Wednesday, April 29, 2015

BENGAL TIGER--a mental and emotional challenge at Ensemble


In BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, Cleveland Heights native Rajiv Joseph’s, surreal dark play, ghosts roam the streets of Baghdad in 2003.   Ghosts of soldiers, citizens, zoo animals, a son of the former ruler of the country.  These ghosts are part of the vivid display of the madness of war, and what it means to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As the play opens, we are confronted by a fragmented cage with a “tiger” pacing inside.  The tiger is one of the few animals left in the once magnificent zoo.  The others have been killed by the war, or they have escaped, only to be shot as they followed their natural instincts to forage for food. 

The tiger isn’t wearing a tiger suit.  This is not a farcical play or a Disney production.   He is a man, a self-proclaimed tiger, wearing dirty clothing, speaking to the audience without any “animal” imitation or overtones.  This is a production requiring the willing suspension of reality, allowing the animal, the ghosts, the illusions, to become real.  It allows us to consider the search for sanity, the attempt at redemption, and why a man would risk his life for a golden toilet seat. 

The play, which was nominated for a 2010 Pulitzer prize, finds two marines guarding what is left of the Baghdad zoo and its animals.  Tom, helped attack one of the palaces of Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday.  He found and took a gold plated toilet seat and a golden gun.  Tom, in attempt to feed the animal, is bitten by the tiger. He is shipped home.  After rehab, with a prosthetic hand, he returns to claim his golden treasures. 

Kev, the other marine, is a bi-polar psychotic, tortured by the goings-on around him.

There is Musa, a troubled Iraqi gardener, who tended the topiary at Uday’s palace where Hussein’s son seduced and killed Musa’s young sister. 

In the desert there is an elderly leper. 

Together, these living and dead souls, lead us on a horrifying journey with humorous under-tones.  These are the remnants of the one time cradle of civilization where the theory of laws and mathematics were developed.  A place now living by laws of the jungle.

Joseph’s play is not a traditionally plot-driven script.  It is rather shapeless, not sequential, per se.  It is more a collection of experiences of each of the characters woven loosely together by the question, “Is violence an intrinsic part of our nature or is it something that we learn? 

Though oft-praised, the Broadway production opened to mixed reviews.  The Ensemble production, is saddled with the same loosely structured script, which in spite of its dark-comedy billing, doesn’t deliver on the comic part.  Maybe it needed Robin Williams, who played the Tiger on Broadway, to present the humor.

That is not to say that Michael Regnier, who played the tiger, was not effective.  He was, but he played the role straight, adding to the depressing feeling and  hopelessness of people caught up in the cycle of war and destruction.

The other members of the cast were also effective.  Daniel McElhaney (Kev), Leilani Barrett (Tom), Tom Kondilas (Musa), Juliette Regnier (Leper), Mike Faddoul (Iraqi man), Assad Khaishgi (Uday) and Justine Zapin (Hadia).  Accents were excellent and line interpretations carried Joseph’s intent.

Director Celeste Consentino has paced the play well, kept the two-act, two-hour production focused.  Ian Hinz’s projections, Angelina Herin’s costumes and Andrew Eckert’s lighting designs all work to enhance the over-all production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble should be commended for attempting such a monumental work as Rajiv Joseph’s BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO.  The play is not for everyone.  It is filled with depressing thoughts, which hit probably too close to home for many Americans, who, almost non-stop from the 1960s, have been participants in conflict after conflict, and misguided war after misguided war. 

BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO runs Thursdays through Sundays through May 17 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former  Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

To see the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to:  clevelandtheaterreviews.com

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Dobama’s SUPERIOR DONUTS, dessert for both the laugher and the thinker

Tracy Letts, the author of SUPERIOR DONUTS, now on stage at Dobama, is an accomplished playwright, actor, and screenwriter.  He was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his play AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY.  He won a Tony Award for his portrayal of George in the recent Broadway revival of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?.  He wrote screen adaptations for his plays:  BUG and KILLER JOE, as well as AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY and has been nominated for two Screen Actors Guild Awards for his portrayal of Andrew Lockhart in Showtime’s HOMELAND.

Much like his writing heroes, Tennessee Williams and William Falkner, his characters struggle with moral and spiritual problems set in a format of the well structured play.

Considered one of modern America’s great playwrights, Letts writes works which are multi-leveled.  For those seeking laughs, he presents a story filled with laughter.  These viewers can enjoy themselves and leave as fulfilled audience members.

For those who like to dig beyond the surface, they can find a vivid social conscience being exposed.  He often writes of the present and past ills of society.  SUPERIOR DONUTS exposes the underbelly of such issues as the questionable purpose of the Vietnamese war, the motivations of the draft-dodgers of the era, outward and inward prejudice against Blacks, the feeling of African Americans for the white majority, the difficulty of the immigrant experience, and the plight of the homeless.  

SUPERIOR DONUTS centers on Arthur Przybyszewski, a second generation Pole, whose father opened what is now one of the last donut shops in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.  The shop barely has any customers, which is fine with Arthur, who prefers to hide in silence, sharing little with those who come into the bakery.

A homeless woman, Lady, comes in daily for her “deserved” donuts for her ability to sense happenings and act as an oracle.  The police stop for their coffee and snack.  Max, the Russian owner of the adjacent electronics store, stops regularly to try and convince Arthur to sell his property so Max can expand. 

Arthur’s world is interrupted by the entrance of Franco, a black teen, who can hardly contain his enthusiasm and creativity as he talks the donut man into hiring him.  Hidden in Franco’s schemes is a dark secret which eventually changes both the youth’s and Arthur’s lives.

Max leads us through the tale by acting much like the chorus in a Greek play, using monologues to comment on what has just happened and foreshadow what is to come.

Comments such as “Is anyone paying attention in America?” is an invitation to the audience to be stimulated to think and reflect on what they are seeing on stage and how they are living their lives. 

The Dobama production is well formed by director Nathan Motta’s keen understanding of the levels of Letts’ writing.  The laughs are all there, but so are the sociological underpinnings.  He allows the audience to react on their own levels, but makes sure that both the enjoyers and the thinkers can satisfy their needs.

The role of Arthur seems written specifically for Joel Hammer.  Hammer is Arthur, Arthur is Joel.  The lines flow effortlessly from Hammer.  The contained feelings, the stifled emotions, the fear of being hurt once again, are all present in this well textured performance.

Robert Hunter bursts onto the stage as Franco, keeps the momentum going and makes a fine transition as the role takes a sharp emotional turn.  He and Hammer play off each other.  No “acting” here.  He reacts to the lines, the feelings, and the implications.   Hunter has a fine sense of comic timing, while also building dramatic intensity.  

Mary Jane Nottage, with matted red hair, eyes flashing, and confused facial expression, nails the role of Lady.  Her finest moment is near the end of the play.  With tears flowing, she displays the character’s awareness of what is to come of her failed life, as she wanders out of the donut shop, her few possessions in plastic bags.  (Note:  The youthful looking Nottage is the only actress still performing on the Dobama stage from the earliest era of the company.  She appeared  in the company’s third show, some fifty years ago.

On opening night, Alan Byrne took the stage to perform the role of Max with less than a week of rehearsal.  Brian Zoldessy was to play the role, but became ill and had to be replaced.  Byrne, complete with a fine Russian-American accent and some Russian dialogue, masterfully performed the role with great comic timing, walking the fine line between comedy and farce with the ease of a high wire artist.

Amy Fritsche and LaShawn Little, portraying Chicago’s finest, were both excellent in developing strong supporting characters.

Aaron Benson designed an authentic worn-out donut shop, complete with era-correct appliances and a vintage cash register.  The ever present display and replacement of donuts added to the required authenticity.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: SUPERIOR DONUTS is a well written, well directed, well acted play.  It is a play that will delight both the theatre-goer who desires theatre of entertainment, as well as the audience member wanting to probe into the underpinnings of a play with a social message.  Dobama ends its 2014-2015 season with another fine season, their first as a full-time Equity House and the area’s only full- time Small Professional Theatre. 

SUPERIOR DONUTS runs through May 24, 2015 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Brilliant IN A WORD @ Cleveland Public Theatre

What are the feelings of a husband and wife when they want to conceive a child, but can’t?  What are the ramifications for that childless family when they are given the opportunity to adopt the “perfect” child?  What is it like when that family becomes aware that their child is autistic?  How do parents cope with a child who screams when he becomes frustrated and doesn’t have the words to express his needs or habitually follows a pattern over and over, such as reading the same book again and again, or can’t socialize with others?  What emotionally happens to that family when that child disappears? 

