Wednesday, December 7, 2016

How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Musical, Playhouse Square

Yeah, I know it sounds like a play about president-elect Trump (ack!, ack-ack! sorry). But it isn’t. It’s actually a musical with live human beings, based on the wonderful animated feature that plays every year on the tube at this time.

Although the cartoon version has loads of charm, thanks to the drawings inspired by Dr. Seuss, that master of the deft stroke—be it with drawn lines or rhyming words—this touring production is big and glitzy and captures a lot of what the show on TV offers. And it’s major fun for all the tykes in the audience, of whatever age.

Phillip Bryan stands out, of course, as the nasty, wasty Grinch who doesn’t want Christmas to come. His pilfering of all the gifts and goodies in Whoville is staged with dynamic fun, and ultimately his sleigh is loaded with a mountain of purloined stuff.

Also excellent is Bob Lauder as Old Max, the dog, who narrates the story. Most importantly, he does a finejob with the killer song of the show, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch!” Somehow he actually sounds a bit like Thurl Ravenscroft who sang the original with his basso profundo voice. Also amusing is Andreas Wyder, who shakes his hind leg convincingly as Young Max.

Plus, the costumes designed by Robert Morgan are a hoot, particularly the Grinch’s bilious green fur thing with hands and fingers that look like two spider plants gone evil. And all the broad-beamed Whos in Whoville appear warm and cuddly, even though they all are badly in need of some Spanx.

All in all, this is a show that will help your heart grow at least two sizes, maybe even more.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Through December 16 at Playhouse Square, Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Light the Lights, Ol’ Moses CLE. Cleveland Public Theatre

Here in Cleveland, we suffer from what might be called “Holiday Show Derangement Syndrome.” The symptoms of HSDS fall into three basic categories: theaters that repeat the same shows year after year (after year), riding those cash cows till their udders scrape the ground; theaters that ignore the holidays and risk not selling as many tickets as their counterparts because patrons are desperate for “holiday” cheer (especially this fucking year!); and theaters that whip up their own original shows in hopes of landing a fresh take on a predictable time of the calendar.

This year, that final category is represented by the awkwardly titled Light the Lights, Ol’ Moses CLE at Cleveland Public Theatre. Subtitled “A Wild Holiday Romp,” this overly earnest and lead-footed show is about as far from a romp as a Trump cabinet nominee is from the bread line. Clearly, much time and effort has gone into assembling this random collection of vignettes, songs and skits, but their efforts are mostly for naught.

In each of the two acts, there are four pieces that are named and credited in the program, and they are surrounded by other usually smaller efforts that try to form some sort of connective tissue for the entire enterprise. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hang together. That fact is granted in the program note from co-directors Raymond Bobgan and Beth Wood when they say, “We look to you (the audience) to tie these scenes together.”

Well, that’s a daunting task since these scenes include references to Moses Cleveland, the biblical Moses, Dr. Faustus, the glories of binge drinking, Lebron James (several different times), an abusive husband and father, and historical references to Christmas and other holidays which are dragged in kicking and screaming from Wikipedia.

The things that don’t work in this show are many and varied. A “Cleveland Line Dance” that could be witty but isn’t—due to tired jabs at Parma (Really? Still?), the Indians and other worn-out Cleveburg icons. There’s a woman hosting the whole shebang who encourages the audience to drink but seems far too sober herself (at one point she says “What the frig!” Really? Frig?). There’s two angels doing a juvenile rendering of Christmas Carols that have words with a sexual connotation (ie. “Come all ye faithful”), which is hilarious if you’re still in the Fourth Grade. Or maybe if you’re completely wasted on the wine and beer CPT is selling at the cabaret-style tables.

But there isn’t enough wine and beer in all of CLE to make this stuff work. Almost every one of the vignettes goes on too long, which adds up to a show that pushes past 2½ hours with an intermission. And when the show tries to get serious, it trots out over-emotional tripe such as: “We try to live life as fully as possible with the ones we love.” That banal thought would have gotten you fired at American Greetings 50 years ago.

There are a couple pieces that have a certain fleeting charm. The Act One closer is a song, “A Call to Midnight,” written and performed by Molly Andrews-Hinders that is pleasantly diverting, even though excessively lengthy. And a playlet by John Busser, in which some kids’ letters to Santa get delivered to Satan because the kiddies get the letters wrong, is mildly amusing. It also plays long, but it ends in a carnal embrace between those two red-suited icons that is properly arresting.

The hardworking 13-person CPT cast gives it their all, but there just isn’t anywhere to go when attempts at humor lack wit and when forays into emotional connection quickly spiral into maudlin sentimentality. Bobgan and Woods are both accomplished theater professionals, but this show (and to some degree in their other holiday property, The Loush Sisters), proves they need to take a break from trying to create a holiday show from scratch and just do their own version of a classic. Now that might be worth a toast or three.

Light the Lights, Ol’ Moses CLE
Through December 18 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

The Knife Is Money, The Fork Is Love, convergence-continuum

“An idealist is one who, on noticing that roses smell better than cabbage, concludes that it will also make a better soup.” H.L Mencken, the journalist and satirist, wrote that a long time ago. As is true for many of Mencken’s trenchant quotes, it applies today. In particular, it helps explain why The Knife Is Money, The Fork Is Love, now at convergence-continuum, is more attractive in contemplation rather than in actuality. In other words, it ain’t soup yet.

