Friday, October 20, 2017

The Family Claxon, Cleveland Public Theatre

When it comes to encouraging and nurturing new work in theater, no other organization comes close to matching the track record of Cleveland Public Theater. Over the years, they have used multiple formats to help playwrights develop their plays from raw beginnings to the finished product.

And now, they are presenting the first work from their Catapult New Play Development program, which is intended to move works from early or mid-development phase to being production ready. This script, by the much-produced local playwright Eric Coble, is titled The Family Claxon. And it is a fast-paced, high energy mess from start to finish.

In his program notes, the estimable executive creative director of CPT, Raymond Bobgan, suggests that this play is an example of “cutting edge theater” and is “edgy and cool.” Although I have enormous respect for Bobgan and his remarkable achievements as a leader of theater in Cleveland and beyond, I beg to differ.

This play is about as entertaining as the loud, blaring car horn referenced in the title, and like an old-time claxon it is just as hard to listen to for 90 uninterrupted minutes. Coble’s work attempts to be fierce and over-the-top but then trots out well-worn jokes and lots of oh-aren’t-they-wacky! characters. In addition, there is non-stop running, and tripping as performers take pratfalls on scenic designer Ryan T. Patterson’s two-story set. In other words, we’ve seen all this before.

And it is all strung together with a noticeable lack of wit. The plot revolves around Andrew Claxon, a middle-age dad who is trying to throw a party for his way-past-elderly granddad on the old guy’s 150th birthday. Meanwhile, the house and the surrounding neighborhood are collapsing all around them. Granddad (Kayla Gray) sits slumped in a wheelchair for the entire show, aside from a few spasms and medical emergencies, while Andrew (Abraham McNeil Adams) dashes about the house, most of the time without his pants on, mugging continuously. Are you laughing yet?

The Claxon clan also includes mom Evette (Colleen Longshaw) who works for a big corporation as a C.I.M (Chief Inspiration Officer). Coble sets his sights on mocking corporate America, but his popgun references don’t even make a dent. Nor do his attempts at being current by having Claxon daughter Catie (Hillary Wheelock) and neighbor guy Zhang Sallerendos (JP Peralta) appear as “revolutionaries” who are fighting the system.

One reason that none of this lands effectively is that the accomplished director Craig J. George drives his cast to shout their lines while spouting them at maximum speed. As a result, any chance of being amused by some of Coble’s more nuanced comedic phrasings is bulldozed, and the cartoonish dystopian world he attempts to convey just seems boring and irritating. 

Of course, the instinct to get through all of this as fast as possible is understandable given the tired ideas that are dragged out. For example, there are foreign people with funny names who talk weird, and they wander through the Claxon house in tried-and-true sitcom style. These people are played with varying degrees of understandable desperation by Victoria Zajac, Ananias J. Dixon, Maryann Elder and Olivia Scicolone.

Plus, there are many poop and pee jokes since the neighborhood is evidently sinking and toilets are exploding. Indeed, Andrew’s slacks are soaked with the stuff for a while, before he doffs them, while other actors wave their hands in front of their noses and make frowny faces, to remind us that poop smells bad. Hilarious. Noel Coward (and Joe Orton), eat your heart out.

There is also a lot of gunplay, with Andrew brandishing his “fully loaded” gun in various people’s faces and SWAT teams firing machine guns outside. Nothing funnier these days than guns, right?

Actually, there are a couple amusing micro-moments--when they reboot granddad like a frozen Dell computer, and when the coot finally liquefies as he takes his last breath. But they are overwhelmed by way too many banal gags and overacting.

Okay, what we have here is a dead horse, so I will lay down my cudgel. Suffice to say that CPT deserves our thanks for encouraging and staging new work. And that The Family Claxon should be taken out behind the barn and quietly interred. Cause of death: Terminal creative exhaustion.

The Family Claxon
Through October 28 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org



Wednesday, October 18, 2017

In the Closet, convergence-continuum

(From left: Mike Frye, David Lenahan, Jason Romer, and Clyde Simon.)

The company of dedicated theater folks called convergence-continuum has long had a commitment to presenting gay-themed shows, or at least plays with significant LGBTQ roles. And good for them since, over the years, plays with such themes and characters have been stuck in the shadows.

