Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Musical Theater Project presents "Deconstructing Kurt Weill"

The wording on the gravestone of Kurt Weill comes from the song “A Bird of Passage” from his musical, “Lost in the Stars.”  It reads:  “This is the life of men on earth:  Out of darkness we come at birth.  Into a lamplit room, and then—Go forward into dark again.”

Weill’s life epitomizes that Maxwell Anderson poem.  Born into a secure Jewish-  German family in 1900, he grew to be one of the country’s more prominent and popular composers.  He, along with his equally well-know wife, singer Lotte Lenya, were forced into exile by the Nazis in 1933 because, not only were they Jewish, but held and espoused populist views. 

He emerged from the dark when he arrived in America, and assumed his place in American composing nobility by producing many well known works.

He felt so strongly about his expulsion from Deutschland, that he and wife, Lottie Lenya, decided not to speak German again, except in letters and conversations with his parents who had escaped to Palestine (now Israel).  They also Americanized the pronunciation of their name, using the “W,” rather than the Germanic “V” sound at the start of their last name.

His “American” compositions were a departure from his former work.  He wrote with an immediacy theme.  As he said, “I am writing for the masses.  Music they can sing, and music that deals with their problems.  That is the only significant form of composition nowadays.”

His massive music portfolio included stage and film works, cantatas, chamber music, piano music, orchestral works, and Lieder cycles/songs/chansons.  He is probably best known by the general public for “Mack the Knife,” from his “The Threepenny Opera,” which became a jazz standard via the Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin recording. 

The Musical Theater Project will present “Deconstructing Kurt Weill: The American Songs,” featuring narration by TMTP Executive Director Heather Meeker , input from Cleveland composer-arranger, Ty Alan Emerson, as sung by Fabio Polanco and Christine Fader, with music by guitarist Jake Fader and the instrumental trio “No Exit.”  

The concert centers on the theme, “How might Weill’s music sound if it were arranged and performed by contemporary artists?”   Emerson’s concept in arranging the music centered on his belief that “Weill became jaded by the Old World and wonderfully excited about becoming an American artist.  Where ever you turn in the songs, that colors his musical and dramatic choices.” 

“This composer embraced whatever sound he heard swirling around him—and in New York in the 1930s and 40s, those sounds included jazz, swing, the blues and pure Broadway ballads.”

Emerson also notes, in regard to Weill’s work, “I found that whether you’re a musical theater fan, opera or jazz musician, glam-rocker or indie-punk all-star, you can make Weill your own.”

Audiences will get their chance to experience Emerson’s interpretations of Weill on May 2 and 3 at 7 PM in the James Levine Theatre of Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.org.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

"As You Like It"-- comedic farce delights at Great Lakes Theater

What do the phrases, “all the world’s a stage” and “too much of a good thing” have in common?  They are both quotes from Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy “As You Like It.”  As is true of that genre, the play, which was written early in 1600, deals with shepherds and the rustic life, but, also concerns love, in its various forms.

“As You Like It” is  one of the Bard’s most famous works and, as presented at Great Lakes Theater, one that delights an audience.

The plot seems complicated, but, as is true of many of Shakespeare’s works of exile and romance, which are meant to entertain, there is a great deal of farcical slapstick, overly wrought lovers who find bliss by the time the final curtain falls, and what seems confusing is, in fact, simplistic.

The plot:  Frederick has taken over and exiled his older brother, Duke Senior.  The Duke’s daughter, Rosalind, has been allowed to stay in the castle to be a companion to her cousin Celia.  In a parallel plot, Orlando, whose wealthy father has died, is denied his part of his father’s estate by his older brother.  The stories join when Rosalind and Orlando fall in love, but their connection is broken when the Duke has a change of heart and exiles Rosalind.  Celia and Rosalind steal away to the forest where Duke Senior is ensconced with a group of his followers.  Rosalind, is dressed as a male, a common Shakespearean theatrical device of hidden identities.   Add a jester, a couple of sheppards, some chance encounters, some twists and turns, lots of farcical shticks, more music than is normal for Shakespearean play, and a happy ending.  Of course, to quote the Bard, “All’s well that ends well.”

Great Lakes Theater’s production, under the direction of Edward Morgan, is entertaining, but doesn’t seem to fulfill Morgan’s director’s notes.  He has reinvented the play, he contends, by changing its setting to America, which he feels, “gives the text new resonance.” 

Morgan writes that the play starts in New England, in the midst of the second Industrial Revolution, not long after the start of the 20th century.  “The Forest of Arden is in the foothills of the Adirondack mountains.  The villains are greedy, thriving Industrialists.”  “Rosalind and Orlando are the new Americans.”  “Rosalind becomes a kind of metaphor for American womanhood.”  The Elizabethan songs have been replaced “with tunes that echo these themes through Yankee sentiment and syncopation.”

Though he philosophizes those goals, starting the play with a metal grinding scene, does not an industrial revolution make.   How are we to know that is his intent?  None of the language of Shakespeare’s script carries the “industrial revolution” message nor any implication of the villains as “greedy Industrialists.”

The music insertions, though many create the right mood, do not all fit the time period described.

Rosalind, rather than being a metaphor for the liberated woman, follows the historical, tried and true path of putting a man (Orlando) above all else and gets her desire, not a career, but a marriage.

If Morgan wanted to really reimagine the play he needed to add dialogue that makes his message clear.  He would not have been the first to add to, or delete the Bard’s words.

All theorizing aside, the production delights.  Martin Céspedes’s choreography, which is evident throughout, is creative and brought applause from the audience.  Especially endearing is the soft-shoe tap dance of Touchstone (Dustin Tucker), the court fool.  Also creative is the dance at the end of the play in which Céspedes has developed character identifying moves for each couple.

The pacing, the visual images, the Borsht-belt shticks, and the performances are all top notch. 

The petite and talented Betsy Mugavero, makes for a radiant Rosalind.  Though she doesn’t really look like the “man” she is supposed to play during her “disguised” segments, she is right for the Shakespeare habit of sex switching.  (Interestingly, during the Bard’s time the task was easy, as young boys played the female roles.)

Handsome and gym-toned Torsten Johnson is a physically strong, yet gentle Orlando.  Johnson and Mugavero have a wonderful interpersonal chemistry that makes their love-in-bloom scenes engaging.

Dustin Tucker, who has a remarkable resemblance to old vaudeville performer Red Buttons, delights as the Court Fool.  He does slapstick exceedingly well.

The rest of the cast develops appropriate characterizations.

Russell Metheny’s set designs and Rick Martin’s lighting help in developing the story.  Kim Krumm Sorenson’s costumes often confuse.  They don’t always develop the era depicted.  Her backwoods inhabitant’s costumes, however, are character right.

Capsule judgement: Great Lakes Theater’s “As You Like It,” though it doesn’t
fully develop director Edward Morgan’s philosophical objectives, is delightful.  The many students who will attend should go away with a very positive concept of the Shakespearean comedy at its best.


“As You Like It” runs from April 9-14, 2014 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets go to: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Monday, April 07, 2014

Reviewer of the Reviewer's Review--Sean Derry

Hi Roy,

I just wanted to personally thank you for your kind words, time travelled, insightful critique, and continued support of none too fragile. Your reviews go a very long way in encouraging attendance among the public. Please know, you are respected and greatly appreciated by Alanna and I. We look forward to seeing you at "Possum Dreams" June 13th.

Sincerely,

Sean [Derry, Artistic Director, none too fragile theater]

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Actors' Summit..HANDLE WITH CARE, it's mostly Hebrew to me

Picture this:  on a Thursday night, an American theatrical comedy, one-third of which’s dialogue was spoken in Hebrew, was viewed by an audience composed primarily of Hebrew speaking Israelis.  The setting:  Actors’ Summit in Akron.  Yes, Akron, Ohio!

