Sunday, December 13, 2015

Prince Ivan & the Firebird, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

Oftentimes, the elements in a play at Talespinner Children’s Theatre are similar to the features that Bill Hader’s breathless Stefon character on Saturday Night Live used to share about New York’s hottest clubs. For instance, if Stefon were reporting on this latest TCT production, he might say: “Prince Ivan & the Firebird has everything: Russian dancers, golden apples, two Tsars, a vegetarian wolf, a giant witch, a handsome prince and three of his loser brothers, a bird with fire for wings, riddles, and a magic harp." 

And if you think all that will be sufficient to keep your kids enthralled, you’d be so right. Sure, it takes a while to get rolling, but once Tsar Illyich asks his princes to solve the mystery of some missing golden apples, the story is off and running.

Playwright and director Alison Garrigan plays fast and loose with the Russian Folk tale from which this play is adapted, and that’s just fine. After a couple of the princes fail to capture the apple thief (one is lazy and the other is too vain to be bothered) a third scheming prince decides to use gullible Prince Ivan to find the culprit. So Ivan joins up with a talking, veggie-loving wolf to track down the thief, a firebird, in the home of Baba Yaga, a fearsome witch.

As always, there is plenty of eye-candy for the kids with a colorful set bedecked with long drapes of fabric and some drop-dead perfect masks and puppets (most designed by Garrigan). In particular, the puppet for Baba Yaga is larger than life, requiring three actors to manipulate it—but it’s still amazingly expressive.

Playing the wolf, T. Paul Lowry is a stitch and he also plays the other three princes while Charles Hargrave is limber and earnest as Prince Ivan. Andrea Belser plays Princess Helena in a subplot that isn’t as well developed as the firebird yarn. Other multiple roles are well handled by Joseph Milan, Elaine Feagler, Khaki Hermann, and Carrie Williams.

There is a little less audience interaction in this production than in other TCT shows, but Garrigan’s script is witty and clear enough to keep the little ones on board for the 70-minute ride. If you haven’t treated the kiddies you know to a Talespinner show, this is a great one to start with.

Prince Ivan & the Firebird
Through December 20 at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, The Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, 216-264-9680.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Feefer Rising, Cleveland Public Theatre

For most of us, childhood was a convoluted but mostly predictable period of time. And just when we thought we had this “human being” thing finally mastered, somewhere in the 8 to 14 years-of-age zone, we were blindsided by the most extraordinary thing that ever happened to our bodies.

Sexuality is, of course, an intensely personal experience, and that is how it’s presented in the fascinating one-woman play Feefer Rising, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. Created and designed by director Raymond Bobgan and performer Faye Hargate, this 80-minute journey through one girl’s sexual awakening is a messy, honest, startling, and sometimes lyrical experience. The production is augmented by evocative electronic music composed by Matthew Ryals, and bandshell of paper constructed inside CPT’s Parish Hall.

Hargate plays Kit, a girl dealing with the powerful and unfamiliar feelings that puberty delivers out of the blue. She is beset by secrets questions, interactions with peers and a host of behavioral options she never considered possible. Employing movement, dance, singing, cooing, and some very frank dialogue, Hargate fashions a landscape of blossoming female sexuality that you can feel bone-deep.

Kit nicknames herself Feefer, perhaps after a pair of scissors she finds in her family’s attic (the connection is never made entirely clear), and she confides with those scissors as she explores what it means to now be growing into womanhood. She experiences sex with school stud AJ, rails at her mother, and struggles with all the cultural baggage that our society piles onto adolescent girls. There are fleeting moments of humor and even one old joke: "How do you know when your pet elephant is having her period? When you mattress is missing."

Necessarily, this play doesn't provide a neat and linear progression, so the play jumps and slides from one event to another—and sometimes to no event at all. This can be disorienting at times, and the challenging acoustics in this space tend to garble some of the spoken lines, especially when they’re delivered at a fast pace.

But like sexuality itself, this play can be sensed as well as heard, if you let down your barriers. Indeed, the understanding of what Feefer is going through comes at us through multiple channels. And this evocative collaboration between Bobgan and Hargate makes us feel as vulnerable, terrified and stimulated as when that mysterious awakening first happened to each of us. Certain in the knowledge that, however wonderful or awful those new emotions were, there was no going back.

Feefer Rising
Through December 19 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Kris Kringle, The Musical; Olmsted Performing Arts

Does the world need a new Christmas stage musical? Hell, why not? The ones we have are getting a little shopworn about now. But does the world need a musical entertainment that, even with all its wonderful and heartfelt intentions, is the theatrical equivalent of The Island of Misfit Toys. Well, probably not.

The authors of Kris Kringle, The Musical, now having its world premiere at Olmsted Performing Arts, are mostly to blame. Maria Ciampi (book) and Tim Janis (music and lyrics) are no doubt splendid people with hearts of gold. And we wish them all the best, good health, and joy this holiday season. But the fact is their new show, which is opening here in Cleveland and has aspirations of landing on Broadway, is about as enjoyable as a large ball of melted tinsel—sparkly and colorful to the eye but dense, lumpy, and rather sad inside.

However, this is the Christmas season! So let’s begin with the good news, or what there is of it. The basic idea of this apparently high-budget family show has potential. A young toy inventor, named Kris Kringle, gets crosswise with an evil toy company boss until he bonds with his grandfather, Santa, and everything turns out great. If only Ciampi's tale were that simple.

