Sunday, June 21, 2015

Godspell, Cain Park

This show, consisting of biblical parables and the lyrics of hymns set to rock and pop melodies, has been around for almost half a century. Still, many people never tire of it, probably because of the infectious energy with which it is usually presented.

Some naysayers might call it “spiritual Gruyere” (slightly pretentious cheese for the religiously inclined), or a cult training workshop (the wild-eyed devotion to a single individual’s every utterance, even Jesus Christ, can begin to feel a tad creepy at times). But naysayers be damned! (Not literally, of course.) This staging of Godspell at Cain Park’s Alma Theatre offers plenty of enjoyment along with the bite-size nuggets of behavior tips gleaned from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

It’s essentially a loose jumble of scenes that glide from one Gos-pearl of wisdom (“If a man steals your shirt, give him your coat.”) to another (“Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also.”). But once the simple lessons are put to the music of Stephen Schwartz, it all takes on a patina of youthful innocence and universal love. We’ll leave our cynicism at the door, and pick it up again on our way out.

Co-directors Ian Wolfgang Hinz and Joanna May Hunkins throw everything into this mix—from audience participation via Pictionary and charades to non-stop running and dancing choreographed by Katie Nabors Strong. With some of the performers slipping down a half-pipe slide and dropping down on a fire station pole, the air is filled with smiling, amped-up performers who generate a definite feel-good vibe. To be honest, some of the parables are so inventively presented, the chopped up stories get a bit lost in the muddle of hyperkinetic staging.

It’s all led by Warren E. Franklin III as Jesus, clad in a “We are a Colony” t-shirt, in honor of Jim Brennan, the popular owner of Brennan’s Colony tavern in Cleveland Heights, who was killed one year ago in a robbery. Franklin is lean, limber and charming, with a warm singing voice. But his projection fades at times when speaking dialogue.

Each of the actors playing his apostles deliver stirring performances at times, even though they all wear pretty much the same Heaven’s Gate, true-believer grins from start to finish.

Among them, Douglas F. Bailey II generates some clever Jack Black-ish laughs, Treva Offut nails the mellow “By My Side,” and Eric Fancher pumps a lot of zazz into several of his characterizations. Scott Esposito lends his powerful baritone voice to the role of Judas, and Colleen Longshaw provides a reliable vocal foundation for show-stopping numbers such as “Bless the Lord” and “We Beseech Thee.”

It’s hard to resist the calories these actors are expending, supported by an able crew of musicians under the direction of keyboardist Jordan Cooper. And why bother to try? After all, as some say, a religion is just a cult with a century or so of history behind it. So relax, take in the up-with-people messaging, and ride the wave of these reliable tunes.

Through June 28, presented by the City of Cleveland Heights at Cain Park, corner of Lee and Superior roads in Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

A Little Night Music, Porthouse Theatre

(Left to right: Fabio Polanco as Fredrik, Terri J. Kent as Desiree and Jim Weaver as Count Carl-Magnus.)

There’s a lot of hanky-panky going on in this lush Stephen Sondheim musical, with an elegant and witty book by Hugh Wheeler. Set in Sweden around the turn of the 20th century, it’s surprising that all these cool Nordic types are so hot to trot given the perpetual summer sun at this elevated latitude.

The talented Porthouse cast, under the direction of Sean T. Morrissey, gives this production a glossy texture that serves the material well. This includes an appearance by Terri J. Kent, producing artistic director of Porthouse, in the linchpin role of Desiree Armfeldt.

Suffice to say that pretty much every character in this upper-class Scandinavian community is eager for romance and the boffing that goes along with it. They’re all so focused on fitting their naughty parts into each other, it eventually feels like a horny Ikea assembly party, with lots of singing.

