Thursday, February 23, 2017

Amadeus, National Theatre Live at Cedar-Lee Theatre

If you’ve ever felt a bit sorry for those people in an orchestra who are forced to sit still and play their instruments, you’ll be happy to know they’ve been set free in this remarkable production of Amadeus by Peter Shaffer. This is a film of a live stage production at the Royal National Theatre in London, presented by the Cedar-Lee Theatre.

As envisioned by director Michael Longhurst, the 20 orchestra members from the Southbank Sinfonia are pretty much constantly in motion, responding to lines spoken by the actors, serving as crowds of people, and otherwise walking and playing. They must have had a ball.

But it’s not just a gimmick, as this moveable feast of musicians amplifies the energy and accessibility of Mozart’s music as Shaffer’s tale develops. Although the title employs the famous composer’s middle name, this play is really a deep plunge into the psyche of Antonio Salieri, the self-confessed mediocre composer who is a favorite of the court of Emperor Joseph II.

But once the young, brash and profane Mozart appears, Salieri’s life is changed forever, and not in a good way. While envying Mozart’s gift with music, Salieri plots to destroy the composer who has the talent that the older man can only dream of having. This drama is all super-fictionalized by Shaffer, but it provides a wonderful platform to explore the roots of genius and the tragedy of a dream denied.

This film of a live stage show isn’t everything you get from an actual experience in the theater, but the production is quite breathtaking nonetheless. The scenes change with smooth precision, deftly altering the visual landscape as the actors and musicians move amongst each other without missing a beat. And the cameras treat you to closeups.

As Salieri, Lucian Msamati is powerful as a wounded and tormented man, imploring God to explain why he is forced to watch Mozart create one masterpiece after another. Even though Salieri is the one who is showered with monetary and material riches, his jealousy burns with fervor.

Adam Gillen makes Mozart a thoroughly repellent fellow, which is as it should be. He is actually more irritating than Tom Hulce was in the movie version, and that helps clarify the conflict between the two music makers. They are surrounded by exceptional actors and, as mentioned, the orchestra members who are physically merged into virtually every moment of the production.

This production of Amadeus is part of the ongoing series at the Cedar-Lee Theatre, called National Theatre Live, presenting films of live stage performances from the Royal National Theatre in London. There is only one more showing of this play, this coming Sunday at 11 AM, so make a note.

Sunday, February 26, 11 AM at the Cedar-Lee Theatre, 2163 Lee Road, Cleveland Hts. Tickets are $20, 440-528-0355.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Wait Until Dark, Great Lakes Theater

(Jonathan Dryud as Sam and Jodi Dominick as Susy)


Did I scare you? Evidently not, since you’re still reading this paragraph and not shivering and weeping in a corner. Actually, it’s kind of hard to really scare people, which is what the old chestnut Wait Until Dark aspires to do.

But in this misbegotten production at Great Lakes Theater, there are virtually no thrills and a remarkable absence of chills. Written by Frederick Knott in the 1960s, the play has not aged well for a number of reasons. And there are so many gaping holes in the plot, it looks as if it had been mounted on a shooting range for semi-automatic rifle practice.

As you probably know, it’s all about some bad guys who learn that a doll loaded with heroin has been acquired unknowingly by Sam Hendrix. And it’s now in his apartment, which is also occupied by his blind wife Susy, so a big meanie called Roat and his two henchmen decide to find drug-stuffed dolly. When they can’t, instead of acting like gangsters and trashing the joint, or torturing Susy, they come up with an elaborate con that has so many moving parts it looks like a Rube Goldberg drawing that Rube himself rejected for being way too complicated.

To wit, the henchmen (played by a fitfully amusing David Anthony Smith and a flat-lining Nick Steen) pose as, respectively, a cop and a friend of Sam. And they set up signals for each other involving opening and closing blinds in Susy’s basement apartment, while Susy establishes her own secret signals (two rings on a phone, pounding on the pipes) to communicate with a young girl (an uncomfortably strident Elise Pakiela) in an upstairs apartment, who plays a pivotal role because—

Oh never mind. It goes on. Of course, these are flaws that have always been in the script, and have been overcome, particularly in the movie version starring fragile Audrey Hepburn as Susy.