That said, the title of the play by Siegmund Fuchs, In the Closet, might be better titled “On the Nose.” True to its title, the play takes place in a very spacious gay man’s closet where clothes are neatly displayed (well hung?) all around the walls of the small theater space.

Inside that space, we meet three gay guys dubbed “Old Man,” “Middle-Aged Man,” and “Young Man” (just so we don’t get confused). Those three gentlemen share small talk about, you know, being gay, until a young fellow named John catapults himself into the closet with them.

At this point, if you’re hearing the high-pitched squeal of a metaphor being stretched to its breaking point, you wouldn’t be mistaken. Playwright Fuchs is determined to make points about how hard it is to be gay, and dammit he’s not going to let the niceties of playwriting get in the way.

Over the course of two hours, those four characters act out various scenes from their pasts. And in an Act One closer that is about surprising as being told some interior designers are gay, we are informed of a fact that most in the audience have already figured out: That all the men in this closet are the same person, at different stages of his life. Setting aside the issue that there are two young men representing the same person at that age, this device enables John to see what will become of his life.

Yes, it’s a faux Frank Capra-esque gay version of It’s a Wonderful Life with lots of cock talk and regrets that end up tangled in a maudlin conclusion. Fuchs actually has a budding talent for humorous lines, and some of them land effectively. However, others are so predictable you can deliver the punch lines before the actors do.

The playwright’s inclination to lecture the audience on one hand and then devolve into weepy histrionics on the other eventually becomes exhausting. Fuchs seems to sense that he’s being a bit too didactic at times, and has the Old Man throw in dismissive asides to take the edge off the “lessons.” But that too is an overdone device.

A central conflict involving the memory of a gang rape of the Young Man years ago, with him strapped to a swing (!), feels a bit florid, extraneous and hard to decipher: Exactly which guys raped him? And why? In some ways, the narration of this attack feels like a propaganda scene that might have been written by the Westboro Baptist Church in a Reefer Madness-style film, “Homos Gone Mad!!”

Director Cory Molnar tries to sort all this out, and he uses a table and some chairs in multiple and inventive ways to stage the flashbacks. As for the actors—Clyde Simon, Jason Romer, Mike Frye and David Lenahan—they do their best to evoke the various stages of John’s life. But even though they sometimes parrot the same catch phrases, it’s hard to find a tangible thread that connects them all.

There lies the problem of animating a metaphor. It’s why, when someone on stage says, “It’s raining men,” a volley of actors don’t fall from the flies and land in a heap. Sadly, that’s where the egregiously extended metaphor of In the Closet also lands.

In the Closet
Through November 4, produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Waiting for Godot, Beck Center

(From left: Allan Byrne as Lucky, William Hoffman as Estragon, Brian Pedaci as Pozzo, and Michael Mauldin as Vladimir)

If life is absurd and time has no meaning, then you have no excuse not to see Waiting for Godot at the Beck Center. Because during this brief interlude in your pointless life, the fine actors in this production will, for a fleeting couple of hours, show you what kickass acting is all about. Indeed, they are so damn good you may actually, for a fleeting moment, think life has a purpose. Silly you!

Yes Samuel Beckett’s monumental and iconic work, in which Vladimir and Estragon wait in vain for the arrival of a person they have never met but who they are sure will save them, is the ultimate example of Theater of the Absurd. It is not done very often since it requires a director who can suss out multiple beats within aimless chatter, and actors who can enliven the script.

Fortunately, this show has all of that, and then some. Director Eric Schmeidl leads his cast through Beckett’s chutes and ladders with confidence, freeing his actors to find distinct attacks on their roles.

As Vladimir (or Didi), the chattier of the two main characters, Michael Mauldin is frequently upbeat, sure that Godot will appear and encouraging his pal Estragon to buck up. Shaping his silences with as much care as his sentences, Mauldin is a marvel of precision in his detailed pursuit of this character.

He is nicely matched by William Hoffman as Estragon (or Gogo). Using his broad and expressive face to register exhaustion along with momentary bliss at times, Hoffman anchors the scenes between the two characters as they deal with their evidently dead-end existence on this little patch of hilly ground punctuated by one bare, then leafy, tree.

