Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Memphis, The Musical, Cain Park

There are a few good reasons to see Memphis, the Musical now at Cain Park. But none of them have to do with the story and how it rolls out. This is not to say that the tale of a white man who actively promoted African-American “race music” in the 1950s isn’t interesting. It is quite intriguing, since it’s based on the real story of a man named Dewey Phillips, a Memphis disc jockey.

It’s just that his story, along with that of Felicia Farrell, a dazzling young black singer, is related in such a predicable manner you could write it in your sleep. And that may be what Joe DiPietro did, who also co-wrote the lyrics, since every dramatic curve and plot turn can be seen coming from a mile away.

But none of that was enough to keep Memphis from winning the 2010 Tony for best musical, and it shouldn’t be enough to stop you from visiting the Alma Theater on the Cain Park campus and delving into this professional, virtually airtight production directed by the estimable Joanna May Cullinan.

The original music composed by David Bryan, keyboard player for Bon Jovi, is a blessed relief from so many of the jukebox musicals that are often employed to tell the story of the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll. While not every one of his songs is memorable, there are certain pieces that definitely rock the house. But more importantly, the entire score deftly captures the essence of how black rhythm and blues songs were “sped up” and became what we know as rock music.

It all begins in a Beale Street dive, owned and named after a black man named Delray that is frequented by many in the Memphis black community. And in walks Huey (who is the Dewey character. There is no Louie, sadly.), and this unassuming white guy stands out like, well, a white guy in a black bar. Remember, this was the early-to-mid 1950s, a time when racial separation was the rule of the day.

After some initial resistance, Huey warms up the patrons by singing “Music of My Soul,” a tribute to the black music that is overwhelming the bland white music dominating the pop charts at the time. Soon, Huey wrangles his way into a temporary gig at a local radio station, a white music station sitting securely in “the middle of the dial.” (Note to young people: who listen to music on their phones: Radios once had dials that you turned to select different stations. And the primo stations were in the middle of that dial. What’s a radio? Oh, forget about it.)

Along the way, Huey meets and is smitten by Felicia Farrell, Delray’s sister and one of the featured singers at the club. The white man’s attentions and intentions are noted by Delray and others in the bar, much to their consternation. But Huey is not a man who is easily put off.

That idea comes through with powerful clarity due to the performance of Douglas F. Bailey II as Huey.  Sporting a posture that is best described as a perpetual slump and a speaking voice that makes every sentence sound like a whiny question, Bailey’s Huey always seems like a mangy dog that has just been beaten and left out in the rain. But as this whole show demonstrates, you shouldn’t judge people by how they look. It turns out that Huey has a will of iron when it comes to defending the music he loves and pursuing the woman of his dreams.

After Huey sneaks some black music onto a white radio station, and the phones are jammed with positive white reaction, the storyline progresses just as you would expect. But that’s okay since Bailey is a kickass rock singer who is matched and then exceeded by Nicole Sumlin who plays Felicia.

Of course, Felicia has most of the good songs, but Sumlin turns each of them into gleaming gems. This is particularly true with “Someday,” the song she sings live on Huey’s radio show, at the moment when she and Huey bond and the black music takes over the Memphis airwaves. Huey’s radio show is soon number one in the market, and his relationship with Felicia is soon also #1 with a bullet. But that won’t last, as you knew it wouldn’t.

Bailey and Sumlin are supported admirably by a large cast and stellar performances in key roles. Among those are Anthony Savage-Williams as Delray, the fearsomely energetic Elijah Dawson as Huey’s black friend Bobby, and Chris Richards as Mr. Simmons, the white owner of the radio station who is won over by the money Huey’s black music is bringing in. Also, music director Jordan Cooper and choreographer Leilani Barrett keep the energy pumping—even through a second act that isn’t nearly as compelling as Act One.

Yes, eventually the familiarity of the story wears thin, particularly in the final moment of reconciliation between Huey and Felicia. But never mind, the performances are king in this show, and those are spectacular.

Memphis, The Musical
Through July 1 at Cain Park, Alma Theater, Superior Road between Lee Road and South Taylor Road in Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000, ticketmaster.com.

Soho Cinders, Mercury Theatre Company

Okay, sure, Jerry Lewis did it first in Cinderfella, turning the Cinderella story on its head and switching genders of the poor little heroine. But as inventive as Lewis was, he could never have anticipated Cinderella being turned into Robbie, a young gay man who is having an affair with a married (to a woman) mayoral candidate, James Prince, in London, England while diddling a Lord Bellingham on the side.

That’s the essence of the musical Soho Cinders now being produced by the Mercury Theatre Company. Robbie shares his confusion with his girlfriend Velcro during their frequent meetings at the local laundrette, Sit and Spin. And that relationship actually turns out to be the most affecting and resonant one in the show

The music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe range from acceptable to downright wonderful. Although the book by Drewe takes some enormous leaps of logic, eschewing reality when it comes to a political candidate having such dalliances.

As with Cinderella, the story comes to a climax during a ball, when the three men meet awkwardly. Robbie has managed to get to the fancy-dress affair despite the shenanigans of his evil stepsisters Dana and Clodagh.

Under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, the cast is quite competent with a couple standout moments. The duet between Mason Henning as Robbie and Kennedy Ellis as Velcro is drop-dead gorgeous. And Amiee Collier and Kelvette Beacham as the sisters spare no calories in making the women as nightmarish as possible. That comes to a head in the song “I’m So Over Men” which, as you might expect, is so wrong.

As Prince (who is, you know, the “Prince”), Brian Marshall dials back the attitude he often brings to character roles, playing a fairly straight (though gay) character with a bracing degree of honesty.  And Joe Monaghan as Prince’s campaign manager adds a dash of sarcastic edge to the proceedings.

