Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Doll’s House, Mamai Theatre Company

(Anjanette Hall as Nora and Abraham Adams as Thorwald)

Great theater often comes alive in the details, and there are gorgeous details aplenty in the outstanding production of A Doll’s House now at Mamai Theatre Company. This talented troupe has taken an adaptation by Thornton Wilder of the Henrik Ibsen script and turned that old Norwegian play into a fresh and compelling look at a restless and unfulfilled woman in a confining marriage.

But, oh, the details! Take the line “I can’t spend the night in a strange man’s house.” Those words are uttered by Nora, later in the play, when she decides to leave her husband of eight years, Thorwald, much to his surprise. And it sums up, in an instant, the profound disconnection between these two remarkable characters.

In this production, those two characters are given precisely crafted interpretations by Anjanette Hall as Nora and Abraham Adams as Thorwald. Hall’s role has a sweeping trajectory—from childlike “doll” to a self-realized young woman—and Hall brings each aspect of this woman to life with the exactitude of a pointillist. And Adams provides an equally fascinating portrayal of a man who is often rendered as a two-dimensional dufus. Indeed, there are often times when you feel great affection for Adams’ Thorwald, which makes the play resonate even more powerfully.

They are supported in splendid style by four other players. Rachel Lee Kolis is beaten but unbowed as Christina Linden, Nora’s less fortunate gal pal. She shares secrets with Nils Krogstad (a determined yet vulnerable John Busser), a functionary in the bank run by Thorwald. And Tim Keo makes the most of his turn as Dr. Rank. In his scene with Nora, when she entices him with her silk stockings, you can feel the tension ripple through his yearning and unmoving body. Like I said: details.

Director Christine McBurney has found exactly the right pace for this material, and it grabs hold of you from the first lines all the way to the end, some 2½ hours later.  The design team has also done exceptional work, from the multi-level scenic design by Don McBride to the subtle lighting design by Marcus Dana. Kristine Davies’ period costumes are spot-on, and equally effective are Richard Ingraham’s sound cues, capturing party sounds from a floor above, and Monica Plunkett’s specific and appropriate props.

A Doll’s House created a furor back in the day, with a wife and mother willing to forsake her duty to husband and children to assert her own individuality. It’s an early sketch of the feminist mindset, and it is given a stellar production by Mamai that is hugely satisfying from the smallest details to the largest themes.

A Doll’s House
Through August 27 at Mamai Theater, The Helen Rosenfeld Bialosky Lab Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, mamaitheatreco.org.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Music Man, In Concert; Cain Park

It’s been a few years since the gorgeous Evans Amphitheater at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights has played host to a full production of a Broadway show, and that’s a damn shame. This park has been known for years for its artistic credentials, of all kinds, and it seems like a fully-staged musical in the big theater, not just in their small Alma Theater, should be an annual part of that mix. (God knows, those of us who live there pay enough taxes to maybe swing one such production per year. Ahem.)

Anyhow, I suppose the next best thing is to have a concert version of a show. And so we now have The Music Man, in concert, which has a brief two performance run that opened last night and closes this afternoon.

This Meredith Willson musical about an itinerant con man is a treasure of the American musical form, and it is given a sumptuous aural treatment thanks to the talents of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra under the direction of Liza Grossman. More than 45 musicians strong, this young but highly skilled orchestra provides a lush symphonic arrangement for the classic tunes. That part of the show is a triumph.

Other high points of this tune-fest include some notable performances. The barbershop quartet is manned by an existing singing foursome, and the voices of Fred Locker, Chris Folsy, Mike Sabo and David Hipp blend quite well. Chris Richards as reformed travelling salesman Marcellus, Jim Bray as the anvil salesman Charlie Cowell, and Jeanne Task as the Mayor’s wife add some well-timed humorous touches.

In the lead roles, Nicole Sumlin sings superbly as Marian, the skeptical librarian who is wary of Prof. Harold Hill’s arrival in town. As Hill, Eric Fancher also sings well, and he’s off-book while others carry their scripts. But he never quite seems to find the spark of a con man who is reveling in his element among the hicks of River City, Iowa. Sure, it’s a bit unfair to critique the acting in a concert version, but it seems Fancher could amp up Harold’s energy a tad.

As for the rest, director Joanna May Hunkins plays traffic cop to a cast of more than 60 (that’s in addition to the orchestra). And with so many performers doing so many things, the amplification of individual voices is not consistent.

But this is a true community event, with many participants, including very little ones, who are on stage for the first time. So here’s a 76-trombone salute to Cain Park and everyone involved in this production. Let’s hope this wedges open the door for an actual big-stage musical production in the future!

The Music Man, In Concert

Through today at 2 PM at Cain Park, 14591 Superior Road in Cleveland Heights, cainpark.com

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

City of Angels, Beck Center

Putting on the musical City of Angels is a daunting task: Present a show that explores the dark side of Hollywood screenwriting in the 1940s by mashing two different stories together—the script as it’s being written and the “real life” of the screenwriter and those around him. And lets do the former story in film noir-ish black & white and the latter story in full color, with singing, dancing lots of double-casting to handle both stories, and a shitload of scene changes. And make it funny!

That’s a full plate of theatricality to handle, and the Beck Center team under the direction of Scott Spence makes a lot of it work. It helps to have a clever script and in this case they do. Indeed, the words, as penned by the book writer Larry Gelbart for the musical City of Angels, are one of the unalloyed pleasures of this production at the Beck Center.