During their two act-two-day stint, they are visited by the slave owner Pozzo and his captive Lucky. Brian Pedaci is riveting as Pozzo, in the first act using his fulsome presence and rich voice to draw a distinction between himself and his hapless slave whom Pozzo pulls around on the end of a rope. As Lucky, Allan Byrne is a crumpled mess of a human being, staring off into the middle distance until he is summoned to “think.” At that time, he launches into a florid, rambling, meaningless discourse that feels uncomfortably similar to recent word-salad speeches by President Trump.

And every day, a little boy (Jake Spencer) visits to inform Didi and Gogo that, once again, Godot will not be coming on that day. But he is sure to be there tomorrow. Like the bar with the “Free Beer Tomorrow!” sign, the men know that this promise will turn yellow with age. Still, if there is no hope, what is the point?

The point is: If you relish fine acting, this is a master class in the art form.

Waiting for Godot
Through November 5 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org




A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Great Lakes Theater

It seems almost cruel to encounter the joys of Shakespeare’s fantastical comedy set in mid-summer as we contemplate the approaching winter (nuclear or otherwise). But thanks to this thoroughly delightful production at Great Lakes Theater directed by Joseph Hanreddy, there is no downside to the experience.

This three-ring circus has it all: Romance, mystical spells leading to misdirected amour, and oafish attempts by workmen at mounting a play within the play. And the GLT company has never been better in weaving together this modern-dress version, even in the face of a scenic design that is both static and busy, and not all that entrancing.

As most know, the kerfuffles of the heart involving the young folks Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius are distorted by the intervention of Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies. and a band of “rude mechanicals” (that’s Will-speak for blue collar folks). As a result, much gaiety ensues as the magic eye drops the fairies possess lead various characters to fall madly in love with people they wouldn’t normally pursue, including one wearing a donkey head.

Summarizing the twists and turns in a Shakespeare play is always a fool’s errand—Wait, who did you say is in love with whom again? Suffice to say that the mixups in this production are most pleasurable thanks to a number of stellar performances in the outstanding ensemble.

Keri Rene Fuller as tall Helena and Michelle Pauker as not-so-tall Hermia create sparks with Jon Loya as Demetrius and Cory Mach as Lysander. In the featured role of Bottom, the weaver and rabid wannabe actor, David Anthony Smith is consistently amusing. And Tom Ford crafts a lovely, comical take on Peter Quince without coloring outside the lines.

Also excellent are M.A. Taylor as an edgy Puck, Jodi Dominick as a frequently pissed-off Robin Starveling, and Nick Steen and Jillian Kates who are double cast as both the Duke and Queen of Athens and the leaders of the Fairies.

The only odd element of the whole show is the scenic design by Scott Bradley that, among other problems, is a conceptual mismatch with the modern dress of the characters. In an attempt to combine the two worlds of the play—the formal court of Athens and the woods where the fairies romp—the set is filled with stuff, including a tall leaning bookcase, that manages to convey neither. And since the set never changes, except for a couple of lighted globes that drop down a couple feet, the actors are left to create all the magic themselves.

Fortunately for the audience, these actors are quite up to the task. That makes this Midsummer Night’s Dream, to quote the ass’s head in the White House, our own little calm before the storm.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Through November 5 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14 St., 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Well, Ensemble Theatre

(From left: Laura Starnik as Ann Kron and Lara Mielcarek as Lisa Kron)

Sometimes, when you use the word “interesting’ to describe a show, it can be because you’re hiding how you really feel. More than once, I have left a particularly disheartening production and been asked what I thought. “Interesting,” I’d mumble, avoiding the string of expletives I could have easily deployed.

However, in the case of Well by Lisa Kron, now at Ensemble Theatre, it seems that interesting is the very best word to describe this superbly performed, intriguingly constructed piece of theater. And although the show seems to be gasping for air by the end of its 95-minute sprint through a collection of meta-theatrical feints and surprises, it’s a ride you should definitely experience.

It all begins very casually as Lara Mielcarek, who plays the playwright Lisa Kron, welcomes the audience and introduces us to her play and to Laura Starnik, who plays Lisa’s mother Ann. In doing so, Lisa makes clear that this play, which is being rehearsed as we sit there, is not about her and her mother. Definitely not. It’s about a “theatrical exploration of health and wellness and the integration of Lansing, Michigan.” Yeah, right.