Local playwright Jonathan Wilhelm is a man possessing a fecund and prolific mind, and he unloads many interesting ideas and promising digressions in the course of this often-stimulating play. Trouble is, Wilhelm seems so interested in every new thought that flutters by that the play eventually tangles itself in knots, leaving the story in the dust.

The play is set in the 1930s and central to the plot is a real pulp magazine, “Black Mask,” which was founded by Mencken and the drama critic George Jean Nathan. It’s where Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was serialized, and it’s the magazine that sets young Tobias off on a search for a secret society, in an attempt to discover the identity of his father.

Right from the start, new ideas are brought in as the actors comment and question what they’re doing. This meta approach is at first interesting, but it gradually begins to wear thin and then becomes rather irritating, since it interrupts the flow of the story. And that story has some compelling elements, including references to the hobo codes that those American vagabonds, many uprooted from their lives by the Depression, would use to communicate with each other. Indeed, the stage is ringed with some of these symbols.

Tobias’s search for members of the secret society, and a code that can help him understand who he is, takes plenty of side roads, and some of those are populated by characters we wish we could get to know better. Rob Branch plays three different roles, including hobo Shoefly Joe, who tosses Tobias from the boxcar where they had been riding, and Leander, a mysterious fellow with connections to the people Tobias is seeking. However, Branch’s crisp characterizations fly by a bit too quickly.

The same is true for Amy Bistok Bunce who plays both a schoolteacher Miss Everson and Theodora, a rural lass who wants to hook up with Tobias. Along the way there are repeated references to the “antediluvian nitpickers” who are causing so many problems. David Thonnings gives Tobias an appropriately confused and fuzzy mien, and Lucy Bredeson-Smith is arresting as Tobias’s mother Maggie and as the Snake Lady (don’t ask).

However, at the risk of being considered an antediluvian nitpicker, it seems that this script needs a strong shake or two, to see what loose parts might fall out and could be eliminated, and which promising but thin areas could be enhanced. Director Geoffrey Hoffman does wonders with this overly-abundant material, adding some nice staging touches (the run that Thonnings makes to catch up with the boxcar, while nothing is moving, is inspired).

Clearly, playwright Wilhelm is interested in tinkering with the conventional theatrical format, bringing a new perspective to how the audience and the performers relate to each other. And that’s fine, as long as we don’t get thrown out of the play’s boxcar and land in a field somewhere, dazed and confused.

In an ideal world, a play could contain as many elements as the playwright could envision, and we could all keep pace. But that’s not how it goes in real life. By focusing more on the story, (as all good noir mysteries do), and downplaying the meta aspects, this play cold be less of an enigma for the audience and live up to its wonderful title.

The Knife Is Money, The Fork Is Love
Through December 17, produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074.

Sister Act, Karamu House

George S. Kaufman once said, “If you get the audience in the first two or three minutes, you have them for the whole of the first act.” And if he was right, that’s where this generally strong production of the musical Sister Act goes wrong.

Just like the movie, it’s about Deloris Van Cartier (nee Delores Carter) who is a disco singing star n the environs of Philadelphia in the 1970s. But when she witnesses the nasty hoodlum Curtis (an imposing A. Harris Brown) murder a guy in his gang, she goes underground in a convent thanks to the kindly help from a detective named “Sweaty” Eddie (because he, you know, sweats a lot).

The first act feels a lot longer than it should because, during those first minutes when Deloris and her two backup singers are delivering “Take Me to Heaven” and “Fabulous, Baby!” there is a serious shortfall of glitz and sass. As written by Alan Mencken (music) and Glen Slater (lyrics), along with the book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, this is the set-up for the whole show. We need to see Deloris killing in the club before she sees Curtis kill someone else for real.

But the bland, non-club-style lighting and the rather tepid performances early on don’t serve to establish Deloris as a musical force of nature. This sucks most of the helium out of the lighter-than-air balloon that this show should be. Indeed, things really don’t start elevating until almost the end of the first act, when the stage comes alive with “Raise Your Voice.” At that moment, when the new “nun” Deloris instructs the clueless choir sisters as to the basics of singing and performing, the fun really begins.

Even so the show, as seen at a preview performance, demonstrated some strong performances that can overcome the slow beginning. As Deloris, Colleen Longshaw has all the vocal power and stage presence she needs to make this take off. Teresa DeBerry stands out as a no-nonsense Mother Superior, and the show resonates well when she’s on stage especially in the more energized second act when she sings the witty “I Haven’t Got a Prayer.”

Some other members of the convent and the gang make help Sister swing, including infectiously grinning Dayshawnda Ash as Sister Mary Patrick and Christina Johnson as sharp-tongued Sister Mary Lazarus. Katelyn Cornelius creates an interesting character as wimpy Sister Mary Robert, but she had a bit of a hard time finding the right notes in her solo “The Life I Never Led.” The same is true with Matt F. Gillespie and his solo that morphs into a production number, “I Could Be That Guy.” And three of Curtis’s gang members—Richard Moses as TJ, Nate Summers as Joey and Gideon Patrick-Lorete as Pablo—have a blast with “Lady in the Long Black Dress.”

Director Sheffia Randall Dooley handles the traffic well in this complex production with a large cast. Once the performers settle in and keep the pacing tight, a lot of the jokes will land with more snap. And if the start of the show finds a way to get a charge of adrenaline it will be, well, a godsend.