The clever lines come so fast and furious in this show, it’s almost impossible to catch them all. We’re watching a private eye named Stone start his week in his small Los Angeles office, and listening to his hard-bitten thoughts as they’re typed out by a guy named Stine who’s writing his character in this Sam Spade-style script.

Stone has a grudging appreciation of the la-la-land weather (“There’s enough sunshine to lay some off on Pittsburgh.”) But he’s depressed in general, saying to himself, “Was it only Monday? Can your whole life roll over and play dead, turn bad-side-out in just seven days?”

Gelbart, the iconic comedy writer, has wit and style that other writers only dream of possessing. And that’s good, because there are several aspects of this show that never quite come together in the same superb way as his wry words for Stone, Stine and a couple other characters. And one of them is the overly complex plot that drags in a galaxy of subplots and characters (32!), all of whom have names and something to say. The mind reels.

The music by Cy Coleman with lyrics by David Zippel offer a couple enjoyable moments, such as the Act One closer “You’re Nothing Without Me,” when writer and his fictional creation face off. And then Act Two opens with “You Can Always Count On Me” as one performer, Brittni Shambaugh Addison, plays two put-upon women—Oolie and Donna—and does both justice. But many of the songs reach achieve a sort of period authenticity at the expense of being rather dull musically.

Jamie Koeth is believable as the schlub writer Stine, and he sings great—including an ability to hold the concluding note of a song so long it seems like he rented another lung. And Rob Albrecht, as his doppelganger Stone, snaps off his witty lines with style. But not as much style as Greg Violand employs in the dual role of Stine’s real studio boss Buddy and the screenplay’s fictitious Hollywood producer Irving. Violand knows his way around the stage and he chews the scenery like a gourmand, devouring his many comical moments with relish and inviting the audience to share in his bounty.

Other strong performances are handed in by Leslie Andrew as Gabby and Bobbi (Stine’s wife and Stone’s lover), Carlos Antonio Cruz who plays Vargas and Munoz (the first in Hollywood, the second in the movie), and Sonia Perez as Alaura and Carla (Stone’s wealthy client and, oh…never mind).

The hard-working cast isn’t helped by Jordan Janota’s scenic design, which features a towering and unmoving set of letters spelling out “Hollywood.” Aside from being obvious, this gargantuan presence on the stage impedes many of the projections from being fully seen. In addition, it gets in the way of the color changes that lighting designer Trad A Burns uses to differentiate the scenes. As a result, the visual impact of this production is far less powerful than it might have been.

Hats off to Beck and Spence for taking on this challenge, and to the performers who damn near make it all work. But as Gelbart’s Stone might say of City of Angels, “This plot hopped on the wrong crowded train, grabbed some shuteye, and woke up two stops past Deadtown.”

City of Angels
Through August 13 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org











La Cage Aux Folles, Mercury Theatre Company

(Pierre-Jacques Brault as Geroges and Brian Marshall as Albin)

When a show has a surplus of heart, it proves that other problems are greatly minimized. Take La Cage Aux Folles, now being produced by the Mercury Theatre Company in South Euclid. With great songs by Jerry Herman and a witty book by Harvey Fierstein, it has all the elements necessary for success.

Still, it needs to be infused with talent on stage, and there are a number of off-notes and missed opportunities in this particular production. Even so, the entire enterprise is saved and even elevated by a genuine fondness for the characters and indomitable energy for which MTC has become famous.

As most people know, it’s the story of two gay men who run a gay nightclub in France, front man Georges and flamboyant Albin, who performs as the glorious Zaza. Their lives are idyllic until Georges’ grown son from an incidental encounter with a woman 20 years before shows up. The son is engaged to Anne, and he wants his dad and Albin to butch it up for a visit from his gal’s parents. Anne’s dad, in particular, is so anti-homosexual he makes Mike Pence look like a gay maitre d’ at a –wait, Mike Pence does look like a gay maitre d’…

Anyhow, let’s focus on what’s right with this show. The drag queens of Les Cagelles are a refreshing change from the standard troupe of fellows who are trotted out in often bulky, overdone femme outfits and then proceed to pose prettily and flutter their false eyelashes.

The boys in this crew are often stripped down to some skimpy, girly outfits and they are focused on executing the athletic moves laid out by choreographer Melissa Bertolone. Even when there are some stumbles, the boys go for it and take no prisoners. They are: Christian Flaherty, Nathan Hoty, Brian Lego, Austin Rubinosky, Brandon Santana, and Jake Washabaugh. And they are bee-yoo-tee-ful!

Of course, the major reason to see this La Cage is to see the theater co-founders, Pierre-Jacques Brault and Brian Marshall, play the lead roles of, respectively, Georges and Albin.  Brian is a constant and welcome presence on the MTC stage, and although he doesn’t exactly knock this role out of the park, he lands the moments that count. In particular, his rendering of “I Am What I Am” is quite touching.

One the other hand, Brault rarely performs since he usually directs all the shows, as he does here. His performance, although loaded with charm, could have benefited from a director (other than himself) who might have goosed his characterization a bit.

Fortunately the leads are backed up by some solid actors in smaller roles—Jennifer Myor as Jaqueline, the owner of a cafĂ©, Andrew Nelin as Jean-Michel, the grown son of Georges, and Rachel Marie Smith as Jean-Michel’s fiancee Anne. Almost as important as any of the people on stage are the dazzling and sometimes daring costumes designed by DW.

There are some aspects of the production, however, that seem to suffer from Brault’s divided attention. In the featured comedy role of Jacob, Georges and Albin’s butler and wannabe maid Jacob, Antonio Brown relies on a few isolated schticks and doesn’t find a strong character hook or consistent through-line, leaving a lot of laughs un-chuckled. And some aspects of the plot get short shrift due to unspecific staging decisions.

