Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Into The Woods, Lakeland Civic Theatre

Into The Woods, now at the Lakeland Civic Theatre, has won and been nominated for multiple awards because of the wonderful music by Stephen Sondheim and the intriguing book by James Lapine. After all, who can resist a mash-up of fairytale characters who decide to ditch their traditional stories and head off into a forest. Plus, once it gets going, some intricate ideas are trotted out—including the downside of realizing one’s dreams—by familiar characters such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack (the beanstalk one).

In this production directed by Dr. Martin Friedman, there are specific characters and scenes that definitely earn plaudits. Amiee Collier is a perfect witch, both before and after her transformation, and does a dandy job with her solo “Witch’s Lament.” The two princes, played by Eric Fancher and Daniel Simpson, deliver a solid rendition of “Agony,” although their scenes together aren’t as playful and sharp-edged as they might be.

Some of the other actors have their moments, while others lack sufficient stage presence. But the show is negatively affected by a decidedly slow pace, with dialogue scenes played out with pregnant pauses between many of the lines. Playing beats is necessary, of course, but there are enough extended pauses and beats here for four or five plays. This not only makes the play seem longer and less witty than it is, it’s hard to keep track of the somewhat complicated story.

The clever scenic design by Trad A Burns features tall letters that spell out words and comprise the forest into which all the characters disappear. And thanks to his lighting design, those towering letters often cast interesting and sometimes ominous shadows. But the downside is that the visual palette never changes and, even though the words are moved around frequently, it all basically looks the same and eventually gets a bit tiresome.

Director Friedman has mounted this play before at Lakeland, in 2003, but this time it feels a bit static, and at times almost feels like a concert version of the show. Still, Friedman is continually staging compelling scripts and evocative musicals with talented players, and for that we are truly grateful.

Into The Woods
Through February 28 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, 440-525-7134, Lakeland Community College Campus, just south of Rt. 90 and Rt. 306 in Kirtland.

Monday, February 15, 2016

In The Heights, Beck Center

Now that composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda has commandeered the attention of the world with his gigantic Broadway hit Hamilton, it seems a good time to revisit his first hit show. And happily, the Beck Center production of his In The Heights is everything you could hope for, carrying this often saccharine-sweet musical over the finish line in a blast of effusive salsa, hip-hop and several kick-ass performances.

Set in a Dominican-American neighborhood in New York City called Washington Heights in the heat of summer, the story swirls around a bodega owned by a bashful young man named Usnavi, a taxi business run by a husband-and-wife team, Kevin and Camila, and a beauty salon where the sassy owner Daniela and her stylists Vanessa and Carla hold court. As we quickly learn from the exposition-laden title song, “Everybody’s got a job/Everybody’s got a dream.”

And while there are ups and downs in this colorful little corner of urban America, the downs don’t stay down for long—because here comes another upbeat and infectious song that makes everyone dance in the streets! Sure, Kevin and Camila’s daughter Nina has dropped out of college. And sure, Benny’s budding romance with Nina is frowned upon by her parents. And yes, Usnavi’s stand-in grandmother Claudia dreams of going home, before those plans are suddenly ended. Even Usnavi’s hyper cousin Sonny is a constant irritant. But the cafĂ© de leche is sweet and optimism rules the day.

What keeps this all from being too cloying is the pneumatic energy of Miranda’s songs and the electric performances of the cast, many of whom are students at Baldwin Wallace University, under the effusive direction of Victoria Bussert. In the lead role of Usnavi, Ellis C. Dawson III is a big guy with a heart that pumps pure raspberry syrup—the kind that the piragua pushcart guy squirts on snow cones. Dawson provides a strong center for the show to revolve around.

As Claudia, Jessie Cope Miller sings with quiet passion, which is a distinct contrast to Michael Canada’s Sonny, who quivers amusingly like a just-struck tuning fork for much of the proceedings. Also excellent are the sultry Christiana Perrault as Vanessa, strong-voiced Livvy Marcus as Nina, and Isabel Plana as the no-nonsense Daniela. Indeed, there is not a significant off-note struck in the entire cast, even with a few suspiciously white-looking actors taking on some of the Dominican roles.

An important element in this production’s success is Gregory Daniels’ irresistible choreography, made even more appealing since it is executed with laser-like precision by the talented ensemble. And the tight band under the direction of David Pepin keeps the momentum tripping right along.

This is a hopeful play, right down to the plot point involving a lottery winner. Of course, we all know that lottery dreams are the stuff of fantasy for 99.999% of the population. But in this show, hope springs…and raps…eternal.

In The Heights
Through February 28 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Golden Leaf Rag Time Blues, Ensemble Theatre

(From left: Paul Slimak as Pompey, Brycen Hunt as Jet, Mary Alice Beck as Marsha.)