Sister Act
Through December 30 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Rasheeda Speaking, Karamu House

Right off the bat, there’s a lot to like about any play set in a workplace. These are environments all of us are familiar with, and we know how some of the power games are played. So in Rasheeda Speaking, when a doctor asks his loyal secretary to help him find evidence so he can fire another secretary he doesn’t like, we all nod our heads knowingly. Yes, we are familiar with dick-heads like that.

But when the doctor and the favored secretary are white and the targeted secretary is black, the stakes suddenly become more significant. In this play, the author Joel Drake Johnson attempts to bring up a raft of touchy racial subjects as they apply to employment, and many of them resonate quite well. But he loads so much on this almost-two hour one act that it eventually loses its momentum and crawls to a conclusion.

The white employee, Ileen, has been working for the doc (an effectively passive-aggressive John Busser) for eight years, and she’s just been promoted to office manager. But the boss in the white coat doesn’t care for Jaclyn, an African-American woman who had recently been promoted from elsewhere in the medical facility to this position. As if to prove her unfitness for the job, the doctor has his stethoscope in a twist because Jaclyn took off five days because of “toxins in the air” that she and her private doctor claim are damaging her health.

From that premise, we watch as Jaclyn and Ileen dance around each other like scorpions packing file folders, trying to one-up each other. Mary Alice Beck as Ileen nicely balances her characters sweetness with a definite focus on doing her boss’s bidding. Meanwhile, Treva Offutt as Jaclyn shows both sides of this black woman, making it difficult to fully root for anyone in this office standoff.

Many issues are brought up, including the difficult home lives of some black families and the offensive things white people say to each other about blacks when they think no one is listening. But every time the play tries to open itself up and depart from the office tug-of-war, it loses energy and starts to sabotage its own compelling premise.

Indeed, the playwright trods the same ground one (or two or three) too many times, with a variety of cutbacks and mind games, some of which are baffling. And then, unaccountably, he lurches past the perfect ending, when Jaclyn delivers a drop-the-mic moment referencing the name in the title.

But director Sarah May coaxes interesting performances out of her cast, which includes an adorable Rhoda Rosen as an elderly patient who is fought over by Ileen and Jaclyn like a chew toy. And Ben Needham’s carefully detailed set lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings.

There’s a sharp, funny and often startling script laying inside Rasheeda Speaking, but its voice is dimmed by the playwright’s tendency to overstate things that have already been said.

Rasheeda Speaking
Through November 20 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sex With Strangers, Cleveland Play House

News flash: People of different ages react differently to the digital age we live in, with older people clinging to their analog past while younger folks snap up the latest apps like mice encountering fresh crumbs of cheese. And, this just in: Young people and oldsters often have differing views on sex and personal relationships.

These are a couple of the central themes in Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason, now at the Cleveland Play House. And if you responded with “No, duh!” to either or both of those facts stated above, then this play may be less than stimulating for you. In a script that flogs those two thoughts until they can barely move, Eason states and restates the obvious while the CPH two-person cast works their buns off to ignite passion around the edges.

Once-published novelist Olivia is hanging out at a b-and-b in snowy rural Michigan when the successful Internet-based author Ethan shows up knocking at her door to find a warm place out of the blizzard. The almost-40 Olivia is busy proofing her new manuscript while Ethan, a bundle of energy and about ten years her junior, paces the floor and rattles off his resume.

It seems he’s well known for his latest opus, a book that carries the same title as this play, which chronicles his exploit of bedding a different woman every week for one year. Meanwhile Olivia has been licking her wounds from some unfortunate reviews of her first book, and she can’t abide the snarky troll comments that pop up on websites discussing her writing.

However, Ethan glories in the pans his work receives, and he’s turned that sex-drenched book into a dandy little cottage industry online. Unfortunately, the storm and the remote location of this cabin have eliminated Internet service, leaving Ethan frustrated and unable to text or tweet for minutes on end(“People will think I have died!”).

The playwright works hard to leverage the age difference of these two people into something dramatic. Eason has some clever and cute lines sprinkled throughout (when Ethan claims his book was on the New York Times best seller list for five years, Olivia registers some doubt, to which Ethan smirks: “Don’t you wish you could look it up?”).And there is some genuine sexual tension in the first act, as the two dance around each other and eventually start making out.

Monette Magrath as Olivia and Sean Hudock as Ethan find their moments of attraction in between their playful chatter about technology and such. And their brief sessions of kissy-face and grab-ass are convincingly portrayed. But Magrath doesn’t really convey the bearing and attitude of an “older woman,” so her eventual sexual release is less than liberating. For his part, Hudock has all the nervous-energy mannerisms of a guy on the make, but not quite enough of the inner through-line of this supposedly live-wire character.

There’s finally a bit more conflict in the second act, which takes place in Olivia’s Chicago apartment, as we see how each of these people is trying to use the other for their own purposes. Still, there seems to be little at stake in these proceedings other than better press clippings and bigger paychecks. And the ending lands with a surprisingly dull thud.

The actors aren’t particularly helped by Chelsea M. Warren’s admittedly handsome scenic design, which features a vast space for both the cabin and the apartment. Indeed, you could install a handball court in the open space provided by Warren, which leaves the actors to wander around and try to connect with each other.