Those are the questions that are dealt with in Lauren Lee’s thoughtfully written and emotionally wrenching IN A WORD.

Beth Wood, the director of Cleveland Public Theatre’s IN A WORD, sets the psychological tone of the play when she states in the program’s “Director’s Notes,” “A moment, a beat, a breath can change us forever.”  She is referring to the disappearance of a young autistic boy from his mother’s car.  But, in reality, Fiona and Guy’s lives have been a series of moments, beats and breaths, just like those instances in everyone else’s lives.

What do people do with life’s instances?  Without knowing it, each experience is logged in the cortex of the brain.  Each is stored, remains, and is sometimes recalled.  In the case of Fiona, we see her storage process as she places a word or a series of words in individual glass mason bottles, screws on the top of each, and places them on shelves.

The playwright uses the bottles as a visual device to show Fiona’s brain in action.  Often in life something stimulates Fiona to fetch a bottle, open it and expose the contents.  As each incident happens, she literally goes through the searching and retrieving process. 

Questions arise.  Is the boy alive or dead?  Was he murdered?  Was he kidnapped?  Did he wander off in a haze of confused thoughts?  Will he ever return?  Are Fiona and Guy’s lives better off with him gone?

Watching Fiona expose the stages of psychological trauma, a type of psychological death, is frustrating, disheartening and fascinating. 

CPT’s production, under the focused direction of Wood is compelling.  The staging is perfectly paced, keeps the action focused, and is eerily realistic.

The cast is flawless.  Liz Conway as Fiona, takes us on a journey of emotional discovery.  She literally has a nervous breakdown before our eyes.  She is not portraying Fiona, she is Fiona.  No acting here, living Fiona.  Wow!

Matt O’Shea, as the boy, understands the mind and body set of an autistic child.  He, like Conway, becomes the boy, lives the boy, is the boy.  Bravo!

Mark Rabant completes the perfect circle of performers as Guy.  His strong underplay of the husband/father role makes the outward emotional portrayals of Conway and O’Shea’s even more powerful.

Benjamin Gantose and Wood’s fragmented set frames the exact mood needed to parallel both Fiona’s and the boy’s minds.  Gantose’s light design focuses and highlights the action.

IN A WORD is Cleveland Public Theatre’s first production in their affiliation with NNPN (National New Play Network), an organization of theatres dedicated to new theatre.  Rolling World Premieres, a project of NNPN, supports the idea that a play often needs more than one reading or production to fully flesh out storylines and dialogue. Over the course of a year, four different theatres across the US will produce the same play, with the author in attendance to work with each production.

Capsule judgement: IN A WORD is one of the top area presentations of this season.  Anyone who is interested in well written, compelling scripts, directed and performed in an almost not-to-be-believed level of brilliance, has to see IN A WORD.  A standing ovation doesn’t even give the necessary praise this piece of theatrical wonderment deserves.

IN A WORD runs though May 2, 2015 at 7:00 p.m. in the James Levin Theatre at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets ($12-28) call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

BAD JEWS, bad title, bad script at Actors’ Summit

Shortly into Actors’ Summit’s production of BAD JEWS, several things become obvious.  The off-setting title was not only a turn-off for many, but was misleading.  Secondly,  author Joshua Harmon, self-admitted stumbler into the world of playwriting, may need a re-thinking about his career. 

On the surface, the play has been described as a black comedy about family, faith and legacy.  It definitely is about family.  More specifically about the role of egocentricism and attempts to control other family members through manipulation for personal gain.  As for the faith and legacy, those are questionable.

The action centers on three cousins, and the girl friend of the oldest cousin, Liam, who are forced to share an efficiency apartment in New York, to commemorate the death of their beloved grandfather, “Poppie.”  A Holocaust survivor, he went through much of his concentration camp survival, as the tale is told, hiding a gold “chai” under his tongue. 

“Chai,” is a combination of two Hebrew letters, “Chet” and “Yod,” which represent being  alive or living, and has been made into a visual symbol, usually a gold amulet worn on a chain around the neck.  It can be worn by both men and women, as a symbol of the word of God and for good luck. It  also represents the number 18, a good luck number in Hebrew tradition.

Two cousins, Daphna and Liam, both want Poppie’s “chai.”   Daphna, who purports to be the “most  Jewish” of the cousins, has studied the religion, practices and traditions of the faith, is supposedly moving to Israel after she graduates from college.  Liam has spent most of his life distancing himself from his cultural traditions, including getting an advanced degree in Japanese culture, and dating numerous non-Jewish girls.  He shows disdain for family by going skiing in Aspen rather than attending Poppie’s funeral and showing up with his Christian girl friend to sit “Shiva” (the mourning period for the dead). He wants the “chai” to use as a substitute for an engagement ring, much as Poppie did when he asked their grandmother to marry him.

The third cousin Jonah, is passive (or maybe, passive aggressive), wanting not to get involved in the family feud.   He has nothing to gain from the “chai” battle.

The action centers on a constant war of attack and nasty accusations between Daphna and Liam, as each displays their insecurities.  Two selfish people in a fight for dominance.

It is from this conflict, while fighting over an symbol of their religion, and a family heirloom, that the duo become “bad Jews.”  Jews behaving badly. 

Tradition and family are two of the most important Jewish values, and these are thrown to the wind in the war for dominance and satisfying selfish desires.

The Actors’ Summit production is burdened with a poorly conceived script. Many of the lines are written in “written,” rather than “spoken” English, making the characters caricatures rather than theatrical characters, not real people.  The plot which is cellophane, easily seen through, and not very compelling.  Even the “startling” ending, doesn’t evoke much feeling.  The laughs are there, but in comedies the humor is often used to relieve stress or define the characters.  Except in the case of Jonah, BAD JEWS laughs don’t do this.

Director Constance Thackberry keeps the action moving right along and gets what she can from the script.

Nate Miller stars as Jonah.  Miller has a mobile face, a nice touch with comedy timing and plays “defeated” with the best of them.  He not only looks like Johnny Galecki, Leonard, of television’s GREAT BANG THEORY, but displays the same whipped dog face and body gestures. 

Brittany Gaul does her best to make Daphna self-centered, manipulative and a teller of white lies.  Her oral presentation of choppiness of word flow, and awkward line interpretation, becomes annoying after a while.  It’s not clear as to why she, or the director, decided to take this presentation approach.

Kyle Huff stays right on the acting surface as Liam.  He often sounds unreal, saying words, not meanings.  Whether it’s the writing or the acting, I really didn’t care who won the battle of the “Chai.” I didn’t like either Daphna or Liam as characters or people.

Gabi Shook gives a creditable performance as the shallowly written Melody, who, as conceived, raises deep questions over why someone on his way to a doctorate would be interested in this Barbie-doll.  But maybe that’s the point.

The set, a well conceived New York efficiency with a view of the Hudson river, aids in setting the right mood.

Capsule judgement:  BAD JEWS is a poorly conceived play with a title that is a put-off for many and may well be misleading.

There are after-production discussions following some performances.  Check the theatre’s website for dates and panel members!


For tickets to BAD JEWS, which runs through May 3, 2015, call 330-374-7568 or go to www.actorssummit.org


Roy Berko's commentaries and reviews appear on coolcleveland.com, artsamerica.org, with selected reviews posted on broadwayworld.com and BWWdanceworld.com  To subscribe to his blog go to and follow the directions in the right hand column:  www.royberko.info 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

THE TEMPEST brews up a storm at GLT

William Shakespeare is considered by most experts on English language theatre as being the greatest of all writers.  His vast folio of plays, consisting of tragedies, comedies, histories and dramas have lasted for over four hundred years.  He is one of the few writers who has theatres, let alone festivals, dedicated exclusively to his works.

One of his last solo-written plays was THE TEMPEST, now on stage at Great Lakes Theater, which some consider the Bard’s farewell to the stage.  Ironically, it concerns a great magician ending his career, which may have been Shakespeare’s vision of himself giving up his magical years as a writer.  

THE TEMPEST is one of the Bard of Avon’s shortest and most simply constructed plays, which leads to the belief that he was fading out and didn’t have the desire or fortitude to develop a play as complex as MACBETH, HAMLET or his multi-leveled comedies.