Even though the overall pace of the show seems a bit lethargic, and the British colloquialisms and accents are incomprehensible at times, the music shines forth. That makes Soho Cinders a must-see for those who relish new musicals that are willing to take chances.

Soho Cinders
Through June 23 produced by Mercury Theatre Company, Notre Dame College, Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatrecompany.org.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Cleveland Play House

It’s hard not to like a Hershey Felder show. Like a friendly and incredibly persistent Scotch terrier, Felder’s shows hump your leg with gusto until you’re forced to give them your full attention.

Such is the case with Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, which is another in Felder’s long lineup of one-person shows about famous composers and songwriters. That list includes Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt and Tchaikovsky.  And the staging is usually always the same: Felder playing the piano and singing (when appropriate) while narrating a dutiful accounting of the person’s life, musical and otherwise.

Felder is an accomplished pianist and vocalist, so those aspects of the show are always handled with professional skill. As a result, we are gifted with parts of many of Berlin’s songs including his breakthrough hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and his monumental “White Christmas.” All the songs aren’t represented, since the industrious Berlin penned about 1500 of them, but you get the idea that this Russian immigrant was a pillar of American music.

What you don’t quite get a sense of is what kind of person Irving Berlin really was. As good as Felder is at the piano and singing, his skills at writing (the book is his, as always) and acting are less than stupefying. In about two hours Felder tries to touch on every substantial milestone in Berlin’s life, which is the format he generally employs.  But this Wikipedia approach, while comprehensive, never takes the time to slow down and really explore the triumphs, fears and anxieties of such a towering talent.

And even if the words were there, it’s not clear that Felder could convey them, given his rat-a-tat acting style, which is always eager to move on to the next song, the next biographical tidbit. There certainly are aspects of Berlin’s life that would be rich sources of further analysis, such as his long relationship with his wife, the upper-crust Ellin Mackay and his boundless wit (“Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” and “Puttin’ On the Ritz”).

The fact that this poor Jewish immigrant became an avatar of American patriotism (“God Bless America”) and the creator of two of the most popular tunes relating to a religion that wasn’t his (“White Christmas” and “Easter Parade”) is a testament to his heft as a musical creator, but that depth is never plumbed. He even wrote a heart-wrenching song inspired by the lynching of a black man (“Supper Time”) sung by Ethel Waters, that conveyed the tragedy of race relations at the time in a very personal manner.

But those potentially interesting moments go by in a flash, and the result is a profile of Berlin that is a mile wide and an inch deep. That said, Felder is a talented and determined performer and he creates a tuneful, diverting show. Why quibble when we can just take Mr. Berlin’s advice: “Let’s Face the Music and Dance!”

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Through June 24 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

My Son Pinocchio, Mercury Theatre Company

Mercury Theatre Company, now celebrating its 20th anniversary in Cleveland, has a long history of selecting exceptional shows. And they have usually produced them extremely well, such as their dazzling Camelot in 2015 and last year’s La Cage Aux Folles. Even when the show selections aren’t particularly interesting, director Pierre-Jacques Brault usually finds a way to bring snap and wit to the proceedings.

However, their current production of My Son Pinocchio fails to deliver on most of those points. With a limp book by David Stern and mostly forgettable music by Broadway vet Stephen Schwartz, this show may only be appropriate for small kids. And undiscriminating kids, at that.

This Disney product is devoid of many of the Disney touches that make some of their other stage musicals soar. Instead, this Pinocchio, told from the point-of-view of the woodcarver Geppetto, is a rather joyless and overly didactic exercise in bullying kids to be good and “follow their conscience.”

We need not review the Pinocchio story here, but suffice to say not much extra is offered in this rendition. It even manages to turn Jiminy Cricket, who was a snappy little dresser for an insect, wearing an orange vest and a blue top hat in the 1940 Disney animated film. Here, Jiminy is all green and kind of a scold as voiced and manipulated by Kelly Monaghan.

Yes, the one difference in this show is that some of the characters are portrayed as puppets, some of them larger-than-life including Gerppetto and a couple others. Monaghan and Jonathan Bova as Geppetto do what they can with these puppetry duties, but since the puppets themselves don’t open their mouths while talking or singing, the effect is a bit surreal and off-putting. Bova and Bill Wetherbee as Pinocchio never develop a clear and emotional relationship, which undercuts any possibility of bonding with the audience.

Brian Marshall attempts to bring his signature snark to his role as The Fox, but the part is so woefully underwritten it’s never clear if he’s a villain, a good guy, or just a passerby.  And eventually you wish that The Blue Fairy (Claudia Zalevsky) had declined Geppetto’s wish to turn Pin into a boy and leave him as a doorstop or a paperweight.

Schwartz’s songs (he does both music and lyrics) are quite formulaic, with only “I’ve Got No Strings” and “Give a Little Whistle” emerging as more than vaguely intriguing. Indeed, the best song in the show is one not written by him—it’s the classic “When you Wish Upon a Star” by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington.

As always, the MTC performers as directed by Brault deliver all the energy you could ask for. But the material is so lame there’s really no saving it. In addition to the constant lessons being fired at the youngsters in the audience, there is precious little humor in the proceedings to keep adults distracted. (One exception, a clever way that shows Pinocchio’s nose growing.) This lack of amusing asides is odd, since the coin of the realm for these kinds of shows it having comic relief in the form of a wisecracking donkey or a smartass meerkat.

No, everybody is playing this story pretty straight. And as they say, all lessons and no jokes make this Pinocchio a dull boy.

My Son Pinocchio
Through June 24 at Mercury Theatre Company, Notre Dame College, Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatrecompany.org.