With mom plopped in a La-Z-Boy for most of the show, Lisa and Ann interact with four other performers who play various characters from the Kron history. These include the Kron’s black next-door neighbors, a black girl who bullied Lisa in grade school, and folks Lisa met when she was an in-patient at an allergy treatment facility. The actors often morph into and out of character as they respond to Lisa’s directions, ending one scene and picking up on another with interludes of side conversations with mom.

Lisa Kron is a renowned playwright (Fun Home) and actor, and she knows how to put interesting words in the mouths of people who wander about on stage. And for the first 70 minutes of this play, it all works so wonderfully, under the deft touch of director Celeste Cosentino, that the whole enterprise feels almost giddy with invention and surprise.

This is aided in no small part by the engaging and amusing performance of Mielcarek, whose friendly demeanor as Lisa at the start is quickly peeled away to reveal a woman who is haunted and depressed by her mother’s history of various illnesses. These are physical issues that Lisa shared until she moved away to New York City and became healthy, but her mother never seemed to recover her health. 

And Starnik, either slumped in her chair or padding softly and slowly around the set, quietly establishes Ann as a force of nature in a robe and scuffs, winning over the audience with her deadpan asides. Ann was a mover in her Lansing neighborhood, advocating for integration, and this mission comes across clearly. She is also a mess of free-floating symptoms that keep her chair-bound.

These two are ably supported by the other actors who take on multiple roles. Maya Jones is fierce and hilarious as Lisa’s playground tormentor Lori Jones, and Brian Kenneth Armour gives precise interpretations as both Big Oscar and Little Oscar, the drunk father and his son who live next to the Kron’s. In the allergy ward, April Needham demonstrates the agony of severe allergic reactions as Joy and Craig Joseph is the officious head nurse. And they all neatly register the confusion of being both actors and characters in Lisa Kron’s meta-exercise that attempts to answer a question that is unanswerable: Why do some people stay sick while other get well?

Even though the wind goes out of these billowing theatrical sails in the last 20 minutes, with a long story about Lisa’s Halloween misadventures ending with a shrug and a bit too much repetition of previous conflicts, the play is mostly an exhilarating excursion. And, you  know, it’s really interesting.

Well
Through October 22 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Beck Center

This play takes place in a psychiatric hospital, a fact that some young people may find confusing. In the 55 years since this play first appeared, the United States began closing down such hospitals, preferring to see potential mental patients enter the field of politics. How’s that working out for us?

Ken Kesey’s novel was a screech against a repressive society that tried to grind down anyone who was a non-conformist. But the subtext deals with how we have all been tranquilized and at times euthanized into submission, as we are maneuvered over and over again into waging war against other countries and at times against ourselves. I will leave it to you to make the obvious connections to our world today.

As for the play itself, written by Dale Wasserman, it feels a bit dated. Electrochock therapy—which is administered to the rebellious Randall P. McMurphy—was seen back then as the most gothic torture imaginable (and it is rendered that way in Aaron Benson’s impressive scenic design). But since then, there have been more positive analyses of that particular therapeutic approach.

The male ward of this “loony bin” is filled with a bundle of characters that are all distinctive in their mental difficulties, and they are performed with admirable precision by the cast under the direction of William Roudebush. Those who are particularly effective are George Roth as the closeted and erudite Dale Harding, Jeremy Gladen as twitchy and mommy-dominated Billy Bibbit, and Tony Zanoni as impulsive Martini. Benjamin Gregorio also turns in a haunting performance as the virtually silent and lobotomized Ruckly.

In the challenging, showpiece role of McMurphy, Bryant Carroll has all the feints and twitches of this larger-than-life character down pat. But those details never truly coalesce into a character that insistently worms his way into his fellow patients’ hearts, and ours.

As a sane man who thought he was putting one over on the system by pretending to be mentally challenged, thereby avoiding hard time on a chain gang, McMurphy should be someone with whom we can all relate. But too often, Carroll relies on a manic laugh and a swaggering strut instead of establishing strong threads of connection between McMurphy and the others.

