. But his vocal impression is no better than you might hear at a lot of worshipful EP gatherings.

Indeed, these four guys do their best when singing together and not trying to impersonate the singers, such as on the songs “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Down by the Riverside.”

The book touches on some conflicts among the singers and Sun Records owner Sam Phillips (a scenery-chewing Vince Nappo), and a dust-up over “Blue Suede Shoes” between Perkins and Presley. But mostly, the story is just there as spacers between the songs.

The fab four are assisted ably by Stephanie Lynne Mason, who plays Elvis’s current squeeze Dyanne and sings a couple tunes.

Directed by Eric Schaeffer, the production actually has plenty of energy, more even than the recent less-than-stirring visit of Jersey Boys. And they’ll get you to your feet at the end, with a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on.

Million Dollar Quartet
Through July 27 at PlayhouseSquare, Ohio Theatre, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.