How did this occurrence come to pass?  A group of Israeli teenagers were in the United States on an exchange program.  They were spending time in Cleveland, their hosts became aware of the production of Jason Odell Williams’ “Handle With Care,” and brought the Israeli students, and the students at Beachwood’s Akiva (Jewish) High School to the play.

Being in the audience with the students added a dimension to the theatrical experience.  During the show there was an underlying stream of comments.  One of the patrons thought the Israeli students were being disrespectful until it was pointed out that the sounds being heard were interpretations from English to Hebrew by the Akiva students.  The Israelis were as lost in the English as most of the rest of the audience was in the Hebrew spoken segments.

There was laughter from the students when Hebrew was being spoken, which was absent from the English speaking audience, and laughter when the English was being spoken from the rest of the audience, but not from the Israelis.  The subsets were reacting to what they understood, which was not available to the other group.

During the question and answer session, members of the cast, none of whom knew any Hebrew before their appearance in the play, were curious as to their ability to correctly pronounce the words they were speaking.  The Israeli students laughed as they explained that like any language, there are differences in pronunciation  in Hebrew.  They came to the conclusion that the accent being used was Russian-Hebrew (former Russians who emigrated to Israel, learned Hebrew, but pronounce it based on their Russian language pronunciation).  Not surprisingly, Oudi Singer, who acted as the Hebrew coach for the cast, speaks Russian-Hebrew.

Williams’ play is a pleasant comedy which has a feel good sit-com format.  It is one of those plays where the outcome becomes obvious about one-third into the goings-on.

Loosely following some aspects of the film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” complete with a bumbling “guardian angel” and lots of happy coincidences, it’s the kind of script that will probably be produced by Jewish theatres and temple drama groups.

The story centers on a trip to America by grandma Edna, on an undisclosed mission, and her granddaughter, Ayelet, who has recently broken up with her boyfriend.  As we come upon Ayelet, in a rundown motel in backwoods Virginia, she is hysterically yelling in Hebrew at Terrence, an air-headed delivery man.  We eventually find out that grandma Edna had died and her body was placed in a box for shipment back to Israel for burial.  (How the body got put into the box, doubtfully handled by Jewish ritual, which requires special preparation and the body never be left alone, is a mystery.) 

The body was “lost” when Terrence left the keys in his delivery truck and the vehicle was stolen while he made a 7-ll food stop.  Into the chaos enters Josh.  He’s a high school friend of Terrence’s, one of the few Jews in the area, and, of course, Terrence assumes that because of his religion he will be able to communicate with Ayelet.  The non-observant and Hebrew-illiterate Josh is of no help.  (But, as the audience figures out, he’s there for a plot-purpose.)

Josh’s wife died a few years ago.  Hmm….the plot unfolds.  Ayelet and Josh are both nice, Jewish, unmarried, and open for love!

The body is found, and grandma Edna’s belief in the “beshert” (Yiddish for “meant to be”) comes true.

A 2013-2014 off-Broadway production of “Handle With Care,” starring Carol Lawrence (of “West Side Story” fame), ran 112 performances and was called “fearlessly adorable” by the “NY Jewish Review.” 

The Actors’ Summit production, under the direction of Constance Thackaberry, who is a friend of the playwright, is quite pleasant.  The performances are very good.  Natalie Sander Kern undertook the daunting responsibility of learning hundreds of lines in a language she didn’t know.  She also had to learn to pronounce the words, and make dramatic sense of them.  She was outstanding, and, according to one of the Israeli students, “made me laugh.”

Keith Stevens was charming as the befuddled Josh.  Arthur Chu (who some in the audience knew as the very successful contestant on the nationally televised  “Jeopardy”) added with his southern-accented interpretation of the dim-witted Terrence.  Marci Paolucci made a nice “Savta” (Hebrew for grandmother), with a surprising past.

Capsule judgment: “Handle With Care” isn’t a great script, but makes for a smiling evening of theatre.  Seeing the show with a group of Israeli, Hebrew-speaking students, added a dimension of understanding of culture and language.

For tickets to HANDLE WITH CARE, which runs through April 13, 2014, call 330-374-7568 or go to www.actorssummit.org

Saturday, April 05, 2014

GIDION'S KNOT @ none too fragile theater

Last year, none too fragile theater’s ON THE LINE was honored by the Cleveland Critics Circle as being the “Best Non-Musical Production of 1913.”  Their production of GIDION’S KNOT establishes itself as a candidate for the award this year!

Johnna Adams’ brilliantly written script, given a superb production, is riveting, disturbing, and emotionally wrenching.  Ironically, it is also funny at times.   Yes, sometimes you have to laugh through your tears.  Adams knows this and gives the needed moments of catharsis so as not to make the experience more than the audience members can emotionally bear.

Usually on the ride home after leaving a theatre, my wife and I have a lively discussion about the play we have just seen.  On the way home from GIDION’S KNOT, we sat in silence.  We were both in an emotional after-shock.  Talking would have taken us out of the mood. 

As I sit here writing this review, 12 hours after experiencing the production, I can still hear the lines and visualize its physical images.   The angst remains within.

The play’s title is an allusion to the legend of the Gordian Knot, in which Alexander the Great was challenged with the task of untying an intricate knot created by King Gorgius.  In modern terms, it relates to the question of how to deal with a complicated seemingly insoluble problem. 

Adams could not have picked a more perfect take-off on that legend as a title.  There is no way to untie, unknot the tale about Gidion and his complex problem and the resulting issues.

I can’t explain the story or my thoughts about it.  That would untie the knot for me, not for you.  It’s an unfair burden and for me to undertake.

On the surface, this is a telling of a meeting between an elementary school teacher and the mother of a young boy, Gidion, who has just committed suicide.  In reality, it is a series of questions: Is the disturbing story the boy wrote as a homework assignment that of an imaginative writer, an Edgar Allen Poe, or the exposition of a disturbed child who may some day turn out to be a mass murderer like Seugn-Hui Cho, who wrote murderous fantasies before shooting thirty-two people at Virginia Tech?

It further probes:  What are the responsibilities of schools regarding a student?  Should a teacher, or society, impose its ethical rules on others?  What is the “right” way to grieve? When does the fear of a law suit override the responsibilities of leadership?  Are we responsible for the way our actions affect others?  How do we recognize depression in others?  Should it be the child's, the mother's, or the teacher's perspective, that influences and informs the narrative for the child’s life?

The play offers no answers, it just lays bare the issues.  This may disturb those that want clear cut answers.  But, in reality, life doesn’t always offer clear cut answers.  In fact, the process of life usually provides more paths to inquiry.  The author wisely realizes this conundrum and leaves it to each person to untie the knot of her characters lives, if s/he desires, and has the psychological desires and abilities to attempt the task.

The none too fragile’s production, under the precise and insightful direction by Sean Derry, is spell-binding.  It is exquisitely paced, the actors develop real emotionally fragile people.  No acting here.  Each lives the character, leaving no doubt of the reality of the situation and internal chaos.  Nothing gets in the way of the well-crafted play.  Nothing gets in the way of getting the audience involved in the cerebral, yet emotional sense of the author.

Jen Klika is superlative as Corryn, the grieving mother.  This is performing at its highest level.  She rides the roller coaster of emotions with perfection, controlling the normal tendency of yelling to show strong emotions.  She uses pauses, stress highlighting, and nonverbal signs to convey Corryn’s deep hurt, guilt and chaos.

Alanna Romansky as Heather, the teacher, creates a multi-leveled woman whose own questions, doubts and insecurities become clearly evident.  At times her projection falls off, making her hard to hear, but these lapses of dialogue actually intensify Heather’s angst and choked up conflicted feelings.  Her final scene is wrenching.

This is among the saddest and thought-provoking plays I’ve ever seen.  It exposes so many raw nerves.  It seems ironic, but the experience was so perfect that  I would not want to see the play again because I don’t want to disturb the image, the keen emotional reaction of this experience.