As his main tormentor Nurse Ratched, Katie DeBoer masterfully commands her charges with a virtually unchanging icy smile/stare that could drop a charging rhino to its knees. But in a similar way to Carroll’s McMurphy, this interpretation of the “big nurse” never goes beyond that splendidly played single note, and never shows a woman with more dimensions. By making her a bit more human, it would actually increase the horror of the situation.

In all, this Cuckoo’s Nest captures many of the aspects of Kesey’s book and Wasserman’s adaptation. But it doesn’t soar quite high enough to momentarily liberate us all from the cages in which we find ourselves.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Through October 8 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org



Last of the Boys, none too fragile theater

(From left: Robert Branch and Paul Floriano)

There’s a huge attraction to living in the past. That’s the place where you know what to expect, where all the events have been played out and you can visit at your leisure. Sure, there may be painful memories and even some ghosts wafting around, but at least it’s a fixed entity. That beats the hell out of the present, when you don’t know what new horror (insert Trump-cough here) is waiting around the corner.

In Last of the Boys by Steven Dietz, two older men have taken up virtually permanent residency in their past, back when they were grunt buddies in the Vietnam War. And once they are joined by Jeeter’s new girlfriend Sayler and her mother Lorraine, each of whom have their own profound problems, it’s clear the stage is set for some explosive confrontations and revelations.

Dietz is a talented playwright, and he knows how to coax chuckles from his audience. Plus, one could hardly ask for a more skillful cast than the one offered by director Sean Derry. However, the script gets a bit tangled up in its own premise, especially regarding a ghost who visits Ben repeatedly. The actors often rise above this flawed material, but even they at times seem detoured by a play that never allows them to find solid character footing.

Ben is the occupant of a mobile home set on a toxic Superfund site that is surrounded by piled sandbags, stacks of black barrels containing God knows what, and some rusted lawn furniture. He’s being visited by Jeeter, a pal from back in the day who follows the Stones on tour and often lapses into hippie-dippy riffs about spirit quests. Jeeter has just returned from the funeral for Ben’s father, which Ben did not attend, and Jeeter brought along the flag that was draped on the coffin of Ben's father, who was an aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during 'Nam.

As they share bottles of beer from an outdoor fridge, Ben begins interacting with a soldier (Nate Homolka) in full combat uniform who helps Ben put on a suit and tie so he can channel the words of Ben’s idol, the generally (and justifiably) despised McNamara. Still, Ben sees the architect of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the former Ford executive, as the “man with a plan.” And as the play progresses, Ben’s interactions with the ghost get progressively weirder and even physical as their connection ends in a grotesque sort of baptism.

Meanwhile, Jeeter’s 35-year-old gal pal Salyer (an understandably detached Rachel Lee Kolis) always “wears a lot of clothes” to hide some of her own demons. Turns out, she has daddy issues of her own involving Vietnam. And her mother Lorraine, who has come to rescue her from the clutches of Jeeter, is supposedly a dead-end boozer.

Clearly, playwright Dietz has set himself a daunting task in weaving together these unusual characters and free-floating metaphors including a pervasive fog which is referenced but never seen, and the final result is only partially successful. What works well, at times, are the dialog scenes between Ben and Jeeter. Robert Branch is an actor with an admirably wide range, and he’s up to the task of portraying this cynical, world-weary man who is beset by phantoms of all kinds. And he is met, acting-wise, on equal footing by Paul Floriano, whose Jeeter gets the best lines and is often a bundle of nervous excitement. That is, when he hasn’t lapsed into a fugue state inspired by, you guessed it, some troubling memories.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t provide enough backstory about Jeeter to allow the audience to fully understand who this guy is. As a result, the central relationship between Jeeter and Ben is a mystery papered over by their cryptic conversations which, when they don’t work, feel manufactured and not organic. This is particularly true at the start of the show, a situation that is not aided by the actors overlapping each other as they deliver their rapid-fire lines. This is a performance technique that must be carefully employed, otherwise it feels as if the characters aren’t listening and just talking. And in this play, listening is key for both the characters and the audience.

Also, the subplot involving Lorraine and her daughter never comes to fruition, since it is woefully underwritten. As Lorraine, Anne McEvoy displays her precise comic timing throughout (an example: When Jeeter tells her “I know what you’re thinking.” Lorraine responds with “So why are you still here?”). Trouble is, it’s hard to buy the elegant and self-possessed McEvoy as a hard-drinking woman who will guzzle whiskey at a moment’s notice.