Every idea a playwright has doesn’t actually become a play. And that’s a good thing, because it takes a lot of work to turn a clever idea into an actual functioning piece of theater.

Playwright Charles Smith came up with an interesting idea for Golden Leaf Rag Time Blues, but somewhere along the way he seems to have lost interest in actually creating full, three-dimensional characters. So we’re left with the cardboard cutouts that pass for people in this slight, one-hour effort directed by Ian Wolfgang Hinz.

Pompey (a game Paul Slimak) is an old guy living in a disastrously cluttered apartment who spends part of his time dreaming about his time as a vaudeville comedian on the ragtime music circuit. His was a two-man act, Pompey and Ollie, and he has flashbacks to those happy times when he and Ollie (an equally game Allen Branstein) reenact their cornball comedy knee-slappers.

In between memory blasts his middle-age daughter Marsha (Mary Alice Beck, doing what she can) shows up with Jet (a promising Brycen Hunt), an African-American teenage male in tow. He’s apparently a troubled youth, a client of the place where she volunteers and happened to be in the car when she stops by to see Pompey. Animosity sparks initially between Jet and Pompey, but if you’ve ever seen any buddy movies you know where this relationship is heading.

Trouble is, it goes there in record speed, so we never really get to know the characters or why they suddenly bond over not-so-funny jokes. As a result, the interplay between generations and races, concepts that the playwright is clearly trying to explore, fall by the wayside.

Plus, all the old vaudeville acts, corny as they were, achieved success in large part because they were timed down to the split second. But the routines Pompey and Ollie trot out are kind of half-formed and sloppy, coming off more like thrown-together skits at an office party.

Indeed, the entire play feels disassembled, similar to the odd, two-word spelling of ragtime in the title. Like a not particularly entertaining skit, Golden Leaf is short, predictable and without any real depth.

Golden Leaf Rag Time Blues
Through February 28 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

PREVIEW: Bernstein on Broadway, The Musical Theater Project

“There’s a place for us.” And for those of us who love the musicals of Leonard Bernstein, that place will be Mixon Hall at the Cleveland Institute of Music. That’s where The Musical Theater Project is staging its next concert, titled Bernstein on Broadway, March 5 and 6, 2016.

Co-hosted by Bill Rudman and Nancy Maier, the concert will feature songs from composer and conductor Bernstein’s small but powerful, and at times revolutionary, repertoire of musicals. These include West Side Story, Candide, On The Town, and Wonderful Town. (So far, no word on any songs from Bernstein’s unproduced musical, The Race to Urga.)

This is part of TMTP’s ongoing “The Song Is You!” Concert and Cabaret Series. These are fascinating presentations that combine great music with historical details and anecdotes provided by Rudman, our walking repository of all knowledge about American musicals and their creators.

In this concert, Bernstein’s thrilling songs will be sung by three experienced vocal artists: Benjamin Czarnota, Sheri Gross and Sara Masterson. All the arrangements by Cleveland composer Ty Emerson will be played by a small chamber ensemble.

Bernstein on Broadway
Saturday, March 5 at 7 PM and Sunday, March 6 at 2 PM, Mixon Hall, Cleveland Institute of Music, 11021 East Blvd., 216-245-8687,

Monday, February 8, 2016

Detroit ’67, Karamu House

(From left: Phillia as Chelle, Ananias Dixon as Lank, Brandon Brown as Sly, Joelle Sostheim as Caroline.)

Times of crisis certainly bring out the humanity (or inhumanity) of people, as we have seen during various tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina. Those moments can be startling and clarifying.

There are two crises at work in Detroit ’67 by Dominique Morisseau, now at Karamu House. But the interplay between the two events—one personal and one community-wide— doesn’t exactly benefit either one. In fact, they actually minimize each other, which is clearly not the intent.

Siblings Lank (short for Langston Hughes) and Chelle (short for Michelle) are working to turn the basement of the home their parents left them into an illegal after-hours drinking spot.  While Chelle (sharply played by Phillia) is jazzed about this idea, Lank and his pal Sly have their eyes set on buying an actual bar and running a business.

There is some mildly amusing interaction with a new 8-track stereo that Lank (an appealing Ananias J. Dixon) and Sly have purchased to replace the old phonograph player in the basement. And the old tunes coming out of that equipment are sweet.

But then everything changes when Lank carries a large bundle downstairs and it turns out to be an unconscious young white woman named Caroline. He and Sly saw her wandering the street, groggy and beat up, and decided to bring her to Lank’s home.

That in itself is a strange choice, and it just gets weirder from there. Once she is revived, Caroline asks to work as a bar girl in their rec room/club, since she has no purse and nowhere to go. Lank and Chelle agree until Chelle spots her brother and Caroline sharing a quiet moment of friendship and questions Lank’s motives. Meanwhile Chelle’s friend Bunny doesn’t understand what’s going on at all.