I would ask the director to consider not having a curtain call, but letting the audience sit in the dark for a short period after the final line, so they can get the full impact of the play.  I was brought out of the emotional mood too quickly by the lights flashing on.  Yes, the actors should be recognized for their brilliant performances, but the deep silence would serve that purpose, and a gradual bringing up of the lights to indicate the play was over, would help cement the experience.

Capsule judgement:  If it is the purpose of theatre to have a life-awakening experience and to get the audience so emotionally involved that they forget they are in a theatre, then none too fragile’s GIDION’S KNOT fully fulfills that goal!   This is theatre at its finest and is an absolute MUST see.  Please avail yourself of the wonder of this  fine theatrical offering!  Bravo!

GIDION’S KNOT runs through  April 19, 2014 at none too fragile theater which is located in Bricco’s Restaurant, 1841 Merriman Road, Akron.  Use the free valet parking, as car space is limited.  For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to http://www.nonetoofragile.com

Friday, April 04, 2014

Local actor, Corey Mach, turns on the audience in "Flashdance" at the Palace

 
On opening night, when Corey Mach made his first appearance on stage in “Flashdance The Musical,” the audience, after being prepped about his entrance by Gina Vernaci, Senior Vice President of Theater Operations, greeted him with a lengthy ovation.  During the curtain call, the audience exploded in vocal and physical adoration when Mach came on stage.  Then, when the 2006 Strongsville High School and 2010 Baldwin-Wallace alum put on an Indian’s baseball cap, the Palace Theatre literally shook with unbridled excitement.  Yes, this was a glorious “welcome home Corey” celebration.

Mach is Broadway leading man material.  He’s tall, dark, handsome, with a strong singing voice, great acting chops, and a charming “Midwest wholesome” personality.  Mach’s credits already include the international tour of “Rent,” as well as the role of Fiyero in the touring production of “Wicked,” and the Broadway revival of “Godspell.”

When I reviewed Mach in the 2010 BW/Playhouse Square production of “Chess,” as staged by BW Musical Theater faculty member, Victoria Bussert, I commented that he was “sincere and sensitive.”   In another commentary I tagged him as “ready for Broadway,” and as having “star quality.”   Yes, he’s another one of Bussert’s “kids” who is making good!

The touring version of “Flashdance The Musical” is part of the Key Bank Broadway series.  The national tour, which started in January of 2013, has four more stops, ending in Toronto (May 27-June 8).

The show is based on the 1983 romantic film, “Flashdance,” which was written by Tom Hedley and Clevelander, Joe Eszterhas.

Though the flick opened to negative reviews, it went on to be a surprise box office success.  It was the third highest grossing film of 1983 and has become a cult favorite, having brought in more than $100 million dollars in worldwide box office sales.  The sound track included “Maniac” and “Flashdance…What a Feeling” which have become pop standards. 

The musical stage version, which was billed as “an unmistakably unique musical about holding onto your dreams and love against all odds,” premiered in the UK, and toured that country.  The oft-promised Broadway opening is up-in-the-air.  Originally the show was announced as opening on the Great White Way in August of 1913.  That date has been set back, and now is in limbo again because the producers say, “The postponement is due to a lack of theaters.”

Both the stage and film versions center on Alex Owens, an eighteen-year-old small town girl who moves to Pittsburgh in order to pursue a career in dance.  She has no formal training and winds up working as an exotic dancer by night and a welder in the Hurley Steel Mill by day.  In the musical, into her workday life saunters Nick Hurley, the grandson of the mill’s owner.  Their on-and-off romance, her overcoming her lack of dance self-confidence, complications caused by issues of her co-workers at both the bar and the steel mill, and her need to learn the meaning of love, fuel the story. 

Of course, as happens in all feel-good, plot obvious musicals, only a “Maniac” wouldn’t know that in the “Steeltown Sky,” the girl will realize “It’s All in Reach,” as “Here and Now,” she understands that this is “Where I Belong,” and she learns to “Hang on,” so she finally can realize, “What a Feeling” it is to get her dancing dreams and a wealthy, nice, and studly guy.

The musical and book don’t exactly follow the same plan.  Sixteen songs have been added for the stage version, Grunt, the lovable dog of flick fame, is gone, lots of characters are cut and others added, the name of the dance conservatory has been changed, the character of Jeannie, an ice skating friend of Alex, has been modified, the character of Nick’s ex-wife is gone, and Alex doesn’t trash Nick’s apartment.  What is left is an obvious “I told you that’s the way it would turn out” ending of boy meets girl, girl rejects boy, boy pursues, girl finally realizes that he is prince charming!

The touring production is pure entertainment, centering on dancing, dancing and more dancing, plus singing, singing and more singing.  It sweeps up the audience, not with the story but with the choreography, musicality, and the abundant use of electronic graphics.

The role of Nick Hurley is a perfect vehicle for Mach.  He puts on the character and wears it with complete confidence and talent.  He makes Clevelanders proud to call him “ours.”

Tiny and adorable Sydney Morton has the right cocky, yet insecure persona as Alex.  Her singing and acting are excellent, her dancing not up to the required level.  Her highlight number, when she tries out for dance school, though perfectly adequate, doesn’t compel as it should.

Alison Ewing and Dequina Moore delight as exotic dancers, the dance chorus is high octane excellent, and the orchestra, though sounding rather shrill due to an over-dependence on the electronic keyboard, develops the multi-musical sounds.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  “Flashdance The Musical” is one of those musicals that delights audiences, while not being a well-written show.  It has strong music, great choreography and Corey Mach, local kid making good.  That ought be more than enough to please the Cleveland faithful.
“Flashdance The Musical” is scheduled to run through April 13, 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org

Add-ons
•Prepare to be dazzled on May 2, when the $16-million upgrade of Playhouse Square becomes a reality…four welcoming gateways, video boards, marquees, a 48-foot Playhouse Square sign atop the Cowell & Hubbard Building, and the world’s largest outdoor chandelier will all be set ablaze.

•Congrats to the subscribers to the Key Bank Broadway series.  The 29,266 of you hold membership in the largest subscriber series in the U.S.!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

CLYBOURNE PARK...a Pulitzer Prize view of neighborhood integration and gentrification

Have you ever wondered, after seeing a play, what might have happened to the characters or even the physical structure in which the story is set, before the play began or after it ended?  Bruce Norris’s ‘CLYBOURNE PARK’ does exactly that.

Flash back to 1959, where, at the conclusion of Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A RAISIN THE SUN,’ the black Younger family is about to move into the all-white Clybourne Park area of Chicago.   Before the move, fearing the lowering of housing costs and white flight, the neighbors sent Karl Lindner, a bigoted community leader, to offer the Youngers money for not finalizing the deal.  As it turned out, Lena, the matriarch of the family, refused the offer and the Youngers moved to a house numbered 406. 

(Side note:  the story parallels the plight of Hansberry’s family.  In 1937 her father bought a home in Chicago’s segregated Washington Park area.  The restrictive covenants were challenged, resulting in a legal case (Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32).  The Hansberry family won the suit, and lived in the property, which now has National Landmark Preservation status.)

(Enter Norris)   Act 1 of ‘CLYBOURNE PARK’ takes us back to 1959, into the house numbered 406, several days before the Youngers are to move in.  Bev and Russ, the owners of the property, are grief stricken.  Their son, Kenneth, who was accused of war crimes, had committed suicide in his bedroom.  The family, which has been ostracized, decided to sell the house.  We are never sure whether they sold to a black family to get back at their neighbors, or, as they state, were “unaware of the race of the new owners.”   Lindner, the bigoted  character from RAISIN, comes to plead with Bev and Russ to withdraw from the deal. After an emotional confrontation in front of a group of neighbors, the sellers refuse.  (Exit Norris.)