There’s a desire here to explore how two people from two different generations pursue their ideas of success and their own identities. But because of a few production wrinkles, the finished product is a bit like a promising, but not exactly stupendous, first date.

Sex With Strangers
Through November 13 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Silence! The Musical, Blank Canvas Theatre

(Kelly strand as Clarice and Brian Altman as Hannibal.)

If you’re a fan of the Jodi Foster/Anthony Hopkins flick The Silence of the Lambs, you will no doubt have a blast with this no-holds-barred parody, Silence! The Musical, now at Blank Canvas Theatre. Of course, you really don’t need any history with that movie to enjoy this often clever and frequently rude tribute to the story about two serial killers and one plucky FBI agent who is assigned to deal with them.

But first, let’s cut to the chase. There’s a remarkably offensive word in an early song in this show that, I would wager, has never been sung in any other musical. Ever. And that’s probably a good thing. Not only is it sung once, it is reprised a couple minutes later and then repeated in the second act.

The word refers to the private area of the female anatomy, a word that even Donald Trump has so far declined to use in public, starts with “c” and the full title of the song is “If I Could Smell Her C_ _ _.” This is not an entirely gratuitous reference, since there is a similar wish alluded to by the evil Hannibal Lecter in the movie.

The manner in which this play’s creators (music and lyrics by Jon Kaplan and Al Kaplan, book by Hunter Bell) use that word illustrate what is right with this show, and also where it goes off the tracks. The gleeful offensiveness of that word picks up on the vibe The Book of Mormon and it’s off-color ditties. That’s fair game. But it is repeated so often it begins to dull the senses, as do some other tropes used by the writers and BCT director Jonathan Kronenberger.

Still, this show is paced perfectly by Kronenberger, allowing the jokes to fly by fast and furiously, as they should. And the talented performers give it their all. As Clarice Starling, the young FBI agent, Kelly Strand is appropriately solid and straightforward while mimicking and exaggerating Jodi Foster’s lateral lisp and southern accent. However, whatever humor content that resides in that slight speech defect is beaten within an inch of its life by repetition. Clarice’s first song is titled “Thish Ish It” and the lisp even appears in words on the two screens hovering over the stage.

As the sociopathic Hannibal Lecter, Brian Altman employs a smooth and unctuous delivery to capture some of Anthony Hopkins’ skin-crawlingly creepy vibe. And even though it goes on far too long, his rendition of the “C” song is both stupefying and raunchily amusing. Joe Virgo is also a standout as Buffalo Bill, the gender-confused serial killer they’re hunting for who captures plus-size women, keeps them in a pit, makes them soften their skin with lotion, and then kills and skins them so he can crawl inside their epidermis. Fans of the movie know all this, so the play focuses on other things, such as Buffalo Bill’s song “Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket.”

In smaller roles, Dawn Sniadak-Yamokoski sings up a storm as Senator Martin, whose daughter Catherine has been abducted by Buffalo Bill. And Tonya Broach and Trey Gilpin add amusing cameos among the multiple roles they play. It is all supported by a chorus of white-wigged lambs who sing and dance and keep the plot moving forward.

While often offensive, juvenile and excessive, Silence! qualifies for its exclamation point through the kind of sharp, disciplined performance standards that BCT has often featured, under the artistic direction of Patrick Ciamacco.

Silence! The Musical
Through November 5 at Blank Canvas Theatre, at the West 78th Street Studios, 440-941-0458.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Lanford Wilson: Take Five, Cesear’s Forum

(Brian Zoldesy and Adina Bloom)

The latest offering by Cleveland’s most invisible theater company, Cesear’s Forum, Lanford Wilson: Take Five, is an untrammeled delight. Hidden away in the basement under the glorious, newly renovated lobby of the Ohio Theatre, Greg Cesear and his loyal troupe of thespians keep churning out unusual and unexpected work. And this time, they’ve hit the jackpot.

This is a collection of five one-act plays that Wilson, a very well-known playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote from the 1960s through the 1980s, and they are each interesting in different ways. None of them are exactly perfect, since they were authored when he was still an emerging playwright. But taken individually or together they are fresher and more stimulating than many other shows you might see this year, under or above ground.

In the opener, “Wandering,” a 16-year-old young man is being hectored by his parents and others during the Vietnam War. They think being in the army is just what he needs, but he’s not too sure. When he resists, indicating he’d rather not kill people, others say, “It’s not killing, it’s just nudging out of the way.” Thanks to Cesear’s finely detailed direction, the piece clicks along to a satisfying conclusion.

In “Sextet (Yes),” all six actors in the cast gather for a fine ensemble performance as they offer revelations about their intertwined relationships and respond by saying “Yes.” Tricia Bestic and Beau Reinker are particularly effective in this smoothly meshed effort.

“A Betrothal” is essentially an extended skit with a delicious punch line, but the performances by Adina Bloom and Brian Zoldessy lift it above the mundane. They are two flower show exhibitors, very concerned about the judging and their own botanical charges, her “Little Soldier” and his “Little Tanya.” Bloom is amusing as she shares her worries and Zoldessy quivers with comically repressed rage. Although too long by several minutes, it is a lovely piece of writing and acting.