But damn, this show has got tons of heart, and the energy to display it without compromise.

La Cage Aux Folles
Through July 22, produced by the Mercury Theater Company, Notre Dame College, Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatercompany.org






Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Ain’t Misbehavin’, Porthouse Theatre

There are some undeniably great tunes in this show, which is a compendium of songs written by the incredible Fats Waller, a man who could play jazz piano like no other. But since there is no book to tie the tunes together, it falls to the director and cast to keep the energy and momentum at a peak level.

This production at Porthouse Theater is only successful part of the time, and the strain to keep it all working starts to become evident along the way.

It seems that the two gentlemen who conceived the show, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Murray Horwitz, probably sat down one morning, wrote out a list of Fats Waller songs, declared the show completed and then broke early for lunch.  Oh sure, there are a few lines of dialog to set up certain pieces, but there is no through line of information about the composer. And that is a damn shame, since Mr. Waller was quite an interesting presence in the jazz era during the first half of the 20th century.

Another wrinkle is that, although there are 30 songs in the production, only a few of them rise to the level of greatness. It’s hard to miss with the title song and other ditties such as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” and the classic novelty piece “You Feet’s Too Big.” But many of the other numbers just kind of lay there.

This problem can be ameliorated to some degree by performers who invest the material with unique energy. And that does happen at times. Jim Weaver is a sly and sinuous presence in most of his songs, and he particularly glows in “T’Ain’t Nobody’s biz-ness If I Do” and in the slow and sensual “The Viper’s Drag.” And Tina Stump uses her excellent pipes and undeniable stage presence to make “Squeeze Me” and other tunes leap off the stage.

The other three performers—Chantrell “Channy” Lewis, Aveena Sawyer and Eugene Sumlin—each have moments that work fine. But they are ultimately done in by the sparsely written show and never develop characters that fully resonate.

Director Eric van Baars keeps his actors in constant motion, and that becomes a problem all its own since there are so many exits and entrances the stage at times appears to be a concourse in a train station.

Of course, dazzling costumes might help but the costumes in this show disappoint. The men wear slick period suits but costume designer Susan J. Williams puts the women in the same style dress, in three different colors. And they don’t even change frocks after intermission, just add a bit of sparkle to the Act One duds. Emphasis on dud. In a similar way, the scenic design by Patrick Ulrich features a large scalloped art deco fan assemblage that captures the era but never evolves into anything more interesting.

One undeniable star onstage is the music director and pianist Edward Ridley, Jr., who pounds out the tunes with unstinting enthusiasm and skill. It’s actually too bad he and his two band-mates aren’t given their own featured slot, other than the short entr’acte.

This show has become a reliable chestnut for many theaters, but it still needs fresh energy and risk-taking to make it come alive. The Porthouse production sparks to life at times, particularly in the wonderful “Black and Blue” number that reveals the hurt behind the jazz and jive. But in general, Ain’t Misbehavin’ ain’t misbehavin’ enough.

Ain’t Misbehavin’
Through July 22 at Porthouse Theatre, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, 3143 O'Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884, https://www.kent.edu/porthouse


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

As You Like It, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

(Ryan Zarecki as Orlando and Tess Burgler as Rosalind)

If you don’t like change, especially with theater companies fussing around with updated interpretations of Shakespeare, then you’ll love the work of the Ohio Shakespeare Festival. Under the guidance of co-artistic directors Terry Burgler and Nancy Cates, pretty much nothing ever changes.

In As You Like It, their current production, the story hasn’t been re-imagined as a contemporary corporate retreat in the woods. There are no tweets or karaoke woven into the text to keep young folks interested. But even while using the same old period costumes and same old reliable two-stairway set, OSF manages to once again light up the woods with delight.

It all begins a half-hour before the curtain with a “Greenshow” of music and japery, an audience warm-up that will definitely get you laughing and clapping. Two features of the pre-show are the singing and strumming by Jason Leupold (who does likewise in the play) and a mano-a-mano battle between Ryan Zarecki and Joe Pine. This tightly choreographed displau is highlighted by an entangled wrestling move where they throw each other onto their feet, in turn, over and over again.

The play is as intensely engaging as the pre-show, offering a volley of its own pleasures. In a bow to some contemporary instincts, director Terry Burgler implements some cross-gender casting, with Katie Zarecki playing Frederick, brother of Orlando (an adorable Ryan Zarecki, Katie’s husband, who literally swings from the balcony as he plants love poems to Rosalind in the forest). And Tess Burgler (Terry’s daughter) plays a feisty Rosalind, at times crossdressed as Ganymede, while Tess’s husband, Joe Pine, plays the wrestler Charles. As you can see, OSF is a family affair in some convoluted ways that would no doubt please the Bard.

Old Will would also be pleased by the director’s deft handling of the performance, with actors often making eye contact with the audience and bringing them into the action on (and off) the stage. As a result, this fun-filled romance clips along at a merry pace, augmented by Trevor Buda as a particularly pathetic and love-torn Silvius, hilarious Lara Mielcarek as the romantically misdirected Phebe, and Andrew Gorell’s amusing turn as the clown Touchstone. Sarah Coon as Roz’s gal pal Celia adds some dimension to the proceedings, as does Geoff Knox, who delivers the iconic “Seven Ages of Man” speech as melancholy Jaques with specificity and precision.

The Ohio Shakespeare Festival is a treat—sitting out by the lagoon at Stan Hywet Hall and being serenaded by bullfrogs as evening turns to night. Just make sure you’re planted in your seat a half-hour before show time!