(Re-enter Norris).   The second act of CLYBOURNE PARK takes place in 2009.   The same actors as in Act 1, playing different characters, are present.  There is conflict as to whether the house, in what is now becoming a gentrified community, will be sold, leveled and a new structure built by a white family.  African American Lena and her husband represent the local neighborhood association, and mention that her Great-Aunt moved her family to that house in 1959.  (It is probably not by chance that the young lady has the same name as her Great-Aunt.) Racism enters as the blacks, who have rebuilt the neighborhood, don’t want white suburbanites to buy and change the character of the houses, many of which have been rebuilt to mirror their historical past.

Does the viewer have to know all of the intertwining stories in order to appreciate the Norris play?  No, but it does add a psychological jolt to realize that we are watching the blending of ideas of two great playwrights.  It is also eye-opening to realize that Hansberry, whose ‘RAISIN IN THE SUN’ is considered the seminal black civil rights play, did not win a Pulitzer Prize for her script, but Norris did for his.  One can only wonder if gender and race, subjects of both scripts, was a factor in Hansberry’s denial decision by the Pulitzer committee.

I found the Broadway production of the play fascinating, nicely balancing the powerful message with well developed natural humor.  The Cleveland Play House production is good, but under the direction of Mark Cuddy, there are disconnects.   Some characters are realistic, others developed as caricatures.  The pacing doesn’t build to the emotional climaxes.  The development somewhat sets aside the serious nature of segregation, problems caused by regentrification,  prejudice, and the language of hate.  All of these are in Norris’s writing, but not always strongly present on stage.

Part of the issue may be a lack of clarity as to what type of play this is, which sets the path for the pacing and character development.  In the before-the-play talk the moderator indicated the play was a “farce.”  Farce is defined as, “a light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot situations, and often slapstick element are used for humorous effect.”  If this is the focus which director Mark Cuddy used, I can understand why I found the production somewhat lacking.   The Broadway version was developed as a realistic drama with wickedly comic interludes which came naturally from the language of the play.   

Norris, who is an actor as well as a playwright, writes characters that live.   The language and intentions are clear.  The plot is probable.  It could have been happening today in Cleveland’s Tremont, Ohio City or the Forest Hill area of East Cleveland/Cleveland Heights.

All the actors play dual characters.  One in the 1959 era, another in 2009.  This requires the actors to develop two clearly differentiated personages.  

Remi Sandri is compelling as the father who is still grieving for his now-dead son.  His inner rage at both the suicide of the boy and the virulent treatment towards his son by the neighbors, is clearly evident.    The writing arch which allows him, as the second act workman, who finds a buried trunk in the backyard, to open a letter found inside, and read aloud the dead son’s suicide note, is heart-wrenchingly developed. 

On the other hand, both as his wife and a lawyer, Roya Shanks comes off affected, portraying characters, not real persons.  Which, may be the issue with others in the cast who, I thought didn’t dig deeply enough into the motivations behind the real people they were portraying and, instead, gave the veneer of these people.

Bruce Norris says that his hopeful audience response to the play upon exiting the production is,  “I don’t know what’s right anymore.  I used to think I knew what was right, but I’m not sure I do.”  Hopefully, the audience will grab enough from the CPH production to satisfy Norris’s goal.

Capsule Judgement:  Pulitzer Prize winning ‘CLYBOURNE PARK’ is an emotionally moving and thought-provoking script that effectively highlights the still present distrust between members of different races.  It does that while inserting enough natural humor to keep the audience engaged.  It gets an acceptable, but not spellbinding production at CPH.  It’s a significant play worth seeing.

‘CLYBOURNE PARK’ continues at the Cleveland Play House’s Allen Theatre through April 13, 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"'night Mother"--Pulitzer Prize script and maserful acting at Beck

One of the most common questions I encountered as a counselor when working with someone who had just experienced the suicide of a family member or acquaintance was “Why did s/he do it?”  Or, in confronting someone who was suicidal, the question is, “Why do you want to do that?” Ironically, most of the time there is no thoughtful answer. 

A humanistic psychology theory about suicide is that the person has come to the place in their life in which their basic human needs are not being met.  They no longer feel the need to survive.  Their life, from their perspective, is not filled with happiness.  They feel insecure because of mental anguish due to physical or psychological long or short-term illness.  They often feel that they have no way to control their own lives or the environment in which they exist.

The important concept of that theory is the idea that suicide is almost always an emotional (feeling), not a logical (thinking) act.  It is also based on personal perception.  It often doesn’t make sense to the survivors.  They, of course, are looking at the act from their perspective and in a logical manner. No, no matter how hard we try, we cannot feel the pain or anguish of someone else.

“‘night, Mother,” Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, which is now in production at Beck Center for the Arts, is a play about two people in varying states of life’s pain.  The approach of one, Jessie, the daughter, is to realize that her life, which is filled with depression, agoraphobia, seizures and isolation, is not going to get any better.  She concludes, in her emotionally controlled way, that her life is not worth living. 

Her mother, Thelma, has lived a life with an emotionally distant husband who seldom spoke to her and hid from personal contact, has unproductive and disappointing people in her life, and has chosen to ignore that which surrounds her.  She is dutifully going through the act of living.

At the start of the play, we meet Jessie, cleaning her father’s pistol, putting bullets in it, and announcing calmly to her mother, that shortly, she is going into her room to shot herself.  Before she does so, she gets the household life in order.  She has already made arrangements for groceries to be delivered to their rural dwelling, thoroughly cleaned the house, filled the candy dishes, packed up presents for her relatives, and taken care of the day-to-day household activities. Jessie is ready.

The duo spends their evening drinking hot cocoa, planning for Thelma’s weekly manicure, and talking about neighbors and relatives.  There is such a calm attitude that it is almost astounding to believe that within a short period of time, Jessie is going to end her life.  Or, is she? 

The audience may well be thrown off by the fact that there is no high drama, just an almost enveloping sense of the inevitable.  This is a tribute to both Norman’s superb writing, and the masterful performances of both Dorothy Silver and Laura Perrotta.   Their performances are a master class in acting.  They clearly illustrate, with the aid of Scott Plate’s spot on directing, that high drama does not need screaming, shouting, and out-of-control projection.   The audience is swept to the conclusion by their underplay and the calmness of the script.  The power of the emotion is the power of words and controlled actions.

One might ask, “Why doesn’t a mother, knowing that her daughter is about to commit suicide, hide the gun, call the police, intercede in some way?.”  That questions shows a lack of understanding of depression, of living in a world of denial and thinking that logic prevails.  Mental health people are aware that all things being equal, emotions override logic.  These women are both, in their own ways, victims of lives of frustration and defeat. 

Cast members of the play’s award winning Broadway production included Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak.  The 1986 film starred Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft.  A 2004 revival showcased Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn.   As great as those performances were, Silver and Perrotta are their equals.  (BTW…a 2015 projected Great White Way rival is going to star Oprah Winfrey and Audra McDonald.)

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s “’night Mother ”is one of the finest evenings of theatre one can experience.  The script, the acting, the directing are all of the highest quality. It is not an escapist experience, but is an opportunity to look at an on-going issue of our culture and gain an understanding of how the lack of fulfillment of our basic needs has an effect on life decisions.  It’s not for escapists, but for realists. This is an absolutely, must see for anyone who wants to participate in an all embracing theatrical experience.

“’night Mother” is scheduled to run through May 4, 2014 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org  

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Deaf and blind Israeli performers enlighten audience at the Ohio

If one of the major purposes of theater is to make members of the audience feel and view things in a different light, then “Not By Bread Alone” has to be an unquestionable success.  The “play” explores the hopes, dreams and memories of a group of men and women.  It also explores their isolation, frustrations and loneliness. 

At the start of the adventure, the audience views a group of men and women, in chef’s hats and aprons, knead, shape and place dough onto baking sheets.  Viewing these “bakers,” it quickly becomes obvious that they are not looking at the dough or speaking to each other.  What’s wrong with this picture?

The members of the cast are members of the acting company of Israel’s Nalaga’at Theater.  They are all deaf and blind.  They are, as one member of the company states, “a whole company of Helen Kellers.” 