Turns out, Kringle is fired by the profit-hungry toy magnate R. G. Reedy (as we are informed, it can be pronounced “Are Greedy.” Ho, ho…huh?) and then Kris gets a job at Santa’s workshop and he's happy because that’s where they give toys away, and he makes a wonderful toy that “can teach troubled hearts to be free,” but then he faces the Kringle Curse that makes people freeze and it can destroy Christmas and—wait! I haven’t told you yet about Ms. Emma Horn, who was the head elf at the workshop but now she’s working for Reedy, while the current head elf, Elmer, schemes to mess up Kringle’s plans. Hold on! There are also the magic boots that Ms. Horn wears, as does Elmer, who has a few doppelgangers who sing a song with him, and apparently Reedy’s shoes also have magic powers. Stop! Did I tell you that Reedy is related to Santa, whose wife really runs the North Pole, or that Kringle meets Evelyn Noel who teaches Santa’s apprentices how to be elves or that…Halt!

If this partial rundown of the plot sounds confusing, condensed as it is, it’s no more explicable in the slightly more than two hour show. Indeed, the narrator (helpfully named Christmas Spirit) comes on stage now and then to offer further exposition. In sum, Kringle is a mash-up of too many complicated plot elements with a too on-the-nose presentation of its themes. Janis’ songs are loaded with specific and literal statements about “bright and sunny days,” and “be all I can be,” and “don’t ever stop believing.” Even little kids in the audience can handle a little more subtlety than that. Then the show concludes with a song about forgiveness which is titled “Forgiveness” and has characters repeatedly singing “I forgive you!” at each other. Okay, got it.

One flaw this show doesn’t have is a weak cast, since many of the area’s finest actors and singers are on stage. But even proven performers such as Natalie Green, Greg Violand, Michael Mauldin, Kristin Netzband and Brian Marshall can’t save this sentimental folderol from itself. In the title role former BW student from Cleveland, Mack Shirilla, is an endearing and sympathetic Kris Kringle. But sadly, their best efforts go for naught when the halting, pedestrian melodies are linked, often awkwardly and in a forced manner, to the repetitive lyrics. And then it's all hitched to a story as complicated as an early draft of Ulysses.

There are a couple cute lines, such as when Elmer is eavesdropping on others talking about him and he whispers to an elf, “Do you hear what I hear!?” But those rare slivers of wit only serve to highlight how the rest of the show pounds you over the head with a two-by-four with its message.

Clearly, many dollars and much energy have been expended on this enterprise. And the accomplished director Pierre Jacques-Brault and noted musical director Charles Eversole do what they can to keep the huge cast of 40-plus adults and kids rolling. But this Christmas-kluge-on-wheels probably shouldn't be going anywhere, least of all Broadway, as it is currently constituted. 

Kris Kringle, The Musical
Through December 13 at Olmsted Performing Arts, 6941 Columbia Road, Olmsted Falls,

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Wizard of Oz, Playhouse Square

(An emerald-colored crowd welcomes Dorothy and pals to the Land of Oz.)

First of all, let’s be clear: It isn’t as good as the movie. Nothing is as good as the original flick with Judy Garland as Dorothy and Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. That said, this touring production, with new music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, is a total delight and you should hop on the nearest tornado and come see it.

There are so many things this version of The Wizard of Oz gets right, starting with the fact that Webber and Rice didn’t try to outshine the classic songs written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg. Instead, they’ve added sung-through moments at the start and end of both acts that help liven up the narrative. And it all works amazingly well. In between, they have left most of the familiar tunes we all want to hear, including “”We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” and of course “Over the Rainbow.”

While this is not one of the gargantuan travelling productions with tons of different and complicated sets, director Jeremy Sams and the staging team have focused their energies on the key moments, turning them into jaw-dropping events. The tornado that whisks Dorothy and her little dog Toto away from Kansas is actually sort of terrifying, conveyed by a projection in which all sorts of stuff, including Dorothy’s house, is made airborne.

Just as good is the projection used when the Witch’s flying monkeys take off, soaring over the Oz landscape. Indeed, the two or three winged creatures that actually show up on stage are the stuff of nightmares all by themselves. And when the fearsome Wizard confronts Dorothy and her pals, his face is projected in a chilling black and white negative image that is arresting.

The cast is more than sufficient to the task at hand, although when you compare them to the actors in the film these live performers often pale. Sarah Lasko sings well as Dorothy but never quite registers as the innocent girl she’s supposed to be. The gang of three—the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion—each have their moments. But Morgan Reynolds stands out (while often collapsing) as the loose-limbed Scarecrow and Aaron Fried gets a lot of laughs as the fragile Lion with a comically erect tail.

As Professor Marvel and the Wizard, Mark A. Harmon doesn’t create his own take on these characters. And the same is true with Shani Hadjian as Miss Gulch and the Wicked Witch, since her laugh-cackle can’t match the Hamilton screech that still sends kids to bed shivering.

But let’s not compare this show to perfection. The production at the State Theatre is thoroughly captivating and will keep the full attention of adults and kiddies. Happily, there is one perfect element in this show: the appearance by Nigel as Toto, Nigel is a rescue dog that hits every cue perfectly in one of the most flawless stage performances I’ve seen recently. All in all, this Wizard is a splendid adaptation and actually serves as a wonderful companion piece to the movie.

The Wizard of Oz
Through December 6 at Playhouse Square, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bash: Latterday Plays, None Too Fragile Theater

(Andrew Narten)

You could call it “The Book of Mormon: The Dark Side.” Because unlike the popular Broadway musical, this collection of three one-acts by Neil LaBute is a brutal and caustic journey into the black hole of our souls. And the title indicates it’s targeted on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

LaBute was actually drummed out of the Mormon church after this play garnered is first performance in 1999, since it features a collection of deeply troubled Mormons.  The playwright seems to have survived his “disfellowship” just fine, but the same may not be said of audience members who encounter this trio of initially deceivingly bland offerings.