In this telling Jodi Dominick takes on that role and her immense strength as an actress actually works against the effectiveness of the play. As Dominick interacts with her mostly absent husband Sam (Jonathan Dryud) and the gangsters, she displays plenty of pluck and determination. Dominick’s Susy is so capable, with a ready wit, that it’s difficult to believe that she would be reduced to tears and whimpering later on.

In the role of Roat, Arthur Hanket is initially rather sly and slimy, which works well. But as the climactic scene progresses, he takes his characterization so over-the-top it becomes more laughable than terrifying. Director Joseph Hanreddy doesn’t help much, since this scene is played in shadows and the audience can’t quite follow what’s happening. As a result, the supposedly shocking final coup de grace is about as compelling as opening a refrigerator door in pitch-blackness and confronting…an old jar of mayo.

Scenic designer Scott Bradley has created a very serviceable space for this play to occupy, but lighting director Rick Martin never solved the problem of how to stage a long scene in the dark. And that’s a problem when the play has the D-word in its title. Perhaps a better name for this production would be: Wait Until The Next Show.

It’s Hamlet, by the way. No plot holes there.

Wait Until Dark
Through March 12 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Repairing a Nation, Karamu House

Oddly enough, one of the worst race riots (300 people killed, 35 blocks of businesses and homes destroyed) in our country’s history has become something of a footnote, with many people unaware of what happened. So it is entirely fitting the playwright Nikkole Salter makes the Tulsa race riots of 1921 a central element of her play Repairing a Nation, now at Karamu House. The riots happened in Greenwood, which was the wealthiest African-American community in the nation at the time, and a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Aside from its overly earnest title, the play attempts to recapture history by weaving a story about reparations for the riots into a domestic drama involving a black family and the sketchy history of their prosperous janitorial service company. Under the direction of Margaret Ford-Taylor, the cast works hard for almost three hours to loom Salter’s threads of memory into a powerful whole. And while it doesn’t entirely succeed, the play is often compelling and instructive.

Set in 2001, eight decades after the massacre, Anna and Chuck are celebrating Christmas with some family and friends. One of these guests is Lois (spelled Louis in the program), a woman whose own son calls her “loud, rude and uncouth.” And indeed she is, wasting no time in trying to enlist her wealthy cousin Chuck to take part in a class-action lawsuit to secure reparations for the Tulsa riots. Trouble is, Chuck and Lois can’t stand each other and Lois really detests Anna, Chuck’s elegant wife who is always trying to smooth things over.

Lois’ son Seth is also in the house, as is his former girlfriend Debbie, who is a docent at the local Greenwood Cultural Center where they are raising money for a memorial. It’s clearly a volatile mix, and Salter crafts many moments when these people feint and fight each other effectively. It all leads up to the revelation of a family secret that threatens to pull the family even further apart.

As Chuck, Butch Terry bristles with real venom every times he gazes at Lois, while at other moments he is warm and protective of his wife Anna. And Rebecca Morris is supremely comfortable as Anna, a woman who tries her best to calm the roiling waters that surround her. Johnathon L. Jackson and Jameka Terri contribute effectively at times as Seth and Debbie, but one never really gets the sense they were once engaged.

In the linchpin role of Lois, Joyce Linzy misses nary a second in conveying her characters nasty disposition. At times this is quite funny, but her mugging gets a bit too broad at times, tipping the play a bit out of balance.

Since the Tulsa riots are so important to the play, yet still so unknown, it’s too bad that the scenes in the Greenwood Cultural Center are relegated to the aisle in front of the stage, and that T. Paul Lowry’s projected images of that horrific time in 1921 are thrown onto the brick side walls of the theater, substantially reducing their visibility and impact.