A product of the early seventeenth century, the plot is probably entirely original.  He doesn’t evoke real historical characters, but may, in some ways, suggest the tempest of storms unleashed on ships sailing from Europe in search of a pathway to what we now know as Asia.  Specifically, there was a wreck off Bermuda and another account of a fleet being destroyed on a sailing from what is now known as Plymouth to a port in Virginia.  In both cases, survivors were washed up on an island.  There, they found Native Americans, who they referred to as “Cannibals.”  It is probably not by accident that Prospero, the magician of the story, referred to his man servant as “Caliban,” an anagram of the word “Cannibal.”

Generally performed on a fairly bare stage, the play lends itself to the description of those who returned from some of the voyages to “the Americas” as being barren.   This does not mean it is not filled with special effects for which Shakespeare is famous.  His plays are filled with fantasies such as humans becoming animals, fairies, and witches and wizards who perform magical tricks.  THE TEMPEST is no exception.

The story centers on Prospero, the Duke of Milan, who was stranded for twelve years on an island after Prospero’s brother, Antonio, deposed him and set him adrift with his child, Miranda.

Prospero is maniacal in his desire to restore his daughter to her rightful place in society.  Prospero has no magical powers other than the ability to persuade others.  He uses those verbal skills to persuade Ariel, a spirit, to conjure a storm (the tempest.)  Ariel, acts as requested because he is beholden to Prospero as the former King freed the spirit from captivity in a tree in which he was placed by Sycorax, a cruel witch.  The storm wrecks the ship of Prospero’s brother, Antonio, his son Ferdinand, and the complicit King Alonso of Naples, and their company of travelers.  The group is washed up on the island, and the tale unfolds. 

Prospero is successful in achieving his goals by having Miranda marry Ferdinand, reconciling with his brother, and freeing of Ariel from his spell, thus rendering a happy ending.

As in all Shakespeare plays, there is a philosophical message.  As Drew Barr writes in his directorial notes, “That which makes us human, as Shakespeare shows us time and time again, is our struggle to reconcile the enormity of our dreams with the exquisite vulnerability of our beliefs.”  He continues, “THE TEMPEST dares us to open our hearts and minds fully enough to drown with all the world in the deluge of our senses.”

The GLT production is well conceived by Barr. The play itself is not as well developed as many of Shakespeare’s works, which causes some segments to fail to be clear in their purpose in developing the plot.  For example, a long farcical section seems inserted as an attempt for humor, for the sake of humor, with no great reason or purpose for plot development.  As for the production, to accomplish the sought after laughter, an even stronger “Three Stooges” approach was needed.  If there is going to be slapstick, it needs to be done with full abandonment.

The cast is excellent.  D. A. Smith rants effectively as Prospero.  Ryan David O’Byrne develops fully the role of Ariel.  Dustin Tucker delights as Trinculo, a drunken cook.  J. Todd Adams, looking much like Alan Cummings portraying the M.C. in the latest Broadway staging of CABARET, is eerily effective as the savage Caliban.  Dougfred Miller (Alonso) and Jonathan Dyrud (Antonio), do justice to their character development.  Patrick Riley is on target as the youthful Ferdinand.

Though he gets laughs, it appears that Tom Ford (Stephano, a butler) has played the role of the fool once too often and falls back on using the same physical and vocal devices to the detriment of originality. 

Though her voice sometimes goes into too high an octave range for pleasant listening, Katie Willmorth creates a pleasant Miranda.

Scenic Designer Russell Metheny has conceived a set that is creative, but at times distracting.  The light instruments shining and the shimmering effects off the plastic panels, which dominate the grid set, became distracting and the reflections sometimes temporarily blinded members of the audience.

Kim Krumm Sorenson’s costumes are often intriguing, but the use of plastic and other stiff materials cause crackles as the performers move, and make static-like sounds, drowning out lines.

Capsule judgement:  THE TEMPEST, reported to be Shakespeare’s last solo dramatic writing, is not one of the Bard’s great plays, but there is enough fantasy and intrigue to allow for a pleasant evening of theater.  The GLT production does justice to the script.


THE TEMPEST runs through April 26, 2015 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

CPH’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE entertains, but….

As the lights came up at the start of Cleveland Play House’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, the audience is exposed to a comfortable large morning room, backed up by a piano area, and stairs to an upstairs.  On stage left is a patio, on stage right the house’s entrance.  Were in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in a home situated on a lake. 

A man (Vanya) enters carrying a cup of coffee.  He is comfortably attired. He sits in an overstuffed chair, and looks out.  Shortly, he is followed by a woman (Masha) in a worn bathrobe.  The duo spars, like a long-time married couple because the usual morning routine of her bringing him his coffee has been broken by Vanya having poured himself his java.  Masha becomes incensed, stomps into the piano room and tosses the extra cup against the wall.  It appears that we are about to observe a domestic battle. 

Soon, however, its is revealed that Vanya and Sonia are brother and sister, well, adopted sister, and have remained for their entire lives in their family home, taking care of their parents who eventually died.  The duo stayed put.  They seldom leave the house,  have no friends, and spend their time waiting for, or discussing the impending arrival of a blue heron.  Soon, a third sibling, Masha,  arrives with a surprise guest, and the uneasy tranquility is threatened.

Masha is an actress who has made her fame in a series of slasher cult films.  The guest is her boy toy, Spike, her mid-life crisis prize for yet another failed marriage and a fading career. 

A costume party, the possibility of selling the home, failed attempts to reconcile the family, the appearance of a young next door neighbor, Spike’s infidelity, a tirade by Vanya, a play reading, a strip tease, Voodoo, an attack on societal change, and a surprise ending, all highlight this comedy of missed opportunities

The conversations, the setting, the format of the story and the language are all “American Chekov.”  As with the great Russian writer, who is sometimes called the literary father of the Russian revolution, the script is filled with references to family, societal collapse, the uncalled for sticking to traditions, the ignoring of financial problems, and the need to take personal responsibility. 

Author Christopher Durang, who penned this commercial and artistic success, and won a Tony Award for Best Play and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, has taken up the mantle of writing a well-conceived modern, realistic play, and added a layer of humor that makes for an endearing evening of theatre.  The Broadway production recouped its $2.75 million dollar investment in under four months, an outstanding feat brought about by rave reviews, strong word-of-mouth, and quality performances.

The Cleveland Play House production, under the directorship of Bruce Jordan, almost reaches the show’s potential level of excellence.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t totally practice what he preaches in his “Director’s Notes,” about actors understanding why a certain word in a line has to be stressed, or why they have to get to the end of the line quickly.”  He loses laughs and comedy angst through slow pacing and having two cast members who simply don’t perform as required to achieve the best effect.

On the plus side, John Scherer is excellent as the gay, reclusive, intellectual Vanya, who has wasted his talents and any hope of a personal life, by spending most of his life taking care of his parents and sharing time only with his sister.  There is a kindness, vulnerability and complacency that flow forth from Scherer, equalizing the fine Broadway performance of David Hyde Pierce.

Toni DiBuono is wonderful as the frustrated Sonia, the adopted daughter who was taken out of foster care by two intellectual professors, who named all their children after characters in Chekov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD, and set them on paths of insecurity and self-doubt.   She parallels the performance of Kristine Nielsen, who was nominated for a Tony for her Big Apple portrayal of Sonia.  DiBuono is totally natural, creating a sensitive, self-questioning, insecure woman, with a lovely soul.

Danielle Lee Greaves as Cassandra, the cleaning woman who fancies herself a practitioner of Voodoo, complete with making dire prophesies which often come true, is properly farcical in the role.  She does not overplay, but gets many reactions as we laugh with her, not at her.

As Nina, who is a guest at the house next door, Maren Bush, is properly star-struck and adorable.  Nice reality here!

Young Gregory Isaac Stone lacks the acting chops and sensual complexity to fully develop Spike, a role which appears to be one dimensional, but takes a depth of performance abilities.  Billy Magnussen, was nominated for the Tony as Best Featured Actor for his portrayal of the role in the Broadway production.   Magnussen had the charisma to not only look like the gym-sculpted stud who had trouble keeping his clothes on, but to subtly tease Vanya, do a sensual strip tease, entice a response with a sly smile and flash of his huge eyes, but to play comedy as a serious exercise.  Stone, on the other hand, is “Spike-lite.”

