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), nonetoofragile.com.

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.

The Happy Sad, convergence-continuum

(From left: Hillary Wheelock as Annie, , Monica Zach as Alice ands Ellie St. Cyr as Mandy)

Open sexual relationships are certainly a vein worth mining in a theatrical setting, since people involved in those ever-changing couplings no doubt have potentially interesting stories to tell.

Of course, that would require the talents of a playwright who could dive into such tender erotic territory and escape with a play that resonates on more than one level. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case with Ken Urban, because his slight effort The Happy Sad is just about as richly revealing as the title itself.

In it, we find one New York City couple, Annie and Stan, who are just splitting up after six months of dating because Annie needs a break and she has some sick parent issues. Then there’s Aaron and Marcus, who are finding their relationship a bit rocky since Marcus wants to screw around on the side while Aaron wants to settle down with some adopted kids.

So far, so good. Except that playwright Urban then decides to play fast and loose with these folks. Annie meets free spirit Alice (Monica Zach) in a steam bath and decides to try the lesbian thing, while Stan suddenly goes trolling for a gay guy on the Internet. Who knew a failed heterosexual pairing is actually a sexual gateway into an at least partially gay lifestyle?

Not only that, Annie is also seeing David, a struggling standup comic while Annie’s pal Mandy (Ellie St. Cyr), a school teacher, decides to have a platonic friendship with Alice. But you know where that’s heading. Oh, and did I mention the characters break into off-pitch songs now and then, to express their feelings?

This could all be dizzying and delightful with the right script. And to give him his due, Urban has a nice touch with some of the snarky dialog that no doubt passes for communication among young people who are mostly interested in hooking up. But the conversations—pre- or post-coital—never rise to the level of being even vaguely interesting.

Director Tyson Douglas Rand and his cast are hamstrung by forced words and situations. At one moment, all these folks meet cute at a subway stop, a situation a witty writer could mine for some awkward fun. Instead, they mostly yell a lot and then wander off. At another moment the comedian David (Ryan Christopher Mayer), dying in front of an audience with his awful comedy material, tries to do the real thing and drown his head in an aquarium (which, as we all know, is standard equipment on any comedy club stage).

Against all odds, Hillary Wheelock as Annie and Ryan Edlinger as Marcus manage to find some believability in their cardboard characters, making their scenes play entertainingly. But Nate Miller as Stan overdoes his look of startled surprise, making it hard to track his character’s real emotions. And Jack Matuszewski lands some genuine laughs as Aaron but then relies on dewy, puppy-dog eyes instead of registering his emotions in a more convincing manner.

There’s a running joke in the show about a parent who speaks in greeting card clichés, poking fun at such manufactured banalities.  However, with its relentlessly shallow depiction of these horny young folks, The Happy Sad makes any rack of American Greetings cards seem as nuanced and steamy as Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus.

And remember:
Live theater always makes us cogitate,
So vote yes, yes, YES on Issue 8!

The Happy Sad
Through October 24 at convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, Tremont, 216-687-0074.