Speaking of those walls, this is the last production in this hallowed space since a major renovation will begin when this show closes. So here’s a salute to the talented people who have made Karamu such a valued fixture by working on or around that building. We can’t wait to see what’s in store for Karamu 2.0!

Repairing a Nation Through February 26 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070.

Bring It On, The Musical, Beck Center

If you’ve heard all the hoopla about Hamilton and would like to sample some of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical magic, there’s a heaping helping of it in Bring It On, now at the Beck Center in Lakewood. Combining often fast-paced lyrics with driving, percussive music, this show about high school cheerleaders, based on the film of the same name, transcends its rather mundane subject matter and often soars.

In this piece, Miranda was the co-composer (with Tom Kitt) and the co-lyricst (with Amanda Green), but his signature style is suffused throughout. Even though the storyline (libretto by Jeff Whitty) is pretty pedestrian—two high school cheerleading teams facing off for the big trophy…yippee—the music and the performances by lots of young performers make it an event not to be missed.

This 30-person cast moves with remarkable precision as they sing, executing the imaginative choreography designed by dance master Martin Cespedes. And along the way, a couple featured performers manage to elbow aside the clich├ęs and actually make an emotional impact.

One of these is Kailey Boyle who plays Campbell, a white girl from the privileged Truman High School who has everything going for her, including a pleasantly doofus boyfriend Steven (a constantly dazzled Jonathan Young). But once she is transferred to Jackson High School in a dumpier part of town, thanks to the Machiavellian machinations of sophomore cheerleader Eva (a sneakily snarky Abby DeWitte), her cheerleading dreams appear to be over. Eva is, cleverly, a pint-sized Eve Harrington with pom-poms, echoing the ambitious title character in All About Eve.

Anyhow, you can probably sketch out the plot from there, as mean girl Skylar (Victoria Pippo) and outcast girl Bridget (Shelby Griswold) play their parts in making high school that place you’re so glad you escaped. Griswold is particularly effective in capturing the endearing humor of a nerdy, awkward girl with a heart of gold.

Other standouts in the cast include Shayla Brielle, who gives Danielle a strong presence as a leader of the dance “crew” at Jackson H.S. And Cameron (Matthew Harris) and Twig (David Holbert) make the hip-hop song “It’s All Happening” sparkle.

Director Will Brandstetter keeps the pace properly pumped, and conductor Peter Van Reesma’s orchestra provides a full, rich sound for the actors—many of whom are from the Baldwin Wallace University musical theater program.

Your interest in cheerleading competitions may be minimal, or nonexistent, but this effusive production will have you standing and applauding at the final curtain.

Bring It On, The Musical
Through February 26 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Bridges of Madison County, Lakeland Civic Theatre

(Trinidad Snider as Francesca and Shane Patrick O'Neil as Robert)

Who doesn’t love a good love story? Apparently no one, considering the track record of success enjoyed by this property. Originally written as a novel by Robert James Waller, it stayed on the New York Times’ bestseller list for more than three years. Then it went on to more success as a movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Then it became a Broadway musical.

And that is the version, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown with a book by Marsha Norman, which is now on stage at the Lakeland Civic Theatre at Lakeland Community College. Francesca Johnson is an Italian war bride who came back with the American soldier named Bud, to live with him and raise a family in Iowa. But on one fateful day in the 1960s, Bud and the kids hike off to the state fair to try to win a blue ribbon. That’s when a sexy visitor named Robert stops by the house to ask Francesca for directions. He's photographing covered bridges in the area for the National Geographic magazine, but once he spies Francesca he screeches to an f-stop and focuses on her.

There ensue multiple songs that graph the relationship between Francesca and Robert. So let’s make one thing perfectly clear: One could not ask for a more beautiful musical rendering of this show, since the two leads, Trinidad Snider as Francesca and Shane Patrick O’Neil as Robert, deliver Brown’s evocative songs with power, tenderness and deep feeling. Indeed, the entire cast under the well-crafted musical direction of Jordan Cooper has a chance to display their estimable vocal talents in a number of genre-varied tunes.