The company was founded in 2007 and is now housed in their own performance space, which also has a restaurant connected to it, which is operated by the cast and similarly afflicted people.  The complex is situated in a center in Jaffa, next to Tel Aviv.

“Nalaga’at” means “please touch” in Hebrew.  It is therefore not surprising that the company’s second show is entitled “Not By Bread Alone,” as the actions and contact feed the souls of both the performers and audience alike. 

During the performance the bread actually baked and the smell permeated the Ohio Theatre during the 75-minute performance.  Following the last “line,” the audience was invited up on the stage to taste the “lechem,” (the Hebrew word for bread) and interact with the cast with the assistance of interpreters. 

As the play starts, each of the 11 actors is wearing a featureless mask.  As the first scene unfolds, each, with the unobtrusive aid of a helper/interpreter, removes his/her mask as their story and identity is revealed.  As the flow of ideas continues, we learn the hopes, dreams, and frustrations of being born, or becoming deaf and blind.  In reality, only three can speak, mainly in Hebrew or Russian.  Most are carriers of Usher Syndrome, an inherited disorder which usually causes blindness and accompanying deafness.  Several are related to each other. 

Each, in their tales, report the importance of interaction and a desire for human connection and the need to communicate.  They have learned to do so through learning Russian and Hebrew sign language, touch-signing, glove language (each joint on the hand symbolizes a letter and is typed by one person on the hand of another), and Braille.  Several wear hearing aids which helps them distinguish sounds. 

The sound of a drum beat occasionally is heard.  This is a cue that announces the start of a new scene.  The actors feel the vibration and are aware of the need to transition to the next experience. 

Those expecting the actors to present a plot driven show, like those presented by the  now defunct Cleveland Signstage Theatre (also known as Fairmount Theater of the Deaf), may be disappointed.  

In reality what is performed are a series of what some might perceive to be awkward vignettes.  There is a wedding, a visit to a hairdresser, a trip to Italy which includes “seeing” the Pope, and some Laurel and Hardy slapstick routines.  Hokey, yes, but they are acting out the “bucket list” wishes of the cast and are performing within the limits of their physical restrictions.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “NOT BY BREAD ALONE” is everything good theatre should be….a thought- provoking, experience-broadening, emotionally inspiring experience that should open the eyes and hearts of the viewer.  Mazel tov to Adina Tai and the Nalaga’at Deaf-Blind Theater Ensemble of Israel.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Shaw Festival's 2014 season

 
The Shaw Festival is one of the two major Canadian theatre celebrations, the other being The Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.  Both are professional,, high quality venues.

The Shaw Festival, which runs from April through October, is a tribute to George Bernard Shaw and his writing contemporaries. 

Many Clevelanders take the four-hour drive up to “The Shaw,” as it is called by locals, to participate in theatre, tour the “most beautiful little city in Canada,” shop, visit the many wineries, and eat at the many restaurants.

This year’s season includes:

“Cabaret” (April 10-October 26)  Kander and Ebb’s award-winning musical tells the story of a seedy nightclub in 1930’s Berlin where a young English performer strikes up a relationship with an American writer, all while a zealous Master of Ceremonies commands the action at the Kit Kat Klub.

“The Philadelphia Story” (May 15-October 25)  A classic romantic comedy by Philip Barry which tells the story of a socialite whose wedding plans are complicated by the simultaneous arrival of her ex-husband and an attractive journalist.

“The Philanderer” (June 26-October 12)  Shaw’s comedy of one man and two women who are caught in a battle between modern ideas and conventional romance.  This production will include the “too daring” original final act.

“The Charity That Began At Home:  A Comedy For Philanthropists” (April 25-October 11)  St. John Hankin’s comedy probes the idea that anyone can be kind to the pleasant, but who will care for the mean?

“The Sea” (June 3-October 12)  In a mix of comedy and politics, author Edward Bond questions whether extraterrestrial aliens are about to invade.

“A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur” (June 28-October 11)  Tennessee Williams’ rarely produced one-act comedy, set in the mid-1930s, the play focuses on four women struggling for a sense of identity and independence.

“Arms And The Man” (April 4-October 18)  Worlds collide in this Shaw romantic comedy when two opposing soldiers vie for the heart of an idealistic young woman.

“When We Are Married” (May 7-October 26)  J. B. Priestley’s comedy examines what happens when three upstanding couples, who are celebrating their joint silver wedding anniversaries, learn that none of them are legally married.

“Juno And The Paycock” (June 28-October 12)  Sean O’Casey’s tale of the happenings in a working class tenement during the Irish Civil War.

“The Mountaintop” (July 16-September 7)  A conversation been Martin Luther King, Jr., who is in his motel room the night before his assassination, and a beautiful young hotel maid.   (To read my review of the Broadway production of this play, go to: http://www.coolcleveland.com/blog/2011/11/review-cle-to-nyc-the-mountaintop-opens-questions-about-martin-luther-king-jr/

It’s a good idea to make both theatre and lodging reservations early, especially with the B&Bs on weekends. Our home away from home is the beautiful and well-placed Wellington House (www.wellington.house@sympatico.ca), directly across the street from The Festival Theatre, within easy walking distance of all the theatres. For information on other B&Bs go to www.niagaraonthelake.com/showbedandbreakfasts

For theatre information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com.  Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets.  Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

There are some wonderful restaurants including Queenston Heights Restaurant (http://www.queenstonheights.com).  It is located in a park just over the US-Canadian border and has a breathtaking view of the Niagara River gorge.  (Make a reservation and ask for a window table.)   A real find is the Benchmark Restaurant at the Niagara Culinary Institute (http://www.niagaracollege.ca/dining), at which student chefs hone their skills. My in-town favorite is The Grill on King Street (905-468-7222, 233 King Street).

Go to the Shaw Festival! Find out what lovely hosts Canadians are, and see some great theatre!  Don’t forget your passport as it’s the only form of identification that will be accepted for re-entry into the U.S.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

'LOBSTER ALICE': Salvatore Dali and Walt Disney at convergence-contnuum

Walt Disney was an animator, cartoonist, producer, director, screenwriter, and the voice of Mickey Mouse.  He won 22 Academy Awards.  It is ironic that for a man noted for producing some of the most beloved and lovable visual characters, he was emotionally conservative, not often drawing attention to himself.

Salvador Dali was an egotistical surrealist Spanish painter, who was noted for his bizarre and striking art images.  His best-known piece was “The Persistence of Memory,” a melting clock.  He “loved everything that was gilded and excessive.”  He wore bizarre oriental clothing and colorful scarves.  He loved to draw attention to himself, and freely expressed his views.

Ironically, Disney and Dali, formed a partnership when, in 1946, the former hired the latter to be the creative consultant on Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

Kira Obolensky’s “Lobster Alice,” which is now in production at convergence-continuum, is a historification of Dali’s involvement in the Alice project and the very short film that resulted from his “Hollywood adventure.”

The story centers on John Finch, an uptight, pedestrian Disney animator and his secretary/assistant, Alice Horowitz.   He is working on the “Alice in Wonderland” project and has a crush on his secretary.  She, much like the wonderland lass, is blonde and curious. 

Enter Dali, out goes routine.  Enter Dali, the whole world turns upside down, including Alice falling down a hole.  In this case, it’s a hole in the sofa in the Disney studio office.  (Hey, remember, this is a fantasy.)

The buttoned-down Finch has been assigned to oversee Dali’s animating the song, “Destino” in hopes of creating another “Fantasia.”  Weekly, Monday meetings are planned.  But Dali isn’t one for sticking to a project, following rules, or letting Finch and Alice lead their previous ordered existence.  Yes, Dali believes that “anything is possible in painting and in life,” and turns into the Mad Hatter who stirs the simmering dreams of Finch and Alice.