Director Jordan describes Masha as someone who says “some rather vitriolic stuff, but there has to be something in the person who plays the role and in the performance that allow us to see that this is not a bitch, this is somebody who’s a little insecure.”  Oh, if only Margaret Reed had played her that way. 
To picture the woman and the right performance, think of Wendie Malick portraying Victoria Chase on television’s HOT IN CLEVELAND.  Malick makes the viewer like her and laugh by wearing a crust of arrogance while Victoria’s insecurities eat away at the surface.  Reed, starting with her first entrance, has the effect of pricking a balloon and letting out all the air of humor and believability of the other performers.  She acts, doesn’t react, she feigns rather than being real.

Bill Clarke’s set is outstanding.  Filled with family heirlooms, the realism enhances the performances.

Area alert:  Christopher Durang thanked his husband, John Augustine, in his Tony acceptance speech.  Augustine, is a Canton native and Baldwin Wallace graduate. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is a well-crafted play filled with comedy and tenderness.  It well deserved its Tony Award.  Though the CPH production does not live up to the Broadway production, some fine performances overcome some questionable directorial decisions in actor selection and character development, and make this a positive, but not great theatrical experience.

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE runs through April 26, 2015, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Friday, April 10, 2015

KINKY BOOTS will “Raise You Up” at the Conner Palace Theatre

To resounding applause, Gina Vernaci, the Executive Producer of Playhouse Square, the woman responsible for cobbling together each year’s Key Bank Broadway Series, announced at the local KINKY BOOTS’ press opening, that Cleveland’s 32,000 subscribers constituted the largest body of audience for any of the toured Broadway cities.  What she didn’t share was that almost all the tickets for the local run of KINKY BOOTS are sold out.  If you expect to see the show, run, don’t walk to your computer or phone and order now (216-241-6000 or www.playhousesquare.org).  Not later, now!
   
If you are lucky enough to have or get a ticket, you will see a creative, well sung, finely acted and exceptionally danced dynamo of a show, which not only entertains, but has several poignant messages.

KINKY BOOTS is a musical, with music and lyrics by Tony, Emmy and Grammy-winner, Cyndi Lauper, with book by her friend, Tony-winner Harvey Fierstein, author of such scripts as LA CAGE AUX FOLLIES, TORCH SONG TRILOGY and NEWSIES. 

It is based on a true story of a men’s shoe factory in England which, when the cheap mass produced Asian knock-offs invaded the market, wiping out the handmade products, transitioned to producing for a niche market…cross-dressing men who needed a sturdy boot that the Asians couldn’t produce.

The story, which was made into a 1999 British TV special, then a 2005 film, centers on Charlie Price, who is left a man’s high end shoe company in Northampton, England, by his father, and Lola, a she-male who has a fascination with shoes, but her eyes are set on red, high-heeled boots.  The duo form a partnership when Charlie is faced with bankruptcy, causing the layoff of his loyal employees, and Lola, a drag queen/entertainer who, along with her dancing Angels, keeps breaking the heels on their poorly made and designed boots.  It’s a match made in heaven, except for the prejudices against Lola, and the financial and personal pressures pressed on Charlie.

Take the story, which stresses that to be happy in life you must “accept someone for who they are,” add some pop, funk, new wave tango music,  add lyrics that are perfectly drawn for each character, add humorous situations, and dynamic choreography, and you have a show which was given 13 Tony nominations and garnered 6 Tony wins, including Best Musical and Best Score.

Having seen both, I can assure you that the touring production is as good as the original Broadway production. 

Handsome  Darius Harper lights up the stage as Lola. He has a strong singing voice, athletic dance moves, and the outward charisma that makes Lola appealing, while showing vulnerability.   He is a drag queen extraordinaire.  His “Land of Lola,” sung with the Angels, is a showstopper. 

Steven Booth can belt with the best of Broadway male stars.  As Charlie, he  displays a personal vulnerability and insecurity that perfectly fit the character’s underpinnings, yet, the strength to act with conviction when needed.  He doesn’t portray Charlie, he is Charlie. 

Booth’s “Soul of a Man “ and “Not My Father’s Son,” his duet with Harper, are emotional tear-jerkers that carry two of the script’s messages. 

Lindsay Nicole Chambers is charming as Lauren, the girl who has a history of making bad choices as expressed the well sung “The History of Wrong Guys.”

As Don, Joe Coots makes the transition from macho lug to charmer with ease as he takes to heart the idea of “accept someone for who they are!,” the center piece of Fierstein’s bid for tolerance and acceptance.

Director and choreographer, Jerry Mitchell, has paced the show well, created many exciting dance numbers including “Everybody Say Yeah,” and the curtain closer, “Raise You Up/Just Be,” and created an endearing production.

As is becoming the pattern, several Baldwin Wallace graduates are in this Broadway touring production.  Patty Lohr (class of 2008) understudies several roles, while also being a swing, while Ryan Garrett (2012) is the Associate Conductor.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  KINKY BOOTS is the kind of musical that seeing it once is not enough.  The music, the storyline, the humor, the stage excitement makes this a very, very special theatrical experience.  The touring production of the show is as good as the Broadway show.  This is one staging that deserves a standing ovation, not just the automatic polite Cleveland one, but a real, well-deserved one.  Bravo!


BTW…get to the theatre in time to read Gina Vernaci’s “Program Note.”  It’s a wonderful verbal picture of the show, but it also says a lot about the lady who “puts the Broadway stuff” on our local stages!

The few tickets that remain for KINKY BOOTS, which runs through April 19, 2015, at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Beck’s LEND ME A TENOR, farce at its funny best!

Some people go to the theatre to be educated.  Some go to see/listen to a pleasing combination of music and lyrics enclosed in a story.  Others go to just have a good time.  The latter group should run to their phones or computers right now and make reservations for LEND ME A TENOR.  Beck’s production is farce at its finest!

Ken Ludwig’s LEND ME A TENOR takes place in 1934 in a hotel suite in Cleveland.  The Cleveland Grand Opera Company is staging a celebratory event and has employed world famous Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, known as “Il Stupendo,” to sing Giuseppe Verdi’s OTELLO. 

Henry Saunders, the opera’s general manager, his much put-upon assistant, Max, and Maggie, Max’s girl friend and Saunders’ daughter, wait for his arrival in a plush art-déco suite.  Events unfold:  Morelli is late.  He arrives with his high strung and distraught wife who tags along to be sure that Morelli doesn’t get drunk and have affairs.  Morelli takes and is given too many tranquilizers in order to calm down, he passes out and is presumed to be dead.  Max agrees to substitute for Morelli. 

As Max admirably performs, Morelli awakes, puts on the same costume that Max is wearing, attempts to get into the opera house, has a confrontation with the police and returns to the hotel room about the same time as Max arrives back from his triumph.  The set doors keep opening and closing as a string of people, including a bellhop who wants to be discovered by Morelli, the opera’s soprano, who wants to have sex with him, and a member of the opera board, who is hero-struck, enter and exit. Two Otellos are charging around in costume, two women are running around in their undies, and chaos reigns.   (It’s SPAMALOT, and the skits of the CAROL BURNETT [TV] SHOW, and THE SHOW OF SHOWS relived.)

Farce, a light dramatic work with a highly improbable plot and exaggerated characters, is hard to both write and perform.   The writing must be so precise that the audience is led to laughter by the realism of the language imbedded in unbelievable situations.  The performances must be authentic, not beg for laughs, and the actions so broad that they require laughter.  Lots of door slamming, mistaken identifies, non-stop stage movements, and pure joy on the part of the audience are the keys to success. 

LEND ME A TENOR perfectly fits the bill.  It is one of modern America’s best farces.  It received nine Tony awards nominations, has appeared twice on Broadway, has been translated into sixteen languages and has produced in twenty-five countries.



The Beck production, under the adept direction of Scott Spence, is superb.  Laugh after laugh greets one improbable scene after another.  The cast has been melded into a unit that basically understands that, for farce to work, the actors must be totally real in their character development.  Their earnestness must come across.  These are “real” people caught in a series of ridiculous situations. 

Scott Esposito is wonderful as the put-upon Max.  His wide-eyed wonder look, his innocent demeanor and his great comic timing are enhanced by a marvelous tenor voice.  Yes, both Esposito and Matthew Wright do their own singing…no lip syncing here!  Bravo!

Matthew Wright is endearing as the drunken, hot-blooded Tito.  Wright’s singing voice is strong, his play with comedy excellent, and his consistency in character development admirable.  “Meraviglioso, come sempre!”

The pretty Emily Pucell Czarnota is charming as Maggie.  John Polk, as Saunders, is properly wrought. Leslie Andrews does a nice job of creating Diana, the company’s soprano who is hot for Tito, and Lissy Gulick is delightful as Julia, the chairperson of the Opera Guild.