Here are the convoluted relationships in a big, messy nutshell: The older Fredrik is married to the 17-year-old virgin Anne, who is still virginal after 11 months of marriage, so blue-balled Fredrik visits Desiree, his former lover who offers him a pity boink. Frederick’s uptight son Henrik falls in love with his teenage step-mom while Anne herself is being schooled by her maid Petra, who’s been on Henrik’s tail, and then Desiree’s current man-toy Count Carl-Magnus gets wind of the relationship between Desiree and Fredrik while the Count’s acid-tongued wife Charlotte prods Anne to confront her hubby and Petra shares some time with the servant Frid and launches into her own fantasy.

As the night repeatedly smiles on these folks, love finds a way.  It’s all overseen by Desiree’s aged mother, Madame Armfeldt (Lenne Snively), who mostly sneers at the goings-on from her wheelchair.

Clear now? Of course not, and it really doesn’t matter that this is all a bit confusing. That’s because Sondheim’s glorious music is there to lubricate the proceedings, including the popular “Send in the Clowns.” Even if it takes you a while to plug into all the randy stuff, swathed in yards of luxe period costumes designed by S.Q. Campbell, it’s a journey you should be happy to take.

Standouts in the cast include Fabio Polanco, who struts his powerful vocal wares as Fredrik, a nubile Lucy Anders as Anne, and Kent in an often-affecting turn as Desiree. Shamara Costa is earthy as Petra and Jim Weaver postures pompously as the Count. Most of the laughs come from Amy Fritsche, whose Charlotte is a constant snarky delight.

Indeed, it’s a strong production from first to last, including the quintet that begins each of the two acts on a wave of Greek chorus-style singing, accompanied by conductor Jonathan Swoboda’s small but excellent string orchestra.

A Little Night Music
Through June 27 at Porthouse Theatre, Blossom Music Center campus, 1145 W. Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Triassic Parq, Blank Canvas Theatre

There are two things most young boys are immensely interested in: dinosaurs and their own penises. And evidently, most males never completely lose their focus on those two objects of affection.

This is especially true with Triassic Parq, the Musical, now at Blank Canvas Theatre.  This almost-parody of the Jurassic Park movies delves into the dino culture of a similar fictional theme park, populated by all-female, test tube creatures (so there will be no unauthorized reproduction). But thanks to a wild strand of frog DNA, T-Rex 2 grows a penis, and the show goes off fully “cocked.”

Indeed, you might as well call this show “Triassic Phallus,” considering how dick-obsessed it is. The play’s grown-up boy creators—music by Marshall Pailet, book and lyrics by Pailet, Bryce Norritz and Steve Wargo—have a definite hard-on for “dude sticks.” And it’s all funny in a junior high locker room way, for a while.

But oddly enough, the whole enterprise loses some steam when it ventures into deep thinking. The dino leader, Velociraptor of Faith (Aaron Patterson), collides intellectually with the Velociraptor of Science (Eryn Reynolds), while the Velociraptor of Innocence (Weley Allen) gets confused in the process. Eventually, Innocence is boinked by the newly equipped T-Rex 2 (Neely Gevaart), a former female who now exhibits distressingly masculine traits.

If you laugh uncontrollably and repeatedly at dick jokes and chicks wearing strap-ons, this is the show for you. Just understand that the music is often of the nursery rhyme variety, and the lyrics are pretty basic. As T-Rex 2 laments (or celebrates?): “My beard will grow/I have no flow.”

As always, director Patrick Ciamacco keeps the pace sprightly and gets a lot out of his cast. Kate Leigh Michalski as T-Rex 1 and Gevaart have powerful singing chops. But Patterson is often hard to hear when speaking and Michael Crowley could do more to generate laughs as both the Mime-a-saurus and a putative Morgan Freeman narrator. Allen is a performer with immense magnetism and focus, and he almost makes you care about Innocence. But his singing voice too often veers into uncomfortable nasal regions. And at times, the ensemble singing is pretty brutal.

There are some stellar moments, such as two characters providing a remarkably concise definition of chaos theory, a cow dinner-on-a-string, and then there’s the staging of an orgasm that looks absolutely orgasmic. But this thinly-plotted Parq has a few too many one-note gags to remain fully erect for 80 minutes.

Triassic Parq, the Musical
Through June 27 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458.