After the intermission, Mary Alice Beck takes the lead role in “Brontosaurus,” in which she plays a wealthy antiques dealer who is dealing with her sullen nephew who is staying with her. Again, this piece is overwritten by Wilson, but Beck is compelling in her portrayal of this woman who is locked inside a claustrophobic world of her own making.

In the final play, “ A Poster of the Cosmos,” Sean Booker plays a man whose lover has just died from AIDS. He evidently created a scene at the hospital, and so he is being interrogated by the police. Starting off defensive and hostile, he soon begins to recall a flood of details that show the commitment the two men had for each other. Booker is focused and on point throughout, never lapsing into easy sentimentality, so the final takeaway is quite shattering.

If you want to taste some new theatrical material, executed with professionalism and creativity, head on down to Cesear’s Forum soon.

Lanford Wilson: Take Five

Through October 29 at Kennedy’s Down Under, Playhoouse Square, 1501 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Body Awareness, Beck Center

There’s nothing wrong with a small play that has modest goals. God knows it beats some of the gargantuan productions that aim high and fall miserably short. Still, sometimes a play can be a bit too small and coy for its own good.

Such is the case with Body Awareness, now at the Beck Center. Set in a small town in Vermont this play by Annie Baker focuses on a middle-aged lesbian couple, Phyllis and Joyce, and Joyce’s son and would-be-etymologist Jared who has some form of Asperger’s Syndrome. Phyllis, a strong-willed feminist, is in the midst of leading a week-long “Body Awareness Week” at the local college where she teaches.

As the play works its way through the week (and the play's non-too-subtle premise), we see how Jared torments his mother and Phyllis with his Asperger’s-triggered attitudinal issues. He’s blunt and aggressive, not aware of how his words impact others, but Joyce quietly perseveres as she tries to make their home a pleasant and loving space. 

During the week, one of the guest lecturers Frank arrives, to stay in the same house for a couple days. Phyllis is instantly bent out of shape because she learns that he takes nude photographs of females, of various ages. Her sudden distaste for his artistic endeavors feels forced and odd. In any case, the various issues of “body awareness” are neatly arrayed—Jared trapped in his not-quite-functional body, Joyce and Phyllis trying to work out their same-sex relationship, and (sleazy?) Frank hanging around and inserting himself in their discussions.

Playwright Baker is a deft writer and there are a number of chuckles to be found in the play, but it all feels a bit too contrived. And director David Vegh doesn’t use his talented cast in the best ways possible. As Joyce, Anne McEvoy seems to float a bit too high above the events swirling around her, while Julia Kolibab comes off as a bit fuzzy and indistinct as Phyllis. Phyllis’ mini-lectures at college, which punctuate each of the days of the week, should be funnier than they are. Plus, there is little sexual (or any other) chemistry between these two characters. Since McEvoy and Kolibab are exceptionally talented actors, it appears that Vegh was unable to help them find their characters’ sweet spot in this fragile work.

The same is true with Rick Montgomery Jr. as Frank, who appears out of the blue and never rings true as either a photographer or a mystical purveyor of wisdom (a non-Jew, he insists on leading a Friday evening Sabbath service earlier in the week).

Richie Gagen is strong and funny as Jared, perhaps because his character exists outside the conventional grid of family relationships. Jared is always saying unexpected things, and Gagen makes them amusing while retaining the inherent humanity of the young man.

Since too many of the scenes are meandering and slow, the 90-minute one-act feels longer than it’s actual run time. This is a show that needs to be performed with crisp timing, not with the casual and indulgent pacing that director Vegh has employed. And that’s too bad, because the Beck cast is clearly capable of much more.

Body Awareness
Through November 6 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

PREVIEW: 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, Cleveland Public Theatre

How does it feel for a woman to be President of the United States? According to Tanera Hutz, it feels amazing. “I’m a history buff and being able to perform as President is very empowering.”

Even though there may be an actual female occupying the Oval Office in a couple months, there are seven women here in Cleveland who will be trying their hand at the highest office in the land starting this week. It will be happening when 44 Plays for 44 Presidents opens at Cleveland Public Theatre on October 14.

This play, created by the renowned Chicago theater group the New-Futurists, cruises through the entire Presidential history of this country, from the original George W. (Washington, that is) through Barack Obama. It’s a daunting task for Hutz and the other six women who will portray all the characters. And since the running time of the show indicates that the average time spent on each President will be about three minutes, this will be a necessarily cursory review of those gentlemen.

“Empowering” is also a word that comes to Molly Andrews-Hinders’ mind, who is another performer in the show. “What struck me in the show is how many programs FDR began during the New Deal, programs that are still powerfully affecting people’s lives today.”

Written by a team of five Neo-Futurists, 44 Plays  intends to be a non-stop volley of songs, factoids, dancing, and wisecracks. In short, it will be a much more reserved and dignified experience than the current Presidential campaign, which has slid into the muck of Donald Trump’s despicable carnal excesses.

Of course, this play at CPT won’t exactly be a sober seminar on American government since there are plenty of absurdities to reveal and POTUSes to tweak. (Chester A. Arthur, we’re looking at you.) There is also a mix of tragedy in the show, as monumental moments such as slavery and war take their moments in the spotlight.

Carrie Williams, a performer who plays George W. Bush among many others, says, “Any one of these guys could have a whole play written about them, and it’s kind of sad that their contributions are reduced to a couple minutes each.” Still, by moving chronologically through all the Presidents, one will get a sense for the sweep of history and how our country has arrived where it is in 2016.