The pieces are each based on a different Greek tragedy, but director Sean Derry has chosen not to include the titles of each—probably so that there won’t be a tip-off as to the content to come. The banality of evil is alive and well in each of the presentations which are comprised of four monologues (in one play, the two monologues are performed side-by-side with the actors often taking turns).

In the first, a haggard-looking businessman, who is a Mormon, has invited someone he met in a hotel bar up to his room, to unburden himself about an awful event in his family. As the Man, the splendid Andrew Narten is a spectacular collection of twitches and half-finished sentences as he discusses the loss of his five-month-old child some years before.

Then he veers off into a discussion of his work history, and the problem he had with a female colleague who he perceived as a threat to his job. When these two stories collide, you may wish Derry could come out and offer another shot of Jameson’s to everyone (as he usually does before most performances). It is a shattering piece of work, and Narten’s understated performance is a small, perfect gem.

In the second piece, which is the least successful of the three, Sue (Katie Wells) and John (Brian Kenneth Armour) are Mormon college kids from Boston, off to a bash with friends in New York City. Once again, LaBute sets a rather inoffensive stage as the two deliver their own monologues—he reminiscing about his confrontation with another guy at college and she chatting about her activities that evening in the big city.

It’s only when John relates what happened in a restroom in Central Park as he and a couple of his other frat buddies decide to impose a scriptural lesson on a gay man whom they spot. In this case, playing against the horror of the activity works against the play, as Armour doesn’t quite find the sweet spot between ghastly bland and inoffensive bland. As a result, he seems too much of a mirror image of the naïve girl Wells plays, negating the juxtaposition (as well as the unconscious bonding) between the two that should chill to the bone.

This is exactly the sweet spot Alanna Romansky finds, with unerring accuracy, in the final play. Being interrogated by unseen cops, she tells her story of being sexually tormented by a teacher when she was 14. That’s bad enough, until you learn about what that awful event led to some years later. Quick, where’s that Jameson’s!

Romansky captures the same vibe that Narten does earlier, but in a different manner. And both actors employ LaBute’s surgically terrifying language to maximum effect. While one could quibble with some of the staging elements, such as a lack of differentiation among the three settings, there is no denying the force that Bash exerts on the psyche.

Good thing there’s a pub attached to this theater.

Bash: Latterday Plays
Through November 21 at None Too Fragile Theater,
1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco),

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Force Continuum, Karamu House

(Ryan Christopher Mayer as Flip and Prophet Seay as Dece.)

The relationship between an African-American community and the police is certainly a fraught one these days. So this 15-year old play about a family of black police officers certainly has a target-rich environment in which to address its themes.

Unfortunately, playwright Kia Corthron throws out a jumble of scenes involving lots of characters played by actors taking on multiple roles, and it all comes crashing down. Even some electrifying moments provided by director Michael Oatman can’t rescue this convoluted script from its own destruction.

Dece is a black police officer in New York City, one of a long line of cops in his family. Conflicted about his role as a cop and also a black man, Dece goes to his grandfather for advice. Dece’s parents, who were also cops, are now dead, but are represented in flashbacks made more confusing by all the crossover casting.

Dece also converses with his white partner Flip while in their patrol car, and elsewhere, but these dialogues never seem to connect to an overarching theme that has any dramatic heft. Indeed, every scene seems to have a lot of baggage to carry, making sure that all the bases are touched. These include how black citizens feel when they’re stopped on the street unnecessarily, and then how the black and white cops feel when they’re off duty. Eventually, the glut of information, emotional and otherwise, folds in on itself leaving the audience reaching for something significant.

As Dece, the excellent actor Prophet Seay seems a bit adrift in this sea of well-meaning topicality, unsure of where his character is and where he’s going. The performer named EulaBill, on the other hand, seems quite certain about his role as the grandfather, but his repeatedly shouted/whispered line readings become too mannered to be effective. Several of the white cops are played by Ryan Christopher Mayer, who has a nice casual affect, but he employs a curious New York accent that often sounds like it came by way of Narnia. The rest of the cast, each of whom plays at least three characters each, includes Shba Cochrane, India Nicole Burton, Chace Coulter, James Boyd, Josh McElroy and Jamil Burch.

Usually, having actors play multiple roles is not a problem. But here, playwright Corthron doesn’t provide the characters enough space and distinctiveness to allow the audience to keep everyone clearly identified. Director Oatman adds some nice touches, such as the beating of a young black man by invisible cops, plus an encounter with two arguing wastrels on the street that captures the antic vibe of The Jerry Springer Show.

But those moments of clarity are few and far between in the sprawling, clumsily written Force Continuum.

Force Continuum
Through November 22 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys, Theater Ninjas

(Rachel Lee Kolis as Brandy)

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not necessary for everything to work in a theatrical production in order for that production to be thoroughly captivating and challenging. Case in point is this Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys by Caroline V. McGraw, a play that takes bold chances, jumping in and out of surreal moments.

Not all of these jumps land on their feet, since one is never sure whether the play is speaking literally or symbolically. But thanks to the muscular direction of Jeremy Paul and a talented cast, you’re able to hang on to McGraw’s central conceit and find some treasures in there.