As You Like It
Through July 16 at Ohio Shakespeare Festival, Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 100 S. High St., Akron, 888-718-4253, ohioshakespearefestival.com






Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How To Be A Respectable Junkie, Dobama Theatre

We’re Number One, We’re Number One!! Yes, the state of Ohio is at the top in the nation…when it comes to deaths from opioid overdoses (Ohio Department of Health, 2014). Abuse of opioids, those drugs derived from opium, has become a way of life for many here in Buckeye land. So it’s appropriate that a play addressing that particularly horrific and confounding problem should have its world premiere here.

Although it’s sometimes wise to steer clear of plays that have an obvious healthcare or public service message, local playwright Gregory Vovos has crafted a powerful piece of theater in How To Be A Respectable Junkie. This one-person, 90-minute piece is a journey through the woes of a white-collar fellow who’s become hooked and can’t (or won’t) give it up.

Brian is a 30-something dude who lives in his mother’s basement because he wants to spend every dime of his salary on the drugs he lives for. But he’s coming to the end of his rope, so he’s decided to share his hard-won knowledge, expressed in the title, on a video recorder he’s recently stolen.

As he talks and rants to the camera, he exchanges “dialog” with his dog Hope, given to him by his mother on the off chance a pet might alter his doomed trajectory. We never see the yapping dog, which is kept in a crate covered with blankets, but we see plenty of Brian as he decomposes before our eyes.

Playwright Vovos clearly knows his way around this territory, and the details he uses to explain how druggies shoot up, avoid detection, and deal with relatives is brutally precise. The amazingly talented actor Christopher M. Bohan brings Brian to painful life, as Brian confesses his weaknesses and rages at “earthlings” for not understanding how difficult it is to fight this addiction.

The play is nearly perfect right up until the last ten minutes, when Vovos surrenders to that bugaboo of many playwrights: over-explaining. As a result, the show limps to a conclusion as the eventually healthy Brian delivers a mini-seminar on how he has a new purpose in life, all to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

The ending, well-meaning though it is, is way too pat. But most of Junkie is right on the mark, showing us earthlings how it feels to be stuck on the business end of those deadly needles.

How To Be A Respectable Junkie
Through July 2 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org


Monday, June 19, 2017

Rock of Ages, Cain Park

Sometimes, a show comes along that will just not be denied. No matter how much you want to dislike it for a cavalcade of minor offenses—from desperately unfunny gags to a plotline that predictably creaks and groans—the damn show eventually wins you over.

Based on the 2012 film, the jukebox musical Rock of Ages is, let’s face it, a mess on several fronts.  As created by book author Chris D’Arienzo and Ethan Popp, who arranged and orchestrated the mid- to late- ‘80s rock tunes made popular by established artists (ie. Bon Jove, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, etc.), the play is a rock concert with a storyline stapled clumsily to it.

But the performers under the dazzling direction of Joanna May Hunkins are so balls-to-the-wall energetic, you eventually set aside your carping and go with the flow—from the blinding stage lights to the equally blinding hairdos.

It’s all based on a love story between wannabe rocker Drew and Sherrie, a gal from Kansas who just landed on Sunset Strip looking for stardom. Their love match is contrasted with the dastardly Hertz Klinemann (Kevin Kelly, deploying a hilarious, borderline impenetrable German accent) and his swishy (but not gay!) son Franz (a campy David Turner). The Germans want to turn The Strip into a strip mall for profit, gutting the Bourbon Room where all the rockers hang out.

It’s the krauts vs. the kidz and if you can’t guess who wins you need to have your brain bleached and teased until it resembles the big hair that traipses across the Alma Theatre stage.

Even though the plot is threadbare and the jokes are lame (some names of bands playing the club are called Concrete Balls and Steel Jizz. Um, really? The book author couldn’t even nail the “funny band name” gag?), the show works because it never lets up in its desire to be liked. It tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to make fun of itself at times. But the things that really work are the songs, performed by a talented band under the direction of Jordan Cooper and a talented cast of singers and dancers.

Shane Lonergan and Lauren Ashley Berry kick out the jams as Drew and Sherrie respectively, sharing one thankfully tender moment in a park with wine coolers. It is all narrated by Lonny, a relentlessly entertaining Douglas F. Bailey II, who pulls the storyline along like dragging a dead elephant seal across wet sand.

For a while, Sherrie is attracted to the visiting rock icon Stacee Jaxx, played with arrogant hauteur by Connor Bogart O’Brien—when the lead singer isn’t barfing his guts out from his latest excesses with various substances. And Neely Gevaart as Regina (It’s pronounced to rhyme with vagina…stop, you’re killing me) and Trinidad Snider as the sultry strip club madam Justice each add kickass singing and clever character portrayals to the mix. The cleverest twist in the show is when Lonny and club owner Dennis (Phillip Michael Carroll) discover each other in “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”

To tell the truth, when it comes to rock/jukebox musicals “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” But if you want a show to “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and give it to you “Any Way You Want It,” just “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Rock of Ages at Cain Park is a big, juicy slice of “Cherry Pie.”

Rock of Ages

Through June 25 at Cain Park, 14591 Superior Road, Cleveland Heights, 800-745-3000, cainpark.com

The Taming of the Shrew, Cleveland Shakespeare Festival

Ever since the original Shakespeare companies used boys and young men to play women’s roles, the layering and twisting of gender has been a substantial part of old Will’s entertainments. But it’s doubtful even The Man himself ever considered having the key men’s roles in The Taming of the Shrew played by women—since the dominant and submissive roles among men and women were so set in stone in the 17th Century. And (ahem) still are, in many ways.

