Monday, May 28, 2018

White Guy on the Bus, None Too Fragile Theater

Sometimes, one of the best things about certain shows is the title. In this case, with None Too Fragile Theater’s production of Bruce Graham’s White Guy on a Bus, the title has the desired effect of staking out two sides of the conflict to come.

Driving around town, we’ve all seen the people who are waiting for the bus, and they are predominantly African-American. These are people with low wage jobs that can’t afford personal transportation. So when the wealthy Caucasian financial advisor Ray starts riding the bus to the local prison late at night on the weekends, and repeatedly chats up an African-American woman who is a trainee nurse at the facility,  you begin to wonder what he’s up to.

These are the thoughts that go through Shatique’s mind, as a black woman who has to ride the bus out of necessity. And their shared rides lead to the surprising climax of a play that, most of the time, doesn’t earn its own earnestness about racial tensions, identity and privilege. The problems here are due both to the honest but overly obvious script and some decidedly vague performances.

Before Ray and Shatique meet, we are introduced to Ray’s wife Roz, who is a teacher at an inner city school and who wears her cynicism like a badge of honor (recounting the numbers of times she’s been called “white bitch” by her charges). But hidden under her smartass comments about her minority students beats a heart that really cares.

However, this doesn’t come forth when Roz is debating racial issues with her daughter Molly, who’s a teacher at a cushy private school. Nor with Molly’s fiancĂ© Christopher, who, it just so happens, is an academic fellow working on a study of African-American and Asian males in advertising.

For his part, Ray is a guy who says he wants to sell his house—no, he wants to sell everything—and move to an island somewhere. But those dreams of sitting on a beach end when a tragic event changes his intentions, and not in a good way.

The issues the playwright raises are powerful ones, especially in today’s world, and Graham is to be commended for being totally honest about the racial divide that exists in America. But his incessant hammering on these issues, while neglecting a more believable character-driven approach, eventually sabotages his own work.

In some cases, the performances don’t help this situation. As Ray, Joseph Bonamico remains stuck in a casual, hands-in-pants-pockets style of acting that never clarifies what’s going on in Ray’s mind. As a result, the later actions of this troubled man fail to ring true. As his wife Roz, Dede Klein has some sharp exchanges with other family members. But the scenes between Ray and Roz, even when they’re showing affection for each other, feel generic and stiff.

As for the smaller roles, they also don’t ignite much interest. Tony Zanoni’s off-handed reading of Christopher doesn’t come across as an earnest young man pursuing his doctoral dissertation. And the excellent actor Rachel Lee Kolis appears hemmed in by Molly’s fairly unbelievable innocence about how the world works for people of different races.

Emerging most unscathed in this production is India Nicole Burton, who manages to fashion a character in Shatique that feels genuine and worthy of exploration.

With its non-realistic furniture (gray boxes, mostly) and its attempt at realistic dialog, this NTF show is a mixed bag that director Sean Derry never quite gets a grip on. One hopes that NTF finds a way to give Derry (who also designed and helped build the set and is involved in most management aspects of the theater) a break. If he can offload some of his many duties, including having a guest director more frequently, it will help this talented man recharge his impressive creative battery.

White Guy on the Bus
Through May 26 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547,

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Panther Dancer, Playwrights Local

(From left: Andrea Belser and Corin B. Self)

A show about the Jackson Five? That isn’t a jukebox musical? And that’s funny? How can you miss?

Those questions and more are answered in The Panther Dancer, written by Logan Cutler Smith and being produced by Playwrights Local till the end of this week. As directed by Jimmie Woody, it’s a wild rush of mini-scenes, sort of in the style of the vaudeville play-turned-movie Hellzapoppin’, relying on a frenetic pace and constant role-switches to feed the entertainment value.

The story, of course, centers on The Gloved One, Michael Jackson, as we see his pathway from the youngest member of his family’s singing group to the King of Pop. The basics of that story are known to most of us, and the show feeds of that familiarity with inside jokes that long ago came outside. These include the terrible, bullying nature of father Joe Jackson and some of the particulars regarding Michael’s siblings.