Though Carla Petroski (Maria, Tito’s wife) and Zac Hudak (the bellhop) get lots of laughs, they both border on overdoing their roles, a cardinal “no-no” of good farce.  They could both step back a little and be more real and get even more laughs.  They need to be laughed with, not laughed at.

Welcome back Don McBride.  After a number of years of being away from Beck, McBride has designed a perfect art déco set consisting of two rooms, with numerous doors (that stand their ever continuing slamming).  The set is properly sophisticated and a perfect area for the farce staging.

If you like Ludwig’s writing you will shortly have a chance to experience it  again.  The Cleveland Play House will present Ludwig’s A COMEDY OF TENORS, the sequel to LEND ME A TENOR, as a reading as part of the New Ground Festival (May 9, 5-7 p.m.) and as the opening production of its 2015-2016 season.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  LEND ME A TENOR is one of the best modern day farces.  It gets a must-see production at Beck Center.  Farce is hard to do, but on the Beck stage, Scott Spence and his well-honed cast make it look exhausting, but easy.  Go, enjoy!

LEND ME A TENOR is scheduled to run through April 26, 2015 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sheri Gross to perform in Musical Theater Project’s “Behind the Musical: Hello, Dolly!”

Combine the talents of Bill Rudman, Artistic Director of The Musical Theater Project (TMTP), music director Nancy Maier, singers Ann Gilbert, Jared Leal, Jessica Cope Miller, Shane Patrick O’Neill, and the talents of Sheri Gross, with composer-lyricist Jerry Herman’s marvelous score.  The results?  “Behind the Musical:  Hello, Dolly!”  The production, co-sponsored by Chagrin Arts, will be staged on April 26 at 3 at Chagrin Falls High School Performing Arts Center.

As Rudman says, “We’ll be telling a darn good story,” which may surprise many because, in the words of Herman, “doing that musical [“Hello Dolly”]was the most difficult time in my career.”

Former New York actress Sheri Gross is the Artistic Director of Playmakers Youth Theatre, the award winning inclusive theater program sponsored by the Jewish Community Center.   The Rochester, New York native became involved in Playmakers in a serendipitous manner.  She came to the area when a fellow actor asked her to come with him while he did an acting gig at JCC.

She became friends with Elaine Rembrandt, then-JCC cultural arts director, who asked her to stay and help with the organization’s day camp.  Gross agreed, and the rest is history.  Now, almost twenty years later, married, with three children, she is “here to stay.”

Though noted locally as a director, she says, “My strength as a director is developing characters.  Staging was never my strength.”

She looks forward to her stint performing Dolly. “I haven’t done a lot of performing lately. Coming back to perform and also educate at the same time, is great!”

Gross, who has never performed as Dolly before, became involved in the project when Rudman called and offered her the role. 

Is she concerned that the audience will expect a Carol Channing characterization as Dolly?  In a recent interview she said, “hopefully audiences would understand that I am not Channing.”  In addition, she notes that this is not a fully blocked show, “it is a concert version and a testimony to some of the creative team.  There is talking about the show and its conceiver.”  “This is an opportunity to not only “see” the play, but to learn about it.”  “That somewhat takes the focus off Dolly.”

As for her favorite song in the score, “I really like ‘Before the Parade Passes By.’  It’s a great song for a belter.”  She also likes “Love is Only Love,” a ballad that was added to the movie version.

After so many years of being a director, is the switch to being a performer going to be a challenge for Gross?    She stated, “Bill uses multi-media, little staging, he stresses a lot of character development.  That lets me work on my own vocal and facial expression.”

If one of her students was playing the role of Dolly Levi, what advice would Gross give her?  “I think that the character has a lot of layers.  She’s not only comedic but filled with vulnerability.  She would have to dig for the emotions to play.  The character isn’t just a funny belter, there is a lot more to her.”

The Musical Theater Project is partnering with The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage which will offer a free screening of “Words & Music by Jerry Herman,” a PBS documentary on Sunday, March 29 at The Maltz.  (Call 216-595-0575 or visit MaltzMuseum.org for details.  The Mandel Jewish Community Center will present a free screening of the 1969 “Hello Dolly,” featuring Barbara Streisand on Sunday April 19 @ 2 pm in the Stonehill Auditorium.  Call 216-831-0700 X 1348 or email ideas@maddeljcc.org, for tickets.

To see Sheri Gross in “Behind the Musical:  Hello, Dolly!” on Sunday April 26 @ 3 call 216-245-8687 or go online to musicaltheaterproject.org.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Sir Isaac Newton wonderfully unmasked at convergence continuum; CPH 2015-16 season announced

One of the major issues in watching a historidrama is figuring out what is real, what is fiction, and what is fantasy.  This is especially the case in Lucas Hnath’s ISAAC’S EYE, now on stage at convergence-continuum.  Between the laughs and mumbles of “I didn’t know that,” “wow,” and, “no way,” it’s easy to get lost in  intrapersonal mumblings.

Before probing into Lucas Hnath’s play, there must be an understanding of what is meant by “scientific inquiry.”  The process starts with the development of a hypothesis which is a guess at what might be.  An experiment is carried out and a determination of validity is made.    Before being universally accepted as “fact” the experiment has to be replicated by other experts in the field.  If it can’t, it is not accepted by the scientific community.

In the early days of research, self-proclaimed “scientists” often came to conclusions with no controlled experimentation and lots of intuition.  Having a vivid imagination, and thoroughly convinced that his ideas were the direct messages from “God,” young Isaac Newton perceived “scientific” theories.   

Hnath's play is filled with “information” about Sir Isaac Newton.  Some of it may well be true, other narrations and statements are of questionable validity.  In fact, one may wonder if any of Hnath’s tale is valid.  But, in the end, that matters little, as the audience gets swept up in the mystery and the humor and takes it all in.

The play, developed in conversational twenty-first century language, tells a seventeenth century tale.  We are exposed to the height-challenged boyish Newton in his twenties before he became “Sir Isaac.” Yes, before he was credited with developing the theory of gravitation and the laws of motion.

The tale centers on Newton’s relationship with Catherine, a woman five years his elder, with whom he has had a life-long relationship.  Was there really a Catherine in his life?  We also are involved in an episode between Newton and Robert Hooke, curator of Experiments at the Royal Society.  Yes, the Robert Hooke of the “Hooke Law of Elasticity.” But, was he really part of Newton’s life? 

As the tale goes, Newton wants to get into the Royal Society.  Hooke is his latchkey for entrance.  If Newton can be convinced that Isaac’s theory of light particles is true, he’s in.  If not, he remains a dreamer on the outside.  Questions abound.  Did Newton really stick a needle in his eye and prove the theory? Will the blackmail that Newton has on Hooke be used to accomplish his goal?  What is Catherine’s role in all this?  Is all this truth or fantasy?


This is a cleverly written play filled with lots of meta-theatrical devices.  The language is filled with wit, humor and tension.  The tale is filled with “facts” and modern slang.  A well-conceived narrator keeps us apprised of the real versus the “it could be” or “it definitely is fantasy,” or “this is departing from the written record.”

We know for sure that Newton’s hair turned white at an early age, he invented calculus about the same time as a German did, and he did threaten to kill his parents and set their house on fire.  Hooke did discover combustion, petrifaction, the basic theories of mechanical engineering, and did experiments in which he made the lungs of dogs explode.  And then there is the other “stuff.”

The con-con production is cleverly staged by director Clyde Simon, with an emphasis on the humorous.  He well-paces the show, which keeps the audience‘s attention throughout. 

The cast is wonderful.   Jonathan Wilhelm is emphatic as the narrator, and does a fun side-track as a man dying of the plague.  (Remember this is 1765-66, when death stalked England.)  Wilhelm, writes everything we need to know in a meticulous handwriting on a series of blackboards, giving us a school room lesson of authenticity.

Bobby Coyne is a cherubic Newton.  He has the boyish charm, the uncontrolled enthusiasm, and the air of believability that twists us around his little pinky, and makes us believe.  He is the little kid who tells an obvious lie, but looks at you with innocent eyes and as says, “But it could be,” and you just have to believe him.   This is an endearing performance.

Robert Hooke creates a convincing and smarmy Robert Branch, a sexaholic, pedophile and a brilliant scientist. 

Amy Bistok Bunche lives the role of Catherine, the only character who seems like a reasonably mentally healthy person.