But women do play men in the lively production of Shrew, now touring around Cleveland and northeast Ohio under the banner of the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. This hardy troupe, now celebrating their 20th season of presenting free Shakespeare al fresco, has taken this classic play and turned it on its head. As director Lisa Ortenzi notes in the program, “I wanted to see how Shrew would play out if mostly women took on the male roles.”

How does it work? Well, it depends how you look at it. Since women also play the main female characters, the gender switch is only half complete. From one perspective, it’s fascinating to watch capable female actors spout the words of the sexist Petruchio (a boisterous and entirely dominating Kelly Elliot), comical Tranio (Grace Mitri, continually swiveling and posturing), elderly Gremio (Samantha Cocco, adopting an old man’s manner and gait), and blue-balled Hortensio (a coiled and eager Hannah Storch).

But from another perspective, the gender flip can seem a bit of a gimmick, like having women play Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple. Ever since Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in a prose version of that play in 1899, we’ve been intrigued by the idea of women playing men. (God knows we’ve had enough of the reverse). But those examples—Glenn Close playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan along with countless other gals playing Peter himself, Laura Welsh Berg playing the title role in Hamlet in this year’s Great Lakes Theater production—don’t readily come to mind. The reason for that should be the subject for another treatise.

In any case, this CSF production is often witty and quite enjoyable. That is the case, even though actors in a few of the roles need to be zapped with a taser to chill out a bit and consider the value of throwing a line away now and then.

All CSF plays are free, all you have to do is bring a blanket or a low-slung chair and plug into the fun. Their second and final production of the summer, Macbeth, begins July 21. Presumably with a male in the lead role…although you never know.

The Taming of the Shrew

Through July 2 at various outdoor venues, consult the schedule at cleveshakes.com

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Carousel, Mercury Theater Company

If you’re looking for reasons to see Carousel again, the iconic musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II that opened on Broadway more than 70 years ago, you won’t have to search far.

The show features signature R&H touches, such as the surprising “Carousel Waltz” that opens the show, without a word being sung or spoken, and moving quickly into the wonderful conversation-turned-song, performed by characters Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge, in the form of “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” and “Mister Snow.”

Carrie is the love interest of Enoch Snow, a fisherman who is absolutely head-over-heels in love until he spots Carrie getting up close and personal with Jigger Craigin (a sleazy yet amusing Brian Lego). Brian Marshall struts and prances entertainingly as Snow and, playing Julie’s gal pal Carrie, CorLesia Smith sings well but never quite finds the playful core of this character, who should be more amusing than she is here.

This was only the second show for the duo of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and its musical power ranges from the merely interesting (“A Real Nice Clambake”) to incredibly powerful (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”). In short, it’s a feast for the ears. In this production by the Mercury Theatre Company, the beauty of the music comes through, with the singers accompanied by two pianos. All the performers have some strong singing chops, and most of the songs are well represented.

As shy and docile Julie, an excellent Jennifer Myor is the punching bag for impulsive and mean Billy Bigelow. Indeed, their abusive relationship is at the center of the show. And the fact that the authors tend to forgive Billy for his beastly behavior (he supposedly pushes Julie around out of love, and because he’s unhappy with his life. Boo-hoo.) doesn’t exactly resonate well in this day and age.

But aside from that stuff, Myor and Ryan Everett Wood as Billy handle the complex song-dialog “If I Loved You” with style. Their strong voices play well off each other. And at the end of the first act, Wood sings the introspective and daring “Soliloquy” (it’s eight minutes long) with deep understanding.

There isn’t much eye candy in this production, since NicholasThornburg’s set design is almost monochromatic at times—no colorful horses for the carousel or multicolored banners waving. Indeed, the design almost invites the audience to close their eyes and listen to the voices. But you’d better not, otherwise you’d miss some spectacular dance numbers choreographed by Melissa Bertolone.

By featuring a plot that touches on abuse, suicide and flawed people, it shows how the musical form was growing up back in the 1940s. It’s the earthiness embedded in lyricism that makes Carousel stand out, still today. And it’s why it’s worth a look. And a listen.

Carousel
Through June 24 at Mercury Theater Company, Notre Dame College, Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatercompany.org



Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Red Ash Mosaic, Cleveland Public Theatre

We humans have a strange relationship with death, and that’s as it should be. After all, we’re the only animals (as far as we know) who are aware of our own mortality. That does tend to focus the mind.

The minds at Cleveland Public Theatre have been focused on this topic fairly frequently over the years, presenting “devised theater” (collaborative works by a group of people, usually including the performers). In the latest version, Red Ash Mosaic, director/performer Raymond Bobgan and his team attempt to explore the mysteries of death, following the manner of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, in unexpected and innovative forms. 

It is difficult to hold such presentations up against the usual measuring stick of most plays, since plot is minimal and character development virtually nonexistent. Instead, it must be judged based on how well it achieves what it seeks, which is to confront the audience with, as Bobgan states in his program notes, “issues of identity, the divine, and what it means to live.”

Oh, is that all? Yes, the goals for this material are grandiose, but if you believe that theater should set its sights high, this can be intoxicating stuff. Of course, as with most intoxicants, not all the results are splendid and sometimes you wind up barfing on your shoes. But that’s to be expected.

In this piece, a few cast members, along with the stage manager who makes occasional appearances, gather on a black tiled square ringed with floor lights. They appear to be in a video game arcade or store—two guys are playing a blow-‘em-up game, a woman is searching for a gift, and the clerk is helping them out.