Obolensky’s surreal script isn’t extremely well written, but it does have enough bizarre lines and situations to hold the audience’s attention.  There are lots of mind-bending visual effects, some confounding uses of lobsters, a couch which acts as Alice’s hole to wonderland, a green and yellow “Caterpillar,” a cleaning man, Alice’s former boyfriend, and, of course, Salvador Dali.

Sarah Maria Hess, she of blond curls, a blue “ALICE IN WONDERLAND” dress, Betty Boop cutesy voice, and saucer blue eyes, makes for a delightful Alice Horowitz. 

Tom Coles is properly uptight as John Finch.  Though the writing causes him to overplay a naïve twit, he carries off the characterization well.

Grey Cross is hysterical as Dali. Complete with the famous “Dali waxed mustache,” he looks like the great surrealist.  He walks, swishes, sashays and controls the stage with a bigger than life portrayal.  Without Cross, the play would have gone down the hole and never come back.

Beau Reinker plays multi-roles, including a Caterpillar, with a nice touch of irony.

Director Clyde Simon keeps the action humming right along.

Capsule Judgement:  “Lobster Alice” is not a great play, but con-con gives it a surrealist production which should delight the theatre’s niche audience.  If you want an evening of the unexpected and irrational, this could be your thing.

“Lobster Alice” runs through  April 5, 2014 at 8 pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. For information and reservations call 216-687-0074.

Con-con’s next show is the Cleveland premiere of ”Swimming in the Shallow” by Adam Bock, which runs from May 2 through the 24th.

Monday, March 17, 2014

"The Westing Game" pleases audience at geauga Lyric Theater Guild

Before the curtain went up at Geauga Lyric Theater Guild’s production of “The Westing Game,” the three tween boys sitting behind me were discussing Ellen Raskin’s book, on which the play is based.  They were trying to figure out how the director was going to stage the mystery which takes place in various settings, “too many to put on the stage.”  They decided that the book would be a better movie because of the special effects, such as explosions and disappearances, that “had to take place or the show would ‘suck’.”

“The Westing Game,” also titled “Get a Clue,” is a 1979 Newbery Medal winning novel which has been transformed into a movie and play. The Newbery Medal is awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children for publications aimed at young people.  

The book/play centers on Sam Westing, a wealthy manufacturer, his sixteen potential heirs, and an attempt to solve the mysteries concerning his death.  Was it a murder?  If so, who did it?  And, who will solve the crime and get the inheritance?

The heirs are chosen to live in the Sunset Towers apartments on the shore of Lake Michigan, somewhere near Milwaukee.  They are brought together by Westing with the intent of dividing them into groups of two, each set given some clues, all of which center on the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.”  Each person is given $10,000 to play the game.  This is their inheritance unless they are the one to solve the mystery.  If they are the best detective, they will inherit Westing’s $200 million fortune and become the owner of Westing Paper Products.

Sounds like a book, movie and play aimed at middle school audiences?  It is, and that is both the positive and negative of the script. 

The plusses are that the play is family friendly, the language and plot are simple to follow, there are no objectionable words or situations, and it gives the cast a chance to create many interesting characters.  

The main negative is that the format is written by a book writer, not a dramatist.  The form used is written language.  Spoken and written language have different vocabularies and sentence lengths.  It is often difficult to sound authentic while trying to speak written language instead of dialogue. 

Another problem is that the book format allows for the creation of multi-settings and actions , such as 14 different apartments and a restaurant, as well as explosions, that are nearly impossible for theaters, especially money-strapped community theatres, to create on small stages. 

Considering the limitations of the script and stage space, the Geauga Lyric Theatre production, as directed by Angela Miloro-Hansen, is an acceptable community theatre staging of “The Westing Game.”

The production incorporates some nice video designs by Jonathan Klein, thanks to the cooperation of the Tudor Manor Home in Euclid being opened to the theatre for filming due to the generosity of the Friends of Henn Mansion, a group dedicated to restoration and preservation of the manor.

There is clever use of pictures of the cast of characters around the proscenium arch being lit up as the characters are identified and perform.

There are some good performances in which real people emerge.  Included in these are Cara Battagia as Dani, Meg May as the Judge, and Evan Graham as Theo. 

Some of the cast found themselves acting, rather than creating real people.  Unreal gestures, and affected pronunciations made for problems.  Some of this may have been caused by the script’s creation of unreal characters with little motivations to speak some of the lines. 

Opening night found some of the cast stumbling and forgetting their lines, resulting in a member of the cast feeding the errant cast members their lines.  Cuing on-stage did help the verbally stumbling actor, but it is a frowned upon performance action.

Capsule judgment:  The tweens behind me expressed their satisfaction at the end of the play, as did the large audience who loudly applauded approval for their performing friends, relatives and neighbors. 

“The Westing Game,” with sponsorship by Middlefield Banking, runs through March 30, 2014 at the Chardon Theatre, 101 Water Street, on the square in downtown Chardon.  For tickets cal 440-286-2255 or go to geaugatheater.org

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review of the Reviewer's Reviews--Rich Kunath

Roy Berko,
 
        Thank you for a spot-on review of “Joseph”. My wife and I saw it Friday night and agree with all of your observations. I think Ms. DeGarmo was singing outsider her natural range. She appears to be a natural alto that was pressing to sing the high notes required of the part. At our performance, her schreeching singing didn’t abate throughout the entire performance. I read the PD review in which Ms. DeGarmo’s voice was described as “rich and warm”, absolutely the opposite of what it really was. We’ve seen a lot of theater over the years, and we agree with you that neither Ms. DeGarmo’s nor Mr. Young’s performances met the standard expected of a Broadway musical. Thanks for your honesty.
 
Rich Kunath

Stratford Festival (Canada) presents a season for Madness



The 2014 Stratford Festival’s theme is “Madness:  Minds Pushed to the Edge,” and includes more than 150 debates, concerts, workshops, and, of course, theater, theater, and more theatre.  The play offerings examine the madness of love, family, power, war, desire and money!

Though the snow and cold weather are still swirling, in some cases due to the frigid Canadian weather which they graciously share with Americans, those people up north, also, when spring and summer come, offer wonderful accommodations, good food, unusual shopping, and theatre, theatre and more theater, in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.

This season’s 12 productions in the Festival’s four theatres are:
 
KING LEAR (May 5-October 10)—In this Shakespeare classic, an aging monarch resolves to divide his kingdom between this three daughter, with consequence he little expects.  In the process he discovers the essence of his own humanity.

CRAZY FOR YOU (April 21-October 12)--The George and Ira Gershwin musical that gave the world such songs as, “I Got Rhythm,” “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM (May 16-October 11)—Shakespeare’s comedy about Hermia, who elopes with her lover Lysander, and is pursued by a rival suitor , Demetrius, and jos  spurned admirer, Helena.  It’s a tale of love’s giddiest lunacy.

THE BEAUX STATAGEM (JULY 31-OCTOBER 11)—George Farquhar’s tale of larcenous lovers who realize that their hearts might be susceptible to ensnarement. 

MAN OF LAMANCHA (May 8-October 11)—“Dream the Impossible Dream” as you are taken on the mythical journey of Don Quixote in a mythical reenactment of the Miguel de Cervantes enduring and endearing tale.

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS (April 30-October 12)—Climb through the living-room mirror with Alice as she enters a world of wonders populated by “fantastical” characters and dreams of the mind.

HAY FEVER (May 28-October 11)—Noël Coward’s  witty tale of a stage star, novelist husband and two grown children who have each invited guests for the weekend which results in flirtations and histrionics.  Will they survive the weekend with their sanity intact?

KING JOHN (May 21-September 20)—Yes, Shakespeare’s mad world of mad kings highlights the inevitable war, excommunications, attempted atrocities, rebellion and assassination that results when the King of France demands that King John of England relinquish his crown.

MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN (May 15-September 21)—Bertolt Brecht’s compelling tale of what happens when Mother Courage, who sells provisions to both Protestant and Catholic combatants during the Thirty Years’ War, discovers that the very chaos that sustains her will eventually cost her everything she holds most dear.