CJ Pierce’s lighting design effectively leads the audience through the actions.

Viewer alert:  The scientific uninformed need fear not, everything that is the least bit abstract is explained in plain English.

Capsule Judgement:  ISAAC’S EYE is one of those productions that if you don’t see it, you’ll be missing a very special theatrical experience.  Good job con-con!

ISAAC’S EYE runs through April 11 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.

**********************************************************
Cleveland Play House 2015-2016 season

Cleveland Play House has announced its schedule of plays for the theatre’s 100th anniversary: 

Ken Ludwig’s A Comedy of Tenors
WORLD PREMIERE
Sept 5-Oct 3, 2015 • Allen Theatre

The Crucible
Oct 10-Nov 8, 2015 • Outcalt Theatre

Little Shop of Horrors
Jan 9-Feb 7, 2016 • Allen Theatre

The Mountaintop
Jan 23-Feb 14, 2016 • Outcalt Theatre

Luna Gale
Feb 27-Mar 20, 2016 • Allen Theatre

Mr. Wolf
Apr 2-24, 2016 • Outcalt Theatre

Steel Magnolias
Coming May 2016

A Christmas Story
Nov 27-Dec 23, 2015 • Allen Theatre

For play descriptions and ticket information go to: www.clevelandplayhouse.com

Monday, March 09, 2015

Plays about gay marriage have a successful return visit to Cleveland Public Theatre

In October of 2012, when Cleveland Public Theatre first staged, STANDING ON CEREMONY THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS, “same sex marriage was legal in nine states (Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington and the District of Columbia).”  At the same time, “30 states had added language to their constitutions banning same-sex marriage.”

On October 18, while the play was running, “The 2nd U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act, (DOMA), violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause.”

On March 5, 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, when STANDING ON CEREMONY THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS, opened for a return visit to CPT, same-sex marriage “has been legalized in 37 states, the District of Columbia, and 22 Native American tribal jurisdictions.”  “More than 70% of the population lives in jurisdictions where same-sex couples can legally marry.”  In addition, on April 28, 2015, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments as to whether a state may refuse to license same-sex marriage or to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions.  There is hope that before the end of the year,  marriage equality will an issue on the “to do” gay agenda.

As the old advertising statement declared, “We’ve come a long way baby.” 

As my review of the 2012 play stated, “Since theatre represents the era from which it comes, here in the United States, attitudes about the women’s movement were presented by feminist plays.  The Black movement found African American writers sending forth their messages.  Today, with the Gay rights movement in full swing, it is only logical that some of that community’s issues reach the forefront.”  STANDING ON CEREMONY is such a production.

“STANDING ON CEREMONY THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS, started in 2011 in Los Angeles as a series of fund raising events, when the issue of same sex marriage was in the news in an on-again, off-again legal fight for legalization in California. Money from the productions was donated to marriage equality organizations.   The battle was eventually won.

The 90-minute play, staged with an intermission, was conceived by Brain Shnipper.  

The offerings are not an attempt to provide a balanced viewpoint on the issue, but exposing humorous, touching, and controversial topics.

In LA and New York, it was presented as a staged reading with a rotating cast of celebrities taking the roles, reading parts while standing behind podiums.   At Cleveland Public Theatre, there is a set cast and the scenes are staged, with memorized lines, costumes, a set, and creative staging.

The script, which consists of nine playlets, is the work of writers whose accolades include the nominations and/or receipt of Pulitzer Prizes, Obies, Emmys, and Tonys.  Each presents his/her unique take on before, after and during the “I do,” and views of people for and opposed to marriage equality.

The first act consists of:
    •THE REVISION  Jordan Harrison’s amusing look at how two men go about writing their wedding vows to reflect the limited options available to a gay couple and the difficulty in or of finding the words to describe the process and the participants.
    •THIS FLIGHT TONIGHT  Wendy MacLeod asks if there can be any hope for happiness when a lesbian couple travels to Iowa to take their vows.
    •THE GAY AGENDA  Paul Rudnicks’ sad, yet hilarious appeal for restricting marriage to that between a man and a woman by an Ohio homemaker, who is a member of the extreme right wing religiously conservative, Focus on the Family and all the other organizations opposed to same sex union equality.
    •ON FACEBOOK  Doug Wright takes on social media by following an actual Facebook thread chronicling a discussion on the subject of gay marriage, which starts out innocently and ends up as an all-out assault.
    •STRANGE FRUIT  Neil LaBute’s story of two men who marry in California and go to Hotel Coronado on their honeymoon.   Tragedy strikes one of them when he goes out for cigarettes.

The second act centers on: 
    •A TRADITIONAL WEDDING  Mo Gaffney gives a glimpse of a fourteen year relationship.
    •MY HUSBAND  Paul Rudnick gives a delightful glimpse into the machinations of an ultra liberal Jewish mother who is desperate to find a husband for her gay son.
    •LONDON MOSQUITOES  Moisés Kaufman’s poignant story of a man who, at his husband’s funeral, tries to make sense of the loss.
    •PABLO AND ANDRE AT THE ALTAR OF WORDS  José Rivera’s snapshot of two men who use their wedding vows to say the things that people never really say to each other.

The CPT production, again under the creative and focused eye of Craig J. George, wrings out all of the humor and pathos of each of the scenes. The segments are melded together by creative choreography centering around rearranging the chairs, and appropriate music.

The cast, which includes Molly Andrews-Hinders, Maryann Elder, Dana Hart, and Beth Wood from the 2012 cast, and newcomers Val Kozlenko, Matt O’Shea, and Wesley Allen, are universally excellent.

Highlight segments include MaryAnn Elder’s impassioned attempt, in THE GAY AGENDA, to explain the conservative view against same sex marriage.  Elder also excels IN MY HUSBAND as the Jewish mother/liberal professor’s attempt to find a husband for her son because, “what will my friends think if you aren’t married?”  Dana Hart induces impassioned sadness in LONDON MOSQUITOES as the husband left to grieve his long-time gay companion.  Beth Wood is properly hyper-hysterical over the thought of gay life in Iowa in THIS FLIGHT TONIGHT.  

The final segment, PABLO AND ANDREW AT THE ALTAR OF WORDS, is the weakest scene.  Weakly written, it seemed tacked on, rather than being a culminating segment.

T. Paul Lowry has adapted Russ Borski’s original set to include screens on which electronic media are played to represent locations as well as significant film footage of events.

Capsule judgement:   STANDING ON CEREMONY THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS is a must see production for anyone who has empathy toward  same sex marriage movement.  It should be required seeing for conservatives who don’t understand why there is a need for a “gay agenda.” It’s also of value to return attendees as a second viewing exposes subtle materials not previously grasped, the set is new, and there have been some positive cast changes.
STANDING ON CEREMONY THE GAY MARRIAGE PLAYS runs though March 21, 2015.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

BECKY SHAW, comedy of bad manners, marvelous at Dobama

Gina Gionfriddo, the author of BECKY SHAW, now on stage at Dobama Theatre, is one of the new breed of playwrights who reflect topics relevant to today, cleverly construct their writings, and uses language that shimmers with naturalism.  They don’t use stage language or formats like Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill, or the oft-present symbolism of Tennessee Williams, nor the existential philosophy of Edward Albee.  Gionfriddo, along with such modernists as Neil LaBute and Rajiv Joseph, push the envelope, using real people interacting to highlight their foibles and weaknesses.

Gionfriddo’s BECKY SHAW finds a group of people in a tangled tale of love, sex and ethics, in what might be called a comedy of manners, bad manners.  The play has been described as being “like a big box of fireworks, fizzing and crackling across the stage.” 

Four of the characters are self-centered, dysfunctional, disingenuous manipulators.  Each is determined to get what s/he wants by playing with the feelings of others in order to get personal gain, and not being concerned about how they may be destroying others. 

We quickly find in BECKY SHAW that Max Garrett, the “adopted” son in the Slater family, is a straight-talking, blunt, arrogant, power controlling, financially successful thirty-something.  Single, he seems emotionally attached to only one person, his “sister,” Lara.  He has little success in the dating world, having had only one relationship that lasted more than three months.

He has been set up on a blind date with Becky, by Lara and her husband, Andrew.  Becky, who works with Andrew, shows up overdressed for what is supposed to be a casual dinner, and immediately conflicts with Max.  Only angst can follow!  And, how it does!

Andrew, who seems to have a fetish for vulnerable women, has already “saved” Suzanna and is presently enabling Becky. 