This work, that had its first exposure at the NEOMFA Playwrights Festival at Convergence Continuum Theater, has a number of witty lines. But over the course of two hours, the jokes fall into similar patterns and become predicable and eventually tiresome. And the playwright spends too much time exploring small facets of the MJ story that will seem arcane and off-point to most observers.

Of course, there are more “celebrities” in this show than in the “We Are the World” video, along with movers and shakers such as Berry Gordy of Motown, Michael’s lawyers, and pretty much anyone else who came within an arms length of the Jackson clan.

Director Woody employs his substantial skills in staging the piece so that those flaws don’t drag everything down. And he’s partially successful, thanks to some yeoman work by the cast. Andrea Belser is a standout, both as Michael Jackson and as the moody, purple-robed Prince and Robert Branch lends his quirky take to many different characters. Corin B. Self, when portraying daddy Joe, is truly fearsome, and Anthony Velez is a whirling fount of dancing energy when he mimics Jackson’s famous panther dancer video. Although she doesn’t quite dazzle like the others, Kim Simbeck often plays the necessary straight man to the frantic activities of the others.

Trouble is, the script is an overly detailed chronology of Michael Jackson’s stormy life, and it has no point of view. It swings wildly from poking fun at “Wacko Jacko” to weeping over his demise at age 50.

Instead of a two-hour show with one intermission, this play cries out to be a 75-minute nonstop race to the finish that would make The Complete Works of William Shakespeare look like a particularly slow-moving episode of Murder She Wrote. Now that would be a thriller.

The Panther Dancer
Through May 26, produced by Playwrights Local, the Creative Space at Waterloo Arts, 397 E. 156 St., 216-302-8856,

Friday, May 18, 2018

Passing Strange, Karamu House

(From left: Justin C. Woody, CorLesia Smith and Joshua McElroy)

In this musical the coming-of-age story is oh-so familiar and there are so many excesses it would take five columns to list them all, There is no scenic design to speak of. And often, the narrative arc of the storyline is muddled beyond comprehension. And to top it off the music, which weaves itself intricately into the dialogue, is frequently challenging.

And yet, this is the most exciting show on any stage right now, and maybe the most involving one that has appeared in some time. You will be a poorer person if you don’t find a way to see it before it closes on June 3.

It’s Passing Strange at Karamu House, featuring music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, with book and lyrics by Stew.  Jammed with full-tilt energy and invention, the rock musical “goes there” in virtually every scene and every moment, and it’s a freaking rush.

In this autobiographical journey of Stew’s we follow the Youth, a young African-American man and music-maker who starts off by barely tolerating his mothers’ church in south central Los Angeles. After reaching an epiphany of sorts by smoking week with the pastor’s son, the Youth decides to find himself and “the real” by going on a drug and sex tour of Europe.

Segueing from hash to acid and from punk rock to psychedelic, the Youth spend his youth on a search for himself. Meanwhile, his mother pines for him back home, connecting with him intermittently over the phone.

If this all sounds like a tired old story format to you, the presentation is anything but tired. Right from the start, when the Youth’s mom switches back and forth from a cartoonish black woman dialect to a more nuanced voice, you know you’re in for something different.

In the demanding role of the Youth, Justin C. Woody sings with both poignancy and passion, and he keeps the whole enterprise humming with his infectious energy. As the Youth travels from Amsterdam to Berlin, Woody conveys his character’s wide-eyed innocence and desperate desire to find, you know, something.

He is well matched by Darius J. Stubbs, who plays and sings the narrator as the older and more temperate man who was the Youth. But Stubbs is also capable of kicking out the jams, as he does in the rock anthem “Work the Wound.”

Those performers are supported in glorious style by Treva Offutt, who is hilarious and touching as the Mother. And the four-person chorus—Carlos Antonio Cruz, Joshua McElroy, Mary-Frances Miller and CorLesia Smith—each add stellar cameo characterizations that are so sharp you could cut yourself if you’re not careful. Specifically, keep an eye out for Cruz’s decadent-to-the-max Mr. Venus, Smith’s insightful Desi, Miller’s spot-on punk rocker Sudebey, and McElroy’s vulnerable Terry.