Brandy is a woman who makes her living as a clown for kids’ parties. But once she’s out of her baggy pants and makeup, Brandy is a human clown-car that spills forth with lots of dark secrets and sleazy behavior. She will apparently sleep with any bipedal mammal with a Y chromosome, including high school student Jack (Bryon Tobin) and multiple dads of the kiddies for whom she performs. She prowls these men like a sexual scavenger, grabbing for any shred of warmth that can hide the emptiness behind the forced gaiety of her painted-on smile.

Sure, the clown thing is a cliché that has been trampled to death in many ways, but here the usual baggage doesn’t really get in the way. Plus, there are other characters that add welcome touches of both realism and magical thinking. Nina (a wonderfully detached yet perceptive Lauren Joy Fraley) is kind of a Brandy groupie, always with her small child (a stuffed doll) in her arms. And Reverb (an amusing Ryan Lucas) is another clown, a down-to-earth version, who finally seems to find a way to relate to Brandy.

Then there’s The Un, a metaphorical (?) monster under Brandy’s bed, the one who continually claws at her, leaving a dark red stain on her neck and chest. Fed by Brandy’s insecurities , The Un seems unstoppable until confronted by Jack’s high school gal pal Tash (Valerie C. Kilmer), who eventually pierces the monster’s hold with her bold innocence.

An almost naked Val Kozlenko plays The Un with genuine menace, and then somehow changes while under the bed into normal clothes to play Jason, one of the fathers who beds Brandy. In the latter role, Kozlenko is even scarier as he corners Brandy and insists that she “perform” for him, in a scene that crackles with his dominance and her desperation.

In the daunting role of Brandy, Rachel Lee Kolis demonstrates a raw physicality that gives her performance a mesmerizing quality. Although Kolis’ clowning skills are marginal (some awkward juggling, etc.), she uses her body postures and attitudes to define the various “shows” that her character is driven to stage. This is a woman who, staring into the abyss of her own emptiness, is seeking to equalize the pressure in her head by tapping into the shallow insubstantial fog of masks and quickie sex acts.

Played in the round on a set surrounded by white fabric panels, and augmented by Benjamin Gantose’s lighting and original music by Eric M.C. Gonzalez, the piece flows briskly.

Director Paul seems entirely comfortable in this mash-up of themes and genres, all suffused with McGraw’s sharp, take-no-prisoners dialog. And while some elements don’t completely work—it all still does. Quite marvelously.

Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys

Through November 14, produced by Theater Ninjas at the Near West Lofts, 6706 Detroit Ave.,

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bat Boy, The Musical, Blank Canvas Theatre

(Pat Miller as Bat Boy.)

In order to do a great production of this hilarious musical about a half-boy/half-bat, named Edgar by his adoptive parents, you need an actor playing him who is willing to throw himself bodily and every other way into the role. Indeed, this is a human-animal hybrid that even director and puppet creator Julie Taymor might find daunting (there were no human bats in the The Lion King on Broadway).

But not to worry. Blank Canvas has the estimable Pat Miller as Edgar, and from the first moment when you first spy him hanging upside down high above the stage, you are never in doubt about this creature’s bat-like qualities. Thrashing in his cage after he’s caught by some local yahoos, Miller ‘s thin frame, bald head and bug-eyed visage are creepy indeed. And this makes his transition to a rather erudite young man later on all the more effective and amusing.

Inspired by an actual story in the Weekly World News about such a boy-bat supposedly being found in a cave, the show (book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe) trots out a number of serious themes including intolerance, forgiveness, and love of our fellow mammals no matter how goddamn ugly they are. It's all wrapped up in the guise of a Halloween howler and, under the direction of Patrick Ciamacco, this production gets virtually everything right.

Not only does Miller look like a bat, the rabid townspeople (played by Kristy Cruz, Stephen Berg, Jacob Damsky, Colleen McCaugh, Michael Crowley and Venchise Glenn) look like your nightmare version of hick town cretins—they are the scrapings from the clogged filter of our gene pool.

Despite the small town’s urge to kill the bat boy, Meredith Parker, wife of the local vet, finds Edgar to be rather adorable. She dresses him up and then teaches him English from NPR tapes that give Edgar a cultured British accent. As Meredith, Amiee Collier provides the best singing voice in the cast and is quite funny as she tries to avoid her husband Thomas (Brian Altman).

The Parker’s daughter Shelley (Stephanie Harden) also grows close to Edgar and their relationship is culminated in the showstopper when Edgar and Shelley cohabit as the Greek god Pan (Berg) sings and a gallery of woodland creatures (puppets) sing “Children, Children.” This Pan is a half goat with a whole hard-on that bounces merrily as they croon: “Choose your mate and let’s see what we create!”

Finally, the reason for Meredith’s emotional distance from her hubby is explained in a witty animation sequence designed by Noah Hrbek, which answers a lot of expository questions.

While the talented five-piece orchestra often drowns out the song lyrics, sung with varying degrees of competence, enough is heard to keep the campy fun in high gear—right up to the Shakespearian ending with dead bodies littering the stage. Director Ciamacco has perfect pitch for surreal stories such as this, and once again his sprightly, inventive sense of humor shines forth.

Bat Boy, The Musical
Through October 31 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

First Love, None Too Fragile Theater

(From left: Anne McEvoy, Rachel Roberts and Robert Hawkes.)

If you ever want to see a textbook example of how three actors can overcome an unfortunate script, go see First Love by Charles Mee, now at the None Too Fragile Theater in Akron.

This play, about two oldsters who meet cute on a park bench and then go through a high speed time-lapse relationship, has a lot to say about love and loss and the scattershot nature of romantic attraction. Too much to say, actually, since Mee has a lot on his mind and he doesn’t really care how fast it spills out and which of his characters carry his thematic water.