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (August 3-September 20)—Reason and judgement prove no match for the tsunami of mutual passion engulfing Mark Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s tale of the love that shook the very foundation of the world.

CHRISTINA, THE GIRL KING (July 29-September 21)—Michel Marc Bouchard’s tale of Queen Christina who seeks to make her country the most sophisticated in Europe, but her goals put her at odds with her culture’s expectations of her, both as a monarch and as a woman.

 MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, a chamber play (July 11-September 20)—Two couples become gods, animals, demons, monsters, children, playing things in Shakespeare’s classic masterpiece about our multiple selves and conflicted identities.

What’s the lodging like?  Hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts abound to fit any wallet.  I like a b & b.  You get to meet new people and there is a nice friendly feel of being more than a guest.   My favorite is the Avery House (http://www.averyhouse.com).

Hungry?  For moderate cost and high quality, try The Annex Cafe (38 Albert Street) and the Stratford Thai Cuisine (82 Wellington Street).

Theater and housing packages can be arranged by www.theatrevacations.com.   Stratford Escapes (theatrevacations.com), is an efficient way to make reservations.  For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to http://www.stratfordfestival.ca.

Helpful hints: The ride from Cleveland is about six hours through Buffalo.  Go on-line to the festival for directions.  The routings offered by AAA and Yahoo maps are confusing and miles longer.  To satisfy border requirements carry your passport.  Nothing else will do.

Go to Stratford, Canada!  Find out what lovely hosts Canadians are, and see some great theatre!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bloody, gory TITUS A GRAND AND GORY ROCK MUSICAL continues CPT'S off-the-beaten-path journey

Since he became the artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre, Raymond Bobgan has set a clear path.  He has organized a theatre that centers on practicality.  It lives within its means, is well organized and is artistically creative.  The play productions respond to “the political events, societal movements and new technology.”  It has a spiritual mission that places “high value on truth, even if that truth cannot be easily packaged or explained.”

When a theatre’s Artistic Director selects a script to produce, s/he usually does so with the venue’s audience in mind.  Bobgan knows his audiences well.  They tend to be young, hip, to crave creativity, like off-beat materials, and are loyal to CPT’s mission.   No Arthur Miller, “JOSEPH AND HIS TECHNICAL DREAMCOAT,” or “SUNSHINE BOYS,’ grace the CPT stage.  They aren’t competing with Cleveland Play House, Great Lakes Theatre, Beck Center or Dobama.

One of Bobgan’s “things” is devised theatre.  Experiences that are developed based on a theme through director, cast and creative team working together.  He also is not afraid to produce untested shows.  His audiences tend to be fine with shows that aren’t completely polished or challenge traditional formats.  As he says, “The CPT style of theater is really wide,” off the beaten path.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that for a musical, CPT is presenting the world premiere of “TITUS A GRAND AND GORY ROCK MUSICAL,” conceived and directed by Craig J. George, with music by Dennis Yurich and Alison Garrigan, with orchestrations and arrangements by Brad Wyner.

“TITUS . . . MUSICAL,” is based on William Shakespeare’s first tragedy, “TITUS ANDRONICUS.”  It is classified as one of his revenge plays and was very popular throughout the sixteenth century.   It tells a fictitious tale of the latter days of the Roman Empire, when revenge, inner battles for the country’s leadership, and low moral levels were in vogue.  It is undoubtedly one of the Bard’s most violent works, also one of his most maligned.

Many historians believe that it was the lack of morals that led to the fall of Rome.  If TITUS is any example of the goings on, there can be no doubt of the lack of ethics and respect for human life. “TITUS ANDRONICUS,” as well as the musical take-off of the script, ends with almost everyone dead, and bodies and body parts littering the stage.

In brief, the king of the Roman Empire has died.  After his body is dumped into a pit below the apron of the stage, a battle rages for his crown.  His sons want it, the Queen wants her brother, Titus, to take it, Titus doesn’t want it.  In the path to leadership, there is graphic violence…rape, beheadings, the ripping out of guts and tongues.  Yes, as one of the lines of the play expounds, “We will have vengeance, there will be blood!”

Why do such a play?  Why spend the years of work to write a musical that has seemingly little redeeming value?  Unfortunately, the play reeks of “now.”  Think of the of the name calling and lack of civility toward the nation’s President.  The South still can’t get over losing “the war of Northern Aggression” (the Civil War),  civil rights for Blacks, Gays and women are often given lip service, if that.  The US attacked Iraq on false pretenses to seemingly satisfy the ego-centric needs of the then country’s elected leaders. 

Is the tale of TITUS not a story that echoes the sounds and actions of today without the actual ripping out of tongues and slicing off of limbs?

“TITUS . . . MUSICAL,” is neither a polished or well designed musical, but that probably doesn’t matter to the CPT faithful.  It does incite the emotions, speaks to felt thoughts and needs of many in the targeted audience, and can excite and insight the viewers.

The night I saw the show, the audience was rocking and laughing.  Rocking with the overly loud music which drowned out the lyrics and laughing at the blood spurting, limbs being separated from bodies, the overacting and screaming of many of the cast, and the overblown farce.  But, those actions,  which would have been negatives in a traditional production, all worked for the intent and purpose of this script.

Dana Hart, agonized properly as the well-meaning, but put-upon Titus. Amiee Collier effectively plays it straight as the widow queen.  Her “Treature” was tenderly sung.  Allison Garrigan reveled in the part of Tamora, the evilest of the evil.  The rest of cast all fulfilled their violent over-blown parts.

Martin Céspedes’ minalist choreography was well conceived and visually highlighted stage actions.  Todd Krispinsky’s scaffold-leveled set, with Roman columns and influences, worked well, allowing for maniacal action.   Jenniver Sparano’s multi-generational costumes, which combined sneakers with Roman sandals, and togas with jeans and t-shirts, helped blend the modernity with ancient times. Ben Gantose’s lighting effects, especially the abundant use of red spots and floodlights, helped heighten the gore.

Brad Wyner’s musical direction was appropriate for a rock concert, but, this was a musical play in which the audience should have wanted to hear the lyrics.  But the lack of hearing the words didn’t seem to bother many in the audience, especially a woman in the corner of the most upper level of the seats, who screamed, whistled and clapped to near exhaustion after every musical interlude. 

Capsule judgment:  TITUS A GRAND AND GORY ROCK-MUSICAL is definitely a production that will not be appreciated by everyone.  It should satisfy the targeted CPT audience who will rock out with the music, appreciate the present political implications of the message, and give it standing ovations for its gutsy creativity.

“TITUS A GRAND AND GORY ROCK-MUSICAL” continues at Cleveland Public Theatre until March 22, 2014.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go to www.cptonline.org

Monday, March 10, 2014

MADE IN AMERICA @ Dobama



When Dobama, Ensemble, Beck’s studio theatre and convergence-continuum, venues, where each has a mission of producing innovative and forward-thinking plays search for scripts, they usually turn to recent Broadway and off-Broadway offerings.  Every once in a while, they workshop new scripts in order to allow the authors to discover the strengths and weaknesses of their writing by exposing the material to selected audiences.  This process allows the author to make changes before the work is presented to general audiences. 

Seldom do such theaters, which depend upon box office sales for their existence, give a full staging to untested scripts as part of their regular season. 

Dobama, since it was founded, has been a forerunner, an innovator.   Don Bianchi, the founding artistic director, cast plays without tryouts, staged a closet drama…a script intended to be read, but not staged, directed a script that required a realistic set in the round with no set, and occasionally produced new scripts.  Yes, Dobama, since its spur-of-the-moment creation, has been a creative theater. 

Dobama is generally recognized as the first venue in the area to earn the classification of “Guest Artist Theatre”—a theatre which has an agreement with Equity, whose productions normally include one or more Equity members, and/or who pay all or some their actors in a performance or supply their actors with a stipend.   