And if we can laugh along the way, so much the better!

44 Plays for 44 Presidents
Opens Friday, October 14 and runs through October 29, Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Margin of Error, Ensemble Theatre

It’s weird how sometimes a concept we all agree upon can be upended, suddenly rendering that concept almost meaningless. This is especially troubling for a playwright who labors on a script for months, or years, and then opens the show in a world where all the assumptions of the play have been rendered null and void.

Take Margin of Error, now enjoying its regional premiere at Ensemble Theatre. The talented local playwright Eric Coble constructed this 90-minute show based on a lot of political common knowledge at the time. But it is opening here at a time when the current presidential race has been thrown for a loop by a candidate, Donald Trump, who has defied every single truism about what a person had to do to run for that high office.

As a result, the play feels substantially dated through absolutely no fault of its own. Who could have predicted that a presidential candidate could run for office while insulting large swaths of the population in the most vulgar terms, lie constantly, brag about wanting to use nuclear weapons, support unregulated gun sales, and even refer to the size of his penis as a reason for voting for him?

That said, Coble has written a tight and fiercely funny play about the way politics used to work, back when you had to be careful of every utterance should a single minor lip-slip lead to bad headlines the next day. Harold Carver, a bloodthirsty Republican operative known for his viciousness, is trapped in a fog bank at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, along with his aide Daphne. And he’s working a collection of color-coded cell phones, each one dedicated to a different GOP candidate (and one secret Democrat) across the country.

Deliciously played by Michael Mauldin, Carver has a way with words, using the term “Boots on neck!” to indicate to his minions the ruthlessness with which they should do their jobs. He’s out to engineer a “great Republican domination” of the political landscape, from the lowest offices to the highest, finding a way to elect often idiotic candidates as long as they have an (R) after their names.

Based on some phone calls with his wife, Carver has problems at home which he’s juggling with his pep talks to wavering pols while managing his relationship with Daphne. In turn, she tries to prove her worth by strategizing along with him as he erupts with a volley of mini-lessons including the ultimate acronym warning: DFIU (Don’t Fuck It Up!).

Mauldin is a compressed whirlwind of repressed anger and resentment as the nicely-named Carver shreds his enemies in the airport’s waiting area (although a player like him would probably have a membership in all the airline lounges). Mauldin brilliantly performs Coble’s in-the-know words, showing how talking points get developed and how cardboard candidates can be made to look three-dimensional—even if stories have to be conjured up out of thin air. You can’t take your eyes off Mauldin, and he rewards you with a memorable character.

As Daphne, Mary-Francis Renee Miller holds her own and serves as a strong foil to Hurricane Carver, even though she has less to work with. Her desire to please her boss is clear, as she sees through his bluster to vulnerabilities that lie beneath.

Sure, Coble’s ending is a bit predictable, but he keeps the energy of Carver’s manic personality front and center. And it ain’t his fault that anyone who follows politics and is watching the show will be throwing asterisks all over the place—noting how things have changed in politics thanks to the bilious, misogynistic, racist blowhard who now leads the Republican Party.

Margin of Error
Through October 23 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Twelfth Night, Great Lakes Theater

If you’ve ever felt hemmed in by the expectations of others, you can find at least one—or maybe five or six—characters to relate to in this lyrical Shakespeare play.

The twins, Viola and Sebastian, start off by being shipwrecked, with neither aware the other has survived. To avoid getting hit on, Viola dresses as a young man named Cesario then gets a gig with Orsino (Juan Rivera Lebron), the Duke of Illyria, who’s hot for Countess Olivia. But that’s only the biggest switcheroo, since many other characters are trying to express themselves anew, seeking fresh identities and different pathways.

That’s the fun of this work which plays, often outrageously, with the pangs of love and the confusion that always attends that emotion. The production, under the direction of Drew Barr, finds many delights in Will’s words, but it tends to overstep in the humor department, with some of the jocular scenes cranked up to cringe-worthy levels.

As Viola/Cesario, Cassandra Bissell is effective in both genders as she fends off the romantic sighs of Olivia (Christine Weber), the woman Cesario has been assigned to woo for Orsino, the Duke of Illyria. Because Viola is in love with her boss Orsino. Confused yet? Good, you’re in exactly the right place. There’s nothing Shakespeare liked more than entangling his characters in a snarl of mistaken identities and then finding a way to smooth out the mess by the end of the piece.

Of course, complications arise when the hard-drinking and aptly named Sir Toby Belch (Aled Davies) prowls around Olvia’s compound with his partner in lewdness and frivolity, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Tom Ford). Davies and Ford leave so stone unturned and no fart un-wafted as they wring laughs out of the audience. And they can be funny, even though the strain of trying to be continually hilarious can be exhausting at times.

Belch and Aguecheek get sideways with Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio (a righteously stiff Lynn Robert Berg), and they are soon plotting with Olivia’s clever gentlewoman Maria to make a fool of Malvolio, who himself has designs on Olivia. This leads to the famous scene where Malvolio wears yellow, cross-gartered stockings, having been tricked into thinking Olivia loves these items when in fact she detests them. In this production, costume designer Kim Krumm Sorenson, has added a black corset to the costume, making Berg look like a refugee from an low rate BD/SM porno. But hey, it gets plenty of guffaws.