But against all odds, the play actually gives the appearance of working, thanks to the superb three-person cast of Robert Hawkes, Anne McEvoy and Rachel Roberts, and their director Sean Derry. They invest this script with such pulsing humanity you can’t look away, even as your mind races to make sense of a not particularly sensible plot.

Aging Edith meets the equally tottering Harold in the park, and after a brief set-to they settle into a cozy conversation spiced with lefty political references and fueled by a bottle of wine from Edith’s rolling shopping cart. Initially, it appears that both are homeless, since they are wearing torn and dirty clothing. But soon, they wind up at Edith’s apartment furnished with an upright piano and some rather elegant-looking duds.

Setting aside Edith’s earlier curious impersonation of a homeless woman, playwright Mee has his two age-challenged folk drift closer with loving gestures and then jarringly attack each other. At one moment, these two are singing romantic tunes and then they’re arguing about this and that—from where the magazines are placed to how Harold’s children might be accepted by Edith. 

Then they explore a wide range of sexual options, as Harold admits he likes rubbing buttocks with another person and she confesses an erotic fondness for feet and dominance. Then they strip almost naked (to the steamy notes of Peggy Lee's "Fever") and get it on under the covers adding another, um, wrinkle to the somewhat less-than-appetizing imagery of senior on-stage sex.

This all arises out of skimpy character back stories that are force-fed by Mee, with Harold tidily lamenting, “I neglected my family and friends…”, etc. Edith similarly sums up her worries about the future and her own self worth. Mee piles banalities (they spontaneously take an air-headed women's magazine quiz on romance) on top of hostile generalities (Harold: "This is why men burn down houses!") and gruesome non-sequiturs (Edith: "This is why women flush baby boys down the toilet!"). It's all in service of establishing an artificially contentious relationship that they can then artificially overcome.

Somehow, though, Hawkes and McEvoy take that stale tripe and turn it into Lobster Newburg. McEvoy invests each moment with Edith’s immediate need; you can feel her waft and wane with each comment from Harold. And Hawkes makes his character’s turn-on-a-dime mood shifts seem believable, occasionally scary and sometimes quite poignant. Coming in and out of the play is a magnetic Rachel Roberts, playing a snippy waitress, plus a lounge pianist who magically appears in Edith’s apartment along with other fantastical characters dancing in Harold’s head.

Director Derry effectively fashions all this into a 90-minute experience that unfortunately ends on a too-pat, feel-good conclusion. The whole thing may leave you confused about the characters, but you'll be dazzled by the acting talent in NTF's intimate space.

And Cuyahoga County theatergoers remember:
If you like plays that intoxicate,
Vote yes, yes, YES on Issue 8!

First Love
Through October 24 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco),

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Cleveland Public Theatre

It would seem that claiming conscientious objector status—in Iran!—would be one of the scariest things to do. So maybe that’s why Nassim Soleimanpour decided to come up with a theatrical concept that is even more terrifying, not to mention quite humorous.

As a CO in Iran, playwright Soleimanpour is not allowed to travel. So he has sent the rest of the world White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, his play that mandates it be done by a different actor at each performance, without any rehearsal. The first time the actor sees the script is when the envelope is opened on stage, in front of the audience.

With the possible exception of walking naked into a dining room full of all your relatives for Thanksgiving dinner, this unprepared-actor thing is one of the scariest nightmare scenarios. But for the audience, it’s quite a rush.

On the night I saw Rabbit, Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman was the performer. And he did a smooth job with his cold reading, garnering applause from the audience several times. Of course, you won’t see him do it, and that’s part of the fun and the mystery.

Since this production is an unconventional theatrical event with tons of audience participation, I decided to continue that vibe. So after the show and then the talk-back (which happens after every performance), I asked several people from the audience, at random, to share their thoughts about the show. Here are their unedited reactions:

David R.:
As an avid theatergoer, I'm always looking for something new and different. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at CPT sounded like it just might just fit the bill. I went not knowing what to expect--and I got just that. A play that brings together the playwright, via his avatar the actor speaking across time and space, and the audience for a thoughtful and fun experience that works on multiple levels. Since the actor sees the script at the start of the play for the first time, I won't spoil the fun. Do stay for the short discussion following the play that helps the audience share some of the questions and answers that arise from the performance.

Marcia L.:
“Rabbit” is riveting. The playwright uses his talent to release himself from his circumstances.  He immerses us in the ambiguous place between free choice and control by others. Control by ideas, other people, government, even the playwright himself. Yet he keeps us laughing while we are wondering: what does direct us? 

Tim C.:
Cleveland Public Theatre has put on brave productions of original theatre. "White Rabbit Red Rabbit" is no different, but at the same time is, because I was taken to a lot of unexpected places that made the play and my experience seeing it performed feel like I was listening to a voice fighting from heavy suppression to be heard. The playwright himself is from Iran, and the play was written in 2010. I felt that I was getting an accurate glimpse into what it is like to be a theatre artist in Iran today. In the Western world, theatre is a comfort we don't take for granted enough, but when I saw this production, I saw in the rawest way how brave theatre truly is, and how brave Cleveland Public Theatre is to have it performed. Joe Cimperman wasn't bad either- and I hope that when he is not doing public service, he will be on the stage sometime soon. No matter who performs it, it is a production to see. 