Some might question why new Artistic Director Nathan Motto would chose an untested script, by an untested writer, when the theatre has, of late, stuck to the more tried and true plays and writers, with good success.  Yes, the present show, MADE IN AMERICA, is a script with no history of table readings, workshops, or testing before audiences.  Part of the reason for its selection may be that it was written by former Dobama Artistic Director Joel Hammer.

“Made” could mean constructed, created or fabricated.  A slang definition of the word is “to have your cover blown.”  Ironically, in MADE IN AMERICA, both definitions are applicable.

Topics such as race, sexual power, gender dynamics, manipulation, and alcohol’s influence on communication and judgement, evolve as MADE IN AMERICA unfolds.  The question emerges,  How often do the situations revealed in the play take place in the real world?

Barry is a large construction company’s purchasing agent.  (Or, is he?)  Esther is a married mother with a son, who is a salesperson of materials used in construction.  (Or, is she?) 

The duo meets in the bar of the hotel in which Esther is staying, which is located in Barry’s city.  He invited her to present her final proposal before a purchase decision is made.  (Did he?)  They have been negotiating for many months about the purchase of materials to be used in the construction of a government building.  The price is important, but so is the requirement that all materials used in federal construction projects be made in America.  The decision is important.  This is a million dollar sale, which would net Esther about $50,000 in sales bonuses. 

Who are these people?  Esther is an intelligent, attractive African American woman.  Barry, who consumes a great deal of alcohol, obviously is power hungry, and has strong racial and sexist attitudes, which flow forth as he drinks more and more.  Both are driven.  Both are creatively conniving, willing to do about anything to get what they want.   The exposition of the first act ends with what appears to be a situation in which Barry has the upper hand.  (Or, does he?) 

The cat and mouse game continues in the second act.  Seemingly, the tables have turned and now Esther apparently has the upper hand.  (Or, does she?)  Even as the final lights go out, we may not know the conclusion.  (Or, do we?)

Hammer’s script is not a polished product.  It probably should have been workshopped before it was given a staged production.   There is excessive wordiness in parts.  Some situations take too long to develop.  After a while, the characters stop growing and become redundant.

The production, under the direction of Scott Miller, sometimes drags.  Some key ideas in the cat and mouse game need keying and stressing.  Without that the audience is robbed of playing detective, running the “I figured it out factor.”

Both Joel Hammer, as Barry, and Colleen Longshaw, as Esther, are very competent performers who display understanding of their roles and develop real people.  That is, as real as the writing allows.

The bar setting is awkwardly configured.  It does not look like a bar.  The bedroom setting is much more functional.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Dobama should be commended for going out on a limb by selecting a new play.  Unfortunately, MADE IN AMERICA is not a polished script and needed to be more completely tested to determine if it was audience ready.  Attendees will be rewarded by being the first to see the script in production, but should be aware that they are seeing a piece of theatrical writing in progress, which is given a competent production.

MADE IN AMERICA runs through, April 6, 2014 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

JOSEPH starts its national tour at the Palace

The format for “JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT,” a version of which is now on stage at the Palace Theatre, makes the show unique.  In contrast to almost all musicals, except reviews, the show has no script.  There is music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, but no spoken format for dialogue, no hints on how to stage the piece.  Therefore, each production is dependent upon the creativity of the show’s stagers.

JOSEPH is a musical interpretation of the Biblical story of Joseph, who is sold into slavery by his brothers, who are jealous of his being the favorite of Jacob, their father. Joseph, is taken to Egypt and sold as a slave. Oh “Poor, Poor Joseph.” His master, “Potiphar” has a beguiling wife who seduces innocent Jo.  The boy winds up in jail and laments, “Close Every Door to Me.”  But fear not. Jo has the ability to interpret dreams.  Yes “Any Dream Will Do.”  His fate turns when he successfully tells the Pharaoh’s butler what his dreams mean and there is hope, “Go, Go, Joseph.” The Pharaoh is having nightmares, “Poor, Poor Pharaoh.” Joseph is brought to him, and “Pharaoh’s Dream Explained.” The Pharaoh (who could make a fortune in Las Vegas as an Elvis impersonator) appoints him as his “next main man.”

His brothers, who are starving back home, oh, “Those Canaan Days,” and  are unaware that their brother is now the second in command, come to Egypt to beg for food.  They actually “Grovel, Grovel” before Joseph.  Even though they have partaken in fratricide, Joseph forgives them and gives them bags of food.  But his golden chalice is “stolen.” “Who’s The Thief?” Benjamin?  But, as revealed in “Benjamin Calypso,” the whole incident is a ruse to test his brothers. 

As happens in fairy tales and Bible stories, there is singing and dancing with a “Joseph Megamix” and the audience goes home happy.  At least, many of them walk out pleased to have spent an “hour or two,” with Jo and his adventures.

This JOSEPH is a reimagining of the show, which includes a great deal of new musical orchestrations by John Cameron.  For those who have seen the show before, readjusting your ears may be necessary.  Yes, the hip hop, tap, jazz, rock, calypso, disco and ballad sounds are still there, but many of the songs have a new contemporary sound. 

Unfortunately, at least on opening night, all did not go totally well.  The first act dragged.  There was almost a chaotic community theatre feeling to the goings on.  Maybe it was opening night jitters and the knowledge that the reviewers were there.  Maybe it was all the constant moving of platforms all over the stage.  Maybe it was getting used to the huge Cleveland audience and their reactions. 
The second act worked much better, maybe because director Andy Blankenbuehler added shticks and gimmicks and scenic designer Beowulf Boritt eliminated all the dragging around of platforms and turned over the sets to the projections.

Another issue was  the lack of continuity.  Starting as a sleep scene (filled with wonderful fantasy projections, but which didn’t forecast what was coming), the opening morphed into a very contemporary dance number in modern clothing.  Then there was an unexplained transitional trip to Canaan, as we are introduced to “Joseph & Sons” and “Joseph’s Coat.”  When the final song states that we are being taken “back to the beginning,” why didn’t we get a trip in time back to the opening scene?  Hey, Mr. Blankenbuehler, words have meaning that tell us what to expect.  They should be adhered too!

Another issue may have been the casting of Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young, who are known to many, especially the younger members of the audience, for their appearances on “American Idol.” 

Adorable DeGarmo started singing in a high pitched voice, which partially abated in the second act.  Young, he of handsome face and sculpted body, looks better than he sings, dances or acts.  His voice sounded nasal.  Both tended to sing words rather than meanings.  They weren’t terrible, just not what is expected of Broadway performers.

Ryan Williams, he of swiveling hips and the Elvis smirk and snarl, was point-on as the Pharaoh, stopping the show with his “Song of the King” and its several reprises.

Paul Castree (Simeon) and his brothers’ French inspired “Those Canaan Days”  brought the audience to life with their singing and plate-smacking and stacking routine.

Daniel Brodie’s video and projection designs enthrall.  Displayed on walls of gauzy material, on parts of costumes and on the stage curtains, they are a lesson in the new trend in Broadway musical theatre sets.  (The woman seated behind me squealed, “How are they doing that?” on the first effect and continued to repeat that phrase throughout the visual displays.)

Blankenbuehler’s choreography was well conceived to parallel the many sounds of the score.  The young man playing Benjamin, who was not identified in the program, did some impressive gymnastics during many of the numbers.

Film rights to JOSEPH have been purchased by Sir Elton John.  He, along with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, will produce an animated family feature.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  JOSEPH is one of my favorite escapist musical theatre scripts.  I love the music, the creativity of taking a Bible story and making it into a pleasant family experience without getting preachy.  The version now on stage at the Palace was not one of my favorite stagings of the show.  Audiences will generally like it, but it could have been “One More Angel in Heaven,” at least in show business firmament, but it wasn’t.

“JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR REAMCOAT” is scheduled to run through March 16, 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org