Toss into the mix Susan Slater, Suzanna and Max’s needy mother, who is engaged in a “rent-a-boy” relationship and there are all the ingredients for a biting, entertaining evening of theatre.

Dobama’s production,  under the steady direction of Donald Carrier, is well paced, the characters clearly etched, the production totally effective.  Aided by the excellent dialogue, his believable characterizations key the audience to laugh at the pain of others, and then realize they should be embarrassed at that which is causing the laughter.

Geoff Knox’s Max is so realistically arrogant, complete with thrust out jaw, so clearly self-centered, that one can only admire his “chutzpa,” while wanting to hit him up-side his egotistical head.  Showing off his gym toned body in a skin tight latex shirt is as natural to Max as is his lack of realizing that his comments to others are mean-spirited and more destructive than constructive.

Lara Knox creates a Suzanna who is so needy that one only wonders what she has learned in her studies as a doctoral student in psychology.  Her emotional highs and lows could serve as a classic case study in bipolar behavior.

Laura Starnik is completely natural and real as the self-aware and self-centered Susan.  She believes she deserves her version of happiness, and nothing, including diminished wealth and MS, is going to stop her from having it.

Andrew Porter so perfectly creates Ryan, a person so good, so in emotional control that one can only wonder what the real Ryan must be like, when he is not on self-induced mental tranquilizers.

And then there is Becky Shaw!  Anjanette Hall doesn’t just portray the needy and manipulative, she is Becky.   She delivers lines with such ease that she sucks the audience in, makes us feel sorry for her, then slams us with reality statements that make us aware that we’ve been “had.”  What an adorable vixen Hall creates.

Scenic designer Cameron Caley Michalak created a play with numerous settings in basically a one-set space.  He creates different places through the use of well painted, framed illustrations of the specific places in which the scenes take place.  Thus we are transported from New York to Philadelphia to Richmond to a coffee shop by having a spotlight shine on the painting which illustrates where we are.   Clever!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ah, if only every night at the theater could be like this!
Gina Gionfriddo has written a play that is both fun and thought provoking.  It gets a marvelous production at Dobama.  This is theatre at its best.  The director, the cast, and the technical staff all deserve kudos!!!


BECKY SHAW runs through March 29 2015 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Compelling THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE at Cleveland Play House

It is the intent of theater to educate and entertain, and, in the case of some special offerings, enrapture.  Such a piece of theater is THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE, now on stage at Cleveland Play House.

THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE, adapted and directed by pianist and musicologist Hershey Felder, tells the tale of Lisa Jura, mother of renowned pianist Mona Golabek, and overcoming great trauma to achieve her artistic goals. 

Educate:   The Kindertransport was a rescue mission which, over a period of nine months, prior to the outbreak of the World War II, allowed about 10,000, mainly Jewish children from central Europe, to go to England and be housed in foster homes, hostels, schools and farms.  As it turned out, these youth were some of  the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust. 

Lisa Jura was denied continuing piano lessons under the tutelage of her piano professor when the Nazis declared that Jews should not be educated by non-Jews.  Deportation of “Juden” from Vienna was escalating, Jewish places of business, including Lisa’s father’s tailor shop, were destroyed.  While gambling to make money to feed and keep his family, her father won a ticket for the Kindertransport which allowed one of his three daughters to escape to freedom. 

At age 14, musically talented Lisa was the child chosen to leave. This action not not only gave her the opportunity to continue her musical journey, but saved her life.

Just before Lisa got on the train, her mother said, “You must promise me that you will hold onto your music.  It will be the best friend you ever have. I will be with you every step of the way when you’re playing that music.”  How prophetic she was!

Entertain:  Golabek, in a one-woman presentation, plays the piano and portrays not only herself but Lisa, who relates, in a first-person narrative, the tale of escape, adjustment to a new culture, and how she continued to develop her piano skills.  We share Lisa’s relationships, attempts to keep in contact with her parents, and pass on the family’s history, as she marries, has children, and not only teaches them to play the piano, but ties the music of the great composers to her life story.

Enrapture:  Mona Golabek’s ability to emotionally connect to the audience, to grab and hold attention, and to perform superbly, makes for a mesmerizing evening of theatre.  She masterfully incorporates the works of Chopin, Beethoven and Debussy into telling the tale of the lives of her mother and herself.  This is not only a play, but a fine concert.

Director/adapter Hershey Felder, has been seen on stage at CPH performing his one-man shows including GEORGE GERSHWIN ALONE, BEETHOVEN, AS I KNEW HIM and MAESTRO BERNSTEIN, in which he combined acting and piano performance.  He has developed in THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE, a show that flows easily, is well paced, and fills the 90-minutes with fascinating tales and musicals delights.

Some advice:  You might be sure to bring some Kleenex along to wipe away the tears!

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  THE PIANIST OF WILLESDEN LANE is a special theatrical and musical event.  An absolute “must see,” the script and the production educate, entertain and enrapture!  Kudos to  Mona Golabek and Hershey Felder for creating an experience that viewers will long remember.
THE PIANIST OF WILLESEN LANE runs through March 22, 2015, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Next up at CPH:  VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, April 3-26.  To read my Broadway review of that show go to:  http://www.royberko.info, on the right side of the page scroll to Broadway shows, click on the link, scroll down to find VANYA, AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE.

Friday, March 06, 2015

DIRTY DANCING THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE disappoints at the Conner Palace Theatre

DIRTY DANCING, THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE, which is now in production at the Connor Palace transports the audience back to the summer of 1963.  As is the custom of many well-to-do Jewish New York City families of that time, the Housemans have escaped for the summer to the Catskill Mountains, home of the Borscht Belt.  It’s a summer away from the sweltering city.  It’s a time for fun and games, and summer romances.  

Frances “Baby” Houseman is planning to attend college, join the Peace Corps, and “save the world.”  In the course of the summer she grows up quickly when she falls in love with Johnny Castle, the camp’s dance instructor.  He’s a handsome, studly, smooth talker, from the other side of the tracks. 

As the summer flows along, Baby asks her father to give her money, as it turns out to pay for an abortion for Johnny’s dance mate, secretly becomes Johnny’s new partner, enters into a sexual relationship with Johnny, gets her father to aid in correcting the botched abortion, and finally, to the emotionally stirring, ”(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” the curtain falls on the tale.  

DIRTY DANCING was a movie destined for failure.  Made for about $6 million dollars, it opened to negative reviews.  Jennifer Grey was called “ugly,” Patrick Swayze was panned as too old for his role.  The story was perceived as too obvious.  But word of mouth, the sizzling connection between Grey and Swayze and their compelling dancing, resulted in first month sales of $24 million.  To date, the film has grossed nearly $214 million.

Locals should be proud of Grey’s Cleveland connection.  Mickey Katz, a native Clevelander who was a famous Yiddish musician/comedian, made appearances, among other places, in the Borscht Belt.  He was the father of Cleveland-born Joel Grey, who started his climb to fame as a Curtain Puller  at the Cleveland Play House, and became world famous as the Master of Ceremonies in both the Broadway and Hollywood versions of CABARET.  He is the father of Jennifer Grey.  Probably, her greatest role was opposite Patrick Swayze in DIRTY DANCING.  Her role as Baby, won her a Golden Globe nomination.

The stage version of the film follows closely the pattern of the movie, with some scenes and music added.  The usual musical theater format of the characters breaking into song to help push the plot along is not followed.  In fact, the leads don’t sing at all.   Yes, Baby and Johnny sing not a word. 

The songs, sung by a couple of on-stage performers, but mainly off stage or via recorded tracks, are basically a lexicon of the pop songs of the era.  An original song in the film, (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life, by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes, won an Oscar.  Added songs for the stage version are, “Save the Last Dance” and “This Magic Moment.”

Eleanor Bergstein, the author of the script, is an outspoken liberal Democrat, who spent much of 2012 knocking on doors in Cleveland for Barack Obama.  She has freely taken ideological stands in the play, which spouts liberal politics of the time.  It’s the era of Martin Luther King, Freedom Marches, The Peace Corps, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and mounting troubles in Vietnam. 

The touring version, unfortunately, doesn’t have Grey or Swayze.  The leads on opening night, Josh Drake (Johnny), who was a fill-in for Samuel Pergande, who had injured his hand, and Gillian Abbott, who had just ascended to the role of Baby, had no emotional connection.  Both basically walked through their parts, sans charisma.  Their dancing lacked power and accomplishment.  What should have been the emotional climax, the famous silhouette lift scene, used to advertise the show, was slow and awkward.