For those of us who lived through the Vietnam War as adults, there are ghosts aplenty.  And as the current documentary series on PBS shows, the interest in that doomed and lethal excursion never seems to wane. The feelings of loss and guilt, along with the excesses of governmental hubris, are real. This play touches some of those points, but undercuts its theme with too many conflicting elements.

Last of the Boys
Through September 30 at none too fragile theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com


Life x 3, Cesear’s Forum

(From left: Brian Bowers, Tricia Bestic, Dana Hart, Julia Kolibab)

How many times have each of us wondered what would have happened at that diner party if things had gone differently? And how many times have playwrights and screenwriters attempted to capture that conundrum of human existence? The answer to both questions is: Countless.

In Life x 3 by Yasmina Reza (translated by Christopher Hampton), Sonia and Henry are hosting an older couple, Hubert and Inez, for dinner. Unfortunately, the guests have arrived a day early and there’s hardly any food in the house. And they can’t go out to dinner since the hosts’ six-year old son Arnaud is crying for attention in the next room.

Taking this premise, Reza then plays the evening’s conversation through three different times with three different outcomes. And during these versions we learn of many interpersonal conflicts: Research scientist Henry is desperate for approval from his superior Hubert, Hubert is hot for and has a history with Sonia, Inez is always doing a slow boil when her husband puts her down, and little Arnaud (an unseen Mary Alice Beck) keeps whining for snacks and cuddles.

It is an admittedly intriguing concept, and a talented cast under the direction of Greg Cesear does its best to make this triple layer cake turn out well. They accomplish that task splendidly in the first iteration of the “dinner” party, when the dynamics of the situation are fresh and surprising and Reza’s sharp wit is in evidence. But as the second and third replays continue, the air slowly seeps out of this balloon until, by the end, the premise feels rather deflated.

It’s a challenging task to take an audience through three versions of the same conversation with subtle changes that slightly tweak reactions. As a result, you spend more time trying to suss out what’s different this time than you do becoming engrossed in the character dynamics.

Still, Cesear is an accomplished and inventive director and he teases interesting performances out of his cast. Tricia Bestic is sharp and no-nonsense as Sonia, taking charge of her home as well as her (sometimes) vacillating husband played with bursts of self-flagellation by Brian Bowers. Dana Hart is solid as the pompous Hubert, and his nasty zingers directed at his wife are played off with humorous diffidence by Julia Kolibab as Inez.

There are aspirations to the metaphysical in Reza’s script, but the repeated renditions don’t provide the necessary snap of realization that is required to bring the audience along. Instead, by the end, it feels as if we’ve been stumbling through several rough drafts of a piece that isn’t quite finished.

Life x 3
Through Oct. 28 at Cesear’s Forum, Playhouse Square, Kennedy’s Down Under, 1501 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Simply Simone, Karamu House



Nina Simone was an awesome talent and an even more compelling personality. She became “The High Priestess of Soul” almost against her will, since she grew up as a piano prodigy and really only wanted to become the world’s first black classical concert pianist. And along the way, back in the 1960s, she became a fierce voice for the radical black militant movement in America.

In short, there’s a big story to tell about Nina Simone. Unfortunately, this slap-dash play created by David Grapes and Robert Neblett captures almost none of the Simone magic. Due to a series of wrong-headed decisions, the play covers 2½ hours and more than 30 songs while managing to miss the compelling essence at the core of Nina Simone’s art.

Before the dissection continues, we must pause and give a pass to the four hard-working performers who try to lift this lumbering show into the air. Sheffia Randall Dooley, Corlesia Smith and Mariama Whyte are all gifted, professional singers and actors, and they generate fleeting moments of bliss. And Afia Mensa does her best while battling some pitch problems in several of her songs. In addition, music director Ed Ridley, Jr. and his four-piece band provide solid support.

The first questionable decision is to have those four women play aspects of Ms. Simone, along with assorted other characters during the narrated sections of the play. These arid readings of Simone’s biography turn the show into a Wikipedia musical, with factoids replacing actual theatrical scenes between and among characters.