Dan O.:
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was one of the most creative and original productions I've seen in a long time!  Soleimanpour and Cimperman definitely broke through the 4th wall on Friday night.  I remember thinking that performing a play unrehearsed was suicide; little did I know my thoughts would come true!  I plan on seeing this again.  Kudos to CPT for yet another creative foray into public theater.

It’s me again. Since the playwright has neatly negated the need for a critic such as myself, since you’ll never see the show I saw, my opinion stands for little. Still, I found the show to be surprisingly amusing (Soleimanpour has a sly wit), and quite revealing on several thematic levels. For one, it demonstrates how a single voice, even one ripped out of an envelope, can control the actions of people thousands of miles away. Is one person speaking through another a form of freedom, or a type of censorship?

The play raises many intriguing questions, leaving the answers to you.

And remember:
If you like plays that palpitate,
Vote yes, yes, YES on Issue 8!

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit
Through October 25 at the Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Bonnie & Clyde, Cassidy Theatre

(Madeline Krucek as Bonnie and Tony Heffner as Clyde.)

It kind of makes sense to have a musical starring Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, since those Depression-era felons grew up wanting to be in the spotlight. At least that’s how this show (book by Ivan Menchell, lyrics by Don Black, music by Frank Wildhorn) tells it.

The production at the Cassidy Theatre has some positive elements, including a massive and effectively depressing set built of reclaimed wood, hammered together haphazardly to reflect the times. But the songs too often veer towards the sloppily sentimental, especially near the end (of the musical and of Bonnie and Clyde’s corporeal existence).

This pair of bank robbers and killers (of nine cops and assorted other civilians) flaunted all the rules, including those against open illicit sex, and thus became popular heroes. Some of their victims even asked for their autographs, as happens in one of these scenes. But it’s safe to assume Miss Parker and Mr. Barrow weren’t nearly as introspective as the songs in this show would have you believe.

The musical roughly follows the same track as the famous movie starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, but without all the squirting blood. B&C are immediately attracted to each other, and soon they hit the road committing non-violent robberies until one day Clyde plugs a policeman. Bonnie freaks out but, drawn to Clyde’s animal and sexual magnetism, she stays with him through many more murders until the bitter end.

Unfortunately, any sexual magnetism in this production is less animalistic and more of the refrigerator magnet variety. As Clyde, the very young-looking Tony Heffner rages quite effectively in moments of anger, but he almost disappears at other times. In a similar way, his singing fluctuates from spot on to wildly off-key.

As Bonnie, Madeline Krucek fares much better with the singing, giving songs such as "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" a poignant touch. But she looks far too angelic and suburban-comfortable. Bonnie is a poor girl scrabbling desperately to find a foothold in life, but most of the time Krucek appears like she’s undergoing nothing more stressful than a bad day of mall shopping. Neither Heffner nor Krucek consistently display the raw defiance that leaps off the real photos of Bonnie and Clyde when they are projected on a section of the back wall.

Still, director Kristin Netzband paces the show well in the first act and mounts some arresting scenes. One example is the gospel song “God’s Arms Are Always Open,” in which the ensemble reaches out its hands to God and then finds themselves holding their hands up at the point of Clyde’s gun.

Some of the supporting performers do what they can to keep things moving. David Turner and Rachel Balko add nice counterpoint as Clyde’s brother Buck and his religious wife Rachel. And Joel Fenstermaker as the Preacher sings sweetly at times, while Kim Escut as Bonnie's mom, Georgia Muttillo as Clyde's mom, Megan Polk as Young Bonnie and Christian Thomas as Young Clyde provide some fresh energy.

But the momentum gained early on dissipates quickly the closer we get to the end, making the second act a long slog to what we all know is coming. If the actual Bonnie and Clyde had lived through a similar boring stretch, they might have called it quits and gone into insurance sales.

And theater-lovers remember:
On November3 check the slate,
And vote yes, yes, YES on Issue 8!

Bonnie & Clyde
Through October 25 at the Cassidy Theatre, 6200 Pearl Road, Parma Heights, 440-842-4600.

SPECIAL PREVIEW: Broadway Legend to Visit Cleveland

(From left: Fred Ebb and John Kander, in the 1990s.)

(Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in Kander & Ebb's Cabaret.)

If you’ve ever hummed the tunes from Cabaret or Chicago. or been stirred by the first few bars of the theme from New York, New York, you should “start spreading the news” that the man who wrote that music is coming to Cleveland.

John Kander, the composer who teamed up for years with lyricist Fred Ebb, is going to attend the next concert produced by The Musical Theater Project (TMTP). It’s called Perfectly Marvelous: The Songs of John Kander, and it will be at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theater on October 31 and November 1.

Kander, the composer of 15 Broadway scores, was a co-winner along with Ebb of the Kennedy Center Honors award for Lifetime Achievement in 1998. But even after Ebb’s death in 2004, Kander has continued to produce remarkable music, now working with his professional partner, lyricist Greg Pierce.

Bill Rudman, artistic director of TMTP, says, “I’ve always been impressed by John Kander’s music, particularly in his three masterworks: Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. So I’m thrilled that he’ll be joining us for these concerts, which are a tribute to the work of Kander & Ebb, work that was really groundbreaking at the time.”

The concerts will feature Broadway star and Tony Award winner and Kander associate Karen Ziemba, as well as performers Derrick Cobey, Katharine DeBoer and Matthew Wright. Two of these performers have significant connections with Kander, since Wright is an Associate Professor of Theater at nearby Oberlin College, where Kander received his Bachelor’s Degree back in 1951. And Cobey is a BW alum who also appeared in the Broadway production of Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys.