The Sebastian part of the story gets short shrift in this staging, mainly because Jonathan Christopher MacMillan seems less than involved in fashioning a distinct character. So the extra-added mistaken identities fall a bit flat, when Olivia mistakes Sebastian for Cesario, and so forth. 12th N is also known for its songs, most of which are delivered by Feste, the jester in Olivia’s court, and M.A. Taylor handles the tunes with ease, although his humorous asides during the play could use a bit more spark.

The production design by Russell Metheny, however, is handsome, with the estates of Orsino and Olivia superimposed on each other, and sharing their look of elegance that’s just slightly past its sell-by date.

So if you can get past some of the less than artful attempts at humor, this Twelfth Night has much to recommend it.

Twelfth Night
Through October 30 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

My Fair Lady, Great Lakes Theater

(Tom Ford as Henry Higgins and Jillian Kates as Eliza Doolittle)

One of the pleasures of seeing a classic Lerner and Loewe musical such as My Fair Lady is in seeing how it can be restaged, or even reimagined, some 60 years after it opened on Broadway. In this Great Lakes Theater production, directed by Victoria Bussert, very few liberties are taken with the material. And that’s a good thing, since the material is so damn good all by itself.

Of course, back in the day other Broadway teams took a run at musicalizing George Bernard Shaw’s story of Pygmalion—including Rogers and Hammerstein. Richard and Oscar worked on it for more than a year before giving up, What threw them was the lack of a strong romantic through line, since the stern taskmaster, phonetician Henry Higgins, and the poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle never seem to really hit it off.

In this production, Eliza is played by Jillian Kates, and she handles her chores with professional aplomb, even though the “r” sound is barely noticeable in her tender rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” Still, she is a properly rough and tumble gal as the early Eliza, joking and dancing with the other denizens of the gutter. And she shows some real spirit in “Just You Wait,” her rant against the dominating presence of ‘enry ‘iggins. When Eliza is transformed as a proper lady, Kates shows off her powerful singing voice in the amusingly repetitive “I Could Have Danced All Night.” But once this Eliza gets her rap together, her character becomes a bit too flat, the spirit refined out of her.

As Higgins, Tom Ford brings a tense, rapid-fire, no-nonsense approach to a role that was made famous by Cyril Richard’s talk-singing profundity and slow burn. Ford’s take is quite amusing throughout, especially in “I’m An Ordinary Man,” but it sacrifices something in the connection that is supposed to grow between Higgins and Eliza. Since Ford’s machine-gun nastiness seems reflexive rather than inspired by the specific presence of the Cockney lass, it makes his eventual softening towards her less personal, and thus less meaningful, than it might otherwise be.

There are particular delights in the smaller roles. M.A. Taylor has never been better than he is as Eliza’s scoundrel father Alfred P. Doolittle. His takes on “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” augmented by energetic dance numbers choreographed by Gregory Daniels, are little gems. And Colton Ryan as Freddy loads plenty of yearning into “On the Street Where You Live,” making his reprise laugh-out-loud funny. And Laura Perrotta manages to cadge some laughs from the rather drab role of Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mom.

The scenic design by Jeff Herrmann is to drool for, with simple rotating panels indicating the locations and a virtually monochromatic color scheme of whites and off-whites giving the production a lush feel. The orchestra under the direction of Joel Mercier is spot on.

My Fair Lady is a treasure and this production does it full justice.

My Fair Lady
Through October 29 at the Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

All The Way, Cleveland Play House

(Steve Vinovich as President Lyndon Baines Johnson.)

Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the more fascinating characters to ever populate the halls of Washington D.C., since he combined the raw, crotch-grabbing energy of a good ol’ boy from rural Texas with the liberal leanings of a man who deeply cared about the disadvantaged. Try finding a mixture like that in today’s polarized political landscape.

And in All The Way by Robert Schenkkan, the colliding aspects of LBJ’s personality are displayed in clear and sometimes devastating detail. Set in the mid-1960s after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and just a year before the next presidential election, the play offers an almost blow-by-blow description of how Johnson horse-traded and bullied congressional leaders to pass his Civil Rights Act.

It all plays out on Robert Mark Morgan’s breathtakingly simple set, composed of grandstand-like levels encircled by a curving wall where photos are displayed. With a large circular shape hovering above, the scenic design provides the feel of the halls of government without ever getting too specific. And these halls are populated with all the people who made that time so wrenching, triumphant and memorable.

As LBJ, Steve Vinovich bears a striking resemblance to the “accidental president” as he browbeats and strokes Hubert Humphrey (a nicely quivering Donald Carrier), a liberal senator from the north whom Johnson clearly enjoys tweaking at every opportunity.  An expert at manipulation, LBJ does this with most people oiling inflated egos here and sticking a shiv in there—whatever the situation calls for. In this way, he maneuvers around his old pal Senator Richard Russell (a sly Stephen Bradbury), rabble-rousing Governor George Wallace (Greg Jackson) and Dr. Martin Luther King (stately Jason Bowen).

Vinovich’s Johnson displays this bifurcated approach even with his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, whom he often dismisses rudely even as he seems to clearly care for her. As Lady Bird, Laura Starnik captures the look and feel of this woman who put up with a lot from the man she loved.