Drake and Abbott weren’t the only fill-ins.  In baseball, there is an old expression that you can’t tell the players without a program.  The touring production’s opening night was about the same.  There were many understudies and “newbies,” which may have caused the lack of proper pacing, and community theater level performances.
 
The show’s highlights were provided by Jennlee Shallow and Scott McCreary.  Don’t get all excited, this is not The Scotty McCreary who won American Idol, but this kid does sing very well!

Many of the sets for the show are supplied by electronic media.  The effect is quite good. 

The orchestra is excellent.  Michelle Lynch’s choreographer is adequate, but not as compelling as should expected for what many consider to be a “dance” show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you go to see DIRTY DANCING THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE expecting the emotional and sensual overload that many experienced from the film, you will be very disappointed.  The only way to watch this touring production is to sit back, take the unspectacular staging, the mediocre acting and dancing, and soap opera story for what it is.  The opening night audience slowly got to its feet as the curtain call proceeded.  Was the show that good?  No, but take into consideration this is Cleveland.  Cleveland, the home of  polite people who stand at the end of almost every show, deserving or not.

Tickets for DIRTY DANCING, which runs through March 22, 2015, at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Monday, March 02, 2015

DIAL “M” FOR MURDER, another exciting murder mystery at GLT

Mystery books are the second highest money-making genre in literature, only exceeded by Romance/Erotica.  They are the highest rated television demand topic. 

Building on the desire of readers and viewers, Great Lakes Theater has included a “who done-it” in each of their last two seasons.  Both DEATHTRAP and THE MOUSETRAP met with audience approval.  Their present offerings, DIAL “M” FOR MURDER, should do the same.  Finding a cash cow topic, the theater has announced that Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is being staged in the 2015-2016 season.

As explained in GLT’s excellent “Teacher Preparation Guide,” DIAL “M” FOR MURDER is filled with “Deception, betrayal, passion and greed.”

The plot centers around Tony Wendice, a recently retired British tennis player, his wife, Margot, who Tony married for her money, and Max Halliday, a New York mystery writer, who is visiting in London, and may or may not be having an affair with Margot. 

Tony, wanting to inherit Margot’s money, develops a “perfect crime” plot, which includes his hiring a hit man.  The problems start when Margot, during the attempt to kill her, accidentally kills her attacker and is sentenced to death.  Will Tony inherit the money?  Will Max be able to save his love?  Will Inspector Hubbard see through the charade and save Margot? 

DIAL “M” was originally created by Frederick Knott as a BBC television production.  Both the play and the screen script were also written by Knott.  The 1954 Warner Brother’s film starred Ray Milland and Grace Kelly, was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and was filmed in 3D, a new innovation in cinema filming.

Knott was noted for writing material that focused on women who innocently became victims of sinister plots.

Great Lakes production, under the focused eye of Charles Fee, is well paced, builds efectively to the creative and mind boggling conclusion, and grabs and holds attention.

The cast is universally excellent.  Beautiful Robyn Cohen makes for a believable Margot, the potential murdered wife.  She gives a convincing portrayal of a rich, perfectly coifed woman, who transitions into the potential victim.

Nick Steen, has become GLT’s choice for the handsome leading man in their murder mysteries.  He follows up his outstanding portrayal in DEATHTRAP with another believable characterization as Max, Margot’s lover.

Aled Davies, is accent and action perfect as Inspector Hubbard.  He seems born to play the wise policeperson who can and will solve all cases in a clever manner.

Jonathan Dyrud as Tony, has the lithe body need to make for a believable tennis player and the Iago good looks to give an air of innocence.

Dougfred Miller creates Captain Lesgate, Tony’s former college acquaintance,  as a perfect cad and a fine potential killer.

Russell Metheny’s fragmented set design allows for a clear view of the action, both on and off stage.  His incorporation of a large picture window on the second level, cleverly serves as a screen for Lucy Mackinnon’s projections.  The films of the receivers of telephone calls add to the visual dimension of the production, which is more effective than just hearing the voices of the participants, which is the standard way of staging the interactive scenes.

Rick Martin’s lighting design and Joe Court’s sound all aid in developing the mystery aspects of the script. 

Capsule judgement:  Great Lakes production of DIAL “M” FOR MURDER makes for a wonderful escapist evening of theatre.  Anyone liking murder mysteries, good acting, and good staging will enjoy this production.  As to the theatre’s evolving pattern of staging a mystery each season, as long as they continue in the vein of their DEATHTRAP, MOUSETRAP, and DIAL “M,” let’s have some more!


“Great Lakes Theater Teacher Preparation Guide for Dial ‘M’ for Murder, as prepared by Kelly Schaffer Florian and David Hansen, is a available from GLT’s Education Outreach program. Kflorian@greatlakestheater.org


DIAL “M” FOR MURDER runs through March 22, 2015 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

Saturday, February 28, 2015

MY HEART IS THE DRUM gets staged premiere at Kent State

One of the major purposes of collegiate musical theater programs, besides teaching acting, singing and dancing skills, is to expand student knowledge of not only traditional, but new scripts.  Kent State is offering its students such an opportunity by presenting MY HEART IS THE DRUM.

Though the Jennie Redling (book), Phillip Palmer (music and original concept) and Stacey Luftig (lyrics) musical has been workshopped three times in the last couple of years, this is the first completely staged version.

The time is 2000.  Dealing with such subjects as the lack of educational opportunities for women, arranged marriages, AIDS, superstition, and Ghana gender traditions, the script aims to illustrate the country’s third world mentality regarding health issues and male and female societal roles.

Efua Kuti, an intelligent young lady who lives in Kafrona in rural Ghana, is encouraged by her teacher to attend university.  Efua’s father, who needs her to pick and sort cotton so the family can eke out a living, opposes her educational advancement. 

When Efua’s cousin, Balinda, is given in an arranged marriage to a “wealthy” jewelry merchant in Accra, the country’s capital, where a university is located, Efua accompanies her.  The duo confronts the issue of sexual slavery when Caesar Nabuto, the merchant, turns out to be a man who sells his product by supplying women to his wealthy patrons.  Both Efua and Balinda are trapped into working for Caesar.  Efua fights off the advances of the man to whom she is given. Balinda is not as fortunate.

Edward, who is in love with Efua, and who has been betrothed to her in an arranged marriage forced upon her by her father in an attempt to control her and keep her in Kafrona, follows the girls to Accra and frees Efua and Balinda.

Brought back to Kafrona, Efua is determined to get her education, and Balinda, who has acquired AIDS, dies and follows her Nana into the spirit world of her ancestors.

The script is not well developed.  It bridges segments with a lack of clarity.  The music, though often poignant, generally lacks true African cadence and vividness.  The words to the songs are often trite.  This lack of material fidelity makes it difficult for the student cast, under the direction of Terri Kent, to create real characterizations.

Samara Costa displays a nice voice and her Efua is as believable as possible with the lines she is given.  Alex Echols is also on point as Balinda, but, as with Costa, is limited in her character development by unreal sounding conversational language and a lack of plot fidelity.  David Holland has a nice voice and is delightful as the fearful Edward.  His “What’s Possible” is the comedy highlight of the production.

Colleen Longshaw has a fine voice and creates a nice characterization as Nana, the guiding spirit of the Kuti family.   Her “Your Heart is the Drum” is poignant.
Kirk Lydell displays strong dancing abilities. 

Musical Director Jonathan Swoboda wisely has his orchestra underscore rather than overshadow the performers. MaryAnn Black’s choreography tries to add Afro beat dancing but is somewhat limited due to the musical score. Benjamin Williams has created a clever scenic design centering on ever-moving curved set pieces with African motifs.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Kent State’s Musical Theatre Program should be commended for exposing their students to a new theatrical experience in MY HEART IS THE DRUM.  Though the material is generally obvious and often trite, the message of third world naivety, when it comes to curing diseases such as AIDS, the plight of women in a patriarchal society, and the dependence on tradition and superstition, comes through.

MY HEART IS A DRUM runs from February 20-March 1, 2015 at Kent State University. 

Kent State’s Porthouse Theatre, located on the grounds of the Blossom Center, will present A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, June 11-27, VIOLET, July 9-25, and HAIRSPRAY, July 30-August 16.   Single tickets go on sale May 26 at 330—672-3884.  For more information go to http://www.porthousetheatre.com