But when a thunderstorm hits, some others duck inside for cover, including a Muslim woman wearing a black hijab and long black dress. She is also carrying a backpack, which she eventually leaves in the store, leading the others to question whether it’s a bomb or just an innocent bag left carelessly behind.

That backpack becomes a centerpiece for the ensuing scenes, as the eight performers begin to riff on how they might be facing eternity in the next few seconds, or maybe not. In any case, death is “right over your shoulder” and they launch into various types of reflections, sometimes speaking and sometimes singing or chanting, to convey their thoughts on The Big Sleep. Some of these thoughts are rather banal (“The river is deep and wide and it flows so fast.”), while others are more intriguing, referring to “an explosion in the mind’s eye.”

What remains intriguing throughout is how director Bobgan choreographs his players as thoughts bubble up under their skin. The performers often writhe and move individually, then break into group movement, sometimes responding to the dreaded backpack like iron filings being moved around by a powerful magnet. In the past, Bobgan has used these mass movements frequently, but in this show they are even more precise and controlled.

There are also moments of surpassing beauty. One occurs when a performer sprinkles the stage with snow from a basket perched on the end of a long pole and another is imagined dead, with dark ashes covering his body.

There is also a lovely interlude in the second act when a woman flies around the stage in a harness, a la Peter Pan or a human tetherball. It is charming, but it goes on for far too long, which is noticeable since another performer is speaking words the whole time. But it’s hard to concentrate on those complex phrases when there’s a woman flying around above your head. Indeed, after a while it seems like the person talking during the extended aerial act was one of Charlie Brown’s teachers intoning “Waa, waa, waa.”

The performers are fully committed to this material, and they do their jobs well. In addition to Bobgan, they are Faye Hargate, Adam Seeholzer, Dionne Atchison, Sarah Moore, Holly Holsinger, and Darius Stubbs. The frequently-observed stage manager is Colleen McGaughey.

While some thoughts eventually land with power, they are often overwhelmed with jejune poetry involving bridges, mirrors, and windows. And then there are the questions (“Do stories have souls?”) that are sometimes more puzzling than interesting.

Still, Bobgan and his troupe are exploring huge ideas with fierce theatrical imagination and a rippling physicality, which is a lot more than you can say about most plays.

Red Ash Mosaic
Through June 17 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727, cptonline.org




Sunday, May 21, 2017

Medea At Six, Playground Theater in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre

How do ratings and entertainment value influence the news? It’s a juicy topic that playwright and director Scott Miller engages in his Medea At Six, a retelling of the Greek Medea tale through the eyes of a local TV news crew.

In this telling, hot-shot TV reporter Janet is tracking down a story about a woman, Medea Colchis, who broke into a bank meeting and threatened the CEO with a knife. Now she and her cameraman are outside the woman’s house, where the familiar Medea tale is trotted out once again, complete with Jason, this time in modern dress.

The conflict, such as it is, is built around whether Janet will intercede to stop the awful events in progress, or keep filming to boost ratings and goose her career, sending her to a bigger market and a fatter salary.

And at another time, this play might have more resonance. But let’s face it, we’re living right now amidst the carnage that has resulted from a similar media disaster: television networks that sold their souls for ratings during the past Presidential campaign, handing their networks over totally to the appearances of a pouty, foul-mouthed man-child who—thanks to often slack-jawed and adoring coverage on CNN, Fox News and elsewhere—has become the leader of the “Free (for now) World.”

As they say, timing is everything. And while the Medea yarn is certainly ghastly, it’s questionable if it stacks up in horror to the United States losing its democracy thanks to the craven hidden agenda of much of the media.

That said, the cast under Miller’s direction emotes with all the angst and passion you might expect in any rendering of this bloody myth. As Medea, Nina Domingue paints a well-nuanced portrait of a woman scorned and damaged beyond all imagination. As Janet, Alison Garrigan is all business as she struggles to resolve her inner conflict, and Ananias Jason Dixon moans effectively when he learns about what his former lover Medea has done after being rejected by him.

At its present length of one hour, the play doesn’t develop sufficiently to allow the media aspect to land solidly. And by taking itself so seriously, the whole news industry angle seems to dissipate. Perhaps a more absurd take on the whole proceedings, with a TV weatherman doing segues from the carnage and a TV sports guy comparing the disaster to the latest Patriots’ victory would make the point with more punch and less pathos.

Medea At Six
Through May 21, produced in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre and Playground Theater, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Forever Plaid, Great Lakes Theater

There is a day in the future that we can all anticipate with glee. That is the day when no one will be making Ed Sullivan jokes anymore, because no one will fucking remember The Ed Sullivan Show, nor any of the acts that trotted across its TV stage. And that goes double for pretty much all the lame  1950s nostalgia that is dragged out to coax faint chuckles from the pre-dead.

Speaking as a member of that ancient group, I have about had it up to here with shows such as Forever Plaid, now at Great Lakes Theater, since they pander to those of us 70 years and older with syrupy tunes and lame humor. And the Ed Sullivan schtick is part of this tepid song ‘n’ dance exercise, as the actors perform a frenzied, capsule version of that long-ago variety show. When was it decided we oldsters like that crap? I’ll take reruns of Veep any day to guys pretending to be The Four Freshmen harmonizing to “Lady of Spain.”

But hey, each to their own. If you love those close-harmony boy singing groups crooning “Shangri-la” and reliving the Eisenhower era, fire up your Rascal and head on down to East 14th Street. Because even though the show, which is “written” by Stuart Ross, is flimsy and yawn-inducing it won’t matter – because you forget everything at this point anyhow. It's one of the tiny blessings of old age.