Had this been a concert, this review could end here quite happily. Unfortunately, it’s theater and it must be said that, on the acting side of the equation—particularly with regard to the love story—this production falls short of the mark. Snider and O’Neil never seem to be swooning head-over-heels for each other, as their early physical stiffness lingers throughout the proceedings.

Since director Martin Friedman is a consummate professional, and quite adept at staging many different types of American musicals, one must rack up this failing to the mystery of stage chemistry that sometimes never comes to a boil…or even a simmer. The scenic design by Trad A Burns is an impressively faithful, if oversized, recreation of the ribs of a covered bridge, but it tends to dwarf and confine the performers, further reducing their impact.

Fortunately, those in supporting roles all sing splendidly and otherwise do what they can to enliven the show. Scott Esposito strides about purposefully as Bud, and Amiee Collier and Brian Altman craft an affecting portrait of neighbors who are a bit nosy but good-hearted. Collier, equipped with binoculars and a fierce curiosity, lends the show some much-needed levity. Frank Ivancic and Anna Barrett bicker nicely as the Johnson kids, and Amanda Tidwell fills in deftly in multiple roles.

However, this is a love story and one yearns to feel that hot, visceral, untidy emotion come spilling out over the footlights. Instead, this production of Bridges is brilliantly crooned but way too bloodless in the clinches (ie. after their first night together, we see Robert and Francesca in bed and the sheets aren’t even messed up!). That won’t win a “Gettin’ Busy” blue ribbon at any state fair.

The Bridges of Madison County
Through February 19 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland, 440-525-7134.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Radio Golf, Ensemble Theatre

(Left to right: Rodney Freeman, Theodore M. Snead and Darryl Tatum.)

“I just want to be in the room.” That dream of inclusion, which motivates Roosevelt Hicks, is at the heart of Radio Golf by August Wilson. And in this production at Ensemble Theatre, many of the right notes are struck.

Hicks is the business partner of Hammond Wilks and they are on the verge of sealing a deal to gentrify a section of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, an African-American community that Wilson has explored in many of his plays spanning the 20th century. Wilks has his eyes on running for mayor in the 1998 election, and his high-achieving wife Mame is on board for that ride.

But during the span of the play, two other characters wander into the realty office and throw a monkey wrench into the works. One is Sterling, a neighborhood handyman who, despite his sketchy employment history, seems to have a firm grasp on the relationship between business and ethics. And the other is Elder Joseph Barlow, or “Old Joe” as he’s known in the hood, whose family used to own (or still does?) a house smack-dab in the center of the proposed new development.

As always, Wilson’s words are often mesmerizing as he spins out the history of these characters in dialogue that draws sharp characters. This is particularly true in the case of Hicks, who has recently partnered with a rich white mover and shaker, giving Hicks access, in his mind, to the levers of power. He’s finally “in the room” with the decision makers. Or so he thinks.

As Hicks, Leilani Barrett makes the most of this young black man on the make, practicing his golf swing in the office as he dreams of riches and influence. The stage comes alive whenever he is present. And the same can be said for Rodney Freeman, since the persona of Old Joe drops right into Freeman’s exceptional acting wheelhouse. Squinting slyly and using his cane to punctuate his lines, Freeman’s Old Joe maneuvers Wilks into viewing the takeover of the Barlow property from a different angle.

In the challenging role of Sterling, Darryl Tatum is not quite as adept at navigating the twists and turns of Darryl’s quicksilver anger, which often then dissolves into an appealing optimism. But he has some telling moments, particularly in his interactions with Wilks.

The only performance that feels a bit off-kilter is Kristi Little’s take on Mame, since this PR pro doesn’t exhibit the polish and edge that one would need in order to succeed in that field.

Director Terrence Spivey once again shows he knows how to bring resonant performances out of a talented cast. And that leads to a staging of Radio Golf that, while not perfect, is thoroughly involving from start to finish.

Radio Golf
Through February 26 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.