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.