The performers are four young lads who all studied at Baldwin Wallace University, which is evidence of their intelligence and talent. And the group of them—Mack Shirilla, Andrew Kotzen, Mickey Patrick Ryan and James Penca—bring boyish verve and endless energy to the mercifully brief proceedings.

The cast is supported by a team of BW teachers and alumni including director Victoria Bussert, choreographer Gregory Daniels, music director Matthew Webb and scenic designer Jeff Herrmann. They all do their jobs professionally but, really, does anyone care? It’s Forever Plaid, for God’s sake.

It’s understandable that GLT mixes in some easier-to-swallow fare along with their Shakespeare plays, to keep the subscribers happy and the seats filled. But do we really have to help keep this kind of tripe alive? I mean, we’re old, but we ain’t dead yet.

Forever Plaid
Through May 21 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org




These Mortal Hosts, New Ground Festival at the Cleveland Play House

Are there beings or spirits or entities that live inside us?  It would seem so, especially in the morning hours when we are beset with borborygmus, the wonderfully onomatopoetic term for stomach rumblings. (Who the hell is in my intestines anyhow, making all that racket?)

Most of the time, however, we are untroubled by such disturbing thoughts. Not so the three people in These Mortal Hosts, a world premiere play by Cleveland playwright Eric Coble now being presented as part of the often stimulating New Ground Festival at the Cleveland Play House. In this 100-minute one-act, we meet three average people from tiny Dove Creek, Colorado who have apparently had their bodies annexed by some force that they can’t control. And we’re not talking about a craving for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups here because, as we soon learn, these unseen occupiers are pretty serious.

It is a fascinating premise for a play by the preternaturally prolific Eric Coble. He’s written more than 200 scripts of various kinds over the past 25 years--which computes to eight per year or one every six-and-a-half weeks. That means Coble is writing a script more often than most of us attempt much less challenging activities, such as rearranging our sock drawer. More power to him for that.

For the first half of Hosts, directed by Laley Lippard, the idea of having an uncontrollable force inside our body is compelling. In quick succession we meet middle-aged bank manager Phyllis, high school student Meaghan and a veteran butcher named Earl. They are strangers to each other, and they pretty much exist in their own silos as they address the audience and share their current fixations.

For all his cutting and slicing of animal carcasses, Earl is slightly amazed that he’s never seen any of his own blood, even from a loose tooth as a kid. But one day, he feels a pressure in his chest. Meaghan is mightily attracted to schoolmate Troy at a party and evinces the usual teenage girl angst, until she starts hearing a voice in her head. And Phyllis, single and childless, obsesses over her two black cats, Inkwell and Mr. Mistoffelees, until she finds something going on in her body to obsess about.

At first, these people and their problems seem not all that significant. And Coble treats them as such, using his proven ability to craft quips and amusing punch lines with deft precision. In particular, tightly-wrapped Phyllis generates a number of laughs as she talks about her life at home and at work, reveling in how she positions her desk just right in the bank so she can see everything.

Trouble is, she can’t see what’s happening inside her own body. And when she stops having her period and finds she’s pregnant—without having had sex for more than six years—the whole play flips upside-down. Let’s face it, no matter what else happens in a play, when a virgin birth is occurring that means we’re talking religion until the final curtain.

Aside from abandoning a promising premise, there are other challenges this script faces. By having the characters address the audience instead of each other (for the most part), we get no real sense of what they have at stake as they experience their physical, mental and spiritual changes. Sure, Earl talks lovingly about his wife Helen, but we never hear from her, while Phyllis and Meaghan are off on their own.

Coble attempts to address this by having Earl visit one-time customer Phyllis in the bank, bringing her offerings of liver and muffins. This relationship, aside from any religious connotations, comes across as forced and manipulative. And as Meaghan gradually makes peace with the voice in her head, she sees herself as The Messenger who must Proclaim to the world and Shield those who do not possess her vision. It’s not at all clear if this is supposed to be inspiring or downright scary. If it’s up to the audience, I vote for scary.

The climax of the play attempts to be shocking and disturbing, but since so much of the play has been taken up with jokey asides, the impact at that point is muted. Call it a death by a hundred quips.

Although the play has issues, the cast delivers Coble’s words with passion and power. As Earl, Fabio Polanco has a rough-hewn honesty and simple goodness, which helps anchor a play that desperately needs it. Megan Medley conjures a number of laughs as Meaghan, especially when she uses her newfound power to intimidate some boys at school. And Amy Fritsche deftly portrays Phyllis as a coiled bundle of nerves until pregnancy releases her in more ways than one.

The mission of the New Ground Festival is to help new plays get launched, and that is indeed an honorable and laudatory goal. So major props to CPH for this effort! One hopes that the Festival thrives for years to come and continues to feature emerging theatrical voices—not so much those playwrights who already (and justifiably) enjoy consistent exposure of their fine work at multiple venues locally and across the country.

These Mortal Hosts
Through May 20 at Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com.



Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Hand to God, Dobama Theatre

(Luke Wehner as Jason/Tyrone)

The definition of a passion play is a dramatic performance representing the Passion of Jesus Christ, involving his suffering and death. It is a staple of many celebrations of Lent in several Christian denominations.

The thing is, that word “passion” can take you in more than one direction. And in this play by Robert Askins, there is plenty of passion set in a church building, but most of it is of the four-letter-word, violent and sexually-drenched variety. 

Taking a cue from the outrageous puppets in Avenue Q, this dark comedy centers on a Sunday school classroom of a church in a small Texas town. This is where recently widowed Margery is trying to teach her charges Jason, Jessica and Timothy about the Lord, using puppets as a vehicle to reach them. Jason is her son, and it turns out she reaches him all too well, since timid Jason has apparently bonded with his puppet Tyrone in a dangerous way.