Right from the start, the play skids off center as four songs are presented in standard smiley-face variety show style with not a hint of the deep and fascinating Simone personality. From there on, songs from the Simone songbook are presented with varying degrees of power. On the positive side, Smith handles her songs well, especially a spine-tingling version of “I Put a Spell on You.” And Dooley delivers some tingles herself in the second act with “Trouble in Mind” and “My Father.”

While the script dutifully records Simone’s conflicts with her dad, her husband/manager Andy, her sister and herself, the show never slows down enough to allow these torments to land with any impact.

This problem is not aided by an overly simplistic scenic design by Inda Blatch-Geib that employs photo collages on three-sided rolling columns, intended to capture the era in which Simone and the people in her life. Instead, newsreel footage and photos of Simone herself—who was a stunning presence at all ages—would help immensely. In a similar way, the lighting design by Prophet Seay is bland and perfunctory, without using lighting contrasts to carve out sections of the stage to increase the emotional force of certain moments.

Director Caroline Jackson Smith is certainly hamstrung by this oddly passionless material. But her staging often feels like a by-the-book 1970s TV show, with the singers tramping up and down a small, four-level platform and lining up across the stage and belting. That wasn’t Nina Simone.

Where is the Nina Simone who could turn a pop tune into an entirely new and different creature due to her bold phrasing and daring silences? Where is the Nina Simone who employed classical music idioms in her music, often going on long riffs that turned blues and jazz into something gloriously new. And where is the Nina Simone who was driven by and eventually punished for her deeply held political beliefs?

Some of it is given cursory lip service, but most of what made Nina Simone so different and wonderful is simply missing from Simply Simone.

Simply Simone
Through October 8 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89 St., 216-795-7070, karamuhouse.org.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Book of Mormon, Playhouse Square

If you haven’t yet seen The Book of Mormon, shame on you. Go stand in the corner, and I’ll tell you when you can leave. But before you do that, give Playhouse Square a call and see if you can glom some tickets before this show leaves after this coming Sunday.

This outrageous carnival of musicality, wit and offensiveness—created from the fertile and possibly felonious minds of Trey  Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone—is back in town in a touring production that sizzles from start to finish. This particular troupe has been touring for a while, but you’d never know it from that sharp, energetic and engaging performances all around.

As you probably know, it’s all about a comical and irreverent take on the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and while it is certainly rude and distasteful  (for some), it is also flat out hilarious and really quite sweet. Two featured missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, are shipped off to Uganda to convert the locals.

And that challenge is illustrated in a send-up of “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King. In this version, the poverty-stricken, AIDS-beset, warlorf-domoinated Ugandans sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” which is translated as “Fuck You, God.” Just to make their feelings clear, the song is punctuated frequently with the middle-finger salute.

This production benefits from outstanding performances in the lead roles. As Elder Price, the fellow who dreams of spending eternity in Orlando, Gabe Gibbs is a toothy force of nature as he nails songs such as “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” and “I Believe.” The latter song illustrates how the creators meld real Mormon facts with parody as he sings: “I believe the Lord God sent me here/And I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people.”

He is matched by Conner Peirson as the schlubby Elder Cunningham, a wannabe missionary who never read the Book, so he makes up his own version of the religion—featuring Star Wars characters and other random bits—to bring his flock some peace of mind. And he is particularly adorable when he romances—er, baptizes—the lovely young Nabulungi (Myha’la Herrold, who possesses way more voice than should be allowed in a person that small). They bond, even though Cunningham never gets her name right, calling her at various times Neutrogena, Netflix, Nagasaki and Nakatomi Plaza.

Also outstanding are PJ Adzima as the not-so-ambiguously gay Elder McKinley, Johnny Brantley III as the ever smiling local doctor with maggots in his throat, and Sterling Jarvis as the town’s leader Mafala.

The visual aspects of the production are also outstanding, including a scene of Mormon hell pulsing with crimson fire and populated by Jeffrey Dahmer, Johnnie Cochran and cups of Starbucks coffee (tea and coffee are forbidden to Mormons).

In short, this show is a hoot and a half, and it is performed with superb professionalism by this touring company. Something that is not always true when a show visits for just a short time. So go, laugh, smile. You deserve it.

The Book of Mormon
Through September 17 at Playhouse Square, Keybank State Theater, 1615 Euclid Ave. 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.com.


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