The concert will present songs from the Kander’s past and the Kander & Ebb songbook, accompanied by anecdotes narrated by Rudman and projections of photos from Kander’s illustrious career.

As Rudman adds, “Kander’s music is theatrical in the very best sense. It makes you sit up and take notice.” That’s why there will be many people sitting up and taking notice at Playhouse Square later this month.

And next month remember:
To keep theater alive and great,
Vote yes, yes, YES on Issue 8!

Perfectly Marvelous: The Songs of John Kander

Saturday, October 31 at 8 PM and Sunday, November 1 at 2 PM, Allen Theatre, Playhouse Square, 216-241-6000.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Mothers and Sons, Beck Center

(Clockwise from left: Catherine Albers as Katharine, David Bugher as Cal, Scott Esposito as Will and Ian McLaughlin as Bud)

In the abstract, it would seem that Terrence McNally’s play about the mother of a deceased gay man confronting his former lover would have sparks flying. Unfortunately, this production of a flawed script never generates anything but confusion and torpor.

This is a playwright who has often written some absorbing works about gay relationships (Love! Valor! Compassion!, Kiss of the Spider Woman) along with very amusing pieces (The Ritz, Bad Habits). But this script appears to negate the talents of the sure-handed director Sarah May, since it demonstrates only forced feelings and virtually no humor. Instead, it seems like a march through the expected bullet points of a discussion about AIDS.

Set in present time, elderly Katharine, from Dallas, shows up at the doorstep of Cal, the former lover of her son Andre, who died decades before from complications of AIDS. There seems to be no event motivating her visit, but she displays a chip on her shoulder the size of the Chrysler Building as she awkwardly fences conversationally with Cal.

Turns out, Cal is now married to Will and they have a six-year-old son named Bud. Obviously well-to-do, money manager Cal and house-husband and aspiring writer Will have fashioned a cozy domestic nest in a high-rise apartment (nicely detailed by scenic designer Richard Gould) in New York City. But Katharine isn’t interested in any of that. For some reason, now is the time she needs to unload her homophobic rants and innuendoes on Cal and Will, blaming Cal in particular for “making her son gay” which led to his death.

Caught between his now idyllic life and this maternal maelstrom that blew in the door, Cal tries to tiptoe around issues and keep Will on an even keel. Trouble is, very little of this sounds particularly genuine. Bouncing from pleasant personal memories to vitriolic attacks to generic complaints about the changing gay zeitgeist, the play never finds a thread it can follow. And you begin to wonder why Cal, after initially bending over backwards to be polite, just doesn’t show nasty Katharine the door.

David Bugher does what he can with the often-nonsensical role of Cal, finding ways to clamber over McNally’s ungainly script and register some touching and believable moments. Scott Esposito as Will and little Ian McLaughlin as Bud fill the spaces nicely as David’s family, with each of them providing the few chuckles this play allows.

But Catherine is the central figure here, and the talented performer Catherine Albers seems remarkably out of touch with her character. Trembling for the entire 90 minutes like a just-struck tuning fork, constantly wringing her hands, twitching her mouth and tapping her feet, Albers’ Catherine seems continually on the verge of a breakdown or stroke. Using physicality to reflect a psychological state is effective, up to a point. But if Catherine had been doing this for decades, her body and mind would have long ago collapsed and she would be eating Jello under the gaze of a mental ward orderly.

As a result of these overwhelming physical tics and feints, we are never allowed to warm up to Catherine’s partly-understandable plight: Seeing her beautiful and gifted son disappear into far-away New York and then die from a mysterious illness a few years later. Instead of seeing a part of ourselves in her, we are kept on the outside, looking at "acting" instead of at a real person. And that’s not a good place to be when the subject is this emotionally volatile.

And remember:
If you want the arts to permeate,
Vote yes, yes, YES on Issue 8!

Mothers and Sons
Through November 15 at the Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Angels in America, Baldwin Wallace University

(Alex Smith as Roy Cohn and Molly Huey as Ethel Rosenberg. Photo: Nate Parsons)

It’s a weird feeling when a play that once rocked you to the soles of your shoes becomes something that is taken for granted by most people. When Tony Kushner’s Angels in America first hit the stage, it lighted audiences’ hair on fire. Here was a play that, in 1993, was speaking about the AIDS crisis in such personal, poetical and politically savvy terms that you could barely believe what you were seeing.

Back in 1985 when the play is set, it seemed like AIDS was an unstoppable beast, devouring everyone in its ravenous path. Now, 30 years later, that fear and urgency has faded, with AIDS mostly under control (even with new eruptions being reported). As a result, the play loses a good bit of its topical intensity. But what it gains is some distance, allowing the audience to absorb and think about these characters in a slightly less fevered context.

And in this production of Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches, the Baldwin Wallace University students under the direction of Scott Plate deliver remarkably well. With captivating performances virtually across the board, the young actors find many of the nuances in Kushner’s script, and there are several moments that are emotionally shattering.

The story is built around two couples that have big issues on the table in 1985 in New York City. Prior Walter is an out gay WASP man with AIDS and his Jewish boyfriend Louis is not sure he can handle it. Louis works as a paper pusher in a law firm where Joe Pitt, a Republican, Mormon and closeted gay man is a law clerk.

Just to roil the water even more, Joe is married to Harper, an agoraphobic woman addicted to pills and who is subject to wide-ranging hallucinations. At the same time, Joe is the protégé of Roy Cohn, a character from real life, who was a cutthroat east coast lawyer and a major player in the predations of Sen. Joe McCarthy and his commie-hunting Congressional committee.