It’s pretty easy to agree with Bunny and her smart ass wisecracks, since this really doesn’t make much sense. But the clunky plot device allows the playwright to comment on race and how fate and friendships are affected in tumultuous times. 

Then the stakes should be raised even higher as the Detroit riots of 1967 begin to erupt outside their house. The trouble is, this basement-focused play takes place underground in more ways than one. Lank and Chelle never seem connected to their community in a palpable way, and when the violence ignites above ground, the siblings seem oddly detached. Brandon Brown as Sly and Jameka Terri as Bunny are more emotive, but they often speak too quickly or at the wrong volume for their words to be heard clearly.

As for Caroline, we get a bit of back story relating to her physical injuries, but Joelle Sostheim never quite succeeds in making Caroline a believable person in the odd situation that the playwright has created. Even a tragedy in the second act doesn’t rouse this play from the dramatic doldrums.

Director Justin Emeka is hamstrung by the script, to a degree, which may help explain the rather soporific pace. Plus, the use of video footage taken at the time of the Detroit riots feels tacked on and not particularly relevant to these characters.

There are important things that need to be said these days about race relations and how justice is rendered in this society for African-Americans. But this play seems to duck the hard issues raised by that riot and settles instead for some easy moralizing set to the comforting melodies of those Motown classics.

Detroit ‘67
Through February 28 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Mountaintop, Cleveland Play House


It is common practice for critics not to spoil surprises that occur in plays or movies, so that audiences can experience them fresh. Usually we skate around that big shocker that’s sweating and heaving in the middle of a show, referencing it in hushed tones and oblique asides.

Well, after a couple days of reflection, I say to hell with that. I want to reveal the surprise in The Mountaintop because I find it particularly disturbing. So if you want to preserve the mystery, you can bail out now.

If you’re still reading, here’s the deal. This is a play that takes place the night before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is going to be assassinated. Set in his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, King is spending a late night hour or so talking with Camae, a maid who brought him coffee and the next day’s newspaper.

Playwright Katori Hall has happened upon a conceit that is quite compelling, since we know the character named King has only a few more hours to live. So we hang on his every word. But this King has just come back from his speech that evening in which he virtually predicted his own imminent death (“I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.”) But he is feeling frisky back at the hotel.

We see King flirt, chain smoke and sip whiskey with Camae as the feisty maid talks candidly with the civil rights icon, dropping f-bombs here and there and then apologizing. All this gives us a view of a King who is flawed and human. And up to that point, about halfway through the one-act show, it’s mildly interesting.

But then the tables are turned when the big surprise is revealed: Camae isn’t a maid, she’s actually an angel of death, come down to usher King into heaven. She’s the flip side of Clarence, the Angel 2nd Class in It’s a Wonderful Life, offering an untimely demise instead of a second chance at happiness.

So that means that, in this telling, the assassin James Earl Ray wasn’t just a contemptible, retrograde racist and criminal, he was an agent of the Lord, doing God’s work here on Earth. And to double down on that idea, Camae informs us that God is actually a black woman. Camae even rings Her up on the motel phone so that King can plead for his life, which he does for a couple minutes. But She eventually hangs up on him.

After the initial giddy rush of adrenaline you feel in the presence of such a surprise, even a clumsy one such as this, other less pleasant thoughts start to creep in. If Camae was there to prepare King for death, why did she pretend to be a maid for so long? Just for kicks? Seems a bit perverse, conning a man whom you know is doomed. Maybe things are boring up there in heaven.

Ms. Hall is an African-American playwright who, in this piece, actually creates a scenario that white supremacists would love: Hey, don’t blame us, God made us do it. Of course, Hall isn’t seeing it from that perspective. She wants us to view Dr. King’s murder as something more than a carefully planned homicide, wrapping it up in cheesy martyrdom and then glossing it at the end with a flash-cut montage of events that happened after King’s death (including the O.J. Simpson trial!), drawing facile and mostly nonsensical connections to King’s heritage.

Setting that issue aside, which isn’t easy, the performers do a fine job. Ro Boddie is nicely understated as King, not trying to capture the original’s stentorian speaking style. And Angel (yes, that’s her name) Moore is sharp and amusing as Camae. Director Carl Cofield does what he can with a script that leaps from the mundane to science fiction in one fell swoop.

The production is beset with a couple big theatrical effects that appear to be called for in the script, including a pillow fight between the two characters that looses a torrent of feathers from above. Unfortunately, even with all the technical frou-frou at the end, The Mountaintop is shallow and manipulative, overreaching to make us consider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a saint. He was simply a remarkably gifted man who fought fearlessly and eloquently for human rights. And that should be enough.

The Mountaintop
Through February 14 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.