Indeed, it seems balls-to-the-wall Tyrone has taken over Jason’s fragile personality and is using him to lambaste everyone in sight, including Pastor Greg. As Tyrone says in his opening speech, speaking from a puppet stage in the classroom: “The same motherfucker who invented the group kill and team virtue—that ballsy piece of pig shit—topped all his previous work and invented the devil.”

And Tyrone is here to make sure the devil gets his due. As performed by Luke Wehner, Jason/Tyrone is a fascinating and at times abhorrent creation, giving voice to the unspeakable thoughts Jason has swirling around in his head—as most of us do, of course. Tyrone is all id and, since he's not actually President of the United States, he's hilarious. 

Meanwhile, Timothy (Austin Gonser) is a walking adolescent hard-on with maximum sexual potency and very little focus, Jessica (Molly Israel) is trying to deal with Jason’s infatuation and Margery begins to let down her pretense of civility and starts to respond to Timothy’s insistent entreaties. During all this, Pastor Greg (David Burgher) is trying to make time with Margery.

In other words, it’s a pretty conventional church setting with all the hypocrisy, concealed emotions and screwed-up family relationships fully revealed. And that is what Askins is about, as he thrusts Tyrone into this supposedly calm and rational world.

Sure-handed director Matthew Wright keeps the pacing tight, even when the script tends to get bogged down in a bit too much repetition. And the ensemble performances are quite adept. But it is Wehner’s star turn as the man with the devil stuck on the end of his arm that steals the show and is worth the price of admission.

Hand to God
Through May 21 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org



Freaky Friday, Cleveland Play House

There’s no denying that the gimmick at the heart of this show, a musical version of the 1976 Disney movie, is a sure-fire winner. I mean, a mom and self-employed event planner named Katherine and her teenage daughter Ellie magically exchange bodies and set the stage for lots of generational laughs (Mom has to go to high school and deal with those rotten kids! Snarky teenager has to convince a wedding magazine to do a cover story on her mom’s business!).

For this effort, the cross-generational jokes have been updated to the 21st century by book writer Bridget Carpenter. In addition, they’ve hired Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey to, respectively, do the music and lyrics. Seems like a no-brainer, since these guys put together the stunning musical Next to Normal. You even have renowned scenic designer Beowulf Boritt creating a wonderfully flexible yet simple set, utilizing continually morphing columns that roll about in various configurations against a suburban landscape.

So, how can you miss? Well, let’s put it this way: IT WOULD BE EXHAUSTING TO READ THIS REVIEW IF EVERY SENTENCE WAS SCREAMING AT YOU AT THE TOP OF IT’S LUNGS AND NEVER GIVING YOU A CHANCE TO BREATHE!

Similarly, it is tiring to watch a musical that attempts to turn every song into an anthem. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with Broadway anthems, those show-stopping numbers (think “I Am What I Am” or “Lullaby of Broadway”) that people leave the theater talking about. Wow, they say, that was powerful!

The trick is, that power is generated because the anthems are high points in a show, not the entire musical fabric. But in this production, virtually every song is composed and sung like an anthem, at full volume and with maximum emotional investment. This is all in the service of a plot that, while clever, depends on a rather flimsy one-joke premise.

As a result, the potentially tender, lightly amusing and affecting fantasy is crushed under the brutal treads of the Kitt/Yorkey pop-rock sonic muggings and music director Andrew Graham’s unrelenting intensity. In a different context, a couple of the song-anthems would be quite satisfying, since the premise-setting “Just One Day” and the secret-revealing “Busted” are quite entertaining. But in this production, they’re just another blast in the face.

In addition to the over-torqued songs, Yorkey is given to writing lyrics that are jammed with information—no “moon-June” simplicity for him. This worked brilliantly in the aforementioned Next to Normal, since it dealt with serious mental illness issues. Lots to delve into there. But in this show, his wordy delectation of the not-so-deep, storybook central theme quickly becomes overkill. In “No More Fear,” Katherine in the body of Ellie laments her past parental decisions in excruciating detail:  “How long have I kept an even keel?/How hard have I worked to keep our life so calm and neat?/How do I clean up this mess I made?” Maybe Yorkey could clean up this situation by not trying so hard.

Happily, there are some survivors. When the actors are not screaming their lungs hoarse in songs that require much less vocal commitment, they do a nice job under the direction of Christopher Ashley. As Katherine, Heidi Blickenstaff channels the insolent postures and snotty attitudes of her daughter with precision, and she’s quite amusing. In the less showy role of Ellie, Emma Hunton spends most of her time bringing adult good sense and reasonable behavior to her daughter’s sloppily clad body.  And they are well supported by David Jennings as Katherine’s fiancĂ© Mike, Chris Ramirez as Ellie’s high school dream-hunk Adam, and Jake Heston Miller as Katherine’s young son Fletcher.

But as effective as some of the dialog scenes are, musicals rise and fall on the music. And in this production, the music attacks the audience like a Marine drill sergeant, intent on taking no prisoners. As clever as it is, the songs in this Freaky Friday could lead to Migraine Monday.

Freaky Friday kicks off this year’s New Ground Festival at the Cleveland Play House. The Festival also includes a world premiere play by local playwright Eric Coble, These Mortal Hosts, May 11-20; The Nolan Williams Project, a new musical concert presentation, May 20; and The Chinese Lady, a reading of a new play by Lloyd Suh, May 20.

Freaky Friday
Through May 20 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com