The entire cast handles the singing with aplomb, backed by the fine vocalist Chantrell Lewis and a four-person, kickass band led by Ed Ridley, Jr. Director Nathan A. Lilly has taken this material, which is surprisingly witty and wise (as one character says, “Life is a mistake that only art can correct.”), and ignited his cast so they inhabit a galaxy of characters with different accents and attitudes.

Passing Strange covers a lot of years, a lot of miles, and many musical genres. And the 2½ hour show doesn’t have a single boring minute in it. Anywhere. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss any of those minutes.

Passing Strange
Through June 3 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89 St., 216-795-7070,

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Beehive, The 60s Musical, Great Lakes Theatre

There’s a reason why booking agents don’t create some of the best stage musicals. It’s because…they’re booking agents. In defiance of that logic, Great Lakes Theater has decided to grace their stage with a musical created by booking agent Larry Gallagher, and it lives up to what you might expect from a guy who spends his days arranging tours and planning events for his clients.

Titled Beehive, the 60s musical, the show is a chronological tour of music from the 60’s as recorded by women—singles and groups. With all the creativity it takes to buy the rights of other people’s songs, and then add snippets of flimsy connecting narration that probably took all of two hours (including lunch) to write, the show is a lazy pastiche that would get shrugged off as lame entertainment on most discount cruise ships.

But here it is, at the prestigious Great Lakes Theater, featuring a cast of young performers from Baldwin Wallace University under the guidance of BW faculty members Victoria Bussert (director) and Gregg Daniels (choreographer). And it all couldn’t go much farther wrong than it does.

In the first short (45 minute) act, the girls croon tunes from the early 60s about heartbreak and such. And while it isn’t offensive, there’s little to recommend it. The cast—Adrianna Cleveland, Annalise Griswold, Shelby Griswold, Christiana Perrault, Camille Robinson, Hannah-Jo Weisberg—all sing acceptably well. Each of the performers is given character names for no apparent reason, since we learn virtually nothing about these “characters.”

It’s all about the songs, which are staged by Bussert and Daniels with little imagination on the almost bare stage, backed by some less-than-dynamic backlit panels that—wait for it—sometimes change colors! The women go through their 60s paces, from “It’s My Party” to “My Boyfriend’s Back,” lining up this way and that, swinging their arms languorously and throwing in some hip rolls for good measure.  In short, it ain’t exactly galvanizing. And in a show desperate for some eye candy, costume designer Esther M. Haberlen’s soft pastel, below-the knee dresses are changed midway through the act for…almost identical soft pastel dresses.

After an extended and unnecessary intermission, in a futile attempt to give the brief play the time-span heft of a more fulsome production, the women reappear in snappier outfits representing the end of the miniskirt 60s. In this even shorter 25-minute act, the performers are called upon to impersonate some famous singers of the time. Robinson, Perrault and Cleveland do pretty well with this as Tina Turner and others.

But it all comes apart during an extended feature segment when Shelby Griswold is called upon to impersonate Janis Joplin. Eschewing the soulful gravel of Joplin’s voice for loud volume, Griswold shreds the magic that Joplin created on stage. And wearing a faux tie-died pants suit from Marshall's while sucking from a bottle of Southern Comfort doesn’t make it right.

If you can’t do a kickass Joplin impression (which was done in this Hanna Theatre building more than ten years ago by the remarkable Katrina Chester and later by the exceptional Mary Bridget Davies starring in Love, Janis), then don’t make it a spotlight segment. Just sing the songs Gallagher stapled together and be done with it.

As talented as the kids from BW can be, you’d think GLT could find some quirky end-of-the-season show that could employ their stable of talented and experienced professional actors.  That would be a treat. And we could let Larry Gallagher get back to setting up banjo act gigs in Altoona.

Beehive, the 60s musical
Through May 20 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14 St., 216-241-6000,