Kushner elegantly draws each of these storylines together while creating characters that are at once astonishingly fresh and remarkably familiar. As Prior, Joseph Carmelo begins as a smart-ass gay fellow but his quips quickly turn dark as his illness is exposed. Carmelo maintains a firm grip on his character, even through his participation in one of Harper’s hallucinations and on to his agonizing experience with his deadly disease. Joshua Smalley offers solid counterpoint as Louis, showing how he struggles with his desire to support Prior and his urge to escape the horror.

Equally good are Nate Klingenberg as Joe and Kelsey Bachrens as Harper—exploring Joe and Harper’s Mormon-fed beliefs about religion and sex. At this final dress rehearsal performance, some of the cast rushed a few beats and lingered a bit too long in others, but they all have admirably high batting averages when it comes to landing their roles. Most are double cast and Bachrens is also interesting when she jumps genders and plays Martin Heller, a Republican political operative. As is Molly Huey when she plays Joe’s mom from the Midwest, an hallucinated Ethel Rosenberg, and a rabbi.

Brooke Turner does a nice, mildly psycho turn as a homeless woman and then occupies the ultimate moment in the show as the Angel. In the double role of Belize and Mr. Lies, Malik Victorian is smooth and gets off a couple good lines, but is often too mellow to fully register.

Notably, one cast member consistently hits it out of the park. As Roy Cohn, Alex Smith is superb. Whether he’s cooing, bellowing, preening with confidence or writhing in pain from his own case of AIDS, Smith nails moments with an immediacy and callous believability that is mesmerizing.

The play is staged in the round and director Plate, along with scenic designer Jeff Herrmann, leave the large stage almost bare for the whole show, bringing on set pieces and props as needed and then removing them. This leaves the characters floating in the blackness of their own particular agonies. It is a stark setting, suitable for such a brutally honest play.

Justifiably, Baldwin Wallace has gained a reputation as the leading university in the country for training performers for Broadway musicals. But this production of Angels shows that it ain’t just the singers who are the stars in Berea.

And remember:
Be an angel and do something great,
Vote yes, yes, YES on Issue 8!

Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches

Through October 17 at Baldwin Wallace University, Kleist Center for Art & Drama, 95 E. Bagley Rd., Berea, 440-826-2239.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Spitfire Grill, Beck Center

(From left: Kate Leigh Michalski as Shelby, Lenne Snively as Hannah and Neely Gevaart as Percy)

Maudlin sentimentality is acceptable when toasting your 90-year-old grandmother on finishing her first 3K. That's because it’s quite an accomplishment and we should happily allow the tears to flow. But such effusive emotionalism is less tolerable in a musical about a convicted murderer who killed her abusive husband in his sleep (defensible as that choice might have been).

Yet that is the journey we are asked to take in The Spitfire Grill, now at the Beck Center for the Arts. Listen, musicals involving homicide are fine, whether you prefer the grisly in-person violence of Sweeney Todd or the campy botanical carnage in Little Shop of Horrors. But when you lean on the emotions as hard as James Valcq (music and book) and Fred Alley (lyrics and book) do in Spitfire, in an effort to make nearly every song an anthem to personal growth and tearful redemption, you need to get a clue.

Percy is a young woman just released from prison for murdering her man, and she winds up in the backwater town of Gilead, Wisconsin. Soon, thanks to the intervention of kindly cop Joe (a quite affable Shane Patrick O’Neill), she’s working at the only restaurant in town, owned by a predictably ornery old coot named Hannah. 

This is all based on the tearjerker flick of the same name, but the play doubles down on the melodrama by adding music to the story. But not just any music. These songs are mostly repetitive A-B-C-B rhyme schemes tacked onto Sesame Street-simple tunes, making one yearn for even a moment of Sondheim-like complexity. One after another, the songs beat you up with their intense desire to wrench moisture from your eyes. Indeed, earnest sincerity drizzles off this show like bacon grease off a slow-cooked, pan-fried pork fritter on Hannah’s menu. 

From “A Ring Around the Moon” to “The Colors of Paradise,” and from “Come Alive Again” to “Shine,” the incessant and weepy musical pummeling doesn’t stop. Along the way, Percy’s journey from con to cook to a better life is sprinkled with unlikely events, such as a contest where people send in $100 and an essay about why they want to own the Spitfire Grill. The winner gets the joint, you see, since Hannah is ready to move on after she injured herself in a fall.

Of course, there is a gruff grill regular, Caleb, who is bummed by the quarry closing, his dishrag of a wife Shelby, who becomes Percy’s best friend, and the town’s post office mistress and pathological gossip Effy. Also, lurking in the woods is Hannah's son (Derrick Winger),  who has his own troubled past. Does it all end happily for everyone? You'll never guess (and I'll never tell...shh!)

As Caleb, the excellent performer Dan Folino fails to find the second ply in his cardboard character, and shows off his powerful pipes almost to a fault. Kate Leigh Michalski as Shelby looks suitably morose during her well-sung solo “When Hope Goes,” and Lissy Gulick's Effy is adorably nosy.

In the lead roles, Neely Gevaart sings beautifully as Percy and snarls effectively a couple times. And Lenne Snively as Hannah provides a few dashes of much-appreciated sarcasm amidst the lollipops and moonbeams. Indeed, the actors do their jobs well under the direction of William Roudebush. But the whole thing is so drenched in sugary syrup that they should have hot showers in the lobby for audience members who need to rinse off the treacle.

And remember:
Whether laughter or tears is your live theater bait,
Vote yes, yes, YES on Issue 8!

The Spitfire Grill
Through October 18 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.