The first act of All The Way (those words are taken from the chant that accompanied Johnson during his own campaign for the presidency), is quite compelling as Johnson cajoles multiple D.C. players as he finds a way to sell the Civil Rights Act to both southern racists and black militants. In the second act, when LBJ is running for the presidency against Barry Goldwater, the issues are not as stark and the momentum of the play gets tangled up in some arcane negotiating around seating African-American delegates at the Democratic Convention.

There are also some characterizations that seem to fall a bit short. As the intense Stokely Carmichael, Biko Eisen-Martin doesn’t exhibit the live-wire energy of this man who headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And Lou Sumrall doesn’t leave much of an impression as Secretary Robert McNamara. But some of this has to do with a play that attempts to touch a few too many bases, leaving several characters dangling with not enough lines to establish their personalities.

Still, this is a play about one man. And the wildly contrasting aspects of LBJ’s persona are brought out powerfully, thanks to Vinovich’s performance and the crisp direction by Giovanna Sardelli. For those who wonder how our government ever got anything done, this show offers a revealing look at how power can be used to achieve something good. It’s a thought worth contemplating in these days when compromise is seen as treason by many in Congress.

All The Way

Through October 9 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Jersey Boys, Playhouse Square

I’ve just seen Jersey Boys for the fifth time, at the State Theatre at Playhouse Square. So in honor of that milestone, here are five reasons why I love this damn show about the singing group The Four Seasons.

1.   It’s a jukebox musical adorned with cartoon graphics about four singers from New Jersey. And it begins with one of their hits, “Oh, What a Night!” being sung in rap style—in French—to show how far their influence traveled. Not bad for kids who were stealing hubcaps and knocking over cigar stores a few years before.
2.   The music of The Four Season never gets old because, let’s face it, if it isn’t old by now it never will be. Lead singer Frankie Valli is about 137 years old, and he’s still performing live all across the world.
3.   The show does a great job of ticking off all the stages of the group’s growth, leading up to their breakthrough hit “Sherry.” It was a long and tangled journey with some weird stops such as singing with a guy dressed up in a monkey suit. Sure, it’s a familiar yarn, but it reminds you that there aren’t many overnight successes in showbiz.
4.   This touring production does the show justice, in most respects. Keith Hines channels the downbeat Nick Massi quite well, squeezing some laughs out of lines that aren’t that funny. As the pop musical genius Bob Gaudio, Cory Jeacoma is effective although he doesn’t give this interesting character as much dimension as actors in other productions have done. Matthew Dailey is excellent as tough guy, gambling addict and wanna-be group leader Tommy DeVito. And Aaron De Jesus, who looks like a slightly chunkier clone of Valli, handles the songs well. Sure, his falsetto sometimes slides a bit too high, getting into the ear-bleed zone. But his rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is a showstopper.
5.   Some of the smaller roles shine, such as Barry Anderson as the talented and just barely closeted producer Bob Crewe. His fey moments on stage are a delight. And David LaMarr kicks off the evening in style as the kick-ass French rapper.

So, it’s still a great show. Am I a bit depressed that I’ll have to wait a while to see Jersey Boys again? Sure, but then I remember: “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”

Jersey Boys

Through September 25 at the State Theatre, Playhouse Square, 216-241-6000.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Last Five Years, Lakeland Civic Theatre

It’s pretty hard to connect with a love story, or a break-up story, when the two principals never engage in intercourse (I mean the talking kind). But that’s exactly what happens in The Last Five Years, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown.

It’s a bold device, having a man and a woman look at their relationship and their lives from two different time perspectives. At the start, Catherine is lamenting the end of her marriage to Jamie in the powerful tune “Still Hurting” while Jamie, in his separate solo songs, begins with his excitement at first meeting Catherine, his “Shiksa Goddess.”

They meet briefly halfway through the 90-minute show in “The Next Ten Minutes,” but other than that they’re two people—he an emerging writer and she a struggling actor—going different directions, in more ways than one.

The songs by Brown are often affecting. In “Climbing Uphill,” Brown sketches out the trauma of an audition, obsessing about her shoes and then instantly segueing into other matters, “I can go to Crate and Barrel with mom and buy a coach/Not that I want to spend a day with mom/But Jamie needs a space to write/Since I’m obviously such a horrible, annoying distraction to him.”

Sure, some of the melodies start sounding similar after awhile. And the fact that we hardly ever see these two individuals react to each other in the moment ultimately feels manipulative.

Faced with these challenges, Jason Leupold and Neely Gevaart manage to make the play work. Each has a strong and distinctive singing voice, and each does well with their hot numbers (Leupold with “The Schmuel Song” and Gevaart with “A Summer in Ohio”). The last song features the lyric one often hears as a promotion on the Sirius Broadway channel: “But it wouldn’t be as nice as a summer in Ohio/With a gay midget playing Tevye, and Porgy.”

But Leupold never quite latches onto the hard edge of Jamie’s rampant ambition, and Gevaart doesn’t fully embody her character’s vulnerable romanticism.

The Last Five Years gets major kudos for taking chances, and for its sly knowledge of the entertainment business. And director Martin Friedman wisely lets his actors take charge of the stage, even though pushing a couple multi-tiered bookcases around the space didn’t noticeably enhance the proceedings. And it’s a shame that a huge screen, which is lowered into place at the start and then raised before the end, wasn’t used for something more than some faint color spill.

The Last Five Years

Through October 2 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, Lakeland Community College, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland, 440-525-7134.